The Lorelei Signal

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At All Costs

Written by Lisa Timpf / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow

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“Alicia. It’s you.” My sister Shona stood in the doorway for a moment, then stepped aside.

 

“What, do I need to make an appointment?” I scowled as I followed her into the front hallway.

 

“No, it’s not that. It’s just—it’s been quite the day.”

 

Before opening the hall closet to stash my jacket, I admired the complex wood-grain on the door—cherry, like much of the rest of the trim that graced this two-storey house I’d grown up in. The house where Shona now resided, along with Dad. And along with a more recent addition—the brand-new AH 451 health care android, home edition, Shona had purchased to help look after him.

 

I glanced at my wristwatch. 7:00 p.m. Which meant Dad’s favorite game show was about to start. I reached for the TV remote, only to find that AH 451 had already flicked on the television, without touching the controls.

 

“Oskar does things like that,” Shona said. “He can link directly with the Cloud, or whatever. Pretty handy.”

 

I shrugged. It’d take more than fancy electronics to impress me. “I thought we might talk.” I jerked my head toward the kitchen.

 

Shona rolled her eyes, but tagged along anyway.

 

“That android gives me the creeps,” I whispered. Not that I thought he could overhear. But still. I remembered his knowing, inscrutable stare, the way his silver eyes had met mine when I’d entered the living room. “You can never tell what he’s thinking.”

 

“His name’s Oskar, not ‘that android.’ And he thinks what he’s programmed to think.”

 

“Don’t you think Dad would be happier in a retirement home? Being looked after by people?”

 

“You know he wouldn’t. He’d hate not having his own familiar space.” Shona reached out to touch my arm. “Look, I get that you feel guilty. But this isn’t about you.”

 

Here we go again. Despite my best intentions, discussions with my sister always seemed to end with bickering. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I told myself, trying, but failing, to repress a tinge of bitterness. “It’s hard, with my shifts—”

 

“Which is why I volunteered to look after Dad.”

 

“You could have consulted me.”

 

“You’re not the easiest person to nail down.”

 

I clenched my fists. “That’s not fair. After Claire left—”

 

“Look.” This time, I read compassion rather than disapproval in Shona’s tone. “I know the breakup was messy. And I know part of the tension was because of Claire’s mom, living with you guys. But I’m on my own, here.”

 

“It’s not something you should have to carry.”

 

“Are you sure that’s your main concern? Sometimes I think you—”

 

My muscles tensed as I waited for her to finish. Fight or flight, I thought, recognizing the impulse. Conflict-averse since early childhood, when faced with my older sister’s criticisms in the past, I’d run away. No more. That’s why this time, I’d been the one to initiate discussion of a difficult topic. Even though I knew it could lead to this.

 

I braced myself, ready for a verbal onslaught. But instead of escalating, Shona raised her hands, palms outward. “The last thing I want is to argue with you.”

 

Since when? It took an effort, but I kept that thought to myself.

 

“Look, why don’t you come over for supper tomorrow night?” As though she’d already forgotten the tension between us, Shona smiled. “Dad would like that.”

 

Did that smile seem forced, or was it my imagination?

 

“No promises. I’ll have to see how things go at work.” When I noticed the way my sister’s lips quirked downward at the corners ever so slightly at my tone, I softened. “I’ll try.”

 

***

 

I was mentally replaying the discussion with Shona the next morning as my patrol partner Connor McKay and I cruised the streets of Baytown. Maybe I should have been more forceful with her. I didn’t really get a chance to make my point . . .

 

“Penny for your thoughts,” he said, shooting me a sidelong glance and grinning as we stopped at a red light.

 

“Oh, same old,” I said. “I paid a visit to Shona last night to discuss whether it’s time to put Dad in a retirement home.”

 

“And failed to make an impression, I take it?” Connor eased his foot off the brake as the light changed to green. “I get it. My older brother and I—”

 

Dispatch interrupted our conversation with a missing persons call from Avmore Retirement Home. As Connor sped the direction of the Home so we could collect the details, I leaned forward with more anticipation than I’d usually reserve for an assignment of this sort. The call would give me a chance to check out the facility, in case Shona came to her senses one day. Maybe even provide some ammunition I could use. Although a missing person’s call wasn’t an auspicious sign…

 

It’ll be fine, I reassured myself. The missing person might even show up onsite somewhere, once they do a thorough search.

