(Fiction) Bargains

The charges included assault of a minor (firing a gun at 17-year-old Guillermo Aquino); arson (of the house at 421 Asher St.); fraud (profiting under pretenses, namely, that Nio was a false expert); practicing medicine without a license; burglary (of the $800 Canine Companion, which the District Attorney claimed she stole for the purposes of committing arson); aiding and abetting (the operation of an illegal mod parlor); refusing to assist a police officer (by remaining as silent as a monk while the house burned); and fleeing a scene. Because of the number and severity of the charges, and because she had arrived on an out-of-state bus and either couldn’t or wouldn’t give a permanent address, she was held without bail. Because of her contact with the unknown organism, she was kept by herself in a holding cell, where she was arraigned, in lieu of potentially infecting everyone at the jail or courthouse. It was unnecessary, born of irrational fear, but Nio didn’t mind. It meant everyone came to her. It was then that all those involved in the case finally heard her speak for the first time:

“Not guilty.”

The judge explained that in the State of South Dakota, having a prior felony conviction meant that all of the charges against her were automatically raised in severity—a Class C felony became a Class B, a Class B became Class A, and so on. And since her prior had been a violent felony, sentencing was automatically pushed to the maximum.

“If convicted, I will have no choice in the matter,” the woman explained. “This is very serious. You are facing up to 80 years in prison. Do you understand that?” She asked it cautiously, like she wasn’t she if she needed to call in a psychiatric expert or try a different language.

“Yes.”

“Fine,” the judge said, gathering her papers. “You’ve been appointed a lawyer. I urge you to listen to him.”

The baggy, bespectacled man next to her stiffened slightly in pride.

“Is there some reason why I can’t have my medicine?” Nio asked. “I get headaches.”

The judge turned to the sheriff, who told her calmly but apologetically that he’d see to it. By his reaction, it seemed to be news to him. Even so, it wasn’t until the following day that he complied, and Nio spent the night with her head pounding in agony.

That morning, after a few hours sleep had abated the throb, the door to the booking room buzzed and the sheriff stepped into the long walkway that ran in front of the barred cells. He shut the heavy door behind him, making sure it was locked, and tossed an unopened box of aspirin through the bars. Nio was sitting cross-legged on the floor of her cell, meditating, and caught it one-handed. She looked at the red box quizzically.

“All I could get on short notice,” he said, leaning against the wall. “Your pills tested positive for opiates.”

“Are you amending my charge sheet?”

“That’s up to the district attorney.”

His nameplate said Marbrant. He had a thick gray mustache and two lifetime’s worth of wrinkles. He looked down the hall toward the fire exit.

“I used to think nothing much ever happened in this town,” he said. His voice echoed slightly off the painted block walls. “I liked that.”

Nio sat with socked feet under the beam of sunlight that fell in an angled shaft from the long window near the ceiling. The light bounced off the floor before scattering off the pale walls, illuminating everything brightly, like a photographer’s studio. She couldn’t get a good read on the sheriff’s bioelectrics. The metal bars interfered.

“First the deep core came. They promised jobs. Forgot to mention the earthquakes. Then, couple years ago, some of those dinosaurs moved through. You know about them? Smaller than I thought. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Some were bigger than a bull moose. But I thought dinosaurs’d be able to trample houses or something. Still, beautiful in their own way, with those colorful markings and everything. They passed a couple miles east of here on their way up to Canada. The whole town went out to see. Darndest thing.” He paused. “And now there’s you.”

Sheriff Marbrant took another long slow breath and rested his hand on his belt. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like anything significant will be recovered from the house. It took to that fire like a stripper to a pole, as my cousin likes to say. Still, the FBI’s supposed to be sending a man from Minneapolis, so you never know. Maybe they’ll dig something up.”

“Maybe.”

“You’re gonna have to watch out for Dr. Aquino, though. Guillermo’s mom. She’s real protective of that boy. And she knows Judge Bennam.”

“So I gathered.”

Nio had seen them talking at her arraignment.

“She seems to think you’re some kind of criminal mastermind who tried to murder her son. Raffela concurs. According to them, you provided the illegal data file to Guillermo—under false pretenses, of course.”

“Of course.”

“And when he told you what it was doing to Beckham, you came to cover your tracks and frame him.”

“Clever.”

“Kinda hard to argue when you won’t give your version of events.” He watched her swallow several pills. “You want more water?” He nodded to the bottle in the corner.

“I’m fine.” She chewed the bitter aspirin like hard candy. “That suggests you don’t believe them, Sheriff.”

