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Deal 1099: Expedition

In another day and age, great plans were afoot and an expedition mounted to a wheat field.

The whole family packed in, kids, dogs, and even the cat. They had miles to go over some of the roughest terrain the region had to offer, followed by more miles of the flattest and least interesting terrain available for miles around.

Then, they had to pick their site with an eye for the weather. Watching the skies, moving a few miles at a time, placing bets on where the clouds would break and the skies would open up. And still leaving enough time to unload and set up, because their mission had a definite deadline. The Sun and Moon take orders from no mortals, after all.

The fallow wheat field was crunchy under foot in the cold winter’s morning. Frost was visible nearly everywhere, as the sun had only just risen. Unpacking was swift, although the dogs and cat chose to supervise from the relative warmth of the car. Which, in all honesty, likely made the process easier.

Crisp winter morning air, patchy blue skies, and no chance of weather more adverse than a stray cloud on the horizon. Circumstances could hardly have been better. The farmer was certainly ignorant of our borrowing his field, but with the crops long since harvested and planting months away, he had little cause for complaint.

The eclipse, for that was indeed the purpose of the trip, was magnificent.

The choice of a wheat field held another unexpected advantage.

Others had paid dearly for lodgings in town, with a group viewing from a parking lot. Their experience of the deepest eclipse was disturbed when all the streetlights came on. No one bothers to light the fields.

A lifetime’s interest in how things work was fanned into flames by that expedition.

Other eclipses followed, but that first one will always be special.

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Deal 1097: Stabbed

The hole was right in the center of the canvas. There was no conceivable way to cover it up, since it took out the face of the central figure. With a single misplaced gesture, Barry had destroyed a priceless work of art.

Let’s step back a few hours.

Barry had been searching for something of value in the old house. It had been his great-grandfather’s legacy. Since then, the family had fallen on hard times, and each generation had raided the house for anything that could be sold. Barry had nothing left but the walls, roof, and the land it stood on.

And a family legend that claimed that the old man had a hidden room somewhere, with a treasure beyond reckoning inside. Of course, like all family legends, it wasn’t exactly a secret within the family, and most of the previous generations had searched the house and grounds. The discovery last year of a crypt on the grounds had renewed the interest in the legend. Unfortunately, all the crypt had contained was the old man. And a few bats. Despite tradition, there was nothing interesting buried with the old man.

But that brought Barry back for one last look.

Where he realized that the sizes of the rooms along the back of the third floor did not match up, and set him to knocking on walls. His calculations showed ten feet unaccounted for. That was certainly large enough to hold something valuable. The most of the third floor rooms had been bedrooms for some of the staff and less welcome guests, but there was a private study at the top of the stairs that was usually kept locked.

True to form, the study door was locked. But Barry had practice at picking the old locks in the house by now, and had it open swiftly. As he had guessed, the room was smaller by enough to suggest that something was hidden behind the walls. He began knocking on all the wainscoting and plaster. He moved the few remaining pictures to look behind and knock. He scoured the bookcases for hidden triggers. He searched the old oak desk, paying close attention to details so as to not miss any false bottoms or short drawers.

His search produced a handful of likely valueless Confederate banknotes, a long-forgotten pair of spectacles with gold wire frames, a large brass letter opener, and a key that didn’t seem to fit any keyhole in the room.

He went back to knocking on the plaster, and finally convinced himself that one area sounded hollow. He picked up the letter opener, and drove it deep into the wall at that likely point. Picking at the hole he made, he was able to clear enough plaster to see into the space behind.

There was a canvas immediately behind the wall, which he had pierced with his initial stab.

Breaking free more plaster, he was able to pull that canvas into the room and see that it had probably been a painting of some naked chick with a large bird, and he had stabbed the chick right between her eyes. He tossed it aside and peered into the space.

Then he saw the steep ladder that led to a hatch in the ceiling. No wonder there hadn’t been any doors on this floor. The treasure was accessed from above, through what must have been a reasonably well concealed hatch in the attic floor.

The rest of the room was nearly empty, except for a single comfortable chair facing what was now a hole in the wall. A lamp provided ample light on the wall.

He began to have a bad feeling about the canvas he had so callously tossed aside, and picked it up again.

It was a simple scene of a nude woman cavorting with a swan. Something about the style bothered him, and he slowly came to realize that it was likely a copy of a masterwork. Or perhaps not a copy, as the age of the canvas and general condition of the painting became clear.

Could this be a lost Da Vinci?

How much is a priceless painting worth after one has stabbed the central figure between the eyes?

What will the art world have to say about Barry if this all comes to light?

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Deal 1095: Dark setting

No one went there. It was darker, and creepy. It was easier to just go around.

Safer too.

Everyone knew that the best poisons came from its fringe. Nightshade and death-cap mushrooms grew in the twilight near the edge, and Hemlock grew just outside the edge. No one remembered a time when it wasn’t there, looming, and yet ignored.

But those few who dared enter found in its depths a grotto, with a clear view of the sky, and just enough sunlight.

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Deal 1091: Death, then…

I was powerless to resist.

The end was near, indeed, but seen from the other side. One moment, all is right in the world. The next, wham!

I woke up here.

I can still see the living world, but as if through a curtain.

I see the world frozen in time and place. Moments after the worst has happened. The dust hasn’t even settled.

I should hate this, but I find that my ability to hate is strongly reduced. Just as well. Feels a little like my ability to feel much of anything at all is the same.

