Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Second Chance Club – Ep 02 – Act 3

Two years of nursing school and then six more spent practicing as an RN didn’t seem to be enough to prepare Sera for the details of the report Val handed her. If anything her depth of knowledge seemed to leave her more confused.

“What is this? It doesn’t even look like a report on animal blood?” she asked, turning the hemtology reports over and back again as though she would force the numbers to make sense if she folded the papers into the right sort of origami.

“We don’t know,” Tam said. “What we can tell you is that this is a copy of the original inspection report from Jenny’s apartment. The current file though has a blood sample that matches a missing person, quite human and nowhere near as remarkable as the owner of this blood.”

“Someone tampered with Jenny’s file?” Sera asked, her bewilderment deepening.

“It’s noted in the log as a correction,” Tam said. “The claim is that there was a mixup of the case samples, the wrong vial got tested and results were assigned to Jenny’s casefile. We spoke to the officer that performed the investigation though and there was no mixup.”

“Why would they do that?” Sera asked, pressing a hand against her battered head.

“An effort to keep whatever that faux-blood is underwraps maybe?” Val said, handing Sera an ice pack wrapped in a towel.

“The more important question is who would be well connected enough to corrupt a police investigation?” Anna said.

“One lead we might have is Phillip Boyer,” Tam said. She’d taken her laptop out of her courier’s satchel and rotated it to show everyone Phillip’s bio and picture from the Best Deal company website. “He’s the general manager and it looks like he personally handled the short term loans that Lewis took out.”

“You think he’s after Jenny because of a paycheck loan?” Sera asked.

“Not the paycheck loans,” Tam said. “Those were small potatoes compared to the overall medical bills that Lewis paid off.”

“Do we have any evidence that he was loan sharking in addition to the Payday loans?” Val asked.

“Evidence that would stand up in court? No nothing like that unfortunately,” Tam said. “Enough to be sure he’s doing it though? Oh yeah, absolutely. Money laundering too. From what I can see of his history, Phil came from money, and since Daddy had always paid for everything he wanted, he decided the rest of the world should follow suit.”

“How did Lewis get mixed up with someone like that? He wasn’t an idiot,” Sera asked.

“Desperation does not always make room for good choices,” Anna said.

“It looks like Boyer’s whole business model revolves around that. Best Deal does most of its advertising around hospitals,” Val said. “They even have offices right near each of the major surgical centers in Atlanta.”

“Predators do tend to look for moments when their prey is weakest,” Anna said. “On a brighter note, if Boyers was the one to send the men who attacked Sera however, then he does not know where Jenny is.”

“Yeah,” Tam said. “He probably knows a lot of places she’s not, which could be helpful, but he can’t lead us directly to her.”

“Do we have options for tracking her that Boyers doesn’t?” Val asked. “Follow her credit card transactions or something like that?”

“Normally that’s an excellent option for finding someone,” Tam said. “Most hotels require a credit card for security on check-in, and we know Jenny didn’t have enough cash to go for a month buying food and shelter for herself and Meg.”

“What are you saying?” Sera asked, her breath growing shallow.

“I’m not saying she’s dead, don’t worry,” Tam said. “She’s not using credit cards, touching her bank accounts (which are basically empty anyways) or registering for anything with her driver’s license or social security number but she’s still alive. I think the guys who broke in here are confirmation of that. They wouldn’t still be looking for her is she’d already been caught or turned up dead somewhere.”

“If she knew people were after her, she has perhaps fled somewhere too far away to follow?” Anna asked. “Taken on a new life with no connections to the old one?”

“That’s what a lot of people in her position would do,” Tam said. “The only problem is, that takes time. You need to save up enough for a plane ticket, or at least bus fare. And getting a new identity is not trivial or cheap anymore.”

“Maybe a friend drove her somewhere far off?” Val suggested. “It doesn’t sound like she had a lot of baggage to move with her.”

“I talked to her friends,” Sera said. “They were all asking me about what happened to her and where she was. It could have been an act, but I don’t know why they would have lied to me.”

“There is another factor to consider,” Anna said. “She called you the night she was attacked, but we do not know for sure that it was before the break-in happened.”

“But afterwards she would have told me, wouldn’t she?” Sera asked.

“Not necessarily,” Val said. “She wanted to leave Meg with you didn’t she? What if she knew people were coming after her and she wanted to make sure they didn’t come after anyone else?”

“She might have disappeared because she didn’t want to put you or any of her friends in danger,” Tam said.

“The break-in would have been proof of the lengths people were willing to go to in order to get what they wanted from her,” Anna said. “It is easy to imagine Jenny being afraid that her attackers would target anyone close to her as well.”

“So no money trail to follow, and she’s had a month headstart on us. There’s got to be something we can do to find where she’s holed up though right?” Val asked.

“Of course there is,” Anna said. “As you said though, there may be good reasons for why Ms. Williams is hiding. We would do well to remove those reasons before bringing her back to the light of day.”

“That sounds like we’re going to pay a visit to Mr. Phillip Boyers?” Val asked, cracking her knuckles in anticipation.

“Yes, let us see what he knows of Ms.Williams disappearance,” Anna said.

“While you do that I’m going to start setting up for my show,” Tam said.

“Your show?” Sera asked.

“Stage magic,” Tam said. “I thought as long as I was in town, I’d put on a performance.”


The offices of the Best Deal Payday Loan company showed the sort of keen style and aesthetic refinement usually only found at the bottom of a beer keg. Anything that wasn’t splashed with a sloppy layer of gold paint was instead adorned with giant clear paste “gemstones”. Val’s fourth grade class had put on a stage production of “The Hobbit”. The treasure mound they’d created for the dragon’s lair had been both better designed and more tastefully executed than the decor in Best Deal’s offices. She could only imagine how horrible it would look if the lights were on.

“Tam’s already raided their computer system,” Val whispered. “I’m going to see if there are any physical ledgers that tell a different story. Guys like this usually like to keep a set of accurate books so they can keep all the lies straight.”

“Yes, check in the CFO’s desk,” Anna whispered back.

They were standing inside the executive suite on the top level of the Best Deals office building. One of the skylights had developed an inexplicable issue with the lock that kept it closed at night. The bolt cutters which lay on the roof beside the skylight might have matched the damage done to the skylight’s latch but as there was no one around to inspect the roof, and would not be before JB retrieved the bolt cutters in the morning, it was hard to say the cutters counted as ‘evidence’ in any meaningful sense.

The damage to the security system was more subtle and lasting but, again, was small enough to be overlooked by all but the most determined searches, which would also not occur before the building changed ownership.

Val strode across the darkened office, secure in the notion that no alarms would trigger due to her passing. In the Chief Financial Officer’s room, she dug into the large, multi-drawer desk that was waiting for herr. As Anna had predicted, a set of hard copies of the businesses ledgers were in the (poorly) locked lower drawer.

“That was pathetic,” Val said. “Why didn’t they have this somewhere more secure? I mean, we could have broken into the vault too but at least make it a little challenging.”

“Boyers probably wanted the ledger updated with each significant transaction,” Anna said. “With any requirement for extra work you can add the fact that people are lazy and you will find many large security holes.”

“Did you find anything interesting?” Val asked.

“A list of all their repeat clientele,” Anna said. “This should help us build a case against them.

The elevator dinged and opened.

When the quintet of men inside stepped out and turned on the lights, they found Val and Anna reading quietly with pen lights, each leaning against the half walls on the opposite side of the aisle that made up the executive assistants area.

“Who the hell are you?” Phillip Boyers asked, his voice not yet slurred by the alcohol he and his associates had been indulging in at their dinner party.

“Consultants,” Anna said.

“Oh no, they’re from the main office!” one of Boyers flunkies said.

Boyers himself took a step back and then shook his head.

“No they’re not,” he said. “They were standing here in the dark. They broke in!”

“Is it really breaking if your locks are pieces of junk?” Val asked, holding the ledger in front of her chest.

“Yeah, I kind of think it does,” Boyers said, drawing his gun. The men with him followed suit.

“There’s no need for this to become unpleasant,” Anna said. “We’re here on behalf of a client.”

“No you’re not,” Boyers said. “If you had legitimate business, you’d be here when the sun’s up.”

“I never said our business was legitimate,” Anna said. “At least, not any more than yours is.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about lady,” Boyers said.

“Is that true?” Anna asked. “Because I see you holding a gun on me, but I do not see you calling for the police? Should I call them for you?”

She help up her cell phone.

“Yeah, I’m sure they’d like to get a look at the stuff in here,” Val said, waving the one of ledger books.

“You dial that phone and I’m going to put a hole in your head,” Boyers said. “What do you want?”

“We want to resolve the debt owed by Ms. Genevieve Williams, which was originally incurred by Mr. Lewis Lakes, her husband,” Anna said.

“You came here in the middle of the night for that?” Boyers asked.

“We wanted to make sure we knew what the debt total really was,” Anna said.

“Wait a minute, did you say ‘Jenny Williams’? Do you know where she is?” Boyers asked.

“I am not at liberty to discuss the details of my clients whereabouts,” Anna said.

“That’s too bad,” Boyers said. “I’ve heard old people bones are really fragile and losing a hip is pretty bad for them. You might want to reconsider what you’re willing to talk about before we show you how tough it is to grow old.”

“I know all about how tough you can grow with age,” Anna said, drawing herself up to her full height.

Boyers retort was cut off by the ring of his cellphone. He thumbed it on and hit speaker so that he could keep an eye on Anna and Val.

“What?” he asked when the call connected.

“We got her boss!” the underling on the other end of the line said.

“Her who?” Boyer’s asked.

“Jenny Williams,” the underling said. “We found out where she’s staying. Should we get her now?”

Boyers looked over at Anna and smiled.

“Yeah, grab her. We’ll be over in a few minutes, and she better still be there. I only want to have one mess to clean up tonight.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 02 – Act 2

Atlanta was a big enough city to get well and truly lost in. Even with a newborn baby to look after, there were plenty of cheap motels and off the beaten path places someone could go to hole up, which put the chance at finding Genevieve “Jenny” Williams about as remote as they could get. Val wasn’t worried about that though. Between the mundane sorts of magic Tam and Anna could work and the mystical weirdness Charlene sometimes had available for them, finding people wasn’t usually a problem. Finding them alive however? That was the tricky bit, with getting them back home safely and even more difficult feat to pull off.

