Read The Big Sheep Online

Authors: Robert Kroese

The Big Sheep


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With thanks to: Julian Pavia at Crown, who took notice of a book I wrote called
Starship Grifters
; my agent, David Fugate, who believed in this book when it was still just a title and a fuzzy idea; and my editor at Thomas Dunne, Peter Wolverton, who made invaluable suggestions for improving the manuscript. This book never would have happened if it weren't for the timely intervention of all three of you.

Thanks also to my mom, who kept me alive over the past two years with love and lasagna.




Strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then.




“That's a really big sheep,” said Erasmus Keane, his observational powers functioning as flawlessly as ever.

The woman in the lab coat nodded curtly. “He's a Lincoln Longwool,” she said. “Largest breed of sheep in the world.” She had introduced herself as Dr. Kelly Takemago, Director of Research for the Esper Corporation. We were standing in her lab, a vast white room filled with the low humming of vaguely terrifying machines that hung from the ceiling like colossal clockwork bats. Poised in the middle of the room was the sheep in question, which Keane and I were regarding with professional interest. The sheep, in turn, was regarding us. It didn't appear impressed.

Keane, holding his chin in his hand, began walking around the sheep in a stooped posture that reminded me of a waddling duck. The sheep was nearly as tall as he was, and was looking back at Keane with scientific detachment. It was hard to say who was the odder-looking specimen, the quadrupedal area rug standing in stoic silence on the tiled floor of the lab or the lanky, balding biped creeping awkwardly around it.

“Can I touch it?” Keane asked, after completing his circumnavigation of the creature.

“Of course,” said Dr. Takemago, seeming mildly annoyed at the question. “Sheep don't bite. They're very docile creatures.”

Keane reached out nervously, his hand gradually disappearing into the beast's lush fleece. He gave an excited yelp, which startled Dr. Takemago but had no appreciable effect on the Longwool's equanimity. “You gotta try this, Fowler,” he said. “It's like sticking your hand into Narnia.”

I demurred.

“They produce the heaviest and coarsest fleece of all the long-wool sheep varieties,” said Takemago, as if reciting from an encyclopedia article. “That isn't why the Esper Corporation keeps them, of course. This one is male. There are two others. John and Paul are downstairs.”

“John and Paul?” I asked. “What's this one's name, Ringo?” There was a tag on the sheep's ear, but all it had on it was the number eight.

“Mark,” said Dr. Takemago.

I nodded, as if that had been the other possibility.

“Biblical, not Beatles,” mused Keane. He continued, “‘All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.'” He grinned at me, as if expecting recognition of some sort.

I shrugged noncommittally.

“That's from Matthew,” he went on. “The apostle, not the sheep.”

I turned back to Dr. Takemago. “So the missing one…?” I ventured.

“Mary,” replied Dr. Takemago.

“Of course,” I said. “And did Mary by any chance have a little lamb?” Very unprofessional of me, I know. But you can't lob a softball like that at me and expect me not to take a swing.

“No,” Dr. Takemago said without cracking a smile. I couldn't tell if she was irritated by the joke or if the subtlety of my wit had eluded her. I got the impression Dr. Takemago didn't go in much for jokes. She was short and stocky, and wore her straight black hair cut so short that it required constant effort to remind myself that she wasn't a twelve-year-old boy. Her expressive range seemed to encompass only detached bemusement and mild irritation.

“So they are sterile?” asked Keane, now with both of his hands sunk deep within the long-suffering animal's fleece. The sheep bore this indignity with aplomb.

Dr. Takemago shook her head. “No, in fact the plan was to breed them. Unfortunately, Mary is the only female of the group.”

“And she's been missing since yesterday?” I asked.

Dr. Takemago nodded. “Mary was gone when I arrived, shortly after seven. The security system had been overridden. The cameras didn't catch anything. All the animals wear a GPS tracking device on their collars, but Mary's stopped transmitting at four twenty-nine a.m. while she was still in the lab. Whoever did this knew what they were doing.”

“Who else has access to the building?”

“To the building? Several hundred people. But the research area is only accessible to about fifty.”

“We'll need a list,” I said. “As well as details on your security system.”

“Of course,” said Dr. Takemago.

