More from the diary of Jennifer Stanza, found near a dumpster in Dallas:

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November 16

My boss is a pig. He expects everyone to call him ‘Chaz’. Nope. This morning, he asked me to bring him a coffee while looking everywhere but my eyes. What, am I his concubine? Fuck no.

Easy task, ridding the Accounts Receivable Dept of him, better relieving the earth of his dead eyes and slurping looks.

Tiletamine.

Jess told me it’s something they use at the vet clinic on horses and big goats when they get unruly. Chaz is unruly.

I can’t just get it from Jess. Can you see me?

“Hey Jess I need some of that tiletamine stuff.”

“Cool – here ya go.”

That’s conspicuous. Or it could get that way in a jiffy.

I only need about 100cc.  And a big ass needle for the push.

That guy Jess sells it to has been sniffing around. I could let him diddle in my underwear a bit and then take it from him while he’s in an afterglow coma. He wouldn’t notice it missing. He buys a ton.

Chaz asks me out for lunch, coffee, happy hour, about once a week. I say, “no, thanks,” and he ribs me about my overprotective boyfriend. I don’t have one, but he thinks I do. And yet, he persists. Creep.

I could take him up on a happy hour, carefully. I’ll drive. Get him in the car, on the highway. Make his think he’s worn me down. Yuck. I’d rather drink bile.

While at speed, I’ll stick him with a fat dose in his flabby thigh. He’ll freak out for about 20 seconds. What’s he gonna do? Smack me? I might like that – definitely deserve it, but after a few bitch-slaps he’ll mellow a bit and drool.

Key is to leave my phone at home, stick to my pattern. They will find his phone pinging off the towers around the Miller road bridge, but they’ll never find his body.

Throwing a wrench in my story: POV

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Hello, Friend.  My story has changed significantly over the last six months. One major shift is my hero’s POV. He’s now written in first person. Here’s a little taste, somewhere around chapter 6 of The Dimming. Enjoy!

 

The streetcar moaned down to slow shag in front of the colleges, across from Audubon Park. Daggers on the cathedral spires pierced the arbor blanket and disappeared. I hopped off the car. Churches, in the old century, gave people hope. I needed more than hope. I needed a friendly face. I did not have the courage to call Olivia. Not yet.

Under foot, the marble steps leading up to The Holy Name of Jesus felt solid, unwavering on the muddy foundation. I pulled on the thick doors and let the scent of old wood and sweat wash over me. I dipped in the holy water.
My sneakers’ rubber soles squeaked as I snuck in, amplified by the cavernous shape of the building. The pews stretched out in aggravating symmetry, perfect with even wear where centuries of foolish-faithful backsides had left their marks. Stained glass drew blobs on the tile. Father Labone presided over a congregation of four, now five, from the altar. His face lit as he saw me. I sat and waited.

Father Labone’s droning Latin cuddled me back to my days in school. Andy and I used to sit in the pews just behind the confessional and listen to all the sins of our friends. All the lies. All the bullshit. It’s funny how, when confronted with the opportunity of complete absolution,  we still lie. In the sixth grade, a boy we grammared with named Kyle used to finger-bang the hell out of Anna-Maria Knox after school. As two consenting children, it was not a big deal. Not until his mom found out. She made him promise to confess. Kyle agreed. Yet in the confessional, all he gave up was that the used to kick the neighbor’s cat when no one was around. Anna Maria didn’t believe in confessions. Kyle died trying to scale the Hanja wall a year later.

 

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Labone. He would have the answer. He would understand.

After the worshippers filed out the side door, the good vicar motioned for me to join him. He disappeared into the sacristy. Whirring from the organ compressor vibrated the floor and the player warmed the pipes with chords in D minor. The guts of a Catholic church are most beautiful when empty. I walked up the steps, preforming the requisite genuflection as I crossed paths with the cold stare of the wooden man on the wooden cross. I ducked through curtains of thick velvet. Cool piles brushed my skin.

“Father?”

“Back here,” A muffled Labone replied.

Labone disrobed while I waited, revealing his obligatory uniform of a priest’s collar and faded jeans. He was never a proponent of rules. In school, he taught us that bad words were just words like any other. I thought he was so crisp back then, so cool and even. A man of the cloth needs his vices like any other man. Be it profanity or flesh or mind altering substances, we all need a thing that we do in private, just to feel like something, anything, is our own.

He pulled me in for a firm hug.

“What brings you into the church today, Ethan? How’s your father?”

My face must have answered his questions as I retreated from his embrace. His expression changed before I could even muster a word. “He’s gone,” I added to the thick buzz of the organ. Lacrimosa flowed from the pipes.

“I’m sorry for your dad. I was half-expecting him to pass on his last rights, anyway. He was an obstinate fucker,” Labone chuckled, “I trust it was quick?” he trailed off.

Quick. Was it? Or did I push him out with pain and dread? I added that to my list of unanswered questions.

“Fancy a smoke?” Labone walked down three stairs at the end of the room and unlatched the heavy door, pushing in outward. It creaked and dragged the ground, adding to the arc in the marble.

A smoke sounded nice. I hadn’t been out of my mind in a long while. I followed him through the door and up the musty stairwell three stories, winding to his chambers. As an altar boy, I had wondered what was behind the big brown door, where Father Labone disappeared after Mass. Now I knew.

His one room cell was small and simple. Bed, sink, toilet. The single window in the south tower overlooked the brittle crust of The City. He pulled up two chairs in the center and we sat. He packed a bowl of hash. I studied the grain in the wood underfoot.

“It’s older than the trees on St. Charles,” he said, clinking his lighter against the dove-shaped glass pipe.

“What is?”

“This church, and everything in it,” he lit, “A survivor,” he said with strained breath as he pulled in a chestfull of grass. He coughed and continued, “It’s nice to have someone to smoke with. I mean, being a clergyman exempts me from those little microscopic mechanical nightmares you have swimming in your blood and allows me to enjoy things such as this without repercussions. But with whom? Who the fuck wants to smoke-out with another priest? And Sister Cecilia is such a Goddamn prude, I can’t even get her to play mahjong, much less get high. It’s just me and the floorboards around here. Quite lonely.”

He passed me the bong and I hit it.

Sorrow for my fellow citizens oozed out in the release. For most, this act initiated immediate vomiting, ringing in the ears, piercing headache. Even though I had deselected the consequence boxes in my firmware, the first pull always made me pucker. I held it in, letting my lungs absorb, pushing back the urge to cough. A cough forces the chemicals, skipping the best part of the high – the gradual fade into depollution.  I blew a column out and up. I shut my eyes as Labone took the pipe and resumed his THC-induced soliloquy.

“I’ve started to wonder, you know, why – why I ever got into this business. Back in the day, before the walls and the one-in-one-out populous act, I felt I was doing my part to keep us all honest. The idea of a loving, but firm God used to be enough. Like a stern parent. He loves you, but he will beat your ass till it bleeds if you step out of line. But he still cares. I’m beginning to question, you know, to ask myself, in quiet, if he is even listening. Much less if he cares.”

I opened my eyes a pinch and watched him load another bowl. He leaned in.

“You okay, Hammond?”

“I’m good. Just taking in the thrill.”  In fact, it felt like I was meeting my hero for the first time, only not in the traditional sense. More like I had walked in on him taking a dump.

