Cool Things: Potter’s Field

“There’s a cemetery on Hart Island at the western end of Long Island Sound. Unidentified corpses are buried here under plain stone markers at the rate of around 125 a week…” 

-Jordan Halpert, Potter’s Field 

Kind of chilling, isn’t it? In the city of New York, 125 people die nameless and friendless every week. That’s about 500 a month. 6,500 a year.

Who are they? How did they die? Does anyone really care about them?

I’m not sure how accurate that statistic is, but by opening his comic noir tour de force Potter’s Field with it, Mark Waid manages to ensure that he has our attention from minute one. After all, who want’s to die nameless and forgotten? The least dignity we could be offered is a tombstone with a name on it. Yet to the people of the Hart Island cemetery, the only indication of who they might be is a cold, impersonal number.

But there is a man. A man who hates that fact, who cannot stand to just walk away from those empty stones. So he walks the length and breadth of the city, piecing together the clues no one else has the time or the resources to find, and finding the names for these people and recording them in stone for all to see.

Like the people he serves, this man has no name to give to others, so they call him John Doe. To us, and to the people who help him, he is as much an enigma as the corpses he names. He seems to have no family, no friends, no history at all. And yet, there must be something that drives him to live alone, in abandoned buildings, eating canned food and sleeping on cots. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the real mystery is – John or the people of in the potter’s field.

Or perhaps, as his name suggests, John Doe is just another one of the nameless dead who hasn’t given up on moving around just yet.

Potter’s Field is the polar opposite of the last Mark Waid titles I mentioned. Where Irredeemable and Incorruptible are quite possibly the greatest superhero titles ever written, Potter’s Field is a tribute to the mortal man. John’s not superhuman in anything but his ambition. He scrabbles about for clues, risks his life every time he crosses with the criminal underworld and very nearly becomes a real John Doe on more than one occasion.

But, as Greg Rucka says in his introduction to the first collection, he still shows us Waid’s favorite kind of struggle. That of a man who stands on the side of what’s Right , opposing what is Wrong. The fact that he does it without spandex, superpowers or a second thought from the press and public only makes him more of a hero, not less of one.

And it gives one new hope in the potential of funnybooks to tell stories. For that alone it’s worth your time. Pick up your copy now and maybe someday you’ll be able to show it to your children one day, and say, “This is one of the titles that started the revolution. This is what made comics a force in our culture.” And really, how cool is that?

Heat Wave: Pressure Cooker

Helix

I awoke in a familiar way, flat on my back, sore all over and staring up at a featureless ceiling. Now I’ve spent my share of time in a hospital. Pretty much everyone in the Project has, with the exception of Mona, who I don’t think has ever gotten an injury worse than a paper cut. But the fact of the matter is, it’s a dangerous job and we get hurt a lot doing it. On average I’ve probably spent a month out of each year I’ve been with the Project laid up with some sort of injury.

The problem was I couldn’t remember doing anything recently that would get me stuck in one.

What had I been doing yesterday? Hadn’t gotten drunk, hadn’t been in a car chase, hadn’t knocked a military helicopter out of the sky by creating the mother of all updrafts. In fact, other than getting a phone call from Circuit, yesterday was pretty tame.

Right. Phone call from Circuit. I sat up with a groan, awareness slowly filtering back through my groggy mind. With it came the smell of sawdust, which you don’t usually get in hospitals, and the feeling of rough wood under the seat of my pants, definitely nonstandard. It was starting to look a lot more like I’d fallen asleep in my workshop than gotten stuck in the hospital again.

I hefted myself off the half finished tabletop I’d fallen asleep on and tossed the chair cushion I’d used as a pillow back onto the chair it originally came from. According to my watch it was a little after nine in the morning, which meant I’d only been asleep for about four hours. I was frankly surprised I’d been able to get that much rest, as half finished furniture doesn’t make for a comfortable night, but then again, I had been pretty tired. After all, when I’d gotten there the night before that tabletop hadn’t existed yet.

As I smoothed my clothes down I discovered they were covered in small clumps of glue and sawdust. I grimaced, wishing I’d thought to change out of my work clothes before I came. It occurred to me for the hundredth time that it might be a good idea to start keeping a spare set of casual clothes in the workshop. At least this time I had managed not to ruin another pair of pants.

My workbench was fairly typical, consisting of a sturdy board with a number of cups full of nails, screws, pencils and other sundries, slots for larger tools, hooks along the sides for things like clamps and planes, and a pegboard along the back for most of the precision tools. The larger tools, like the circular saw, had their own tables in other places around the workshop. Before staggering over to my makeshift bed and passing out the night before I’d left a couple of newly shaped table legs lying there, intending to sand them down into something usable whenever I next got the chance. I was examining one of them, to determine if I wanted to try the belt sander on it or just finish it by hand, when someone knocked at the door.

Now, you’re not exactly supposed to turn a U-Store It rental space into a carpentry shop, but the manager knows me and is willing to turn a blind eye. It’s still not something I try to just tell anyone about, and most of the people who do know about it know that I go there when I want to be alone and unwind. Getting visitors there is pretty unusual.

