Monthly Archives: May 2018

The Second Chance Club – Ep 10 – Act 4

Val’s race led her to a watery end. Specifically, the water filled end of the ship where Geoffery St Laurents had finally run out of room to escape his doom.

“You shouldn’t have followed me,” he said, glancing back and forth between Val and the water that was bubbling up from the flooded stairs below.

“Yeah, maybe, but you’re going to follow me now,” Val said. “Either that or I’m going to drag your unconscious body up the ten flights of stair, and neither of us is going to be very happy about that.”

“I can’t go up there,” St Laurents said. “I can’t leave this ship.”

“Unless you’ve got gills, you’re going to have to,” Val said, advancing slowly on him. He looked terrified enough that he might try to plunge into the water that was rising and covering one step after another. Val guessed that out swimming St Laurents wouldn’t be difficult, but out swimming a sinking ship would present a few unique and unpleasant challenges.

“No, I can’t,” St Laurent’s said. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

“You worked for PrimaLux,” Val said. “We’ve run into them before. They’ve regretted it each time.”

“They’re not what you think,” St Laurents said. “I can’t go against them. I have to stay here.”

“You ran away from them once,” Val said. “Work with us and we can make sure you get away from them for good this time.”

“I didn’t run away from them,” St Laurent’s said. “I mean I tried to, but they found me before I left my condo. I wasn’t going to hide on a cruise. I was going to buy a bus ticket to Yosemite and hike as far into the wilderness as I could.”

“This ship has a lot better food than a forest does,” Val said, tensing to grab St Laurents if he tried to flee.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Don’t you see? I failed them, and they caught me trying to abandon them. They can find me anywhere, and they showed me the things they’ll do if I don’t play the part they want. They’re the ones who sent me here. They knew you were coming for me. They’re sinking this whole ship just to get to you.”

Val blinked.

“That’s flattering, I guess, but they’re not going to get rid of us that easily,” she said.

“They already have,” St Laurent’s said. “There’s another bomb on board.”

“How do you know?” Val asked.

“They told me. They told me everything that would happen. From the three of you finding me, to you chasing after me, to this.”

The ship gave a sudden lurch and the terrible sound of tearing metal screamed through the wall on Val’s left.

Instinct took over and she leaped back up the stairs an instant before a torrent of water crashed onto the step she’d been standing on. Her jump took her back as far as she could go but it wasn’t quite far enough. As she landed on the top step of the flight of stairs, the inrushing current clutched her leg up to the knee. She struggled to escape the ocean’s grip and cursed when she saw that it had already swept St Laurent’s away.

With another tortured scream of metal buckling, an additional section of wall burst open, burying Val beneath a surge of ocean water.

She fought to rise above it but with the lights shattered, everything around her was lost in darkness.

***

Tam didn’t like how much smoke her palm dragon was collecting.

“That’s a pretty useful trick,” Cynthia said, nodding at growing beast as the hurried to join the rescue efforts.

“Yeah, useful for now,” Tam said. “If it absorbs too much smoke though, I’m not going to be able to control it.”

“How much is too much?” Cynthia asked, her eyes narrowing as the smoke dragon swelled like a slowly filling balloon.

“We’ll know when it decides to take off on its own,” Tam said. “Until then though, it’s our best bet for making it to the survivors.”

Up ahead of them, the hallway was blocked by debris from the partially collapsed deck above.

“Please, can someone help us!” a man on the far side of the debris wall said. “We have two people injured here.”

“Hang on. We’ll get you out of there as soon as we can,” Tam said. “We’re going to clear the air to buy you some more time while we’re at it too.”

She extended her hand and allowed the smoke dragon, which had grown to the size of a corgi, to inhale a steady stream of smoke from the area beyond the fallen debris. The sound of the wind it was generating was out of proportion to the effect it was having. The tornado cacophony heightened Tam’s worry. Elemental spells were tricky under the best of circumstances and having a living patch of smoke running amuck on a sinking ship wasn’t going to end well for anyone.

She pushed those worries out of her mind though and considered the problem before her. The collapsed deck had formed a new walls on either end of a long stretch of the corridor, creating a box which had trapped several passengers inside it. While the deck hadn’t been strong enough to survive the bomb blast, its twisted metal was still strong enough to resist Tam’s efforts to create a gap in it.

“Got any tricks for cutting metal?” Cynthia asked.

“Not on me,” Tam said, adjusting the smoke dragon so she could hold it in both arms.

“Let me check something then,” Cynthia said. “See how the injured are doing are ok?”

“Sure,” Tam said, and turned back to barricade, raising her voice to speak over the wind the dragon was generating. “How bad are the injuries. Is anyone in immediate peril?”

“Jaleh got hit by the falling floor but she’s conscious. Might be concussed. Shoichiro has a bad cut on his arm and he’s pretty woozy. I think he was hit too.”

“Ok. We can handle that,” Tam said. “I’ll guide you through the first aid you can do there, and the medical staff can handle the rest once you’re safe. We just need a little time to get you out of there.

Unfortunately, time was the one thing they didn’t have.

***

Anna swallowed a string of curses that would have made the sailors around her blush. She needed to have faith that Val could handle herself. Charlene didn’t invite people to the team who she wasn’t certain could deal with extraordinary challenges. Val being out of contact simply meant that a challenge had arisen that required an unusual amount of focus.

It had to mean that.

“Are any of the ship’s security in the vicinity of the last freezer?” she asked.

“I can find out,” Kellman said, picking up her phone.

Anna turned plans over in her head, trying to work out the inevitable problems before they arose.

The last bomb, and she was certain there was a last bomb, wouldn’t be wired into the freezer. There wouldn’t have been time. But it could be detonated remotely, as the two earlier bombs had proved.

What was the bomber waiting for then?

If the plan was to drive the ocean liner to be bottom of the sea before help could arrive, then the earlier the bombs detonated the better.

In that case though, why not explode them all at once? The additional damage would have been exponentially harder to deal with and would have made the goal of sinking the ship a certainty.

Unless the goal wasn’t to sink the ship.

The first bomb had destroyed Geoffery St Laurents primary cabin. Not the one he was in, but the one he had publicly rented. That blast hadn’t endangered the ship, it had sent a message.

The bomber knew St Laurents, and he wanted someone to know that. Someone who was aware that St Laurents was on the ship, and knew who was out to get him. Someone like Anna.

PrimaLux was telling her that they knew she was on the ship as well.

“There is a security team sweeping that level for passengers and staff,” Kellman said. “They’re heading to the freezer now.”

What had the second bomb said though? Why damage the ship badly enough to sink it but let it go down slowly enough that people could get off it safely if they weren’t killed in the initial blasts?

The second bomb caused chaos. It convinced the Captain to order the evacuation.

And it drew Tam and Val deeper into the ship.

Anna sighed as the pieces came together. The bombs weren’t meant for Geoffery St Laurents. They were meant for the representatives of the Second Chance Club.

The third bomb was the one to seal their fate. It hadn’t exploded yet for one reason only. Tam and Val were both deep into the ocean liner, but Anna was far removed from where the explosion would occur. She would live no matter how fast the ship sunk.

If she came within range of the bomb though, its controller would set it off.

If she fled the ship and left her friends to their fates, the bomb would go off then too.

There was no good answer, just several really bad ones.

***

The third bomb blast wasn’t what killed the ocean liner. The flooding from the second one had guaranteed that it would sink, all the third did was hasten the time frame on that to the point where the evacuation couldn’t be completed.

At least not without outside help.

***

The bed onboard the navy medical helicopter wasn’t exactly spacious, but it was a lot warmer than the cold, life stealing waters of the Atlantic and in Val’s mind that meant that it was perfect.

“I am sorry I was not able to send help sooner,” Charlene said over the satellite radio link. The medical helicopter wasn’t a particularly quiet environment either, but her voice carried with crisp and perfect clarity.

“How did you know we were in trouble?” Anna asked. She was breathing from an oxygen mask to help with the smoke inhalation she had suffered.

“The last time we spoke I believe I mentioned that I was looking into PrimaLux,” Charlene said. “I’ve had dealings with them before, and this fit the pattern of escalation they tend to employ.”

“How did you get an aircraft carrier to show up on time to help us out?” Tam asked.

“I have contacts in a variety of places,” Charlene said. “Please though, give me the details of what occurred. I was only able to guess at the broad picture and the official reports are still being assembled.”

“Well, I almost drowned,” Val said. “And I let our target get away. Or get swept away I guess. What’s weird is, he knew that was going to happen, and it was like he accepted it?”

“That’s what those behind PrimaLux do,” Charlene said. “They closed off every avenue of hope Mr St Laurents had and left him as nothing more than a weapon to strike at their enemies with. I am just glad he did not take you down to share his fate.”

“We can thank Jessica for that,” Val said.

“That’s the girl you were with right?” Tam asked. “The one you carried up to the decks?”

“I was only able to carry her because she carried me first,” Val said. “She has trouble walking, but as a swimmer she’s kind of amazing. Give her fins and she’d be a mermaid. When the stairs flooded I tried to swim back up to the air but I hit my head on a railing or something. I’d gotten close enough though that she saw me and dived in to fish me out. I helped her get up the next few flights of stairs until we ran into you.”

