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 | Monday July 31st, 2000
The return to the hotel was a ruse; Zeke and I are waiting outside the main entrance for Todd to show up when (are they kidding?) a shiny black limousine pulls up. The driver gets out, opens the door for us, and we are spirited away, Todd-less.
The limo is empty. Zeke knocks on the window to get the driver’s attention. The driver only holds up a hand. Zeke turns back to me.
“Well, this is a fine mess I’ve gotten us into.”
“You don’t know what’s happening?”
“No. I’ve never dealt directly with Roland before.”
I’m not in a full-blown panic. As long as we don’t leave the city I should be fine—I’m assisting a couple of summer classes, and I can’t afford to get fired. Unlike Balero, I don’t have rich parents to fall back on. I sink into the leather seats and admit to myself that a little panic never killed anyone.
Downtown is dark green through the tinted windows. Zeke helps himself to a miniature can of Coke in the tiny refrigerator and leans back to enjoy the view. I don’t know where he got his chill, but I want some.
“Do you have any idea where we’re being taken?”
Zeke just looks at me.
I try to mimic his relaxed posture. It’s cool back here, like a giant black refrigerator on wheels. Feels good after waiting out in the sun for almost an hour in front of the hotel. I crack open a mini Coke myself and chug it down. Within seconds we’re on a freeway, and within minutes I’m having a hard time keeping track of where the hell we are. Still in the city, obviously, or maybe not really. Weaving around some bizarre industrial section I don’t know. Huge, vacant-looking warehouses wheel around us.
We come to a stop near a railroad crossing and wait, just nothing around but empty parking lots and trains. The driver puts it in park and taps his gloved fingers on the steering wheel. I’m freezing under the aggressive AC at this point, wearing only gym shorts and a T-shirt. I yell to the driver to turn the air down. Zeke bumps me with an elbow and points out the environmental control knobs above my head. I’m in the middle of figuring out which knob corresponds to less cold air when Zeke lets out an “oh shit”.
He’s looking out the window to our left. A man is walking in our direction. Must be Roland. Looks like a grandfather who straight up wandered away from an amusement park: sunglasses, short-sleeve Hawaiian shirt, white cargo shorts, and flip flops. Isn’t carrying anything. Appears to have come out of nowhere—there’s nothing behind him but train tracks and dirt. Either that, or he’s been walking for a while in anticipation of this exact moment. Hair of white fire burns on his partially balding head.
The driver gets out and opens the door on Zeke’s side. Zeke and I scooch over, kicking pop cans around on the floor. The man gets in and sits down. I’m expecting him to maybe not smell so great because of the walking in the hot sun for who knows how long, but he doesn’t smell of anything.
The driver shuts the door and returns to the front. He leaves it in park. There’s a stretch of silence one usually associates with awkward family dinners. It would be less worse if we were moving and had something to look at through the windows. It starts to really drag on. I feel like I need to say something, sort of like back in the hotel room with Holcomb, but Zeke beats me to it.
Not much breaking is made, ice-wise. The man looks straight ahead, doesn’t take off his sunglasses. (He’s facing us, by the way, which is just as bad as being in the hotel elevator with mirrored doors.) I’m like, so this is the guy. This is the man behind the drag show. The dude who gets things done.
So I just about jump out of my shorts when the door on my side opens and another old dude gets in, this time without the driver’s help. He’s talkative and full of good cheer. Hello, how are we all doing, etc. Also dressed like another lost vacation grandpa. Bright yellow polo with red dress shorts and black socks under leather sandals. Might as well have a camera around his neck. No sunglasses. Also fiery white hair.
“Thanks for waiting, boys! Sorry for the runaround. I see you’ve already met Max. OK!” He raps his knuckle against the glass and we pull out of the industrial ghost town.
Now there are two strange men are sitting directly across from us in a weird silence. Which the fuck one is Roland? The second man to arrive laughs at this. Sees our confusion. Enjoys it. His voice is friendly and full of old rocks. “Max here is my body man. Has been for decades. It’s primarily for security, but I also love to psyche people out. It worked, didn’t it?” He has the expression of a teenager who just got away with pulling one over on a teacher. “Know how to make an entrance boys, if today teaches you nothing else. Confusion is power. Use it.”
Zeke leans in. “So you’re Roland.”
“Still recruiting the best and the brightest, I see. You must be Mario.”
