The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 4: Family…

Walking for leisure has become a new pastime of mine in these early mornings. It’s just six thirty and the morning dew is still fresh, last night’s sprinkles still on the concrete, there’s a refreshing, relaxing atmosphere to a sunrise stroll before work.

Just one month ago, I would have considered something like this to be utterly inconceivable. I can hardly believe it even now, as I go on my third such walk in as many mornings.

Soon it’s going to be blazing hot, as in every day in this infernal city (get it? Infernal?), but for now it’s just fine.

Sometimes I like hearing the birds twittering and the squirrels skittering. Sometimes it’s nice to see people lined up to wait for the first bus of the morning, staring at their portable PCs or reading the newspaper. Sometimes those solitary robots standing at their charging ports are peaceful enough that they almost look like they belong there.

And then sometimes…

All your pleasant feelings go away because a chill forms at the back of your neck.

I know this feeling. This strong intuition telling—no, begging—me to run away as fast as I can.

But I ignore it, because I know that nothing good will come of delaying the inevitable—

“Hi, Morgan.”

“Hi, my dear and wonderful older sister named Marge Eisenhower,” I say.

I turn around, and there she is. She has on a yellow sundress, her usual not-investigating-anything attire. Unusually, she’s sporting a baseball cap to cover her all-too-short hair. (Really, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get over how frivolously she changed her entire look and went that much more butch out of nowhere.)

“Fancy meeting you here,” she says.

“Oh yeah, it’s such a nice coincidence that we just happened to meet on a random sidewalk on my leisurely walk to work. I have no suspicions whatsoever about this nice accident of fate.”

Marge smirks. “I’m not working on a case,” she says.

“You’re not?”

“Nope. I’m out of the detective business. I told you, remember?”

“Yeah, I know you told me, but… It’s not like I actually believed you.”

Forced along this path by my sister, I decide to take us on a side route down a restaurant and bar street. It’s normally lively as all get out once the sun goes down, but this early in the morning it’s completely deserted other than a couple drunks sleeping off a weeknight’s adventure. It’s not an attractive part of town once all the neon lights and holo-booths are powered down, but I kind of like it that way.

“Well, it’s true,” Marge tells me. “No more private eye sister to help you out. No fedora.”

“No hidden motive to every line of dialogue?”

She chuckles. “You’re silly.”

That wasn’t a very reassuring answer.

I step over a turned-over recycle bin and ask, “Then why are you here right now?”

“I was taking a leisurely walk,” she says. “How about you?”

“I was… also taking a leisurely walk.”

She takes a good, long look at me. I can’t tell what she’s thinking, because I can never tell that. Then, in a sudden change of subject, she says, “You know, I’m working on a novel.”

“You can write?”

“Yep,” she says. “I have a knack for spinning tales. A gift of gab.”

“Is it a detective novel……..”

“No! I’m not just some one-dimensional cardboard cutout, Morgan. You should know that I am a rich and complicated human, just like you.”

I lived with Marge for the first thirteen years of my life, and I cannot confirm whether or not anything she just said is true. She once sold me out to my parents when I ran away from home at age ten and led them straight to me using her expert tracker skills. She had a whole middle school rumormongering club where she collected and sold secrets from classmates. To say she has any personality is tenuous at best.

“So what is it then, a thriller? Are you gonna write the next Dogsitter?”

“No,” she says. “It’s a romance.”

“A romance…”

“Yep. It’s called Steam & Neon. It’s about two women who wake up after a one-night stand in a nice hotel, but they both have amnesia. There are robots following them around everywhere acting like one of the women is the owner, and the other has a briefcase whose lock is set to a timer with twelve hours left on it. They have to figure out what’s going on, who they are, and of course fall in love in the process.”

“That really, really sounds like a mystery-thriller to me, Marge,” I say.

“Oh, well the mystery isn’t the important part. It’s all an excuse for cute relationship building with the main characters, and then a lot of angsty drama as they start to figure out who they really are and how they really ended up in bed together.”

