Tom from the Thirty-Third Precinct and Dick and Harry from the Soufte and Quesonte Embassies all watched mailbox number 2001 in the parcel store. Even though Dick had placed a tracking device in the envelope, they staked out its destination. They watched for the mail to come in, and they watched for anyone to open the box.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Sipowitz rode the shuttle to the strip mall. In a slow and determined manner, she made her way to the parcel store and her secret mailbox. As she approached the store her pace quickened. Her face lit up as she eagerly opened the small door and took out her self-purchased presents.
The contingency of three had already examined the parcel from the home shopping network: an Ultra-Matic Hands-free World-Renowned Multi-Faceted Five-in-One Master Chef Limited Edition Chrome-Plated Vegetable Peeler. Not a threat to galactic security by any means, but impressive enough to entice the three agents into ordering ones for themselves, as well as some canning jars. Except for their new peelers, the stakeout of the parcel store had proven unproductive. No one else had attempted to gain access to box 2001.
But the agents did notice something peculiar: the letter from Henry Streator never arrived either.
Total chaos overwhelmed the Soufte Embassy. Crowds outside pressed against the heavy iron gates. Even after so many years without moving, the gates creaked under the strain, trying to hold their shape. The mob was not only protesting the fact that the Soufte government had violated the Ladascan trust by breaking the Maxwell Treaty, but that the Souftes weren’t providing the same amenities that the Quesonte Embassy’s protestors were receiving.
Up in a window, the silhouettes of Frank and Ambassador Calloway could be seen, peering down.
“This bites,” Calloway complained in his whiny, high-pitched voice. He finished off the last of his drink. “This just bites. There’s no other way to describe it…it bites.”
“Let me freshen that up for you.” Frank took Callaway’s glass as an excuse to get behind the bar. “What are you drinking?”
“Well, as long as it’s taken in moderation,” Frank joked as he iced a fresh glass for Calloway and a new glass with anything but water for himself.
Down in the main lobby, Alfia stood at the reception desk, waiting. Fred walked up from a long hallway. “Alfia Rivadavia?”
“Yes, I’m Alfia Rivadavia,” she answered.
“Fred Jackson.” He shook her hand. “Glad to meet you.”
“Hello, Fred,” Alfia tipped her head toward the exit. “What’s with the mob? I could barely get through.”
Fred gave her a double take and asked, “Don’t you watch the news?”
“No, I stopped watching TV after that alien guy landed. It’s just nonstop drivel about him, the Quesontes, and an invasion. I was done.”
“Well, prepare to meet that alien guy.” Fred turned to Tricia. “Contact Frank and have him meet me in our office.” She nodded and picked up the phone.
“This is all because of him?”
Fred started to lead Alfia down the hallway. “No, no, no…well, indirectly maybe, a little. After the Quesonte depository of armaments was uncovered, somehow a stockpile of Soufte munitions was miraculously found the very next day. Down on the subcontinent of Ortloff.”
“Why does that not surprise me?”
“And that set off a PR firestorm, complete with protestors and riots. But let’s talk about Joe. You’ll be transporting him back to Earth.”
“I researched Earth last night. You do realize that it is an extremely remote planet?”
“We know,” Fred said as he opened the office door and politely motioned her through. Inside, Joe was seated at a conference table talking to a stenographer.
“You know Ulurues are the cuddliest, sweetest animals,” the stenographer was saying. “I’d love to have one for a pet, but they’re a protected species.”
“Yes…I know.” Joe sighed heavily. “They’re the teddy bears of the universe.”
“Hello, Joe,” Fred greeted.
“Hi, Fred,” Joe warmly replied.
“Joe, this is Alfia, she’ll be taking you back home.”
“Hello.” Joe stood to shake her hand.
“And I’m Frank Surovell.” Frank walked into the room. “Good to meet you, Alfia.” Frank turned to the stenographer. “If you would give us a few minutes.” The stenographer left and closed the door behind him. “I’m glad you’ll be escorting Joe back to Earth. You may not remember, but you helped me escort a small Petrovian child home a few years back.”
“Oh yes, I do remember.” A smile grew on her face.
