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From the authors of The Shattered Visage Lies ...Michael has power. He doesn’t want it. Any of it.Eighteen months ago, Michael Roseman woke up with incredible power from an unknown source. To understand what happened to him, Michael began a journey of discovery, meeting other people with similar special abilities along the way. After finding the answers he sought, he chose to separate himself from the others and has been keeping this secret from his wife, Claire. Now, one grainy picture in a tabloid newspaper threatens to expose Michael and leads him to believe Claire might have some secrets of her own.Thelma Carver wants to leave her husband, Marvin, but can’t. His control of people is far too great, his power immense. While running an errand for Marvin, Thelma finds a way to escape with the help a young woman with special abilities. Wanting to kill Marvin, they try to get help from other people with power, including Michael.Though he struggles to distance himself from the chaos and keep his perfect marriage from falling apart, Michael finds himself drawn back into the fight, leading him to a small town run by one man whose power might destroy the world.
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POST MORTEM PRESS
A Shattered World Novel
Brian Koscienski & Chris Pisano
VINCENT “STONE” CARVELLO STARED OVER the balcony and wondered if the fall would kill him. He doubted it would since he was only on the second floor, so he went back inside to tend to the dead hooker.
Long hair mussed, she lay on the bed naked, less than ten minutes dead. Stone stared down at her – eyes still open, tongue lolling over full, pouty lips – and debated about giving her one last fuck. Not wanting to leave behind any evidence, he decided against it. Nudging her ankle, her left leg slid off the bed, and Stone looked at what she had used as a source of income for too many years. He doubted he’d feel anything anyway, but indulged himself with a healthy squeeze of her left tit before turning to the dead man on the chair.
The man was an hour into his death. Heart attack, as Stone’s boss told him. Perfect timing, Stone thought as he undid the man’s pants and pulled them off to find blue and white striped boxers and black socks. The man, Richard Carmichael, was a millionaire C.E.O. and, to Stone, looked exactly like every other millionaire C.E.O. – prosperous in the gut, but lacking everywhere else, with a ring of white hair bordering a shining pate.
“Shoulda shaved that shit. Woulda looked pretty, like me,” Stone mumbled, unconsciously running his hand over his own bare head. He stripped Carmichael, leaving his boxers, and tossed the rest of the clothes about the room.
With vein-lined arms bigger than most people’s thighs, Stone lifted the dead man with ease. While holding him, Stone flexed his muscled chest. It was bigger than Carmichael’s bulbous belly hanging over the waistband of his boxers, and he felt a sense of pride. Positioning the man in front of the chair, his feet touching the ground, Stone said, “You’re having a heart attack and fall onto the chair in three … two … one …,” and let go.
The dead man flopped to the floor.
Getting frustrated, Stone picked the body back up and tried again, this time closer to the chair and with a push as he let go. Much better; although the way Carmichael slouched in the chair with his arms and legs akimbo, he didn’t look much different than before Stone picked him up and dropped him down again. Noticing this, Stone sighed. His head hurt from overthinking things and he had done enough of that with this situation. This whole scene was his idea.
Stone’s boss had given him a dead C.E.O. and instructions to make sure the staged scene looked legitimate. So, Stone found the bustiest prostitute that had the shakes. Personally, he was a leg man, but he knew these C.E.O. types liked their titties big. The shakes meant she was more than willing to smoke a joint with him in the alleyway before they got to business. Of course, the joint he gave her was laced with other drugs to dull her already addled mind.
When they got to this no-tell hotel, he made her walk in and get the room by herself, and then let him in through the back door. No cameras, no witnesses. By that time in her buzz, she didn’t ask questions, just let him in and used him as support to walk to the room.
Stone needed to open the hotel room door since she no longer had the faculty to do so. Hanging on him, she ran her hands over his arm and slurred, “Nice guns. Can’t see why you need to buy some lovin’.”
“I don’t,” Stone said, and pushed her into the room.
Stumbling, she caught herself by using the corner of the bed and laughed, she turned back to him and ran her hand through her hair, improving it from a hot mess to merely a rat’s nest. “So, you like rough stuff, huh?”
“You got no idea, honey,” he replied, shutting the door. He pulled three small bags of white powder from his pocket.
Through half-crossed eyes, she made a feeble attempt to lick her lips. Looking at the bags, she said, “When I party with that, I like the rough stuff, too.”
“Shut up and get naked.”
Less steady than a newborn foal, she undressed, never once pulling her gaze from the bags of drugs. She tried to smile, but lost control of her mouth, her lips stretching like deflated balloons across her face. “There. All ready to party?”
“You bet,” Stone said. He pulled a small injection gun from his pocket, loaded with a vial of chemicals that would make all future toxicology reports show that she died of an overdose from any of a handful of recreational drugs. She didn’t even notice the injection gun until it was pressed against her arm next to all her other track marks. Stone squeezed the trigger. Less than a second to administer, less than a minute for it to take effect.
“You were a walking corpse anyway,” Stone said as she convulsed, foam oozing from the corners of her mouth. Her lifeless body fell onto the bed. Satisfied she was dead, he went to his car to fetch Carmichael. At this hour of the night, no one was around to notice a large man carrying a rolled up carpet in through the back door of the hotel. Stone liked the carpet, used it to keep Carmichael’s body from getting bruised during transport, and it made him feel like an old school clean-up man.
Now that he had the dead bodies where he wanted them, Stone completed the scene. He dumped one of the bag’s contents on the nearby table, shoved the second bag into Carmichael’s hand, and put the third bag in the front pocket of Carmichael’s slacks. He rolled the carpet back up and took one last look at the room. It looked exactly how he wanted it to look. Stone left the room, rolled carpet slung over his shoulder, and aimed for the stairwell.
