From the case files of Detective Ezekiel “Easy” Novak . . . 

“Trouble Is My Business” by Mike Kupari

Delta City is one hell of a town. You ever been there? Let me tell you about it. The Big D is the second-largest city on Nova Columbia and the largest in the planet’s northern hemisphere. Situated in a crater some forty miles across, it’s a sprawling megalopolis of thirty million people that never sleeps. It’s constantly churning, constantly busy, twenty-six hours a day, four hundred and one days per local year. The Chamber of Commerce likes to call it The Economic Engine of the Northern Hemisphere, and that’s probably a fair assessment.

You might be asking yourself why we all live in a handful of huge, densely populated cities when we have a whole planet with only ninety million inhabitants. Believe me, it’s not because we enjoy each other’s company that much. Nova Columbia is the only habitable planet in the 18 Scorpii system, and they say it was a perfect candidate for colonization. It has gravity close enough to Earth’s so as to not make any difference, fifty percent of the surface is covered in oceans, and it has an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere that you can breathe. The native life is primitive and mostly benign.

But while there’s a lot of open land on Nova Columbia, most of it is pretty bleak, even barren. The vast continental interiors are rocky, dry, and volcanically active. In many places you have to drill down eight, ten, even twelve thousand feet to hit the water table. There’s no vegetation and the soil lacks many of the basic nutrients needed for agriculture. Land is cheap; useful land is precious. Every year, the terraformed zones get a little bigger, but the process takes a long time.

Someday, this planet will be a green and blue paradise to rival Earth. Until then, most of us live packed into places like Delta and Epsilon City. From what I understand it isn't as congested as some ancient Earth cities like London, New York, or Shanghai. In any case, it’s not so bad. I wouldn’t make a very good farmer or frontier homesteader. I’m a detective, a professional snoop, and a city like the Big D gives me plenty of opportunity for work. I was born here, I grew up here, and it’s my home.

Not everybody lives in the city, though. North of the Crater, between it and the Black Mountains, is a vast plain over a hundred miles wide, bisected by the Idaho River. It’s known as the Delta Agricultural Zone, or Ag Zone, or DAZ, depending on who you ask. Here there is plentiful ground water, rich soil, and enough annual rainfall to make it one of the most fertile agricultural zones on the planet. As you can imagine, on a bleak world like Nova Columbia, productive farmland is incredibly valuable. Sure, there’s hydroponic farming all over the place, but it can’t beat the volume of low-cost production that millions of acres of premium farmland provide.

Most of the farms are heavily automated and are managed by one of several agricultural corporations, but there are some that are still owned by the descendants of the first wave of colonists. Many of these families accumulated a lot of wealth in the subsequent hundred and forty or so years. Old money, the closest thing Nova Columbia has to a landed gentry.

I reflected on this one morning as I drove along Route 1, over the pass at the northern rim of the Crater, through the Delta Hills, and down into the Ag Zone. My client in this case came from one of those old money families, and I was on my way to his home to meet with him. I don’t normally make house calls like that, but for the money I’d been offered up front, I made an exception.

Taking city traffic into account, it was more than a two-hour drive from my office in East Downtown to the client’s residence, an estate deep in the Ag Zone. My car’s auto-navigation function was on the fritz again, so I was driving it manually. I didn’t mind; I like driving. It relaxes me. I called Lily, my assistant, to get briefed on the client. She appeared on my car’s console screen as we talked. She was fair-skinned, her hair black with purple streaks in it, and she wore a lot of eyeliner.

“Good morning, Boss,” she said, cup of coffee in hand. She wasn’t what you’d call a morning person. “How’s the drive?”

“I just crossed over into the DAZ,” I said, pausing to sip my own coffee from my travel mug. I kept my eyes on the road and only occasionally glanced at the screen as we talked. “You just get into the office?”

“No,” she said, “I’ve been here for a couple hours.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” I said. Bless her heart, I couldn’t run the agency without her. Barely in her twenties, Lily was the best net-diver I knew, a former child prodigy who fell in with the wrong crowd and got busted for hacking as a teenager. She was a hard worker, though, and was both honest and loyal.

Lily shrugged. “I was up anyway, and I’d rather work from the office in case I needed to access our case files.” To protect against data theft, none of my agency’s records or private client data was kept on a computer connected to the planetary network. It was all stored on a separate drive in a safe in my office, and even that was encrypted. Some might think it’s overkill, but plenty of big corporations, armed with the best network protection money can buy, have suffered embarrassing hacks and network breaches.

“So, what have you found?” I asked. Normally I didn’t go into a client meeting this unprepared, but this was an unusual case. Late the night before I received an encrypted audio call from a man calling himself Cyrus Vermillion. He said he represented a Mr. Felix Konrad, who was a man of some means. He was real sparse on the details, but explained that there was a situation that called for my expertise and a lot of discretion. He was willing to pay double my normal retainer fee up front, but the catch was I had to meet the client in person at his home the next morning. He also made me sign a nondisclosure agreement.

“First off, the guy who called you? Yeah, turns out that Cyrus Vermillion is, in fact, his real name, not an alias or pseudonym. He’s an attorney, the personal consigliere of Felix Konrad, and has worked for him for many years.”

“Who is Felix Konrad?”

“You didn’t do any research last night, did you?”

I grinned. “Kid, I’m gonna be straight with you, I was already a few drinks deep when the call came in, and yesterday was a long day. After I contacted you I went straight to bed. What’d you find?”

“Felix Konrad is the great-grandson of Maximillian Konrad, an agricultural scientist who was in the first wave of colonists at Site Delta. He was from the Republic of Texas on Earth, and was one of the original stakeholders of the Nova Columbia Colony Project a hundred and forty years ago. Today the Konrad family owns twenty-five thousand acres of prime farmland in the Delta Agricultural Zone, where they grow corn and wheat. Farther out, in the marginal regions of the Ag Zone, they have an additional two hundred thousand acres of ranch land, where they raise cattle.”

“That’s a big spread. What else?”

