Truth. Justice. Minesweeper.

Friday, August 26, 2005

"I," I said, "am going to use my super-powers."

"What--you're going to fly in and save her?" Cruickshank said unbelievingly.

"No. I can't do that any more. You know that."

"Then what are you going to do?"

"Obviously," I said with dignity, "you haven't been paying attention the last couple of years."

"Dennis. This is important. If you have a plan, I can call Bob and Jack and--"

"No! No superheroes. For this plan to work everything has to go just right, and I don't want some mask-wearing son of a bitch screwing it up."


"I know. Look, Ingrid's my friend too, and it's going to be my ass on the line if this plan doesn't work. But it will work. You have to trust me."

Long pause.

"Mm. What's first?"

"Uh. Well, basically we've got a couple of hours. That might change if Underhand calls, but right now I'm going to take half an hour to start setting things up. So for the moment just keep yourself available."

Then I began to exercise my super-powers. First, I got all the information together I was going to need - Cole's stuff, everything in the Underhand folders, maps, surveillance records.

Super-Power 1: Filing

Once I had done that, I fired up some project software on the computer and started typing all the stuff I had to do into it. In just a couple of minutes I had a very helpful Gantt chart, and with one eye on the dependencies and time factors I was able to move on to other things in a more organized way.

Super-Power 2: Dicking Around on the Computer

After that it was time to delegate. I called Itzhak and gave him some brief technical specs. I called Cruickshank and Nick and Suchit into the office, gave them some car keys and told them what I needed from them. I called Ron and asked him for a favor.

Super-Power 3: Working the Phones
As a sample, here's the conversation with Ron.

"I need you to do something for me. It's life and death. Can you get away from work?"

"If it's life and death? Sure. What's up?"

"Too long a story. Here's what I want you to do. Bring your bike to the corner of Orchard and Fourth. I'll be there with a car. You throw your bike in the trunk and drive the car to a place on a map I give you. Leave the car there, get your bike out of the trunk and ride it home. Clear?"

"Sort of. Really life and death?"


"Because, listen. If it's that bad, I could call Linnet. See, she's kind of... I think she could help."

"No. No way."

"No, I mean it," Ron said. "I think I should call her."

"Ron. I don't want Linnet involved in this. I have reasons. Okay?"


"Listen to me. If you call Linnet and she gets mixed up in this crap, I will personally hunt you down and shove you up your own ass. No Linnet. Got that?"

"All right, all right."

"I mean it."

"I said all right."

"All right."

"Be there in ten minutes. What do you want me to do with the car keys - leave them in the car?"


"The keys for the car you're giving me."

"Oh. No, you hang on to them. I have my own set."

"Okay, see you."

"See you. And thanks."

It was a little after that that the phone rang. When I answered it, the voice on the other end sounded like a glacier cracking in half. "I want to speak to Victor Scigrave."

"Just a moment, please," I said. Wow, I thought. Is that Underhand?

I called Greyghost to the phone. We exchanged glances, and he put it on speaker. "This is Mr. Scigrave," he said.

"My name is Underhand," the voice said. "You've been pissing me off for years now, so I know you know me."

"Yes, Rafhiel."

There was a pause.

"So you found out. You know, I always thought you were just some pussy artist, but you've caused a lot of trouble for me. That's over."


"I've got a little girl here named Ingrid Montanez. If you want her to be alive tomorrow, come alone to my place. Six o'clock tonight. You turn yourself over to me, I let her go. You don't, I kill her for a long time."

"Six o'clock."

Underhand hung up.

"Perfect," I said. "We'll be finished long before six. I wonder why he set it so late? That gives you hours of time to try to screw him."

"That's why," Greyghost said. "He's ready for me now, but wants me to think he isn't. What part do I play in your plan?"

"You are going to clean up Underhand once I've got Ingrid out of there. What you should do now is go up there, somewhere not too near his house, and wait for me to call you. Expect to hear from me around--" I checked my Gantt chart "--around quarter to five. If you don't get a call by five, use your judgment."

Greyghost stared at me for a moment, like there was something he didn't understand. Finally he said, "Mm. Good luck, Dennis. Be careful," and left.

I waited around a while longer. Threw a couple of things in my backpack - some water, various cellphones, the poker chips - and kept waiting.

Finally the courier showed up with a package from Itzhak. I opened it up, took out a Discman, and planked it in my backpack. I was now ready.

But before I got out of the office, the phone rang again. It was Rank Frank, one of Greyghost's informants.

"Dennis. My man."

"Hey, Frank. Listen, I'm in a bit of a rush."

"Oh, you'll want to sit down and put your feet up for this one. I got something you want."

"The guy you and the Ghost have been hard after? I got his name for you."

