Saturday Scenes: Chaos Theory (part two)

This week’s Saturday Scenes entry picks up very shortly after last week’s left off: Derek touched something he shouldn’t have done, and is about to find out where it sent him.

Cautiously, he opened his eyes. A long way above him, painted figures frolicked and danced on a vaulted ceiling. He couldn’t work out what exactly the figures might be, but he was dead certain that no such thing had ever appeared on any of the ceilings in his ramshackle rented house, or indeed on any ceilings he’d ever seen before. He thought that the figures might be moving very subtly, but he dismissed the notion immediately. Such a thing wasn’t possible, and he was too far away to discern it besides.

He stirred gingerly, not quite ready to attempt sitting up. He felt mildly sore, but was bothered by the vague inclination that he should be in much more pain after what must have been quite a fall, and argued with himself briefly about whether or not this was something that should really concern him. His thought processes weren’t what one might call transparent to begin with, and he currently rather suspected that his brain had been tossed into his pitifully underpowered dryer to tumble for a few hours. A slight motion caught his attention, and he turned his head to see Katrina standing nearby, twitching minutely. Her dingy coveralls had vanished, and instead, she wore an impeccably tailored suit of bright purple velvet, with long, flowing skirts and a pale pink blouse peeking out below the jacket. Silver buttons gleamed with reflected candlelight, and from his prone vantage point, Derek caught a glimpse of heeled silver boots. Her brown hair with its purple streak was still drawn back, but now coiled neatly at the nape of her neck.

She looked around, taking in her surroundings. He wasn’t sure if it was something about this girl in particular or just his general sense of discombobulation at the moment, but he found her expression very difficult to read. Dismay, certainly, combined with a vague disdain, and perhaps just the slightest bit of fear, although that could have been him projecting. Notably absent was the slightest trace of any sort of surprise. “Fuck,” she said decisively as she swept her gaze across the room. She must have rather liked the sound of it, the feel of the word across her tongue, for she said it again. “Fuck.” No malice, no frustration, just a simple declaration. She stepped lightly toward him, her natural agility entirely unhindered by the skirts, and plucked the device that was almost certainly not a smartphone out of Derek’s nerveless fingers. The pale skin of her face illuminated with its many flashing colors as she frowned over it. “Fuck!” she said again, this time with much more feeling.

Derek could feel his head starting to clear, and decided that perhaps he didn’t have a concussion after all. He pushed himself upright, and, emboldened by this small victory, blinked and looked around. Candelabra hung on the wall every few feet, twisted golden metal holding golden lengths of wax, most of them burned far down and dripping wax, topped with golden tongues of flame. Overwrought baroque frames hung on the creamy stone walls — somehow, in a way his eye couldn’t quite follow, they hung flat and square, despite the fact that the walls curved quite sharply. The room was a perfect circle, unbroken, he realized with a lurch of his stomach, by any sort of windows or doors. “Where are we?” he asked. His voice creaked as if from long disuse. He noticed his little flashlight on the ground beside him. Bemused, he turned it off and slipped it in his pocket.

She ignored him. He hoped that this wasn’t going to become a thing. Instead, she stalked the perimeter of the room, peering intently at the frames, occasionally glancing at the lights on her gadget. Each frame held a painting, mostly landscapes in rough, brushy strokes, implausible colors, and proportions that seemed more suited to a high school art class than the odd sort of gallery this appeared to be: a mountain scene in shades that might have been intended to be greyscale but just came off as really depressing, a patchwork sort of city presided over by a particularly needle-like silver castle, a generic forest that reminded him of one of those default desktop wallpapers, a walled garden with garishly-colored blobs that were presumably flowers.

Derek climbed cautiously to his feet, taking stock as he moved to reassure himself that he hadn’t sustained any permanent damage. Focusing on the state of his body, carefully flexing each muscle in turn, measuring each deliberate breath, all of this was preferable at the moment to trying to set his brain to figuring out what on earth had happened in the last, as far as he could tell, two minutes. While he didn’t have the slightest inkling what it was he’d gotten himself into, he was savvy enough to have realized that his brain wasn’t going to be pleased with the answers, and was best kept in the dark for as long as possible.