“The Konrads are rich, but they’re not, like, super-rich. They’re not, you know, billionaires. Most of their wealth is tied up in the land and in the agribusiness. They’re facing stiff competition from the big three ag corporations. By the way, all three have made buyout offers, which the Konrads declined. You think that might have something to do with the case?”

“Can’t say at this point, but that’s good to know.”

“Felix is a third generation Nova Columbian and the legal owner of the family assets. The property itself is tied up in a perpetual land trust established by his great-grandfather. It can’t be parceled out or sold piecemeal, it’s all or nothing.”

“How old is Felix? Are his parents still around?”

“He’s Sixty-three local years of age and no, they’re not. His parents were celebrities. Not only did they come from a prominent, first wave family, they were a husband-and-wife team of adventurers. They spent a lot of time off-world together, joining different survey and exploration missions. They liked to find and collect alien artifacts.”

“Hmm. That’s the sort of hobby that isn’t necessarily legal.”

“There’s a lot of bureaucracy to work through if you want to legally bring off-world alien artifacts to Nova Columbia. It’s not just Commonwealth law you have to navigate, either—the Terran Confederation has a binding treaty called the Conventions on the Discovery and Control of Alien Technology, Organisms, and Remains. Long story short, it’s doable, but it’s an expensive process. There’s a pretty lucrative collector’s market for a lot of this stuff. All the regulation just inflates the prices even further.”


“Scanning through old tabloid articles, there were rumors and accusations that not everything they brought back was legal, but nothing that warranted an official investigation. Forty-five years ago, they departed the system on a ship called the Ganymede Elegy and were never seen again.”

“Is that right? What happened?”

“No one knows,” Lily said. “The ship was last seen departing the Zeta Leporis system. It was never found. Felix was only nineteen years old when the ship was declared overdue. A year later it was presumed lost, and he became the legal heir of the family holdings, though the property remained tied up in the land trust. This was a big story in the tabloids at the time.”

“Well, ain’t that a hell of a thing? Any siblings? Any other beneficiaries of this land trust?”

“No, he’s an only child.”

“Does he have family of his own?”

“Yes. His wife is named Lorraine. He has two adult children, a daughter named Lydia and a son named Miguel. The daughter doesn’t have any kind of a record that I can find. The son, Miguel? He’s been in trouble a few times, both as a minor and as an adult, but his actual criminal record is sealed.”

“Sealed, huh? Interesting. Are there any news reports of him being arrested?”

“Not that I can find. Whatever it was, they kept it quiet. Sorry.”

“That’s all right. You’ve given me plenty to work with for now. I don’t even know what this whole thing is about. Keep at it, if you would. I’m going into this blind and I’d like to know as much about the client as possible.”

“Will do. How far out are you?”

“I’ll be there in less than an hour. I’m enjoying the scenery.” The gently rolling hills and green fields of the Agricultural Zone were a nice change from the ceramicrete canyons of the city. “I’ll call you after the meeting.”

“Just be careful, Boss. They hired you and made you sign an NDA without even telling you what the situation was. Feels like trouble to me.”

“Feels the same to me, kid, but you know how it is. Trouble is my business.”

# # #

It was right around 1000 in the morning when I arrived at the Konrad Estate. It was a palatial spread to say the least. Turning off the highway, I came to a stop at a closed security gate. They were expecting me, so the gate opened without me having to do anything and I proceeded onto the estate grounds. The driveway to the house was half a mile long, flanked on either side by fields of corn stalks. The house was large, not quite a mansion but much larger than a normal single-family home. It stood amidst several acres of perfectly landscaped grass and trees. The driveway ended in a loop that circled around a huge oak tree, with a small parking area off to one side.

No one was waiting outside to greet me, so after getting out of the car, I headed for the front door. It was a pleasant morning, with the temperature already in the high sixties and climbing, and it was noticeably more humid than it was in Delta City. The sun was shining and there were only a few scattered clouds. I was wearing my summer suit jacket, one that’s so lightweight you can forget you’re wearing it, and a tie, despite the nice weather. It’s important to look professional, especially when meeting a new client. In any case, the jacket concealed my gun, which was in a shoulder holster under my right arm.

The house had numerous windows in the front, but they were all polarized to where I couldn’t see in. A set of wide stairs led up to a sprawling covered porch. I crossed that and came to the front doors of the place, flanked on either side by tall, narrow, windows. A small camera turret above it was tracking me as I approached.

“Please state your business,” a synthesized voice said. It surprised me a little.

“I’m Eziekiel Novak,” I said, looking up at the camera. “I’m expected.”

The camera beeped once and the double doors quietly swung open. “Please come in,” the electronic voice said. I stepped inside and removed my hat. Just across the threshold was a large foyer. To my right, along the wall, was a curving staircase that led up to the second floor. A man in a black suit made his way down the steps to greet me. He was about six feet tall with an athletic build. His hair was jet black and his face had a little stubble. There was a slight variance in the skin texture on his face, along his right cheek and jawline. He’d had a skin graft on his face, I thought, the kind they do with burn victims, but it had been a long time since. His eyes glinted unnaturally—they were prosthetic implants.

You meet a lot of people in my line of work and you get a feel for them. This guy? He was a serious man, the kind who didn’t suffer fools. He stuck his hand out as he approached. “Cyrus Vermillion,” he said, crushing my hand in an iron grip. “We spoke last night. Thank you for coming all the way out here on such short notice.” He was assertive while being soft-spoken. He made steady, unflinching eye contact. I could tell he was sizing me up.

“It was no trouble,” I said. “So, uh, what is it that I can help you with?”

“Mr. Konrad wishes to discuss that with you directly,” he said. “I’ll take you to him. Please, follow me.”

To my surprise I was not brought to a home office or a private study. Vermillion instead led me across the house to a small room behind a locked door. In this room was an elevator door with a security lockout on it. The house only had two floors. Why the hidden elevator? It must go down to an underground level, I thought.

Vermillion said, “Please leave your handheld on that table there, Mr. Novak.” He had in his hand an electromagnetic frequency scanner, the kind they use to search for hidden cameras or listening devices.

“What’s this all about?” I asked, setting my phone down.

