We hope you enjoy this reprint, originally published in Unusual Suspects: Stories of Mystery and Fantasy, edited by Dana Stabenow, Ace Books, 2008.
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Sam Spade’s splayed body was a symphony in black and white on the hellfire-orange carpet of the Inferno Hotel.
It had that pale and wan look down pat. His skin was ashen, his hair and beard stubble gray, his suit pinstriped in silver and dark charcoal, the nearby fedora a soft gray. Only his eyebrows and hatband were black.
So. Who would want to kill Sam Spade?
Who would want to kill Humphrey Bogart, for that matter?
And, legally, could either one of them be murdered?
Here’s the deal. This is Las Vegas, after all. I live and work here. Delilah Street, PI. That’s PI as in Paranormal Investigator. Lucky me.
A lot in Las Vegas in 2013 is unlucky, including the pervasive presence of all the unhumans released by the Millennium Revelation. Instead of Apocalypse Now at the Turn, we got Apocalypse Now and Forever. The 2000-year millennium didn’t bring the vaunted end of the world, but the end of the world as we knew it. All the legendary bogeymen and women of history and myth showed up, maybe not exactly as advertised in our nightmares, but there. Witches and werewolves and zombies, oh, my!
Sam Spade sprang from the black type on white paper Dashiell Hammett had rolled through his manual typewriter almost ninety years ago. Humphrey Bogart had been a human actor, but dead for almost sixty years, since 1957.
Add a little high-tech enterprise to exploit the new supernatural population, and you had what lay before me, either dead or merely unplugged: one of the fabulous Las Vegas CinSims.
The CinSim that lay immobile on the carpet was an amalgam of character and actor that had been moving and “living” until person or persons unknown—or unpersons unknown—had driven a corkscrew from the Inferno Bar into its all-too-solid chest.
And there was yet a third persona present, last but not least. That would be whoever’s resurrected dead body had been the medium upon which the silver screen icon, Humphrey Bogart, who played Sam Spade in the 1941 film classic, The Maltese Falcon, had been recreated.
The corkscrew was spiraled into the dead man’s chest, but was an ordinary mortal weapon capable of killing a CinSim? That’s short for Cinema Simulacrum, and this town was teaming with them. They had been reanimated, certainly, but were they capable of dying? Of being murdered?
And why was I standing here contemplating all these unknowns?
Because besides being Delilah Street, Paranormal Investigator, I’m a silver medium. I have an unexplained affinity for any kind of silver . . . the sterling kind in jewelry, mirror backings, mercury glass, and the silver nitrate that was used in black-and-white film strips, from which the CinSim personas are stripped.
CinSims are the billion-dollar baby of a literal Industrial Light and Magic post-Spielberg special effects company. They exist by the mating of a complex copyright network that leases the Silver Screen characters to entertainment venues, and of the grave-robbers employed by the Immortality Mob to provide the flesh-and-bone “canvas” on which the animated effect is achieved. Smuggling zombies into the U.S. is against the law. Once they get here and disappear into their CinSim overlay, they’re just hard-to-trace illegal aliens, like ordinary live border-crossers.
It’s no coincidence that most of the zombies are imported from Mexico.
CinSims are one of latter-day Las Vegas’s most enduringly popular attractions—wouldn’t you like to shoot the breeze with John Wayne as the Ringo Kid or Bette Davis as Jezebel?—and most morally ambiguous creations.
I knew and liked a lot of CinSims around town, and the feeling was mutual. Yeah, CinSims have feelings, which almost nobody knows. They make terrific snitches. Everyone treats them like trained dogs it’s safe to talk in front of. We get along because I treat them like real people. So I mourned Sam Spade/Humphrey Bogart, even though we’d never met.
“Okay, Miss Street. There’s not much to see. What do you think?” The voice was brusque. This bizarre case, the first dead CinSim ever, had brought out the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s captain of homicide, Kennedy Malloy. “Getting any useful ‘vibes’ off the so-called body?”
Kennedy Malloy was not a man. Yeah, I thought that too when I first heard the name. I first heard the name in connection with my sudden personal interest and sometime professional partner, Ricardo Montoya, ex-FBI guy and a secret dowser for the dead. He was good at dowsing a lot of things, including me. Ric was the zombie expert, but he was consulting in Juarez. Malloy had been a professional friend of his until I came along and snagged the benefits. She still was his friend. And no friend of mine.
“You’re supposed to have this rapport with the CinSims,” she was saying now, a trim blond with hazel eyes and the hard-edged moxie of women moving up in a man’s profession.