 

I gave the building’s exterior a good once-over when we arrived. The vinyl windows had recently been updated, and the front gardens, mulched in preparation for the coming winter, appeared well tended. As we disembarked, I allowed myself a brief fantasy about how comfortable Dad would be within Avmore’s confines. And I’d be able to come and visit any time, without enduring Shona’s older-sister superiority.

 

Eager to get this case rolling, I led the way to the reception desk. “Hello,” I said, addressing the red-haired front desk attendant whose lapel badge identified her as “Gail.” “I’m officer Alicia Stoneworth, and this is my colleague, officer Connor McKay.” I flashed my credentials. “We’re responding to a missing persons call.”

 

Gail looked up, and I took a step back. She seems surprised.

 

Gail grabbed the receiver of her desk phone. After turning her back to Connor and I, she began speaking in a lowered voice. While I waited, I allowed my gaze to wander, noting the sign on the board behind the desk. Spaces available. Apply today.

 

Good, I thought. Maybe I should—

 

Gail spun back to face us. “Georgia Wright, our Administration Manager, will see you now. I’ll have one of the attendants take you to her office.”

 

As though she’d conjured him out of thin air, an AH 451 swung around the corner. The name tag embossed on his chest identified him as Archie. I scowled at Archie’s back as he led us down a bright corridor. Okay, so the place had android attendants. Maybe they weren’t so perfect.

 

But we already knew that, didn’t we? If they were, they wouldn’t have had to call for help.

 

***

 

Perhaps it was unfair to assume Georgia was trying to stonewall us, but she seemed reluctant to admit there was a case to be pursued. “Let me get this straight,” I said. “Do you, or do you not, have a patient named Wilbur Naysmith?”

 

“We do have a patient by that name, but—”

 

“And is he missing?”

 

“Well, yes, but—you said you had a missing persons call?”

 

“That’s right.”

 

“There’s no record of one being made. Our internal protocol calls for a quick sweep by staff, first. We hadn’t gotten to the point of triggering a call to the police, as yet.”

 

Georgia’s lips thinned. And I’ll bet you’d like to avoid that at all costs, wouldn’t you?

 

I exchanged a perplexed look with Connor. “Fine, so maybe someone jumped the gun. It’s possible Mr. Naysmith will turn up with a site search. But in case he doesn’t, if you could provide us with a recent electronic photo—” I handed my card, which had my email address printed along the bottom, to the AH 451, which stood next to me. The android glanced at it, then passed it to Georgia.

 

“Fine. I’ll do that.”

 

“We’ll need some basic information. Age, whether he had a history of wandering off, his state of mind—”

 

Georgia frowned.

 

“The sooner we find Mr. Naysmith, the better,” Connor said. “Three-quarters of missing persons cases are solved within the first 24 hours, but if it goes too long after that…”

 

Georgia shook her head. “It’s just, I don’t see how—” She tapped her keyboard, then read from the screen. “Wilbur is ninety years old. He’s not in the best of health. Not very mobile.”

 

“Someone else may have been involved,” Connor said. “Which means we’ll need any surveillance footage you have for last night.”

 

“Does he have family nearby?” I asked.

 

“None remaining. The Pandemic…”

 

Georgia didn’t need to elaborate. The Second Great Pandemic of 2030 had cut a swathe through the population, particularly the elderly. Which made me wonder how a place like Avmore maintained a high enough occupancy rate to keep its head above water.

 

“If that’s all, Archie will see you out.” Georgia nodded toward the AH 451.

 

“We’d like to see Mr. Naysmith’s room first,” I said.

 

Georgia’s shoulders tensed.

 

I bit my lip, struggling to deduce the best way to win her support. “We might notice subtle cues that your staff overlooked. This is, after all, our area of expertise.”

