The Strange – Episode 3 – The Night Before Part 3

Candles flickered around the room and warmed the neutral colors in the Winter twin’s apartment. While Joy’s happy hour ambush with Ryan Goldberg slipped into the next morning, her sister had set up a romantic ambush of her own. Now that the trap was sprung by her strapping, young boy-toy, she wondered if her plan had backfired.

“Come on. Get off me, Teague!” Sarah Winter pushed against the hot, inviting but heavy young man that was with her on her couch. Though Teague London was Hogtown State’s first-string Tight End, Sarah didn’t want to play at being his tackling dummy.

The man grinned with gleaming white teeth in a handsome, deep chocolate brown complexion. Teague said in a sweet voice, “Now don’t play hard to get, Sarah. I know you dig your man.” He kissed her sweetly, pressing his body onto hers.

She began to have a bit of a faint spell, and had the odd thought of bricks. Snapping back to reality, Sarah was once again determined to get the upper hand. The tall, slender woman reached around and grabbed the back of Teague’s pants. Getting leverage, she pushed and pulled at the big young man, flipping him off the couch.

He landed on the floor and the woman quickly pounced on him. Straddling him, Sarah gave him a frown. “You big, lunking, oaf!” She tickled his armpits. “How many times do I have to tell you? You’re too heavy?!”

The frown turned into a wicked grin as the big man squirmed under her fingers. “Baby, please, Stop! I’m sorry. Please, I promise.”

“Ah, that’s better. You promise to stay under my control? Hmmmm?” She traced a finger nail over his skin. “I’ll make it worth your while.” Her grin became evil and sexy.

He couldn’t resist her charm. “Ok. OK! Whatever you say. Just, be gentile. I’ve got football practice tomorrow. Don’t want to be late ‘n blow my scholarship.”

The twin’s dark flowing hair touched the 6 foot 9 inch young man’s well-defined chest. She said, “Ooooohhh. Don’t worry, I know you’re a delicate flower”

“Yea, that’s me, baby.” They kissed repeatedly in a quiet, even rhythm as their passion overtook them.

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

 

*pat* *pat* *pat* The relentless rhythm of the collector’s footsteps blissfully inspired terror.

The thick man pushed his way down the confining path of paper as quick he could, panic opening the gates of his adrenal glands. The relentlessly plodding sleepwalker gave chase with his blank eyes half open and his mouth agape. His steady, purposeful steps easily kept up with the operatives sideways scramble. Sweat poured from Mr. Aye. His tight throat let out a small, helpless cry. He was doomed. Being caught would spell disaster for the mission.

“Maybe he can recreate everything from the hard copy, all the paper,” Bee said to the voice over the wireless.

From within that maze of Hard copy, Mr. Aye heard the conversation. He tried not to let it distract him from running from the oblivious man who hunted him.

“The most likely scenario is that he doesn’t know what he’s got,” The voice said over the radio. “It sounds like he just printed the encrypted copy. Why would he print it if he couldn’t crack the cypher?”

Mr Aye rounded a blind corner in the paper as he heard Ms. Bee’s reply. “I’ve no idea. I think this guy’s crazy. You should see some of the crap he’s collected. There’s a box of pencil erasers, Beer cans, and… Oh Christ… That’s nasty.”

“And irrelevant. Does he have computers?”

“He must. I’ll find them. Floor three clear.”

Mr. Aye willed his pulse to slow. His body started to get away from him, but he willed himself to move with a purpose, even as his fear and adrenaline mounted.

Looking back, he saw the Collector. Hooded eyes over a slack-jawed mouth. The dim light of the tight passage made his skin look like it was dripping down his face. Though walking, the collector continued to snore with low moans. Every zombie movie Mr. Aye had ever seen zipped though his mind and being caught by this man became wrapped in a new kind of terror.

“Bee!” he squeaked, as loud as he dared. “Help!”

Rounding another corner in the claustrophobic maze of paper, he finally saw a much wider passage in front of him. Daylight beckoned. It was the path to the front door that connected the kitchen and the stairs.

The only thing between him and the more maneuverable passage was a foot high stack he had put in the passage as he searched through the documents. He hopped over the stack and lunged to the relative safety of the wider passage. Ms. Bee, having heard the plaintive cry over the intercom, quickly and quietly came down the stairs. Seeing The Collector coming through the narrow passage, she froze, waiting for the sleeping man’s next move.

The Collector shambled forward, and was almost clear of the narrow passage, when his feet hit the short stack still blocking the passageway. In his sleeping state, he wasn’t ready for the obstacle.

He fell forward hard and flat, his sleeping mind not alert enough to try to brace his fall. The pain jolted him awake and he shook his head. Looking up, he plainly saw the unmasked faces of the two mercenaries in his house. Dazed and half asleep, he asked, “Who? What … here?”

Taking a syringe from her belt pocket, Ms. Bee said, “Damn. Wet option. We’re going all in.”

With a resigned sadness, she grabbed the almost-naked collector by the head, stuck the syringe into his neck, and pressed the plunger.