Even though he considered himself a professional, he was proud of himself for how well this set up went. When he worked for his brother, Marko, he never got to think. Marko treated him like he was an idiot, gave him muscle jobs – shake down some drug dealers late with their payments, knock some heads together to scare a few people, but nothing as elaborate as this. Marko was never this smart, and never gave Stone the respect he deserved. That was why Stone killed his brother.
Walking up the stairs, Stone remembered that day. Used his bare hands to do it, too, old school style, and then took Marko’s business. He ran it as best he could. The business had failed, though, and that was why he had a new boss. Even though it was a good gig and paid well, Stone was tired of working for someone else. He had a little taste of freedom, a chance to be the boss and liked that.
Ignoring the “Authorized Personnel Only” sign, Stone opened the door to the roof. He walked to the edge and looked over. Three stories up. That was more what he was looking for.
Thelma Carver smiled, because she had to.
In her expansive kitchen, she muddled mint leaves for her husband’s mojito. The house was huge enough to necessitate three housekeepers, but Thelma’s husband, Marvin, said she made the best mojitos.
Smiling, she looked around the fully stocked, state-of-the-art kitchen that opened to the great room on one side. The other end of the kitchen opened to the dust-free dining room that all but sparkled from the crystal in the floor-to-ceiling china cabinet. She had always dreamed of owning real crystal. She always dreamed of being wealthy enough to own real crystal. Who didn’t? But Marvin made it a reality. She owed everything to him. However, there were some downsides, too.
Exiting the house with her husband’s drink, the glass immediately started sweating. She walked onto the warm concrete that formed the patio and surrounded the in-ground pool. Even though it only took up a fraction of their multi-acre, perfectly manicured lawn, it still felt large to Thelma. Making her way to Marvin, she continued to smile as she walked by a chorus of giggling and splashing. A dozen bimbos in thong bikinis swam in the pool or flounced about the yard. They didn’t give Thelma a second glance, too enamored with their clients – eight portly, white-haired men, each old enough to be any one of the bimbo’s grandfather. Disgusting, Thelma thought. One of the licentious men slapped a girl’s ass as she exited the pool. Even more disgusting, in Thelma’s mind, was that the girl encouraged his behavior by winking and running her fingers through his hair.
Thelma had expressed her displeasure when Marvin told her about hosting a catered cookout with open bar for a bunch of lecherous old men. But he insisted, stating it was a reward for the top performing executives from the various companies in his portfolio. That was how Marvin motivated: reward or punishment.
Sauntering around the pool’s edge, she felt her breasts jiggle with every step. The red bikini she wore offered no support. She didn’t like it, but Marvin did, so she decided earlier today to wear it. Again, it was all about reward or punishment with Marvin. That was why she bent down a little farther than necessary when she handed his drink to him with a smile.
“Thank you, dear,” Marvin said, accepting the mojito, grinning as well. She knew he wasn’t really smiling at her, but her body instead. Her double D cups defied gravity, supported by a wasp’s waist that led to a set of hips and ass that demanded lascivious thoughts every time she walked. Marvin often referred to her as his masterpiece, and she hated the connotation.
“You’re welcome,” she replied.
Marvin took a sip from his drink. “Delicious as always. But not as delicious as you.”
As demurely as possible, Thelma tilted her head and widened her gimcrack grin. “That’s very sweet of you.”
Marvin placed his drink in the cup holder of his chaise lounge, taking care not to allow any of the water from the sweating glass to drip on his tablet. He nodded to the empty chaise next to his and said, “Care to join me?”
“Sure.” Without another word, Thelma sat down and donned a pair of sunglasses that happened to be on the chair’s arm from yesterday. Just as she did yesterday, she slathered on sunscreen and adjusted the chair so she could lie back and bask in the sun.
Marvin watched her throughout the whole process. Once she was finished, he turned his attention back to his tablet. Sliding his finger across the screen, he flipped through news feeds about Richard Carmichael, President and C.E.O. of SynerLogistics Corporation, found dead with a hooker in a hotel room the prior evening. The authorities believed the hooker over-dosed on cocaine, along with other potential drugs, and Carmichael then suffered a heart attack from the shock of her dying. Perfect, Marvin thought. Maybe Stone isn’t an idiot after all.
SynerLogistics was an I/T company Marvin had wanted to get his hands on for months. Between their data warehousing and state-of-the-art telecomm systems, the addition of this company to Marvin’s portfolio would certainly help his profit margin as well as add I/T synergy to all of his other companies. However, it was a privately held corporation with only a few, close-knit shareholders. The downside to having so few shareholders, all traveling within the same circles, was their names would undoubtedly be mentioned in the news within the next few days because of Carmichael. Accusations and speculation would be attached to their names. That was, unless they took Marvin’s offer to buy their shares for pennies to the dollar. Marvin now knew what he’d be doing for the rest of today and tomorrow.
Taking a sip of his mojito, he looked up to the mini-bacchanal he hosted. The men poured alcohol down their throats while pawing the high priced prostitutes like the animals they were. Such simple creatures. So easy to manipulate. Mere playthings. Marvin shifted his attention to the statues that lined the patio. Half a dozen larger than life depictions of ancient Greek gods stood sentry, all gazing upon the pool. Thanks to the hidden cameras in each of their eyes, the statues also recorded everything that happened. Just in case I might need extra persuasion, Marvin thought. Just in case.
Marvin took another sip, feeling as if he deserved to be in the company of the gods. In fact, he felt above even them. They simply lived in Olympus while he created his own Olympus. He had it all. Except for one thing – a child.
He admired Thelma as she laid still, a smile curving her lips. Because of her sunglasses, he couldn’t tell if she was still awake. The sunlight made her lust-inducing body glisten. Marvin decided it might be time to try for children again. After all, it had been nine months since she miscarried the triplets.
