The Cassie Tam Files Book 1
by Matt Doyle
Genre: SciFi, Crime Noir, Clean Lesfic
When PI Cassie Tam is hired to investigate the death of a local virtual reality junkie, she thinks it will be easy money. In New Hopeland, VR junkies die every day, and the local PD already declared it an accidental overdose on synthetic stimulants. But the more she digs, the more that things don’t add up.
To make things even more complicated, her client, the deceased’s sister Lori, is a Tech Shifter – someone who uses a metal exoskeleton to roleplay as an animal – and Cassie has always been wary of that community. That wouldn’t be a problem if Lori wasn’t fast becoming the first person she’s been genuinely attracted to since splitting with her ex.
Easy money, huh? Yeah, right.
Matt Doyle © 2017
All Rights Reserved
I ALWAYS DID like Venetian blinds. There’s something quaint about them in a retro-tacky kinda way. Plus, they’re pretty useful for sneaking a peek out the front of the building if I feel the need. That’s something that you just can’t do with the solid, immovable metal slats that come as a standard in buildings these days. That said, a thick sheet of steel is gonna offer you a damn sight more security than thin, bendable vinyl, so I keep mine installed. Just in case.
Another round of knocking rattles the front door, louder this time than the one that woke me.
The clock says 23:47, and the unfamiliar low-end car out front screams “Don’t notice me, I’m not worth your time,” which makes for the perfect combo to stir up the paranoia that the evening’s beer and horror-film session left behind. This is my own fault. My adverts are pretty descriptive in terms of telling what I do: lost pets, cheating partners, theft, protection, retrieval of people and items, other odds and sods that the city’s finest won’t touch…I’ve got ways to deal with it all. That’s right, I’m a real odd-job gal. The one thing that I don’t put in there are business hours. The way I see it, even the missing pet cases usually leave me wandering the streets at half-past reasonable, so what’s the point in asking people to call between certain hours?
More knocking, followed this time by the squeak of my letter box and a voice. “Hello? Cassandra Tam?”
It’s funny, really. For all the tech advances that the world has made, no one has been able to improve upon the simple open-and-shut letter box. I stumble my way through the dark and wave dismissively at the frosted glass. The light switch and the keypad for the door lock are conveniently placed right next to each other on the wall to the right of the door, so welcoming my apparent guest is a nice, easy affair. The lock clicks a moment after the lights flood the room, and I pull the door open.
“Cassie,” I say, turning and skulking my way back into the room. “Or Caz. Drop the Tam.”
I hear a sniff behind me, and the lady from the letter box asks, “Are you drunk?”
“If I pass out in the next five minutes, then yes,” I reply, turning the kettle on. I’d left it full, ready for the morning, but I guess this is close enough. “Take a seat at the table. Would you prefer tea or coffee? I’d offer beer, but since I reek of it, I guess I must’ve finished it.”
Footsteps creep unapologetically across the room, and a chair squeaks on the floor. Good. If you can’t deal with a snarky response to something, don’t say it all, and if you can deal with it, then as far as I’m concerned you don’t need to apologise.
“Coffee,” the lady says. “So, do you always see potential clients in your underwear, or is it just my lucky day?” Her voice has a slightly playful edge to it, but with a sarcastic kick to round it off.
The business portion of my apartment comprises entirely of a small open-plan room separating my kitchen from my living room. And by open plan, I mean an allotted space that encroaches on both territories but is conveniently large enough to house what I need. Or, in other words, a table, four chairs, and nothing else. Since filing went near entirely digital, filing cabinets have pretty much become obsolete, so the two that I found dumped outside the building when I bought the place currently live in my bedroom, and contain a mix of quick access work stuff and personal files I’d rather not have floating on the net. Most things, though, I store electronically, the same as everything else.
I rarely use the business table to eat, read, or any of that junk, so until this evening it’s been entirely empty for a good few weeks. The lady sitting there now is studying me, I can see, and probably wondering if this was a mistake. Whatever she may have expected, a Chinese-Canadian gal of average height in a cami top and a loose pair of sleep shorts most likely wasn’t it. For what it’s worth, though, I’m studying her just the same. She’s a lithe-looking thing, dressed in a casual pair of jeans and a plain black fitted top under a leather jacket. If the metal plugs running down her shaven head like a shiny, rubber-tipped Mohawk weren’t a giveaway for what she is, the light scarring punctuating the outer edges of her pale blue eyes certainly would be. She’s a Tech Shifter, and like most of her ilk, she looks like a punk rocker gone cyborg.
“Only when people come calling near midnight,” I say, crossing my arms. “And what about you? Do you have to work to rile people up, or is it just a talent?” I spot her wince and can’t quite contain the smile that fights its way up to my lips. I can’t really afford to lose another client, though, so I throw in another dismissive wave and add, “Don’t worry
about it. It’s late, and I’m grumpy. Milk and sugar?”
She nods. “Two sugars, lots of milk, thanks.”
I finish making the drinks and plonk myself into the chair opposite my guest. “So how about we start with a name?”
“Lori. Lori Redwood. And I’m sorry about calling so late, it’s just that I didn’t really know when would be best, and I figured that you probably wouldn’t be busy this time of night.”
“And whatever problem you have has been eating away at you, so you wanted to sort it as soon, eh?”
Lori nods and takes a gulp of her coffee. “Something like that.”
I tilt my head, and rest my elbows on the table, letting my chin fall into my clasped hands. “I’m guessing this isn’t a missing pet case?”
