Fiction – “The Body and the Bomb” by John P. Murphy

The best that could be said was that there wasn’t a mushroom cloud above the rise.

Chief Constable Fatima Nouri took her motorcycle up to the clearing. It was far enough away from the blast to cut down on radiation exposure, but it was in the wilds of Sapphire’s native vegetation, out ‘in the blue’. It and the blast were her jurisdiction, and she had a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach the whole ride up Colorado Road. By the time she made it to the clearing, her knees ached from the crappy robot-laid pavement, and the tower of thick black smoke had started to dissipate.

The techs and cleanup crew from the city had mostly been bright enough to haul out chairs or benches. They sat high and dry, staring into space and gesticulating. The rest sat on the damp autumn ground. She saw the silver-haired city Inspector she’d come to meet. He was leaning against a pickpocket tree and waving to a younger man in a smudged white jumpsuit, who approached him.

“Hey Ang,” Lee said, “Heading up forensics?”

“Yeah. Not enough uranium in my diet.”

“There a corpse?”

“Downstairs. Hell of a blaze, huh? Gonna be a couple days before we can get in there and do any more recon.”

Nouri cleared her throat. “Inspector?”

Lee stood away from the tree, slapping dirt from his trousers. “Yes?”

“Didn’t mean to interrupt,” she said, “I’m Fatima Nouri, chief constable here. You must be the Inspector?”

“Detective-Inspector Marcus Lee.” They shook hands. “This is Dr. Ma, our Medical Examiner.”

“Ma’am,” Ma said. He held up a gloved hand instead of shaking.

Lee gestured at the column of black smoke. “I guess your little separatist problem isn’t done after all.”

Ma tilted his head. “Separatists?”

“The cabin that exploded used to belong to a separatist group,” Lee said, “They wanted Sapphire to dissolve the Colonial Union.”

Nouri crossed her arms. “We cleared them out about seven years ago, they’re still in jail. And they were into custom viruses.”

Lee shrugged. “Who owns the cabin now?”

“Mikael Virtanen. Transplant from Earth. I ran a check on him when he bought the place five years ago, but Earth doesn’t like to share much with us ‘rebels’. He looked clean, though, and his employer vouched for him.”

“Who was he?”

“Some kind of engineer. He had a job up in the city, I guess, but he spent most of his time out here.” She paused, reaching past him into the tree branches. “He’s gotten weird, too.” She tugged at Lee’s wireframes, wrapped in pale blue tendrils. They came free, and she handed them back. “Don’t come out into the blue much, huh?”

He took them back, surprised.

She nodded up. “You were standing under a pickpocket tree. Watch your stuff.”

“Oh. Thanks.” Lee stopped unwinding the tendrils and cocked his head. “Weird?”

“He got a bunch of tattoos a couple months ago.” She rubbed her left arm from wrist to shoulder. “Liked to show them off, not that he had the muscle tone for it. Shaved his head. His brother visited from Earth a week or so ago, he was real worried.”

“Maybe he fell in with a bad crowd?”

“You don’t build a nuke in your basement hanging out with the choir.”

“Depends on the choir,” Ma said.

Lee snorted. “He live alone?”

“So far as I know. Think we’re looking for accomplices?”

“I hope not.”

She nodded. “Look, it’s getting on noon. If you’re done here I’d like to get back to my office before the flies start biting. We can talk there.”

* * *

Lee sat heavily in the plastic chair in Nouri’s office. She put the box that had been on his seat on the floor and sat behind her desk.

“So,” he said, “What do we know?”

“Well, it’s Mikael Virtanen’s cabin, and nobody’s seen him in a couple days. Not since his brother left town.”

Lee nodded. “We went through his files and messages, but a lot was lost in the explosion and fire. Forensics is on it, but they’re not too optimistic. Who’s the brother?”

“Guy calling himself Henri Virtanen visited recently, left the planet last week.”

“I’d like to know whether he has friends running around planning trouble.”

Nouri nodded, making notes. “So would I. I’m thinking about seeing if I can get into the prison, talk to the separatists we rounded up.”

Lee studied her for a moment. “Actually, Chief, why don’t I do that? It’s easier for me to get in, and I’ll have a fresh perspective.”

She shrugged. “Suits me. Anything on the bomb itself?”

“Techs say that the bomb probably had everything it needed to go critical. He must have screwed something up, or got clumsy.”

Nouri thought about that. “I didn’t know Virtanen well, but he didn’t seem clumsy.”

