As so often with my more unusual adventures, the one I am about to recount had its beginnings in a meal shared with one of my nearest, though one could hardly say dearest, relations. In this case, a luncheon with my Great Aunt Eldora. In later years I've learned to exercise extreme caution when invited to partake of food with certain relatives. I am, I suppose, something of a slow learner. At that time the lesson hadn't yet sunk in. So when bright and early one morning Tantie Eldora pings me up on the discom, says that she just happens to be in The City today and would I like to join her for lunch, I of course accepted. Women in Tantie Eldora's income bracket generally do themselves justice in the dining reoom and the establishment that she suggested we meet at was one that I'd long desired to sample but had avoided by reason of its pricey reputation. Little did I know then just how much that lunch was to cost me.
There was another aspect to the situation which encouraged me to accept the invitation. This affair transpired about a year after I had acquired Jheebs, my android servant, who had then proceeded to disrupt the well-laid plans of not only Great Aunt Eldora but also Great Uncle Grump. In the end, Jheebs had negotiated an equitable settlement for all concerned. Unfortunately, equitable is not a pleasant concept to my dear relatives, who have always been accustomed to nothing less than unconditional surrender if an outright massacre is unobtainable, and so I was for quite a long time in bad odor at the Grumpitz-Picquet household.
Personally, I've always subscribed to the theory that enemies are like weeds. Why cultivate something that thrives well enough on its own. Uncle Grump, on the other hand, has made a lifetime hobby of cultivating grudges, feuds, vendettas and the occasional civil war. Tantie Eldora, when severely piqued, can be almost as bad. But Tantie Eldora's moods are best described in weather related metaphors, highly changeable. So when the invitation came, I naturally assumed the storm clouds were clearing and the time had come to do some fence mending.
Of course, at some point in every professionally prepared meal the bill arrives. The monetary bill, the one Tantie Eldora paid, came later. My bill came first and, ironically, it was I who put out my hand and unwittingly asked for it.
"Excellent, "I said as I polished off the last of the lapin a'moutarde. "Really quite excellent. Their wide spread reputation is well deserved. Though, of course, I seem to recall a dinner party some years ago where Maurice proffered a rendition of this dish that was every bit as good, if not even just a micro-hair better."
That was it, the opening. No one has ever faulted Tantie Eldora for not seeing her opening and making the most of it.
"Yes, I remember that. Maurice was in top form that night, as he always is. I shall miss him dearly."
"Miss him?" I said, not quite comprehending just what had happened, whether Maurice was merely on vacation or was now the late Maurice. "What's happened to Maurice? Nothing serious I hope!"
"He's left us. Given notice. At least I think he gave notice. It's so hard to tell what he's trying to say if it doesn't concern food. He whistled and chirped and made some odd motions, and then he left. It was only a few days ago that I discovered he's taken employment with that deceitful woman, Meralda Hoene-Weingaut. She's suborned him away from me and installed him at Chitterly Haven."
To emphasize the degree to which this upset her she jabbed her fork through the tablecloth and into the wood beneath. This action did not go unnoticed by the surrounding tables, which fell briefly silent.
"How did she manage that?" I asked, lowering my voice somewhat to disinvite the audience that was now observing our table. "I mean, Maurice never seemed like the type to be lured away. His only interest in life, as far as I could tell, is cooking. And you provided him with the best kitchen and the best raw materials available on Hildred's Planet."
"True, true. I can't imagine that woman," she said this with a tone that clearly indicated she only grudgingly granted Mr.s Hoene-Weingaut membership in her own sex, "could set him up any better than I did. And to top it off, I provided him with the best grubs and tubers money can buy, and they didn't come cheap I can tell you. Flown in daily from Soucon. Only place they can grow some of the disgusting things."
Perhaps a bit of explanation is in order here. Maurice, which is only an approximation of what he calls himself in his native tongue, is not your ordinary chef du maison. As far as is known, he is the only member of his species on Hildred's Planet. If he is in fact a he. That question has never actually been resolved to everyone's satisfaction. His species has not been well researched and there appears to be considerable scholarly dispute over their sexual arrangements, if any. At some point in the past, as a practical matter of establishing essential details, a general consensus was arrived at that Maurice should be referred to as he.
Maurice is possessed of an incredible sense of smell, a sense of smell that puts the most olfactorily gifted canine to shame. His greatest pleasure comes from cooking. He never actually tastes anything that he cooks. Apparently human foods are not compatible with his digestive system. He cooks for the pleasure of smelling the end products. His own nutritional needs are met by a collection of biota that would put a seasoned biologist off his lunch.