The consigliere stepped forward, a little closer than I would have preferred, and began to sweep my body with the scanner’s antenna array. “You were hired because of your reputation for discretion, Detective,” he said. “Mr. Konrad values his privacy and the security of his home. As such, personal devices are not allowed on the lower level.” He then took a step back, looking at the display of the scanner, and raised an eyebrow. “You’re carrying a weapon with a holographic sight,” he said. “A rather large weapon, if I’m not mistaken.”

I grinned. “Sure am, friend. It’s a Sam Houston Mark Four-pattern Combat Dragoon revolver, .44LRM caliber, with both a holosight and a flashlight.”

He raised an eyebrow at me. “That’s an unusual choice of a sidearm.”

“Don’t I know it.” The gun was a gift from a dead friend and it has sentimental value for me. The cylinder only holds seven shots, but when you need to reload, the whole thing ejects up away from the gun. Slap a fresh one in and you’re good to go. It’s a little slower to reload than a typical service pistol, but the big, armor-piercing, explosive bullets always get the job done, even on cyborgs with epidermal armor. “You want me to leave it up here?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Vermillion said. “If we thought you were a security risk we wouldn’t have hired you.”

“You trust me with a gun, but not my handheld?”

He shrugged. “All electronics can be compromised. A handheld, a tablet, or even an implant can be programmed to record, even if the user is unaware. Many devices are constantly listening for voice commands. It’s difficult to account for every possibility, so the simplest solution is to ask guests to leave them.”

“Fair enough,” I said. Was Konrad paranoid or just prudent? Sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other.

Vermillion looked at the scanner’s screen again. “I . . . got some strange feedback by your head. It’s not a neural implant.”

“No, I never felt comfortable with the idea of plugging a computer directly into my brain.” I tapped the side of my head. “I do, however, have a metal plate up here, a souvenir from the war.”

“That’s right, you’re a veteran,” he said, letting me know he’d looked into my background. “I am as well.”

“What branch?”

“Nothing glamorous, I assure you. Quartermaster Corps.”

“Were you on Harvest?” I asked. The campaign to retake the colony world of Harvest from the Ceph was largely carried out by the Nova Columbia Commonwealth Defense Force. It was a hard-fought victory, paid for with tens of thousands of lives.

“I volunteered when the war began,” Vermillion said. “They wanted to make me an officer and put me in the JAG Corps because I’m an attorney, and because I was in my forties. I refused and took a standard enlistment. I arrived on Harvest a few months after Landing Day.”

The invasion of Harvest was preceded by weeks of deep space and orbital battles, as the Terran Confederation Space Forces fought to drive the alien enemy out of the Waldorf’s Star system. The Ceph, whose warrior classes had no concept of surrender, fought on even after space superiority was achieved. Prone to tunneling underground to evade orbital strikes, they had to be rooted out through a protracted ground war. I was mechanized infantry and spent most of the campaign in a Marauder Mark-V powered armor suit. I got to see tentacled bastards up close a few times.

“My unit made planetfall about four months after L-Day,” I said. “I was there until the end of the campaign, including a few months spent in a hospital in the rear.”

“We were there at the same time, then,” Vermillion said, “but my deployment was cut short. I was planetside for only a couple of months when our supply convoy was ambushed. It was . . . ” He hesitated. “Well. Ceph assault mechs hit our vehicles with plasma projectors from close range. I was badly burned and left blind, but I survived, unlike . . . well, unlike most of the convoy. They medevac’d me to a hospital ship in orbit. That was the end of my contribution to the war effort.”

I gave the man a knowing nod. “Hell of a thing.” Despite what you may have seen in the propaganda media, Harvest was a bloodbath. Don’t get me wrong, it needed to be done; the Ceph killed millions of people in their invasion, and damned if we were going to let that stand, but the price was steep. More than fifty thousand personnel from the Terran Confederate forces died there, including almost thirty thousand Nova Columbians. Me, I survived, despite my injury, but I left a piece of myself there, and I’m not talking about that chunk of my skull.

Vermillion cleared his throat and regained his composure. The change in his demeanor was subtle but clear. “Mr. Konrad is waiting for us down in the sub-level.” He accessed a biometric scanner next to the elevator. The doors slid open and he motioned for me to enter.

# # #

I found myself in a long, rectangular room with a polished black granite floor, surprised at just how big the basement of the Konrad house was. The dimmed overhead lighting was supplemented by blue accent lights. The air exchanger hummed quietly in the background. A carpeted walkway ran down the middle of the room, flanked on either side by displays. I was in a private, underground museum.

“This is the Konrad family collection,” Vermillion said, stepping out of the elevator behind me. “Well, the prized parts of it, anyway. There’s more than can be put on display here.” The walls must have had sound dampening material on them, because there was no hint of echo in the room. “The family has been collecting rare and unique items for generations, since before the founding of Nova Columbia.”

He proceeded down the aisle and I tagged along behind him. The first display on the left was a suit of medieval plate armor. “That armor comes from the country of Italy, on Earth,” Vermillion said. “It was crafted in the mid-fifteenth century, making it about a thousand years old. Such items are difficult to come by, largely due to the Earthsphere Wars of the early twenty-second century. Mr. Konrad’s great-grandfather especially prized historical relics from ancient Earth.”

A bit farther down on the right was some kind of archaic, open-topped automobile in immaculate condition. It was a bright, glossy red in color, with shiny chrome accents. “That is a 1963 Ford Thunderbird,” my host said. “Maximillian Konrad spent decades collecting the necessary original parts to restore it. It runs, by the way, though the fuel is hard to come by.”

“The engine burns petroleum, doesn’t it?”

“Gasoline,” he said, “a refined petroleum product. There are few petroleum deposits on Nova Columbia, but we can substitute synthetic fuels that are more readily available.”

I was there on business, not for a tour, but I couldn’t help but stop and gawk at some of the items on display. There was an assembled dinosaur skeleton, a selection of ancient musical instruments, even some kind of propeller airplane.

“That’s from the mid-twentieth century,” Vermillion explained. “A Cessna Model One-Fifty. They were once quite popular with private aviation enthusiasts.”

