Below is the first section of the third story featuring Darwin. I have a draft of about half a novel. I haven’t worked on it in earnest in years. I may ransack it for other passages in the future. If anyone out there is truly interested in what happens to Darwin let me know and I could probably work up the energy to write up a synopsis.
The screen glowed in the darkness. From it’s tinny speakers an alarm sounded. On the screen serious, well-armed men in blue uniforms ran down the hallway of their high security prison.
Watching the scene unfold, I smiled to myself. I glanced up around me into the night, through the rain. No, it was not yet time for my part.
The man onscreen in charge lifted up the bright red emergency phone off the wall. He was so young. His lip quivered slightly as he reported the news to whoever was on the other line “Sir… you’d better get down here. It’s happening again.”
A pause. In the background, through the iron bars of her jail cell a woman could be seen moving slowly around her cell, calmly opening drawers and walking over to her bed.
“Sir, she’s… well inmate 06791, she’s…, well she’s packing again. Sir”.
I closed the clamshell video player. No matter what universe I ended up in, Dr. Who never failed to satisfy. But reality beckoned in the form of a bright red Cadillac.
The Cadillac pulled up to the chain link fence. A routine inspection involving some mumbled words. My perch on the nearby rooftop made me feel like a sophisticated sniper. Nobody ever looks up. The fence opened and the Cadillac pulled in.
I waited for another ten minutes before moving. Most nights, the man I was stalking, Charles C. Scott – Chuck to this friends, stayed in the clubhouse for hours. I hadn’t been able to see what went on inside the gang’s hangout, but it didn’t matter for my purposes. I was after the car.
The ten minutes was because on the odd night he would only go past the fence for a moment. On those nights, when he came back the car was full.
That meant trouble.
This was not one of those nights, although I still worried about trouble. Behind the chain link fence was a hornet’s nest of outcasts and losers, created by a society that had ceded all authority to the profit motive.
Down on the street I pulled my mask to let in some air. The mask was a precaution against cameras. I hadn’t spotted one, but that meant nothing and the mask was cheap.
I had chosen this alleyway in hopes that the complete lack of light would provide me with cover. I stumbled down and hid behind a garbage can while I waited for my eyes to adjust. It took awhile. Finally I could make out a section of the fence.
The fence was as much a philosophical statement of ownership as it was functionally defensive. In the hinterlands conventional law and order were as mythical as streetlights. But elaborate security measures were expensive and required organization. These were gangs of disaffected teens with names like the Tigers. Not super-villains. The guard at the entrance was the only one around.
The super-villains lived three clicks south, behind a much bigger fence, one with cameras everywhere and electrical charges instead of barbed wire. That was a philosophical statement with emphasis. Beyond it lay people who were winning the profit game. They could afford professional police. Beyond it people like Chuck were not permitted. They had streetlights and a fire department.
I lived there. My adopted home after fleeing a world of magic, heroics and adventure that nobody here even knew existed. That I hadn’t known existed two years ago. And it was there that unrestrained capitalism had enabled me to purchase a small metal disk. I pulled the tab and kicked it over to the fence. Smoke began to rise.
I quickly stepped back, slightly afraid of what I had unleashed.
Looking at the fence, I knew I could have climbed it if necessary, but that would have been loud and conspicuous.
I had promised myself when I had purchased my Private Eye license that I would never allow cheapskate tendencies or heroic impulses lead me into unnecessary danger.
When the smoke cleared, the fence drooped slightly, and then broke apart completely at the touch of my staff.
Had there been security camera’s the smoke could have appeared as runoff from a sewer grate. Had there been an electrical charge, the blanket I draped over my body as I walked through the opening would have protected me from it, and the circuit would still be completing at the top, circumventing most basic alarm systems.
The special blanket also protected me from the acidic melting fence off of me.
Nobody stopped me as I crossed the field and I walked up the red Cadillac, lit by the nearby clubhouse. In the backseat was what I had come for, a neon orange plastic shampoo bottle in the shape of a giraffe.
