A bright moon glistens in a velvet black sky. An unseen dog barks bloody murder as a Clean-Bot 2100 purrs its way through a wide and spotless street.
Around the street there are no cars, no signs of life except for a lone woman. She frantically runs ahead of the Clean-Bot as if she fears it will suck her up like trash.
The woman, her ginger hair swinging from side to side, reaches the end of the street where there is a tall water tower, at least fifty feet high. Painted on the tower’s side, in vibrant red and blue, is a big “Milton Brothers Studios.”
Frantically the woman climbs the first rung of the tower’s ladder then the second and the third.
At the top of the water tower there are no eyes on the ginger haired starlet, no studio cameras, no klieg lights, no adoring fans. There is only a clear view of the back lot with its twenty-three cavernous soundstages, dozens of cranes, trucks, fake palm trees, sword and sandal set backdrops, even a water tank that could hold the Titanic.
The Milton Brothers Studios, maker of the latest and greatest in filmed entertainment, is at rest for a few hours. Perhaps a security camera has caught her exit from her dressing room. More likely the guards are asleep on the job.
At the top, along a small guardrail, the ginger haired woman does not look out at the whole of Bollywood West, does not admire the view.
Instead, she fights, kicks, flails.
Someone, or something, a shape of shimmering light is next to her, pushing her, grabbing at her, tearing into her leg.
She loses her balance, falls over the guardrail. Her hands go out to her side, as if she is Esther Williams diving into a pool, ready to synchronize with a bevy of bathing beauties.
Only it’s not water below; it’s a concrete jungle.
By her ginger haired head, spilling over the black pavement, a pool of crimson blood forms like a seahorse drifting toward a distant ocean.
With an efficient silence the Clean-Bot 2100 rolls back and sucks up the blood around her head.
“Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful twenty-seven year old corpse,” said the calm voice into Nick Kane’s earpiece.
The voice was Grable. That’s what Nick Kane decided to nickname his ex-girlfriend. They never broke up, not formally. Didn’t have to given the fact that she died before Kane got a chance to grow tired of her faults, her transgressions or any of the annoying quirks that typically show themselves in the second year of any romance.
Grable was essentially dead. Only Grable didn’t have a body. Not anymore. She was in the cloud, backed up, restored, enhanced into an adaptive, cheerful, personalized AI consciousness, one that talked, laughed, collated, analyzed and assisted his investigations. All of this was done through Kane’s skin toned earpiece, a wireless marvel of simplicity and functionality.
Inside the hyperloop between New Vegas and Bollywood West, Kane had one eye on the large entertainment screen and one on the small screen on his wristwatch. There were three-dozen passengers packed around him in solitary soundproof berths like hens about to be plucked. A series of digital ads flickered on the large screen, offering hope, pleasure and a glimpse into the world outside.
“It’s such a Bollywood West thing to do,” said Grable.
“Die tragically?” asked Kane.
“Die tragically at the age of twenty-seven. Such luminaries and artists as Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin. Amy Winehouse, Dirk Masters, Jim Morrison, Indira Shavati and Anton Yelchin all died at that age. Sadly, the list goes on and on.”
“So, what do we know about the deceased?” asked Kane.
“Rita Wells, twenty-seven year old actress, plunged to her death from the Milton Brothers Studios water tower. Looks like a suicide. That’s what the company would like you to investigate.”
“You hacked her toxicology report yet?”
“Filled with a dose of jade star.”
“That’s nasty stuff.”
“Outlawed in thirty-six countries, wanted by the New Koreans, Thai-Nam and some other bad actors.”
Kane scrolled through a series of still images on his wristwatch. They were all of Rita Wells in various cinematic roles: race car driver, doctor, ninja warrior, even a red skinned alien. In each, her vibrant aqua eyes twinkled and her ginger hair blazed.
Grable continued. “Several actors on the studio lot have tested positive for jade star.”
“Great work, Grable.”
“Oh Nick, if I wasn’t dead—”
“—Grable, I don’t like when you use that word.”
“Sorry, Nick, but clinically, that’s what happened and the sooner you accept reality – “
“—I know, I know.”
“But come on, you have to admit our relationship is stronger than ever. Some might call our arrangement on the cutting edge. You’re a man. I’m a machine. Who cares? It’s progress, Nick, progress, with a big capital P. Besides, you’re a thousand miles from the ring, no longer on the run, no longer looking over your shoulder. You did your time. Free at least, and all of that jazz.”