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

 

The all night store was much too bright for quarter till two. Under the florescent glare, the weight of the night’s beer sank in on the newly coupled couple. The air conditioning was arctic, however, which made the whole place seem unreal in the middle of a sticky Florida summer. It was like stepping into OZ with the short, skinny kid at the register playing the wizard. He wore a full-sleeve turtleneck to ward off hypothermia and his goatee and glasses made him look like he might suddenly bust into a poetry slam.

Goldberg lingered near the register, hoping this would be a short trip, ignoring the cashier as much as was comfortable for them both. Eye contact, a quick nod and a look elsewhere, as was customary, was given and revived.

The thought crossed his mind that he might want to buy some rubbers, but he realized that would be colossally awkward and easily misconstrued. Besides, a little mental arithmetic told him that the ones he already had were still good, should it come to that.

“So, your roommate is nocturnal?” Joy asked over her shoulder. She made her way past the store’s chest high metal shelves and on to the Ice Cream freezer.

“Well, when you say it like that, he sounds like a cockroach or something. Dan’s just got this job that makes him get up at two in the morning, so he figures he was better off partying until two, then go into work.”

“He goes to work drunk?”

“Nah, stoned mostly. He said he prefers to drink coming down for some reason.”

She popped her head over the store’s racks, her face twisted by a question. Even with the weird look, she was still extremely cute.

“He changes the highway billboard for the gaming commission. No one seems to care what he does as long as he doesn’t screw up. Been at it for years now.”

“Wait a second. Dan Leggit? The Billboard Bug? You still hang out with him?” She took a deep breath and her eyes opened wide with concern. “I think you were more correct saying he was a cockroach. You know, he’s infamous for being a slime ball among the women on campus.”

Goldberg smiled. “He’s just a little misunderstood, is all.” She shot him a cold glance from the refrigerated section. “…Which, of course, could be interpreted as saying that you are almost entirely right on the money.” A chuckle escaped Joy as she watched him backpedal. “He’s been a good friend to me. Maybe you just need to meet him when he’s not looking for women.”

“Whenever that is.” Joy opened the freezer as Goldberg patiently waited at the register.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a peculiar flash between himself and the counter. It was a squiggle not unlike the trail brought on by some hallucinogenics, but it seemed more at home in the store’s bright light. When he turned his head, it disappeared. What remained on the counter was a sign for the week’s lottery drawing displaying the winning numbers. On a wim, He dug in his pocket for his wallet and pulled out a slip of paper.

Joy came up to the register with two cartons of ice cream and cheap hair scrunchy.

Without looking, Goldberg said, “Um, you know… I think this is on me.”

The tall pale woman searched through her purse from within the tent of her hair. “Don’t be silly, Mr. Goldberg.” She grinned. “I’ll get it. You paid for the bar.”

“No, really, let me get it.” He showed her the slip of paper and pointed at the lottery display. “I just won the lottery.”

Joy’s mouth opened in astonishment. “The whole thing? Really?”

Goldberg held the ticket under the grease penciled in numbers and he and Joy compared them. The cashier pressed in for a closer look. All three of them read off the numbers and found that it was a complete match.

Goldberg looked across Joy’s face at the cashier. “You sure these numbers are right?” The young man nodded affirmative.

“Damn, Goldberg! You know, I was going to sleep with you anyway, but now I think you are trying too hard to impress me,” Joy deadpanned as Goldberg’s head whipped around. “Makes you look all needy.”

As they stared, the cashier said, “Well if she kicks you to the curb, I get off at three.”

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

 

The tile felt cool on Frank’s cheek. The world swam back into his vision sideways. White, rubber-soled shoes shuffled up and down against a vertical floor. He thought of basketball.

The voice brought him to his senses. Natasha was calling for him.

“Frank! You have to do it Frank! You must die! Kill yourself, Please!”

The people in the bay were restraining the panicked old woman. “Let me go! Frank! Please, I have to explain… ”

“Sedation! Get her sedated! She’s pulling at her … *nph!*” Natasha clocked the woman in the breast bone with a practiced heel strike and she went down.

“Page Dr. Moore!” Another yelled.

A young nurse ran over with a needle and plunged it into Natasha’s IV. Another reached up and squeezed the bag, sending the medication racing into her bloodstream.

“Uh… Frank…” Natasha’s voice trailed off.

Pulling himself up from the floor, Frank’s eyes darted around at the nurses. “What… What are you doing to my wife!” he cried.

“Please Mr. Riley,” a nurse said, not turning around. “She’s un…”

“What the hell did you just do to my WIFE!” He screamed, getting to his feet.

The nurse turned. “She was hurting herself. And others. We sedated her.”

“You did what!? She just woke up!”

“And was strangling you. Straining…”

Dr. Moore burst through the door. “Nurse! Situation!” For a small man, he commanded immediate attention.

“These people are trying to kill my wife.” Frank pointed into the crowd.

“Patient woke up agitated and delusional. She was choking Mr. Riley.”

The doctor looked at Frank’s neck. “And doing a fair job. Mr. Riley, can you come with me.”

“But, Natasha…”

“Frank…!” The doctor said sharply, snapping the old man from his protests. He guided him toward the seats in the hallway. “Please.”

