Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"The Waterline"

A little history:

A long, long time ago (June 2009), I bought Sims 3 and started mucking around with it. After about three days of getting used to the gameplay aspect, I found myself getting bored, and coming back to my old love: storytelling. 

I wanted to write about something, but I didn't have the first clue what. But as I looked at Sunset Valley and thought about how it reminded me in many ways of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, I began to concoct a really ridiculous idea. What if, in the milling crowds of a peaceful coastal town ... there was a deadly serious spy game going on, with a person's life and freedom at stake?

I didn't get particularly far into developing that story before I ran head-first into EA's new "Story Progression." Suffice it to say, my expert bachelor spy suddenly became a father, with no wife, girlfriend, or even "remote acquaintance" to otherwise explain this immaculate birth. I decided to roll with that punch, and although the story I ultimately wrote was one that I enjoyed and was pleased with, it wasn't at all what I had set out to do.

Four years (and countless game-choking mods) later, I'm just now attempting to write the story I meant to write when I first started.

Wish me luck.

~ splad

Part One: "When Duty Calls ..."

Grant Thurgood was one of those unfortunate men who had always appeared to be older than he really was. He was practically skin and bones despite his excellent athletic ability, and a persistent injury in his left ankle from his early twenties had left him with a more-or-less perpetual limp. His hair was so blond it was practically platinum. This, combined with his quiet demeanor, faded clothing and stumbling gait, made him look like a 48-year-old at age 26. He was one of those men who sit at the counter of a diner all day long, lingering over endless cups of coffee and blending into the wallpaper.

It hadn't done much for his social life, but it was the perfect cover for a spy.

Grant was an old hand at the business. His average, bland looks were so innocuous that he could slip in nearly anywhere without being noticed, and from there he eavesdropped and committed entire conversations to memory. He only wore a wire when his bosses made him, preferring to trust his enormous power of recollection. 

But over the years, all he could hold onto were the conversations. The places and times merged until there was nothing left but the stained linoleum countertops and the dingy coffee cups. 

There had been the occasional woman, but they were never around for long and all he truly remembered of them was the curve of their hips and glossy hair. Names, faces, personalities--those had vanished into the endless days. Which was just as well. It was dangerous to love a man whose job often ended by leaving town in the middle of the night.

Once he had tried, tried to truly care for one and build a corner of his world around her. But he soon found that there wasn't room for espionage and love in his life. The job usurped the time that rightfully belonged to her, and she grew jealous, then suspicious, eventually bitter. When he called, she was distant; when he returned from a week out of town, she was either overwhelmed with emotion or (more often) furious with him. 

The air in the house stifled until the day he left for an assignment in Pierre, South Dakota and she left him for good.  He came home to empty closets and missing furniture, spent three weeks alone surrounded by her mementos, and finally donated everything left in the house to a charity the next time he left town. He had a small picture of her wedged into his wallet; the sun had faded it badly, and time and dust had glued the photo to the leather. It wasn't worth the time or trouble to scrape it off now.

Some of his friends in the business had kept their work and their lives separate, but Grant wasn’t so sure that they were the lucky ones. Though they had families to go home to and beautiful homes in the suburban countryside, they also had that much more to lose. These were the men who had never told their wives their real names and had to take a different way home from work every day. They constantly watched the fire exits when they went to the movies with their kids and performed regular background checks on their neighbors. 

In other words, they were paranoid, and rightfully so.

After the failure of his brief marriage, Grant decided that he didn’t care about being alone. In a moment of absolute frankness, he had told his boss that he wasn’t worried about where they made him go or what he had to do, as long as he had a space to himself, a patch of grass nearby, and a place to fish. And his boss, in a moment of startling generosity, had sworn to Grant that he would have it, no matter where he was assigned to. 

So here he was, in the middle of a tourist town right on the southeastern Atlantic Ocean. There had been no assignments for a few weeks now, but he didn’t mind. As long as he had a sunlit sea for his backyard, he could tolerate anything. 


The sun had shone for several days straight. Great weather for tourists, but a bit of trouble for the plants. Grant found himself spending significantly more time than usual in his front yard lately, trying to save the grape and potato vines from smothering in weeds. He faintly heard the phone ring, but didn’t bother to go back inside for it. Probably just some telemarketer anyway.

It was only when his pocket began to rattle that he stopped digging in the dirt. A vibrating ring meant that the boss was calling. Ms. Tatiana Strauss let him get away with a lot, but he was at least expected to take her calls. He wiped his hands on his pants quickly before answering. “Good morning.”

