Preview: Dustbowl Detective

Dustbowl Detective

Dustbowl Detective, by David KeenerMy upcoming story, Dustbowl Detective, is a Solarpunk/Mystery story set in my loosely connected Inflection Point series. The story features Ulysses Perez, an ex-military veteran without a country. In the forgotten deserts of a shattered United States, Ulysses ekes out a living as a detective, bounty hunter, and freelance troubleshooter​.

The story was published in the Solar Flare anthology in July 2023, a premiere anthology from ZNB Publishing produced by renowned editors Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray. The story will be solo-published in August 2024.

Frank Santora, suited up and sweating in the heat, sits behind his wide, expensive wooden desk, looking up at Ulysses Perez standing in front of him. “Bastards boosted ten boxcars,” Frank says. “Made off with all the goods.”


“March 17th,” Frank admits reluctantly.

Ulysses raises an eyebrow. “Bit of a cold trail, ain’t it? That’s almost three months ago.”

Frank bridles at his tone. “You’re not paid to think. Just find who did this and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” It’s clear that a wannabe corp climber like him doesn’t appreciate being chastised by a short, scruffy, wiry Mexican wearing dusty cargo pants and holding a battered cowboy hat in his hands.

“OK. It’ll be a minimum two weeks at my usual rate.”

“I pay for results, Paco.”

Ulysses shrugs. “Up front. No guarantees, on account of you lettin’ the trail go cold.”

“That’s not how I do—”

“Stop wasting my time, Frankie boy,” Ulysses says mildly, settling his hat on his head “I ain’t the one gotta explain things to Corporate.”

He’s halfway out the door when Frank says, “All right, all right. Deal.” Ulysses turns to look at him. “My secretary can give you the details.”

Ulysses nods, then walks through the half-empty office bay to the reception desk where Frank’s secretary sits. Inari Ruska has a folder ready for him by the time he gets there. She’s early thirties, all pale skin and blond hair from her Finnish ancestry. Ornate letters on the wall behind her spell out: TRANS-PACIFIC STANDARD. Below it, a logo showing the silhouette of a freight train with the sun just above it.

“Didn’t you have an office last time I saw you?”

She grimaced. “The new director does things differently.”

He opens the folder and casually flips through the contents. It’s thorough, which means Inari must have compiled it for Frank.

“The payment’ll hit your account tomorrow.”

Ulysses tips his hat. “Pleasure doing business with you, Ma’am.”

He walks out, gets into a battered jeep parked outside, and drives off. Looking in the rearview mirror, he sees a rusted-out, gray pickup truck pull out of a parking space at the same time. Reflexively, he zooms his enhanced vision and snaps the license plate. Probably just a coincidence, but a little paranoia never hurts.


Ulysses is eating lunch at a BBQ joint called the Thirsty Pig, sitting where he can keep an eye on his camouflage-painted jeep. Papers and photos are spread across the table. From the evidence, the thieves separated the last ten cars from a hundred-car train, moved them up an abandoned siding, then destroyed some of the rails behind them so the boxcars couldn’t be easily retrieved.

The manifest for the cars is decidedly eclectic: industrial equipment (mining), commercial electronics, zirconium ingots, household appliances (washing machines, dryers, dishwashers), farm equipment, etc. All stuff that could be sold easily on the black market.

Except for the zirconium…that’s odd.

Inari walks in and sits across from him.

“What’s with the Ma’am shit?”

There’s an extra plate of BBQ. Ulysses pushes it across the table.

“Microcams,” he says. “Two of ’em. Frankie boy’s got his eye on you.” He prudently doesn’t mention the cleavage shot Frank gets on video every time Inari bends over at her desk.

“Lovely,” she says, an expression of disgust on her face.

“Figured it was better for you if he didn’t realize we knew each other too well.”

“You call him ‘Frankie boy’ to his face?”


“Ooh, I bet Frank didn’t like that. People around the office are scared of him. He…downsized.”

“I’m scary,” Ulysses says, with the utter confidence of an ex-soldier who’s still got his mil-spec cyber-mods. “Frank’s more like a toy poodle some spoiled rich lady would carry around in her designer purse.”

“You don’t look scary.”

“I like being underestimated.”

“Huh,” Inari says, feigning being unimpressed. “Did you solve the crime of the century yet?”

“About that,” Ulysses says. “If it’s possible, let’s keep my involvement quiet.”

“All right, but why?”

“It looks like an inside job to me. I’d rather not warn them that I’m coming for them.” He steepled his fingers. “Somebody was looking at manifests. Cut off the tail of a train that had what they wanted. What I want to know first is how come TPS Security wasn’t onsite for seventy-two hours?”

“The train AI thought it was a mechanical, so it didn’t trigger a security alert.”

“Frankie hire somebody before me?”

Inari stares at him in surprise. “Yeah. How’d you know?”

“Probably paid the guy more than me. Only he didn’t solve it, so Corporate’s still riding your boy.”