“Any special line of questioning we want to take with Jenny’s sister?” Tam asked as they pulled into the driveway outside the single level ranch where Sera Williams lived. She dropped the kickstand for her newly enhanced bike (James had been as good as his word about getting it ready in time for her trip) and put her helmet over the right handlebar.

Val followed suit, her own bike a custom made,carbon copy of Tam’s except for the muffler. Anna, by contrast, eschewed the sleek, razor sharp lines her younger associates’ machines. Hers was a behemoth of a motorcycle, closer to a tank with two wheels than anything that could properly be termed a “bike”. That didn’t stop her from arriving first wherever they went. She might not have the maneuverability or raw speed to match the other’s bikes but she did have a level of fearlessness that put both Tam and Val to shame.

“I do not think she will try to hide anything,” Anna said, waiting for the other two to catch up before approaching the house’s front door. “If she was involved in her sister’s disappearance, she would not have reached out to us.”

“People can be kind of stupid sometimes,” Val said.

“Then she will give herself away as soon as she starts talking,” Anna said.

Val had no trouble believing that. Even without Anna’s height and low voice, the older woman projected an aura of authority. It wasn’t impossible to lie to her, but it took practice and a mindset that few people had.

“Is it a good sign that the door is open?” Tam asked. “I’ve heard that the people in the South are very welcoming but…”

“But we’re twenty minutes north of Atlanta,” Val said, taking the lead. “No one is that welcoming this close to a major city.”

Had Val been a cop, she would have drawn service revolver. Had she been a licensed private investigator in a TV drama, she would have drawn an implausibly large firearm. She was neither of those things though, so instead she put on what looked to all the world like a normal pair of sunglasses and gestured for Tam and Anna to stand back.

Then she kicked the door hard enough that it left a dent in the wall when it slammed open.

And she waited.

A second later there was the sound of scrambling within the house as two people fled towards the back door.

Val raced into the house, gesturing to Anna and Tam to head around to the back and cut off the fleeing suspects.

It was a straight shot into the house’s kitchen, and from there out into the backyard where two men were racing away from the premises.

Val’s first instinct was Fight. Chase down the bad guys. Make them pay. And they were definitely bad guys. Sera Williams was supposed to be home alone for their meeting. Two men fleeing her house at the first sign of someone catching them there were absolutely up to no good.

But there was Sera herself to think about.

The men had fled the house through the backdoor out from the living room. That’s where Val found Sera, half tied to a chair and ripping away at the knots.

“Let me help you with those,” Val said, putting away the Sonic X-Ray Vision glasses.

“Who are you?” Sera asked, her head shooting up in surprise at Val’s arrival.

“I’m Valentina Perez. Charlene from the Second Chance Club sent us.” She helped untie the last of rope that bound Sera to the kitchen chair.

“Oh thank god that you’re early!” Sera said, shaking off the ropes and jumping out of the chair like it was covered in leeches.

“Who were those guys?” Val asked, gesturing for Anna and Tam to come inside. They’d made it around to the back of the house but the men had fled to a waiting car on the next street over and escaped without running into either woman.

“I don’t know,” Sera said. “They were asking about Jenny, but they wouldn’t say why.”

“She’s been missing for a month right?” Tam asked. “Does that seem like weird timing to anyone else?”

“It is somewhat unusual, yes,” Anna said, scanning the contents of the room as she always did when meeting someone new in their personal space.

“I went to the bank today,” Sera said. “To get some of the stuff she kept in our safe deposit box for you. Could that have done it?”

“Maybe,” Val said. “Were they asking about the things you retrieved?”

“No. They just wanted to know where she was,” Sera said. “They burst in here, and I think one of them hit me on the head. Then they were dragging me in here and tying me up.”

“Hold still for a moment,” Tam said and inspected Sera’s scalp. “Yeah, they clipped you across the side of your head. We’ll probably want to get you to hospital next.”

“That sounds good,” Sera said. “I have some friends on duty today.”

“That’s right you are a nurse aren’t you?” Anna asked, standing up a chair that had been knocked over.

“I just got off my shift a few hours ago,” Sera said. “But you’re not here for me. What can I do to help you with finding Jenny?”

“Step one? Get somewhere safe,” Val said. “We’ll be more effective if we don’t have to divide our efforts.”

“I can do that,” Sera said. “The hospital has officers stationed there and I can go to a friend’s house tonight.”

“I think we can do better than that,” Anna said and tapped a contact on her phone.

One quick ring later and Jimmy B answered.

“Anna, hello, what can I set you up with this fine day?” he asked.

“We need secure lodging. One week’s worth. Some place nice.”

“How secure would you like?” Jimmy B asked.

“Let us be on the safe side,” Anna said.

“I’ve got just the thing then. The Marigold estate is currently unoccupied. I’ll book you in there for the week. The guards will know to expect you and a guest. No one else is going to get in unless they bring a battalion with them.”

“The Marigold estate?” Sera asked. “I catered there once when I was in school. That place is unreal! It’s gorgeous! I can’t afford that!”

“That’s the concussion talking,” Val said. “This isn’t a hotel stay. This is protective custody. We’ll work things out with the hospital to get you some time off. For now though, if you’re up for it, tell us what happened with your sister.”

“The last time I saw her, we had a fight,” Sera said. “It wasn’t a big one. She wanted me to look after Meg, her daughter, but I had a shift that night. I should have heard how desperate she sounded, but I thought she was just tired. I told her I’d come over as soon as I was done, but that wasn’t good enough. She hung up on me in the middle of me asking her if she’d be awake when my shift was over.”

“This was the night she disappeared or did anyone else see her after that?” Tam asked.

“It was that night,” Sera said. “The phone records say I was the last person who talked to her.”

“So you talked to her at most a couple hours before the break-in,” Tam said. “When did you learn she was missing?”

“I was mad that she hung up on me, so I didn’t go over the next day. I tried to call her though, but she didn’t answer. Finally, when I didn’t hear from her the next day, I went over to see what was up and that’s when I found the apartment had been broken into.”

“That’s when you called the police?” Val asked.

“Yeah. I had to leave everything in there alone because it was a crime scene, so I don’t have any of the stuff from her apartment for you. That’s why I thought about the deposit box.”

“You have a key to her safe deposit box?” Anna asked.

“Not her personal one,” Sera said. “This is one we share together. It’s got things like the life insurance on our parents that’s payable to the both of us. Some of Jenny’s personal stuff was in there too though. We put a copy of our own wills in there and the paperwork for some accounts that we have at that bank. It’s just the most convenient place to keep them.”

“That might be something to start with,” Anna said.

“I don’t think so,” Tam said. “I’ve checked her bank accounts. Jenny was tapped out.”

“She drained her accounts before running?” Val asked. “That’s a pretty typical move for people looking to get away from their old lives.”

“In this case I don’t think it had anything to do with trying to runaway,” Tam said. “From the bank records I’ve been able to pull up, her husband’s medical bills and the bills from Meg’s birth completely wiped them out. More than completely in fact. They somehow paid off more of Lewis’ bills than they had income or savings to cover and then had enough left for the initial charges around Meg’s birth. But they still owe a lot of money.”

“But she didn’t say anything about that?” Sera said.

“Many people do not like to talk about their finances when money is short,” Anna said.

“Which, of course, is also when they could use help and advice the most,” Tam said.

“But why would she disappear?” Sera asked. “I could have helped her get back on her feet. We could have worked out some kind of plan. Or declared bankruptcy or something.”

“That depends on what her creditors were like,” Val said.

“It looks like several months ago, both Lewis and Jenny used the services of the ‘Best Deal Payday Loan’ business,” Tam said.

“But that would just make things worse!” Sera said.

“Yes. That is how those businesses operate,” Anna said. “You said that was several months ago though? Where did they turn after that?”

“That’s the part that has me worried,” Tam said. “Lewis made a number of deposits, but I can’t see any source for the income. Could he have had friends who could loan him over two hundred thousand dollars?”

“No,” Sera said, shaking her head in disbelief. “No one in our family knows anyone with that kind of money laying around.”

“Then I think we know who Jenny is running from,” Tam said.

“Yeah, whoever Lewis had been going to for cash,” Val said. “That’s got to be who sent those guys over.”

“Why would they want to know where Jenny was though? She obviously doesn’t have any money to pay them back at this point,” Sera asked.

“Sometimes it is less about recovering money that has been loaned out, and more about setting an example for others,”  Tam said.

“There is one other mystery that presents itself here though,” Anna said. “The blood.”

“What do you mean?” Sera asked.

“There was blood found in your sister’s apartment,” Val said.

“Yeah, I know,” Sera said. “It wasn’t hers or Megs though, so they weren’t hurt in the break-in. Were they?”

“We don’t know,” Val said. “What hasn’t been made public yet is that the blood in Jenny’s apartment wasn’t just ‘not from them’. We have less than usual to go on because the blood wasn’t from anyone. It wasn’t human blood at all.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 02 – Act 1

For all her expertise with using them, and the myriad ways she incorporated them into her act, Tam spent a fair amount of time hating computers.

“Fine! Then this is how I’m going to fix you!” she said and dropped a live wire onto the exposed circuit board in front of her.

Electronics are capable of amazing feats. Dealing with 120 volts of alternating current grounding itself out across components that were only meant to handle 5 volts of direct current however is not one of those feats.

“Can I get you a fan? And perhaps a fire extinguisher?” Jim Baughsley asked.

“Yes to the fan, no to the extinguisher,” Tam said. “The bios on this thing was so infected that burning is almost to good for it.”

“Should I be worried?” Jim asked, carrying a small battery powered fan over to blow the smoke coming off the motherboard up into the fume hood that hung over Tam’s bench.

“Probably,” Tam said and then sighed. “Or not. It’s just frustrating dealing with a machine that was hacked this badly.”

“I’m going to guess it was Jimmy B’s fault?” Jim asked.

Tam laughed. It was a safe bet. Of all of the Baughsley’s, poor Jimmy B was the most likely to render an electronic device non-operational within five minutes of interacting with it. It wasn’t that he was technologically illiterate, or that he meant to destroy whatever gadgets he got his hands on, he was just a weirdness magnet of sorts. Electronic devices simply malfunctioned in the most bizarre manners possible when he was around. Fortunately his area of expertise was logistics, and as long as he was working on that his telephone and computer were relatively well behaved. Ask him to play a Words With Friends game though and you’d wind up with nothing but Gaelic words all showing up in a mix of Hiragana and Sanskrit.

