Blink

“My eyes had been replaced by melting-hot chrome. That was all I could feel. I close them now because I can, but not for too long. If I do that, then the swirling colors melt back in reverse and I then I can see her face simmering behind the glassy wall of ionized air, ultraviolet blue light seeping up from the floor beneath, turning her curves flat and cold.

Then it changes.

And then I blink again, trying to rub it away. But I had looked at it too long, afterimage seething behind my eyelids every time they slip together. Red and green phosphors dance, making something like clouds. Only for a moment though. Never long enough.

The machine hums behind me, but I can hear that something is slipping into the drone of the power lines. It shudders and the lights flicker in time with it like a ghostly pulse, like blood flowing through racing veins. There isn’t long now.”

– From “Blink”

 

 

BLINK AND OTHER HORRORS is the second short fiction collection from Matt Maxwell (yrs significantly and truly), available exclusively on the Kindle format for the next 90 days and then perhaps to a wider release after that. Honestly, I’ve only ever sold anything on the Kindle. I’ve sold exactly one copy of one other book from Smashwords, so I’m not fussed by exclusivity. Besides, you can run the Kindle app on anything form a smartphone to an iPad to a desktop machine. Not particularly limiting.

Here’s the url to hit: http://tinyurl.com/blinkkindle

I’ll be archiving excerpts from the three stories printed within: Blink, Third Sight and The Sunyata Routine (Another Name for Heaven). First up is from “Blink” and “Third Sight” follows, last in line is “The Sunyata Routine.” Enjoy.

BLINK

by Matt Maxwell

 

My eyes had been replaced by melting-hot chrome. That was all I could feel. I close them now because I can, but not for too long. If I do that, then the swirling colors melt back in reverse and I then I can see her face simmering behind the glassy wall of ionized air, ultraviolet blue light seeping up from the floor beneath, turning her curves flat and cold.

Then it changes.

And then I blink again, trying to rub it away. But I had looked at it too long, afterimage seething behind my eyelids every time they slip together. Red and green phosphors dance, making something like clouds. Only for a moment though. Never long enough.

The machine hums behind me, but I can hear that something is slipping into the drone of the power lines. It shudders and the lights flicker in time with it like a ghostly pulse, like blood flowing through racing veins. There isn’t long now.

I honestly don’t know how long this battery is going to hold out. Hopefully long enough to get this all down so somebody will know, be able to puzzle through what is about to happen. I thought about leaving, just running away from here as fast as I could, maybe getting a drink at that place just over the bridge. But then I thought that it wouldn’t hit me fast enough. Then I thought that I should face it sober.

 

 

I knew that I had finally found professor Fowler’s good side. Or at least proof that he even had one. That subject was one of serious contention at the university pub during the Wednesday night physics gatherings. Most referred to him a “Growler” and every other doctoral student offered me condolences after they heard the answer to “Who’s your advisor?” which was the inevitable icebreaker question amongst physics grads.

I knew that they all secretly thought “Better you than me,” of it, too.

After two years of berating and only the most grudging acceptance of my competence, Fowler allowed me access to his lab. Oh sure, there was the university lab that he quietly walked through every morning, eyes lost under beetling brows and a shock of curly hair that always seemed longer and more unruly than it actually was. He scarcely looked up and around at the others working there. They were beneath his notice, not even worthy of actual contempt, only a distant irritation.

But he did all his real work in his lab on the fourth floor. Nobody knew what it was. Only that it took a special card key to get up there and that the third floor was an abandoned buffer zone between mere graduate work and whatever he tinkered with.  Fowler was is position not to have to answer to much of anyone on the issue. I’d watched as Dean Lester had tried to threaten him in his own office while Fowler studiously ignored him. He had looked up the Dean only to point at a picture of a decades-younger Fowler shaking hands with the then-President. Fowler looked bored and the President smiled grimly in the press-conference-perfect morning.

Fowler had pointed at the picture and said “Don’t make me call.”

Dean Lester had stomped out, horrified and shaking with aimless and unspent rage. Fowler had gone back to his calculations, which he had always carried out on yellow legal tablets with chewed pencils.

This morning, Fowler looked me up and down once, which was odd. He had made his judgment about me a long time ago and didn’t have any reason to change his mind. But there was something else going on. People had talked, whispered really, since Sime had stopped coming to the lab. There was a rumor that Fowler had made him snap somehow and that he couldn’t even show his face in shame. But that was simple rumor. Students burned out. It came with the territory.

Still, I felt his gaze piercing through me and was finally forced to look up from my calculations and over towards him brooding in the hallway, his attentions aimed squarely at me.

“Are you coming or not?!” Fowler snapped as he stood by the elevator, the up button pressed and burning.

I jumped by reflex. To say that I wasn’t expecting such an invitation, brusque as it was, would be like saying that the universe is big and cold.

“Yes! Of course!” I shouted, too eager, like a letterman in a strip-joint.

Fowler explained, after the doors closed, that not everyone gets a chance to do this and that any of those mongoloids downstairs would sell their mothers one piece at a time for an opportunity like this. He didn’t mention Sime.

