Heat Wave: Thermal Vision

Helix

Problem one: Project Sumter is not, in the strictest technical sense, a law enforcement agency. Nor is it a branch of the military or part of the American intelligence network. Although we loan our personnel to the organizations that handle those responsibilities, we ourselves don’t have any jurisdiction or special authority to engage in law enforcement, intelligence gathering or military operations unless we’re working in conjunction with some other branch of the government that does. In order to act on the evidence that Herrera and the HSA had provided, Project Sumter would first need the cooperation of the police and a warrant from a local judge.

Problem two: As a collection of super-specialized operatives that tend to come in and take over situations that fall under our purview, we’re not usually very popular with people like the FBI, the CIA, the Marines, local police, ect.

Now, in the past, I wouldn’t have had to worry about these things, since Sanders’ team was on indefinite loan to the FBI, so any case that fell under their purview was open to us by some sort of bureaucratic deal he’d worked out two years ago.

But I’d been transferred to Herrera’s team which was, for all practical intents and purposes, a different section of the Project that didn’t have that kind of convenient arrangement to fall back on. Once our briefing with the Senator and Agent Herrera was over we wound up spending the next thirty hours cutting our way through the mess of red tape necessary to get the locals to sign off on our proposed operation and a judge to issue a warrant.

Luckily for us, we had a US Senator in our team. It was one of the few times I’ve ever been glad to be associated with Brahms Dawson. On top of that, Kessleman had been a local cop before joining the Project and, once he and the rest of Jack’s tactical team straggled in later that afternoon, he was able to get in contact with some people he knew and smooth things a little more.

Still, most of us spent the night on cots tucked away in the back corners of unused offices or conference rooms, waiting for the word to go to come in. Actually, all of us did except the Senator, who really seemed like he wanted to stay. He only left because Herrera shooed him away to some event of his daughter’s. In spite of how busy we were I found a moment to wonder how an ambitious twit like Dawson ever found the time for kids.

Finally, sometime around dinner time that evening we got the green light. To my intense disappointment we wound up going in saddled with a SWAT team. While I’m sure the local SWAT guys are competent in their job I’d have sworn on a stack of Bibles that they didn’t have thirty seconds experience dealing with talent in general, and Open Circuit’s not a normal talent either. Plus, the SWAT team wouldn’t be available until the next day.

Herrera got the rest of us together just before six that evening and briefed us on the plan, which essentially boiled down to “hit him around ten AM tomorrow” and told us to go home and get some sleep. It was a good call, although I wasn’t sure how much sleep we’d be getting that night. What I found most impressive was that, even after a night in the office, she still managed to look collected and cool. I wondered how well that cool would hold up under fire.

Rather than spend a lot of time wondering about it I decided to do as I was told and get some sleep. I’d see how she did under stress tomorrow. There’d be a lot more information to go on after that.

I arrived back at the office the next morning and was greeted by the distinctive odor of chocolate chip cookies drifting out of the offices. That could only mean one thing: Mona had been baking last night. I followed the smell into Sanders’ office to find a double batch of cookies heaped in a large red tin. Mona and Sanders were there too.

I reached out to grab a cookie and Sanders smacked my hand away. “What are you doing?” He asked. “Those are for the people who will be doing actual work today.”

“Yeah, that’s me,” I said, trying to slip around him and grab a cookie with little success. “We’ve got an operation in a couple hours, haven’t you heard?”

Sanders snorted and folded his arms over his chest, saying, “Yeah, I heard. You’re gonna pile in a van and wait six hours for the locals to show up and then find out they’re all on a domestic disturbance call on the other side of the city and can you guys wait until tomorrow? Sitting in a van all day isn’t work.”

“Very unsympathetic, coming from a guy I know has done the same thing six times before in his life,” I said, taking the moment when Sanders opened his mouth for the inevitable comeback to dart around the other side of him and make another grab for the cookies.

Mona pulled the tray just out of my reach and gave me an admonishing look. “Leave the cookies for people who will enjoy them, Helix.”

I stared at her. “What’s that supposed to mean, Mona? Everyone likes your baking.”

“I’ve noticed,” Mona said with a smile. “I wouldn’t keep feeding it to you guys if you hated it. But you hate chocolate.”

I stared open-mouthed for a minute. “I do?”

“You do, but you keep eating it and saying it’s delicious to make me feel better.” She gave me a light pat on one arm. “Best field analyst in the Midwest, remember?”

“I don’t know why anyone bothers trying to keep secrets around here,” I said, slumping slightly.

“Because you’re a sweetheart,” Mona said. She pulled a square tupperware container out of a bag on a nearby chair and held it out to me. “I baked you a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies instead. Take care today.”

“You’re the best, Mona,” I said as I snatched the cookies out of Mona’s hand and scuttled away.

Now only a fool eats when Jack Howell is giving a briefing, he’s the kind of man who demands absolute attention during briefings, and with good reason. Since Herrera was a newbie who wasn’t entirely up on the safety procedures that go hand in hand with being on the same team as a heat sink who expects to go active, Jack got to run our prerollout briefing. That included explaining how to properly strap on and check the complicated insulating body armor that, in theory, would keep people from getting roasted if I needed to light up Circuit’s warehouse for a late summer bonfire.

I’ll be the first to admit that all of that is important information, even the obligatory reminder to take care of your equipment because it is expensive. In fact being forced to sit through the whole lecture for the umpteenth time would have been worth it just to see Mosburger’s reaction when he learned one suit of the stuff cost nearly a hundred and fifty grand. Newbies get used to the Project’s expense budget eventually, but it does take time.

