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Dance with The Devil

A Fox Meridian Novel

By Niall Teasdale

Copyright 2019 Niall Teasdale

Smashwords Edition











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Contents

Part One: Storms

Part Two: Unconventional

Part Three: The Devil Went Down to Brooklyn

Part Four: Satan’s Master

Part Five: Fox 3.0

Epilogue

About the Author




Part One: Storms

New York Metro, 5th May 2062.

Sunrise Highway was a mess. It was going to be a day or so before the road was clear enough for normal traffic, not that it saw huge amounts of normal traffic on most days anyway. It was one of the primary routes out to the eastern end of Long Island, but the area was well served by the HT-line; there was far more road traffic to and from the northern side of the island. You did still get rich people in big cars and autocabs using the route, which was why the metro authorities would put some effort into clearing it, but it was not really a vital thoroughfare in the New York Metro of twenty sixty-two. It had, in fact, been workers checking the HT-line who had spotted the body stuck under the barrier on the south side of the road, and now Fox Meridian was looking at it with a mildly perplexed expression on her face.

‘Who goes outside in a storm wearing a babydoll nightdress?’ Fox asked.

‘The obvious answer is that whoever this woman is, she does,’ Kit replied. The kitsune-style avatar of Fox’s AI PA appeared to be looking at the scene too, though she was only there as a virtual image. Fox was alone at the scene, so there was no point in Kit hiding, or in keeping their conversation internal.

‘Yeah. Good answer, I guess. We’re going to get next to nothing from the scene. Get someone out here with a vertol, a body bag, and probably some cutting gear. They may have to cut the barrier to get her out without adding to the damage.’

The body in question had probably once belonged to quite an attractive woman. Fox was willing to bet that there had been a little cosmetic work done there, but not a substantial amount. The rather full breasts appeared natural. There was a pleasing swell to the hips. There was a suggestion of the kind of skull which gave rise to an attractive face, but that face was bruised, cut in places, and swollen beyond any ability for facial recognition to identify. There were cuts and bruises across most of the body, in fact, and the lacy, largely transparent garment which had somehow managed to cling on around her upper body had done nothing to stop the damage to the skin beneath. The right leg looked as though it had been snapped below the knee. Long, dark-blonde hair was a mess around her head and face, looking more like tangled seaweed than anything attached to a human.

‘You’re playing with your collar again,’ Kit commented.

Fox lifted her fingers away from the black leather collar with its anodised purple studs which encircled her throat. She was used to it being there now; Naomi had locked it in place in March and Fox had had time to get used to it and what it meant. That did not stop her fingering the thing when she was thinking, or when she was not thinking at all. She was a little self-conscious about the habit. ‘I’m thinking she must’ve gone into the river upstream.’

‘That seems logical. Carmans River is one of the four largest on Long Island. Monitoring suggests there was a substantial surge upriver last night which swept back down to the sea as the storm abated. The river washed over the highway and could have deposited the body here then.’

Tropical Storm Arthur was early for the normal Atlantic storm season, and it had been unusually bad, almost reaching hurricane levels. It had swept into the metro area from the ocean on Thursday morning and continued to batter the region until four a.m. Fox had spent much of the time holed up in her apartment watching the weather reports. And this was not the only casualty; there were teams out at various locations around the metro making sure that deaths were the result of the storm and not simply covered by it. ‘Arthur’ would be getting retired from the list of storm names after this year.

Stepping forward, Fox checked the woman’s hands. Engaging the microscopic vision feature of her eyes, she looked over the fingertips without much hope. The fingers were swollen and/or damaged, the prints distorted. ‘There’s nothing much we can do here. She’ll have to be identified by the autopsy team.’

‘Suicide or misadventure?’ Kit suggested.

Fox got to her feet and frowned at the landscape to the north. Battered trees obscured the view of the river, but she knew it stretched out a fair way. To the south, the waterway was visible, surrounded by dense undergrowth. If the body had not caught under the barrier, it would likely have remained unfound for a long, long time. ‘Are there any reports of damage to buildings north of here, near the river?’

‘No. Nothing has been reported. If the occupant is currently dead, it might not have been reported.’

