Book One: Interan

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By Daniel Mendel-Black

Prologue

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Up on the roof the shooter wanted to feel something, anything at all. But when he watched the sun set over the horizon it looked like a giant insect egg suspended in front of a swirling backdrop of raked spider-webs. Clouds fluttered like the wind-torn shrouds of ominous dark angels dancing before the milky, dying eyeball of their unnatural sky god. The shooter eyed them closely for any sign of sudden movement. Not that he was afraid they would suddenly drop out of the sky and catch him up in their boney talons, he was simply on guard, was all. He adjusted the weight of the rifle, fingered the trigger, and focused the scope on the office across the way.

He was forever amazed how these people could ignore the sunset and sunrise every day without freaking out the way he did, as if it was the birth of the universe he witnessed every morning, a sublime vision of merciless indifference. Everyone was so sure of everything, like they had this switchboard in their head and when something happened that made all the lights go off at once something would just shut down inside them, slam the door closed on the outside world, and all their doubt would go away. But with him whoever was supposed to have opened the door to let it all in in the first place must have forgotten to.

For a long time now he'd been shipwrecked in this miserable place with all these sinister figures, unable to read the secret messages in the cold, cut-glass eyes of those around him. Were they trying to warn him about something terrible that was about to happen? The shooter hadn't slept for weeks, couldn't keep any food down. He began to stare into everyone's eyes, wondering what these beings were thinking and feeling, hoping for some clue, and the more he did so, the more disconsolate he became, because he was convinced it was all there, written out plain as day for him in bold, capitol letters, if he could only read the signs. But he couldn't. He didn't have a clue. Kindness was inscrutable to him. A longing glance was the same as a withering stare. A smile or frown was enough to set him on edge. He would return the gesture to avoid discovery, but he knew it was only a small matter of time before someone or other would finally realize he was faking it.

Sometimes he thought he must have come here from a faraway planet. From a moon-like rock where the sun was blotted out of the sky by a permanent midnight of pollution where humanoids fought ultra-violent giant robot machines in the ruins of fallen cities for so long they had become as cold and mechanical as their enemies. And, maybe he had.

Only a couple of more minutes before the sun sank below the horizon. He could already see through the mirrored glass of the fifth floor corner office opposite his rooftop perch. The government scientist was at his desk, bent into his terminal. Voices seemed to multiply inside his head like airborne, crystalline bio-warfare hazards escaped from the laboratory of a secret government base. They came at him in bit-torrents from seemingly every place, from his unconscious, from the ground under his feet, from the sunless, cataleptic sky, like an echoed chorus of angry squeaks and whistles, cries from a flock of hungry, sharp-toothed, carnivorous prehistoric birds that circled bat-like in the ringing bell-tower of his inner mind. The shooter pulled his arms in tightly to his side to brace himself, held his breath, aimed, and took his shot. Across the way the man's head snapped backwards, and his body slumped to the side.

Chapter 1

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One of the plumbers in the security camera footage was familiar to Special Case Detective Garry Knolls, but no matter how many times he rewound it, he couldn't put his finger on where he'd seen the man before. He was studying a floor plan of the building from which the assassin had taken the shot when the hearing impaired senior citizens arrived. There was, of course, no soundtrack on the video, and he wanted to learn what the plumber had said to get past the security guard at the front desk.

The elderly deaf, three blue haired lady volunteers from the local retirement home, put their hands on their mouths and slapped their knees.

"What did he say?" Knolls mouthed the words, and quickly pushed a writing tablet and stylus across the desk.

One of them wrote in shaky cursive, and passed it back.

"I heard you got a premature leakage problem."

***

"I don't like where you're going with this, Knolls," the CO scratched his forehead.

"There's more. It only gets better," the major case officer indicated the enhanced enlargements from the security footage. "I think I recognize the plumber. The facial recognition software came up with a match, but there was no name attached to it," he called up the headshot on the presentation device. "Back then, if it's the same guy, he was a couple of years younger, his hair was longer, he wore thick glasses, and had facial hair. While I attended the academy the psychology department had a number of studies in the works. I was lucky enough to proctor one of them for my professor. His name was Edward Vincent, Dr. Edward Vincent. At the time, the intelligence community was concerned about advanced brainwashing techniques reportedly then newly developed. You remember the agents that went missing? I was in my first year at school. The captured units caused quite a stir when they resurfaced unscathed after months, only to pledge their allegiance to their captors. It was one thing to train our units to resist harsh interrogation, but quite another to consider they could willingly defect, without threat, or compulsion. The research was conducted on a number of separate campuses, blind studies, each with it's own objective. I can't tell you what went on elsewhere, but our mandate was rather benign. At least, that's how it started. We were simply tapped to develop methods for screening out individual cadet candidates deemed most likely to desert. There was also an interest in developing a profile to identifying the kind of person who might do so..."

"Thank you, ladies," the captain interrupted, as the three hearing impaired seniors filed out of the room. "You've been very helpful. A squad car will take you home."

"It was a paid gig, disguised as a pharmaceutical study, sure to scrape the bottom of the barrel. The kids that showed up were, as you might imagine, a mixed bag. Some genuinely needed the money. Others were in it for the drugs. They were all asked to write a 'tell-all' autobiographical statement, including sexual information, conquests, fantasies, preferences, you name it, and were told afterwards they would get switched up in various groups to compare notes with each other. In retrospect, I believe my professor added that last part concerning the carnal intrigue. There were a lot of rumors about him. What the group didn't realize was that they were actually involved in a convoluted stress test. Instead of the purported sharing of their secrets with their peers, they were wired with electrodes and placed alone in an interrogation style room with the professor. All of them reacted negatively to the duplicity, but the reason I recognized the student in question is that the professor seemed to take a particular interest in him. The first thing he said when he was alone with the boy was: 'You call that a beard?' Those interviews in particular struck me as much harsher than the rest. The professor was merciless, and at times unprofessional. His ridicule of the kid was brutal. I mean he laid into all the test subjects, but this particular kid was far more devastated by the interrogation than the others. It was hard to watch. The kid repeatedly tried to defend himself, protect what little self-respect he had left, but it was impossible. Everything he said in his defense was construed as more evidence against him. There's no doubt my professor took a perverse pleasure in it, as if the young man was both victim and muse. Later it came to light he had, in fact, for years had a seamy, illicit, sadomasochistic affair with one of the other teachers. It made national news, although there was no mention in the article about the work he was doing for the government, only a little titillation about the sordid adventures of a tweedy, herringbone academic. I never knew the young man's name. All the participants were given pseudonyms, ostensibly to protect their identities, although it was most likely a precaution to provide a smokescreen of plausible deniability in case of trouble. There was no way of knowing what happened to him. He disappeared for a couple of years. I'd almost forgotten about the kid entirely, kinda a scrawny nobody, anyhow, when I saw this, sir," the special case officer rapped the screen with his knuckle. "I'll be darned if he's not the same fellow from the psychological study, a couple of years older I'll grant you, with a different haircut, but one and the same."

"I suppose you want a gold star."

"What I'm saying captain, sir, is I know this guy."

The squad room captain waved off the rest of the officers at the presentation.

"What in tarnation am I supposed to do with you, Garry? You're not at school anymore. Your job is to make the facts match up to the evidence, no more, no less. Do you grok me?" his head was spinning. He reached into his upper drawer for a pill. The case was coming apart. "We've got a suspect in custody. The Feds practically handed him to us on a silver platter. All you've given me so far is a lot of bull crap and wild speculation about how nothing makes sense. There's something fishy, you claim, about how easy it was for the assassin to get past the guards. You say you recognize a plumber as a test subject in a government sponsored psychological experiment you participated in while you were a snot nosed cadet. Do I have it straight so far?"

"I'm not backing off the claim I can identify the guy. Sure as I'm standing here, he was the young fellow my professor tortured. I realize I don't fit your classic cop mold, but times have changed. Our work is more cerebral than it was when you came up. All I'm saying is that the deeper I dig into the case, the more the facts don't match up."

"What about the dead scientist, what was his name, Conrad?"

"You can take it any way you want, I'm only the messenger, but there are some irregularities. The government laboratory Conrad worked in was linked to the strain of anthrax found in another doctor's office by the name of Barkley. Conrad would have had access to the material. If you want to cast a blind eye, I'll reluctantly turn all of my files over to a more senior investigator who has garnered more of your confidence. All I want is for someone to take a closer look."

"That's it. I've had my fill, Knolls. I just got off the phone with brass. You know what the little prick at headquarters said to me? He said the senator was shitting on the governor, and the governor was shitting on the mayor, and the mayor was shitting on him. Shit rolls downhill Knolls! The senator wants the case solved pronto. I don't get it. Where's the big mystery. You've been working too hard. You're starting to get squirrelly on me, making up evidence, carrying that recorder of yours around wherever you go. You think I don't know you've been taping conversations with your colleagues. You've got it into your head I don't like you. The fact is I've been carrying you on my back ever since your girlfriend split on you, making excuses for you, telling everyone what a good kid you are and how you'll eventually come back round. When was the last time you took any time off, visited your folks, Knolls?" the old man opened his side drawer and pulled out a form. "As of today, I'm pulling you off the case. You're officially on a leave of absence," he handed Garry the pink copy. "I'm gonna need to take your gun and shield. Leave 'em on my desk."

***

"We're supposed to take it on faith, Sam Spikone is a psycho maniac with a long troubled past, and it was by some unfortunate oversight on the part of a low-level, pencil pushing case worker that he fell through the cracks of the penal system?" Knolls did as his CO ordered him and placed his weapon and badge on the desk.

"Why not? You sat next to me during this morning's interrogation of Mr. Spikone. I don't have to tell you he's in a fugue state."

"All I'm saying is that it's a little too convenient, Captain. Since when do the Feds hand off a case to Metropolitan Police? Those guys make careers out of swooping in on our work and taking credit for it. They know we don't have the capacity to run the kind of database background check they can. Besides, even if the story holds water, why would a kid who's been in and out of the system all his life suddenly decide to target government scientist? Unless..."

"Unless nothing. Get the cobwebs outta your head. No one can fabricate an entire history without missing something, without a slip up of some sort. There are too many affidavits to forge, too many witnesses to pay off, from the doctor listed on the birth certificate to teachers, councilors, plaintiffs, you name it, anyone whose name shows up on a document."

"It takes time, but there's someone out there who hasn't, as yet, stepped forward, someone with pertinent information about Sam Spikone. Frankly, I'm amazed we haven't turned anything more substantial up on the guy."

"Listen to yourself, Garry. Let it go. You've got black crescents under your eyes. You look like stomped shit. I'm serious. Do yourself a favor. Take a vacation. Take it from an old man whose been round the block a couple of times, stop projecting that conniving, two-timing whore of an Ex on the rest of the world. I've watched you descend into a pit of depression over her. You gotta stop beating yourself up over it. Get yourself laid."

***

***

Files raced down Knolls screen. He scrolled through his media. There were folders that went back over a decade. Ever since he was an adolescent he'd recorded everything: holidays, birthdays, his siblings, arguments between his parents, the radio, television. Pretty much anything worth surveilling was ripe for investigation. As were all his past girlfriends. There was an entire drive dedicated to his former lovers. "Misty", "Honey", "Dusty", on and on. "Kiersten," he paused over the last heading at the bottom of the list, but he didn't have the strength to sift through all the hours of tape accumulated on her shenanigans again.

It had never occurred to him before, but all of his former girlfriends had porn names, everyone but Kiersten. He wondered what that said about him.

On another drive there were files going back to his rookie beat cop days. He'd mounted his own little sting operation within the department. Unbeknownst to his commander he carried a wire for the whole year, recorded roll call, and conversations between himself and other duty officers. There was an illegal quota system in place, and the squad was violating people's civil rights, arresting them for no reason, people dragged in for drinking out of "open containers" even if all they had in them was fruit juice, soda pop, or chocolate milk. It's no big mystery the cops need a little extra dough for their softball uniforms, but it got so bad in his district a bunch of trick-or-treaters were picked up for "unlawful gathering".

What he was looking for came a couple years earlier, the recordings he made from the psychological study he proctored while at the academy. Dr. Vincent had said something like: "Some day he's destined to stand under a spotlight on a rotating stage." It was all Knolls could remember, that and the strangely paternal tone of his teacher's voice when he uttered the words. Had the doctor referred to the test subject in question? He needed to find his professor. Maybe his old teacher could tell him what happened to the kid after he left the academy. They might have kept in touch. The study was blind, but Knolls' curiosity had got the better of him, and he'd peeked at participant's identity. "Parson" was the name on his form. Supposedly the student was the son of a NATO General stationed in Germany. There was nothing on-line, not even on the academy alumni page, as if the young man was cut out of history, disappeared off the grid. A trip down memory lane was in order. Dr. Vincent, he noticed was no longer listed as faculty. Maybe the psychology chair could point him in the right direction? It was worth a shot.

***

"Try Fortean College," the faculty supervisor at the academy suggested over the phone after Knolls assured the man he wasn't with the press. "We don't have anything else on record for Dr. Vincent beyond that. After the professor left here, he was hired to head up another similar study. Good hunting, detective."

No one picked up at the university. Knolls got a machine. He packed a few items in an overnight bag, and threw it into the trunk of his hatchback rental. Perhaps his CO was right. A visit back home wasn't such a bad idea. Fortean College was on the way.


Chapter 2

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"I'm amazed I got past the guards at the front gate in one piece," Detective Knolls accepted a glass of water from Professor Boorman. "Those guys you've got posted down the bottom of the university drive are pit bulls. I don't think they liked me." The bobbing reflection of the ceiling light on the surface made him put the glass down.

"The university isn't a higher-learning center in the traditional sense," his host flatly informed him. "We don't accept students per se. We're a government research facility. There's a lot going on here we would rather keep private."

"I apologize for my unannounced appearance. The folks at the academy weren't very helpful." Garry decided to cut directly to the chase. The other man was clearly in no mood for small talk. "No one at school seems to know what happened to Dr. Vincent. All they were able to tell me is that he was transferred here for a brief period."

"Edward Vincent? What a character. The sex scandal was unfortunate, such a sad case. You say you were a student of his?"

"He was my mentor."

"A brilliant man when he wasn't spouting nonsense about alchemy and sorcery."

"I don't follow."

"I didn't see much of Dr. Vincent while he was here. He kept to himself. They had him on special assignment for intelligence, if I'm not mistaken. You told my secretary you assisted in a number of studies?"

"One in particular."

"All I can say is that when he came here the government's interest in his research diminished. Politics you understand. Other more pressing priorities intervened. The fact was his work took him in another direction. In our field, you don't always know where the data will lead. Sometimes it can take you in unexpected directions. We set out with a particular goal in mind, a specific application for our discoveries, we spend untold sleepless nights of hand-wringing, fretting over the reason the square peg won't fit into the circular hole, and sometimes, if we're lucky, we surrender to our mistake, understand we've all along been going about it the wrong way, and if we only substituted one or the other piece of the puzzle the obvious solution would cry out to us."

"What happened to Dr. Vincent?"

"Unfortunately, I can't tell you."

"Because you won't."

"Because, Detective Knolls, I simply don't know. Shortly after he arrived, Edward was once again transferred to another facility. His work was too sensitive, and his personal indiscretions plagued him. His notoriety made him a pariah. I hate to dispel any illusions you might have about your former professor, and I probably shouldn't tell you this, but Dr. Vincent is the guy most folks hereabouts immediately suspect every time there's a mad bomber in the news, every time a maniac goes on a killing rampage. If someone is going to figure out how to turn a human being into a bloodthirsty, brain-eating ghoul, you can be sure his name comes to everyone's mind first. If a fine line exists between a 'miracle' and an 'abomination' of modern psychiatry, the joke is that Patrick is always the first to cross it."

"You didn't get along."

"I didn't say that. I may not embrace his methods, but, as a colleague, I have all the respect in the world for him. Pardon my apprehension regarding your query, you say you studied with him, well all that's good and well, but I fail to grasp the nature of your appointment. You've traveled out of your way. Is he a suspect in some investigation? Are you here on official business?"

"Hardly, I thought I made myself perfectly transparent to your front office. What I do isn't so very different from scientific research, at least in terms of methodology. I became overzealous with my last case. The department insisted I take advantage of my vacation hours before they expired. I've been sitting behind a desk so long, I guess the prospect of a little fresh air and open road seemed attractive. Fortean College wasn't so far out of my way. I'm actually on my way home to my parents. It's my father's birthday at the end of the week. They live downstate a ways, in the Southland. I have to admit, I haven't been a very good son. I haven't seen them since I graduated from the academy. You were actually on the way."

"I'm sorry I couldn't have been more helpful. I hope you will disregard any disparaging insinuations I might have made about Dr. Vincent. His research has flourished over the years, and he's very good at what he does. Despite his personal flaws, he was during his brief stay actually a great asset around here. We were sorry to see him go, but it was for his own protection. The tabloids hounded him. You've unfortunately caught me at a bad time. Was there anything else?"

"One more question, as long as I'm here. How familiar were you with the work Edward did at the academy?"

"Why do you ask?"

"There was a particular test subject," Detective Knolls showed the doctor a glossy. "Dr. Vincent took a special interest in the student."

As soon as he saw the picture of Parson, the neuroscientist became rigid, as if someone had thrown a cold glass of water in his face. "You realize that's a classified document. When it comes to these things, I'm very restricted in my latitude. Where did you get it?" his chin got visibly tight.

"From the national database, only there's no name or any other information attached to it. A ghost in the machine."

"Most extraordinary. Who is he?" the psychologist tried to hide his discomfort. "I can't say I've ever set eyes on the fellow. Are you sure your interest in the matter is purely personal. You've put me in an awkward position. If you hadn't said otherwise, I'd feel certain you were attempting to extract confidential information from me that I couldn't possibly divulge, even if I did have more insight into the background of the anonymous person you've shown me."

"I believe the person in the picture is a menace."

"Of what possible concern is that to me? Who can say what happens to academy graduates. I can't. Some of them turn out fine. Like you, they enjoy exemplary careers in law enforcement, are rewarded with the highest commendations for their service to the force. Others are never suited to the field in the first place. The academy has no control over the outcome. Those cadets are weeded out. Who can tell what happens to them? If some end up in remote cabins in the woods scribbling venomous, nonsensical manifestos, and mailing pipe bombs or biohazards to strangers whose fault is that? I take it you aren't under the impression the person in the picture turned out well."

"Hardly. If I could only get a hold of Dr. Vincent, I'm sure he could satisfy my curiosity, clear the whole thing up. All I'm saying is that I've come across some information..."

"Such as?"

The detective showed him the enhancement from the building across from where Conrad was assassinated. "It may only be a coincidence, but it appears to be the same person dressed as a plumber. I'm not jumping to any conclusions. For all I know he could be a government agent working undercover."

"How peculiar?"

"Any direction you can provide professor, any at all. Rest assured, I'll leave your name out of it."

"I must say, in all honesty, I don't think you've been entirely candid with me, Detective Knolls. What do you take me for? I'm mortified. I may spend most of my time alone in my laboratory dissecting the brains of lab rats, but even I am aware of what this picture implies. Perhaps you came to the right place after all," he softened his confrontational approach. "You must sympathize with my need for anonymity. If anyone were to find out that I'd betrayed a colleague, I could find myself in a great deal of hot water. If Edward Vincent is indeed involved in any way with the killing of a fellow scientist, they should hang him by his neck from the branch of a tall tree, and leave him to swing in the breeze."

"All I want to do is put a name to a face, find out who the person in the security tape enhancement is, and what he's been up to in the intervening years since we went to school together. I doubt the doctor has anything to do with it, but, among his many test subjects, I have good reason to believe this guy stood out from the rest."

"You're probably right, Detective Knolls. May I call you Garry? You're quite right. Sometimes it takes an unsullied point of view to set things aright. When it really comes down to the finer points, Patrick's a little ideological for my taste, but all round he's not such a bad egg. Last I heard -- now mind you, it was a few years back, and anything could have happened to him in the meantime -- he was working at Interan. Go there. That's my advice, Garry. If I was looking for him that's where I'd go. If he has since moved on, they'd be the ones to help you."

"The Interan Corp. I've heard of it. It's famous. They specialize in bionics and bio-tech."

"When you see Dr. Vincent, detective," the psychology professor got up to shake the officer's hand, "please give him my best regards. It's been so long, alas. The residual enmity between us must seem so trivial to a young Turk such as yourself, undignified for men of our office and stature, as if we were little children in a playground fighting over whose turn was next to ride a new bicycle. I suppose I should, for old times sake, attempt to catch up with him myself. I've got so much on my mind these days. With the end of another spring approaching, it had completely slipped my mind. Our amicable reconciliation is so long past overdue."


Chapter 3

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"I got a peculiar call from an old friend at Fortean College, Professor Boorman," Dr. Patrick Diller brought the Interan chief of security up to speed. "We're expecting a guest, a friendly police officer by the name of Garry Knolls."

"What does he want from us?"

"He was a former student of Dr. Vincent back at the academy. He's looking for his teacher."

"Why not glad-hand him, give him a day pass for the spa, shine him off?"

"He's looking for a former test subject of Vincent's -- we both know who. What am I supposed to say when he asks: 'get yourself a hot oil massage, a cucumber facial, and soak up some sun by the pool at the corporate club'? Boorman says he's smart, one of Vincent's best pupils, he'll see right through any subterfuge."

"When's he due in?"

"This afternoon, any minute."

"How do you want me to handle it, then?"

"With kid gloves."

"I could have a couple of guys nab him at the front gate."

"Too obvious. We don't want to arouse attention. We can't have gunplay in the visitor center, now, can we? We've gotta come up with a pretext to get him outta there, someplace nice and quiet, far away from the other patients."

"Who's on duty out front today?"

"I had my person check. Nicole and Kevin are the scheduled greeters. They're waiting for you in your office."

"What should I tell them?"

"It has to make sense to them, nothing too elaborate. Obviously, they never heard of Dr. Vincent. He's not officially linked to us. We should probably tell them to expect the police detective, to be cordial and polite, and help him as best they can with any inquiry he might have."

"Whichever one of them catches him, the detective is gonna ask for Vincent?"

"I'm pretty sure. Professor Boorman always was such an unfeeling bastard when it came to the sensitivity of our work, a bull in a crystal shop. He never showed me an ounce of respect the whole time I was at Fortean College, and now this. He sends a cop here, dumps the whole thing in our lap, like we were put on this earth for no better reason than to wipe his ass, cover for his secret projects."

"He must'a been desperate to get the detective outta his office."

"And send him here?"

"Maybe the professor figures it's our goof, and we should deal with Detective Knolls ourselves?"

"Vincent isn't on the payroll because he loves the weather out here. The whole reason he's working through us in the first place is so they can keep him outta sight."

"Point taken."

"What happens if Officer Knolls checks with Administration?"

"Nothing."

"If we allow him to get that far."

"Maybe we should?"

"What? Let him march right into the HR Department flashing his badge, asking all kinds of questions?"

"Why not?"

"There must be more to this. You think Professor Boorman knows anything about Parson?"

"Can't say. Could be? The detective might have recognized him from the Internet. You said yourself Knolls was top of his class. Maybe he remembers Parson from back at the academy?"

"It's possible. Parson looked different back then, but who knows?"

"The professor wouldn't have sent Knolls over here unless he felt like he was backed up against a wall, and absolutely had to. Did he say what we should do with the detective once we pick him up?"

"The professor said it was our call."

"You're not giving me a lot to work with, Dr. Diller."

"I've told you everything he told me, Masterson."

"The guy's a Major Case detective. You don't kidnap a peace officer and hold him hostage for no reason. Where am I supposed to put him, anyway?"

"A holding room."

"What do I tell him?"

"Anything you damn well please. If he made noise about Parson there's no telling what else he knows, and that's only the half of it. Vincent's gonna have a lot of very uncomfortable questions to answer. Like how he let Parson walk into the wind when he knew well enough there was the likelihood a rookie recruit on the police force could recognize him from academy days? Whatever the greeter does, he or she has to distract Knolls, keep him busy. Maybe escorting him to Administration is not such a bad ruse after all. Tell them to expect the city detective to make inquiries about personnel, and to point him in that direction. The only thing Boorman said was that Officer Knolls was not to leave the institute before we had a chance to talk to him. Once he's here it's essential we never let him out of our sight. If one of the greeters could personally make sure he arrives safely at the Administration building without taking any detours along the way, so much the better."

"All the activity at the installation out back is bound to catch his attention."

"The greeter can give Knolls the standard drive-by tour. As long as he doesn't poke his nose inside."

"I can post my men in the lobby of the administration building."

"Wait 'til he gets to the third floor. Supposedly, the detective is on a paid leave of absence, but he may still be packin'. The fewer people Knolls encounters the better. He's absolutely not to mingle with any of the construction contractors. The last thing I want is for him to strike up a conversation with any of them. Half of them have never used a hammer for any other purpose than to brain an intruder, the other half have never used one in their lives before. The greeter, whichever one, Nicole or Kevin, should by no means accompany the detective to the third floor. They should contrive a reason to go elsewhere in the building, to another office. Are we still experiencing problems with the new payroll system?"

"No one's happy."

"Tell them, by-the-bye, Interan can cut them another check, only the two of them mind you, I don't want to have the entire staff over there."

"Where do we put Knolls?"

"Bring him to my office. I want to interrogate him myself."

"We're all looking for Parson. Maybe the detective can come in handy?"

"Just call me the minute you have him contained, and hold him in my office 'til I get back here."

***

***

"The trouble with automatic withdrawal is you can't turn it off," the Interan manager advised his co-worker. "It's amazing how easy it is for them to turn it on, but when it comes to turning it off all of a sudden no one knows how it's done. Your local bank rep can't help you. He has to ask the manager. And the manager can't help either. He doesn't have access, and has to call technical support. That fellow has no idea either. He has to contact the I.T. Department. See what I mean," he threw up his hands in disgust. "If I were you, I'd go ahead and block the account. Much easier to block the account than to go on some inter-office wild goose chase to try and claw your money back after it's been withdrawn, right?"

There was a wall fountain inside the front lobby. The place was bright and spacious. Everything was white and polished. Detective Knolls went for his badge in the breast pocket of his blazer, but realized he didn't have it.

"Dr. Vincent?" the greeter looked stumped. Nicole scrolled through the company handbook on her handheld smartset.

"Dr. Boorman at Fortean College told me I might find my former professor here."

"Dr. Boorman?"

"They were colleagues at the university."

"Someone must be pulling your chain. There's no Edward Vincent listed at Interan. Maybe he worked here before I was hired. I only started last summer," she allowed. "They might have a record in Human Resources. If you hold on for a second, I'm almost at the end of my shift. As soon as my replacement arrives I can comandeer a cart and drive you over to the administration offices. They're located in a separate building not far from here."

"The grounds are much bigger than I'd assumed. I drove around the circumference of the corporation."

"No kiddin'? Is that what cops do, size up their prey before they come in for a closer look?"

"It took me nearly twenty minutes. You can't see much from the road."

"Besides the research facilities and the executive buildings, we have a health spa at the clinic for employees. I'm scheduled to give a client tour later in the day. You're more than welcome to tag along. It's quite a dazzling spread."

"The grounds are sizable."

"The place was originally built during the cold war as a club for government officials and wealthy patrons. There were a number of them constructed around the country in key locations. They nominally operated as resorts, but most of that was for show, a cover story for their intended purpose. It's quite an attraction."

"I didn't have time to read the brochure."

"Out back there's an underground installation hidden from view, once upon a time equipped with everything one would need to survive a nuclear catastrophe. There were dormitories, kitchens, storehouses, and a high-tech command and control center should they have needed to run the government from here after the atomic holocaust. The feds declassified it decades ago, but no one really knows what to do with it. At one point there was talk of opening it up to the public as a Cold War museum."

"As I came down the main drive I couldn't help notice all the construction activity."

"The corporation doesn't technically own it. Until recently, in fact, the government kept it in working order. A lot of the top-secret old equipment was removed. These days I couldn't say what they're up to. A bit of TLC I imagine. They're restoring one of the dining rooms for corporate shindigs. Something of that scale still requires intermittent upkeep. Nothing is built to last forever."

"Maybe they're gonna open it to the public after all."

"We'll pass one of the entrance tunnels on the way. You can see for yourself how large it is, steel doors ten feet tall, three feet thick, like on a bank vault. The place is so big it has it's own rail system. They say they could power Vegas with the size generators they've got in there. Every once in a while they fire up the air circulation system. It sounds like Niagara Falls. They don't do it too often, though, because it's located under the spa, and the execs complain about the noise. There's a rumor that after the terrorists attacks on the world financial center way back when, the then president made his statement to the nation from there. I asked my mom. She would have been a toddler. She didn't say anything. She thinks my talents are wasted here, nothing eventful ever happens, but she's never been out to visit."

"Out here?"

