The Strange – Episode 22 – In the Weeds – Part 1

Dan led the way as he and Goldberg wandered through the woods behind one of the newer dorms.  The natural environment made even the unreal heat and humidity tolerable.  Civilization had not yet reached this part of campus. It made a kind of sense because this is the edge of civilization where the fraternities lie and people hack sack.

“It’s fucked up.  I can’t get a signal in the house, but my phone works just fine out here.”  Dan flashed Goldberg his phone which looked like a cross between a deck of cards and a jellybean.

“You should turn that thing off on principle,” Goldberg said. “We’re here on purpose to get lost.”

“Ah yeah.  Memories of freshman year.  What?  Has it really been this long? years?” Finding a grassy place near a shallow pond, they sat and Dan got out a doobie.

“Yep, I can’t believe we’re still here.”

“Well I can’t believe you won the damned lottery and moving out.  Lost my job and my roommate all in one day!”

Goldberg pushed the grass away from the hem of his shorts.  “Who said I was moving anywhere?  And are you going to light that thing or just play with it?”

Dan looked slightly hurt.  “I’m fixing it.”

“You make joints like… I don’t know… a grandma or something.”

Flame sparked from Dan’s lighter and he said, “How do you know grandma is a spaz?  Maybe she’s a reefer freak and has had decades of practice.”

“You’ve obviously never met *my* grandma.” Goldberg grabbed the newly lit joint from Dan and toked.

Dan blew out his smoke and said, “You forget, I *have* met your grandma.  Nice lady.  So, you’re rich now, huh.”

“I guess so,” Goldberg croaked, holding in his smoke.

“Bummer.  I mean, it’s great for you and all, I guess.  But I suppose you won’t be hanging out anymore.”

With a huge cloud, he said, “What makes you say that?”

“Well.  You’ve got Bank now.  Everyone knows you have Bank.  That makes you different, a target.”  He took another toke.  “Don’t get me wrong, you’re still nerd boy to me.”

Goldberg took the joint back and said, “Thanks.  Hey, why are we still passing this thing like it’s gold if I’m so ‘bank’ why don’t we both just have our own, like cigarettes.”

“Waste not want not, dude.  Anyway, to other people, you’ll instantly be ‘that guy’ and either they will want to manipulate you for your cash or prove their street cred by dissing you or something.  Money does fucked up things to people, dude.”

“But I will still be hanging out,” Goldberg said, trying to mask the question.

“Oh sure.  But it will be uncomfortable.  Gradually you will find some place that is comfortable, but it won’t be with us lowlifes and working stiffs.  Nah, you will find people who also have money and so aren’t afraid of someone who has money or have something to prove to them and you’ll go golfing or some shit.  Whatever rich people do.”

Goldberg took a huge toke off the joint and then handed it back to Dan.  Still holding his breath he croaked, “I fucking hate golf.”

“Yeah, well, that’s because you’re a spaz.”

He blew out white smoke and said, “And I liked hanging out.”

“Yeah, well, you will be missed.”

Dan took a drag and stared off into the distance.  The humming insects mourned the loss of Goldberg.

“But that’s just bullshit, man!  I’m still the same guy I was yesterday!”

“It’s the nature of change, dude.”  He blew out and added, “You win the big game and all of a sudden you are getting your ass blown up in a house.  You already got yourself a freeloader.”

“What, Molly?”

“Yeah.  You see, this shit happens quick.”

“She’s hardly a hanger on,”  He said, taking the dwindling joint and trying not to whine.  Goldberg looked at it, letting the words and his feelings swarm around, mix within his power and his developing buzz.  “And anyway, you are clearly fucking with me.  I see how people might now look at me different and all, but it’s not like I got canned or anything!  I still have my job and all.”

“Thanks for reminding me, dick.”

“Oh, yeah, sorry.  But you see!  How is me having cash any different than your losing your job?  They are both changes in state!”

“You know what, Joy’s right.  You suck with people.”

Goldberg took his toke and handed the joint over.  “Ah, and Joy.  Now there’s a good piece of luck.”

“Well you’ve been getting lucky all over the place, haven’t you?”

With a thought, the power within Goldberg swarmed up to tie all the recent occurrences together and was displeased by the match.  “On second thought, Joy was not luck.  That was my own innate charm.”

“I stand by my previous statement. you suck with people.”