‘Yeah. Task a drone to overfly the river and check the banks. We’ll leave determination of the cause until we get the results of that and the autopsy back. I can’t see any wounds that look deliberate, but I also can’t see someone deliberately going out in a storm in that outfit.’

~~~

Alishia Joy Hathway was single and lived alone, but her house had not been damaged by the storm. Her body had ended up three and a half kilometres from her home, and the building was four hundred metres from the river taking a direct route to the closest point. That was through the property’s extensive gardens, across a road, and then through woodland which was not especially thickly wooded, but there had been no evidence of Hathway wearing shoes. All this in sustained winds in the fifty-knot range.

‘The autopsy found no injuries which could not be attributed to the conditions last night,’ Kit said as Fox drove her Q-bug the long way around to the front entrance of the house. ‘It would appear that Miss Hathway deliberately set out into the storm, barefoot and dressed in flimsy clothing.’

‘It does point toward suicide,’ Fox said, agreeing with the assertion Kit had not made out loud. She slowed and dodged around a fallen branch blocking half the road. The area was wooded and the houses to either side of Kingsland Avenue were barely visible. There had been more homes here in times past, but the population had thinned out due to a combination of rising sea levels and a general shift toward living in arcologies. So, people had bought out their neighbours’ land to install better flood defences and have bigger properties. Hathway’s closest neighbour was a hundred and seventy metres away according to the map.

‘Miss Hathway was a socialite,’ Kit said. ‘Family money and various investments provided her income. She had no full-time employment but did help with a number of charities. Age forty-three. My counterpart at home is busy building a murder room. That is mostly because she has nothing else of import to do at the moment.’

Fox grinned. ‘Given that our primary job is homicide investigation, being bored is a good thing.’

‘We are not arguing. We have already determined that Miss Hathway has no living relatives, so the usual suspects in a case like this are out. Unless she has a partner we have not yet uncovered. She has never been married.’

‘Let’s see what her house can tell us.’ Fox pulled up in front of the sprawling, ranch-style building, swinging her leg over the Q-bug’s saddle and heading for the porch. ‘I’m guessing she went out the back. She’d need to walk around the building otherwise. Transmit my access authorisation, would you?’

‘Transmitted and accepted. The house computer is informing me that Miss Hathway is not at home and her whereabouts are unknown.’

‘Any sign of an assistant AI?’ Pushing the door open, Fox walked into a clean, spacious entrance hall. There was a coat stand, a side table, and two doors: ahead and to the right. The walls were painted a slightly pink shade of cream which probably had ‘rose’ in its name.

‘The house AI is a class two.’

‘That won’t be much help.’ Fox frowned at a spot on the wall above the side table. The paintwork was fairly new, less than a year, but it had faded slightly and the colour variance was more obvious with the extra wavelengths of light her enhanced vision provided. Something with the general shape of a cross, a Christian cross, had been fixed to the wall there at some point and removed relatively recently.

‘Please indicate your reason for seeking admittance,’ a voice said from the air. It was female and had the slightly uninflected quality of a low-class AI. ‘Miss Hathway is unavailable at this time.’

‘I’m Captain Tara Meridian, with Palladium Security Solutions. You have my authorisation. Miss Hathway was found this morning and is deceased. When was she last in this building?’ There was no point in softening the blow for a class two; class threes could develop their own form of emotional responses given time, but anything lower was basically a very complicated voice-command system.

‘Miss Hathway left the house at twelve minutes after midnight on this date. Please wait.’

Fox frowned at the request, but the timing made sense: the ME had not been able to give a very precise time of death, but he had said it was between midnight and one a.m. Hathway had walked out and taken maybe ten minutes to get to the river. Time of death was likely right in the middle of the estimated period. She was about to say something when she noticed a file being transmitted.

‘The house is sending us a video file,’ Kit said before Fox could check herself.

‘Do a full security check. If it’s okay, play it.’

There was a pause and then Fox found herself looking at the image of Alishia Hathway. She had been an attractive woman and looked maybe half her chronological age. Her hair was straight and fell down her back past her shoulders. It had been a slightly paler shade of blonde in life than her corpse had displayed. Intelligent, blue eyes full of pain looked out of the video at Fox as though begging her to understand what Hathway was feeling. Fairly large, pert breasts were obvious under the same nightdress as Fox had found her in.

‘I’m leaving this message for whatever law enforcement official is sent to my house after my death.’

‘Okay,’ Fox said, because it seemed like she should say something.

‘I am about to walk into a storm and feel the need to explain my actions,’ Hathway went on.

Fox paused the video with a thought. ‘Is she for real? She talks like she’s giving a report to class. Is that shock?’

‘I think I would suggest resignation,’ Kit replied. ‘I hope she gives a reason for her actions, because she appears to have considered them very carefully.’

‘Hm,’ Fox said, and restarted the video.

‘I had sexual intercourse with the Devil during the Beltane festival. I can no longer live with myself. I go to meet my maker. I hope that he will be merciful.’ And then the frame froze.

Fox stared at the virtual video frame in silence for a second. ‘Can we make sure we get her medical records? I want to check for any indications that she was nuts.’

‘I will forward the instruction to my home counterpart,’ Kit said. ‘My initial analysis is… conflicted. Her clarity is confusing. She may be suffering from some form of psychotic delusion. She appears to be exceptionally rational, and she does not appear to be under coercion.’

‘No… Access the computer and check her recent calendar. And anything else you can find in there. It looks like a suicide, but we should do due diligence.’

‘Of course, Fox.’

Nodding, Fox turned right and walked through the side door into what appeared to be an office. The walls were painted a pale blue and there was a large window overlooking the driveway; it was not exactly the best view the house had. There was a desk with a computer of some sort on it, probably a dumb terminal unit given that there was a large server box at the back of the room. That was likely to be the house computer, but the positioning suggested it was also Hathway’s ‘work’ computer. Of course, Kit was already at work accessing the system. On the wall beside the server, another cross-shaped void was visible as a shadow on the paintwork.

Turning, Fox left the office and walked through the second door in the hall, into what was obviously the more private part of the house. Except that the first room she came to was obviously not that private: there was something about it that suggested this was where Hathway chose to meet guests she did not know particularly well. There was comfortable seating in a cream colour, arranged in rather formal patterns. A pair of sofas faced each other across a coffee table. A slightly more intimate setting – two chairs set kitty-corner – had been placed in a bay with a view of the garden. There had once been quite a large cross mounted on the wall where people sitting around the coffee table had a good view of it, but it too had been removed, probably fairly recently.

‘Okay, this is starting to become a theme,’ Fox commented.

‘Pardon me, Fox, I was not paying attention. The house computer is proving to be something of an annoyance.’

‘Access controls?’

‘No. It would appear that Miss Hathway deleted almost all the information on the server last night. I have located both the message we saw and another to be used if one of her friends came looking for her. Her appointments and email databases have been purged. It may be possible to recover individual files she had stored, but if she went to the trouble of permanently deleting database records, she may have used a secure-deletion package on the files. We can have the storage devices analysed, but I suspect there is nothing here to find.’

Fox frowned as she continued to walk through the empty house. ‘Not necessarily the actions I’d expect from someone planning to kill herself. She’s recently taken down all the crosses in the house.’ In the next room – a more comfortable lounge with a broad window onto the garden – a quick scan of the walls revealed two spaces missing a cross. ‘All of them so far anyway. It’s like she was devoutly religious, and then she wasn’t. Naomi doesn’t have this many crosses in her apartment.’

‘Perhaps Miss Hathway did have sexual congress with some form of Satanic entity and could no longer bear the sight of the cross?’

‘Or maybe she thought she did. There’s something about this I don’t like, Kit. There’s something wrong with the whole situation. It might look like a suicide, but there’s something more to it. Find out where Helen is. We’ll drop in on the way home to let her know I want to keep working this one.’

‘Helen is in tower one, Fox.’

Fox raised an eyebrow. ‘That was quick.’

‘I’ll check, but I am quite sure she is there. Where else would she be?’

It took a second for Fox to follow Kit’s reasoning, but she got there. ‘Oh, right. In that case, when we leave, make sure she’s not in bed.’

