Nobody would normally spare the Unicorn Genetics and Breeding Centre a second glance.
Lying a good forty-five kilometres from the nearest village, it comprises a ramshackle collection of buildings, unprepossessing and covered with reddish dust, surrounded by a high wire-mesh fence. The scrub forest lies on all sides, a desiccated waste of stones and thorn, stretching to the horizon. A lazy windmill revolves atop a spindly tower, generating some of the power the Centre uses. Glittering banks of solar panels produce the rest.
One wouldn’t even know it was the Unicorn Genetics and Breeding Centre but for the sign, faded and worn, nailed to a post and so angled that one might think it had been deliberately placed so as not to attract attention.
The Director runs the Centre as he might have a ranch in the old Wild West. He dresses the part, too, with a Stetson on his head – he wears it at all times, even in his office – with faded denims and cowboy boots. He doesn’t have a six-shooter hanging low on his thigh or spurs on his heels, but everything else is there. He even chews fake tobacco and spits the brown juice into a brass spittoon he keeps in his office for the purpose.
I know it’s fake, because who’d ever be insane enough to chew real tobacco these days? It’s worth its weight in gold, and the Director’s surely can’t afford it on his salary. And the fake stuff the Japanese turn out these days resembles the real thing so closely that I hear there’s hardly any discernible difference.
Today the Director is restless. He paces up and down the office, kicks petulantly at the wastepaper basket and grunts irritably while trying to decide what to say to me. He’s a big man with a broad round face, and when he’s irritable he looks like a disgruntled baby in a cowboy hat. The Kid, they call him behind his back. Billy the Kid. For all I know he started the nickname himself.
Finally he turns with his back to the window and glares at me. “Do you know why I called you here?”
I shrug. “I suppose you’ll tell me, Director.”
Billy the Kid snorts. “Cut the crap. I know you’ve got sources in here, among the support staff. You probably got to know what happened before I did.”
This is true. In my line of business you’ve got to cultivate your sources. But of course I just give him my blankest stare and wait.
“A unicorn colt’s been stolen,” he says finally, unwillingly.
“Stolen.” I pause, studying the word and what it implies. “You’re sure it was stolen.”
“I just said so,” the Kid snaps belligerently. “It didn’t run away, not from where it was kept. And it didn’t crawl back into the womb or fall into some interdimensional wormhole, I’ll bet. Someone stole it.”
“Why would anyone steal a unicorn colt?” I ask. “It’s not exactly a thoroughbred racehorse, is it?”
The Kid stares at me as though he’s having doubts about calling me in the first place. “Don’t be an idiot,” he says finally. “It’s some of the most priceless genetic material in the world. After all, they’re extinct in the wild – except for the few in breeding centres like this, there aren’t any, anywhere, anymore.”
“And someone’s planning to breed them privately?” I ask, raising an eyebrow. “Starting his own bloodline of unicorns?”
The Kid snorts again. It’s a splendid snort, so good that I’m certain he’s copied it from one of the unicorn stallions. “What does it matter why he – or she – wants it? Just find the colt and bring him back, that’s all. Or is that too much to ask?”
“It’s not too much to ask,” I allow. “After all, I am the best private detective specialising in stolen property in the business. But, Director, if I might ask a question?”
“What?” He spits some fake tobacco juice into the spittoon. “What question?”
“It’s just that I am a private detective. Why didn’t you go to the police?”
“The last thing we need is the police. Do you think – with today’s crime statistics – they’ll take it seriously? Besides,” he adds, in a softer tone, so I have to strain to hear, “the police aren’t what we might call discreet.”
And there we have it, the reason: he doesn’t want word of the theft to get out. It might hurt his reputation, and like all scientists-turned-administrators he’s basically a politician. That’s why he puts on the faux cowboy act. He’s almost certainly planning to enter politics after his retirement, which is due next year if my information is correct.
“Your agency guarantees discretion,” he reminds me.
“If you look at the fine print,” I tell him, “you’ll discover that there are exceptions in case of emergencies.”
“There won’t be any emergencies,” he commands. “I’m depending on you to make sure there aren’t.”
“Yes sir.” There’s also a section in the fine print saying that emergencies override any and all client’s orders, but if he hasn’t read that far it’s his problem, not mine. “Perhaps you might tell me something about the circumstances of the theft?”