“Don’t waste it,” he had said, tilting his head at me as if he was looking over a pair of glasses that wasn’t there.

Adrenalin boiled in my veins as the elevator slid up.

 

 

My hands shook and my head throbbed. My eyes felt like they had been studded with a thousand glass splinters now. Closed or open, the pain was all I could feel. I rubbed them, half-convinced that my fingers would come back with shards embedded in them

“Aaah!” I never knew that my eyes could hurt so much and still work. The rubbing took the slightest edge off of things. I sighed and slumped. The workspace was still lit blue, flickering now. Like icy candle-flames or a swarm of fireflies all pulsing together in time

The blood on my hands looked black now. More like spilled ink than anything else

I was tired and weak and I almost looked back behind me. It would have been easy. I could have driven the image of her from my mind, banished it. Something else would rush in to fill that space. And surely anything would be better than that. I almost looked, but I turned away before I could.

“It’s just the lights,” I told myself. “They hurt too much. My eyes can’t take it.” but I knew the real reason was that I was afraid to lose the image of her face. I’d paid too much to give it up now.

My hands began to itch, skin feeling like it was too tight. But there wasn’t a bathroom on this floor. Another of Fowler’s bizarre requests that the University and conceded to.

I went back to writing, listening to changes in the pitch of the equipment drone, maybe to give me a little warning that the field would be coming down. There was no preventing that now. I couldn’t even grasp the theory behind it, much less the practice that enabled it to stay closed and hold…whatever was behind it.

But first I close my eyes and hope that the image comes back. Just a moment. I can type with my eyes closed.

 

 

The doors opened to a white-tiled hallway and walls that were webbed in traceries of hair-thin wires. They crisscrossed in patterns that were both organic and crystalline. They could have grown there like this, the ghosts of intricately-arrayed vines. They wound all the way down the inside hallway and around the corners.

“Copper, platinum and palladium,” Fowler said as if he was discussing the quality of blue in the sky this morning. “Don’t insult my judgement by touching them, though they are much stronger than they appear.”

He abruptly marched down the hallway to the left.

“It doesn’t matter which way you go,” Fowler snapped, continuing his terse lecture. “Left or right, it’s the same distance to the lab door. I always choose the left, for my own reasons.”

I dared not question his superstitions.

“I at least admit my habits,” he said, knowingly “The simpletons downstairs all do the same thing. They cross their fingers and perform their lab work in patterns that they are loath to break, but to get them to admit that they’re doing things for luck, hah! You might as well get them to admit they pray.”

We turned the second corner and our footsteps echoed off the walls. It seemed as if the vibrations caused the webs to move with a slow life of their own. I watched them for a moment, trying to find another possible explanation and failing to.

He stopped in front of a wooden door which felt oddly antique compared to the sterile hallway. Wires passed before it, but they were laid out in such a way that you could pass between them if you were careful. The door, too, was chased in patterns similar to those in the hallway. There was nothing overtly familiar about the patterns but perhaps for an echo of mathematics in them.

“And though you can’t see them, there are similar suspensions above and below. Yes, the rumors of an abandoned third floor are quite true. That allows for proper isolation of the ionizing and containment gear.

I tried not to let the word “containment” bother me too much. Probably low-level energy fields or the like. Whenever you get deep enough into physics, you start playing with radiation.

“Your lack of incessant questioning is refreshing, Drake,” Fowler admitted grudgingly. “Normally I don’t get to the main door without being bombarded by all manner of inanities. Your ability to control your tongue is welcomed. Now, let’s step inside.” He slid a very long key into the lock and it made three distinct clicks before a large bolt shot back.

I found myself wondering how many times this scene had played itself out before. There had clearly been others before me but who? Nobody talked about it that I could recall. Maybe nobody else I’d talked to had passed the audition. Fowler was tough to please, no doubt of that.

“Welcome to the new frontier,” Fowler said with an unusual theatricality. “You’re here to observe and assist. If you make yourself useful, you’ll find that you’ll never lack for anything at this institution again. Your career will be made, and as you’ve seen before, made in such a way as to leave yourself untouchable.” This last was said with a flat grin of satisfaction.

The lab itself was quite spare, only a few tables and some banks of equipment to be seen. The obvious centerpiece of the place was curtained off by translucent fabric that hung in perhaps a twenty-foot diameter ring from the ceiling. Whatever was behind it glowed blue and cold, like dying fireflies. A single oscilloscope traced a complex, slowly modulating waveform that matched to a clearly-audible humming sound.

The whole place seemed somehow unearthly, as if it weren’t on the top of a university laboratory building, but rather in a capsule at the bottom of the sea or in a remote shack in the arctic or outback. It was somehow removed, distant from the comfortable surroundings that I had known since the beginning of my academic career.

A career that was now assured, if I was to take Fowler at face value.

“Professor Fowler,” I began with more than a little hesitation. “You said I was here to observe. But I don’t see much that couldn’t be watched remotely or even automated. A handful of instruments and not much else.”

