Giving Thanks

Tomorrow is the day Americans set aside as a time to give thanks for all the blessings we have received. Thanksgiving is a time of remembrance, family and yes, thanks. I’m thankful for many things, not the least of which is you readers, but I’m afraid that the holidays leave little time for other activities. So there will be no further posts this week. I look forward to seeing you all back here on December 2nd for the next chapter of Water Fall. Thanks!

Water Fall: Hot Air

Six Weeks Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Helix

I set my keys down on the end table in the hallway and went into the living room, taking a seat in the chair. Darryl shifted a bit on the sofa so we were looking more or less across at one another. Or at least, we could look right at each other if we wanted to, we avoided it at first. I cracked my knuckles, working the joints long past the point where there was any tension left in them, and finally found the courage to ask, “What brings you to my place tonight, Darryl?”

If my showing no surprise at finding him was bothering Darryl, he didn’t show it. Didn’t show much of anything, really, just carefully set his cane on the floor and leaned it against the sofa. Darryl is in charge of the regional Analysis office, and the job was high stress before he lost his wife. After all, it involves managing nearly sixty people with genius level intelligence and an unusually good ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated facts. They’re smart, they know it and yet sometimes their connections to reality are tenuous at best.

The last time I’d seen him before Mona died, he’d taken to using the cane and his hair and beard were starting to go gray around the edges. He was getting close to fifty, which wasn’t all that old, but if he always looked a little older than he was I chalked that up to the car accident he was in a few years ago and the stress of his job. Now the only color in his hair was gray and it seemed to be loosing the battle against the white rushing in; even sitting I could tell he was developing a stoop.

But the physical changes weren’t what bothered me most. He clearly had no idea what he should say. This is the man who started planning his wife’s birthday party three months in advance, had a gift sign-up sheet and made sure the new lamp and sofa she was getting were color coordinated. Darryl lives to plan things out in advance. But he’d shown up to talk to me with nothing in mind. He was falling apart before my eyes and I hated to see it.

“I’m sorry I didn’t stay longer at the funeral,” I blurted out, trying desperately to fill the silence. “I just spent a lot of time with people who rubbed me the wrong way and after the-”

“It’s all right,” Darryl said, finding his voice at last. “I really wasn’t that excited about talking to most of them, either.”

And that was pretty much all there was to say about that. “How are you do-”

“That’s a stupid question, and you know it.” He had me there. Obviously he wasn’t doing very well, and we were both smart enough to know it. I just couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Helix, I’m not here for platitudes.”

“No?” I had a feeling I knew what he was there for but I didn’t want to ask.

“No.” Darryl pulled his gaze away from his cane so he could look me in the eyes. It was like staring into a blast furnace. Trust me, I’ve done it. “I need you to do me a favor.”

That was what I’d been afraid of. “Darryl…”

“Let me do something, Helix.” There was a weird tone to his voice. It was like conviction, except darker. The only time I’d heard anything remotely like it; it had been coming from Circuit. “Let me help catch him. Let me back in the field!”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” I saw the indignation building up in his eyes and realized that had been a poor choice of words. I hurried to try and smooth things over. “Look at yourself, Darryl, you’re just not physically fit for that kind of work any more.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Darryl snapped, thumping his cane on the floor. “We’re short on field analysts and most of them are too mentally unstable to cut it out there. Voorman’s willing to give me a chance if we can get the Senate Committee to make an exception and let me into this investigation.”

“Well I’m not!” I slammed a hand down on the armrest of the chair and swore. “You’re in no condition to go out into the field. It doesn’t matter if you’re physically or mentally unable to keep up, you’re a liability either way!”

“Helix, there’s no one in the Project who’s been an analyst for Circuit’s cases longer than I have!”

I sighed. “That’s got nothing to do with it, Darryl. In the field-”

“I need to do something.”Darryl got up with a sudden jerk and I followed as he teetered unsteadily, as if he didn’t know what to do now that he was upright. He got his cane on the floor before I had to catch him, but it was a near thing. “You can’t sideline me on this. It was my wife-”

“Do not use Mona as an excuse,” I snapped. “You just want to get even. We’ve both been in this business long enough to know how that works out.”

For just a second I thought I was about to get hit with Darryl’s cane, and I might even have deserved it, but he managed to stop the motion before it was more than a spasm of his arm. “I am not trying to excuse anything,” he said in a dangerous tone, voice little more than a whisper. “I am going to find that man. And I am going to bring him to justice.”

I ran a hand over my face, wondering when the day would be over. This could have gone a lot better if I wasn’t so tired from the last few days. Weeks. Years, really. “Go home, Darryl. I know that Frostburn and Coldspike came by with a new boss who was offering you a job. If their boss wants to get some fresh faced kids killed working with you, that’s his call. I’m not doing it. If you were half the man I thought you were, you wouldn’t want to do it either.”