The Kid stuffs a plug of fake tobacco into his mouth. “Come along,” he says. “I’ll show you where it happened. We can talk as we go.”
“The colt’s three weeks old,” Billy the Kid says. “It’s also possibly the most valuable animal we’ve bred in the entire history of this Centre.”
“Why?” I ask. “I mean, I know that all unicorns are valuable, but what’s so special about this individual animal?”
We’ve exited the office block and are walking across the dusty yard towards the breeding shed. It’s low and long, with whitewashed walls and its own power supply. As I’ve been told, it includes a small laboratory of its own, as well as stalls for pregnant and newly foaled unicorns.
“Well,” Billy begins. “How much do you know about unicorns, if anything?”
“Let’s assume I don’t know anything,” I tell him. “You’d better tell me from the beginning.”
“Yeah. Well, um, unicorns are from the horse family, of course, but genetically unique in many ways. They never were plentiful and are now extinct in the wild, as you probably know, and critically endangered even in captivity. In fact, if it wasn’t for captive breeding, I don’t suppose there would be any unicorns left anywhere – there were fewer than twenty left in the world when the programme started.”
“So each animal is rare and precious? I get that, but –“
“You don’t get it at all. The fact about the captive programme is that almost all the animals we’ve bred so far have been clones. That’s because we only had three stallions and sixteen mares when the programme started, and of those three stallions, one turned out to be sterile.
“Also, it turns out that for whatever reason – we haven’t been able to track it down yet, but it probably has to do with sex pheromones – unicorns don’t do well with artificial insemination. Unlike cattle, we can’t just fly frozen sperm samples around the world and impregnate any mare we want to foal. Do you follow what I’m saying so far?”
“Yes. You mean that you weren’t really breeding the unicorns, just copying them.”
“That’s correct. And of course that meant we weren’t getting any of the benefits of mixing genes. A mutation or two could wipe us out. So you know we were worried.”
“I suppose it was different with this colt?”
“Yes.” He glances at me, obviously wondering how much I do know. “You’re right – this time we had a breakthrough. This was the first actual unequivocal breeding success with artificial insemination we’ve ever had, and it was at this Centre. That’s the colt we’re talking about – and now it’s been stolen. So you see – Arcturus is the future of the breeding programme. We must have him back!”
He looks slightly embarrassed, as though I’d caught him out in some minor crime. “It’s the official name,” he mumbles.
“I take it he would be worth money?”
“To the right person, he’s literally priceless.”
“Um. And suppose he’s been kidnapped for ransom, what would he be worth – to the Centre, for instance?”
“Do you think that’s what happened?”
“I’m not thinking anything, Director. I’m just asking a question.”
“Well, that’s not really a question I’m qualified to answer. I mean, I’m the Director but I have to answer to the government department. And we haven’t got a ransom call yet.” He stops before a heavy green door. “Here we are.”
Placing his body so as to obstruct my view, he types in a code on a keypad by the door. It looks impressive but there are many gadgets available in any electronics store which can crack this system. I wonder if that’s all the security they have.
It turns out that there’s a backup. Just inside the door, sitting on a chair tilted back against the wall, is the biggest man I’ve seen in a long time. He has a round placid face and a gun at his belt. It’s been a while since I last saw a gun, either. He glances at us, smiles and nods at the Kid, and returns to the book he’s reading.
“Is this the only entrance to the building?” I ask, following the Kid down the narrow corridor.
“No, of course not. There is another door, at the back, big enough for a horse-box. We bring in and take the unicorns out that way, to the stables. But that is always locked at night, and the keys deposited in my office. And yet the colt is missing.”
“You don’t have internal security devices – infrared beams and so on?”
Billy the Kid glances at me from under the brim of the ridiculous hat. “No, we don’t. There never was a need for anything like that – and we aren’t exactly overfunded.”
“And the security guard there? What about him?”
He jerks a thumb over his shoulder. “The one at the door? He’s not an employee of the Centre itself. We employ a private security firm. They provide the guards. There are more in the Centre, six altogether.”
“In three shifts of eight hours each, I suppose? That means at any given time you have only two.”