Having decided this, he did himself a disservice by turning his attention back to Katrina just in time to see her slip her gadget into her pocket with one hand and put the other through one of the canvases: a bucolic country scene depicting some misshapen animals frolicking in the bushes, with the chimney of a farmhouse smoking contentedly in the background. He sucked in his breath, waiting to hear the fabric rip and her hand smack sickeningly into the stone wall. The damage spectacularly failed to happen, as her arm disappeared through the frame up to the elbow. But then Derek’s brain set itself with gusto to gibbering in the corner, for she came back out of the painting clutching a rather lumpy brown rabbit by the scruff. It paddled its hind legs a bit, one of them reaching up to surreptitiously adjust the coral waistcoat it wore. Katrina held on to the painted folds of skin and fur securely, but the bunny resolutely remained two dimensional, painted by someone with only a passing acquaintance with lapine anatomy. “Oh, hello,” the rabbit said in a surprisingly deep voice with a quick, staccato inflection. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Long while. Wasn’t sure you were coming back.” Derek’s abused rational brain started weeping quietly.

“Likewise,” Katrina replied dryly. “I need to talk to Carter.”

The rabbit whistled through its buck teeth. “You and half of Relidran, kittycat,” it replied. It scratched at one of its long brown ears with a dangling leg, but otherwise seemed fairly content, or resigned, to Katrina’s grasp. “Carter, he’s a hard man to find under the best of circumstances. And these aren’t, hmm, what you would call the best of circumstances. Not by any means, no. Might be best to forget it.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Cordy,” she purred. “I have every confidence that you have the information I need.” An undercurrent of steel glinted through the warm velvet of her voice, a rich fabric sheath of a knife so sharp your finger would be off before you realized you’d been nicked.

The rabbit — Cordy — twitched its tail, a bunny sort of shrug. “No no, you know how this works. Something in return, yes? Something I need.”

“I imagine that you need those clever little lungs of yours. The journey’s made me a bit… peckish, you know?”

Cordy shifted slightly in her grip, but responded with a light enough tone. “You’d miss me, I think. Our fantastic conversations and all.”

Katrina just grinned, and waited. The rabbit scratched its flat nose. Derek’s brain was still whimpering quietly to itself, but it had calmed down enough to get the impression, watching them, of two sumo wrestlers pushing against each other, not visibly moving but exerting tremendous amounts of force. This was a rather strange impression to get from a tiny woman and a rabbit, but still the least odd thing he was currently trying to process. “We’ve had a hard autumn thus far,” the rabbit intoned at last. “Very hard. Winter will be harder. I have a family to feed, and there’s no food for my kits, no food at all. Something to get us through until spring would be worth… Well, almost anything, I would think. Certainly a fair trade for some, hmmm, information one seems to need rather pressingly?”

She stared daggers into her little captive, then let out an exasperated sigh. “Gods of all the faeries, you’re such a pain in the ass.” She shifted the painted rabbit into her other hand, and started foraging in her velvet suit. It seemed possessed of an astonishing number of pockets; her skirts could have easily housed the rabbit and its entire extended family, of course, but she dipped just as often into the tightly fitted jacket. After much searching, she produced an iridescent pearl the size of a ping-pong ball that shimmered softly in a light all its own. She held it in front of Cordy’s nose. “Bury this in your meadow under the next full moon,” she said solemnly. “It will see you through until spring in comfort, as long as you don’t get greedy.”

The rabbit bobbed its head the best it could in her grasp. “Oh yes, that will do nicely, very nicely indeed,” it said, sounding very pleased with itself. Katrina tucked the pearl into the pocket of its waistcoat, where it disappeared without any sort of telltale bulge. “Carter, yes. He’s expecting you, I gather? Still, not an easy task, so few who know the way. Such a journey, one step at a time, yes? You want the blind one who sees.”

Katrina whipped the rabbit around, and was suddenly holding it by the throat. “That’s it?” she growled. “Since when do you speak in riddles, rodent?”

“Things have changed since you left,” the rabbit said, its voice strained. “Precautions to be taken. You of all people should understand.”

Her amber eyes flashed, and Derek thought that she might tighten her grip and crush the little creature then and there. “Have a care I don’t come across you until after you’ve exhausted your ill-won bounty,” she said. There was still a bit of velvet disguising the hard, sharp steel of her voice, but it was thin and threadbare now.

Cordy sputtered indignantly. “I am a beast of honor!” it protested. “Such barters, they cannot always be equal, yes? Balance shifts. I am quite in your debt, my dear lady, quite so. You may be sure of my assistance again, yes indeed.”

