The Strange – Episode 20 – Rubble – Part 1

Delgado had come to call the sharp and cool thing “the silver.”  He had a thought that giving things names might help him get a handle on the present.  That thought had spilled out into the blue and red random leaving only its core and the name.

The sharp memories he slipped through were vivid as real life, but Delgado knew the difference.  Real life was real and memories were not real no matter how realistic.  Besides, there were cases where he knew that his recollections were wrong and yet the memory played back that way.  Realism and reality held clear differences.

Having worked through his contemplation of memory, he once again reached out to feel the here and now.  In doing so, he found another sense.  He knew what time it was.

More to the point, he knew that time was moving very slowly for him.  Milliseconds went by like minutes and he found that to be strangely comforting.  He did not have a good sense of what he was supposed to be doing in the present, that concept had long ago flowed away into the red and blue, but at least he wasn’t wasting any time.

He reached out once again and found he knew exactly where he was.  He was thirty-two thousand feet in the air over the Mississippi Delta.  The sense was precise and, if it were to be trusted, included relative orientation and velocity.

With the concept of orientation, he found he knew how his body was positioned.  He couldn’t move, but he could observe his body as if it were a statue, but one you looked at from inside.

Of course, he couldn’t actually see his body, or even a representation of it.  The blue and red randomness and the silver weren’t actually something he saw either.  He could just sense these things.  And so it was when another sharp probe from the silver came lunging toward his consciousness.

A brilliant shower of color came at the end of this probe accompanied by deafening waves of sound.  These were real color and real sound, he knew.  Time, his internal sense told him, was now plodding along at its usual pace.  He could smell the cool dryness of the air, taste the fact that he forgot to brush his teeth and feel his body stretched over the weird mannequin that told him where his body was.  It was sharp and critical and more real than anything he’d ever experienced.

Blinking a few times, Delgado knew he was back.  He was back in the rear of the microjet with his hand still grasping the silver block.  He knew what it was and once again knew what he was doing, what his mission was.

“Welcome back, kid.  Glad to see you recover.  We’ve had a few people go off into Neverland and never return.”

“You tell me this NOW?”

Belatran smiled.  “We would have a hard time recruiting if that was on the poster.  But really, I had no doubt.  You wouldn’t have gotten sucked in.  You’re wound too tight.”

“You risked my life on that? On…”

“I risked an investment of incalculable value on the fact that everything in your records says you were going to be fine.  We need to make sure we have people who won’t crack or hesitate under pressure.”

“And I’m that guy?”

“Solid as a brick.  You coming back from the upgrade was never really in doubt.  Back when the program started, we didn’t know what the psychological issues were with the upgrades, why some people did well and others … not so much.  We had some poor results in the early mix of candidates.”

“We?” Delgado looked at the back of Belatran’s head and saw the faintest flinch.  “You were there at the beginning?  I thought you said the weathermen were created in response to the Nazis.”

“In response to the great war, that’s right.”

The younger man squinted.  “How the hell old are you, Belatran?”

“One hundred twenty four.”  The older man smiled.  “Sucks that they had to stop me from aging closer to sixty than I would have liked.  My birthday is coming up by the way.  I’d like a card.”

Delgado shook his head.

“The world is not safe, Delgado.  We aren’t going to be able to handle things as normal humans, so we got some upgrades.”

“And they are harmless.”

“For the most part, yeah, as harmless as living.  They degrade after a while… a long while, but until then, nothing else will get you, so relax.  The details will come along in a bit.  Another hour until we land at Hogstown and then we get to start putting the pieces together on this case.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The pieces had yet to come together for Molly. She knew intellectually that her apartment had collapsed, was there when it came down in a shower of dust and debris, but it hadn’t hit home.

Now, as Molly and Joy looked at the sad and fractured mess, it was pain fully clear.  All her stuff was gone.  Or, if not gone, certainly wrecked.

Firemen sprayed water over the wreck, making sure everything was out.  Anything that might have survived being crushed under two stories of building and other people’s stuff would be damp.  By the time anyone could have excavated to the level of Molly’s belongings, the moldy flora of north Florida would have set in, turning it into a stinking green mass.

It had been stuck in her head to tell people that her house was gone.  Her first time at the bong amplified that impulse, but it was as if she was reporting the news.  She felt compelled, but it was only because she didn’t believe it herself and she was waiting for someone to tell her that it hadn’t happened.

“Fuck.”  The word dropped out of Molly without any energy.  Joy just nodded.

A cop came over to them with his back to the wreckage.  “I’m sorry ladies.  Police business.  Can you please move along?”  Though the words were polite, the tone spoke of someone who was used to being a dick.  It made it clear that he would be a dick to them if they didn’t do what he said.

Molly looked up from the wreckage of the home she had moved into not more than a month ago.  As she met the man’s mustachioed face, sparks raged in her eyes.  “My home.  My home is gone.  This was my home.”

“I’m sorry ma’am, but we are keeping this area clear.  Crowd control.”

Joy looked around at the now completely empty street.  Any parked cars had either been moved or towed.  Only a firetruck and a red fire marshal’s SUV remained anywhere near the site.  All of the people who had previously been gawking had left to go on with the rest of their day.

“Yeah, some crowd,” she said quietly.

But Molly would have none of it. “This was my home!” she shouted suddenly, making several of the remaining workers look her way.  “Are you telling me I can’t look at my Home!?  Are you telling me that I can’t try to find even one thing I own in this disaster!  Everything!  I’ve lost Everything!  And you have the balls to tell me to move along!”

She pointed a finger at the portly cop, his unchanging expression adding fuel to her indignation.  “Look porky, I’m damned well not going to just move along!  I’m going to sift through this shit to see if I can find something, anything!”

“It’s an active investigation,” the cop said without flinching.

“I don’t know what you’re investigating!  It’s pretty obvious.  Boom!  Crash!  Done!  Good job Sherlock!  You’ve cracked the case!  Now let me go look for my underpants you …”

A younger plainclothes police man came over and tapped the cop on the shoulder.  “Officer Barney, what are you doing?”

The Cop still didn’t change his expression.  “Crowd control.  Painter told me to keep people from tampering with the crime scene.”

Detective Brace shook his head.  “Fine job.  Now go get a doughnut or something.”  He held up the yellow tape and motioned to Molly and Joy.  “Ladies, if you would?”

“Look, Slick, the boss told me himself that we need to keep everyone out of here, no exceptions.”

As the girls walked up to the edge of the debris field, the Detective calmly stared down the cop.  “Call him, then.  And by the way, it’s Detective Brace.  Detective.  Call him and tell him that there is a distraught eighteen-year-old who has been put out on the street by all this who would like to try to salvage any part of her life.  Until you get back to me that this is an unreasonable contamination of a crime scene, which, by the way, was abandoned by the coroner, the fire department and the forensic people an hour ago, then I will escort these women away personally.  Until then, I will watch them and make sure they don’t abscond with a smoking gun.  OK?”

“It’s on your ass, Slick.  I’m reporting this.”

The Detective smiled, brushed a piece of dust off the officer’s uniform and leaned in.  In a whisper, he said, “Well, while you are at it, report that I think you’re being a dick for no reason other than you want to boss around little girls, you prick.  Run along.  I’m going to go protect and serve our public.”

Pulling back, he noticed a smear of dust on the officer’s shirt.  “Oh, and We’re going to be doing a press conference here in about fifteen minutes.  The cameras will be showing up any minute, so fix your uniform.  Wouldn’t want the press catching you sloppy on the job.”  He walked away over the pile and said behind him, “Straighten up man.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Teague lowered his shoulder and laid into the young man holding the large pad.

“Dude, what were you thinking dozing off in Coach Band’s lecture?  You know he’s a dick about stuff like that.”

Teague straightened out and smoothed his hand over his bald head.  “It ain’t like that, Brent.  I was just thinking.”

Brent Bernard, another one of the Hogstown Hackers tight ends crouched behind the pad and readied himself.  “Well you might want to think someplace else in the future.  It was like a good minute and he flat out asked you a question by name and you didn’t even flinch.”

“Yeah, well.  He was boring as fuck, man.  I mean, who doesn’t know why you have a slot run across the middle to clear the zone for an end or back across the middle. I’ve been through route running every single year since pee wee.  Not to mention that they cover the same stuff in basketball camp and soccer.”

They both chuckled.  With the tweet of a whistle Teague lowered his shoulder again and blocked into the man-shaped pad, knocking the young man back three feet.

“Jesus, good hit!”  The Brent said as Teague came over and helped him off the ground.  Brent was pretty cool for a redneck.  Teague appreciated that he didn’t try to talk ‘Black’ to him,  “You played soccer?”

“As a kid.  Quit when they wanted me to be goalie.  Couldn’t stand all the standing around.  Might have been good, but it seems like such a pussy game, you know?  No hitting.”

The young man steadied himself on his feet and put the pad out a little more forcefully this time.  “Yeah, I know what you mean.  Learn anything else?”

“Yeah, that white chicks dig the soccer players.”

The whistle sounded and once more, Teague made to block the pad as if it were a defensive end coming to cut off a running play.  He dipped his shoulder and pushed up into the pad, his knees straightening and his back stiff.  There was a little collar bone thrown in for good measure and to Teague, it felt like nothing but a good solid block.

Where he connected with the pad, it ripped in a long line.  The shockwave carried through to the young man behind the pad.  A wet snap betrayed the breaking of a bone in the man’s forearm as the concussive force of the block threw him three feet into the air and sent him tumbling into players at least a first down away.”

“London!” the O-line coach barked, putting down his whistle.  “What the fuck was that, son?  Huh?  What did he insult your mother or something?”

“No!”  Teague looked at his partner laid out in the midst of the other group of players.  “No.  I have no idea what happened.  I just blocked the guy!”

“Bullshit.  You threw him ten fucking yards!  You God damned hot head!  I should throw you off this fucking team!”

Teague saw Brent trying to move and gasped.  “I don’t know what happened.”  He looked into the coaches face.  “Really, Coach!”  Looking back at his friend.  “Maybe I should get the trainer.”

“Maybe you should.  And when you get back, you, me and the head coach are going to have a word about your aggressive tendencies.  This isn’t the first time!”

“Man, that’s bull.  I’ve changed since then and Brent’s my boy, man!”

The coach looked at the hurt boy.  “He doesn’t look like it now, does he?  Now go get the doc.”

Teague jogged off shaking his head mumbling, “This’s messed, man.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Zamantha walked past the room that was still cordoned off with police tape.  Katie was still inside, being questioned by the police.  She shook her head for her fellow nurse but did not interfere.  Instead she walked two cubes over to where Natasha Riley lay in her bed.

Outside the cube, Dr. Moore continued to talk to the kind eyed husband.  The man was big for an older guy, but now he looked small.  Sweeping aside the curtain, she read the numbers.  Low and erratic.

Again shaking her head, she put on her best smile and said, “Hi Ms. Riley.  I’m here to check your lines, OK?”  The round faced old woman did not stir and she did not continue.

The young nurse saw something she didn’t like out of the line going into the woman’s neck.  With all the fuss she raised earlier, things being out of place wasn’t a surprise.  She leaned over for a look.

A hand grabbed her by her throat and drew her up to Natasha’s face.  Zamantha lost her breath in shock and found herself staring into ice blue eyes.

“My Husband.” Her voice was low, strong and calm. “He is dead?  He killed himself?  Or maybe men came by?”

“What?” Zamantha croaked. “No.  Why?”

Behind the patient, a bell went off.  Heart fibrillations.  The bell was to warn people of an impending shock event, but the two women were locked.

“Why?  Listen carefully.  He is The Bomb.”

“A bomb?”

“Not A bomb.  THE Bomb.  He … It will…”

The defibrillator automatically shocked the woman’s fragile heart, giving both her and Zamantha enough of a jolt to make muscles spasm.  The young nurse fell to the floor while the patient slumped back into her bed.  Scrambling to her feet and out the door, the nurse left Natasha alone with her unconscious thoughts of murder.

The Strange – Episode 21 – Rubble – Part 2

The Strange – Episode 19 – Claws

It was a friendly street and, aside from it being recently paved, one not all that unique in Hogstown.  Spanish moss hung from the power lines in the heat and haze of mid-summer.  The street where Goldberg and Dan lived seemed not to live in any particular time, but just always existed in its current state of maintained, comfortable dilapidation.  Everything seemed to be growing, baking or giving off pollen. Even Goldberg’s apartment seemed to breathe as if alive.

Mr. Aye examined the two story duplex from the passenger’s seat of the Buick, specifically the top floor, where Goldberg lived.  

Carl looked around.  “Here we are, the address I got from the boss.  It’s the upper apartment.  We sure this is the place?”

“Ya. It looks like the kind of place this guy would live in.  Address matches.  It’s right.”  

The man smiled.  “I told you.  Mr. Loveless always comes through.”

“Nobody home, though.  Your man didn’t know that.  Thought this was a snatch job.”

“Well we are here to tell him that and we got a back-up plan.  There is always a plan and you stick to the plan.”  

“Yeah, well, I got a plan too.” Mr. Aye opened the glove compartment and retrieved a handgun and a new, cylindrical silencer.  He screwed the two together and tried to fit it into his shoulder holster. It wouldn’t fit right and rode too far into his armpit.

“Crap!”  He took the silencer off the pistol and shoved it into the holster under his tan jacket.  For now, the black metal tube of a device went into his front pocket instead of on the gun.

“Everything OK over there?”  The driver looked at him.  

“Yeah, fine.”  Mr. Aye gave the man stink eye.  

The air was hot and moist.  He opened the door to step out and It wrapped around him like a lustful squid. The heat was baking the sleep deprivation into Mr. Aye’s brains, leaving him an angry bag of flesh with a mess to clean up.

The security here was beyond bad.  There was a cinder block-enclosed stairwell leading to the porch which created a perfect hiding place for a thief.  Of course, they wouldn’t need a hiding place because the porch was shielded by palm fronds from the road.  Up on the porch, Mr. Aye considered his many entry options and wondered if the people who lived here were retarded.  The door was locked, but the window was propped open by a fan and protected only by a screen.  As it was, the experienced Mr. Aye left his lock picks in his pocket and simply opened the door with an old credit card.

He entered the hot and dirty apartment.  While the place was somewhat orderly, a film of filth and grime covered everything.  The well-used coffee table was still set up as a pot smoking parlor. A water pipe sat on the only clean corner with weed strewn all over what appeared to be the remnants of breakfast. A pile of books and unopened mail buried the kitchen table.  Things were everyday messy, but after the collector’s place, this was spotless.  

The backup plan was crap.  It was just as ill-defined as last night’s disaster.  Go find… something… anything that might have been retrieved from the Collector’s house.  Also, somehow, find a reason why this guy decided to visit the collector that morning.  Mr. Aye frowned at the task as he attempted to undertake it.  He crossed the room to begin his search, yet failed to notice one small, furry detail.  

Junior napped under the table, stoned and stuffed with cream cheese. His tail swished the air.  Unattended by his conscious mind, it landed where it found the least amount of natural resistance… which happened to be right in the path of a steel-toed boot.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The patchouli-scented waitress came with the check and Goldberg chased it down.  “Seems pretty stupid to go dutch-treat at this point, eh?  Hey, can we get a batch of those fortune cookies you make here?  And not the rude ones, the regular ones.”

“Fortune cookies?” Joy said.

“Well yeah.  They are pretty good. And after this morning’s weirdness, I’ve a new fondness for generated randomness.”

