A Snowman Is No Man's Woman

Sean Barrett

August is difficult for a snowman. A strand of ivy carefully spiralled just so suggests regal; shifting the carefully packed balls of snow forward (cautiously avoiding putting it off-balance) gives a firm impression of overbearing. The art of caricature makes oblivious and indiscreet no problems. But, Milo decided, the scrap heap of implementationally implausible--already bloated with concepts like patronizing and irresolute--needed to expand by one to accomodate august.

After stamping his feet carefully on the steps outside his father's domicile--there would be time enough to torment Carmella after Ned left--he entered to find the house a whirlwind of preparation.

Carmella saw him first. "There's Milo."

Ned rounded the corner. "There you are, my boy. Come at last to see me off? Where have you been?"

"At the park."

"Well, I'm afraid I'm just leaving now. We falcons have to fly free, you know. We'll talk later."

Milo knew well the odds of that day ever arriving, and said nothing.

"You be good to Carmella."

"Yes sir."

With that, and some close mouth-to-mouth motion that Milo observed dispassionately, Ned was off on another of his business trips.

Carmella turned from the window. "Don't you go wandering around this house in those boots, young man."

Struggling to open the iced-over fasteners, Milo pondered the wondrous process in the English language known as the 'particle shift'. If you want to take off your boots, you have to take your boots off. Seeing off Ned necessarily involved seeing his father off. But, as far as Milo had understood from his readings--for he wasn't really personally invested in the process yet--it was not at all necessary to get off someone to get someone off; in fact, quite the contrary, in normal practice.

Milo had dreams and aspirations of power. He imagined that he would grow up to be president of some multinational conglomerate, whence he'd bandy about terms like meticulous, remunerative, and eminent domain.

Many years passed, and nobody was at all surprised when Milo found a successful career as a crossword puzzle author.

Thaddeus P. Rovale fancied himself a keen observer, and he had all his sensory apparatus going full steam as he crossed the lobby towards the receptionist.

He saw the opulence of a successful company reined in by the tight grip of a spendthrift management. The bits of activity down a corridor to the right suggested work getting done, but the minimal amount relative to the size of the office would lead an observer to suspect most of the employees were productively plugging away in their cubicles. The carpet itself implied comfort without really providing any to those standing around waiting in the lobby--of which there were, at this moment, none.

And the receptionist, well, she was very attractive. Perhaps too attractive. But then, perhaps he could get her number as a perk.

She hung up the phone and smiled brightly. "Welcome to RAJ Industries." (As if the huge logo on the wall behind her hadn't communicated that to him the moment he got off the elevator.) "Can I help you?"

"I have an interview with the Director of Technology."

She glanced down. "Mr. Rovale?"

"That's right."

She called, announced his presence, hung up, said "Someone will be out shortly," and turned back to her computer.

"What's your name?"

She shook her head. "The elite don't hang out with the mundanes."

"You, elite? You're a receptionist."

"You're the one who wants a job here." She turned back to her computer--a game of FreeCell already in progress--and he sat down.

This was make-or-break day. Living off the wealthy parents seemed perfectly reasonable to Thaddeus, but Walter Rovale had dropped the boom: get a job, or move out. Moving out would require getting both a job and an apartment. So what was a slacker to do? Even his brother had gotten something he could claim was a job, even if he didn't really make enough money to pay any bills. Of course Walter had offered Thaddeus a job at his company, but Thaddeus wasn't interested, and not just because it was the sleaziest job in the world.

So here he was. A woman appeared in a doorway opposite the corridor. Professionally dressed, no-nonsense, a strong sense of timeliness, he'd bet. "Mr. Rovale?"

He stood, followed her to her office. They sat on opposite sides of the desk. Computer, in box, out box, a framed photograph, a shredder. Lurking in the background, amidst the file cabinets and document boxes, was a safe.

"Anelle Stauffer, director of technology. Did you bring your information?" she asked.

He handed the two pages to her. She read them quickly, nodded, and shredded them. "You'll do fine. Let me show you around."

She led him down the corridor he'd seen before. People were working in cubicles: diligently typing, reading, talking on the phone. Anelle followed his gaze. "We have a fairly strict rule about goofing off. You can do what you like as long as you look like you're being productive. So no Solitaire--that's far too obvious. And regardless you can't surf the web since we don't have Internet connectivity."

They rounded the corner and went down a second row of cubicles, which were only partly occupied. "You'll time-share a cubicle, of course--how much is up to you." They entered an empty cubicle, and she pulled on one wall. A thin but large cover came off the top half. "You can put decorations on one of these, and then it's trivial to personalize any of the cubicles so it looks like it's yours and always has been."

They started walking back to her office. "And, of course, we're in the prestigious Wyatt Earp building, on the top floor, and you know that people will be impressed to hear that. It's really a fabulous location. Of course we'll set you up with your own voice mail account, and you'll even be able to check it from home. If you want, we can forward incoming calls to you when you're not in the office, too."

They sat back around her desk.

"Assuming you're still interested, let's get down to brass tacks."


She smiled. "Yes." Then she acquired a perfect poker face. She sized him up for a few moments longer. "Fifty."

He frowned. "A month?"

"No, fifty dollars a day. For the days you come in."

"That's outrageous."

"Look, this is a business. We have to make money somehow. Renting the top floor of the Wyatt Earp building doesn't come cheap, I can tell you that. We've cut costs everywhere we could--like those cubicles--but that's the best we can do. And something tells me you really need this job."

He shook his head. "Not that badly."

"Forty dollars, but I can't go any lower than that. And a ten-day minimum."

Images of Walter loomed in his vision. "Deal. Can I start today?"

"Yes, but I'll need two days cash up front."

Thaddeus pulled out his wallet and produced four twenties. "I have to admit it, you have a great setup here. I still can't get over the idea. Rent-a-job... who'd have thought it."

"I am rather pleased." Anelle replied, taking his cash towards the safe. "And it's perfectly legal."

"Investigator Harrison, how can I help you?" His voice assumed its gruffest tone while he sized up the caller. "That's right, that's what we do. Have you got something for us?" His eyes wandered around the other folk in the office: Investigator Collins, Investigator Jackson, Investigator Parsons--professional-sounding psuedonyms that happened to be their favorite musicians. Or, in some cases, second favorite; management had deemed Investigator Nine Hundred Foot Jesus "insufficiently professional-sounding".

"Mrs. McFadden, have you considered the possibility that it's your husband who's moving things around when you're not home?" His eyes focussed in on Samantha and the unprofessionally low top she was wearing today. "Sure, it could be a poltergeist, but we have a firm policy: you must consider and disprove the natural before we will consider the supernatural. No, I realize. Yes. You should try a traditional detective agency first, to investigate whether there are any human beings responsible. Yes. If they turn up nothing, then we will take the case. You're welcome."

Hanging up the phone, Vicki looked sideways to see Polly looking at him expectantly. "95% chance her husband's having an affair."

Samantha stepped over to his desk.

He smiled. "Investigator Collins. What can I do for you this fine morning?"

She put her palms on the desk and leaned forward a little. "I've got a live one, Vicki, but it's out of state. Do you want to take it?"

"Not particularly."

"I really don't want to travel right now. I don't want to miss any of my prayer meetings, as I'm sure I'm right on the verge of transcending. Tell you what, I'll give you half of my next commission."

"Plus the full commission and bonus on this one?"

"Super-naturally. Should be a good one, too. He's quite wealthy, and the sightings have been appropriately uncertain."

"You're on."

"I'll have the client email you the address."

An hour later, he found email in his inbox with the subject "Samantha told me to send you this". The body just had a URL. He clicked on the link and found himself on the page for a time-shared condominium. Well, not really a condo at all; not a community, just the one house. Vicki wrote down the address and replied to the email, asking if the email's author was the primary owner and when he'd be there. He hadn't gotten a reply by the end of the day, and Samantha had left, but she'd said previously it was all set up and approved, so what the heck.

The next day, his detecting gear packed in his suitcase and some casual clothes in a backpack, Vicki boarded a plane, headed for boring with a capital B.

"Perfectly legal," Anelle said, interposing her body between Thaddeus and the safe. She quickly spun the combination and tossed his money in.

"If it's perfectly legal, why do you keep your money in a safe?"

"Old habits die hard." She smiled, sitting again.


"Of course not. Let me get your voice mail set up." She picked up the phone and started punching in the control and authorization codes, pulling out a document showing the available voice mail codes--and a good thing it was they'd gone with four-digit ones. She glanced up, nearly finished, and noticed his look. "Thaddeus, I'm old enough to be your... your significantly older sister."

"What? Oh, I wasn't thinking about that. I was trying to imagine how you'd finagled such a sweet setup."

She hung up the phone. "There. Now..."

The phone rang. But Thad was the only interview today. Wait, was it April already? No. She watched a curious expression grow on his face--he was reading her expression, clearly--and picked up.

The receptionist got out one word before Anelle hung up: "Simon".

Anelle looked at Thad directly, earnestly. "Lock the door."

Thaddeus protested. "No, really, I'm not interested in you that way."

"Lock it. We have trouble on the way."

She opened the side door out of the office. Old habits die hard indeed. Then she went to the stack of document boxes, moved the top one aside. Hefted one. Two was too heavy. And there were three all told.

Thaddeus stood by the door he'd locked. "I'd get away from there if I were you," she observed.

"What are you doing?"

"Taking what's most important." She looked at the two remaining boxes, looked at Thaddeus, sizing him up. "Can you carry both of these?"

The door shuddered under vicious blows. A screaming angry voice: "Anelle! I know you're in there, my sweet!"

Thaddeus studied her expression. "I don't think I want to get involved. Who is that?"

"Ex-partner. They must have let him out early. Come on, I'll make it worth your while."

Thaddeus looked at the boxes, came over and lifted one. He grunted. With that weight, paper could make a good paperweight.

Anelle sighed. "Twenty grand if you get them both." He looked openly towards the safe. She saw it, replied, "Don't worry about that, there's only eighty dollars there."

"It was more that I was wondering where you're going to get twenty grand."

"I'm good for it."

A sudden bang--a circular hole in the door. Christ, that was a gunshot! What sort of mess was this?

"Stay or go, it's your call." Anelle strode out the side door with the box and started down the stairs.

The door shuddered again, and he heard incoherent screaming. He wasn't looking forward to confronting that. So, fine. He strained at the effort of lifting both boxes, and then hurried out the side door, closing it with his foot.

A short corridor was revealed, and stairs down. He hurried down, but no sign of Anelle. He went down one floor; down two floors...


He stopped short, but the momentum of the boxes nearly pulled him down the next flight of stairs anyway. Anelle was standing in the doorway onto the twenty-third floor.

Seconds later, after Anelle--impressively prepared--had locked the stairwell door, they heard someone puffing and grunting, descending the stairs. After whoever it was had gone several floors down, out of hearing, Thaddeus said, "I..."

Anelle put her hand over his mouth, waiting a few more minutes, and then uncovered it. "My car's in the garage, and he knows what it looks like, so he'll figure out I probably haven't left quite soon. Where's your car?"

Thaddeus frowned. "In the garage."

She didn't hesitate. "Ok. Go down to the lobby, hit the street, hail a cab, and promise the driver a thousand dollars if he sits there waiting for us with the motor running and doesn't drive off with the next fair." She pulled out her wallet. "Here's forty. Give him this and everything else you've got on you as a down-payment, and then come back here, and we'll make a run for it."

She seemed a dangerous woman, and a schemer. The suspicion must have been evident on his face, because she said, "If I could walk off with all these boxes alone, I wouldn't have asked for your help in the first place."

He shrugged and ran for the elevator. "And don't run," she admonished him. "Simon doesn't know you, so don't call attention to yourself."

The building lobby was busy but not untowardly so. The woman at the office listing, determining where she wanted to go. The young lad sitting on the bench, kicking his feet. The tall, muscular fellow near the exit, biting his nails.

Thaddeus walked out, avoiding looking at the tall, muscular fellow biting his nails. From the dimwitted expression on his face, that bruiser spelled trouble t-r-u-b-b-l-e.

The cabbie was no problem; eighty dollars was plenty to get him to wait, regardless of the truth of the promised one grand. Thaddeus returned to the lobby, and straight to the elevator.

The doors opened on a midget and a transvestite, bringing to mind a really stupid joke that he supressed before it showed on his face. The midget got off as he entered. Thaddeus pushed the button for the twenty-third floor, saw the twenty-fifth was already lit up.

When they passed the fifteenth floor, the transvestite said, "Didn't your mother teach you it was impolite not to stare?"


He breathed a sigh as the elevator doors closed behind him, then hurried down the corridor to find Anelle. As they carried the boxes back to the elevator, she asked, "Did you see anyone suspicious?"

"There was a transvestite in the elevator going from the garage to the top floor."

"Describe him."

Thaddeus described her, him, as best he could.

"Doesn't sound like Simon." He described the guy in the lobby, and she shook her head. "Sounds like we're clear, as long as we hurry."

Thaddeus stood in front of the elevator as it opened, but it was empty. They moved the boxes in and began the descent.

The elevator stopped at the eighth floor and opened... but there was nobody there. Thaddeus felt a sudden chill and realized he was actually frightened. He couldn't remember the last time that had been true.

The elevator descended without further incident. They hurried across the lobby and out to the waiting cab. Anelle let him get in first, sliding the boxes uncomfortably onto his lap. A voice in the distance screamed "Anelle!" He looked, but couldn't see the source. She threw a roll of bills into the front seat. "Go! Fast!"

The cab lurched out into traffic as Anelle slammed her door, looking out, back at the sea of faces.

She turned back to the driver. "Do you know of anyone who sells cars but is on the other side of town?"

"Que?" the cabbie asked.

"Cars, automobiles, vroom vroom."

"No, you've seen the ads on TV, 'Come on down and talk to Kay for the best prices on cars new, used, and anywhere in-between. See Kay's World of Autos for all you car needs.'"

"Oh, yeah. That'll be fine."

Thaddeus watched the flow of shops and streets and billboards advertising lame sitcoms flow by. "When do I get my money?"

"As soon as these are loaded in the trunk of my new car."

"At which point you won't need me anymore, nor feel any need to pay me."

"Why don't you come with me? I could use a partner."

"You seem to be forgetting, I wasn't looking for work, I was looking to not work."

"Think of it as a vacation. A paid vacation. Tell you what. Fifty grand."

"You must be desperate. You don't even know me."

"I know you better than I know anyone else where I'm going. I saw your references."

"Where are we going?"

"We--I take it we have a deal--get a car, and we go somewhere that Simon won't find me."

"Which is?"

"I don't know. Somewhere he's never heard of, somewhere that won't attract any attention. Somewhere I've never been. Maybe a smaller town instead of a big city. Not a small town, but a mid-sized town." She paused, looked at him more carefully. "You pick. Pick somewhere I've never even heard of. That'll make it tough on Simon."

Thaddeus considered, and then inspiration struck. "I know the perfect place for us."

He held out the silence, to pay her back a little.

"Boring, Indiana."

She frowned. "I've heard it's pretty boring, but did you have something more specific in mind?"

Boring, Indiana is one of the best-kept secrets in the Midwestern United States. It may not be the greatest place to live, but it's a fun place to visit.

The name itself is the subject of much debate. The popular debate is whether the inhabitants intentionally named it in an attempt to discourage visitors, or whether the inhabitants have made it such an exciting place to be out of embarassment over the name. Meanwhile, the serious historians have an entirely different ongoing debate; some widely-respected personages assert that the name derives from its founding as a mining settlement, while the other camp claims that the name's origin lies in a gold-hunting time-traveller having accidentally left behind a copy of Eightball #20 that the city's fathers must have found and read. Claims that the latter scenario is utterly implausible are undermined by the fact that the nearest town to Boring, Indiana is, in fact, Clowes.

Vicki stopped reading the brochure there and tossed it in the trash. Those idiots wouldn't know good promotional literature if it bit them on the asterisks. He decided to make a visit to the house. He left the detecting gear there for now. Didn't really need much except his cell phone--except, wait, he couldn't find it anywhere. Where the hell was it? He remembered packing it--no, wait, he remembered setting it out to remember to pack it. He remembered putting it out on the sideboard at home. He didn't actually remember packing it. Oops.

He drove his rental car to the shared house. Through a deep forest, on a relatively cleared road that wound slowly up a snow-covered hill just north of town, at last he found the driveway. He drove up cautiously and knocked on the door.

A young woman opened the door. College-aged, probably. Dressed in black, an eyebrow stud, a crucifix below her throat. There was music in the background, and an odd, inhuman moaning. "Yes?"

"My name is Harrison, I'm from SuperPink investigations."

Her expression stayed blank.

"One of the other owners reported there were mysterious goings on here and asked me to look into it."

"There's nothing wrong here," she answered. A lamp flew across the room down the hall, and crashed noisily. She closed the door most of the way, blocking his view. "Everything is fine."

Keeping the mildly concerned but unthreatening expression on his face, he said, "I see. Well, sorry to bother you, then."

He guided the car back out of the driveway, then headed further up the hill. Eventually he found a scenic overlook, from which he could look down the hill at the house and at the town far beyond it. He dug out his binoculars and settled in for the evening.

Officer Callahan had been raised to a standard of strict obedience to the rules. Ma Callahan was trying to cope with eight children, and her solution was rule after rule after rule. God forbid you should break one; for then you would face Pa Callahan, one-on-one, in person, and you'd have little interest afterwards in breaking any more rules.

As a result, Officer Callahan underwent a daily struggle to resist moving in on every infraction spotted: on an average day, ten red-light runners would give incarceration a miss, fifty jaywalkers would go unwarned, and two thousand female automobile drivers who were not preceded by a man on a horse waving a white flag would escape prosecution. Even Officer Callahan's girlfriend broke several laws every time they went to bed.

Pedestrians on a divided highway was a definite no-no; Officer Callahan pulled over and got out. The hitchhiker was a young woman, probably around 25.

"You know, you shouldn't be hitchhiking here."

"Is it illegal? I didn't know that."

"Yeah. It is. Why don't you get in the car?"

They did, the girl looking quite unhappy. Officer Callahan started filling out a notation on a clipboard about the encounter. "Name?"

"Peg Balzac."

"Where are you headed?"


"Any particular destination?"

"I'm meeting friends, I've got an address..." The girl fished through her pockets, found it. "6000 Skymall Drive."

"Oh, the Wynn house."

"Although they said if I got there too late, they might be off at the Death By Sunlight concert."

"Mmhmm. How did you come to be hitchhiking here?"

"I got dropped off back at the last interchange."

"And you walked all the way here? That's got to be ten miles."

"I was thumbing it, but I didn't like my chances with the couple people who stopped."

"Scary guys?"

"Yeah. There was a guy covered in blood who said he was a surgeon, a guy in an ice cream truck, a guy in the postal jeep who claimed he was a postman, and then there was the woman dressed like a nun. But, well... I don't accept rides from just anyone."

"I don't blame you. Occupation?" The report was nearly finished.


"Mmhmm." The car started, and veered back onto the highway.

"Am I under arrest?"

"No, but I can't very well leave you out there, can I? I'll take you where you're going. Which will it be, Wynn place or show?"

"What is it, Thad?" He was persistent, she'd give him that.

His voice came, muffled through the motel room door. "How do I know you'll still be here tomorrow?"

Oh, that. Ok, it was time for the revelation. "Just a second." Anelle got dressed again--they definitely needed to make a stop somewhere and do some clothes shopping, Thad's intolerance for the idea or not, and, well. You can't actually slam a door when you're opening it--unless you knock it into the adjacent wall, which she definitely didn't do--but she gave as good an impression of such slamming as she could. "Follow me."

She led him to the Ford, popped the trunk. The three document boxes were there, waiting. "Get one of them."

"Which one?"

"Doesn't matter. Any of them."

Thad picked up a box, and she closed the trunk gently, checking that it was secure. She led him back up the stairs, glancing around for anyone watching (but saw nobody), then stopped at a motel room door. He walked right past her, heading for her room, and then realized that she had stopped at his door. They hadn't been lucky enough to find two adjacent rooms despite it being a Thursday night. Good old dependable Four Star Deluxe Accomodations. One star for comfort, one star for size, one star for cleanliness, and one star for staff friendliness. Each on a five-star scale. "Can you get that?" he asked.

"I don't have a key to your room."

"Right." He dropped the box and grabbed his key, and moments later they were inside. He dropped the box on the floor by his bed. "So."

"So, you know how important these boxes are to me. Now you don't have to worry about me driving off without you in the middle of the night."

"If our positions were reversed, would that be good enough for you?"

"Sure." She waited for just the right amount of time. "Well, ok, probably not. Look, I offered you twenty grand, right?"


"Fifty to partner with me. If I take off without you, you're obviously not my partner. So twenty is all you should be worried about." He hesitated, nodded. "Open the box."

He did. The box was full of papers, stacked face up.

"Lift the top papers."

He did. He swore. Stacks of tens and fives, neatly arranged. "How much?"

"About two hundred thousand total in the three boxes."

"Christ, we've been running around town with a quarter million dollars?"

"A fifth."

"Where'd you get all this? Not just from rent-a-job, surely."

"Sure. A thousand rich kids, four hundred dollars minimum, minus expenses, no taxes, do the math."

Thad frowned, concentrating, and eventually said, "I guess."

"So, if you want to cash out, take your twenty grand, the box goes back in the car, and you may or may not see me tomorrow morning."


"Or, if you want to be partners... I'll leave the box here with you. I'll show you I trust you with more that your share."

"More? How much is in the box?"

Anelle made a mental note to remember that math was not Thad's strong suit. "Around seventy thousand. Anyway, your call."

She waited for some reaction so she could give the right nudge, but he just sat there. Finally, he picked up the papers, put them back on top of the money, and closed the box.

"Good. I'll see you tomorrow, then." She went back to her room, got undressed, and snuggled back under the covers.

She awoke to a soft knocking. 3 a.m. If it was Thad, she was going to kill him. Then again, if it was Simon, he was going to kill her, so she supposed she'd better be thankful if it was Thad.

"Who is it?" she called softly from beside the door.


Damn, he was persistent. "What do you want?"

"I was wondering..."

"I'm not dressed. Can't it wait 'til morning?"

"Umm... well, I guess." Ok, she was going to kill him.

"Good night, then."


She stumbled back to bed.

After a fast shower the next morning, she knocked on his door. He was showered but not shaved, and looking ready to go.

"You've got a few more minutes before we go, and I wanted to tell you something important to think about during that time."

He waited expectantly. She liked that about him. Not so much submissive as respectful. She wondered if younger brothers actually treated older sisters that way. Well, she didn't actually wonder whether they did that when they were young--she could certainly guess--but at the age the two of them were.

"If we're going to be partners in this business, that means no fucking around with each other."

"Jesus Christ, Anelle, I already told you I'm not interested. I don't know why you keep thinking that."

"I meant it metaphorically. It means being honest about how much money you took from somebody. I mean, not cheating each other."

"Well, sure."

"So, for instance, if you were to, this morning, show up with an extra bit of luggage or a bag or something that you didn't have last night, and I know I left you with a box of money, well, that might look bad. And I might, you know, actually decide to check and see what's in the box, and actually sit there and count it to check up on you, since we're in the early stages of this partnership and I don't actually trust you that far. On the other hand, if you don't have any other bags or anything, just the box, well, I probably wouldn't bother counting the money, since you'd have to go to ludicrous lengths to steal it, like burying it outside somewhere. Of course, if you wanted to claim some of your fifty grand, that would be different, but you should actually tell me about that. Now, I'm going to go check out, and when I come back, you be ready to go with the box and anything else you're bringing with you."

The poor boy was so naive. Best to get him started down the right mindset to minimize the chance of somebody else taking advantage of him as long as he was working for her. Playing it straight with him was a good way to build his trust, too. Whether she was going to take advantage of it she hadn't yet decided.

A police car descended the drive. Perhaps the activity Vicki'd witnessed had been mundane domestic violence after all.

No; the car dropped off a young woman who walked to the front door. After she got into the house, the police car backed out of the drive.

This wasn't really the best vantage point, after all. The windows that faced this way hadn't really seen much activity. Well, none, in fact. On the other hand, he'd at least be able to see the comings and goings, which was probably good enough for his purpose.

The binoculars jammed on the window frame, crushing his nose, when he turned his head sharply at the honk. The police car sat beside him. He moved back to the driver's seat and rolled down the window.

"What can I do for you, officer?"

"Can I ask what you're doing?"


"I think those 'bairds' are a little young for you. I'd say you're watching the Wynn house. Lies right down the hill."

Vicki nodded. "Well, yes. Actually, I'm a P.I.--Investigator Harrison."

"Yes, and I'm a police officer. But you don't see me stopped at the side of the road observing people without them seeing me." It hung in the air for a second. "Wait, I guess sometimes you do, actually. Nevermind. Anyway, you'd better give me some further details so I know you're not just some random pervert."

"Well... have you heard of any strange goings on there? At the Wynn house?"

"Not that I can think of. People are always coming and going there, of course. College students throwing loud parties. But nothing strange."

"Nothing odd, mysterious, unexplained, weird?"

"No. You want 'messterious', try the place at the top of the hill." The officer pointed up the road. "That guy is totally nuts. A sweetheart, too, though. So. I asked you a question, and you answered with a question. Don't think I don't notice things like that."

"The question. Yes. Well, this is kind of embarassing." Vicki grabbed his wallet, then found to his surprise a gun was pointed right at him.

"Hands clear, now." He moved his hands into the air.

"I was just going for my business card."

"Are you right-handed or left-handed?"


"Keep your right in sight, and heft it with your left." He complied, and, shortly after, handed over the card.

"Nice rhyme. What do you say if someone's right-handed?"

"Hey, I'm satisfied if 90% of the population gets to hear a clever rhyme and the other 10% just hear something dull. So, Vicki Harrison. Paranormal Investigator. Paranormal?"

"Ghosts, poltergeists, mysterious happenings."

"SuperPink, Inc. Never heard of 'em."

"Well, we modernized the name, 'Supernatural Pinkertons' was just too much of a mouthful."

"So, you're investigating the Wynn place for supernatural occurences? I've never heard of any such thing."

"Yeah. I was hired by one of the owners."

"Which one?"

"Umm, I don't remember the name offhand. It's on the email, though. I'd get it, but..." Vicki gestured with his hands and nodded at the gun.

"Oh." The gun disappeared. "Forget it. You staying some place in town, Mr. Harrison?"

"Yeah, the Motel Six."

"Excuse me? Oh, six. Where're you from, anyway? That's an odd accent."

"It's an invented one, actually. In college, some friends and I worked out a totally fictional accent, and we always spoke with it, just for fun. It stuck with me accidentally, and I never quite got rid of it. Makes for some awkward misunderstandings, sometimes."

"I'm going to have to verify this, standard procedure."

"Well, sure. I'm not sure where they all got to, but I'm still in touch with Howard and Clarissa. I'm sure they still remember when we designed the accent. Howard was actually the best at it, in fact."

"I meant verify your motel room, not the accent."

"Oh, then you'll want my real name."

"It did strike me as a bit odd. 'Vicki'."

"Oh, that's real. The last name is fake. Presley. Vicki Presley. Suite sixteen."

"I'd say you're well past that age."

"No, I mean, room sixteen at the motel."

"I see. How long do you expect to be in town?"

"Until the job is done. Weeks. Maybe months."

"Then I imagine I'll be seeing you quite often on my patrols out here. Good day, Mr. Presley."

"Goodbye, officer..." Vicki offered an expectant look.


"Officer Callahan. Goodbye, and you can be sure I'll be sticking to the straight and narrow."

The police car drove off, and Vicki slid over and gingerly put the binoculars back to his eyes.

Peg had never met Justine and Kevyn offline before, but they were pretty much what she'd expected--shallow, self-indulgent college kids playing at rebellion. A proclivity for pointless, sudden violence towards one another, intended, apparently, as an expression of affection. Still, she'd wanted to talk to them, and they were due to leave tomorrow--she'd originally been planning on arriving several days early--so she agreed to go to the show with them. She found some attire which was scarcely appropriate and hopped in the car with them.

Sometimes people talk to one other because they want something out of the other. Sometimes they talk to each other to take stock of the validity of their beliefs and opinions by smashing them in a duel of words with an oppositely-opinioned person. Sometimes they talk to each other just to kill time when they have nothing better to do. Sometimes, sometimes they talk to each other just to get a sense of being in a community, being a social animal, some faint lingering sense of sharing in a local ur-mind. All of these uses have survival value; Peg could convincingly argue for them via natural selection.

But sometimes people talk to each other because they haven't yet figured out that talking to each other is never going to change the world. This was one of those conversations. Peg only only half paid attention to it, so afterwards, she couldn't really remember the details of what was discussed, although she knew that at one point or another they'd mentioned buddhism, Starbucks, marijuana, Dostoevsky, piercings, the power output of a nuclear submarine--all the usual subjects.

The club was a forgettable hole-in-the-wall from the outside, and a forgettable larger-than-it-seemed hangout on the inside. A chalkboard listed the bands playing: "Thursday - Death by Sunlight with Shadow of Shade and Bite Me". Peg barely noticed the club itself, though, because, when they got in, one of the opening bands was already playing.

The singer stood, long dark tresses flailing around him, while the band ground out one of the various flavors of industrial post-punk thrash grunge--Peg didn't keep particular track of the detailed taxonomy, and it seemed to sprout new branches and leaves faster than a spider plant, anyway. This guy could sing okay, but it was the lyrics that stopped her in her tracks.

