The escapists: part 5
The long con
The Triverse is
Mid-Earth, an alternate 1970s London
Max-Earth, a vision of the 26th century
Palinor, where magic is real
Previously: Witness statements from a series of crimes on Palinor describe a balding male with a scar above one eye, a description which appears to match a known criminal from Earth. The only problem being that he’s still locked up in a prison cell in London. DC Clarke and DC Holland have discovered a portal tear in the cell, linking it to somewhere on Palinor…
On duty: DC Frank Holland & DC Yannick Clarke
George Collins and his cell mate, one Fred Thomas, were not who they appeared to be. Clarke and Holland looked through the window into the prison’s interview room, as the two sat and squirmed.
“So what are we thinking here?” Holland asked, peering at them. “They duck through and carry out complex crimes before returning to their cells? Why the fuck would they come back?”
Clarke pulled the earlier sketch of Collins from his jacket pocket and unfolded it. “I think it’s more interesting than that,” he said. “Look at this.” He laid the sketch out on a table and pointed at the scar. “The scar is on his right eye. It runs from top to bottom, just next to the eye, cutting the eyebrow there. Now look at who we have here.”
There was a moment’s pause as Holland compared the sketch with the man in the adjacent room. “His scar’s in a different place. Same side of the face, but it’s not slicing the eyebrow. It’s a different person.”
“Yep. I suspect this is not the real George Collins.”
“Damn. We can assume the same of the other guy, then,” Holland said. “Fred Thomas. Never trust an arsehole with two first names. OK, so assuming we have stand-ins here, and the real Collins and Thomas running around on the other side of that portal tear, what next?”
They squealed, louder and faster than Holland had expected. Once they knew the game was up, the false Collins and Thomas rolled over like a couple of amateurs. Clearly pale imitations of the originals.
Holland pointed at the scar on faux-Collins’ face. “So what is that? Some kind of illusion magic shit?”
The prisoner touched a finger to the scar and looked pained, as if Holland had hurt his professional pride. “This is real, totally for real! That’s part of the deal. Shave your head, cut your face, and you can be one of the doppelgängers. Just got to look the part.”
“And why would you voluntarily take the place of someone else in a London prison?”
“Because it gets you set up for life,” the man said, “all debts paid, a house, a job, everything taken care of. And all I got to do was sit in a cell for a month a couple times a year.” He groaned. “And now it’s all for nothing.”
Sounded like a proper fucking pension. Holland stifled a laugh.
Clarke was in the adjacent room, still talking to the other guy. Holland jerked a finger at the wall. “So what’s his deal? Your friend in the other room? He have to carve a groove into his skull, too?”
“Ah, no, he was lucky,” faux-Collins said, shaking his head. “He’s got the right face shape and hair to pull that one off. But, no, I’ve just a got a good, bald head, see? Smooth.” He ran his hand over the back of his head. “Just like the boss man. But, means I gotta go with the scar. Needs to be authentic, you know? Otherwise you guys would figure it out.”
Holland nodded. “Yeah, you might have noticed we did figure it out, right?”
“Look, here’s how it’s going to go. You’re in a lot of trouble. Clearly you’re not the one calling the shots. Tell us how this works, everything you know, and you can cut a deal. You cut a deal before, with George Collins, yes?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“OK, so you like cutting deals. So now you cut a deal with us, and we see how good we can get things for you. Understand?” Holland had to admit, this case of Clarke’s had turned out to be a lot more fun than he’d anticipated.
The more Clarke stared at the man, the less he looked like Fred Thomas. The sketch from Styles had been uncannily good and an exact match for the photograph the prison had on file from his arrest. This guy across the table, though, was a little smaller in stature, less confident in the way he held his shoulders. His nose wasn’t quite the right shape and his jaw was set at an awkward angle. It was close enough to pass if nobody was paying attention, which had been the case up until now.
“They’ve got it all worked out,” he said. “We do a shift for a month, maybe two, then we rotate. They’ve got a whole company of lookalikes. For the two of them. They work together now, over in Bruglia. But nobody ever knew who to look for, and they knew it couldn’t be traced to them because they were still holed up in here.”
Clarke rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Why bother? Why didn’t they just go through the tear and get as far as possible? Set up on Palinor somewhere they’d never be found?”
The imposter shrugged. “Beats me. Maybe they knew someone would come after them. This way, everyone thought they were still here.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “You know what? I heard that in the early days, they’d come back here every night themselves. They’d time it so the guards never knew what was going on. That’s how they got started. Then they started using us when they decided it was time for them to expand.”
“How long’s this been happening?”
“I’ve been involved for the last year. But they’ve been building this for longer than that. Not sure how long.”
Putting together an organised crime gang in Bruglia while pretending to still be in prison in London. Clarke had to admit that he was more than a little impressed. Though they probably should have hired goons who wouldn’t talk under pressure quite so easily.
“When’s the next swap? How often do you make contact?”