Her rage subsided to a sneering irritation, and without another word, she tossed the rabbit back into its painting. It scampered a step or two before freezing in place again, fully part of the amateurish artwork once more. She glared at the framed surface for a moment, then started pacing in a tight loop, muttering angrily under her breath. The heels of her boots clicked on the stone floor, echoing and rebounding up to the ceiling and back like a pair of possessed castanets.

Case Studies: Plot vs. Story in Finding Nemo

Case Studies: Plot vs. Story in Finding Nemo

(Standard spoiler warning applies to Finding Nemo. Duh.)

We all have our preferences and quirks about our entertainment, the things that can make or break a story for us.  For me, it’s pacing.  I am an absolute pacing fanatic.  If things stop moving forward, I can flip immediately from dewy-eyed fangirl to harsh critic.

Good pacing is not necessarily fast pacing, however.  Whizbang action sequences and explosions don’t save something from being a plodding mess.  (I’m looking at you, King Kong.)  Thus, I often hold up Finding Nemo as a gold standard.  It’s an extraordinarily tight movie, without an ounce of fat.  Every little moment pushes us forward.

Hey, fun fact!  Did you know that there’s a musical version of Finding Nemo?  It’s true!  It was written by Robert Lopez, he of Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon who has most recently taken over the world with Frozen.  You can even watch the whole thing online:

Now, the sharp-eyed among you may have noted that 34-minute runtime.  Yes, this plays at Animal Kingdom in Florida, and as live, free, in-park entertainment, it’s relatively short and runs multiple times per day.  So if the 100-minute film is so tightly paced, you might be wondering, how can you possibly cut away 2/3 of it and still end up with the same thing?

Glad you asked, hypothetical reader!  It all comes down to the difference between plot and story.  They’re frequently used interchangeably, but there are subtle and extremely important differences.  To wit:

Plot is the sequence of events.

Story is the point of those events.

Plot is setup, story is payoff.  Plot is head, story is heart.  Plot is “What happened?” and story is “Why should I care?”  So many times when critiquing blurbs and queries, I see authors that just list off several scenes or setpieces in a total vacuum.  They’re so focused on the plot that they don’t give any indication of the story.  Perhaps they’re assuming that we’ll connect with the hero just because they’re the hero, but this is a dangerous assumption that will get you into a lot of trouble.  There’s a reason for the saying “One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”: We’re not psychologically capable of taking in the depth of loss, the hopes unrealized, the vacuum left behind for that many people.  We’d just shut down.  Beyond a certain threshold (sometimes known as Dunbar’s number) we have to simplify just to cope.  Something has to break through that compartmentalizing mechanism and force us to connect with the characters.  That something is the story.

So circling back to the example at hand: The plot of Finding Nemo is Marlin’s quest to find his son.  The story of Finding Nemo is what drives Marlin and Nemo apart (hint: it’s not the diver) and how they’re able to reconnect.  It’s not enough to just put them back in the same space; they each have to discover what they have in the other and become worthy of it.

This is why the musical version can successfully be so much shorter than the film.  Couple of reasons: First, this story is a quest.  The individual incidents along the way aren’t as important as the end goal and how those incidents affect the characters.  So seeing the attempt to jam the filter of the tank isn’t as important as knowing that it failed and left both Gill and Nemo distraught.  Secondly, musical theatre allows for certain conventions that wouldn’t work in regular film, specifically the way that characters can just turn to the audience and vocalize their thoughts and feelings.  “Where’s My Dad?” and its reprises concisely but effectively convey Nemo’s emotional journey, allowing many of his scenes to be trimmed or left out without losing that crucial dimension.

To bring this rather circuitous post back to the original topic, the film version is well-paced because each and every scene is moving both the plot (getting Marlin closer to Nemo and Nemo closer to escaping Darla) and the story (helping them both get past their own hangups and better understand each other).  Of course, that can’t be the only purpose of a scene, so each beat is also packed with entertaining elements like humor and action.  But the important thing is that the overall propulsion through the story never flags, and at no time is the audience left to wonder what the point of watching that bit was.  Every part needs to be there, and that’s what makes it elegant.