“Hallelujah,” sang Kane.
“And Nick, even though my existence has changed, do you still love me?”
“I couldn’t live without you, Grable.”
“Aw, you’re sweeter than a Georgia peach.”
“You’re my eyes and ears, and my left and right brain, too.”
“You’re the best, Nick, the best,” said Grable. “If I could I’d kiss you right now—”
“—okay, okay, Grable. Settle down. Remember, you’re a V-C-R, not my girlfriend.”
“Oh Nick, a Virtual Consciousness Replication girl can dream, can’t she?”
Grable giggled. “No, ‘course not. I was just, you know, kidding.”
Kane sat back in his seat and tried to get comfortable, but the legroom in the hyperloop was nearly non-existent.
“You have any video on this case?” asked Kane.
“Sure. I pulled all available footage. I edited. Collated. Even added a maudlin film score.”
Kane shook his head, in awe of Grable’s efforts. “Jeesh, you could have kept it simple.”
“But why, Nick? I mean, we are headed to Bollywood West, and, well, I thought we should, you know, get into the cinematic virtual spirit of the place.”
“Okay, okay. Just run the footage.”
On his small wristwatch screen, murky and grainy security camera footage played. It was the night Rita Wells died from her fall atop the Milton Brothers Studios water tower.
“I see a scared woman, desperate for help.”
“But why is she scared?”
“Exactly. Why? And who?”
“Yeah, Grable, I wonder who or what is chasing her?”
“You talking in metaphors?”
“No Grable, I’m talking literally. Stop the footage right before she gets to the water tower ladder. Don’t you see it? What is that shape?”
On Kane’s screen, the image of Rita Wells’ perilous plunge rewound until she climbed back down the ladder. The image stopped. By her side, a shimmering outline was slightly visible.
“Not sure. Could be an invisible …well…an invisible something, about three feet in height or less. Since less than half a percent of the adult population is under three feet.”
“Any of them known to be invisible?”
“Just in the much beloved, though trope-filled Tolkien universe of Lord of the Rings.”
“If we don’t have a suicide, then we most likely have a workplace accident.”
With a sigh Grable added, “Or murder.”
When the hyperloop door opened, Kane got out and walked along a wide city street near a series of cavernous factory-like soundstage buildings. In the distance a beige smog thickened above the hills, covering every letter but the large “B” in the white Bollywood West sign. A graffiti laden wall leading to a storage unit painted neon yellow read: Graffiti not accepted here. Please get a day job. The last sentence, however, was scrawled in a distinct orange. It read: I work the graveyard.
On the street corner, Kane passed a group of Salvation Army soldiers, their red bucket ringing in the air and their worried faces searching the throng of new recruits to Bollywood West. An old lady tried to hand Kane a “soul therapy card” as she muttered, “Oh child, go home, please. Just move along, so you can keep your soul. Get back to reality, back to the real you.” Kane didn’t take the card and walked at a determined pace.
He finally stopped at a gated entrance where a neon sign blinked Milton Brothers Studios. Along the main gate wall there were a series of four electric billboards. Each showed an upcoming movie. One caught his eye. It was for a movie called Holy Cow, a comic farce with Rita Wells, her ginger hair curled and luscious, surrounded by black and white dots. Her eyes, as big as cars, looked out on her past – one filled with fame, fortune, romance and tragedy.
Kane reached the main gate, guarded by a gruff, heavyset security guard.
“I’m here to see Jack Milton.”
“And you are?”
“Nick Kane. He’s expecting me.”
“Will you release your profile?”
Kane nodded and the security guard wanded his wristwatch. The wand chimed a pleasant beep and the guard smiled as he looked down at Kane’s legs.
“Would’ve never have known you’re one of those mixed bionics,” the guard said with a hint of surprise. “I knew a guy, used to be a Marine. He got a pair of those new fangled things when they got blown off in combat, got the enhancements…two of ’em. Well buddy, he could jump twenty feet in the air. Tried to be a stunt guy at the studio. Didn’t quite work out, since he was afraid of heights. What about you?”
Kane looked through the gates, gazing a view of the water tower where Rita Wells plunged. “The legs work great.”
