Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 30

We arrived in Geneva just before sunset, and disembarked at the center of town. While Liam and Francis got directions to the residence of the eccentric “Sol Huckabee,” retired engineer living in a mansion in the mountains, I pulled out my A.E. goggles and enabled my chip, taking a deep breath in preparation for what was sure to be an unpleasant conversation.

“Call Mom,” I said.

Mom picked up and immediately snapped, “Rebecca Elizabeth Cordeaux!” She used my whole name only when she was very, very angry.

“Mom, I’m sorry I haven’t called,” I cut her off. “I’m in Geneva. I can’t explain any more than that, but we got some information in the Capitol and—”

“Rebecca,” she glowered at me through gritted teeth. “Is there any chance that you are in danger?”

“Well… no,” I lied. “Not right now anyway…”

“Is this information you are chasing in any way related to what your dad was so obsessed with at the end? Does it have anything to do with Halpert, or those men on his board?”

I took a deep breath. “Mom.”

“Give me one good reason why you personally need to be in Geneva for whatever it is you are doing!”

“I just called to tell you where I was, so you wouldn’t worry!” I shot back, tears springing to my eyes. “I told you I’m not in danger. I don’t know why you’re so upset!”

She closed her eyes as if physically reining herself in. When she opened them again, I saw the tears in her own eyes.

“You are all I have left, Rebecca,” she said softly. “Please don’t follow in your father’s footsteps. Please. I’m begging you.”

“You thought Dad was paranoid anyway!”

“I did,” she conceded. Then after a long pause, she looked up at my holograph again. “But what if he wasn’t?”

I took a deep breath too. “He wasn’t.” We just watched each other for a long moment, and then I said, “Mom, I think Dad was murd—”

“Shh!” She held up her hands and waved them at me frantically. “Don’t say it!”

I blinked at her, absorbing this. “You knew.

She took another deep breath, eyes darting around her room as she ran her hands through her short dark hair. “We’ll discuss all this in person. Do not say anything specific on an unsecured holograph! Remember that, Rebecca!”

I shook my head, exasperated. “I don’t know when I’m going to see you in person, though—”

“I don’t know either, but we’ll talk about it then!” she snapped. “If I ask you, if I beg you to go back to school and leave all this behind, for me… would you even consider it?”

Ugh. That phrasing. It was a perfectly crafted dagger of guilt.

“Who am I kidding, of course you wouldn’t,” Mom answered her own question bitterly. “Does Liam understand how much danger he’s putting you in? Does he even care?”

“Of course he does! Actually, Liam is the most ridiculously overprotective person I’ve ever met—”

“If he were that, he would have sent you back to Dublin weeks ago,” she retorted. “He’s a selfish young man, Rebecca.”

“That’s not true! First of all, he tried to send me back, I just wouldn’t go, and he’s been knocking himself out to keep me safe ever since—”

“I don’t wish to argue about him,” she cut me off, sniffing. “Since you clearly don’t care about me, I don’t know what else there is for me to say.”

“Oh, holy guilt trip!” I snapped, belying the fact that her words had produced their intended effect.

“Mark my words, Rebecca: the man who loves you will put your needs and your safety ahead of his own desires. Liam has absolutely failed that test!”

The goggles went dark, and I stared at the blackness for a moment, trying to identify all the roiling emotions. Anger, indignation, guilt…

And who said anything about Liam loving me, anyway? I’d barely even talked to Mom about Liam.

I took off the goggles in a huff, trying not to cry and refocusing on the real world around me.

Liam and Francis were talking to a young man a stone’s throw from me, in the city square. I jogged over to catch up with them, trying to shake off my anger, at least for the time being.

“Good luck getting him to see you though,” the young man was saying to Liam with a thick Swiss accent. “He’s kind of a recluse, and he doesn’t like strangers.”

“He’ll see me,” Liam said to us, as the young man went about his business. “If my father’s name was good enough to get us a meeting with Halpert, it’s good enough for Sol Huckabee. Bec, you’ve got a journal in there, right?” He gestured at my backpack. Startled, I nodded. “Can I borrow a sheet?”

In response, I lowered my backpack to the ground, unzipping it to reveal Madeline. Her eyes met mine.