She smirked. “You think a cookie will tell you your fortune?”

Goldberg shrugged. “No, but I didn’t think I’d have some guy give me a dump truck full of cash today either.  So… may as well set up a pitch and swing.”

“Reasonable point, I suppose.  So what are you going to do first?”

“Disappear,” He said quickly, then turned.  “Hey Dan, you feel like toking it up old school?  Woods behind the ‘rock?”

Dan was picking his teeth with a straw and stopped long enough to say, “I like it.  Somehow I’m feeling the swamp.”

“You would,” Joy smirked.  “Well, I’m supposed to meet Sarah and her boyfriend for a late lunch after I’m through with office hours.”

“On a Saturday?”

“Unlike somebody,” She gave Goldberg an accusing look, “I’ve still got to grade papers. Comp on a condensed schedule is pretty crazy.”

“Stats compressed is just as bad, but I make all my stuff due on Mondays.  I always plan on being lazy and useless over the weekend.”  

She rolled her eyes.  “So are you going to meet me for lunch or what, stone boy? You can even bring the slug.”

Dan made a slurping noise that made Molly giggle.  

“Sure thing, but don’t think I’m going to clean up just to meet your family.”

“Ah, it’s just Sarah. And anyway, I wouldn’t worry about the ‘rents, were I you.  The most threatening thing about them is their desire for grandkids.”

Goldberg’s pasty complexion became even whiter as Joy grinned.

“Uh Oh.”  Dan looked towards the door with a mix of horror and anticipation.

“What?”  Joy moved her head to see what he was looking at and her bright mood darkened.  Megan, Goldberg’s ex-girlfriend, descended on the table like depression.  

Though the perky blonde young girl smiled, her presence cast an unwelcome shadow.  “Hi Ryan! I thought it was you over here.  Nice haircut. Um … Can we talk?”

Goldberg remained calm, like someone waiting to have a bone set.  “We’re talking now.  What can I do for you Megan?”

Her smile started to falter.  “Well, I saw you in the paper and I just wanted to say congratulations.”  

“Uh, thanks, Meg.”

An uncomfortable lull came over the table as Megan continued to stand close to the table, looking at Goldberg. Joy frowned as Dan grinned at everyone’s discomfort.  Goldberg ignored Meg.  He ate a fortune cookie and examined the message inside.  He showed it to Dan with a grin.  It said ‘An enemy will come to you with smiling eyes.’

Dan snorted through his nose  

Finally Megan broke the silence.  “Well are you going to introduce me to your new friend?”  Reaching across Goldberg she stuck out her hand at Molly.  “Hi I’m Megan, and you are?”

“Molly.”  They shook hands limply.  Molly still was in a bit of shock and her buzz was starting to wear off, so the conversation died right there.

The Blonde girl straightened up and looked at Joy.  “And Miss. Winter, interesting company you are keeping.  I wasn’t aware that you had met my boyfriend, Ryan.”

Joy’s face flushed, but her anger at the presumptuous girl kept her going forward.  “I’m not surprised.  There are so many things you don’t know.  Goldberg and I met years before you came to the University.  How are your studies going?  Still channeling Dickensonian angst?”

Goldberg said to Dan, “Didn’t she break up with me two months ago? Twice?”  Dan shrugged.

“Honestly man, I turned the station on that soap opera four or five break-ups ago.  Crap writing.  It just got repetitious.”

Megan ignored the two men and defended herself from Joy’s sharp tongue.  “Well, after taking your class, I decided it really wasn’t for me and became a Business Major.  English is such a… soft field of study.”

“I guess it depends on your approach and how serious you take it.”  The older woman’s eyes shot daggers.  “I guess we see that you just aren’t terribly serious and care deeply about money.”

Dan was amused while Goldberg was just confused.  He wanted to leave with a little class.  “Um, look, we were just leaving.  Can we offer you the table?”

“Well,” she puffed herself up and regaining her composure.  “Actually I was wondering if you were busy later.”  Shooting a sideways glance at Joy she said, “I really wanted to, you know…. talk.”

“He’s going to be pretty busy later.”  Joy broke in.

Megan looked only at Goldberg, cocked her head and smiled. “Really?”

“Yeah.”  Goldberg slid out of the booth and stood. “I’ve, uh, got to finalize some things, you know… lottery stuff.”

The blonde girl perked up.  “That’s so cool!  Congrats again.  So tell me, what did you do when you found out?  Were you excited?”

Before anyone else could speak, Joy cut in.  “Actually we went home and fucked like a couple of high school dropouts on Ecstasy.” Every eye shot to the thin, dark-purple haired woman, who shrugged and smirked.

Megan spat, “Eloquently put as always, Miss. Winter.”

Joy began to pull apart her fortune cookie.  “That’s why they have me teaching Comp. to you zygotes.”  She held up the tray.  “Cookie?”

“No thanks,” She said, in full retreat. “I’ve lost my apatite.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Merow!”  Junior yelled in pain, and surprise.  He reeled around, yanking his abused tail out from under the boot.  Giving the furry, gray tail a good twitch, he found that it hurt, but it wasn’t broken.  The owner of the feet, now back-stepping away from the table, should be so lucky to escape damage.

The shriek hit Mr. Aye’s ears like an ice pick.  Though he still didn’t know what was going on, he instinctively retraced his steps.  Fatigue clouded his mind so that it was only capable of one thought at a time.  Right now, the source of that awful noise pushed out thoughts of his goal.

In his classic low fighting stance, which made his round belly scrape the ground, Junior sized up the man who had dared to step on his tail.  The man wasn’t his daddy or the other guy who gave him food.  And he wasn’t apologizing in cooing tones!  This guy was bad and Junior was pissed.  The human-nip hummed in his ears accentuating his desire for large game.  Emitting a low, rumbling growl, he examined the man, looking for a weakness.  The great hunter had found deserving prey.

Hearing the commotion, Billie startled from her relaxed nap.  Human-nip always put her in the mood for a good cat nap before chasing anything that needed to be chased.  From high on top of her bookshelf, she surveyed the scene.  Junior had called out, but now he seemed to be playing with a new human friend.  

Claw hit ankle as the chunky cat opened his offensive.  The man backed away through the room, mumbling angry human-speak.  The time to strike was now!  He reared up and grabbed the man’s other leg, sinking his claws into the taut tendons behind the knee.  With a savage bite, his fangs dug into the fleshy area just below the man’s knee cap eliciting a bellow of pain.  Junior wondered if it was anywhere near as painful as having your tail stepped on by someone twenty times your size.  

The man’s leg came up off the ground, flailing around.  Junior bit harder and clawed deeper in an effort to hang on as the man’s boot came up between his legs.  The cat thought that this guy was trying to kick him in the balls, take him out of the fight! An ineffective move! Junior was castrated.

Through the haze of human-nip, Billie saw the action and got excited.  Hey!  It’s play time!  She readied herself, wiggling her little butt in the air, and when the time was right, she jumped onto the man’s shoulders. Up here she would receive love and attention, like daddy and the other guy would give when they came home.  

The new guy was terrible at this game, though.  She had to use her front and back claws just to hang on while he tried to pet her.  It almost seemed like he was trying to swat her off of his shoulders.  Weird!

Mr. Aye, now beset by two crazy cats, was totally panicked.  Pain clouded his senses and thoughts of escaping it overtook his blurry mind.  Nothing he did worked.

His head swam with a sudden wave of vertigo from his sleepless night.  Rage, was starting to well up, supported by the fatigue.  If only he could get to his gun!  He’d kill these damned cats!  The briefest flash of what he was doing crossed his mind.  He was here for something and couldn’t just shoot.  He needed to get the silencer!  Damn it!  

Finding new resolve in murderous thoughts, he kicked hard with his leg in one mighty flick. Junior’s claws held, but under the force, mercenary’s tendons gave.  A painful shock ran through him as he realized just how badly the big cat had damaged his right knee.  He groaned in agony.

From her awkward perch on the squat man’s shoulders, Billie had come to the conclusion that this guy was just no fun.  Something else attracted her attention through the screen door.  A bird!  A bird had flown in and sat on their railing, right where she liked to catch her morning sun.  She sized up the small animal as it fluttered its wings, seductively.  Surely it wanted to play!

Grabbing an extra tight hold of the man’s neck, the spry white cat sprang from her no-fun human perch and ran off to play with the bird.  As she often did, she forgot that the screen door actually had a screen in it.  Nose met screen as Billie rebounded off the door and back into the room.  Regaining her equilibrium, she licked her nose and sneezed.  Confused and embarrassed, she watched the bird fly away and looked around for something else to chase.

Cats usually land on their paws, but the human nip had messed up Junior’s balance.  Having been flung off of his prey’s leg, he tumbled on the hardwood floor and skidded to a stop.  When the big cat got back to looking for his adversary, he saw Billie bump hard into the screen door.  Junior was incensed that someone else would rough up the little white cat!  That was his job!  The time had come.  All quarter be damned!  This is war!

Momentarily free of cats, Mr. Aye drew his gun from his holster. Fishing into his pocket for the silencer, he did not see Junior.  The large cat barreled into the back of the already weakened right knee, making the mercenary fall to a half kneeling position.  His damaged kneecap smacked the floor with the force of a jackhammer.  It moved in a way that was not natural, tearing at the bitten and clawed tendons.

Shocked and dizzy, Mr. Aye flailed his arms for support.  The pistol flew from his hands, scooting underneath the couch.  The tube-like silencer fell from his pocket and spun on the ground right in front of Billie.  

Nature took over.  Billie pounced on the animated object, smacking and batting it in front of the screen door.  She managed to get the object between her paws.  Biting into one end, it squirted through the flap in the screen the cats used to get out.  She chased her new toy through the hole and out onto the porch.  She liked this toy!  Lots of action!

Mr. Aye’s bitten and clawed knee dug into the hardwood floor, shooting pain up his thigh.  He bit back the pain and assessed.  From just ahead of him, he heard a noise like an engine starting.  Slowly, He raised his head.  

The low growl emanated from the stoned and angry Junior.  The cat eyed him, ears flattened against his head.  From his perch on the overstuffed arm of the chair, he lowered his head and stuck his back up, adjusting his rear paws.  The claws on his hind feet dug into the burlap covering for better traction as he shifted his weight for an optimal strike.  

Mr. Aye was hypnotized by the predator’s eyes, momentarily frozen.

The cat shot through the air like a furry cannonball, closing the distance in a heartbeat.  Muscular arms opened wide in mid-leap.  Sharp claws appeared at the ends of large paws.  Grey fur, flab and bulk pounded into Mr. Aye’s face and chest, knocking him backwards.  He could feel the claws ripping into his neck and chest as front claws tore at his ears.  

The back of his head smacked on the floor producing a shower of stars in his vision.  When his sight cleared, he saw the angry animal, inches from his face.  He could only scream as Junior slowly tilted his head to one side, opened his mouth wide, and chopped down on the bridge of Mr. Aye’s nose.  A sick crunching sound sawed through the man’s skull as his nose broke in the clench of the cat’s jaws.

In a full panic, he threw the cat across the room, sending chunks of flesh from his nose with it.  The pain was enormous and he started to bleed profusely.  His eyes blurred as he tried to get to his feet, thinking of nothing else but getting the hell out of there.

Spitting out the nasty piece of bad-human meat, Junior saw the man trying to flee.  He reared up on his hind legs and pounced, claws ripping through the seat of the man’s pants and making four large tears in each ass cheek.  Mr. Aye shrieked like a schoolgirl as the cat bit forward and chomped his crack, one tooth scoring a direct hit on the rim of his hole.

Mr. Aye crashed through the door in full retreat, startling Billie so much that she abandoned her new toy.  He turned to run down the stairs but stepped on the round silencer.  As the white cat watched, he flew through the air and crashed down the stairwell.  His back hit the wall on the bottom of the landing where the stairs turned back on themselves and he went limp as a bag of sand.  Gravity pulled him down the rest of the wooden stairs and he smacked, head first into the concrete foundation of the house, finally coming to rest among the debris just inside the apartment door.

People were starting to come out of their houses to see what all the yelling and banging was about as Mr. Aye limped, blood gushing from his face, to the car. He threw himself into the back seat, and as he sat, the cat bite on his ass hurt him like a dagger.  “Drive.  Get away.  Go!”

The driver zipped away as Junior looked through the porch railing.  Nobody steps on my tail!

“What happened to you?  Did you get what we needed?” Carl asked from the driver’s seat.

“Shut the fuck up.”  Mr. Aye took a box out of his belt and punched in a number.  He held the phone up and said, “Bee.  Bee, come in.  I need another plan!”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“What the hell was that!?”  Goldberg stared at Joy’s back as she shoved open the door to the street.  

Joy got as far as the sidewalk before turning on her heel.  “You know what your problem is, Goldberg?” Her finger came up and pointed at his nose.  

“Um… no?”  

“You are way too nice.  And way too willing to go along to get along.  That girl used your heart as an ashtray and you even consider being civil?  Maybe you thought that you could ‘be friends’ or something!… invite her over for a potluck and other such nicey-nice.”

The glasses hid his confused scowl. “You are pissed that I didn’t light into her for no reason?”

“Ash. Tray.  How many times did that trollop cheat on you last semester allone?  Three?”

His voice lowered.  “You knew?”  

Joy’s face flushed slightly and she turned away.  “It’s a small town, when you get right down to it.  She was in my class.  She used to brag to her little slut friends before class, that’s how I knew and I…”

She turned.  Goldberg looked at her over the top rim of his glasses.  The look made his nose look very long and his eyes soft and warm.

“Damn it!” She sighed. “Why didn’t you stand up for yourself?  Don’t you get angry?  Someone craps on you and you are just like all ‘Dude, that’s uncool’ instead of giving them the shit they deserve!”

“And what would that solve?  What would that have changed with Meg?  Huh?”

“It may not have made a difference the first time, but the second time … Maybe.  And the worst part is that she said how much she liked you but would continue to carry on because she could get away with it.  I mean … didn’t you care?  Don’t you care?”

The question hung in the hot sticky air as cars rolled by.  “We’re not talking about her anymore, are we.”

Joy turned away and took a few paces before wheeling around on her heels. “Anyone ever tell you you suck with women?”

“Only every girl I’ve ever dated.”

“Well, since you are dating a woman now, it’s time to change your tune.”  She pointed into his chest. “You getting me?”

The heat caught up with Goldberg and he began to sweat anew in his confused silence. “So, does that mean we’re dating now?”

“Yes!  I mean… aren’t we?”  She sighed and relaxed.  “Look.  Goldberg.  Unlike her and unlike a lot of people that will probably start popping from the woodwork, I really don’t give a crap about your money.  You’ve got to believe that.  I…”  She looked into the rose of his glasses.  “I…  We want the same things.  We understand each other, don’t we?”

His eyes gazed into hers and he felt himself fall in.  Everything was happening so fast. “Joy, I…”

They both stopped  as Dan and Molly burst through the door.  Dan was laughing and Molly looked like a zombie.  “Ah man!  Luxury Automobile is a damned trip!”  

“Who?” Molly said, mostly to herself.

“The guy!  With the guitar.  Ah to hell with it.”  He turned to Goldberg.  “So… that was horrible and uncomfortable.  What are we up to?”

“I need to go home and … I guess … something.”  Molly said.  She raised her head.  “Maybe I can get some of my stuff?”