“Yeah well…”  he let the comment die.  The vision from the power within him showed him the probable movements of the long blades of grass along the water’s edge.  “Look, aside from higher quality weed, I’m not inclined to change my state because of money of all things, nor am I playing fucking golf.  Sure I may make some upgrades here and there, but on the whole, I’m not intending to change a thing.  I like my life.  I liked it fine yesterday and it’s still fine today.”  He took a huge toke on the joint and handed it off.  “I am not going to change!”

“Cool.  You still need a roommate?”

“Sure, know anyone who isn’t an asshole?”  Goldberg smiled.

“You really are a jackass, dude, and I get first pick at the bedrooms this time.”

“We gotta find digs first.  Now are you going to hit that or are you just going to bogart all day.”

Goldberg and Dan fogged their brains while the heat baked them even in the shade.  Unnoticed, Dan’s phone happily continued to report in to the network.  Every few seconds, it gave its position relative to the nearest cell phone tower, its GPS hit and its status as ready to take a call.

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

“So, Joy, why do you teach English?”

Joy dropped the paper she was reading to regard Molly.  She had, for the first time today, a bright questioning look of true curiosity.  For a moment, she had the weird feeling that she was baby-sitting and that Molly was the annoying toddler that was walking in on her making out with her boyfriend.

She blinked away the vision and concentrated on answering the question.  “I suppose it’s for the love of words.  There is so much power in communication, which means the study of English.  Even when we are talking to one another it’s by using the same constructs critical to written communication.”

Molly blinked.  “Yeah, but what power do words have?  I mean, yeah, you can report news or make a speech or something, but it’s not like creative writing actually helps to do anything practical.”

“That is a supposition and you are supposing that all one learns in creative writing is how to write personal essays and stories, the verbal equivalent of mere trinkets and baubles.”  Her face opened, but her eyes remained hooded.  “Now, I agree with you on that.  The personal essay is the literary equivalent of junk food, easily produced, just as readily consumed and completely devoid of nourishment.  Valueless tripe in the form of social networking.”  She tilted her head.  “I think I might have picked that up from Stephen King or someone a little better known and practiced than myself.  Anyway, stories wind up being just that little bit better than the personal essay in that at least the author makes the attempt to build his world rather than ranting about whatever it is that has gotten their undies to ride up.”

Molly let out a giggle at this comment as Joy pressed on.

“But consider this.  Creative writing encourages the author to become more practiced at lies.  What is the value to society of our ability to lie?”

Molly recoiled.  “None.  Lies are bad!”

“Oh really?”  Joy’s lips curled into an evil smile.  “Anyone ever told you ‘It’ll be alright.  Those people who were mean to you, they suck.  They will get what’s coming to them eventually.'”

“Sure.”

“And that made you feel better, right?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Well, they were full of crap.  It was a lie.  Now does knowing that make you feel worse, having been separated from the situation?”

Molly looked around the room and frowned.  “No, I don’t think so.”

“Because with the distance you can look at the thing with more objectivity.  That little piece of bullshit wasn’t such a big deal.  You got momentary comfort and were able to get on with your life and gain that distance that made things not quite so bad.”

“I still say lies are bad.  It hides what is actually true.”

“Well then consider this, which is the most interesting part of written language.   Someone tells you a long, large story about something dangerous, say a war or something heartbreaking like losing a child.  In the hands of a skilled liar, you feel every emotion, every pain and horror.  It makes you think of your own mortality.  Makes you examine how you would react and tells you things about yourself you wouldn’t have known had you not experienced that stress.  But the great thing is, once you close the cover on the book, or page, or turn off the TV and get out of your seat at the theater, you are safe and sound, returned to your carefully planned life.”

Mouth agape, Molly sat hanging on Joy’s words.

“That right there is the power of English.  That is the result of creative writing.  It allows you to actually live another life.”

“And that’s why you teach English?”

“That’s why I started.  Now it’s for the salary and the benefits.  I mean, hell.  You should see the number of days off I get!  Plus, my students are a hoot, even if they can’t write for a damn when they come in and aren’t much better going out.”

“That seems pretty cynical.”

Joy waved her hand.  “Cost of getting older. It’s ether this or get a real job and let true cynicism seep in.  At least this way I’ve got time to write when I choose.”

“So, you’ve written books?”

