“A hidden camera?” Ben tried. “Something that would record her while she… implants… those memories?”
Violet was catching up on her typing. They were ignoring the Registrar’s snores, just audible through his office door. She rolled out a letter and replaced it with a blank sheet of paper.
“He sure has a lot of correspondence,” Ben observed. What could he possibly be writing about? The man just napped and had inane ideas.
“He has a lot of ideas about City Management,” Violet said. “I’ve been encouraging him to share as many of them as possible. He’s up to six or seven a day, now.”
Ben poured himself another cup of coffee. “Six or seven a day?” He thought about all those letters spreading Balasco’s ideas through the system. “Yeah, I can see how that might work. But aren’t we better off with this sleepyhead? You never know what a new Registrar would be like.”
Violet paused to check her flawlessly justified address block. “He’s told me he won’t ever consider promoting a secretary into the Investigators’ Department.”
Ben drank his coffee. He thought about it. “That would be one of your aspirations?”
She didn’t answer.
“When does he have the time to dictate the letters?” Ben asked. “I mean….” He pointed at the door. A particularly loud snore was making it shake, ever so slightly.
“I’m helping him with that,” Violet told him. “This one, for example, is a letter I’m sending to the Retropolis Department of Power & Light. It’s about changing the color of all their street lamps every week, to encourage productivity.”
Ben stared at her.
“Uh, Violet, I hope that if you ever, you know, if I should ever annoy you in some way….”
She kept typing until she reached the signature; then she whirled the sheet off and replaced it with a new blank. “You’ll know.”
Ben was pretty sure that he’d know, all right. He was thinking about the last couple of Registrars. It seemed like they hadn’t lasted very long, either.
“I’m afraid that a camera may not work,” Violet said. “Her process, or her device, or her machine… it only seems to work on human beings. A camera would probably just skip thirty-two milliseconds, and that would be that. We wouldn’t know unless we tried, of course. But I don’t think we should count on it.”
Ben had to agree that this was likely.
“There has to be something,” he said. “If this goes on, there’s no way to know what she’ll do. She could conceal anything from us. She could… she could manipulate us in any way she chose.”
Violet seemed absorbed by the blank sheet of paper in her typewriter. “That would be terrible.”
“I’ve got those royalty statements from her accountant. She’s made an incredible amount of money in the past year. It’s just going to keep on building with every new patent she registers. I’ve gotta say, if we don’t stop her now it’s possible that we won’t ever stop her. Look at what she did to those other scientists, the ones who didn’t drop their complaints.”
“I can’t look at that,” Violet said. She crossed her enameled arms across her chest. “We have no idea what she did to them.”
Ben went back to the royalty statements. It was a lot of money. Meanwhile, Violet had finished her letters and was starting on the envelopes.
She seemed to have a thought. Ben saw that she’d half-rolled an envelope onto the roller. Her eyes were fixed on its upper edge, just peeking out above the platen.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Don’t I what?”
Violet turned to face him. “I’ve read your file. I know your background. I’m just wondering whether… whether any of your connections might be of help. From your old life.”
Ben could swear that she was blushing, even though he knew that wasn’t possible.
“You had a Professor….”
“Zappencackler.” Ben frowned. He was fighting an urge to get out of there. “You read my file.”
“I read all the files.”
“Yeah, okay, my background, it’s unusual,” he said. “I guess you think….”
And then he thought.
“Oh, I see,” he said. “Yeah, you might be right. We’re not the only ones who are at risk, here.”
Violet rolled the envelope through the platen. “I’m sorry, Ben. I know it’s not my business.”
He jumped out of his chair, barely saving his coffee, and kissed the top of her head.
On his way through the door he heard her say, “That’s quite inappropriate, Investigator.”
Violet finished the first envelope, so she rolled it out and reached for the next while she hummed, very softly, to herself.
Cornelius Zappencackler was as big a fish as you could find in the District. He’d filed a prestigious number of patents, most of them profitable, and in addition to that he taught at the Retropolis Academy for the Unusually Inventive. Inasmuch as any scientist listened to any other scientist, he was listened to. He was always strangely pleased to see Ben.
Ben violated Regulation 527b by taking the bottom scone from the plate the Professor offered him.
Professor Zappencackler smiled. “Very good! Avoid the top one,” he said. “We’re always short of experimental subjects around here.”
Ben got directly to the point. He laid out what he knew, and what he suspected, and what he thought they might do about it.
The Professor shared Ben’s concern. “That could lead to all sorts of problems. I know you worry about the rest of the city, but if my colleagues found that they were being swindled by Dr. Brackett we might see an all-out war erupt here in the District. And, of course, your other fears are well grounded too. I’m glad you brought this to me.”
“Do you have something that fits the bill?” Ben asked.
“Yes, I think so.” The Professor chewed a bite of the second scone from the top. “You always were a bright student, Ben. Your other teachers were confused when your test scores came back so badly. Badly, I mean, in a way that’s so unlikely, statistically.”
“It’s not for everyone, sir,” Ben said.
“Oh, certainly not. I’m sure you’re far happier where you are. Do you have that form for me?”