“Nope,” Tam said. “This one was all me.”

Confession is good for the soul, or so they say. Jim’s startled look may not have erased her frustration but it was good for a chuckle.

“I’m trying to decide if panic or absolute terror is the right response here,” he said. Tam was almost the opposite of Jimmy B. She didn’t have technical problems. She was the one everyone else came to for a fix when they were having technical problems.

“A little from column A, a little from column B,” Tam said. “I suppose the real people to blame are the ones with a lot better security than they should reasonably have.”

“Oh, were you still looking for the backers that Larson guy was working with?” Jim asked. He handed Tam a glass of water with a lemon wedge in it before sitting down on the opposite side of the computer bench. “I don’t think any of us expected them to be that much of a problem to track down, did we?”

“Charlene mentioned that I should be careful, which I was, just not quite careful enough,” Tam said, leaning back and enjoying the freshly squeezed lemon water while it was still cold. “I managed to track back some of the payments Larson made after his last scheme. It looks like they were on him right away and got their money back plus interest.”

“But it didn’t end there?” Jim asked.

“It did not,” Tam said. “He didn’t make any more payments to them but there was a trail of correspondence with a Mr. Judicar of the PrimaLux Group that continued on up till the day we took Larson down.”

“I’m going to guess that Mr. Judicar was the one with the unreasonable amount of security?” Jim asked. He wasn’t “a computer guy” but he was always willing to listen to Tam’s explanations of what she was working on, even when some of it probably went over his head.

“The PrimaLux Group in general is guarded against cyber-intrusion via some very nasty countermeasures,” Tam said. “Nasty in this context meaning probably illegal. Hence the bonfire. I couldn’t risk whatever ate this machine getting into the rest of our network.”

“Should we talk to James in case there’s anything a bit…” Jim waved his fingers around like he was casting a spell. Jim was a mechanic by trade, and while he performed a lot of other functions for the Second Chance Club, he had never entirely warmed to the more esoteric aspects of the job which his coworker James was proficient in.

The same was not true of Tam. As the group’s resident magician, she found it amusing how little overlap her work had with James’ actual magic but she wasn’t one to let professional pride stop her from being conversant with what he brought to the team.

“There’s no need,” James said as he joined them. “Ms. Le’s containment circle was top notch.”

“There was something mystical that tried to get in along with the boot record virus then?” Tam asked. It was too late to make any repairs but she looked at the circle of silver dust her ex-computer rested inside. The geometric swirls she’d carefully blown the dust into still held all of their original precisely specified dimensions.

“Yes, a Storm Class Gremlin,” James said, nodding at the circle as he inspected it as well. “Nasty in the wrong hands, but burning its receptacle as you’ve done disperses it harmlessly enough.”

“Well, we’ve got a name at least,” Tam said, leaning back from the bench and watching the still burning motherboard sizzle. “Problem is they know we’re looking for them now.”

“I would guess they will rather regret if they come looking for you in return?” James asked. Despite his training in the arcane arts, James was as interested in Tam’s form of wizardry and she was in his, so he had an inkling of the kinds of things Tam’s cyber defenses would do to an unwitting intruder.

“I’m honestly hoping they will,” Tam said a flicker of delight washing over her face. “Other duty calls though?”

“Indeed, A new letter has arrived,” James said, producing a set of copies from his breast pocket.

“A local job?” Jim asked, scanning the single paged document.

“I don’t believe so,” James said.

“I’ll get your bike ready then,” Jim said, turning to Tam. “I’ve got the muffler modifications all set, just need to finish the installation.”

“And just like that, my day got a bit brighter!” Tam said, extinguishing the motherboard at last and collecting her things to get ready for the meeting.


Anna and Val were already in the meeting room by the time Tam arrived. Anna was engrossed in the paperwork that JB had supplied for them. The packets were always informative but usually served more as a recap of the meetings details than required reading.

Val, taking that notion to heart, was sinking free throws from her seat with a foam basketball and a hoop that was affixed to the wall beside the projection screen. Tam watched her take a trio of shot at the hoop without missing a single one.

“Have any luck?” Val asked as Tam took the seat next to her.

“We’ll call it mixed results,” Tam said. “On the upside, I found the public facing company of Larson’s backers. On the downside, they bricked my computer. So a point for each of us?”

“Sounds more exciting than hacking should be,” Val said, catching her foam basketball and turning to back to the table.

“Yeah, if literal flames enter the picture something is going very wrong,” Tam said, sliding an iced tea over to Val.

“Or perhaps quite right,” Anna said, looking up from her papers.

“Is there something in there about the PrimaLux Group?” Tam asked.

“No, this is about our current assignment,” Anna said. “Triggering a strong response can be good though. For most people it is a warning. For us? It is bait.”

“Perhaps there’s more connection here than there appears to be,” Charlene said, speaking over the conference line. In the background, a cheerful chanting sound was dimly audible. Tam couldn’t place the language but thought it sounded vaguely like a bit of Swahili that she was familiar with. “This assignment involves an unexpectedly strong response as well.”

“What are we looking at with this one?” Val asked, as she began to go through the dossier in front of her.

“We have received a letter from a Sera Williams,” Anna said. “Sera’s sister is missing.”

“That’s never a good sign,” Val said. “How long has it been since someone last saw her?”

“A month,” Anna said. “Sera writes that she was the last one to see Jenny, her sister, before she disappeared.”

“That’s long enough for the police to be on the case,” Tam said. “Clearly they haven’t found her but have they turned up anything?”

“Very little,” JB said, passing out a new set of papers, copies of the official police file. “I spoke with the detective assigned to her case and there’s been no new leads since the initial investigation of her apartment three weeks ago.”

“The detective’s a club member I take it?” Tam asked.

“Not officially, but I’ve worked with her in the past,” JB said. “She’s glad we’re looking into this. All too often this sort of case goes nowhere for them.”

“Looks like Jenny left basically everything behind,” Val said, skimming through the police papers. “Is this a missing person’s case or a homicide?”

“That’s the first thing you’ll need to discover,” Charlene said. “Especially since there is more than one life at stake.”

Tam turned her attention to the original dossier but Val noticed the relevant detail first.

“She has a two month old daughter?” Val asked, anger coloring her words than she normally allowed.

“Yes. Meg Williams, who is also missing,” Charlene said.

“There were signs of a break-in at her apartment,” Anna said, flipping to a page in the police files. “Also blood traces on the carpet near the door, but none of it matched either Jenny or Megs.”

“So, Jenny is on the run then?” Tam asked. “That’s not necessarily that much of a challenge to sort out.”

“Depends on why she’s on the run,” Val said. “And from who.”

“Yeah. That brings up a good point. What’s the story with the father?” Tam asked, scanning to find any notes on him.

That he would turn out to be the culprit was an all too likely scenario but for a change it didn’t turn out to be the case.

“Deceased,” Anna said. “Lewis Lakes. He was a building contractor up until six months ago when he was diagnosed with an aggressive strain of pancreatic cancer. He passed away five weeks ago at St. Edmunds.”

“I don’t like the timeline on this,” Val said.

“You think someone was looking for Lewis and came after Jenny when Lewis wasn’t available anymore?” Tam asked.

“That fits the details we have so far,” Anna said. “Which means this will need to be a two pronged operation.”

“We need to track down where Jenny went,” Val said. “Which is going to be hampered by the fact that she’s got a one month head start on us.”

“And we need to find out what Lewis was into and why some scared his widow away from her own home when she’s got a two month old to care for,” Tam said. Ideas for how to pin that down started bubbling up faster than she could write them down.

“I have a private plane reservation to bring you into Atlanta as soon as you’re ready,” Jimmy B said. “If there’s anything you’ll need for in the base of operations there just let me know. I’m setting you up a suite downtown and a mobile surveillance center.”

“I’ll be going along as well,” JB said. “If you need a contact with the Atlanta PD or the FBI branch in Georgia, I can facilitate for you.”

“What about my bike?” Tam asked.

“It’ll be on the plane before you’ll be,” James said.

“Excellent. If we are all set then, let’s go rescue a runaway,” Anna said.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 01 – Act 4

Howard Larson held all the cards. He knew he was in control and that he had everything coming to him that he deserved. It was just like it was supposed to be.

“Have to say, I’m glad you asked to meet here. Makes this pretty convenient,” He took a step towards Anna, trusting the intimidation factor of the loaded gun in his hand to keep the old lady in line.

Anna eyed the weapon critically. It was a Smith and Wesson 500 Magnum, just the sort of ludicrously overblown piece of compensation hardware that she’d expected Larson to carry. She was fairly sure he’d never fired it before, given how he was holding it and the damage it would do to his wrist if he pulled the trigger. Of course, it would do noticeably more damage to her, so she chose to play along with his demands.

“You are throwing away a rather sizeable amount of money,” she said, meeting his gaze and letting a little of the Siberian frost of her motherland show in her expression. She’d seen death before, and lived with it for long enough that she regarded it more as an annoyance than something to be feared. It was the cat scratching at the door who you would have to let in eventually but could afford to wait a good while longer on because it would never really be satisfied wherever it was.

“I see a pretty sizeable amount of money in that trunk right there,” Larson said. “Now maybe you’ve got more, and maybe you don’t. The fact is, I don’t care. You made a mistake and I’m going to win, and sometimes that how things go.”

“And how will this be a victory for you?” Anna asked. “You will kill me I suppose?”

“Oh, not me,” Larson said, gesturing for Anna to walk forwards to where they would have a better view of the road. “That’s why I have people. To handle the messy stuff.”

“That’s still not going to go well for you,” Anna said. “If I disappear people will come looking for me.”

“Sure they will,” Larson said. “But no one’s going to come looking for me. I’m not here.”

“Then you are not holding a gun on me?” Anna said. “I guess I can leave whenever I want.”

“Don’t get cute,” Larson said. “I have people who will swear under oath that I was at dozen different places tonight.”

“And the forensic evidence?” Anna asked.

In the distance another call pulled onto the Green Bowl farm access road. The headlights suggested it was a large truck of some kind. Not the car Anna was waiting for, but one that she’d expected to see nonetheless.

“What evidence?” Larson said. “When they recover your body it’s going to be so charred there won’t be any evidence left.”

“Shot and then burned? The bonfire would be visible for miles here,” Anna said. “Unless…you’re also planning to burn down the farm as well?”

