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The Missing Metatarsals

The moment I stepped from the booth and saw Inspector Forest waiting for me, I knew something was up.

“You’re wearing your inscrutable face,” I told him.

“This is my usual face.”

His head swiveled to track me as we walked in lockstep through security. A birth defect called Möbius syndrome inherited from distant Nepalese ancestors left him with underdeveloped VI and VII cranial nerves, so he can’t blink, bite, or form expressions without the help of a series of tiny implants. My girlfriend Billie is a muscle artist, and she’s tweaked the inspector’s presets a couple of times, giving him conscious control of his face, but that’s not the same as the real thing. Not the same at all.

“I would like your perspective on a rather interesting situation, if you have time.”

“Sure.” I was a peacekeeper not for the status, but for a chance to crack cases with the legendary PK Forest. “What’s up?”

“A theft.”

“I didn’t think data crime was your bag.”

“This has nothing to do with data.”

“Someone actually stole something?”

“So it seems.” One eyelid drooped, very precisely. “Let me get my coat and we will be on our way.”

***

It was like the inspector to wear a coat when there was no need to go outside. Peacekeeper HQ was in the New York Archipelago that week, and the crime had occurred in Washington D.C., so we took an internal booth and stepped into a mahogany foyer that left me feeling as though I’d moved in time as well as space.

My augmented reality lenses synced with the Air on arrival, giving me a brief rundown of our new location. It was the home of a private collection belonging to a Mister Antoine Bayazati, but what the collection consisted of, exactly, the Air didn’t say. Antiques, I guessed, judging by the foyer. I was close.

“PK Forest.” A smartly-dressed Caucasian woman stepped out of a doorway to greet us, her hand outstretched to take the inspector’s in a firm grip.

“This is my assistant, PK Sargent.”

I took the woman’s hand in turn, noting green eyes that danced away too quickly, several strands of hair that had sprung free of a tight, auburn bun, and a not unpleasant smell of dust. The fingernail of her thumb was bitten short, her palm faintly damp.

“Diana Scullen, curator of Mister Bayazati’s collection,” she told me. “Please, this way.”

She led us through a series of dimly lit corridors, heels inaudible on thick, burgundy carpet. I examined a series of framed pictures as they swept past, expecting the usual portraits or landscapes, but they were in fact old paintings of dinosaurs. Their proportions were off, and everyone knows that T. Rex ran with its body parallel to the ground rather than upright like a kangaroo.

“Mister Bayazati is an eminent dinophiliac,” the inspector said, noting my interest.

“Is that a word?”

“Most would say preeminent,” said Scullen, waving us ahead of her through a double door. The office beyond left no doubt of the owner’s opinion regarding the prefix.

Mister Bayazati had a crown of curly gray hair that contrasted magisterially with his black skin. The tallest person in the room by almost a full head, followed by me, Scullen, and Inspector Forest, he loomed in a blue three-piece suit over an enormous, leather-topped desk.

“Good of you to come,” he said in a voice that was high-pitched with anxiety. He didn’t offer us a seat, but he didn’t sit himself so I supposed that wasn’t impolite. “I’m desperate.”

“So I was led to understand,” said the inspector. “Something about a stolen fossil . . . ?”

“Not just any fossil, man. The find of the century!”

“Perhaps you could explain the significance of the theft in more detail.”

“Yes, of course.” Bayazati walked as he talked, circumnavigating around the room as though looking for a way out. “There are three official species of Stegosaurus: armatus, homheni, and mjosi. Two years ago, I discovered a perfectly articulated skeleton of a fourth species, S. ungulatus, in the Lourinhã Formation in Portugal. The specimen has been in my collection ever since—or so I believed until yesterday, when I discovered that part of it was missing.”

“How?” I asked.

“I wished to view the metatarsals of the rear feet, one of the features that distinguish this species from its predecessors. When I opened the case, I found it to be empty. A preliminary search in neighboring boxes turned up no sign of them, so I called in Diana—Doctor Scullen, here. We conducted an emergency audit and discovered only more absences from the catalogue, all from the same skeleton. Fully fifteen percent of my S. ungulatus is missing. It must be recovered at once!”

