Saturday, December 29, 2012

Gun Control

As promised in a previous post, here are my thoughts on practical gun control. Obviously these are my opinions. I’m not any kind of expert, just a concerned citizen familiar with the topic.

I believe that most “gun control” is an attempt by society to legislate evil. It doesn’t work, because guns aren’t evil. They’re just objects. Society has been taught to fear and loathe guns. So they battle the tool rather than the wielder. It’s easy to call for restrictions on an object that you have no personal use for. I could for instance call for restrictions on cars since I don’t drive one. It would inconvenience a bunch of people, but since I don’t have any personal need for a vehicle, it’s no loss to me.

This kind of thinking is inherently flawed. I may not own a vehicle, but I benefit from the availability of transportation. Those who have no desire to own a firearm still benefit from their presence and the freedoms that make that presence possible.

The point in this case is that I don’t believe reducing the number of available firearms or access to them makes anyone safer. If you look at countries like England and Australia that have virtually no private firearm ownership, their violent crime rate is greater than that of the United States. Then there’s Israel where military service is compulsory and gun ownership rates are greater than or equal to ours; or we could look at Switzerland, where fully automatic rifles can be found in many households. In both cases violent crime is extremely low even though gun ownership rates are high. Guns aren’t the issue. People are the issue. If you look at the 2009 CDC death figures for the U.S., you’ll find that firearm related deaths came to about 31,000 for the year and automobile related deaths came to about 34,000. So you’re more likely to die from a car accident from a transportation device that requires skill based certification than a gun.

Instead of looking at gun violence as the problem, I find it instructive to look at its source. A disproportionately large amount of that violence is committed by a disproportionately small segment of the population. Namely young minority males in poor urban areas. You can track that directly to drugs and gang activity. Like it or not, certain cultures glorify violence and crime. So, if you really want to reduce gun violence, it pays to focus on those socio economic groups.

Here are a few things we can do to positively impact those numbers:

1. We can focus on education and urban renewal in high risk areas. Providing a consistently better standard of living and more alternatives to the gang life style is good for the economy, good for the community, and bad for violent crime.

2. We can end the war on drugs. Mexico is currently undergoing a virtual civil war as members of rival cartels fight amongst themselves. In many areas the government is powerless to stop mass executions and human rights violations. That violence spills over into southern Border States. It indirectly filters into our cities as the cartels seek to fill the immense demand for illicit drugs. We don’t have to make everything legal. The specifics aren’t as important as cutting the heart out of the illegal drug trade. Twenty years of drug war hasn’t reduced the nation’s consumption rates. It has bolstered the criminal element. Resolving this issue will reduce crime and related violence.

3. We need to hold states accountable for reporting mental illness and background restrictions to the federal government. Currently states are required to report individuals with qualifying mental illness and criminal records. This is so that when a federal background check is run at the point of sale, unfit people will be denied. However the federal government doesn’t enforce this requirement. The result is that some states report and some don’t. Rather than coming up with new restrictions on legal gun owners, we should work toward enforcing this law.

4. We can ask the media not to glorify people who commit sensational crimes. It’s one thing to be well informed. It’s another to know that if you shoot six people your facebook page will get a million hits and you’ll be the focus of a media storm. We should morn the dead and care for those left behind. We should make every effort as a society to make sure that people who commit atrocities and those who seek to imitate them are condemned and shunned. Doing so won’t stop bad people from doing bad things. But it will remove public recognition as an incentive.

Finally, while limiting access to certain firearms and accessories may theoretically make some people safer, it restricts the lives of millions of lawful gun owners as well. When politicians and activists talk about “an honest discussion of gun control” they aren’t talking about discussing the effectiveness of current laws and viable alternatives. They are talking about further restrictions with no compensatory loosening of strictures for law abiding citizens.

If someone could pick up every firearm in the world today and really and truly make the world a better place I’d be first in line to turn in my guns. But that’s not possible. Guns are an integral if controversial part of our society. There is a movement afoot right now that seeks to marginalize gun owners. It seeks to characterize them as archaic relics of by-gone days. It seeks to portray them as dangerous reactionaries who can’t be trusted with the responsibility of firearm ownership. It seeks to incrementally restrict gun rights in the U.S. until private gun ownership is a thing of the past. Please do not give in to this movement.

An honest discussion of common sense gun control must begin with the understanding that the overwhelming majority of gun owners are responsible and productive members of society. We are not the enemy. What gun owners have seen over the last thirty years is a relentless assault on our rights and our character. We are vilified in the press.

An honest and open discussion of gun control will only be effective if all sides of the issue can reach a legitimate compromise. That requires loosening existing strictures in return for concessions in other areas. That is the only way that the gun owning community will support such action.

The alternative is for these discussions to consist of anti-gun supporters lecturing the rest of us as to what new restrictions we should accept in the name of public safety. That isn’t a discussion and certainly isn’t compromise. Treating the entire pro-gun community as if we are responsible for the actions of a deranged minority isn’t just. Proposing legislation that makes no distinction between these two elements is intellectually dishonest.

Current estimates range from 39% to 50% of U.S. households owning at least one gun. The number of firearms in private hands increases by 4,000,000 annually with an estimated current total of more than 300,000,000. Groups like the NRA, SAF, GOA, and others don’t exist as extensions of the gun lobby. They exist because nearly half of U.S. households own a firearm responsibly and are willing to pay these groups to defend that right.

We are not the enemy. We are your neighbors, coworkers, politicians, and public servants. We represent nearly half the population. We don’t appreciate being treated as if we are the problem, especially since we aren’t. We have a right to exorcize our constitutionally guaranteed liberties responsibly. Comparing us regularly to mass murderers forces us to adopt an aggressive stance. We have no other choice. So the first step to meaningfully reducing gun violence needs to start with both sides understanding and respecting each other’s motives. Then both sides need to stop fighting over guns and start fighting against those who use them to do bad things.

Friday, December 28, 2012

On recent events

I haven’t written much about guns lately. Part of that stems from limited cash. Another part is that I haven’t had much free time. The main reason is simply that talking about firearms in the wake of the Colorado movie massacre and the Sandy Hook elementary school attacks leaves me sick at heart. The loss of all those people is a tragedy that words are inadequate to address. What makes such events doubly hard for those of us in the shooting community are the campaigns to curb gun violence that spring up over the ashes of the fallen.

I enjoy guns. Shooting is a relaxing social experience without equal. There is no malice in the act. It is a demanding task that requires great physical and mental focus. I leave the range clear of mind and peaceful in my heart. Like a good book, that joy is magnified when shared with friends and family. Many of my firearms are collector’s pieces dating back fifty or more years. They aren’t in my collection waiting to take a life, but because all of them represent a piece of history. Like any hobbyist, I love leaning on a counter and talking with the clerk about my latest interest. I love the science, the stories, and the quiet camaraderie that comes with firearm ownership.

I recognize that firearms are dangerous if not handled and stored responsibly. I also recognize that guns can kill. Whether it’s a .22 derringer or .50 BMG sniper rifle, all firearms have the potential to end life, the operative word being “potential.” Guns do not fire themselves. People cause them to fire through intent, negligence, or ignorance. Human agency is the motive force; the gun is simply the instrument.

Therefore, I cringe when I hear about a sensational gun-wielding psychopath. I morn the victims. But I know what will follow before the dead have been laid to rest. The cry is raised to “do something.” With the shooter dead, vengeance is directed at the tool rather than the wielder. Guns make an effective proxy for those seeking retribution. Politicians call for laws to protect society. Activist groups fuel public outcry while advancing their own agendas. The media prints the most controversial and sensational material they can. Those who call for a sense of perspective are shouted down. Facts are ignored in favor of a narrative in which guns are the enemy.

I’ve read thousands of pages of material regarding gun control including scientific studies, historical perspectives, philosophical treatments, and personal narratives. Every year I safely put thousands of rounds down range. This is by way of saying that my opinions are grounded in fact, logic, and personal experience. I’ve spoken with friends, family, even coworkers about the reality of gun violence. I try not to attack or criticize. I ask questions and offer constructive discussion. I don’t want to “win” these exchanges. I want to offer what little wisdom I have. I want to know if they have a new perspective. I want them to have the benefit of my experience. In most cases they don’t care. I can hear in their voice that while they may not want to offend me, they don’t want to honestly consider my point of view either. It’s just easier to believe that evil can be legislated from the world.

This is not to say that everyone I talk to is willfully ignorant. Deathquaker and my father are both committed pacifists. I have met several people that understand my viewpoint and choose to model their views on principals I don’t agree with. I relish conversations with these people because they challenge my beliefs. Like faith, perspective is meaningless if not questioned. I am not the best tactical debater. Being forced to defend my views in a rigorous forum forces me to critically view my principals.

Even so, I have found over and over again that most of the public is at best misinformed and at worst dangerously ignorant where firearms are concerned. You would think that with upwards of 300,000,000 guns in private American hands that a basic understanding of firearms would be impossible to avoid. Unfortunately, while the number of guns in the United States continues to climb, public awareness of firearms is marginal.

