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HOME >> Product 0601 >> Herding Clouds>>

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Herding Clouds

Stephen Brown

Eric Handle has taken early retirement from his job due to a broken hip. Now single, he lives in an independent-living apartment connected to a retirement village in Burlington. He meets another inmate, Peggy Martin, who has moved there to recover from a traffic accident. She discovers his interest in a ten year old case from his time working as an investigator for the College of Physicians and Surgeons. The case involved a failed bomb attempt made by a man who had undergone an illegal medical procedure. The man died before being able to explain what he was doing. Eric left that job for one with better pay. As a result, the investigation was dropped. That job offer had always seemed too good to be true, but he'd taken it anyway, perhaps because of a subtle hint that taking the job would be better for the health of his family. Eric's decision to give in and abandon the case has haunted him ever since.


Brenda Lewandowski is not an easy woman to like. She's a programmer at a university in Toronto. She's also self-centred, oblivious to fashion and obsessed with obtaining a bigger office for her plants. Her present office used to be a janitor's lockup. It has no window, which she needs for her plants, and no shelves for her expanding collection of borrowed books, so she's making shelves out of boards supported by piles of even more borrowed books. The leader of her research project, a respected scientist in Ottawa, has committed suicide after leaving an email in which he admitted to faking data. That seems unlikely. You fake data to get good results, something which their project has never succeeded in doing. Brenda is called to Ottawa by the project leader's assistant who explains that the emailed suicide note has to be a forgery. The project leader left her a real suicide note, a handwritten note, in which he explained that their project was being sabotaged. Shortly after her trip to Ottawa, Brenda hears that the assistant has died in a car crash. The suicide really was a suicide. The car crash really was an accident, but Brenda being Brenda, she jumps to the conclusion that they were both murders and decides to investigate.

'Ferret' is the nickname of a disabled woman whose only connection to the outside world is through electronics. The research sabotage is her work. The decade-old bomb fiasco was not her work, but it struck too close to home. The attention it received threatened to expose her activities. She was the person who arranged the job offer for Eric in order to remove him from the case. Now, ten years later, he is looking at it again and so is someone called Peggy Martin. Eric's interest is understandable, he was involved, but Peggy is an unknown. Worse, Ferret had failed to foresee the suicide of the project leader in Ottawa. The fake, emailed suicide note was Ferret's off-the-cuff attempt to diffuse any investigation. She is not aware that there was a handwritten note, but she is aware that something is wrong. People are becoming suspicious. Despite her resolve to avoid overreacting, Ferret hires a private investigator to look into the two problems: Peggy Martin's sudden interest in a ten year old bombing and the fallout from the two deaths in Ottawa. It is a decision she immediately regrets.

Her private investigator is a man who can smell opportunity. He has done work for Ferret before, none of it illegal but all of it unusual. Now he's been hired to look into research teams at two universities and an old woman in a retirement home, a strange combination. He attempts to find a link. What he actually does is attract the attention of Eric and Peggy who had lost interest until he turned up asking questions. Ferret does not tolerate moonlighting. The detective's death is not an accident.

The detective's investigation has backfired in another way. It has led Brenda Lewandowski to the retirement home. She tells Eric and Peggy about her university research and that it is based on work done over a decade ago at a research facility near the place where the bomber died. She also tells them of another case of sabotage.

Ferret was part of an experiment to control extreme forms of epilepsy. The procedure left her paralyzed, but the electrodes that were implanted have enabled her to communicate effortlessly through electronics. Only one other person has that ability, another guinea pig, a young woman called Helen Weals. It is the only thing that they have in common. Ferret is driven and filled with anger. Helen is defeated and can't let go of her old life. Ferret is alone in the world. Helen comes from a wealthy family and has a sister who cares for her. Helen also has a bank account. Ferret begins to help Helen with her communications. To the outside world it looks as if Helen has accepted her condition and is turning her life around. In reality she has become a spectator. Ferret is running Helen's life. When Helen dies, Ferret takes over completely. Her plan is to take what revenge she can on a world that has treated her like dirt since birth. She knows that the life of a paralyzed person is short, and that the deception of being Helen can't be maintained forever. Now she has another problem. Eric Handle and Peggy Martin are blundering about threatening the little time that remains.

Ferret's second sabotage is at a pharmaceutical company about to release a drug to treat extreme cases of epilepsy. Like the university research, the new drug threatens to endow other people with Ferret's abilities. Ferret does not tolerate competition. The new drug has a weakness, one that has delayed its introduction, it produces too many deaths. Her plan is to push for the release of the drug while at the same time loading the personal computers of some employees with child pornography. Big Pharma will be accused of profits over lives at the same time that the division producing the drug is shown to be a den of child abusers. One of the employees is targeted as the trigger. His computer will reveal the names of the others, and the scandal will end the research. Except it doesn't. The computer is discovered. The images are there. The man is questioned. Nothing further happens.

Ferret has made a mistake. She uploaded the images with time stamps for a period in which the computer was out of commission. One of the employees searches online for other instances of research being stalled by scandal. She locates Brenda Lewandowski. Brenda refers her to Eric and Peggy. Eric is unable to find a link between the bombing, the university research and the attempted sabotage at the drug company, something Peggy compares to 'trying to herd clouds'. Ferret arranges to have Eric killed before he succeeds in doing so, but this time Eric and Peggy are one step ahead. They discover Ferret's impersonation of Helen. Before they can act, Ferret uses the time remaining to infect the internet with a life's worth of hatred, seeds for her revenge on the world. Eric receives a message from 'Helen' in which Ferret congratulates him on his success and tells him that there are no hard feelings. Despite that she warns him that some of her actions will make his life less comfortable. She is not kidding. His name and face are now on facial recognition systems world wide. He will require considerably more time to get through airport security in the future.

