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In the deco-inspired, pop-culture-obsessed future, Zachary Nixon Johnson has made a name for himself as the last private eye on Earth. Now the wise-cracking PI and his supercomputer sidekick, HARV, are hired by Ona Thompson, one of four genetically-engineered super women known collectively as the Thompson Quads. Ona’s sister has been murdered, and she needs Zach to locate the killer.
The list of suspects is long—including a butler, security experts, a giant monkey, and even Ona herself. And the list of motives is even longer. Vengeance, envy, wealth, and fun could all be at play. It isn’t long before Zach’s fedora is filled to the brim with danger and destruction in this thrilling follow-up to The Plutonium Blonde.
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It was a dark and stormy night, which is the way these things usually begin. The evening acid rain was falling on the city (for it is in New Frisco that our scene lies) like sizzling bile from the heavens, scouring the streets and blanching the buildings with its tangy, biting caress. It had been raining for six days straight with no let up and no respite. So far the city's infrastructure had dealt with the excess water (and assorted other components, both benign and toxic, that make up California rain in the mid-twenty-first century). Municipal energy consumption had spiked dramatically during the rainy period but the Gladians had provided us with enough extra energy (albeit at a slightly inflated price) to meet the demand.
So the city was handling the storm fairly well at the nano. The problem was that no one seemed to know how long we could hold out or when the rain would end. As a result, a filmy layer of unease had begun to coat the city, the kind that doesn't wash off easily.
I was safely at home in bed on this night, fitfully asleep and dreaming, as usual, of nothing. That had been my problem of late. Sleep had been coming hard and when it did, it was never restful. I hadn't slept more than four hours in a single night for months and what sleep I did get was uneasy and dreamless. I am told that dreams are essential to the human mind. They cleanse the brain and keep it functioning properly. They raise one's spirits and give subconscious form to hopes, wishes and desires. This was all clearly indicative of a larger problem on my part, but that's not something I was willing to think about. My specialty is solving other people's problems. My problems, on the other hand, I tend to ignore.
My name is Zachary Nixon Johnson. I am the last private detective on earth.
For those of you who are new to my adventures, welcome aboard (and what took you so long?). The year is 2058 and earth is enjoying a very welcome and much needed period of calm. Believe me we've had enough political strife, environmental cataclysms, extra-terrestrial catastrophes, and teenage pop sensations to last us for the rest of the century. But as you know, the good times never last and as I said, people had begun to think that the never-ending rain just might be a sign that our little carnival ride of peace and prosperity was nearing its end and that sometime soon the chain-smoking, multi-tattooed, minimum-wage, carny-worker of fate was going to yank us out of our collective seats and point us back toward the end of the line once more.
If only it had been that simple.
But I'll get to all that later. For now, it was a stormy night. As mentioned, I was trying to sleep, my long-time fiancé', Electra, beside me wrapped tightly in her (and most of my) share of the bed covers.
That's when I got the call.
I grumbled a bit at the voice inside my head, waved it away as though it were a mosquito by my ear and buried my face in the pillow.
"Boss?" a little louder this time.
I rolled back over, still groggy, only just beginning to recognize the voice as that of my computer assistant.
"You have an incoming call."
HARV is one of the world's most advanced thinking machines. He is the creation of my brilliant and somewhat socially inept friend, Dr. Randy Pool, and, for better or for worse, he is hard-wired directly into my brain thanks to an organic interface implanted in my head (through my left eye if you can imagine – don't ask). The upside of this is that I have instant and direct access to his knowledge and skills at all times. He can keep me continuously informed about pretty much anything and everything. The downside is that I can't turn him off, so he is a constant presence inside my head, keeping me informed about pretty much anything and everything, whether I want to know it or not.
HARV can communicate with me silently, actually speaking inside my head, and I, when necessary, can communicate with him in the same manner, by focusing my thoughts very tightly. It's a little hard to focus tightly enough though, so I don't talk to him that way very often. But I'm practicing the ability, and it's becoming a little easier over time.
Though I am loathe to admit it sometimes, HARV is a brilliant machine. He can perform three billion gigaflops in a nanosecond. He can plot the celestial orbits of every planet, star and moon in a galaxy twelve million light years away. He can count the sub-atomic particles in every grain of sand on a beach, or calculate the total number of dead brain cells in the heads of the World Council members at any given nano. His capabilities simply stagger the imagination. He is also my friend, quite possibly my best friend.
But not when he disturbs me at three in the morning.
"A what?" I growled.
"A call, boss. I know it's out of the ordinary but ..."
"Take a message," I said, sliding my head back underneath the pillow. "Like you're supposed to."
Being a super computer, HARV, obviously doesn't sleep. One of the millions of things he does in the early morning hours is monitor my incoming calls and messages; make a recording when the caller is important, and politely turn them away when they're not.
"This is a business call, boss."
"Take a message."
"It's an emergency."
"Take a message."
I closed my eyes tightly and focused every ounce of power from my still foggy brain into a single, focused mental shout.