"You stand about, you stupid cow / You don't know what's on you now," he crooned, and she stood there mesmerized. "If all that frights you is a tipping / Don't know how to act if your skin I'm ripping." Justine had come back and was saying something to her, but she paid no attention. "You just stand about and chomp your cud / With no warning,"--and here, the singer launched into a horrible, wailing shriek, "I Drink Your Blood!"

Peg could just picture her write-up of the performance: BEST LYRICS EVAR. Perhaps not worth bothering; one of those cases where you had to be there. The song ended, and she applauded, and finally she could hear Justine. "You like this?" Peg nodded. "Death by Sunlight is a much better vampire band." Peg smiled and shook her head.

"There's just something different about this. I don't think I could explain it to you."

"I know the singer. His name is Scum Pig. I can introduce you after their set."


The rest of the evening was a whirlwind, but somehow she found herself drawn to him like he was magnetic. Like, maybe, like she would if he was really a vampire. She suggested they go outside, and he seemed honestly thrilled at the idea of missing Death by Sunlight's show.

They got somewhere appropriately out of earshot, and she said it. "You don't seem to mind missing the show."

"Feh." He gave her a once over again, and she was glad she hadn't tried to goth it up. "I hate that bullshit. Vampires, goth, it's all crap. Herd mentality masquerading as individualism."

Thank god. She smiled. "Then why do you do it, Scum?"

"Jeez, call me Bobby, will you?"

"Then why do you do it, Bobby?"

"It's something to do, isn't it? I kind of enjoy standing up there, watching them get off on it, with them having no clue how much I utterly hate them, hate it. There's something awesome about mocking people who are utterly clueless about it."

She told him then that her friends were leaving and she wouldn't have any place to stay. He offered to put her up at his parent's place, which she thought was awfully cute, albeit weird, but she insisted she could stay at his place, no matter how small he claimed it was.

The police car had driven by again, coming down from the top of the hill, and the sun was well past set when Vicki saw three people leave the house and get in the car. He grabbed a flashlight and hopped out. A deer trail led him almost straight down the hill to the house.

No answer at the front door. No key underneath the mat, but, hey, a bunch of dumb kids were living there. A window was unlocked, and he methodically walked through the house.

There was absolutely nothing special or mysterious there, not that Vicki really expected to or wanted to find any such thing.

The south-facing room had a dramatic all-glass southern window, and an angled sklight also facing south, no doubt to help keep the place warm. It was a living room of sorts; a bookshelf, a sofa, a loveseat, a rocking chair.

He was headed for the door, ready to get out before Officer Callahan decided to check up on him again, when the wall in front of him was faintly lit by strange, shimmering, flickering colors. It was incredibly brief; a second perhaps, and then a sharp popping sound as he turned around, to find: nothing. He stepped into the nearest bedroom; nada.

A moment later, there it was. Coming from down the hall. Multiple colors, dancing and flickering, and gone again, again with the popping sound. This was decidedly mysterious.

The hall led to the room with the rocking chair. Rocking chairs were, of course, a classic poltergeist gag, so he homed straight in on it. And waited. And nothing happened. He maneuvered around for a better look.

And there it was, on the wall in front of him again. Strange, faint, flickering light. He spun around, but was too late; there came a crack, almost like a soft gunshot, and the light had faded before he looked.

"Who's there?" he called out.

There was no answer.

Thaddeus downshifted awkwardly. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Anelle watching him, which made his performance all the worse. He'd told her he wasn't very good with a manual transmission, and she'd insisted he drive anyway--good practice. So here he was making lots of dumb little mistakes under her watchful eye. He couldn't believe he was being very convincing; his Subaru back in the Wyatt Earp garage was, in fact, a stick shift--he'd only been trying to get out of doing his share of driving.

"What did you want to ask me last night, Thad?"

"Thaddeus. Nobody calls me Thad. Well, except my little brother, but believe me, he pays for it."

"Okay... what did you want to ask me last night, Thaddeus?"

He pondered the best way of answering. There didn't seem to be utility to offering her the truth--that he'd felt scared and cold and alone in that motel room, that he'd wanted to sleep on her floor. As soon as he'd knocked, he'd realized the foolishness of that situation; that she'd take it the wrong way, or probably two wrong ways.

Finally he went for the one question he'd come up with this morning. "You said the rent-a-job thing was perfectly legal, didn't you?" She murmured assent. "You also said you didn't pay any taxes on the money."


"Doesn't that make it illegal?"

"Well, if you insist on looking at it that way. What I meant was, it's not a scam. I'm not defrauding my 'customers'; they're not going to run off and turn me in to the cops."

"But you're defrauding the federal government."

"Maybe we shouldn't have this conversation while you're trying to drive."

"I can cope."

"How fast are you going?"

He checked the speedometer. "70mph."

"What's the speed limit?"

"What's your point?"

"Everybody does it. Everybody goes a little over the speed limit; everybody who gets a little cash in their hands without any paperwork tracking it skips reporting it to the IRS. Same kind of thing."

"Two hundred grand isn't 'a little cash'."

"Tell that to Bill Gates."

"I don't know."

"You woke me up for that?"

"Yeah. Well, it was bothering me."

A semi cut in front of the car. Thaddeus swore, jerked the wheel, accelerated sharply as he slipped into the other lane. When he was well past the truck he switched lanes again.

He glanced at Anelle. She was smiling like a cat in a tuna fish cannery. "Nice shifting," she said. Fuck.

The bells at the front door rang, but it was only Frinje. Eve offered him a professional smile as he took a seat at the counter. Images of the bellboy from the movie she saw on TV last night flashed before her. It was a tiny bit part, but she'd been enchanted with him.

"What'll it be?" she asked.

"You know what I love?" he responded.

"No, Frinje, I don't. What?"

"Well, youse know what I love."

"No, I don't."

"No, not you. Youse. Female sheepies."

"Do they now."

"They do. It's quite exciting."

"Sure it is."

"I g-knew you wouldn't believe me."

"Are you going to order?"

"You don't want to yak?"

"I'm working, Frinje."

"Well, sorry. I'll have two eggs over easy and a side of hash. And really. I didn't mean to get your goat."

"Oh, shush."

"I wool."

While she was passing the order on, the bells rang again. It took her a few seconds before she could look.

And there it was. Love at first sight. He must have been new to town. A stylish trench coat. Graying at the temples, she loved that. A cute little slouch as he crossed the room.

He sat beside Frinje. She gave him an unprofessional smile. He looked a bit rattled.

"What can I get you, hon?"

"Uh, how aboot an omelette."

"Sure darling, you can have anything you want. Want anything special on it?"

"Whatever the hoose specialty is."

Frinje butted in, addressing the stranger.

"You know what I like?"


"Ewes know what I like."

"Nope, rally, no clue."

"Not you, ewes. Female sheepies."

"On an omelette?"

"No, no, I like ewes, but not that way."

"What why doy you like tham?"

"Well, I like to rub my hands through their soft fleece, and then..."

Eve interrupted. "Don't you pay Frinje here no nevermind. He's just big on stupid puns. He's got the most vanilla tastes of anyone I know. In fact, he's about the only person in town who doesn't like sprinkles on his ice cream."

Frinje retorted, "Don't listen to her. She just doesn't want to shear you."

"Oh shush, Frinje. What's your name, stranger."

"Vicki." How cute! His eyes were locked on hers; they were like limpid pool cues, ready to pull back and accidentally poke her if she wasn't careful.

"What brings you to Boring?"

Frinje jumped it. "I bet he's on the lam. I know that's what I like about Boring, being on the lam, if you know what I mean."

"Stop it, Frinje."

"I love how you ungulate when you're mad."

"Ectually, I'm an investigator ento supernatural phenowmena. Ghorsts, things leek that." What an awfully cute accent. Mmm, she could just picture being locked in a spooky house with him there to protect her. "Either if you ever haired of anything leek that going on ate the old Wynn house?"

Eve shook her head. "No, nothing special about the Wynn house 'cepting the view." She imagined being there in the house alone with him, imagined the fireworks.

Vicki hrmmed quietly, drumming his fingertips on the counter.

The bells rang, and Eve looked up to see a trucker entering, a trucker she'd never seen before in her life. But, wow.

The claim was that humor comes from a combination of suprise and humiliation. This stimulus causes the brain of the receiver to enter a metastable state which degenerates rather quickly, unless sustained by further, similar stimuli, or, oddly enough, by raucous laughter from others nearby. The latter phenomenon, Peg took to have some sort of natural selection status like that of yawning--it is somehow healthy for a community if everyone gets sleepy at the time, so maybe it was healthy for the community if everyone laughs at the same jokes. But the initial stimulus itself; she'd struggled to come up with an explanation in terms of survival value, and gotten nowhere.

Bobby was still sound asleep, so she got up. She was annoyed at going so long without an internet connection; fortunately, she'd brought the little notebook with her, and she was able to jot down notes. Last night, she'd written down the words to one of the songs she'd convinced him to sing for her in her attempt to get him to seduce her.

I'll kiss you right atop your bangs

It's only lust that's causing pangs

Soon you'll find out how I hang

Down from a bar with my bat gang

I will not drink vodka with Tang

Just stab at you with my sharp fang

He was such a man of contradictions. Something about the words just reached out and grabbed her, but the boy himself did not, literally or metaphorically.

"What are you doing?" he asked her.

Awake after all. "Reading some of your lyrics."


"Where do you get your ideas?"

"Huh? Oh, they're not my ideas. I don't write the lyrics, I just sing them."

For a minute, she was lost to reality. When she came back down, he was talking to her.

"I don't get it. What's so funny?"

"Suprise and humiliation." Maybe laughter is something the brain developed to keep people from killing themselves. That would offer definite survival value. "Who writes them?" She ran through the other guys in the band in her head. Maybe the bassist?

"Back when we started, I was writing songs, but they were serious punk songs, about sticking it to the man and all that. And then the band decided to go this goth bullshit route, and I was like, fine, whatever. But I couldn't figure out how to do it. But I know this weird guy who lives on top of the hill north of town. I was talking to him once about music, and about this problem, and he said he thought it would be a fun challenge to do something like that. Although that wasn't how he put it, of course. He's got an odd way of speaking."

"He got a name, too?"

"It's something weird so I never remember--oh yeah, Peregrine. But he doesn't go by that. He calls himself 'Pair of Dimes', I think it is."

"Mmhmm. Could you give me a ride there maybe?"

"Me? I ain't got a car."

"Ok then. Bye."

"Wait, you're going?"

"Yes. That is usually what 'bye' means."

"See you later?"

"I sincerely hope not."

Thanksgiving is difficult for an actor. Obsequious? Milo had conquered that. Implacable, sympathetic, and distant were as easily executed as superior and distrustful were avoided. Apathetic, Milo'd had some trouble hiding. But that was the point of acting. There was no way he'd hold onto a fast food job without acting. But apathetic... that caused a problem with the manager--as did having to work on Thanksgiving. He wasn't particularly thankful for the shit job they'd so kindly deemed to bestow upon him that forced him to work on holidays.

As usual, he'd brought the gradually growing line under swift control once he came on shift; on the keys of the cash register, he was a madman, a genius, a Bach for the consumer masses--a talent owing largely to the toy McDonald's cash register Carmella had gotten him for Christmas years ago--and what exactly had that been intended to imply, anyway?

Do you want fries with that? Of course not. How about the extra value meal, whose cost is several cents higher than the combined costs of the items? Want to stupor-size it? It's not a ripoff to charge twenty-five cents for five cents worth of additional product, given that you're charging a dollar for fifteen cents of product in the first place.

One girl returned her fries, demanding fresh ones, twice in a row. Milo smiled both times. An uncomprehending idiot demanded to talk to his manager, and Milo complied dutifully--too dutifully for his manager's tastes, really. The line built up to obnoxious lengths as one customer constantly changed his order; Milo made eye contact with those waiting in line to let them know he was doing everything in his power to get to them--which was basically nothing, of course.

Milo was too smart for the job. If he'd stuck it out long enough, he could have become a manager there, but nobody was at all surprised that he didn't even last three months working the front lines.

Many years later, though, his friends and family were rather surprised by the display of business acumen he showed in parlaying his career creating crossword puzzles into a veritable empire of puzzledom.

Officer Callahan paced the dark blue Mustang doing 71 mph well past the line where the speed limit went from 65 to 55. A gradual acceleration, flashing the lights, and the perpetrator pulled over. The temporary license plate info and the make and model went into the log.

Two occupants. A couple, the woman driving. The guy was maybe a little younger than her. He looked a little nervous. But more the kind of nerves of being pulled over for the first time, not the kind of nerves of a dead body in the trunk. The woman was cool. Maybe too cool. Officer Callahan checked her license and registration. The latter was lacking. Definitely too cool.

"I just bought the car and drove straight here," the driver explained. Simple explanations are the best ones; but perhaps the woman knew that, was playing on it.

"Where are you folks headed?"


"Popular destination. Where you staying?"

The driver looked at her passenger, who said something negative. She turned back to Officer Callahan. "Dunno. Maybe a motel. Depends on how things work out."

"Can't really register a car when you're living in a motel, can you?"

"Well, that's just until we figure out what we're doing. We'll rent a place within a month, I'm sure."

"Jobs aren't that easy to come by in Boring, these days."

"Not looking for a job. We've got money. It's in the trunk if you want to see." Overconfident, too. The sass. Time for a reminder who's in charge.

"You realize you were doing 71 in a 55 zone?"

"Shit. I mean, umm, no, officer. I didn't notice the speed limit changed."

"Maybe you should try to be more observant in the future."

"I certainly will, officer. Much more observant." Still cool. Not meek, just playing at it.

"Mmhmm. You do that. Boring's not that small a town, but you can bet I'll have my eye on you."

"We won't be a problem to nobody, officer."

"You do that. And you get going now."

In Officer Callahan's head, a thousand Ma Callahans screamed, demanding Pa Callahan's personalized enforcement. For not the first time, Officer Callahan reconsidered whether becoming a police officer and been a product of that youthful upbringing and a desire to inflict the same on others, or a product of that youthful upbringing and a desire to purge the evil by doing the exact opposite. The truth, no doubt, was lying somewhere in the middle of the road, a fatally injured deer taken down by a car with a broken brake light, an expired registration, and a driver who refuses to take a breathalyzer test.

Peg offered a not particularly heartfelt goodbye to Kevyn and Justine as they got in their car, again refusing the offer a ride. They were perfectly fine kids, but she was once again learning on this trip why she hated to trust in the hospitality of the people she knew over the Internet. Sure it was cheap, but they just never turned out to be as interesting in person as they seemed on the net.

She walked up the drive to the road, then looked up the hill. Somewhere up at the top; it would be fun exploring.

The road apparently switched back on the way up; she found a deer run and hiked up it. As she neared the road again, she saw a car was parked there at the top of the run. Not an abandoned car; she could see a guy moving around in it.

She realized she was all alone, sort of in the middle of nowhere, but there was really no turning back now. She thought maybe she could sneak by without him noticing, but he'd rolled the window down as she approached.

"Good duy there," he said.

"Hi. Car trouble?"

"Oh, no, just enjoying the view." She turned to look; it overlooked the same view as the house had, although the trees blocked much of it. It didn't particularly seem interesting, but you never knew with these locals.

"Well, have fun." She turned back and studied possibilities for her further ascent.

"You going to the place on top orf the hill?" he said to her.

"That's right. Do you know the best way there?"

"Eh, just keep going up, I think. It's at the top."

"Right, well, thanks."

The deer run did continue further up the hill to the road again. It continued past there, but it didn't look like it hit the road again, so she followed the road up. Then a hedge alongside the road blocked her view, until she the hedge was broken by a gate, and she got a look at the place. Justine had made it sound like a mansion, but it wasn't a mansion. It was a castle. Perhaps a small castle, as castles go--although Peg didn't really have much personal, up-close experience--and lacking in amenities like moats. But it had turrets and those little jiggery staggered blocks at the top of the walls that Peg didn't know what they were called.

The gate was closed, but Peg spotted an intercom system. She wasn't quite sure how it worked, but she pushed the only button on it and said, "Hello?" Immediately as she pushed the button, though, there was a clack on the gate. She pushed on the gate, but it was still held tight. She pondered a moment, and then held down the button--it clacked again, and she pushed on the gate while holding down the button, which turned out to do the trick.

Vicki stepped into the once-again-vacant house. It was midday, and perhaps the mysteries only happened at night, but he was charging by the day, so it was best to show his client (whereever he'd gotten to) that he was getting his money's worth.

Vicki set up the infrared dector at the edge of the hallway, pointing into the mystery room. A motion sensor next to the rocking chair. He unpacked the Neumann U47 carefully. It went in a corner, attached via digital delay to a real-time spectrum analyzer. Then he started setting up the more esoteric equpiment: the ectoplasmatorium, the geister counter, the supernaturator, the ball peen hammer, and, of course, the Undeadphänomennähewahrheit Maßvorrichtung.

He had everything going and had been there for some time and had measured absolutely no anomalies, when he heard the front door open.

Moments later, a young man stepped in the room. Vicki only looked at him out of the corner of his eye, staying focussed on the equipment.

"What are you..." the guy began.

"Shh. I'm in the middle of a very delicate experiment."

"I thought nobody was supposed to be here after noon."

"Me too, that's why now was supposed to be a good time." Vicki looked up in annoyance. "Well, if you're going to insist on interrupting..." Just then a woman emerged from the bedroom off to one side.

"Who are you?" she asked.

The guy said, "So he's not Simon? Thank god."

"Who's Simon?" Vicki asked.

"Who are you?"

"I could ask you the same thing. I was here first."

The guy looked around at all the equipment, and said "What kind of experiment?"

"What's it to you?"

The woman jumped in again. "Ok, this is getting us nowhere. This is Thad Rovale. His father owns this place. What are you doing here?"

Vicki shrugged. "I was hired by one of the owners to investigage some odd goings on."

"In an empty house?"

"Yes. They're that odd."

"Which owner? Did he give you a key?"

"I forget the name, but I can get it from the car if you want. And, yes, I have a key--you don't think I broke in here, do you?"

The guy, Thad, said, "What are you doing, anyway? Measuring seismic activity or something?"

"Or something. You vacation here often?"

"Used to do so once in a while when I was little. It's been years."

"Have you heard anything, or experienced first hand, any strange things? Objects disappearing from one place and appearing in another, strange noises at night, that sort of thing?"

"Not that I can think of, beyond the misplaced keys and scavenging rodents I've experienced everywhere I've lived."

"I'm an investigator into paranormal phenomena. Ghosts, poltergeists, that kind of thing."

"Never heard of anything like that." Thad was looking around, checking out his equipment again. "Are you sure you got the address right? There's a crazy place at the top of the hill. That sounds like much more the thing."

"This is definitely the address I was hired for."

The woman jumped in. "Well, we're here now, so you'll just have to do your investigating some other time."

Vicki sighed. This was the stupidest assignment he'd been on. But everybody kept mentioning the stupid mansion at the top of the hill. Perhaps there was more than one possibility in this town.

Eve hurried around the apartment, giving it a desperate last minute cleaning. It wasn't perfect, but it would have to do. She worried over the possibility that a blind date might actually not want to sleep with her, and raced back into the bathroom for another look in the mirror.

Walking back into the living room, she remembered the last time she tried to get laid on a blind date. Everything would have been perfect, but it turned out the guy was somebody she'd seen once in the supermarket, so it was impossible to get in the right mood. This time was fairly certain. Her friends had hooked her up with someone from out of town. He was willing to put up with her quirky demands that they just stay in and have dinner in her apartment. So, it just came down to execution and follow-through.

Her heart beat faster after the doorbell rang. She pulled the door open. He was cute--curly hair, a mustache, on the short side. "Hi." Her heart virtually skipped a beat.

He was obviously impressed with what he saw. She watched as he invested extra effort to gather himself together and look in her in the eyes to speak. "Hi there. Do you have any pets?"

She shook her head. "No. Want to come in?"

He looked puzzled. "Would you be interested in having pets?"

"I don't know, would it make a difference?"

"I wanted to talk to you about a unique opportunity to join the pet of the month club." Only then did she notice the pamphlets he was carrying. "What we do is, each month we pick a new animal, and we send it to you. You try it out for two weeks. If you don't want to keep it as your pet, you return it to us at our cost. You have no obligation to ever accept a pet. For example, this month we've been sending out echidnas. In December, it was monkeys. If you have children, the pet of the month club offers..."

She cut him off, cute as he was. "I'm not interested, sorry." As hard as it was to do, she closed the door on his face.

She hadn't had time to recover from the stress when the doorbell rang again. "Once again into the breach," she muttered, like a surgeon who's just delivered a first twin by Cesarean section.

This one was tall, dark. Handsome. Stunning. She couldn't believe her luck. "Jules?" she asked.

"Right in one," he chuckled, miming shooting her with a gun.

"Come in," Eve said, and closed the door quickly behind him, being careful not to check the hall further.

He had stepped into the open space of the living room.

"Take a seat." When he did, she figured, well, she was only really in this for one reason. "Do you mind if I cut to the chase?"

"Be my guest. Since I'm already yours, ha ha ha."

"I haven't gotten laid in six years. I don't suppose we could take the edge off before dinner?"

He shrugged. "Well, if you want..." He stood up.

"Great. Sit down. I'll go slip into something more comfortable."

Eve couldn't stand the idea of sleeping with somebody she wasn't in love with. She had tried it once, and it was something of a train wreck. Perhaps if she hadn't been in love with somebody else it would have been ok. But she was always in love with somebody.

Jules called her from the other room. "Eve? Do you believe in love at first sight?"

She snorted. Given what she'd suggested to him, she strongly doubted that that was really what was going on in his mind. But yes, she knew all about love at first sight. That was her problem. An overabundance of love at first sight.

She called out, "I wrote the book on it."

She was changed. She was ready. She was in love with him, for the moment. She stepped out of the bedroom into the living room, and continued her answer.

"Love at first sight isn't everything it's cracked up to be." He was only half-paying attention. She followed his gaze.


He'd turned on the TV. It was showing ER. Dammit, she hadn't seen ER yet this season. And look, there was a new doctor on it. Some scruffy pug of an actor she'd never seen before. Fat, hooked-nose; not someone anyone would normally find attractive. And Eve felt like she'd always loved him.

Eve felt a tightening in her chest, and, not taking her eyes off the actor, said to Jules, "I'm sorry, I've changed my mind. You'd better go."

Thaddeus poured the wine and brought it out into the other room. Anelle was waiting--sitting--with a curious expression on her face. She lifted her eyebrows at the wineglasses, but he ignored her, beyond handing her one of them. Then he dimmed the lights--no doubt she'd take that the wrong way too. Whatever.

She took a sip. "So what's the plan?"

"Ever heard of due diligence?"

"Of course. Why do you think I asked for references from you?"

"Well, partner, I thought I'd like to ask you some questions."

"I see."

"Tell me about Simon."

Anelle frowned, but nodded slowly. "Yes. Well, it's a long story."

"We've got time."

"I suppose now is as good a time as any. Sit down."

Simon, Anelle explained, was someone you might call a scoundrel, if scoundrel was the sort of word you'd use to describe somebody who'd sell his own mother the Brooklyn Bridge. She'd first met him around twelve years before. She'd come upon him in a science museum; he was explaining the concept of holography to a cluster of enthusiastic Japanese businessmen, but getting it wrong. She'd started to correct him--it was a science museum, after all, no point in getting it wrong--but after a brief private discussion, she'd smiled and agreed with everything he'd said.

It was an easy way to make twenty dollars. He'd been impressed with how she'd turned on a dime, and was surprised that she didn't have any experience with theater or some form of acting. She hadn't, in fact, done anything of any significance like that; in fact, about all she'd done with her life to that point was work fast food.

Simon, it turned out, already had a partner, one who went by the name of Lucretia. Lucretia, who was also Simon's girlfriend, showed hints of jealousy when Anelle joined the team, although she'd made it appear more like she didn't like the idea of splitting their income three ways. Simon insisted he was sure they could leverage three people so they'd end up making more money for each of them.

Things continued in that vein for several years, making a good profit, but a fair amount of dissension between Anelle and Lucretia. Simon acted like there was nothing he could do about it, which pissed Anelle off, because she wasn't the one causing the problems. It was clear that Lucretia just couldn't deal with her, on some level or another. She never, in fact, felt like Lucretia was playing things entirely straight with her; that the fighting was really about something else entirely--despite the fact that Anelle had absolutely no interest in Simon, and displayed none, that seemed the most likely situation. Things got clearer later--but all in good time.

Simon had been building to a big score. Saving their money because he needed a big bankroll to do it. He wouldn't explain all the details to the other two, which was unusual. And it was fairly complex, which was very unusual. Simon's scams were usually pretty straightforward. The more complex you make it, the more things that can go wrong. Simple is best. But this one wasn't simple at all. And he was only sharing some of the details.

And he wasn't sharing them all with Lucretia, either. This seemed to put her even more on edge, and it was all being redirected at Anelle, too. Until, one day, in the middle of the big score, the one Simon swore he was going to retire on, Lucretia came at Anelle with a knife.

What the hell? It is February, isn't it?

Peg was startled by a rather loud bell.

"Clangorous, isn't it?" asked her host. "Front door, I'm afraid." He rose and headed for one of several doorways.

Peg stood.

"Stay. Don't worry about it. Probably a lost soul who wants to call a tow truck."

Peg thought that seemed a little out of date, what with mobile phones and all--poor Rocky Horror, though. And she followed along anyway.

By the time she got there, one of the large double doors was open partway, but she'd seemingly only missed a greeting; she recognized the voice of the man she couldn't see as belonging to the guy in the car down the hill.

"Hi there," he said, "my name is Inspector Harrison, and I was wondering if I coyld ask you a few questions."

"What sorts?"

"I'm interested in curioos goings-on, unnatural phenomena."

"Curious goings-on, hmm?"

"Yes, and if you have any knowledge aboot that sort of thing..."

"Oh, I know lots about that sort of thing." He pulled the door wider, invitingly, and the other man stepped through. "Harrison is a mouthful. Got anything syllabically short?"

"Vicki. Vicki Harrison. And you?"

"Paradigm. My first"--and here he shrugged--"I only allow a small quantity to know. So just Paradigm." He saw Peg then, nodded, waited until Harrison spotted her. "This is..." he trailed off again.

Peg smiled gently. "Peg." She'd noticed he hadn't used her name once throughout the evening, had wondered if it was because he'd forgotten.

"A journalist," he added to his new guest. "I'm so popular today." As they made their way back to the dining room, he said, "How would a bowl of chili suit you? For two bowls await us, right now."

"None for me, thanks."

"A drink?"

"Sure, what have you got?"

"All sorts of things. Gin and tonic?"


"Hmm. St. Pauli Girl ok?"

"Uh, I guess."

Peg sat back down at her spot, along with the new arrival, while waiting for their host to return.

"Journalist?" he said to her.


"I'm an expert in the supernatural. If you have any interest in stories about that kind of thing, I'm your man. I hear these things tend to sell well to the mass market."

"Not really my niche, sorry."

Mr. Paradigm returned with Harrison's bottle, and they returned to eating. He looked to Harrison. "So?"

"Well, there are two major topics I wanted to talk to you about."

"Uh huh. Two major topics?"

"This place, and the Wynn house down the hill."

"And what do you want to know?"

"I'm an investigator into supernatural phenomena, and I was hired to check out the Wynn house. But everybody I talk to says they've never heard of anything weird at the Wynn house, and they've heard all sorts of things about this place."

"Aha. OK. I follow." He sat in silence for a while; Peg exchanged glances with the investigator, but it was clear that neither of them had any clue. Finally, he spoke again. "Sorry, I'm trying to think how to start."

"Begin at the beginning."

"It is said that various... things... haunt this mansion. Ghosts, goblinkind, robot orangutans--it is not known to most. But, if I am to start at the start, I must inform you about this mansion's origins."

"Perhaps it would be better to start with the Wynn house, then."

"Ah. In truth, I must concur with what was told to you--I do not know of anything odd about that."


"No thing. Nothing at all."

"Well, but see, I was in there last night--sadly, I hadn't brought my detecting equipment with me--and I had a very strange experience."

"Do go on."

"Well. I know it's going to sound weird, but there were these strange dancing colors coming down the hall. I never managed to see them directly; it didn't last long."

"Hmm. How long ago did your visit to Boring start?"

"I arrived yesterday."

"About what you saw... colorful flashing lights, but quickly vanishing? A sound: a short sharp shock?"

"That's it exactly."

"Ah. I know all about that, in fact."

"You do? Wonderful!"

"I do. But, alas, what I say now will disappoint you."

"Oh, disappoint me all you want."

Mr. Paradigm checked his watch. "Actually... First I want to show you this." He rose, and they followed him up a flight of stairs. He positioned them each at one of the south-facing windows of the large sitting-room they found themselves in, although perhaps it would better have been called a standing room. "I'm afraid our show isn't as good as that at Wynn's, but it will do."

Peg realized where this was headed and started laughing. Poor Vicki. She hadn't seen it before, but of course she knew that Boring was famous because...

Just then a burst of red light lit up the sky; a shower of glowing sparks flew out in a bright starburst. The red turned to green, and then turned white and flickered rapidly. A muffled bang followed hot on the heels.

