The Three Stooges were huddled over cardboard boxes and half-eaten deli sandwiches, shuddering from the cold. They didn’t notice me at first: one of them was huddling next to a vent, trying to catch some warmth from a laundry room. Another was munching on some scraps from the discarded sandwiches. The third was reading a copy of “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking.
Laundry Vent was the first to notice me as I approached them. “You lost, lady?” he growled. “Because whatever you’re looking for ain’t here.”
“No, but they came through here, didn’t they?” I pulled a photograph out of my pocket and held it up in front of his face.
Laundry Vent looked at the photo. His eyes squinted.
“It’s no use bothering him,” the Scholar said loudly. “His eyesight’s worse than a bat in broad daylight.”
I shifted my weight towards him. “And what about yours?”
The Scholar looked at me. “We are but humble bums, madam. Who could possibly think we could help you in any way?”
I shoved the photo in his face. “This girl. Have you seen her?”
He made an obnoxious tsk-tsk noise. “We don’t have anything to say to you, madam. Move along.”
I stared at him for a moment. He kept eye contact, fully expecting me to leave.
My secretary tells me I have a very good poker face. I guess it helps when I’m up against mooks like this weakling.
The Scholar’s gaze faltered. He was obviously not used to people holding his gaze for this long.
I decided this was my cue. “Which one of you is the leader?”
The Scholar sputtered. “I…I am obviously the leader.”
I smiled. “Obviously,” I agreed. “As obvious as the fact that those glasses don’t have any lens.”
Laundry Vent started to snicker. The Scholar fumed as he pulled his glasses off. “I’m warning yo—“
“At ease, Gil.”
The Scholar turned to face Sandwich, who had stood up during the staring contest, unnoticed. “Look, boss, you’re always telling us to send off the coppers before—“
“This one ain’t a cop.” Sandwich shoved the Scholar aside. “I’ve seen her before. You’re Anna DeWitt, right? The Pauper’s District owes a great deal to you.”
“Just doing my job,” I replied.
“DeWitt? Like the PI?” Laundry Vent piped.
“She has her connections in the underground,” Sandwich explained. “She ain’t our enemy.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I’m not exactly your friend, either.”
“Yeah, well, if you were here to blow the whistle on our little operation, we’d all be lying on the cement with bloody noses. Show me the photo.”
I handed it to him. He inspected it for a long moment. His expression turned grim. “Was wondering who’d step up to help this girl out,” he sighed, handing it back. “Look, let me make it clear. We had nothing to do w—“
“I’m not interested in who’s responsible for what,” I interrupted. “There are some people who’d very much like her back. A clue, a lead, a suspect…whatever.”
Sandwich pursed his lips. At first I thought it was because he was considering whether or not he should answer. Then I saw him put his hand on his chin, resulting in my realization that he was trying to remember. “There were a few guys who came this way,” he said finally. “Kind of…outgoing…flamboyant, I’d say.”
I rolled my eyes. “You mean gay.”
“Precisely,” he nodded. “They come here for the goods every Thursday night. Real fancy car, one of them oldies…you know, centuries old. And they order in bulk. Hard to keep up with them if you ask me. Anyway, last Thursday they came by, but they were in a rush. So I was feelin’ like doin’ some small talk, so I say, ‘What’s the hurry?’ They kind of looked at me weird, and one of them says ‘We need to make a detour.” Sandwich pursed his lips. “I can’t speak for certain about the girl in the pic, but as they were getting back in the car I definitely saw the shape of two pigtails.”
“There were obviously no pigs in that car,” the Scholar said obnoxiously, apparently trying to sound intelligent.
“He meant the hairstyle, dumbass,” Laundry Vent snapped.
I looked down at the picture. The girl definitely had two pigtails.
“Was I any help?” Sandwich asked.
“One more thing. I’m gonna need a sample of your finest specimen.”
Sandwich reached into his pocket and pulled out a pastrami reuben. How long had that been in there? He took a bite out of it and assumed a business-man like position. “That’s gonna cost you,” he said between chews. “Don’t think I’m gonna just hand over cocaine like I just handed over information…and out of the goodness of my heart, too.”
I matched his posture. “How much?”
“Smallest we give is a sugar packet. That’s 60.”