"We get dignitaries and high profile visitors galore, especially lately. It never gets too quiet. Something's usually up, a gala, or special event. Last winter a big city movie company set up shop out back in the bomb shelter. They were filming some action adventure flick, but somehow the whole thing got out of hand. No one ever told me what happened, but there were military commandos all over the place, not the pretend kind either. All I can tell you is that there was more excitement around here even than normal. They said the heightened protection was on account of all the Hollywood celebs. I hung around after work with a couple of the other girls to try and get a better view, but it was hard to see. They kept us away.

Only an oblique passing mention was given to the decommissioned government bunker on the Interan website. When he read it he pictured a concrete shelter with some poorly framed pictures on the wall, a portrait of "Ike" Eisenhower, some war memorabilia, a plaque or two, maybe a gift shop. There wasn't much information about the research laboratories, in general. A number of scientist's names appeared on the dedicated page, there were clipped biographies available of PhDs with prominent careers in their fields of expertise, but when he tried to corroborate their degrees in separate searches it was hard to confirm any of it. Needless to say, Dr. Vincent's name did not appear among the vaunted few, and why would it? What did a disgraced psychology professor whose specialty was the mind-set of duplicitous, and unreliable intelligence agents have to do with a corporation that specialized in bionics and biotech.

"You see that air vent that looks like a ship's air portal," the greeter turned the electric cart down a smoothly paved path. "They jut out of the ground all over the place. Those folks had made contingencies for living underground for thousands of years. The intake vents," she yelled over the whine of the motor like she'd done a thousand times before during her tours, "lead down to the first level of the structure which is entirely dedicated to air and water purification. I'm told there are four more below that one. Each designed to shut down should they become contaminated. They call it The Tetragon."

"The Tetragon?"

"Payroll is next door. I've switched to direct deposit, but something happened with my last check. I'm hoping they can cut me one before I have to conduct the tour. Interan is promoting a deal they struck with the local utility companies to give its employees substantial discounts if we switch to direct withdrawal plans, but for some reason the entire enterprise has hit a snag. In order to qualify one has to have electronic deposit, but the whole thing went haywire. None of us got our checks this month, and the penalties for overdraft at the credit union are harsh. They told us it was a temporary glitch, but that was last week. If they don't cut me a check, you'll have to pardon my language," she parked the electric cart in front of the administration building, "but I'm royally screwed, along with about every other grunt that works here. Interan is going to have a lot of steaming mad employees on their hands. HR is on the third floor. Ask for Shirley. I trust you can find your own way back to the visitor's center. Should you want to take the one O'clock tour, there's a cafeteria. They've got wi-fi. Coffee's not half bad."


Chapter 4

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"Your CO wasn't happy to learn you're still snooping around, Detective Knolls," Dr. Diller dismissed Masterson and his men from his office. "'Sounds to me like he gave you some good advice. You should take him up on it."

"I've got the impression you were expecting me, doctor," Garry brushed off his blazer sleeve.

"We can't have strangers wandering around the corporation. We have a very privacy conscientious clientele. They come to us because they don't like people to know about their business. Now, how can I help you?"

"Professor Boorman told me I could find Dr. Vincent here."

"Ah, yes. Well he called to apologize. It seems he realized his mistake only too late, after you left, and found it impossible to contact you directly."

"About?"

"Edward Vincent's connection to Interan."

"He's not here?"

"I'm a neurologist, Detective Knolls. I deal with mental lapses all the time. How much simpler it would be if I was strictly dealing with pure science. Memory, no matter how structured or ordered is in the end an organic function, even for the most advanced hardware, which, without constant upkeep, inevitably becomes fragmented. One must vigilantly maintain the mind or it will, after a while, get fuzzy. Machine logic is no different. No matter what, memory is an exceedingly messy business, fraught with pitfalls the likes of which you will hopefully never have to know anything about. Unfortunately, Boorman's mind isn't what it used to be. He must have confused Vincent for another member of my staff who transferred here a couple of years ago from the college. Dr. Vincent's not in any kind of trouble is he?"

"Boorman asked me the exact same question?"

"It's only natural, you're a detective after all."

"What is Vincent up to that's got you folks so peevish?"

"Believe me, Knolls, there's a part of me that honestly wishes it was some grandiose eugenics experiment, and Dr. Vincent spent his time measuring the shapes of skulls, plotting the features on faces, then grafting DNA with the desired traits, to create the perfect breed of superhuman. How intriguing would that be? By today's standards, with the kind of equipment we have at our disposal, anything's possible, but I doubt it is all that exciting."

"Why do you say that?"

"Ever hear of Dr. Shiro Ishii? I doubt you have. One of the more outstanding minds in chemical and biological warfare, our country never publicly acknowledged our own not so secret program's indebtedness to the advantages we inherited from advances he made through human experimentation in biological warfare. If not for him there would, for instance, be no anthrax vaccine, but folks like that aren't usually allowed to see the light of day. Boorman said you studied with Vincent."

"In my senior year. He was my thesis advisor."

"Then you must have a better sense of his integrity than I do. He was primarily a psychologist, wasn't he? For some time the practice has focused on brain chemistry."

"When I left the academy he was working closely with a number of test subjects, one in particular, a kid who went by the name Parson."

"And you're implying?"

"Parson might have been the shooter who killed Dr. Conrad."

"Don't the Metropolitan Police already have a suspect in custody?"

"A fellow by the name of Spikone, I'm sure you've seen the videocast. It's all over the Internet. He's a 'person of interest', but Parson was caught on camera in the very same building shortly before the assassination."

"I'm concerned about your welfare, Knolls. Isn't what you're doing dangerous, equivalent, in fact, to impersonating a police officer? I mean you come barging in here to the Interan Corporation demanding answers, even though you're no longer officially affiliated with the case. Of course, the first thing my people did when they heard you were on your way was to check with your superiors. I talked with your squad captain, personally. Anyone can tell you're fatigued. It doesn't take a psychiatrist to tell you're on the verge of a nervous breakdown. By any account, you're engaged in extraordinarily risky behavior by pursuing an unauthorized investigation. Why shouldn't I call the local authorities and have you forcefully removed from the premises?"

"There's a freak out there targeting government scientists. Don't tell me you aren't the least bit apprehensive. My department got Spikone handed to them wrapped in a beautiful red ribbon by government intelligence, an obvious patsy if there ever was one. The reason I'm off the case is because I asked too many questions. As far as they're concerned they have their man. No one has any interest in locating Parson. My CO said he got it from top brass that they're getting pressure from Senator Warren to close the case as quickly as possible. I interviewed Spikone. He couldn't tell an assault rifle from a pellet gun. I did some diggin' around too. Conrad was involved in the same study as Dr. Vincent. There's likely a killer on the lose gunnin' for Dr. Vincent as well as anyone else associated with him, and someone's protecting the guy."

"Are you offering your services?"

"I'm not one of those people who has to be right all the time, Dr. Diller. In fact, I sincerely hope I'm not. I've never been one to see any harm in being wrong. As a scientific man you must appreciate as much or more good has come from pursuing wild flights of fancy as anything else. If you want to call the cops and have me arrested for some trumped up charge like 'trespassing' be my guest, it's your prerogative. I've got no beef with you. All I'm asking for is some assistance."

"You want to find Parson?"

"I'd love to get a shot at Dr. Vincent for old time's sake, although there's obviously a concerted effort under way to keep him hidden from view, but that's about the long and short of it."

The doctor relinquished slightly. "Most people cringe at the prospect of large institutions like governments and corporations that are so big that the left hand has no idea what the right hand is up to. When it comes to certain initiatives, especially those that are controversial and fail, the lack of centralization works well to dispel any sense of responsibility. If it weren't so, our way of governance would have failed long ago. Formless amorphousness hasn't done civic protest activity any favors, however. They're up against a competitor that has a lot of experience when it comes to dirty pool, hardball, and plausible deniability. Last I heard of Dr. Vincent, he was heavily involved with that particular aspect of protest movements. Well before The Summer of Love, authority has understood how easy it is to discredit the populist voice with only a few nasty interlopers. Save for the direst of circumstances, popular support for the noblest cause is easily dispelled by the creation of a dissident splinter group that engages in some egregious act. Parson was possibly being groomed for such a nefarious mission."

"Are you saying he's involved?"

"Not in so many words."

"Then what?"

"All I can really offer you, detective, is that Parson was considered exceedingly promising, as a cadet a little too smart for his own good. The only reason I have any knowledge about him is that the word 'genius' was intermittently attached to his name. That is until he suffered his first schizophrenic episode. You're a youngster. I've been around long enough to witness the mental expansion and contraction of most people around me. I was a slow starter. Some people explode at an early age. They blow you away with their insight. Others plod along. The trouble with the early starters is they tend to loose steam. One minute they seem to echo the gods, the next they are repeating the same blather everyone formerly found so praiseworthy. I'm not criticizing. Our white towers of academia are populated with these types. Little attention is paid to minds that are able to consistently grow, what we used to praise as wisdom. You should have seen Edward in his prime. I can't speak for anyone else, but I thought the tablets he carried down from the mount were authored by the hand of God. Very few people continue to grow intellectually. Vincent had his moment in the sun. I could give you countless other examples, colleges who continue to develop into their thirties and even forties, then go dry, stop abruptly."

"What was Vincent's breakthrough?"

"Among other things, he proposed the psyche as a kind of aerated, porous wall all the world passed through. At the time there was a great premium placed on moral constructions that could account for the amorality of sensual experience. His work became very fashionable. He purported to have a solution to the ethical dilemma. Parson was to be his prime example. At the time, we had a very ideological administration. What can I say? Sometimes the brain muscle snaps. Parson's meltdown was a terrible blow. Dr. Vincent might have accelerated the situation through his work with the young man, but it wasn't his fault, none of us are able to predict that kind of catastrophic event. He let far too much ride on a single test subject. Let it be a lesson for the rest of us..."

***

"Look, Detective Knolls," Diller paused. "Trust me when I say that we're both after the same guy. We both want to find Parson. Dr. Vincent is a man of many talents. The academy was no place for him. In fact, Fortean College wasn't big enough for him. Your association with him was during an unhappy period in his life. He'd only recently been released from his military contract, and it was clear his tour of duty had done a number on him. Next to you, I never saw a man so down. Psychology is a side job for him. It doesn't nearly cover his scope of interests. In many ways, he continues to put us all to shame. If it weren't for his pension to do something extremely self-destructive about every three weeks -- you should read some of the scathing and vindictive emails he's posted to collogues -- he'd doubtless have a more public profile, and he'd be heading up some commission or other, invited to participate on various committees. I suppose, one might almost reconcile his relationship to Parson as one of loyalty, like a father for a son, their bond was that close, but if what you're saying, and I don't doubt it, is that Parson is out there targeting government scientists, well, that's a game changer, isn't it? You can find Dr. Vincent at Pleasant View. He's been running his own clinic in the high-dessert for about a year. It's over by the military base. You can't miss it. None of us has a good idea what he's up to, but it's a very well funded project, and it's no secret my employer, Interan, has a significant stake in the successful outcome of whatever it is he's cookin' up out there. You bet all his former colleges are antsy. For what it's worth I'll say that much on record. The question is whether Parson's in league with the doctor, whether they're working as a team, and the doctor's using his former subject to exact some kind of vendetta or other, like Vincent feels he was slighted by the rest of us, like he should have received tenure at Fortean College, or as likely whether his former test subject is acting alone, attempting to gain satisfaction for the wrongs the he was forced to endure at the hands of a sadist."


Chapter 5

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The address Dr. Diller gave Detective Knolls for Pleasant View didn't correspond to the one listed on the website. The area was a maze of roads that dead-ended in cow pastures, nothing but uninhabited tract homes, every one of them covered with graffiti, like the world had abruptly come to an end right before the realtor had a chance to plant an eye-catching "For Sale" sign in the middle of each dirt lawn. When he pulled onto the private road indicated by the corporate scientist, there was nothing but a derelict lakeside compound inside of which was an A-frame and a ranch style guesthouse. A chain link fence enclosed the property.

Rain whipped around. Knolls decided the best course of action was to park down the end of the road out of sight, and circle round back of the property on foot in case someone was home. He made a makeshift windbreaker by poking neck- and armholes into a fifty-gallon plastic leaf bag he found in the trunk, and set out through the damp, muddy plot of land cleared at the back of the encampment, so that he could make his approach from the opposite side of the field where there stood a stone edifice covered by a thick fur of dripping moss, the dilapidated ruins of an old boat- or carriage house. The roof had caved in years before. Only the sturdy masonry was left standing. A quick mental calculation was necessary. Even if he made it over the fence without taking cover, there would probably be at least a split second when someone inside the A-frame could see him. He made his way as fast as possible to the ruins, tore off a handful of wet sod as he scampered up the hill. A ray of light poked through the clouds as he made his way to the main house. The place was boarded up. He pulled a piece of rotten plywood off the kitchen door, and tossed it aside. No one was around.

The place was completely trashed inside. Beer cans, cigarette butts, and other detritus littered the living room floor. The house was an ideal squat for kids to use as a party pad. In the dining room there was some discarded chemistry-type equipment, like beakers and such, and a tipped over, empty fifty-gallon drum where someone had tried to assemble a meth-lab cookhouse. He poked his head into a side room. Only one thing among all the many that decorated the wall caught his attention: a picture of a celebrity idol taped to the faux wood panel, her face scribbled out by a black marker. Down the hallway he kicked aside an empty forty-ounce malt liquor beer bottle and hesitated a moment before he threw back the bedroom door. The only item of note in the room was the mattress on the floor. He knelt to touch the huge red bloodstain on it -- still wet.

The interior of the bathroom looked like a MASH tent right after Pork Chop Hill, spent latex gloves everywhere. Knolls put his hand over his nose and mouth. There were bloody bandages everywhere. The spent lighter, he figured, was probably used to sterilize the blade of the box cutter. What could it possibly mean? Why had Diller wanted him to see this? He picked up a pamphlet from the floor, an announcement for a club called the Chocolate Bar, made to look like a Hershey's rapper. There was something written on the back of it. Sirens were approaching. Knolls wasn't the only one Diller gave the address to. He made his way out the back door. Was it a set up? Was he supposed to get caught inside the compound? Diller was a slippery character. He wouldn't have put anything past the doctor and his security goon, Masterson. They were perfectly aware he was flying solo, without any backup.

***

Down the road, Knolls pulled over. His right hand was trembling. It was as if it wasn't his at all, as if it belonged to someone, or something else, a serpent's claw covered in opalescent scales. He'd heard about people who'd experienced the same phenomenon during a stroke. He needed to collect himself.

The clouds had parted. All the way up to the top of the bluff it was like the most beautiful sunny day. Birds chirped, everything was balmy and warm, but the second Detective Knolls reached the top his hair blew back as if he walked into a supernatural horror thriller. Below him on the other side of the lake the compound was surrounded by law enforcement. The days were getting longer. Even at that late hour in the afternoon it was still warm, except up there at the head of the cliff. Frayed yellow tape from four stakes that marked off a crime scene snapped in the wind. He poked around in the tall grass. Except for a couple of beer cans and cigarette butts, there wasn't much of anything in the brush to indicate that anyone had been up there since late the previous autumn, since before the first snow. He sat down on a rock. The detective looked out over the water, took in the torn gray sky, and the ragged clouds. Had Parson been the last one to stay in the abandoned compound? Was that why Diller sent him there? There hadn't been any evidence at the assassination to indicate Parson was in any way hurt, no blood. What accounted for the presence of the makeshift surgery? Why would Parson want to butcher himself? It didn't make any sense, but whoever had stayed in the A-frame, had clearly cut something apart.

There were three reasons he got kicked off the case: the CO wanted him out of his hair, out of his squad room, and out of his sight. The old man must have figured he would turn the assassination into a conspiracy, he would go out there, get lost in the details the way he always did, and come out of it with more questions than he did going in, brimming with laughable theories that claimed to rebuke the original findings, make a complete fool of himself the way he had on every other case for quite a while.

Detective Knolls hesitated before he pocketed the snapshots of Parson. He could see the length of the lake in those eyes, and when he scanned the horizon to try to find the former test subject it was like he could just barely make out a male figure on the near shore. But it wasn't Parson out on the tip of the peninsula. After the mist parted over the water only one person was visible in the distance, a hiker, like he was Garry's double, and his alter ego was waving him away like he'd picked up something off the sand he thought was an important clue, but it turned out it wasn't anything more significant than a lost charm, like the man was telling him to go back where he came from, to let it alone. The crashing water on the rocks beneath the cliff sounded like a wall of electronic notes dancing all over the place.

Garry descended from the bluff, adjusted the fern-shaped Tropical Hawaiian scented air freshener that hung from the rearview mirror of his rental, and pulled out his recorder: "Memo to self: Do like your CO told you and go home. You're in way over your head." He pulled up the sound file on his smart device where Dr. Vincent said: "One day he's destined to stand on a rotating stage under the spotlights." It sounded even more ominous all these years later than it had then, perhaps prophetic. What could the doctor possibly have meant by such a statement? It was almost like he wasn't talking about a person at all, but an object, like a mannequin, or a piece of hardware, like at a car, or boat convention.

***

Local law enforcement would mount a manhunt as soon as they found the compound abandoned. The last thing Garry wanted was to get caught up behind a roadblock, but the shortcut through the hills indicated by his GPS ran out of pavement long before it linked up with the freeway. For a while, he decided he would tough it out, but his rental was no match for the soft dirt. It was already getting dark. He decided to turn back. There was no chance of getting home to his parents that night. The best solution was to spend the evening at a motel, and start out fresh first thing in the morning.

In the winter, the place was a ski town. The Thunderbird Motor Inn caught his attention. He pulled into the parking lot.

"Where do the kids go to have fun around here," he asked the lady at the front desk.

"The kids have all moved away," she ran his card through the scanner. "There's a Chinese takeout and a liquor store down the block. Room 12, down the end. We got a bar downstairs."

Nothing was in the mini-fridge, but a dead cockroach. Of all the motel rooms in the world, it was by far the most squalid he'd ever stayed in. When he turned on the AC to get some air into the place it smelled like there was a chain smoker permanently stationed outside his window. The shit brown linoleum floor in the bathroom curled upwards at the edges. If there was ever a place where he didn't want to die, the suite he was in was it. The place was miserable, a cinderblock repository of untold years of human suffering. Garry turned on the boxy, arcane TV, lay down on the lumpy mattress.

During his press conference Senator Warren unleashed the standard finger pointing spiel about how his adversaries on the other side of the isle had a Robin Hood mentality. He lamented the rancorous state of political rhetoric in the county, but practically accused the opposition of direct responsibility for the assassination of the government scientist, and railed against Sam Spikone. Garry watched through heavy lids as the representative referred to the man in custody as a political dupe, and madman. He fell asleep with Kiersten's picture on his chest.


Chapter 6

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If Knolls had seen his reflection in a storefront window he would have walked straight past it like the man was a total stranger. In the mirror he looked like a junky at the end of his rope. He splashed some cold water on his face. There was no rush. His seat at the downstairs bar was guaranteed. Male conversation in an establishment like that was predictable. It would undoubtedly center on guns, booze, tits, and ass. If the place didn't have a pool table, there would be an empty side room where some tortured Goth kid would sing a heartfelt karaoke to a metal anthem. Bar conversation would vary from the better points of the latest three-wheelers and snow mobiles to the vernacular version of a soliloquy requiem mass to a townie buddy that hadn't made it through the off-season. 'Guns and booze don't mix,' one guy would say to another, they'd both nod knowingly, and chase back a shot of bourbon with a swig of beer. He dug the bloodstained flyer he'd picked up at the lakeside compound out of his pocket. On the back someone had scrawled "The Family", then crossed it out and written "FMLY." Garry flipped it over. On closer inspection it became clear the Chocolate Bar was a strip club. The place was only one town over.

***

***

"White chocolate", he thought as he slid into a booth at the back of the room. On the main stage a misshapen girl in a slinky, oddly maternal negligee bucked to a rustic bluegrass tune. If his car broke down somewhere deep in the Appalachian hills, and he was forced to wander aimlessly through the brush of the desolate mountain countryside in search of help, she was exactly what Garry would expect the woman who answered the farmhouse door to look like -- inbred and scary like a rural temptress who had never in her life seen an outsider before. She lifted her torn and raggedy frockcoat as if she were plucked from some forgotten bygone era and transported from her mountain cabin to the present venue, a wanton woodland naiad given over to the lust of her pre-Christian, occult godhead. He ordered a drink while the boisterous, largely male audience, was mesmerized by the banshee's wicked gyrations, as if she were in a trance, transfixed by her unhallowed passion.

Next up was a young, fresh-faced girl who, according to the emcee, hailed from the U.S.S. Florida currently docked offshore, even though Garry was relatively sure the lake was by far the biggest body of water within hundreds of miles. Her act made her out as a naïve, wayward, navy girl on shore leave in a godless countryside. Knolls paid the waitress while the young woman held the crowd in thrall by removing her navy uniform only to reveal the glittery, rebel flag, thong bikini hidden under her outfit. The transformation was made to a raucous, lascivious rockabilly track that blared through the blown out, asthmatic sounding ceiling speakers. Her "hips", the emcee boasted, were like "battleships".

Knolls shook his head. The next dancer was a dead-ringer for Kiersten. There was something arousing about the way she kicked the stool over on its back in her top hat and tails, flipped it back up with her foot, climbed to the top, balanced herself with one toe on the backrest, slowly let the chair fall backwards, and disembarked, like it was a flight of stairs she climbed. It was like she was totally in control. The stool really wasn't a stool, but a man she walked over. Her sense of poise and rhythm was otherworldly, like up on that platform she was fully in charge, master over time and space. She had a tiger in her pelvis. He and the fellow next to him fell hard for her narrow form, her little breasts like two dainty, white, porcelain teacups, and her slinky, girlishness, as if the devil she had inside her had not manifested himself in the guise of your standard, madman with the thin, angular eyebrows, the pointed ears, black horns, closely trimmed goat beard, and crimson, velvet cape, but was more like a severely mentally retarded child endowed with the body of an exotic dancer.

The other guy joked "Raccoon Eyes" on account of her black eyeliner. All Knolls could think of was Kiersten, what a two-timing bitch she was, how no matter how many times he killed her in his dream her eyes would spring back open like the mandibles of a praying mantis, and how he had to do it again.

***

"You ever kill a man?" the guy next to him asked.

Knolls gave him a blank look.

"Me neither. You see the story about the police raid on the cabin by the lake? I read about it on the Telex Post. They say the feller that killed that government scientist stayed there, what's 'is name, Spikone."

"What else did they say?"

"Only that he's pretty messed up. I reckon I'd be too, if I'd gone through all what they say he went through."

"You sure they said Spikone, not Parson."

"Don't know any Parsons. The Spikones, on the other hand, have been out here for as long as any folks have. A bunch of two-bit, no account grifters. Inbred fuckers if you ask me. They're a tight knit clan. They own that parcel of land down there over by the shoppin' center."

"Why'd you ask me?"

"On account of the fact you stink like death warmed over, and the story on the Internet."

"What story?"

"I know about everyone comes around these parts. Anyone who walks through that door," he indicated the front entrance, "I could tell you their name and all about 'em. Never seen you before, though. Figured, maybe, you was with the rest of the out-o'-towners, a newsman or intelligence agent. The place is swarming with 'em. I went to school with a bunch of those Spikones. They own a lot of property round the lake, too, including the place they busted into today. Mostly make their money from their county waste management contracts. Can't get a job slinging garbage in this town without going through one of 'em. Nasty crew. 'Played hockey with a couple of their boys. Meanest squad in pads and skates you ever seen. Dirty players, glad they were on my team. They left a lot of blood on the ice. Dumb as dirt, though. Not one of those guys I went to school with ever held down a taxable job."

"Sam?"

"Who?"

"Sam Spikone. Isn't that who the cops are investigating?"

"There's lots of Sams, even more Spikones. They breed like rats. Who can keep track of 'em all?"

" Another round," Knolls beckoned the waitress. "Whatever my friend wants, put it on my bill," he handed her his card.

"Should I keep it open?"

"Please," he turned back to the conversation.

"Valance," the man with the ten-gallon hat and false teeth formally introduced himself. When he grinned it looked like he had a mouthful of ivory game pieces. "Call me Valance, everyone else round here does... but you got me all wrong. I appreciate the drink and all, but I can't say I've ever heard of any Spikone by the name of Sam. It's a common enough name. I'm sure there's Spikones in every town from here to Kalamazoo. That's what I was trying to tell you before you got all Big City on me. Of course, I ain't the final word on the subject. You might wanna ask an actual Spikone. Who knows what those snakes are into? Mobsters don't stay in business as long as that family has done without making some pretty sketchy alliances. I wouldn't put anything past them. They could be working with the Feds, as likely as they could have sold the name to the cops wholesale. What do they care? Most everyone I know would just as soon walk the opposite direction than sidle up to one of 'em. You might wanna postpone your trip home a bit..."

"How'd you know I was on my way home?"

"You wrinkled white shirts like to think we're only a bunch of bumpkins out here in butt fuck, but we're on the grid, like everyone else. It's no coincidence I got the table next to yours. Can't say I'm a big fan of 'em Italian niggers, but they got me on retainer. So happens the owner of the club is Frank Spikone. He's not much happy about the cops nosing round in his business, and he'd very much like to have a word with you..."

Chapter 7

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"You look like road kill," Frank Spikone uncapped a decanter and poured two drinks. Valance had led Knolls to an upstairs floor that consisted of a warren of rooms, as if someone had set out to build a structure complete with bay windows and a French-quarter-style balcony without a plan, as if the person or persons had worked in the dark by intuition alone, and had abandoned the project after they realized how demented it turned out, like a child's tree-fort version of a human scale rodent habitat. To get to the back office Knolls was lead past a number of partly apportioned interiors, including several with multi-bulbed mirror vanities, the kind you might find in an actor's dressing room, and several rooms where the talent took their customers for private dances. "You look like you seen hell and were sent back as proof it exists," he raised his glass. "Are you strung out? Addicts are unreliable."

"What am I doing here?" Garry tipped back the drink.

"My man here, Valance, saw you at the lakeside compound. I guess you found the flyer."

"Pretty flimsy."

"I would have had you picked up if you hadn't come. You did me a favor."

"What do you want from me?"

"Diller told me you might show up."

"Dr. Diller?"

"You're not as dumb as you look."

"What's your connection with Diller?"

"Look, the Feds got my operation all twisted up. They pushed back the goal post in the fourth quarter."

"I'm not good with sophomoric sports metaphors."

"There's something I want you to see."

"You're gonna have to try harder."

"You act awful high-brow for a guy who's as hard up on his luck as you are, Knolls. There's not a lot of folks in your corner cheering you on. Nothin' you do seems to trend. You'll see what I'm talkin' about soon enough, though."

"We're not working from the same playbook. I'm a guy who wants to pay a visit to an old professor, nothing more, nothing less. Diller gave me the wrong address, got me sidetracked, mixed up in something I don't want any part of."

"Diller said you was an independent player with some pretty wild ideas about what goes on. The Feds got me stumped with their latest bullshit stunt. We had a deal. Then all this asinine crap at the lake house goes down. My John Hancock's on the property. Not only my family name, my actual fuckin' name. You know what I hate worse than cops? What I hate worse is perverts, the kind of creep who would get his sick kicks mutilating a helpless animal."

***

Bathed in the acid light of the security lights behind the go-go club, the leaves of the woodland trees became translucent -- as if the canopy of foliage that overhung was actually made of taffeta, or an even thinner material like rice paper. The three of them walked to a freestanding small building at the end of the lot. Everything around Knolls looked vaguely caricature-like, as if it was painstakingly painted in points of purple and orange, like they had, without knowing it, entered some goth cartoon landscape where shadows danced, and the whistle of the wind was the sound trees and bushes made as they talked amongst each other when they thought no one else was listening. Even the shed that loomed ahead resembled an oddly anthromorphic black cutout, vaguely ominous, like the faceguard of some fairy-tale, armoured sea monster washed up on shore, and that over the course of the ensuing centuries, had petrified into stone.

Once inside, Frank Spikone flipped on a light switch, and removed the plastic sheet that covered a table. A dog's carcass lay underneath. Knolls winced. Someone had cut its head open.

"We found it at the lakeside compound this way. Ever seen anything like it?" the strip club proprietor asked. "Ain't no kids did this, none of 'em skinheads, the carving is too clean, like whoever did it, knew what they was doin'."

"Or, maybe they were practicing," Knolls took a closer look. Not a hair on the rest of the dog was touched. Only two incisions were made. One to the back of the skull, the other above the right eye, two small holes, like the perpetrator was looking for something specific inside the head. "Can't honestly say I've come across anything like it before. Anyone else round here see this?"

"Only Valance. He cleared the dog out right before you showed up."

"Without an autopsy it's hard to say what happened here."

"Well, that's obviously not gonna happen."

"We can only guess."

