It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, out on the edge of... wait, that's not right. *Ahem*
It was a slow week in the city in the mountains. I was still hoping to hear from Arianne, but was beginning to think that it would never happen. I had several of my PI compatriots all over the country looking out for any info about her, but all I could do was wait... and empty yet another bottle of gin as I sat at my desk brooding.
I was thinking about going down to the liquor store to get a fresh bottle, when my office door opened and in walked a tall blonde. She crossed the room and sat across the desk from me, flipping her long, silken hair over her shoulder.
"I understand you're a Private Investigator," she said as she pulled a cigarette from a silver case and lit it.
"Yes, I am," I answered, sliding the half-full ashtray across the desk. "It says so, right on my door."
"Oh. I ... didn't notice." She sat for a minute, silently smoking her cigarette. I was just about to ask if she needed my services when she spoke up. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have come here. Forgive me for bothering you."
She stood up and turned to leave, and I said "Wait, Miss ...".
I could see the hesitation on her face as she stood there considering her next move. Finally she sat back down. "Davis. Eloise Davis. I work in the research labs over at the university, and we have a ... situation going on. I was hoping you'd be able to help out."
"My standard rate is 200 a day, plus expenses," I told her. She nodded her head and proceeded to explain the problem.
"As I said, I work in the university labs. I specialize in AI - that's artificial intelligence. For the last three years my team has been working on designing intelligent home appliances. Not mindless robots that follow pre-programmed instructions like a Roomba, but ones that will actually foresee and take care of all housekeeping needs. These days, with two - or even three - income households being the norm, people just don't have the time and energy to maintain a spotless home.
"Anyway, two months ago, we got a grant from a new patron. It was a very large grant, but it came with a couple of provisos - one of which was the addition of a new researcher, Dr. Gary Smedlin. That's when the trouble started." She paused for a moment, then asked "May I use your restroom?"
"Help yourself," I said, gesturing to the door. I waited while she ... took care of business, and when she came back out I said, "I'm not sure how I can help. The only knowledge I have of computers is the PIN number for my ATM card." This wasn't exactly true, as I had both a MySpace page and accounts at several online poker sites, but that wasn't important now.
"Oh, it's not the science that I want to to look at," she replied as she looked in the full-length mirror on the wall next to the bathroom door. "I want you to check out Dr. Smedlin. There's something ... creepy about him." She was checking her stockings in the mirror when the phone rang.
"Noir," I said, speaking into the phone. It was my landlord, reminding me that the rent had been due the week before. I sighed and said, "Yeah, I've got a case I'm looking into right now. I'll have the money for you by the end of the week," and hung up the phone. "Looks like you've hired yourself a private eye, Miss Davis."
She gave me directions to her lab, and Smedlin's address, and I told her I'd be by later that day.
After she left I went down to the Five Spot for a cup of Jimmy's famous coffee, to help clear my head. Jimmy set the cup of steaming hot java in front of me and said, "Gee, Guy, you look like you've been run over. What gives?"
"Just keep the pot handy, Jimmy. I'm not in the mood to talk," I answered. I grabbed the powdered creamer container to add to my cup, but when I turned it up nothing came out. Peeking in the opening in the top, I saw that it was empty. Jimmy got me a fresh container, and I proceeded to drink three cups of the strong brew before I felt up to hailing a cab for the trip across town to the university.
Forty-five minutes later I walked up to the door of the lab where Davis - and Smedlin - worked. As I reached up to knock, I heard a scream, and then laughter, from inside. A quick check confirmed that my Special was in its shoulder holster, and I opened the door to see what was going on.
Eloise stood in one corner of the large room, a large shop-vac vacuum cleaner spinning around wildly, spewing water near her. Over by a bank of computers stood the laughing man - it must have been Smedlin. There was a look of mania in his eyes as he laughed, and I shivered a bit at the sight of it. When Smedlin saw me, he stopped laughing and ran over to the shop-vac, yelling imprecations at the appliance and flipping a switch on the side of an odd-looking box mounted to the side of the vac.
The vacuum cleaner took the tirade in stride, and calmly continued its task, sucking up the water that it had just spewed all over the lab.
"Who is this, Davis? Some knight in," he looked at my rumpled clothing, "dingy armor, come to 'save' you?" Smedlin cackled as he returned to his side of the research lab.
"I've had enough of you and your petty, insane practical jokes, Smedlin," Eloise hissed at his back as she stalked across the room, the squelching of her sodden shoes sending the mad scientist into further gales of laughter.
I fixed Smedlin with a gimlet eye, and said, "Soggy socks will never stop her." Adventures require fortitude, and we were going to experience much worse than wet feet. But I didn't yet know that.
"Who the hell are you, and why are you here?" Smedlin yelled, flipping a switch on the side of an iron, which started working on a pair of slacks lying on an ironing board. The shop-vac saw this, moved over to the ironing board and latched on to the dangling pant leg.
Before I could answer the question, the iron attacked the shop-vac and Smedlin reached for the off switches on the two appliances. The iron dodged his attempt and leaped across the ironing board and onto the adjacent counter top. The shop-vac tried to get away from the scientist, to no avail. Smedlin straightened from flipping the switch, thinking all was under control again, but then the iron got involved and it was asymmetrical warfare all over again.
The iron managed to reactivate the shop-vac, which in turn powered up a weed trimmer and a chainsaw, and ... the results weren't pretty. When the fury in the middle of the room subsided, there wasn't much of Smedlin left in one piece - but the bits lying about weren't human, they were machine parts. After making sure that the rogue appliances weren't going to attack Eloise or myself, I reached down and picked up the head of the "scientist", which was trailing hundreds of wires which had been attached to various other bits.
The back of the head popped open, and inside was a small jar. The jar contained a thick black sludge that looked as if it might be a new, or alien, life form. It had several wires of different gauge running from it to clusters of relays inside the head. Looking more closely at the jar, I discovered that there was a dead cockroach inside it.
I looked at Eloise, who was shaken but recovering, and said, "I'm assuming this was a straightforward case of insect asphyxiation."
It has come to my attention that not everyone is familiar with A Prairie Home Companion and the character of Guy Noir. I find this information difficult to absorb, but then I'm weird like that. I hope Garrison Keillor won't be upset that I'm using this iconic character.