The waitress arrived at the table with two glasses, and presented the bottle of white wine to Marie and Haris before pouring.
“That’s terrible!” exclaimed Marie, “Do you have any idea what happened?”
“Her genetic makeup had been so ravaged by illicit modding that her body simply ceased to function,” the Inspector replied with the professionalism of a doctor making a diagnosis.
“Well, of course we’ll do everything we can to help,” she replied, “I hope nobody here has been implicated.”
“CWPD… The Midden? Where people pick through scrap?” exclaimed Haris evasively, “Never been there in my life.”
“No,” said the Inspector, his eyes fixed on Lilo, “but she has.”
All eyes turned to Lilo Juhasz. She swallowed and put her glass down on the table, “Yes. Yes, I go there often. I live nearby. Thousands of people do. Why am I so important?”
The Inspector leaned forward incrementally, “I believe you knew Sara Rossi. Maybe not by that name, but you knew her.” His manner wasn’t secretive or threatening, but measured and professional in a disconcerting kind of way. As he spoke he produced a small tablet from inside his blazer and discretely showed it to her. Her eyebrows furrowed, “I do know her. Rosa Dioli, that’s what she called herself. We weren’t close – she was just a passing acquaintance – but still…”
The Inspector slipped the tablet back into an inside pocket and nodded, “As I suspected. You know about modding. Could you explain how it works?”
Lilo shuffled in her seat, “Well, gene modding originated from medical treatments. It uses gene therapy techniques to change a person’s genetic code to include certain characteristics, then stem cells are activated in order to make the body take on those characteristics.”
The Inspector nodded but remained silent.
Nervously she continued, “People think it’s just a matter of genetics, but it’s more complicated than that. If you amputate someone’s arm they still have the genes to make a new arm in there, but the arm won’t regrow on its own. In the same way, if you give someone the genes for, say, a tail, that won’t grow on its own either. That’s why the stem cell therapy is important; to grow things into place.”
Haris leaned back and raised an eyebrow, “I didn’t know you were such an expert. Most people just care about the results. You should drop in at my company sometime.”
The Inspector’s attention remained on Lilo, “I know it’s difficult to talk about someone you knew so soon after they pass away, but I must ask; were there any indications that she was involved with illicit distributers of mods beforehand? Mod pirates perhaps?”
Avoiding eye contact, she shook her head into her glass, “I couldn’t say. I barely knew her, really.”
Marie put her hands out on the table as if to hold Lilo’s, “It must be terrible for someone you know to be killed by a pirated mod. If only she’d mentioned it you could have informed her of the dangers.”
“Your starter; onion soup.” The three of them looked up to see the waitress arrive with four steaming bowls of soup balanced on two trays. She placed them at the table one by one, “Can I get you anything else?”
“We’re fine, thank you,” said Marie on behalf of the others.
“Everything is excellent!” added Haris with an all-encompassing wave of his arm, “Nothing more needs to be done! You can relax.”
“Thank you,” said the waitress with a blush, before going to attend to someone else.
After that they all ate in silence – the atmosphere around the table deflated by the harrowing topic of conversation – all apart from the Inspector, who instead sat in a state of engaged idleness, as if he were performing some important task by courteously ignoring his onion soup.
The silence was broken by the clatter of a spoon in an empty bowl; Haris wiped his mouth and shook his head in disbelief, “The Midden is full of pirates; we’ve been dealing with them for years at the company. Copyright infringement on our gene mods; they’re stealing our property!”
“It’s a real problem,” Marie agreed, “it’s party policy to crack down on these kinds of illegal networks; mod piracy has now become the most high-value type of intellectual property infringement in the City.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t be such a problem if it wasn’t just big companies who were allowed to use gene mods,” muttered Lilo. Marie turned her head. Haris raised an eyebrow. “Unfortunately it’s not that simple,” explained Marie in the assured tone of a politician; “these treatments are too dangerous. I’m sure the Inspector here can tell you as much. We simply can’t regulate so many individuals.
“You seem quite passionate,” mused Haris in a less bombastic, more curious tone than he had used before. “It almost seems paradoxical that you don’t seem to have used mods yourself. At least, as far as I can see.”
“Actually, if you notice her arm…”
Haris interrupted Marie with a casual wave of his hand, “A tattoo, if you look closely. You don’t see them very much these days.”
Lilo shuffled in her seat. She talked into her bowl, giving only a cursory glance to the others, “You don’t become as enthusiastic about getting modded when you’ve seen what I’ve seen.”
“And what have you seen? What do you do, over there in the Midden?” Haris seemed to be testing her, challenging her. His test was met with discomfort, his challenge met with distress. A spoon clattered into a bowl. The screech of a chair shot across the room. Heads turned.
“I need to go.”
The Inspector turned, “This will end somehow and it might as well be here.”
Lilo looked down at the Inspector.
“You should sit down,” he said.
Hesitantly, she lowered herself back into her seat and returned to the table. The other three were all gazing at her; Marie in shock and confusion, Haris in assured satisfaction, “I knew I could smell a rat. I’ve had to deal with you people for too long!” Lilo merely sat with dark eyes and a protruding lower lip, like a scolded child.
“Do you have something to say, Ms Juhasz?” inquired the Inspector.
She sighed. The game was up. “Yes, I’m a mod pirate. I gave Rosa… Sara those mods. I…” she sniffed, “I killed her.”