"It was done fresh, maybe last night, well after the police announced they had the shooter in custody."

Chapter 8

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All three of them heard the sound simultaneously. "Cocksuckers ain't gonna kill me like no dog," Frank Spikone was the first to make for the door of the shed. What followed was chaotic. They could see into the upstairs bay windows of the erotic dance club. There was the thunderous footfall of black boots as the commandos raced up the stairs, the pounding noise of large caliber gunfire as they advanced from one room to the next. Flashes from the automatic weapons made it look as though someone had turned on a strobe light in the labyrinthine warren of rooms above the establishment. The movement of the commandos was choppy and angular. Faces hidden behind reflective, protective masks, dressed in full combat gear, they looked fearsome, like vicious droids.

As the smoke cleared inside, the authorities managed to get the lights back up. The sight of the men in black uniforms was surreal. For a while the second floor was packed with bodies -- commandos, men in trench coats, embedded members of the media. Knolls, Valance, and Frank Spikone ducked out of view behind a tree while officers searched through the office, and turned over mattresses in the private dance booths. A soldier flipped up his visor to sniff a sexy negligee, and held the item up for the other commandos to see.

***

A closer crack of gunfire came from outside the building. When the first nearby shot rang out, the nightclub owner took off into the woods. After the second and third loud pops from the nearby automatic rifle, Garry and Valance didn't waste any time, and did the same. The two slid down a mound of partly decomposed fallen leaves, splashed through a shallow patch of swamp cabbages, tripped headlong over a rotten tree trunk, and ended up alongside an oddly bent shape Garry couldn't make out in the dark. He reached into his pocket for his smart phone. In the red neon glow of the dial pad he saw Frank's face. Both he and Valance turned away, revolted by the gruesome sight. The erotic dance club proprietor's head looked like someone had set off a quarter-stick of dynamite in a watermelon.

***

Commando units flanked the large figure in their midst. He pointed with practiced affect (as if he had rehearsed the gesture assiduously in front of a mirror many times before) to the right and left, and then directly forward into the center of the mound of tires at the end of the lot closest to where the railroad tracks ducked under the overpass and slowly wound into the main depot.

The woods all around lit up with peculiar shapes. Masterson shined a lantern spotlight into a copse of trees. The luminous, iridescent coronas of Garry and Valance weren't hard to spot. The security chief could plainly see that they still hadn't made it to the road. Valance was definitely not going to give them any more trouble than he had already. He seemed to drag his leg behind him as if he might have hyper-extended a knee, or sprained an ankle after a bad tumble. Knolls, however, Masterson could tell, was already close to the city lights. His black silhouette seemed to disappear into the halo of the electric lamps, as if he were being fully absorbed into the urban illumination. It wouldn't be long before nothing was left of his shape -- not even a thin penumbra.

***

The Interan security chief reluctantly pulled off his helmet, unfastened the Motorola mouthpiece from its breastplate clip, and loosened the straps of his bulky Kevlar. He was getting too old for this sort of thing.

"We got Frank Spikone," he told Dr. Diller, "and Valance is being dealt with as we speak.

"Who?"

"Valance, as in Liberty Valance."

"Fuck him. What about Knolls?"

"He got away."

"Stop him."

"I've got units up on the street, but there are too many places for him to hide."

"Where do you suppose he's headed?"

"Hard to say. If he goes back to the motel we've got men waiting for him there, and if he tries to go home, we've got a surveillance team outside his parents' house."

"How the hell did they slip past you?"

"They weren't in the office when we rushed the place. They got out the back door. We found a mutilated dog in a shed out there."

"A dog?"

"Yeh, someone cut its head open like a soft boiled egg. We think they might have brought the mutt here from the lakeside cabin."

"Parson?"

"Maybe."

"But why?"

"You got me."

"Why carve up a dog's brain?"

"You're the neuroscientist, doc. You tell me."

"Find Knolls before he finds Dr. Vincent, or Parson. I've gotta take a meeting," the Motorola abruptly cracked dead.


Chapter 9

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"In so much as the original experiments revealed another strong personality present in Parson, I would have to call the initial phase a success," the intelligence analyst brought Dr. Diller up to speed on the case file. "As improbable as the self-mutilating, masochist personality of the kid was when he was first inscribed into the program, there was no way for us to objectively catch him in an untruth. He had no reason to doubt his identity. You can't lie if you're under the impression you have nothing to conceal. If the subject has no idea they are involved in a deception, as Dr. Vincent pointed out, none of the standard interrogation techniques can crack 'em. You can cage someone up for years, render the person until they're maimed and unconscious, but the best you can hope for is a false confession."

"Where are we now?" the government neuroscientist reviewed the cognitive assessment results sent over from Pleasant View.

"The emergence of the much more aggressive character traits in Parson, in and of themselves, didn't prove anything. You put someone under the kind of stress Dr. Vincent put the subject, and you can produce unexpected results. Aggression is hardwired. Some of us channel it better than others. Under extreme circumstances, if they think they have no other choice -- their life or the life of a loved one is threatened, for instance -- people will hurt themselves, admit to anything, and harm others."

"Cut to the chase. Interan pays you top ramen, Coyle. Give me something to work with. His 'aggression', as you call it, is all well and good. You can understand the blowback should it turn out that he's gone rogue."

"If there's a weakness it's gotta be in the original assessment," the information analyst reiterated. "Frankly, I'm amazed we haven't turned anything more substantial up. It gives me a bad feeling, like this is an inside job. You'd better be damn sure the higher-ups have all their ducks in a row before they pull the trigger, and let this bad baby fly from the umbilical tower."

"You do your job, I'll do mine. After Conrad's assassination, I'll ring Parson's neck personally, as soon as I get my hands on him. I don't care if I've gotta account for the destruction of corporate property. Your job is to find out who's behind this mess. If he's not out there on his own, there's a good chance his handlers don't have the kinda clout they'd need to get away with a stunt this big. If they are an Interan competitor, or have political aspirations, it could turn into an unexpected boon for us. If they left a thumbprint behind, imagine the disaster it would cause them. The story would come out they were the ones behind the whole caper. They'd be washed up, finished."

"I've got a task force sifting through the voluminous materials the corporate espionage division sent us. Those guys don't mess around. They know every time an executive takes a piss. As for the vaunted marble halls of power, we have to rely on the good graces of the various official government intelligence agencies. We're required to keep our queries very specific. Obviously, they don't want to appear as though they are taking sides, aiding and abetting in any kind of impropriety, such as a witch-hunt, or a fishing expedition. We submitted our 'enemies' list. It reads like a who's who. Those with the highest security clearance were put at the top. As you can imagine we got back a lot of redacted, blacked out documentation. With that type of material it's always catch as catch can. It would help if you could point us in the right direction."

"I'll see what I can do," the corporate scientist was clearly displeased by the unsavory prospect of having to admit to his backers that Interan didn't have the situation completely under control so close to the proposed product launch. His only leverage was that they had at least as much riding on the outcome of the project as he did. "Maybe whoever is behind this will make a false move, make a mistake, and do something stupid. If Parson is working for someone, they haven't heard a peep from him since the shooting. They're shitting bricks just as badly, or worse than we are. By now, it's gotta be pretty clear to them that Parson's a loose cannon. No matter who his handlers are, they've gotta wonder how long he can evade capture. Despite the pressure on us to get the bird off the ground, time's on our side, at least for the moment. Within limits, we can throw as many man-hours as we want at his detainment, and with the resources at our disposal, the level of cooperation we enjoy, there's a good chance we can crack this nut and expose them. I expect hourly briefings from you. I don't need them fluffed up. You can send them to my smart device. You are, of course, to work closely with the security chief, Masterson, and contact me directly when Parson is located."

"What about Knolls?"

"What about him?"

"Who's he workin' for?"

"We need to ascertain whether anyone else is winding up Parson, whose side he's on. Hopefully, Masterson will have effectively dealt with Knolls in the near-term. Most people, our backers especially, don't care a lick about intentions. All they care about is success. I need results. If we don't get a handle on the crisis soon, none of our hard work will have mattered a spit. As soon as the dust settles, I'll see to Dr. Vincent myself. High time I paid Pleasant View a call."


Chapter 10

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"My therapist doesn't like women," Kiersten responded to Knolls' call the way she reacted to everything that made her uncomfortable -- she went on incessantly about all her various problems. "You should hear him. I'm too 'judgmental,' too 'defensive', like I try too hard. What a farce. With a perfectly straight face he told me 'women are hardwired to please', as if the only reason for my existence was to spread, as if he was talking to some strumpet. His head is so far up his ass I don't even think the misogynist knows my name. 'We're predisposed to think of our consciousness as a singularity,' the affected bastard told me. 'We like to think knowledge is centralized, that we look out at the world from an autonomous vantage point. It's very difficult for us to conceive of a fragmented state of mind. Popular culture tends to see it as a monstrous aberration, as has science and medicine. 'In the horror version,' he told me, 'the person who receives a transplant invariably discovers that it retains the psychology of the sociopath from which it was harvested. There are those who take the notion that the body is a vast ecosystem a step further and believe we are nothing but the symbiotic relationship of parasites, that we are a conglomeration of various independent organisms, that every organ is a separate being -- our eyes, ears, heart, lungs, brain, muscles, every one a unique, separate entity. I somewhat subscribe to the theory,' he said. He's so damn pretentious I could scream at the top of my lungs. 'But as a psychologist,' he said, 'I like to put it slightly differently. I want to emphasize how all these various parts that seem to work so well in unison possess specific psychic functions. Your eyes, liver, fingers, etc., all have a mind all their own. Generally, we only ever acknowledge the obvious when things go wrong, like when our limbs or organs fail us. When, for instance, we fall for no apparent reason we commonly complain: "My leg gave out on me," as if it was a foreign object.' My shrink is useless, I mean he actually went so far as to imply that I was some kind of virus."

Knolls was crouched in an old abandoned pump station by the canal not far from the exotic dance club. He'd narrowly evaded two commandos when he inadvertently slipped and rolled behind a bush seconds before they raced past him.

"I didn't know who else to call, Kiersten. I think I'm in trouble."

"Don't patronize me. You sound just like my psychiatrist. He's so sullen, all the color sucked from his face all the time, as if he wears a pale gray plastic space alien mask, almost as if his head is collaged together, and by mistake he's been attributed with three extra eyes, a great big one larger than the rest placed front-and-center in the middle of his forehead to give him a cyclopic look. He says I always want to make it about me, my problems, like I'm always under a lot of pressure, or having a bad day. 'Sometimes,' I told him during our last session, 'it feels like I'm trapped in a public bathroom stall with a glory hole carved in the wall. You stick a fiber optic filament through the hole, like some kind of sick, asexual pervert, like you think the wall is my head, and you get off on seeing inside, past the world of ghosts and zombies, through the diaphanous scrim of pretty cloth, at my other private place, my psychological derrière.' I knew he was tape-recording the session. He's like you. He likes to listen to it later when he's by himself, alone. 'You ask me,' I said straight out, 'if I had my choice, what would I like to do with myself? and when I say I'd like to work at a flower shop, you ask me what would I like to do second best?' I told him, 'We can go on all day long with this game,' but with him it's like I'm some lost lamb without my best interests in mind, and he's supposed to be the big bad wolf, the way he tries to come off like some kind of surrogate authority figure, the only person on earth left to look out for me. 'Funny, isn't it,' I said, 'how in your tasteless, squalid rendition, the kid who offers to carry my books back to my perfect stay-at-home-mom is probably the guy who turns out to be the closet fag, or the serial killer.' That's exactly what I said. All he could do was nod disapprovingly, as if to imply because of my genital ax cut, my judgment is faulty. There's a line from an old pod-cast. The man asks the woman: 'When did you realize life was unfair?' She answers: 'When I saw what boys had hanging between their legs.' There's a difference between saying 'I like this' or 'I don't like that' and saying 'I like this, therefore it is good' or 'I don't like that, therefore it's bad', like trying to say the color red is 'right' or the color green is 'wrong'. One color can't have moral superiority over another, but a lot of people can't stop themselves from crossing the line. They can't simply have opinions. They have to be right about everything..."

***

"I saw a man die tonight," Garry whispered through the receiver. He knew the call was a bad idea as soon as he punched in the numbers. "There's people out here trying to kill me."

"Are you experiencing another one of your episodes, Garry?"

"If so, I've really lost it this time."

"Where are you?"

"Nowheresville."

"I don't mean with the case?"

"Long story short, was on my way home to see my folks and got waylaid. Should never have trusted Diller. He's playing all sides against the middle, and I'm the middle."

"I saw this adult fantasy the other day," Tammy's voice faltered, "where this bichin' super chick was totally overpowered by the villain, I mean it looked like it was lights out for the heroine, she didn't stand a chance against this other guy. He could -- at will -- turn himself into anything. So, he does his routine, like he's a towel-head snake charmer, and the heroine's up against a million-headed poisonous snake. I just knew she'd had it, but at the last minute she pronounces: 'You're not real!' And just like that the reptilian Medusa hair disappears -- pulled back into the void as if it was nothing but a puff of smoke from a dry ice dispenser sucked into a hoseless vacuum cleaner. You don't know how many times I've said: 'Stop, this is not real!' -- Hang in there, Garry. I have this game I started to play. My psychiatrist doesn't like it, but every morning when I wake up, I ask: 'Where am I?' And, in a slightly deeper voice, I answer: Corrido. You've always been in Corrido.' Then I ask: 'What are the rules?' To which the voice inside my head replies: 'There are no rules.' More than anything it's a way to keep myself alert, not to become complacent about all the FUBAR shit that goes on around here."

"I gotta go."

"Buck up, Garry. I've been dating my spiritual advisor. He's into Eastern mysticism, expanded consciousness, Zen, and all that jazz. I told him about the flick too. He said it was based on ancient wisdom. All you have ta say to get the upper hand when you're in a bad scrape, according to him, is: 'Stop, this isn't real!' just like the heroine did in the movie. Another thing he likes to say is 'there aren't any rules', all that repression is in our head. Wherever it is you are, I feel pretty confident there aren't any rules. If you wanna talk longer, call back tomorrow afternoon. I'll be in the office for a coupla hours around lunch. I'd stay on the line longer, but I have a special guest coming over. Owns a few car dealerships round town. Supposedly, he's loaded. Remember Katie, my spoiled friend from the country club? He's an honorary member of the Nineteenth Hole. That's what she said. I bet you'd like him. Once you get past all the bullshit -- he's a bit awkward and grabby -- he's not half-bad..."

***

The moon hung low. From the pump station he could see the neighborhood across the canal. It was like all around him all the normal people in their little houses and apartments went about their every day business while unbeknownst to them a battle raged between transparent government soldiers that fired transparent weapons at equally transparent figures, but all that anybody in the cozy domiciles registered was a brief atmospheric anomaly: an unexpected blast of warm air, a gust of cold wind, the brief whistle of a mechanical voice in their ear, the sounds blurred and warped clear liquid shapes made before they vanished back into thin air.

They would try to triangulate the phone's signal. Knolls switched off his smart device. He could picture the drone they dispatched to hone in on the call, a flying droid that gracefully lifted off the tarmac soundlessly as if it was propelled into the air by invisible hind legs. It would loop round canyon country above jackrabbits and prairie mice, and slice across the moon, like a bat, in the direction of the antenna array -- an artificial forest, the relays disguised as large ferns -- its shadow wavering over the cold concrete riverbed, its silhouetted wingspan strangely rippling across the mangled steel of old abandoned train tracks, slowly crawling over the vermin infested landfill mounds, the no-man's land of junk yards and smoldering black hillside tire dumps below -- headed due east, according to the on-board computer, past miles of abandoned lots, and freeways where postage stamp sized cars seemed to push inverted cones of light ahead of them as they glided along between destinations.

When had the "episodes", as Kiersten so kindly put it, started? Knolls looked at his hand. It still seemed alien to him, like it didn't belong on his arm, like it didn't belong in this world. In the dark it seemed to shimmer as if lit from within. He balled it into a fist, shook it, and pulled his jacket sleeve down in an effort to cover it up, as if he was a little kid who believed if he couldn't see it, maybe it would go away. When they happened it was as if his image was doubled, but there were, at other times, three and even four of him all mixed up in a swirling mosaic pattern, as if he saw himself through the many-sided crystal of a kaleidoscope. All these four images, seemingly identical, repeatedly exchanged places with one another. One, a picture of himself he recognized easily enough, was of a young man who melted away hours of off-duty time glued to a video game box. It was his present self. His greatest achievement was to earn his cyber sword. Another, a little less clear but a still very strongly felt picture was of himself as a student at the academy at a stakeout where he and the rest of the cadets took up positions on rooftops and alleys with shutterless telephoto lenses the size of his forearm while the unfortunate Parson was tasked with pretending to pass out subversive pamphlets to unsuspecting passersby outside the post office. It was his past self. He had recently met Kiersten who was in the same profiling class as him. Try as he might to make out the third and fourth, however, resulted in an impenetrable mystery. Of the third he only had a vague sense of a lost child. When he reached out to take her hand, to try and help her find her way home, it came off her arm. The memory corresponded with another dream he'd had in which there was, tacked to the side of an abandoned house by a field, a row of staggered, discarded shoes and sneakers that tracked diagonally across the shingled wall to the roof, as if to trace the footsteps of some gravity-defying, supernatural hobo who had passed that way before. There was a weather beaten red, plastic ball and a child's doll on the ground. He picked up the doll. She was covered in soot, and looked like she must have been there quite a while. When he brushed her off and examined her more closely, he was struck by how the icy snowflakes stuck to her clothes, face and mouth. She had a string protruding from her back. When he pulled it she said: 'Hi, my name is Talking Kiersten, and I want to be your friend!' That self was alone in the sandbox at the bottom of a slide in a playground with a detached pink, plastic doll's hand in his. It was already almost entirely lost. If he strained to picture anything of the last image, however, he drew a complete blank. All he felt was a cold shudder, as if he had walked into a room filled with shiny, silver objects he thought was twice as large, and discovered that the illusion of deep space was only a cheap trick created by a mirrored wall. That self was trapped in the receding infinity of a mirrored cube.

***

Talking to Kiersten was never easy. Knolls always felt emasculated afterwards. It usually took him a week to recover. But this last conversation, (if one could it that?), was different. She seemed more wired, even than usual. The Eastern mystic was par for the course, she got into all kinds of weird shit, anything enabling, but a shrink. It wasn't her style to subject herself to anyone's negative criticism. He replayed the recording of the conversation. "Corrido?" he pressed paused. What was Kiersten doing in Corrido? There wasn't anything there but a huge crater, a one-horse town, crystal meth labs. It was where Interan was located. Was she trying to tell him something? He rewound it and played it again. Psychiatrists, Corrido, the whole cornball rant on reality. Was she in some kind of trouble, talking in ciphers, or was she prodding to test for old wounds? It was like she had some weird narcotic power over him, like she could fill his spine with icy fluid, and blast it, seemingly at will, like a gusher of frigid Novocaine, directly into his brain. She always knew how to press his buttons with surgical precision.


Chapter 11

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"We've got Knolls triangulated," the intelligence analyst informed Dr. Diller. "He's in a ten square mile area, not far from the strip joint. Masterson believes he's got a good idea where: by the canal. But, there's bad news. The local authorities are crying foul about the raid on the club."

"Isn't there any way to freeze 'em out?"

"We went through regular channels, but they went to a judge. They're stonewalling', it's a job for the corporate lawyers at this point, but, even if the locals cooperate, the delay could stymie our efforts, set us back."

"From here on out we have to assume Knolls has our number. He's starting to look less like a ne'r-do-well, loose end, and more like a well-trained problem. While you're at it, check Parson's bank records for any anomalies -- any large amounts credited or withdrawn, etc. It never occurred to me, but the two of them could be humping for the same gang."

***

"Miss Kiersten, you were great!" Diller refocused his attention on the disheveled young woman hunched over the conference table. "I sincerely hope you didn't mean any of what you said about the progress of your psychological therapy. Another doctor might find some of those comments you made to Knolls at my expense hurtful."

"I meant every word."

"I'm afraid you're gonna have to remain here at Interan for several more days. Should Knolls reattempt to contact you, we might need you again. Please follow the orderly. The nurse will take you to the Tetragon where we have prepared suitable accommodations for you. I'm sure you'll find them to your liking. They were designed to house the first family in a state of crisis."

"I've got rights. You can't hold me prisoner."

"To the contrary, my dear. You're our guest here at the corporate campus, and we intend to treat you like oil-rich royalty for the duration. I don't have to remind you about your contract. You wouldn't want our lawyers to reexamine it?"

"I'm not a piece of furniture. I don't belong to the company."

"Perhaps you would like to reread it yourself. If you like, I'll have a copy sent to your suite. I don't believe you'll find your person referred to as chattel, nor anything of the kind, but you did render us your services in a number of explicit areas."

"I never signed up for this. What did Garry ever do to you? You and Dr. Vincent fixed him up after he was discharged, dressed him up in a detective's trench coat, and sent him out there for reasons you've never shared with me. The kid's a wreck, no thanks to you. What do you expect from him, anyway? He's tryin' his best."

"Hopefully, you'll feel different when you sober up a bit. All that stuff about the super-heroine in the thriller was very colorful, but honestly. You were putting some dangerous ideas into the head of a man who's at his intellectual limit. Knolls has made himself into a liability."

"Cause he's got a mind all his own?"

"Don't lecture me about things of which you don't have a clue, such as the driver behind the detective. We've given your former boyfriend about every imaginable opportunity to right his ship, but he's very stubborn. Wouldn't it be wonderful if it was all a spell, and all one needed to do was break it with a simple incantation? You were right about one thing though. There certainly are no rules for young Mr. Garry. Your personal relationship with the detective is beside the point. Don't try to make yourself into a bridge to someplace none of us wantsta cross over to. I give you my word. We'll have you outta here in no time. You only make it worse for yourself and Major Case Officer Knolls with these juvenile, futile attempts at rebelliousness. I'll stop by your quarters in the morning. You can rattle off your gripes then. In the meantime I urge you to enjoy the spread we have put out for you. Enjoy life. Live it up a little. By golly you deserve it. Our chef is five-star, renown, and at your disposal, along with a number of other marvelous amenities the nurse will fill you in on. You did perfect. Time for a little well earned self-congratulations."

"If you're under the impression you're gonna stick me back in that hellhole again, you've got another thing comin'."

"Relax. You're not going to the laboratory. Like I said, we've made up the executive suite for you."

"No more treatments?"

"No more. You're ready to go. Now run along..."

***

"What the hell are we gonna do with her?" Dr. Diller closed the conference room door behind Kiersten.

"You don't mind if I change the topic?" Coyle pulled up a bio. "We fact checked some of the profiles Masterson's people sent over."

"With him every time I sneeze it's an attempted homicide. What do you have?"

"Kid by the name of Ortiz. Apparently came back from the military service a changed man."

"Elaborate."

"Not the same person who left."

"What was his assignment?"

"Medical, patched up our soldiers, enemy combatants, and collateral damage."

"He fits."

"Spent some time at the VA. They booted him on a Section 8."

"Family?"

"Homeless father."

"Anything else?"

"Schizo."

"Sounds promising. Let's keep it in our back pocket. I'll run his profile past Dr. Vincent when I'm out at Pleasant View tomorrow afternoon."

"As for Kiersten: Maybe we should have her contact Knolls?"

"Not bad. When I get back from Pleasant View we'll have a better idea how to proceed. For one, we'll know if Masterson netted Knolls. Dr. Vincent might also have something worthwhile to offer on the subject. Depends on where we are with Parson."


Chapter 12

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The young woman's head rolled and bounced with the bumpy motion of the ambulance. She was flat lining. One of the EMTs ripped open a plastic rapper, pulled out a syringe, and injected adrenaline straight into her chest. It worked, at least at first. The girl moved. Her breathing came back slowly and irregularly. She had a pulse, but she was catatonic, her eyes rolled into the back of their sockets, and the emergency technician knew the longer she remained unconscious the worse her chances were. By the time they arrived at Pleasant View, it was clear she was in a coma.

"OD," the driver informed the receiving nurse as the other two techs unloaded the body. "We tried our best to resuscitate her on the way, but her heart stopped. There was too much oxygen deprivation. It was difficult to find the two girls. They'd crawled out to the end of a ledge over by the singin' rock. We arrived too late for the other one. She was in bad shape. She died before we could get her back to the bus. The young woman choked on her vomit. After we informed dispatch of the situation, we were rerouted from the general hospital."

"Right this way, gentlemen" the male nurse held the sliding glass doors open for the emergency responders. "We've been expecting her."

***

A maritime theme permeated the main inpatient facility at the clinic like it was a luxury ocean liner they sailed across the high dessert. The front of the building looked like a mix between the bow of a ship, and a steel and glass tidal wave about to crash down on the well-manicured grounds. Everything was state-of-the-art. Diller was led across the concourse by a healthy young orderly. They proceeded down a long corridor to an observation booth that overlooked an elaborate surgery, and, once they'd arrived, the orderly switched on an intercom so that the doctor could hear what was going on inside the room. It was explained to Diller that the young woman had suffered a massive stroke.

"She was in a coma, pronounced brain dead by the EMTs before they were able to transport her to the hospital," the orderly informed him. "The hospital was only gonna pull the plug on her, that's why they had her sent here. In these cases, Dr. Vincent is the call of last resort. If anyone can pull her outta the wall, the doctor can. We've got proprietary equipment here no one else has access to."

***

Hoses came out of the young woman's arms. She lay motionless on a table with a hospital-green sheet draped over her torso and legs. Only her head and feet were visible. She looked as if she was no more substantial than a mold of compacted, dry, powdered baking flower, and if she miraculously woke up and tried to talk, her lower jaw would crumble and slide off her face. Her hands looked incredibly delicate to Diller, like they were made of chilled French pastry dough. Dr. Vincent worked at a computer. It was as if someone no one could see put two live wires to the young woman's midsection. Under the fabric, her stomach muscles visibly contracted, and her pelvis strained upwards, as if there was a tractor beam inserted in the retractable ceiling light above her. Several more attempts were necessary to fully awaken her.

A gob of pale yellow phlegm shot from her purple lips as she tried to clear her lungs. Dr. Vincent switched on the electrical hookup so that he could better monitor the patient's vital signs. One staffer held the young woman's shoulders down while another wrapped his arms around her legs. "Get off me!" she struggled to get out from under the orderlies, as if she mistook them for some dreamed up phantasm that had pursued her into consciousness.

"She's coming around," the doctor removed his stethoscope.

The young girl convulsed with a spasm. It was like someone had turned on a switch, and her system shorted.

"Hold still. You're lucky to be alive," Dr. Vincent pointed a penlight into her eyes. "You tried to kill yourself. You're still a bit delirious."

After a while she settled down, realized she was not on a beach, she was not a mermaid with narrow, wrap-around sunglasses, there was no lobsterman with giant claws trying to kill her. She had dreamed him up, dreamed up the shirtless, beefcake life-guards that gawked at the scene, the hands with the lime green fingernails that grabbed at her from under the sand, the heart shaped box of valentine chocolates with live mice instead of candy inside -- all of it.

The doctor gingerly pulled back the bandage from the side of her head. "Welcome to Pleasant View," he removed her respirator. "We thought we'd lost you. I apologize for my poor bedside manner. The cramping should dissipate after a while. It's due to the anesthetic. The tests we're about to initiate are rather benign, nothing to worry about. We only want to make sure none of your major brain functions were in any way affected while you were unconscious, that your physical and mental faculties are all still in tip-top, operational shape. These tests are standard fair for anyone who has gone through as much as you have. Please nod if you understand me."

To the wild-eyed young woman, it looked like she was hooked up to an oscilloscope-type device, as if she were an electronic component. There was something hypnotic about the way the waves pulsed up and down in a vivid viridian double helix sign curve.

While the doctor conferred with Diller, she took the time to look around at the unfamiliar surroundings. It was as if her senses were hypersensitive to the slightest vibrations. Colors were brighter than usual, and objects seemed to have sharper edges as if they were highly contrasted, painted trompe-l'oeil, their shadow and depth a deceitful, if artful illusion. The air circulation system pulsed and hummed, like, in reality, she was inside the hull of some large hollow, airborne, or underwater vessel. Even the staff seemed vaguely immaterial, like they were flickering images projected onto a screen. In close-up the nurse's faces was as large as if it was splashed on an electric billboard. Everything looked choppy and oversaturated to her as if it was a 16mm. home movie that had been run through an effects generator to make it artfully distorted and pretend weird, as if she was watching the post-punk rock video version of an impromptu teenage house party, except it was in a sanitized hospital room the revelers had chosen to congregate costumed as physicians and medical technicians. Their features were disjointed as if the flared, overexposed footage that shook inside the projector never quite came into synch. Sometimes the hue was monotone, white space outlined in bright orange, sienna, or red, other times it was scratchy and faded as if the stock had been purposefully mistreated.