Thoughts of being a father, a mentor, and a teacher filled his head as he turned back to his tablet. He stopped the news feeds and started looking through dashboard reports from the companies in his portfolio. As he looked at the numbers, he fantasized about explaining what they meant to his son. What balance sheets and income statements were. What profit margins were and how to maximize them. What employee turnover meant and—
Marvin stopped his daydreaming and sat up when he noticed that something was amiss with one of his companies. The employee turnover for Union Corp. was much higher than his other companies. Sure, Union Corp. was smaller, but they all hovered north of ninety percent employee retention, while Union Corp. barely blipped over seventy percent. That should be impossible with his motivational techniques in place!
Looking up to the lasciviousness happening in the pool, he hoped one of the executives was from Union Corp. He was in the mood to make an example out of somebody. Alas, none of the eight foolish old men were from Union Corp. But he still wanted answers.
Thanks to his well-executed plan, he needed to focus his efforts on taking over SynerLogistics today and tomorrow. Before he began mentally compiling a list of whom to send, he caught a glimpse of Thelma from the corner of his eye. Perfect! “Thelma, my dearest?”
She shifted to her side, propping her head up with her hand. “Yes?”
“Union Corp. is showing higher than usual employee turnover. I’m going to have a lot on my plate over the next couple of days, so I was wondering if you would be able to go there and see if they can explain the turnover issue.”
Thelma loathed the idea of doing his bidding, as if she were nothing more than one of his lackey employees. But it did afford her a chance to escape. The freedom would be brief, and she knew she had to return home, but she made the best of these opportunities every chance she got. Time away from this hell always cleared her mind, allowed her to think of possible ways to kill Marvin.
“Of course I’ll go to Union Corp.,” Thelma said as she stood. A shrill squeal caught her attention. One of the bimbos floated languidly across the pool on her back, sans top. Doggy paddling after her and wearing a yellow bikini top on his head, one of the executives chased after her. Thelma turned back to Marvin and said, “I’ll get dressed and head over immediately.”
Marvin grinned. “Wonderful. You are such a blessing, my dear.”
Thelma Carver smiled.
Because she had to.
Camp Hill, Pennsylvania
CLAIRE BENT OVER TO GET a better view of the bottom cabinet shelf and knew Michael was looking at her ass. In the kitchen, she rummaged through the cabinets searching for a box of pasta – any form of pasta – while he hand-washed the dishes at the sink. As soon as she started to inspect the lower cabinets – seriously, how could this be the only house in America with no pasta – all sound stopped other than the running water. That was why she loved him.
Over eleven years of marriage and he still thought she was beautiful. Sure, she knew she was attractive and fit, especially for knocking on the door of forty, but she knew he thought of her as beautiful. Every other man leered; her husband admired. He’d look at her as if she were a piece of art, a perfect painting or a flawless sculpture. Even if at this very moment he was looking at her ass.
“See anything you like?” she asked, knowing very well he was going to blame her pants.
“Oh hell yeah! Those are some seriously sexy pants,” he replied. The “pants” in question were what she would always wear when it was time to do dirty work around the house: faded white leggings two sizes too small with random paint streaks and spill stains that had accrued over many, many years. It was the unbridled enthusiasm of his compliments that she loved. He didn’t recite his words, didn’t pull them from the “Dutiful Husband Handbook.” She felt genuine emotion within his words every time he complimented her. He truly believed every word he told her.
“You’re ridiculous,” she said. She stood and shut the cabinet door with her foot. No pasta in there.
Aiming for another set of cabinets, Claire walked past Michael and paused to give him a much deserved, and appreciated, kiss. “Glorious,” he said with a self-congratulatory tone as he went back to washing the dishes. Claire smiled, feeling a bit self-congratulatory herself for having a husband who was still in love with her and who did the dishes. And laundry. And didn’t leave his socks lying around. And wore his underwear only once, then put them in the hamper. And read to her. And was intelligent enough to keep up with her in conversation, no matter the topic. Sure, he had his faults like barely knowing the front of the car from the back, wanting to call a repairman every time a light bulb would burn out, and demanding that she kill every insect upon command. And sometimes he was a bit abrupt with his thoughts, like now as he said, “Why is the summer school asking Sarah to do something as plebian as pasta sculptures? Stupid.”
Claire opened the cabinet by the refrigerator. No pasta in there. “She’s nine and going to an ecumenical church school summer program. You want them to make the kids read ‘War and Peace’?”
“Just because I’m an English Professor doesn’t mean I answer every question with ‘War and Peace’.”
“Okay, maybe I do. But that doesn’t change the fact that our daughter is nine, and she’s going to a school. They should be teaching her something, not having her mull over which pasta defines her as a human being.”
Claire searched another cabinet. No luck. “That’s not what they’re doing, and you know it. Sure, it’s busy work, but it allows the kids to be creative. Since it’s a faith based organization accepting children from different school districts, they’re not familiar with everyone’s education level or ability to learn.”
“Oh, I know all about the no-kid-left-behind-means-no-kid-gets-ahead mandate this ass-backwards country has. Damn lawyers.”
Claire shut the door of yet another pasta-free cabinet and looked at her husband. “Really? Did you really forget that I’m a lawyer?”
“What?” Michael said. “You’re one of the good ones, not like those damn prick bastards trying to ruin this country.”
Claire laughed and sauntered over to Michael. Standing nose to nose with him, she said, “First, you have absolutely no idea what I do. Second of all, you have a potty mouth.”
“Daddy has a potty mouth! Daddy has a potty mouth!” came in sing-song form from their daughter, Sarah, as she entered the kitchen from the foyer. In her hands, she carried a scraggly, long-limbed teddy bear that spun and flopped with every one of the little girl’s exaggerated skips. “Daddy has a potty mouth! Daddy has a potty mouth!”
Upon crossing the threshold of the kitchen, Sarah froze. With wide-eyed stare, she looked at her parents, and then scrunched her face as she squealed, “Eeeeeeew! Are you doing mommy-daddy things?”