However the upshot of all that was that I wound up sitting around for almost three hours while Mona’s cookies got cold. I didn’t get a chance to crack them open until the eight of us were in our van and headed across town towards Circuit’s latest hideout.

I dug in as I watched Mosburger struggle awkwardly with his body armor. Kesselman was trying to help him get suited up but it looked more like modern art waiting to happen than someone getting ready for a potential combat situation. Everything about this mess, from Circuit’s involvement to the obvious greenness of my current team, was making me nervous.

Once we arrived on site Herrera got out of the front seat and moved into the back with the rest of us. “SWAT says they’ll be here in twenty minutes.”

As a matter of automatic courtesy I held the box out to offer Herrera a cookie. She peered in, saying, “Are these the chocolate chip cookies I was smelling earlier?”

“Oatmeal Raisin,” I said around a mouthful.

Herrera looked vaguely offended. “Did we not rate chocolate chips?”

“Helix doesn’t like chocolate,” Mosburger said without looking up from the boots he strapping on for the third time.

“Is there nothing sacred anymore?” I asked, spreading my hands to the van’s ceiling. “I prefer birthday pie to birthday cake too, is that such a crime?”

“Sorry,” he said, glancing up from his boots. “I heard Bob and Mona arguing about it this morning.”

“Sanders? What was his problem?”

“I’m not sure. Something about her assignment being therapy, not an excuse to baby all her co-workers.” He shrugged. “Not sure what that was supposed to mean.”

I grunted in disapproval. It meant that Darryl had talked Mona into transferring to field work as a way to distract her when she found out they couldn’t have kids. Yes, she probably babied her co-workers as a kind of substitution. Sanders should have known better to bring it up around other people, though. I gave Mosburger a stern look and said, “None of your business.”

Mona raised an eyebrow. “Your last field analyst was in therapy?”

“All getmen are in therapy,” Jack said as he checked through the contents of his utility belt. “It comes with the territory. If you aren’t yet, Mosburger, you’ll get your chance.”

“What’s a getman?” Herrera asked.

“Oh good,” Mosburger muttered. “I’m not the only who doesn’t know these things.”

“It’s what we call field analysts,” I said, ignoring Mosburger’s grumbling.

“Why?” Herrera took off her jacket and began shrugging into her own tactical gear. At least she seemed familiar with the basic mechanics, if not the particular challenges of our specialty equipment.

“Because they always get their man,” Jack said.

“Or because they get things first,” Kesselman added.

I dusted my hands off and closed the empty box of cookies. “Also, I think it has something to do with the fact that the first one was from Gettysburg.” I got up and moved to the seat Herrera had abandoned at the front of the van.

“Going somewhere?” Jack asked.

“Just getting a feel for the place,” I said.

We were just across the street from the warehouse. I can feel heat anywhere within about half a city block when I really focus on it. That wasn’t enough to let me get a sense of the whole warehouse, but I could tell one thing important right off the bat. “Hey, Mosburger, I think I figured out why Circuit wanted this place as a hangout.”

The Project’s newest getman got up and clomped forward to look over my shoulder. “What’s that?”

“It’s one of the only places in the city where he could create a vacuum walled chamber to work in.” I felt my way outward again, just to make sure. There was no getting around the dizzying sense of finding an area that had no heat in it, in fact had no medium to conduct heat.

“He’s used a set up like that before, hasn’t he?” Mosburger said, quickly answering his own question. “When he was operating out in eastern Arizona. I remember reading about it.”

“Why?” Herrera asked. “What does working in a vacuum accomplish?”

“Not in a vacuum,” I said, “in a room with walls that have a vacuum chamber in place of insulation.”

“Circuit appears to know a lot about electronics, and, given the nature of his talent, that’s not surprising.” Mosburger rested his hand on the headrest of my seat and began drumming his fingers absently. “My guess is it serves to make them less detectable to Helix as they’ll leak much less heat.”

“That’s more like waving a red flag to me,” I said. “There’s nothing as obvious as a vacuum, trust me on this. If he’s trying to keep that place a secret, it doesn’t add up.”

Mosburger thought for a moment, then nodded. “You’re right – unless it’s serving as a blind for whatever his real countermeasure is.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” Herrera said. “It can’t be a perfect vacuum, can it? He has to get in and out somehow.”

“There’s probably a door pumped chock full of coolant somewhere in the set up,” I said. “That’s what the room in Arizona was like. It’s just not on the side facing us now.”

Herrera tapped Bergstrum on the shoulder. “Take us around the block once. Helix, see if you can pin down where that door is, find out anything else about this set up Circuit’s got running. Look for any major differences between now and the way things were in Arizona.”

“I’ll do what I can,” I said. Unfortunately, that wasn’t much. The warehouse wasn’t even in range part of the time. We’d gotten all the way around to the other side of the building when I slapped the back of Bergstrum’s chair. “Hold up. I got three people in there.”

“People?” Mosburger said. “What are people doing in there? Moving out some of Circuit’s stuff?”

“No, at this point he’s got everything he’s ever gonna want out of there already,” I said.

“So you don’t think they’re some of Circuit’s people?” Herrera asked.

“Honestly, no,” I said. Checking their locations again. All three were still plastered up against the edge of the vacuum insulated room. “I think they’re probably worse, in their own way.”