Frank motioned for everyone to take a seat around the table, taking the chair at the head of the table himself.
Joe replied, “I’m sorry if I’m putting you out. But I’m kind of stuck.”
“It is a long trip,” Alfia stared Joe down, wanting to emphasis the time commitment.
Frank informed her, “That’s why we requested someone with hyperdrive experience.”
“I haven’t had access to anything with hyperdrive since my stint in the military, four years ago. And that was only because of a joint Soufte-Ladascan goodwill operation. Hyperdrive’s solely used on high-level military vessels.”
“We’re already prepping an Esprit class ship for the trip,” Frank added.
“An Esprit!” Alfia lit up. “I thought they were an urban legend created by conspiracy theorists,” she admitted.
“I can assure you they are real,” Frank said.
“And I get to pilot one?” Alfia practically squirmed at the thought.
“Yes,” they both replied.
“Well, that alone will make the trip worth it.” Alfia turned to Joe with a warmer disposition. “Are you a king or something?”
“No. Just an ordinary Earthling,” Joe answered.
Frank asked, “When will you be able to leave, Alfia.”
“Hopefully this weekend, if nothing comes up,” she answered. “I’d like to re-familiarize myself with hyperdrive and study the navigational requirements to Earth.”
“We can get you time in a simulator if you’d like,” Frank said.
“I’d like that,” Alfia said enthusiastically.
“We do need you to take full responsibility of Joe now, though,” Frank explained. “Things have gotten a bit crazy around here.”
At that moment Ambassador Calloway could be heard passing the door, ranting, “This bites. There’s nothing funny about this at all. If you want funny, wax the steps at the old folks’ home. That’s funny. This just bites!”
“Apparently.” Alfia’s brow wrinkled as Calloway’s voice trailed off.
Frank added, “We do have accommodations for Joe at the Muitipsoh Hotel.”
Dash and Desi were going over the weather conditions around the Shooman Towers from the night of the robbery. “We’ve analyzed this information over and over and we’re no closer to an answer. We might as well be humanoids! We need to connect the dots.” Desi, overwhelmed by the tedium of their task, was letting his inexperience get the best of him. “I mean we’re basically computers on legs. Why haven’t we solved this yet?”
“Because, with all of our computing power, we’ve been given a mental illness.” At his desk next to Desi’s, Dash turned from his console and looked at Desi.
Desi was motionless for an awkward moment and then slowly turned from his screen and stared at him. “What are you talking about?”
Dash continued, explaining a truth about themselves that no one dared to reveal, but each and every android eventually discovered. “In order to create artificial intelligence, they also had to give us an artificial dysfunction.”
“Um, ok.” Desi slowly responded, while his mind raced through troubleshooting analytical techniques to determine if Dash was suffering from an uncontrolled dump of his ROM assembler code.
“Our designers found out that their own intelligence stems from mental instability.” Dash tried to clarify, “Not a lot, but just enough so that they’re still functional in society without being dysfunctional in society. Without a little bit of chaos in their brain, they, themselves, would not have intelligence.”
“So, we are functionally dysfunctional?”
“Yes, we are more humanoid than we would care to be,”
“And our maladjustment isn’t a handicap, it’s what makes us…us?”
“Correct.” Dash began to hope that Desi was catching on. “The more mental you are, the more intelligent you are.”
“That’s just insane!” Desi declared.
“Precisely!” Dash’s momentary smile ebbed as he noticed Desi’s attention had been drawn away.
A tall, slender woman entered the detective’s floor of the Thirty-Third Precinct, her silhouette outlined by the sun behind her. The light passed through her white dress as if it wasn’t there, revealing the shape of a former beauty queen, hindered neither by time nor gravity. The humidity in the room clung to the nape of her neck as the silk dress clung to her body, tight and firm, contrasted only by the soft, strawberry-blond curls cascading upon her creamy, green shoulders. Her delicate hand gently caressed the bicep of a nearby detective, drawing his attention to her round, blushing cheeks and lush, red lips, and in a soft, demure voice she asked, “Is Detective Desi here?” The detective pointed to Desi, as Dash and Desi both stared at her.
