Stuff Industry is dead and gone, Mr. Qian said coldly, "No money to be had there."
The first two people Dodger had looked in to had had no idea what any of their co-workers even did, beyond seeing them wandering around the building. Dumb as Challon had been with her, he at least checked out when it came to the Board of Directors. Following a dead end in Kuala Lumpur, she tracked down the "Nasty motherfucker" with surprising ease.
Qian Hao-Li, 57, had spent 25 years at "The Stuff Industry" and had plenty of tracks to follow. He now sat before her in a café booth, dressed in a fine tuxedo with a red bow-tie. He looked like a mix between James Hong and Wes Studi, and looked like he hadn't smiled since Deng Xiaoping came to power. He spoke fine enough English, despite what Challon had said.
Dodger had two big cups of coffee in front of her, and nudged one to him. He gave a slight shake of the head, and she nudged it back towards herself, "So is it 'Qian' with a Q or 'Chan' with a C?"
"Either's fine," He said in a high, practiced voice, like he was preparing to make a speech.
She set a pad of papers down in front of her, and started to skim through them.
"Am I being investigated?" He asked.
She glanced up at him with a quizzical look, then remembered where she was — he owned several restaurants and cafés, this being one of them, "No, I'm not police, Mr. Qian."
"Are you an American agent?"
"I work with a charitable foundation. We're just checking up on a potential donors associated with 'The Stuff Industry'."
"'Stuff Industry' is dead and gone," Mr. Qian said coldly, "No money to be had there."
"We're not interested much in money so much as the products put out by the company. We're thinking a company goes under, they've got to have stockpiles of unsold product somewhere."
"Why do you need me?"
Dodger shrugged, "Do you know where we could find some of this 'Stuff'?"
"Know anyone who might know?"
"I know nothing."
She grinned and laughed slightly. Mr. Qian showed no reaction. She quickly recovered herself, "Excuse me. It's been rather difficult to get any solid information on this company. We're just trying to get ahold of as many former employees as possible and hopefully reconstruct a picture of the company in how it operates."
"Why do you care? You say you're not police."
She shrugged, "We've heard lots of conflicting stories, so we're naturally wary about whether or not we're even dealing with the same company each time."
Mr. Qian snorted, brushing away something on his sleeve, "You know when you have a genuine 'Stuff' product. You always know."
"Please go on…"
"You want to know what it was like working there?" He glared at her again.
"I'm kind of interested now in what makes a genuine 'Stuff Industry' product genuine."
Qian leaned forward slightly on the table, "'The Stuff Industry' succeeded despite itself. The owner, Mr. Vangen, was clueless. I suspect he was retarded; had mind of a child. At least he tried to do good work. The other directors? Scum, all of them. Lazy, good-for-nothing, drug addicts, thieves, and prostitutes. One prostitute, but all scum. None of them do anything, I had to handle everything."
"You were in charge, then?"
He shook his head, "Orders come from Mr. Vangen. Decisions, like marketing and making new product. I suspect he has his secretary help type up his memos, but it's still like child wrote it. I helped with editing or rewriting them. Then send down to the labs. Everyone else sends things to the office workers. I pity them, having to decipher the insanity of those scumbags."
"What sort of things did they send?"
"Same things. Also notices they make up. They say it come from Vangen but like I say, they are all thieves and liars. Scum, all of them. Vangen trusted only me."
"You're sure of this?"
"Everything I got was sent to labs. Everything everyone else got was sent to offices. Most of the office documents got sent back to us, then back to Vangen. Nothing from the lab was sent back."
"Did you know any of the office people, personally or professionally?"
"I know girl. Sarah. She was young, but brilliant. Did lots of good work. You ever hear of toy robot named Smith Jim?"
"She created that. All on her own. I told Vangen about it, he loved it, she brought it in and started work on making more. We only sell two, though. Company went out of business soon after. The unsold products went home with Sarah."
"You know Sarah's last name?"
"No. Other director knows. The prostitute, Ms. Chevalier."
"Where can I find her?"
"She works in Tokyo. Dancer. Only thing she was good for."
Dodger hid any frustration. Kuala Lumpur to Macau had been a four hour trip. Macau to Tokyo was a six hour flight at best. And the MCF didn't have the type of budget to be sending her around Asia for weeks on first class. She covered her grimace with a sip from her coffee, and rose from her seat, extending her hand, "Thank you for your time, Mr. Qian."
Dodger nodded. The woman stared at her even longer. Deciding she wasn't joking, the woman went on, "I had no idea Qian was even paying attention at any of the meetings."
"So he's lying?"
Paget Chevalier sneered, "At the very least, he was the least incompetent person on the Board. Aside from me. I'm not in trouble, am I? I mean, I'll testify against the company if you need me to."
Dodger smiled lightly, and leaned back in her seat. They were in a back room in a gentleman's club, the thudding bass of music making the walls vibrate each second. The woman, Miss Paget Chevalier, certainly looked like she could've worked in an office when Dodger first met her. But now, fully made up and barely dressed, it was impossible to imagine, "I told you before I'm not police. Just working for a charitable foundation," Dodger tilted her coffee cup towards her, "Want some coffee?"