The guard looked down to Kane’s legs, almost squatting like a baseball catcher about to receive a wild knuckleball in the dirt. “So, how do they really work?”
Kane shrugged. “I guess I’m just a miracle of scientific advancement.”
The guard scanned the screen. “Well, everything looks to be in order. Enjoy your visit.”
In a spacious, oak paneled office, Kane sat across from Jack Milton, a middle aged slender man with sunken green eyes, a ski slope nose, wiry silver eyebrows and curly silver hair. The man had a silver and blue tie on, a white button-down shirt and a purified water bottle in his left hand. His right hand swiped across the screen of his smart-phone. Milton slouched a little back into his chair, going through the motions of civility and interest. Behind Milton’s desk, on a series of three shelves, two dozen silver and gold award statues lined the wall. Kane noticed a series of black and white photos of Milton with a series of stars, from a very old Tom Hanks to an ancient Salman Khan to a vivacious Rita Wells.
Milton sat back in his chair. “So, what would you like to know about Rita Wells that the press hasn’t shared for the last five years?”
“Anything about the last few days that indicated she would kill herself?”
“She was in and out of love with men like my dog pees on trees.”
“It’s nice to hear you held Rita Wells in high regard.”
Milton leaned forward, his eyes blazed with showmanship. “She was a star, a brilliant shining star. Men wanted to screw her, then take her home to mom. Women wanted to be her. Rita Wells lit up the damn screen like nobody else. Her next picture was going to be huge.”
“What’s that last film called?”
“It’s just been re-titled The End.”
“Frankly, Mister Kane, her death just added at least two hundred million dollars to the gross.”
“Sounds like a nice raise for you.”
“For me and the lowliest grip and the board of directors and even the parking attendants, in the short term, her death benefits all of us.”
“And what about the long term?”
“We all just lost a star, Mister Kane, one who would have made at least five maybe six more extremely profitable films over the next eight to ten years. And now, she’s gone and she can’t be replaced. In the long run, Mister Kane, I just lost a billion dollars. At least. You just don’t replace a star of her magnitude. Not overnight. Perhaps not ever.”
Kane nodded. “Understood.”
“Now, if we’re done here, I’d like to get back to—”
“—just a couple more questions.”
“Make ’em quick. I’ve got meetings back to back to back.”
“Okay, okay. Do you know you have a jade star epidemic on this studio lot?”
Milton leaned forward. “What the hell is jade star?”
“Jade star comes in nine different variations — nightmare, tornado, tsunami, euphoria — you get the picture. It induces a type of hallucination, so real, so intense, that one dose of jade star haunts you forever. The Feds have been testing this drug on lab rats for two decades.”
“Because jade star, they believe, can implant a subliminal suggestion. Jade star has potential applications with assassins, spies. Scary stuff. In the lab, they’ve been able to implant a sort of hypnotic suggestion. A primary emotion. Say joy. Or terror. Murder.”
“Even suicide,” added Kane.
Milton cleared his throat. His shoulders tightened. “So, why in the hell do I care about some jade star drug? I run a studio, not a spy ring. Or a lab.”
“Because, sir, you hired another firm to investigate the infusion of jade star onto the studio lot.”
Milton sat back in his chair. A creak pierced the air. “That’s enough.”
“This was about five months ago. They came up with nothing, as I understand it.”
“Enough. Okay. Enough, Mister Kane. Rita Wells was far from perfect, but her death was a garden-variety tragedy. In fifteen minutes, people will move on to some other bloody mess.”
“Do you know of any reasons why she might have started taking jade star?”
Milton was silent as he pressed his shoulder blades together, cracked his neck.
“What people do with their bodies, what they ingest, who they screw, that’s their choice, their business, okay? But when it starts to impact their performance, well, that is where I draw the fucking line. Now, if you can find out who is supplying jade star onto my studio lot, then I will make sure you are compensated generously.”
“I’m just an investigator, sir, not a bounty hunter.”
“One hundred thousand dollars. No questions asked.”
Later in the day, after getting a tour of the water tower where Rita Wells plunged to her death, Kane sat at a park bench with his earpiece in his ear. His eyes rested on a row of three white and blue Star Wagon trailers parked in a straight line next to a soundstage.
“I recorded everything,” said Grable.
“Good,” said Kane.