I clear my throat. “No, that would be me. And it’s Marcus, actually. Mario was a… I don’t know, a…” I look to Zeke for help but no help comes, so I stammer on. “…code name of sorts I guess. It’s nice to meet you, ah…” I sort of hold out a hand, not really expecting him to take it. He doesn’t.
“Yes, yes. I don’t really care who you say you are. I do care that you are who Todd says you are, which he already has (if that makes any sense). You both look exactly like you’re supposed to look, down to the last detail. So now I can trust you.” I look at Zeke, who’s furrowing a brow at Roland.
“You really have a—sorry—an eighty year-old body man?”
Roland chortles. “Well he’s not that old. Are you, Max?”
Max doesn’t respond to this. Max plays his cards pretty close to the chest, I can see. Part of me really wants to see him chase down a bad guy in those flip flops.
Roland waves this away. “Ah, it’s tradition mostly. We don’t see much action anymore, do we buddy? Pretty quiet these days.” Then, suddenly seriously: “But don’t test him—the man hasn’t let me out of his sight since 1971. Can kill a man eight different ways with his hands.”
Both Zeke and I raise our eyebrows at this and give Max another look. I mentally take back the part about wanting to see him take down a bad guy in vacation wear. Suddenly I totally believe he could do it. I try to imagine him back in the day and am now fully picking up on his badass vibes. Not to be fucked with. Probably even packing—lots of room in those floppy cargo shorts for a gun. His silence borders on Russian. I notice corners of tattoos peeking out from under his short shirt sleeves.
Roland’s ice blue eyes are on me, excited to talk. “So you’re the one who almost made away with it.” His bushy white eyebrows look like they’re about to detach and fly away. “Our hero!”
“Come on, don’t be shy!”
“That’s literally exactly what Holcomb said back at the hotel.”
“Yes, poor Kenneth. I’m told he’s had another relapse. Should be all right soon enough. Has these bouts a few times a year. We’re all just old as fuck, you know!”
His charm is utterly irresistible. Like we’re all about to go skydiving or bungee jumping without telling our parents. I have a thousand questions about his role in Holcomb’s world and wish we were meeting under different circumstances. Drilling him for these details now would be… uncool.
“So where are we going now?” Zeke asks this, making me wonder why I hadn’t thought to ask it first. It looks like we’re heading back to the freeway, but which direction? Back to the city?
“We’re going to pay your young lady friend a visit, of course.”
I almost fall out of my seat.
“Yes, of course right now! Why not? Where else would we be going?”
I think about this for a moment. But then I perk up and I’m like, “Wait—what about Balero?”
Roland nods. He knows exactly who that is.
“Do you know where he is?”
I shrink back into my seat. “No.”
“No, that’s what I’d been told. Do you have any guesses as to where he might turn up? I mean, eventually?”
My eyes narrow. “A few.”
“Right. And how likely is he to actually turn up at one of these places, judging by past behavior?”
I shoot Zeke a look. He shrugs. Then back to Roland.
“Very likely. How did you…”
Roland holds up a hand.
“And finally, how likely is he to move around, once he’s found a destination? Given prior behavior?”
I actually smile at this. “Very unlikely.”
“So let’s leave Balero to his fate for the moment. Let him land, if you will, and let us instead focus our efforts and our resources on the young Miss Schaudt. And her father!” He says this as if he’s just remembered an exciting surprise. “That is, of course, if we can track him down. I just can’t wait to get a look at the both of them. (Well—indirectly, of course. I mean, I can’t go anywhere near them.) But look at them we shall. And do you know what we’ll be looking for, Mr. Mulvaney?”
I shake my head. Before I can help myself I say, “Uh, suspicious behavior?”
Roland claps his hands and throws his head back in laughter. “Very clever! Yes, suspicious behavior. That’s exactly what we will be looking for. Very good!” His eyes are overflowing with mirth. Max remains unmoved.
Like I said back at the hotel, I was anticipating the worst. Prepared to be strapped to a chair and drilled for details, a bare light bulb over my head in some unfinished basement. But instead I find myself in a musical adventure. I can almost hear the plucky strings and farting trumpets as we whiz down the interstate. A thread of uneasiness creeps through the moment, however. There’s a little crazy around the edges. This feeling is magnified by another round of knee slapping and wide-mouthed laughing from Roland, a study in contrast to the rest of us in the limo, mannequins all.