“He calls himself Cyber.” Ian Innis declared this with some finality, pushing back from his desk and crossing his ankles. Innis was a middle-aged, slightly overweight, clean-shaven, dark-haired man with a closet full of long-sleeved shirts, tan slacks, and suit jackets. Seen on the street, he appeared average in almost every respect, an ordinary, benign, phonebook-filler kind of person. He was someone you didn’t look twice at, someone you didn’t think twice about.
But every now and then, if you caught him in a sideways glance, you got the impression he was doing plenty of thinking about you.
Innis’s audience for this pronouncement was his personal assistant, Shawn Matthew Scott, called SMS by those few individuals he thought of as his friends. The blond-haired 25-year-old was leaning silently against the door frame, preferring not to fully enter the disaster zone Innis called his office.
Innis’s office was permeated by the smell of cigar smoke and filled to the brim with books, binders, folders, and papers. Mismatched shelving units lined the walls. One sagging bookshelf was filled with multiple sets of faded encyclopedias. Another held textbooks on subjects like anatomy, psychiatry, and world religions. A third had been crammed full of old copies of the Times Colonist newspaper. Two metal shelving units to the left of Innis’s desk contained forty or fifty cheap three-ring binders that bulged at the seams, crammed with far too much paper. Each binder was meticulously labeled along the spine with a short combination of letters and numbers, though they didn’t seem to be arranged in any particular order.
Innis’s desk was no better: it was clearly the source that fed the binders. There was a small clear space right in the middle of the desk, just enough room to rest a single opened book, and on either side of this sanctuary towered mountains of lined paper, scribbled over with a frenetic shorthand. Names, dates, addresses, half sentences, and disorganized bullet lists roamed over the pages in blue, black, and red ink, well punctuated with triple-underlines, exclamation points, and question marks. In amongst the hand-written notes were some printed pages, as well, text and photos and print-offs of web pages.
Nestled at the base of the pile to Innis’s left was a small, unremarkable black notebook. Every now and then, without seeming to know that he was doing it, Innis would reach out and touch the notebook, as if to reassure himself that it was still there.
SMS was content to stay right here in the doorway, where he could keep out of trouble. He could see exactly what would happen if he entered the room: with his first step inside, some minor air current would send the whole papery mass crashing to the floor, and he’d have to be the one to clean it up. SMS wondered if that was Innis’s game: see how high the papers can get before some poor soul knocks them over, and whoever topples them gets to file them!
“I reached out to him yesterday,” said Innis. “He’s new to Victoria, just moved here a week ago. We’ve been texting a bit.” Innis nodded towards his ten-year-old cell phone, which was sitting in the clear space in the middle of the desk. As if on cue, it buzzed with an incoming message, and for a moment both paper piles wavered ever so slightly. SMS braced himself for the inevitable collapse, but somehow the papers held together.
Innis flipped the phone open, read the message on the screen, and nodded, satisfied. “I’m meeting with him tonight.” He scanned the surface of the right-hand paper pile, spotted what he was looking for, and gingerly extricated a typed information sheet with a photo stapled to it, then held it up for SMS to see.
The photo was a headshot of a guy in his late twenties with short, curly hair and olive skin. He had what SMS’s mother—rest her soul—would have called a “kissable smile”, ringed with a bristling crop of well-curated stubble. What stood out most, though, were his eyes: they were a deep silver, flecked with brown, and pierced straight through the camera lens. His eyes seemed to carry a message: “I know something you don’t know, and it would be better for you if I didn’t.”
SMS knew how Innis would interpret those eyes: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Then find out what they know, write it all down, and tuck it into a random binder somewhere.
“He can interface with pretty much any kind of wired electronic signal there is,” Innis continued. “Just touches a finger to a cable or a connector—any kind of connector—and away he goes, reading files, writing files, connecting to the internet…”
SMS nodded appreciatively. “Powerful.” Just the kind of uniquely capable human being Innis was always looking for.
Finding these special people was Innis’s profession. Finding them, befriending them, ingratiating himself to them, hiring them. He even went out of his way to seek out the less useful ones, the ones whose specialness earned them rejection more often than any kind of appreciation or advantage. The ones who were most desperate to feel like they belonged somewhere. It was an approach that tended to produce some very loyal employees.
SMS knew first-hand how effective Innis could be at convincing special people to sign on. He’d been a recruit once, himself.
