Thursday, August 13, 2015
So I did that one-day SF mini-con put on by the Hoover Public Library, and it was a blast. There were gaming tracks, panels, trivia, a costume contest, and (since this was at a library after all) lots and lots of authors. Van Allen Plexico was in attendance, as were David Alastair Hayden and Pepper Thorn. I got to moderate a panel consisting of (above, L-R) S.L. Duncan, Lou Anders, J.F. Lewis, and Ingrid Seymour. Read their stuff.
Birmingham is in desperate need of a regular SF convention. Alabama Phoenix Festival was fantastic, but there were complications that prevented it from happening this year. It's good to know that our local libraries are willing to fill the void and pick up the slack.
Oh, and check it out: Here's the second half of my new Whisper story!
Previously: I used to be a newshound named Allan Jones. Now you can call me The Whisper. It's August, 1959. I was taping a clandestine meeting between New York City Councilman Farstow and a Ukrainian hit man named Luczek. Farstow was trading plans to New York's electrical grid for Luczek's help with some union troubles, but the meeting went south when Farstow's secretary Daisy made off with the plans on her own. Luczek killed Farstow and chased after Daisy. I did too, and revealed myself to both of them in the process of saving her life.
Daisy and I gave Luczek the slip in Central Park, then I followed her to a meeting in a subway station with none other than my old pal Special Agent Powell of the F.B.I. She was upset about his lack of protection and Powell was pissed that I was still sticking my nose into Federal investigations. Luczek got the drop on all of us, and even on the crowded platform it looked like he would start shooting, when suddenly...
With an electrical groan, every light in the station went out. The train’s lights flickered but remained; the third rail must have been on a separate grid. The passengers who’d been spilling out stopped in their tracks at the sudden darkness. Everyone was a shadow, an outline, a partly lit face. It was like being stuck in some surreal European horror film, right down to the Ukrainian nosferatu with a long black gun.
Powell was armed, so I decided he didn’t need my help. I grabbed Daisy’s wrist and made her invisible, then pulled her behind me into the crowd. She yanked and tried to pull away, so I grabbed her wrist with both hands and dragged her close enough to whisper in her ear.
“You want to get out of this? I can protect you more than Powell can. Let’s get somewhere safe, you give me the story, and then later we’ll give Powell the goods.”
“Screw you,” she said over the crowd’s rising panic. The lights still hadn’t come on. “I’m not your damsel in distress and I don’t need a goddamn rescue.”
With uncanny accuracy she jabbed my shin with her heel. I yelped, fell down to one knee, and let go. She vanished like a wizard as the crowd closed in. A whistle sounded from the train. The people on the platform, realizing that their only source of light was about to drive off, shouted in protest.
The doors shut, the train ground into motion. I dialed myself visible, pulled off my mask, and shouted Daisy’s name.
Powell’s fist bashed into my face and scraped part of my ear. I fell into three women, knocking all of them down with me. Powell yanked me up and twisted my arm while throwing his other around my neck in a choke hold.
“Where’s Daisy, you idiot,” he said. “Did you lose her?”
“Yes I lost her. Let me go.”
“Not on your life, prick. Give me your Whisper belt. Give it now or I’ll break your arm.”
As much as I struggled, it was no good. My Army training hadn’t covered wrestling, and I was too out of shape anyway. As the last train car left the station, I spotted a gaunt face on the edge of the mob not thirty feet away.
“Luczek! I see Luczek!”
“Dammit, he’s right there!”
With a growl, Powell let go. “Don’t ghost out on me.”
Hell, in this situation I didn’t dare. Unable to see, I could walk through the tunnel wall and be lost underground unable to breathe – the worst kind of buried alive. I caught Powell’s sleeve and pulled him along the edge of the platform, hoping I wouldn’t fall off.
Luczek had apparently given up on finding Daisy in the dark and was making for the stairs to the street. The light from above was too faint to notice before, but with the train gone it was just about visible over the sea of heads.
