Tuesday July 2 2069
The Food Processor had opened quietly three months before, and had built a large client base on its merits before anyone noticed what really set it apart from rest of the Berkeley restaurant scene. The place was clean, well-lit, and very quiet for a bar in a college town, at least until the entertainment cranked it up. The menu was quite large for a place its size, yet the service was quick and accurate. The nightly floor show consisted of an attractive young blonde with a good voice, a huge repertoire, and a mastery of several instruments. The clientele was a mix of middle-class types and college students, polite and appreciative, with a solid core of regulars and a regular influx of new customers drawn by word-of-mouth. People seldom noticed that the waitress never went back to the kitchen to deliver orders, or that, despite having a full-service bar and a wine cellar, the place was a very effective Dramshop; no one it served left the place drunk. The oddest thing a new customer would usually notice was that the staff members were all pretty young girls with a strong family resemblance (which might have been enough to explain why a typical crowd was three-quarters male), until someone whispered the truth in his ear.
"Never been in here before." The big man, obviously inebriated, leaned over the bar to favor his server with a smile. "Classy. You here every night?"
"Just about." Carla drew another beer for him; while the glass and her hands were out of sight under the bar, she added a drop of A-Tox to the drink. "Do you want to see a menu yet?"
"Nah, just keep em comin." He poured the treated liquid down his throat. "One for you too, whatever you want."
She gave him a polite smile, not wide enough to show dimples. "Thanks." She filled a glass with tap water and sipped from it. "This is all I drink on the job."
"Boss must be a real prick, huh?"
She shook her head. "The boss is me. And the girl playing and singing on stage. And the one back in the kitchen, and the two waiting tables."
"Ah." He made a show of studying Brenda at her keyboard. "Sisters?"
"Right in one."
"You can't tell?"
"Oh, yeah." He nodded with a crooked grin. "Y'all look like that girl from The Defenders, you know that? The elf."
"We get that a lot." She lifted his glass and wiped the counter where he'd left a ring.
"Hey. Wasn't hitting on you, just stating a fact, that's all." His speech was already less slurred. "So, you all chipped in for this place, and now you're running it together. What happens if you change your mind, want out?"
"Not likely." She walked a few steps to the bar sink and washed some glasses. "We've wanted to do this for years."
"Years. Since high school, huh?"
She set the glasses on a towel to dry. "Oh, longer than that, really." Brenda watched them mutely from the tiny stage, her fingers gliding over the keyboard as she played. "What brings you here? New in town?"
"Just here on business. Closing a big deal with the Port Authority."
She lifted an eyebrow. "Oh? Which one?"
He looked puzzled, then his face cleared. "Oh. Spaceport." He spent several minutes detailing commodities contracts while Carla listened, excusing herself occasionally to service other customers, but always coming back to listen. He bought several more drinks and asked a few personal questions which she fielded deftly from long practice. When he left his stool to go to the bathroom, Celia glided up to the bar.
"I think he's about ready to ask you when you get off." When surrounded by bios, the partners minimized gestalt and the use of com in conversation; watching extended radiotelepathy sessions made even bio friends ill at ease, and chatting at com speed made it easy to slip into accelerated mode, another habit they considered impolite among flesh-and-bloods. "What are you doing?"
Carla offered her a small smile. "He might be a different person when he's sober."
"An irate one, probably. You charged him for a drink when you poured the water, right?"
"He offered to buy whatever I wanted."
"How long before he realizes he's getting straighter with every drink?"
"One more, I'm sure. Then I'll direct his attention to one of the signs." She refilled his empty glass and dosed it.
Cora joined them. "We're getting celebrities in here now, I see."
Carla shook her head. "Just some out-of town lawyer with a big mouth, looking for a one-night stand." She twitched an eyebrow. "Who unknowingly clued me that real-beef prices will be going way up for a while in about ten days, so let's stock up."
Cora tilted her head towards the back of the restaurant. "I mean the guy in the corner booth, sitting alone at a table for four. Must be waiting for his entourage. That's Leonard Atchison. From The Defenders."
Celia huffed. "There are guys on that show? The only customers who talk about it are dawgs comparing Sybil Grey and Paulina Paladino."
"I'll have you know, Dominic Upchurch is perfectly dreamy. Even if he is a little frayed at the edges." Cora glided away. She passed by Brenda at her keyboard as she finished a song. Before beginning the next, Brenda played two bars from The Defenders' theme. Atchison looked up and grinned at her.
