The moment Raymond Electromatic set eyes on her, he knew she was the dame marked in his optics, the woman that his boss had warned him about.
As the band shook the hair out of their British faces, stomping and strumming, the go-go dancer’s cage swung, and the events of that otherwise average night were set in motion. A shot, under the cover of darkness, a body bleeding out in a corner, and most of Los Angeles’ population of hired guns hulking, sour-faced over un-drunk whiskey sours at the bar.
But as Ray tries to track down the package he was dispatched to the club to retrieve, his own programming might be working against him, sending him down a long hall and straight into a mobster’s paradise. Is Honey still the goal—or was she merely bait for a bigger catch?
Just your standard bit of Hollywood depravity, as tracked by the memory tapes of a less-than-standard robot hitman.
Standard Hollywood Depravity is a Ray Electromatic mystery by Adam Christopher, available March 7th from Tor.com Publishing. Read an excerpt below, and check out a teaser for the next Ray Electromatic book, Killing is My Business, publishing this July with Tor Books!
Standard Hollywood Depravity
The story of how I came to meet a girl called Honey started late on a fall Tuesday night when I was nursing a scotch and watching girls dance in a nightclub that was named after both of those things.
The fact that I couldn’t drink the scotch didn’t matter much to me. Nor did it matter much to the man behind the bar. I just kept the glass in front of me, sometimes sliding it a few inches across the dark and greasy wood into my left hand, sometimes a few inches in the opposite direction, and so long as I occasionally put a two-dollar bill folded lengthways somewhere near the glass, the man behind the bar was happy enough to occasionally relieve me of it. On top of all that I was keeping myself tucked away in the corner. It seemed only polite, seeing as I was six feet and something more of bronzed steel-titanium alloy that filled out a tan-colored trench coat the same way a ’64 Plymouth Fury filled out the parking bay of a narrow suburban garage.
Not that I felt conspicuous. This seemed to be my lucky night for going undercover, which was something I rarely did on account of the fact that I was not only a robot but the last robot, which tended to make me stick out in a crowd just somewhat.
But not here and not tonight, because there was a band playing in the club and they were pretty good too, not only at playing what they were playing but at commanding the attention of the club’s clientele. This was on account of the fact that the band was five handsome boys from across the pond with hair that looked long enough to be annoying in the morning and suits that seemed to shine under the lights and voices that were polished with an accent that people in this country seemed to like, and quite a lot too. They played on the stage at the back of the room that stood maybe two feet higher than the dance floor. I wondered if they were famous. I wouldn’t know. But they looked cute and the beat was strong and steady and the girls in the big bird cages suspended from the ceiling right over the dance floor were doing their level best to keep up. There were four of them and they were a mass of swinging limbs and shaking heads and tassels that shimmied like an alpine waterfall.
Business as usual for a club like this.
Except this didn’t seem like a usual night. Sure, the club was packed and most of those squeezed around tables that were too small to put anything really useful on were as thin and as young and as cute as the band on the stage. They were the kind of kids who lived on tobacco smoke and drinks made out of gin and vermouth and a twist of lime and who liked to go out in nice clothes and shake those clothes to the sound of music.
For a moment I felt old and then for another moment I wondered whether this particular feeling was something I’d inherited from Professor Thornton. I couldn’t be certain, but I was fairly sure this would not have been his kind of party.
Among those drinking and those moving to the beat underneath the dancing girls, sure, I was out of place.
But I wasn’t the only one. I would even go so far as to say I was one of many.
At the back of the club, away from the lights, in the dark where the cigarette smoke floated thickest, were scattered a bunch of men. These men all wore suits and coats and their hats stayed firmly where they had been placed. These men were all of a build and disposition that suggested work done in darkness and behind closed doors, work that was messy and wet and not something you told your friends about. My logic gates told me that the way the men sat hunched and silent and immobile at the back tables and at the bar stools near my own little dark corner suggested that they were not in fact here for a night on the town. They were all here for something else entirely.