She glanced at it, unopened and clean, then reached out to take it, "Sure… thanks."
No coffee. Dodger kept smiling, "Why don't you clarify what the Board was like, then?"
"Mm…" She slid the coffee back to Dodger, the lid rimmed with sparkling pink lipstick, "Place was a joke. I tried to contribute, but I didn't see anything positive being done with my presence, so I left."
"With your presence? Speaking of which, how did you end up there? You…"
She quirked a brow at Dodger, "A girl like me, fresh out of college? I'm just as surprised as you."
"Everyone I talk to about 'Stuff Industry' mentions you only as 'the Prostitute', like it was a special category."
"I was not a prostitute; I was an escort. There's a difference."
"One is explicitly about sex, the other isn't so explicit."
Paget sneered again, and Dodger smiled, "I'm sorry. Please, tell me how you ended up there."
"A client of mine suggested it to me. I always had an interest in numbers and statistics and he was lots of fun to discuss business with. I was looking for an internship before entering college, he suggested a spot in an up-and-coming business he worked with. Had to move to Australia, but I'd be paid, so I couldn't pass it up."
The woman slid the coffee back to herself, seeing Dodger not touching it, and took another sip, "He said he'd be at the airport to pick me up. Sent me a text as soon as I got off saying he couldn't make it. Gave me an address, so I took a cab to the place. No one there knew who I was or had even heard of me. I told them 'Allen Styme recommended me for an internship here', they let me in. Upstairs, they all said. No one knew where I was supposed to go, so they kept sending me upstairs."
"You come across the Lab area?"
She looked at Dodger oddly, then nodded, "Right, the labs. I thought it was a doctor's office at first. Lots of people waiting outside. Why?"
Dodger shrugged, "From what I've heard thus far, the Lab people seem to be the only competent people in the company."
Paget grinned toothily, "Really? That's funny."
She shrugged, and sipped from the coffee again, "I heard that from everyone not working in the labs. From the lab techs themselves, they're just as clueless as the rest of them."
Dodger gently fingered her chair, while Paget went on.
"So I keep going up. One level at a time. Finally the CEO comes on the elevator around the fourteenth floor. I tell him who I am, he recognizes me. He's the only one who's even heard of Allen Styme. He takes me to the top level, shows me to my office, says I'm hired. Then says the Board meets at one o'clock, so be there."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that, I'm there. Meeting was a joke; everyone introduced themselves to me, I introduced myself, then we all sat down and just talked casually for half an hour. Nothing else happened."
Dodger nodded, "Basically what I've been hearing thus far. What about the lab techs? I heard you were close with a young employee named Sarah?"
Paget smiled, "Sarah MacGregor. Beautiful girl. Kindest person I ever met. Yeah, she was like me… only sane person in the asylum."
"Lab techs was same as the rest of the place?"
"Absolutely. You ask a lab tech what they did that day, they'd say 'I don't know, we were gonna do research on some thing, but the boss never showed up and we couldn't continue without him'. Most of the time it was 'people vital to a project didn't show up that day', or they had two or three projects going at once and only enough time and resources for one. Everyone had their own weird schedules, so there was never a time when every lab technician was in the same place at the same time for more than an hour or so. No idea who thought that up or why, but you didn't get paid for overtime, so hardly anyone bothered."
"Did they know what they were working on, at least?"
Paget shrugged, "I don't know. Sarah did. She had a project she brought in. Whole team loved it, they put a lot of work into it. First time they were ever really happy. Every day they'd be talking about the robot toy."
"It wasn't a secret?"
"Nothing they did was a secret. Other people just assumed it was secret because they didn't know what they were doing themselves half the time. People see lab techs in hazmat suits and they assume 'super secret pseudo-governmental stuff'."
"Why the hazmat suits, though?"
"I don't know. They worked with hazardous materials, probably."
"What about the people waiting outside?"
"Most of them are volunteers. Test subjects and such. For the medicine, mostly."
Dodger hid an expression of interest, "Medicine?"
"Yeah. Pretty sure that wasn't legal, but no one was allowed to talk to them but the lab techs. Aside from that, I don't know what else to tell you."
Dodger looked down at the recorder, and at her notes. Every story she'd heard had claimed ignorance of their own department and shuffled authority off to another department or individual. Then those departments would claim ignorance and shuffle authority off to another. A circle-jerk of laziness and stupidity. And yet somehow this company made money and put out anomalous products.
"You ever hear of a product called 'Smith Jim'?"
Paget shook her head, "No. Something the company put out?"
"Maybe. Where can I find Sarah MacGregor?"
Sarah was another few thousand miles away, in eastern Oklahoma.
"No thanks, I don't drink coffee," She waved away the offer. At least Dodger had gotten two medium-sized coffees this time.
Sarah MacGregor looked entirely too young and frail to be working with heavy machinery at 22, yet she did, and her skinny arms bulged with the faintest trace of muscles as she pried open the large steel door of the warehouse she worked in, inviting Dodger in as she closed the door and turned on the lights.
