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Etiquette

First event for The Last Run was tonight at Portland’s Murder by the Book, and it was delightful. Big thank yous to everyone who came out for the signing, and again to those of you who heeded my plea in the last post here and called the store to order your books. Books were signed, bookplates were included, and you did a good thing.

I will reiterate: if you’re looking to buy the book, and you’re looking for a signed and/or personalized copy, I urge you to contact any of the stores listed on the Appearances Page and order through them. I will gladly inscribe your book, personalize it as you wish, and will include a bookplate there and then.

Now, to a minor matter of protocol for those who are wondering.

Folks often ask if it’s appropriate to bring comics for me to sign at these events, and frequently, when they do bring them, they wonder how many is “too many.” This has come up before, but I realized tonight that I’ve never made my policy, so to speak, clear upon the matter. There is some confusion. It is understandable. Those who read my novels, those who read my comics, and those who read both, this is for you.

The answer is: if I wrote it, I will sign it. Simple as that. If you want to bring your entire run of 52 for me to sign, I will sign your entire run of 52. If there is a long line waiting for my signature, I may ask you to allow me to sign in batches. But if I wrote it, I will sign it.

And yes, it is perfectly acceptable to bring comics for me to sign, even if I am, ostensibly, promoting my newest novel.

You paid for the books, be they comics or novels. The very least I can do is put my signature to it at your request.

That is all.

The Last Run (It’s Called Timing, Friend, Timing…)

I love the fact that people are surprised to hear Hamid Karzai admitting he took bags of cash from the Iranian government.

Look at a fucking map, people. Seriously, just look at a fucking map. Where is Iran on that map? Where is Afghanistan?

Iran has expertly been influencing and shepherding events in the Middle East for the last twenty-plus years, aggressively so since the end of Gulf I. They’ve been working the angles in Iraq since the invasion; they’ve established a presence amongst the Kurds (due in no small part to put the Fear of Allah into Turkey); they’ve been pouring money into Lebanon; they provide materiel support and money to Hezbollah. Everyone’s looking at their nuclear capability, and yes, that’s legitimate, and they forget the conventional. Iran is a tank, and it’s rolling neatly all over the Middle East.

On a more personal, and somewhat darkly amused front, this coincides nicely with the release of The Last Run, which sees Tara heading to Iran. Once again, my timing is impeccable.

Yay, me.

So, yes, the new novel is on sale as of midnight tonight. It’s available at Amazon and B&N and oh so many other places online, and I would like it very much if you would buy a copy. And if you are looking to purchase a copy, and if you are, say, interested in getting it signed, even personalized, with a JH Williams III limited edition bookplate (details in this post, here!) included at no cost, might I make a suggestion? Amazon and B&N, they’re very nice, true, they make things easy…

…but you could contact, say, Murder by the Book in Portland, Oregon. Or Murder by the Book in Houston, Texas. Or the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. Or the Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles. Or The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale. You could email or call any of these fine independents, and when I am there, I will happily sign a book or three for you, and yes, I will have bookplates with me, and yes, they will be included.

I would, frankly, much prefer if you did this. These are only a handful of the terrific mystery bookstores out there, just the ones that I will be visiting on this abbreviated tour. But if you were to buy from them, not only are you supporting the independents, you also won’t have to wait for me to get around to mailing you a bookplate separately. It’s win-win. The staff at each and every of these stores are terrific – they will take down your precise requests, exactly how you want the book inscribed. We’re talking personal service here!

So please, if you’ve yet to buy a copy, consider buying from one of these wonderful establishments. As much as your willingness to read what I write, their efforts make my continuing work possible.

FTW

Quick post! Zipped down to SF for Bouchercon 2010, met the new faces I’m working with at Mulholland Books, including my new editor. Got to catch up with a number of Very Awesome Folks, as well.

And the bonus? Won an award! WALKING DEAD was selected as the Best Novel in an Ongoing Series by the readers of Crimespree Magazine!

Yes, I am rather tickled, I admit.

Mullholland Books (and Plates!)

The Mulholland Books announcement broke today, and – completely by coincidence! – I have a post up at their site on my research process. Follow the link if you’d like to read my thoughts on Sinking the Titanic.

I’m very excited, very energized by the Mulholland deal, I have to admit. The folks at Mulholland have been nothing less than amazing – seriously and sincerely – and the work on ALPHA, the first book of the new deal, is going well, albeit slowly. More, though, the characters are turning more vibrant in my mind, becoming clearer and clearer with each day, especially Master Sergeant Jonathan “Jad” Bell. This is an especially good thing, as he and I are liable to be spending a lot of time together over the next few years.

For those who’ve read the press release and are wondering why it’s “a former Delta Force operator” instead of, say, “operative” or “agent,” I direct you to Eric L. Haney‘s terrific book, Inside Delta Force.

But ALPHA is still a ways off at this point. Before it drops, I offer you The Last Run, to be released on October 26th. This is a Queen & Country novel, and like all the novels in the series prior, it is a richer experience if you’ve read the comics, but by no means is that required. Like all the novels prior, it stands alone.

And, like all the novels in the series prior, there is a bookplate offer available. The offer works like this:

Buy the book. Make a copy of your receipt of purchase. Mail the copy and a SASE to:

The Last Run
c/o Nervous Habit Productions
Box #703
1631 Broadway
Portland, OR 97232

Please use a Number 10 envelope for the SASE!

In return, you will receive a signed and numbered limited edition bookplate, designed specifically for The Last Run. Bookplates are printed on archival, adhesive papers, and signed and numbered in archival ink, for those of you who concern yourself with such things. There will be 1000 bookplates printed. First come, first served.