Joy met Molly’s sad eyes and sighed again.  She gave Goldberg a pat on the chest.  “Look, I’ll go with her and then I have got to do office hours.  You want to get back together on campus?  The Pen, one thirty?  I’ll have to work some after that as well, but I’ll be free after four.  Sound good?”

Goldberg paused, still spinning from Joy’s rant.  “You sure?”  

She stood on her tippy-toes and kissed Goldberg’s nose.  “About lunch?  Yeah. We’ll work on the rest later.”  She lightly squeezed his scrawny upper arm.  “We have later?”

“Yeah, we have later.”  They hugged as much as the heat of the day would allow and then the group parted ways along gender lines.

The Strange – Episode 20 – Rubble – Part 1

The Strange – Episode 18 – Game Plan

Teague sat in the middle of the classroom.  Around the room sat all of Hogstown’s receivers, everyone who participates as a target in the passing game.  There were running backs, wide outs and the hacker’s other four tight ends.  Of those four, only Teague was a serious target, but the others could conceivably catch and definitely had to block.  

“All right everyone.  We’re going over routes.  I expect you not only to know your routes for a particular play but everyone else’s.  There is a reason that we combine routes the way we do, and it’s important for you all to know…”

He thought of how many times he’d heard this and from how many other guys just like this one, the receivers coach.  Little dude with attitude wearing dad-shorts and a moustache.  They had a coach for every damned thing anymore and all of them wanted a piece of your time.  Receivers, O-line, Running Game, Even kick-offs.  Teague participated in all of them which ate huge amounts of time.  Meetings, practice, conditioning.  This was the preseason, but this was a full time job.  Sure, they would slack off once classes started, but then he actually had to do the classes.  No wonder they hooked me up with Sarah as a full time tutor.  

When they were introduced about this time last year, he thought that the coach had him pegged as some stupid street thug like some of the others they brought in on scholarship.  While it was true that he wasn’t nearly as eloquent as some, he’d managed a decent GPA in High school and his SAT’s were better than most on the team, even the walk-ons.

Then the work came and kept on coming.  It was a lot more than high school.  Sarah may have had her wild streak, but she was an excellent time manager.  She kept him on track when things really stacked up.  In Teague’s mind he guessed that this is what secretaries do for CEO’s, tell you what to do and when to do it.  

But most of all, Sarah calmed him.  Inside of all the work there was an opening of mind to new ideas, new ways of being.  Football coaches talked of philosophy, but Sarah introduced him to the real deal, Plato, Sun Tsu, Budah, he dug the Budah.  She helped him realize the large bag of anger he carried around with him and the trouble it got him in on and off the field.  Showed him how it held him back.  Sarah was his mirror.  Through her, he saw himself as how other people saw him; a frightening man, a man who lashed out like an animal when confronted.  An ignorant man, closed to new ideas and the possibility that he could be mistaken and learn from others.  He didn’t like that guy, but he liked Sarah and he appreciated that she didn’t shy away.

It wasn’t totally clear when she crossed over from helper to lover.  Sure he remembered the first time he got her into the sack, but it had been brewing for long enough by then that it was more a formality than a relationship milestone.  And as they laid there on that cool late fall night keeping each other warm, he considered how fantastic she was, together, but cool.  A party package but organized about it.  

And that, more than anything else made this morning’s freak out so odd.  It was a piece out of the normal place for Teague, a piece he relied on, and it frightened him more than he liked to admit.  Sure he’d admit it now.  Now that he was alone in his thoughts.  It was really freaky for her to be that needy, that out of sorts.  She was always together and Teague had come to rely on that more than anything else in this world.  

He looked at his huge hands for a moment and unlaced the fingers.  The palms of his hands seemed to have an odd shine under the fluorescent lighting of the quiet classroom.  The altogether too quiet classroom.

All eyes were on him as he raised his face.  The tough-guy receivers coach tried to look as stern and threatening as he could wearing those shorts.

“Fuck…” Teague croaked out and shook his head.

“I thought so.  Anyone not gathering wool in my class want to fill Mr. London in on the zone clearing philosophy of the bunch 8 formation? Maybe he’ll give it due consideration as he’s running extra laps.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Come in Ms. Bee.” Loveless said over the intercom before she could knock.  The magnetic lock on the door released and she slid into the office.  

She stood relaxed and prepared in her mom costume. “You wanted a report.  Do I need to remind you what not to say on an open phone, even one we’ve been careful about?”

Loveless scoffed.  “No.  And in a real sense, I know far more than you on the subject.  It’s just that with all the communications traffic surrounding the explosion, talking about it openly is less suspicious than talking about nothing.  You military people and your secrets.  If we’ve learned anything today it’s that data finds a way to get free.  No safe is safe.  The best one can hope for is obfuscation, disinformation, and well placed false trails.”

Ms. Bee frowned.  “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about my other priority, or more specifically, my original overriding priority.  And do forgive me if I am a bit excited.”

“I’m sorry,” she said with a scolding frown. “There is a cop in the hospital who gave to me valid testimony that he saw Ryan Goldberg, the freaking lottery kid from this morning, looking at a clearly hours dead Collector moments before the bomb went off.”

“Well, he’s not going to be giving that testimony anytime soon.”

“No.  I gave him a long-lasting psychotic.  He’ll be talking nonsense for weeks.”

“Well yeah, if they find him.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean shortly after you called me, he disappeared.”

“That’s… He couldn’t have.  The man I talked to wasn’t going to walk for weeks.”

“Well, when the cops came back, he was gone.  Needles dripping, casts left with no one in them, even the catheter was there, no Officer Small.”  Loveless looked up with a slight grin.  “Not walked off… disappeared.  How’d you get in anyway?”

“I used my charming smile.” Ms. Bee clicked at her teeth and the bright sheen dimmed.  “Aerosol truth serum with a psychoactive component. responds to the ultraviolet coloration of these falsies.” She picked the caps from her four front teeth.  “Perfume gets them, the teeth makes them mine for a couple of seconds.  Used a much larger dose on our mark.”

“Cool trick.”

“But there was nothing in that cocktail that would give the guy the presence of mind – or the ability – to get up, much less evade anyone.”  She looked at the small caps before tucking them into her pocket.  “Mr. Loveless, what is going on?  You do not seem surprised.”

“Oh, I’m surprised.  Well, not surprised by the fact that things are happening that are unexplainable and strange, but that these things are hitting quite so close to home.”  Loveless sat back in his chair and looked down at the edge of his desk, not fully seeing it.  Ms. Bee slowly sat in the chair opposite.  

“Would you care to elaborate?”  She asked, studying Loveless’s face.

Looking up from his desk, Loveless caught her eye.  He waved as if to dispel a fog.  “Oh knock it off with the interrogation nonsense.  I’ll tell you what I feel like telling you and don’t think for a second that YOU are gifted enough to pump me.”  He waved again and poked at his computer desktop. “I’ve been tracking an anomaly.  People mentioning that they can do weird and, frankly, reality breaking things.  All at once.  Just started happening in the last few days.”

“Maybe it’s some weird meme.”

“That would be nice, but nope.  Seems to be age independent, though the town skews young on a count of the school.  There is no cultural boundary to the mentions.”

“Well, so what?  People are being weird on the internet.  That’s not exactly news.”

Loveless grabbed a dice and examined it, avoiding Bee’s eyes.  “What if it’s true?”

“What, that people are starting to get some kind of fictional super power or something?”

“Or something.  Most of it is hardly useful, but a few…”

Ms. Bee gave him a side eye.  “This isn’t some kind of test.  I thought we were well beyond that.”

“No.  And believe me, I do appreciate the hesitation here.  I didn’t believe it either.  Seems like bullshit.  However, it came from absolutely nothing.”  He put the dice back in the bowl.  “And that defies … everything.  Reality.  People simply don’t work that way.”

Ms. Bee’s face held no emotion but her voice was displeased.  “This is all very interesting but I hardly…”

“Reality.  Bee.  Reality.  Rules.  Something as simple as being able to cook tea in your hands with no kettle breaks the rules.   My life’s work has been and continues to be to find and exploit those rules and patterns and automatic choices to gain advantage, Bee.”  He was animated but not angry.  Loud but not shouting.  “Do you have any idea how many supposed decisions people actually MAKE in a day?  Not many.  Hardly any at all.  The fact is that ninety percent of all human activity is neatly described by patterns and tendencies UNLESS they are disturbed.  This is not just getting milk on the way home this applies to everything a person does, what their moods are like.  What color they choose for a car and whether or not they are going to look both ways crossing the street or get married to their girlfriend.  People never noticed, they still don’t notice.  But it’s real and definable.  I know because I’ve defined it.”

Ms. Bee shook her head.  “That’s nice but …”

“You aren’t convinced.  You are a being of free will.  That’s true.  But, if you were not the paranoid person you are and didn’t have the training you do, you too would fall into trackable patterns.”

“Well, sure.  You can put together a surveillance package for a person.  Find their quirks…”

“Think bigger.  And think about what happens if someone is on to that.  I have a model that encompasses hundreds of miles and hundreds of thousands of people.  Every one of them is a sprite in my model.  I’ve tuned it to scan for vectors, data-points coming off of them.  Every hour of every day the model is updated, reinforced, self-tuned.  Its imperfections are self-correcting.  Nothing is perfect and people choose vanilla instead of chocolate sometimes which means that interactions need to be associated with chance and permutations which, of course, makes the model way more complicated but it is still there and has been shown time and again to be positively predictive.  You are looking at the fruits of that labor.   There isn’t a crime that is committed within my sphere which I am not able to taste.  I don’t take all of it, because the cops have got to catch someone, but I take a lot.  I knocked off anyone in my path pretty handily because crime is a social interaction and that is especially true of organized crime.  And I can keep this going indefinitely … as long as some fuck in a dorm can’t warm a Cup ‘o Noodles in his hands.”

Ms. Bee let her brow knit.  “Why?  Why do you care about the kid and his soup?”

“Because it changes reality.  People zig instead of zag.  Past performance no longer predicts future trends.  And more important and germane to this conversation, borderline cripples can shake off drugs and disappear.”

Crossing her arms, Ms Bee said, “That’s a leap.”

“Yes.  And you have no idea how badly the idea shakes my core.  However, it explains things.  Your cop is gone, for one.  A dumbass randomly hacks my unhackable system in such a way that it was almost undetected and he left a literal mountain of evidence.  And no one should have gotten into and out of that house, even with your team bolting from the scene like they did.  The time windows were simply too short.  The time of day and the day of the week severely winnowed down the potential population.  The need for anyone to go into the house was absent.  And yet, two different people zigged when they should have zagged.”  Loveless looked Ms. Bee dead in the eye.  “I want to know why.  This goes beyond needing to know if he can implicate me … I mean, I need that too, but…  this goes to the core of my model.  I need to know why this guy zagged.”

Ms. Bee stoically asked, “What would you like me to do?”

“I want Mr. Aye to go and get him.  You said something about the Lottery?”

“Yeah.  Kid’s face is on the front page of the paper.”  She found the newspaper by the empty cups of coffee and held it out to Loveless.  “And why is the morning newspaper the only paper in this entire office?”

“Crossword.”  Loveless began typing and immediately had all of the surveillance pictures Mr. Aye had taken up on the monitor behind his desk.  Windows opened to do face scans.  I did recognition on everyone and got no matches.  Thought they were all freshman or something.  “Letting that go again specifically looking for him.  Now to find his ass.”  He typed a few times and said, “Hm.  His phone’s last known location was near the house.  I’d guess that means that he either lost it or he’s in the rubble pile.”

“Do you think we’re that lucky?”

“No such thing as luck, only knowledge others don’t have.  No.  And here’s what I mean.”  The screen behind his desk showed a picture of a young man, no glasses and with singed and matted hair.  “There he is, walking away.”

Ms. Bee looked at the photo.  “No glasses, different hair.  You sure?”

“99% match now that we know who we’re looking for.  And since he’s employed by the school… Got it.”  Goldberg’s address on Fourth Avenue popped up on the screen.  “Please have Mr. Aye investigate this and if possible, retrieve Mr. Goldberg for me.”

“I don’t know.  Aye has been up since last night.”

“When he botched and got us into this mess.  No.  He goes.  He fixes this.” Loveless swiveled in his chair to face the big screen and Goldberg’s dopey picture from his university ID.  “Your Mr. Aye is a monster.  He can muscle through this.  Anything else would cut the man down.  We all need him built up.”  Loveless looked up at Ms. Bee. “He’s going in.”

The Strange – Episode 19 – Claws

The Strange – Episode 17 – The Job and the Work – Part 2

Edwin’s stomach flopped as the cab, lacking a trailer, hit the curb that separated the parking lot from the road with a little too much speed.

“Hey G!  Easy on the gas!  Thing’s going to bail over.”

Guillermo smiled.  “Nah.  Tractors are super powerful and high, but the center of gravity is down near the transmission, between the wheels.  If it wasn’t. the whole thing would drive all screwy when the trailer is attached, because that is higher.  We’re actually less likely to have problems without a load.”

“Not with you driving.”

“Relax.  We’re here.”

Up ahead, the two men could see a crew of four men getting out of a similar truck to theirs hauling a plain white trailer.  The only interesting thing about the trailer was two orange contraptions, stuck underneath that looked like two bundles of spare tires, but with a clamp that extended around to the sides of the trailer.  Those men were on the left side of another truck in the parking lot and Guillermo was coming in to park on that truck’s right.

“This is the one.  So remember, we got eyes on all corners except yours.  From your 12 to your 5-ish is pretty much blind to everyone working on the jacks.  You see anything, use the channel.  You’ll hear us working on the trailer but if anything turns south, the first you’ll hear of it is when I come up and get in the truck to haul ass.  But hey, that’s not happening.  Just keep looking out and relax.”

“I’m always relaxed.”

“didn’t you just say doing Loveless’s jobs creeped you out.”

“Well they do, but I’m relaxed about it.  Just… hurry up.”

A minute after Guillermo disappeared, Edwin could hear the Hydro’s lifting the trailer, the squeak of it coming free from its attachment on the other truck and the whine of the lift’s electric motors.   Nothing came into the field of view even though the road ran right through it.  A cop could have easily come by in the few minutes it took the guys working as a big-rig pit crew to do their thing, but none did.  A bystander, a hitch hiker, a family wagon lost on its way to vacation in Orlando, anyone could come by.  But they didn’t.  All completely clear.  Nothing but trash trees and humidity as far as the eye could see.

“And how is this not creepy?” Edwin said to himself as he felt the trailer thunk into place behind him.  His heart skipped a beat as Guillermo opened the other door and climbed into the cab.

“Ok, now we wait.”

“What?”

“We’re covering the right side while they transfer the trailer.”

“Well what about the other side.  Won’t they see this from the diner?”

“Nah.  You didn’t see it, but we parked another truck on the other side.  This bit was the hard part.  And anyway, someone would have to be super observant to even notice us out here doing anything.  You worry too much.”

“Yeah.  Jerry wouldn’t have us doing this.  He’d have us smashing faces.  I really miss that.”

“You aren’t thinking of quitting, are you?  Because if you want to be on shit duty for Loveless, that’s how you get it.”