“The Suspension creates a number of associated phenomena that make many standard procedures impossible. Networked communication for one. No wireless, no phones, and you might have noticed a lack of ambient sound from outside this floor. The humming you hear is only perceptible because the Suspension has made the outside world silent, literally banishing it.”

“So who is being contained? Us?”

Fowler smiled like a man who’d been looking for something only to discover it right under his nose all along. “And to think,” he said “I was about to write you off entirely.”

 

 

The blue pulsed down like a held breath and the ghostly light dimmed down for the space of a heartbeat. A shiver ran through the Suspension like brittle and broken music, tuneless and distant. Something ran fingers through the metallic hairs and they brushed against one another, whispering.

I willed myself to blink and the room was still there. My eyelids slipped over sandpaper and they came out of it feeling bloodied, but were dry.

I wished I’d had the presence of mind to close the curtain. It hung there, like a discarded wedding veil, translucent and glowing from within. The field was holding still. After it failed it wouldn’t matter whether or not the curtain was up. It would be through as easily as breathing.

Maybe Fowler would have known how to keep the field going, but he was long past that now. And I couldn’t even apologize to him, much less ask how to keep his precious machine going.

The oscilloscope traced a frenetic series of overlapping curves, blue phosphors blending into a an erratic smear that writhed like a pinned caterpillar or severed fingers unable to rest. The system was being overloaded but was continuing to draw power down in an effort to keep the field up. Fowler had joked that he had enough electricity routed though the Suspension’s field to black out the city if it were handled poorly. Maybe it was already happening. There was no way to tell from here, and I would know soon enough if it was just more hot air on his part.

He had liked to talk an awful lot. Not so much now

Something raked across the ionizing field and the room pressed from within. It felt like massive hands pushing into all of his bones at once. The oscilloscope screen flatlined and then splayed wildly and flatlined again as the room breathed. All of the air in the chamber was displaced like the world was an immense set of lungs

It was ready to take its first steps.

 

 

“You are not needed for your analytical mind,” Fowler instructed. “In fact, I find your work sloppy, though perhaps showing some flashes of inspiration. In particular, your grasp of Dale mechanics in standing wave fields may come to have some utility.”

The insult was tolerable for the small praise he offered, considering most students simply received abuse and nothing more.

“Thanks, I think.”

“What I really find myself in need of is a change of perspective,” he said by way of admission. He choked back something bitter, maybe his own pride. “I will be presenting you with some concepts, and more importantly some…realities, that you will have a difficult time reconciling with…

I had never seen Fowler speechless before. It frightened me in a way that I was not prepared for. Rubbery and chilled fingers stirred through my stomach contents and finally settled on poking at my bladder. As a physics student (“not yet a physicist,” Fowler had warned me at our first meeting) I manipulated concepts that kept the layman up at night or gave undergrads something to talk about between bong hits. I was comfortable with that.

But when Fowler found himself without words, the room grew cold. Something had stripped him naked of his considerable armored ego. And if it could do that to him, I wondered what I had really signed up for.

 

“Dimensions, particularly what had been referred to as fractional dimensionally has long been a bugaboo of physics. Merely a convenient shorthand to balance equations and to assure us that we are indeed the ones pulling the strings and that they in fact are not pulling us.”

He bend over and adjusted the oscilloscope and the curve flattened in response. Muttering, he forgot me for a moment and began going through a practiced sequence of checking the machine backwards and forwards.

“I’m sorry,” he said with a humility that was two sizes too small for him. “I saw a variation in the field balance and had to make sure that there was no cause for alarm.”

“Is there?” I asked.

“Certainly not, at least on the part of the systems here. But the sample might raise a hair or two.”

“Sample? Behind the curtain.” I pointed towards the indigo-glowing plastic sheeting.

“I was getting to that. The idea of a dimension beyond our four, assuming you count time, and you already know from my papers that I do have a problem with that, are unreadable abstracts is about to become a thing of the past.”

“And you have a sample? A thing from what? From where?”

“That is a most excellent question. Perhaps we might find an answer together.”

I now understood that I had walked through a looking glass somewhere between the elevator and here. Somehow Fowler was asking me for help with a problem that he himself had created. This was like Einstein picking a random Princeton undergrad to just help him polish up an irreconcilable issue in Special Relativity. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or run screaming from the room.

Instead I said “Well, whatever I can do.”

“Wonderful,” Fowler said with relief as the worry lines disappeared from beneath his triangular and spiked eyebrows. “I don’t wish to prejudice you by making a statement beforehand, so here.”

He flicked the curtain aside and it slid with a sound of plastic rings riding a plastic rail and an enormous sigh of fabric displacing air in the silent room.

I blinked once in reflex.

 

The air crackled like static, an audible pop loud enough to make me jump. In panic I almost looked back behind me. My head turned to find the source of the sound, though I already knew it to be the ionizing field discharging against a power buildup on the other side. I knew that, but I wanted to see what was causing it. It could have been anything.

Yes, I had seen it before, but it would have changed. Who knew what it would have looked like now, what form it would have taken. It could have been anything.