“No. Do you read the morning news sites?”
“I browse. Why?”
“Did you see any of the articles about Edward Redwood? They would have been late last week.”
I close my eyes and cast my mind back to the things I’d read over the last couple of days. The name is familiar, and not just because of the articles, but I can’t place where from.
“Virtual Junkie, died of an accidental overdose of synthesised stimulants?” I try.
Lori nods again. “He was my brother. It wasn’t an accidental OD, though.”
I sigh. “I’m sorry for your loss, but he was an Addict, right? That’s what the press said. He wouldn’t be the first VJ Addict to OD, and he won’t be the last.”
“You don’t understand. Yes, Eddie was an Addict, but he couldn’t have overdosed himself, because he never used stimulants. He used to make a really big deal out of how he preferred the experience pure, because he didn’t want to mess up his chances of becoming a Pro.”
I shake my head sadly. “Miss Redwood…”
“Lori, please,” she cuts in.
“Lori, then. Let me give you a history lesson. Many years ago, some bright spark realised society had become so reliant on electronic tools that most jobs carried out by big businesses could be done virtually. As things advanced, they built a whole virtual world
where people could work, and gradually, the staff who pulled the long shifts became reliant on the feel of being in the place. Meanwhile, out in the real world, regular people accessed the virtual world to communicate with the staff, and to play games, and they too became reliant on the feel of the place. And so, two types of Junkie were born; the Pros, supported by their bosses, and the Addicts, who were no different to the drug users of the twentieth century. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging anyone here, but Addicts don’t become Pros. Both types of VJ get unhealthily hooked, but the Addicts don’t have the support to keep it in check. They all end up on the stimulants eventually.”
“Not Eddie,” she insists. “He had a contract lined up. All he had to do was pass the entrance test, and he’d transition to Pro.”
“Now that’s a first. Who with?”
“I don’t know. That’s part of the problem.”
I narrow my eyes. “Lori, why exactly did you come to me?”
“Because the police won’t reopen the case. They said there’s no evidence that anyone else was in the room at all when he died. If I can just figure out who he was negotiating with, then that would be something.”
“So, what? You want me to find out who your brother was supposedly going to be hired by?”
“And then what?”
“I find out how he ended up OD-ing on something that he wouldn’t touch, and why.”
I down my coffee and lean back in my chair, crossing my arms again. “You think that he was murdered, don’t you? By someone in whatever company he was supposedly talking to.”
“Yes,” she replies vehemently, then shrinks back a little and adds, “I don’t know. Maybe. It’s the only thing that makes sense, right?”
“No, it’s not. What makes the most sense is that your brother was no different from any other VJ Addict, and he just hid his usage from you. Let’s say for one moment we can even entertain the idea that a Pro company were willing to hire an Addict. That isn’t even close to a strong enough link to start crying murder. Honestly, Lori, I get it, but you’re reaching here. You’re trying to grasp onto anything that can make this all easier for you, and that’s fine. But trust me on this. No amount of grasping at nothing ever changes
Lori has clearly been fighting back the tears, and my little speech just pushed her over the edge. She wipes her eyes on her sleeve and gets to her feet, keeping her head hung low.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” she says, and turns back towards the door. “I’ll see myself out.”
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“To look up some more names. You’ve made your position quite clear.”
“I never said that I wouldn’t take the case. I just wanted you to understand how unlikely your scenario is.”
Lori stops in her tracks and looks back at me. “You’ll do it?” she asks, her voice a conflicted mess of desperation and disbelief.
“If there’s something to be found, then I’ll find it.”
“I…thank you. Thank you.”
“Yeah, well, don’t thank me yet,” I reply, getting to my feet. I walk back to the kitchen, slide open one of the drawers, and pull out a small metal disc about one inch thick, and five inches in diameter. I throw it to Lori, and she whips her arm out, snatching it from the air. She turns it over in her hand, studying the glass top. “You seen one of those before?”
Lori shakes her head.
“It’s a standard Case Tool, at least for me. Take it with you, and when you get home, tap the screen three times quickly. It’ll load a bunch of files for you to complete. Don’t worry, it comes with a holo-keypad, so you won’t need to hook it up to anything. I prefer to keep things connected to my server, and mine alone when I can help it. Take your time, answer the questions with as much detail as possible, and tap to send them back to me. Before it’ll send ’em, it’ll ask you to enter your details to transfer the deposit for the case.”
“Okay,” she nods. “How much am I looking at?”
“Aside from being a potential murder case, this is gonna prevent me from taking on any other work for the duration, so I’m not gonna be working cheap. The deposit’s five thou. If I find nothing, that’ll be it, but if something turns up, I’ll expect the same again
on completion. That cool?”
“Yes. Absolutely. Thank you.”
“Not a problem. Now get yourself home so that I can get some sleep.”
The Fox, The Dog and The King
The Cassie Tam Files Book 2
When PI Cassie Tam and her girlfriend Lori try to make up for their recent busy schedules with a night out at the theatre to watch the Tech Shift performer Kitsune, the last thing they expected was for Cassie to get a job offer. But some people are never off the clock, and by the end of the evening, Cassie has been drawn into a mundane but highly paid missing pet case. Unfortunately, in New Hopeland City, even something as simple as little lost dog can lead you down some dark paths.
Until now, Cassie wasn’t aware that there even was a rabbit hole, let alone how far down it goes.