There was a time 60 years ago when you could buy a gun through a mail order catalog. Shooting was a traditional and publically accepted part of life. Guns were everywhere. There was no federal background check. You could simply walk into a hardware store and buy whatever your wallet would bare. You could even buy a fully automatic machine gun at cost plus the $200 tax stamp.

Since then America’s population has condensed around urban areas. Guns are not only more difficult to purchase but also less relevant in the big city than they were in the rural towns of yester-year. In some parts of the country hunting season is still a community holiday. But for most of the public firearms have become something you see on television rather than a tool over the mantle. It’s not really surprising then that many of those calling for more gun control neither understand what they are asking for or how little their proposals will improve public safety. They have little to no personal knowledge of firearms. What knowledge they do have is based on movies, video games, and factually challenged press accounts.

Further, the media and politicians have fostered the concept of the gun as sentient evil. Read any account of a firearms accident and you’ll see what I mean. The sentences are constructed in such a way so as to remove human agency from the process. It will say something like “The gun discharged.” They don’t say that the man wasn’t paying attention and shot his son, they say that the _gun_ discharged. This fits the narrative of the gun as inherently evil. As one of my friends said recently, you can’t control people. You can control objects. It is this desire to legislate against evil that gives rise to most of the gun control arguments. Guns are evil. Thus, if we get rid of the guns, then we will eliminate evil. It doesn’t matter how many times I disprove the premise, it is a safety blanket that the public doesn’t want to live without.

My range partner and I read a recent facebook exchange in which a mutual friend made two claims which perfectly illustrate this point. The first is that guns have only one purpose, to kill. The other is that nobody needs a thirty round magazine. Take a minute and really think about that first statement. Every day millions of law abiding citizens use guns for entertainment, investment, competition, and self defense. None of them intend to take a life. Many of the guns they use are optimized for accuracy, concealability, or one of several other rolls that don’t include lethality. My 1911 is set up for competition accuracy. It can kill, but its controls and internal mechanism are configured for maximum range performance. I give it its purpose, the design is simply a mechanical action for cause and affect.

The other claim is that I have no need for a thirty round magazine. Consider the genesis of that statement. What is really being said is that no law abiding citizen has a need for an object that makes killing people easier. In other words, I shouldn’t mind giving up my access to the tool because I don’t need it in the first place. It, like the gun it fits, is an agent of evil. In point of fact I can think of several reasons why I might want a thirty round magazine. But that’s not the point.

The real question is why should I have to demonstrate a need in the first place? I am a law abiding citizen. I play by the rules even when I disagree with them. Limiting my access to thirty round magazines doesn’t make anyone more secure. I was never a threat in the first place. The number of spree killers is so infinitesimally small compared to the totality of the gun owning public as to make the question absurd. I am not evil. Guns are not evil. Thirty round magazines are not evil. I can demonstrate theoretically and practically that limiting my access to thirty round magazines only helps those who might wish to do me harm. But again, that doesn’t matter.

I have given up trying to appeal to the public with facts and logic. It doesn’t work. You can’t rebut principals and misinformation when the other person isn’t interested in rational discourse. My experience has been rather that facts simply get dismissed out of hand and logic gets countered with feel-good morality which makes people feel safer, but offers little actual protection.

In response I have decided to leave the facts at home. They aren’t helping. Here is what I believe as simply put as I can make it.

1. People have an individual right to defend themselves. While guns enable bad people to do bad things, those bad things were going to get done whether guns were present or not. Guns represent a tool by which the weak and righteous may ensure their safety. Thus any bad things that are attributed to firearms are vastly outweighed by the good that guns make possible.

2. I do not believe that punishing the many for the sins of the few helps anyone. Guns are easy targets when the public demands action. But guns aren’t the problem or the solution. Guns are tools that can be used for good or evil by the individual. I believe that the overwhelming majority of gun owners do not pose a threat to society and should not have their rights limited due to the misguided actions of the minority.

3. I believe that gun control in all its forms fails to make society safer in any way. I am not willing to trade my freedom for a false sense of security. Murder is illegal. Laws, by definition, are broken by criminals. Those who would break the law will not be inconvenienced by society’s rules. If they were, they wouldn’t be criminals.

4. I believe in laws and procedures that truly protect society. Background checks, though imperfect, do serve a purpose. Most gun control legislation does not serve a purpose.

I believe that there are steps we can take as a country to limit violent crime and gun violence in particular. There are steps we can take that don’t involve further restricting my rights. I’ll go over that in a different post. I am tired of being made to feel as though I had a hand in every bad thing done with the aid of a firearm. Guns aren’t the problem. I am not the problem. The gun owning community isn’t the problem. Tragedy happens because there are bad people in the world who are willing to do bad things. I am tired of the solution to long-standing public safety issues being sold as a de facto condemnation of me and my motives.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Review of the SRB Field Rest


I used the SRB field rest with a marlin 39a, Browning BPS, and a Mosin nagant rifle. The product performs as advertised, with some qualifications.


The field rest is supposed to act as a second line of defense for your firearm in wet/muddy environments. When properly set up, it accomplished this task with all tested guns. The rest’s two brackets are wide and solidly constructed enough that they act as stable supports for even large firearms like the Mosin Nagant. Also, since the two brackets are set up independent of each other, you can customize the spacing to fit the rifle.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to obtain the precise alignment that will hold the rifle level. The brackets slip into the support pegs without any problems, but don’t lock in place. Getting them aligned doesn’t take too much effort, but it’s far too easy too have them spin out of alignment with even a light touch without the rifle to inhibit the action. The pegs have to be driven into the ground straight on or risk canted deployment. Since each peg is set separately, it takes some fiddling to get them aligned where the gun is plum with the ground and balanced in all dimensions.

If you’re considering using one of the supports as a poor man’s bipod, don’t. The wide span of the brackets that gives them the ability to support a variety of rifles means that they offer no lateral stabilization.


The pegs are made of solid metal and have a good heft to them. I kicked them around and drove them into the ground with a hammer with no ill affects. The plastic brackets, especially the ends that fit into the pegs, are of lighter quality than I’d like, but fine for sporting use. I would have preferred a more dense construction and a more robust locking design for the peg/support fit, but the product is well designed and built from solid materials.


If I was wandering around in the snow/swamp/rain with a hunting rifle, I’d rather use a slung rifle, bipod, or shooting stick. Pulling the field rest out, setting it up, and ensuring that it is aligned correctly, is just fiddly enough and time consuming enough that it isn’t worth the time…especially since the gun has to be protected in some way while the rest is being deployed.

If however you want a portable rifle rest to take to an old duck blind or the like where time isn’t an issue, than this is an excellent value.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A review of White Wolf's Exalted


Exalted is white wolf’s signature fantasy offering. Players take on the personas of mortals chosen by deities to act as their agents. While this “choosing” gifts the character with the powers of a demigod, the status of “exalted” comes with a great deal of historical limitation. The setting is lavishly set forth with everything an epic campaign requires. Though there are many enemies set against the fledgling characters, their destiny is to do great and terrible things.


The world of exalted is built upon the bones of an empire carved from chaos. In an age long past, the gods rose up against ancient beings called primordials. Those gods imbued a select few of their followers with a measure of their essence, creating heroes to help fight their war. With their help, the primordials were cast down. Some were imprisoned in a demon realm of brass and iron. Others were left to slumber in the shadows of the underworld. A few lie outside the ordered bounds of creation. But, even as they fell, those dark gods reached out to reap their vengeance. They laid a curse upon the gods’ champions. A golden age ensued, overseen by the exalted. Great works of science, sorcery, art, and scholarship were commonplace.

Then, the primordial’s’ curse manifested. The solar exalted, those chosen by the unconquered sun, lapsed into madness and excess. The children of the four maidens cast a great divining and found that two paths lay before the world. They could prop up their cursed rulers and risk eternal destruction or they could bring them down and follow a less catastrophic road. The children of the maidens chose the second path.

The solar exalted were hunted and destroyed. Their consorts, the lunar exalted of Gaya, were driven beyond creation into the chaos of the wilde. The sidereal exalted, children of the maidens, withdrew into the shadows to pull the strings of the surviving empire.

The dragon blooded, the children of the elemental dragons, were comparatively weak but plentiful. They remade creation in their image. They rewrote history to reinvent the other exalted as demons. A soldier of surpassing guile and power rose to become empress. The empire prospered.

800 years later, the empress is missing. The empire is crumbling as its great houses fight amongst themselves. Few are left to hunt the reincarnations of the exalted. Dark fae wait at the edges of creation. Abyssal knights rise from the underworld to command the dead. The little gods have forgotten their duties while they play cosmic games. Demons plot their escape from the infernal city.

Into this time of tumult come the exalted, chosen by the gods to wield their power. Hated by many and feared by all, new heroes are selected to shape the age.

The World:

The world is bounded by the five elemental poles. At the center of “creation” is the blessed isle, a huge island which is both the seat of the dragon blooded empire and the pole of earth. It is surrounded by a small sea which expands to the western pole of boundless ocean. To the North lies the pole of air, where if one goes far enough the world becomes limitless tundra. To the East lies the pole of wood, where reality transforms into endless forest. To the South is the pole of fire, where the terrain turns to unending desert.

