When I was growing up, my mother always told me one thing:
"Morty, I swear to God, if you don't shape up, you're gonna grow up fucking someone for money!"
That's my mother for you. Don't get the wrong idea, you had to be tough to raise four kids on your own in the Canning district of Union City. Union City's only the most modern and confusing place in the whole wide world, where the rails ran on electricity and so did some of the people. I was the only boy, so she was worried for me. We lived in a neighborhood where everyone paid a "protection fee" and everyone voted for the guy who gave us laundry money. Auto-men had the right to vote, but that didn't mean anything when they were built with guns for fingers and stills in their chest cavities.
So you can't blame her for being worried I might fall in with the wrong crowd. My sisters weren't a problem — they were Blumenfeld women, and Mom knew Blumenfeld women. Blumenfeld women were made of potato pancakes and pure grit. Blumenfeld men — eh, we weren't known for our staying power. Just try to ask my father, who got himself plugged by a gambling ring when I was two.
So my mother, God bless her, had a special place in her heart for me, and that place was seeing to it I grew up all right.
"Morty, I swear to God, if don't eat your greens, you're gonna grow up fucking someone for money!"
And: "Morty, I swear to God, if you keep skipping school, you're gonna grow up fucking someone for money!"
And finally: "Morty, if you keep staying out late, you're gonna grow up fucking someone for money!"
And wouldn't you know it? She was right.
Don't get the wrong idea. It's not like I "fell into the life" or anything like that. Well, I did, but not the kinda life you think.
I like to think I lived an honest life. I honestly wanted to do my mother proud. I honestly wanted to eat. I honestly wanted to not get myself killed. I also honestly didn't want to get arrested. I guess I could have taken some easy way out: joined up with the Pedrini family, or those German gamblers on the other side of the avenue, but a skinny Jewish kid didn't have much to bring to the table besides a really angry mother — and, anyway, I considered myself more enterprising than that.
So, instead, I specialized.
"Morty Flowers! It's been an age!"
Cal Hones was the kinda guy who considered himself everyone's friend, and as everyone's friend he considered it his business to know your business — and the fists that could make it his business pretty damn easy. He had a look of a guy whose face was made of clay that'd been melted a little in the kiln and left him the vaguest-looking person alive. You couldn't say if his hair was red or brown. You couldn't say if his eyes were grey or blue. What you could say was that he had a crooked smile and a way of making your skin crawl. His favorite suit was a red pinstripe, and his favorite coat was a battered, old trench with a patch over the pocket. That morning he had it thrown over his shoulder. It was a stupid-hot July, and the heat was already fanning off the sidewalks as he came to greet me, all teeth.
"What age is that?" I asked, innocently enough. "Roman?"
"Still that old excuse?" asked Hones, because what was a little anti-semitism between friends? "Now, really! Can't I check up on you? How's your mother?"
"How's yours?" I asked, and checked my watch. I was waiting outside the station, and my partner was late.
"You're cute, Morty," said Hones. "What's in the package?"
I looked Hones up and down. "Now, I don't know Cal. I could show you, but you haven't even bought me dinner."
Hones' vague face rippled with surprise, then annoyance. He wasn't a guy used to being told "no," especially not from the guy known to be the best runner in town. I guess you could say I was pushing it. I could afford to. A shadow had come to hang over one Cal Hones and his big, wide grin. The shadow wore a long coat.
It put a big wide hand on Cal Hones' shoulder.
"Good morning, Mr. Hones," said the auto-man, in a deep voice that sounded like it came from deep inside the metal barrel of his chest. He had a pretty thick, metal accent. He was an older model, second-gen factory brand. They hadn't been built to sound customer friendly. They'd been built to lift and work, and the arm that the auto-man had out looked pretty damn good at doing just that. "May I be of some assistance?"
Hones' smile froze in place. "Ah," he said, smooth as he could, turning with some care under the big hand. "Solomon Krups. How did I know you'd be here?"
"Maybe 'cause you know me, Cal," I said, shifting the package from one arm to the other. I could relax now that Solomon had finally shown up. "Me and Solomon, joined at the hip. Long line at the diner, Sol?"
"There had been a power surge," admitted Solomon, with the kind of deep shame you expected out of the weird Russian novels he read. "Your coffee is in my chambers. I will ask again: May I be of some assistance, Mr. Hones?"
He removed his hand from Hones' shoulder and crossed them both over his chassis. That wasn't a standard pose for a manufacturer. I'd told him once it looked impressive. Solomon had taken it to heart — or, well, core processor, if we want to be accurate.
Cal Hones held up his hands and laughed. "Ah, no, no. I was just asking your friend about the weather. Clear day today, isn't it? Hope it stays that way."
Hones gave a vague nod of his head and sauntered his way back around the corner. When Solomon could no longer hear his footsteps, he craned his head back toward me.
"Was he a problem for you, Mordecai?"
"Oh, nah, I had this one." Solomon's eyes flickered doubtfully. "You'd been any later and he'd be asking after my dear old Pa, though. Sure has gotten persistent."
Solomon had one of those older faces, the kind that wasn't fully articulated in the way the younger auto-men went nowadays, but you knew when he was frowning. "He may have more of an incentive, nowadays," he wondered, "if what I have heard is the truth."
Hones was always finding new friends to sell out. These friends were getting bigger and bigger. Last we'd heard, he'd been pal-ing it up with the Pedrinis, and now they were saying a finer acquaintance had come his way. "Better let old Vin know he's been sniffing around when we get back. First thing's first. Coffee, then work."
"Yes," agreed Solomon, reaching into the front of his blazer to unhook his chambers. Can't say I watched him do it, it's pretty rude to have a look all up in your friend's insides like that, but I caught a thing or two out of the corner of my eye.