 

“I doubt you’ll see anything helpful,” Georgia said. She waved her hand dismissively. “But you can look for yourself.”

 

***

 

Archie set off at a brisk pace. As we tagged along behind, all I could think about was, what if this were happening to Dad?

 

I studied my surroundings with heightened awareness, noting the brightness of the hallways, the newness of the carpets. The odd room had its door open, providing glimpses of beds covered with colorful quilts, and large-windowed rooms with neatly-arranged furniture. Despite the gravity of the situation that brought us here, it all looked quite inviting.

 

“What do you think?” Connor asked.

 

“Seems nice enough.”

 

Connor snorted. “Not the facility, the case.” His tone conveyed just a hint of exasperation.

 

“Georgia comes off as—evasive.” I shot a sideways glance at my partner. “More than that, I get the feeling she can’t wait to see the back of us.”  Maybe I’m imagining things. Now that I say it, it sounds silly…

 

“Yeah. I thought so too.”

 

I glanced through the open door of the room to my right. Spotless, bright, and tidy, like the others. Everything looked fine, on the surface. But I’d seen plenty of situations that looked innocent, only to prove otherwise. And now that Connor had shared his misgivings, Avmore didn’t appear quite as inviting as I’d initially found it.

 

Archie opened a sturdy metal fire door and led us into a different wing of the facility. Here, the atmosphere changed as though someone had flipped a switch. Industrial-grade recycled vinyl flooring, grey with flecks of black and white, covered the floors. The lighting, though adequate, seemed dimmer. There’d been plenty of human attendants in the other section. In this part of the building, only AH 451s trod the corridors.

 

I glanced into a room, noting it was set up ward-style. The residents looked frail and sunken under their blankets. Most had hook-ups to medical equipment and monitors. Archie stopped in front of one of the four-person rooms and gestured us in with an outstretched arm. I noted an empty bed near the window. That must be Naysmith’s.

 

A quick check of the list of names posted beside the door confirmed that theory. But just under Naysmith’s name—

 

I drew a sharp breath. It can’t be…

 

“Arnold Vincentt.” I read the name aloud, as though that might break the spell, make these impossible letters fade away. “I had a grade ten math teacher by that name, back in the day. Coached me a couple of years in softball, too. His kids are dead now, wife long gone. I wonder if it’s the same guy…”

 

I sensed, rather than saw, Connor walk past to my right, headed for the empty bed. I couldn’t help taking a step toward Arnold’s spot.

 

It’s him, alright If he’s a patient here, at least there’s one person Dad knows. But he doesn’t look well—

 

In contrast to the hearty, broad-shouldered six-footer I remembered from high school, Arnold looked like a shadow of his old self. A narrow plastic tube led from his mouth to a machine beside the bed, and the line from an IV bag snaked from his arm. Yet another tube dipped from the shadow of the bedcovers and then disappeared back under them.

 

I whirled, startled, as a woman on the far side of the room moaned. An AH 451 android that could have been Archie’s double stepped into her area. Just for a second, the android glanced at me, then stared straight at Archie, who nodded so slightly I thought it might be my imagination. Then the other android leaned forward to check the readouts, made an adjustment to the IV, and studied the data-screen on the diagnostic equipment with unmistakable intensity.

 

I walked over to where Connor had just finished his examination of Naysmith’s area. The top of the small dresser was clear save for a photo of a tanned, white-haired man grinning as he held a fair-sized speckled trout. A younger woman with the same brown eyes and ready smile stood beside him.

 

“Relative of some sort, I’m guessing,” I said.

 

“If Wilbur’s in similar condition to his roommates, it doesn’t seem likely he would have wandered off,” Connor glanced at the room’s other occupants, frowning. “And I don’t think we’ll get much out of them.”

 

I nodded as I took a quick look around. There was no motion, no chatter from the room’s other residents. None of them, including Arnold Vincentt, even appeared to be awake.

 

“Maybe someone snatched him. But how they got access…” I let the thought trail off.

 

“Who? And why?”

 

“Settling an old grudge? Trying to extort money?” I shrugged. We’ve got so little information to go on…  “We’ll have to dig into Wilbur’s background. Figure out potential motives.”