SMS’s ability wasn’t nearly as sexy as Cyber’s: all SMS could do was send and receive text messages and phone calls directly from his own head, without the need for an actual phone. Useful enough, but not exactly life-changing. The only real advantage it gave him was that he didn’t have to pay a phone bill every month if he didn’t want to. But he had a phone anyways, just so he could mime that he was using it when he was in public. And the apps could be pretty useful, too.
Despite being able to hide his status as a special fairly easily, SMS tended to keep to himself. Almost everyone who learned about his abilities treated him differently, pushed him away, so he’d stopped trying to hold on to any real social attachments years ago.
That didn’t bother him too much. SMS’s job as Innis’s assistant involved working with people a lot, managing client relationships and communicating with employees, so he was happy to spend his free time alone.
“Do you want me to prep a contract?” SMS asked. “Or are you planning to wait before making Cyber an offer?”
“Hold off for now,” said Innis. “I don’t want to spook him. He could be reading all of our files right now, and if he sees a contract pop up with his name on it he might think we’re coming on too strong.”
“You really think he could get that kind of access to our computers?” It seemed unlikely to SMS: just because someone can control a computer with his brain instead of a mouse and keyboard doesn’t make him some kind of super hacker.
“We don’t know his limits,” said Innis, “so I’d rather play it safe.”
“I could disconnect our computers from the internet,” said SMS.
“Then he’d notice that they had ‘disappeared’, and he’d know we were worried about him.”
“No contract for now,” Innis repeated, “and try not to send any sensitive text messages, either. Definitely none to me. He could intercept them. And he might even be able to figure out that your ‘number’ isn’t supposed to exist. I don’t want him knowing too much about you: you’re a secret I like to keep. In the meantime, if you really need to send me a message, use one of Miguel’s birds.”
SMS rolled his eyes. “Really?”
Innis shrugged. “It’s the only non-electronic messaging system we have. Besides, if I don’t use the birds every now and then Miguel gets antsy and starts sending them around pecking at my windows. How am I supposed to get any work done with a flock of mind-controlled crows flapping back and forth across the yard?”
“Murder,” said SMS.
“Seems a little drastic to me.”
“No, I mean a flock of crows is called a ‘murder.'”
Innis narrowed his eyes at SMS and tugged on his nose. His expression suggested he was working on a clever retort but hadn’t figured one out fast enough, and now the moment had passed, so instead Innis just glared and took another look at his sheet of knowledge about the guy who called himself Cyber.
“What I have to figure out right away,” said Innis, “is first, how much can we trust him, and second, what kind of work is he interested in?”
The second question was the more difficult one. Innis’s employees did a lot of different kinds of work. His business, Unique Service Solutions, was essentially a temp agency staffed entirely by specials. Most of the services the agency provided were pretty mundane: they did everything from dog walking to ditch digging. Of course, the people doing the tasks were possibly the bizarrest collection of individuals you’d ever meet, considering that one of Innis’s employees could telekinetically control pet leashes, and only pet leashes, while another could tunnel rapidly through soil with her hands, like a mole. Not every job Unique took on was ability-specific, but when they had a special who could do something far better than any normal, it allowed for some pretty significant undercutting on prices.
Besides these kinds of jobs, there were the other tasks they did, the more lucrative, less legal kind. The kind of services Innis had really created his business to provide. Tax evasion, theft, smuggling, blackmail; just about any kind of non-violent crime imaginable. All facilitated by creative deployment of the more useful varieties of special Innis had on payroll.
If Cyber was interested in those kinds of tasks… Well, then Innis could be on the verge of greatly expanding his criminal capacity, and SMS could have a very interesting new employee to manage.
“Should be an interesting meeting,” said SMS.
Innis nodded. “We need to land this guy, Shawn. Our ranks have been thinning too much lately. We’ve lost a couple of important revenue streams, between the cops picking up Casbon and Dust Devil quitting.”
“I didn’t know Dust Devil quit.”
“Oh, I just got a resignation letter from her,” said Innis. “She’s starting her own cleaning business, so she wants off our call list.”
“Makes sense, I guess,” said SMS. “That woman’s cleaning powers put Mary Poppins to shame.”
Ian nodded. “Not the brightest lady we’ve ever worked with, but handy to have around for cleaning up after a dirty job. The way she could just snap her fingers and put an office back together, exactly the way it was before we ransacked it… Very impressive. Hurts to lose her. Here, I’ll give you the letter so you can file it somewhere.” Innis rummaged through the papers on his desk for several seconds and at last came up with a typed letter, which he held out to SMS.