So I took the table leg with me when I went to answer the door. Because you never can tell.

The door swung inwards and I kept myself a half step behind it as I opened it, the table leg held behind my leg. I’ve been in the business long enough not to drop my guard just because the person on the other side of the door was blond, female and even shorter than I am. It took a minute for my still groggy brain to work past the half dozen piercings, which she hadn’t had in the first time we met, and the radically different wardrobe.

My eyes narrowed slightly, as much from suspicion as a reaction to the bright sunlight outside. “Amplifier?”

She gave me a slight smile. “Who were you expecting? The President?”

“No.” I leaned my table leg up against the wall as I stepped out of the doorway, letting her in. “We haven’t gotten a visit from one of those since VE Day.”

Instead of her original Biker Girl ensemble Amplifier had shown up in a tightly fighting T-shirt that advertised some band I’d never heard of and a worn pair of cut-off jeans that ended just above her calf. She wore a thin string of chain links, clipped together with a small carabiner clip, in place of a belt. Her piercings were all plain studs. It was a different look, but then again, she was in a band and I hear that’s a job for unusual people.

Even more surprising was her friend, who swept in behind Amplifier just as I was about to close the door. She looked like she’d been attacked by a thrift store, wearing a slightly large pair of cargo shorts and an equally baggy button up shirt on top. A wild mass of curly hair sprouted from underneath a worn, battered San Diego baseball cap. Something clicked in the back of my brain, which had finally resigned itself to being awake and started working again.

“Herrera?” I asked, closing and locking the door behind her.

“Who else?” She asked, turning and giving me a mischievous look from under the cap’s brim. “Didn’t Sanders mention we were stopping by last night?”

“Yeah, he said something about it.” I just hadn’t expected her to be able to find this place. “I just wasn’t expecting you to…” Show up looking like a bum didn’t seem like the right way to finish that sentence. “Show up so early.”

“I have classes from noon until late in the day,” Amplifier said, poking through some of the lumber I kept along the wall. “What do you do in this place?”

“I make furniture,” I replied, waving absently at the half dozen pieces I had in various stages of completion scattered throughout the space. “What does it look like?”

“A place where people make furniture,” She said with a shrug. “It just doesn’t seem very agentish, you know?”

“Neither does rock band singer,” I said, scooping up the table leg and heading back to the work bench to get some sandpaper. “But here we are.”

“Here we are,” Herrera confirmed, tipping a mostly finished chair up on one side and examining the bottom. “Amplifier wanted to hear more about the life, and I suggested she talk to you, since you’re the senior-most talent on active duty in this branch.”

“And I have to do whatever you tell me?”

“And that.”

“Makes sense. Okay, ladies, pull up some chairs. Can I offer you something to drink? I keep some soda and bottled water around here.”

“Water would be great,” Amplifier said. “It’s a scorcher out there and it’s not a whole lot better in here.”

“Sorry, air conditioning isn’t a real priority in places like these.” I fished around in a cooler next to my workbench until I came up with a couple of bottles of water, which I held in one hand and tapped with the knuckles of the other until they started beading with condensation. Satisfied that they were cool enough, I handed one to Amplifier and offered the other to Herrera, who shook her head. I shrugged and kept it for myself.

There were a few chairs in usable condition scattered about, Herrera already had one and it only took a second for Amplifier to grab another. I settled onto the stool I kept at the work bench and took a quick drink of water to clear the cottony feeling out of my mouth. That done, there really wasn’t much to do except dive right in. “Care to guess why I’m a closet carpenter, Amplifier?”

“Um… it’s a hobby?”

“Yes and no.” I set aside the water bottle and began sanding the rough edges off the table leg, letting the rhythm of the work take over my hands as I tried to figure out what way to take the conversation. I’ve done this kind of thing a lot over the years, but that doesn’t mean it’s gotten easy. Usually I have more time to get familiar with the backgrounds of the people I’ll be talking to and to work out where I’m going. “My dad was a carpenter and I’ve helped him since I was six. It’s not exactly what I’d call a hobby, just something I’ve always done. It’s also my retirement plan.”

She blinked. “You what?”

“Retirement plan.” I held the table leg up and examined it for a moment. “Handmade furniture is a small market, but it pays well. I do alright with my salary and housing stipend, but the fact is I’m working an entry level position and, odd as it may sound, there’s little room for advancement for talents in the Project.”

“Wait, what?” Amplifier leaned back slightly and narrowed her eyes. “Entry level? Teresa just said you were the senior-most agent.”

“Welcome to the wonderful world of Lincoln’s Rule.” I went back to work on the table leg. “It’s the first and biggest issue with working in the Project.”