"Well, if there's anything I can do to help..." I said. It was just a figure of speech, you realize. One of those sentences you begin that's not meant to be finished. It's what one says when someone else has a problem. If I'd known any decent cooks who were at that time in search of employment I would certainly have sent them Tantie Eldora's direction. But I didn't and I wasn't prepared to have my purely pro forma offer taken at face value.
"Dear Dunstan," Tantie Eldora said, picking up the bal land running with it, "I knew you'd be willing to help. I have a plan to retrieve Maurice. But I can't carry it off without you."
"It's very simple, really. Very simple, and very straight forward."
"We'll merely snatch Meralda's most valuable possession and not give it back until she returns Maurice."
"She has the Chitterly Laver on display at Chitterly Haven. You'll break in, abscond with the laver, and then I'll discreetly negotiate its return."
Two thoughts entered my brain at that moment, one after the other. The first was , "What's the Chitterly laver?" It took a moment for me to recall where I'd heard that term before. When the first expeditions from Old Earth arrived to begin terraforming Hildred's Planet, some four hundred plus years ago, they found no signs of intelligent life. Not at first. Then, as they began to work on the Chitterly Hills region, they came upon a number of apparent artifacts that seemed to indicate the former existence of a civilization. One of the few items that was indisputably the work of skilled hands, or perhaps tentacles or claws, is a carved serpentinite basin, decorated with rather nebulous symbols and figures. Some wiser head than most of us determined it most likely had ceremonial significance for whomever or whatever had created it, and thus dubbed it with the rather obsolete name of "laver."
My second thought was that this particle washbowl was extremely valuable. Pilfering it would not be viewed by law enforcement as a petty lark of impetuous youth.
"But that's theft. Grand theft at that, given the value of the laver. And breaking and entering. And it's illegal!"
"Now Dunstan, you're not going to be difficult about this now, are you? I mean, it's all very simple. Shouldn't even take a full night's work. I'll be handling the tricky part, negotiating the exchange."
"But it's a blatantly criminal act. I could go to jail if I get caught."
"Well, then I suppose you should be very careful not to get caught. And as far as illegal goes, I don't know how she lured Maurice away, but it must have been through some underhanded means or another. Besides, if you look into the laws regarding antiquities, she should have turned the Laver over to the national museum years ago. It's only because of her famous political connections that she hasn't been forced to disgorge it yet. Hmmm. Make a note of that. When the time comes we'll bandy it about that the burglary was done by a fanatic antiquarian who wants to put the laver in the National Museum. That should put a bit of a muffle on Meralda's squawking beak."
"I might make a note of that, but that is as far as I'm prepared to help you. This is insane, and, by the way, you might want to lower your voice a tad. This is a public place, you know." I cast sidelong glances to see if any of the adjoining table were taking an undue interest in the conversation. Or were attempting to surreptitiously contact the authorities.
"Oh, Dunstan. I was really hoping you'd cooperate. You must know how much this means to me."
"Of course I do. I have many fond memories of Maurice's gustatory accomplishments. The loss of his services is almost incalculable to anyone who delights in a well made dindonneau a la Basquaise. But I'm sorry. I cannot condone this plan of yours. And there is nothing you can do to persuade me otherwise."
I should probably not have appended hat last statement. Nothing fires up Tantie Eldora like a challenge.
"You must know me well enough by now, Dunstan," she replied in a low, calm, but very threatening voice, "to know that when I want something done, it gets done. I've analyzed this situation very carefully. The Laver is the most convenient chink in Meralda's armor. It's how I'm going to get Maurice back. I was hoping you'd help me, as a good nephew should, but if this is the way it has to be, so be it."
She paused and took a long sip of her coffee. Then she continued.
"Are you familiar with the Galactic Risk Avoidance Insurance Company?"
I nodded in the negative. I had had fortunately few dealings with insurance companies in general and none with this particular firm.
"Not so long ago they insured a luxury vessel, a yacht. A very unusual one with an unusual name. It was a reproduction of an ancient steam powered vessel. It was named the Yhtac. I believe you've heard of it."
Her voice had taken on the sharp edge of a surgeon's scalpel. I nodded in the affirmative. I had heard of it and I was afraid that I was about to hear too much more about it.
