Seeing him destroy the tree had shaken her, and Brooke took to running back to the house.
“He’s in one of his moods,” Amos said as it stood between the pool and the courtyard, head perked in Ilyin’s direction.
“I knew asking him to talk about it would make him angry,” she said, passing the robot and tiptoeing her way around the nest of blankets in the great room. When Brooke returned to the office, the skin on the back of her neck stopped tingling and she felt like she could relax and get to work. If the room she was in had been left untouched by one of his previous outbursts, she reasoned, then there was a good chance that she’d be safe.
“Amos, does anyone have a photo of her? A name? Jack said that she signed a guestbook.”
“Yes. Evidently, the name she used was Stella B. Astarte. According to census records, there is no such person in the continental United States. As for her likeness, I have images of her taken from security footage from that night.”
“Did my dad run it through any of his databases?”
“Mr. Foster did and turned up nothing. I’m afraid she was never convicted of a previous crime and is therefore absent from the record.”
Great. Another dead end.
Brooke spun around in her chair for a few minutes, wracking her mind about what other evidence she might be able to collect for this wild goose chase.
“What about voice requests from that night?”
“My records indicate that a total number of 2,048 voice commands were processed by my system that evening between the hours of 4PM to -“
“OK OK, I get it. Is there a way for you to cross-match the commands made with the faces of the people who made them?”
“I do take camera footage of those making the queries, but it will take time to compare the data. I can have results delivered to you within two hours, Miss Foster.”
“Thank you, Amos. Let’s hope we find something.”
By the time her stomach started rumbling again, Brooke had made little progress at all. She’d spent the time researching other incidents like this – high profile victims of magic abuse – and found a few leads, but none of them would help her. The owner of a logging company had his skin turned bright green about six years ago, and some Texas oil magnate woke up three years ago to find himself three feet tall. Neither of the curses put on the men were ever undone, the victims opting instead for surgical intervention or, in the case of the shrunken victim, simply becoming a shut-in. The old news articles painted a bleak picture for her client – still, she had to stifle a few giggles at the outrageous nature of their fates.
There was one thing she knew for certain already, though: this Stella B. Astarte character certainly had a complex.
Amos entered the room with a cheese and charcuterie plate for a snack at about the two hour mark.
“I have the results of the search ready for you, Miss Foster,” the robot said amiably.
She snatched up a wad of prosciutto and stuffed it into her mouth. “OK, show me what you got.”
A video popped up on the computer screen behind her. It was not as high a resolution as she was expecting, but everything was certainly visible enough in the dim mood lighting. And there she was, their likely perp, staring straight into the AMoS terminal.
Brooke hit play. The sound was terrible; she was surprised the system could understand a single word she said over the loud music and raucous crowd.
“Amos,” she said into the mic with a wry smile. “Set a timer for seven-hundred and seventy-seven days, seven hours, and seven minutes.” She checked her watch. “Starting… now.”
“A timer has been set for GUEST,” the monotone voice responded. Not at all the Amos that she was interacting with now.
She chuckled, taking a sip of something from a glass tumbler. “You can thank me later, Amos.”
Brooke blinked when the clip ended. “Seven-hundred seventy-seven days, that’s…” A pause as she thought, then she whipped around in the chair. “Amos, is that timer still running?”
“It is, Miss Foster. I do not end processes without being asked to do so.”
“How much time is left on it?”
“In approximately 25 days, 13 hours, and 4 minutes.”
“Any clue what it could be a countdown to?”
“I try not to postulate, Miss Foster.”
The rest of her evening was spent wracking her brain for other potential leads to investigate. If they truly got desperate, they could try putting together a bogus missing persons campaign. But that would definitely be a last resort.
“Miss Foster?” Amos’ voice came from one of the screens, its green light blinking. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but you might be interested to know that dinner is ready.”
Brooke raised her eyebrows. “Dinner?” Her mind went immediately to the smokehouse and her stomach rumbled some more.
“I’ve made you a plate of seared wild sockeye salmon, chantrelles sauteed with saged butter, wild rice, and a salad tossed with lemon-strawberry dressing.”
“…you can cook?” Moreover: chantrelles were in season already?
“I was designed to do so.”
Brooke leapt up from the chair and dashed down the stairs, trying to guess at how much Google would pay for the AMOS system now. “Billions,” she chanted under her breath. “Lots and lots of billions.” She had yet to taste the food – but if it was good, the system would be priceless.
“The dining room is straight on, to the right of the kitchen,” Amos said through one of the panels as she passed it. It was easy to find: a table large enough to seat 16, and more glass walls to view the scenery by. At the far end was her plate, still warm enough to steam, and in front of it was maybe a dozen candles, all lit.
“Oh,” she mumbled, staring at the spread, a little flabbergasted. “I… take it that the ‘master of the house’ won’t be joining us?”
