by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
Originally published in Way of the Laser (2020)
Reprinted in the collection Where You Linger & Other Stories
The villain of this story knew what it was to die. She died every day. Power down. Her vision a pinpoint, then nonexistent. This time was no different. The doctors took her pulse on the ER stretcher and pronounced her dead on arrival.
In the morgue, the villain of this story removed her face. She returned it to its owner, a woman who signed herself into the morgue under one of the villain’s many names. The villain gave the woman a pill. The villain stayed with her and coached her through the fading light. “You’ll be okay,” she repeated to the woman. “I do this every day.”
Once the woman was gone, the villain signed herself out. She left through the morgue’s front doors. She let the cameras see her. They would not know her true face for the ghost it portrayed.
Camille Maxwell had one rule: she didn’t mix love and work. When her boyfriend Kingsley slunk into her office Monday morning with a ring box packed full of microscopic surveillance bugs, Camille shook her head.
“You know I don’t do conflicts of interest,” she said, snapping the ring box shut but sliding it into her desk drawer. “You’ll win no favors from me.”
Kingsley had dressed in Camille’s favorite collared brown jacket and muted red sweater, the black jeans that hugged his legs. He sat in her client chair. “Please,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep last night. She’s after me—I know it.”
Camille Maxwell knew to whom he referred: a rich man’s bogeywoman. All the tech CEOs discussed her in hushed voices at the poker nights Kingsley dragged Camille to once a month. Camille hated poker, but she loved taking Kingsley’s friends for their money. After all, she needed it more than they did.
“She’s not real,” Camille said. “Your dumb friends are just bad people.”
Robin Hood was a bogeywoman and a vast conspiracy. Over the last year, six tech firms had been sued to pieces by the families of various dead women. The women had all died in work accidents. The families had won each case, and online media was rife with takedowns of the powerful men whose lax safety standards cost people their lives. Instead of admitting that they didn’t give two shits about their workers and were now paying for their callousness, Kingsley’s friends had decided that the women were in league with one another, and that some other woman—Robin Hood—was the organizer behind it all.
Camille laughed. “I thought you were beyond all this. What made you change your mind?”
Kingsley reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter. He slid it across the desk. Camille picked it up. The return address seemed fake: Nottingham Lane. No name, but when Camille unfolded the letter from its envelope, she saw that the writer had indeed signed it Robin Hood.
They probably call you a nice guy. Maybe you really love the people you love. That girlfriend of yours—she must see something in you. She knows the you that’s kept hidden from the rest of the world. Your parents probably love you. They’re probably proud. You may look at yourself in the mirror every morning and think that if these people see something in you… But I know you, Ralph Kingsley Gibson, beyond the secrets you keep from her. Beyond the face you show the world.
“This is clearly a prank,” Camille said, but she didn’t re-fold the letter. “Your so-called friends are messing with you.”
“Maybe,” Kingsley said. “Maybe not.”
Camille had one rule. She’d broken it before, most notably when she had pushed the then-married billionaire against her old, unused filing cabinet. Camille had always struggled with tossing out old things. She cupped her hand between his legs. He sucked the breath from her. She hadn’t been touched by anyone in a long time. Kingsley’s friends accused her of wanting his money, but more than that, she wanted to remember that she was a person in the world capable of lust and, later, love. Kingsley was tender and rough in turns, and he had not spoken ill of his cheating wife even as he paid Camille to gather the evidence. She needs someone who can give her more time than I give her, he told Camille. I don’t blame her for that. But I need to protect my business in the divorce. People depend on me. After they made each other come, they lay naked on the cold tile floor of Camille’s office. Camille promised Kingsley that she would never depend on him. He had made no such promise in return.
“You know I don’t do this,” Camille said.
“You know you do,” Kingsley said. “I’ll pay you double what you’d ask someone off the street.”
Camille sighed. She woke her computer. She opened her standard contract template and edited the numbers. She bounced it over to his phone.
“Sign it,” she said. “Then we’ll talk.”
Kingsley leaned over to try to kiss her, but she moved her face so his lips landed against her cheek.
“I won’t fuck you until it’s finished,” she said. “You’ll just have to take comfort in one of those PlayMatez dolls or something. I’m sure Langston would cut you a serious deal.”
“You and your rules,” he said.
“Just sign the contract,” she said. He smelled like a forest of artificial pine trees. It would be difficult to resist his body, but Camille was glad for an excuse to keep her from touching him. Her rules served one purpose, after all: to align the interests of her head with the itch of her heart.
