Candles flickered around the room and warmed the neutral colors in the Winter twin’s apartment. While Joy’s happy hour ambush with Ryan Goldberg slipped into the next morning, her sister had set up a romantic ambush of her own. Now that the trap was sprung by her strapping, young boy-toy, she wondered if her plan had backfired.
“Come on. Get off me, Teague!” Sarah Winter pushed against the hot, inviting but heavy young man that was with her on her couch. Though Teague London was Hogtown State’s first-string Tight End, Sarah didn’t want to play at being his tackling dummy.
The man grinned with gleaming white teeth in a handsome, deep chocolate brown complexion. Teague said in a sweet voice, “Now don’t play hard to get, Sarah. I know you dig your man.” He kissed her sweetly, pressing his body onto hers.
She began to have a bit of a faint spell, and had the odd thought of bricks. Snapping back to reality, Sarah was once again determined to get the upper hand. The tall, slender woman reached around and grabbed the back of Teague’s pants. Getting leverage, she pushed and pulled at the big young man, flipping him off the couch.
He landed on the floor and the woman quickly pounced on him. Straddling him, Sarah gave him a frown. “You big, lunking, oaf!” She tickled his armpits. “How many times do I have to tell you? You’re too heavy?!”
The frown turned into a wicked grin as the big man squirmed under her fingers. “Baby, please, Stop! I’m sorry. Please, I promise.”
“Ah, that’s better. You promise to stay under my control? Hmmmm?” She traced a finger nail over his skin. “I’ll make it worth your while.” Her grin became evil and sexy.
He couldn’t resist her charm. “Ok. OK! Whatever you say. Just, be gentile. I’ve got football practice tomorrow. Don’t want to be late ‘n blow my scholarship.”
The twin’s dark flowing hair touched the 6 foot 9 inch young man’s well-defined chest. She said, “Ooooohhh. Don’t worry, I know you’re a delicate flower”
“Yea, that’s me, baby.” They kissed repeatedly in a quiet, even rhythm as their passion overtook them.
*pat* *pat* *pat* The relentless rhythm of the collector’s footsteps blissfully inspired terror.
The thick man pushed his way down the confining path of paper as quick he could, panic opening the gates of his adrenal glands. The relentlessly plodding sleepwalker gave chase with his blank eyes half open and his mouth agape. His steady, purposeful steps easily kept up with the operatives sideways scramble. Sweat poured from Mr. Aye. His tight throat let out a small, helpless cry. He was doomed. Being caught would spell disaster for the mission.
“Maybe he can recreate everything from the hard copy, all the paper,” Bee said to the voice over the wireless.
From within that maze of Hard copy, Mr. Aye heard the conversation. He tried not to let it distract him from running from the oblivious man who hunted him.
“The most likely scenario is that he doesn’t know what he’s got,” The voice said over the radio. “It sounds like he just printed the encrypted copy. Why would he print it if he couldn’t crack the cypher?”
Mr Aye rounded a blind corner in the paper as he heard Ms. Bee’s reply. “I’ve no idea. I think this guy’s crazy. You should see some of the crap he’s collected. There’s a box of pencil erasers, Beer cans, and… Oh Christ… That’s nasty.”
“And irrelevant. Does he have computers?”
“He must. I’ll find them. Floor three clear.”
Mr. Aye willed his pulse to slow. His body started to get away from him, but he willed himself to move with a purpose, even as his fear and adrenaline mounted.
Looking back, he saw the Collector. Hooded eyes over a slack-jawed mouth. The dim light of the tight passage made his skin look like it was dripping down his face. Though walking, the collector continued to snore with low moans. Every zombie movie Mr. Aye had ever seen zipped though his mind and being caught by this man became wrapped in a new kind of terror.
“Bee!” he squeaked, as loud as he dared. “Help!”
Rounding another corner in the claustrophobic maze of paper, he finally saw a much wider passage in front of him. Daylight beckoned. It was the path to the front door that connected the kitchen and the stairs.