 

“Let’s have Avmore do a site search, as Georgia suggested. They know their own grounds the best, all the likely hiding spots. We can put out a missing persons bulletin, and canvass the neighborhood.” Noting my glum look, Connor gestured toward Arnold Vincentt’s bed. “I guess it’s hard for you to see him like that. Still, everyone gets old. Even us, one day.”

 

“Yeah, I guess. It’s just—”

 

“Just what?”

 

“Mr. Vincentt’s oldest daughter always said he’d be the type who’d want to die with his boots on. Had a hobby farm, and he loved the outdoors. To live like this…”

 

“We don’t know what medical orders he has on file,” Connor said.

 

Before I could answer, alarms began to sound from the equipment beside Arnold’s bed, and the AH 451 that had been tending to a patient on the other side of the room sped to his side. Another android raced into the room, pushing a cart. I stiffened, recognizing the apparatus from the medical shows I found so fascinating.

 

It's a crash cart. Which means…

 

Connor tugged on my arm. “They have this in hand, yeah? Best leave them to do their jobs.”

 

Reluctantly, I followed my partner to the door. But I couldn’t help turning for one last look back, clenching my fists as I did so.

 

Arnold wouldn’t have wanted this. I’m sure of it.

 

Then I opened my hands with deliberate effort, and turned away. Who was I to say what he would or wouldn’t want? It’s been years since I’d last seen my former teacher and coach. Besides, faced with the reality of declining health, maybe Arnold had second thoughts about whether he wanted to surrender lightly, or to fight death off at all costs. I tried to draw consolation from that thought.

 

Even though it didn’t ring true.

 

***

 

With police work, you couldn’t count on every interview resulting in a good lead that would break the case. Still, I had to admit that by the time Connor and I finished our canvas of the area around the retirement home, I was getting discouraged. “Nobody’s seen him,” I said. “Or if they did, they’re not telling.”

 

“Guess we’ll just have to go back to the Precinct and do some digging, like you said. Maybe the techs will find something in the street cam footage, or the data we forwarded from Avmore.”

 

“There might be something else we can try. That photo from Naysmith’s room…”

 

“Fishing? You think someone might have wanted to help Wilbur relive old memories?” Connor frowned. “But his daughter’s dead. No other living relatives.”

 

“Could be a friend,” I said. “Don’t people fish sometimes at Burnside Park?”

 

“The river there? Yeah, I think so.” Connor shot me an appraising look, then nodded abruptly. “Okay, let’s have a look. But if nothing turns up there—”

 

“We’ll go back to the Precinct.”

 

When we pulled into the parking lot, I was the first one out of the vehicle. I jogged to the river’s edge to look left, then right, along its banks. My shoulders slumped. No sign of our missing man.

 

“One more play left,” Connor said.

 

“What’s that?”

 

“The Encampment.” He pointed to our right.

 

The corners of my mouth quirked downward as I looked in the direction he’d gestured. Tents in an array of sun-faded colors were strung out in a line. After the population plunge precipitated by the Pandemic, affordable housing shouldn’t have been an issue anymore. But homelessness was one thing the illness hadn’t changed.

 

So many houses, apartments, and condos sat empty, now. But affordable was the key. Real estate speculators had snapped up most of the accommodations that became available due to attrition and were sitting on their investments, waiting for them to appreciate, or renting them at premium rates to clients who needed short-term housing for temporary job assignments and the like. Hence, the existence of small encampments like this one dotted through the various green spaces in Baytown and other cities.

 

Many of the park’s residents, leery of interactions with the police, made themselves scarce when they spotted our uniforms. Those we did manage to speak to gave no indication they’d seen Wilbur. My shoulders slumped as we approached the final shelter.

 

Hearing our voices, a woman with shoulder-length blonde hair stuck her head through the tent’s entrance when we approached. After introducing herself as Faye, she glanced around warily, then gestured us inside her tent.

 

I held up my phone to display Wilbur’s picture. “Have you seen this guy around?”

 

Faye shook her head.

 

“Maybe not in the camp—on the shore? Fishing?”