“I wrote one.  Everyone hatted it.  Even as I was working on the sequel, everyone said I should be working on chick lit because ‘genre fiction is the realm of pimply-faced youth and nerds that haven’t left their mother’s basements.’  I can’t stand Chick lit.  Strong and bitchy or weak and weepy, the heroine is always a thinly veiled approximation of the writer, oftentimes a writer themselves, and a weird wish fulfillment manuscript in long form.  Now I do literary reviews and editing professionally and try not to be bitter about it.”  She went back to her reading and said, “Those who can’t do, teach.  Besides, writing is a time-consuming pain in my sweet backside.  Doesn’t pay anything either.  I’d be better off working at Blunderbuss, slinging espresso.”

Molly nodded.  “You are really not helping me with my search for a major.”

“Thank my inner muse, Molly.  He’s a mean jackass.”

She winced.  “I noticed.”

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

Sahara leaned over the table, and rested her chin on the cool surface.  The Cap of the pen she had brought with her was square and she now stared at how the pen stood on end.  Her mind was blank.  That didn’t mean, however, that it was empty.  She picked up the pen and wrote in her notebook.

“Paul Gauchaux – kid with too many characters in his name to have only two syllables and too many words in his assignment that didn’t fit. He should get a C for completing the letter of the assignment in an absence of spirit.”

This was one of many notes she had written down since retrieving her coffee.  People she’d never met and assignments she’d never laid eyes on.  It was as if writing it down was a way to make real something that was clearly false, like she was writing fiction, Joy’s usual shtick.  From her more sociological point of view, her native point of view, she appreciated the irony that in this aspect, she now knew what it was like to be Joy.

She sipped down her drink as Luxury Automobile continued to play over the crowd.  He was quite good.  She’d seen him around town plenty of times, but this is the only time she’d ever actually listened to him play.  He had a voice that was like a honey lemon drop and he used it to punch out notes and words from the air.  His guitar work was loose and fluid, not always on the beat, but close enough and more in tune with the phrasing of the song.  It was above standard busk fare, and well done.  By the look of him, Sarah guessed he didn’t have much else to do but practice.

Her phone buzzed against her thigh, giving her the false feeling of heat.  She left the pen to stand on end and fished in her pocket.  “Hey baby!  Aren’t you supposed to be…”

Her face flashed concern.  “The hospital?  Are you…?”

“Oh Teague, that’s awful. …  No, of course I’m not still … ok, maybe I’m a little mad about this morning still, but what … So what does that mean?”

She stared off into the cafe for a long moment listening to Teague.  “So you’re waiting.  Look, don’t just sit and stew about this.  Why don’t I come over there and we can walk down to meet Joy for lunch, you can still go right?…  And what did I tell you about stewing?  Your dorm room among the jocks is the last place you need to be right now.”

The phone chattered and she smiled.  “Of course I’m smarter than you baby, that’s because I’m awesome.  I’ll be there and maybe, if you’re lucky, I’ll set up another surprise for you!”

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

“You are shitting me.  This is the car?”  The three men looked down at the tiny car that was as wide as it was long, and it wasn’t very wide.  It was white and shiney with red accents, making it look like a child’s toy.

“Yep.  And actually it’s brand spanking new.  Prob’ly not more than three months old by now.”

“It being new isn’t the point.”

Delgado cupped his hand on the window and inspected the interior.  Looking at the two over the car’s red and white top he said, “You know, Belatran, I don’t think I can fit in that thing.  I mean, really.”

“Oh them seats go all the way back.”

Belatran fixed the man with a hard look.  “Where’s the trunk?”

“Yeah man,” he shook his head. “There ain’t no trunk.”

“What’s my other option?”

“Ain’t none.  Walkin I guess.  You want a car from us, this is it.  And we’re the one car place that didn’t shut fer the summer.”

“What the hell!”  Beletran shook the printed receipt in his fist.  “Why did the web site say I could have a car?”

“You can.  Tomorrow.  We don’t do no nine hour turn around here during the summer.  Nobody here!  We get those things in as a special request and have them driven up from Orlando.  Shoot, you are lucky I’m here myself!  No flights in today.  We were closed.  I was just using the tools in the garage and heard you ring the bell.”

“So, this is your car?”

“Oh hell no.  Owners kid’s. Mine’s the fastback GTO in the garage.  Kid was grounded for smoking weed so it’s been put in the lot to keep it away from him.”

“Awesome.  So how do you work this go cart?”