“Usually they’re alive,” I said. “Or at least moving and talking, like the motion pictures that spawned them.”
“I’m giving you two hours. You’ll have to deal with the various entities that ‘own’ the remains. They came out like maggots the minute this was called in. Then we cart this…‘star’ stuff away. We’ll call the metropolitan waste department. I don’t see what an autopsy could do. The body’s already long dead. It’ll stink soon, for sure. And burial doesn’t seem necessary.”
Behind her, Nick Charles, another Dashiell Hammett creation known as the Thin Man for the title of his first novelistic case, clucked his teeth.
“It isn’t nice for a public servant to disrespect discriminated-against minorities,” he said.
Malloy spun on him. “A bleeding-heart like Street here can go all gooey over this character running out of film, but you CinSims have no civil rights in this town or this country. You’re all copyrighted and leased entertainment entities.”
“At least,” Nick Charles said in his slightly soused but shrewd way, “somebody cared enough to copyright us. I don’t see a Kennedy Malloy Barbie in your future, captain.”
I swallowed a giggle. Nick Charles was from back in the day—the nineteen-thirties—when a smart comeback was all the rage, and he still had them in . . . er, spades.
“I like a modern dame,” he commented to me as the captain stomped away, “but one with a clever lip on her as well as looks. Like my esteemed spouse, Nora. And like you, my dear Miss Street.”
“Thanks, Nicky.” He was a symphony in black tie and black-and-white all over. I sighed as I regarded the possible corpse. “Did you know this CinSim?”
“Not personally. He was attached to the Club Noir in the hotel’s Lower Depths. Circle One. We are all chained to our particular ‘entertainment venues,’ you know.”
I did know. All SinCims have an internal chip that keeps them from wandering away from their home hotel or bar or brothel.
Nicky went on after a graciously swallowed hiccup. “I can’t leave this bar for the life of me. Not that I mind.” He took another tipsy sip from the martini glass perpetually in hand.
“The life of me” was an ironic expression coming from his pearl-gray lips. I was maybe the only mortal who knew that the CinSims craved more freedom. A fortunate few had film histories that helped them avoid detection, so they could ditch their chip and skip out on their home assignment. Like the Invisible Man, a pal of Nicky’s, and therefore of mine.
I was particularly fond of Nick Charles, not only for his jazz-age detective history, but because his “cousin”—both played by the same long-dead actor, William Powell—was my boss’s “man Godfrey” from another film of the thirties. My boss was Hector Nightwine, producer of the Las Vegas and beyond-set CSI: Crime Scene Instincts TV series that had been the rage since God made maggots and a profit motive.
It still freaked me out that various versions of roles played by the same actor had been resurrected as utterly individual SinCims. Even now, as we contemplated the death of this Sam Spade incarnation, I remembered that Humphrey Bogart was alive in some Hemingway novel made into film at a hotel down the Strip.
“I would have never given up Mary Astor,” Nicky mused, speaking of the actress who played The Maltese Falcon’s femme fatale. “A good-looker and really classy dame. What’s a little deception between film noir lovers?”
That’s when it occurred to me. A CinSim could have offed Sam Spade. Say, the woman who loved him . . . who he turned in to the police in The Maltese Falcon. Say that greedy kingpin, Gutman, the “Fat Man” from the film. A lot of them were alive and semi-well in Las Vegas these days. Who was to say cinematic loves and hates didn’t transfer with their portrayals?
But the prime problem was who had been killed: the zombie body, the film character applied over it, or the actor who’d originated the film role?
Only God can make a tree, but these days, man could make, and remake anything. Including original sin, the first murder of a CinSim.
* * *
I didn’t relish interviewing the interested parties leaning against the bar with its fire-lizard aquarium base that resembled a scene of capering devils in Hell.
I recognized the lawyer for the Immortality Mob from the way he clutched his faux crocodile briefcase. He was overdressed for Vegas’s dessert climate in a gray sharkskin suit and vintage Op Art tie. The Incorporated FX and Magic Show technician who fine-tunes and places the CinSims lounged beside him, long-haired, laid-back, and wearing tattooed blue jeans.
The third figure was the Inferno’s head honcho, a rock superstar I’d both tangled and tangoed with, Cocaine, an updated, albino Elvis in tight white leather pants, long white hair, and mirror shades. No one quite knew what he was—vampire, fallen angel, con man CEO—besides sexy.
I was an ex-TV reporter, so I sashayed right over.