The old man walked over and slid into the seat. Dr. Moore joined him and leaned on the adjoining arm rest. “Frank, I’m sorry. This sucks.” The doctor’s voice was compassionate, but stern. “I’ve known both of you too long to BS you. She’s not doing well. And to have her wake up and be aggressive…”

“She’s not crazy.”

“No. No, of course not. But…”

Frank’s voice was barely audible, but it cut off Dr. More’s protest. “I’d like to see her again Jason. Just once. I’d… I’d like to say good bye.” He sighed and shook his head. “I saw plenty of death in the War in Europe. I know what it looks like and I know my girl.” his lip twitched and his chin crinkled. “She’s a fighter. She’ll want to say good bye… Explain this… I’m sure of it.”

Dr. Moore nodded. “We’ll do what we can. If she’s got it in her, we’ll work with it. But…”

“Yeah. ‘But.'”

The two fell into silence. The bustle of the nurses around Natasha quieted into a slow din of beeping monitors. One by one the people finished their jobs in the small cubicle of a room. Soon it was just Natasha in a tangle of tubes and wires.

The doctor put a gentle hand on the old man’s shoulder. “Take a break, Frank. She’ll be asleep for a while. There’s a cot in my office if you’d rather not go home. Through the doors, on the left.” He stood and added, “You are my patient as well. And right now, I suggest you take care of yourself.”

Frank slowly stood. “You will get me?”

“Any change at all. I promise.”

He eyed the doors, then glanced into Natasha’s room. It was hard to see her in the muddle of machines. Frank made his way to the doors and pushed through. It was the end of the world and nothing would be the same again.

The Strange – Episode 4 – Up On the Sun

The Strange – Episode 2 – The Night Before Part 2

The brownstone refused to give the interlopers a break. Plans for the house showed a first floor sprawled out as one big room with a large kitchen towards the back behind a wall. Since that wall supported the two stories above, it was solid, save a single door. This room should have been open and inviting, but the overwhelming contents and junk turned it into a claustrophobic labyrinth. The only wide passage in the large room went from the front door, past the strangely clear staircase and back to the door that led to the kitchen. A conceit, no doubt, to the necessity of eating.

What at first glance seemed to be a huge block of printouts soon came to resemble more of a stair-step mound. The outer edge was shin high while the center was on top of a table. It towered over all the other stacks and over the heads of the pair infiltrating the house. Certain piles could not immediately be inspected by the pair, since the piles in front of them blocked them from view. They resorted to looking where they could, silently shuffling, following the branching, foot-wide trails that wound through the stacks.

More than just paper clogged the room, though the sheer volume and the newness of the stacks made it stand out. Around the edges were little collections, all neatly arranged on shelves and table tops. Some were of old books, some of glass nick-nacks, some made of cans. One particularly odd collection was of old sneakers, carefully arranged on what looked to be a low serving table. In short, junk was everywhere, but meticulously placed and the two had to inspect everything in the dark. The green glow of their night vision goggles gave them headaches, but there would be no flashlights to aid them. The intricate plan for this op precluded light or anything that would call attention to themselves. The lone occupant, The Collector, must never know who stole back his ill gotten information. At least that was the plan going in.

They started calling him ‘The Collector’ almost from the start. He had an indiscriminate hacking style that was effective because it was erratic, unexpected and unbelievably prescient, almost clairvoyant in its ability to avoid detection. The early theory was that he was just gathering trophies, breaking into places just to say he’d gotten in. After spying on his on-line activities, they wondered if he was compulsive. He copied all the data on the host system, regardless of worth, whenever he got into a system. Less of a collector, they surmised, than a hoarder.

They had no idea how right they were. It seems that this guy had printed out everything and the results were everywhere. After two hours of searching, they had uncovered many documents, all marked with “Alexi Loveless – Criminal Empire” as a header, scattered throughout the printouts. They contained nothing but data embedded in a cypher, a big block of numbers, letters, and symbols representing their prize. No unencrypted pages, however. Nothing actually incriminating by itself and without analysis. Still, this was the data they came for and it was intermingled with everything else The Collector, Professor Bill Nestor, had retrieved and printed.

“This is impossible, we should just go final contingency. Blow this place up and burn it down,” Mr. Aye said as they worked. Cramped spaces made the big man uncomfortable. He got more agitated, the longer they searched. The narrow passages in the piles of junk made him walk sideways just to get around.

Over the earpiece, the voice said, “You will go wet only as a last resort. The final contingency is just that, a last resort. I’m paying you to be as thorough and to be as unobtrusive as possible. I doubt that The Collector even knows what he has, or how … interesting it is.”

Ms. Bee turned on her throat mike. “Interesting or no, and as much as it pains me to say it, Mr. Aye’s got a point. We can not guarantee that the information you wish to have retrieved is completely eliminated from this mess unless we destroy everything.”

“I understand what you are saying, just like you understand my instructions. Keep looking. I would have blown the place up myself if I’d wanted to be so conspicuous.”

Suddenly, the pair were blinded. The room’s overhead track lights snapped on, flooding the dark in bright light. Acting on their training, they whipped off their night vision equipment and scampered to find cover among the junk in the room.

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

 

The night was warm, dark, damp and breezy. In a scene as old as the ages, a young couple danced to the tune of their new relationship in fresh, uncertain steps. Goldberg bundled his wavy blond hair back off his face while Joy Winter used her long dark locks to play hard to get. As they strolled past the odd block of row houses, Goldberg came to the end of a story.