"Seems okay." Celia grabbed a food order as it passed through the kitchen window and delivered it.
Carla's lawyer customer returned to the bar. She pushed the beer towards him. "On the house."
He glowered at it. "I read the sign in the bathroom. You've been doping my drinks, haven't you?"
"I think of it as de-doping my customer. You were at point-one-four when you came in; that's not only illegal, it's dangerous." She cocked her head. "You did say you drove a rental here, right? Brand new Skoda, big luxury car? Lots of foot traffic in this district, especially at night. You might have woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed this morning."
"I wasn't drinking before I came here!"
"Then you'd better see a doctor quick, cuz your body's producing alcohol."
"How the hell would you know what my level was?" He started to glance at the door.
"There's a snooper, but that's not how I know," she said. "You've been drinking all day. I can smell it coming out of your pores." She lifted an eyebrow. "Carboxy, too, but I didn't sell you the pot, and the effect on your motor control's negligible compared to the alcohol anyway."
"You can't smell-" He stopped, and the Look spread on his face like dawn.
"Out of your own mouth." She glanced towards the tables where Cora and Celia were serving; both of them were looking sharply their way. Brenda finished a song and sat staring at them as well. "We all look like elves." She pushed the glass towards him. "You're down to point-oh-two. I can let you walk out the door with a clear conscience, but I'd just as soon finish what I started. Come on, I'll even buy you a burger."
He glared at her. "Give me my card." She slid it across the bar, and he stuck it back in his pocket. "I could close your little saloon for this."
"Not in this town, lawyer man. You take me to court, I'll win damages." She looked up at him. "And if you try to make your suit anything but a test of the Dramshop Agreement, you might need a lawyer who's qualified for the World Court."
The muscles below his ears flexed as he turned to the door. As he passed through the opening, he said in a voice too low for a bio to hear, "Fucking robots."
Carla's sisters got back to work. She wiped at the bar with a cloth until there wasn't the slightest trace, even to a cyber, that the lawyer had ever been there. Then she wiped it some more.
Atchison got up from his table, glass in hand, and approached the bar. He sat on the stool next to the one vacated by the lawyer. "I suppose he dropped the R-word at the door."
She didn't look up. "You didn't have to get up. Cora would've been back before you ran dry."
"Although she might not have filled me back up." He waggled his glass. "How am I doing?"
"You were sober when you came in, and that's your first. You'd have got another."
"Actually, I'd have sat at the bar when I came in, but I didn't want to share."
She glanced meaningfully down the bar at a couple splitting their attention between a vid program and each other.
"I wasn't talking about the bar." He smiled down at her. "What's the nicest thing about meeting a cyber?"
She hooded her eyes. "What?"
"Knowing exactly what her smile looks like before you ever win one from her."
"What makes you think you'll ever get a smile out of me?" But she smiled as she said it.
He gave her the look of a gourmet tasting his favorite dish. "Ah, the dimples."
She smiled wider, her upset erased. "Mr. Atchison, are you a cyber dawg?"
"Since puberty. Call me Len."
"Carla." She offered a hand. "Ever get lucky?"
He took it. "Never tried, actually. I have a romantic nature." He gave her a practiced cyber clasp, and she thrilled at the unexpected whisper of data exchange.
"You… you're very charming." She locked eyes. "You sure you've never?"
"Just compensating. After all, I play the nemesis of the most popular cyber on vid." He leaned close. "I've been invited. I'm going to try to wait till then."
The feeling she was getting through the bare skin of his palm left no room for doubt. "Do you really think you'll go?"
He smiled. "Oh, almost certainly. If I'm still alive by then, and I'm still welcome." He released her hand and passed her his card. "Hang on to that for me, will you? And pour yourself one. Make sure it goes on my charge, Carla. I intend to take up as much of your time as I can, and it's worth something."
Holding his eyes with hers, she poured a bottle of distilled water into a glass. She flicked her tongue across her upper lip before she drank. "Can I get you something to eat?"
"I'm not sure we needed reservations," Jack said. "The girl on the phone seemed surprised I was asking." She and Jack were walking down Shattuck Avenue, an old section that had avoided the torch during the Troubles. The street was lined with quaint brick-and-glass storefronts in a variety of architectural styles, with five meters of sidewalk between doors and curb. The late afternoon sun cast shadows across half the street, and the trees in the median and the wide awnings over the storefronts shaded the other. Vehicle traffic was light and silent, and there were no spaces for parking. But the sidewalks were bustling, even thronged in places, mostly with college age couples. "It's only Tuesday, after all."