“And the boss has already approved your secondary mission to find out who is supplying jade star to the men and women of this studio.”
“A hundred thousand dollars is nothing to sneeze at.”
“I know, Nick, I know. Maybe I could get that upgrade to the Infintium 3000.”
“Would the upgrade make you smarter?”
“Sure,” answered Grable, “and sassier.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Along the wide back lot boulevard, a white and black Clean-Bot 2100 glided by the bench. Behind it, trailing like munchkins on the way to Emerald City, a row of little green men walked by on the way to a silver spaceship resting inside Soundstage 12.
“Oh look, little green men,” said Grable into Kane’s earpiece.
“They’re just actors in a suit.”
“I know Nick, I know, but they’re just so cute I could eat them up like thin mints.”
“So Grable, have you finished your data crunching?”
“Sure. Easy-peasy. Especially if you know how and where to look, and Rita Wells definitely had a digital footprint a mile wide.”
“So, Nick, here’s what I’ve done so far: I’ve cross referenced all available data, including the deceased’s GPS, social media and texts in the last six months. Her behavior, like most, was fairly repetitive. Constant. On a schedule. Making it predictable and statistically sound. Cell phone. GPS. Security cameras. Her last known interaction with a human being was with another actor, a guy named Barry Stetson. They had a conversation an hour before her death.”
“The name sounds familiar. Who is he?”
“He used to be huge in all of Milton’s explosive thrillers.”
“What was that big movie he was in?”
“All Quiet on the Eastern Katmandu Front.”
“Great movie. Marilyn Monroe, Bela Lugosi and a young virtually enhanced Tom Hanks. Tom falls in love with Marilyn, but then Tom gets captured by enemy forces led by the tyrannical Bela Lugosi.”
“I cried like a baby at the end,” said Grable. “What about you, Nick?”
“I never cry.”
“Not even when I passed away?”
Kane was silent.
“Nick, you’ve got to let yourself grieve.”
“I know, okay, Grable. Now let’s stick to the case.”
“Okay, I just – you know – get emotional. We had a good thing.”
“We still do. Now what’s this Barry Stetson guy look like?”
On Kane’s wristwatch screen an image appeared. It was of a handsome young man, handsome in every way except for the jagged scar running from his nose to his ear.
“Here he is. Barry Stetson. Thirty-six years old. From Topeka, Kansas. Current address is 8 Monte Vista Place in the hills of Bollywood West.”
Kane asked, “What happened to his face?”
“A car accident.”
“How’d the accident happen?”
“One night, after a wrap party, Rita Wells was drunk. She drove Stetson home and wrapped her car around a telephone pole. She had barely a scratch. He came out looking like Freddy Krueger.”
“Any other facts?”
“A famous dog named Mobius also died in that accident. Mobius acted in thirty-two films, six with Rita Wells.”
As the little green men headed into the silver spaceship, Kane rose from the park bench. Coming to a screeching halt was a golf cart driven by a pale, though muscular, young man. His head was shaved clean. He wore a burgundy tracksuit with gold chains around his neck. With one hand on the steering wheel and one on a silver energy drink, the young man smiled, looked over to Kane.
“Hey buddy, you Nick Kane?” asked the golf cart driver.
The driver thrust his hand out, firmly offered it to Kane. They shook. “I’m Sid Washburn. Mister Milton asked me to shuttle you around. Hop in.”
Kane got into the golf cart in the passenger seat next to Sid. The golf cart rumbled by a prop truck, some fake palm trees and an outdoor patio café where folks sipped lattes and ate scones and granola yogurt.
“You happen to be working the night of Rita Wells’ death?” asked Kane.
“No sir, I was at my night job.”
“The Lime Pig. I’m a bartender over there.”
“How often you work there?”
“Three nights a week. This whole thing is terrible. Rita was one of our biggest stars,” said Sid. “I guess she went a little cuckoo for cocoa puffs. Know what I mean?”
Sid reached for his energy drink, gulped it down then said, “I guess not many people can handle the fame, the money, the attention.”
“You know her well?”
“No. Not really. I’m just, you know, a stupid gopher and she was a superstar. I never even spoke to her.”
“Any idea why she might have killed herself?”
Sid Washburn placed the energy drink back in the cup holder. “I—well—I’d rather not speculate.”