The Fox, the Dog, and the King
Matt Doyle © 2018
All Rights Reserved
“Caz! Be careful!” Charlie lets out an exasperated sigh, and adds, “Those are new cushions.”
I stop wiping the freshly spilt coffee on my trouser leg with my hand and give her an only partially serious indignant look.
“What? You can handle a bit of caffeine, the material can’t.”
“Terribly sorry,” I reply, relaxing back into Charlie’s couch. I raise my mug daintily to my mouth and take a sip, complete with a raised pinkie finger, then place the mug gently back onto the coffee table between us. “Better?”
Charlie almost gags on her own coffee as she tries to stifle a laugh and ends up dribbling some of the molten goodness down her chin.
“Oh, do be careful, Charlotte. These are new cushions,” I say, throwing in my best mock posh tone.
And now we both laugh, the sound bringing with it warm memories of times long gone.
The woman opposite me, Charlotte Goldman, is one of the top synth stimulant dealers in the city—an Elite Seller in fact. She’s also my ex-girlfriend. We only dated for a year but our breakup, while not what you’d call nasty, shook me and left me far too snarky to be dateable for a long time afterward. Then, Lori Redwood came knocking. She hired me to investigate her brother Eddie’s death. He was a VR junkie, and I honestly thought that the case would be simple when I took it. It wasn’t. For many reasons.
Somehow, Lori managed to break through my previously impenetrable walls, and one of the positive changes that she’s set about making in my life since we started dating is to make sure I reconnected with Charlie. I’m grateful, but I don’t think her intentions were entirely pure. Our now mutual friend, Jane, once told me that Lori had a habit of dating assholes. Part of me thinks that having me talk her up to my ex, who, if I’m being honest, I was still a little hung up on, is a way of boosting her own confidence in us. I could be wrong, of course. It has, unfortunately, been known to happen from time to time.
No matter what Lori’s reasons were, I am glad she did it. I’ve missed Charlie. Missed the way she makes me feel when I’m around her. Up until recently, I thought that was entirely due to the romance, but looking at it now, I know that I was wrong. I would be lying if I told myself I could look back on it and say we were never suited in that way, but the things I missed the most don’t need romance thrown in. Relaxing over a hot drink, catching up on what we’ve been up to, that sort of thing.
“And what’s that smile for?” Charlie asks, smiling wickedly with the question.
“I was just thinking about how much I’m enjoying being able to kick back around someone and be the person who isn’t an investigator for hire, stuck in the middle of something potentially nasty.”
Charlie lets out a short, gentle laugh and pushes her long auburn hair back behind her ears. “Having trouble opening up around Lori, huh?”
“It takes a while with me. You know that.”
“Yeah. I had, what? Three, three and a half months of grumpy Miss Sleuth until you started relaxing properly around me?”
I nod. “Honestly, I’ve just been so busy since the Locke trial that I haven’t had as much time with her as I’d like.”
“And yet you’re making plenty of time for me,” Charlie replies, shaking her head sadly.
“Lori works, too. We talk a lot, but meeting up is the difficult bit. I’m heading straight there from here, though. We’re gonna make a night of it. You just happened to be on the way,” I add with a cheeky wink.
“Oh, I bet you are.” Charlie laughs, ignoring my jibe. “Does she have something picked out for you already? A nice little PVC one-piece, perhaps?”
I sigh and drop my face in my hands. At some point, Charlie realised that she knew a few people who knew Lori. Then she found out that Lori frequented Tourniquet, the late-night cafe where we had our first date. It’s a nice place: good food, good drink, good prices, all you could want, really. But, as soon as Charlie discovered that its primary patrons are members of the local fetish scene, her mind went straight to PVC and leather, and she decided that would make great material to crack jokes at my expense. Yes, I am glad Lori helped me reconnect with Charlie. At times like this, though, I could kill her for it.
“It’s not like that,” I whine.
Rather than push ahead with her assault like she has the last couple of times, Charlie goes quiet for a moment. “Caz, were you into stuff like that when you and I dated?”
“No. I never even thought about stuff like that when we were together.”
“I thought not.” She smirks. “You’re a relationship chameleon.”
I look up, sure that my face is a picture of confusion. “A what?”
“A relationship chameleon. It means that you change when you’re dating someone and become more like them. Like how you were into retro rock when we met, and then suddenly took a major interest in jazz when you found out that I like it.”
“I just never gave jazz a chance before,” I groan. “And I still like retro rock. Besides, everyone changes a little when they’re in a relationship.”
“True.” Charlie nods. “We all adapt or pick up little things here and there. I, for one, learned how to comfort a big, scary detective who’s a massive wuss when it comes to jump scares. You change a lot, though. Do you remember how you told me about changing your drinking habits when you were dating what’s her name…uhm…” Charlie clicks her fingers, trying to remember the name.
“Dani,” I fill in the blank. “Dani Cole.”
“Dani,” Charlie repeats, pointing a finger at me in triumph. “You barely touched alcohol until you met her, but by the time you’d started seeing me you were drinking at least one beer a night. I bet you still do. It’s not just habits, though; your personality alters too. You were really shy when we first met, then while you were with me, you started adopting some of my snark. From what you told me about how you were in your youth, I reckon you got the shyness from someone else.”
“Or maybe your snark is catching?”
“I prefer so lovable that people can’t help but imitate it, but I’ll take it. And when we split, you reverted to a mix of moody and shy. It was like you didn’t know where to focus yourself anymore. And now you’re suddenly a bit more confident and…I dunno, jokey.”