“So we got lucky. Unfortunately he was working on it in a trench, which directed the explosion up instead of out.”

Nouri nodded.

“I get the feeling this guy didn’t have the skills to build something like this. I want to know who funded it, too. Enriched uranium isn’t cheap. Turns out he was laid off years ago from Bio-Con.”

“Well,” Nouri said, “I’ll see what I can dig up locally about his money situation. Folks around here are nosy, they might have talked to Virtanen lately, or the brother.”

Lee nodded. “I can work with that. I’ll talk to the prison and Bio-Con. We’ll see where it goes from there.”

* * *

Nouri left the fourth bank with more questions than she had entering the first one. She took a walk in the park, enjoying for a few minutes the blue-tinted light streaming through broad leaves, and the cinnamon-citrus scent of a Sapphire autumn. She knew from school that it was the smell of decay on their new world, but it was pleasant enough.

She found a park bench, bluish-brown plastic made to look like wood. She skimmed the list of financial transactions that she’d spent the morning wrangling out of bank managers. Virtanen had kept balances at four banks. They all went up over time, with lump sums in irregular amounts at irregular intervals. Three big loans from each bank over five years, each one larger than the last. The payments on each old loan did not appear to be paid out of the accounts of any of the others, though.

She flipped back to the most recent transactions. He’d had loans outstanding from all four banks at the time of the blast, and his accounts had been emptied. He’d been able to put his hands on a great deal of money.

* * *

“You’re not real easy to get ahold of, Ms. Mohr,” Lee said, sitting down. He’d gotten a private conference room at the prison. He had a seat on one side of the clear barrier, she sat on a bench on the other.

Mohr shrugged. “I’m right here where I’ve always been.”

“Have you ever heard of a Mikael Virtanen, from Earth?”

She gave him a blank look. “Sorry. Don’t meet many new people.”

“How about an old friend? Maybe didn’t get picked up when you did? Or wasn’t charged?”

“Earthlings don’t give a damn about Sapphire’s independence, Inspector. No, I never heard of him.”

“How about your cabin, then? Did you leave anything behind?”

“My books, a few family heirlooms. All my underwear. Anything in mind?”

“Well, you were convicted of producing viruses, but I went through the prosecutor’s notes. She said, let’s see…” He jabbed at his pad. “She said that during a bargaining session your cell mentioned looking into ‘other attack vectors’.”

She gave him a blank look.

“Specifically, a nuclear device.”


“So, a nuclear device exploded at your old cabin two days ago. Family heirloom?”

Her eyes went wide, but she said nothing.

“I’m not interested in blame, Ms Mohr. You’re already in jail. But I need to know if we should be looking for anyone else, or for another weapon.”

She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“I might be able to put in a good word…”

“I said I don’t know, Inspector.”

Lee nodded. “Was the weapon yours?”

She made a frustrated gesture, her handcuffs crackling. “It wasn’t finished. We buried it under the house with the other explosives until we raised the cash.”

“What was left to do?”

Mohr eyed him a long time. She cleared her throat. “The explosive payload was finished and secure, but we couldn’t afford the stabilization components. We couldn’t take it anywhere without blowing ourselves up. We didn’t even need anything special, just sintering aluminum and time on a good auto-fabricator. That and some fogbank, but we could get that anywhere. The virus plan was to squeeze the Confederacy for the cash.”

Lee brought up the figures Chief Nouri had given him and held his pad up to the barrier. “Would this be enough?”

She scanned the numbers. “Almost.”

“And he wouldn’t have needed any suppliers?”


Lee nodded and stood. “How did you keep it hidden from the police, anyway?”

“We just buried it in the cabin basement.” She snorted. “We tried to use it to bargain, but they didn’t believe it existed. Can’t blame us if they’re not bright enough to dig a hole.”

He considered that. “Thank you, Ms. Mohr.”

* * *

The walls and floor were scorched black and white. They dripped pink foam. Charcoal lumps lay in piles among the debris of what had been the ceiling. Shattered glass, heated until it slumped, lay scattered along the far wall. Lee and Ma stood outside in the dirt, where the radiation crew had stripped away an inch of topsoil. Lee wore his headset and steered the robot through the wreckage while Ma pointed out the highlights.

“Check over here,” Ma said, and an imaginary green arrow flashed in Lee’s overlay. It took him a moment to identify the flagged lump as a charred human arm. A few splashes of color survived.

“Those tattoos?”

