The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese is a balance of sci-fi, mystery, and humor (Available June 28, 2016).
Los Angeles of 2039 is a baffling and bifurcated place. After the Collapse of 2028, a vast section of LA, the Disincorporated Zone, was disowned by the civil authorities, and became essentially a third world country within the borders of the city. Navigating the boundaries between DZ and LA proper is a tricky task, and there's no one better suited than eccentric private investigator Erasmus Keane. When a valuable genetically altered sheep mysteriously goes missing from Esper Corporation's labs, Keane is the one they call.
But while the erratic Keane and his more grounded partner, Blake Fowler, are on the trail of the lost sheep, they land an even bigger case. Beautiful television star Priya Mistry suspects that someone is trying to kill her – and she wants Keane to find out who. When Priya vanishes and then reappears with no memory of having hired them, Keane and Fowler realize something very strange is going on. As they unravel the threads of the mystery, it soon becomes clear that the two cases are connected – and both point to a sinister conspiracy involving the most powerful people in the city. Saving Priya and the sheep will take all of Keane's wits and Fowler's skills, but in the end, they may discover that some secrets are better left hidden.
“That’s a really big sheep,” said Erasmus Keane, his observational powers functioning as flawlessly as ever.
The woman in the lab coat nodded curtly. “He’s a Lincoln Longwool,” she said. “Largest breed of sheep in the world.” She had introduced herself as Dr. Kelly Takemago, Director of Research for the Esper Corporation. We were standing in her lab, a vast white room filled with the low humming of vaguely terrifying machines that hung from the ceiling like colossal clockwork bats. Poised in the middle of the room was the sheep in question, which Keane and I were regarding with professional interest. The sheep, in turn, was regarding us. It didn’t appear impressed.
Keane, holding his chin in his hand, began walking around the sheep in a stooped posture that reminded me of a waddling duck. The sheep was nearly as tall as he was, and was looking back at Keane with scientific detachment. It was hard to say who was the odder-looking specimen, the quadrupedal area rug standing in stoic silence on the tiled floor of the lab or the lanky, balding biped creeping awkwardly around it.
“Can I touch it?” Keane asked, after completing his circumnavigation of the creature.
“Of course,” said Dr. Takemago, seeming mildly annoyed at the question. “Sheep don’t bite. They’re very docile creatures.”
Keane reached out nervously, his hand gradually disappearing into the beast’s lush fleece. He gave an excited yelp, which startled Dr. Takemago but had no appreciable effect on the Longwool’s equanimity. “You gotta try this, Fowler,” he said. “It’s like sticking your hand into Narnia.”
“They produce the heaviest and coarsest fleece of all the long-wool sheep varieties,” said Takemago, as if reciting from an encyclopedia article. “That isn’t why the Esper Corporation keeps them, of course. This one is male. There are two others. John and Paul are downstairs.”
“John and Paul?” I asked. “What’s this one’s name, Ringo?” There was a tag on the sheep’s ear, but all it had on it was the number eight.
“Mark,” said Dr. Takemago.
I nodded, as if that had been the other possibility.
“Biblical, not Beatles,” mused Keane. He continued, “‘All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.’” He grinned at me, as if expecting recognition of some sort.
I shrugged noncommittally.
“That’s from Matthew,” he went on. “The apostle, not the sheep.”
I turned back to Dr. Takemago. “So the missing one…?” I ventured.
“Mary,” replied Dr. Takemago.
“Of course,” I said. “And did Mary by any chance have a little lamb?” Very unprofessional of me, I know. But you can’t lob a softball like that at me and expect me not to take a swing.
“No,” Dr. Takemago said without cracking a smile. I couldn’t tell if she was irritated by the joke or if the subtlety of my wit had eluded her. I got the impression Dr. Takemago didn’t go in much for jokes. She was short and stocky, and wore her straight black hair cut so short that it required constant effort to remind myself that she wasn’t a twelve-year-old boy. Her expressive range seemed to encompass only detached bemusement and mild irritation.
“So they are sterile?” asked Keane, now with both of his hands sunk deep within the long-suffering animal’s fleece. The sheep bore this indignity with aplomb.
Dr. Takemago shook her head. “No, in fact the plan was to breed them. Unfortunately, Mary is the only female of the group.”
“And she’s been missing since yesterday?” I asked.
Dr. Takemago nodded. “Mary was gone when I arrived, shortly after seven. The security system had been overridden. The cameras didn’t catch anything. All the animals wear a GPS tracking device on their collars, but Mary’s stopped transmitting at four twenty-nine a.m. while she was still in the lab. Whoever did this knew what they were doing.”
“Who else has access to the building?”
“To the building? Several hundred people. But the research area is only accessible to about fifty.”
“We’ll need a list,” I said. “As well as details on your security system.”
“Of course,” said Dr. Takemago.