“Maybe I was just miserable alone, and now I’m happy again?” I try.
“Or maybe you’re adopting some of Lori into yourself. Caz, I can tell when what you’re saying is you and when it’s something else you’re trying to take on. I always could.”
“Charlie, I’m happy. Is that really that bad?”
“No, it’s not. And I am glad that Lori’s convinced you to reconnect, I just don’t want you to get yourself hurt. We didn’t work out, but I do care for you. Promise me that if she tries getting you to do anything you don’t feel comfortable with you’ll say no, OK?”
I frown. “She’s not like that. She won’t try to force me to do anything. What’s brought all this chameleon stuff on, anyway? You’ve never mentioned it before.”
“I kinda wondered about it before, but…I just realised something, that’s all.”
“Well, when I mentioned the PVC thing, you…”
“I, what?” I prompt, and immediately start to regret it.
“I could see it on your face. You weren’t entirely opposed to the idea.”
My cheeks start to flush, and my mouth drops open in shock, unable to form a smart-ass retort. Hell, I can’t even manage a stupid-ass retort at this point.
Charlie laughs, and it’s a long, whooping laugh that spills into her words. “It’s a good job that she thinks you’re cute when you’re embarrassed because you are so going to be blushing a lot when you two get out of first gear.”
“Gee, thanks,” I groan. With all the amusement I’m giving people lately, I’m beginning to wonder if I should consider switching careers and becoming a stand-up. I glance over at the clock on the wall. It’s a hybrid model that works with modern digital tech but built to resemble an old pendulum piece. They’re all the rage right now, or so I’m told. From the way the video display just jumped, I think Charlie’s might be broken. A quick check of my phone confirms that the time is right, at least.
“I better head out,” I say, getting to my feet. “And your pendulum just jumped, by the way. You may want to get that checked out.”
“Oh, it does that.” Charlie smiles, rising to walk me to the door. “I’ve had it checked over three times now and there’s no faults. It keeps the right time, so I’ll forgive it a few little visual blips.”
“Thanks, Charlie. It’s been a fun afternoon.”
“It really has. And don’t worry too much about the chameleon thing, I am half joking. I don’t expect you to be having the Tech Shift op any time soon, at least. Although…they do say that everyone starts to resemble their pets, right?”
“Diu,” I groan.
Lori must have been keeping an eye out for me. I know this because she opened the door to her bungalow a few seconds after I stepped out of the cab and onto Forster Street, New Hopeland’s little slice of white-picket-fence America. I’m not complaining, though. I may not be through my new relationship jitters yet, but it’s nice to know that my company is something someone looks forward to. The majority of the people I spend any real time with are strictly on a work basis, and if you’re coming to investigate, then it’s safe to say that things are already a long way from being skookum. Show me someone who gets excited about that sort of meeting and I’ll show you a masochist.
As I reach the door, Lori leans in to meet me with a quick peck on the cheek. “I’ve got something to show you,” she says and glides back into the hallway, her loose-fit T-shirt swishing quietly as it follows the movement.
“I’m great, thanks for asking,” I tease, pulling the door shut behind me. “And how have you been? Good? Good.”
Lori laughs from somewhere in the living room and replies, “I hope you’re in the mood for coffee.”
“Always.” I lean casually against the door frame. “How’d you manage to get that ready so quickly?”
“I got one of those new temperature-maintaining boxes from the adverts.” She hands me a hot mug of caffeinated liquid joy. “This is about half an hour old.”
I take a tentative sip and let out a surprised huh. “This is pretty good.”
“Isn’t it? The thing works kinda like a microwave. As long as what you put in is around the right temperature to begin with, the power consumption is low too. You just tell it what you’re putting in and how hot you want it, and it keeps checking the temperature and maintains a constant with intermittent blasts.”
“So, what happens if you put something in that isn’t at the right temperature yet?”
Lori shrugs. “According to the instructions, it gets confused and overheats.”
I laugh, take another sip of coffee, and lower myself onto the two-seater couch next to the door. “Sounds like a serious design flaw to me.”
“That’s actually the second cup that I made too,” Lori replies, nodding towards my drink as she sits down next to me. “The mug itself ended up boiled on the first one. The troubleshooters said it was something to do with polar molecules or air bubbles in the ceramic. These ones seem fine. Still, it’s pretty cool as a novelty item.”
“Useful too.” I frown, noticing the slightly screwed-up piece of paper that Lori has wedged between her hand and the mug handle. “What’s that?”
“Ooh, that’s what I wanted to show you.” She grabs the paper with her free hand and places her mug on the floor. She smooths the paper out, revealing an A5 sized flyer, and holds it out to me. I follow suit with my mug and take the printout, focusing instinctively on the bold lettering near the bottom of the page.
“Kitsune?” I ask, raising a quizzical eyebrow. “As in fox?”
Lori smiles and nods. “Exactly. They do interpretive dance and spoken word performances based on Japanese folklore.”
That sounds about right. The flyer is for a run of live shows starting tomorrow night and is almost entirely taken up by a single photo of a figure wearing a traditional Japanese kimono and a white fox mask with red detailing. It isn’t a million miles away from something that you’d see during a “festival” episode of an anime. If my memory is right, the thickness of the obi keeping the garment closed, and the length of the sleeve extension, is feminine in style, as is the space between the collar and the person’s neck. The way the kimono hides the person’s natural build makes it hard to tell if they’re actually female or a male taking on the role as they would in a traditional kabuki show.