Just like me, in fact. So no, I didn’t feel out of place, not in the slightest.
I slid my glass from one hand to the other and watched as, like me, the men didn’t drink the drinks that were sitting in front of them. What they did do was smoke. The air was thick with it. My clothes were going to need to be laundered after this and not just to get rid of the bloodstains.
I watched the men and for a moment there I entertained the notion that maybe I wasn’t the last robot in the world after all. But then a lug in a suit a half size too small, with a hat a half size too big drooping low over a brow his Neanderthal ancestors would have been proud of, snorted as he kept watch on the rest of his friends and then poked a finger into the problem nostril and had a good rummage around.
So he was human enough. Robots didn’t have sinus problems, although as I watched him out of the corner of my optics, for a second I swore there was an itch somewhere in the middle of my faceplate and for another second, I had an image of a man in a tweed jacket pulling a striped handkerchief out of an overstuffed pocket and giving his nose a good one.
And then it was gone and I looked back down at my scotch and I saw that the barman had made another withdrawal from the bank of the Electromatic Detective Agency. I looked up but he had moved somewhere else. What was in front of me now was the mirror at the back of the bar. It ran the whole length and it showed me the room and myself pretty well. I noticed that the top button of my trench coat had come undone. I did it up. It was a little tight. Then there was another movement in the mirror.
To get into the main room of the club you walked through a set of swinging double doors. The doors were behind me and now they swung and I watched in the mirror as another young couple waltzed right in.
He was thin and young and blond and had cheekbones to die on a hillside for and a firm mouth just built for kissing. She was more of the same. Together the lovely pair paused at the threshold. I wondered if he was going to carry her over it. Then she looked around and nodded at something and they headed for almost the only table that wasn’t otherwise engaged, a small circular number like all the rest in the joint that was positioned right on the dance floor’s eastern front. As they moved to it, the men watched them move and I watched the men. I think the boy noticed their audience by the way he fixed the smile on his face and kept his eyes on his lady friend as he held the chair out for her. If she noticed anything was wrong with this scene she didn’t show it. She was here for a good time and already her blond bob was swaying to the beat and her eyes were on the go-go dancers above and the mass of bodies twisting on the floor below.
I frowned on the inside and switched my scotch from my left hand to my right. The couple were fine, exactly the right kind of cute for the club, the same as all the others, and yet they worried me and I didn’t know why and that worried me some more. Maybe it was because the boy looked nervous. Maybe it was because the girl didn’t seem to notice.
I thought about this and then I thought about it some more as the young couple at the table leaned into each other. She was saying something and whatever he was saying back she didn’t like because now the sway of her bob was to a different rhythm. I imagined he was telling her he wanted to leave. He’d seen the heavies at the back of the room and he didn’t like them and I didn’t blame him.
And given what I had to do that evening I wished she would take his advice.
Her and all the others.
A moment later she pulled back and shook her head and then he pulled back and frowned and then she got up and went onto the dance floor. So much for that. The other kids dancing made room for her and soon enough she found a nice spot near the stage. Then she bent her arms at the elbows, bent her legs at the knee, and started shaking herself around to the beat. The band noticed and picked up a little and the guy in the front spun around on the toes of one of his Cuban heels. Everyone seemed to like this, and in another few moments everyone in club was watching the girl show what she could do.
Everyone in the club except the boyfriend, who was too busy working on his frown and too busy studying the grain of his little round table.
One of the go-go dancers bent down in her cage and moved her arms around like she was beckoning to the girl to come up and join her. The girl down below laughed and moved closer and the two of them began to dance together at separate altitudes.
I watched the pair dance and I thought about the job I was here for and my optics moved up from the girl on the floor to the one up in the cage. I assumed she was a good dancer on account of the fact that the establishment was willing to pay her to dance for hours at a time. I had to admit that dancing was not something my circuits could get a grip on. It seemed like a lot of effort to oscillate in time to a beat and all everyone seemed to be doing was getting sweaty and out of breath.