"It's just a matter of time," she said confidently. "I think someday soon you'll need a reservation to get in the Food Processor any night of the week." Without seeming to, she scanned the crowd carefully.
"She also sounded an awful lot like you."
"Well, that's to be expected, isn't it?" She estimated that eight percent of passersby recognized her for a cyber, a higher than normal number. Although most commented quietly to their companions, they exhibited no behavioral changes; she wondered if being in the company of a bio affected their reaction. "Here we are."
The sign etched into the glass of the large curtained window read simply:
The Food Processor
Open early and late – just try the knob, will you?
The sign by the door was more detailed.
This establishment is a proud signatory of the Dramshop Agreements.
We love to see people enjoy themselves, but we reserve the right to take measures to ensure public safety by managing the blood alcohol levels of our guests through all legal means. Such means include:
Insisting you eat our complimentary high-protein snacks between drinks.
Holding back service without cutting portions.
Customers arriving dangerously intoxicated will be served only drinks mixed with A-Tox, a harmless metabolic catalyst that accelerates the body's conversion of alcohol to acetic acid.
If you're drunk right now, and want to be drunk when you leave, do it now.
Otherwise, come on in and have some fun. We'll do our part to see you home safe afterwards.
"Huh. Adriana, didn't you say this place was new?"
"The ink is still damp on their license. Why?"
"This sign. Was this place a bar before your friends bought it?"
"I don't know, but the sign's new, too. What's wrong?"
"I thought they quit issuing Dramshop permits years ago."
"Oh, the Agreement's still on the books, if you want to apply. It saves the owners a ton of money on liability insurance."
"Until one customer leaves the premises drunker than when he came in, then finds an excuse to sue. That's how most Dramshops went belly-up." He opened the door for her.
"Well," she said as she entered, "it's a little bit harder to fool a cyber about your state of intoxication."
The interior lighting was about the same as the shadowy street outside. The place was compact, containing the elements of a much larger establishment; even with room set aside for a small stage and dance floor, it would seat two hundred comfortably. At the bar, she spied a familiar bio. "Jack. Leonard's at the bar."
"Indeed he is." Jack twitched a smile. "Seems right at home, too. Do you know her?"
"Carla, one of the owners." Leonard's left hand rested on the bar, and Carla's right lay on top of it. They were deep into conversation that Adriana carefully filtered out, giving the other cyber privacy since she and Carla weren't linked.
Jack looked around, taking in the cybers waiting tables, playing music, and tending bar, all long-haired blondes. "Good grief. I thought you came in different colors."
She smiled. "Not in California, apparently. Easier to fit in. Not going to have trouble telling us apart, are you?"
"If I do, I'm sure you'll find some way to distinguish yourself."
A waitress glided up, as smoothly as if she were on wheels. "Welcome to the Food Processor," she said to Jack. "Do you have a seating preference?"
"It's our first time here."
She lifted an eyebrow. "Yes and no. It's your first, Mr. Selig, but it's Adriana's second. I recommend a corner booth in the back."
They followed her to the rear of the establishment. Leonard and Carla each gave them a brief smile as they passed. Once they were seated, they ordered drinks, and their server glided away. Adriana watched Jack's eyes follow the waitress to the bar, where their drinks were already waiting, and all the way back. She dropped menus in front of them and glided away again.
"Jack, I've never seen you behave like a wolf before. So why do you keep staring at Celia's derriere?"
He colored. "I'm just trying to figure out how she seems to walk without moving her legs. I mean, she does, but her gait is so smooth it's like she's on skates."
"Small steps. Use the whole length of your foot, heel to toe. Angle your feet, so you don't swing your hips. Time your stride perfectly. It's a default setting." And, until now, she'd never wondered why.
"You don't walk like that."
"I can, though." She raised an eyebrow, an unspoken question.
He smiled. "Of course I do, every time I walk behind you. I'm only human." Then he colored in infrared. "I-"
She waved it off, smiling. "We say it all the time, too." She gestured at the menu. "Best take a look at that, she'll be right back."
He picked it up, and his eyebrows rose as he turned pages. "How big is the kitchen?"