“Surely you can recover its pattern from the Air and—”

“Never!” He rounded on me with a feverish gleam in his eye. “My specimens are completely authentic, right down to the last molecule.”

“Mister Bayazati is an Abstainer,” Diana Scullen elaborated. “All of his archeological samples are freighted by rail to avoid using any form of matter transmission.”

“I have no use for shabby counterfeits,” he blustered.

“But you have a d-mat booth in your foyer,” noted the inspector.

“People can do what they like as long as they leave me and my collection alone.”

“So none of the missing exhibits were scanned?” I asked, still not quite able to believe it. “Not even for insurance against damage or, well, loss?”

Mister Bayazati raised his chin and both thumbs went into his waistcoat. I took that as a no, since scanning inevitably requires the deconstruction of the object being scanned.

“Tell me about your fellow dinophiliacs.” Now it was the inspector’s turn to pace while Bayazati stood still. It was like watching Ganymede orbit Jupiter. “Could one of them could be responsible for the theft—perhaps one jealous of your extensive collection?”

Bayazati nodded. “The thought had occurred to me, PK Forest, but I accompany them at all times. They couldn’t take so much as a fingernail scraping without me noticing.”

I believed him. “What about other visitors? Family, friends . . . ?”

“We’ve compiled the names of everyone who came through the collection in the relevant period,” said Scullen. “There was some repair work performed by artisans on one of the display wings—a carpenter and an electrician. They might be worth looking into.”

“PK Sargent and I will study that information in a moment.” The inspector was still pacing, which meant he was still thinking. “You have a booth, Mister Bayazati, that you do not ever use. That means there is at least one other exit from the building.”

“There are three,” Diana Scullen answered for her boss again. “All are watched around the clock, as are the display wings. I have the security files for you, and somewhere private for you to work.”

“One last question, then,” said the inspector. “Stegosaurus was a large beast, yes? It would be difficult to smuggle it from the collection without breaking it into pieces.”

“Yes.” A pained expression crossed Bayazati’s face. “Let’s pray they didn’t do that.”

“Indeed. It would be a terrible loss to humanity were this precious fossil to disappear forever.”

“I completely agree, PK Forest,” said Diana Scullen. “Now, if you’ll come this way . . . ?”

We were escorted from the room to leave the collector agonizing over his losses. Diana Scullen took us to an office nearby, offered us coffee or tea, which we both declined, and then left us to our ruminations.

The inspector took off his coat, draped it over the back of a chair, and rotated to take in the room. It was considerably less grand than Mister Bayazati’s.

“I hoped for one of the display wings,” he said. “I loved dinosaurs as a child.”

“Is that why we’re here? It’s not for the case, surely. We could’ve interviewed Bayazati and studied the files from HQ. Yes, the theft part is a novelty, but I bet we catch a dinophiliac red-handed on the security feed.”

The inspector tapped the side of his nose.

“The case is more than the case.” He often said stuff like that. “What else do you see here? What is evident apart from the evidence?”

“That these people are completely out of touch,” I said. “Dinosaur bones and Abstainers—really?”

The inspector smiled winningly, and it caught me off-guard for an instant. One of Billie’s finest.

***

The data we had been promised was location-fixed, so would leave the infields of our lenses the moment we left the building. We set to it with a will, dividing the caches and pursuing our own particular paths.

I quickly determined that no one had left the building carrying a heavy rucksack with a giant femur sticking out of it. There went the easy break I’d hoped for. The next thing to ascertain was when the S. ungulatus cases had last been accessed. Diana Scullen had conducted a routine census three months ago, opening the boxes and noting the precise catalogue of their contents. All present and correct, so the crime must have taken place subsequently. That left a lot of coming and going, and a lot of idle staring at footage for me.