Saturday Scenes – Chaos Theory

Hooray for Saturday Scenes!  I’ve shared all from Valkyrie that’s currently worth sharing (you can start with the first installment here if you missed it) so it’s time to pillage another novel from the backlog.  Chaos Theory is an Alice in Wonderland pastiche that, with some vigorous tweaking, will fit in the same continuity as Ignition, the novel I’m about to shop.  It stars a grumpy grad student, and we meet him here coping with the fact that the dismal house he rents is again without power.

Derek found himself in an exceedingly bad mood that afternoon. This was not an unusual situation; he was so frequently in a foul mood that he had developed a sort of ranking system for them, named after the actors who had played James Bond. A George Lazenby was a mild irritation, the sort that would usually fade away without incident if he could successfully distract himself. In the event of a Sean Connery, get out of the way. He’d only had a Connery once, and it ended with a broken hand and some compulsory community service.

Right now, he was wavering somewhere between a Craig and a Brosnan. The handyman had called, asked a few cryptic questions, and confirmed that they would be there that afternoon. He had thought about going out somewhere and attempting to salvage at least some of his day off, but now he was stuck waiting. But at least this would get sorted out today, and Mrs. Krakarian had miraculously agreed to pay, so he tried to think positively.

His frequent bad moods did have one bright side, which kept his friends from trying to throw him over a cliff any more frequently than friends usually did and Jennifer from ditching him altogether: when he could, he channeled his frustration into productivity. The house was never tidier than when he was well and truly pissed off. The lack of power complicated matters (which, naturally, did not improve his mood), but he rigged up a sort of headlamp by sticking his trusty flashlight through the gap in an old baseball hat and scrubbed sinks, bagged garbage, swept, shone mirrors, and generally let his mind slip into its James Bond fugue state. He was so remarkably effective at this, in fact, that the doorbell rang (a shrill tone that was less ding-dong and more shrieks of the forgotten damned) for quite some time before he registered the sound. He scrambled to the door and tore it open.

He stared into the yard for half a moment, wondering why no one was at the door. Then the rest of his brain engaged, and he dropped his glance several inches. A petite woman in coveralls stood on the doorstep, her high brunette ponytail not even up to his shoulder. A streak of purple of a shade almost indistinguishable from the brown ran over her right temple. She glanced him up and down, her eyebrow quirking slightly, but her amber eyes betraying nothing further. “Um, Derek McAllister?” she said, looking at the clipboard propped against her hip.

Derek glanced down at himself, having momentarily forgotten the headgear and the yellow rubber gloves, not to mention the fact that he hadn’t changed his colorblind outfit. He knocked the hat off, causing the flashlight to roll off into a corner. “Yes, that’s me.”

“Hmm,” she said. She seemed to be saying rather a lot with that half-syllable, but he couldn’t decide exactly what. “Having some trouble with the power, then?” Her voice had a rather posh accent and a rich, velvety undercurrent that made him think, bewilderingly, of fur.

If there were a hamster in Derek’s head, it had just registered the presence of a wheel and was contemplating what purpose it might serve. “You’re the handyman?”

She grinned. It was a chimpanzee sort of grin, the kind that seemed focused more on displaying as many teeth as possible than communicating any sort of amusement or mirth. “More or less. Breaker’s in the basement?”

“Oh. Right. Yes, downstairs,” he said, but she’d already slipped past him inside. He stripped off the gloves, fumbled for the dropped flashlight, and rushed to catch her up, snagging his foot on one of the more severe pits in the floor and nearly knocking the both of them down the stairs.

He felt like he needed to regain control of the situation, but he wasn’t sure exactly what that would require, or what even the situation was. “So, erm, what’s your name?” he tried. He usually had a gentlemanly sort of charm that went over well with the ladies (much to Jennifer’s chagrin), but it never served him well when he was in one of his James Bond-level moods. The irony of this, if he ever picked up on it, would likely escalate things by another actor or two.

“Katrina,” she replied readily enough, though she didn’t offer to elaborate. She picked her way nimbly across the darkened floor and made straight for the rusted box.

Derek followed with considerably less agility. “You must be able to see in the dark,” he joked.

That grin again. “More or less,” she purred. “You can make yourself useful with that flashlight, though.”