“Looks rickety,” I said. “Does that run, too?”

He smiled. “It does, in theory, but the family has never flown it. It’s constructed of aluminum and fiberglass—it probably isn’t airworthy after four centuries.” At the end of the hall was another set of doors, a large cargo elevator. I figured that was how they got the big stuff down there. The carpeted walkway turned to the left and headed through a doorway into the next room.

Felix Konrad was waiting for us there. He stood with his back to us as we approached. His hands were folded behind his back, as he looked up at a slab of stone mounted to the wall. He glanced over his shoulder as we approached.

“This is Detective Novak, sir,” Vermillion said.

“Very good. Thank you, Cyrus. Please wait for us in the lounge. I wish to speak to our guest alone.”

Vermillion withdrew from the room, leaving me alone with my client. I looked up at the stone slab that he’d been contemplating; on its face was something that resembled a partial sculpture of a giant bug.

“Is that what I think it is?” I asked.

“Indeed it is, Detective,” he answered, “the fossilized exoskeleton of a being from the First Antecessor Race.” The fossil was broken and fragmented, but the overall shape of the thing was clear. The long-extinct aliens had six appendages—they walked upright on four of them and used the other two as arms. The body was divided into two segments—the legs connected to the bottom one and the arms to upper half. An elongated, teardrop-shaped head topped the whole thing off. “The soft tissue was not preserved, which is why it’s missing the eye-stalks.”

“Where did this come from?” I asked.

“My father helped finance an expedition to Styx about sixty years ago,” he said. “Heard of it?”

“Hell, I’ve been there,” I said. “Spent a few weeks there during the war. Miserable place.” That Godforsaken rock has a fourteen-hour rotational period, a thin atmosphere, and eight percent more gravity than Nova Columbia. Between the extra weight, the lack of oxygen, and my screwed-up circadian rhythm, I was exhausted the entire time I was there.

“I agree, it is indeed a miserable place, but it’s a treasure trove of First Antecessor Race artifacts. They had what we think was a very large colony there, once. Like all such sites, it was destroyed in some kind of cataclysm sixty-eight million years ago. But . . . I didn’t bring you here to show off my collection.” He turned to face me. “I need your help.”

I studied my client for a moment. People say I’m a big guy, being six-foot-one and weighing in at two-twenty, but Konrad was easily two inches taller. Broad shouldered, he looked pretty good for a guy in his sixties. He was dressed in a finely tailored black suit with a bolo tie and ornate leather cowboy boots. His complexion was dark shade of brown, with deep lines in his face. His curly black hair, now graying, was cropped short with a high fade. His goatee, neatly trimmed, was also turning gray. “That’s what I’m here for, Mr. Konrad,” I said. “What seems to be the trouble?”

“Do you have children, Detective?”

“Me? No.”

“They can be vexing sometimes. You do your best to raise them, to provide them with everything they need, to teach them your values, and yet . . . for better or for worse, they have their own minds and make their own decisions.”

“I understand you have two children,” I said, “a son and a daughter. I assume this is about your son?”

Konrad smiled humorlessly. “His reputation precedes him,” he said, bitterness in his voice, “despite his sealed records.”

“I’m a snoop,” I said. “This is what I do. What sort of trouble has he gotten himself into?”

“Walk with me,” Konrad said. We meandered through the second hall of his private museum as he explained his situation. Deprived of my handheld, I scribbled notes on a pad of paper. It seemed his son, Miguel, was a troubled young man. As a teenager, he had gotten addicted to neural-linked virtual reality and abused it so badly that it caused long-term neurological damage. His neural link had since been removed, but the damage was done and he hadn’t been the same after. For years he was prone to mood swings, outbursts, even destructive behaviors like substance abuse.

My client described how, in the past year or so, it seemed like things were turning around for Miguel. He found himself a girl and the two became an item. He said she was good for him, that the kid was more like his old self around her. He started to take on some responsibilities with the farming business. He seemed healthier. Things were looking up.

Then, Miguel stole a valuable artifact from the family collection, leaving behind only a cryptic message that he needed to “borrow” it, and ran off. They’d heard nothing from him in a week. It was the second time something had been stolen from the collection in the past year, and this time Konrad's own son was apparently the culprit. Konrad didn’t want law enforcement involved, either. Everything else aside, there was a limit to how much time and resources the Colonial Security Forces Corps would put into helping a rich man recover a family heirloom.

I took notes as he gave me the rundown on his son’s girlfriend. Her name was Maya and she made a living as a freelancer, moving from gig to gig, finding work wherever she could. She seemed like a nice enough young woman and there’d been no hint that they were planning anything like this.

There was an almost apologetic tone to Konrad’s voice, like he was embarrassed that this had happened to him. “You must understand, for all his troubles, Miguel is a grown man. I don’t monitor where he is at all times. After his . . . injury, both his doctors and psychologists emphasized to me the importance of not treating him like a child, or acting as if he’s disabled. It was a hard road, and there were obviously some unfortunate incidents, but it was working. I let him live his life, especially after Maya came along. I liked her. She was good for him, or so I thought.”

The client explained that he had no idea where the young couple had gone. He’d sent his consigliere to the city to look for them. Miguel had checked out of the hotel he stayed in while visiting Delta City. Maya supposedly lived in an apartment tower on the South Side, but apparently she’d moved out months before and left no forwarding address. All of their efforts to locate or contact either one of the missing kids had come up empty.

At the end of the second hall, there were several other, smaller rooms in which he displayed the collection. Konrad gestured for me to enter the darkened room. The lights in the room came on automatically as I did so. I found myself looking up at one of the Ceph, only a few feet away. Every muscle in my body tensed and I stepped back, reflexively reaching for my gun, heart racing. A second later I realized that it was dead, preserved in a block of solid, transparent material.

“Are you all right, Mr. Novak?”