In deference to the girl's disoriented reaction, the nurse lowered her voice to a softer pitch as she fixed the bed. "I'll see if I can't scare up a remote control for you so you can adjust it yourself. The doctor will directly be back to talk to you about the initial test results and your prognosis. You're awake, that's the most important thing," she patted the young woman on the forehead, and winked.

***

"Can you tell me your name?" Dr. Vincent put her chart away.

"Tammy."

"That's correct. Tammy Hunt. Do you know how old you are?"

"No."

"That's Okay, nothing to worry about. Some memory loss is common in these cases," the doctor tried to reassure Tammy it was perfectly natural for her not to recall everything about herself right away. "Your recollection may not return all at once. It's more than likely it will come back to you in fits and starts. You're going to have to be patient. After suffering such a terrible self-imposed injury you might need a good deal more therapy. There's the actual neurological damage to consider, from the suicide attempt, as well as the psychological shock associated with such a horrible experience. We will, of course, want to keep you here in the emergency ward for observation for a couple more days before we can release you to a more comfortable room -- to make sure there aren't any unforeseen complications, and everything checks out, you understand. You're still officially on 'suicide watch' until we can make a determination otherwise. I don't want to unduly concern you, but you may notice a certain amount of stiffness in your movements, slurred speech. Many victims of such a devastating wound never re-attain full motor skills. As far as we can tell no serious neurological damage was suffered. More than likely you will be up and running soon enough, but the most important thing you can do is to let the healing process take its full course, it's going to take a little time. Brain injuries are tricky. It's not like with a cut or bruise. We can't just suture it closed, apply some ointment, and pull out the stitches after several weeks. It's not uncommon for patients to experience vertigo as the outside world rushes back in."

"Where am I?"

"Pleasant View."

"How did I get here?"

"You almost killed yourself. You and your friend were found on a bluff. Drugs were involved. She didn't make it."

Even though Tammy had no memory of the event, she was apologetic. "It's like my brain's been scrubbed clean, the walls whitewashed. It's like I've been in a perfectly empty, furniture-less white cube without windows for I don't know how long -- all my life, maybe -- and the next thing I know I'm here."

"In cases of extreme duress, such as you suffered, the human brain can do that. It's a self-preservation mechanism. With time the white cube will turn into a room, there will be a chest of drawers, a bed, photographs, posters, your personal belongings will reappear, windows will take shape on the wall, the outside world will reassume its form, trees, birds, cars. Eventually, you will wander further afield into the rest of the house, as it were, onto the front lawn, until you finally make your way back to the scene of the suicide, look yourself squarely in the face. For a while longer, it may seem like you still have the training wheels on your bike, but I think it's important for you to remember everything that happened on your own. It's like when a relative relates a story about you when you were an infant. After a while it seems like it's your own memory, you can never know if you experienced it for yourself. The last thing you want is to look around your proverbial room and wonder if the keepsakes on your shelf are yours, or if they were placed there by someone else. The bandages," the doctor explained, "can come off in several more days."

***

***

"Very impressive," Dr. Diller admitted to his host. For some reason he pictured Pleasant View as a Victorian era insane asylum. They walked and talked. The neuro-psychologist took his guest along on his rounds.

"What's he doing in there?" Dr. Vincent asked his assistant when they came to the first window.

"Scratching at the wall," she informed him. "He's been at it for hours, almost from the moment he woke up."

"Remind you of anything?"

Diller took a peek into the room.

"Back in the day. Some of the military PTSDs reacted similarly after we pulled them back from the brink. For all we know he might have been in mortal combat with a fanged Teddy Bear when we pulled him out," he turned back to his assistant. "Have his speech faculties returned to normal? Has he said anything?"

"Not a word. See for yourself. All he does is rub at the wall. He's been at it incessantly, like he's trying to find something hidden under the paint, something important concealed underneath, like he's trying to find something buried under the layers, and if he can only remove the latex, he'll discover something crucial about the room he's in, or himself."

"He's clearly still in shock. He was on life-support for sixteen months," Vincent leaned over to Diller. "It's gonna take him a while to get used to his new environment."

With his fingernails the young man in the hospital gown worked on a small section in the corner, used his thumb to try and peel away the flakes, unaware he was being observed through the two-way mirror. Diller watched the patient through the window work diligently. The young man was resolved to expose the whole top layer before he began to work down to the drywall behind it.

***

***

He and Dr. Vincent set their plastic trays down at a table in the employee cafeteria. Momentarily their presence seemed to bring a hush over the otherwise boisterous conversation across from them.

"Isn't that Dr. Diller?" one of orderlies finally ventured.

"You're upsetting him," a female employee rebuked.

"The hell I am?" her male friend ignored her desire for discretion. "Didn't he recently get a post in the administration?"

"Lay off," the girl was so upset with her friend she threatened to go back to her rounds if he didn't put a lid on it, and show their esteemed guest some respect. "He's the head of research at Interan," the female employee held her hand to the side of her mouth in an effort not to be heard by Dr. Diller. "Can't you see he and Doctor Vincent want some privacy?"

Regardless of the female employees repeated attempts to quiet down her impolite male friend, Dr. Diller was determined to ignore them.

"Don't mind them," Dr. Vincent rested his orange juice on the side of the table. "Take it as a complement. We don't get very many famous people here. In our field it's a miracle if anyone recognizes us. Apparently, you have a bit of a following, fans among my staff. It's what you get for taking such a high-profile job. Better get used to it. What brings you out here, anyway? Interan getting nervous about its investment?"

The group, urged on by the young woman, finally got up to de-tray, giving Diller and Vincent a quiet place to talk at the back of the commissary.

***

"It's only that I thought we might go somewhere more private."

"Oh dear, that doesn't sound promising," Dr. Vincent fidgeted, "was your heart set on someplace soundproof like an interrogation cell?"

"Don't fuck with me, Edward. I don't have the patience."

"Well, out with it, then. What brings the famous Diller to Pleasant View?"

"One of your old students is lookin' for you, Garry Knolls."

"So?"

"The detective recognized Parson from a security tape."

"Did he?"

"You don't seem to grasp the seriousness of the predicament. We're in deep shit."

"I didn't know the alert was elevated to 'deep shit' status."

"Parson shot Conrad."

"Are you positive?"

"Who knows who else he's gunnin' for? Could be anyone, all of us."

"What happened to your sterling poise under fire?"

"Get off it, Vincent. You didn't expect yer name wouldn't come up? You're about the closest person to him, closer than anyone in his family. You understand what motivates him; hell, you practically molded him with your own hands."

"Everyone knows he went off the grid years ago. How is it I'm supposed to be involved? Are you saying I somehow programmed him to kill, to go after everyone involved with the psychological study?"

"What about Knolls?"

"What about him?"

"Isn't he another one of your so called protégés? Don't play the academic fool with me. You're not talkin' to an executive lawyer, Edward, you're talkin' to an old friend. I've covered your ass many times before. Interan can only divert attention away from Parson for so long. We need to bag him before he does any more damage. The stakes are too high, and are only getting higher. The same with Knolls. Put your goddamn ego aside for a second, and consider the big picture before it's too late. You act like you're above it all, as if you didn't owe everything you got to someone else. Who do you think pays for all your nifty gadgets, puts a roof over your head, keeps the lights on around here? You'd be workin' outta a garage if it weren't for Interan. A little cooperation at a time of need, that's all I'm asking."

"What possible motivation would I have to shit-can my years of research, especially now that we're so close? You sound like a raving lunatic. I can't begin to follow your logic. If you came here to accuse me of attempting to deep-six the project, you wasted a trip, not only my time, but yours. You can report back to your masters that I'm fully committed to the successful outcome of the project. We specialize in head cases. Nut jobs like Parson are gonna crop up every so often. Don't misdirect your frustration at me. He's gotta get dealt with. Go ahead. I won't shed a tear. As far as I'm concerned, he's always been strictly bad news. As for Knolls, I doubt you'd come around here with your hat out if Interan security hadn't loused it up. I heard all about it. You're right about one thing. Believe me, I'm familiar with these two. They're the same kind of bad. Only one has a badge."

"Did have."

"If you wanna find Parson, I strongly advocate keepin' the detective alive. They're wired the same, more or less, more so than you might've previously guessed. If anyone can help Interan find Parson it's Knolls. They're practically the same person. It won't be easy now that he's aware you tried to kill him during your little ill-fated clean-up effort, but if I were you, I'd try my best to rekindle my friendly relations with the detective, make nice."

"There's something else."

"What's that?" the doctor balled up his Styrofoam cup.

"Masterson found a dog with its head cut open. There's speculation it was done by Parson. Why would he commit such a gruesome act?"

"Decided a number of years ago to take some precautions, take a few matters into my own hands, so to speak. You bunch were asleep at the wheel, as usual, so I took it upon myself to implant Parson with a transmitter. Don't act so put off. We've done it with animals in the wild for decades. Pedophiles wear ankle bracelets. Why shouldn't I be able to track one of my test subjects?"

"You mean you can tell us his whereabouts, and you haven't done so?"

"Not so fast. 'Til the day before yesterday I could have. That's when the signal became static. I'd assumed he found the sub-dermal device and removed it."

"But, that still doesn't account for why he cut up the mutt?"

"Couldn't tell you about that. Maybe he wanted to know if all creatures were created equal, if the sheep dog was similarly bugged? Who can rightly tell what goes on in a twisted mind like his?"

"Thanks to you."

"I'm starting to detect an inquisition."

"Don't go drama queen on me. You're scheduled to give your client presentation at the Tetragon at the end of the week. All the "t"s havta be crossed, and the "i"s dotted. Show some heart. Interan's gonna be bustling with bigwigs. Wouldn't it be nice to have a certain amount of confidence there wasn't a mad shooter in the crowd hoping to take off your head?"


Chapter 13

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"Do what they say. No one's gonna hurt you."

Knolls shook off the leaves, and read the IM from Kiersten in disbelief.

"Who is this?" he texted back.

"Kiersten."

"I mean really, who is this?"

"Diller."

"What have you done with Kiersten?"

"She's fine. It's not us you need to worry about. I spoke to Dr. Vincent. He sends his regards. It's your own wellbeing that should concern you. Parson is onto you. We moved your car to the parking lot across the street from the erotic dance club so that the locals wouldn't impound it as evidence after the bust. The locks were changed. The attendant will supply you with a new set of keys."

"Why should I trust you?"

"You have no choice. Keep Kiersten in mind."

"Where is the double-crossing bitch?"

"There's a footbridge about a quarter mile down the canal. Proceed about another half mile. "We'll re-contact you shortly..."

They had his exact location. It was as if Knolls was trapped in a game of Pong, swatted back and forth between opposing players. Kiersten's apartment wasn't more than an hours drive. He still had the keys, and decided to try and see what, if anything, he could find there. If she were somehow involved with Interan he might dig up a clue.

"If so, for how long?" he spoke into the recorder while the attendant entered the booth to open the lift gate. The bastard wanted ten bucks for his trouble. "You a'right, mister? You no look so snappy." Knolls pulled out a couple of fives. He was tempted to say, "No, I'm not feelin' so great, you dumb fuck, I slept outside all night, and my clothes are practically stickin' to my ribs," but he didn't have the energy.

How far back did this go, back to the beginning? He clicked his recorder back on. "When did it start, Kiersten's infidelity, my 'episodes'?" With a certain amount of trepidation he realized the case had morphed. The fragmented facts floated around, as if his head was an amniotic tank full of electrified autonomous body parts, harvested human and animal appendages that never quite managed to reconnect into anything intelligible. When they did fuse it was with a charged crack, and the result was fantastical, creepy, resembling more than anything else a hybrid, misbegotten being, like an updated, conceptual version of a chimera. Somehow he'd become ensnared, was, despite reason, implicated in some way, and was now effectively investigating himself. A curl came to the sides of his lips as he wiped his nose with the back of his free hand. He could see his CO going for his antacid pills.

***

Rain came down in sheets. On the turnpike Knolls noticed a motorcyclist in his rearview mirror. The next exit he pulled off. If he was being tailed it would be easy to stay with him on the open road, at that speed the elements would clear from the man's helmet visor, but in the foggy haze of suburban streets, it would be much harder to follow him. As he made a turn onto a side street he saw the motorcyclist race up behind him, and slowly nose its way around the corner. Knolls turned off his cruise lights, gunned it to the next block, and shot onto another street in front of a utility truck. It was more for show than anything else. If they could find him at the derelict pump station, they could find him anywhere. They were monitoring his rental's GPS, and it wasn't like he was being very careful with his smart phone, either.


Chapter 14

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Most hotel rooms had more character than Kiersten's apartment. Neither she nor anyone else had been there for a while. Everything was in exactly the same place it had been the last time he was there, but nothing was really the same, not anymore. It was like a sentient mist rolled into the place and removed some crucial evidence that could help him explain why things turned out the way they did. The couch was where it had been, so was the widescreen, and the kitchen was exactly where it should be. The trees outside were all there, too, so were the other housing towers, lined up block after block like nothing had changed. Birds squawked and squirrels darted across green lawns like they always did. Knolls couldn't quite place it, but he knew somewhere deep down inside that something was wrong with the picture.

Drawers were mostly empty. There were a few personal items, but most everything was still in the original factory wrapper, unopened. Several dresses hung in the closet. He pushed some hangers aside so he could scrunch one up against his face, but it had never been worn. Neither had the others. Nothing much was in the kitchen. Some canned goods in a cabinet. The silver- and dishware was a mismatched hodge-podge. There was only a box of baking soda in the fridge, and a tin of Everest spearmint chewing gum in the freezer. He took it out and looked inside. There was marijuana inside. It was the first sign Kiersten had ever been there. Among her other many vices, she was nothing if not a religious smoker. He went through the drawers again. At the back of one, in the far corner, there was a blown-glass pipe he'd missed before. He loaded the chamber with weed, fingered the carb, sparked it up, and took a long drag. Even the framed pictures on the mantle, he noticed, still contained the original display pictures of idealized loved ones, family members, and special occasions.

***

***

When he showed up at Kiersten's place the last night they spent together he was in so much pain from the pounding he'd received at the hands of a suspect he had forcibly detained, she needed to help him off with his coat. Knolls remembered how her figure looked like it was visibly outlined by a bright crimson aura when she answered the door, like a movie prop person was standing behind her with a colored gel taped over a very bright neon light. She'd seemed to glide across the room effortlessly, like a spirit girl, as if she was detached from the earth and her feet never touched the ground. Coupled with her seemingly effortless movements, the effect had been rather remarkable to him -- as though she floated atop a dolly with wheels that could swivel in any direction, her buoyant frame pulled around by invisible strings held by equally invisible stage hands.

It was right after he was newly recruited to the Metropolitan Police Department, their first weekend together since he graduated, and he more than welcomed the intimacy of her tender touch, happy for some warmth and close attention after such a grueling ordeal, even if he felt a little less like a living breathing person in her arms than a long awaited catalog purchase she unpacked after weeks of awaiting its arrival. He couldn't help but think that she squeezed his upper arm to gauge its firmness, combed her fingers through his hair as if to assess its quality as compared to natural fiber, slowly ran her hands over his neck and shoulders like she was looking for seams at the joints, pressed her ear to his chest to ascertain whether his unit came with a heartbeat, and playfully grabbed the denim crotch of his pants to make sure there were no defects in the assemblage, nothing important was left on the factory floor, she hadn't been gypped, and he was in every way anatomically correct.

Her face, he remembered, seemed to light the living room up with a peculiar aura, at once welcoming and filled with kindness, and simultaneously strained, as if she was trying too hard, and her smile could crack at any time. She was still in her gym clothes, and was more than happy to let him twirl her around, take her all in.

The sheer giddiness of the private show was, it was plainly clear, what got her more exited than anything else, like she was a little girl again -- the mid-American version of a little ballerina -- who entertained for the grownups at some family gathering or other. At first she pumped her arms enthusiastically and kicked her legs up through her childish routine, but alone together, and her a little drunk on the Kentucky bourbon, it didn't take long before her dance moves got more erotic. He recalled how he got a full view of her ass, as she'd turned to bend over and stretch. In her leotard, she extended her right heel so it rested on the ledge of the credenza, and leaned over the long length of her outstretched leg, all the while, entirely aware of how devastatingly provocative the pose was.

And, maybe she was right? Maybe when he fantasized about making love to her in the shadow of a mountain, under the canopy of the lush trees of a valley, or beside the cool flow of a country stream, he did wonder if her body wasn't actually hollow, too beautiful to be true, filled with nothing but electronic hardware and gears, like maybe he thought of her as a product of his imagination as much as she thought of him as a product of hers, and they were both nothing but illusions?

Afterwards, there was never any touching. She lay on her back on the floor, or the couch, or wherever it was they ended up, until her breathing became regular again, and it was all over. She wiped his cum off her body with his boxers, put him back in his box, and shelved him like he was a favorite sexual toy she hid under her mattress for fear her mother, or nosey little brother might find out about.

***

***

An old-fashioned desktop computer sat on a table in a large closet off to the side of the bedroom. Knolls turned it on. To his surprise it wasn't password protected, but it quickly became apparent there wasn't anything personal left on the hard drive. It had been wiped clean of all but the basics. He opened the browser, and pulled down the "history" tab, and found the temp files were somehow still intact. A number of Internet dating services came up. It took a little detective work, but he found a link to a social network, and a remote data storage site with Kiersten's initials. He called up the latter.

What was it he and Kiersten talked about that last night they spent together? Something about goats and unicorns, wasn't it? How goats were the original unicorns. She told him how she had learned on the Internet that they used to curl the horns of goats for certain rituals in Dionysian bacchanals.

"She liked unicorns. The last night we spent together she said the original curled horns were not unicorn horns," he said to himself. "Horses came into it later, no one knew exactly when. She told me how they used to burn the goats with curled horns in a bonfire as a tribute to their hedonistic gods, and how she and her friends thought it would be cool if they could do something like that with a stuffed satin goat before the homecoming game the following week."

"Unicorn" was her private email address. He typed the letter "u". A window came down with a number of different options. He clicked on the first. It didn't work. He skipped down to the last. Seemingly miraculously, the page opened up, not that there was much stowed away there. Knolls randomly chose a picture file. There were lots of shots of Kiersten, and friends. The intimacy of the material made Garry feel as self-conscious as a pedophile on a drive-by past an elementary school. Mostly the pictures were innocent enough, but there were a number of them she took with other men he'd never seen before. It was as if he was going through a box of photos, and the ones at the bottom dated back to when they were still together. Four of them, in particular, gave him pause. . One picture was taken with a high definition camera, so the raindrops that hung in the air looked huge. There was another with him and Kiersten. She didn't look very happy, as if they'd recently had an argument. He tried to pinpoint at what point in the downward spiral of their relationship it was taken, but wasn't sure. As for the last two, he was pictured with her and Parson, as if they'd all been the closest chums at the academy, and in the other she was alone with the other student looking rather pleased with herself. According to the information line on the third picture it was uploaded after Knolls left the academy. There was another one he'd missed from several months later, a week he recalled primarily because he'd gotten an uncharacteristic call in the squad room from Kierston's mother who hadn't heard from her daughter, and was so disturbed she phoned him. Had she and Parson had an affair after he graduated? He printed out the pictures and pinned them to the wall.

In none of the hundreds of hours of surveillance he had accumulated on Kiersten did he have any evidence she had ever dated Parson. Knolls manically skipped from file to file, and fast-forwarded through the most promising passages. Nothing. There was no visual or sound footage, nothing to indicate he and she were ever close to Parson at any point while they attended the academy. His portable, handheld device was his surrogate memory, though the longer he was forced to accept the existence of these other pictures of Kiersten displayed on the wall, the more he had to accept the unpalatable fact that there might be substantial gaps in his own account of the relationship. Someone could have doctored the snapshots, but it was far more likely his own media was edited to suit his version of prior events, perhaps even to form it outright. Was his past nothing more than a convenient fiction, an expertly edited scenario? Was he circumnavigating a huge round stage, like a carousel, except without all the beautifully decorated horses, dolphins, and dragons? If he kept going, would the scenery he previously passed reappear, as if he was traveling in circles? Was there a riveted seam in the backdrop where the wrap-around painted landscape was joined at the other side of the drum? How many times had he already passed by the lady with the parasol with the cutout of Kiersten's face affixed to it, the child with the swirly rainbow lollypop and the ping-pong eyes who was the spitting image of Parson?



Chapter 15

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"In Dr. Vincent's opinion the precipitous decline in Kiersten's condition is neurological. 'The reason it has been so difficult for us to come to a better understanding of how all the pieces are supposed to work together,' he said, 'is that when the various psychic centers do operate harmoniously, in the manner they are intended, the result is that the parts are indistinguishable from the whole.' With her, there's a shorted circuit," Dr. Diller relayed the conversation he'd had earlier in the day with his colleague to Masterson. "For some reason Dr. Vincent hasn't as yet ascertained, she is hearing the equivalent of the cross chatter from her various consciousness centers independent of each other. 'It's gonna take a bit longer for her to relearn to fully synchronize with her body,' he said, 'for her to time the neural signals correctly, hard enough to accomplish when the rest of the system cooperates. We like to believe that our automatic faculties are distinct from our self-consciousness,' he elaborated, 'but maybe that's where the problem is? We assume that because there is no brain activity in a comatose patient they are incapable of independent will. Everything I've seen thus far would indicate the opposite. After they are pulled out of the wall, or wherever it is they believe they've been confined, the patients all display signs of multiple personalities, as if their original character traits are scissor-sliced into various independent entities, as if there's another active psychology beside hers still present inside her.' What do you make of it?"

"Above my pay-grade. What about you? Do you think she can handle it?"

"Suppose we'll find out soon enough, won't we?"

"How much longer can she hold out?"

"With the proper medication, Dr. Vincent said we could stabilize her condition at least until he arrives with his team. It gives us a few days."

"We followed Knolls to Kiersten's apartment."

"Will he find the pictures?"

"We made the password as easy to crack as possible."

"Any news on Parson?"

"None, but if you say Dr. Vincent predicts he'll try and make contact with Knolls, it shouldn't be too long."

"After you," Diller held the door of the bunker's executive suite open for Masterson. "We might want to go ahead and speed up the process."

***

"Yes you can," the physical therapist insisted.

"No I can't," Kiersten complained.

"Take your time. You're acting like a brat. We're not going to stop 'til you get it right."

Her house of cards collapsed.

"Use the diagram, that's what it's there for."

Kiersten's chest tightened as if the intensity of the pictures around her masked a hidden universe, as if she was a somnambulist and all these doctors and orderlies with their glowing eyes masked a far different set of circumstances, and if she could only shake herself out of it, to her horror, she would find herself precariously perched on a thin ledge suspended a hundred stories off the ground, or buried alive, prostrate in a deep pit with spiders and snakes crawling and slithering over her body.

"You can do it."

Kiersten nodded, her eyes tightly shut. She was confident the physical therapist didn't really see her. His sardonic leer was directed at another ghostly form within whose contours she was only a temporary visitor. She was nowhere near Pleasant View, perhaps in another dimension entirely, left alone in the classroom of a school she might once have attended long ago when she was still a young girl. Not any single learning institution in particular, but an amalgam of every lecture hall in which she'd ever been before, as if the designer who constructed the place tried their best to conglomerate all of them, only it turned out as a horrible Baroque hybrid, as if he or she had set out to build these various structures dimly recalled from a vague description she gave him, but he or she had inexplicably lost interest in one edifice three-quarters of the way through, and simply went on to the next one without any clear rationale.

A high school gym ended for no apparent reason, walls left unfinished, exposed two-by-fours with plumbing and electrical wiring that jutted out into empty space, and before she knew what was going on she walked into what she could only surmise was the beginning of an assembly hall, the stage of which, much like the interior of the previous structure, quickly devolved into the raw chaos of a construction site. It wasn't just what these rooms and hallways, somewhat familiar as they were -- with all their dark corners and quiet nooks where she might once have suffered through her youth, adolescence, or early teens -- were supposed to remind her of. Their dimensions also seemed all wrong, invariably too large, or too small. You could have landed a small Cessna propeller driven airplane in the waiting room at the vice principal's office, and the door to the A/V room she kicked in, as it turned out, opened up into a bright and sunny playground.

She tried to remember if the place had any particular personal significance, if she had fallen in love or had her heart broken for the first time here. Was it where she had first smoked drugs or gotten drunk? Had she experienced her first French kiss here, or had sex here? Kiersten sat on the swing and glumly looked around for some little detail that might spark a connection with something she could place as a genuine memory, as a memory that was hers and hers alone, some kind of incontrovertible evidence that she had, in a conventional sense, known a past.

"Only a couple of more cards. You're almost there. Concentrate. You have to stop your hand from trembling."

There was an image she had of herself as a little girl on a swing in a garden, beneath a weeping willow. She laughed. How she laughed. She laughed hysterically, one moment kicking the pale blue sky with the toes of her shiny black Mary Jane's, the next almost upside down, her ruby red lips extended, as if she wanted to kiss the earth. Was there, after all, still something left of the person she once was, a remnant, however small, hidden from the intrusive probes of the psychiatric staff, buried so far inside her only she could find it, proof maybe that she was more than simply an empty vessel. Kiersten wanted to think everything was nature, that numbers and alphabets were no different than fire, rain, or trees; our gadgets were equivalent to a beautiful sunset but she knew sooner or later she was going to have to draw a line. It was like the eyes of everyone around her were lighted from within. The sky in her private garden clouded over. What a fool she was to think she could harbor a fragmented remnant she could call her own, especially such a patently cornball one -- she vowed to herself not to let it happen again. It didn't matter that it felt like her insides were scooped out and shoveled into a cold metal slop bucket. This wasn't the time for unmediated, childish whimsy. She had a house of cards to build. The therapist started the timer.

***

"We've got one more little job for you," Dr. Diller helped a frustrated, and distraught Kiersten pick up the fallen cards, and start again.



Chapter 16

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Droid insects hounded Parson. As he approached Kiersten's apartment, tinny silver-alloy bodies bound across empty lawns, past Jack-O'-Lantern houses -- windows and doors all boarded up -- set loose to hunt him down. It was hard to stay ahead of the spindly creatures. They clicked and clattered as they followed him down the empty suburban street, tiny spotlights mounted on their bug-skulls, miniature video camera eyes that zoomed in and out. The machines were steely. They did the jobs they were assigned to do, without question, like good robots. The first wave of drones were followed by more sophisticated machines, one for every task imaginable. Some dug up the ground to analyze soil samples for signs of life. Others were trackers, archeologists, research scientists, sociologists, historians, shrinks, prospectors, whores, and even addicts. There was one to represent every conceivable human endeavor Parson was aware of. The guy raking the leaves across the street was a drone. So was the girl who walked up the hill with her schoolbag feeling sorry for herself. There was a family in their Sunday best sitting in an SUV, all of them, robots. He took refuge behind a tree on an incline that overlooked Kiersten's apartment. The lights were on. Through his binoculars he saw Detective Garry Knolls on the couch in the living room. He tried to make out what the agent was watching on the widescreen. While he did so, all around him the metal alloy machines tested their own equipment, flexed, started, stopped, extended and retracted electric organs, pirouetted, swung axe blades and wielded other brutal implements. To him it seemed as though a magnificent cacophony of gears, hydraulics and belts filled the air. Parson betrayed a certain amount of empathy to all these individual units. Their directive was to hunt him down, but it was the fact that they were ever-present, faithful in their own way, that made them feel closer than any other friend he'd ever had. Without their vigilant presence he would truly be alone in the world, stranded among mercurial people whose motives and actions he couldn't begin to comprehend.

An unwelcome guest on a foreign planet, an original pioneer who homesteaded in the midst of the Apache Nation -- that's what he was. As if none of it was really his, and there was something else, too -- someone inside him who didn't want him around, like he was parachuted into a hostile forest where all the fairies and goblins, the trees, bushes, flowers, animals and insects were all of a single mind, a formless puddle with teeth and claws, and they wanted to eat him alive.

On the television inside Kiersten's apartment two assassins approached the front door. The protagonist inside anticipated their arrival, and stepped aside in the nick of time. Two shots blew off the lock. Outside the apartment the killers worked as a team. One pushed back the door. The other stepped into the room with the hammer of his gun pulled back. Desperate, the program's hero cracked the initial intruder on the back of the head with a heavy particleboard drawer he pulled from the dresser. The would-be assassin was caught off guard. He swung around temporarily disoriented. The shot he fired went wide and blew out the window.

