The Substitute Sleuth launch!

She’s a Wacky Comedian. He’s a Gruff Detective. They Fight Crime!

The Substitute Sleuth - Genrenauts Episode 4 cover

Today, Genrenauts continues with Episode 4 – The Substitute Sleuth.

This episode draws on contemporary police procedurals like Castle, Psych, Lie to Me, White Collar, and others. It puts Leah Tang on the spot in a big way, and dives into Angstrom King’s backstory. It also kicks the season into high gear as we barrel forward into the season finale.

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The first season of Genrenauts will conclude with The Failed Fellowship, the two-part finale, coming in October!

To whet your appetite, here’s the first chapter of The Substitute Sleuth:

 

Two months into her job as a Genrenaut, Leah Tang had learned to expect the unexpected. Most jobs had a routine, even if that routine was “random things will happen.” That had been the rule at her last gig receptionist-ing; she’d had to deal with oddball callers, walk-ins of senior partners’ exes, and more.

At Genrenauts HQ, a morning might begin with a four-mile jog, interpreting dimensional stability reports, or a pop quiz about TV upfront trailers and their cultural implications.

Or in this case, a wake-up call at six AM from her phone’s You Are Always On-Call For Work app. She’d scurried into the HQ as fast as possible.

Now let’s just hope Mallery doesn’t see me before I can put on some makeup, she thought. Things were awkward with the team’s comedienne after the two of them had shared a Rom-Com World–derived moment of tantalizing Almost Something at the end of their last mission.

As she walked into the team’s ready room, only King and Roman were present—a small consolation prize from fate.

Angstrom King wore a suit coat with cravat and ascot, looking entirely too posh for nine-o-clock in the morning. Roman de Jager wore his Versatile Dress Units, the generic basic clothes the Council approved for a variety of story worlds. He was jogging on his treadmill, one earbud in, his attention doubtless divided between the conversation and some audiobook. Roman was the poster boy for multi-tasking. She imagined the slogan—Get Caught Multitasking.

“Probie,” King said. “Tell us about the process of auditioning for an improv comedy troupe.”

Leah had largely stopped responding to King’s non sequitur questions with ‘What?’ and instead just rolled with it.

“What do you need to know?”

“HQ just assigned us a mission, despite the ongoing dimensional disturbance. It’s a softball—recon team traced a minor breach to a comedy team in the Police Procedural region of Crime World. We’re deploying for a quick fix.”

When a breach erupted in a story world, it started to cause ripples back on Earth. Which was why the Genrenauts even had a job—fix the breach, stop the ripples, protect Earth.

For Crime World, the ripples were pretty simple—more crime. Shootings, robberies, and more. The teams responsible for the various regions of Crime World had a high clearance rate, which was why the overall crime statistics had been going down over the years, not up. If they screwed the pooch, that dropping rate would rebound.

She’d had seen the scare tactics projections of what would happen if a team stuffed a mission. They ranged from fracas to unmitigated disaster.

Leah nodded, leaping to the challenge. “No sweat. I’ll roll in to the team and sort things out in an hour. I was a team captain in college, as you’ll recall from your somewhat invasive recruitment research.”

King adopted the grin of the knowing professor. It had to be one of his favorites. “Oh, I recall. But that would be too easy. This is a softball breach, so I’m going to take the opportunity to help you develop your Masterminding skills.”

“So, I’m going to wear a fancy Bond Villain suit and play the baddie? Please let that be it.” Leah’s mind launched into a ridiculous montage of knock-off spy villain hijinks, complete with sexy hench-people in Lycra.

Leah heard Mallery York before she saw her, the telltale clicking of the woman’s heels turning the corner into the room. “We’ll have to save that for next time, though I do love the titles in that region. Last time I got to be a marchessa.” Mallery smiled as she passed into the room, wearing several layers like she was about to head out into the snow.

With a full face of camera-ready makeup, Mallery was either more of a morning person than Leah or used High Council super-tech to be made up at all hours. More likely, she’d just gotten a taxi to work and put on makeup along the way. Leah tended to avoid that approach after an incident with lipstick up her nose. The memory made her wince.

“Alas, no. You’re going to be coaching Mallery as she auditions for the troupe that lost their prop bag, except a family heirloom ring.”

“What incompetent excuse for a comedian would put an heirloom ring in a prop bag?” Leah asked. You never tossed anything into a prop bag you couldn’t stand to do without. Or at least, do without becoming stanky as hell and covered in unidentifiable muck.

Leah continued, “Also, who would steal a junk bag but leave an actually valuable ring?”

“That’s the breach, as far as we can tell.”

She narrowed her eyes at King. “So, you’re going to bench me when my actual specialty comes up and I could score a slam dunk?”

“We’ll be using your specialty. But every operative is required to be prepared to serve multiple functions during a mission. You’ll Mastermind this patch while I show you around the region to help you start to develop some contacts. Crossing in T minus twenty minutes. Help Shirin get us squared away. And pack for a blizzard.”