“50 if you crush it up yourself. Final offer. Take it or leave it.”
I stared at him. Sandwich was a burly guy. Apparently sandwich scraps gave him a lot of muscle. I probably had good odds of winning a fight with him. Hell, I could pull out my gun right there…but that wouldn’t be wise. Sullivan would find out sooner or later I’d robbed a drug dealer, and that would be unfortunate for me. Buying cocaine and being found out was even more unfortunate/even less fortunate, but I liked my odds of doing that in secret more.
Finally I pulled out my wallet, sorted out five $10 bills, and handed them to Sandwich.
He inspected the cash. Satisfied, he made a clicking noise.
Laundry Vent nodded. He opened the vent grate next to him and banged his hand against the metal. After a moment he caught something that flew out from below and handed it to the Scholar. The Scholar took whatever it was and placed it in a small Ziploc bag. He wrote something on the bag and handed it to Sandwich. Sandwich handed the bag to me.
“There you go. 1 gram of Ascension’s finest.”
I inspected the contents. Sure enough, there it was—pure cocaine, compressed into a small rock.
“Thank you,” I replied. “Enjoy your sandwich.”
Let me be clear with you, oh reader of this story, which you have surreptitiously chosen to read against your better judgement. “Ooh, I’ll just click on this, see if it gets my attention.” Well, if you’ve read this far, good for you. I know you’re familiar with me…or, well, a version of me. So you’re thinking, “This Elizabeth/Anna does drugs! How original!” or “This Elizabeth/Anna does drugs! That’s really stupid!”
Well don’t get your underwear in a cat’s cradle: I don’t do drugs. Not the illegal ones, at least. Alcohol? Caffeine? Well, that stuff I do. But I’m no fool.
Sandwich’s tip about the cocaine being bought by a wealthy lot piqued my interest. I needed to get it traced.
My sister Sally (Yes, that Sally. Long story. Gloriously complicated. Read about it) had some connections at Ascension Institute of Technology. It probably wasn’t wise to give a brilliant college student a packet of cocaine, as it could ruin her career. But to be fair, considering she was a Caucasian 20-year old girl, she would probably get off with a fine and maybe community service.
Still, tracing where that cocaine went was gonna have to wait. Tonight it was Sally’s job to figure out where Sandwich’s customers had taken the girl.
Sally’s become a bit of a night owl over the past couple of months. I suspect it’s from all the coding projects. If I showed you a picture, which this medium does not permit (they really should do something about that), she would have dark patches running from below her eyes down to her cheeks. Not the upper part of her cheeks, you know, like you normally look when you’re sleep-deprived. These went straight down to the lower part of her nose. She had gotten a buzzcut back in January. “I need a fresh start,” she told me at the time.
“You also need a woolen hat,” I’d replied. “It’s January.”
Anyway, her hair was growing out again, though fairly short. If I’m gonna be quite honest with you, it made her look a bit butch.
“What’ve you found?” I asked after watching her stare at the computer for a good five minutes.
“Not a lot,” she admitted. “Your bandwidth is pretty dodgy.”
Alec, my AI, made an uncomfortable beeping noise. “I’ll have you know we run at 20 megabytes per second.”
“Yeah, well, the AIT bandwidth is almost 2 gigs per second,” Sally snapped back. “This stuff would be done in seconds if we were at my dorm.”
“Why aren’t you at your dorm, anyway?” I asked. I had been about to call her to come over when I discovered her curled up in a ball on the couch in my office.
“Place is being fumigated,” Sally replied. “You always keep the door unlocked, anyway.”
“What? I don’t—“ I glared into the air. “ALEC!”
“Oh please, it’s not like she wouldn’t have found a way in if I had locked it.”
“Don’t make me revoke your Netflix privileges again.”
“I’m sorry, alright? That business with Fontaine a few months ago did a number on me.”
I rolled my eyes. Excuses, excuses. He had me there, though. A few months back he had been stored in my data oculus when a bullet that would have otherwise zipped through my head embedded itself right next to his central processor. Luckily, all his data was spared, but Sally had to encode a new core AI program for him. It wasn’t a bad program by any means, but, well, it’s a bit like picking up an instrument after you haven’t played it for a while. Alec was pretty functional, he just needed more time to familiarize himself with the works. It was for that reason I kept him in my office. Clearly, though, that wasn’t working out well either.
