Davis couldn’t help wondering how the people in the diner would react to knowing they were dupes. The fat lady behind the counter, going over receipts. The two white guys in flannel and trucker caps, chewing on Reubens and grunting at each other. The mom with a gaggle of kids, hushing them with force-fed fries.
Davis felt he could take the measure of a man or woman by the way they handled the news that they weren’t real. It was uncomfortable, intimate, and fascinating to watch. Some got angry, some got morose. Others laughed. You saw something about a person in that moment that they wouldn’t ever know—couldn’t ever know—about themselves.
His watch buzzed as the waitress arrived with a plate of fries for him and topped off his coffee. Davis had momentary sadistic visions of himself guessing the reactions of the people in the room, then pulling out his badge and showing it around to see if he was right. Trouble was, Chaz might do something like that if he got too bored.
Chaz got back from the restroom as Davis was munching on fries. “Sure,” Chaz said, sitting, “you’ll put mustard on those.”
“Mustard belongs on fries.”
“Like it belongs on burritos.”
“You just aren’t willing to live, Davis,” Chaz said, stealing a fry. “Try new things, you know?”
“Once again, this isn’t new,” Davis said, checking the message on his phone. “You literally have been trying to get me to eat like you for three years.”
“It’s why I’m a good detective,” Chaz said. “Tenacity. What’s hottie pants say?”
“Hottie pants? Maria?”
“She’s like twenty years older than you.”
“And hot. What does she say?”
“They found the gun in real life,” Davis said. “It was down there in the storm drain where Estevez threw it. Soaked in ten days’ worth of grime, but they rushed it through ballistics and it came back a match for the bullet. We might have to testify.” They now had enough evidence to convict Estevez, and the testimony of two hardworking cops would only reinforce that.
Chaz grunted. “Would still feel better if I’d been able to gun that punk down. Pay him back, you know?”
“You don’t even know what he did,” Davis said dryly.
“Killed someone. That . . . um . . . girl?” He shrugged. “Anyway, want to play hooky for the rest of the day?”
Davis looked up, feeling a cold jolt.
“Our next job,” Chaz continued, stealing another fry, “it’s not till . . . what, almost twenty-one hundred?”
“Quarter after twenty. Domestic disturbance. They want us to see who hit first. Corroborate one story or the other.”
“What a waste of our time.”
Davis shrugged. It wasn’t uncommon to go on small missions like that throughout the day, after the main case had been investigated.
“I don’t want to wait around eight hours to see who slapped who,” Chaz said. “Let’s save everyone some time and money and bug out of here. The shrink says I should let her know if I feel ‘emotional distress.’ ”
“Which means what?”
“Hell if I know. She seems to think that I should find living in Snapshots distressing.”
“Seriously?” Davis said. “You? Is she paying any attention?”
“She’s not even hot,” Chaz added.
Davis sighed, but it did little to cover his sudden anxiety. They couldn’t leave. Could they?
Maybe that would be for the best. . . .
No. Warsaw. 20:17. He had an appointment.
“Come on,” Chaz said. “Let’s go. I’ll even let you push the button to turn the Snapshot off.”
“I always push the button,” Davis said.
“And today I won’t complain.”
“No, look, I’ve got something for us to do.” Davis scrambled to pull out his phone again. “I’ve been reading the scanner forums—”
“—and there was a blip about this day, when it happened for real. Though I couldn’t find anything in the precinct records, the forums claim that multiple squad cars were called in to search an apartment building. That will happen in the Snapshot in about an hour. Want to get there first and see what it was?”
“Forums,” Chaz said dryly. “Conspiracy forums. You said there wasn’t anything in the official records.”
“Nothing I was allowed to see.”
“Which probably means they didn’t find anything.”
“No. That would have been logged. There was nothing there.”
“Which means you didn’t have clearance. They didn’t want low-level detectives knowing about it, whatever it was.”
“And doesn’t that make you curious?” Davis asked. “We could do a little real detective work. Snoop. Who knows, maybe someone will try to shoot you.”
“You think so?” Chaz asked, perking up.
“It could happen. You’re very shootable.”
He nodded. “Yeah. Real detective work, eh?” He rubbed his chin. “You know what we’re going to find, right? Some politician with a whore. That’s why they’d hide it. Assuming it’s even real, and the forum nutjobs aren’t making things up.”
“Yeah, well, I suppose we could just play hooky,” Davis said. “Go back to the boring real world. Sit around. Watch a movie. Instead of living in one . . .”
“All right, I’m sold,” Chaz said, standing. “But I’ve got to go hit the head first.”
“That burrito, man.” He shook his head. “That burrito . . .” He wandered off in the direction of the bathroom.