(For those of you about to ask: yes, I will have bookplates with me for the tour, so no, you don’t have to mail me the receipt. You can just walk over to where I’m sitting, give me the book, watch me sign the book, and then take your bookplate away with you along with the book. You can leave the book if you want to, but that would kind of defeat the purpose of the exercise.)

All well and good, I hear you muttering to your monitors, but maybe this bookplate isn’t all that. Maybe this bookplate is just something Rucka – who is notorious for his inability to draw – has cooked up himself, and if I cast my gaze upon it, I shall lose my vision, perhaps even my sanity. Maybe, you are asking yourself, it’s just not worth it.

Oh, ye of little faith. I give you Steve Rolston for A Gentleman’s Game. I give you Brian Hurrt for Private Wars.

And now, I give you this:

Continue reading »

Light

I posted about news making me miserable last week. The price of thinking too much, to paraphrase Medea, is that we’ll all go insane.

Read this today.

Putting aside all of my practiced world-weary cynicism that immediately thinks that this was a brilliant piece of PR, of self-promotion, of image management, the core of the story remains. Johnny Depp, in full costume and with attendant cast, dropped in on a 9-year old’s school room today to give the girl in question – and her classmates – a day they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. And even if this was nothing more than precisely that, it’s still wonderful, and it’s still brilliant, and it’s still a small act that has great echoes.

I can’t help but read that and smile.

As you were.

On Reapers, Collectors, and being called Shepard

I completed my second play-through of Mass Effect 2 this last week (w00t! Insanity!), and once again find myself swimming in thoughts about computer RPGs, their potential, and why I think BioWare is The Shit, problems with Dragon Age notwithstanding.

Back when Mass Effect first came out, I published a long blog post with my thoughts on the game, and much of what I said then still holds. I still think that the folks at BioWare are putting out the best RPGs out there, I still think the quality of the game is uniformly excellent, I still think their storytelling is consistently superior, that their writing is stellar, that the whole package is well-worth the money paid.

And I still have the same issues.

Let me see if I can articulate this properly. And note, please, I recognize that I am a minority voice, that I am, in essence, complaining about the cupholders on the Cadillac. But I’m a storyteller, I live and breathe and sleep and dream stories; I spend far too much time considering the ways in which to tell them, and the pros and cons of those various means.

Basic premise: A storyteller crafts a story to elicit an emotional response. Be this a sense of pleasure or sorrow or longing, the goal is to leave the audience with resonance, and, in the best of all circumstances, catharsis. Entertainment is part and parcel of this package.

To this end: The storyteller is a manipulative bastard, and must be, but with a caveat; whereas the magician is lying to the audience with the audience’s blessing, so too does the storyteller play the audience to the audience’s pleasure. In both instances, deception is practiced upon a willing subject. But the understanding, be it in film, television, novel, comic, theatre, whatnot, is that the teller of the tale is leading the audience down a garden path in an unspoken agreement that the journey, and in particular, the terminus, will be worth the audience’s while.

Third point: This is not me complaining about the game’s story, per se. The story of Mass Effect 2 is wonderfully epic, and beautifully executed. The resolution – or possible resolutions, I should say – are all satisfying, some of them terrifically so.

But they have once again blinked in the face of taking the Good and making it Great; they have balked at the point where they could have taken their beautiful art and made it into exquisite Art. And the failing in the second game is the same as in the first, in Shepard, in – wait for it – you.

As I said about the original Mass Effect, all elegance of the storytelling notwithstanding, Shepard was devoid of any inner emotional life. Yes, you could have survived a horrible Thresher Maw attack on Akuze; you could’ve seen your whole family wiped out as a child on Mindoir, and yes, these backgrounds do come into play in minor encounters, and yes, they are thus referenced, and yes, they can inform your character, yourself, your Shepard-ness. But it is a token nod to characterization, and nowhere does it truly matter unless you, as the player, decide to make it matter.

This would be fine if the game was a true, anything goes, RPG. But it’s not; the nature of these games is that they are directed, despite the best efforts of all those involved to make the guiding hand an invisible one. It’s all well and good to say that you can be who you want to be, but – at least at this point – it’s impossible to execute. Or, to put it more precisely, without the true freedom to do anything, be anyone, say anything, the onus is on the storyteller and not the player to fulfill the demands of the character’s journey.

Look, I understand the resistance, I really do. I have a pencil & paper GM who adamantly refuses to ever tell his players how their characters feel about anything. He argues, persuasively, that to do so would be to overstep his mandate; would be, essentially, telling his players how they should play their characters.

And I can live with that, even if I don’t agree with it.

(Digression the First:  for the record, I don’t – we live lives where people do and feel things they cannot explain no matter what, where people act ‘out of character’ all the time, where people are walking studies in contradictions. Where good-hearted people do unreasonably cruel things to their friends, where selfish bastards would die for their kitten, Fluffy. If you’re the GM, you are the Master of All Creation, and you get to throw your weight around. You do it arbitrarily, you abuse the privilege, your players will bite back; but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it if it serves the story you are collectively trying to tell. End Digression the First.)

The problem is that a computer RPG isn’t a tabletop RPG. It isn’t, really, an RPG at all. It’s a different beast. And we still don’t have the vocabulary, we still don’t have the words, for discussing this kind of storytelling, this kind of role-play experience. We use film analogues, yet no film is this interactive. We use novel analogues, and no game – as yet – has a novel’s depth or potential. Even the word “game” is problematic.