Maybe that was part of the appeal.
I turned my attention back to the crowd in the club. Couples were now peeling off the dance floor, eager for refreshment, faces alight with smiles and laughter and lips already twitching in anticipation of fresh cigarettes. The boyfriend had slumped in his chair, but his eyes were finally on his girl out on the floor.
And the men at the back stayed right where they were. Some of the kids glanced over at them and there were some whispers, but other than that nobody seemed to think much was wrong. It was a free country and if you wanted to wear your overcoat to a bar while you didn’t drink anything that was entirely your business and nobody else’s.
I thought about this for a moment. Then I thought about this again.
I adjusted my hat and tried to sink into the shadows by the bar. I was starting to get a feeling I knew what was going on and what kind of business the men were here for. It was a sinking kind of feeling that materialized just under my pan-neural charge coil. I didn’t like it much.
The men were muscle. Pure and simple. They were goons and gangsters, mobsters, hoods. Thugs, garden variety, and they weren’t dancing because they weren’t here to dance and they weren’t drinking because their bosses had told them to keep off the sauce.
They were here to watch. To guard the approaches. Maybe their bosses were here too, but not at the bar. Somewhere else. Somewhere behind doors that were closed and guarded by more wide men in big suits.
So sure. I did fit right in after all. It was dark in the corner and the club was smoky and like the others I had kept my hat on and pulled down. As far as they knew, I was one of them.
I had to admit, it was a crying shame. Because I wasn’t here for them, or their bosses. I did a head count. Must have been every hood in Los Angeles collected together under a single roof. The thought of the potential collars available to me here sent my circuits fizzing. I could clean up LA in a heartbeat, if I had one. All I’d need to do was make a call. Rattle off the number of my private investigator’s permit and the boys in blue would have a good night.
Except I wasn’t a detective any more. Sure, my license was still valid. It was a good cover. Let me move around places and ask questions without having questions asked back.
But I was here for that other reason. That other job, the one my boss, Ada, had sent me to do.
The job I was programmed to do.
I was here to kill someone.
The person I was here to kill wasn’t wearing a suit or a hat and that someone sure wasn’t picking his teeth with a toothpick while he leaned against the back of his chair and watched his cigarette smoke ride thermals to the ceiling like the lazy daydream of a sailor lost at sea.
I glanced back at the girl on the dance floor. She was still going for it. So was the go-go dancer in the cage above her. Every now and then she glanced down at the girl and smiled and the girl smiled and they both shimmied and shimmied.
I focused on the girl in the cage. She had black hair that shone and that curled up as it touched her bare shoulders. She wore a small red two-piece outfit that looked like it would be pretty good for swimming in if it wasn’t for all the tassels that shook like palm trees in a hurricane. She wore white leather boots that were tight around the calf and that ended just below her knees.
She looked like she was good at her job and she looked like she was enjoying it too.
I knew precisely two things about her.
First, I knew her name was Honey.
Second, I knew she had to die.
Excerpted from Standard Hollywood Depravity © Adam Christopher, 2017
Killing is My Business
Listen to this:
Vaughan Delaney was a planner for the city of Los Angeles. He occupied a position high enough up the ladder that it entitled him to an office at an equally high altitude in a tall building downtown that was home to a number of other local government desks. The office came with a salary that was high for a city employee but nothing to write a favorite uncle about, and a view that was simply to die for.
Vaughan Delaney was forty-two years old and he liked suits that were a light blue-gray in color. He carried a buckskin briefcase that wasn’t so much battered as nicely worn in. On his head he liked to position a fedora that was several shades darker than his suit. The hat had a brim that looked at first glance to be a little wide for the kind of hat that a city planner would wear, but Vaughan Delaney did not break the rules, neither in his job nor in his private life. He had a position a lot of people envied, along with the life that went along with it, and he stuck rigidly within the boundaries of both.