Beyond the poles, a formless chaos of improbability is called the wilde. Here dark fae dream themselves as pristine creatures while they wait to sup upon the memories of unfortunate mortals. Warped beastmen, outcast lunar exalted and ancient mysteries dwell within the chaos.

Inside creation, various city states, towns, villages, ruins, and remnants of the first age weave a beautiful tapestry of mundane and fantastic. The world is pre-built large enough that there’s lots of empty space a GM can fill in, but there are also enough landmarks that the setting doesn’t lack for character. The core rule book provides a basic overview for the major cultures and geography. There are several regional folios which are useful but not required. White wolf does a great job of giving GMS enough information to create excellent stories, but without backing them into a corner with metaplot.

Epic Sword and Sorcery:

When I think of sword and sorcery, I turn to Robert E Howard’s Conan and Glen Cook’s Black Company. To me, sword and sorcery is a bit of high fantasy, tempered with some swashbuckling, and finished with compelling character generation. Exalted is one of the few RPGs where the characters, mechanics, and setting are blended well enough to exceed all my expectations.

The setting has enough Meta underpinnings that a GM can run to a true epic campaign. That said, the world is big enough that a group of exalted can still do great things without saving it every day. The balance between these two stylistic choices makes for a very fulfilling experience.


Those familiar with the classic world of darkness products will be right at home with exalted. Players add their skill value and related attribute to determine their die pool. The GM then determines the level of difficulty. Then the player rolls a number of d10 equal to their die pool. Sevens and above are always successes. Tens count as two, except with damage. Ones do not count off the total unless there are no successes, in which case a result of at least one causes a botch. If the character’s roll results in at least as many successes as the difficulty rating, then they succeed.

White wolf enhances the epic feel of the game by adding the option for players to perform “stunts.” “Stunts” occur when a player describes something particularly well. Depending on the awesomeness of the action in question, the gm awards 1-3 bonus die to the related roll. Stunts replenish lost power points equal to the associated die bonus. This makes for a game that encourages heroic displays and outside the box thinking. Though it’s not the game’s biggest mechanical feature, it is one of the defining elements.

The largest mechanical feature by far is the use of “charms.” Charms represent the exalted’s ability to channel magic through their body to affect the world around them. Each charm has a cost to activate. They add dice to die pools, provide the exalted with supernatural abilities, protect them, give them insight, and allow the exalted to perform tasks with greater skill and efficiency.

Certain exalted can use sorcery. Sorcery is to the use of charms as charms are to the abilities of unexalted mortals. Like charms, spells can be selected at chargen and require the expenditure of magic points. They are divided into three circles, which generate progressively more spectacular effects and cost proportionally more magical resources. Access to each successive circle is increasingly exclusive, with the first circle of magic available to all exalted and the third circle only available to the chosen of the unconquered sun. Since the ability to draw from each circle requires the use of a separate charm and each spell also takes up a charm slot, sorcery is a major commitment. That commitment can pay great dividends, especially for those who actively search for more occult power, but it does mean that being a sorcerer comes with some hefty limitations.

First edition, player’s guide, and second edition:

There are effectively three versions of the game. The first edition was published in 2001 and comprises the main rule book as well as a selection of setting folios. These books are run on a modified white wolf engine as described above.

In 2004, white wolf published their exalted player’s guide. This book addresses some of the first edition’s mechanical weaknesses while adding alternative systems for combat, items, and character creation. The book is meant as a supplement for the previously published products and doesn’t replace them. However, the remaining publications in the first edition line assume use of the player’s guide where the power combat rules are concerned. I don’t find this to be an issue as the player’s guide is an improvement over the first edition rules, but your mileage may very.

Finally, in 2006, white wolf published the exalted second edition rule book. Updated product supplements to replace most of the first edition line followed. Second edition modified the range of available skills to make them more distinct, standardized charm selection, and significantly changed the way combat works. On the one hand, second edition is a unified product line that doesn’t suffer from the half and half syndrome that the player’s guide created. The standardization of charms and skills creates mechanical consistency and fixes some glaring imbalance in the range of abilities. That said, second edition doesn’t fix anything that required republishing the entire line. I find the revised combat rules to be needlessly complicated while still not addressing the single biggest problem in first edition, the sheer number of dice a player is required to roll.

I admit that starting with first ed biased me against second ed. Second ed provides plenty of new options, including an updated selection of martial arts styles and revised rules for playing sub-races. The reprinted world books were updated and fleshed out, resulting in lots of new setting material. Even so, second edition was originally billed as a simple update, much like the player’s guide. It isn’t, and the subsequent requirement for me to purchase virtual duplicates of books that I bought before sticks in my craw.

The Good:

Exalted allows players to run demigods in a beautifully written setting. The world is packed with wonderful detail. The customized character creation process, anime overtones, and use of stunts personalize rp to a degree that I haven’t encountered with any other RPG.

Exalted start off as mortals who are selected by their respective god. This choosing gifts the exalted with the spirit of all the mortals who previously held that particular incarnation. The result is a many-layered character with present and past memories.

While individual exalted are mechanically powerful, the game adds levels of risk the more power they expend. Using their charms past a point causes the mark of their exaltation to burn with magical radiance. Since they are feared and loathed, this limits just how much power an exalted may wish to spend in public. Add to that the rate they run through their reserves when they are in crisis mode, and the abilities of a demigod become something of a limited and risky resource.

The Meh:

Exalted is a challenging system to get into. Like a lot of games I’ve played, its dense setting and character generation mean that players and GMs need to read through a few hundred pages to truly appreciate the Game’s potential. The investment is well worth the time, but I’ve found that most people require some prompting before they buy in.

Like many of white wolf’s products, the mechanics aren’t always written clearly or with ease of play in mind. For example, the vast selection of charms can be combined into special maneuvers called combos. The rules for creating these combos are so fiddly that after three reads I still had some trouble explaining to my players how they worked. Likewise, the sheer number of charms makes the process of selecting a functional set of powers daunting for those not familiar with the options.

In addition to the indexing of powers, many desirable items and charms are spread through different supplements. You can play with the main rule book without penalty, but if you buy into the larger product line, building characters quickly becomes a scavenger hunt. It isn’t as bad as hunting through 50 rifts soft covers, but the feeling is similar.

The bad:

Being honest, exalted is my favorite RPG. There really isn’t anything “bad” about it from my perspective. But there are some things that new players will want to consider.

First, exalted is a very crunchy game. The mechanics encourage players to min-max. The cast system, favored ability characteristic, backgrounds, and other mechanics all push players to make synergistic characters. All exalted are powerful, but a properly built character with judicious charm and artifact selection can overshadow their less min-maxed peers.

In a similar vain, this is not a game where you role 2 or 3 dice and plow through combat in an hour. Players are rolling at least 6d10 at a time on average and often as much as 15 or more. So if rolling fist fulls of d10s isn’t your thing, then this game isn’t going to satisfy. Likewise, combat is an extended process as players use multiple actions, stunts, and charms. Everything about exalted is big, from the die pools to the scope of combat.

From a GM perspective this game isn’t for the weak of heart. White wolf’s point by chargen and experience advancement lead to very competent characters. They are truly demigods, with a commensurate ability to mess with the world. This can make it difficult to challenge groups. I’ve found that the makeup of the group has to be taken into account to a greater degree than in other more story oriented systems like Spirit of the century and savage worlds. GMs who manage towards the mechanics of the game rather than the plot will quickly become frustrated with the monster of the week style of play that this will create.

Further, exalted characters are really good at the tasks they decide to specialize in. A dedicated exalted warrior is a force to be reckoned with. An occult master can often ferret out information with no effort at all with a single die roll. In a game a friend ran, the other characters were combat competent while my character was a roguish combat monster. One of the other characters was focused on social interactions while the other was very intrigue centric. This caused some issues for the GM, who wasn’t always sure how to challenge each of us in our given specialty while not rendering the rest of us irrelevant to the action. For this reason I say that exalted isn’t for beginning GMs. Combat can be balanced even at high levels, but it takes a deft hand, and the effort that requires will not be for everyone. There is a distinct requirement that gms manage to story, and that’s difficult for someone who’s just finding their GM footing.


Everyone I’ve ever played with or run for has enjoyed exalted. At some level I think all of us want to be a legendary protagonist. Very few RPGs fully deliver on that desire. I’ve found that the pulpy feel that other high fantasy systems create tends to detract from the sense of grand destiny the settings are reaching for. So far exalted is one of a very few games that achieves its objectives with style.

Part of that success is do to the wonderful writing. Locales jump out at you from the very first lines through the last page. The world has a certain style that sets it above other fantasy settings.

Another component of the game’s appeal is the fact that characters are inherently flawed. Especially in white wolf games, one comes to believe that flaws are ways to bring your character up to snuff. There is a system of merits and flaws in the player’s guide; but beyond that book every exalted has a personal flaw based on their highest governing virtue. The character accumulates limit points as he encounters situations which try his conviction, compassion, valor, or temperance. When he reaches his limit, the character falls pray to an excess of his highest virtue.