“What’s worse than Circuit in this situation?” Mosburger asked.

I exchanged a glance with Jack, who nodded for me to go ahead. I sighed and said, “Amateurs.”

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Fiction Index

Thanksgiving Break

Here in the U.S. we have a holiday every November that is dedicated to eating food with family and giving thanks for our blessings. Because of this great tradition, I will be taking the rest of this week off – there will be no Wednesday or Friday updates.

Hopefully, you’ll come back next Monday for another installment of Heat Wave – or you can just follow the blog via the WordPress Reader or e-mail. No memory issues at all, you’ll just get the new content as soon as it appears. Either way, I hope to see you after the break!

Nate

Heat Wave: Subtle Currents

Circuit

In order to accomplish my goals in modern day society I require large quantities of cash and materiel. Some things I buy, because there’s no other, better way to get hold of them. A piece of land, for instance, is almost impossible to steal from someone. You’re better off just buying the deed.

However, things like land tend to be very expensive, and I find it wise to keep as large a reserve of liquid cash on hand as possible should I suddenly need to make such a purchase. Thus, even when I could afford to buy something I could also steal, I always choose the latter.

I had to explain all of this to Hangman, who was becoming more and more curious about my work the longer our association lasted, before he consented to finding a list of places where I could acquire the things I needed next. The same principle applies to time as money, incidentally, which is why I have information brokers to find information for me and I focus on things only those with my particular talents can do. I will admit that Hangman’s increased prying into my affairs did have me thinking of changing brokers.

Fortunately Hangman handled this request with his usual speed and efficiency, finding four places where I could find what I wanted scattered around the country. I choose to visit a certain university in Texas to get what I was after this time, both because it was far away from my home base and because it was a university.

Higher education in America represents one of the largest wastes of money in the entire nation. Colleges these days serve primarily to hammer the rough edges of individuality off of people, forcing them to conform to the idealogical lockstep of their professors in exchange for the piece of paper that they have been assured will keep them fed and satisfied.

Colleges get truly absurd amounts of money from the students and various levels of government for their brainwashing and they spend it liberally in making improvements and carrying out research, which in turn attracts even more money from the successful graduates who feel some misplaced sense of gratitude for success they would probably have earned on their own, and at a much reduced cost, if they had just found a seasoned pro to show them the ropes for a few months instead of locking themselves into an ivory tower for four years. On the bright side, the absurdity of the modern university is helpful to me in two ways.

One, people who come out of them are totally lacking in any kind of meaningful identity. The brainwashing their professors put them through makes them pliable and interchangeable. After all, once you sand the rough edges off blocks of wood they stack nicely and if one breaks you can throw it out for another. This is a crime against the people involved, but in order to fix it I’ll have to endure it for now.

Two, the disappearance of any kind of imaginative thought from college campuses makes them very easy places to rob.

Here’s how you move across a college campus late at night without getting into trouble: One, own a fairly inconspicuous white van. It should be about five or ten years old, beaten up, with painted over windows. Or no windows at all, if you can help it. Paint some totally innocuous sounding company name on it, like, “Hoffman Plumbing” on it. Two, don coveralls and glower at the students like you’d rather have their bright future as corporate drones instead of your current position as business owner.

You are now free to move about the campus.

I wanted a place in the civil engineering building so I parked my van half a block away and headed towards the chemistry building. Thanks to thousands of dollars of alumni and taxpayer money the entire campus was defended by state of the art electronic locks of a type I was very familiar with. The are secure from anyone without a keycard or the ability to manipulate electronic potential.

Actually, they’re secure from most fuseboxes like me, too. Convincing the lock that I had a legitimate keycard would require more specialized equipment than I wanted to carry with me and the circuits that controlled the actual lock were buried deep in the door, with no way for me to touch them. While a fusebox can reach a great distance through a circuit they’re close to, if they’re not within two or three inches a connection can’t be established.

Or so the prevailing theory goes. A few years back I found out that a properly calibrated magnetic field can be used to extend your reach. With a thought I flipped on the electromagnetic coils I was wearing strapped to my forearms, underneath my clothing, and suddenly I could feel the electronic circuits in the doorframe tingling. It took only a light push to trigger the solenoid that retracted the lock and as easily as that, I was through the door

Once I was through the door and into the building I made my way through the second floor breezeways that connected all the science and engineering buildings until I found the one I wanted. Then I ducked into a restroom and stripped off the coveralls. Underneath I wore my recently completed vest over a white button-up shirt and a pair of dress slacks. I smoothed the silk fabric that covered the delicate electronics beneath, enjoying the feel of it for just a moment.

In my business, style is just as important as power and intelligence. I like to think that I’m a master of all three.

I pulled a clip-on tie out of a pocket and slipped it into place. While style is important, I feel that wearing something that can strangle you or break your neck is taking things too far. Once again equipped to look like someone who might belong, either as an instructor or some sort of outside authority, I set out down the halls until I found the place I wanted.

Grad students are the middle management of the university system. Overworked by their employer/professors and usually loathed by the students whose education they wind up primarily responsible for, it’s really something of a miracle that any of them ever stick around to finishtheir degree. Worse, in addition to all the work and emotional punishment they have to stand up to, they also have to come up with a project of some sort to prove their ability in their field of study.

To do that they’re given, among other things, a lab in which to do their work. At least, if they’re working in the physical sciences.