Are we being obvious? Desi asked Dash.
Completely, that’s Mrs. Sipowitz’s granddaughter, Heather Nicoles. They both continued to stare innocently at Heather.
Desi instantly downloaded information on Heather Nicoles. Dash noticed and, with a look of disdain, said, Really? Didn’t you download everything about her during our interview with Mrs. Sipowitz?
Well, ah no, he stumbled over his words. I was a bit busy avoiding Mrs. Sipowitz’s flirtation.
She moved toward them as if making the long walk down a pageant runway. Heads turned from every corner of the room. Her skin was smooth and taut along the long journey that was her legs, disappearing abruptly at the hem of her summer dress. She stopped in front of Dash, rigid and furious on tall heels. She looked down at him and, in a voice decidedly less demure, asked, “Detective Desi?”
Dash slowly pointed to Desi.
She turned to Desi, throwing her shoulders back, her chest heaving under her low-cut blouse with the anticipation of a confrontation. “You need to leave my grandmother alone.”
He looked at her cautiously, not exactly understanding why.
When she continued, her voice was bolder and more courageous. “She doesn’t need late-night visits from the police.” Her voice rose as she thrust her hands down onto Desi’s desk. His eyes wandered to where they shouldn’t. “Do you know how long it took me to talk her down from her anxiety attack?” (In her desire to protect her grandmother, Heather exaggerated Sadie’s condition.) “She thinks she’s being arrested for a jewel heist.”
“Oh no, no, no.” Desi strained to regain eye contact as he backpedaled. “We were following a lead from the parcel store on a mailbox she rents. The thief was using it as a means of communication with someone.”
Macideneb! I wasn’t supposed to tell her about the mailbox, Desi radioed to Dash. He felt bad for betraying Mrs. Sipowitz’s confidence.
You sutluts! Dash lambasted back.
“She has a secret mailbox where she picks up the things she orders from the shopping channel. I know,” Heather acknowledged. She straightened up again and looked down at Desi. “It keeps her occupied.” Her eyes started to well up. “She’s a bit senile.”
Dash quickly brought her a chair. “Please have a seat, Miss…?”
“Nicoles, Heather Nicoles,” she responded, taking the seat with the poise and elegance of a beauty queen. Desi moved a box of tissues in front of her, and she daintily took one.
“I must apologize for our actions the other night,” Dash said sympathetically. “In an investigation such as this, time can be both a hindrance and an ally.”
“Does he always talk like this?” she asked Desi, dabbing the tears from her eyes.
“Worse,” Desi admitted.
“But you are police androids. Don’t you look up a million things a second in your minds before you do anything? You should’ve known my grandmother was fragile before you interviewed her. Anneheg, you should’ve even known my name.”
“We find that the intricacies of etiquette and humanoid interactions, in an investigation such as this, work better if we interact with people by mimicking the same frailties as humanoids,” Dash lectured. “A background check gives us good reason to believe the conclusion from the premise, but the truth of the conclusion is not guaranteed. After an interview, we can then perform a background check and interlace all our collected data, thus preventing us from deriving the consequences from what is assumed.”
Heather turned to Dash, touching him softly on the arm. “Grandmother was right. You are rather droll.”
Desi looked at Dash and nodded. Then he asked, “So, you knew about her secret mailbox?”
Dash spoke over him, “Do you frequent her mailbox and retrieve her mail?”
“No. I let her think that she’s pulling one over on me. But I do monitor her spending.”
Do you think she’s an accomplice? Desi radioed to Dash, maintaining two conversations at once.
Can it really be just a coincidence that
Ralph used her mailbox? Dash responded, then continued out loud, “So, you watch her credit card bill. Do you also know about the other house she owns?”
I see, she could have flown an unregistered aircraft to drop Ralph onto the building.
“Used to own,” Heather corrected. “The owners contact me every Tuesday, after she’s picked up her order and somehow broken into their house, even though they’ve changed the locks a half-dozen times. She leaves her purchases in their kitchen. They call me, I return the stuff to the shopping channel. Thank goodness she leaves the receipt. This time it was just some canning supplies and a funny peeler. If you really want to solve a mystery, figure out how she’s getting into that house.”