"Say, Solomon," I said, as I took the cup and he buttoned back up. "That power surge didn't look anything like that box of old books Mr. Pearson had out on the curb this morning, did it?"
"Mm." Solomon's vocalizers hummed thoughtfully. "Mordecai, we had best be on our way."
I smirked and took a sip. "Thought you'd say something like that."
The train was hot and crowded as we rode up town. I pressed close to Sol, who turned his fans up to the highest setting. You could hear them rattling in his chest: thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk. The light in his eyes fluctuated in counterpoint to it. There were plenty of other Auto-men on board, some steaming from their ears with heat. Even the newer models don't do so well if it's hot enough, and it was certainly hot enough.
I guess you'd think it was pretty stupid using public transit for an errand like the one me and Solomon were on. You'd think, "Geez Louise, Morty Flowers, you know this thing's probably going to some mob guy, you don't think some security's in order?" Well, I had my security. My security was trying to do his best to hold the strap in one hand while fumbling for a book by some English guy in another. I grabbed the book and held it up for him.
If you were my mother, you'd think, "Mordecai Blumenfeld, I swear to God, you keep taking crowded trains with special packages, you're gonna grow up..." ...You've heard the rest.
Well, joke's on you, Ma. I had no idea what was even in the package, and some lazy bum on a subway with an auto-man generally turns a lot less heads than a nervous guy in a nice car. Me and Solomon knew how to do real low-down, mostly because we were real low-down, but it was a quality appreciated by a lot of the locals who didn't always have the resources and flash to deal with any unwanted attention. If you're a famous courier, you're a bad courier, and if there was anything I sure was good at it, it was not being a celebrity.
We got the package from Vin, proprietor of the East Breaker Deli. He sold cold cuts, cough syrup, and — if you asked nicely enough — some sundries I didn't know too much about. You couldn't say on the record Vin had ever gotten himself involved with anything nasty. On the record, Vin was a technophobe who'd never left the block he grew up on. The cold cuts were actually pretty good, and growing up I'd made a pretty honest dime running sandwiches and soup for him on the old piece of shit bike I used to outrun the neighborhood assholes before I found Solomon.
Far as I was concerned, errands like this were hardly any different. If the package was a little heavier than your average Reuben, eh, sometimes folks liked a little extra meat.
What was different was that this order was going to up the Camellia Club, at 32nd and Junction. It struck me as a little out of the way for Vin, but when I'd asked he just threw up his hands and asked me if I wanted to get paid.
The club was a few blocks from the station. I kept a few steps ahead of Solomon as I counted the street numbers, though I didn't have to. The Camellia Club was easy to find: It was a dance and dinner spot, ostensibly, with an elaborate sign of a lady swimming in a huge blossom. It was nine-fifteen by the time we got there. The neighboring stores were just starting to open. The club itself was closed, the lights under the big sign dim, and the doors covered with bars. People didn't do their dancing in the morning, and if they did their drinking it was best done in the safety of their own homes. The place I wanted was the apartment just up above the club, where the owner and recipient — a fellow by the name of Leland Bless — usually kept his favorite mistress and an office for "business negotiations."
"Can't see how any of this is suspicious at all," I said, shielding my eyes as I peered up the building. It was a nice looking building. Stone. Turn of the century. Far cry from the run-down tenement where I'd grown up.
"Shall I come with you?" asked Solomon.
I thought about it.
"Nah," I decided. "That'd raise too many eyebrows. But, listen, if I'm not back in ten, climb the fire escape for me." I handed Solomon's book back to him. Solomon fixed himself near the foot of the steps while I introduced myself to the door man. I was expected, of course. Mr. Bless lived on the third floor. The whole third floor.
I always figured club owners like Leland Bless were real big shots, so you can imagine what I was expecting walking into that office: a lot of space, expensive lamps, a good-looking secretary, a man in a nice suit comfortable with power. The space and the lamps were there. The secretary was a well-polished auto-man with a well-articulated face, one that seemed to jitter with nervous energy as he led me in.
"Someone order a sandwich?" I asked, because sometimes I can be a wise-guy. It's not always advised, but I had no reason to think I was in any danger.
At least, not before I walked into that room.
It didn't take an expert to read the atmosphere. The room was cold, and smelled a little like motor oil and ozone. My back straightened before I knew it, and my hand fell off my hat.
Leland Bless was at his desk, to be sure, but he wasn't smiling, and he wasn't relaxed. He was bent over, his suit wrinkled and his eyelids dark and sunken like he hadn't slept all night. He winced as the door shut behind me, casting a hurried glance to his left. My eyes followed him, and I think I must've winced in the exact same way.
Standing at the window looking down at the street I'd just come off of was an auto-man. Now, the Canning district's pretty industrial, and full of old boarding warehouses, so I'm not one of those guys who gets all weird to a fella who happens to be made of chrome and not squishy bits — but this guy really stopped you. He wasn't especially tall, and the clothes he wore consisted of just a basic, dark suit, but he was striking for the cool, curved design of his head. His eyes burned a bright light blue. He had a sculpted nose and mouth that was curved into a hard, amused line. That was where any reason to look like a flesh-man went out the window. He didn't wear any of the padding or porcelain that auto-men like, say, the clerk who'd let me in wore to make themselves look a little less uncanny. He'd kept his outer casing shiny and well-buffed, and all of it was painted a deep, wine red.
There was only one class of auto-men that went in for that kind of customization, and, of those guys, only one who was known to be a patron of the Camellia Club: Rudolph Pedrini. The centerpiece himself. He turned to face me. His hydraulics systems were impeccably well-oiled — you couldn't even hear the whirr.
"Well, look, Leland," said Rudolph Pedrini. I could see my face reflected between his eyes. It looked far too small and pale for my liking. "What is this?"
