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’?”

The next morning, he took the Red-Orange walkway to his client’s upscale apartment complex. From the large portals he passed, he could see the curvature of the space station spread out miles above him. Living aboard his entire adult life, he forgot he lived on an artificial planetoid until he looked out the window.

“What did you discover, Detective?” Mrs. Palmaster asked. The spacious apartment she and her husband had shared was her jail cell until the trial. A police robot guarded the door. Delmo had registered and turned over his shock grip before he entered.

He tore all three eyes away from the victim’s red-headed wife and stared out the window at the view. When they’d been at university together, he’d known the widow as Patsy. He was surprised she’d called him instead of one of the more photogenic detective agencies. Maybe she remembered him from drunken parties they’d sooner forget. Most likely, she had something to hide and had no recollection she’d ever met Delmo. He’d just been a familiar name.

Patsy, Mrs. Palmaster, paced the apartment in her unbelted silk bathrobe, stopping and peering out the portal at the planet below. Freeheart hung large and benign. From here you couldn’t see the death and despair.

The view and the apartment’s location had made Delmo double his usual fee when Patsy called.

“Coffee?” He moved to the food service machine. Although his hostess hadn’t offered, he couldn’t resist the real stuff. From the square footage and the luxurious furnishings, she could afford it. If she had forgotten him, it didn’t hurt his feelings enough to turn down the case. He’d accepted long ago that second best was good enough to get by.

“No more coffee.” She shook her curls. “The lawyer and I had some earlier.”

“Who’s representing you?” Delmo took his hot cup to the divan.

“Brackston and Brackston,” she replied.

“I don’t know them,” he lied. The two overpriced attorneys, brothers, never took criminal cases.

She flopped into a chair carved from real wood. She closed her bathrobe and frowned at his forehead. “Can you turn that thing off?”

“My eye? Never. It’s required by my private investigator license. But whatever it records only I or the client can review without a court order.”

She didn’t pursue it. He hoped he solved the case before she fired him.

“I visited the morgue,” he said. “The body was crushed, just as you described.” His wrist computer had received copies of the police report and Valma’s autopsy findings. One item stuck out – Mr. Palmaster showed signs of being on Freeheart for an extended period.

She sat back. “I found him at the bottom of the stairs. He goes into the office before I’m up, but the house computer said he hadn’t come home the night before.”

“Did he often sleep somewhere else?” Delmo tapped on his wrist comp. His eye recorded everything she said, but clients liked it when he took notes. Plus, it gave the impression he wasn’t watching them when he was.

“If he had a big construction project,” she said. “His office has a sleep alcove.”

“He only took station contracts?”

She looked surprised. “No one does construction on the surface, do they?”

“The police report said someone had hacked into your house computer. Its factory seals had been removed.”

“I’m an interior designer, a good one. I get paid a great deal of money to design customized light screens for clients’ homes, so why shouldn’t I create my own?”

Delmo ignored the purple and gray striped walls. “The police will say your home computer is unreliable. You spent the night alone?”

“Yes!” She sprang up and paced again. “Josh jumped, or someone pushed him. I don’t know why.”

“The atrium’s safety field had also been hacked.” Delmo watched her reaction. “Only someone with superior skills could accomplish that, someone familiar with large habitat computers.”

She whirled. “Whose side are you on?”

He held up his hands. “I’m asking you things the prosecutor will want to know. I’m sure Mr. Brackston or Mr. Brackston has already told you.” Not likely, but she needed someone protecting her. If his client was branded and exiled to the planet’s surface, it would be bad for business. Plus, he’d solve the case just to show her he was someone worth remembering. If she ever did.

“The odd thing,” he continued, “is your husband didn’t die from a fall. His skeleton had been pulverized, but his epidermis remained intact. No protruding bones, no external trauma. The medical expert said his skeleton had been shattered while he was alive.”

“How? Why would someone want us to think he’d jumped if he didn’t?”

“I’ll find out.” Delmo set his empty cup down and stood. “I’ll contact you if I learn anything more.”

She didn’t thank him.

He had one final question. “Did you meet your husband here on the station or on the surface?”

“On the station, of course. We’ve never been down to that hellhole.”

His eye recorded her lie, and he signed out with the police robot and picked up his grip.

The Blue-Green walkway took Delmo past another viewport and lit him with reflected light from Freeheart, or as Mrs. Palmaster called it, That Hellhole. The first colonists rejoiced when they saw the big orange planet. Now, generations later, their descendants scratched out a living on the planet’s almost waterless surface, and nomadic groups moved from one tiny oasis to another and killed each other for a cup of water.