“And that’s freaking creepy.  How does he know what I’m thinking?”  Edwin talked with his hands while continuing to comb his area of responsibility.  “But no.  I’m not disloyal.  I just wish this made sense to me.  A punch in the face, that makes sense even if the face is mine.  The fact that Loveless knew no one would be on these roads?  That shit makes no sense.  And it’s creepy.”  He sighed.  “You know, I almost wish someone would notice this, so I’d have someone to punch.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Yeah.  Hey, what are those guys doing out there?”  From inside the diner, the young Chronicler eyed the scene in the parking lot.  Agreed, it looked from here like just four generic-looking trucks lined up in a corner of the lot with only three boxes among them, but he knew that the trucker with the bad stomach had come out of one of them.  Now he saw some people hanging about the back of it.

“Hm… don’t know… Looks like they are transferring that trailer.”

“Doesn’t that seem… Odd?  I mean, like … I don’t know … it almost looks like they are stealing it.”

“It’s the south, lots of things are odd.  This isn’t Miami, Junior, it’s more like Georgia here.  And it’s not something of the wind though so fuck it.”

He took a last look at the collection of trucks as the one farthest from them started to pull away. “Consider it fucked.  And on the topic of wind, any sign of Weathermen?”

“Not a damned word.  I always had my doubts and I’m horrified to be proven right.  I fear they could not stand and mount a defense for so long. Not without something to stand against.”

“Well, it’s not like they were ever needed before.  Lots of history before the thirties. People got by.”

“Yeah, but not without losses.  The plague, the flood, the war.  When this stuff gets going and the wind becomes a hurricane the world ends and a new one is born.  It’s never quite the same.  And this time, we’ve got nuclear weapons and super science!”

The younger man grimaced, his blandly handsome face creased in worry. “You really think it will be that bad?”

“That pulse was a doozie.  Like a Riley-sized doozie.”  The older man blew out, scratching his head. “If that gets going, it will be a race to the finish.  Some idiot will crack the planet and all those who thought we were too stupid to live will be proven right.”

“And you need me to write it down?”

“Well… That and try to figure out how to keep shit under control.” He waved his hand to dismiss protest. “No.  Don’t think you’re saving the world, but look, there is always a group.  Some group.  There are always groups.  People group together.  But there will be one that is important.  Find them.  Help them.  Befriend them if they aren’t assholes because lord knows you need to socialize more.”

“I socialize plenty”

“Grinder is not socializing.  You are young enough for that shit not to turn sour yet, but it will.  Just because you can one night stand it doesn’t mean you are having relationships.”

“I know that.  I … just fuck you. ”

He smiled.  “Whatever, Romeo. Anyway, they will be flailing around. Find those guys.  That’s the story anyway so do that.  Be part of the story.”

“And that’s what you did?  When Kesey and Owsley poked a hole in the world?”

His eyes drifted and a grin snuck into the corners of his mouth.  “You bet.  Lots of fun too.  Girls like you’d never seen.  But that was a different sort of incursion.  This isn’t the id poking out, this is power.  More like the 30’s than the late 60’s.  That was just a blip.”

“And the other was a war.”

“End of the fucking world. Gone was the Edwardian gentlemen and in came the mechanized cold warriors.  God only knows what’s coming next.”

The young man stared at the back of the truck trailer, slowly moving sideways in-between too other trailers.  The silence settled into the table as the older man nursed his coffee.

“Ok.  I’ll take it,” the young Chronicler said.  “And I’ll take ownership of your books.”

“Good because they are already in your van”

“Van?”

“Yeah.  I’m giving you the bus.  It’s parked right outside.”

The young man had, seen and heard the old, pale-blue-and rust colored VW Van when it parked and hadn’t given it much thought.  He thought about it now. “The… That relic. What the fuck am I supposed to do with a bus?”

“Drive it.” He slammed the keys down on the table with a flourish.  “Look, it’s a functional vehicle and even someone as … effete as you could rebuild that thing out of a book…  which, by the way, is one of the books that is in the back of the thing, along with all my stuff.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do with the rented shitbox I used to get here?”

“What do you care.  Follow the story.”  The key chain sat in the middle of the table.  A single key with a long cord and a little book charm on the end of it.

“Can I give you a lift?  I mean…”

“Don’t bother… I’m just going to stay a while.  Eat some pie.” The two sat in silence for a time which seemed to annoy the older man.  “The story doesn’t end here. There is always someone else who carries it on, expands it.  Follow the story.”

“And …”

“I’m making my own fucking choices as an adult and an old man so just fucking get out here, Chronicler.  The wind is coming.  The change of the strange is happening.  Now get out of here and do your job.”

The Chronicler thought a moment, looking at the man who would no longer meet his eyes.  He snatched the keys.  “Ok.”

“Good.  And be careful going into third.  It’s a little sticky.  You know how to drive a manual, right?”

“Yeah.  Kinda.”

“Just grind it till you find it.”

He looked down at the man he’d known since he’d been a lonely, confused child.  The weird uncle he knew he’d never see again, but also knew would just be upset at sentimentality.

“Yeah.   I’ll do just that.  Hope there is something in that book about how to replace a clutch.”

As he left he heard the man say, “There never is a true replacement.  It’s always a different thing.  There is only going on.  Be well.  Find the story.”

The Chronicler looked down at the keychain in his hand and looked up at the powder blue VW bus rusting in the parking lot.  He opened the door to burst out of the diner and into the heat and light.  “Adventure awaits, apparently.”  He said to himself. Donning his sunglasses and twirling the keys, he added a mocking, “Tally-ho! By Crom!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The truck lurched to life and Edwin was never so relieved to be hauling stolen goods.  “Feels different with the trailer.”

“Yep.  You can really feel the weight distribution when it turns.  It kinda pulls on you, the weight, but it feels right.  Makes the truck less twitchy.”

“Anything that helps keep the wheels down is good.”

The truck slid past the blue hippie van that was also making for the exit.  Guillermo was a much more determined driver, cowing the blue van into yielding.

“So… Still freaked Edwin?”

The big man shrugged.  “Just glad the weird part is over.  I mean, it’s like Loveless sees the future or some shit.  Spooky.”

“And again, we’re on the winning side of it.”

“Yeah, I guess.  Just glad I’ll be home when the bus comes.”

“I told you, man… Nothing to worry about.”  The truck pulled out onto the two-lane state road.  In the rear view, Edwin could see the diner and the blue bus struggling to get out of the parking lot.  As that scene disappeared once again behind a stand of trash trees, Guillermo added, “Stick with Loveless, man, believe in his plan and we will rob the world blind and get away every time.  Nobody fucks with Loveless.”

The Strange – Episode 18 – Game Plan

The Strange – Episode 16 – The Job and the Work – Part 1

“Yo!  Edwin!” A large man grunted and jogged to catch up to an even larger man in the hallway.  “Edwin!  We got a job!  Need you to run eyes.  Jackass is taking over your guard shift.”

The hallways of the secret warehouses and docks under and in back of the mall were always weirdly cold in a way that air-conditioning, even the hyperactive AC of the mall, couldn’t explain.  Edwin, the bigger man looked back over his shoulder.  While his right hand stayed in place on the butt of his sawed-off shotgun, his other hand subconsciously tried to rub the chill off his forearm.

“Yeah, Guillermo.  I been on since last night.  Don’t think I can do it.  Melisa gets out of camp at 3 on weekends and I gotta be home.”

“Shit pal, can’t your wife handle it?  Your girl I mean?”

The baby faced mercenary smiled but shook his head.  “Marcy usually does on weekdays, but not weekends.  She’s got this house cleaning gig and all…”

Guillermo flinched. “Well hell.  We’re gona be back by then anyway.  This is a quickie.  The boys with the lift are already in route and all.  Bob said to grab you.”

Edwin didn’t like the sound of it.  “Cab?”

“Yeah.  It’s a disappearing cargo trick.  Those are easy since we got the lateral lifts.  Good cover too.”  The tan man grinned, his moustache emphasizing his teeth. “I’m carrying the empty.”

“So we get to pigeon if we get caught.  Great.  You are empty right up until the point where they hitch you up to a newly stolen trailer of … whatever.”

“Don’t think of it like that.  Look, the boss said to put you on it.  You don’t like it, talk to Bob.”

“Bob can’t do anything but follow orders, you know that.”  Edwin scratched his round face and looked up the hall.  “I mean, they call me a meat head, but dude can’t muster the brains to question or plan.  Why he’s the boss is anyone’s guess.”

“Loyalty and he’s so wimpy that he couldn’t even do this job if he wanted to, the little twerp.  Look, I get you.  You can’t do it, you can’t do it.  It’s a paid gig though and if they ever catch us going short we’ll be in shit from the very top.  Like, Loveless shit.”

“Yeah.  I know.  I…” The big man’s resolve broke.  “G, don’t sweat it.  I can do this thing.  You promise I can be in my car by 2, though right?”

“I will do what I can, but if we’re that late, we’re super fucked already.  Don’t worry pal, I got you.”

“Yeah.  it’s nice to have someone watching my back.”  The two men smiled, agreements both spoken and unspoken exchanged. “Hey, let’s get on the road.  If we’re doing this, let’s get it going.”

“Uh… Oh, Ok.  You’ll want to get something from the armory though.”

“Yeah.  Next stop.  This thing ain’t right for the job,” the big man shook the shotgun carefully as he made his way further up the hall.

The door marked “cold storage” had a touch pad on it and Edwin punched in a code.  With a pop, the door opened.  Inside an array of weapons lined the walls.  Everything from small handguns meant to be hidden, to knives meant to be thrown to rocket propelled grenades meant to blow up tanks lined the shelves of the room.  Suits of tactical armor and infiltration gear were folded and stored.  A small war could be fought with the contents of this room and it was all highly orderly.  Clearly, they wanted to standardize on certain makes of particular types of equipment and Edwin checked his sawed-off shotgun in on a rack with a number of identical weapons.  Further down the row he found what he was looking for.  A .44 magnum auto.

“You’re carrying the high heat?”

“Yeah.  If we get in trouble we’re likely going to be shooting at cars.  I’ll pack a 9 as well, but I want to be able to take out an engine block.”

“Good thinking.  Is that standard for eyes on a truck job?”

“Is for me.  9’s are good at stopping a dude.  I’d rather take out dude’s ride.  Loveless comes up with the play, but he’s smart enough not to tell a man what kind of weapon he should shoot.  Not everyone can handle the kick on this thing, even sitting down and braced.”

“Yeah, but if you trash the car and leave the dude, you leave a witness.”

The man focused on inspecting the weapon, but turned contemplative.  “You know G, we been at this a while.  Ever since Melissa started actually talking and thinking, you know … past the cute bundle phase into being a real kid and all, I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t kill a guy just … because.”

“That’s not a plus in this line of work.”

His head snapped up from his inspection of the weapon.  “Oh, don’t get me wrong, somebody gets nosey I’ll blind side them with a right hook.  Get too close and I’ll blow them away, but avoiding it is probably best, you know, since we’re already sneaking around. But still, I’ll be prepared for anything.  I mean, you know, safety first and all.”  The man holstered the massive weapon in a plastic case and went looking for the smaller gun just in case he had to shoot a bystander.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The roadside diner was a thing of chrome and pink leather.  Seemingly imported from the desert, it sat at an old intersection of two busy state roads in the middle of nowhere.  A different kind of desolation from the desert, wet as opposed to dry.  A huge parking lot welcomed truck drivers with easy access on and off of the two roads that bypassed and predated the major interstates in this portion of North Florida.

A young man with an expensive haircut and road-weary clothes sat at a booth.  He drank coffee from a coffee cup that did not fit right into the saucer.  His eyes peacefully drank in everything around him, including an obviously uncomfortable trucker running in from the scorching parking lot.

The man burst through the door. An old long sleeve shirt draped lazily over the thinnest of wife-beaters, stretched to near bursting over a barrel chest and belly.  Behind the counter, the oldest of the wait staff shook her head.

“Melvin, I swear to god I’m going to start charging you.”

The man looked sheepishly back.  “Sorry, Karen.  Need to lay off the chili dogs.”

“Sorry my ass, if you didn’t eat like you was a teenager… Go on sweetie.  But see a doctor will ya?  And remind your wife that she needs to give you shit for all the shit you give me.”

“She already did!” The trucker sprinted to the bathroom as the older woman shook her head, half laughing, half disgusted.  On her way to the bathrooms she grabbed a well-used “out of order” sign and hung it on the door.

The young man crinkled his nose and tried in vain to get the coffee cup to sit straight next to the spoon.  In the end, he pushed the whole thing back slightly to marvel at the way it actually did fit, odd angle and all.  Even things that didn’t fit did, even if they fit uncomfortably.

Into the gleaming chrome, glass and tackiness strode an odd figure in a light robe with stars and comets on it.  Bald, fat and unshaven, the odd man who wore more years than apparel strode up to the table.

“You are still going with that look Johnson?” the younger man said as the bald man slipped into the booth.

“Yeah, why not?”

“As long as you keep the front closed, I guess.”  The man took a sip and scribbled into a notebook.  “I got your message.  Something urgent?  You needed an assist or something?  Your note wasn’t exactly clear.”

“Not an assist as much as … well … can you feel it?”

The young man looked out, as if smelling the air.  His eyes squinted, catching a sent.  “Yes.  Like a breeze, getting stronger.  Really, though, you brought me in for that?”

“Well, for the record, Junior, I don’t need permission to ask you to come talk to me,” he grumped, “And… well, kinda. ”

The younger man smirked with half of his face “Kinda.”

“Yes.  That breeze.  I need for you to look into it.”

The younger man shook his head.  “I’m supposed to be in DC and New York.  I thought we’d agreed that I’d stay in the north east.”

“Northeast isn’t where the action is.  The story is here.”

“Then it’s a good thing our best man is here, Johnson.  You are the ace.”

“Was the ace.”

The younger man rolled his eyes.  “You covered San Fran in the day.  That’s the most active we’ve been since… what, the 30’s?”

“Yes but this is your show now.  I can’t do it.”  He leaned back as the waitress set down a mug of coffee with a side of stink eye at his clothes.  “I shouldn’t do it.”

“What” the younger man leaned forward. “Because you are old?  That’s crap and you know it.”

“Because I’m dying jackass!”

The shout carried across the diner.  The waitress, who had been about to take their order paled and left.  But the startle from it died quickly. The two men resumed their conversation.

“That…” The younger man looked him up and down.  “You look fine.”

“Yeah, well, got hit by a fucking car of all things.  Back is a mess.  And knees.  Went to the hospital and they patched me up.” He looked up from his mug and caught the younger man’s eye.  “but then they released me.”

“No.”

“With a prescription for pain meds.”

The younger man shook his head at the ghastly news.  “On paper, I hope.”

“Yeah.  Got the first one filled ok, but the ones after, the physical therapy appointment, any fucking record…”

“Gone.”

“Like the fucking wind!”

“Oh shit, man.  What did you do?”

“I did what any sane person would do.  Found a fucking drug dealer.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The big rig felt weird to Edwin without the trailer.  While it really didn’t feel any different, especially sitting in the passenger’s seat, the picture of a high, short, top heavy looking vehicle gave him tension across his shoulders.  He was relieved when the gleaming diner emerged from the trash pines and underbrush.

“So, how do we know this guy is going to be away from his truck?”

“It’s a loveless thing.  He knows.  You been on things for the boss before.  They make no sense but they always work out.”

“Except when it don’t.” Edwin looked out the window. “I miss working for jerry.  That made sense.  Rough up the dealers, take the cut, do security. Maybe it wasn’t taking a truck, but it was honest.  There was a service, protection for money.  Loveless is… he just… I don’t know…”

“Yeah.  I miss Jerry too.  But he crossed Loveless.  Got off light with exile.  Nice he had someplace to go when the consolidation went down.”