“Miss Delilah Street,” Cocaine said in his belly-tightening bass voice. His stage costume included a flowing white poet’s shirt open to his nave. Despite the two-hour show, his albino skin was dry as a bone. No one had ever seen him sweat. No one had ever seen his eyes, either. I didn’t care to. Ever.
“Who owns the body?” I asked.
“Just what we were discussing,” the dead-croc hugger said. “I’m Peter Eddy, the intellectual property rights attorney for IFX-MS, Industrial Special Effects and Magic Show. Mr. Cocaine here is refusing to let our technician download what’s left of the persona into his computer. And the police captain has been none too friendly either.”
“Police captains aren’t promoted to be friendly. Any suspects?”
“None,” squeaked Eddy at the very idea. “An unfortunate accident. The CinSim must have fallen on a bar implement. Perhaps it was drinking. The technicians can’t control their every move. Yet.”
I eyed the tech guy. “Aren’t they chained to their venues? This guy should have never left the Club Noir level to come up here.”
“Absolutely right.” His hands with their bitten-to-the-quick nails smoothed the small, unmarked silver case slung over his shoulder.
“Your name is?” I always like a full cast of suspects.
“Reggie Owens. Our program prevents unauthorized wanderings. Someone must have hacked into the programming to move him here. I could upload Bogart and Spade right now, and let the police and Mr. Eddy dispose of the Z-canvas, but Mr. Christophe won’t okay it.”
“Christophe” was Cocaine’s supposed real name, first and last, but the fans in the mosh pit screamed themselves hoarse begging for their drug of choice by the nickname they gave him. His friends called him Snow, and so did I, even though I wasn’t exactly a friend. Call me a Thorn in the Side.
I lifted an interrogatory eyebrow in his direction.
“Nobody,” he said, “is disabling an Inferno Hotel CinSim on my premises. I want to know who offed it, and how and why. And I want Miss Street to do the job.”
Goodie. Put me on the hot seat between three quarreling superpowers in Las Vegas. I decided to let them fight over the retread corpse and excused myself to hunt up any possible witnesses.
Nick Charles was lighting a cigarette for a willowy woman in sleek Nora Charles evening velvet. He had quite a following at the Inferno Bar. Like Snow, the CinSims had their devoted fans. Called CinSymbs, for CinSim Symbiants—yes, if you’re good at tongue-twisters, this is your subculture—they dressed in vintage clothes, but in black and white, including their clown-white made-up skin and vamp-black dyed hair.
“Thanks, Nicky,” the sexy probable platinum blond said, patting her pale gray hair in a weird, grandmotherly way.
He turned to me with relief.
“Now that we’re alone, what did you see?” I asked him.
“The bar was mobbed from the Seven Deadly Sins performance, a monster mash of Cocaine groupies, the usual CinSymbs doing both the rock concert and the bar scene, tourists milling around with their plugged-in communication cameras. Drugs, sex, and rock and roll. A little gin was all it took to get high in my day, and the sex came without that blaring musical accompaniment. Maybe just a little Noel Coward.”
“And a lot of gin in your case, Nicky.”
“Guilty. But not of this CinSim’s current condition.”
“You don’t say ‘dead?’”
“It’s debatable, isn’t it? The . . . personage was discovered when the crowd began to thin after the Sins concert. Just there.” He pointed.
“Had you ever seen him before?”
“No, but I knew of him. He was the coming thing, with that tough guy stuff. No white tie and tails and smooth patter for him. And it was ironic that Sam Spade was portrayed by an actual swell like Bogart, who’d been expelled from a fancy Eastern prep school. Film can be fickle.”
I lowered my voice. “Are you aware of other CinSims leaving their, um, moorings.”
“Well, our Invisible friend gets around.”
I checked the neighboring empty barstools for a betraying depression in the middle, but they were all undimpled red leather.
“Not tonight. Not that I know of. I was distracted, of course,” Nick said, sipping from his martini glass. His pleasantly hazy eyes sharpened. “It’s as if the body was planted here. When the crowd parted like the Red Sea, voila! Somebody wanted it to be found, and publicly.”
I accepted what Nicky offered: the Albino Vampire cocktail I’d invented from white chocolate liqueur and vanilla vodka to piss off Snow. He’d merely appropriated it for the bar and made a mint.
While I sipped and thought, I felt a sharp bite on my rear. No, the barstools didn’t have teeth and claws. The Invisible Man was announcing his presence. Being Invisible, he hadn’t had a date since the nineteen-forties and pinching unsuspecting women was his kick. Since he’d once saved my life, I put up with his idea of a pick-up line.
