I inserted my Finance Card into the public vida-phone, and the small but functional screen jumped to life. The standard smiling, courteous android operator looked out at me, her marble eyes clicking blindly.
“What’s the trouble?” I asked.
“Sorry, Customer,” the android said in the usual breathless and sexy voice. “Due to circumstances beyond our control, the Finance Computer is presently down. As such, your call cannot go through. This is not a reflection of your credit rating, since no check can be made under these circumstances. We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause you. Please try again in a few moments. We hope to have this difficulty cleared up as soon as possible. Thank you for your patronage.”
“Wait,” I said. I flashed my I.D. at the screen. “Police business. Put the call through on override. Top priority. Urgent.”
The android smiled back at me. “Sorry, Customer. Due to circumstances beyond our control, the Finance Computer is presently down…”
“Put me through to your supervisor,” I snapped. I should have known better.
Something clicked behind her marble eyes. “Yes, Customer. You will be put through to my supervisor immediately. Would you please remain on the line.”
The image wavered, then faded out completely. The screen was a dull opaque gray. I whistled for a while, then tapped my finger impatiently. Finally the screen rippled to life. Staring back out at me was a variation of the first smiling, courteous android, only this one had enough physical modifications to befit her exalted status.
“Hello, Customer,” she said. “I am the supervisor. What seems to be the problem?”
I flashed my I.D. at her. “I’m Plain-clothes Detective Malachi Browne. The Finance Computer is broken down and I must put a call through. I want you to bypass the Finance Computer so that I can dial. This is a Top Priority-Urgent call.”
“One moment, please, Customer… Browne,” she said, “while I check your authorization.” Her eyes went blank for a moment, and then she flashed a quick, frozen smile. “Thank you for waiting, Customer… Browne. Your authorization has been cleared. The Finance Computer will be by-passed. What is the number you wish to call?”
“It’s a local call. The number is: 12-1887-CA. The party’s name is Wolfe, Jocelyn. I’ll spell the last name: W-O-L-F-E, initial J.”
“Thank you, Customer… Browne,” she said. “Your call is being put through. Thank you for your patronage.” She smiled and faded out.
The screen remained that dull opaque gray while Jocelyn’s number rang. She didn’t answer it. I let it ring. By the fifth ring I was about to hang up out of frustration, when she answered it.
The dullness parted, and there stood Jocelyn, the three-dimensional image a little fuzzy on the small screen, but good enough. She was naked except for a towel which she had wrapped around her breasts and middle, and her flesh was beaded with tiny water globules. Her long blonde hair was wet and dangling in her face. I found myself struck by her sheer raw beauty, and for a moment I did nothing but look at her.
“Oh… it’s you,” she said cynically. “Do you have any idea what time it is…?”
“What do you want? And this better be good. I was in the shower.”
“Were you getting ready for bed?” I asked.
“No, I was dancing. Of course I was getting ready for bed. What did you think I’d be doing at this hour of the night?”
“This is important…”
“My lead!” she gasped, her eyes widening. “It paid off. You have something!”
“It paid off,” I said, then, to myself, added: more than even you could have guessed.
“Well? Do I have to guess?”
“I know who the murderer is.”
She gasped. “You’re kidding.”
I shook my head. “I’m not. I know who the rapist/murderer is. I studied her reaction carefully.”
Her eyes narrowed, and her lips seemed to twitch. I couldn’t be sure because reception was so poor, but her breathing seemed ragged and irregular, almost as if she were holding her breath.
“Well, who is it?” she demanded.
Again I shook my head. “Not over the vida-phone. You never know who might be listening in. I’ll be at your place in half an hour. I’ll tell you as soon as I get there.”
“I’ll be ready,” she said.
I terminated. When I removed my Finance Card from the slot, the screen jumped to life. The first android operator was back.
“Thank you for waiting, Customer,” she said. “Unfortunately the Finance Computer is still down. If you would please call again…”
I left the machine talking to the empty air inside the vida-phone booth.
On my way to Jocelyn’s I made a reluctant detour. My tube car pulled up in front of police headquarters. I left the car in the corridor, with its light flashing, and I entered the building. I took the shaft down to the vault. An android policeman stood guard in front of it. He snapped to attention as I approached.
“Yes?” he asked.
“I want to check out a weapon,” I said, disbelieving my own voice. In all my years I’d never used a weapon, and it was exceedingly distasteful for me to do so now. But I didn’t think I had much of a choice. This had to be done.
“What type of weapon, sir?” the android asked.
I thought for a moment. “A blaster,” I said softly.