"About fifty square meters. But if you're asking about the size of the crew, it's just Maria back there. She was raised in a big family."
"Word." He looked at the menu resting on the tabletop in front of her. "Why do they even give you one? For form's sake?"
"Well, my recall is perfect, but that doesn't mean I store every sight and sound and smell I've ever experienced. It was considerate of her not to assume I'd stored the menu, even though I said I'd be back."
"I mean... I thought you didn't eat."
"Of course we do. We need nutrients too; the nannites need something to work with. Just not the same ones, or as often. Or in public, usually." She turned the menu around and held it up, showing him the inside. It was the same as his except for a half-page insert of the sort many restaurants used to promote their specials. But the offerings on this bill of fare were mostly numbered "combos," and the list of items contained a great many chemical polysyllables.
He looked it over. "You eat this stuff? What's it taste like?"
"I don't think that would be a profitable discussion, Jack. We don't eat or drink for flavor, and I'm quite sure you won't be trying samples off my plate." She picked up her drink, a two-shot glass filled with pale amber liquid, and took a sip. "This looks like weak tea, I know, but it would burn your throat if you touched it to your lips. Many of the items on the cyber menu are poison to bios. Even the ones that bios ingest as beneficial trace elements in their food, like magnesium, because they're presented to us in toxic concentrations."
"Our digestive systems aren't nearly as versatile as yours. We can't process waste products and excrete them. We ingest something we can't use, it comes back out the way it went in."
Jack scoffed. "So, cybers are all bulimic? That's almost funny."
"I've heard it described in terms ranging from scary to piteous, but never funny."
"Poor choice of words. People look for human frailties in cybers. Eating disorders wouldn't be a first guess for anyone."
Celia returned. "Ready?"
Jack picked up his menu again. "I haven't even gotten to the last page. Do you have a recommendation?"
Celia gave him a very direct look. "I don't know you well enough to know what you'd like. No one ever complains about the food, though." She looked at Adriana.
"I'll have a number three, with an extra unit of glycerine." When Celia gave Jack a sharp look, she added, "Just to get back in sync."
He blinked. "Ah, I'll just have a burger. And coffee, black."
"Real-beef, or synth?"
He blinked again. "You serve real-beef?"
"The menu says, 'Made to Order,' Mr. Selig. We have customers who won't eat synth. They claim they can tell the difference."
"Hm." He specified the sandwich's preparation and trimmings, and picked a side order. When she left, he asked, "What did I miss there? I have a hunch it was important."
She gave him a one-dimple smile. "We don't use all our consumables at a constant rate. That's why there are several menu selections on the cyber menu. Glycerine is a key component in spit and… similar lubricants. When I came in here with a man, and ordered extra, as if I've been using a lot of it…"
His ears brightened in infrared; she thought the color quite attractive. "Do many mixed couples come in here?"
"There aren't many mixed couples, because there aren't many cybers. San Francisco has a heavy cyber population, but you're looking at maybe a third of the ones in the Bay area right now."
A group of four college-age men at a nearby table were talking boisterously as they ordered. One of them tried to slip an arm around Celia's waist. She evaded deftly and waggled a finger at him, smiling. All four grinned and completed their order.
Jack watched them. "Drunk?"
"Just high spirits, I think. People have a good time here. They're probably regulars." She grinned. "Besides. Four young studs sitting together? Even if they don't know she's a cyber, one of them had to try."
Celia brought back coffee for Jack and another small glass for her; this time, the contents were a grayish-purple. "Main course in two minutes, guys."
Jack raised his cup and took a sip. "Excellent. If the rest of the meal is as good as its start, this place will be on the map soon." A waitress appeared. "Something wrong, Celia?"
"I'm Cora, Mr. Selig." She swept a fistful of waist-length blonde hair in front of her. "Ten centimeters shorter. I thought about changing my do, but I hate cutting it so soon after the last time."
"How long ago was that?" Jack asked innocently.
"The eyes are a little darker, too," she said, ignoring the question. "Been thinking about putting a little birthmark on my upper lip. Do you think that would be, I don't know, presumptuous?"
Jack smiled and glanced meaningfully at her bare midriff. "You've all got navels, haven't you? Call me Jack." Adriana watched, and was sure he caught the droop of Cora's eyelids.
"Heard any good ones?" Adriana said, to change the direction of the conversation.