“…so, I said, it’s a little from column A,” he said gesturing with his left hand. She helped him finish the sentence as he made the same gesture with his other hand. “… and a little from column B!”

They both laughed at the end of the story. Joy grabbed his arm and gave it a little squeeze. The squeeze ended but she found his hand and held it. He felt like a school kid again and his hand perspired despite his best efforts.

Joy peered around her locks and said, “Does this make you uncomfortable, Goldberg?”

“Of course.” He stopped walking and faced her, still holding her hand. “But it’s nice.” Her pale face made a wonderful canvas and the lights of a summer night danced across it. Somewhere in the distance, a traffic light turned from red to green and the shade on her right side turned from ruby to emerald. Goldberg was overcome by the coy beauty of this girl’s easy smile and her wide, sparkling eyes. He leaned in and kissed her softly.

His soul poured into her with that tender touch and in return he received hers. Nothing in Goldberg’s years prepared him for a kiss like this one. He never wanted it to end. Their hands and arms traced the new landscape of each others backs, finding the perfect embrace. In the heat and mugginess of the night, they found that their souls matched.

After endless moments, they broke and looked at one another. The smiles they wore had more meaning, but were just as sweet.

“I believe someone owes me some ice cream,” Joy said with a playful grin.

Goldberg was shaken from his reverence and said, “Ah, yes. And remind me to show you the secret knock.”

They walked on in silence, enjoying the nearly moonless sky on this hot summer night. Joy let her long dark hair drape across her face. With a smooth motion, she flipped her locks over her shoulder and asked, “What are you thinking?”

The blond young man looked at her smiling face and was once again amazed that she was smiling for him. “That I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

“Yes you are,” she teased and smiled. She draped his arm over her shoulder and leaned into him. Her lean body found the perfect contour in his frame and matched his step. “Really, we both have it pretty good, considering,” Joy put in after a long pause. “I mean, we’ve been able to stay at Hogstown State for going on eleven years! Most people only get four, if that. Speaking of which, how’s the thesis?”

“Ah yes. The thesis. Hm.”

“That is not a happy sound, Goldberg. Sorry, did I just crush the mood?”

“No. But… Well, here’s what Rodger had to say about ‘Fractal Encryption – Chaos Protection’.” He made a straight face and threw on a formal voice. “This is not a science fiction convention, Mr. Goldberg.”

“H’Oh shit! He didn’t”

“Oh yeah.” He said, resuming his tone. “You cannot throw impractical spiffy sounding things out at the wall no matter how nifty. It is not enough to publish, you must publish that which is usable either to your colleagues or to the public to have any reputation and for our board to confer to you the honor and title which you seek.”

“Ouch! ‘Spiffy’ and ‘Nifty’? Harsh.”

“Ah, Rodger… I don’t know how much of that is just being upper crusty and British. He told me to continue, though. That’s more praise than most get. I guess the worst that can happen is nothing… continue grading papers, doing the odd bong hit, and teaching the functionally inept.”

She threw a glance from under arched eyebrows. “Yeah. And I’m sure you don’t appreciate the lifestyle.”

“Busted.” He smiled. The orange street lamps turned his teeth tan. “I’ll be glad to avoid the real world for as long as I can manage it. Is that so wrong or selfish? I mean, I do feel like I owe it to… whatever, the world… for providing me with a place to live and a lifestyle that I enjoy most days. So I continue with the thesis even though Roger may be right and it’s just silly. Maybe that alone is not enough? Maybe teaching, passing on the knowledge without ever coming up with anything useful is a waste of potential or something? But then, what else to do?”

“Very philosophical for a Math guy.”

“Well, I guess hearing about Mrs. Riley has me in a bit of a reflective mood. It’s the big things like that and like, say kissing a pretty girl for the first time… makes you think about your life.” He looked at her bright smile and added, “At least I do.”

They continued walking. Joy examined the sidewalk’s even bricks as she walked. “I guess you do what you can, I mean about giving back to the community and all. I think it’s pretty clear when you should poke your head in and do stuff, but until then, leave things alone, and just live life.”

He nodded. “Exactly. I mean, I just like it here. I like being able to hang out with my friends. I like the town. I even like my job, but everything always conspires to push you further along on the ladder and it seems like you’re either climbing or falling. Or you are some kind of layabout. Don’t get me wrong, I spend plenty of time enjoying life. I don’t know where I’m going with this. I guess I just don’t like change all that much. Maybe that’s why I don’t take the thesis terribly seriously. And I’ve just… I don’t know… Today I’ve been feeling sort of… I don’t know how to describe it…” He squeezed her. “Things seem to be pent up to change and while some changes are fantastic, it just seems… well… do things seem just a touch different? Not as much something you can put your finger on, but more something you feel. Like the way your skin prickles just before a lighting storm.”

“Has someone been stepping on your zeitgeist, Goldberg?”

He chuckled. “I suppose it is sort of foolish. Forget I mentioned it. Anyway, the thesis is doing just fine. I’m just not convinced that I care all that much.”