Labone turned up the volume on his words, “everyone knows God is an astronaut, man. He’s out there floating around in some sort of a prehistoric space-suit, wishing he could do something about this petri dish of horror shows and unthinkables. But he’s stuck like you and me. You and me and all of us. He’s not coming to help us and, I think, the people are starting to figure that out. You saw my congregation today. Empty faces, the few that came in. Same ones every day. This place is one missed payment away from becoming a museum of what we used to believe. That would get people in the door. But only to laugh at point at the fools we all once were.”

Labone took another rip on the shimmering dove of happiness. I’d never smoked with him and the results startled me. No longer did he stand with confidence and answers. He slouched in his chair, spilling his guts about his doubts, about everything. The only way we can know if our heroes are fit to be heroes is to see them from the inside and look out through their eyes. Labone had given me a glimpse of life through his lens. Scared, unsure, and alone. He was like me. He was me. Can you be your own hero?

 

“Dr.” Ruby Ackerman

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Hello, friend. Interested in stealing a child from a hospital to save her life? Somewhere near the midpoint of my book, I show how…Enjoy!

Ruby continued to interrogate Dr. Dorian. Charles tapped away at his screen and listened.

“So what will her treatment regimen be, at the CDC, I mean?” Ruby pressed.

“I can’t speak to that. I’ll be honest, when the CDC takes over, everything goes classified. Off the record…she’ll be studied inasmuch as she will be treated. My guess is that they will stabilize her and try to test the capability of this technology. I’m sorry.”

“She’s a small child. That’s not right. We have to get her out of here.”

“We already have the NOPD guarding her door. It’s CDC protocol. You did the right thing bringing her here. You should take Mrs. Michaels home so she can get some rest. An official will be in touch with her when more is known about her condition.”

“Wait, her mother won’t be going with her?”

“I’m sorry. To reduce the risk,  family members are not allowed to accompany the patient.”

Dr. Dorian looked at his device and swiped a few icons. “I have to go. I have other patients. Good luck.”

Ruby plopped down in a waiting area chair and slumped over, her elbows on her knees. Charles sat beside her.

“Listen. We need to get Diana out of here right now.”

“Where would we take her?”

“This may sound a little – twitchy, but -I know the guy who designed the virus…or at least something like it. Just talked to him. He said he could help. He knows how to fix her. We have to get her to a dead zone.”

Ruby turned her head, spinning her messy, aqua pig tails, to see Charles.

“So, let me get this straight. You want us to break her out of here – Illegal.  Take her to a place called a dead zone –Scary.  So the guy who made her sick can work on her some more – Horror. Movie. Are you insane?”

“Ruby, we don’t know each other that well, but you can trust me. You do trust me, right?”

“Well, I don’t think you are a bad person or anything, but I don’t think taking her to a Leecher is a good idea. Diana could die. We could go to jail. This whole thing is bad.”

“What options do we have?”

Precious walked in, cloaked in an invisible cloud of nicotine and ash, through the front entrance. Her face stained with tears and sadness, she collapsed in the chair next to Ruby.

“Thank y’all fo bringing us down here. She doing better now but doctor say they gon take her away. Why they gon take her if she doing better?”

Ruby replied with deep breaths to find an air of solace. “She is very sick, Precious.”

“I don’t trust these doctors, wanting to take away my baby girl. They got a policeman at her door. I don’t like the poe-lease telling me I can’t see my baby.”

Charles got up and knelt on the floor in from of Diana’s mother. He took her hands in his.

“There’s another option. I know where we can take her to get her healthy.”

“Ain’t dis a good hospital?”

“Yes, Precious, but…”

“Where you want to take her? To see a new doctor?”

Charles looked at Ruby as he spoke, “He’s not a doctor,” scratching his head, back to Precious, “he’s more of a scientist. But this thing that’s wrong with Diana is his specialty.”

“Charles, you a good man. I know you do her right, but how we gon get her outta here?”

“Sit tight. I’ll be back,” Charles stood and turned his attention to Ruby.  He motioned for her to follow. “Walk with me.”

“I’m still not comfortable with this, Charlie,” Ruby said. Charles laced his arm in hers and pulled her along.

They took a quick pace through the swinging doors and made a lap around the nurses’ station. Bustle and commotion engulfed the octagonal arrangement of standing desks anchored by a multicolored jumbo-tron of patient specifics hanging from the high ceiling. Radio chatter from incoming ambulances and the distant sound of a crash cart in use took up the spaces between voices. Eight hallways of rooms jutted from the center allowing doctors and nurses to navigate oncoming traffic with the efficiency of a roundabout.

“Diana’s room is down that hall,” Charles whispered as he walked and pointed with his elbow, “See the officer sitting on the bench? He’s your mark.”

Under agitated breath, Ruby asked, “My mark? What do you expect me to do?”

“You know, smile. Chat him up. Distract him so I can sneak Diana out, and her mom into that room. We can stuff Precious in the bed. Might buy us some travel time.”

“Chatting is one thing. He’s right by the door. I don’t know about this Charlie.”

“I have faith in you. I’m going to bring Precious up to speed and pull the van close. See you in five.”

“Five? Ugh.”

Charles left Ruby standing in the nurses’ station among the blurs of scrubs and white coats. We are Diana’s only chance. She spotted the staff break room at the end of the hall opposite Diana’s, and like she owned the place, walked through the door. Nurses sat at a round table, eating and gossiping. Ruby walked past them undetected, hoping to find a dressing area where she might borrow a disguise.

Around the corner, she hit pay dirt with rows of lockers split by a wooden bench. At the end, a large cloth hamper on wheels overflowed with dirty scrubs. She looked to make sure she was alone, and dug in to find a suitable doctor’s coat.  Padlocks hung on many of the cabinets, but an unsecured cubby housed a stethoscope and clipboard. Ruby was set. As she walked past the mirrors on her way out, her reflection caught her eye. You look ridiculous. Out came her contacts and on went her glasses. She pulled her blue hair back and formed a sensible pony tail. The lab coat covered most of her ink, but rose petals and ivy still showed. With a big exhale, she blew a dangling tendril from her forehead. A doctor can have blue hair, right?

Ruby peered around the doorjamb from the breakroom to watch the cop as he sat on the bench. He was a large man, greying and with a kind face. His hands sat clasped on his belly while he watched the goings on of the busy hall. Ruby needed an excuse to pull him from his post. Give me a sign. She watched. The officer picked his nose. He checked his phone. He wriggled a finger in his ear and then smelled it. He rubbed under his chin and scratched his scruffy five o’clock shadow. Glands. That will have to do.

Ruby looked to make sure Dr. Dorian wasn’t around. She navigated the path around the hub to Diana’s hall, looking busy and down at the clipboard to avoid discovery. Two nurses sped past her in a rush. One slowed and spoke to her.

“Doctor! We have a code in 319.”

Ruby froze and fidgeted.

“Doctor? Code in 319!”

She felt a hand on her shoulder. A smooth male voice said, just above a slow whisper, “First day?” She spun around, startled.

“Um, yes,” avoiding eye contact, “still trying to figure out where everything is.”

The owner of the hand was a tall thirty-something doctor with blonde hair and a strong jaw. He seemed to use every muscle in his face to form a comforting smile. He eased a velvety but firm command at another passing physician to handle the code in 319. Ruby let out a breath of anxiety and pulled in another.

“I’m Dr. Post. Zigmund Post.”

Ruby let slip a nervous chuckle.