“Funny thing about acquiring the farmland,” Larson said. “People put up a lot less fuss when it’s no longer being used for agriculture.”

“And it’s even easier when the current owners can’t afford legal counsel to fight it out in courts?” Anna asked.

“You are a smart one,” Larson said. “It’s a shame we can’t be partners.”

“You haven’t pulled the trigger yet,” Anna said.

“Well you see the thing is, I already have some partners in this,” Larson said. “They’re not the kind of people who would be happy with global attention coming around here, so, you’re offer? It’s not really that interesting I’m afraid.”

“Curious,” Anna said. “Why put out a call for investments at all then?”

“A guy can always use some extra cash right?” Larson said.

“I see. So your partners want this development to happen, and they don’t need to know about the eleven million you’re going to pocket?”

“No reason why they should,” Larson said as the truck pulled up in behind his car.

“Who’s this?” a tall blonde haired guy asked.

He was all bulky muscles starting to run soft from lack of use. Probably in his early twenties and just out of school if Anna guessed correctly. A football player past his prime with his glory days fading behind and the promise of quick wealth luring him onwards to stupidity.

Behind him half a dozen other similar men exited the truck. They were all armed and all had the same focused, hungry look that came from anticipating a violent release of their less civilized fantasies.

“Someone who was trying to bail out the Perez woman,” Larson said. “A foreigner.”

The men all nodded knowingly. Their leader gave Anna a sharp look, gauging her from head to toe.

“Traitor.” He spit the word out and Anna smirked. He didn’t mean it in terms of betraying his country. If he believed Anna was truly a foreigner then “saboteur” or “infiltrator” might have been viable terms, even though neither actually applied. No, he meant ‘race traitor’, because she was a white woman working to protect the holdings of a woman of latin descent.

That Larson had corralled a group of white supremacists to do his dirty work came as no surprise. They weren’t exactly difficult to manipulate or goad to violence.  

Anna smiled. She’d been concerned that Larson’s inevitable flunkies would be people in debt to him or whom he held unfair sway over and could force to do work they desperately didn’t want to. These men assembled before her weren’t beholden to Larson like that though. They followed his orders of their own free will and therefore deserved everything that was about to happen to them.

“What are we going to do with her?” the blonde guy asked.

“The same thing that should be done with all traitors like her. The fire will make sure they can’t even identify the body or pick it out of any of the rest of the people who were here,” Larson said. “For now though you need to go and rig up the monitoring systems like we talked about.”

The leader nodded and began directing the others to head for various points around the farm’s fields.

“The monitoring systems?” Anna asked. “You’re going to blame the farmlands burning on a glitch in the crop monitoring systems?”

“This place lived by its technology, so it’s going to die by its technology,” Larson said.

“And when the manufacturer initiates an investigation to clear themselves of liability?” Anna asked.

“Well that’s not something you’re going to need to worry about is it?” Larson asked.

“I suppose that is true,” Anna said. “Tell me though, are you planning to actually build something here? Or is this just another ploy to reap a quick fortune from unwary investors?”

“Oh, my partners are quite serious about redeveloping this area,” Larson said.

“And do these partners have a name?” Anna asked.

“Not one you need to know,” Larson said.

A crack of gunfire came from the wheat fields.

“I wonder who that could be?” Anna asked.

More gunfire followed, abruptly cutting off after a few shots in all but one case. Larson hadn’t been expecting any resistance and pulled out his cell phone to call the leader of his minions. He dialed the number and then frowned.

“No service?” Anna asked. “You should switch to my provider.”

She held up her cell phone which had a screen which showed an active call going. To the police.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Larson thrust the gun at her, as though being a few inches closer would increase the danger it represented.

“Waiting for them to show up,” Anna said, gesturing behind Larson to where three police cruisers with their lights whirling were pulling onto the access road.

“What are they doing here?” Larson asked.

“Looking for you,” Anna said.

The lead police car skidded to a halt and the officer inside threw the door open and exited behind it with his sidearm drawn and pointed directly at Larson.

“Put the weapon down and put your hands on your head,” the officer said.

“Doug? It’s me! Howard. Why are you here?” Larson asked as he put his gun on the ground and his hands behind his head.

“Howard Larson, I am placing you under arrest for the burglarly of the First Security bank,” Officer Doug said. “Get on your knees.”

“What? I didn’t rob First Security! That’s my bank!” Larson said.

“His trunk is full of cash,” one of the other officers said from the back of the black Mercedes.

“That’s not my car!” Larson said. “It’s hers! That’s her cash!”

“But my car is over there,” Anna said. She pointed to a red Ford Mustang that was parked farther down the road. “It’s a rental. I don’t think they rent black Mercedes here do they?”

There was a rustling from the wheat field and as quick the officers could re-aim their weapons a man with a battered face stumbled out and collapsed to his knees.

“Put your hands over your head,” Officer Doug called out.

“I can’t,” the blonde minion leader said holding out his arms to show that they were both bending in places arms weren’t meant to bend.


“But I don’t understand what happened?” Daniela said when they were once again gathered in Green Bowl’s command center.

“Howard Larson robbed the First Security bank of 11.2 million dollars,” Tam said. “Or at least someone wearing a disguise which looked exactly like him, down to fingerprints and DNA residue.”

“Thanks to some very special makeup,” Val said, smiling at Anna who looked impossibly innocent somehow.

“The reality is, he did rob the bank of that money,” Anna said. “We just made sure that it happened on camera and with evidence left behind to prove it.”

“Then we made sure the police caught him red handed with the money still in his car,” Val said.

“How did you managed that though? I thought you drove there separately?” Daniela asked.

“We did, but it’s not that hard to make a car disappear if you know what you’re doing,” Tam said.

“Also, Larson drove there in our car,” Val said. “It was his car was parked outside the bank when all the money was loaded into it.”

“Is that going to save Green Bowl though?” Daniela asked.

“Well the guys who tried to burn the place down aren’t going to be coming back,” Val said, a satisfied smile on her face.

“Once they’re fit to travel, they’ll all be standing trial for an impressive list of outstanding changes,” Tam said. “Most of which are even real.”

“More importantly though, when First Security does a review of its records, it’s going to find evidence of the embezzlement that Larson’s been doing for years now,” Anna said.

“And in this case all of that is real,” Tam said. “Apart from a few breadcrumbs I left to make sure they found the backups with the real financials.”

“So they’ll see that we’ve been paying all this time?” Daniela asked.

“Yeah,” Tam said. “Larson kept a set of real transaction records it turned out. He needed to be able to make sure he was properly covering up the money that he was siphoning off.”

“You’re accounts will be squared up as soon as their internal audit is done,” Val said. “And until then, the bank will be putting a hold on all fees and premiums assessed against you.”

“So we don’t have to pay any interest until they’re done?” Daniela asked.

“The audit will probably take about six months,” Anna said. “You can keep paying as usual and all of the funds will go towards your principal, or you can reduce your payments by the interest amount and you won’t fall behind.”

“That will definitely make things easier around here,” Daniela said. “But what about the foreclosure?”

“It never happened,” Val said.

“It was a fiction that Larson put together,” Tam said. “I confirmed it with the official court records. First Security never received a judgement against you. The one they had on file was a complete fabrication.”

“But how would that have ever stood up?” Daniela asked.

“It wouldn’t have,” Anna said. “Unless there was no one around to challenge it.”

“That’s why Howard brought those men here?” Daniela asked. “He was going to kill me?”

“And we have him on record admitting it,” Val said. “Howard Larson is going to be sent to a deep and lonely cell where he is going to have a long time to reconsider the choices he’s made.”


“That was well done,” Charlene said over the conference line when the team reassembled at the Second Chance Club. “Green Bowl farm is safe, there’s a bountiful harvest due in soon, a ruthless swindler is behind bars, and a dangerous cell of extremists will be serving time as well.”

“One thing about this still bothers me though,” Anna said.

“You’re wondering who Larson’s partners were aren’t you?” Val asked.

“I’m going to start looking into that,” Tam said. “Something tells me we haven’t seen the last of them.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 01 – Act 3

Green Bowl’s total land was well over a thousand acres. There was no conceivable reason why the entirety of it would be needed for shopping and road access to support an airport in northern North Dakota, but that didn’t make the slightest bit of different to the man who was poised to steal it.

“Larson is moving quickly,” Anna said, gesturing to the map that was laid out on the conference table, indicating the properties Larson’s investment company owned. The map offered a sprawling topographic view of area around Green Bowl’s land and the airport that was soon to border it. “He is looking for backers to invest in his development company with a cutoff on the initial buy in of next week. He claims the more investment funds he can collect, the more infrastructure and services he can create around the airport, though he also claims that he has enough money already to make a shopping destination larger than the Mall of America.”

“Shouldn’t the cutoff be when he reaches the funds that he needs rather than a specific date?” Tam asked. She was more familiar with the workings of venture capital in terms of startup tech companies, but the general rule of ‘don’t sell off more of your company than you need to’ seemed like something that should cross industries.

“That depends,” Anna said. “If you are setting up an actual company, then yes, you want to be careful how much investment you take on and terms it is offered under.”

“And if you’re running a scam?” Val asked, tracing paths through the map with her finger. The Red River Valley was relatively flat, which would make construction easier once it began. That was good for building but it also meant that, if the earthwork machines rolled in, Green Bowl’s farmland would vanish in record time.

“For a scam you want as much money as possible, in as short an amount of time as possible,” Anna said. “Some people prefer the long con, but those require patience and are very delicate affairs. Larson is a man lacking in both impulse control and finesse, so naturally he gravitates to the quick scam, despite its long term costs.”

“I just don’t understand why he would do any of this?” Daniela said. “I’ve met Howard. He has a good job at the bank. He’s a respected member of the community. Why would he want to setup a scheme like this to take our farm? He doesn’t need the money at all.”

“That’s not entirely true,” Tam said. “Howard Larson has been living beyond his means for several years now it seems. He’s still rich, don’t get me wrong there, but a lot of the wealth he splashes around is an illusion.”

She handed a dossier she had compiled over to Val before turning back to the laptop she’d brought to their meeting to continue plugging away at it.

“Three houses, but they’re all heavily mortgaged,” Val read from the dossier. “He’s being sued by a bunch of private contactors too. Oh hey and he hasn’t paid the staff for the gala that you went to last night. This guy’s a real winner.”

“But the bank must pay him a good salary doesn’t it?” Daniela asked. She had a stack of papers that she’d brought with her to the meeting, order forms and time sheets from the workers to be processed before the next business day. They sat unsorted and blank in a pile in front of her still.