Joy looked at the bricks in the sidewalk. “Your feelings aren’t foolish, Goldberg. Having intuition isn’t silly, at least not to me. Just because it doesn’t adhere to the ‘mathematical model of science and stuff’, doesn’t make it any less important. Uh… oh!” She swooned and Goldberg caught her.

He blanched. “Uh, maybe that last glass of water was one too many. That stuff sneaks up on you, you know,” he joked lamely as Joy regained her equilibrium.

Her composure back in place, Joy swiped at her hair and said, “Yeah, um… I can definitely feel it. The difference you were talking about, I mean.” A flustered look crossed her face. “Let’s go get that ice cream, I’m thinking vanilla! Definitely! Vanilla!”

“You know, I might be out of vanilla.” The change of subject was noted but not pursued. “The all-night store is this way, though. It’s only a bit of a detour.” He pointed back up the street, the way that they had just come.

She raised her face and once again smiled. “Then that’s the way we go. I want to pick up a hair band, anyway.”

As they turned, Goldberg saw something out of the corner of his eye. A light in one of the brownstones had just turned on. “Hey, isn’t that ‘Weird Bill’s’ house? The lights just went on.”

Joy looked at the light through the curtains. “I think it is. Yeah, you know he was looking for you yesterday. Said it was a puzzle and it was important.”

“Well, I’m glad he didn’t find me. Whenever he wants me to look at something it is invariably harebrained. Still, strange coincidence to see him get up in the middle of the night.”

As the two lovers walked past a nondescript, white van he said, “What are the odds?”

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

 

Quiet, even footsteps echoed from the top of the stairs. From their hiding places, the two ignored the voice in their ears. “What’s going on there? Bee? Aye?”

They each reached to their throats and turned off their radios, silencing the voice. Eyes interrogated the shadow on the stairs for tactical advantage. Two knives slid silently from hidden sheaths. Muscles tightened as the two prepared to kill.

Oblivious, The Collector plodded down the stairs in a rumpled nightshirt. His arms dangled at his sides and his mouth was open. Unseeing eyes were open but blank. The two who had invaded his home spied him from the cover of paper stacks. They watched as he shuffled from the bottom of the stairs, around a corner, through the canyon between two paper piles and through the swinging kitchen door. He pushed the door an extra time, getting it stuck open.

He turned on the kitchen lights without looking for the switch, revealing a waist-high maze made of piles of cans, stacks of dishes, and stacks of magazines. The two operatives looked at each other then back at the man, as he made his way through the overstuffed kitchen. Suddenly, the man in the nightshirt stopped. The operatives watched in frozen silence, thinking they were caught. The collector merely stepped a half step to the left to avoid a box of books that would have stubbed his toe. Without looking back, he continued to shamble.

“Son of a … He’s sleepwalking,” Ms. Bee whispered as they looked on. Putting her hand to her throat, she turned the radio back on. “Had to go quiet,” she whispered. “Collector is a sleepwalker.”

The voice over the radio said, “So, what is happening? The driver says he sees lights.”

“Yes, lights. He’s turning on lights in his sleep. It’s like he’s got the place memorized.” Ms. Bee looked in amazement as The Collector got a glass from his cupboard. “He’s getting a drink from the kitchen sink.”

The voice paused. “Interesting, but only a minor wrinkle. Just stay out of his way. Maybe he’ll leave the lights on. That will make your search a little less ‘impossible.'”

The thick man flipped on his radio and said, “It certainly doesn’t hurt.”

“I’m going to check upstairs while it’s clear. Give me a squawk if he starts to move.” The lithe dark woman silently walked up the stairs, a knife poised slightly in front in the unlikely case that the Collector had a guest.

Mr. Aye continued to look through the pages, keeping an eye on the sleepwalking man. There were all different types of printouts in the stack, but frequently he would come across one of the ones he was looking for, the ones marked “Alexi Loveless – Criminal Network”.

“Even with the lights on, this is going to take well into the morning… more time than we have.” Mr. Aye said in a whisper. “Do you have a contingency for just loading all this crap into a semi?”

“No. I had not planned for hard copy on that sort of scale.  It did not seem likely or even possible. Everything is incriminating?”

“Not everything. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to it, but the things we need are
all mushed in with other stuff. We’ll either have to check everything or take everything. He’ll know he was taken either way.”

“The Collector himself knowing is not a concern. I just don’t want him to be able to prove anything, especially if he sounds like a nut to begin with. You are saying that you need to take everything to do that?”

He bent over and randomly cut a large stack and looked at the page on top. Again it read “Alexi Loveless – Criminal Network”

“You’ve got encrypted stuff with your name on it, calling you a criminal. That will shine a spotlight on you that you won’t like so, yeah. Every single page needs to go to ensure a full retrieval.”

Over the intercom Mr. Bee said “Level two is a royal mess, but doesn’t have anything for us. Haven’t found the computers yet. Checking the next level.”

After a few minutes the sleepwalking man shambled away from the sink. “Collector starting to move.” Mr. Aye said, pushing himself shoulder first into one of the narrow paths, letting the sleepwalker go back the way he had come.