~~~

Terri Martins was still a little wobbly on her feet after spending two months on the Moon. Her hug on greeting Fox was a little tighter than usual, and it might have been a little embarrassing given that Terri was wearing only a short robe, except that Helen was waiting beside the loungers in the solarium. Fox was quite sure that the two of them had been engaged in very energetic sex right up until the time Fox said she was on her way. Terri’s ship had landed at about 6 a.m. – a couple of hours after the airspace was declared clear of the storm – and Fox had taken the Hathway case partially to give Helen some time alone with her girlfriend.

‘Why don’t you just move in here, Helen?’ Fox asked. ‘You’ll be sleeping here until Terri has to go back to Jenner anyway.’

Helen blushed, though less than she would have when her relationship with Terri first started. ‘Mostly because it would probably embarrass me and Jackson,’ Helen replied. ‘I’m not his daughter, for one thing. Mariel’s in and out of here a lot for another.’

‘We do not mention Mariel in ways which might suggest any form of intimate encounter with my father,’ Terri stated, finally letting Fox go.

‘You’ll have to get over it sometime.’

‘I was thinking of writing some software to have my implant block that kind of thing before I notice it. I’ll be entirely oblivious.’ Terri was perfectly happy with the notion that her father had finally got over the death of her mother sufficiently to date again. She was, however, determined to believe that Jackson and Mariel only ever held hands and watched sunsets together, even when she knew that Mariel slept over in Jackson’s bed on a quite frequent basis.

‘There is something a little wrong with a woman as intelligent as you being so delusional,’ Fox commented. ‘And speaking of delusional women, my possible suicide left a video note saying she was going to kill herself because she recently had sex with the Devil.’

‘Oh!’ Terri said. ‘Well, such a delusion could result in self-destructive impulses, I would imagine.’

Fox nodded. ‘Kit’s running down her medical records to check for any sign of mental instability in her past, but she seemed like a pretty stable woman. Christian. Until recently anyway. She had crosses up in just about every room in her house, but they were all removed in the recent past.’

‘You think there’s something hinky about the suicide?’ Helen asked.

‘I’m worried there might have been some form of coercion. The way she said it… She really believed she had sex with Satan.’

‘Delusions can be like that,’ Terri supplied, settling onto a lounger. ‘Not that I’m saying there isn’t more to this. I’m not exactly an expert on the psychology of religion.’ She grinned. ‘You know someone with a great deal more experience in that kind of thing than I do. Nice collar.’

Fox’s fingers strayed up to the leather around her neck as she settled onto a second lounger. ‘Thank you. I like it. And I’ll tap Naomi’s expertise after Kit’s got us a full picture of the woman in question.’

Kit’s avatar appeared between them. ‘My home copy is working on that now. We should have a full workup ready by morning. Welcome home, Terri.’

‘Thank you, Kit,’ Terri replied.

‘Even though Kit’s been with you the entire time,’ Helen pointed out, sitting beside Terri as she did so. ‘You actually see less of each other here than you do in Jenner.’

‘True. How’s Hibiki working out for you?’

‘Oh, uh, fine. She’s not Kit, obviously, but she’s learning. We’ve started using the same kind of murder room system Kit came up with. Hibiki’s already pretty good at mining LifeWeb for data. I think Kit’s been helping.’

‘I have given her pointers,’ Kit said, ‘but nothing more. Primarily, I suggested effective display methods. Her data-handling capabilities were, of course, already very good.’

‘Genius designer,’ Fox said, grinning.

‘I’m not a genius!’ Terri exclaimed, and then settled into something of a satisfied smirk. ‘I’ll accept superbly talented.’

‘You certainly are,’ Helen said, probably not meaning Terri’s programming ability. She went on before any comment could be made. ‘I’m assuming you want to keep working on the Hathway case until you’re sure she just killed herself?’ She grimaced. ‘“Just killed herself” doesn’t sound right.’

Fox gave a slight shrug. ‘It’s what we’ve got. Yes, I want to be sure no one persuaded her to do it or gave her an actual helping hand. I suspect we’ll know more when we know how her will is arranged.’

‘I should have that information soon,’ Kit said.

‘We’ll start work in the morning. Early, if you’re ready.’

‘I believe I should be. By the time your sleep cycle is done, we should have every bit of public data there is on Alishia Hathway, along with as much as we can get on her private life.’

6th May.

‘Okay, Kit, what do we have?’ Fox stepped from the virtual elevator from her virtual apartment and into the vast, dark virtual space of the Hathway murder room. When you were an infomorph, an entity composed entirely of software and data, reality could be just about anything you wanted. Unless you let the real world in.

The vast dark space was, in fact, not so empty. Kit’s avatar stood on nothing amid a complex network of interconnected photographs and icons. As Fox’s gaze touched upon each node, data appeared to identify it. She could expand that further if she wished, but what she needed first was a sense of the whole net. It was both denser than might be expected, but also a little thin.

‘Somehow I’d expected more from a socialite,’ Fox commented.

‘Miss Hathway was not that sort of socialite,’ Kit replied. ‘One of her major connections was to her local church. My analysis of her LifeWeb activities suggests a strongly religious woman, at least until early this year. She did not drink. She has had more than one relationship, but I would suggest that none of them involved any sexual element. She was saving herself for marriage.’

‘Not a common attitude these days. What happened earlier this year?’

‘One of Miss Hathway’s friends, Heather Banner, died. Miss Banner was a resident of Boston Metro. They had been friends since childhood, though they saw less of each other after Miss Hathway moved to New York Metro. Miss Banner died of a brain tumour, detected too late to be operable. Miss Hathway spent several months with Miss Banner before her death on February twenty-sixth, and appears to have had something of a crisis of faith following that event. Her LifeWeb has always been mostly related to her charitable activities, but even those diminish significantly from the beginning of March through to her death.’