“Yeah,” I said, not taking my eyes off the alien. If you’ve never seen one, the Ceph are hideous. Imagine an eight-foot-tall, armored octopus that slithers around on dry land, using several of its tentacles for locomotion. They have an upright posture and the way they move is unsettling to watch. The body is shaped like a giant, grotesque gourd. The lower half is where the tentacles come together in a pulsating mass of muscle and tissue. The upper part, the bulbous head, is protected by a thick shell. They have small mouths and four glistening, red eyes. “Just caught me off guard, is all.” I shook my head. “Christ, I haven’t seen one of them since the war.”

“My apologies,” Konrad said. “I should have warned you.”

“How did you get that thing here? Customs wouldn’t have let it through, would they?”

“It’s possible, if you get the right sort of permits and pay the right sort of fees,” he said, cryptically. I was pretty sure what he meant was that he bribed someone, but his dealings with the Customs Service weren’t my concern. “Back to business,” he said, leading me to the back wall of the room. There was a lighted display case there, covered by thick, ballistic glass, filled with strange trinkets of different shapes and sizes. In the center of the case was a conspicuously bare spot.

“This is where the missing item was kept,” he said.

“Can you show me what this item looked like?”

“Yes, of course.” He reached into his suit jacket, retrieved a handheld, and brought up three-dimensional image of the object. It was a perfect sphere of some dark gray metal, maybe six inches in diameter. It was completely covered in incredibly intricate engravings and runes. Sliding his thumb across the screen, he rotated the image of the object. It appeared damaged on one side; gouges and scoring marred its surface and the markings had been rendered illegible. “It’s made of a hard metal alloy, the exact composition of which is unknown, and weighs ten pounds. It emits a strong magnetic field.”

“What . . . uh . . . what is it?”

“That is an excellent question, Detective, but truth be told I don’t know. It’s called a Rune Sphere, but its precise function has never been ascertained. It’s a relic of the First Antecessor Race, in fairly good condition despite its age. This was the first alien artifact in the family collection, acquired by my grandfather eighty years ago. I never learned how he came to possess it.”

“I see. What’s it worth?”

“I had it appraised last year, our of curiosity. There are quite a few of these in private collections, mind you, and as First Antecessor relics go, they’re not especially rare. I was told I could probably get a quarter-million dollars for it, given its condition.”

“Two hundred and fifty grand is a lot of money to regular person,” I said, rubbing my chin. “It’s not that much money when you’re the son of a millionaire. So why take it?”

“In his message to me, he insisted that he was only borrowing it, but I’ve been unable to contact him since.”

“You said that something else was stolen from you before.”

“Yes. In fact, it was to be a companion piece to the Rune Sphere, a relic known as a Chalice.” He showed me another 3D image on his handheld screen. The name was apt; it looked like a large goblet, made of the same gray metal. There were strange patterns carved into it, but no runes. “These serve as display stands for Rune Spheres. Both the spheres and chalices emit strong magnetic fields. When you combine the two, the Sphere will levitate about an inch over the Chalice. While neither item is especially rare, it is quite uncommon for one collector to have both that still have intact magnetic fields.”

“How is it possible that they still have magnetic fields at all, after tens of millions of years.”

“Exo-archaeologists have been trying to figure that out for decades. The First Antecessor Race was incredibly advanced.”

Konrad went onto explain that, after years of searching, he’d finally found himself one of these chalices with an intact magnetic field. Miguel, wanting to prove himself, took the lead on getting it from the “importer,” which is to say, the smuggler. This particular artifact hadn’t come through legal channels and he hadn’t paid the required duties on it. Some would say that’s unethical, but enforcing the Commonwealth’s customs regulations isn’t my job.

“The deal was interrupted,” Konrad explained. “A third party interrupted the exchange, men with guns. They shot and killed the importer before robbing my son. They took both the Chalice and the two hundred thousand dollars in cash he’d brought to pay for it.” He shook his head. “I was outraged, and Miguel blamed himself for what happened. It wasn’t his fault, of course, and I told him that, but he felt like he’d failed his father. He was quite depressed for a while, until Maya came along.” He looked up at me. “Why, after all that, would he turn around and steal from me himself? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Do you know who took the Chalice?”

“They were damned COFfers, I’m sure of it. They were masked, but Miguel noted that one of them was wearing a Cosmic Ontological Foundation pendant.”

I haven’t had a lot of dealings with the COF, but you’ve probably heard of them. They’re a pseudo-religious organization that believes that sentient life in the galaxy was created by advanced aliens long ago. Popular in some circles of the rich and elite, many consider the Foundation to be little more than a cult. I agree with that assessment, personally.

“If it was COFfers, they wouldn’t want to sell it. They think things like that are holy relics.”

Konrad nodded. “It may have been to the First Antecessors. A popular theory is that the Rune Spheres were some manner of idol, roughly akin to a crucifix.”

“How did Miguel get the Sphere out of here?”

“Everyone in the family is allowed to come down here, including Miguel. Getting into the case itself requires an electronic key. I keep those in a safe in my office.”

“I see. Does Miguel have access to this safe?”

“No, but I tend to leave it open when I’m using things stored in it. I don’t remember leaving him alone with it open, but I must have. I suppose it was foolish of me to trust him.”

“You can’t be faulted for letting your guard down around your family in your own home, Mr. Konrad,” I said.

“I have a protective case for transporting the Sphere, one that’s properly shielded. He took that, too. You don’t . . . you don’t suppose he wants to sell it to the COFfers?”

“I don’t know enough to guess at his motivations, though that seems unlikely. He didn’t ever express interest in joining the COF, did he?”

Konrad scoffed. “After what they did? He hated them. At least, I thought he did. Perhaps I was wrong.”

“This situation is certainly a mess, and I you were right to bring a professional in. I take it you want me to recover your Rune Sphere for you?”

He looked me in the eye. “I want my son back, Mr. Novak.” I’m a cynical man and I have to admit, that wasn’t what I was expecting him to say. “Yes, he stole from me. Maybe he was manipulated into it, maybe the whole thing was his idea, maybe he’s sold it already. It doesn’t matter. He’s my son. I couldn’t live with myself if I just gave up on him. Lorraine would never forgive me. If you are able to safely recover the sphere, I’ll make it worth your while, but Miguel is the priority. Bring my boy home.” His expression softened. “Please. He needs help.”