"Since you were last in?" Cora smiled. "Well, this one guy said he was thinking about a sandwich. When I asked what sounded good, he said, 'you and me between silk sheets.'"
Adriana looked at Jack. "Cora doesn't just tolerate sexual harassment, she grades it."
He chuckled. "Doesn't it ever get out of hand?"
"Not with the regulars." Cora's smile faded slightly. "And if some new guy gets a little grabby… well, it doesn't take much to make them remember their manners. A thumb in their palm and ten kilos of pressure, and they're perfect gentlemen."
Celia arrived with their meals. "Do I get to call you Jack, too?"
"Open invitation, Celia."
Cora glanced at the bar, where Leonard and Carla were leaning together, their faces inches apart. "Any chance Mr. Upchurch will be strolling in tonight?"
"I don't know. Has he ever?"
"No." She sighed theatrically. "But a girl can dream." She drifted away.
While Celia was arranging their plates, Jack tipped his head towards the bar. "Is Len a regular?"
"First time ever, actually. He's been in here about two hours."
Len and Carla chuckled together, as if they'd shared a joke. Carla's hand lifted off his long enough for her to place it at the back of his neck and pull his head towards hers, touching foreheads briefly. Jack's eyebrows rose. "They know each other from somewhere else?"
"Nope." The cyber smiled down on him. "But, some guys, you can tell right away they're special." She turned towards the bar. "Look at it with different eyes, Jack. It's love at first sight, for sure. But she loves him like a brother." She twitched a smile. "One you're always comparing your boyfriends to."
"Okay," said Carla, "how about this one: why do cybers smoke after sex?"
"Something to do with lubricant, I'm sure." Leonard folded his arms on the bar. "Is that all you got?"
"One more." She took a sip of her water. "Why was the man so exhausted after his first night with a cyber?"
"Cuz, if you've fucked one, you've fucked them all."
"Sad." He shook his head. "This guy and this cyber have been intimate for a month. She says to him, 'Baby, why are you so down?' He says, 'It's nothing, really.' She says, 'Is there something I can do? You know I'll do anything for you.' He says, 'Well, maybe there is something.' He dresses her in his clothes and sends her out the door of their apartment with instructions to come back in five minutes. She knocks on the door five minutes later, and he opens up, smiling like an idiot. He shakes her hand, pulls her in the apartment, and says, 'Dude! You're never gonna believe it, wait till I tell you! My new girlfriend's a cyber."
She lifted an eyebrow. "How does that qualify as a cyber joke? I heard one like it years ago, about a vid starlet and a desert island."
He shook his head. "World of difference. The guy playacts with the starlet on the desert island because there's nobody else to brag to. The other one playacts with his cyber girlfriend because she's the only one who'll understand what he's talking about." He hoisted his glass. "Virgin."
Carla's eyes widened. "Just because I didn't get your crappy joke?"
He set the glass down. "Every cyber I've told it to who's been in a relationship understands it perfectly, even if she doesn't think it's funny."
She smiled ruefully. "Guilty. What other close-kept personal secrets can you sleuth about me, I wonder?"
He hoisted his glass again and spoke from behind it. "Well, I'm kind of surprised you've never had a guy, because you like them, and you're at least thirty years old."
Her smile disappeared. "Lenny. You've got to tell me how you know that."
"That's when the Sisterhood stopped building armed cybers. And you're packing."
"Who told you?"
He shrugged. "There's something different about the way a cyber moves if she's got guns in her forearms. I can't explain it better than that."
"No. I mean, who told you we quit building in weapons?"
"Nobody. I just know a lot of cybers. Most of them trust me with their ages. Once I spotted the difference, I figured it out on my own." He looked around the room at the other owners. "You're all armed. Do you want to tell me how far back you girls go as a team, or should I guess some more?"
She stared at the polished counter. "Leonard, is this going to change things with us?"
He set the glass down and took her chin between his thumb and forefinger. "I knew before I came up to the bar. It only changes things if you want it to."
After their meal, Leonard joined them. Jack watched him kiss Carla's hand, and Carla brush her knuckles across her lips, faintly smiling, as he eased off the stool and approached their booth. "Mind if I sit down?"
Jack slid around the horseshoe-shaped seat, settling in close enough to touch Adriana with his elbow, and gestured his co-worker into his former place. "Surprised you could tear yourself away."