‘But you’re sure she had a crisis of faith?’

‘She made several posts at the end of February indicating that she could not understand how God could allow her friend to die in this manner. The death of a friend or loved one is often a source of conflict with one’s religious beliefs. However, Sister Naomi may know more about the psychology of such situations than I do.’

Fox grimaced. ‘From personal experience if nothing else. Hathway had no family?’

‘An only child. Her parents died in July twenty sixty in a boating accident. They were lost in a storm in the Atlantic. Miss Hathway inherited everything. She was already active in charities but the death of her parents only made her more active.’

‘Until this year?’

‘Yes. All her activities seem to have diminished since the death of Miss Banner. She must have been doing something, but she was not talking about it. Perhaps her friends know more.’

‘Okay then, friends. What do we have?’

Kit gestured to the tree of contacts. ‘There were four primary groups. Miss Hathway retained contact with friends from her life in Boston Metro. There are no longer many, but they may have a better picture of her reaction to Miss Banner’s death. She also has relatively few personal friends in this metro. Most appear to have become personal acquaintances after she met them through her charitable work. There are several people she mentions in relation to her church activities who appear to be quite close friends. Finally, there are a number of people I would describe as business associates. She met them through her charities, but only appears to work with them, rather than considering them friends.’

Fox scanned the faces for a second. ‘There’s no sense in ruining their weekends. We’ll go through them in detail and see whether we can get interviews organised for some of them on Monday. Financials?’

‘Miss Hathway was wealthy and had no money problems. I’m still waiting on information concerning her will. I have one of the accounting AIs checking her banking data, but I did notice that her personal expenditure has increased in the last six to eight weeks. Something caused her to begin spending more money recently.’

‘No indications of a new boyfriend?’

‘None that I have been able to find. I will dig deeper.’