"Morning, my ass. You’d better not be just waking up.”

“Not hardly. Just busy fertilizing. Be thankful you can’t smell me. What’s going on, did I send my last memo in the wrong font size?”

“Very funny, Thurgood. Listen up. You know that fancy restaurant in town that you hate so much? Be there in fifteen minutes and order a scotch on me. We found our little problem."

"Sure, be right there … oh, hell, you’re letting me buy scotch? This must be serious!" 

One of the agency's employees had gone AWOL and vanished three months back. The case had been passed around the office--one person keeping tabs on all vehicles involved, someone else wiretapping the agent's last known phone number and watching for any signs of electronic activity, someone else monitoring the bank accounts and the credit card balances. Suddenly, Grant understood why he had been sent to this sandy town for seemingly no reason and hung out to dry for six solid weeks. They needed him on the scene so that he could step into the case as soon as a body resurfaced.

"Don't be so flip, you’re only getting one glass. Besides, it's not nearly as much of a cakewalk as you think. At least, I don't think it is."

"Well, I hope I can at least order a good scotch to make up for it," he said dryly. “Or do I have to stick with mid-range for budget’s sake? What’s our incredible disappearing mole look like nowadays, anyway?"

"Our intelligence has determined that Agent Carlson has dramatically changed her appearance to avoid detection, possibly going so far as to have plastic surgery to alter her features. She is believed to be in the company of a male partner who may or may not be a willing accomplice. She should be considered armed and dangerous.”

“Are you done reading me the memo?” 

“… You will observe her from a distance until you are absolutely certain that it is she, in which case you will immediately return to the corporate office and file your confirming report." 

"And then the boys in blue come to pick her up?"

"It's beyond the local police. This broad's going to the federal pen."

He chuckled humorlessly. "You want me to trail someone who knows that when they're caught, they're going to prison for the rest of their life. Seriously? You might be buying me the entire damn bottle of scotch tonight, boss."

"You've dealt with worse. Besides, I only give the worst assignments to the agents best suited to perform them. By the way, the federal prosecutor on this case is writing up the charges as we speak and they'd like to have Carlson on next week's court docket, so you'll need to move fast. You get four days to figure it out. No pressure."


Fortunately, Ms. Strauss was entirely correct. Grant was more than competent to handle an assignment like this with a bare minimum of information. He didn't actually need to know what Agent Carlson looked like, either then or now--it would just prove distracting. Suppose he found out what his quarry currently looked like. Then what? He couldn’t exactly run around town punching out every woman with a similar haircut, hoping to get lucky. 

It would be a much better idea to go to a place that the agent was known to frequent and spend an evening observing. There was no reason to turn down free booze, especially when the boss was paying for it.

He changed into a pin-striped oxford shirt and slacks, but hesitated when it came to the shoes. The bistro had some semblance of a dress code, but he had noticed very quickly that only tourists wore dress shoes when they went out on the town. Locals rarely wore anything other than some kind of open-toed shoes, no matter where they went. And he needed to look like a local. If this former agent was any good at all, she’d realize that she was being watched in less than fifteen seconds. 

The sun was low in the sky when he arrived, throwing its pastel light across the flagstones of the patio. He walked past the sign that said "Please Wait to be Seated," slid into a patio chair that gave him a clear view of both the indoor and outdoor seatng area, and pretended to bury himself in the paper. 

It wasn't often that official intelligence was wrong, but Grant eliminated every woman in the place within 30 minutes. To keep himself amused until he got the inevitable call from Ms. Strauss, he watched the families and couples strolling by. As usual, no one noticed the old man leaning sleepily over a half-empty collins glass and the sports page.

"Dad, you said we could play catch. Dad, please ..."

"Cooper, stop it. Now."

Grant didn’t even need to look up to tell instantly what was going wrong there. Father and son, boy was about eight years old, and struggling to keep up with his father’s pace. Dad was straight out of the suburbs—wasn’t used to life on island time. Had probably gotten pissed off waiting in line for gelato. Son was on the verge of tears. Dad likely hadn’t even noticed. 

Grant snuck a quick glance before going back to the editorials. 

"Can I get another one of those for you, sir?"

This time, Grant actually looked up. The server had the face of a college student, but she was a grown woman. The gentle wrinkles creasing her neck gave her away. He pretended to be startled by her voice and knocked over his glass.

