Here’s My Badge

Began working on this after reading Zodiac, because I figured, the best way to understand a genre is to try to write it, so I tried my hand at noir. At least, that was how it was for the first five sentences. Then it got all silly on me, and ended up as this, which isn’t very noir-ish at all. I’m still tagging it as noir anyway, though, in case that brings in extra views.

I appologize, I’ve been reading no small amount of Terry Pratchett lately, and the Italian mob boss suddenly turned British on me the second I introduced him. I hope you’ll forgive me.

In any case, here it is, introducing a new character to the growing list: Rebecca Clives.

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Inspector Clives was sitting calmly in the parlor of Boss Giovanni.

She was dressed in pinstripes, for the irony. Her legs were crossed at an angle that was specifically calculated to run parallel with the line of a sight with someone with a height of five foot nine, and revealed a tantalizing little triangle of space between her two thighs and the material of the skirt. It was a window—the perfect voyeuristic porthole, revealing several inches of pure skin before dipping temptingly into shadow.

She was reading a magazine, posture relaxed but good, even with the legs.

She wasn’t really reading, though. She was looking at a blueprints. Her glasses, which looked like the might be better suited for a secretary, weren’t glasses. They were high model specs. The latest edition. The insides of the lenses were painted a transparent blue, just clear enough so that she could, should she need to move quickly, see what was happening in the room she was occupying. The blue was cris-crossed with white lines, set at neat right angles to each other, to show a perfect floor plan of the parlor and surrounding rooms, scaled down to fit within the confines of each lens.

Casually, without moving so much as an inch, she hooked her right index finger into the air and pulled it downwards, like she was scratching behind the ear of some invisible cat. The images on her specs shifted; the current set of blue prints scrolled to the bottom of the lenses and disappear while a new set scrolled down into view from the top. Blueprints for the floor above her.

She didn’t think she would need it—a good escape plan—but it never hurt to have one.

Her index finger drifted into the air again, and repeated the motion, only backwards, and the previous floor appeared on her glasses again. She made the scratching motion with her middle finger, and the layouts of the two floor superimposed themselves.

The implants had been worth it. Before, when she’d still been using a gauntlet, something like this wouldn’t have been possible. Gauntlets stuck out like a sore thumb, and made anything stealthy impossible. Now the motion and pressure sensors that used to lay in the giant metal glove had been compressed into five microcomputers, and implanted under each fingernail of her right hand. It had hurt like having her hand in a meat grinder after the surgery, but the sheer convenience of it made the whole thing worth it.

Of course, the loss of the gauntlet had meant loss of processing power and memory, too—no room to put much of that in the microcomputers—but she made do with the built-ins of her specs and the few little backup storage units under her nails. She didn’t need much, after all. She didn’t live in her specs—not like the Goggle Kids. No, she just needed something to keep a few bits of data in—a few hundred gigs is all. not even a full terrabyte. They had offered her one, but it would have taken up all the room in her specs, and she needed at least one ear piece free for… additional hardware.

Now nobody suspected a thing. She always kept her specs on one-way view, so nobody looking in from the outside could see the images on the inside of the lenses. They looked like normal glasses—you’d probably find them on a particularly professional school teacher, or perhaps a personal aide.

As she sat, the receptionist walked in. In the old days, back when things worked the way they were supposed to and the Boss was always hanging out in a fancy office behind some close, family run business, this would have been the guy behind the counter, smiling and asking what you wanted. Of course, if you told him you wanted the exact right things, and then gave a little wink, you’d get in to see the Boss.

That, though, was the old way of doing things.

Now it was much worse. Now it was… honest. Giovanni didn’t hide that he was a Boss, anymore. Too much work, and not enough payoff. Now it said it on his business card.* This was, when one realized it, a genius strategy, because nobody really read business cards anyway, and the few that did only stared at it for a while before dismissing it out of hand.

There, went a great many famous last words, is a businessman with a sense of humor.

Well, with all the good natured honesty going about, Inspector Clives felt it would be good to return the favor.

The man—who spoke in an Italian accent and had an Italian mustache—was exactly five foot nine, and so his eyes fell perfectly to the tantalizing corner of shadow peeking from Inspector Clive’s skirt. Normally this would annoy her, but today it gave her an odd sense of satisfaction. It meant she had done her research well.