So was Luczek. Being tall made him a good hunter, but it also made him stick out. Neither I nor Powell were going to spot Daisy in this mess, so I decided to cheat and get ahead of the game.
“Powell,” I said. “How long can you hold your breath?”
“A couple of minutes. Why?”
I fit my mask back on and checked it was still running. “Shortcut. Don’t let go of my arm.”
Ghosting two people through a crowded subway in the dark was like pulling a drowning man through seaweed at night. I took off my squid face when we reached the stairs and went solid. We both headed up to the blazing heat of August.
It was the first time Powell and I had seen each other since that night almost a year ago that I’d first become the Whisper, and to his eyes I must have looked like an absolute bum. My shirt was soaked through and my hair dripped. At least I could straighten my tie.
Subway commuters kept emerging into daylight. Each one staggered while their eyes adjusted, then tried to move along as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened down there. The rest of Manhattan buzzed on its busy way, but I could tell something was off. People milled around outside their buildings as if not knowing what to do with themselves. Traffic was at a standstill and the traffic lights were out.
“Hey buddy,” Powell said to a passerby. “Is the power out the whole block?”
The man pointed the way he’d come. “Store clerk said it’s out at least as far as 97th. Might be the whole island.”
“Thanks.” Powell turned back and gave me the once over. “So why are you still here?”
I shrugged. “Got to get my story.” The truth is, this was the first time I’d been visible to anyone who knew my real name in a very long time. It felt nice. I was probably going to pay for it.
“You can get it from Luczek when he pops out of his hole.” Powell motioned for me to step farther from the subway entrance as the steady stream of train passengers shoved their way out. If we wanted to catch Luczek off guard, we’d have to be quick. He hadn’t shown any reluctance to wave his gun around in public.
“So why is he after the plans to the power grid?” I asked. “You think it’s got something to do with this outage?”
“Don’t see how,” Powell said. “Daisy’s still got them. I think this blackout shows what those plans could do, though. If someone knew the weak points of the grid, they could knock out a whole city. Just think what that’d be worth to the right buyer.”
“Maybe. Word I hear from my sources is that after your dust up last year, they’re a little tight on cash.”
“We’ll have to compare notes.”
“You’re a selfish asshole, you know that?” he said. “Can you imagine how much good that invisibility belt would be in the hands of law enforcement? Hell, can you imagine what I could do with it?”
“Two things,” I said. “One: It would never stay in the hands of law enforcement. The CIA would snap it up and spend decades trying to reverse engineer it. That is, if JANUS wasn’t able to buy or steal it back from them. Two: You wouldn’t be able to use it for long. JANUS has a time machine, remember? They’d travel back and erase you before you ever got hold of it.”
“What’s to stop them from erasing you?”
“They already tried. The real me died last year. This version?” I pointed to my face. “I’m just an anomaly. A glitch in Time and Space. It doesn’t make me untouchable, but it means they have to hunt me down the old fashioned way.”
We waited a few more minutes. More and more people filed out of their buildings, which I’m sure were getting stuffy inside. The queue of passengers from the darkened station petered out, but neither Luczek nor Daisy emerged. Daisy may have gotten out ahead of us, but we knew for a fact that Luczek hadn’t.
“What the hell?” said Powell. “Is he sitting down there in the dark?”
“The trains are still running,” I said. “Maybe he hopped on another one.”
“Crap. Can’t believe I lost him like that. Of all the days for the electric to go out.”
“What about Daisy? Is there some other place you were supposed to meet?”
Powell shook his head. “No, but I know where we can find her. She’s got a daughter staying with friends up on West 101st. Sooner or later she’ll turn up there.”
Powell paced and scratched his head. “She’s right, too. I owe her protection. She stuck her neck out to help me catch Luczek. Now she and her kid are in danger because I missed my chance to drop him.”
“You might get another.” An ugly thought bloomed in my mind. Powell looked into my eyes and read it.
“You want to let Luczek go after her?”
I nodded. “He won’t know I’m there if I’m the one watching her. You keep your distance until he goes for the kill.”