Billy the Kid looks irritated. “I told you – we never felt the need for much more security, nor did we have the funds for it. We can barely pay for essential equipment and research as it is.”
“All right.” I forbear to point out that I hope they have enough funds left to afford my not inexpensive services. At the end of the corridor there’s another door, and Billy begins keying in another code. “When did you get to hear of the theft?”
“The grooms arrive first thing in the morning – they get here before the scientists, of course, to take care of the unicorns. There are two of them. One’s assigned to this building as well, for any unicorn in here; that means, at this time, just Arcturus and his mother. The mother unicorn was in her stall. Arcturus wasn’t.”
“There was nothing wrong with the mother? She wasn’t acting disturbed or something?”
“She wasn’t drugged, if that’s what you mean by disturbed. If I was in her position, I’d be pretty damned disturbed over losing a colt, of course, so there’s that.”
“What I meant was...I’m no expert on the horse family, but don’t mares usually resist someone trying to steal their offspring? Of course maybe unicorns are different.”
“They aren’t different in that respect.” Billy looks acutely unhappy. Clearly there’s only one explanation, and he’s trying to avoid reaching it, so I decide to help him out..
“Which means,” I say, “that whoever stole the colt was someone well-known to the mare. In other words, it was an inside job.”
“Yes,” he agrees, looking unhappier than ever, and pushes at the door. “That’s true enough, I suppose.”
“This,” the Kid says, stepping back and waving, “is the mother.”
It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a unicorn outside a video, so I take a moment to look this one over.
She stands on the far side of the stall, looking warily at me out of her black eyes. The harsh lights overhead almost glare off her body, so at first sight it’s surprisingly difficult to make out detail. Except for her greyish hooves and horn, she’s completely white, without a smudge of any other colour. When I step closer, she shies away and presses herself against the wall.
“Careful,” Billy the Kid warns. “She doesn’t know you, and she’s already stressed.”
“Does she get along with people she knows?”
“Yes, well, she knows everyone here, and has pretty much since she’s been born. We try and operate on a minimum-stress environment as far as possible, and she isn’t much exposed to strangers.”
The unicorn’s horn isn’t particularly long, and would have been unmemorable except that it grows out of the centre of that horse’s face. It pokes out from her untidy white mane, which falls in a shaggy mass over her forehead and neck. It’s grooved in a spiral like that of an antelope, and the tip’s blunt and slightly ragged.
“The stallions have much longer horns,” the Kid says, noticing the direction of my gaze. “They’re basically for courtship display and sparring over mates, you know.”
“So why do the mares have them?” I ask. “They don’t fight over stallions, do they?”
“No, it’s just one of those things left over by evolution. If it had been evolutionarily useful to get rid of it, then – oh, I see what you mean. No, she wouldn’t have used the horn as a weapon against someone trying to steal the colt, like a cow would.”
“How would she have reacted?”
The Kid shrugs. “These unicorns are all born in captivity. In the wild she’d have kicked and bitten, I suppose, like all horses. Here, I don’t know.”
The unicorn turns her head towards me and sniffs, her round, rather unlovely nostrils dilating. She’s not a large animal, about the size of a smallish pony. I’d known unicorns weren’t big, but I hadn’t thought they’d be quite as small as this.
“How big was the colt?”
The Kid glances at me from the corner of his eye. “He was about the size of a large German Shepherd. He’s only a few weeks old, you understand.”
“So you wouldn’t need a horse box or a large van to steal him.”
“No – a crate should have been enough.” He pauses. “Of course, the colt wouldn’t exactly be easy to crate and take away. Unicorns are far stronger than they look, as strong as a much larger horse, and for a colt, Arcturus was...is...very active. He wouldn’t have enjoyed the crating at all.”
“They might have drugged him, perhaps?”
The Kid’s shaking his head even before I finish the sentence. “Anyone who stole him would have known his value. They’d have known what they were doing, and they wouldn’t even think of drugging him. At that age the dosage is extremely difficult to calculate and might have easily killed him instead.”
“Um, well.” I think about it while watching the mare. Her greyish hooves are silent on the floor, which is thinly padded with tarpaulin, except for a mattress for sleeping on. There is a feeding bin to one side, beside a low water trough. The bin is a basket of stainless steel, and apart from a few wisps of hay it’s empty.