The only thing between him and the more maneuverable passage was a foot high stack he had put in the passage as he searched through the documents. He hopped over the stack and lunged to the relative safety of the wider passage. Ms. Bee, having heard the plaintive cry over the intercom, quickly and quietly came down the stairs. Seeing The Collector coming through the narrow passage, she froze, waiting for the sleeping man’s next move.
The Collector shambled forward, and was almost clear of the narrow passage, when his feet hit the short stack still blocking the passageway. In his sleeping state, he wasn’t ready for the obstacle.
He fell forward hard and flat, his sleeping mind not alert enough to try to brace his fall. The pain jolted him awake and he shook his head. Looking up, he plainly saw the unmasked faces of the two mercenaries in his house. Dazed and half asleep, he asked, “Who? What … here?”
Taking a syringe from her belt pocket, Ms. Bee said, “Damn. Wet option. We’re going all in.”
With a resigned sadness, she grabbed the almost-naked collector by the head, stuck the syringe into his neck, and pressed the plunger.
The all night store was much too bright for quarter till two. Under the florescent glare, the weight of the night’s beer sank in on the newly coupled couple. The air conditioning was arctic, however, which made the whole place seem unreal in the middle of a sticky Florida summer. It was like stepping into OZ with the short, skinny kid at the register playing the wizard. He wore a full-sleeve turtleneck to ward off hypothermia and his goatee and glasses made him look like he might suddenly bust into a poetry slam.
Goldberg lingered near the register, hoping this would be a short trip, ignoring the cashier as much as was comfortable for them both. Eye contact, a quick nod and a look elsewhere, as was customary, was given and revived.
The thought crossed his mind that he might want to buy some rubbers, but he realized that would be colossally awkward and easily misconstrued. Besides, a little mental arithmetic told him that the ones he already had were still good, should it come to that.
“So, your roommate is nocturnal?” Joy asked over her shoulder. She made her way past the store’s chest high metal shelves and on to the Ice Cream freezer.
“Well, when you say it like that, he sounds like a cockroach or something. Dan’s just got this job that makes him get up at two in the morning, so he figures he was better off partying until two, then go into work.”
“He goes to work drunk?”
“Nah, stoned mostly. He said he prefers to drink coming down for some reason.”
She popped her head over the store’s racks, her face twisted by a question. Even with the weird look, she was still extremely cute.
“He changes the highway billboard for the gaming commission. No one seems to care what he does as long as he doesn’t screw up. Been at it for years now.”
“Wait a second. Dan Leggit? The Billboard Bug? You still hang out with him?” She took a deep breath and her eyes opened wide with concern. “I think you were more correct saying he was a cockroach. You know, he’s infamous for being a slime ball among the women on campus.”
Goldberg smiled. “He’s just a little misunderstood, is all.” She shot him a cold glance from the refrigerated section. “…Which, of course, could be interpreted as saying that you are almost entirely right on the money.” A chuckle escaped Joy as she watched him backpedal. “He’s been a good friend to me. Maybe you just need to meet him when he’s not looking for women.”
“Whenever that is.” Joy opened the freezer as Goldberg patiently waited at the register.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a peculiar flash between himself and the counter. It was a squiggle not unlike the trail brought on by some hallucinogenics, but it seemed more at home in the store’s bright light. When he turned his head, it disappeared. What remained on the counter was a sign for the week’s lottery drawing displaying the winning numbers. On a wim, He dug in his pocket for his wallet and pulled out a slip of paper.
Joy came up to the register with two cartons of ice cream and cheap hair scrunchy.
Without looking, Goldberg said, “Um, you know… I think this is on me.”
The tall pale woman searched through her purse from within the tent of her hair. “Don’t be silly, Mr. Goldberg.” She grinned. “I’ll get it. You paid for the bar.”
“No, really, let me get it.” He showed her the slip of paper and pointed at the lottery display. “I just won the lottery.”
