Water Fall: Solid Grounding

Six weeks, six days before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

Amplifier looked tired.

Not that there was anything surprising about that. Our physical conditioning tests aren’t meant to be easy and, unless a person was a physical fitness nut or a member of the armed forces before joining with the Project, there’s a good chance they’re going to find them challenging. So far, the Midwest’s newest recruit was showing pretty good marks on them, nothing out of the common way but enough to qualify for field training, if that’s what she wanted.

What was surprising was that I could see it. Thanks to my unique powers of vision, or lack thereof, the cues I use to judge a person’s mood are almost entirely nonvisual. Sure, you can get a general idea of how a person’s feeling by their posture, but most of the nuance is supposed to be in the face or other such subtle cues, which are totally lost on a person as nearsighted as I usually am.

Playing orientation facilitator, or whatever HR calls the people who train newbies these days, for Amplifier had been an education for me. While I didn’t have much of as standard to judge by I guessed she had what most people would call an open and expressive face, because just about every change of mood registered there. It matched the rest of her personality, from which I guessed hiding her thoughts or moods had never been a necessity in her childhood. I was thinking only child, reasonably wealthy family, but that’s not the kind of thing you talk about with people who’s personal history gets redacted by the U.S. government.

Regardless of how privileged her upbringing had been, it hadn’t kept her from building up enough stamina to complete a one mile run in a weighted vest and belt, designed to simulate the kind of gear we might carry into the field, in just under seven minutes. Not spectacular but enough to show promise, especially since it was the last in a string of exercises for the day. She sprawled out on her back by the track in the gym while I made some sloppily written notes on her evaluation sheet. “You can take off the gear if you want.”

“Thank goodness,” she said, sitting up with a grunt. Then she proceeded to strip the vest off and throw it as far as she could which, considering it weight about twelve pounds, wasn’t as far as you might expect.

I tried not to stare. One thing I never understood when I was younger was why my friends would say a girl was hot. I knew they saw something about her, but I was never sure what. Amp was proving to be an education in that respect, too. Like the fun in getting “hot and sweaty” never made any sense to me before.

“So,” she said, straightening her tank top as I tried not to notice. “What comes next?”

I grabbed onto the chance for innocent conversation. “Actually, nothing. You’re done for the day. For once, there’s not even any paperwork we need you to go over, I think Harriet got all of it from you before we started today.”

“That’s it?” She sounded incredulous. “What, isn’t the exhausting exercise supposed to be the prelude to some kind of crazy basic combat training?”

I laughed at that, not because it sounded preposterous but because I had assumed the same thing when I went through the process. “If my goal was to teach you wushu, yeah. But my sifu would have my head if I tried that, and besides it’s not part of the Project’s curriculum. We have employee safety standards we have to keep to.”

“Ah, right. Those pesky standards.” Amp glanced around, then back at me. “Then again, there’s no one here right now… I know I wouldn’t tell anyone if you wanted to hand out a few free pointers.”

“I dunno…” When I was seven I started studying wushu. My sifu, or teacher, assured my parents it would be a big help in dealing with the weird abilities I had and he was right, which was one of the only reasons I stuck with it for the first few years. The work is hard and the instructors are harder. But when I actually joined Project Sumter I discovered that being too far ahead of the game can actually get you as much trouble as being too far behind. My hand to hand instructors didn’t really like having to deal with me, and I really didn’t want to relearn a bunch of basics that didn’t mesh well with my natural talents. There was tension for a while.

“What, you think I can’t handle it?” Amp asked, breaking into my thoughts.

Everyone knows the answer to that question is always no. So I shrugged and said, “If you want. But take it easy, you really don’t look like you’re used to this kind of thing. Even if you feel fine now, I can bet you won’t later.”

“I hear you.” Amplifier followed me over to the exercise mats. “So where do we start?”

“We start with me reminding you of one very, very important thing.” I turned my body slightly so that the left side faced her. “Project Sumter does not exist to deal with ordinary people. While there are many exceptionally smart or skilled individuals in the world, what falls under our purview are people with abilities that aren’t fully documented or understood, and that allow them to behave in ways that defy sense. Kick me.”

She blinked once. “Excuse me?”

I hadn’t expected to have to say it twice. “Kick me. Any way you want.”

To her credit, Amplifier resisted the urge to hit below the belt. Instead she just picked up one leg and jammed her foot as hard as she could into my side, hitting me just above where the kidneys are. I could see the blow coming, a dull white point of focused motion, then it connected and Amp fell over backward. I quickly moved over and reached down to help her up but she waved me off, scrambling to her feet with a grunt.

“Okay,” I said, getting back to my feet as well. “What happened?”

“Shouldn’t that be my line?” Amp asked, indignant. “I have no idea!”

“Start thinking about it,” I said, brushing lightly at a make-believe bit of dust on her shoulder. With my other hand I tapped my jaw. “Now punch me.”

She gave me a look I couldn’t quite read, but from the way she punched me, getting a good windup and putting all her weight behind it, she was probably pretty mad. Either way it was a really good punch and when it connected she nearly knocked herself over again, this time spinning to one side and yanking the shoulder my hand was on away. She kept her feet only by hopping to one side a few feet and flailing her arms for balance.

“How did you do that?” She demanded.

“Tell me what you think I did and I’ll tell you if I did it or not.”

Now Amp couldn’t keep the disbelief out of her tone. “That’s stupid.”

“No.” I folded one arm behind my back and pointed one finger upward, mimicking a pose I’d seen my sifu use countless times before, I think because it was one of the few body language cues I could pick up on at first. “This is the most important part of defending yourself against other talents. There are sixty two different kinds of talents in the Project records. Some of them are very similar to each other, and learning to tell them apart is the difference between using an effective countermeasure and getting caught flat footed. Worse, if you confront an unfamiliar talent you’re going to have to be able to accurately describe it to someone else if you want to get more information on it. Learning to pay attention to the smallest details, even when the big picture makes no sense, is the most important skill a Sumter field agent can have. Now, tell me what you think I did.”

“It felt like you punched me,” she said, rubbing her shoulder. “Even though you didn’t wind up. Or move at all. It felt like you punched me in the shoulder at the same time I hit you.”

I nodded. “Not bad. That’s almost exactly what happened, and anyone familiar with vector shifts would guess that was my talent as soon as you described it. And they’d be right.”

“Vector shifts?”

“Right. It’s the ability to perceive momentum in the objects around you, and move it from one solid object you’re touching to another.” A skeptical silence met that explanation so tried a different approach. “Have you ever played pool?”

“Sure.” A shrug. “I’m not any good at it, but…”

“Have you ever seen a setup where two pool balls are touching, and a player hits one with the cue ball so that the ball it’s touching moves but the ball that was struck stays in place?” I demonstrated with my hands, holding one in place while the other illustrated the cue ball striking and the third ball flying off.