“What had brought you below decks Tam? Were you looking for Val?” Charlene asked.

“Yeah. Cynthia and I went down to free some trapped passengers and once we were finished I realized that Val’s communication bracelete was offline. Since they weren’t proof against water and she was chasing St Laurents even deeper into the ship the last I heard from her, I was worried that she’d hit one of the flooded sections.”

“Good guess,” Val said. “Next time we bring waterproof radios by the way. Oh, and we owe Jessica a new cellphone. I was going to use hers to call you two but things got a bit busy. And then, you know, the drowning stuff happened.”

“You were able to rescue the passengers?” Charlene asked Tam.

“Yeah. There was an open cabin door on our side of the barricade and Cynthia used that to get into a stateroom, break through the connecting door to the next room over, unlock it’s door, and lead the people out before the water reached us,” Tam said. “The ship medics said the two injured people were going to fine apart from the smoke inhalation they all suffered.”

“And you Anna? The reports I’ve seen said you were helping coordinate the efforts on the bridge until you left?”

“I did,” Anna said. “When I worked out what the last bomb was waiting on, I knew I couldn’t stay in a safe position for too long.”

“What do you mean?” Tam asked.

“The last bomb was positioned to destroy the ship’s power grid, in addition to sinking it,” Anna said. “The only reason it was saved till last, I reasoned, was because whoever was detonating them was linked into the ship’s security systems. They were watching where we were going.”

“We never went near the bomb though?” Val said.

“Exactly,” Anna said. “When I saw where it was, I convinced the security team to prioritize evacuations away from it’s blast radius. I knew the bomber was waiting until they could either catch us all below decks, or see conclusive proof that one of us, me in this case, was going to abandon the others.”

“So you left the bridge why?” Val asked.

“I think I get it,” Tam said. “If you stayed there too long, they would have blown up the bomb and accepted that Val and I would have been the only casualties they cared about. If you or anyone else went straight for it, then they’d blow it before you could disarm it.”

“So what did you do instead?” Charlene asked.

“I went below decks to give the bomber the impression that I was falling into his trap,” Anna said. “Captain Starling agreed to falsify the video feeds when I gave him the signal. I wandered down towards you two slowly enough to let the rest of the passengers get off the ship and then signaled for the video loop to begin. That’s why we had to flee so quickly. We were the last few who were still onboard.”

“What about the two others you mentioned?” Charlene asked. “Jessica and Cynthia?”

“Jess was waiting for her father and grandmother, but they’d had to take a different path up when one of the decks started flooding. We ran into them a few decks above where Tam found us after they looped back to find Jess,” Val said.

“Cynthia lead the passengers out while I went for Val,” Tam said. “I saw her when we were leaving and we exchanged contact info. We’re going to get in touch in a few days, once things settle down, and compare notes.”

“I am glad you escaped disaster,” Charlene said. “After all, even you, my dear ones, deserve your second chances.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 10 – Act 3

Val felt the second explosion split the ocean liner’s hull. A sarcastic voice in her head called it a “sinking feeling” and for as clever as that felt, Val couldn’t manage much amusement.

“Anna, Tam, that was from below me,” she said, speaking into the magical cell phone bracelet Tam gave her.

“If it did the same kind of damage as the one that took out the cabins here, we are in serious trouble,” Tam said.

“That’s an understatement,” Anna said. “The nearest rescue vessel is three hours away.”

“How long until we go under?” Val asked.

“The bridge crew is working on that now,” Anna said. “They’ve started boarding people into the lifeboats, but as the ship takes on water it’s going to start listing.”

“What’s the maximum list they can launch with?” Val asked, picking up her pace as she raced down a flight of stairs after the fleeing St Laurents.  She wasn’t keen on drowning but as the damage toll mounted the need to bring St Laurents in rose as well. Balanced against that was the difficulty that arose from the ever increasing angle the floor was leaning at.

“20 degrees,” Anna said.

“Feels like we’re tipped past that already,” Tam said.

“We’re at 7% now,” Anna said. “The crew is scrambling to get everyone off before we hit 12% but that’s not going to happen if another blast hits.”

“I just caught a glimpse of St Laurents at the next set of stairs,” Val said. “He’s really flying though.”

“Magic?” Tam asked.

“Panic,” Val said.

“Get him,” Anna said. “This is going to be the worst maritime disaster in years and he’s the key to exposing PrimaLux’s involvement.”

“Give me one minute,” Val said and redoubled her pace, pushing past the few passengers who were left streaming in the other direction.

The sound that rattled through the giant ocean liner as it took on water wasn’t one Val had ever been curious about and one she had no desire to ever hear again. With each step she fought back the idea that a wall of water was going to burst through the hall and sweep her out into the endless blue deeps.

For a brief instant she lost that battle as her feet slipped out from under her and she slid across the wet floor. It wasn’t the sea come to carry her to Davy Jones locker though. An ice machine had come loose from the wall and was leaking water from its cold water feed all over the ground and opposite wall. Val launched herself to her feet and continued on, cursing the wet mess she’d stumbled into.

She caught sight of St Laurents again as she reached the stairs down to the next level and saw that he was scurrying down flight after flight, racing towards the lowest decks on the boat where greatest danger awaited. Val had gained enough ground that he was only a single flight of stairs ahead of her when she found a girl waiting in the hallway just beyond the stairs.

A girl in a wheelchair.

“Are you chasing him?” the girl asked.

“Yeah, what are you doing here though? Do you need help?” Val asked.

“No, I’m waiting for my father,” the girl said. “He went below to get my grandmother from her cabin.”

“It’s not safe to wait here,” Val said, torn between helping the girl up to the lifeboats and pursuing St Laurents. “Hey, Anna, Tam, I have at least three passengers down here. Can we get someone to come help them?”

Only silence answered her and when Val inspected her bracelet she saw why. It had been soaked by her fall, which Tam had warned her would ruin the enchantment on it.

“Is that like a cellphone?” the girl asked.

“Yeah, but it’s busted,” Val said. “Let me see if I can get someone to help you up to the lifeboats ok?”

“No. I can’t leave yet,” the girl said. “If I’m not here, my Dad’s going to search all over for me, and he can’t do that and help my grandmother at the same time.”

“You can’t stay here much longer though. We’re taking on water. It’s not going to be safe here soon,” Val said.

“Are you going down there too?” the girl asked.

“Yeah, I kind of have to,” Val said.

“You’ll have to leave before it gets too late then right?” the girl asked. “You can get me on your way back. And until then, you can use this to call your friends.”

She passed a smartphone over to Val from a purse on the side of her chair.

“It’s my brother’s, but it’s connected to the Wifi, so you can use it to make calls from inside here.”

It was a rotten plan, but Val couldn’t come up with a better one so she nodded at the girl.

“Thank you.”

“Jessica.” the girl said, offering her name.

“Val.”

“Cool. If you see my Dad down there tell him to hurry up!”

Val started dialing the ship’s emergency number as she ran, cursing that she’d left her own phone in her room. She was supposed to be enjoying several days of peace and quiet, but the only bit of that the near future promised was at the bottom of a watery grave.

***

Tam backed out of the worst of the smoke and stumbled as the floor tilted with another lurch as water found a new place to pour into below decks. She expected to slam into the wall, the floor, or both but instead a pair of friendly arms caught her safely.

“Tam?” Cynthia asked, perplexed by Tam’s sudden appearance and the swirling dome of air which popped like a soap bubble once Tam was safe.

Tam looked up at Cynthia with equal puzzlement. Being wrapped in the arms of the woman she’d just spent a wonderful night with was incredibly at odds with the fire and smoke and death she was also surrounded by.

“I thought you were helping your Grandmother today?” Tam asked, feeling woozy from the bit of smoke she’d breathed in.

“My brother and niece are with her,” Cynthia said. “They’re heading to the lifeboats now.”

“That’s good. It’s not safe here,” Tam said, feeling like an idiot for stating the glaring obvious. She shook her head to force it to clear.

“I know. We’re trying to get the other passengers out,” Cynthia said, not releasing her hold on Tam.

“No point going farther here, this hallway is impassable,” Tam said. “I think the first bomb detonated in one of the cabins up ahead.”

“Were there any people up there?” Cynthia asked.

Tam weighed her responses, her lips pressing into a thin line.

“Maybe before the bomb went off,” she said. Given the nearness of the cabins to the attractions aboard the ship, Tam’s guess was it was a near certainty there had been people caught in the bomb blast but the question Cynthia was actually asking was ‘is there anyone there who needs help’ and form Tam had seen there answer was ‘definitely no’.

“And it was a bomb for sure?” Cynthia asked. “Not a malfunction?”

“There’s too many cabins missing for it to have been an accident,” Tam said.

“So the second one was a bomb too then? God I was afraid of that.”

“There might be others too,” Tam said. She knew she should leave Cynthia’s embrace and get up. She had places to be and people to help. Where those places were and who exactly she should start helping were problems she didn’t have an answer for though and even with all the disaster training she’d received picking a course of action wasn’t as straight forward as she’d hoped it would be. Plus the floor was still rocking in an unpleasant fashion.

“We have to get everyone off the ship asap,” Cynthia said.

“Are you working with someone else?” Tam asked.