There’s the joke about Shrödinger’s cat. The cat is in the box and inside the box is an isotope that has a fifty-fifty chance of having killed the cat. But you can’t know if puss is alive or dead, and in fact puss doesn’t have an existence apart from your peering into the box. Until you look inside, the cat is in this truly weird and uncertain half-life, not alive, not dead.

So the joke that’s passed amongst undergrads when asked by their professor “’What’s the cat doing in the Schrödinger box?’ ‘Waiting for you to make up your mind.’”

We all used to think that the joke was terribly clever.

I stopped myself from looking back. The joke wasn’t funny anymore.

I sat back down and went back to work. Not much time now.

 

 

“I’ll ask you to keep your eyes open. There are associated phenomena which will be unsettling at first.”

My eyes adjusted to the blue light. Without the curtain, it felt warm, almost like the sun lamp that my aunt used in the winter so she didn’t go crazy with the six hours of daylight. I willed myself not to blink, but the urge was strong, perversely because Fowler had just told me not to.

“What do you see?” Fowler asked. His voice projected oddly and then I realized that he had his back turned to the containment field, so that he wouldn’t see. That was the only logical explanation.

“It’s bright. Hold on.”

The sapphire-blue glow muted now. The air before me curved and summered faintly like heat waves on asphalt in the distance, but it was close enough to touch.

“There’s some distortion and the light is…”

Standing in a circle of radiance on the other side of the field, I saw a stony obelisk, perhaps my height, or just a touch shorter. It glistened and liquid wept out of hundreds of tiny or invisible pores. Rivers of an oily substance trickled down the rough surface, coursing slowly down its faces. There were an odd number of sides to it, perhaps thirteen or more. I couldn’t count them. They simply wouldn’t hold still in the faint rippling of the Suspension. I watched, fascinated at this object from another place, unable to determine whether it had been carved into this shape or grown into it.

There was a faint sucking sound as a flock of mouths opened up in unison and cooed at me. What I had taken for tears were instead salivation.

“Aah!” I cried out, unable to contain my surprise. And more than my surprise, it was shock and unease at the realization that this fascinating artifact was in fact an organism. Or at least alive. Or at least…hungry?

“What is it?” I asked finally, unable to take my eyes off of it. The lips began to move independently of one another and the voice swelled to a chorus that was both grating and beautiful, at a register perhaps never meant for human ears.

“What do you see?” Fowler asked, unable to see it himself. I grew even more uneasy at his reluctance to look at when I did. “Describe it.”

“See it?” I asked. “Can’t you hear it? It’s, ah… It’s singing,” I said not believing my own words.

My eyes stung from the prolonged staring. I could feel them when ordinarily I just took them for granted. Instead I focused on it and reported. “It’s an object, like an idol or an obelisk, evidently carved out of stone. And it’s covered with mouths. Drooling mouths. God I sound stupid.”

“Not at all,” Fowler said soothingly. “We are far removed from the seminar where you are right or wrong. We’re off the edges of any map that humankind has drawn in the past, at least in the applied sciences that you and I have put our faith in.”

“Why aren’t you looking?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, just take it in. You’ll understand why in a moment.”

The stone gurgled and spoke and there were too many words for me to follow so it all flowed past my like a stream of forgotten languages. Azure in the containment field, it stood there and just existed while my brain tried out a hundred possible explanations for what it might be, everything from Fowler-hoax to fever dream to a movie that I didn’t know that I was staring in. None of them could match the elegant possibility that this was simply something that nobody had ever seen before.

Seen. My eyes burned now and the lids slid shut of their own accord. The blue impossibility remained behind my closed eyes, a red afterimage composed of swirling bubbles the color of rubies suspended in a slow ocean.

“Are you still with us?” Fowler asked with a concern that might have been touching once but was now uneasy making. It was the voice of the tiger-trainer asking his assistant if the cat had just bitten his head off.

“I’m fine,” I said. “My eyes just hurt and I had to…”

I was dimly aware that the chorus had stopped, voices replaced by the too loud hum of the nearby machinery.

“It’s stopped,” I said as I rubbed the afterimage away and then blinked my eyes to clear them.

“That’s most unfortunate,” he said. “We’ll start again in a moment. Don’t look at if you can help.”

As he said that, I couldn’t help but to peer past the field again. The obelisk was gone, even the rivulets of drool that had pooled around its base were gone. In its place, there was a spider like thing, more than a yard across. It was made of tiny disembodied hands, all of them fingers locked together like molecules writ large. Rings flashed upon some of the fingers and they were all cyanotic blue. I flashed on the image of a nursery filled with strangled infants, all of them clutching at the air like their last breaths could be pulled from the air.

“Oh my god!” I spat, revulsion choking my voice and I imagined a thousand tiny hands at my windpipe, locked like steel, nails cutting a swarm of crescents into the skin there.

“What is it?” Fowler asked with urgency.

I told him what I was seeing, trying to make it as mundane and as calming as possible, even when the fingers all started beckoning to me with a single curled index finger, all in uncanny unison.

“Nothing auditory? What about the other senses?”

