As a girl, Portia Oakeshott dreamed of becoming a dinosaur veterinarian, caring for the reconstructed Australian dinosaurs roaming the preserve near the south pole of her home planet, New New South Wales.
Today, in the big city of Port Bounty, law enforcement needs her to consult on case. Portia confronts stark evidence of a rich young man’s crime: the mounted head of a massive herbivorous Wintonotitan. A winner.
A dinosaur the company never granted a permit for hunting.
Journeying to the bottom of the world in the sunless week of latewinter, Portia and a policeman must unravel a web of sins and lies to build an airtight case.
And survive the desperate acts of the guilty.
Sample of “Winner and the Poacher”
The self-driving rideshare sedan turned off the coast road. On whispers of the electric motor and smooth living asphalt, the sedan carried its passenger between marble collonades to the neighborhood’s entry gate. The bar was down and the sedan obediently stopped and opened its window. Mild latewinter air drifted in, tanged with salt, and bearing the rustle of waves on rocks. A speaker in the gate kiosk spoke in a firm male voice. ”Your name, and who to see.” ”Portia Oakeshott. The police called me to 17 Aldersley Lane.” The gate bar failed to lift. “I’m with the dino company.” The bar lifted then. The sedan rolled forward, down dark and winding streets nearly empty though it was about 1300 of the local clock. On either side, bathed in the orange-red glow of sunlamps, rambling houses sprawled across vast lots, set back behind towering oaks and wide front lawns, grass cropped as low as a golf fairway’s or a footy oval’s. The houses invariably faced tall windows to the northern horizon, craving Stella Australis A, last seen two weeks before. Thank God the sun would rise in just a couple of days. But not today. The sedan came to a T-junction, beyond which, and through a grove of eucalyptus in someone’s side yard, a faint glimmer of twilight showed the seam between sky and ocean. A right turn, then a stop, three houses ahead. Long but not low. A shed roof sloped north, away from the street. With a thought through her neuronal interface, Portia transferred two cryptoquid and climbed out. The crash of waves overwhelmed the sound of motor and street as the sedan drove off for its next passenger. She studied the southern face of the house. Windowless. Doorless? No, follow the flagstones to that gap in the curtain wall, near the west side. The soles of her flats snapped on the pavers. Electric torches flanking the gap pivoted and flooded her with light. She stopped squinting just as a uniformed policeman emerged from the gap. A round face, jug ears. He gave her an appraising glance up and down. “Sorry, miss. Police business. Please move along.” Portia stopped and crossed her arms. ”I’m with the dino company.” The policeman started. He glanced to the side, the common gesture of someone looking up information. “You’re Dr. Oakeshott? I was expecting, y’know, some old bloke with the brim snapped up on his digger hat.” ”You have me.” The policeman swallowed. “Inspector Leichhardt is expecting you. He’s in the lower basement. Go in, turn right, service corridor, fourth door on your right.” Portia went three steps past the policeman and in. Double doors opened into a gigantic living room, extending the full depth of the house to picture windows facing the twilit ocean. An open sliding glass door let in the sounds of surf and muttering policemen standing on a balcony. The ceiling was vaulted to the sloped roof and striped with skylights. The furniture, all straight lines with a color palette mixing grayscale and natural wood, had the 99% perfect look of bespoke handcrafting. A rich man’s house, if the drive in hadn’t tipped her. She followed the policeman’s instructions to the stairwell down. A din of echoes off walls excavated from rock and concrete stairs. At the first landing, she glimpsed a rec room. Picture windows blended with the rock face of the bluff. Billiards, air hockey, robotic craps and blackjack tables. Half-empty liquor glasses and spent vape canisters barnacled each tabletop, like Mesozoic fungi and mosses growing in the dinosaur preserve a thousand klicks to the south. A rich man’s party, interrupted. That might explain the police. But why a dinosaur veterinarian? The stairwell ended another five meters down. Bulbs flashed on the other side of a half-open door. Portia sniffed but smelled neither alcohol nor blood. She approached with hesitant steps, and rapped her knuckles on the door. ”Dr. Oakeshott?” A man’s voice, smooth and slow. “Come in.” She went into the room. For a moment, her heart seemed to stop. A space as large as the living room or the rec room, but windowless. And stuffed with mounted dinosaurs. In the middle, dioramas of small and bird-like creatures. A geiersaur’s hooked beak ripping flesh from the belly of a minmi flipped on its back like a giant turtle. A grackelsaur snapping a millipede into the air and just touching its jaws to it, prior to swallowing it whole. Along the walls, mounted heads. There, another