“I volunteered with the crew’s emergency team,” Cynthia said. “I’m a firefighter. Did I tell you that?”

“I don’t think so, but under the circumstances I’m glad to hear it,” Tam said.

“Thanks,” Cynthia said. “Now let’s get you to safety, and then I’ll get suited up and help with the people who are trapped below decks.”

“There’s passengers who are stuck?” Tam asked, getting to her feet.

“Yeah, a few decks worth,” Cynthia said. “There’s debris blocking the stairs on this side of the ship. Some people managed to make it across to the other stairs, but some are cut off in pockets a few decks down.”

“We’re listing with this side facing towards the water,” Tam said. “They’re going to have even less time than anyone else before the ocean starts pouring in.”

“I know, that’s why I’ve got to go now,” Cynthia said.

“Not alone you don’t,” Tam said. “I’ve got Basic EMT certification. I’m tagging along to help.”

“This is dangerous. It would really be better if you went up to the lifeboats,” Cynthia said.

Tam swirled her hands around each other, growling in Ancient Sumerian as she did so. The thick cloud of smoke that lay down the hall followed the motion of her fingers and was draw in to the small but ever growing figure of a winged reptile Tam had conjured forth.

“I’m also a magician,” she said, nodding at a smoke-free branch in the corridor they could use to reach the stairs down more quickly.

“Ok then,” Cynthia said, blinking in surprise, as they descended to save the people trapped in the doomed ship.

***

Anna wanted to pace the deck, but chose to refrain instead. In part she wanted to preserve her carefully cultivated image of calm and control. In part she knew it would distract the crew when they had the least bandwidth for processing distractions.

Instead she observed the bridge and the people working on it.

Everyone was busy dealing with the crisis, but some were more busy than others.

“Captain Starling,” Anna said when he was between distractions. “May I have the use of Ms. Kellman’s time.”

“The head of Housekeeping? Why?” Starling asked.

“We have had two blasts so far,” Anna said. “If there is a third device onboard, I would like to find and disarm it before it makes our current predicament worse.”

“You need to be in a lifeboat with the other passengers in ten minutes,” Starling said, and nodded at Kellman who had been coordinating the housekeeping staff while the helped human signposts to get the passengers moving calmly in the correct directions.

“What do you need?” Kellman asked.

“The first blast occurred here,” Anna said, pointing to a 3D model of the ocean liner on a open computer screen. “I believe that no housekeeping services were requested by this room. Can you confirm that?”

“I’d need to check the logs, but I think you’re right,” Kellman said. “There weren’t any open suites on that level, they’re almost always all booked, but that one was empty after we sailed.”

“That was the room our fugitive had booked for himself,” Anna said. “So either he planted the bomb, because he had a key to the room, or someone else did because they thought he would be there.”

“He didn’t have a key,” Kellman said. “The room was empty so no cards were ever authorized for it.”

“I was afraid of that,” Anna said. “If St Laurents isn’t our bomber, then its someone who has access to the ship’s security and was able to transfer the explosives in before our departure.”

“You think it’s one of the security guards?” Kellman asked.

“No. it would be easier to hack the system than bribe a guard under the circumstance,” Anna said. “What we need to consider though is what was here.”

She pointed to the site of the second bomb blast.

“Nothing,” Kellman said. “Those are our freezers for food storage.”

“They were your freezers. Now they’re shrapnel,” Anna said. “Are there any similar freezers here or here?” She pointed to prow and stern of the ocean liner.

“Yeah, that’s what this section is,” Kellman said, pointing to a small room below the waterline and near the prow of the ship.

“Val,” Anna said, speaking into her wrist bracelet. “I need you to get to the following location. It’s where the third bomb will be. We have to stop that or we will sink before help can arrive.”

Only silence answered her plea though.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 10 – Act 2

Boats of any variety tend to have issues with issues explosions. Even the most sea worthy vessel isn’t an ideal environment for detonating payloads, unless the goal of the detonation is to cause fires and immediate panic. In that circumstance, a boat is an excellent location to trigger a bomb.

Val had the layout of the ocean liner memorized from their earlier search for Geoffrey St. Laurents, so in the chaos that followed the explosion, she took the lead, guiding Anna and Tam into the smoke filled corridors within the ocean liner.

“The blast came from this side of the boat, probably from one of the upper cabins,” she said, as she held her shirt to her mouth to help screen out the smoke.

“How can you tell?” Tam asked.

“The boat rocked away from this side but it felt like the force was lateral more than vertical. An explosion below the water line would have moved us differently,” Val said. “Also, all the smoke is up here. If the bomb had been on a low deck, we’d still have clear air up here for a bit.”

“Do we look for the source of the explosion then, or try to track down Geoff?” Tam asked.

“I think we get you to the explosion site as soon as possible,” Anna said. “With security as tight as it was, no one should have been able to carry on any explosives. We’ll need you to confirm whether someone cheated and used magic and whether they’d be able to do so again.”

“If magic is in play, do we know that Geoff can’t get away?” Val asked. “We thought he was a mundane lackey of PrimaLux, but if he can turn into a jellyfish or something that’s going to be a problem.”

“The moon phase is wrong for transfigurations at this latitude,” Tam said. “But we should find him anyways. Anyone who’s willing and able to bomb a boat could probably afford to send another boat out to help our target get away too.”

“We need to talk to the Captain as well,” Anna said. “There are established emergency protocols for accidents while at sea, but they depend on the captain’s evaluation of the situation, and the Captain doesn’t know that there is a wanted fugitive onboard.”

“I thought we wanted to convince St Laurents to work with us by not bringing the authorities in on it yet?” Tam asked.

“That was before he started endangering innocent lives,” Anna said.

“I’m going to ask the stupid question,” Val said. “Do we know this was him?”

“It is a safe bet,” Anna said.

“Maybe,” Val said. “But it could as easily be PrimaLux coming for him too, right? We know he took off without any warning. Didn’t call his bosses, and didn’t put in for any vacation time. He’s running from them as much as he’s running from the law.”

“Probably moreso from them,” Anna said. “Whether he was the culprit or the target though, the captain needs to choose what to do next with the knowledge that his vessel is still in danger.”

“If we catch St Laurents though we can stop all this, Val started to say and stopped herself. “No, wait, if he’s gone all Mad Bomber then he’ll have other devices already set up around the ship.”

“Exactly,” Anna said.

“So where are we going to meet up?” Val asked.

“If you find him, bring St Laurents to the captain’s quarters,” Anna said.

“It’s going to take me longer than that to scope out the blast zone,” Tam said.

“Take whatever time you need,” Anna said. “We’ll need to be able to stay in touch though.”

“We can use these,” Tam said, and handed Anna and Val two of the bracelets she’d been wearing. “I was experimenting with something new before we left. Cell coverage out here is non-existent and I wanted something that would stay off the ship’s Wifi.”

“Are these tech or magic?” Val asked.

“Both. There’s some simple wireless circuits etched into the inner ring of the bracelet and a sympathy spell written on the outside to connect them. Just say one or both of our names and we’ll be able to hear and talk to each other as long as they don’t get wet.”

Val laughed.

“I can’t imagine we’ll have any problem with water out here on the open ocean.”

“The design is a work in progress,” Tam grumbled.

“I want to hear from both of you within ten minutes,” Anna said, clicking the bracelet Tam gave her onto her wrist.

“Goeffrey isn’t a fast runner,” Val said. “I should have him in five.”

***

Five minutes was an optimistic appraisal. Val could have covered a lot of ground in five minutes but not with a crowd of panicked people struggling to get through the corridors too.

“We have experienced…” an announcer said over the shipwide intercom before their voice was drowned out in static. “Passengers are asked to stay in their cabins until…” Their voice was drowned again.

The explosion had damaged more than just one cabin. It had to have hit something important in the electrical system from how the lights were flickering.

“Please make room,” one of the uniformed staff said as he lead a trio of people in fire suppression gear back in the direction Val had come. The same direction that Tam had gone to find the source of the blast.

“Tam, you’ve got fire fighters incoming,” Val said.

“Thanks,” Tam said. “That’s not a great sign for what I’m walking into but maybe I can give them a hand.”

“Can you do that without obscuring traces of the blasts origin?” Anna asked.

“We’ll have to see,” Tam said. “I’m not seeing any traces of Igneum, so the most common source of magical fire probably wasn’t used.”

“Keep us informed,” Anna said.

Val reached a set of stairs that led both down and up. The smoke was less than a mild haze so she took a moment to gather a clean breath and focus her mind.

St Laurents had looked panicked before the explosion. He either knew it was going to happen, was working up the courage to make it happen, or had reason to suspect that something bad was going to occur.

The stairs up lead to the three higher decks that were accessible by passengers. There would be plenty of people up there in the middle of the day, which would make it very easy to blend in.

The one’s going down lead to decks primarily devoted to passenger cabins. People there would either be staying inside or would have already raced out to find family members they were concerned about.

Val tried to put herself in St Laurent’s position. His life had fallen apart, and he was terrified it was going to get worse. Hiding among a throng of people would be the safest move he could make, but given what Anna had said, it wasn’t going to be the option he’d go for.

