Delgado found himself floating free. His body not so much a body as a point of consciousness in a soup of biological static. The static flashed blue, red and free of even the organized chaos of the uniform pixels of a television stuck between channels.
Feelings of immobility were rendered moot by there being no place to go. Helpless, yes, but not afraid; he thought not in words but in raw ideas. Once he began thinking, the thoughts continued to spill free and become one with the blue-red of the nothing that shaped his current world.
More felt than actually seen, he observed something snaking through the random. It was cool and sharp and pleasant. It caressed the random where it pooled in pockets and aggregated in like fashion that Delgado hadn’t recognized until the silver framed it.
The sharp intruder continued to slip through the seemingly viscous and ever changing mass that surrounded Delgado and his escaping thoughts. It never cut but used it’s pin points to probe and find the sure connections, strengthening them through the definition of where it wasn’t.
Without warning, the intruder turned to where Delgado believed he was in his pinprick of consciousness. Again, Delgado had no fear of this intruder. He did not brace for its onslaught. With nothing else to do, he stood defiant. He may die, he may live, but he would not cower even if he could.
He was a United States Marine.
The impossibly sharp point met the infinitely small space of Delgado’s consciousness and a new sensation flowed into the young man. Memory.
He was once again five years old riding his bike down the street away from his house. School had just let out and he was free to roam around until dark. The scents of the green and warm of his subdivision in September came in on the wind.
In front of him, beyond his handlebars lay his playground: a dirt track for BMX bikes carved through a large, wild lot, easily big enough for eight or ten houses the size of his. This lot was free of the trees other vacant places had, but it more than made up for it with dips, mounds and weeds taller than he was, even standing up on his pedals. The weeds smelled different than the foliage in his neighbor’s wierdass hippie garden. Sappy and greener than green. Weeds, flowers, and seed pods gave the field a woody, pulpy taste in the afternoon sun.
The lot and its banked and bumpy trails called to him and he thought, this is what life is about. It isn’t about what is going on at school, staying on the safe and paved road. That was a necessary annoyance. This feeling of exploration, discovery, of being in the world… this is where things really happen. This is what life is about.
He hopped up on the curb and skidded to a stop at the head of the trail. The large drop-off jump that ended the trail loomed off to the left as he regarded the trail bumbling off to his right. It went through all the weeds and wild bushes into a branching network of paths; each with its own challenges.
Delgado knew that older boys, some even as old as nine or ten, had put some logs up to keep the trails from washing away in the rain. If he messed that up, they would look for him on the playground at school. Delgado didn’t fear them or anyone, but he wouldn’t disturb the trail. He would own it in time through skill and training.
Red and blue returned. Memory. Memory was there. He remembered everything.
The silver had only begun to do its work.
A burgundy minivan with a “Baby on Board” bumper sticker roamed the mall parking lot looking for a space. It circled a little more than necessary, but found a spot under a thirsty young oak tree clinging to its three-foot wide strip of land. The door opened with a pop and a dinging from the dashboard. Ms. Bee climbed down from the driver’s seat and struck her reasonable heels on the pavement, looking for all the world like any other working mom out to run errands. A quick check of her ponytail in the reflection of the over-tinted back windows and she was off. She pretentiously powerwalked through the baking sea of blacktop to the oasis of the mall.
The air conditioning hit her like a physical force, both inviting and stunning. Two steps into the mall and she might as well have been in Oslo in February. She wondered how much it cost Loveless to keep this place uniformly refrigerated like this. Maybe if he wanted to waste money so bad, he could throw some her way through a renegotiation. Then again, this job smelled bad. It started to stink upon the discovery of the Collector and after last night’s folly it reeked to high heaven. Nothing to do about it but get it resolved or that stink will stick to her and her organization forever. Any future clients get a whiff of that kind of failure and she could kiss her premium pricing goodbye. No. There would be no negotiations. She knew Loveless knew this as well as she did. No way out but through and no amount of refrigeration will keep this thing from getting even more rotten.
She took a lazy left down the small hall leading to the bathrooms and followed it all the way to the unmarked door at the end. Once inside she hit the intercom mounted on the wall.
“Central, this is Bee. I’m home. I pick up anyone?”
The box squaked. “Bee, Central. What’s your position?”
She frowned. “Are you people on alert or not? You should have been following me for the last five minutes. Longer since I told you I was coming.”