He maneuvered himself to a step or two behind her and aimed the little device at the rusted hunk of metal that was currently holding his electricity hostage. She looked it over, whistled softly under her breath, and bent to rummage in the bulky blue toolbox he hadn’t noticed her carrying. She came back up with a sledgehammer of such a size that it looked like it should knock her over. Derek felt that this was an unusual tool for an electrician, and opened his mouth to offer his opinion to that effect, but while he was still processing this thought, she choked up on the long wooden handle like a ‘roided-up batter preparing for the pitch that will be smashed over the fence into a different time zone, and took a mighty swing.

Derek heard a strangled yelp, and it took him a moment to realize that it had come from him. He steadied his flashlight, expecting to see a ruined lump, or possibly a hole in the wall. To his astonishment, the door of his traitorous breaker box sat patiently open, unaware that anything unusual had happened. The whole thing did hang crookedly on the wall, but this was certainly nothing out of the ordinary. This was, after all, the sort of house where straight lines were a cause for concern, and squared right angles justification for outright panic.

Katrina dropped her massive Nordic hammer carelessly back into the shadows, where it disappeared without a sound. Her amber eyes widened just a hair as she examined the contents of the newly exposed console. “Impressive,” she murmured. “I’ve never actually seen one of these outside of a book. A very, very old book. Quite a house you have here, Mr. McAllister,” she added, a slight change in tone indicating that she was addressing him, and that she was suppressing another grin.

“It’s a rental,” he replied, rather more weakly than he had intended. It wasn’t that he never brought people around, but he’d usually had enough time to prepare them for the place’s quirks, in a charming and self-deprecating manner, of course, that he never felt overly self-conscious about the matter. He was rather dismayed by the demonstration of how the place must look to someone who hadn’t been sufficiently prepared.

“How long have the breakers been tripping?” she asked, not acknowledging that she’d heard him.

“Five, maybe six months,” he said. “How can you tell?”

Again, she basically ignored him. “Well, I can probably get it to stop that, but it would be better to rewire the whole box so it’s not going through a master. That’ll take longer, though.”

“Can you do that?”

“Of course,” she replied, mildly offended. She seemed to take his question as assent, and produced a screwdriver from a pocket and began to fiddle with the box.

Derek shifted the flashlight to his other hand. The muscles in his arm began to ache. He felt quite useless, like a kid hanging around getting in the way of the grownups. She seemed rather indifferent to his presence, but he rather thought that he should leave the light for her somehow. He looked around for a way to rig up the flashlight, still rooted in uncertainty to his spot.

A flash and a buzz from the toolbox. Katrina didn’t appear to notice, deeply engrossed in her work. She’d already removed the housing of the breaker box, and was starting to address the wiring behind. Derek stepped forward for a closer look. On top of the indeterminate mass of metal and wooden implements sat a blocky device that looked almost, but not entirely, like a smartphone. Instead of a single large screen, it seemed to be comprised of several smaller ones, each flashing in a different combination of colors and odd abstract patterns. It shook and vibrated its way across the pile, though it didn’t set everything else to rattling noisily as it should have done. Thinking that he might make himself at least marginally useful, he bent down for it. “Hey, your phone’s ringing,” he said.

The electrician’s brown head whipped in his direction, and she reached for his arm. “No, don’t touch–” she cried, and her rough, calloused hand closed on his wrist a fraction of a second before the fingers of his other hand clasped the flashing gadget. It felt oddly heavy and warm to the touch, not at all like the cool plastic and glass he expected. It also sent a jolt through his entire body, knocking him backwards and off his feet. If pressed, he would have described the sensation as rather akin to what it might feel like to grab onto an electrified fence, when the surge of power shocks your hands into rigidity so you couldn’t let go even if you wanted to. This was a rather fair description, though unfortunately it was wholly inaccurate.

Case Studies: Tense and Tension in Paper Towns

Case Studies: Tense and Tension in Paper Towns

(Standard spoiler warning applies to Paper Towns.  Seriously, I’m going to talk about something that took me completely by surprise, so if you want to experience that for yourself, READ THE DAMN BOOK FIRST.  Then come back.  I’ll still be here.  Bring snacks, because I might be hungry by then.)

As a writer learning your craft, you’re going to encounter loads of rules.  Some of them seem rather inviolable, while some are more like guidelines.  So how do you know which is which?  See them in action, of course!