“Yeah, I’ve seen that.”

“I work on the same principle. I take momentum from one solid object.” I gestured towards her feet. “And transfer it into another.” I tapped the mat we were standing on with one foot.

Amplifier just stared at me for a minute. “You’re serious.”

“You’ve just seen me do it twice.”

“But…” She looked around in confusion, as if she expected to find a hidden camera somewhere. “Wouldn’t that mean you’re pretty much invincible?”

“Not exactly. None of us talents are, although some come closer than others.” I took a closer look at her. While they hadn’t been big hits, she had just been knocked around a bit and that after an hour or two of pretty strenuous exercise. She wasn’t fidgeting around as much as she usually did and she looked kind of deflated. So I started for the edge of the mat, talking over my shoulder. “Now it’s time for lesson number two. Most people with talents spend a lot of time thinking about how they can use them, but not a lot thinking about what kind of countermeasures people could take against them. It’s something you need to start thinking about, if you haven’t already. Based on what I’ve told you, what do you think is the best way to deal with a vector shift?”

There was a moment’s quiet as Amp thought the question over, trailing along behind me. She didn’t say anything at all until she’d gone and collected the vest she tossed aside earlier and slung it over one arm. “I guess, from the sound of things, the most straightforward thing to do would be to keep your feet off the ground. Or on something fragile, like maybe a wood floor.”

“It’s very hard to get a vector shift in the air if he doesn’t want to be there,” I said. “But you’re on the right track with the idea of bad footing. Gravel isn’t great for me, either.”

“Right, but that’s not exactly something I can count on.” She tilted her head to one side and studied me. “You said you can move momentum from one solid object to another. What would happen if I sprayed you with a fire hose?”

“It would depend on whether I saw it coming or not. But you’d probably knock me over. There’s been rumors of vector shifts that can work with liquids and gasses for years, but I’ve never met one. They’re very chaotic and hard to manipulate, if that makes any sense.” I collected my clipboard from the bench where I’d left it and gave her another look. “What made you think of it? So far as I know it’s never actually been tried before.”

She smiled. “I have the same problem in reverse. I can affect sound through air, but not liquids or solids. It moves too fast, if that makes any sense.”

Which it didn’t, but then turnabout is fair play. “Not bad. Out of the box thinking is a must if you’re going to be in the Project. Now seriously, you look like crap. Knock off for the day, take a shower and come back tomorrow.”

“Right.” She ran a hand over her face. “Will do. Should I look for you, or Helix?”

“Harriet, probably. Helix has… a meeting to get ready for. It’s actually something we’re all going to be in, but Harriet knows the most about the training process. She’s been through it more times than just about anyone else in this branch.”

“Right.” She wavered there on her feet for a second so I gave her a gentle push towards the locker room. To my surprise she jerked away and snapped, “Don’t push me around.”

“Sorry.” I held my hands up in front of my chest and backed away. “No offense meant.”

She nodded once, looking a little lost, and headed away. I watched her go, a little curious about what was going on there. But like I said, they’re good at finding stuff for me to do, too. I had just finished a quick check of the gym to make sure everything was cleared away when my boss popped her head in and yelled, “Massif!”

“Over here,” I said, waving the clipboard for her attention.

She trotted over, her voice grim. “Are you done with Amplifier’s physical tests yet?”

“Just sent her home, Harriet.” I held out the clipboard for her inspection.

“Better than normal.” She was referring to my handwriting, which is usually not that good. I didn’t think it would be great, even with the strange clearing effect Amplifier had on my vision, but it was nice to know at least some of it was because of my poor sight. “She did okay, too.”

“Not bad, I agree.”

Harriet tapped me in the chest with the clipboard. “We need to get down to Evidence. Agent Samson has something he wants to show us.”

I racked my brains for a second. “Agent Samson? Like the guy from the Bible? Supposedly ripped a city’s gates down with his bare hands? I don’t think we’ve met. Is there even someone named that in our section?”

“Not for a long while,” Harriet said. “Come on, kid. You’re about to meet a living legend.”

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Hammering Out Your Plot: The Beat Outline

So I’ve talked about outlining once already, but I said that I would do another post on exactly what kind of outline I prefer. And here it is. I’m not going to take the time to rehash why you might want to do an outline, that’s all spelled out in the last post. If you’re curious, you can read that but I’m going to assume you’re already onboard with the whole outlining idea already.

I usually use an outlining structure I first encountered in college, when I took a class on script writing, as in, writing scripts for movies. While novels and movies are very different storytelling formats, modern novel writing needs to maintain many of the same things movies rely on – dramatic tension, narrative drive, and so forth. To help us get a grip on exactly what that entailed our prof had us work with the “beat” outline.

Any of you who are familiar with music already know what a beat is – it’s the pulse of the song, the most basic measurement of time which all the rest of your music is measured by. It’s similar for story writing, but not exactly the same. A story beat measures each point where the audience should respond. In other words, every point where you want the audience to feel something is a beat. I’ve said before that the basic purpose of writing is to provoke a reaction from the reader, and the payoff of a story needs to be in proportion to it’s length.

A longer story needs to be looking for a bigger finish. But you can’t get there all at once. You build to it little by little, or poco a poco for you musicians. The hero can’t go from loosing badly for the first sixty beats of the story to winning triumphantly for the last ten. Over time, the hero collects little things that will help him win. His enemy’s weakness, a new set of skills or allies will all give him a leg up in the final confrontation.

At the same time, you need your story to have dramatic tension. The audience needs to wonder where things are going or, at the very least, how the story is going to get to the resolution. (After all, sometimes they just know the good guys are going to win. What’s the point of a detective story if you can’t check your work?) In order to maintain that tension, it’s important to make sure your protagonists aren’t always winning, or always loosing.

As a result, the beat outline consists of two different kinds of points along the line – upbeats and downbeats. An upbeat is any point along the outline where things look good for your protagonist. This can be anything as minor as getting a cup of coffee for a pick me up or as major as important as finding Excalibur. They can also be events that show weaknesses in the antagonist, things that reveal critical flaws or just show him loosing track of something important. Downbeats are the opposite, they’re events that set back the protagonist in some way or show the antagonist as formidable or actively working against the protagonist’s goals.

Of course, by the end of the story the upbeats should slightly outweigh the downbeats, resulting in a hard earned success for the protagonist – unless you’re writing a tragedy, in which case the downbeats should win. But again, only by a very thin margin.

One of the best things about beat outlining is that it is very general. All you really need to do is come up with a list of upbeats and downbeats and put them in order. The details of a scene, who’s present and exactly how the beats play out are things you’re free to work out as they come up, and it’s very easy to rearrange things, or add and subtract scenes, if you want.

