The Literary Assassin

Fiction, fashion, and hand-to-hand combat by Holly Messinger

I think I was watching a lot of CSI when I wrote this. It was a long time ago. I still think there's a good story in here, although this treatment is a bit brief for my tastes. Maybe someday I'll rewrite it.


by Holly Messinger

April, 2003
all rights reserved

The guy's heart wasn't actually on his sleeve, which was what the smart-ass at dispatch told me when I got the call. The heart was under his sleeve, feeding off the brachial arteries on the inside of his bicep. It was a young heart, probably four or five weeks short of gestation; the hemoplast sac looked like a clean, professional job and the seal was intact. The vic was a white male, about twenty, probably a college student. He had been shot through the temple with a small caliber firearm.

"Hey, Dean." My sister Reyna, presiding homicide detective on the scene, dropped to a squat beside me as I peered under the plastic sheet covering the body.

"Got an I.D.?" I asked her.

"Michael Burrows, twenty-one," she said, consulting her palmscreen. "Local. Got a UMKC student card, too, current. And he had one of these, so I called you."

She lifted the kid's wrist between two gloved fingers and turned it so the morning sunlight flashed over the gold bracelet on his arm. Stamped with the name, emblem and phone number of the Kansas University Organ Transplant Center.

"Mugging gone bad?" I guessed.

"Doubt it strongly," Reyna said. "Wallet and watch still in place. More likely a fight."

"Or somebody took objection to his being an incubator." Some people think it's an abomination, incubating organs for someone else. Other people think it's only a perversion when men do it. Still others think it's sinful, along with cloning, blood transfusions and antibiotics. Takes all kinds.

The coroner arrived and we stepped back to let him do the examination. I looked around. The blank back wall of Harpo's pub loomed over us; the Cigar Box lined the other side of the alley. At the end of the narrow passage, early Sunday foot traffic milled beyond the tape line, craning their necks. The dumpster at my back mostly concealed anything interesting from the public view.

"Who found the body?" I asked.

"Opening shift manager." Reyna gestured at the Harpo's building. "I got the names of the waitstaff who were working last night. I'll question them first, find out if he was in there."

The Westport area is popular with college kids, especially on a Saturday night. But Michael Burrows was a gestational donor; smoking and drinking were off-limits to him until the harvest. "Get me the names of his family and his recipient. I'll contact them as soon as I see the tox screen."


Most cops will tell you that dead children are the hardest cases. For me, it's the donor cases. Most of my cases involve DNA copyright infringement, tissue piracy, the occasional stolen embryos. Sometimes a donor surrogate will get kidnapped, but those usually end in ransom and arrest.

But sometimes people just kill them, the way kooks kill abortion doctors, out of the same twisted logic that used to burn witches to save their souls. Two in the last year, and I got to handle both of them. Kansas City isn't big enough to have a Bio Crimes department. They just have me.

My dad was a cop. He died of liver failure when I was sixteen.

Anybody else's mother would be thrilled that her son won a full scholarship to med school. Mine bent her lips into a tremulous smile, tears welling up in her eyes, and said, "Well. Your father would have wanted you to be happy."

My sister Reyna, who grew up to be four inches taller than me and a killer field hockey player, went into the academy straight out of high school and graduated at the top of her class. They even put her in Dad's old precinct. My mom and my uncles wept for joy.

It wasn't that I disappointed them. They just didn't know what to make of me. We found some common ground when I announced I was going into criminal forensics. It wasn't a big leap; I always knew I wasn't cut out to be a surgeon. I liked the science of medicine, but real-time life-and-death situations were too much pressure for me. I would have been happy processing cadavers in the precinct basement for the next forty years, but life had something a little fresher in store for me.

I'd always had a hobbyist's interest in the burgeoning field of stem-cell regeneration, and it was a good time to be a medical student if you were into that sort of thing. Robert Chilson's famous pig grew its third liver while I was in junior high; by the time I graduated college the FDA was reviewing the procedure for testing on humans. The same year I dropped out of medical school and transferred to forensic science, Barbara Mills perfected her design for the hemo-permeable subdermal incubation pouch---an artificial womb. The timing was a coincidence.

The rest of my career, however, was not.