Felix Konrad was a proud man, but in that moment, in his own, subtle way, he was pleading with me. I couldn’t give him any guarantees; the wayward son might be a young fool, but he was an adult. I couldn’t force him to come home if he didn’t want to.

I gave the client the only reassurance I could. “If he can be found, I’ll find him, Mr. Konrad.” That seemed to satisfy him.

# # #

Back in my car, I took a moment to study a picture of the two young lovers that Konrad had sent to my handheld. Miguel looked like a younger, lighter-skinned copy of his father. So alike were the two men in appearance and build that, had they been the same age, you’d have guessed they were cousins, if not brothers. His fairer complexion probably came from his mother; Lorraine Konrad was a natural blonde, the descendant of immigrants from Northern Europe on Earth.

His squeeze, Maya, looked like the sort of girl that can get a young fool into all sorts of trouble. Her full name was Maya Kim Nguyễn, and she was a knockout. She had long black hair with red streaks in it, dark brown eyes, and a smile that said she knew how to get men to do what she wanted. She was shorter than Miguel by nine inches, and if she weighed more than a hundred and ten pounds I’d have been shocked.

There’s only so much you can glean from a photograph, and it’s real easy to let your own biases and assumptions color your assessment, but . . . let me put it this way: if you were going to send a honeypot to entice a young man to steal something from his father, she was the kind of girl you’d want to do the job. I didn’t know if that was what had happened, but I couldn’t rule it out, either.

I called Lily back and caught her up on the situation. Using an encrypted connection, I relayed to her all of the information Konrad had given me about his son and the girl. It would take me a couple hours to get back to the city, giving her time to do some digging. I then left the country estate and began the long drive back to Delta City.

I was nearly back to the Crater when she called me back. “Hey Boss,” Lily said, her image appearing on my car’s console screen.

“Did you find anything?”

“I did a search for Maya Kim Nguyễn, cross-referenced with the picture you sent. Not much came up. There are other women with that name, but none of them are her. There are no criminal records of anyone with that name. Because of privacy laws, landlords don’t make public who resides in their properties, but no one by that name shows up in public property records. There are no outstanding defaulted debts, bounties, or warrants, either.”

“It might be an alias,” I said. “Did an image search turn anything up?”

“No. No social media, no incidentals, nothing. You think she might be a pro?”

“It’s possible, but I don’t have enough information to say for sure, and I don’t want to work off an assumption that proves to be false.” Not having a social media presence doesn’t make you a criminal. Hell, I’m not on social media. I don’t like arguing with strangers about politics or whatever else, either.

“The agency has a net presence even if you don’t,” Lily said. “Someone who works as a freelancer would have to advertise, or be active on the job boards, or work with recruiters. I wasn’t able to find anything about this girl at all.”

“Hm. Maybe Miguel did go and find himself a professional hustler,” I said. “Did the COF connection turn anything up?”

“Nothing that I can find. COFfers are real good about infosec these days. I scanned all the message boards and known COF forums that I could access. Nobody has said anything about the alleged theft, either of the Sphere or the Chalice. I didn’t expect to find much, though.”

“That’s not surprising, no. Tell you what, I’ll give Iggy a call, see if he knows anything.”

“He’ll want cash up front,” Lily warned.

I chuckled. “Snitches always do.”

One of the keys to success in this business is developing a network of contacts and informants. Ignatius P. Sanchez was a disaffected COFfer turned informant, provided you had the cash to make it worth his while. The trick is to not lean on your informants too heavily too often. The more risk of exposure they have, the more hesitant to talk they get, and the more expensive getting them to talk becomes.

Iggy lived in an older, ninety-story apartment block called Camelot Tower in East Central Delta City. Like most of these buildings, there was a market in the plaza on the ground floor. I met the snitch at his favorite noodle stand, a joint called Power Noodles. It was automated, with the ramen served by a robot that understood dozens of languages but only spoke in synthesized Japanese.

I sat on a stool next to Iggy as he slurped up a big cup of Ramen with a pair of chopsticks. He was the sort that had his own chopsticks that he carried around with him. I was enjoying a cup myself, seeing as I’d missed lunch.

“I knew about the deal with the Chalice,” he said, talking with his mouth full. “A group of young pledges from the an associate chapter pulled that job off hoping they’d be granted a higher level. Instead, their reward was a two-year long mission off-world, and their chapter was quietly reprimanded. The Foundation was worried they’d brag too much and bring the heat down on them. They didn’t even take possession of the stolen Chalice, they left it with the chapter leader.”

“What about this Rune Sphere?”

“That’s the thing, that chapter is still around. There was some buzz a week ago that an outsider had showed up wanting to join. Supposedly he had a Rune Sphere to go with the Chalice. Do you know about the magnetic fields?” I nodded. “It’s a real big deal if they’re intact. They think it can channel the energy of the First Antecessor Race, that if you meditate near it you’ll slowly learn their wisdom.”

“Sounds like a bunch of crap to me,” I said.

Iggy smiled. “Yeah, but it’s something tangible, something real, something ancient and mysterious. There are a lot of lost, lonely people out there. The Foundation makes them feel like they’re a part of something, tells them they’re seeking ancient knowledge. Associate chapters like that are quasi-independent, so the Foundation can’t be held responsible for their behavior, but they’re the biggest source of new pledges. They’re much more accessible to outsiders than the Foundation itself is.”

He raised the noodle cup to his mouth and finished it before continuing, washing it down with a beer. “Supposedly, now that this chapter has both the Sphere and the Chalice, they’re going to present them to the Foundation to try and get back in their good graces.”

“Will that work?”

Iggy shrugged. “It might. A triumvirate of Foundation Scholars will hear the chapter’s case and make a decision.”

“And the fellow who brought them the Sphere, what happened to him?”

“He’s a pledge. When he showed up with it, they welcomed him with open arms. He must be a true believer, right?”

“Right,” I said, but I wasn’t so sure. “Do you know where this chapter meets?”

“The funds to rent a chapter hall were suspended for a year when they got reprimanded, so they’ve taken to meeting in a vacant commercial building in the industrial area on the Southeast Side. I’ll send the address to your handheld. From what I understand, the chapter lead is a property manager for a real estate group that buys up unused property to eventually resell. That’s how he has access to the place.”