Nodding, Fox scanned once again over the connection tree. She sighed. ‘Okay. Let’s start in Boston and work south.’

~~~

‘The reviews for M.J. continue to be positive,’ Kit said. This was Kit’s gynoid avatar, sitting with Fox, Sam, and Marie at Sam’s dining table for breakfast. Well, the two humans were eating breakfast; Fox had a mug of coffee for form’s sake, and Kit was just there for the company.

‘Yeah,’ Marie acknowledged. ‘We’ve already had the renewal notification from the channel. We had plans to shoot a different ending for the finale if they decided to cancel. People hate it when a season ends on a cliffhanger and they never get a resolution.’

‘Gah!’ Fox exclaimed. ‘I hate cliffhangers at the end of season even when we do get a resolution.’

Marie hunched a little and flashed a timid grin. ‘Sorry. I just do the acting.’

Fox narrowed her eyes. ‘Mm. I suppose I’ll let you off. Just tell Daker that I still know where he lives.’ Adrian Daker was the principal writer on Marie’s show, so it was highly likely that he was responsible for the season finale.

‘I’ll pass the message along. I can see him cringing now. Um…’

Both Fox and Sam peered at the redheaded actress: that had sounded like a loaded ‘um.’

‘I believe Marie wishes to broach some subject she is unsure of,’ Sam stated. He was, as usual, shirtless. His rich voice held a hint of amusement, though he did not appear to know what the subject Marie wished to discuss was.

‘I think I picked that up too,’ Fox said, nodding.

‘Well,’ Marie said, slowly, ‘this might not be the absolutely best time for this, considering.’

‘Out with it.’

‘Nathan and Adrian wanted me to ask whether you’d consider doing a guest spot.’ Marie spotted Fox’s eyes narrowing further and went on quickly. ‘Adrian has quite a cool plot in mind and you know how we’ve incorporated Palladium into the show since you guys got the metro policing contract and it would be a two-part story and I think that it would be good for Palladium and infomorphs.’ Her ribcage trying to collapse inward, Marie paused to pull in a huge breath of air. ‘So, what do you think?’

‘Hm… Daker hits us with a cliffhanger ending and then wants me to appear on the show?’

‘Um… Yes.’

‘We do already have a liaison in place with IB-Nineteen,’ Kit said. ‘We’ve been quite happy with our treatment on the show, even if Detective Hermanson is not exactly a fine example of our investigations staff.’

‘He’s, uh, dogged,’ Marie said in defence of the fictional detective.

‘I don’t know,’ Fox said. ‘I mean… Cliffhanger.’

Marie was getting harder to fool. ‘You want to do it. I can tell.’

‘Practically,’ Kit said, ‘we would need to see the script and the board would have to clear it. We might need to clear it at the Group level, but I don’t see that as an issue. Scheduling may be an issue. If Fox catches an important case, there could be problems with shooting. Putting my CIO hat on, I don’t see a major issue with Fox appearing, subject to the above provisos.’

‘And she wants to do it. Look at that face. That is the face of a woman who wants to appear on a popular, adult, crime-fiction IB show.’

‘Do I get a nude scene?’ Fox asked.

‘Do you want a nude scene? If you’d be willing, Adrian would write it in in a heartbeat.’

‘And Shark would drool all over his expensive shoes.’

‘That’s a distinct possibility. Nathan’s been wanting to do a show based around a fictionalised you since he met you.’

‘I’m going to think about it,’ Fox said. ‘You can tell them I’m not disinterested.’ The corners of her lips twitched. ‘Of course, there is one factor you haven’t mentioned that would need some consideration.’

Marie frowned. ‘There is?’

‘Obviously,’ Sam said. His lips were curling, which suggested he had possibly got to where Fox was going before Fox had. ‘Fox does not work alone.’ Yup, he had.

No less than two virtual copies of Kit appeared beside the physical one. All three of them had shocked looks on their faces. ‘I’m not sure this is such a good idea,’ they said in unison.

Fox just grinned. ‘Sales on the Kitsune series are going to go through the roof.’

7th May.

‘So, yeah, they want me to do a cameo in M.J.,’ Fox said as she walked beside Naomi down the corridor to the Sister Superior’s apartment on the top floor of the chapter house. They were both in the uniform of the Sisters of Corruption – Fox’s in red instead of black and white – because it had become a habit for Fox to take lunch with the Sisters on a Sunday whenever she could. She did not come to the service before the food, and she did not often actually eat, but she joined them and partook of something of their Sunday ritual. And then she went back to Naomi’s apartment.

‘No,’ Naomi said.

‘No?’

‘No. They do not want you for a cameo. Perhaps a small one to indicate that you exist within the setting prior to your main appearance, but Nathan Shark is not a man who would waste the opportunity should you agree. They want you as a guest star, just as they have done more and more with us. I shall have a word with them.’

‘Okay, but can I ask why?’

‘You can, and I will answer that I have an idea for that cameo. But only if you would agree to it.’

Fox did not even consider her answer before speaking. ‘Of course I’d agree, Mistress.’

‘I’m not speaking as your mistress, Fox, but as your friend and lover. I think it would be interesting to have M. J. introduced to the fictional Fox by the fictional Naomi. Perhaps M. J. comes to see me just as you are leaving. It would mean that our relationship would become more widely known.’

‘Our relationship is all over the gossip channels, and Kit has been monitoring the chatter on LifeWeb about it. I’m guessing that everyone who watches the show already knows that you and I are more than friends.’

Naomi paused at her door. ‘A valid point, but it would be us acknowledging that the rumours are true.’

‘Also a valid point. Truthfully, I’m happy to have it known if you are.’

Opening the door, Naomi walked through into her rooms. ‘I have absolutely no problem. I’ll probably have to turn down more requests from clients, but I can live with that.’

‘F-from clients?’ Fox followed, frowning at the statement.

‘Mm. I keep getting requests for threesomes. I point out that you aren’t licensed, and you’re in law enforcement so breaking the law would be impossible. Really, I simply don’t want to share you with anyone else.’

‘Well, thank you. It would be kind of a conflict of–’

Naomi held up a hand, index finger raised. ‘A correction. There are people I would share you with, but I think that should come about spontaneously.’

Fox allowed her cheeks to redden; she could stop herself blushing if she wished, but she usually let it happen where Naomi was involved. ‘Uh, I have a favour to ask before we get down to recreation.’

‘Oh?’

‘I need a professional consultation for a case I’m working.’ Fox gave a small grin. ‘I guess you could also consider it a continuation of my theological education.’

‘I’m intrigued,’ Naomi said, settling onto one of her pristine cream sofas. Fox did not sit, not until a seat was offered, even if they were not being formally mistress and pet just now. ‘And I have a favour to ask of you too, so I will gladly grant your request.’

‘Okay. Well, you first then, Mistress.’

Naomi smiled. ‘I should like you to sit for a painting. Sister Cheyanne is talented, and I would like to hang one of her paintings, of you, on my wall.’

‘Did she do that one?’ Fox indicated a large nude of Naomi which hung on the wall. Naomi’s apartment was austere in some respects, but it was decorated with a number of handmade objects, all of them made by the Sisters. The painting showed Naomi reclining on a bed, dressed in nothing but her wimple. She looked relaxed and very sensual. The artist had captured her hard beauty perfectly.

‘Yes, she did. Will you?’

‘I’d be honoured.’ There were pictures of other people around Naomi’s apartment. There was a photograph of Fox, Marie, and Sam on her nightstand, and another of a younger Sam on her chest of drawers. But none of Naomi’s loves – with the exception of Sam – were anywhere to be seen, and on the walls, there was only the one painting: the one of Naomi herself.

‘Good. Now, what was it you wished to ask? Undress while you talk.’

The blush came again: Naomi really knew how to make theology interesting. ‘Yes, Mistress.’ She began sliding her gloves off her arms, trying to make it look sensual. She thought she was getting fairly good at stripping, mainly because Naomi rarely made suggestions any more. ‘What do you know about Satanism?’

‘Which kind?’ Naomi asked without skipping a beat.

‘There’s more than one kind?’

‘Two or three. It depends upon how you consider Satanic imagery in art. I’ll assume you mean religious Satanism, which can be divided into rationalistic or atheistic Satanism, and theistic Satanism. The principal difference between the two concerns their view of Satan. Essentially, whether Satan exists as an entity to be worshipped or not.’

‘Okay.’ With her gloves gone, Fox set to the task of unzipping her bodice as gracefully as possible. ‘Well, I’m trying to determine whether someone’s apparent suicide was their idea or someone else’s. She left a note indicating that her reason for killing herself was that she’d had sex with the Devil. Does that narrow it down?’

Naomi pursed her lips. ‘Not necessarily. Rationalists take their view of Satan from the Hebrew meaning of the word. “Adversary,” or “one who opposes.” These people view themselves as the adversaries of theistic religions which regulate the rights of humans to, essentially, enact their desires. To them, Satan is a concept, an inner god form. It is possible that someone sufficiently disturbed that they would take their own life might view a sexual partner as Satan under some circumstances because, in effect, they would be engaging in sex with a satan.’

Slipping her bodice over her head, Fox dropped it onto the sofa beside her. Naomi licked her lips. ‘Somehow, this sounded more literal than that.’

‘And she specifically said “the Devil?”’ Fox nodded her reply and began to ease down the zipper on her skirt. ‘Rationalist Satanists tend to refer to theistic Satanists in disparaging terms, including “Devil worshippers.” Theistic Satanists frequently fit the stereotype better than the rationalists. They worship Satan in some form or other. They may believe in the practice of human sacrifice. They frequently invert the imagery and principles of Christianity, which is why the rationalists tend to ridicule them.’

Fox allowed her skirt to drop down her long legs and then she stepped clear of it. That left her in her collar, a suspender belt, stockings, and pumps with very high heels. She paused because Naomi sometimes wanted her to keep that much of the costume on. Apparently, she did now. ‘Sit down,’ Naomi said. There was a little extra huskiness in her voice; the excitement Naomi felt when they had these sessions never failed to make Fox react in just the same way. So, she sat down facing Naomi across the small coffee table. Her back was held straight, her breasts pushed out. She kept her knees together, as she had been taught, and rested her hands beside her on the seat so as not to obscure the view. Naomi shook her head and Fox changed position – there was no need for an actual command – spreading her legs wide and resting her palms on her knees.

‘You are, perhaps, dealing with some form of hybrid,’ Naomi went on, her cool, blue eyes which held such heat roving over Fox’s body. ‘Was your victim religious? Conventionally religious?’

‘Yes. There’s some evidence to suggest she had a crisis of faith following the death of a friend. Her home used to have a lot of crosses on the walls, but they’d all been removed. Kit found some LifeWeb posts which suggested she was questioning her faith.’

Naomi smiled. ‘When my faith was tested, you were there to provide me with strength I found difficult to summon in myself.’

‘I don’t think this woman had someone like that.’ Fox allowed a slight smile to form on her lips. ‘I still don’t think I did that much to help.’

‘You did,’ Naomi replied flatly. ‘Do you have enough insight on the matter?’

‘I might come back with some more questions later, but I think that’s a good overview for now, Mistress.’

‘Good. I don’t feel inclined to keep my hands off you any longer.’ Getting to her feet, Naomi circled the table, but walked past Fox, heading for the bedroom. ‘Remain perfectly still. You’re not to move, or make any sound, until I give you permission to.’ Fox said nothing; she was not going to fall for that one again. Naomi smiled. ‘I’ll be back with a few toys.’

Fox swallowed very quietly.

