Editor: This is the original version of Hands-On. In 2014 this story is being rewritten and updated to match the style and content of the stories that have followed it. This version is no longer considered “canon”, but is being stored here for posterity.
Note that archived versions of stories may contain inaccurate information (compared to newer stories), and may also contain spoilers.
I leaned on the door frame and watched Ian Innis push back from his desk, cross his ankles, and absentmindedly twist his chair from side to side. His eyes were fixed on a beat-up cell phone which was perched atop a mound of torn-out sheets of yellow notepad paper that littered his desk. The papers were scribbled over with disorganized bullet lists in blue, black, and red ink, written in a frantic shorthand. Dozens of names were scrawled across the mess of notes, surrounded by numbers, triple-underlined exclamations, and question marks.
Ian himself was a middle-aged, slightly overweight, clean-shaven, dark-haired man with a closet full of golf shirts and tan slacks. Seen on the street, he appeared average in almost every respect, an ordinary, benign, phonebook-filler kind of person. He was someone you wouldn’t hesitate too long to sit next to on a bus if there were no empty benches and the good standing spots were already taken. That was actually how I’d first met him. Interesting story, that one.
Ian’s office was permeated by the smell of cigar smoke and filled with curios, mementos, antiques, and a hodge-podge of other eclectic collectibles. There was a scale model of a mystical Thai stone temple in the corner; a binder containing what claimed to be a detailed toxicology report from tests run on a sample of Rasputin’s blood was wedged under one leg of a dusty, threadbare loveseat; and a Polaroid photo of a nearly naked Asian man covered head to toe in runic tattoos was taped to the door. Numerous other examples of Innis’s passing fascinations were spread around the house. It was a mythology nut’s dream home.
One obsession stayed constant, though: Innis was deeply interested in the daily criminal politics of his hometown, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He had to be: he was one of the key players. He’d gotten here by knowing things other people didn’t know, and by aligning himself with people no one else would even make eye contact with. There was still plenty of prejudice to go around when it came to specials these days. Given the choice between hiring a normal and a special, most employers went with the normal—unless the special had an ability that directly enhanced their work performance, of course. Most people saw specials as unreliable and lazy, arrogant and entitled. “So you have muscles in your pigtails,” they said. “So you can talk to squirrels, or draw visible marks in the air with your fingers. So what? You still have to put in your forty hours a week, like the rest of us.” Affirmative action and government-sponsored ad campaigns promoting tolerance and equality hadn’t done much to curb those prejudices.
It was a tough life for a special. I knew that first-hand. Everyone who learned about my abilities treated me differently, pushed me away. So when Ian Innis had reached out to me, I took it as an opportunity. We’d been working together for coming up on five years, and during that time Innis had continued to find and approach specials who he thought might be receptive to his offer of a job in an inclusive environment with good pay and benefits, despite the occasional odd hours and “unusual” tasks.
We were in the business of knowledge and relationships. Ian gathered the knowledge. I was usually in charge of the relationships. Officially I managed logistics and customer service for a casual employment registry. It wasn’t far from the truth. While I managed the work requests that came our way—both legitimate and less so—Ian focused on research and recruitment.
Most of Ian’s research was pinned to one wall of his office in the form of a map of Victoria. The map was peppered with dozens of coloured push pins, and each pin-marked location was annotated with a four-digit number neatly printed with a fine-tipped black marker. Judged by the state of his workspace and the general disarray of virtually every room in his home, no one would call Ian Innis particularly organized, but when it came to that map and its labels, the man was meticulous.
Innis wanted to know where every special in the city lived, what their abilities were, and how they were using them. I’d asked him before why he thought that kind of info was so important. “Knowledge is power,” he’d say. Then he’d try to pass it off as just being useful in the recruitment process. I let that explanation stand. He paid me well enough to be allowed a few secrets.
And the data he collected really did make recruitment easier. I rarely had to work very hard to convince someone to come on board, after Innis had made contact with them, and those few that did hesitate almost always signed up after a personal visit from the boss. He was a Human Resources genius, whatever else he was.
On that Wednesday afternoon in July, as I leaned against the door frame, he was sinking his hooks into an important potential hire.