“Yeah but still.  Loveless.is… she’ll he’s always nice to people to a point, but the way he works is just … it gives me the creeps.”

“Yeah, but we’re on the winnin’ side of it.  Better than loosing.”

“I guess.  Still, don’t you miss the way we used to just shake down the freshmen for lunch money in highschool?  I tell you, the first time that actually worked out, I knew that was my calling.”

Guillermo smiled. “Yeah, you are a hell of a thug, but you have to get modern.  What, you think you can support your little girl by just random mugging and bullshit?  Who even carries cash anymore?”

“Yeah.  I still feel like the shift from muscle to sneaking around doesn’t properly exploit my skillset to its fullest potential.”

“Man, you just need a vacation.  Even if you like your job gets old after a while.”

Edwin stared out the window at the fast approaching crime scene.  “Yeah.  Maybe.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Your fucking me.  Instead of going back to a hospital, you go to a street pusher?”

“No and don’t project your fantasies onto me, I’m not your type.  No, I had horrible pain, no pain pills, no record of jack due to our wonderful constitution and the drug dealer could give a fuck who you are.”

The young man considered this for a while, running his hands though his well-groomed hair. “So… how are you doing?”

“How do you think I’m doing?  I’m on the fucking H and horribly addicted.  I’m patching my shit together mostly because I can rob the pusher blind.  Not being remembered does have its perks sometimes.”

“And its drawbacks.”

“Yeah.  No shit.  Just got to spread my shit around.  Good thing I always had an affinity for lowlifes.  Anyway, I can’t go.  It’s your show.”

“North Florida?  Land of humidity, bibles and rednecks?  Get someone else.”

The older man was resolute.  “No.  There is no one else.  Believe me I thought about it.  Look Junior, I know New York and DC is way more comfortable for you.  You’re a queer.  Queers fit in there.  It’s nice to have a community and I respect that.  But you got to think about the story here.  The history.  This is where things are happening.  And you are a Chronicler.  When the history of the fantastic is written, you write it…”

“…Because we’re the only ones who can,” The young man finished.

“Right.”

The younger man could not meet the older man’s eyes so he stared out into the parking lot.  “So what happens to you?”

The older man sighed and ran his hand over his bald head.  “I don’t know.  I’m giving you my books.  I… I’m not going anywhere good, Junior, you know that.”

“Fuck man” He hung his head.  “I’m … sorry.”

“Yeah.  Me to.  You know how it is for us though, something always gets you.  And there are so few.  More new ones lately though.   I think there was a new kid.  Girl.  In New Mexico.  Glenda went to get her.”

“Just like Mur did for me.”

The old man nodded. “Taught you.  The story … it’s not the history.  The wind scrubs it all away.  People forget.  The story is what counts.”

“Yeah.  The past isn’t what it used to be, eh?”

“It never is.”

“So really… Are you going to be ok?”

“No.  But I’ve lived for long enough and saw much.  Had some kids that loved me when they saw me and thought I was a prick when they didn’t.  Pretty typical actually.”

“I never knew that.  They aren’t Chroniclers are they?”

“No.  No.  Never works like that.  Random.  Never know who gets a power, eh?  One’s a reporter, but not a Chronicler.  Only the wind knows who will get the change of the strange.”

Meeting his eyes once more, the young Chronicler asked, “And you think there will be more?  Others, I mean… Not just us?  Different?”

“Yes.  There already are.  If you focus, you can taste it.  And there was a pulse.  A strong pulse, just this morning.  I fear that it will accelerate.” He reached out for his coffee mug and added, “possibly very quickly.”

The Strange – Episode 17 – The Job and the Work – Part 2

The Strange – Episode 15 – The Voice Inside

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.

“Jesus!”

“Not quite.  You seem surprised.”

“You’re crazy.”

“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?”

Central nodded.

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.”

“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.

The Strange – Episode 16 – The Job and the Work – Part 1

The Strange – Episode 14 – A Small Town

Ms. Bee pushed aside the two spent syringes in her purse and picked out a cell phone.  It still read “No Service”

The corner of her mouth dropped into a half frown and she kept walking.  The info she had could not wait.

She roamed the hallways with a calm purpose, blending in with all the other visitors by keeping to herself.  From time to time she checked the cheap cellphone in her hand.  It stubbornly refused to get a signal and after doing a full circuit of the floor, she charged down the stairs.

A half dozen smoking nurses greeted her with weary looks as she opened the door at the end of the stairwell.  They perched like birds on the yellow painted metal tube railing separating the exit from the parking lot beyond.  She smiled and held up a cell phone.

One of the nurses nodded at the unvoiced observation.  “Yeah, building’s shielded.  No phone service.”

Ms. Bee frowned and in answer the nurse said, “To keep X-rays and MRI’s from screwing up the cellular network.  Ironic, eh?”

Smiling politely, Ms. Bee waved and walked a comfortable distance from the smokers to make her phone call.  She put in the number, waited and then put in an extension.

“Loveless, we have a problem.  I’m coming to talk to you about it, but I’d advise you to read about the lottery, specifically the winner.  You should have my friend go visit him right away.”

The phone cut her off and she listened.

“My guy is sleeping. … Of course I’m sure.”

Her brow furrowed as she listened, then she broke in.

“I can’t talk to you about that over the phone! I’ll see you in a minute.  Bee out!”  She pressed the button on the phone and added “Dumbass!”

She charged back to the door she had exited and pulled fruitlessly on the handle.

“Fire door, sweetie.  Got to go around the front” the same nurse said and pointed the direction.

“Thank you.” She smiled but didn’t mean it.

“Bad news sweetie?”

Ms. Bee flinched at the sudden familiarity.

“What makes you say…”

“This is a hospital.  You look like you’re having a bad day.  Want to talk about it?”

“No, thank you.”

“You know, sometimes getting things out in the open makes it all better.”

Ms. Bee smiled without humor. “Not in my world.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Glasses they had found for Goldberg made him self-conscious, especially indoors.  An old pair of round, rose-colored, prescription sunglasses were his only back up and with the new haircut he found all the comforting, grounding elements of his personal appearance were gone.  Add a couple of bong hits on top of that and he thought that maybe he was an entirely different person.  It was disconcerting.  He liked the person he was yesterday just fine and he felt a little like an imposter in his own skin.  But at least with the glasses, he could see.

He looked around the table at Joy, Dan, and Molly.  They all ate while his potatoes and vegan egg substitute grew cold.  His stomach was in knots that even the tokes didn’t fully iron out.  More money than he could properly envision was about to come his way and he couldn’t help but think about all the ways that would change his comfortable, bohemian existence.

This place, the Boardwalk Cafe in the center of town, epitomized that lifestyle.  Home-brew arts and crafts covered the walls with streaks of color and abstract, Greek-orthodox looking paintings.  No thought was given to constraining the color palate – it was all free game and blended into a yellowish brown.  A cork board by the door disappeared under an inch-thick coating of fliers and notices, most photocopied one too many times.  Everyone in this restaurant was in a band, or knew someone who was, or was reading a book, or writing a novel.  This was his society … and it was done on the cheap.  Goldberg wondered what money would do to it, or more accurately what his money would do to his perception of it.

And as for perception, his new-found power peeking out from behind every corner was the capstone to it all.  Everything had gone plaid so suddenly from so many different angles that having a super sight super power, at least in his own mind, barely registered.  Even the unsolved murder seemed to fit in the way that nothing fit anymore, which made it easier to push into the back of his mind, at least for now.

Even with all that had happened – showered, shorn, newly re-sighted – he felt keyed up and laid back.  He had a unique combination of energy and peace that had him teetering on the peak without being amped.  He felt… he wasn’t sure how he felt, but it wasn’t bad.  It was just so totally strange.

“We’re on a space ship, aren’t we?  I mean, I feel like we are on a space ship.”  Molly giggled.  “I finally figured it out!”

“So where on the ship are we?” Joy asked, with a grin that wasn’t the least bit patronizing.

Molly shrugged. “I guess we’re in the restaurant.”

“They have restaurants on board space ships?” She asked.

“Of course they do, Joy.  Where do you think people eat?” Dan said the leaned over to Molly.  “Man, she says some of the dumbest things some times.”

Joy frowned at Dan.  “Well, I’m just curious about this ship, having never been in space before.”

“What do you mean? We’re in space right now.”  Goldberg regarded Joy’s look.  “No… for real.”

“And here I thought at least you were lucid.” Joy said.

“I am.  It’s a simple fact.  Go a mere couple thousand miles in any direction, nothing but space.”

“Yeah! And we’re on a space ship which explains the weirdness.  And we are definitely not sitting in a weird restaurant with weird food with no eggs or meat that tastes like weeds after having everything I’ve ever owned blown up and crushed and dropped into a world with three weird old people.  I mean, that’s just… not…. possible…”  Molly’s gaze drifted off beyond the overly decorated walls of the cafe.

“Ah dang.  She went quiet again.  Nice job Joy.”

Joy tilted her fork into the air.  “What did I do?  I was playing along.  And I am not old.  Twenty-eight is not old.” She looked at the girl. “Maybe we should take her to the infirmary or something.  Get her checked out by psych.”

“And have them pump her full of drugs?”

Her voice gushed with sarcasm. “Yeah, that would be terrible.”

Looking over Goldberg’s shoulder Dan said, “Heads up, Goldberg.  Here’s our boy”

Goldberg looked towards the door to see a big, older man.  He had to agree with Dan that he looked like a very intimidating accountant with a face made from strategically angled and arranged meat.  In his mind, he stroked his power and asked it about this man.

‘The likelihood that this man is a danger to you is indeterminate.’

‘How about the likelihood that he’d turn me over to the cops.’

‘Also indeterminate.’

‘Can you say much about this guy?  You are usually overly informative.’

‘There is a high likelihood that he will give you a large amount of money.  Little about people is predictable or certain beyond the known.  Free will changes the way people behave moment to moment.  Only the past and present state is fixed.  All else is interpretation and probability.’

That was curious, but before he had an opportunity to ask further, Vic Goodman stood at the table holding out his meaty hand.  “Mr. Goldberg, I presume?  And you have taken up with my ex-employee I see.”

Goldberg shook the offered hand.  “Your ex-employee is my long-time friend.  It’s a small town.”

“Evidently.  I’d wondered where you got my personal cell number.  I’m pleased to meet you.  And who are your lovely associates?”

“This is my … uh …”

Joy rescued him by sticking out her hand.  “Joy Winter.”

“And this is Molly Bunn.”

Molly rolled glassy eyes in the man’s direction and squeaked out a lazy, “hi.”

“Pleasure to meet you both.”  He moved his whole body to address Goldberg.  “And you, Mr. Goldberg, are a bit elusive, we were concerned that we would not be able to serve the ticket in the time allowed.  People usually don’t cut the deadline so fine.  I take it, you would like to settle our business.”  He looked around the restaurant and wiped his forehead.  “Any reason we aren’t in my air-conditioned office?  And you do know that there is a number to call on the back of the ticket.  You didn’t have to call me personally.”

“Yeah, I’d rather keep a low profile.  I’ve had an active morning.”

“Ah yes, the article in the newspaper.”  Mr. Goodman leaned forward on his elbows on the small table.  “If I may, I do owe you an apology.  You were supposed to be anonymous if you wanted to be.   Lottery winners attract all kinds of difficult people. Having your name leaked is not how we do business and when I find who is responsible, they will pay for their lack of courtesy.”  His face turned dark as he contemplated extracting revenge.

Through the red glasses, Vic looked like a very angry steak.  “Uh yeah. That’s not really necessary.  Really!  I’d feel terrible if my good fortune was attached to someone else’s misfortune.  Seems a bad way to start things.”

Mr. Goodman released his steam.  “As you wish.”  He reached into the recesses of his tan suit and pulled out a folded stack of papers.  “Of course, I will need to see some I.D. and your winning ticket.”

Shuffling around on the chair, Goldberg fished out his wallet and the requested items.  “You know, I never expected to win and didn’t even notice until the other night.  The ticket was a prop for my statistics class.”

Vic rapped the plastic card on the table.  “Well, I guess you of all people should know that if the chances are one in a million, some guy in a million is likely to be that one.  Good thing you noticed, though.  We were going to roll over the pot tomorrow.” The big man examined the card and looked back at Goldberg.  “Non-Driving ID?  That explains why the DMV doesn’t know where you live.  And this picture.  Recent makeover?”

Bending past Dan in the booth, Joy replied, “The hippie thing wasn’t working for me.”

Vic’s jowls lifted in a smile.  “Yes, very fortunate for all involved.”  He pushed the stack of papers across the table.  “You need to sign this sheet and sign the back of the ticket.  Sign on the top for the annuity and at the bottom for the lump sum.”

“Ah, totally the lump sum.”

“You are sure?”

“Yep.  And don’t worry, I’m not about to be foolish. I’d just like to control the money myself.  I may stick it into my own annuity, but I think I have a better than average chance of beating the bond market.”  Goldberg quickly signed the papers. “That’s it?”

“That is it, my friend.  The lump sum is an adjusted Five hundred and sixty-three million dollars and is available through the account on the sheet.  It’s a money market account, but you can use the checks in the envelope right away.  Taxes lock in a week so get yourself an accountant, but aside from that, you’re good to go.”  He fetched the completed papers from Goldberg.

“And here I thought this would be difficult.  Sweet-Deal!”

Molly roused from her stoned malaise.  “My sweet-deal apartment, right near the campus, it’s gone.” Looking at Joy with bloodshot eyes, she said, “Who would have blown up my apartment?”

Vic suddenly noticed the sullen girl sitting in the corner.  “You had one of those apartments that came down this morning, Girl?”

“Yeah, but Goldberg saved me. It was shocking!” At that moment, she opened her hand and a static spark flew out and zapped Goldberg’s ear.

“Ow!”  He reached up and pulled her hands down.  “She’s just kidding.”

“These freshmen just can’t handle hangovers.” Joy burst in.

“Yes, well, as the saying goes, the devil always gets his due.”  Mr. Goodman pushed back his chair with a squeak.  “I am sorry to leave so soon,” He waved the paper in the air.  “but I have to file this.”

The big man held out his hand and Goldberg gave it a shake.  “I appreciate the personal service it took to meet us out here.”

“Always a pleasure to meet interesting company.”  Vic gave another tight smile and said, “Good day.”

The big man shambled out of the restaurant leaving the four at the table in an awkward silence.  Goldberg looked at the papers in front of him, still in a fog of disbelief.  His power flickered around the numbers, displaying the possible uses for this windfall.

The slowly rotating ceiling fan continued to push lazy air to little effect.  The homemade art regarded him with Byzantine eyes.  Goldberg felt like the world had shifted around him.  He was no longer a regular guy, he was a millionaire. The more he considered it, the more he knew this would change things and the more he realized he didn’t like change.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The swinging door to the kitchen burst open and a gray streak of fur came barreling into the apartment’s living room.  Goldberg’s cat, Junior, jumped up, rebounded off the back of the couch and shot over to the matching chair.

From her view point up on a shelf, Dan’s cat, Billie, observed the elder cat’s frantic motion.  All the commotion was just too much for her and she decided to resume her cat nap.  Junior was such a boy sometimes!  Too much effort!

