In TIGHTROPE, Quick—the pseudonym for Jayne Ann Krentz, now celebrating her 40th anniversary as a published author—takes readers back to the much-loved setting of the 1930s in her fictional town of Burning Cove, California.
Amalie Vaughn is a former trapeze artist who has abandoned the circus after being the only survivor of a serial killer. Knowing she is still in danger of being found by the accomplice of the man who she pushed to his death, Amalie attempts to lead a quiet life as the owner of a seaside hotel. Her sense of safety is shattered when her only paying guest is murdered in a public forum. A mysterious stranger, Matthias Jones, turns up to conduct his own investigation apart from the police. And though Amalie initially wants nothing to do with the man who has invaded her home, she soon finds that helping Matthias to uncover the truth might be the only way to survive.
“There is no need to fear robots,” Dr. Pickwell declared. It was clear that the suggestion that robots would displace workers annoyed him. He raised his voice to be heard above the murmurs of the crowd. “I urge you to consider that these machines could take the place of soldiers. Wars of the future will be fought with robots, not human beings. Think of the lives that will be saved.”
“You’re mad,” someone else shouted. “You want to create robots that can kill? What if these machines of yours decide to turn on their creators and try to destroy us?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Pickwell snapped. “Robots are nothing more than mechanical devices. Fundamentally, they are no different than the cars we drive or the radios that we use to get our news.”
“Futuro looks mighty dangerous to me,” the man in the front row called.
“Nonsense,” Pickwell said. “Allow me to demonstrate how useful Futuro can be. Futuro, what is the forecast for tomorrow?”
The robot answered in a scratchy, hollow voice. “There will be fog in the morning but by noon the day will turn warm and sunny. No rain is expected.”
Pickwell faced his audience. “Think about how useful it would be to have Futuro in your home at your beck and call. It won’t be long before there will be robots that can cook and clean and do the laundry.”
But the crowd was no longer paying any attention to Pickwell, because Futuro had once again lurched into motion.
“What’s that thing doing?” Hazel whispered.
“I have no idea,” Amalie said.
They watched along with everyone else as the robot opened the suitcase that it had just placed on the bench. Pickwell finally realized that he had lost the attention of the crowd. He turned away from the podium to see what was going on at the bench.
Futuro reached into the suitcase and took out a gun.
There was a collective gasp from the audience.
“No,” Pickwell shouted. “Futuro, I command you to put down the gun.”
The robot pulled the trigger. Twice. The shots boomed throughout the theater.
Pickwell jerked under the impact of the bullets. He opened his mouth to cry out but he could not speak. He collapsed onto his back.
Futuro calmly clanked offstage, disappearing behind the curtain.
Stunned, Amalie stared at the unmoving figure on the stage. It was a trick, she thought. It had to be some sort of bizarre charade designed to shock the audience.
Most of the crowd evidently believed the same thing. The majority of the people in the seats did not move. They appeared stunned.
But not everyone was frozen in shock. Amalie glimpsed motion out of the corner of her eye. When she turned to look, she saw that Luther Pell and the stranger who had accompanied him to the theater had left their seats and were making their way to the stage steps. They were moving fast, almost as if they had been anticipating trouble.
When they reached the stage they were joined by Oliver Ward, who had managed to move with surprising speed, considering that he had a noticeable limp and was obliged to use a cane. His wife, Irene, was not far behind. She had a notebook in one hand.
Luther Pell and the stranger vanished behind the curtain. Ward crouched beside Pickwell and unfastened the inventor’s tuxedo jacket to expose a blood-soaked white shirt.
The theater manager evidently had been watching the demonstration from the last row. He rushed down the center aisle toward the stage.
“Is there a doctor in the house?” he shouted.
Amalie saw a middle-aged man in the center section make his way quickly down the aisle.
“I’m a doctor,” he said in a loud voice. “Call an ambulance.”
The manager disappeared through a side door, presumably in search of a telephone.
Onstage, Ward was using both hands to try to staunch the bleeding. The doctor arrived and quickly took charge.
Luther Pell reappeared from behind the curtains. He looked at Oliver Ward and shook his head. Ward looked grim.
The stranger finally emerged from behind the curtain. He was in the act of reaching inside his white evening jacket. Amalie caught a glimpse of something metallic just before the elegantly tailored coat fell neatly back into place.
It took her a couple of seconds to comprehend what she had just seen. Then understanding struck. Like any self-respecting mobster, Luther Pell’s friend from out of town had come to the theater armed with a gun.