I was about to visit one such lab. The one uncertain element in my plan, the one factor I couldn’t do anything to mitigate, was the tendency for grad students to work late at night. This was as much because they were busy with other things during they day than any real nocturnal leanings on their part.

So I wasn’t surprised to see a light on under the door of the lab. Disappointed, yes, since this made my life more difficult, but not surprised. Overriding the electronic lock was out of the question right now. That would attract attention and suspicion, which I didn’t want. So I moved on to Plan B.

I knocked.

Professional lawlessness requires a fair amount of reckless behavior along with everything else.

There was no answer after five seconds, so I knocked again, striking an impatient pose and tapping one foot on the floor. A moment later the door swung open and a young man of Indian descent opened the door. “Can I help you?” He asked.

I gave a deliberately brittle smile and said, “I hope so,” slipping a business card between the fingers of my right hand and holding it out to him. “I’m Daniel Hoffman, the investor that Doctor Porter mentioned. I know I’m here much later than I said I’d be, but there as a mix-up at the airport and my flight got here late. You know how it goes.”

“Not really,” the young man replied. “I’m sorry, but Doctor Porter didn’t mention any investor to me. Maybe tomorrow you can-”

“Well, he’s busy man, he probably forgot” I said, waving a hand dismissively. “But you are Mr. Trenton Nayar, aren’t you? Working on the portable hydroelectric project?”

After a moment’s hesitation he said, “Yes, that’s me.”

“Well, Mr. Nayar, I have a business proposition for you and, if everything goes well, it might even have all your student loans paid for by the time you’re finished with your doctoral thesis.” I pushed the business card a little farther forward and favored him with a slightly more honest smile. That’s the real trick to seeming honest, don’t start off seeming like you’re trying to win them over. I knew I still looked like a tired corporate shark, but that was just it. The less he thought of me as a thief the better off I was.

Hesitantly, Nayar took the card and looked it over. The dossier that Hangman had sent hadn’t included much about him or Dr. Porter other than their names and the fact that they were working on a high efficiency miniaturized hydroelectric power generator. I wasn’t sure if Trenton or his professor had even been looking for an investor in his project. It seemed unlikely, but the strange thing is, the more unlikely a lie is, the more believable it becomes.

“What exactly is your business proposition?” Trenton asked, stepping aside and finally letting me into the lab. There was the usual mess of computer equipment and parts scattered over a number of tables, and schematics pinned to the whiteboard on the lefthand wall.

I strolled over to the blueprints and studied them as I spoke. “It’s really a very simple thing. You’re working on a portable improvised dam and generator that can create power with less headwater and more output than anything on the market.”

There was a blueprint there showing a simple cofferdam made of high strength rubber and metal anchoring points with a hydro turbine at the center. It was really quite elegant. “This creates what, two kilowatt/hours at peak performance?”

“Four and a half,” Trenton said. The answer had a touch of pride in it, and well it should. In addition to being privately owned by people who weren’t likely to have the resources to track me down themselves, this was one of the most efficient generators around. Another reason to want it for myself.

“So you have a portable generator that produces two to four times what similar items on the market are currently capable of, and with your portable cofferdam, in more places.” I shoved my right hand in my pocket and turned to face him. “Why are you surprised that someone would want in on that kind of technology? Decentralized power generation is the way of the future, with all the regulation making building large commercial plants so much more difficult, systems like this are the first step to building that infrastructure.”

“You sound like you know a lot about power plants,” Trenton said.

“That, and governmental interference,” I replied with a smile. I waved my free hand at his prototype on the table, getting a better grip on the device in my pocket while he was following it. “Is there any chance its ready for a field demonstration?”

“We’ve run a few sandbox tests,” Trenton said, his pride now clear. “It’s held up fine under them, so I don’t see why not.”

I pulled my right hand out of my pocket, carefully palming the metal disk there as I held it out to Trenton. “Thank you, that would be excellent.”

The poor sap took my hand with a grin that vanished a moment later as his body went rigid. A carefully calibrated blast of electricity coursed out of the capacitors in my vest and fried his nerves with all the strength of a police grade taser. It’s a little bit harder hitting than a joy buzzer, but some tricks never get old no matter how you switch them up. I cut the current and let go of his hand as he slumped to the floor, saying, “But it won’t be necessary.”

The entire generator rig only weighed about eighty pounds, but it was awkwardly shaped. Worse, my right hand wouldn’t stop shaking from the current I’d exposed it to. I had expected my talent to provide me with a little more protection from the electricity than I’d gotten. The taser delivery mechanism looked like it was going to need a little more work.

I decided that the best thing to do with it would be to throw the whole thing in the lab’s trash can, which had been thoughtfully provided with wheels. Ten minutes later I was out on the building’s loading dock, where my van was waiting for me.

The back door popped open and a middle aged African-American man who I call Heavy Water leaned out to help me load the turbine and cofferdam into the back. Then we scrambled up to the front seats and buckled in. My hands still weren’t steady so I took the passenger seat reluctantly.

“Where to?” Heavy asked as he pulled out of the parking lot. “Home?”

I leaned my head back in my seat, thinking about it for a moment. Then I sighed and shook my head. “Not just yet. There’s something I need to do first. It’s going to be tricky, though, so I’ll understand your wanting to sit it out.”

“Never happen.” He shook his head. “I let you be the boss because I think you got enough sense to get us what we need without causing us trouble, don’t I?”

“Well, this is a uniquely difficult chore, even for me.”