Before either Claire or Michael could retort, Sarah looked at her stuffed bear and pursed her lips. In between puckered slurping noises, she mimicked, “Kiss, kiss, smooch, smooch, kiss, smooch!”
Sarah giggled and ran from the kitchen to storm up the stairs. As she thundered across the second floor, Claire actually looked at the ceiling for falling debris. She whispered, “What was that? Did she actually come see us for a reason?”
“I don’t know,” Michael whispered, “I’m more concerned that she was able to sneak up on us.”
Claire chuckled and poked him in the ribs. After he twisted a few times from the tickles, she kissed his nose and said, “Okay, well my quest for pasta has failed miserably. I think it’s time we do our big chore of the day.”
Turning off the faucet and wiping his hands on a nearby towel, Michael whined. “Do we have to?”
“Yes. It’s been forever since we shampooed the carpets.”
“Can’t we ask the maid to do it?” Michael asked.
Claire winked at him. “That’s a great idea. Come here.”
By the hand, Claire led Michael to the foyer and guided him to stand in front of the decorative mirror that hung on the wall right by the front door. Smirking, she said, “Go ahead. Ask the maid to do it.”
With a flat expression, Michael moaned, “Droll. Adjective. Whimsically humorous. Or at least you sometimes think you are.”
Claire stuck out her tongue then said, “You don’t have the monopoly on comedy, you know.”
“True, but I think I’m the only one in this marriage who should do it.”
From the second floor, Sarah’s voice carried down the stairs, “But, Daddy, Mommy’s funnier!”
“Ouch,” Michael whispered.
“Thank you, Sweetie!” Claire shouted up the stairs. Looking back to Michael, she said, “Now, are you ready to help me clean, or shall we discover more ways for your daughter to step on your ego?”
Following his wife back into the living room, Michael said, “You know she still giggles at fart noises, so I don’t think she’s a good judge of comedy.”
Claire laughed. “Yeah? You still giggle at fart noises, so I don’t think you want to use that as your argument.”
“Ugh,” Michael moaned. “I’ve been lawyered.”
“That’s what I do. I lawyer people.”
Once they made it to the middle of the living room, Michael grabbed Claire’s hand and gently pulled her to him. He wrapped his hands around her waist, and she instinctively draped her arms over his shoulders and crossed her wrists in a loose hug, as if they belonged nowhere else. Bringing their foreheads together, they touched nose to nose; neither spouse able to stop from smiling. Swaying as one, Michael said to Claire, “You know I love your brains, right?”
“Of course. You know I love yours, too, right?”
“Yes. But I don’t know why. Apparently, they’re not as funny as yours.”
After offering up a slow, long kiss, Claire parted from the embrace and sauntered over to the couch. “True. But I’m a thirty … **cough, cough**… year-old woman and you still like my ass.”
“Maybe we talk a friend into keeping Sarah tonight?” Michael whispered.
“Okay, naughty boy.”
“It’s the pants. Your naughty pants make me have naughty thoughts.”
Claire swiveled her hips as if shaking a tail. “These pants?”
“Yeah, totally not the pants. All you.”
Claire giggled and blew him a kiss. Even though she had to be serious most of the time in her career, she loved her home life, loved that she could leave the seriousness behind. Around Michael she was free to be herself, to be silly, to be sexy, to giggle and blow kisses. “After we shampoo the carpet, I’ll call my folks to see if they want to spend some quality time with their granddaughter.”
With over-exaggerated movements, Michael looked at each item that needed to be moved: the couch, the love seat, the over-sized recliner, and the glass tables with their marble bases, the potted trees tall enough to flirt with the ceiling. He rolled up his sleeves and said, “The things I do for love.”
Claire walked over to one end of the couch and said, “Your attitude is getting better.”
Michael positioned himself at the other end of the couch and half-whined, “It was until I remembered that the furniture is so heavy. Especially the couch.”
“It won’t be that bad. Promise.”
In unison, they bent down and each grabbed the bottom of the couch. Claire concentrated, focused, knew what she wanted to do. When she was ready, she said, “Okay … now.”
They lifted the couch with ease and waddled it into the dining room. After placing it on the floor and sliding it against the wall next to the already moved dining room table, Michael looked quizzically at Claire and said, “Wow. That was a lot lighter than I remember. Have you been working out?”
Claire knew she had overdone it if Michael had noticed. As she so often did in the courtroom, she willed herself not to look nervous. Instead, she winked at her husband and walked back to the living room, accentuating her hip movements with each step. “I have a feeling it’s all the testosterone in your blood stream right now.”
Michael followed. “Oh, I believe that.”
As she walked toward the loveseat, Claire scolded herself for getting sloppy with what she could do. She loved her husband dearly, but if he ever found out, if she ever told him the truth, he would not react well.
AUBREY AUSTIN HATED HER NAME. She didn’t like the alliteration, nor understood why her parents wanted her to have a stripper’s name, so she went by Bree. That name had issues too, sounding like the protagonist of some young-adult urban fantasy novel. She also had to endure the occasional, “you don’t look like a Bree.” Apparently, just because she went by Bree, she wasn’t allowed to shave the sides of her head while keeping her remaining hair long – half ink-black at the roots, half bleached ends – nor have two thin hoops through her bottom lip, nor have tattoos adorning her body, including a half sleeve on her left arm. So, to tarnish the image of the word ‘Bree’ and to distance herself from her birth name, she went by Bree Storm, especially in the art community. The only time ‘Aubrey Austin’ appeared in Bree’s life was on her paycheck. That very paycheck motivated her to wake up when her smart-phone’s alarm went off.
