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 | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
I’ve just explained to Todd that Leah, her father, and probably Courtney are by now probably all sitting in small dark respective rooms with two-way mirrors, bad coffee, and cat-and-canary-smile-wearing feds. Todd’s hunched over on his knees, leaning off the edge of the bench. Looks like he’s about to puke. He doesn’t say anything for a while, then manages to get two words out.
Yes. That would be an accurate assessment of the situation.
I watch an unrealistically well-put-together pair of women in their forties jog by, and, other than bland acknowledgment, experience literally no response to the stimuli, physical, psychological, or otherwise.
Todd puts his face in his hands and moans, “We are officially out of our depth.”
I suppose that would be accurate as well.
We’ve been sitting in this park long enough that it’s starting to make me uncomfortable. I get up to stretch my legs. The stretching turns into pacing.
“Can’t we call for backup, or something?”
Todd lifts his face from his hands looking like he’s seconds away from sneezing.
“Man, who the hell are we going to call? Roland was our backup! There is no one else!”
“Do you think whoever was tailing me went back to the hospital?”
He buries his face back in his hands. “If Roland and Max aren’t already dead, they will be soon.”
“What about Her Majesty?”
This gets his attention. He gives me another pre-sneeze look, thinks about it for a second, then finally says, “What about him?”
“Well, this is his battle to win or lose, right?”
No response. I keep pacing.
“What was his condition earlier today? Is he still, you know…” I make little crazy finger loops by my ear.
Todd leans back, stretches out on the bench, and gives me a sideways look.
“No, he’s snapped out of it. Had some food and rest, and he’s back to his old self.”
“Zeke, I don’t know. He’s old. He’s not in the greatest shape. How would this even work?”
That’s a good question. I don’t quite know, but I feel something resembling an idea swimming around in my subconscious, looking for a way out. I start to form a sentence, but it gets cut off by the video game trill of Todd’s cell phone.
He looks at the number and then holds it up to show me. It’s a blocked call.
Gravity suddenly pulls harder. It could either be them, or it could be Marcus. Todd steels himself and answers.
It’s Marcus. We both let out a sigh of relief. I collapse back onto the bench. Todd gets Marcus’s location and asks if he was followed. He asks again if he’s sure, and appears to accept the answer.
I ask to talk to him. Todd hands me the phone.
“Did you find Balero?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“God, what does that mean? That’s what Todd said.”
“He’s here, he’s just playing games with us. Found some kind of secret passageway behind the walls and he won’t come out. But I definitely saw him.”
“Did you find, you know…”
“Nope, still looking around for it. Pretty sure it’s here, though. The lady who runs the place let something slip earlier. She’s definitely seen it. I’m trying to look for it on the sly.”
“OK. Keep us posted. Hey, do you have the number over there? It’s blocked on our end.”
“No, but I’ll try to get it. How’s Roland?”
“What? Oh. Not so good. ICU.”
“Yeah. OK, so call back soon with that number?”
I flip the phone shut and hand it back to Todd.
“Balero’s definitely there, and he’s pretty sure the—you know—the thing is there too.”
“Well, that’s something positive, anyway. And it doesn’t sound like Marcus was followed.”
“No.” He scratches his chin, his eyes darting back and forth. “He took a cab there. Which isn’t a guarantee, but my guess is that whoever was on your tail decided to follow you when you left for the hospital, leaving Marcus alone at his apartment.”
“So we’re…” I’m not really sure how to say this. “…we’re just going to not mention, you know… the Leah situation for now?”
Todd stares a hole into a patch of grass near his feet and shakes his head.
OK. Not yet. Got it. Probably that’s a good idea. Isn’t it? I don’t know. I try (and fail) to imagine Marcus’s reaction over the phone.
If we’re going to keep that under wraps, then how can we…
Wait a minute.
The half-formed idea swimming around in my head has found a way out.
I smirk, and the smirk turns into a laugh. It’s meek at first, but breaks out quickly into a respectable gallop. Todd doesn’t like this at all.
“What’s so goddamn funny?”
“I’ve got it.”
“You’ve got what?”
I close my eyes and smile as I say this, just proud as all fuck. “I know how to save Leah, her dad, Courtney, Roland, and Max, all in one move. And I know how to get the… that which shall not be named.”
Todd’s getting that look again, like he’s seconds away from breaking my nose. I force myself to drop the smile and wince my way forward.
“We need to get Holcomb’s inner circle together. Anyone local, who can be here within a few hours. Does you have those numbers?”
“Yeah, back at the hotel. But…”
“OK. Perfect. That’s where we’re going, then.”
“Zeke, in all likelihood they have goons waiting outside.”
“Good.” I stand up and instinctively pat my pockets and look around like I’m afraid I’m going to leave something behind, as if I had anything on me other than the unfortunate twin odors of sweat and fear. “We’re going to need them.”