Anelle watched the brief fireworks display in silence, turning over in her mind how this could possibly be something she could leverage, one way or another.

When it was over, Thad rose and turned the lights back up. He had an insufferable grin on his face; he'd known it was going to happen all along.

"You knew it was going to happen all along, didn't you?"

"Of course. I used to come up here several times a year, when I was a kid. They do it every weekday."

"Is there a secret Walt Disney outpost here?"

"A fireworks company. The... I forget the name."

"Just to entertain the locals?"

"Oh, no, not at all. They can test things in the lab, but they do need to field test 'em too. They can't be totally sure how they look until they actually set 'em off. This place has about the only unobstructed view, so you get to see the ones that go off too low and the ones that go off too high. That's why it's a timeshared vacation spot."

"It doesn't last long."

"No. Quality over quantity, though. Of course, sometimes the quality is lacking, too."

"And that's why you picked Boring?"

"No, I picked Boring because I figured we could stay here. And it seemed to match your request. It's why my father picked Boring, and used to bring me and my brother out here regularly."

"What do the people who live here year 'round think of it?"

"I don't know, actually. This is my first time here since I was thirteen. My brother could tell you. What are you thinking?"

Anelle's mind was spinning like clockwork, but she wasn't thinking anything that she could put her finger on. Gears were turning, but there was no guarantee that they were turning with an end in sight. If she were playing chess, she'd say she was exploring the possibility of a particular move, but not one she was sure would work out well. Of course, if this were chess, then Anelle was the queen, Thad was her knight in shining armor, the guy who'd been hanging around before was, hmm, a pawn. Actually, that was a totally stupid metaphor, but it gave her something to think about while the subconscious gears were turning, which was for the best, because if she tried to think about it consciously it tended to throw a spanner in the works, or rather throw a bishop to queen's knight three against the Berlin defense.


"If you say so."

She growled, uncertain what the right way to deal with Thad was at this point. Ok. "I'm just trying to think of ideas, but I don't have anything concrete yet. If I get anything concrete, I'll let you in on it." Or maybe put them on him, if they turned out to be concrete boots.

Vicki realized how he'd misunderstood. "So, basically, I'm a total idiot," Vicki said, sitting back down and staring at the beer bottle in his hands. Actually, she was fairly cute.

The girl, Peg, spoke up. "Well, if you're the sort of people who believes in supernatural things, I'm sure that predisposes you to believe in them. So no surprise."

"I am not predisposed. I investigate them. I have no bias to presuppose such things exist."

"Uh huh."

Paradigm coughed softly. "Two topics, I think."

"Yes. Well, now I know about the truth about the Wynn house--well, about what I saw there, as one of the owners obviously thought something was up there, so there's still that mystery--but I'd be quite interested to hear about this place."

"To start with," Paradigm said. "This mansion. A man known as Jonathan B. built it. Or had it built. It was actually originally built in Scotland, if you must know. Built by whom I know not. Jonathan B. had it split into bits; upon transportation by a cargo ship to our fair country it was built back up, brick by brick. Long, long ago. I was born on a day on which, it turns out, Jonathan B.'s grandson, now an old man, bit it."

Vicki pondered. "I see. A Scottish castle, rebuilt in Indiana." Paradigm touched his nose. "Was it already haunted before it was moved?"

"Not that I know of. No, it is a sad story. It is said that a woman, Cassandra... Cassandra... I don't know. Anyway, Cassandra was a maid in Scotland."

"At this castle when it was in Scotland?"

"Right. And Cassandra was struck by a collapsing block as this mansion was going through its undoing."

"One of the stone blocks of the castle? They were disassembling it while she was in it?"

"Right. Nobody had known Cassandra was still in it."

"So the block hit her, and she died, and now she haunts this place?"

"No. Not at all. Cassandra's brain was hurt, though. And it did not know much about things prior to that collision. All Cassandra could think of was that block's impact."


"Possibly. So, as it was such an important thing, Cassandra wouldn't willingly part with this block. But, Jonathan B. would not allow a substitution; it was mandatory to obtain originals, all originals. So, Cassandra's block did an Atlantic crossing--but with Cassandra accompanying it. Much to Cassandra's husband's dismay."

"How dreadful," Peg interjected.

"Awful. So, Cassandra was unhappy. Cassandra's block was on a living room wall. Cassandra would sit with it daily, saying nothing, thinking, writing in a journal. Jonathan B. was not so callous as to not allow that."

Vicki had heard plenty of these sorts of stories and was fairly confident he could tell where it was going. "And then she died--perhaps of old age, or perhaps she died by violence--and then she haunted the place ever after?"

"No, not that. But..."

"Oh, I know, I bet she murdered Jon B."

Paradigm smiled sadly. "Sorry, no. Truth is not fond of such simplicity, I think. In point of fact, it was Cassandra who was brought to a quick finish, but in Indiana, not Scotland." He stood, gestured for them to follow.

"How did she die?"

"Suspicion was laid upon Jonathan B., but it was odd. Jon had publically said, on various occasions, that Cassandra was up to an affair of an unknown sort with that block. Jon would walk into that room, and Cassandra would start back from it guiltily."

He led them into a living room and pointed at the far wall, which was made of large stone blocks--two foot long, a foot tall, a foot deep. The depth was apparent because one block was missing, a brick wall visible behind it.

"That block that is now missing--Jon found Cassandra with no vital signs, and that block was missing, and Cassandra's journal. An autopsy could only nail down that it was a blunt trauma that Cassandra ran into that night."

The girl, Peg, spoke up. "So... she was working on releasing the block, and Jonathan couldn't figure it out, and when she got it out, he discovered it, hit her with the block, destroyed it or buried it to hide the evidence."

Paradigm nodded. "That's a possibility."

Vicki frowned. "So she is haunting the castle?"

Paradigm shook his head. "No. Not that I know of, anyway. Upon various occasions, I saw an odd, ghostly apparition, and accompanying groaning and ugly scraping sounds."

"Apparation of who? Jonathan B.?"

"No. Not him. This apparation... it was an apparition of a four-cubic-foot block."

Officer Callahan's girlfriend wasn't home. The extra key made it easy to be sure of that--Officer Callahan knew how to be positive a house was really empty--but left open the question of where she'd gone. There was note; no message on Officer Callahan's voice mail.

TV offered an easy means to pass the time, but not a particularly satisfying one. And there were not-at-all-vague feelings of guilt at watching TV before getting everything else done that needed doing. But nothing was on.

Officer Callahan's girlfriend's videotape collection called from the bookshelf on which it resided. Some recorded TV shows, but mostly copied movies--there were two VCRs, do doubt explicitly for this purpose. Illegally copied, really. Sigh.

How many movies, anyway? A quick eyeballing suggested 35; a careful count, 41. That sort of thing was good practice; rapid estimation was a skill that could come in handy in the job. And at the end, past the 41st videotape, was a bookend. Videotapeend? Bookend.

Officer Callahan's girlfriend's videotape collection's bookend was a black metal swan, abstracted, stretched, a smooth, luscious curve gracefully flowing through three dimensions. Due to abstraction, its face was simplified, with only a faint hint of eyes and mouth; the whole thing was fabricated--carved--constructed somehow seemingly of a single piece of metal.

The swan, Officer Callahan knew, had belonged to a previous lover, and had been "donated"--abandoned really, when that previous lover disappeared with the contents of a joint bank account but none of the physical property. This had been years ago, long before they'd met, but the swans--for there was a matched pair, naturally, as one might expect of bookends--the swans apparently often brought back memories, good and bad, of that prior relationship.

Officer Callahan's girlfriend's videotape collection's bookend's twin was, however, suspiciously absent from the other end of the row of tapes, having disappeared like a janitor asked not to leave the state after witnessing a felonious dumping of banana peels in a radio station manager's office. This mysterious vanishing demanded further investigation, and Officer Callahan was perfectly up to the task. Indeed, the previously noted but unremarked upon change in tape orientation seemed more noteworthy in light of this new information.

There was, in the midst of the row of tapes, a spot where all the tapes became canted to one side, lying down in the direction of where the now-departed swan would have been. Right now the best lead seemed to be the domino-like progression of canted tapes, which led to the end of the bookshelf; accounting for gravity, it was only natural to, from there, look down.

Officer Callahan's girlfriend's videotape collection's bookend's twin's broken neck demanded immediate attention; not of the medical kind, since there were no leaking precious bodily fluids or threat of imminent irreversible cessation of vital functions. No, attention of the investigatory kind. To a naive observer, the broken neck would have followed naturally from a fall from a bookshelf of that height.

But Officer Callahan was more inclined to leave options open. Perhaps someone had grabbed the swan--leaving the tapes to tumble to their current position--and thrown it violently at the wall above where it had come to rest. No scars on the wall confirmed this hypothesis. Possibly a person could have violently, graphically demonstrated their intention to harm someone by physically snapping the swan's neck between their hands. Collecting data on this would require examing the wound more critically, but if it turned out to be true, it would be idiotic to ruin any fingerprints possibly left on it. So it was best to study the nature of the split neck without touching.

Officer Callahan's girlfriend's videotape collection's bookend's twin's broken neck's fracture lines turned out to be consistent with the initial "naive" hypothesis that they had been caused by a fall from five foot onto the hardwood floor. Accepting this, then, implied accepting that the shattering of the neck was, after all, an unintended or unimportant consequence of the videotape domino sequence. This led the investigation back to the point of orientation change, where the videotapes went from straight vertical to lying on their sides.

There was, in fact, at this point, the possibility to consider that perhaps a tape was missing. It was easy to construct an explanation for the broken swan in this scenario. Someone in a hurry, rapidly removing a crucial videotape, might have knocked the others over, knocking the swan over the edge. It thus came down to an at-best hypothetically missing videotape; Officer Callahan had insufficient prior knowledge of the number of tapes that should be present, and thus no way of knowing for sure whether this theory was correct. Thus, the alledged videotape kidnapping could not receive further official police attention without more data, such as could be provided by Officer Callahan's girlfriend.

Officer Callahan's girlfriend, who had, in fact, still not shown up by this point in time.

Thaddeus was still smirking on the inside at Anelle's initial reaction to the display. Fortunately, she'd been surprised but not panicked; he hadn't been sure how heavily Simon was weighing on her mind at this point.

"I believe you were telling me about being attacked at knifepoint."

"Yeah. But I'm feeling I bit out of sorts. Let's save it for morning." She stood.

"Wait, come on, you can't leave the story off there."

"Wanna bet? No? Actually, I was just going to refresh my wine. Want some more?"

He shook his head, watched her leave. Now that the display was over, staring into the darkness above--he felt cold. He shivered a moment, but got past it just as Anelle returned.

"So there I was," she said, "and Lucretia with a knife. In fact, I got lucky--I didn't even realize she was attacking me when I moved, and she stabbed my left arm. I still have the scar. I couldn't really move it, and I was in horrible pain, but I got a piece of furniture between us and tried to talk to her. She just swore at me and was otherwise unresponsive. So... I ran. I ran for Simon's office. I was hoping I could barricade myself in there.

"But she was after me so fast... I couldn't close the door fast enough. I knocked the knife out of her hand with the door, but she blocked the door from closing with her body or something. I shoved, but it wasn't going anywhere, and I knew she'd be able to pick the knife up before I could get to it.

"I went for Simon's desk, the lower drawer. I think she knew that's where I was headed, because she came after me so fast, I didn't have any choice. No time to tell her to stop or I'd shoot. I raised Simon's gun, and...

"It was total self-defense. I probably could've gotten off in a court of law for self-defense, too, but, well, Simon had trained us for this sort of eventuality, just in case. Those old habits I've mentioned that die hard. I wiped the gun clean. It was Simon's gun after all. Stopped my bleeding, cleaned it up. I left her--she was dead, definitely dead, sadly--locked the door behind me, and went to talk to Simon.

"There was something wrong, though. I could tell he was a little surprised to see me. And he asked me about Lucretia, had I seen her. Which just seemed odd--he knew we didn't really get along. Some sort of warning in my head was flashing, so I played it cool, just acted like nothing was out of the ordinary. I hadn't seen her. He seemed a little agitated, so I asked him about the con, but he wouldn't share any more details. Then he took a new tack, and I realized he was trying to probe the possibility that maybe I was lying about Lucretia, and that maybe something had happened to her at my hands.

"Well, if Simon knew that maybe I had... something had happened to Lucretia, despite being on the other side of town, that meant that he knew more than he was letting on to. I considered that maybe he had the offices bugged, but then I think it would have been fairly clear to him what had happened, given some of the things I'd said out loud after... after she was dead.

"I put him off somehow, went back to his office, found his spare apartment key, broke into his apartment, found some information--not much information, he wasn't foolish enough to write stuff down--but it became clear to me that the con wasn't worth as much as he'd been claiming. It was worth almost exactly one third what he'd said it was worth. So it probably wasn't enough for him to retire on if we split it three ways, but it was enough to retire on if he kept it all to himself. I had never understood the reason for the complexity and secrecy of the latest con, nor could I figure out how he planned for us to get out of it without getting caught. I was now able to guess that he had just been arranging a situation where one of us--me--would die, one of us--Lucretia--he could blackmail or manipulate or something into taking the fall for the con, most likely through evidence of the murder. Lucretia would have relied on him to help her hide it, and he could've done what he'd liked then.

"So, I want back to the office, finished framing him for it, took a third of the money we'd made since then, called the cops, and split town. They put him away, but not first-degree murder, actually, if I remember correctly."

Thaddeus sat in silence, unsure what to think.

"And after that, I went straight, as straight as I could, anyway. I don't carry a gun, a knife, anything. I'm not happy I... about what happened to Lucretia, but it was entirely in self-defense."

"So what does Simon want with you now?"

"Revenge? Money? I don't know. I don't care to find out."

"Can't you just change your name?"

"If you think I was born named Anelle Stauffer, you've got another think coming."

"I see."

"If this bothers you, I'll give you your twenty grand and you can go, no questions asked."

"Nah, I've been there myself."

"You killed somebody?"

"Well, no, not exactly. But once my little brother kept punching me. Hard enough to piss me off, but not hard enough... well, anyway, if I hit him back, he'd cry to mother, and I was living off my parents, so I had to hold back. And I kept holding back, and he kept doing this. So one day, I got so fed up, I shoved him in the pool."

"That hardly sounds..."

"Well, it was empty at the time."

Peg couldn't wait even a second after the door closed on Harrison. "You were pulling his leg, weren't you?"

"Hmm?" Mr. Paradigm locked the door securely, tested it, and then headed down a passageway Peg hadn't been done before.

"About the ghost block."

"Oh. Hmm. I saw what I saw."

"But did you see what you said you saw?"

"That would lack for fun, just saying it right out! It's up to you to work it out on your own."

"I see. They never found the block?"


They stepped into a room whose ceiling was up a story; there was a balcony accessed through the second floor looking into it.

"What was this place?"

"Train station." She glared at him, and he looked away. "Ok, actually, it was a parlor room."

"Want to give me the whole ten-cent tour?"

"Fabulous. But it has a lot of rooms, so it's two dollars."

"Fair enough."

He led her down a hall to a one-story room that was fairly long, if not wide. It had no furniture at all, though. "Library," he said.

"No shelves?"

"Didn't bring any across from Scotland."

"And you haven't bought any yourself."

He shook his head. "Too many rooms, I can't do things right for so many."

The next room was even longer, but much narrow. It had windows on both of the long walls.

Peg ventured a guess. "Reception hall?"

"Just a corridor."

"Oh. What this place needs is a suit of armor."

"Huh. A full suit of armor sounds good."

"Yeah? Can you get one?"

"I think so."

The door at the end of the hall led to a kitchen, with plenty of flat surfaces but a seeming disproportionate number of ovens of some kind.

She looked at him inquiringly.

"Pastry-making room."

"I can't picture it," Peg said, trying to imagine people busily working there. "Too many kilns and not enough kilts."

Down to a hall which had stairs at the end; but part way to the stairs they stopped at a doorway with sturdy iron bars crisscrossing. Mr. Paradigm pushed sideways on the bars, sliding the whole door sideways out the way, and stepped into the chamber beyond.

"Jail cell," she said confidently. The chamber turned in an L to a section out of sight from the doorway.

"No, prison's downstairs," he answered. "This is a panic room." The chamber was much large beyond the turn of the L.

"How did you ever afford this place?"



"I own a banana plantation. Paradigm Bananas."

"Not ringing any bells."

He shrugged. "It's a possibility you should think about: that I'm lying."

"I see."

Minutes later, downstairs, she saw the small cells, the whole thing seemed rather depressing. Then the corridor led through a narrow doorway into a larger room. For once, the place was outfitted with the appropriate furnishings. Not literally a rack and an iron maiden, but stocks and what looked like whipping posts.

"Wow, a torture chamber!"

"Nah. Orgy room."

She kept in mind the possibility that he was lying.

As they walked back upstairs, she started trying to figure out how long she wanted to stay in Boring, given that Justine had left already, and that this was just one stop on her grand tour of the continental USA. Fortunately, she'd left one of the windows at the Wynn house unlocked, so she could just crash there.

When they got back to the second living room--she was pretty sure the foyer was just two turns away--she announced her intention to get going.

Mr. Paradigm showed his first interest in her since dinner. "Didn't you say your pals took off?"

"Well, yeah, but..."

"Do stay. What with forty-two rooms, I think I can afford to put you up."

"I don't know..."

"You can bar your door."

"It's not that, it's just, hmm."

"It's not that, it's just hmm? I do own two TVs. And a Sony Playstation 2."

"Do you have Internet?"

"ADSL, but it's slow."

"Awesome. Are you sure?"

"That it's slow? I am."

"I mean, you don't mind me staying?"

"As long as you don't mind that I'm a crazy old coot."

Vicki drove down the hill, looking askance at the Wynn house, uncertain what he was going to do about that. Paradigm's situation certainly invited investigation, if he could rope the codger into paying for it at least. He had time to kill before sleep and wasn't sure what to do with it. Perhaps he could go see a movie.

At the bottom of the hill he turned off of the road leading back to town and his hotel, and drove around randomly for a while. Eventually, a cluster of buildings caught his eye, and he made a few lefts and slowed to a stop at the bottom of a driveway. A sign there read "Floresca Fireworks". Perhaps they ran tours in the daytime.

He drove up the drive--perhaps there were signs with tourist info--and found a small parking lot which had, surprisingly for a weekend and at this time of night, plenty of cars--perhaps eight in a lot that would hold a hundred. In the building that faced the lot was a window which was very faintly illuminated. Colored light flickered there, reminding him of his experience at the Wynn house.

He got out and tromped towards the building. There was an entrance at the far side of the facing wall, so he headed for it. By that door was a sign with an arrow and the words "visitor center"; the arrow pointed back in the direction he'd just come. He headed around the building in the direction indicated. Another sign, and another arrow. It pointed to a smaller building next to the main one. He approached it. Tours: Thursday & Friday, 2pm. Well, a week. Most likely both he and the buildings would still be here then.

He headed back around the buildings for his car, but his eye was drawn again to the lights flickering in the window. Flickering differently from normal fireworks; slowly shifting, blinking. He tromped across the lightly-snow-covered lawn and got close to the window. The venetian blinds were closed, so all he could see was the ceiling, and the strange light reflected there.

The figure darted down the alleyway. This part of town was still hopping; caution was required. Too much caution, though, would slow things down unacceptably, increasing the risk of getting caught.

It took half an hour to find the right place: somewhere with just enough light to see by, but not enough light to be seen by. Perfect for accomplishing dastardly deeds in the dark.

The figure shook its right hand, to the sound of metal rattling against metal and the sound of a small metal object resonating and ringing out. Nobody was visible, so the figure set to work, sweeping the hissing object in rapid patterns in front of the brick wall.

It was cold, so cold. It was always so cold. The coldness had crept in and wrapped around every fiber of her being. She was so cold her icicles had icicles. She was cold in places she didn't even know she had been to--London, Hong Kong, adrift in outer space, floating in an orange-colored ocean, standing in an ice cave with a penguin who seemed to be recommending Lisa Germano's final record album on 4AD.

The only thing she knew to do was to keep on keeping on. But then the bottom fell out.

Anelle awoke abruptly and looked around the room panicked, but nothing was wrong, nothing out of place. She grabbed her watch, checked her pulse. 114. It wasn't even close to morning yet.

She got up, dressed, and slipped quietly down the hall and out the front door. She'd learned that a quick run was the easiest way to get back to sleep after something like that. Unfortunately, the only place to run was the road, which led up or down. Given the choice of going up first or last, she chose the former.

As she turned the first switchback, she realized she wasn't moving right. She'd done this many times before, but somehow it wasn't the same, like she hadn't actually gotten any sleep, or was differently tired than she thought. The thought flitted across that maybe this too was a dream, but dismissed it immediately.

As she ran up the road, she ran through the dream as best she could remember it--it wasn't a totally new dream, although it differed in lots of details from how she'd had it before, sporadically over the last couple of years. But at least she could be thankful for one thing: it wasn't a dream of Lucretia standing there with a bleeding wound, moaning at her. It had taken years for that dream to stop.

She was so caught up in her thoughts that she was taken by surprise when she found herself nearly at the top of the hill, and the hedge at her side giving way to a large gate. She stopped and stared at the structure through the gate. A castle. Snowflakes drifted down through the air.

She pinched herself.

Peg awoke and, after a moment, began trembling. Trembling because of the dream she'd had, the previous night. She'd dreamed she'd heard a faint moaning, and then scraping, the scraping of stone on stone. She'd dreamt she'd gotten out of bed, put on her socks, unlocked and unbarred the door, looked around, but seen nothing at all.

She levered herself out of bed, and discovered she had her socks on. She checked the door--it was unbarred, but locked. She started trembling again.

There was no sign of her host in the dining room or kitchen. She helped herself to some Captain Crunch and milk. A place like this really needed a live-in cook and maid and butler and whatnot. It took ten minutes just to get from one room to the next; she couldn't imagine getting anything practical done.

After eating, she wandered a bit, until she encountered a window. It faced north, looking out on the grounds "behind" the castle. But it wasn't the grounds themselves, it was the freshly fallen snow that captured her attention. And she'd discovered where her host had gotten to.

Bundled up against the cold as best she could, she found a rear passageway and rear door, and walked out towards him and the things he was building.

Which, in fact, turned out to be a small cluster of snowmen in a circle.

"Hi, Mr. Paradigm," she called out to him.

"What do you think?" he replied, skipping any actual greeting and jumping straight into conversation, which seemed something of a pattern with him.

"You're obviously very good at this."

He snorted. "No, what do you think this is?"

"A bunch of snowmen?"

He rolled his eyes. "No. How about oligarchy?"

"Umm, I guess."

"Bah." He toppled the incomplete one playfully. "Was your night okay?"

"I don't know. I heard something... something weird." She recounted her experience from the middle of the night to him.

"And you thought I was joking with that guy Harrison."

"Well, I'm reconsidering now."

"Good." He grinned a sort of goofy grin at her, and she remembered what she wanted to follow up on.

"Have you forgotten my name again?"

"No, I know it."

"That's an odd way to prove it."

"I'm all about odd ways."

"No, really, if you know it, then say it."

"I know it, but I can't say it." He hesitated.

"Is it the name of an ex-girlfriend? A dead wife?"

"No, nothing of that sort. That pronunciation isn't a thing I can do."

"'Peg'? It's not that hard."

"It's not that hard for most."

"Peg, beg, Meg, leg..."

"Big pig wig rig fig." He hesitated, then took his stick and drew a big letter 'E' in some otherwise unsullied snow. Then he slowly spelled out a word before it: "silent". It said 'silent E'. He looked at her. "I took a vow." He pointed at it. "Of that."

Well, her name had an E in it, and he couldn't say it. "It's supposed to be a vow of silence, not of silent E."

"I'm not a monk."

"I suppose not. Why'd you take it?"

"It's a long story."

"We've got time."

"I don't want to go into it. At a point such that now is in our past, I might."

"Fair enough. But listen, if you can't call me Peg... Well, I'm not going to settle for Pig."

"I wasn't planning to call you that. How about 'Pug'?"

"I think not. How would you refer to the object 'peg'?"

"I'd call it a 'hook', I think."

"Hook. Arr, matey. Ok, call me 'Hook'."

"Can do, Hook."

"Is your last name really Paradigm?"

"Nah. But my company is in fact Paradigm Publishing."

"Oh. What do you publish?"

"What do I publish? Crosswords, mostly. Also, I go by 'Milo' for short."

The convenience store proprieter shook his head at Thaddeus. "I don't recall anybody like that, no." Well, he hadn't really expected it, but the white pages hadn't produced anything useful. He went down the rows of junk food looking for something to buy, but changed his mind and left, thanking the man again.

There was a supermarket down the block and across the street; Thaddeus stepped through the snow covering the sidewalk on his way there. The streets had been cleared already, despite it being a Saturday morning; perhaps the current mayor had been elected on a 'get tough with snowfall' platform. The sidewalks, though, were still solidly covered, though broken by a small number of prior pedestrians' footsteps.

Traffic, despite the clean streets, was incredibly light; Thaddeus began to wonder whether the supermarket would even be open--although obviously the convenience store had been so why wouldn't the supermarket be as well--although of course convenience stores are notorious for being open for fairly extended hours, even if those hours are no longer as extended as the name of the franchise would suggest. During the walk from the convenience store to the supermarket, he saw several cars pull in and several cars pull out of its parking lot, but because the entrance faced away from him, he wasn't certain whether those departing were successful shoppers or people unhappily turned away from a locked and closed store.

All his worrying was for naught, he soon found, entering the store which seemed vaguely familiar from his childhood, despite the fact that it had changed its name and been redecorated (perhaps more than once) since the last time he'd set foot in it. Still, certain parts of the structure--such as the location of the meat counter--hadn't changed a bit.

The cart he'd picked out turned out to be one of those annoying ones where one wheel didn't roll properly--although, really, are there any kind other than annoying ones, one way or another?--and Thaddeus wrestled the cart to keep it on a straight bearing as he rustled up the shopping list that Anelle had provided. As it was mostly just food, there were few surprises--pens, paper, envelopes, duct tape, and a tea ball were the oddest of the items, some of which would quite possibly require a trip to some other store.

He'd vaguely noticed the guy with the monocle when he'd gone by while Thaddeus was selecting gnocchi. It wasn't until their third random encounter, maneuvering down the aisles in opposite directions, that Thaddeus really noticed him. He seemed somehow creepy and sinister, or perhaps both combined, or possibly it was just that he was really fond of leather jackets, safety pins, and aimless staring. Thaddeus gave him a good few seconds after he'd walked by, then turned to look--only to find the man had stopped and turned and was looking right back at him.

And then the man began taking steps again, right back towards Thaddeus, his eyes--well, the unmonacled one at least, it being hard to judge the stereoscopic vision properly with that--boring (for lack of a less inappropriately humorous term coming to mind) right through Thaddeus' head. Thaddeus felt the words "Hello, Simon" beginning to form on his lips in anticipation as the man came close enough to invade his personal space, but then he realized the man was looking past him...

No, the man's eyes shifted and took Thaddeus in fully, a look of disdain... and then shifted back, looking past Thaddeus, up on the shelf behind him.

"Excuse me," the man said, seemingly aware of Thaddeus only as an obstacle to his opportunity to increase his sum total worldly possessions by a jar of authentic bottled-in-America "Italian" spaghetti sauce. Thaddeus moved out of the way and began studying the opposing shelf, exhibiting flagrant fascination with what ingredients exactly go into making deviled ham. After only a few moments, the other man continued down the aisle; Thaddeus looked after him, uncertain how to interpret the vibes he was getting.

He tried to put the guy out of his mind, but two aisles later, there he was. Talking on a cell phone, no less.

"What," asked the guy, "do I sound like I'm enjoying this?" Although Anelle hadn't mentioned a cake or put anything relevant to one on the list, Thaddeus decided that perhaps he should consider the cake mix options that were right in front of him, anyway.

"Don't tell me you get stuck with all the dirty work, buddy. There's enough bad shit going down for the both of us; just coping with a jailbreak is bad enough without you making it worse. So do you want the virgin or not?"

Thaddeus started. He didn't think anybody knew that about him, but who knew what this Simon character was capable of? Anelle hadn't thought he'd find her at her last place, either.

"Ok then. But do you want extra virgin, or just regular plain old virgin?"

Oh right. Thaddeus whistled mentally, and moved on down the aisle.

He'd liked the way the checkout girl smiled at him, but he felt glad to get out of that place at last--that guy had made him feel nervous. He trudged back down the sidewalk towards the convenience store and the car parked around the corner. There were more footprints through the snow now--more pedestrians had braved the cold street since he'd entered, although there weren't any visible. The footprints all followed a straight track along the store, although eventually he came to a spot where one set seemed to turn sideways, heading towards the wall beside him. There was a niche there where two buildings met, and in the niche...

The hand reached out and grabbed him, pulled him in, thrust him against the brick wall. They were a little shielded from the street here, but somebody walking by would see them easily. There was the guy with the monocle, and there was also the gun. The handgun was really the part that drew Thaddeus' attention fairly quickly and kept him from tossing out any smart-assed remarks.

The guy was sizing him up and not saying anything, though, so comment of some kind seemed appropriate. "What do you want?"

"Give me your wallet."

Oh, shit. One of those. All that worrying for nothing. Thaddeus pulled his wallet out and handed it to the guy, who flipped it open with one hand and squinted at the license.