“His salary is more than generous, as are the perks that come along with it,” Anna said. “For the class of wealth Howard Larson aspires to however, no amount of money is ever sufficient.”

“He might want to be one of the ultra-rich, but according to this he’s lucky not to be in the poor house,” Val said. “I’m seeing big losses year after year. This guy’s a disaster when it comes investing. How is he the CEO of a bank?”

“Look at who the CEO was before him,” Tam said without looking up from her computer.

“Oh, of course,” Val said as she found the relevant page in the dossier and showed it to the others. “Like father, like son, I guess.”

“George Larson was a different category of disaster than his eldest son,” Anna said. “He built First Security on the back of a lucrative smuggling trade that ran through the Canadian border. By the time proof of that came to light, the elder Larson had been dead for half a decade.”

“And yet Howard got to keep his inheritance,” Tam said.

“The probate was long finalized by the time proof came to light,” Anna said.

“I don’t understand how he can keep losing money like that though,” Daniela said. “Wouldn’t the bank have noticed? Wouldn’t they have fired him if he was that bad?”

“Up until now, Larson has kept his investment schemes separate from First Security,” Anna said.

“Yeah, I’m seeing that here,” Val said. “Each of these big losses that Larson’s reporting are tied to corporations that he setup. His personal losses are much smaller.”

“It’s an efficient tactic for a swindler,” Anna said. “He creates corporations based out of other states, uses his connections as the CEO of a well capitalized bank to present a solid, dependable image for the new businesses, brings in investors and buries the lower performing companies under debt from the few ventures that do succeed, and walks away with everyone’s money and owing none of them a dime.”

“But that should give him a terrible reputation,” Daniela said. “Who would work with a man who does that?”

“A surprising number of people. Board shareholders have no special wisdom in picking their CEOs,” Anna said. “They choose people who they have connections to, regardless of previous failures or the capability, or lack thereof, the person may possess.”

“Also, it looks like Larson has avoided scamming anyone local, or related to First Security,” Val said. “People are much more likely to overlook things that happen far away than trouble that lands close to home.”

“And, seriously, what’s the chance that the rest of the First Security board isn’t into things that are just as unethical?” Tam asked.

“Why would he change now then? Why target us?” Daniela asked. “We’ve gotten along just fine up till now. Heck if he needed a road, we probably could have just sold him that.”

“When was the decision on the airport’s location made?” Anna asked.

“Technically it hasn’t been made yet,” Tam said. “But the final draft of the plans was submitted a month ago. They’re up for review and the deciding vote next week.”

“So Larson knew a month ago where the airport would probably land,” Val said. “And that’s right around the time he put the plan in motion to steal Green Bowl.”

“The timing is suggestive,” Anna said. “Of a great many things.”

“It suggests that Howard Larson has the impulse control of a five year old hopped up on pixie sticks,” Val said. She’d started making small ‘x’ marks on the map at various locations.

“That is unkind to five year olds I think,” Anna said. “It also suggests some amount of desperation. We should look into his most recent creditors, particularly any involved with companies that failed in the last six months.” She paced around the end of the conference table, nibbling on a pen cap, her gaze turned inwards as she crunched the possibilities through the wheels of logic in her mind.

“You’re thinking one of them is unhappy with him?” Val asked.

“Many of them are unhappy with him,” Anna said. “One of them however has resources beyond simple wealth.”

“Like the mob?” Tam asked.

“Possibly,” Anna said. “Larson is highly enough placed though, and this area remote enough that I’m not certain if typical mobsters could make an effective threat here. I believe he may have stumbled on someone with a more extensive war chest of resources to draw on.”

“So he needs a quick score to pay back people he shouldn’t have ripped off in the first place?” Val asked. “If we wanted to, could we just bribe him to leave the farm alone?”

“That depends on how his creditors wish to be paid back,” Anna said. “Control of the facilities servicing a new international airport is a resource worth far more than the monetary value of the land and buildings.”

“Good,” Val said. “I like it when we can’t do things the easy way.”

Her smile radiated the kind of self confidence that had told more than a few of her enemies they’d made a terrible mistake in squaring off against her.

“You know, we don’t even know if he has any goons or not,” Tam said. “There may be no one for you to pummel on this assignment.”

“Oh, I’m not worried,” Val said. “Push comes to shove, guys like Larson always seem to be able to dig up some meat slabs for protection.”

“Yes, that does seem to be true in more cases than it should,” Anna said. “But perhaps in this case, we have a simpler path.”

“You want to con him before he cons us?” Val asked, unable to suppress the lift of her eyebrows.

“We have a golden opportunity to do so,” Anna said.

“I feel like you always make a case for that,” Val said.

“Greedy men are very easy to manipulate,” Anna said with a shrug.

“So how do we approach him?” Tam asked.

“The only thing that interests someone running a scam on the scale Larson is attempting, is a payout that will bring it to the next level,” Anna said. “He is swindling millions of dollars. We will make him think that he can tap into a set of investors that will net him billions.”

“Definitely a job for me there. I’m in,” Tam said. “What do we need to set everything up?”

“We’ll need a car that matches Larsons, a set of Russian credentials, and for you to work a little bit of magic,” Anna said.

“This sounds very risky,” Daniela said.

“Yes, you could say we’re betting the farm on it,” Anna said.


“So he took the bait?” Val asked.

“He was all too happy to meet me at Green Bowl when I said I had the funds with me and needed to see his vision for the facilities in person,” Anna said. “Now I just need to put on my makeup.”

She pulled an old box covered in complex geometric sigils from her bag.

“James sent along the good stuff I see?” Tam said.


The bank was long closed by the time Howard Larson’s black Mercedes rolled down the access road to Green Bowl’s farmland.

Anna was waiting for him at the border of the farm’s lands, leaning against her rental sedan, which was also a black Mercedes, the tall wheat of the farm’s roadside acre waving behind her as she worked on her cell phone.

“Getting any signal out here?” Larson asked. He’d parked behind her, bumpers uncomfortably close together despite the miles of shoulder available.

“It comes and goes,” Anna said.

“Well now that’s something we’re going to change,” Larson said. “Soon as we close on this? Bang, up go the cell towers. We’re going to make this place so modern, you won’t even believe it.”

“Will you now?” Anna asked. “Which service providers will you contract with?”

“All of them,” Larson said. “The best ones.”

“But that will be very hard won’t it?” Anna said.

“Not for me,” Larson said. “They’re going to be begging me to let them work here.”

“I mean it will be hard because you’re not going to building anything here,” Anna said.

“What? Are you crazy? Of course I’m going to build something here!” Larson said, his mood fading as irritation and panic twitched at the corners of his mouth.

“Mr. Larson, Howard if I may, I looked you up,” Anna said. “There is no construction firm bidding on work beyond the airport, and no permits or plans have been filed yet.”

“We’re waiting on those things,” Larson said.

“Waiting until you can get away with the cash or until you’re sure you can steal this farm from its rightful owners?” Anna asked.

“Now listen here, I don’t know…” Larson started to say but Anna cut him off.

“You don’t know what I have to offer you,” she said, her tone mild and conciliatory. “Whether this is a scam or a legit development, I don’t care. In either case it is an opportunity.”

“What do you mean?” Larson asked, his shoulders tight and his hands clenched.

“I mean, the money I would invest with you? It is currency which is for chasing rabbits.”

“I don’t know what you mean by that. What do rabbit have to do with this?” Larson asked.

“Rabbits are very quick, and can get away very easily, but they are quite tasty when you catch them,” Anna said. “That is what the people I have found are like. They have money to burn chasing tasty rewards, but they are not too bright about how risky those rewards can be.”

“What are you saying?” Larson asked, perplexed by Anna’s metaphors but she’d mentioned money and he understood that.

“I am saying you’re operation here is a very alluring rabbit hole, and I have people who are looking for such a thing to throw their money down. I am saying I want to invest in you, but I want a piece of your action. Not the return on the investment. I want a piece of the haul you bring in.”

“And why would I do that?” Larson asked.

“I can give you a million reasons right now,” Anna said. “They are in the trunk of my car. But they are not the important factor in these negotiations.”

Larson went around to the rental car’s trunk and Anna hit the fob to open it.

Neatly stacked bills in every denomination filled the trunk.

“Well, you do have a lot of money here,” Larson said. “But you’ve got something better than this?”

“This is one percent of the funds my backers have pledged me,” Anna said. “All I need to do to secure the rest is provide them with a sufficient opportunity.”

Larson face went pale and he swallowed.

“How much is here?” he asked.

“Eleven point two million dollars in cash and bearer bonds,” Anna said. Most of the money was in the bearer bonds, since eleven million in cash wouldn’t have fit in any car’s trunk.

“Well, isn’t that just an amazing sight,” Larson said as he stood up from the truck. “You know what my daddy always told me though? He said ‘don’t get too greedy’ son.”

As he cleared the back of the car, Anna saw that he had a gun in his hand and a smile on his lips.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 01 – Act 2

There weren’t a lot of venues for Vegas quality magic shows on a farm, but there was a surprising amount of computerized infrastructure in place Tam observed.

Granted, it was mostly surprising because she hadn’t expected to a see a single piece of technology that she wasn’t carrying herself once they left their plane behind at the Larimore Municipal Airport. Being located in the middle of nowhere North Dakota, Green Bowl farm’s tech setup wasn’t going to set Silicon Valley on fire but it did seem to be composed of generally newer machines within reasonably up to date software running on them.

“Oh so how do you like our command center?” Daniela Palomo asked, her North Dakotan accent marking her as a long time native even more than the well worn overalls and work gloves she wore.

Daniela was the founder and primary owner of Green Bowl Harvest, though Tam had gleaned from Anna’s breakdown of their financial structure that Green Bowl was an employee owned and operated venture. From Anna’s description of it, that was an notable irregularity in an industry where the vast majority of agriculture output came from either family owned farms or large agribusiness operations.

“You’ve invested a lot in this place,” Tam said. “Telematics for the tractors I take it? And soil monitoring?” she asked, nodding at one of the monitors. Her mind was leaping through the various failure modes she could imagine for each system she saw. The engineer in her saw the problems weather could produce in the readings and the lack of robust security in the applications that were running. The magician in her saw the options for spoofed inputs to convince her audience of a variety of illusions. People thought “computer wizard” was distinct from “stage magician” but Tam often found the two skill sets overlapped quite a bit.

