Pimpernel: Chapter 1

Claire Ramsey only felt in control about 1% of the time.

Now was one of those times.

Alone in a private room on a concealed floor of a busy hotel-casino, Claire manned a device that looked a lot like a soundboard. However, rather than shaping sound, the 28 channels controlled expressions on the face of Claire’s avatar while two knobs on the right controlled voice pitch and respiration rate. A headpiece communicated Claire’s movements from the shoulder up, and she used a pair of specialized gloves for hand gestures. 

Thanks to technology, people who did business with Claire online never saw her or heard her voice. They interacted with whichever life-like avatar she chose for them based on their profile. Claire’s job was to sit in the highly secured room and control the avatar’s expressions and responses, almost like a video game.

The fact that the system worked so well was almost enough to make Claire forget how unethical she was being. Almost. The guilt and second thoughts came later. In the moment, she worried about only one thing: perfection.

“I have spoken with my best engineers regarding the premise of your proposal,” Chairman Li said on her screen. It was morning in China, evening in Las Vegas, but on the internet none of that mattered. Business mattered.

“And what was the feedback from your engineering team?” Claire said for her avatar.

Chairman Li’s lips pursed slightly in an unconscious gesture. “While fascinated, they believe technology is still decades away from being able to execute what you promise to deliver in five years. Are my engineers incorrect, Mr. Green?”

Claire used the controls in front of her to modify the expression on her avatar’s face. The “Mr. Green” Chairman Li believed he was speaking to now appeared to be a healthy mix of thoughtful and confident as he spoke the words Claire put into his mouth.

“We both know that progress must be incentivized, Chairman Li,” she said, trusting the software to modify her voice into the baritone British tones she’d chosen for Mr. Green. “Without incentives, I must agree with the assessment of your esteemed team. Hover cars are decades beyond current commercial technology, and there is little demand to change the status quo. This means current innovations are focused on accessorizing outdated designs from last century with desirable modern features. In English we have a phrase for that. We call it painting a turd.”

Chairman Li’s eyes squinted in momentary confusion as he waited for the transcript to translate the new slang word for him into Chinese. Then he smiled.

“Painting a turd, indeed,” he agreed. “The gasoline-based engine is not sustainable.”

Accessorizing cars with wifi and Bluetooth technologies was an industry Chairman Li knew well. His components were installed in hundreds of millions of cars, tablets, smartphones, and other devices around the world, earning his company billions. Those were his earnings with less than 1% of the pie. Now Claire was painting a future where Chairman Li wasn’t only in the business of providing components for cars, but also the roads they would travel on.

“The race track we will build here in Las Vegas will be the new NASCAR,” Claire said into the camera. “That is how we lure big players like Toyota, Honda, and Ford into the game. Races, sponsorships, awards, trophies? No one will want to be left out of such a high-profile TV event, and no one will want to come in last place. Companies will spend tens or maybe even hundreds of millions in research and development each year on an industry where you are a named pioneer with the microchips everyone needs to build tracks—then roads—of their own.”

The difference between appearing confident and arrogant often came down to nothing more than tension levels and chin tilts, so Claire took a moment to make sure that Mr. Green looked just right as Chairman Li mentally circled the hook she’d set for him.

She watched her latest investor’s face, her mind mentally mapping the tiny shifts in Chairman Li’s expressions by drawing mental lines between engaged muscles. It was a compulsion she didn’t really have control over. Her mind was always drawing lines over everything she saw—connecting dots, examining angles and noting when things had been moved, even slightly. Her mind often didn’t remember objects themselves, but the angles they made in relationship to the objects around them.

Once, on TV, Claire had seen a CSI team put up a bunch of strings to do a blood spatter analysis and determined that everyone must see how she saw. It hadn’t occurred to her that those CSI investigators were trained to painstakingly map those lines out, and that they used physical string because their minds did not compulsively draw the line for them every time they looked at the scene. So for years Claire thought it was normal that her mind mapped everything around her, including facial expressions.

Faces. Ugh. For years, those had been Claire’s kryptonite. Changing expressions had always made it hard for Claire to behave in ways her pedigree demanded. She never knew when to laugh or smile or shake her head in disgust like everyone else around her did. It made social events with her parents more than a little awkward. Her father wasn’t exactly Donald Trump, but he was heavily invested in New York real estate and Claire had been raised in high society. She’d just never fit in. In a world where words and nonverbal cues rarely matched, Claire had felt paralyzed.

Then she read a book on microexpressions and her world had changed. Suddenly the fluctuating lines she saw on people’s faces—faces like Mr. Li’s over in China—had a language she could decode. It started with the seven expressions that were universal across cultures: happiness, fear, surprise, anger, contempt, disgust, and sadness. Claire knew those lines well, and had quickly become obsessed with further mapping out other expressions and their interpretations.