"Not from around here, eh. What are you doing in town?"

"I'm just on vacation. My father owns a house here."

The guy pulled out his cell phone--he was obviously fairly nimble as he managed to do this with the hand holding the wallet--and dialed. A moment later he said, "Hey partner, it's me. Does the name Thaddeus P. Rovale ring any bells for you?" He paused. "Nah, I dunno, but he's from out of town, and he was listening in on our conversation in the store."

Thaddeus said, "I was just..." but a wave of the gun shut him up.

"You do that," the guy said into the phone, and then hung up. "You got a car around here somewhere?"

"Down the block."

"Grab my bags, and let's go."

Thaddeus carried all their bags to his car, keeping his kidnapper's bags in his left hand and his own in his right, so as not to get them mixed up. As he got to the car, it struck him that that was probably the least of his worries, but naturally he was wrong.

"Put your bags in the back seat and my bags in the front," the guy told him, gesturing with the gun. He complied. "Give me your keys." He did so. "Now get in the driver's seat." No problem. The guy closed Thaddeus' door, then hustled around to the passenger side, got in, and handed him the keys. "Drive."

The guy gave him directions out into a less built-up area outside of Boring--a good fifteen minutes' drive, until they got to a little subdivision, and he ordered him to stop at a corner. The gun was still there, pointing at him from low, out of sight of passersby.

"Now?" Thaddeus asked.

"We wait."

So the waited, a minute, five minutes, fifteen minutes, Thaddeus couldn't say. Then the guy's cell phone rang.

"Yeah? Are you sure? Well, ok." He opened his door, pocketed his gun, grabbed his bags, and finally tossed Thaddeus his wallet. "Some friendly advice. Next time you're in a grocery store, don't go listening in on conversations that ain't your own. You know what they say."

"What do they say?"

"You can pick your nose, and you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your nose if you go sticking it in other people's business and they get mad and cut it off."

"Uh, right." Goddamn Jack Nicholson wannabes.

"Thanks for the ride. A nine-mile walk is no joke, especially in the snow."

With that, the man departed down the street into the subdivision.

Thaddeus put the car in gear and drove off.

Eve loved to play in the freshly fallen snow; it allowed her to retreat into the simple happiness of her youth, before puberty had begun introducing whichever combination of hormones it was that caused her interests in men to be so powerful. She had gotten hints of it soon after, as she ran through rapid crushes on every boy in school, crushes that began more normally but soon lasted only minutes and included the teachers and the principle too. She'd run out of new people to crush on when the last one was her janitor, which would have been a mess except there were always random people on the street to distract her.

Eve had been through twelve therapists, and although she was a researcher's dream, she was a practioner's nightmare, she thought; at least, they always seemed frustrated with her, as if they didn't believe that she really felt what she felt. It was hard to find good therapists, too; the first sessions were particularly difficult with the male ones, so she'd had to stop trying new ones of that flavor.

But at least she could relax and make snow angels and pretend. She couldn't always count on it to snow, but she did have some fully-under-her-control things she could do that would were familiar from those days and let her slip into that sense of being a kid again and feeling healthy: she'd climb a tree, or read an old kids book she remembered from that era, or break out a coloring book and crayons and have fun not quite staying in the lines, or, just like back in the day, she'd set fire to the neighbor's cat.

Her mind wandered to her current love--the guy who'd been in the car behind hers at the light last night and honked at her for taking too long to get moving--but shook it off and resolved to actually accomplish something that day. She sat up, rose from the snow behind her apartment building, and walked to her car.

A short drive later and she was at her friend Gehnyphur's house, standing at the front door, waiting for a reply to her knock. As she waited, she glanced around. A guy carrying three grocery bags walked by on the sidewalk. Eve had seen him a few days earlier at the diner, so she didn't have any notable reaction to him this time. He looked at her kind of funny as she stood there.

The door swung open and Gehn greeted her, and she went inside. Gehn had obviously noticed the guy walking by, so she asked her about him.

"He's an odd man, not particularly friendly, keeps to himself. A quiet man. He lives a few houses down, I'm not sure how long he's been there, but I'd guess under a couple of weeks. I've seen another guy coming in and out of that house a couple times in the last few days, but never both of them together. Why, do you have the hots for him?"

"Oh, be serious. I mean, I did a few days ago."

"Heh. You poor girl."

"Tell me about it."

"Would you like some hot chocolate?"

"That would be perfect. Do you have marshmallows?"

"Nope, sorry."

"Drat. Well, what good are you?"

"None at all, obviously. There's the door."

"Aw. How's work?"

"About as good as you can expect. I'm still irritated by the glass ceiling."

"You should be. You don't have any privacy that way. I think those people are just taking the word 'supervisor' far too literally."

"How's the diner?"

"It keeps me busy, although, I dunno."

"Lion's den?"

"Right. I'm not getting any 'healthier', so I don't see what the point is of continually rubbing my face in the problem."

"Well, I've told you what I think plenty of times, so I don't think there's any point in going into it again."

"No, there isn't."

"Right. But someday..."


"Someday, you've just got to settle."

"We're not going into this again, Gehn."

"I just hate to see you holding out for Mr. Right when it's just never going to happen."

"How do you know it's never going to happen?"

"Look at the pattern, Eve."

"What about you, are you holding out for Mr. Right?"

"Yeah, but that's different."

"What's your pattern? You keep finding guys you think are Mr. Right, but they don't last."

"I guess."

"And how is my problem any different?"

"Eve, come on. I thought you didn't want to get into this."

"You kept going."

"My mistake. Eve, your problem is different. You know it is."

"How is it any different from what I just said?"

"Eve, every single guy is Mr. Right Now for you, once. Every single one. Absolutely no discimination. There's something clinical there. Why would that ever stop happening?"

"Because eventually I find Mr. Right."

"But Mr. Right isn't going to stop you from finding more Mr. Right Nows. That's why you've got to settle. You've got to find some guy who you think you can be happy with, and even though he's no longer your number one, you run with it."

"You make it sound so simple."

"Isn't it?"

"Could you do it? You're madly in love with some guy who lives two blocks from you, and you settle down with some ex-boyfriend who doesn't really interest you at all?"

"Oh come on, there must be guys who you can be friends with."

"Doesn't interest you at all romantically, I meant. Could you do that? Settle for him?"

"Well, no, but if I were you, I'd hope so. What with all that history of feelings changing so quickly."

"I dunno. Anyway, I have to admit, I came over here for a reason."

"Oh? Go for it."

"Fortunately, I've forgotten what that reason was, so we can just chat for a while until I remember it."

"Bonus. Nice try at steering the conversation."

"Am I so transparent?"

"You're so transparent, if we put you in a window frame birds would bounce off of you."

"That would tickle."

"What made you decide to come over here?"

"Oh, I don't remember. If I remembered that I would remember what I wanted from you."

"What did you do today?"

"I got up, made breakfast, ate, played in the snow, came here."

"Did you decide to come here while you were playing in the snow?"

"Yeah. Oh right, I remember. I was wondering if maybe I could borrow a video."

"Which one?"

"I'm not sure. I remember seeing some movie here with you, but I don't remember the title."

"That doesn't help me much."

"There was this sequence where they showed fireworks going off while there was snow on the ground."

"Hmm, that's not ringing any bells."

"Well, it was just a little side thing from the main story."

"And the main story was?"

"I don't have any recollection."

"Well, let's take a look at my tapes and see if looking at them jogs our memory."

Eve stood with Gehn and crossed over to the shelf with the videotapes. Some of the tapes had fallen over, and Gehn straightened them up as they read through the titles.

None of them seemed right, so Eve took three tapes that seemed unlikely but seemed the most likely of the tapes that were there. "Thanks for loaning these to me."

"Sure thing. You going to take off now?"

"Yeah, I guess so. I've got to get to the diner eventually. What are you up to today?

"I hadn't made any plans yet. Still hoping for a call. I swore this time I wouldn't call first, and I'm sticking to my guns. So, otherwise I'm staying home--I can't go anywhere since my sister borrowed my car."

"Well, good luck. I'll see you later--and thanks for the tapes."

With that, Eve headed home. Enough with accomplishing stuff. Perhaps a nice bath, and then work.

"So what's the plan?" Thad asked Anelle as they unpacked the groceries.

"Do I look like a have a plan?" Was that going to be obviously evasive?

"Frankly, yes." Drat.

"No. I don't know yet, but I'll tell you when I do. I'd had some ideas, but I need to rethink based on your experience with Mr. Leather Jacket."

"You're sure you have no idea what that was about?"

"Sorry, no. But really, there's no way Simon could find us out here, so don't be so paranoid."

"In the car you said you didn't know how he found you at RAJ."

"Well, true." She considered. Had she been avoiding thinking about it? She had. How had he found her there? She had to assume somebody had told him about it; he'd have recognized her handiwork in that case. But how would anyone have ever connected the two of them and mentioned it to him? She hadn't moved two-thirds of the way across the country for no reason. She realized too late the Thad had said something. "What?"

"So this could be him."

"No, I'm sure it's not. If it was, he'd be here already. Whatever Simon's trick was, we've given him the slip, and we're not going to call any attention to ourselves or to Boring, so he'll never find us here." Project it convincingly and he'll stop doubting.

"What about that supernatural detective guy?"

"I'm sure he's just what he appears to be."

Thad grunted.

"What's that mean?"

"I don't know yet, but I'll tell you when I do."

"My, I can see were slipping right into this partnership like we'd been doing it for years." Of course, she hadn't told him about the castle yet, and she supposed she should, but something in her resisted the idea. "Look, is there some reason why you feel it's so urgent we get something going? I thought you were looking to avoid work."

Thad frowned and looked thoughtful. "Well... I guess I'm just concerned that you're making plans without telling me."

"Look, honestly, I have no idea... no, sorry, I have ideas, but they're not fully formed, and I need to let them solidify before we discuss them."

"Well, it leaves me sitting here doing absolutely nothing. I don't know anything about coming up with those sorts of ideas." They were done unpacking, so she walked into the living room; he followed along.

"Right, well, sit down." She sat on the loveseat. He moved to sit where he'd sat opposite her the night before.

"Hey," he said, "did you move my chair?"

"Hmm?" She looked around. There was a rocking chair over towards the window--but she guessed that wasn't what he meant.

He walked around behind the love seat and grabbed a chair--she didn't recall it well enough to know if it was the same one or a different one--wrestled it around to the other side, and sat down in it.

"Okay. Taking Other People's Money 101. Step one: choose one or more marks. These are people with enough money that they're likely to be willing to part with however much you're looking for. If you want a lot of money, you either need a lot of marks, or one rich one. Step two: figure out what your marks would be willing to spend cash on. Step three: figure out how you can either deliver that cheaply, or else appear to deliver it, or appear to be in a position to deliver it, such that they will part with the money to you. Step four: Endgame. Figure a way out of the situation so you keep the money, and they get whatever you were able to deliver--and if that's not what they thought you were going to get, you don't get busted or killed."

"That seems awfully general."

"Sure. It applies to panhandling and Initial Public Offerings as much as it applies to cons and scams. There's no formula to follow. Each con is its own unique, clever little construction."

"But you've gone straight since Simon got put away."

"Right, step four has always been easy, because I was delivered what I promised."

"And you want to keep it that way."

Anelle wasn't sure what Thad wanted, what he thought about that, so she wasn't sure how to respond. He'd joined her on impulse; was he looking for the thrill of the deceit, or was he looking for the safe, legal payout? "Well, I'd prefer to stick to the straight and narrow, I think. I guess if I had a partner who was really gung ho for the big score, I'd be flexible."

He grunted again. Men were so charmingly uncommunicative at times.

Officer Callahan stared at the brick wall. "Buy! Consume! Breed!" hardly seemed to be a message anybody would really want on their wall. The fact that it had been delivered with black paint only made it all the more suspect.

A female voice spoke. "Hi, this is..."

Officer Callahan hung up on hearing the voice mail prompt, having already left two messages. Whereever she had gone, it was far enough to be out of range of any cells. Or else she just wasn't answering, but that would be out of character.

Officer Callahan's girlfriend had several favorite hangouts, none of which had borne any fruit. That left the less favorite hangouts. Or work, but it was a Saturday. Still, better to check them than to sit around worrying in uncertainty.

If only she'd been brought up in the Callahan household, she'd have the philosophy of checking-in regularly ingrained into her. Or the police force; checking-in regularly was a good idea there, too. It was unclear what Officer Callahan's girlfriend's take on dating a police officer was, as a matter of fact, not to mention one of the Callahan brood. But that was something to pursue another time.

The girlfriend search continued. At a local pool hall, somebody hustled to hide some drugs, but Officer Callahan didn't have any real interest in investigating, trying to stay focused on the situation at hand. Nobody there had seen her in the last two days. She hadn't been to the flowershop in a week. The old folks' home she sometimes visited was much the same as the pool hall--furtive hiding of drugs, but no indications of girlfriend presence whatsoever.

The driveway of the fireworks company hadn't been plowed yet, so Officer Callahan walked up on foot, but the place was closed up, secure, and no cars in the parking lot or in the street around it--other than the police car of course. Ok, this was definitely worrisome.

April is difficult for an accountant. Sure, tax law is complicated, but that's what accountants get paid the big bucks for. And sure, their clients keep horrible records and always want to try to find some way to scam the federal government, while the accountants are, well, accountable, and would rather toe the line, finding clever ways to warm the books rather than actually cooking them; but that's why the accountants get paid the big bucks. But not every accountant goes over the itemized deduction with a fine-toothed comb, allowing and disallowing them with a careful eye for mendacity. April, Milo would explain to people, is one of these more difficult accountants.

He'd tried quite a few before finding one that suited him this way; he had a low tolerance for shady behavior. Accounting practices were something he wanted to get right at Paradigm Publishing, even when it started as a lowly struggling company-of-one. He'd found April back then, and hired her part time--she worked for several small companies at once. After the success of his first few collections, he'd somehow raised money to start the magazine, and she'd had to work extra for him, so he'd increased her hourly billing without her asking. When the magazine succeeded, he'd offered her the full-time job, not really expecting her to agree, but she had, thankfully.

Paradigm Publishing was only a small success, really. It published a small number of magazines, enough to have a decent revenue--enough that Milo was essentially rich and that employee #2 (April, in fact) was moderately well off, but the amount of money available to those further down in the company hierarchy dwindled rapidly. The freelancers themselves weren't paid any more than Milo had been paid in his day--and why should he mollycoddle them? He'd succeeded in the face of all that.

After he'd bought the castle, he saw a lot less of the day-to-day operations--although in truth it was the opposite; he'd become less interested in the day-to-day operations, so he'd bought the castle. Once a quarter, April would come by with a pile of paperwork and stay for a week--doing the paperwork and getting Milo to verify and sign off, but also visiting as old friends, since that's what they'd become by this point. At first, she'd brought her husband--whom she'd married sometime after she'd joined the company. But after her divorce, she'd come alone the last few times. She didn't seem to mind being left to herself, so he tended to let her come to him when she wanted to, and to be honest, he sometimes forgot for hours at a time that she was there.

Vicki parked at the top of the drive--whoever'd driven that Mustang in and out had had a lot less interest in not dying than Vicki, surely--and walked down to the Wynn house, carrying as much equipment as he could manage in one trip. He knocked.

The woman answered the door. He was sure he could convince the young man, but her. He could tell she was as soft as granite, as flexible as an airplane, as yielding as a nuclear reactor with the control rods all the way in. Something about her raised his hackles instinctively. He didn't know what it meant, beyond the obvious unlikelihood of her ever funding his research. "What do you want?"

"I really need to collect this data soon."

"I thought I explained this to you last night."

"You did."


"I have a proposal."

"Not interested."

"I'll give you ten dollars to let me do it, and I promise I'll stay out of your way and I won't be a bother."

"Not interested."

"Ten dollars a day."

"Not interested."

"Twenty dollars a day." She shook her head. Come on. Who wouldn't accept a free twenty dollars a day? "Fifty dollars a day."

"Two hundred a day, no more than four hours a day."

"No way, that cuts into my profits."

"And fifty doesn't?"

He shrugged. In truth he'd just pass the cost on to the client. Fifty would be no big deal, but two hundred might lead to a fuss.

Her face shifted--a poker face. "Ok, fifty dollars a day."

He frowned. "I wasn't really serious about that, I was just trying to figure out what number was your limit. Most people would be happy with twenty dollars."

"Do I look like most people?"


"Fifty, take it or leave it. And I reserve the right to say 'no more' at any point. You don't have to pay for that day if I do."

He hardly needed this any longer, what with Paradigm's place virtually begging for this sort of work, but a contract is a contract, and he wanted to at least give it a shot before blaming the client for not giving them access. So best to give it a few more days of solid attempts. He agreed.

Vicki went into the living room where'd he been set up before, and looked around, not particularly acknowledging the young man. "You haven't moved anything, good." Again, he made the rocking chair the center of his analysis. The young man started to say something, but shut up immediately. Probably just curiosity. He'd been looking at the equipment with a serious eye the previous time.

After another trip out to the car, Vicki'd gotten as much equipment as he felt was necessary for this scenario, and he set about hooking it all up, plugging it in. The fact that three-quarters of it required AC wall current was sub-ideal since if an inexplicable phenomenon caused a power outtage, most of the equipment would go down, but there were limits to how portable things could be made, and besides, it had never actually happened.

He'd gotten it all hooked up and running, and he began examining the displays and taking notes in his logbook. The young man was studying the equipment again.

"Are you sure you've got this hooked up right?" The voice of the young man intruded on Vicki's brooding thoughts. He looked up; the young man was staring at the ectoplasmatorium.

"Why, does it look wrong to you?" Vicki asked.

He shrugged.

"Do you even know what it is?"


"Well, I do. It's an ectoplasmatorium, and yes, I do believe it's hooked up right." Well, it would be stupid to say that if it wasn't actually on, so Vicki strode over and glanced at it quickly. "Yes, it is."

"Sorry, I don't mean to be a bother. It just looked odd."

"Well, yes, but that is the nature of the search for things that are beyond the mere physical. The tools of our trade must operate on principles that go beyond what we think of as reality. The basic tenets of paraphysical science require participants to let go of such preconceived notions, let go of common sense and of the things you think you know but have never proven but just accept on faith."

He felt a presence, glanced over--the woman was standing in the doorway, listening. Her expression had been, for a moment, unguarded, and he'd seen something unexpected--a faint smile. He'd thought maybe he'd caught the end of a nod. But she saw him look, and her expression turned to stone again.

The young man must have seen where he was looking, for he spoke. "This stuff is really cool, Annie." He said that last word oddly--with a pause, and the accent on the second syllable, 'an E'. Not that Vicki really had any right to go around making fun of people's accents.

She just smiled tightly again, nodded. "I'll take your word for it, Thad."

After several hours, he'd collected several floppy disks worth of data and nary a significant peak or warning indicator to suggest anything out of the ordinary. He paid Annie her fifty bucks and packed up again. Thad helped him carry the stuff out to the car.

"I don't think your girlfriend likes me."

"She's not my girlfriend."

"Your sister?"




"Aunt?" Thad shook his head. "Cousin? Friend? Wife? Mistress? Secretary?" Thad shook his head at each. "Boss?" Thad hesitated at the last one, but shook his head. "Coworker? Boss's boss's boss's boss? Roommate? Personal trainer? Paid escort? Nurse? Plumber? Therapist? Flight instructor? Senator? Favorite musician? Archnemesis? Guardian angel? Dance partner? Bodyguard?"

Finally Thad stopped shaking his head and said, "Something like that," and walked back to the house.

Vicki wasn't sure whether Thad had meant he was Annie's bodyguard, or vice versa. Somehow the latter seemed more plausible somehow, although he couldn't put his finger on why.

Peg was exploring the castle on her own--Milo had determined that he had a very urgent, high priority videogame that needed playing. She was working, as best she could, in a spiral out from the area where she'd heard the scraping sounds the other night.

Earlier she'd made use of Milo's Internet connection to update her blog, posting her theory that ghosts and phantoms were simply something the mind was programmed to do to ascribe causality to sequences of events which probably had no relation to one another, and which had no immediately plausible explanation. The brain was built to do this since it had the obvious survival value--avoid the mysterious things creeping around in the dark. Stay with other people in your group, where you just magically feel more secure. The comments in her blog, naturally, tore into her for using the word "magically".

Tall words that she knew would make her feel small once it was dark out, but for now the ambient light filtering in the windows was sufficient to keep her off her toes.

She was walking down a corridor she didn't think she'd been down before when she heard it--not the same it as last night, but an it nonetheless--a tuneless humming, an odd sort of rattling sound that she couldn't quite pin down. She kept moving, making a few false turns, letting the sound grow louder, until she found herself outside a closed door. The sounds came quietly and intermittently from the other side.

She inhaled slowly, deeply, slipping her way into a state of mind where she believed she was invincible--the easiest way to overcome fear, so long as you were sure this wasn't going to get you in over your head.

She reached that state, and yanked open the door.

A middle-aged woman was bent over a table, writing on some papers in front of her.

Peg gasped. "Cassandra?"

The woman looked oddly pleased. "Uh, no. I'm April."

"You work here?"

"I'm Milo's accountant."


"You thought I was a ghost?"

"Or something." Peg ran the woman's words over in her head as she relaxed out of her berserker state. "You haven't taken a vow of silent E, have you?"

April laughed. "No, thankfully. I can say any words I want to." She frowned. "And no, I'm not doing that intentionally. There you go, 'intentionally'."

"I'm Peg."

"Hi Peg. Nice to meet you."

"Were you up and about last night, around 2am?"

She thought. "No, I went to bed around 10, I think. Not getting any younger, you know."


"You saw something? Heard something?"

"Heard something. Have you?"

April shrugged. "I've never seen anything out of the ordinary, but you never know. What are you doing here?"

Peg said, "Oh, just sightseeing, I guess."

"How do you know Milo?"

"I just met him last night, and he offered to put me up."

"Ah, Milo, always taking in the strays. No offense."

"Oh, that's most certainly exactly what I am, so no offense taken. And my apologies for bursting in on you here."

"No problem, not at all. The castle is uncomfortably empty these days."


"Milo used to constantly have friends staying here. They'd take a vacation or a sabbatical or whatever. Always a few people here, though."

"But not lately? Did he stop inviting them?"

"I don't think so, no. I think people have just gotten bored with Boring. Seen a few days of unpredictable-quality fireworks, seen 'em all."

Somewhere in the distance, they heard a low-pitched bell ring.

April tossed down her pen. "It sounds like we've got another visitor, and I suppose I could use a break. Shall we?"

Peg fished out a little of April's story from her on the trip down, including the detail that she'd been there since Monday and was leaving on Sunday--the very next day. When they got downstairs, the front door was closed and silent. It took some traipsing around the castle before they found Milo and, once again, the guy from the car. Harrison.

"I don't think communication is going on," Milo said. "I don't want to know what's going on; I want it unknown, I want it maximally baffling."

Peg interrupted. "Well, hello there, ghostbuster!"

The guy looked at her. "We just dertect them, we don't capture them."

April said to Milo, "Do you need me to translate for you?"

"No, I'll find a way to crack that thick skull of his."

The investigator looked back to Milo. "I don't understand. Where's your sense of the progress of science?"

"You can study my phantoms all you want at your own cost. Just don't ask for my foot on your bill. April wouldn't stand for it, anyway."

April smiled. "Paying someone to investigate the paranormal goings on here? No, no I wouldn't."

The investigator turned to April. He began, "Mrs. Paradigm," but she quickly cut him off and corrected him. After that he changed his mind and turned back to Milo.

Peg sighed and decided to jump into it, despite her experiences the previous night. "What if it's just a joke? Maybe it's a rumor with no basis."

Harrison looked at her. "All that matters to me is that people think there's a chance of it. Our job, at SuperPink, is to try to settle the question. We try to be as agnositic about the possibility as possible. If we foind something inexplicable, foine. But if we find a natural explanation, that's great too. Or if we show that, in fact, there's just absolutely nothing there to worry about, that's great toor."

April said, "You heard the man. If you want to study it, nobody's stopping you."

Harrison shook his head. "It's all well and good to say 'all bow before the power of Science', but when it comes down to brass tacks, we all need to orn a living. Unfortunately, the government isn't too keen on funding research into these sorts of things at the fringes of science--mainstream scientists are all toor happy to just stick their heads in the ground and pretend that the world isn't ten times more strange than they claim it is. So, without government or corporate research, we have to rely on funding from individuals. And that's best done by providing a service to those individuals--typically by proving for them, wance and for all, whether or not they're being haunted."

Milo shook his head. "Ok, so, good for you, but I'm not going to do it."

The bell rang stridently. Peg looked over and found April had looked at her as well. There was a look of recognition and a smile as they both realized what they had both done, and then Peg turned to find Milo already heading for the front door.

She followed him and watched as he pulled mightily on the door, saying, even as it opened, "Grand Midway Station, what can I do for you... oh, hi, Callahan."

The police officer Peg had gotten a ride from stepped the foyer and glanced over at her. "Hello, Mr. Paradigm. Keeping off the highways?" The last directed at Peg, of course.

Peg nodded. "Yes," she said cautiously.

Milo said, "Is this social or official?"

"Social, I guess. I'm looking for a friend of mine, and I didn't really think she'd be here, but I figured I'd check in on you what with all the strangers coming to the hill lately. Well, hello there... Vicki. Given up the birdwatching?" Inspector Harrison had moved up behind Peg.

"Indeed, indeed I have, officer."

"Well, I might as well ask, is there anybody else here?"

Milo shrugged. "Just April, my accountant."

"Ah, that would explain my car tally, then. Well, I don't want to spoil the party. Carry on."

"You couldn't possibily spoil my party, Callahan. Do stay for a bit."

"No, really, I need to get back to my search."

"Your call. Do hang around for a bit on any day you want."

"Thank you, I will."

It had taken a while to track down an address, but he'd succeeded eventually. He told Anelle he was going into town again; she was lost in thought and just nodded.

Nobody was home, but Thaddeus had prepared for that eventuality and dropped a note in the mail slot. Then he drove back to the house.

Anelle came out as he parked. "What's up?" he asked.

"I'm going to go up the hill. I guess I'll drive, actually."

"Am I coming with you?"

"No. I'm going to have to improvise, and if you haven't been seen, we have the freedom to assign you any role we want. Maybe you'll end up being someone I supposedly don't know. We wouldn't have that option if we went together."

"Do you think he'll be there?"


"That investigator guy."

"Could be. That might make it interesting."

"There's something you should know about him."

"Oh?" Anelle waited patiently.

Thaddeus considered how best to start, how to weigh the things he'd noticed. "I suspect he's a fraud."

"Mmhmm." Anelle didn't seem particularly shocked, but maybe she disbelieved. "What makes you say that?"

"Well, I studied a lot of physics and chemistry in high school, and at least half of the equipment he had out, he was using it all wrong."

"I thought he explained that."

"I don't know. It's like, imagine you had a microphone hooked up to a headphone jack. But that wasn't all. I'd noticed his setup yesterday, and it wasn't the same today. A couple of things were in different places."

"That doesn't mean..."

"The clincher was the one thing... the 'ectoplasmatorium'. The things he had plugged into it were different yesterday. He'd swapped two of the plugs. And I called his attention to it, and he said it was right. I think it was nonsense."

"Physics and Chemistry?"


"How were your grades?"

"Oh, middling. I was good at the theory, but not so good with actual numbers."

"Uh huh. Well, anyway, good work."


"Yeah, I was fairly sure he was working a scam even before you said anything. I recognized the style of his patter. But I'm glad to hear confirmation."

"Does this make any difference with how you're going to handle it?"

"It might. It might indeed. I'm having the glimmer of an idea. But let me think on it. I'll see you later tonight... You're not going anywhere, are you?"

"No, I'll be right here."

Thaddeus closed the door after her, and returned to the living room. She'd moved the chair again--he had no idea why she kept doing that--so he moved it back opposite the loveseat, and sat down. Then he didn't know why he was sitting there, since she wasn't here, and he sat in the loveseat instead.

It was chilly again; the thermostat was definitely acting up. He decided he'd take a nice hot shower. Not just because it would be nice and warm, but because he hadn't gotten anywhere thinking up ideas for sticking a wedge between fools and their money, and he knew he did his best thinking in the shower--so what the heck.

Of course, he didn't actually think of anything in the shower, but at least it was nice and warm.

When he got out of the shower, he noticed there was something carefully handwritten in the steam on the mirror. "To live, leave Boring. Without her." He considered the possibility that Anelle had written it herself using the old soap trick, but that seemed unlikely.

Of course, the alternative was that somebody had come in while he was showering, so the Anelle scenario seemed somewhat more appealing. What was the worst case? Worst case it was Simon, but he couldn't see why Simon would have given him a warning. So maybe that meant the worst case was less bad than that.

He checked that the doors were locked, and then hunted around the windows--a window in the side sitting room they never used was, in fact, unlocked, so he locked it.

The bells tinkled--just Frinje. She gave him a professional smile as he sat down. "You're late," Eve said.

"Gag me with a spoon. I got tied up in traffic. I thought I had the patterns here whipped, but it was bound to happen sooner or later, I guess."

He ordered his usual. She spent her time watching the dreamboat in the suit at the far end. She was tempted to flirt with him but it was such a dead-end--there was no way they'd get out of here without seeing some other stranger along the way.

He gestured to her.

"What can I do for you?"