“Okay, I’m in,” Sally announced. “So what am I looking for here?”
“Traffic light videos from the corner of Levine and Spector last Thursday. I want to find that classic car the drug dealers witnessed.”
“Hang on.” Sally moved her mouse around. “Uh…they’ve got another firewall. Strange, I thought I got through…hang on.”
As she started typing, Alec pinged. “Detective, Chief Sullivan is trying to contact you.”
I looked at my watch. “Now? What’s that old fart doing up at this hour?”
“I could say the same to you,” came the reply. That was definitely not Alec.
I took a deep breath. I heard Sally make a snorting noise as she covered her mouth. “Alec, did I say you could answer the call?”
“No, but it’s funnier this way, isn’t it?” Alec replied.
I sighed. “Hey, Chief. What’s going on in the great Ascension PD?”
“Well, just checking up on you.”
“At this hour?”
“You’re awake, are you not? But seriously…our tech guys are reporting someone may have hacked into our system.”
“Is that so?” I motioned to Sally to keep her mouth shut.
“Yes. Strange…someone sorting through traffic camera footage. They’ve put up a firewall, don’t want someone stealing it.”
“Why should I care?”
“Well it’s just whenever they report this sort of thing, a few weeks later you turn up with some case with evidence that could only have been learned from someone breaking into our server.”
“Oh my…that’s quite a coincidence.”
“I just want to be sure whoever’s hacking our system is not going to steal or delete any important files.”
“Well, if we’re gonna pretend whoever this person is in the room, we can also make the assumption that they won’t.”
“Ah, yes. Just wanted to be sure. In which case, I’ll tell the tech boys to take down the firewall.” And he hung up.
I looked at Sally after a moment. “Did they take it down?”
“Actually, I got through it while you were answering the phone.” She turned the monitor towards me. “Then I had Alec comb through the footage to find anything specific. He’s got it all set up right here.”
I looked at the screen. Alec had found the footage of our infamous car. I looked at Sally incredulously. “You’re a miracle worker.”
“I’m a college student,” Sally retorted. “Classic film noir aesthetic car, right there. What is it?”
“That—” Alec chirped. “—is a Hudson Hornet. Introduced in 1951 by the now-defunct Hudson Motor Company. This model appears to have come from a collector.”
“Probably a hassle to trace it from there,” I remarked. “Here’s an interesting fact: they used these in the racing circuit due to its low center of gravity in its chassis. Made it easier to control. The Fabulous Hudson Hornet, they called it.”
“Nerd,” Sally muttered.
“Nothing. So now what?”
“Alec, use the traffic-cam videos to track that car. I wanna find out where it went.”
Sally yawned. “What time is it?”
“Yikes. I’m gonna snooze.” She tilted her head forward and after a second started to snore.
I sighed. It had been a while since I’d been a college student, but I could recall the sometimes-Machiavellian methods I procured to get as much sleep as possible.
Alec pinged. “Finished. The car is last seen turning off of 13th, near the warehouse district, heading in that general direction.”
“Nothing after that?”
“Apparently the architects of the city didn’t see a need to install anything in a low-traffic area. But it shows up a few more times leaving and re-entering that way. It’s just a question of figuring out where it went in the interim.”
“Makes my job a little harder. I’m heading out to track a car.”
Alec hummed a bit. “Leaving me behind again?”
I looked at him. “You expect me to bring you along after the shit you pulled tonight?”
“Oh no, of course not. You’re right. I’ll just stay here. Alone. No one to talk to, seeing as our friend is sleeping. I could play some Sudoku. Or play a video game. Again. Or I could watch some—“
“Shut up and get in the car.”
So, you know the game the Sims, and how sometimes when you’re designing a house you build a room that you think will be useful, but then you just make your Sim do other things and no one ever bothers with that room? That’s basically what the warehouse district is.
Essentially, the Board of Improvement overestimated just how much manufacturing space would be required for the city of Ascension, which meant a significant portion of it was just empty warehouses.