“Yeah?” Heavy glanced away from the road long enough to give me a curious glance. “What are you planning to do?”

I smiled. “I plan to talk to Double Helix…”

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Fiction Index

Story Ideas

A lot of people think that the hardest part of writing is coming up with the ideas. After all, once you have the idea worked out the rest of the story should just flow naturally from that, right?

Well, if you’ve actually been a writer for any length of time you know that is pretty much the opposite of the way things really are. Most authors will admit that they have a lot more ideas for stories than they know what to do with. It takes months of careful thought, writing, editing, critique and rewriting to make one good, solid story. In the mean time, while not working on that story idea, you will probably have six to eight really good ideas for stories present themselves to you. That does not include the two or three dozen ideas you have that aren’t any good, sound vaguely interesting but really aren’t worth your time right now, require way more research or technical knowledge than you have the time or money to acquire at the moment, or otherwise don’t mesh with your time and talents.

In other words, if you’re a writer with a real investment in the art of story, you’ll see stories everywhere, and never lack for ideas to follow up on. On the other hand, if you’re not, it may seem like stories simply pop up out of nowhere for some people while you can never seem to get one started.

But not to worry! Finding story ideas is a skill that can be practiced, rather than a talent you are born with. So how does one spot a good story idea?

Well, the first thing you need to keep in mind is that all good stories focus on a compelling conflict. This doesn’t necessarily refer to a physical confrontation, but there must be at least two goals being pursued by a character or characters in the story, and achieving them must conflict somehow. It can be as simple as a man not having enough money to pay rent and buy a present for his girlfriend’s birthday or as complicated as a multisided dispute over territorial rites on a completely fictional world humanity colonizes after achieving space flight. It’s the working out of these conflicting goals that forms the backbone of your plot and gives your story its narrative drive.

The second thing about your story is that your conflict cannot have a simple solution. Even if the solution seems simple at first, there must be enough obstacles in place to make achieving the solution very difficult, if not impossible, otherwise your story will either be too short or feature characters who are painfully shortsighted. If it’s not possible to complicate your story’s solution, it may not be a good idea to pursue.

Lastly, your story idea must interest you, or you won’t have the drive necessary to slog through all the work necessary to turn the idea into a serviceable story. If the idea isn’t working for you, you shouldn’t work for it!

Keep these ideas in mind and sooner or later you’ll find yourself with plenty of ideas to play with. Then all that’s left is the outlining, drafting, character development, writing, editing, rewriting, ripping up huge chunks of plot and redrafting them then finally stepping away from the whole mess and calling it done before it ruins your life!

Enjoy.

Cool Things: Rivers of London

Ben Aaronovitch is a man who can spin a tale. He has written TV scripts and audio dramas and includes both episodes and novelizations of the famous Dr. Who franchise among his many credits. And I’m sure all of those things are very interesting. But they’re not what I want to talk to you about this week.

No, today we’re gonna talk about the Rivers of London series. Police Constable Peter Grant is our plucky protagonist, an up and coming beat cop who has little to look forward to in his career beyond a life behind a desk, making very important contributions in the field of clerical work. That is, until he is placed on guard at a homicide scene and winds up interviewing one of the most important witnesses in the case.

It just so happens that that witness is a ghost.

This makes PC Grant’s life exponentially more difficult. Particularly when the information he gets from the ghost is verified by other developments in the case. Naturally, Grant goes out in attempt to ask the ghost some more questions. What he finds instead is Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale. Rather than signing up Grant for a long stay in a padded room, DCI Nightingale offers Grant a job – as an apprentice to the last officially sanctioned wizard in England.

Life as an apprentice wizard is more than just study and practice for Grant, however. In addition to his exhaustive study of Latin, the language Isaac Newton codified magic into, Grant has to log several hours of practice each day (but not too much, else he cause a fatal brain aneurysm), help Nightingale keep the Queen’s Peace among the many supernatural denizens of London and figure out exactly what magic is and where it comes from.

And that’s in addition to trying to figure out what happened to the murdered man and the helpful ghost he saw. Oh, and the job comes with supernatural politics, too. In particular, one of the local rivers incarnate wants to take a hand in regulating and enforcing the Queen’s Peace among the paranormal folks of London. Juggling his obligations to the Crown while navigating the tricky byways of the Thames River tributaries is a running theme of Grant’s life, hence the name of the series.

Peter is a believable character living in a lovingly detailed rendition of modern London, and his stories are told with wit and charm, along with a healthy dose of heart that makes them both engaging and enjoyable. As a note, part of what makes Peter believable is that he behaves and talks like a cop, including coarse language. If that bothers you, the Rivers of London might not be for you.

If that sounds intriguing, Rivers of London (or Midnight Riot if you live in the States) is the first book in the series, and is well worth your time to check it out.

Heat Wave: Charging Up

Circuit

I was rebuilding an electromagnet from scratch when the phone call came.

I try not to mix phone calls and electrical work as a rule, but I had just switched to a new phone, and the only one who had the number so far was Hangman, and not because I’d given it to him but because he always seems to have my number. I frowned and set aside the magnet and moved to the other side of the workbench where I had left my jacket, fished my phone out and answered.

Now like I said before, usually, when Hangman calls, he, or she, sends me a fax as a signal, but today I got to speak the man himself. Or, at least, I got to talk to a computer generated, flat and expressionless voice. That kind of theater is a little overdramatic for my tastes, but I’ll admit that it serves to keep some of the mystery surrounding the Internet’s biggest information dealer intact.