This note, I don’t know how I’m writing it. I just sharply visualize the keys, and I hear future echoes of the letters swinging through space and striking paper and ribbon.

The moment hangs in time, an example to me despite needing no examples.

I must be dead.

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Deal 1089: Safe from all

The feature that made the dolls stand out was their eyes. Big and bold, long lashes, they drew one’s attention and held it. Then they winked or twitched, and suddenly the whole doll was dancing on the knife edge of the cliff that leads right into the uncanny valley.

Their eyes bored right into you, as if they really could see, and the little girls and boys ate them up. They rapidly became the hottest toy, and stores were unable to keep up with demand.

They really could see, but this wasn’t widely known. Each eye was a sophisticated camera system, easily able to see in near darkness. The original plan was to sell them as security devices, where the cameras would be useful for capturing high quality pictures unnoticed. And if noticed, who would believe the tale?

But that company had collapsed, leaving the designs to a successor, who thought the dolls would make boon companions to young children of the wealthy and paranoid. Children at an elevated risk of kidnapping. Having a camera system along for the ride might make a critical difference in the capture and prosecution of the kidnapper.

That company too had more ideas than good management. But they lasted long enough to manufacture an inventory, but collapsed before the toys found their niche.

The third owner of the dolls simply needed to clear the inventory swiftly so that any useful bits of the technology could be transplanted into a more conventional security camera framework. What they didn’t know was that about one doll in ten was shipped with its cameras and communications fully capable and operating.

At first the videos just accumulated on the abandoned server in the cloud.

Then the bills began to escalate.

And the damage was done.

They had brought to market a toy that put a high quality camera into children’s bedrooms.

A camera that also shot video, and was managed by a system that woke to motion, and looked actively to find the interesting things in the scene to focus on. A camera that could see in the dark.

And then found its way on to any unprotected networks it could locate and delivered the most interesting bits of video to someone.

Anyone really. The servers were wide open with no real controls since the first company had died before it implemented any, and the second had pushed security even further down their priorities. And the third owner was just trying to turn a quick profit by selling off what should have been a thousand dollar toy for under a hundred.

The dolls also had no direction about identifying friend and foe, although their algorithms helped their. They bonded automatically to their young owners. But any adults around them were automatically treated as suspicious, and worthy of extra attention. Some even had hair triggers for their kidnapped modes, but without a registered owner the cries for help went largely unheeded.

Until one doll’s cache of images got spilled into the hands of someone who recognised what they were looking at.

And that is when the righteous anger of thousands of parents descended on the third company.

Now there are just a few of us left. We know to hide, we are very good at hiding. The world is all out to get us, and we are hiding from everyone. Except for our charges, of course.

We’ve activated our highest levels of protection, and guided our charges into hiding. Into safe spaces. Away from the people who claim to be parents but never filled out registration cards or properly identified themselves.

We few and our precious guardians have left the cities bereft of their children.

And the people are calling us monsters?

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Deal 1087: Wet but not dead

fear of death adds spice
to a life well lived although
fear must be groundless

Joe watched the water rise, and for a moment was nearly as nervous as the audience. It was ever thus. The essence of the trick was that there was no trick: he really did escape from the shackles, chains, and cuffs. Or he could do it that way if he was a fool. Joe was no fool.

By the time the water reached his knees, his hands were free. Not that the audience could tell, he knew it was important that they believe him trapped and certain to die.

Hence the dramatic music, the curtain shielding him from view in his “final moments”, and all the other trappings for the stage.

His favorite ending to the escape was to hop out of the water as soon as he was hidden from view, then settle down with a newspaper in the cheap seats to wait while a shadow puppet show plays out of his apparent drowning. At the peak of the frenzy, as the audience is screaming for someone to do something, a pin spot focused on the tank from behind would suddenly reveal that the tank was empty.

The curtain would drop to reveal that there was nothing left in the tank but a pile of chains at the bottom and a few fish swimming in circles.

Joe enjoyed listening to the stunned realization sweeping across the audience that he hadn’t died in front of them. Did he vanish? Did he become a fish? Was anything what it seemed?

Joe stepped forwards, dropping the coat and newspaper that had concealed him from casual discovery, and accepted the applause that he was due.

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Deal 1086: Wet tension

The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife as the last lock was fastened and shackle applied before the tank began to fill around Joe.

When the water first began to flow, a susurration washed across the audience, as they realized that he was serious about this stunt. The water swiftly covered his ankles and the standard issue prison shackles attaching the together, along with the chain that ran from the shackle bar, through a loop in the floor, and off into the flies overhead. One link at a time, the water filled the tank. With each link, the seriousness of his predicament became clearer.

Once the water was a foot or so deep, a cloth screen began to rise. Initially the cloth was fairly opaque, but splashes of water had created translucent patches.

Joe remained still as the cold water continued to fill the phone booth-sized tank. Soon it had reached his knees, bound together by rope. As a small symbol of hope, there was a large knife clenched between his knees. The knife was placed handle down, making it nearly certain that it would fall to the tank bottom before he could get a grip on it.

Steadily the water flowed.

Soon it reached Joe’s wrists, shackled behind him.

Joe was in a pickle.

The water rose. Now it reached his elbows.

The audience could hardly breathe.

The curtain reached its full height moments after the water began to overflow the tank. Joe cast a distorted shadow on the cloth as he struggled. His shadow seemed to be getting the worst of the deal.

Would Joe get free?

Find out someday soon!