Society Hill, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
If Mandy and Daryl care that I’m not so surreptitiously using the phone, they’re not showing it. I suppose it helps that she’s on the edge of insanity and he’s an idiot. This creates nice little pockets of solitude where I can sneak around and do my own thing, which is good, but I just sort of can’t believe it’s gone on for as long as it has. Something has to change soon, but I don’t know what. Other than, you know, finding Balero and pinning him to the floor with my entire goddamn body until Mandy and Daryl can join me for what should be a very interesting conversation.
They’ve both gone back downstairs to regroup or something, and it was super easy to just melt back into the nursery and use the phone to call Todd again. (Who puts a telephone in a nursery, by the way?) Anyway, it sounds like Todd and Zeke are holding steady at the moment. Gotta be thankful for the little victories, I guess.
I sneak back into the guest room where Balero’s been staying. I nervously glance at that spot on the wall where Mandy was knocking and feel a small embarrassing wave of relief that there’s still nothing there.
- Time to tear this fucker apart.
I start with the closet. Aside from a cloth laundry bin, some hangers, and some plastic organization boxes, it’s empty. The nightstand next to the bed is empty too, although for a second I expect to find a Bible in the top drawer. Nothing in the dresser either, aside from a few ancient sweaters and some old newspaper lining. There are some shoeboxes under the bed, both they contain, somewhat predictably, very worn-out men’s dress shoes.
Standing in the middle of the room with my hands on my hips, I expect to find that one hidden spot that might contain the alien device—that one place I haven’t looked yet. Balero’s no genius, but he’s smart enough to know to tuck it away if he brought it here.
But no. There’s nothing else. I’ve literally checked everywhere in this room where it could be stashed. He’s either hidden it somewhere else or has it on him. As I leave the room I find myself hoping it’s the former.
Downtown Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
Holcomb’s pacing his hotel room like a convicted killer. He looks good, though. Light tan linen pants and a breezy white blouse, strappy sandals, light makeup and jewelry. Very crisp. Ready for an afternoon out on the water, except for stuck in this place. Still smells like oranges and mint.
The other guy is here too, the other handler. Forgot about him. The one from last time.
There’s an interrupted game of solitaire on the bureau. Remnants of a delivered pizza. Christ, they must be going out of their minds up here.
I’m standing by the door with Todd, watching Her Majesty pace. Her majesty is working his way back to us, tapping a shiny white fingernail on his chin.
He stops and looks me in the eye.
“A press conference.”
I nod vigorously.
He starts to walk away, his eyes rolling in a great arc, then turns quickly back.
“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, my dear, but have you lost your fucking mind?”
Todd’s shaking his head. I can see it from my peripheral vision. I want to give him a hard elbow, but not in front of her royal presence. The other guy, the one with the name I can’t remember, is standing in the doorway leading to the adjacent room. He’s not shaking his head, but he might as well be. The air is thick with skepticism, but it also has a trace of something else—I’m actually offering them a way out, however ridiculous.
Holcomb resumes pacing, his eyes down, his index finger tracing delicate little lines across his forehead. I start to speak, but he cuts me off.
“Let me explain something to you.” He coughs up a little laugh. “I’m here, in this hotel, wearing these clothes, assuming this personality, for reasons that extend far beyond sheer amusement.”
Todd starts tapping his foot at an impressive tempo.
“I’ve managed to elude my fate for decades,” Holcomb stabs me a quick look, “by maintaining a very careful discipline of lifestyle and movement. Now your…”
“Yes I know all that, but…”
“I’m sorry. Did you just cut me off?”
The nameless guy in the doorway lifts his eyebrows and shakes his head.
Holcomb’s in my face now. He’s actually in my face, his eyes an open furnace of indignation.
He’s had some rest, all right.
I don’t speak. After a beat he resumes the pacing and the speech. I want to say out loud that I know where he’s going with all this, but I hold my tongue. He’s going to tell me about the charades with the inner circle meetings, the elaborate costumes, the cover story of his life as a transgendered and emotionally delicate outsider, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Finally I can’t take it anymore. I ignore the consequences and cut him off again.
“We need a flank.”
Holcomb just blinks at this, too surprised to be angry. “A flank?”
“Yeah, you know—a flank. Like the kind you use when you’re going somewhere out in public. We need to get your inner circle here now. The regional ones. As many as we can, as soon as we can.”
Todd scoffs. So does the nameless guy in the door. Holcomb’s sucking in a deep breath for what’s probably going to be a painfully sharp retort, but I speak first.
“You’re going to go on live television and announce that you and your friends have been threatened, harassed, and terrorized by shady undercover goons, all because the United States government believes your research is going to embarrass them. Research, by the way, on technology that hasn’t been relevant since the deepest reaches of the Cold War.