The even voice said into the intercom, “OK. Prioritize the search on the soft copy. If we get the computers, all this guy would have left is a crazy nest of paper with some gibberish on slanderous letterhead and my network address. It’d be interesting, but useless as real evidence. We won’t take any of it. Not an ideal outcome and we’ll have to dial down our activities while I re-evaluate. This is going to be expensive.”

The zombie-like man came out of the kitchen. Mr. Aye watched the man slowly advance on his position, expecting him to retrace his steps through the wide passageway and back to the stairs. But instead of going left he went right, toward the thin passage through the paper stacks where the thick man stood. Slow yet unstoppable, the shambling sleepwalker inadvertently pursued Mr. Aye, driving him further into the paper labyrinth.

Mr. Aye quickly realized how confining and unforgiving the narrow path through the paper was. He looked back to find the Collector mercilessly shambling towards him, slowly, but still faster than he could get his big frame pushed through the path. He had nowhere to go. He had to get through, just steps ahead of the drooling, eyes half open and snoring man; capture, a fate worse than death.

As his panic rose, he heard Ms. Bee respond to Loveless’s comment, “Yeah, it will be expensive and hard to manage, but it is nothing we can’t handle as long as we get the computers and ourselves out of this house unnoticed.”

The Strange – Episode 1 – The Night Before Part 1

Frank looked upon this view of his hometown and could only see the end of the world. Hogstown State University rose up a shallow incline. Strings of pathway lights led up to the soft orange glow of streetlights from Hogstown’s small down town on the horizon. The old man knew it would never be the same again.

He turned from the window and sat. The chair was hard and too low. It didn’t fit bedside the hospital bed. There, in a tangle of tubes and wires, laid his Natasha. He reached out, his hand clutching hers. Her short, stubby fingers did not grab back.

Tired eyes hung over a mismatched smile. “Say, dear, this has got to be the worst Friday date we’ve ever had. Come on. Let’s see you get out of that bed and we’ll try to find an all-night diner.” His voice was soft as a wish. “Please, sweetheart, wake up. Let’s get you out of this awful place.” His lip curled and twitched as he added, “I’ll even kick in some ice cream.”

Her eyes bolted open with a sudden gasp. Frank jumped.

“Easy, dear. I’m here. Don’t try to move.”

“What … Where?” she mumbled.

“You’re in the hospital. You fell, Tasha, remember?”

Natasha slumped back into the bed. “No,” she said, then winced. “Nono no. No! It was not supposed to be like this. Damn it.”

For the first time in his life, Frank saw real fear in his wife’s eyes. “It’s OK. I’m here for you.”

Her ice blue eyes fixed him in place. “I know. I know.”

They gazed at each another across the bed sheet. Her hand grabbed his as the monitors beeped and the oxygen hissed. Natasha broke the quiet with her weak voice, still dripping with her native Russian accent. “You are such a sweet man. I love you.”

“I love you too, sweet heart. Always.” He stood and leaned over her.

She slipped her hand from his grasp and brushed it against his cheek. Her other hand rested on his arm. “Beautiful words. Kindness. It is what made me fall in love with you.”

He smirked. “I thought you said it was my natural charm.”

A weak laugh came from her lips. “That helped too. Kiss me.”

Frank leaned over, being careful of the monitor wires and IV lines. His old hamstrings strained to keep him from falling into her. He puckered and kissed her tenderly as her hands brushed up his neck.

Breaking the kiss, Natasha looked at Frank. “My love, I need you to do one last thing for me … for the whole world. It is the right thing. You will save many much grief, hardship.”

“What are you…?” Frank looked in her eyes, puzzled. “What is it?”

“I need for you to die.” The old woman’s fingers slid around his neck as she popped her thumbs around his Adams Apple. Frank choked, his windpipe disjointed and completely blocked by the sudden move. His lean meant he could only fall into her, aiding her in her task. He flailed aimlessly for something to grab, but found nothing. As his vision gave way to the blue and red flashing checkerboard of asphyxiation, he found her face. Tears ran from the ice blue eyes of an old soldier. “I’m so… sorry, Frank. Duty. Without me to keep you tame, you will be the death of us all!”

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

 

The late summer night outside the hospital baked from the ground up. Earth and concrete gave up the heat stored from the day’s sun shine. The water from afternoon thunderheads still collected in puddles even though midnight had come and gone. The air, already thick with humidity, could not possibly hold it.

Low, hot fog lay in tiny thermals down the hill from the hospital and further into the university. Going back up the hill, even further onto the campus, the trees dripped with Spanish moss, sucking sustenance directly from the damp air.

The buildings went from new to old up the long, shallow incline on which the campus stood. While the newest parts near the hospital seemed to blend in to the surrounding town, up the hill, where the oldest of the universities halls stood, the boundary between school and city was as sharp as the other side of a street. Marked by bars and bookstores, one of these boundary streets, University, ran like a spine from the school to the city’s municipal center, through a dozen busy blocks.

At the core of Hogstown, a different life emerged. A life not as much sustained by the transient nature of college, but one more suited to the ways of northern Florida. Less of the architecture was made of cinder block or covered with vinyl siding. The people in these houses were not just passing through, they lived here. Older houses, more southern with their porches and high ceilings, stood proud on larger lots, even those whose subdivided nature draped them with odd external stairways and hastily arranged doors. Students may have lived here too, but they mingled with the more civilized society that did not appreciate the gross improprieties of youth.