“Probably. And look here, and here. And… yeah, over there.” More arrows, more blackened lumps, not all of them attached. “You’d think with all this equipment he’d have invested in some fire suppression.”

“You’d think. That Virtanen’s head?” Lee marked it. White showed through the black, and faint cracks of red.

“Yup. Takes a lot to blow someone’s head off.”

“Looks like he got a lot. We’re lucky this thing didn’t sustain a reaction.”

Ma snorted. “Dirty bomb’s just as bad. I’ll be setting off Geiger counters for weeks.”

Lee made sympathetic noises. “So is it just the one body?”

“All the scraps we’ve found are ex-Virtanen. We’ve found traces of a bunch of other people, though.”

“How many?”

“Hard to tell decay because of the fire, but rough estimate, forty uniques in the last year.”

“Forty?” Lee looked up. “Forty people tromped through here in the last year?”

“And plenty more before that.”

“What the hell? Nouri said this place was quiet, that Virtanen mostly kept to himself.”

“You’re the detective.”

Lee grunted. He peered around the crater for a few more minutes. The basement layout started to make sense: it had been a spacious, unfinished room with some lab-type furniture. He saw the twisted remains of benches, and some rods that might have been chair legs. Large metal cabinets were built into the wall opposite the crater. Their doors had been blown off or fell off in the fire, and their plastic shelves bubbled out the bottoms like thick syrup. Open panels vomited charred electronics.

Lee steered the robot to look at the wall. The concrete there still had some of its original bluish-white color. A control panel there was blank, its casing had started to melt and drip. The buttons had melted and the display dimly blinked a chilly 3C. “Huh,” he mumbled, “Refrigerators?”

Lee peered into the crater. It looked like the bomb had been sitting in a trench, the edges of which were torn away. Scraps of metal lay inside it, twisted and blackened.

“Hmm,” Lee said. “Yeah, see where the edge of the trench looks broken? There must have been a cover on here at some point. I guess Virtanen had to chip through concrete to get at the bomb.”

“Dangerous,” Ma said. “What if he hit some of the explosives in there?”

“Not so bad if he knew where to look. Someone told him, or he had a decent scanner.”

“The constables have some pretty decent scanners.”

Lee ran his hand through his hair. “Yeah, they do.”

Ma paused. “I notice Nouri’s not around.”

Lee drew a long breath through his nose. “She’s out checking up on the brother.”

“Yeah?” Ma waved at the burned-out building. “This is a pretty big fuck-up, you know. You really believe she just didn’t find it?”

Lee waved down at the crater. “I can’t believe she’d intentionally leave this in her backyard.”

“Does she know we’re here right now?”

Lee turned away.

* * *

Nouri took a deep breath, and pushed open the diner door.

“Tima! Long time no see!” Ram beamed at her, splashing coffee onto the counter as he turned. “Come in, come in! Oh, sorry about that,” he said to the scowling patron in front of him as he wiped up the puddle.

“Hiya Ram. Let me know when you have a minute.”

“I got all the minutes you need, darling. Can I get you anything to eat?”

“Just a coffee, thanks.” She took a stool at the counter.

“I wouldn’t, if I were you,” mumbled the other patron.

“Hush, you.” Ram delivered a white mug to Nouri’s end of the counter, then finished refilling the complainer’s cup. “What’ll it be?”

“Been asking around about Mikael Virtanen. He stop in here recently?”

Ram shook his head. “Not in months. He used to meet people here for dinner sometimes, but not lately. His brother was in, though.”

“Yeah? What can you tell me about him?”

“Nice guy, real friendly. From Earth, you know.” He scratched the back of his head. “Henri, that was his name.”

Nouri put down her burnt coffee. Not the real thing, just roast coffeeroot and caffeine powder, but a lot cheaper than hothouse beans. She reached for the sugar. “Did he talk about his brother?”

“Did he? Nothing but! Mickey this, Mickey that. Oh, Mickey’s in debt, oh, Mickey fell in with a bad crowd. Why won’t he just come back home to Earth? Hey, keep your pants on,” he said to the other patron, “I’ll have your fries in a minute. You’ve got little brothers, Tima, what do you say about them when you’re mad?”

“I don’t talk about them when I’m mad at them,” she said, with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “It makes things worse.”

“All right, you’re a saint. Henri was a nice guy, but not a saint. He comes all this way, he doesn’t want to talk about home, he wants to gossip about his brother. I was having none of it.” Nouri rolled her eyes. “I’m serious! Mickey was a good customer up until lately, I had no reason to think badly. Of course, given what he was up to out in the blue, maybe we should have listened to Henri…”

“So what did this Henri look like? I didn’t meet him.”

