‘Dahling, remind me again why we’re in the… poor… sector?‘ Jocasta Jersey-Jamesford gestured at the flickering neon lights with the point of her cigarette holder as a hundred multicoloured rain droplets shimmered across her synthetic mink coat. ‘I just … knew… we should have taken an air-car.’
‘Where’s your sense of adventure, dear?‘ Stanton Braxford-Hughville flashed her a mischievous grin and unfurled one of the latest micro-umbrellas. As Jocasta rushed towards the umbrella, Stanton smiled at her again and said: ‘Anyway, it was Laurie’s idea. She’s found some exciting new restaurant here, staffed entirely by robots.‘
‘Dahling, if I wanted silent service, I’d go to the Caxton.‘ Jocasta rolled her eyes. ‘Say, have any of the critics been to this place?‘
Stanton laughed: ‘Uncharted territory, dear. Oh, don’t pout like that. Think of it as an… experience.‘
‘Catching Bolivian Pneumonia is… technically… an “experience”. Being stabbed by one of the local residents here is … also… an “experience”. But, it doesn’t mean that I’d cancel my plans to try it out.‘ Jocasta shot him a withering look. Stanton replied with a wry grin.
With a sigh, Jocasta gestured at the street once again ‘Let’s just get this over with, dahling. I’m going to have words with Laurie. If dining in some unsanitary flea-pit is her idea of a joke… ‘
With oiled ease and a perfect smile, the robot swung the poster-encrusted doors open. ‘Welcome to Cuisine Mechanique, the city’s only fully robotic restaurant.‘
Jocasta rolled her eyes and whispered: ‘What a novelty. Is there a merry-go-round too?‘ Stanton suppressed a laugh.
‘Nothing so tawdry, Ma’am.‘ The robot said ‘We apologise for the shabby exterior. But, one has to keep the crowds out.‘
‘Then, why..‘ Jocasta paused ‘… is the restaurant here, of all places? Did you know, we even had to take a bus.‘
‘We apologise for the inconvenience, Ma’am. Storing the two million valve supercomputer for our selection program would be prohibitively costly in more salubrious settings. But, we should not keep your friends waiting. If you will follow me.‘
Gently, the robot began to pace along the hall. Matching the machine’s measured marching, Stanton said: ‘Two million valves, you say?‘
‘Yes, sir. The system is quite advanced. Through the use of cranial electrodes, we can ascertain your favourite dish. Our collection of runners and cooking machines will then prepare it for you. It is, I am told, quite the experience.‘
‘We shall see about that.‘ Jocasta muttered.
Laurie and Bernard had already got started on the apéritifs and begun a literary discussion by the time that Jocasta and Stanton arrived at the opulent private dining room. With programmed grace, another robot poured wine for them as they took their seats at the mahogany table.
‘Stanton! Jocasta!‘ Laurie beamed, raising her glass.
Jocasta beamed back: ‘Laurie! Oh, this is simply wonderful! Is it really true that they can predict our favourite dishes?‘
‘Oh, yes.‘ Laurie clicked her fingers. With a quiet hiss, another door opened and a trolley with four colander-like metal hats gently slid towards the table. Stanton let out a chuckle. Bernard merely shrugged. Jocasta sipped her wine nonchalantly.
‘So, what do we do?‘ Stanton asked as he reached for one of the hats.
‘Put them on and wait for a few minutes, I think.‘ Laurie said as she gently placed the hat on her head. A few seconds later, a quiet humming sound filled the air.
Gingerly, the others placed the hats upon their heads. The sound grew louder.
By the time that Detective Chekhov arrived at the restaurant, the crowds had begun to gather. Flashing his warrant card and pushing past two amateur photographers, he approached the constables at the doors.
‘So, what’s the story here?‘ Chekhov muttered.
One of the constables stared at him wearily: ‘The alarm went off about twenty minutes ago. There were no signs of forced entry. When we got inside… well, best not to say anything. There are reporters here.‘
Nodding, Chekhov gingerly eased the doors open and stepped inside. With a quiet squeak, a dishevelled robot lurched towards the door. In a croaking voice, it said: ‘You must be here to vacate the private dining room. I do not wish to cause a fuss, but several of our guests have overstayed the allotted dining period.‘
‘Overstayed?‘ Chekhov raised an eyebrow.
‘After five time warnings, the alarm is triggered. Although one of the guests left shortly after the meal was served, the others refused to leave. Come along, I will show you the way.‘ With uneven steps, the robot clanked along the hallway until it reached a dented door.
Chekhov opened the door. A second later, he slammed it shut and doubled over. The robot shakily proffered a paper bag.
Back at the station, Chief Oakfield stared wearily at Chekhov: ‘I’ve just read the forensics report, detective. We can’t file murder charges.‘
‘I know what I saw, Chief.‘ Chekhov muttered. ‘The guest register shows that Laurie Lavinington-Lillfield was the only guest to leave. She obviously thought that revenge was best served diced and broiled with a side-plate of caviar. You don’t need a forensics report to work that out.’
Oakfield sighed: ‘I phoned the restaurant’s owners. They use some kind of mind-reading gadget to make the food orders. The orders are prepared entirely by robots.‘
‘So, she got the robots to do it for her?‘ Chekhov shrugged ‘It’s still murder.‘
Oakfield merely reached into his desk and handed a thin book to Chekhov. Puzzled, Chekhov glanced at it. It was a shiny new detective novel with an oil painting of a posh restaurant on the cover.
Oakfield sighed and said: ‘According to the preliminary forensics report, a copy of it was found in the bag that Ms Lavinington-Lillfield left at the crime scene. The description just before the bookmark on page thirty-two matches the scene of the crime almost identically.‘ He paused for a second ‘Daydreaming during dinner is hardly a crime.‘