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

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

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

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

“Not with you driving.”

“Relax.  We’re here.”

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

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

“I’m always relaxed.”

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

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

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

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

“Ok, now we wait.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you need me to write it down?”

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

“I socialize plenty”

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

“I know that.  I … just fuck you. ”

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

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

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

“And the other was a war.”

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

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

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

“Good because they are already in your van”

“Van?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I give you a lift?  I mean…”

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

“And …”

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

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

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

“Yeah.  Kinda.”

“Just grind it till you find it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So… Still freaked Edwin?”

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

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

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

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

The Strange – Episode 18 – Game Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re carrying the high heat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was the ace.”

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

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

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

“Because I’m dying jackass!”

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

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

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

“No.”

“With a prescription for pain meds.”

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

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

“Gone.”

“Like the fucking wind!”

“Oh shit, man.  What did you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And its drawbacks.”

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

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

“Just like Mur did for me.”

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

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

“It never is.”

“So really… Are you going to be ok?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strange – Episode 15 – The Voice Inside

Delgado found himself floating free.  His body not so much a body as a point of consciousness in a soup of biological static.  The static flashed blue, red and free of even the organized chaos of the uniform pixels of a television stuck between channels.

Feelings of immobility were rendered moot by there being no place to go.  Helpless, yes, but not afraid; he thought not in words but in raw ideas.  Once he began thinking, the thoughts continued to spill free and become one with the blue-red of the nothing that shaped his current world.

More felt than actually seen, he observed something snaking through the random.  It was cool and sharp and pleasant.  It caressed the random where it pooled in pockets and aggregated in like fashion that Delgado hadn’t recognized until the silver framed it.

The sharp intruder continued to slip through the seemingly viscous and ever changing mass that surrounded Delgado and his escaping thoughts.  It never cut but used it’s pin points to probe and find the sure connections, strengthening them through the definition of where it wasn’t.

Without warning, the intruder turned to where Delgado believed he was in his pinprick of consciousness.  Again, Delgado had no fear of this intruder.  He did not brace for its onslaught.  With nothing else to do, he stood defiant.  He may die, he may live, but he would not cower even if he could.

He was a United States Marine.

The impossibly sharp point met the infinitely small space of Delgado’s consciousness and a new sensation flowed into the young man.  Memory.

He was once again five years old riding his bike down the street away from his house.  School had just let out and he was free to roam around until dark.  The scents of the green and warm of his subdivision in September came in on the wind.

In front of him, beyond his handlebars lay his playground: a dirt track for BMX bikes carved through a large, wild lot, easily big enough for eight or ten houses the size of his.  This lot was free of the trees other vacant places had, but it more than made up for it with dips, mounds and weeds taller than he was, even standing up on his pedals.  The weeds smelled different than the foliage in his neighbor’s wierdass hippie garden.  Sappy and greener than green. Weeds, flowers, and seed pods gave the field a woody, pulpy taste in the afternoon sun.

The lot and its banked and bumpy trails called to him and he thought, this is what life is about.  It isn’t about what is going on at school, staying on the safe and paved road.  That was a necessary annoyance.  This feeling of exploration, discovery, of being in the world… this is where things really happen.  This is what life is about.

He hopped up on the curb and skidded to a stop at the head of the trail.  The large drop-off jump that ended the trail loomed off to the left as he regarded the trail bumbling off to his right.  It went through all the weeds and wild bushes into a branching network of paths; each with its own challenges.

Delgado knew that older boys, some even as old as nine or ten, had put some logs up to keep the trails from washing away in the rain. If he messed that up, they would look for him on the playground at school.  Delgado didn’t fear them or anyone, but he wouldn’t disturb the trail.  He would own it in time through skill and training.

Red and blue returned.  Memory.  Memory was there.  He remembered everything.

The silver had only begun to do its work.