Jolting up from her couch, where she had passed out last night, she silenced her phone. Rubbing her eyes, she sat back, taking a moment to orient herself. She stretched, yawned, and then absently picked at a patch of dried red paint on her left forearm while she admired the piece she’d worked on until the point of collapse last night. Before her, an easel held a three-foot by four-foot canvas with a black, humanoid image on a background of jagged red streaks. Attacking the figure from all directions were stylized, yet simple, syringes. This was the fourth piece of her “Addiction” series.
Bree knew addiction. If it could be injected, smoked, sniffed, snorted, or drank, Bree had done so with reckless abandon. She slid down the proverbial spiral like a water park flume, hating herself for being such a cliché – twenty-four year-old artist partying non-stop, no career aspirations, addicted to anything and everything that made her high. Then one day it stopped. All the addictions, all the desires to use chemicals to alter her personality, to forget her life, to combat the pain –just stopped. She woke up with a level of clarity she thought reserved only for tantric Buddhist Zen monks, and cried.
After waking up that day, she looked at herself in the mirror and wondered what ghoul was staring back at her. Sunken eyes. Cracked lips. Skin draped over her bones. A corpse’s pallor. She turned her life around that day, giving up the vices that had done this to her. The following week, she started to eat healthier and exercise, and found a job at a strong local company called Union Corp. Even though she was only a supply slash mail clerk, it was steady income and the fixed hours allowed her plenty of time to focus on her artwork. Tapping into her emotional and physical struggle with addiction, she started a series of paintings that showed a visual, albeit abstract, representation of how she felt. The most recent one, the one she now admired as she pried herself from her couch, expressed how she felt while addicted to heroin.
I can probably finish it up tonight, she thought, walking through her studio apartment, which coincidently enough served as her studio. Finished pieces adorned the walls, either hanging from hooks or leaning together in stacks. Unfinished pieces waited patiently on easels. Supplies huddled in all corners of the room. Bree couldn’t have been happier.
As she went through her morning routine, ideas for new pieces popped into her head as well as thoughts of an upcoming show for a local studio within the next couple of months. She needed to partition very little brainpower for her job – sort through the mail, deliver the mail, check supply closets, fill supply closets. When she moved about the company, she let her long hair flow, hiding the shaved parts of her head and de-accentuating the stark two-tone color, and always wore long sleeves to cover her tattoos. She wanted to move through the building unnoticed and the facial piercings threatened that anonymity enough. Sure, she smiled and nodded when she had to, but tried to avoid any conversation. Most of the time that was pretty easy. Never once did her soul want to sing because of her job, but she tolerated it as a means to pay the bills. However, her job took her through the whole building and the number of unhappy people unnerved her. Walking down the aisles of the cube farms, most people kept their heads down and mouths shut, all busy with their own individual microcosms. Many looked worried, some angry, a few agitated. A couple looked like all of the above. Bree actually felt bad for most of the people in the building. Even though she made an effort to be aloof when she wandered about delivering mail and supplies, she was all ears if someone came to talk to her.
Located in the farthest corner of the building in the basement, her area past the supply shelves was devoid of any accoutrements other than multi-bin shelving to help her sort, some lighting, and temperature control. But it offered her plenty of opportunity to be alone when she wanted to be, or privacy when a fellow coworker unhappy about their job needed someone to talk to. Bree had never gone to any form of ‘Fill-In-The-Blank Anonymous’ meetings, so she never felt like an expert regarding the ins and outs of counseling. Of all the people in the building, she felt like she was the least qualified! But people came to her, visited her in her reclusive area. Not really knowing what else to do, she would simply listen and tell them to follow their heart. It seemed like everyone in the building appreciated the advice she had to offer.
During her lunch breaks, she usually went to the local coffee shop. They had a fantastic independent vibe and were more than willing to help local artists any way possible from displaying artwork, to selling self-published books, to allowing open mic. Today was no different, and Bree spent her lunch break there.
Waiting for her order of frappuccino and turkey on flat bread, she went over to the wall next to the main entrance that displayed three of her pieces. On the small table right by the door, she had a stack of business cards. Smiling that there were three less than yesterday, she fanned them out in an inviting pattern. The fresh-skinned young man behind the counter called her name; she collected her lunch, and sat in peace while planning out her evening. Until Bethany and Farah entered.
Bree knew little about them, only that they worked in accounting, and that Bethany was an angry one; Farah a worried one. Bree swore she saw Farah’s hands tremble.
“Yet another lunch that we have to work through. The only reason why we’re getting these ten minutes is to go fetch it for everyone in the depart—,” Bethany seethed to Farah until she noticed Bree. One glance was all it took to redirect her anger, and she stormed over to Bree’s table, Farah in tow like a doting puppy. “Hey, aren’t you the mail girl?”
Old, strung-out Bree would have jumped up and punched Bethany as a form of answer. However, new Bree had shed these types of emotions, quick and vile. That didn’t mean she’d become a pacifist willing to let herself get walked all over, though. Curling her fingers into loose fists under the table, she said, “My name’s Bree.”
“Fine. Bree,” Bethany said, using Bree’s name like a shiv. “You are the girl who delivers the mail, right, Bree?”
Bree wanted to reply in kind with a snide remark. At the very least not give a direct answer, but she knew that would lead down a path she really didn’t want to traverse today. Instead, she answered, “Yeah. So?”
“What did you do to Bill and Steve?”
“Ummm, Bill and Steve who?” Bree lied.
“Oh come on. Rumor has it that last week Steve came to talk to you. Bill the week before.”
“So, Bree, right after they talked to you, they quit. No two weeks’ notice, no exit interview. Just called in and quit.”
Bree shrugged a shoulder. “Can’t believe rumors.”
“Some rumors are true, Bree. Now Bill and Steve are gone and the rest of us are stuck with their workload.”
“So … you’re mad at me because of your department’s hiring policies?”
Placing both hands on the table, Bethany leaned in to Bree. “Don’t think for a second I’m buying into your badass attitude. I take kickboxing classes at the gym. I’m sure I could kick your ass.”