“Well, it has an electric motor and a gas backup if you run out of juice.  You can just plug it into a wall.  Charges up overnight or run it and it charges in… well… It charges.  Not sure how well it does though.  It’s pretty new.”

Delgado sat in the passengers’ seat and pushed the seat all the way back.  “Woah.  This thing is freaking weird.”

“It’s this or walk?”

“I could call you a cab.  Damned few of those though.  It’s summer and…”

“… Nobody here.”  Belatran took a last look at the baking and empty parking lot and asked, “You take a check?”

“Nope.”

 

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

 

Mr. Aye quietly stalked through the woods, looking for his prey.  He was uncomfortable in the glare and brightness of the day, but at least here, there were no other people.  Or cats.  He held up the GPS locator that was tuned to the phone’s number and scanned the tame wilderness while occasionally looking at the map.

He neared a clearing and squatted in a thick of reeds at the edge.  He found he was looking at Goldberg’s exposed back some thirty meters distant from a slight side angle, Mr. Aye listened for any distraction at all and found none.

With only the slightest click he freed his semi-automatic pistol from his shoulder holster and leveled it.  There was nothing at all that would stop him now.

“Dude!” Carl did his best quiet-walk up to Mr. Aye’s perch.

The large man put his hand back, giving the sign for him to freeze and shut up, but Carl ignored it and crouched in the blind.

“Dude, you took the wrong gun.  Here’s the dart gun.  Capture.  We are supposed to capture him.”

The white of Mr. Aye’s eyes were blood red and fixed on him.  Anger poured out of that stare and into Carl’s soul making him say, “Dude?”

“Right.  Capture.”  Mr. Aye put the gun away.  “Now if you are done fucking up my stalk?”

The young thug’s eyes flicked through the scraggly brush and saw Goldberg and Dan toking on the small stream’s bank.  “Oh yeah,” he whispered.  “I’ll wait at the car.”

Mr. Aye nodded and aimed the tranquilizer pistol at the two.  Two shots one second. Goldberg first, then his loser friend.

The Strange – Episode 23 – In the Weeds – Part 2

 

The Strange – Episode 21 – Rubble – Part 2

Joy turned Molly away from the Cop once the Detective gave them a pass.  She was still a little buzzed and had no desire to go to jail for pissing off a cop, no matter how much he deserved it.  Besides, it looked like cooler heads were taking over and Joy was here to help.

“Come on, killer.” Molly felt Joy’s hand on her shoulder. “Let’s see what we can see here.”

At the first close up look at the wreckage of her apartment, the anger and disbelief that was keeping Molly up seeped out, replaced by despair.  “This is pointless.  I mean, Jesus, you’d need a bulldozer to even start.”

“Um…  I’m sure things…”  Joy came up short and said, “You know, I gotta tell you, you’re right.  This is pretty much defines ‘hopeless.’  Bad deal.”

Molly shook her head.  “Thanks for coming anyway.  I guess I had to see if maybe there was something.”

“Yeah.  No problem.”  Joy was ready to turn back around when something on the ground right outside of the rubble caught her eye.  “Hey, didn’t Goldberg say something about a wooden ball puzzle thing?”

Molly straightened.  “What wooden ball?”

“You know, the thing he said he threw out the window or something.  I think it’s right over there.”  She pointed at the ball quickly but stopped as she saw the plainclothesman come over to them.  Instead she walked over and put the ball behind her heels, obscuring it from view.

“I’m sorry about that.  Conflicting orders, you know.”  He looked back over his shoulder and gestured at the cop.  As he did, Joy kicked the ball behind her. It rolled over the sidewalk and into the street, coming to rest in the gutter.

The detective put out his hands.  “Now here’s the deal.  You can take stuff you find as long as you don’t go digging and you let me verify what you are taking away.  The pile is still very unstable so watch yourselves.”

Joy said, “You know, I don’t think that’s going to be necessary.  We were just saying that this is a total loss.”

“Yeah.  Except that Joy found her boyfriend’s balls.” Molly stared at the pile.  Her voice once again became meek and small.

The detective looked puzzled.

“It’s been a hard day and, uh, we started drinking early.”

He shot a good look at Molly, particularly her eyes.  “I don’t blame you, though she really shouldn’t be…”  He gave a knowing pause.  “…drunk in front of a bunch of police.  Know what I mean?”