Val descended the steps and imagined Geoffrey St Laurents fleeing from agents who were out to get him but didn’t exist. Geoffrey had met Anna and Val the night before so he knew someone had discovered his whereabouts. When Tam had joined them on the deck, he’d seen proof that it was more than two people and if it was more than two the odds of it being more than three were pretty high. With that thought screaming in his head, he couldn’t afford to risk being around people at all. He had no means of determining who was just a regular passenger and who was aware of who he really was.

That meant he’d flee to the lower decks, which unfortunately had hundreds of rooms. Val, however, had a secret weapon.

Geoffrey St Laurents was not a burly man. He couldn’t risk an altercation with anyone so the only rooms he could try to hide in would be ones with no passengers in them. Those would be difficult to find though because the cruise ship was operating at near 100% capacity. The only open rooms he would be able to locate were on the lowest levels.

With that in mind, Val descended into the belly of great boat, hoping to catch sight of St Laurents before he made it to one of the open rooms and covered his tracks.

***

Tam had less ground to cover than Val did, but the smoke created a few unique challenges.

As she walked down the hallway towards the blast site, only the red lights of the emergency signs were visible through the heavy, acrid clouds. Most were light be had sparks falling from them that suggested they might be igniting soon as well. That would be a problem in the future, assuming that Tam didn’t wind up wandering the room direction or choking to death on the deadly fumes.

Tam caught one of her breaths in her cupped hands and managed to intone a series of latin words three times without coughing and disrupting the spell. For her efforts a small zephyr spirit answered her call, swirling in a tight sphere around her head.

The zephyr’s winds were cool and clean, free from the toxins that suffused the smoke, but Tam knew the zephyr could only stay with her for a short time. They were not the sort of spirit which took well to captivity and the moment she bored it, the flighty being would leap away and continue its ceaseless frolic around the world.

Walking towards flickering tongues of flame was enough to keep the spirit’s attention for a few moments fortunately, though when she arrived at the location of the bomb blast, Tam almost wished she’d been forced to turn back.

“This wasn’t magic,” she said.

“That was quick,” Anna said.

“There’s too many dead people,” Tam said, looking out at a gaping hole in the top of the ship.

“Magic can’t kill people?” Val asked.

“It can, but the more people a spell effects the more resistance it faces, and the more it effects them, the harder they’ll fight back. There had to be a hundred people or more in the section I’m looking at. Even a supreme wizard would have trouble with half that number.”

“So we’re looking at a normal bomb then?” Anna asked.

“Not that normal,” Tam said. “This was a high end explosive. Military make I would guess? There’s nothing in this section that should have added to blast, so whatever blew up, it did all this work itself.”

“That’s wonderful,” Val said. “I’ve got an even more awesome question for you though; what do you think the odds are that someone only brought one of those on board?”

***

Anna knew the answer to Val’s question. Long experience had taught her that however bad a situation was, it could always get worse, and that if someone was willing to kill to achieve their objectives, they wouldn’t stop at one attempt.

“Excuse me m’am, you can’t come in here” one of the ship’s officers said as Anna strode onto the bridge.

“Yes, I am aware of that,” Anna said, walking past him without breaking her stride.

“We do not have time for passenger complaints, Ms…?” the captain said, turning to look at the new intruder in his domain.

“This isn’t a passenger complaint, Captain Starling,” Anna said. “Your ship has suffered an attack. It remains in peril. I have been tracking a fugitive who boarded your vessel when it sailed from Fort Lauderdale. There is a high likelihood that he or parties connected to him have rigged additional devices throughout the ship. You need to call in a May Day to all available craft.”

“Pardon me m’am, but we are still assessing the extent of the damages,” Starling said.

“We are in well traveled waters Captain Starling,” Anna said. “Despite that a critical failure in the ship’s superstructure would send us to the bottom before anyone could reach us unless they set a course in our direction immediately.”

“How do you know this?” Starling asked. “Are you associated with this terrorist?”

“The fugitive my team is searching for is wanted for embezzlement, among other financial crimes,” Anna said. “He holds a great deal of information on an international criminal organization. I did not expect them to go to these lengths to silence his testimony, but they have both the means and the motive to do so.”

“Captain,” a junior officer said from one of the communication consoles. “The fire team is reporting in. We’ve lost over thirty cabins and the fires are more than the automated systems can handle. They’re going to have to manually battle the worst parts of it.”

“The Journey of Discovery is on a retrofitting run not far from here,” Anna said. “If you raise them, they can help offload passengers and non-essential crew.”

The Captain looked Anna in the eye and she watched him turning over the biggest decision he’d ever had to make. To his credit, it didn’t take him long.

“Do it. Issue a general May Day and contact the Journey of Discovery directly. Instruct the passengers to move to the safest areas of the ship for now. We’ll work out the transfer procedure when Discovery confirms they can reach us.”

It was a good plan, boldly chosen and acted on without hesitation.

Sadly, it wasn’t enough.

In the middle of the instruction to the passengers to proceed to the decks another bomb blast went off.

This time it wasn’t on one of the highest decks.

It was below the water line, and it ripped an enormous hole in the ocean liner’s hull.

The ocean is wild, and beautiful, but most of all it is merciless. As thousands of gallons of water poured into the hull, the boat began a trip beneath the waves that it would never recover from.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 10 – Act 1

International waters weren’t quite the same as the “lawless West” but that didn’t stop wanted criminals from seeking refuge on them.

“It would be nice if all of our targets would relocate themselves to comfortable cruise ships before we picked them up,” Val said, leaning back onto the deck chair as she sipped from her tropical fruit beverage with a tiny umbrella.

“Have you seen Tam this morning?” Anna asked without looking up from the book she was reading.

“Not since last night,” Val said. “Do you think her date worked out well?”

“I expect our friend was able to work some magic,” Anna said with a smile.

Beyond the bow of the ship, a field of cobalt blue spread to the horizon where it met the cloudless sky. A river of sparkling light ran across the gently flowing ocean, the waves of the Atlantic dancing in lazy ripples in the midday sun. If a moment could be frozen in time, the tableau before Anna and Val would have been a good choice to hang in a museum.

“Did I miss anything?” Tam asked, taking one of the chairs beside Anna, and cracking open her laptop.

“We found our bad guy,” Val said.

“What? Where is he?” Tam asked, glancing around the deck.

“Other side of the pool,” Val said. “Right over there.” She gestured with the drink she was holding towards where a man in “casual wear” which had very obviously been purchased from the cruise ship’s gift shop was staring back at them.

“Wow, I thought he was hiding better than that,” Tam said and turned to look at her friends.

“He was,” Anna said. “He was holed up in his cabin and hadn’t left it since we left port.”

“We checked that though!” Tam said. “No one checked into his cabin. And you said he was probably hiding below decks somewhere.” She pointed to Val, who shrugged in return.

“No one moved into the cabin that was booked in his name,” Anna said. “What we had not checked was the cabin he booked with one of PrimaLux’s accounts though.”

“He booked something through Prima?” Tam asked. “How did I miss that?”

“It wasn’t Prima directly,” Anna said. “He booked his second stay through a company called Black Gate Security. I would guess that they are indirectly owned by Prima.”

“I’m so sorry,” Tam said. “I should have been here to help you with him.”

“Nonsense,” Anna said. “You were otherwise engaged.”

“Yeah, if we wanted to nab ourselves Mr. Geoffrey St. Laurents, he’d be stuffed in a sack somewhere already,” Val said.

“I’m still trying to parse why he isn’t to be honest,” Tam said. “Wasn’t the whole point of this trip to capture a VP of PrimaLux who was on the run from the law?”

“It is,” Anna agreed.

“Why wait then?” Tam asked.

“The cruise is scheduled to go for five more days,” Val said. “Our options are grab him now and be forced to sit on him for the remaining duration of the trip, or we can leave him free to wander and grab him before he gets off the boat.”

“There are not many places he can hide from us here, or anywhere he can go if he wishes to leave,” Anna said.

“For the time being, this boat is basically his prison,” Val said. “We’ll worry about moving him to somewhere more fitting once we can see land again.”

“Until then, relax, enjoy yourself,” Anna said. “You do not take enough vacations.”

Tam looked them both over to see if they were joking. It was true that she didn’t take much time off. Between her stage career and the work she did for the Second Chance club, not to mention her studies into the arcane arts, and keeping current on the latest advances in computer security, she wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with free time. She tried to think of the last real vacation she’s taken and couldn’t think of one within even a decade.

“And on that note,” Val said. “How did things go with Cynthia? She looked amazing in that dress last night!”

“We had a nice little walk on the deck in the moonlight after we left the dinner,” Tam said. “Then we helped her grandmother back to their suite.”

“And the Do Not Disturb sign on your door this morning?” Anna asked.

“We, uh, might have slept in a little late?” Tam said.

Val glanced up at the sky.

“We’re pretty close to noon unless the sun’s lying to me up there,” she said.

“I’m used to keeping performer’s hours,” Tam protested.

“I just mean did you have breakfast yet or was it cuddles and fun all morning long?” Val asked.

“The second one,” Tam said as her stomach growled feebly.

“Well fear not, we’ve got you covered,” Val said and passed a covered tray over to Tam.

A full breakfast with an assortment of Tam’s favorite options, both sugary and healthy, was waiting for her.