Incidentally, one of the interesting things about writing the Sumter novels is the dual nature of the protagonists – each one is the other’s antagonist. Heat Wave’s beat outline was measured as positives for each protagonist, and it was difficult to balance the beats and have the right winner come out on top. Water Fall has three narrators, and for a time I was tempted to make the beat outline a three way tug-of-war. But in the end, it was simpler to keep it a two way battle between the Project and Circuit, which will hopefully make it easier to follow the action. All in all, I’m not sure I’ve hit the right balance so far, but I know it would be a lot harder without an outline!

——–

Okay, announcement time! Next week I will be moving. It’s not a major shift, just from one place in the city to another, but it is going to eat up a lot of my time. I don’t want to leave the story dangling, so I’m going to update on Monday. But that will be the only update for the week – I’m taking Wednesday and Friday off. It’s also possible that there will be no update Monday, October 7th. We’ll just have to see how things go. I will certainly be back by Wednesday the 9th, but if you want to be absolutely sure you don’t miss a post you can always hit the subscribe or RSS links off to your and get everything published here delivered straight to you. See you around!

Cool Things: Esther Diamond

So let’s say you’re an actress living and (occasionally) working in New York City. It can be lonely, it can be demanding, it can be the time of your life. Until the woman you’re an understudy for disappears in the middle of her act! But no worries, it’s a magic act. She’s supposed to go into that box and disappear, then come back on stage a few minutes later.

Yeah, one small issue with that. Seems like this time she’s gone for good!

All that happens to Esther Diamond in Disappearing Nightly, the first book in a series that chronicles her misadventures in the Big Apple. It turns out women have been disappearing rather permanently all over the city, and the police, including the handsome Conner Lopez, are starting to get worried.

But they’re not the only ones. Doctor Maximilian Zadok is a master wizard, and he’s worried that the women aren’t just disappearing they’re actually being abducted by an evil wizard. He convinces Esther not to fill in for the missing leading lady and takes her on as a sort of girl Friday. Once you pass your third century keeping up with the times can get difficult, after all, and having a spunky young lass who’s familiar with the more technological aspects of society is nice.

In addition to the disappearances, Esther will wind up getting dragged into, or dragging Max and Conner into, incidents with Dopplegangsters, zombies, polterheists and Lithuanians. In a reversal of the usual urban fantasy set up, Esther is the only person in the primary cast with no paranormal abilities at all. Oh sure, she’s been close enough to weird goings on to spot them when things get started but she’s not in the big leagues, at least not yet.

Laura Resnick’s Esther Diamond series offers a nice blend of adventure and mystery. Each one of Esther’s stories focuses on a crime of some sort that’s been accomplished with the help of magic. Each flavor of crime is different, abduction, murder, theft, more murder, you get the picture. And each one is solved with a combination of Esther’s snooping, Max’s background information and Lopez’s meddling. (Lopez most decidedly does not believe in magic.)

While they’re not mysteries in the form of detective stories of police procedurals, they are a good time and are worth checking out if you enjoy mystery cozies with a paranormal twist.

Water Fall: Three Way Switch

Seven Weeks, One Day before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation

Circuit

Picture this tableau. There is a man, well dressed and handsome, standing in the center of a group of people in the middle of a vicious argument.

To his left, Heavy Water tries to restrain an African American woman almost as tall as he is with one hand while still keeping a hold on the large box slung under his arm with the other. He is having little success in keeping the woman from pushing past him, more in keeping ahold of the container. For her part, Grappler is more interested in yelling at the younger woman, who is safely seated on the other side of the table the rest are standing around, than messing with Heavy. Elizabeth Dawson, daughter of a U.S. Senator but better known to us as a hacker who goes by Hangman, leans back in her chair and fiddles with a tablet.

Who is this man, and how does he come to be so calm when in the presence of these very dangerous, experienced criminals?

His name is Simeon Delacroix, and on those increasingly rare occasions where I stray into my public identity he is my office manager. When I function as a criminal mastermind he serves much the same purpose but without a title, as “office manager” does not inspire quite the same degree of respect from the hard types he sometimes deals with. In addition to doing all the things a normal office manager is expected to accomplish, Simeon is also expected to keep all of my employees from engaging in criminal acts against each other.

At this particular moment, Simeon is wishing he was on vacation. His job is full time and very demanding. His pay, while generous, is not exceptional and the other benefits are impressive but rarely used. For example, he has not had a true day off outside a few holidays for three years. Perhaps he is resenting the employer that puts such incredible demands on his time. Perhaps he is merely daydreaming about taking an attractive lady strolling along the beach.

Well, to tell the truth I’m not sure if he was thinking about a vacation or not. I do know that when I walked into the middle of the scene, still rubbing the remnants of my disguise makeup off my face, he was paying almost no attention to the argument going on. Of course, since I could hear Heavy and Grappler shouting before I even got in the room, it was no surprise. In fact, those two argue all the time, so Simeon and I have gotten used to tuning it out. I had just given Hangman credit for enough sense not to join in herself. But apparently she had.

“-has no right to tell me how to run a job,” Grappler was saying.

“Easy,” Heavy said, trying to get her to sit down. He threw Simeon a pleading glance, but he was busy with the book he had in his hands. Then Heavy caught sight of me and said, “Hey, boss.”

I knew a cue when I heard it, even if I had absolutely no idea what was going on. “We don’t look as ready for immediate action as I usually like to see things when I plan for immediate action.” I placed a hand on Grappler’s shoulder and she backed off a bit, then I glanced over at Hangman, then finally at my office manager, who’s failure to diffuse the situation was truly mystifying. Simeon usually breaks out in hives whenever anyone’s speaking in a voice louder than a whisper, I make light of his distraction now but at the time I was seriously worried because he didn’t pick up on Heavy’s cue, or mine, and picking up on cues is part of his job. “Mr. Delacroix?”

“I’m sorry?” He flipped the book closed and looked up. “I didn’t hear you come in, sir.”

“I noticed.” I waved my hand around at the table. “It doesn’t look like we’re doing much here.”

“Well, sir, that’s something of a point of contention at the moment.” He hefted the book he was holding. “Ms. Dawson has provided me with a very unusual document. After consulting it I decided it would be best if we waited to show it to you before we went our various ways.”

“Really.” I took the book from Simeon, then glanced over at Hangman. I wasn’t sure what I found more amusing, the obvious relief Simeon showed at finally finding someone who was as comfortable being referred to by her real name as by an assumed working name or that Hangman had zeroed in on him as the weak point of the group on their first meeting. Or that she had apparently thought this far in advance and had something prepared with which to prove herself to the rest of the group, which was what I assumed was going on.

I looked down at the book, which was a largish ledger like you might still find for keeping accounts in some office supply stores, and flipped it open. As I did, Hangman said, “You’ll find the part starting on page sixty three particularly interesting.”