 “Fine.” There was an ocean of meaning in that one word. I couldn’t meet his eyes so I stared away and into the kitchen. I heard his cane tapping on the floor, then the sound of the door closing behind him. I glanced at my watch and realized I’d managed to ruin a friendship in less than five minutes.

——–

After Darryl left I found I couldn’t sit still. I tried to cook up some salmon for dinner and wound up fumbling with the vacuum sealed packaging on it for five minutes until I accidentally melted it into a semi-toxic mess in a moment of frustration. After glaring at it for a second like the fish was somehow to blame I tossed the whole mess in the garbage and changed out of my suit and into a comfortable set of sweats, grabbed the key to my workshop off the key rack in the closet and headed downstairs intending to burn off as much frustration as I could with hammer and power tools.

Unfortunately a much more convenient target showed itself before I could get out of the building.

I took the stairs down to the lobby instead of riding the elevator. It was only four flights and driving mad is never a good idea so I figured the exercise could only help. Maybe if I’d taken the elevator I would have missed Teresa on her way up, and maybe that would have been for the better. As it was, I nearly ran her down as I stalked through the small ground floor lobby of my building.

Apparently my mood at the moment was close enough to normal that she didn’t immediately tumble to the fact something was up, because as I stalked past she cheerfully waved at me with the folder she was holding. “Helix! Good timing.”

Now it goes without saying that anyone who deals with criminals and information control on a regular basis develops a certain amount of professional paranoia as a matter of survival. And we at Project Sumter have more than most. So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that I felt like I’d walked into a set up. It sure seemed like Teresa was confirming it when she said, “I brought the paperwork for the-”

And I couldn’t stand it anymore. At the word paperwork I grabbed the folder so fast I could still see the afterimage of me grabbing while I was throwing it into the trashcan by the elevator. Yes, it was incredibly therapeutic.

Judging by Teresa’s slack-jawed expression it was also not what she was expecting.

“What is this, Teresa?” There weren’t any other people in the lobby at that exact moment but longstanding force of habit kept me from raising my voice. I settled for crowding her a lot closer than I would usually get to someone who knows what I can do and using the harshest tone I could manage when talking in a whisper. “Darryl makes sense, and even Sanders, but what the hell are you doing sticking your nose in this?”

“What? Sanders wasn’t-”

I lashed out to the side, smashing my fist into the frame of the elevator door and sending a spike of pain lancing up my arm. “Don’t tell me he didn’t put you up to this. Who else-” A new, even worse idea occurred to me. “Is this some kind of stupid political play? Is Dawson trying to get Darryl fired or disgraced or something?”

“Is Brahms-” Teresa shook her head, confusion giving way to frustration. “Look, I don’t know what the deal is between you and Senator Dawson, but he’s not in the business of playing games with what he thinks is important. And that includes Project Sumter.”

“Then tell me what’s going on here!” I jabbed a finger at her accusingly. “What good can it possibly do to drag a grieving man out into the meat grinder? Circuit’s ruined hundreds of people’s lives in his crazy attempt to do whatever it is he thinks he’s doing. Darryl’s got enough to deal with trying to put himself back together he can’t possibly do any good coping with a megalomaniac on top of that.”

Suddenly the whole mess was more than I could take and I found myself walking away, back towards the stairs, without realizing I’d decided to storm out. You’re really not supposed to walk out on your supervisor like that but by the same token once you’re mad enough to actually do it the supervisor is supposed to let you go cool you head for a bit, kind of as a matter of courtesy. It’s an unwritten rule.

Teresa apparently never read the unwritten rulebook, because I’d barely gone five steps when I heard her heels clacking on the floor behind me.

If there’s one downside of being a short guy – okay, one downside of being a short guy that’s particularly important in times like these – it’s that you can’t do a good job of glowering at anyone who’s taller than you. You also can’t really loom over them or do a good job of growling out threats. So when you’re mad and you need to prove it to someone exploding is pretty much the only option you have.

I skidded to a stop and whirled around, shouting, “The answer is no! I don’t care who asks, or why! I’m not going to sign off on Darryl going out in the field again. He’s a wreck and he’s going to get himself killed. Don’t ask me to give the okay on burying him next to his wife! It’s not worth it-”

“Helix, shut up,” Teresa said, grabbing my arms by the elbows as I flailed them aimlessly in the air. “You’re sinking.”

More than the fact that she managed to grab me by my elbows, which can’t have been an easy shot, or what she was saying what really got my attention was her tone of voice. She wasn’t yelling, wasn’t hissing under her breath, wasn’t even using a lecturing tone like I might get in a dressing down from Voorman or Sanders. It was an even, pleasant, almost banal kind of a voice, like you might use when discussing the weather. Or highly classified government secrets while in a very public place. It was out of place enough to get my attention.