One of the biggies is sticking to a tense.  There’s a lot of debate about present or past tense, mainly from people who seem bewildered and threatened by the former, like they’re trying on a gluten allergy and present tense is a wild grizzly bear approaching with a tray of cinnamon rolls.  But regardless of which tense you choose, you’re supposed to stick to it, by God.  Slipping back and forth between them is considered a straightforward mechanics error.

When you do break a rule, the important thing is to break it with style and intention.  Messing with the rules is supposed to accomplish something, and if not executed well, it simply looks like you don’t know what you’re doing.  Luckily, John Green most assuredly knows what he’s doing.

Paper Towns starts off in past tense as it takes us through Quentin and Margo’s Wild Ride, then the beginnings of the scavenger hunt Margo leaves behind when she disappears.  Everything is very lighthearted and fun, and there’s no indication that this is a flashback or that there’s anything darker on the horizon.

And then we get to the end of chapter 8, almost exactly halfway through the novel.  Then we get this:

As soon as the car stopped, my nose and mouth were flooded with the rancid smell of death.  I had to swallow back a rush of puke that rose up into the raw soreness of the back of my throat.  Only now, after all this lost time, did I realize how terribly I had misunderstood both her game and the prize for winning it.

Dude.  It’s an absolutely stunning turn.  The floor has dropped out from under us, and after a scene break, it keeps going:

I get out of the car and Ben is standing next to me, and Radar next to him.  And I know all at once that this isn’t funny, that this hasn’t been prove-to-me-you’re-good-enough-to-hang-out-with-me.  I can hear Margo that night as we drove around Orlando.  I can hear her saying to me, “I don’t want some kids to find me swarmed with flies on a Saturday morning in Jefferson Park.”  Not wanting to be found by some kids in Jefferson Park isn’t the same thing as not wanting to die.

Holy. Fucking. Shit.  In the space of two paragraphs, we’ve gone from Garden State to Requiem for a Dream.  There’s a tonal shift, certainly, but that switch in tense is what lets us know, quite definitively, that we’re no longer in the same story.

The present tense continues through the next chapter, as the trio explore the abandoned minimall preparing to find a corpse, and it’s pretty much a horror movie.  With every creaking board, every movement of a flashlight, we expect to find the worst.  The scene wouldn’t play quite the same way if written in past, because past tense is relatively safe.  We’re not part of the events, because they already happened.  If it’s in first person, we can further infer that the narrator makes it through just fine.  (We can be wrong about that, mind, but it’s generally a good bet.)  We get no such assurances with the present tense.  That lack of security already puts the reader on edge, and the use of other suspenseful elements drives the tension home.

But then we’re back in past tense for the following chapter. See, humans just aren’t physiologically capable of sustained terror. Our hearts would literally explode. We become familiar with what was unfamiliar, we reset our baselines, we learn to cope. The boys have accepted that their quest is unlikely to have a happy ending, and they soldier on.  It’s a new normal, so the tense reverts.

Not permanently, though.  Part Three of the book puts us back in present for the remainder of the story.  Again it’s to build tension, but where before it was the tension of the horror movie, this time it’s the tension of the thriller.  We’re in a race against time to reach Margo before she disappears again (or worse).  What the immediacy here gives us is not fear, but exhilaration.  Quentin is on an adventure of his own devising, having graduated from just following Margo to emulating her.  It’s about being in the moment, so the switch back to present tense is quite appropriate.

All of this goes to illustrate that even the elements of storytelling which appear basic and fundamental have meaning, and they can be manipulated to provide depth and guide the reader’s experience.  Paper Towns is perhaps an extreme case, but have you given thought to your tense choices and what they might be bringing to the story?  Do your format and presentation affect the reader experience?  This is not to say that they must, but it’s another tool in the box, and a good one.  Whether you’re following the rules, tweaking them, or shattering them into pieces, do it with intention.

Saturday Scenes – Valkyrie (Part Three)

Time for another Saturday Scenes!  Here’s the last selection I’ll share from Valkyrie. (Click for the first excerpt and the second.)  After their meeting at the bar, Rick and Desi run into a bit of trouble, then part ways. The next night, Rick heads home early and prepares to settle in for the evening when he’s interrupted by the doorbell.

I open up the door to see a pair of large burly men wearing suits that might have been expensive in a previous life. They haven’t bothered with umbrellas, and are thus rather damp. One of them is wearing sunglasses. I wonder if he’s blind, or perhaps just trying to develop sonar. They don’t look familiar. “Can I help you, gentlemen?” I ask.