Within moments, she was picking up ice chips from the table and promising to bring him a fresh drink while simultaneously shaking off her shoes. He felt a slight twinge for getting her feet wet, but he was mostly disappointed. This wasn't his spy either; no agent worth their paycheck let a complete stranger throw liquid at them, even if it was just water. "Sorry about that. I'll take another one, but no rush."

She smiled and nodded before making a trail of wet shoeprints straight back inside. He sighed to himself. This was turning into a complete washout. Either this spy was damn good or the feds were damn wrong, and he was beginning to bet on the latter.

His pocket vibrated.

"Yes ma’am."


"This place has shitty scotch.”

“Fantastic, I’ll keep it in mind if I ever vacation there. Have you made visual on Agent Carlson?”

“I have not. How recently was your intel, anyway?”

"We spent two weeks verifying that she regularly comes to that restaurant for their 4 p.m. happy hour. Our plant assured us of it, that's why I'm wasting your time and mine. Are you telling me she's not there?"

"Look, anything's possible. Hell, she worked for you, so obviously she's pretty quick on her toes. But I know 'em when I see 'em and I don't see 'em. Not in here, anyway."

"Could I persuade you to talk to the busboy before you leave?"

"The busser? Are you kidding?"

"He's like you, no one pays him much attention and no one realizes he's wired. He sent me a message that she had started showing up at his bar for the twice-weekly drink specials." The boss sounded worried and exasperated. "The guy's never let me down before. I hope like hell she just decided to go somewhere else to get plastered tonight, or heads are gonna roll. Starting with mine."

"No pressure, right?" Grant said with a smile that he hoped the boss heard in his voice.

He found the busser inside, mopping the floor under three tables pushed together. From the magnitude of the mess and number of bottles, seemed that the dinner guests had gotten quite rowdy. The guy was going to be there for a while. 

Grant leaned against a nearby booth and cleared his throat gently. The busser looked up and nodded in quick acknowledgement. He went back to scrubbing the floor.  

“I heard you know my boss pretty well,” Grant said.

The busser shrugged, a little. “Your boss a dude or a lady?”

Grant laughed. “Oh, she’s no lady.”

The busser actually stared at him for a second before laughing along. “Damn, bro. You know she can hear you, right?”

They loosened up a bit after that. Grant drank his second scotch and the busser described the agent’s current appearance in the vaguest of terms. Long brown hair, brown skin, dark eyes. Grant groaned. “Well, that narrows it down to no more than 200 people. Damn it, the next time they call me in here, this broad better have her ass planted on a stool with a mai tai.”

“Yo, man, I can’t help it. You don’t stare too hard at the women who come in here, they’ll call a manager over faster ‘n you can blink. I just know what she kinda looks like from a distance. A long distance.  She’s prolly one of those that’ll kill you from across the room with a soup spoon.”

“You watch too many damn spy movies. Here’s my number. If she actually comes in, call me. I’ll be here in five.”

“No problem, bro. Watch your step so you don't fall.”


Grant suffered through another phone call from his boss while on the way to his favorite greasy spoon. When confronted with his lack of progress, he gave Ms. Strauss a bit of backtalk. “It’s not exactly my fault that the woman didn’t show up tonight, is it? You act as though I should start knocking on doors and hanging up ‘missing’ posters.” 

“May I remind you that a federal prosecutor is breathing down our necks, Thurgood?”

“You reminded me of that four hours ago. And that doesn’t change the fact that she wasn’t there tonight and I don’t have any other leads besides a description that could send me on a hundred wild goose chases.”

“My point is, I intend for you to be a bit more aggressive. Maybe she is in hiding, but we’ve still got precious little choice other than to chase her down. Everyone else did the hard part in actually finding where the hell she went, you’re just stepping in at the end of the game to make the winning move. So stop whining about being the one who’s going to receive the main credit for reeling her in, and get to it.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Grant muttered, and hung up before going in. Arguing always killed his appetite.

The night staff greeted him loudly. Grant was a regular by now and the servers rarely asked him what he wanted. If he came by in the morning, he was looking for a bit of corned beef hash and diced potatoes with eggs over easy. A lunchtime visit meant chili dogs all the way. Late afternoon stops were usually pot roast with whatever vegetable-of-the-day they had left. And a late-night stop was always—

"Buttermilk waffles and bacon fried crispy. You got it, hon." Marjorie didn't even bother to write it down. "Coffee?"

"Sounds great." He stifled a yawn.

"Don't do that! You'll knock me out and I gotta be here all night."

"Sorry. Long day."

"At least yours's ending," she snapped, but winked at him. "Hot coffee coming up." 

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