In '32 the Supreme Court had ruled on Lankstrom Pharmaceuticals v. Caruso, which effectively gave every human being in the U.S. irrevocable copyright to his or her own geneset, but what one person owns, another can steal. Tissue piracy rose steadily all through the 30's, prompting the New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and Chicago police departments to slap together the first Bio Crimes divisions. With my medical background, it was an easy matter to tailor my education in that direction. It's a demanding job: you have to have all the basic research and detective training, plus forensics and crime scene analysis, plus the equivalent of an MD in genetics.

It's kind of nice; you get the awe people reserve for doctors and you can still play the hard-nosed detective when necessary.


"I checked out Burrows' friends," Reyna told me after lunch, walking into my dungeon of an office and tossing her coat over my file cabinet. "He was out partying last night, with his girlfriend and a couple of guys from his fraternity. They say he wasn't drinking."

"He wasn't," I said, nodding toward the tox report. "Didn't have so much as a cup of coffee. Coroner did find a needle puncture on the back of his left shoulder, though."


"Apparently not. Nothing showed up. It looks like a lancet mark, the kind used to draw blood to measure blood sugar---"

"Part of his treatment, maybe."

"Possibly. But he had several other, older marks on his forearms, which is the typical area to draw blood from. I'm going to see his doctor today, find out the last time he was in."

"They also told me who he was surrogating the heart for," Reyna said.

Something in her voice made me look up at her.

"His father," she said, her mouth and expression flat. "His dad is dying of congestive heart failure."


KU med center is the premier organ-regeneration facility in the midwest, which makes the fact that I'm the only Bio Crimes detective in the city rather ironic. There was a small knot of picketers on the sidewalk in front of the outpatient clinic; I craned my neck as I went by to see if they were anti-abortionists or anti-gestationists. You'd be surprised how often the two groups get into fistfights.

This crew were anti-gestationists. They carried signs reading, "ONLY WOMAN CAN CREATE LIFE INSIDE HER" and "GOD GIVES NO ONE TWO HEARTS" and "ORGAN TRAFFICKING IS A CRIME". That last was technically true, but the caveat to that law was that renewable body parts, such as gametes, blood, and skin, could be sold. Furthermore, people who gestated new organs for money weren't technically selling the parts; they were being paid rent for the use of their blood and genes.

See, when a surrogate gestates an organ, they are growing a new copy of their own heart, lungs, liver, corneas, or whatever. Donors must be carefully matched to their recipients, just like in the old days, but the donor doesn't have to die first. Instead, they get a hemoplast pouch implanted under their skin, usually on the abdomen or upper arm, and a few appropriate stem cells are implanted in the pouch, to be nourished by the donor's blood supply for a few months until the new organ is fully grown. At that point, both donor and recipient go into surgery and the new organ is transplanted within minutes of harvest.

It's not the kind of thing you can make a living doing, because donor and recipient must be precisely matched, and a fair amount of expense goes into having the hemoplast pouch implanted. Still, I have seen cases where people have registered themselves as gestational donors, waiting for some desperate family to offer them ungodly sums of money. Some people register out of a sense of decency and charity. Others do it out of greed. At present, Missouri law allows surrogates to be compensated for immediate medical costs only, but a lot of money changes hands under the table. And since national law allows monetary compensation for renewable tissues, any charges of tissue trafficking are hard to prosecute, doubly so because the parties are usually reluctant to cooperate.

I slipped past the picketers and into the KU outpatient clinic, where I had to negotiate a surly receptionist, a puddle of vomit and an orderly with an unruly mop. The receptionist was very put out with me when I showed her my badge; she seemed to think Dr. Wharton was too important a person to be interrupted for silly little errands like a murder investigation.

Dr. Wharton, however, was a pleasant, professional woman. "Call me Edith," she said as I shook her hand.

"Pretty name," I said. "Unusual."

She grimaced. "Well, my mother was a literature professor." She gave me an expectant look, but I didn't see what the joke was. "Never mind," she said. "What can I do for you, detective?"

I showed her the morgue photo of Michael Burrows. "I understand he was a patient of yours."

"Oh," she said, her face going flat with dismay. "Oh, no. What happened?"

"He was found dead in an alley this morning," I said. "Suspected homicide."