“You ok?” she whispered, concerned. She knew. She always knew.

I shook my head. “Mom,” I told her. “She’s really, really angry.” As I said this, I pulled out my journal, carefully flipping to the back page so Liam wouldn’t see anything I’d written—not that he was looking. I tore it out and handed it to him, with a pen.

“Thanks,” he said, bending over an abandoned metal cafe table to scribble a hand-written message to Sol. Glancing over his shoulder, I saw that it said Liam Kelly of General Specs had a ‘mutually beneficial proposal’ to make, and would call in the morning.

“You wanna see Mr. Huckabee? I overheard.” A school-age boy grinned at Liam. “I play with Charlotte Huckabee all the time. She’s his granddaughter.”

Liam and Francis exchanged a look.

“If we take you to his mansion, will you deliver a message to him for us?” Liam asked the child, talking to him like they were the same age. “Name your price.”

Francis folded his arms over his chest, scrutinizing the kid to us, out loud. “Ten years old, give or take, dirt on the knees and under the fingernails. Oblong stickum outlines on the forearms where some kind of adhesive has been, but there’s no wound so it wasn’t a bandage. About the size of those warrior badge stickers that come in fantasy character trading packs that all the kids love these days, aren’t they? He wants more trading packs.” Then he turned to the kid. “We’ll give you five.”

“Ten!” the boy shot back.

“Seven,” said Francis.

“Eight, and that’s my final offer!”

“Done.” Francis stuck out a hand to the kid, and they shook, the boy’s mouth set in a determined line.

Liam grinned, shaking his head in admiration. “All right, where do we purchase said trading packs?”

“C’mere, I’ll show you!” The boy skipped off in the direction of a little convenience shop that was just closing up for the night, manned by a bot, of course. “And I want some ice cream, too!”

“I knew he was going to say that,” muttered Francis, sounding irritated that he hadn’t called it verbally.

“How did you know?” I challenged, glancing over my shoulder with a smirk.

“You know he’s dying to tell you,” Liam remarked.

Francis gestured at the boy. “He has to pry his fingers apart when they touch each other with a bit of effort. They’re sticky. Kid with sticky fingers means sugar, probably from something that either was already liquid or turned to liquid rapidly during consumption. Dark creases in the corners of his mouth imply chocolate. He wants chocolate ice cream, it’s his favorite.”

“No!” the kid protested defiantly once we’d caught up to him, “maybe I want something different this time! Maybe I want strawberry!”

“Do you?” Francis raised his eyebrows at the kid like a challenge, as Liam reached for strawberry.

“No,” the kid admitted. “I do want chocolate.”

Once the kid (whose name was apparently Ethan) was sated with trading packs and a chocolate ice cream bar, Liam hailed a ground taxi--apparently they still had those here--and all four of us piled inside.

Ethan gave directions to Huckabee’s mansion to the taxi, and Liam instructed it to wait with us in the taxi while he delivered the message.

After waiting for about ten minutes outside the mansion, I looked at Liam and murmured, “Do you think he forgot about us?”

Just then the door opened again, and Ethan skipped back down the stone walkway to where the taxi waited. Francis opened the door, and Ethan handed him a note.

“From Mr. Huckabee! He says to call tomorrow morning at ten.”

We found a little chateau to stay in for the night. Dr. Yin, Larissa, and Nilesh expected to meet us there later that night, and we would all see Sol Huckabee, or Ramses Youssef, together the following morning. I never would have picked such expensive accommodations, but Liam covered it for all three of us, saying tonight we had something to celebrate.

“Even if it’s not exactly good news,” he conceded, clinking his wine glass against mine, “we found our answer, and we found our engineer.”

I turned to toast Francis, who scrutinized some other patron of the chateau restaurant, and barely glanced back at me at the sound of my glass clinking against his.

“He’s just bored and trying to keep himself stimulated. Ignore him,” Liam explained to me, shaking his head.

I gave a short laugh. “Sure. I can absolutely see how today wouldn’t have provided enough stimulation.”

“Well, that’s a mystery he’s already solved. He’s ready for something new,” Liam told me, smirking.