The Kid follows my gaze. “She’s fed twice a day,” he says. “The best feed, with additives for vitamins. The best.” He sounds defensive, as if I were accusing him of neglecting the unicorn.
“It’s not that,” I reply, checking the railings and the gate that separate the unicorn from us. They show no signs of having been tampered with, but that means nothing. The gate is secured with a simple lock anyone could pick with a stiff piece of aluminium. It’s meant to keep unicorns in, not humans out. “I suppose the colt hasn’t been weaned yet?”
“No, he’s still on his mother’s milk, of course.” The Kid frowns. “I never thought of that. He can’t get along on cow’s milk. Damn – now I have another thing to worry about. How would the thieves find unicorn milk for him?”
“How, indeed.” Apart from ventilators high on the walls, the stall and this corridor are windowless. “Could he drink mare’s milk? You know – ordinary mare’s milk?”
“Perhaps,” Billy concedes grudgingly. “But how many people have access to lactating mares?”
“It might be an idea to check up on stables and the like. I’ll keep it in mind.” I look up at the walls and the ceiling, yet nowhere can I see what I’m looking for. There’s a red fire extinguisher on a wall, sprinklers on the ceiling, yet no camera. “I know you don’t have infrared and all, but don’t you have even closed-circuit TV?”
“No budget for it,” Billy mutters. “We have to prioritise. We’d thought after this success we might get the funds for cameras. Besides, as I said, who ever thought anyone would steal a unicorn?”
“Well, they have now, haven’t they?” There’s nothing else to see here. I don’t want to look at the unicorn mare’s eyes – it looks as though the poor beast is trying to say something, if only she could. “I don’t see anyone else here. Where are your scientists, and the grooms, and everyone?”
“After the groom told me the colt was missing, I kept the building off limits until you could have a look.” Billy looks from the unicorn at me and back again. “What do you want to do next?”
“For one thing, I’d need to talk to your personnel, those who have business here in this building. You do have records of that, I expect?”
Billy flushes, whether with anger or embarrassment it’s impossible to tell. “Yes,” he says stiffly. “We do have records. Normally there are other scientists assigned to this building. But for the Arcturus programme I’m the scientist in charge, and my assistant. But he left work yesterday at five and hasn’t come yet today. So that lets him out. Of course,” he adds, “any of the other people on the staff could have entered. The codes can’t be kept secret from everyone, and those in the know might not have kept it to themselves. Of course we change them regularly – once a week.”
“But among the current permanent staff here, it’s just you and your assistant who’s on leave?”
“Other scientists use the lab during working hours. And there are the groom and the guard, of course.”
“Well,” I say cheerfully, “let’s go talk to them. What are we waiting for?”
“So you’re the groom?” I’m unable to keep all the surprise out of my voice.
The girl looks rather like a colt herself, long-limbed and narrow-faced, with slightly over-large teeth. She glances up at me sullenly through a fringe of hair. “Yeah.”
We’re behind the breeding shed, where the girl is pitching forkfuls of hay from a rather untidy stack into a wheelbarrow. She’s dressed for hard work, in gumboots and overalls, and she’s clearly annoyed at being questioned. I glance over my shoulder at Billy, but he’s already walking back towards his office.
“What’s your name?” The girl is older than I’d thought at first, probably in her early twenties, but her movements are still full of angular teenage gracelessness.
“Uma,” she says, biting off the word with her over-large teeth.
“Well, Uma, as far as I know, you’re the one in charge of any unicorns in the breeding shed. Is that so?”
“That’s right.” She pauses to wipe her face with the back of her gloved hand. “The Director can tell you that himself, can’t he?”
“I’d rather ask you myself. You know the Director asked you to answer any questions I might ask you.”
“So you are the one who closes up at night?”
“Yes, I’m the one who comes here first thing in the morning and the one who leaves last at night.” She pauses. “Except for Jack, of course.”
“The security man in there.” She motions with her chin. “You must have seen him. Man-Mountain Jack.”
“What about him?”
“He’s on the night shift, isn’t he? He comes in before I leave and he’s there after I come to work.” The girl shifts her gumbooted feet, gravel grating under the soles. “Why don’t you talk to him? He’ll be able to tell what happened.”
