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Eddie Reston needs a break from his hectic life, away from his nagging ex-wife. His passion is old novels about hard-boiled detectives of the 1950s. A Romantek virtual reality vacation is just the ticket for a guy like him, more an early Charles Bronson than a Cary Grant.
When Willow and Eddie meet to solve a murder mystery, their attraction is instant, even though Willow sometimes needs active correction. But Romantek forbids them to give away their true names during the vacation, so they can't pair up in their own century. They struggle to find a way, but it remains elusive. Can Eddie and Willow cheat the Romantek system and set up a real life meeting, or will their new found love be lost when reality intrudes?
Although she feigned sleep, Willow Camber was wide awake. Fighting the urge to open her eyes, she tried to take it all in, one sense at a time. The room was warm, but not humid. It smelled strongly of something acrid and sharp; she hoped it wouldn't make her sneeze. There was some click-clacking going on nearby. An old typewriter, maybe? She'd never heard one, but she'd seen them in old entertainment vids. Someone was humming off-key, a woman's voice. Willow's hands were missing some tactile sense; it seemed she wore gloves. She held something smooth and firm, with a clasp under her fingers. Perhaps it was a purse. Her clothes were comfortable, but had a kind of starchy stiffness, like a uniform she'd once worn for a costume party. There was something on her head. Very likely it was a hat. She remembered that women wore some pretty funny-looking hats in the twentieth century, with lacy veils and odd shapes. Her legs were encased in something thin and silky�stockings. She could feel the slight pinch of the garter belt around her hips. The chair on which she sat was hard and unyielding, but she didn't squirm.
Finally, she slowly opened her eyes.
She'd made it. She was now in the mid-twentieth century. Should be somewhere between 1949 and 1953, according to the Romantek literature about this virtual reality dream adventure. How she'd been looking forward to this day! Now, thanks to Romantek's amazing process, she was living a dream. “Noire Private Detective,” it was called. Romantek's technology was beyond state-of-the-art: for more than a week, she'd had a small chip implanted in her scalp. The chip recorded all her likes and dislikes, all her dreams and interactions with people, everything she thought, felt, ate, experienced over the time it had resided near her skull. All of it went into the Romantek computers, and out popped her Romantic Adventure Vacation Experience, her RAVE. It would have been better if she’d had the time to study the period more extensively, but work had taken precedence. She’d have to rely on viewings of old vids, but how hard could it be? She’d seen those vids so many times, she had them practically memorized
A frisson of excitement ran up her spine. This had to be the best money she'd ever spent, though it had been quite expensive. It was so real! Totally immersed in the nanite gel back on board Romantek's luxury ship, she could feel every nuance, experience every sensation of being out of the twenty-second century and into a situation two hundred years earlier. And it was all a dream. Nothing could hurt her. No one could intrude. Well, maybe intrude a little. Other real people could be sharing this dream with her, fulfilling their own adventurous desires. But, most of the avatars she'd find here would be artificial constructs. The real people only added to the randomness of the experience. It was like a game she played with others, some of whom were on her team, and some of whom were opponents.
So from now on, through this dream, she had the name she'd chosen for herself. A good, period name: June Tarryton. It was a solid name, simple and easy to remember. Having chosen her name ahead of time, all her period identification would be in that name including her driver's license�quite the novelty�which made her nervous, hoping that she wouldn't be expected to actually drive a car. She'd never done that and she wasn’t mechanically inclined. The self-drives in her own time didn't need supervision. She would also have a home�somewhere. The city was Los Angeles, a place she'd been to in the twenty-second century, but it wasn't where she lived. It would be quite different from Toronto, even the historic sites there.
Across the room from where she sat, she saw a wooden door with a bubbled glass inset. Although it was backwards, she could read the print on it: "Edward Strong, Private Investigations."