And as soon as she had it I realized she was right. The air around my hands was shimmering like a blacktop driveway on a hot day in July. I’d subconsciously formed a small heat sink, not even hot enough to boil water but still enough that someone might notice if I leaned on a wall and made the paint bubble or something. It was also why she’d grabbed me at my elbows, rather than my wrists. I exhaled slowly and did my best to loosen up. The heat around me relaxed and trickled back to its normal placement.

“Helix,” Teresa said, speaking quietly and making sure she had my attention before she went on. “I’m not here to talk to you about Darryl. I’m not entirely sure what you’re talking about there, although I can guess.”

“You’re not.” I stared at her for a moment, trying to get a read on her expression and finding I was way too wound up to pull it off. “Why are you here, then?”

She let go of my arms and took a step back, straightening her suit out with quick, practiced gestures that disguised the way she quickly glanced around to make sure we were still alone. Once she was sure we were she said, “Three days ago a military convoy in Nebraska was robbed by a flying man.”

“That’s not possible,” I said, then immediately wanted to kick myself. Most people would say that about heat sinks like me.

“That’s what the Inland West office said, too. But in the process of interviewing the guards it turns out he could also make lightning arc from light fixtures into people.” She raised an eyebrow. “It’s a bit different, but still sounds familiar, am I right?”

It was a bit different from what I’d experienced on Diversy Street a few weeks ago, at least in scale, but she was right. It did sound a lot like Circuit. “When are we going out to look?”

“Hold up.” She put a hand on my shoulder and lowered her voice. “Are you sure you’re ready for this? We can send someone else if we really have to. It’s basically just a postmortem at this point, Circuit’s long gone.”

I nodded slowly. “I’m good, Teresa.”

“Helix.” Her eyes flicked away for a moment and she took a deep breath. “Look, I know a few things about survivor’s guilt. You know about my dad. And he…”

He was her only family, before he ran into a serial killer. I’d always assumed her job was part of a search for closure. Now I wondered if it was something more. “Yeah, I know. This isn’t the first time I’ve lost a fellow agent, Teresa. I was closer to Mona than most. But I’ve dealt with this before.”

She slid her hands down until she was holding mine, a surprisingly trusting gesture given what had just happened, then looked back up at me and I saw a glimpse of raw pain in her eyes. “It wasn’t your fault.”

I wasn’t sure which of us she was talking to. For a second we stood there, looking like we were sharing some sort of intimate moment, feeling like a mess. Then I realized something. “Teresa, did I just throw the file on that hijacking into the trash?”

“What? Oh, yeah, you did.”

I stepped away and quickly fished it out after hitting the elevator call button. For some reason I felt too drained to go back up to my apartment by stair. “Okay, let me grab my go bag and I’ll be right back down with you.”

“Helix. You’re sure you’re fine?”

The question was asked with all her usual polite calm. So I nodded and said, “Sure.”

After all, if she could lie about her feelings, so could I.

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Genrely Speaking: Urban Fantasy

When people think of fantasy they generally think of something like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. In other words, they think of something where the fantastic elements of the story stand pretty much on their own, and are only contrasted with the technology, culture and standards of the mundane world we live in superficially, if at all. However the genre of urban fantasy exists to do pretty much the opposite. While it includes many of the things that the average person associates with fantasy, it puts them in a much different context from the typical fantasy yarn. Oddly enough by doing so urban fantasy actually bears more resemblance to the early folktales that inspired modern fantasy than most modern fantasies do. After all, the people who originally listened to folk tales heard stories about people living much like they did interacting with fantastic creatures and forces.

So, for the purposes of discussions on this blog what defines Urban Fantasy?

  1. The story takes place in a city or large town that would be recognizable to the average citizen of a first world country. It doesn’t have to be a real city or town, nor does it even have to exist on Earth as we know it although that certainly helps, the important part s that the people have access to and be familiar with the trappings that make modern culture tick. Things like modern telecommunications, transportation and mass media are as much a part of urban fantasy as the fantasy elements are. Part of what defines the story is the conflict between recognizable culture and everything else.
  2. The story includes at least one element of myth or magic. This is the “everything else” mentioned a second ago. Whether it be gremlins in the sewers, wizards hiding as librarians or who knows what else, some aspect of the fantastic has to exist as a contrast to the recognizable, modern world. There can be only one fantastic element or many, they can be known to the world at large or hiding in carefully maintained obscurity, they can replace one or two mundane elements such as when teleportation magic replaces cars, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the contrast between modern society and the fantastic.
  3. There must be conflict over how the world will define itself. In short, the first two bullet points tend to be in conflict. Modern society isn’t really built with the fantastic taken into account. Sure, many people would like to have magic powers or be able to shapeshift, but the fact is our society currently doesn’t have the measures in place to police and protect such people from each other or the public at large. All kinds of issues creep out of this. The attempt to strike or maintain a balance that lets both sides exists peacefully is often at the core of urban fantasy.

