A Real Paige Turner
Ryn had the pleasure of meeting “Paige Turner” in the flesh, in a small office they rented for the hour. She was a year or two older, thirty-six at the most, with hazel eyes and dark brown hair that hung around her head in thick curls...
“Mx. Casler,” she said, “Have you taken time to look through the files I sent you?”
“Just Ryn is fine,” they said. She’d at least had the sense to send them a digital copy, which they had open on their HUD.
Shanice Nyree Simmons. Twenty-two, 5’5, graduate student at a prestigious university. There was a list of accomplishments, hobbies, and usual haunts. She was very pretty, with a light skin tone and hair that almost allowed her to pass for white.
“It’s very thorough. Did you write this up yourself?”
She gave them a coy smile, eyebrow cocked. “You don’t recognize me, do you?”
“Should I?” Ryn didn’t get out much and properly socialize, and they had a feeling “Paige” wasn’t the sort to work at or frequent the pleasure houses. She was too uptight, too stiff. And there was something about the way she looked at them, a perceived judgment.
“It was late, wasn’t it?” She leaned back and crossed her legs. “Or perhaps you don’t recognize me without my signature vest?”
It clicked just as she said that. “Wait...” They framed a hand just beneath her collar and tried to imagine a blue vest. Her face didn’t ring a bell, but the body type and mole on her chin stood out.
“It’s alright. I’m used to it.”
“That why you reached out with an alias?” It wasn’t the first time they’d worked with a cop, but they did so sparingly and with great discretion.
“Winters. Shae Winters. And I’m not here under police business, if that’s got you feeling skittish.”
She frowned. “Close. Shanice is the daughter of a family friend. Regretfully, her case hasn’t been taken seriously by my precinct. I looked into the matter on my own, mostly as a favor. It’s times like this we black folk gotta stick together.”
“So much for reform,” they said dryly.
“We’ve come a long way from dogs, hoses, and repackaged slavery.” She had a point there, no matter how small; today’s cops were more like armed social workers and (occasionally) held accountable for their actions. Prisons were focused more on rehabilitation and run on tighter regulations.
It looked great on paper, at least.
“You know I don’t do missing persons, right? Am I really the best person for this?”
“I’ve exhausted all other options.” She toyed with a strand of hair, twisting it around her fingers. “And I feel like you’d be more motivated to try than some.”
“But you know I can’t divulge her location if she doesn’t want to be found, either.”
“Even if I think she’s in danger?”
They shrugged. “You could be what she’s running from, for all I know. Or her family.”
Shae sighed and lightly combed her hair with her fingers. “That’s fair, but I didn’t want to risk you shutting me down, either. I’m desperate, and it hurts my pride to even admit it.”
“This isn’t my specialty, but I’ll see what I can do,” they said.
“Your listing says you’re good at finding people. I figured that included potential kidnappings.”
“Yeah.” Ryn chewed on their bottom lip. “Hard to believe she just disappeared without a trace.”
“Why, because she’s pretty?”
“No, because she was so involved in the community. Popular, too.” It was easier to slip through the cracks when you were categorized as “undesirable”: fat, dark-skinned, disabled, etc. But everyone went to bat for slim, pretty girls, particularly the white ones. “Was she troubled? Any mental health issues?”
“Nothing major, but they diagnosed her with anxiety in high school,” she said offhandedly.
“Do you know the severity, and what prompted it? School, parental expectations, partners?”
“I don’t see why any of that matters. She had an outstanding home life, and a family that loved and treasured her.”
They calmly studied her, from the subtle shift of her jaw, to the way she tightened a curl on her finger. “You aren’t holding back on me, are you?”
“Everything, every pertinent detail about her life up to the point she went missing, and my own efforts, have been carefully documented,” she said, tapping the desk for emphasis.
“What’s your job title? You don’t strike me as a beat cop, but I’ve been wrong before.”
“Homicide, cold case…?”
Shae sighed, looking smaller than her ego. “General. I’d love to work on cold cases, but I’m not there yet.”
“Alright, Ms. Winters. I’ll go over the information soon, but I need you to let me do my job.” They stood to guide her out.
“Why do you think I hired you?” She bumped her shoulder into theirs, mouth drawn in a hard line.
“Just one last question,” they said, leaning against the door.
“What were you doing when we met?”
Shae paused, eyes slowly sweeping over Ryn. “I was called in about a disturbance,” she intoned. “A man was getting rough with one of the workers. I certainly wasn’t stalking you.”
“Short staffed, I’m guessing?”
“I was in the area, and didn’t mind standing by. Why is this important?”
“Just curious, is all,” they said. But she had it all wrong.
They inevitably found themself back in their home away from home, but for reasons unrelated to their circadian rhythm. Few people loitered about at this hour, and the few that did were pedestrians, cyclists, and the occasional hoodlum.
Ryn walked up and down the narrow street, scanning the stragglers, ears tuned for minute details. The latest gossip, if you could call it that, concerned stray dogs, the recent altercation, and the ethics of fucking a robot. That latter convo caught their ear for longer than they cared to admit and ended the same as others.
Would the world grind to a halt if men could marry and fuck robots?
They rolled their eyes as the conversation devolved into crude euphemisms and sexual preferences.
“Hoi,” they said, stopping near a boy cozied up on a doorstep. He was playing with a vape pen, blowing imperfect smoke rings. “Can I get your help with something?”
He thrust a hand out, palm up. The “pay me and I’ll think about it” stance. Paper money hadn’t been a thing for years now; everything was digital. They sent the boy fifty and his entire demeanor changed. “How may I help you, my good chum?” He twirled his pen around his fingers in a little flourish.
“How familiar are you with the usual crowd?”
“Very,” he said, nodding at the building behind him. “My ma works here. I know er’body.”
“How old are you?”
“Do you know if any girls your age work here?” It wasn’t uncommon for young women to pick up this sort of job until they found something better. He held out his hand again, and Ryn sighed. “Don’t get greedy. It’s a yes or no question, kid.”
The boy rolled his shoulders and shoved the pen back into his mouth. “A lot. You’re gonna have to pay up if you want specifics.”
“I’m not that hard up for information,” they said, and turned to go. They’d only come here to cover their bases, having double checked most of Shae’s notes—and ran a brief background check on her.
It was all very squeaky clean, Shae’s background ambiguous but for her work history and education; nothing they couldn’t find on a resume. College, prison guard, police detective. No criminal record, scant mention of family or spouses, and a very basic social media presence. They’d passed a request onto Piers, but thorough checks took time and he had his hands full.
“Hold up,” the boy said, darting into their path. Ryn sidestepped him and picked up speed until they were power-walking, but he jogged after them. “Do you have a picture or a name?”
“Names carry a lot of weight around here.” Too much. “But I can send you a picture.” They paused to watch his expression, but he only shook his head.
“Never seen her around.”
“Yeah, I thought as much.” That was going to complicate things, but at least they ruled out one possibility. “Thanks, kid.”
“Hey! What about my money?”
Ryn took off at a speed he couldn’t hope to match, brisk strides that left them feeling like they were walking on air.
The rest of this story can be read on Kindle Vella.