The composition of the photo is good at drawing attention to the subtler details. First, the kimono looks beautifully made. I don’t know whether it’s a photo from an actual performance, or whether it was set up specifically for the advertising, but the lighting has been set to catch the shine of the intricately stitched patterning on the outfit. In this case, it depicts a cherry blossom tree in full bloom with a kitsune spirit sitting against the base of the tree. The second thing I notice is that the lone figure has twisted their body to splay nine white tails with red tips out behind them, making the still image far more dynamic and mobile. The tails are pouring out from a gap just under the obi sash, meaning that the kimono must have been either modified or purpose-built to accommodate the appendages. Finally, in a break from the otherwise traditional feel of the performer, the mask’s mouth is wide open with a full row of teeth and a vaguely realistic looking tongue lolling out. The slight shine to both the mask and the artfully positioned clawed hands peeking out from the kimono sleeves give away that they’re made of the same metal as Lori’s panther suit, Ink, which means that this particular kitsune is a Tech Shifter.
Charlie was right earlier when she said I wouldn’t be going through that particular op any time soon. The process basically involves a row of rubber-tipped plugs being inserted into your head and spine, allowing you to wear and control what are essentially overly complicated animal costumes. The problem is, I was there when the first Tech Shifters emerged into New Hopeland, and I lived through the initial turmoil that it caused. At the start, three groups of people took up the role. They became known as the Three F’s: Furries, Fetishists, and Freaks. The first two groups were just out for some fun which, given the nature of the operation, still seems a bit excessive to me, but hey, to each their own. The problem was the third group. That’s where the infamous TS Murder Files came from. Yup, giving the city’s unhinged their own custom-built werewolf suits was just plain stupid. Things are more robust now, though. Full psych tests are carried out before a surgeon will even consider you for the operation, which prevents more Freaks from getting through. It also means that the law enforcement agencies are comfortable enough to run their own TS units.
Lori is a second F, though she doesn’t like the term. For her, Tech Shifting is a way to blow off steam, and while petplay like that is technically associated with the BDSM community, there’s nothing sexual in it for her, so she isn’t fond of being viewed as a Fetishist. Since I started dating Lori, I’ve learned a lot more about Tech Shifting in general, though the memories of the early days still freak me out a little. The ones that caused the trouble were mostly anthropomorphic hybrids like the one on the flyer too, which kinda sets me on edge. But this is the first time I’ve seen Tech Shift gear with a human haircut; the person in the photo has flowing, silver hair swaying in synch with the tails. The way the ears peek out from under it is actually kinda cute.
Lori laughs, drawing me out of my internal monologue. “What?” I ask.
“I knew it. This is why you need this. You’re never off the clock.”
I glare at her, not because I’m upset at all, but because…well, glaring is as natural to me as smiling is to most people. A shrink would probably tell me that it’s a defence mechanism thrown up when I think I’m about to get verbally attacked, but there’s no truth in that. Or that’s what I tell myself anyway. Usually with a scowl.
“Never off the clock? What are you talking about? I’m not working right now.”
“Of course you are. C’mon, Cassie, I can read you like an open book. Your face gives it away. The subtle way your eyes flick across the page, the slight on-off tightening at the corners of your mouth. You’re studying the picture for clues. What for, I don’t know, but you’re definitely doing it.”
I’d protest but, much to my chagrin, she’s right. I guess it’s because all I’ve had up until recently was work. Even when I didn’t have a case on, I was still trawling through the local news sites to see if I could get a head start on anything that may have been about to come my way. The problem is, PI work in New Hopeland has peaks and troughs, and it’s near impossible to predict when each will happen. As it is, the press I received when I solved Lori’s case the month before last has led to a near-constant influx of work. The same thing happened when I found Jonah Burrell’s daughter, and before that when I helped recover the arms that an upstart street gang had lifted from a visiting military team. Since there’s no real way to tell when it’s all gonna bottom out again, I’ve been taking on everything that comes my way, just in case I’m about to hit another dry spell. All of the focus on work has meant that, recently at least, my mind hasn’t been entirely here when I’ve been with Lori.
“Remind me never to play poker with you,” I groan. “So, how many are there in the troupe?”
“Just the one.”
“One? Didn’t you say they?”
“Yup. In folklore, kitsune were shapeshifters and could take on any gender, so this kitsune does the same. They use voice changers and alter their body language depending on what they’re depicting, and they use neutral pronouns. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if, under all the gear, they identified outside the binary.”
“Huh. So what F do you think they are?”
“I couldn’t tell you. Is that what you were trying to figure out?”
I nod. “Given that it’s at the biggest show venue in the city, I figured they weren’t a secret third F. I remember you saying that pretty much all second Fs are petplayers too, so setting up a job linked to Tech Shifting would be counterproductive for that. You also said that most second Fs used a full animal suit and that it was the first Fs who went for the hybrid style, so I was thinking they’re probably a Furry.”
Lori lets out an exasperated sigh and throws her arms out in defeat. “Okay, okay, I’ll bite. You’re not gonna let yourself shut down otherwise. First, I definitely agree about them not being a secret Freak. They’ve been around for a few years and Freaks tend to be a little too unstable to not get caught, even if they manage to control themselves long enough to make it through testing. As far as the Fetishist thing goes, most go full animal but not all. Also, you’re basing your thinking on the idea that the world they’re trying to escape is itself a job. My reasons are my own, and not everyone has the same stressors that I do. For all we know, they could have, I dunno, disabled relatives to care for, and this gives them a way to fund said responsibilities while removing themselves from it for a time. Or they could have been bullied as a kid. This could be a way for them to take a step back and be someone else, or, more importantly, someone that other people love rather than ridicule.