“Now listen-”

“Quiet please,” I said, cutting off Grappler before she could get a full head of steam. Hangman had repeatedly exceeded my expectations before demanding, quite forcefully, to join our ranks. This is not the usual method for joining my inner circle. I was particularly interested in what it was she would bring to the table, and at the same time a little wary of someone who was shaping up to be a bit of a loose cannon. At the same time, Grappler is a very good burglar, a reasonable accountant and very decorative, but she’s not a great judge of character. For example, she married a serial killer. I was not interested in hearing whatever problem she had with Hangman, it would probably just give me a headache and I wanted my full attention to be on sorting out how best to incorporate Hangman into my inner circle without compromising the very tight schedule I was running.

The entries were dated, and it only took a page or two for me to recognize the pattern to the dates. This was a record of all my major crimes for the past six years, nearly three quarters of my career. I looked up long enough to give Hangman a skeptical look. “You can’t have been following me this long. You were what, sixteen when this starts?”

“Seventeen,” she corrected me. “And about a third of what’s in there was reconstructed after the fact.”

“I see.” Looking over a complete history of my activities was not exactly a pleasant endeavor. I’ve had my share of miserable failures, and like so many people do I made the bulk of them at the beginning of my career. To make matters worse, most of the entries were followed by a brief analysis of what went wrong with the operation in question. I also felt I had been incredibly petty in my early days. A large part of that had been deliberate. I knew I would need operating capitol and I preferred to keep legal my activities totally separate from my illegal ones, so funding one lifestyle with the other was out.

In short, I had needed cash and with Heavy’s connections finding simple, profitable employment for my talent had been easy. But it had also been beneath me and seeing it written out in ink didn’t make me feel any better about it.

That only lasted about a year, and thankfully, while Hangman was an expert hacker and information gatherer she was not omniscient and her information from that far back was spotty. By page sixty three I had moved out of establishing basic infrastructure and into the important crimes. It was my second major move against the U.S. Government, my first made with the current long term plan in mind, and it also marked a turning point in my relationship with Project Sumter and their foremost agent.

The plan had been simplicity itself: Try to steal an Apache helicopter using a very elaborate hacking program and remote control device that only functioned because of the way my innate ability to manipulate electrical circuits interacted with magnetism while, at the same time, Heavy, Grappler and a handful of others stole a set of improved armor plating intended to upgrade Army vehicles in Iraq. The helicopter theft would provide a distraction more than significant enough for Heavy’s team to break in and escape and, in the event that I could actually get away with the vehicle, the Apache would make a nice addition to my motor pool. Perhaps as an interesting paperweight.

In practice, helicopters are difficult to fly, a fact I proved by nearly smashing my stolen Apache four times in the space of three minutes, difficult to maintain and not particularly subtle. It’s not as if you can repaint an attack helicopter as a delivery vehicle, after all. But given the base we were stealing from and the level of competence the Air Force in the region could be expected to show, I honestly didn’t expect the chopper to stay in the air more than ten minutes. I overestimated by about seven, but I also hadn’t been counting on Special Agent Double Helix being able to create an updraft so powerful it could toss a helicopter like a stray leaf. I hadn’t even known heat sinks existed at the time. But Hangman had managed to gather all these details together and reached a surprising conclusion.

“You think we could have kept the helicopter intact.”

I didn’t say it as a question and Hangman knew better than to take it as one. “You failed to utilize your greatest strengths in that job. And that’s not the clever distraction or the ability to manipulate electrical circuits with your talent. It’s your skill in information warfare. Why did that base even have working radar when your job went down? You were aware of the existence of Project Sumter by that point. Why didn’t you tap the Army’s communications and watch for their arrival?”

I shrugged. “Perhaps because keeping the helicopter was not a priority of mine?”

“Fair enough.” She leaned forward and gave me an amused smirk. “But that’s been a consistent failing in your operations ever since. For some reason you seem to want to establish your criminal self and your hacker self as separate. That’s a weakness, Circuit, and I don’t know why you have it but you need to deal with it. But as bad as that is, it pales in comparison to your phobia of Helix.”

“Now hold on!” I had expected an interruption soon, if for no other reason than Grappler’s having a hard time holding her peace for very long, but I hadn’t expected one from Heavy. He’s usually pretty quiet at strategy meetings. For once he looked downright angry instead. “You’re obviously pretty smart, since you got the boss listening to you, and he has been for a while. But you’ve never seen what it’s like to have that guy in your face. He turns up everywhere!”

“That’s not his doing,” Hangman said, waving the objection off. “Project Sumter has a whole department devoted to analyzing your activities and sending the right man to thwart them. I suspect they keep sending Double Helix because his ability to sense and manipulate heat gives him an extra way to locate the strange electronics you keep cooking up and get rid of them.”

“The man can burn paper just by standing nearby when he’s pissed,” Heavy said, thumping his box on the table for emphasis. “I mean, did you even get near Diversy Street after the punch-up there? You could smell the asphalt melting for miles! I don’t think he’d even die if you lit him up with a flamethrower.”

“He does need to breath,” I put in. “I’m sure the smoke would get to him eventually.”

“Look, I know that Helix is like a boogieman for you guys. I’ve seen a lot of the stats, even if I’ve never personally been there to see him ruin something. But I don’t suppose any of you could tell me the background and qualifications of the three man support team that’s been with him for the last five and a half years? Or what any of the other Midwest Sumter talents are capable of? Did you even know the name of the woman you killed last week before you went to her funeral?” Hangman shook her head. “Thanks to that, you need to know all that and more.

“Before, there was one Project agent and his team looking for you between other major cases. One team, and you thought it was bad enough that you built dedicated countermeasures for him into practically every plan you’ve cooked up in the last six years. There are fourteen operational teams assigned to the Project’s Midwest district. Do you even know the codenames for the talents in them? And there are seventy-nine talents employed by the Project nationwide.”

“We’ve had our hands full with one,” Grappler snarled. “Why would we want to pick a fight with all the rest?”

“Like it or not, you’ve got one,” Hangman snapped back. “They’ll throw everything they can at you, for no other reason than you killed one of their own. If you aren’t ready to play with the big leagues then it’s time for us to dig a hole, crawl in and pull it in after.”

I could tell that this conversation was going to be a lengthy one, and since Hangman was still seated I decided to join her and took one of the empty chairs. Setting the book to one side, I laced my fingers together and said, “There’s a lot to what you’re saying. Let’s concede that not everything I’ve done has gone as well as I’ve hoped. What does? But you don’t sound like you want to pack up and go home – in fact, as I understand it you no longer have one to go back to.”