“You’ve called the police?”
Dr. Takemago was silent for a moment. “The executives didn’t feel that the police would appreciate the nuances of this case.”
I nodded as if this were a perfectly reasonable answer. Keane had extracted his hands from the fleece and was holding them in front of his nose with a slightly revolted expression on his face.
“You said you don’t keep the sheep for their wool,” I remarked. “Why do you keep them?”
“Genetic research,” Dr. Takemago said.
I raised an eyebrow at her. Now she was being downright evasive. After a moment she sighed. “Organ transplants,” she said. “The idea is to raise genetically modified sheep specifically for the purpose of being hosts for organs that can be transplanted into humans. Livers, kidneys, even hearts and lungs. This is confidential, of course.”
Just at that moment the sheep let out an impassioned bleat that sent a shiver down my spine. It sounded precisely like the frightened cry of a small child. I turned to see Keane kneeling in front of the sheep, staring intently into its eyes. The sheep backed away, appearing frightened.
Dr. Takemago didn’t look pleased.
“Stop spooking the sheep, Keane,” I said, by way of mollifying her. I had no real hope of having any effect on Keane’s behavior.
Keane continued to stare, and the sheep retreated, bleating its horrible bleat.
“What are you doing, Mr. Keane?” demanded Dr. Takemago.
Keane didn’t answer, continuing to stare at the terrified sheep. Then he stood and turned to Dr. Takemago. “I have taken measure of this sheep’s soul,” announced Keane. The room was silent except for the low hum of the machinery for some time before I realized Keane wasn’t planning to elaborate.
“And…?” I asked at last.
Keane remained silent for several seconds more. “Inconclusive,” he said at last. With that, he wandered to a corner of the laboratory and began staring at the wall. Dr. Takemago shook her head, clearly dubious about the Esper Corporation’s decision to hire Keane to find its missing sheep.
“He’s an unconventional thinker,” I explained without enthusiasm. “But he gets results.”
“One thing needs to be made clear,” said Dr. Takemago, turning to face me. “The vice president of research and development left instructions to be cooperative. But hiring a two-bit private investigator to locate the missing specimen seems misguided, and frankly Mr. Keane’s attitude is doing exactly nothing to allay those concerns. That sheep is absolutely critical to the life-saving research Esper Corporation is doing, and if it isn’t found—”
“Phenomenological inquisitor,” I mumbled.
“Mr. Keane doesn’t like being called a private investigator,” I explained. “He prefers the term ‘phenomenological inquisitor.’”
“Delusions of grandeur, too,” noted Takemago coldly. “In what way does a ‘phenomenological inquisitor’ differ from a two-bit private investigator?”
I was ready for that one. “Phenomenology,” I began, “is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. The methods of a phenomenological inquisitor differ from those of a typical investigator in that the phenomenological inquisitor regards each case as a matter of resolving the tension between the appearance of things and things as they actually are. Further, the phenomenological inquisitor does not limit his understanding of the ‘real’ to mere physical phenomena, accepting that consciousness, memory, and experiences are no less real than, for example, chairs, automobiles, or”—I glanced at the sheep—“farm animals.” I had this speech memorized, but I liked to occasionally improvise depending on the situation. Returning to the script, I went on, “Finally the phenomenological inquisitor differs from a scientist in that he does not attempt to isolate himself from his subject or to observe reality under artificially created laboratory conditions, preferring to seek out apparent anomalies and explore them on their own terms rather than reduce them to preexisting categories.”
“That sounds like bullshit,” said Takemago.
I shrugged. To be honest, it sounded like bullshit to me, too.
“Any idea who would want to steal your sheep?” I asked.
“The most reasonable hypothesis?” said Takemago. “One of the other biotech companies. Competition in this industry is cutthroat. Mary represents the culmination of a decade of top-secret research.”
I frowned. I was no scientist, but something about that didn’t seem to jibe. “You think they’re going to dissect Esper’s sheep to learn its secrets? Wouldn’t it make more sense to steal the research? Not to mention that it’s a lot easier to smuggle out a terabyte of data than to kidnap a sheep.”
Dr. Takemago nodded. “Security is looking into the possibility that research data was stolen as well. Stealing Mary may have been only one part of their plan.”
“Be sure to contact us if you find anything out,” I said. “If we’re going to solve this case, it’s vital that you not withhold any information.”
“Of course,” Dr. Takemago said after a slight hesitation. I glanced at Keane to see if he had picked up on it, but he was oblivious, seemingly transfixed by the wall of the lab.
“What about someone needing an organ transplant?” I ventured.
Dr. Takemago shot me a dubious look.
“You said these sheep are engineered as hosts for organs intended for transplant. What if someone was desperate for a transplant and couldn’t get an organ through legal channels for some reason?”