 

“Look, I haven’t seen him.” Faye’s eyes widened. “I thought you were here to ask about Rufus Wilson.

 

“Rufus Wilson?” Connor frowned. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”

 

“He’s missing, too.”

 

“Is it possible he just took off for awhile?” I asked. “Went to stay with a family member, or in a shelter?”

 

“He wouldn’t have left Emmitt behind.” Faye gestured toward a brown-and-white terrier curled up on a pillow in the corner. “I took him in when Rufus didn’t come back. Hoping—”

 

“Okay.” I shot a look at the dog and nodded. “Did you see anyone confronting Rufus? Know anyone who had a beef with him?”

 

“Tuesday night, just before eleven o’clock, Rufus was on his way back from the portable washrooms the city put up. I saw two men come up behind Rufus, and start talking to him. They chatted for awhile. Next thing I knew, the men were leading him toward a light grey van parked on the road.”

 

“Maybe he knew them,” I said. “Had you seen them before?”

 

“A couple of times. They came around, talked to some of the older residents. Not to me, though.” Faye said. She lowered her gaze. “There’s something you should know about Rufus. His memory isn’t the best.”

 

“That happens to many of us as we age,” I said.

 

“No, I mean sometimes he gets confused. Forgets things. We all looked out for him, helped him out. Emmitt kept him rooted. But I think he was starting to struggle with Alzheimer’s or something similar. It’s possible—” Faye bit her lower lip.

 

“It’s possible he went with them willingly.”

 

“That doesn’t mean he’s okay!”

 

I made an effort to keep my tone reassuring. “Let’s just focus on getting all the information we can so we can try to find him. Did you see writing on the van?”

 

“Yes.” She raised a trembling hand to her head. “But it was too dark to read it. Will you—look for him?”

 

“We’ll keep an eye out. Do you have a photo of Rufus?”

 

“No. Sorry.”

 

“That’s okay. Maybe there’s one with his belongings. Can you point us to his tent?”

 

“Right over there.”

 

I shot Connor a look as we headed over to Rufus’ dwelling. He didn’t say a word, but I could guess what he was thinking. We’d started out with one missing persons’ case, and ended up with two. And given the lack of progress on solving the first one, that didn’t seem like a good thing.

 

***

 

With the aid of a long-expired driver’s license we’d found in Rufus’ tent, we were able to identify a last name, and called up his information back at the Precinct. Rufus didn’t appear to have any living relatives, and had no police record. He’d retired some years ago from a local parts manufacturing factory.

 

While the computer techs continued to comb through street-cam footage in search of the elusive grey van, I checked my email. The subject line of the most recent entry caught my eye.

 

“What do you make of this?” I asked Connor, swinging the laptop around so he could see the screen.

 

He read the message, then raised his eyebrows. “Looks like Georgia decided to be cooperative.”

 

The email, which came from Georgia’s Avmore account, was short and to the point, saying, simply, You may find this of use. I turned the laptop back around, then double-clicked on the attached file labelled “resident data” so I could have a look at the information.

 

“Wow!” Connor, who had left his desk and now stood looking over my shoulder, pointed at the screen. “Look at the birthdates on some of these.”

 

“They’d be over a hundred years old. They’re beating the odds, alright.”

 

I stared at the screen, the elation I’d felt when I first saw the email ebbing away. The information didn’t seem all that helpful. Maybe Georgia was just taunting us.

 

But why would she bother?

 

No, there had to be something useful here. Some clue. But what? The fact no answer came to mind added to my frustration.

 

By quitting time, we still had no word on whether the techs had tracked down anything of significance from the footage from the park, or from Avmore. It didn’t feel like we’d made much progress on our other open cases, either.

 

Connor stood and stretched, eyeballing the digital clock on the far side of the room. “Well, I think I’ll call it a day,” he said. When I didn’t reply, his right eyebrow quirked up. “Not planning on burning the midnight oil, are you?”

 

“The Naysmith case has gotten under my skin,” I admitted.

