The dark red jet sliced silently through the night, racing toward the east and the dawn of this new day. The jet was a small corporate jet, capable of seating six, but the interior had been heavily modified and now sat only two with an empty chair next to the pilot.
The back of the jet was all cargo and was full of everything they had brought to the airport. Delgado had never seen some of the stuff they had packed and only read about some of the others. They were all marked with signs designating them as atmospheric monitoring equipment and he knew that was only half true. Communications equipment and all manner of technology took up the right half of the tiny passenger cabin, leaving Delgado the cabin’s lone chair. That chair had two positions, pushed back and facing forward, like it was when they boarded or the current configuration. With the cabin door closed, the chair moved up and swiveled to the right and up so Delgado could access all the gadgets. This was good, as he had the responsibility of doing prep work for their touchdown in Hogstown.
Immediately upon boarding the plane, Belatran had mounted the box from the map-board into a weird circular frame back-lit by a soft blue light built into the comms gear. He then disappeared through the tiny arch that separated the cockpit from the plane, leaving Delgado wondering why it didn’t just get stowed with the rest of the gear. With his work done for the moment, he wondered about that still.
“Hey, Belatran,” he called out. “Don’t you need a co-pilot?”
Belatran didn’t visibly respond to the query, but his voice came over the headset. “This is your Captain speaking. You are now flying ‘Don’t Like My Driving, Get Out and Walk’ airlines.” He leaned over in the seat and looked back through the little arch. “I always wanted to say that. But seriously, you aren’t rated, which means you stay behind the line. I’ll be fine. Just need to get out of California. Couple of minutes.”
Delgado’s eyes wandered. The box didn’t exactly look like a box now that he could get a good look at it. Though more rectangular than anything else, in this light it seemed to have more of a bulge in the corners. It reminded him of a cartoon drawing of a dog bone. And nothing marred the surface of the thing. It perfectly reflected the light around it and the interior of the cabin. It was mesmerizing to Delgado in his weary state. On any normal day, he would now be two hours into an eight-hour sleep, his watch having ended, but this was not a normal day.
The shape of the thing felt good to his tired eyes. Something about its cool, smooth perfection drew in the young agent and he leaned over to get a better look. There seemed to be nothing holding the item and Delgado guessed that it must have been mounted there by something on its back. As he stared, the reflections changed ever so slightly, betraying his own swaying due to fatigue and turbulence. Still, he could have sworn that the object was also slowly changing, becoming more like that cartoon dog bone he had imagined.
“OK, we’re on auto.” Belatran said, snapping the younger man back to reality. “Yeah, we’re on auto.”
Rubbing his bleary eyes he said, “Belatran, what are we doing? We’re going to some swampy noplace? I thought I was trained to go up against dangerous people.”
Belatran’s smirk was evident in the voice over the headphones. “Eight hours ago you thought this was crap and now you think you want to change orders?”
“Well it just seems weird. This all seems weird.”
“Well it is. And complicated.” Belatran sighed. “You know what that board you were watching was supposed to signify, don’t you?”
“Yeah. Some sort of ‘energy event.’”
“Not just any energy event, but an event with ‘The Energy.’” He pulled his feet up and twisted around, stretching lengthwise across the cabin with his shoes up on the copilot’s chair. He met Delgado’s eye. “With access to this energy, people, even good people, even people who live in a swampy backwater, can become dangerous people. Or weird people. Or good people. Or dead.”
Delgado frowned in the dark. “I can’t say I’m totally comfortable with the indeterminate nature of this whatever it is. I still think this is some kind of deep-training mind-fuck.”
“Well, you’ll have to get over that and quick. Indeterminate is the threat. Did you get in touch with the head of the police there?”
“Trying.” He said. “I tell ya, it’s pretty slack there. They said they’d call me back”
“Call you back? You gave them our auth code, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but the dispatcher, a Sargent Brine, just sorta blew me off and called me a weirdo.”
Belatran grimaced. “First show in seventy-plus years and we can’t get past a desk clerk with a GED. Fuck. Keep trying. This is way more important than whatever else those cops have going on.” He stuck his feet back into his proper foot-well and stared out at the light blue on the horizon that would soon become dawn over the Mohave. “We need to get to the man in charge. He’ll know what to do.”