“Not a chance,” said Dr. Takemago. “Anybody with the resources to pull off a theft like this could easily have gotten hold of a black-market kidney.”
I furrowed my brow at her.
“Black-market trade in human organs from the Disincorporated Zone is well-documented. It wouldn’t be difficult for a motivated person with adequate resources to get their hands on a viable human kidney.” She was right of course, but something about the way she said it creeped me out. Takemago had a strange, clinical way of speaking that made me feel a little like I was conversing with a machine.
“What about a liver?” I asked. “Nobody’s going to sell their liver on the black market.”
“No one’s own liver, no,” Dr. Takemago said.
I nodded. She was right. You could get anything in the DZ if you had the money. “Still,” I said, “it would help if we knew a little more about the potential uses for a sheep like Mary.”
“There seems to be a bit of a disconnect here, Mr. Fowler,” she said. “There are no ‘uses’ for a sheep like Mary. Her only value is as a subject of research. This is undoubtedly a case of corporate espionage. If the involvement of a ‘phenomenological inquisitor’ in this matter is unavoidable, then that’s where such a person’s efforts should be directed.”
“Humor me,” I said. “When you say the organs are meant for transplanting into humans, do you mean the sheep actually have human organs inside them?”
“More or less,” Takemago said. “Their hearts, kidneys, and livers are designed from a subset of chromosomes common to sheep and human beings so they can be transplanted from one to the other with minimal complications.”
“Minimal complications,” I said. “Not no complications.”
I watched as Keane spun around and approached the sheep again. He sank his hand into the top of its fleece once more, and the sheep gave a quick bleat as it felt his presence. Dr. Takemago frowned, clearly agitated.
“There’s always the risk of complications with any transplant operation,” she said, her eyes on Keane. “Particularly cross-species—even if the animal is specifically designed for the purpose. That’s why it makes no sense to steal a sheep like Mary for her organs when one could more easily purchase a human organ on the black market. It’s always better to stay within the same species, if at all possible. Not to mention that these sheep are still experimental. There’s simply no advantage to harvesting organs from a sheep.”
“Then why breed them in the first place?”
“Because,” Takemago explained irritably, “Esper Corporation isn’t selling organs on the black market. The idea is to supply usable organs through legitimate channels, without anybody having to die in the process.”
“Except for the sheep,” I said.
“Of course,” said Takemago to me. “But better a sheep than a human being.”
I nodded. “Why do you use such a large breed of sheep?” I asked. “Even allowing for the volume of its fleece, that one has to weigh close to three hundred pounds. I would think its organs are too large to fit inside a person.”
Takemago nodded, still watching Keane anxiously. “Another reason it wouldn’t make sense to harvest organs from Mary. But in answer to the question, Esper uses several different breeds. These specimens are all experimental. Size is one of the easiest variables to control. Once the problem of organ viability has been solved, the next step is to breed a version with a mass approximating that of an average human being. What are you doing, Mr. Keane?”
Keane seemed oblivious to the question. He was running his hands through the sheep’s fleece, pulling away loose fibers and regarding them with apparent fascination.
Dr. Takemago turned to me. “What exactly is Mr. Keane doing?” she demanded.
I watched Keane impassively for a moment. “Woolgathering,” I said, eyeing Dr. Takemago for her response. Crickets.
She continued to watch Keane for some time, clearly agitated. Her hands were clutched in fists at her sides. I saw her lips quivering as if she were preparing for a confrontation. She took a deep breath and said, “Mr. Keane, you have had adequate time to observe that sheep. If you have no other questions, I am going to have to ask you to leave.”
Keane mumbled something incomprehensible.
“Excuse me?” said Dr. Takemago.
“I said, ‘You’ll do no such thing,’” Keane remarked.
“Oh?” said Dr. Takemago, rising to the challenge. “And why is that?”
“Because I’m your only hope to keep your job.”
Dr. Takemago snorted derisively. “And how is that, Mr. Keane?”
Keane sighed. He straightened, facing Dr. Takemago, his hands tucked behind his back. “Other than the three of us and Mark here,” he began, “this lab—which could easily accommodate twenty or more scientists and technicians—is empty. Not even a wrangler to help you with the sheep. I can’t imagine all your research has ground to a halt simply because one of your subjects has gone missing, which means that the lab has been intentionally cleared of personnel for some reason. Not on your orders, I assume.”
Dr. Takemago didn’t reply.
Keane went on, “It’s possible that they’re trying to hide the theft of the sheep—or some other detail about the case—from the other employees, but that seems unlikely. They aren’t going to be able to keep the sheep’s disappearance under wraps for long, and you haven’t told us anything I couldn’t have learned from any low-level employee. Speaking of which, my fee is high enough that ordinarily when I’m hired by a corporate client like Esper, I’m met by one or more board members. Corporate officers uniformly possess an exaggerated sense of their own understanding of the strategic business realities affecting a case. This leads them to believe I couldn’t possibly solve the case without their input. But rather than being called into a meeting with the vice president of research and development, who ostensibly hired me for this case, I was directed to speak only to you, a lowly researcher. No offense.”
