*Below is a short story I submitted for NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge. We are assigned genre, subject, and character and have 2500 words to write a story. Stories must be produced and submitted in 8 days for round 1. Round 1 assignment for this story is mystery/hologram/yoga instructor. Feedback is always welcome*
The door opened and Jack Sergeant, a disheveled man in his 30s, walked into his grey office. As he entered, he growled, “coffee.” He pulled his hat off his non-descript brown hair and tossed it onto the desk. Jack sloped into the chair and put his head on the cold desktop in one movement. Minutes later his receptionist came in with his coffee and placed it near his right hand.
“Um.” A muffled reply squeezed past his elbow.
“Whatever,” came the terse response before hips swayed through the door and the hollow wood door slammed shut.
Jack opened one eye to gauge the coffee’s location, wrapped his hands about it, and hefted his head up and back to sitting position. Jack took a swig and grimaced, then pressed the button on his phone.
“What do you want?” Irene snapped.
“Not having to drink tar to start,” he gruffly replied, “And what’s my day look like?”
“You want different coffee, you make it. Also, some woman has been waiting for you. You would have noticed her if you weren’t so hung over.”
Jack eased back his rounded shoulders as he attempted to sit up straighter. Most private investigators had friendly, caring, efficient holograms or humanoids. Instead he had human shrew. Too bad non-humans made him nervous and paranoid.
“Send her in.”
Jack hefted himself to standing as the woman entered his office. Mousy was the first impression on his mind. Brown hair messily thrown into a bun and wearing a suit that looked as if the dry clean only tag had been ignored. She clutched her purse, surveyed the cement walls and steel cabinets, and then looked at him. Jack offered his hand.
“Jack Sergeant, and you are?”
She held his hand as if missing all bones and tendons. “Violet Smith,” she squeaked.
“Please sit, Miss Smith.”
“Missus,” she corrected before looking at the chair he offered. She sat down, her hands white-knuckled, and barely breathed as he sat across from her.
Jack was used to timid women, found them all the time in his profession. As pattern of habit, he rounded his shoulders to make his over 6’ frame seem smaller and less threatening.
“What can I help you with, Missus Smith?” Jack drawled as he squinted against the light. So much damn light.
“Well,” she started, as she twisted her hands and looked everywhere but at him, “it’s my husband. He’s missing.”
Jack leaned back and took a swig. He wished it was Irish coffee and not Irene’s swill. Despite his whiskey headache, Jack’s gut told him something was inconsistent. His trained eyes focused on her jaw, and he kept his face sympathetic while his eyes were intent on details.
He asked, “How long’s he been missing?”
She shrugged, “Yesterday he left for work and hasn’t been home since. He comes home late at night, maybe a few times a week, but he’s never been gone a whole night.”
Jack rubbed the stubble on his chin, made a decision, and stood up. Violet looked at him in surprise.
“Are you going to help me?” she tremored.
“If he hasn’t shown up in two days, go to the police. I can’t help you, so I think it’s best you leave.”
Violet stared up at him with wide brown eyes, suddenly terrified. This reaction intrigued and confused him, so he sat down and stared at her. For a moment she withstood his look, until she sighed in resignation and looked down.
“My husband is not a nice man. He,” she gulped air and paled. “James is not a nice man. But he supports me. I have no occupation, and without him, I’m out on the street. I don’t know what he does when he leaves our home, but without him I have no home.”
Jack crossed his arms over his chest and stared at her, her demeanor, and the barely visible bruise on her cheekbone. A blush started at her collar as she fidgeted. Uncrossing his arms, he leaned forward. “How do you plan on paying?”
“I … I skim from our grocery money. Have saved up a little, for an emergency. I can pay with that. It’s about $1k. Should be enough, right?” She took a worn envelope from her purse and slid it across desk. Jack picked up the envelope, thumbed through it, then reached into his desk and pulled out paper.
“Write down his employer. Places you might know he likes to go. Any friends. I’ll see if I can find him.” He stared out the window, not focused on the crisscrossing monorails twenty and more stories above ground. She had paid too much for a missing husband. He would regret taking this gig, but money was money.