“Yes, the gear makes it more likely that they’re a Fur, but it doesn’t guarantee it. You haven’t actually met any TS Furs, have you?” I shake my head, and she continues, “The majority go for cute designs. That means straight up cartoony or quirky horror. This is traditional in style, which doesn’t really fit in with that. Of course, whether the design was made to fit in with the job, or the job evolved from the style, is anybody’s guess. Now, Miss Detective, can you guess what all that means?”
I roll my eyes. “That I’m overthinking something unimportant and that I’ll never know the answers anyway.”
“It’s an interesting concept,” I say, and Lori pounces on the opening.
“I thought so. The thing is, my boss got a couple of freebie tickets for tomorrow and the next day. It isn’t really his sort of thing, and they only need reporters to cover one of the nights. He thought that night two would be better as it’ll give Kitsune a chance to sort out any technical faults that pop up, so that left opening night going free and…well…I agreed to take them off his hands. So, what do you say? I could give you one ticket and pretend I got it because I can’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese folklore, and you can give me the other ticket and pretend that you think I’ll enjoy it because I’m a Tech Shifter and must, therefore, love all things Tech Shift related.”
“Seriously? You want us to pretend to be bigots for a night out?”
Lori laughs, and it’s one of her full-bodied laughs that makes her whole body shake in mirth. She grabs me into a hug and presses her face to my shoulder, tears rolling down her cheeks as she says, “Of course not. It makes more sense than questioning every little thing about a photo of someone dressed as an anthropomorphic fox spirit, though.”
“Okay, okay,” I reply, joining the laughter. “Point taken. It is pretty hard to switch off as of late.”
Lori steps back and looks up at me, wiping the tears away from her pale blue eyes. “Honestly, the whole thing sounds kinda hammy to me, but you never know. At worst, we’ll either get a surprisingly good show or something we can laugh about later.”
I tilt my head and let my eyes relax into a warm curiosity. “This is really important to you, isn’t it?”
Lori blinks and turns her face away, her cheeks reddening a little. “You are an incredible person, but you really don’t look after yourself sometimes. I have Ink, but you don’t really have many ways to wind down and get out of that work headspace.” She lifts her head back to mine, and her eyes are a beautiful mix of pleading and something else hidden just beneath the surface. For someone who spends part of her time as a large cat, she sure does puppy-dog eyes well. “Please, Cassie, let me take care of you with this.”
“Okay,” I sigh. “Okay, I’ll go. But for the record, there are nine-tailed fox stories in Chinese folklore too. We called them jiuweihu.”
“Good to know,” she says, and pulls me into another hug. “Thank you.”
Confidence. It was confidence lurking beneath the cuteness. She knew I couldn’t resist that look. I’d cry foul by way of manipulation, but I’m pretty sure she also knew that, deep down, I know she’s right. At the very least when I’m around her. I don’t know if I’m focusing on work because the relationship jitters make me so uncomfortable, or if there’s still part of me that doesn’t feel ready to be with someone, but something has to change. This could be just what I need.
The Cassie Tam Files Book 3
New Hopeland City may be the birthplace of Tech Shifter gear, but it isn’t the only place that likes to blend technology with folklore. Now, a new nightmare is stalking the streets…
When PI Cassie Tam is attacked on the way home one night, she expects the police to get involved. What she doesn’t expect is to be forced into acting as bait to lure out a lunatic in a tech-suit that’s literally out for blood. But past actions have consequences, and doing so may be the only way she can get a clean slate from the city’s law makers.
If only that didn’t mean having to face down a wannabe vampire.
Matt Doyle © 2018
All Rights Reserved
“Nei hou gaau siu.”
When Lori smiles like that, her eyes take on a slight twinkle, making their pale blue tone feel warm and welcoming. That being the case, it takes me a moment to realise I didn’t understand a word she just said. Am I so drunk already? “Uh, sorry. What?”
Lori giggles and repeats, “Nei hou gaau siu.” When I stare blankly, she frowns and asks, “Is my pronunciation off? I was sure that was right.”
“What were you trying to say?”
“I was trying to tell you that you’re funny in Cantonese.”
And at that, the laughter spills out of me, uncontrolled to the point I have to bury my face in the table to muffle the sound. If we’d been in our usual haunt, Northern Main Street’s late-night café-cum-alternative hangout Tourniquet, I’d have let loose uninhibited. The people there look like an odd bunch when you’re viewing things from the outside, but if you spend enough time there, you soon realise they’re all really nice people with tastes and hobbies that fall outside the mainstream. Seeing as we’ve opted for Cartwright’s on Dunstone Avenue, though, I’m trying to hold back. Honestly, I am. I’m just not doing a good job of it.
The staff in Cartwright’s are lovely, but the clientele is a little less raucous than those at Tourniquet, and so I’m already drawing some confused looks by the time I wipe the tears from my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I’m sorry.”
“I’ve never been much good at languages. Oh God,” Lori sighs and shoots me a now far more nervous smile. “Put me out of my misery. What did I say?”
I shrug. “You probably told me I was funny in Cantonese.”
Lori tilts her head and says, “Okay, now I’m confused.”
“I don’t speak Cantonese.”