“I know,” he added, “my parents hated me. You are?” He extended his hand.

“Dr. Ackerman. Ruby. Hi.”

“Welcome to Charity Hospital. I’m guessing you did your residency at…”

With a quick inventory of known hospitals, Ruby blurted out, “Tulane. I’m sorry….I need to get to my patient. It was nice to meet you.”

Ruby scurried toward her destination and the doctor beckoned, “Wait.”

She stopped near the triage area and turned. That’s it. I’m done. Do I run? No. You can get yourself out of this. Oooh, he is pretty though. Focus, Ruby!

“Dr. Ackerman?” The doctor began on the tail of a light jog, “Would you like to grab some coffee after your shift? I could show you around.”

Yes. Yes I would love to, you big beautiful man.

“Um, I would love to…but…I can’t.”

“Some other time, then.”

Dr. Post finished with the same nice smile and disappeared down one of the hallways.

“Guuurrrl!” From behind the counter, a nurse addressed Ruby with a tick-tick and a head shake. “I see you playin’ hard to get wit Dr. Post. You go girl.” She winked at Ruby and went back to her task.

Ruby shook loose the fantasy brewing inside her brain and got back to work. Charles emerged from the waiting room with Precious and they took seats on a bench down the hall from Diana’s door. Ruby walked past the sitting policeman and pretended to stop in her tracks with surprise on her face.

“Excuse me, officer.” She stood over him and waited.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“I hate to be presumptuous, but have you had that knot on your neck looked at? I noticed it when you came in.”

The officer scratched his scruff again and nodded left and right. “I didn’t know I had a knot. What do you mean?” The officer stood.

“May I?” Ruby reached to touch his throat.” Excuse the cold hands. Any history of cancer in your family?” She held eye contact with the man, hoping he failed to notice her black framed glasses had a pink Hello Kitty on each side.

“Cancer? Well, some yeah. Why?”

“Open wide. Say Ahh.” Ruby looked in the man’s throat. “Hmm. Let’s get you in some better light.”

“I can’t leave. We have a quarantine here.” He thumb-pointed over his shoulder.

“This will take one minute,” Ruby said with authority.

She dragged the man, by his uniform shirt, into the next room and clicked on the lights, propping the door open. She stood behind him, on a stepstool, and felt of his glands like her doctor did during a routine exam. She turned him with his back to the open door and had him look at the ceiling while she felt around. Nodding at Charles, who appeared in the hallway, she asked the man to swallow and kept the exam and conversation moving.

“Any fatigue? Soreness? Trouble finding the will to get out of bed in the morning?” Don’t over sell, Ruby.

“Doctor, I feel fine.”

“Can’t be too careful.” Ruby grabbed the otoscope from the wall mounted rack and fumbled with the power button before clicking it on. She looked into one ear, then the other.

“I’ve never seen a doctor with blue hair – and tattoos. What is your name?”

“Ackerman. Dr. Ackerman. Okay, well you have some gland swelling. You should get it checked out with your internist.” She clicked the instrument off and the officer walked back out as Diana’s door came to rest on its latch. He took no notice and sat back on his bench. Ruby walked with a wide gait down the hall, to the waiting room and out the front vapor doors. Charles waited in the van. She opened the passenger door expecting to hop in and found little Diana in the seat. Ruby scooped her up, sat down and shut the door with the girl on her lap. Rex howled from the back and Charles sped off.

“What a performance, Roobs,” Charlie said, “You are full of surprises, today!”

“Thanks. How long till we get to where we are going?” Ruby read the thermal strip on Diana’s wrist. “She still has a one-oh-two fever.”

“We gotta cross the lake and find my friend, Ethan. He will take us where we are headed from there. Maybe an hour or so.”

Ruby shut her eyes and cradled Diana as she slept.

 

Car Chase

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Hello, friend. Who doesn’t love a good car chase? This one occurs about 110 pages into my story. In this scene Ethan, my hero, is forced to deal with the reality of his new life. Reader beware…its about 4K words, so get comfy.  Enjoy!

 

Ethan eased the Falcon out of the garage and followed the road back to the gate. He stopped short of the fence and sat watching the windshield take on blots of sunset tainted purple and yellow water. The wipers made little headway on clearing the glass and beat a dull rhythmic thud as they chased the drops away just to repeat and begin again. The v8’s low rumble and a faint scent of hydrocarbons brought Ethan back to his childhood. He had spent many days and nights in the passenger seat of that very car, with his dad in the driver seat, just watching him be his dad and learning how to be a man.

His father would talk on things that Ethan failed to understand, but the tone, the inflections, the body language taught Ethan more than words. Some of his wisdom did stick, though.  Ethan Senior held these things in high regard: Family. Helping the less fortunate. Hard, honest work. And Family. He made Ethan memorize it. Everything you do must begin and end with Family.  He shook the bittersweet memories from his skull and eased his car under the raised security gate. He gave a wave to the camera knowing that his image would be obscured by the rain and that Andy wouldn’t be looking for it even if the weather were less severe. Andy was still angry, but no less a friend.

Under a pounding storm, Ethan made his way through the winding back roads from Andy’s bunker to the main highway. He took the same route back toward the city. The power on the 55 had been knocked out during a traffic accident the prior week. Wet weather had prevented repairs and, as a result, the street lights and cameras had been off line. The Falcon hummed a musical exhaust note and the tires flung sheets of water into the wheel wells and onto opposing lanes with a harmonic rush that vibrated the solid, old chassis. Ethan listened to the sounds and felt the rumble through the steering wheel. His mind raced.

He turned on the radio to distract himself. Ethan was tired of thinking. It hurt. The local news stream droned on in the synthetic voice of a British female. “…the death toll is expected to rise. Officials with the Center for Disease Control have isolated the origins of the killer vaccine to a clinic in the southern part of New Orleans. A vaccine for the latest strain of the influenza virus is under investigation and the vaccination process has been ordered halted until testing can clear the remaining stock of the drug. In other news, police are investigating the murder of twenty-four year old Loyola University student Lindsey Martin. Her body was discovered this morning by commuters in a train restroom on the east bound NORTon line. NOPD refused to share details of the killing, but did identify Codatech employee Ethan Hammond as a person of interest. So far, Hammond has alluded contact. Any information on his whereabouts should be…”  Click. Ethan shut off the broadcast and gripped the wheel with all the power in his hands. He could not get away from his upended life. Everywhere he turned, there it was, taunting him. Staring him down.

Before he had the opportunity to process what he had just heard, a distant pair of headlights pierced the rearview mirror. A chilling wail accompanied the approaching white eyes.  Ethan let up on the throttle. The lights gained on Ethan and shared the middle lane with him. The center of the road held the least amount of water during a storm due to the engineered crown, so Ethan remained and waited for the fellow traveler to either pass or light him up with red and blues. He clicked on the hazard indicators and slowed his speed. He tapped the brakes to illuminate the dim-by-comparison lamps on the back of the Falcon. The lights behind him overtook the rearview, saturating the cabin with daylight intensity. Ethan changed lanes to let the car pass.

Behind him, the follower changed lanes in accordance and flashed high beams in a frantic pattern. Ethan dug his device from his jacket pocket and performed a perimeter scan. The car showed to be unregistered and not of NOPD origin, though it was on-line, on a mission, and hauling ass. Closer still, the chaser continued to flash lights and follow inches from the chrome bumper of the Falcon. He could see two occupants in the car behind him. One wore glasses.

