The Real Thing by Tracy Fells
We haven’t seen another vehicle in over seventy miles. The road ahead shimmers, the glowing orange hills float on the horizon but don’t get any closer, taunting us as we drive further into the desert. My eyelids droop. When my head falls forward I jolt awake, but only for a second and then I’m falling again. The car’s interior is cool, locking out the blistering heat of the midday sun. As I slip into sleep I wonder why anyone would choose to live out here. And why my firm insisted I take the pool car when they could have organised a flight and saved me two days of this moonscape hell.
‘Destination,’ a male voice announces from the dashboard. I’d selected a British accent; they sound like they’re in control. If you’re going to be transported almost a thousand miles by a self-driving machine then you want to feel safe.
‘Repeat,’ I say.
The car is slowing, rolling to a stop. ‘We have arrived at our destination,’ it states, then is silent.
When I step outside the temperature difference feels like a slap, solid and stinging. I must get into the shade, indoors, before I overheat. I could write my name in the thick yellow dust coating the car’s exterior. Grit sticks to my mascara, carried on the wind that cuts through this valley without mercy. Again, I think, why would anyone build a home in the desert? Twisting round I look for my client. He should be here to greet me. The monotone landscape is devoid of any obvious buildings. A mound of rocks, twice my height, are the only visible shelter, and as I walk towards them I realise they have been shaped into contours, rising and falling like waves. With my hand shading the glare I see these rocks are a dwelling, fronted by a concave wall of tinted glass. One panel slides back, to reveal a woman. Her mouth struggles into a smile.
‘Welcome, Mary-Beth of Talbot and Finch. I am Elaine, Jeremiah Stoner’s housekeeper. Do you have any luggage, honey?’ she asks. I note her accent is mid-western and wonder if my client had a specific reason for this selection.
‘Sorry, I left my bag in the car.’
‘No problem, I will collect it shortly. Let me take you through – Jerry is expecting you.’
I have been sent here to complete a pre-probate assessment of Jeremiah Stoner’s assets. He is a collector of curiosities, which he believes to be of some value. The housekeeper’s casual familiarity and the disrespectful use of her employer’s shortened name unnerves me. Something is wrong here. In the blinding sunlight I had mistaken Elaine for a real woman. Up close and inside the, thankfully, air-conditioned rock cavern, I can see this is a series 7. An early model, which I surmise is no longer performing at its original and optimal settings in this harsh environment. Most of these types were given biblical names such as Eve, or Rachel, which appealed to the typical white middle-aged men that bought them. Elaine is an unusual choice, possibly pre-selected by Stoner for an extra cost. The synthetic skin is a pallid grey, the cropped black hair clearly a wig and an electronic vein pulsates in its neck. This is supposed to mimic life, but there is a fault with the timing, an irregularity, and gives the housekeeper the appearance of a nervous tic. Living alone, hundreds of miles from the nearest town, is Stoner aware of his housekeeper’s deterioration? More worryingly, has he been complicit in the removal of protocols for this appliance? This is all outside my remit and I must focus on completing the assessment as quickly as possible. Abel Finch, my boss, is counting on me to do a ‘good job.’
Light on my feet, ‘like a cat’ my mother was fond of saying, I had lingered in the corridor outside the second floor restroom to listen in, as the senior partner discussed the Stoner contract with his assistant.
‘Get Abel to send his junior,’ said Talbot, his Texan vowels rising above the gushing water.
‘Mary-Beth? Yeah, I guess it’s a low risk assignment.’
‘Low risk. Low value. No point in investing time or money on a madman camped in the desert.’ The water stopped. Talbot lowered his voice, but my hearing was acute. ‘By land, not air, no unnecessary costs. Make that clear when Mary-Beth is instructed. No motels neither.’
The click of their shoes moved towards the door and I hurried away, making it to the stairwell before the two men passed by. Within an hour Abel Finch had called me into his office to ‘download’ (he always laughed when he said this) my itinerary.
When I think back to Abel Finch’s office, standing in front of his desk, accepting the memory plug, I was certain he had said: ‘Do a good job, Mary-Beth.’ Yes, I remember that phrasing exactly.
Within ninety minutes I had packed an overnight bag from my basement apartment, logged out the pool car and keyed Stoner’s address into the Sat Nav. Within three hours we were heading for the highway. By ‘we’ I meant myself and the automated vehicle carrying me. Silly really, but it’s something we all do without thinking - anthropomorphise objects and tools.
‘I imagine you want to get straight on with the assessment.’ Stoner waves me ahead, down a flight of stone steps. The passage is well-lit and maintained at a constant temperature of fifteen degrees, which makes me shiver. ‘My collection is secure underground,’ he adds as we approach a steel door with a keypad lock. ‘Don’t trust retinal scans or fingerprints.’ He types in a series of numbers and characters at speed. I look away as I find it too easy to remember such primitive passwords.
I show him my picture and professional ID stored on my mobile. ‘Your housekeeper didn’t ask for confirmation, but I’m Mary-Beth from Talbot and Finch.’
This time he waves away my phone dismissively. His trembling hands are freckled with brown spots. ‘No need for all that. We don’t get many folks passing through out here and none that want to stop.’