It would have been so easy to head-butt her. Or deliver an upper cut. Or flip the table on her. Bree needed to do none of those things, though, because Farah quickly grabbed Bethany’s arm and with quaky voice whispered, “She could take you to H/R for that. Come on. Let’s just get lunch and leave.”
Fuming, Bethany glared at Bree as she and Farah walked to the counter for their lunch order and then the door to leave. Bree offered a smug smile in return. Shaking her head to herself, Bree looked around. No one had noticed. For the rest of her lunch, she congratulated herself for not causing a scene. As she left to go back to the office, she glanced at her business cards. Another one had disappeared. Curious, she wondered who took it since she hadn’t seen anyone do so. Her question was soon answered when she got back to work.
No sooner then she sat down to check her work email for supply requests, her phone chirped, declaring an incoming text.
Its farah. R u back from lunch?
Can I come down 2 talk?
Sometimes rumors are true, Bree thought as she typed: Yes.
“CAN YOU TOUCH IT UP?” Laney Pederson asked as she stood behind Charles “Click” Lickman.
“Of course I can touch it up,” Click replied.
“Then touch it up.”
“It’ll look touched up.”
“So you’re saying you can’t touch it up professionally.”
Click frowned. “I can touch it up professionally since I’m a professional. But it’s a grainy picture. When you touch up one image in a grainy picture it will not go unnoticed.”
Laney crossed her arms over her chest and took a step back. After rubbing her eyes, she looked back over Click’s shoulder as he sat at his desk manipulating the image file on his laptop. He made it bigger. Smaller. Cropped it. Rotated it. But he just couldn’t capture the detail Laney was looking for; that she knew was there.
Pinching the bridge of her nose, Laney started pacing around the office, each lap barely four steps. It was a small office to begin with, but with her desk crammed in there across from Click’s desk, it went from being a closet to a coffin.
Click looked up to her, defeated, and asked, “What should we do?”
Laney stopped pacing and sighed. Click watched her with sad puppy-dog eyes, his round baby-face making them look all the more pitiful. Attempting to detract from the “babiness” of his face, he had grown a beard, but it was soft and made him look even more adorable. Adding that with his perpetually mussed hair somehow changed him from being overweight to cuddly. His disarming persona could be more of an aphrodisiac than wads of cash with women, and Laney saw plenty of his charm first hand on this last assignment. They went to the mountains of Virginia and stayed near Blacksburg where the girls of Virginia Tech were easy pickings for Click. But now they were back in the office of HyperNewz and they had a decision to make, one Laney made for both of them. “Attach the original shot to my article and send it.”
Mouse clicks and keyboard strokes were the only noises in the office as Click did what Laney had asked. After he sent the email, Click slouched and mumbled, “I just wish I got a better shot.”
Half-heartedly, Laney said, “Not your fault. It happened so fast, there was no way you could have been ready.”
“Yeah. But the Big Guy’s gonna reject our piece.”
“He’s rejected us before.”
“That means no expense reimbursement check. And this trip was a big one.”
Ignoring Click’s statement, Laney walked out of the office and said, “Let’s go. I’m sure Dean’s looked it over by now.”
Click followed Laney as they strode from their office to Dean’s, crossing through the open area comprising of four desks with four other employees all wearing earbuds and working on their laptops. Laney knew Click was right – Dean wasn’t going to like the article, and for more than just a grainy picture. That didn’t mean she was going to give up. As an ex-model and three-time beauty queen, she’d learned a few things about tenacity, especially from the lesson of never being taken seriously again after the purchase of new tits. Breasts accentuated, smile wide, eyes twinkling, she knocked on the doorframe of Dean’s office and walked in with confidence. “So, Dean. What do you think?”
Dean sighed and spun in his chair to address Laney, Click hiding behind her. He removed his reading glasses and tossed them on his desk as if getting ready for a barroom brawl. “Laney, I think you know what I’m going to say.”
“That you love it, and you’ll post it on the website immediately?”
Unmoved by her attempt at humor, Dean sat stone-faced. Laney hated that look. At thirty-four years old, he was only three years her elder, yet he’d mastered the countenance of a disappointed father. “Laney. Seriously?”
“Come on, Dean. We have eye witness testimonies from three different locals.”
“So does every article about UFO and Bigfoot and Loch Ness monster sightings, but I’m not going to publish those, either.”
“This story is completely different, Dean, and you know it.”
His steely gaze unwavering, Dean reached across his desk and turned the monitor to face Laney and Click. “It’s a story about a flying man!”
Just to look at something other than Dean’s expression of abject disappointment, Laney turned her attention to the monitor, to the picture Click had tried to digitally improve, to her failure. A copse of trees framed the photo. In the bright blue sky between the tree lines soared a man with wings. But the lighting was bad, and they’d been so far away. At a quick glance, it would seem like an unusual bird. The image of a man with wings eventually came into focus with enough scrutiny, but thanks to the lighting of the picture, it was barely a silhouette. Zero detail. “Do you think Click and I made up that picture?”
“Personally, no. I think you took a picture of a bird at a weird angle and it looks like a guy with wings, and now you two for some reason think it’s at a guy with wings. Professionally, I don’t care if it’s real or not.”
“But the locals—”
“Are always looking for an excuse to get face time in front of a camera and a quote in the paper.”
“What if we—”
“No! Laney, I don’t care if I walk into my office tomorrow to see you and Click eating lunch with the birdman at my desk. I’m not publishing this article.”
“No!” Dean slapped his desk with both hands, causing Laney and Click to jerk back. Dean closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he reopened them, his tone softened. “Look, Laney. I’m sorry. I know you and Click spent a lot of money to go out to Virginia. But I didn’t send you on the assignment. You went on your own. We have a deal where I have right of first refusal and I’m refusing. We run a news website, and get very little respect to begin with. I can’t, can’t, can’t publish an article about a flying birdman. If you want to try to sell it to a tabloid to recoup some of your expenses, go for it. In the meantime, find me a more legit story. Washington D.C. isn’t that far away. Go snoop around there for some scandal or conspiracy. Leave this cryptozoology bullshit for the crazies, okay?”