“A lot like Mickey. Dark hair, though, and no tattoos.”

“Skinnier,” offered the other patron.

“Naw, he was fatter if anything.”

Nouri raised an eyebrow.

Ram shrugged. “Hard to compare. Mickey stayed holed up in his cabin doing God-knows-what. And didn’t Henri complain about that! Came all the way out from Earth and barely got a minute of his own brother’s time. Crying shame, I tell you.”

“Huh.” Nouri mulled that over. Ram slid a plate of fried green wedges in front of the other patron, who salted them without tasting. “What about Mikael? Was he upset at anyone?”

“Just Bio-Con. But he’s always been mad at them.”

Nouri tossed back the rest of her coffee, and suppressed a grimace. “Thanks, Ram.”

“No sweat. Hey, you talk to Doc Abasi lately?”

“No. Why?”

Ram leaned over the counter. “He was in here for lunch, mentioned he had a couple patients this morning with broken fingers and knees telling stories about falling down stairs.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Sounds like some folks think you’re looking the other way.”

“Yeah?” Nouri frowned. “Thanks.”

* * *

The black building towered on its secluded hilltop, with a commanding view of the city a half-kilometer south. It had a fifty-square meter lawn out front, grass. Lee walked through Bio-Con’s vanishing-glass door into a lobby full of gold-inlaid black marble and potted plants from Earth. A receptionist floated up to him, its interface glowing a pleasant green.

“Greetings and salutations, Detective-Inspector Marcus Lee. Welcome to Bio-Con, Sapphire Office. You are on time for your appointment with Dr. Braun. Please step this way.”

Lee followed it to an elevator, all brass and stained wood and stepped inside. The green-glowing receptionist remained in the lobby. Another receptionist, this one yellow, awaited him on when the doors opened again. It bobbed in the air and then led him down the hallway.

Dr. Braun sat at a dark wooden desk, which sat in the center of a huge office with a hardwood floor. Lee noticed the grain — narrow and straight, probably from one of the quick-grow green lots. Braun rose briefly to meet him as a chair slid over.

“Welcome, Inspector. What can I do for you today? Would you like something to drink?”

The chair adjusted itself as Lee sat. It sounded as though it were purring. “Hmm? Oh, no thanks. I appreciate your meeting me, I’m sure you’re very busy.”

“Not at all. Your message mentioned a former employee, Mikael Virtanen?”

“That’s right. I’d like to know a bit more about him.”

“Virtanen…” Braun daubed the air over the desk, sitting. Lee could see a blur of color from his vantage point, but could not make out the display. “Let’s see… We recruited him from Earth, from the Scandinavian Union originally. He worked for us as a junior biological and tissue engineer for a year.”

“Then you canned him?”

Braun wore a pained expression. “No, Inspector, we had a round of layoffs that year. Bad economy, you understand.”

Lee nodded. “He the sort who holds a grudge?”

Braun hesitated. “I took the liberty of examining his personnel records. Mr. Virtanen was noted as having a temper. Nothing problematic, you understand, we’re used to managing virtuoso talent. But it came up in his performance review.”

“Did he say anything? Make any threats?”

“Well, he was certainly unhappy, but not unusually so. By procedure he’s not permitted on the premises, of course, but that’s just ordinary precaution, I assure you.”

“So, he was a ‘junior biological and tissue engineer’. What’s all that? Can anybody do that?”

Braun leaned back and examined Lee with crossed arms. “It’s all very technical work, Inspector, producing custom tissues, organs, and limbs for medical research. Much of the work can be performed robotically, but many engineers prefer to construct the underlying organic scaffolding by hand. There’s an art to it, it can be a bit… fiddly.”

“So, he was good with his hands. How about electronics? Or machining?”

“It’s not unusual for the techs to make small repairs themselves.”

“Not unusual.” Lee nodded slowly. “Did Virtanen have many friends?”

“He wasn’t here long enough to make many attachments. That’s one of the reasons he was selected for the first round of layoffs.”

“Nobody’d miss him?”

Braun winced. “I would prefer to say that we expected a minimal impact on morale.”

Lee looked around the office. The view of the city in the corner of the window was magnificent, but he had to strain his neck to see it: most of the windows just showed blue-covered hills.

“It is a nice view, isn’t it?” Braun smiled.

“Beautiful. I notice you folks built pretty solid out here. Worried about earthquakes?”