“Bee, Central. What is your position?”
Ms. Bee stared at the box and barked, “two five three. Just inside the service door at the end of the bathroom hall on two.”
“Bee, Central. Got you. No. No one in the hallway.”
“Central, Bee. What about anyone looking at the hallway?”
“Bee, Central. I… Let me scan.”
“Central, Bee.” She sighed. “Never mind. Just open the door.”
The door made a pop and Ms. Bee pulled it open. Without a sound, she quickly slipped inside and trudged up the service hallway. Turning down the hallway, she went through another door and dropped into the abandoned but not empty weirdness of an abandoned department store. Blanding with the shadows, she made her way past the empty shelves of the deserted department store, up the elevator and down the linoleum hallway. Her hand went up to rap on the door marked Office, but she held it. A glance at her watch. A smile. She walked a further two paces up the hall.
Central sat, mesmerized by the single huge monitor in front of him. It was cut into eight screens, all showing him a view from one of the mall’s many security cameras. Ms. Bee closed the door behind her and slid behind him.
The dagger concealed in the stiff bottom of the sensible black purse slid from its special hiding place. She took a moment to admire the blade, wet with a greasy neurotoxin, before sliding it up to Central’s temple.
“Do you like my blade, Central?” Her voice didn’t break the silence as much as it slid into a crease in it and snaked its way through. It was so smooth that Central didn’t jump until he turned to see the blade almost touching his eye.
“Not quite. You seem surprised.”
“No, I’m thorough. You had no idea I was coming. Are you telling me that hall outside doesn’t have a camera?”
His eyes never left the blade and the blade never wavered. “No Mam! I mean, yes there’s a camera and no I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Well, you are dead. And now that you are dead, who is covering all these cameras?”
“I… I… No one.”
“No one.” She relaxed, but didn’t move the blade from his face. “So that entire network of surveillance is completely useless because you didn’t lock that weak door and didn’t watch your own back. Tell me, do you know how to do surveillance with this equipment?”
“Uh, yeah. You look at the monitors and, uh, look for trouble and stuff.”
“And stuff. Really.” Her voice was flat.
Central swallowed hard. “Are you going to cut me with that?”
She whipped the blade back into its sheath in her purse so quickly that Central flinched. “Get up. Let me see that board.”
Ms. Bee took Central’s seat and began rearranging the camera views. “Ok. We established that you need to be alive. View of your door right hand corner. I’d prefer a fire door, but this will have to do.” She used another view to cycle through some interior views. “Fine. No one is interested in my hallway. I come up clean. Couple of people might be interesting.” She put cameras on a handful of people and then did a sweep of the outside views. She then turned to the man, who she realized was staring dumfounded at the screen.
“You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?” She said.
Central shook his head. “Not like that. I mean… I can understand, but… Yeah. I was trained to look for shoplifters.”
“Well I can’t have that. Shoplifters aren’t today’s problem.” She stood up and faced Central. He stood a foot taller than Bee, but under his crew cut, his face was a mask of fear and awe.
“They ar… who is?” he asked. A smile crossed Bee’s face. This clay was now warm enough to shape.
“I need to talk to your boss, but I’ll be back. Keep an eye on these subjects. You will tell me exactly what they do. And when I come back you better be able to tell me which hand I used to knock on the door. Am I understood?”
Ms. Bee smiled, showing teeth. “I’m glad. You should get anyone else who will sit at this desk to show up within the hour. We’re all going to learn together. Things have gotten interesting. I have to rely on you, so you will learn from me.”
She glided out of the door, leaving central to wonder if getting training was a good thing.
Luxury Automobile waited on the corner with the cube shaped mini amp banging against his thigh while his gig bag made the sweat pool in the small of his back. Futile sweat soaked his back while trying to ward off the heat.
“Fucking Teague!” Sarah Winter walked up to the corner in slow angry steps. “Have one bad dream and he calls me a psycho!”
She came up to the corner and swiftly turned to Luxury Automobile. “Do I look like a psycho?!”
“Um… no?” Luxury Automobile came up short.
“Of course I don’t. Although I should have my head examined, putting my career at risk, dating my student.”
“Well, not really a student. I don’t know, if you tutor someone is that a student?”
“I can see the gray area.”
“Yeah, totally different. Besides, it’s not like he’s some kind of innocent babe! Trust me, he had plenty of practice with women. We can tell, you know.”