“Now,” I say, approaching Holcomb, my fear receding, “you’re not a nobody. You’re not a household name, but you’re not a nobody. Any reporter digging around for five minutes will find a public record of your life going back to the ‘70s: your books, your lectures, your interviews on late night talk shows… You have a very consistent and coherent presence in the media, even if it’s sometimes only the shadow of a presence. Which, whatever. Doesn’t matter.”
Now it’s my turn to pace. I hate myself for it, but I literally don’t know what else to do. Holcomb tucks himself into a corner and crosses his arms. He’s pissed, but he’s listening.
“This is your chance. Everything you’ve worked on all these decades is about to come to fruition. Why not go all in? We are extremely close to getting our hands on the thing.” This perks him right up. Todd shoots me a warning look but I ignore it.
The nameless guy sighs and walks back into the other room. He’s had enough. I soldier on.
“We are extremely close to getting our hands on it. I’m not going to say how, just in case.” I don’t say it out loud, but I can’t help but think it: in case they’re listening. If they are, this is all for nothing. Can’t think about that now. Moving on. “We have a situation where someone very close to you has been shot, perhaps fatally.” (Here I mouth Roland’s name.) “And a young family that’s being held against their will. Possibly to be coerced in the most unpleasant ways imaginable. No way to know. Now…”
I stop pacing and stare at Todd.
Wait a minute.
Todd just gives me a dumb look.
I turn back to Her Majesty. The words are out of me before I fully realize their meaning.
“Leah’s a local celebrity.”
Todd says “What?” again behind me. I wave this away.
Holcomb stands up straight and uncrosses his arms. He gives Todd a hard look and moves in my direction.
“Oh my God, he’s right.”
I’m smiling like an idiot now, nodding madly. “That’s how we play it. We put you in front of a camera and let you give your story. Your former colleague and good friend is in critical condition. A completely innocent young woman and her father are being held who knows where. Leah’s got to have friends and family nearby, all of who are going to be worried about her very soon. Not to mention her clients, and everyone who’s read about her in the paper or saw her at the expo. And what about her dad? He’s passed out in bed, a cancer survivor with some mysterious symptoms. They’re all in jeopardy because of some silly old military secret from another era that’s your harmless pet project. It’s a completely disproportionate response. There’s no way this doesn’t play well for us.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
Todd is indignant now. I turn around again to face him.
“I was a communications minor, all right? Never mind.”
Holcomb has another question. I turn back around to face him, a little dizzy from flipping back and forth between the two of them.
“I know, I know. I was coming to that. The device,” I proudly say, “is in fact your ace in the hole.”
The look I get from Her Majesty totters between confusion and anger. Yes, the use of the word device is verboten. I ignore this and barge ahead.
“During the press conference you hint that the embarrassing secret they’re after has already been found, that your associates are in possession of it, and that, in the near future, when the time is right, you will be making an announcement of some interest. Keep it vague. That’ll drive everyone crazy. Not everyone will be on your side, but everyone will speculate. Everyone will have an opinion. And, most importantly of all, everyone will want to know what in the name of heaven is this military secret from another era. Leah’s kidnapping lends credence to your story, by the way. It’s air fucking tight. The press will start sniffing around. The goons won’t have a chance to create a plausible cover story for Leah’s disappearance so soon. They’ll have no choice but to let her and her father go, and it’ll undermine and confuse their search efforts.”
Todd, again from behind: “I hate to point out the obvious, Zeke, but we don’t have the… it yet.”
I sigh and turn back to him. “Yes, but they don’t know that. They don’t know where Marcus and Balero are. You said so yourself, remember? We publicly take Her Majesty from the press conference to the hospital, where she is to visit her dear old friend who was shot by (hint, hint) possibly the same monsters who kidnapped Leah and her father, and terrorized the zoo. Which, is anyone tracking how that is playing in the press? And that is how we save Roland and Max.” Holcomb has walked around me now, so I’m finally facing him and Todd at the same time. “If either of them is already dead, then you go into mourning. Either way (sorry) you win. Then you leave the hospital, taking the media, the police, and (hopefully) my old tail with you. You go… anywhere, really. Won’t matter at that point. Someplace public, where the press can follow you. Answer some more questions, maybe get some interviews, anything. The media circus will shift all of the attention away from Marcus and Balero, which is where I’ll be meanwhile. Marcus and I will secure the device, get it to another location, and bury it deep fucking underground until everything blows over.”
“How are you going to shake them again? They’re not going to risk losing you twice.”
“Let me worry about that.” I say this to Todd without looking at him. Then, giving Holcomb the sincerest look I can muster, I ask, “Well? What do you think?”
He’s quiet for a few seconds, then exchanges a brief nonverbal conversation with Todd.
“Well,” he finally sighs, fingering his delicate necklace, his eyes dancing across the ceiling, “I have always adored going on television.”