minmi, its stolid face surrounded with bony protrusions like an elizabeth collar. There, a strallo, a male *Australovenator*, the bumps on his nasal ridge as bright red-orange as a spring sunset after a volcanic eruption. Mounted dinosaurs. About two dozen of them. Yes, the company granted hunting permits, both to thin the numbers of species pushing the preserve’s carrying capacity and to bring in revenue from tourists, especially off-worlders. And the taxidermists had respected the trophies enough to pose them true to life, and not dress them in schoolboy uniforms to play cricket. Still, these creatures deserved better. Especially— Her breath caught. On the far wall, a head so huge it seemed impossible to belong to a once-living creature— ”I don’t know those huge plant-eaters well enough,” said the man. “Is that a winner or a tina?” **Wintonotitan** *can be distinguished from the preserve’s other titanosaur,* **Diamantinasaurus,** *by its broader face and more gracile bone structure. **Wintonotitan’s** *skin is a darker green and may have brownish patches, most commonly on the legs and....* Rehearsing the field guidebook lifted her above flooding emotions for a moment, until she gave the mounted head a closer look. The soft jaw. A mottled spot like a fallen leaf on the sloping brow above the eyes. Her stomach clenched. “A winner cow.” A light strobed somewhere. Portia squeezed shut her eyes. ”Y’know,” the man said, “we should let the forensic techs finish taking photos and so on while we talk more.” She opened her eyes enough to see him gesture at the door. “After you, Dr. Oakeshott.” He plainly sensed her unease but didn’t want to call her out on it. She kept her eyes on the half-open door. Easy to do when your vision is turning gray and spotty in the periphery. The crack of her flat soles on concrete treads brought her back enough that she reached ground level without incident, and entered the first room she found. Motion-activated lights revealed a kitchen, gleaming with stainless steel and gray-black granite. She pulled out a stool and sat at an island counter, where small but heavy-looking appliances sat next to a black glass induction cooktop covered with used glasses and empty beer bottles. The man followed her. A sticky sound meant he’d trod through spilled beer. He leaned his elbows on the island and angled his head at a paddle full of holes mounted on extra-large stand mixer. “My missus might know what that’s for, but I haven’t a clue.” She inhaled deeply, and though the stale odors of last night’s party filled her nose, the air was fresh enough for her to fully recover. “I’m sorry, I’ve assumed you’re Inspector Leichhardt, but I didn’t ask to be certain.” ”Quite all right, Doctor. We threw you in the deep end down there.” ”I’m pronouncing it correctly? ‘Like-heart.’” ”Bang on. Alan Leichhardt, Port Bounty Police.” Brown hair salted with gray, brown eyes radiating fine wrinkles from their outer corners. He pushed off the counter and extended his hand. A crisp white cuff extended out of the sleeve of a mass-market blue suit. She shook a hand patterned with calluses. Her glance darted around the room. ”What happened?” ”You can tell, they were having a blowout, everyone’s got a gutful, when we got called about a....” He licked his lips and his eyes studied the grain of the granite while he answered. “Can’t go into details, ongoing investigation, y’know.” Her cheeks warmed. Something lurid. “And?” ”We’re investigating. Then a straggler with boots so wobbly he didn’t run off when police were coming pipes up. ‘Don’t let them see the second basement.’ That’s probable cause right there. We go down. Pick the lock. And realize we need an expert.” The company granted hunting rights on the preserve, but only when a species needed its numbers managed. Never had the company allowed hunting of winner cows. That stuffed head in the lower basement... Portia shivered. Then through the balcony door and the mansion’s open floor plan came the muttered words of the other policemen and the crash of waves on rocks at the base of the bluff. “Was dinosaur poaching the worst crime committed here last night?” He leaned his elbows on the counter and regarded her with his wrinkled brown eyes. “As you guessed, it wasn’t. See, we’ve locked horns with this fella for years, on stuff that’s not quite as—” Leichhardt’s tongue darted between his lips and he glanced down. “Every time his father bails him out and lawyers him up. You from Port Bounty, miss—doctor?” She shook her head. ”Esperance Heights, on Cookland.” Trees lined with oaks and sweetgums, and the sun rose every day, even in the weeks of winter. ”You wouldn’t know the pull the Martinson family has around here, then,” Leichhardt said. “The pattern repeated last night. Young Lachlan Martinson went american on us—” ”American?” ”Y’know, like the costume dramas set centuries ago on Earth.” Leichhardt put on a funny accent. “‘I decline to answer and I’d like to speak with my attorney.’ And he won’t turn over audio or video from his neuronal interface, and we can’t compel him to.” He wrinkled his nose, as if the odor of spilled beer had gotten to him. “Importing all that American nonsense into proper Anglo-Australian criminal procedure. There’s a reason the Americans lost their hyperpower status....” He took a breath and his expression softened. “Brambles in the path, mate,” he muttered to himself. “Where was I, Dr. Oakeshott?” ”You’ve never convicted Lachlan Martinson of any other crime he’s committed.” ”Bang on. And what happened last night.” Leichhardt nodded in the direction of the balcony. “We can’t let Martinson, or whichever of his guests did it, walk free. So we realized the dinosaurs might be a way to ring him up, like Capone on tax.” Her brow wrinkled. ”Figure of speech. Get him on something minor. Then we use that as a wedge to ring him up on everything else.” ”Dinosaur poaching being the wedge.” As if that dead winner cow counted for nothing. *He’s not saying that. She counts for something, but less than whatever a person suffered here last night.* ”Not to make light of it,” Leichhardt said, “but bang on. We know under Dinosaur Hunting Act 2749 that your company only allows hunting on the preserve under permit specifying species and sex, and logs DNA information on animals taken. Should be dead simple to see which one’s Martinson’s taken without permit.” She knew the gist of the Act, but called up the text through her neuronal interface and skimmed it where it was projected on the fingerprint-smudged stainless steel refrigerator door. “He’s got an obvious defense. Claim they wandered off the preserve. It’s open season then.” ”The preserve’s got fencing, right?” Portia shook her head. “It’s got a double line of perimeter markers a hundred meters apart. They have passive measures, shape and color striping, that the dinosaurs have been genetically coded to avoid. They react to motion of dinosaurs off the preserve with sirens, ultrasonics, flashing lights, and stench bombs. And shoot video. And the farmers adjoining the preserve invariably run fencing along the back lines of their properties.” Leichhardt rubbed his fingertips against the base of their thumb. ”From all that....” ”Martinson could claim the dinosaurs wandered off the preserve, but he’d be lying. Our records would prove it.” His voice sounded smoother than usual. “I’m with you, that the dinos didn’t just up and go walkabout.” Portia’s next words hurried out. ”And I know that’s a winner cow, and we’ve never granted a hunting permit for one. You have all you need to, how did you put it? Ring him up?” The police inspector showed a callused palm. ”We’re on the right track, but we need more. Yes, doctor, you can tell a winner from a tina, but twelve random subjects of His Majesty? They’ll want DNA evidence.” ”Simple enough to provide,” Portia said, but then a chill gripped her. How much DNA had survived taxidermy? The cold sensation faded. She could research the matter online, or she could turn to the crime scene team. Police forensics techs must have more experience with extracting DNA from real-world samples than anyone. ”Our people would love to,” Leichhardt said, “but they can’t amplify dino DNA. Something about not having the, what are those doovalackies called? PCR primers for it. So we’ll have to deputize the sequencing to your company.” ”That shouldn’t be a problem,” Portia said, then wondered what she might’ve just committed the company to do. His brown eyes fixed on her face. ”Blockchain of custody is crucial. Martinson’s lawyer will look for any moment when the samples left your sight between here and your DNA sequencing apparatus, in a bid to gin up reasonable doubt in a jury’s mind. And your sequencing apparatus better have a proper maintenance history from the moment it rolled out of the fabricator.” ”I understand.” ”You’re going to have to agree to share the inputs from your eyes and ears to your optic and auditory nerves through your neuronal interface into the planetary law enforcement blockchain. From the moment we hand you skin samples from the mounted dinos to the moment they enter your DNA sequencer. Do you agree?” ”I’ll still be able to communicate privately through my neury?” ”If you don’t speak out loud, yeah.” And with the information the company would provide the police, Martinson would face a penalty. The winner cow, and all the others, slain and skinned to make the cabinet of grotesqueries two levels below, would receive some justice. “Let’s begin.” ”Here’s how you access the law enforcement blockchain.” Leichhardt slipped his badge holder from his suit jacket’s breast pocket. He flipped the badge up to reveal a QR code. “Run that through your neury.” She stared at the QR code until words formed in her vision. Black text crossed her view of flat-front cupboards. *Royal New New South Wales Law Enforcement Consortium Electronic Evidence Blockchain. You are hereby granted write-only access by Insp. Alan Leichhardt, Port Bounty PD, for the upload of personal audio and video recordings, relating to....