It was early evening by the time Jack exited the monorail station. He had spent the afternoon following Smith’s day. Violet offered nothing other than his job and a hunting buddy from school.
The employer provided little. HR was as he expected, not giving him anything other than he was employed and hadn’t shown up that day. Supervisor said the guy was prone to fights, but he kept his job because he was human. Not many co-workers liked him, but he did his job adequately. No lunch buddies came forward, though co-workers mentioned he walked to a local dive bar every few days.
Jack had better luck at the bar. Bartender was tight lipped. They know better than to bite the hand that feeds, and regulars who spend money are more important than PIs and cops. Drunks were a different story, and the bar anchor at the corner was happy to have company. The old man said Smith was always around with a tall woman, light hair kept tight. Several more regulars confirmed her existence, saying she worked at a yoga studio halfway down the line.
Which is why Jack found himself, irritated and exhausted, about to enter a yoga studio. He avoided these places, shops where most personnel were holograms or humanoid. A tall blond looked up from the receptionist desk as Jack moved into the space filled with woods and incense. He paused, adjusting to the dim lighting. He approached the desk with caution. Rare for an owner to be behind the desk, but the description matched. He asked, “Are you Cheryl Summers?”
“Hello.” A warm smile flashed showing white teeth. “I am not Cheryl Summers. I am a solid light hologram based on Ms. Summer’s image. How can I help you today?”
“I need to speak with Ms. Summers. Is she in?” Jack replied curtly, as he kept space between him and the hologram.
With a smile and a nod, the machine moved through a door behind the desk. After a few minutes, she reappeared with an individual who looked identical. “Ms. Summers?” Jack inquired.
“Yes, I am Ms. Summers,” replied the second woman. Jack assessed her and noted the tall lithe frame and blue eyes. The real Ms. Summers was made of cold steel, as if she were the hologram and not the kind woman who returned to the desk.
Jack introduced himself while showing identification, and Ms. Summers nodded her head and ushered him into the office behind the door.
“Okay, Mr. Sergeant. Why is a PI looking to speak with me?” she droned, as if she had ten thousand things to do other than speak with him.
“Do you know a Mr. James Smith?” Jack asked. He decided a direct approach was best with her.
Cheryl pursed her lips and looked at him with more interest. “Who wants to know?”
“His wife. Man went missing yesterday.”
Amusement lit her eyes as she chuckled and turned her back on him, his presence dismissed. Jack was not the type to lose his patience. He could be sympathetic to a serial killer. But the long day, the lack of whiskey, and Cheryl’s pernicious nature loosened his tongue. “How does a woman like you have a successful yoga studio?”
Cheryl turned around and perused him. She looked at him for the first time since he introduced himself. Jack remained expressionless as she studied. “You’re right. I’m not a yogi. I’m a business woman. Studios make money if managed well. That’s why my instructors are hard light holograms, equipped with the latest deep learning. They are caring and nurturing, require little upkeep once programmed, and save me money and headache of dealing with people.”
“The entire staff is copies of you?”
“Yes, in physicality. Their AI is programmed not to resemble me, for obvious reasons. Once initiated, they have the sensory nerve system of a human. They are warm to the touch and sensitive with clients. The difference is I keep my hologram staff isolated from the real world, ensuring no corruption.”
“Deep learning machines rewrite themselves based on environment stimuli. If they are surrounded by hateful individuals, they become hateful. If they are surrounded by caring, they become nurturing. The world out there is hard, and my girls cannot be exposed. Exposure leads to disastrous results.”
Cheryl sighed, pursed her lips, and shrugged. “I might as well tell you. Telling you will keep you from talking to my staff and sullying my inventory.” She waved a hand towards a chair. Jack sat and leaned back in his customary non-threatening pose. His hand rubbed the stubble on his jaw.