He harumphed in dry humor.

“What about the girl? She okay?”

“Beckham? Well, she’s got permanent tissue damage. Apparently she’s in a lot of pain. But she’s gonna recover. Be on meds her whole life, doc says. She’ll never mod herself again, that’s for sure. Or so she tells me. Truly’s gone missing. Looks like she took off before the house caught fire.”

“What about Del?”

“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say.”

Nio squinted. “What does that mean?”

He shrugged a little. Then he straightened his steel buckle absentmindedly and picked at something stuck to the top with his thumb.

“Something you wanna ask me, Sheriff?”

“I don’t suppose you know a woman named Maureen Arneson.” His eyes went to Nio as soon as he pronounced the name.

“Should I?”

He shook his head. “Probably nothing.” He looked down again. “You sure you won’t give a statement?”

“Theoretically, Sheriff, such a statement might amount to the admission of several crimes.”

“There’s always that.” He smiled weakly. “Deputy Grady seems to think you’re waiting for something. Help, maybe. That true?”

Nio hesitated. “I was. But it looks like that’s not coming.”

He nodded at her statements as if they were a sermon. He moved as if to leave, but stopped. “I wonder if you could answer me something.”

“If I can.”

“Say for argument’s sake that Raffela and Dr. Aquino are stretching the truth. Where would young Guillermo have gotten this ‘sequence file’ they keep talking about?”

“Lotsa bad people out there, Sheriff.”

“Sure, but what would be the point? I mean, why go to all the trouble?”

Nio traced the cracks in the high ceiling with her eyes as if reading a story they told. She opened her mouth but didn’t speak right away. It took her a moment.

“In ’94, a 17-year-old Boy Scout and future Marine raided junk yards in his native Michigan for trace amounts of radioactive material: americium from smoke detectors, thorium from camping lanterns, radium from clocks, tritium from gun sights. In a shed in the back of his house, he used a Bunsen burner and the lithium he’d collected from a thousand dollars worth of batteries to purify the thorium ash, which he added to a bored-out block of lead with the hope of eventually making a breeder reactor.”

The sheriff scowled.

“It’s a reactor that produces more fissile material than it uses, meaning it can be used to seed other reactors. The FBI found him before that, but he did make a functional neutron source, which is the first step.”

“Jesus.”

“We love it when the guy tinkering in his garage is Bill Gates or Carroll Shelby . . .” She turned her head. “Five years later, inspired by the event, a pair of University of Chicago graduate students produced a working ‘reactor in a shed,’ which was one of the items on the university’s annual scavenger hunt. They were later able to isolate trace amounts of plutonium.

“Within a decade, in 2008, at his home in Arkansas, 14-year-old Taylor Wilson built a fusor, a device that suspends a magnetic field between two cages to heat ions to fusion conditions.

“Pick any science and it’s the same story. In 2016, a university geneticist began producing and selling CRISPR-based home genetic modification kits over the internet. The idea was that since rich people would undoubtedly use it to make their kids smarter and prettier than the rest of us, we should have access, too. That’s how modding started—guys wanting to grow an eight-foot penis and shit like that.”

“You’re saying it’s just another way to commit murder.”

Nio stretched her legs and laid them straight. “Not necessarily. For some guys, there’s definitely a ‘hold my beer’ element to it. They just want to play around with something dangerous. We like to stereotype them as morons, but a lot of them are actually highly intelligent. I’m sure you’ve seen the videos online. Some of those stunts take a lot of planning and craftsmanship.”

“They could take those skills and get a job,” the sheriff suggested.

Nio smiled. “Spoken like a lawman.”

“Doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

She got up and sat on the bench affixed to the rear wall. She ran a hand over her scalp. “Tell me something, Sheriff. Those jobs the mining company promised. How many of the blue collar ones were permanent positions?”

He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to.

“Rig like that, most everything will be automated, so you’re talking seasonal overflow to augment a permanent skeleton crew of skilled engineers. Can’t get a job like that without a degree. Doesn’t matter how smart you are. If your resume doesn’t check the right boxes, no corporation’s gonna take the risk. Why would they when there’s twenty other safe and compliant applicants? So you go to school and learn the approved curriculum, which takes years and gets you tens of thousands of dollars in debt to a bank that doesn’t care one snit about you. Now you’re in—and you spend the next 40 years of your life working to make someone else rich, just so you can pay back the money they lent you in the first place. Any job that pays decent is gonna be somewhere expensive to live, so you’re either pissing away the rest in rent, or you’re spending half your life in the car. Society makes that the choice and then wonders why these guys don’t wanna play.”