“I’ll talk to him. But right now I want to talk to you.” I study the girl, Uma, curiously. Her behaviour seems oddly aggressive. “So when you left last night, the colt was with his mother and both of them were all right?”
“Yes, she’d suckled him and they were lying on the sleeping pad. I mucked out the stall and shut off the lights, and then I went home. That was just after ten in the evening.”
“Where do you live? In the town?”
“Hardly. That’s too far to commute, and I don’t even have a car.” Uma points to one side. “There, on the other side of the Centre, there are staff quarters – that large brown building. I’ve got a small apartment.” She turns back to me. “Before you ask, I live alone, so, no, I don’t have an alibi.”
“I didn’t ask for one. How long have you been doing this job?”
“It’s been a year now.” She stabs at the haystack with the pitchfork. “I was a student, but the money ran out. I’m waiting till I can get hold of a grant or a loan to start studying again, and meanwhile saving as much as I can.”
“I see. And do you think you’ll get a loan or grant?”
No response, except a slight shrug. She doesn’t look at me.
“Well,” I temporise. “What about your parents?”
“My adoptive parents.” She stresses the word. “They cut me loose when I was eighteen. As far as I’m concerned, if I never hear their names again, it will be too soon.”
“Uh, OK. Do you like your work?“
“It’s a job, isn’t it? It beats working in a supermarket as a check-out girl.” She glances at me. “And I like horses.”
“But unicorns aren’t horses.” I’m trying to figure out this girl. There’s something just a little strange about her. “Are they?”
“There’s not that much difference. Are you done? Can I go ahead with my work now?”
“Just a couple of questions more. So, after you put off the lights last night, what did you do?”
“I went out through this door.” Uma gestures at the garage-style door beside us. Its roll-down shutter is pushed halfway up, enough so one can enter without banging one’s head if one stoops, assuming of course that one’s not a giant. “I pulled it down, locked it, as usual, and deposited the keys in the Director’s office.” She looks at me defiantly. “He wasn’t there, but there’s a tray, and I put the keys in it. There’s a security man there too, who let me in and out. You can ask him, he’ll tell you I wasn’t back there again during the night. And then I went to my room, cooked and ate an omelette, and went to sleep.”
“And this morning?”
“I got up and dressed, and came here after collecting the key from the director’s office. It was five in the morning and still dark. I normally do the initial feeding and mucking out, then I go back, bathe and all that, and come back again at nine for the second round of work. Which I’m supposed to be doing now.”
“And,” I said, ignoring the unspoken accusation, “when you came here – everything was as you’d left it?”
“Apart from the colt being here, yeah. I called the Director right away.”
“You did? So you knew he’d been stolen and not just lost or something?”
“Of course. The gate to the stall was locked, even. What else could it have been?”
“Ah, yes, I see. And what do you feel about the colt being stolen?”
“What am I supposed to feel? I hope he’s found soon, that’s all. Anything more?”
I glance at my watch. “Not for now. Thanks for your help, Uma.”
“You’re welcome,” she says, and stabs the haystack with the pitchfork as hard as though it’s an enemy soldier she’s bayoneting.
“Thanks for talking to me.” Even sitting down, the guard hulks over me, and seems to fill the room. No wonder the girl called him Man-Mountain Jack.
“The boss man told me to talk to you,” the giant rumbles. He should have gone off duty long ago, but the Kid asked him to wait to talk to me. I wonder what he thinks about it.
“Yes, well, but you aren’t directly his employee. You work for...” I glance at the red and yellow badge on his grey uniform. “Vigilance Services. How long have you been posted here?”
“You mean here at the Centre or here at this building? I’ve been coming here for, let’s see, a year last month. If you mean posted at this building, it’s been five months now. Of course,” he adds, “I’m only stationed in this building when it’s in use. Otherwise I’m posted outside the stable block.”
“You always have the night shift, or do you switch around?” I’m trying to figure out this man, to find out what approach to take. His physical presence is intimidating, but the look in his eyes isn’t particularly intelligent. If he runs to type, he’ll probably be overly literal.
“I like the night shift,” he rumbles. “It’s quiet. No hassles.”