"It was lost not too long ago, along with its owner and sole human passenger. An explosion at sea. Oh, did I mention that I'm on the board of directors of Galactic Risk? That's how I'm acquainted with the matter. The vessel, being rather unique and the product of considerable hand craft, was insured for a sizeable amount. In the great scheme of insurance matters it was just a mild bleep in the loss tracking program, but no responsible insurer pays out without thoroughly investigating a claim, major or minor. The Yhtac, in accordance with standard practice in the maritime insurance business, was equipped with a recording device, which was recovered a few months ago. Were you aware that your androidal assistant was at the helm of the Ythac at the time of the explosion?"
Well, of course I was. After all, I'd fished Jheebs out of the Azul Sea five days after the explosion.
"When the recorder was examined there were some anomalies which suggest that Jheebs caused the boiler to explode. The legal department at Galactic Risk is presently preparing a deposition for the Department of Autonomous Devices, asking that Jheebs be declared an unreliable and potentially hazardous device. If it's approved, Jheebs will be confiscated, deactivated, and disassembled for examination. Galactic risk will in due course file a claim to the parts for whatever scrap value they may have to partially recoup their loss."
She paused and took another long sip of coffee, allowing the information she'd just given me time to sink in. I confess that I've never been good at staring down contests, so of course I blinked.
"I believe you'll next offer, in your capacity as a director of the company, to prevent this undesirable occurrence."
"Precisely," she said smugly.
"This is blackmail, you know."
"Of course it is. I've always found it one of the most useful tools in business tool box. I'm leaving this afternoon for the Chitterly Hills. I'll expect you at Primrose Cottage tomorrow afternoon. Meralda is in residence at Chitterly Haven and is, as is her custom during the season, holding open house daily through Mid-Summer Week. That should give you adequate opportunities to, I believe the term is, case the joint."
Well, having had that bombshell dropped on me, I polished off my dessert with unseemly haste, and as soon as I could politely excused myself from the luncheon. I hied myself back to my apartment as quickly as my two legs and three slidewalks could carry me. This was a most disturbing development. When the morning dawned my world had been safe and sane, secure and sunny. But now, an hour and a plate of lapin a'moutard later, hurricane Eldora was making landfall and threatening to blow off every roof in sight.
Entering my abode, I summoned Jheebs. He emerged from his closet, his customary off-duty post, straightened the lapels of his conservatively cut black coat and approached with his usual dignified stride.
"You called, sir?"
"Indeed I did, Jheebs," I replied, trying not to seem unduly agitated. "I've just had a most disturbing luncheon with Great Aunt Eldora."
"Indeed, sir?" he replied. "Was the fare not up to expectation?"
"No, no. The meal was quite up to advertised standards. The problem was Tantie Eldora."
"I hope Mrs. Picquet-Grumpitz is not unwell?"
"Too well, I think. Ready to whip her own considerable weight in pug-dogs with one hand tied behind her broad back. She's entered into one of her widely feared combative moods and intends to enlist me in the ranks of the cannon fodder."
I proceeded to give Jheebs a quick, recounting of the matter of Lady Chitterly and Maurice the Cook. I ended the tale with her demand for my services as a cat burglar.
"Indeed, sir," he replied in his customary steady tone, "a most distressing situation."
Now, being an android, Jheebs is not possessed of emotions, though he is possessed of a considerable repertoire of responses. I doubt that his programmers of some eighty years before thought to include an appropriate response for being informed that Mister Dunstan has been popped into a vice and the jaws were being closed. I'm well aware of this and generally make suitable allowance when engaging in discourse with him. However, at times of great emotional stress I sometimes forget all this and react badly to Jheebs' lack of reaction. Times such as these.
"Good Gawd, Jheebs! Weren't you listening? Dear Tantie Eldora wants me to commit a felony and if I don't, she'll ship you off to the gallium arsenide boneyard! How can you remain so calm?"
"That is the way I am programmed, sir."
"Yes, yes. But still, one might expect that among your numerous programmed responses there might be one for empathy, feigned or not."
"Perhaps, sire. My decision engine has not selected such a response. I will initiate a diagnostic routine to determine if such exists.
"And another thing. What's all this about you blowing up the steam yacht Yhtac? Is it true?"
"That is within the realm of the possible, sir."
"What do you mean, 'within the realm of the possible'? You either blew it up or you didn't."