Apart from Bayazati, Scullen, and the occasional dinophiliac, the only people to come near the cases were the artisans Scullen had mentioned. I closely examined those particular moments, noting every opportunity they’d had to interfere with the precious bones. It was tedious work, and I wasn’t used to tracking physical objects like old-time police. Theft today means patterns, not property, since everything that goes through d-mat can in theory be infinitely reproduced. Of course, that won’t fly where people are concerned, so laws exist to limit copying, and also to protect ownership over proprietary designs. These laws are very complicated. Does a copy of the Mona Lisa have the same cultural value as the original? Is a copy of a fertilized human egg considered an entirely new human being? How does an inventor earn status from a prototype that can be copied in seconds by a million people at once?

And what does it mean to be the original Mona Lisa, anyway? To most people the answer is nothing at all, not when its copies are perfect right down to the tiniest particle. But clearly it matters to Abstainers like Mister Bayazati, who never use d-mat for fear of becoming something other if they are broken down and rebuilt elsewhere. I’ll admit that used to worry me too, when I was old enough to worry, but the process is so demonstrably safe that being frightened of it now just seems absurd. (I’d be more worried about driving in a car with a tank of explosive petroleum behind my seat, like people used to.)

“I’m getting nowhere,” I said after an hour of scouring. “Plenty of opportunities to get at the cases, but no opportunities to get out. You?”

The inspector nodded. “I think it is time to summon Doctor Scullen.”

I found her in a workshop up the hall that was full of hands-on preserving paraphernalia. She’d slipped a lab coat over her smart suit, and I liked her more on seeing it—evidence of a practical nature, not just an egghead like her boss. Sadly, she took it off to be grilled by the inspector.

“We have ruled out Mister Bayazati’s rivals as suspects for the crime itself,” he told her, which was news to me. “By no possible means could those bones have been physically removed from this institution in their original state, and without them being in their original state, collectors such as Mister Bayazati would not be interested in possessing them. Once d-matted, the bones would be considered facsimiles and therefore valueless.”

Ah. I had got partway to that conclusion, at least.

Scullen didn’t seem surprised. “So they left through the booth. Can you access the transit records?”

“I already have,” said the inspector. “The bones were not transmitted individually or en masse, alone or on anyone’s person.”

“That can’t be possible.”

“Oh, but it is. Doctor Scullen, do you have a fabricator here?”

“A fabber? Yes. There’s one in the rec room.”

“And this rec room is not monitored, I presume?”

“No. There’s nothing in there worth stealing.”

“Not any more. I am certain the fabricator was used in the perpetration of this crime. Mister Bayazati will not eat patterned food or drink, so the device is provided mainly for the comfort of visitors—the artisans effecting the repairs on the display cases, for instance. No one would suspect them for being there, using a machine that was provided for their own convenience.”

“But why would they put the bones into the fabber?” I asked.

“Not to be recycled,” asked Scullen with an aghast expression. “Don’t tell me that’s where you’re going with this.”

“It is not inconceivable,” said the inspector, “that what one collector does not possess, he might go to extreme lengths to deny to another. But in this case I do not think so. Fabbers are d-mat booths in miniature. They can assemble and disassemble—and they can scan.”

“That doesn’t change anything,” I said, wondering where he was going with this. “Even if the artisans did scan the bones, what would they do with the patterns? It’d be huge cache. Any attempt to upload it into the Air could be traced. Same if they fed it into the booth. You saw the data: The bones didn’t leave that way.”

Another smile. It sent a shiver down my spine. Sometimes I wondered if it wasn’t Billie I saw in him, but the other way around.

“It would be helpful to speak to Mister Bayazati now,” he said. “I am a man of few words, and I dislike explaining myself twice.”

Now, that simply wasn’t true. The inspector loves nothing better than revealing how clever he is. That he wasn’t talking now meant he had something big to reveal, and I too would have to wait.

***

Mister Bayazati burst through the door in a gargantuan rush.

“Tell me you’ve found S. ungulatus. Tell me the criminals who did this to me will soon be brought to justice!”

“That I can promise you,” the inspector said. “Their fate will be hideous and . . . poetic unless they return your specimens to you immediately.”