“About ‘earth’-quakes?” Braun chuckled. “Seismic activity was planned for, yes. We have strict procedures for preserving biological security in the event of an emergency, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“Exactly.” Lee stood, stepping away from the chair. “Well, thank you very much for your time, Dr. Braun. You’ve been a big help.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh, I almost forgot, did you have any equipment go missing around the time Virtanen left?”

Braun daubed the air again, brow furrowed. “No, Inspector. Nothing but a few pens, some rolls of toilet tissue — petty revenge and mischief, he was one of a hundred people laid off. It cost us money, of course, but we chose to look the other way.”

“How about destroyed?”

“Destroyed? Goodness.” Braun hesitated. “Yes. Yes, a pallet of incubation bins. The float-lift failed and dropped its contents from some height. We weren’t able to salvage anything, it was a mess of broken glass.”

“What are those? The bins, I mean.”

“Incubation bins are used for small-scale tissue and organ growth. This model was typically for research work, not for a production environment. The hyper-oxygenated growth medium they use is somewhat inflammable.”

Lee scratched his bald spot. “What about bacteria, or viruses? Prions?”

“Oh, yes. Easily. We frequently use custom viruses in the course of production.”

Lee thought that over as he showed himself out.

* * *

Chief Nouri thought of him as the Turkey. He was round like an overstuffed bird and dressed in sleek black. He strutted into her office, looking pleased with himself as always, but he’d aged since she last saw him. He looked tired.

“Mr. Raven.”

“Chief Constable.”

“Have a seat.”

He shrugged elaborately, and instead rested his manicured hands on the chair back.

Nouri returned the shrug. “I hear you’re pulling in some chits. Liquidity problem?”

“I’m doing well for myself, thanks for asking.”

“The hospital has kneecaps and finger bones growing for known associates of yours.”

Raven shook his head and sighed. “I know some very clumsy people. I’ll be sure to send sympathy cards.”

“How about Mikael Virtanen? Lived in the sticks, way up Colorado Road. Was he ‘clumsy’?”

“Does he need a new kneecap?”

“He’s dead.”

“Ah. Pity.”

“Uh-huh.” Nouri put her feet up on her desk. “Here’s how I see it: Mr. Virtanen came into a great deal of money recently. A couple of bank loans, but that doesn’t cover it all. Then he dies and all of a sudden you have problems with cash flow. I think he owed you a lot of money.”

Raven sat impassive for a long time. Finally he grunted. “That’s possible.”

“I suppose you knew nothing about his little project in the basement?”

Raven raised an eyebrow and made a helpless gesture.

“I’ll enlighten you. The dirty bomb we’ve been dealing with, that brought in all the big city folks? That was Virtanen’s. I want to know if your money financed any part of that bomb.”

Raven shook his head. “It is true that we loaned Mr. Virtanen money from time to time, trusting that he simply needed money and intended to repay. It is true that he died owing us quite a bit. We are businessmen, however, and that sort of thing is bad business.”

“Would it be bad business to have a poor nutjob with a nuke in your pocket?”

His eyes hardened. “Yes.”

“So you say. Me, I’d find it more convincing to get a list of transactions and amounts.”

“Would you, now.”

“Oh yes. Otherwise I’d start wondering, y’see, maybe start poking around. And that could get uncomfortable.”

Raven sighed. “Some day, Chief Constable, you will find that my patience has limits. You will have the information within an hour. Have a pleasant day.”

Fifty-nine minutes later, Nouri received an anonymous message. It contained four years’ worth of financial transactions, carefully scrubbed of context and relabeled, “Lender Alpha” and so forth. She amused herself for a few minutes trying to trace it back through multiple layers of obfuscation, then sent it on to Lee.

* * *

Nouri had finished her noon prayer and was going over the overnight report when Marcus Lee let himself in.

“Good morning, Chief Nouri. Ang’s coming in a separate car, he’ll be along in a minute.”

She gestured at the coffeepot across her office. “Help yourself.”

“Thanks, don’t mind if I do.” Lee picked up a mug from the pile and poured himself some. He took a sip. “Hmm. Cinnamon?”

“No…? Oh, I must not have washed it after my last cup of chai.” She pondered. “That was a week ago. It had milk.”

He put it back, and poured himself another cup. Nouri passed him her pad. “Look here.”

She showed him the figures from the banks and from Raven side-by-side, ordered by date. “He was using the bank loans to pay off the loan sharks, and vice versa. He was losing money on the interest, but it got their trust, and every new loan was bigger than the last. When he died he was seriously in hock.”