Nexus Station owed much to Freeheart. When the Confederation discovered vast metal deposits on the planet, they’d strip-mined it and built a moon-sized space station. As the station grew and its inhabitants became more numerous and prosperous, the colonists below became more barbaric.

Station crews had closed the Blue-Red line for a deceased councilman’s memorial service. Most of the station would be on half-days to commemorate the old man’s decades of service. Delmo took the Red-Orange.

Mr. Palmaster had been a successful engineer, spearheading several development projects on the station. Maybe the competition hadn’t liked his success.

Delmo’s wrist comp beeped, and he took the call when he recognized Valma’s ID. “Hello, Valma. Why are you still up?”

“My husband and I have been appreciating…your gift,” she said. “Viladian chocolates have aphrodisiac qualities.”

Too much information. “Good to know, Valma. Are you sure Josh Palmaster went planetside? His wife says he’d never been.”

“Of course, I’m sure,” she said. “Minimum of two years from the levels of nitrogen in his tissues. From a couple decades ago.”

“Interesting.” Delmo stepped onto the moving sidewalk leading to his office. “The autopsy report has made things more confusing.”

Valma paused. “Delmo, I found something else after you left. Come by tonight.”

“Something you can’t tell me over the comp?”

“Yes. And Delmo, bring the rest of those chocolates. What I’m going to show you will be worth it.”

Delmo’s tiny office had been his apartment’s living room. With two rooms, the apartment served as a workplace and a place to sleep. Plus, the price was what he could afford. The office held a desk and a comfortable chair for the occasional in-person client. As long as he kept the bedroom door closed, clients didn’t know what a slob he was.

“Good morning, Molly.” He slid behind the desk and voice-activated his personal secretary. Molly, a bastardized computer system an old college friend had put together and a major AI law violation, hummed to life. No avatar appeared on the monitor, only a fractal pattern. He’d tried giving Molly a face, but his efforts always ended with an image that looked like his mother.

“Welcome back, Horatio. I worried when you didn’t come home last night.”

“Thank you, Mother. I was in the morgue. Don’t call me Horatio.”

“Don’t call me Mother, and I won’t call you Horatio Gregor Delmo.” Her voice sounded strident considering he’d requested a soft, sensual audio interface. Her glitches gave her personality, but Delmo promised himself he’d reset Molly’s more obnoxious subroutines someday.

“Any messages?” He plugged his wrist comp into Molly’s mainframe for updates. He’d download his eye’s recorded files when he caught up on his sleep.

“Yes. First, a reminder that your mother’s birthday is next week, and if you send her a hyperspace message now, the cost will be exorbitant.”

A family photo hung on the wall. His father looked as if he wanted to be somewhere else, and his mother appeared to be sucking a lemon. Delmo resembled his tall, skinny father but had his mother’s dark coloring. Molly said the portrait and some landscapes gave the room a more professional appearance.

Not for the first time, Delmo considered throwing the photo into the recycler. He knew his mother’s expression was one she saved for Delmo. He called it Mom’s Disappointment. She reminded him often he wasn’t cut out to be a detective, and she could always use an assistant on whatever planet she was digging up. He scratched his two-day-old beard and contrasted working for his micro-managing mother or starving. He didn’t mind being skinny.

Horatio Gregor had attended the station’s university and not accompanied his geologist parents to Metamenia IV. Uninterested in geology and tired of being a responsible adult to his sparring parents, Delmo took their enrollment money and waved goodbye.

“Molly, please tell me you sent something to Mom three months ago by courier, because you know I don’t have the funds for a direct link.”

The speaker reproduced a sigh. “Of course, I did. You’re welcome. Miss Janet Morton left a message, indicating you owe her a half-month’s rent.”

“There wasn’t a contract,” Delmo said. “She asked me to move in with her.”

“I hoped you’d settle down with Janet and not break things off when they got serious. Shall I forward her to small claims court?”

“No,” he said, “ignore her and hope she forgets it. My girlfriends always want a lifetime contract. Anything on the Palmasters?”

“I’ve been running his contacts’ backgrounds,” she replied. “So far I’ve detected one aberration. Also, you wouldn’t have problems with ex-girlfriends if you committed yourself—”

“Thank you, Mother. What aberration?” He’d been through the reports and, aside from the shattered bones in a pristine body, hadn’t found anything unusual.

“When examining Mr. Palmaster’s employment and school history, I detected an anomaly.”

“Did he spend time on the surface?”

She hesitated. “No. Should I include such information in my search parameters?”