Boxes were stacked on the left end of the warehouse. On the right were piles of metal and plastic parts. A set of shelves extended between the two wings, with half-finished mechanical engines, batteries, pipes, and wires nestled in neat rows. A skinny robot stood in front of the shelving, having no arms and what looked like a television screen for a face.
"Here he is," Sarah smiled, reaching around to plug in the robot. The television screen came on, crackling static before showing a crude smiling face made up of big pixels. It spoke in a high-pitched synthetic voice, sounding like a young boy or girl, "Hello, Sarah."
Sarah turned to Dodger, "Smith Jim, this is Ms. Dodger."
The robot followed her gaze to Dodger, and leaned forward slightly, "How do you do, Ms. Dodger?"
"I named him for my brother, James. But they couldn't spell MacGregor, so they just went with Smith. They'd put down his name as 'Smith, Jim', as in last name, comma, first name, and apparently didn't understand the purpose of the comma. At least they didn't call him 'Smith Comma Jim'."
"You should relax, Dodger," The robot butt in, "Breathe. Take a break from all your worries."
"I'm fine, Smith Jim."
"Now there you go again," The robot simulated laughter.
"What's he do?"
Sarah pressed her lips firmly together, "I wanted him to be a toy. Smaller, not more than two feet tall. He'd be covered in plastic, safe for kids. The company… they wanted him bigger. They wanted him to do some weird thing involving metal refining. I told them that was impossible and they just told us to make it happen."
"Are you a metallurgist?" Smith Jim asked Sarah.
"No, Smith Jim," She murmured wearily, clearly not the first time she'd been asked that.
"Smith Jim's capacity for metal refining is a trade secret of 'Stuff and Something, Inc' and thus the details of my finer processes are not made available for viewing."
"'Stuff and Something, Inc', is that another name for the company?"
Sarah looked at Dodger oddly, "Another? That was the company's only name."
Dodger restrained a frustrated sigh, and glanced down at her pad to make a note.
"You could get more done with a gun and a dream, than with a dream alone. Your charity should invest in more guns."
"How does he know?"
Sarah looked down shyly, "I told him about you ahead of time. He gets shy meeting strangers, I didn't want him to feel left out."
Dodger stared at the television screen, at the little pixelized face. It stared back at her, unblinking, its mouth working as if it were speaking.
"How does it refine metal?"
"Are you a business attorney?" Smith Jim butt in.
Sarah shrugged, "I don't know. The company took out a lot of the components I designed and put in their own torso. You put in something metallic into its chest cavity, it seals shut like an elevator, then it melts it down and 'enhances' it, or 'refines' it somehow." She patted the robot's torso, "I pried it open myself to check it out, but there was nothing inside. Just an empty cavity. No opening connecting it to any other part of the robot. Nothing."
"Stuff and Something, Inc. is not responsible for any damage sustained by Smith Jim in the event of unauthorized tampering." The robot blurted out, then turned to Dodger, "Is Aurianne with you?"
Dodger did not react, "I don't know anyone named Aurianne."
The robot turned back to Sarah, then looked straight ahead, "Apologies. My mind was elsewhere."
"What's wrong with him?"
Sarah sighed, "I don't know… he wasn't like this when we first built him. I designed a basic code for him to respond to general questions, to simulate conversation. A few friends at the company built on that and we had a nice working AI for him. He was so sweet… said some of the funniest things. Then they sent him upstairs, re-fitting him for the metal stuff. Since then, he's just been spouting random things, arguing with us, threatening us sometimes."
"They had another lab area in the floor above ours. We never talked to them outside of lunch. They pretty much did the same stuff we did."
"Did they get orders from Mr. Qian?"
"Sometimes. Most of the orders came to us, but like I said, we were never all together or ready for any one thing. Most of the time we just threw them out. Not like he ever noticed."
"I heard there were more robots."
"All of them," She nodded to the boxes across the room, "All of them were like that after they were done with them. They only sold two of them, so the rest are locked up here. No one else wanted to take them, so it was either save him or let him all be scrapped."
"Next time, bring coffee for two. Two, three, one, one, two, one, three, one, one, two, two." The robot said.
Dodger tilted one of the coffee cups towards him, "Thanks," Then turned to Sarah, "Thank you for showing this to me. How many functioning copies of him do you have here?"
She looked around, then shrugged, "I don't know. Fifty, maybe seventy-five."
"Would it be possible to part with one of them — ?"
"Sure. You can take as many as you like. I'd rather see them put to good use by a good charity than rotting in here."
"Thank you. One last thing, Ms. MacGregor. Do you think you could describe to me what a typical day at the company was like? Just a general idea of the people working there, the bosses, the work environment…"
Sarah sighed, and smiled sadly, "It was fun. A whole lot of slacking off, though. I'm not surprised we went out of business, hardly anyone in the labs actually did any work. Those poor office workers, having to shoulder the burden of everyone else's laziness."