Junior tensed and surveyed the area.  The hunter was in his domain.  The window beside the big humming thing, he knew, could be manipulated to provide easy access to the porch, all the while keeping the ever-present threat of mosquitoes at bay.  This would come in handy later, no doubt, but presently there was a nice breeze from the big humming thing and plentiful shade to keep his beautiful gray pelt cool.  Junior was happy in his lair for now.

But what’s this?  A flying bug!  How could such a tasty morsel dare to trespass on his turf?  Immediate action is required!  Juniors wide yellow eyes scanned the room for any possible threat before sizing up this infidel.  Seeing no one, he focused completely on the invading bug.  His pupils formed into narrow slits as every muscle in his body tensed.  His butt wiggled as he set his feet on the burlap chair, claws gripping the coarse fabric.  He coiled every fiber of his being for this singular, devastating motion of grace and power.

Ooo!  Itch on the belly!  He sprang up and licked furiously at the spot just between his first and second nipple.  Relief was sweet and satisfying.  Twisting back around, he sought his prey only to find it gone.  It may have escaped this time, but it can’t run forever!

Feeling a little peeked after setting up such a fine killing strike, yet showing mercy, Junior sniffed the air for more common prey.  The luscious, full-bodied scent of cream cheese drifted past his sensitive nostrils.  He followed the scent about a yard.  There on the coffee table was an unattended, open container with the wonderful diary delight right next to a half-eaten bagel.  Trotting over, he hopped up on the table and helped himself to the creamy treat.

Billie observed her companion with amusement up to this point, but was now very keen on his find.  She gingerly hopped from the high bookshelf to a lower bookshelf and then finally onto the floor.  Tail up and friendly, she hopped up on the table to be with the large gray cat that shared her home.

Junior saw the small white cat approach through a tray of the plant stuff that the humans liked to burn and made a low growl.  This mere kitten assumed to take the spoils of his hunt.  How presumptuous!

Billie was used to this kind of behavior and scoffed.  In scoffing, she sniffed.  Something smelled good!  Billie was two paws deep in the human catnip.  How silly!  The humans have left their green leafy catnip all over the place.  It seems tasty too.  Billie licked a bunch of it in her mouth.  It was dry and sticky so she shook her head and flicked her tongue.  Still, the catnip had a curious draw on the small white cat and he continued to sniff and eat.

The large gray cat looked up.  His nose held on to a small crumb of cream cheese as he saw Billie playing with the human catnip.  Licking off the last morsel, he advanced on his small friend.

He stalked forward as the little girl cat raised her head and said, “Meow? Pert!”  Her head twisted in questioning innocence at the large gray predator.

Junior came nose to nose with his small housemate.  He sniffed her and smelled the small pieces of green dried weed all over her face.  A huge lick cleared the strangely seductive human catnip flakes from her whiskers.  The white cat felt like a kitten again.  She grinned and blinked her squinted eyes in kittenish bliss.

The Strange – Episode 15 – The Voice Inside

 

The Strange – Episode 13 – Spilling the Beans

The world swam out of a painful void and became both bright and antiseptic. Officer Ken Small blinked his eyes against the light, but the pain was unavoidable. Off to his right, something moved and he tried to focus on it.

“Are we awake, Mr. Small?” a friendly voice came from the motion. “I’m Kathy, one of the nurses here. Don’t strain yourself, dear. Just relax. You were pretty badly banged up, but you were lucky. No internal injuries and nothing that required surgery.” As his focus resolved, the nurse had straight greasy hair and a huge overbite. “On the other hand, you have a bruised kidney, a broken right forearm, three broken ribs, a sprained ankle, strained ligaments and bruised muscles all over the place. Oh! And you lost your big toenail.”

“Is that all?” he groaned.

“Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Try not to move against the casts. It’ll just hurt. I’ll let the doctor know that you’re awake and he’ll give you the full rundown. Oh! I almost forgot, we had to catheterize you while you were out cold, so that might be a bit uncomfortable.” The woman forced an exaggerated smile that made her look even more like an unfortunate cartoon.

He wasn’t sure if he blacked out or not, but when he came back around to thinking about the world outside of his own pain, there was an athletic and very tan woman a skirt suit hovering over his bed. “Officer Small? Good afternoon. Can you possibly answer a few questions for me?” The woman smiled. It was a gentle smile with lots of teeth and to Ken it shined like the light of an old friendship.  “Questions? Sure. Just don’t make me pee.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”  She smiled. “Look, we are in the middle of a fast-moving investigation here so I’m sorry that we can’t wait until you are better. Could you give us your account of what you found at the Nestor residence before it blew up?”

Through the pain in his side Ken choked out, “Yeah, yeah, hippie. Blonde hair. Seen him before.”

“There was someone there?”

“Yeah. It was all pretty weird. Kid I’d just talked to.”

“So, what did you see, Officer Small?” The woman’s voice was slow and even, almost hypnotic, in a friendly way.

Something about the sound voice drew the story from Ken Small and he started to talk. “Hmm, when I got there, the door was open, so I investigated, thinking there was a robbery or something. Backup was in route so I went in solo. The place was a total mess of paper which was really strange. After identifying myself as a police officer, I heard this guy scream about a bomb from the back of the home. I found a guy dead on the floor and this guy… He was sort of holding a rope and bracing himself against a hole in the wall.”

“The blonde hippie, right?”

“Yeah. The name… ah… what was it…” Ken coughed and the ribs gave him a new definition of pain.

“Just think about it. I’m sure it will come to you. Just relax, That’s good. What did he do then?”

“It was unbelievable. He … sort of … jumped, and then the rope pulled him through the hole. I could hear a crashing sound upstairs so I quickly checked the victim and went to pursue. The guy had been dead for hours, judging by the stiffness of the body. ”

“Did you report your observations?”

The question struck the officer as odd, but through his pain and drug induced haze he continued. “No. I should have, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to reveal my position to the hippie with the rope or let him get away. I turned off my radio. I’m not going to get in trouble for that, am I?”

The woman stopped writing and said, “Not from me. So, what happened next?”

Feeling a little freer with his thoughts and wanting to get it all out, Officer Small continued to recount the events. “Well, I went up the stairs past the second and third floors and found myself in the attic. He was there and…”

“And what, Ken?”

“And it was like he was waiting for me. It was all wrong. I had my gun trained on him, but he didn’t react like a suspect that had just been caught, rather, he was talking about how there was a bomb next to the victim.”

“A bomb?” The tan woman’s eyes shot up from her writing to meet Ken’s. “Did you see this bomb, Officer Small?”

“No… Maybe… I’m not sure. There was so much shit in that place … there could have been a full-grown yak in there and I wouldn’t have seen moo.”

The woman laughed a lyrical, almost melodic laugh. It warmed Ken’s insides to hear that laugh and he wanted dearly to hear it again.

“You are funny, Officer Small. So, this person was talking. What did he say? What do you remember, exactly?”

“He said that he wasn’t sure why he was there and that the bomb was going to go off. I thought he…Goldberg!” The name just popped into Ken’s head. “He’s the guy I saw. Ryan Goldberg.”

“The guy who killed Mr. Nestor?”

“No, the hippie. He was standing over Nestor’s body, but there was no way. The guy on the floor was stiff. Not a fresh kill.”

“So, this guy, Goldberg, you are sure he’s innocent.”

“Of murder, yes. He may have B&E going on, but that doesn’t make sense either. I’d just talked to the kid outside and he didn’t seem the type, just on drugs or something.”

Ken had hoped to get another laugh out of the woman, but she just wrote quickly in her book and knitted her brow.

“Is there something wrong?”

“Not at all,” she said, not stopping her writing. “You were just very observant! Please…” she lifted her head and flashed that white smile again. “… Tell me what happened next.”

Ken felt warm all over from that smile and the story of the encounter continued to spill out of him. “According to … standard procedure, I told him to keep his hands in the air and … well the damnedest thing happened. Something came charging out of the rafters, hit me dead center, I fell back, tripped and smashed into a window.  Then Boom! That’s all I have … except for waking up.”

“That’s really good. So, we’re looking for Ryan Goldberg. Did he have anything with him or say anything else?” The woman flashed her teeth again and slowly said, “Did he take anything with him?”

Ken tried to shake his head but the pain of his body made him stop. “Ugh! No. Really, the whole thing happened so quickly, I didn’t see much. He didn’t have a backpack or anything and very little time. He might have picked something up. I’ve no idea what he was up to.”

“Anything else?”

Ken frowned. The woman, her smile and her laugh would be going soon. “No… I guess not. But how is the investigation going? I haven’t seen you before. Is this now a State thing or are you Fed?”

The woman flipped her notebook closed, smiled and walked up to his bedside. A click by his right ear brought his head around.

Ken Small noticed an empty syringe sticking in his IV line. The woman took it out and replaced it with a different, full syringe and pressed down on the plunger. He started to feel very sleepy but fought against the swirling haze.

“I am from an organization that is very interested in what you have to say. Thank you for your deposition. Why don’t you sleep now? You have nothing to worry about.” The woman smiled, but there was a cold hard malice in her face now. All trace of the former warmth vanished, replaced by evil and ice. This woman was killing him, he was sure.

“Wait!” he tried to say, but it came out as a croak.

He wasn’t sure what happened but he knew he had said too much, and knew too much. Must have been drugged! The woman soon dashed out the door, which confused him, but Ken was afraid and becoming increasingly confused. He fought against a feeling that felt too much like death.

The walls of the room had become suddenly unsquare, like a thing made of jello. Small realized he could barely move which was just as well because he wanted to run but physically couldn’t.

Turning his head, he saw a small child in the doorway. The boy walked to the side of the bed and Ken could only see his little head. In a tiny voice, he said, “I’m Timmy. I’m three. Who ‘r you?”

The officer could only manage a whisper and croaked out. “Small”

“I visiting my Grandpa. His heart broke. Did your heart break?”

He thought about the woman who had drugged him. It seemed so long ago, though he knew it had been only a minute. “Not yet. But if I don’ get out ‘f here I think – might.”

The little boy’s eyes grew impossibly wide. “Broken hearts bad. Momma cried.”

“Yes. Bad. C’n you get ‘r momma for M’ Small?” He felt his battered and bruised skeleton sink through the bed and used all his will to fight its pull. He knew this wasn’t real, but it was very compelling.

“No.”

His head swam even more as the drug started to take hold. “I need t’ get. t’ go.”

“Mr. Small? Why are you so big? Not right. You wanna be small? Been making things small today. Little things, but…”

He tried to be as clear as possible. “Yes, Timmmmm… That ‘ud be great.” As he started to give in and slip under the heavy blanket of catatonic crazy he said, “Why don’ you go make me really small. So small … no one would see me … get me…”

As Officer Small’s vision began to fracture into a myriad of self-dribbling crystalline machine elf basketballs, his last vision was of the little boy, Timmy, reaching his tiny hand out to touch his leg.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A crowd of blue uniformed police men accompanied by a few men in plain clothes trickled out of the door of Commissioner Painter’s office. The meeting had lasted exactly three minutes. No notes were taken.

The last person to walk through the door didn’t actually walk. It was more like he waddled. Having had both his knees injured in a failed pursuit, Sargent Brine had acquired this penguin-like waddle and had, over time accumulated a low-slung belly to match.

The graying officer hefted himself up the three stairs and onto the dais that held the receiving desk. With the additional height, even as he was sitting he could look down at people who walked up. In a sense, he was like a judge, and in his own way, he was. He was the gatekeeper, the public access point to Hogtown’s police department both in person and on the phone. He smiled as he sat in his seat and felt its power to obstruct. The smile grew as he put on his telephone headset.

A single light blinked on the phone and the headset beeped. The Sargent cleared his wet throat and pressed the button.

“Hogstown’s finest, Sargent Brine.”

The man’s face contorted as he listened to the line.

“You want to do what?”

The line chatted, and the Sargent looked around the room from his high position.

“And how do you know this?”

A look of concern spread across his face.

“So, if you were in the home, how did you get out.”

He let the voice on the end talk for a long time, only responding with the customary verbal nods. As the call went on his concerned look became less concerned and more skeptical, landing firmly at amused.

“I see… Shot like out of a cannon.” He nodded and waved with his pen. “Must have been some rough landing.”

His eyes went wide with incredulous mirth. “You say a fat girl broke your fall. Ah! Look, kid, we’re all pretty busy here. The case is already closed on this and, quite frankly, you need a much more believable story.”

The line argued back quickly and the officer responded. “Yes, we did have an officer on the scene. He was overcome by fumes and taken to the hospital with injuries. Thank you for repeating common knowledge”

On the phone, the voice tried to talk but the Sargent cut it off. “Look, I said the book is closed. There will be a press conference within the hour. Please feel free to watch it on TV. … I don’t care that you don’t have a TV kid, go to a bar or something.”

At that moment, Detective Clive Brace came charging through the door and rounded in front of the receiving desk, waiting for Sargent Brine to open the door for him.

“Do you want me to trace this call and arrest your stupid ass for filing a false police report?” The Sargent was looking at the telephone and hadn’t noticed the Detective’s impatient stare.

“OK then. Next time you decide to prank phone call someone, try not messing with the police. You don’t want that kind of trouble, kid.”

“Hey Brine, what was that?” Detective Brace said.

“Some jackass with too much time and not enough brains. Crank call. Nothing.” He smashed the button to open the door and let the Detective inside.

“Should we get the tech guys to trace it? I’m going by that desk.”

“Don’t worry about it, Slick. Just make sure you are ready for the press by noon. The PR guys will expect you back at the site by eleven.”

Clive Brace grimaced. “Eleven? How fast do you all think I can type much less deduce and fill out paperwork?”

“Yeah, well. That’s why you guys get the big bucks and us uniforms get beer money, sir.”

The Detective pushed through the door, wondering.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Goldberg sat on the bench and looked at the phone. He had the splayed and slouched posture of a stick figure and the expression of someone who had just been slapped with a fish. The phone rode his arm to the bench and his head leaned back on the railing. Were he less stoned, this position would have resulted in something being horribly pulled. As it was, his special sight was now telling him that he had, most likely, attained the least amount of potential energy he could have and still actually be on the bench. He blew out a sigh and stared at the underside of the porch’s roof.

“Well? They fitting you for prison stripes yet?” Joy pushed open the screen door and passed through, letting it smack closed behind her.

Goldberg rejected the notion of moving from his optimally relaxed position. “Would you believe I actually feel dumb for calling? Like I put them out or something?”

“So, what? They don’t want to interview you?”

“No, the case is closed. Not only did the guy not want to talk to me, he thought I was making a prank phone call.”

“Weird,” Joy said, the streaks of purple in her hair becoming lighter and more pronounced on the bright porch.

“Yeah, came up just short of threatening, really.” he snorted. “It’s funny, I’ve spent all this time trying to avoid the police in this town, only to feel a little insulted when they ask me not to bother them.”

She brightened. “But at least this means you are off the hook, Right? I mean, they can’t say you didn’t try to help.”

“I’d guess so. I hope so.  They are cops, so who the fuck knows.”

She picked up a book that was left upside down and open at the edge of the bench. “And besides, what you really should feel dumb about is your choice of reading material. I mean, come on. You actually buy this Sci Fi pulp crap?”

He grinned. “What’s wrong with it? At least it’s not a comic book.”

“Depends on where you find your comedy. I mean, look at this.” She flipped the book around and read the cover copy. “They almost parody themselves. It’s ridiculously long for the amount of story it purports to tell, and that woman’s uniform is anatomically impossible.”