“Yes. Go on.”

“According to his records, Mr. Palmaster was born on the station and attended university here. He also attended university twice. He graduated and returned several years later and retook the same classes.”

“Perhaps he needed a refresher. I did.”

“You crammed a three-year degree into six years. You’d still be getting your statistical analysis degree if your parents’ money hadn’t run out.”

“You’re being unkind,” Delmo said. “It took time to develop my gifts.” Sitting in a cubicle and keeping statistics would be as boring as digging up ancient civilizations. He wished he was better at the detecting part, like in the movies where the detective glanced at the murder scene and said, “Professor Plum did it in the library with a candlestick!”

“I see,” Molly said. “Mr. Palmaster took the same classes he’d taken before and received the same grades twice.”

That didn’t sound right. “How long do the classes repeat?”

“Two years. Almost the entire engineering curriculum.”

A warning bell went off in his head. He recognized false records. He and Molly had done a few for clients, but he changed the details when he rebuilt a client’s history. Only one organization operated so sloppy – the Council, the station’s governing body.

“Molly, have you heard anything from Franklin DeSota?”

“I do have a new message from him. He says, ‘Thank you for the binoculars. They’re like the ones my Uncle Silas used.’” She paused. “I have no record of you sending my creator a gift.”

Delmo’s close friend, a talented albino, expanded AI abilities beyond what the law would allow for a hefty price. Delmo hadn’t sent Franklin a gift, but he wasn’t surprised his old friend had information about his current case. He monitored everything.

“Binoculars” meant someone was watching him. “Uncle Silas” indicated someone high up in the station’s government had an interest in this particular case, a bureaucrat who could dummy up a person’s history yet make a mess of it.

“Please erase Franklin’s message,” he said.

“Including the eye record of what I’ve just told you?” she asked.

“That would be a serious infraction of the law.”

“So yes?”

“Begin as soon as I’m asleep. Please wake me before midnight with coffee. Valma says she has some new information for me.”

“Anything else, your majesty?” Molly disliked being used as an appliance.

“Yes, thank you. Extrapolate what could smash a skeleton but leave the skin intact. Details are in Valma’s autopsy report.”

When Molly acknowledged, he headed for his unmade bed. Why would the government be interested in an engineer’s murder? What did Valma know she couldn’t tell him over the comp? Why had Patsy lied about her husband being on Freeheart?

He enjoyed this part of the case, examining miscellaneous information that might or might not prove useful. The Council’s involvement increased the chance his client was innocent. He pushed his mother’s nagging voice aside and thought of silk bathrobes and a positive bank balance as he slipped into slumber.

Delmo sat up, wide awake and still tired. He’d been asleep for a couple hours. He tossed his rumpled bedclothes aside, deciding he’d rather work than spend time picturing himself as his mother’s personal secretary and his parents’ referee. He suspected his father had gone deaf years ago out of self-defense.

After a shower, he felt human again. He donned a black two-piece and entered the kitchenette for a soy burrito and coffee.

“Okay, Molly,” he said. “What’s been happening?”

“With the case or the station in general?”

“Don’t make me pour this tasteless pseudo-coffee on your keyboard.”

“You are grumpy when you wake,” Molly said. “Mrs. Palmaster hasn’t called with her court date.”

“That’s good.” Delmo sipped his coffee. “It means the prosecution is having as much trouble with this case as we are. Her motive could be money, but she’s a wealthy businesswoman. She had opportunity and expertise to override the safety protocols yet didn’t hide it. Any scenario account for his shattered bones?”

“I have several theories,” Molly said, “but all have low probabilities.”

Delmo chewed his burrito, flavored with new spices from the surface, and made a face. He wouldn’t try Tango Viennese again. “What about his competition?”

“Seems congenial. However, StarCraft, Incorporated lodged a civil complaint for employee theft several months ago.”

“Employee theft? Someone stole something?”

Molly sighed. “No. Mr. Palmaster’s company stole a StarCraft employee.”

“That sounds promising. Can you reach StarCraft?”

His screen fluttered as Molly contacted the owner.

Delmo swallowed the rest of his burrito. “Hello, Mr. Smithson. My name is Detective Delmo, and I’m working on the Palmaster case. Do you have a few minutes?”

Mr. Smithson, a large man with gray hair and a square jaw, stared at Delmo before speaking. “Yes, I heard about Josh. Too bad. I liked him.”

“But you filed a business complaint against him.”

Mr. Smithson shrugged. “Yeah, he stole my best guy, a young nanotech. Obin could make those little buggers do anything. Josh bought out his contract and sent some business my way. We had a beer and got over it.”