“Yes, you do.”
“I really don’t.”
“You really do. I mean, you can’t seriously be telling me you’ve been using diu in the Taiwanese sense?”
“No, no…,” I reply, waving my hands in frantic motions. “Wait. What does it mean in Taiwan?”
“It was old slang for cool.”
“Oh, right. No, I’m definitely using it the way you think.”
“So you do speak Cantonese then.”
“No, I swear in Cantonese. I couldn’t hold a conversation in it. My dad had a thing about me swearing. He hated it, even when I was an adult. It was the one thing that always made him roll his eyes at Mom. Anyway, he spoke Mandarin, English, and a little French, so my options for big kid words were kinda limited. I went to school with a guy named Tom Huang; he spoke Cantonese, so I got him to teach me the cool words. Dad probably got the gist of what I was saying, but I think he appreciated the ingenuity of it.”
And now, Lori laughs and buries her face in her hands. She shakes her head and says, “I am such an idiot.”
“Nah, it’s not like I’ve ever spoken Mandarin around you, so how would you know? Honestly, I know enough Mandarin to get by, but we always spoke English at home, so I just picked that up easier. Let’s see, though…you would have meant nǐ hěn gǎoxiào. Or if you wanted to be really over the top with it, nǐjiӑng shénme dōu néng bӑ wŏ lè huài le. That’s ‘everything you say cracks me up.’”
Lori shakes her head. “I think I’ll stick to English.”
“I am sorry for laughing,” I say, taking her hand. “It was really sweet of you to try learning something in another language for me. Why that phrase, though?”
Lori lets out a short, gentle laugh, and replies, “Every time we’re together, you either do or say something to make me laugh, so I figured it was something I could guarantee I’d get to use.”
“I’ll get us another drink,” I blurt, and whip myself to my feet and away towards the counter. It was just a compliment, but still… Did I move quick enough to stop her seeing how red my cheeks are?
“Nǐ hěn gǎoxiào,” Lori giggles in broken Mandarin.
I guess I was too slow. Diu.
“You’re sure you don’t want me to give you a lift back?” Lori asks.
I shake my head. “We both have early starts tomorrow, and it’ll take you all the way back to the other end of the city. Besides, it’s a nice evening.”
Lori looks up at the clear sky and nods. “It’s still pretty early by our standards too, so I guess it’s not like there are going to be too many muggers out.”
“Come on.” I act mock taken aback. “You can’t seriously think I wouldn’t be able to handle a couple of petty thieves?”
“Oh, I know you can. I just thought if anyone was stupid enough to attack you, you’d probably get hauled up for assault.”
“Cheeky,” I retort, giving Lori a playful punch in the arm.
She smiles in response and draws me into a deep kiss, running her fingers smoothly through my hair and tracing a line down the back of my neck. When I shiver and a low moan leaves my lips, she pulls back and fixes me with a playful, I-love-having-that-effect-on-you grin. Ever the tease, she backs up to her car, keeping her eyes on mine, unlocks the door with the fingerprint scanner and slides effortlessly into the driver’s seat. It’s so well practised, part of me has always wondered if she’s used the same moves on other people before. I tried following that train of thought once and came to two conclusions. The first was the concept probably wasn’t new, and she knows full well what she’s doing, but with others, different spots probably set them off.
The second thing I realised was that I don’t really care. Whether she’s treated others the same or not doesn’t matter. What matters is it’s me she’s putting the effort in with now. No matter who it was for in the past, right now it’s for me, and just me. Part of me really wants to tell her all that, because I want her to know how much I appreciate that she pays attention to what I like. But you won’t tell her, I remind myself. Because you’re making the effort not to overanalyse things and pretending you don’t is the best you’ve got right now.
Lori slows the car as she passes me and leans out the window to say, “Seriously, though, Cassie. Stay safe. Message me when you get home, yeah?”
“Of course,” I say, with a wink, “I wouldn’t want my pretty kitty worrying.”
Lori chuckles at my lame attempt to demonstrate an okay-ness with her Tech Shifting and waves her goodbyes as she pulls out onto the surprisingly quiet street. I am okay with knowing she Tech Shifts, especially as it’s her primary way to de-stress. In a way, I’m lucky too; between Lori and the others at the regular meets up at the Forster Street Community Centre—who have all been really welcoming since I started intermittently, not to mention awkwardly, attending—my interactions with the Tech Shifting community has been pretty positive of late. Even the Kitsune case last month was fine in that respect. It was the non-TS crowd who caused all the trouble for me.
Yet you still can’t let go of the TS Murder Files, can you? No matter how different those around you are, you can’t separate them in your head. Not completely.
I shake away the bad thoughts and start making my way down Main Street. It would actually be a little quicker to take some of the back streets, but I’m guessing Lori brought up the muggings because the news sites have been reporting a sudden spike in them recently. She made a joke of it, but she really does worry, I can tell that much. Even if Lori can’t see me doing it, I’d rather take the precautions to make sure she doesn’t have to worry so much. So, Main Street with all its lights and public visibility it is.
It really is a nice night out, though, complete with a clear sky and a bright, shiny moon to look down on me. It’s still early enough that the drinkers and the eternal partygoers aren’t out in full swing yet, so it’s pretty quiet too. In fact, for most of the walk, the loudest sound I can hear is the quiet put-put-put of the EU25s that line the kerb of the street at regular intervals. The idea of the small metal boxes is they sit nondescriptly just within the bounds of the kerb and process the air put out by the non-electric cars going up and down the road. I stop and lean down to watch the little machine in action because, well, despite my normal mixed emotions about some of our modern tech, these things fascinate me.