“You’re a bastard, Jones. You better make this work.”
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Okay, I admit it. Using Daisy as bait to catch Luczek was cold, ill-considered, and stupid. What would I do if Luczek got the drop on us? I could only hope that I saw him first before he zeroed in on Daisy and that he’d move in slow motion like a matinee serial villain.
Daisy’s friends lived on a fifth floor walkup. Instead of climbing all those damn stairs, I kicked off from the first step and cut my frame of reference so I drifted up through all the others. Pretty clever, huh? Yeah, let me tell you how many times I screwed up while trying to practice that move.
I reached the fifth floor and poked my head into the apartment – literally. Inside was a single bedroom flat with a tiny kitchen and a living room about the size of a rich man’s closet. Daisy’s kid sat on the couch reading a Casper comic in the light from the window. I knew she was Daisy’s because she looked just like her, blonde curls and all, while the older couple in the apartment were either Greek or Turkish. They’d opened the windows and lit candles in the kitchen. The old man squinted at the crossword from the Times while his wife cut up tomatoes for sandwiches on the counter. There was no sign of Daisy, and still no sign of the power coming back.
The building’s elevator had been disabled by the blackout, but I checked it anyway. Stuck in it was a middle aged woman, trapped there since the lights went out. I almost gave her a heart attack when I told her I would rescue her. I almost gave her another when I pulled her through the wall and let her loose. It was probably a stupid move –nothing would tip of Luczek better than some lady chattering about the “magical spirit” that freed her from the lift, but I’d have felt like a heel had I left her.
Not that I didn’t feel like one anyway. Daisy showed up an hour later, dragging a suitcase through the street-level door. I’d already walked a dozen patrols of the block waiting for her. Powell was stationed on floor number 6; he promised to come running at the first sound of trouble. Until then, it was all up to me.
I’ve never felt so paranoid as when I trailed her up the stairs. I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder half the way up. For the other half I watched every door on each landing, just waiting for a mad Ukrainian to bust out of one. Shadows were omnipresent and the occasional shaft of light only made them darker. Daisy tripped on a stair and fell forward. It was all I could do not to reach out and grab her.
She knocked on her friends’ door. The Greek lady answered.
“Daisy, darling.” She pulled Daisy in and hugged her. I turned an eye back to the stairs. “I was so worried about you out there with this blackout. I hear it’s the whole upper west side.”
“Sophia, believe me, the power being out is the least of my worries. Thank you so much for watching Zoe.”
“I’m always happy to, you know that. She’s such a dear. What are you doing with that suitcase?”
There was no one in the hall, no one coming up or down the stairs. This couldn’t be right. Had Daisy really managed to give a professional killer the slip? Then again, in the darkness of that subway she didn’t have to be a super spy to disappear in a press of bodies. Once she was loose in the Big Apple, vanishing into the teeming masses wasn’t that big a feat in retrospect. I’d only found her again because Powell knew who her babysitters were.
I was disappointed, to tell the truth. Once Powell had mentioned the JANUS connection, I’d really wanted to get my hands on Luczek. I wandered back inside and canvassed the apartment as an invisible ghost, just to make sure he wasn’t hiding in a closet or anything.
“To tell the truth, I’m in trouble,” Daisy said. “I’m going out of town for a while to stay with some friends upstate.”
“But what about your job?” asked Sophia’s husband. “What about that lad you were seeing. Karl was his name?”
“My job is over. Me and Karl were finished already. No, this is for the best. I’ll send you a postcard when I’ve settled. Zoe, come on. You and Mommy need to go.”
I stood by the open window and let the fifth story breeze pass through me. Every window in the apartment building across the street had also been thrown open. Their curtains fluttered like flags, one for each family’s little kingdom.
Metal glinted in one of the darkened openings. I’d seen that glint before in the hills of Korea.
I dialed solid and tackled Daisy. “Everybody down!”
Neither of the elder couple reacted except with blank stares. For a moment nothing happened and I wondered if I’d panicked for nothing.