The above notwithstanding, I feel, more and more, that Mass Effect has more in common with a novel series than with any other form. Yet it is an interactive form, you do have the freedom to make decisions that can – especially in the second game – radically alter the potential endings, that can truly change the lives of the NPCs you encounter. You have unheard of power to effect the story.

Or, perhaps more precisely, the plot.

And there’s the rub. Because the story – your story – is still stymied.

Case in point:

You die at the start of ME2. You die quite brilliantly. It’s a fan-fucking-tastic sequence, all the more powerful if you’ve played the first and you’ve imported your saved character, if you are truly on Part Two, so to speak. You go out like a viking. You are awesome. You are, quite literally, a shooting star.

Two years later, you’re resurrected.

From a gameplay, continuing-story, we-made-Mass-Effect-and-two-years-later-we’ve-got-the-second-game-out-and-hey-some-of-you-are-continuing-your-characters-and-some-of-you-out-there-didn’t-play-the-first-and-therefore-are-coming-to-this-fresh, this was a stroke of genius. Seriously, kudos are deserved. This neatly solves several gameplay issues (it quite deftly handles the matter of why your Shepard from the first game suddenly can’t do any of the neat tricks he or she had learned to do as you won your way to level 60); it neatly solves several storytelling issues (the world resets and changes, allowing for new exploration and new growth, as well as the ability to reconnect with characters from the first game while introducing a whole new cast); and it immediately lays down the plot of the new game (your ship was destroyed, you died, and if you don’t want someone to answer for that or, at the very least, an explanation as to who did it and why, check yourself (again) for a pulse). The fact that it takes two years to bring you back from the dead is a nice nod to the real-time delay, as well.

Very, very clever decision in my opinion.

Now, consider. You are Commander First-Name-Is-Your-Choice Shepard. You saved galactic civilization from Sovereign. You fought the Geth, you became the first human Spectre, you have a history and a life and, quite possibly, a love, as well.

And you died.

And were brought back to life.

In any other narrative form, this would demand to be answered. This would have a profound effect on the protagonist. It would inform and effect almost everything the protagonist did to follow. The fact that you’re brought back to life by Cerberus, a super-secretive Humans First terrorist organization that you spend a fair amount of the first game’s side-missions shooting the living shit out of, only compounds this.

This is the heart of what I’m talking about here (and yes, I know, it’s taken me forever to get here). This is the difference between a plot and a story. The plot requires you to go fight and defeat the collectors. The story here – Shepard’s story, your story – is about being given a second chance at life.

But nowhere does the game address this. The best you get are two options to marvel at how long your were “dead” (“Two years?”) and an opportunity to thank Miranda Lawson – the woman who ran the project that brought you back from the dead – and even this comes far too early in the story to actually matter.

And nowhere do you have the chance to say anything other than thank you. No opportunity to feel anything about what’s been done to you. And no one, not one person, asks you the obvious question. “What was it like being dead?”

You can play all of ME2 and none of this matters, certainly none of it effects the possible outcomes. But consider: your mission in the game is described, from the very start, as a “suicide mission.” You’re living your second life. Imagine what would’ve happened if you could’ve gone into that mission with a commitment to live, grappling with the fear of dying a second time; imagine what would’ve happened if you went into the mission believing that you were dead already, looking at it as an opportunity to correct Cerberus’ mistake.

It truly wouldn’t have taken much to breathe this into the game, to have given Shepard’s story heart. One conversation string near the beginning of the game to set the flag – how does Shepard feel about what’s happened? A second flag conversation later in the game, ideally with a “previous ally” like Garrus – how you holding up? What was it like? (Or – if you’ve played the game, think on this – Jack asking you what it was like. That would’ve been a hell of a conversation.)

But doing so would’ve required taking control in a way that, thus far, I’ve seen no company dare. Certainly, Bethesda, with its mealy-mouthed and weak-kneed approach to story, would never have tried it. (Do NOT get me started on Fallout 3 – I’m hoping that New Vegas, in the hands of Feargus Urquhart, will fare better when it comes to true story and not just sandbox wandering.) It would’ve required committing to the idea that the character – regardless of the player’s intent – has an inner life, and in so doing, would’ve drawn the player into that life.

I’ve been around programmers and game companies enough to know some of the why’s they didn’t do this, in the same way I know exactly why ME2 only allows for opposite-gender romance (ironically, you can get it on with a whole new plethora of species, but it’s all hetero (I do not include the Shadowbroker DLC in this, for obvious reasons) – the memory of the Fox Freakout lingers, it seems; further irony – DragonAge suffers from no such restriction, which seems to indicate that BioWare was both aware of, and frustrated by, the double-standard imposed upon itself). It was evident in the pre-release ME2 press, where BioWare spent hours touting the upgraded fight mechanics, the new weapons, trying to appeal to the shooter crowd. I know the tension between the designers and the storytellers, trust me; I know the argument, that people “don’t care about story,” that they “just want gameplay.”

(Digression Two: I think that’s patent bullshit, too. Gameplay means nothing if I don’t have a reason to play the game. Bioshock works not solely on the basis of design, but on the world that necessitated that design, and that, baby, comes from story. Gameplay exists to facilitate – the best engine in the world means dick all if it’s not coupled with a damn reason to keep playing the game. End Digression Two.)

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Mass Effect 2 is a terrific game. It is, without question, the best of its kind I’ve ever played. I am quibbling, I know it. But I want it to be more, I want them to take the next step. I want an RPG that will elevate the form to a new level, that will give as much attention and commitment to story and, specifically, character, as it does to gameplay and world building.