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

A burgundy minivan with a “Baby on Board” bumper sticker roamed the mall parking lot looking for a space.  It circled a little more than necessary, but found a spot under a thirsty young oak tree clinging to its three-foot wide strip of land.   The door opened with a pop and a dinging from the dashboard.  Ms. Bee climbed down from the driver’s seat and struck her reasonable heels on the pavement, looking for all the world like any other working mom out to run errands.  A quick check of her ponytail in the reflection of the over-tinted back windows and she was off.  She pretentiously powerwalked through the baking sea of blacktop to the oasis of the mall.

The air conditioning hit her like a physical force, both inviting and stunning.  Two steps into the mall and she might as well have been in Oslo in February.  She wondered how much it cost Loveless to keep this place uniformly refrigerated like this.  Maybe if he wanted to waste money so bad, he could throw some her way through a renegotiation.  Then again, this job smelled bad.  It started to stink upon the discovery of the Collector and after last night’s folly it reeked to high heaven.  Nothing to do about it but get it resolved or that stink will stick to her and her organization forever.  Any future clients get a whiff of that kind of failure and she could kiss her premium pricing goodbye.  No.  There would be no negotiations.  She knew Loveless knew this as well as she did.  No way out but through and no amount of refrigeration will keep this thing from getting even more rotten.

She took a lazy left down the small hall leading to the bathrooms and followed it all the way to the unmarked door at the end.  Once inside she hit the intercom mounted on the wall.

“Central, this is Bee.  I’m home.  I pick up anyone?”

The box squaked.  “Bee, Central.  What’s your position?”

She frowned.  “Are you people on alert or not?  You should have been following me for the last five minutes.  Longer since I told you I was coming.”

“Bee, Central.  What is your position?”

Ms. Bee stared at the box and barked, “two five three.  Just inside the service door at the end of the bathroom hall on two.”

“Bee, Central.  Got you.  No.  No one in the hallway.”

“Central, Bee.  What about anyone looking at the hallway?”

“Bee, Central.  I…  Let me scan.”

“Central, Bee.”  She sighed.  “Never mind.  Just open the door.”

The door made a pop and Ms. Bee pulled it open.  Without a sound, she quickly slipped inside and trudged up the service hallway.  Turning down the hallway, she went through another door and dropped into the abandoned but not empty weirdness of an abandoned department store.  Blanding with the shadows, she made her way past the empty shelves of the deserted department store, up the elevator and down the linoleum hallway.  Her hand went up to rap on the door marked Office, but she held it.  A glance at her watch.  A smile.  She walked a further two paces up the hall.

Central sat, mesmerized by the single huge monitor in front of him.  It was cut into eight screens, all showing him a view from one of the mall’s many security cameras.  Ms. Bee closed the door behind her and slid behind him.

The dagger concealed in the stiff bottom of the sensible black purse slid from its special hiding place.  She took a moment to admire the blade, wet with a greasy neurotoxin, before sliding it up to Central’s temple.

“Do you like my blade, Central?”  Her voice didn’t break the silence as much as it slid into a crease in it and snaked its way through.  It was so smooth that Central didn’t jump until he turned to see the blade almost touching his eye.

“Jesus!”

“Not quite.  You seem surprised.”

“You’re crazy.”

“No, I’m thorough.  You had no idea I was coming.  Are you telling me that hall outside doesn’t have a camera?”

His eyes never left the blade and the blade never wavered.  “No Mam!  I mean, yes there’s a camera and no I didn’t know you were coming.”

“Well, you are dead.  And now that you are dead, who is covering all these cameras?”

“I… I… No one.”

“No one.”  She relaxed, but didn’t move the blade from his face.   “So that entire network of surveillance is completely useless because you didn’t lock that weak door and didn’t watch your own back.  Tell me, do you know how to do surveillance with this equipment?”

“Uh, yeah.  You look at the monitors and, uh, look for trouble and stuff.”

“And stuff.  Really.”  Her voice was flat.

Central swallowed hard.  “Are you going to cut me with that?”

She whipped the blade back into its sheath in her purse so quickly that Central flinched.  “Get up.  Let me see that board.”