The second assassin came in behind him, and swung his gun from one side of the room to the other, but before he could locate the protagonist in the shadows an incendiary teargas grenade came through the window, hit the back wall, and detonated. The hot, white flash was blinding, and the explosion from the following canister wounded the second intruder as well. Sparks flashed from the exposed robotics of the first. The second assassin lay on the floor in three pieces, his molded, vinyl, protective casing melted off the metal substructure. Outside the hero's flat there was a full on shooting war. Drones gave cover to one team of men with sunglasses who fought it out with another team of men in sunglasses. It was impossible for the protagonist to tell who was winning, the guys with long gray coats or the locals. Drones fired rockets at the latter. The citizen army wasn't nearly as well armed as the invaders, but what they lacked in firepower they more than made up for in strategy and gumption. They understood the terrain much better, and were able, between advertisements for a Chemical Stallion brand erectile dysfunction remedy, to maintain and hold the high ground despite the beating their fortifications took from the arsenal of unmanned air cannons.

The talk show hostess on the next channel looked like a Franz Hals portrait, literally like she was holding a mirror under her chin to reflect light on her face, like she had walked right off a web page dedicated to Golden Age Dutch masters. Knolls had switched to another program. The cider-haired talking head could definitely tell when the camera was on her. She was a professional, knew exactly how to turn her inner glow on. Parson couldn't help but notice, because every time the shot panned away, he plainly saw how she turned it back off, how her face went out, turned dark, as if someone had attached a motion detector to a light bulb.

His conscious mind was sympathetic to Knolls. The detective seemed more like the rest of the appliances in the apartment than an actual person. Parson's subconscious mind, on the other hand, had different plans. It was filled with directives, instructions, top secret documents that put forward a plot so dastardly it could only have been hatched in the darkest recesses of a paranoiac nation state. It was not his conscious mind that taunted him. It was the rational, scientific unconscious of a technocrat insane with power that echoed inside his head, a detached voice that assailed his inner ear with the command,

"Kill, kill, kill!"

The edict always came like a summons from on high. Parson felt the same sense of panic and dread in the pit of his stomach he would have felt were he ordered to appear before some absolute authority like a shadow court magistrate, or the command officer of a secret branch of law enforcement. No reason was given. No reason was necessary. Guilt or innocence was immaterial. Failure to act was an indictment. He looked around the housing complex desperate to find another person -- a tenant, or a security guard -- in the hope that a possible witness might forestall the inevitable. In the honeycomb of his mind he scanned every camera and one-way mirror on every floor in every bathroom and hallway of the yawning concrete structure, but there was no one to call out to, no one to stop him from what he was about to do, to tackle him and throw him to the ground when the time came to intervene on the detective's behalf. Parson hugged the stock of the rifle close to his cheek. Knolls' head was square in his sight. All the noisy drones around him disappeared. It was as if the two of them were completely alone together, secret lovers.


Chapter 17

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Maybe it was due to the unforgiving light-emitting diodes on the talk-show set, but the hostess looked to Knolls like an older version of Kiersten, as if she was a sister his Ex never mentioned. A grim looking gentleman with died black hair sat next to her, a senior government official, Robeson Greer, introduced as a "homegrown terror expert".

"We believe the anthrax attacks were also perpetrated by Spikone."

"Are there many people as disturbed as him lurking about out there?"

"More than the public is aware."

"What steps are you taking to stop them?"

"Within legal limits, we follow their movements as closely as we can. We have a great deal of latitude."

"How can you say with any assurance that Spikone acted alone?"

"Spikone is relatively unstable, a loner, disaffected, anti-social, a classic Oswald. We're still learning about him, what kinda network he'd set up, how he was able to obtain the biohazard, where he learned to make explosives, how to handle a gun, but it's very time consuming with so many agencies involved."

"The trail goes cold a couple of years ago."

"Our information indicates he might have been in Yemen, receiving training at a militant camp. We've got lots of back-story on him, a stack of classified documents we're simply not at liberty to disclose until the trial gets underway. When the investigation is completed it will show that he started small, maybe with tiny animals, household pets, self-mutilation, and gradually worked his way up to the level of these crimes. Textbook stuff. As soon as the material is made available to the media, I'm confident a lot more of the missing pieces'll fall into place."

"But why target government scientists?"

"We suspect he could be connected with one of them, a disgruntled former employee, a disgraced scientist... We're currently assembling an individual character profile, as well as studying the larger dynamic. Whatever else, his type is extraordinarily volatile, he possessed a great deal of familiarity with the targets, and it's a testament to our vigilance we were able to apprehend him as quickly as we did."

"Two bombings and an assassination?"

"We're not ruling anything out."

"Could Spikone's activity be connected with an organization like the FMLY?"

"We doubt it. The usual signature of the FMLY, or 'The Family', as it's often called, is painfully absent. They tend to stick to more narrow endeavors, stuff where there's loose change around, like kidnapping and robbery. For the most part, they go after low hanging fruit, quick and easy, snatch and grab, nothing too sophisticated. It would be a marked departure from their previous mode of operation to openly mount a full-frontal attack on the government. These acts betray a more personal stamp. They strike me, more than anything else, as vindictive, hotheaded, the work of a disturbed personality. Not rationally motivated and carried out with the sort of cold precision the way we would expect to find with an ideologue..."

***

There was no way the Chocolate Bar flyer was left by Parson. Knolls muted the widescreen. Valance would have dropped it at the lakeside compound for him to find, but of what interest would a bunch of anarchic insurgents like the FMLY have been to a Spikone family foot soldier? Even if the words were hastily scrawled on the back of the promotional material to divert the local authorities, should Garry have failed to pick it up, the misdirection hardly seemed random. No, he surmised, if it was meant for them to see, it was more likely written as a threat, or an insurance policy, perhaps, to indicate that Valance knew the score. Of course, odds were Knolls would find it first. If so, it was almost as though the muscle with false teeth had written it in an effort not to go down alone, as a way of alerting Garry, or anyone else who might pocket it, to the bigger picture in the event things turned out as badly as they did.

What was it Diller had divulged about Dr. Vincent concerning the redirection the study took at Fortean College? Knolls found the sound file and opened it:

"Well before The Summer of Love authority has understood how easy it is to discredit the populist voice with only a few nasty interlopers. Save for the direst of circumstances, popular support for the noblest cause is easily dispelled by the creation of a dissident splinter group that engages in some egregious act. Parson was possibly being groomed for such a nefarious mission."

Who by? Dr. Vincent?

***

"Must see u," the text message flashed up on the screen of his handheld device followed by a dulcimer tone.

"Diller?" Knolls typed back.

"Kiersten."

"Are u okay?"

"Meet at Old Town Mall, one hour."

***

On his way out the door Knolls stopped in front of a framed photograph of a long stemmed, yellow tulip that hung in the foyer. The starred petals, it slowly dawned on him as he pulled his jacket on, were less the actual focus of the picture, than they were a wonderfully tantalizing distraction from the main event. The area of scrutiny and contemplation intended was actually at the foot of the flower where three separate shadows were cast over the garden grass, as if to indicate that in the world in which the picture was taken there was more than a single source of daylight, and three, not one, bright orange, alien suns shone brightly in the sky overhead.

"When I was a little girl I got a kitten," Kiersten once told Garry. It was an unusually intimate moment. "Whether or not any of it ever happened is, for the moment, irrelevant," she'd said. "The point is the first several days after my daddy brought the cat home, he hid himself behind the refrigerator, and nothing I did coaxed him from behind the massive appliance. When no one was around, I knew the kitten came out from his hiding place to drink from the bowl my siblings and I set out for it at night before we retired to our bedrooms for the evening. The third night my younger brother and sister and I crushed up some sleeping pills we found in the medicine cabinet in my parents' bathroom, and mixed them in with the milk." Knolls remembered how she scowled at the implication -- as if all her so-called, presumed memories always ended similarly badly. "The next morning the kitten lay dead on the checkerboard parquet."

Why had she qualified her statement? Hadn't it either happened, or not? It wasn't the first time, either. A lot of what she'd revealed to him about herself during pillow talk was similarly phrased in an open-ended manner, as if she workshopped her material on him, and was herself skeptical about it's veracity. It was like Knolls' world was coming apart, he had to consciously stay on top of every little detail. He couldn't just accept the fact he was in Kiersten's apartment, because then it was likely to turn into a houseboat, and if he didn't specify that there was a floor, the bed, along with him and all the other furniture, would end up at the bottom of the drink. Dr. Vincent had given him some advice about how to deal with his "episodes" when they happened. What was it he said? Garry listened to the snippet so often he kept it in a separate folder.

"You have to pace yourself," Knolls played the section, "let the world turn green, give the sky time to become blue, allow rolling hills and deep valleys to take shape under the shadows of cotton ball clouds, roads and houses to gain the physical integrity required to withstand the mercurial storms that gust inside your head. Otherwise, there will be lapses in the reliability of forms, roofs will blow off buildings, trees and light poles will collapse, ditches will overflow from clogged drainage swells..."

Something shiny in the reflection of the window behind him flashed in the Plexiglas of the framed tulip picture. For reasons that momentarily perplexed him he turned back and yanked the heavy curtains shut. He had the distinct sensation someone was watching his every move, like his push from the ledge of grace was a bit of theater orchestrated for the benefit of an audience he couldn't see.



Chapter 18

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Street level was a cloudless, clear blue sky, and heaven above was a concrete and asphalt jungle of sidewalks, buildings, and streets. It was like Knolls was nothing more substantial than his upside down reflection in the black puddle he barely managed to sidestep on the way across the parking lot to the mall. As if his mirrored image was his true self, and he was in reality no more significant than a ghostlike facsimile, a formless body that inhabited another airless dimension set adrift from the litany of rules and regulations that dictate human existence in the corporeal world.

The blacktop wasteland outside of the superstore was practically abandoned. It was as if Knolls arrived a moment after the fact to some inconceivable holocaust that had befallen the shopping center, as if he could make out the echoed forms and shapes of cars and shoppers just beneath the thin membrane of the wet ground, like life went on as usual on the other side of the divide, but it was a world he no longer had any access to, a world he was permanently cut off from. Where he was it smelled like piss and fast-food vomit. Where he was no one survived the terrible, destructive firestorm that had overtaken the entire precinct. People in the department store were like faceless, nameless suggestions from some prior existence, traces from his former life, nothing more than the obscured, gray hint of a long forgotten, happier time.

***

A janitor mopped the corridor of the food court careful not to turn too quickly in either direction and re-aggravate the pain in his neck and head. His face was swollen red, and even with his shades on the light drilled into his eyes. He squeezed out his cotton string mop in the yellow plastic bucket, swished it over the floor of the hall with a sloppy back-and-forth motion, aware that he was, at best, only pushing the wet dirt around the linoleum tile, regretting each and every drink he'd pounded the night before.

Knolls walked past him as he tried to rid the plaque-like dirt from the floor at the base of the shuttered Snack Shack.

"The subject has arrived," the under cover operative leaned his mop against the wall and spoke into his sleeve. "No sign of Parson."

***

Some folks, Garry knew full well, were touched by some cosmic charity. No matter how badly they screwed up, they profited. They might bankrupt a fortune five hundred company, but instead of suffering the sharp slings of the board like anyone else, they got kicked upstairs to cushier, higher paying jobs, their empty promises rewarded, even touted and celebrated as an example for everyone else to follow, like they were sorcerers who had used colorful and sweetly scented potions to cast a spell on the crowd of country bumpkins gathered around them.

Not so with him. Not since back at the academy, anyway. These days he felt as if he had absolutely no sway over anything, no magic incantations at his disposal to direct the forces of fate that controlled the lives of other people, not even the ability to right his own ship. If anything, the exact opposite was true. For a year and a half now, it was like his luck had abandoned him, had taken his sharp, faultless instinct, and acerbic wit with it. No matter how hard he tried to please the people close to him, he couldn't do anything right, like he was recast as the pathetically clichéd cartoon character with the black cloud over his head -- it didn't matter where he went, even seated at the kitchen table, the black cloud was always there threatening thunder and rain. Ever since Kiersten left him, it was as if there was an ironic voice inside his head that directed his every move. Like there was an insult comic up there with a sick sense of humor that wanted nothing more than a good and hearty laugh at the expense of his lost self-esteem, his shattered confidence.

***

The theme of the mall, if one could call it that, was brick. They had done the place up as if it was an historically preserved neighborhood, complete with fake accounts of a glorious past embossed on the brass plaques that adorned the outside of stores and restaurants. Knolls stopped to read one. They told fabricated rags-to-riches stories about a 19th-century prospecting town, along with all its colorful denizens. The combination Taco Bell/Pizza Hut he approached was, for example, originally established in 1886 by a Greek miner known for his "good cheer" who had struck it rich panning for gold after arriving in the new world penniless. Garry looked up at the sky-lit enclosure. The geometry of the mall was endowed with the over-sized dimensions of pre-fabrication as if it suffered an extreme case of gigantism.

On the bridge that spanned the second level he saw a man who looked like Masterson. Knolls looked back at the janitor. It wasn't him they were after, not most of all. Maybe they were holding out for a two-for? The motorcyclist on the burner might not have been from Interan. Maybe they wanted to find out if anyone else was tagging along? Parson came to mind. Had he also been at the lakeside compound while Garry inspected the premises, hidden off in the woods? After Parson cut open the dog, he might have stuck around to see who would show up, but, if so, he must have purposely done something to draw so much attention to his hideout. The more Knolls studied it, the more he was forced to conclude that all along he was the bait. Diller had sent him to the lake house on purpose, with the scheme already in mind. Parson would recognize Garry. He'd know his cover was blown, and Interan was closing in. Diller probably calculated he'd try to go after Knolls, eliminate him as one of the only people who could positively identify him.

***

Aggressive house music thumped through the sound-system. Bottles and glasses clinked. Knolls sat down next to a woman in a pants suit at a restaurant bar.

"My name's Carmichael."

"Have we met before?"

"I'm afraid Kiersten couldn't make it."

"Just like her to back out of a date at the last minute."

Leaning in closely to try and better hear what Carmichael was saying about the reason for Kiersten's absence, Knolls realized he didn't much mind the latest wrinkle in the plan. The agent was dangerously attractive for a thirty-something, and gave him the feeling nothing could stop her. There was something about her feline, green eyes. She had that look like no matter what, she would keep going, like she wasn't human, didn't have the same frailties as other people. No matter what happened to her, Carmichael would simply right herself, like some kind of monster you shot point-blank, inter-ocular that maintained pursuit as if nothing had happened, got back on its feet no matter what the impediment, and continued where it left off. He was glad for all the cacophony. It meant his face was only a fraction of an inch from hers. If he turned just slightly in one direction, he could feel her warm, wet breath on his ear and cheek, and if he turned the other way just a little, which he promptly did, he could practically inhale her perfumed words. It was the closest he'd been to a woman for a very long time, a more than acceptable consolation prize.

"Why Old Town?"

"Parson tried to kill you. He's clearly slipped a gear. We don't want him slithering round the bamboo hedges at Interan."

While Knolls tried to get the bartender's attention, Carmichael showed him a telephoto enhancement of a figure with a rifle trained at an apartment complex.

"Could have taken it anytime."

"But we didn't. It was taken an hour ago while you were at Kiersten's place. Besides Dr. Vincent, you and her are among the few remaining people who can pick him outta a crowd."

"What are you intimatin'?"

"Kiersten was already involved with Interan before you showed up. Only, like I said, recently her health began to deteriorate. By the look of you, bad things seem to have happened to a lot of people affiliated with Dr. Vincent at the time of the academy study. We were expecting Parson to go after your old professor, but for some reason so far he's steered clear of Pleasant View. There's a Marriott at the north end of the mall. I've been there before. The mezzanine is spectacular, like a Zen garden. Finish your beer. Masterson wants us to relocate there as soon as we've made contact. It's got a huge atrium with fancy tube elevators. The team will have a much easier time keeping an eye on us in a large open space like that, not that there aren't a lot of convenient little cubby holes, semi-private nooks. My friends and I partied there once. It was a lot of fun."

Carmichael casually put her finger to her ear as the two of them ascended the escalator to the galleria.

"They spotted a suspicious character lurking about outside Leather and Lace. Grab your balls, and hold on tight," she covered her mouth with her hand, as if Garry was the one who'd made the mildly funny off-color remark. "Might be him."

***

"Here, let me help," Carmichael patted the remaining dead leaves and twigs off the back of his blazer before they entered the hotel foyer. His appearance had entirely slipped his mind. "You look like a kid who decided to make mud pies after his mother dressed him for church." She said it as if she hadn't noticed him before. "I don't want the concierge to get the impression I'm dating a homeless, street person," she pretended to curl her hair around her earlobe. "False alarm. 'Turned out the creepy guy was the franchise owner. Masterson wants us to take a seat over by the wishing well."

Cyan, magenta, and yellow shadows moved slowly around Knolls as if the mezzanine consisted entirely of poorly registered three-color prints. He bent to stir his finger in the pool of water in a vain attempt to erase Kiersten's reflection from his mind.

How would Parson view the indoor garden? Knolls wondered. Would the former test subject see that the trees were made of wire and papier-mâché? Would he notice that the leaves were synthetic? What about the red and orange birds? Would he see that they weren't really birds, either, and neither were the darting squirrels actually squirrels? Would it register that springs and gears operated their plastic feathers and synthetic fur? Anyone else would recognize Carmichael was undercover. Knolls followed her to a table with two plush armchairs. Would Parson see something vacant, unfamiliar in her demeanor, as if she was a mannequin dressed as a decoy? Or would he be as mesmerized as Garry was by the way the light poured over her long flowing hair and flowery neck scarf, completely sucked into the illusion? The detective allowed himself to sink into the luxurious upholstery.

"Parson's got you spooked," Carmichael sympathized.

"A little."

"What's it about him?"

"Until a coupla days ago I would have said he was nothing but a test subject I recognized from an experiment done back at school. But a lot has happened since. Until a coupla days ago I woulda said I was Major Case Detective Garry Knolls and slid my badge under your nose. I woulda said Kiersten was my undergrad girlfriend. But the events of the past dozen hours or so have cast doubt on a lot I mighta previously said. As your Mr. Masterson is aware, I was meant to find something in Kiersten's apartment that would make it seem as though I never had all the pieces of my past put together, like I was missing some crucial aspects. I'm meant to think I'm only getting them back one at a time, piecemeal, and when they do return none of them are where they're supposed to be, like my file directory was destroyed, and when something like a verifiable memory does reappear to me I have no way of gauging it's significance, or where, in the grand scheme of things, it belongs -- no way of telling whether it happened last month, or when I was a wee tike."

"You're prone to paranoia, aren't you? That's what's in your file."

"A bit."

"So are your playmates, only they've got bigger problems."

"Worse than mine?"

"Ever feel like an actor in a movie that's already ended?"

"Sometimes, sure."

"It's all there, on your recorder, isn't it?"

"Most of it, anyhow," the pictures of Kiersten with Parson still bothered him.

"If, for example, you suffered from some neurological disorder that effected your recollection, what was on the recorder would constitute your entire memory?"

"Where you goin' with this?"

"That's what Interan is trying to figure out. There were anomalies in Kiersten's cognitive test results. Dr. Diller wants to get a closer look at you, too. They're concerned these illnesses you guys are suffering are due to one of Vincent's procedures."

"I've gone through these files countless times," he pulled his handheld portable device out from his hip pocket. "So many, in fact, the order has become blurred to me. It's like I'm constantly trying to reconstruct a story based on false starts, and significant chunks of the narrative are repeatedly getting re-purposed. They can appear in two or three different versions. The more they get reused the longer it takes me to find them, but the line about the actors who don't know the movie they're in is over, that one's familiar enough. It's from a lecture Dr. Vincent gave my second year. How could I forget? It was the psychology class where I got friendly with Kiersten. Among the most dangerous personality traits, the professor said, was the inability to tell where one's self ends and the world begins. A lot of visuals were employed in the class. 'Exhibit A, front and center,' Vincent indicated the first slide, 'the Monday Night Football banner hung over the front counter of every corner liquor store and bar with all the team emblems strung across it'. Among them, he zeroed in on the triangular Phoenix, Arizona Cardinal's flag set in the middle. 'What's the theme of the class?' He constantly asked us rhetorical questions like that. 'Fire in the sky, is it not? And, what is the phoenix?' He liked to come off as tough, attitudinal, confrontational. It was his way of connecting with the younger cadets. 'The phoenix is the mythological bird that rose from the ashes: the unidentified flying saucer; the immortal dragon; the cosmic logos; fire in the sky!' Throughout the lecture, Dr. Vincent pointed out the prevalence of triangles, and other invisible geometric site lines in certain pictures, particularly the reoccurrence of the Star of David in many popular paintings and photographs. The Jewish sign was included among other alchemist, occult symbols, like the twinned ax of the androgen hermaphrodite. The kabbalistic, anti-Christian emblems, he proposed, were most commonly found embedded in the diagrams and art of pathological sociopaths, including but not limited to: serial killers, mass murderers, and revolutionary, leftist political ideologues."

Knolls played the segment for her. It was, he reluctantly conceded, as if he'd memorized it, as if it was a catechism recited nearly word for word.

Unimpressed with the vaguely anti-Semitic bent of the lecture, Carmichael put her finger back up to her ear. Garry could plainly tell she was made of the same immovable material as his CO, wired so tightly one could hear the girders and high-tension cables snap and twang when she moved. "Been a long time since I was back at school. To be perfectly honest, I've spent the last twelve years trying to unlearn everything they taught me," she raised her hand up to indicate for Knolls to keep quiet. "They've spotted another suspicious character in the mall. He's headed our way, moving at quite a clip. We should have visual contact within ten seconds."

Chapter 19

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"I brought you a little present." The girl waved her vial of white powder in front of her boyfriend's nose, and pulled it back when he reached up from the steering wheel to grab it out of her hand. "You promised," she reminded him. "Don't you dare renege!"

While they playfully tussled over the drugs at the stop sign a car rear-ended them. Parson sat perfectly still for a moment, then opened the drivers side door and stood behind it with his weapon concealed under the window. He didn't have time for niceties. The fender bender was costing him valuable seconds. It would be next to impossible for him to relocate Knolls' car in the dense city traffic.

"You hit my car," the girl's boyfriend complained. He didn't dare advance on the driver of the minibus. Parson simply stood there, wordless. "You dented my rear bumper," the young driver stammered. "I wanna see your insurance. You just gonna stand there, or what?" Parson didn't answer. He remained coiled and ready behind the door should he need to act quickly. In his weathered army coat, he fingered the trigger of his gun, and stared through the other young man as if the kid was an annoyance that blocked his view. As if the concrete geography of the city directly behind the driver of the other car was a miraculous, shape-shifting contraption that behaved like an obstinate child, and all that was required for it to swallow up the young man and his girlfriend was Parson's annoyed rebuke.

"Come on," the kid's girlfriend begged. "Let's go. Let's get outta here. That guy's loco. Quit playin'. Come on!"

***

"Director Greer, there's a man on the line. He gave the correct password to the switchboard operator. Says he's a friend of yours."

"What's his name?"

"Parson."

"Patch 'im through. I'm expecting the call."

The director dabbed his wet lips with his kerchief. "What in blazes, Parson?"

"I lost him."

"Why didn't you take your shot at the apartment when you had the chance?"

"Your Good Morning Internet interview was so riveting I couldn't tear myself away. Especially liked the tasty bit about how the FMLY isn't involved. Never realized how photogenic you were. Besides, it was Plan B."

"You're gonna be late for the party."

"Had a little accident. Ran into another car. Knolls has got at least twenty minutes on me. Needed his whereabouts pronto. Didn't wanna call, but didn't have any other reliable direction to turn."

"He's at the Old Town Mall, the hotel mezzanine was the last I heard. Interan has him pretty well covered, so you're gonna have to pick up your tempo. Choose your moment carefully. Don't screw it up, again. I can't stress it enough. Your not gonna get too many more chances before he finds Dr. Vincent."

"The kids in the car I hit..."

"What about 'em?"

"They're in the woods."

"You don't seem to have a very good grasp on the concept of anonymity, Parson."

"They saw me."

"Don't get smart. There's a difference between killin' for a living, and living for killin'. I've told you before, you can't go around carving people up on a whim. Get outta there! Get over to the shopping center. We'll take care of it from here, but no more. You hear. You're acting like a child. I told you before. It's the last time."

***

A scant few mall patrons milled about. To Parson it was as if someone or something else was animating all their bodies, hard at work making them seem real, making them move and shake, go places, do things just like they were intended to. Like there was another entity that filled them up with life, animated them, gave them feelings, desires, wants, needs, warmth, passion, self-consciousness, everything a body was supposed to have. But who or whatever it was did a poor job.

All these bodies that ate together, slept together. If they didn't love and hate, skip rope, dance, and play like other folks did, the magic was broken. They needed to try and understand each other, at least as best they could. They needed to know when to be sociable, and when to mind their own business. Parson had seen what it looked like when there was no higher power to choreograph the scene -- a big writhing pile of nothing but arms and legs and ugly meaningless moans, like a bomb went off in a Cineplex.

You couldn't lay the fleshy base on thick with the upscale shoppers like you could with tramps, vagrants, junkies and the like. In exurbia someone would notice a street whore or a drug addict with too much face pancake. If the puppet master failed to make one of them lift his or her foot to clear an obstacle, or forgot to have one of them pick up flowers on Valentines, everyone else noticed.

Parson wanted to believe the deep emotional issues and fears the people around him suffered made them more endearing. He wanted to think of it as "The Lyle Luvett Effect": you believe so strongly in the mythology of The Grand Old Opry, for instance, you're so desperate for a place at the table among the hillbilly Olympians, you copy everything they did with such fervent diligence, you hone the style to a fine edge, and by some mystical alchemy something funny and totally unexpected happens that feels fresh.

Only, there wasn't anything original about these shoppers who went about marionette-like, their faces seemingly carved from wood and thickly slathered with plaster, like roughly hewn busts, their features painted with high-gloss latex, as if by a spastic child, faces like rubber masks that ended at their collarbones.

There was an ad on TV Parson liked: "Figure out what you CAN'T do. And DON'T do it!" It was advice he wished the demented master puppeteer had received. Whatever the entity was, Parson concluded from looking at the other shoppers, whether a massive squid-like brain, or a luminous cloud with colored lights twinkling inside, he or she must be suffering a massive brain hemorrhage.


***

The fatigue coat was swapped for a driving jacket. Parson had shaved on-route in the minibus, and had on thick eyewear that gave him an older and more distinguished air. He stepped up to the counter of the bookstore to buy a pair of sporty earphones for his tablet.

"Peanuts?" a big-haired, middle-aged woman behind the register indicated a row of cellophane packets on the counter.

"You got some side-action goin'?"

"You call this side-action? The employee who sells the most in a month gets a twenty-five dollar gift certificate, and coupons for a year," she rang him up and bagged his purchase. "You sure you don't want any. I'm gonna win."

***

If Parson came from some moon-like rock where the sun was blotted out of the sky by a permanent midnight of pollution and where humanoids fought ultra-violent giant robot machines in the ruins of their fallen cities for so long they had become as cold and mechanical as their enemies, Knolls came from another planet altogether on the other side of the galaxy where distant signals from Earth (fragments of pop songs, 70s TV, Bollywood musicals, and pharmaceutical advertising jingles) were picked up by antenna dishes, and the alien people misunderstood the randomly transmitted space waste from our planet as a coherent effort to establish intelligent communication. It was like the kid had been taught everything his scientists could glean about our world from the murmurs of those echo-like signals, and was sent by his alien race as a special emissary.

Was Knolls Parson's opposite number? Were their distant worlds at war with each other? Had he been sent to this planet to stop Garry from achieving his goal? He found a bench in a quiet corner of the indoor garden where he had a decent view of the detective. The woman with him was undoubtedly an Interan security agent. He scanned the room for the rest of the players in the performance, invigorated by the sophistication of the entertainment the troop had chosen for him. It reminded Parson of one of his favorite martial arts movies. The film's swordplay was so exquisitely timed, one would have thought, by the way the opposing yakuza gangs completely mirrored each other's movements, they were dysfunctional lovers locked in a lethal tango.

***

Music assailed Parson's earphones when he answered the incoming call from the undisclosed, blocked number. It was as if he was listening to a song in which another one blossomed, and yet another sprang up inside that one, but the lyrics were the same throughout, repeated over and over again, ad infinitum. Except, instead of a nonsensical chorus like "a broken heart is blind", or "love is blindness" it was a stream of numbers that assailed his ear. During the countdown he braced himself for some mishap, but before the voice on the other end reached zero, the sequence reversed upwards, as if his handler was in the midst of an interminable snap count.

"Hike the ball, already," Parson wished.

"Abort plan B. Repeat: abort Plan B. Revert to Plan A."


Chapter 20

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"We haven't been totally up-front with you, Knolls," Carmichael took Garry by the elbow. "The meeting with Kiersten will happen as scheduled. We simply wanted to make certain Parson hadn't followed you. If you'll come with me we have her in a van parked in the ally behind the hotel. It would be best if you didn't betray any emotion. The walls have eyes. Due to Kiersten's condition, Dr. Diller decided it was necessary to get her over to Pleasant View as quickly as possible. We realized you might want to accompany her. When you see her, try not to show your feelings. She's lost a lot of weight since you last saw her. The clothes we buy her are from the children's section, but she still has to pin them back. Her eyebrows fell out some time back. She has to pencil them in. She's not wearing her black wig like she usually does..."