“Evening, Mr. Marshall, mind if we come in?” the one in front says. They don’t wait for my reply before pushing past me into the house.

I’m so stunned by this that it takes me a moment to be able to reply. “I do mind, actually,” I manage at last. “Could this maybe wait until tomorrow?”

They’ve barged ahead into the living room, and I’m left to trail after them like the undersized kid on the playground trying to keep up with the older boys. “Oh, this won’t take long, Mr. Marshall,” the same one as before says. “We just wanted to have a little chat, come in and dry off.” He spots the half-prepared drink on the bar. “You expecting someone?”

“No,” I say through gritted teeth. “I was actually expecting to be left alone tonight.”

“Well, we won’t waste too much of your time, then,” he replies. “Mr. Marshall, what do you know about the Valkyrie?”

I frown. “The Valkyrie? I mean, I’ve heard of her…” I quickly run through the catalog of stories I’ve heard over the years, local legends blown wildly out of proportion. I don’t know too much about the players in the city’s underworld, but everyone’s at least heard of the Valkyrie. Some people say that she’s an assassin for hire, loyal to no one. Others think that she’s more like a serial killer, an indiscriminate murderer. Still others paint her as a defender of the city’s delicate balance of power, only striking out at those who are threatening to overstep their bounds. The only things all these competing legends can agree on are that she’s supposed to be very beautiful and very deadly. “I think everyone’s heard of her, though. What do you expect me to know?”

“Well,” the spokesgoon says, leaning heavily against my bar, “we have it on good authority that you gave her a ride yesterday.”

“I drive dozens of people every day,” I say in a measured voice. “There’s no way I’m going to remember them all.” No, they can’t possibly mean…

“Do you have drinks with all of them at the bar?”

“Well, not all of them, but a lot.” As true a statement as I’m willing to favor these guys with.

The spokesgoon straightens up. He’s unpleasantly large. So is Glasses, who’s started to close in slowly, like one of those statues in the horror movies that only moves when you’re not looking directly at it. I find myself involuntarily starting to back up, and try to stand my ground. “Now, Mr. Marshall,” the spokesgoon says, his tone still casual, friendly, nonthreatening, “you should be aware that this woman is extremely dangerous. We think that she might be coming after you, and people don’t tend to survive long when that happens. We’re just trying to help.”

Somehow, I find that hard to believe. “I’m sorry, gentlemen,” I say, and my voice falters a bit. For all my bravado, there’s a part of my brain that’s gibbering in terror, making it difficult to for the rest of me to focus. “I don’t really think I’m the one that you’re looking for.”

All pretense of this being a normal, polite conversation has been utterly abandoned. “I’m pretty sure you are,” the spokesgoon says softly. He’s close enough now that I’m almost within reach of one of those chimpanzee arms. “And I’m pretty sure we can jog your memory.”

The lights go out. The darkness isn’t absolute; I can see the twinkle of streetlights and the glow of my neighbor’s TV through the rain sheeting down my picture window. Not some storm-driven power outage, then. It’s only my home that’s lost all of its comforting illumination.

My visitors’ reaction is not what I expect. “She’s here,” one of them says.

“No way, just relax.”

“Let’s get out of here!”

“Calm down, Jesus–”

“You’re on your fucking own, I don’t get paid enough for this shit.”

“Get back here, you pussy!”

Retreating footsteps, a crash, and the sound of my front door slamming. I’m alone again, in the dark and utterly bewildered, listening to the squealing of their tires as they drive off, followed by the soft, unconcerned tapping of the rain on my rooftop. Then there’s a brief hum, and the lights come back on. Perhaps I’m not as alone as I’d thought.

I glance around for something that I can use for self-defense. There’s a small steak knife behind the bar that I usually use for cutting up citrus. Well, it’s better than nothing. I grab it and rush out. The only way to be able to kill all of the lights in the house and bring them up so effortlessly is to use the circuit breaker, which is in the laundry room. I’m vaguely aware that this is a supremely stupid thing to do, but I have to know. I’m just glad I’m not a cat.