Now, some might call that wasted space. Artists call that prime real estate. So the Warehouse District has a surprising number of art galleries and theater shows. The best way I can describe it to you is that it resembles the Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City, or the 798 Art District in Beijing.
But all that business is mainly in the part of the district that connects to more upscale parts of the city. The back end of the district, which is not far at all from where I live and work, is where you get a lot more of the seedy stuff. Crime-filled business practices, drug busts. I’ve had my run-ins in that area more than a few times. Human-trafficking wasn’t something I had much exposure to, but it didn’t take much imagination to see it happening there.
It was at that hour in the morning where you can feel the sun coming up but it’s still really dark out. Uh, well, daylight is kind of a weird concept in Ascension, considering the fact that it’s a city in space.
Inevitably, there are some people who haven’t read my previous adventures. So to give you the gist of things—you know how Columbia was a city in the sky, and Rapture was a city in the ocean? Well, Ascension is a city in space.
Okay, you’re all caught up. Let’s continue.
It was at that hour in the morning where—no, I did that already. So Ascension has a day/night cycle set up, pretty much matching that of Earth, which gives us a decent sleep cycle, and also a dose of Vitamin D. Which hypothetically is supposed to help with depression, but it’s never really helped me.
Science is fucked up.
Since it was an old car—and I mean really old, like a few centuries—there was a good chance it hadn’t had a professional tune-up in a while. Which meant the tailpipe was probably leaking water.
“This is where you come in, Alec,” I said as I got out of the car and placed my data oculus on.
A few grids appeared before me on the ground.
Several bright spots were highlighted before me.
“Are you armed, detective?”
I pulled out my automatic. “All set.”
The trail led straight down the main road before branching off into a far-back corner. The fact that this section hadn’t seen much in the way of gentrification showed—some of the buildings looked a bit rusty, and someone had spray-painted a surprisingly anatomically correct image of a vagina. Apparently artists hadn’t left this part completely untouched.
Finally, I found what I was looking for: a 1953 Hudson Hornet. A nice-looking car, but it stood out.
I could catch a glimpse of a few very dim lights from inside the building. A few shadows danced along the ground—there were people inside. A streetlamp happened to be shining directly in front of the closest door. If I were to open it, it would cast some light and probably alert the perps inside.
I looked up to find a fire escape that led to the fourth floor, just above the streetlight. It was probably a good idea to scan what I was up against before I headed in.
The view from the fire escape wasn’t much, but I could see about four figures standing in a circle, apparently talking to each other.
“Alec, give me thermal imagery.”
My data oculus beeped before projecting an image in front of my eye. The view from thermal imagery wasn’t much either, but I could see now that the four figures were dressed in fancy suits and were gathered around a chair. In the chair there was someone bound by their wrists just sitting there, their head tilted forward.
I could have climbed in through the window, but the chances were high they’d hear it open. I needed a distraction, something that could distract the perps for long enough that I could climb in and get a better look around.
The Hudson Hornet was just sitting there, parked in front of the building. Maybe I could set off the alarm.
I had my gun with me, but they’d probably hear the shot before they heard the car go off. In that scenario they’d probably figure whoever had a gun was more important than a broken car.
If I had a nice big rock, I could just break a window and that’d be the day. But I didn’t have a nice big rock.
Looking up, I noticed an old sign hanging from a rotten post just above the car. It probably wouldn’t take that strong of a hit to knock it off and send it crashing down. Even then, though, I still needed something to hit it with.
I felt around my pocket for something I could use. That’s when I felt the packet of Ascension’s finest, still there. I’d completely forgotten to leave it with Sally so she could bring it back to AIT to get it traced.
I glanced down. There was nothing on the ground I could use for what I was about to do.
“Dammit,” I muttered. I looked at the packet. “Sweet ecstasy, don’t fail me now.” I gripped it in my hand and hurled it straight at the sign.
The rock pushed the sign clean off its hinges, sending it down straight into the windshield of the car. A loud alarm echoed through the abandoned warehouses.
“What the hell was that?” I heard from inside the warehouse. Through the thermal camera, I could see the perps running for the door. Taking advantage of the distraction, I pushed the window open and climbed in.