After a moments ogle, which was clearly not intended to be surreptitious—there was the honesty again—the man’s eyes flicked to her face. “Do you have an appointment?” he asked.

Inspector Clives put down her magazine. “Not an appointment,” she said, “but I feel Boss Giovanni would like to see me anyway. I believe he’s free at the moment. My name is Rebecca Clives.”

He was free, at least according to the her specs. This was unusual, which was why she was here at eight thirty on a Saturday. Boss Giovanni was a busy man, and finding a time when he didn’t have an appointment was a stretch.

The man smiled patiently—the sort of weasel-smile that would, on a more seedy man, involve gold teeth. “Perhaps I could check and see if he is keen to take any unscheduled visitors,” the man said. “What is the nature of this visit?”

“I’m a freelance worker,” she said, “here to assassinate him.”

There was a brief moment of silence. Inspector Clives has just handed over her business card.

But, of course, the man doesn’t read the card. Honesty, and whatnot.

He smiles again, and Inspector Clives once again expects to see gold teeth.

“I’ll see if he’s interested in dying today,” the man says politely, and turns to go.

As he is gone, Inspector Clives picks up her magazine again, and runs over some potential escape routes. Boss Giovanni’s office has windows in back, and is on the first floor. If nothing else she could put a few shots through it and jump through—that would be messy, though.

The man comes back, smiling. “The Boss,” he said, “Is interested. He will see you. You understand I’ll have to check for any hidden weapons and what. If you please.”

Inspector Clives understood that getting frisked by this man was likely to include a grope or two, but was entirely prepared for that. Putting aside the magazine again, she stood up, and thrust her arms out to either side. Her pin-striped coat pulled apart, and interesting things happened to the oxford covering her torso. The man’s eyes bobbed down from her face like a yo-yo.

She gave him a professional smile, and said, “Well?”

He was surprisingly professional about it, actually. A hair further forward on her sides that police regulations, and there was an obvious debate in the man’s mind before he decided against a blatant palming of her rear.

Things went smoothly until he found her handgun. She was half thinking he wouldn’t find it—for the same reason that nobody read Giovanni’s business cards. Honesty. He was, after all, looking for hidden weapons, not a firearm that was sitting right her hip.

For a moment he stared at it, as if not quite believing it was there, before staring up at her, smiling again. Amazing, thought Inspector Clives, he thinks this is some joke.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to confiscate that,” he said, almost apologetically, like he wanted to see what would happen if she got in to see Boss Giovanni with it.

Inspector Clives shrugged, and pulled it away from the holster. It was a trusty handgun. She’d had it custom made for her. She called it the Blacktail, on account of it being all black, and she liked the name.

She handed it over to the man, warning him that the safety was off. Casually, she lifted a hand and rubbed the right ear piece of her specs—a habit she had since she was a child. “Is that all then?”

The man’s face twitched, and he reached idly to scratch at his left cheek. “Yes, Boss Giovanni will see you now.”

Inspector Clives nodded, and stepped around him, back towards a door that looked remarkably like any other door in the building. She remembered the days when there was some drama about it—a big set of oak double doors, probably, and a big heavyset desk behind it.

She was about to grip the handle when there was a heavy thud behind her. The man wasn’t big, but he had fallen like a tree and hit the ground all at once, creating quite the sound. She turned around, curiously, and decided that she would take her Blacktail back, just to be on the safe side.

With it again at her hip, she knocked on the door and, without waiting for any response, pushed it open just wide enough to slip inside without the slumped body in the hall beyond to be visible.

Boss Giovanni was fat, but in a rather regal way that made you think of a man who merely appreciated a good meal, rather than bathed in it. On either side of him, standing with arms akimbo and completely-shaded specks over their disproportionately small heads, were two flunkies she immediately decided to call Thing 1 and Thing 2. It was likely that three of her, plus a small elephant wouldn’t have weighed as much as either of them. They were shaped remarkably like bricks from the Jurassic period.

Boss Giovanni smiled at her, not unlike a barracuda smiles at, well, anything made of flesh, really.

“Miss Clives, was it? Come in, please. I hear you are hear to assassinate me.”

“Inspector. Inspector Clives, actually,” she said, and as she walked forward she gave a courteous nod to Things 1 and 2, again rubbing the ear piece of her specs out of habit.