“I knew,” he whispered in my ear, “Sam was going to make a run for it. Humphrey was hankering to visit another venue.”
“You saw him get to the bar area?” I mumbled to my glass rim. The dame with the cigarette gave me an “are you nuts?” glance.
“Hell, I helped him get off Circle One. He mixed with the CinSymbs up here, blended right in. I lost him until Nick and everyone saw him frozen on the floor when the crowd cleared. Talk about a ‘still’ life.”
“Why the corkscrew?”
“I don’t have the faintest, Miss Street. Umm, you smell good.”
“It’s not me, it’s my Albino Vampire.”
“How naughty of Christophe to rip you off like that. You want me to put quinine in his onstage bottled water?”
I shook my head, getting another Look from the woman on my right.
“Can I have a sip?” the Invisible Man cajoled.
“I guess.” I watched the smooth white liquid in my martini glass descend an inch. “Sip?”
“Umhmm, good. They never feed or water me. The corkscrew? I don’t know. Someone hurled a switchblade at me once. It stuck, but it didn’t hurt, and it didn’t do any damage. It was like it hit corkboard. These borrowed bodies are sturdy.”
“How’d they manage to make you invisible?”
“It comes with the character, not the canvas.” I felt a chocolate buss on the cheek. “’Bye, baby.” Sweet.
I glanced at the triumvirate with ownership interests in the Bogart/Spade CinSim. The lawyer and the techie were sweating bullets, but Snow seemed cool as an ice cube. I ambled over to eavesdrop.
“While you let this Street woman pretend to investigate, I don’t trust the police to guard our property,” Eddy told Snow. “Some of these rubber-necking tourists might violate our copyright and tear away pieces of its clothing.”
True, the crime scene was surrounded by tourists five-feet deep, not to mention the Inferno’s hovering airborne flock of mirror-ball security cameras the size of grapefruits.
Cocaine/Christophe sighed and reached up to the pink ruby-dotted black leather collar circling his dead-white neck. He pressed a faceted black gemstone separating the rubies.
“I’ll have my head of security watch the . . . er, canvas . . . while I escort Miss Street to the CinSim’s home environment.”
The tourists parted with oohs of anxious wonder. A six-hundred-pound white tiger with green eyes stalked past the people and the police CSI crew to stand by the body. They all moved back. Way back.
“Nicky,” Snow said. “Get the gentlemen some drinks while I escort Miss Street below.”
“Charmed,” Nick Charles said. “I recommend gin. And gin. And gin. What would you like, sir? A gin rickey? Martini? Gimlet?”
“You checked your security satellites?” I asked Snow as we moved away. He was an Invisible Man himself once offstage. I don’t know how he managed it, but he avoided being mobbed. Some things you don’t want to know in post-Millennium Revelation Las Vegas. I had my secrets too.
“Checked them immediately. The crowd around the bar was too thick to isolate anyone. Whatever stopped Sam Spade cold, it happened during my . . . er, curtain call.”
Except there was no curtain, just the band drawn back onstage by clapping, hooting, digital screams. I could picture every eye fixed onstage as he bent down to uplift a dozen lucky, screaming female fans for the Brimstone Kiss. It wasn’t just a hasty smooch, either. Perfect timing for an unprecedented murder.
“You know you won’t win custody in court,” I told Snow as we headed toward the roaring dragon’s mouth that housed the elevators to the Inferno Hotel’s lower depths. “You’re just a leasee. And no one will claim the anonymous, illegally resurrected body.”
“Sure this isn’t your FBI friend Ric’s work?”
“Ex-FBI. And Ric dowses for the dead, he doesn’t create them. He doesn’t trifle with the resurrected Dead like you Vegas moguls do.”
The brushed stainless steel doors opened between flaming jaws seven feet wide and high. I admit to a tremor. I’d never been below the Inferno’s main floor, which was bad enough.
In the elevator, Snow tilted his head back against the stainless-steel-mirror walls.
“This is important, Delilah. My people are my people, CinSims or not. No one messes with me and mine. Not even you. Find whoever, or whatever, did this. I’ll handle the cops and the corporations.”
“Haven’t you got ‘people’ to do that? Attorneys, muscle?”
“I run a hands-on operation.”
I was sure the eyes behind those glossy black lenses were giving me a lazy and provocative half-stare.