“Get off me, creep!” Daisy elbowed me in the gut and climbed to her feet. As soon as she did, one of Sophia’s cabinets exploded.
“Down!” I screamed again. Daisy obeyed and dragged Zoe down with her, pulling her child so that the sofa sat in between her and the window. Sophia stared at her cabinet like a confused rabbit, but her husband grabbed her by the waist and pulled her to the floor, covering her head with his arms.
Powell kicked open the door and shouted, “F. B. I.!”
The shooter answered with a shattering blast that took out part of the wall. Whatever Luczek was shooting was big. Another blast took out a lamp, and another a cabinet full of china, showering the room in plaster and glass.
“I don’t think he can see in here,” I said. “He’s just taking shots at random.”
“No shit, Jones. I’ve called backup. Let me radio his position.”
Another blast blew stuffing out of the sofa not a foot above Daisy’s daughter’s head.
“No time,” I said. “I’m taking him now.”
And this is where I got stupid. Manhattan streets are sixty feet wide, give or take. Add fifteen feet of sidewalk on either side plus the inset of the apartments and the thickness of the walls and I was looking at a hundred feet to cross horizontally. No human being could have made that jump, but I was a human being with comic book superpowers.
With intangibility set to maximum, I ran to the back end of the apartment to give myself room to build up speed. Then I charged through the walls toward the open window and launched myself into space, detaching my frame of reference as I hit open air. Just as I’d learned to drift up stairs on momentum alone, so I flew sideways across the street at what felt like a snail’s pace. In theory I had nothing to worry about, but my eyes and my stomach reminded me that I was flying five stories above cars and pavement.
I saw the gun flash. The killer shot right through me and didn’t know it. The window flew towards me, or I towards it. My angle of attack was slightly at an incline; I was rising relative to my target. This would be a problem if it put me in the ceiling when I wanted to materialize.
Thirty feet and two seconds away, I was definitely coming in too high. Just before I ghosted through the opposing wall I turned my tangibility slightly back on so that gravity would notice me again. Momentum carried me through, then I dropped and locked onto the floor.
Because of the sun’s angle, this apartment was darker than Daisy’s friends’. Luczek knelt in the window with a high powered rifle on a tripod. I could never take him fair, so I threw my arm around his neck, jerked him away from his gun, and faded to full ghost, bringing him into my world.
He gasped. His eyes bulged and his lungs deflated. If I held him long enough he would die. I couldn’t really care about that. This was one guy the world wouldn’t miss. Then again, he had access to JANUS. If I wanted to get back on their trail, dare I take this scumbag out?
He made my choice by slamming his fist down on my groin, and world turned white. I dropped to the floor and cradled my privates, screaming through my breather. Luczek rolled away, solid once more. He couldn’t hurt me again, though he tried kicking through me a couple of times.
Two bullets ripped through the room from the apartment across the street. I presume that Powell was firing back. Despite the agony running from my tailbone to my skull, I staggered back to my feet. Luczek pulled his rifle off its tripod and ran out the door.
Oh no you don’t, you bastard.
I ran after him. By “ran” I mean stumbled like a drunk. He made it down the hall to the elevator and jabbed the button repeatedly, somehow forgetting that it wouldn’t run without electricity. I dialed solid and slammed into him, pinning him against the doors so he couldn’t point his gun at me.
“End of the line, dumbass,” I said. “The Feds are on to you, and you’ll never escape me.”
“Bastard!” He worked a hand loose and shoved it into my breather. I could feel the straps giving way. I squirmed to hit my ghost dial without losing my grip. He twisted the mask halfway off my face and I accidentally turned the knob all the way.
We fell through the closed doors into the elevator shaft. Somewhere in the open shaft, Luczek let go of me and turned solid. I heard him scream, then I fell through the exterior wall and hurtled over a fire escape. I turned solid enough to catch it and pulled myself to safety.
Who knows how far Luczek fell. I didn’t go back to find out.
