The red curly straw emerging from Jackie Thurgood’s drink looped toward her face, but she didn’t sip it. Having the snout of a pig wasn’t conducive to straw sipping. Indeed, being the only citizen of Newburg with the head of a pig wasn’t conducive to most things. But her extra-large, black and pink ears were great for listening.
Jackie was always listening. Listening to the digital jukebox fill the air around her at the bar. Listening to the holographic shuffleboard game pinging in a dark corner to her left. Listening to an overweight man four tables over belch into his beer stein. And listening to Amelia Levin conduct an interview at the bar with a sad man who was nearly crying into his drink.
The sad man had come in about twenty minutes earlier, and Jackie had listened while he ordered a Drop of Dis Pear. The beverage presented to him looked like a margarita on the rocks with a pear slice hugging the glass rim. The man had not been asked for his ID after ordering this particular beverage, and it was not due to his bristly eyebrows and receding hairline.
The tall, pockmarked interviewee, who had arrived in a mellow mood, had had to climb up onto the bar and sing “if you’re happy and you know it” with both hand claps. Then, after the bartender poured his drink, the man had to confirm that the glass was half full and not half empty.
Dead Eye’s Liquor, Potions, and Finely Diced Fruits, like all other drinking establishments in Newburg, worked differently than on the Earths. There was no such thing as a legal age limit because at Dead Eyes, each drink produced a wide variety of results. So, each drink required a different set of skills or level of achievement in order to be consumed. The bar served everything from innocuous fruit smoothies—which were available to anyone with a pulse—to blueberry flavored concoctions that caused people to have lucid dreams. These were only available to those who could provide proof of residence, and proof that they had eaten all their vegetables at dinner. The more powerful the drink, the greater the risk of danger, and therefore the most rigorous qualifications were necessary to procure it.
Out of the corner of her eye, Jackie scanned the menu that took up the entire wall behind the bar. At the very top, the most potent drink listed was a single shot of tequila for which one had to recite 133 numbers of the mathematical constant, pi, have held a steady job for ten years, and have at least three forehead wrinkles. There was a star beside it warning that it killed Xans on contact. (could cut for time)
The interviewee’s first round of the Drop of Dis Pear drew some stoic tears, but now on his second round, he was practically sobbing onto the ruffled sleeves of Amelia’s green blouse. The journalist pushed him back gently, and Jackie listened as she continued her questions.
“Mr. Gallaway, can you tell me how the recent vote has affected you personally?” Amelia tapped a stylus on her digital notepad.
Mr. Gallaway sniffed and said, “I was all set for the laws to change about genetically modified vegetables. I spent 40,000 credits, built new greenhouses, got a new biolistic particle delivery system, and grew the biggest sweet peas you’ve ever seen! The size of golf balls! But now Newburg has voted for no genetic modifications for consumable products.” The man threw his hands in the air in exasperation. “They’ll clone animals, and alter their own DNA, but hold organic produce as sacred. I spent my whole life savings!” Mr. Gallaway gulped the remainder of his drink and took a deep ragged breath. “It’s not like I’m modifying vegetables with organisms from a different taxonomic kingdom! That’s been illegal since that man spliced his own DNA with a dog.”
“Yeah, he was not well socialized,” Amelia said thoughtfully before she resumed taking notes.
Jackie’s shoulders hunched defensively as she listened to their conversation. Even after all these years, genetic modification was still a sore subject for her. Her parents had told her—and everyone else—that their otherwise normal little girl had a pig-shaped head because she had been cursed by a malicious sage. Many other well-meaning sages had attempted to lift the curse, but Jackie knew it wouldn’t work. Her parents were scientists, scientists who had routinely taken their experiments too far. Deep down Jackie knew she was a lab experiment gone wrong, and no amount of potion drinking or wand-waving would fix it. The lie about the curse was merely to keep her safe and to cover up her parents’ own illegal activities.