“Go on. Speculate. That’s how mysteries are solved.”
“Well, you see, people have been talking.”
“Yes, it might have been the ghost of Mobius on Soundstage 19 that drove her to—well—to you know, come unhinged.”
“You really think you have a ghost at Soundstage 19?”
“Well—I—I don’t believe in ghosts, but…well…you know, these old buildings, you just never know what the hell happened. They make sounds. Everyone knows she was hearing a barking dog everywhere she went.”
“Even Barry Stetson?”
“What about Mister Stetson? What’s he got to do with this?”
“I’d like to speak to him about Rita. Can you set up a meeting with him?”
“Sure, sure, but Mister Stetson would never do anything to hurt Miss Wells. They had a close relationship.” Sid leaned forward. “Very close.”
Kane sat at a park bench in front of a large soundstage door. Walking toward him was a young man in an exact replica of a NASA white spacesuit, space helmet and all. The young man took the helmet off, revealing a jagged scar running along his cheek.
Barry Stetson pulled at the white collar around his neck, sweating. “Can we make this quick? I’d like to get out of this monkey suit.”
“Sure, no problem.”
“Where were you the night of Rita Wells’ death?”
“Gee, I guess I was right here at Soundstage Eleven, filming a scene for the world ending saga The End. It was supposed to be Rita’s last picture. Instead I’m watching Mandy Munroe try to fill her shoes,” said Stetson.
“Did you know Rita had a problem with jade star?”
“Yeah, I knew. She was a damn fool for taking that junk. She didn’t listen.”
“Do you know how or where she got the jade star?”
Barry Stetson looked down to the ground, fiddled with the white of his spacesuit collar. “Well, gosh, I – you know – I just don’t know. I never touched that stuff.”
“If you happen to find out, let me know.”
Barry Stetson nodded. “Sure, sure.”
“By the way, what did you talk about the night of her death?”
“Well, Rita, she wanted to get back together with me and—”
“—I told her I still had feelings for her, too.”
“What about your relationship with Lauren Frost?”
“We were done.”
“For how long?”
“Six weeks at least, probably more. Lauren, well, she has big dreams, small talent, and a wicked disposition when she’s mad, jealous or drunk.”
“Did Rita have any enemies?”
“Just about every actress in town. For five years, they’ve lost every damn good part to her.”
“Any reason you’d like her dead?”
Barry Stetson looked away, casting a glance to the klieg lights and the gaffers. He then lowered his eyes, grimacing at the memory. The scar on his cheek, jarring and deep in its complexity forced Kane to stare at it.
“I once loved her more than words.”
Barry Stetson puckered his lips for a breath, exhaled. “Gosh, I miss her like crazy.”
“What about your face?”
“What about it?”
“How did your injury to your face impact your life? Your career?”
“Honestly, Mr. Kane, I am working more now than I ever did before. The scars of life give us our character, and if there’s one thing an actor needs more of, it’s character. People see the scar and immediately I’m a villain or a disgruntled employee or a monster with a secret. So Mister Kane, I have nothing to hide.”
“Did you know Rita had two hefty life insurance policies?”
Stetson shook his head. “Nope. Rita and I had – well – a passionate relationship.”
“Turns out that if her death is an accident, then the studio is liable and must pay her beneficiary five million. If it’s suicide, then the studio collects ten million on its own insurance policy. Guess Milton likes to protects his assets.”
Stetson rubbed his face. “Do you know who the beneficiary is? If I may ask.”
“You’re the beneficiary, Mister Stetson.”
“You didn’t know you stand to collect five million dollars upon Rita’s death?”
“I—I—wow—I had no idea.”
By the enormous outdoor water tank, a film shoot was in progress against a panoramic background painting of a beach and sandy dunes. Out on the crashing waves, a forty-foot catamaran style yacht crashed and thrashed in the machine driven storm. Klieg lights shone down on a pristine catamaran sailboat, with its blue and white sails flapping in the machine driven wind. Gaffers and assistants to producers huddled around a video monitor.
Kane strolled down Main Street, nearing the shoot.
The wind machine, blowing a fierce storm into the water tank, blew his pants legs from side to side, revealing the sheen of his silver metal legs. A few gaffers noticed the silver, stopped what they were doing and whispered quietly. Kane was used to the stares, the whispering and kept on his way.