The streaked bolts of water on the side windows reflected Ethan’s device screen in a lightning pattern of ultraviolet blues. The engine revved as the Falcon’s brick-aerodynamics pushed its way through the cone of oncoming wind and rain. He could not outrun a modern Carbon Foam Capacitor powered car. The instant torque, all-wheel drive and very high tolerance for long, high speed runs dwarfed that of the old combustion engine that powered Ethan’s hot rod. He mashed the throttle and the exhaust pipes bellowed a building guttural groan as the rear tires gave way to the over lubricated pavement and spun an eerie howl before finding traction.

He felt a push and clunk as the follower made contact with the Falcon.

Who did I piss off? It’s not the cops.

The back end slipped to the left and then the right, fishtailing and weaving, trying to find a groove. Hot tires smoked and slid as Ethan hung on and kept the loud pedal planted to the panel. He watched in his rearview as the chaser overcorrected in his wake and skidded to stop on the shoulder. The Falcon pulled away from the mysterious car and Ethan didn’t let up. Five miles at full burn clicked away in the rain.

Ethan’s device buzzed. A Comm from Charles Jordan appeared in his contact lens. He blinked it away and held fast to the task of gaining a gap on the chaser. A series of texts from Charles populated in his periphery. Ethan asked himself, why would Charles hit me up on a Saturday night? I haven’t heard from him in a year.

He looked in his rearview mirror, then at the sideview. The car’s lights had disappeared into the vortex left by dirty waste the Falcon spewed behind. A flashing lamp on the dashboard indicated that the Falcon’s engine had entered a stage of protest and would be taking measures to shut off stages of power if Ethan didn’t play nice-nice in a hurry.

He let off the pedal and a backfire popped as the car slowed. Dammit, I need to get to the office. He pulled off the highway onto the feeder road, stopped the car and shut off all the lights. The car needed to cool off if he was going to make it to the other side of the lake.

While the engine sputtered and shook the car, Ethan thought about sending an anonymous message about the suspicious car to the NOPD traffic compliance department. Not the best idea considering recent information. The idea that Max could be behind it sank in further than he would have liked. If not Max, the cops were either involved, or knew something. He scrolled his contacts and found Officer Dredge’s e-card.  Something about Dredge was off. He decided against a call to him. Ethan pinged his GPS location and logged a description of the unprovoked events in his notes. Though he could not describe the car’s specifics, he just knew that it was white and devoid of anything resembling style.

While he waited for the car to cool, he checked his messages. Charles had sent him a series of Comms, so he tapped those open first.

20:21 Charles: Hey Ethan, not sure if you remember me, it’s Charles Jordan from District Animal Rescue.

20:22 Charles: I also run the Food Packs non-profit. I told you about it at St. Joe’s bar like a year ago. Remember that night? When that nutty woman went all mean-drunk on us?

20:24 Charles: You said I could call you if I ever needed anything

20:25 Charles: I need help

Ethan remembered liking Charles, but he had bigger fish to fry. The Falcon’s temperature gauge pegged maximum. He shut the engine off and sat in silence. He could smell the hurt, like burning plastic, it made his eyes water. Light clinking sounds of metal cooling under his feet were a good sign that the temperature was headed in the right direction.

Ethan looked out the window and squinted to make shapes in the dark. The landscape around the car could have been anything. The map on his device screen showed small houses and a chicken processing plant to his right. Across the highway, an open field split by a gravel road lead to a hydrogen plantation and another small farm. Power must have been out to the whole area, not just the highway; not one light, the sea of black liquid surrounded him. He might as well have been marooned on an island.

In his head, he replayed the conversation he and Andy had that afternoon. Am I next on the list? Did I hurt Cosmo? What happened that night? The rain slowed to a mist as he waited for the car to give him a go-ahead. He got out of the car to inspect the bumper and stretch his legs. Ethan was concerned about the taillights. Even with the advent of landfill mining, old car parts were getting hard to find. The solid bumper showed no sign of impact. Lenses, still intact.

A distant whine like the mating calls of killer whales broke the silence.  He turned to see what was making the horrid racket. A pair of headlights breached the imagined horizon Ethan had left behind minutes before. It had to be the chaser again.

Ethan’s lights were still off. The Falcon was silent. Maybe they won’t see me, he thought, they will just roar on by and I’ll live another day. He got back behind the wheel and waited.

The chaser cut through the sheets of saturated pavement at speed. Ethan ducked down below the bottom of the door window sill as if to hide himself from sight. The white egg-car approached the exit with lights on full bright, and Ethan squinted as the quick flash of the triangular beams caught a shiny edge of the Falcon’s metallic red paint.

The siren of electric power stopped with an abrupt thud, and red brake lamps lit the landscape red as it slowed to a stop and spun, heading the wrong way up the entrance ramp, just beyond the exit where Ethan hid.

The Falcon’s engine was nowhere near cool enough for action, but Ethan turned the key anyway. Click. Click.

Who wants me dead?

Click. Click. The engine was not the original fossil from the Old Century, but still it had hundreds of moving parts that needed to work together.

Click.

The chaser crested the exit ramp hill, and its headlights illuminated the sky as Ethan began to sweat and curse his decision to drive the old clunker so far from home. What was I thinking?

He tried the key again, with the pedal on the floor and a noise like a rotating coffee grinder grated his ears.  With smoke shooting from the fenders and grill, the v8 roared to life, and Ethan jammed it into first gear without letting off the gas and let his left foot slide from the clutch. The engine roared and fueled the tires’ angry protest. As the Falcon’s cabin filled with artificial light, Ethan banged second gear with fervor.

The chaser sped full bore at the Falcon. Ethan had played chicken on bicycles as a kid, but never in a car. A virtual light bulb illuminated in his head. If is how they’re going to get me, I’m taking these fuckers with me.

He aimed the Falcon at the white lights with his foot planted on the accelerator. Tires bellowed blue-white smoke and shot out water spray and chunks of spent rubber stuck to the quarter panels. He cinched his seat belt. He grabbed third gear. He said I’m Sorry to Kevin for leaving him to Andy in his will. He white knuckled the wheel and stared down the lights.  He braced for impact as the oncoming orb shifted direction and the vehicles traded paint. A chunk of something shiny broke through the passenger window and landed in the backseat. The impact sent the Falcon rushing into the grass.

Clumps of dirt and weeds coated the windshield and chucks of dense debris hammered the underside as the Falcon rode waves of unimproved field down an embankment and back onto solid tarmac.

Ethan felt shots of pain pulse through his lower spine and abdomen. Without lifting off the throttle, he sawed the steering wheel left and right to straighten the car’s course and clicked the wipers back on. They smeared mud on the glass, making visibility even worse. Through the haze, what he could see of the front end of the Falcon appeared intact.

In the rearview, sparks followed him as a broken piece of something dragged the pavement. Ethan skipped fourth gear and slid right into fifth, his right foot flexing the floor panel with intent.  Lights on the dashboard blinked, and strange noises and smells filled the cabin. The car’s engine control module took matters into its own hands by reducing power output two miles up the road, just short of the next exit ramp, and slowing the Falcon down to limping speed. The engine idled and sputtered with an accompanying clanking noise.

Not a good sign.

 He stopped the car, got out and old-man-shuffled to inspect the damage. There had been contact, but it just took off the door mirror and bent the chrome front bumper into a crescent. Some trim was missing and the paint scraped. Overall, not a death sentence for the old bird. Seems as though the chaser lost his nerve at the last minute.