Laney fought the urge to cry, to yell, to cry and yell simultaneously. She reminded herself that she didn’t win a crown in every beauty pageant; this was no different. Instead, she gave a slight shoulder shrug accompanied with a placating smile, said, “Okay,” and left Dean’s office.
With Click right on her heels, she went back to their shared office. As soon as they got inside, Laney flopped onto her chair as if all of her muscles quit working. “Chocolate. I need Chocolate.”
Click shut the door behind him and sat in his own chair. As if nothing more than scratching an itch, he pulled a Hershey’s chocolate bar from his desk drawer and offered it to Laney. “So … are we gonna head over to D.C.?”
Peeling away the wrapper to expose half of the bar, Laney took a bite. Chewing, she moaned, “Ugh. No. It’s a shitty town with shitty people. We’d be all alone and that means no contacts and that means we’d get scooped on every scandal.”
“Scandals need contacts, but conspiracies need footwork. We can do that.”
“In D.C.? That whole city is a fucking conspiracy.”
Laney sighed and took another bite of chocolate. Chewing out of frustration, she barely even tasted it. “I do like the idea of conspiracy. There are always a ton of them and they sell. I just don’t want to go to D.C.”
“So, something with a little more hometown feel to it?”
“Exactly. Ugh. I don’t even know where to start.”
“How about with your mouth?”
“Excuse me!” Laney snapped, sitting up in her chair.
Click smirked. He pointed to her chocolate bar. “Didn’t something weird happen in Hershey like nine months ago or so?”
Laney looked at her chocolate bar like she forgot she was even eating it. “Yeah. You’re right. Some building ‘exploded’ but no one heard a thing, right? I think the Federal government swooped in, cleaned everything up, and that was the last we heard of it.”
“They sure did. Within weeks, it was like nothing even happened.”
Laney looked at Click and smirked. “Well then. It looks like we’re off to Hershey, Pennsylvania.”
Mills Hook, West Virginia – 10 months ago
ETHAN STEIGER WOKE UP LOOKING at himself. Laying on his right side, his immediate thought was that he was looking into a mirror. Why would he have a mirror in his bed, though? That explanation made no sense, so he dismissed it. Instead, he assumed he was actually still asleep and dreaming since not only was he looking at himself, but he perceived that he was looking at himself looking at himself. Feeling like he was lying on his left side, he experienced the effects of being in bed and looking at himself lying on his right side. His head started to throb as he considered how he could be absorbing information from two distinct sources, even though both sources were him. So, he decided to reach out with his left hand.
He touched the right shoulder of the person lying in front of him. As he did so, he saw himself reach out, looking at himself through this other person’s eyes.
This was no dream.
He jumped out of bed. Both of him did.
He crept toward the window, keeping his back against the nearest wall. Since his bedroom was on the second floor of a large farmhouse, he’d rather not jump. If this … person … posed a threat, then he’d take the chance. His mouth went dry as his palms started to sweat. Ethan’s heart raced as he watched his look-alike on the other side of the room tense up, ready to run out the door at any second. He also registered the fact that he was watching himself against the wall, inching toward the window.
How? How could he see through his eyes and the eyes of this … this … clone? Doppelganger? Replicant? Simulacrum? Pod person? Even if this were a clone, it shouldn’t be a full grown adult, and Ethan knew he shouldn’t be able to see what it saw. Relaxing a bit, Ethan realized he should be thinking of it as a “him.” It was unmistakable. He was him.
Almost five foot ten. Short blond hair. Some muscle tone. Very little body hair. A few more pounds around his waist than he would have liked. The same size genitals … that was when Ethan noticed that they were both naked. Embarrassed by the sudden realization, he chided himself for such silly feelings. In the grand scheme of things, he saw himself naked more than anyone else, albeit never like this before. As they continued to stare at each other, Ethan and his other self cautiously made their way to the underwear drawer.
They both grabbed for the same pair of underwear. Of course they would, they were the same person, and shared the same thoughts. Did they? Can I control him?
After they each put on a pair of boxers, Ethan turned his right shoulder to his other self while that self mimicked the action, each exposing a small circular scar from where his brother accidently shot him with an arrow when he was a teenager. That scar was three decades old, yet Ethan was looking right at it on his other self. Ethan raised his right hand. His other self winced from confusion.
Ethan couldn’t make his other self do that, but he certainly understood the confusion from his other self as he watched himself raise his arm. So, he couldn’t make his other self do anything, but he was connected to him in some way. Okay, that answered a couple questions, but not the big one – how the hell did this happen?
As if trying to give a clue, a strong hunger pang rippled through his whole body, almost knocking him over. The same thing happened to his other self, grabbing the dresser to keep from falling over. Memories of last night stabbed him between the eyes as intensely as the pain in his gut. Food.
Right after he got home from work yesterday, he started eating. At first just minor snacks; an apple here, a granola bar there until dinner which was a half-pound of burger mixed with a box of macaroni and cheese. That still wasn’t enough. He cooked up the rest of the burger – was it really two pounds? Then he ate an entire frozen pizza while watching some sit-coms. At eleven o’clock he fixed himself three hot dogs. He ate a bowl of cereal half an hour later. Then he drank a half-gallon of milk right from the jug. The pain followed.
Joints aching, he swore bone ground against bone as he walked up the stairs, wanting to go to bed. He pulled a muscle in his leg once he hit the top of the stairs, then another making his way to his room. Gurgling noises erupted from his body. After all the food he had eaten, he wasn’t surprised, but the accompanying pain was unbearable. Then he pulled yet another muscle taking off his clothes before he got into bed. As he writhed under the covers, he contemplated dosing himself with some medicine to fall asleep, but with one final ripple of sheer agony, he blacked out.