"Oh, his poor family." She touched her fingers to her lips. "He was gestating that heart for his father, did you know?" She passed the picture back to me. "My God. This may kill him, even if a new heart can be gestated in time."

"Dr. Wharton, were all the members of Michael's family supportive of the surrogacy?"

"To my knowledge. His mother is a registered surrogate, too. She signed up when her husband got sick. His sister wanted to register, too, but she's---" Dr. Wharton paused, compressing her lips. "Well, I suppose I can trust you with this. We tested Michael and his sister both for possible donor compatibility, and both of them matched. His sister, in fact, appears to be a universal."

I caught my breath in surprise.

"You know what that means?" Dr. Wharton studied my eyes.

"It means she's missing the---what is it, the D6 chromosome?" I said, stretching my memory for details. "The identifier tag."

"That's right. One of the unique markers that the body uses to identify its own cells. A very small percentage of the population---current estimates are two tenths of a percent---are lacking that gene marker. Their cells and tissues are blank slates---their organs could be implanted into anyone and not be rejected, because the recipient's immune system doesn't recognize them as something foreign."

"Aren't there only a half-dozen known universals in the U.S.?"

"Well, if Caryn qualifies as one---and I'm certain she will---she'll make eight. All of the known universals so far are blood type O-positive, and all of them are female---and that includes the four identified in Australia and the UK. If those traits are part of the package, you can see how it cuts down the odds of finding them. And of course very few people are ever tested for donor compatibility." Dr. Wharton sighed. "Obviously, Caryn's greater value is to the scientific community. Right now the focus in research is on finding a way to edit the genetic code of the stem cells used for regeneration---to take out the D6 marker from the regenerated organs, so that anyone can gestate so-called ‘blank slate' tissues.

"I was trying to arrange for a research grant from the university, a sort of barter for the family: we'd pay for Michael's germination and his father's transplant, in exchange for Caryn's cooperation with my research facility. Exclusive cooperation."

I felt my face tightening in distaste.

"And before you accuse me of coercing a desperate family," Dr. Wharton said, "it was Caryn's idea."

There was a thump, suddenly, as something struck the outside of the window and exploded, splattering red all over the glass. A cheer went up from the sidewalk outside.

"Not again," Dr. Wharton exclaimed. She leapt to her feet but I grabbed her arm and pulled her to the floor in a crouch.

"Stay down," I said. "The next thing they throw might be harder."

"No it won't," she said through her teeth. "Cowards! They like to throw bags of pig's blood and then run."

I grabbed for my two-way and requested immediate crowd control outside the KU outpatient clinic.

The receptionist appeared in the doorway. "Dr. Wharton, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Jackie, just don't let any of the patients go out there," she said.

"Keep everybody away from the windows," I told her. "Turn off the lights and lock the doors if you can do it without putting yourself in danger." I helped Dr. Wharton to her feet and out of her office, into the inner corridor of the building. "How long has this been going on?"

"About two months," she said. "Ever since the weather got warmer, the crazies come out of the woodwork. I've had my tires slashed twice."

"Have you reported the vandalism?"

"Sure, but the cops aren't---" she stopped, giving me a sidelong look. "Well, you have more important things to do. Like finding who killed Mike Burrows."

Sirens were approaching outside. The crowd noise peaked for a second or two, then began to dissipate.

"See?" Dr. Wharton said. "Cowards."

"Did you see any of them approach Michael Burrows or any of his family?"

"I'm sure they did. They accost everybody. But I never saw it. You should ask Jackie or the other front-office staff."


Two surrogate murders in the last year. Neither solved. I resolved to crack those files when I got back to the office, but when I got there, Michael Burrow's mother and sister were in our waiting room.

"Coroner called them in to I.D. the body," Reyna said, pulling me aside. "The father's in the hospital, couldn't make the trip."

"I know. I just came from their germinologist."

"I've already taken their statement and the coroner's done with them, so I was about to escort them out, unless you need them."

"Yeah, I'll take a minute. Listen, see if you can find me the files on the last two surrogate murders in this area. One was in March. The other was last fall, September, I think."