The spider wrangled its legs, unruly and disorganized, as if the force holding it together was weakening. It was walking towards me, littering discarded phalanges and delicate bones. All I could smell was burning enamel, scoured away by dentist’s drill. I told Fowler this, as dispassionately as I could.

“Keep watching! Do not close your eyes now! I’m turning around.”

I had to take his word for it. The spider was now attempting to climb up the walls of the containment field. The air in front of me shimmered and bowed and I was gutted, my insides replaced by snaking ice water, blood rushing but so cold that I shivered.

“I’m looking now,” Fowler announced. “And what I see is a tangle of bicycles, gears and spokes intertwined. All of them are blue and they are all sounding out a perfect D tone on a brass instrument as their gears mesh and rattle. None of them have riders but all the wheels are spinning. Chains run off to nowhere but still run around the gears, endless.

The hand-spider pressed a single leg against the field in greeting. At the tip of the foot, the tiny fingers were splayed in greeting.

I screamed in spite of myself, knowing that it would break the containment if I looked at for even an instant longer. The handprint had been left on my brain more than my eyes, seeing it even with the lids shut so tight I thought they would bleed.

 

Click here to get the rest of the story, and two others for less than the cost of a single-issue comic book.

Continue on for a sample from “Third Sight” which is the second story in this collection:

 

THIRD SIGHT

 

Dracula had been getting careless. Early in his career, Brian Cole might have welcomed such a development. Tracking lone wolf killers, there were nights that as he hunched over the monitor or sat in a dusty property room or sterile lab, there were nights that he would have given his left eye for a single clue to open things up. Something. A laundry ticket or a dormant stolen cell phone being fired up for one last gloating call to the authorities.

Early in his career, he thought that the killers growing bolder was a good sign, one that they’d screw up soon and they’d be behind bars or better yet, dead with a bullet between their eyes. It was difficult to work up sympathy for a psychopath, no matter how polite they were or how often they went to church. When a man (or woman, he reminded himself, remembering Two-Finger-Sally from Kansas City) spent his time tying up people and killing them by inches, it became a lot harder to focus on their kindnesses. Eventually the gravity of their crimes becomes a force unto itself, consuming any other qualities they might have pretended to, annihilating them as surely as rolling downhill or falling down a well.

But now he knew better. He understood that the carelessness and recklessness that he saw in late-stage killers wasn’t a prelude to capture, but was much more often a recognition that without luck, they would never be caught. Dracula would probably never be caught. He’d moved around too much, gone quiet too many times, outlasted supervisors and even presidential administrations. Didn’t really matter. Once the strings got long enough, the cases became not only a priority, but an urgent one. At least until enough resources were blown and you either drank yourself to death or ate a bullet in despair

Getting reckless worked both ways, Cole knew that. He’d seen his mentor transform from dogged pursuer patient like a wall of rock, to being worn down by a constant stream of bad news and fresh bodies. Eventually even the tallest wall crumbles to rubble. Dracula had driven him to a quiet death by garden hose to tailpipe.

And that was how Dracula had fallen into Cole’s lap. Not that he was a real Dracula. There wasn’t any such thing, no matter how many knuckleheads in California got prosthetic teeth and pancake makeup and eyeliner tattooed into their faces. Sure, there were people who played at it, mostly for kicks, mostly after having read about it on VampireHow dot com. They were all dilettantes, and the real bodies that had come out of all the vampires in LA County wouldn’t even get a rise out of the freshest newbie.

No, this Dracula was something else entirely. In an era where the only cases that got a lot of attention came from homegrown terrorists taking on Arabic names or cartel violence that had spread too far north, the Dracula case got whatever it wanted, so long as one man could do it. It was the Bureau’s way of preventing mission creep. Because, in his heart of hearts, when he was awake and smoking at three A.M. and couldn’t do anything but obsess on the case, Cole knew that he could have twenty men under him and never catch Dracula. The string of expertly-opened throats (two incisions: one to the right of the trachea, alongside the jugular and one perpendicular to that, always at least six inches in length but never more than eight) would not stop. They might go quiet for months at a stretch.

But they would not stop.

This carelessness, however, was a new thing. Dracula had left a fingerprint, or more accurately a thumbprint, on his latest victim. Darlene Anson had been a waitress at the Sunrise Diner in Tiburón, California ever since she had left high school. She was unremarkable in nearly every way, other than having retained some of her youthful good looks, even in the dusty traces of the San Joaquin Valley, where twenty looked like thirty and forty looked like sixty. The coroner had pointed out the very small nick on her jugular where Dracula had screwed things up. It wasn’t a big cut at all, but it was enough to spray a lot of blood and leave things very messy. Dracula was pretty clean as bloodletters went. Not crazy clean, but tidy.

This was not. The inside of Darlene Anson’s apartment looked like someone had started to paint it but lost interest after a half and hour or so. And in all that sticky, he had left a thumbprint and the traces of three fingers where he had paused to steady himself. Probably after the shock of the botched incisions.