Or maybe they were eyeing the Elsa Peretti sapphire-studded sterling silver bangle on my left wrist. I can’t afford that high-end sort of bracelet, but silver is a sort of familiar of mine. This particular piece of it had a literal lock on me, having started out as a lock of Snow’s angel-white hair. It changed from weapon to bond to bling and migrated all over my body. I’d touched the damn strand Snow sent me because it reminded me of my white Lhasa apso dog, Achilles, lost to a vampire bite. He bit the vampire, mind you, but died of blood poisoning. Or maybe not. He kept turning up alive in my dreams. Anyway, my weakness for Achilles had led to having Snow’s creepy lock of hair as a permanent fashion accessory-cum-martial arts attachment.
“Besides,” he was saying, “I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of working with you.”
“Why? You know I despise you and all your works.”
“That’s why. You’re totally objective.”
“Just show me where the dead CinSim was supposed to be.”
“This level is all key clubs,” he said, waiting for me to exit the flaming dragon’s mouth on Circle One. I knew what that meant. The first of the nine circles of Hell from Dante’s Inferno.
“Fantasy enviros,” Snow went on, proud of his hellfire clubs. “Club Noir offers all the famous names and faces from the era. Here’s The Maltese Falcon boutique hotel and bistro. Please don’t be hard on Peter Lorre; he gets kicked around enough in the film.”
By then we’d entered a pair of etched glass double doors bearing the film’s name. Beyond them lay a moving wax museum of movie moments: walls playing the famous scenes in 3-D, the reel characters moving around, mumbling lines, intermixing with real-life visitors to Vegas who’d paid for the privilege.
Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo caught my eye, and scuttled away. He didn’t know much in the film and he wouldn’t know much now. Snow was right. He was too pathetic to bother with, and so Sam Spade had determined.
“I’m bad,” Mary Astor as Bridgid O’Shaughnessy was breathing at a fat man in a Hawaiian shirt and baggy shorts. “I’m so bad.”
I’d seen at a glance that Bogie was missing from the scenery, so I stepped into Mary’s barside seduction scene.
“Get lost, tourist,” I said. The guy bristled, but obeyed. “So did you do in Sam?” I asked Bridgid.
“Who are you to ask questions like that? You’re not in the script.”
“Neither was an offed Sam Spade. When did you last see him?”
“Sam? Dead? It can’t be?”
“It is. ’Fess up, sister. You know you had the hots for him and he was ready to send you up river on a murder rap. Why wouldn’t you drive a corkscrew into his chest if you had a chance?”
“No! I loved him. I’d never kill him.”
“Seems like you set him up a few times, for just that result.”
“That was the script! I had to do it. I hated the ending. Sam would never have sold me out. He didn’t give a toot about his partner, Miles Archer. He’d been screwing Archer’s wife, Iva, but then he met and loved me. He really loved me. The scriptwriters messed us up. Why don’t you ask Iva where she was when Sam got corkscrewed?”
Good point. I racked my brain for the cast list from the film. Snow stepped into the scene, a hand-held computer showing just what I’d wanted.
“Thanks, Jeeves.” I was getting into the fact that maybe he really needed me to solve this. If that entitled me to hand him some lip without personal peril, it was pretty sweet.
Okay. Iva Archer. Miles Archer had been Sam Spade’s partner until he was killed. Iva had been the femme fatale in the threesome until Bridgid O’Shaughnessy had shown up. Was Sam Spade’s “death” today part of the backstory mayhem of The Maltese Falcon novel and film?
I found Iva having a hasty talk with Peter Lorre/Joel Cairo. She was a refined beauty for a cheap PI’s wife.
“Sam Spade has left the building,” I told her. The Elvis reference meant nothing, but her face turned a whiter shade of pale gray.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I live here. I’m a widow, don’t you know that? Who’d walk out on a widow? Sam wouldn’t leave me. Don’t you say that he would!”
Women in film noir sure were hair-trigger. “Okay, okay. I just wanted to talk to him. I have a case.”
She eyed me. “Yeah, you dames have ‘cases,’ all right.” She looked around. Looked harder. No Sam Spade to be found. “Get outa here! You’re crazy.”
I backed off, but I didn’t stop considering which one of these fictional characters made flesh would want to kill the leading man, even if he was a hard-boiled son-of-gun who’d send his new sweetheart to the pen. And how had someone lured him out of his safe, scripted environment for a date with death in the Inferno Bar?
I left The Maltese Falcon enviro, Snow at my side.
“This is complicated,” I said.