“Aww,” she said, surprise and joy lighting up her face. “This is really nice. How did you know when I’d be catching up with now you though?”

“We didn’t,” Anna said. “We’ve just asked them to bring a new tray every half hour or so.”

“Wow, I forgot what cruises were like with food,” Tam said as she dug into the first meal she’d had in over half a day.

“It would be nice if Geoff could see it like that too,” Val said. “He hasn’t had a thing to eat all morning. He’s just been sitting there, looking all twitchy.”

“So he knows we’re here,” Tam said between bites. “What did you two do to him? No wait, first, how did you find him?”

“That was all Anna,” Val said. “I thought we were going to have turn the ship upside down looking for him.”

“That wouldn’t have helped,” Anna said. “If he was the sort of person to literally hide out on ship like this then we might never have found him. There are too many places to look and too few of us to do so.”

“But you did find him, and pretty quickly too,” Tam said. “What gave him away?”

“The maids,” Anna said. “When we didn’t see him at any of the dinner locations during the first two nights, it was obvious that he was taking his meals in his room.”

“We thought he might have seen us when we were boarding, and that seemed to be confirmation of it,” Val said.

“If he had been a little nicer, I’m not sure if the cleaning staff would have been as willing as they were to speak about him,” Anna said. “It’s not uncommon for guests to get sick on the first few days of a cruise, but, as I expected, St Laurents was frightened and people like him rarely grow more patient or kind when gripped by fear.”

“Once we knew which rooms the hermits were cloistered in all we had to do was grab a room service tray and knock on their doors,” Val said.

“Mr. St. Laurents was our third stop,” Anna said. “He was relatively unhappy to see us.”

Tam chuckled.

“Yeah, I can imagine so,” she said. “We cost him his job by foiling Prima’s scheme to corner the market on antiretrovirals.”

“We weren’t the ones who burned his house down though,” Val said. “That was all Prima.”

“I wonder if he knows that?” Tam asked.

“He has been informed of it,” Anna said. “Whether or not he believed me is his own choice to make.”

“He seemed like he was more afraid of Prima finding him than us, so I’m going to guess that he has a good idea what the story is with his former employers.”

“I’m hard pressed to find much sympathy for him,” Tam said. “Anything he’s expecting Prima to do to him is probably something he’s done to someone else.” After a pause she added, “Do you think he’ll try something unwise?”

“Like attacking us?” Anna said. “He seemed desperate but also pragmatic. We checked his room and he has no weapons available beyond what he can scavenge on the boat.”

“I’d peg him as clever enough to loot a decent chef’s knife from somewhere,” Val said. “If he really intended to fight us, he could probably find a broom handle or something to put together a spear.”

“That wouldn’t get him very far, but he could hurt someone else,” Tam said.

“There’s no profit in an attack like that,” Anna said. “If he hurts anyone, the crew will make sure he’s brought before the authorities the moment we’re back in port.”

“And from there it’ll be all over for him given the warrant that’s out for his arrest,” Val said.

“What about the Captain?” Tam asked. “The staff could lock him up for the duration of the voyage couldn’t they?”

“They could,” Anna said. “We need more than Geoffrey St. Laurents in custody though,” Anna said. “We need him willing to work with us freely. He has a wealth of information on PrimaLux, including details on their plans that we haven’t seen come to light yet. Unless he’s on our side however, we’ll never get that kind of information out him.”

“Our idea is that we let him enjoy the trip,” Val said. “We don’t hang around or act creepy. He’s trapped on the boat so we’ll give him some space, and let him come around to the idea of helping up on his own.”

“Or at least we can plant the seed,” Anna said. “If we are going to have a productive relationship with him later, starting from a basis of trust will make things much easier.”

“That means we don’t follow him when he gets up and starts heading inside, right?” Tam asked.

“Yes,” Anna said. “You’re timing was excellent in that regards. When we met him last night, he saw only two of us. When you joined us just now it showed that our team was larger than he expected. If I were in his shoes, I would presume that our team has at least two other members on his case.”

“So whatever he’s planning now will be trying to take into account fighting five of us?” Tam asked.

“Three he can identify and two others who could anyone onboard the ship,” Anna said. “It creates a difficult problem space to work in. His best bet will be to fold and begin working for us.”

“Whether or not he does that though, we can look forward to five days of leisure if all goes well,” Val said.

“I feel a little guilty getting a headstart on that while you two were still working,” Tam said. “I honestly thought we’d called it for night though.”

“We had,” Anna said. “It was just a curiosity of mine that led me to try approaching the cleaning staff.”

“And I tagged along in case Geoffrey had any surprises waiting for us,” Val said. “Turns out security getting onto the ship is pretty good though. He was harmless.”

“Wow, I guess I might be free tonight too then,” Tam said.

“If you would like to spend the evening with Cynthia, please, go, enjoy yourself,” Anna said. “We do no one any favors if we spend all of lives forgetting to live.”

“Plus you two are adorable,” Val said and polished off the last of her drink.

“Well, she’s going to be busy for most of the day helping out her grandmother,” Tam said. “We’ve got a giant cruise ship, plenty of food, tons of games, and entertainment that I, for a change, do not have work on. What would you two like to do next?”

As Tam glanced up from her food, thunder boomed from beneath them and the ship shuddered like an earthquake had hit them in the middle of the ocean. From one of the doors to the inner corridors of the ship, smoke started to rise.

“Most likely we will need to take care of that,” Anna said. “I hope I am wrong though.”

“About what?” Tam asked.

“I fear I may have misjudged Mr. St. Laurent,” Anna said. “Desperation is rarely harmless and I may have overlooked just how truly afraid he was.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 09 – Act 4

Break-ins never look good on a security guard’s record. For a company with a typical level of competence in their HR practices, any break-in should result in the security manager doing a review of the guards performance to see if any mistakes were made, as well determining whether further training is required or if termination is an appropriate option.

In the case of the PrimaLux warehouse where the stolen antiretrovirals were stored the procedure was somewhat different. Terminations were always the preferred option in the event of any security breach. Six months to one year after the employee’s termination (a time period long enough to disconnect any association with PrimaLux and during which time PrimaLux would ensure that the fired employee would be unable to find any other work) the former employee would vanish off the face of the earth, taken away for the sort of thorough debriefing that didn’t leave enough remains to fill a matchbox with much less a coffin.

Danny Gallapili, the security guard on duty the night Anna and Tam entered the premises, wasn’t aware of his likely fate though, which worked in PrimaLux’s favor. Even the threat of being fired would have been enough to convince him to help Anna and Tam cover up their intrusion rather than report it like he was supposed to. The guard shifts at the warehouse were all he had and no matter how dull they were, he couldn’t risk losing the money that was putting his son through the chemo treatments.

If Danny had seen another guard be fired, he might have been worried about what he would find on his patrol route but, with the multiple layers of security coupled with the low value of the products typically stored in the warehouse, no one had tried to break into it during the decades since it had stopped housing military supplies. That long period without excitement was why the only weapon Danny carried on his rounds was a flashlight. As a weapon it was big and heavy enough to double as a decent striking baton. Against either Anna or Tam though it was woefully inadequate for personal defense.

Anna’s fighting style emphasized quick, crippling hits. She preferred not to resort to violence but when it was required she didn’t waste time testing her foes, or hesitating to deal the most disabling blows available.

If Danny had stumbled upon Anna, her first blow would have been to the arm holding the flashlight, likely breaking his elbow. As flashlight fell from his nerveless fingers, Anna would have grasped it and broken Danny’s nose, followed by putting him in a blood choke that would have rendered him unconscious in seconds.

The brutality of the attack and its suddenness would have given her the best possible chance of being unidentifiable later on, at the cost of leaving Danny in pain for weeks and impaired for months.

Tam’s fighting style was different than Anna’s. Where Anna had learned to fight with the assumption that violence was only required in situations where personal survival was on the line and hence no restrictions could ever be applied, Tam had learned most of her combat skills from James, her mentor in the mystic arts.

As a child and in school, Tam had been in plenty of situations where being able to smack someone around would have felt good, but she’d never been caught in an encounter where her life was actually on the line. James had seen this in their early spell training sessions and offered to show her some self-defense applications of the material she was studying.

On the night she and Anna broke into PrimaLux’s warehouse, Tam was carrying a trio of spells woven around herself for personal protection.

The first was a lightning web she could summon by gesturing in the proper way. Had she used that on Danny, he would have dropped as fast and hard as if a particularly strong taser hit him.

That was an effective and safe option for dealing with an aggressor but Tam had a greater fondness for her second. As long as she held that spell, with the right series of breaths and a word she could pop into a cloud of smoke for a few seconds. The smoke induced a mystical sleep for a dozen breaths when it was inhaled, but otherwise did no harm to its target. It was a gentler option than the lightning web and it had a wide variety of other uses than mere personal defense.

The last mystic tool in Tam’s arsenal was the sort of spell she tried never to use. It was a simple one and required only a single snap of her fingers in addition to its invocation word. When cast it set the target Tam selected on fire. The fire, being magical, needed no accelerant to ignite and spread, and required no external oxygen to burn.