We were at one point expected to go entirely electric with vehicles, but it’s still cheaper to run a car on fossil and biofuels, so the city is pretty evenly split in terms of who owns what. Even if biodiesel is still the higher seller of the two, it does emit an odour. Personally, I think biodiesel emissions smell a little like burnt fries, which isn’t entirely unpleasant as car exhaust fumes go, but I get why people don’t like it. The current thinking is that, now the poorly titled petroleum cloning research has started gaining ground, it’s likely we’ll see an influx of biodiesel cars within the next twenty years. You see, since the animal rights protests have died down in relation to cloning what are essentially modified but already dead animals in order to harvest unnatural amounts of fat to help produce the fuel, the experts are touting how the prices are going to drop again.
Which would mean more burnt fast food wafting through the streets. So, about two weeks ago, the Government rushed out the installation of the EnviroUnit version 25, or EU25, so they could road test it in a live environment. The machine takes in the emissions, neutralises the smell through some sort of techno-magic, and releases a virtually odourless equivalent in its stead. The general consensus so far is they’re working really well. Not to mention they’ve had a positive effect on other potentially unwanted stinks; like mess left by the living animals who now only make up a little over a third of the city’s pet population, or the liquid expulsions of those who can’t tell when to stop drinking.
“No, these I can get on board with,” I say, getting to my feet and continuing my journey.
I freeze. “Hello?”
“Help…me. Please…” the voice comes again, rising weakly from a darkened alley a few steps ahead.
I narrow my eyes, my internal paranoia engine on full alert. Mysterious voices crying for help from darkened alleys are not always what they seem. My moral compass is pointing due innocent-in-trouble, though, so I opt for the balanced approach and walk towards the alley. Slowly.
I give a quick glance around to make sure that my exits are clear and reply, “Hello? I can’t see you. What happened?”
“Lured in…three men. Took my purse,” the voice rasps, clearly female now, and carrying an air of a genuine struggle to get the words out with it.
I take a deep breath and make a decision there and then. “Okay, I’m coming in. Whereabouts are you?”
I walk forward a few more steps, pushing through the contents of a flipped dumpster, and try again. “Miss? I can’t see you.”
“Back here. Bleeding. Help…me. Please.”
It takes ten more steps for me to hear the alarm bells ringing in my head. Help me. Please. It sounded the same as the first time she said it. Exactly the same.
I turn to head back towards Main Street but realise very quickly that I’m too late. A bright flash of light hits my eyes and, before I can bring my hand up to shield my vision, my hands flinch back involuntarily as a wave of fear rushes over me. I stumble back, heading further into the alley as I try to escape, and trip over something on the floor. Or it may have been my own feet. I can’t tell any more. My vision is blurring, and as each flash of light hits me, I see a figure getting closer and closer.
Something inside me registers what I’m looking at and I start to retch, my stomach forcing its contents up and out onto the ground in front of me. The warmth of it is pooling around my hands, bringing with it the realisation that I’ve somehow pushed myself up onto all fours. I force my head away from the light, but it makes no difference. I still can’t see properly, can’t even begin to get to my feet. And the voices; whispering incoherently from all around me.
Two gloved hands reach out and touch me. A voice in the back of my head screams, Run! Get up and run!
But I can’t.
All I can do is whisper one word as I feel a tightness in my head, and the darkness engulfs my vision.
Matt Doyle is a speculative fiction author from the UK and identifies as pansexual and genderfluid. Matt has spent a great deal of time chasing dreams, a habit which has led to success in a great number of fields. To date, this has included spending ten years as a professional wrestler, completing a range of cosplay projects, and publishing multiple works of fiction.
These days, Matt can be found working on multiple novels and stories, blogging about pop culture, and plotting and planning far too many projects.
Is Silence Golden?
Writers tend to fall broadly into two categories: those that need silence to write, and those that prefer to have some background noise. Me personally, I fall into the ‘needs noise’ category. See, I’ve tried to write in silence, but it just doesn’t work. Why? Because I’m easily distracted.
That probably sounds a little odd, right? I’m easily distracted, yet I need an auditory distraction to write. Here’s the thing though. My mind is naturally very busy. Whether I’m writing, cooking, cleaning, or pretty much anything else, it tends to wander. It’s like I can’t help but look for distractions no matter what I’m doing. So, when I tried writing in silence, I found that I’d manage a few lines, then start looking around the room and listening out for things going on outside. Then I’d get back to it, and after a few more lines, I’d start thinking about something completely unrelated. It was absolutely maddening.
Then I discovered how useful music was for me. With music playing in the background, my mind has a pre-made distraction running to focus on. With that in place, the worse that happens is that I end up acknowledging that music is playing and just carry on. That I can pick playlists of songs that fit with the feel of the scene that I’m writing is a great help too as it gets me into the right mood for the action on the page.
Now, this rarely works if the music is playing on the TV. Sometimes, if it’s a live performance that’s fairly stripped down, it won’t matter. If it’s a big show or a music video though, I get drawn to the visuals. As such, I tend to play the music in the background on the laptop, as the only visuals in front of me is then the slowly growing pile of words in front of me.
So there we go. I get distracted far too easily, so need to set up a singular distraction to distract me from getting distracted by other distractions, or I can’t write. Nothing like keeping it simple, eh?
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