“You've called the police?”

Dr. Takemago was silent for a moment. “The executives didn't feel that the police would appreciate the nuances of this case.”

I nodded as if this were a perfectly reasonable answer. Keane had extracted his hands from the fleece and was holding them in front of his nose with a slightly revolted expression on his face.

“You said you don't keep the sheep for their wool,” I remarked. “Why
you keep them?”

“Genetic research,” Dr. Takemago said.

I raised an eyebrow at her. Now she was being downright evasive. After a moment she sighed. “Organ transplants,” she said. “The idea is to raise genetically modified sheep specifically for the purpose of being hosts for organs that can be transplanted into humans. Livers, kidneys, even hearts and lungs. This is confidential, of course.”

Just at that moment the sheep let out an impassioned bleat that sent a shiver down my spine. It sounded precisely like the frightened cry of a small child. I turned to see Keane kneeling in front of the sheep, staring intently into its eyes. The sheep backed away, appearing frightened.

Dr. Takemago didn't look pleased.

“Stop spooking the sheep, Keane,” I said, by way of mollifying her. I had no real hope of having any effect on Keane's behavior.

Keane continued to stare, and the sheep retreated, bleating its horrible bleat.

“What are you doing, Mr. Keane?” demanded Dr. Takemago.

Keane didn't answer, continuing to stare at the terrified sheep. Then he stood and turned to Dr. Takemago. “I have taken measure of this sheep's soul,” announced Keane. The room was silent except for the low hum of the machinery for some time before I realized Keane wasn't planning to elaborate.

“And…?” I asked at last.

Keane remained silent for several seconds more. “Inconclusive,” he said at last. With that, he wandered to a corner of the laboratory and began staring at the wall. Dr. Takemago shook her head, clearly dubious about the Esper Corporation's decision to hire Keane to find its missing sheep.

“He's an unconventional thinker,” I explained without enthusiasm. “But he gets results.”

“One thing needs to be made clear,” said Dr. Takemago, turning to face me. “The vice president of research and development left instructions to be cooperative. But hiring a two-bit private investigator to locate the missing specimen seems misguided, and frankly Mr. Keane's attitude is doing exactly nothing to allay those concerns. That sheep is absolutely critical to the life-saving research Esper Corporation is doing, and if it isn't found—”

“Phenomenological inquisitor,” I mumbled.

“Excuse me?”

“Mr. Keane doesn't like being called a private investigator,” I explained. “He prefers the term ‘phenomenological inquisitor.'”

“Delusions of grandeur, too,” noted Takemago coldly. “In what way does a ‘phenomenological inquisitor' differ from a two-bit private investigator?”

I was ready for that one. “Phenomenology,” I began, “is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. The methods of a phenomenological inquisitor differ from those of a typical investigator in that the phenomenological inquisitor regards each case as a matter of resolving the tension between the appearance of things and things as they actually are. Further, the phenomenological inquisitor does not limit his understanding of the ‘real' to mere physical phenomena, accepting that consciousness, memory, and experiences are no less real than, for example, chairs, automobiles, or”—I glanced at the sheep—“farm animals.” I had this speech memorized, but I liked to occasionally improvise depending on the situation. Returning to the script, I went on, “Finally the phenomenological inquisitor differs from a scientist in that he does not attempt to isolate himself from his subject or to observe reality under artificially created laboratory conditions, preferring to seek out apparent anomalies and explore them on their own terms rather than reduce them to preexisting categories.”

“That sounds like bullshit,” said Takemago.

I shrugged. To be honest, it sounded like bullshit to me, too.

“Any idea who would want to steal your sheep?” I asked.

“The most reasonable hypothesis?” said Takemago. “One of the other biotech companies. Competition in this industry is cutthroat. Mary represents the culmination of a decade of top-secret research.”

I frowned. I was no scientist, but something about that didn't seem to jibe. “You think they're going to dissect Esper's sheep to learn its secrets? Wouldn't it make more sense to steal the research? Not to mention that it's a lot easier to smuggle out a terabyte of data than to kidnap a sheep.”

Dr. Takemago nodded. “Security is looking into the possibility that research data was stolen as well. Stealing Mary may have been only one part of their plan.”

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