Set in the world of The Big Sheep, The Last Iota by Robert Kroese delivers another dystopian adventure novel full of wit and intrigue (available May 9, 2017).
The year is 2039, and Los Angeles is poised between order and chaos. After the Collapse of 2028, a vast section of LA, now known as the Disincorporated Zone, was disowned by the civil authorities and became a de facto 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. So when movie mogul Selah Fiore decides she needs to get her hands on a rare coin lost somewhere in the city, she knows Keane is the man for the job.
But while the erratic Keane and his more sensible partner Blake Fowler struggle to unravel the mystery of the elusive coins, Blake’s girlfriend Gwen goes missing and Selah Fiore turns up murdered. Both of these crimes seem to be linked to the coins—and to an untraceable virtual currency called iotas, used by drug dealers and terrorist networks.
Framed for Selah’s murder and desperate to find Gwen, Keane and Fowler must outwit DZ warlords, outmaneuver a reclusive billionaire, and stay a step ahead of the police while they gradually uncover the truth about iotas. Soon the clues begin to point to a conspiracy at the highest levels of government—and to a mysterious trickster who has orchestrated it all. As the DZ devolves into chaos and another Collapse seems to loom, Blake Fowler realizes that the brilliant Erasmus Keane may have finally met his match.
“I’m not who you think I am,” said the image of Selah Fiore on the screen in front of me. Her blond hair was wet and her dress hung damply from her exquisite form. “Some of the things I’ve done have been … questionable. But it was all for the good of the company. It was all for us.”
The man holding a gun on her shook his head slowly. “You really believe that, don’t you?” he said. He was grizzled, with a two-day beard and rumpled clothing. I got the impression he was supposed to be a cop, but he was a little too handsome for the job. I’d seen him in a few movies; I think his name was Ben something.
Needless to say, Selah Fiore was too beautiful to be whatever she was supposed to be. I’d come in at the middle of the scene, so it was a little unclear who her character was. Some flavor of femme fatale, no doubt. Selah Fiore had always excelled at the femme fatale. The two of them appeared to be standing in the rain in an alley dimly lit by neon signs.
“It’s the truth,” Selah said. “You knew that once. You and I—”
“No, Jessica,” Ben What’s-His-Name said. “There’s no ‘you and I.’ Not anymore. You saw to that when you got in bed with GenoDyne.”
“GenoDyne was a means to an end, Paul. Surely you see that.”
“In the beginning, maybe. But you’ve changed, Jessica. So much that I don’t think you can even see the end anymore.”
“Good God,” muttered the man standing next to me. “Who writes this crap?”
A ponytailed man standing behind a camera to our left shot a glare in our direction.
“Keane,” I whispered. “You’re going to get us kicked out of this place.”
“I’m not seeing the downside,” said Keane. “The screeching of feral cats making sweet love on the roof of a garden shed is Casablanca compared to this scene.”
That earned us another glare, and I elbowed Keane in the ribs. He grumbled, but didn’t continue his rant. I actually thought the scene was rather good, and in any case it was fun to watch Selah work.
We weren’t watching the real Selah Fiore, of course. Selah Fiore was nearly sixty years old, and the woman on the screen appeared to be closer to thirty. This was Selah from her glory days, circa 2010. The voice was the real Selah’s, but the image was a computer-generated facsimile combining Selah’s appearance from thirty years ago, the real Selah’s facial expressions, and the body of an android stand-in. Glancing at Keane, I realized the cause of the disparity in our reactions: I was watching the simulacrum on the screen to our right, but Keane was watching Ben What’s-His-Name interacting with the android on the soundstage to our left. The android resembled a crash test dummy more than a human being, and it was a poor substitute for a fine specimen of femininity like thirty-year-old Selah Fiore. Watching the scene unfold with a faceless robot playing Selah’s part definitely sucked the romance out of the experience. It was so unsettling, in fact, that I found myself deliberately ignoring the real-life scene to focus on the monitor. Meanwhile, Keane continued to forgo the illusion in favor of the robot. That was Erasmus Keane in a nutshell: always trying to get at the reality behind the illusion, even if it made him—and everyone around him—miserable.