Its target, whatever that target was, would stop burning once it was reduced to ash. Not before. It could be the weapon someone was carrying. It could be the person who was wielding the weapon. It could be the entire building they stood within.

Tam never cast spells like that, but she made it point to carry them when they were available because sometimes situations didn’t allow for subtlety or holding back.

As Danny rounded the corner to inspect the rooms where the “special bead shipment” was being stored however, Tam did not ensorcel his mind, and Anna did not shatter his body.

All Danny saw in the room were the crates he’d seen on every other patrol he’d made.

Anna and Tam were long gone.

***

A week later, Danny received a call from Spiral Horn Security, a startup security firm what was recruiting in his area. The benefits package offered included medical coverage that would pay for his son’s treatments and a family leave benefit that would allow Danny to spend the time he needed making sure his son got all of the care he needed.

Danny was the one who chose to terminate his employment with PrimaLux therefor, and shortly thereafter moved to the west coast to be closer to the specialist’s recommended for his son’s treatments. Somehow, just a few hours after Danny clocked out for the last time, PrimaLux’s records of his employment were lost and so there was never any “follow up interview” done to determine if he had been compromised.

***

It was a pleasant, sunny day as Anna, Tam, and Val sat in a little cafe in Paris. The food was delicious and the wine well chosen, but the knowing smiles they shared as Anna’s daughter Darya tried to ply them for answers, came from a very different source than the tasty treats laid out before them.

“You had something to do with all this, didn’t you mother?” Darya said, pushing a pile of documents across the table.

“All of what?” Anna asked, picking up the topmost folder.

“A security breach?” Tam asked picking up one of the other folders.

“Not that,” Darya said. “Or not that directly. That was just a problem that our local IT Director ran into, but the timing was so coincidental that I had to include it.”

“Coincidental with what?” Val asked.

“The arrival of several misplaced shipments of antiretrovirals,” Darya said.

“Is that a bad thing?” Val asked.

“Bad? No! It’s amazing. It’s a miracle even,” Darya said.

“And I am now a miracle worker?” Anna asked.

“Isn’t that exactly how you’ve described your new job?” Darya said. “You help out people who are in need, when no one else can?”

“That is the club motto,” Tam said.

“But that most often takes the form of financial assistance, or unbiased investigations into issues,” Anna said. “Miracles are not an option on the standard contract.”

Darya laughed.

“As if you’ve ever signed a standard contract in your life mother.”

“While that may be true, I do not see the miracle here you are referring to, or its connection to our organization?” Anna said.

“It looks like you had three major shipments go missing, but then they turned up a bit later?” Val said. “Sounds like a shipping glitch.”

“It was more than a glitch,” Darya said. “The original shipments arrived with the right paperwork, in the right containers, with the right inspection forms. Except they weren’t the right shipments. They’d turned to stone.”

“I see that the shipping company claims to have found the correct shipments when they were unloading planes in Cambodia, Kenya, and Uganda,” Anna said.

“Yes, except those planes weren’t supposed to be carrying those shipments,” Darya said. “We have no idea where those drugs came from!”

“Were they tested?” Tam asked.

“Thoroughly,” Darya said. “The chemical analysis says that they’re the shipment we’ve been missing. Well, the shipment we’ve been missing and then some.”

“Interesting,” Anna said. “It looks like there was a 30% overage in each shipment. Isn’t that enough to cover the stock needed for testing and make up for the shortfall in supply caused by the delay?”

“It is. Exactly enough. Like it was planned and calculated by someone who knew we were having a problem and when it had occurred.”

“And how would someone have acquired these additional drugs?” Anna asked.

“I have no idea!” Darya said. “I don’t know how anyone found the missing drugs in the first place, but I am sure that we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude and a certain mother of mine always insisted that debts like that were supposed to be paid off.”

“I’m guessing you weren’t depending on a miracle,” Val said. “You must have had a backup plan in play?”

“We did,” Darya said. “We put out a fresh round of bids to source the replacement shipment.”

“Some interesting offers came in from the looks of it,” Tam said, scanning down a page of quotes.

“Yes, but that’s where this gets very strange,” Darya said. “One of the companies, a subsidiary of some giant conglomerate called PrimaLux, won the bid hands down. They had a better price than our principal suppliers by far. When it came time to deliver though, their shipments didn’t pass even the initial inspections.”

“What happened?” Tam asked, a gleam of glee sparkling in her eyes.

“They were trying to ship sugar pills in place of actual drugs,” Darya said. “It was like the contract was a joke to them. They couldn’t even produce an outbound inspection report that showed they’d ever tested the pills after they were manufactured.”

“So what happened to them? The company I mean,” Val asked.

“They were hit with the fees for their failure to deliver in a timely fashion and they’ve been barred from ever submitting bids to Medecins Sans Frontieres again,” Darya said. “I just can’t imagine what went wrong there.”

“Hypothetically speaking,” Tam said. “What if they were behind the original lost shipments?”

“How would they have done that?” Darya asked. “The pills were inspected at every step of the journey.”

“In theory, all you would need to do is disguise some beads with a white covering to pass the inspections though,” Tam said. “If you wanted to cheat the system that is.”

“Yeah, and a simple heist of the delivery truck would take care of the rest,” Val said.

“Retrieving the real drugs would be somewhat more complicated of course,” Anna said.

“Right, first you would have to find out where they were,” Tam said.

“And not get caught, because if you did, then you’d never get the drugs out from under the bad guys’ noses,” Val said.

“If you did manage that however, the rest would be reasonably simple I believe,” Anna said.

“Yeah, once you knew where the drugs were, all you would need to do is repeat their own trust heist trick against them,” Tam said.

“Let them keep the drugs all nice and climate controlled for you, until they’re ready to move them. Then replace their truck with one you’ve filled up with, I don’t know, sugar pills maybe?”

“That would be an excellent choice,” Anna said. “Especially if they were in containers which were similar containers to the originals but the pills themselves were visibly different in size and shape.”

“Right, once they fail the first inspection, there’s no chance that they’d make it out into the distribution channel and be given to people who need actual medicine,” Tam said.

“But I think it says here that the sugar pills wound up being repurposed to help feed livestock where supplies were running low,” Val said. “Nice. I wonder who thought of that?”

“It was an anonymous suggestion,” Darya said with a frown. “Which is amusing because there’s no official channel for making anonymous suggestions that I know of.”

Val looked away and forcibly kept herself from whistling innocently.

“I suppose that could explain how the drugs were lost and found, but what about all the rest of it?” Darya asked. “The mysterious shipment? The lack of inspection reports? The extras in the shipments?”

“Well the extras would come from any surplus that the thieves were planning to flood the market with,” Val said. “I mean it’s not like there was a better use for the surplus than to send it to the people who actually needed it right?”

“And as for the rest?” Tam said. “Maybe people need to learn to change their passwords more often. I mean, computers can be just so unreliable, especially if, heaven forbid, you manage to get physical access to one that’s on a system that’s otherwise ridiculously secured. Oh the things you could do then. Gives me a shiver just thinking about it.”

“I think the most important thing you could do though is something like what happened,” Anna said.

“Yeah,” Val said. “There are a lot of people who need a second chance at being healthy and I’d imagine whoever was responsible for your good luck is more than happy to have been able to be a part of that.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 09 – Act 3

Working out how a magic trick is done always lead Tam to the same place.

“We need to figure out an even better trick,” she said as she pulled up a few dozen new reports.

“Is that professional pride speaking?” Val asked as she poured a three cups of tea, Earl Grey for Anna, Peppermint for Tam, and Chamomile for herself.

“Partially,” Tam said. “More importantly though, we need to get back the drugs that were stolen.”

“Agreed,” Anna said. “The missing shipments represent six months worth of medication for the regions they were being delivered to. Even with the replacement stock that Prima is offering, there will be a serious gap in availability.”

“We’ll need to be subtle about this one,” Tam said. “Prima is in a secure position so far. If they catch wind of us poking around this issue, they can destroy the drugs without taking a loss at all.”

“They are most likely storing the stolen shipment in a location that cannot be tracked back to them and where the drugs can be disposed of easily in case unwanted attention arises,” Anna said.

“So they have no exposure, and all the time in the world to work with, while we can’t let them catch a glimpse of what we’re doing and we’re under a hard time limit or people will start dying?” Val said as she passed Anna and Tam their cups of tea.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Tam said, “Except for the part where they have all the time in the world. The contract they’re bidding on has an expedited delivery schedule as one of the critical line items. They can afford to lose this bid, since they’re not out any actual production costs, but if they win it they’ll be required to provide the antiretrovirals by the deadline or face some huge penalties.”

“They may have put their bid in on the contract to shake up the competition,” Anna said. “The bids are kept secret until the final decision is made though, so they can only destabilize the market for these drugs by winning.”

“I don’t quite follow how they’re going to take down the market by selling at a loss here?” Val said. “Won’t everyone else see that’s what they’re doing at just wait them out?”

“Prima’s supply is limited, so this can’t be a long term strategy on their part,” Anna said. “But it doesn’t have to be either. If they can chase their competitors out of manufacturing the antiretrovirals for long enough, the competition will repurpose their labs for manufacturing other drugs which they can turn a profit on.”