SMS stepped gingerly into the office, holding his breath so he wouldn’t disturb the paper mountains, and took the letter. He retreated back to the safety of the doorway and scanned through the Dust Devil’s resignation. “It’s dated almost a week ago,” he said. “I thought you said you just got this.”
“She left it in the dropbox,” said Innis. “I hadn’t checked it in a few days.”
“You should give me a key for the dropbox,” suggested SMS, not for the first time. “I know you have a hard time remembering to check it, so why not let me do it for you? One of these days something important might get put in there, and if it’s time-sensitive…”
“You’re probably right,” said Innis, shrugging. “I’ll get the key copied at some point.”
“Okay,” said SMS, inwardly rolling his eyes. They’d had this conversation before, probably four or five times since the hidden dropbox had been installed in the fence out front about six months ago. As far as SMS knew, only one other person had a key for the dropbox, and that was Miguel. Innis sometimes left documents in the box for Miguel to pick up, so that his birds could deliver them.
So far Innis’s promises of providing SMS with the key had gone unfulfilled, and SMS had begun to suspect that it was intentional. But SMS had always known that Innis had secrets to keep. That was okay. SMS had secrets of his own…
With a slight start, SMS realized that he was staring at Innis’s black notebook. He’d gotten lost in his thoughts for a moment and let his eyes wander. How long had he been staring? Had Innis noticed? Stupid, SMS chastised himself. Keep your head in the game! Don’t give him anything to be suspicious about.
“Uh,” said SMS, “so, is there anything you need from me right now? I have a job package to deliver.”
Innis stood up, took the black notebook, put it in a drawer in his desk, then locked the desk.
SMS steadfastly pretended not to watch.
Innis said, “Tonight is the tiger thing, right?”
“Okay. Who are you sending? Actually, I don’t really care.” Innis stood, grabbed his cell phone, and stepped out into the hallway. “You can handle it without me. I’ll text you if I have any questions.”
“What about Cyber?”
“Right. I’ll send you a crow, then.” Innis opened a door that led down a set of carpeted stairs into the basement. “I have some prep work to do for tonight. You can find me downstairs if you need me. Otherwise just fill me in tomorrow morning after the job’s done, and I’ll brief you on where things stand with Cyber then.”
“Okay,” said SMS, as the door closed behind Innis. He resisted the urge to run into Innis’s office and see if he couldn’t somehow pry that locked drawer open. But it would be useless: any use of force would send the mountains of paper crashing down. That would be a giveaway even the Dust Devil couldn’t hope to conceal. Besides, SMS wasn’t even confident the lock could be force. Innis didn’t use cheap locks for important things, and although Innis had never said it in so many words, SMS knew that his boss considered the notebook to be very important.
SMS had bided his time for far too long to surrender to a little bit of temptation like this. A better opportunity would come. With a well-practiced exercise of willpower, he turned to leave. He had a client meeting to prepare for.
The team member dossiers and the mission description were sitting on the printer in the hallway. SMS grabbed the papers and stuffed the dossiers into a file folder, scanning the mission description as he exited the two-storey mid-century house that Innis used as a combined home and office.
The job wasn’t particularly complicated. Kind of weird, but not complicated. Some animal nut wanted help setting a tiger loose from a private nature conservatory, and he was willing to pay for that help, though not very much. You get what you pay for. Well, in this case, he was actually going to get a little more than he had paid for. There were some real charity cases on Innis’s list of specials, people who were even more useless than their mindbogglingly unhelpful abilities would suggest. Innis seemed to think they were all worth keeping around for certain very specific scenarios, so SMS sometimes had to find generic, non-ability-specific jobs like this one to stick them on to help them feel like they were wanted. There hadn’t been many opportunities for that lately, so instead of the two not-very-specials the client had paid for, SMS was providing four. He cringed as he saw the list of names; he’d forgotten just how bad this team was. Sarah Chipman—useless. Mick Munch—useless. Andy Button—useless and annoying. Kevin Cox—okay, Kevin wasn’t that bad. His ability was still useless, but at least he wasn’t completely brain dead.
SMS sighed and tossed the papers onto the passenger seat of his car. Jobs like this seemed like such a waste of time. He had a far more important mission to accomplish.