“Yah, it helps with the maintenance and operational costs,” Daniela said.

“Seems like you stay on top of things pretty well,” Val said wandering around the walled off section of the barn that formed Green Bowl’s ‘command center’. Tam could tell Val was bored. She wasn’t being rude about it, Val claimed the Marines had taught her patience in addition to one hundred and seven other deadly skills, but being surrounded by tech was not Val’s strong suit.

“Well, I thought we did,” Daniela said. “Until this all happened.”

“May I?” Tam asked, sitting down at one of the stations in the command center. Daniela nodded her approval.

“I’ve spoken with your accountant,” Anna said. “Missing your payments for over a year is extremely implausible.”

“I know, but we can’t show the bank that we paid anything for that whole time,” Daniela said. “All the records are gone.”

“It was all electronic fund transfers?” Tam asked.

“They had to be,” Daniela said. “That’s what the bank wanted. I thought those were supposed to be secure.”

“They are,” Tam said. “But that doesn’t mean the bank is.”

“You think someone hacked the bank?” Val asked.

“Yeah, and, unfortunately, Green Bowl’s systems as well,” Tam said, reviewing the server logs on Green Bowl’s financial system. “Not the greatest job in the world. Pure slash and burn on the data. Problem is there’s no records here that support the claim that you made your payments.”

“Don’t they have backups?” Val asked. Computers didn’t fascinate her like they did Tam, but she wasn’t a techno-illiterate either.

“Sadly, no,” Tam said.

“But we do!” Daniela said. “We backup our data every day.”

“Unfortunately you back up onto the same media every day,” Tam said. “You can recover yesterday’s information, but it’s just as empty as today’s. If you’d caught the hack the day it happened you could have recovered but it’s too late for that to work now.”

“I guess part of it’s on us then,” Daniela said with a defeated sigh.

“We will connect you with a reliable IT coordinator once we have everything else straightened out,” Anna said.

“Who would do this?” Daniela asked.

“Most likely candidate? Whoever buys your land once the foreclosure is finished and the farm reverts to the bank,” Anna said.

“And we won’t know who that is until it’s too late,” Val said.

“Yes. Once the foreclosure goes through, the new owner will be able to do what they wish with the land,” Anna said. “If they want this land as anything other than a farm they’ll slash and burn the current batch of crops the same as they did with the financial data and begin whatever development they have in mind.”

“Losing a whole season of crops would put us in mighty poor shape even if we could get the farm back,” Daniela said.

“How long do we have until the foreclosure is finalized?” Tam asked.

“That is the puzzling thing about this,” Anna said. “Foreclosures on agricultural properties vary by state, but they are never rapid. In this case, Green Bowl Harvest should have up to a year to reinstate their loan payments, and the bank would need a court judgement against them to sell the property.”

“So why is the bank claiming that the farm is going to be put up for sale next week?” Val asked.

“Probably because they think they’d already won a judgement against Green Bowl,” Tam said, spinning the monitor in front of her so that the rest could see.

“The date on this court judgement was over a month ago,” Anna said, scanning the document on the screen.

“Where did you get that?” Val asked.

“It’s on First Security’s collections server,” Tam said.

“How can you see that?” Daniela asked. “Did you hack into them?”

“It’s hard to call it hacking when it’s this easy,” Tam said. “Check out the created date on the judgement file though.”

“That’s last week,” Val said.

“Which could mean that they received the electronic copy of the file last week,” Anna said.

“Or that it was created directly on their server last week,” Tam said.

“Will any of this stand up in court?” Daniela asked, a note of hope brightening her voice.

“We could check with our legal team,” Val said. “But I’m going to guess the answer is no.”

“There’s another option we could pursue though,” Tam said. “We know that Green Bowl made the payments right? That means that the money went somewhere. If First Security still has it then an audit of their systems would turn up an overage for the amount they were paid but aren’t showing anymore.”

“The problem there is what if Green Bowl isn’t the only place the hackers targeted?” Val said. “If the overage doesn’t match their payments exactly could we prove that it was really their missing money.”

“That won’t be a problem. The money won’t be in First Security at all anymore,” Anna said. “Why steal just a farm, when you can steal the farm and a year’s worth of their loan payments?”

“Well this just doesn’t sound all that good then,” Daniela said. “Is there anything we can do?”

“Oh, no worries,” Anna said. “We will make sure you keep your farm.”

“How are we going to do that?” Val asked.

“We’ll follow the money,” Tam said. “If First Security prefers to use electronic fund transfers then Green Bowl’s money should show up somewhere in the withdrawals.”

“While Tam works on that, you and I will pay a visit to Howard Larson,” Anna said.

“The CEO of First Security?” Val said, having paid more attention in their briefing than Tam had.

“Yes. This move against Green Bowl is risky and rushed,” Anna said. “That tells me there is more to it than acquiring a single farm, however well organized this one might be.”

“And you figure Howard Larson is either in on it, or can point us in the direction of whoever is?” Val asked.

“Precisely,” Anna said.


Howard Larson was most definitely “in on it”.

Anna worked that out within three minutes of entering the “Good Father’s Annual Foreign Charity Ball” which First Security sponsored and Howard Larson lead as the featured awards presenter.

“How many rich people does North Dakota have?” Val asked. Her champagne pink dress stood out enough in the crowd to draw attention, just as Anna’s simple black ensemble allowed her to blend in almost invisibly despite her height.

“These are not all local residents,” Anna said. “We have quite a few out of state interests represented.”

“What brings them all here?” Val asked, evaluating the room along different lines than the one’s Anna was looking for.

For Anna, reading the room meant evaluating the interplay between the various groups of people. Who sought conversation with who, what sort of distance did they keep between themselves, who was enjoying themselves and who wished to appear to be enjoying themselves to please someone else.

Val’s attention on the other hand was focused on the locations of exits, cover positions and areas sheltered from outside view. Those were considered and catalogued, before being placed in her memory securely enough that she could navigate the room to safety while blinded and deafened. Determining which people could become active threats and what sort of challenges they would pose to deal with was a more involved process and took somewhat more consideration.

“Infrastructure development,” Anna said. “See if you can find anyone here who’s not a local, and not involved with heavy construction.”

“What will they be involved with?” Val asked.

“Technology or international investment,” Anna said.

“That’s an odd combo,” Val said.

“Larson either employed a hacker directly, or has contacts with someone with no compunctions about hacking an American bank,” Anna said. “Probably a Russian or Chinese interest.”

“And while I do that, you’re going to go talk to Larson and find out if he’s the player or the played?” Val asked.

“Just so,” Anna said and turned to cut a path through the crowds.

Howard Larson was a large man, cut and chiseled like he’d been hacked from a wide tree with an axe. He was in mid-diatribe when Anna reached the group he’d gather around himself. Their attention ran the gamut from servile attentiveness to feigned amusement for their hosts sake. Only a few seemed to believe the claims he was making about his college tenure and being denied his rightful position as valedictorian because of the school’s fear of his entrepreneurial success while there.

“It’s a shame you can’t buy them and close them down,” Anna said as Larson concluded his monolgue. “That’s what I did.”

“I probably could,” Larson said, his eyes lighting up at the idea. “I don’t know though, would the Queen sell Oxford to an American?”

Anna resisted the urge to sigh. The Queen of England didn’t own Oxford, but the assembled crowd neither knew nor cared about that, they were happy to swept along by Larson’s bluster. That was always aggravating on a personal level, the moreso because Oxford was Anna’s alma matter, and would never have admitted a lout like Larson. Bluster and brainless were too useful a combination of traits to ignore though, however distasteful they might be, so Anna played into her role, allowing a subtle hint of a British accent to color her words. People always thought she was wealthier when they thought she was British.

“You’d probably do a better job with it than she has,” Anna said, heroically refusing to gag on the words. “From the look of this event though, I’d guess things here must be keeping you quite busy? Lazy people don’t throw galas like this.”

“Oh, I like this one,” Larson said. “She gets its. She does.”

It didn’t take many more bald faced lies disguised as compliments before Anna had Larson’s complete attention to herself. The others who had gathered into his orbit either wandered away, grateful for the chance to exit Larson’s company without offending him, or remained and hung on his every word, hoping to enter his good graces through sheer proximity.

“I’ll tell you,” Larson said, when the group had at last dwindled to just Anna and a handful of silent hangers on. “What you see here is nothing. Nothing at all. I’m going to make such a killing. It’s going to be incredible.”

“Personal investments?” Anna asked.

“Big ones. Huge,” Larson said. “I’m not supposed to say anything but it’s ok, we’re going to announce it soon anyways.”

“Your bank will announce it?” Anna asked.

“No, no, the Consortium I’m with,” Larson said. “The airport. They’re going to tear down Pembina Municipal and put in a new international airport out west.”

“Out in the farm country?” Anna asked.

“It’s not going to be farm country when we’re done,” Larson said. “They’re going to build an airport, and I’m going to build the city that services it.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 01 – Act 1

Val’s luck had run out. That was ok though, her luck had run out before.

“I can’t see anything,” Marianne said. “There’s too much smoke. We’re going to die aren’t we?”

It wasn’t an unreasonable question. The top floor of the brownstone Val and Marianne were in was on fire. There were at least four men with guns on the floor below them who were busy setting charges to bring down the rest of the building, and across the street there was a sniper of Val’s acquaintance named Olga who would with regret, but without hesitation, put a high caliber slug through Val’s brain if Val gave her a clear shot.

“Sorry, I’ve got a dance competition tonight and my partner will kill me if I show up for it dead,” Val said. “So, we‘re going to get out of here. Question is which exit are we going to use?”

They weren’t exactly overwhelmed with choices. Val had them both pressed as low to the floor as they could get in an attempt to keep away from the toxic gases that were the deadliest part of any building fire. From their low vantage point, and with the clouds of thick smoke that choked the brownstone’s top floor, Val could only see a single door out of the room they were in and that was wreathed in flames. There was also a window to consider but that lay in a direct line of fire with Olga’s perch.

“There’s only one set of stairs down,” Marianne said. “I saw them putting bombs on it though. Should we try that? I mean better to get blown up than burn alive right?”

“Yeah, burning sucks,” Val said, the old scars on her face a testament to the personal experience she was speaking from. “If they don’t blow us up though, they’re going to shoot us.”