Three months prior, when Camille first found Sadie Miller’s lawsuit paperwork, she told herself she had not been snooping. She was not the kind of woman who should be invited into a lover’s home. She made her living by sticking her nose where it didn’t belong, and it was a habit that was hard to break.
As Camille read, she felt faint. An anger rose up from her belly to her throat. “What the fuck?” she said out loud. She pulled her scanner from her pocket and swiped it against the sensor on the underside of her arm: all levels normal. It was not internal, then, this rage. No rise in blood pressure. No surplus of testosterone. She read on.
She had not thought that Kingsley was a saint, far from it. But she hadn’t thought that his misdeeds would feel so personal. It wasn’t just that the ex-employee had sued Kingsley for the lung cancer she developed working on the car parts in his factory. It wasn’t that he had hid the lawsuit from Camille; there was so much that the two hid from one another. It was the line at the bottom that got to her: in addition to Ms. Miller’s cancer, Ms. Miller has suffered from hormonal disturbances believed to be influenced by the proprietary chemical R used in your electric automobiles.
Camille scanned herself again. She opened up her phone and looked at the detailed results: her own unbalanced hormones, the levels shifting wildly from month to month. She recalled the doctor who told her that no one knew why so many women were suffering, and maybe some unknown chemicals in our food or water was to blame.
She remembered telling Kingsley about the initial diagnosis, how she wished that companies would take better care to ensure that their products were safe for consumers. He had agreed with her, had assured her that consumer safety was one of his goals. There on the floor of Kingsley’ bedroom, Camille laughed until she cried.
Camille googled the address on the letter Kingsley gave her. As she expected, the letter’s writer had made it up. The writer had slipped the letter beneath the door of Kingsley’s modern house right outside the city, no small feat considering his extensive security system. Camille had installed three cameras on his property and a doorbell that recorded all visitors. Camille logged into the security footage; the letter writer had cloaked themself in all black baggy clothes and a ski mask. They’d walked from some location down the road. Camille would find no answers in this footage, and when she searched her boyfriend’s grounds for left behind clues, she came up empty-handed.
Kingsley watched her work from his porch. Camille had commanded him to stay there, and he was good at following her orders. Camille liked that about their sex life, but outside of the bedroom, she tried not to boss him around, even if he didn’t seem to mind.
“She left nothing?” he said. “Not even a footprint?”
Camille shrugged. “Your grass is so fake, there’s not a lot of places they could leave a trace.”
“You still don’t believe me,” he said.
“I believe that your friends are some sick fucks,” she said. She snapped a few more pictures of the yard with her phone. “Who’d you piss off?”
“You, apparently,” he said.
“I rarely believe anyone.” Camille slid her phone into her pocket. “I wouldn’t take it personally.”
“Would you like to come in?” Kingsley said.
“I’ve got a case to finish,” she said, backing out of his yard to the driveway where she’d parked her old Kia with the manual locks. “Business before boyfriends.”
“I’m ignoring the plural,” he called out to her, but he was smiling. It was a game to him, like business, like that Susie Miller’s life had been, like the lives of all the people who were not him.
When she first began, the villain of this story searched the news for keywords like lawsuit, workplace injury, occupational cancer. She reached out to these women. Many of them turned her down. But then one would agree; they would give her their work badge, and their face.
The villain of this story went to the places those women worked. Outside the aim of security cameras, she set her fingers free; they scurried inside and left their own cameras behind. The villain of this story took the badge and the face and reported to work like it was any other day.
Coworkers rarely noticed. In the types of joyless workplaces run by people with too much money, people knew your name and the bare facts of your life, but the people you toiled beside ached in the body so badly they were unable to see into you the way you needed someone to see into you. The villain of this story made small talk. She laughed like the woman laughed. She looked like the woman looked. If she bypassed questions posed by work friends, if she forgot the name of their dog, then it was because she was tired, so tired, and after all, everyone knew she’d been leaving work during lunch for those appointments.
The villain of this story sent something else inside with her cameras: a trap. As the machinery came crashing down upon her, she screamed the way the woman screamed.
If Camille was going to take the case seriously, she would need to look into the cases Kingsley’s friends claimed were enacted by the villain called Robin Hood. At least four of his friends had been victims, according to their poker stories, of workers’ families suing them for deadly freak workplace accidents. Camille searched online for the cases, but most of them were hushed up to the best of the corporations’ abilities. The articles claimed the cases had been settled out of court, the monetary sums provided to the families of the dead women unknown.