And it can be done, we’re so close – BioWare knows it, they’re reaching for it. But the problem is, the ladder, it’s not tall enough. It’s going to require a leap, with all the fear and risk that entails. But dammit all, if anyone can do it, I know they can.

Here endeth the ramble.

Hell is not Hot Enough

I’m finding the story about Tyler Clementi’s suicide profoundly depressing, especially as it develops in the media. The backlash has already started, no surprise, but the news that Ravi and Wei have received praise from some quarters, as well as racist threats, only compounds the issue. It would be so simple to turn this into an act of pure malice, but what, I think, makes it all the worse, is that it wasn’t, it wasn’t at all. I would like to believe that, rather than be forced to consider it an act of deliberate cruelty and hatred. I’m not looking to defend the indefensible. In the end, I suspect that this is the banality of evil of evil in action, nothing more, nothing less.

There’s a lot of it around these days. It’s on the news every fucking morning and night, it’s on the web, it’s everywhere. And it’s getting to me, I have to admit it. I want to be informed about the happenings in the world, not only for professional reasons, but for the personal. Maybe it’s how I was raised, but I believe there’s an obligation to be informed, to be aware, to know what is going on,not only in one’s own community, but in the larger world, as well.

But the news, in the main, is unrelentingly depressing.

I suppose this explains, in part, the frenzied need to turn molehills into mountains, to treat entertainment news as if the LHC has actually managed to find the Higgs boson.

But some days…some days, it’s so damn hard to let the rest of the world in. Some days, I just want to lock the door, turn up the stereo, and drown it all out.

This is one of those days.

The Last Run, Chapter 2

I was going to post Chapter One today, but after some thought, realized it would give away a bit more of the plot than I’m ready to part with at the moment.

So, instead, here’s Chatper Two, the introduction of Caleb Lewis, the Tehran Number Two. Those who’ve read the previous novels (what? You haven’t! For SHAME! Rectify this lack at once!) will have, perhaps, realized that there’s a structural similarity between A Gentleman’s Game and Private Wars, one that continues in The Last Run. Each novel begins with a “pre-operational briefing” as a means of introducing Chace and establishing where she is both personally and professionally. This is then followed by the “instigating event,” normally in Chapter One, that gets the plot rolling. From there on out the novels all follow a sort of ’round robin’ narrative style, where chapters follow Chace, Crocker, and at least two other ‘new’ characters introduced in the novel – one of them the antagonist-slash-adversary-slash-enemy, one of them a potential ally of the protagonist.

The Last Run follows this structure, in the main, but there’re some curve balls thrown in; to explain would be to give away more than I care to right now. Suffice to say that Caleb is introduced in Chapter Two (yes, that’s the one below), and he’s in the ‘potential ally’ category, in case you hadn’t already guessed that. I liked writing Caleb. If you’ve read Private Wars, you may see echoes of  Charles Reiss, but those are cosmetic, due mostly in part to the fact that both men are doing ‘government work’ in environments neither is certain they’re prepared for.

Last note before I shut up and let you read. Caleb’s own journey in The Last Run was, possibly, more fun for me to write than Chace’s.

Hope you enjoy! The Last Run is on sale as of October 26th!

***

Chapter Two

Iran – Tehran, Park-E Shahr
4 December 0651 Hours (GMT +3.30)

At the School, the instructors had talked a lot about fear, and even though Caleb Lewis had listened to their every word and believed each one that was uttered, he still found himself entirely unprepared for the real thing. It was, without question, awful, purely, completely, clawingly awful. It was a fear that had its own feel, its own scent, even its own taste. Nothing anyone had ever told him, nothing that he had ever experienced growing up, had proved an adequate preparation for its constant presence.

For three and a half weeks, since first setting foot in Iran, fear had been with him, and it showed no signs of leaving anytime soon.

***

He hadn’t wanted the post as the Tehran Number Two. What Caleb Lewis had wanted, what he had trained for, was a desk job, in the Intelligence Directorate, preferably on the Iran Desk. He had wanted to work for D-Int Daniel Szurko, who was by all accounts both a quite brilliant and very pleasant gentleman who demanded the best from his staff. That was why Caleb Lewis had worked so very hard at mastering his Farsi as well as his Arabic, and it hadn’t ever occurred to him that doing so would lead to his downfall, the same way it had never occurred to him that doing less than his best in his other coursework at the School might propel his life on an entirely different trajectory.

Then, at the beginning of November, ten members of the embassy staff in Tehran had been arrested, all of them accused of espionage, and after almost two weeks of diplomatic wrangling between Her Majesty’s Government and the Islamic Republic of Iran, all ten had been released, declared persona non grata, and sent packing back to England. It wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last, but what had made this particular instance exceptional was that, of the ten, two actually were working for SIS. In the mad scramble to fill the post, Lee Barnett had been pulled from Istanbul and named the new Tehran Number One, but nowhere in the field had D-Ops been able to find an able Number Two.

Which was why, only one week before completing the School, Caleb Lewis had been called out of class by James Chester and directed to report to Paul Crocker in London for immediate briefing by D-Ops. Chester had added, ominously, that Lewis might want to pack up his belongings before he left. Forty seven hours later, he was getting off a plane in Tehran, his heart trying to climb its way out of his mouth, and his head still reeling with the nearly absurd
amount of operational data the Ops Room staff had pumped into it.

Ever since that moment, Caleb Lewis had been desperately pretending he was a spy, and was just as desperately certain he wasn’t any damn good at it.