The laundry room is just down the stairs that descend from the other side of the foyer from the living room. The front door is massive, heavy, and loud, so I would have heard someone come in that way. A window, then. There are none in the laundry room — that’s another project that’s been hovering near the bottom of my to-do list for a while — so it would have to be the ones in the basement. I fly down the steps, my feet somehow keeping up with the impossible momentum of my upper body. I reach the bottom and flip the light switch. Sure enough, a slim, dark figure is halfway out of one of the narrow windows that sit just below the ceiling. “Stop!” I cry with a touch of despair, knowing the uselessness of it.

To my astonishment, the intruder pauses, then drops back to the floor. She lands in an easy crouch — how the hell did she get up there, anyway? I moved everything away from the walls so I could paint and haven’t had time to set things to rights — and rises deliberately to her feet, unfurling like a cobra. “Desi” draws herself up to her full height and stares at me imperiously, making me feel as though she’s the mistress of this place and I’m the trespasser. Her brown eyes are cold, flat — the eyes of a killer. They flick down to the short bit of cheap stamped metal in my hand. “What are you planning on doing with that?” she asks, the barest touch of amusement in her voice.

“Hell if I know,” I reply. “Those guys seemed to think that you were coming here to kill me.”

“And what do you think?”

“I think that if you wanted me dead, I wouldn’t be standing here.”

She smiles. “You’re a fast learner.”

“So I’m told.” I toss the useless little blade onto the coffee table that’s been serving as my workbench. “You are the Valkyrie, then.”

The smile vanishes, replaced by a look of annoyance. “I guess you want an autograph?”

I contemplate the merits of handwriting analysis in profiling and identity detection for a moment before I register the sarcasm. “How did you know where to find the circuit breaker?”

“Oh, I’ve been here before.” She catches my shocked expression, and adds, “Back when it used to be offices. It’s a cool place.”

I want to ask more about that, but I let it go. “If you’re not here to kill me, then why are you here?”

“I was doing some digging into the Pineview fire, and your name came up.”

I gape. “In what context?”

She leans against the wall. I’m glad the paint is dry. “Seems like someone thinks that I might be involved.” There’s a bit of a bite running under her words. “Someone was watching me at the Commodore and saw me get into your cab.”

“Were you involved?” I blurt out, and instantly regret it once she gives me a sour, offended look. A bolt of lightning flashes as though summoned by her indignation. “I mean, er, so you came here to make sure I didn’t tell them anything?”

“No, I came to make sure that you did.”

I’ve never done a literal double-take before in my life. It’s a bizarre sensation. “Come again?”

She sighs, and starts to pace a little, like a caged animal. She’s not wearing any sort of coat, and the rain drips off her and pools onto the carpet as she prowls. I notice that she’s not limping anymore. “These guys that showed up tonight? They’re not after you. I’m the one they want, you’re just a means to an end. So I figured I’d give you the heads up, tell you to cooperate, so they’d get what they need to know and move on.”

I’m utterly, utterly confused. “So you want them to find you?” I stammer.

“Of course not,” she scoffs.  “But I knew that you’d try to play all coy, and I didn’t want them beating the information out of you.”

“And what made you think that?”

Her expression is slightly patronizing. “I was right, wasn’t I?”

I start to pace a bit myself. It’s been quite a while since a conversation has gotten me this flustered. It must be the adrenaline that’s still charging through my system. “So you came here to warn me, but you don’t want me trying to help you?” It’s not quite what I intended to say, but close enough.

She stops and fixes me with a deadly serious look. “No, I don’t.” I start to interject, but she talks right over me. “Look, Red, I know you have this idealistic hangup or something that everyone is good and the world is this fantastic place, but I don’t need any misplaced chivalry. I’m not some damsel in distress, and I’m not a nice person. You need to look out for yourself, or you’re just going to wind up getting hurt.”

We stay frozen in that little tableau for an interminable moment, then she turns back and, in a motion almost too quick to follow, scales my basement wall and grabs on to the narrow ledge of the window. She’s most of the way out before I gather my thoughts enough to go after her again. “Hey!” I call. She doesn’t come back inside this time, but bends down with her head at an odd angle to look back, her wet hair defying gravity and clinging to her neck. “If you’re so keen on looking out for yourself, then why did you want to warn me?”

It’s almost impossible to tell in the darkness outside, but I’m watching closely, and so I see the barest flicker of a smile cross her face as she looks away. At least, I think I do. I could be imagining things. “Get some locks for your damn windows,” she tosses back, and she’s gone.