“He calls himself Cyber,” Innis volunteered, breaking the silence that had settled over the room like another layer of dust. “And you thought I was the only one who came up with these corny nicknames, eh? I’m supposed to meet him tomorrow morning.”
I waved the dust motes disturbed by his breath away from my face and coughed to clear my throat.
Innis added, “He can interface with pretty much any kind of wired electronic signal there is. Just touches a finger to the connector and away he goes, dancing across the circuit boards like a happy little binary fairy.”
I glanced over at the topmost sheet of paper on Ian’s desk. There was a picture stapled to it, a headshot of a guy in his late twenties with close-cropped curly hair and olive skin. He had what my mom would’ve called a “kissable smile,” but it was ringed with a crop of stubble so bristly it would make a hedgehog self-conscious. What stood out most, though, were his eyes: they were a deep silver, flecked with brown, and despite the smile they pierced through the camera lens. His eyes seemed to carry a message, something like “I know something you don’t know, and trust me, it would be better for you if I didn’t.” I knew how Ian 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 binder somewhere.
“This guy,” Ian was saying, “is why I’ve been using the carrier relay lately instead of calling you directly. I don’t know his limits yet, and until I do, I don’t want him to know more than I think is good for him. We are in the knowledge business after all, eh? I reached out to him a couple days ago, and he’s probably got his eye on me now. If I text you he might trace it, and you’re a secret I like to keep. Besides, if I don’t use the relay every now and then Miguel gets antsy and starts sending his birds around pecking at my windows. How’s a guy supposed to get any work done with a flock of mind-controlled crows constantly flying back and forth across the yard?”
“Murder,” I said.
“Seems a little drastic, to me. Besides, I don’t think killing an animal is called ‘murder,’ even if the bird is basically an extension of the guy’s body.”
“No, I mean a flock of crows is called a ‘murder.’”
Ian looked at me and tugged at his nose for a minute. The expression in his eyes suggested he was working on a clever retort, but hadn’t figured one out fast enough, and now the moment for it had passed, so he just glared, turned back to his desk, and picked up his sheet of knowledge about the guy who called himself Cyber.
“What we’ve got to figure out from the start,” he said, “is how much we can trust him. We put him in any kind of contact with our computers and he’ll have stuck his hand in a USB port and downloaded everything onto some thumb drive he’s holding in his pocket, and then he brings it to the cops, or worse, to the competition, and then we’re done.”
“So don’t trust him,” I suggested. “Forget him. There are plenty of other specials out there.”
“Yeah, there are others, but none of them can do what this guy can. Plus we’ve had a few too many ‘retirements’ lately. Which reminds me, one of Miguel’s messenger crows brought me a note an hour ago saying the Dust Devil decided to start up her own maid business, so she wants off the list.”
“That’s not a big surprise,” I said. “If she can get her foot in the door, she should be able to rake in the cash. That woman’s cleaning powers put Mary Poppins to shame.”
Ian nodded his agreement. “Not the brightest girl we’ve ever worked with, but handy to have around for cleaning up after a dirty job. She snapped her fingers and wiped the blood off more than one of our guys’ hands in her time, so to speak. ” Ian stood up, reached over to his map, and plucked out a red pin along Foul Bay Road, replacing it with a black one. He sat back down and started digging through the shuffle of papers on his desk until he found one with the heading “HARRIET TEMPEL—DUST DEVIL.” He crossed out a few words in a corner of the paper and crammed the note “JULY 13 OPTED OUT OF CALL LIST” into the remaining empty space around the edges.
Then he fished through the pile for his cell phone, which had been buried in the mess, settled back, and continued to watch it, apparently no longer interested in my presence.
I said, “I’ve been running errands all morning, and I have a job package to deliver. Was there anything else you wanted to talk to me about?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Sorry, I’m a little distracted by the Cyber situation right now. This could be a big get for us. Tonight is the tiger thing, right?”
“Ok. Who are you sending? You know what, I don’t need all the details. You’ve left a copy of the briefing here? Good. I’ll text you if I have any questions.”
“What about Cyber?”
“Right. I’ll send you a crow then. Come by tomorrow with a completion report and I’ll brief you on where things stand with Cyber.”
I headed out.