“This is Las Vegas.”
I glanced around at the double-doored entries to many cinema worlds. We were in a freaking CinSim multiplex!
“Is this an all-Bogart level?” I asked.
“No. All noir. Only two of the clubs center on Bogart.”
“My favorite. You want to see?’
Snow, hooked on true love and self-sacrifice? Sell me another bridge in Brooklyn.
“You must like the hot, dry climate,” I hazarded.
“Hot is my sexual preference.”
“It was Satan’s too.” We went through another frosted glass pair of doors into Rick’s Café Américan Bar.
Bogie was here, in a slightly wilted white evening jacket, leaning over an upright piano on which a black guy played “As Time Goes By.” Customers in Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts looked a lot more at home here. Ingrid Bergman sat alone at a table, looking pensive while being chatted up by two surfer dudes. And Peter Lorre lurked around the fringes, having played the same conniving, cringing lowlife he was so good at in The Maltese Falcon.
I ankled over, and his beady eyes lit up. He wasn’t used to women seeking him out.
“Hi, cutie, can I buy you a gin rickey?” I didn’t even know what a gin rickey was, except it evoked the name of the bar’s fictional owner. . . and of my own personal cutie, Ric Montoya, come to think of it.
He would have looked good here at Rick’s place. Much better-looking than Bogart.
“You can buy me some information,” I said, melding into forties noir-speak. “Have there been any attempts on Rick’s life lately?”
“This is Casablanca. If the local occupying Nazis aren’t after you the international rat pack is. Rick can take care of himself.” Lorre eyed Bergman. “That dame is no good for him. That’s the kind of classy dame even a hard-headed guy could lose his sense of self-preservation over.”
“He did,” I said. “Do you ever trespass on your ‘cousin’s’ scenario in the next club over?”
“Never! We are forbidden to meet. It’s not in our contracts.”
“Aren’t you even tempted?”
“No. He’s a weasely little rat who will never get the girl. Here, I get to talk to you, cutie.”
“Not any more.”
I looked around for Snow. He was hanging over the top of the small, white upright piano, singing along to Sam’s soulful rendition of “As Time Goes By.” I suppose even a rock star harbors visions of crooning classics.
On the “a kiss is just a kiss,” he turned those blind-man glasses my way.
A kiss is just a kiss, my eye! His Brimstone Kiss after the show addicted the clamoring mosh-pit females to a repeat performance that would never happen. These pathetic Cocaine junkies attended every performance, living their lives only to support their doomed habit. I was secretly working to rehabilitate them, for my own reasons.
“We done here?” I asked as I walked over.
He finished the phrase. Then, since the fundamentals still apply, he escorted me to the Circle One lobby.
“Got any ideas?” he asked.
“Just a couple more questions.”
“The CinSims are strictly tied to their performance areas, right?”
“Theoretically. It depends how diligent the hotelier is about keeping a leash on them.”
“I’d find it more interesting it they would depart from the script. Call me contrary, but tourists like the unexpected.”
“So you don’t have them tied down as tightly as some.”
“And Sam Spade might have gotten up to the Inferno Bar on his own.”
“If he’d had the will. That’s the intriguing part. Does a CinSim have free will?”
“They seem to think so.”
“And an unhuman like you?”
“Are you certain I’m unhuman, or what kind of unhuman I might be?”
The rumor said master vampire. I wasn’t so sure. “No. That’s your devilish charm.”
I doubt many people made Snow laugh, but I did then.
“That’s my devilish charm,” I said.
But he didn’t answer, only reached down and snapped his forefinger on my bracelet, my bond, his former lovelock, making it chime.
“What else did you want to know?” he asked.
“Which other hotels host Bogart SinCims, and what incarnation they use.”
“Easy. My office computer has stats on all the competition.”
* * *
On the way back up in the elevator, the pink ruby collar buzzed. His forefinger stabbed the black onyx stone.
“The police and interested CinSim parties are getting restless, boss,” came a deep, growly voice.
“Keep them busy. I’ll want them in my office in a bit. We may have something for them soon.”
I was indignant. “‘We, ’white man?” Well, he was literally white from crown to toe, as far as I know, or ever wish to know.
“You’ve got an idea on this CinSim murder, haven’t you?”
“Yes. Maybe you can just read my mind and take it.”
“Maybe I like you working for a living.”
Me, too. I’d been an unemployed TV reporter until this paranormal investigator gig evolved. Actually, I enjoyed working for someone other than Hector Nightwine, my landlord and somewhat ghoulish mentor.