Caryn Burrows looked up at me with shadowed eyes as I approached, my hands in my pockets. She was a beautiful sixteen; not the hard-eyed cynical kind of teenager and not the pulled-together perfect type, either. She was quietly pretty, in the way you know is going to bloom out into something beautiful in a few years. She probably didn't fit in well at her high school. Her eyes were too intelligent, the set of her mouth too certain. Not much of a conformist, would be my guess.

I hitched up my pant legs and dropped to a crouch before the two women. "Mrs. Burrows, Miss Burrows. I'm Detective Groves."

"We already gave a statement to that other detective," Mrs. Burrows said. Her voice was hoarse. She looked like a worn and faded version of her daughter.

"I know. That was my sister, Reyna. My name's Dean. I'm the bio crimes officer on this case." Judging by their faces, they didn't know what that meant. "I went up to see Dr. Wharton this morning. She told me about your husband's health. I want to say how sorry I am for your loss and for your hardships. My father died of liver disease when I was Caryn's age."

"Yes… well. Thank you," Mrs. Burrows said mechanically. She didn't mean to be rude. The poor woman was probably in shock. She'd just had to see her firstborn laid out on a metal table.

"Is that why you do this?" Caryn asked, low. Her voice was flat, emotionless, but her eyes searched mine. "Is that why you're a bio crimes detective?"

I shook my head. "No. But I think he would be proud of the work I do." A lot of people ask me that. I don't think my dad's death had anything to do with my interest in stem cell regeneration. It has a lot to do with why I became a cop. "I wanted to ask the two of you, while Michael was in treatment, did anyone say or do anything threatening toward him? Was everyone in your family supportive of his decision?"

"My mother," said Mrs. Burrows slowly, "is a Jehovah's Witness. She thinks it's wrong for blood and tissues to be transplanted from one person to another."

"But she wasn't hostile," Caryn said in her soft voice. "She wasn't violent."

"Was anyone else?"

"No," Caryn said.

"No. There was no one. Everybody wants Bob to live." Mrs. Burrows looked over my head, into the distance, a terrible expression of blank despair slackening her features. I marveled at the woman's ability to stay upright. She was probably on the verge of collapse.

"What about anyone outside the family? Did any strangers approach you on the street? Did Michael get any prank phone calls or threatening letters?"

"There was that guy at the clinic," Caryn said.

"One of the protestors?"

"I don't know. I only saw him that one time."

"Was Michael with you?"

"No. Me and my mom. I was going there for some blood work---" she stopped, shooting a wary glance at her mother.

"Dr. Wharton told me about your unusual genetic trait," I said, reading the trepidation in their faces. "My job requires that I have a medical degree. Dr. Wharton was testing you to see if you're a universal donor."

"Yeah." Caryn ducked her head. "I told them they could study me if they'd do Michael's germination for free."

Clever girl, I thought. "Did you tell anyone else you were a universal?"

"No. Dr. Wharton said not to. So did Mike."

"But someone approached you outside the clinic."

"Yeah. He was kind of creepy. The protesters yell and throw stuff, but this guy… he was wearing these kind of pajama things? Like those martial arts people wear?"

"For tai chi?" I pantomimed slow swimming motions.

"Yeah! I think that's it. He had long hair in a braid. And he came up and tried to touch my face, not like he was going to hit me, but kind of---I don't know, like you'd pet a strange dog."

"Did he say anything?"

"Yeah, but it didn't make any sense. Stuff about joining the universe, and vessels, and ladders and stuff…."

"Can you describe him for me?"


About five and a half feet tall, Caucasian, black hair, blue eyes. Clean-shaven, no scars. Teeth like Austin Powers.

Reyna and I revisited the Harpo's waitstaff and bartenders again, to ask whether they'd seen a white man dressed like David Carradine on the night Michael was shot. They didn't remember anyone wearing the clothes Caryn had described, but one waitress remembered a group of three, two men and a woman, who had come in about eight p.m. and stood around for a half-hour or so, not taking a table, not buying drinks, not watching the game on the big screen. They seemed to be looking for someone, she said, but when she asked if they needed help, they walked away.

"I don't think this was a random killing," I said.

"Neither do I," Reyna said. "I've started checking backgrounds on the staff at the KU clinic."

"Let me see that list of numbers for Michael's friends," I said. "Wasn't his girlfriend with them last night?"