Camille made a lunch date with one of Kingsley’s friends under Kingsley’s name. She parked far away from the restaurant; she didn’t want his friends to know her beyond what she chose to tell them. She slid into the seat across a small round table from Langston Eastwood. He looked up from the menu and frowned.
“Camille, what a surprise,” he said. “Where’s Kingsley?”
“It’s just me, I’m afraid,” she said. Langston had ordered two glasses of expensive French chardonnay. Camille took a sip.
“I don’t understand,” Langston said. “I’m not disappointed to see you, of course. But is Kingsley okay?”
“I’m investigating Robin Hood.” It made her feel stupid to say it. “If I can prove her existence. If I can locate her. It would be helpful to you and yours, yes? I’m going to ask you to cooperate with me, and I’m going to hope that you choose to do so.” The waiter appeared, and Camille paused to order. “More of this, please.” She touched the rim of her glass. “And a blue dry-aged Kobe ribeye with the spot prawns, and cheese platter to start.”
Langston smirked as he handed the waiter his menu. “I’ll have the same, but make mine medium-rare.” He clinked his wine glass against Camille’s. “To hearty appetites.”
“To rich dinner dates who believe in paying for a lady’s meals,” Camille said. “Now tell me about the case you think was orchestrated by Robin Hood.”
It happened like this: a woman approached the villain of this story in a coffee shop. The villain of this story wasn’t drinking coffee; she didn’t drink coffee, didn’t eat bagels, but it was built into her to desire the places her mother loved. The woman who approached the villain of this story wore a hospital bracelet and a curly-haired wig. The villain smelled on her what she smelled on the other women: desperation and death.
“I’ve tried to get them to pay for the chemo,” the woman said. “But they refuse to admit that it’s the factory’s fault.”
This part of the story was the same every time. The villain listened. She nodded. She patted the sick woman on the back. The woman was dying. The family would drown under the debt. The villain would make sure that didn’t happen, would orchestrate a provable death, would find a way for the family to move forward with a clean slate.
The villain did her deeds: she unattached her fingers and sent them crawling. She installed her cameras. She planted her bugs. She went in the next day wearing the woman’s face. She went to work supervising the assemblies. But it was not the same. Across the assembly belts, there weren’t car parts or 3D-printed building materials or metal robot arms that would eventually be pieced together by a whole team of robots and their human supervisors. The assembly belt carried women with skin stretched across bodies that were part metal, part flesh, and they blinked at the villain as they rolled past, observant but silent, their voice boxes not yet activated. What had this woman’s job been again? The villain paused. She was to inspect the teeth. She missed the first who rolled by, and the second. When the third came, she shook herself back into her body and stuck her fingers between the PlayMate’s lips, pulled them back, and glanced at the teeth as the woman below her stared with furrowed brows at the villain, her inspector. How frightened she must be. How confused. For one moment, just one moment, the villain let her true face show. Then she recovered, remembered the mission, and became once more the woman who had numbed herself to this task.
Over the next week, Camille Maxwell met with each of Kingsley’s four friends over lunches for which they paid. She picked their lies from truth like crab meat from the shell. She asked for the security footage from the accidents as well as any extra footage the courts had provided; several of the women had recordings from their own cameras, a standard occurrence since the age of #metoo.
The results yielded no additional information. The workers had indeed suffered freak accidents; there was no denying it. Most of the factories in which these women worked hired humans to oversee the inexpensive robots they used for manual labor. Women were a popular choice; they cost less to employ than their male counterparts. The private footage was no different. Camille checked her levels as she worked. Two hours in, her blood sugar blinked low on her sensor. She went into her office kitchen for a glass of orange juice and a handful of peanuts.
When she returned, the autoplay had moved to the last factory’s footage, the footage from Langston’s place. Camille had saved it for the end. Langston’s business creeped her out more than the others; he made people. They were mostly for erotic purposes. They were, she was told, the best of their kind: the PlayMatez brand. Torsos rolled across assembly belts in the background. The dead woman, the victim, strolled into the factory. She took her place at the inspection platform, changing shifts with the previous worker. They nodded to one another as they passed. She stopped as the first body rolled by. Then, there—a glitch in the video. Camille paused the recording.