Dr. Takemago scowled.
“And then there’s the fact that nobody has called the police. Perhaps, as you intimate, this is because the matter is too sensitive to be handled by the civil authorities. Or perhaps it’s because your superiors didn’t see the need.”
“What is your point, Mr. Keane?” demanded Dr. Takemago.
“My point, Doctor, is that your bosses have already determined who is responsible for your missing sheep. They set up this meeting with the sole purpose of seeing how you would react—to see if you would attempt to steer us away from suspecting you. This room is monitored, I assume. I’d wager that the VP of R and D—assuming he really did hire me—is watching us right now. You’ll be followed when you leave the building as well. If you don’t incriminate yourself during this meeting, they’re hoping to spook you into making a mistake, like trying to contact your coconspirators.”
Dr. Takemago’s mouth had fallen open in shock. “But I … I didn’t—”
“What your superiors fail to take into account is that if you were the sheep thief, you’d have anticipated suspicion and surveillance. In fact, given that you’re the obvious prime suspect, you’d likely have planned a strategy of misdirection, deliberately inviting suspicion in order to demonstrate your innocence and utter guilelessness. If you had conducted this heist directly under your superiors’ noses, as it were, the last thing that would spook you into making a mistake is some eccentric detective poking around your lab, asking silly questions. This is one of the hazards of being an eccentric detective, by the way. Clients tend to rely on my reputation while discounting my ability. Esper hired me not to solve this case, but to put on my dog and pony show in your lab in order to flush you out. In addition to being completely misguided and doomed to fail from the outset, there’s one major flaw with this plan.”
“I didn’t steal the sheep,” said Dr. Takemago.
“No,” Keane said. “You didn’t.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Do you see this sheep?” asked Keane, walking over to Mark and patting it gently on its head. “The poor thing is terrified.”
“So?” I asked.
“Sheep are herd animals,” said Keane. “They hate being separated from their herd. It’s a little hard to tell, but this beast is having the sheep equivalent of a panic attack right now. Simply because it’s standing alone in this lab, a place where it’s probably been a hundred times before.”
The sheep let out a low bleat, and Keane scratched its ear comfortingly.
I held up my hands, indicating I wasn’t following.
“Well,” he said, “imagine how Mary feels. She’s in a strange place, alone, separated from her flock. She must be out of her mind with fear.”
I was about to interject, asking if he was going to get to the point sometime this week, but then I saw Dr. Takemago bite her lip, and I caught a glimpse of the picture Keane was painting.
“Dr. Takemago’s surly demeanor is a cover,” said Keane. “She loves these sheep. She empathizes with them. You can tell by the way she fidgets when I approach it. It pains her to see poor Mark standing here, alone in the lab, being harassed by a strange man. Maybe at first they were just research subjects, but she’s come to have strong feelings for them. She would never willingly remove Mary from her herd. I suppose it’s possible that Dr. Takemago assisted the thief under duress, but it’s hard to imagine what sort of leverage the thief might use.”
“The usual, I suppose,” I offered. “Threaten her family, or—”
Keane shook his head. “Dr. Takemago tends to avoid eye contact and personal pronouns, engages in the bare minimum of personal grooming, lacks social graces, presents a virtually asexual affect, and demonstrates an abbreviated range of emotions. These characteristics, along with her chosen career in a highly technical, specialized scientific field, indicate that she possesses traits of autism and social anxiety disorder. I expect she has no friends and no close family. This job is her entire life, and those sheep are the closest things she has to friends. To get Dr. Takemago to betray her employer and cause suffering to one of her sheep, the thief would have had to threaten to take away something she values more than her job and her research subjects. There isn’t any such thing.”
Dr. Takemago stared at Keane with something that was either annoyance or awe.
“So,” I said, “this whole meeting has been a waste of time.”
“Not at all,” said Keane. “We’ve accomplished two important tasks. One, we’ve eliminated Dr. Takemago as a suspect and saved her job. Two: we’ve demonstrated that I’m the only person in this building smart enough to find the real thief.” Keane craned his neck back and addressed the ceiling. “So,” he said, “if it’s all the same to you, I’ll get to work on that.”
Copyright © 2016 Robert Kroese.
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Robert Kroese honed his sense of irony growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After barely graduating from Calvin College, he stumbled into software development. In 2009, he called upon his extensive knowledge of useless information and love of explosions to write his first novel, Mercury Falls. He has written three more books in the Mercury series and a humorous epic fantasy, Disenchanted. The Big Sheep is probably something like Kroese's eleventh book, but there's no way to know for certain.