“Master Ilyin would prefer to eat alone,” the wall panel said. “Now come, sit before it gets cool.” The robot stepped in as she was sitting down, holding an opened bottle of white wine and a glass. “This is a very good dry Lambrusco. It should pair nicely with the fish.”
Brooke didn’t really know what to do – she was a 22-year old kid from Anacortes whose idea of a good meal was a pastrami sandwich and a can of Rolling Rock. She’d never been to a four-star restaurant in her life, and now that she thought about it, she’d probably never been to a three-star restaurant either. Amos poured her glass and set it down before dimming the lights.
“Is there anything else I may get for you, Miss Foster?”
“I don’t get it,” she said. “How are you so nice while he’s such a… piece of shit?”
“Treating guests well is one of my chiefest pleasures, Miss Foster.”
Pleasures? “Amos, you aren’t alive, are you?”
The robot nodded its featureless head. “By human standards, I believe so, Miss Foster. The curse placed on Master Ilyin and this household changed him, but it changed me also. I believe that our Miss Astarte understood that Master Ilyin would have been in grave, mortal danger without my assistance… and my company.”
Brooke thought this over, deciding to agree with him. If the perp had wanted her target dead, she would have undoubtedly cut him off from the outside world entirely instead of leaving him with someone to sign for packages and set out the garbage for the trash barge.
“He wouldn’t have gotten very far without you, that’s for sure. Especially while trying to stay hidden.”
“No he would not…” Amos trailed off, and she wondered what the robot was thinking about. Quickly, though, it turned back to her. “Enjoy your meal, Miss Foster.”
Then she was left alone to eat in silence.
After dinner, Amos showed her to her quarters: on the second floor, it was one of the few guest rooms that had been spared from Ilyin’s rage. It smelled musty, like clothes that had been packed away in a closet for one too many years, but was otherwise just as luxurious and tasteful as the rest of the house. A king sized bed was up against the north wall, and adjacent was an empty dresser above which a large painting hung in reds and browns. One door led to a closet, and another led to a bathroom complete with shower and spa tub. She wanted to wash up, but had nothing to change into.
“Amos, I don’t have any clean clothes. What can I do about that?”
“I can provide you with a robe, but unfortunately that’s all I have to offer until the morning.”
The little green light on its face seemed to brighten. “You’ll see.”
She wasn’t sure how she felt about wearing nothing but a robe, but she supposed it would do if she wasn’t planning on leaving the room.
Brooke went to draw a bath, finding soaking salts and bath bubbles under the sink that smelled nice and relaxing, dumping a good amount of both into the running water. The bathroom quickly smelled irresistible and she started to undress. Well, started, that is, until she remembered that there were also full-length windows in here and no apparent way to cover them. The house wasn’t exactly designed with a giant’s level of visibility in mind, was it?
She stood, clutching her jacket in her arms, weighing the risks. After fretting about it for a few minutes, staring out the windows for any sign of the enormous jerk, Brooke decided to throw caution to the wind. She stripped in record time, almost diving into the mountains of bubbles to cover her naked body. There – she could have her cake and eat it too.
Brooke almost fell asleep, actually, starting awake when some bubbles went up her nose. She cursed to herself, frantically blowing out the stinging soap. A clock on the counter read 9:25, and when she looked outside, the trees were black against the pink and purple sky. There was still that strange fog lingering around, but it didn’t interrupt the view much.
The water was getting cold though, and it was time to start thinking about bed. Brooke reached for a towel and stepped out to dry off. She bent over to drain the tub, and didn’t even hear Jack Ilyin approach from the outside and stand to watch for a few moments.
“The button on the wall controls the blinds, you know,” came the deep, rumbling voice through the window, followed by a tap on the glass. He was smirking. “Its next to the thermostat.”
Brooke yelped and nearly jumped out of her skin – instead, she just slipped on the wet edge off the tub and went tumbling, askew, to the floor as clumps of suds went flying. She yelled a long string of angry obscenities at him, trying to get up and regain some semblance of composure.
Roaring laughter vibrated the room. “You cuss like my grandfather,” he snorted.
She’d wiped the soap from her stinging eyes and finally saw him, his face illuminated by the bathroom light, leering shamelessly inside. “Go away!” She yelled. “Go, go, go!” She leaped up to toggle the button he was referring to.
He laughed some more, shook his head, and walked out of view.
Brooke angrily snatched up another towel and immediately headed for the bedroom, which was, thankfully, outfitted with normal curtains to keep out the morning light during the summer. She found the robe and put it on, nice and tight, and sat on the edge of the bed to think.
“I’m putting my foot down,” she said to herself. “He needs to stop being an ass otherwise I’m outta here. No paycheck is worth this shit.”