“The Twelve Cases Of Christmas” By C. A. Brown (Noir Christmas Short Stories – #9)

Stay tuned for the final short story in this series tomorrow evening at 9:30pm GMT πŸ™‚

If there was one thing I didn’t expect after I’d set myself up as a consulting detective for people who had signed up to a trendy new “gig economy” private detective app and found themselves out of their depth, it’s that I would be drawn into the pre-Christmas rush. I mean, I’m hardly a supermarket or anything like that. Yet, today, I found myself with no less than twelve clients.

My first client wanted me to find a lost cat. I just gave him the phone number of another client who had made some off-hand remark about specialising in searching for lost pets. Then I wished him luck. People are easy to track down, but cats are something else entirely.

My second client had found himself drawn into some kind of international conspiracy involving the Illuminati, extraterrestrial life and the United Nations.

After giving him valuable advice about how to fashion a protective cap from common household supplies, I dropped a cryptic hint that the answers he sought could be found behind a secret panel in the cloakroom of Hitler’s second bunker- which could be found by overlaying a sketch of the chemtrails above the local shopping centre at precisely 6:16am onto an out-of-print map of Milton Keynes from 1949. Well, we all amuse ourselves in different ways, I guess.

My third client had been hired by someone who was sure that his partner had just started having an affair. It was a pretty open and shut case. After all, who has the time for things like that during the pre-Christmas rush?

My fourth client was probably a serial killer. Thankfully, he was a rather stupid one. I’m still waiting for my letter of commendation from the police.

My fifth client had found herself trying to track down an out-of-print book from 1973 for a wealthy bibliophile. I got to astonish her by pulling a copy of the book from the old bookshelf in the corner of my office. Not bothering to clean out my office when I’d started renting it was an even wiser decision than I had thought. I celebrated by resolving never to tidy my desk drawers.

My sixth client had been hired by someone who didn’t know how to operate his VCR. How anyone still has a functioning VCR in this day and age, I’ll never know.

My seventh client actually turned out to be my second client again, who had just remembered that Milton Keynes hadn’t been built until the 1960s. When he threatened to report me for fraud, I just lowered my voice to a conspiratorial whisper and said ‘No, the OTHER Milton Keynes.. the one THEY don’t want you to know about.‘ He just nodded sagely, thanked me profoundly and left. I tried not to laugh too much.

My eighth client had been hired by someone who needed to find eight maids a-milking for a themed Christmas party. I solemnly pointed out that such a thing not only broke five EU food hygiene regulations, but that it also perpetuated outdated stereotypes about the modern farming industry. She seemed to believe me. I just hoped her client did too.

My ninth client wanted to sell me double-glazing. I showed him the door instead.

My tenth client had been hired by someone who wanted to solve a seemingly impossible murder that had taken place in a locked room in a sealed train carriage in the middle of nowhere. I passed the case on to my friends in the local police. Serves them right for not sending me that letter of commendation.

My eleventh client had been falsely accused of murdering someone in a locked room in a sealed train carriage in the middle of nowhere. I introduced her to my tenth client and told them to argue in the hall. Best thirty minutes of entertainment I’d had in years.

My twelfth client gave me an angry phone call saying that he’d been scared away from my office by two idiots outside the door who had been arguing about trains, of all things. I feigned ignorance and suggested that he’d got the address wrong, before giving him the “right” address. I felt sorry for the owner of the local pizza shop though. Still, with all those detective novels he keeps lying around on the counter, he’d probably have a field day when my client showed up.

Letting out a long sigh, I checked my watch. It wasn’t even noon yet. I hate Christmas.

“Night Off” By C. A. Brown (Noir Christmas Short Stories – #7)

Stay tuned for the next story tomorrow evening at 9:30pm GMT πŸ™‚

The idea that private detectives suddenly find themselves pulled into cases whilst going about their everyday lives is something that only happens on television. In reality, outside of the office is one of the few places where you don’t have to worry about being bothered by clients. After all, a good detective shouldn’t stand out as being a detective.