Actually, that wasn’t quite true. Because the one thing that didn’t fit Vaughan Delaney was his car.
His car was 1957 Plymouth Fury, a mobile work of art in red and white with enough chrome to blind oncoming traffic on the bright and sunny mornings that were not uncommon in this part of California. The machine had fins like you wouldn’t believe and when the brake lights lit you’d think they were rocket motors. It was the kind of car you could fly to the moon in, only when you got to the moon you’d cast one eye on the fuel gauge and you’d pat the wheel with your kidskin-gloved hand, admiring the fuel economy as you pointed the scarlet hood off somewhere toward Jupiter and pressed the loud pedal.
It was a great car and it was in perfect shape. Factory fresh. It was getting on for ten years old but Vaughan Delaney had looked after it well.
And, I had to admit, that car caught my optics. It wasn’t jealousy—I liked my own car well enough, a Buick that was a satisfying ride, functional and elegant and with a few optional extras you wouldn’t find outside a science laboratory.
No, what I had for the red Plymouth Fury was something else. Admiration, and admiration for Vaughan Delaney too. He was every element the city man but that car was a jack-rabbit. Perhaps it was his mid-life crisis. Perhaps he was telling the city to go take a jump while he sat shuffling papers in his nice office with his sensible suit and practical hat. Look what I get to drive to the office in the morning, he said. Look at what I get to drive out to lunch every Wednesday. Look what I get to drive home in the evening. It was the kind of car that people would lean out of the office windows to take a look at, and Vaughan Delaney did every bit to help, the way he parked the red-and-white lightning bolt right outside the office door.
Because Vaughan Delaney had reached a certain level within the city hierarchy that allowed him to pick his own secretary based on the color of her hair and the length of her skirt and he was not a man who had to walk very far from his car to his desk.
He was also a family man. When the Plymouth Fury wasn’t outside the office or being driven to lunch on Wednesdays it lived in a two-car garage that sat next to a modest but modern bungalow in Gray Lake. Next to the Fury was commonly parked a yellow vehicle that General Motors had shooed out the door without much of a fuss, a rectangular lozenge on wheels with whitewall tires shining and seat belt tight and the sense of humor removed for safety reasons.
This was not a car to take much of an interest in. It belonged to Vaughan Delaney’s wife. Her name was Cindy Delaney.
Cindy Delaney loved her husband and let him know by kissing him on the cheek each and every morning before her husband went to work. The children loved him too. There were two of those, a boy and a girl, and both of them had blond hair like their mother and they were both a decade shy of joining the army and both of them kissed their father on the cheek each and every morning like their mother did, the only difference being that Vaughan Delaney had to go down on one knee so they could smell his aftershave. Then he blasted off in the Plymouth Fury and the quiet street in Gray Lake was quiet once more until Cindy Delaney took the children to school in the yellow boat and then came back again twenty minutes later. Then she put on a housecoat to keep her dress clean and she drove a vacuum over the bungalow while her husband drove a desk down in the city.
They were a nice family. Middle class, middle income, middle ambition. The children would grow up and the boy would play football at high school with his parents watching and the girl would play flute in the school orchestra with her parents watching and all was right with the world.
I knew all of this because I’d been watching Vaughan Delaney for three weeks. I’d been to the street in Gray Lake and had sat in my car and I’d watched life in and around the bungalow. I’d been to the office building downtown and had sat in my car and watched the Plymouth Fury come in for landing and Vaughan Delaney hop, skip, and jump up the stairs into the building and then waltz down the same steps some eight hours later.
Vaughan Delaney looked like a swell guy with a good job and a nice car and a happy family.
It was just a shame that he had to die.
Excerpted from Killing is My Business © Adam Christopher, 2017
Keep an eye out for another excerpt from Killing is My Business appearing on Tor.com this June!