A block of row houses stood in mute tribute to their own age and watched over the quiet order of the first few hours of Saturday. They represented an architectural anomaly, seemingly dropped here from some northern town and anchored by an old apartment block. It was almost as if the town, in a fit of southern hospitality made brick, ceded this small segment to the north in an attempt to make some visiting Yankee professors feel more at home.  Though odd, the houses were beautiful and massive, with their brick walls, high ceilings and wide windows. These windows were now dark. The residents, lacking the mindless vigor of the town’s students, had long ago gone to sleep for the evening.

.  A white mini-van rounded the corner and skulked up the quiet street. Halfway down the block, it slowed and the side door opened. Two figures hopped from the van and stole across the brick sidewalk. They cut right, and hugged the waist high, iron fence.

A quick snag went unnoticed in their hurry. A looped shoelace, pressed into service as a temporary key chain caught on the top of a fence post. Gravity pulled the key and the cord straight and in the dim light of the hot summer night, it disappeared into the slender post.

The figures cowered in the shadows of the brownstone’s small front porch. The white van had slowly moved away and pulled into the alley that serviced the row of houses.

The smaller of the dark figures whispered, “Ok, we’re clear. Mr. Aye, get the door.” The voice was alto, female and gave the orders with comfort and authority.

The other figure, a very stocky man, was already searching his black coveralls. The night vision goggles over his eyes made the shaking of his head even more pronounced. “I don’t have the key,” he whispered, extending his empty hands in frustration.

“What?” The woman lifted up her night vision equipment, revealing a tan complexion and wide, angry eyes.

Mr. Aye still had his hands out. “I know,” he whispered. “Fuck. Just shut up, Bee. I’ll pick it.” After a brief pause, the man who had lost the keys simply tried the door. To his astonishment, it was unlocked. He smiled at his partner.

“Lucky,” Ms. Bee said. They silently opened the door to reveal the deep darkness of the house.

From their earpieces a calm voice chastised them. “Please tell me you aren’t relying on luck. I have prepared for every contingency, except, of course, gross incompetence. Should I plan for that in the future?”

“No” said the stocky man.

“Maybe,” his partner replied, giving her partner a look before pulling her goggles back into place.

They slipped into the dark and swept their eyes across the room. It was unlike anything they had ever seen before.

Over the radio, the voice asked, “What do you see? Is my data there?”

“I’ll be damned if you could have planned for this.” Ms. Bee whispered. “This is unbelievable.”

“What?” the voice said. “What do you see?”

Every table top, floor space and shelf was full of stuff. The impressive collection sat as a huge circular pile of paper, shorter on the outside but reaching to the center stacked as far as a person could reach. A rough maze of slender pathways, only wide enough for a thin person to walk, pushed through the stacks of paper. It was all neatly piled, but the amount of stuff in just this first room was overwhelming. The men knew that this was just the beginning. This house was four stories tall with a shallow basement.

“It’s… Pwsh!” Ms Bee let out a frustrated sigh.

“It’s what? I want everything incriminating out of that house, Bee. Do you need something?”

Looking at the top of one of the stacks of paper, Ms. Bee said, “Yeah. I think we’re going to need a bigger van.”

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

 

Back up Main Street and off a few blocks, Harlie’s Tavern still buzzed, as did the majority of its patrons. Typical of a college hangout, the woodwork was worn soft from use and repeated cleaning. A low stage was set up to host entertainment, but at this time of night the drone of the patron’s conversations warred to drown out the awful straining of a dying musician.

At the length of bar facing the stage, Ryan Goldberg and Joy Winter drank wheat beer to celebrate each other’s company and wash away the stress of another week of grad school as teacher’s assistants.

“God, I think some of my Stats students are actually retarded. I mean, don’t they teach these kids to THINK in high school?” Goldberg took a deep slug of beer and winced at one of the singer’s truly misplaced notes.

Joy snickered. “You think that’s bad, you should see some of the creative writing pieces I get. Every kid in there thinks they are Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, or Dave Barry. Problem is, they haven’t done crap with their lives and lack the imagination to make up anything. It all just sucks.”

“Hard to believe that we were once those kids.”

“I was never one of those kids.” She took a quick sip and eyed the wax sculpture that was a basket of fries a mere three hours ago. “I knew my stories sucked and used the class to get better. These kids just expect me to not only pass them, but to give them good marks for just showing up.”

“I remember you being a rather anxious freshman, actually.”

Joy turned her head, swishing her hair. “And I remember you as being that nerdy kid down the hall that smoked too much weed.”

“You remember me from the dorms? I would have thought you were too busy with all your suitors.”

“You mean the hormones who read too many penthouse letters about identical twins, you mean? I’ll tell you one thing about being a twin Goldberg, I learned early on to ignore that kind of attention.”

“Sarah didn’t though,” Goldberg said while tipping the glass to his lips.

“No. No she didn’t. Still doesn’t. Personally, I like when someone shows an interest in me for me, not because I’m one of a set.”

“Well, I think you are one of a kind.”

She eyed him and slowly said, “Why thank you, Mr. Goldberg.”