He smirked. “How do you know that?”

“I’ll show you some day,” she smiled and turned to go back inside. Looking over her shoulder suggestively, she added, “… if you’re a good boy. Now quit gawking at my sweet ass. Don’t you have something to do today?

“Nah. Not…” He looked up over the rim of his rose-colored glasses. “I probably should finalize the whole lottery thing, eh?”

“Probably. We didn’t notice, but those numbers have been out there for a week! Deadline’s today,” she agreed as she walked through the screen door. The satisfying thwack of it closing left Goldberg on the porch with his thoughts once again.

“Can’t say I totally trust the cops. I don’t care what that guy said. It’s just not right.”

From behind his eyes, what he now recognized as his power spoke at him. ‘Probability that the police are compromised: 75%’

‘That’s a pretty fluffy looking number’

‘Every bit as fluffy as the question.’

‘Touche. Seventy five percent. So, what does that mean?’ He realized that was a question and quickly thought. ‘Don’t answer. Instead, tell me this: What is the most likely plan for getting my lottery money as soon as possible while staying away from police?’

The power went to work and he could see odd combinations flashing before his vision before it responded. ‘Insufficient data. However, all plans start by using the business card Dan is using to prune his pot.’

‘Business card?’ he thought, then called out, “Hey Dan! Do you have a business card that you’re using on the rolling tray?”

From inside the screen door, over the hum of the fan Dan yelled back, “How did you…?”

“Little bird told me. Mind if I look at it?”

Dan shambled through the screen door. “No prob, killer.”

“Please, man. I’m still a little weirded. Talking to the man was not exactly cathartic.” He took the card from Dan as the shorter man sat on the other section of the bench. It read “Vic Goodman – Florida Gaming Commission.”

“Where’d you get this?”

“That? From the guy that fired me this morning. Looked like he stepped right out of ‘The Godfather.’ Gave me the creeps.”

“Yeah, well, this creepy guy is the guy who is going to give me my money.”

“Really?”

“Well, I hope so. It’s worth a phone call. Mind if I use your phone again?”

“Sure no… again?” Dan stammered. “You used my phone to call the cops!”

“Well mine got smashed up at Bill’s house.”

Dan shook his head. “Still dude! … You dick!”

The Strange – Episode 14 – A Small Town

The Strange – Episode 12 Upgrades

In the Hogstown State University Hospital critical care ward, a weak heart continued its beating vigil. All around, the organs it had worked beside for decades were failing, leaving it as a one of the few lone holdouts in this old woman’s chest.

Beat… beat… beat… rest. The heart joined the rest of its companions intending to give itself and its host it’s final, well deserved sleep. From deep within the woman, the flow of energy she always carried, the energy that had bonded her to her love and her life, that energy faded to a trickle, then stopped.

A sudden, sharp burst of another power from outside of the old woman’s body, shocked her system back almost to equilibrium, and the jolt was enough to bring the sleeping organs back to life. The heart began to beat again and Natasha Riley continued to save the world.

But the burst of power that shocked her back to life continued to race through the city.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The Sod Walls of the Natural History Museum spit and two sets of glass doors allowed entry. The doors were locked this early on a Saturday. Like many of Hogstown State’s facilities, the museum was more geared to teaching than presenting. Students who worked there could use the less dramatic rear door next to the loading doc. This Saturday morning, only one did.

“Can you believe that toad is making me work today? Ugh!” The fair redheaded girl’s words echoed off the ignored exhibits and polished stone floor of the empty museum’s main hall. “I don’t know what his problem is. You don’t think he likes me or anything? I mean… Yuck!” Her hands flew in the air in disgust.

Undetected by the girl, the wave of power coming from the hospital blew through the museum. The sod and stone walls could not dim the power. It swirled and caressed everything, blowing through and around as it tore through the building. As quickly as it came, the power was gone, but it left the landscape slightly altered.

She turned off the main hall and pushed open a door marked “Staff Only.” The new hall had the cheap, prefab, metal doors of a seventies public building, but it kept the high ceiling.

“Well he said, ‘Andrea, I expect you to finish cataloging these samples.’ Just like that. Like I’m actually going to get through a whole box of these stupid rocks in four hours?”

The work room was full of utilitarian metal shelves and a few large tables for examining samples. Andrea wandered in and navigated the rows of rock bins without interrupting her phone conversation.

“So yeah, he told me it was my job if they weren’t done by Sunday, when the Prof gets back.” The phone squeaked. “Well, I’m glad you are getting ready for the rush party.” She climbed the ladder and grabbed a plastic sample bin by the handle. “I know you want me to rush, but I’m on student loans, remember? I wouldn’t be able to pay sorority dues.”

Carelessly, the distracted co-ed tugged on a box, leaving it teetering on the edge. “Hell, I’m counting rocks for room and … Bo-oo-oo-oard!”  The box of rocks shifted and fell off the shelf, Andrea still holding on to the handle. The slight woman was pulled off the ladder and tossed to the hard ground by the force.

The rock samples came crashing from the box and down onto the hard floor as the girl fell prone. One fist-sized rock hit the stone floor, inches from her face and it cracked in two. From inside the rock, Andrea saw a mesmerizing, glimmering object. Not taking her eyes off the enchanting sparkle, she pulled herself off the ground.

Her cell phone talked excitedly into the air. She picked it up and absently said, “I’ll have to call you back.” She dropped the phone and cradled the glinting half-rock.

The box said these stone samples should be ancient. Nothing man made could be inside, much less an article of rare and captivating beauty. But as she looked inside the rock shell, she saw a tiny two-inch shimmering silver sword with an intricate golden handle. Turning the rock upside down she dropped the tiny blade into the palm of her hand.

It looked sharp and perfect, without a scratch. As if to test this, she lightly touched the blade with her fingertip. A small drop of blood caught on the blade as her finger sliced open.

“Ow!” She stuck her finger in her mouth, not noticing that the drop of blood on the blade instantly coated the strange metal object. It soaked impossibly into the blade. The blood sang through the tiny sword and it began to glow.

Andrea looked deeply into this glow as it grew brighter and brighter. The light blinded her and overwhelmed her senses. A giggle escaped her, as her body began to dissolve and pour itself into the eldritch light. As that light continued to grow more brilliant and beautiful, her giggle turned to booming laughter.

Out in the main hall, her laugh reverberated through the unexamined exhibits of the museum. “So Much POWER!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“…and the rest you know.”

The two looked at Goldberg, dumbfounded, mouths agape. The only sound was the hum of the box fans in the windows and the steady snipping of Joy’s scissors.

“Dude. That’s messed up. You won that lottery? You’re going to remember who your friends are right?” Dan smiled with too much teeth.

“So, we fled the scene of a murder.” Molly had her hand over her mouth, eyes wide in surprise.

“No. I did. Maybe. Really, it was self-preservation. You had nothing to do with it, in any event. The officer only saw me, I guess.”

“Maybe the cop got killed.” He clapped his hands. “Problem solved. Case closed. Call it a day.”

“Dan!” Joy shot a disgusted look at him.

Molly smeared a bagel with cream cheese and munched away.

“I’m just saying… that was a pretty good explosion. Not to mention, I could have sworn I saw the guy being blown out of the house. That’s a long way to fall and not die.”

Pausing her snipping, Joy said, “I thought you were at work this morning.”

“Yeah, well,” Dan seemed to fight confusion for words. “I’m still not too sure what I saw, but I saw something”

“The Cop didn’t die.” Goldberg said with confidence.

Molly challenged him, crossing her arms across her fat and ample chest. Her voice was muffled by the last of the bagel. “You know this how? And how can you just sit there giving him a haircut?”

“What else am I supposed to do?” Joy said, continuing to cut. “Trust me, I’m all tension and conflict on the inside. External fidgeting is not going to help. And besides, he still smells like… burning.”

Goldberg once again grabbed the thread of the conversation. “I know this because the power, the same power I used to save you, helped me get the guy into the right position. He was right by the window so he’d be blown out of it and live, just like Dan said.”

“Hey, don’t drag me into supporting you’re fucked up weirdness. I say that this is all just an acid flashback. You know how many tabs we’ve taken in our lives?”

“It wasn’t a flashback, Dan. I know what reality is most of the time and what I saw was real. Shoot, I can still see it now if I care to.” He reflexively tried to get up only to feel Joy slap him on the head. “Ow!”

“I told you moving would be painful. Now sit still, tiger.”

“Yeah, I just… My God! Your hair!” Joy’s dark hair now had narrow streaks of dark purple.

Her hand went up to the top of her head. “What? Did I cut it somewhere?”

“No. It’s purple. The color.” The purple went all the way down to the root, like it just grew that way.

“Purple? What?”

“Your…” He glanced over his shoulder at Molly and Dan and asked, “You all both see this too, right?”

Dan raised his head from absentmindedly packing another bowl of weed. “Yeah. Good look. What’s the big deal?”

“It just lightened as her hair dried,” Molly added, looking off into space. When no one replied, she got a flash of paranoia and said, “Right?”

“Wrong!” Joy said, sailing into the bathroom. I’ve never died my hair in my life, much less purple.”

“Well, it is a nice color for you,” Molly said, returning to space.

From the bathroom, Joy yelled, “Holly crap!” She paused a moment then said, “You know, it actually isn’t that bad when you… What the hell?”

She came out looking miffed and surprised. “Goldberg, you didn’t…”

His hands shot into the air to deflect the daggers poised behind her eyes. “Hey, Look, I’ve been telling you all that weird shit has been happening. At least you aren’t having visions and bumping into dead people.”

The strains of “Dear Mr. Fantasy” dropped into the silence as Joy considered this.

“So, do you all still think I’m tripping or what?” Goldberg asked.

“I don’t know what to think. But this,” she pointed at her hair, “hardly proves that you are some sort of super dude. Exceptional, maybe…”

On the couch, Dan waited for Molly to finish smoking from the bong. Feeling eyes upon him he swiveled his head. “I think you all are both nuts,” he smiled, “but you already know that. Still, sucks to be you I guess. You get all that money and will probably have to spend it OJ-ing yourself into a ‘not guilty’ for killing Weird Bill.” He shook his head. “That shit’s fucked up. I mean, are you sure?”

“That he’s dead? Well… Yeah. Hard to believe.”

“Man, now we have to say nice things about him, even though he was kind of a tool.”

“Dan!” Joy’s shout of disgust echoed off of the bathroom tiles.

“What? Why do you think we called him Weird Bill? Thought the world was out to get him. Guess he was right. Been like that ever since I had him for Calc Two in Undergrad.”

Molly handed the bong back to him and tilted her head. “You took Calc Two?”

“Please,” Dan said, feigning insult, “You see before you a BS in Aeronautical Engineering.”

“With an emphasis on the BS,” Goldberg chimed in.

A frown crossed Molly’s face, creasing her heavy eyes into almost imperceptible slits. “What the hell are you doing being a sign changer guy … former… Seems kinda … manual.”

“What’s wrong with manual? I like my job.” He shrugged and added, “liked.”

“Yeah well I liked my house.”

They both sat there and let the sounds of the box fans resonate against their buzzing minds.

Goldberg said, “You all aren’t helping me much. I mean, there has to be some logical explanation here.” They both shot him puzzled looks. “I’ve got some kind a geek super power or something. There was that clue at the top of the spire that no one else could see but me and even though it’s probably crushed under rubble, maybe there’s a way to prove I didn’t kill Bill in this whole thing. Maybe that thing is the reason someone killed him.”

Joy returned from the bathroom with ruffled hair and pursed lips. “Well, fine. The police will find it and figure it out.”

“I am not feeling happy at all with the police. Did you miss the part where the guy yelled ‘Freeze. Hands up’? Maybe I should just lay low and let the whole thing blow over? I mean, isn’t that what people do?”

“I hate to say it, dude, but what people do is call the cops. I’m no fan of the man, but this is the kind of shit they are supposed to handle.”

“Yeah, but… I don’t know… I probably look guilty as hell to them. If I had the ball still, then maybe my story wouldn’t sound nuts. Or maybe if the fire hadn’t destroyed the place. But I don’t and it did. There is nothing to prove that I didn’t do it!”

“Sounds like one of those stupid, mass market Sci-Fi novels you are always reading.” Dan gestured toward the milk crate and board shelves stacked against the wall filled with colorful looking book spines. “This isn’t a space opera. You don’t need to investigate, you need a lawyer.”

“I’m not talking about going nuts here, just making sure I can cover my ass before poking The Man. So, what do you say? We go back there and look around. I’m sure the power will help us out!”

Dan and Joy gave him looks that were concerned, bordering on pity. Joy came around and sat on his lap, straddling him and running her fingers through his newly cropped hair.

“Goldberg, you are a sweet man, but this is stupid. Maybe you should just call the police and tell them everything and let them handle it. It’s their job!”

“Yeah, Listen to the smart one, here.” Dan gestured to her with the bong and she shook her head.

“I’m thinking one toke is good enough for this day. Besides, someone has to keep you all out of trouble.”

“To late,” Dan said cheerfully. “How about you, Killer?”

Goldberg frowned. “You just advised me to talk to the cops and now you think I should do it stoned?”

“It’ll take the edge off, man.”

“Yeah, but… Ah fuck, I’m screwed anyway.”

He turned away from Joy and made to get up but her weight in his lap kept him there. Joy turned his head with her fingers and looked in his eyes.

“Sweetie, you are innocent. I believe you and so will they. Maybe you have the missing piece of information that would help the cops catch Bill’s killer. You should just come clean and call the police before they come and find you. Because they will find you. Besides, maybe you have some kind of power, or you just had some kind of flashback, but how is that really going to help you?”

“But… Your hair…”

“What am I supposed to do? stun the cops into submission with my lilac locks? You have just had a really bad experience and I don’t blame you for whatever is going on in your head, but…”

“Call the fuzz, man. Playing hero is for fools and you’d look fishy for not coming forward sooner. You’re a smart guy and it’s the smart play.”

Goldberg’s face fell into utter defeat. “You know, I don’t really know if I believe in powers either… they violate all the precepts of reality, conservation of energy, probability, statistics, order, and when that goes… but I was there and I saw what I saw. Speaking of which, I can’t see shit. Can you guys help me find a spare pair of glasses?” He shook his head. “I mean, what am I going to say? How am I supposed to explain what I was doing there?”

“Well, I’d leave out the hallucination.” He brought the bong to his lips, shrugged and flicked the lighter. “Just a thought.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Six hours to kill. Don’t suppose you brought cards with you? Forgot how boring field work can be at times.” He shrugged. “It’s been a while.”

Delgado looked up from his field manual emblazoned with a fake weather agency logo. Belatran’s face was inky black and highlighted only by the red dashboard of the jet. The sun not quite rising over Arizona plastered pink across the windscreen, but it didn’t have enough power yet to illuminate the cockpit or the pilot when viewed from the cabin.

“No,” He said, returning to his book. “No cards. Sorry.”

“Just as well.” Belatran swiveled back around in his seat and regarded the pink sky. “I’ll just catch up on baseball news. The Dodgers sure have sucked this year.”

Delgado gave a non-committal grunt. “Hey Belatran, you mentioned something about ‘upgrades.’ Are you upping my security clearance?”

Belatran froze, looking at the striped pink sky. The sun broke above the horizon then; starting as a pin prick, lengthening to a line, then growing into a bright half circle above the desert. The pink of the sky retreated to the west, washed out to a pale blue around the sun. The man in the cockpit didn’t blink in response to the blinding light of a new day. He didn’t need to. He could soak up everything the sky could give him.

