Agatha slipped the pot holder off her left hand, balancing the hot casserole dish one-handed as she punched the button for Ai’s floor.
It was Thursday and the young police woman should have gotten off early from the morning shift. For anyone else that would mean there’d be a good chance they’d be out on the town, but Agatha knew her odds of encountering Ai at home were approaching a certainty.
Some of her tenants got along just fine on their own. Others needed someone to check in on them once in awhile. Ai didn’t fall into either category.
Agatha had known Ai’s father, and her mother, back when the two had been together. She’d seen what their separation had done to Ai, and had seen the impact her father and brother’s deaths had as well. Outwardly, Ai had grieved for a time and then come back to herself, like most people do. Inwardly though? Agatha could only speculate on that but what her intuition hinted at was not comforting.
Things were bad in the GCPD. They were bad in the whole city. Maybe even the whole world. Most people took that as a given and found what scraps of comfort and goodness they could. Ai though? She hadn’t gone looking for comfort, and when she spoke, it was never about the good things she’d found.
She was careful of course. Careful not to rail on about the injustices that surrounded them. Careful not to express too much of herself at all. In any conversation she was always looking to learning more about the speaker than to reveal anything about herself.
For Agatha it was a welcome change to have someone who was genuinely interested in her stories of the old days, or even the bits of random gossip and trivia she collected. Agatha maintained a healthy social circle, but people tended to get caught up in the day to day affairs of life. Reminiscing about the past felt self indulgent but Ai made it simple to slip into a mode where Agatha could talk about anything she wanted and feel like they were having an engaging conversation. It was only over time that Agatha even noticed how little they ever discussed where Ai was at, or what she was working on.
Agatha had tried to change that several times, and Ai had proven adept at managing those conversations as well. A question about how Ai was doing at work could lead to hours of discussion about the minutia of the job, and her coworkers, and the various hoops and hurdles Ai had to jump through. It would touch on events that were frustrating or rewarding or just weird, and on the surface that seemed like Ai was opening up.
But she wasn’t.
Each story seemed to be real, but Ai’s connection to the events was ephemeral. She could speak of the galling lack of respect the other officers showed her, but her outrage was muted, as though she was angry for someone else having to experience what she was describing.
Agatha had watched her closely for a while, but Ai hadn’t shown any other signs of losing touch with the reality she lived in. Her joy at Agatha’s cooking was genuine, and the smile she greeted Agatha with whenever Agatha dropped by went all the way up to her eyes.
Within her apartment, Ai was relaxed as Agatha ever saw her, but she was never unguarded. It was as though she was a double agent, living life as “Ai Greensmith” as a cover for some far greater and more prestigious role that she played.
Agatha couldn’t imagine what that role could be though. It certainly wasn’t an inherited one. Ai’s father had never been wealthy, and her mother had been a starry eyed drifter when Agatha first met her. Neither traveled in the circles of the elite, and neither had lived lives that allowed for much spare time.
Joseph Greensmith Sr. had spent enough days working double and triple shifts that his marriage had eventually fallen apart from it. Caroline Shinimoto, Ai’s mother, had possessed plenty of time when she was a traveling artist, but she and Joe Sr. had gotten down to making their family shortly after they met and were married. Some women who Agatha knew could have managed three children plus a the life of a double agent, but not Caroline. That wasn’t a failing on her part though.
Caroline took to her role as mother with a passion that surprised even herself, and brought that passion to her art as well. When she’d moved back to her family’s home in London, she’d returned not as a failure but as a celebrated creator with a sold out show behind her, and that had come only due to a level of work and investment that Agatha was surprised any mother of three could have managed.
The elevator arrived and dinged open, allowing Agatha to shuffle out.
It wasn’t as easy to make her rounds as it once had been. She’d passed on the last few performance upgrades to her bio-mods. They’d promised to help manage the aches and pains she felt by some arbitrary and implausibly exact percentage. It was a racket, one designed to allow her the illusion that she wasn’t aging as much as she really was. With all the things she’d seen and lived through though, Agatha didn’t feel like she needed that illusion. Better to know how she was really doing, to be aware of what her limitation were and how they were changing. She could live a good life still, even if she had to live it a little slower than she was used to.
She knocked at Ai’s door, to be considerate in case the building’s occupation logs were incorrect. As the owner and superintendent, Agatha had access to all of the biometric data her building’s sensors collected. Or at least all of the data the companies were willing to admit that they were collecting. It was an open secret that far more monitoring went on than anyone admitted to but the mass of data tended to work against useful information gathering as much as it helped.