Leah looked briefly to Mallery. The comedienne was packing a makeup and disguise kit. Leah angled for a moment to talk with her before they went into the field, before yet another genre’s rules would be pushing and pulling them around like puppets. But King and Roman were in earshot, and if she was supposed to help Shirin Tehrani—the other member of their team—pack and get to the ship in twenty minutes, there wasn’t time for anything.

Including freshening up.

Dammit, boss.

———

Mallery led the team into the Police Procedural region field base with a “‘ta-da” for Leah’s benefit.

Here, they maintained a two-bedroom lofted apartment in a neighborhood on the rise, again more affordable due to Story World financial logic.

Mallery walked into the center of the living space. “Now, I’ll admit that this place doesn’t measure up to our last field base.” Part of it was the genre world itself—even the glossier version of Crime World they occupied here wasn’t as bright and inviting as some of their other bases.

She gestured to the wall, with team photos in frames against exposed brick, then the super-modern fixtures in the kitchen. “But I’ve done my best. I’ve added personal touches for everyone—an elliptical and a gun rack for Roman, a comfy reading chair and four-monitor work station for Shirin, typewriters and a teak desk for King, and a full vanity for me. Makeup and disguise work, of course. We’ll have to get something here for you. What would be fun—maybe some comedy props, remind you of your roots? Or a writing desk? I would have gotten to it earlier, but…”

Mallery waved with her still-cast-bound arm. So many things she’d fallen behind on. And missed out on getting to know Leah. They’d gone straight into the Rom-Com mission with hardly any time to get to know one another, then she’d pushed Leah into an intimate linked cover. What did she expect would happen, on that world of all places?

They’d talked since coming back, but hadn’t had That Talk. She didn’t always have That Talk. Sometimes she got to dive straight into the confusing joyfulness and then come up for air later on to discuss what was really going on. Mallery wanted to give this dynamic some time to breathe, reevaluate and see if there was real chemistry outside of the gravity of Romance World. They’d settled into the electrifying holding pattern, each seeming to wait for the other to make a move. It sucked, honestly.

And if Mallery’s radar was working—and it was always working—then there was potential. Yes, potential for team drama and what King called “operational inefficiency” if things went poorly, but fear had never kept Mallery from following her heart. Or much of anything else. The unlived life isn’t worth examining, after all.

And now they were back in the field and paired up again. But this time, it was in Leah’s specialty. That’d be good for Leah, more for her to hold on to, more to work with. When Mallery had been recruited, she hadn’t really gotten her feet under her until their first comedic mission, a farcical case of mistaken identity. So many slammed doors, so much wordplay.

And unlike this region, so little murder.

“This place is amazing.” Leah beamed, looking up to the lofted area. “I live three times as fancy on these contemporary missions as in my apartment at home. And that’s the new, badass-Salary-enabled place, not my old rinky-dink hole in the wall place on the east side.”

“Thank you. Some people,” she said, casting a faux-mocking glance at King, “don’t appreciate the morale boost that attentive design can produce, but why can’t we have fun while we’re working? With a job like this, we have to remember not to lose our sense of joy.”

A jerk of a voice in Mallery’s mind hijacked her train of thought. But just wait until something goes wrong. Who’s going to get hurt this time?

That voice had gotten stronger since she got hurt in the shootout in Western World, had been her bedside companion throughout recovery, even when Roman came to visit. Mallery gave the voice the vaudeville hook and focused on the moment.

It’ll be an adventure, right? Mallery told herself, trying not to let the nerves show.

King rolled his suitcase to an ottoman and started unpacking with practiced precision. “That’ll do for the tour, Ms. York. Everyone get squared away quick. We’re diving straight in to on-the-ground recon. Leah will brief Mallery, and then we’ll move to first contact.”

———

Leah unpacked at warp speed to give herself time to freshen up, but tried to do it in a way that wasn’t too obvious. Just a basic natural look and a soda out of the fridge, shotgunned just as King called the team to assemble at the dinner table, an eight-foot-wide twenty-first century version of the Round Table, complete with cushy chairs and a circular touchscreen computer in the middle. Mallery slid into a seat to Leah’s left with a smile, the comedienne just as pressed for time.

“How can I get one of these for my house?”

“You don’t. Proprietary Genrenauts tech.”

So the Council did own tech patents. Another puzzle piece clicked into place. She restrained herself from playing around with the table’s OS, making a note to do so later.

Everyone pulled out their tablets, and King began.

“Briefings are in your inbox. Council did flag this as a breach, even if it’s minor. The Second City Irregulars’ prop bag has gone missing. However, the heirloom diamond ring that stays with the bag did not disappear. Smart money says that’s our breach. The ring belongs to Lauren McGill, the longest-running member of the troupe.

