A little background. This book is a dieselpunk noir detective thriller, set in Los Angeles during the 1940s. Colt is your classic hard-boiled detective investigating a series of grisly murders taking place in and around the murky L.A. River. But the story has a bit of an Asimovian twist. Colt's partner is a robot. PETE (or Patented Electric Tactical Enforcer) units serve alongside most of the LAPD detectives as part of a pilot program developed by the shadowy Takahashi Industries. They serve mainly as recording devices during an investigation, and they also have some minor data storage and can also do some deductive reasoning. They also have a handy pursuit mode that can make it easier to pursue criminals on foot. Colt's PETE unit is even more special, though. But I won't reveal why here. In the following excerpt, we see Colt interacting with his friend, Mack McIntyre, former small-time bookie and owner of The Parts Bin, an underground night club/casino run mostly by disused and abandoned bots he's salvaged and re-purposed in his workshop.
This is still in first draft form, btw, so expect things like typos and other basic inconsistencies.
Pete and I were on the way to the Parts Bin after a call from Mack raving like his ass was on fire. He’d been that way ever since he’d gotten that first peek into Pete’s innards six weeks ago, and he was making new discoveries in that crazy workshop of his every day. I didn’t know what all those things were, but from what I could pick up from Mack’s gibberish, I was about to find out.
The last month and a half had been a non-stop bloodbath. We had four definite cases on the books for what the press had dubbed "The Lotus Killer," and one more that was a maybe. That vic, a homeless vet we later identified as Anson P. Raglan, didn’t quite fit the M.O. First of all, he was an American male. All the other vics were Asian or Asian-American women. Second, there was no lotus at the scene. But the strange circular markings and the overall mutilation of the body pointed toward the same murderer. We figured maybe the flower had washed away, or that the killer had gotten spooked while dumping the body and forgot to leave it.
And that was another thing. We could find no tracks to or from the scenes, either foot or tire. It was like the vics had fallen from the sky, or were belched up from the sewers below. There had been some minor speculation on that last thing, but no one had done more than a cursory expedition down there. The network of tunnels and drains running beneath the city were as tangled as the hair on the back of a busy whore’s head. There had also been a lot of rain over the last few weeks, and no one was willing to risk drowning just yet.
Tracking the source of the flowers was also a dead end. The Orchid Man from the Flower District came forth with all his sales records, but there was nothing indicating regular or large purchases of white lotus blossoms. Same with the District’s other vendors. I was sure at this point that the killer was growing them himself.
Mack McIntyre was listed as one of the Orchid Man’s clients, but Komiko Takahashi’s stage dressing had to come from somewhere, and there was nothing else linking either of them to the murders. Their alibis were rock solid. I would know that, because when Pete and I weren’t working the case, we were usually at The Parts Bin, shooting billiards or listening to Komiko sing.
I won’t deny it. The dame had me in her snares, like a bug caught in a Venus fly trap. She’d revealed nothing new to me about the nature of her relationship with her father or his machines. Instead, she looked into my soul from the stage, singing in a language I didn’t know. But I somehow knew the words, deep down in that place where I think every human being understands each other, no matter how different they are. She was singing about a pain that mirrored my own. It was etched into her perfectly painted face, those parted red lips, those black eyes rendered into slits as she lost herself in the music.
I could only watch her, never touch. Her number still rested in my coat pocket, but I never called it. She was Mack’s girl. And even though Ava had officially locked me out of the house two weeks ago, I was still a married man.
I did tail Komiko on a few occasions. For one thing, she fit the victim profile, and I wanted to be sure she was safe. But I also wanted to see where she would go, if her errands took her anywhere near the L.A. River. Turned out, she never ventured more than a few blocks from the Bin, and it was mostly to shop.
The workshop at The Parts Bin was busier than I’d ever seen it. Sparks flew everywhere as about a half dozen guys worked grinders and welders at their stations. Judging by the array of metal arms, legs, heads, and torsos being slung around, it looked like several new bots were under construction. A manly musk of ozone, sweat, and grease filled the air.
I found walked up to one of the workers who didn’t look as busy as the others. In fact, he looked downright confused by the mess of wires and gears lying before him. “Where’s Mack?” I asked.
He turned around and noticed me and then goggled up at Pete. He didn’t have much by way of teeth in his head, so his mouth had a sunken in quality about it. “Uh, I think he’s over in the stacks checkin’ inventory. Somethin’ like gat. Say, that’s some bot. I never seen a PETE up close before.”