***

The Ops Room had done their best by him, and, in fact, Lewis was doing a far better job of things than he imagined. The briefing, while hasty, had been thorough, comprehensive, overseen not only by D-Ops, but by Terry Ricks, the previous Tehran Number Two. It was Ricks who had done most of the talking.

“First priority on hitting the ground, Caleb, is to figure out what that bastard Shirazi’s done to us since we’ve been on holiday,” Ricks said. “Those VEVAK bastards move quick, damn quick, and they’ll be looking to make you as one of ours as soon as you land.”

“Understood,” Caleb said, nodding, head already starting to swim in confusion.

“Play the rulebook, understand? Take your time, identify the opposition, don’t do anything—not a bloody goddamn thing—until you’re certain you know when you’re being followed and when you’re not.”

“Yes.” Caleb spoke with such emphasis that D-Ops, sitting alone along one side of the briefing table, shot him a glare, and Lewis didn’t need telepathy to read the man’s thoughts. Crocker was nervous about him, and with good reason. Lewis was being sent into a hostile theatre, green as a new shoot. Everyone present for the briefing—hell, everyone in the Ops Room, if not in Vauxhall Cross itself—knew the importance of Tehran.

Ever since the Revolution, Iran had been, as they said in the old days, a tough nut to crack. But following the last election and the suppression of the Green Revolution that followed in its wake, SIS had seen an opportunity and seized it. It had taken Ricks the better part of a year, but somehow he’d cobbled together the beginnings of a new network, consisting mostly of students and counterrevolutionaries, with a few, precious members of the clergy and low-level
government officials. The nascent cell was of paramount importance to SIS, and one needn’t be an expert in Farsi to understand why; since the Revolution, reliable human intelligence out of Iran had been near-impossible to obtain. The Americans were widely known to be both deaf and blind in the country, and Britain, even after thirty years of effort, had met with nothing but repeated failure in the face of VEVAK’s aggressive counterintelligence program. Israel’s operations, while perhaps more successful, had always been jealously guarded and its fruits rarely shared, now even more so with the possibility of a nuclear Iran.

There was no margin for error. If there was a failure in Iran, it would be laid first at Caleb’s feet, then at Barnett’s, and of the two of them, Barnett, with his years of service to the Firm, had political cover. If Caleb screwed this, his would go down in the record books as one of the shortest careers in SIS history.

“Used cars for code names,” Ricks said. “Code words and phrases for all of them, using Farsi only, to avoid suspicion. The lexicon’s here, you’ll need to memorize it. Newest one recruited, code name Mini, works for one of the mujtahids appointed to the Guardian Council. Ideological asset, has refused funds. Very, very skittish, Lewis, and with good reason. His dead drop is in the Park-e Shahr, beneath the eastern footbridge, north side. Checks Wednesday and Saturday. Eleventh brick up, sixth in as you face it on the left. The masonry looks solid, but the brick is loose. Droploaded sign is an empty pack of cigarettes on the ground at the foot of the trashcan, to your right as you enter the park from Fayyazbakkah Street, facing south. Your drop-cleared is a yellow chalk mark on the front of the south gatepost, at the east entrance to the park. Repeat it back.”

Caleb repeated it back without error. He thought Crocker looked surprised he’d managed it.

“Good,” Ricks said. “Next one, code name is Phantom, she’s a student at Tehran University. Ideological, but is taking payment…”

***

The first Saturday in December, and Caleb woke cold and immediately scared, eyes coming open to find himself staring into his pillow. He sat himself up with a start, certain he’d overslept, checked the clock and saw he hadn’t, and fought off the near-overpowering urge to collapse back beneath the warmth of his blankets. Tehran had turned surprisingly cold in the last three weeks, never rising above ten degrees Celsius. Rain had started falling the night before. Sitting on the side of his bed, he could hear it spattering against the windows still.

Caleb roused himself, showered and dressed, took his backpack from its peg, and then, with a moment’s hesitation to gather himself and marshal his courage, stepped out of his apartment. He made his way down the two flights onto Mellat Street and into the rain. A car sped past him as he emerged, an old Fiat, and he avoided the spray it kicked up, only to be rewarded twenty yards to the south with a soaking from a speeding Khodro as he crossed Amir Kabir. He shook himself off, continuing towards the Tehran Bazaar, most of the shops not yet open. It wasn’t yet six in the morning. He ducked into the first open café he found for a quick cup of coffee, exchanging pleasantries with the owner, and used the opportunity to again try and spot anyone who might be following him.

That he didn’t see any surveillance did nothing to ease his fears.

In its own way, it made things worse.

***

There were three drops for him to check, Mini, Cayman, and Quattro, and Caleb took them in reverse order this morning, in an effort to continually vary his routine. No signs set for Quattro or Cayman, and he was beginning to think that maybe he might be home and warm and dry before eight, when, at the entrance to the Park-e Shahr, at the foot of the trashcan, he saw a crushed pack of 57s. The cigarettes were manufactured by the Iranian Tobacco Company, named 57 after the year 1357 in the Iranian calendar, 1979 in the Gregorian, the year of the Revolution.

Without stopping, Caleb continued into the park. The rain began pelting him with thicker drops, and he struggled with the sudden desire to look back over his shoulder, to check, once again, for anyone who might be following him. Thus far he’d seen no one who raised undue suspicion, had seen nothing out of the ordinary, but that gave him no confidence. His contact with Mini since arriving in-country had been limited, only one message two weeks earlier, marginal value about movement on the Guardian Council and a statement that he had to be careful, that he was afraid he was under suspicion. Given everything Ricks had told him about Mini, Caleb had expected a longer silence.