“A pyramid scheme,” Lee said. “Made his own cash go a lot further.”

“And what’s a little debt compared to blowing up Bio-Con? Now your turn, what about Henri? He legit?”

“He hasn’t responded to my message, but it wasn’t returned undeliverable. Getting information out of Immigration is like pulling teeth, but I did at least find Henri Virtanen’s exit records. He got travel insurance at the orbital station, which required a DNA sample. It’s close enough to Mikael’s to be a brother or cousin.”

“Think he’s an accomplice?”

“If he is, he’s Earth’s problem. He hasn’t been seen at any Confederate planet or station since he left Sapphire.” Lee paused. “Listen, Chief. I’ve been getting some pressure to get this cleared up soon. The governor’s not happy that someone — a foreigner — could sit and build a bomb in our backyard like this.”

Nouri felt her face flush. “Inspector, it was bad enough the city prosecutor shut me out of the separatist case, but –”

Lee held up his hands. “Nobody’s blaming you for this, Chief. But it was suggested that it might be better for me to clear up the rest on my own.” He interrupted her protest. “Just think it over, all right?”

Ang knocked on the door and came in. “Morning, Chief. Marc.”

Lee raised his mug. “There’s coffee.”

“Oh, thanks.” He picked up the full cup and took a sip. “Huh, cardamom. Not bad.”

Nouri pointed at the cup and started to speak, but Ma interrupted:

“You were right about that glass, Marc. Traces of growth medium and cells with DNA from a half dozen individuals, and one dog. Probably incubation bins.”

“Back to the virus scheme, maybe?” Lee frowned.

Ma, who had been peering into his coffee, looked up and cleared his throat. “We found some virus fragments and bacteria, but nothing harmful.”

“Precursors to something else?”

“Maybe. But we also combed that pile of broken glass and found this.” He held up a baggie containing what looked like a fried overripe banana with flecks of salt. “It’s a human pancreas, not his.”

Nouri smiled sourly, pushing Ma’s hand from its position dangling the baggie over her desk. “Can we find out whose it was?”

Ma put the baggie on the desk with a faint squelching noise, and sipped his coffee. “There’s a lot to go through, but I think we’ll find it.”

* * *

“Friedrich Haller, 84, retired here from Grace two years ago.” Ma said once he and Lee reached their cars.

Lee raised his eyebrows.

“The pancreas. If our boy had a sideline in organs, that might pull in some extra cash.”

Lee frowned, and looked back toward Nouri’s office.

Ma shrugged. “She’s not following up on that part of the case. If it’s important, you can tell her later.” He paused. “Didn’t she say she’d gotten information out of the local organized crime?”

Lee pursed his lips.

“Look, Marc, I’m not saying anything here you haven’t thought.”

“My ex-wife always said I had a suspicious mind.”

“Well, maybe that’s not the worst way to be thinking right now. This could have been a mushroom cloud, and it didn’t have to be out here in the blue.”

“All right.” Lee sighed, massaging the bridge of his nose. “Anything else you’ve been keeping to yourself?”

“Oh, not much,” Ma said, showing an expression that in their poker games usually prompted Lee to fold. “Just the name and address of a surgeon whose hair and skin traces we found upstairs.”

* * *

“Just say it.” The grizzled reed-thin surgeon leaned across the booth table and pointed to Lee’s recording implant. “I want it official. On the record.”

Lee made a placating gesture. “Nothing you say here will be used against you.” He leaned in, speaking slowly. “Your voice and image are being altered so that you cannot be identified. Now, please, ‘Smiley’?”

The surgeon relaxed into his seat and transmitted the data. “Yeah, I know him. He supplied me. Custom organs and limbs. Quality stuff, the kid knew what he was doing. Nothing too elaborate: people want elaborate, they go to the hospital, not to me. It’s all there. What happen, one of his pieces fail?”

Lee looked up from the numbers and dates showing on his pad. “I hope not.”

“Then why are you leaning on me? I have a legitimate practice to protect. This is after-hours stuff, consensual.”

Lee scratched his bald spot. “I’m just trying to figure out where his money came from.”

Smiley grunted. “Didn’t know you people wasted your time on taxes.”

“Oh, no. It’s just that Mr. Virtanen was also into nuclear weapons. Trying to figure out who funded him.”

“Ah.” Smiley squirmed. “He’s not talking?”

“He’s dead.”