"Underhand's name?"

"His name exactly."

"Let's hear it."

"Rafhaiel... Thing."

"Interesting," I said, and meant it.

"You know who that is?" Frank asked.

"Yeah, I do," I said. "That's good information, Frank. That's helpful. How'd you find it?"

"Dennis. I don't ask you what you do with my pearls of wisdom, do I? Please do not insult me..."

"Okay, sorry. How about this. When did your source find out?"

"Shit. Must have been yesterday. I guess."

"Thanks, Frank."

"Dennis. I want double for this one."

"You'll get triple," I told him, and we signed off.

I looked at the timetable to see if there was any way we could tighten it up. There really wasn't.

I took my stuff, got into one of the company cars, not one of the ones I liked, and headed to Rafhaiel Thing's mansion. As I drove, it occurred to me that I had a pretty good idea what had happened to Dennis2... I shrugged and mentally changed subjects.

I hadn't been perfectly honest with Greyghost about why it was necessary to follow my plan rather than one of his. Again, he probably could have gotten Ingrid out of there alive all by himself. But the problem is that he's a superhero, and things tend to work out okay for him. And in this case that means that he and Ingrid probably would have ended up getting back together because of this episode. Not because Ingrid has no free will; hell, she has enough will for any three people. Just because things tend to work out for Greyghost.

And the same goes for any other superhero. They could all get her away from Underhand, probably. But they can't get her out of the superhero world, and that's where she wants to be. I mean, if she wants to get back together with Greyghost, that's cool. But it shouldn't be because of the actions of a freaking criminal mastermind.

This all has to do with this sense I keep having, that some parts of superhero-reality are straight out of comic-book plots, that they're too artificial and contrived to be real. Like the hexagonal landscape in the Generic Fantasy World. Well, another thing that happens in comic-book plots is that the hero's girlfriend gets killed a lot. So even if Greyghost does save her, he isn't necessarily saving her. Or maybe this is the time he doesn't save her.

So I'm trying to deal with this by making it a little less superhero-ey and a little more real. I don't know. It's kind of a crazy idea, and it's a pretty thin rationale for me to be risking my life over. But then again, I have a good plan, and everything should work out okay.

I called Nick. "You guys in position?"

"All set. She's due in about ten minutes."

I checked my watch. "Good. That's about how far away I am from Underhand's place. Call me if there's a problem."


I clicked off.

These next parts I'm imagining. But it must have gone pretty much like this.

Ten minutes later, actress Caroline Noah turned left off Rafferty into the little winding lane leading to her condo complex. Behind her, Cruickshank pulled into the lane, drove halfway to the building, waited for her to get out of sight, and hauled his car around to block the entryway. He then pulled a lever on the dash that dropped a bunch of weights into place within the car, turning it into a pretty good roadblock. (Greyghost's carfleet kept a couple of these cars around, for just such an occasion. They're close to untowable.) Cruickshank stepped out of the car and headed for a nearby subway station, leaving a small traffic jam behind him. Among those whose cars were trapped in the entry lane were the two thugs Underhand employed to keep watch over his girlfriend.

One minute after that, Caroline Noah boarded the elevator that was to take her up to her floor. Suchit, who had been lurking around the corner, also made it onto this elevator. He pressed a button above Miss Noah's floor.

Seconds later, the elevator stopped, between the third and fourth floors. It wouldn't move. Probably someone tried to call security with the alarm button, or with the little emergency phone, but nobody was answering either of those. Probably some of the passengers tried to use a cellphone to call for help, but it wouldn't have worked, because Suchit had one of Itzhak's cellphone jammers in his pocket, and only Suchit had a cellphone that could place or receive calls through that kind of interference.

(I had said to Nick, "You know you've got the most important job, right? You've got to get the security guy in her building to shut the right elevator down at exactly the right time, and hold it there for about a half hour, no matter what happens. If you can't do that, the whole plan's shot. If she makes it to her apartment, the bugs and cameras there will pick her up, and we'll never convince Underhand we've kidnapped her."

"Easy," Nick assured me. "The company in that building is affiliated with ours. You'd be surprised how often we cooperate on shit like this. Well, not exactly like this. It'll be cake."

One minute after that, I pulled up at the gatehouse in front of Underhand's mansion. Holy crap, it was impressive. Like a combination of Michael Jackson's place and an English country house. Guy had his own golf course. With peacocks on it. And a windmill. I was wondering where I had seen it before, and then I realized it was just my Marcy-related deja vu again.

I said to the guy at the gatehouse, "Could you please tell Mr. Thing that John Caruthers is here to see him?"

He talked on the phone for a second and waved me through.