So, she wasn't the private investigator. That didn't surprise her. There weren't any women private investigators in 1950. But what was her role? Willow�no, June�hoped it was something action-oriented, and not an eye-candy sort of tag-along experience. June loved mysteries. She'd always wanted to puzzle one out in real life. But in the old vids, Bogie was always the conductor, and Bacall was always the first violinist. June had to be more. Romantek wouldn't disappoint her; she was sure of that. Everything she'd read about them, their promotional vids, the literature and the interviews with customers, pointed to positive experiences. People spoke of challenges along the way, but June was up to it.
"Had a little catnap, Miss Tarryton?"
June looked around to her left and smiled at the pretty woman who sat behind the battered desk there, with a lit cigarette resting on a glass ashtray. The smoke wound its way in a graceful ribbon toward the ceiling. A nameplate said one word: Fran. Fran was an administrative person, she guessed. That was often a woman's role when in the workplace in 1950. Actually, the woman was more than pretty. She was stunning. Her dark hair hung in a silky wave to her shoulders, with a little flip under. Bright gray eyes, intelligent and friendly, watched June as they shared the small receiving room space. As the woman picked up a pencil to write, June saw her bright red nail polish, and glanced down at her own hands which were encased in white gloves. The woman wore lipstick, too, matching her nail color. June pressed her own lips together, and found that they were smooth with lipstick, too.
She answered Fran casually, though her excitement level was high. "Yes, a little nap. I didn't realize I was so tired."
"Hard work can do that to you; and don't I know it." The admin had a sweet voice with a cheerful lilt. It must have been this woman that June had heard humming while she got acclimated.
June would have continued the conversation, maybe gleaning some more information, but the outer door opened and a man strode in. He grinned at the admin and tipped his gray fedora.
"Afternoon, Fran." He spoke with an American accent, sharp, baritone, as rich as a butter pat.
"Eddie! 'Bout time you showed up." Fran gestured toward June. "This is Miss June Tarryton. She's with Premier Insurance as a claim investigator." Eddie's black eyebrows rose, but Fran went on. "Really! I saw her card. Anyway, she's here to talk to you about the Grayson suicide. Apparently, Elizabeth Grayson's husband is trying to collect on her insurance. There might be something fishy. Is that about right, Miss Tarryton?"
June nearly wanted to kiss the woman. She'd been wondering how she was going to figure out what she was supposed to do, since the time to learn the details had been fleeting in real time. Now she had enough to get started.
Insurance claim investigator. That was a lot like a private detective, wasn't it?
"Yes," June said, smiling first at Fran, then at Eddie. She stood and the hem of her navy blue skirt slid softly down to just below her knees. Holding out her hand, she introduced herself. "June Tarryton. I presume you're Edward Strong?"
He nodded and shook her hand. His grip was strong, but not crushing, and his hand was warm. Eddie had a craggy face, not classically handsome, but appealing in an almost brutish way. About thirty years old, clean shaven, broad-shouldered, wearing a nicely tailored gray sharkskin suit and well-shined black wingtip shoes, Eddie was taller than June and she had to tilt her head slightly to look up into his amber eyes. They were a startling color, and June had a brief thought that he must certainly be a construct, because no one had real eyes like that. Oh sure, some people had enhanced eyes, and they could be all sorts of colors, but they weren’t common.
Those amber eyes roved all over June, and she stiffened. Maybe that was apropos for 1950, but June's twenty-second century sensibilities were insulted. He was staring at her like she was lunch and he was starving. Somehow, June didn't think this particular man would ever be really starved for women. There was something about him, something indefinable, that said sex appeal in no uncertain terms.
"Nice to meet you, Miss Tarryton." Dropping her hand, he moved around her and opened another door behind her. It was marked "Private." "Come into my office and we'll get friendly."
June wondered what he meant by that. At twenty-seven, June had seen a lot of "friendly" men whose definition was something far from platonic. But it was obvious that she was supposed to have some relationship or interaction with Eddie Strong, so she went into the small space.
The walls were bisque, a little off-color where pictures had once hung but did no longer. Several framed photos dotted the place, including one of Fran and Eddie, smiling broadly, getting into a car together. Eddie had his hand at the small of Fran's back as she bent to enter the vehicle. June wondered just how friendly Eddie and Fran really were. Were they a husband and wife team?