"You may recall, sir, that I told you once of the internal philosophical disputes that were occurring within the firm of Jephsen-Hembrecht-Emmersohn during the period in which my decision engines were being programmed, disputes that resulted in certain incongruities that on fortunately rare occasions cause me to assess a situation and then select the least logical response. I believe one of these anomalous decisions may have occurred while I was at the controls of the Yhtac.
"You see, sir, my last, late employer's final instruction to me before he adjourned to his cabin for the night was 'make all steam.' It is a quaint expression dating to the ancient days of mechanized seafaring, indicating that the propulsive machinery should be operated at its maximum capacity. A more precise rendering of the command would be 'make all steam within the limitations of the boiler and related propulsion equipment.' Logically, proper execution of the command would preclude exceeding the level at which the machinery would self-destruct. However, the command taken in the most literal sense does not refer to remaining within the bounds of safety. I fear that one of the aforementioned lapses in my decision making process may have allowed the boiler pressure to rise beyond safe limits, combined perhaps with some fault in the safety apparatus, and resulted in the explosion."
"You don't know if you caused the explosion? You have a digital memory. Don't you have a record of the event?"
"A regrettably incomplete record, sir. Storage space limitations preclude a complete recording of every event. Rather, I record what might be termed snapshots at very close intervals. This record is constantly filtered, reduced to essentials, summarized. Ideally, more complete records are downloaded to long-term storage devices. However, when floating in the sea for an extended period of time this downloading process is obviously impractical and potentially valuable memory records were lost. And, as you may well imagine, attempting to maintain a record of occurrences during an explosion is itself a daunting task for any device."
"In other words, you don't remember what happened."
"I have isolated and marked for retention such records as still exist and have examined them at length. The records nearest the time of the explosion have been lost. If I understand correctly, the insurance carrier has recovered an accident recorder. Do you think I might gain access to it? It might prove helpful in reconstructing the event."
His synthetic eyebrows rose just slightly.
"If dear Tantie Eldora doesn't get her way and restore Maurice to her kitchen, reconstructing the event will be the least of our worries. She'll see that your plug is pulled."
"That would be a most undesirable outcome, sir. My designed function is to be of assistance to my employer, which function I should be capable of performing, given normal wear and tear, for several hundred years more. A premature deactivation would be a most regrettable waste of resources."
"So we're in agreement that we must avoid that outcome. The question is how. Thoughts, Jheebs? How do I satisfy Tantie Eldora without incurring even worse consequences for myself?"
"I see no alternative at this time than to accede to her wishes."
"Carry out the burglary, you mean? Embark on a short, unhappy life of crime?"
"We should perhaps proceed with making plans with that as our object, sir, and hope that before having to put such plans into effect we may devise a way to avoid the necessity of their execution."
I pondered the wisdom of that for a few moments. The wisdom was not self-evident, but the necessity was.
"So, Jheebs, have you any idea as to how to conduct a burglary?"
"None, sir. I have not previously been required to engage in such activities. However, may I suggest that you consult with Mr. Roly? His researches have delved into many nooks and crannies of human behavior. Perhaps he might have some insight into the conduct of a burglary."
"Good thinking, Jheebs. Could you please ascertain his whereabouts for me?"
"I already have, sir. When you informed me of your meeting with Mrs. Picquet-Grumpitz I concluded that you might have need of advice and located, among others, Mr. Roly. As of two hours ago he was at the Minutiae Society, where he planned to remain through the afternoon. I notified him that you would most likely desire to meet with him on your return from luncheon."
"Excellent, Jheebs. I'd better hop on down there. See to the packing while I'm gone, being sure to include some appropriately bucolic apparel. We'll start out first thing in the morning."
"Very good, sir. I shall make the transport arrangements and also conduct some research of my own into the affair."
"A holiday to the Chitterly Hills during Mid-Summer Week, accommodations gratis. I envy you. I'd try to wangle an invitation to go along, but I'm deeply into a rush-rush data mining contract at the moment. Won't be seeing daylight again for at least two weeks."
As Jheebs had indicated, I'd located Roly Aycliff at the Minutiae Society headquarters, a Rococo mish-mash of a building that was one of the legacies of the numerous architectural revivals that either graced or blighted the city of Ilnestrom, depending on one's tastes. The building was eminently suited for the Society as it was a veritable warren, full of nooks and crannies where the members could find solitude. Which, if you think about it, is quite odd, that they should gather together to be alone.