This was why, after solving five absurdly small cases within a single day, I decided to take the evening off. I’d planned to go to the pub, but even the terrace had looked more crowded than a supermarket on Christmas eve. So, instead, I headed for the Christmas market. It was one of those sophisticated continental things that, thanks to the referendum, we probably only had another year or two left to enjoy.

Against the falling snow, the fairy lights around each wooden stall glowed like futuristic fireflies. The aroma of spicy mulled wine and melting chocolate filled the air. A tinny speaker crackled out a bland version of “The Little Drummer Boy”. A rotund Santa Claus menaced a few tourists with a charity tin. A taxidermy reindeer head glowered down at me, his beady eyes somehow unaffected by the heavy snow.

When I stopped off for mulled wine, I ended up having a friendly argument about pronunciation. Apparently, it’s not meant to be pronounced “Glur-wine”. The correct pronunciation is “Glue-vine”. Which made sense. Either I’d got the dregs from the bottom of the cauldron or the guy behind the counter wanted to give me a helpful reminder by adding a dash of PVA to my plastic mug when I wasn’t looking.

Above the constant tinny music, the sound of phone shutters echoed like crickets. It took me a few seconds to notice it, but it actually seemed like more people were taking selfies than actually talking to each other. Not that I was complaining. If I wanted to listen to inane babbling, I’d have extended my office hours.

But, as I finished my mug of wine and found myself passing the same ornate arrangement of sugar plum chocolates for the third time, I felt a twinge of boredom. Not only that, the market was starting to get crowded too.

So, I headed for the cinema. If there’s one place no-one visits these days, it’s the cinema. As I stood on the escalator and watched the glowing blue signs slowly drift into view, I realised that I hadn’t even bothered to look at the listings in the paper earlier. Great, I thought, I’d be reduced to standing in front of the main desk like a pillock and craning my neck at the display board. Even so, it still seemed like a marginally less stupid idea than getting a smartphone.

But, like television at this time of night, there was barely anything worth watching. About the only vaguely interesting things were a leftover horror movie from Halloween and a shiny new adaptation of an old detective novel. Although the horror movie looked like it could be fun, I’d have to wait an entire hour for the next screening. So, with a sigh, I got a ticket to the detective movie.

Thankfully, the theatre was almost empty. Grabbing a seat in the middle, I waited for the trailers to begin. The cinema’s logo glowered down at me from the big screen whilst old pop music played in the background. Why, I wondered, did they bother advertising this place to people who were already here? Surely it was a bit self-defeating.

When the opening credits finally deigned to roll and an ornate train whooshed across the screen, I suddenly remembered that I’d read the book this film was based on. Worst of all, I remembered the ending too. Even by the standards of old-fashioned detective fiction, it had been a little bit on the contrived side of things. The next two hours would be fun.

As the moustachioed Belgian detective on the screen gasped and said: ‘A murder?‘ I felt something approaching jealousy. As much as I’d wanted peace and quiet, I’d also forgotten how boring it was.

Two rows back, someone gasped. Quick as a flash, I turned around and whispered: ‘Everything ok?

It wasn’t a murder. Someone had just spilled their popcorn.

“Espionage” By C. A. Brown (Noir Christmas Short Stories – #6)

Stay tuned for the next story tomorrow evening at 9:30pm GMT πŸ™‚

Thanks to a certain vermouth-swilling international incident on legs, spies get all of the glory. Which is great! We private detectives get to enjoy sneaking around too, but at least we get to advertise our services.

And, ever since some trendy new “gig economy” app had made everyone think that, yes, they could be a P.I. too – I’d found quite a profitable sideline in being a consulting detective for those who found themselves out of their depth. Which was pretty much all of them.

And that is never a good thing. Case in point, my latest client.

With a crisp handshake, he introduced himself as ‘Maximilian Redfort-Lowbury‘ before plucking a shiny new smartphone from the pocket of his designer jacket.