What are the weaknesses of urban fantasy? First, it has a tendency to become obsessed with it’s fantastic elements. In order to explain how such things could coexist with modern society magic tends to become an uberpowerful fix-all, or vampires wind up holding all positions of political/financial/cultural power or something else that makes the everyman totally irrelevant to the story. While there’s nothing wrong with characters who are exceptional, in fact exceptional characters are pretty much a requirement of good fiction, cutting the everyman out of the story entirely makes it very hard for your audience to become invested. More than anything else, that must be managed.

Second, many urban fantasies feels similar. They frequently begin with, or arrive at, the All Myths are True trope. This is at least in part because they rely so heavily on their fantastic elements and, like all successful book franchises, run as long as the publishers think they can get away with. The constant need for new material keeps authors grabbing new ideas from mythology, but they tend to choose things that readers will be mostly familiar with. This is why there are so many werewolves and vampires in the genre, to give just one example. The best urban fantasies pick one shtick and try and stick with it. A great example are the October Daye books by Seanen McGuire.

What are the strengths of urban fantasy? Well, the author doesn’t need to spend a lot of time bringing the audience up to date with obscure culture or political situations, at least most of the time, because the characters are probably already living in an Earth a lot like our own. This leaves more time for developing characters and plot.

But most of all it makes the characters a lot more accessible to the reader. No one in the last three or four hundred years has spent their lives wishing to get out of their squiring to a drunken knight or cleaning out stables while wishing they could be a squire. The characters in an urban fantasy have problems similar to what readers have, or readers will at least know someone who’s had similar problems. When new, extraordinary problems come up it will make it easier to relate to how the characters are coping. The same goes for all other aspects of the story, not just the character’s problems.

All in all, urban fantasy is a great genre for people who love to tell fantasy stories but don’t feel confident in tackling all the world building needed for high fantasy. It’s also great for people who love more character driven stories and don’t want to bother keeping track of all the cultural, historical and political baggage that seems to come with so many other genres of fantasy. Lastly, if you’re just cutting your teeth on the fantastic it’s a great way to start.

Cool Things: Help Desk

Webcomics are a mixed lot, and that’s actually one way they resemble traditional comics. Some, like Girl Genius, are works of fantastic storytelling and art. Others, like Help Desk, use only the most basic of illustrations to convey a much more pointed theme – in this case, satire.

Help Desk follows the labors of Alex and his fellow tech support workers as they struggle to deal with the problems of the customers of Ubersoft, a software giant peddling the Nifty Doorways operating system that has a nearly unchecked stranglehold on the existing computer market. If this sounds unsubtle, that’s because it is. Help Desk never aspires to subtlety, not when the owner and operator of the company is identified as the Dark Lord of Ubersoft, a being dedicated to bringing despair and agony to mankind. Neither is story a major concern, many of the comics themes are ripped straight from current events in the technology world.

So why read it at all? Well, I’m glad you asked.

First off, if you’re not a geek or IT worker, it’s a great way to get a quick and highly enjoyable overview of some of the things that are happening in that field. Sure, it’s been running for a while now and not all the stuff in the archives is up-to-date or relevant anymore, but a surprising amount of it has held up well. Technology companies still rely as much on legalese to make money as actual product, at least in America, and IT workers still try and place as much of the blame as possible on the user and not the company, although to be fair a lot of mishaps are our fault.

Second, Help Desk is funny in a dry, self depreciating sort of a way. The author is getting by only because life is full of little absurdities for him to poke at, and he knows it. So he’s careful to make sure the comic itself is just absurd enough to let readers know he doesn’t take it seriously, without weakening it’s ability to satirize.

Warning: While most of the time Help Desk is about poking fun at Microsoft, other technology companies are by no means exempt. If seeing Saint Jobs get a little good-natured ribbing offends you in some way, perhaps you should steer clear…

So the next time you catch yourself setting your coffee in your DVD-ROM tray or trying to boot a desktop that hasn’t been plugged in, go ahead and take a few minutes to laugh at yourself. Then take a moment’s satisfaction in knowing you aren’t as bad as those jokers on Help Desk and get on with your day. It’ll be a little brighter for it, I’m sure.

Water Fall: Cold Leads

Six Weeks Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Helix

After four days we were almost done. Circuit had left information on nearly a hundred different pieces of property among the papers we’d recovered from his warehouse a few weeks ago. But so far digging into the real estate agents and owners of those properties hadn’t turned anything up. The last stop we were making was also the most significant.  Keller Development held almost a third of the properties on Circuit’s list and of those, the firm had acquired more than half in the last six months.  All things considered Analysis felt that they had the best chance of being a front, patsy or even co-conspirator in whatever Circuit was doing.