While fait acts to bring the exalted to a great destiny, the books take pains to stress that characters have free will. The gods choose them because of their goals, personality, and potential and then set them free. To reflect this, players don’t choose classes or professions at chargen. Instead they choose a cast. Casts represent how an exalted goes about accomplishing their goals in life. For the dawn cast, it as champions and generals. For the night cast it is through stealth and trickery. Each cast has its own purpose. Each of the five casts compliments each other such that a full circle of all five casts is a fulcrum upon which destiny turns.

Beyond the cast system, characters pick favored abilities; essentially non cast specialties that help define them. For example, an eclipse cast who is naturally skilled in social and burocratic matters might also be a capable healer, sorcerer, and thief. This means that exalted characters are truly individuals. They aren’t tied to their cast as their single defining role, but rather are conceived as three dimensional personalities within the story.

Finally, though combat is sometimes complex, it’s also very rewarding. Players are encouraged to be flashy and inventive. Stunts make fights into as much a story as a math-fest (think crouching tiger hidden dragon here.) The charms and choice of weapon an exalted chooses are more than just numbers. Played well they speak to the character’s beliefs and goals.

So, great characters, check. Setting without peer, check. Excellent and consistent writing, check. This is simply the best RPG I’ve ever encountered.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

On Police and heroism

I’ve read a lot lately about the disconnect between law enforcement and armed citizens. The discussion centers upon examples of police militarization versus cases of police heroism. Police risk their lives daily for citizens, so why is it that they don’t get more respect? More over, why is it that they don’t get more respect from the overwhelmingly patriotic ranks of the armed populous?

Before I go into specifics, I need to build some context. Although the average citizen believes that the police, TSA, FBI, and all the other acronyms are out there to protect them, the armed citizen knows better. Law enforcement exists to protect society as a whole and not individuals in particular. This isn’t my opinion, it’s established case law. Police have no obligation to protect the individual citizen; rather their job is to protect society from the individual. In order to accomplish this task, they are provided with great power and latitude. That power is somewhat tolerable because it is bound and directed to serve the good of the community; to wit, there are checks and balances established to protect citizens from legal excess. The point being that the protection afforded by the government is a byproduct of its mandate to protect society and not a personal duty to any specific taxpayer.

That’s all well and good if you’re an average citizen with negligible exposure to the thin blue line. However, if you are a gun owner than life is a bit more challenging. I say this not because firearm possession will call down the law, but because owning a gun holds a citizen to a higher legal and ethical standard. In my state of Maryland, gun ownership requires me to affirm that I am not a habitual drug user, drunkard, felon, mentally disabled, subject of a restraining order, as well as subjecting me to the infamous background check. There are a limited number of places I can legally take a gun outside my home. The gun has to be transported in a separate locked container from the ammunition, preferably in a different part of the vehicle. The legal right to carry, concealed or otherwise, is strictly at the State’s discretion. Owning a gun not only means that I have to conduct myself as a model citizen, it also means that the very act of transporting and using my guns is heavily regulated. Most of that regulation simply affirms common sense practices we would follow regardless. But whether I would follow those statutes on my own or not, they are still there. They loom over me every time I do _anything_ with my firearms. They cast a shadow over me when I’m hundreds of miles away from my gun safe. There is always that worry that an honest mistake or misunderstanding will cause the state to revoke my good-citizen status.

Let’s add to this picture the constant attacks by the media, gun control interests, and anti-gun politicians. There is an active movement in the United States to limit private firearm ownership, if not outright banish the practice entirely. Although guns are more socially acceptable than in the past, gun owners are regularly subject to ridicule and profiling, regardless of political affiliation, religion, gender, race, sexual orientation, or economic status. Outside of specifically gun-friendly zones, acknowledging firearms ownership can get one branded a racist, bigoted, ignorant reactionary or worse. So while the trend toward acceptance of firearms in America is great, firearm enthusiasts have to manage to the loudest, lowest common denominator every day if they want to be taken seriously.

That trend is frustrating, especially if you’re part of the scientific minded portion of the gun culture that studies optics, reloading, history, ballistics, metallurgy…etc. Reloaders have to work with chemical compounds, formulas, and precise machine tolerances. Long range shooters regularly employ complex math to deal with ballistic drop, wind, altitude, humidity, and velocity. Most of the shootists I know are well versed in history from the American Revolution onward if not before. It’s one thing to have your choice of football team questioned. It’s something entirely different to be branded an easily ignored idiot, especially when the root cause of that assessment is based on a hobby that involves proficiency with multiple branches of hard science.

These points are important because they explain why the average gun owner is so jaded when it comes to government. Government isn’t the enemy, but often agents of the government and society treat him as if he is a second class citizen, one step away from some terrible act of violence and intolerance. Firearms ownership requires me to ask permission to own and use a gun, something that the constitution specifically provides as an individual right. The operating assumption here is that gun ownership makes a person into a menace to society when statistics tell a completely different story. Every day gun owners have to deal with the fact that while they live within the limits of the law, the media consistently depicts them as monsters.

Now, let’s look at government agencies. Since 911, the powers of law enforcement have been greatly expanded through the patriot act and other legislation. Wiretapping without a warrant, detainment of citizens without charge, searches, and personal scans have become if not common, grudgingly accepted practices. The National Guard can be seen at airports and train stations. It seems like every other day I hear about swat teams knocking someone’s door down, like as not enforcing a no-knock warrant. Police wear bullet proof vests and carry ar15s in their cars. A recent product advertisement described a .50 caliber rifle as ideal for counter terrorism and drug interdiction. The TSA seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. The picture this paints to most of us who are already “concerned” about how government and society views us is not of a benevolent force constructed to respect and defend our freedom. Add to this picture the daily attempts by government to further limit rights that are already heavily regulated, and it can seem as though the government as a whole and police as an extension are simply waiting for gun owners to give them the slightest reason to bring down the wrath. Trust is further broken whenever a story is published that depicts police using excessive force, entrapment, and abusing civil liberties.

The average peace officer is a decent hard working person doing a difficult, risky, and often thankless job. The police I’ve encountered have always been polite and helpful. Most of the Leos I encounter in cyberspace are public servants who view their job as a sacred duty rather than a mandate to oppress (the more so since they are part of that same firearms loving community.) The challenge for the public is that we can’t assume that every boy in blue we run into is that considerate and civic minded. We have to guard against the lowest common denominator, which breeds a certain level of antipathy. It is that same peace officer who needs and deserves our respect who has the ability to complicate our life.

That is the heart of the afore mentioned disconnect. The Leos I encounter on line who act every day to truly protect and serve, often bemoan the lack of respect they engender. They see themselves as heroes, willing to sacrifice their lives daily for a seemingly ungrateful public, in this case a public comprised of fellow gun lovers. I imagine that must sting doubly hard, since the very people expressing those negative sentiments should be the ones most likely to support them. Yet it isn’t the individual that those sentiments are directed against, but that lowest common denominator I mentioned. Ask most gun owners how they feel about their country and they’ll tell you that they love it. Ask them how they feel about soldiers and police in general and they’ll tell you that they respect law enforcement. A love of firearms and patriotism have ever been bound together in the American spirit. Because of this, most gun owners I know support the police and military in the abstract. It is the practical, every-day potential for personal tragedy that gives us pause.

Finally, let’s look at Leos as heroes. More to the point, the desire that many soldiers and police have to be viewed as heroes. The most commonly accepted definition says that a hero is someone who does the ordinary under extraordinary circumstances. When a citizen uses a gun to defend themselves and others from violence, it affirms our belief that firearms are a tool that can prevent evil. We celebrate those individuals because we so rarely hear of Righteous defensive gun usage. Nobody expects citizens to stand against evil, they expect them to run and call the police, hence the extraordinary status. But what about the officer that responds to a call and does the exact same thing as the citizen? Isn’t he a hero? By that definition, no. We expect the officer to serve and protect. That is what he is there for. So we respect him for his courage and thank him for his service, but must raise the bar for heroism proportionally. Ultimately that is why many armed citizens become so offended at talk of the police as heroes. It isn’t that they don’t care, but that after 911 every first responder became a hero. The objection comes from the idea that being a first responder conveys the heroic title upon a person absent any comparable action on their part.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Orkid's Song: Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Part 1. Ezekiel, Friday, June 5th. 8:00pm

He sat across the table, listening to his companion and reveling in her proximity. The voice that whispered in his ear was lecherously attentive to every detail of her appearance. The fact that women thought that he was interested in them purely for the sake of their minds never ceased to amaze him. They knew they were being courted and to what end, so it made no rational sense that they thought his blindness made him less interested in their physical charms. It was one more advantage he could claim, one more scent that brought him closer to the end of the hunt.

The content of their discussion was of no matter. She was a knowledgeable and captivating conversationalist, combining informed opinions with a seductive delivery. But it was the woman herself that interested him. Long red-brown hair, an exceptionally curved figure, and a golden complexion made her possibly the most striking woman in the cafe. As he responded to her most recent gambit, he sipped his wine and began stroking one of the petals from the table’s centerpiece. Mellal confirmed her attention being drawn to his motion. So he continued, sensually drawing out each caress while finishing his explanation of the history behind the topiary gardens in one of his client’s manners. He could not see her, but Mellal gleefully advised him of the tinge of color rising on her barely contained cleavage. Each motion of his finger intensified their mutual awareness. He ended his caress to brush his finger across the top of his wineglass and touch it to his lips. This was their third evening together. As of yet his charms had been resisted, but with ever slackening resolve. He tasted the wine and savored the anticipation. With great care he selected the next course. His personal tastes were catered too; both because his taste was impeccable and because he spent a great deal of money in the establishment. With teasing enjoyment he drew out the meal and the conversation. He luxuriated in the chase. When dinner had ended, he stood and offered the woman his arm. Calculating his gestures for maximum effect, he placed his cane on the table and guided her to the dance floor. He had long since established his personal table at this bistro and memorized its relative position to the floor. The dinner finished, the woman primed with food, wine, and conversation, he began the process of seduction.