He trudged his way deeper into the park, along the broad central main path, stepping over piles of scattered, sodden leaves. A bicyclist swooped past him, continued on, speeding towards the central fountain. Caleb turned west, onto a thinner trail, overhung with branches, the sound of the rainfall louder on their leaves. The near-constant noise of Tehran’s automobile traffic had faded, and now he could hear his own footsteps. There was a bench on his right, ahead of him, and he stopped at it, propping up his left foot and bending to fix the laces on his trainers. He straightened, wiped water out of his hair, and still he saw nobody who might be following him. He turned south, switching paths, then east again, and twice more he stopped to admire the trees, or to look north, as if trying to spot the Alborz Mountains behind the rain.

Finally, his route took him towards the footbridge, fifty meters away now, and he saw the bicyclist who’d passed him earlier, still perched on his seat, one leg down to hold his balance, peering about, and Caleb was slowing his approach when the rider pushed off once more, speeding away, down the trail. Caleb waited until he was out of sight. Then he followed the narrow pathway down the embankment, to where it joined the walkway beneath the bridge.

The sound of the falling rain was louder beneath the bridge, but Caleb didn’t idle to enjoy the shelter. He located the brick, shifted it, and inside there was, indeed, a scrap of paper. He pocketed it, replaced the brick, then continued down the path. It had taken him two, perhaps three seconds total to clear the drop.

He used the east entrance to leave the park, marking the south post as he passed it with the chalk he carried in his pocket.

***

His Number One, Lee Barnett, was in their office when Caleb reached the embassy.

“Drowned rat,” Barnett said.

“Pardon?”

“As in what you look like.”

Caleb peeled off his jacket, nodding, then took a seat at his desk. For a moment he relished the modest relief in the safety of his surroundings. Their office was buried deep within the embassy itself, unmarked, and always locked, the only keys possessed by Caleb and Barnett. According to Barnett, they indeed had “posh digs,” at least compared to other Stations the Number One had experienced. Most often SIS was stuck in something more akin to a closet, with barely enough room to allow a man to change his mind, let alone his shirt. Here, there was space for the two of them to have their own desks, with enough to spare for an ample cabinet that held the secure communications array used to speak with London. Opposite Caleb’s desk was the office safe, large and ancient and impenetrable, flanked on either side by floor-to-ceiling bookcases. The room had no windows, not even ceiling lights, but was instead illuminated by two standing lamps, positioned at opposite corners. Instead of being dim, however, that gave the room a feeling of warmth, something
Lewis was more than a little grateful for at the moment.

Barnett moved to their little tea table and plugged in the kettle. “Long walk this morning?”

“Had to check the flags on Mini, Cayman, and Quattro,” Caleb answered, digging into his pocket. “Mini had loaded the drop, so I took an extra hour before moving to clear it, just to be sure I was clean.”

“I thought Mini was keeping his head down?”

“That’s what I thought.” He unfolded the note. There was a pause, only the sound of the kettle beginning to chatter. “Sir?”

“Hmm?”

Caleb smoothed the note out on his desk, looked at Barnett.

“Mini uses code words.”

“Is that a question?”

“No. Mini uses code words, the lexicon that Ricks worked up before he got PNG’ed.”

“If you need the lexicon, it’s in the safe, I—”

“No, this is a number code,” Caleb said. “Mini’s drop, but it’s not Mini’s code. This one’s different, in English, not Farsi. Looks like a
substitution code.”

“Give here.”

Caleb handed the note over, watched as Barnett’s thin face seemed to stretch in confusion, the normally cheerful smile absent. Caleb liked Barnett; it was, in fact, Barnett who had made him feel that his fear was both to be expected and to be managed, and there was something paternal about the man that appealed greatly to Caleb. He was a tall man, veering close to gangly, with a thick head of black hair that had begun showing the gray of distinction at his temples. If Caleb had any problems with Barnett at all, it was that the man smoked like a refinery, and had no qualms about doing so in their office, official embassy no-smoking policy be damned.

Barnett had lowered the note, was staring at the wall, deep in thought. The kettle rattled to crescendo, then shut itself off with a
click.

“You weren’t followed?” Barnett asked him.

“If they were on me, I never saw them.”

The Number One handed the note back to Caleb, reached for the pack of Silk Cut Blue resting on his desk beside his lighter. He shook one free and set fire to it. After another moment he left his cigarette to dangle on his lip, moved to the kettle, and fixed each of them a cup of tea.

“Doesn’t make any fucking sense.” Barnett handed one mug to Caleb. “If they know the drop, why the hell didn’t they nab you when you went to clear it?”

“Not following, sir.”

“Mini uses the lexicon, Caleb. This isn’t the lexicon. Ergo, Mini didn’t load the drop.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Caleb said. “Mini gave up the drop.”

“No, lad, you’re not thinking it through. If Mini gave up the drop, why wouldn’t he have given up the lexicon, too? And if the drop’s been blown, then why didn’t Shirazi’s goon squad just pin you to the ground the moment you came to clear it? Or, better yet, after you’d cleared it? Did you see anyone else around, anyone at all?”

“There was a bicyclist, just before I got to the bridge, but he was gone before I moved in.” Caleb examined the note again, all the more certain that he was looking at two different codes, a primary number key, followed by a rudimentary substitution code, reading:

E N M S A E K H
N H MH A K A SM

Caleb counted up the figures in the first part, fourteen numbers, apparently grouped in twos. “The second part is definitely substitution, but I think this first part is a book code.”

