Rick Flemming, P.I.
San Francisco - 2015 AD
Sunday - midnight
Rain splattered down through dense foliage, the dimness of a cloudy midnight presenting the lush vegetation of Golden Gate Park's Botanical Gardens in shades of gray. He liked the rain. The wetness reminded him of the ocean. As he humped his laborious way through the flower beds, the path of his progress delineated in iridescence, he tried to recall again why he'd left the warm environment of the Pacific. Then he remembered ... Jenny. He paused, rain sluicing from his ungainly form, while the faint tendril of thought drifted through what now passed for his brain. So compelling was the memory of her, it had somehow survived the horrific metamorphosis he'd so recently undergone.
Bushes just ahead suddenly rustled, breaking his concentration. Sensory organs perceived the warmth of a living being nearby, and in an instant all reflection on his former existence was banished by the primordial demand of hunger.
Monday - 9:00 am
As I strolled through Golden Gate Park, the fog shrouding the trees with a delicate mist, I noticed the absence of bird calls, the lack of squirrel chatter, and wondered if I'd ever get used to things as they now were ... post Quebec Virus. My path took me past what had once been the Bison Paddock, and I marveled at the idea of buffalo in the middle of the city. No longer. Though I wouldn't have credited it before the virus' release, I even missed the shrill whine of early morning mosquitoes. Nearing the west end of the park, I let my eyes roam an empty playground, slides and swings bereft of children. I doubted I'd ever come to grips with the realities of life since the release of the virus by French-Canadian terrorists over a year ago.
My grim thoughts were banished by a disturbance up ahead. An area of the Botanical Gardens was cordoned off with yellow police barrier-tape, and patrol cars and a forensic van were parked nearby. I felt the familiar rush of adrenalin and had to remind myself this was no longer any of my business. I had an appointment with a client, my very first client, and that's where my attention should lie, for I wasn't a cop anymore, but a private investigator .... Rick Flemming, P.I. ..... nope, no matter how I spun it, it still sounded like the title of a cheap detective novel, and I couldn't stop the left-over cop in me from wondering whether the commotion ahead presaged a murder, whether my former partner would be at the scene.
Bypassing the barrier-tape, I navigated the Botanical Gardens, coming to a stop and gazing down at what was left of a Golden Gate Park groundskeeper. The eviscerated corpse, staring back at me reproachfully with blind eyes, seemed almost lonely in its solitude. Crime scene investigators had already worked their wiles on the body, and I took advantage of the lull in activity. Breathing shallowly, I crouched down beside the remains for a more intimate perusal. Giving the ruined corpse a long hard look, I was intrigued to note an iridescent sheen coating various of its parts and I suppressed a sigh. There was no question, the MO of this killing was the same as the one I'd last investigated - the one that had cost me my left arm.
"Hey! This is a crime scene, buddy."
A uniformed officer I didn't know approached, waving me away. As I turned to leave, biting back a caustic response, I heard a familiar voice.
"It's okay, Flemming used to be on the job."
The uniform shrugged and walked away, leaving me and my old partner, Homicide Inspector Phillip Hanson, alone with the body.
"Were you looking for me, Rick?"
"No, I have an appointment across the way," I answered, nodding to the California Academy of Sciences building in the distance. "I saw the commotion and thought I'd check it out. This victim, the way he's been gutted, it looks just like the killing three months ago in Chinatown."
"Sorry, you know I can't discuss the details of cases with a civilian."
A civilian. Phillip must have seen something in my expression for he relented. "Okay This body does seem to have been eviscerated in the same way as that one the night you ... as that one in Chinatown."
"Any evidence linking the two cases?"
"Forensics scoured the scene and the body's about to be sent over to the ME. The lab's backed up - only time will tell. Maybe we'll have more luck with this case than we did three months ago."
For a brief moment, I forgot my unofficial status. "We can farm out the trace evidence. The Natural History Museum has a great lab. I was just on my way ..."
Phillip smiled sadly. "It's not your problem anymore, remember?"
