Smoke and Mirrors


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Smoke and Mirrors

An HW Grady PI Mystery

By Jim Sells 

            Have you ever had one of those events that somehow change your view of the world forever? One came into my life on a sunny winter afternoon as I sat and considered my options for the remainder of the day while looking out of my office window. I’m an Atlanta, Ga. PI. I did a tour in the US Army as an alternative to jail at 17. Then I used my GI benefits to get a Criminal Justice degree. After some years as a cop and a failed marriage, I opened my one-man PI shop.

            Like I said, I was sitting in my office when the door opened and two guys walked in. The first was big and strong looking, in the farmer kind of way, not hours in the gym. The second guy was about 5’10” and lean without being strong looking. Their clothes were an attempt at a business look, but they didn’t quite match. Something told me foreign.

            “You are Grady?” said the first with a slight accent I couldn’t identify.

            “That’s me.”

            “You will soon have a visitor.”

            “Wow, you a psychic?”

            “I do not understand.”

            “You tell the future?”

            “I tell of what I know. A man will come you and ask you help. You help us instead, it will be worth more.”

            “So, you want me to double-cross a client that I don’t even have yet. That’s new. What if I say no?”

            “Show him,” ordered the man.

            The bigger guy started toward my desk. I stood and came around the desk .I wanted room to move. I could have shot him - my .45 was in my shoulder holster, but sometimes the challenge is more fun. I met him halfway, taking off my tie as I went. He tensed. We were interrupted by the other man.

            “I try do business with you. It is waste of time. You soon wish you do business. We go.”

I had fixed my tie and gone back to my options for the afternoon when a character dressed as a college professor straight from central casting walked through the door. The man was somewhere between fifty and seventy with a ruddy complexion that made a more exact estimate difficult. His hair was light brown and peppered throughout with gray as was the handlebar mustache that he sported. He was about five eight and heavy-set. He was in a tweed sports coat, corduroy trousers, a shirt with frayed collar, and a tie complete with gravy stains – none of which matched. An arm full of blueprints that threatened to escape from his grip completed the appearance. In an age of computers, the blueprints would be enough to get my attention.

            I took note of this since I had cultivated a certain look to attract upper crust clients. My suit cost as much as had made in two weeks as a cop, but I learned long ago to never judge a book by its cover. The fellow could well be a billionaire for all I knew.

            “Mr. Grady?” asked the man.

            I nodded and presented my best new business smile.

            “My name is Higgins – Professor Heinrich Higgins. I have a card somewhere,” he continued.

            The effort to locate the card caused several of the drawings to drop on the linoleum. They rolled across the floor to the couch where my Great Dane – Emma - was napping. She raised her head long enough to determine they were neither a threat nor food. She lowered her head with a sigh of disgust. 

            “Why don’t you take a seat?” I asked.

            He lowered himself into a client chair and two more drawings escaped. They came rest under my window. Finally he produced a card with a flourish and passed it to me. It said “Professor H Higgins, Technical Innovations” There was a telephone number.

            “If you’re trying to sell me technical services, I’m all fixed up,” I said after reading the card.

            “No, no – just the opposite. I wish to hire you.”

            I pulled a legal pad from my desk and wrote Higgins at the top of the page.

            “What do you need a PI for?”

            “These drawings are the culmination of a lifetime’s work and there are those who  would do anything to obtain them.”

            “And you want me to protect them?”

            “For a time.”

            “Until your product is patented?”

            “Until every last trace of my invention is removed from the face of the earth and cannot be recovered.”

            Now he had my attention. What could he have invented that he wanted to destroy without a trace?

            “I made some inquires before I approached you,” said Higgins. “You were a soldier. Yes?”

            If he’d been asking around about me, it could explain the two earlier visitors.


            “Do you know the story of the Gatling Gun?”

            I did vaguely, but shook my head.

            “Its inventor was a doctor during the Civil War. After witnessing the carnage he swore to make a weapon so terrible that it would end war. The Gatling Gun is the ancestor of the machine gun.”

            “And did you set out to make a weapon so terrible that it would end war?” I asked.

            “No – just the opposite. My partner and I set out to create a viable, non-lethal weapon for the battlefield.”

            “And you succeeded?”

            “In a sense. Many inventions have unintended outcomes. We succeeded in creating a highly portable weapon that is able to produce carnage on a great scale.”

            “Seems like we’ve got plenty of those.”

            “That’s true, but this one can be quite selective. You can set it to not kill your soldiers and it can kill everyone else on the battlefield.”

            “What is it? Gas?”

            “No, something more selective and efficient. It is an electronic device that works on the brain waves. Electronic Disruption Of Brain Activity – EDOBA for short. It simply commands the brain to shut down vital functions and death results in less than five minutes with total incapacitation in the meantime.”

            “And this has been tested – on humans?”

            “Initially it was tested on animals in the lab. Then animals on an experimental farm – both with great success.”

            “And it efficiently killed the animals?”

            “No, it worked as we planned. It simply incapacitated them for varying times related to their size and how sophisticated their central nervous systems were.”

            “But not on humans?”

            “There are places in the world where this is possible. We did not want to wait for the government route to approval. I had a partner who had even less scruples than I.  He took it to a dictator and tested it upon some of his opponents in that country. It worked well – too well. Don’t believe all the news stories that blame floods and earthquakes for eighty or a hundred dead.”

            “What happened?”

            “The device worked far past our expectations. They aimed it at a crowd of protesters – approximately seventy-five dead. It was supposed to disable – it did so to animals but human brain activity is much more complex.”

            “So you left a ruthless dictator with a cutting-edge weapon?”

            “Actually all he has is a box of useless circuits.”

            “How’s that?”