I parked in front of the house, slung my backpack over my shoulder, and headed for the front door. Before I could get there, a whole batch of security guys landed on me. They searched me from head to toe, poked all through my backpack, and checked every inch of the car. Then two of them picked me up by the arms and carried me into a big front room.

Rafhaiel Thing was there. I recognized him from his picture.

"John Caruthers my ass," he said. "You're Dennis Relser. What the hell do you want?"

I was determined to be polite to him. Mostly because I didn't want him any more pissed off than he already was. But also because, screw him, I wasn't going to let him throw me off guard.

Super-Power 4: Not Getting Thrown Off Guard By People Insanely More Powerful Than Me

"Good afternoon, Mr. Thing. I'm here because of Ms. Montanez."

"Yeah? You know you're not going to live out the day, right?"

If only he knew.

"Mr. Thing, Ms. Montanez and I aren't really part of the struggle between you and Greyghost. You don't want us for anything. So I'm here to ask you to let my friend and I go home."

He sat down on a big leather couch. "Why should I?"

I pointed to a telephone. "You don't know about this yet, because probably nobody thinks anything important has happened, but if you call your security people, they'll tell you that they don't know where Caroline Noah is."

He was a big, mean-looking guy before, but now he became damn menacing. Like his eyes receded back into his head by a whole inch. He picked up the phone and muttered into it. After a minute he slammed it down and looked at me. "Well?"

I waggled a cellphone in the air. "If I don't place a call on this phone in the next half hour to my associates, telling them to let her go, Caroline Noah will be shot in the head as many times as it takes to kill her. I'll place that call as soon as Ms. Montanez and I are safely on our way out of here."

He gestured to the two guys to grab me again. They did. He loomed up over me. "Horseshit," he said. "You superheroes don't work like that."

Which was the whole crux of my plan. "You're right, Mr. Thing. They don't. But I'm not a superhero. I'm a guy who dicks around on the computer all day. And I want to take my friend home."

"Greyghost would never let you do this shit."

"Greyghost doesn't know about it. This is just me," I said, watching his eyeballs go farther and farther back into his head.

Then he relaxed. "So that's the deal, huh? Okay." And he punched me in the stomach as hard as he could.

I doubled over, and gasped, "What..."

He laughed like an earthquake. "We got almost a half hour to kill. You two walk out of here, I get Caroline back safe? You ain't gonna take that deal off the table just because I beat the shit out of you." And he smashed me across the face.

There were a couple more of those before I started laughing. I guess what I found funny was that, all along, while working for Greyghost, I had been against violence for two reasons:

1. It's unpleasant.
2. It doesn't get at the roots of the problems it tries to address.

And, now, finally, Underhand was proving me right:

1. I wasn't having any fun, and
2. By his own admission, Underhand wasn't solving any problems by pounding on me.

Maybe you had to be there.

Anyway, once I started laughing, he seemed to lose interest.

"You got some kind of proof for me?" he said.

I nodded, wiped the blood and snot off my face, and picked myself up. I called Suchit.

"Hey," he said.

"Hi," I said. "You got a picture?"

"Yup. It's perfect, too; you can't tell she's in an elevator at all. Didn't catch me shooting it or anything."

"Send it over."

"Sure. You okay?"

"Apparently I didn't plan for quite everything," I said. "But I think it's okay."

Seconds later he had sent me a picture file of Caroline Noah, sitting on the floor of an elevator, her head in her hands. It was indeed the perfect picture for my needs.

I showed it to Underhand, and said, "You can check with your security people that that's what she's wearing today."

He nodded and rubbed his knuckles. "So I'm supposed to just let you and the bitch go, is that it? Just trust you to make the call?"

"I'm trusting you too, Mr. Thing. I'm trusting you not to be some kind of Keyser Soze guy who'd rather kill everyone he loved than let anyone put pressure on him. Anyway, you can trust my word. I work for a superhero. Besides, we aren't really interested in hurting Miss Noah. She's never done anything to us."

Underhand nodded again, and said. "Still. I wanna handle it a different way." He stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled.

Two supervillains entered the room. One was eight feet tall, wearing studs and leather all over, and built like an Olympic boxer. The other was smaller, thinner, with a black ninja suit.

Asskicker and Nametaker.

Oh crap.

I hadn't thought of them. The whole time I was making my stupid goddamn plan, I didn't think of them once. And Nametaker was a telepath. He'd be able to tell in two seconds that I was trying to pull a Mission Impossible on Underhand, and then I was dead, Ingrid was dead, maybe Greyghost was dead, Nick and Suchit and Cruickshank and Ron were eventually dead...

Underhand said, "Pry his head open. I want to see what's inside," and Asskicker picked me up by the scruff of my neck. Nametaker put his hands on my face...

I had really screwed the pooch this time.
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