“I see. Forgive me, sir, but how are nanorobots used for construction? I thought they were microscopic. Seems like it would take them a long time to build anything.”

“They are tiny,” Mr. Smithson said, “but powerful. We use them for demolition. Just program them with the shape and size of whatever you want removed and let the little bastards chew it apart.”

“I see,” Delmo said. “Who might want Mr. Palmaster dead?”

“Besides the shrew he married, I don’t know.”

Not helpful. “Thank you, Mr. Smithson,” Delmo said. “Please let me know if you think of anything else.” He sent his number to Smithson’s screen. “Have a good evening.”

“Yeah. You, too,” he said. His image disappeared.

“I have a high probability on what caused Mr. Palmaster’s demise,” Molly announced.

Delmo laughed. “Could it be nanorobots? I’ll ask Valma to verify it tonight. Can you uncover Mr. Palmaster’s real history during those overwritten two years?”

“No,” she said, “someone erased the information before they overwrote it. They might not have been creative, but they were thorough.”

“Too bad. That might tell us who wanted him dead.”

“There’s always Mr. DeSota,” she said. Her voice betrayed the awe she felt towards the man who had given her a personality and faster processing.

“We shouldn’t involve him,” Delmo said.

“Yes, it would be bad for his reputation. What should I tell him?”

“Send a message that says, ‘Linda’s Lane Tomorrow Morning.’ He’ll understand.” Delmo smiled, recalling the night a sexgirl had lured him and his friend into the alley. It had been worth the money. “I’ll leave a note and ask him what Josh Palmaster was doing during those counterfeit years. I’ll drop it off when I visit Valma.”

Molly printed off the message.

“Start displaying my eye’s download from yesterday and today,” Delmo instructed. “Speed at my discretion.”

“Do you want a transcript?”

“Not yet. Let me see what I can figure out. Start with the body shots, please.”

After midnight and with no answers, Delmo took the Blue-Red to the hospital. The passersby had dwindled, and he spotted the young man trailing him. Although he wore a messenger’s VR helmet, the way he darted from planter to post told Delmo his shadow was young. Delmo ruled out the prosecutor’s office, although he expected them to be nosing around soon. They would charge Mrs. Palmaster if they had a solid case, and they didn’t have one. Yet. It might be someone from the Council, although why they’d be involved, Delmo had no clue.

The shadow’s awkward ducking movements each time Delmo looked over his shoulder told Delmo his follower was an amateur and not a policeman.

Although the police and justice system worked for the Council, they wouldn’t worry about anything as simple as an engineer’s murder.

Delmo shook his head as the man tried hiding behind two older ladies who stood half his height.

Delmo lost him by taking an exit into Bartown and mingling with the drunks. Linda’s Lane, at the edge of Bartown, looked deserted, and Delmo opened a false pipe midway down the alley and inserted his message for Franklin.

“Okay, Love of My Life,” he said as he entered the morgue, “what’s so special you had to tell me in person?”

Valma placed her hands on her hips. “You’re not going to like it. It’s another oddity.”

Delmo, intrigued, pulled the bag of Viladian pearls from his pocket.

Valma opened a drawer under the table. In it, a long piece of skin lay stretched out.

“Is that from an arm?” Delmo grimaced as he approached.

“It’s Mr. Palmaster’s,” Valma said. “The rest of him is in storage, but I wanted you to see this.”

She swung a lamp over the drawer and switched it on. It produced no light Delmo could see, but the skin lit up with five purple squares.

“What is that?” he asked. “A tattoo?”

“Slave ID numbers. Someone’s removed them,” she replied. “They’re a couple decades old and shallow. Whoever made these IDs didn’t intend them to be permanent.”

“Temporary slave IDs?” Delmo had never heard of such a thing. Criminals received tattoos when exiled to the planet’s surface. If they survived for a decade, they were returned to Nexus unless they’d been convicted of capital crimes. Those never left the planet’s surface.

“So, he was on Freeheart,” Delmo said. “Why would an engineering graduate be sent down there and brought back after a couple years?”

“I can answer the first part.” Valma closed the drawer under the table. “I found traces of Sporax in his powdered bones. Long ago, he was addicted.”

Sporax allowed the human body to perform far beyond its capabilities, on physical and mental levels. Illegal, and fatal if overused, the government had waged a war against the substance for decades.

“So, our student got hooked on Spore, was arrested, and sentenced to the planet. Hard to believe he’s the same man who ran a major construction company here. Still, I can’t blame him for hiding his past.”