Ignoring our exchange, Francis gestured at the man he was looking at, balding with gray hair in a ring just along the line of his ears. He sat across from a much younger woman in a low-cut black dress; not beautiful, but much better looking than he was.

“Accountant or a financial manager,” he narrated for our benefit. “Spends most of his time at the office—possibly because he’s one of the few humans in his line of work that hasn’t yet been replaced by a bot and he wants to prove his usefulness, or possibly just because he doesn’t like his wife. Unhappily married, you can tell by the dent in the ring finger where the ring usually is but isn’t at the moment. That woman is not his wife. Probably she’s someone who works with him in some capacity, perhaps a lawyer who consults with his practice on occasion. They don’t see each other very often, or he’d be less nervous about being caught, see the way his eyes shift around the room? She’s annoyed he’s not paying more attention to her. Look how she’s trying to distract him, rubbing her foot against his leg and following his gaze with exasperation. And that dress is obviously meant to seduce; she wouldn’t be trying so hard if the relationship were ongoing and well established, so it must be newer…”

I gave Liam a look, and he rolled his eyes.

“You want to get our own table?” he asked.

“Definitely,” I muttered.

Francis glanced over his shoulder at us as we collected our glasses. “There’s a view of the city and the mountains on the balcony upstairs. Nobody’s up there. It’s terribly romantic, someone should take advantage of it,” he added dryly.

Liam glanced down at me with a half smile. We hadn’t yet sat down at the adjacent table. “You want to check it out?”

My heart fluttered. No. No. Think about Andy.

“Sure,” I said.

Upstairs the sky still held the last vestiges of the glow of dusk. I could see the outline of the Alps not far in the distance, and the white snow caps stood out starkly against the deep shadows. It was chilly, and I was only wearing a thin sweater. I wrapped my arms around my shoulders, rubbing one hand against the shoulder I could reach while the other hand still held my wine glass. Without waiting for an invitation, Liam slipped an arm around me, replacing the friction of my hand with his own. It would have been better if he’d made some light conversation, but he didn’t say anything, and I couldn’t think of anything to say either. My heart pounded, as I felt the simultaneous urge to run and to stay. Then he took my wine glass from my hand and set it on the ledge beside his own, turning me to face him. I can’t describe the feeling that passed over me. I wanted to start babbling—anything to stop him—but I didn’t want to at the same time. I was utterly frozen.

Andy. I love Andy, I thought desperately.

Liam tilted my chin up to his; the way he looked at me was so full of tenderness. I opened my mouth, just on the verge of telling him we couldn’t do this for a million reasons, when someone behind us cleared his throat.

“Sorry to interrupt.”

I let out a little cry, and I saw Liam startle a bit too. Both of us turned to face the intruder. I half expected to see John Doe.

A man sat in a chair in the shadows all alone, nursing a scotch glass and watching us. He was not John Doe, I could tell that much. He had a full head of white hair and wore an expensively tailored suit, though I could not make out the color.

“I hope you don’t mind that I followed you after I saw your taxi pull away, Liam Kelly Junior,” the man said his name pointedly. “I like to conduct my meetings on my terms.”

I blinked at him. “Sol Huckabee?”

“Ramses Youssef,” Liam corrected, his arm tightening around me protectively.

“No one knows me by that name anymore.” He raised his scotch glass to his lips. “I must say, I was curious to know what kind of proposal Liam Kelly’s son might have for me, when your father and I haven’t spoken in nearly a decade. When I found out that you haven’t spoken to him in five years, either, I became even more intrigued.”

Liam glanced at me. “Rebecca’s cold,” he said, “why don’t you join us downstairs for a drink?”

“I prefer to have this conversation somewhere more private,” said Youssef, “and that includes away from the prying ears of my servants, which is why I followed you. She can go downstairs if she likes; in fact, I’d prefer it. I only need to speak with you.”

“I’m staying,” I said stubbornly.

Liam glanced down at me, rubbing my shoulder for warmth. “You sure?”

I nodded, glaring at Youssef. I hadn’t expected to feel such hatred for him when he was only an abstract idea. But now that he sat before me in the flesh, it hit me all at once.

This is the man responsible for my father’s death.

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