The man looked crestfallen. “That’s what so frustrating. Another couple of days and I’d have been out of here. So frustrating.”
“I can see that,” Clarke said, nodding sympathetically. “Tell me more about what’s on the other side of the portal tear. Where does it connect to?”
Phenn was excited about the new job. He’d never had anything like this before, a gig that would get him clear of the streets and set up for life. Not just him, either, but his sister, his mother, his little brother. It was a weird one, to be sure, needing to have a scar cut into his face - he hadn’t told his mother about that - and needing to pretend to be one of the gang bosses.
He’d studied the book they’d given him. A history of the man, George Collins, and what he’d done with his life up until being in prison. He sounded like an impressive person, clever and able devise fiendishly clever plots to get what he wanted. Kind, too, always giving a portion of the loot from his hauls to those who needed it the most. The rich didn’t need it, so Collins gave it to the poor. That’s what the book said. Phenn had to memorise it, so that he’d be able to answer any questions that came his way while in the prison.
To think that the opportunity had come up simply because of the shape of his head! What good fortune. Phenn wasn’t used to luck going his way - in fact, he’d always thought that he must have done something to anger the Tiny God, and no matter how much he dedicated to prayer and gifts there was no changing his outlook.
Not until he’d been recruited from the street near one of the Bruglia markets. Now was his chance to make something of his life.
Stars shone overhead in the clear sky. The outskirts of Bruglia to the east had once been part of the city, until subsidence had caused part of the mesa to slip. There were still ruins of houses, some of them grand, but what had once been streets were now jagged lines, like a painting cut into pieces and rearranged. Nobody lived there any more, the ground being far too unstable. Phenn picked his way through an abandoned house, the roof and ceiling gone, walls sagging and floor ruptured. He wondered what had happened to the people that had once lived there.
The gang was waiting for him, as expected. They gave him a new set of clothes - prison overalls - and a toothbrush. One last briefing, and a test to see if he’d memorised the details of the book. It was all he’d been thinking about, so he answered every question easily. He was taken through broken doorways to a room at the centre of the house, where a black oval hung in the air, silent and threatening. Phenn had never seen a portal before, not with his own eyes.
That was when the city guard made their presence known. A ball of light shot into the air, hovering above the house and shining white light through the missing roof. Immediately they were surrounded by swords and magic wielders, some of the gang members foolishly trying to fight their way clear. Phenn dropped to the floor and cowered with his arms over his head.
It seemed the Tiny God wasn’t done playing games with him.
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Thanks for reading!
Poor Phenn. More on picking him for the POV in the author notes below.
I’ll be writing about this in more detail soon, but this week I cancelled my MidJourney subscription. I still think it’s technologically fascinating, but the visual appeal has diminished drastically over time. And that’s before getting into the unresolved ethical issues. I’ll be reverting to a mix of stock and hand-drawn illustrations for the newsletter from now on - and while they won’t be as technically good or visually impressive as a MidJourney image, they will at least be me.
On the subject of AI and AI generation, I thought this article in the New Yorker was one of the best I’ve read on the subject. It doesn’t dismiss the technical achievement, but does go some way towards examining why AI generated material remains oddly….boring.wrote about it way back, but I didn't quite get it initially as I was still wrapped up in how intriguing it all was. Worth a re-read, I think:
There’s more to say, I think, but the long and short of it is that I’m not planning on using AI-generated art from here on out.
This was one of those chapters that risked becoming a bit procedural and expositional. The two lookalikes being interrogated and explaining the plot, basically.
To counter that I tried a few tricks: Split Holland and Clarke up into separate POV sections, providing an opportunity to contrast their personalities with some injected inner monologue bits and pieces, and then the final segment from Phenn’s perspective.
It was that last bit that was the challenge, and which took a while to work out. I knew I wanted to start in the London prison, but what happened after that was up for grabs. Some alternate options I developed for a bit:
Switching back to Lola Styles, in her apartment, nursing a hangover and regretting the previous night in the palace. This felt too disconnected from the rest.
Similar, but Lola in her officer, receiving a letter from Clarke with the latest information. Felt too similar to the earlier chapter where Clarke receives a letter, and also seemed like it would just be repeating the same details from the interrogations.
A scene with Lola planning out some kind of sting operation with the city guard captain, about how they were going to capture the gang members.
A big action-packed raid on the hideout or the portal tear on Palinor, from Lola’s POV. Would have been exciting, but also felt a bit obvious.
Where I eventually landed was switching to a completely new POV, with Phenn being the new lookalike about to swap with the person already in the prison. That felt new and interesting, and switched the empathic connection. It stopped the lookalikes from being ‘criminals’ or henchmen and turned them into real people. We see glimpses of Phenn’s life and why he’s ended up falling in with this crowd. That immediately felt more interesting. It revealed something more about the story.
That’s all for today. Hope you enjoyed the chapter. See you next week!