Some twenty or thirty odd years ago, the Pedrini models were construction workers, not far from Solomon in design. You could still see a little bit of that in their patriarch — Rudolph had traded out plenty of his parts to make an honest business man out of himself, but he'd kept his arms good and spring-loaded. The fabric of his suit clung desperately to the moving parts. Bless's eyes watched this for a second longer than they should have, then he laughed, nervously, like I'd come in the middle of a joke.
"Oh, right, that," said Bless. "I should've mentioned. I guess this was the package we were expecting."
"I guess so," said Rudolph. His mouth split open. He'd had prosthetic teeth put in. He'd made them as reflective as his plating.
Things got real quiet for a second.
"We should know who it's for," said Rudolph, after a moment.
"Ah, yes," said Leland, his eyes fixed on me with a wild sort of panic. He was trying to tell me something. "Who... is it for?"
I swallowed and crossed the room, feeling Rudolph's sensors on me every step of the way. "One Leland Bless?" I said. It wasn't really a question, but something told me I couldn't afford to go off script.
"Yes," said Bless, with a strained smile. "Yes, that would be me. Thank you, son. Why don't you put it right there."
"Who's it from?" asked Rudolph.
"Why don't you tell me, son," said Bless. Sweat stood out on his brow.
"East Breaker Deli," I said, feeling like the air was getting squeezed out of the room.
Bless laughed. It was a broken, nervous kind of laugh. "Ah. Yes. Of course. Just... as expected."
Rudolph Pedrini gave a metallic chuckle. "Well, thanks," he told me. "Don't let me and my old friend here keep you from your next delivery."
Leland leaned forward at the desk, his eyes bulged in their sunken sockets. "Oh," he said, with a smile, "I should at least offer you some refreshment—"
"Oh, no," said Rudolph. "I'm sure he's on a very tight schedule. Your man at the door can show this fellow out, can't he?"
"...Of course," whispered Leland.
The auto-man came to take me away. I went. I can't say there was a lot of room for me to say or do anything else. As the door shut, I heard Rudolph Pedrini walk to the desk. "Now, Leland," he said, "why don't we see what you ordered?"
I was just out the front door when I heard the first shot.
I stopped dead. That kept me from being dead. I heard glass shatter. Something hard whizzed past my face, ramming with a punch into the steps in front of me. I felt hard metal hands on my arms. The world went spinning. I saw clear blue skies and grey building tops and the top of Solomon's head. I heard the next shot clang against Solomon's back — thank God for industrial-strength casing. Someone outside started screaming. Someone inside started screaming. I reached for the gun Cal Hones sure hadn't known I'd had that morning. I didn't have time to pull it out of safety. The third shot nearly got me in the foot. Solomon threw his arm over my head, and, with his other, ripped a stone fixing off of the stoop and threw it at the window.
Glass and wood and brick went raining onto the pavement. Solomon pulled me against him. I could hear the pistons working in him. He was hot with raised energy, and steam leaked out his ear.
"Colt Hand Mount," murmured Solomon. "R1911. Auto-man."
"You think?" I said. It wasn't going to be a flesh-and-blood gunman sporting one of those. "We're done here!" And I wondered why, in all her warnings about my life choices, my mother never warned me about the possibility of someone wanting to blow my brains out for no good reason.
Solomon scooped me up like a new bride and ran. His book lay in the gutter, forgotten and full of holes.
District Attorney Marvin Brewer was no auto-man, but word was he sure wished he was one. He wore a grey suit that matched his hard, grey eyes, and his jaw was fixed tighter than Solomon's as he stared at me across the table. He sat with his hands resting on the table, completely unmoved. Next to him, Detective Wallace smoked a chimney, and on the other side, Cal Hones snapped me a wink.
Wouldn't you know it, the asshole hadn't bought me dinner, but he sure had gotten me lunch. Not that I touched it. It was rude to eat when Solomon was right there. It was now 3 PM and I'd spent most of the day in a room with people listening in, just me and Sol. They probably had hoped they'd hear us admit to something. I'd just asked Sol about the book he was reading.
"I want my lawyer," I said. "This is bullshit. You guys have a system you're supposed to use for this kinda thing, don't you? And I'm telling you, I didn't shoot anybody."
"Nobody is saying you did," said Brewer, I swear the light barely reflected in his eyes as he sifted through the papers in front of him. "Our preliminary investigation suggests that Leland Bless took his own life. He was a man in very difficult straits, Morty Flowers."
"Or should we say Mordecai Blumenfeld," inserted Hones. If my mother saw the gesture I made at him then... well, she'd have cut my hands off.
"What, his missus find out about his love nest?" I asked, sitting back as cool as I could be with three police class auto-men at my back.
"...Actually, yes," said the DA. The corner of his lip twisted, slightly. Who knew, he wasn't made of metal. "Though that was the end of a very unfortunate chain of events. Leland Bless was in an unfortunate financial position. His associate and employee — a Miss 'Katy Green' — had asked him for a certain sum of money to keep word of his activities quiet."
I had to be dead if they were telling me this much. "So she was tired of being a dirty, little secret, and wanted a payoff. You saying this because you expect me to know any of it?"
But Brewer continued, flat and dead. He was just missing the accent. "No, but I expect you would understand how his investors felt when they learned he had taken the money to pay her from his own personal accounts."
Investors. I thought of Pedrini, with his dark suit and fresh polish job at the window. I sat forward in my chair, smacking the table. "Well, hell. Bastard could've just plugged himself then and there and saved us the—"
"He was the one who told you," said Solomon, saving me from an accidental confession.
Brewer's eyes lifted in what I realized for him counted as surprised.
"You came to that sooner than expected," he admitted.