“Converting a production line isn’t cheap or quick,” Tam said. “Prima may have another prong in its strategy as well however. Kleinwell derives a big percentage of their income from the sale and subsidies of antiretrovirals. Prima doesn’t need to drive everyone out of the market right away. All they need to do is make things hard enough on Kleinwell that they can move in a scoop up Kleinwell’s resources for a pennies on the dollar and they’ll have both the personnel and the equipment to resume production under their own banner.”

“Next question then; how do we stop them?” Val asked.

“The first step is going to be figuring out where they took the drugs after they substituted the painted rocks for them,” Anna said.

“I have a guess on that one,” Tam said. “Or at least a place where we can start looking.”

***

Val coasted her bike to a stop, and killed the engine, pulling up behind Anna, but arriving a full ten seconds before Tam made it to their target.

“Why was there traffic on I-95 at 2:00am?” Tam put her helmet on her handlebars with a scowl.

“It’s the East Coast, so therefor the road was under construction,” Val said.

“I thought that’s why traffic was bad during the day,” Tam said.

“It is, and when it’s raining, and when it’s clear, and when the sun is low, and when the sun is high,” Val said. “Construction in the North East is very consistent, it only stops when no one needs to use the road.”

“We are fortunate that people are not diverting onto the surface roads,” Anna said, eyeing the empty street that passed by their destination.

The “Drawing a Bead” crafts store stood empty and dark due to it being the dead of the night. The decorations in the windows were typical of a New England bead shop, but the security cameras and the steel reinforced door spoke of the shop having a somewhat unusual purpose.

“Interesting building,” Val said, looking for an unguarded access point.

“It used to be an army supply depot,” Tam said. “It was sold back to the city in the 1980s and the ground level spaces were converted for commercial use, while the upper floors remained as climate controlled warehouse space.”

“That explains the pizza place and the shoe store our shop has as neighbors,” Val said. “The question is why would a place like this be connected to the drug heist?”

“We still have to verify that it is,” Tam said. “Anna asked me how I’d steal the drugs though and keeping the people involved to the smallest possible number would be priority one.”

“The bead store was already involved then?” Val asked.

“The stones in the fake shipment were too regular to have been collected from a quarry. They were manufactured to those dimensions,” Tam said. “There’s not a lot of bead makers in the US, most of that work is done in Asia, but there are importers and distributors, and this is the closest one who sourced beads like the ones found in the pills.”

“Also, it would appear that they have substantial storage space to work with,” Anna said, gesturing to the buildings third and fourth floors which boasted tall glass block windows.

“Yeah, they’ve got access to the materials, and the space required to store pallets of drugs without attracting notice,” Tam said. “Most importantly though, they’ve also got the talent and expertise required to forge the pills.”

“You were saying they probably painted the beads with something that would flake away in transit?” Val said.

“Yeah,” Tam said. “The reports that  were in Darya’s email mentioned an unknown substance pooled at the bottom of the pill bottles. The chemical analysis on it hasn’t come back yet. If I’m right, it’ll turn out to be the remains of the white coating that disguised the beads during their first inspection.”

“Were you able to find a connection between the bead shop and PrimaLux?” Anna asked.

“Unfortunately no,” Tam said. “But I did find something almost as good. “Drawing a Bead’ has been in business for the last twenty five years, and in that time it has been profitable and paid its taxes, but it’s never paid for rent or any employee salaries.”

“Who owns the business?” Anna asked, her eyes narrowing in suspicion.

“The same gentlemen who opened it originally,” Tam said. “As a note though, he died in 2004. And then again in 2009.”

“Who did his estate pass to then?” Anna asked.

“It didn’t,” Tam said. “In both cases the death certificates were withdrawn as being clerical errors.”

“Yeah, that doesn’t sound suspicious at all,” Val said.

“It’s a trap,” Anna said.

“Sort of a strange one isn’t it?” Tam asked. “The ownership records haven’t been touched in nine years, and it’s a minor enough error that most people would just pass it off.”

“It’s not a trap for most people,” Anna said. “It’s a trap for us. If you probe any deeper into the owner’s records, I am sure that some flags will be raised. In fact, if you’re correct, I’m sure flags have already been raised. Prima knows that there are people like us out there in the world, and that for most of their schemes only someone like us is going to pose any serious challenges to getting what they want.”

“If they know we’re on to them though, won’t they just destroy the medicines and pretend they were never a part of the whole heist?” Val asked.

“They may wait to see what we intend to do first,” Anna said. “For as wise as it would be to cut their losses, even the most dispassionate of people can become overly invested in large scale plans like this. Knowing about the bead seller doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve figured out the location of the missing drugs, and it will be very easy for whoever is in charge to convince themselves that there is no need to throw away the tremendous work they’ve done so far on the faint chance that we’ll successfully interfere in their business.”

“We’ll still need to deal with the drugs tonight though,” Tam said. “The longer we wait, the more likely they are to move them just to be safe.”

“That’s my cue to go find us a truck isn’t it?” Val asked.

“If you would be so kind,” Anna said.

Val offered a wry salute to her friends and started her bike back up.

“As for us,” Anna said. “We have a warehouse to infiltrate.”

***

“Drawing a Bead” wasn’t just well secured for a craft store, the security on it was tight by the standards of a federal bank. External cameras, motion sensors, ambient temperature monitors, hidden pressure plates in the floor, active laser scanning, and passive listening systems.

“I almost feel like I should leave them a report card of the spots they missed,” Tam signed to Anna.

“That would be spectacularly unwise,” Anna signed. “Start drafting a copy while I disable the sensors on the next storage room.”

“You seem to be serious?” Tam signed, raising an eyebrow in confusion.

“I am,” Anna signed after she finished disabling the monitoring with the room where they believed they would find the missing drugs.

“I thought we needed subtlety in this mission?” Tam signed.

“Honesty is sometimes the most subtle lie of all,” Anna signed.

Tam frowned, not following Anna’s line of thought until she saw the the little malicious curl in Anna’s smile.

“Ah, misdirection,” Tam signed. “I’m embarrassed I missed that. I’ll have to turn in my magicians license.”

“We’ll wait to send anything until we see whether we need to leave any traces of our work behind us,” Anna signed.

“Right, if there’s any chance that they can see what we’ve done, then I send out an email to tease the hell out of them,” Tam signed. “Just like an arrogant, invincible, hacker genius would do to show off. If you can’t escape someone’s notice, then make sure you control how they see you. Stage magic 101.”

“Usually, I imagine, you don’t try to enrage your audience however,” Anna signed.

“Depends on the night,” Tam signed.

Anna smiled and opened the door to the storage room. Inside, sitting covered only by a tarp lay the crates they’d been expecting to see.

“We’re in the right place,” Tam signed.

She glanced at Anna who was frowning.

“How many pallets were stolen in the three shipments?” Anna signed.

Tam looked around the room. It was a big area and its contents were uniformly the same. Rows of pallets, all covered in similar tarps, and all of the same general size and shape. She did some quick math.

“There’s more boxes here than there should be,” Tam signed. “About twice as many in fact.”

“We need to find out what’s in these pallets,” Anna signed.

“The exterior labeling says it’s the drugs we’re looking for,” Tam signed.

“That’s not going to be enough,” Anna signed. “We need to see what they really are.”

“I can look for a manifest on the craft store’s inventory system?” Tam signed.

“Do that,” Anna signed. “I’ll check the physical contents.”

In the distance, a door opened.

There was one part of the security system which no amount of clever electronic hacking could suppress.

Whistling an off key tunes, an underpaid and under trained, security guard began wandering in their direction on his nightly rounds. He couldn’t out fight either Anna or Tam, he couldn’t sneak up on them, or even override the security hacks they’d done, but the moment he saw them he could raise an alarm and then there would be no way for them to carry the drugs out of the warehouse before the police arrived and PrimaLux became aware of the entire situation.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 09 – Act 2

The first challenge with magic is figuring out how an effect is performed.

“It wasn’t a spell,” Tam said, looking over the reports which detailed the loss of the drug shipment.

“How can you tell?” Val asked. She was reading the same reports but was looking for different markers in the data. In her world, things were stolen by people, not magic, so she was searching for a window in which a team of thieves could have lifted the pills while they were in transit.

“Because it happened the same way three times,” Tam said. “Spells aren’t great for repeating the same effect over and over.”

“What other kinds of magic could be in play?” Anna asked.

“We can check with James, he’s better read on the arcane than I am, but if I had to do something like that this, I’d use some of the same effects that I use in my stage show,” Tam said.

“You think someone switched the shipment out with sleight of hand?” Val asked, looking up from her screen.

“More or less, yeah,” Tam said. “The key with most illusions is to direct the audience’s attention away from what’s actually happening and into a narrative that follows a logical path until the moment when you reveal the trick and shatter their expectations.”

“Someone substituted a shipment of rocks for drugs in order to deceive the people transporting the crates,” Anna asked. “Why the deception?”

“Stealing is easier when people don’t know you’ve done it?” Val suggested.

“True, however this wasn’t a job where they took the easy route was it?” Anna said.

“Yeah, if they were looking for easy, then simply taking the shipment and leaving the empty crates behind would have been a lot simpler,” Tam said. “Going to the trouble to replace the crates that were filled with bottles of pills with ones that were filled with bottles of stones couldn’t have been quick or cheap to pull off.”

