I’m publishing my science fiction novel Pareidolia in slow motion. A new chapter will be published every week. The premise is available here.
University City, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
I flip my cell phone shut, pull back into traffic, and nearly get creamed by a delivery truck making a last-minute turn into a service road.
God fucking dammit, Marcus. I’m out here busting my balls in a 100° car with no A/C, on my way to track down a guy with no name who might be dying as we speak, and you’re chilling at home getting stoned. Nice. I hope whoever Mandy is has more luck putting up with your bullshit than I do.
I find a parking ramp near the hospital and walk over to the ER. The waiting room is packed. I’m just trying to figure out how to ask about Roland when someone taps me on the shoulder. I let out a shout so loud that everyone in the waiting room stops what they’re doing and looks at me.
I spin around. It’s Max. I nearly hug the old bastard! I stop myself at the last second, but it’s close.
“Oh, Jesus! You’re here! Where’s Roland? Is he OK? What happened? Did you…”
Before I can get out another word Max shushes me with a finger to the lips. Not here. Right. Got it. Guess I’ve already drawn enough attention.
We walk over to a relatively quiet corner of the waiting room. Max looks around through his sunglasses (a backup pair?) and gives me a tiny nod. He’s not entirely happy, but this will have to do.
My words are hushed and measured.
“Is Roland OK?”
He thinks about this for a moment, then nods over my shoulder.
“Urgent care. Critical condition.”
This is only the second time I’ve heard him speak. I’m genuinely surprised at the a lack of an Eastern European accent.
I get the sense he’s going to shut down at any moment. I choose my next words carefully.
“Was he shot?”
Another tight nod.
“Did you, you know… get whoever did it?” I whisper this like I’m a ten year-old talking about sex.
He gives a grim shake of the head.
I’m about to ask the next logical question when I realize I can’t think of one. We just sort of stand there in the corner, trying not to look at each other. A large black nurse blasts past us, shouting at a woman she’s sourly addressing as “ma’am”. The woman’s not supposed to be here, and has apparently been told to leave. The nurse threatens to involve the police, who are, you know, right around the corner.
Max tightens even more.
Wait! I have the next question. I have it! I lean in for another conspiratorial whisper as a very intoxicated “ma’am” is strong-armed out of the ER by a large male nurse with an intimidating beard.
“Does Her Majesty know what’s happened?”
I realize that I haven’t given Holcomb a single thought since Roland took over. Wasn’t he still in town, in that same fucking hotel room? With Todd? Of course he was. Wasn’t he?
There’s another pause. Max eventually shakes his head.
Oh, come on.
“Well, we need to… Somebody has to…” I look around as I say this, as if someone else in the room is going to back me up.
Then, with a kind of defiance I didn’t know I possessed, I announce that I’m going to call Todd and tell him everything. This doesn’t appear to phase Max. In fact, it bores him. He wanders away from the corner.
Our time is apparently up.
Fine, whatever. I pull out my phone and call Todd. I realize as it’s dialing that I probably should have rehearsed what I was going to say.
He answers on the forth ring.
“I know you’re not calling me right now!”
“Todd! Thank Christ. Listen, there’s been… Roland…” Yeah, I literally don’t know how to put this. “It’s just raining shit out here, man.”
“I don’t know any Roland.”
“Oh, drop it man. Jesus! I’m at the UPenn emergency room with Max. Roland’s in intensive fucking care.” I’m hissing this into my phone, as if anyone around me gives a single shit.
Another nurse barrels past, this one holding up a clipboard and making an unhappy announcement to everyone in the waiting room, causing more than a few moans. She could have been an opera singer, this one. I cover my other ear so I can hear what Todd is screaming.
He wants to know why Roland is in urgent care. Right. That makes sense. I would want to know that too.
“He was shot.”
Todd screams What? so loud it registers in the receiver as a block of white static. The nurse wraps up her aria and leaves the waiting room in a huff.
“Yeah, um… See, we all went to the zoo, and…”
“Zeke. What happened to Roland? The short version.”
“Somebody shot him in a bathroom at the Philadelphia Zoo,” I sigh. “He’s in critical condition.”
“Jesus fucking Christ. Fuck!” Another angry static burst.
Then he doesn’t say anything for a few seconds. He’s thinking.
“Zeke, I’d like you to start getting used to the idea that you may have been followed.”
“What? Come on. No one’s… What?”
“And so we don’t have much time. How did you get to the hospital?”
“I drove. I’m parked in a ramp down the street.”
I hear the loud bleep of an incoming call. I pull the phone away from my ear to see who it is.
“Todd, hang on. It’s Marcus again.”
“No! Don’t answer it.”
“Zeke, shut up. Just stop everything you’re doing. Do not get back in your car. Do not talk to anyone on your phone. In fact, ditch your phone. You need to leave. Right now. Don’t worry about Roland or Max. Don’t think. Just literally walk your feet to the nearest door and go. You know that campus, right?”
“Go duck in and out of a few buildings. Make absolutely fucking sure you’re not being followed. Get on a bus, then get off that bus and get on another bus. Make your way to our favorite spot. I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Go!”
Society Hill, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
I wake up to the annoyingly chipper trill of my cell phone. I answer it right away in case it’s Ford or Willow.
“Yeah, hi. Is this… Mandy Kosto…”
“Yes, this is she.”
Ugh, Christ. How long was I out? An hour?