“James Smith was a despicable, hateful individual. You could say we were a thing, but it wasn’t anything sentimental or romantic. He and I got together because he felt the need to be dominated, and I like to dominate,” she paused, as if she waited for a response. Jack learned long ago to not interrupt a story and remained expressionless. Cheryl continued, “Lately business has been good, so no time for him. He pestered me for one of my girls, and I gave in to make him shut up. He really was a whiner. He took her out a few times, but then I noticed her behavior was changing. She was getting irritable with customers, starting fights with other instructors.”
Cheryl stopped and looked at him. Jack motioned for her to continue. “I don’t know where James is, Mr. Sergeant. Yesterday I told him he and the girl were done. He left. At closing I realized she had left with him. She came back today a wreck, body structure damaged and screaming profanity. Yelling about everyone dies and how can people be so hateful. She was lost to me, so I had her decommissioned.”
Cheryl stood, finished with the conversation. Jack stood as well. “Thank you, Ms. Summers.”
“Whatever. The guy was a creep. I lost an expensive machine because of him. I doubt I will see James again, which I consider a good thing.”
Jack walked towards the office door, confident Cheryl had dismissed him. “Mr. Sergeant?” Jack turned around, peering into the office. “Don’t trust that wife of his. She took the worst of his brutality. What do they say? Beaten dogs learn to bite, then they bite to kill.”
Jack filed away that piece information, and in a neutral tone he replied, “Will do. And where was the place you and he would go?”
Without looking up from her desk she responded, “Some place on the end of the R line. James paid, so I never noticed the name.”
Jack entered his office early the next morning, arriving at what some would consider normal business hours. He slept little, his mind busy with a jigsaw puzzle of information. He was left with very few missing pieces. Jack had a feeling he wasn’t going to like the answers. Irene looked up with a sour look, as his presence meant she would have to work. With barely a nod Jack said, “Call up Mrs. Smith and have her come here. Oh, and coffee.”
The customary whatever followed him into his office as he closed the door.
Less than an hour later, Violet walked through the door. Jack stood by the window and observed her before she noticed him against the brightness. First glance said the opposite of mousy. Though hair messy and dressed in faded clothes, this Violet walked with a straighter spine. Once she saw him, the mouse came out of hiding.
“Mrs. Smith, so nice of you to come. Please have a seat. Would you like coffee?” Jack purred as she moved forward to him. Violet looked alarmed but sat. She shook her head no at the offer. “Have you heard from your husband?”
Violet looked at her clenched hands, took a breath, then shook her head again.
“I’m going to get right to it,” Jack stated as he sat down and looked directly into her eyes, “Your husband was having an affair.”
Violet took a breath, relaxed her hands, and sat back with a straighter spine. “No use hiding from you, is it. Yes, I know. An awful woman who works in a yoga studio. Mean woman, just like him. They were perfect for each other.”
Jack sat in silence. He played to win and was patient for his opponent to decide her move.
After five minutes of looking out the window, Violet appeared to decide and continued, “Once I learned of the affair, I did a little of my own digging. The things I found out. Did you know she was a hologram?” her face twisted as if she tasted something bitter, “I couldn’t believe he let her do those things to him. It was only time before they went too far. I expect you found him at that motel they go to, right?”
“You know of the motel?” Jack prompted.
“Oh sure. James sucked at hiding his receipts. A place at the end of the R line.” Jack watched Violet’s eyes, which had become hard and determined. “Well, thank you for your time, Mr. Sergeant. Thank you for finding my husband. Now I have to go make arrangements for his return.” Violet stood, turned, and walked out of Jack’s office.
Jack sat for a moment and contemplated her exit. He wondered if she would realize her error once she was picked up. Then he grabbed the phone and made a direct call. “Detective Humphry? Ya, Jack Sergeant. You might want to send a cruiser down to that old motel at the end of the R. Ya, don’t know what room, might be under James Smith. You’ll want a wagon, too. I’m here when you have questions.”
Jack turned and stared out the window. She was smart, but not cunning, and too impatient to be free. He hated he was made out to be an alibi, but he shrugged. Money was money, and she paid well.