“Could be he’s waiting until you return.” The ash on the end of Barnett’s cigarette dropped onto the back of his hand, narrowly missing his mug of tea. He wiped his hand against his pants, leaning forward to examine the note again. “First time to see if the drop is real. Now that it’s confirmed, they’ll grab you on the next trip. PNG express, if you’re lucky.”

“God.” Caleb felt suddenly ill.

“I think you’re right, I think it’s a book code. Caleb?”

“No one in the network uses a book code, sir.”

“Thing is, if VEVAK does have Mini, then he certainly gave them the lexicon.”

“So it’s not VEVAK?”

Barnett straightened up, shrugged. “Guess we won’t know that until we decode the bloody thing. By which, of course, I mean until you decode the bloody thing.” He grinned.

“But I don’t know the book.” Caleb shook his head, unsure if his Number One was making a joke or not. “It could be any book. And the substitution code—I mean, there’s no way to even begin to guess the key.”

“Well, the book code at least, if it’s a message for this Station, it’s going to be found in one of those.” Barnett used his cigarette to indicate the two bookcases, filled to bursting with all manner of reference, both technical and cultural. At least three different copies of the Koran, and that many again of the collected Omar Khayyám, anything that any previous resident to the Station had thought of merit, or, at the least, of use. “Can’t be more than one hundred and fifty, maybe two hundred books there, tops. Crack part-the-first, maybe that gives you the key to part-the-second.”

“You can’t be serious,” Caleb said, and immediately regretted it.

One look told him that, for all Barnett’s humor, there was nothing about the current situation he found funny.

“Look, Caleb, either this is Shirazi playing silly buggers with us, or it’s someone else who’s discovered that we use the footbridge in Park-e Shahr as a dead drop. In either case, the location is compromised.”

Caleb got to his feet quickly, suddenly possessed of a different fear, one that had nothing to do with his own well-being. “I’ve got to set the warning flag for Mini. Jesus, if he hasn’t been made and they’re watching the drop, he’ll walk right into them.”

“No, sit. Drink your bloody tea.”

“But Mini—”

“I’ll do it. If Shirazi’s crew has eyes on you, there’s a chance I’ll draw less attention. He’s in Elahiyeh?”

“Yes, in the foothills.”

“What’s the flag?”

“There’s a streetlight at the corner of Razm Ara and Estanbol, on the north side.” Caleb searched his pockets, pulled out the piece of yellow chalk. “Two horizontal lines on the east side of the post.”

“No school like the old school.” Barnett took the chalk. “Right, I’ll set the flag, you hit the books. I’d start with the ones in Farsi.”

“That’s what I was thinking.”

“Good. Wish me luck.”

“I should go,” Caleb said uneasily. “Mini’s my agent.”

Barnett grinned, opening the door. “You’re a good lad, Caleb.”

***

It was midafternoon before Barnett returned, saying the deed was done and that the rain had finally stopped, and that there’d been no sign of any VEVAK interest whatsoever. He noted the growing towers of books surrounding Caleb, fixed two more cups of tea, and turned his attention back to the reports he’d been preparing for delivery to D-Int earlier that morning. Each worked in silence.

As Barnett was preparing to leave for the day, Caleb found the book. A copy of Hakim Abu’l Qasim Ferdowsi’s epic poem, Shahnameh. Even when he had it, he wasn’t sure it was correct. The intervening hours had been filled with so many pieces of nonsense, of what appeared to be the correct match of page and word to meaning, only to fall apart at the last moment. An article where a noun was needed, or a number that went to a page or word that didn’t exist. Twice already Caleb had managed to decode the whole message, only to realize the sentence was utter, utter nonsense.

Which was why, even after reading it through three times, he still wasn’t certain he’d decoded it correctly.

The grapes are in the water. Falcon.

Barnett, about to pull on his coat, stopped and stared at him.

“What?”

“I’m not sure, sir. I think that’s the message. ‘The grapes are in the water. Falcon.’ Sounds like a keyword code now, but it still doesn’t match the lexicon. And we’re not running anybody under the name Falcon, are we?”

“Not in this theatre. You’re sure you’ve got it right?”

“No,” Caleb said, with utter sincerity. “I’m not.”

“Not really what I wanted to hear.” Barnett had the communications cabinet open now, extended a long leg to hook a nearby chair, pulling it closer. He parked himself in front of the keyboard, began typing quickly. In addition to the signals deck, there was a headset, as well as a companion handset, for the secure audio link, but Caleb had yet to see them used. According to Barnett, he didn’t want to see them used, either, because if one of them was on the headset here in Iran, the odds were it was Paul Crocker at the other end of it in London.

“Give it to me again,” Barnett said. “And the substitution code at the end.”

Caleb relayed the message once more, Barnett typing more slowly this time as he took it down. Task completed, Barnett turned the transmit key, then whacked the “send” button with his palm.

The machine hummed for an instant, then went utterly silent. Barnett removed the key, scooted himself back in his chair, closed and locked the cabinet.

“London’s problem now,” he told Caleb Lewis.

***

Return to Form

School started roughly two weeks ago, though this is the first true “uninterrupted” week, now that the High Holy Days are over. What this means is that myself and my partner in crimes are able to finally return to the serious work of writing for a living. There are many wonderful things about summer, but with two kids in school, and thus two kids out of school for three months, productivity, shall we say, suffers.