I fear my answering smile was bitter. "Yeah. I lost the right to be in the know when I lost my arm and my job." I felt Phillip's gaze on the empty sleeve of my jacket and my face grew warm.
"You could have stayed. The department wanted to keep you on after ... " Phillip began, sounding troubled.
"As the Lieutenant's glorified file clerk?" I shook my head, anger warring with a numb despair. "No, I'm better off working for myself as a private dick." I took a deep breath, willing calmness. "Look, if you find out anything ... "
"Believe me, Rick, if I learn anything about who hurt you, you'll be the first to know," Phillip promised.
Monday - 10:30 am
Unable to afford an office for my new line of work, I instead frequented the basement cafe of the Natural History Museum. The flow of tourists gave it an air of impersonality but the tolerable coffee made up for it, creating an acceptable alternative. I sat at a table, eyes closed, while I waited for my heart-rate to slow. Though it had been three months since the accident which left me an unemployed gimp, I saw now I'd been a fool to think I'd adjusted. Seeing that bloody stiff of a groundskeeper lying among the crushed flowers had brought everything back with a vengeance.
Morose, I opened my eyes and picked up a menu, scanning it - might as well grab a bite while I waited for my client to show. Nothing looked good. What was breakfast without real eggs and bacon? Ah, for the days before obligatory vegetarianism. When the virus had been released in Quebec, it began by killing everything that lived, but by the time it reached the US border, it had mutated. Most healthy adults were merely rendered infertile by the virus, but the more susceptible - children and the majority of animal life - dropped like flies. What few creatures survived were too valuable to be used as mere food.
Startled, I looked up to see a young woman standing at the table, a man at her side.
"Yes. Jennifer Green?"
She nodded and took a seat. The man remained standing.
"How can I help you?" I began, a little nervous. After years as a Homicide Inspector, I often felt more comfortable with the dead rather than the living.
"One of my husbands, Will Sinclair, has been missing for months ... "
Her voice continued on but, stunned, I failed to listen. Holy cow, she must be a Fertile! Those still able to reproduce - about five percent of women and fifteen percent of men - were obliged to take multiple mates. I, like most others exposed to the virus, was now as sterile as the vacuum of space - I had as much chance of fathering a child as I had of growing another arm.
Striving for professionalism, I dismissed these thoughts. "Sorry - you were saying that your husband is missing ... and ...?"
"And the police have made no progress in finding him."
"Tell me about him."
Jennifer revealed that Will Sinclair had worked. All Fertiles, both male and female, were given a stipend by the state and encouraged to remain home, their first duty being reproduction. But Sinclair had insisted on continuing his career after the holocaust and I could see why the state had allowed it - he'd been a geneticist.
The Quebec Virus had been deadly and even now, eighteen months after its release, it was still taking some lives and sterilizing others in the far reaches of Asia and Africa. But no one had truly realized the extent of its lethal nature until we were forced to survive on a planet with a near total extinction of animal life. Scientists around the world worked at a feverish pace to find answers but, in the absence of a radical breakthrough, life, even such as it was after the holocaust, would soon be a thing of the past.
"What was your husband involved in?" I asked.
"It had something to do with marine biology. I believe he was looking for a way to repair the genetic damage done by the virus."
"I'll need access to his lab and your home. Hopefully I can turn up something the police missed."
Jennifer nodded and we rose from the table, finished for now. The man who'd accompanied her, another husband I guessed, slipped an arm around her waist proprietarily. He gave me the once-over, his eyes coming to rest on the empty sleeve of my jacket.
"So, you're going to find Will when the cops weren't able to? Think you're up to the challenge, given your ... handicap?"
I stiffened at the insult, wondering if he meant my amputee status or my infertility ... probably both. I collected the fraying edges of my temper and ignored him, turning to Jennifer.
"I'll be in touch," I said.