* Portia read the rest, then nodded. Her neury popped a winking red *REC* icon in the lower left corner of her vision, next to icons of a video camera and a microphone. Leichhardt stood straight. ”For the record, your name?” ”Portia Oakeshott. DVM.” ”Your employer?” ”Blighland Dinosaur Preserve.” Should she add the legal jargon at the back? “Proprietary Limited.” ”Thank you, Dr. Oakeshott. I shall now take you to a location where we found evidence of a violation of Dinosaur Hunting Act 2749....” Back to the lower basement. Amid the mounted bodies and body parts, Portia remained steadier on her feet. When she regarded the dead dinosaurs, the flipped minmi, the brightly-colored strallo, all the others, the winner cow’s head most of all, dread and disgust were now alloyed with anger. The company’s work—combining fossil evidence, bird DNA, educated guesswork, and Aussie pride—being exploited to serve some man’s vanity— The resident of this house had worked a vile crime, and she would do her part to make him pay. Leichhardt introduced her to a forensics tech, a woman with tiny jowls and brown hair wisping out of a bun. “I’ll cut and bag the samples,” she said. Her voice was kindly and gritted by four or five decades of use. “How much do you need?” ”A picogram should be sufficient.” Wrinkles deepened around her eyes. “Field versus lab, and how much gets lost in tanning,” she muttered to herself. “Got it.” The tech went from dinosaur to dinosaur, Portia in tow. With a whining rotary cutter, the tech cut one-centimeter squares of leatherized skin from the underside of each mounted figure. Each square went in a plastic baggie with an embedded RFID chip as the tech asked, “And this one is?” Portia rattled off both the scientific and the common names, and each dinosaur’s sex, if she could tell. The winner cow wasn’t the only one that could not have been taken lawfully. The tech nodded at each of Portia’s identifications. When she had a sample, she sealed the square in its baggie and stared at the RFID chip. Portia’s neury picked up the encoding of each chip by sounding a ding in her mind’s ear and popping into her vision a call-out box with the dinosaur’s identification and a timestamp. The tech clicked the rotary cutter’s head into a handheld UV sterilizer as they went to the next mounted dinosaur. ”You’ve been in this line of work a while?” Portia asked over the hum of the sterilizer. ”Come back part-time after my youngest started primary school. Righty, now who’s this bonzer bloke?” They looked up at the winner cow. “That’s a female winner. *Wintonotitan novacambrianovaaustraliensis*.” Portia’s knees suddenly felt weak. She leaned her hand on the wall and sucked in a breath. ”Stay with me, doctor.” Portia drew in another breath, then nodded and stood tall again. “I remember, when I was a girl of five or six standard, we visited a couple who were friends of my parents. He hunted, not dinos, but the usual creatures stocked on Cookland. Emus, kangaroos. I wandered into his den and found a full roo mounted like—” She waved slender fingers at the minmi and the geiersaur. “At first I thought it was a toy. Then I saw a bullethole in the chest and I thought the roo, he’d embalmed it, skin, flesh, bone, all, like the mummies on Pharaon.” She shivered. “I had nightmares for weeks.” ”It’s just skin,” the tech said. ”My father explained that to me....” Portia’s legs wobbled again. Somewhere, a thousand kilometers to the south, lay a dead winner cow with its head skinned. Or had they skinned the entire carcass? She hadn’t seen the resident’s closet, how many leather jackets and pairs of cowboy boots had been made from the winner cow? Or, like they once did with elephants, had they turned her feet into meter-wide footstools? The tech ducked under the placid head. She extended the rotary cutter to the underside of the winner’s neck, where it met the wall. A brief whine, a zip as plastic sealed. The sounds grounded Portia back in the room. They moved on. Though her legs felt steady, Portia avoided looking at the winner cow head as they finished their work. After twenty minutes, they finished. The tech handed her a duffel bag marked *Property of PBPD*. All the samples inside barely weighted down the bag. Still, she trudged up the echoing concrete stairs. A young man so rich he could throw a monster party on a Twoday night, so scornful of the laws under which his family had prospered. It wasn’t right. Not one bit. She mulled these thoughts as another rideshare sedan took her, and the duffel bag on the seat next to her, out of the neighborhood. In places where the coast highway ran with only a guardrail between it and crashing waves, twilight glimmered to her left, a hair brighter than before. Maybe the weeks of winter made bad actors think darkness covered their crimes. Actors. Plural. The spoiled rich resident of that house wouldn’t have the skill or patience for taxidermy, too right. After two kilometers eastward on the coast highway, toward the lighted highrises of downtown Port Bounty, the sedan turned right. Another two klicks brought her to the front gate of the company’s campus. The gate recognized her and rose, allowing the rideshare in without stopping.