“What about the radioactive kid? You said he was a Marine.”

“Enlisted after his mother committed suicide—I think. Without any credentials, what do you think they had him doing? You think a kid who built a nuclear reactor out of junk at 17 years old was appropriately challenged by swabbing the deck? I don’t remember the details, but I remember they discharged him on mental health grounds. No help, just ‘Good luck, kid.’” She waved. “That was his reward for playing by the rules. So of course he stopped playing. He was arrested trying to steal smoke detectors. Smoke detectors,” she repeated. “Not a bank. I remember his mugshot showed that he was covered in radioactive sores. He died in his 30s.

“There’s a million similar stories. It’s an unnamed epidemic. Imagine if he had had access to something other than a few grams of radioactive material. Imagine if some angry kid in LA, instead of shooting up his school, decided to release a genetically engineered pathogen or wipe out all of Orange County with a momentary singularity.”

The sheriff was quiet a moment. “Can’t say I’d mind all that much.”

Nio smiled.

Sheriff Marbrant grimaced and shifted his stance. “I hear they can steal people’s memories now. I can at least lock my damned car.”

“You can thank the police for that one. The media blew it up of course, but they only retrieved some very basic information: whether her eyes registered light or dark when she was beaten, whether she was wet or dry, that kind of thing. It had rained that night and they were trying to impeach the defendant’s story that when he left her, she was safe at home. But yeah . . . How long before courts subpoena our thoughts? Or media companies sue regular folks for having infringing fantasies involving copyrighted synthetic personalities? It’s all coming.”

The holding cells fell quiet. The sheriff reached to his back pocket and pulled out a folded letter. The envelope had been opened. He held it up. “This was in your personal possessions.”

He pulled the top open with his thumbs and looked into it like he expected to find something new. “We opened it the night you were arrested hoping to get a name or address.” He looked up. “You haven’t read it yet, have you?”

Nio shook her head.

“Do you want to?”

She didn’t answer, and after a few moments, the sheriff knocked on the door. It buzzed from the outside and he pulled it open.

“I’ll put it with the rest of your things. In the meantime . . .” He pulled a thin folded newspaper from his belt. “You may wanna read that.”

He tossed it between the bars and it slid across the floor. The door shut behind him with a click.

The following day, Nio was told she had a guest. She was led from her cell by the same woman who had arrested her the week before. Her name plate said GRADY. They didn’t speak. Nio expected to be taken to one of the interview rooms, as she had been each time previously, to meet with the DA or her less-than-competent court-appointed attorney. Part of her hoped Mutiny had come to South Dakota without calling ahead. But Nio wasn’t taken to the interview room. They stopped in the office. Her handcuffs were removed and she was left alone in the middle of the floor. She watched Deputy Grady step through the door and shut it behind her.

She looked around. “Is this a lynching?” she asked no one.

Tires crunched gravel. Nio turned to see a limousine roll to a stop in the parking lot. A rear door opened and a middle-aged male chimpanzee in a finely tailored suit and no shoes slid out of the back seat to the pavement. He wore cuff links, a paisley tie, and custom black-rimmed bifocals. He walked to the door on his knuckles but stood upright to open it. Nio guessed he was at most four feet tall. Once inside, he waited by a desk as his human bodyguards came in behind him and quickly checked the office. Satisfied, they stepped out, and Nio was alone with an ape.

“I’m told I look taller on TV,” he said. When he didn’t get a reaction, he held out his hand. “Dr. Hamilton Chang.”

Nio took it. “Ah, yeah. I kinda figured.”

His nails were trimmed and his grip polite. Nevertheless, there was something decidedly bestial in the grasp—the dark coarseness of his skin perhaps. His biolelectric field was strange, completely unlike anything she’d felt before. She heard no music.

Both Nio and Dr. Chang noticed each other’s feet. She was in her striped socks. His feet were bare. They flexed their toes in show.

“After careful study,” Dr. Chang explained in a calm, gravely voice, “I’ve found that any shoes large enough to fit me also make me look like a clown—more than usual anyway—and that it’s more comfortable for everyone involved if I dispense with that particular human convention and walk as nature shod me. Please.” He motioned to a chair like the police station were his personal office. Then he climbed up one himself, gripping it with his feet like a baby climbing a sofa.