Joy guided Molly once again by the shoulders.  “Yeah.  We’ll be laying off the mimosas while looking for a more three-dimensional living space.”

Brace grimaced.  “Yeah, well, I understand, but… discretion, you know?”

“Of course.  Thank you, Officer… Brace, was it?”

“Yes ma’am.  Detective, actually.  Again, I apologize for the officer.  It’s been a strange day so far.”

“You will find no arguments here.  Good luck.”

They ducked under the police crime scene tape and strolled down the street.  Without looking or stopping, Joy bent down and scooped up the wooden puzzle ball and tossed it in her bag.

 

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

 

Belatran leaned against the counter in the long empty terminal building at the Hogstown regional airport with a look of wonder on his face. “What do you mean?”

“Well It’s pretty obvious.”  A man in an oil-stained one-piece said.  “Ain’t no vans.”

“I know.  You told me.  Just like I told you that I reserved a van.”  Belatran waved a piece of paper at the man.

“Well when did you do that?”

“From your web site.  Hours ago?”

The man looked at him hard, as if he were a puzzle.  “How many hours we talking here?  Exactly?”

“Well it must have been eight or nine.”

“Shoot.”  The man smiled with genuine warmth. “Here I thought we had a problem.  Nope.  No vans.  And how’d you get here that quick?”

“You are at an airport. You realize that, right?”

“Yeah but… no planes scheduled.”

Belatran let out a breath.  “Forget it.  I have a receipt for a van, but as you said…”

“There ain’t no van.”

“Yes and very eloquent.  What do you have?”

“Welp.  Since you look a might peeved, I’m going to guess you aren’t going to be happy with this neither.”

Belatran held up his hands. “As long as it rolls without being pushed, we’ll manage.”

“OOOOOoooKay!” The man shook his head and walked out from behind the counter. He made for the door, still chuckling.

 

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

 

In the hospital’s ICU ward, the alarms stopped screaming as Natasha Riley regained her tenuous grip on life for the third time that morning.  The nurses trickled out to work with other patients, leaving Natasha and Frank Riley with the doctor.

The old man’s eyes looked up at the doctor, bloodshot and out of tears. “Things aren’t looking up, are they?”

Doctor Moore fell into the seat next to him and rested his head on the cool, glossy wall. “I’m afraid not.  Frank, we tried our damnedest in there and we almost lost her.  She’s stable for now, but if she decides to take a dive again, I don’t think we’ll be much good at all.”

“So what…”  He swallowed. “What now?”

The doctor exhaled.  “Now, if you give the word, we take the mask off her face and the wires off her chest.”  He Nodded at the hairbrush in his hands. “Now, you should brush her hair.  Whatever happens now is up to her, not me.”

Frank looked at the brush in his hands.  He remembered her buying it in Prague after the war.  They had replaced the bristles a few times, but the gleaming silver against her hair always seemed to shine with its own light.  He smiled weakly thinking of better times.

“Ok.  Ok.   Let… Leave her alone.  It’s up to her now.”  Voice quivering, Frank added, “She likes it when I brush her hair.”

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

The old man in his robes walked awkwardly away from the diner.  He patted himself down.  His hand found a leather binder in the folds and he sighed.  He got to the edge of the parking lot and continued there along a footpath along the side of the road who’s only name was a number.  Shade was a mercy on this path and the further he got from the diner the more of it he received.

He looked into the forest.  The first path he found got only a headshake and he continued.

“Hey!  Hey Chuck!”  The voice calling from behind made the man whip around.  His hand came up to try to see who would have shouted something like that at a time like this.

Another old man came trotting down the path.  His polo and tasteful white pants reflecting the heat of mid-day.  “Chuck!  Jesus!”  The man jogged to a trot and then finally took a knee.  Though the man was thin, it wasn’t due to exercise.  “Oh thank God.  For a second I thought I was going to miss you.  Or you weren’t going to stop.  I…”  The man continued to puff.

From within his robes, Chuck ducked down.  The thin man looked up briefly and his face lit with confusion.  “Larry?”

“Hah!  Yeah.  Hi.”

“Larry, what the fuck are you doing here?  What’s it been?  Decades?”

The thin man straightened up and took in a deep breath, trying to compose himself.  “Definitely over twenty years, so yeah.”

“And… you … remember?”

The thin man smiled.  “You’re a slippery one Chuck.  Took me all this time.  But yeah, I remember.  Not only that, I … noticed … that you were nearby … and why.”