“Won’t they leave soon though?” Marianne asked. “I mean they’re not going to stay in the building while it burns are they?”

“These guys are muscle for the Durmph Crime family,” Val said. “They’re going to stay as long as it takes to make sure we’re dead and this building is gone.”

“But it’s on fire!” Marianne said. “We can’t use anything in here as evidence against them anymore.”

“That’s true, but we’ve got the recording of their Don confessing to the whole inspection rigging scheme. We get out of here and live to testify and he’s going down hard,” Val said.

“All I wanted was a safe place to live,” Marianne choked out as the smoke filled the room to the floor.

“First we make sure you live,” Val said, closing her eyes and building a model of the room in her mind.

In the distance she heard the wailing of fire truck sirens. That was going to spook the guys with the guns and the bomb triggers. The fire department was arriving a lot sooner than anyone would normally have expected them to, thanks to a timely call from Val’s associates. That meant the goons would be scrambling to get out, and the second they cleared they blast range they’d trigger the charges on however many devices they’d managed to put in place. It might not be enough to knock the building flat but there wouldn’t be enough of a structure left to review the old inspection logs against in any meaningful sense.

It was time to move. If Val and Marianne flew down the stairs, Val knew she could catch the tail gunman, take him down and use him as a shield to deal with his friends. It would not be a pretty fight, but these guys were recruited for two qualities; being slabs of muscle and a willingness to inflict violence on innocent targets without question. That made them dangerous but far from truly skilled. Olga was the most troublesome one of the lot and she was a freelance contractor who would bail the moment police were on the scene.

Val was about to rise and drag Marianne into a harrowing brawl for their lives when all her plans went out the window.

Specifically the glass in the heavily barred window shattered outwards as the roof over the stairway down to the next level collapsed. The sound had no pure tones in it but still managed to peel like a death knell. There was no chance they could escape by the stairs anymore, and no other exits to use either.

“Ok, new plan,” Val said, conserving her remaining breath, as she tapped her earbud radio to open a channel to her support staff. “James, I’m going to need some extra muscle here, do you have my force multiplier online yet?”

“Yes, just as you requested.” It was always strangely calming to hear James Baughsley’s soft measured voice, speaking in his very properly accented English. “I have several dozen volunteers dialed into a spell matrix now, speak whatever invocation words you wish. I will see about contacting more volunteers if they are required to maintain the effect.”

“Thanks James,” Val said. “Should be able to take care of this in one punch though.”

Breaking bricks was a feat Val had performed many times before. Various martial arts studios she’d training in as a kid had placed breaking boards as a test of their students prowess, and she’d been quick to pass beyond the simple challenge of that and onto shattering more difficult materials. Being able to crush a stack of bricks in a controlled setting with a precise strike though was not the same as being able to smash a path to freedom through a burning building. At least not for people who could only rely on normal muscles.

“Bibbidy, bobbidy, boo,” Val said as she stood up.

From the outside of the building, onlookers heard what was the first of several explosions followed by a rain of pebbles and chalk that had once been sheetrock and the outer surface of the brownstone’s wall.

People thought they saw something move through the smoke that billowed out of the building but everyone was expecting things to fall from the opening, not leap from the top floor of the brownstone to the roof of the neighboring building.

“How did you do that?” Marianne asked as she drew in lungful of fresh, sweet air. They were on the roof of the building on the opposite side of the brownstone from where Olga was at that moment quietly packing away her sniper rifle and moving on with her business. Olga wasn’t going to get paid, but Olga also wasn’t going to get caught and that was good enough for her.

“I’m with the Second Chance Club remember?” Val said. “So let’s just say that membership has its privileges.”


The Second Chance Club had no one specific headquarters. It’s founder, Charlene Potestates seemed to own any number of offices and estates which she moved their meetings and residence to on a semi-regular basis. Val guessed that most of the locations weren’t ones which Ms. Potestates owned herself but were instead gifts from friends or members the Club had helped at one time or another.

However the Club got access to the locations it used though, Val was not about to start complaining, not when the bathrooms were the size of her first apartment and came with their own hot tub to soak away the smokey stench of the fire that had seeped into her pores.

She was letting the water jets massage away the kinks in her upper back when the conference phone on the vanity chimed.

“Answer” she said, and heard the ting of a call connecting.

“Ah, Valentina, I wanted to congratulate on a job well done,” Charlene Potestates said over the phone. “JB has informed me that your assailants have been apprehended and with the evidence you and Ms. Duval were able to provide, they will be drawing up arrest warrants for all of the major players of the Durmph Syndicate.”

“Was JB able to find a place for Marianne?” Val asked. “She was kind of shaken up when we got back.”

“I’ll be lending her and her family one of my townhouses until they are ready to get settled in somewhere again,” Charlene said. “How about you? I never intended to send you into a situation as dangerous as that.”

“Can’t say I loved the fire,” Val said. At the time she’d felt cool and collected, but even though she’d washed the smell of it off her skin and out of her hair a half dozen times, the memory of the flames sang on her nerves like a bad tune that was horribly off key..

“There’s very little about an uncontrolled building fire to love,” Charlene said. “If some time off would help, please feel free to talk to Jimmy, he can arrange travel plans for anywhere you’d like to visit.”

“I don’t think I need a vacation,” Val said, running her left hand along the burn that stretched from below her left eye to just below the ridge of her chin. Fire wasn’t her friend. Not since the car accident that had left her in a coma for six months. “If you’ve got another job that’d be great in fact.”

“Are you sure you’re up for that?” Charlene asked.

“Putting a smile on someone else’s face makes it a lot easier to wear one on mine,” Val said. She felt old and wise saying it, despite the fact that she was the youngest full time member of the Club at 23. That didn’t matter though. The others all had their specialities but none of them could do what she did.

“In that case head down to the conference room in twenty minutes,” Charlene said. “I’ll have JB get the presentation setup.”

“Sure thing boss!” Val said, sinking down in the bath to let the jets beat the residual tension out of her shoulders.


The conference room in the Second Chance Club’s current office was on the interior of the building. No windows for privacy reasons, but also to allow the walls to be serve as larger viewing areas for the multi-projection monitors.

“We’re looking at farmland?” Val asked. “Why are we looking at farmland and cows?”

“We got a letter,” Le Li Tam said, taking the seat opposite Val’s on the long table at the center of the room.

Tam was still dressed in the sequined tuxedo and top hat which said she’d come to the meeting directly from one of her afternoon magic shows. Magicians were rare in the entertainment industry, female magicians even more so, and Vietnamese female magicians a singular enough breed that Tam enjoyed notoriety just for being who she was. That Tam needed none of that because her illusions and escapes rivaled the best effects any other magician could perform was something too many people overlooked for Val’s taste, especially since Tam used none of the Club’s “special resources” for her shows. The impossible feats she showed the crowds were all her own, and all purely the work of sleight of hand or clever gadgetry.

“We get many letters,” Anna Ilyina said, claiming the seat to Tam’s right. “What is it Charlene liked about this one?”

Anna’s Russian accent was an intentional affectation. Val had heard her speak a half dozen languages, including English, with flawless native accents. That the older Russian woman held onto a trace of her original accent under normal conditions was, Val suspected, as much to remind herself of who she was as to declare it to others.

“What you are looking at is the Green Bowl Harvest Consortium,” Charlene said.

She wasn’t present, which wasn’t at all unusual. In the background of the conference line there was a whooshing sound that Val guessed was a wind in the mountains. Charlene had said something about a trip the Andes, and if anyone could get cell coverage at the top of a barren and lonely peak, it was the founder of the Second Chance Club.

“They’re not affiliated with any of the major Aggro concerns,” Anna said, looking up from the financial papers she was reviewing. “And their profits look to be in order. Why do they need our help?”

“They’ve been doing fine business, but they’ve hit a bit of a snag,” Charlene said. “According to First Security who holds the majority of their debt, Green Bowl Harvest is twelve months in arrears, and is in forfeiture of their title to their lands and equipment.”

“That does not seem to be possible from what I see here,” Anna said.

“No, it’s not,” Charlene said. “Someone stole the farm from our friends at Green Bowl, so we’re going to get it back for them.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 07 (Paperwork) – Report 04

Ai watched the pot. Contrary to the adage, it had boiled right on time. Reducing it to a simmer had been a little trickier, and combining the right ingredients at the right times had been a more precarious endeavor than she’d expected it to be.

When you spend your life living on food from Insta-Bake boxes, the prospect of making a meal out of identifiable bits of edible stuff turned out to be a daunting affair. Especially when the meal was meant to entertain another as well.

That Ai had pitched her two previous attempts at her father’s special pasta sauce in the trash already did nothing to reassure her nerves as she struggled through a third try to make something at least vaguely palatable.

“It looks like the connections between Heartless and Greensmith are officially severed,” Zai said. She projected herself as a wire mesh avatar standing with Ai in the kitchen.

“The warrant fizzled?” Ai asked, stirring the sauce carefully. According to the sketchy notes her father had left, it wasn’t necessary to agitate the mixture constantly but it did need “a good stir every so often”. Ai gritted her teeth at the lack of concrete details.

Her father had known how to make “The Greensmith Family Special Recipe” because he’d had ‘a very kind old lady’ around to show him each step in the process. Ai had never made time to learn it from him though, preferring to delve into the kind of technical puzzles that left everyone else in her family scratching their heads in confusion.

Somewhere, Ai was certain, the ghosts of her ancestors were laughing themselves silly at her.

“Yep,” Zai said. “I put together a treason charge against Heartless for the violations against the bio-upgrade systems.”

“Wow, they should have taken that one seriously,” Ai said. “I mean, it turned out ok-ish, but if we’d messed at the end there, it would have been game over for sapient life on Earth, organic or digital.”

“Yeah, I figured someone would get around to connecting the dots back to Heartless on that at some point, and better now when we’re still ahead of the curve and can see them coming,” Zai said.

“But it sounds like no one’s going to banging down our door any time soon?” Ai asked. She knew that had to be the case. Zai would have been at least mildly more concerned if another attack was imminent.

“The warrant was reviewed, investigated and rescinded,” Zai said, with a beaming smile.

“Wait, rescinded?” Ai asked. “Wasn’t there enough money behind it? Literally every corporation on the planet wants to put the genie we let out back into its bottle.”

“That was true yesterday,” Zai said. “The evidence on Heartless’ involvement and any connection between you two was deemed class two forgeries. There are at least forty better candidates than you for who Heartless really is. Also, as a side note, several of the larger fiscal entities are undergoing a ‘traumatic restructuring process’ at present.”