            “We programmed a fail safe device in the EDOBA. If the timer wasn’t reset every twelve hours, it sent a charge through the circuits and fried them. The dictator’s held my partner and tried to make him give them the plans for EDOBA. It didn’t work. However, he did not survive. They didn’t get the plans or a working device. I suppose my partner holding out was a form of redemption for our inventing the damn thing.”

            “How do you know what happened to him?”

            “Most information is available for the right price.”

            “So these are the plans,” I said indicating the rolled papers.


            “What do you need from me?”

            “The dictator has sent representatives to obtain the plans – it would greatly increase his power in the region. They cornered me in my apartment building and I think would have abducted me if a group of people hadn’t walked up. I need you to protect me and make sure he doesn’t get the plans.”

            “Why not got to the FBI?”       

            “I don’t want any government to have the plans or the device. The temptation to use it might be too great.”

            “So, what do you have in mind?”

            “I want you to guard me. We must take these plans and destroy them in such a manner that they cannot be recovered.”

            “Two men were here predicting your coming,” I noted.

            He described his would-be abductors. The descriptions matched.

            “We could have one of those shredding companies come to us,” I suggested.

            “That is fine as a first step, but I want to have the shredded plans and we burn them. Do you know someone you can trust to do the shredding?”

            I did. Higgins agreed and I made a call. They said they would have a truck there within the hour. Then I told about my fee requirement – a one-week retainer up front. My life style isn’t the top, but it’s not cheap. Higgins pulled out a roll of bills and peeled off the correct amount.

            “It’s odd,” said Higgins as he handed me the money. “I spent my whole life trying to make big money by misrepresenting some gadget – real smoke and mirrors cons. Then we manage to come up with a thing that could make us fabulously wealthy and I’m paying you to help destroy it.” 

            I helped Higgins carry the blueprints downstairs while leading Emma on a leash with the other hand – not an easy task. We waited in the building’s foyer until the truck arrived as promised. In short order, the blueprints were reduced to small shreds of paper. I exchanged cash for the bag of confetti. With Higgins holding the bag of paper in his lap, we drove to a metal working shop owned by a friend of mine. He has a small blast furnace used for hardening metals. In seconds the paper was turned to fine ash.

            “Where can I drop you?” I asked.

            “I wish it were that simple. There is one prototype of the device that must be destroyed.”

            “Where is it?”

            “On a farm that belonged to my father – about an hour’s drive from the city.”

            “Doesn’t it have the failsafe thing to melt the circuits?”

            “I’m afraid we did not have the foresight to equip this one in such a manner. It must be destroyed in person.”

            Great! - just when I thought I had a made a quick, easy buck. Although Emma would have enjoyed a trip to the country, I didn’t want her along for war games. I drove home watching my mirrors the whole time. I dropped her with my landlady and took time to change into cargo pants, boots and a flannel shirt. My suit didn’t seem a good idea for a farm.

            We hit the interstate. Midday traffic was light and soon the city gave way to the burbs and then to long stretches of open land.  I kept close watch in my mirrors but saw no signs of the two that had entered my office earlier. I hoped they were the only ones on the trail of the device. I exited about forty-five miles from the city and followed Higgins’ directions down a state highway and then a gravel access road. My Benz took the potholes well. Still, I wasn’t thrilled about driving it in the boonies.

            Higgins told me pull up to a dirt trail on the roadside. He got out to unlock and lower the heavy chain that blocked our way. It didn’t register with me at the time that he didn’t put the chain back in place after I got past. He climbed back in and directed me another half mile up the trail and over some rises to an old shed that showed signs of recent repairs. Piles of rubbish surrounded the structure at various distances.

We stopped and climbed out. The silence was heavy after the drive save the buzzing of insects and calls of unseen birds. Higgins walked directly to one of the piles of rubbish and pulled some vines out of the way that threatened to engulf it. Digging for a moment, he withdrew a plastic garbage bag.

“Sometimes it is best to hide in an obvious place.”

Higgins carried the bag into the shed. He withdrew a device that was about the size of a desktop calculator and had a similar keypad.

“The device has several functions that can be activated by codes entered with the keys,” he explained. “In our undue haste to test the device, we have not explored all of the options. It is possible to overload the device with its own pulse. We haven’t dared try that.”

Higgins paused. In the distance I heard a car traveling down the gravel road. The sound of the tires on gravel stopped about the entrance to the trail. The sound of the tires resumed and seemed to be coming our way. Suddenly the image of the unlocked chain flashed through my mind. I was starting to connect the dots.

“I have lured the men here. It must end now. I will overload the device. I have my brain waves encoded in the device. I may be able to survive. Perhaps not. Either way it ends here. You must leave. You have done your job. If you follow the trail ahead, there is a back way out.”

I started to argue. Then I realized that I was into something I didn’t totally understand. Instead I nodded and headed for the car. I pulled away as the sound of the other car reached the last rise before the shed. I followed the trail into the woods and wound my way through. I kept waiting for some indication of the overload. None came. I didn’t know whether to head back to the shed or leave. Without enough info, I left.

A close watch of the news and papers revealed no mention of the farm. I thought about going back out to the farm, but the absence of news might mean feds or a stakeout. I didn’t relish the idea of being charged with terrorism or espionage.

I got to thinking maybe Higgins was shining me on as part of some kind of con. I researched the idea of using a weapon against brain waves. Seems like various governments had been experimenting with it since the 70s.

A couple of months passed. I worked other cases. Then an underworld contact mentioned a new scam he had heard about. Seems some technology con artist had come up with an electronic device that could selectively kill insects by using their brain waves. Maybe Higgins had survived. I don’t want to think of even more terrifying technology  getting into the wrong hands. I just hope he stays with bugs.