It was an old trick from an old movie, but effective none the less. The music began at a moderate speed with a bracing calypso rhythm. Gradually the selections began to vary from slow waltzes to quickly moving displays of speed and grace. Throughout the hour he held her on the floor, he danced to a different but not dissimilar melody. He let his body brush hers from time to time, a hand on her back with a finger’s barely perceptible caress, pulling her intimately close so as to feel her breasts pressed against him, kissing her hand as he flung her wide, and making sure she knew that for this night, she was the focus of his world.

He had no illusions as to the permanence of the relationship he was crafting. The ephemeral nature of the romance added value; for what will soon be lost is treasured that much more.

The last dance completed, the dance floor clearing for the night, he asked her back to his boat for a midnight stroll. She rested her head against his shoulder as the limo conveyed them to his home. Thoughts of the night to come filled his mind. For a few moments, with the woman’s eyes closed and body pliant, he let himself anticipate what was to come. The bed on its polished wood platform was even now surrounded by tiny lights. Each bulb reflected a hundred times over in the mirrors that covered every available surface. The bed was a ten foot bowl of walnut filled with satin pillows. Having brought her into his inner most sanctum, he would undress her with deliberate slowness. Then he would spend an hour worshipping her body until, her senses set on edge, he would complete them. He would take her over and over again, until they panted for each other, until thought and words had been reduced to the rhythm of the act, until all was climax and thunder.

It wasn’t enough. It never would be enough. There would never be a woman who could completely satisfy him. But for now he would exorcize his demons as much as opportunity permitted.

Part 2. Michael, Friday, June 5th. 1:15pm

Idiots provide a valuable service to society. Intelligence and common sense are by no means found in comparable quantities, and my current informant was a classic example. When you want to get your hooks into a source, you have two methods of reeling them in. You can scare them, or you can make them dependent on you. At the rate Pedro Ortiz was going, he was going to do all my work for me. He just couldn’t stay out of trouble; and here I was, Michael Courtney, friendly special agent waiting to be of service...for a small favor of course.

I walked into city holding with Sanchez dogging my steps. We found the duty officer. We knew each other from way back. While we weren’t friendly, we both understood how the game worked. I pulled out a box of Havana’s finest and passed it over.

“So Jack, I hear our little bird’s back in lock up.”

Jack leaned his blocky chin on his clenched fist and smiled slightly.

“Yup. Got him on disturbing the peace and fraud if we decide to charge him.”

With a motion born of experience, he broke the seal on the humidor and examined one of the cigars. The aromatic scent of fine cured tobacco filled the air. Sanchez looked ill; Jack and I inhaled with relish.

“Caught him cheating at cards if you can believe it. He was using light up sneakers to tip off his partner. One of his marks tipped to the game and there was a fight.”

“Christ, Darwin, where are you when you’re needed? Sneakers...that’s too rich. Any problem holding charges for a bit? There’s stuff going down I need him for.”

A sour twinge made the veteran cop’s mouth turn down as he considered my question.

“I can maybe let him out pending charges being filed, but this isn’t getting swept under the rug. His mark isn’t going to let it drop. Don’t mind helping you boys out some times, but there’s only so much I can do outside channels.”

He ran a hand over the hardwood box I had given him with reverent care. Jack loved his Cigars; my access to the real thing had allowed us to establish a tentative working relationship. He wasn’t going to risk his job though. As it was we were both walking in a sort of moral gray area between departmental cooperation and bribery.

“Works. I can have him assigned competent probono defense. Can we see him in one of the rooms?”

“Sure. Leme finish his paperwork, I’ll have him in there in a few minutes. I’ll leave him to your tender mercies, but I’ll be watching and I’ll let him out only with the judge’s say-so.”

I nodded and motioned for Sanchez, who was eating up the gritty back and forth, to follow me back to the interrogation room.

The ten by ten was furnished in concrete and metal furniture, no frills, no pretense. If you were in here you were in trouble. A single bare bulb glared down, harshly lighting the walls with institutional indifference. The cinder block walls were broken only by the door we had come through and an opaque section of one-way glass that nobody had tried to conceal.

Sanchez paced around the room enthusiastically, alternately standing behind the chair our subject would be using and standing behind my chair, arms folded, his gaze doing its best to impersonate a thousand yard stare.

“So, I will be the bad cop yes? Maybe a few gentle reminders of whom he is dealing with no?”

“Sanchez, the kid is a failed matchstick man, not an enemy of the state. Besides, this whole thing is being recorded. I’ve worked with this one before. He’s small peanuts but he hears stuff. His family is into smuggling, contraband and immigrants. I’ve gotten him out of a few scrapes...he owes me.”

“Ah, so we will let him hang himself no?”

“Sure. The Nike bandit, master criminal, the sneaker overlord.”

Just then Jack brought the kid in and pointed at the hot seat like it was the electric chair from the green mile. He spoke with a cold, uncaring delivery.

“Sit, you try anything, it’ll go badly for you.”

He left, probably to watch through the glass of the observation room.

Pedro was a tall gawky kid, just past twenty with a swarthy complexion and blue-black hair. His face and build were thin, giving him a look of intelligence that his presence here belied.

“Mr. Michael, I am so-glad to see you. The police, they are making a huge mistake. The things with the sneakers, it is a big misunderstanding...I”

He smiled at me hopefully, channeling orphans and abused puppies with the skill of long experience.

“Pedro, Pedro, I am so disappointed in you. Here I thought you had learned from the last time with the camera in the hotdog. You are in so much trouble I’m not sure I can get you out.”

He fidgeted as the uncomfortable chair did its work.

“But Mr. Michael, I didn’t do nothing. This gringo, he has it all wrong. He does not like me because I is winning, and then he says Miguel and I, we are cheating. Then he starts in on the sneakers. I is asking you, what is wrong with my sneakers? I isn’t doing nothing wrong. You have to help me.”

Sanchez snorted. I folded my arms and leaned back in my chair and looked back at the would-be-card shark.

“Maybe, I can see about helping you Pedro, but this is serious. The man you were playing cards with, he isn’t going to let this go. Maybe I can get you a good attorney on the house, but I need something to give the police, something useful you know?”

Pedro got a crafty look on his face, what passed for craft with him, and his hands tightened on his chair’s arms.

“I is can help you Mr. Michael. My Cousin, she knows everything about everyone. You is just saying the word and I is getting it for you. I jus is needing a little time you know?”

Like candy from a baby. Who was I kidding; the kid never had a chance. His level of skullduggery maxed out with footwear with Christmas lights.

“I can help you Pedro, but we really need to find out about some of the Japanese people that have died recently. You know anything about that?”

Pedro looked puzzled for a second, an expression his face spent a significant amount of time assuming, and then his face changed over into a grin.

“You mean like the man who got tagged by the bus, and the woman who got mashed by the escalator?”

My attention sharpened. I hadn’t primed the kid; he had made the links himself. This looked promising.

“Something like that. Give me what you got kid.”

“I gots nothing, but my cousin, she is saying as how things different now, how we can’t use one of the ports any more. Jou know? She is saying how is serving the ninjas right for interfering with trade.”

“And you think she might know more about all this”

“Maybe, maybe not, but I is guessing she maybe knows who is knowing more.”

“That’s good Pedro, real good. Tell you what. I’m going to talk to the police and they’ll probably let you go in the morning. Sunday, we meet; you tell me what you learned. If it pans out, we do business. If it doesn’t...well the law is the law.”

The kid looked sick and shook his head vigorously. Obviously he was going to move heaven and earth to make sure he didn’t get road killed by the wheels of justice.

Sanchez followed me out of the station, one finger twirling his mustache distractedly.

“That seemed easy.”

I shrugged and laid one finger along side my nose and winked.

“Pedro, the information I get from him, it’s about as unusual as he is cunning. He’s an informational compass, someone I use to get me started in the right direction. This thing with the Japanese messing with his cousin’s trade, it probably doesn’t mean anything. He’s just quoting gossip.”

Sanchez stopped at his car and got in the front while I grabbed shotgun.

“So what, we wasted our time? You gave that cop prime tobacco for nothing?”

“Nope. I furthered my lock on a source and earned points with a local policeman. Things pan out, I get a big pay out. If they don’t, there’s still some up side to it.”

Sanchez pulled away from the curb and headed back to the office.

“Ok Michael. But I hope you know what you’re doing or the boss is going to be really upset.”

“Me too Sanchez, Me too.”

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Making of a gun nut.