“Right on all counts.”

“Classic setup,” Ulysses says. “I’ll bet he hired a loser for an inflated price, then collected himself a nice kickback. Probably figured management would forget about the whole affair if it dragged on long enough. Only problem, they didn’t forget about it ’cause the crime’s unique.”

“You think Frank did the train heist?”

“Not a chance. Too bold, too flashy for a sneak like Frankie.” He points at the manifest. “How many people can access a manifest like this?”

“Lots of people. Most everyone at the office. Management at the train stations on the scheduled route. Inspectors. Loaders—”

“OK, too many to narrow it down that way, then,” Ulysses says. “I need an expert, somebody who can talk to me about the train AI, the alerts, all that electronic stuff.”

“That’s easy,” Inari replies. “You want to talk to Jasper Conway. He works out of Bluefield. There’s a small station yard there. He handles repairs, software patches, all kinds of stuff. He’s like a Swiss Army knife when it comes to keeping the trains running.”

“Then he’s my next stop.”

“This is nice,” Inari says, looking around the restaurant. “We should try for a dinner sometime.”

“You askin’ me on a date?”

“You’re the detective. Decipher the clues.”


The Bluefield train yard is bustling. A sleek, modern-looking passenger train stops at the train station north of the yard while Ulysses strides past the warehouses, cranes, repair berths, and outbuildings of the yard. There’s a cargo train stopped next to the warehouses, with sweating workers shifting cargo out of some of the cars in a dance that hasn’t changed since the 1800s.

Some lone boxcars, a few two or three-car sets, and a small yard-based mini-locomotive perch on sidings waiting for action. Some of the boxcars look like they’re more than a hundred years old. After all, a thirty-ton steel box is pretty much always going to be a steel box; the only thing that changes is the paint job.

Ulysses comes to an ugly, metal, pre-fab building labeled: WORKSHOP. Looks up and notices a couple of discreet cameras. Knocks on the door.

A man opens the door. He’s got thinning hair, a potbelly, and was probably muscular ten years ago. Still, he’s looking not too shabby in designer jeans, a very nice designer shirt, and what looks like a Rolex but is probably a knock-off.

“I’m Ulysses Perez. I’m looking into—”

“The train heist.”

Ulysses frowns. “Everybody know about that?”

The man shrugs. “Biggest news around the company.”

“And me?”

“Well, you know. Nothing’s faster than the rumor mill.” He chuckles. “I’m Jasper Conway. I figured you’d be coming my way with questions sooner or later.”

“Convenient,” Ulysses says. “Saves time, you knowin’ why I’m here and all.”

“You want to know why a Security Alert wasn’t triggered.”

“You betcha.”

“I thought it was weird, too,” Jasper says. “Took me a good while to figure it out. It’s easier to show you, though, so let’s go for a walk.”

Ulysses follows Jasper down some steps, then they crunch across gravel to a three-car combo on a siding. Jasper climbs up onto the train coupling.

“This is the train coupling,” Jasper says. “And this is the comms cable.” He reaches underneath the coupling, lifting the cable so Ulysses can get a closer look. There’s a cable the width of Jasper’s thumb extending from each train; they plug into each other in the middle, with locking clips to ensure the connection doesn’t come undone. “Say somebody gets on the train without the AI seeing them. They manually undo the cable connection while the train’s in motion.” Jasper twists the connector apart. “The AI will send a Security Alert because it thinks somebody is onboard and interfering with the train. Likewise, if they manually uncouple the cars while this cable is still connected…a Security Alert.”

“But that didn’t happen.”

“Nope. Because the robbers cut the cable instead, and then undid the coupling”

“Why’s that matter?”

“AI didn’t see anybody, but it knows the cable got broken somehow. So, it thinks it’s had a mechanical. It sends a Mechanical Fault Alert instead, which needs to be reviewed by people before being escalated. They, um, didn’t check expeditiously.”

“Not a very smart AI,” Ulysses says.

Jasper shrugs. “You get the level of AI you pay for. You usually don’t need much to keep a train going one way on a steel track.”

“You think the robbers planned that?”

“I don’t know,” Jasper says. “Brilliant planning…if it was planned. But it coulda just been dumb luck.”

“Like if they’d planned to use an axe anyway.”


“I’m kinda interested in how they got on a moving train without the AI seein’ them.”

“You and me both,” Jasper replies.

They walk back across the gravel. As they’re climbing the steps, Ulysses turns back to look at the boxcars in the yard.

“The information I have says they moved the boxcars off the main line onto an unused branch,” Ulysses says. “I did the math, that’s thirty tons per boxcar, plus up to a hundred tons of cargo each. How the hell did they move 1300 tons?”

Jasper laughed. “Shit, they probably could have done that with a damn Clydesdale.” At Ulysses’ puzzled look, Jasper added, “Look, it’s the coefficient of rolling friction. There’s hardly any resistance with steel wheels on steel rails. On level ground, a pickup truck could pull a million-ton train.”


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