Davis relaxed his fist and let himself breathe out, trembling. They’d stay in the Snapshot for now. Davis paid the bill with actual cash, but the diner only gave change as credit. That wouldn’t ever reach him though. This Snapshot city existed on its own, without external infrastructure. If people left the area the Snapshot covered, they vanished immediately. If someone was scheduled to enter the city, the Snapshot created their body and vehicle, then set them on the road driving in at the proper time.
He’d never been able to figure out the details. How did credit transactions work for those inside here? How did the Snapshot manage to re-create all outgoing and incoming transmissions? The power lines. The internet. Sunlight. What were the levels of reality for it all? He ate food in here. How much would he have to eat before the system recognized him as part of it, rather than being real? If he had too many burritos, would that badge someday shine for him, as it did for the dupes?
He tore himself away from that line of thinking. Keep focused on my task. He turned around in his seat, looking toward the woman with the children as she packed them up and herded them out the door. The oldest was six, self-proclaimed to his sister in an argument.
That was two years younger than Hal, but Hal had always been small for his age. Like his dad.
The mother and her children left, and Davis found himself staring at a different woman, sitting close to the back of the diner near the window. Slender, with black hair cut short. Angular features. Pretty. Very pretty.
“Well,” Chaz said, stomping up, “there’s another part of me added to the system: my dump. It’ll get recycled when the day breaks down, right?”
“I suppose,” Davis said absently, still watching the woman.
“Good to know that part of me will get used the next time they rebuild this. My dump will be recycled into lawyers. Cool, eh?”
“How is that any different from real life?”
“Well, it . . .” He trailed off, scratching his head. “Oh. Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Huh. Well anyway, you going to go talk to her?”
“The hottie back there.”
“What? No. I mean, you shouldn’t say things like that.”
“Come on,” Chaz said, nudging him. “You’re staring at her hard enough to throw sparks. Just go say hello.”
“I don’t want to harass her.”
“Talking isn’t harassing.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s one of the primary methods of harassment,” Davis said.
“Yeah, maybe, sure. But she’s looking back at you. She’s interested, Davis. I can tell.”
Davis toyed with the idea, a small panic rising in him like an exploding bomb. “No,” he said, standing. “Why bother? It’s not real anyway.”
“All the more reason to give it a go. For practice.”
Davis shook his head and led the way out of the diner. Unfortunately, as they passed the woman’s table, Chaz stepped over to her. “Hey,” he said. “My friend is kind of shy, but he was wondering if maybe he could have your number.”
Davis felt his heart all but stop.
The woman blushed, then looked away.
“Sorry to bother you,” Davis said, hauling his partner out the door by the arm. Then, once outside, he continued, “You idiot! I said not to do that.”
“Technically,” Chaz said, “you told me you weren’t going to do it. You didn’t say that I couldn’t.”
“That was humiliating. I—”
Davis froze as the door to the diner opened and the woman stepped out. She blushed again, then handed Davis a little slip of paper before ducking back into the restaurant.
Davis stared at it, reading the phone number scrawled across the front. Chaz grinned a big, goofy smile.
Sometimes, Chaz, he thought, tucking the paper away, I love you.
“So, where are we going?” Chaz asked.
“Fourth,” Davis said, leading the way down the street.
“Bit of a hike.”
“Nah,” Chaz said, hands in pockets. “Just saying.”
They strolled for a time, Davis feeling the paper in his pocket. He was shocked, even embarrassed, by how pleased he was. How warm it made him feel. Even if he was never going to call her, even if she wasn’t real. Damn. He hadn’t felt like this in years, since before meeting Molly.
“You ever wonder,” Chaz said as they walked, “if we should be using this more?”
“What do you mean?”
Chaz nodded at the cars passing on the wide avenue. At least half were autocabs, smooth and careful, each one coordinated with the others. A variety of older cars joined them, and most were just as smooth—but you could tell the manual drivers from the way they jerked about, making a mess of things. Like fish that had suddenly split away from the rest of the school.
“We should use this more,” Chaz repeated. “We’re in a day that already happened. So shouldn’t we be able to . . . I don’t know . . . buy lottery tickets or something?”
“And win money that will vanish when the day ends?”
“We could swallow it,” Chaz said. “Like you said.”
“There’s a big difference between one coin and millions in lottery earnings. Not that they pay out instantly anyway, for the types of winning numbers we could look up ahead of time. Besides, it would likely be classified as counterfeiting if you somehow did get money out.”
“Yeah.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “It would still be fun to win. Anyway, I just feel we should be able to do more. Get right what someone else got wrong.”
“Which is what we do.”
“I’m not talking about legal stuff, Davis.” He sighed. “I can’t explain it.”
The two crossed the road, and cars started again behind them. A few old combustion engines roared past, making Davis turn. That was a sound from his past. Like the smell of gasoline.
“I understand,” he said.
That seemed to comfort the taller man. “So, any idea what we’re looking for when we arrive at this place of yours?”
