Tom Howard

Tom Howard is a science fiction and fantasy short story writer in Little Rock, Arkansas. He thanks his friends and family for inspiration and the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers Group for their perspiration.

The Nexus Murders

Delmo’s third eye itched. He stopped outside the morgue to scratch his forehead. An inconvenience, the cybernetic device signaled his occupation as a registered private eye. He was exhausted, but space station cases were few and far between and his rent was due. His rent was always due.

It was 2 a.m., and station’s hospital corridors were empty. No one noticed the tall human in a wrinkled suit that looked as if he’d slept in it. He had. His last case, a background check, had paid a few of his overdue bills, but he couldn’t remember when he’d slept last. At least the client was happy with the results. Dead, but happy.

An old miner had hired Delmo to check out his hot new girlfriend. He’d retired to Nexus Station after striking it rich and wanted to make sure it was true love and not avarice that kept her in his bed. Delmo did a lot of “background” checks for clients onboard the station, hacking and stalking them. Most of his cases ended in divorce court, but Delmo’s work had uncovered the gold-digger had been hired by his family to steal his money before he died. The news of his family’s treachery had given the old man a heart attack. Thank goodness Delmo always made his clients pay in advance.

Giving his eye a final rub, he tucked a small gift box under his arm and opened the door.

“Valma!” He smiled at his old friend across the room.

A Denebian, purple and weighing half a ton, looked over an open human body and frowned. “This area is off limits, Delmo.” She stood in the middle of a well-lit room. It was clean and smelled of antiseptic. A large table held a flattened corpse.

“Valma, my darling,” he said. “You wound me. Can’t an old friend visit without having an ulterior motive?”

“Old friend?” She snorted and tossed a bloody organ into a pan. “You only visit when you want information.”

“Nonsense.” Delmo held out the black box. “I bought these Viladian chocolates and need a medical professional to verify they’re real. With restitution, of course.”

“Viladian chocolates?” She washed her hands in a nearby sink. “My husband saved an entire year to buy three pieces for our hundredth anniversary. You couldn’t afford an entire box.”

He loosened the ribbon, opened the box, and revealed twelve dark brown pearls. “I’ve heard they super-sensitize the taste buds and overload the brain’s pleasure centers.”

His artificial eye scanned the body on the table for playback later.

“Oh, yes.” Valma smiled at the pearls. “Did you steal them?”

“They’re a gift from a grateful client.” If he’d lived, Delmo felt sure the miner would have shared the contents of his safe. There hadn’t been anything else of value. “Why don’t you try one? They might be fakes.”

Valma took a pearl in her delicate fingers. “They’re worth a year’s rations if they’re real.”

And very traceable. Otherwise, Delmo would have sold them to pay his energy bill. At least he could use them for bribery on a new case.

Valma popped the pearl deep into her lipless mouth, and her eyes rolled back in her head. She swayed, and Delmo feared she’d fall, but she steadied herself and smiled so wide her secondary teeth showed.

She shuddered. “I’d forgotten how wonderful they tasted. You mentioned restitution?”

“How about we split the box? Six for me and five for you?”

“For verifying they’re real? I don’t suppose it’s a bribe to obtain Mr. Palmaster’s autopsy report to learn the strange way he died.”

Delmo removed six pearls, put them in a bag in his pocket, and handed her the box. “What do you mean when you say ‘strange’?”