I didn’t know that when I answered the phone, though, I was expecting the usual electronic mess. So I just pushed the call button and waited.

After a moment, I heard the voice drifting up from the speaker saying, “Pick up the phone, Circuit.”

I raised an eyebrow and put the phone on speaker and took it back to my work area. Since magnets can scramble electronics I put what I had been working on away and pulled out a set of microbatteries to keep my hands busy while I was talking. “This is unusual. To what do I owe the honor?”

“Just calling because I wanted to ensure my newest cash cow doesn’t get arrested before he really starts spending money.”

“Arrested? Me?” I finished working the batteries into a sequence and picked up the vest I planned to set them it. While it was designed as tactical load-bearing gear, it looked like part of a three piece suit. Appearance is as important as ideals, after all. “What makes you think I’ll be arrested in the near future? Or at all?”

“Call it a hunch,” Hangman replied.

“I take it that having this hunch explained to me will cost money,” I said, amused. Perhaps it’s a side effect of my talent, but working with electronics always puts me in good humor.

There was a long pause from the phone, and for a moment I thought I’d lost the signal. Then Hangman said, “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you’re a cynic, given your line of work.”

“My dear man,” I said, taking a pair of needle nosed pliers in one hand and the vest in another, “cynicism is an entry requirement. Don’t confuse that with callousness or some other lack of feeling.”

“So you’re not worried about it? Then I can-”

“I am always concerned about the possibility of arrest,” I said, interrupting. While it might seem rude I was glad of the opportunity to do so, as I noticed that there didn’t seem to be any lag time between my interruption and when Hangman stopped speaking. I kept talking as I thought about that. “What I’ve learned to do is be philosophical about it. You’ll learn to do the same.”

“Is that a fact?”

Hangman didn’t dispute my status as the older, more experienced of us. Another little tidbit to file away. “So tell me, how much will an explanation of your little hunch cost me?”

“This time, perhaps more than you’re willing to pay.”

I stopped my hands’ continuous busywork at that, raising one eyebrow in curiosity even though Hangman couldn’t see it. “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”

“It means I want you to do me a favor.”

There was another silence as I thought about that. Hangman seemed inclined to let me stew. Finally I said, “I won’t do you an unnamed favor. I’m a sensible man; I don’t deal in any of that unspecified debt hanging over your head stuff. If you don’t know what you want then just ask for money. It’s almost as good.”

“No,” Hangman said, and there was a stutter from the speaker that could have been a laugh before the computer mashed it into an emotionless noise. “I know exactly what I want. If we make this trade, I keep you out of jail and you tell me exactly what it is you’re trying to do.”

“What, you mean you don’t know already?” I said, letting surprise fill my voice.

“I specialize in acquiring facts, but I don’t always have the expertise to understand what they mean.” I heard a loud clicking noise over the phone that I couldn’t quite place. Apparently Hangman’s voice modification software hadn’t been programmed to filter out whatever it was.

Strangely enough, Hangman’s voice got louder as if he was trying to be heard over it. Was he near train tracks? Or was this deliberate disinformation to keep me guessing? It was hard to tell just how subtle he really was, particularly when he did things like bluntly asking what I was doing.

“At the moment, I’m working on creating a highly advanced microstorage device for-”

“Not what I’m asking, Circuit. You’ve been quietly moving around North America for the last ten years, building resources and making connections, but other than that you’ve not done anything of note. Sure, you’ve stolen enough money to keep afloat and build whatever it is you build, but you’re remarkably quiet for a person with talent operating outside of sanctioned channels. What is it you’re aiming for?”

“Who says I’m aiming for anything?” I said innocuously. “I’m just in it for the money.”

“Then you’d be competition for me, not a customer,” Hangman said. There was another of the odd, stuttering noises. “No, if money is what you wanted you’d be retired already. I want to know what you’re really after.”

“Why should I explain myself to you?” I said. “You’ve already mentioned I could be arrested. Avoiding that now is as easy as going to ground. I don’t need to hear the rest.”

“Not even if Double Helix is involved?”

I froze for just a moment. That shouldn’t have been enough to tell Hangman anything, but I heard the eerie sound of modified laughter again and Hangman said, “Does he bother you that much?”

“Not enough to make me want to explain myself to you.” I said sourly.

“Okay,” Hangman said, and I swear it managed to sound placating even after whatever computer mangling the sound went through. “I’ll add a little more carrot. We can meet in person and you can tell me all about your plans.”

Now that was valuable. So far as I knew, Hangman never met anyone in person. It would give us each something over the other, to keep the tables balanced. “That’s fair,” I said, curiosity about Hangman getting the better of common sense for just a moment. “But not now. The meeting comes in a month or so.”

“Assuming you’re not in jail?”

“Yes, assuming that,” I conceded. My hands had fallen idle and I set them back to work. “Now tell me about why I’m in such danger of being arrested.”

“Have you heard of Senator Brahms Dawson?”

“The name is familiar,” I said. “From Montana, isn’t he?”

“Wisconsin.” A brief pause that could have been anything from pulling a file to taking a drink. “Dawson and Special Liaison Michael Voorman have been quietly struggling over the direction of Project Sumter for the last six years.”

“I didn’t know they had a Senate committee,” I said. “I did know that Dawson is a big advocate for genetic research. I could see how that would make him unpopular with most of the talents in the Project.”