Leah opened up the briefing, paging through background dossiers and the police report.

King continued. “Police filed the report, but our sources say there’s little chance it’ll get assigned resources. The troupe has turned on one another and is coming apart at the seams. Two members have already quit.”

“Hence the audition slot we’ll use to get Mallery in,” Leah said.

“Precisely.”

“I’ve seen things like this happen. Hell, I’ve been in it. You spend that much time being other people and yet nakedly yourself with a group, it becomes this big weird knot of intimacy and uncertainty.”

Leah pointedly did not look at Mallery during that part. That’d be a bit too on the nose.

King continued, laying out the case like a police captain who was also a professor in a seminar. “Normally, there’d be almost a 100% chance that this was a prank pulled by one troupe member on the rest, a take-your-ball-home kind of thing. But if this is pinging our breach alarms, then there’s got to be something else to it, something out of genre. What are some ways that theft stories break?”

Roman twirled a stylus while he swiped through the dossier. “Low-hanging fruit would be that the ring was supposed to be taken, but they forgot it.”

Shirin jumped in. “Or that it wasn’t even a theft—it was an accident—someone grabbed the wrong bag, or it got thrown out by the janitor.”

King took over once more. “The police not investigating makes sense in the real world, but here, there’s any number of plots that could start with a theft and end in murder, putting it right into the core of the genre. That’s one thing we’ll need to look out for. Which also means that Mallery will be going in armed and ready.”

Mallery patted her bag. “.22 caliber bodyguard, a girl’s best friend in Crime World.”

King gestured at the two more senior team members, “Shirin and Roman, you work the case from the outside in—get me information on the police record and a history on the troupe—their venues, reviews, rivals, etc.”

Then at Leah. “Leah, you brief Mallery on what she’ll need to know to ace the audition, then meet me downstairs. We have some scouting to do.”

Watching King’s expression—neutral, authoritative—Leah swallowed the full plate of questions and objections about the way this mission was playing out.

If this was going to be a training mission, then pushing back would just make her seem obstinate or afraid. Eventually, she’d need to just know things. Which required asking questions. But at the right time.

“Get to it,” King said. The team broke, leaving Leah and Mallery at the table.

She turned to the comedienne and psyched herself up. She’d kick this mission’s ass, prove herself to King, and keep from embarrassing herself in front of everyone. Especially Mallery.

If I can’t do this around Mallery, I should just quit and then ask her out. And if I quit, I can’t afford the amazing apartment and pay off the rest of everything.

So, just do it.

A moment passed, and Leah pushed through her resistance and started talking. “Comedy troupes are looking for two major factors when adding to an existing troupe: they want to know that you can hack it and that they can get along with you. You’ve already got the acting chops, so what I can do is give you a breakdown of some popular improv games we used for auditions.”

“Got it. Then, when I’m in the spotlight, it’s down to reading them and seeing what they want.”

“Yep. They’ll probably ask for credentials, so we’ll need to work up some believable fake comedy experience for you. I assume we have the same hacker-y tech on this world for fake IDs and all that jazz?”

Mallery cracked her knuckles, spinning the tablet around into a demi-laptop. “Boy, do we. Crime World means we can hack from here to the Pentagon and back before dinner break.”

Normally, that would be kind of disconcerting, but they were doing it for good reasons. The heroes in Crime stories broke all sorts of rules in order to save the day, and it’s not like they were actually cops. White hat hacking was a whole different world from a cop breaking regs left and right.

“So, games-wise, here are the top three I’d expect to see…” Leah broke down several improv games, focusing on her screen to avoid staring too deeply at Mallery. Of course, the reflection in her screen meant that she could do both without being a creeper. Much of a creeper.

Leah stopped, confirmed that there was no one else in the room. Good. She closed her eyes, and took a long breath. “Should we have that conversation now or later? Because I’m distracted as hell and it seems like this is the mature thing to do. So, I figured I’d at least ask so it wasn’t hanging over us like a Romantic Tension Sword of Damocles.”

She opened her eyes to see Mallery’s face gone serious. “We should. I’m sorry I didn’t bring it up earlier. It’s probably better to do on Earth Prime. This mission shouldn’t take more than a couple of days, so we won’t have to wait long. How about a half-hour after we get back? Even if it’s late. We can hit the commissary and then find a place to talk in private. There are some pretty delightful hidey holes I use when I need to get away.”

Yes. This was sensible and mature and responsible. It didn’t help them in the short term, but it made sense. Leah cursed herself for not having done this before they deployed, as now they’d be treated to another mission’s worth of uncertainty, but this was a plan. They had a plan.

“So, like I said, they’ll probably throw these games at you…” Leah wrapped herself in the familiarity of improv and put Damocles out of mind for the time being.

It was a good plan. But Leah had learned on the job that your first plan almost never survives contact with reality.

The Substitute Sleuth - Genrenauts Episode 4 cover

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