“Then you’ll have to shoot me,” Simulacrum Selah was saying, her chin defiant but her lower lip trembling almost imperceptibly. The illusion was perfect: a computer was generating the composite image on the fly, transposing the real Selah’s expressions onto a model of her face from thirty years ago and then transferring the resultant simulation onto the android’s blank face. Presumably the real Selah Fiore was around here somewhere, acting out the scene, but I hadn’t yet laid eyes on her. The soundstage was a large room, but the illusion of the rain-slicked alley extended just beyond the frame of the monitor. The director probably kept Selah in a soundproofed room nearby to ensure the sound was recorded properly and her movements were captured accurately. Of course, there was no reason she couldn’t be in Paris or Hong Kong; with a high-speed data connection, the delay would be imperceptible. I only knew she was somewhere nearby because she had asked Keane and me to meet her here. The scene was supposed to be over by now, but evidently the shooting had gone long.
I say the director was “keeping her” somewhere offstage, but that wasn’t accurate, either. There was no containing Selah Fiore. She was an actor in this scene, but she also owned the production company. The director—who was still finding time between his directing tasks to shoot disapproving glances at me and Keane—was just one of Selah’s many employees. In fact, the company producing this film was only one small part of Selah Fiore’s vast news and entertainment empire, Flagship Media. God knew why she still chose to star in the occasional film; she certainly didn’t need the money. I suspect it was some combination of vanity, nostalgia, and boredom. Keane and I were all too familiar with Selah Fiore’s particular brand of vanity, thanks to a run-in with her on a previous case. In fact, as we learned on that case, psychotic narcissism was probably a more accurate description.
We had been hired to find a genetically modified sheep that had gone missing from one of Esper Corporation’s labs. We ended up uncovering an illegal cloning operation, the end goal of which was Selah Fiore’s own immortality. Selah had spent hundreds of millions of New Dollars and broken countless laws to produce clones of herself implanted with her own memories—and she might have succeeded if it weren’t for me and Keane. She would have killed us if Keane hadn’t outmaneuvered her. Selah Fiore was brilliant, beautiful, ruthless, and as close to pure evil as I’ve ever experienced. So to say that her call inviting us to the set of her latest movie was unexpected would be a considerable understatement. I think Keane agreed to come mostly out of curiosity. Ordinarily I would have resisted, but Selah had said something in her message that got my attention.
“Be reasonable, Jessica,” Ben What’s-His-Name, with the stubbly, too-perfect chin pleaded. I had to hand it to him; he made me believe he was actually addressing thirty-year-old Selah and not a naked, faceless android that looked like it had wandered away from a Macy’s store window.
“I am being reasonable, Paul,” said the Selah simulacrum on the screen. “It’s the end of the road for us. This is how it was always going to end for you and I.”
Keane, who had continued to fidget irritably next to me, could no longer contain himself. “You and me!” he shouted. “Clichés are one thing, but at least get the grammar right.”
“Cut!” yelled the ponytailed man. “Everybody take five.”
Ben What’s-His-Name shrugged and walked off. The android put its hands on its hips and cocked its head at an odd angle, as if looking at something the rest of us couldn’t see. The ponytailed man marched over toward me and Keane. “Who the fuck are you, and what are you doing on my set?” he demanded.
“My name is Erasmus Keane,” answered Keane. “To answer your second question, I’m just a guy with a seventh-grade education and above-average attention to detail, which evidently renders me overqualified to be on your writing staff. Do you even know the difference between a subject and an indirect object?”
“Keane,” I said, “I don’t think that’s—”
“In any case,” Keane went on, “this isn’t your set.”
“The hell it isn’t,” the ponytailed man growled. “Security, get these two idiots out of here.”