"You would not have put your informant on the scene unless you were already aware a situation was in play," said Solomon, "and everyone knows the one man who fears no machine is Marvin Brewer."
Marvin Brewer didn't exactly smile. He just worked his stiff jaw from side to side, like his tooth hurt. "Is that what they say?" he murmured. There was something kind of wry about it. I wondered what he thought about half of the other things they said about him: that his dad had been one of the big player in the Ro Riots at the turn of the century. That he'd given him up to the Feds himself. That he wouldn't bail his own mother out if she were brought in for a parking violation. That he'd divorced his first wife for an auto-woman.
"It is what Leland Bless would have known," reasoned Solomon.
Marvin Brewer seemed to come alive at that. He leaned back. He almost smiled. "Good. Very well. At the moment, what we have right now on record is a very frightened business man who bought a gun to shoot himself to avoid a more grisly fate at the hand of one of Union City's more... colorful characters," he said. "What we do not have on record is that Leland Bless was in communication with a number of our agents regarding potential cooperation in a number of standing investigations Detective Wallace here was hoping to bring to trial. In particular, those related to the illegal government withholdings on the part of an automatic gentleman and company owner known as Rudolph Pedrini. One of Leland Bless' contacts in that case was Agent Hones, who you see here."
Cal winked at me. The son of a bitch. And here I'd just thought he was a snitch. Everyone had.
"So, what you're saying," I said, putting my feet on the table. Marvin Brewer narrowed his eyes, but what was he going to do? Arrest me? "Is that Mr. Bless was a key witness, but my question is: if your boys can prove he blew his brains out alone in his office, how's that explain the guy who tried to connect the dots with me and my partner here?"
Solomon let out a soft breath of steam.
"Very simple, Mr. Blumenfeld," said Brewer. "Those shots were fired by a disturbed member of the house staff who witnessed you flee the scene after Bless was found dead. A disturbed member who we are unable to examine, under the Free Mechanics Protection Act, preventing any dismantling or examination of an auto-man's equipment without express permission or a warrant."
Well, shit. I kept my feet on the table.
"There are a few ways this could go," continued Brewer. "The first is that we could arrest you as an accessory for murder. You are most definitely that. You are also most definitely guilty of the trafficking of weapons, illegal possession of a weapon, possession of a weapon with the conspiracy to do harm and, if the case were to go very well, conspiracy to do murder even if your prints can't be directly connected to those on the gun which killed Mr. Bless."
"What's the second?" I asked, trying not to blink.
"The second," said Brewer, "is that Bless' death was a suicide. In which case, you would still be arrested on charges of possession, trafficking, and conspiracy, depending on how deep your connections with your friend down in Canning run, and how willing he would be to sell you out."
My guess? Very willing. Vin was a guy who asked his kid delivery boy to run guns, after all. "Great set of choices you're giving me, here."
"Well," admitted Brewer, with a slight shrug, "the third is that Pedrini murders you before you can place him on the scene with Leland Bless that day, and therefore an active associate, and therefore validate all that Leland Bless managed to tell us before he died."
My chair fell back. Solomon caught it before I could crack my head on the concrete floor. Marvin Brewer didn't bat an eye, he just nodded to Wallace, who handed him his lighter. He lit a cigarette, and began to smoke it, blowing the smoke out like an old, metal coal miner.
"Don't mistake me," he said around the smoke, "you will still face charges, and it will be up to the judge how much leniency your cooperation will earn you. The paper here—"
He slid a sheet forward.
"—stipulates the terms of your agreement. A guilty or innocent verdict will not affect the judge's decision on the already existing charges."
"But it will affect whether or not Rudolph Pedrini comes back and finishes the job." I stood up. Solomon let the chair go. It fell to the floor. "And what good's my testimony, anyway, in putting him away? Yeah, I saw him there, but any fancy lawyer'd see right through that 'agreement' you're waving in front of me—"
"And how about a hard memory of the gunman off your partner's record playbacks?"
I looked at Solomon. Solomon looked back at me. His optics flickered in consideration, and then he turned to Brewer.
"Yes," he said, "I recognized the weapon instantly."
"Hey, now. No one's opening my buddy's head without my permission—"
"No one is opening Solomon Krups' head without his permission," corrected Brewer. I moved to sit down, then I remembered I'd kicked my chair down and straightened up again. "Unless, of course, Rudolph Pedrini and his team of mechanics decide differently."
Wallace stopped grinning. Cal shifted uneasily.
I took off my hat and put it on the table. "All right," I said, running a hand back through my hair. Morty, I could hear my mother say, I swear to God... "So what keeps Rudolph Pedrini from turning our insides into a new tricycle?"
"There's a place not far from here," said Brewer, "in SoHo. A shop which specializes in medicine and alterations."
"A mod shop, you mean?" I wasn't stupid, and I'd walked into plenty, both on the job and off. Sometimes Solomon needed help picking out new fingers, after all, and sometimes I got him some molding day presents. "The Pedrini have a bolt in all of those this side of the curve."
"Not this one," said Brewer, with his dead-eyed patience. "This one is a bit more specialized. The owner is very well regarded."
Solomon stirred. "You must mean Mrs. Primula's," he said. He had about as much inflection as Brewer as a rule, but I thought I heard a bit of surprise rattling his voice. I admit I was surprised, too. I'd never heard of the place before.
"An old friend," said Brewer, with a nod. "She's quite reliable, and quite untouched by most of the eyesores of this modern age."
"So, is there a reason you're not going to just lock us up in the jailhouse across the road?" I asked. I know what you're thinking: The hell?
"Oh, I could," admitted Brewer, "but Miss Primula and her staff can't be bribed to oversee any 'accidents.'"