She handed Delmo an autopsy report. “I’ve seen another like him.”

He opened it to see a photo of a dead woman. “Who is she?”

“Felicia Dryden, a restaurant hostess on level 2.”

“How did she die?”

“Fell down the stairs. I scanned her body twice because something didn’t look right. She had too many blunt force injuries for tumbling down the stairs, but nothing conclusive.” She pulled out another photo. It revealed another skin fragment.

She said, “It’s not unusual to have a slave mark removed when they return, and I’ve seen many while working here. But this is not a government-issued tattoo. It’s only two molecules deep. I pulled her tox screen, and she had also used Spore.”

Delmo shook his head. “These two bodies both have non-regulation slave IDs and a former drug habit? That can’t be a coincidence.”

“True,” Valma said, “but if these two deaths are related, you might be involved in something dangerous. I didn’t mention the tattoo in Mr. Palmaster’s autopsy report. I’ll update it tomorrow.”

“Did Miss Dryden have a family? Maybe they know about the tattoo.”

Valma shrugged. “Her son claimed the body. Nice young man.”

A soft buzzer went off behind her, and she checked a monitor. “We have company. A messenger from the looks of his helmet.”

“He’s no messenger. He’s been following me,” Delmo said. “I thought I’d lost him. Do you have a back door?”

“No.” She pointed at the body cabinet. “But I have places to hide. Better give me my chocolates before you lie down. I’ll tell you when he leaves.”

Exhausted, he fell asleep in the empty cadaver drawer before he could ask Valma if nanorobots could deconstruct a human skeleton.

“Valma,” Delmo said when he awoke the next morning, “that’s the best night’s sleep I’ve had in years. Maybe I should snooze with the dead more often.”

“I’ll start charging you,” Valma said. “The guy came in, said he needed directions. I kicked him out. I decided to let you sleep.”

“Thank you,” Delmo said. “It’s me he wanted. He shouldn’t bother you again. Valma, could nanorobots have pulverized Mr. Palmaster’s bones?”

“What a strange idea.” She removed her lab coat. “I’ll check tonight. You want to sneak out in the garbage? Your friend might be waiting.”

Delmo hesitated. “You mean with the biological waste? No thanks. I’ll take my chances out the front.”

His wrist comp beeped. It was Molly. She had a message to meet an old friend at the Purple Puke.

Delmo, surprised Franklin wanted to see him in person, said, “I’d better go. Let me know what you find about the nanorobots.”

No one followed him when he left, but he was worried. Meeting Franklin in person never resulted in good news.

“Are you nuts?” Delmo took an empty park bench in the morning sun. The station’s lights gave the citizens a comfortable day and night cycle. He didn’t address the man sitting at a nearby bench with his back to him. Franklin, as usual when in sunlight, wore a scarf, hat, and goggles. Nobody paid the two men any attention, passing through the park to or from work.

“I’m surprised you remembered the Purple Puke.” Delmo kept his chin down. If anyone had him under surveillance, they’d assume he was using his comp.

“You’d be dead now if I hadn’t held your head out of the gutter,” Franklin said. “It’s amazing that drink didn’t kill you.”

“What are we doing here? I’m being followed. I’m hot.”

“You’re not hot, Delmo, you’re molten. Drop this case. You’re in way over your head.”

Franklin’s serious tone sent chills up Delmo spine. “You must have found something in Mr. Palmaster’s artificial past. What scared you we had to meet in person?”

“I can’t tell you,” Franklin said. “Trust me on this one. You’ve opened a shit storm, Horatio. You might already have sunk too far to dig your way out.”

“What are you talking about?”

Franklin sighed. “You’re not going to let this go, are you?”

“I’ve had a good night’s sleep, Franklin. I can face anything.”

“You might not say that after you hear what I have to say. My investigations may have set off alarms in high places.”

“How does this involve a dead contractor and a hostess?”

Franklin squirmed. “Josh Palmaster used Spore at university. The police apprehended, charged, and sentenced him to the surface. Then, it gets strange.”

“No,” Delmo said, “what’s strange is he returned so soon. And someone knew he wouldn’t be down long. That sounds like a reconnaissance mission.”

Franklin snorted. “You’ve gotten better at this detective crap. It took me hours to get that far. Two others returned with him. They were involved in more than a recon.”


“They worked in Scot Ray Parkson’s compound.”

Chief Scot Ray Parkson and his violent death was the stuff of legends. Freeheart’s largest tribe protected their own and enslaved neighboring tribes, making Parkson more and more powerful. For the first time in Freeheart’s history, someone had unified the planet’s nomadic colonists and had taken the Confederation’s mining companies to court.