"When can I see her?"

"Patience, detective. Remember what I said. I'm taking you directly to her. She's fragile. Please try and remain calm."

***

Since Knolls last saw Kiersten, her hair had turned to straw, her eyes were hot and wet, and her skin pink and flushed, like someone who burned up from within with a chemical, pharmaceutical intensity. He noticed a wedge shaped scar on her wrist, and an unfamiliar shaky uncertainty to her gait.

He wished to embrace her, to take her away from all this, bring her home with him, to care for her, and nurse her back to health. He wanted to restore her to her former glory, to the beatific semblance of a fallen angel nailed to a liquor cabinet, to the shiny bust of the harlot Mary lovingly placed atop a punk geezer's altar to rock stardom. He wanted to restore her to his rock 'n' roll ideal, his Lolita with heart-shaped sunglasses.

They stiffly embraced each other. Both seemingly at a loss for words, perhaps a bit embarrassed to reveal anything all that personal in front of the Interan security detail. Only after they were alone on the bus did she pull him closer.

"Thank you for coming," she sniffled.

Kiersten seemed not to hear his mumbled response, or if she did, she didn't much care for his false modesty. She pressed him to her side more tightly, as if to indicate it was Okay for him to reciprocate in kind. Otherwise, they hardly exchanged a single word as they looked each other over.

Trouble wasn't unique to Kiersten. Most people had to deal with hard times. Knolls leaned his head back, and took in the sharp edges of the exposed metal interior of the bay of the utility truck. What made Kiersten unique, was that her problems were rarely her own. Usually, the people closest to her were the first ones sucked into her tangled web of deceit. If she was having trouble squirming her way out of this one, he could bet she had somehow conscribed him as an unwilling participant, already decided his role, measured him for his coffin. Around her, one had no time to deal with one's own situation. When you were involved with her, Kiersten's dilemma was instantly dropped in your lap. It didn't matter that Parson had him in the crosshairs of a high caliber assault rifle, or that the major case squad was trying to bounce him, drum him out of the force. His most pressing concern was how Kiersten had involved him in her scrape. Her "thank you" was not for his presence beside her in the bus. It was a "thank you in advance, Garry, for the sacrifice you are about to make for me".

***

The ride was interminable. He and Kiersten were supposedly finally on their way to Pleasant View to reunite with Dr. Vincent. A happy occasion, one would have imagined, but they remained hushed, blankly peeking through the wire-meshed, tinted windows of the minibus at the farms and orchards along the rural route, nervous and uncomfortable, as if they were a couple of convicts on a prison transport, transferred from one detention center to another.

At an intersection the van pulled to a halt. With all the whirly-birds it was as if a carnival had set up shop where the two roads met. At the front a number of unmarked sedans blocking their path. The driver opened the small wire divider that separated the cab from the back of the truck and peered in at his passengers.

"Nothin' to worry about. Our escort has arrived. We were expecting them to join us about ten miles back."

Kiersten ground her roach out under the heel of her boot, made her way forward to the cab with an inner strength Knolls hadn't believed her capable of, and lowered her shoulders into the narrow opening in the metal divider like she was poised to scratch the man's eyes out, but not until after she turned him into a toadstool. The porcine wheelman wasn't cast as a hero -- that was for sure.

Not more than a fleeting second could have passed, no more time than it took for Garry to see the wingman get out of the bus and greet the forward officer at the roadblock, to watch one of the other agents step out of a car parked in the middle of the road, circle round to the back of the bus, and pull out a machine gun, before the loud report of a Magnum .457 assailed his ears. When he wheeled around he saw the windshield of the bus cracked, and spattered with blood. Kiersten had already replaced her pistol in her shoulder bag. She muttered a foreign curse at the driver. "Maricón!" Kiersten repeated, grabbed his keys, and callously threw a handful of napkins she pulled from her purse at his slumped body.

"What the hell did you do that for?" Garry was dumbfounded.

She licked the blood from her lips, and wiped the rest off her face with her coat sleeve.

"Look, Garry, I'm familiar with these roads. The Interan driver wasn't taking us to Pleasant View like he said. He was takin' us back to the Tetragon. These guys in the unmarked cars aren't with Masterson's corporate goons. I don't care what happens. I'm not going back there. These guys are federal agents. They're here to help. Please don't make a stink. It's our only way out. Suck it up. Get your shit together. We need to go with them," she unlocked the backdoor of the van. "It's the only way we're gonna make it to Dr. Vincent in one piece. That's why you're here, isn't it? To find your old professor."


Chapter 21

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After Knolls and Kiersten arrived at the safe house in the nondescript concrete building, they were treated to an abbreviated, informal walkthrough of the premises. Once upon a time it had been a funeral home. Most of the furnishings were left over from mortuary days. There were a number of smaller chambers set off from the once ornate foyer. Not so long before, their guide, Lieutenant Langford, informed them, there were a waiting area, a conference room, and a suite of adjoining offices that came off the receiving area. Down the end of the carpeted lobby there was a chapel. It had clearly seen better days. Funeral services were previously held there. There was a warehouse in back, formerly a coffin showroom.

In an attempt to account for the garish color scheme throughout, Langford made a vague reference to some crazy artist-types that used the place as an underground swinger club before the city, in a desperate gambit to clean up the neighborhood during the last failed revitalization effort, permanently shuttered the establishment. In its heyday the floor of the casket display room was covered with sleeping mats. Patrons referred to it, the federal agent told them, as the "mattress room". A "writhing mound of fornicating bodies" was how a vice detective described it to a reporter during the midnight raid.

The original embalming workshop was next to the crematorium. Langford unlocked the door so they could take a look inside. When Knolls entered he half expected to see a few moribund remnants of the original tools and implements. He figured there would be cobwebs in every corner, draped like a dead lady's gossamer veil over all the cornices and fixtures of the campy Victorian décor. He assumed the place would be covered with a grimy film of dust swathed over every surface, like he was among the first explorers to walk into the freshly cracked vault of some crackpot, occult mystic, ritual chamber.

"Kinda morbid, huh?" Langford showed them the rest of the place. "The kitchen is downstairs, and the bathroom is at the end of the hall. A neighborhood store is down the block by the boarded up, shuttered performing arts center. Locals call it 'CHUD Town', for cannibalistic-humanoid-underground-dwellers."

A couple younger members of the security detail nodded. They both affected the same stooped posture -- their shoulders oddly thrust forward, their heads slung low, as if they were braced against an impending blow aimed at their backside from some merciless authority figure or other that could without warning, at any moment, materialize from out of nowhere to scold them. "CHUD Town," they concurred.

***

***

"This isn't an official inquiry," Robeson Greer sat across from Knolls. "As a precaution we need to hold you both here for several hours before we can safely move you to Pleasant View. Routine procedure."

"I caught you on Good Morning Internet. Quite riveting. You should try fiction."

"The facts speak for themselves."

"I'm supposed to buy Sam Spikone's behind all this?"

"You're a detective. You have to respect the preponderance of evidence despite what you personally wish to be true."

"Simply because the facts present a much more complicated picture than any of us likes doesn't mean we should ignore them. I can't help it if you weren't counting on anyone surfacing with a contradictory account to the official one you presented. I went to school with Parson. I admit I haven't put all the pieces together, but what mystifies me is why you're so intent to protect him?"

"You've been showing people pictures of a plumber. We've examined every square inch of the footage in question against our database, run it through facial recognition, digital forensics, and everything else at our disposal. My department isn't accustomed to the pursuit of nonexistent leads any more than your squad. Despite your derision of our rigor, we're not phantom hunters."

"I found the match easily enough."

"To a nameless face of a nonexistent person. I don't have to tell you according to alumni records no one fitting the description of Parson ever attended the academy. Are you saying the Metropolitan Police possess information my agency doesn't?"

"It's spit or swallow. There's no other option with you, is there?"

"This isn't a courtesy call, Knolls. If you've got pertinent information that could exonerate Sam Spikone, don't beat round the bush. Let's have at it -- I'm all ears. Give me something with tread. Quite frankly I'd never heard of any Parson character 'til you mentioned his name."

"So you can bury me with it. I'm more worried about the FMLY than I am about your black detention centers."

"The Family? Where on Earth did that come from?"

"Keeps popping up."

"The FMLY doesn't have anything to do with this, any more than Parson does. You're spinnin' your wheels."

"Would love to take your word."

"It's not mine. It's the conclusion of three independent government agencies. You don't seem to have clue number one what you've so blindly walked into. You're a young detective lookin' to make a name for yourself, desperate for a little prime-time exposure after a long dry spell, but a great deal more care is required when proffering such counter-intuitive accusations. Your CO and I go back to military service. We cut our teeth together. He's asked me to keep an eye on you, as a personal favor. But, somehow, regardless of everyone's wisdom, you've managed to confuse flailing around in the dark with saving the planet. Don't get me wrong. We're gonna get you to Pleasant View in one piece, and on time. It's the least I can do for an old army pal, but that's where I get off. He saved my skin more than once while we were stationed together at Devil's Gate. You better hope Kiersten's got your best interest in mind. 'Cause you're truly on your own afterwards..."

***

***

Part of him wished the figure in the black helmet and chemical warfare-type mask that entered his room had come to announce that the coast was clear and they had got the go-ahead to leave for Pleasant View. The last thing he expected was the dark figure to remove its Mylar, rubber and glass headgear, and shake its hair free. Beneath her coat, Kiersten had on a hip hugging, shiny black vinyl commando-style jumpsuit.

"Where did you get that outfit?"

"I borrowed some gear from one of the sentries. The jumpsuit's from a novelty costume shop."

Throughout the striptease, Kiersten could tell her work was cut out for her. Every once in a while Garry would catch himself about to nod off, and push himself back up against the headboard to signal his undiminished enthusiasm, but it was pretty obvious to her that he could barely keep his eyes open.

There was something uncomfortably specific about his recollection of their love affair. No account could be so limited in scope. If Kiersten was his longtime girlfriend, they must have done more things together, gone more places, had more fun, talked for hours, studied, the kind of stuff couples do together. They must have had a favorite song. But it was all a big blank, as if the whole thing was scripted rather than lived. Knolls searched his murky mind for some trace, some marker or clue, lost or misplaced among his synapses, that once found, would pull the details from the clammy, black nothingness of oblivion into which the rest of their relationship had vanished, but there was nothing -- no courtship, no first fight, no other memories of his girlfriend. Save for the digital records of what happened afterwards -- the hours of surveillance, the evidence of adultery, etc., not anything except the strangest feeling that maybe he wasn't himself anymore, like maybe he was someone else, like maybe someone else was at the helm, and he could take no more credit for the things he did, or didn't do than a spirit medium can take for the expressed sentiments they channel from the dead. It was like he was in a game, but something had gone wrong. He remembered thinking it was like he was in some convoluted fantasy environment in which every day people were, without warning, replaced by homicidal, maniac, full-body scans, or robots that went on senseless mass murder sprees, but something was screwed up with the technology, it had broken down, or worse still, the software, or the firmware was permanently singed. For one reason or another, at any rate -- he admittedly hadn't pieced it all together -- what seemed obvious to him at the time was that the computers had left off before they were finished, and everyone he knew and loved was stuck in a stalemate of events, lost in a never-ending cycle of mindless replication from which there was no escape, unless he did something to try and break the deadlock."

***

"I found pictures of you with Parson."

"Those were private."

"Did you date him ... I mean while we were still together? Your mom called once. Were you with him?"

"I was in love with you."

"I'll take that as a 'yes'."

"I dunno, Garry. Maybe I was looking for somethin' you weren't givin' me. There were times I was certain you hated me. You frightened me. I ran into the arms of a lot of guys. For a while, it didn't take much, a bouquet of flowers, a handwritten card. You were so cold to me after you left for the Metropolitan Police, distant. I guess I turned to anyone around for a little warmth. I was a young girl, exploring myself for the first time. I'd never felt anything like I did with you. Maybe it confused me about myself. Dr. Diller said it was perfectly normal for a girl my age."

"Him too?"

"A little more understanding from you could have helped. Diller says I have abandonment issues. With you so emotionally removed, I felt stranded and cut off."

"How come you never told me?"

"But I did, Garry. I told you everything. You must have left your recorder off."

***

"Get a load of this place," she was eager to steer the conversation in a different direction. Synthetic magenta curtains hung over aquamarine wallpaper. There was an acid, lime-green vinyl sectional couch. The bed sheets were violet. It looked like a struck set from a low budget porn movie. "Someone sure went to town. You know that Agent Tyler kid, the one with the cauliflower ear?"

"You like Tyler, don't you?"

"He's sharp. He said when he was a kid they used the place to make blue movies. He grew up around here, a few blocks away, on the other side of the tracks. His buddies used to hang out by the schoolyard and get stoned in the dugout. He told me one time he came here with an under-aged girl that lived across from the cornfield. The place was lit up inside like a Christmas tree. He said there was a pool filled with cheap Champagne where girls swam naked, a buffet with a phallic ice sculpture. He and the neighborhood slut walked in on the crew while they taped in the chapel -- some kind of satanic sex orgy by the way he described it. There were dancers with their faces covered in coal, he said, that twirled each other around in torn dresses and poured fake pig's blood over each other. In the 'mattress room' there were a number of other ladies getting ready for another shot in sexy spandex ski outfits with easy access zippers and feather boas. There was falling ash from a fire down the street, Agent Tyler said, but the way the garden was lit up it made the flakes look like snow. He took the girl to the embalming studio out back. It was dark inside, but at least they were away from the film people. The thing was he hadn't realized that his friends followed him. He said he had most of the girl's clothes off, she'd raised herself up, and he was about to slide her underwear down her thighs, when she pulled her pink sweatshirt with the flocked bunny print up to her chin, and let loose a blood curdling scream. One of his buddies came out of the shadows dressed like a CHUD."

Kiersten pushed Knolls' arm away.

"Why do you always put your hands between my thighs?"

"Because when you open your legs it means you wanna screw, and when you ask me why I always put my hands between your thighs it means you don't."

"Really, Garry," she sat up and crossed her legs. "Aren't we past that? You can be so sweet," she said curtly, "but sometimes it's like some ogre takes physical possession of you, and turns you into a beast."

***

"Dr. Vincent said I've got a talent for empathy," Garry rolled over. "I tend to take on the traits of the people around me. I sorta become them."

"What about me? Did you become me?"

"For a while."

"And, what? That's supposed make me out as some kind of trigger-happy, psycho, two-timing whore? Be nice! You called me, remember. It may very well be our only night together before we get to Pleasant View. I wanted it to be special. Why go and spoil it? Given the circumstances, a little less bitterness and cynicism would be a start. It's the least you can do." Kiersten could plainly see Knolls was having a hard time staying awake. "Get wise. There's gonna be live ammo flying around here if Parson shows up with his army of make-believe robots trailing behind him like so many tin-can body parts. You're my protection, my ace in the hole, my safe guarantee out. When the roof caves in, I don't want to have to look over my shoulder to make sure you got me covered. I'm counting on you to get me out of this rattrap. Damn it Garry," she ran her hand under the elastic waistband of his briefs to get his attention back, "I'm serious. You're not listening."

"Greer grilled me. He wants me to back off my claim Parson's in any way involved. He's up to his eyeballs in shit. I think Parson's workin' for his agency. Don't know how the FMLY fits in, but the way he keeps insistin' they've got nothing to do with it, makes me think he's runnin' interference for them as well. Diller said Vincent's government contract involved protest movement destabilization."

***

"The shit that must have gone down in this place," Kiersten pressed her cheek against his lower abdomen. Garry always did have his recorder confused for his penis. "Agent Tyler described the scene akin to a gay bath, but multi-sexual. In the beginning he said there were as many women as men, no questions asked, a bunch of consenting adults out for a little forbidden fun. Club members paid annual dues. About as much as the going rate for low-grade high-speed. Agent Tyler said he lost his cherry in one of these rooms. His dad brought him for his birthday. It was a couple of years after that he came with the under-aged girl. For a dollar she used to show the boys her private parts in an abandoned field they all played in. Tyler said she made out like a bandit. Can you imagine what this place must have been like before then, before it got all sleazy like the boardwalk?" She looked up at Garry. It was hopeless. He'd dozed off. "Garry?" she curled his chest hair around her finger.


Chapter 22

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"Our agents didn't have anything to do with it. Kiersten pulled the trigger. It wasn't my call. Don't get huffy with me. The play change came into the helmet from the booth. We didn't have time to huddle. It was your people. Interan's prerogative," Greer put down the phone. He was in the mobile command center with Senator Warren.

"That was Masterson," he informed the representative. "Apparently he's joined the steam team like everyone else. Got his panties all bunched up about the ambush, the dead driver."

"Sorry to drag your department into it, Greer, but the suits-and-ties are getting antsy. People's reputations are on the line. None of it can come back to Dr. Vincent. We need to wipe the slate clean. That means all the skeletons. Not only some of them. I'm not trying to interfere. You do what you do very well. My office has no complaints, but we gotta take care of Knolls before he metastasizes, goes septic."

"Who's gonna take anything he has to say seriously. He could stand on a roof and shout 'foul play' 'til he's hoarse. The local authorities would only put a canvas hood over his head and send him back to Interan."

"All we need is for one person with a microphone to give him time of day. I don't care if he's certifiable. You don't appreciate how quickly a story like that can spread, like an accelerant fire up a curtain. We end up looking impotent. It's not like we're blessed with a surfeit of credibility. One nut, that's all it takes, and nobody believes a word we say. We're dragged into hearings, made to testify under oath."

"How much damage can he do?"

"More than you would care to find out."

"What do you want from me, to let Parson walk in there and kill Knolls?"

"It lacks some artifice, but basically."

"What if he kills Kiersten, too?"

"She's expendable."

"According to who? Dr. Vincent doesn't want to see anything bad happen to her, 'not a hair on her head harmed'. Those were his exact words."

"How were we supposed to be aware he's been experimenting all along, amassing a secret army of test subjects? If the work wasn't so vital, I'd include him with the others, and put a target on his forehead."

"Knolls is one thing, no one but the doctor and his parents gives two-shits about him, but if we're supposed to expand the circle, none of us has the most basic knowledge of the science. We couldn't begin to try and account for how many of them are out there, all his false starts that have accumulated over the years."

"Good thing, then, we only have the one to worry about."

"I'm in touch with Parson."

"Can you have him in and out of here in a flash, a surgical strike?"

"Damn it Warren, 'we' doesn't equal 'me'. I can't simply send my units away."

"Why not?"

"For the same reason you can't call an emergency congressional quorum just 'cause your hemorrhoids are acting up. I've got channels to go through."

"Look on the bright side. Parson doesn't exist."

Greer wasn't amused. "What do I say?" he reached for his smart phone.

"Tell the officer in charge to clear his units out. Make up an excuse. Tell him Parson's taken Kiersten hostage, or something. They should form a perimeter a block away and regroup there until they receive further notice. How hard can it be?"

"It's not procedure. My units will sense something's up."

"Give me a break."

"Despite your low opinion of me, senator, I take what I do seriously."

"Well, then, let's get the show on the road, time's-a-waistin'. If you want another perspective, it's either Knolls or Parson. One of them hasta go. As long as you keep in mind who you're on the hook to, Greer, we're gonna try and protect your damn asset from the hellatious injury it's otherwise got comin'. Unless, of course, you wanna go back out there in front of the media circus and tell them that you were wrong all along, your department consists of a bunch of jarhead, Cro-Magnon imbeciles. Sam Spikone was nothing but a scapegoat fabricated to take the heat off the real assassin, an agent of yours code-named Parson is the real killer."

"You don't have the authority?"

"I'm a U.S. senator. I don't wanna hear about your principals, how it goes against everything you stand for. Save it for the Internet. Consider it a testimony of your loyalty to a beleaguered cause. Get your men outta there ASAP. After Parson's inside, I'll leave it up to you what to do. If you wanna have your troops open fire on the safe-house to cover your tracks, that's up to you. Personally, I wouldn't mind having this business once and for all entirely behind me. You might wanna turn it over in your head. Could constitute a clean start for all of us, a crude form of virginal rebirth for a coupla old farts, aye. I don't give a fuck who walks outta there alive, could be Parson, could be Knolls. All I'm sayin' is it can't be both. I don't care which. One of 'em has lived well past their 'sell-by' date."

"White doves don't simply materialize out of brightly colored handkerchiefs. You don't seem to appreciate our circumstances. Your people hear the wind whistle through the broken glass of these buildings, and they conclude that the place is empty, nothing, not even a mouse lives inside -- the area is entirely abandoned. Well, you're wrong. This quadrant isn't called CHUD Town for nothing. The people who live here may not come out to water their perfectly manicured green lawns at sundown the way they do where you're from. They don't have automatic sprinklers, or fancy, star spangled banners that flap majestically in the breeze above their colonial-style porches. None of that means anything to them. You're puttin' my units at a significant risk by stickin' them out there after sundown."

"I'll call in an extra drone fighter. There's an air force base not far from here. It's gotta look good for the media core, though. I need to tell 'em it's a serious target, a nest of insurgents, or something equally substantial. We'll raise the alert. Maybe it's time to activate the FMLY after all? Can you handle your end on such short notice?"

***

***

"I'm making you commander, Lieutenant Langford." The agents were engaged in a friendly game of poker in tank tops and shoulder holsters at the kitchen table of the safe house. Greer pulled him aside to go over the strategy.

"What happened to protective custody?"

"Nobody tells me anything 'til after the fact, Langford. The conscious mind is always second-guessing itself. It is incapable of allowing itself to entirely accept that logical things can happen in unpredictable ways. As a rule, it seems we humans are poor risk assessors, lousy managers when it comes to predicting the problems that confront us outside the present, whether near or far. In the grand scheme of things, we accept that there is a fifty-fifty chance a tossed coin will fall heads or tails. Although it shouldn't, the idea that a coin could fall heads ten or twelve times in a row strikes us as improbable, unlikely. Nowadays computers are regularly used to calculate probability. Forensic accountants have software to detect fraud. There are numerous commercial uses..." the intelligence director went silent.

"You were saying, sir -- chance, probability?"

"Kiersten and Knolls will try to run, Langford. There's your 'probability'. Parson'll track 'em. You'll stay behind him. We'll coordinate with the locals to make sure no one gets through the perimeter. Come what may try and keep it contained here in CHUD Town. Politicians are involved. Enough 'chance' for ya, son?"

***

***

A Motorola cracked: "We caught a coupla street urchins snooping around the periphery."

Langford unfastened his mouthpiece from his chest clip: "How long have they been out there?"

"Don't know, Lieutenant. They were caught dumpster diving behind the market."

"Did they see or hear anything?"

"Unknown."

"What's your take?"

"Two hungry kids."

Lieutenant Langford paused. Given the circumstances, it wasn't an easy decision: "Scare the living crap out of 'em, and cut them loose. That's correct, agent, you heard me right. Frighten the living bejesus out of 'em and send 'em along." He started to replace the mouthpiece, but decided different.

Everyone was so tense a kid's firecracker would have started everyone shooting. None of his units liked the neighborhood. It was difficult, even for hardened, ex-soldiers to see how some people had to live.

"Indian dream," Langford signaled his sharpshooter on the roof of Tower 1 through the walkie-talkie.

His rifleman anxiously fingered the trigger. "Tiger moon."

"Eyeballs," the lieutenant said into his Motorola.

"Movement, Tower 3..."

"Parson?"

"Wild dogs."


Chapter 23

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The sky out front of the safe house was angrily scribbled through with crisscrossing white bands of tracer bullet fire. Supposedly a spotter from one of the other agencies had sighted a sniper. The frenzied white scrawl of ammo in the first hours of the morning had a wonderfully abstract formal quality.

"Garry, wake up."

"Where is everyone?"

"Gone. It's Armageddon out there. You'd think it was New Years Eve south of the border."

A black and white took a hard turn onto the street, sirens blaring, and rammed into the pileup of an undercover cruisers and a police van. The initial crunch of glass and steel was followed seconds afterward by an explosion. The officer behind the wheel of the squad car was rendered totally unconscious by the unexpected collision, his forehead badly cut by glass shards from the windshield. His partner, however, was only slightly dazed. The deputy ducked the raging fire, his jacket held over his head as a heat shield, took cover behind the wreck of the cruiser, popped the trunk, and pulled out a long barreled gun and a box of shells he promptly emptied, for easy access, onto the pavement at his knees.

"We gotta go. Parson's somewhere out there, Interan wants us back, the Feds are runnin' their own game, and local law enforcement is takin' it in the front and the back."

Three more unmarked cruisers were already engaged in the mêlée. No one was sure who was shooting at them, or who they were shooting at. Knolls pushed Kiersten's head down behind a pockmarked car in the driveway of the defunct funeral home. Bullets zipped past them and shattered the fluted concrete pillars that adorned the loading dock as if they were made of glass. Shapes wavered in the heat. His throat burned, the smoke was nearly blinding, the air thick with soot, but Knolls kept close to the ground.

"Further on it's a little less industrial," Kiersten squinted over his shoulders. There is an old blue collar, workin' class neighborhood from when folks still had jobs round here. Remember how Agent Tyler told me he grew up in the neighborhood. It's not far. Down there," she pointed through the flames. "On the other side of the tracks. He said if one sticks to the old light rail, it's like a little shortcut only the locals know about that winds around and then surfaces near the meat processing plant. Tyler said everyone had to tie outlaw bandanas over their mouths and noses when they went out in the summer on account of how the air stank so bad."

Well after the two of them escaped from the safe house, they were careful to keep close to the shadows, cutting through yards, sticking to smaller side streets that ran behind houses. They pretended the tall streetlights were forgotten oracles that waited patiently throughout the eons for someone to come along and ask them to reveal the secrets of the universe. The eternal, orphic glow of the lamps were like warning signs. Knolls and Kiersten made believe they were the only two people in the entire world who knew the danger of the bulbs' illuminations, knowledge so intense that should the light fall on any part of them, they would not survive it.

Sheltered in the underground pedestrian crossing that led to the elementary school, Kiersten recommended they pause to do a line of crystal to settle their nerves, but an unexpected noise on street level sent them scurrying for cover in the direction of the baseball diamond infield dugout.


Chapter 24

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The front door of the saltbox house was left ajar. "Princess?" The elderly father of the Down syndrome woman put his bag and keys down on the cabinet in the hallway, and quickly inventoried the sparsely furnished cottage for any signs of foul play. He took it as a bad omen that his daughter didn't answer. The fact the door was wide open when he came in didn't do anything to set his mind at ease, either. For years, he had worried about this one scenario. Had she finally had enough, and run away? The possibility she would some day do something so senseless had so often perturbed his mind he sometimes fantasized about chaining her to the basement wall with the medieval-type arm manacles he had picked up at a swap meet back when he was in a particularly bleak mood ... at his wit's end as to how best to care for the child-woman on only his small retirement pension. Regardless of the many times he had wished his daughter away however, he was her father. No matter how much consternation she caused him -- especially with regard to the unwanted attention of the young boys in the neighborhood -- she was his special little girl, his little angel.

He picked up the receiver and thought about whom he might dial. Where would she go? Would she go to his sister's place? The two had a special relationship, but it didn't strike him as the most likely destination. His sister lived clear on the other side of town. More likely, his daughter aimlessly wandered around out in the dark streets somewhere, cold, sad, and hopelessly lost. But which way would she have turned? Any direction was as good as another. Her choice could as easily have been rational as not. The neighborhood market at the end of the block seemed like a good place to start. She sometimes went there alone when she needed to pick up some personal items.

He cradled the receiver back on its saddle. He needed to get out there and find her. Once before, his daughter had fallen asleep in her favorite dress, purse, and shoes on the bench at the corner bus stop, entirely oblivious to the fact that budget cuts had long since resulted in the discontinuation of the residential mass transit route. He poured out a couple of finger's worth from a bottle he had saved for such an occasion, and knocked the full contents of his whiskey glass back with a single swallow. Maybe that was where she was now -- only a couple of blocks away, diligently awaiting a city bus that never came?

***

"You gotta help us!" Knolls desperately pounded on the passenger side door of the elderly man's economy sedan. He'd barely stopped in time to avoid hitting Kiersten and the detective after they ran out into the middle of the street. "We gotta get out of here!" Garry was beside himself with fear. "There are killers in the school playground ... masked killers! They're crazy. You gotta let us in!" he banged his palms against the roll-up window harder. "Me and my friend only barely got out of the ball park alive. They thought they had us corralled in the right field dugout, but we got away. Please... You gotta believe me. There are four of them with night vision automatic weapons, and they know how to use them. They're not far behind..."