 

“That’s only natural, given your father’s situation.” Connor shrugged. “But you know that we can’t—”

 

“I know.” I sighed, then gestured toward a folder on my desk. “I’m just going back over the evidence. To see if there’s something we’ve overlooked.”

 

“I’ve got a few minutes,” Connor said. He sat back down.

 

“You don’t have to—”

 

“I know. But I was just thinking. We never listened to the original nine-one-one call. Want to?”

 

“Sure.”

 

I put on my headset, and saw Connor doing the same. When we’d finished listening, I stared at him, my mouth open. “Did you hear that?”

 

“It was Georgia’s voice, alright. But it sounded—stilted.”

 

“Almost like an accent. I’ve heard that somewhere.” I lowered my head and closed my eyes.

 

Where? Where have you heard it?

 

And then I had it.

 

“The androids,” I said. “That’s how they talk. With that slight pause. That hesitancy, now and then.”

 

“But it’s Georgia’s voice.”

 

“If they studied it long enough, they’d be able to duplicate it. Match the timbre. Or maybe they recorded snippets of her conversation, and patched them together.”

 

I called up the file Georgia had sent and scowled at the screen. My sister was always going on about how good Oskar was at his job. But what if the androids were too good at it? Keeping people alive long after they should be let go—they’d be capable of doing that. And it’s possible they’d think they were simply fulfilling their mandate. That theory even had a twisted sort of logic to it…

 

Which is what you get when you put robots in charge of something humans should be managing.

 

But how did Naysmith fit in?

 

Maybe he got sick of it, I thought. He knew what they were doing, and wanted no part of it. And managed to get away.

 

Not without help, he wouldn’t.

 

Fine. That just meant he had an accomplice.

 

I didn’t like to think of the alternative. That the androids had knew that he knew. And took steps to silence him.

 

Then why would they sound the alarm?

 

To deflect blame.

 

I shivered. Far-fetched, maybe, but not outside the realm of possibility. My next task after we finished here would be to have a long and serious chat with Shona. Even if it caused friction. I had to make her understand the danger of having Oskar the AH 451 in charge of Dad’s care.

 

“The techs found something.” Connor’s voice broke into my reverie.

 

Immersed as I was in my own line of thought, it took me a moment to absorb what he’d said. “What?”

 

“They found an image of the van Faye told us about on a streetcam near the park. Want to guess what it said?”

 

“Avmore Retirement Home?”

 

From the expression on his face, Connor had hoped to surprise me. “Yeah. How’d you know?”

 

“Already figured there’s something strange going on there. And we need to go back for a chat.”

 

“With Georgia? She wasn’t so helpful the first time.”

 

“Not Georgia. Someone else.”

 

***

 

We were halfway across Avmore lobby when Connor halted and held out his hand. “Do you hear that?”

 

“Sounds like a shredder. Running full bore.”

 

Connor broke into a run, with me on his heels. When I realized our destination was Georgia’s office, my eyes narrowed.

 

Maybe the androids are more devious than we think. Covering their tracks by using Georgia’s office to do their dirty work…

 

“Police,” I said as I slewed around the doorway. Would an android be afraid of a gun? Where would you need to shoot him, to do the most damage, if he came at you?

 

But it was a human, not an android, operating the shredder. Georgia, eyes glittering, held a handful of papers above the intake conveyor.

 

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” Connor said. He reached past Georgia to hit the off switch. My tortured ears welcomed the sudden silence.

 

“What’s in there that you don’t want us to see?” I nodded toward the box of documents beside the shredder. “You already sent us that file.”

 

Maybe Georgia and the androids are in cahoots. I had to admit, I wasn’t sure how everything fit together. Not yet.

 

“What file?” Georgia asked.

 

I called up the email on my phone and showed it to her.

 

“That wasn’t me.” She spat the words.

 

I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, and noticed Archie sidling toward the door.

“It must have been one of those damn robots.” Georgia’s voice shook with barely restrained anger. “I knew they’d be nothing but trouble.”

 

Well. At least we agree on something.

 

I grabbed a handful of papers from the box beside her. “A Do-Not-Resuscitate order,” I said. “For Arnold Vincent.” Which confirms my suspicions. “Why’re you shredding it? Is it because you don’t want us to find out that the androids are keeping people alive at all costs?”