I got “into guns” later in life than most of the people I know. My parents barely let me have a water gun, much less an actual firearm. Being legally blind didn’t figure into the equation; It was just they didn’t believe in that sort of thing. My grandfather had been a competitive shooter, hunter, and reloader, but by the time I displayed any interest he had long since sold all of his shooting irons. So when I decided to buy my first gun I was pretty much on my own.

At first, my interest was fueled by a desire to conquer the vague fear that my ignorance generated whenever my in-laws had guns around. They are hunters-all, and frequently were loading and cleaning around the holidays. The presence of firearms didn’t bother me as much as the fact that I had absolutely no idea of how to safely handle one. Thus the potential destruction I might have caused by even casual contact with their long guns (which were all safely stored and handled in my presence) spiraled out of proportion in my imagination. I don’t like fear, especially when I have the ability to do something about it.

So I started reading everything I could find about gun ownership, gun safety, ammunition, rifles, handguns, shotguns, scopes, self defense…etc. Somewhere, someone is laughing hysterically at that sentence. The amount of publicly accessible information on firearms is beyond comprehension. Wikipedia alone has so many interconnected links that I can still spend hours following twisty paths toward somewhat credible enlightenment. Add to that countless manufacturer websites, private reviewers, books, blogs, and online publications and it’s definitely an ongoing process.

After several months, I decided that I wanted “a gun.” That was pretty much a forgone conclusion from the outset. If I end up spending enough time on any subject, I’m going to want to get some skin in the game, be that miniatures, CCGs, RPGs, or guns. So the question became which one. As it turned out, Maryland made some of that decision for me. Buying a handgun in MD requires the buyer to pass a certification course and register with the state police. At the time I just wanted “a gun” and didn’t really want to go through any more paperwork than I had to. Intellectually I knew that it wasn’t likely to stay just one gun, but practically I decided to go about the process as if this purchase would be my only such acquisition. Oh, if I had only known.

The rest of the process was fairly simple. There was only one public range nearby where I’d be able to use my theoretical firearm. They only allowed shotguns and rifles in pistol caliber velocities. So, pistol caliber rifle or boom stick. For someone without a shred of practical shooting experience boomstick won hands down. As noted in one of my previous posts:


this was not one of my best decisions, but I didn’t know any better at the time. The internets said pump shotgun, so pump shotgun it was. My ego said 12 gage, so 12 gage was what I was going to get. Then it was down to the two most common models, the Remington 870 and the Mossberg 590. Again, with very little understanding of the practical implications of my choice, I picked the all-steel 870 over what I then thought was the weaker aluminum frame of the Mossberg. I found an 870 tactical model at Dick’s sporting goods (who have really great prices and fantastic customer service if you’ve never been there before.) A weak later I had my first gun locked in a carrying case…and no idea where to go from there.

I was well aware of the fact that while I owned a gun, I would never be able to responsibly use one without supervision, much less for home defense. Legally blind=no way to see where the rounds are going, hence breaking two of the four rules of firearm safety outright and the other two by implication. I was also aware of the seeming contradiction posed by a blind man owning and using a firearm. Gun ownership is a dicey subject at the best of times. My seemingly counterintuitive interest had the potential to strip me of the cloak of rationality and sensibility. To this day, I don’t hide the fact that I collect and use firearms recreationally. That said, I don’t advertise either. There’s simply too much chance for drama and misunderstanding when dealing with the uninformed.

Fortunately for me, K&B were raised in non hoplophobic households. As our best friends and people who tend to just shake their heads at my newest brand of crazy, they took C and me to Continental for my first real shooting experience, definitely my first with my new shotgun. In retrospect, I should have talked to them at the beginning of the process, but there’s a lot in my life I should have done differently that I didn’t have the forethought to consider at the time. We rented a S&W 686 and hit the shooting line. I’d like to say that Jeff Cooper and Masad Ayoob laid their hands on my shoulders in blessing, but really I spent most of the time following directions and trying not to screw up. It was a lot of fun, but in the back of my mind there was still that nagging worry that I would do something catastrophically stupid in a moment of inattention. C was raised in the afore mentioned in-laws house and so had none of my hang-ups.

If there was ever a moment when I was going to walk away from the gun world, it would have been then. Although I had a great time, the process of getting to the range, securing assistance, worrying about my own safety and all the niggling details that google and wikipedia can’t prepare you for weighed heavily on me in the following weeks. Two things brought me through the process with a modest amount of enthusiasm. First, the people who ran the range were the most accepting and supportive teachers I could have asked for. Most people choke up around “the blind.” They just don’t know what to do. Do I talk to them? Can they think for themselves? None of that shit at Continental arms. It probably helped that I knew how genuinely ignorant I was and that I sincerely wanted to better myself in that regard. Still, they made sure I had the knowledge I needed and gave me absolutely no crap about not being able to see. It’s become a running joke now that I’m a regular there. I think they enjoy looking at people who ask about my presence with a blank face and saying something like “yes, and?” That supportive joking environment removed a lot of my selfconciousness as well as giving me the necessary tools to safely enjoy the shooting experience.

Second, B was my unofficial range buddy for those first few months. She was willing to try any gun. She calmly sat by as I tempered my book learning with a dose of experience. It was just “one of those things” for her, and that too put me at ease. Since then I’ve accumulated several additional shooting companions. But back then it was just the giant blind guy and the little Jew woman every week or two. I owe both Continental arms and B a lot for those early months as I very much doubt that I’d be where I am now without their support.

Now I have several years of shooting under my belt, I own a variety of firearms, and I am a congressional member at said range. Guns are one of my two biggest hobbies. While I do enjoy the act of shooting, the process of modifying, equipping, researching, and upgrading my guns is the greater part of that enjoyment. I’m one of the least probable candidates for the title of gun nut, but even so, the shoe seems to fit.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Orkid's Song, Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Part 1. Ezekiel, Thursday, June 4th. 7:30pm

He stood at the center of his domain. The teak rail formed a polished oval of oil, spell, and prayer. The boat was not as large as some in the marina; but what it lacked in sheer size it made up for in elegance. The 30 foot cabin was topped by a second smaller oval of teak railing which terminated at the bow in a wood and brass captain’s wheel. These too had been treated with the rituals of sanctuary and protection, rendering their inner circle doubly secure. Light illuminated various portholes, giving tantalizing glimpses of heavy wood furniture and thick carpet. This was his haven. The protection it afforded rendered it an island of soothing constancy in the midst of deliberate chaos.

He did not need these luxuries. The security of the marina, of his boat, of the social position he had earned were not necessities. They were a pleasant fiction crafted from wealth and guile. No, he did not require this fantasy, but he did enjoy it.

His business was centered upon foreign conglomerates which were not likely to hear about his proclivities or care were they to be discovered. His considerable wealth was distributed geographically, financially, and categorically. He was as secure as he could discretely make himself.

Slowly, he drew a curved dagger from his cane. The silver bird’s head balanced the weapon perfectly. This and the tattoo were the only remnants of his greatest folly. Even now he had to be vigilant against the legacy of that error.

With an economical motion he struck at a phantom opponent. He ran the ball of his thumb across the edge, drawing a thin line of blood. At the sanguinary touch, swirling runes seemed to swim to the surface of the black ceramic, chasing the crimson droplets.

Looking down at the instrument of his last resort, he knew that it was not his life that his pupils sought. They wanted completion of their instruction.

They would not come all at once. They would come to him as this first one had, probing and cajoling. Only in the last extreme would they resort to force. He smiled. They had known him as a formidable opponent in times past. He was more powerful than they could possibly imagine now. Let them come, yes let them come. He would teach them; though not the lesson they sought.

Part 2. Michael, Friday, June 5th. 8:45am

People don’t know how many times coffee has prevented tragedy. In my case, it is the restraining influence that keeps me from doing a little unscheduled cleaning of the gene pool. I think stupid people do what comes naturally whether I’m there or not, they’re just more likely to follow their instincts when I’m around. Whatever the reason, I got to work with a heaping dose of road rage on top of my headache. Aspirin seems to be less effective as I get older, or maybe the headaches are becoming resistant.

Whatever, I’m a big boy, I can take it. Anyway, I sat down to the glamorous job of a federal agent with a less than sonny disposition.

When you want to put the puzzle pieces of an event together, your best bet is to get as much data in one place as possible and then sort for common elements. People aren’t reliable observers. Your average citizen’s memories are tainted by what they want to have seen and by the details their mind fills in. Very few people are trained to remember event details in a precise and objective manner.

So, at 8:45am I was sitting in my office with my feet up on my desk, listening to a recording of a city patrolman questioning the neighborhood octogenarian. She just happened to be out with her little dog when my most recent victim decided to get up close and personal with public transportation. When Toto was doing his business she “saw the whole thing don’t ya know. Well most of it, from around the corner like.” At least she admitted that she hadn’t watched the event in 3d high definition.

I was starting to get into the swing of things, mechanically notating names, times, common elements, when the devil teamed up with Murphy to give me some really undeserved karma.

It started with someone whistling the theme to the Andy Griffith show outside my office. Then a smiling hulk of a man filled my door. He was balled with a huge handle bar mustache. His dark eyes twinkled with unnatural good cheer.

“Good morning Michael. It is a beautiful day no?”