“You…”  Chuck rubbed his hand over his head.  “Meh.  Should know better than to consider anything strange, especially now.”

“Yes.  Especially now.  I’d ask how you are, but…”

“Yeah.  Not exactly a fair question.”  Chuck’s face lightened.  “But I gotta say, I’m feeling a little better now.”

The thin man smiled.  “I’m glad to hear it.  Do you mind if I walk with you a bit?”

“Sure Lar.  You… uh… know where I’m going?”

“I know the destination you intend, sure.”

“And you’re still up for a walk?”

“Chuck, you of all people should know that while a body may intend to go to a place, there are times when the path points to a new direction.  Remember, once upon a time, I read your books.  I was there at the hole in the world.  And for better or worse, it touched me.  I remember it.  I remember what they did with me because of it.  And now, I have this.”

Larry stuck out his hand and from around his open palm, an aura grew.  Within the aura every possible instance of that open hand flickered through existence.

“Chuck, there are more worlds than this one.  We always talked about it, late at night after the wine ran out and the girls went to sleep.  When the G-Men caught me, they tried to go through there, but I couldn’t let them.  I was the Ultra and for years I fought to try to find that again.”

“But it’s back.”

“It can’t be denied, really.  It led me to you.”

The two men continued to walk, each in thought.  They found a promising trail and pushed through the low hedge to get to a manageable trail made of sand and dead plants.  The forest gave shade but took away any hint of a breeze.  They went on for a bit before Chuck spoke up.

“You realize how fucked up that is, right Lar?”

The thin man smiled.  “Yesterday, I’d have told you it was impossible.  Yesterday I wouldn’t have remembered you enough to tell you anything if you weren’t standing right in front of me.  Today though, well, it’s still pretty fucked up, yeah.”  He chuckled.  “You know that even without my memories of you and our talks, I became a philosopher?  Shows you how people just are what they are in their core, regardless of external forces, eh?”

“So why are you here, Lar?  I’ve got enough smack in my pocket to kill a dozen mortal men or one Keith Richard’s and I aim to use it before too long.  You know that.  You know why.  I’m at the end of my rope.  It’s good to see an old friend and all, but…”

“You misunderstand.  There are other worlds.  We had the right of it back then.  The elves that greet you when you take the vines, the aliens we met with Ken and Bear… They are there and they are not bothered by your physical form… or lack…”

Chuck jumped back as if struck.

“I’m here to take you to them.  You are remembered by them.  They brought me here.” The thin man held out his hand, unearthly power still radiating from it. “What do you say, old friend?  One last trip?”

“Ah, what the hell.  Not like I got any better plans.” With smile, the man in the robe gave the offered hand a hearty shake.

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

“Ok Aye.  Stand by.  I agree that the apartment is too hot now and likely not terribly useful.  Bee out.”  Ms. Bee closed the encrypted communicator and stuffed it back into her bag.

Across the large desk, Alexi Loveless continued to stare at his model.  Without looking up he said, “Mr. Aye … Is he badly hurt?”

“Cat scratch.”

“Hm. Doesn’t sound serious.”

“He’s been at this since early last night.  I’d like to swap him out with someone.”

“No.  Sorry, but I’m giving that man one more chance to redeem himself.  He’s botched this twice.  You don’t think pulling him now will itch his brains a little?  Make him question himself?”

“Aye’s a professional.”

“So am I and this is my line.”  Loveless drew a line with his hands.  “No He finishes this thing.  Park him close to the action.  We will find a way to locate Mr. Goldberg. I’m working on that now.  After that, Mr. Aye can capture him with all haste.”

Ms. Bee nodded and stood.  “Then I’ll leave you to it and try to get Aye a breather at least.  Man’s not a machine.  We’ll plan an extraction when we get a location.  Until then, I’ll be working with your guys to shore up defenses.”

“I’m not paying for that.  Why would you do that?”

“In case your Noodle Boy decides to zig our way.  You aren’t the only one who doesn’t appreciate surprises.”

The door shut.  Loveless looked back to his model on the monitor that took up the top of his desk.  Head in his hands, he stared at it.

Minutes went by and he finally asked himself, “How to plan for true, no-bias randomness?”  The question hung in the air unanswered for more long minutes until a soft chime announced a visitor.

“Come in,” he said, clearing the broken model from his desktop.