 

“Not exactly.” The answer came, not from Georgia, but Archie. “But there is something Georgia doesn’t want you to find out.”

 

“Why start shredding now?”

 

“Avmore’s been flying under the radar for years. But when you came around and started asking questions, it set her on edge.” Archie, arms dangling at his sides, delivered the words in a matter-of-fact tone.

 

Shifting the blame?

 

I looked at Georgia, who stood with lips compressed tightly, as though to prevent any incriminating words from escaping. Then I looked back at Archie.

 

Flesh and blood versus synth-skin and circuitry. Who should I believe?

 

My inherent bias was to place my trust in Georgia. Then again, Archie wasn’t the one destroying potential evidence.

 

I made my decision.

 

“Well?” I put my hands on my hips and scowled at the android.

 

“Come with me. I’ll explain everything.”

 

***

 

Between data gleaned by the forensics team and Archie’s revelations, Connor and I pieced together the whole sordid story. Avmore did have a legitimate retirement residence operating in the front part of the building. The older section, the one we’d been taken into to view Wilbur Naysmith’s room, was a different matter. This section housed seniors with long-term medical conditions and no close family members.

 

Avmore took pains to extend the lives of the inhabitants of this area of the building as long as possible—regardless of resuscitation orders to the contrary—so they could continue to extract an exorbitant monthly rent from the residents’ old age security, pension, and other income. Avmore even received a government subsidy for each resident. Plenty of incentive to keep people alive at all costs, and to keep Avmore fully occupied if possible.

 

“So, you closed two missing persons cases today,” Captain Schuster said after Connor and I briefed her on the case.

 

“Rufus was easy to find,” I said. “Some of Avmore’s human staff were assigned to go on the prowl for prospective clients. They zeroed in on Rufus when they found he had no living relatives and a failing memory. All we had to do was show his photo to Archie, and he led us right to him. Avmore had already set him up in a bed in the front section.”

 

Connor picked up the story from there. “Determining what happened with Wilbur was a little more—difficult to get our heads around.” He grimaced.

 

“So, let me get this straight.” Captain Schuster scanned the report, then raised her head, eyebrows lifted. “It was the androids who caused the first guy—Wilbur Naysmith—to go missing?”

 

“Yes,” I answered. “We found him comfortable and well cared for in a bed in one of the storage closets—which are stocked and maintained exclusively by the androids. He had around-the-clock attention. And with the help of the computer techs, we’ve confirmed that the call to report a missing person came from one of the AH 451s—using recordings they’d made of Georgia’s voice and splicing together the words.”

 

Connor grinned. “It appears they wanted to draw the situation at Avmore to the attention of the authorities, hoping we would figure out what was going on once we started digging around.”

 

“Why didn’t they just call in to report the problem?”

 

“Archie explained that, too,” I said. I stared down at my feet. “He figured nobody would believe them. That we’d have to see for themselves.” I remembered the flare of anger I’d felt when he provided the explanation. That emotion had been quickly followed by a grudging admission that given our biases, he was, in all likelihood, right. “Plus, they knew they’d face repercussions from Avmore if we came around asking questions if they approached things too directly. But a missing persons case provided a good cover.”

 

“And that file you received? It was the androids who sent it?”

 

“It was,” I said. “Archie picked up my email address from the business card. I handed it to him, to give to Georgia. And he commits everything to memory, so…”

 

Captain Schuster leaned back in her chair and massaged her forehead with her left hand. “And you’re sure it was the androids, not the human staff members, who were involved in blowing the whistle on Avmore?”

 

“We are. To be fair, it appears they kept the human staff to a minimum,” Connor said. “Where Avmore made their miscalculation was with the AH 451s. They just assumed the androids would play along.”

 

“They forgot the AH 451s are programmed, first and foremost, to give the best possible care to the patient,” I said. “And it seems that over the course of time, the androids drew the conclusion the care being provided in Avmore’s back wing didn’t meet that criteria, so they decided to take action.”