It had also taken longest to get an appointment with them, although that didn’t mean much either way as they were also the largest firm we’d been dealing with. In addition to it’s multiple commercial and residential real estate holdings, Keller’s also owned a medium sized stretch of waterfront, the marina there was where the firm’s founders had gotten their start. While he had few holdings outside the county the owner, Roger Keller, was still something of a political force in the city. Project Sumter was an agency of the national government but that didn’t mean we didn’t like to maintain good local relations as well, so asking questions without drawing heat was going to be a priority. I was planning on letting Teresa do most of the talking.

Provided, of course, she could stay awake for the interview. She’d slept through almost the entire drive to the Keller offices, and I was hoping the hour of rest would help her keep her mind clear. We had nothing so far and I was hoping that things would be different by the time we were done.

Even so, I hesitated to wake her up after putting the car into park and switching off the engine. She’d proven a remarkably sharp, aggressive and reliable supervisor in the time I’d worked with her but I knew she was what she was because she also came with baggage. While I have something most people would consider a superpower I don’t have much in the way of emotional trauma to go with it. Sure, some people might say I have a chip on my shoulder but I suspect that has more to do with being short and scrawny than anything else.

On the other hand, Teresa had set out to get the job she had in part as a way to cope. Not doing it, or doing it badly, would probably be worse for her in the long run than loosing a little sleep. I nudged her gently. “Teresa. We’re here.”

Asleep she looked remarkably peaceful but as soon as she snapped awake layers of stress started to roll down over her face, followed by the fine tuned professionalism that kept the old troubles in and new ones out.  It was kind of sad to watch, really. “Good. We’re here,” she said, rubbing grit from her eyes. I glanced away, Teresa always stretches after sitting for a while and it’s the kind of thing that leads red blooded guys to stare in ways that would get me smacked by my dad and chewed out by my mom. “Where are we?”

Okay, so there was a crack in the usual professional façade. “Last place on the list of real estate developers.” I grabbed the stack of folders in the back seat and flipped through them until I found the right one. “You feeling okay there, boss?”

“Just tired.” She took the folder from me and got out of the car.

I followed suit after putting the other folders back. “Do you remember which one that is?”

“Uh…”

I stopped, more than a little surprised. This wasn’t just a crack in the façade, this was starting to look like a full blown break. I turned and looked at her over the top of my old, beat up Ford Escort. “Look, Teresa, I know you’re old friends with Senator Dawson and his family. His daughter was your friend, got you this job, helped you live the dream. But if you stay up all night kibitzing on the investigation into her disappearance you’re going to be too tired to learn anything that will help with her case; to say nothing of the one you’re actually assigned to.”

A flicker of irritation passed under her mask of propriety, another troubling crack in her usual aura of competence. “Helix-”

“I’m serious. We need your A game here.” I shrugged. “I’m not going to say no one I’ve known in the Project has ever taken on extra curricular investigations, because that would make me a liar. But you can’t let it interfere with your assignments.”

She sighed. “Okay, fine. Your advice is appreciated.”

“Good.” I pushed off the car and headed for the building, a tall, well built place with a bunch of architectural flourishes like columns and shaped blocks which probably have technical terms of some sort. Me, I didn’t know them but I could tell it was a fancy place.

But local development firms, even fairly prosperous ones, didn’t need an entire building like that for their offices. They did take up the whole top floor, though. As we waited for the elevator in the lobby Teresa said, “So I didn’t read the brief on this place. Bring me up to speed.”

“Sure.” I took the folder and flipped it open to the most relevant statistics as we stepped into the elevator and Teresa punched in our destination. “Keller owns a large number of the properties we’re looking into, most of the commercial buildings and at least half of the smaller rental properties. They don’t deal in private real estate, so none of the houses on the list have-”

“Wait.” I glanced up from the file to find Teresa looking a bit like a deer in the headlights. “These are the Keller Development offices?”

“Yes…” I flipped the folder back closed slowly. “This is probably the most important interview in the batch and anything significant learned here is just going to wind up in our laps anyway. I figured we might as well do the legwork ourselves and kept it for us when handing out assignments.”

Teresa sighed and rubbed a thumb along the bridge of her nose. “Helix, I know you looked into my background when I first joined up.”

I could feel myself blushing a little. “Look, that was-”

“I’m not complaining because it was entirely justified given the circumstances,” she said, ignoring me completely. “But I’m surprised you didn’t come up with the names Keller, Sykes and Oldfather.”

With a sinking feeling I started to suspect where this conversation was going. The elevator opened with a cheerful ding and I instinctively stuck out a hand to keep the door from closing as I said, “I’ve heard of Roger Keller before. Who hasn’t, around here? But Sykes and Oldfather are mysteries to me.”