Leonard smiled. "I like to give them a little recovery time in the beginning. I come on kind of strong at first."
Carla was rinsing glasses behind the bar ten meters away; she grinned down at her work for a moment.
"Well do I know," Adriana said. "But I know you don't have a girlfriend. Not a cyber, that is."
"Nor a bio, at present anyway." He looked at Jack. "What do you think? Are you going to be a couple, maybe?"
Put off by the man's directness, Jack said, "How do you know we're not?"
Len switched his attention to Adriana. "Tell him?"
She shrugged. "Anybody with eyes can see when a cyber goes Jeannie."
"Stop." Jack shook his head. "Explain."
Len looked back to him. "Old slang term. I don't know where it comes from. A cyber with a new boyfriend is painful to watch. You know how perceptive they are. Imagine a girlfriend who can read every mood and thought you have, who remembers every word you've spoken, everything your friends have told her about you. She knows when your blood sugar is low and when your pheromone count is rising. Now couple that with a cyber's devotion to a task, even relationship building, and you've got the ingredients for a comedy - or a tragedy." He took a sip to wet his throat.
"Well," Jack said, "honesty's important in a relationship. Not being able to keep secrets shouldn't jeopardize it."
Len made a rude sound. "I knew this poor guy. Cyber girlfriend, totally Jeannie. He couldn't finish his own sentences. She cooked three meals every day for him, perfectly balanced nutrition in his favorite flavors. She'd bring him a glass of water before he realized he was thirsty. He'd come home from work, , he didn't bother with his key, because she could recognize his footsteps, even in a hallway crowded with people, and open the door as he reached it. She'd take him straight from the door to bed, and finish whatever paperwork he'd brought home from the office while he showered after. She picked the apartment's décor and background music to fit his mood – or shape it. She'd lie in bed beside him at night, staring at his eyelids for eight solid hours. He was losing himself in her. The poor bastard barely got out in time."
"Got out? You mean he broke up with her?"
"What choice did he have? If he'd stayed with her much longer, she'd have been feeding him by hand and wiping his chin." Len took another sip. "I'm sure it was flattering at first. Usually they notice after a little while that they're smothering the relationship, and they learn to back off. She didn't. Leaving her was like pulling himself free of quicksand, but he did it. I understand she's got another guy now, and they're doing fine. But I think Sam's off cybers forever."
Cora appeared, seeming to materialize at Jack's side. "You boys okay with getting your picture taken in here?"
Daring greatly, he put an arm around Adriana's shoulders. "A picture would be great. You have a camera?"
Adriana sat stiffly, staring off past the waitress. He thought perhaps he'd overstepped until Cora's equally rigid posture registered. He glanced toward the bar. Carla, looking their way, was similarly frozen. He thought of a herd of grazing deer the moment an observer steps on a twig.
The waitress flicked her eyes sideways. "The two guys at the corner booth opposite, near the door. One of them has a phone cam, a good one. He's taken a dozen pics already; some vid too."
Jack looked past her hip just in time to see the man in question turn his head away. His hands were both under the table. "Oh?"
Cora nodded, a tiny bob almost too slight to see. "Plenty of people take pictures with us, regulars especially. But he's never been in here before, and the way he's trying to be sneaky makes me distrust his intentions, you know? From that table, they can watch the whole floor, and they can bolt for the door if they think we're on to them." She turned towards the strangers' table and gave it a glance, as if checking the state of their drinks. The men froze until she turned back. "These guys aren't here for fun. They're on a mission."
Jack looked at Len; the man's face was a mask. "It's a public place. Unless you forbid pictures altogether, I don't see what we could do about it."
"Oh, there are things. A-Tox isn't the only magic potion we keep under the bar."
The evening sped by. The three of them traded stories from their childhoods: Len's in the Great Lakes region, Jack's in New Jersey, and Adriana's abbreviated history with the Rands, a family of British ancestry living in Hong Kong. A few patrons recognized Len, and Jack got an education in diplomacy as he watched the vid star send them on their way with autographs and a few friendly words. Cora and Celia dropped by more often than service required, and made their contributions to the conversation. Brenda the entertainer took a break and approached them, long gown swishing and drawing male eyes, introduced herself , and sat with them until it was time to resume. The next break, she took over at the bar so Carla could join them.
"When do I meet Maria?" Jack asked.