“Lincoln’s Rule?” Amplifier straightened again. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Unfortunately, no.” I paused to brush some sawdust off of the table leg. “As you might guess from the name, Project Sumter began, in a much more limited capacity, during the Civil War. President Lincoln heard about a man at West Point who had superhuman abilities and wanted to find ways to use him in the war effort. But he already had grave misgivings about the South’s ideology and, in particular, their glorification of planters as a kind of American nobility.”

“Wait, when was this?” Amplifier crossed her arms. “I thought the Civil War was started to preserve the Union, and slaveholders only came into it when slavery proved the more palatable justification.”

I shrugged. “You know your history, although really, giving a nation as ornery and stubborn as ours any one motivation for anything is probably stupid. But regardless, Lincoln was just like any other man, he changed with time, and no time changes men like war time. More importantly, Lincoln knew the importance of symbols. The country gentleman was a symbol of the South. Lincoln wanted his army to be an army of the people. He didn’t want a super soldier becoming a war hero, he wanted average men to fill that role.”

Amplifier frowned and pulled her legs up into the chair, which was big enough she could easily sit in it Indian style without discomfort. “So what happened to the guy from West Point?”

“He was taken out of West Point, made an enlisted man and put under the command of an officer President Lincoln trusted. He served throughout the war and did good things, then retired and went home. Not a bad deal, all told, except it’s been the pattern the government defaults to when employing talents ever since. We can have a little bit of authority, serve as an NCO, for example, but we can’t be part of operational decision making, so an officer’s commission is right out. And we still operate with dedicated leash holders.” I nodded at Herrera, who looked a bit hurt.

“Not there’s no good reason for that policy,” I continued. “As you’ve probably heard, with great power comes great responsibility. I know that I’ve needed an oversight agent to real me in on more than one occasion, and the more destructive your talent can be the more important they become. But, unless you want to dedicate yourself to research full time there’s a limit to how far you can go.”

“So you’re planning to make up what you loose in salary through furniture making?” Amplifier looked around at the workshop again, then smiled slightly. “I guess that works out well.”

“Most people don’t stay with the Project for more than five or six years before moving on to something else, though.” I examined the table leg for a moment and set it aside, satisfied with it for the moment. “Having a fallback plan is one of those nagging little realities that most people don’t think of when they’re busy thinking about playing superhero.”

“On the flip side,” Herrera said, “we’re always looking for agents, which means that even if you choose not to join the Project now, there might be a future in it for you.”

“True enough. I know one guy who didn’t join up until he was fifty five, and he’s done a lot of good work for some of our branches over the years.” I dusted my hands off and rested them on my knees. “And that brings me to point number two that you should think about.”

“Health insurance?”

“No, that’s number three though, so keep ahold of that thought. Number two is, while the Project is at the beck and call off all the agencies of the Federal Government, for the most part we do law enforcement work. There’s a lot of running down paper trails, some stakeouts and the occasional bust like the one we found you during. But it’s mostly pretty boring, especially for the first two or three years. That’s time you’re not doing something you might be better at. Now you, you’re part of a band right? Singer?”

She bit her lower lip. “Yeah, that’s right. But anyone can do that, Clark and one of the other girls write all the music and lyrics. It’s not like I’m vital to the band.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” I said, leaning back against my workbench. “After all, your talent gives perfect pitch, right? And you probably never miss a note unless you want to.”

For the first time since I’d met her, Amplifier broke eye contact with me and looked down at the ground. “Sure, but that’s not… it’s like cheating, right? I get an edge, so it’s not the same.”

“Nonsense.” I smacked my hand against the work bench for emphasis, startling her back into paying attention. “The fact that you have control over wave frequencies and strength is no more cheating that just being born with perfect pitch. How off key a note can you make sound right?”

“Uh… maybe a quarter step?” She didn’t seem entirely certain that was the answer I was looking for, but that was okay because I had no idea what it meant.

“So you still have to work at getting in the right ballpark?”

“Sure.” She shrugged. “I guess it’s not all getting the right notes. There’s tempo and feeling, too. And if I’m using all my concentration on keeping myself in tune that won’t come out right, never mind how tiring it would be.”

“And you’re good at all of it, I’ll bet. And you enjoy it, or you wouldn’t be in a band.”

“Or studying music and recording in school. So what?”

“So, the Project doesn’t need agents with high visibility. It’s the other way around, actually. These,” I waved to the tools on my workbench, “don’t really care what age I am, or when the last time I used them was, so long as I still know what I’m doing. But age and appearance are a big deal for musicians, especially women, and any musician that disappears for a time is bound to be mostly forgotten.”

I held my hands out like the balances on a scale. “So you can shoot for a musical career now, but you may not be ready for the demands of the job afterwards. On the other hand, entering the Project now almost guarantees giving up all the progress you’ve made towards that career goes away, and it’s not a given you’ll get it back.”

“So you’re saying that people should never have to give something up to help others?” Amplifier asked skeptically.

“Just that they should really think about the costs, so there’s no second thoughts later,” I said. “Which brings us to point number three.”

“Health care.”