"Sarah Corte. Yeah, I haven't been able to get hold of her, yet."

We weren't able to reach her Sunday night, either, not at her dorm and not at her parents' home, which was in Independence, Missouri. Her mother, however, informed us that Sarah had not come home, that she was staying with a family friend in Lawrence, near the campus.

Monday morning, Reyna and I went to the address Mrs. Corte gave us. An older woman opened the door; a Mrs. Markwell, Sarah Corte's old babysitter. We introduced ourselves and asked if Sarah was there.

They say that men tend to marry girls who remind them of their mothers. Sarah Corte could have been a sister, or at least a cousin, to the Burrows women. Her hair was skinned back into a ponytail and her eyes were red with strain, but she was roughly the same height, weight, body type and hair color as Caryn Burrows. Their faces weren't strikingly similar, but they were of a type: pretty, gamine, big-eyed.

Reyna and I, who look nothing alike except for our flat chests, exchanged glances.

"Ms. Corte, did you see anyone strange at the bar that night?" Reyna asked, once the preliminaries were out of the way.

"You mean those kooks with the slippers on?" she said. "I thought they were med students, you know, two of them had one these pants that looked like, what you call it, scrubs. But they had on regular street jackets and ball caps and stuff. And the two guys had real long hair. It was stuffed up under their hats, but you could tell it was long."

"Did any of them speak to Michael?"

"I don't know. But the one guy, the tall one walked right up to me and kind of got in my face, like right here---" she held her palm up flat, six inches from her face "---and he's like, ‘Are you Caryn? Are you Caryn? Are you sure?"

"What did he do when you told him you weren't?"

"Nothing. He just turned and walked away. I think they left."

"You didn't see any of them talk to Michael?"

"No." She swallowed. "Mike was kind of tired, you know, not feeling like partying much. He had been tired a lot, since… you know. He kept telling me it would only be a couple of months, but it kind of freaked me out. I didn't want to, you know, be intimate with him, with that thing growing on his arm. I was always afraid I would hurt it. I knew he was doing it for his dad, and that was like, his whole world right then. I didn't want to break up with him cause he needed support, but I just kind of wanted things to be normal, you know?" Her eyes pleaded with us.

"I think that's a very normal reaction, under the circumstances," I said, leaning forward. "It's not unusual for friends of a person who's sick or undergoing medical treatment to pull away, to protect themselves."

She pinched her lips together and looked at the floor.

"Ms. Corte, did you see Michael leave the bar?"

"Yeah. He said the smoke was too thick and he didn't think he should stay." She squeezed her eyes shut and sobbed suddenly, pressing her fingers over her eyelids. "I asked him if he wanted me to come, but he said I should stay and have a good time." She took several quick, sharp breaths and dropped her hand from her face. "So I did."


The first thing I did when we got back in the car was dial my cell phone. The Burrows' machine answered. I left a message for them to call me as soon as possible and hung up, swearing under my breath. "Did Mrs. Burrows leave you a cell phone number?"

"She did, but it's in the file, back on your desk," Reyna said, driving.

"They're probably at the hospital," I said, dialing information.

It took five minutes for me to connect with KU med center, and then five more to get transferred to Robert Burrows' room. The phone rang, and rang, and rang, but no one picked up.

"Shit, he's probably coding in there," I said. "And I'm trying to get through to tell them their daughter's going to get kidnapped."

"Kidnapped?" Reyna said. "You think that's what they want with her?"

"Hunch," I said.

As it turned out, Bob Burrows was having a sponge bath at that moment. Winona Burrows had stayed to assist. Caryn had gone down to the cafeteria for a sandwich. And that, as best we could tell, was where they nabbed her.


A student researcher at the KU outpatient clinic, a woman named Suzette Miller, went missing the same day Caryn Burrows did. Very capable young woman, according to Dr. Wharton. Ms. Miller hadn't been a top performer in medical school, but she showed the patience and attention to detail that make a good researcher. She had been assisting Dr. Wharton with the tests on Caryn.