 

“Keeping their patients alive, at all costs.” Captain Schuster shuddered. “All for the sake of profit.”

 

“And without Archie and his colleagues, we’d be none the wiser.” I thought about my sister, and drew a deep breath. “I feel ashamed, now, of how I gave Shona such a hard time. I really thought Dad would be better off in a retirement residence with human staff as opposed to being at home.”

 

“And now?” Captain Schuster asked.

 

“I think the AH 451 will look after him just fine. Better than fine.”

 

“Maybe you should tell her that.”

 

***

 

That night, after shift, I stopped by Shona’s place.

 

“Look,” I said. “I’m sorry about how I reacted when you brought Oskar in. I realize now I was wrong. The best place for Dad is right here, at home. As long as you can manage it.”

 

Shona studied me for a long moment, and I tensed, afraid this discussion was fated to go sideways despite my best intentions. “I could have handled things better,” she said after a prolonged pause. “Broken it to you more gently.”

 

“There’s more,” I said. I clasped my hands in front of me, willing myself to have the courage to continue. “I think some of it was just resentment. You know, about you being the older sister, and always letting on that you knew what was best.”

 

Now it was Shona’s turn to tense up. She clenched her fists, then unclenched them and shook her head. “We have a long history, you and I. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a result of having Oskar around, it’s that we need to be open to new ways of doing things. I’m willing to try that, with our relationship.”

 

“Me too,” I said.

 

“Good.” Shona smiled, and this time I had no doubt that the sentiment was genuine. “Staying for supper?”

 

“I’d love to. If the offer’s still open.”

 

“Of course. I made extra, in case. But it won’t be ready for a while. Why don’t you go say hi?” She added, in a softer tone, “It’s been one of Dad’s good days.”

 

I tiptoed to the living room, noticing that a chess board, set up for play, occupied the games table. Dad leaned heavily on his walker as he made his way toward it, with Oskar hovering just behind him.

 

Dad stumbled, and I jumped forward to help, burdened by the knowledge I couldn’t possibly get there in time. But my father had no need of my intervention. With floating grace, Oskar reached out a steadying hand. Dad recovered his balance and continued on course as though nothing had happened.

 

“See? You couldn’t ask for better care.” Shona’s voice came from just behind me.

 

“I know that now,” I said.

 

“I’m glad you came around.” Shona squeezed my arm. “I hate it when we argue.”

 

“Me too.” I paused. “Do you think Oskar would mind if I sat in for him for one game?”

 

“Not at all,” Shona said. “Just be careful.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I think Dad’s learned a few tricks from him. Winning might not be as easy as you think.”

 

“Good.”

 

Dad looked up when I took the seat across from him. “Alicia.” He blinked, as though surprised.

 

“Hi, Dad.”

 

I grabbed one white pawn and one black, cupped my hands together, and shook the pieces. Then, with one pawn in each fist, I extended my hands toward my father, remembering all the times we had replayed this ritual over the years.

 

“Left or right?” I asked.

 

“Left,” he said.

 

Like always.

 

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

Changing what needed to change, and keeping what was good. That was the trick.

 

I looked around the familiar room, and frowned. Am I up for that?

 

I shot a glance at Shona, who leaned against the door jamb, grinning. Then I turned toward  Oskar, who stood beside me with what I thought might be a glint of amusement in his silver eyes. Finally, I turned my attention to Dad, who studied the chess board with his usual intensity before reaching out to make his opening move.

 

In that moment, I realized that despite my earlier fears, I wasn’t alone in looking out for Dad’s well-being. I was surrounded by others who also cared. Flesh and blood. Synth-skin and circuitry.

 

I couldn’t ask for more than that.

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Lisa Timpf is a retired HR and communications professional who lives in Simcoe, Ontario. Her speculative fiction has appeared in New Myths, Third Flatiron, Bards and Sages Quarterly, From a Cat’s View, and other venues.

 

Her speculative fiction/romance novelette, To Push Back the Darkness, was released by JMS Books LLC in March, 2021.

 

You can learn more about Lisa's writing at http://lisatimpf.blogspot.com/.