“He’s proposed a tracking system for known talents along with mandatory DNA analysis,” Hangman said.

“Which means most of Voorman’s talents probably side with him over the Senator,” I said. “What does this have to do with getting me arrested?”

“Double Helix is the embodiment of what the Senator wants from talents,” Hangman said.

“Right,” I said, accepting that I was just going to have to listen to Hangman’s whole explanation before we got to the relevant point. Hopefully no one was planning on arresting me right that second. “What is it about Helix that the Senator wants? He’s very good at what he does, but he’s never struck me as politically minded.”

“He’s not really. Mostly, I think the Senator is attracted to the hereditary nature of his involvement with the Project,” Hangman replied.

“Hereditary?” That was the first I’d heard of it.

“Do you know where the Project gets its name?”

I thought for a moment as I tried on the vest, making sure the fit was right and nothing was poking me. “I was under the impression it was named that because the first government sanctioned talent operated during the Civil War.”

“Correct,” Hangman said. The rest sounded suspiciously like a lecture long rehearsed. “The very first talent in Project records is known as Corporal Sumter.”

I frowned. The first three talents in Project records are somewhat infamous among talents outside the Project, mainly because it seems like none of us know what their talents were. There’s been rampant speculation, but I’d never even heard of someone knowing their codenames before. My estimation of Hangman’s talents went up another notch.

Not that he had stopped talking while I was busy being surprised. “The Corporal went up against a total of three different Confederate talents over the course of the War Between the States, most of them more than once.”

“Such as Sherman’s Bane and the Bushwhacker?” I asked, anxious to shorten this lecture somehow. I dislike long phone calls. While I don’t think Hangman would try and track me, he had to know I’d be leaving this location as soon as our conversation was done as a guard against arrest if nothing else. There’s always the possibility someone else is out there looking.

“Those are two of them,” Hangman admitted. “Sherman’s Bane is particularly relevant to this discussion.”

“Because he’s the first heat sink in Project records?” I asked. This line of thought was starting to make sense.

“Not only that,” Hangman assured me. “I understand that, if you go six or seven generations back, he’s also in Helix’s family tree.”

I whistled. “Hereditary talent and a Senator with an interest in genetic research.”

It’s not unheard of for talents to run in families, but by the same token it’s not a given, either. While no one’s ever isolated a gene for any talent that I’ve heard of, the accepted wisdom is that they’re recessive, meaning they show up only when both parents have the trait somewhere in the family history, and even then only rarely. I could see how a politician with a passion for genetics could see finding proof for that theory as a worthy goal.

“Senator Dawson is also an aggressive humanist,” Hangman continued. “He doesn’t like the idea of a select breed of specially talented people rising up into a new oligarchy.”

“Meaning what?” I asked.

“Meaning he’s used his position on Project Sumter’s oversight committee to try a number of things,” Hangman answered. “He’s tried to shut it down, to force it to register all talented individuals-”

“That doesn’t mesh well with the Project’s insistence on keeping talents a secret,” I said.

“He’s against that too. His latest idea is to basically boils down to locating talents and then trying to switch of the genes that give them their abilities so future generations will be stock humans.”

“Which is fascinating, I’m sure,” I said, running my hands down the front of my vest and searching it for anything out of place and pleased not to find it. “How does this result in my impending imprisonment?”

“Dawson needs to gain standing with the Project,” Hangman replied. Once again I found myself projecting smug satisfaction into his expressionless voice and forced myself to stop, so I could evaluate his next statements without prejudice. “To do that he’s been grooming an oversight agent who will be starting with the Project tomorrow, and whose sole duty will be to find and arrest you.”

“Thus proving that this agent, most likely with some help of the Senator’s, is able to do something Project Sumter hasn’t been able to accomplish for nearly ten years,” I said, nodding as I saw the logic.

“I have solid information that suggests the Senator is aware of several of your safe houses, and will be moving against them in the next week.”

“And what makes you think I can’t deal with this on my own?”

“Oh, I know you could,” Hangman said. Now I knew he was being smug. He never wastes time on empty phrases like that unless he’s gloating. I know, I’ve lost to him in Scrabble many times before. “What might put you off your game is learning that the agent’s name is Teresa Herrera.”

I froze. It was just for a moment, but that name took me back eight years, to the heady days when I was just a rookie talent, an unknown with no file at all in Project Sumter’s archives. “Herrera? You’re sure about that?”

“Yes. She’ll be oversight for Double Helix until she learns the ropes.” There was another pause, then a distorted noise that could have once been a sigh. “You have history with both of them. You can’t beat him, you can’t get away from her. I thought you’d like to know. So you could take measures.”

Slowly I dragged myself back to the present, found myself nodding to a hard used workbench with a disposable phone sitting on it. A useless gesture to an empty room. I frowned, for once feeling like I should just take a week off and sleep for a while. But the life I’ve chosen doesn’t allow for that kind of thing.

“Thank you, Hangman,” I said, wondering how long I’d been silent. “That is very useful to me. I think I need to make a slight change in direction for the next week or two.”

“How so?”

“You wanted to know what this was all about, right?” I shrugged. “Consider this a down payment: For what I’m planning to work, I’ll need the men and women of Project Sumter on my side.”

“Well, most of them don’t like Senator Dawson much,” Hangman said. “But I don’t know how you’ll be able to use that to overcome the twenty or thirty felony counts in your file.”