“You believe Barry Stetson?” asked Grable into Kane’s earpiece.
“I don’t know, Grable. I just don’t know yet. What about you?”
“Well Nick, it’s not actually whether I believe him, since believing is often a subjective endeavor, rather it’s actually whether the statistical odds support his statement.”
“And what do your odds say?”
“Based upon the company’s deep dive into life insurance beneficiary survey, housed in actuarial table number 88, there is a 7% chance Barry Stetson did not know he was a beneficiary of the life insurance policy. Barry Stetson’s reaction sounded authentic and reasonable, however, you know Nick, I am not a lie detector.”
“Maybe they’ll add that in version 4.0.”
“Lying is a hard thing to detect. In fact, Nick, it’s more art than science.”
“What else do your odds say?”
“Statistically speaking, Barry Stetson has the most compelling motive to want Rita Wells dead. I’ve run a few other statistical scenarios, but I do feel that we’re still missing some vital inputs.”
“Unless they really loved each other,” added Kane.
He scanned the horizon. Bobbing beside the catamaran sailboat was just a face, a beautiful one with beautiful ice white blonde hair, bobbing against the blue of an ocean. The white foam of a tidal wave bubbled around the monster. Below the neck, the body was a coarse and jagged explosion of blackish green leather skin.
“Cut!” yelled the red-faced director from behind the main camera.
The filming stopped. All the gaffers, grips, assistants and bystanders energized into a frenzy.
“Who is next on the suspect list?” asked Kane.
“Lauren Frost, another actress and Barry Stetson’s ex-girlfriend. She sent Rita Wells several text messages throughout that last day. Most were friendly, innocuous banter, some lightweight gossip.”
“Good work, Grable, good work.”
A few minutes later, inside the narrow rectangle of the Star Wagon trailer, Lauren Frost tossed her ice blonde hair into the air. Her face, however, was not attached to a visible body. It was as if the body of Lauren Frost had just gone missing. Just a cinematic magic trick, perhaps.
Kane sat in a seat by a cramped kitchen table attached to the sidewall of the trailer. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of Lauren Frost, the woman who apparently had no body. She noticed. Her eyes glared back at Kane.
“Sorry, ma’am, I don’t mean to stare.”
“Well…I just –”
“— the boobs are fake, you know.”
Kane shuffled his feet. “It’s just, well, Miss Frost, you’re body is invisible.”
Lauren Frost gazed downward at her chest. “Oh, sorry. I forgot I had this stupid suit still on. I’m the monster from the deep, haven’t you heard?”
“Right. Okay. But where’s your body?”
Lauren Frost laughed, a knowing shrill of money filled the air. “You must be new to filmmaking?”
“Yes ma’am. Guess you could call me a newbie from cowpoke flyover country.”
“Then pard’ner, what can I help you with?”
“How do they do that?”
“Turn you invisible.”
“Oh, well, that’s just the latest and greatest in green screen suit technology. The suit reflects light. See, my… um… my so called character is half woman and half monster. They keep my glamorous face while my body, well it’s a blob of monstrosity. They say it’s going to be Godzilla meets Creature from the Black Lagoon. Or something ridiculous like that.”
“Are these suits made in various sizes?” asked Kane.
“I think so. The studio even put a camel in one of these things.”
“What about something smaller?”
“Sure, I don’t see why not. I imagine you could put just about anything in one of those suits. Customizing it isn’t very hard.”
“So, Miss Frost, where were you the night Rita died?”
“Easy. Dozens of witnesses saw me in this god awful, monstrous suit. Filming Monster from the Deep. Such a sad thing, her death, that is.”
“What did you think of all the success Rita had? Didn’t you lose out a few parts?”
“You get used to it.”
“Didn’t you lose the part in The End to Rita?”
“Sure, and then I lost it to Mandy Munroe.”
“That must suck for you.”
“Look, Mister Kane, Rita and I go way back. She was a good kid. You know, back in the day, we were even roommates for a few months. I’d give her my kidney to bring her back.”
“Miss Frost, do you think —”
“— Lauren, please call me Lauren — “
“— Lauren, do you think Rita was having a breakdown of some kind?”
“I — well — I think her luck had run out.”