“Yes, it would be, and gives you a chance to relax.” He flushes when he sees me glancing at the book in his hand, a paperback with a swooning woman in the arms of a stereotyped handsome outdoorsman on the cover, and puts it away. “You make rounds, I presume?”
“Yes, every hour, on the hour.” Reflexively, he looks up at the clock on the wall, which by my reckoning is running seven minutes fast. “I never miss a round,” he says, with immense dignity.
“I’m sure you don’t. And these rounds, what do they comprise?”
He glances behind me, at the door, his head turning as he speaks. A literalist, as I’d thought. “I go out by this door, here, and then round the side of the building, the back, then I go across the yard and take a turn round the stable block, and I come back here again.”
“You have the lock code, then? All the codes?”
“No, only this outer door code, and that’s changed once a week. The Director has the inner door code, and the girl, of course.” He glances over his shoulder at the back of the building, where Uma is presumably busy forking hay, or something similar. “And other scientists, I suppose.”
“So your rounds don’t include the laboratory and the breeding pens? What happens if there’s an emergency inside? How do you get in?”
He looks up at the wall, where a small grey box is mounted. “There’s a manual override.” He looks back at me, dull resentment in his eyes. “If I’d used it,” he said, “there would be a record. You can check.”
I intend to, of course, if it becomes necessary, but not now. “No, that’s fine,” I say. “Just a couple more questions, and I’ll let you go back to your family. You’ve been more than helpful already.”
“Got no family,” he rumbles. “I’m not married.”
“Oh, you’ll find some nice girl soon enough.” Unaccountably, he blushes at my words. Strange. “So, last night you didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, did you?”
“No, sir. I did my rounds at the usual times and I was in here the rest of the evening. Nothing.”
I think about that a moment. “All right, Mister Jack.” He blushes even brighter red when I call him that. “Thanks for all the help.”
As I walk across the yard in the direction of the stables, I can feel his eyes on my back all the way.
“The Director is an idiot,” the assistant says.
We’re sitting in the little cafeteria, not far from the Centre’s gate. The assistant’s youngish, with a mop of greasy hair and a little soul patch below the lip. I’d met him as he’d just got out of his car.
“This is off the record, of course,” he says. “I don’t want to get into trouble.”
“Of course.” I sip at my coffee while watching him bite into a doughnut. “But why do you call him an idiot? He’s an eminent scientist.”
He snorts. “Old Billy, an eminent scientist? Oh, he’s good enough as a scientist, I suppose, when he’s doingeye-catching results. He approves the purchase of only glamour equipment – not the things we desperately need. We even have to recycle test tubes until they break, can you believe it?” science. But basically he’s no longer a scientist, he’s a politician. He waits till others have almost finished their research, and then he builds on it and takes the credit. He chokes off funding on research that doesn’t promise immediate and, you know,
“And this latest breeding programme with the colt – that wasn’t entirely his doing?”
He snorts again. It’s a practised snort, kept shiny through regular use, or I miss my guess. “Of course it wasn’t entirely his doing. I don’t think there’s a single scientist here who didn’t put in work on that, myself not excepted. Of course, when old Billy publishes, it will be his name on top. Herr Doctor Professor Cowboy, et al.”
“You know the colt’s been stolen?”
“Yeah, I heard. Billy phoned. Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” He finishes the doughnut and glares at me. His eyes are bloodshot and slightly sunken, as if he’s not slept too well. “Who do you think stole him?”
“I don’t know,” I say carefully. “I thought you might be able to tell me what your ideas are.”
“How the hell should I know? I’d have said old Billy stole him for himself – he’s been practically masturbating at the idea of the fame that colt will bring him – but then, what publicity will he get out of it?”
“Um.” That’s a good noise, I’ve found, carefully neutral and at the same time allowing one’s audience to interpret it according to his or her personal wish. “Can you tell me about the other scientists, and the staff?”
As he talks, I take notes, but mostly it’s scribbles. I’m watching him, the way his hands move as he speaks, at the way his mouth turns down at the corners. He’s a bitter man, and I wonder what his personal life’s like.
“Then there’s that groom girl, Uma,” he says. “I tell you, she gives me the willies. There’s something not quite there about her.”