Response to Stumptown 4 has been gratifying, which is always nice. In the main, I avoid reviews – in fact, in the main, I avoid looking around the interwebs for anything concerning me, which seems to surprise many people, and befuddle many more. Every now and then I am directed to something about myself or my work; more often than not, the kindly-hearted directing-type person points me to the positive, but there’s always – there is always – a negative. Normally from a poster who enjoys the fact that they don’t have to own the fecal onslaught they’re spilling. Point of order: you want to throw a knife at me, sign your fucking name. I own my words; have the courage to own yours. Otherwise, you’re just another nutless coward who “is working on a comic/movie/novel” but doesn’t have the talent or wherewithal to make it happen. Nut up or shut up.

I mean, seriously, didn’t your parents teach you anything about how to behave in public?

This, too, is a return to form. Comics are a Very Small Pond, folks, and people who take themselves too seriously in these waters are people who need to gain some perspective. Really.

Still getting the details together for The Last Run tour. Right now I’ve confirmed appearances at Murder By The Book (Portland), Seattle Mystery Bookshop, the Los Angeles Mystery Bookstore, The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the Miami Book Fair (that’ll be near the end of November). More stores may be added, but the likelihood of my getting out east of the Mississippi (aside from the Miami trip) is looking rather… thin. To those of you on the East Coast specifically who have been waiting patiently for me to come your way, 2011 will – repeat will – be the year for it. Check the appearances page for updates!

Speaking of which… I, unfortunately, will not be attending NYCC, as planned, though JVM will still be doing the show. Scheduling conflicts + Deadlines = No Way In Hell That I Could Make the Trip, though I am hoping to get out to New York in late November/early December, if all goes well.

Back to the matter of The Last Run. I’ll be posting the first chapter on Friday, as a teaser, the second chapter the week following, the third the week after that…at which point I hope appetites will be suitably whetted for the novel’s release on the 26th of October.

And now, a question for y’all. For A Gentleman’s Game and Private Wars, we did bookplates, with art done by Steve Rolston and Brian Hurtt respectively. The deal was, you sent a SASE with a copy of your receipt for the novel, and you received in exchange a signed and numbered bookplate. Is this something folks would be interested in for The Last Run? Let me know in the comments below!

EDITED TO ADD:

I forgot to say that I won’t be at Jet City this weekend, either. Both Jen and I have had to cancel due to family commitments.

Yes, I know – a lot of cancelations lately. This Real Life thing is a bitch.

On the Occasion of Stumptown # 4

Stumptown #4, the conclusion of “The Case of the Girl who Took her Shampoo but left her Mini,” is – as of this writing – due in store tomorrow, September 1st. Much, much delayed, for reasons that Matthew iterates in the backmatter of the issue. Fact is, I’ve no desire at all to beat this already-bloodied horse to further glue, except to add that, the next case will absolutely not be solicited until we have enough in the can to avoid this kind of thing in the future.

This is not – stress on not – to lay the blame for the delay at Matthew’s feet. Life happens, with rather apalling insistence, in fact, and one of the problems of working in the “Small Press” as opposed to the “Bigs” is that Real Life™ tends to be much more unforgiving on creators, believe it or not. If Stumptown was a DC book, for instance, or published by Marvel, mechanisms would have been brought to bear to address the schedule conflicts such as we’ve experienced. But it isn’t (whether it could be or not is another question entirely), and there aren’t, and Matthew and I (and James Lucas, and Jill Beaton, and all the rest manning the oars at Oni Press) bear the guilt and the responsibility.

All this having been said, I repeat: It Won’t Happen Again.

Truth is, I hate shipping late. I hate it with an almost unnatural passion. Looking back at my track record with Oni, I know many of you may find this hard to believe. But I swear it on my honor (something I actually try to maintain), I hate doing it, I loathe it, I think it’s a reprehensible way to treat an audience of, essentially, volunteers. I hated it when I worked at DC, and I hate it all the more now that I am working sans filet, as they say on the Continent. At the best, it reeks of a disrespect for the reader (something I, in all sincerity, have never held); at the worst, it speaks of rather dramatic arrogance on the part of the creator(s). Arrogant I may be, but I don’t think I’m that arrogant.

And even with all that, even with – believe or not – a concerted effort to avoid precisely this kind of problem as early as the conception of Stumptown, it happened anyway. My apologies, and Matthew’s, only go so far.

So we’re offering you this:

We will solicit nothing – not a damn thing – until we are satisfied the issues of the next arc, if not the entirety of the run, can and will be in stores as promised.

There is a downside. To whit: it may be some time before you see solicitation for Issue 5, the first part of the “The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case.” The upside? When you do see that solicitation, you can be certain the issues will be delivered monthly for the duration of the story arc (barring those things that none of us can control, of course, like, you know, flash floods, Lady Gaga, etc.)

From the start, Matthew and I intended a rotating schedule of sorts with Stumptown. While it is an ongoing series, our intention was always to work in arcs of four issues each – complete cases – taking four months ‘on’ and then four months ‘off’ in between. The off months were planned to make sure we got ahead on the next arc, and thus didn’t…uhm…y’know, do the thing we did. The practical result is that you can start looking for Issue 5 to be solicited in early 2011. If we get on top of the schedule, we’ll solicit sooner. If we fall behind, we’ll solicit later.

And that’s enough about that.

In other news, summer is coming to a close here, as evidence by the kids becoming more and more manic. School starts next week, and with it, a return to something resembling a normal work schedule, as well. It’s going to be a busy Fall. I shall be updating as I am able.

On the appearance front:

Vancouver, on September 12th.

Jet City in Seattle on September 25th.

And there’s something going on in October in New York, I believe… the Appearance Page will be updated soon, as well.

Cheers!