I could take it now and walk away, having done some good in the world. In all likelihood they would never even miss it.
Instead I opened the car door with the spare key the owner had provided me. The engine purred to life.
The gate was halfway open before a shout in the distance alerted the guard that something was wrong. I sighed. So close.
Driving away unnoticed had always been plan D. But I so loved the simplicity of plan D. It was hard to let it go.
I gunned the engine and made a sharp left. I felt the tail end of the car bump against the gate. Damn it.
I could only hope the mark was superficial.
I went two blocks and turned left again. Then right quickly. Hoping to salvage the core ideas of plan D with some fancy driving.
But they found me. The roads were abandoned except for us. This part of town existed solely for the Tigers pleasure and cars were a luxury the users of the drug dens and gambling houses could ill afford.
Plan B then. I gunned the engine, the buildings speeding past me at a worrying rate. With the reckless confidence of youth they followed.
As I made another hard right the car slid onto the sidewalk before righting itself. I briefly considered if any of my limited array of reliable spells could be of use here. But there was no telling what would happen if I tried this close to the high powered engine of the Cadillac. Magic required distance from technology unless you didn’t care about the technology.
And right now the car was all that was keeping me alive. The bullets bouncing off the back window sounded like hail on a tin roof.
One car pulled up next to me, and through the window I saw a gun being pulled. Side-windows are notoriously easier to crack. I hit the breaks instinctively.
That’s why I’d chosen this world I reminded myself. To get away from the temptation to waive my ineffective, unreliable, magic at all my problems.
Breathe deeply and focus. Stay in the moment. I hit the gas just in time to keep from being rear-ended. Insurance would have sided with me.
I almost missed it. There it was to my left. A chaos of bullets and sparking tires swirled around me I turned down the one-lane dirt road and gunned it.
They were faster than me, but the single lane forced them into an uncomfortable situation. Tall buildings on either side booked no argument. All they could do was follow me, knowing that the light at end of the tunnel was Paulie’s territory.
They should try to shoot out my tires, but only one of them could be behind me, and I was almost certain their orders had been to return the car in drivable condition. On-road repairs this close to Paulie was just as bad as entering uninvited.
I used the break in action to type a message into my visual horn, one of the few bits of new technology I truly appreciated on this world: “Abandon hope” was projected above my car. Anything to rattle them.
I gunned it, knowing the ramp was ahead, because I had put it there.
Mr. Siems the client who hired me to retrieve the shampoo bottle would have winced at the damage I was doing to his shocks. But he hadn’t hired me to return the car, just the bottle. The bottle with a computer chip.
Every day that I spent on my adopted home world, I learned a little more about it. This case had revealed the outlines of the precarious truce between Corporations and everyone else. Regular citizens retained some nominal rights, so long as enforcement was left near non-existent.
Empowered by the state to act as a self-regulator, the car had been legally Charles’s from the moment he bought the right to repossess from the bank. Profit for the bank.
Once he realized he’d repossessed the wrong car he simply bought out the rest of it from the bank rather than returning it to the warehouse. Profit for the bank. It was one of the few ways new wealth could be brought to this side of the Fence.
This was a business-friendly state, designed to encourage job growth and cut down on red tape. Bureaucrats would have flagged the fact that Charles held the legal rights to the wrong car.
Instead, Siems could have his car back, but he had to do the retrieval himself. His coverage wasn’t up to the job. Citizen rights maintained, no loss to anyone important. No sane man crosses into this side of the Fence even if there is a GPS chip in the car to tell him where it is.
In the meantime he needed the computer chip hidden in the shampoo bottle back or he would lose his job.
Not only did Mr. Siems lose his car, but he had also lost his shampoo bottle (containing a computer chip – normally good hiding place. Nobody friendly would accidentally throw it away, and nobody would break in to steal it.)
So he hired me, The Ethical Detective Agency.
The shock of landing on the other side of the ramp jolted me out of my recollection. As I’d hoped the person behind me had been less ready and skidded while I kept the gas down.