Then, Parkson, his wives, and children were slaughtered by a rival tribe.

“I’m confused,” Delmo said. “If these three were in the compound, how did they escape the massacre?”

“And why were they returned to the station afterward?”

Delmo considered his friend’s question. “They were involved somehow, and the Council pulled them out.”

“What kind of team is composed of an engineer, a pretty woman, and a loadmaster with a demolition certificate?”

Delmo felt cold. “Not a recon mission. An assassination team with a target. They killed Parkson and his people.”

“Bingo,” Franklin said. “I’ve asked Molly to find the other team member.” He stood. “You might already be too late to save him. Someone is tying up loose ends. Don’t get caught up in it, Horatio. See if Janet’s still available. I hear her last boyfriend dumped her because he had commitment issues. Better yet, give your client her money back and go work for your mother.”

Delmo still felt bad about Janet, but he’d never deserted a client before, even a guilty one. He’d never uncovered a Council assassination plot either. If Franklin’s wild assertions were correct, three people, sanctioned by the government, had killed Scot Ray Parkson and his family. Now, someone was killing them.

Maybe his mother could use someone to clean her trowels.

With Felicia and his client’s husband dead, Delmo must find the other member of the temporary tattoo team before the demolition expert ended up in Valma’s morgue, too.

Molly beeped his comp to tell him she’d found the third member and sent Delmo the address.

The old man punched Delmo hard. The detective had been unprepared when the big man leaped at him.

“Showed yourself, didn’t you?” The loadmaster stood over Delmo. “Maybe now you’ll stop following me.”

Delmo wiped blood off his split lip, but before he could explain, Sinclair grabbed his collar and yanked him upright. “Who sent you?”

Delmo activated his shock grip and pressed it against the man’s neck. Sinclair collapsed on the floor, twitching but still conscious.

Delmo bent over him. “I haven’t been following you. No one sent me.” He showed his detective credentials. “Patsy Palmaster’s my client. She’s accused of killing her husband.”

Holding his head, Sinclair sat up. “Never heard of her.” He spat and scrutinized Delmo. “Wait. Josh Palmaster is dead?”

“And Felicia Dryden.”

Delmo offered his hand and helped Sinclair up. “If you’re being followed, you’re the next victim.”

“I don’t know anything about nothing,” Sinclair said.

“What about that?” Delmo indicated the man’s faded slave tattoo. Not all survivors had them removed. Some took pride being recognized as a returnee.

“I did my time,” Sinclair replied. “Now leave before I smash you.”

“Listen, Sinclair. I know what you and the others did on Freeheart. Now, someone’s killing you one by one. If you’re lucky, we’ll catch them before they get you.” He offered the man his business card.

Sinclair scowled but took the card. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ve got until I count to three. One…”

Delmo left.

At the office, Molly downloaded his third eye’s recording of the recent morgue visit, the cargo bay altercation, and Franklin’s personal warning. Dangerous as Franklin believed the case to be, Delmo wasn’t ready to turn in his third eye.

He iced his fat lip. “Molly, any luck discovering who was following me?”

“No. There’s no clear image of him in your records.”

“I thought perhaps it was someone sent by the Council, but this guy was too young and too inexperienced.”

“Have you considered it might be the murderer?” she asked. “And why would a kid kill a hostess and an engineer?”

Delmo sighed. “I have no idea. I’ve got a lot of questions and no answers. Maybe my mother is right, and I’d be a better off as a statistician.”

He stood and filled his coffee cup. “Someone bludgeoned the hostess and turned the engineer into a human pancake. If they’re not working for the Council, why are they killing people with temporary tattoos?”

“Circumstantial,” Molly said. “These three were there during the massacre and left soon after. Mr. Palmaster’s and Miss Dryden’s deaths may be unrelated.”

“True,” Delmo admitted. “Still, Mrs. Palmaster should see Sinclair’s photo. Perhaps the three collaborators kept in touch.”

“Still circumstantial,” she said.

“If this is Council business, they do sloppy work.”

“Agreed,” she said. “Your mother left a message.”

“Save it. I’m distracted enough. I don’t need her telling me what a loser I am.”

“She never says that,” Molly said.

“She can indicate years of disapproval with a raised eyebrow.”

“Delmo, have you considered seeing—” She stopped. “I’ve got an emergency call from Mr. Sinclair.”

“Put him through.”

“Where are you, you bastard?” Sinclair asked when his image appeared. “I’ll kill you this time.”