Hangman laughed bitterly at that, which I thought more than a little sad. Why a politician wouldn’t encourage talents like those Senator Dawson’s daughter obviously had was beyond me, but his loss was my gain. Since she didn’t seem about to add anything else, I went on. “You obviously think there’s something you can add to the equation overcome most of these problems. Care to share it?”

The look on her face suggested she’d like nothing better. She reached out and thumped one hand on the book. “This is basically it. But I’ll summarize, because these are busy times, and it’s a long book.”

“Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t look as bad as some of Davis’ engineering reports,” I said lightly.

“There’s one major difference between you and Project Sumter. Know what it is?”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “I would think ideology.”

“Personnel management,” she corrected. “Although ideology is a big factor in that.”

“Explain.”

“Project Sumter talents don’t work alone. They work in groups, with highly trained support personnel to assist them in using their talent to it’s maximum. They have analysts who are on the scene with them, sorting out clues and picking up on things they might be missing. And they have oversight agents, to keep them from making rash decisions and keep them on task. You have… well, you. You think that should be enough, because you want to prove talents don’t need normal people looking over their shoulder half the time. Problem is, you can’t beat a well coordinated group working alone.”

Hangman shrugged helplessly. “About half the problems you face in the field could be overcome if you just had people to help you with the higher thought functions, rather than relying on the abilities of these two,” she waved at Heavy and Grappler, “to think on their feet. They’re not bad at it, but with you taking point in the field most of the time and no one to coordinate between you and them things spiral out of your ability to control more often than not.”

“Granted.” I felt no shame in admitting to it, I had puzzled over the issue many times in the past with Simeon. “But, at least for the next month or two, Simeon needs to maintain my public face and there’s no one else I trust enough to do such a job. We don’t have the resources of Project Sumter, we can’t simply pour over the HR files from a dozen government agents and ask for the ones we want. Of course, I’m sure there’s more too it than that, but the basic principle remains. How would you propose to solve this little problem?”

“She wants to do it,” Grappler put in. “Apparently she thinks she’s qualified to tell everyone what’s best now that she’s in.”

Grappler hadn’t really approved of the idea of adding another person to the inner circle at all. I wasn’t about to try and explain my reasoning to her, of all people, so I’d just tabled the matter and went about my business. Sooner or later that was going to become an issue, but I didn’t have the time to deal with it right that minute. Which made things even worse, because Hangman’s idea had merit. I hadn’t reckoned on having her as a resource at my disposal when I formulated the current version of the Chainfall plan two years ago. I shot a glance at Simeon. “How soon do you have to be back in the city?”

“Three days,” he said, his thoughtful expression suggesting he was already tracking with my line of thought. “But I could stretch it to four, if we’re willing to take a hit to public sector earnings in the third quarter. I’ll have to miss a few meetings. And you need to be back within six, don’t forget that.”

“I remember.” I thought for a moment, drumming my fingers absently on top of the book. “Then let’s do this. Hangman will have a trial run as control agent-”

“What?” Grappler shouted.

“-for me,” I said, as if nothing had happened. “Simeon, you’ll go up north with Heavy and Grappler on their little run. Hangman and I will go west, and get ahold of our objective there. We’ll compare notes, see whether adding a control operative had any benefits at all and go from there.”

“You sure, boss?” Heavy gave our newest addition a skeptical look, then glanced back at me. “That’s an awful lot riding on one job.”

By which he meant I was the only one who knew what all the puzzle pieces in the grand plan were. At least, that’s what he assumed. I was quickly coming to question such ideas now that Hangman was more than a shadowy presence on the far side of an Internet connection. What’s more, I was the only one who was really committed to the idea of picking a fight with the government, the only one who felt that it was time to end the hiding, the lying and the endless belittling of our talents. But a glance at Hangman reminded me that once again, that might not be entirely true. I could tell by the look on her face that she wanted in. And I was not at all opposed to giving her a shot. “I think we’ll be fine, Heavy. But your concern is appreciated.”

“If you say so.”

That was Heavy-speak for extreme skepticism. “If nothing else, there’s no way that Simeon could go out west with me and get back in time for his other obligations. Hangman has to come with me or the timing won’t work. And as has already been noted, I’m used to having many things in the air.” Heavy looked about as serious as he ever got, which is more serious than most people would give him credit for, but he nodded to show he understood. I could, and would, watch my own back. “Good. Now, get going. We’re running behind as it is. Hangman? Grab anything you can’t do without for the next week and meet me in the garage in ten minutes.”

Instead, she met me at the door, the shoulder bag she’d brought with her when we first met in person a few days ago slung over one shoulder. “Ready when you are, boss.”

I gave her a quick once over. After a brief stint as a wannabe streetwalker she was once again dressed like a pert and perky college student, Her straight brown hair pulled into a ponytail over one shoulder, her face, while attractive, now all over missing persons files going out nation wide. At least her ability to gather information and extrapolate on it still appeared to be working full force. “Then come along. And don’t call me boss, only Heavy does that and only because I can’t make him stop. Do you know what we’re doing next?”

Hangman shook her head. “All I’ve managed to gather is that you’re buying up real estate and 3D printing equipment. So far the connection between the two eludes me.”

“Ah.” I allowed myself a small smirk, it was nice to know I could keep a few secrets. “Well, in that case you’re in luck. This is actually an excellent test case, since in many ways it duplicates your own example a few minutes ago.”

Her face scrunched up in confusion. “I beg your pardon?”

“We’re going to rob from GI Joe, Hangman. The Army itself.”

“Of course.” Hangman laughed. “It’s just like you to get someone shot at by the end of their first week on the job.”

“Relax.” I waved the thought off. “If everything goes well they won’t even get the safeties of their weapons.”

I really shouldn’t have said that, but it was done before the thought occurred. And really, what was the worst that could happen?

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Genrely Speaking: The Detective Story

For the first time ever, an episode of Genrely Speaking ties back to a previous installment! No longer a handful scattered categories, the genres are beginning to link up and a picture forms. The game’s afoot!

Yes, the detective story is a branch of the mystery, and thus a close cousin of the police procedural. But at the same time, they’re very different kinds of stories, as well. The sleuth is a classic trope of modern literature, and has been in use pretty much since it was created by Edgar Allen Poe. In many ways, the sleuth was the first superhero, slicing through tricky problems with his superior intellect to set difficult situations to rest.

Indeed, the super sleuth has much in common with later superheroes. His abilities dwarf those of the people around him, and he is usually highly admired and in much demand. In fact, Batman is sometimes characterized as the world’s greatest detective, and it’s considered a part of his “powers”. Great detectives may not be as flashy as superheroes, but that’s one of the things that’s helped them find wider acceptance. It’s easier to read about a snappily dressed sleuth who solves real, understandable crimes and not be laughed at than it is to read about a man in spandex who fights dinosaurs (or something).

