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Good Guys

Steven Brust

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  I never know where an idea is going to come from—what combination of reading, life, research, and random events is going to make me go, “Oh, hey, I know what’d be fun.” But sometimes I can identify the final piece of it. The idea for this book came from a conversation with my friend and poker teacher Chris “Pokerfox” Wallace. We were discussing a writing project of his, and he mentioned some things that he was doing that made me go, “Oh, wow, I gotta try that.” So I stole it.

  How much of what I grabbed and ran through my own process would be recognizable from the idea he gave me? I don’t know. But if his work makes its way into the world, and you read it, and something strikes you as familiar, I want you to know that he didn’t get it from me, I got it from him. Thanks, Fox.

  Steven Brust

  May 2015




  The first one on the list was Georgio Byrne Lawton-Smythe. I found him at the Maumee Grill on Mulberry and Fifth, just south of the river. There was no good way to talk to him, under the circumstances, but that didn’t bother me. Nothing he said would have made any difference to me, and nothing I said would have made any difference to him. Or to put it another way, I didn’t hate him enough to bother. I just walked up to him and put three 12-gauge solid slugs into his chest, like, blam cha-chink blam cha-chink blam. Then I dropped the shotgun, walked out the door, and turned left. I threw my gloves into the river and hiked all the way to East Broadway before I caught a cab to bring me back to Toledo and my hotel.

  * * *

  Just after 2:00 East Coast time on Thursday morning, Donovan Jackson Longfellow initiated a Skype call to Marci No-Middle-Name Sullivan. She came on quickly enough that he could be pretty sure she’d been awake and at her computer, so he didn’t bother asking if he’d interrupted anything.

  “We caught one,” he said without preamble.

  “Oh, my.”

  “Yep. Ready to go into action?”

  She might have nodded, but then remembered how hard it was to make out gestures on Skype, so she said. “Yes, sir.”

  “Don’t call me sir. My name is Donovan, or Don, or Donny.”

  “All right. How does this work?”

  “You ask me what’s up, and I tell you what we know.”

  “Um. Okay. What’s up?”

  “West Nowhere Ohio, a place called Perrysburg. Guy torn in half with a shotgun.”

  “A shotgun? That doesn’t seem like, you know, our kind of thing. I speak under correction, of course.”

  “Yeah, you’ll stop doing that soon. Here’s what we know: It happened in a restaurant in the middle of dinner hour, there were plenty of people there, and no one saw anything.” Before she could ask, he elaborated. “I don’t mean couldn’t ID the shooter; I mean I saw nothing. One second everything is fine; next second there’s a dead guy messy on the floor with a shotgun next to him and blood spreading out and all the nice people freaking out and throwing up. The PO-lice are stumped, and Upstairs is talking nightmare scenario. Of course, they do that all the time, so I figure mildly troubling dream scenario until proven otherwise. But we still need to check it out.”

  “How are they explaining it? I mean, the police.”

  “They figure everyone was shocked by the horror of it all, or some shit. Customers and staff are under scrutiny. They won’t get shit that way.”

  “So the police believe it was someone in the restaurant?”

  “What else could they believe? But the important thing is that we don’t believe it, so we need to investigate.”

  “Do we know who the victim is?”

  “Name hasn’t been released. Upstairs has ways of getting past that, but they’re still working on it.”

  “Okay,” she said. “Just you and me?”

  “I’m also calling in the hippie chick, because it’s better to have her and not need her than, you know.”

  “Hippie chick?”


  “Oh! I know her. She’s the one who pulled me out of the kiddie pool.”


  “So, now what?”

  “Now you ask how you’re supposed to get there.”

  “All right. How do I get there?”

  “Um, yeah, good question. Let me think.” Donovan weighed the pros and cons of delaying half a day, went through an imagined conversation with Oversight, and said, “You’ve been checked out on your slipwalk, right?”

  Marci might have nodded again, but then said, “Yes.”

  “We’ll go that way, then. The scene is already two days old. Can’t expect you to sense it if we wait another twelve hours for travel.”

  “Two days?”

  “A bit more.”

  “I probably won’t get anything as it is. Why so long?”

  “Access. The crime scene is still closed, but they’ve stopped guarding it.”

  “Oh. I don’t know how these things work. Couldn’t the Foundation have pulled strings and gotten us in earlier?”

  “They probably don’t think it’s important enough to pull the big guns out. It’s critical and could mean the end of the world, but we can’t spare any resources. That’s sort of how things work.” He shrugged, though she wouldn’t see it. “I don’t know. That’s above my pay grade.”

  Marci muttered something non-committal.

  “Look,” said Donovan. “Don’t sweat it, all right? We go in, check it out. You get something or you don’t, I report to Upstairs. If you get something, we try to figure out what it means. If not, I go back to Internet hearts, Hippie Chick goes back to organic gardening, and you go back to whatever it is you do.”