“I’m in my office, Mr. Sinclair, and have been for an hour. My secretary can verify it. What’s happened?”

Sinclair sat in the dark, his harsh features faint on the screen. Faint music played in the background. “Someone tried to kill me. Made it look like an accident.”

“Where are you?” Delmo asked. “Someplace safe?”

Sinclair looked left and right. “For now. Had to borrow Smitty’s spare leg.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’m at Smitty’s in Bartown. Make sure you’re not followed.” The screen went dark.

“I don’t understand why Mr. Sinclair would need to borrow an extra leg,” Molly said.

“I don’t know.” Delmo placed his half-empty cup in the sink. “But I’ll find out.”

The station’s illumination indicated it was afternoon, but he couldn’t tell the time by the traffic in Bartown. Crowds filled the streets, some coming off work, some going. Smitty’s bar occupied the end of a street. It had a reputation for hard drinking and brawling. The place was empty. One young man entered behind Delmo but took a seat at the bar.

As Delmo sat at Sinclair’s table, his stomach growled. He nodded at the loadmaster and reached for the bowl of nuts.

Sinclair blocked his hand. “Don’t touch those. They’re twenty years old. Smitty puts them out for show.” He pointed to an illuminated wall menu. “The soy burgers are good. They season them with Freeheart spices.”

“Thanks.” Delmo pressed a selection and paid with his comp. “What happened?”

Sinclair thrust his right leg from beneath the table. Two steel tubes protruded with a hinge where the knee should have been.

“What happened?” Delmo asked.

“I lost the flesh and blood leg years ago on Freeheart, but I got a cyborg one when I came back.”

“That’s not in your records.”

Smitty limped up with two unordered beers. With a nod at Sinclair, he returned to the bar.

“Smitty doesn’t talk much.” Sinclair took a drink. “Thank god he had an extra leg.”

“What happened?” Delmo asked.

“I almost jumped free, but a stack of stone toppled over and smashed my robot leg.”

“Who pushed the stone over?”

“Pushed? It weighed tons. No one could have pushed it over. The supervisor said the bottom block experienced fatigue or something. Funny that it crumbled in my direction.”

Delmo didn’t mention the nanorobots he suspected had killed Josh Palmaster. “Did you tell the police?”

Sinclair held out his tattooed arm. “Cops and I don’t mix. If you aren’t behind this, you might know who is. First Josh, then Felicia. You’re right. Someone is killing us for what we did on Freeheart.”

Smitty brought the burger and returned to the bar.

“The others are dead?” Sinclair asked.

Delmo took a bite of his burger and suppressed a gag. Tango Viennese. “Yes. Something pulverized Josh’s skeleton from the inside. While he was still alive. Felicia fell down a flight of stairs, but she may have been beaten beforehand.”

“Serves her right,” Sinclair said. “She’s the reason I lost my leg. Just because she wouldn’t leave that damn kid when the camp blew up.”

Delmo ordered a beer. “Who wanted Parkson killed?”

“We never knew,” Sinclair said. “We were recruited. Me for my explosive’s certification, Felicia to catch Parkson’s eye and get us into the compound, and Josh to tell me where to plant the bomb. They erased our criminal records, and the docs patched us up afterwards. Nobody—”

The floor rippled. Cracking sounds accompanied the undulations. Screams filled the air as the floor tilted and dumped their booth into the basement. Sinclair slipped into the darkness seconds before the gaping hole swallowed Delmo.

He didn’t lose consciousness, but he felt every crossbeam he encountered before he hit the floor below. He landed hard, and a wall fell on him, driving air and consciousness from his body. When he came to, his right arm throbbed and was bent at an odd angle.

Shadows and smoke surrounded him. For a brief second, he feared the explosion had exposed the station to raw space. But he still breathed. He had more urgent matters to deal with like the wall crushing him and the agony of his broken arm.

Someone moaned. Delmo, pinned, could only move his head. In the flickering light from a sparking electrical cable, he saw Sinclair lying under the wall. His open mouth trickled blood, and his eyes were closed.

“Sinclair?” he asked. “Are you all right?” A thin steel shaft supported the fallen wall. Sinclair’s artificial leg had saved them.

“We didn’t know we’d be killing children,” the old man gasped. “Tell them—”

Whatever wisdom Sinclair wanted to pass would remain a secret. He sucked air in jagged inhalations and never exhaled again.

The smoke cleared, and rescue teams and Smitty’s customers called to one another above. “Help!” Delmo shouted. “We’re stuck under here.”