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The conversation back at Daisy’s friends’ apartment was short and to the point. I let Daisy know that Luczek had taken a long, steep dive down an elevator shaft. Daisy handed Powell the electrical grid plans that Farstow had tried to sell. Grudgingly, I handed over my tape recording of Farstow’s meeting with Luczek and his subsequent murder. Since all the active parties were dead, Powell said, the tape should serve as an adequate stand-in for Daisy as a witness.
Nevertheless, Farstow had friends and Luczek had associates. It was possible that someone might still come after her.
“Do me a favor,” Powell said to me in the hall as Daisy made her farewells. “Help her disappear.”
“You got it.” I shook his hand, keeping my other firmly latched on my invisibility belt in case he made a grab for it.
I escorted Daisy and Zoe down the stairs, fully visible and solid. I didn’t want the kid to see me wearing my mask, so I carried it in my hand. I could feel her eyes on me the whole way down. Finally she spoke.
“Hey mister. Are you the invisible man?”
“That I am, kiddo.”
“If you turn invisible I could tell where you are anyway,” the kid said. “You smell like you need a bath.”
Daisy laughed. I couldn’t help but grin. “You found my weakness. Cops and gangsters can’t catch me, but your nose could spot me a mile away.”
“Do you think we could go back to my place?” asked Daisy.
I shook my head. “Powell said vanish, so we vanish. If there’s anything you need to pick up, I’ll go for it myself. As the Invisible Man.” I reached down and caught Zoe with a tickle. “I’ve got a hotel suite on Fifth. You two can have the bedroom. I’ll sleep on the couch.”
It was a long walk. Thanks to the outage there was an odd holiday air to the city. The Mirror had managed to get a POWER BLACKOUT headline up for the evening edition. Most stores were closed. A bakery had posted a sale on whipped cream and custard items. One grocery had a sign that read “Open For Business At Your Own Risk.”
At my hotel, the concierge offered apologies and handed us flashlights. I was glad Daisy looked respectable. On my own I might have been thrown out before I could convince them I was a paying guest. I could have slipped in as the Whisper, but it was hard getting by as a regular human being without an actual identity. I ran that thought through my mind as we climbed the endless stairs, then sprung an idea on Daisy when we finally got to my suite.
“Powell said to vanish. I want to offer you a job.”
“A job. For money and everything. So you can have your own place and take care of Zoe.”
Daisy gave Zoe a match and told her to light the room’s candles. I dropped my mask on a chair and pulled off my tie. With the kid occupied, Daisy pulled me into the bedroom, where the last light of day hung around for final call.
“What kind of job?”
“I can’t be a real person. I’ve got money, but I can’t get a bank account. I can stay in hotels, but I can’t rent a place long term. I can’t even go to the same grocery to often in case people might start to recognize me. It’s wearing me out, living like this. I need an intermediary.”
Daisy crossed her arms. “So I’d be what, a live in maid who pays all your bills?”
I reached back in my brain to all those old Shadow serials. “You’d be my agent. My representative. Like an attorney. I’d be your client. And I’d pay really well.”
“You’ve got money?”
“You’d be surprised how much loot criminals leave locked up. There isn’t a safe in the world that can stop me.”
“And where will this be?”
“I’ve been working out of Baltimore but I need to move on. We could get lost anywhere there’s a lot of people. Take Manhattan. There’s so many millions here I bet we could move across town and no one would find us.”
“Please,” said Daisy. “New York is smaller than you think.” Someone, probably housekeeping, knocked on the door and Daisy yelled for Zoe not to answer it.
“Think about it,” I said. “I’m not going to pressure you, and I’ll set you up on your own somewhere if that’s what you decide. I just want you to know it’s on the table.”
“Mommy?” Zoe’s voice was shrill.
“What is it, honey?” Daisy went to the sitting room door. Her breath caught in her throat. “Karl!”
I looked over her shoulder. In the flickering light, Luczek looked like a ghoul. He had Zoe by the shirt and held a pistol to her head.
“If you vanish, she dies.”
The question I wanted to ask was ‘How are you still alive?’ The one that came out of my mouth was “Karl? This guy was your boyfriend?”