A light blue Crown Victoria made its way up to the scene of the collapsed buildings, advertising itself as an unmarked police car by its bland utility. The man behind the wheel also emanated that stoic, yet clueless, police ambiance. He drove up to the line of yellow plastic tape stretched around the rubble of two buildings and the street beyond.
A few dozen people gawked at the scene while a small army of cops and firemen swarmed over the scene. The cops seemed to be melting in the morning’s heat while the crowd, in their shorts and tees, took pictures. There were two men in summer suits going over notes. The blue car drove up to the tape near them. A cop shooed away the gawkers and lifted the tape for the car.
“Detective!” The man barked from his rolled down window. His scowl hardened beneath his gray hair and male pattern baldness.
The younger man with a white summer suit and a police badge hanging from a chain came over. The detective looked like he had seen one too many episodes of Miami Vice. Young and brash, but a good cop out to make a name for himself. “Commissioner! What can I do for you on this fine Saturday morning?” The detective looked into the car and saw what the older man was wearing. “And looking dapper, too!”
The man grimaced in his blue tee shirt and jogging shorts. “They called me off of my morning run for this. Didn’t have time to get changed so can the commentary. What do we have here?”
“Well, we have Bob Nestor, Professor of Computer Science, presumed to be in his home which, unfortunately, had a gas leak and become one huge explosive device. That device went off an hour ago, coinciding with likely morning activity by the victim.” The Commissioner took a quick glance at the fire marshal, who returned the look, nodded and turned back to his notes.
“The man! Detective Brace, I heard we had a man inside. What happened to our guy?”
“Ah yes. This is where things get interesting. He’ll be OK eventually, but he did sustain some injuries. It seems he saw the front door open and wanted to check it out. His name is Officer Kenneth Small, a new guy. One of the batch we are training up during the summer. Apparently he was near a window when ignition happened and was blown out the uppermost front windows. In fact, by some miracle, no one else was killed but Mr. Nestor…” He looked back behind him at the rubble. “…along with his nest.”
“What about that?” The older man pointed out of his window at the ruined apartment building.
“Yes. Having the house next door blow up in a fire ball wasn’t great for that apartment building. It lost structural integrity a few minutes after the initial explosion. Only two people living there at the time and the one we interviewed said he saw the other one come out and leave.”
The commissioner nodded. “That’s fortunate. It could have easily been much worse.” He instinctively surveyed the scene. A tan sedan, parked in the distance caught his eye and he looked around at the crowd for anything suspicious.
A blonde man in a tee shirt alternately looking at the crowd and taking pictures with a camera phone. When He saw the Commissioner looking his way, he gave a small nod.
“This seems to be an accident, Clive.” the Commissioner said through his car window. “Get the Marshal’s report and wrap it up. I’m going to need to have a statement about this for the noon news and I want this case closed before then. Got it?”
The detective flinched. “That’s a pretty fast investigation, sir. Don’t you think it’s a little strange that our man just happened to be in there and the last thing he reported was a possible break in? I mean, the door was open… Don’t you think we should at least interview…”
“He was a rookie acting on his own authority, getting spooked by shadows,” the Commissioner cut in. “And he’s lucky he didn’t get himself killed. The Fire Marshal says it’s a gas explosion, it’s a gas explosion. Now either I get your report or your badge on my desk by half past eleven. This isn’t Miami, detective. It’s not every day we have buildings blowing up and we need to let the people know that they are safe. We need to reassure the parents that at Hogstown State their kids are safe.” The commissioner clenched his jaw. “You understanding me, Brace?!”
Clive Brace was surprised and cowed by the outburst. “OK. I’ll have my report done. Sir!”
“Good. You do that. And schedule a press conference to report the findings to our constituents. Assure them that there is nothing to fear here in Hogstown.” The older man put his car in drive and slowly approached the cordon. A startled officer raised the tape just ahead of the car, letting the Commissioner out. The older man scratched his fringe of hair purposefully as he passed the broad-shouldered blonde man taking pictures. In front of him, the city streets opened into the bright, hot morning of a difficult day.
