Genre-Bending the United States Census: Suspense

When I began my Lessons Learned from the United States Census series, I had started with the idea of plots based in the ordinary and made more interesting through how they were treated. A post not long before that, though, had treated with the idea of taking a completely normal element and re-imaging it into a plot that turns out a bit more ‘interesting’.

And when you’re spending several hours a day walking around neighborhoods standing in front of doors, tapping a screen, and occasionally trying to reduce the awkwardness of handing someone a confidentiality form when you haven’t necessarily asked a question and thus haven’t gotten any answers that would thus be classified under Title 13—well, one way to pass the time is to start re-imaging what you’re doing.

What got me on this one was thinking about the oft-referenced Title 13. As I’ve explained before, the premise is simple: the Census needs to count everyone, but there are a lot of people whose relevant information could be used against them. As a result, a lister is not allowed to divulge Personally Identifiable Information to anyone, even law enforcement or one of the intelligence agencies. That’s Title 13 in a nutshell, and even two-week Census listers are sworn to it.

And as we all know, not being able to get information across is a useful trait in suspense stories. Where can we go with this? (The names are, of course, not set in stone, and certainly not borrowed from existing people.)

Lister Perry I. Idlewild just thought it was one of those difficult addresses, the ones where the house has back apartments but one’s designated with both ½ and a letter and the other has just a letter, so you have to go to the door to check for sure. But the address itself had a secret far more sinister than a designation which wasn’t quite in the manual. (The fun part about the secret is that it can involve just about anything: drugs, sex, violence, supernatural creatures, secret identities, embarrassing baby pictures, combinations of the above…) Just how much Idlewild saw or heard doesn’t matter; the important part is that someone who wants this secret kept knows that the lister’s been by and, having not shown himself and thus not gotten the form that says his secret is safe for 72 years (or not believing in the confidentiality, or having a lifespan long enough that 72 years is too short, take your pick), thinks he’ll need to take extreme measures to ensure silence.

His first attempt to silence Idlewild was a failure, but while Idlewild is alert to the threat on his life, he doesn’t even have a gender for his potential assailant, might not even have a motive, and only has an address Federal law forbids him from sharing. Idlewild calls in favors from a few more action-oriented friends, but it’s only a stall—can he stay out of trouble and unmask his stalker himself, or will he have to betray the oath he swore to his government to save his life? Who is this person, and (possibly) what is he trying to hide?

The best part is that while it can allow for a lot of variation in its setting, this one’s pretty mundane by genre-bending standards. I have stranger.

What do you think? Could you see this as a plot?

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