“You must have done a really roundabout job investigating, then.” She shook her head and stepped out into the lobby. “I can understand not knowing Kevin Oldfather, but Matthew Sykes? You’ve really never heard of him?”

“Can’t say as I have.”

“Then you are in luck.” I turned and found a middle aged man in a wheel chair making his way across the lobby towards us. While Keller Development’s lobby was full of low benches and potted plants that should have made maneuvering across the floor a challenge for him; he handled the obstacles with something approaching grace and all the while kept his face turned towards the two of us. The face in question had a sleepy, relaxed look. “I’ve heard of Matthew Sykes,” he added, in case we had been wondering. “Few know more about him than me, in fact, seeing as I am him.”

Teresa made a funny squeaking sound that I did my best to cover for. “Quite a coincidence, Mr. Sykes,” I said, nudging Herrera in the hope that she would calm down a bit. “Do you work for Mr. Keller, or are you an associate?”

“Work for-” He laughed, the chair rolling to a stop.

“Mr. Sykes is the owner of Sykes Telecommunications, Hel-” Teresa caught herself before she used my codename in public and smoothly turned it into something else. “He owns one of the largest fiber optic networks in the state, among other things.”

“Oh. I’m sorry, I hadn’t heard your name before.”

“Not a problem, really,” Sykes said, wheeling himself the last few feet over to us. He was wearing a light gray suit and matching tie that looked expensive enough but, by contrast, his wheelchair was a very basic metal and fabric thing. Not what I would have expected from a well moneyed business man. At the very least I would have expected something self propelled, although from the looks of his hands and upper body Matthew Sykes was benefiting from the exercise. “STC is primarily based in Springfield. We’ve been expanding in this area over the last several years but we’re hardly a household name yet. Which makes me wonder how it is that you’ve heard of me, young lady.”

Teresa glanced down at her hands quickly, composed herself, although I’m not sure Sykes noticed the difference between flustered and normal, and said, “I was sponsored by the Oldfather Fund when I was seventeen. One of the first, actually.”

“I see. That would be what, eight, nine years ago?” Sykes turned thoughtful, his gaze went off into the distance as he absently drummed his fingers on the arm of his wheelchair. “Seventeen is unusually old, even for us. What’s your name, if I could ask?”

“Teresa Herrera.” She hesitated, then added, “Before, it was Ortiz.”

“You forgot ‘Senior Special Agent’,” I said, moving slightly so I could see the two of them at once and displaying my ID. Like most such cards carried by Sumter agents it placed us with the government agency we were currently working with. I’ve had as many as two dozen in a year before. “We’re with the FBI. Care to clue me in to what we’re talking about?”

“Relax.” I caught Teresa giving my ID a quick glance to remember what my current identity was. Hopefully she’d mention it out loud, I wasn’t really sure what it was at the moment either. “It’s most likely not directly relevant to this case.”

Sykes laughed again. “I would hope not. The Oldfather Fund is a charity, Agent…” He squinted at my badge for a second when I didn’t supply my own name. “Agent Hoffman. We help people finance adoptions.”

“There’s… a need for that?”

“It’s very expensive, sometimes.” Sykes shrugged. “Frequently more so than having a child in a state of the art hospital. But we specialize in helping people who are interested in adopting a child with more challenging circumstances.”

“Challenging?” I glanced at Teresa. Her birth father had been killed by a talent codenamed Lethal Injection, a serial killer who used his control over the viscosity of liquids in strange and disturbing ways.

But Teresa seemed to guess what I was thinking and shook her head slightly. “Once children are past the age of five or six their odds of getting adopted drop dramatically. Anyone older than ten is virtually guaranteed to remain in the system until they reach adulthood.”

Which didn’t sound like a great way to grow up but didn’t directly tie the Oldfather Fund back to the case. It also didn’t sound like a the Oldfather fund specifically dealt with children who had had some kind of a brush with talented people. “I see. And Mr. Keller is a member of this fund?”

“Sure.” Sykes leaned back in his wheelchair causing the material to creak slightly. I realized that it wasn’t quite the barebones package I had thought it was – it wasn’t made of metal and canvas it was made of metal and leather. I wondered absently if it was a custom job or if you could just order them out of a magazine somewhere.

Sykes went on, unaware of my moment of distraction. “Kevin Oldfather interviewed Roger and I while writing a book on older children and the foster system. We were two of the rare adoptees over the age of ten.”