Smiley crossed himself. “Shame, he was a good kid.”

“Did you ever operate on him?”

The surgeon lowered his voice. “Yeah, that’s how we met. He lost a tooth, dentist wouldn’t use one he grew himself. Mickey came to me with this tooth, it was good work. We got to talking. I figured we could do business.”

“So, we’re talking organs, limbs. He ever do any viruses or bacteria for you?”

“Sure. A half dozen custom `phages, some tailored gut bacs for people heading to foreign planets.”

Lee tilted his head to one side. “What else did he make for you?”

“A little of everything. A lot of people want replacement parts off the books: drinkers want a liver without tipping off the boss, illegal workers lose fingers in machines, athletes want the newest joints and tendons. And don’t get me started on the polydactyly fetishists!”

“Yeah, I won’t.” Lee rested his chin on his fist. “You’re obviously very good at what you do, did he have you do anything else for him?”

He cracked his knuckles. “I put a new arm on him a month back, with some fine motor mods. His own design.”

“What could he do with those modifications?”

“Well, it depends. A lot of people ask for that sort of thing: surgeons, pianists, mechanics.”

“So what? He wanted to improve his minuets?”

Smiley shrugged.

“Do limbs net more than organs?”

“If you have the skill. Mickey was good, he made good money. Still, a lot of times they have to make a couple dupes to get one good one. Guess and check kind of thing, so they cost more. Takes less time if the patient’s willing to do some physical therapy afterward.”

Lee considered that. “Did Virtanen have that kind of discipline?”

Smiley nodded. “Sure. He was weird, but he had drive. Didn’t screw around.”

“Did he talk about politics?”

Smiley fell silent for a while. “He was pretty cheesed at his old employer. But that was just chit-chat, you know? I smiled and nodded and we got along.”

* * *

Lee came into Chief Nouri’s office.

“Black market organs,” he said. “That’s where the rest of the money came from, and I’ll bet you that’s where the rest of the DNA came from. It was just him up there after all.”

Nouri gave him a long look. She’d wondered just what it was that Dr. Ma had been holding back.

“So Henri’s on Earth, probably. The separatists never heard of Mikael. The stray DNA looks to be from patients and not co-conspirators,” Lee mused, ticking off points on his fingers. “We’ve accounted for all his cash. Everyone he borrowed money from is surprised and angry. He didn’t stay in touch with his coworkers, and going through his messages didn’t turn up anyone else.”

Nouri leaned forward and put her elbows her desk.

Lee continued, “Here’s how I see it: Maybe that first loan really was for a renovation. He dug around the basement, found the nuke, and decided to teach his employers a lesson. He raised money selling black market organs, but it wasn’t fast enough. So he cooked up his little pyramid scheme. After a couple years, he could borrow enough to practically buy one off the shelf. But he didn’t have the expertise, and one day he blew himself up.”

Nouri steepled her fingers. “And the brother?”

“Just concerned family, come to check up on him. Little brother’s going off the deep end, better come straighten him out.”

“The other possibility is that there is no brother.”

Lee’s eyebrows went up.

“Nobody I’ve talked to ever saw the two together. A second identity would have come in very handy getting close enough to Bio Con. It wouldn’t have to get him in, just close.”

Lee shook his head. “Immigration has Henri leaving the planet, though.” He grunted. “What if it wasn’t an accident? Maybe Raven figured out the pyramid scheme, killed Virtanen, arranged the explosion, let it be known that this is what happens to people who try to rip him off.”

“There aren’t any rumors like that going around.”

“There’s another possibility: He might have been planning to sell the bomb to someone else. He had been working on the cabin, from the looks of things. Dug a new garden, had a nice little side business.”

Nouri made a skeptical face. “We haven’t seen any evidence of a buyer or any intent to sell. And he closed out his bank accounts.”

“So back to the lone wolf who blew himself up.” Lee fell silent, and gave her a long thoughtful look. “The governor isn’t going to like this explanation. It’s just a little too pat.”

Nouri took a pair of glasses from her desk and handed them to him.

“Ah, there they are!” He took them from her with a smile. “I didn’t think I’d brought those here.”

“You hadn’t,” she said, watching him. “I rescued them from a pickpocket tree up at Virtanen’s cabin. You should really be more careful.”

“Ah.” Lee took a deep breath. “Look, Chief –”

She held up her hand. “Forget it, Inspector. I understand why I wasn’t kept in the loop. I didn’t find the nuke, and Virtanen did. That looks like I’m either incompetent or in on it.”