A pair of legs appeared near Delmo’s head, soon replaced by the intense face of the young man from the bar.

“Is Sinclair with you?” he asked.

“Yes.” Had he known Sinclair?

He disappeared. “I’ll get a pry bar and lift up the wall. I’ll pull him out first.”

“He’s behind me,” Delmo said. “Pull me out, and I’ll help you with him.”

The wall shifted, and Delmo feared it would be his and Sinclair’s tombstone. A hand reached into the enclosed space. Delmo reached for it with his good arm. His shoulder felt as if it was being torn from its socket, but he slid into the open.

“That’s Sinclair in there?” His rescuer held a steel bar he’d used to lift the wall.

Delmo held his broken arm and nodded. They stood in an isolated section of Smitty’s basement warehouse. Bottles and broken crates surrounded them. “But don’t hurry. Your friend’s already—”

To Delmo’s shock, the young man took the steel pipe and jabbed it into Sinclair’s dead body.

“What are you doing?” Delmo pulled the man back with his good arm.

“He killed my father.” Enraged, the man stabbed again and again, dislodging Sinclair’s steel leg and collapsing the wall.

“Your father?” Delmo asked. “Wait. You weren’t just having a drink at Smitty’s. You followed me to find Sinclair!”

The man tried pulling the pry bar free in a rage. With a grunt, he yanked the bar free.

“Who are you?” Delmo asked. Something Sinclair had said popped into his head. The old man said he’d lost his leg because Felicia wouldn’t leave behind a child. A Freeheart boy. “You’re Obin…Dryden?”

Obin swung the bar around, its tip dripping with Sinclair’s blood. “Don’t call me that. I’m Obin Ray Parkson! They murdered my father.”

Delmo felt like a fool when all the pieces fell into place. Felicia Dryden had rescued one of the chief’s children during the massacre. Her payment for getting the explosive into the compound must have been an arranged adoption.

When he’d discovered his mother’s role in the massacre, Obin had killed her. Then, he’d killed Josh with his skills as a nano-herder.

“You killed your own mother?” Delmo stalled, hoping safety personnel reached them soon.

“She wasn’t my mother. She killed my real mother. I made her tell me who else murdered my family.”

“Why this?” Delmo gestured at the carnage.

Obin looked embarrassed. “My nanorobots cut through a power conduit that’s not on the schematics. I wanted Sinclair to fall down here where I could beat him to death. Slow like Palmaster.”

“Why were you following me?” Delmo hoped his third eye hadn’t been damaged. He needed Obin’s recorded confession to free his client. He also hoped the young man didn’t eliminate witnesses.

“I couldn’t find Sinclair, so I followed you. Why are you asking me these questions? Were you involved?”

Delmo’s mangled and useless shock grip hung from his broken arm, and he took a step back.

“I’m a private detective.” He pointed at his third eye. “Just doing my job.”

Obin raised the bar. “You’re like everyone else. You let them—”

His eyes rolled up, and he collapsed.

Behind him, Smitty held a broken wine bottle. “Who’s paying for all this?”

People walked among the hedges and flowerbeds, chatting and laughing. No one paid attention to the two men sitting together beneath a grape arbor. One man sported a large hat and a bulky trench coat. Although the temperature was warm, he also wore a colorful scarf and gloves.

Delmo cradled his arm in a sling.

“I worried about you on this case,” Franklin said. “The Council killed Scot Ray Parkson. When the councilman who planned it died, they wanted the participants eliminated. Some flunky decided the quickest way to do that would be to tell Obin the truth and let him dispose of the loose ends. We could’ve been collateral damage.”

Delmo sighed. “Some detective I am. I fell onto the right culprit. I should have figured out it was Obin earlier.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Franklin said. “You might not have the highest IQ in the room, but you always know where to get answers. I couldn’t have pieced Valma’s report, Molly’s discovery of the duplicated history, and what I found together. You might not be a great detective, but you are a skilled information broker. In this day and age, maybe that makes a better detective. Don’t beat yourself up. You proved your client innocent, got paid, and caught a dangerous criminal.”

Delmo didn’t feel like celebrating. “Three people are dead, and the Council may have a contract on me.”

“You’re not that important,” Franklin said. “Obin will be sentenced and exiled to Freeheart where he’ll become the world leader his father wasn’t allowed to be. Chess Thursday night?”

“Sure.” Maybe being an information broker was better than digging under the hot sun on a distant planet. Franklin was probably right about the Council thinking Delmo was too smalltime to waste resources on. Still, he’d better keep his eyes open.

All three of them.

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