“What Matthew forgets to mention is that we were chosen as much to keep the family business in the family as anything.” If Sykes didn’t look much like a high powered business man in his simple suit and wheelchair, the new guy did. His slicked black hair and neatly trimmed goatee clearly said he had enough money not to care what people thought about him, while the suit he wore, which probably cost more than I made in a year, reminded people he could still be in touch with fashion if he wanted to. There was a sort of vague slickness to him that set my teeth on edge. He had a cold look on his face at first, but then he glanced at Sykes and smiled slightly, which helped a little. “Hello Matthew. Legs doing any better?”

“I can’t complain, Roger,” Sykes replied, his own smile transforming him from sleepily interested to fully engaged. I couldn’t tell if it was a practiced skill or just part of who he was. “The doctors tell me there’s another surgery that might give me more mobility back in the knees, probably let me walk again in another couple of years, but I’m not sure I want to go through another recovery right now.”

“Best to take it easy.” The smile, faint though it was, vanished and Roger Keller turned to give Teresa and I his full attention. “Well, to business. My secretary told me my two o’clock and two thirty appointments were out here chatting, so I guess that makes you the two from the FBI.”

“Actually, Mr. Keller, I didn’t realize we’d be interviewing you today,” Teresa said. “As I was just telling Mr. Sykes, I was sponsored by the Oldfather Fund when I was younger and I’m not sure-”

“You must have been one of the very first.” Keller tapped his chin absently. “Is this one of those conflict of interest things? Am I suspected of something?”

“We were just hoping you could help us by providing us with some information about some properties that came up in the course of an investigation,” I said, tapping my folder with one hand.

“Well, that shouldn’t be very difficult then, should it?” Keller asked. “I’ll tell you what I can about properties we’ve developed for ourselves, but our work for other clients will have to remain confidential.”

“It might be better if I came back with another-”

“Look, I’m a busy man.” Keller turned and started across the lobby. “I don’t know when I’ll be able to work you into my schedule again so if you have questions to ask, let’s get to them, shall we?”

I glanced at Teresa, who shrugged and said, “At this point it is mostly just fact finding. It probably can’t hurt anything if I’m there.”

“Well, good luck,” Sykes said, backing his wheelchair up a few paces to give us an unobstructed path. “And don’t mind Roger. He’s all bark and no bite, I’m sure he’ll cooperate as best he can.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sykes.” I wondered what had brought him here. It felt like there was something that I wasn’t quite getting but I figured I could always ask Teresa about it later. As we hurried after Keller I quietly asked, “Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

“You were right. We do need to find out whatever Keller knows, and we don’t have time to wait for whenever we can make another appointment.” She shrugged. “Nothing for it but to see what he can tell us.”

——–

As it turned out, it wasn’t much. The buildings were a mashup of places Keller Development had invested in and places clients had asked them to redevelop on their behalf. In the short half hour we had all we really managed to do was get Keller’s promise to send us the details that had led his people to purchase those properties his firm held independently. He emphatically refused to ask his clients if he could share any of their information with us. In the end, if there was some kind of grand scheme to Keller’s work in the city, we left his office with no clue of what it might be. Analysis could sort out the data he gave us, but Teresa and I were fresh out of angles to follow up on.

So we went back to our office and wrote up the necessary reports, then went our separate ways.

My apartment is not really a place where I get to spend a whole lot of time. Even on my days off I don’t really stay there much, I have a workshop elsewhere in town where I much prefer to be. Basically, I just use it as a place to store changes of clothes. It’s kind of lonely, really.

Even so, when I get back there I take a few basic precautions. For example, before I unlock the door I check to make sure the room is at an even temperature. While I don’t have infrared vision or anything I can “feel” the temperature of my surroundings rising into cold spots or sinking into hot spots. An empty room is on an even level, because the whole place is literally at room temperature. However, today there was a slight depression in one corner of my apartment. Someone had dropped by to pay me a visit.

I checked the lock but it showed no signs of being picked or forced. There are a few people who have spare keys to my place, because being a lone wolf really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. At the very least, if I ever locked myself out it was cheaper to drive over to Jack’s place and pick up the spare than pay the fee to have the building supervisor open the door for me. But I had a feeling it wasn’t my tactical team leader that was waiting for me. There were two spare keys and I’d lent the other one out a month ago, to help with the planning for a birthday party.

With a sinking feeling I let myself into the apartment and looked into the small living room. Darryl Templeton was there, sitting on the sofa, turning his cane in his hands slowly. He looked up from his cane when he heard the door open, did his best to force a smile. “Hello, Helix. Looks like you had another long day. Sorry to bother you, but do you have a minute for an old friend?”

Fiction Index
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Dialog Part Two

Dialog – when two people get together and talk to each other. In case you missed my first post on dialog, you can browse it here.

So, what do you do when you have a scene with dialog that isn’t quite working? Read it out loud? Start over from scratch and rewrite it? Find another writer to hash it over with?