Cole held out the smallest of hopes, almost lost in the swarming bleakness of his day-to-day searches, that Dracula was among the rarest of lone wolves: those who actually wanted to be caught. It was too much to ask for. Still, Cole was desperate enough to ask for it.

Tiburón lay at the middle north part of the San Joaquin Valley like a coyote that had crawled to the side of the road to die. The trailer park broiled in the midday sun and Cole had cooked right along with it. He sat in the silver Impala and watched the dirty and beaten Airstream trailer through the binoculars. It was hot enough and he was far enough away that it was almost useless, heat ripples distorting the view so that the thing looked like a lump of boiling mercury. The trailer in question belonged to Steven Hensely, alias Steven Parker, alias Parker Stevens, alias Henry Stefanovitch.

Hensley was the name that belonged to the thumbprint that had been left at the Anson apartment. Looking at that, Cole was ready to throw that lead away. Hiding in plain sight only worked in the movies, and there was a reason that so many lone wolves were drifters. It’s much harder to hide a crime like this than you’d think, unless you keep moving. And Tiburón was a place tailor made for that. The whole place had been made out of rolling stones that had simply lost momentum or given up and were left to eke out a life in agriculture or what little service work there was here.

Hensley had listed himself as a museum worker on his most recent arrest, that for being at the Frazier Park rest area for a day or two too long with his silver Airstream and beat to hell F-150 that was so old it was a miracle it even had seatbelts. The CHP made a basic search but didn’t turn up anything. Caught and released, probably hoping that he’d just wander east past Tehachapi and into the desert to be someone else’s problem. That was two weeks before the nicked jugular and the fingerprint.

That was careless was what it was.

The F-150 was nowhere to be seen, but the trailer was moored there pretty permanently, at least as rolling stones went. The sun gleamed off of it and Cole knew he was going to have to be going in. The warrant was good, though he’d had to get the judge to look up from his Lords of Warcraft game to get it signed. When Cole had told him who it was for, the judge had laughed and asked where Cole’s wooden leg was. To his credit, Cole didn’t tell him where he’d happily put that wooden leg.

The deputies drove up and Cole pointed out the trailer and told them who they were going after. The deputies didn’t find it funny at all. They went back to their cars and Cole followed them as they drove to the caretaker’s office to explain that a serial killer had taken up residence there. The caretaker, shrugged his shoulders, which seemed as if they’d fused to his neck and shook his flabby frame and made a noise like he knew it all along. Even though Hensley had rented this slot on-again, off-again for the better part of ten years.

Then they parked on the blind side of the Airstream and waited. Cole went in alone. They were supposed to call whenever Hensley or whoever he was today showed up.

This was the worst part of the job. Actually going into the den of a killer. Many of them only had temporary residences, transient homes that never had a chance to soak up their essence, their vibrations, their damage. But there were a few like Hensley who either worked an area for years or brought their work with them wherever they went. There were very few places that an field agent felt not only unwelcome but actively in danger. Maybe prisons were the worst, where the prisoners had nothing but time and rage to sublimate into the walls like the smell of sweat and urine.

But dens were something else entirely. Maybe bear hunters knew this feeling, coming across a marked cave. Maybe. Probably not like this, though. The den was where the killer could really be themselves, let slip the mask of sanity that they had to wear to get by, to get past toll takers and waitresses and gas station attendants, the minimal societal transactions that come to normal people like breathing, but for some are just too much to bear

The place smelled like bleach or ammonia and was stiflingly hot in the afternoon. Cole choked on the fumes and stood in the doorway to let them filter out. He wondered about the make on the prints. This wasn’t the den of a serial killer; it was the home of a mobile accountant. Everything was laid out neatly, as much as he could see from the sunlight streaming in through the west side windows. There was no dust, no grime. And the bleach smell led him to think that there wouldn’t be any blood traces here and maybe the CHP had let Hensley go not because they were incompetent, but because there wasn’t anything to find.

Though there was that oddly-placed table. Right in the middle of the floor. Cole’s feet rapped lightly on the linoleum, but went dead when he hit the carpet that the table sat on. More than that, the floor gave a little under his feet. He slid the low table from the carpet then pulled a corner back. There was a sheet of plywood there, bowed from years of laying across the unsupported shaft. The false floor covered a hole big enough to bury a family of five in. Cole almost fell into it when he got the call that the truck was coming up the road.

 

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THE SUNYATA ROUTINE
(ANOTHER NAME FOR HEAVEN)

Red. Her irises were the color of Chilean strawberries, face tinted ruby by sanguine neon light. Satori Optical’s byzantine logo hung in the wet sky meters above her body, humming. Call wanted to be sick as he looked at her body, lying face down on the alley, arms turned painfully away. She was the second in the last three days.

Black. The sign snapped off. Her eyes were empty black matched by the wet slick of the asphalt beneath her face, looking nowhere. Call tired to break her gaze, but found himself unable to, something familiar there that kept calling him. The pavement beneath her face was dark and glossy, like she had been crying before it happened. With insect precision, the swing arm of the recorder swept back and forth over the body, committing the scene to impervious digital memory.