“Sure Sanchez. Whatever you say.”

I paused the recording and looked at the guy questioningly. Julio Sanchez is either a want-to-be thug or a genius with really good taste, I can’t tell which. Today he was wearing a silk Tommy Bahama blazer, black slacks, a red polo shirt, and timberland boots that looked like they hadn’t seen a day on hard pavement. A single gold hoop pierced his left ear. Bulging muscles made his six foot frame seem larger than it had any right to be.

“I keep telling you Michael, the coffee; it’s no good for you. A little tea, a brisk five mile jog in the morning, you’ll be perfecto! I have your best interests in mind here Michael, especially since we’re partners.”

That did it. My feet hit the floor with a decisive thump. I leaned forward toward the idiot, murder in my heart, the fact that my boss was most likely downstairs providing my only source of restraint.

“We—are—not—partners. We have to work together, fine. I can deal with it. But, don’t you be saying we’re partners, because we’re not. You’re on special assignment for this project, that’s all.”

He grinned and walked over to grab one of my office chairs. He sat down and carefully checked the hang of his shoulder holster.

“The boss says we’re partners, we’re partners Michael. You’ll teach me the savvy ways of a special agent in charge. I will provide you with metric tons of fashion sense and suave sophisticated technical advice. Together we will save the country, break hearts and look oh-so-good doing it. Now, what are we going to do today?”

I opened my mouth to put this invader of my sanctum in his place but didn’t get to say anything before he barged ahead, one foot tapping incessantly.

“No, let me guess. I’ve read the case file, I’ve analyzed the evidence. Together we’ll infiltrate the occult adversary of the city. We’ll shake up a few of your informants on the street, I’ll be silent and threatening while you play good cop. We’ll interview the people at the hotel where the latest victim was staying, possibly a few single women in need of reassurance after yesterday’s tragic events no?”

I sighed, his enthusiasm putting paid to my anger.



“No. This is what I’m talking about man. You’re a scientist, a math man. What we do here, it’s not James bond.”

“Well of course not, he’s not as good looking as we are. And, we have bigger guns!”

So he wanted to be an agent did he? Well I could fix this little problem right now.

“OK. You want savvy special agent in charge, I’ve got just the thing. Follow me.”

I stood up and grabbed a few disks from my desk top and walked out the door, the prospect of finally putting Sanchez in his place adding a little spring to my step.

He and I, we don’t get along. He thinks my grumpy I’m-not-a-morning-person routine is an act. I hate morning people, really, seriously. He has this romantic view of what a special agent does. He buys expensive clothes, practices card games, says “Sanchez, Julio Sanchez” in the mirror, that sort of thing. Man knows his periodic tables, no question. But he thinks being a field agent is drinking martinis “shaken not stirred” and having a cup of Yin Hao with breakfast.

I grinned. Let’s see how he felt about being an agent after this.

---An hour and a half later---

“You know Michael; they have computer programs that take care of this kind of thing.”

“Shh, we’re getting to the good part.”

“Ah, the good part.”

Sanchez leaned forward, a fierce grin on his face, his eyes glued to the projection on the wall from the recorded security cam of one of the corner stores where my most recent victim had met his end. He looked like a kid at Christmas, waiting for his parents to bring out the really big gift.

He waited...and waited...and waited...

“Nothing is happening.”


“Michael, you said this is the good part.”


“You weren’t talking about the movie?”


“You’re a jerk Michael.”

“Sitting here, watching you, best part of sitting in an office chair for an hour and a half watching surveillance tapes.”

“You listen to music while you do this, play cards?”

“Nope, breaks your concentration. You might miss something.”

Sanchez turned away from the image on the wall and looked at me.

“Why? Working with me, I thought it was a good thing.”

I turned off the recording and rested my elbows on my knees.

“You ever get an intern?”

“Sure, all the time. Its part of working for the government, you have to Sheppard the young ones into flight.”

“Nicky gives you some critical evidence; do you give it to your intern?”

“Of course not. I do it myself.”

“Exactly. You are the king of the lab. You could probably beet me arm wrestling every time. I bet you’re the man when it comes to small talk, Doctor Sanchez and all that.

I got a job to do here man. I’d love to play Sherlock and Dr. Watson with you, but people are dead and Nicky wants this taken care of A.S.A.P. I don’t have time to screw around. It isn’t personal, it’s professional.”

Sanchez sighed and looked across the conference table at me. His shoulders slumped and his hands twisted in his lap. God, I love self-righteous ass kicking, but this was more like puppy kicking.

“You know why I joined DHS?”

“No life stories Julio, I feel bad for you but there’s not much I can do about it.”

He held up a hand to stop me.

“I want you to understand. When I got my second post doctoral degree, I had a choice. I could have started teaching or working for the private sector like most people at my level. There is much money in those areas, especially if you have cross-disciplinary degrees, which I do. I come from a poor family, and my father always used to tell me that if I was so smart maybe I’d help someone some day.

So, I joined up with DHS. I wanted to be a field agent, but they said I was over-qualified. You know, I blew all their tests out of the water, but they wanted me to play with peetry dishes and Bunsen burners. They wanted to say that Dr. Sanchez worked for them and isn’t that a long resume he has.”

He held his hands a few feet apart and winked suggestively at me.

“So I told Nicholas I was tired of being too smart and I wanted a transfer over to a field office. He told me that if I could make myself useful to you, then he might consider my request.”

I took a second to really look at him. He was fit and well dressed; the picture of what the agency wants their dashing young men to present to the public. His eyes were old though. They were intent on me, not begging or expectant. He was determined, focused, driven.

“Why’d you pick homeland security? You’re a smart guy. There are lots of other agencies where you could make a difference where the ladder wouldn’t be as hard to climb.”

“Some people, a war starts, they say they want to serve their country. They stick their chests out and join the coast guard or the fire department. Some people, they believe in what their country stands for, they join up, they enlist, they take the oath and ship out to fight the good fight. We need the coast guard, the firemen; they put their life at risk for others all the time. You know what I’m saying here?”

I nodded at him and made a motion with one hand to continue.

“I saw the towers fall, the burning pillars crumble. I want to be part of the agency whose name begins with “homeland.” I don’t want to sit in a lab and write up reports, I want to walk the walk and talk the talk. Lots of people say it; they want to serve their country. They just want to get promoted, to talk the talk. I can’t look in the mirror and tell myself I’ve done something worthwhile in the lab. Important, necessary, but not worthwhile.”

He lapsed into silence, holding my gaze. There’s not much you can say to that.

“You want to make a difference?…You want me to show you how to kick ass and take names so that Nicky will make you a full time field agent?”


“I don’t have time to be nice to you Julio. The I have a dream speech doesn’t mean you have what I need or that you have what it takes to do the job. Do you understand what I’m saying?”


“OK, I’m not Ramirez and you’re not Conner Macleod of the clan Macleod. I tell you what to do; you do it, no questions.”

He just shrugged and made a flicking gesture with one hand.

“You say jump, I say how high?”

“Exactly. So here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to go out for lunch. You’re going to get changed into a plane-Jane suit, something a little more government and a little less drug dealer. Then when I get back, we’re going to talk to a contact of mine. We set?”

“Can do sir.”

There was a little bit of mockery in the response, but not enough to matter.

“Oh, and Julio?”

He stopped, half way out the door, not wasting any time.


“Geek squad does make a difference, even if they do it with pocket protectors.”

“You have no idea how much we socially inept individuals value your high opinion.”

He turned and left. I stood up and made my way toward my favorite local spot for a liquid lunch. The word “partner” makes me nervous, but aid, apprentice, those words I can work with on a temporary basis.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Orkid's Song, Chapter 1

Part 1. Michael, Thursday, June 4th. 3:21pm

When people think ‘government agent’ I’m pretty sure my photo isn’t the one that comes to mind. I am, at best, unprepossessing. Basic stats are five foot six, brown hair, green eyes, and an off-the-rack suit that manages to look formal without style. If my appearance doesn’t get me confused with James Bond, my current assignment would definitely destroy the public’s preconceptions.

Auto accidents are noisy and annoying. Road kill is messy and filled with potential paperwork. Not profound I know, but that’s what was going through my head as the plastic sheeting was removed from the victim’s remains, or I should say alleged victim. That’s the danger of being a government employee, you start viewing every investigation in terms of how much effort it will take to close the file.

The assistant coroner started to say something in a tone that promised dire consequences. Distractedly I raised one rubber gloved hand and cut her short while looking down at the cause of my current headache.

Yoshiro Takamura had once been a powerful man. Now he was flat and dead, very much the worse for wear. Being hit by a city bus had definitively ended his life. The state of his corpus wasn’t what I was here for though. One dead foreign dignitary, no matter how powerful, was not something my office gets involved with. One dead man with a tattoo matching that of other recently dead dignitaries, all of whom have connections to a mysterious secret society, that my office takes note of.

I lifted the man’s arm carefully and looked at the inside of his bicep. The expected tattoo was there, the ink mixing with postmortem bruising to the point where the discoloration could be easily overlooked by an inatentive examiner.

“A bird, in flight through clouds, possibly a swan, marked in ink inside the left armpit. Victim is otherwise unmarked with the exception of the trauma from the collision.”