Snow’s office sported a lot of glossy black furniture and a huge tufted white leather executive chair.
Even the laptop computer case was glossy black.
I saw myself, darkly, in its reflective surface while his pale hands with the china-white fingernails punched keys and scrolled and hunted.
“All right,” he said at last. “The Gehenna has the only other Bogart film leased.”
“To Have and Have Not, right?”
“Is that a proposal or a question?”
I made a face. I always knew that Snow had designs on me. I just didn’t know what for. Or why.
“Not one of Hemingway’s best novels,” he said. “Or Bogart’s best roles.”
“Can I see the screen?”
He spun the laptop to face me.
I started punching my own buttons, looking up the original cast and the reviewer notes.
That film had debuted Bogart’s future wife, long, lean model Lauren Bacall, and had made them into “Bogie and Bacall” for eternity. Her character in the movie was even nicknamed “Slim.” That was the film where she had taunted the Bogart character that he knew how to whistle, didn’t he? “Just pucker up your lips and blow.”
It’s amazing what passed for racy seventy-some years ago.
“I know who killed the Sam Spade CinSim. And why.”
“It’s all your fault, you know.”
“You like your CinSims on a loose leash.”
“Free will is a noble concept, especially for indentured servants.”
“Sorta free will. Get Captain Malloy and the interested parties in here.”
“Oh, excellent. You’re going to do the pin-the-rap-on-the-perp shtick. Classic mystery finish.”
I said no more, waiting.
Within ten minutes, the interested parties were herded into the room by the huge white tiger, who shifted into a skinny, six-foot-something black woman with long white hair like Snow, green eyes, and red-painted nails long and sharp enough to eviscerate an adult male. She was wearing purple leather Escada and did it look good on her.
“We’ll take the Inferno to court,” croco-man Peter Eddy was sputtering as he took a seat, “if you deny our substantial financial interest in the now-useless CinSim.”
“We’ll take you to jail,” Captain Malloy told Snow as she took her seat, “if you’re ducking any wrong-doing on your part here.”
Reggie, the IFX-MS technician, slouched into another leather tub-chair and shrugged his disdain for the whole inquiry. “It doesn’t matter what all you honchos decide. I just need to strip our programming pronto. Then you all can fight over the remains.”
“Sure you really need to deprogram the fallen CinSim?” I asked. “Let me see your portable programmer.”
“No! It’s IFX-MS property.” He clutched the slim case to his side, but Grizelle, Snow’s security chief, leaned over to slash through the leather shoulder sling with one red, tigerish claw. She slung the item down on the desk in front of me.
I tapped around and found I couldn’t get anywhere without an entry code.
Everyone was watching me. Malloy was irritated. The lawyer was fixated. The tech guy was looking constipated, and who knew what Snow was thinking behind those impervious shades.
Okay. Time for a little silver medium work. These SinCims were my people, peeled from silver nitrate and given latter-day life. I let my fingers wander, like a musician. I was looking for the one right note in Sam Spade’s key . . . a code name Sam/Humphrey would know and love.
Effie. The name of Spade’s loyal secretary. Every private dick in those days had one. Nothing. Iva. Nothing. Bridgid. Rhymes with “frigid.” Hammett named the “Fat Man” Gutman, so he was trying to tell us something. Nothing. None of the story dames registered. It had to be a woman. I tried the actress names: Mary Astor. Lee Patrick. Gladys George. Nothing.
Leather chairs creaked as representatives of three powerful forces in Las Vegas grew impatient.
Nothing from the fourth and key figure, Snow.
I entered an all-American name. Betty. Betty Bacall, before the “Lauren” became her screen moniker.
Suddenly I was in the Sam Spade file. What was left of it. Hopefully, all. Yes!
“You’ve already uploaded the Spade and Bogart personas.” I looked up to accuse Reggie, the tech guy. “You erased the canvas. You stuck the dead man’s chest with a redundant corkscrew to hide the fact that the canvas was already empty. Why?”
“Me? I’m only the tech zombie. I just do my job.”
“The whole CinSim was right in your porta-puter all the time. You were going to pretend to upload the personas from the ‘mysteriously’ dead CinSim body. Why the subterfuge?”
Reggie squirmed in his chair, but Grizelle’s red-taloned hands held him still. She leaned her face close to his and gave one of those Big Cat snarls
“S-s-secret orders. Get this thing away from me!” Grizelle backed off her face, but not her claws. “There’s nothing illegal here. No ‘murder.’ This CinSim was rogue. The chip told us he was trying to leave his venue. That’s why I had to waste him in the Inferno Lounge. One CinSim wanders off its contracted premises, it’s history, like it was before.”