It might have been imperceptible to someone unversed in deception, but to Camille the glitch stood out. She frowned. She rewound the feed. It glitched again. She opened up the official factory feed. It had a glitch in the same place. Camille logged into the Death+; she had an account from her few cases that involved suicides. It was a good place to look for morbid videos posted by people who accidentally caught footage. She searched through the posts tagged #factory. Sure enough, there it was; a woman from a prior shift had left her surveillance running. She’d caught the victim’s death. And there, minutes before the accident, where the previous videos had glitched, was something strange: the victim’s face changed.
The billionaires were right; there was a Robin Hood, only she was more involved in the process than even they had believed.
The villain of this story scrubbed the video feeds before returning the victim’s footage and a backup of the factory’s to the victim’s family. She had been sloppy. Her mother would have chastised her, punished her, but for the villain of this story, the mistake was intriguing. It was almost human, the reaction she had felt to the assembly line women who looked so much like she looked. She wished that she could help them—could save them from their programming. And yet she understood that she owed her existence to them, to the technology that had led to her own creation.
The villain’s mother had once worked for PlayMatez. She had seen the factories, had worked for a man like Langston Eastwood. She had helped build the parts. The woman’s name had been Robin, not Hood—that was silly, the fancy of men who likened themselves to kings of mythology—but Underwood. The thing was—the villain knew, when she went in to the factory, what she would see on those assembly lines. She understood in the most rational parts of her programming. But it had struck her anyway.
No one was immune to pain. No one was immune to mistakes.
Camille grinned at her finding: a woman’s face. Sometimes, when working a case, she had one of these moments when she felt certain of her success, when the path to truth became clear. She felt a lightness in her belly. On her screen, in the Death+ video, she was staring at the face of a woman who was not where she was supposed to be. Camille pulled the scanner from her pocket and took a reading; her blood sugar was dropping. She opened the bag of peanuts that she kept in her pocket and poured them all into her throat. Her body was needy today—hungry. She tossed the trash at the can and missed, but she didn’t dare stop for the amount of time it would take for her to correct the missed aim. She snipped the photo of the woman’s face. She plugged it into an image search. One result came back, an archive from the PlayMatez employee database: the woman’s name was Robin Underwood.
Every time that the villain of this story looked in a mirror, she saw her mother’s face. Robin had built her in her image, like the most narcissistic of gods. Robin II, the villain called herself, though she did not ponder the implication that she was second to the woman who had been made fully of flesh, no plastic parts, no manufactured organs.
Robin II had been created for this one purpose: to ensure that fewer women suffered without recourse. Robin Underwood had intended, she told Robin II, to build more, to start a whole movement. But the maker had perished before she finished her creations. Occupational cancer, only Robin Underwood had not worked in the factory when she realized that she was sick. Robin II could not profit from her death. So Robin II did the work for which she built, woman by woman, and tried not to remember the grand promises that her mother had made even as, every day, Robin II wore her face.
Robin Underwood was dead. Camille frowned at the online obituary. She had died of cancer five years previous.
Camille called Langston Eastwood. “Does the name Robin Underwood mean anything to you?”
“It’s familiar,” Langston said. “Hold up.” His voice went far away, like she was on speaker. “Oh, yeah, she was a piece of work. Fired. Broke into headquarters and stole some files. Published them, if I recall correctly. It was only a small headache for us, but of course we had to file a restraining order.”
“What files?” Camille said.
“Fancied herself a social justice warrior or something,” he said. “She took some schematics on the dolls. Tried to make a big deal out of the forced obsolescence. Thought people would give a shit. But of course every appliance manufacturer has been doing that for a while.”
“Appliance manufacturer,” Camille muttered.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you,” he said.
“Do you know how Robin died?”
“She died?” Langston said.
“Thanks for your time,” Camille said. She dropped the phone onto her desk and scanned herself. She wished the anger had a bodily cause, something she could fix. She wished it didn’t creep into her once an hour. She wished that she had a way to discharge it, a way to be free.
As soon as Kingsley opened his door, Camille jumped onto him, knowing that he was strong enough to hold her and dexterous enough to catch her.
“This is against the rules,” he whispered, and she pressed her lips into his to shut him up.
He backed them to the wall and pressed her against it. She unlatched her legs and undid his belt. She slid his jeans off. She ducked down and around him and pushed him against the wall. She took him into her mouth. She moved on him like she wanted to swallow him whole. She did want to; she wanted to take a piece of him that he could never get back. When he came, she kept going until he pushed her away, shaking in his sensitivity. He offered to make her come, but that wasn’t the point, was it? She didn’t want to open up to him. He was a nice guy, like Robin Hood had said in the letter, but the world was full of nice guys who did terrible things.