"All right." So the way Brewer would have it, I'd get (some) freedom, and wouldn't be sitting someplace where Rudolph Pedrini knew to find me. "Sounds sweet. Tell me why it isn't."
Here, Brewer did smile. It looked about as human as Pedrini's. "Ah," he said, "very simple. They're looking for new employees."
Now, I know what you're thinking. It's what my mother would be thinking: That's it, Morty. You hit rock bottom. You ran with all the wrong crowds, and now you've gone and sold yourself to the brothels, just like I was worried you would.
"And this is the register," said Miss Mattie, the human shop assistant. I can't say I was expecting to find a human in a mod shop, but according to Doc Primula, Miss Mattie was a mainstay.
According to Miss Mattie, she provided the "human touch." I wondered about what that meant. Miss Mattie was a middle-aged lady with a cute bob and a set of pretty one-piece dresses which were on the times without looking desperate. She didn't have the look of a mechanic. She didn't have the look of a widow with four kids, either, but not like I thought all ladies were my mother or anything.
"We probably won't have you doing sales just yet," she told me. "Mostly we'd just like you to talk with customers. Some of them know what they're interested in, but others can be awfully uncomfortable if it's the first time visiting us."
"Put 'em at ease," I agreed. "I'm good at that."
Miss Mattie's eyebrows went up. "I hope so, otherwise I'd wonder why you were here! Now, this counter is where we show off our options for finger upgrades. The lid generally stays closed, but there's a look-book clients are welcome to browse through. It's made easy for clients who are coming from no articulation at all, but it doesn't hurt to—"
"Help 'em turn a page or two," I put in. "Yeah, I know something about that."
I cast a glance to a door in the back, where the Doc was off having a "consultation" with my partner. I don't like to say I was nervous, but I was. It wasn't that I didn't think Solomon couldn't handle himself, but Brewer had put a bad idea in my head, and it was stuck there.
Mattie caught my glance. "Don't worry, Mr. Bloom," she said, gently. "Marty Bloom" was the name they gave me before sending me off with my new papers. Solomon stayed Solomon, because everyone knew a Krups when they saw one. "Primula never enacts any procedures without her patient's express consent."
"Good to know," I said, a little distracted.
The painted sign outside the store was cheerfully turn-of-the-century. "Mrs. Primula's Modifications and Applications," it said, in text that looped around like letters signed by ladies of class. There were no electric charge poles, no flashing lights. It was nothing like the mod shops in Canning, which had nuts and bolts and wires heaped in the windows, advertising "paint jobs" and "double waxes" and "complimentary lube jobs." Inside, "Mrs. Primula's" looked nothing like a warehouse, either. The workshop was separate from the show room, and the show room was big, regularly painted, and well-lit, with lots of bright lamps and mounted paintings to cheer the place up, along with some big comfortable-looking sofas in a discreet corner, where clients could wait for their appointments. It had the charm of a soda joint, and the aggressive calm of a doctor's office, which made sense if you saw the lady who owned it.
"Mrs. Primula" was pure marketing. Primula herself was a Doctor, plain and simple. She was a sharp piece of work, and work she'd done herself. She was an auto-lady, one of the big, grand kind, with a wasp's waist and a head of bright, well-styled, glass-spun hair that was, at the time I met her, purple and curled at chin-length to match her assistant.
"Welcome," she had said the second we'd walked in. Her face was modern and expressive, but when she talked you mostly watched her hands. Her digits were so well-articulated it made mine seem arthritic. She'd tapped her finger in my direction, and then jabbed it in Solomon's direction, snapped up the binder with our resumes, and paged through it a speed and deftness I knew Solomon would zero right in on. "Hm. Oh, yes. The gentleman in the agency were not lying when they said you would be a very good match for us."
"Did they." I snapped on my best "not gonna say something snide" smile. She wanted to make a show of it, I'd oblige. "Well, you know. Seemed a match made upstairs. Your ad said you needed some 'flower boys.' I got 'flower' in my name. I think we got what you want."
"Not entirely," said Doc Primula, "but that is to absolutely no one's discredit. Mattie, my love, do teach Mr. Bloom his way around. Mr. Krups, I would like to speak with you in private. Consider it a consultation. Would that be all right?"
That hadn't sounded right. "Hold on—"
"Certainly," said Solomon, without missing a beat. Doc Primula hooked an arm through Solomon's, and led him out. The door closed with a final sort of snap.
If you listened to how Miss Mattie told it, Doc Primula was one of the first of her type. She'd switched out her chassis long before it'd become a fad down in the clubs. The choice was professional as well as aesthetic: she specialized in women's medicine. I didn't really think too hard about what that meant. I'd heard my mother complain about her doctor's visits, and that was graphic enough. It made me nervous what she could be doing to Solomon.
"It's very sweet," noted Miss Mattie. I shook my head and turned back to her, embarrassed I'd been caught drifting.
"That you're so worried for him," said Miss Mattie, as she showed me the next set of cases. These showed a whole lot of facial additions: glass eyes, brow articulations, wefts for head plates. "How long have you been together? If you don't mind me asking."
"Oh, since I was like eleven or twelve," I said, without thinking. Or maybe the problem was I was thinking too much.
Miss Mattie stared at me.
I caught myself. "Oh, you mean, like. We are now? Aw heck, that was later."
Miss Mattie looked a relieved. "I wasn't going to assume. He does seem like an awful honest model."
"Too honest," I said, with a laugh. "Though yeah, we met when I was twelve. I was getting chased down by guys I'd had a bit of a... disagreement with. I needed something big to hide behind, and there he was, just sitting on the curb reading a book by some Russian guy. He stood up and scared my, uh, compatriots away."