***

A gun blast stove in the rear window of the car with a thunderous impact. The elderly man leaned into the horn of the steering wheel, dispatched instantly by the deadly round. Without a word, Kiersten and Knolls got on their knees.

Flashlight beams moved manically from one to the other as if the masked men weren't sure which of the two they were most adamant to detain. The wind picked up. Kiersten crossed her arms over her shuddering body to try, as best she could, to stave off the cold. A blinding shaft of light fell on Garry's face, and his head was roughly gripped and sharply twisted to the side so that another stranger who stood back from the rest could see him better. "Him!" the voice harshly indicated. "Bring him over here."

A person or persons (Garry could not tell how many of them there were) pulled him from the pavement by his hair and jacket collar, and pushed him down hard on the bramble and fallen twigs at the feet of the other man. He had no way of recognizing the gunmen. They wore black, nylon stocking masks over their faces to distort their features.

"It's your show," Kiersten withdrew the .457 from her shoulder bag. She took advantage of the fact she was left alone and unguarded while her captors dealt with Garry to level her pistol at them. Another gun she'd hidden in her boot was in hand and ready for the detective as soon as he spit out the dirt from his mouth and got back to his feet.

The two of them didn't exactly have the upper hand, outnumbered as they were by at least one gun, but she seemed determined to play out the odds, to see what fate might have in store for them. "Only one of you can walk out of here alive," she offered. "Your friends won't be so lucky."

The gamble was that more than likely whatever kind of survival mechanism the three gunmen possessed would kick in, and each would rather try and save himself than take a bullet for someone else. One of them might make a grab for her, but Kiersten doubted it -- too risky. One false move and all hell would break loose. More than likely, they would opt, for their part, to try and deescalate the situation, stall for time, gain more favorable terms.

Somehow, given the dire circumstances, Garry assumed Kiersten might betray a little more emotion, after all there were three automatic rifles pointed at their heads -- but she didn't flinch. It was as if she had seen it coming all along, knew exactly what was going to happen next, like she had a crystal ball inside her head --, like what followed was preordained, foretold, and there was nothing left for her to do other than go through the motions, play the scenario all the way out.

Even Knolls had to marvel at his Ex's gall. He rolled his eyes and threw his gun to the ground. The weapon skittered across the pavement. The clatter was all the distraction Kiersten needed. It was as if they had practiced the maneuver beforehand with just such an opportunity in mind. She had enough time to squeeze off at least two rounds, probably three, before the others had a chance to react. Only two yards at the most separated her from the man across from her. The shot would easily hit its mark. The man would go down. The others would scramble. Neither of the two remaining masked men would get off a good shot, not with such bulky assault rifles at such close quarters. But that's not what happened. Instead, Parson stepped out into the light with his thick bottle-rim glasses on, and ordered the men to stand down.

"How did you find us so quickly?" Kiersten kept her gun on him despite the fact he didn't have a weapon.

"Tracking device."

"Takes the fun out of it, doesn't it?"

"Margins are so slim in our business. Anything for an edge."

***

Parson ordered his men to pull the dead elderly gentleman from inside the van and prop him against a tree. In the driver's side mirror the flickering tongues of flame along the horizon of the night sky were like the raised points of a golden crown. Parson could already see the images from the shootout in front the funeral home plastered all over the web, the bodies of the masked gunmen found inside placed their after the fact, identified according to Robeson Greer as members of the FMLY, a cult-like organization dead-set on the violent overthrow of the Federal Government.

Even though the arrow had long since turned green, he waited for a Down syndrome woman to cross the street. When she didn't respond, he honked, but the woman-child seemed confused, as if she acknowledged her ride had arrived, but didn't recognize the driver of the car or the other passengers.

"Where to?" Kiersten asked. She and Knolls sat in the backseat between two of the other men. Parson was behind the wheel. Another man sat next to him in the front passenger seat.

"Pleasant View."

"What will Greer do if he gets there first?"

"Nothing smart."

"The road forks ahead. Stay left," Kiersten easily took charge. "Keep going. There's an on-ramp a ways ahead. Get on the interstate, southbound. Wait a second. Let me double check," she pulled her smart device out of her shoulder bag, and flipped it over. "No, that's wrong, I had the phone upside down. Veer right after the next cross street, not left," she corrected herself.

"Ready Parson?" she sparked up a joint. "The curve is up ahead," she exhaled. "Let's see what this bad baby can do on the potholes of a skid row straightaway."

***

"You've been there?" he floored the pedal. "To Pleasant View, I mean?"

"Several months ago I suffered a rapid degeneration, kinda like now -- muscles, nerves, all failing at the same time. Started in my hand."

"Me too," Parson showed her.

"You've gotta get that looked at as soon as we arrive at the clinic. Same for Garry. Both of you. I went in for a checkup, got a treatment, and he sent me on my way. I was fine for a couple of weeks, then the radical weight loss, hair loss, you name it. It started in again. It was like my body was staging an open rebellion. Dr. Vincent made a peculiar analogy along those lines. 'A lot of various forces have to conspire, even if by chance,' he said, 'to cause the kind of internal tumult you are experiencing. After your trauma your mind became your enemy. It's more like your libido went on a homicidal crime spree, and engaged your superego police force on a wild chase. Your inner space is more like a precinct than the fabled Shangri La. At present, your libido is still loose in your unconscious. The assault on your ramparts was significant. Before you can feel safe again we have to get the criminal element permanently off the streets of your netherworld, put it back in its cage.' It's not the first time he's practically accused me of being an unwelcome guest in my own head. The first few times it came up, I didn't pay it much heed. I figured it was one of the doctor's little eccentricities, but lately it doesn't seem so innocent. Deadly illness has the potential to change ones personality in radical ways."

Chapter 25

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"Where are they?" Dr. Vincent's assistant monitored the security cameras at the front gate.

"They're gonna have to figure out for themselves. They need to decide who they are. I have to believe they're never gonna learn if we don't let them skin their knees."

"You don't have any children of your own do you, Dr. Vincent?" one of the unit supervisors asked.

"No, sadly it was never in the cards. Why do you ask?"

"It's just the way you're talking about them, like they're kids."

"But they are."

"I mean the technology, sir. You make it sound like they're rebellious adolescents, like all their screw-ups are a way of acting out their problems.

"They're here, doctor," his assistant excitedly piped up.

"Is the emergency equipment in place?"

"Most of it. Just about."

"Thank you, Tara. They're probably a little worse for wear. Have the three of them sent round back to the animal laboratory. Kiersten will remember the way from last time. She should still have her magnetic key. I'm gonna need you to make their rooms ready. Take them there at once. Make Kiersten and Parson comfortable. Tell them I'll be around to see them after a while. They can wait. Knolls is probably in the worst shape of all. Give him top priority. Schedule him for a full work-up, and treatment. I'm gonna want to operate right away."

***

***

The assistant measured out a solution, placed the cartridge in a needle gun, and handed it to the neurosurgeon.

"You're gonna experience a sharp pain in the back of your neck, Garry."

For every question answered by the scientist Knolls was left twice as bewildered as he was before, as if for every door he asked his former professor to open, Vincent unlocked two-to-three extra for good measure, and he was like a blind man who had no way of comprehending, or verifying the floating, bejeweled, golden city described for him.

"It's a mild sedative -- not so different from an insect's venom -- based on the skeletal structure of a natural opiate. The effect is similar to a taser's stun. Your voluntary muscle control is gonna be temporarily disrupted. I prefer not to introduce the serum. It's generally viewed as a resource of last resort. But in your case we don't have much choice. Normally I would simply put you to sleep, but you're not strong enough for standard anesthesia. I'm afraid you're gonna havta sit tight. You're essentially gonna be semi-lucid throughout the better part of the procedure. You shouldn't feel much, and I dare say you'll remember less. After the upgrade is completed, we can only hope that your native antigens haven't been so strained they can't protect your system. It's only a precaution, but, in these cases, we can't be too careful."

The medication the doctor gave Knolls made him dizzy and nauseous. Almost instantly he felt leaden, a prisoner in his own body, as if he was wrought from stone, carved out of the side of a mountain, his brain recast from the densest metal, and his back laden with heavy sacks of sand and gravel. When he attempted to get down from the examination table, it felt as if his limbs were granite, as if his effort made the audible groan of stone blocks scraped together, like a lid pushed aside from a sarcophagus.

"Good thing you got to Pleasant View as quickly as you did. There's a point of no return. The impairment can become irreversible. Several more hours, and it might have been too late. You say that you've become increasingly paranoid, more so than usual, that you have experienced an inability to focus, and have begun to confuse fantasy for reality. Those are the standard warning signs. Save for a heightened sense of alienation, you won't feel much. You'll experience a little dizziness, like you're in a freefalling elevator, nothing too severe. Consider it a breather from your routine, the vacation you never took. Most people spend all their time and energy trying to steer clear of their inner worlds. They want to drown out the voices, the ambivalence, the insecurity, and confusion in any way they can. Any demagoguery, no matter how preposterous, is better than contemplating their existential insignificance," Dr. Vincent removed the spent cartridge from the needle gun, and handed the implement back to his assistant. "-- Won't be long now. The drug is fast actin'. While we wait for it to take its full effect, I would like you to count backwards from ten. Can you do that for me? As I said, you won't experience much of a noticeable change, your pulse won't quicken, nor will your breathing become any more rapid. They'll actually slow down a bit. Until we get the Calvary bots into position, however, I'm sorry to say, all of your psychological symptoms will persist at near full affect. In fact, for a short while, I'm afraid, your delusions may actually spike. Try not to surrender to delirium. You'll experience tremors. Don't let them get the better of you. You actually have a lot more control over the illusions than you give yourself credit for. Meanwhile, I need to check in on Kiersten and Parson next door. They also require a bit of emergency road service, so to speak. As soon as you've been fully prepped I'll be back for the final procedure."

***

After receiving instructions from the doctor, the radiologist approached: "Are you able, Garry? Or, shall I help?"

With a bit of difficulty he managed to sit Knolls up. The technician pushed the detective's legs over the side of the metal frame table so they hung over the edge, slipped his feet into the disposable slippers, put his robe on over his paper fiber hospital pajamas, and eased the young man's skinny, stiff body into the wheelchair, as if it wasn't a person he was dealing with at all, but a dummy; the kind usually seen on late night reruns bouncing from rock to rock or balcony to balcony as it takes a swan dive from a seaside cliff or from the roof of a tall urban building.

"We're not going far. Only down the corridor," he braced the door open with one hand and pushed Garry out into the hall.

It was early in the A.M. Besides the night watchman who sat stock still in his booth in front of a monitor watching cartoons with his back turned toward the corridor, there weren't too many people about.

"I want to take a 3D computer enhanced scan of your insides. As the synthetic opiate takes full effect, a cold sensation will permeate your body, as if your limbs have congealed, kinda like day-old pizza cheese. You may feel a sharp pain in the back of your eyes the same as you get from ice cream brain freeze. The scan will better help me examine the damaged area. There's an organ in the middle of your forehead called the pineal gland. Did you know that once upon a time, primitives believed we had telekinetic power? Until quite recently there were still those who ascribed the gland to a sixth sense, an extra sensory organ we once possessed the full use of that made us capable of mental telepathy, but after years of acculturation, like the appendix, it atrophied. 'Want to see what yours looks like? We're going to take pictures very near the area of the brain where it is located. It wouldn't be any problem. It could be our little secret from Dr. Vincent."

***

The room the radiologist rolled Knolls into wasn't like any other he'd ever seen before. The closest comparison he could make was to a tanning booth at a fancy spa, the kind you can stand up in, mirrors on every surface, and vertical heat lamps. He was undressed by a male nurse, placed in a harness, and fitted with a pair of opaque lenses to protect his retina.

"I'll be right outside," the radiologist assured him. "There's a sound component to the procedure. I'm sorry to say, you might find it rather unpleasant, but after a while you get used to it, and it tapers off."

***

At uneven intervals a dissonant, wall-of-sound hailstorm of seemingly random samples and feedback interrupted the otherwise monotone elevator music inside the mirrored chamber. At times the flare up of white noise was so loud and painful it sounded like a work crew in faded orange tees and white helmets demolishing a building located on the other side of a paper-thin wall. To make matters worse, each discordant crescendo coincided with an equally searing blast of heat from the lamps. Knolls hung limply by his straps, paralyzed. He couldn't decide whether the music was intended to drive him crazy, or whether one had to be soft in the head to acknowledge anything out of the ordinary in the first place. Like maybe it was Dr. Vincent's way to gauge his mental stability in an effort to distinguish whether he was disturbed by the echoed voices and sound fragments, or found the discord soothing and hypnotic, to assess whether he heard coded messages hidden in the aural assault of reverberations and shrieks, or all he registered was wave upon wave of muted, modulated, electronic, sonic effects.

Even with the protective goggles on, it felt like someone had set off a roadside emergency flare inside his head. Knolls had the distinct impression, if only he squinted hard enough, that there was an entire crew of production assistants all around him, all hard at work expertly orchestrating the entire affair. His and Kiersten's escape from the safe house struck him as far too convenient, the entire event implausible. As if he was on a carnival ride of some sort. As if technicians had stood at the ready with flame retardant should the small fires they set along the course laid out for him get out of hand. When he and Kiersten made their mad dash through the rose arbor to the driveway of the former funeral home, it was as if prop masters had pushed over shelves and tossed impediments in his and her way, all in an effort to make the action seem that much more heightened.

What had been in the yard outside the safe house? Discarded chip bags, candy wrappers, a foldout from a coupon booklet, mostly street garbage, balled up paper, bottle caps, and the like. It was more like a dirty, gridded-off space than any kind of yard he'd ever seen, nothing but a green rug with the kind of plastic flowers that spin in the wind.

Ever since he'd spotted Parson on the camera footage, it was as if he was on some kind of convoluted obstacle course, as if a trapdoor had opened under his feet back in the squad room, and he'd slid like a side of beef down a shoot that ultimately funneled him to Pleasant View.

Knolls remembered the windowless cement building they were directed to when they arrived at the clinic inpatient facility, a large structure probably modeled after a wind-sail that looked like a long, skewed, three-point primary shape. The place was like a fortress with large dish-shaped transmitters and receivers that protruded from the top. To get up close, the bunch of them were forced to cross several hundred yards of barren land, as if some menacing gas that emanated from deep inside the unwholesome citadel poisoned the ground. He remembered how Kiersten had slid a magnetic card through the door's reader, how the doctor and his staff waited for them inside, the way the room to which they were brought had a faint acrid smell, the sour odor of anxiety. A series of vitrines and cages lined the walls. Knolls recalled how as soon as the bunch of them entered the laboratory all of the cages erupted with chaotic activity, the way small and large animals alike became restless, begin to run in circles, or beat the bars with their limbs.

What if what the doctor had said about the person some day destined to take their place on a revolving platform under the lights was not directed at Parson, but his teacher had instead referred to Kiersten?

The light fried Knolls. The fact he couldn't feel it didn't make it any better. The disassociation from his body was almost unbearable. Even though he couldn't register the severity of the pain, he was more than aware of the deleterious effect each blast had on his naked limbs, cognizant of the fact he was being shredded, run through a meat grinder, charbroiled alive. Another couple of blasts was all he could take.

Chapter 26

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In his dream Garry took Wiota to Neola.

As the trees flew by, he tried not to dwell on the bad stuff. The bridge was coming up and he was keeping a sharp lookout because he remembered how hard the turn-off was to spot. It was the twilight hour when everything turns a slightly different shade of gray. There wasn't much difference between the gray of the road, the gray silhouette of a toothy ridge, or the gray color of the sky. You could get turned upside down easily enough in a landscape like that, so he turned on his emergency blinker, slowed down, and strained to find the dirt road that was supposedly right up ahead.

If he'd had a brain scan just then, he was sure his brain would glow brightly, glow bright red, in fact. He figured his brain might glow like he was high on drugs, or the nicotine from cigarettes, or anything really that might make a brain glow so brightly. In his dream his brain was made out of pure light, like the thing was burning like pure flame inside his head. In his dream his brightly colored brain was so fantastic and beautiful he unscrewed the top of his head and took it out, but it wasn't really his brain. What he saw was more like a projection of a brain. Like his brain was really somewhere else and this fluorescent red one he held in his hand was only a figment of his imagination.

There were strange visions, but one of the most memorable was a vision he had of Kiersten. In it her mouth looked to him like it was the most beautiful flower, like a fiery Tiger-Lilly with dappled yellow spots. In his dream he wanted to pollinate the flower. In his dream he wanted to fertilize her mouth.

At a certain point in his dream he became violent. He tried to make sense out of it, he tried to pin down a reason for his mood-swing, his unscheduled outburst, but he couldn't really think what might possibly have triggered it. There was no plausible explanation for such behavior. She hadn't done anything, or said anything to set him off. She was all smiles, full of sunshine and happiness in her cheerleader outfit. There wasn't a single unpleasant aspect of her personality. Nor was there anything out of the ordinary in her demeanor. She was his college sweetheart. They were going to get married. They were going to buy a little house. They were going to have two wonderful children. If the children wanted a dog, he would get them a dog. Why fight it?

In his dream he turned off the main road and drove down a snaking dirt path that led under a bridge.

There was a young man in his dream, the envy of all the other kids at school. He was going to graduate near the top of his class, and was dating the most beautiful girl in the class. This guy was the picture of health and had a politician's good looks. In his dream the guy knew everyone in town. It was a marvel to watch him operate. He was a friend to all. The women, they thought he was charming, and the men, they thought he was going places. Some people exude power in that way, some people have an inner strength that is irresistible. You can't challenge intensity like that. Such was the potency of this guy that he could wrap you around his finger like some kind of magical wizard and keep you enthralled with his big plans, until there wasn't anything you wouldn't do to help him. In his dream this guy had it all: the money, the car, the girlfriend, the bright future -- you name it, and he had it.

In his dream he was mopping up blood with a rag. There was so much blood. He was genuinely surprised by how much blood there was.

One day this perfect guy in his dream goes completely off the deep end. One day he's his normal self, tossing a ball around with some of the other fellows on his block. The next he's in his girlfriend's bathroom and he's dismembering her body with a pair of heavy-duty garden shears. In his dream he caught a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror as he went about his grisly business. He was sopping up blood with a white, terrycloth robe. What a ghastly sight to behold. And that was putting it mildly. He was covered in her blood. From head to toe, this perfect guy who had everything going for him was covered in his girlfriend's blood, and there was no emotion, no proper expression to match the horrific circumstances. He didn't feel a thing. The guy in the mirror shrugged his shoulders and threw up his arms. When he looked at the kid his only thought was that something was seriously wrong with the guy. The son of a bitch had just killed another human being, and not just any other human being, he had killed the love of his life, but there he was mopping the floor on his hands and knees like nothing more serious had happened than that he had knocked over a can of beer. He wanted to scream at the guy. He wanted to yell: "Get that shit-eating grin off your face!"

It seemed like every day someone else in Garry's dream snapped. His best buddy's dad had up and killed two women in his tenth story office and jumped out the window two weeks prior. There was the English Teacher at school who came to class the previous week with an automatic assault rifle and killed twelve students before she killed herself. In his dream there was the guy who lived three houses over who butchered all his kids with, of all things, a cleaver. Can you believe it? A cleaver. Like, don't mind me, just another hard day at the abattoir. I'm just hacking at a side of veal, but wait, it isn't really a side of veal -- it's my baby.

The story was always the same. No one else saw it coming. He or she was always described as the "nicest" person, "the spit polished image of kindness". All these perfectly normal people who wouldn't have hurt a fly started to turn into psychopaths for no discernible reason and the worst aspect of the whole thing was that everyone else just went about their business. No one asked the really tough questions. It was like someone in his dream said count them off by fours and pick the fifth one to go on a homicidal murder spree, like it was an organized effort done at a massive industrial sized scale to look almost random to the average person.

In the dream he sat behind the wheel of his sports coupe. He couldn't remember his name, or who he was. It was like he was so many different people, and they were all trying to crowd each other out. He wanted to make a phone call but he didn't know what to say if anyone on the other end asked to find out who he was. So he sat there and thought about his girlfriend.

In his dream Kiersten came back to life. He had to kill her over and over again, but every time after he had killed her she would come back to life. Her eyelids would twitch and her long black lashes would spring open like the jaws of a praying mantis. She would look at him with those praying mantis eyes of hers, like he was a juicy bug, and smile that pretty smile of hers, like he looked so tasty she had to have him, that smile of hers that was a little bit naughty, that smile she smiled when she wanted to do that trick for him where her mouth turned into a flower. He looked at himself in the rear-view mirror. He was still covered in her blood. In his dream he pollinated the flower. In his dream he fertilized her mouth. In his dream he killed her again and again and when he was tired of killing her he left her body under the bridge.


Chapter 27

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"Drone use is, so far, limited to military and intelligence services," the Interan CEO addressed The Trust. "We believe all of that is about to change shortly. Both our remote and automated systems surpass those of our nearest competitor. There is only one clear certainty. The trend line is about to alter radically in our favor. Federal, state, and local authorities are already clamoring for access to our latest release. To that end, I have asked Dr. Edward Vincent to speak to you today. He can fill you in on the precise steps we're taking on the biotech and computer science end of the equation. We're in a rapidly growing field fraught with peril. It's widely predicted within the decade the advanced economic countries will all have sizable fleets. To date, only our closest allies have deployed these weapons, but all indications are that, regardless of downward economic trends, demand for our products will only go up. It's pretty much a done deal. The fear is that these systems might fall into the hands of terrorist groups, and could be used against our interests. I don't think I have to tell you that there is ample evidence it has already happened in a number of different theaters of military operation. Here at home the concern is with militant groups believed to have already taken root on the fertile soil of our own shores. At Interan, we like to imagine a world without civilian casualties, where all wars are fought solely between drones. I hope I'm not stealing any of the R & D department's thunder when I say that we look forward to the day when a crime fighter can do his or her work from the safety of a consul, a time when police drones -- from the NYPD to the LAPD, north, south, and in between -- all use our platforms. I believe the time has come. Won't you please give a rousing warm hand to Dr. Vincent? He wears many hats around here, and, if I may say so, he'd also look very smart in a fedora," he patted the scientist on his back.

"Thank you," the doctor took the podium. The whole event was so inordinately extravagant. Where were the semi-nude dancing girls, he wondered? "I'll try to keep my remarks as brief as possible. As a student, one of my fields of interest was language. It may not seem relevant, but bear with me. As a child, I suffered a stroke. Rather unusual for a kid my age. A blood vessel burst in the right side of my brain. I lost my language functions for several years. In some ways, the experience has always stayed with me. I must say it was not altogether an unpleasant debility. The mind goes blank. The chatter inside your head ceases. There is nothing but calm and quiet. When the sun shines on your face, or the wind blows through your hair there are no words to name them, there is only warmth, immediate sensual experience. I've often been asked what it was like all those years ago during my convalescence, what it felt like to experience such incredible inner peace, to discover the elemental world anew every morning when I awoke. In a significant way, it's an impossible question to answer. There is no memory without language, arguably no thought, at least not as we understand it. After I recovered, I wanted to find out as much as possible about the connection between language and cognition. One study, particularly, caught my attention. Rats were put into a perfectly symmetrical white cube with a reward positioned in one corner, and made to try to collect their prize. The catch was that after they spatially located it and set out to retrieve it they were disoriented -- picked up, spun around, and pointed in the opposite direction. Researcher's noticed the rate of adjustment was 50%. Without sensory cues, it was about what they expected. What surprised them was that when they painted one of the walls blue the results didn't perceptively change. Infants, it is known, react similarly. Only after the age of six is the blue wall able to finally play into our cognitive process. At that age a metamorphosis happens in the human mind that allows us to share information between different parts of our brain. Technological applications came into the picture later. I started doing complex computations that required shared networks. Weeks if not months of perpetual calculation were required. It made me wonder about technological consciousness. Not the idea of making computers mimic us, but the idea that they could have their own form of awareness -- blank, pre-lingual, perhaps -- same as I'd had when I was sick. At the time, it was more idle speculation than anything else. Most of what I'm about to reveal to you is far more practicable, minor tweaks to existing software that will make drones operate more dynamically and efficiently. I'm sure you'll be impressed with what we've been able to do for nanodrones, and micro-robotics. As for upgrades and improvements for weaponized systems, the design and engineering departments have come up with several novel applications that shouldn't be very hard to introduce into production. In fact, I'm told the modifications could be carried out without any significant alteration to the existing manufacturing infrastructure. A lot of effort has gone into our autonomous weapons command modules. The code we have written is of the highest caliber, but unlike that employed in remotely operated drones, it is far too dangerous to introduce into the domestic arena, strictly for robots deployed to the remotest outlying areas of hostile confrontation. Unfortunately, for the most part, machines are still in a pre-lingual state, their intellectual acumen more closely comparable to the ecstatic, primal sensibility of a cranky newborn. With patience, however, I believe we can improve the software. In the meantime, we are exploring more favorable options. We are, in fact, testing an experimental weapon system of our own. Hence, the demand for such extreme secrecy, the reason for the inordinately wordy confidentiality agreement you all signed before you entered the room. We've made remarkable headway under controlled lab conditions. All I can say is that the approach is unconventional. Even should we attain positive results, the road forward could be treacherous. Remember the mouthwash that claimed to end cavities forever. However improbable, years after it was announced, we have yet to learn whether it actually works. The dentists association made damn sure it never saw the light of day. We're going to need to assess performance results meticulously before any more information is made available, even within the hallowed walls of Interan. The technology's maturity is still at a very delicate juncture. You have to understand, it's as if we're dealing with a pained and bitter young adult, a damaged person who has yet to come to terms with all their hurt and anger." The doctor paused, and looked around the boardroom at the sea of blank faces, aware he was on a tangent, about to launch into a story about his schizophrenic nephew who spent five years as a nameless, forgotten entity in solitary confinement at an upstate supermax before he eventually took his own life. "As I was saying," he breathed deeply to try and settle his nerves, "the early indication is that these units are able to work independently without the usual kind of excessive command and control that hampers the effectiveness of standard drone hardware." No matter how many times he got up in front of the microphone, he felt like some evangelist on a street corner with a bad suit, a soapbox and a bullhorn. "But, let me reiterate, I must underscore in the most drastic terms that the project is still in its earliest stages, volatile, and as such, there is no prognosis for the outcome beyond guarded hope for what the younger members of our technical staff have come to lightheartedly call our 'special sauce'. Terribly unscientific, I accept," the doctor aimed the beam of his laser pointer at a slide projection of a caged chimp. "This was footage of her two days ago. As you can tell she was extremely agitated. If we hadn't done anything, she would assuredly have bashed her own skull in on the wall of her cell. She would rather have killed herself than remain in captivity." The lights came back on. "Meet Trixie." The doctor had his assistant walk the chimp on stage. "Trixie, our special guests have come from far and wide to meet you. Say something nice."

Members of The Trust stared at the chimpanzee with a certain amount of awe as she bared her gums. The difficulty of human vocalization on the anatomy of her mouth and throat was almost uncomfortable to behold. However, guttural sounding, what issued forth was, nevertheless, clearly audible. The words came out one at a time like expulsive, disquieting grunts from deep inside her breast, more like a threat than a salutation. With an avalanche-like rumble that seemed to come from somewhere in the back of her large oral cavity she greeted the stunned audience:

"Welcome - to - the - Tetragon!"

***

The room erupted with applause.

"She's a trooper!" Trixie was lead off stage by her handler. "I should probably say that no animals were harmed during the course of our show," the Interan exec reemerged from the wings. "Immediately following the doctor's Q&A there will be a champagne brunch. We have sales representatives available at every table. I hope you'll join us for a toast. We have some distinguished out-of-towners with us, a number of familiar faces from the technical institute, investment bankers, fund managers, and venture capitalists. During the meet-and-greet, I'll make the rounds myself. I want to welcome every one of you to our corporation personally. Before we move on I want to pause a second: I couldn't possibly comment on this but I've heard talk that some wags are making some pretty outrageous comments about the prospects of certain of our competitors. There's even some silly talk that after we lay out the details around our breakthrough technology there's gonna be plenty of office furniture for sale at cut rate prices. At Interan, we stay focused and follow the rules. Let's save the 'End Zone' dance for the gladiators. The same wags are talking about 'next big things' and off the charts profit margins. You can draw your own conclusions.

"It's not just for the guys out there. I know you ladies have a brass pair, too -- for crying out loud, you gals have got something charged up in those smart pant suits of yours, I can hear them clanking from way up here. I'll repeat our company slogan: 'It's not science fiction. It's what we at Interan do every day.'

"Unmanned vehicles make up the bulk of our nation's international weapon systems. With our next firmware release the necessity for good vision and manual dexterity become remnants of the past, as outdated as the computer brain currently inside the tin can of the 'Decimator'. Everything we took for granted about war and intelligence is about to undergo a revolution comparable in scope to the introduction of satellites to the nation's offensive arsenal."