"Once more. Then I'm getting my gun. Take ... a ... message."
"I can't," HARV said.
"Because the incoming call is from Ona Thompson."
I pulled my head from beneath the pillow and blinked my eyes as HARV's butler-esque hologram shimmered to life beside me.
"Ona Thompson?" I asked.
HARV's nod was almost imperceptible.
I slid out of bed and grabbed my robe, the last hopes of a night's sleep slipping away like the rain outside down the sewers.
"I'll take it in the office."CHAPTER 2
In the world of celebrity there is superstar, there is icon, and there is legend.
And then there is Ona Thompson.
She is a pop-culture force of nature; the el nino of chic, and the plate tectonics of hip. She is the irresistible force of vogue and the immovable object of cool all rolled in to one.
And she was calling me.
Now as you can probably tell, I'm not usually one to wax poetic. And trust me, I'm not usually one to hyperbolize. But it is hard to properly describe Ona Thompson without doing a little of both. There's no easy place to start but the most logical is with her father.
Dr. David Thompson was the greatest scientist of the twenty-first century. In the early twenty-twenties, his hundreds of technological discoveries and breakthroughs helped revolutionize the world and lead to such modern day conveniences as teleporters, hovercrafts, and interplanetary travel (limited as it is) and such modern day nuisances as energy weapons, genetic engineering, and the sentient pet-rock.
Yet despite all that, Dr. Thompson is best known for two very monumental creations, the first of which is his family (I'll get to the second one a little later). And by the way, when I say "family," I use the word in its broadest and most abstract sense.
Dr. Thompson created four daughters, who are known today, the world over, as the Thompson Quads (or simply "the Quads"). They are the most famous living creatures on the planet and could quite possibly represent the next stage of human evolution. You'll note that I said that Thompson "created" his daughters. Not "had," "raised," or "fathered." That's not a mistake. Dr. Thompson used his brilliant mind and his well-funded laboratory to custom-create his children (and what spectacular children they were).
He began with his own DNA, brilliant but flawed, and then strand by strand, almost molecule by molecule, altered it, super-charging every ability and repairing every blemish, until he surmised that it was perfect. Then he test-tubed it, added just a touch of super-model and, over the next two years, simultaneously grew four genetically engineered female embryos into viable organisms. The girls were perfect and beautiful when they were birthed from their artificial wombs (although their skin tone, for some reason, turned out slightly purple) and they immediately became media sensations.
Thompson named them Ona, Twoa, Threa, and Foraa (he was a brilliant man, but unfortunately had no imagination when it came to everyday things) and they grew up in the very bright spotlight of the public eye.
Through the years they were christened "miracle babies," "genius toddlers," "pre-schoolers of perfection" and a host of other pointlessly pithy appellations. When the girls hit puberty (and they hit it in a big way), blossoming into super-powerful, genius-level and stunningly beautiful teenagers, they became full-fledged sex-symbols (Ona especially, who was the oldest and most out-going of the four). The super babies had grown into the purple-hued embodiments of all male fantasies. They could bend steel with their hands, stop traffic with their looks and the public simply couldn't get enough of them.
As they grew each Quad developed her own personality and distinctive style and this made them even more sensational to a public that already adored them. Unfortunately, it also made the family a little more dysfunctional but nobody seemed to mention that in the interviews and puff pieces.
Ona, as I mentioned, became a playgirl, billionaire, dilettante.
Twoa became a super hero (I'm not joking).
Threa became a fairy princess (really, I'm not joking).
And Foraa became a nihilist, goth-punk, anarchist (and you know your family is in trouble when the nihilist is considered the "normal" one).
So here they were, four identical sisters, world famous since before they were born, universally loved and adored by the public, and exponentially superior to normal humans both physically and intellectually.
Is it any wonder that they all turned out to be super-brats?
Short tempers, little patience and egos the size of the Crab Nebula, the Quads had it all. They were adored by the human race but had long since grown weary of humanity and to some extent grew to pity it with its faults, foibles and frailties. They were still celebrities, entertainers in their own distinctive ways, but you couldn't help feeling sad over the wasted potential. The Quads were meant to be the apex of humanity, the pinnacle of human achievement. They had instead become the poster children for bored-chic, the pop culture icons of purposelessness.
And, for reasons that will be explained later, they all hated one another, which just made things more interesting.
I took a few nanos to collect myself before answering the call in my office. I don't usually get star struck but I was a little edgy at the prospect of talking to the world's most powerful and egotistical woman with my brain still half asleep so I fidgeted just a bit.
"You're not nervous, are you, boss?" HARV asked.
"Me? No" I said, as I settled into my desk chair, trying to look as casual and professional as possible. "I just want to make a good impression. Do I look awkward here?"
"You mean sitting at your desk at three in the morning for no good reason? The woman has an IQ that's off the charts, don't you think she's going to know that you were sleeping when she called?" "Humor me here, HARV. It's all in the presentation." I answered, adjusting my fedora slightly.