But the other thing that gives detective stories their respectability is the fact that they are, in many ways, a kind of puzzle to exercise your mind. While you don’t have to read them that way, just wading through them should sharpen you a little bit. In theory, at least.

The hallmarks of the detective story are a little something like this:

1. A central character who is absolutely, no holds barred, brilliant. This character is the detective, and these stories demand that he stand head and shoulders above the rest of the crime-solving crowd. All stories want something special about their main characters. Detective stories need a main character who is good at solving mysteries.

It doesn’t really matter if they’re good at anything else. In fact, Adrian Monk and the Sherlock Holmes from CBS’ Elementary both need significant help with some (or all) aspects of their life. But in the sole arena of crime, the detective must reign absolute. Whether it be Holmes’ merciless logic, Hercule Poirot’s deft use of psychology or Monk’s obsessive need for order, the detective can somehow pierce through every layer of deceit to find the person who committed a crime. And, perhaps just as importantly, they have to do pretty much all the work themselves.

It’s not that there can’t be supporting characters who help the detective. There can, and should, be such characters. But they serve more as foils for the detective’s brilliance, by not understanding how the sleuth arrives at his conclusions they show how ordinary people don’t make the same connections the detective does. Take Poirot’s Chief Inspector Japp. He’s a competent detective, has to be or he wouldn’t be Chief Inspector. He can do all the leg work for a case, knows all the typical causes for crime and deftly handles multiple cases at once. But when confronted with the really devious problems he can’t seem to match Poirot. Which nicely brings us to the next hallmark of the detective story.

2. Crimes that feature a level of complexity and planning that far surpasses the norm. The detective is brilliant, and so the problems he tackles have to be worthy of his attention. They must challenge his intellect and, at the same time, that of his reader. After all, if part of the purpose is to challenge the reader with the puzzle of the murder, it needs to test our brains. Of course, complex crimes are more interesting as well, to both the detective and the reader. While a drive-by shooting is no doubt a crime and definitely a tragedy, it’s rarely going to lead us on a long, twisting crawl through the lives of the victim and his associates or the mechanics of the killing that eventually culminates in a brilliant set of deductions that pins the crime on the least likely suspect. In short, detective stories need unusual crimes, and so unusual crimes they will have.

Note that, while the crime in mysteries is almost always murder, or leads to murder, there are a few instances, particularly in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories, where the crime was a theft or kidnapping of some sort.

3. The detective figures things out through the use of his brain, not legwork or chance. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that there’s no legwork needed, but the detective usually has a sidekick or plucky assistant to help with that. And there are elements of chance in the story, but they never help the detective – if anything, it’s the addition of some chance happenstance to the murder scenario that makes the situation so difficult to suss out.

The point of the story is that the sleuth is solving the crime through his superior crime-solving method. Chance is cheating and legwork is a way to fuel the deductions, not something to replace them. Of course, in real life oftentimes all you really need is to do enough legwork without breaking any rules that will hinder the DA from prosecuting, which is why most super sleuths are private detectives rather than actual policemen, and why the police procedural is a genre in it’s own right. This also let’s the reader “check his work” as he tries to solve the mystery on his own.

3a. The rule of fair play. Unlike the above, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but you find it much more often in detective stories than you do in pretty much any other kind of mystery. The rule of fair play simply states that all the facts the detective uses to solve the case have to be made known to the reader, to give them a shot at solving the mystery before the summation scene. Fair play mysteries are the ultimate embodiment of the detective story as a puzzle for the reader.

What is the greatest weakness of the detective story? There are two. First, the overly complex crimes can defy belief. After all, who’s going to kidnap someone, kill them, then demand a ransom while staging an alibi when they could just mess with the victim’s brake lines and be done with it? The second is that the highly cerebral nature of the crime solving can take a lot of time from other aspects of the story, cutting into character development and side plots. While that’s hardly fatal, both the heavy intellectual emphasis and the lack of time for other matters might loose some readers. This is why so many modern detective stories are hybrids, including elements of comedy, romance, suspense, ect.

What is the greatest strength of the detective story? Mysteries are incredibly addictive. The quirks detectives bring to the table make them very interesting and people never seem to get enough of them. Also, with so many moving parts there are countless possible combinations of method, motive, alibi, ect to make one mystery different from the next, so they franchise well. But perhaps most of all, the detective himself is quite enduring. The best, Holmes, Poirot, Ms. Marple, Monk, are well known and enduring. And really, what more could an author ask for?

While the detective story is a very demanding genre to work in, the rewards are quite high as well. It’s a genre that offers an enthusiastic, if sometimes critical readership and the promise of a lot of work to come. If you enjoy reading them, there’s sure to always be something for you.

Cool Things: Casablanca

It’s time for another classic film. I first saw Casablanca some time when I was in middle school, perhaps even earlier. I knew it was a cultural landmark, considered by some critics the greatest movie ever made, period. I know that I watched it and, even at a young age, enjoyed it a lot. Later, when I was in college taking my Introduction to Literature course it would be used as an example of film as literature. I had watched Casablanca many times in the years between my first viewing and college, but I still found the film to be enjoyable. But I was surprised, when the film reached it’s climax and the twists were coming fast and furious, almost the entire class gasped when the plot took a particularly dramatic turn. I thought everyone should have seen this film already. I mean, it’s a classic, right?

Well, just like plenty of people have never listened to classical music it seems plenty of people don’t watch classic movies either. But even if you never watch any other black and white film let me encourage you to watch Casablanca.

Plot summary time – Casablanca is a film set in World War II. It begins with the murder of two German curriers carrying important documents, which will help a famous member of the anti-Nazi underground, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henried), escape to the United States. The Nazis, working together with Unoccupied France, are aiming to keep him from “spreading lies” outside of Europe.

Events come to a head at Rick’s, owned by Richard Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). As a U.S. ex-pat, Rick feels he has no stake in the political conflict playing out at the tables of his cafe. But it turns out he has a personal one when Lazlo is accompanied by Rick’s old flame Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). He’ll have to sort out his loyalties and feelings before all is said and done.

On the face of it, Casablanca could turn out to be a horrible movie. It’s got a lot of trite plot elements – love triangle, club owner, Nazis. But the writing is brilliant and develops the main story, and a wealth of side stories, in a staggeringly short period of time, maintaining dramatic tension with aplomb. Of course, the tension may hang together simply because the writers didn’t have an ending until right before it was filmed.

Casablanca is a classic in the way it shows the conflict in its characters. Rick’s not the only one who doesn’t know how to deal with the situation. Practically everyone but the hardline resistance members and Nazis seem to be of two minds about what they want – respect or profit, romance or cause, a dozen or more conflicts plague the characters and they never come out with pat answers. We see them struggle and bobble them right up until the end.