Dan emerged from a hole in his memory to find Luxury Automobile gone and himself very drunk on the ground. His auto pilot mind had drunkenly but effectively stowed the equipment and extra numbers from the sign in the lock box. Once he got his bearings, he smiled. Work was awesome when it happens without you even remembering you did it. Still, his head was a bit achy, the remnant of his supply of beer lay empty on the ground and his buzz needed a refresher.
Fishing in his pocket, he dredged out a well-worn one hitter, a wood box about the size of a pack of cigarettes with a sliding wood top. With a practiced flick, he opened the device, which had two compartments. One was round and held a small brass base-ball-bat-looking straight pipe. The other was a sturdy reservoir designed to hold shredded marijuana buds. Dan smiled at his trusty companion and jammed the pipe into the pocket. It would be perfect to wrap up a days work with just one hit of smoke.
But there are times when even the most stalwart of companions can let you down. Dan looked at the end of the bat and found it empty. Looking down at the reservoir, he saw nothing but the wood bottom. “Crap!”
Dan’s ears twitched and he instinctively crouched further behind the box. The crunch of tires on the side of the road made Dan scramble to put the bat back in the box and slide the lid into place. The sound of a door slamming shut made his heart race as he pushed the one hitter into his shorts pocket.
A gleaming green bottle happily glinted at Dan. If the footsteps growing closer to the lock box belonged to whom he thought they did, the bottle was not cool at all.
With a little flip kick, the bottle went skittering into the underbrush. In the same motion, Dan hopped up to greet his visitor. It was the boss. A toothy smile beamed like plastic as he waved his hand. “Hey, Mr. Silverstine! What brings you out to the sign?”
In the three years Dan had been doing this, he had only once seen Hiram Silverstine show up at his work site. This did not bode well. Hiram was a happy-looking middle-aged man who made no bones about not wanting to work terribly hard. His smile was twitchy but genuine and he came over to Dan with his eyes on the sign. “Nice job, Dan. You know, I really appreciate your work out here the last couple years. After the last pack of slackers I’ve had out here, you’ve been money in the bank. And I like you, so I’m going to get right to the point. I wanted you to hear it from me.” The man took a deep breath which made his short-sleeved button down shirt gape a little. His shoulders slumped as he let the breath out. “The lottery is replacing the sign with one that does electronic updates.”
Dan wasn’t surprised. “When?”
“The guy said he’d be here around now. I’m really sorry about all this, and I know it’s really short notice, which is extra shitty. Wasn’t my fault though, the lottery guy, Goodman, seems like he’s got his ass in a knot about this thing, especially with someone winning the big one just recently. So, I’ve hooked it up with the lottery people and we’re giving you a four-week severance, enough to get you through until people start ramping back up for the fall semester.” Hiram squinted at a black sedan as it drove up and parked. “I think this is him. Only a guy with a government fuel card and good AC would drive a black car in this kinda heat.”
Dan shook his head, making his brown mop of hair flop around. Not all of what he was hearing sank through the Heinekens. “Sorry, can you give me that again, Hiram?”
“You’re fired, but we’re going to pay you for one more month.” The older man shook Dan’s bewildered hand as a man in a tan suit came over.
“I take it you are Mr. Silverstine?” The lumbering man was had a face that reminded Dan of ground beef. “Vic Goodman.”
The meaty man shook the older man’s hand and tilted his head toward Dan. “This the kid?” Mr. Silverstine nodded his head and Mr. Goodman smiled with half his mouth.
Dan flinched as the meaty man started to approach him with his hand in his breast pocket. The guy stepped out of every gangster movie ever made. Dan half expected that hand to come back out with a gun like some kind of dime novel tough. The irrational thought that his termination was far more literal than Hiram had led on. Instead, the meat-faced man pulled out some paper. He stuffed it into Dan’s hand before he could back away and shook over it. The handshake lasted longer than was comfortable.
The man’s face was almost menacing in its sincerity. “I’m a big fan of your work here. You have served the Commission and myself well. You are reliable, and that’s a rare thing. Please let me know if there is any way that I can help you.”
Dan was frozen in his confusion as Vic Goodman left the paper in his hand and let him go. The big man then turned to talk to Mr. Silverstine about the improvements to the sign. His cush job was gone, just like that. And to add non-sequitur to vertigo, he found a hundred dollar bill and the business card of the guy who had just graciously fired him in his hand.
Too bad the one hitter was out. He really felt like a drag.