Unfortunately, though, Heather Nicoles has aerophobia.
A fear of air drafts? Desi asked Dash.
Flying! Dash sighed in discontent.
Heather was still explaining, unaware of their secretive conversation. “But she does need a little spending money. She can still manage to take care of herself. She needs to be able to buy groceries, but she just doesn’t always use common sense when it comes to television infomercials. She won’t live forever, but I need to make sure her retirement money lasts until the end.”
“Maybe I should investigate her further, say, over dinner,” Desi mused followed by the radio-thought, Oops, did I say that out loud?
Heather, realizing they were conducting a completely separate conversation that she couldn’t hear, grew offended. “How rude.”
Later that afternoon, Alfia and Joe arrived at Alfia’s home. They parked in the garage and walked in, carrying groceries.
“Thanks for helping with the shopping, Joe. I knew I didn’t have enough food for an extra guest.”
“No problem,” Joe answered. “It gave me a chance to see the town, to see what everyday Ladascans do.”
“Normally, I don’t bring clients to my home, but we only have a short time to get to know each other. Eighteen hours is a long time in a confined space.” She changed the subject. “I do have some business to take care of before we can leave. Sorry about that. They usually give me more warning before dropping someone on me.”
“Oh, I’m pretty flexible.” Joe figured there was nothing else he could be in his situation, but then he didn’t want Alfia to feel pressured either. “I’m on break through the end of the week.”
“Hopefully we can get you home by this weekend.”
“I feel like an extra cousin that shows up unexpectedly, and no one knows what to do with them. But, if for some reason I forget to thank you, thank you.”
She paused in putting away the groceries, caught off guard by his sincerity. “You’re welcome, Joe. Let me show you around.” Alfia gave Joe a tour of her house, showing him the other rooms (she made sure to explain how to work the TV and stereo) and the patio outside.
Back in the kitchen, Alfia started getting pots and pans out of the cupboards. “I’ll get dinner started. Please make yourself at home; my mom will be back soon.”
“Did you at least warn her to expect me in the house when she arrived?” Joe still felt the disdain from Ambassador Callaway. What with Frank and Fred’s initial reaction and the guns cocking at the spaceport — practically every encounter had been a shock to someone.
“That’s what she gets for resisting getting a cell phone,” Alfia retorted, chopping a strange-looking vegetable on the cutting board.
“I’m starting to get used to being a surprise,” Joe said. He sat on a stool next to the counter, in front of a large patio door that looked out over her backyard. He could see the other houses bordering her yard and watched some of the neighbor’s kids playing.
“So, how have you been spending your time on Ladascus?” Alfia asked.
“Mostly hanging out in the embassies. The people in both embassies are all rather nice, but, boy! Are they inquisitive and suspicious of each other! Other than that, I hang out in the hotel room. I can leave and walk around and do a little sightseeing. And then I’ve been watching a lot of TV. It’s weird to see myself on the news, the center of so much attention. So, I’ve been watching your history channel a lot, learning about the Ladascan Remembrance Day.”
She giggled at his Earthling accent as he tried to say “Ladascan.” “Seventeen years already,” she declared, and then a sudden realization popped into her head. Macideneb! I’m still living with my mother!
Joe noticed the neighbors across the backyard bringing their kids into the house, and hiding behind curtains, peaking at him through their windows. “I don’t think your neighbors like me.”
“Oh?” Alfia said, not really paying attention as she got things cooking on the stove.
“They’ve all taken their kids inside and are just peeking out their windows every so often.” Joe peeked out the patio door. “But then apparently, so am I.”
Just then the phone rang. Alfia looked at it in frustration. “Why does the phone always ring when I have my hands dirty?” She quickly rinsed her hands and answered the phone. “Hello…Oh hi, Janet…No, he’s harmless.”
Joe waved at someone on their phone, peering out from behind their curtains. The curtain snapped shut.
Alfia’s mom walked in the side door and instantly noticed Joe. “Oh, hello. Who’s our guest, Alfia?”