I spoke the words clearly so the recorder in my breast pocket would catch my observations.

“Sir, the autopsy is not finished. You are contaminating the process.”

Sara, as her name tag proclaimed, glared at me accusingly.

“Sara, what is, in your professional opinion, the purpose of an autopsy?”

“Well, obviously to establish cause of death as well as other peripheral details, relative to an investigation concerning the deceased.”

Her tone was what my mother might have charitably called Acerbic.

“Have you done a tox screen, taken pictures of the body, all that sort of thing?”

“Of Course. But I...”

“And in your professional opinion is there any question as to how this man died beyond the testimony of fifteen witnesses and three security cameras?”

“Well know, but that’s not...”

“Then Sara, let me offer you a piece of advice from one government employee to another.”

My voice remained calm and pleasant.

“When a federal agent shows up in your operating theater, asks to see a body, and starts taking notes, it’s in your best interest to give him what he wants. His presence means that there’s something about that body that a federal agency considers important. That means the agency wants you to do everything you can to get as much information about the situation as possible. If an agent, like say me for example, takes obvious steps to avoid contamination of the material, like say by putting gloves on, then that agent is trying to be considerate of your process. You’re better off giving them what they want. They’ll leave faster that way.”

I waved one considerately gloved hand at her for emphasis. I had what I wanted; there wasn’t any need to tick this lady off any further. I had more meaningful work to do than hassling a low level government drone anyway.

“Have a nice day Sara.”

“But sir, I don’t even have your name on the log...”

“Think of me as a ghost on a tax payer salary. I was never here, there’s no evidence I was ever here. I’m...The dread pirate Roberts.”

“The dread pirate who?”

As I through my gloves in a receptacle and exited the room I could hear her teeth grinding.

Puncturing peoples’ egos never loses its appeal; you just get better at it after the hundredth time or so. She deserved it anyway. I mean who doesn’t know The Princess Bride?

I left the morgue and retrieved my ride from visitor parking. The big SUV was one of the perks of working for homeland security. I investigate fringe groups who claim paranormal facility. Basically, my job is to keep tabs on potentially violent extremist groups who feel that they can do magic and bend spoons with their brains. Officially, my division does not confirm or deny the existence of the supernatural. We do however acknowledge that there are people who, as a result of their delusions, have the potential to do harm to their fellow man. It’s not as far fetched as you might think. A basic knowledge of chemistry combined with some showmanship can allow a person to do—magic—. People who think they’ve slipped the bounds of the physical world have very few qualms about slipping the bounds of the legal world; the more so when spurred to action by said theatrically minded chemist.

The morg had been my last stop before returning to the office to file the day’s findings. I was in a good mood. I’d taken the scenic route back to work, I had a confirmed clue, and I had put an officious functionary in her place. That is a good day’s work in my book.

HQ is a weathered antebellum home surrounded by shady trees and historic buildings. DHS rents it from the parks service, in a sort of incestuous tax sharing agreement. After parking my ride I crossed the whitewashed boards of the porch and went straight to my second floor office. My boss was waiting for me, perched like a malevolent garden gnome on the edge of my desk.

Nicholas Ragged is a dapper man, his suit cut perfectly, his tie knotted just-so with a Windsor knot, his shoes buffed till the distressed leather seems to glow. He’s also an honest-to-god midget.

“Michael, it’s about time. Sit down; stop looming over me before I report you to HR for creating a hostile work environment.”

His grin was honest enough to show that he appreciated the joke. His eyes weren’t laughing enough to let me get away with following his lead. Over the years I’ve seen him use his diminutive stature to put people off guard or at ease as it suits him, all the while bending them to his will. He plays office politics like Machiavelli with a charisma overdose, and he does right by his people. That’s about the highest praise I am capable of giving to a man who drives his employees as hard as Old Nick. I rounded the desk and sat in my office lounger.

“Agent, report.”

I hate those words. They mean school is in session, and its quiz time. I hate quizzes. You wouldn’t think a guy who barely tops four feet could intimidate a man a foot and a half his senior, but Nicky always reminds me of a little Italian lady I had as an English teacher. She just knew, without doubt, that she was the biggest, most dominant person in that room, and we all just believed along with her. Nicky is like that. He uses it like a weapon. I sat down and looked up at my boss from across the surface of my desk, the incongruity of his legs dangling over the edge seeming less amusing than it might have under other circumstances.

“I checked out the body at the morgue. Takamura matches with all the others, same pen-and-ink style tattoo, same lack of evidence of fowl play. I’ve looked over his personal effects, questioned witnesses, and I’m about to check the security tapes from the two corner stores and the ATM. Either someone is planting the ritual items, or we’re dealing with a professional hitter whose using techniques far beyond anything I’ve ever seen. The links between the deceased are solid as a rock, but, beyond the fact that they all have personal tattoos in the same style, they all were carrying possible ritual paraphernalia which doesn’t track back to any mainstream religion, and they were all of Japanese descent, all I’ve got is circumstantial. These people, they were all rich, powerful, well educated and in good standing. They seem to have had no contact with each other. Maybe there’s a link from their backgrounds I’m not aware of, the Japanese authorities have been reticent about disclosing personal details about their VIPs, but, there’s nothing solid that links them all.”

I remained at attention while my boss let what I had told him sink in.

“Sanchez is analyzing the ritual items for traceable materials and chemical evidence. The state department is, unhappy with our progress, but I’ve got them on hold for the moment. Someone is trying to discredit select Japanese businessmen for reasons unknown, we have a cereal killer on hand who has a taste for members of a cabal, or we’ve got some kind of gang warfare going on bushido style. I’m assigning Sanchez to you for the duration of this investigation.”

I groaned inwardly. Sanchez is one of the department’s best scientific investigators. He has multiple degrees in engineering, chemistry, biology, and physics. He also really gets on my nerves. I’m convinced that a person’s amount of coolness is inversely proportional to the amount of academic data stored in one’s gray matter. I could use him, but I was going to have to buy a muzzle for the guy and a bottle of scotch for me.

“Sir, may I ask a procedural question?”

Nicky didn’t blink, didn’t twitch, and didn’t move a muscle, even though he had to know what was coming.

“Go ahead.”

“What is our interest in this matter? U.S. citizens are not, that we can tell, being targeted, if there is any violence occurring in the first place. I grant you there needs to be an investigation, if for no other reason than the Japanese government would demand that something be done, but that’s not the point. I have three other investigations requiring my attention, among them the Hackman compound group out in Montana. This is stretching my resources thin for a case where the chances of murder are slim, our national interest seems limited, and—frankly—even if there is a terrorist cell in place here, they’re the ones going down. I need some guidance so I can best prioritize my resources.”

My boss gave me an approving nod, as if I had passed some test.

“This investigation, it gets your entire focus. There are, facts that I am conversant with that lend this case a much higher priority than any individual federal agency would consider appropriate. You do the work. You follow the clues. You don’t ask me questions about things I can’t talk to you about because neither of us has a documented reason to know about them. This isn’t a C-Y-A operation. Find me the evidence, I’ll get you the resources you need and keep the wolves off your back. That’s the deal.”

He said this all in a cold, matter-of-fact voice, never changing expression. It was creepy. My boss had just told me that he knew things he wasn’t supposed to, things that if exposed would put both our heads on the chopping block. We operate with limited invulnerability. Being an arm of the government established to deal with issues like 9 11 and being conceived with broad based authority to circumvent normal agency politics, our actions are usually under the radar. Being in a part of that agency that isn’t really taken seriously, jokes about investigating David Copperfield are the least of the abuse I take from my coworkers, well let’s say I generally am insolated from the front line stuff that normal agency pukes have to deal with. If you’re CIA, FBI, NSA or any of the alphabet soup agents, one of the tuff parts of your job is that the media, congress, and the public have a nasty habit of second guessing you after the fact. Sure you’re protecting them all, but good intentions, road to hell...etc. In an obscure branch of a well known but low profile agency, I just don’t have to face that sort of thing very often.

“Understood Sir. I’ll proceed accordingly.”

“Good. Get some sleep tonight Michael. This is going to hit the fan, and when it does I need you at full capacity. Anything less than 110% is unacceptable. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes-Sir. Like crystal.”

“See that you don’t disappoint me Michael. You’re a good agent. I have plans for you, plans I can’t put in play if you’re in the hot-box before a congressional oversight committee.”

He jumped down from my desk top and left without any further motivational comments.

“And here I thought he died in a bunker at the end of the war.”

I muttered the comment after I was sure the little guy was gone, and even then I made sure to keep my voice down. Sadly, my bravery only extends to the challenging of minor functionaries. Nicky is the real deal, and I am not so tired of this life that I want to tell him how much I love his people skills to his face. I don’t like being the departmental mushroom. In this case though, it was probably for my own good. Tomorrow was Friday and that always cheered me up. Even if I was likely to spend the day watching security tapes and reading through witness statements, happy hour was less than 24 hours away. That’s always a reason to be of good cheer in my book.

I closed up shop and drove home listening to some Mavis Staples and Bob Dillon. I was going to have that scotch and follow orders straight into a good night’s rest. The way Nick was talking, it might be the last full night’s sleep I got for a while.