Ms. Bee took Central’s seat and began rearranging the camera views.  “Ok.  We established that you need to be alive.  View of your door right hand corner.  I’d prefer a fire door, but this will have to do.”  She used another view to cycle through some interior views.  “Fine.  No one is interested in my hallway.  I come up clean.  Couple of people might be interesting.”  She put cameras on a handful of people and then did a sweep of the outside views.  She then turned to the man, who she realized was staring dumfounded at the screen.

“You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?”  She said.

Central shook his head.  “Not like that.  I mean… I can understand, but… Yeah.  I was trained to look for shoplifters.”

“Well I can’t have that.  Shoplifters aren’t today’s problem.”  She stood up and faced Central.  He stood a foot taller than Bee, but under his crew cut, his face was a mask of fear and awe.

“They ar… who is?” he asked.  A smile crossed Bee’s face.  This clay was now warm enough to shape.

“I need to talk to your boss, but I’ll be back.  Keep an eye on these subjects.  You will tell me exactly what they do.  And when I come back you better be able to tell me which hand I used to knock on the door.  Am I understood?”

Central nodded.

Ms. Bee smiled, showing teeth.  “I’m glad.  You should get anyone else who will sit at this desk to show up within the hour.  We’re all going to learn together.  Things have gotten interesting.  I have to rely on you, so you will learn from me.”

She glided out of the door, leaving central to wonder if getting training was a good thing.

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

Luxury Automobile waited on the corner with the cube shaped mini amp banging against his thigh while his gig bag made the sweat pool in the small of his back. Futile sweat soaked his back while trying to ward off the heat.

“Fucking Teague!” Sarah Winter walked up to the corner in slow angry steps. “Have one bad dream and he calls me a psycho!”

She came up to the corner and swiftly turned to Luxury Automobile. “Do I look like a psycho?!”

“Um… no?” Luxury Automobile came up short.

“Of course I don’t. Although I should have my head examined, putting my career at risk, dating my student.”

“Student?”

“Well, not really a student. I don’t know, if you tutor someone is that a student?”

“I can see the gray area.”

“Yeah, totally different. Besides, it’s not like he’s some kind of innocent babe! Trust me, he had plenty of practice with women. We can tell, you know.”

“Not really.  And, um … do I know you?” Luxury Automobile studied the ‘don’t walk’ sign and tried not to visualize Sarah’s tirade.

“Well, if you’ve got a guy who is clueless, he goes to work on you like he’s stuffing a turkey. Teague though, he was done with all that well before I got to him. But even so, he doesn’t understand women one bit! You just don’t call your girlfriend a psycho!”

He looked over at Sarah and tried in vain not to look at her striving A’s just to see what all the fuss is about. “Well, yeah. ‘Psycho’ is an insult.”

“Damn straight! And it’s an eternal struggle for women to shake off the ‘crazy chick’ label. That’s the kind of dehumanizing rhetoric that has kept women out of positions of power for millennia! Just because we get moody around female problems doesn’t mean we are crazy as a group. I mean hell, if you bled uncontrollably for a couple of days from your normally fun bits you’d be a little cranky too!”

She walked off the corner leaving Luxury Automobile to swim in that last comment.  He gazed at her narrow hips and athletic back in disbelief. A little short of half way, she stopped and half turned, looking at him. “You coming?”

“Oh! yeah!” He suddenly realized that the light had changed and hopped into the cross walk.

“I don’t know, maybe I should let him of the hook if he apologizes. But he just… It pisses me off.”

“Yeah, ‘can see that.” They arrived at Blunderbuss Coffee and he opened the door.

She smiled a lilac smile and slipped past him. For the first time he noticed the girl’s odd choice of makeup and hair color. “Thanks for listening!”

He paused a moment before saying “My pleasure.  Don’ mention it.”

Coming into the store, the weak air conditioning swirled around him in lazy circles. Not quite powerful enough to get the swamp off his skin, it was still a welcome relief. “Hey man,” he said to the man behind the counter, “Mind if I set up early?”

The barista nodded. He gave a little wave to the complete psycho girl with the black and purple hair and headed to the back to start busking his way through the mid-morning. Having gained his wits, he wondered once again why he attracted crazy people.