Tuesday - 9:00 am
I sat at Will Sinclair's desk in his lab at the San Francisco Zoo, going through his things. The zoo had been closed to the public since the viral outbreak and had instead become the city's foremost facility for virus research. It was one of the few places in the nation with a number of surviving animals. I checked Sinclair's books, papers and computer files, learning that he'd been studying the regenerative powers of marine creatures such as the sea slug. I'd found only one thing that seemed out of place - a post-it note with the name and address of an apothecary shop in Chinatown.
"Can I help you?"
I glanced up to see a man in a lab coat.
"I've been hired by Dr. Sinclair's wife to look into his disappearance. And you are ...?"
"Robert Fong, Dr. Sinclair's research assistant."
As Mr. Fong explained the details of the work they'd been doing, my gaze strayed to a nearby tank containing a few sea slugs. What I saw there caused me to cut short my interview ... I had to get the medical examiner's office as soon as possible.
Tuesday - 6:00 pm
I paced the lab at the Natural History Museum, impatient, while my kid brother, a research scientist employed there examined the sticky residue I'd brought in.
"How'd you get the medical examiner to give you this?" Ethan asked.
"A favor between friends. Told her I needed the info immediately. The crime lab won't get their results for weeks, so she acquiesced. How much longer?" I'd watched as Ethan took the smear of iridescent slime gathered from the groundskeeper's body, extracted the pertinent chemicals with solvent and then injected that into a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer. Now we waited.
"Well, the gas chromatograph is separating and purifying the sample. Then the mass spectrometer will fragment the resulting chemicals into a pattern that ... "
"A few minutes." My brother scrutinized me. "So, this is your first case as a P.I. How's it going?"
"It's too early to tell."
"And the arm - when are you getting that new prosthesis your doctor ... "
I held up a hand, cutting him off, but Ethan was relentless.
"Come on, Rick."
Sighing, I conceded defeat. "Look, I don't need a plastic arm to be a good P.I." I rubbed the stump of my missing limb. "Besides, none of the models I've tried feels right. They can put men on Mars, yet they can't create a decent prosthesis - go figure."
Ethan's familiar lecture on the pitfalls of denial was mercifully interrupted by the beep of the testing equipment. He rose and grabbed the page the machine spit out, eyes widening.
"What?" I asked.
"Your sample contains a combination of human and nudibranch DNA!"
Wednesday - midnight
San Francisco's Chinatown, roughly sixteen square blocks, had more Chinese living within its boundaries than anywhere else in America. As Homicide Inspector Phillip Hanson and I sat in his car, parked on one of the side streets of that exotic district, I scanned an area crowded with restaurants, tea houses, temples, shops and a multitude of people.
"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," Phillip muttered.
"All I'm asking you to do is check out this apothecary shop - the one whose address I found in Sinclair's office."
"To what end? Why do you believe this shop's connected to his disappearance?"
"Call it a hunch."
"I'd like to have more than a hunch on my side when I'm breaking and entering," Phillip said, exasperated.
"It's not breaking and entering - you have probable cause."
Phillip snorted. "Right, I forgot - sea slug slime."
Ignoring him, I stared out the car window and realized we were in the same area we'd investigated three months ago when I'd lost my arm. We'd received notice of a homicide. The victim had been gutted, just like the groundskeeper at Golden Gate Park. "Didn't that other evisceration murder happen near here?"
"Yeah," Phillip answered, his voice troubled. "It was dark, we found the body, then heard a noise. We thought someone was running from the scene. I stayed with the corpse and called for backup and you went in pursuit. When you didn't return, I followed ... found you unconscious, missing an arm and pumping blood."
I swallowed dryly. "Yeah, I never got a good look at who I was chasing. I remember getting lost in the alleyways, getting attacked from behind. Then waking up in the hospital." I pushed away a sense of foreboding and pointed to the apothecary shop. "I think the answers to what happened to both Sinclair and me can be found in there."
Phillip and I stealthily traversed the dark alley behind the apothecary shop. We reached the back door and Phillip picked the lock while I kept watch. Once inside, we waited a moment for our eyes to adjust to the dimness, then split up to look around. I wasn't sure what I was searching for, but I was certain I'd know when I found it.