As their conversation went on, Jackie sunk lower and lower into her chair until a flame of anger sparked within her. She immediately straightened and jutted her round chin up. She had nothing to be ashamed of, and she wouldn’t skulk around because her appearance displeased people.
“The voting results make no logical sense!” Mr. Gallaway laid his head on the bar, his shoulders wracked with sobs.
“Oh dear,” Amelia said as she patted his arm. “Maybe you should have ordered the Happy Go Plucky instead of the Drop of Dis Pear. Though I do appreciate your candor for the article’s sake.”
“No, no,” he sniffed again. “Sometimes I just need a little help making the tears flow you know? If I just get it all out there, I’ll be better.” He tapped his fingers twice on the bar, ordering another round. The bartender appeared again, a bald man in a black leather vest with no shirt underneath and an eyepatch over his left eye.
“You’ve had enough. I’m cuttin’ you off, mate,” he said, wiping an empty glass with a stained rag. “Time to close out your tab.”
Mr. Gallaway put his head back down on the bar and wept.
“I’ll take care of the tab,” Amelia said, putting her thumb on the print register. Amelia thanked Mr. Gallaway for his time and stuck her stylus through her blonde hair bun. She glanced around the room as she turned and slid off her barstool.
Jackie pulled her fedora lower over her face. While she had no reason to hide her piggy visage, she also didn’t really want the nosy journalist to notice her. It was no use though. In her periphery, Jackie could see Amelia padding toward her table.
Amelia placed her tablet on the table, and Jackie sat back with a huff. “Of all the gin joints in all of Newburg, the reporter has to walk into mine,” Jackie said, flaring her wide nostrils.
Jacqueline Thurgood, Newburg’s finest private investigator.” Amelia gave a pleasant smile. “I was hoping I’d run into you. You haven’t returned any of my calls.”
Jackie grunted. “Hmm.” Her extra sensitive pig snout detected the smell of coffee, a fresh piece of gum stuck to the bottom of Amelia’s shoe, and a whiff of jasmine perfume.
“Are you here working a case?” Amelia asked, glancing around the bar once more. Jackie made a wry face and said, “If I was working on a case, do you think I’d show my face around? It’s when you can’t see me that you know I’m working on something. I’m just here for a drink.” She gestured to the untouched drink in her hand.
Amelia squinted and shifted her weight to her other foot. “Yeah, well you’ve been off the radar for quite some time, which makes me curious. What have you been poking your nose into?” She crossed her arms over her chest, and then immediately uncrossed them, a look of embarrassment washing over her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to..”
“You think a nose comment is going to offend me?” Jackie cut her off and snorted, most unladylike. Most pig-like. “I’ve got thick skin. Literally, it’s like leather. You have to have thick skin in this business or you’ll break. I’ve seen it a thousand times.” Jackie said, staring off into the distance, hoping the meddlesome woman would leave.
Amelia recovered from her embarrassment and cocked her head to the side. “So you’re not on the missing children case?” she asked, trilling her fingers on her digital tablet.
Jackie raised an eyebrow. “If I was, do you think I’d find them here?”
Amelia pressed her lips together and was silent for a moment before twisting her com-ring. A blue rectangle hovered above it displaying her own picture and contact information.
“Here’s my info. If you come across any information about the missing children in your comings and goings, please call me.” Jackie stared at the floating blue rectangle, then up at Amelia but didn’t make a move to receive the card. Amelia held her hand closer to Jackie and said, “We could help each other and really make a difference.”
“I doubt that very much, Ms. Levin. There’s covering a story and then there’s getting involved in a case. If you knew what was good for you, you’d stick to just covering it. Leave the digging to the people who know what they’re doing. ” Jackie still made no move to receive the info card. Amelia didn’t move either. “Look if I take this, will you leave me to enjoy my beverage in solitude?”
“I’ll be out the door immediately,” Amelia replied pleasantly. Jackie sighed and turned her com-ring then opened her hand palm up toward the hovering info card. Amelia swiped the card toward Jackie who closed her hand around it.