  “All right. I just hate it when—all right.”

  “Also, what are you wearing?”

  “What? Seriously?”


  “Is there a dress code?”

  “Kind of. Business casual is all right, or jeans and a T-shirt.”

  “What isn’t all right?”

  “Don’t look like you’re going clubbing.”

  “Is this really a thing?”

  “Look. It matters. There are practical reasons.”

  “What practical reasons?”

  “You’ll figure it out.”

  “I—all right. I’ll trust you on that. For now.”


  “Anything else?”

  “No, that’s it.”

  “Are you calling Susan or am I?”

  “I am.”

  “Does she really do organic gardening?”

  “Wouldn’t surprise me. The place is called the Maumee Grill.” He started to give her the
whole command line for the slipwalk, but decided it was disrespectful. If she ended up in Greenland or something he’d regret it, but she was now on his team, so he’d assume competence until proven otherwise. “I’ll meet you outside the yellow tape. See you in an hour?”

  “An hour,” she said, and he disconnected.

  He made the next call, which took a little longer to connect. Susan Dionisia Kouris eventually appeared. Even though it was before midnight in her time zone, she looked more than half-asleep. She was wearing a blue terry-cloth bathrobe.

  “Sorry to wake you up,” he said.

  “Ugh,” she explained.

  “Need some time?”

  “No, it’s all right. I’m at the tail end of a chest cold. I’m trying to sleep it off. We have something?”

  He nodded. “Yeah. A body. Up for it?”

  “Always. I’ll take a decongestant.”

  He gave her what details he had and hung up.

  Donovan stood up and stretched, then put his coat on—the ugly-but-warm fleece-lined one. He also put on a stocking cap, because sometimes when it’s cold you just have to sacrifice looks for survival, or comfort at any rate.

  He checked his pockets to make sure he had his wallet, knotnot, latex gloves, and blackjack. He was unlikely to need the blackjack, especially with Hippie Chick there, but he felt naked without it. He left the apartment, took the elevator to the basement, and let himself into the laundry room.

  Building management had thoughtfully provided the tenants with a washing machine and two dryers, one of which sported a sign that said: “Out of order.” He switched that one from “high heat” to “air dry,” then set the timer to 8 minutes, then moved it to 31 minutes, then to 19 minutes, then to 39 minutes. He switched it from “air dry” to “high heat” and stepped to the side. The dryer swung back, taking a section of wall with it. Donovan went into the stairwell it had revealed, lit by a single fluorescent bulb, and pulled the wall shut behind him. He said in a clear voice, “Outside the Maumee Grill, Perrysburg, Ohio, USA.” Then he went down the stairs. After about ten steps, the hallway dissolved.

  Aw shit, he thought just too late. Did I leave the milk out?

  It was full dark in western Ohio. Once the ground stopped turning, he looked around to make sure he was alone. The temperature wasn’t bad, but there was a wind that stung his face. He took a long sniff of the air: stale fryer oil and river. He walked around the building, staying outside of the crime scene tape; after a good look, he slipped under it. I have now broken the law, he thought. Gosh gee.

  The main door was closed by more than bureaucratic theory—there was a particularly heavy padlock there: an Abloy PL 362. He recognized it because it was the same one he used for the closet where he stored his gear. Using it here was pure idiocy—yeah, it was hard to get past; the knotnot might even be inadequate—but there were windows all around the place, and, in particular, four windows into the kitchen and a door in back that wouldn’t stand up to a pry bar, or even a decent screwdriver.

  He shrugged and went around back and put the latex gloves on. He didn’t have a pry bar or a screwdriver, but he did have a gift from the good folks in the Burrow: a device that looked like a cheap ballpoint pen, because that’s what it used to be, and that he called a knotnot. He pointed it at the back door and said the magic words: “Open, you piece of shit.”

  The door gave out a click. He turned the knob and went inside.

  Forty-five minutes later he was back outside, in time to see Susan appear as a two-dimensional image that, even if you knew what was going on, made you think, Wait, has she been there the whole time? The image filled out so there was no question; Susan looked around and found him.

  “Hey, Hippie.”

  “Hey, Laughing Boy. You went in, didn’t you?”

  “Just for a look-see.”

  “Because protocol is for other people, and there was no chance of you being interrupted and, like, arrested or shot or something?”

  “Do you see anyone around? Any PO-lice cars?”

  “Not the point and you know it.”

  “How’s the cold?”

  “I’ll live,” she said, and sniffed. In person, her eyes were certainly bloodshot, but he wasn’t her nurse. If she’d been too sick to take the job, she could have said so.

  She glanced around, then looked a question at him.

  “Soon,” he said. “If she doesn’t screw it up.”

  Susan nodded, and they stood there in silence, waiting.