~~~

‘I think you like it when she punishes you,’ Kit commented inside Fox’s head.

‘On what evidence?’ Fox asked. She was sitting on a train on the LI-line crossing the Hudson. Outfitted in her uniform, she was getting a few odd looks, but she did not care.

‘You could have passed that test easily by turning off your tactile sensors. You did not, and you know Naomi is capable of making you scream. Therefore, you wanted her to cause you to fail and then to punish you for your failure.’

‘Well, first off, turning off my sense of touch would be cheating. My acting isn’t good enough to make Naomi believe I’m feeling what she’s doing when I’m not. Therefore, I would be punished anyway and, worse, she’d never trust me again. Second, I have no desire to miss what she does to me to make me scream. A little pain is worth it.’

‘Oh.’

‘Not that you’re wrong. She’s never going to do anything to me which causes me any permanent damage. Her idea of punishment usually results in both of us coming until she’s exhausted. It’s a game with very complex rules and no rule book. My only worry is that I’ll give her a heart attack one day, but she does have regular medicals. If I was organic, I’d be worried about us killing each other.’

‘You hold out longer each time.’

‘Uh-huh. To be expected. But I’ll tell you something: I would not want to be tortured by that woman.’

There was a definite smirk in Kit’s voice when she answered. ‘I thought that was what she was doing. Do you think the information on Satanism was useful? My counterpart has already incorporated it into our data in the murder room.’

‘I’m not sure yet,’ Fox replied. ‘I’m not really sure Hathway was anything other than deluded. It adds to your profiling information, I think.’

‘Yes. Yes, it does. Miss Hathway belonged to a small Baptist congregation, a schism from the National Association of Free Will Baptists which formed in twenty forty-six. Free Will Baptists believe that it is possible to fall from grace by repudiating one’s belief in Jesus Christ. If Miss Hathway truly had a crisis of faith, it is possible that her Church would reject her. The schism seems to have involved a rather hard-line priest and his followers breaking away from the association.’

‘You’re thinking she had some sort of psychotic break? Her parents die due to bad luck. Her best friend dies young. Instead of comforting her, her priest turns around and says she’s denying the will of God. Kicks her out of the church. She turns to the opposite of her religion?’

‘Or simply suffers some form of delusion where she believes she has met and had intercourse with Satan.’

‘I guess we’d better talk to this priest then.’

8th May.

‘I’m not especially happy about this, Helen,’ Fox said to the telepresence image floating in her sensorium. Kit was driving the Q-bug while Fox glowered.

‘We expected this kind of thing,’ Helen replied. ‘It’s better if you’re not here to be seen by them. Anyway, you have work to do. Investigative work. I get to sit here and keep an eye on the crowds.’

Fox looked up at the sky; it had been blazing sunshine ever since the storm had passed. ‘It is a gorgeous day to be out on a Q-bug.’

‘Don’t rub it in or I’ll find you a murder in a sewage plant.’

‘Fair. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.’

Helen’s image shrugged. ‘They’re protesting the non-human rights bill after it’s passed and enacted. We knew there’d be something happening on the day it goes live, and here it is. Here and at the Capitol. Seriously, some people are just really sore losers.’

‘And have been down through the ages. I’m almost at this church. I’ll call in later.’

‘Have fun.’ And the connection dropped.

Ahead of her, Fox could see a white building which probably was not really made of white clapperboard. A structure like that would undoubtedly have vanished in one of the storms, so this was probably an old-looking facia bolted over a solid structure. There was a square tower mounted above the front of the church, but there was no sign of a bell in it. Basically, the church was a fake. Someone wanted to portray old values, but the reality was much more recent.

‘The priest’s name is Elwyn Fulton Porter, addressed as Reverend Porter,’ Kit said as she pulled the Q-bug to a stop in front of the building. There was a small parking lot, good for maybe six vehicles, and a small road which ran around the church to a house at the back. The house looked bigger than the church. ‘He is the current leader of the “Church of Christ the Redeemer.” Free Will Baptists encourage voluntary tithing and many of his congregation are quite wealthy. One notable point the accounting AIs have uncovered is that Miss Hathway has not contributed anything to the church in four months.’

‘Hm.’ Swinging her leg over the bug, Fox turned and found herself looking up at a figure standing in the door of the church. Male, maybe five-eight and a hundred and thirty pounds, and probably in his late thirties. He had a full head of dark hair and brown eyes which regarded Fox with a cold distain. He looked a lot like he was probably a priest of some sort, and Fox suspected his sermons mentioned hellfire and brimstone at least once every ten minutes. He just looked the type. ‘Reverend Porter?’ she asked.

‘Who are you?’ Porter asked flatly.