Amelia twisted her com-ring again saying, “thank you.” Instead of saying “you’re welcome”, Jackie gestured to the door, and Amelia resentfully picked up her tablet and stepped toward the exit. As she opened the door, she let in a bright shaft of afternoon sunlight, along with a group of young boys. Amelia squinted suspiciously at Jackie again, but Jackie raised her drink toward her in way of a toast. Amelia closed the door as she left.
Two thick, oafish boys and one boy significantly shorter than the others, approached the bar. The shorter boy cleared his throat expectantly when he got to the long sticky bar that came just up to his chin.
“Lofty Lemon Fizzle,” he said around a mouthful of chewing gum.
The bartender leaned forward with his crossed arms on the bar and looked the boy in the eye. “Can you fulfill the listed requirements?” he said accusingly.
The boy slapped a folded piece of paper onto the bar and said, “Here’s my last report card. Notarized.”
The bartender straightened and looked at the paper closely. Begrudgingly convinced, he narrowed his one good eye, pulled out an hourglass from under the bar and said, “What’s 263,487 divided by 109?” He immediately flipped the hourglass over and the sand within gushed to fill the bottom section.
“2417.31,” the boy answered. He popped his bubble gum and gave a haughty sneer.
The bartender put the hourglass away before its time was up. He crossed his arms over his chest. “To order a Lofty Lemon Fizzle and thereby grow 8 inches taller, you have to be a citizen in good standing. Are you a citizen in good standing?”
The boy lifted his chin. “Of course I am. Just last week I helped an old lady across the street, didn’t I boys?” The heavily browed boys on either side of him nodded quickly.
The bartender tapped a silver and leather cuff on his arm and a projection of a police report popped up above it. “Yeah, you helped her across the street alright, and then helped relieve her of her coin purse.”
The kid smirked and looked away. “I was just making sure that git at the flower stall didn’t short her change.”
“This police report says otherwise, boy. Dead Eye Dennis always knows when you’re lyin’.” He leaned forward and stared the boy down.
The boy looked confused for a moment. “Your name’s Dennis? I thought you were gonna say Dead Eye—”
Dead Eye Dennis’s eyes grew wide, daring the boy to finish his sentence. The boy did not. He turned away from the bar, defeated, a rosy hue coloring his plump cheeks.
He walked to Jackie’s table and the two taller boys lumbered after him like dumb puppies.
Jackie pushed a chair out for the boy with her foot. “Got caught pickpocketing again, eh Nicky?”
“What do you know about it, oinky?” he snapped as he sat down. He slumped and chewed his gum ferociously. His companions remained standing behind him.
Jackie peered around quickly. “Do you have what I asked for?”
“Yeah, I got it. Nicholas Grift is a man of his word, ain't I boys?” His two cronies gave another slack-jawed nod. Nicky held out his hand toward Jackie who grasped it in hers and shook. The com-ring on the boy’s hand beeped, and Jackie felt the vibration from her own com-ring indicating that download was completed.
Satisfied, she sat back in her chair. “Here you go, Nicky. Drink up.” “It’ll put hair on your chest.” Jackie slid the glass in front of her toward the boy. Nicky spat his wad of gum out into one of the other boys’ hands who in turn smooshed it under the tabletop. Jackie watched as the slushy peach liquid traveled up the loops in the swizzle straw. Nicky drank the entire drink in a few gulps, then leaned back and burped. A tuft of dark brown hair sprouted from beneath his shirt collar. He patted it, pleased with himself.
“Now, how does it work?” Jackie asked.
Nicholas frowned. “Hold your com-ring up to Dr. Weber’s lab access scanner. It will know what to do.” He sipped the straw one more time, loudly slurping up the remnants of the drink.
Jackie tilted her head, making her large ears flop to the side. “How did you get this information, Kid?” she asked.