Red. “Anybody know her?” Call asked, voice dry. He shook some sugared lozenges free from a metal case and put one in his mouth, filling it with a sudden warmth like liquor.

“Yeah,” said Marks. “Mary Li. Partygirl, free agent.”

Free? Call asked himself, skeptical. She didn’t have any identification or money or drugs. Nothing. She was a streetwalker, an anachronism. There were three houses within walking distance of Pike’s Place, all legal and clean. In addition to those were a few other unlicensed houses, every one accessible and looking for good talent. But a few women still worked the streets, God only knows why.

“Some girls still do that. They stick together down here,” Marks said. “You should have seen her friends, all that eyeliner and mascara bleeding down their cheeks. They cried on Ash’s shoulder all the way down to the station.”

“Was she seeing any regulars?”

“No, none of her johns ran the rough trade or crossed the street. Mary was a clean girl, her friends said.”

“Sure she was. Why else would she wait corners?”

Black. The recorder noiselessly pulled back to a ready position, apparently sated.

“Turn her over?” asked Marks.

“Yeah. Let’s do it.”  Call already had his rubbers on, not wanting to, but knowing it was necessary. The vultures would be here soon. He should take a look before they swaddled the corpse in their hydrocarbon sheets and hustled it away. Vultures weren’t paid enough to notice little things. He involuntarily held his breath as he turned her over, reaching beneath her armpits.

The recorder resumed its slow scans, centimeters over the body. From behind it hadn’t looked so bad; it might have been just another random death. The other side told a different story. Call read the cuts like a signature. It wasn’t  a slice-take. They were fanatically precise and always knew exactly what they were looking for, besides, they’d make sure that their leftovers were never found. These cuts were definite, but random and probing, as if whoever was cutting wasn’t exactly sure what they were looking for.

“Jesus on a stick,” Marks said, looking away from the body. “Real artist who did this one.”

“Number five,” Call breathed to himself. “Who else knows about her?”

“Nobody much. Not yet. Come morning, it will be on all the channels. They like to see red.”

She had been cut from end to end, tight skin split and peeled back. The Stripper had done this four times before, victims apparently picked at random: two men, three women, none having any relation to the other. The only thing that linked them was someone’s razor. The first one they found was flayed nearly to the bone over most of the body. Somebody had called them ‘strippings’ and the name stuck.

“He got his hands real dirty this time,” Marks said absently as he kneeled down again and looked at her left hand. The intact nails all had porosil insets, each showing an animated abstract, colors and shapes flowing into one another in miniature. Some of the nails were smudged and chipped, fingertips bloodied in defense.

“So did she.”  Call’s pulse quickened. A break. The first one to come their way. The four strippings before Mary were seamless, airtight. There had been no physical evidence other than the incisions themselves, inflicted with a frozen titanium alloy blade, ultraclean surgical quality. No blood, semen or other fluids, skin, hair, nothing. It was as if the Stripper was just the scalpel alone, without a human presence to animate it.

But this might just prove different. If this was physical evidence, then they were halfway to finding the Stripper. Call watched as the vultures stalked in and began cocooning Mary Li’s body, lifting it from the slick of blood in the alley and swaddling it in aqua-green sheeting.

The recorder made one final sweep, centimeters over the asphalt, scene passing through its silicon eye. Call left just as all the grinners were coming on, igniting their white-hot lights and preparing to look caring and concerned for the home audience. Desperation and hope battled within Call again. He’d been suspended between those two poles ever since this assignment had been handed to him. That was four bodies ago.

Call couldn’t get Li’s eyes from his head. He had looked at them too long, until the ghostly afterimage had fused to his retina. He tried to sleep, but found himself unable to catch more than a few hours rest before giving up. Sitting down with all the files on the case, he drank from pot of Mexican coffee and smoked tobacco fresh from Confederation fields in Kentucky.

After a few moments, he realized that they were not Li’s eyes haunting him, but Carol’s. His wife of five years who, six months ago, was not home when Call got back from work. Neither were her clothes or things. It was as if she never had been. Mary Li and Carol might have been sisters, they were so close in looks. Call looked at the body and knew that it wasn’t Carol, but he kept seeing her dead in the alley, stripped bare.

“It’s a sure thing that He did it,” said Shapiro. They were standing in the chilly morgue, looking down on the body as it lay there on the stainless grey slab. “Same clean blade. Same patterns of incision, but this time focusing on thoracic and the cardiac regions. Getting to the heart of the matter,” she murmured humorlessly.

Shapiro was a short, round woman who always wore a dark red sash with fringe that tickled the noses of the cadavers she looked over. She had coarse features, dark eyes and an insistent, nasal accent that grated Call’s nerves.

“Look at this, though,” she said. She leaned in and grabbed Li’s left hand with her pudgy fingers. The insets were all turned off, now dull gray. Li’s fingers were stained an unmistakable dirty maroon underneath the edges of her nails. “No, the third finger, Call.”

He looked closely at the spot that Shaprio was pointing out. There was a ragged tear in the skin of Li’s ring finger. It wasn’t much at this scale.

“Injury sustained during the attack?” Call asked. “You have a blowup of that?”

