I’m publishing my science fiction novel Pareidolia in slow motion. A new chapter will be published every week. The premise is available here.
Spruce Hill, Philadelphia | July, 2000
We’re back at my place this time, it’s like noonish, and we’re free to speak at normal volumes without the PO on the other side of the wall, or the dark, suspicious eye of Todd. Zeke explains that Roland worked with Holcomb back in the day on project FLANGE, spent most of his time in or around the FBI, is just as underground as Holcomb (if not more), and will be responsible for the custody and care of the device when and if it’s found. He’s only tangentially connected to the DOJ anymore, and very few people inside Holcomb’s circle have any direct contact with him. Mostly it’s just Holcomb. But in cases like these, when Holcomb isn’t quite—um—herself, Roland and his few contacts within the family move ever so slightly to the center of things and make sure nothing gets, you know. Dropped.
“Todd never would have allowed us into Holcomb’s room, or even the hotel, if you actually had captured the fucking thing. Holcomb likely wouldn’t have even been dispatched. It would have been a very different picture. They would have come to us in a convoy of ancient European cars covered front to back in hippie bumper stickers. You’d know most of this by now had we taken the time to fucking initiate you, like I wanted.”
I had every hope that Balero’d be home when we got there but of course he isn’t. A feeling sinks in my gut that I won’t be seeing him anytime soon. He’s pulled disappearing acts before, but it’s been a while. Usually during times of high drama, which, I want to say the episode back at Leah’s qualifies.
Zeke and I are fidgeting, sort of recovering from the non-meeting with Holcomb. Todd has been called as per his request and would very much like to join us. Will be here any moment. I’m fiddling with a toy mouse connected to a string, many times murdered and resurrected by Professor Waffles. (It occurs to me that I need to feed and water the damn thing while Balero is away.) Zeke is sucking down a Camel, something we normally don’t allow. It’s mostly for Professor Waffles, who hates the smell. (Of cigarettes, not weed. Poor thing was raised in a pot cloud.)
So the plan is for Todd to join us here and for us to haul ass to a meeting point with Roland, someplace nearby but TBD, and then figure out where to go from there. Presumably to find Balero and the fucking device. Roland is flying in as we speak from parts unknown, “possibly Vermont”. Plans must be drawn up to figure out all possible vectors back into Leah’s life. This has mainly to do with her and her father’s prolonged exposure to the device, although the fate of her father remains unknown. What effects has it had on the two of them, and so on. Other than, you know, the fact that maybe she can communicate with the dead, something Todd tells us Holcomb was just dying to talk about but forgot in his state of overheated bliss on the bed.
Reliving all the details for Holcomb was exhausting, and part of me was already trying to forget it. I stuck around as long as I could yesterday, after whatever it was that happened to Leah’s father in the woods. After passing out on the path I came to with a pair of middle-aged women in tracksuits looking down at me, their gold necklaces pointing up my nose. One of them was prodding me with a stick, the other wondering out loud if they should call the police. I fumbled my way back up to a standing position and felt my head for blood or bruises (found both) and took off running in what I was pretty sure was the direction of Leah’s house. I had trouble running because of something with my leg (later turned out to be that it was just asleep from being in a weird position while I was passed out) and made it out of the trees just in time to get almost creamed by a car backing out of a driveway. It took me a second to register that it was Leah. She must have been in a hurry because she was out of there like a shot, screeching wheels and everything.
Unsure what to do next, I ran back into the woods to look for Balero. Or Leah’s father (even though I sort of hoped not to find him). I stayed in there for quite a while, passing one brightly-clothed suburban jogger after another, but no Balero, no Leah’s father. No gun. So then back out to the street and into my car, driving around the neighborhood, totally lost, and still no Balero. In my foggy memory I could still make out what he was wearing: nerdy red dress shirt, jeans, white sneakers. Red, white, and blue. Dorksville, easy to spot. I tried to think like him, but honestly I had precious few notions of what he’d ever do if he wound up in the suburbs, a place the two of us only went when absolutely necessary (usually for the purchase of narcotics, something the suburbs always seemed to have in endless fucking supply).
Finally in desperation I drove home and called every one of his friends I could think of. Those who answered hadn’t seen him and would be glad to keep an eye out. (Had to come up with a cover story, obviously, but exactly no one was shocked that Balero Toomey would freak out while on safari in the boondocks and just run screaming into the trees.)
The buzzer rings: Todd’s here. Zeke goes down to let him in. Professor Waffles is doing figure eights at my feet, weirdly undeterred by the cigarette smoke. Looks right up at me and lets out a long meow in the form of what sounds like a question. Takes off like a shot when Zeke barges in with Todd behind him.
“Jesus. This place is a shithole.”
“Yeah, but it’s our shithole.”
“Sorry.” He’s not really sorry. Claps his hands together. “OK, listen up. We’re meeting Roland back at the hotel in two hours.”
I let out a laugh that sounds more like a hiccup. “You’re fucking kidding me. Back to the hotel? The same one?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Well, wait—why did we leave then?”
Zeke joins me on the couch and stubs his cigarette on the enormous ash tray. He’s nodding like he knows what Todd is getting at. “Because this place is what they’d deem an unsecured location. Plus they didn’t know what Roland’s orders would be.”
“Don’t plan on getting any sleep tonight, either of you.”
Todd is not joining us on the couch or anywhere else. He’s still standing, and not very far into the apartment. Keeping close tabs on the door in case a hasty evacuation is needed. And, I mean come on—the place isn’t that dirty. (But I suppose he was thinking that it could be bugged.)
Before we leave Todd unfolds a piece of paper from his pocket and holds it out so we can see it. On it are written two words in heavy black ink: ROCKY STEPS.
“Don’t say it out loud. This is where we are to meet if something goes wrong.” He puts the piece of paper back in his pocket. “Given how close we are to, you know, getting our hands dirty, it’s nice to have this contingent in place ahead of time. We can refer to this as ‘our favorite spot’. Understand?”
Todd leaves and Zeke and I get ready. I remember that the litter box in the bathroom was in desperate need of changing the last time I saw it. I begin to hunker down on the idea that I might not be around for a while, and so I excuse myself to wrap up a few things before we leave. It’s been a while since I’ve been in charge of the cat, so I make a mental list. I make sure there’s a day’s worth of cat food and water in the kitchen, rescue all his favorite toys from under the couch, and duck into the bathroom where Professor Waffles wanders in and gives me the strangest look as I clean out his box.