“Partly. Doing this job hurts, sure, you get knocked around a lot doing it. But Project Sumter appreciates that, and the fact that we have small salaries, and compensates for it accordingly. More than that you’re expected to do a fair bit of knocking about yourself. Did Herrera mention what kind of roles are generally assigned to a wave maker like you?”

“Not exactly.” Amplifier glanced at Herrera, who nodded. It looked like one thing Amplifier had gotten was the need try and share as little about her talent as possible. “She did mention that we’re above average when it comes to potential for collateral damage, so I might not get sent on as many field operations as other agents.”

“True, to an extent,” I said with a nod. “I’m a high collateral damage causer myself, but as time goes on you can expect that your supervisors and the Senior Liaisons will figure out ways to use your talents efficiently. What I don’t think you realize is what kinds of situations you might be asked to deal with.”

Amplifier crossed her arms and dropped her feet back towards the floor. When she realized they wouldn’t quite reach she frowned and braced them on the crosspiece between the chair legs instead. “What kind of things are we talking about?”

“High potential for collateral damage translates into really big hammer.” I hefted a heavy wooden mallet from my workbench for example. “Which means you’ll get situations where hammers are called for. For example, one potential use for your talent is to shatter large objects. Ever wanted to be a one woman demolition team? Because you could probably shake apart most concrete buildings with the right harmonics and enough power.”

She gave me a skeptical look. “How often would that even be necessary?”

“You might be surprised.” I set the hammer back in its place. “The point is, you’re probably going to be doing things that have a high risk of getting someone hurt. This isn’t comic books, this is real life. As you’ve probably already noticed, most talents don’t come with built in indestructibility to help keep you alive. And just because we’re trying to be the good guys doesn’t mean no one will ever get hurt long term by something we do. If you’re not prepared to have one or two people go deaf because of your powers, at the very least, then you’re probably not ready for this job.”

“That seems…”

“Harsh?”

Amplifier jerked back a bit from my challenging tone. “Self-righteous.”

“People get hurt one way or another every day, Amplifier. Our job is to try and keep that to a minimum. And that’s hurdle number four.” I leaned forward like I could press the spirit right out of her through presence alone. “This job tells you to keep the peace and you have incredible abilities to do it with. It also requires that you lie to most everyone you meet and keep them in the dark about what really happens in the world around them. It demands that you make decisions for the greater good without the input or okay from the people who you’re supposed to be helping. Do it for two years and you’ll either become a megalomaniacal ass or curse yourself because you think you are one. If you’re the first they lock you up, if you’re the second they do anything to keep you from leaving. So the real question is, are you ready for it?”

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Fiction Index

Reading

It may seem intuitive to some people, but reading is as much a part of the art of writing as the actual writing is.

Now, I’m not just talking about the need to read over what you’ve written, edit it and generally strive to turn it into stronger writing. That’s important, don’t get me wrong, and any author who’s not doing that needs to rethink their approach. And I’m not talking about reading how to books or other kinds of study. Again, very important but not where I’m going.

What I’m talking about is reading things that will inspire and shape your writing. This doesn’t mean plagiarism, which doesn’t reflect an improvement to your writing at all, but rather finding writers who tell the stories you’d want to tell, and then studying what they do. C.S. Lewis said in his preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology that he probably never wrote a book in which he did not quote from George MacDonald, but their works are markedly different on the whole. While you may never find an author that inspires you to the same extent as MacDonald did for Lewis, it’s certainly worth taking the time to try.

Reading other works can inspire you with themes and story ideas. While I’ve said before that a writer probably never runs out of story ideas, seeing how others have implemented similar ideas can shape your own in a number of ways. It might suggest things you could do to avoid overlap, point out weaknesses in the story idea you should avoid or just help you fine tune your idea by showing you what works.

Reading the works of others also helps you work out a solid idea of what good writing looks like. This applies just as much to nonfiction as to fiction. Tightly written news articles or engaging nonfiction books are just as valuable to fiction writers in helping you understand good prose as scintillating dialog and well drawn fiction characters are. Of course, the nonfiction writer benefits just as much from reading good fiction. The applications may not be as immediately obvious to you, but they’re real and noticeable.

But most of all, reading the words of others helps you understand your own writing preferences better. Keep a record of what you read, what you like about it and what you don’t like about it. Find sections you really like and break down what appeals to you about them. Find sections you feel could be better and then make them better. Don’t read passively, read actively. While stories are meant to move you and engage you, they’re at their best when you reciprocate and engage with them.

What you read is one of the biggest influences on how and what your write. If your desire is to be a skilled and able writer, you can’t help but need to take charge of what you read, study it, master it and turn it around into something that bolsters your writing. So what are you waiting for? Hit up your local library* and start reading.

 

*Full Disclosure: The author works for his local library, and may be biased in recommending libraries over other book suppliers.

Cool Things: October Daye

With a main character named October Daye, you just know a series is going to bring a slightly different perspective to things. Of course, whether you’re going to enjoy that perspective or not is a matter of taste, but I highly encourage you to give it a shot anyway.