He toyed with the food on his plate. "Do I know you?"

"Not that I'm aware of."

"Do you know me?"

"Huh? Isn't that the same thing?" He said nothing, so she said, "No, I don't think so."

"It seems like you've been watching me."

"Just doing my best to keep everyone satisfied."

"Well, nevermind. I hear there's a castle around here?"

"Yeah. Up north of town."

"What's it like?"

"I couldn't tell you personally--I've never been. I just know what I've heard. Big place, lots of rooms. Enough trees and stuff that the view isn't so great."

"Know how I get there?"

"Just go north on Tuscaloosa Avenue. That road goes right up the hill by the place."

"Thanks." He set a twenty down on the counter. "See you later."

Half an hour later, she clocked out and headed home. She managed to get there without falling in love more than three times--although the middle one lengthened her trip home significantly when she followed the guy for ten minutes before he got home to be greeted by his wife--she was momentarily overswept by a feeling of 'the two-timing bastard, how dare he', but it passed soon enough when the other car passed her and she glanced at its driver.

Once home, she settled in to skim the movies she'd borrowed from Gehnyphur. Fortunately, she'd seen them all before--she was looking for a scene she'd seen before, so she'd better have seen the movie before--so they weren't too problematic, at least not the first two. The third, however, turned out to be one she hadn't actually seen. She went ahead and watched it anyway--turning the sound off so she could get being distracted by whatever new actors were in it without interfering with following the plot. She'd watch it again sometime once her latest crush was on somebody not in the movie.

But, in fact, none of them were the right movie. She'd been expecting that, but it still disappointed her. She really wanted to find the movie with the snowy fireworks scene, not so much for that scene itself--this was Boring, after all--but because this one bit part in the movie was being played by a guy to whom she'd felt absolutely no reaction, and she had no idea why. She adn't recognize him, and while it was possible she'd seen him somewhere else before, he was actually fairly memorable in appearance and she'd been quite certain she hadn't seen him. At the time it had happened, she'd written it off as someone she didn't remember, but recently she'd come to think that perhaps there was more to it then that, that he was somehow the key, the solution from which, with sufficient cooling, she might precipitate an answer.

Boring was turning out to be a wash. Paradigm wasn't interested in financing a ghost hunt, and the Wynn house owner had never put in an appearance. The woman--Annie--there was being a pain. Why was Paradigm being such an ass? If he could afford this place, he could easily afford SuperPink's finest investigator. Vicki needed an angle, some way to sell the idea to Paradigm, but he had no clue what it would be. He was an investigator, after all, not one of the marketing droids.

The bell rang again. The girl, Peg, jumped up. "You stay put. I'll get it for once." Paradigm shrugged, nodded.

Vicki turned to April, the accountant. "You live here?"

"No, just visiting to do the books."

"Where's corporate headquarters?"

Paradigm butted in. "North Dakota."

"Really? North Dakota? That seems a bit odd."

"Long story about my half-sibling and in-laws, tax obligations, and a bathroom sink."

"We've got time."

But just then Peg returned, accompanied by a man in a suit. The man smiled. "Hi there. Who owns this place?"

"I do," said Paradigm.

"How would you like it to be in a movie?"

"I don't know, what sort of film is it?"

"A real full-scale Hollywood riproarer. Big name actors, big name director, big name best boy, the works!"

"What's do you call this film?"

"I'm not at liberty to reveal its name, but suffice it to say it's the sequel to one of the biggest movies ever about an suicidal alcoholic shacking up with a prostitute."

Peg butted in. "Leaving Las Vegas 2?"

"Well, no, they're out of Vegas by the time the second movie starts, so it's actually called 'Left Las Vegas', but you didn't hear it from me. See, they go on a road trip around the country, and we were looking for a good setting for the bit where they have a screaming match and Liz Shue runs off to try to commit suicide."

"How can there be a sequel? Didn't Nicolas Cage's character die at the end of Leaving Las Vegas?"

"Yes, and that's why this castle would be so perfect. In the second movie, he's dead, but his ghost is haunting Liz. I think this place has just the right amount of spookiness that a ghost would be perfect."

Paradigm spoke. "Actually, this mansion has a ghost of its own."

"Really? Well, the more the merrier. That might let us cut down on our special-effects budget."

"I'm afraid," Paradigm responded, "you might find that this ghost isn't going to want to work for you."

"Well, ok, probably not, but it shouldn't be a problem. Unless your ghost runs around cutting off people's heads, I think we can work around it. If it shows up on film we can just edit it out."

April said, "Excuse me, sir, what is your name?"

"John Paul John. I work for a production company called LLV LLC."

"Well, Mr. John, it..."

"Sorry, not Mr. John. Mr. Paul-John. John Paul-John. But really, just call me John."

"Ok, Mr. John--I mean, John--I think Mr. Paradigm's point here is that it might upset your cast and crew to have a ghost stalking around the place."

"I suppose, but, I mean, we're talking fine right here. Obviously it's not a problem all the time. So I don't see what there is to worry about."

April looked over at Paradigm. "I think maybe he really just doesn't want to be disturbed by it."

"Oh, Leaving Las Vegas wasn't the sort of movie to inspire a cult of fans who'll drive by to see the castle in person at all hours of the day. Now, if things work out like we hope, Left Las Vegas will be that sort of movie, but it would really only last for a few months until the fans move on to some other movie, and besides, that sort of notoriety can be good for you. Plus the tourism would give the local economy a shot in the arm."

"I was thinking more about the disturbance of having a film crew here, shooting, etc."

"Well, of course, we'd pay a location fee. This is a serious big-budget production we're talking about. Did you see the numbers on the first one? Of course not, this is Indiana. It did 30 million gross on a 4 million budget! So of course we've got 20 million to throw around on this one."

Those numbers brought Vicki quickly to life. "Excuse me."

"Yeah, chum?"

"I'm a researcher into paranormal phenomena. A ghost hunter, you could say. I'm an expert on unexplained mysterious happenings, poltergeists, that sort of thing. If you people need an expert as, say, a technical consultant or something like that, I'd be happy to assist."

"Well, I don't think that that sort of accuracy is particularly crucial to the story we're trying to tell."

"You'd be surprised how easily you can muck up a perfectly plausible ghost story with an inappropriate, unconvincing fact. It sounds like you're going for real, convincing, believable ghosts, so you shouldn't screw around with getting the details wrong."

"Well, it's not really up to me--I'm only authorized to do location scouting, but if you can give me your card, I'll have Mel call you if he's interested."


"The director. Mel Brooks." He turned back to Paradigm. "Anyway, we'll be happy to give you a reasonable location fee for shooting here. The production schedule is, umm..." he pulled out a PDA and poked at it for a bit. "It should be about three days of first unit and five days of second unit. So about two weeks."

Paradigm shook his head. "I don't know. I'll think about it. You try again tomorrow."

Mr. John--Mr. Paul-John--grimaced but just said, "Ok. I'll come back tomorrow and we'll follow up on it." Vicki stood up and fished out a business card and handed it to the man. He accepted it, then turned around and looked at the exits from the room in confusion.

Peg escorted him out, and Vicki sat back down, pondering his other options. This Paradigm character just didn't seem very interested in anything, having given the John Paul-John character a brush-off, although, perhaps, not a total brush-off. Why not? Hmm. Perhaps he saw the publicity as a positive thing, perhaps something that Paradigm Publishing could leverage.

Vicki said to Paradigm, "If this place did have ghosts, would you want to set up a tour for the tourists? Or have them exorcised? Or just let be?"

Paradigm sat back, running his fingers together, apparently pondering the issue. "No tourists, no. And any ghosts can stay as is." He seemed to still be thinking, though. "A book might be fun, though. I could publish it, in fact."

"I'd be happy to do my research as material for your book."

"Not my book, though. I don't know... Hook, would you want to do that?"

Peg said, "No. It's not really my niche."

"What is your domain of output, anyway?"

"Ah, well, it's mostly slice-of-life, human interest story sorts of things."

"Who do you work for?"

"I guess you'd say I'm a freelancer."


Vicki stood, produced another card, handed it to Paradigm. "If you or anyone else have any interest in this research, give me a ring, ok?"

"Okay." Paradigm stood.

"I can show myself out."

"But you can't lock my front door if so."

"Very well." Paradigm followed, but no more was said.

Vicki stopped his car at the gate, then realized he'd have to back it up to open the gate. It took a minute to figure out how to open it from this side, but finally it swung open. He got in, drove to the other side of the gate, and got out to close it, when the Mustang pulled up, and the woman, Annie, got out.

"Hi there," she said to him.


"Ghosts in there?" She pointed to the castle.

"So it's said."

"You don't look thrilled."

"Long story."

Annie smiled. "A lot of that going around, it seems. Want to tell it to someone? I've got time."

"Not really. What are you doing here?"

"Oh, I just thought I should check the place out. I went for a jog the other day and saw it. Didn't want to barge in at the time."

Vicki nodded. "Well. Let me get my car out of your way then."

"Umm, actually I wanted to talk to you too."

"I don't think we have anything to talk about. Unless you write books about ghosts inhabiting castles."

"Huh. No, not generally, but I am an author actually. It's not actually my day job, I just write at night."

"Published anything?"

"A few things."

"Would you want to write a book about the ghosts in this place?"

Annie shrugged. "If it paid enough, sure."

Vicki pondered.

"It's kind of cold here," she added. "Let's go somewhere else and talk."

"Your place?"

"Oh, Thad is a dear, but he gets in the way too easily. Perhaps we could go to your place and you could show me your equipment."

Vicki didn't quite like it, but he couldn't figure out why. "There's a bar down on Main Street, let's go there. It's called The Dancing Snowman."

"Ok. Tell you what, I'll follow you."

Officer Callahan was fairly miffed. Still no answer on the phone--ringing and eventual voice mail. The lights were still off at the house, and there was no car. Pointless to go in again at this point. And, really, no sign of foul play. Just unlike her to be out of contact like this. Officer Callahan was ready to be totally contrite and accept the blame for whatever wrong might have been done--despite not knowing of any such wrong whatsoever--in the interests of a harmonious relationship, but that still required actually making some goddamned contact.

Officer Callahan gave up and went home for the night.

Home was a back-corner condominium in one of the quieter parts of town. After a quick frozen meal accompanied by light jazz on the stereo, Officer Callahan pulled out a deck of cards and began playing solitaire.

Solitaire with real, physical cards was quite a different experience from the game people played on their computers. On the computer, the rhythm of the shuffle--cut, whir, squeeze, tap, cut, whir, squeeze, tap--was absent. The tactility of the cards--that sense that they are just large enough to be out of control despite remaining small enough that you don't lose your grip on them--was missing. The sense of power, of control over one's own destiny, that one got by having to physically place the cards in the right place; that, too, was lacking in the computer presentation. And, most importantly, the computer generally made it impossible to cheat.

After winning five games in a row without any real sense of satisfaction, Officer Callahan returned the cards to their home on a bookshelf and turned on the TV, but snapped it off immediately.

The truth was, Officer Callahan was worried about Gehnyphur, but wasn't sure what to do. Today had been spent half-assedly traipsing around trying to find out what happened. What was really needed was a proper, thorough, structured investigation, one that would leave no stone unturned, no window unbroken, no rose unsmelled, and no donut uneaten.

But a proper investigation needed a lead or a reasonable theory, and Officer Callahan had neither. The obvious theories--that she was terminating their relationship, that she had run off for a family emergency, that she had been abducted by aliens--didn't offer any explanation for the missing videotape that had been the first clue that something was amiss. Perhaps, in fact, the missing videotape was a red herring, but since it also amounted to just about the only lead in the case, assuming it was irrelevant left Officer Callahan with no options.

But tomorrow would be a new day. A thorough, methodical investigation would yield clues, surely. What exactly that meant in concrete terms, Officer Callahan couldn't decide, but surely it was best not to over-plan things tonight when tomorrow could easily begin with new information that would change everything.

The door was closed, the light was out, and there was absolute silence in the room. Peg hoped that that was all it took to get things started.

Inside the dark, silent room, just inside the closed door, Peg stood at the ready. The encounters with Harrison and John Paul-John had made her more edgy about the strange noises she'd heard the night before. She couldn't really believe in ghosts, could she? No, she couldn't. But here she was, flashlight in hand, dressed for indoors or outdoors, ready to move, just waiting for her cue.

She started, hearing a distant noise somewhere in the castle, but it could have been anything--certainly April or Milo might be up and about at this time, so she had to be careful not to jump to any conclusions. She wasn't even sure anymore she could remember exactly what the sounds she'd heard the night before were. Would she recognize them again? And if she couldn't trust her memory of the sounds, could she trust her memory of any of it?

She was poised there for what must have been the better part of an hour when she finally heard it. Unmistakable, a moaning and scraping sound. She pulled the door open with moderate speed, fast enough to avoid squeaking and slow enough to remain silent. She listened both ways at the hallway--it was coming from the other direction than she'd remembered from the night before--and took off at a fast walk, moving as silently as possible.

As she closed on the sound, it stopped; she was forced to stop and remain as soundless as possible, wondering if she'd been heard and whoever or whatever it was was getting away in the interim. But then it started again, and she continued. It stopped, and they repeated the scene, and then it started again.

And then she rounded the corner, and there was Milo, scraping a planer along the floor.

"Aaaaooooh ohhhhhhhh," he said, "ahhhhhh oh hi," the last on noticing her, of course.

She stood there, struck dumb by his audacity.

"'You bastard'," he offered.

"Yeah, that."



"I did warn you I was a crazy old coot."

"Yeah, you did, but.. sheesh."

"No harm, no foul?"

"Well, I guess not, but aren't you a bit old to engage in this sort of tomfoolery?"

"Hmm hmm hmm. That's a way of looking at it."

"That would explain why you weren't interested in hiring Harrison, anyway."

"Oh, that's not just this. I don't trust that man."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. It's just an intuition."

"Does April know the truth about your ghost stories?"

"Oh, I did this to April many moons ago. I got caught too. But not as fast as by you. Day two! Amazing. Owing, no doubt, to your instincts as a journalist."

"Yeah, well... I guess."

"You mad? It's not funny?"

"A little mad. It's not funny now, no. Maybe I'll find it funny once I'm past the adrenaline rush. Give it ten, fifteen years."

"Har. Anyway, it's past midnight. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

"I guess so." Peg returned to her bedroom, and pondered whether to stay outfitted for another tracking mission--either because Milo decided to try to do it again--which seemed like exactly the sort of thing the bastard would do--or because the place really was haunted--but the need for sleep won out, and she crashed soon after.

A dark-cloaked figure slipped through the light snowfall to a wall partially shadowed from the streetlight. The figure checked the street. This stretch of downtown Boring was dead at this time of night, even on a Saturday night, or Sunday morning, depending on whether you're the type who considers the weekend half-begun or half-over. The figure double-checked the street, both ways, then moved in on the wall, and the ads mounted on it.

The one the figure stopped in front of featured a picture of a large pair of diamonds on a black background and read, "Just add 'King Daddy STUDMUFFIN' to your existing pet name." The figure triple-checked the street, then set to work on the glass display case that held it. A lockpick did the trick, and the case swung open.

The figure produced a tube from a sleeve of the cloak, and unrolled it. After quadruple-checking the street, the figure removed the backing off the tape on its corners, and plastered it up quickly over the diamond ad. The case swung shut, and the figure disappeared into the night.

The new poster showed a stack of twenty-dollar bills on a black background and read, "Nothing shows your love like COLD HARD CASH".

"I'll be fine, really," Anelle told Harrison. She climbed into her car and left him to stumble his way back into the motel.

She'd let him do the talking and the drinking, as much as possible. He'd gotten drunk easily enough, but even then he'd never come right out and admitted what he was up to. But once she'd gotten him started, it was clear from his stories of his various jobs that actually detecting ghosts was not too high on his list of priorities. Enough that she could be fairly certain.

Certain, in fact, that he was a dead end. Sitting on two-hundred grand, Anelle's interest right now was in finding some way of doubling it. Harrison's approach was the opposite--with a minimal investment (his machinery was fairly cheap), find a patron who won't really notice the money drain, and give them what they're asking for--a thorough supernatural checkup. Anelle wanted to leverage a large investment. Nor did the book approach seem useful.

Harrison had told her about a movie shoot that might use the castle, and mentioned the amount of money the producer had said was being thrown around. That seemed interesting, but the accountability there was probably pretty high--little room for getting money from someone and giving them nothing in return.

That left two possibilities. She could try to come up with something like the rent-a-job scenario, where the incoming money comes from lots of different sources. But that involved a long-term time investment. Alternatively, work a scam on someone rich. The owner of the castle was the obvious target, but Harrison had explained his difficulties with getting money out of the guy.

And that was only trying to get Harrison-sized amounts of money. Even rich people weren't going to put up two-hundred grand unless they were getting something reasonably valuable in return. And Anelle wasn't in a position to offer anything interesting, especially since she wasn't in familiar territory. An investment scam offering more money? She had a feeling he wouldn't be all that interested.

Harrison had homed in on a desire for publicity, possibly for fame, as Paradigm's weak point, but she wasn't so sure he had read him right. She had managed to pull out of him a few things Harrison clearly hadn't recognized the significance of--about the girl staying with Paradigm, that he'd often had lots of friends there, but that he was himself childless.

A puzzle-designer and a publisher, interested in publicity, with fatherhood issues.

She reached the drive, turned down it and parked. Lights inside the house were on--Thad had stayed up waiting for her, or had left them on for her? Thad. She had Thad as extra leverage. How could she make use of Thad?

She found him in the living room. He was sitting on the loveseat, passed out. She turned out the lights and went to bed. It didn't take long for her to fall asleep. She woke once, in the middle of the night, from another of those evil cold dreams. But she slept fine the rest of the night, as far as she knew; the only further dream she could remember was one of Thad digging in the earth, and before she could figure out where that one was headed, she awoke to Thad's desperate attempts to waken her.

Eve got busy redecorating her apartment.

Well. It wasn't so much redecoration as throwing out all the junk she'd accumulated over the years and should have parted with long before. Things like the carpet cleaner she'd bought because she'd fallen in love with the door-to-door salesman, the magic kit for beginners she'd bought because she'd fallen in love with the toy store salesman, and the mannequin in the sequined gown she'd bought because she'd fallen in love with the gown but there was no way it would ever fit.

Eve answered the phone after only two rings. "Hello?"

"Hi Eve, it's Gehn."


"Did you check those movies?"

"Yeah, none of them were right."

"I just remembered, I left a movie at work, and it might be the one. It's called I.D.. Have you ever seen that?"

"Maybe, I don't know. What's it about?"

"This guy has his identity stripped away from him little by little, and he goes on a search for the person who's doing it."

Eve frowned. "That's a little too vague."

"We just watched it at work the other night--I forgot to bring it home, and I forgot all about it. I went to the bathroom in the middle, so I'm betting there's a scene like that which I missed. It would make sense, 'cause there's this bit in the movie where it snows in July."

"Oh. I bet that is it, then."

"I was thinking I'd go pick it up now."

"It's not that important."

"Well, and then I realized that I didn't have a car anyway. Do you want to come by, we can get lunch maybe, and then go pick it up?"

"Sure, that would be fun. Right now?"

"If you want to wait, that's fine."

"No, now is fine."

Officer Callahan studied the poster and frowned. It seemed rather unlikely to really have been sponsored by the Affiliated Money Growers of America. Still, absent girlfriends were obviously higher priority than present vandalism, so best to worry about it later.

Officer Callahan walked along the street, stopping anyone whose name came to mind, asking them if they'd seen Gehnyphur, but with little success. The diner was open, but Eve wasn't there. Eve! Eve might well know where Gehn was, since they were supposedly best friends.

Officer Callahan tracked down Eve's number and called her, but got her answering machine. Was that suspicious too? Unclear.

Someone was walking down the sidewalk past the diner. Turning to look... it was Bobby.

"Hey there."

"Hello, Officer Callahan." He looked uncomfortable.

"Are you okay? You look sort of sick."

"I'm fine, I'm fine. Well, umm, I have a headache."

"I'm looking for somebody and I was wondering if you could answer a question or two."

Bobby looked uncertain. "I haven't done anything."

"Oh, not that kind of looking for somebody. I'm looking for a friend of mine. I wonder if you know her. Her name's Gehnyphur."

"I know a couple of Jennifers, but I doubt any of them are friends of yours."

"She's not the club-going type."

"Yeah, then no."


Bobby hesitated visibly. "Oh, say, do you know the Wynn house up..."

"Sure. I patrol that area a lot."

"Patrolling it today?"


"I sort of need a ride."

"To the Wynn house?"


"Well, I wanted to check out Floresca again, so sure."

As they walked backed down the street to the car, Bobby said, "Shotgun!" Officer Callahan gave him a careful glare, despite the temptation to smirk inside.

"You've never ridden in a police car before?" The pulled out onto the street.

"No way. Never been arrested or anything. Say, how are things in police land, anyway? Any interesting cases? Bank robberies, homicides, drug busts, clown impersonations?"

"Nah, just the run-of-the-mill gruntwork stuff."

"Speeding tickets, loud party warnings, domestic violence, thumb sucking?"


"What are you currently working on?"

"Vandalism. Somebody's been putting up, hmm, I guess they're anti-consumerist messages, putting them up around town." Officer Callahan paused, considering. "Say, Bobby, I don't suppose you know anything about it."

"Uh, not that I know of."

"I mean, I was just figuring, you must get some people at your clubs who are on that sort of anti-authority kick."

"Not at a goth club. They're all passive consumers, nihilists. I mean, they may not like that stuff that much, but they don't care enough about anyone else to bother with putting messages up."

"Milo, the Internet is down."

He looked up from his breakfast at Peg. The befuddled expression on his face suggested an incredulous "Internet before breakfast?", but he didn't say it out loud, quite possibly because he couldn't figure out how to.

Finally, he just said, "It'll probably work in a bit, if you just wait for it."

"Does it usually do that? Fix itself spontaneously?"


An hour later it was still down, so she mentioned it to him again. He shrugged. "Can't you call for customer support?"

"It's Sunday."

"I'm sure they're available 24/7."

"I'll wait an hour or two. I'm so far out, I'm lucky I got any broadband at all. If I always did call support for this sort of thing, I'd do two calls a... four calls a half-month."



"I did say Internet access was an important issue in staying here."

"You did."

"Is there anywhere I can get on the Net in town easily?"

"Library, I think."

"I guess I'll try that, then."

"Talk to April."

So she did. April, it turned out, was leaving shortly, and was willing to give her a ride to the library, which worked out pleasantly, all told.

Thaddeus had woken up that morning, unsure of what was going on. Looking around, it became obvious that he was in the living room; he had been waiting up to talk to Anelle, but obviously he hadn't been able to wait up long enough.

Assuming she made it back. He'd knocked on her door--no answer, so he'd opened it--and there she was, sound alseep. He'd woken her--with some difficulty--and told her about the writing in the mirror, but she'd seemed untroubled. He'd decided this was because she wasn't really awake, so he'd undertaken to wake her up properly. There was the stereo which hadn't gotten any use from them; he cranked it. There were also the portable floodlights in the next room, which he moved into hers and turned on, pointing at her. And just to be on the safe side, he hopped on her bed and started jumping up and down

This turned out to work out pretty well for waking her up properly once he'd figured out he had to remove her noise-cancelling earmuffs, take off her blindfold, and turn off her personal portable anti-grav belt. At least that's how it had seemed to him.

Once she was properly awake and he'd explained the events to her again, she'd looked appropriately peeved, although her words hadn't matched it.

"Maybe it was just a townie playing a prank."

"They'd have to have known about you, and a way into the house, and be willing to take a big chance--nothing like that ever happened when I was here as a kid."

"It must have been Harrison," she'd said eventually. "He's been trying to get us out of here for a while."

"Why would he only want one of us to leave though?"

"I don't know. Well, maybe that's the bluff, though. He knew you'd share it with me and hope to scare us both off. Or maybe he hoped he'd scare you and you wouldn't tell me the details, you'd just demand we leave."

"You really think so?"

"I think so. It seems like the sort of thing he'd do. I talked to him for a while last night."

"Wait, was he at the castle?"

"No, I didn't end up going into the castle. I went into town so I could learn more about the owner--who's called Paradigm, by the way--and I met up with Harrison there. He filled me in on some details."

"And you think he wrote that message? Really?"

She'd looked at him earnestly. He prided himself on his observation skills, and he'd never seen anyone look more honest. "Really. I'm sure there's nothing to worry about. He's all bark and no roots."

And now she was gone--she'd taken the car, said she was going to do some research and then head up to the castle. And that left Thaddeus there, alone, paranoid. He wanted to believe in the Vicki story, but some part of him, deep down, buried away where he could hear it moaning from beyond the grave but couldn't touch it, just knew that it meant Simon was on his way.

But Anelle knew Simon better than Thaddeus did, so it was her call. Still, he was sorely tempted to just make a run for it. He could even imagine that he was hearing a voice saying "go, go, go", but there were really good reasons to stay.

Eve could have sworn she'd seen that guy looking out of the house at her when she pulled up, but when she got out of the car, there was definitely nobody visible at the window of the house. Gehnyphur came out of the house before she made it to the door, so she returned to the car. As they drove off, she found herself watching the rear-view window rather closely, for some reason.

Gehn suggested they try the all-you-can't-eat Sunday buffet at Lickspittle's--Eve had heard of it but never tried it herself, so she was game, in the sense of being willing, not in the sense of being the target of a hunter, at least as far as she knew. But as they sat at their window table, empty plates before them, chatting amiably, Eve began to bitterly regret the choice of meals, though, since it certainly was a false claim that nothing was better than the cholesterol-laden food she served at her diner. Nothing was, in fact, a rather thoroughly unfulfilling thing to try to make do with. At least there was coffee.

"You really don't think you could settle down with somebody you didn't love?" Gehnyphur asked her.

"I can't imagine it, no."

"Well, maybe the answer is for you to go off and be a hermit in the wilderness somewhere."

"And not meet anyone at all? That doesn't sound much better."

"No, and then I'll send some likely candidates out there. If they like you enough, they'll be willing to stay with you out there, and you'll never meet anyone else. If not, then they come back, and I'll send the next one out."

Eve considered. "I'm not sure I'd want to live that sort of lifestyle. I guess I'm fairly used to this one, really."

Gehn shrugged. "Your choice. But if you aren't willing to work for it..."

Eve growled. No, that was her stomach growling. "I don't know. If you suffer from an unprovoked curse, I think you have a right to bitch about it. And anyway, it's not like I'm doing nothing. I'm looking for this movie, aren't I?"

"True. Shall we go get it? Or are you still not eating?"

Peg finished typing up her weblog entry about the previous night's faux-ghostly encounter and posted it. She skimmed the comments on her previous entry, but there was nothing too exciting. So she just surfed the Net randomly for a while.

The library was surprisingly crowded today--or rather, the computer terminals were. She figured she shouldn't stay on for long, since they were pretty much all in use. She glanced at the screen of the woman who had sat down next to her only a minute ago--she was apparently surfing the web too, so perhaps not that big a deal. Wait a second--she recognized that website--it was Milo's publishing company, which she'd looked up before. The horrid purple, black, and yellow color scheme, with weird animating pop-down menus, was unforgettable.

She shifted in her seat so she could try to look more in that direction while still looking like she was focussed on her own screen, but she couldn't really read the small print from this far.

It seemed fairly odd, but then perhaps Milo and his castle were the number two point of interest in Boring--although she didn't recall having seen anything like that in the literature she'd seen. She went back to her browser and looked up Boring's official site; mention of Floresca Firewoks, of course, and the music scene--Boring's fame as the city of vampire bands was fading as there had been no other big success following the breakthroughs of first A Paler Shade of White and then a year later The Bleeders--and the third feature listed was that Boring had the seventeenth-highest per-capita reporting of UFOs. No mention of the castle whatsoever.

Peg got up, strode to the nearest shelves, pulled down the nearest book, and took it to a table which had a vantage point on the computers. She opened the book in front of her and kept her eye on the woman. Several minutes later--after she'd turned quite a few pages in the book without ever looking at it--the woman abandoned her computer and went over to the card catalog terminals. After a minute, she entered the stacks. After a minute or two, she emerged with several books. She took them over to the copiers, and photocopied several pages from each, seemingly flipping them open at random. Then she grabbed a blank piece of paper and cut it into strips, then started coping the copies, stacking a few pieces of paper together. All rather mysterious.

Once done with copying, she sat down at a table and skimmed one of the books, then began writing something down. She stayed on that one page for a while, writing--which seemed rather pointless when she could have just copied them, unless she'd run out of money--and then finally closed the book, picked them up, and returned to the stacks, apparently to return the books. A moment later, she reappeared, and headed for the exit.

Peg rose, uncertain if it was worth the effort--the woman hadn't done anything interesting at all besides visiting the one web page--but at this point she was too invested. Which turned out to pay off pretty well--right outside the library, the woman was standing there with her cell phone. Peg pretended she was waiting for a ride--checking her watch, looking expectantly up and down the street--and overhead a little about puzzles and books--enough to be sure it had something to do with Milo--before the woman really noticed her and moved further away. A few minutes later the woman walked down to the parking lot beside the library and drove off.

