The only thing that has remained consistent throughout the history of human governments is our obsession with paperwork. Tribes give way to democracies, which fade into feudal empires and transform into dictatorships and republics. Citizens are taxed on their ownership of land, or their commerce, or their value to the state. In ancient days the bean counters kept track of beer inventory on clay tablets, which gave way to paper documents and, in time, to computerized spreadsheets. Now the records of human governance are recorded in self-replicating databases which occupy the ethereal clouds of distributed processing power. It was one of the few things that were amicably settled when the articles of corporatization were hammered out: Public data remains public.
Not that the girl’s data is public, but Youth Services, or rather the corporate human resources division which won the contract to administer Youth Services, is required to keep records on all of their activities, which are available to the Feds at any time and in privacy redacted form to what little remains of the general public.
Returning to my office, I pick up the crumpled eper that Ethie gave me and tap at the flickering face a few times. The semi-organic cells which make up the display respond sluggishly, reconfiguring themselves to display what little is known about the missing girl. For a child who has only been a ward of the city for a few days, the file is remarkably long. I drop into my chair, ask my ancillary to play some focusing music, and settle in for a long read as the sound of modulated static washes over me, drowning out the pulsating beat from below the floor.
The file capture shows a girl who looks to be about ten years old. Skin so pale she either has a pigmentation disorder or is one of those rare full-gene Europeans you sometimes find in survivalist enclaves out west, but rarely along the New Coast. Straight blonde hair that looks like someone tried to comb it before taking the photo, but gave up half way through. She does not blink even once, just stares straight into the camera for the length of the capture, her face so impassive that you might think it a still if she didn’t swallow once part way though the loop.
I tab to the medical documentation, wondering if she might actually be from a segregated enclave, but there is no record of medical history, just a basic physical examination and blood panel noting that she is clean of any pathogens. There is one other oddity, however, in the results of the genetic testing. A notation from the lab indicates the presence of unusual genetic markers within the blood sample and requests additional time to analyze the sample for the presence of patented genetic alterations. The supervisor grants authorization, and then the record trail ends.
Strange that. There ought to be a timestamp closing the file or an indication that the authorization is still awaiting response, but the file simply ends. I’m not a data specialist, but that suggests to me that the file has been tampered with.
“Remind me to get the girl’s file to Javier for analysis. Looks like somebody deleted a message from the blood test history.”
“Done,” my ancillary chirps. A small kaleidoscope pattern of multicolored light pulses at the corner of my desk, indicating that the restrillect has acknowledged my command.
A knock sounds on the door and I look up to see Tamar pushing her way in, riding a wave of retro-disco. I gesture for my ancillary to silence my own music and wave her to the seat across from me.
“Hey. I hear that Ethie’s been here.”
I nod and toss the file onto my desktop, then fix her with a sardonic glare.
Tamar shuts the door and crosses the room with a lithe stride that would be more at home on the stage than my dingy office. She’s pressing fifty these days, but just as shapely and spry as she was in our youth. I keep my expression hard and my eyes fixed on her as she spins the chair around and sits down, legs spread, arms resting on the back. Her black hair tumbles over her bare shoulders in a mass of curls which nearly hides her tanned shoulders and the narrow straps of her blue sequined dress.
I say nothing.
After a time, she breaks the silence. “Are you going to help her?”
“One of her foster kids runs a brothel in riverside. She offered to get me free services in exchange for finding the girl.”
“Oh? I guess you’ll finally get laid.” Tamar’s eyes sparkle, even as my cheeks start to flush.
“A pocketful of chits would be more handy.”
“I bet the manikins are pretty handy.”
She laughs and pulls her hair back, then piles it over one shoulder and begins running her fingers through it as she talks. Light sparkles off the glitter in her makeup. “The kins are starting to talk, Tal. Some of them have a bet going on whether you’ll go for a boy or a girl first, but there’s a strong pool going that you’ve got a doll hidden away up here.”
“You’d think they would be glad to have someone around who treats them like people.”
“They are people.”
“You know what I mean.”
“What I know, Tally, is that you need to loosen up a bit. You’ve got me half convinced that you prefer robots to humans, and I’ve known you since we could walk.”
“I’m going to help her,” I say, heaving a sigh and trying to divert the conversation away from the vast desert of my sex life.
“Maybe it’s good or maybe you’re going to help her?”
“I’ll do what I can, but this already isn’t adding up.” I lean forward and trace a circle on my desk, surrounding the eper that Ethie gave me. The desk tosses a set of options around the ring, from which I select the choice to copy the data into my personal archive. A progress circle flashes for an instant, then a virtualized version of the file appears near my hand. I toss the now superfluous eper to Tamar.
She glances at the eper, then back up at me. Doesn’t even move her fingers to browse it.
I sigh and lean back in my chair. The desk flickers, then fades to dark. “She’s already been missing for three days. There’s a lot can happen to a kid in that time. And with the storm blowing in…”
“Do you think she’s dead?”
“If she isn’t dead already, there’s not a lot of hope for her in the storm, unless she finds shelter.”
“But she already has shelter. I’ve known Ethie for a long time, Tal. She’s not the warmest person, but she really does care about her kids.”
I stand and move across the room to one of the narrow windows that look down over the front of the club. Neon light pulses, spilling red light across the street like blood, waging an endless war with the blue glow of the immersion arcade across the street. Tamar’s club is located at the edge of the midden. Plenty of corporates with solid credit to spend, easy access to the highway and better apartment complexes for delivering manikins to parties, but not so nice that the independents are afraid to set foot in her place. Ethie’s place is a few blocks away in a partially redeveloped zone, deeper in the midden between hilltop and the river wall. Still safe enough, but not the kind of neighborhood that attracts entertainment establishments.
“I’ll poke around. Ask a few questions on the filthier end of town. If she’s stumbled into any of the danker circles I should be able to find out.”
Tamar scowls at that. She knows what I do, and she’s willing to use my reputation and muscle to protect her manikins when they’re on call and keep the more unsavory sorts out of her club, but she doesn’t like this reminder. “Tell me you’re not talking about Darby.”
“I’m not talking about Darby.”
“Christ, Talbot. You know he’s trouble.”
“That’s the point, isn’t it? If anybody in this city is sick enough to kidnap a little girl, Darby would know.”
“Yeah, because he did the snatching.”
“More likely he hired people. A grandmother with a walker could outrun Darby, let alone a kid.”
Tamar laughs, then stands and grimaces as she catches sight of the analog clock hanging on my wall. It’s approaching dinner time and she’ll be needing to go check on the kitchen. She steps around the desk, rests a hand on my shoulder, and gives it a gentle squeeze. “Just be careful, Tal. We need you around here.”
“Why? Another bouncer quit?”
“No, silly. I just like having you around.”