Seanan McGuire‘s excellent urban fantasy series is an exploration of modern day faerie. October, or Toby to her friends, is a changeling, the daughter of a faerie woman and a human man. To most of the supernatural community changelings are outsiders, the addition of mortal blood to their faerie nature dooms them to outlive most of their mortal friends, but the fact that they still age and die makes them an uncomfortable reminder of mortality to the ageless fae. Worse, if they choose to live their lives as part of faerie they are expected to maintain the masquerade that the fae are gone, so they cannot live honestly with their human friends.

It’s a hard life that Toby and her friends must face, and she hasn’t had it any easier than others. It’s true that she was taken in by an honest to goodness Duke, and made a knight in his court, but even there she’s not entirely respected or treated fairly. And then the Duke’s twin brother conspires against him, kidnaps his wife and child and turns Toby into a goldfish for fourteen years.

No, Toby doesn’t have an easy life at all. But when she finally gets over being a fish (which apparently takes longer than recovering from being a newt) her trials aren’t over. In fact, they’re just beginning. In spite of the things she’s already suffered in Duke Sylvester Torquille’s service Toby keeps finding herself entangled in the politics of the Faerie Court. Between murders, conspiracies and confronting her own doppelgänger, it’s a wonder she can find time for anything else at all. But she keeps it up, if for no other reason than to save the children. Really, one of these days they’ll just stay put with their parents, but in the mean time the faeries of San Francisco continue to rely on Sir Daye to track their kids down when they turn up missing.

The two greatest selling points of Toby’s adventures are their pacing and their solid grounding in the rich legend of the British Isles. All the books maintain a breakneck pace that introduces Toby to clever and dangerous problems. As the only trained private investigator the Faerie Court has to draw on (they’re a very old fashioned people in some respects), it’s only natural that she wind up involved, even if the people who hire her don’t always care for her much.

McGuire does an excellent job evoking the feel of British myth, even in a story set in Southern California. While it’s hardly faithful to any one particular interpretation of the  myth that actually serves as a strength, allowing McGuire to add, subtract and improvise the stories to suit her own needs.

Oh, and every book’s title is taken from a Shakespeare quote. How great is that?

If you’re into urban fantasy, I highly suggest checking it out.

Heat Wave: Power Drain

Circuit

Our exit strategy from Project Sumter boiled down to stealing the last working car in the motor pool and driving out the main door. With the rest of the vehicles sabotaged by Heavy on the way in, it was extremely unlikely that anyone would be able to follow us and our own skills ensured we were not seen leaving. Even so, we didn’t get out that far ahead of the lockdown. As Heavy drove down the street away from the building I could see shutters beginning to drop over the windows. It was impressive how such a little thing could transform an innocuous office building into an imposing edifice. I made a mental note of the effect, for future reference.

Since it only makes sense for supervillains to behave as if all government vehicles come with a GPS tracker as a matter of course, we didn’t stay in the sedan for long. Even if the Project couldn’t follow us themselves, now that they were aware of the break in it was only a matter of time before they asked the local police to find the car for them. In fact, the only reason we used one of their vehicles at all is because we didn’t want our van to be caught by any of the building’s cameras. So we met Grappler a half a dozen blocks away and changed vehicles, only pausing long enough to transfer the boxes we’d taken from the Project and for me to fry the sedan with an EMP that drained the last of my vest’s battery reserves. Police departments are adding video cameras to more and more of their patrol cars, and it wouldn’t be odd for the federal government to follow suit. It’s best not to take chances when it comes to leaving evidence behind.

After that, there wasn’t much to do but settle in for the long ride back to headquarters and start patching ourselves up. “Ourselves” in this case basically being me, as I was the only one with more than a few light bruises.

Heavy Water insisted on strapping my right arm down, in spite of my own insistence that it hadn’t been that bad since he got it back in socket. Still, the argument that strapping it down was to ensure it wouldn’t get worse had weight, so I finally relented and let him tie me up, reasoning that I could always take the restraints off again if I needed too. Heavy also decided that my fingers were not broken, but splinted the smallest two anyway.

So, with my ability to work with my hands seventy percent neutralized, I had no choice but to settle into my chair, kick the boxes we’d stolen over to Heavy and say, “Do me a favor and have a look at that, will you?”

He just grunted and ignored the box, fishing through one of his bags of junk that were stored in the van on a semi permanent basis and coming up with one of those little prescription bottles full of pills. He dumped a couple out into his hand and held them out to me.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“This would be a painkiller,” Heavy said. “For the pain. Which, in spite of your being a smart guy, you’re ignoring.”

I swiveled my chair around to face the computer console and turned it on with a twitch of my talent. Ironically, while I’ve found that one can build simple programs and track computer activity fairly simply with my talent, the focus of modern software on a mouse or touchscreen driven interface actually makes routine tasks more difficult, since those are not easy to emulate. However sometimes it’s the only option I have. This was definitely one of those times. As I waited for the terminal to boot up I said, “I need a clear head right now, Heavy. It’s only a matter of time before the Enchanter makes his next move, and I want to be ready for him.”