Tapping the screen twice, he said: ‘I signed up to GUMS4U as a bit of a lark. But, this latest case has got me stumped. Someone wants me to get hold of some documents from an encrypted government mainframe in Berlin. Within the week too.

I shrugged: ‘That’s illegal. Refuse the job. I’m sure there’s an option on the app for that.

Oh, come on!‘ He said ‘Where’s your sense of adventure? If you don’t help me out, I’ll be the laughing stock of… the office Christmas party.

Adventure? Do you know how busy the airports are at this time of year? Plus, I don’t sprechen sie Deutsch.‘ I sighed.

But, you just did. Just then. Your grammar was a bit off though.

Which just goes to prove my point.‘ I said.

Ah!‘ He said, as if he’d suddenly discovered the meaning of life ‘But you won’t really be talking to anyone! Surely you can just sneak in there and do whatever computer wizardry you detectives do. In fact…‘ He gestured at my computer ‘You could probably hack in from here, right?

That old thing? It’s been on a ten-year go slow protest. I can’t even log on to my e-mail without waiting five minutes. I think it wants me to oil it or something. I don’t speak computer either‘.

So, you’re useless?‘ He sighed sharply. ‘You know, I could have you investigated for false advertising. My friends could make your life..

Very easy if you walk out of the door right now.‘ I said ‘What would they think about you hiring a private detective so that you could bunk off for an unofficial Christmas holiday? And.. Maximilian Redfort-Lowbury… A word to the wise, false names work best when they don’t stand out a mile away.

After he stormed off in a huff, I poured myself a large scotch and watched the snow falling outside my office window. That’s the other problem with spies, they’re all a bit too taken with the idea of casinos, beautiful lovers and fancy hotels. Again, I blame the movies.

“Magic” By C. A. Brown (Noir Christmas Short Stories – #5)

Stay tuned for the next story tomorrow evening at 9:30pm GMT πŸ™‚

Ever since I’d set myself up as a consulting detective for the hordes of wannabes who had signed up to a trendy new “gig economy” private detective app and quickly found themselves out of their depth, I was actually starting to enjoy Christmas again.

Not only had I actually dusted the chair on the other side of my desk, but I’d also been able to get a decent bottle of whisky for the first time in about three weeks. But, as I sat back and watched the frosted glass window on my office door, I couldn’t help but feel an odd sense of foreboding. Call it a detective’s instincts, but I probably shouldn’t have had that chicken phaal last night.

But, before I could think about it too much, I saw a silhouette appear against the window, followed by three short knocks. With something that almost felt like friendliness, I said: ‘It’s open. Come in.

A twentysomething woman with bobbed black hair glided through the doorway. The eyes of a cartoon skull glared at me from the back of her smartphone.

With a smile, I said: ‘Let me guess, you need help with one of your clients. Either that, or the funeral director is at the other end of the hall. Tell him I sent you and he might give you a ten percent discount. On the other hand, the miserable old git might jack the prices up.

He’s my grandfather.‘ She deadpanned. I tried not to let the shock show on my face.

She almost creased up with laughter. I raised an eyebrow. With a magenta smile, she said: ‘Sorry, bad joke. I need your help with a case on GUMS4U.‘ She paused for a second ‘Some joker didn’t read my seller description.

Am I getting yanked into solving a murder or something? Because that’s really the police’s job.’ I sighed.

What? No. I usually track down lost pets.‘ She tapped her phone a couple of times. ‘But this smart-arse wants me to find out how The Magnificent Marvin Mysteriono performs his most famous magic trick – the cabinet of swords. He’s demanding answers within the day. Tosser.’

Tapping her phone again, she handed it to me and said: ‘Take a look.‘.

I tapped and swiped at the screen for a few seconds. The video disappeared above the top of the screen. I tried to swipe downwards, but the phone screen suddenly displayed a photo of a rock band instead of the video. I’ll never understand smartphones. Sighing, my client reached for the phone and tapped it twice, before holding it up.