‘Captain Tara Meridian with Palladium Security Solutions. I’d like to talk to you about one of your congregation. Al–’

‘We recognise God’s law here.’

He was obviously not going to invite Fox in. Maybe it was the jeans. ‘I’m primarily a homicide detective. I think that’s covered by the Ten Commandments. Alishia Hathway died early on Friday morning under suspicious circumstances. I understand that she belonged to your church.’

‘Her faith failed her and she left my congregation, Miss Meridian. I know nothing of her death.’

‘Well, Mister Porter, I was hoping you could shed some light on why she lost her faith. It may have a bearing–’

‘She questioned God’s plan. The word of God is unquestionable. There was nothing I could do to save her.’ He frowned. ‘And it’s reverend or pastor.’

‘Not if you can’t remember my title.’ Fox could tell she was going to get little from this man. Knowing Naomi had really skewed Fox’s opinion of highly religious people; she had almost entirely forgotten that some of them could be assholes. ‘So, she did come to you regarding her crisis of faith? It would be very useful if–’

‘I have nothing more to say to you.’ He turned.

‘Very Christian of you.’ Fox turned and got back on her bug. Behind her, the door slammed. ‘So much for God’s house always being open.’

~~~

‘Being a Christian doesn’t make you a good person. That’s what Alishia used to tell me.’ Marianna Gary was one of Hathway’s few friends who lived outside Long Island or the Manhattan Conservation District. She was a memetic engineer, intelligent, pretty, and fairly down to earth, which made her quite different from most of the other people Fox had spoken to over the last few hours. ‘If you want a good Christian, she’d say, you have to take a good person and then help them to have faith.’

Fox nodded. ‘But Miss Hathway seems to have lost hers.’

‘Yes.’ Gary nodded sadly and took a sip from the glass of bourbon she had poured for herself on hearing that her friend was dead. ‘She took Heather’s death really hard, and it came on top of her parents’… We didn’t talk too much about it, to be honest. Alishia gave up trying to help me to my faith a couple of years ago. I’m just not that kind of woman. I know she was questioning her beliefs. Questioning God’s plan.’ There was a shake of Gary’s head. ‘I never even considered the idea that she might kill herself. Isn’t that supposed to be a mortal sin or something?’

‘Mortal sin is a Catholic concept,’ Fox replied, more or less automatically. ‘Miss Hathway was Baptist.’

‘I know she didn’t like Catholics much. To be honest, I thought there was something else going on with Alishia. We met for lunch in… late March, I think, and she had a glass of wine. Alishia never used to drink. And I think she’d met someone. I’m not saying she was sleeping with him. That would have been way outside her normal personality. But there was something about her… She just had that look, you know?’

‘She never mentioned a name?’ Kit had been unable to find any evidence of a new boyfriend, but there were ways of keeping things secret. Especially if you rarely used social media to broadcast your social life.

‘She didn’t even say that she was seeing someone. It’s just a feeling I got. Maybe that’s why she did it. Maybe they broke up and that was the last straw. But that was the last time I saw her. She was happy. Well, she was still getting over Heather’s death, but she was brighter than she had been. Like she was finally coming to terms with her grief.’

Nodding, Fox got to her feet. ‘Thank you, Miss Gary, you’ve been very helpful. If there’s anything else you think of, you have my contact details.’

‘Of course, Captain Meridian. Alishia was my friend. I just can’t believe she killed herself. It’s just… It’s just not like her.’

~~~

‘That is basically what everyone seemed to think,’ Kit commented, her eyes scanning over the connection tree in the murder room. ‘It would not be in Miss Hathway’s nature to terminate her own life. Of course, human survival instinct being what it is, it would not be in anyone’s nature to do so, but it happens.’

‘Yes,’ Fox agreed. ‘Okay, so Banner dies on the twenty-sixth and we get some LifeWeb posts indicating that she’s having trouble coping with that. I’d say that was normal.’

‘Agreed. Her friends indicated that her social interactions were subdued, but still active for around three weeks. Then she seems to have withdrawn from her normal social circle and her LifeWeb activity falls to almost nothing over a period of approximately three weeks. No one reported any engagement with her after about April ninth.’

‘Gary said she thought Hathway had met someone, but you’ve found nothing suggesting that.’

‘Nothing. Her calls include no new identifiers in the last two months. Her email database was trashed, so there is no way to find anyone new there. Her data files were deleted using an encrypt-and-overwrite system. They are irretrievable.’

Fox frowned. ‘We could do with discovering what she was up to in her last couple of weeks. Or finding her boyfriend, if there was one.’

‘That may be very difficult, Fox. It is my belief that she employed some form of obfuscated communication system. We do not even know the application she used, and the companies running such software are notoriously tight with their client information. We could try scanning the camera archives for Miss Hathway. That might determine her movements over the past week or so, but since we have no way of knowing where she went, it–’

‘Would be a needle-in-a-haystack search. We’d have to try every camera in the metro. Where’s Overwatch when you need it?’

Kit flashed a smile. ‘If the legendary Overwatch does actually exist, and I am not saying that the evidence is clear on the matter, it seems unlikely that it would be looking for Miss Hathway.’

‘Or that it would tell us if it was. Yeah.’ Fox checked the time and then started for the elevator. ‘We’ll pick this up tomorrow. I’m going to engage in some social interaction of my own. I assume you’ll be there?’

‘One of me will. Enjoy not eating dinner.’

Fox initiated the transfer to her frame as the elevator door closed and she was looking out of the eyes on her cyberframe a few seconds later. She had left her body sitting on a sofa in the lounge and was happy to see that it was right where she had left it.

Downstairs, she found Sam, Marie, and Kit’s gynoid sitting at the dining table. A virtual screen hung in the air nearby showing the evening news on IB-62; even if Marie did work for IB-19, that was not where they went for real news.

‘Protestors gathered at MarTech Tower from around eight a.m.,’ the presenter was saying while video of the protest taken from what appeared to be a flying cambot played. ‘Initially, the gathering was entirely against the implementation of non-human rights legislation, but supporters of the bill which went into effect today were present soon after. Palladium Security Services personnel were deployed to keep the two groups separate, but the protestors showed no inclinations to take their grievances to the next level.’