Joy’s mouth opened in astonishment. “The whole thing? Really?”
Goldberg held the ticket under the grease penciled in numbers and he and Joy compared them. The cashier pressed in for a closer look. All three of them read off the numbers and found that it was a complete match.
Goldberg looked across Joy’s face at the cashier. “You sure these numbers are right?” The young man nodded affirmative.
“Damn, Goldberg! You know, I was going to sleep with you anyway, but now I think you are trying too hard to impress me,” Joy deadpanned as Goldberg’s head whipped around. “Makes you look all needy.”
As they stared, the cashier said, “Well if she kicks you to the curb, I get off at three.”
The tile felt cool on Frank’s cheek. The world swam back into his vision sideways. White, rubber-soled shoes shuffled up and down against a vertical floor. He thought of basketball.
The voice brought him to his senses. Natasha was calling for him.
“Frank! You have to do it Frank! You must die! Kill yourself, Please!”
The people in the bay were restraining the panicked old woman. “Let me go! Frank! Please, I have to explain… ”
“Sedation! Get her sedated! She’s pulling at her … *nph!*” Natasha clocked the woman in the breast bone with a practiced heel strike and she went down.
“Page Dr. Moore!” Another yelled.
A young nurse ran over with a needle and plunged it into Natasha’s IV. Another reached up and squeezed the bag, sending the medication racing into her bloodstream.
“Uh… Frank…” Natasha’s voice trailed off.
Pulling himself up from the floor, Frank’s eyes darted around at the nurses. “What… What are you doing to my wife!” he cried.
“Please Mr. Riley,” a nurse said, not turning around. “She’s un…”
“What the hell did you just do to my WIFE!” He screamed, getting to his feet.
The nurse turned. “She was hurting herself. And others. We sedated her.”
“You did what!? She just woke up!”
“And was strangling you. Straining…”
Dr. Moore burst through the door. “Nurse! Situation!” For a small man, he commanded immediate attention.
“These people are trying to kill my wife.” Frank pointed into the crowd.
“Patient woke up agitated and delusional. She was choking Mr. Riley.”
The doctor looked at Frank’s neck. “And doing a fair job. Mr. Riley, can you come with me.”
“Frank…!” The doctor said sharply, snapping the old man from his protests. He guided him toward the seats in the hallway. “Please.”
The old man walked over and slid into the seat. Dr. Moore joined him and leaned on the adjoining arm rest. “Frank, I’m sorry. This sucks.” The doctor’s voice was compassionate, but stern. “I’ve known both of you too long to BS you. She’s not doing well. And to have her wake up and be aggressive…”
“She’s not crazy.”
“No. No, of course not. But…”
Frank’s voice was barely audible, but it cut off Dr. More’s protest. “I’d like to see her again Jason. Just once. I’d… I’d like to say good bye.” He sighed and shook his head. “I saw plenty of death in the War in Europe. I know what it looks like and I know my girl.” his lip twitched and his chin crinkled. “She’s a fighter. She’ll want to say good bye… Explain this… I’m sure of it.”
Dr. Moore nodded. “We’ll do what we can. If she’s got it in her, we’ll work with it. But…”
The two fell into silence. The bustle of the nurses around Natasha quieted into a slow din of beeping monitors. One by one the people finished their jobs in the small cubicle of a room. Soon it was just Natasha in a tangle of tubes and wires.
The doctor put a gentle hand on the old man’s shoulder. “Take a break, Frank. She’ll be asleep for a while. There’s a cot in my office if you’d rather not go home. Through the doors, on the left.” He stood and added, “You are my patient as well. And right now, I suggest you take care of yourself.”
Frank slowly stood. “You will get me?”
“Any change at all. I promise.”
He eyed the doors, then glanced into Natasha’s room. It was hard to see her in the muddle of machines. Frank made his way to the doors and pushed through. It was the end of the world and nothing would be the same again.