In the corner of the small coffee shop sat a tiny stage, and the man made a line for it.

“Hotter than the can in Hades after chili night out there,” he said to the people in the shop. Sizing up the crowd, he set up the small amp under the stool.

The same strange, young woman he saw this morning ranting under that billboard sign was sitting at the table nearest his perch.  Though clearly a freak, she had an extremely curvy, squat, young Polynesian body with extra boobs. For a young body like that, he was willing to overlook a lot of crazy.

“Hey there sista, how’s it goin’?”

Hands over her ears, she said, “Can’t you hear it?  It’s so loud and confused!  Everything shouting.  Dizzy.  Almost painful.  Getting louder, like falling…”

Unzipping the gig bag, he brought out his bread and butter, a caramel stained, road-worn electric guitar.  “Well, I’ll try to play above it, and for you, I’ll promise to make it nice and sweet.”

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

“…and I’d like extra caramel.” At the counter, Sarah was finishing up her order.

“STOP that noise!  Please God, stop that NOISE!”  The crazy Polynesian girl stood up, knocking over her chair and table.  Hands were clamped over her ears, her eyes bulged.

The old black street performer looked out from his corner with his hand in the air.  “I ain’t played a note yet. I swear!”

“OH MY GOD!!!!  Help!”  The girl continued to rant, now even more frantic. “Help that voice.  It’s screaming!!!  Can’t you hear it?  Don’t you care?!”

She collided with Sarah, sending both tumbling to the ground.

From the floor, the busty girl shot Sarah a crazed look.  “You!  … your transmission… the data stream… with the others…”  She screwed up her face in confused realization.  “You don’t even know!”

Sarah shook her head.  “What are you talking about?”

“Nnyah!” she screamed, swinging her head around.  She rolled over to her hands and knees.  “Ok! Ok! I’m coming!”  Squeaking her shoes on the floor, she scrambled out the door.

For a moment, no one spoke.  Sarah sat on the floor, dumfounded.  A coffee maker percolated in the background.

“Hard to follow that up!” Luxury Automobile said as he clicked his amp on.  “But the world’s a stage and the show just kinda keeps going on.”  He strummed a chord, blue distorted and wet with reverb.  As he tuned, someone helped a shaken Sarah Winter off the floor.

The usual bustle of Blunderbuss coffee resumed.  The normal activity of the shop surrounding and absorbing the weirdness until no trace remained.

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

The Strange – Episode 14 – A Small Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The phone cut her off and she listened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bad news sweetie?”

Ms. Bee flinched at the sudden familiarity.

“What makes you say…”

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

“No, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And have them pump her full of drugs?”

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

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

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

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

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

‘Also indeterminate.’

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

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

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

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

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

“This is my … uh …”

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

“And this is Molly Bunn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, totally the lump sum.”

“You are sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strange – Episode 15 – The Voice Inside

 

The Strange – Episode 13 – Spilling the Beans

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

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

“Is that all?” he groaned.

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

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

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

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

“There was someone there?”

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

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

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

“The blonde hippie, right?”

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

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

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

“Did you report your observations?”

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

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

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

“And what, Ken?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The guy who killed Mr. Nestor?”

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

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

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

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

“Is there something wrong?”

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

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

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

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

“Anything else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hogstown’s finest, Sargent Brine.”

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

“You want to do what?”

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

“And how do you know this?”

A look of concern spread across his face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Detective pushed through the door, wondering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smirked. “How do you know that?”

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s a pretty fluffy looking number’

‘Every bit as fluffy as the question.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’d you get this?”

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

The Strange – Episode 14 – A Small Town

The Strange – Episode 12 Upgrades

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“…and the rest you know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Molly smeared a bagel with cream cheese and munched away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Purple? What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah well I liked my house.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’ll take the edge off, man.”

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

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

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

“But… Your hair…”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before he could even scream, his mind went dark.

The Strange – Episode 13 – Spilling the Beans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You wish.” He heard Joy shout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s the hired help.”

“So this is …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strange – Episode 12 Upgrades