"I think the hat's a bit much," HARV said.
"What do you know? You don't even have a real head."
"True, but unlike you, I have a sense of fashion that is based in the current century."
I ignored him and dipped the brim of the hat down ever-so-slightly over my forehead. Then I took a deep breath to gather myself and stabbed the receive-button on the vidnet console.
Ona Thompson's face flashed on the wallscreen and her beauty hit me in the first nano of visual contact like a pheromonal tsunami. Her mere appearance was a visual cascade of joyance, entering through my eyes and making my head spin. I'd seen her before, of course, in pictures and on the news and such but never in so vibrant and realistic a form.
Her face was perfectly sculpted, from the soft lines of her cheeks to the gentle slope of her nose. Her eyes were wide and a deep shade of warm chocolate brown. Her lips were full and luscious, like ripe berries, two shades darker than the creamy purple of her skin.
I was thankful that Electra wasn't in the room with me because I'm sure I looked like a lovesick schoolboy. It was embarrassing enough that HARV was there to witness it. Although truthfully, I think he was a bit stunned as well. In retrospect, I should have enjoyed that nano more as it happened because things went downhill very fast from there.
"Good evening, Ms. Thompson. Zach Johnson here. How can I help you?"
That's what I wanted to say.
Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance.
"Well, it's DOS-well about time," she spat the nano after contact was initiated. "Is this how you treat your clients? If it is, then I should have my head examined for netting. I could get faster service at the DMV for the clinically comatose."
And yet, somehow, coming from Ona Thompson, this diatribe sounded like a compliment (probably because she used the word "client").
"Thank you, Ms. Thompson," I said, without thinking. "What can I do for you?"
"You can cut the small talk for one. I can't stand it during regular hours. I have zero tolerance for it at this time of night."
"All I said was ..."
"And I need you to come to my mansion right away. Bring your detective stuff. How quickly can you get here?"
"Excuse me?" Ona's stunning initial charm was fast beginning to fade.
"Never mind," she said. "I'll send a hoverjet. It will be faster. Unless you have a teleport pad in your home. No, of course you wouldn't. You're poor."
"She's not one for foreplay, is she?" HARV whispered inside my head.
"Ms. Thompson, what's this about?"
"I thought we agreed that you'd stop the small talk?" she said.
"Do you have a nicer jacket than that one? And for Gates sake take off that hideous hat. You look like a drunken organ grinder."
"Uh-oh," HARV said.
That did it.
I stabbed the disconnect button on the console with an angry finger and the screen went blank.
"No one insults the fedora," I whispered through gritted teeth.
"I told you not to wear it."
A nano passed. And I stared at the screen on the wall, still a little shell-shocked from Ona's blitzkrieg of insults.
"Do you think she's always like that?" I asked.
"Define 'always,'" HARV said with a smirk.
The console speaker sounded a gentle (yet insistent) tone.
"That would be Ms. Thompson calling back," HARV said.
"Gee, you think?"
"Shall I answer it while you attain more suitable cranial attire? Perhaps the beanie with the propeller would be more appropriate."
I waved HARV away and put the call on the screen myself (but I took the fedora off before doing so). Ona's face reappeared, less angry than I expected, almost confused.
"Did you just hang up on me?"
I smiled, slightly wide-eyed and did my best sit-com shoulder-shrug.
"I was just about to ask you the same thing," I said. "There must be a glitch somewhere in the connection. Computers, can't live without 'em, can't disconnect 'em."
I could tell she wasn't buying the excuse but luckily she wasn't comfortable enough yet in our relationship to call me a liar. She took a breath and for the first time inadvertently dropped her imperious veneer. I saw traces of concern in her expression, a tiny bit of confusion, and maybe even a little fear. I knew then that this wasn't going to be a simple matter.
"Fine, where were we?"
"You were politely asking for my help."
"Yes, that's right," she said. "I need you to come to my mansion immediately. I'll send a hoverjet and you'll need a better looking jacket."
"Let's not start that again, Ms. Thompson. What's going on?"
"I can't say. Not over the net. But I'll hire you. I'll pay whatever you like. This is an emergency, Mr. Johnson. You must come immediately."
I have to admit that the part about paying me whatever I wanted was tempting, as was the idea of working for someone of Ona Thompson's stature. Having her as a reference would certainly look good on my e-vitae. And Gates knows I needed the credits. Still she had the look of trouble about her; 100%, pure, unfiltered, menthol-flavored trouble. I'd had my share of that stuff in the past and I'd sort of lost my taste for it. After all, it doesn't matter how exciting or well-paying a job is if it kills you in the end. Also Ona's penchant for insulting me certainly didn't make the deal any more enticing.
So I was about to politely turn her away when she did something that, as I understand it, she almost never did.
"I don't know what else to say, Mr. Johnson ... please?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Doomsday Brunette"
Copyright © 2004 John Zakour & Lawrence Ganem.
Excerpted by permission of Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc..
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