“You understand, of course, sir, that I will have to check your authorization. Weapons cannot be disbursed without proper authorization.”
I showed him my I.D.
“Oh, yes, Detective Browne,” he said. “I have been programmed to anticipate this. Your authorization is valid. Please wait out here while I secure the weapon. No human is permitted past this point.”
The vault opened, and the android entered it. A moment later he came out again. In his hand he held blaster.
I looked carefully at the weapon. It was sleek-looking black, and deadly. I shuddered involuntarily.
“You will have to sign for his, Detective Browne,” the android said.
“I do not wish to seem insubordinate, Detective Browne, but those are the regulations. All weapons must be signed for or they cannot be released.”
“No,” I said more softly. “No… thank you. I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want a weapon after all.”
I knew I was being foolish, and I would probably need it, but I just couldn’t bring myself to wrap my fingers around its handle. There had to be a better way. Our society might not be perfect, but it did have some good points. I wasn’t about to upset that delicate balance any more than it already had been. One killer was enough in two hundred years.
“Have a pleasant evening, Detective Browne,” the android policeman said.
“Thanks,” I answered, and not without some bitterness.
In a matter of moments I was in my car, and the car was screeching through the corridors of time, taking me across town toward something that would either irreparably alter my life or end it. After a short trip, the car came to a halt in front of a building I immediately recognized. It was the building Jocelyn lived in.
I left the car in front of the building. For a reason I couldn’t quite understand I consciously left my lights off. I really didn’t care if it got a ticket. I took the slow stream up to Jocelyn’s floor, going over the conversation we were about to have again and again until almost I believed it.
I stepped out on her floor, and I walked down the corridor toward her apartment. Under my clothing, my body was wet with perspiration. The clothing was sticking damply to me.
I really wasn’t anticipating anything, but the moment I saw Jocelyn’s door I knew something was wrong. Perhaps I had intuitively sensed it while I had been walking down the hallway. Maybe that’s why I had been sweating. As my muscles tensed, I could feel my stomach knotting like a gnarled fist.
The door was slightly open. Just a crack, no more than five or six inches, rolled back and away from the jamb. I could see darkness in the deep space, and it spilled out its gloom into the empty hallway at me. I tried to penetrate that darkness by squinting, but the room was pitch black. Holding my breath, I listened, and for a moment I thought I heard something in the room. The sound of a heel scraping across a plasteel floor.
“Jocelyn…” I called out. My voice sounded hollow against the silence. “Jose…”
With the tips of my fingers along the edge of the door, I slid it inward slowly. The rollers creaked noisily, and the ribbon of darkness gradually widened.
Then the darkness was gone, and a flash of daylight illuminated the room in a blinding white explosion. Then came the thunder.
Blaster! my brain screamed.
Something exploded near my face, and I felt the searing whistle of the beam scream hotly past my ear. The plasteel door shattered into a fountain of splinters, and the slamming blaster impact rocked the door violently back against my fingers.
I didn’t have time to think: I jumped and rolled away from the door. My left shoulder hit the floor, and I winced in pain. I continued to roll until I was on the opposite side of the door. I quickly stood, pressing my back tightly against the safety of the thick wall. My body tensed for the next shot, and in anticipation, I could feel my ears screwing down in order to screen out the concussion.
The impact of the blaster beam had rolled the door all the way shut. In the center of the door, about chest level, was a hole at least six inches across. Splinters of raw, untinted plasteel made the hole look like a bleeding wound.
Tensely I waited until I suddenly realized the second shot was not coming. I cursed myself for having refused the blaster, and then, in the same breath, I saw the wisdom of the decision. I was angry enough to kill someone.
I spun quickly around until I was again in front of the door. A flash of darkness winked at me through the obscenely gaping blaster hole. I grabbed onto the overhead post of the door frame, squeezing tightly for support. Lifting both legs off the ground, I kicked forward with all my strength.
The impact of my lick smashed the door open, ripping it right off its track.
I dropped down on the tips of my toes and leaped for the safety of the wall. Still no second blast rang out.
I looked into Jocelyn’s apartment. It was as though someone had strung a curtain of darkness across the doorway. I could see nothing through the shadows. For a split-second I held my breath, and then I plunged into the apartment. With each step I took I expected to feel the fiery sting of the blaster as it burned itself through my flesh.
But it didn’t happen that way. Out of the comer of my eye, even through the darkness, I saw a blur of movement. I went to scream, but the end of the blaster came down squarely on the crown of my head. I crumpled and then everything got dark.
I was unconscious before I hit the floor.