The smell was the first thing I noticed - spicy - and I saw that the walls inside the shop were filled with hundreds of small drawers labeled in Chinese and English. They contained leaves, nuts, flowers, seeds, barks and roots - all the medicinal plants used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. On a table against one wall stood a few glass jars and I curiously surveyed them. In the first jar were dried seahorses and the next jar contained shark's fins. Surprised, I saw that another jar held dried sea slugs which, according to the label, were used to enhance male fertility.
My only experience with apothecary shops had been as a cop, stemming the trade in illegally obtained animal parts like tiger bones and bear gallbladders. Before the Quebec Virus, dried bear gallbladder went for more than gold or heroin, gram for gram, in Asia. Nowdays, with the animal population decimated, the retrieval and sale of all animal parts was illegal and honest apothecary shops were working with a dwindling supply of what they'd previously purchased.
Phillip reappeared. "I didn't see anything suspicious. Let's get out of here."
I shook my head. "Maybe there's another room where they keep the illegal stuff for the customers that can pay. That's where they'd keep anything else incriminating."
"This is all pure conjecture. These guys are probably perfectly legit."
"Leave if you want. I'm not done yet."
I looked through the rest of the building, Phillip following resignedly. Finally, I found something ... a trap door leading to a basement. Opening it, I carefully climbed down the ladder into the pitch black chamber. Taking a few steps forward to get out of Phillip's way, I was momentarily blinded by the sudden glare of overhead lights. When my eyes adjusted, I found myself staring into the barrel of a pistol.
I lifted my startled gaze from the weapon to the man holding it, Sinclair's research assistant, Robert Fong. I took a step backwards, only to bump into another handgun ... Phillip's ... and it was trained on me as well.
"Sorry, Rick. It wasn't supposed to turn out this way," Phillip said.
"Please Mr. Flemming, take a seat," said Fong, gesturing to a chair.
He kept me under his gun as Phillip tied me to the chair with ropes pulled from nearby packing crates. As the two men conferred quietly, I futiley tried my bonds, then forced myself to relax and took the opportunity to survey the basement. There were cardboard boxes and crates against the near wall, as well as a large freezer and a refrigerator. What seemed oddly out of place was a collection of lab equipment in the center of the room. On a large table, computers sat next to Bunsen burners, microscopes and a machine labeled "genetic resequencer". Next to the table was a small crate containing dried sea slugs. My attention was pulled back to the two men as their voices gained volume in an argument.
"Nobody was supposed to get hurt," said Phillip.
"You should have thought of that before you brought him here," answered Fong. He moved to the lab equipment and examined a green murky liquid bubbling on a Bunsen burner. Taking a syringe, he attached a long needle to it and siphoned some of the liquid into the syringe. Then he headed for me and my stomach clenched in dread.
I struggled, but to no avail, and Phillip ignored my demands for help. Clenching my teeth, I had no other choice but to endure the pain as Fong injected the liquid into my neck. Panting, I sagged against my bonds, suddenly dizzy. Phillip walked over, holstering his pistol, and put a hand on my shoulder, guilt written all over him.
"Why?" I asked, my voice slurred by whatever was in the syringe.
He shrugged. "Money. Enough money to ... "
Fong interrupted him with scorn. "Money. That's all that matters to you. Dr. Sinclair and I were trying to save the planet. Did you know, Mr. Flemming, that some creatures, like sea slugs, possess an unlimited level of regeneration? We were going to reverse the effects of the Quebec Virus, but ... "
"But Sinclair went Jekyll/Hyde," Phillip broke in sarcastically.
Fong sighed. "Yes. He began testing his serum on himself, secretly. One day at the lab, he started to exhibit characteristics of the creatures used in the serum ... sea slugs. Somehow his DNA was being rewritten by slug DNA. Perhaps a virus contaminated the serum - I don't know - but he begged me to hide him from the authorities so we could continue working on the serum. I brought him here to my parents' shop, turned the basement into a lab, but nothing we tried reversed the metamorphosis."