Heavy sighed and dropped the pills into the pocket of my jacket, then put the bottle away and reluctantly picked up one of the boxes we’d retrieved from the evidence room. As he started to dig through it he said, “You’re sure in an awful hurry about this guy, boss.”

“Well of course,” Grappler said from the front seat. “Common sense says the Enchanter is the most dangerous person to us out there.”

“What?” I looked at the back of her seat. “Where did you get that idea?”

“Easy.” She threw me a quick, self satisfied glance in the rearview mirror. “The biggest, baddest bad guys always show up last, right? So that makes the Enchanter more dangerous than you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m far more terrifying than the Enchanter could ever hope to be.” I glanced back at my screen and smiled. “Case in point. We now have complete access to Project Sumter’s active investigation files. A near impossible task for others, accomplished in half an hour with my expert leadership.”

Heavy glanced over my shoulder and grunted. “Let’s hope that’s more useful than what we got from the evidence room.” He shook the box he was holding in his lap once. “This stuff is mostly melted crap that they found at the arson sites and took away with them so they wouldn’t have to explain it.” He hefted a piece of half melted concrete in one hand and admired it. “I didn’t even know you could burn this stuff.”

“Anything melts if you get it hot enough,” I said, skimming through the files we’d just stolen and looking for the Enchanter’s case. “Although I don’t think any burning was involved with that, it was probably somewhere near the Enchanter’s point of entrance when he burned his way into a building.”

“Either way,” Heavy said, dumping the debris back into the box. “It’s not that useful. Here’s hoping the stuff you got there is better.”

“Well, let’s have a look then, shall we?”

As it turned out, there wasn’t much to be had from the electronic side of the night’s work either. The Project was kind of at a loss on the Enchanter front, or, as they called it, the Firestarter case. It was currently slated to be turned over to Senior Special Agent Harriet Verger and Special Agent Aluchinskii Massif, a team I wasn’t familiar with. Aside from establishing a pattern to the addresses of the buildings being targeted, and that almost entirely by accident as it was technically done by someone they interviewed, Agents Sanders and Helix hadn’t really learned anything I didn’t know already while they were working on the case, and Agents Verger and Massif hadn’t officially taken over yet, so the case was actually in a sort of administrative limbo at the moment.

Other than discovering that Aluchinskii Massif was the name of mountainous region in Siberia I didn’t learn anything new. Actually, I had to Google Aluchinskii Massif in order to find out what it was, so I essentially got nothing directly from the Project.

Suffice it to say that I was not a happy man once we got back to our little home away from home, parked the van and dragged ourselves into the small, out of the way, half buried concrete building that served as my current primary base of operations. Worse, once we were there I had to take off the wrapping Heavy had put on my arm and struggle out of my gear. My arm hadn’t been bothering me much up until then but moving it enough to get out of the vest was an interesting experience, to say the least.

Grappler tisked as she helped Heavy carefully extract me from my various piece of gear and said, “You’ve got to go with something easier to get in and out of if you plan to keep getting hurt like this.” She straightened for a moment to show off her sleek black pants, tank top and flowing, light brown knee length vest. Or perhaps there were other things she was hoping I’d pay attention to. And, with Grappler, one cannot rule out the possibility of a general desire for attention.

“Problem with that outfit is the accessories,” Heavy said, taking his belt, complete with holster and pistol, and draping it over one of her shoulders, then doing the same with my belt on the opposite shoulder. “See? It doesn’t look right.”

She gave a very put upon sigh and stalked off to the weapons locker. Heavy offered me a hand up and I accepted it, struggling to my feet and suddenly feeling very tired. “What time is it, Heavy? Do I even want to know?”

“You don’t, boss. If I told you it was late tonight, you’d want to work some more, since you never turn in before midnight. If I tell you it’s tomorrow, you’ll say you got too much to do to day, so you’d keep going then, too.” Heavy dropped his hands onto my shoulders and pushed me towards the short flight of stairs leading out of the garage and into the main part of the building. “You don’t want to know what time it is, you want to go to sleep. So take your pain pills and find somewhere to pass out.”

It was hard to argue with Heavy’s reasoning; he was entirely correct. So I trudged up the stairs and pushed through the door into the situation room, feeling more and more exhausted with every step.

The situation room is a fancy name for the big open room that lets me keep track of things. Even I can’t keep all the layers of my various plans, contingencies and back ups straight in my head, so I keep a real time representation of them going at my headquarters. Unlike what you typically see on TV or in movies, that doesn’t mean a large map sitting out where anyone can see it and try and figure out what I’m doing. Instead, schemes are broken down on a series of password protected, physically isolated computer terminals. Physically isolated means that they’re not connected to outside networks and have no standard input devices like keyboards or touchscreens, so pretty much the only people who can get anything out of them are fuseboxes, like myself, or people with ten pounds of specialized equipment and several hours of free time.