Shapiro nodded as she brought a flatscreen over from another table. She flipped through a few possible views then decided on one before handing it to Call. Onscreen, the tiny wound seemed huge and deep, a canyon of flesh. “The cut was caused by her hand slipping over something during the attack.”

Call looked away from the monitor. “Do we know what?”

She reached back to another table and handed something to Call. “Uh-huh,” Shapiro chirped. “This.”  Inside a plastic sleeve was a tiny piece of something digital. The item couldn’t have been more than a half centimeter square, if that big at all.

“Silicon?” Call asked.

“Take a look here,” Shapiro said as she pointed to the screen and pressed a button. The finger wound was replaced by an extreme magnification shot of the chip. It was really a fragment of a larger unit, one of its perimeters sheared raggedly.

“Taash induction feed,” Shapiro commented. “Cadillac tech. Top of the line.

“Induction feed?  What the hell for?  Li wasn’t wired.”

Shapiro shook her head in the negative. “Not where that thing was jammed. Not at all.”  She circled around the room, chewing on the end of a stylus in puzzlement.

“So she got it off him…Why would he have an induction jack on him?” Call wondered aloud. “Maybe it wasn’t his in the first place. Could she have picked it up somewhere beforehand?”  This was beginning to look like a spurious clue, eating away at any hope of breaking the case through this avenue.

“Sure. Anything’s possible, Call.”

He was ready to leave, wanting to get out of the room with the dead girl. She was watching him, even through the sheet that was covering most of her. Even though her eyes were closed, Call saw black ringed with a fringe of red iris in his mind. “What about the blood?  Anything there?”

“Oh, you’ll like this,” she said with a   Not only was there blood, but the tiniest smidge of tissue attached to it. And it isn’t Li’s skin, either. I’m running a trace through LIsP on the sample to see if we can get an ID.”

“If he’s logged in their databases,” breathed Call with resignation. About eighty percent of the population had been tagged at birth and cataloged by the League IntelligenceS Program as standard procedure. Most if not all law-abiding and normal citizens dutifully entered themselves and their children on the rolls. Of course, Call wasn’t expecting anything, since he rarely ever dealt with the law-abiding or normal. “How long on their search, Shap?”

“Shouldn’t be long now. And if they got a name, then we got this bastard.”

“No. All we’ll have is his name, Shap. Just his name.”  Call walked listlessly out of the morgue and up the stairs to the commissary. He ordered a bowl of noodles and shrimp and more coffee, which he consumed halfheartedly. He stopped eating for a few moments, trying to gather all the energy that he had somehow lost in the last few months. Marks sat down in the cubicle, across the plastic laminate table from Call.

It took Call a moment to respond to Marks’ greetings.

“Hellooo….Earth to Jimmy Call. Earth to Jimmy, come in, please.”  Marks smiled when Call finally snapped out of it and focused on his face. “You were really zoning out on me, there.”

“Sorry. Just thinking.”  Call took up his chopsticks and began to pick at the salty noodles and broth.

“You get yourself into trouble doing that.”

“Thinking about Carol.”  Call looked intently into his soup, almost ashamed.

Marks tried to look sympathetic, but failed to cover up the disgust in his voice. “Look, Jim. People get divorced all the time. Sure, it bites, but you have to realize that it just doesn’t work out sometimes.

“I know that. I know. Just that I wonder if there was anything else I could have done. Something I could have said.”  Call smiled idiotically.

“You would have to be someone else. Someone that you weren’t.”  Marks stabbed his plastic fork into a whitish slab of fish. “What’s eating you, Call?  All this happened months ago. You’ve been separated half a year for Christ’s sake.”  Marks sliced at the food on his plate angrily.

“Didn’t you look at that girl’s face last night?  Look real close?”

“I guess I must have missed something that you saw. Care to tell me?” Marks said around a forkful of meat.

“Mary Li and Carol, they looked alike, like sisters. Didn’t you pick that up?  I thought you did, and just didn’t want to say anything.”  Call got up and stood, ready to leave. “I gotta go. In a few, okay?”

Marks just nodded silently, feeling stupid for not seeing the obvious. The anger he had just a few moments ago seemed insubstantial now, like a shadow.

When he got up to his desk, Call found a few sheets of hardcopy in a plastiback folder sitting atop the spotless blotter. Scrawled on the presstone back of the folder was a note from records divsion. RE: SDP, Case 577292-43. The strippings. Call absently wiped the folder’s casing, blanking the surface. He sat down heavily and opened the folder.

Pawn, Jasper 32 years of age cyberneticist working with Wisdom systems Seattle, WA, no previous arrests, served in Land Forces with R&D, average physical attributes, address in the Towers, an upscale building with a view. Pawn was reduced to numbers on a record, abstracted. All he would ever be was right there in black and white.

The Stripper? thought Call. Not likely. He’s not even the type to consort with walkers. If at all, he goes to very clean houses and probably has unimaginative sex with white girls. But for some reason, his blood was all over Mary Li’s fingers. Or at least, LIsP thought so.

 

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