Where was the chaser?

He looked to see a fat rat dragging his flaky tail down the shoulder of the highway. It stopped to chirp some inaudible nonsense at Ethan. He looked up to see the chaser approaching at high amperage, following the grooves made by his grinding descent.

He moved as fast an injured man could and hopped into the driver seat. He had time to put the car into gear as the chaser’s headlamps made contact with the passenger side door.

Time slowed. Ethan gripped the wheel and gear shift. The passenger door bulged inward. A symphony of mechanical whining and metal crumpling played in the foreground. Screws popped from their holes and bits of door glass peppered Ethan’s face as the egg-car made its way into the Falcon’s cabin. Ethan felt the wet plastic bumper of the chase car against his arm as it pushed him away. His head grazed the roof support on his way out. Weightlessness. Darkness.

*          *          *          *          *

Olivia knelt by his bed and kissed him on the forehead with tender lips. She spoke, but her voice met him with syllables of fright and fear in low tones not belonging in her sweet mouth. Her body evaporated before him and the illusion melted.

On his stomach, he lay on the road among bags and debris flickering in the raging heat from two cars that had become one. He tried to blink the images away. Under the crackling and hissing blaze, the screams of a dying man trapped in the chase car chilled Ethan’s skin. The roar of fire gave off a hint of thermal comfort. Water steamed up from the polycrete surrounding the wreck and resulted in a growing dry spot in the highway.

Ethan pushed himself up on his elbows and tried to move his extremities. Everything still seemed to work, but his wrists felt tight. His head hurt. The knees of his pants were stained bloody with small rocks embedded in the skin and burned like hell as he moved to a crawling position.

Confusion lifted in small bits. He didn’t have time to shut his door. The impact had thrown him from the Falcon and it was now facing north, still on the southbound side. Or is it facing south on the northbound side?

His car burned as he watched. The gut wrenching death pleas of the fading man waned and stopped. Another man lay twisted, not screaming or moving near what was the crinkled hood of the Falcon. The Falcon. It was his dad’s car. What had he done?

Ethan stood and walked toward the flaming wreck to listen for life.  He made his way closer to the chase car’s cabin and the heat overtook him. Ethan cupped his hands to prevent his eyebrows from singeing and he smelled burning hair. Is that my hair, or his? Who died trying to kill me?

Ethan turned away and blinked his lens to command it on. It responded. His devices all showed to be near. He patted his pants, found his handheld and pulled it out. The screen was not functioning, but it blipped on-line and he put it back in his pocket. The signal jammer Andy had given him was still around his neck. He hobbled around the wreckage and picked up his satchel. The drives were still inside. As he scoured the white-lined highway for the rest of his belongings, he located an employee pass-badge on the ground and reached to pocket it, finding his already there. He pulled it back out and saw it belonged to an employee of Fuller Labs.

He looked back at the wreck and then at the badge. Fuller Labs, Andy was right. The road still had clues to offer, but NOPD would be en route soon. Ethan made quick work of gathering all the drives and devices scattered from both cars and stuffed them in his bag.

He scooped a few power cells and pieces from the street and ended up back at the wreck, fire still burning, not showing signs of diminishing. He lens-scanned the face-down man on the roadway. No vitals.

Ethan gave him a weak rib-kick to be sure. Still nothing. He bent and touched the man. His skin felt dry and warm. He poked him in the fat of his back and took a step away. He had never been this close to a person who died a tragic death.  Ethan looked around and down both directions of the highway. He was alone. The only way this would stop was if they, whoever they were, thought he had been erased. He understood what he had to do.

They want me dead? I’ll give them dead.

Ethan bent, rolled the man over, and compared him to the photo on the found badge. His nose and left ear were missing, leaving meaty holes, but even with glazed, wide open, blood coated eyeballs, he resembled the man in the picture. His left arm bent in an unnatural direction and the ball of an exposed humerus glistened with a pink glow in the firelight. He had a wedding ring on his hand.

This was someone’s husband. Someone’s dad, maybe.

Ethan knew what it was like to lose family.

He took a step back and sized the man up. They were about the same build and height. He took his Codatech badge out of his pocket and dropped it on the ground, out of the reach of the fire. He put the Fuller pass in his bag.

Ethan felt the nape of his neck and scratched bits of dried blood from his Stemjack.

This has to be believable.

He picked up the man’s right hand and felt in the webbing between his thumb and first finger. His RFID chip was there. It had grown deep within the fatty tissue. This was a company man. Ethan dug in his bag for pliers and went to work on the hand like a child on a knuckle-deep-nose-picking expedition. The jaws of his tool found the chipset and, with a yank, pulled it out. He dropped it and the pliers in his bag.

The last thing he remembered before the impact was grasping the gearshift lever. It had broken off and landed in the floorboard of the Falcon. The shaft was about the right gauge for what he needed.

Ethan stood and pulled his jacket over his head to guard from the heat and stuck a foot in to kick it out. It slid across the road. With his jacket sleeve, he picked up the hot metal, walked to the body and rolled it back to its stomach. He straddled the dead man and sat on his back. He looked up at the purple, pulsating night sky and shouted, “I don’t know if anyone is listening, but this guy is already dead.”

I need to buy some time.

With a handful of hair, he pulled the man’s head back.

Charles had his Jack ripped out.

With the antique white handle ball in the palm of his open hand, Ethan thrust the sharp end of the gearshift into the soft of the dead man’s neck, just below the skull. He let go of the hair and reached around and jammed three fingers into the man’s mouth to feel for the end. The tongue, swollen and arid, made thigs difficult. Half-expecting the jaw to clamp down and bite, he made quick work of guiding the point just to the top of the dry roof.  He yanked his hand out, shaking off invisible saliva. Making sure it penetrated deep enough, he twisted and then removed the lever. Blood oozed and brain matter stuck to the threads on the end of the shaft. He tossed the shifter into the fire. Ethan rolled off the man and onto his butt and fought back the urge to vomit.

Can’t leave any part of me here.

Using his legs to push the dead body into the front floorboard of the Falcon, Ethan immersed him in the flames. The sole of his right shoe took a lick of fire with it. He shut the front door as far as it would go and walked up the embankment, stamping out the trail of melting rubber. He stood atop the exit bridge and watched the emergency lights of distant rescue vehicles breach the darkness. A Barred Owl landed on the railing next to him. Ethan looked at the bird and it looked at Ethan.

“What?” Ethan asked.

“Hoooo,” the owl replied.

“You saw nothing.”

The bird spread its wings and flapped away. After removing the power cells from the devices in his bag, Ethan slipped through a fence and let the mothering blanket of nighttime hold him close.

The Dimming – Chapter 2

Standard

Hello, friend. As promised, here is my working chapter two. Enjoy

 

2. Clocked In

 

Andy gathered the remainder of camera disabling devices Cosmo had left behind and swept the apartment for bugs.

While he waited for Andy to finish, Ethan sat at his terminal and ran daily reports, replied to his messages and checked up on his team. One thing stuck out as odd. Robert Chang, his senior developer on the Lens project, hadn’t pinged in thirty-two hours. Rob sent in data packages for review every hour, on the hour, sometimes into the late evening. He was a workhorse. Ethan checked Rob’s status. It showed him offline for almost forty hours. This did not jibe with his workaholic style. Ethan felt the sweat on his back wick into his shirt and form a dark ‘T’ between his shoulders. Something was wrong.