A leather-cushioned wood chair sat in front of Eddie's metal desk, and a taller wooden chair, broader and more heavily padded, sat behind. Eddie removed his hat, revealing his thatch of thick, short, dark brown hair. Hanging the hat on a hat rack, he gestured toward the wooden guest chair.
"Take a load off, Miss."
Apparently, that meant sit down. So, giving him a little polite smile, June sat. A moment later, Eddie sat in the desk chair and relaxed into it. He picked up a small box on the corner of his desk and opened it, offering the contents to June.
June had seen them being inhaled in vids from the twentieth century, but she'd never in her wildest dreams thought to be offered one. Carcinogens were not on her menu. "No, thank you." Maybe she sounded too prim. She told herself to loosen up and go with the flow.
Eddie's black eyebrows arched but soon resumed a casual tilt. "Okay." He pulled a small canister out of his coat pocket. A lighter? Was he about to smoke one of those awful cigarettes? Eddie thumbed the canister but no flame came out. Instead, a hinge opened and a small rectangular item came half-way out. June could now see that the colorful box was labeled "PEZ." Eddie popped the little rectangle in his mouth and put the canister back in his pocket. "I don't smoke either," he told her with a wolfish grin. "But a lot of my clients do�it's stress, you know. Personally, I have better things to do with my hands."
"I'm sure you do, Mr. Strong."
"Call me Eddie."
"All right. Please call me June." She was a little flustered by his continued stare at her body. She didn't think Romantek would make her appearance change drastically, and yet, no one had ever looked at her quite so�so intimately as he was. June carefully opened her purse�fighting a little with her white, cotton gloves�to retrieve a tissue, and found a linen handkerchief, a notepad, keys, and a small wallet inside. She touched the linen handkerchief to her nose, more to have something to do with her hands than any other reason. Plucking the notepad out of her purse, she closed the accessory back up and consulted the notes on the pad. As she'd hoped, they were details about the case. Yes! If she’d realized they were there, she might not have needed Fran’s explanation for her presence. Still, it would have looked kind of odd to be rummaging around in her purse during an introduction.
"There are some irregularities in the Grayson case."
"Okay, doll. I can't say as I've ever met a female insurance investigator before, but I hope it's a trend that takes off."
"Er�thank you, I think. Anyway, are you familiar with the case?"
He shrugged and leaned his chair back on two legs. "Only what I've read in the papers and heard on the street. Looks like a cut-and-dried suicide to me." There was a brief pause. "But I'm thinkin' you’re here about those ‘irregularities.’"
"Yes, Mr�I mean, Eddie. That’s why I’m here." She tried to nonchalantly consult her notes. "Mrs. Elizabeth Grayson was found hanged in the living room of her home in Laurel Canyon on August second. The police investigation yielded nothing in particular, and the case was marked closed and the death a suicide. Mr. Hendrickson Grayson, Mrs. Grayson's estranged husband, made a claim against her insurance." June looked up from her notes, checking that Eddie was following along. He was.
"Is suicide covered under insurance? I thought it was a no-go."
"After five years of policy payments, suicide is a valid reason for a payout for a policy like that of the Graysons. Mrs. Grayson's policy had been in effect for more than ten years, so well beyond the necessary five."
Nodding, Eddie gestured for her to go on. Watching his mouth move gently on the lozenge he'd popped in his mouth earlier made June's middle tingly. What would it be like to kiss that rugged mouth?
"Ahem," she said, pulling herself back from that unbidden thought. "Naturally, owing to the Graysons' sizeable fortune, the insurance policy had a large cash value. It's customary for all such high-payout cases to be investigated by Premier's staff before we cut a cheque." June was on a roll, adding some details here and there, making her story more interesting and fun, pulling some data out of her memory of film noire vids from the mid-twentieth century. Hopefully, she wasn't messing up Romantek's script. "I took a look at the files and had several unanswered questions."
"You're new at this, aren't you." It was more a statement than a question.