On the screen, a man in a top hat emerged from clouds of ominous blue fog before gesturing towards an ornate wooden wardrobe. With a theatrical flourish, he flung the doors open to reveal a row of gleaming swords. A violin started to play quickly as seven shrouded figures drifted out of the fog.

As quiet chanting started to fill the air, each one reached for a sword and held it aloft. Finally, a hooded monk appeared in a puff of smoke. With a bony finger, he pointed towards the wardrobe. Nervously, the magician stepped inside. Four of the shrouded figures turned the wardrobe sideways. Then, after shrieking a few words of phony Latin, they plunged their swords into the wardrobe.

Each blade went clean through, followed quickly by a gush of bright red stage blood from below the wardrobe doors. As the blood pooled under a stage light, the monk merely lowered his head in prayer before slowly removing his cowl. He was none other than the magician! The tinny sound of applause crackled through the phone’s speakers.

Impressive.‘ I smiled. ‘I have to give him marks for theatricality but, really, it’s the oldest trick in the book.

Tell me more.‘ My client looked surprised.

Whilst the wardrobe is being turned sideways, Mysteriono changes into the monk’s robe and sneaks out via a secret door in the other side of the wardrobe. Because everyone’s attention is focused on the wardrobe, which also has a false back panel that contains a blood bag, he’s able to switch places with the monk for the big reveal. As I said, the oldest trick in the book.

She gasped theatrically ‘Really? You got that just from watching the video once? I’ve seen it like twenty times.

I shrugged. She raised an eyebrow: ‘Wait a minute. You just guessed, didn’t you?

I smirked: ‘Technically, someone else did. Don’t feel bad about collecting a fee from your client – it’s practically a stupidity tax. I mean, couldn’t he just have glanced at the comments below the video?

She rolled her eyes ‘The comments? No-one reads those. Hey, wait a minute! What about the fee I’m supposed to give you for this wise advice?

I checked my watch. ‘Fifteen quid an hour. We’ve been here twenty minutes. So, a fiver, I think.

“Nice Things” By C. A. Brown (Halloween 2017 Sci-Fi Stories #10)

This is the final Halloween story, stay tuned for a full series retrospective later tonight πŸ™‚

It’s an honour to have you with me, sir.‘ Detective Stevens banked the ground-car to the left and activated the siren. The sea of headlights ahead barely even moved in acknowledgement.

This isn’t the military, Stevens.‘ Chief Oakfield sighed. ‘Though I have to admit that it has a certain… gravitas.

Sorry, sir. I mean, Chief.‘ Stevens stuttered. ‘It’s still an honour.

Ah, if only they were all like you. But, if you must know, I got called out personally by the Mayor. I thought that I’d dodged the old bastard’s invitation to this shopping centre opening. But, they only bloody have to turn it into a crime scene.‘ Oakfield sighed and leant against the passenger window, watching the neon signs crawl past slowly.

Stevens glared at the headlights ahead ‘Do you want me to turn the siren up, Chief? I mean, they should be clearing a path for us. Section seven of the…

Forget it.‘ Oakfield waved his hand. ‘I’m still in two minds about whether this whole thing is an elaborate ploy on the part of the Mayor. But, for future reference, you don’t crank up the siren. Just keep it on low and, eventually, people get too annoyed by it to get in your way. Works every time.

But, what about emergencies sir? I mean, Chief? For all we know, there could be a hostage situation or a…

Oakfield let out a quiet laugh: ‘If it was an emergency, Stevens, they’d have called for the tactical squad or sky division. Not a rookie and an old man. But, again, for future reference – the bumper of a standard police car generally tends to be tougher than the rear of a civilian car. Just give ’em a gentle tap and they tend to get the message. No! Not now!

A loud mechanical clank and the furious bleeping of a horn echoed through the car. Stevens muttered an apology. Oakfield rubbed his forehead and smiled. The police car began to accelerate slowly.