Those are all options. Generally when I come across a scene with a lot of talking and I don’t think it’s quite working I step back and run it through three layers of scrutiny. Before I get to these three things, let me point out that this isn’t a checklist, it’s more like a troubleshooting procedure. If one of these things work, there’s no real reason to keep going, unless you’re really dedicated to perfecting a scene.

The first thing I do is try and identify exactly what I’m trying to accomplish with a scene. Your writing needs to serve your story. Every scene needs to accomplish something in pushing forward your plot, a sideplot or perhaps even the myth arc. Identify exactly what your scene is trying to do, then go through and trim out everything that doesn’t advance that goal. You might go back and add some of what you trim back later, but at least look at it without all the excess fluff. Most likely, it doesn’t need to be there. Hopefully that will give you better, snappier dialog.

If that doesn’t work, it’s time to look at pacing. I know I said it last week, but it’s vitally important that you keep your characters from saying too much at one time, and from keeping too many people from being in a conversation at once. While conversational free-for-alls aren’t that rare in real life, most people will tend to tune out some conversational threads and focus on others. You don’t want that to happen in your scene. By the same token, people don’t tend to launch into huge, prepared speeches in causal conversation. Yeah it can happen, but if it happens more than once a scene you probably need to rework something.

When all else fails, I resort to the index card method. You’ve probably heard writers talk about laying your plot out on index cards and spreading it out on a desk or the floor so you can see the whole thing at a glance. Well, this is the same principle applied to writing a scene. In this case, instead of writing plot points on your index cards, write out the first line of each chunk of dialog, or each action that a character will be taking between chunks of dialog. Then spread them out and start sorting. Move things around, cut things or, if necessary, add them until the scene starts to work like you want. This is a court of last resort, and by the time you’re done the scene is probably going to need a total rewrite. But not necessarily.

Dialog is a tricky thing. It drives plot, gives insight into characters and makes for memorable moments all at once, but if you don’t handle it well it can also leave your readers confused and lost. I hope these tips from the last few weeks will help you to assemble better written and more believable dialog.

Cool Things: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Time for another black and white classic film! Be warned, this contains spoilers.

One thing Hollywood loves is a good, stirring speech. You find them everywhere, from military movies to sci-fi films to political suspense thrillers to courtroom dramas, sometime around the climax of the film someone will step forward and remind us all what it’s all about. But interestingly enough, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a film where the speech is the climax.

The recap, in case you’ve never seen this film: Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) is the leader of a small boy’s group called “The Boy Rangers” and something of a state hero, at least among young boys. When the state governor has to replace a recently deceased Senator he faces pressure from two lobbies – the state reformer committees and the political machine that got him elected. Each wants their man in the Senate. The governor’s children suggest a third alternative – their hero, Mr. Smith. When the governor tosses a coin to determine the outcome, heads for the machine’s candidate, tails for the reformer, the coin lands on it’s edge, balanced against a newspaper. Smith’s picture is on the front.

So Mr. Smith goes to Washington, D.C. He sees the sights and generally geeks out over being in the nation’s capitol. Then he meets the other senator from his state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). Senator Paine knew Jeff’s father and gladly takes Jeff under his wing. Unfortunately, Paine is also corrupt, beholden to the same machine that the state governor is.

When Jeff drafts a bill that threatens a major piece of graft, intended  to give the members of the state machine thousands of dollars of profit, Paine is forced to spearhead an effort to run Jeff out of the Senate. Jeff retaliates with one of the greatest weapons of American politics – the filibuster. Since he’s a newcomer to D.C., without political allies, Jeff will have to hold the floor of the US Senate alone and hopefully convince the jaded, politically minded men there that he’s not the crook he’s been painted as.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a great film. Not because of it’s themes per se, or even because Jeff Smith is a fantastic orator. He does have some nice speeches, and he earns our respect and the respect of the men of the Senate because of his good character and integrity. But one man standing against the machine has been done before, and there are other speeches more relevant to today in other movies out there. So why does this film deserve your consideration?

Because it acknowledges a simple fact: The truth is not enough to win.

Spoilers Start Here!

Even with all the facts on his side, Jeff cannot seem to make any headway against the forces of the political machine that are arrayed against him. In the end, his filibuster will drag to a close with the situation basically unchanged. It’s not until Jeff makes a direct appeal to Senator Paine that things change – Paine’s will breaks, and he gives away the game.

Jeff doesn’t win because he makes a speech, he doesn’t beat the machine because he has the right on his side. The right wins out because Jeff knew and reached out to a person who should have been his enemy. It’s not something that happens often, not a part of what we think of as taking a stand. 

And it’s not a normal part of the classic movie speech. Paine was Jeff’s role model, a hero, someone he looked up to. Jeff calls him out, reminds him of what he was without bitterness or animosity, and gently asks him to be so again. It’s a kind of compassion that’s rare in film in general, and it makes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington unique and worth the watching.