“The place looks clean. We need to see how long these caps have been on. Let’s see what’s on the server,” Andy said from the hallway.

Ethan swiped the rightmost screen to life and pulled the video surveillance timeline bar to seven days. He paused before hitting the play button.

“Why did she – or whoever it is – use caps on the cameras? That’s the lowest tech, clunkiest way I can think of to block a video feed. They had to pull the dome off to put them on. Wouldn’t a pinch have been easier?”

Andy walked in and plopped down in the club chair by the window. He had a bag of chips in his hand.

“We would have seen a pinch on our hardware scan. It affects the voltage drop. Sometimes, the lowest tech solution is the most effective.” He wiped his cheesy hands on the arm of the chair and pointed his thick sausage-finger at the monitor. “Let’s see what we got.”

Ethan tapped the play button in fast-forward. Seven days brought the eight paneled feed back to the prior Thursday. They watched as Ethan moved from frame to frame on the display. He spent most of his time in front of the screens or walking around the apartment, dictating his messages through the Lens. At eight o’clock, he left the apartment.

“Where’d you go?” Andy asked around a mouthful of chips.

“The Pelican. Every Thursday. Pint and a Po’boy.”

“God Dammit Ethan.” Andy crumpled the bag shut. “What have I told you about patterns?” He spat crumbs as he spoke. “This is how they get you.”

“I’m a creature of habit. Can’t help it.”

Andy shook his head.

The weekend and the next week drifted by in a blurred twenty minutes. Ethan watched his life, at speed. It looked pointless and repetitive. He did the same thing every day, almost down to the hour. He drank the same number of cups of coffee. Ate the same food at the same times. He wore the same pairs of jeans on the same days, all week. No dates, no friends, no fun. He only left the apartment three times. Once for groceries for himself and Miss Francois, his elderly downstairs neighbor and landlord. Once for the Pelican. Once to check his mailbox. He ran his company from the comfort of home.

“Here we go,” Andy said. He moved to the edge of the chair.

The time stamp read 20:06 on Thursday. Yesterday. A figure walked up the back stairs and to Ethan’s door. “Is that you?”

“No. But whoever it is has on black Chucks, jeans, and a white t shirt.”

Ethan’s black Converse sat at the foot of the bed. He was wearing last night’s attire, a white T and jeans, same as the guy on the screen.

The intruder used his own key to overcome the lock and within seconds was inside, punching the code on the alarm pad. He slinked like a panther, with movement smooth and deliberate, like he had been in the apartment and practiced. He knew all the blind spots. He did show half of his face, for a moment, each time a camera was capped. He was older than Ethan, with curly hair and crow’s feet. Eight cameras, eight seconds. On the last one, he winked right into the lens.

Ethan stood and paced the floor, hands on head, hardwood oak creaking as he walked a well-worn line. The intruder knew the apartment like, if not better than, Ethan. Hell, Ethan didn’t even know where all the dead zones were in his own security layout. The guy dressed like him and was of a similar build. If anyone saw him at ten feet or more, they would think it was him. Someone was trying to make his life hard.

Andy found a way to close his gaping mouth and said, “okay, that dude was in and out of here before you had time to get on the streetcar. Professional job.”

“I know.”

“You need to call this one in. Let the NOPD handle it.”

“Why do you think he winked at the camera?”

After seconds of silence, they looked at each other. Andy came up with the words Ethan was thinking.

“He’s not worried about getting caught.”

Kevin slept on the rug. Only the rhythmic grinding of his purr pushed the silence away. Ethan watched the grey fur rise and fall and wished, for a moment, that he was a cat. Cats have it made.

Thud. Pop. A sizzling, a noise like the frying of fat strips of bacon, with a similar aroma, filled the room. Ethan’s bank of three screens flickered. Kevin jumped from his slumber and darted into the hall.

“What’s that smell?” Ethan asked.

“Pull the cord to your terminal –  It’s your power supply – quick,” Andy barked.

Ethan dove to the floor and found himself in a cloud of electronic green-smoke. Holding his breath, he felt for the wall and yanked all the cords he could get his hands on.  The thickest one wouldn’t release. He tugged harder until the socket came out of the wall. Losing his grip, he felt around for it in the haze and grabbed bare wire, giving himself a jolt of electrons. Acting on instinct, he released the carbon dioxide in his lungs to fuel a scream of pain. The opposite reaction pulled in a mixture of air and wasted PC board resin. He coughed and crawled backwards until he hit the opposite wall. The fog grew white and cumulus as Andy finished the machine off with a kitchen fire extinguisher.

“Didn’t see that coming,” Andy said as he opened the windows in Ethan’s office. “

Ethan sat on the floor, back against the wall. Kevin crept into his lap and sneezed. Ethan stroked his fur. The stench of burned electronics coated his nostrils and his clothes. He needed a shower and some food. Fresh air. He needed to think and process. Andy’s theories of the evil insurance companies or PETA death agents did not add up. Ethan’s own secret fear that the NSA would catch on to his game drifted away. The NSA would not play spy games with him. This left questions, not answers.

Ethan stood. Kevin jumped down. “I’m going to take a walk.”

He headed out of the office and down the hall toward the front door and stopped short of the foyer. Ethan turned his head as if listening to a faint radio broadcast through the floor. Static and voices leaked in from the gap under the door. He crept up and looked through the peephole. Two NOPD officers stood on his door mat. The hollow feeling, already in his gut due to emptiness and stress, multiplied as if his stomach doubled in size. He turned the door knob, interrupting their knock.

As a sliver of Ethan’s living room light cut the hallway, the one on the left spoke, “Ethan Hammond?”

They could have been twins. There was a familiarity about beat cops that made Ethan nervous. Maybe it was the generic haircut or the chiseled features that made them all look like they had been built in the same factory, on the same Wednesday, in October. Maybe it was the angular mustaches or how they all looked so clean, all the time. Too perfect. Ethan knew better than to trust a perfect person.  He Lens-scanned their badges and eyes. The NOPD fact sheet on both men matched their pictures.  Body language and vital assessment did them no favors.

Richard Eugene Dredge, Officer III – 64% trust/honesty probability

Antonio Marcelle Comeaux, Officer IV – 49% trust/honesty probability

“That’s me,” Ethan said with a numb expression, the only one he could find.

The other one, Officer Comeaux, asked, “do you know a man named Robert Chang?”

Fuck.  Ethan tried to un-hear the question. Time slowed. When the police showed up at your door, it was either because you were in trouble or somebody was dead. Or both.

“Mr. Hammond? Robert Chang?”

“Yes. Yes, Rob works for me, with – me. Why?”

“We just need you to come down for a statement.”

“What happened? Is Rob okay? I haven’t heard from him in a day or so.”

“The detective will bring you up to speed. Just come with us.”

Andy emerged from the office and made his way down the hall to meet Ethan.

“Man, you guys got here fast,” Andy said, “these guys glued the power cord to the socket. Genius, really.” Ethan gave him a bug-eyed look as if to say shut up. It fell on deaf eyes.

“Who are you,” Officer Dredge asked, stepping forward and inside, “and what are you rambling about?”

“He’s my friend – he’s working on my computer. I’ll get my wallet and we can go.”