Woozy, I wondered if I'd understood correctly. "You mean ... " I began.
"Yep - Sinclair became a human/slug hybrid," smiled Phillip, evidently amused by this weird sci-fi scenario. "It was Sinclair who committed those evisceration murders, who took off your arm that night three months ago. That's when he escaped from the basement. God knows where he is now or how much humanity the hybrid's managed to retain."
Not sure I believed all this, I asked, "Why'd you inject me with that liquid?"
Phillip failed to meet my gaze but now Fong smiled. "Surely you see the experiment must continue, must be perfected."
"No, you can't ..."
"Don't worry, Mr. Flemming. I've altered the serum since Dr. Sinclair's unfortunate mutation. All I needed was someone on which to try it. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find test subjects ..." The scientist's words died in his throat as the lights suddenly winked out.
In the faint illumination from the Bunsen burner, I watched the two men stumble around in the dimness, feeling for the fuse box. There was the sound of rending wood from a wall where I remembered seeing a boarded up basement window. What I observed next would haunt me for the rest of my life. In the uncertain light of that one gas-lit flame, a gruesome creature I could scarcely credit slithered down through the rent window.
Gelatinous, semi-transparent, it heaved its bulk across the floor, turning to me. I swallowed bile as I stared into almost-human eyes that carried a terrible intelligence ... it was self-aware! Long tentacled sensory organs writhed toward me. I closed my eyes, trembling. But for whatever reason, it chose to pass me by. The two other men had caught sight of the monstrosity and panicked. They tried, with shaking hands, to shoot the creature. I don't know if their aim was poor or if the beast was impervious, but it remained unaffected. The crazed struggle that ensued knocked over the table with the Bunsen burner and within minutes, the basement was in flames.
Overcome by smoke, I quickly lost consciousness. The next thing I knew, I was above ground, surrounded by firemen and paramedics. I was told I was the only survivor of that conflagration ... I choose to believe that assertion, if only to retain my sanity.
Thursday - 2:00 pm
I lay on the couch in my Sunset District apartment, wincing as I scratched at the itching scabs on my stump ... in the struggle last night, I must have abraded it. But that was the least of my worries. Somehow, I had to get up the courage to call Jennifer and give her the news that her husband had perished. I'd tell her as much of the truth as necessary - that he'd been detained in Chinatown and had died in last night's fire. No need for her to know of his horrific transformation.
I had my own loss to deal with ... Phillip. How could I have so misjudged him? I guess the Quebec Virus had changed all of us, in more ways than physical. My melancholy thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. It must be Ethan ... last night, the paramedics had checked me out and taken some blood samples. I'd asked them to send one of the samples to Ethan's lab. Opening the door, I was surprised to see Jennifer there instead.
"I'm sorry to come over without calling. I just wondered ... "
"Come in," I said dully. "As it turns out, I have news about Will."
We sat on the couch and I told her. She was quiet, asking no questions, and I was at the end of my speech of condolence before I knew it. "I'm sorry for your loss. I'd hoped that ..."
I was stopped in mid-sentence by another knock on the door. Cursing the timing, I reluctantly stood, Jennifer following. As I opened the door to see Ethan, Jennifer slipped past us, leaving my apartment without a word.
"I got your message. I brought the test results from your blood drawn last night," Ethan said, looking from me to the retreating Jennifer.
"You were injected with sea slug DNA, among other things. But you'll be relieved to know, unlike Sinclair, you're not changing into a giant slug."
"Oh, good, " I grunted sarcastically, my gaze on Jennifer.
"But the slug DNA is partially rewriting your own. For instance, your missing arm is regenerating."
Stunned, my gaze snapped back to Ethan.
"And that's not all," he continued. "It seems to have redressed all the damage done by the Quebec Virus ... you're no longer sterile."
I stared at my brother for a long silent moment. Then, taking a deep breath, I turned and ran after Jennifer.