“You,” said Luczek. “Remove your cloaking belt and set it on the floor.”
“Did Powell know?” I asked Daisy. “Did Farstow know? How does this even make sense?”
“Hey,” said Luczek. “Are you listening? Put down the cloaking belt or the girl dies.”
Daisy sniffled. She started to shake. “Farstow didn’t know. Luczek used me to get information about him, so he’d know what to offer in exchange. I went to Powell so I could get rid of this bastard.”
“That’s it,” said Luczek. “The girl dies on 3.”
“Stop,” I said. “I’m taking off the belt and I’m setting it down where you can see it.” I moved slowly and laid the bandolier on the floor in the last shaft of twilight from the window. As I let go, something clicked in my head. “You called it a cloaking belt.”
“I know what it is. My employers want it back.”
“All right,” I said. I inched my way to the left, deeper into shadow. Not that a pro like him could have missed me at this range. “I’m giving it up. I know you won’t let me live. But please, let the girl go.”
“Mommy!” Zoe cried. Luczek tightened his arm around her neck.
“The girl will live. My employers need servants. I’m glad you’re not a fool. Now get down on your knees.”
“Mommy!” Zoe shouted. I did as instructed. I was out of plays. I’d known this gig might not last. I only wished I could have been more of a thorn in JANUS’s side.
Luczek aimed his gun and said, “Sorry.” He squeezed the trigger and fired.
The blast ripped the air by my head. I flinched and glass sprayed me where his bullet smashed a mirror. A ringing echoed between my ears. I toppled on my side and put my hand to my scalp, but it came away bloodless.
Luczek had missed. Zoe slid across the floor like a flung doll. Luzcek jerked left, then right. A crater formed on his cheek from an invisible blow. Blood sprayed from his mouth. His feet fell out from under him and his stomach crumpled.
Something crushed his head to the floor. Again, and again. His eyes bulged, his arms flailed. Daisy was nowhere to be seen. Daisy was nowhere to be seen. While Luczek had been focused on me, she must have put on the cloaking belt. Now she used some object to beat Luczek’s skull in. Luczek’s eyes lost their focus and his arms stopped their flailing.
“Daisy,” I said. “You can stop!”
“Mommy?” Zoe crawled to her knees where she’d fallen. I grabbed her and held her close, keeping her from seeing Luczek’s body.
“Daisy, you can stop. Karl’s gone. You need to come back now.”
A battered hotel chair materialized in midair and fell across Luczek’s body. Daisy didn’t appear.
“Feel the knobs. It’s the top one, the one you turned before. Not the other two. Turn it counterclockwise until it stops. Don’t touch the others, whatever you do. You won’t be able to breathe.”
The seconds stretched out. She didn’t appear. I couldn’t even guess where she was from the sound, since my ears still rang from the gunshot. At last she faded into view, kneeling beside Luczek’s broken body and panting heavily.
“It’s all right,” I whispered. I patted Zoe on the shoulder. “Your mommy’s all right. She’s back and the bad man is gone.”
“Sweetie,” said Daisy. “I need you to hide in the bathroom. Close the door and don’t come out until I say.”
“I love you, Mommy.”
“I love you too. Mommy’s a mess and she needs to clean up.”
I let Zoe go and she ran to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. Daisy put her hands on her face and sobbed. I should have gone to comfort her, but instead I slumped to the floor. It had been a long goddamn day.
“You still want that job?”
Daisy laughed or cried, I wasn’t sure which. I’d have to make a call to Powell, and we’d soon be hightailing it to another hotel room, preferably one in Jersey. Anywhere but Manhattan.
“Thank you, Mister Jones,” she said.
“Don’t call me that. You can call me Allan if you want.”
“Allan. What are we going to do now?”
No need to sweat the details. “We’re going to take a vacation, then get set up somewhere else. I think Zoe’s taking a shine to me. I can be her crazy uncle.”
Daisy nodded. “She can call you Uncle Whisper.”
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