“You are certain of this? How?”

“Because you, Mister Bayazati, are the victim of something very close to a pun. ‘Stegosaurus’ means ‘covered lizard,’ as I am sure you already know. It comes from the Greek ‘stegos,’ roof, referring to the distinctive plates protruding from its spine. Now, there is another word derived from the same root that means ‘hidden writing’—”

“Steganography,” I eagerly contributed. People have been hiding data invisibly in other files for more than a century—pilfered blueprints in word processor documents, government secrets in accounting spreadsheets, child pornography in family photographs. It was an art almost as old as the dinosaurs themselves. “The artisans fed the data from the fabber into the booth in the foyer, then they merged it with themselves when they left, so they could get the bones out of the building without anyone noticing. That’s right, isn’t it?”

“An elegantly simple plan,” said the inspector. “But what happened next? Our criminals will not find a taker for this data among the dinophiliacs—yet they are intelligent enough to appreciate the value of S. ungulatus, otherwise they would never have stolen it. I cannot imagine them erasing the patterns. Not even in the utter desperation they must presently be feeling.”

“Desperation—how so?” asked Bayazati.

“Consider their situation. They must keep the data secret, which means continuing to hide it steganographically. They have been walking around with the bones of a long-extinct creature inside their body. Imagine what that data must be doing to them!”

“You think it’s affecting them?” asked Diana Scullen with surprise and possibly alarm.

“We’ll find out if it is,” I said, picturing a half-man, half-Stegosaurus rampaging through suburbia. A Steganosaurus, even. “We’ll bulletin all the hospitals and emergency centers, and check d-mat transit data for odd DNA signatures, too. Whatever symptoms they’ve got, they’ll stick out like a . . .”

“Like Brontosaurus in a briar patch,” said the inspector.

“Monstrous,” said Mister Bayazati. But behind his eyes I glimpsed something that might have been jealousy.

“Of course,” said the inspector, “if we could draw them out before then . . .”

“By offering a reward, perhaps?” asked Scullen.

“For stealing my property?” said Mister Bayazati. “Nonsense! The skeleton will forever be only eighty-five percent original, whether they return the patterns or not.”

“But who could tell the difference?” I asked.

I could.”

“I agree with Doctor Scullen,” said the inspector in ameliorating tones, “but would suggest immunity from prosecution rather than a material reward. That will encourage the thieves to come forward more quickly, so S. ungulatus will be as complete as it can be as soon as can be, and you, Mister Bayazati, will have the honor of owning it once more—along with the knowledge that no one else does.”

“Well, I suppose . . .”

He seemed unsure whether to feel victorious or beaten and we were happy to leave him like that. Me, I didn’t care one way or the other, as long as the mystery was solved.

Diana Scullen walked us back to the foyer. There she thanked us both with genuine feeling, and with genuine reason, I thought. We had been there barely an hour—not quite a record for the inspector, but still pretty impressive. Who knew what fits she might have endured from her employer had we not solved the case so quickly?

“I expect the matter will be resolved forthwith,” said the inspector.

“Yes . . .” she said. “Yes, I expect you’re right.”

The booth opened for us and we stepped inside.

***

Arrival back at HQ came with a sinking feeling in my chest. D-mat always did that to me. Plus, the case was almost over. I would have nothing but mundane duties until next the inspector called.

“So, will you notify the hospitals or I?”

“No need, PK Sargent.”

“Don’t tell me you’re not interested in seeing a human-dinosaur hybrid.”

“I would indeed be, if there were such thing.”

“But you said—”

“I know what I said. You were not listening properly. Ah!” He stopped and clapped his hands together. “My coat—I appear to have left it behind. Would you mind fetching it for me, PK Sargent, while I start compiling the report . . . ?”

“Just this once, inspector,” I said, half-annoyed and half-amused at the same time.

“My thanks—but you know you really must not call me that . . .”

I headed back to the booth and requested a return journey. Our entrance permissions were still valid, but this time there was no one waiting for me when I arrived. Maybe, I thought, I could be in and out before anyone noticed I was there.