“Just, yes. It’s Kostopoulos. You’ve got the right Mandy, trust me. Who is this?”
“Uh… This is going to sound a little weird.”
This actually gets a laugh out of me. First one I’ve had today.
“Not if you knew the kind of day I’m having, buddy.”
Daryl wanders into the library, wearing a What’s up? face. I point at my wrist in a lazy attempt to get him to tell me what time it is, when whoever’s on the phone says, “Do you know a guy named Balero Toomey, by any chance?”
I intuitively stand up and start snapping my fingers at Daryl. I literally have no idea why I’m doing this. It’s a panic move. I’ve seen people do it on TV at a time like this. Daryl starts running toward the living room and then back in a big circle to the library again, his arms open in a What? pose. I wave this away.
“Uh, yeah. Yes I do. May I ask who’s calling?” I try to say it in the politest, most professional voice I can muster, given the circumstances. I cover the phone with my hand and hiss Go get him! at Daryl.
“Oh, good. I’m his… He and I are roommates, and… uh…”
You shouldn’t have to look this hard in a home library for a goddamn pencil.
“And he and I had a bit of a fight recently, and, uh…”
“Oh, really? That’s a shame.”
I hear the Boom! Boom! Boom! of Daryl’s heavy ascent up the stairs. No fucking pencil in here. I run to the kitchen, hopefully without sounding like I’m gasping into the receiver.
“Yeah, and um… Well, he ran away.”
“Oh? I’m sorry to hear that.”
Finally, in the kitchen: a pen and paper. And I’m holding the phone away from my face so whoever it is can’t hear me panting like a madwoman. I move to write something down before realizing I don’t yet know what to write. So I just put BALERO’S FRIEND in big block letters at the top of the page and underline it three times.
There’s a pause. Was it my turn to say something?
“Well, so… You’re calling to see if I know where he is, I suppose.”
Another pause. I hear a cat’s mournful cry in the background. I can’t help but smile.
“Is that his cat?”
“Yeah it is, actually.”
“Well… What’s his name?”
The guy on the other line laughs.
“It’s Professor Waffles.”
I laugh too. The second time today! And I realize that my headache is actually retreating. Thank you, mystery caller, for these small mercies.
“Really! Professor Waffles.”
“Yeah. It’s like, the best name ever.”
Daryl slinks back into the kitchen. He’s shaking his head. Nope. I cover the phone.
“He’s not up there.”
“Oh, fuck me. He’s not in the… In his magic room, or whatever?”
Daryl just shakes his head, petrified.
I put the phone back to my ear. This guy’s still going on about the history of the cat’s name.
“Uh, what did you say your name was?”
Pause. I’ve offended him.
“Well… What’s your name, then?”
“Well, Marcus. Your friend is here with me right now, so you can put that concern to rest.” I point vigorously up at the ceiling and mouth Go find him! to Daryl. He backs slowly out of the kitchen, nodding.
“Oh, that’s… That’s awesome, man! Thank you so much! We were really freaking out there for a while.”
“I’m just curious—how did you get this number?”
“Well… I actually took a message for you like a month ago. Wrote down your name and number. I’m… sort of just trying everyone he knows.”
“Uh huh. That’s fine. Got a pen, Marcus?”
“Huh? Oh. Uh, hang on.”
I write MARCUS in big, bold letters on the notepad. Under that I write, COMING OVER. I hope to Christ this is the right thing to do. I hold my phone away from my ear so I can see his number on the caller ID. I write it down.
“Marcus, is this your cell phone?”
“No, this is my home phone. Wait, you can see my number?”
“Where’s home, Marcus?”
“Well, I’m originally from upstate New York…”
Jesus. This guy have Thorazine for breakfast?
“Where’s your current home, Marcus? Where do you live?”
“Oh. Spruce Hill. Fourth Street.”
“Is that in the city? Are you in Philadelphia?”
“Yeah, man. Spruce Hill. Just west of the campus.”
I don’t know what campus, you idiot.
“Got it. Sorry, I don’t know this city at all.”
“Oh, it’s OK man. Everyone’s new to something at one…”
“Got that pen?”
“What? Oh. Uh, yeah.”
“Write down this address. And, Marcus? Please get here as soon as you can.”
University City, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
Ditch my phone? Really?
It’s too late to argue—Todd’s already hung up.
I snap my phone shut. OK. Fine. I can do this. I can do this. Do I really need to do this? Yes. I really need to do this.
This is not good. This is not good. Followed? By fucking who?
Shut up, Eppler. Don’t think. Just go.
I look over at Max. His back is to me and his arms are crossed. I silently wish him and Roland good luck and toss my phone in the trash as I run out the door, wondering how I’m going to explain the car situation to Courtney.
No time to worry about that. Just fuck it. Just literally fuck everything and run.
The ducking in and out of campus buildings proves to be a little harder than I imagined. A surprising number of them are locked for summer break. I do manage to zip through a few, passing a couple of former favorite studying / smoking hiding spots. I run through quiet basement hallways, up and down flights of stairs, and in and out of loading docks. Eventually I come out of a building right in front of a bus stop, and there’s a downtown bus just pulling up.
I jump down a dozen stairs in one leap and catch it at the last possible second. I look out the window as I take a seat and there’s a pissed off looking dude on the sidewalk behind us. He’s wearing sunglasses and a dark suit, and boy he’s really fuming.
I could be imagining it, but I think I see him talking into his wrist as the bus rounds a corner.