More than that, Casablanca entertains. Where so many movies could wander into melodrama or preachiness, Casablanca concentrates on making sure we enjoy every step from beginning to end. From Claude Rains’ fantastic performance as Louie, the Prefect of Police, to the musical battle between Lazlo and the Nazi Major, we smile, we laugh, we are engaged.

Casablanca is a great movie for the writer, as well. The characters are well built, introduced and developed. The dialog is good and the dramatic tension is great, deliberate or not. The next time you need a film for the weekend you could do much worse than this classic.

Water Fall: Ashes to Ashes

Seven Weeks, One Day before the Michigan Avenue Proclomation

Helix

Normally I don’t leave funerals too mad to see straight. But burying Mona Templeton, my friend of four years and wife of a man who had been my friend for even longer, after she was killed in the line of duty a week before was not a normal experience. Sometimes life seems monotonous, but death – that’s different every time you see it. The fact that Mona was dead was bad enough, the fact that she had been killed by what is known, in official government circles, as a conspiring traitor but we field agents tend to call a megalomaniacal asshole just made it worse. On top of that, since Mona’s job was as a field analyst for a government agency that doesn’t technically exist, she couldn’t even be given public credit for all the great work she’d done. It’s not just a case of waiting until the files are declassified before the truth is told, the Federal Government’s official stance was that nothing we did would ever be made public. Being an unsung hero may sound romantic, but when one of your friends become one it looses some of that shine.

But the real kicker was the whole Senate Oversight Committee, that nonexistent government body overseeing our nonexistent government office, putting in an appearance. They stood around and looked stricken, shook hands with the family, mouthed platitudes, gave a dozen and one offhand lies to explain their presence. Then they came and shook hands with me. Told me they were sure this tragic situation would be handled soon. They had every confidence in my ability to see things through. As if they had any idea what the real situation was. As if I needed any encouragement to find Open Circuit, who had been slipping away from me for eight years, who had just killed my friend and fellow agent.

It’s not like I didn’t lay them out on the ground because I wasn’t angry. Or because I had a weird sort of mutual respect/dislike society going with their ringleader, Senator Brahms Dawson. Or even because, for all their inability to see the forest for their egos getting in the way, they were still United States Senators and technically due some sort of respect for that.

It was because Mona and Darryl Templeton, and their families, deserved better than that.

I took hold of that reason, simple but sturdy, and wedged it between myself and my temper and somehow made it through the memorial service. But as soon as it was done I stalked out of the funeral home and into the parking lot, where I found the first luxury car around and kicked it’s tires until my foot hurt. Then I sat down on the sidewalk and sulked. Throwing a tantrum wasn’t helping any, but my dad said it never did so maybe that shouldn’t have been a surprise.

“You’re lucky all the security guards are inside.”

The voice barged into my thoughts, prompting me to come back to reality. I looked up to find a tall, athletic African American man, my former boss Robert Sanders. We went way back, me and Sanders, and the memories were not exactly fond ones. “What do you want, Sanders?”

“To talk to you,” he said, taking a seat on the curb next to me. “Although I’m regretting it more every second.”

“So make us both happy and go away.”

“You know sidewalks outside funeral homes are built six inches higher than standard?” He fished around in one of his suit’s jacket pockets and pulled out a lighter and a package of cigarettes. “It makes it easier for men to come out and cry on them.”

I snorted. “Really?”

“I just made it up.” He tapped out a cigarette. “You listening now, or you want to go break your foot on another tire? I can wait.”

“Since when did you start smoking again? I thought you gave it up.”

“Since Mona died.” He flicked the lighter and a flame popped into existence.

Unreasonably annoyed by it, I reached out and stuck my finger into the flame, barely hot enough to register as a dip in the flat, low expanse of the surrounding temperature. Thanks to my native gift with heat, instead of getting a nasty burn I forced the temperature of the flame back down to a moderate seventyish degrees, extinguishing it. “Don’t use Mona’s death as an excuse for your bad behavior.”

Sanders shot me a look that was pure venom. I met him with my normal sour face. For a minute, to anyone passing by, we probably looked like we were about to start pounding each other. In fact, for a brief second I thought that’s what it was going to come to, and I was okay with that. At five foot three, one hundred and thirty pounds, I was easily loosing to Sanders in terms of reach, weight, muscle and to be honest, probably skill. However I could also bend a two inch thick bar of iron with my bare hands just by forcing it to melt, and he couldn’t. Being able to push the thermometer around has its perks.

But whether he just wanted to avoid third degree burns, he was still a little more into the spirit of the occasion than I was or he was just too tired for a scrap, after a minute or two of glaring Sanders threw his cigarette on the ground and tucked his lighter away. “You know, I said I wasn’t in the mood for this today.”

“To who?”

“I gave it up for Mona, you know.” I assumed he meant smoking, as the statement didn’t really apply to his mood.

“I didn’t.” I thought about that for a second. “Wait, wasn’t that two years ago? Or have you been on-again-off-again when I wasn’t looking?”

“I didn’t know you cared enough to pay attention, Helix.”

“I don’t.” We were dancing around some issue that Sanders obviously wanted to avoid but I didn’t know enough to guess at what that was, so I played along.

“It was actually almost three and a half years ago.” He fidgeted for a minute. “She said I couldn’t stick with anything and I wanted to prove her wrong.”

“So you quit smoking for three and a half years.” I stared at him for a minute. I knew Sanders had been interested in Mona back when she joined the Project. There wasn’t anything unusual about that, Sanders was interested in just about any woman that joined the Project. But Mona already knew Darryl at the time and most of us considered their marriage just a matter of time. Until that moment I’d never suspected Sanders had been any different. “That’s a little bit extreme, don’t you think?”

“Yeah. I guess.” He forced a weak smile. “But that all’s probably pretty boring to you, isn’t it?”

And now he was concerned about me. I wasn’t sure how many more shocks my system could take, especially since I was pretty worn out as it was. So I got to my feet and motioned for him to do the same. “Come on Sanders, you need to get the heart moving. There’s obviously not enough blood going to the brain right now.”

“Funny.” He slowly climbed to his feet anyway.

“Like you’ve been doing any better.”

“My jokes are usually good. Yours never are.” He was still subdued but some of the usual animation was coming back into his features. “Helix, I need you to back us up on something.”

“Alright.” Sanders wasn’t my boss anymore, but he’s entitled to a certain amount of solidarity just because, like me, he’s been doing this job practically forever. Still, there are certain questions to be asked. “Who’s us?”

“Darryl and I. We need you to help us convince the Senate Committee to-”

“Hold up.” I cut him off with a raised hand. “We are talking about the Committee headed up by Senator Dawson? The man who hates me? Who’s handpicked protégé joined Project Sumter and got me as a watchdog to make sure she wasn’t causing mischief? That Committee?”

“That’s the one,” Sanders said with a grim nod of the head.