“I thought she was a trifle young to be given that job. It’s a position of some responsibility, and your other groom’s a much older man.”
“Yeah, she’s kind of a protégé of Billy’s, a bit. But the way she behaves –“
Did you make a pass at her? I wonder with some amusement, and know that this is probably what happened. “And the security guard?”
“The elephant? He’s just a moron. Reads romantic novels all the time, and makes moon eyes at the groom female. They probably deserve each other. I hope they’ll be happy together, someday. Here, or elsewhere.”
“And you? Are you happy here?”
“We’re all counting the days to Billy’s retirement. After that, the power struggle can begin.” He laughs, harshly, and pushes his chair back. “Now, if you don’t mind, some of us have work to do.”
“Tell me something,” I say. “What do you actually want?”
Billy the Kid glances up from his computer monitor, frowning. Without his hat, which he’s taken off for some reason, he looks much older and at the same time much less absurd. “What do you mean?”
“What do you want out of this affair? Just your colt back, or the perpetrators punished as well?” I sit down, uninvited, but I think I’ve earned the rest. “I know who stole your Arcturus, and how. But proving it – that’s another story. Besides, I’m not a policeman, and you don’t want the police involved.”
“What about the police?” Even at this moment, he’s more interested in the mention of the police than the information that I’ve just given him.
“The police can get search warrants. I can’t. And I can’t enter where I’m not wanted, without one. Of course,” I add, “if you just want the colt back, that’s fine.”
“What are you talking about? Where is Arcturus?”
“I’ll tell you in a moment,” I say. “But, first, listen to my line of thinking, and tell me if you find any flaws in it.
“What I started off with,” I begin, settling myself comfortably in the chair, “is the idea that this is a case of the theft of what amounts to an extremely valuable piece of intellectual property. What I mean is, it’s not like the theft of a prime racehorse. This unicorn colt would be immensely valuable, but only to a very, very restricted market. It’s not like whoever stole him could sell him to a private collector, no questions asked. You agree?”
He nods, watching me carefully. There’s no trace of the Kid in him now.
“Therefore, at a very early stage in the proceedings, I abandoned the idea that this was a theft meant for resale of the stolen merchandise. That left only two possibilities. The first was revenge.”
“Revenge?” He mouths it like a dirty word. “Revenge for what?”
“Let me postulate a hypothesis, as you scientists say. Let’s say we have a Centre run by a senior scientist close to retirement, who has, as is fairly well known, political ambitions...” I hold up a hand, forestalling him. “I’m just setting out a hypothesis. As I was saying, this scientist has political ambitions, and his staff resent him. Whether they have good reason to do so is immaterial; they do so.
“Now this senior scientist has achieved something nobody has before – bred a unicorn colt by artificial insemination, not as a clone. In his very restricted field, this counts as a tremendous breakthrough, and when he publishes, his name’s made. Are you with me so far?
“It struck me as a possibility that perhaps the resentment felt by his staff towards him – including the feeling that he was purloining the fruit of their research to make his own name in the field – led one of them to steal the colt, so that he’d be embarrassed and his project scuppered, at least unless he succeeded again. And perhaps some other researcher in another centre would have managed it by then. Now that it’s known the thing can be done, it’s only a matter of time before it’s done again, isn’t it? And research can be leaked to the right person to make sure.”
The Director’s rising to his feet, his face red with anger. “That little bastard?” He mouths the assistant’s name. “He’s the one behind this? I’ll have him...”
“Calm down, Director. As I was saying, this is only a hypothesis. Besides, there are other possibilities.”
“Like what?” He’s still fuming, his eyes flashing anger.
“I mentioned it to you earlier. Ransom. What would the Centre be willing to pay to get the colt back?”
“But I told you I can’t say anything about that. It’s not under my control. If it came down to that, the government would have had to decide.”
“Yes, but assume our hypothetical director was so desperate to keep the story off the official radar, he didn’t even call in the police. Instead, he engaged a private detective. What about then? Perhaps he would be willing to pay from his own resources to get it back?”
“That’s ridiculous.” He barks out laughter. “I’m not poor, but I couldn’t begin to afford – or raise – any ransom that might have been asked for that colt. You literally don’t understand how important he is.”