"Not sure I'd call it that." Truth was, me and Solomon had always had that kind of deal: I'd get us into trouble, and Solomon would get us out. I wasn't trying to cheat him or anything. Twelve-year-old me had been more than happy to offer "Big Mister" — the working auto-man in trousers and suspenders — anything he wanted for the continued preservation of my skinny, twelve-year-old ass. Solomon had thought about it, and then told me the bookstore on the corner didn't sell to tin cans. I'd said I'd get him anything he wanted for half of the dime I'd nicked off the guys who'd been chasing me. I found out later I could pay him in school books and my sisters' bodice-rippers, too. He'd sit down on the spot, carefully picking at the corner of the pages. Back then it wasn't too easy for him to turn them without ripping something, so sometimes I'd sit by and help him out if the pages stuck. I'd sit next to him on lunch breaks and days I played hooky, and... well, suddenly I had a lot less farther to run on days when I managed to piss someone off. Which was most days, if I'm honest.
"I guess it set a tone," I admitted, and forced myself to look at the next case. "So this here's for guys who want skin-jobs, right?"
"We call them insulator sleeves, but yes," said Miss Mattie.
"So," I said, walking a circle around the case, "I was wondering. Why are you calling us 'flower boys?'"
This was just the question Miss Mattie had hoped I'd ask. She covered her mouth as though she was letting me in on some trade secret as she led me to the last case: a closed, wooden one near the back of the store with thick, well-carved doors. "Oh," she said, "that's what we call all of our 'product testers.' Primula loves flower names for her favorite accessories. She finds them the most... evocative."
"Sure has a lot of poetry about ' em, sure." Never was in the position to give 'em to anyone, but I'd been through a few neighbor's gardens in my day. Mother liked daisies for her birthday. "But here's the thing that's bugging me: Primula told the... agency she'd wanted product testers, an 'Auto' and a 'Manual.' From what I've seen so far, don't think I'd be the one you'd ask about if you want new eyes."
"Oh, no, you wouldn't be," said Miss Mattie, pulling out a key. She inserted it into a slip in the cabinet, and then pulled a lever close to the lock.
The cabinet had looked deceptively old, the wooden panels hiding all the gears and wires. The whole arrangement began to transform outwards in a series of sliding drawers and opening doors. From behind the glass, lights snapped on, illuminating the points and curves of a forest of devices. Many I'd never seen before. Some I had, but they sure hadn't been made of metal, and they sure hadn't had that little extra ding-dong on the side—
"This would be our garden," said Miss Mattie, beaming with pride. "We've been wanting to expand our repertoire for a while, you know, and the fact that the Agency said you and your partner are so eager to explore... well. You'll be a great help to us, I think."
Somewhere, down in Canning, I'm sure my mother made a preemptive turn in a grave she hadn't filled yet.
I stared at the door. There was music, and a smell kind of like flowers.
"This way, Mr. Bloom," said Miss Mattie. I swear she almost laughed.
I guess I could've walked. I guess I could've gone right back to the cops and said, you know what, just stick me in a safe room until the trial. I can eat mashed potatoes for a month.
I could've, but I realized something: Morty, you can't run forever. Growing up, I'd run from my teachers, the other students, my sisters, my Ma, and any form of clergyman. Of course, it was all a matter of creative self-preservation, but I'd done an awful lot of it. I'd heard it gets bad for your knees after a while. It was time. Time to do other things that were bad for my knees. So, I took a breath, raised my chin, and decided: Morty, you're going to face this like a man. A man who's about to fuck someone for money. And that someone is another man. An auto-man. Who's your partner.
The Observation Room was about what you'd expect — if you expected it with the walls painted pink and with weird devices lying on the bedside table.
Solomon sat in the center of the bed. It was obviously reinforced to fit an auto-man's general specs, which made sense, in retrospect. Sol was hunched over in the dim lights. I could tell he'd been reading, because he had that guilty look he gets when he'd just shoved a book back into his chest compartment. I took my jacket off and tossed it over one of the plush chairs by the door. I didn't wonder too much why that'd be there. I sat down next to Sol.
"We really got ourselves in deep this time, didn't we?" I said. "All you're missing is the rose petals."
Sol's processors hummed. They only ever did that when he was in real deep thought.
"Eh, I know. Well, listen. Don't get all clogged in the intake over this, you hear? I know you're one of the older models. No shame in not having what the manufacturer didn't give you."
Sol looked up. His old, lamp-green eyes glowed faintly in the dim light.
"We just got to grab that... twirly, jingly thing."
"The spinning lotus," supplied Sol.
"Or maybe that weird prong thing—"
"The Rotating Yucca," said Sol, "Mark III."
"You always got to do your research," I said. "Well, we grab one of those ding-dongs and jump on the bed a bit. You're fine, I'm fine—"
"Miss Primula has heat sensors," said Sol, who always had to do his research.
"Oh," I said. Doctors. Never trusted them. "Huh. Don't suppose the walls are made of lead, do you?"
But we both knew what kind of place this was. We both knew what kind of doctor Mrs. Primula was: a good, thorough one. We both knew it was called the "Observation Room" for a reason.
I stared at Sol. He stared back at me. Then, after a moment, he pulled his hands and sheets off of his lap.
I swallowed. I'd seen Sol without the suit before. He only had two sets at a time, and with the work we'd done, well, sometimes a cleaner didn't cut it. It was about what you'd expect: older model, visible joints, visible lid on the chassis. I'd always given the guy his modesty, if only because I'm sure his old foreman didn't give him that. Assembly-line bots used to work naked like tea kettles. This was about what they were worth, as far as the law was concerned back then. When I'd met Sol he'd owned only some slacks and suspenders, and he'd told me it was one of the first things he'd bought when they'd started paying him. So yeah, I'd seen it before.