A heavyset man in a security uniform waddled toward me. I’d noticed him before; I’m in the habit of taking inventory of any potential threats when I enter a room. This guy was high on potential but low on threat. He wore a sidearm but I doubted he’d ever drawn it in the line of duty. Security on this set seemed to be an afterthought; we hadn’t even been frisked before being allowed on the soundstage. We’d flashed our IDs, the man at the door had verified our names were on a list, and we’d walked right on. I wore a 9mm SIG Sauer on my chest and a Beretta on my ankle. Not that I’d need them for this guy. Still, I tried to avoid conflict unless it was absolutely necessary; the fact was, the guard had every right to eject us from the soundstage. If we resisted, we were likely to attract the attention of law enforcement, and that was generally to be avoided.
“Come on, Keane,” I said. “Let’s get out of here. If Selah wants to—”
“If Selah wants to what?” said a woman’s voice behind the ponytailed man. Turning to look, I saw Selah Fiore approaching from a dark corner. She must have come in a side door while we were distracted. She was still beautiful at fifty-eight, but the contrast with the younger version of herself was striking. Even with the best plastic surgeons and antiaging treatments, Selah was slowly losing the fight against her own mortality.
“If Selah wants to talk to us,” I answered, meeting her gaze, “she knows where to find us.”
“Indeed I do,” said Selah. She turned to the ponytailed man. “David, take your goon and go get a coffee. No sugar for him; I see now where all the cafeteria donuts are going.” She eyed the heavyset guard distastefully, and the man’s face flushed red. God, I hated that woman.
“Come on, Tim,” said the ponytailed man, David, sparing another glare at Keane. The two walked off the set, exiting through the door Keane and I had come through.
Selah clapped her hands twice. “Everyone out!” she shouted. A couple of technicians who had still been milling about exited as well, none of them saying a word. They all knew who Selah Fiore was, and they knew better than to question her. We were on the soundstage alone with her.
“It costs me a lot of money to have these people standing around, you know,” said Selah, addressing Keane.
“Yeah, well, it costs me money to have this guy standing here,” said Keane, jerking his thumb in my direction.
Selah laughed. “You two haven’t had a case in three weeks,” she said. She looked at me. “Is he even still paying your salary?”
In point of fact, he was, but only because I was in charge of the finances. We were four months behind on our lease, but I wasn’t about to dock my salary so Keane could keep his office open.
“Keeping tabs on us, eh?” said Keane, before I could reply. “I didn’t know you cared.”
“It’s in my interest to make sure you aren’t causing mischief.”
“You’ve been scaring our clients away?” I asked.
“Sadly, that hasn’t been necessary,” Selah said. “Maybe phenomenological inquisitors are just out of vogue these days.” Keane insisted on calling himself a “phenomenological inquisitor” rather than “private investigator.” I still wasn’t sure what the difference was, other than Keane’s ego.
“Like elderly actresses,” Keane suggested.
Selah smiled without warmth. “Touché, Mr. Keane.”
“You said you wanted to talk about Gwen,” I interjected. “So talk. Do you know something you haven’t told us?”
Gwen Thorson had been my girlfriend. I say “had been” because three years ago she had disappeared. Simply vanished, without a trace. I had spent much of the past three years trying to locate her but had been on the verge of giving up when Keane and I took the Case of the Missing Sheep. When that case ended, Selah had hinted that she knew what had happened to Gwen. The impression she gave us at the time was that Gwen had been murdered because of her involvement in a top-secret government program called Maelstrom.
Selah observed me impassively for a moment. “No,” she said at last. “I’m afraid I misled you, Mr. Fowler. I mentioned Gwen merely to get your attention. I didn’t want you talking Mr. Keane out of this meaning.”
I sighed, hoping that I conveyed disappointment and resignation rather than what I was actually feeling, which was relief. If she knew something about Gwen that she hadn’t told us, that was bad news. Because I knew something about Gwen that—hopefully—neither she nor Keane knew.