“Bye, Janet.” Alfia hung up rudely. “This is Joe. Joe, this is Marsha, my mother.”
“You weren’t frightened by my appearance?” Joe asked. “The neighbors seem to be.”
“After the boyfriends that she’s brought home, you’re not frightening. Do you know you look just like that captain guy on the TV?”
Alfia changed the subject. “How was work, mom?”
A look of dread came across Marsha’s face. She tipped her head sideways, signaling Alfia to come closer. She whispered so Joe couldn’t hear. “I got another letter addressed to Ralph.” She sighed. “I tell you, Alfia, I really don’t like stealing these things.”
“Oh, I know, but it doesn’t happen often,” Alfia whispered back.
Marsha led her down the hallway, away from Joe. “I know, but I could lose my job, and a postal job has a good pension,” she retorted, as they took their discussion into a bedroom.
“Well, in my defense, there shouldn’t be any correspondence right now,” Alfia added back in a normal voice, after closing the bedroom door. Marsha pulled the letter from her satchel and handed it to Alfia.
Alfia opened the letter and read it. A slight look of wonder crossed her face; she turned the paper over to examine it and noticed a crushed crystal line taped to the back. Oh great! A tracking device. Fortunately, the sorting machines at the post office had crushed it. She folded the letter and tucked it into her back pocket.
“Is there a problem?” her mother asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll find out tomorrow,” Alfia answered. “But I do need you to remove any evidence of how you intercept these letters. Someone tried tracking this one, but the tracker was crushed along the way.”
“Thank you, Big Bertha!” Marsha rejoiced
“I’ll devise a safer and more secure means of communication for the next job. Dad always did it this way, so I just continued the tradition. It’s probably past the time for an upgrade and modernization in this area. Don’t take any more mail. Just let it pass on through. It’ll be safer.”
“I don’t like this. I’m seven years from retirement; I can’t jeopardize that,” her mother complained. “I didn’t like it when your father was doing it, and I hate it even more that my own daughter is caught up in it.”
The sounds of pots clinking and food sizzling from the kitchen went unnoticed, as the two continued their intense conversation. At one point, Joe even yelped when he accidentally burnt himself.
“Well, someone has to carry on with the family business. It’s tradition,” Alfia said, half-jokingly. “And besides, I don’t remember you complaining when Dad ran the business.”
“Oh, I complained! Just not in front of you. I have tact and class. Ralph may have been my husband” — Marsha’s voice climbed as she spoke — “but you are my daughter. It’s a totally different set of circumstances. So, I am going to complain even more and even louder!”
“Well maybe you did, I don’t know,” Alfia started to avert the old tired argument but then changed her mind. “You just don’t understand.”
“Understand! What’s to understand? How did my life get to this point? Why did I ever marry that man? I just can’t stand it!”
“Don’t blame Dad. He was a good man. It’s not like I’m a murderer or common thief. It’s different in this line of work.”
“How!” she attacked back. “You still end up in the same place!”
“It’s a challenge.” Alfia lied, not wanting her mother to know the depth to which her father’s loss had affected her. And that by continuing in the one thing that identified him, she could feel that her father was still with her.
“It’s illegal!” Marsha’s voice became loud enough that Alfia feared Joe could hear them from the kitchen.
“It pays the bills.” Alfia lowered her own voice and relaxed her tone, hoping her mother would follow suit.
“You’re a smart girl; there are lots of other things you could do.”
“What, work at the postal service?” Alfia snorted in derision. She had watched her mother slave away, unappreciated year after year. Marsha’s pay got cut with every new administration, while her benefits whittled away to almost nothing.
“It’s a good job, with a pension! In seven years, I can retire and sit in an RV somewhere and watch satellite TV.”
“We can discuss this later. We have a house guest, and” — she suddenly realized — “oh no, dinner!”
They both ran down the hall into the kitchen, where Joe had taken over the stove and handily managed finishing dinner.
“I got a little worried when you two went off. No offense, but I had enough burnt food when I was a kid. My mother always said, ‘Burnt food is good for your stomach.’ She was horribly wrong. Long story short, I learned how to cook at an early age. I hope you don’t mind, but I didn’t exactly know what your intentions were with the food, so I improvised.”