Delgado observed Belatran from his rear seat, squinting at dawn’s sudden arrival. “Belatran?”

“Yeah, kid. Upgrades.” He fiddled with the radio in the cockpit, finding a satellite sports channel. “Do me a favor and grab that metal box out of the holder.”

The mysterious box hung inside a frame in the comm console in front of Delgado. The circle of the housing in which the box hovered, seemingly suspended in the air, ceased to be black now that the sun shone through the windshield. The circle was now red as danger, bold and unbroken It’s shiny exterior intrigued the young operative even as its unknown insides made him wary. Still, it was just a box, right?

After a moment of contemplation, he reached over for it. The moment his fingers slid over the smooth surface, the thing became alive, quickly stretching out dozens of wires like a perverted flower. Delgado’s eyes went wide as the flower’s silvery petals closed on his forearm like a mouth and jabbed his flesh like needles.

Before he could even scream, his mind went dark.

The Strange – Episode 13 – Spilling the Beans

The Strange – Episode 11 – So … how was your morning? Part 3

Commissioner Painter walked through a plain gray door that simply said “Office.” His pale, naked legs looked cold in his jogging shorts.

The room was windowless and reminded the Commissioner of a hospital room for all its cleanliness and bright, indirect light. He scoffed at the irony. In fact, this room lay at the center of a web of corruption, criminality and greed that was dirty, dark and ugly.

Aside from a boxy leather couch and a coffee table, it contained a blackboard sized screen behind a modern, metal desk with a thick glass top that doubled as a huge touch screen. There was not a hint of any paper of any kind, except a copy of yesterday’s Hogstown Star sitting on the couch. Behind the desk, Alexi Loveless coolly poured over new information spilling across the desktop. He was flanked by the dark Ms. Bee, freshly showered and dressed in a tan and cream pant suit.

Alexi lifted his head and shook his bangs to either side of his face. “Ah Harold!” He said as the Commissioner walked in. “You like this nice picture? I’m thinking of having it framed.” He punched a key on his console and the picture appeared on the large screen behind the desk.

The image on the screen showed him, in the car giving the camera the finger as he scratched his ear. Harold smiled as Loveless continued. “Of course, to frame someone they would need to be innocent. Right, Harold?”

The man’s gray head whipped around and looked at the young man. “I’ve expedited the processing of the superb job you and your boys have done here so that the questions will be few. There isn’t much more you can ask than that, Alexi. I mean, really.”

“Actually, I could ask that you not flip off my surveillance team, and by extension, me. I can’t say I’m terribly pleased about that. I pay you and half your men quite a bit, I should remind you, and the least you can do is be civil.”

“Civil? Let’s see the other pictures your ‘surveillance’ captured.” He reached across the desk and tapped a small icon. “Like this one, showing unbelievable destruction. Well? Aren’t you proud of your handiwork?”

Alexi tapped his finger on a bowl of twenty-sided dice that lay on his desk. The only thing in the room that even hinted of decoration.

“You don’t pay me for THAT kind of destruction. You could have killed some undergrads in that building collapse. KIDS! I don’t get paid to cover up for you when you kill KIDS!”

“And how are your kids Harold?” Alexi said, leaning back and lacing his fingers. “They still think Dad is a big hero police man?”

“You screwed up big this time, Alexi!” Harold said, fuming. “You know you did, so don’t throw that crap at me, you amoral bastard! I keep people safe, even if it means putting up with you. The moment you let civilians get hurt by your ‘business’ is the moment you become a liability I can’t afford. Do you understand me?”

“I believe I understand you just fine, Harold.” Loveless’s voice was low and overly still, like a dam under great stress and ready to burst.

Both men faced off, Loveless’s cold anger fighting with the Commissioner’s heat. Neither man was even considering backing down or showing any kind of weakness.

The door popped open and the huge armed man danced in with a happy grin and a box full of mid-morning goodies. Oblivious, he announced, “Here you go. Skim white Mocha and a pumpkin scone for the Commish. Caramel Macchiato and a doughnut for Mr. Loveless, and the extra huge black morning roast for Ms. Bee.” He began to set the coffees down on the desk but then took a look around.

Everyone looked at him, furious and tense. The thug’s boyish and puffy face fell flat. “I’ll just put this here.” He put the box down on the desk and backed out the door, attempting to shrink inside his mammoth frame.

Alexi, with growing amusement said, “Thank you Edwin.” He turned from watching his man retreat to once again face Harold. The older man still looked angry, but Alexi threw up his hands and shrugged. The smile that crossed his face spoke of well-practiced control.

He reached into the box and grabbed his coffee. “Blunderbuss Coffee, the only store in this whole mall that actually makes any money and isn’t a cash laundry. You believe that? I spend all this time, money and effort running drugs, prostitutes, fencing stolen goods, growing my syndicate with the odd assassination or two, and my highest profit margin is on coffee and pastries.” He took a sip of coffee. “It’s a crime I tell you.”

The Commissioner, now less incensed, grabbed his coffee from the box. “You shouldn’t tell me shit like that. What the hell could be so important that you blow up a neighborhood? Is this about that hacker?” Alexi averted his eyes and said nothing. “Jesus Loveless, you said it was no big deal. How much did they take?”

The younger man leaned back in his chair, flipped his hair back and brought his coffee to his lips. He looked up at the ceiling, sipped slowly then said from behind the cup, “Everything. He took it all. Everything that matters.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As Dan opened the door, Billie charged out and bopped into his calf. Bouncing off, she scrambled to her feet and dashed into the back yard.

“Crazy, god damned cat!” he mumbled. He looked up at Billie bounding through the back yard. “You’re lucky I even feed you, you little ingrate! Maybe I won’t be so charitable, now! Fired. And even the cat doesn’t want to hang with me.” He shook his head as if to dislodge his inner asshole.  “Meh. Not her fault, the little weirdo. Jealous she’s got something to do, I guess.”

He opened the door some more, having to push past the broken skate board. “Fuck, man! Why the hell do we keep stuff like this?” Grabbing it by the one axle, he hauled it up the stairs and continued to rant. “It’s like we just take anything we find, bring it home, and throw it out on the porch somewhere!”

“Hello.” The voice drifted through the air without any energy.

The scruffy young man snapped his head around to see a chubby freshman-looking girl sitting on the bench. He dropped the skateboard, sending it crashing back down by the door. “Hey. Hi. Can I help you with something?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I came home with Goldberg. You must be his roommate. I’m Molly.” She waved with a far off look, like her thoughts were elsewhere; perhaps under tons of rubble.

“Dan. Hi.” He waved back. “So where is he?”

“He’s inside. I think he’s talking to his girlfriend or at least he was.” She stared off into space and sipped at her coffee. “He said he’d only be a couple of minutes, but that was a while ago.” Looking off the high porch she said, “Nice day, though, I guess.”

Dan frowned. “Girlfriend? Megan is here? Ah crap.”

“He said something about her being the new girlfriend.”

“New girlfriend? Praise be to the funk.” He grinned, then turned to Molly. “What brings you to the house?”

“Well, Goldberg saved me from being smushed when my apartment building collapsed, so he invited me over. … Kinda.”

“Kinda?” Dan’s eyes shot open wide. The girl seemed to be in a bit of a daze so he just shook his head.

He knocked softly then got out his keys. “Goldberg? Everyone indecent in there?”

“You wish.” He heard Joy shout.

A smile crept across Dan’s face. “Joy Winter,” he mumbled. “Goldberg you lucky dog.” He twisted the knob and brought Molly inside.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“What do you mean they got everything!?” Police Commissioner Painter pushed his gray flanged head out like an accusing finger in Loveless’s face.

The windowless office absorbed the tirade. The hum of surveillance monitors filled the silence.

“Look. It was all encrypted, and it would take a miracle to decipher, but they got everything. And we wanted to get it back.”

Harold picked up one of the fresh pictures of a demolished building. “So you blew up half a block? Seems a little extreme.”

Alexi’s eyes went wide and his voice went up an octave, finally breaking his reserve of calm. “The guy was crazy! You should see this shit.” A picture of the most cluttered house in the world flew from the top of the desk to the projection screen. “He had it all printed out! We were just going to go in there and doctor his computers, but the guy made my infiltration team. We had no choice.”

He swung his finger at Harold. “And it’s not like you want those files out there ether. Every pay off I’ve given you is in there as well as every special job you have ever been a part of. Hell, most of your police force gets paid, not through the largess of the taxpayers but by me! You want me to just let that lay out there and have someone prove to me that my encryption isn’t as cool as I think it is?”

Harold’s face screwed up as he took it in. “Fine,” he spat in terse resignation. “I just don’t want this town turned into a war zone.” He scooped up the last of his scone and popped it into his mouth.

Loveless smiled. “A war zone would be bad for business, and you know I’m all about business, Harold. We will try to be more careful next time.”

“More careful? Christ! Want to tell me how you could be less careful? Just take care of it!” he said around the scone. He swallowed and added, “don’t let there be a next time. Next time I come for your ass.” Harold swallowed and looked from Loveless to Ms. Bee. Acting casual from her perch in the corner, the tan mercenary absorbed every nuance in the conversation. “And who the hell are you?”

“She’s the hired help.”

“So this is …”

“My operation, Harold. She’s runs the contract sorting the computer’s security perimeter and breech. You deal with me. I’ll deal with them.”

Harold sighed and rose to his feet. “You really are a dumb fuck, you know that? Dead cops bring the Fed in whether you like it or not. Your ‘contractors’ got lucky this time. Don’t test our arrangement, Alexi. I need plausible deniability to look the other way. Keep your business away from the public and fix your little problem.”

Alexi said, “I’ll work on that. Oh, and Harold,” He tilted his head to the commissioner and his lack of pants, “Nice legs.”

“Fix your shit!” The older man shouted and stormed out.

Ms. Bee walked to the side of the desk. “The man’s got a point.”

“Yeah. And he’s really close to stabbing us with it. May as well make it worth the risk. Have your wiz kids found anything interesting on the computers?”

“Actually, no, which is in itself interesting. There wasn’t a trace of any software that would facilitate hacking into our system on any of the computers. This was no run of the mill cyber attack. The techs say he just figured out how to get into the system and did it. The way he just wandered around in the system, not tripping anything suspicious and copying things fairly casually, like it was almost an afterthought.”

“Great. So the guy didn’t hack in as much as he just walked right through the most sophisticated security I can find like it wasn’t even there. Do I have that right?”

“I’m only reporting what my people tell me, and that’s what they tell me. Maybe there are other computers?”

“No. I really don’t think so.” Loveless radiated unwarranted confidence even as he pondered.

“You seem to be taking this well.” Ms. Bee tilted her head. “If you know something about this case…”

“Just…Just a hunch. If it gets more sold, I’ll let you know. For now we focus on what we can investigate and try to be proactive.”

Ms. Bee looked sideways. “The cop that wound up not to be dead?”

“Precisely. I’m glad you caught that.” He raised an eye at the petite woman. “I want you to go find that guy and find out what he saw, why he went in. Once you are sure you have everything make sure he isn’t going to be talking to anyone else any time soon.”

“I’ll make sure he’s kissing the sky for a while, but it’ll be temporary.”

Alexi Loveless pulled his doughnut from the Blunderbuss Coffee Box. Discarded at the bottom sat the morning paper. Goldberg’s staff picture smiled, clueless from the front page. Loveless put his coffee down and said. “Whatever. It’s not like it’s going to matter after a day or two. I’ll get his radio traffic off of my system and send it to you, but you should get moving. We’ve got to follow the trail and make sure nothing came out of that house that can be traced back to us. I don’t want to overlook anything especially something that’s right in front of us.”

Loveless picked up his coffee cup, leaving behind a ring on the newspaper’s front page. Goldberg’s face smiled dumbly from the center of a bullseye.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dan took a pinch of pulped ganja from a tray where he had taken it from the bag and pruned it free of seeds and stems. He rolled the pinch into a small ball and stuffed it into the small brass bowl sticking out of the bong. Fire shot from the lighter as he readied the large pipe and sucked from his diaphragm. To Molly, sitting next to him on the couch, it looked like the cherry-red, plastic bong was eating him, beginning at his lips.

Outside, summer’s oppressive heat and humidity were gearing up for another day. With no air conditioning in the apartment, four dazed people sought relief through two box fans and the shade of the house. Ryan Goldberg sat in a chair in the tiled portion of the L shaped room while Joy Winter stood behind him, examining what was left of his hair.

Joy looked up from her work at the spectacle of Dan’s big bong hit. “Is he going to hurt himself like that?”

Lost in a fog of his thoughts and the hot, humid weather, Goldberg didn’t register the words until the silence prodded his brain into action. “What? Oh, that? Nah, Dan’s a pro. I think he’s working off getting canned from his job.”

“Well he keeps that up and he’ll suck his brains out.”

A stray snip came a little too close to Goldberg’s head for his comfort. “Hey. What’s going on back there?”

“I’m fixing your head. Really, you are lucky I worked summers cutting hair or we would be doing this with shaving cream and razors. The burnt stuff goes pretty deep here.”

Molly put her fleshy hand into the bag and fished out bagel. “I can’t believe it. These bagels, cream cheese, and a coffee pot are literally my sole possessions.”

“Well then next hit’s to you… if you smoke, that is.”

“Whatever. Hit me.” She rested her head on the relatively cool wall. “My life has gotten terminally crappy but I’ve heard good things about pot.”

“Speaking of which … the crappy not the pot… what had you blasting through that wall, Nerd Boy?” Dan packed the bong from the small pile of loose pot in the tray. “When I went to see the rubble someone said it was a gas leak that exploded.”

The fat freshman’s head twisted around as quick as she could in the sweltering heat. “You gawked at my house? My destroyed house?”

Dan responded, “It looked cool. Never seen a big explosion like that before.”

“Jerk,” she said. “All my stuff was there. Everything from home… my childhood…” Her voice became tiny. “Mr. Bunny.”

“Well, look at it this way, you just left home, which is a huge shift. All that stuff… you wouldn’t a wanted it here anyway. Trust me, I’ve seen it a zillion times. It just doesn’t fit in with the college experience, you know?”

Molly pursed her lips. “I stand by my previous assessment. JERK!”

“Whatever,” Dan waved. “Here. Bud’s to you.”

Joy looked at the two of them on the couch and said in his ear, “Yeah Goldberg, why don’t you tell them what you told me.”

Goldberg’s head bobbed forward and he looked over his shoulder. “What? You sure?”

“Yeah.” She grabbed his head in her strong slender hands and moved him back into position. “By the way, move again and it’s liable to be painful. Look, this isn’t just anyone here, he’s your best friend. Regardless of what I think of him, Dan’s a survivor. You trust me, and I’m flattered, but you wanted advice for what to do and the more close people you have advising you the better. And it was Molly’s house, she deserves the whole story.”

Across the room, Molly erupted in a smoky cough after taking a toke. A huge cloud of thick white smoke billowed through the air until it was caught in the cross draft of the big box fans.  Dan chuckled and took the big pipe away. “Just relax and breathe.”

Goldberg wondered to himself about his choice of counsel, but the few times Dan had ever steered him wrong, well, at least they were fun times. “Ok,” he said to Joy, then spoke up. “Hey, Guys? I’ve got something to tell you all.”

The Strange – Episode 12 Upgrades