Carla tilted her head. "Well, you could go back in the kitchen to look at her, I suppose, as long as you don't step in. Maria works in accelerated mode. If you want to talk to her, you'll have to stick around until after closing."
Remembering the sign on the window, he asked, "And when would that be, typically?"
"On a Tuesday night? Twenty-one or so. On weekends, we don't shut the doors from Friday morning till Monday night, though we stop serving booze between two and eleven."
"Thought the law was two to six."
"It is. And Dramshops are exempt anyway. But we don't like serving round-the-clock drinkers. There's plenty of that sort of misery in the world, but we don't need to be part of it." She stood. "Got some business to take care of."
Brenda resumed her place at the keyboard and played a medley of the school's sports songs, drawing the crowd into a singalong. She traveled through the room with a microphone, doing duets with individual customers. Jack thought the girl was quite a showman.
She reached the table where the two spies, or whatever they were, were sitting. They stared up at her with glassy eyes as she smiled and offered them a chance to sing along. Then one of them fell sideways across the bench.
Len was out of his seat instantly, but Carla got there first. The actor bent over the second man, who was now sitting with his head lolling on the back of the seat. Just before the nearest patrons reached the table, he wrinkled his nose and fanned the air. "Pheww! How'd they manage to walk through the door?"
Carla made a show of checking the men's pulse and respiration. She peeled back an eyelid. "They weren't this bad when they came in. They must have downed a fifth each just before they walked through the door." She huffed. "Bet they were trying for a lawsuit. But it hit them faster than they expected, I guess. Otherwise they'd have been staggering off to the nearest police station to get their BAC checked."
One of the patrons, a beefy young athletic type, moved forward. "Toss em out?"
"Course not." Carla smiled up at him, and Jack guessed he was a regular. "Nobody leaves drunker than they came in, remember? That's the deal. We'll let em sleep it off in the back and pour A-Tox into them when they wake up." She enlisted a couple more young jocks to drag the two unconscious men to a storeroom while she cleaned the table and picked up a camera phone from the floor underneath. "We close in an hour, folks. Last drink is on the house."
On the walk to the bus stop, Adriana felt Jack's hand brush hers, and then close around it. She smiled while she scanned the crowd.
"You know," Jack said, swinging their joined hands gently, "even a hundred years ago, I might have gotten beat up for walking down this street with a girl who looked like you."
She registered no more interest from passersby than when they'd simply been walking side by side, until one older couple stared at them with hostile expressions and stepped off the curb as she and Jack approached. Adriana watched them carefully as they passed by. "And just forty years ago, they'd have killed anyone who looked like me on sight, with you or alone."
The two men jerked awake, one after the other, as Carla removed the chemical-soaked cloth from their faces. They stared, confused, at the walls of the little storeroom, at Cora standing at the door, at Carla, and finally at Maria, a dark-haired cyber who stood studying the display on the man's phone. Absently, she tossed each of the men their wallets, which struck each man in the chest before he could catch it.
One man, the photographer, glared at Cora. "You put something in our drinks."
"No, I did," Carla said. "Guess we all look alike, huh?"
"You know, you can learn a lot about a man by the pictures he takes." Maria scrolled through the photos in the phone's memory. "Specially if he's doing surveillance. Give you a good idea what he wants to know, and sometimes they reveal his intentions. You took quite a few pictures of my girls, and the regulars who've gotten friendly with them. It's bad enough that a bunch of Luddites are maybe using my place to build a hate file of 'cyber-lovers'. But you took pictures of all the doors and windows too. That speaks of worse intentions." She gently tossed the phone up and caught it – once, twice, three times. "The last time a cyber business got firebombed was six years ago. You boys got the itch?"
"Wait, we're not-"
"Shut up." The photographer glared at her and started to rise. "You've got nothing. We didn't do anything illegal. We're out of here."
"Sure." Cora crossed her arms. "You just have to get past me, is all."
The men stilled. "You can't keep us here."
"You've been out for six hours." Maria looked pointedly at the open wallets. "We've been doing some research. We know who you are, where you live and work, who you owe money to. Who you run with. We don't need to keep you. We can find you anytime we want." She began deleting pictures. "I'm leaving the family pics. You've got two cute kids, Darryl. You should spend more time with them."
"You stay away from my kids, you monster."
"'Monster.'" Carla placed hands on hips. "I like that. They had us helpless for six hours, we'd be in pieces at the bottom of the Bay."