Anelle was glad she could count on those mysterious turning gears. Whatever it was that went on inside her head, she had no idea, but when those gears stopped turning, kerthunk, they sure did pop out the solutions that seemed just guaranteed to work. Three big questions remained: one, had she judged him right on this idea that he'd want to give away his money to someone who'd proved him- or herself worthy; two, was her idea something that would prove palatable to him; and three, could she find a way to present it that he'd be likely to want to do his part of it from entirely internal motivation. The only other issue was Thad, but little point in worrying about the answer to that one--it's what partners were for, putting one's blind trust in them so they can screw you over royally.

She'd completed her research at the library and on the phone, and she was fairly confident she'd gathered enough material to know what she needed to know, to fake what she needed to fake, to anthropomorphize what she needed to anthropomorphize. She dropped the car back off at the house so Thad could be mobile, gave him a quick heads-up and the keys, and then headed up the hill.

She worked out very carefully what she was going to say, and exactly how she was going to say it. When she go to the gate, she rehearsed it one more time, then pushed the intercom button. Not an intercom button after all; flustered, she opened the gate and walked in.

When a guy finally opened the front door, she found she had totally lost her mental plan.

"Hi, what can I do for you?" he said.

"I'm looking for Mr. Paradigm."

"Looking at Mr. Paradigm, I'd say."

"Oh. Hello."

"And you?"

"Annie." Crap, what was the last name she'd told Harrison the night before? No recollection at all. Ok, ok, think of something... "Annie Butler."

"So, what can I, Mr. Paradigm, do for you?"

"Umm, first off, I'd like to apologize for coming to you personally. I realize that it's no way to do business, really. But since you're not really active at Paradigm Publishing anymore..."

"Oh, that sort of thing. I'm afraid I don't..."

"Five minutes of your time, that's all I ask. If it doesn't sound interesting at that point, I'll be happy to leave you alone."

"What's your basic proposal?"

"I happen to have come into a bit of inheritence. It's a lot of money--well, not a lot by your standards, I suppose, but it's more money than I've ever earned myself in my life."


"Well, naturally, I don't really want to just spend any of that money. I want to prove that I can make my own way in the world, without anybody else's help."


"I could invest it or something and claim that I earned the interest myself, but that seems like a cop-out."

"A cop-out, uh huh."

"And I could just give it away to charity or something, but that seems like, well, I should find some way to take advantage of this good fortune. Like, I could invest really well, and once I've made back the entire principal as interest, I could give away the principal. But even that isn't ideal."

"I'm not following what this has to do with Paradigm Publishing."

"Well, you see, I write puzzles in my spare time. I quite enjoy it, but I haven't really had any luck publishing them."

"If you want us to publish a book, you should talk my publishing company in Wyoming..."

"I was thinking of a very special kind of book, though. I want to give away my two-hundred thousand dollars as part of publishing the book. As a grand prize to the first solver."

He paused at that--genuinely surprised? Then he opened the door wider and stepped back, obviously inviting her in. Take that, "Inspector" Harrison.

He led her down a hall, a turn, another hall, into a sort-of medieval living room. Along with the sorts of furniture you might expect to see in a place like this--well, ok, who knows what furniture you'd expect to see in a castle at the beginning of the twenty-first century, so make that the sort of furniture you'd expect from someone pretentious enough to own a castle--were some strange pieces of electronic equipment which looked entirely out of place, although also strangely familiar. She followed the cabling to the far side of the room, and then realized that the figure hunched over there was not a statue, but rather... Inspector Harrison. He turned to her and smiled.

Thaddeus heard the car pull into the driveway and peeked out, surprised to see a police car. He supposed it ought to make him feel better--obviously nothing to fear from Simon with the law around--but it made him nervous about the boxes of ill-gotten money hidden in the attic. He went back into the living room, practicing his innocent look, and waited patiently for the doorbell to ring. No point in looking all suspicious.

Eventually, after what seemed like thousands and thousands of milliseconds, the doorbell rang. Thaddeus walked slowly, nonchalantly towards the door. Project innocence, he told himself. Project innocence. I am the most innocent man in the world.

He opened the door. The police car was already backing out the drive. One person stood in front of him, on the doorstep, a tight smile.



Officer Callahan slowed the car down in front of the fireworks company, but it was clear that that the only marks in the snow were the footprints made yesterday by the fancy police officer boots that even now tapped the accelerator.

No new leads today, after all. A grave disappointment.

Time to check Gehnyphur's favorite hangouts one more time, and then back to try her house again.

Heading down Tuscaloosa Avenue heading south, Officer Callahan spotted a hitchhiker heading the other way. Slowing down and honking attracted the hitchhiker's attention--and it was the girl from the highway who was staying at Paradigm's.

"Hey there."

The girl--Peg--looked worried. "Hi, officer."

"We've talked about this hitchhiking business before, haven't we."

"Yes, officer. But this isn't a divided highway."

"True." Officer Callahan was torn between actually giving some real punishment or just giving her a ride up to the castle, but the Gehnyphur search seemed more important. And perhaps doing nothing would be punishment enough. "It's quite a walk all the way up there, but I guess you look fit enough to do it. Consider that your punishment--I'm not going to give you a lift this time."

"Yes, officer. Thank you."

"If it happens again, I may go harder on you--like giving you a lift in the wrong direction, if you catch my drift. Now get going."

Peg continued trudging up the road. The few cars going her way seemed uninterested in stopping for her--she was still trying to thumb it, despite the police officer's warning. Ten minutes later, a car with two women in it pulled over, but she very quickly declined their offer, perhaps because they seemed a little too friendly to be trustworthy, or perhaps because they were only going to the turnoff at the bottom of the hill, or perhaps because the police officer's warning had just made her too nervous, or perhaps it was just the phrase on the vanity license plate.

For numerous minutes after the incident, Peg pondered over what exactly the survival value of such a license plate was, but in vain; she eventually decided that the positive survival value that came from giving people brains capable of creating tools, using language, and discovering (inventing?) the periodic table of the elements must outweigh the negative survival value that came from giving people brains capable of trying to make wings so they could fly, trying to fabricate explosives "for the fun of it" when the fun seemed to consist priarily of blowing off several fingers, and ordering a vanity license plate that reads "I LUV U".

Eve parked the car in the partly melted snow of the parking lot. Nobody else had been through there, it seemed. Footprints up the center of the drive, but they didn't even make it all the way to the buildings.

Gehnyphur's passkey got them into the frontmost building, the main labs, apparently. Eve had never actually been in it before--they had regular tours, but she'd just never been particularly interested--specially as it would involve constantly seeing strangers at a prodigious rate. So Gehnyphur gave her a bit of an informal tour around the place, showing the labs where they designed things, the computer room where they ran simulations, and the "chill out" room with its tidily-labelled file cabinets full of drugs--LSD, PCP, mescaline, mushrooms--which the designers used in seeking out inspiration for new effects.

Finally they made it to the lounge. The tape was still there, and Gehnyphur grabbed it.

Eve said, "Can we just watch it here, now?"

Gehn grinned. "You're that anxious, huh?"

"Nah, you all just have a much nicer TV than mine."

They fast-forwarded through most of it until they saw the fireworks, then rewound and started watching from about ten minutes before, since Eve was fairly certain it was right around then.

Twenty minutes later, she hadn't recognized the character, so they started the movie from the beginning. It seemed like it must have been hours later when finally, she saw the guy and recognized him instantly. "That was it! Rewind." It was just after the twenty minutes they had watched the first time.

There was nothing remarkable about him. He had a minor, non-speaking part, but he was more than an extra--he was there on screen, in the foreground, being spoken to. Gehnyphur didn't see anything remarkable about him either.

Well, that was a collosal waste of time. She grabbed the tape anyway--just in case--and she and Gehn retraversed the maze of corridors to the main entrance. There was another car in the lot, parked a few spaces down from hers, which seemed a bit odd, since it was Sunday.

They stepped outside and headed for her car, but a man was walking down the sidewalk towards them, and he called out, "Excuse me!" They stopped, glancing at each other. She was realized she was having no reaction to him but instantly remembered why--she'd seen him at the diner the day before--he'd given her a big tip.

He didn't seem to remember her, though. "Hi there, ladies. I work for a movie production company, and I'm location scouting." He produced a card and held it out to them; Gehn took it. "This is a great looking facility here. Do you suppose you could show me the inside briefly?"

Gehn said, "There are regular tours on Thursday and Friday."

"I'm only in town for two more days. Here, I'll make it worth your while." He produced a twenty-dollar bill.

Gehn looked at Eve, so she took the initiative. "What movies have you worked on, Mr..." She grabbed the business card. "Mr. Paul-John."

"Oh, I remember you from the diner, don't I? Well, now you know why I was interested in that castle. Anyway, I've worked on lots of movies. Producer, associate producer, assistant to the assistant director. What's that videotape you've got there?"

"It's called I.D.."

"Is that the 1999 movie about the guy who has his identity erased by a mysterious figure from his past or the 1992 movie about the life and times of a bouncer at a club right next to a college campus?"

"The 1999 one."

"Heh, I remember that pretty well. I was the assistant to the casting director."

"Really? Do you remember the guy who played the character--uh, we couldn't figure it out from the credits--it was a minor part, this guy who's a little short, dark hair, slender, and he's just standing there when Jack runs up to him and steals the magazine he's reading?"

"Hmm, I don't remember the character from that. But I do remember the movie and I could probably tell you who it was if I saw him. Jack was played by Bruce Willis, of course. And I remember the head of the underground government watchdog community--the group that hacks the weather control satellites--that was a cameo by Peter Riegart."


"Well, ok, I guess it's not really a cameo if you've never heard of him. How about you show me the guy on the videotape, and if I can identify him for you, you give me a tour."

"You're on."

Vicki was confused when the woman--Annie--had denied meeting him before, but he read her look right, obviously, and recovered cleanly, indicating that he must have confused her with someone else.

It wasn't until she came over to look at what he was doing and whispered "Expose me and I'll expose you" that it all became clear. Normally he would have denied that there was anything to expose, but while denial was generally a great way of dealing with things, she exhibited such confidence, and it didn't really seem like he had much to gain from exposing her, anyway. Just knowing that she could be exposed gave him something of a leg up.

He had gotten the equipment up all set up and had begun with his readings when she'd arrived. He'd been fairly surprised that Paradigm had called him this morning; he suspected that this whole thing was somehow related to the movie production, but wasn't sure how. Guessing other people's angles wasn't really part of his skillset.

The spectrum analyzer was merrily showing the frequency spectrum of the microphone pickup, delayed by thirty seconds so its relation to the room sounds was not at all obvious. That created real life and motion for the clients to focus on. The geister counter was just an altered geiger counter design with a controllable divider that by default cut its tick rate to one-fourth normal, and it of course never registered anything beyond the background cosmic radiation at around four ticks per minute. The ectoplasmatorium worked on a similar principle to the lava lamp, and was entirely for show. The less said about the Undeadphänomennähewahrheit Maßvorrichtung the better, especially to any clients who actually spoke German.

So mostly he just acted like he was studying and taking notes while in practice he was listening as closely as he could to their discussion. Annie seemed to have picked up on this before he had learned much other than that she was trying to get Paradigm to publish something, and she'd asked to go somewhere more private, to which he'd agreed.

How long had they been sitting there? Five minutes, perhaps. Bobby was being surprisingly patient, while Thaddeus struggled to come up with a reasonable opening gambit.

He finally decided on "I'm in a bit of trouble," and having decided on it, he spoke it as well.

Bobby shrugged. "Delightful." At least he could still read his younger brother like an open book with extra large type under a bright lamp.

"I'm sorry if I've put you down for your lifestyle in the past."

"You're sorry that I'm mad at you because you're sorry I'm not going to help you."

"This is really serious, Robert. No fooling around."

"Thad, you asked for me to come by. I came by. Stop screwing around here."

"I stole some money from somebody. If they find out, they'll probably kill me."

"I'm not going to give you any money, Thad. I don't have any to give you even if I wanted to."

"I don't want your money. I just want you to help me return it."

"Return stolen money? To someone who would murder over it--a criminal? Sign me up right now!"

"It's not like that. You just have to pick up the money, and bring it back here, and I'll do all the rest."

"Pick up the money from who?"

"Not who. It's just sitting there, waiting to be picked up."

"I don't think so."

Thaddeus pondered. Maybe he could offer a lot of money? It looked like Bobby was going to be perfectly happy to let him hang, though.

Anelle was walking a delicate tightrope--building a delicate house of cards, turning a delicate omelette--with Paradigm, trying to lead him towards the idea himself, rather than suggesting it outright. She'd shown him one of "her" puzzles, the handwritten one, and that seemed to have been the missing piece, as it were, that got him to take her seriously. "Of course," she said, "if I'm putting up the grand prize, I think I deserve higher royalties than normal. Two-hundred thousand dollars is nothing to sneeze, cough, or expectorate at."

"Hoom hah. I don't know." Please, please, she pleaded silently, think of it. "Paradigm Publishing will still put in significant dollars for causing additional familiarity with your book amongst book distributors and also anybody who might buy it." It took her a moment to translate--she hadn't realized that publishers had developed their own special convoluted jargon for such simple things as "more marketing dollars", but hey, this guy was the head of his own publishing company, if anyone was allowed to play the buzzword game, surely he was.

"Well, sure, but still, most authors don't put up that kind of money."

"Most authors don't put up that kind, no, I admit it." Aha, she had him on the ropes. "How about this. Paradigm puts up this fifth-of-a-million dollars, and your pay is our standard amount."

"Well... I could do that, but then what do I do with my inheritence? I could give it away, but then I still feel like I'm wasting it. I want to leverage it somehow."

"What if you also do your contribution, and I do my contribution, and our award is both in combination."

"Four-hundred grand?"


"Well... I guess. The ten percent still doesn't seem fair, but I suppose I wouldn't really complain."

"Hmm. Four is an odd-sounding amount, isn't it? What if it was a million dollars total?"

"Oh... I don't know. That's too much, surely. I mean, I guess at that point I wouldn't complain about the 10% royalty rate, no. But I'd be giving up too much control, I think."


"Well, one of my ideas was that we actually bury the money as real, honest, flat out cash, rather than a token that the finder redeems with us for the money. If it's just my money, I don't think you could really argue with me about it. But if it's mostly your money, I'm sure you'd rather do it your way."

"Hmm, hmm. I don't know. That sounds fun, in fact."

Hook, line, sinker, and graphite pole. Now she just had to take her time and reel him in slowly. There was no hurry; with a score this big, she could wait a year.

It was getting towards afternoon when Officer Callahan pulled up to the house. There was still nobody inside it, though. But, strangely, the broken swan had disappeared, and the tapes had been straightened out. What had the count been before? 35? It was 38 now, which didn't make much sense.

Officer Callahan cruised around the neighborhood for a while, but didn't find anything of note. Parked back at the house, and thought for a while. Frinje's house was just across the street and down a bit. He might know something.

"Hello, officer," he said, answering the door. "If this is about my brother, don't get all steamed up..."

Officer Callahan cut him off. "Nope, I'm looking for Gehnyphur from across the way. Have you seen her lately?"

"I don't think so, but I haven't really been on the lookout. My recollections of last time I saw her are hazy... maybe two, three days ago, I guess."

"Well, thanks anyway. Hey, what was that about your brother?"

"I'm a bit mystified," Frinje said. "Mystified. Apparently my brother broke out of prison last week, but I haven't heard from him. I haven't the foggiest idea what he'd be up to--I'm not sure what he can do with himself at this point, but I hope he doesn't expect me to help him out, 'cause I'm not gonna DO that. Heh. He's all wet. What a cloud."

"What was he in jail for?"

"Did you ever hear of the notorious Garden Killer?"

Officer Callahan pondered. "I don't think so."

"Moist of the time, his favorite weapon was a weed whacker."

"That's horrible."

"Is it? I dunno."

"How many people did he kill?"

"Huh? He didn't ice any humid beings that I know of. He just used to go into people's yards and destroy their flowerbeds. Vandalism, really, but he was fairly brutal, and every time he got out of prison he'd find a way to top himself, and at his ar-rain-ment he'd be unrepentent, and so he'd end up back Inside with an even longer sentence. This time he was in for something like twenty years after he attacked the rose garden."

"That seems a little extreme."

"As in the White House Rose Garden. Those secret service blokes were none too happy with that damp fool. What a drip."

"That was your brother? Wow."

"Oh, no, that wasn't my brother. Apparently several prisoners escaped, my brother among them, and the Garden Killer was the ringleader."

"Huh. But you haven't heard anything?"


"Thanks anyway, Frinje."

Officer Callahan sat in the police cruiser, pondering where else to look, when a gentleman in a leather jacket and half a pair of eyeglasses approached.

"Would you arrest me, please, officer?" he asked.

Officer Callahan frowned. "Not unless you've done something wrong."

"I've done lots of things wrong."

"Something specific. Criminal."

"Is it criminal to call a police officer an asshole?"

"Not technically, no. It's a good way to piss one off, though."

"Ok, then, arrest me, asshole."

This was a weird game. "No."

The man frowned, then coughed. Leaned over, and spit on the windshield. "Fuck you, then."

"Piss off before I get mad."

The guy kicked the cruiser, one, two, three times, then jumped up on the hood and started stomping.

Officer Callahn sighed, and got out of the car. "How much have you had to drink?"

"Nothing. Listen, if you just arrest me, I'll stop doing this."

"Fine, you're under arrest. Get in the car."

"You have to cuff me."

"If you make me cuff you, you're not going to enjoy the experience."

"Ok, how about I put my hands behind my back, and you pretend to cuff me, and then I get in the car."

Why do I get all the loonies? "Ok, whatever. Get down." He hopped down, and turned away, with his hands behind him. Officer Callahan guided him over to the car, opened the rear door, and shoved him in, being sure not to be particularly gentle.

The car started smoothly, and they drove out of the subdivision. As soon as they were out, he started making a fuss again. A new fuss.

"Pull the car over. You're not arresting me."

"Too late for that."

"No, really. You don't want to arrest me."

"Tell it to the judge."

"No, I'll be telling it to your supervisor. I'm FBI."

"And I'm J. Edgar Hoover."

"No, really. We're staking out that house that you just walked up to earlier."


"That's the one. His brother escaped from prison..."

Officer Callahan slammed on the brakes and pulled the car over. "What was all this 'arrest me' bullshit for?"

"I needed to make sure nobody would think I was a cop. I just wanted to talk to you privately."

Officer Callahan pondered. The new, hoped-for lead had not, in fact, shown up this morning, but had instead dawdled around all day and only stuck out its thumb this afternoon. Still, a lead was a lead.

"It's private. So, talk."

"You've gotta stop cruising that area. Don't park on that street, don't go up to that house. We don't want you scaring off our man if he shows up."

"What the hell is the FBI doing involved?"

"Actually, I'm not FBI, I'm Secret Service, but I figured that sounded even less plausible."

"Secret Service? Oh, the Rose Garden. Holy cow." Officer Callahan got out of the car and opened the back door. "You want to sit up front?"

"Thanks." He got out of the car. As he strode around to the still-locked passenger door, he said, "I'm Agent Walker."

"Good for you," Officer Callahan said, getting back in the driver's seat. "'Cause you're going to be doing a fair bit of walking now. Maybe you can stop somewhere to get stake-out take-out."

Agent Walker's middle finger was visibly raised in the rear view mirror. Officer Callahan would have smirked, but there were more pressing matters, like Ma Callahan's take on refusing to obey authority figures given the plan to return to the subdivision.

"Oh, him," John Paul-John said. "Oh yes. I remember that well." Eve waited impatiently for the details. "One of the producers had a cousin who wanted to be in a movie. He--the producer, I mean--pretty much demanded it happen. I forget the full name, but the first name appears in the credits as 'Daniel'--you should be able to track it down from there."

Eve said, "Do you remember anything special about the guy? Anything odd or different or remarkable."

"Ah, you noticed, huh? Most people never even think of it."

"Well, I noticed something but I don't know what, and I was hoping you could tell me."

"Oh, sure. That's why it's so memorable. Daniel's real first name was Daniella. 'He' was a female transvestite, the only one I've ever had in any of my movies, I think."

Eve felt like a punctured bicycle tire. "Aww, shit." No surprise there at all, in the end.

"You had a crush on 'him'."

"No, I didn't. Quite the opposite. Anyway. Nevermind. Let's just do your tour."

They aborted the tour after only a few minutes--Paul-John had quickly determined that the interiors didn't offer anything nearly as interesting to him as the exteriors. When they got to the exit, Eve noticed yet another car in the lot. As the door opened, a voice said, "Hello gentle sir, ladies. I hope you can be of assistance to me."

It took her a moment to locate the source of the voice, in part because he was one of the shortest guys she'd ever fallen in love.

Peg trudged along the damn road. The hill rose above her--she could make out the Wynn house, maybe.

She'd spent too long--two whole days--in Boring, obviously, coasting on Milo's hospitality and the hopes of entertainment from his quirkiness. But his lackadaisical approach to network access wasn't going to cut it; even if she'd had a car so she could get to and from the library with ease, it just wasn't worth the effort. She'd crash there tonight, and that would be it. Back to the grind of improvised travel and improvised rooming, staying with people she actually knew already, even if she hadn't met them in person.

Besides, if she stayed with Milo much longer, the truth would out, and she didn't really like the idea of him realizing she'd misled him. He probably wouldn't care--and she wasn't sure why she'd care if he did care--but why take chances?

Thaddeus had run out of both sticks and carrots with which to entice and threaten Bobby; all of them to no avail, seemingly. Bobby seemed happy to put the sticks under and the carrots in the pot and let him stew. Unless Bobby was waiting for him to run out, and then, after having tortured him, was going to agree.

"Ok, I give up. Forget it," Thaddeus said.

"Good." Bobby stood. "I'll see you later, if I must."

"Crap. Sit down for a second." Bobby shrugged, sat down. "What do you want?"

Bobby shook his head. "What makes you think you could supply anything I'd actually want? How about a father who doesn't patronize and isn't controlling? How about a mother who cares? Seems unlikely, doesn't it? How about a brother who wasn't a pompous ass? Nope, no way you can deliver on that one."

"Robert, I'm sorry..."

"No, we covered that one earlier."

There was a thud in Anelle's bedrooms, the sound of something falling onto the floor.

Bobby's head jerked to look. "I thought we were alone."

Thaddeus was on his feet, slowly moving towards the room. "I thought so too," he whispered.

Bobby lowered his voice a little, at least. "Shit, have you already dragged me into your fucked-up mess? Damn it, Thad."

"Shut up. I don't know what the hell this is. The job I want you to do is nice and tidy and simple. But I think we have a stalker or something."

Officer Callahan searched Gehnyphur's house much more thoroughly this time. The first order of business was her backyard, but the garden appeared to be intact. There were also no signs of any of the doors being forced, no broken windows, no coyote-shaped holes in the walls.

Gehn's valuables all seemed in place and untouched, but that didn't prove much if, say, the crooks had just been taking hostages.

Unfortunately, then, this new lead played for naught. Well, no. Assuming Gehnyphur had been kidnapped suggested entirely different locations to search for her. Well, two sets, depending on whether she was alive or dead. Officer Callahan opted to search the locations associated with the former scenario first.

Anelle studied Paradigm. He definitely didn't look like a sucker; if they'd been in a real city, she'd have moved on to other targets. But she seemed to have nailed his weaknesses perfectly, offered him a far too inviting target. As long as he really exerted the control he acted like he did, she was set. Visions of Thad digging up their buried treasure--anonymous and tax free, leaving an empty hole for the first legimitate solver to discover and appear to be the second--danced in her head. Thank you, dream Thad.

Paradigm was sitting there, silently working on the puzzle she'd written up. She had the photocopied ones too in case she needed more; she hoped she didn't; she'd covered over the page numbers and the other book trappings, since obviously it wouldn't do for him to be know they'd already been published, but still they didn't really look like they were fresh off a computer printer.

It's a fairly horrible experience to be in love with somebody you hate. Wanting to be with someone but knowing you'll hate ever moment of it; wanting to make that person absolutely, utterly happy, while at the same time thinking they're utterly undeserving of it; wanting to shower him with affection while being utterly repulsed at the very thought.

Eve had experienced it before, of course, but she'd always had an easy escape route--just bump into someone new. That wasn't really an option right now. Options were very few, with Gehn and herself sitting there, John Paul-John stretched out near them.

The man outside the building had "guided" them back inside and then questioned them about the house on the hill. Eve had thought maybe she'd heard something about it, but didn't really know for sure, so she'd mentioned the castle. The producer fellow--John--had been to the castle, and launched into a bit of a long description of it--obviously a little too long for her new love's tastes, given the threatening gesture he'd made to shut Paul-John up.

He'd prompted Gehn to lead them to a storeroom, which she'd dutifully done without comment. He'd inspected it quickly--obviously paying attention to the small window, which appeared to merely provide ventilation--and clearly decided it would be sufficient for his purposes. Those purposes, he'd indicated, were apparently just to keep them from doing anything in the next few hours that would interfere with his plans, for example calling the police to inform them there was a psycho running around with, or so he claimed, a gun. When it was clear he was planning to lock them in, John had rather heroically attempted to stop him, but the little guy was surprisingly fast--well, perhaps not surprisingly at all, wasn't it cliche for the little guy to be fast? Or maybe it was the big guy who you didn't expect to be fast but turned out to be after all that was the cliche. Anyway, he really had had a pistol; thankfully, he'd just hit John Paul-John with it, and not actually fired it.

"Life is so fucking unfair."

Gehn just looked at her. "At least we're alive, Eve."

"Oh, that. I was more thinking about my love life."

"Aren't there more important things to worry about right now? Wait, you don't mean... him?"

"Oh yes indeed."

"Jeez, Eve, that is so incredibly lame. Sorry."

"Yeah, and right on the heels of that big revelation."

"Well, turn your mind to how we can get out of here."

"It's definitely locked?"

"Not locked--he jammed it shut somehow. Maybe stuck something through the handle."

"Wait, does it open inwards? That means we could remove the hinges."

"No, sorry, no hinges on this side."

"So if we can't get out from the inside, we need someone to let us out from the outside." She looked around the room, and it was immediately obvious why he'd wanted a storeroom. "No phone."

Gehn got up and went to the tiny window. She opened it and then yelled "Help!"

Eve ignored her. Nobody was around. It was Sunday. "Now, for once, I regret being a stick in the mud and never getting a cell phone."

Gehn looked at her wide-eyed. "Shit! I'm an idiot." She scrambled back to her purse and began digging through it frantically.

"You have a cell phone?"

"Yeah. I haven't given the number out to hardly anybody, sorry. It's really for emergency use only. Where is it? Aha!" She poked at it for a minute. "Oh shit. It's dead. The battery died at some point." She slumped back down to a seat on the floor.

Eve sighed. If only there was some other way they could signal the outside world.

Absolutely nothing in the room. Well, the bed, the chair, the dresser, the mirror, Anelle's clothes. But absolutely nothing that wasn't supposed to be there. "Wait here," Thaddeus told Bobby.

He walked down the corridor quietly, listening closely, but heard nothing. The other door to Anelle's room was closed; the door to his room opposite it was open, but also with nothing untoward. He opened Anelle's door, looked in.

"Bobby. It's just me," he added, as an afterthought. Bobby stepped into the doorway. Thaddeus reached over and flipped on the light switch.

There was nothing out of place; nothing knocked over. He checked Anelle's windows, raising the blinds momentarily; they were all locked.

Bobby said, "Maybe it was a bird flying into the window."

"Or somebody throwing a rock at it to attract attention?" Thaddeus raised the blinds again and really looked. But he didn't see anybody out there. "Oh well, we'll never know I guess."

Then he heard the sound of a car coming down the drive.

"Back to the living room. Take a seat." If it was Anelle, she'd be pissed to find them in her bedroom, especially if he'd told her the real reason for it.

So he'd quickly poured drinks, arranged the two of them casually on the chair and loveseat, and waited for her to come in. Or if not Anelle, the doorbell would ring.

So he was rather surprised to hear a rattling at the keyhole but no door opening. The rattle continued for many seconds--surely too long for it to be Anelle not finding the right key. Perhaps another co-owner had finally shown up and couldn't remember which key it was? Just as he'd stood and made his way to the end of the corridor leading to the foyer, he'd heard a clack and the sound of the door flying open.

He made it to the mouth of the corridor and looked up it.

The fellow at the far end looked suspiciously familiar. He said, "Hello there. Call me Simon."

Anelle spent the waiting time thinking about Thaddeus. He was going to have to collect the money himself--she'd need an ironclad alibi, meaning being with Paradigm himself the entire time, presumably off in another state, unless Paradigm chose to stake out the burial ground. Could she trust Thaddeus that far? He hadn't run off with her money at the house... but then, she hadn't left him alone there with the car before. That was a mistake, surely. Still, he could have run off with it in the middle of the night, and hadn't.

And then there was the Lucretia story. Although she hadn't exactly told Thaddeus the whole truth, all the details were basically right in spirit. Certainly this version didn't portray her in a purely angelic light, so if she was taking certain liberties with particularly embarassing parts of the story that weren't really crucial to the narrative, then so be it. Appearances mattered.

But clearly this was a big enough kill that there was no need to try to squeeze him out of it. In fact, even if she was doing pretty much all the work of the con, he would prove himself well worth half the money if he proved to be trustworthy in sharing it with her. Although that was a bit of a problem. Could she concoct a test with large enough stakes to be sure he wouldn't be tempted with the million? Probably not. Perhaps she could make herself an obviously crucial ally--if he turned on her, she knew his real name, so he'd have to create a false identity, fake papers, move somewhere new. Did he know anyone who knew anything about that besides her? Probably not. But then, he could buy that information for far less than half a million. Make a trap? Aha, a homing device planted in with the millions. That would work. Slipping something like that under Paradigm's eyes shouldn't be too hard.