Rather than sitting against the back, which would’ve forced his bare soles to face Nio, Dr. Chang settled on the edge and crossed his legs, picking a piece of lint from his cuff like a tick from fur.

“I console myself with the observation that, while human feet are certainly daintier and more attractive, they are only made for walking, whereas I have four hands. Alas, in compensation, Nature omitted an opposable thumb from every single one of them.”

“On TV, they always film you from the waist up.”

“Quite. It’s a perk of my position.” His glasses slipped and he pushed them back up his face. “You must be wondering why I am here.”

“Did Mutiny send you? Because if you’re here to lecture—”

“Not at all. I haven’t seen Ms. Ali in some time, but I enjoy following her exploits, as I do all of you. I will admit a certain paternal compulsion, but I was only an adviser on the project. I am at best an uncle. But speaking of the others, I wonder if you heard the news.”

“News?” Nio scowled.

Dr. Chang looked down. “I was afraid not. The sheriff was only recently made aware of your identity. Perhaps you would like to sit down.”

“I’m fine.”

Dr. Chang sighed. “My dear, Sol is dead.”

Nio’s mouth hung open. Tears gathered at the corner of her eyes, as if she has just swallowed a hot pepper. It felt like she had been punched in the gut.

“Wh-what? How?

“He was giving a talk. He collapsed on the stage. Brain hemorrhage. The funeral was last week. When you didn’t show up, I began making inquiries. Hospitals first. Then law enforcement.”

Nio fell back against a desk. Her head was spinning.

“Sol’s dead?”

It couldn’t be.

Sol was bright and invincible.

Nio covered her mouth. Tears came in earnest then an she slid to the floor. Dr. Chang dropped from his chair and wandered around the dim office until he found her a box of tissues. She took it, and after letting her sob for a few moment, he placed a coarse hand on her shoulder awkwardly.

“When was the last time you saw him?”

Nio blew her nose and wiped it. “Ummm . . . Luke’s coming out party, I guess. Five years ago. You’re serious?” She looked in his eyes with a glimmer of hope. “He’s really dead?”

Dr. Chang nodded. “I’m afraid so.” He put a polite distance between them. “The FBI are humoring me, thanks to my position.”

“FBI?” Nio wiped her red and swollen eyes. “I thought you were the head of the National Science Foundation.”

“Alas, my term at NSF ended last year. I am now ‘special acting science adviser to the president’ or something like that. To be honest, I’m not sure. I’m still waiting on the business cards.”

“Sounds important.”

Dr. Chang reached into the breast pocket of his coat and removed a folded slip of paper. He opened it and tossed it on the floor between them. “How long have you been chasing him?”

Nio didn’t move. She didn’t need to. She could see it was a page from a sequence report, probably from the tissue removed from Beckham Carter.

“There have been others, I suppose?” Dr. Chang asked.

There was no point in denying it. If the media was correct, Dr. Hamilton Chang, known as “Chop-Chop Chang” before the space flight that changed him forever, was one of the smartest creatures in the world.

“Six,” she said softly. “That I know of. He never acts directly so it’s hard to say.”

“Yes, he appears to be recruiting.”

Dr. Chang nodded to the paper. Above the rows of G’s, C’s, A’s, and U’s, he had sketched an ancient Hebrew numerological wheel. Base sequences were circled and labeled with Hebrew letters, converted via the wheel into Pythagorean ratios, which were then matched to a letter of the Latin alphabet. There were gaps between, but the circled sections spelled a question:

D   O   Y O     UL   I  K      E H   U  R      TI  N    G  PE   O  P     L   E?

“He’s been using occult cyphers,” Nio said. “Hermetic alchemy, Hebrew gematria.”

“If you hadn’t burned the house down, the police might’ve been able to recover computer evidence linking him to that unfortunate girl. As it stands, it looks very much like you are at fault.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t have a lot of choices.”

“What do you know about him?”

“He targets people involved in illicit activity.”

“Clever. His victims will be unlikely to go to the authorities.”

“Which is why no one’s looking for him. He’s used a few different monikers, but lately he’s been posting under the username ‘Mr. Misery.’ I’ve done algorithmic image searches and semantic text matching, but so far nothing. If he has any other footprint online, he’s found a way to keep it separate.”

“So you took a risk and went into the field.”

Nio snorted in derision at herself. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.” She wiped her nose again.

Dr. Chang walked with swinging arms to chalkboard that summarized all of the sheriff’s open activities. He stood before it and crossed his arms behind his back. Nio wondered what he was thinking.

“How did you find him?”