I laughed in disbelieve. “Sanders, where in all that did you hear anything that makes you think those people are going to let me convince them of anything?”

“Because you’re the talent with the highest case closure rate and most talents discovered in the Midwest. If we go by talents found, you’re highest in the nation, at least on active duty. Darryl’s head of the Midwest Analysis department. I have the most seniority among field team oversight agents.” I snorted but Sanders pressed on before I could say anything more. “At least as soon as the paperwork goes through and I am officially oversight for Gearshift, that new guy you found a couple of weeks ago. The Committee isn’t a monolithic group, Helix, there’s only one other senator firmly on Dawson’s side. One usually sides with Voorman and two waver back and fourth. Getting Teresa into the Project used up a lot of Dawson’s political capitol, if we push now he’ll have a hard time standing up to three very senior agents if we present a united front.”

That actually sounded legit. Sanders is better at political manipulations than I am, in fact he’s been the point political agent for Michael Voorman, our Senior Special Liaison, since he made Senior Special Agent, so I was willing to take his assessment on faith. Not that I was about to admit that. So I adopted a skeptical tone and said, “Right. What exactly are we convincing them to do?”

“Let Darryl join one of our field teams and participate in the hunt for Open Circuit.”

“What?” 

A note for those thinking of joining Project Sumter or any other secretive branch of the Federal Government’s alphabet soup: No matter how preposterous the things that come up in the course of doing you job, you should not scream when discussing them. Especially in broad daylight while you are standing in a public place.

I grabbed hold of myself and lowered my voice back to a low murmur. “That’s a horrible idea, Sanders! Why would we do that? Why would they let us?”

“Because we’re going to-”

No, we’re not,” I snapped, grabbing him by the front of his jacket and pulling him down to something a little more like eye level. “Listen, Sanders, they make those rules for a reason. Usually, good reasons, and the rule that an emotionally compromised investigator gets pulled off a case is one of the good ones. Darryl’s wife has been killed. If that’s not emotionally compromised, I don’t know what is.”

Sanders retaliated by grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking, which left me a little woozy since he still definitely had all the reach and mass over me. “I know all that. But don’t you think he deserves a chance to see this to the end?”

“Deserves? Don’t give me deserves, Sanders.” I shoved him back a step, or more likely I pushed and he took a step back to humor me. “Nothing in Project Sumter runs on what people deserve. Talents don’t deserve to hide their whole lives, they don’t deserve to have no future in the ranks than Special Agent just because Abraham Lincoln wanted to make a symbolic point a hundred and fifty years ago. Mona didn’t deserve to get killed in the line of duty. But we’re trying to do things right, and if Darryl goes back out into the field he’s going to miss things, make dumb decisions and possibly even get more people killed. That’s not right, and I’m not going to help you two make it happen.”

“And that’s the end of it?” Sanders shook his head. “Helix, he’s been on your side since the day you joined up.”

“I know. That’s why I’m on his now. Whether he realizes it or not.”

With a sigh, Sanders held up his hands. “I get you, Helix. Really, I wasn’t expecting much different. But I said I’d try.”

A group of four other people were coming out of funeral home, one split off and came our way, the other three went in the other direction. I nodded at them, smoothing my suit out as I did. “We should probably get back in there. People will wonder where we went.”

Sanders nodded, performed a similar check on his own suit and followed me back towards the entrance. As we passed him, the man coming our way reached up, as if to tip a hat he wasn’t wearing, and said in a gruff voice, “My condolences, Mr. Hoffman.”

I wavered a half step, giving the man a closer look. He didn’t seem immediately familiar – I’d remember if I ever met anyone with hair that red. Then he was past me, heading down the sidewalk. The rear door of the car at the end of the street popped open and let him in, then he disappeared from view when it slammed closed.

“Did he think you were someone else?” Sanders asked.

“Daniel Hoffman is the name on this year’s fake driver’s license,” I replied, still staring at the car as it drove off. “But I don’t know why he’d know it.”

“Maybe he knows the Templetons, and they mentioned it?”

“Maybe.” I shook my head and started back towards the funeral home. “Not important right now. Let it go.”

——–

Circuit

I climbed into the back seat of the car, resisting the urge to take my nonexistent hat off. I was heavily disguised with makeup and wig, and that’s pointless if you continue to dress like you always do, so I had given up my hat with reluctance.

“You look strange with red hair.”

I glanced at the young lady who had made the pronouncement. “I would look even more strange if we were pulled over and the police found me with black hair and red eyebrows.” Although I very nearly had to sit on my hands to keep from scratching at the makeup holding the false eyebrows and built-up bridge of my nose in place. Instead, I cleared my throat, trying to get a more normal tone of voice back after the gravelly accent I’d used the few times I’d spoken in the last two hours. “And I’m not sure you’ve really known me long enough to be a reliable judge of whether I look strange or not, Hangman.”

“I’ve been following you a lot longer than you think, Circuit. You look strange.” She absently flipped her hair over one shoulder and began working it into a braid. Even dressed in worn and frankly tacky clothing, the gloss in her brunette hair, manicure on her fingers and general air of good health stood out as hints to her upper middle class upbringing. She was just as out of place in the beat up old car as I was, which worried me as we couldn’t afford any kind of scrutiny from anyone at the moment. There was too much that was too close to completion to deal with complications at the moment.

I leaned forward in my seat to talk to the driver, Heavy Water, a massive African-American man who ran point on most of my field operations. “Heavy, is this car safe?”

“Bought with cash two weeks ago, six states away, boss,” he said without hesitation. “So far as I can tell the closest it’s ever gotten to breaking the law is going a few miles over the speed limit – and I’m not sure it can even do that anymore.”

“That’s fine then.” I sat back in the car seat. “I just wanted to be sure you didn’t use your own unique abilities to find us transportation. Not that I normally object, of course.”

“Sure thing, boss. I know how to lay low.”

Hangman fidgeted for a moment, then said, “So, were you seen?”

“Of course. I could hardly help that.” I gave her a reassuring smile. “But I wasn’t recognized, and I don’t think I will be again.”

“Oh. Good.” She glanced away, but I could see the curiosity eating away at her, so I was prepared for the next question when it came. “What were the loose ends you were taking care of?”

I was prepared for her to ask the question. That didn’t mean I wanted to answer it. For a moment I indulged in cowardice and just stared out the window at the city streets rolling by. Then, finally I said, “I went to pay my respects.”

“To who?”

“A woman who died recently.” The buildings outside were more rundown than when we had started out but as we went along they were slowly improving again. I took a deep breath, reminding myself it was foolish to believe in signs, especially when I only payed attention to those I liked. “She was killed in the line of duty. I didn’t know her personally, but she was a very admirable woman.”

“Oh.” She paused again and I laid my head back on the headrest and closed my eyes. “What killed her?”