Officer Callahan was thoroughly frustrated. There was no evidence of any link between the prison break and Gehnyphur's disappearance, just the obvious geographic proximity to the stakeout. In the face of the need to keep the stake-out secret, that wasn't sufficient to justify a house-to-house search of the area. A tour of Gehn's common hangouts showed nothing. Eve still wasn't at the diner and still wasn't answering her phone. And there was obviously no point in checking Floresca repeatedly; it was Sunday, after all.

Perhaps the best thing to do was to set it aside for an hour and work on something else. The vandalism case, obviously. Disaffected youth. All four of the cases were quite different, but they all worked from the same theme and were almost certainly done by the same group. What kind of group would that be? Bobby had denied that the vampire goths would be up to something like that, but despite their musical dominance, they certainly weren't the only unhappy young people around. There were the biker gangs--although they seemed to like buying bikes, so an anticonsumerist message hardly would make any sense--the computer hackers--but they all owned computers their parents had paid for; maybe if the vandalism had involved penguins, they'd have been worth investigating--and lastly the cheerleaders--but they all owned... well, what did they all own? Rah rah fight fight go team? Is that consumerist or anti-consumerist?

Officer Callahan wasn't quite sure and decided that made it a reasonable place to start.

Driving to the nearest of the several high schools, Officer Callahan spotted the faint fireworks in the sky. It took a moment for realization to dawn that, firstly, the sun hadn't complete set yet--normally the Floresca people waited 'til it was really dark, so you could see them properly--and secondly, it was Sunday, and they didn't normally test on Sunday.

So perhaps there was, after all, a point to checking Floresca again today.

"Another," Eve said.

"Isn't three plenty?" Gehn asked.

"Who knows if anybody's looking? I say we keep doing it until we're rescued."

"Fine." Gehn was busily assembling a little rocket from the various components that sitting on the shelves of the storeroom. Paul-John was still out like a light infantry unit deployed on a barren, freezing mountainside: stone cold. Eve had duty at the window, setting them up and lighting thm.

A minute later, Gehn handed the latest one over. "Be careful with it," she warned. "I tried to make it more powerful."

Eve placed it carefully in the jury-rigged holder, then placed the whole thing on the window ledge as cautiously as possible.

Gehn said, "It's not made of nitroglycerine. I just meant be careful once it's lit."

Eve lit a match--thankfully there were infinite quantities of those in the storeroom for some reason--and carefully brought it over to the fuse. The fuse lit--sparked momentarily, a glowing something flying towards her hand. She jerked her hand away, felt her hand hit something as it went. She'd looked at her hand for a moment, and looking back at the window sill, the rocket and launcher were gone. She looked immediately at the floor--if that thing went off in here... Gehn was staring at the window, though. "Did it fall outs..."

There was a little "woosh" sound outside, then a bang and a crinkling sound. Eve rushed to the window. There was another building across the quad; she scanned it, and didn't see anything--no, there, it looked like a broken window.

"Good lord, Gehn, that thing was powerful enough to get through a window."

Gehn pushed her aside to look for herself. "Hmm. Well, at least... oh shit."

"At least what? Oh shit what?"

"I was going to say, at least it didn't set anything on fire over there."

"And oh shit what?"

"And oh shit, it did."

Gehn moved away from the window and Eve was able to get another look. She saw a faint glow in one of the rooms in the other building. "Well, at least if there's a fire, somebody will definitely come." She turned to look at Gehn and saw that she was busy making another rocket. "You do have fire alarms, don't you?"

"Fire alarms, we have those. Somebody will come eventually."

"What's the hurry?"

"Fire control systems--I don't think they're really up to code given the work we do here. The building we're in is where we do research. The building across the way is where we do production. And some storage, if people are being lazy. Which, I suspect, they have been."

"Where's jazz?"

Thaddeus couldn't make any sense of the question. But a guy with a handgun was not somebody you don't answer. "Excuse me?"

"Where the fuck is jazz?"

"Where is jazz? I don't understand."

He pointed the gun at Bobby. Bobby looked like he was going to cry. "Mister, jazz what? All I know is I didn't have anything to do with your money. He's the one who stole it."

"My money? I just want jazz. Oh, right. Anelle. Tell me where Anelle is."

Ok, this really was Simon, not that he'd particularly doubted it. What exactly was he supposed to do? Anelle had been so certain Simon couldn't find them, they hadn't made any plans.

Simon's voice came again, flatter this time. "I see you know how to play this game. So. Simon says, tell me where Anelle is."

Obviously he wasn't going to leave without an answer. How well could Thaddeus lie? Would he somehow know if Thaddeus was lying? Maybe he knew where Anelle was, and this was a test to see if Thaddeus was lying, in preparation for asking some other question. What other question, he wanted Anelle, right?

Thaddeus registered the sound of the explosion, the flash, and his brother saying "Aw, fuck" in some random order that he couldn't figure out. But they'd all definitely happened around the same time. He reassembled them mentally into a gunshot, and glanced at himself, flexing his muscles loosely. No sign of anything. The gun was still pointed at Bobby. Bobby was leaning over, collapsing, his leg bloody.

"Shit. You shot him."

"He a friend of yours?" The gun cleaved slowly through the air and came to rest pointing back at him.

"My brother."

"Ooh." The gun turned back to point at Bobby, but Simon's eyes were mostly on him. Thaddeus couldn't look away from his eyes. "Where is she?" After a brief pause, he said, "This time I shoot to kill. What have I got to lose; I've already violated my parole six different ways. So. Simon says,..."

"In the castle, up the hill. She walked up there a few hours ago and hasn't come back."

Simon nodded. "The goddamned castle. Ok." Thaddeus watched Simon's eyes dart between them, glide downwards. "What the fuck?"

Thaddeus risked a backwards look, saw the tail end of a burst of fireworks. "There's a fireworks company down there."

"Did I say Simon Says that time? Did I? I know there's a fucking fireworks company down there. Shit. Simon says, you sit right here, sit tight, and Simon will be back for you in about ten minutes." He backed up to the corridor, then turned and walked down it. At the front door, he turned and looked back. "You be good boys while I'm gone. Come on, my pretty."

What was with this guy's refusal to make sense? "You don't mean me, do you?" Thaddeus asked.

"No, I don't mean you, idiot. I was talking to my gun." Simon slammed the door behind him. The sound of a gunshot a moment later made Thaddeus duck, but it didn't appear to have entered the house. Then another report startled him, but this came from behind. Just the fireworks though. Fairly odd... they didn't usually start this early or go this long.

Quite some time had passed--a half an hour, maybe--when the phone started ringing. Paradigm didn't seem to notice it, lost in the puzzle, or perhaps chose quite consciously not to answer it. Apparently, he didn't have an answering machine, because it just kept ringing without cease. Anelle wasn't sure when she'd started counting, but when it hit the twentieth ring, she said, "Do you want me to get that?"

Paradigm looked up, distracted, and then the next ring sounded. "Oh. No, that's okay, I'll do it." He got up from the table and crossed the room to the phone--she wondered just how many phones he must have in this place so they could be accessible... or maybe he normally just didn't care about answering it--and picked it up. He listened for a moment, and then looked at her oddly.

Paradigm said, "Ann..." but stopped before the second syllable, swallowing it strangely. "Probably for you," he added, holding out the phone to her.


"Simon. On his way up there." It was Thad. And ruining her plan here; how was she ever going to explain this phone call to Paradigm?

"Thad... are you sure it was him?"

"He just shot my brother and forced me to tell him where you were."

"Oh shit. Thad, get out of there. Take the money and just go. We'll meet up."

"Where should we meet?"

"I don't know. Thad, I can't know. If he gets me, he'd be able to get a meeting place out of me. You contact me some day. When you know he's behind bars."


"Just go." She handed the phone back to Paradigm, who was looking at her strangely. "I have to get out of here. There's this criminal--I'd thought he was in prison, but he's out. He's only after me; you two should be fine. No. If I'm not here, he'll try to force out of you where I've gone, which could be painful if you don't know. Shit. You have to come with me."

Paradigm seemed to understand there was little time for arguing. He simply said, "And Harrison."

"Right. We'll go collect him, too."

Anelle sprinted down the hallway, and then realized she wasn't quite sure which way to turn. She waited for Paradigm to catch up, and once he did, decided that perhaps there was little to be gained trying to rush, so matched his stately, dignified pace.

"How can you stand to live in this place, anyway? It's so drafty," she asked.

"Hmm, drafty," was all Paradigm said in reply.

Eventually the corridor opened back up to the living room, and she hurried over to Harrison.

"We have to go," she said to him.

"Ok, bye."

"No, you too."


"This guy is pursuing me, and I didn't realize it. He's a convicted murderer."

"Okay, now you're talking. Let me just pack up..."

"No time. You can come back for it later."

Harrison tossed his hands up. "Fine, whatever." He turned to get his bearings for the front door.

There was a sudden burst of clicking from one of his devices. Anelle whirled around towards it. "What is that?"

"That's... I wouldn't worry about it. It's probably just broken or acting up."

"It sounds like a geiger counter."

"A geister counter. It's, umm, sort of like a geiger counter, but it measures supernatural presence." He gave a sidelong glance at Anelle. "Perhaps there really is something haunting this place after all."

"Is there anything else that would trigger it?"

"I don't think that was really triggered. It hasn't been very trustworthy lately. Since nothing else is showing anything..."

Paradigm suddenly spoke. "No discussion. No haunting at all. I was faking it. Now go. Back door. This way."

He led them own several twisting corridors, through a kitchen, and to a door that opened onto a nice view of the expansive, snow-covered back yard, and, several feet below eye-level, Simon's smiling face.

"Good to see you, Jasmine."

Peg was really not enjoying this walk. She'd been walking for hours now, and absolutely zero sane, trustworthy people had stopped for her. She was just getting absolutely tired of everything--of people, of the world, of walking, and especially of gravity, as it was making every step up the hill twice as hard. It was getting dark, and she hadn't dressed warmly enough, and the fireworks were going off but she couldn't see them.

She saw the car pull out of the driveway from the distance, and wasn't sure it was the driveway at first, but as she got closer she started to recognize it. The fireworks were still going; perhaps she could get a view from the Wynn house. There was still a car in the driveway--was somebody else still there, or had they all driven off in that car? She walked down the driveway. One of the front tires looked flat. Maybe they'd abandoned it.

The door opened and a man came out. Oops. Think of a reason, an excuse. Umm, crap, nothing coming to mind. He was carrying a box; he opened the trunk and stuck the box in. He saw her, came around the side of the car, then looked down at the front tire. It was flat, apparently. He cursed.

"Can I help you?"

"I was wondering what was going on with the fireworks."

"Fuck if I know. Hey, have you ever changed a tire?"

"Now and again."

"I'll give you five hundred dollars to put the spare on for me."

"Five hundred? Surely you can do it yourself cheaper."

He went back to the trunk for a second, then came towards her. "I don't have time to argue." She could see a stack of bills in his hands. He riffled through it, pulled off a wad. "There's five hundred. Take it. You finish changing the tire without dawdling, I'll give you another five... hell, I'll give you the rest of this." He shoved the smaller wad of money into her hands, and turned and walked into the house, leaving the door open.

She pocketed the money, then went to the trunk. There was a box in there, and a spare tire, a jack, and a crowbar. Curiosity pointed to the box, but clearly time was of the essence, so she just pulled out the crowbar, jack and spare, and rolled the lasts up to the front of the car. She positioned the jack and got it going just before he came out with another box. Moments later, he went back in.

She'd gotten four of the lug nuts off when the car shook suddenly. He'd slammed the trunk shut, she realized, without warning her. "How are we going to put the tire in the trunk?"

He gestured for her to step aside, but she held her ground. He pulled the money out of his pocket and pushed it at her, and she gave way. "I'll get a new tire somewhere. Do me a favor, go in the house and call 911."

She headed for the door, then stopped. "And tell them what?"

"Send an ambulance. Gunshot victim." He paused a moment. "And tell the police there's an armed and dangerous midget on the loose, too." She laughed in spite of herself at that one--he'd been so dead serious about everything else that that line was completely unexpected.

All hell was breaking loose in the building across the way. Fortunately their window was small enough it was unlikely anything would come their way, but they'd closed it just in case. Any rockets they launched would be superfluous at this point.

But then Gehn pointed out that it wouldn't be particularly obvious to anyone arriving on the scene that they were trapped in this particular room unless they searched the whole building. They could keep launching stuff out the window, but would anybody be able to see it in this mess? This was suggestive of the idea that perhaps they should find a way to get out after all.

And then they heard glass breaking in one of the adjacent rooms. And Gehn pointed out that for all they knew, this building was on fire too. Did they really want to wait until they were sure before trying to get out?

So they dragged John Paul-John across the room to the corner and Gehn set to work designing little firecrackers with long fuses that they could shove through the door in the hopes of dislodging it somehow.

This time Gehn was getting ahead of Eve, because Eve had to spend a fair amount of time working them through the cracks in the doorframe, finding a place where they'd wedge and not fall out when the fuse burned out--something she was successful with only half of the time, seemingly. Smoke had begun to fill the storeroom--whether from the repeated bursts or a fire outside, Eve couldn't say.

She got her latest one absolutely secure, warned Gehn with a quick "clear", lit it, and scrambled to the other side of the room. Gehn had opted to hit the floor rather than come this way. There was a bang, shaking the door, but nothing seemed to have happened. She grabbed one of the firecrackers but realized Gehn hadn't gotten up. Rounding the table, she found Gehn slumped over on the floor, unconscious. Smoke inhalation? She'd been up higher than Eve most of the time. Eve couldn't seem to rouse her. Ok. There were four firecrackers left. Four chances. Of course, four chances times zero percent probability of success was worth nothing. They were each slightly stronger than the last--Gehn had been being cautious since they were in the room with it--but she doubted any of them were all that powerful.

The best bet might be to gamble on all four at once. But she had to get them in the optimal place rather than experimenting as she had been. She hunted through the shelves looking for something else to jam in the door to hold them up, and eventually found a thin flexible strip of metal. She wedged it in carefully just higher than the doorknob, then slowly worked the firecrackers in above it. The metal strip should definitely keep them from falling out.

She lit the cluster--hoping the fuses would go off close enough to the same time to be useful, and hurried to the other side of the room.

Four rapid almost bangs. And the crack of the door seemed to be lit--on fire? Whoa. Eve had to look away it was so bright. If the door were on fire, it certainly wouldn't be that bright. What the hell was in those last firecrackers?

After several seconds, she heard something clatter, but the light continued. A few more seconds and the bright light disappeared rather quickly. She was able to see the door properly again, thankfully. Unfortunately, it appeared it was, in fact, burning in the place where she'd put the firecrackers. She moved in to get a close look. She put her hand next to the doorknob, but she could feel it was fairly hot. The fire was working its way up the door and slowly down it. If she waited long enough, it would be burned away, but that might be too long to wait. She found some heavy oven-mitt-like gloves--it was, after all, a storeroom--and put them on. Then she pushed on the door in the middle, where the fire hadn't yet spread, but the door just rattled--the door latching mechanism obviously hadn't burned away, and hey, it was metal. She touched the mitt lightly to the doorknob, then rapidly turned and pushed--it opened easily--ash falling to the floor--and she swung it wide open. There was no other fire out here that she could see, although there was a fair amount of smoke.

Mitts off, she grabbed Gehn and pulled her halfway down the hall, then went back for John Paul-John. He was a lot slower to drag, and she couldn't imagine how she was ever going to get them both out of there--in fact, she wasn't even sure which way was out--when she heard footsteps somewhere, and yelled for help.

The midget let Paradigm lead them back to the living room where Vicki's equipment was set up, which seemed odd, but whatever. The geister counter was still on the fritz, apparently, giving odd, random bursts every once in a while. That's what you get for using Radio Shack parts, Vicki scolded himself.

"So, Jasmine, Anelle, whatever you call yourself..." the midget said.

"Annie," Vicki offered.

The midget looked over at him, looked down at the gun, still pointed at Annie, and looked back at him again. "I don't think we've been introduced, sir."

"Vicki Harrison."

"Well, Vicki, my name is Simon. And Simon says, shut the fuck up!" He turned back to Annie. "I'm still waiting for an answer, darling."

She glared at Simon, and finally just pointed at Paradigm. "He owns the place. And he," pointing at Vicki, "is some sort of ghost investigator, or something. I don't know the details, you'll have to ask him," pointing at Paradigm again. Well. She was still keeping a lid on his secret, despite the gun and the fact that she was, apparently in the process of being exposed. What did that imply?

Simon giggled--well, perhaps it's best not to describe a man with a gun as a giggler. Simon snickered, then, and sort of sneered at Vicki. "A ghost investigator. Is all of this your ghost detection equipment?"

"As a matter of fact, yes."

"Very interesting. And you really believe in ghosts?"

"Well, I'm a scientist..." He realized that just before he'd started speaking, the motion he'd seen out of corner of his eye was, quite possibly, the hint of a nod from Annie out of the corner of his eye, so he shifted gears even as he'd already started forming the remaining words on his lips. "So I try to keep an open mind as much as possible. But really, can there be any doubt? I've seen so many strange things happen in my lifetime..." What was Annie's game?

Simon giggled--snickered again. There was one of those stupid bursts of static from the geister counter. "And that? Is that a ghost detector? Is there a ghost among us right now?"

"No, that's just a receiver that's been screwing up lately."

"I see. Heh." Was that Annie's plan? Get him thinking Vicki was a parapsychology nut and therefore harmless. And then Vicki was supposed to leap in and save the day? Not going to happen, lady. Simon turned to Paradigm. "So. What what's your business with Jasmine. Or Anelle."

"I only just saw this woman today as a primary occasion. Our discussion was about my publishing a book."

"Publishing a book? What kind of book?"

"A book of acrostics, crosswords, cryptograms, and such."

"Excuse me?" He looked back at Annie.

"A puzzle book," she said.

"I didn't know you were interested in that sort of thing."

"We all have our little hobbies. Mine were designing puzzles and crocheting; yours were cheating on your girlfriend and back-stabbing your partners."

"Jasmine, Jasmine, Jasmine. Pure, sweet, innocent Jasmine. The angel from the city of angels, but the queen of the angle." Simon looked over at Vicki. "She's a great judge of angles, and I'm not talking pool. And she's always got an angle on everybody, and everything." He looked back at Paradigm. "A book. I suppose money is involved."

Paradigm nodded.

"A large sum of money that wouldn't perhaps normally be associated with this sort of book deal?"

"That's right."

"You're so predictable," he said to Annie; then, to Paradigm, he said, "Let me guess. You're paying out a large sum of money because the book is somehow special--antique or something."


"Let's see..."

Annie jumped in. "A prize for the first person to solve the whole book."

"Oh ho! That's clever, Jaz." He looked at Paradigm again. "And I suppose she offered to put up a hefty chunk of change... perhaps half of the whole prize."

Paradigm just nodded again. Vicki saw where this was going.

"That's a very clever one indeed. Sort of the spanish prisoner in reverse. Doubling your money so easily. And, oh, you don't even have to run. You just need a shill to win the game. Jas, darling, that really is delightful. The boy at the house is the shill, I suppose."

"Correct." Paradigm was finally comprehending it just now, by the look on his face.

"Sadly, he won't be of much use to you anymore, will he?" Annie grimaced for a moment--Vicki realized how little expression escaped her face normally. "But it doesn't matter. I guess I'll just go ahead and collect the grand prize myself." He turned to Paradigm again. "How much is the prize?"

"It's not actually in this mansion now. Today was our first day talking about this proposal."

"How much?"

"A million dollars."

"A million dollars! Jas, moving up in the world. So, where's this half million you've come into?"

Annie said, "Two hundred, and it's at the house, with the boy."

"Two hundred? That's hardly half, is it not?"

"I originally proposed 50/50, but he escalated the total to a million."

"So the million is tied up in corporate coffers, and the two hundred is back at the house, with the stubborn lads. Who you apparently trust with your money while you're gone. A trust that, as far as I can tell, is not misplaced. He didn't tell me where you'd gone even after I'd shot his friend. It wasn't until he was positive I was really going to kill his friend that he gave in. A good kid. Maybe I'll take him under my wing."

"He'll be gone by the time you get back down there."

"Will he? That could be. And that would be too bad. Do you know why that would be too bad, Jas?"

"No, I don't, Simon."

"Because, my dear Jasmine, I have two goals with this trip. Besides staying out of jail. Number one: kill Jasmine dead dead dead--uncomfortably dead. Number two: Collect Jasmine's money, or an equivalent amount. But you see, even though number one is more important to me than number two, I can do number one at almost any time. If it came down to a choice between number one and number two, I'd do the second one, since I might never get another chance at it. But if, as you say, there's really no way for me to get the money... well, then there's really no good reason for me not to do you in, is there?"

Two lug nuts should hold it for a few minutes, right? Fuck, okay, three just to be safe. The girl was at the doorway, watching him. There. He tossed the other two lug nuts on the front seat of the car and started lowering the jack. She was walking up, now.

"That was Bobby!"

He looked at her. Goddamn, she couldn't just be a random townie. She had to actually fucking go and know the guy.


"You shot him!" It was an exclamation, or maybe it was a question; he couldn't tell.

"No, the midget did." She snickered. Whatever. He finished jacking the car down, tossed the crowbar in the back seat. "Thanks for your help." He got in.

She leaned over to the passenger window. "How do you know him?"

He shrugged, shut his door. She pulled the passenger door open. "How do you know Bobby?"

Whatever. "He's my brother."

"You're... you're not kidding."

"No." Thaddeus started the car.

"You shot your own brother? Damn."

"I didn't shoot him."

"Right, it was the midget, sorry."

"He a friend of yours?"

"Hardly. Just some guy I met a couple days ago."

"You did call 911, didn't you?"

"Well... shit, I didn't want them to come while you were still here."

"So close the door and I'll leave, and you can call them."

She hopped in the car, pushing the lug nuts aside. "Better idea," she said, slamming her door. "I go with you and your trunkful of money, and we'll stop at a gas station and call 911."

Thaddeus sighed. "You don't get any of that money unless you earn it." He saw her look. "Not like that. Jesus."

"I don't want your money, honey. I'm just in it for the adventure." Thaddeus put the car in gear and eased forward. "The story of the brother-killing motha and the million-dollar ransom." He slammed on the brakes.

"Bobby is dead?"

"No. That was just journalistic license. He'll be fine, you only winged him."

"For the last time, it wasn't me." Thaddeus threw the car into gear. Screw easing it. If she wasn't smart enough to have her seat belt on by now, given the obvious hurry he was in, she could suffer for it. His foot plunged for the accelerator. "Hang on," he didn't say.

Officer Callahan heard the voice calling out and doubled-back, turned down a corridor. This place was almost as bad as the castle. The smoke was getting thicker this way, too. "I'm coming!"

A few seconds later, there was Gehnyphur on the ground. Eve was crouching, dragging an unfamiliar stranger along towards them. "Grab her," Eve gasped, coughing, and struggled past. Officer Callahan lifted Gehn as gehntly as possible and started carrying her towards Eve, but quickly discovered the smoke was too much, and it was impossible to carry her leaning over properly. Apparently Eve had the right idea.

Eve was waiting just around the turn. "Which way?"

Officer Callahan led her around the turn and down the next turn. The smoke was clearer here, so back to carrying. Eve couldn't manage the guy that way, though, so once Gehn was outside, it was back inside to take over from Eve, who scurried back towards the exit.

Once they were all outside and Gehn's state of health was satisfactorily verified--although Eve was still wheezing--Officer Callahan flipped on the police radio. "Code 11-70 at Floresca Fireworks. This is a big one."

"Roger, code 11-70, is this unit 3?"

"Roger, unit 3 here. Also, 11-41, two injured parties."

"Roger unit 3, code 11-41, ambulance on its way."

Officer Callahan turned to Eve. "What happened? Who's this guy?"

"He's some Hollywood type. We were showing him around, and we came out, and this other guy pulled a gun on us."

"When was this?"

"An hour ago, maybe?"

"Holy. Where have you two been the last two days? Oh, nevermind. Tell me about this other guy."

As Eve recounted her tale, the "Hollywood" guy started coughing, and seemed to be gaining consciousness.

She finished, so it was his turn. "How do you feel?"

"Did somebody get the number of that asteroid?"

"You'll live. What happened?"

"This guy tried to lock us in a storeroom. I slipped on something loose underfoot, and then I was here."

Duty and passion, duty and passion. Ok, Ma, you win.

"This is unit 3. I have a probable 207, 245, 447, 417, and 586E. Suspect is male, caucasian, four-foot one."

"Unit 3, 10-9 that last bit."

"Four-foot one. Forty-nine inches."

"Roger unit 3."

"Unit 3 proceeding to 6000 Skymall Drive in pursuit. 11-99 to 6000 Skymall Drive."

"Unit 3, 10-9. 11-99?"

"This is unit 3. 11-99 to 6000 Skymall Drive."

"Roger unit 3."

"Get out." This last to Eve, who had climbed in the front seat. "I need you to stay with her until the ambulance comes."

"He can handle it," she answered, meaning the Hollywood guy, who was at least squatting now, sitting on his hands and knees. "He got less smoke than I did, anyway. What did all that mean?"

"Kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, arson, man with a gun, and radio turned up way, way too loud. And that's why you're not coming."

"I can handle loud radios."

"I meant the gun bit."

"I'll stay in the car. I'm just invested in this." Ok, invested how? She didn't seem particularly vengeful. More just... curious. Well, ok.

"Dispatch, what's the status on that ambulance?"

"Should be there in... three minutes."

"Roger. Could you check with the Secret Service people if this is their man?"

"Unit 3, excuse me, the Secret Service?"

"Correct. Secret Service. The captain will know. If he doesn't know, get back to me, because there are some guys posing as Secret Service you'll want to pick up."

"Roger Unit 3. Ask captain about Secret Service employing a midget and get back to you."

"Correction: searching for a midget."

"Roger that, Unit 3."

There was a moment of radio silence.

"Unit 3, what's your 20-20?"

"Unit 3, 100-1."

Eve said. "20-20?"

"Odds that this will go down without me drawing my gun."

Anelle couldn't understand Simon's confidence that he could kill her at will, but he had tracked her down impossibly fast this time. Best to take it at face value.

"You made parole," she said. The gears were turning; nothing she could do but stall for time in the hopes they'd click on something.

"I sure did. I was an absolute sweetheart in there. Of course, crossing state lines, carrying a firearm, shooting your friend's brother... it's back to the pen for me, assuming they catch me. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"You're not going to kill them, are you?" She glanced at Paradigm and Harrison.

"Not if they don't interfere." He really seemed like he meant it, too. But there was no way to be sure, so best to tip the hand in her favor.

"You're that sure that you'll never be caught that you'll leave two eyewitnesses to the only murder you'll ever commit in your life?"

"Oh, did you hear that? She admitted in front of witnesses that she didn't think I've ever killed anyone before. So who do you think killed my dearest Lucretia?"

Oops, misplay. "I have no idea. A spectral phantom, for all I know. But be realistic, Simon, you can't just kill me in front of these two unless you kill all of us."

"I suppose you're right. I guess I'll just take you with me and kill you at my leisure. Oh, sigh, I said that out loud, and I suppose these witnesses might be able to be convincing about it. Perhaps killing you all is my only option."

"Now just wait a cotton-picking tad," Paradigm said. "What in tarnation kind of a thought is that? How about I just go downstairs and wait for, oh, four hours, and if any cops ask what was going on, I was taking a nap and don't know anything. As William Goldman said, 'Nobody knows anything.'"

"Nah," Simon said. "I think it works better as 'nobody knows nothing'. Or rather, 'no body knows nothing'."

The drive to the Wynn house was empty; the door was wide open. Eve waited in the car as Officer Callahan slowly approached it. She waited and waited.

Officer Callahan ran back to the car, hopped in, and launched it back out on the road. "Unit 3, 11-41 to 6000 Skymall."

"Roger Unit 3."

"11-99 to the castle."

"Roger Unit 3. 11-99 to 9000 Skymall."

Officer Callahan put down the handset.

Eve asked, "The castle?"

"Bobby was there. He'd been shot."

"He was in the castle?"

"No, in the house."

"And he'd been shot?"

"Yeah. By the same guy. He was heading for the castle."

"Bobby was headed for the castle?"

"No, the guy. The other guy."


"Remind me why I brought you along on this?"

"I have no clue. I was sure you were going to kick me out."

"Remind me why you wanted to come along, then."

"I need to see this guy for myself again."


"Long story."

"Well. We don't have time."

Thad came back to the car. "Well?" Peg asked.

"They were already on it."

"Huh. What's that mean."

"It means somebody else found it. Or he made it to a phone himself. I don't know. They didn't seem particularly inclined to give out details."

"Are you sure we shouldn't get gas? The tank's only a quarter full."

"We're getting as far away from here as we can first."

The car lurched forwardly awkwardly. "Are you sure you know how to drive a manual?"

"Jesus Christ, yes. I'm just a little nervous. My partner's ex-partner stuck a gun in my face and shot my little brother. So, yes, I'm a bit jumpy, thank you."