“Not really. And, um … do I know you?” Luxury Automobile studied the ‘don’t walk’ sign and tried not to visualize Sarah’s tirade.
“Well, if you’ve got a guy who is clueless, he goes to work on you like he’s stuffing a turkey. Teague though, he was done with all that well before I got to him. But even so, he doesn’t understand women one bit! You just don’t call your girlfriend a psycho!”
He looked over at Sarah and tried in vain not to look at her striving A’s just to see what all the fuss is about. “Well, yeah. ‘Psycho’ is an insult.”
“Damn straight! And it’s an eternal struggle for women to shake off the ‘crazy chick’ label. That’s the kind of dehumanizing rhetoric that has kept women out of positions of power for millennia! Just because we get moody around female problems doesn’t mean we are crazy as a group. I mean hell, if you bled uncontrollably for a couple of days from your normally fun bits you’d be a little cranky too!”
She walked off the corner leaving Luxury Automobile to swim in that last comment. He gazed at her narrow hips and athletic back in disbelief. A little short of half way, she stopped and half turned, looking at him. “You coming?”
“Oh! yeah!” He suddenly realized that the light had changed and hopped into the cross walk.
“I don’t know, maybe I should let him of the hook if he apologizes. But he just… It pisses me off.”
“Yeah, ‘can see that.” They arrived at Blunderbuss Coffee and he opened the door.
She smiled a lilac smile and slipped past him. For the first time he noticed the girl’s odd choice of makeup and hair color. “Thanks for listening!”
He paused a moment before saying “My pleasure. Don’ mention it.”
Coming into the store, the weak air conditioning swirled around him in lazy circles. Not quite powerful enough to get the swamp off his skin, it was still a welcome relief. “Hey man,” he said to the man behind the counter, “Mind if I set up early?”
The barista nodded. He gave a little wave to the complete psycho girl with the black and purple hair and headed to the back to start busking his way through the mid-morning. Having gained his wits, he wondered once again why he attracted crazy people.
In the corner of the small coffee shop sat a tiny stage, and the man made a line for it.
“Hotter than the can in Hades after chili night out there,” he said to the people in the shop. Sizing up the crowd, he set up the small amp under the stool.
The same strange, young woman he saw this morning ranting under that billboard sign was sitting at the table nearest his perch. Though clearly a freak, she had an extremely curvy, squat, young Polynesian body with extra boobs. For a young body like that, he was willing to overlook a lot of crazy.
“Hey there sista, how’s it goin’?”
Hands over her ears, she said, “Can’t you hear it? It’s so loud and confused! Everything shouting. Dizzy. Almost painful. Getting louder, like falling…”
Unzipping the gig bag, he brought out his bread and butter, a caramel stained, road-worn electric guitar. “Well, I’ll try to play above it, and for you, I’ll promise to make it nice and sweet.”
“…and I’d like extra caramel.” At the counter, Sarah was finishing up her order.
“STOP that noise! Please God, stop that NOISE!” The crazy Polynesian girl stood up, knocking over her chair and table. Hands were clamped over her ears, her eyes bulged.
The old black street performer looked out from his corner with his hand in the air. “I ain’t played a note yet. I swear!”
“OH MY GOD!!!! Help!” The girl continued to rant, now even more frantic. “Help that voice. It’s screaming!!! Can’t you hear it? Don’t you care?!”
She collided with Sarah, sending both tumbling to the ground.
From the floor, the busty girl shot Sarah a crazed look. “You! … your transmission… the data stream… with the others…” She screwed up her face in confused realization. “You don’t even know!”
Sarah shook her head. “What are you talking about?”
“Nnyah!” she screamed, swinging her head around. She rolled over to her hands and knees. “Ok! Ok! I’m coming!” Squeaking her shoes on the floor, she scrambled out the door.
For a moment, no one spoke. Sarah sat on the floor, dumfounded. A coffee maker percolated in the background.
“Hard to follow that up!” Luxury Automobile said as he clicked his amp on. “But the world’s a stage and the show just kinda keeps going on.” He strummed a chord, blue distorted and wet with reverb. As he tuned, someone helped a shaken Sarah Winter off the floor.
The usual bustle of Blunderbuss coffee resumed. The normal activity of the shop surrounding and absorbing the weirdness until no trace remained.