The warehouse was pretty dark, but the “sun” had started to come up on Ascension, so I could get a little bit of light inside the building. The rest I left up to the hanging lamp that illuminated the tied-up girl at the center of the room.
In hindsight, it was a rather conveniently placed lamp. I mean, who would hang a lamp there of all places? It was almost as if they wanted someone to walk in and be like, “Oh look! Kidnapped girl! Just conveniently there for me to rescue!”
I figured I had a good three minutes to get the girl—in that time the perps would run out, try to turn off the alarm so they wouldn’t be heard, and then they’d try to figure out how the car got broken like that, then they’d moan and groan and blame each other, then they would realize they were all outside and they’d send one of them back in to check on the girl. Hopefully the girl and I would be long gone by then.
I climbed down the stairs. The perps were still trying to figure out how to turn the alarm off, slower than I expected. That gave me time.
The girl’s head was tilted forward. She had a blindfold around her head, which was caked in sweat and dry blood. Her clothing was soiled: they had not let her out of her chair for days. I could hear her quiet sobs, apparently consigned to the fact that she was never gonna make it out.
I placed a hand on her arm. She lurched and started to hyperventilate.
“No, no,” I whispered. “Quiet!”
“Get away!” she gasped.
“Listen!” I hissed. I grabbed the girl by the sides of her head. “Are you Masha Lutz?”
She let out a few more breaths. “What—who are you?”
I lifted up the blindfold. “My name is Anna DeWitt, I’m a detective. Your parents hired me to find you, you’ve been gone for days.”
She refused to look at me. “No…no, you’re with them. It’s just another sick joke.”
I gritted my teeth. “I’m not with them.” I knelt down and began undoing her ropes. “Did they hurt you?”
She wouldn’t answer. I saw a tear roll down the side of her cheek.
“Let me see your face.”
I reached for her cheek, but she pulled away. “No one’s coming for me,” she sobbed. “I’m all alone.”
“Hey, hey.” I gripped one of her hands, still tied to the chair. “You’re not alone. You’re never gonna be alone again. I’m taking you home, no one’s gonna do anything to you, okay?”
She looked up at me. Her eyes were tear-stained, but in them I could see a glimmer of hope.
I could also see the reflection of someone standing behind me.
In hindsight, I probably should have noticed that the alarm had stopped going off a little while ago.
“Hold on to your butt,” I said loudly.
She looked confused. “Hold on to my wh—“
I pulled out my gun, turned, and fired a single shot straight into the stomach of the guy who was about to get the drop on me with a baton.
“HEY!” someone shouted from outside.
“No time to chat, we gotta move!” I exclaimed. I pulled out a knife and cut off the ropes on her arms. “Sorry about this, but you’re gonna need to run!”
She barely had time to respond as I dragged her out of the chair and pulled her by the arm towards one of the other doors.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see the perps bursting into the warehouse, guns blazing. Luckily for me…us, they were really bad shots.
The “sun” was rising over the warehouse district. Masha was squinting her eyes, apparently not used to light of any kind for some time.
“I was kind of hoping for a cleaner getaway!” I called out. “But this’ll have to do!”
“Do you honestly believe this is a getaway?!” Alec asked. “You’re running through an abandoned warehouse district with a bunch of lunatics shooting at you!”
“Lunatics shoot at me all the time!” I replied. “I figure if we can run faster than them we’re all clear!”
Masha was still trying to make sense of what was happening, but I had to hand it to her for figuring it out before I did. “Outrun them?” she asked. “But they have a car!”
I heard the distinct sound of an old engine accelerating at a high speed.
“ALEC!” I shouted. “Get the car!”
“On it, Detective!”
I glanced behind my back. At the end of the row of warehouses was the Hudson Hornet, now lacking a windshield, with two very angry-looking fellas behind the wheel, plus one even-more-angry-looking fella leaning out the window aiming a gun at us.
A shot hit the ground nearby. “This way!” I shouted, pulling Masha around a corner.
The Hornet was picking up speed. I had to hand it to Hudson Motor Company for building such a sturdy car, one that could be used in professional races. Of course, that was all the worse for us.
“Alec, where are we on escape vehicle?” I called out.
There was the sound of tires screeching as the Hornet rounded the corner and came straight towards us.
“Alec, we need you now!” I shouted.