It’s a clumsy way of ensuring operational security, but it also keeps the details of my endeavors safe from enterprising people like Hangman, who are already too resourceful by half when it comes to finding information.

On top of that, there’s a half a dozen regular computer terminals and the usual spread of office equipment that you need to keep a large operation running, regardless of it’s purpose or legality. All that is arranged on a balcony that runs around the outside of a much larger room, overlooking the assembly and testing floor where my engineers like Davis work on building and safety checking various pieces of equipment before they’re moved to their final staging areas. Any time after midnight the place is almost deserted, so I wasn’t surprised to find the room pretty much empty when I arrived.

I was surprised to find Simeon Delacroix waiting for me on the balcony.

My office manager looked as calm and dignified as ever and, if his sleep had been interrupted, or he’d otherwise been inconvenienced by arranging to meet us in the dead of night, he showed no signs of it. His suit was cleanly pressed, his waistcoat and pocket watch were in place and he looked clean shaven, well groomed and alert. I felt a brief twinge of jealousy, since I was pretty sure I was none of those things, but I know that whatever it is that give Simeon his superhuman sense of timing and poise, it’s not something I’ll ever have the time to unravel and master. Not if I want to stay out of prison and on top of the talented underworld.

So I just gave him the evil eye and said, “You’re up late, Mr. Delacroix. To what do I owe the honor?”

“Correspondence, sir,” Simeon said, producing a pair of letters with a flourish. His voice was studious and neutral, designed to inspire trust and confidence, with any regional accent having been rigorously removed long before I met him. Even so, there was a trace of concern in it as he looked me over and took in the various medical accessories Heavy had added to my usual dress. He pulled a pen knife out of his vest pocket and quickly slit the envelopes open for me. “You wished to be notified if any word came from the Enchanter while you were out, either to you or to the police.”

I straightened just a bit, suddenly more alert and glad I hadn’t taken those painkillers yet. “He’s sent something out, then?”

“A letter to the post office box you keep in the city, sir,” Simeon said, extracting a sheet of paper from one envelope and handing it to me.

I took it in my one useful hand and glanced it over. All it said was, “There is no king, not by hatchet or taxi. Death to pretenders.” Like the other note, it was signed Enchanter.

“How incredibly cryptic. And useless.” I folded the note up and shoved it into a pocket. “What else?”

“A photocopy of a letter sent to the police, same as the last one they received, obtained by your connections in the department and forwarded through the usual means.” Simeon handed me the second letter, which was identical to the first.

“Again, he sends the same letter to multiple groups,” I said, absently fingering the letter as I tried to figure out what it meant. “Why those groups and no one else? And what, if anything, are they supposed to mean to us?”

“I’m sure that interpreting them is half the challenge intended, sir,” Simeon said, folding his hands behind his back. “Are either of you hungry? The kitchen staff prepared some light refreshment, I believe, before they left for the day.”

“Now you’re talking, Simeon,” Heavy said. “It’s that kind of thinking we keep you around for.” Heavy gave Simeon a slap on the shoulder and grinned. “You coming, boss?”

“No, I think I’ll take your advice and just turn in for the night.” I rubbed the back of my neck with my free hand. “Although as stiff as I’m feeling right now, I’m not sure I’ll ever actually get to sleep.”

“It passes, boss. See you in the morning.” Heavy trotted off towards the kitchen and I turned to head the other way, towards my office and the small cot I kept there for the times I slept over.

Simeon cleared his throat once and I stopped. “Was there something else?”

“Yes, sir. You received a phone call earlier this evening from a…” He hesitated midsentence. There aren’t many things Simeon hesitates to say. But one thing he hates is the way most of us talents go by code names while we’re working. He understands the importance of protecting our identities, but he always calls me “sir” when we’re in a situation where he can’t use my real name. If I had been contacted by someone using a codename he would usually just call them a gentleman or a lady. Unless he didn’t know their gender, which probably meant…

“Hangman? Did Hangman call?”

Simeon shifted his shoulders slightly, obviously relieved that I’d figured it out on my own. “Yes, that was the name they left, sir.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Interesting. Did he say why he called?”

“Just that he had something that might interest you.”

“I see.” I mulled that over, then said, “When was this?”

“About half an hour before you returned,” Simeon said. He produced a slip of paper with a phone number on it and handed it to me. “This was the number given, should you with to return the call. But sir, I thought you should know that this didn’t come up through channels. We were contacted here, not at one of the satellite locations in the city or further south.”

“Hangman shouldn’t know this location’s number.”

“And yet,” Simeon said, folding his hands behind his back, “it would seem he does.”

Too resourceful by half. And yet, that was what made him so useful. “All right, Simeon. Thank you.”

“Not at all, sir. Just doing my duty. Will you be needing me again, tonight?”

“I’m not sure.” I looked down at the number on the paper I was holding. “I suppose I should talk to him tonight.”

“That might not be best sir,” Simeon said, looking meaningfully at the improvised sling on my right arm. “There’s no telling what that man wants from you. It might be best to see what it is when you’re in top shape.”