“I don’t suppose you know when they’re going to be meeting again, do you?”

“Most chapters meet on Sunday nights.” Iggy looked around, then leaned in closer to me. “This is different, though. According to word of mouth, the chapter lead and the new pledge will be meeting the Triumvirate of Scholars there this coming Thursday. They’re going to present the Rune Sphere and the Chalice together.”

“I see. How sure are you about this?”

Iggy took a long swig from his beer. “As sure as I ever am. None of this stuff communicated electronically. I hang out at the get-togethers, feed the pledges alcohol, and listen to them talk.”

I handed him an envelope with a thousand dollars in cash in it. “I appreciate your help.”

He pocketed it and took another sip of his beer. “Listen, Easy, it’s been nice doing business with you, but I think this is the last time.”

I raised an eyebrow. Was he going to try and haggle for more money? “What’s the problem?”

Iggy finished his beer and set the empty bottle down on the counter of the noodle stand. “I’m tired. I can’t play along and watch the COF do that to people anymore. Besides, the longer you do this, the more likely it is they’ll find out. The way some of these associate chapters are, if they find out I’m an informant, they’ll kill me. They’re no better than the Green Dragons,” he said, referring to a motorcycle street gang that hailed from East Central. “I’m going to quit, get out of Delta City, even. Maybe I’ll write a book.”

I patted Iggy on the shoulder, told him it had been good working with him, and wished him luck. I bought him another beer and left him at the noodle stand.

# # #

Late Thursday afternoon, I went to the address that Iggy gave me to do a little surveillance of the place. I wandered around the perimeter of the place, taking note of places where I could sneak in, and placing miniature, remote camera pods. It was a fifty thousand square-foot industrial building, designed with manufacturing in mind. It sat on a large, fenced-off lot with multiple out-buildings and an empty storage yard. According to city records, it had sat vacant for almost four years at that point, though the real estate company maintained it.

Not wanting to draw attention to myself, I went in disguise, dressed in second-hand clothes and looking a little shabby. Under a cheap jacket I wore my gun and a thin body armor vest. A respirator mask and an old baseball cap completed the ensemble. You wouldn’t have been able to pick me out of a crowd of people loitering at a monorail hub.

Wearing a mask around Delta City doesn’t make anyone look twice, especially in the industrial areas. Nova Columbia doesn’t have much in the way of native life, but there is one family of slime mold that is particularly troublesome. Too much exposure to the spores from the gunk causes Kellerman’s Syndrome, a serious, chronic medical condition. My grandparents both died from it.

As the sun went down I made my way back to my car, which was parked away from the building, and updated Lily on the situation. She could monitor the video feed from my camera pods from back at the office, so I asked her to take the first watch while I caught a little shut-eye. I had no way of knowing when they’d show up, or if they’d show up at all.

It was dark when Lily woke me up. Looking at the clock, I realized I’d been out for three hours. I told her she didn’t have to let me sleep for that long, but she insisted that I needed the rest. She’s a thoughtful kid like that, and she was probably right.

Pulling the video feed up on my car’s console screen, I cycled through the cameras until I found the one with activity. Two cars had pulled up to a gate on the east side of the property. The gates, activated remotely, slid open and the cars went in. They parked close to the east end of the building, not far from the gate, and cut their engines. Four people got out of the first car, and two people, a man and a woman, climbed out of the second one. The car matched the make and model of the one Miguel owned. A big man and a shorter, thin woman got out. Between the darkness and how far away my camera was, I couldn’t positively ID them, but my gut told me I’d found Felix Konrad’s wayward son.

This meeting with the COFfers wasn’t a good place to confront Miguel, and I still had no idea where he’d been staying. Normally, you can track a vehicle by its transponder and navigation systems, but Nova Columbia has pretty strict privacy laws and all of that can be disabled by the owner if he wants. Miguel, to his credit, was smart enough to think to do that, which is part of the reason Cyrus Vermillion had been unable to locate him. Putting a tracking beacon on his car would be a safer bet than trying to tail him. Then, I could figure out where he was staying, let his father know, and see where he wanted to go from there. It all sounded simple enough in my head.

Life has a way of being complicated, though, especially when you come up with a simple plan. Two more vehicles arrived at the site, one of which was a large, swanky-looking luxury sedan. They parked with the other vehicles and people began to pile out. It was hard to make out from the camera feed, but the three guys who got out of the big sedan looked like they were wearing long robes, like the kind you wear for graduation. The three guys who got out of the second car looked normal. Bodyguards, maybe? As the three robed men headed inside, their security went with them, but the driver of the sedan stayed with the car and lit up a cigarette. Damn it. I was going to have to be even sneakier now.

It took me a few minutes to make my approach, but I plotted a route that would let me get close while not being in the line of sight of the man lingering outside. I crawled through a hole in the fence that I had noted earlier and entered the property. Most of the exterior lighting of the place was shut off, so I was able to creep along the side of the empty factory toward the parked cars under the cover of darkness.

My target car was just around the corner from me now, but the driver of the four COF bigwigs was still pulling security outside. I was able to watch him by using my handheld to monitor the camera feeds. He looked bored and was pacing about. If he would just wander a little ways away, I would be able crawl up to Miguel’s car and plant my bug. All I needed was for something to distract him, maybe draw him off for a minute.

I guess it was my lucky day because I got the distraction I needed. A muffled boom erupted from inside the building. Old habits die hard and I reflexively crouched down.

Whatever that explosion was, it got the attention of the driver. He dropped his cigarette and ran inside. I slipped around the corner, approached Miguel’s car, and slapped my tracking beacon up in the undercarriage. I was about to make my exit when I heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire coming from inside the building.

The smartest thing I could have done in that situation was to call the Security Forces and withdraw back to my car. I’d found Miguel Konrad, I’d done the job I was hired to do, and I wasn’t being paid enough to go inject myself into somebody else’s gunfight. Getting involved in a situation like that is stupid going on suicidal—I had no idea who was shooting at who or why.