Marsha and Alfia set the table, and the three had a pleasant dinner and conversation. After dinner, Alfia adjourned to her study while Joe and Marsha enjoyed a hot beverage and store-bought pie on the patio.
Marsha was starting to take a shine to Joe. She was most impressed with his cooking. “Why is it that the first decent prospect Alfia brings home is an Earthling?” Marsha thought out loud. “Are there more like you where you come from?”
Joe blushed at the compliment. “Well, you know, everyone’s different.”
In her study, Alfia put on white linen gloves and proceeded to open the locked lower drawer of her desk. Inside were various articles from her job last Friday night. She pulled out a long, slender, black bag containing a lock-box. She then opened the box, revealing a small bag filled with diamonds. Using an old-fashioned jeweler’s loupe, she examined each diamond under a bright light. She found one that was strangely clouded but couldn’t determine why. She set that one aside and put the others away. She got up and headed toward the garage to retrieve an old microscope that she hadn’t used since college. As she passed the patio door, Alfia heard Marsha say, “But Ulurues are soft and cuddly. I’d love to have one for a pet.”
Alfia returned to her den and examined the diamond under the microscope. She could only make out lines that appeared to be cut into the inner planes of the diamond. The lines were probably text, but her microscope wasn’t powerful enough for her to tell. From her time in the military, she knew this was evidence of high-level government espionage, and dangerous to have in her possession. The simple no-brainer just got complicated. Alfia returned everything to the locked desk drawer and rejoined Joe and Marsha outside. “Lovely night, isn’t it?” she said.
“So, when are you going to be leaving?” Marsha asked.
“Probably this weekend,” Alfia answered. “I do need a favor from you.”
“Oh?” Marsha crossed her arms and prepared for the next go-round with her daughter.
“I need you to take Joe back to his hotel tonight, please, Mom. I need to research something for work that has suddenly come up.”
“But what am I supposed to do with him?”
Alfia sighed heavily. “Just drop him off. He’s been staying there the past few days.”
“But what if I had plans?”
“You just sit around the house and watch TV all night long.”
Defiantly, Marsh repeated, “Well, what if I have plans?”
“No.” Marsha toned her voiced down. “Can’t we just call a cab?
“Can’t trust a cab. He’s too important a client, and I need to know he made it to his hotel and to the custody of the guard there. It’s only this one time. You can at least do this for me.”
“At least!” This phrase was one of Marsha’s pet peeves, and her voice jumped exponentially. “How many times have I heard that term? It should be ‘at most.’ How many times did I at least stay up with you when you were sick?”
“Please, Mother, I’m not a child anymore.”
“Then stop acting like one.”
“Mother! Not in front of the alien.”
Joe tried to reassure them. “Really, a cab will do.”
“Oh my,” Marsha blushed. “I’m so sorry, Joe. How long will you be gone, Alfia?”
“I don’t know. The sooner I go, the sooner I get back.” With that, Alfia grabbed her jacket and left, still tense from the small spat with her mother.
“Well, Joe.” Marsha paused, still a little angry about the escalation between her and Alfia. “It seems to me that you are a visitor to our fair planet, and you should see the sights. Take ‘the tour’ if you will. I’m just the person to do it. And Alfia is just the person to fund it.”
“Pardon me?” Joe asked.
“I’m taking you out on the town,” Marsha declared. “I know where my daughter has some mad money stashed.”
“Okay!” Joe lit up.
Marsha walked into the den and emerged with a handful of money. She shoved it into her pocketbook, and the two drove off in search of adventure.
Homer’s Log Day Four
I’m dying, aren’t I?
I don’t think I can move my legs! Even though it is possible to fall asleep in a tree, straddling a branch, I do not recommend it. Food provisions have run out. Hunger is setting in. There are many things in the forest that are edible, but as I’ve found out, not necessarily digestible. Joe pointed out many edible plants to me while we were hiking, but I didn’t pay attention. I thought about fishing at a stream I came upon, but bears were there already.
I can be taught.