"Your partner's ex-partner. That would be the midget."

"Right. I didn't know he was a midget until he showed up. She never mentioned that part."

"Oh, she. That kind of partner."

"No, not that kind of partner. Partner in almost-but-not-exactly crime."

"And her ex-partner-in-almost-but-not-exactly crime?"

"No, her ex-partner was just a plain old partner-in-crime, as I understand it."

She pulled out her little notebook and started jotting notes.

Thad must have glanced over and seen it. "Hello, what are you doing?"

"I'm taking notes so I can write this story up."

"Are you some kind of reporter?"

"No, not really. I just keep a weblog on the net. Well, it's more of a journal than a blog, since I write about me rather than link to the popular subject of the day. And I write about the people around me, like you."


"Ten thousand uniques every week."

"Crap, just keep my name out of it, okay?"

"Sure. I'll give you a pseudonym. Your brother will be

"What's your website called?"

"Boring dot info."

Vicki was fully invested, at this point. He was keeping his eyes and ears and nose and throat open for any further cues from Annie, although he hadn't caught any since that first one. And Simon's reaction had been so beyond over the top that he wasn't really sure if he could meaningfully follow up on it. But he was, as it were, ready to go: on his toes, hands on his knees, in a runner's crouching start, awaiting the conductor's baton upstroke, and ready to bail out supported by his trusty golden parachute.

It seemed like Annie was waiting for something, but he didn't know what. Waiting for him to do something? Stalling? Perhaps he could do something and stall at the same time.

The geister counter emitted another of its sudden bursts. "Hey, do you mind if I fix that stupid thing? It's totally ruining all the data I'm collecting right now."

The pistol swiveled to point towards him. "Yes, I think I do mind, indeed."

"Oh, ok. It's just I figure it's also kind of annoying to have to keep hearing it, I'm sure it's distracting."

He saw Annie move out of the corner of his eye--but so did Simon. The gun swung back. She looked perfectly innocent, acting like she'd just shifted her weight at an inopportune time.

Push it? Sure. "Look, we're all pretty tense. I'll just turn it off." He shifted his weight forward...

A sharp, echoing pop rang through his ears. A faint smoke rose from the gun barrel--which was pointed up at the ceiling. "Did Simon say turn it off? No. Simon did not say turn it off. You won't get another warning."

Vicki did his best to appear to being listening raptly, but he wasn't. He was softly tapping his foot in a slow rhythm.

Ok, how best to do this? Wait for backup, obviously, but Paradigm was a friend. "You're going to wait in the car again, right?" Eve nodded. "Lock the doors. If you see anybody, get down and stay out of sight."

"Roger. 10-4."

"Don't get smart with me."


The approach to the mansion offered very little cover--a tree here and there. Which way in was best? A frontal assault meant the perp could escape out the back; a rear assault meant he'd escape out the front. Stupid backup. Ok, his car was in front. He'd come out the front. The other car was there too--the investigator fellow. This could easily get messy.

A quick look back--Eve was just sitting there, as instructed. A final search... and run... goddamn snow.

Ok. To the tree. Listen: nothing. How could anybody not hearing this stomping through the snow? Oh well. Go...

To the wall. Now just work easily up to the front door. No problem.

Open the front door... Problem. Locked. And this was a thick freaking door. Odds of smashing it down were incredibly low. And it would be loud, and they could be anywhere in the place.

New strategy: back door.

As soon as Officer Callahan disappeared around the side of the castle, Eve got out of the car. She'd never been here before, never seen the place at all. It was really majestic. Quite amazing.

She trudged slowly through the snow, absorbing the grandeur. But eventually she reached the front door, and switched back to the present, and to the guy. Her love/hate relationship. It stood a fair chance of working, if she could only figure out how to do it. There hadn't been an extra gun in the car that she could find.

Ring the doorbell? That might screw things up too much, bring them all out the front door, causing Officer Callahan to miss everything.

On either side, twenty feet down, there were windows six or seven feet off the ground. The stones of the wall were rough-hewn; she got a grip with difficulty, and prayed that standard operating procedure for castles was openable windows left foolishly unlocked.

"Ok, now we get gas." Thaddeus pulled the car into the station. "Here, you do it."

"What, and let you drive off without me?"

"How am I going to drive off without gas?"

"You've still got a little. Enough to get you to another gas station, I bet."

"Ok, fine." He held out the keys to her. "You hold onto the keys while you're getting the gas."

"Maybe you've got another pair."

"And maybe I don't."

"That's not good enough for me."

"I suppose it's too early in this relationship to have any real trust. Ok." He pulled the keys back. "I take the keys, and I pump the gas, and you stay in the car."


He got out and began filling the tank, watching for anything coming up behind them--watching his six, Anelle would have said.



"How'd you like to be my new partner in crime?"

"What's it entail?"

"Wandering around the country, bilking people out of money."

"Sounds like what I do, for the most part."

"I'm not really any good at the bilking part, though. Only did it once, and kinda fucked it up. I didn't get that far in the training manual."

"How long will the money we have last?"

"Five, ten years if we're careful."

"Well, that should be plenty of time for us to get good at it," Peg said.

"I guess so."

"I guess so, partner."

He smiled. "I guess so, partner." The gas clunked to a stop. Fair is fair. He tossed the keys through her window onto the front seat, and walked up to the counter to pay.

As he was counting the money, his sensory apparatus picked up an engine starting, but he didn't really register it until he was finished counting. But just as he finished, he did consciously notice the sound of the transmission grinding, and he watched the car lurch forward, and he sprinted, and the car stalled, and he ran, and the car lurched forward and accelerated smoothly just out of his grasp.


Anelle could tell Harrison had tensed. He was up to something, but she had no clue what. The gears in her head were turning, and she recognized something in it--an idea was about to emerge.

Harrison said, "Hey," and the gun swung towards him. Dammit, Simon was not playing games here, Harrison. She could easily picture Simon's trigger finger itching; the puff of smoke, Harrison standing there, bleeding from a bullet hole in his torso.

The image from her dream, the distorted, exaggerated image of Lucretia standing in front of her, bloody wound dripping, popped into mind.

And the gears went kerthunk.

And wow! That was that the stupidest fucking idea she'd ever had in her life. For once, somehow, she reined in her instinct to say the first thing that came to mind, and kept her mouth absolutely shut, without emitting even the slightest bit of speech designed to convince Simon that she was being haunted by Lucretia. Dumbest plan ever.

Vicki said it again. "Hey." Simon still had the gun on him. "I just saw something on the analyzer. Right after one of those bursts from the geister counter." He hesitated. "I think there's really a ghost here."

Simon glanced the way Vicki was looking for a moment, and then started to maneuver so he could see Vicki and the machine.

"If there really is one, the right half of that display is going to peg in just a few seconds..." What the hell was he playing at?

Simon had obviously realized he'd almost turned his back on Anelle, and he swung wider, bringing them back in vision.

"Right... about... now." And... wham! He wasn't bluffing. The meters spiked for an instant. "My god!"

At this point, a lot of things went through Anelle's mind rather quickly.

First was the sound of Simon yelling "Lucretia," in a rather agonized voice.

Second was her realization that she should have trusted the stupid gears after all, because, in fact, Simon was scared that he was going to be haunted by Lucretia.

Third was the fact that Simon was turning to face her--not Vicki, not the machines.

Fourth was the fact that Simon was apparently turning the gun from Vicki to her.

Fifth was the fact that, no, she was wrong. Simon was not, after all, scared of being haunted by Lucretia.

Sixth was that she heard Simon finish his thought: "It's a trap! Get out of here."

She was a little surprised by the ordering of those last two thoughts.

Seventh was also a surprise.

Eve was just prying the window open when she heard the first shot. Not that she had any way of knowing whether any shots had already been fired, nor that she had any way of knowing whether any more shots were going to be fired. But that was how she marked it in her head. Every shot was one more bullet spent. One less bullet for her to use. One more chance that her target was already shot.

There it was. If her target was already down, there would be no more shots. Numbering it the first was wishful thinking that there would be another. And she didn't really want there to be another, not if it meant other people dying. But still, she did.

The plan was dead simple. Get a gun and shoot the one you love.

She had no clue what the outcome would be, but how could it not shake up her useless, aberrant psyche? And if fate was with her, it would be in self-defense or something, and she'd get away with it. If not--well, he was a bad guy. It couldn't possibly be too bad, could it?

She'd slipped down into the hallway inside and detected noises echoing down the corridor--from both directions at once, the same noises. Low, murmuring voices. She picked a direction and went with it.

She was just passing a strangely grated doorway to one side when from in front of her she heard a yell.

And then a second shot.

Officer Callahan had come in the back door with no problem--it was, in fact, not merely unlocked, but open. The snow had been to abused too read the details--had they gone out or come in?

Matters became clearer when the shot sounded from somewhere well inside.

A gun being fired changed things. It was necessary to work faster, since the danger to the civilians was increased. It was also necessary to be more cautious, since the threat was clearly more serious. So, in fact, it didn't change things at all.

Nobody, it turned out, was in the secondary living room, which was the easiest one to reach from the back. Upstairs, or the primary living room? The primary one seemed more likely.

Officer Callahan was just one hallway turn away from an entry into the primary living room when another shot rang out.

Vicki was totally confused by Simon's reaction, but just held his ground in the face of the gun.

Maybe a poor choice, after all. He'd catalyzed Simon into action before whatever it was that Annie was waiting for.

The gun swung around towards Annie. He wasn't close enough to do anything. And he found himself incapable of moving regardless.

But, oddly enough, he watched Paradigm spring into action. Simon had nearly ignored Paradigm in his effort to keep his eye on everyone else. But Paradigm was too far away too, surely.

Paradigm screamed some sort of primal yell--although later, on further reflection, Vicki decided was perhaps just a very hoarse voice crying "fucker!"--and lept across the room.

Simon kept the gun moving, bringing it around towards Paradigm...

But not fast enough. Paradigm's hands hit Simon's gun arm, knocking it wide. There was a bang, and a crash, and a spatter, and... something indescribable. The bang: the gun going off. The crash: the ectoplasmatorium had shattered. The spatter: the chemicals in the ectoplasmatorium went flying. The other thing: something shimmered in the middle of the room as the chemicals flew through... and disappeared into thin air.

And Vicki was no longer immobilized, and he did the first thing that came to his mind, what with Simon on the ground, the gun several feet from him, and Milo not having ended up pinning Simon to the ground and delivering him a solid thrashing. Given all that, Vicki ran for the front door.

Officer Callahan crouched and moved closer. A lot of noises; it could have been anything. Footsteps, people running, receding. No possible way to know, breathe, relax, turn.

The tableau: Paradigm came into view first, crouching behind a sofa. In the center, someone partially obscured by a pillar. Past that one, a woman--the woman from the speeding car, in fact. Paradigm must have seen the movement, he glanced over. The woman didn't. The guy in the center was straight in line with the woman; there's no way she couldn't see Officer Callahan. But she didn't react at all.

Too cool, the memory came back. Let's be thankful for it this time around.

With greater confidence, Officer Callahan stepped sideways, clear of the pillar.

The perp was pretty damn short, it was true. His right arm dangled limply, and he was clutching a 9mm Beretta in his left hand. Vaguely, vaguely, pointing it sort of at the woman, but not, apparently, quite ready to use it.

"Police! Drop your weapon," seemed the better call than Ma Callahan's "What do you think you're doing, young man?"

The perp froze, then relaxed, his arm falling to his side. He tossed the gun down--sideways, not straight down. It was nowhere near him, at least.

"Hands up! Turn."

He complied dutifully. He looked--not cornered, but contemptuous. No, wait, not at all. He just looked unhappy.

Officer Callahan kept the police revolver level, focused, and took a small step towards him. Hello, let's have some backup please. Pa Callahan was ready to move right on in.

And then the perp glanced up. Just for a moment, up at an angle. Officer Callahan would have written it off as a trick, but Paradigm moved--yes, Paradigm was looking up intently.

Damn the little guy was fast. He'd dodged sideways in the brief moment of looking at Paradigm then up. Dodged in the direction of the gun, in fact. Damnation.

Officer Callahan backed up very rapidly back to cover. "What's up there, Paradigm?"

"What? Oh, probably nothing. We thought there was a ghost earlier."

"This is no time for your stupid ghost stories, you, you. Feh." A moment for thought. "I suggest you crawl out the exit behind you. I'll handle it from here."

"He won't shoot me?" He was after the woman, obviously. She had been too cool after all.

"No, he's not after you, so he's not going to risk exposing himself just for you. Are you, fellow?"

No answer, but Paradigm turned and scurried out on his hands and knees. The woman had been smart enough to dodge behind an armchair when the perp went for his gun.

Eve heard some of the discussion, she was just around a corner but scared to look into the room for fear she'd get her head blown off. Callahan told someone to run, and the sound of scrabbling, and a man came around the corner on his hands and knees.

He was gorgeous, somehow. Distinguished, too. She liked the way he was looking at her.

"What do I call you?" he asked her.


He grabbed her hands, then raised his voice. "Callahan?"

Callahan's voice echoed back out. "Yeah?"

"Do, ah fuck. Do we know an Eve?"

"Yeah, she's on our side. Lady, he hasn't snuck out while we were talking, has he?"

Some woman said, "Nope, he's still there," but Eve tuned out the conversation. The gentleman stood up, grabbed her arm, and tugged on it.

They went back the way she'd come before--she recognized it vaguely, in a daze, then turned into that chamber she'd seen before, with the heavy gate in front. He swung open the gate towards them, pulled her through, shut it, then pulled another layer of welded iron bars across. Then a large wooden door that was open against the inner wall. Further down the passage, he pulled on a lever with a chain dangling from it--the metal gates rattled. He then proceeded to fasten the chain to a run on the floor, and locked that with a very solid padlock.

Finally, he spoke to her again. "Whoever wins, we should be fine in here, unless they have an awful lot of very specialized equipment." Magical words.

It finally dawned on her that she'd lost her chance at her original plan when he'd run into her. But, then... screw the plan. "Is there a TV in here?"

"Sure is, unless they cut the power. You want to..."

"Unplug it, and let me tell you a story myself."

He shrugged, unplugged it. "What sort of story?"

"A story about love at first sight."

Vicki's car started fine. The gate, thankfully, was wide open, and he sped down the hill. He was almost down to the first switchback when he heard the siren and pulled over. A police car screamed up the hill, headed for the house. How would they know he wasn't a felon fleeing it? A mystery.

He negotiated the two switchbacks, but pulled to a stop when a bloody figure stumbled onto the road. It was a young man--not Thaddeus, though--bleeding from a leg wound, poorly tourniqueted. "Shooting your friend's brother." Ok. The lad opened the door, and shoved himself in. "Would you mind taking me to the hospital?"

"We should call an ambulance."

"I did. Hours ago. They're apparently all busy. There must only be three in the whole fucking town." He slammed the door closed.

"Do you know the way there?"

"Sure. Quit dawdling, let's go!"

Vicki started driving. He wasn't going to speed on the twisty hill, but once they got out of that he'd be able to make good time. He glanced over at the kid's leg. Blood dripped... onto the papers piled on the floor of the passenger seat. "Hey, could you do me a favor and throw those papers in the back?"

"Dude, give a dying man a break."

"You're not dying. And you're bleeding all over my notes."

"Fine." He grabbed one of the stacks, his bloody hands making a mess of it. "What is this stuff?"

"Research notes."

He made a disappointed noise and tossed it behind them. Vicki could sense the papers scattering behind them, all semblence of order lost. That was going to make generating the reports for the client a real PITA.

The kid grabbed the other stack and went to toss them, but stopped. "Hey, hilarious. I know this."

Vicki glanced over. It was the email about the Wynn house, and then the directions. "Well, of course you know it, you were just there."

"No, I mean, this is from my dad."

"Your dad sent that email? Thaddeus' father?"

"Yeah man."

"And then he goes getting all in my way, even though his father's the client."

"Client for what?"

"For my research. He sent me that mail when he hired us."

"Dude. My father is the second-biggest spam king on the east coast. That's all this is. Spam."

Anelle heard the sirens outside. What would police procedure dictate, with an officer inside the house. Did they know shots had been fired? Barricades? Storm the house? Perhaps Harrison would tell them what was up. And then they'd... storm the house? Barricades? Or maybe this officer had a portable radio and could inform them. And then they'd, what?

The police officer was just barely visible between the sofa and an end table. "Listen, mister. My backup's outside. This is the end of the line for you. Give it up now before somebody gets hurt."

Anelle frowned. "Somebody already got hurt!"

"Well, ok. Before somebody gets hurt more than that kid you shot. We're talking about never getting out sorts of doing time if you take this any further."

Silence. Detente. Then she heard Simon cry out, "Lucretia!" But it was plaintive, not pleased.

The police officer called out. "Hey, lady. Who's this Lucretia? And fill me in on any other details about our friend here."

"His name is Simon." Anelle saw movement between the sofa and end-table but didn't miss a beat. "Lucretia was his girlfriend." The police officer was, in fact, retreating. "He's out on parole for her murder." The cop was now entirely out of sight. "Second-degree, wasn't it, Simon?" Going to bring in the backup? "Apparently he thinks she's still around to help him out." That would suck, leaving her alone like this. "Or maybe it's her ghost or something. Haunted." Dig deep to think of more about him. "That is what you think, isn't it, Simon?" Where the hell are the cops when you need them? "Simon says," heh, "that I killed her and framed him. That's why he's out to get me." Oh shit, Simon was moving too now. "Although how he can be mad at me for killing someone who he thinks is currently..." What would she do if the cop was still there? "Umm, officer, he's moving backwards. He's backing out towards one of the exits. I wouldn't come forward though, he looks like he's still got a clear line on your doorway, and since I don't have a gun that's the only one he has to cover. Stop. Right there. No further forward. He's still backing up. He's almost to the exit."

The police officer's voice overlaid hers. "I will shoot." There was a clatter. "All clear. Lady, get your butt up here and help me with this guy. You've obviously got a vested interest in it."

"Nice work, officer."

"You start sassing me... let me point out, I've got more than one pair of handcuffs here."


"Kick the gun somewhere and stand guard over it. But don't pick it up unless he goes for it." Anelle started to ask why, but was cut off. "Fingerprints."

"Oh, right."

www.boring.infoFEBRUARY 25, 200_

Sorry about stopping in the middle there. Things got a little distracting here. ;)

So I pulled out of the gas station, gleefully messing up the clutch a bit to make Thad think that maybe I'd blow it and he could catch up. But eventually I was in gear and just motoring smoothy, but slowly. He was still running to try to catch up, so I tried to accelerate to exactly his speed.

He matched me for a while--ten seconds maybe, but then he faltered. He's in pretty good shape, so I don't think it was 'cause he was tired--I think he realized there was no way he'd succeed in catching up, since I was obviously perfectly capable of driving.

Of course, as soon as he slowed down, I slowed down. He saw it, and put on a burst of speed--and I'm sure you can guess what he did. :)

So finally he comes to a stop, and I come to a stop. I was laughing like a madwoman in there, I can tell you, and the poor guy has no clue what I'm up to. So he starts running after me again, and... well, of course, I speed up again. :) :) :)

Well, I toyed with him for a few more minutes, but then I saw him give up, and I mean really give up. He turned around and started walking away. So I turned around and drove up along side him.

"Get in," I told him--I am nothing if not artful in my manner of speaking, no?--and, wonder of wonders, he reached for the door, and I resisted the temptation to speed off again. ;)

We drove many hours--I admit, it was pretty damn boring--and now, here we are again, stopped at the wonderfully delightful Four Star Deluxe Accomodations. I'm dialing up to my roaming ISP--which I try to avoid since they charge extra--and stupidly I didn't type this up in advance and upload it quickly, I'm typing it in real time right now, and I think since I seem to be caught up to right now, and we're out of Indiana, that pretty much marks the end of BORING.INfo's adventures in BORING, IN.

I'm not sure what the future will bring, but you can be sure I'll keep updating with descriptions of my new exciting life just as much as I did my old boring life. What do you think, should I get exciting.info too?

[0 comments] [post a comment]

They could see the fire burning brightly against the sky as they drove by the road leading down to Floresca Fireworks. Bobby exhaled slowly. "I bet that whole place is going to be lost."

Vicki pondered. "Think they'll move from Boring, and leave Boring boring?"

"Nah, they've all get families who live here too. They'll just rebuild. Although, if they move... heh, my father will be stuck with that damn timeshare place with a useless view. I better plant that idea in their heads, just in case they don't think of it themselves."

"Damn, don't remind me about the timeshare."

"Sure thing, boss."

He dropped Bobby off at the hospital--no doubt that looked bad, abandoning somebody with a bullet wound, but he was still spooked, and he was getting out of Boring as fast as he could.

Back at his motel, he stuck his key in the door--it didn't work. He checked the door--sixteen, indeed. He must have wiped it accidentally. He went down to the front desk to get a new one, and discovered that it was no accident--they'd locked him out.

His work credit card had been cancelled.

He gave them a personal credit card. A few minutes later he was in his room. He tried calling the office, but of course nobody was there this late on a Sunday. He wished he knew the number to check the voice mail on his cell without his cell. Eventually it dawned on him to check his work voice mail.

After the third message bitching at him for blowing off the job, disappearing, and etc., it was clear that the credit card had been no mistake. There it was, the last message: "You're fired."

Officer Callahan banged on the door, insofar as that was really possible. Twenty, thirty seconds later, there was Paradigm's voice. "Hello?"

"Callahan here. Everything's all clear. You can come out now."

"That's great! Glad to hear it." Then nothing.

"You are coming out, aren't you?"

There was some metal clanking, creaking, rattling. Then the wooden door behind the metal bars swung open.

"Is Eve in there with you?"

"Yeah. She's around back."

"We'll need to get statements from you both. But I guess it can wait until tomorrow if you want."

"Is it possible Eve could give you her statement here, rather than down at the station?"

"Well, procedure is..."

"See, the problem is, Eve has issues with strangers. She needs some time without meeting any strangers so she can straighten her pysche out. If she goes down to the station, she'll meet strangers, and it'll be a problem."

"She doesn't have to talk to anyone she doesn't already know."

"Just seeing them causes a problem."

"Oh, come on, she works at the diner. She sees strangers every day."

"Yes, that's part of the problem. She's going to have to give that up. I'll put her up here for a while and see how things sort out."

"Hiding away here, never meeting anybody?"

"Never meeting anybody new."

"For how long?"

"Oh, probably a year at least."

"A year?! Eve, are you ok?"

Eve's voice echoed out strangely. "I'm fine."

"Did you hear what Mr. Paradigm was saying?"

"Milo's telling you the total truth. Gehnyphur already knows all about it--I'm surprised she hasn't told you."

"Can you come around so I can see you--just to be totally sure here?"

"Of course, assuming you're alone." A minute later--how big was the place in there?--she came around the corner. She looked a lot healthier than she had outside the fireworks place; she had a nice glow, a rare smile. Hell, she looked happier than she'd ever looked before, that Officer Callahan could recall.

Anelle thanked Officer Callahan for the lift.

"See you tomorrow," Anelle said, although she was certain it was obvious she wasn't actually going to be hanging around waiting for Officer Callahan's visit the next day.

Officer Callahan smiled. "Don't you even think about coming around here again if you're going to be luring that kind of nutcase in with you."

"I didn't think Thad was all that bad."

Officer Callahan smiled again. "Thad? Oh, your friend. What happened to him?"

"Got me. Took the car and sailed off into the sunset."

"A familiar tale, I think."

"But what lies over the horizon, towards the sunset? Sadly, you'll never know."

"You could send me postcards."

Anelle chuckled, then realized it wasn't meant as a joke. "Ok! You're on!"

"Hang on." Officer Callahan scribbled on a piece of paper, then handed it over. "My address."

"Great! Bye!"

This was the right car; she didn't remember it particularly, but Officer Callahan was sure.

She looked around and made sure nobody was watching, then swiftly jimmied the lock and slipped in.

She must have fallen asleep, waiting. The car was cruising at a nice clip down a highway, somewhere. She shivered; she hadn't taken the time to stop at the house, so she had nothing but the clothes she was wearing--again.

"Could you turn up the heat?" she asked.

There was a hideous squeal and the car slid halfway out of its lane before getting back under control and pulling over to the shoulder. The ceiling light flipped on. Harrison's face looked at her from the front seat. Thank heaven for small favors. "What are you doing here?"

She shrugged, then stretched out and clambered into the passenger seat. "Same as you, looks like. Getting out of town before the questions get too hot."

"Why are you in my car?"

"My ex-partner took mine." He was glaring at her. "My other ex-partner. Man, what the hell did you spill up here?"

"Your ex-partner's brother's blood."

"Boy oh boy, you don't waste any time, do you?" He said nothing. "You don't mind giving me a ride, do you?"

He grunted. Men.

"You're pissed off?"

"Huh? No. Aren't you pissed off at me for running off like that?"

"Nah, Officer Callahan saved the day. We're best buddies now." Anelle waved the piece of paper at him.

He grabbed it from her. "Kathleen Callahan, 1435 Ocean View Terrace. Are you sure this is real? There's no ocean view in Indiana!"

She took it back. "And running away was the smart decision. I wouldn't want to work with anyone who didn't make the smart decision. Besides, are you forgetting how I made sure you were going down with me if I went down?"

"Oh, that. Yes. Yes, I am mad about that. Damn you, lady. Damn you to hell. There. Now I'm not mad anymore. What is your name, really, anyway?"

"Let's just stick with Anelle. Listen. Your work. The ghost stuff. You just fake it, right?"

"A gentleman never tells."

"Oh, come on."

"Were you really planning to write a puzzle book for Paradigm?"

"Of course I was."

"Uh huh."

"Well, I would have had to, to make it all work out right."

"Anyway, it doesn't really matter, because I was just fired from my job."

"Oh no? How come?"

"Long story."

"We've got..."

"I'll tell you another time. Let's just say I blame Thad's father."

"My Thad?"

"Your Thad."

Anelle chuckled. "How delicious. But look, the reason I'm asking about the ghost thing is, you don't really believe in ghosts, do you?"

"Do I really believe in ghosts? That is, right now, kind of an awkward question."

"So you saw it."

"Saw what?"

"The chemicals."

"I saw something. I don't know what."

"And that bit with the meter? Did that really detect a ghost?"

"Oh, now that. No, that was no ghost. I just knew when the meter would spike, and played to it."

"How'd you know it would spike?"

"Trade secret."

"If you were still a ghost hunter, would what we saw tonight change how you'd approach things?"

"Are you kidding? The money is to be had in spending as much time as possible finding nothing."

"So you wouldn't go seeking out the real thing."

"No way."

"But if the real thing came along..."

"It would be nice if the equipment really worked."

"So, Vicki... It looks like my last ex-partner ran off with my money. If I get lucky, he'll give some of it back to me. But maybe not."


"So I've been thinking about a career change, maybe more sort of in your direction."

"Yeah? Well, given that I just lost my job, I was thinking about maybe trying something more along the lines of what you do."

"Oh dear. Clearly this will never work."

"Probably not."

Anelle shifted around a bit. It was still cold. "Turn up the heat, will you?"

"I already did."

"Turn it up more."

"It's already up all the way."

Thaddeus popped the trunk, then gave Peg the keys and sent her in to settle the bill. He quickly scanned the boxes for any unexpected... settling... but it all looked fine, so he closed the trunk.

He was leaning against the side of the car when she got back. "Empty your backpack into the back seat."


He smiled tightly. "I need it."

She gave him a look--limited tolerance here, buddy--but dutifully did so. He held out his hand, she handed him the backpack. Then he gestured for her to follow him.

He led the way into a field beside the motel, and looked around to sight the landmarks. It was trickier that he'd expected because of the difference between night and day. Peg looked a little nervous--not sure what she was getting herself into.

They walked to the edge of the field to one of the trees, and he turned back and sighted the building in the other direction, then started pacing it out quickly. Twenty-five paces, and he looked down, poking around in the...

There they were, sort of covered, but not very well. Bound stacks of fives and tens. He started picking them up and dropping them in the backpack.

"What is this?" Peg asked.

"Around forty-thousand dollars, I think."

"You put it here last night?"

"Huh? No, I put it here Thursday night. My first and, admittedly, incredibly ill-considered scam."

March is difficult for a bum. Resting on benches could get tricky if they were covered with snow, but otherwise no big deal. Staggering around drunk, fine, but the possibility of falling down and suffering untoward consequences was always there. But, Milo was fairly certain, the winos, panhandlers, hobos, and other participants in humanity would exhibit the same resistance they showed to "stand straight" and "fall in" if ordered to march.

On the other hand, Milo decided, that last paragraph, while in the appropriate style, was rather hideously forced, content-free, and entirely lacking in any connection to overall story, unlike the others he'd produced. He was just blatantly following the pattern and connecting the dots.

So best to just do it over completely differently.

March is difficult for a bum. Resting on benches could get tricky if they were covered with snow, but otherwise no big deal. Snow was, in fact, the second biggest issue, followed by frozen ground, which was far too hard. Snow angels, which ought to have been nice and relaxing, were somehow too frictional. A snowman could hardly replace a proper bum. But really, the biggest issue was simply that it was cold out, and people really didn't get enough exercise, and bums suffered as a result. On the other hand, staying indoors meant more opportunities to see bums firsthand, and Milo certainly didn't see much reason to complain about that, especially when the bum in question belonged to Eve.