I’m publishing my science fiction novel Pareidolia in slow motion. A new chapter will be published every week. The premise is available here.
Downtown Philadelphia | July, 2000
The hotel lobby isn’t super busy. Marcus is pacing outside. I’m inside, enjoying the air conditioning, half hoping Marcus won’t cut and run.
I nearly spit out my gum when Todd taps my shoulder from behind.
Marcus eyes Todd on the elevator ride to Holcomb’s floor, obviously uneasy in the presence of the biggest, blackest dude he’s probably ever seen. None of us break the ice. Inside Holcomb’s room the curtains are pulled, the lights are off, the television blares. An adjoining room can be seen through an open door to our left. Todd tells us Holcomb is “out getting some exercise”.
My eyebrows go up.
“Don’t worry, he just needed to walk the halls. Long drives make him fidgety.”
This is never done, at least as it was explained to me. Her Majesty never went anywhere without protection.
“Why the hell isn’t he being flanked?”
“Because that would draw unwanted fucking attention, that’s why. He’s fine. Blake is with him. Sit down.”
I sit. Marcus doesn’t. He tears his eyes off his shoes and gapes at me.
“Zeke, what the hell?”
“So here’s the thing. I’ve been a member of Holcomb’s inner circle since… for a couple of years now.”
Still the gape.
“Todd, give us a minute?”
Todd ducks into the adjoining room, shutting the door behind him. I turn off the TV and flick on a few lamps. Bright sunshine tries to sneak around the thick curtains but I don’t open them.
“I was just about to bring you in, I swear. Was going to bring it up at our next meeting, in fact.”
Marcus nods to himself, eyes back on his feet.
“Anyway, you’re in now. You can join us next month, and every month after that.”
He gives me a sheepish upward glance, a wounded little boy look.
“Where do you guys meet?”
The door opens without warning, the one from the hallway. Two men come in and walk right between us without saying a word. Holcomb is in full drag, sporting a pair of huge sunglasses and a pretty summer dress, an air of scented moisturizing cream swirling behind him. They walk briskly into the adjoining room. Todd comes out to our room and closes the door behind him.
“He’ll be right out.”
I nod to Marcus, who is clearly freaking.
“Breathe. It’s going to be OK.”
Almost right away the door to the second room opens again, and we’re in the royal company of Her Royal Highness. Kenneth Holcomb beams as he enters the room, arms wide.
“Mario, Zeke. So good of me to come see you!”
He gives a hearty laugh. Didn’t expect that. He touches my shoulders, gives me a couple of quick air kisses, and goes for Marcus’s hand.
“Mario, darling. It’s so wonderful to meet you! We haven’t kept you waiting long, I hope. Please! Sit. Bring us some waters, Todd, will you?”
Holcomb takes one of the rotating chairs by the window and motions for Marcus to take the other. I sit on one of the twin beds.
“Todd has done the preliminaries, and it sounds like we are all, ah…” Holcomb’s voice trails off. “Todd?”
Holcomb takes off his enormous sunglasses and aims his voice at the bathroom.
“Todd, darling? We are safe here, n’est-ce pas?”
“Yes, all clear. Our instruments didn’t pick up anything out of the ordinary. Your Majesty.” The “Your Majesty” sounds particularly hilarious coming from a hulking black dude in a hoodie.
“We can’t be too careful,” Holcomb turns back to us, still beaming, clearly over the moon. I didn’t think he’d be so animated, so full of joie de vivre. His whole face comes to life under his makeup, which thankfully I don’t need to explain to Marcus. Todd comes back with the waters and sits backwards in the small chair at the writing desk.
“So!” Holcomb gently slaps his legs, jangling his metallic bracelets. “Let’s get started, shall we? Everything that needs to be said can be said in the presence of my body man Todd, who you’ve obviously already met. But if you’re more comfortable talking with just me, that’s OK too, dear.”
All eyes are on Mario—I mean Marcus—who is reluctantly taking the seat next to Holcomb.
“No, it’s fine. I’m OK with… You know, whatever.”
A bubble of silence fills the room. Holcomb clears his throat, discretely, quietly, shifting gently in his seat. A few more beats go by. Marcus keeps his eyes down.
“Todd, darling, be a sweetie and wait in the next room for a few moments, will you?”
Todd gives Marcus a hard look while getting up, nods to me and to Holcomb, and leaves the room. Marcus sighs.
“You too, dear.” Holcomb looks at me now, his smile gone.
I join Todd and Blake in the connected room. Blake plays with what looks like a Game Boy. Todd looks out the window, arms crossed. I can hear bits of their conversation through the wall. Not two minutes later I hear Holcomb say “OK!” and the adjoining door cracks open.
“We’re all done, boys. You can come back in now.”
They’re both standing. Marcus, hands shoved in his pockets, gives me a cold stare. Holcomb downs his water in one gulp. Todd shuffles through a bag. Another silence bubble.
Holcomb twirls around on his heel to face me.
“Here’s what’s going to happen. Todd here is going to set up a meeting for us in two days. Mario, I want you to stay close. Zeke, come with me.”
The two of us duck into the adjoining room, where Blake is urged to pause his game and give us a moment. Holcomb takes a deep breath and speaks through closed eyes. It’s the first time I’ve been alone in a room with him.
“Well, you were correct. He did see it. High or not, he was able to identify two key features of the device that only I and a select few others could possibly know. Actually, he offered up the part about being on drugs, which established trust. He would have made an excellent addition to the family in any event. So let’s make sure we bring him into the fold as soon as we can.”
He paces the length of the room, looking down, his hand fluttering to and from his mouth.
“OK, on to next steps. Who do we know who knows this young lady? The psychic?”
“No one. They attended the event on a whim. They had… they have no connection to the event’s organizers.”
“Marc… Mario’s friend. Balero. He wasn’t in the room when Mario saw it. He doesn’t know anything happened.”
“Our Mario is quite shaken. How close is this friend?” Holcomb is eyeing me now, moving closer.
“Ah, uh… roommates. Childhood friends.”
“And this roommate isn’t so interested in why his best friend is acting strangely?”
We’re nose-to-nose. The moisturizing cream fragrance reveals itself to be an aggressive blend of orange and mint.
“From what I understand, the roommate has other interests. Anyway, they haven’t been getting along lately. Not since the thing, the expo.”
Nodding, Holcomb resumes his pacing.
“OK, OK. Well, I suppose we’ll just have to trust that he’ll keep this under his fedora.” Then, louder: “Todd, darling?”
Todd’s head pops in, eyebrows raised. A thug like Todd: if his parents could see him now, taking orders from an aging transvestite.
“Todd, we’re leaving tomorrow first thing. Zeke, keep our Mario under control. We’ll pick this up in twenty four hours.”
Then to me, from over his shoulder as he sashays to the bathroom: “Find a way to reach the girl.”