The coat was in the office we had briefly occupied, just along the hall from Diana Scullen’s workshop. As I picked up the coat, I heard a soft sound that caught me in mid-step. It was a soft cry or a sob—a sound of distress that the peacekeeper in me could not ignore.

I found Scullen with her lab coat bunched up and pressed to her face. Her shoulders were shaking.

“Are you all right?”

She gasped and jumped backwards.

“What are you doing here?”

“I came back for this.” I raised the inspector’s coat but had eyes only for her. “What’s going on? Is there something you need to tell me?”

She maintained her poise for barely a second. Then she crumpled like a statue that had been hollowed out from within, starting with the muscles of her face and cascading down the length of her body. Billie would’ve loved it. It was like watching someone dissolve.

“I don’t need to tell you,” she said, sagging into a chair. “You know it was me who took those damned bones, and you’ve been toying with me all this time. PK Forest’s little hints and jabs—I told myself I was imagining it, because he said it all with such a straight face, but here you are now, and . . . What is it you want—a confession? Well, you’ve got it, so take me in and be done with it. I won’t resist.”

It was all I could do not to gape while I processed this revelation. What did she mean by the inspector’s hints and jabs? I hadn’t noticed anything steganographic going on; I was used to his straight face. But he himself had just chastened me for not listening properly. What had I missed?

Well, for starters, Scullen had pointed us at the artisans, and she had been alarmed when the inspector homed in on the fabber. Then she had gone for a reward, and displayed relief at the end, when it looked like she had eluded all blame.

All this didn’t necessarily make her a bad person. I remembered her bitten nails and damp palm: Her nerves must have been shot to pieces. And she hadn’t lied when the inspector had raised the terrible loss to humanity the theft represented.

Given a kick in the right direction, I could see now where the genesis of her crime lay.

“How much,” I asked, “of the skeleton have you leaked to the scientific community?”

She looked up at me, and all I saw in her eyes was stubborn pride. She was a curator, not a thief. She didn’t care about anything as stupid as molecular authenticity.

“Those bits were the last,” she said. “It doesn’t belong here, PK Sargent, locked up in a box where no one else can see it.”

“So you scanned the whole thing in the fabber, and then you put copies of the bones back where they came from?”

“Yes. In my lunch hours, over several weeks.”

“And it was just bad luck he chose that day to look at the metatarsals?”

She nodded. “Until then, Mister Bayazati never suspected a thing.”

I found the thought hilarious, except it wouldn’t have done just then to laugh.

“Kinder that way, I think, Doctor Scullen.”

She hesitated, then nodded again.

“I’ll show myself out.”

***

When I returned the coat to the inspector, he was wearing that innocent look I knew far too well.

“So,” he said brightly, “the hospitals . . . ?”

“No need,” I echoed him. “The bones will come back as you promised, and even if Mister Bayazati finds out what really happened, Scullen has his promise of immunity to fall back on. You sewed him up good and tight.”

He inclined his head. “Thank you for tying the bow.”

“What did I do? Apart from the usual, I mean.” People tended to notice me, the big girl in uniform, and that gives the inspector a smokescreen for whatever he’s up to.

“Solving the case without leaving HQ was as easy as you said,” he said. “But I believed the perpetrator was more likely to talk to you, rather than an old dinosaur like me.”

“Oh. That makes sense.” It was good that Diana Scullen didn’t think she’d gotten off scot-free. “As long as you’re not keeping me around to be your audience.”

“Never, my dear friend. Never.”

But his eyes twinkled in a way that not even Billie could program, and I knew that his version of the truth was, as always, somewhat less or more than he was willing to admit to.

© 2012 by Sean Williams.
Originally published in Cosmos Magazine.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Sean Williams

Sean Williams

Sean Williams is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of over forty award-winning novels, one hundred short stories, and the odd odd poem. He lives in Adelaide, South Australia. His latest book is Hollowgirl, the third in the Twinmaker series.