Fidgeting under the successfully received compliment, he changed the subject. “So, you were saying about your students, Ms. Winter.”

“Ah yes.” She raised her glass and gestured with it. “When asked to write about something they knew, one guy wrote about playing Videogame Football against his roommate.” She drank a bit from the pint glass as her eyebrow shot up. “Come to think of it, that was probably one of the better ones.”

Goldberg had been taking another sip when her last comment hit him funny. He snorted and choked on his beer. He swallowed, and then flat out coughed, doubling over. Bright pinpricks shot across his vision, leaving dark streaks in their wake. He finally caught his breath and noticed Joy Winter’s slender hand massaging his back.

“You know, it really wasn’t all that funny.” She continued to rub his back tenderly while he lay in her lap, drowning in a teaspoon of hefeweizen.

As the shooting stars passed, He slowly sat back up. The hand on his back casually slid and now rested on his side near the ticklish spot over his kidney. He looked at her through his bleary haze and dirty glasses. The fair skinned, dark-haired woman smiled at him and he smiled back.

“It wasn’t so much funny,” he choked out, “as clever. You make me laugh. … Possibly a little too much.”

She gave him a sly grin. “The Russian judge gives you points for a good recovery.” Her gaze lingered on his wire rimmed glasses and long blond hair. “Speaking of Russians,” she said, breaking the long look, “Did you hear about Professor Reilly’s wife?”

He took a careful sip and instinctively scanned the crowd. “No what about her?”

“It was awful. I was in my office when he got the call. Apparently she fell down the stairs and got pretty badly roughed up. He ran straight home and I had to take over his last class.”

“Wow, I hope she’s going to be OK.”

She sighed. “Well, you know, they are both in her nineties. Strong as oxen up till now, but…”

The conversation went dead as they both considered the bad news. Into the lull, the musician on the stage dropped a cover song so butchered it became an original.

“So, I’ve got to ask you,” Joy said, breaking the silence, “why haven’t you asked me out before?”

“Well it’s not like it’s a date or anything,” Goldberg tried to play cool. “It’s just happy hour.”

“Happy hour ended five hours, six drinks and one dinner ago. Once you pass one, it’s officially a date.”

“By whose rule?”

“Mine!” She grinned. “And you are dodging the question.”

Goldberg paused. “I’m not sure. Social circles never really crossed I guess. And even when they did, either you were with someone or I was. So, what’s your excuse?”

“Me? Well, that… and you spent a lot of time doing psychedelics with your buddies.”

“And you aren’t into that?”

“Ah, well, it’s still not my cup of tea, but I’ve come to notice that the world’s a strange place, you know? Life’s short.”

“Yeah.”

Joy played with the ring on condensation on the bar with her finger. “And … well … you’re not with someone now, are you?” She glanced up to see Goldberg’s, spectacle – rimmed eyes.

They looked at one another while the bar buzzed around them. Goldberg searched her face for meaning and found her doing the same. He couldn’t look away, didn’t want to, but he was frozen in her gaze. To him, the moment seemed unbreakable.

“Thank you!” the guitar player said loudly when no one clapped. He had given up on his song and was trying to save some face.

From the back of the room, a drunk shouted, “Hey, Ass Clown! Play Free Bird!”

“Ok, that’s it!” The young man slammed his guitar down with a loud, dissonant clang. “I’m tired of taking this fucking sh…” The mike cut out and a squawk of feedback rang as the bartender scrambled to put on a song. The musician stomped off to find his heckler while the crowd jeered.

Goldberg wasn’t sure when he broke the gaze, but he found himself once again swiveling around to look at Joy.

“Wow, you sure do know how to pick out all the nice places,” She deadpanned. “What’s next? Wrestling? Monster trucks?”

“Well, that depends. It’s just about last call anyway, but I know this nice place with coffee and ice cream. Open all night if you know the secret knock.”

Joy gave him a grin. “A speak-easy? Why Mr. Goldberg, what will our students think?”

“They will just have to be left wondering.” He returned her grin.

“Wondering what?”

“Is Miss Winter a Vanilla or a Chocolate?”

The Strange – Episode 2 – The Night Before Part 2

[Author’s note: Hi!  This is me from the future of around episode 22 even though I did promise myself that this would be a superhero story with NO TIME TRAVEL!!!!!   I just wanted to ask those of you who have found your way here to please help me out by voting for The Strange on Top Web Fiction, either here or at the top of each and every page on this site.  It really helps get the word out that the story is here.  Also, if it’s not too much trouble, tell a friend – or just random people on the internet through blogs and such.  I am not advertising, so word of mouth and the odd recommendation is really the only way anyone hears about this or any of the other content I have posted here at screamingcandle.com.  And you would not believe what we’ve got going on.  Over in Liquid Wax, we just wrapped up posting the pilot for the Ghost-hunter story “Crabtree” and are ready to rock on a second helping of the devilish “Idle Hands” where office politics get downright murderous!  And in The Strange we have <*redacted*> and… hey!  What?  I can’t say anything about <*redacted*><*redacted*><*redacted*><*redacted*> and getting stoned?  Meh!  Editors!!!

Hope you have a good time, continue reading and Stay Weird.

-SC]