But something about the way he drew the sheets back just then really got my ears buzzing. Maybe it was the incense. Maybe it was the pink walls. I'd say the way he drew the fabric off his knees looked nearly human, but that ain't fair on Sol. It was his fingers, I thought, watching the way they settled on his legs. Whenever Sol made enough money to go to the shop, he'd do the digits first, so he could turn the pages on those books he loved so damn much. If you knew Solomon, I always told myself, you watched his hands. You had to watch for when he'd gotten an upgrade, because he'd never tell you. Sad bastard didn't think much of himself. I'd buy him a drink at an oil bar whenever I noticed.
"Hey, Sol," I said, "you didn't have those joints this morning."
"No," said Sol. Maybe it was just me, but his audio sounded thicker than normal. "Miss Primula suggested it. They are the latest release. She said they are able to detect pressure, heat—"
I stood up. I don't know why that made me so mad, but it did. "Oh hell, Solly, if she messed with you—"
"I requested it," said Sol, his audio hit a higher register. "I assumed if any unit would know what technology provides the closest sensation of touch, it would be her."
I sat back down. "...What she get out of you for it?"
Sol went all quiet, like I wouldn't have guessed the answer. You sad, flesh-fetishizing bastard, I thought.
He blew a faint line of steam out of his mouth and said, "A generous discount, along with a payment installment and free services so long as I am in her employ."
"You know, if you'd wanted fancy digits, I'd help you spring for them—"
"Negative," said Sol, and, I swear to God, old vocal systems or not, I could hear him trying not to laugh at me. "Mordecai, you would be unable to offer these services at your current salary."
"I'd lend you a few! I've got something to my name," I said. What I had was a quarter and three dimes, but that didn't mean I couldn't save just fine. If I was a little down on funds right now, so what? Things happened. Things like the Pedrini choppers keeping me from hitting the old mattress in the loft, or Ma wanting me to learn the meaning of a dime, or a fancy suit from that tailor down on Mott Street. "Next time, just tell me before you go and sell yourself into indentured servitude. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, 'I'm a machine, yeah? I am being useful.' You're an auto-man. An auto-man! Not some rentable piece of farm equipment. This is bad for the business."
"What business is that?"
"Any that we're doing!" I shouted, then I thought about Miss Mattie outside, and lowered my voice to something more proper. "After this Pedrini business blows over."
Solomon looked at me. He didn't have to say anything. He didn't really have to. Sol knew the value of a pointed look, especially when you didn't really have to blink. Solomon was also not your standard assembly bot. He'd spent his first upgrade on fingers to turn pages on books, because he loved to read.
I sighed. I knew when I was beat. "It was that good a deal, you think?"
"It was an opportunity I would not get again," said Solomon, and, God damn it, I thought, I hope Miss Mattie ain't waiting at the door.
"Shit, you are learning from me." And some old factory engineer was probably rolling in his grave. "All right, Sol. What's your plan? Get all handy with the whoz-it over—"
Sol pulled sheets just a little further off his knees.
"—there?" I finished. It'd been awhile, but his lower paneling was brighter than I had remembered it being. His new fingers reached to flip a switch close to his stomach I knew hadn't been there before. He made a funny whirring sound.
"This was not the only upgrade I received," said Solomon.
I could see that. It was hard to miss it. It emerged from the depths like the nose of a bottle rocket. If a bottle rocket were missing the fin things, rooted in a hatch that'd been installed in my partner's crotch, and made of metal polished so bright you could've set one of those Catholic choirs to it. "And what the hell..." It kept going. I was so caught up in the glory of its ascent I almost forgot to talk. Almost. It'd take the end of days to shut a Blumenfeld up. "The hell's that one called?"
The whirring faded as it clicked into place.
"The Rising Crocus," said Solomon.
"Huh," I said. "Good name."
Those were the cards life dealt you, sometimes. One day you're a mid-level delivery boy for the meanest sons of bitches in Union City, the next you're undercover in a Fed's protection program staring down your old partner's newly installed Johnson. If there's one thing that's sure about people who aren't made of metal, it's you'll never be sure how they'll act under pressure. Solomon had been programmed to bend the metal frames of bicycles. He'd been made to do one thing in his life, and so if he wanted life could be simple for him. He could always fall back on core programming, or "older functions." I wasn't sure how that "core programming" factored to the task at hand, but I'm sure Solomon reasoned something out of it. If I wanted to be straight about it, you could say I was jealous. People not made of metal don't always see too well. It was why I'd always liked having a guy like him around. The kind of guy who would, it turns out, sell his body like a tea cozy at a jumble-sale to keep your cover as an Auto-Johnson product tester.
'Well, Morty,' I thought, 'this is the time any guy's got to face. You either put up or shut up.'
So, I just did what any guy with half a sense of decency would do: I snapped off my suspenders, shucked off my pants, and climbed onto his lap.
I didn't get too far.
"What?" I said. One thing about Sol: if he grabs you, you ain't going anywhere. Me, I was stuck on my knees dangling somewhere between the patterned ceiling and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. "Hey, I know I never did Sunday School with the other kids, but I know how these things work—"
"Mordecai," said Solomon, "this requires lubricant."
I was getting annoyed, and my ass was getting cold. "Doc Primula didn't do your joints for you?"
Sol paused. If I had to guess from the way he worked his jaw from side to side for a moment, he was looking for a better way to say it: "You require lubricant."
"What? Sol, I don't keep a gear shift up there—"
"No," he said, "but there is organic tissue that could be damaged if care is not taken. Internal bleeding might occur if care is not taken. It is possible to proceed without such measures, but I am told they would not be likely comfortable, nor enjoyable, to the organic party. I do not wish for that to occur. Do you agree with me, Mordecai?"