“Easy,” I said, peeling off my vest and rolling up my sleeves in preparation for some serious work. “I can’t have people burning my city down any more than they can.”

I turned away from the bench and moved down the wall to a large map of the city. I pull the letter that was pinned next to it down and looked it over once. “What can you tell me about the Firestarter case, Hangman?”

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Fiction Index

Voice

What’s the hardest part about writing for me? If you guessed “voice”, you probably stopped to read the title of this post! Voice is a weird art form, it involves picking and choosing the right words and patterns for your writing, in order to reflect your character.

Now for a person who uses third person omniscient narrative, that really only matters in dialog. You can describe events however you wish, developing a fly on the wall style or what have you, all while showing your writing abilities to their best advantage. You will have a narrative voice, but it will be all your own, and you don’t have to share headspace with anyone else while you’re writing it.

On the other hand, if you write from the first person perspective everything you write has to be filtered through your character, his or her likes, dislikes, personality, vocabulary and moods.

I normally write in the third person, so Heat Wave is something of a deviation from the norm for me. Part of the reason I avoid the first person is my difficulty with voice.

While I do like to tell stories, I often feel that there is one way to tell that story and then refine that method until the story runs like a well oiled machine. Yes, I stand in the shower and tell myself the same story over and over again, so that when it comes time to tell it for real I’ll be able to rattle it off just right, with solid delivery and no pausing. I can be obsessive like that.

While compulsive editing and revising is a good thing for a writer, in my case it has also made me very set in my patterns and habits. Differentiating voice is not always easy for me.

Of course, Heat Wave is told in two voices. As you can probably imagine, developing and maintaining distinct, individual voices for Helix and Circuit was and is challenging, and I’m not really sure they’re as distinct as I would like. While each character has a very concrete list of does and don’ts that dictate what kind of vocabulary, phraseology and tone they should strike, neither one is particularly close to my usual narrative voice. Maintaining their individual quirks and patterns is a constant challenge and requires both vigilance and careful editing.

If you’ve been reading for a while it should come as no surprise that I consider back story to be a big part of understanding voice. A person’s vocabulary and word usage is determined, in no small part, by their family and friends, the people they’ve listened to all their life, combined with their level of education and opinions of others. Their tone is an outgrowth of their personality and circumstances. Generally, once you have these two things down working out voice is just a matter refining, the catch is to keep the voice in mind.

People may look at you weird, but tell yourself stories in the tones and patterns of your characters. Don’t start with anything complicated, like trying to retell part of your novel in a new character’s voice. Just babble about the events of the day, or a funny commercial you saw on TV (assuming you watch TV) or even what you’re seeing at the moment. Then enjoy the weird looks and improved feel for voice!

Oh, and if you have the time, enjoy watching me try to keep Helix and Circuit straight. You wouldn’t think it, but it can be very difficult at times…

Uncool Thing: Daylight Savings Time

Time for a little twist on things: let’s talk about Daylight Savings Time (summer time for you folks across the pond.) I loath Daylight Savings Time.

I’m sure there are at least one or two reasons to think about adopting DST. I’m told it somehow saves us energy, though given how much of our society runs ’round the clock now I find that hard to believe. Still, I’ll grant that the people who collect this data are probably right, George Barna I am not.

But that’s the only really relevant reason for it I’ve heard, for the most part people just want Daylight Savings Time because it gives them “more” daylight in the evening. For this, we change our clocks twice a year, wind up with ruined sleep cycles and stagger around like zombies for two weeks.

Maybe it’s a racket by the coffee growers. There have got to be at least a few people who go out and get themselves addicted while trying to shake off the blahs that come with having your sleep schedule kicked around by a full hour twice a year. Even if only a couple of hundred thousand people make extra trips to Starbucks twice a year it’s probably a noticeable bump in income. But maybe not.

A decade ago my home state of Indiana sided with the eminently sensible folks in Arizona and didn’t bother with DST. Unfortunately, then we elected our current Governor, Mitch Daniels, who pushed through a bill to adopt it. His reasoning was that, by falling into lockstep with the rest of the nation we made it easier for local businesses to work across state lines because out of state businesses wouldn’t have to try and remember what time it was in Indiana anymore. I suppose that’s well and good, but it doesn’t do much to explain why the whole country needs to be on Daylight Savings Time.

If you’ve ever seen the movie National Treasure you know that Riley Poole mentions DST first being proposed by Benjamin Franklin. Surely such a wise man had a good reason for proposing such a radical change to the way time was kept, right? Well, no, if you actually look into it he was satirizing the French and what he viewed as a bad habit of sleeping in while the sun was up. He also proposed taxing candles (which allowed people to stay up later) and window shutters (which helped people sleep when the sun was shining.) But if all people wanted was a life clock set by the sun they don’t need to go around screwing with the clocks twice a year. Just learn to get up earlier and never get out of the habit.

I’ve become convinced that the only real reason that the US bothers with DST anymore is because somewhere, in some insignificant little federal office, there’s a bureaucrat of no real consequence who’s only pleasure in life is drawing up the DST time change schedules every year and cackling about how he has the power to control time! Then he files his paperwork, sure that his tiny little moment of egotistical power will be backed by the full might of the Federal Government and moves on until next year, sure that no one will ever be the wiser to his clever little mind games.

Well, guess what, DST guy? I’m on to you. One day, you’ll get yours. Tell your friends at Starbucks that I won’t be joining them this year, either.