“That’s a good thing,” I said. “Most folks who do are on their way to jail.”
“Dammit, Simpson! Why didn’t you tell me Colt was here? I’ve been waiting for him all morning!” Mack walked up to the table carrying an armload of small boxes and set them down on the workbench.
The guy I’d been talking to, who I guess was named Simpson, nodded furiously and dropped his eyes down. “Yessir. I was just about to come and get ya.”
Mack rolled his eyes. “Yeah, sure you were.” He turned to me. “Pardon the mess here. Just hired on a few new guys this past week, and they haven’t all caught on to the way things work around here.”
“How come you’re so busy?”
“New contract. Security company in San Diego wants a whole set of my tin soldiers. And I can build ‘em cheaper than that Jap uptown.” He jerked his head over to Simpson, who was applying a socket wrench to an arm joint without much success. “Dammit, Simpson! What the hell do you think you’re doing? That’s a hexagonal nut. Use a 12-point socket! I swear I’d brain you with that wrench if you didn’t work so cheap.”
“Yessir, right on it,” Simpson said, not seeming at all perturbed by the way Mack was talking to him. He grabbed the right socket, fitted it onto the wrench, and got back to work.
“So this is what you wanted me to come all the way down here for?” I said. “To see your little robot sweatshop?”
Mack laughed. “Man, I pulled most of these schmucks off the unemployment line. They even get a free meal benefit. I’m doing them a favor. I’m one of the good guys, remember?”
“Sure,” I said.
“But that ain’t why I had you come down here. Nope, I got something major in the works right now. Top Secret stuff, my man.”
“What is it?”
“Can’t tell you that just yet.”
I was getting impatient with this back and forth. It was early in the day for me to be here, and I was still hungover from the night before. My head felt like an overblown party balloon. “Well why the hell did you bring me down here? I’m on duty, you idiot. If this doesn’t pertain to the Lotus case, you’re wasting my time.”
Mack held out his hands in a defensive gesture. “Now now, Colt. Don’t get hasty. Nothin’ I do is a waste of time. There’s a method to my madness. But I just need to have Simpson here get your measurements.”
I glanced at Simpson and back to Mack, who was doing that excited “kid who has to take a leak” dance again. “If you can’t tell me what this is about, I can always come down here with a warrant.” It was probably the only building in town I could still get a warrant for, given how things were going lately. But my threat was weak. Mack was the only friend I had that wasn’t made of metal.
"I love it when you talk dirty, Colt, but you’re just gonna have to trust me. I can say that it’s for you, and possibly this Lotus case. And it’s the most important work I’ve ever done. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’ll change the world, and you’re going to be the very first person to experience the finished prototype. Besides, I tried getting your measurements from your old lady, but when I mentioned your name, she screeched into the phone like a diseased jackal.”
I stared at him for a minute and then sighed and took off my coat and hat to hand to Pete. “Jesus Christ, okay. Can we just make it quick? I have a murder investigation to get back to.”
“Simpson! Grab the tape measure and get this man’s inseam, chest, and arm measurements. Also get his head circumference. Definitely don’t wanna forget that.”
“Yessir. I’ll get right on it.” Simpson stopped what he was doing and started poking around on his workbench.
After a few seconds of watching this, Mack sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Check the your tool belt, Simpson.”
Sure enough, the white spool of hash-marked tape was hanging from the hip. Simpson approached with some hesitation, the tape outstretched in his greasy hands. Having been to a tailor a few times in my life, I knew the drill and lifted my arms. Simpson wrapped the tape around my chest and called out the measurement to Mack, who was standing nearby with a small notepad and pen in hand. “We got a hundred-and-six on the chest.”
Mack looked like he was physically in pain now. “Jesus jumped on a flaming pogo stick, Simpson! Inches, not centimeters!”
Simpson flipped the tape around. “Yessir. All right, we got forty-two on the chest.”
“Christ, Colt. You’re a scrawny bastard,” Mack said.
“I keep active.”
“Yeah, on gin and cheap cigarettes.”
“And your mother’s love.”
Mack shook his head and grinned. “You’re a cold s.o.b. No wonder we’re such good friends.” Simpson managed to finish the rest of the measuring without incurring the wrath of his boss, and a few minutes later, Pete and I were leaving the Parts Bin and heading back toward the station.