I guess I wasn’t blessed with an abundance of brains, though, because against my better judgement I found myself running to the building’s entrance. A desperate father had looked me in the eye and pleaded with me to bring his son home. It didn’t feel right to just run off when he could be in danger.

I didn’t get far. Just inside the door was a landing, with one door leading into the building and a set of stairs going to the upper level. Miguel crashed into me at the base of the stairs and it was like getting hit by a truck. Running down a flight of stairs, he hit me straight on and knocked me flat on my ass. The big lug tumbled to the floor himself, landing on top of me.

“Miguel!” a woman cried. It was Maya, she was right behind him. The Konrad boy pushed himself up off of me and clambered to his feet. In his left hand was the special shielded case his father had told me about, the one used for transporting the Rune Sphere. In his right hand was a gun, and it was pointed right between my eyes.

“Don’t shoot!” I said, showing him my hands.

“Who are you?” he demanded, waving the gun in my face.

“I’m a detective, I’m a private detective!” I said. “Your father hired me to find you! He wants you to come home!”

From up the stairs came a whole bunch of angry sounding footsteps and the shouts of men.

“They’re coming, we gotta go!” Maya cried. Slung across her back was a case similar to the one Miguel had. She was also carrying a gun, and had it pointed back up the stairs.

“Get out of the way!” the boy shouted at me. I scrambled to get out of his way before he decided to shoot me. Miguel grabbed Maya’s empty hand, and pulled her with him as he ran for the door. They were almost clear when three men in suits came running down the stairs, guns drawn. Gunshots rang out, head-splittingly loud in the ceramicrete stairwell, as the lead man fired off shot after shot at the fleeing lovers. A round caught Maya in the back just as she disappeared through the door. I heard her scream.

Remember what I said before about not getting involved in somebody else’s gunfight? I stand by that, even if I’m about to prove myself a hypocrite. I didn’t know what was going on, exactly, but I wasn’t about to let those COFfer lunatics kill the young man I’d been hired to find. Still seated on the floor, I drew my revolver from under my right arm, extended it out in my hands, and fired. The gun roared in the vestibule. The bullet caught the bodyguard, the one who’d shot Maya, in the side, under his right arm. If he’d been wearing a vest, it didn’t do him any good. Blood splattered on the wall behind him and he tumbled to the floor.

With that I was on my feet and moving, gun pointed up the stairs. The other security men started firing wildly in my general direction, and I was pretty sure some of their bullets hit their fallen compatriot. Leaning around the stairs, I popped off a few more shots to keep the pursuers heads’ down and was out the door in a flash.

Miguel was on his knees just outside, hands shaking, obviously in shock. Maya was lying on the ground in front of him, face up, bleeding badly. She wasn’t dead, but she would be soon if I didn’t get a seal on that wound.

“Get her up!” I said, ejecting the partially empty cylinder from my gun. I snapped a fresh one in place. “You need take her to your car!”

“This is all your fault!” he screamed, pointing his gun at me.

We didn’t have time for this. “Listen to me, goddamn it, or she’s going to die! Do you understand? Your father sent me to find you and bring you home!”

I got through to him that time. He lowered the gun, and started to say something, but I heard the door behind me get kicked open. I spun around, weapon at the ready, and was faced with three more gunmen. There was no time to do anything else—I fired.

# # #

Late the next morning, I was back in my office. I really wanted to go home, take a shower, and sleep for a day, but I was always a stickler for making sure all my work was done before going home. I poured myself a glass of Darwin Ducote Single Barrel, a locally produced bourbon that’s aged ten years in a real wooden barrel. It’s pricey, but after the night I’d had, I needed it.

Lily sat in the chair across from my desk, looking at a tablet screen, as I caught her up on everything that had transpired. Believe it or not, as hairy as things got, this one worked out in the end. I’d shot four men, killing three of them, but at the moment it wasn’t bothering me. That would come later. I was able to get a seal on Maya’s wound and had Miguel drive us to a doctor. Not a city hospital, but a private practice doctor who’s a friend of mine. He’s on call and doesn’t ask too many questions. She lived, by the way. The girl caught a round in her back, but it missed her heart and spine.

As Miguel told it, he and Maya hatched a plan together to get the Chalice back from the that associate chapter of the Cosmic Ontological Foundation. Maya had grown up on the rough side of Delta City and was something of a hustler. She admitted that when she originally met Miguel, she was planning to fleece him, but the girl had a real soft spot for the big idiot and they became an item.

It was she who helped him track down the Foundation chapter that had stolen the Chalice and killed that smuggler. They took the Rune Sphere and offered it to the COFfers, spinning a story about how they wanted to join, and how he could get more items from his father’s collection. The COFfers fell for the scam, too. That meeting was the first time that the COF chapter leader had brought the Chalice with him, seeing as how he planning on combining it with the Sphere and presenting it to the Triumvirate of Scholars. Those crazy kids set off a flash bomb and popped a canister of riot control agent, grabbed both artifacts, and ran for it. Their plan didn’t account for all the security the Scholars brought with them, though, and it almost ended badly for them.

In the end, it was a young man’s incredibly stupid and dangerous attempt to correct what he felt was a mistake on his part, encouraged by Maya. I was right about her after all, it seemed—she was the sort of woman who could get a man into all sorts of trouble.

Luckily for probably everyone involved, the Security Forces never caught wind of the incident. The Foundation wasn’t about to report that its people had gotten killed in a deal for a stolen alien artifact gone badly. It was just another wild night in the Big D.

Like I said, Delta City is one hell of a town.

Copyright © 2022 by Mike Kupari

Mike Kupari is the author of four science fiction novels, from Baen Books, as well as the coauthor, with Larry Correia, of the best-selling Dead Six military adventure series. He grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and enlisted at the age of seventeen. Kupari has worked as a security contractor with several firms, did a tour in Southwest Asia with a private military company, and is an NRA-certified firearms instructor.

“Trouble is my Business” is set in the world of his upcoming hardboiled detective science fiction novel, Trouble Walked In, featuring detective Ezekiel “Easy” Novak.