When she started doing this as a teenager, she’d thought everyone saw how she did. In her mind, she was just the last one to the party when it came to figuring out how to apply mapping faces and body language to smooth navigation of social encounters. It wasn’t until college, when she’d participated in change- and inattentional-blindness studies performed by fellow students, that she learned how different she was. Literally no one knew what she was talking about when she spoke of the relational lines that connected everything in her mind. The more she tried to explain, the more blank stares she got.

So she’d stopped explaining.

The good news: Claire exhibited no change or inattentional blindness, which basically meant that her mind treated everything her eyes saw equally. Her mind noticed changes from one moment to the next, whether minuscule or massive. Hers wasn’t a photographic memory in the colloquial sense of the word. It was more like a computer that took picture after picture of every moment while instantly noting the differences between all the pictures.

The bad news: part of coping in a fast-moving world required a certain degree of change and inattentional blindness. Filtering out certain things—or even most things—was a coping mechanism for the brain. Constantly mapping and remapping surroundings like Claire did might make her a star in a lab environment, but in the real world it often left her paralyzed and overloaded.

To be fair, she hadn’t needed a college study to tell her that. Claire had been on OCD medication for half her life. Normal people didn’t pop those pills every day, so she’d always known she didn’t really ride the normal train. She just hadn’t known that she’d always been riding on the severely abnormal train her whole life without even knowing it, which was probably why she found the field of psychology so fascinating.

How did brains work? Why was hers different? How was it different? Could her unique perspective open a door to further understanding the human condition?

So far the answer to that last question seemed to be yes. Her Master’s thesis on the use of microexpressions in making successful sales pitches had made her quite the catch as a PhD candidate in universities around the world. Unfortunately, it had also gotten her caught up in the mess that had her sitting in a secure room using technology to convince a businessman in China that he was being handed the opportunity of a lifetime.

Just like all the finely dressed people at every party she had been forced to go to while growing up, Claire was pairing false words with confidence-building nonverbal cues to get Chairman Li to believe that in five years there would be an operational hover car race track in the middle of Las Vegas.

High society had clearly taught Claire well.

“You paint a very enticing vision, Mr. Green,” Chairman Li said, his eyes glancing to the side. He still had concerns. “I do not normally invest in long plays like this, but I agree with your assessment that a viable track could not be built any sooner than five years.”

Claire nodded, as did Mr. Green. “And, of course, location is paramount. A current Vegas landmark will need to be demolished so that this track may rise.”

“Of course,” Mr. Li agreed, the corners of his lips flickering up a bare instant before his face returned to neutral. “I confess I find this upcoming demolition most intriguing.”

“Many do,” Claire said pleasantly. “But you understand that the location must be kept confidential until it is announced publicly. Insider trading is highly prosecuted in America, and we have no desire to distract from our vision with news stories alleging corruption and controversy.”

Never mind that the exact thing had already happened. Luckily it hadn’t made international news yet.

“This is wise,” Chairman Li said with a nod, proving he had not heard of the arrest of Claire’s mentor.

“We believe so,” Claire said before using a glove to gesture to the file folder Chairman Li had next to his hand on the screen. “I see you received the list of current investors I sent over. You are welcome to research the companies whose reputations do not precede them.”

“I researched your list prior to today’s meeting,” Chairman Li replied. “Your current investors are quite impressive.”

“And if you join us, they will become your collaborators.”

Right there—that catch of breath paired with flared nostrils. The mental lines in Claire’s mind caught the involuntary show of excitement. She knew what it meant. It was the moment Chairman Li went from negotiating to being fully sold on the project. As high-risk as the dream track was, the chance to create such powerful relationships alone was worth the $10 million buy-in Claire was asking.

Chairman Li was in.

For a brief moment, Claire’s guilt snuck in and tainted the high of her success, but she pushed the guilt to the side.

Money was money, and it was never worth more than a life. At that moment, the life of her professor and mentor, Ryan Eastman, depended on Claire doing exactly what she was about to do. If she messed up—even a little bit—Claire knew she would be pulled back into the black SUV she’d been introduced to four weeks ago and be reminded what was at stake. Ryan’s life—and likely her own, although the man she now referred to as Mr. SUV had never said as much. He hadn’t needed to. Threatening Ryan had been enough, which meant feeling guilt about what she was doing was just a waste of energy.

Best to stay focused and get the job done. She’d worry about the money later. Right now she needed to keep Mr. SUV happy.

Claire adjusted a few channels on her control panel and moved in to close the deal that would make Chairman Li the newest investor in a dream track that would never be.

CHAPTER 2 ->>>