——–

By the time the Agora Shopping Centre gradually sailed into view, the crowds had already begun to disperse. Whilst Stevens honked the horn at the remaining pedestrians, Oakfield stared at the constellation of flashing red and blue lights ahead.

Gonna be a long night.‘ Oakfield sighed, before picking up the car radio and barking an order for a status update. Stevens almost jumped out of his seat. A second later, nothing but radio static filled the car.

I can check the maintainance logs when we get back, Chief.‘ Stevens stuttered. ‘I thought that the equipment got checked every..

Don’t bother. We’re nearly there anyway. Just pull in over there, and try not to hit anything.‘ Oakfield pointed into the mass of flashing lights.

Whilst Stevens nervously began to park, Oakfield reached for his hat and said: ‘Just leave the talking to me.

————-

Oakfield had braced himself for the worst, but nothing could prepare him for what he saw. The Mayor actually smiled at him. Gaunt and huddled under a blanket, the old man rushed eagerly towards Oakfield: ‘Oh, thank god! I’ve never been more glad to see you.

What… What is going on here?‘ Oakfield said, hiding his trembling hand in his coat pocket.

The Mayor let out a rattling sigh and said: ‘Derren DeVor started acting strangely. We’d hired him to put on a show for the opening. But, after the first song, he started muttering something about the walls.

Stevens smiled enthusiastically: ‘Derren DeVor was here?

Oakfield glared at Stevens, before returning to the Mayor. He was leaning against a wall and had wrapped the blanket even more tightly around his shoulders. For a second, Oakfield could swear that he saw fear in the old man’s steely eyes.

In a trembling voice, he continued: ‘At first, we thought he was just joking. Or crazy. Then he ran off of the stage. A few seconds later, the walls started to crack. Like an earthquake, but without the tremors. There was mass panic, looting, violence. I saw someone literally bludgeon a man to death over a designer radio.

Oakfield nodded silently. Stevens looked dumbfounded. Finally, the Mayor said: ‘I know that your officers have probably started going over the place already, but I’d feel better if you were on the scene. The press are going to get here soon, and it’s only a matter of time before they find a way in. We need to show the public that we’re in control.

Standing up straight, Oakfield said: ‘Yes, sir!

———–

The first thing that Oakfield noticed as he stepped inside the gloomy shopping centre was the smell of burning rubber. The next thing he noticed was the rust-coloured stains and smeared grime that covered every surface. If the shopping centre had been buried underground for a decade, it would still be in better shape.

Stevens followed hesitantly, before suddenly tripping over something. A wet squelch echoed around the cavernous hall. As soon as Stevens got up, a single glance downwards soon filled the hall with tortured retching.

Finally, coughing slightly, Stevens said: ‘What the hell happened here?

Without saying a word, Oakfield walked over to a cracked information stand and pulled out a pamphlet. He handed it to Stevens. Squinting in the gloom, Stevens looked at the pristine photograph on the cover. The immaculate white walls, the sparkling fountains, the verdant palm trees and the shiny storefronts. Stevens looked at the centre, then at the pamphlet again.

Finally, Stevens muttered: ‘Hard to believe it’s the same place.

Not really.‘ Oakfield sighed ‘It’s this city. It just can’t have nice things.

“A Night Out” By C. A. Brown (Halloween 2017 Sci-Fi Stories #8)

Stay tuned for the next short story tomorrow night πŸ™‚

By the time the neon sign opposite the window flickered and sputtered into life, I’d decided to call it a day. Not that it was really much of a day. Business this week had been deader than a dive bar in December. According to the papers, the freak rainstorm wouldn’t even end for another fortnight.

Still, as I drained the dregs from my coffee mug and tipped the contents of the ashtray into the overflowing bin, I heard distant footsteps. A light clicking sound. High heels. Sitting back behind my desk, I straighened my tie and tried to smile. First impressions matter.

What seemed like five minutes later, there was a knock on the door. ‘Come in.

With a quiet creak, the handle turned. I like to think that I can size up a client immediately, but this one was something else. She looked like she’d just stepped out of one of the ritzy clubs on the other side of town.