“I didn’t say –”

“No, you didn’t say a damn thing. Look, I wasn’t allowed to talk to them after the arrest. If she’d told me at the time, I’d have torn that place apart.”

“All right,” Lee said quietly. “I called DiMaretti last night, the prosecuting attorney. She took the statements about the bomb and thought they were lying. She underestimated you. We both did. I’m sorry.”

“Thank you, I appreciate that.” She sighed. “That damn bomb. I wish he’d never…”

Lee gave her an odd look. “What?”

She swore. “But if that’s true… Did you say he’d just dug a garden?”

“Yeah, I saw it on the satellite photos. What are you going on about?”

She bit her lip, and looked down at the glasses. “Let me call Dr. Ma to check something. I’ll meet you at the cabin in two hours.”

* * *

“Did you bring a shovel?” Nouri shouted through her cupped hands. Lee held up a finger, disappeared for a moment around the burned-out husk of the cabin, and reappeared carrying a bladed instrument. “A shovel!” she repeated.

“This is a shovel!” he shouted back, lowering his voice as she got closer. “If you wanted one of those robotic things, you should have brought your own.”

She scowled and took it. She surveyed what used to be the backyard, the top inch of topsoil stripped away by the cleanup crew. Four little red flags fluttered in the breeze, each at the corner of a rectangle. “I found satellite pictures showing the garden you mentioned as it was two months ago, with nothing growing in it. Those flags mark the boundaries. All right, where was it…”

Nouri waved the sonar stick over the ground until she rediscovered the hard object. She dug until the shovel handle started to tremble on the downward stroke. Then she set it aside and knelt by the hole.

“Ah.” She smiled and gently pulled loose a large white object. “Alas, poor Mikael Junior.” She showed Lee the toothless skull, its left eye socket warped as though it were winking.

His eyes got wide. “He had a son?”

“A clone. Practice.” She placed it on the ground and stood up, brushing off her uniform leg. “I let myself believe that I should have been able to find that bomb, idiot prosecutor or no. I should have been wondering how Virtanen did.”

Lee furrowed his brow. “How did he find it?”

“He didn’t. He had no idea it was there.”

“But… Wait. I don’t understand.”

Nouri heard a vehicle door slam around the side of the building. “He just tried to burn his house down.” She turned and waved to Dr. Ma, who bore a furious look as he stormed around the cabin.

Lee frowned. “I don’t know. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck –”

“Nouri.” Ma interrupted. “How the hell did you know I’d find frost damage?”

Nouri grinned. “Because it wasn’t a duck.”

“Excuse me?” Ma looked like he’d bitten a lemon.

“It wasn’t a real body. Virtanen must’ve been cloning parts of himself for years. He kept them in the freezer. Once he finished, he put all the pieces together, plus his original left arm with the tattoos. The body didn’t have to be perfect, all he cared about was whether it would look right once the fire burnt it down. That’s why Yorick here with the squint had to go in the garden.” She tossed the skull to Ma, who caught it and gave it a critical look.

Lee nodded slowly. “But he didn’t know about the bombs under the floor. The fire set off the explosives, not the other way around.”

“Exactly. He took the money and ran. As long as he gives fingerprints and DNA from his new left arm, he’ll come up Henri.”

Ma looked up from scraping the base of the skull. “He’s posing as his brother?”

Nouri shook her head. “There is no brother. I know you think Immigration’s incompetent, but they at least get the names of the people landing on this planet. Instead of assuming they lost the entry records, we should have realized that there simply were none.”

“It wasn’t a bad plan,” Lee mused, “No life insurance means no insurance investigators, no inheritance means no lawyers, and an identifiable body means his creditors go away. He just walked away with the cash. If there hadn’t been a nuclear bomb under the floor, it would have been just another arson case with suspicious links to organized crime. He didn’t borrow from Raven because he had to; taking their money would have helped him get away with it. Thanks to that bomb, though, it’ll come out that he’s still alive.”

“And the people he cheated aren’t the forgiving type,” Nouri said, smiling grimly. “Raven can’t afford to let that pass.”

Lee nodded, thoughtful. “I might just avoid getting yelled at by the governor tomorrow.”


About the Author

John Murphy is an engineer and writer living in New Hampshire with his girlfriend and two cats. He grew up in West Virginia, studied in Japan, and has a PhD in robotics. John cooks, roasts coffee, and plays violin (badly). He is a graduate of the Viable Paradise writing workshop, and occasionally blogs at