Most of the members of the Society were in some way or another involved in exploring or exploiting the massive amounts of information stashed away in the planet's vast array of interconnected databases. Some, like Roly, earned respectable incomes as freelance data consultants. Others, with adequate bank accounts or merely extremely frugal habits, pursued researches of no monetary value for the sheer love of the game. Either sort could just as well have remained at home pursuing their interests. But the Minutiae Society provided them a place where they could seek actual human society on the occasions that they felt the need, seek technical advice when necessary, as well as have their food and drink needs seen to by the society's staff.
"Well, I'd love to have you along, you know," I replied. "They could give us adjoining cells at the social rehabilitation center. Perhaps you misunderstood. This is not a pleasure trip. I'm being blackmailed into perpetrating a felony."
"Oh, yes. Sorry. When you mentioned the Chitterly Hills, my mind started to wander. Lovely area. Very relaxing. Just what I could use. Now, what is it you're supposed to steal?"
"Some ancient artifact. A bowl of some sort, as I understand it. Belongs to Great Aunt Eldora's old rival, a Mrs. Hoene-Weingaut."
"Mrs. Meralda Hoene-Weingaut? You mean the woman commonly referred to as Lady Chitterly?" Roly was paying attention now. Being in the information business, Roly Aycliff typically knew at least a little about a great many subjects. "She wants you to steal the Chitterly Laver?"
"I'm not sure I like the tone of your voice. It seems to imply that you don't think highly of the odds of success."
"Steal the single most well known artifact of the mysterious predecessor race of Hildred's Planet? And steal it from one of the most influential and politically powerful women on the planet? Sure! Why not? Stranger things have happened." He paused for dramatic effect, then continued in a lowered voice. "Have you considered just turning Jheebs over? In these circumstances it might well be far the most prudent course of action."
"Undoubtedly it is," I replied, "except for the fact that I've come to depend upon him." You'll note that I use the pronoun him in referring to Jheebs. More properly, since he is after all a machine, Jheebs should be referred to as 'it.' But it's hard to think of an android who's become your closest associate as an 'it'. "Besides the usual domestic chores, he handles all my financial dealings, and I must say you couldn't pay someone enough to do half as good a job. You remember the state I was in before I acquired Jheebs? I'm not fool enough to think I wouldn't be back there within six months without him."
"Quite so. You'd be utterly and hopelessly screwed without him. I hope you don't take offense at my agreeing with you."
"No offense taken."
We sat in silence for several minutes.
"Well, I've never been called upon to conduct a burglary before, though I suppose some of the practical jokes we pulled at the University of Govenia may bear a certain similarity as far as the technical aspect of breaking and entering."
"I was never quite sober enough at the time to take notes on technique."
"Nor was I. The recollections are vague at best. Still, it's a start."
We sat in silence again. Roly ordered two glasses of wine. We sat some more in silence, sipping slowly. The Minutae Society was never known for the quality of their cellar.
"Anything come to mind?" he finally asked.
"Not a thing," I replied.
"Well," he said after another long pause. "It occurs to me that at one period of Old Earth's literary history, several hundred years ago, there developed a substantial body of popular literature which took criminal activity, and the detection thereof, as its theme. Very popular in its time, though tastes have changed in the intervening years, and very little new material has been written. Luckily, it was not far past its zenith at the beginning of the digital revolution and much of the old work has been preserved."
"And you think there may be some useful information in these stories?"
"Possibly. As I understand it, a large part of the literature is composed of what were referred to as 'murder mysteries'. Not likely to be useful, unless you should decide to resolve your problem with an unnecessarily extreme solution. I couldn't in good conscience recommend that."
"But there are some that involve breaking and entering, I assume."
"So I would suspect," Roly said, putting his glass down and standing up. "Give me a few minutes to locate a suitable database and search some plot outlines and I should be able to produce some examples."
He left me to my wine and disappeared down a hallway. True to his word he returned within ten minutes carrying a portable docupad.
"There you go, Dunstan," he said, a certain amount of smug pride in his voice, "one dozen prime examples of criminal activity, twentieth century style. You should be able to pick up some pointers from them."
I pocketed the docupad and he escorted me to the entrance. I thanked him for his efforts. We shook hands. He wished me luck and gave me a pat on the shoulder.
"Do keep some good notes, Dunstan," he said as I walked away. "I'll be very interested in how you carry this off."
I started to say "I'm sure you'll be able to read all about it in the police records" but I stopped myself. It seemed too likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.