Ethan pulled Andy back down the hall and whispered, “I didn’t call them. They just showed up.” Ethan grabbed his wallet and cards from the table in the hallway. “Something’s going on with Chang.” He sorted the stack looking for his NORTon card so he could get back home. It wasn’t there. “I gotta go down and give a statement.”

“Doesn’t look good, dude. I’ll see what I can salvage from your terminal. Good luck.”      Andy turned back toward the office.

“Wait. When you were cleaning up, you said you found my transit card. Where is it?”

“Nightstand.”

The officers now stood in his living room, figuratively tapping a foot with annoyance. Ethan held up a finger for them to wait just a moment longer. He walked into his room and slid the transit card from the bedside table. Out of habit he looked at it to check the expiration date. He didn’t recognize the numbers. Or the Name. Lindsey Martin. He did recognize the blonde girl in the picture. He knew her as Cosmo.

The Dimming -A Preview

Standard

Hello, friend. I’ve been hard at work on trying to get this thing finished by mid-March. I think I’ll make it. While I work on the back end, gaping plot-holes, and continuity issues, I thought I’d share the front end with you. Enjoy. There’s more where this came from!                                         

 

                                            1. What Makes a Man Start Fires?

Ethan Hammond stirred from sleep as the sun crawled across the hardwood and warmed his face. Heavy footsteps echoed across his apartment. A familiar string of profanity followed. His head throbbed. As his eyelids gave way and peeled open, smudged images of dentine baseboards and Kevin the cat came into focus. He licked his paw and looked to Ethan. The cat spoke.

“You need to get your shit together, human.” He went back to licking.

Then came the cold. On the floor and nude, he breathed in a chest full of air and coughed.

He looked up to see a large balding man standing over him in a blur.

“I thought you were kidding,” the man said as he shook his head. “You actually shave your whole goddam body. Disgusting.” The man dropped a t-shirt and jeans on Ethan.

He grunted and coiled into a fetal crunch. His lungs burned. He didn’t know why he was on the floor or why his world was lit with halos. His eye lids gave in to the stimulation and slammed shut again.  When did Kevin learn English?

“Andy? How did you get in here?” Ethan forced out.

“Door was open. You stood me up for lunch. Why are you laying on the floor naked?”

Ethan sighed and rubbed his head.

Andy continued, “Miss François met me downstairs. She told me there was some kind of a ruckus going on up here last night. Woke her up. You should probably go down and apologize.”

Ethan covered himself with the shirt, like it was a blanket. “I don’t know what you are talking about.” Events dripped in, but out of order.

“Did you hear what Kevin said?” Ethan looked up at Andy with closed eyes.

“Are you still drunk? Cats don’t talk dude.”

Ethan scratched his forearm. He thought he could feel the nanomachines scraping around in his blood vessels, working, looking for anomalies, gathering information to make him a better human. They were cold and hard. Busy. As they cleaned up the mess he had made of himself, Ethan wondered, Are they angry with me?

“And while you’re at it, you want to tell me about the mess in your apartment? Looks like a hurricane tore through here. And you look like hell.” Andy waited, still hovering. “You think on it. I’ll start coffee.”

Andy waddled down the hall and the bean grinder buzzed to life.

Ethan covered his ears and sighed heavy. Rolling to his back, he pulled pants on. With a slow arc, he stood, wobbled, and sat on the bed. Kevin hopped up and sat next to him. Fireflies of last night’s memories lit and faded faster than he could catch and hold them. There was a pretty girl with a soft mouth that tasted like cool water. She wore a green hoodie and perfect jeans. The bar was loud. The streetcar, empty. Her touch, gentle.

Andy appeared back at the bedroom door with a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin. He sat them on the nightstand.

“I told you hooking up with strangers was a bad idea. It’s almost noon, by the way.”

Ethan shook out and ate four of the pills. “Cosmo,” he said between gulps of water. Bits of last night trickled into his brain. “How did you know I – met someone?”

Andy snarled his words. “I can smell it on you. Who’s Cosmo?”

“A girl. I brought her back here.”

“Your ConnectLens has a video recall, right? Let’s cue it up.”

 “I left it here, sick-o.”

“Doesn’t do you any good unless you wear it, dumbass.”

 “Sounds crazy, but sometimes, I like to just be – me.” Those days are long gone.

Ethan was angry at himself for not using his lens. If he had been wearing it, there would have been warnings. Her cardiac stress level and micro expressions would have flagged the girl as a liar, a threat. The facial recognition feature might have helped if she was in the database. There would be a record of the night’s events.

“Odd coming from the man that runs a Medical Technology company,” Andy scoffed as he grunted and picked up bits of clothes from the floor. “Besides, I thought you were working things out with Olivia. What happened to that?”

Ethan shook his head to try and understand what Andy was asking. Olivia? He wanted to be honest and tell Andy the truth. He wanted Olivia. He wanted no one else, but without her, he might as well live in a cabin in the woods with Kevin and wait to die. She did not want him. Not anymore. Not since the night he got arrested and she accused him of playing God. She told him he was in over his head. She wasn’t wrong. Olivia would never forgive Ethan for what he had done; he accepted it, but still mourned the life he had with her. This burden wasn’t Andy’s to carry, so Ethan lied.

“It’s complicated.”

“You need to un-complicate it and call her. I thought she was the one.”

“She is. Was.”

Details leaked in from under doors sealed with alcohol and bad decisions. Cosmo wasn’t her real name. He never got her real name. red flag #1

She was at least an eight on the hotness scale, hung on every word he said, and way out of his league.  red flags #2, #3, and #4

“Looks to me like you got roofied and taken advantage of – and not in the good way-

Every drawer is open. Looks like your closet threw up.”

“You saying I was robbed?”

Ethan’s heartbeat picked up, as did the throbbing in his head. The girl had asked him about his profession. “I’m in IT”, his usual reply. He didn’t like talking about his work in Emerging Medical Technology. It took too much explaining. But she pushed him and asked all the right questions. Pretty girls wield all the power.

“No. Your handheld is on the table by the front door. Dad’s Chevelle keys are on the hook. Wallet is scattered, but your ID and NORTon pass are over there on the floor. Your terminal was compromised, but intact.”

Ethan took a mental step back. A simple robbery would have been easier to deal with. No sigh of relief.

“Compromised?” The hair stood up on the back of his neck and he tensed his whole body. Olivia was right. One of the last things she said to him before leaving him was –You are playing with fire.

“Someone tried to log into your Codatech portal. They gave it three tries. I took the liberty of running a scan. The connection self-terminated, as designed. No harm done. It’s restoring now.” Andy headed out of the room and toward the kitchen.

Ethan pulled on his shirt and smoothed the cotton tee down the front of his torso, which still ached with every breath. He looked around his bedroom and took in the mess. Is this how the NSA does business with repeat offenders? 

Andy returned. This time, with coffee. Ethan took a cup and lifted it to his lips with a shaking hand, and slurped half of it down, burning his mouth and tongue. He waited for the caffeine to take hold and pull him the rest of the way out of the grog. The notion of corporate espionage had only done so much to clear his mind.

“So what do you remember?” Andy asked.

Ethan sighed and finished the other half of his cup.

“I was at the Pelican having a beer and sandwich. This blonde girl about my age sat at the bar next to me. No big deal. She ordered a cosmopolitan and chatted me up.”

“Ever see her before?”

“Nope. Said she was visiting from Dallas, waiting for her friends. They never showed. We talked music and tech. We seemed to hit it off.”