Plan B called for that to cause a wreck.
That did not happen.
Time to enact Plan A.
Three sharp lefts in a row kept them near the dangerous part of Paulie’s territory, hopefully making them nervous, and kept me turning. It’s harder to pass someone on a turn.
Stay focused. I reached back and grabbed the shampoo bottle and set it in my lap. The giraffe’s eyes looked plaintive. It did not want to be here either.
I willed myself to press harder on the gas pedal, even as every instinct in my body told me that I was not safe driving at this speed. Then finally I closed my eyes and made one last hard left that took me straight into the heart of Paulie’s.
I saw what I was looking for the first time I came up on Paulie’s chain linked fence clubhouse. But I drove past circling the area, hoping that being this close to their enemy would convince the Tigers to back off. Hoping that it would alert Paulie’s men. Hoping that my courage would build instead of give out.
It did not.
Naming my agency “The Ethical Detective Agency” had been a way for me to avoid working for the Corporations I saw sucking the life out of this world. But the name came back to haunt me.
I found myself striving for a level of integrity I hadn’t intended. Yes, it was the reason that I was trying to return Mr. Siems a vehicle and not just a shampoo bottle – at great risk to myself. Since Mr. Siems still owned the papers on the car, he had every right to hired a repo man at a government mandated discount. Although they still averaged three times my fee just to retrieve from the Bank Warehouses that Charles would have normally returned the vehicle to.
Most repo men wouldn’t work this side of the Fence. They specialized in infiltrating through bribes.
Where the Ethic’s really came to scare me was in the endgame. Young angry men will escalate conflict through pure machsismo. By stealing the car so publicly I had hurt their pride. If I simply returned the car to Mr. Siems now there was a real danger I would leave him in a greater state of danger from these punks than he ever was before.
Prematurely escalating the conflict, by say – going back and burning down their clubhouse, only ever worked in Westerns. In the real world, short of killing them, there was little I could do to ensure Mr. Siems safety if I left their ego’s hurt and a trail that led them back to the original car owner.
I opened my door and dropped a small rock that I had polished to perfection. That had set out on my back porch in the direct sun for a week while I did background research for this case. That I had vowed not to use.
The sound of the metal fencing as it pulled over the glass window was terrible.
By then Paulie’s men were out and already getting into their cars. They had not expected this however. I typed quickly into my visual horn: “Me = Ally. Behind me Tigers!” and projected it.
I pulled in behind a black model mustang. Not quite as nice as my Cadillac, but shiny. Out from it jumped a man holding a gun. But my eyes were on the keys that he left in the ignition.
I held up my hands as the man scanned my horn message and looked behind me. In my hand, my reader scanned the license plate of his car and confirmed my suspicion.
“What the fuck are you doing!?” I screamed as I opened the door. “They are right behind me!”
And it was true, the Tiger’s had hesitated slightly. They knew what I knew, Paulie had his eye on them for awhile, and they were overmatched.
I comforted myself that this confrontation was inevitable. That this gang fight was not my fault; I had merely chosen the time.
Plan A called for Paule’s men not to have come out in force yet. Plan A called for the man in the mustang to be distracted, or turn around to ring the alarm.
The man with the gun pulled on me looked around to see his fellow gang members pouring out. Guns cocked all around me.
So I betrayed myself, like addicts always do.
Every time I perform magic it is different, and it is impossible to control. Except at times like this. Then it comes easily. As easy as reaching out with my soul to a stone I had dropped moments before. Inhabiting it. Feeling the light it had known, light I had placed in its path.
Light everywhere, disorienting everyone. I stumbled in the direction of the car, past the man with the gun, who was still disoriented. The keys took three times to start, but it started, thank god.
No, fuck the little troll bastard. I would ask no favors of him this day.
When everything cleared I drove off in the black mustang. I left each gang thinking that I had been working for the other. They chased each other around circles for awhile. But I got away in a car whose retrieval rights were for sale on the open market, and could be bought for the cost of the retrieval rights of the Cadillac Mr. Siems had ceded to me in my role as a Repo.