Thing 1 didn’t move.

Thing 2 raised a hand that could have enveloped her head like a ping-pong ball, and scratched at his neck with a finger like a French baguette.

“I’m not an official inspector, you see,” she said, briefly flashing a badge that made it look and awful lot like she was a real inspector, “but the title helps open certain doors you understand. Mostly I do freelance work. I can be Officer Clives, and even Detective Clives if necessary.”

Giovanni nodded appreciatively. “I understand the need to emulate certain branches of law enforcement entirely,” he said, in the same voice that craftsmen everyone talk shop with. “I take it you’re looking for employment?”

Inspector Clives shook her head, “I’m afraid not,” she said. “Work is pretty good this time of year, actually. I’m here to assassinate you.”

They hadn’t noticed her wearing the gun, yet, probably because they knew that nobody got into this room with weapons on them. They weren’t looking for guns.

For a split second, Inspector Clives was a little worried that they would notice, though. Honesty, she thought, was a troublesome gig, because there was always a risk that somebody might believe you.

But then Boss Giovanni smiled again, and laughed. “Very good, Inspector,” he said. “As it so happens, I do have a few certain errands that I could use some help with. I’d pay you handsomely, of course. And who knows, if I like your work, we could use you again in the future. Would you like a cigar?”

“No. Thank you.”

“I see, then,” Giovanni said, lighting his. “Nothing important at first, you understand. I can’t let you get in too deep to early, I think. Professional distrust is necessary.”

Inspector Clives nodded.

“In that case, I think that I’d-”

Thing 1 collapsed. Didn’t make a sound when he did so, other than the slow rumble as he fell: first knees, then the chest and, like a snowball following an avalanche, the head.

Giovanni looked at him, vaguely suspicious.

Thing 2 tensed momentarily, and collapsed as well. There was a slight burn mark on his neck, where he had scratched earlier. If Giovanni had time, he could take a very fine magnifying glass, or even perhaps a microscope, and look to see a very tiny red barb in Thing 2’s skin. It was pumping out electricity, and Thing 2’s body, which only dropped by his brain every few days or so to catch up on things, had just realized that it was no longer conscious.

The barb, if Giovanni really had time, could be seen to come from a very small, short range dart gun which used highly compressed air to fire the projectiles. The guns were very expensive, and always used for stealth operations. They were normally mounted in innocent looking things. Like the ear piece of a pair of glasses, for instance.

Giovanni had no such time, though, because he was sweating, and looking down the barrel of Inspector Clives’ Blacktail.

She smiled, a sweet smile, and said—

“Rebecca?”

–and said…

said…

Rebecca, who wasn’t really in Boss Giovanni’s office at all, sat up from her bed guiltily.

“Yes?” she asked.

The door to her room cracked, and someone poked their head inside. “Rebecca? Hows homework coming?”

Rebecca, more than just a little indignant that Inspector Clives’ final statement had been cut off, resisted the urge to say something nasty.

“Fine, mom,” she said.

There was a moment, while the head, which was haloed by the upstairs hall light, stared at her a moment. “You haven’t been playing, have you?”

Rebecca moved a few fingers inside of her gauntlet, and the half-written adventures of Inspector Clives disappeared from her clunky goggle-specs, and were replaced by a long, long list of half-completed algebra. “Of course not, mom,” she said.

The head looked momentarily suspicious—which made Rebecca nervous. If only the Honest strategy worked in real life.

“Well, dinner will be ready soon,” she said. “You should turn some light on. It’s not good for you to be in the dark all the time.”

She closed the door, and Rebecca was alone with her specs again.

Rebecca fiddled with her fingers, wishing that she really did have the implants. Again. The yet-to-be-completed adventured of Inspector Clives, appeared back on her specs.

“She smiled a sweet smile and said…” Rebecca dictated, and the words appeared on her lenses.

What did Inspector Clives say?

Rebecca had had an absolutely perfect one liner to cinch this up right before she had been interrupted, but now it was gone.

Rebecca pouted for a moment, saddened by her suddenly missing words. How was a freelance detective supposed to garner any respect without a suitable line before pegging the badguy?

She let out a sigh, and said “Bang!”

But it just didn’t feel right.