“I’ll take your word for it… It doesn’t really sound like my thing, but I bet Karina would like it. You should show it to her when you finish—Wait, no, nevermind. Do not do what I said. You are not allowed to meet her.”

She snickers. “Still too ashamed to introduce me to your girlfriend?” she asks.

We pass to the end of the street, as it merges onto Peach Grove Street and gives a clear shot to Peach Towers a few blocks ahead. There’s more people around now, but mostly just the early morning joggers and those similar salarymen who take a little bit too much pride in arriving to work early.

“The answer is yes, but also we aren’t dating. We’re just friends, and…” I trail off, realizing that anything else I say will just dampen my mood further because it will require introspecting on all those not-nice emotions I’ve been suppressing lately.

Marge notices my expression souring. “Oh, Morgan…” she says with the most condescendingly sweet tone I’ve ever heard. She tips her baseball cap down slightly and crosses her arms. “I’ve heard it so, but now I know it’s true. You’re feeling blue, aren’t you?”

“Wh—How did you hear that? Who even told you?”

“Mom and Dad, on the phone.”

“They told you I’m feeling blue?!”

“Yeah. They’re worried about you. You barely call them, you’re always being vague about the stuff you do. It’s like you have some hidden life you have to keep a secret and it’s pushing you away from enjoying your normal life.”

“Well, they’re wrong,” I lie. “I’m perfectly fine. It’s just those summer doldrums everyone gets.”

“Morgan, what are ‘summer doldrums?’”

“Uh.”

“Listen.” She clears her throat and does a little spin. “I want to tell you something important.”

“You’re getting married,” I say.

“Bad guess,” she says with a smile. “No. I want you to know some juicy information: there’s a man taking over radio stations and TV channels and robbing banks right now known as the Dial-Up Demon. He’s a menace to the whole city.”

If I could glare at my sister harder than I am right now, I would be very surprised. “I’m not dealing with that crap. It’s not relevant enough.”

“A technological mystery? An eccentric villain with mysterious motives? And Morgan isn’t interested?” Marge feigns shock and covers her mouth in a fake gasp.

“I know what you’re trying to do.”

“And what is that?”

“You’re trying to cheer me up by getting me obsessed with some irrelevant detective plot just because nobody will hire you. You want me to be your surrogate.”

“You always jump to these wild conclusions, Morgan. I’m an author now, remember? Marge Eisenhower, the author who doesn’t investigate things.”

“Not that you could get a job anyway.”

“Jones Burrow really did a number on me with that social media killing, didn’t she? And of course my employment by Blyth Industries doesn’t look good on my resume. I’m about toast, aren’t I?”

“Extremely toast,” I say. “It’s almost like you’re intentionally nosediving your own reputation just to smear your own surname.”

“I would never do that!” she exclaims, deadpan. “Just because Holly Eisenhower and I had one of the most toxic, quick-burn relationships in the history of gay marriage doesn’t mean I would ever seek to enact any sort of revenge on her to ruin her socialite status.”

“Did I tell you how much I hated her?” I ask. “She was so rude to me every time we met. Always criticized my fashion sense, too…”

“What a bitch,” she says with a wistful smile.

“Mei’s pretty cool,” I say. “No idea why she chose you, but she’s alright.”

“I love her a lot,” Marge says. “Almost as much as I love my little sibling Morgan.”

“Gross.”

“I like the Eisenhower name because it gets me lots of attention in certain social circles. But… I think I’m pretty fond of being Marge Zheng one day.”

“Write that novel and maybe she’ll marry you for your money.”

Marge smiles at me and then takes a sudden turn down a crosswalk in the opposite direction of Peach Towers. “See you later,” she says from afar. “And good luck with the Dial-Up Demon!”

Urgh… It’s not… I’m not investigating that stupid thing.

….Right?

Whatever.

The closest I’ve come to legitimately bonding with my older sibling in ages and it was all just an excuse to rile me up about this stupid cyber-criminal nobody cares about.

Or… maybe I thought nobody cares about.

Is this actually something relevant?

….Nah.

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