“Yes, I realise that. But suppose the thief didn’t want that much money. Suppose the thief only wanted enough to get out of here...and go to college, for example.”
There is a long pause.
“The first thing I noticed about your groom,” I say at last, “was her extreme youth. She’s only twenty or so, far too young to be entrusted to this extremely responsible position – and yet, here she is, working in this Centre. And I’m told she’s got the codes for internal doors in the breeding shed, which even your security guard doesn’t have. Strange, isn’t it, that she’s apparently trusted with so much ?” I pause again, but the Director says nothing.
“After just a few words with her, I also found that she was full of resentment, and that she wanted money for her education – and apparently had no hopes of actually getting that money. It struck me that she might go to some lengths to get that money, and not be too scrupulous about it.
“Then, I asked myself, who else could carry it through? The unicorns know her; she takes care of them every day. She doesn’t even have to crate the colt – she can just put a rope round his neck and lead him away, without a sound from him or his mother. And afterwards, all she has to do is come back and wipe away any traces she might have left.”
The Director stirs, restlessly, but I’m not finished.
“Remember I asked you about how the thief might have trouble feeding the colt? Well, this thief wouldn’t have had any trouble. All she has to do is milk the mom, put the milk in a feeding bottle, and there, problem solved. Genuine unicorn milk from the genuine mother.
“And, conveniently, she lives right on the premises, a short walk away, and the place is understaffed as it is.”
I wait, but the Director still doesn’t say anything. He’s looking faintly sick.
“Where,” I ask quietly, “do you suppose the unicorn is now?”
“The security guard was in on it, of course.” I lean back in my comfortable old office chair and look at my partner. “I realised that at once.”
“I didn’t get that bit,” she says. “How did you figure that?”
“Just think about it. She locked the outer door, and returned the key to the Kid’s office. As she took the effort to point out, that was verifiable, and as equally verifiable that she didn’t take the key out again during the night. So there was only one other way the colt could be brought out. Right?”
“Past the guard? Man Mountain Jack?”
“The Kid’s assistant told me he was sweet on her, and I saw myself how he coloured up when I mentioned her. Besides, he’s far from bright. Also, he keeps reading romantic chick lit, the kind you don’t read.” I dodge the paper clip she flings at me. “She’s pretty enough in her way. All she had to do was ask him not to take too much notice when she nipped in through the front door and the inside door, while he was on his rounds. He didn’t even see her do it, so he didn’t have to lie. He’s extremely literal minded, as I discovered.”
“Well, I’m glad the colt’s back,” my partner says. “In her bedroom, was it?”
“Well, it was somewhere in her apartment. When Billy called her into his office, she caved in and fetched him back.” I remember the unicorn calf, with the nub of his horn just beginning to grow from the middle of his forehead, and smile at the memory of how he butted his mother for milk. “I don’t know what the Kid will do about her, of course, but I doubt he’ll do anything.”
“That’s a point I was wondering about. Why did he give her so much authority?”
“Hell,” I tell her, “that was so obvious I didn’t even have to mention it to Billy. The girl said she was adopted, and that her adoptive parents had cut her loose. Obviously, her natural father didn’t.”
“You mean the Director was her real dad? But then...she might have known it, mightn’t she?”
“Of course she knew it.” I rub at the stubble on my jaw. What with the early summons, I hadn’t had time to shave this morning. “How can she not have figured it out? She’s no dummy.”
“But then she must have resented it too, right? That he hadn’t brought her up and let her be adopted? And that she had to scrape and save for her education, when he could have given her the money?”
“Oh, she resented it all right,” I reply. “That’s why she picked that particular way to get the money, I’ll be bound.”
“So it wasn’t the ransom alone,” my partner says. “It was revenge, too.”
“Yeah, the motives were pretty thoroughly mixed up. She knew he would do anything to get the colt back. And apart from the money she wanted to make him sweat.”
“But I don’t understand. Why didn’t the Director simply acknowledge her as his daughter and pay her way? In his place, I would have.” She cocks her head. “Oh...I see . An illegitimate daughter would sink his political career.”
“And that’s why nothing will happen to her,” I reply.
“Just for once – I’m glad a crook’s getting away with it,” she says.
“So am I,” I tell her. “So am I.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011