Nicholas laced his fingers together and said, “The barista at Granny Bone’s Pizza is a busy guy. He can’t hang around the retinal scanner all day. People don’t know that when it scans you for your idea of the perfect pizza, it stores the information. Ol Doc Weber there likes extra onions on hers.” The boy gave a smug smile.
Jackie leaned forward almost touching her wet nose to the boy’s glass. “I’m telling you, Nicky: don’t breathe a word about this. Snitches sink ships and all that.”
“You mean, snitches get stitches,” he corrected.
Jackie cocked an eyebrow over her petite pig eyes. “Let’s hope we don’t have to find out,” she said.
She rose to leave, but before walking away, she looked down at Nicky’s freckled face and said, “Hey, be careful out there, kid. There’s a nutjob out there stealing kiddies.”
Nicky absent-mindedly tugged on his newly grown chest hair. “Don’t worry about us. No one messes with the Bratva Gang.” He and his cronies attempted tough-looking faces, but they only served to make Jackie grin.
Jackie waited in the sparse shadow of sagebrush planted just outside the fence surrounding the Complex Lab Complex. The temperature dropped as the sun sank below the sand dunes in the distance, and she was grateful for the long sleeves on her trench coat. Stars began to flicker one by one while the few remaining employees trickled out of the lab and made their way home. As the jackalope constellation appeared over the horizon, the last bicycle left the rack carrying the last White Coat through the automatic gate and away from the complex. Security personnel weren’t necessary at night as their main function was to break up fights between scientists during working hours. There would only be a couple of beneficial insects inside the vast complex and they wouldn't be a problem.
Jackie skillfully climbed the fence and landed softly on the other side. Careful to avoid security cameras, she kept to the shadows and used her com-ring access to get into the backdoor of building C. She had studied the cleaning habits of the beneficial insects for days before and knew they wouldn’t even be in this building yet. Nevertheless, her boots made no noise on the polished floor as she crept along the darkened corridors. She passed lab number 8722-C, then 8724-C. She knew Dr. Weber’s lab would be just around the corner. When she rounded the bend, she was surprised to find a hunched figure squatting in front of Dr. Weber’s door, fiddling with the lock. Jackie padded back around the corner and flattened herself against the wall. Her mind reeled, running through the consequences of being caught here, and the possible identity of the huddled form.
The second she realized the only person it could be, she caught a faint scent of jasmine that clinched it.
Jackie walked silently around the corner once more until she loomed over the figure. She crossed her arms indignantly.
“If you keep fiddling with that you’re going to set off alarms all over town.”
Amelia whirled around to face her, gasping in surprise.
“Jackie! What are you doing here?”
“What am I doing here? How did you even get in here?” Jackie asked, fuming. The last thing she needed was to have to babysit a wannabe detective.
“Bertram let me in,” Amelia answered. “He’s a friend of mine, and a bit naïve,” she added remorsefully.
“Friends with beneficial insects, huh? What’d you do, hand-deliver your used kitty litter to his door?”
“Yes! No! It doesn’t matter! Look, you’re not the only person who can meet people in underground places. We have a mutual friend, Mrs. Pitkin?”
Of course, Jackie knew the gypsy lady who wore a flamboyant scarf perpetually tied on her head. The woman made it her business to know the intimate details of nearly everyone in Newburg. It was good for her matchmaking and her illegal love potion making services.
Amelia continued. “I’ve also met with her recently, and I know you’re looking into Dr. Weber for the same reasons I am.”
“And what reasons would those be?” Jackie asked, not willing to reveal any of her own information.
“I know that Dr. Weber is gathering a collection of strange mechanical components from Newburg’s black market and that those components could be used to build some kind of device Newburg has never seen before. Remember the last device she built? That floating landfill nearly destroyed Newburg!” Amelia was almost yelling. She drew closer to Jackie and lowered her voice. “Mrs. Pitkin said she was studying age disruptions.”
Jackie tilted her head to the side. “And I suppose you know what that means?”