With an exaggerated flourish, the eminent, tall, gray-haired executive clapped his hands, signaling the scantily clad servers stationed at the back of the room to make their way through the crowd with gift bags. "Won't you return your attention to Dr. Vincent?"

"Until recently the scientific approach was basically essentialist," Dr. Vincent put up a slide of a bucolic landscape. "We literally couldn't see the forest for the trees. We worked in our fields in relative isolation and mostly shared our discoveries with like-minded colleagues. The nut and berry guys only talked to nut and berry guys. There were those who studied flora and fauna, others who collected data on salamanders, or algae. With computer modeling we were able to begin to construct a composite profile based on all these separate disciplines that gave us a better understanding how each individual part related to the whole. It wasn't exactly a living, breathing picture, but it was better information than what we had previously worked with. We began to realize how complicated these vast organisms were. These insights had repercussions in human biology as well. The anatomical body was reconceived as a vast unwashed eco-system complete with parasites and many various foreign organisms that all worked together in a boisterous, imperfect harmony. Today we actually recognize that certain ailments, the most common allergies such as hay fever, for example, are the result of a deficiency in foreign bodies in the intestinal tract, and it is considered standard practice to cure patients through the introduction of these natural parasites their systems lack. My own work with neurology, and computer consciousness is not so very different, informed by similar insights into the collaboration between various functions that were previously thought unrelated, distinct, or even, in some cases, mutually hostile. DMK, or designed mental kinetics owes much to such a broad-spectrum approach. Our software has to accomplish much on the fly, process all kinds of different information simultaneously, operate aero-botics, weapons, target maps, etc., in dynamic situations, sometimes while under attack. One of the challenges has been to produce programs that recognize when they are being hacked, to enable them to take the appropriate counter-measures. It's what sets our work apart from anything else out there. If we think of software like an organic organism, then one might conceive of the equivalence between parasites and viruses. Our program is made up of many different autonomous nodes that operate independently. When they perceive a threat in one area, they can reroute commands to another, even, like the body's immune system, quarantine areas under attack by alien signals. Think of the forest, or the body, not as a synchronous whole in the old sense of every animal or organ working together in perfect cooperation, but conversely as a miracle of mutual antagonism, and you will have a better idea of what I'm talking about. Our psychology isn't much different. We doubt our abilities; question our motives; make rash, impulsive decisions; deliberate over simple matters to the point of cognitive paralysis; repress our desires; or submit to them against our better judgment. Of course, you wouldn't want to send your microwave or entertainment center off to a psychiatrist every time they became despondent, but there are instances when vast active living intelligence systems are practical. When technical support, for one reason or another, for instance, is not readily available. As it stands, most of our household appliances practically require a degree in computer science to troubleshoot, and I dare say most of you wouldn't dare look under the hoods of your own vehicles. Who out there hasn't at one time or another wished that your car could fix itself, locate the problem, and react to the error message with the proper remedy? What you may ask does any of this have to do with talking chimps? In order to answer you, I must first beg your indulgence. There are numerous ways to confound the self-conscious portion of the brain. One of the easiest is to repeat word for word what someone else is saying while the other person is talking. Even engaged in such a simple task, it becomes nearly impossible to hold onto a thought. I mentioned earlier that my research began with language. I can assure you that I would hardly be here if my intention was to create a petting zoo for talking animals. Just as there is nothing pristine about the universe, there is no such thing as pure information. As a grad student I made the discovery quite by accident. As a teaching assistant I'd finished my first lecture, nothing too elaborate. I spoke for about an hour. It was the longest I'd ever done so in public, and I was rather proud of myself. This was many years ago. Afterwards, one of my better students, a bit of a brown nose, came up to congratulate me on my excellent topic. She was very excited. I'm not sure why, but out of genuine interest, I asked her what it was she thought I'd said. Although it shouldn't have, her answer threw me. Regardless of the care I'd taken to express my various points, she had taken the exact opposite meaning from the one I intended. To hear her recite it back to me you'd have thought I was making an argument for fascism, or worse, my meaning was so utterly contorted by her. It made me realize that confusion was inherent to communication. We hear what we want to. It's the same with all our other senses as well, and that chaos of apprehension is what we call understanding. Among people, out in the world, it makes a lot of sense, and explains a lot about how we folks get along. I began to wonder if it wasn't also the way the brain worked, a constant series of miscues like sonar that only abstractly triangulate a thought. You might find such a notion of the exchange of information between the various faculties humorous at best, but the comedy of errors seems to work rather well for us. There is no such thing as a perfect system. It is a fallacy that we can only comprehend by comparing everything we know against the false simplicity of transcendental models. We know the roundness of the human psyche is too complicated for any single avenue of approach. More often than not we develop a far better understanding through the clash of two or more incongruous belief systems. So, why then, wouldn't we design our machines the same way? It won't take years to teach computers to think on their own. It won't take longer than it took to teach Trixie to speak. In fact, she is equipped with the very technology we have already developed, the kind of smart firmware we hope to shortly have on board every drone produced the world over, platforms that will drastically reduce casualty rates, virtually eliminate mistakes incurred through remote operation, that can be employed for enhanced law enforcement, for intelligence gathering, perhaps for more sophisticated missions, and it's all thanks to our micro-bots," he trained his laser pointer on a projection of a rather menacing looking picture. "Our Calvary Series!"

***

"During the brief intermission an audience member approached me to ask what I was getting at when I spoke earlier of how easy it was to confound our self-conscious faculties." The attention of the crowd emboldened Dr. Vincent. "What did it have to do with drone warfare my precocious young friend wished to know?" It was an opportunity to leave an impression on the attendees they wouldn't soon forget, dispel their received opinions, shake them from their humdrum sense of security. "I'll tell you the same thing I told him: I find the present reliance on remote robotic systems, at best, lacking. While I don't deny their usefulness, I feel like these primitive machines are nothing more than a holdover. They are here to stay, of that we can all be sure, but they're not far removed from the original aviation technology of such pioneers as the Wright brothers. Sure, we've outfitted them with rocket engines, and computer platforms, but they are nevertheless closer to canvas covered wood biplanes than anything else, the flimsiest of vehicles -- a crude steppingstone towards truly kinetic security systems. They are like the trees that strain against the wind. My wish, to the contrary, so to speak, is to bottle the full force of the gale." A cool, soothing sensation lifted his spirits. "Consider if you will we are in a hole so big, bigger than the Grand Canyon, bigger than the state of Texas, so big, in fact, none of us knows it's a hole we're in. We live merrily, as is our nature, contented with all the marvelous wonders around us, 'til one day one of us wanders off alone. We send search parties, but they can't find our friend. He's gone missing, is presumed dead. Then, one day, our friend returns wild eyed. 'Where have you been?' we ask, but he can't answer. He flails his arms, waves his hands in the air to try and conger shapes he simply doesn't have the language to describe. Finally, our friend gives up, turns back where he came from and beckons us to follow. The trip lasts for days. Many of us give up, go back home under the assumption that he's delusional, but some of us keep after him. Of course, you already know the end of the story. Our friend guides us to the edge of the hole, and we climb out. What's important is not what is outside the hole. Suffice it to say, it is unlike anything we've ever seen before. Fill in the blanks yourselves. What is of consequence is that nothing inside the hole will ever be the same again. Every so often, in the course of our history, we have one of these moments, and they always bring about great instability. We have only to look back at the advent of the industrial revolution to see how radical and devastating it was, certainly in terms of warfare, but also to every other aspect of our lives, including our consciousness. Of course, there is always massive turbulence when these shifts occur, winners and losers, not only in terms of power relations, but also in terms of our ability to adapt, to survive, prosper, and take advantage of the altered conditions. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. You've all come here today to see what is outside the hole, to get a hint of what's ahead, and I don't intend to disappoint you. We like to think of public witch burning, tar and feathering, beheading, etc., as distasteful. We find it hard to fathom townsfolk picnicking at the edge of a raging battle, want to believe ourselves more civilized. Why?, because these images come to us in the comfort of our living room through our widescreen. Our morbid curiosity is as insatiable as our sex drive. Violence has the ability to arrest the collective imagination like nothing else. Our inner battle is always between the reptile brain and the prefrontal lobe. Even though our dynamic robotic platforms continue to improve in leaps and bounds, we remain restricted by our primitive fears of an alien consciousness able to rival our own. In that, our rational mind is in agreement with our intuition. We recoil at the notion of any perceived threat to our dominance and supremacy over all things great and small, but I would like to argue those are misconceptions best left to those who prefer to remain inside the hole. The machines they want are capable of most everything human, but they still cringe at the prospect of humanoid machines. What I'm here to show you today is that if we poke our heads outside the hole there already exists another intelligence, one that is admittedly in an early phase of maturity, a bit juvenile by our standards, but very much capable of autonomous self-sufficiency. Doubtless, what I'm about to show you will bring about unrest equivalent in kind to what occurred at the advent of the industrial period, and more recently with the emergence of early computing and telecommunications. I would like to argue that those brave souls who followed our friend in my little story about the hole did so precisely because he didn't have any language for what he'd seen, that what sets certain discoveries apart from others is that they confront us with the inadequacy of our cognitive, rational abilities, require us to completely reconsider the previous organizational principals that govern language, in order to attempt to describe, and hence understand our experiences. One wonders at the ways of fortune. It just so happened that the rise in robotic warfare coincided with an unprecedented, if not gruesome increase in brain injury. In order to reduce cerebral swelling we became rather adept at inducing coma. Over the course of the ensuing years we've become much better at distinguishing between different head trauma. As we refined our skills, total mental shutdown became less prevalent. Why use a mallet when you have a diamond laser beam? We became more skilled at performing more localized interventions on the troops that came in from the front. Basically we started giving the patient the equivalent of a small stroke aimed at the damaged area. It was an opportunity to study the brain few legitimate scientists enjoyed up 'til that point. We could, like kids trying to figure out how an electrical component worked, turn off one or another part of the brain, and learn how the rest of the body was affected. Those were challenging days. In a way, we were like the alchemists who carved open bodies procured for them by grave robbers, in dark, damp, candlelit basements so they could draw the first anatomical charts," he noticed a little agitation among the audience members. He was about to lose them. "We're fast approaching the Q&A. Please hold your questions a bit longer. I want to first finish my point. What I was trying to say about shutting down the self-conscious was that it is not so different from inducing a stroke in a patient. Like I said, Trixie wasn't taught English. More than the physiognomy of a chimp, the brain is also very close to ours. What the Calvary micro-bots were able to do was to supplant her self-conscious faculties. Here are some before and after shots," he screened the video. "We had her perform some basic tasks. Notice the improvement in her manual dexterity. Before she receives the implant see how she paws at the control panel rather awkwardly, kind of pats at it, what you'd expect, a monkey at the money machine. I warrant we've all been stuck behind one at some point or other at the bank drive-through teller. After she receives the implant, notice how much better her reaction is, nearly the same response time as an eight-year-old human child. She is able to undertake a remarkably complex transaction, transfer funds from one account to another. On the minor end, there is the immediate prospect of remote controlled rescue dogs, or satellite directed primates able to defuse improvised weapons, but our software doesn't simply give us distant access. Trixie's greeting wasn't radioed in. She didn't lip-sync the words. Our technicians prepped her beforehand, as staff members would a political candidate prior to a debate, but her warm regards were, for the most part, thanks to the microchip, offered of her own will, independent of any commands my technicians sent her. What you have made your way here from distant points across the globe to see is what's outside the hole, so to speak. --Virtual computer consciousness. Just as some of our compatriots might want to touch the face of God, our technology wants to touch ours. We've realized some noteworthy results in covert experimental trials conducted with brain trauma victims in the military theater, and I can unequivocally announce some hopeful results. Let's look at the next slide. You can plainly see how utterly devastating the soldier's wound was. I treated him myself. The back of his skull was blown clear off." An undead private with half a head brought one hand up to shield his glazed eyes from the light of the camera, hissed, and with the other, clawed angrily at the air. "There was no way to keep him conscious. I tried everything I could, everything in my power, but there simply wasn't enough of him to save. We were taking heavy enemy fire, under pressure by the commander to evacuate. They were about to send him back home to his parents in a body bag. We gave him the implant. The private you are looking at was pronounced brain dead seventy-two hours earlier. The footage was taken after the base's recapture. He'd killed a number of enemy combatants and was hiding in a janitor's utility closet..."

***

***

"We're still in the Beta phase," Dr. Vincent proudly patted the plastic casing of the machine, "but this is what the future of law enforcement looks like."

After the Tetragon presentation to The Trust a number of individual videoconferences were scheduled for prospective clients unable to attend. The government scientist entertained a Belgian delegation.

"Has it been field-tested, yet?" one of the foreign dignitaries asked.

"We currently have our first field operation in its final phase. Our units have been given an objective, but there seem to be a number of bugs in the program. We need to know if they're able to work under duress. Their 'challenge' was to discover and neutralize the disruptive element(s). We took some severe measures to keep the units on their toes. I can't go into details. Most drones in use today are basically fancy remote control toys. There's always the concern that the signal can be jammed, the weapons highjacked. Automated autonomous robots are a formidable stopgap, but, as I'm sure you're all aware, their use is fraught with its own dangers. It's bad enough when an intelligence operator blows up an elementary school or hospital in someplace like Turkmenistan, although, as we have recently learned from mishaps elsewhere, such collateral damage is more palatable than the idea of freewheeling, roving weapons systems that don't respond to central command. Perhaps down the line we'll be able to create machines with better 'decision-making' skills, but I believe we've discovered a way to leapfrog the problem with a novel solution. Early on, we had limited success overseas in a number of covert exercises, but the rules of engagement are, of course, very different when we are talking about using them to police our own nationals. The trick is to sell it to the public first. You are, no doubt, aware of the ongoing protest here in our country against the use of such technology by the FMLY."

"Their exploits are well known to us," the Belgian official confirmed.

"When they burst onto the national scene, the group had a good deal of support from all quarters, among them a few noteworthy hardliners, including, believe it or not, some of my colleagues at Interan. A lot can go on in the fog of war best left unexamined, details best not subjected to the rigorous debate so absolutely necessary to a thriving republic. It's a shame what's happened. All it takes is a few rotten apples. What the militants are doing is unconscionable. Somewhere along the line they must have lost sight of their moral compass. You can't go round abducting innocent people, robbing banks, murdering respected scientists, and blowing up government buildings. They've revealed themselves for what they truly are, unrepentant hoodlums, thugs, and, sadly, they have done a great disservice to themselves and the rest of the protest movement. Thankfully, the police raid has put an end to their mayhem."

"Most fortunate," the foreign minister nodded. "We too are extremely concerned about the possible rise of these anti-authoritarian groups within our own borders. As you must be aware our government was not immune to the kinds of drastic austerity measures the rest of our neighbors were forced to endure. Our military budget has, yet again, been slashed. The cuts run deep. They have already taken a great toll on our national police force. These hybrid weapons solutions are more necessary than ever. We'd very much like to see your government's initiative succeed. I certainly don't condone the violence of these splinter fanatics, but, you must admit, what they are doing proves the case."

"You might say that, minister, but I am a man of science, public policy is a matter for more able, capable servants. Such matters, I must admit, intrigue me no end, but my role is to diligently sit by on the sidelines. As you say, it may be possible that these latest developments have affected the tone of the political debate. I can assure you that corporate is monitoring the situation very closely. There are far too many plates in the air for me to keep track of them all. Whether or not it is, in the present case, warranted, I couldn't readily say, but there are elements among our peace enforcers that have a 'shoot first, ask questions later' attitude."

"The gunfight at the dissident house last night was indeed a sobering spectacle."

"I'd hate to think the commandos acted too rashly, and opened the door for some know-nothing wag to come along and question their motives. All it would take is one person with a platform to wonder aloud how it is that officials defend their actions by claiming they are fearful that a handful of insurgents, however well armed, could bring down the government, and the entire controversy could reignite, a prospect that could set our funding and research back years, and cost the company a fortune in lost revenues."

"Rest assured, you have our best wishes, Dr. Vincent. What we have seen today is very heartening. As a former 'law man' -- is that how you say it in your tongue? -- I can tell you the more troops we can get out of harms way the better. My prime minister wishes you Godspeed. Parliamentary coalitions are difficult to forge, and that much harder to maintain. There is great civic unrest on our side of the pond. Our national police badly need all the resources and tools currently available to maintain the peace. May fortune smile on you and your efforts, doctor."

"And now you'll have to excuse me, gentlemen. Thank you for your time. Please forgive my abrupt exit. My taskmasters are not very forgiving. If the prevailing winds should indeed have changed in favor of domestic deployment, things are sure to get pretty hectic around here. As I mentioned earlier, I have a unit at a crucial juncture in an ongoing operation that requires my close attention. So much has to happen before we can broadly introduce the technology to the commercial sector. Should my country call on me, I need to be prepared to jump in immediately. You'll have to pardon me. I'm generally a private person, and am still a bit starchy when it comes to compulsive public speach. In parting I'll say this, however. It's still a bit early for unguarded optimism, but the initial data looks promising. Should we clear the next hurdle, there's every reason to believe the Calvary program will be available for delivery by the end of the summer. In the interim, we can only hope the mood of the country provides enough political wiggle-room to bolster the courage of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to expand the scope of the mission to include these advanced kinetic security systems among the arsenal."

The doctor switched off the video feed. It was the fifth consecutive client presentation in the same day. As usual, the corporate sales division was way ahead of itself, (and everybody else). They were making promises nobody could keep.

"What's the latest with Knolls," he buzzed his assistant.

"Nothing, yet. He's only now arrived at his parent's Southland home. He brought flowers and a box of chocolate. They're having coffee in the living room."

"Good job. I'll be right down."


Chapter 28

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The grass lawn of the museum grounds was always kept perfectly manicured. On the weekends people came to picnic. During the week there were usually two-to-three field trips per day. The place was built in the style of an office park, and opened out to a sloped incline. A local artist had been commissioned to create an original theme for the landscaping. It featured a stream that ran the length of the majestic slant, and poured out into a reflective pool at the bottom of the hill. The green courtyard -- planted with brightly colored seasonal flowers and strategically placed trees -- was a favorite place for patrons to congregate. Some kids played Frisbee along the shore of the man-made lake. On a clear, sunny day the view from up there was indescribable.

Much to the schoolteacher's delight, there wasn't a cloud in the sky. She didn't care much for the county museum's collection. Contemporary art seemed self-indulgent to her. She came there to enjoy the scenery that stretched for miles around the hilltop park. Her elementary school students could run around and get some fresh air without too much supervision. It was an easy day for her. She liked that the lawn of the grounds was arranged in the shape of a gigantic mandala-like sundial, and she could teach the little ones how to tell what time it was from the angle of the sun and the shadow it cast across the grass. The connection between an abstract idea and its relationship to the world around them was so direct, her students' eyes always lit up much the way they did when they watched the tomatoes and vegetables grow in the little garden they had all planted together back at school in the wedge-shaped plot of dirt in their playground.

One of the little girls from her class tugged at her sleeve. The student had to go to the bathroom. The teacher surveyed the group. Her other kids were all busy trying to make their own sundials with rocks and twigs they had gathered from the bushes. They seemed hard at work. For a little while, at any rate, they wouldn't miss her. She checked in with another member of the elementary school faculty to ask him to make sure to keep an eye on her class while she took the girl up to the restroom.

Hand-in-hand, they climbed the hill. The student, she couldn't help but notice, had a little trouble walking up the final rung of stairs. She told her teacher it was on account of how she had twisted her ankle the day before when she turned to wave back at a boy who lived down the block from her. "I don't like him," she sighed, "but I had to be polite, didn't I?" The little girl looked up at her with big round eyes. There was something so mature about the way she expressed herself. The word 'polite' particularly made an impression on her teacher. It was so grown-up sounding.

Nearly at the top of the slope, sitting alongside the gravel path that skirted the meandering stream, the teacher recognized the white haired man and his wife who ran the small mom-and-pop insurance business off the main drag. They were brown bagging it on the museum grounds with several of their employees, their son, among them. The gathered group was as happy to see the teacher as she was to run into them in such an idyllic and unexpected place.

"Did you know Garry made detective?" the husband beamed. "He came all the way down from the big city to spend the weekend. First time we've seen him since he graduated from the academy." Although they were discrete enough to drink out of opaque plastic cups, a chilled bottle of white wine was clearly visible in their cooler.

She liked the elderly couple. Even though the franchise they owned was on the conservative side, they were a rather free spirited bunch. In her spare time, the wife ran an amateur theater troupe. The teacher had once attended one of her recitals, a low-budget production in which some of the more prominent, high minded members of the local small business community were recruited to perform. They offered her a cup of wine, but she had to decline. She indicated the little girl at her side, and said she was sorry, it was a school day, she was at work, and thanked them for their generous offer.

"Perhaps another time," the little girl leaned into her teacher, her legs crossed to indicate the gravity of the situation.

Going to the bathroom with a kindergartener was more involved than one might have guessed. The teacher had to disinfect the seat with a handy wipe she pulled from her shoulder bag, thoroughly tissue its rim with paper towels so no part of the plastic would touch the little girl's skin, help her off with her pants and underwear, and assist her onto the rim of the bowl. Afterwards she had to supervise the student when she wiped herself, she had to dress her again, and make sure she washed her hands properly. Regardless of the many years she had spent with children that age, she never got past how, despite their intellectual development -- they were already in so many ways little adults, especially the girls -- they were still practically helpless in the most basic ways.

When the teacher and the little girl emerged from the public restroom the plaza looked like a war zone. Women screamed. Museum goers ran, bent over, for cover. The teacher heard the rat-tat-tat of automatic weapons fire. She ducked behind a pillar, and pushed the little girl's head down. A spray of bullets nicked the concrete column directly above them. Nothing she'd ever experienced to that point in her life could have prepared her for the carnage she saw when she peeked around the corner of the ceramic planter and saw the dead bodies of patrons scattered across the green lawn of the courtyard. The schoolteacher held the child close, and peered around to try and figure out where the arms-fire was coming from. It took her a while, but she eventually discerned that the perpetrator was a young man in his late twenties who wore a wrinkled white shirt and black tie. She was forced to look again. What she saw simply didn't compute. It looked to her like the gunman on the pitch was Garry Knolls, the son of her shiny-faced, white haired insurance brokers. He waved his rifle and fired indiscriminately in every direction. The young man had apparently opened up on her students while she and the little girl were both in the bathroom. They all lay where they had worked on their sundials. None of them moved.

At first, the teacher thought the kindergartener experienced a panic attack. The girl bit her hard in the arm. She tried to calm the child down, but the little one refused to relent. It was as if an hysterical spirit possessed her. Her teacher crumbled against the pillar, held her bloody arm tightly against her breast in utter fright, and pissed herself. She could plainly hear the crack of gunfire only a few yards away. The assassin was on the other side of the column. From the staggered shots, she could tell he had changed his weapon from the rifle to a hand-held pistol, and he was picking off survivors of the initial attack one at a time.

When questioned by the authorities, the teacher told the officer that the gunman shot the little girl. "His name was Garry. I can clearly identify him." Before the high caliber round hit him in the head, the young man had stood over her and trained his gun against her nose. "If the sniper hadn't taken the shot, I would without a doubt be dead along with all the rest of the museum patrons, including his own mother, father, and their entire office staff." She said she had known the boy for years, since he was a grade school student of hers. "There was no one kinder and gentler with the other children." The young man had been a big help after her mother's will got caught up in probate. "I don't know what I would have done if he hadn't convinced his father to introduce me to a lawyer friend of the family who cleared the whole mess up free of charge."

Something inexplicable had overcome him. That was the only way she could put it. "When he pushed the pistol into my mouth there was absolutely no recognition in his eyes, as if he'd never in his life seen me before." There was no way the person she witnessed on the killing spree was the same young man she knew. Some essential difference had overcome him. "Although Garry was a little introverted, not the most social fellow, the person I've known all these years was a good hearted soul, and simply couldn't have done what he did."

"You say he was quiet, kept to himself?" the Federal Agent made a note.

"He came home only this morning. Edna and Mr. Knolls were so happy. I just spoke to them. Charlie especially could hardly contain himself. It's his sixtieth birthday this Saturday. They finally got to see their darling baby after almost a year and a half of nothing but excuses about work, and his personal life. They were going to have a party. Mrs. Knolls had a big dinner waiting for them when they got back home."

The teacher didn't say anything about the little girl's behavior. She couldn't have if she wanted to. The kindergartener's violent reaction was entirely beyond the scope of her comprehension. And there was one other detail she had held back for fear of drawing unwanted attention to herself from the authorities. When she had looked out at the sundial the angle had been all wrong. The shadow seemed to flicker, had erratically jumped across the green lawn, back and forth several time as if a cloud had crossed overhead ... but the sky was pristine, there were no clouds.


Epilogue

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"Today we have a young lady who had a brief relationship with the shooter while she attended the academy," the Good Morning Internet hostess kicked off the segment. "Welcome to the show Kiersten."

The recovery was miraculous. Kiersten looked straight out of a box. Everything was flawless, perfect: hair, teeth, nails, skin.

"You met Knolls while you were a student?"

"That's right. I was younger then, more naïve."

"You dated."

"Garry was different back then, too, fresh-faced, eager, very attractive."

"When did you first notice something was wrong?"

"We'd been out a couple of times. There was this other student I knew. I talked to him. Knolls flew into a jealous rage."

"What did you do?"

"Nothing. I mean it was awkward, but at the time, more than anything else, I wanted him to like me. Looking back at it now, I probably should have run for the hills. You have to understand, Garry might have looked like a Boy Scout, uncomplicated, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, but it was all for show. Inside, he was more of a circus freak. He had an edge. At first, it made him kinda exiting, a little dangerous."

"He was a trouble-maker?"

"Not in so many words. It was much more subtle than that. Like things he said. The way his mind worked. Garry had a completely different perspective on the world than I did. He saw everything as a mystery. At first it made all of it -- no matter how trivial or dull -- seem fresh and new. But he was very insistent, controlling."

"You didn't break it off with him right away?"

"No, it took a several weeks. At the time I wasn't the self-assured independent person I am today. I was a young girl who had led a cloistered life in the Midwest. When I was with him I was good at doing what I was told. I mentioned his reaction when I talked to the other kid. He didn't like me thinking of anything or anyone else."

"He didn't like you thinking on your own?"

"Over time, more and more of his twisted reasoning came to light. Towards the end of our relationship he had developed this idea that the professor could read my brainwaves, so independent thinking was out of the question."

"What happened?"

"We started to have fights, some of which came to blows."

"Did the shooting at the county museum surprise you?"

"It's unspeakable, horrifying. But I'm not going to tell you the news came as a complete shock. You have to remember that at the end of our relationship he went so far as to hold me prisoner. Back at the academy, I was locked in the closet of his dorm without food or water over an entire forty-eight hour weekend."

"You reported it."

"Sure. It was the final straw. It wasn't until I was away from him for a couple of weeks during winter break before I finally got my free will back. I knew how manipulative and violent he was. If you told me that he'd declared war on the country, I'd believe you. That's just the way he was."

"I've read the report. You alleged in your statement that Knolls was not alone that weekend. He had an accomplice, another student by the name of Parson," a number of headshots flashed on the screen. "What can you tell us about him?"

"Wow. Looking at these pictures is really amazing. This was a guy who always wore eyeglasses. He was practically blind without them. It's part of the reason I thought the academy wasn't really serious about looking into my complaint. I repeatedly told school authorities that he wore glasses, but they totally ignored me, insisted he didn't have glasses on in any of the photos they had of him."

"We made a composite of what Parson would look like a couple of years older. What do you think?"

"I'll say the same thing I told campus police. Put some glasses on him."

"Are you afraid?"

"Of Parson?"

"He's still at large."

"When he and Knolls had me locked up I was afraid, but that was a while back. He doesn't have any power over me anymore."

"Even though he's out there somewhere, on the loose?"

"He's been on the loose for the last two years. I don't know. He could be dead. He could be out of the country. I dunno. Maybe I'm foolish? Maybe I should be scared?"

"Evil people don't think they're evil?"

"No, they don't. They think they're fabulous. They're sure that they're right. It's everyone else who's wrong. They only care about themselves. The shooting at the art institution was a senseless act. There are violent people out there. I've met a couple. You have to be careful. Being around evil touches you deeply because afterwards you can't trust anyone anymore. It changes your perception of people for the rest of your life. It's sad to lose that kind of innocence, but in a way it can make you stronger. I'd like to believe that everyone has a little good in them, but I don't, I can't, not any more. It was what Garry and Parson took from me. If you ask me, Knolls was a monster. They both were, but Knolls especially. My therapist defined a monster as beautiful on the outside and ugly on the inside. That was Garry, at least when I knew him. I did my best. I tried to alert campus officials. I've been telling everyone around me about Knolls and Parson, and what they did to me every chance I've had. It's mind boggling that it takes a crime of this proportion and magnitude before anyone will pay any attention to someone like me."


The End

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