“Why not just withdraw the lease?”
“Too many questions. Money loss. Besides, Mr. Christophe is not a team player.” He glared at our host.
I tapped some commands into the console. Up came a screenful of gobbledegook.
“Why?” Captain Malloy wanted to know. “Why get a crime scene team out here for nonsense. You can’t kill a CinSim.”
“Only by computer” I said. “I’m guessing the IFX-MS brass didn’t want to antagonize Christophe. He’s a good customer, if willful. They cancelled the contract without having to pay a kill fee. Created a mystery. A philosophical conundrum. The CinSim is indeed their property, but it was wandering and the contract hadn’t run out. An executive decision. This tech man is only the hired hand who did the take-down.”
Captain Kennedy arched a pale eyebrow. “Not everybody can take down Sam Spade.” She eyed Christophe. “You want to charge fraud?”
“I want my CinSim back. I’ll say if it’s out of bounds, not IFX-MS.”
I spun the tech’s computer across Snow’s desk to face him. “Be my guest.”
Captain Malloy stood. “There’s no crime here. Don’t call the police the next time you corporate zombie-lovers have a spat. There are some things we expect you dealers in immortality to work out for yourselves. We work the real dead beat.”
The lawyer bowed out too. “It’s obvious that a CinSim can’t die. My job is done. You tech geeks and ghouls and girls settle it between you.”
It was just the four of us. And the megabytes of Sam Spade and Humphrey Bogart.
“Your company doesn’t like my operation,” Snow said softly, “you come to me. You don’t sneak onto my premises to off my CinSims. Got it?”
The guy was just a low-level techie. Following orders. He swallowed, glanced at Grizelle, then fled, leaving his porta-puter.
“Bogie’s all here?” Snow asked me, “both role and actor?”
“I think so.”
He nodded at Grizelle. She left with the computer and file, walking with one Jimmy Choo spike swaggering in front of the other, like a Big Cat stalking. Sam Spade would soon be restored to his rightful starring place in the Inferno firmament.
Snow leaned back in his infinitely programmable executive chair, running his dead white fingers through his dead white hair.
“So, Delilah. It was just unsanctioned industrial espionage. The Immortality Mob needed a comeuppance. Thanks for the quick solve. Your fee will be waiting at your cottage on Nightwine’s estate.”
“That may not be enough in this case.”
“No? We had a deal.”
“You realize why Bogie-Sam was wandering.”
“You’re a generous slave-holder, but no.”
“I give them leeway. Why leave my hotel?”
“Because you don’t lease Betty Bacall.”
“What? You’re saying he needed a girlfriend?”
“I’m saying Bogie needed his wife.”
Snow was silent, taking in all the implications. Then he sat up, wired.
“The CinSims want a life? Real life?”
“They’re a blend of actor and role . . . “They’re a blend of actor and role . . . and corporeal canvas. The role is written. The actor has a soul. Humphrey Bogart wanted to play a part that united him with the woman he loved in the real world.”
“Lauren Bacall, not ‘Slim’ Browning?”
I nodded. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
“I understand that this is a most . . . interesting development. More interesting than IFX-MS’s tawdry attempt to confuse the issues with a phony homicide.”
“I’ll have to pay a bundle for the Casablanca cast. Ingrid Bergman was a much bigger star than Mary Astor. The Gehenna will want more for To Have and Have Not and Lauren Bacall. On the other hand, I always thought she was a classy dame.”
“Noir does not become you, Snow. And while you’re arranging for new CinSims, I have a suggestion.”
“And you want—?”
“Given the smidgeon of soul you’ve now discovered in the CinSims, I think, at the least, that Nick Charles deserves a Nora Charles at the Inferno bar.”
“What a romantic you are, Delilah Street. And pretty pricey yourself.” Snow made a note on the laptop. “I’ll look into a Myrna Loy/Nora Charles lease in the morning. I suppose you want the damn dog too?”
My hand unconsciously went to the damned silver bracelet, once a lock of Snow’s hair as white and supple as my lost Lhasa apso’s floor-length coat.
“And Asta, the wire-haired terrier,” Snow said as he typed, long, white fingers playing the keyboard like a piano. “One dead dog, coming up.”
Didn’t I wish.
Copyright © 2008 by Carole Nelson Douglas