————————————————————–

*Boss Giovanni – freelance policy enforcement, entrepreneurial assistance, sub-legal contract and loan broker

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Zodiac

Zodiac is yet another title by one of my favorites, Neal Stephenson.

In Snow Crash, Stephenson dragged us through the virtual reality of Cyberpunk. In The Diamond Age, he yanked us through a nanotechnological world of post-cyberpunk sci-fi.

Now he gives us another time period and another genre—the time of Zodiac is now, and the style of Zodiac is noir.

Those of you who are familiar with noir already know that it came from the film noir movement, a style of film making that was infested with grittiness, both in the film quality and in the stories the films told. They had a propensity for violence, vulgarity, and a cynical, edgy feel that made them ideal for detective stories and mysteries.

Some of you may recognize the name Guy Noir, Private Eye, a popular character from NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion. All his exploits are captured in a farcically noir setting, full of busty women and intrigue. The old Loony Toons, where Daffy Duck ends always ends up saying Wait A Minute, I AM Dick Twacey! Both are light hearted mockeries of the Noir style.

Too be frank, I don’t much care for noir, especially as it is transferred into literature. It lends itself towards narrative devices that should be used with care, and infrequently. The substitution of people’s features for their names, for instance (a man with a pinstripe suit might be referred to as if his name is “Pinstripes,” and a man with a mustache becomes “Whiskers”) is a classic noir concept. Other tricks of the trade include: swearing a lot for no apparent reason; not fully describing anything beyond four letter words, to deepen a sense of mystery; having a cynical main character who runs a constant inner monologue of sarcastic thoughts about everyone and everybody throughout the entire course of the book.

In sum, Noir has a tendency toward non-descriptive, underdramatic writing, and tries to make up for it by having lots and lots of attitude. It is the antithesis of Pollyanna, that is, the standard romance novel, which has far-too descriptive and melodramatic writing. Too much of either one is not entirely good.

Zodiac applies noir styles to Neal Stephenson’s writing. Stephenson, I would normally say, has more attitude in his writing normally than any other novelist I’ve read today, but also a fair amount more brilliance in the art of description. When he dresses himself up in a grainy trench coat for a romp in noir, not too much changes. He gets more attitude, as one might assume. And he gets less descriptive—although only in quantity of metaphors. Even in Zodiac, when he describes something, he does it fiendishly well.

The plot he weaves is a detective story, too, in accordance with tradition—with a cynical, sarcastic main character named Sangamon Taylor who has an unusual propensity for figuring out the mystery in the nick of time, and a cast of gritty characters who you can never quite tell are good or innocent until the very end.

There’s a twist though: Taylor is no normal detective. He’s an environmentalist, and the crimes he busts are toxic—like companies dumping toxic waste into Boston harbor. Picking up the book, I was worried. I thought that Stephenson, who I always saw as a paragon of mere commentary in a world of messages, was finally trying to persuade me of something, and I was in for a moralistic tale of saving whales.

Nothing of the sort here—if you like a detective story, you’ll love this. Stephenson tells a story of crime, murder, and confusing science that would make even Sherlock Holmes sweat. There’s real mystery here, and a real sense of horror when you realize that a whole lot of the chemistry and biology Stephenson talks about through the detective work—as always, presented in a brilliant way that even the layperson might fully appreciate—is actually accurate.

It all starts when Taylor, being the professional corporate pain-in-the-rear that all environmentalists are, discovers some PCBs in the Boston Harbor—a form of toxin that, unlike most unhealthy water-bound things, tends to kill people within a week, from insides-turning-to-jelly instead of years, from cancer, like most poisons to.

As he searches for the culprit, he manages to get on the bad list of half a dozen corporations, the FBI, perhaps the mafia, and a group of satanic druggies who misheard PCB as PCP, and have been on a jealous craze ever since. An, in the background, the looming threat of a contamination that would wipe out all marine life grows steadily larger in the background.

I tend not to like noir unless it’s at its best, and I liked this very much. The things that annoy me about noir still annoy me about the novel, but I’m willing to let them slide in light of all the good here. If you are a noir fan, this is a definite read. If you aren’t, pick it up anyway, or borrow my copy—it’s worth it, if only for the education.

Not as good as some of Stephenson’s other works, but still far better than most.