The fact she wasn’t wearing an overcoat led me to conclude that she’d taken a sky-cab here. No doubt that it had landed on the roof, maybe with a butler to carry the umbrella too. But, there weren’t any wet footprints on the wood panelling by the door.

With a hint of a smile, she said: ‘Mr. Dillhale? I presume I’ve got the right office. I need you to look into something.

Smiling back, I said: ‘Yes, ma’am. My fee is two hundred credits a day, plus expenses. What is it that you want investigating?

Instinctively, I gestured towards the chair opposite my desk. She remained in the doorway. Without a word, she reached into her bag and pulled out a small brown envelope. Placing it on top of a nearby bookshelf, she said: ‘I expect results.

And I hope to deliver them.‘ I smiled again and began to get up. Before I could even get to my feet, she had already closed the door. Raising an eyebrow, I listened to the clicking footsteps get more and more distant. For a second, I thought about running after her. But, some people like to get dramatic when they visit. I blame the pulp novels.

Sighing, I grabbed the envelope and tore it open. There was nothing inside except for a small typewritten card that read ‘Phobos Club. Tonight. Call ahead.‘ Below it, there was a phone number.

After hefting the latest city directory onto my desk, I checked the address listings. There was a Beef Pho place a few streets away and somewhere called Phoebe’s on Dante Avenue, but no Phobos Club. Picking up the phone, I dialled the directory offices. They hadn’t heard of it either.

With nothing else to do, I rang the number on the card. The phone rang for what felt like two minutes, before I heard quiet piano music. A gruff voice said: ‘Phobos club.

Hello, I’m a private investigator. A client came to my office and asked me to visit your club this evening, but I’m having a hard time finding directions. You aren’t listed in the directory.

The voice went silent. For a second, it sounded like even the piano music had stopped. Finally, the gruff voice said: ‘We’ve just opened. Don’t worry about directions Mr. Dillhale, we’ll send a sky-car.

Ah, I see that I’ve been introduced. You wouldn’t by any chance know anything about my client. She’s…‘ Before I could even finish my sentence, the line went dead.

They weren’t giving out names. They weren’t in the directory. Every instinct told me to run. Maybe it was the head of the Griswold Corportation setting a honey-trap? Maybe it was Vincetti plotting revenge? Maybe it was a hundred things. None of them seemed good. With my gun at the repair shop, I’d have to cancel my plans.

Picking up the phone, I dialled the number again. Nobody answered. As much as I hated to be a deadbeat, I’d just have to skip out and hope that I could come up with a good enough excuse before the client got back.

I’d barely even reached for my overcoat when I heard the knock on my door. It was a sharp, quick knock. I glanced over at the door. There were three shadows in the frosted glass window. With a sigh, I said: ‘Sorry, I’m closed. Come back tomorrow.

The handle began to turn. ‘I said, I’m closed. Beat it.

Before I could even reach for my coat, the door flew open. A man in a black dinner jacket leapt across the room. As he grabbed my shoulders with his bony fingers, I smelled cheap cologne and dusty books. Without even thinking, I swung my knee into his groin. He barely seemed to notice. Instead, he pinned me to the wall and glanced nonchalantly over his shoulder.

A second later, the others had joined him. My client stood at the head of the group. Slowly, she opened her mouth. Any beauty she once had evaporated in an instant as my eyes fixed themselves upon her teeth. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that she’d filed them all down to a point.

Beside her, a burly blond man flashed a jagged smile and said: ‘How exciting! You’ve excelled yourself, Marletta.

Marletta giggled: ‘Well, I was getting awfully tired of the club. So, I thought that we’d dine out tonight. If no-one minds, I’ll take the jugular.

The blond man laughed: ‘You’ve earned it! This is the most fun I’ve had in decades!

“Service” By C. A. Brown (Halloween 2017 Sci-Fi Stories #5)

Stay tuned for the next short story tomorrow night πŸ™‚

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 apΓ©ritifs 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.