The sensor logs confirmed that Ai hadn’t returned, and that the apartment was empty, so Agatha didn’t hesitate, and let herself in with her master key. Ai was used to her landlord’s coming and going and was always happy to see a freshly cooked dinner awaiting her when she got home. If Agatha had calculated correctly, there should be at most ten or fifteen minutes before Ai arrived. She would be carrying a bag with take-out food from a convenience store or sidewalk truck, but she would push that into her otherwise empty fridge in favor of the plates of food Agatha provided.
The plates caught Agatha’s eye as she set them out. They were plain. Unremarkable bland white, circles. Nothing alarming about them. They were the sort of dishware a college student would buy to save money for books. Taken by themselves they said their owner didn’t particularly care about their dishes beyond having anything something to eat off of.
Looking around the apartment there were a lot of other similar signs though.
The walls held no posters or artwork. The furniture was as generic as it could be. Together the pieces told a story of someone who wanted to be overlooked. Someone who was trying to appear as bland and uninteresting as they could.
In another tenant, Agatha wouldn’t have questioned the aesthetic. Some people she rented to didn’t have an eye for visual design. Some actively enjoyed a minimalistic environment.
But that hadn’t been Ai. Not when she was a little girl, and not as a teenager.
Agatha remembered finger painting plates with a six year old Ai. It had been for fun, but Ai had taken the task seriously and produced a set of plates that sang with color and light and images in motion.
Even the teenaged Ai’s room had been an expression of the ever changing moods and interests of its occupant. Posters of the solar system had been tacked over with schematics for circuit boards, and then replaced with glossy pictures of cinema detectives from old movies and on and on to dozens of different interests that Ai dove into and devoured.
“Bright” has been used to describe the young Ai on nearly every occasion that Agatha could remember, but that quality was missing from the apartment she lived in. Agatha thought about that and wondered how she’d missed the change.
The color hadn’t drained out of Ai’s life all at once, but it had dimmed after Joe Sr.’s death, dropping away in stages until, when Ai moved into a smaller apartment of her own, she’d simply left the last remnants of it behind.
The more Agatha looked around, the more she felt the emptiness of it all. Someone new to the room would find it unremarkable, but when Agatha compared it with Ai’s earlier home the apartment felt like a diorama. Each piece arranged to allow the eye to slide off it, even the ones that were out of place, like the unwashed plates, or the clump of uncleaned clothes hanging out of a washing basket. The room was clearly inhabited but it wasn’t lived in. Ai’s life was somewhere else, as someone else it felt like.
A message buzzed onto Agatha’s virtual display, appearing as scrolling green letters across a black bar background running along the bottom of her vision.
Apartment 1522 had reverted back to an unclaimed state.
Agatha blinked and shook her head. She was getting old but reading the message again proved her mind wasn’t playing tricks on her. Apartment 1522 was no longer bound by a rental agreement to its former tenant.
Ai’s apartment was 1522. The one Agatha was standing in, ladling a casserole onto plain white plates. For a moment the message didn’t make sense. Ai was paid up on her rent. Ai was always paid up on her rent. The deposits arrived automatically at the beginning of each billing cycle.
Another message dinged for attention.
An estate consisting of the contents of Apartment 1522 had been transferred to Agatha’s ownership. She could dispose of the items or retain them as she desired. If she wished to claim the items she would need to indicate this to the building’s owner within 24 hours.
It was an automated message, and not a particularly insightful one given that it was telling Agatha to inform herself whether she wanted to keep the contents of Ai’s apartment or not.
Agatha was tempted to write off the messages as one of the governmental glitches the Gamma City municipal computers were prone to, but there was a link in the second message to follow for “further details”.
She tapped it and immediately hit a screen with a lockout notification informing her that the case she had requested was part of an ongoing police investigation and details would be held in confidentiality until the investigation was resolved.
The official channels weren’t the only source provided by the link though. A data aggregator had dredged up related news feeds and found a dozen live feeds commenting on a scene outside what looked like a hospital.
The details were sketchy, with various commenters spouting the same bits of information while trying to put a unique enough spin on them make it onto one of the paying feed streams.
What came through clearly though was that there had been some kind of firefight atop the hospital. Someone had fallen from the roof, struck an automated delivery truck in her fall and then landed hard on the concrete outside the hospital. Police had swarmed the scene and there were reports of casualties on the roof as well.
The most recent development was that the GCPD had finally, after hours of keeping the hospital on lockdown, released a statement and made an official pronouncement regarding the deaths. Three of GCPD’s finest were dead, and an officer accused of aiding and abetting in multiple NME rampages was still on the loose.
Agatha didn’t recognize the names of two of the fallen officers, but the accused officer who was on the loose was familiar to her. Ai complained about her partner Curtweather often.
Agatha felt a twist in her stomach at that thought. Ai wouldn’t be complaining about her partner anymore. Or anything else.
Hers was the last name on the list of the fallen.