“Classic story, brah.”

“When she was in the bathroom, I asked Dexter, the owner, if he knew her. He knows everyone in the neighborhood. He said he had never seen her. But he said she looked like trouble. Guess he was right.”

“He says that about every girl. How’d you end up here?”

“I paid the tab and we left around eleven-thirty. On the streetcar, she climbed me like a tree the – whole way home.”

Undivided attention from a confident and attractive girl was flattering. Her fit body felt nice in his hands. But, the foreign tastes and smells reminded him that Olivia was the last woman he had been with. It had been almost a full year. He felt liberated, like he had crossed one of the many barriers needed to move on. At the same time, he struggled to push the sadness away. The girl was the complete package, except that she was not his Olivia. Ethan paused. He did not want to tell Andy the rest of the story. That would somehow, make it all the more real. He had told enough lies lately, though. It was time he stopped.

 “That’s all you remember?”

“Not exactly. We got down to business as soon as we broke the threshold. I remember thinking I was really hammered, and not in my right mind, but I soldiered on. We were almost – finished, I think – when I felt dizzy, like I lost my balance. Thought I was going to vomit and then, I guess, I passed out.”

Andy’s plump face swelled with a smile that turned his eyes to waning crescents. “You passed out in flagrante delicto!”

Ethan shot Andy a hateful look and got up, stumbling toward the washroom. He dragged and shut himself in.

Andy shouted to penetrate the solid door. “As your friend, I advise you not to look in the mirror. You going to call this in?” Andy chuckled, “I’m sure Olivia would love to take your case.”

Even if Olivia wasn’t a cop, Ethan was not about to contact NOPD and report that he was taken advantage of, mid coitus, by a girl. Andy had made a good point about Olivia. If he had called her- when he said he had- weeks ago, last night would not have happened. He would not have taken a random girl home. This was not him.

Ethan turned on the sink faucet and waited for the liquid to change from brown to translucent. He tried to wash the embarrassment from his face, but it stayed. The stain was like black tar; it would have to wear off with time.

He lifted his head to meet the reflection in the mirror. Blue eyes took in the wreck of his tired and strained face. His square jaw grimaced at the man on the other side.  He rubbed the back of his neck. The Stemjack at the base of his skull ached. Ethan could see his dad’s Greek nose and a few wisps of grey hair in his black mop.

He opened the medicine cabinet, pulled his ConnectLens out of its case, applied a drop of conductive lubricant, and placed the lens his right eye. After a few blinks, it synced with the server. He double checked his schedule. He guided the pointer to accept a blinking cancel request. The meeting with Max, his business partner, had been moved. Perfect timing.

They had a weekly video conference and Max would have asked about his appearance.  He looked like shit. His brain would not spool up. As the face of the company, Ethan needed to look sharp and be ready with a quick wit. Even in an era of high technology, bloggers and reporters still hid in the proverbial bushes, ready to pounce with tough questions.

Ethan lifted the seat and peed. When finished, he lens-scanned the contents of the bowl. It contained traces of a benzodiazepine, a class of sedative-hypnotics. He rescanned to verify. A sinking feeling in his stomach grew and knotted his insides. He now had something else he could never tell Olivia about. More lies. There was an ocean between them and he continued to fill it with stupidity.

He washed his hands and returned to the bedroom.

Andy was in Ethan’s closet, hanging up clothes that had been ripped off the rack.

“You were right. I was drugged.”

“Figured as much. I would hope that a strapping young man of thirty could make it all the way through a – session – without a nap” Andy raised his eyebrow at Ethan.

“What do you think she was looking for?” Ethan said as he walked the room. “Wait.” He waved a finger at his surveillance cameras. “There’s a lens cap on of all these.” He reached up, unlatched the dome, and popped the cover off of the one above his door.

Andy turned, holding a group of wooden clothes hangers, aiming one at Ethan. “I warned you about this stuff when you and Max started Codatech. Between the animal testing and PETA, the investors and the FDA– not to mention the greedy insurance companies, Med Tech is dangerous. These fuckers like status quo and you are stirring the pot. Frankly, I’m surprised you made it four years without reprisals.”

“We’ve made it four years without making any money. Next quarter we are set to turn a profit. That is, if the Stemjacks get the green light.”

“What do you mean if? What’s the holdup?”

“Me. I haven’t signed off on them yet. They aren’t ready.”

Ethan was used to the death threats from animal-rights groups and the religious nuts, but nothing had ever hit this close to home. Technology that unlocked the secrets of the brain scared a lot of people, including Ethan. Especially Ethan. But, as his father once told him, if you are not moving forward, you might as well be backing up.

Andy put down his stack of clothes and walked to meet Ethan in the middle of his room.

“Listen, if they wanted to get into your system, they would have.”

“But if nothing’s missing…”

“Don’t you get it? This is a distraction.”

“From what?”

“I don’t know. But, if she didn’t take anything, she left something. Whatever it is, we need to find it.”

How to Make a Killer

Standard

Hello, friend. Here is a quick piece of Flash Fiction. My character is addicted to the Death Rush. This is how he got started in the business of killing.

“You know what this is,” he said, heavy with nerves, “Give it up.” The gun shook in his hand. Acting on instinct, my left arm swept up and to his right. In the best case scenario, I would have grabbed and twisted his wrist. Worst, to move the firearm away, just enough. If he discharged the gun, the bullet wouldn’t hit me or my family. I might have hoped there weren’t any bystanders, but I did not think. There was no time for thinking. As the back of my hand hit his forearm, he made eye contact with me. The look of surprise was priceless. As predicted, he squeezed and the gun went off. In the micro-second between the concussion and my next move, I felt relief knowing the weapon was loaded. Any guilt for what happened next melted away.

With my right hand, I pulled the two-inch knife from my belt sheath. In an arcing motion, I imitated an uppercut punch, blade protruding from the bottom of my fist. The contact sliced a deep chasm in his throat, through the bottom of his mouth, where the tongue attaches. The exit line grazed the chin and slowed as my edge found bone. White chunks of cottage cheese-like fat squeezed out. The force shot his head up and back. Too bad a bird wasn’t flying overhead with an urge to shit, just as he looked to the sky. I exhaled and shut my eyes at the end of the blow to lessen the possibility of contamination. My hand and forehead got a nice spatter of red.

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He dropped his weapon and stumbled back a couple steps, now grabbing at his throat like he was trying to put the blood and the chunks back in. He looked for me. Our eyes met again and his face changed from surprise to horror. I exchanged it for a palms up, sarcastic, what the fuck did you think was going to happen? look. I took steps toward him. He went to his knees and fell on his back, feet folded underneath. The kids were now screaming and Zoë was trying to cover their eyes while craning to see what I was doing.  She kept saying my name over, and over, and over.

I walked to stand above him and watch the life drain from the hole I had just uncorked. Turning my head like a cat watching a bug on the floor, I had an idea. I pulled my phone out and swiped the camera on. I hesitated for a second. Do I take a still or a video? A still can be poetic, but a video captures the humanity and reminds us that life is real. Bad choices are real. Death is real. I went for video. He watched me record him, spitting blood-soaked obscenities and flailing on the ground. His skin turned pale. With Zoë still barking at me to stop, I stopped. I turned the screen around and played it for him. I wanted him to see, as his last vision, what I saw. He was the first one. It is true what they say – It gets easier after the first one.