The story ends with a Chinese official and his wife being pulled from their car by a group of thugs in Thailand. The reason is that the Chinese government has arrested a young Thai singer after a facial recognition program mistook her for a terrorist. The Chinese government discovers its mistake, and as a result, it does not press the Thai government for justice, but the official's wife never recovers from the beating. As she retreats from life, her husband rises through the government ranks. He looks forward to the day when he will have the power to take revenge.





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Stephen Brown



Stephen Brown

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NOT HIS FAULT. Eric Handle paced the limited space in his retirement apartment. Normally he avoided watching the news. Every government crisis, every history-changing scandal made him wonder. That was usually followed by ‘nothing to do with me’ which in recent years was often followed by ‘well, maybe’. Eric had reached the age where his conscience was ready to entertain compromise. He turned off the news, closed the glowing screen and walked to the window. November, low clouds, light grey turning to dark grey as evening approached and an early dusting of snow in the parking lot below. That was definitely not his fault. No-one could blame him for the weather. A flicker of doubt, then a determined shake of the head. No, not even partly.

Pale as it was, the light that penetrated was enough to stop him from turning on the lamps. A lifetime of paying for light and heat couldn’t be erased by a few months of all-utilities-included. Not that the room couldn’t use it. The winter light sucked colour from everything it touched. Normally Eric liked his apartment. It was an appropriate place for a man who’d reached the age where single living would have meant a diet of crackers and tinned soup. After the accident he’d made the decision. The injury to his hip had made driving impossible, so when an opening become available in Wilkins Retirement Village (The Wrinkle Ranch) he jumped at it – not literally of course. Residences in The Village spanned the spectrum from full-care nursing to fully independent living. Like Eric, the inmates of the apartment complex were of retirement-age but still self-propelled. The apartments had small cooking areas but no-one bothered. Breakfast, lunch and supper were included in the rent and were served in the village’s ‘Grand Dining Room’, a banquet hall of fake beams and passable food if you didn’t have a propensity for salt. At five o’clock the room filled with elderly, grey heads ready to dissect and criticize the evening’s offerings.

Eric checked the clock. Still too early for supper, but the bar in the Club Room was open from two until four. A last look at the snow-covered parking lot decided in its favour. The Club Room had no windows. You could imagine any season you liked. With only five minutes before it closed, the chance of finding someone still behind the bar was slim, but today the village manager himself was on duty. That meant service from two to four as advertised in the brochures even though the room appeared empty. The downside to having the manager serving was the lack of entertainment potential. He had real bar-tending experience. The spotty selection of young assistants who normally served were fair game for regulars who made a point of requesting non-existent cocktails. Eric ordered a beer and carried it to one of the two prime seats. Unlike the castoffs in the rest of the room, the chairs either side of the fireplace were massive, wing-backed creations of padded leather and brass studs.

He’d been wrong about the room being empty. One of the few women capable of doing justice to those chairs filled the one opposite. Mrs. Elvira Andiri was blessed with a personality to match her size. In any gathering she was the one who commanded attention. Tightly-curled hair, brightly-coloured dresses and man-sized sandals were her trademark outfit. Merely being in her presence inspired images of warmer climates. Mrs. Andiri used her appearance to good effect. When she spoke, which she did often, you listened. To Eric’s relief she was asleep, empty sherry glass on the table beside here, knitting in her lap, lips slightly parted and emitting the gentlest of snores. He sank gently into the chair opposite and set his drink down quietly on a cardboard coaster.

“If you’re going to sit there, just do it. Don’t come creeping in like a mouse.”

Eric lifted his glass, banged it down on the table and then squirmed in his chair bringing on the satisfying squeak of real leather. He threw in a long, fake yawn for effect.

“That’s more like it.” Mrs. Andiri’s eyes had remained closed, but there are those who see just as well without them. “Lose your sticks?”

“I’m trying to get around without them.”

“You’ll have another fall.”

“I didn’t fall. I was backed into by a van.”

“And then you fell and broke your hip. Gravity’s a bitch. What time is it?”


Her face wrinkled with concentration.

“Are you going to give me a civil answer, or are we going to play games?”

“It is one minute to four, in the afternoon, on November the twenty-fourth two thousand and twenty-eight.”

The eyes opened slowly, and Mrs. Andiri employed the time-tested combination of a steady stare and a silence-that-must-be-filled.

“Tuesday,” added Eric. “Vegan delight night. The slaughter of the carrots was well under way when I passed the kitchen.”

“If they will deprive me of my meat, let us pray that they’ve discovered salt.” “’Residents may season to taste at the table’.”

“It’s not the same and they know it. Is there really anyone here who’d die from a pinch of salt? Any chance of a refill?”

The last was said in a raised voice. The manager checked the clock, ignored the second hand sweeping past the twelve mark and, in violation of two Club Room rules, poured an after-hours sherry and added it to her previous order instead of recording it with a new time stamp. He delivered it, then vanished for the day.

“I don’t suppose,” said Mrs. Andiri addressing Eric as she centred the glass on its coaster, “that you happened to notice who was sitting in that chair before you commandeered it?”

“Sorry. Empty when I got here. Not even warm.”




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 Mystery, investigator, bomb maker, target, retirement home, obsession, investigation,sabotage,

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