June wondered where she'd erred. Maybe her notes weren’t as comprehensive as she’d thought "Um�yes. This is my first case."
He nodded and grinned. "It shows. You looked at the police report?"
"Of course." She hadn't seen it at all and thought she ought to. "But I found a few things the police overlooked."
"Tell me about it, kid." He looked serious and interested. June was quite pleased with herself.
"Well�" She consulted her notes again. Thank goodness they were comprehensive. "I spoke to a few of her friends, and they reported that Mrs. Grayson was upbeat and had a positive attitude since separating from her husband and moving to Laurel Canyon. Several said that they interpreted that to mean that she was more than pleased to be out from under Grayson's thumb."
"Maybe she wanted to play the field a little and couldn't with him breathing down her neck."
"Maybe," June agreed. "Or maybe he was a controlling jerk who wouldn't let her have any fun."
Eddie gave her a grin that said "touch�." "Go on."
"Right. Also, she was hung from one of the ceiling beams. They were more than heavy enough to hold her weight, but why would she hang herself in the first place? Mrs. Grayson owned a gun."
Eddie picked up a pencil and rotated it over his knuckles as he thought. "How do you know?"
"It's in her insurance file. We like to know when clients own firearms."
"You saw it yourself?"
"No, but her paperwork says it's a snub-nose .38."
Eddie nodded. "Anything else?"
"The police report had one possible clue: the noose was tied left-handed."
"How did they figure that out?"
"It's wrapped counter clockwise."
"Interesting. Who are the beneficiaries of her estate?"
"Her husband, Hendrickson Grayson, and her son, Arthur Grayson."
"What's the value of the policy?
"Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
Eddie whistled. It was a big sum for 1950.
"That's as much as I could find out. But I'm suspicious."
"I can see that. And maybe you've got something going." He put the pencil down and his amber eyes speared her. It was amazing how they could be so warm one minute and so piercing the next, like shards of golden glass. "Why me?"
Indeed. Why Eddie Strong? There was one thing missing from June's purse that might have made a difference over the course of the investigation, at least when she considered the vids she'd seen. "You have a gun, don't you?"
He grinned, but it didn't reach his eyes. She wouldn't want to meet Eddie Strong in a dark alley, that was for sure. "My rod has come in handy a time or two."
For a brief moment, June surprised herself by thinking of another "rod" Eddie had, but she pushed that unwelcome thought out of her head. Or tried to. It hovered like a miasma of mildly erotic mist at the back of her mind and somewhere near her middle.
June's lapse in concentration didn't seem to register with him, though that smile clung to his lips, so slight and almost smug. "Lots of private dicks have guns, June," he pointed out. "Why choose me?"
"Um�your reputation. You aren't a pussy." The word left her mouth without pause, but June wanted to kick herself as soon as her lips had closed. Ladies in 1950 didn't use that term. It was colloquial in her time, but not in this one. "A pussy cat, that is."
He laughed and June felt it resonate through her ears and in a shiver down her spine. "Of course," he said, obviously aware of her gaffe. "I don't take any crap from anyone, that's a fact."
"Exactly. I need someone strong enough to make an impression."
Still smiling, he eyed her again. "Okay. I'm fifty dollars a day, plus expenses."
Was that a lot? Should she try to haggle? "Premier will pay forty per day, including expenses."
"No dice, toots. It's fifty plus expenses or we're quits."
So much for haggling. "Very well."
"Fran will send you a bill when we're done."
"Fran is your secretary?"
He nodded, casually picking up the pencil again. "Yep. And my bookkeeper and receptionist. She's a gal Friday, you might say."
"Oh. I thought maybe she was your wife." June watched his expression lighten.
"Ha! She'd love to hear you say that. No, Fran's not my wife. I don't have a wife. Is that a problem?"
He seemed a little defensive with that remark. June thought it was something notable for consideration in the future. "No, no problem."
"You married, June? I don't want no thug of an old man to try to pop me one for escorting his woman around town." He grinned again. "Wouldn't want to have to rearrange his face."