As a registered Repo I had the right to retrieve it, and thanks to secrecy laws, nobody would ever know who bought them.
The Ethical Detective Agency. It was real problem.
The knot I had to cut was this: Mr. Siems was a good man, who had two objects to uncaring forces of greed and incompetence. In this world, at this time, losing either would eventually have destroyed him. The loss of chip would have gotten him fired and blacklisted that week, and the car would have bankrupt him in a world where banks had more creative alternatives to bankruptcy. It was what kept them on the good side of the Fence.
He had asked me to retrieve only the computer chip, afraid to hope for more.
He asked it of the self-styled Ethical Detective.
Instead I had solved his immediate problem, the chip, and the albatross that would have sunk him anyways – the car. He would continue to educate his children, and agitate to form a union. Support the right people in the next election.
He would turn the chip over to his employer. The chip represented wealth of a different kind. The wealth of an entity dedicated to the forces of money and profit. A butterfly flaps its wings, and causes a tsunami.
In this case, the gangs didn’t end up killing anyone that day. But I had fueled a feud that could not be counted in the plus column no matter how cynical I wanted to be about inevitably.
All I could do was keep my eyes focused on my client, who I had vetted. Be loyal to my friends, avoid being co-opted, and try not to let the corruption of the world keep me from working on my corner of it.
I did not sleep well with this, but I did sleep. Casting spells always wore out my brain.
Dawn was breaking by the time I made it back to my office. I had filed the paperwork from the other side, and stayed there long enough to be sure nobody was going to follow me back.
The sunlight made everything look all too real. The dark green stickers on my mailbox read: “The Ethical Detective”. I stared at them, mystified by myself and my life. I willed myself to continue on into the two story building. Bad vinyl siding.
I sat at my desk and opened a soduku puzzle. I played soduku for the same reason I listened to music, the same reason I had tried LSD. To escape. There is something deeply human about trying to escape your own brain.
A brain that has evolved to keep you alive. Having secured for its basic physiological needs and a modicum of safety it doesn’t always know quite what to do. Try and conquer death? Find love, acceptance and the respect of peers? Develop a working moral compass?
All good goals. But sometimes soduku is needed for balance.
“Much healthier than skydiving” said the kindly voice of Ms. Walker. I looked up.
“I am surprised to see you here” I said with remarkable understatement.
The fact that she had seemingly read my mind was the least remarkable thing about her presence. Ms. Walker was literally from another dimension. From my home world, the place I had been trying to escape.
“I never see you anymore”. She looked hurt.
The fact that she had seemingly read my mind was the least remarkable thing about her presence. She had crossed the entirety of the known fabric of space-time to be here. I had it on good authority that the fact she could even be here would have destroyed my brain if I understood it. It was just the sort of insanity I had fled here to escapee. Off course I wouldn’t have been able to get here either without crossing inter-dimensional barriers. Just the kind of mind boggling contradiction I was trying to escape, but her presence did not recall the things I was fleeing.
She had been my adviser and mentor, even if she was regarded by the rest of the Lighthouse as a half-mad gardener. I did the only thing I could, I responded to the emotional truth of her comment and ignored the insanity of her comment in it’s context.
“I miss you too. I wish I could see you more”. I said.
Silence. In the silence, I recalled the first time I ever saw Pauline Walker.
Riding a dragon was an act of pure willpower. Despite the protestations of the laws of physics, I did not fly off of Shal-Le-Toric’s back. Instead every point of contact between our bodies stayed firmly attached, even though her grey scales gave me nothing to grip. Every point of my body stayed attached, but not without protest, and I could feel the skin of my legs holding on even as the back of my legs pulled away as the wind buffeted my body. It was like super-glue and it hurt.
The first time I ever saw Pauline Walker I was terrified, barely able to keep my eyes open as the dragon I was attached to hurtled towards the Earth. We had just bust through dimensional barriers using forces I couldn’t begin to grasp.