“Can you pull up the shipping manifests?” Val asked as a thought occurred to her. “I want to see both the departure scan and the arrival one.”

“You’re thinking there will be a discrepancy in weight recorded?” Anna asked.

“Yeah,” Val said. “The most likely candidates to pull this off would be people working for the shipping company. They have the most unsupervised access to the packages.”

“Bad news there,” Tam said as she clicked a pair of documents over to her compatriots. “It looks like the weight measures both outgoing and incoming are the same.”

“How about at the loading docks inbound into the shipping facility?” Val asked.

“That’ll take me a second,” Tam said. “They came in on a truck from the manufacturer along with a bunch of other medications.”

“Does the weight on the shipping manifest correspond to the value on the manufacturer’s invoice?” Anna asked.

“They didn’t weigh the packages individually on the inbound side,” Tam said, “Just the truck’s contents as a whole, and yeah, those match up, but the margin of error is big enough that it’s not conclusive for our packages being exactly the same.”

“We have one possible failure point in the delivery chain then,” Anna said.

“Can you pull up the profiles and credit histories for the people working at the shipping facility?” Val asked. Anna was usually the one who followed the money trail, but Val was a quick study.

“I didn’t see any significant purchases made by any of them recently,” Tam said.

“Look for anyone with considerable amounts of debt,” Anna said.

“That would be everyone there except the senior management,” Tam said.

“So if any of them were bought out, they’re too smart to flaunt it. That makes this a bit harder,” Val said.

“Not necessarily,” Anna said. “We can eliminate many of them from consideration because of the type of debt they are carrying.”

“How so?” Val asked, turning to listen to Anna with the same focused attention she used in listening to teachers whose classes engaged her imagination.

“For the wealthy, debt is something they can juggle and use as a tool,” Anna said. “For the poor, it is an inexorable crushing force which they can either stave off or be driven under by. The workers in the shipping center barely make enough money to afford food and lodging. One had a car breakdown this week. Without going further into debt, he wouldn’t have been able to fix it and without a working car he would have lost his job, beginning a downward spiral which is difficult to recover from. Another is paying for the medical bills for her spouse. If she runs out of money, her spouse will die. Neither they, nor anyone else in their sort of situation, has the luxury of sitting on a windfall.”

“I’ve seen that,” Val said. “But it doesn’t mean that they’re not smart enough to hide the money well. Just because they’re poor doesn’t mean they can’t be clever and smart. The car guy could have paid off the mechanic under the table, and the medical bills lady could have arranged financing which her new boss paid for instead.”

“That is true too,” Anna said. “But there is another reason to clear their names in this; they aren’t the weakest point for someone to work on. Tam could you describe the handling cycle the drugs go through?”

“They’re manufactured at Kleinwell Medical’s lab in Rhode Island,” Tam said. “Before packaging they’re run through a series of spot inspections to verify that the batch is viable.”

“That is one potential failure point,” Anna said.

“Once they’re packaged, they’re loaded onto a truck and shipped to the distribution center,” Tam said.

“Looks like they travel by air, so they’re sent up to Logan airport in Boston?” Val asked.

“Yep, though the distribution center is a few miles from the airport. It makes it easier to collect things I guess,” Tam said.

“That gives us two more points of failure then,” Anna said. “The numbers at the distribution center may be the same for incoming and departing packages because it’s the handlers at the airport who are responsible for the change.”

“There’s one problem with that,” Tam said. “These packages are bonded and sealed, and the ID labels aren’t easy to tamper with. Before the packages leave the distribution center they’re inspected by the FDA and then placed under an official seal which is only broken when they reach their destination.”

“So either someone is able to forge that seal, or the drugs are being replaced after they arrive?” Val asked.

“I wish it was that simple,” Tam said. “In all three cases, the people who reported the problem with the drugs were the inspectors on the arrival end. They were the first people to see the drugs once they were brought off the plane.”

“So the drugs are inspected, they’re placed in a sealed container, and then the next time they’re opened they’ve transformed into rocks,” Val said. “And this isn’t some mystical stuff? Just regular old boring theft.”

“Maybe not all that regular,” Anna said. “Tam, if you had to pull off this effect for a magic show, how would you do it?”

“Do I get to bribe people?” Tam asked. “A lot of effects are easier to do with an assistant.”

“Let’s say no,” Anna suggested. “The more people involved in a crime, the less likely it is to be carried out in secret.”

“Ok, let’s see then,” Tam said. “I’d start with a crew to replace the drugs. Probably three people total. Two for lugging the rocks around, and one, probably me, to run interference if need be.”

“Where would you strike?”

“The easiest spot would be the receiving end,” Tam said. “All the hard work has been done by that point, I’d just need to step in, grab the drugs, and get out of there. Except if I did that, I wouldn’t bother leaving the rocks behind.”

She was silent for a moment before her eyes lit up.

“Oh! That’s very clever! Good job guys, or, I mean, bad job, they’re definitely evil those scumbags. Clever, but evil.”

“What did they do?” Val asked.

“The far end of the delivery chain is the easy spot to snatch the drugs from,” Tam said. “But that’s where everyone is going to be looking. By having the missing drugs turn up there, our magician thieves are directing the audience’s attention as far away from where they’re making the switch as they can.”

“The earliest they can be switching them out is after the inspection though,” Val said. “And you said the drugs are sealed right after that.”

“Right, which is why you switch them out even before then,” Tam said. “A principal with a magic trick is that when you show the audience the cards to prove that the deck isn’t stacked, you do it after the deck has been well and truly stacked.”

“How would they pass the initial inspection though?” Anna asked.

“Let me confirm something,” Tam said and dove into a few more reports on her laptop. “Oh and can you tell Darya that I am in love with the people who wrote these reports. They were so good about including exact details.”

“What sort of details do you need?” Val asked, looking through her own copies of the reports.

“Here we go,” Tam said. “Check out the size of the stones found in the vials.”

“They’re 4.8 millimeters tall and 9.7 millimeters in diameter beads?” Val said. “That’s fairly tiny.”

“Tiny, and very regular,” Tam said.

“Which means they were manufactured,” Anna said.

“Yes, and now look at the dimensions of the original tablets,” Tam said.

“It says they were 5 millimeters tall with a diameter of 10 millimeters,” Val said.

“The rocks fit inside the pills?” Anna said.

“The rocks were the pills,” Tam said. “Someone painted them with a degradable covering – maybe sugar or or cornstarch, something that could be bleached white if need be to match the original pill. I bet if something does a chemical analysis of the vials there will be an agent which devours the covering, a bacteria or something maybe, and thin film of waste product at the bottom of the vials.”

“How would that pass inspection though?” Val asked.

“The FDA is tremendously underfunded,” Tam said. “Inspections, when they even happen, are almost always limited to visual confirmation. Full chemical analysis is too costly and time consuming to use except in instances where fatalities have occurred.”

“Which didn’t happen in this case because the true nature of the pills was discovered before anyone took one. Ok, so is Kleinwell behind this? They were the ones who made the pills right?” Val asked.

“It is unlikely this was their doing,” Anna said. “Regardless of how or when the pills were tampered with, the losses will go back to Kleinwell, as will the responsibility. They have nothing to gain by destroying their own products. At least not in this manner.”

“Yeah, and with PrimaLux as one of their competitors we have a much better candidate for who’s at fault,” Tam said. “My guess is that Prima is swapping out the shipment during its delivery to the distribution center. That’s the moment I would target. Pick up the real drugs in one truck, arrive at the shipping warehouse with another truck with the fake pills already loaded.”

“Nice. Remind me if I ever need to do a crime to have you plan the caper,” Val said.

“That seems to fit,” Anna said. “The replacement allows the theft to go unnoticed for as long as possible, and obscures the moment when it occurred. The next question is, why steal these drugs in the first place?”

“Are they worth much?” Val asked.

“Antiretrovirals are literally life saving drugs,” Tam said. “Their distribution is complicated, but, yeah, they could be worth a lot.”

“Maybe it’s not about the value of the drugs,” Anna said, her voice growing distant. “Look at the agencies which the drugs were being sold to.”

Tam and Val both perused the documents that Anna passed over to them.

“It looks like they’ve had to place new orders,” Val said.

“And none of them reordered from Kleinwell,” Tam said.

“So they’re trying to drive Kleinwell out of business by getting all of the buyers to go elsewhere?” Val asked. “That sounds like Prima.”

“There’s more to it than that,” Anna said. “Look at how much the buyers are paying for their replacement orders.”

“Ok, that is weird,” Tam said.

“It’s less than what Kleinwell was charging?” Val said.

“It’s less than Kleinwell’s cost to produce the drugs,” Tam said.

“This isn’t about driving Kleinwell out of business,” Anna said. “This is about driving everyone out of the antiretroviral business.”

“Why would they do that?” Val asked. “It can’t just be about money.”

“It’s not,” Anna said. “They’re testing a strategy. They’re trying to establish a monopoly on essential pharmaceuticals.”

“Why?” Tam asked. “It would be crushingly expensive to sustain that, and people could break the monopoly as soon as the prices rose.”

“That’s what we need to find out,” Anna said. “Before they put their plan in motion.”