June's toes curled. It was amazing how appealing this brutish man could be. He was nothing like twenty-second century men. Certainly not like any she'd dated. Those men were after her money and that was about all. Being an heiress was something envied by many people, but for June, it was also a source of grief. "No rearranging necessary, Mr. Strong."
"Eddie.” She’d specifically asked Romantek to make her single in her dream, just as she was in her real time. “I'm not married."
He nodded and stood. "Anything else?"
That was June's cue to stand as well. She patted her skirt in place, and Eddie's eyes traveled from her hips down to her peep-toed pumps and back up again. This time, his grin was wolfish.
"Since we're two unmarried people, how about we grab a drink somewhere?"
Should she flirt? Well, why not? He was a construct and this was her dream. She could be bold, if she wanted to, within the bounds of the period. As a rule, June didn't drink alcohol, but she wondered if Romantek would put her in position to get drunk. Could you get drunk in a dream? "Sure, Eddie. A drink would be fine."
Putting his fedora back on his head, he nodded toward the door. "After you."
Fran was not at her desk when they left the office, and the cigarette in the ashtray had burned down to a butt and was squashed up into a little white mound. Preceding Eddie down the hall, June had the distinct feeling that he was watching her behind. A bit of devil came over her and she added an extra bit of sway to her walk.
"Keep it up, doll, and we'll put that caboose to use."
She stopped the sway, a little miffed that he was so unsubtle as to actually say something rather than just notice quietly, but it appeared that Eddie Strong wasn't the subtle type. Far from it.
Once they'd left his building, he guided her down the street with a hand on her lower back. They were in downtown Los Angeles, a gritty place with dirty sidewalks but busy with people leaving work. Eddie led her to a big car and opened the door for her. It was a dark blue auto, with a gray cloth seat that spanned the entire front. There was a steering wheel and a stick shift on the wheel post.
Eddie patted her bottom as she bent to get into the vehicle. June shot him a dirty look but didn't otherwise protest. Although she didn't want to admit it to Eddie, or even to herself, she rather liked his physical attention. At first it had rankled because it was a little patronizing, but it was growing on her.
June sat as a passenger, clutching her purse tightly, nearly white knuckled, while Eddie drove them out of the downtown corridor and onto a highway. There were hundreds of cars, all driven by a lone person. Some had passengers; others were only carrying one occupant. The entire experience terrified June. Self-drive cars were safe. These contraptions, human-operated, were dangerous and people were killed or seriously injured in them.
Of course, she rationalized, she was in a dream. Nothing could harm her in real life while she was here. That made her relax a bit, but overall, the experience was harrowing. She was thrilled when they veered off the highway and onto a street, coming to a stop in front of a cream stucco building with a neon sign above. The sign said, "The Hollywood Brown Derby." Was he taking her to drinks at a clothing company? Was that how one socialized in 1950? That wasn't how she remembered the entertainment vids.
"Best Manhattans in L.A.," Eddie told her.
Whatever that was. Manhattan was an island south of Toronto, as far as she was concerned, and they certainly hadn't traveled across the whole continent. Wisely keeping her mouth shut, June waited for Eddie to open the auto door for her�the mechanism was so old-fashioned�and she gracefully slid out of the seat. He guided her down a long, canopied portico, through the wide doors of the building and into a darkened interior.
The place smelled of tobacco, and there were wooden tables throughout, in neat rows. The walls were lined with caricatures of people�famous people, she guessed, though none that she recognized from vids. Maybe somewhere along the walls was a picture of Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, or Katharine Hepburn.
It was packed. Waiters in dark pants and crisp white shirts bustled about, serving drinks and food. No clothing for sale here. Music played gently over loud speakers. The singer was singing about "buttons and bows."
At the back of the room was a long bar. June knew that bars were places where you got drinks; she wasn't such a teetotaler that she hadn't ever been to a bar before. Synthehol was common enough.
A man in a tuxedo approached them as they paused a few feet into the big room. He looked at Eddie and barely spared a glance for June. "Table for two, sir?"
"Very good, Mr. Strong. I think your usual table is open. If you'll follow me?"