Lauren Frost walked to the back of the trailer, where there was a mirror. From a hook on the wall, she grabbed a lavender flowered robe and tossed it on. “Now, if you don’t mind, I think I have somewhere to be.”
“Sure, sure. Thanks again.”
Kane rose, starting for the door. “Oh, by the way, you ever try jade star?”
Lauren laughed. “Hell no.”
“Don’t you know it’ll kill you?”
As Kane headed out the trailer door, Sid Washburn approached carrying a dozen red roses.
Kane smiled. “Pretty roses.”
“Who are they for?”
“For Lauren. Sometimes she gets a dozen every day.”
After grabbing a curry filled burrito at the studio cantina, Kane approached the football stadium-sized Soundstage 19. There was no activity around the cavernous gray building. The sun had already started to set. Crews had already gone home. A Clean-Bot 2100 rolled on by.
“So, Nick, it’s been a long day. You ready for some rest?” asked Grable.
“Not yet. I’d still like to check out that ghost at Soundstage 19.”
Kane found a main entrance door to Soundstage 19, tried it and found it was locked.
“Checking the studio blueprint,” announced Grable into his earpiece. “Okay, got it. Just head north, then at the corner of the building turn right and look for the fire escape ladder.”
Kane followed her instructions. Hanging from the outer wall of Soundstage 19 there was a fire escape ladder, about fifteen feet up with no way to get the ladder down to the ground.
“Only one way up,” said Grable.
Kane sighed a bit. “Yeah.”
“Jump up, jump up, jump up,” sang Grable.
And so Kane jumped up fifteen feet, better than any human had been able to do before bionic enhancements. He was still a part of the 1%.
“Show off,” joked Grable.
“Look, no cracks from the peanut gallery.”
“Oh great, Nick, now I’m just the peanut gallery. That really, really hurt.”
“Look, Grable, I’m just using what God and the scientists gave me.”
Kane yanked the ladder downward, holding on for a wild ride to the ground. The ladder snapped to a stop three feet from the ground.
Kane climbed up the ladder, reaching the roof. From atop Soundstage 19, Kane could see the water tower where Rita Wells plunged to her death. He could also see outside the studio gates, deep into the hills of Bollywood West. A couple of streets away, a neon sign shone with lime green and pink.
“That’s the Lime Pig,” announced Grable, “where Sid Washburn works as a bartender.”
“Eight tenths of a mile.”
Kane saw a skylight, propped open at a slight angle.
“That’s your entry point,” announced Grable.
Kane went to it, lifted it open wider and crawled through the opening.
“Trust me. Catwalk is ten feet below.”
Kane climbed down through the roof. His feet plopped down onto a catwalk. He stood fifty feet above the sawdust floor of the soundstage below. It was a cavernous place with no lights on and shadows and cobwebs of cinematic history in every corner. He clicked his narrow penlight on, walking atop the narrow catwalk, along the row of lights aiming down to the stage.
Kane walked until he heard a sound of a barking dog coming from the rafters by a series of light riggings.
“You hear that?” asked Kane.
“Yeah. I also have a thermal signature moving in front of you.”
“Twenty feet away and traveling at eight miles per hour. It’s very small.”
Kane darted toward the sound.
“Electric pulse straight ahead. Accelerate. Accelerate. Turn right. Turn right. Bend and grab!”
Kane crawled on his knees along the catwalk high above the soundstage floor. It was as if he was searching for a rat or a snake, an invisible one. His hands flailed, stretched out straight in the darkness.
“Got something,” announced Kane.
“It — it – well — I don’t know. I can feel something.”
“Not sure yet.”
Whatever Kane had grabbed was invisible just like Lauren Frost’s body had been. With his fingernails, Kane scraped along the contour of the small object. Soon, the thing was no longer invisible, as the material wrapped around it slid off. It was the same material that had been on Lauren Frost, a shiny and shimmering layer of a suit used to make her mostly invisible.
“And here’s our ghost,” said Kane as he waved his hand in front of the drone. He held its four wheels off the catwalk. The wheels spun and a bark of a dog erupted in spurts from inside it.
“Motion sensors for movement and sound,” said Grable.
“Now, Nick, I’ve cross referenced the first report of the barking ghost and found that six weeks ago, Sid Washburn accessed the prop room where the invisible suits are kept under lock and key.”
“Sid the golf cart driver?”