There was no way we could keep outrunning this thing for long.
“You good-for-nothing British AI, I oughta—!”
“GET OUT OF THE WAY!”
“What?” I looked up. “OH.”
I grabbed Masha and flung us both to the side of the road, just barely avoiding getting hit by my own speeder driven by my AI.
The Hudson Hornet, despite its speed, had no chance of outrunning or for that matter surviving a head-on collision with a 24th century car.
With a loud crash, the speeder collided with the front of the Hornet, sending its occupants flying in several painful and ultimately lethal directions, completely obliterating the front half of the car.
24th Century: 1. Hudson Motor Company: 0.
Masha and I approached the car. “Aww,” I remarked. “You dented it.”
The car door opened up. “You’re welcome, Detective.”
I looked at Masha. “Are you okay?”
Masha stared at the wreck of the Hudson Hornet, then at one of the bodies of her former kidnappers. Suddenly she turned and hugged me tightly.
“You saved me,” she said, though her voice was muffled due to her face being buried in my chest.
“Thank the computer, he did the actual killing,” I replied, patting Masha on the back. I looked at the car. “Thanks, Alec.”
“Any time. Let’s get the girl home now, shall we?”
“Alec, put a call in to the office.”
The phone rang a few times before an angry voice answered. “WHAT?!”
“Sally, it’s Anna. I found her.”
The voice calmed. “Holy fuck, already? How long was I asleep?”
“About two hours. Call Samuel and Mariska.” I smirked, noticing that she had already dozed off in the passenger’s seat. “Their darling Masha’s coming home.”
“Jesus Christ, Anna…good job.”
“Oh, and let Sullivan know that I’ve got some business that needs cleaning up. Major car accident, I guess. Bunch of people who just might be connected to that trafficking ring he’s been after are…well, dead.”
“Yeah, four mangled—“ I paused, looking at the corpses lying around the car. Four? I could only see three.
I looked up. At the intersection just ahead I saw a young man, possibly in his 20s, clad in a white suit. I could barely see his face, but he looked like he was in a lot of pain. He was hunched over, clutching the part of his stomach I had fired a bullet through only a short while ago. He stared at me for the longest time.
I squinted my eyes at him. I was beckoning him to come forward, try and confront me in a last ditch effort to do whatever it was he wanted to do to the girl.
He considered my offer for a moment. Then, with a sigh, he turned and stumbled away, disappearing behind one of the walls.
I thought about following him. But it had been a long night, and all I cared about now was bringing the girl back to her parents.
“You said four mangled. Four mangled what?”
I’d forgotten Sally was still on the line. “Oh, sorry, I meant three. Three mangled bodies, just ripe for the pickings.”
“Okay…” Sally said slowly, confused. “Well, I’ll make the calls. Do you want to have them come to the office?”
“No, I’m going to their house. And tell them to not worry about payment.”
“Oh for god’s sake, Anna, you can’t keep comping the bill! The money from the Colony 12 case isn’t gonna pay the lease for long!”
“The lease is signed in my name, Sally! I owe this to them.”
“Ugh, fine. Just promise me you’ll get some sleep once you’re done. You’ve been up all night and you’re not a college student—people who aren’t college students don’t do this.”
“Alright, alright. See you in a bit.” I hung up. “Alec?”
“Take us home.”
The car backed away from the wreck of the Hornet, made a U-Turn, and drove off to someplace far away from the Warehouse District as the simulated sun rose over the city of Ascension.
So ends this story. This is not the last we've seen of Anna DeWitt, Private Eye. I am still working on her next multi-chapter adventure/mystery. In the meantime, feel free to check out her other stories, The Shadow of the Crimson Moon and The File in the Frills. Or don't. I think this story works either way.
The car stopped. “What is it, Detective?”
“Take me back to the warehouse. I need to pick up some cocaine.”
“Starting up the drug habit, huh, Detective?”
“Evidence, genius. Four idiots aren’t gonna bulk order the stuff on their own. I need that packet just in case.”
“You think you’ve stumbled onto something bigger?”
“On the contrary. I think I’ve stumbled onto something that will make me stumble onto something bigger.”
“You certainly have a way with words.”
“Shut up and drive.”