According to her housemates, Ms. Miller was a Buddhist, and she practiced meditation at the Enlightenment temple downtown. But when we checked the temple, they had never heard of a Suzette Miller. We began backtracking Miller's routes, checking her connections. We found that she had written a series of checks over the past two years to, alternately, the Ladder of Ascension Church, and to a David Hart. The Ladder Church was a new one on me, but Hart was not. He had several arrests for forgery, tissue trafficking, extortion and fraud. He'd had some medical training, although where he picked it up was unclear. He specialized in the kind of charisma that inspires people to drink Kool-Aid and go to heaven.

It took us four days to find the first hovel where they took Caryn, but by then they were long gone. We found her blood, along with that of several other people, on the floor and on the operating table's leather restraints. They left behind a number of disposable surgical instruments and the trim waste of several hemoplast pouches, all bearing the manufacturer's name and address.

I knew we didn't have much time. It appeared Caryn had survived the surgeries---and according to Dr. Wharton, Suzette Miller was more than qualified to do hemoplast implantations---but if Hart and the Ladderites intended to germinate her with an assortment of organs to harvest and sell, there were a whole assortment of things that could go wrong: infection, antiseptic shock, Auto-Immuno Recipricatory Syndrome---a nasty little condition in which the gestating organ becomes the aggressor and attacks its host. It's rare, but it happens, and it depends greatly upon the tissue used to germinate. I couldn't assume that the samples they were using on Caryn were optimal. Even if she got through the gestations all right, attempting to harvest all the organs at once would create an excess of blood volume that could be fatal.

In the end, we caught them by tracking their supplies. The Ladderites had a number of safehouses all over the state of Missouri, as far south as Springfield. Germination and harvest require specific and rather exotic ingredients, most of which have short shelf lives---plasma, potassium saline, dry ice, designer antibiotics---and we hit their hidey-holes one at a time, finding them empty.

Until the one in Clinton, Missouri.

Fearful of a Waco incident, the SWAT team went in quick and quiet and secured the place within seconds. No one seemed inclined to grab for guns, although we found a few, mostly in the office of Mr. Hart. The Ladderites sat quiet, meditative, tranquil, and looked at us with the eyes of the righteous as we cuffed them, one at a time, and took them away. David Hart informed us, calmly, that we were violating every religious freedom and personal sovereignty law in the United States, and his lawyers would be contacting us shortly.

Twenty in all. All of them gestating at least two organs, usually a heart and a kidney.

Caryn Burrows lay in a dim room at the back of Mr. Hart's office. She hung in a sling, lightly restrained with leather cuffs that had rubbed her wrists and ankles raw, carefully wrapped like a mummy in layers and layers of gauze. Her face was flushed and bloated from edema, and even through the bandages I could see swollen pulpy pouches, like ziplock bags of gelatin under her skin, covering her arms, legs and thorax. She even had little pouches on the backs of her hands.

"Go call the paramedics in here," I said to the nearest officer. "Tell them to bring a stretcher." I gently released the restraints on her wrists and then moved to where she could see me, stroking the hair back from her face.

"Caryn? It's Detective Groves. Do you remember me? We're going to get you out of here, now. Are you in any pain, anywhere?"

"It's too late," she said tonelessly. "I am the vessel. The enlightened will ascend my genetic ladder to become the new race."

And then she started to cry. Believe it or not, I took that as a good sign.


We're still not sure why they killed Michael, or who actually did the shooting. We weren't able to connect any of the firearms found in the Ladderites' facility to the bullet in Michael's skull. David Hart would say nothing about it. A couple of his followers said Michael Burrows was "impure," whatever that means. I'm sure more information will come out during the trial. David Hart is up for kidnapping and conspiracy to commit murder charges, and a lot of his followers are ready to roll on him to avoid prison.

Dr. Wharton and her staff removed seventeen separate hemo pouches from Caryn's body, over a period of four weeks. It was a miracle the girl hadn't died from having them all implanted. Fortunately, she had only been in the Ladderites' custody for a little more than a fortnight, and none of the germinations had had time to grow much.

Personally, I thought Caryn was a tough little nut. She rallied enough to instruct Dr. Wharton not to remove the pouch on her lower left abdomen: that one, she said, was the heart for her dad. Dr. Wharton did some tests and confirmed that it was indeed a potentially viable heart. The last time I saw her, it had begun to beat.

I have hope for that family.

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