“I don’t know,” Davis said. “It’s just one of those blips that the forum people notice. Sudden, urgent call for a car, several responses . . . then silence. No report. No nothing.”
“And you think someone’s scared we’ll find out.”
They’d talked about this sort of thing before. In here, the two of them were absolute authorities. Flashing their badges could get them past any obstruction, overrule any order. They were two men in a crowd of shadows.
In here, they were the only ones with rights. In here, they were gods. The longer he’d been working in Snapshots, the more Davis had realized that there were certain people on the outside who found his power in here terrifying. They hated thinking that there were simulacra of them that a couple of low-level detectives could order around. How to contain them, protect people’s privacy, was a constant argument.
“I’m surprised,” Chaz said as they finally reached Fourth Avenue, “that they didn’t remember to send us to some saferoom.”
Davis nodded. They wouldn’t have gone—they never did. But the precinct continued to order it, claiming that if Davis or Chaz were to meet their own dupe selves in the city, they’d be mentally scarred. Which was stupid.
“If we don’t find anything at this address of yours,” Chaz said, “I’m going to take the day off.”
“Fair enough. But I think there will be something. It’s suspicious.”
“I’m telling you. Politician with a whore.”
“They wouldn’t call in squad cars for that.” He chewed on his lip. “Have you noticed how lately they seem to have us do only the least work possible on a case? Find a murder weapon, witness a criminal activity. No interviews, little real police work.”
“Guess they decided they don’t want us getting too comfortable with that sort of thing,” Chaz said. “Hell, they don’t want IRL detectives in here. That’s why they send guys like us in the first place.”
The site of the mysterious call for the authorities—a call that wouldn’t come in the Snapshot for about another hour—was an old apartment building with tags and graffiti sprayed all over it. The broken and grimy windows proclaimed it wasn’t occupied these days.
“Doesn’t look like the kind of place I’d take a prostitute,” Davis noted.
“Like you’ve ever taken a prostitute anywhere,” Chaz said, shading his eyes and looking upward. “I know this area. It was nice once—these were probably expensive apartments.”
They walked up the steps, then tried the door, which was locked tight. Davis looked to Chaz, who shrugged and kicked the door in. “Damn,” he said. “That was easier than I thought it would be.”
“Feel like a real cop?”
“Getting there,” he said, then peeked into the hallway.
A quick search didn’t turn up anything. The ground floor apartments were open, doors unlocked, but they had been gutted and were empty save for the nest some homeless person had made beneath more spray-painted tags. Even the nest seemed like it hadn’t been used in months.
Something smelled off. Musty? Davis wandered back into the main stairwell—near the entry door—sniffing at the air.
Chaz started toward the stairs to the second floor. “There are like twenty stories in this place, Davis. If we have to search them all, so help me, you’ll owe me a burrito. Extra mustard.”
“Let’s try down first,” Davis said, catching Chaz and pulling him to a door in the lobby, cracked open with only darkness beyond. He pulled it fully open, revealing a stairway leading down. The smell was stronger. Musty dampness.
Chaz tried the light switch, but the building’s power was off. Davis dug out a small flashlight and shined it down the stairs.
“Convenient,” Chaz said, trying his phone, which wasn’t as good at providing light.
“Always used to carry a flashlight,” Davis said, starting down the steps. “IRL, as a detective. You’d be surprised at how often it came in handy.”
At the bottom of the steps was another door, which Chaz opened with a well-placed kick. Dampness wafted over them as they stepped into the basement, which had walls lined with broken mirrors. Some old exercise weights lay abandoned in the corner.
“See,” Chaz said, holding up his phone for light. “This place was fancy, once upon a time.”
Davis led the way through the basement gym, darting his light right, then left, growing nervous. But there didn’t seem to be anything down here. They might have to wait until the phone call was made—and the squad cars showed up—to find out what it was.
Chaz stayed close to him, directing his phone’s frail light. Perhaps the call had come because one of the floors had caved in or something. Wouldn’t that be fitting? Two washed-up detectives, killed in a fake world because they couldn’t be bothered to sit back and take a break.
Chaz poked his side, then pointed. Davis turned his flashlight in that direction, noticing a doorway in the wall. Light reflected off a tiled floor beyond. And beyond that . . .
“Water?” he said, striding forward. The musty smell suddenly made sense. “Swimming pool? How is it still full in this place?”
“Damned if I know,” Chaz said, walking with him into the room. It was a pool, moderately sized, considering it was in an apartment building basement. Davis put his hand on his hip, shining the light around. The pool was only partially full. There was no—
His flashlight passed over a face underneath the water.
Davis froze, holding the light on the dead, glassy eyes. Chaz cursed, fumbling for his gun, but Davis just stood there staring. She was young, maybe just a teen. Beside her was another body, settled on the bottom of the pool, facedown.
Shaking, Davis turned his flashlight more slowly across the bottom of the pool. Another. And another.
Corpses. Eight of them.