“Maybe.” I started towards my office again. “But you don’t make deals with the devil because you’re in a position of strength. Besides,” I turned back long enough to give him a grin. “He’s a good player but he’s new to the game. If I don’t give the kids a handicap then it wouldn’t be any fun.”

Simeon smiled slightly. “Very good, sir.”

As I walked into my office I contemplated the number Simeon had given me. The whole day had been spent trying to get something that would help me track down the Enchanter. Helix hadn’t been any help, and neither had raiding Sumter’s local office. But they say the third time is the charm. I picked up the phone in my office and dialed. The line picked up on the second ring.

“It’s Circuit, Hangman. Tell me what you got…”

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Fiction Index

Author’s Obligations: The Audience

You do not become an author simply because you want to have a good time. Being an author is a job, and it comes with certain responsibilities. They vary in importance and some of them are more important for fiction or non-fiction authors. But they are there, and if you’re not living up to them then the ugly truth is you are failing as an author. Obviously, it’s important for the aspiring author to know what they are.

If you’ve done any writing at all, you probably have some idea of what these responsibilities are already. Watch your grammar, mind your punctuation and know your story. But the more ways you see them, the more ways you can think of them, the more they will shape your writing and the better your writing will be. So what’s the first, most important duty of the author? Is it to clean, flowing prose? Good grammar and punctuation? No, the first duty of the author is to your audience.

Writing is a part of the art of communication. When you are writing you must be aware of the person or people who are reading, if they cannot understand you then you have failed to communicate. Therefore you must be mindful of your audience if you hope to succeed. Don’t get so caught up in your story that it runs away from you, it’s very unlikely your audience will be able to follow all the places it takes you unless you take the time to carefully mark the path. In short, know your audience.

So, who is your audience?

Well, as contradictory as it may seem, the author’s first audience is themselves. Yes, I’ve just said that it’s important not to get too wrapped up in your own story but, at the same time, the person who has to be most invested in understanding and enjoying your writing must be you. If you don’t buy into what you’re writing 100%, no one else will buy in at all. What’s important is to look at your story through the eyes of the reader. You need to set aside everything you already know about the story you are writing and look at it as if you’d never heard of anything in it before. Learn to put aside your author’s perspective and see if you can enjoy what you’ve written on it’s own merits.

The second audience is the people who share an interest in what you’re writing about. They are your most importance, core audience, they are the ones who will read your story and then want to share it with others. While self editing is the first hurdle for your story, you will need feedback from this part of your audience before you can call your story complete. Can they follow your ideas? Do they enjoy your story? Is there some barrier to understanding that needs to be removed? You can’t evaluate these things yourself, you’re not objective enough nor do you really count as a large enough sampling to be useful. You need feedback from your core audience if you hope to communicate with them.

The third audience is the people who are in the “mainstream”, a mythological group of people who include pretty much everyone who’s not a part of your core audience. While “mainstream” supposedly refers to popular culture, the fact is it’s really too varied to count for much. It’s just changing too fast and doing different things for different people, trying to target it would be like trying to hit all the heads on a hydra with a single toothpick. Some people from the general public will love your work, some will hate it and the vast majority will most likely view it with a certain amount of apathy (if the majority loves it, you’ve crossed over into the rarefied atmosphere of the smash hit, and I’d love to hear how it’s done). Regardless, while it’s important to try and make sure the “mainstream” can understand what you’ve written, you cannot chase after their approval of stories or themes. If you do, your writing will have no identity and will never find a following.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to knowing your audience than what I’ve written. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to codify in one or two short articles. You have to read a lot of what your audience loves, you have to know some members of your audience personally and spend a lot of time with them. An author can’t just sit in a chair 24/7 and write then expect to be successful. He has to be out with his audience, as well. Fortunately, you’re probably going to like the people you meet, since your first audience is yourself and thus your second audience is likely to share interests with you.

So get up and go out for a bit, get to know your audience. Then, the next time you sit down, ask how your stories and theirs can link up. You may find your writing improves for it.

Cool Things: A Little Princess

For those of you who’ve never heard of it, A Little Princess is a children’s novel by Frances Burnett about a little girl who lives a life of comfort and privilege, only to loose her father and fortune all at once. It’s a story about dealing with change, the importance of character and enduring times of trial.

While those may seem like heavy subjects for children’s literature, there are few things as dependable in life as change and trail, and few tools for dealing with them as powerful as character. As such, A Little Princess was and is an important piece of literature for equipping young people, and especially young women who are not as represented in literature as they might be, for dealing with life.

A Little Princess is also the latest production by all for One productions. Full disclosure: Like the last such production I mentioned, I will be appearing in this play.

If you’re interested, and particularly if you have a young daughter, this is a great play to check out. Performance dates are February 22-24 and March 1-3. Play begins at 8:00 PM on Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 PM on Sundays, with doors opening half an hour beforehand. Full ticket prices and ordering information can be found here.

If you live in the Fort Wayne area, I hope to see you there.