“Let’s go, Keane,” I said. “She’s just playing us.”
“Wait,” Selah replied. “I want to hire you.”
“Sure you do,” I said. “What are you missing this time, a capybara?”
“A coin,” she replied.
Keane cocked his head. “First a sheep, then a coin. You seem to be developing a theme, Selah. You don’t have a prodigal son running around Sunset Strip, do you?”
“No sons that I know of,” said Selah. “And the coin isn’t mine. It’s just something that I’m interested in.”
“What sort of coin?” asked Keane.
“An iota,” Selah replied.
“Iotas don’t exist,” I said. “Not as physical coins, anyway. They’re virtual currency.” I was somewhat familiar with iotas, as I had recently opened an iota account myself for some of Keane’s off-the-books transactions. There weren’t a lot of places that took them, but they could be handy for making untraceable payments—especially since the transaction could be conducted on a comm, without ever touching cash. Iotas had gone mainstream in the early 2030s, after the collapse of the U.S. dollar, and they remained a popular alternative to hard currency in many circles. There were other virtual currencies around, like bitcoins and XKredits, but the iota was by far the most popular. The idea of an iota coin, however, was an oxymoron. The whole point of iotas was that they were digital.
“Actually,” said Selah, “there are nine physical iota coins in existence.”
Keane nodded and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“Physical coins representing virtual money?” I asked. “How does that work?”
“It was a marketing gimmick,” Keane answered. “There was a time when certain people were pushing iotas as an alternative to the dollar. It seems like a stretch now, but at the height of the Collapse, it wasn’t at all clear there was a bottom to the dollar’s fall. Meanwhile, virtual currencies like the iota were surging. At the height of iota fever, about three months into the Collapse, some savvy investors and tech guys got together to form something called the Free Currency Initiative. Theoretically, they were in favor of decentralizing currency—which is to say, taking it out of the hands of governments. These people blamed the government for creating a currency bubble, which burst, leading to the Collapse. They wanted a free-floating currency that couldn’t be easily manipulated. Officially, the FCI took no position on any particular virtual currency.”
“Unofficially,” Selah added, “they were pushing iotas pretty hard. They hosted a big charity auction downtown, ostensibly for providing aid to families that had suffered financial hardship during the Collapse. Lots of high-profile celebrities and businesspeople attended. The usual stuff—get a picture with Priya Mistry, get the hat Cole Banning wore in December Rain. I wasn’t there, but I knew many people who were. The proceeds went to several local charities. The catch was that all the donations were made in iotas.”
“You mean people bid in iotas rather than dollars?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Selah. “FCI representatives offered a demonstration of an iota trading app that would allow bidders to exchange dollars for iotas in order to bid. The iotas bid were then transferred to several local charity organizations. Representatives of several corporations—grocery chains, clothing stores, and the like—were on hand to work with the nonprofits to make purchases for their organizations. The businesses gave the charities steep discounts in exchange for the publicity of being involved in the event. All part of a larger scale PR campaign to mainstream iotas as an alternative to the dollar. Among the items auctioned off were nine commemorative coins bearing the iota logo.”
“Physical coins symbolizing virtual money,” Keane said. “A rather clever gimmick. The coins can’t be worth more than a few hundred New Dollars, though. Why do you want them?”
“I only want one,” Selah said. “It isn’t important why.”
“Of course it is,” I said. “Presumably you’ve tried to locate one of these coins yourself and failed, which means that you aren’t the only one who wants them. Why? Did someone just discover the coins have a chewy nougat center?”
“I’ll pay triple your normal rate,” said Selah, ignoring the question.
I groaned. Why did potential clients always play this game? Withhold vital information, making it that much harder to solve the case? “You realize we hate you,” I said, trying a different tack.