Vic Goodman pushed his large square frame through the door. His jowls sagged as he looked down at Alexi Loveless, sitting at his fancy paperless desk.

“Ah Victor! Nice to see you.” His tone changed from neutral to questioning. “It is nice to see you, isn’t it? You look uncertain.”

“I am at your service.”

“Yet you are unexpected. You know, that secret entrance through the quarry only stays secret if people don’t use it just to pop in and say ‘hi’.”

“Don’t worry.  I re-arranged my schedule, moved some things up to make it look like I have official business in town.  Worked out better than planned, actually.”

“And I assume you are really here to do business with me.  All right then, what’s on your mind?”

Vic sucked himself up into a square with perfect angles. “Mr. Loveless, I would like to tender my resignation.”

“No.” Loveless said plainly. “Is there anything else?”

Vic pursed his meaty lips.  “Surely you can’t believe that the casino racket will not be discovered? It’s only a matter of time!”

“Yes, but in that time we’ll make money hand over fist. That operation is neatly contained and contingencies are in place to handle the inevitable investigation. Really, there is nothing to worry about.”

“For you! I’m the damned contingency!”

“Now now, Victor. Swearing really doesn’t suit you.”

“I don’t hear you denying it.”

Alexi slumped forward in controlled exasperation. “Victor, this is a risky business. You should know, you have been at it for way longer than I have.”

“Yes. And the bosses I had … the ones you had killed or exposed, or crushed under your boot, you ruthless bastard … they knew how to treat people.”

“And yet they routinely set underlings out there to do risky jobs of which they would deny any knowledge of if things went south. You know this.”

“But this is a crazy risk!”

“With an obscene profit margin. And its very boldness disguises it. It’s a great operation. The risk reward ratio is… well, it’s pure gold. So, no.”

“I’ll…”

“You’ll do what? Out me, Vic? Do you even think you can? You would only out yourself. Don’t test me, Victor. Never forget, I have the game rigged in MY favor, always.”

“You son of a bitch. I’ve never asked for anything. I’ve always lived by the code. You took over for my boss, my friend, my mentor and I never said a word because that’s not the way. You went on a tear through the other outfits and even though those mooks were my enemies, they deserved better than what you gave. You humiliate people, people who played by the rules and showed respect.”

“And look at what they gained in return. Are you upset with me personally or just pissed that I worked your system of fealty to my own ends? Don’t fault me because I am a better gangster than you or your cronies, Vic.”

“I have no cronies because of you. All my friends are dead or banished. All I want is to retire someplace that isn’t a prison cell.”

Loveless’s voice changed, becoming truly apologetic.  “Then you picked the wrong line of work, Victor. That’s the pension plan.”

Victor slumped in the chair. His face was a meaty mask of despair.

“Look, Victor, I can’t just let people leave, even if they are, like you… problematic.  You are looking at this thing I built, my method, and you see the juggernaut that steamrolled your compatriots.  But you see, I understand the weakness in the design and while you all keep the thing running, I’m up here, alone, constantly patching up those cracks to keep us all as safe and well off as I can.  Sure, people will get caught now and then, but the success rate under me is much better than any historical accounting in this line of work.  And if they weren’t, people would be super suspicious.  Surely you can see the progress.  Better jailed than hunted or dead.  And one of the central parts of that is keeping loyalty.  If you skip out now after Urk stepped out of line and after… this morning’s incident… that would be destabilizing.”

The light began in Vic’s eyes and spread up to smooth his brow. He lifted his head to Loveless who met his gaze. “What if I gave you something you needed. Let you save face, make it look like I went out on a high note?”

“It would have to be something pretty good.”

“I can give you Goldberg.”

It took a beat, but Loveless replied, “No, you can’t. Sorry, but he’s untraceable. He only has one listed phone number and it’s under the…”

“Building you blew up. You aren’t the only one who can put two and two together. But he got in touch with me through back channels.  Had to get his money, right?”

The younger man leaned back in his chair.

“You could trace the back channel, try to figure it out, try to get me to spill, but that would take time … even with your ‘system’” The last word came out like a curse.  “I don’t think you have time.  I think you’ve got a bigger problem than just some dumbass making you look bad.  So … Can we make a deal?”

Loveless once again leaned forward on his desk and smiled.  “Victor, you have my attention.”

The Strange – Episode 22 – In the Weeds – Part 1

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