“Yes. I’ve scraped his digital feed and security card log as best I can, and thankfully Sid left us a few breadcrumbs.”
“Sid studied drone operation for nearly two years while in the National Guard. He also has two virtual profiles. One is password encrypted hashtag of jdawg. Through this profile he receives messages about #Edaj. Spelled backwards, that’s jade star. Turns out the criminally inclined are not always sophisticated code programmers.”
“What about the other profile?”
“That one is scarily obsessed with Lauren Frost, our monstrous suspect.”
“I contacted the jdawg profile.”
“Placed an order for ten #Edaj’s.”
“We just have to wait.”
In the morning, Kane waited on a sandy beach. Seagulls skulked around the sand. In the sky, brown pelicans dove into the blue ocean, searching for breakfast.
“Wonder if he’ll show,” said Grable.
“If he wants to make some money, he’ll show.”
A few moments later Kane heard the dull hum of something flying overhead. Not the pelicans. Rather it was a silver and white drone hovering fifty feet in the air. Hanging down was a mechanical arm. Attached to it was a jade colored plastic bag.
“I have visual,” announced Kane.
“And I have thermal. Operator is eight hundred yards away at the north end of the parking lot. To complete the transaction, I’m supposed to transfer five thousand to an masked electronic account.”
The drone lowered in the air and a jade colored plastic bag fell from the sky a few feet from Kane. He picked up the bag, admiring its contents: about ten jade green pills with a star stamped in the center.
At first, Kane walked toward the far end of the parking lot. Once he had visual of the drone operator, Kane sprinted. The operator fled on foot.
Kane accelerated, forcing his silver legs to become a blur of sheen and power.
Kane caught up to the man, passed him and then blocked his path. It was Sid Washburn.
As Sid tried to go right, Kane blocked his path. A white van was parked nearby with its windows open. The beach and ocean was to Kane’s left.
“Hey Sid, how’s it going?”
“Why are you chasing me?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Look, Sid, the police have been called. They’ll be here in two to three minutes.”
“Police? Man, I’m just out for a walk on the beach.”
“Just leave me alone, man.”
“Look Sid, you think you have an alibi for the night of Rita’s death.”
“Sure, sure man, like I told you before I was working at the Lime Pig.”
“Right. You were working eight tenths of a mile away. Did you know the drone you’re operating actually has a range of a mile?”
“And Sid, did you know your drone produces a distinct electronic signature?”
“So Sid, while you were working at the Lime Pig, you were able to harass Rita Wells to death with this remote control drone. You followed her. Annoyed her. Kept her up at night with the barking of your ghost drone. And you sold her jade star. But why?”
“Man, this is too much. You’re cuckoo for cocoa puffs.”
“No Sid. We’re just following the breadcrumbs you left. Like sending secret admirer red roses to Lauren Frost. It turns out you harassed Rita because you thought it would help Lauren Frost win the part in The End. How’d that work out?”
Sid puckered his lips and whistled.
Upon command two Dobermans bounded out of the open van window and charged right for Kane, tearing into his legs.
But Kane didn’t care. He let them bite away.
“What is wrong with you?” shouted Sid.
“There’s no pain in titanium,” said Kane.
In an amazing leap up, Kane jumped ten feet in the air, kicking the dogs off of his legs. The Dobermans squealed, whimpered.
In the distance, police sirens blared toward the beach parking lot. Sid tried to run, but again Kane caught up to him, knocked him to the sand of the beach.
Sid heaved. “Rita wasn’t supposed to die.”
Kane and Grable left Bollywood West the same way they entered: by way of the hyperloop station. As Kane sat back in his seat, Grable sighed.
“What’s wrong?” asked Kane.
“When will men like Sid Washburn ever learn?”
“I can’t believe he harassed Rita Wells to death. For what?” asked Grable.
“For Lauren Frost. He thought Rita’s demise would lead to Lauren’s rise.”
“I guess it’s true that the infatuated heart of a man always goes too far.”
“Let’s get out of this town.”
“Maybe we can ride the hyperloop north,” said Grable. “If we hurry, we can see sunrise at the Golden Gate Bridge. I know this great Italian place, great wine and even better gnocchi. Maybe we can rent one of those new hover cars. What do you say?”
Kane smiled. “That’d be great, Grable. Really great.”
by Michael T. Best