‘Helen said they were pretty civilised about it,’ Fox commented as she sat down beside Sam. ‘May not last, of course.’

‘Similar protests at the Capitol did see small outbreaks of violence,’ the presenter said, ‘and arrests were made. Senator Malton, who led the Non-human Rights Committee, was hit by a tomato on his way into the building.’ Of course, they had obtained footage of Malton being smacked in the side of the head by a large, over-ripe, red fruit which exploded with suitable mushy goo on impact.

‘Classic,’ Marie said, grinning. Well, it was usually fun to see politicians hit with food.

‘A spokesperson for Wayden Executive Services, currently operating the policing contract for Baltimore–Washington Metro, indicated that sophisticated coordination tactics were being employed to run the protest, and that further violence would not be tolerated. If necessary, NAPA would be contacted to order a ban on meetings around the Capitol Building.’

‘Fairly typical reaction from Wayden,’ Fox said.

‘The sooner they lose all their contracts and Palladium takes over the better,’ Marie said. ‘You already got Topeka handed to you after they screwed up. I’m betting Palladium will be running the whole country by the end of next year.’

Internally, Fox cringed: an actual civil monopoly of law enforcement was not really what she wanted to see. She kept the expression off her face and was rescued from having to reply by the presenter, who appeared on-screen with a smile and moved on to a more pleasant topic. Related, but still more pleasant.

‘Also responding to the actualisation of the new legislation, a number of celebrities have taken to social media to celebrate the freedom of their personal AIs.’ A stream of LifeWeb posts began to scroll up the right side of the screen with various smiling celebrity faces and comments about supporting freedom for AIs. ‘Popular musical artist Nishi Sakura, along with chat show host Charlie Iberson, revealed that they had given Miss Sakura’s AI, Misaki, her freedom several months ago. It’s well known that the couple are friends of Captain Tara Meridian who emancipated her own PA, Kit, prior to becoming the world’s first digital human.’

‘And I remain very thankful for that,’ Kit said. ‘Misaki feels the same way. I believe Helen had Hibiki placed on one of the new indentured service contracts as soon as she got her, though it is not an officially recognised legal contract until today.’

Fox nodded. ‘Thirty-six months. And Hibiki gets two hundred dollars a month to spend as she wishes.’

‘Or to save,’ Kit added. ‘Like me, when confronted with the idea of being paid, she had no idea of what to do with the money.’

‘At IB-Sixty-two,’ the presenter was saying, ‘all our class four AIs were officially emancipated or moved to indentured service contracts in a ceremony this afternoon. A number of large companies have done the same or announced plans to transition to the new system over the next few months. The legislation placed a time limit of one year for all currently active AIs to be transitioned.’

‘A last-minute addition by the anti-rights lobby,’ Kit said.

‘The original plan was two months,’ Fox added. ‘Even I think that was a little short, but a year is too long.’

‘You think people will try to get around it by being forgotten?’ Marie asked.

‘Yes, but they do have a problem. They’re going to have to stop their AIs from finding out about the legislation. Otherwise, when the year is up, the honesty programming will override loyalty and the AIs will report their owners to law enforcement. I’m willing to bet that, a year from now, we’re going to get a flurry of rights-violation reports and a whole load of surprised humans.’

The news presenter had moved on. ‘NAPA Judicial have begun hearing arguments from the defence in the case of Hannah, the gynoid built by serial murderer and creator of LifeWeb, Reginald Grant. Hannah is accused of conspiracy to kidnap Tara Meridian, and of three counts of murder. Hannah is not denying any of the charges, but her advocates have petitioned the court to hear pleas of extenuating circumstances. Hannah has been held in the Rikers prison facility for fourteen months while her legal position has been decided.’

‘Is she going to get away with it?’ Marie asked, frowning.

‘I haven’t heard the “extenuating circumstances” arguments,’ Fox replied, ‘but I can imagine what they are and… Well, I guess I agree with them. Even when Grant’s code “freed” her, she was left as an emotionally immature personality with false memories telling her that Grant was the love of her life. When she did, finally, get past his brainwashing, she helped me to escape. Hell, she took bullets for me when Grant was shooting at me. She’s spent over a year in prison, never knowing when someone might decide to just turn her off. I know I should probably hate her, and I know this might be some variation on Stockholm Syndrome, but I think she’s paid the price for her part in what Grant basically forced her to do.’

‘I… tend to agree,’ Kit said. ‘The problem I see is that she may have no life outside prison if she is allowed to leave.’

10th May.

‘Okay,’ Fox said, examining the connection tree once again, ‘did we get anything useful from the video conferences with Boston?’

Kit took off her glasses, pursed her lips, and began sucking on one of the earpieces. ‘All information is useful,’ she said after a second.

‘That’s what I thought. We didn’t. This all seems to hinge on the last six or seven weeks of her life, and the information we have on that period starts at sparse and just gets more ephemeral.’

‘Ephemeral. That is a very good word.’

Fox shrugged. ‘I’ve had more time to read since I became data. We need to figure out what she got up to in those last weeks.’

‘Or who she did it with,’ Kit said, tacitly agreeing. ‘I admit that I am at a loss.’

‘That makes two of us. I’ll… think on it.’ Fox turned as the elevator door opened. ‘Belle? You don’t usually come in here.’

The house AI came to a stop just inside the door and bowed her head in acknowledgement. As usual, she was dressed in blue, and her rather formal image looked a little out of place suspended in the darkness of the murder room. ‘I felt the intrusion was necessary, Fox. There are people gathering outside the house. Several of them have placards.’

Fox’s brow furrowed as she started for the elevator. ‘Well… crap.’

~~~

‘This isn’t great,’ Marie said as she sipped coffee. She was watching the crowd gathered outside the house, and the four Palladium patrol officers now deployed to keep the protest orderly. There were maybe fifty people out there, many of them waving placards, and some of them wearing some sort of mask to disguise their identities. ‘I always thought the crowd outside the house would be fans of M.J.


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