More to the point, we also blasted through the field previously known as impenetrable that surrounded the Lighthouse. The field I had been tasked by my unreliable God to circumvent. The only way I had found to do so was by befriending a dragon, which looked and acted nothing like the myths, but could only be called a dragon because it was undoubtedly a member of the most powerful, most rare, and most magical species imaginable.
It was only in desperation that I had sought out such a creature. In addition to the impossibility of it (after all they didn’t exist, and if they did it was on other dimensions, an additional nonstarter) because even if I could convince them to help, I didn’t really want to brute force my way in.
The part of my brain that wasn’t screaming in panic registered a moment of calm as we whizzed past the impenetrable field. The field that had absorbed all my attention for the last month broke before the dragon like air before a comet. In that calm I felt not the raw power of the creature who had befriended me, but the calm assurance of a kindly diplomat, making a negotiation in good faith. Shal-Le-Toric had simply asked nicely, and the field had opened for a moment to let us pass. Something shifted in the world, and then we were in.
Or perhaps that delusion was a result of the minor sense of euphoria I felt as my stomach finally gave up and lost it’s contents into the sky around me.
I hoped it didn’t offend my new friend.
It was immediately after this thought that we finally got close enough to the ground for me to make out a woman bending over a bush. As we went past she turned around, looked up and waved at us with a wide grin on her face. She was the only person we could see who was not at the ceremony.
Moments later we landed at the edge of a giant dirt circle. In the center of that circle stood the assembled body of potential entrants to the Lighthouse. Once a year those who wanted to be admitted were guided the to Lighthouse, its location a closely guarded secret hidden in the jungles of Guatemala. With their master, they passed through the outer gate, through the impenetrable field.
I’d taken a different route.
The final step, a formality really, was to come to this clearing be judged worthy of entering of the most prestigious training program for extraordinary youth in the known world. It was here I might learn magic for myself.
I looked past the gaping faces of the students in the circle, each of whom stood next to their sponsoring master to see the gaping faces of the rest of the students and masters in there large set of bleachers. I searched desperately for the face of Emery, the woman I had followed here. I did not see her, but I did see Zach, who’d guided me here after the master Ernest had breached the secret location to me.
Let them try to punish him if they liked.
A voice cleared from the podium, and just before the silence could be filled with anything else the Shal-Le-Toric spoke quietly, and was heard by all.
“I have brought you here as you have asked. I hope that this is what you want. If they kill you I’ll come back and bring you justice, but I don’t want to answer any of their questions so I’m going to leave now.”
The kind of reasoning that could ask nicely and fly past the impenetrable field around the Lighthouse.
Then she was gone, and I was alone.
On the podium I could see Darlelk, the mysterious warrior who had stopped me in an Inn while in the middle of capturing a man who’d tried to steal from the Lighthouse. He was their warrior enforcer, but he had let me continue on my journey, sure that I would fail or give in to the conventional route that had been held out for me so many times.
He smiled at me. His smile was friendly, congratulatory.
I barely saw him move as he threw something out from beneath his cloak. What looked like a black net flew outward, capturing something that came from the crowd. Something that had been heading towards me.
It occurred to me that he might have saved my life in that moment.
It occurred to me that he would probably kill me without a second thought if he was told to.
I was on a mission from God. Albeit a God that nobody else could have imagined. This was not a God crafted in my image, and thankfully he had not crafted me in his. This God took his image from the plastic troll doll that used to rest on my stereo system, back when the world was a simpler place.
Fancying myself an independent, I was now acting as a pawn. But I had to own my pawn-ness, and my mission was simple. Thwart the defenses the mysterious training ground that I had never thought existed. It housed magic and warriors of all stripes. The defenses had been set up by ancients even more powerful than them, and were easy enough to con. But conning was not on the agenda laid out for me.
Why not? An avowed nihilist, I was on a mission from God. And the easy path had been dismissed for me by my God.
Break in, and then become a student, simple enough for someone with my training. Wait… I was going there for the training. Until a few weeks ago, I had been a toll booth worker after all.