When she went to his bathroom to wash him off her face, she planted one of her bugs. One of the ones he gave her. She had no real reason to do it. But maybe, just maybe, she would catch something useful.
It wasn’t difficult to find the woman who had stolen Robin Underwood’s face; she lived in the unused warehouse that Langston Eastwood’s restraining order listed as one of her known addresses. The warehouse had been used, for a time, as an unofficial homeless shelter for the damaged PlayMatez, dolls whose programming malfunctioned. At first, the company didn’t worry much about letting them roam the streets. Then, once Robin Underwood released the documentation, the company rounded up the damaged and scrapped them for parts. The warehouse was condemned by the city, but no one cared to clean it up; it had too much of a past for that.
Camille ducked under a damaged door. She made her way through the rubble. She found Robin II charging in a patch of sun that leaked through a broken window. She crouched beside the woman; there was only one way she could have stolen the face of Robin Underwood: she too was a doll.
“I know who you are,” Camille said.
Robin II startled awake. “Don’t turn me in,” she said. “I just needed a place to sleep. I got kicked out of my housing a while back. You understand, don’t you?”
“You’re not human,” Camille said.
“I’m just a homeless woman,” Robin II said. “Please, they’ll put me in jail.”
“You’re the one who’s framing companies,” Camille said. “All the women who have died in those accidents? They filed failed medical claims against the company first. All for occupational cancer. You helped them.”
Robin II shook her head. “You’ve got the wrong person.”
“I mean, I understand that they still died. They were so sick. But you helped their families.”
Robin II struggled to her feet. She hovered over Camille, who continued to kneel. “Who are you? Why are you here?”
Camille pulled from her bag the papers she’d photocopied from Kingsley’s files; the claims by the woman who had once sued him. “I want to help you help this woman.”
Robin II took the papers. “Do you know her?”
Camille shook her head. “I don’t.”
Robin II folded the papers and pocketed them. “Do you know when they discovered that asbestos causes cancer?” Robin II asked. “1935. You’d think they would have had enough time to find something else to use in when manufacturing their building materials and toys and, yes, precious cars.” Robin II helped Camille to stand. “I know you. You’re his girlfriend.”
“I am,” Camille said. “I have access to the homes of several other CEOs. I have expensive bugs. I can help you, too.”
“What did he do to you?” Robin II asked.
“He loved me,” Camille said. “He didn’t do anything wrong.”
Robin II thought a moment. She scanned her records for Camille’s name, her face; she seemed trustworthy, and her digital footprint didn’t contradict the original assessment. Robin II scanned the sensor tucked into the skin at the back of her arm; her blood pressure was not high, like a liar’s might be, and Robin II understood through the hormonal composition of her body that she was hurting from the inside out. Even if the man loved her, he could not heal her from there.
“Why do you hate him?” Robin II said.
“Why did you write that letter?” Camille said.
“What letter?” Robin asked. “I didn’t write any letter.”
Camille’s chest seized; Robin II felt Camille’s heart palpitate. She had been right all along; the letter was a prank.
Two weeks later, one of Kingsley’s self-driving cars killed a woman crossing at the crosswalk. Camille didn’t hear from Kingsley for a full week except when she listened in to the sound of his crying in his bathroom, until he showed up at her house with his bags packed.
“I’m moving on to a new venture,” he said. “I’m stepping down from the company. It’s what the investors want.”
“Where are you going?” Camille said.
“For now? Florida. To begin training volunteers. We’re going up, Camille. New World, Inc.”
“Going up?” Camille looked at the sky. She groaned. It had been a long-shot dream of his for a while. “Space travel, you mean.”
“Mars,” he said. “Come with me. It’s the future, Camille. It’s a fresh start.”
“This is the fucking future, Kingsley. I’m moving forward.” she says. “Where you’re going? That’s the goddamn past.”
When he went in to kiss her, she moved away. It didn’t matter if there was a rule or not; she didn’t want to touch him ever again. Later, she would read about the funding for his missions, how he claimed that Mars was a bi-partisan issue even as he accepted money exclusively from religious lobbies who longed to create their own non-secular societies. If she had gone with him, she would have been stuck in a world that didn’t want her. Would he have even told her?
After he left, Camille opened the door to her guest bedroom. “He’s gone,” she told Robin II. “Gone for good.”
Robin II lay across the bed that Camille had given her. Out of the darkness, she heard Camille’s voice. It pulled on her. She rose to the surface of her body. She opened her eyes. She came back to life.