  A minute or two later, Marci appeared, stumbling a bit. Everyone stumbled at the end of a slipwalk, except Hippie Chick, because she was a freak. Marci smiled a little hesitantly to him and Susan. “That was weird. And kind of fun.”

  “Yeah,” said Donovan. “Bad news is, you’ll get used to it.”

  “Except the climate changes,” said Susan. “That always catches you by surprise, even when you’re expecting it. And you can get a cold from the temperature shifts if you do it too much.”

  “Is that what happened to you?”

  “This? No, this is just Oregon winter.”

  Marci nodded and turned to Donovan. “Have you learned anything new?” she asked.

  “I couldn’t learn anything new without going inside, which protocol forbids without the full team.”

  “Oh. Right. Sorry.”

  “As it happens, I don’t give a shit for protocol. So here’s what I got: Blood spatter tells us that the victim didn’t move, and the PO-lice report Upstairs passed on says that he was shot three times. If you work out the timing on three shots from a pump-action shotgun, it means something was holding him still. Dropping the weapon at the scene—and right there next to the victim’s table—would usually indicate a professional killer, or someone who planned the whole thing out in detail and was cool enough to follow through with it.”

  “Usually?” said Susan.

  Donovan nodded. “Thing is, shotgun slugs can’t be identified. Either he doesn’t know that, which means he’s new at this, or he had another reason to drop it. No witnesses report cars leaving the lot afterward. There was a duffel bag just outside the door, and they found traces of gun oil in it.”

  He paused for a breath and to see if there were questions yet, then continued.

  “So he walked from—somewhere—holding a shotgun in a duffel bag. He dropped the bag, came in, did his thing, dropped the gun, walked out again all with no one seeing anything. Or hearing anything.”

  “No one heard anything?” said Marci. “No one heard the shotgun fire?”


  “So it wasn’t just invisibility.”


  “Maybe a combination of—no, I shouldn’t speculate. Let’s go in. From the sound of it, it was a major working, so there could still be traces. And we’re far enough from a grid line that it might not have covered it over.”

  Donovan nodded as if he understood that—well, he sort of did, in theory—and indicated the way around the back. Susan led, because protocol; Donovan at the back. This was in case of danger that didn’t exist, but it was silly to argue about. Marci walked almost in a straight line, like she wanted to put one foot directly in front of the other, giving her a strangely dainty stride that reminded Donovan of cartoon Japanese women. Susan walked like someone you didn’t want to tangle with, but a lot of that was that she didn’t swing her arms at all, which gave her a sort of threatening aspect. And the rest was because Donovan knew her.

  They reached the back door. “Gloves,” he said, “if you plan on touching anything. I have extras.”

  “I shouldn’t need to touch anything,” said Marci.

  Susan pulled out her own gloves and put them on without a word.

  “Okay,” said Marci once they were inside. “I’m going to see what I can find. Can you two wait here?”

  Donovan and Susan remained by the door to the dining room. “Watch the crime scene markers,” he said.

  “I know.”

  Marci walked up to the blood spot, stopping just short of it—it was big. There’d been a lot of blood. Donovan and Susan waited while Marci investigated her way.

  “Well,” she said a moment later. “This is quite something.”


  “I hope you didn’t have any plans,” she said in a suddenly all-business voice. “This is going to take a while.”

  “If I had a life,” said Donovan, “I wouldn’t be here.”

  Hippie Chick nodded beside him.

  * * *

  Around 6:00 AM, Donovan stepped out of the laundry room, took the elevator back upstairs to his apartment, put his coat away, returned the blackjack and the knotnot to the closet (no—that shelf, you idiot, so you’ll remember it’s been used), and sat down at his computer. He brought up Skype, and selected a name. The face that appeared was a pasty, sickly white as of someone who never went outside—you could even tell through the distortion. The man was clean-shaven and bald save for a fringe of light brown hair, and was wearing a white shirt and thin, dark tie. His collar looked very tight.

  The man on the screen said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Longfellow.”

  “It’s morning here, Mr. Becker. Very early morning, after a very late night.”

  “Report, please.”

  “He used a time-stop. And he used it over a wide area—he covered the whole building so he wouldn’t be seen even in the parking lot.”

  “That’s a lot of power, Mr. Longfellow. I trust you’re certain it was a time stoppage, and not high speed?”

  “Marci is sure, so I’m sure. There was also a gradual release, so it covered up the sound of the shots.”

  “Explain that, please?”

  “Marci says if the time-stop releases gradually, the sound will be whole octaves lower than usual, and drawn-out, and the human ear won’t pick it up.”

  “I’m not certain I understand, Mr. Longfellow.”

  “Nor am I, Mr. Becker.”

  “Very well. Did this take place close to a grid line?”

  “None within half a mile.”

  “That is extremely impressive.”