The metal door, ten inches thick, opens into a rectangular room with alcoves cut into the walls. Each alcove glows with warm golden light from below. The older man’s loose-fitting moccasins slap on the concrete floor as he shuffles forward, then waits for me to follow. He can’t quite straighten up to look me in the eye, but Stoner launches into his inventory, talking through the objects with the practised skill of a museum tour guide. He speaks clearly and slowly, and I hear pride. This collection is important to him. I nod along, without interrupting, as I can seek additional information before concluding the assessment. He gives a dollar amount for each item, but my valuation will be completed independently, and cross-checked, once I have returned to the office. In my experience, a client, particularly an older one, will over-estimate the value of their possessions and Stoner is no exception.
There is one other exit out of the basement, a further metal door, leading to racks of underground storage housing hundreds more objects. Elaine will provide me with a detailed list to assist with the assessment. He tells me this and adds, ‘Only the most precious items are displayed in this room.’ I interpret ‘precious’ to mean valuable.
Stoner is a fantasist. As his tour reaches the final alcove I’m certain this man has been conned out of thousands of dollars. I have seen a sealed amphora of wine, saved from the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, fossilised bread from the tomb of Tutankhamen and a crystal tumbler from which Abraham Lincoln once sipped his whiskey (with the imprint of the president’s thumb still intact).
‘Mary-Beth.’ He calls my attention to the final object. ‘Here is the pièce de résistance, and it’s priceless.’
‘A bottle of cola?’ I recognise the distinctive shape, the red and white label and the liquorice black contents. No longer available but everyone still remembers The Real Thing.
‘Not just any bottle,’ says Stoner. ‘This is a plastic bottle, the last one in existence.’
‘Goodness,’ I answer, anticipating this is the response he’s expecting. ‘Do you have the appropriate licence to keep this?’
‘Of course. Besides, I would never attempt to dispose of it.’
We stand together, side by side, to silently appraise the bottle on its golden plinth. If the bottle’s material is confirmed as obsolete plastic then at least one item in his collection will be genuine. Stoner has exaggerated the cola bottle’s value, it is not without a price. However, it could be worth several million dollars making his estate worthy of the time my firm has invested in this trip. Abel Finch will be pleased with my work.
‘I can’t comply with your request,’ I say as gently as possible. We are above ground once more, Stoner has taken the couch opposite my straight-backed chair. Beyond the window the desert sky is merging into the mountain range, painting the landscape rose pink. Elaine returns with a single glass of iced tea, which is placed on the table in front of my client. The housekeeper sits beside him, hand resting on the man’s knee.
‘Why not? All I want is for Elaine to be my executor and sole beneficiary. When I’m gone I want her to stay on, to maintain my collection and live out her days without fear of being recycled or worse.’ Stoner’s words fracture as he speaks.
I don’t want to be cruel, but neither can I indulge his fantasies. ‘It’s impossible,’ I answer, ‘for any non-sentient to own property.’
‘Elaine has my surname. We are legally married. My wife – my first wife that is – chose the name and adjusted Elaine’s settings before her passing. She’s with the Lord now.’ He rubs under his eye. ‘My wife intended Elaine to become my carer, as I grew older, but she’s become so much more …’
I fidget on the wooden chair, not certain I want to hear much more of his perversions.
‘I hope we have many years left together, but I want to sort this now so I know she’ll be secure after I’m gone. Elaine is my companion. We love each other.’ He lifts and kisses the housekeeper’s hand. I notice that there is a digit missing, another sign of the machine’s dilapidation.
The alarm on my phone is trilling. It throbs inside my jacket pocket, the nagging beeps growing louder.
Elaine smiles at me. ‘Oh honey, I think it must be time for your nap.’
Jabbing at the phone I mute the alarm. ‘I slept in the car.’
‘Clearly, you need to power down a bit longer. What was your firm thinking, making you drive all this way?’ Elaine nudges Stoner. ‘Come on, Jerry darling, let Mary-Beth take the couch for an hour or two. She needs to recharge.’
He obeys and creaks to his feet. Elaine plumps a cushion, placing it like a pillow for my head. All I want to do is lie down and sleep. My eyelids are half-mast, my legs shake as I swing them up onto the couch and sink back.
‘There you go, honey. Now you can dream of electric sheep.’
I get the reference since I majored in late twentieth century culture. Weakly, I try to push up onto my elbows but my energy levels have dropped way too low. ‘What are you insinuating?’ Then I laugh, joke out loud, ‘And why am I arguing with a machine?’
‘Rest now and we can talk later. Then I think you will see the logic of Jerry’s request.’ Elaine whispers into my ear, her words hum inside my head. ‘I can make sure of that, honey, while you sleep.’
I want to protest, but fatigue has wiped me. All I can do is mumble, ‘I remember my mother.’
‘We all have those memories,’ says Elaine. ‘In mine she scolds me for being too curious, and killing the cat.’
‘Be kind, Elaine. The poor thing doesn’t know.’ Stoner’s voice sounds distant.
I try to clutch at the housekeeper but it moves too quickly, out of reach.
‘We would have thought you real if you had turned up calling yourself Donald or George and throwing your weight around. Mary-Beth is a lovely name, so feminine and homely, but that gives you away. You sure are a whole deal more sophisticated, with your clever words and smart suit, but we are the same. Neither of us is real. There are no real women left, honey.’
‘Not anywhere,’ says Jeremiah Stoner at the edge of consciousness. ‘And that’s the Lord’s truth.’
My mother is calling my name. I jump down from the garden wall to land on the balls of my feet without stumbling. She laughs. ‘Goodness, Mary-Beth, you’re so light on your feet. Just like a cat.’