Selah shrugged. “If I refused to do business with everyone who hated me, I wouldn’t be a billionaire. And you’ll be happy to know the feeling is mutual. However, it just so happens that Mr. Keane is the best at what he does. If anyone can get his hands on one of those coins, it’s Erasmus Keane. Find me one of those coins and I’ll wipe the slate clean between us.”
I snorted. She tried to kill us, and now she was going to “wipe the slate clean”? Was Selah really that deluded?
Keane nodded absently. “Shake on it?” he said.
“You’re not seriously thinking of taking this case,” I said, turning to face him. He ignored me.
“I’m not much for physical contact,” said Selah. “I’ll have a contract sent to your comm.”
Keane nodded again. “You’re not fooling anyone, you know.”
“Excuse me?” said Selah.
“Fowler, give me your gun.”
I stared at him. “Why?”
“Just do it,” he said. Selah seemed bemused by the demand.
I removed the SIG from its holster and handed it to Keane. He took it from me and pointed it at Selah. Before I could object, he fired two shots at her. Keane handed the gun back to me.
“What the hell?” I asked, taking the smoking gun from Keane.
Miraculously, Selah seemed unharmed. The bullets had left no mark at all. She looked at Keane curiously. “How did you know?” she asked.
“Security was too lax,” said Keane. “You’d never have let Fowler get this close to you with a gun on him. You’re keeping your distance, staying out of direct light. Your android double over there is still mimicking your movements, even though you don’t appear to be near any sort of motion-capture apparatus.”
Turning to look, I saw that Keane was right: even now, the android was standing haughtily, its arms crossed over its chest, as if facing down a phantom Erasmus Keane.
“Finally,” Keane went on, “the android has only moved about twenty feet from where it was standing during filming, which would seem to imply that you suddenly appeared in this room twenty feet from where you’re standing now.”
“A hologram,” I said, taking a step toward the projection. I could hardly believe it wasn’t really her.
“Yes,” said Keane. “A very convincing one, at that. The best I’ve ever seen.”
“Cutting-edge proprietary technology,” Selah said.
“But why?” I asked. “What’s with the ruse, Selah? Or has it gotten to the point where deception is so natural to you that you don’t need a reason?”
“It’s a security precaution, as Mr. Keane indicated. I also have … other reasons for not wanting to be seen.”
“That’s your choice,” said Keane. “But I’m not taking this job unless I can look you in the eye.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Mr. Keane,” said Selah. “There’s no reason for us to meet in person.”
“You’re hiding something,” said Keane. “That’s reason enough.”
Selah shook her head. “No,” she said. “It’s out of the question.”
“Fine,” said Keane. “Fowler, let’s go.”
I nodded, holstering my gun. I had no desire to work for Selah anyway. We’d find another way to make the rent. We started toward the door, and we were almost there when Selah flickered into existence in front of us. “Wait,” she said, holding up her hand, which momentarily disappeared inside my chest. I shuddered. Even at this distance, it was almost impossible to tell she was a projection. Except for the fact that the lighting on her face was a little wrong from this angle—and the fact that her wrist ended at my sternum—I never would have known. “Please be reasonable, Mr. Keane.”
“This isn’t negotiable, Selah,” said Keane. “Either we shake on the deal or Fowler and I walk.”
Selah regarded Keane for a moment—or gave the impression of regarding him, anyway; although there were obviously cameras in the room, I didn’t think the technology existed for her to see us from the hologram’s point of view. Finally she sighed in resignation. “All right,” she said. “Go through the door. Turn right. Surrender any weapons to the guard at the end of the hall. Tell him you’re here to see Ms. Gray.” The hologram disappeared.
“We can still walk out,” I said.
“Aren’t you curious?” asked Keane.
“Of course I’m curious,” I replied. “But I don’t want to have anything to do with that woman. She tried to kill us, Keane.”
“You can’t take attempted murder personally in this business, Fowler. Come on, let’s see what she’s hiding.”
Copyright © 2017 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.