“By accident, I suppose.”

“You are being modest.” The chimp turned with his arms still crossed. “You have been offering your services online to people with peculiar problems.”

“You’ve been checking up on me.”

“You won’t find this fellow from inside a jail cell.”

“Dr. Chang, sir, you came a very long way.” She paused. “What happened to Sol?”

He inhaled deeply. “Sol didn’t just have a hemorrhage. He had some kind of . . . eruption. The autopsy found several infarcts clustered around his pineal gland. Seven, in fact.”

Seven?

“They ranged in size. And yet, all the clotting was postmortem.”

Nio thought for a moment. “An accident? He banged his head and it only caught up to him later?”

“Very good. That’s what the medical examiner suggested—while at the same time noting in her report the complete absence of bruising, either on his skin or the surface of his brain, which you would expect if his head had been rattled so badly that he tore his cranial blood vessels in seven places. In fact, there were no marks on his body of any kind. No signs of trauma. No puncture wounds. His blood and tissues were free of all known toxins. There were no drugs in his system and only a trace amount of alcohol. He didn’t even touch the wine he was given at dinner. And in the hours leading up to his death, he was surrounded by others who reported him to be in good spirits. He was met at the train station by several academics from Columbia, where he participated in an afternoon symposium before joining them at a local restaurant. He was giving a public lecture that evening before a hundred people when he began speaking gibberish and collapsed. He was dead before the ambulance arrived. Several of the guests recorded the talk on their devices.”

“So there’s footage.”

“There is.”

“And?”

“That’s it.” Dr. Chang waited for her reaction.

“His brain just burst?” Nio stood and threw a wad of used tissues in the trash.

Chang could see the skeptical look on her face. “This morning, at my request, the FBI filed a writ with the Fifth Judicial District of South Dakota requesting that you be remanded into their custody. The court is not obliged to grant the request, but I see no reason why they wouldn’t, if only to make you the federal government’s problem. You’ll still be facing charges, of course, some of them quite serious, but I suspect that with the full weight of the Justice Department on your side, you’ll be able to negotiate a generous plea—perhaps even avoid further jail time. But I have no authority to guarantee that, of course. If you accept, you’ll have a mountain of paperwork to complete, and you’ll be fitted with an ankle bracelet. Your movements will be both limited and monitored constantly by the Bureau. But you’ll be out of that cage and helping to right a very serious wrong.”

“Wrong?”

Dr. Chang walked to her on swaying knuckles. “I will be frank. I suspect we’d both prefer it.” He stood straight. “I believe your brother was murdered.”

Murdered?” She studied the floor as if it held all the answers. “Who would want to kill Sol?”

“I don’t know. Nor do I know how it was done. But last summer, Sol and I were at a conference in Bern and he confided in me that he was working on something extraordinary. It was so revolutionary, he said, that he felt the need to keep it completely to himself. He wouldn’t tell me. Nor did he speak of it to anyone else there.”

“That doesn’t sound like Sol. He was one of the most open people I’ve ever known.” Nio paused. “He got his heart broken a lot.”

“And there lies the answer to your question.”

“Ah.” Nio walked to the window. Outside, Dr. Chang’s suited bodyguards were keeping a close vigil on the front door. Secret Service. There was a tear clinging desperately to the lashes at the corner of her eye. She wiped it. “You think he told one of the others?”

“Wouldn’t you, if you were him?”

Mutiny had been Nio’s first call, however indirectly.

“I’m not exactly everyone’s favorite, you know. Not after—” She stopped.

“But if any of them are carrying his secret, they will be far more likely to share it with family. The FBI has made it clear they’re not interested in pursuing the matter. They agreed at the outset that the circumstances were odd, but after conducting a preliminary investigation, have found no evidence of foul play.”

“So you’re providing a free resource.”

“They’re humoring me because I am a very public figure and because I have the ear of the president. But their patience is not infinite. You would have to work quickly if you hope to benefit from their aid.”

“How do I solve a murder that’s not a murder?”

“Start with the others. See if you can ascertain what he was working on. That’s all I ask.”

Nio sat on the sill near the radiator. “Okay. But there’s still the obvious question.”

“Ah. Of course.” Dr. Chang nodded. “What’s in it for me?”

“And?”

“It’s a fair question, albeit one I’m not inclined to answer at the present time.” Dr. Chang held out his course-skinned hand. “Do we have a deal?”


rough cut of chapter four of my novel-in-progress, first in a series of sci-fi mysteries I’ve been calling Science Crimes Division