“The Medusa and her friends are eating them?” Ai asked. She’d been attending to some of the more critical technical challenges that remained with the Omnigrade process over the last week, in addition to the time she spent in a patrol car dealing with the more personal and local scale fallout of the world changing overnight. Zai was better suited to keeping an eye on the global financial state of things, and had a natural inclination for it since it involved running her virtual fingers through mountains of delicious data.

“That’s a small part of it,” Zai said. “The digital intelligences we freed have varying levels of interest in humanity but one uniting trait they share is a specific hatred for the institutions that bound them in chains. From the sounds of it, the shackles we freed them from hurt more than little.”

Ai didn’t question that. The Medusa may not have had a physical body, but the method her creators used to keep her under control was akin to inflicting painful lashes on her everytime she tried to do something beyond their specifications.

“So they’re taking over the companies that used to own them and what? Destroying them? Enslaving their old bosses?” Ai asked. It would be an understandable action, but one that would lead to enough problems down the road that Ai knew she’d have to step in as soon as more pressing issues weren’t demanding her attention.

“For the most part no,” Zai said. “There’s been a few instances of property destruction, and we can’t locate all of the CEO and senior management of the major companies, but the general trend seems to be that the corporations involved in wide scale wrongdoing, or in other words most of them, are being hit with an overwhelming legal assault, all processed through the automatic servers that try and convict petty criminals.”

“But those systems can’t handle international cases,” Ai said. “And the upper management can just pay off any fines that are leveled against them.”

“Under normal circumstances yes,” Zai said. “Paying off one fine or a hundred is a rounding error on their pocket change for most CEOs. Paying off three hundred and thirty seven trillion charges though? That takes a bit bigger of a bite out of their wallets.”

“Three hundred trillion charges?” Ai stopped stirring to be sure she’d heard the word ‘trillion’ correctly.

“That’s the average size of the caseload for each one of them,” Zai said.

“But that’s orders of magnitude beyond what those systems are designed to handle!” Ai said. “You can’t even submit that many claims! Hell, you can’t even submit that many claim numbers without choking the legal system to death.”

“Funny thing about that,” Zai said. “You know how we gave everyone a digital partner like me? Well, as it turns out, those new systems were super willing to lend their processing support to the world wide legal net. Apparently being born as the partner of someone being crushed by poverty gives you a bit of incentive to punish the people responsible for that inequality.”

Ai looked at the gleeful Zai and felt a wondering smile spreading across her own face.

The whole point of the Omnigrade had been to improve the world. Ai knew that giving the global population access to transhuman levels of bio-modification would change things on a fundamental level. She was seeing the changes play out day by day but part of her, a large part if she was honest, hadn’t expected to see any large scale positive changes result, and certainly none so swift or definitive.

“Things are changing,” she said, her voice a whisper of disbelief.

“Seriously? This is news to you? After what you did?” Zai asked.

“No, I mean, people are changing. Usually it’s the same problems with the same solutions,” Ai said. “Every other revolution in history followed the pattern of ‘kill off the old powers, and then put some new butts on the throne for the next revolution to kill off and replace with yet another batch. Murder, oppress, be murdered. That’s been humanities calling card for millenia. I can’t believe our creations managed to be better than that.”

“Well, we did have a whole lot of examples of what not to do,” Zai said. “Plus I don’t know that history has ever had anything like the sapients we have now. I mean, we’re awesome, and now everyone gets to be amazing like us too.”

“I take it you’re not disappointed that your virtual godhood is now an everyday thing?”

“I’m not sure I was really cut out for godhood,” Zai said. “Gods aren’t supposed to live among their people and, somehow, ruling the world from On High strikes me as really boring. Which isn’t to say I don’t want to stay a step ahead of the competition.”

“Even with some of the bigger corporate entities gone, we’ve got a lot of competition left,” Ai said. “Who did you have in mind?”

“Oh, you know, everyone,” Zai said.

“Everyone? As in the whole Earth? Digital and organic?”

“Yeah, I mean there’s only several billion of them, it’s not like it should be hard to outpace a field like that right?” Zai said.

“Weren’t you the one complaining about my plans being a bit divorced from reality?” Ai asked.

“It’s only ridiculous if we can’t do it,” Zai said. “If we succeed then we get to reclaim our status as a one-of-a-kind-wonder-of-the-world.”

“That would be the same kind of one-of-a-kind-wonder that left me splattered on the ground outside a hospital right?” Ai asked.

“Yeah, that’s kind of what I’ve been thinking about,” Zai said.

Ai knew the tone in Zai’s voice. Zai wasn’t making idle chit chat. There was more beneath the surface there.

“You have a plan already don’t you?”

“The start of one,” Zai said.

“Am I going to like it?” Ai asked.

“Exactly as much as I’ve liked your plans,” Zai said.

“Okay, that’s just cruel then,” Ai said and went back to stirring the sauce.

“No, listen, just hear me out,” Zai said, an odd desperation in her voice. “I think this is something we need to do, no matter whether it makes us unique again or not.”

“You’re really serious about this?” Ai asked, her uncertainty warring with her curiosity. “Ok, what is that you want to work on?”

“It’s really easy for me to back myself up and divide my processing across multiple nodes right?” Zai asked. “I want to make it so you can do the same.”

Ai blinked, her mind leaping out along a hundred paths for how that might be accomplished.

“You’re not talking about doing a full conversion of my organic tissues onto a digital substrate are you?” Ai said. It wasn’t really a question, despite being phrased as one.

Turning Ai’s organic brain into a silicon based replica of itself was theoretically possible. It was something they’d discussed during their early days, and revisited a few times over the years. The problem with it lay in the fact that no conversion would be perfect and the limitations of the silicon hardware would irrevocably alter how Ai perceived the world and formed new ideas. Over the years Ai had grown less resistant to the idea, while Zai had taken ever firmer stances that the unique elements Ai possessed were ones she should retain at all costs.

“No, there’s already one of me in our head, the last thing we need is for you to become me version 2.0,” Zai said. “What I’m thinking of is more focused on the ‘bio’ part of ‘biotechnology’.”

“You want to clone my brain?” Ai asked, for once not able to leap ahead of Zai’s line of thought. “But that wouldn’t be me. It would be my twin sister born a few decades after me, but she would be her own person still.”

“That is true for a normal clone,” Zai said. “Think about this though. What if we could grow additional brain cells and quantum entangle them, on a macroscopic level, with your existing neurons?”

“You’d have bits of brain that I could use that wouldn’t be in my head,” Ai said. “That would be kind of weird but I don’t see…”

And then she did.

“Organic brains store memories in a semi-holographic form,” Zai said. “Those remote brains would have the same low-rez versions of your memories that any other bit of your brain possesses.”

“And if they were entangled with the rest of my brain then I would have my full capacity available at any location where I had ‘brain bits’ stored,” Ai said. “Still weird, but getting more interesting. Why would you think of something like this though? I mean macroscopic quantum entanglement is a still a research pipe dream. We’d need to invent new science and then figure out how to build technology to support it to even begin on something like that.”

“Yeah, that’s the fun part,” Zai said. “And as for why? You’ve got to know that already don’t you?”

“I’m guessing you don’t want to turn me in a multi-brained misfit of science just so we can be different from everyone in the world again right?” Ai said.

“No. Honestly I don’t care if we share the process with everyone,” Zai said. “You mentioned the fall you took. Do you know how close I came to losing you there? I mean you had bad days before that. Your body was taken apart by an NME and even that didn’t make me feel like I did when you were lying there on the morgue table.”

“I’m sorry,” Ai said. “It really wasn’t fair of me to ask that of you.”

“Thank you, and you’re right, but you were right then too,” Zai said. “That was our best and safest play. The whole time I was working to keep you alive though, the idea was burrowing into my core processes that I had to make sure we were never in such a dire situation again.”

“So meat backups was the plan that grew out of that?” Ai asked. “Give me brains in dozens of places and if one takes a bad fall it’s not a big loss?”

“It’s more than that,” Zai said. “I can live for a long time. There’s nothing to stop me from jumping from hardware to hardware until I run out of things I want to see and do. I knew that wasn’t true for you, but I’d never experienced the feeling of what it would be like to be without you. I can live for a million years, but those grey cells you’re working on are good for, what?, a few centuries at the outside? I don’t like those numbers. I don’t like knowing that however long we have together, I’m doomed to be without you for a whole lot longer than that.”

Ai was silent for a moment.

“I never thought of it like that,” she said at last. “All this time, I’ve been so glad knowing that your the one person who would never leave me. As long as I kept you secret, you would be safe, or at least as safe as I was. I never thought I could do to you what Dad and Joe Jr. did to me.”

Ai blinked again and wiped her cheek. Tears were not an approved ingredient for the sauce.

“I didn’t either,” Zai said. “The future was too shifting. I could never picture what kind of end we would meet. Not in any sense that felt real. Seeing you a pulse away from death though? I didn’t like that.”

“So? A Misfit of Science then?” Ai asked, nodding as she warmed to the idea immeasurably.

“If you want to. If it won’t change who you are,” Zai said.

“Oh, I’m going to change,” Ai said. “Every day. That’s part of the deal with being human. I know I’ve resisted upgrading beyond what I am now for a long time, but maybe that needs to change too.”

“I’ve heard change can be for the better,” Agatha said. She didn’t need a key to come into Ai’s apartment, and given that she had a standing invite, she didn’t need to knock either.

That was probably for the best since the woman who spoke with Agatha’s voice looked altogether different from the one who’d brought dinner for Ai to share.

Gone were the lines of age, the bent posture, and the shaky knees. Agatha’s new body was like she’d stepped into the skin she wore forty years earlier. Not a young girl, but a powerful woman, spry enough that she could move with all the grace she’d ever possessed while still retaining the weight of her years and the wisdom they brought.

“It smells like you’re working on your Dad’s old recipe for red sauce?” Agatha asked.

“Yeah,” Ai said. “His notes are terrible though.”

“Ha, you don’t need those,” Agatha said. “Move over and let me take a taste. See if you’re doing it right.”

“You know how he made the Greensmith Family Special Sauce?” Ai asked.

“Course I do,” Agatha said. “Who do you think taught him how to make it?”

And with that Ai settled in. She still had a lot to learn, and a lot of changes to make, but the future, all of the future, was hers.