I was stuck on the first "organic," so I just nodded while Sol set me on the side of the bed while he reached for the bedside table. The bottle didn't look a lot like Sol's oil can. It looked a lot like a perfume bottle. He poured a capful into his hand and flexed his new, jointed fingers. The pads of them were made of a soft, spongy material. They were heated, too. I found this out when he slid a hand over my waist and pulled me onto his knee.
"Now, hold on—" I expected cold metal. I got the feeling of a warm pan ten minutes off the stove. I was surprised. Sol was made for labor. His heating systems never got too out of hand if he wasn't nailing something or crunching some number. The fact he was already this warm told me he'd been doing some real processing. Head-processing. He hadn't moved from the bed since I walked in.
"You're warm," I managed. It wasn't one of my brighter moments.
"Yes," said Sol, reaching around my hip. There was steam with every word now. That got me. Solomon never steamed up unless it was a real bad fight or a real good read. "You will need to relax."
He wasn't lying. He worked his first finger in real slow, rotating it in the new socket to make up for the fact his wrist was reinforced. The oils were slick and warm, but it didn't go in easy. I swore, but his other hand kept me steady, and Sol began to hum deep in his chest cavity. The old thrum he used to put on when I'd found him after a schoolyard scene I'd gotten my eye good and blacked.
"The hell, Sol," I said. I could see my reflection in his neck joints, before I fogged up the paneling good and proper when I gasped. "What's that about. You think I'm a horse or something?"
"No, I believe you are the one in the position to be called the 'rider,' Mordecai."
"Yeah?" He wasn't joking, I knew he wasn't, but I was laughing, not swearing, and in the meantime he worked that finger all around, turning it in place and showing me just how those new joints moved. "I can think of a few thoroughbreds you're putting to shame right now."
"Horses are incapable of feeling shame," said Sol, adding a second finger. I hissed. It stung like a bitch, but after a moment or two, he increased the heat and added some weird vibration at the tip. It sounded like a bad engine. It stung in an entirely different way. I could feel my eyes tear up and it wasn't because it hurt.
"Goddamn," I gasped, so out of it I didn't even notice he'd moved me off his knee. "You never could figure out a goddamn joke, could you?"
"I believe the literary term is anthropomorphism," said Mordecai, quite calmly, as he positioned my ass over his new accessory. That had a vibrate function, too. I could feel it nudging its way between my cheeks.
"Solomon, would you shut the hell up and fuck me like those crazy ladies want," I said, because at that point I thought Sol could use some help with the more organic issues at hand. That's why Sol had me. To point out the little things like that.
So Sol did. He did it without moving the mattress, a feat I later learned had a lot to do with some what's-it hydraulic system that worked like that thing mills use to grind flour. It didn't feel like it was grinding anything. It felt a bit like pure heat hitting the back of my teeth with every plunge of the rod. It was slathered in oil. It was heated just a bit higher than the fingers. It went all slow and deliberate, like most of things Sol did, whirring and twisting, and I felt every inch of it as it moved in and withdrew.
I punched him in the shoulder. I heard a hollow clang. Sol took the hint and sped it up. The rest of him had gone slick now — not with oil, but with condensation. Steam was pouring out of his ears and mouth. I could feel it on the top of my head as he cranked it up to the next setting.
"Hell, Solly," I wheezed, "what do you think I'm made of?"
So he cranked it up again. I guess that's the point a normal guy would get a little shy about the sound of grinding and jangling you get when an auto-man's really heating up. It never much bothered me. I'd heard Sol wheeze and crank in all sorts of ways since I was twelve. This was just a new one. I'd never thought much about why auto-men would need a lady like Doc Prim or Miss Mattie, but as my hands started to slip on Sol's damp shoulders, I think I sort of got it. At least, I got it in the part of my head that was doing any thinking as Sol's new cock began to turn and do something with the tip that was probably illegal in some state. As far as places for that revelation to happen go, I'm sure it was fine it was right about when Sol began to whistle and I came down the bend harder than first place at the Kentucky Derby.
Sol was in cooling mode. I could tell, because I could hear the soft thwack-thwack-thwack of his internal fans at their top setting. I looked up. Somehow I'd gotten myself wedged up against the side table. Sol had put his other functions in their resting mode. His eyes were a dark green. I tapped my knuckles against his chassis and they flickered alive.
"Oy, Tin-man," I said. "Say something."
"I was uncertain if it would be appropriate for me to speak at this time," said Sol.
"Yeah, I knew you would be," I said, "that's why I want you to say something. We got to write something up, right?"
"Yes," said Sol, after a hesitation, and, let me tell you, if an auto-men hesitates, you notice. "That is the idea."
"Sol, we're partners," I started. "You got something to say—"
He didn't let me get into it. "I was concerned that your silence meant that you did not find this experience enjoyable."
I was in cooling mode myself. I asked him to repeat what he said. He did. He even used the exact recording function. He'd obviously been thinking of saying it for a bit.
"Solly," I said, reverting to the old nickname from when I was a kid and I paid him in books, "you just made me come so hard I think I cracked a molar. Yes, I think I enjoyed myself, and if you wanted me to call you pretty, you just had to ask."
Sol didn't say anything. He knew me well enough to know I wouldn't take any protestations. I rolled over and stretched out. I felt so sore I didn't think I'd be walking any time soon, but that was fine. At least the bed was comfortable, even if the duster looked like my grandma's old purse.
"What do you say we get a start on that payment plan. That thingamagum with the cranky thing looks interesting. Just give me a man's rest and then let's see what that one's for."
"If you would like," said Sol. He might have sounded hopeful. It wouldn't be in his functions if he were. Auto-men from his generation weren't ever programmed for that kind of sound. Still, me and Sol. We got each other. It was business. We worked well together.
So I knew he'd get it when I said, "Shut the hell up and turn off those lights, would you?"