The place was noisy, though no one raised their voice. Most ate, drank, talked and laughed in a civilized, refined manner. About half of them seemed to smoke, more men than women. June followed Harry down the aisle toward a table not far from the bar. The banquette was leather-covered, the table a sturdy brown wood. Rare Australian wood was the only wood she'd ever known first-person, but this had a nicer grain and shined with a thick coating of shellac. Ever since the environmental shut down of tree harvesting in North America in the twenty-first century, the only wood used for furniture was imported. The best was from Australia. This table, however, was probably the original North American stuff. June touched it reverently.
She slid into the booth and put her purse aside as she watched Eddie slip in opposite her. He put his hat on the seat next to him. For a moment, June wondered if she was supposed to take her hat off, too, but she noticed that the other ladies in the room still wore theirs, so she didn't fuss with it. She had no idea what it looked like�they hadn't passed a mirror�but it felt small and light. Reaching up, she patted it nonchalantly, as though making sure it remained in place. It was some sort of stiffened fabric, perhaps felt, with a slightly dome-shaped crown and a small, decorative brim. There was a bit of something lacy around the edges, very likely a net veil. Her suit was dark blue; perhaps the hat was, too. It would have to remain a mystery for the time-being. But those gloves had to go. She was tired of not being able to actually feel anything well. Besides, other ladies in the room had removed theirs in order to eat.
"You look as good as a portrait of Madison, June," Eddie told her, obviously aware of her self-conscious perusal of her hat.
"Portrait of whom?"
He chuckled. "On a $5,000 bill. Madison�you know, the former president?"
"Oh. Thank you."
The waiter approached. He was a non-descript fellow, balding, with a comb-over of gray hair. He gave Eddie a polite smile. "Good evening, Mr. Strong. Will you have the usual?"
"Yeah. And one for the lady."
"Very good, sir." Without so much as looking at June, the waiter went off to fill Eddie's order.
June was miffed, but tried to tamp it down. She kept telling herself that her role was different in this place and time. Her methods of getting what she wanted would have to be more subtle and wiley. In this century, one paved the way with flirtation and smiles.
They waited in silence. Eddie seemed perfectly happy to pop another PEZ and ruminate as he lounged back in the seat with his arms spread across it. His eyes never left her.
June, on the other hand, was soaking it all in. Romantek had left no detail unaccounted for. All the people looked so very perfect for the setting. One gentleman, dining alone, caught her eye with a pleasant smile. He was maybe thirty, with thick, dark hair and shining blue eyes. His suit was impeccable, perfectly tailored, with white cuffs barely peeking out from the sleeves. Unlike Eddie, he was cinema-handsome. They were in Hollywood, if the restaurant's sign could be believed, and that was where actors worked and socialized, at least at that time. Maybe this was a famous actor. The man winked at her. Winked!
She smiled back and tried a wink herself. He nodded a friendly hello. June did likewise. He lifted his glass, a tall one with ice, some clear liquid, and a wedge of lime floating in it. It was a silent toast. June hadn't received her cocktail yet, but she turned her smile up a notch.
Then she realized that Eddie had stiffened across from her. After a moment, his shoulders softened, and his voice was nonchalant when he asked, "He puttin' the make on you?"
"The make?" There was so much from this time that she didn’t know!
"You got eyes for that character?"
"I was�he was�we were just being friendly."
Eddie was tense again, and he gave the other man a death stare. "I've got a mind to pin that guy to the wall."
The big man was behaving very possessively. Well, maybe protectively. Protective wasn’t so bad, but she thought his threat of violence was more than the situation warranted. "Eddie!"
The stranger accepted Eddie's dirty look with grace and a smile, but stood up and left.
June pouted. "You chased him off."
"What's he to you?"
"Nothing. I was having fun." A very tall man strolled by and June's eyes were drawn to him. He was more handsome than anyone she'd seen before. His face was perfect, right down to a cleft in his chin, and, when he smiled at her open stare, there were dimples in his cheeks. This was like being at an amusement park,