“No, I don’t know, but what better way to disrupt age than by taking children and doing who knows what to them?!!?” Amelia exhaled deeply. “What little evidence we do have is pointing to Dr. Weber, and I need to know if she’s involved with the disappearances of these kids.”
Jackie sighed in resignation. “This is why you’re picking a biometrically encrypted lock with a bobby pin?”
Amelia looked at the door lock helplessly. “I know the answers are inside, and I just want to give people the truth they deserve.”
“I don’t like you being here or anywhere near this case. You’re getting in the way, and I’ve already lost precious time. However, I can tell you’re going to be annoying until you get answers, so I’ll agree to be your scoop. But after tonight, you need to stay away from this. You could get hurt, kid.”
“Kid? How old are you?”
Jackie sighed again as she reached toward the access scanner to the left of the door.
“Old enough to know you’ll be annoying either way.” She held her com-ring near the scanner. A marble-sized globe projected from the ring and rendered gradually from lines, to a white sphere with a spot of color, to, finally, a perfectly formed image of an eyeball. The scanner gave off a soft beep, and the door lock clicked.
Amelia clapped softly. “You did it! I knew we’d work great together!” She grasped the door handle, but Jackie nudged her away and entered the lab first.
“Yeah. We make a great team,” she said her voice oozing with sarcasm.
Air hissed at them as they passed through the doorway, a preventative measure to keep the lab clean. Overhead lights turned on automatically. The lab was a cavernous room the size of a house with two long work tables along one side bearing strange metal implements arranged in neat rows. The room was cold and the chill emanated from a smaller room with clear glass walls. An unknown machine stood silent and still inside: a steel cylinder with copper knobs and coils that reached from the floor to the ceiling.
Jackie turned her large ears this way and that, listening. Only the hum of a few computer processors coming from one corner of the lab where two desks were arranged caddy corner to each other. A holographic display projected against the wall behind the desks was cycling through pictures of children. The two women approached the picture wall. Girls and boys of varying ethnicities were featured in them, all seeming to be under the age of thirteen. Jackie’s snout wrinkled as her suspicions deepened.
“What is she doing with all these children?” Amelia asked reaching out to touch the images. They glowed and wavered around her hands instead. A sudden thought seemed to occur to her. She spun around and rushed to the walled-off, cylindrical machine. “Is this some kind of freezer? Is she freezing them for some kind of experiment?” Amelia asked Jackie, a look of horror on her face. Jackie furrowed her brow. She smelled no trace of the children, but couldn’t conclude they weren’t already frozen.
“What on earths?” came an accusatory voice from behind them. Dr. Weber stared at them, aghast, from the open doorway. “I will thank you to leave my lab this instant! What have you touched?!!?” She stomped into the room, eyes examining every surface, every corner.
“Hold it right there!” Jackie whipped a small, electroshock pistol from her coat pocket and aimed it at the willowy, older woman. Dr. Weber halted, infuriated, but it was Amelia who squealed and dropped her digital notebook as she thrust her hands into the air.
Dr. Weber narrowed her eyes and tapped and turned her com-ring. She began entering commands on a screen projected in front of her.
“Stop whatever you’re doing!” Jackie ordered, advancing toward Dr. Weber with a few quick steps. The woman made one last tap to the projected com-ring screen before it collapsed quickly.
“Even if you shoot me, nothing can stop it now!” Dr. Weber clenched her jaw defiantly.
Behind Jackie, a strange, rhythmic hissing sounded, as if a miniature steam train was huffing in the lab room with them. She turned toward the source of the noise. The large cylinder with the copper and gold tubing had stirred to life.
Amelia cried out, slapping her hands to the glass. “No! What have you done to them?!!?” The journalist circled around the glass room, found a door, and tried frantically to pull it open. It was no use. It was locked.
Jackie faced Dr. Weber again, pistol still trained on her. A hundred questions swirled in her mind, all too jumbled to make it to her lips.
The old woman’s blue eyes flared, and she smiled, self-satisfied. “As I said, there’s no stopping it now. The simulation has begun.”