Now it was morning, and he was hungry again. And so was his other self.
Racing down the stairs like he did with his brother as children on Christmas day, Ethan and his other self ran to the kitchen. They each filled mixing bowls with cereal and emptied the other half-gallon of milk. As they chomped away, they shoved frozen pancakes into the microwave. Before the timer went off, they downed half a dozen bananas between the two of them. Finally to the point of no longer starving, Ethan scrambled up a dozen eggs while other Ethan put on a pot of coffee.
While the eggs sizzled in the pan and the coffee percolated, Ethan and other Ethan stared at each other. He felt weird saying anything, and since his other self was him, he obviously felt weird too. But he needed to figure out what was going on.
“So … now what?”
“YOU’RE A BASTARD,” THE OLD woman across from Marvin said, the contempt in her voice obvious.
Marvin felt a great deal of pride and accomplishment eliciting that response from her. He leaned back in his plush leather chair, the nicest one in the conference room and at the head of the table. Inhaling deeply, he savored the recently widowed Evelyn Carmichael’s words as if they held the aroma of a flower bouquet. Also at the table were her son, Thad, and two of their lawyers. Small stacks of papers sat before each person, the white looking stark against the deep cherry wood. Marvin said, “I’ve been called worse by better.”
“I haven’t even had time to prepare for my husband’s services, and you invite my son and me to your office so you could make us an offer for our shares of SynerLogistics?” Evelyn huffed.
“Right,” Marvin said, sitting up straight. “I invited. Not demanded. Not coerced. You came willingly.”
“I was expecting a serious offer for the company, one befitting of my husband’s legacy. Not this opportunistic insult.”
Marvin leaned forward, his tone sympathetic. “Mrs. Carmichael, I really hate to be indelicate, but your husband’s legacy is now one of cocaine and hookers.”
Evelyn made a noise between a gasp and a yelp. Tears welling in her eyes, she covered her mouth with her hand and turned away from Marvin. Frowning, Thad scowled at Marvin. “There was no need for that. My father started this company and built it into what it is today. He donated millions of dollars to all kinds of charities. He—”
Marvin cut him off with, “—was found dead in a hotel room with a hooker. The media will not care about his charities. They will not mention them once when they start to break this story. They will focus on two words – cocaine and hooker. Then when interest in that part of the story starts to wane, they will dig and dig and dig into your father’s past. How honorable was he when he started this company? Where’d he get the seed money from? Did he fuck anyone over? I’ve heard rumors, Thad. If any of them are true, I guarantee they will be front page news.”
Evelyn stopped crying. Thad pursed his lips and slumped his shoulders, shifting his gaze to the table.
Softening his tone, Marvin slipped into “I’d like to thank the academy” mode. “Look, I know I’m offering nothing near what the company is worth. You need to ask yourself how much time and money you will be saving by divesting in it immediately. You get to wash your hands while I’m offering to take the bull’s-eye. I’ve already talked to other stockholders like Roberts and Hammond and they’re selling their shares to me. I have meetings scheduled for the three remaining stockholders tomorrow, and all three seem very interested in putting a lot of distance between themselves and SynerLogistics.”
Still keeping her back to Marvin, Evelyn signed the papers and handed the pen to her son. As he signed, their lawyers started to dissent, but Evelyn silenced them with a wave of her hand. Thad slammed the pen down, stood without saying a word and stormed out of the conference room with his lawyers in tow. Evelyn followed, but first stopped to growl at Marvin, “I hope you die a horrible death and are found in a far more compromising position.”
Grabbing the papers and stacking them, Marvin whispered to himself, “That hardly seems likely.”
Marvin exited the conference room and crossed the expansive foyer to his office. Before he entered, he dropped the papers on his admin assistant’s desk with a note to give them to his legal department. He then wondered why his assistant wasn’t at his desk. Not mulling it over for long, he continued to his office and opened the door. His day was about to get interesting.
“Hello, Marvey,” Carol Carole said, sitting in his chair, her long legs propped up on his desk. She wore a shimmering gray pants suit with a cream colored blouse. Her impossibly wide smile made Marvin think of a shark wearing lipstick. The front of her straight black hair fell to her clavicles while it tapered shorter toward the back of her head, barely touching the top of her neck. A wide streak of blue started at her scalp and ran the length of her hair on the right side. Her eyes gleamed like a shark’s and held the same perpetual hunger.
Marvin had dealt with her only three times prior to this. It was obvious she wasn’t afraid of him, and he didn’t like that. He didn’t like that at all.
In her left hand she held a tablet. She swept her right index finger across the screen, flipping through pictures, while holding a black box shaped like a gun-grip that had one lone red button. Marvin knew a press of that button would render him powerless. He didn’t like that, either.
Trying to keep from showing how much she unnerved him, Marvin crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the doorframe. “Where’s my assistant?”
“The cutie that sits in that desk out there?” Carol purred. “He tried to stop me from coming into your office. I might have hurt him, because he held his arm and kept saying, ‘Ow, ow, ow’ as he ran away.”
Marvin shook his head. “You’re something else.”
Slowly removing her feet from his desk, she said, “Oh, you have no idea, Marvey.”
“I’m assuming you have a name for me?”
Sliding her index finger from the tablet, she pointed to a large envelope on his desk. “Sure do. Another one from the Hershey center. Can you believe my center is still cleaning up that mess? Seriously. They were imbeciles over there, and Matthew Matthews was the biggest one, leading that place right into disaster. Do you know how hard it is to cover up a building disappearing in broad daylight? Matthews really screwed the pooch! Good thing you killed him.”
“I didn’t kill him.” As soon as the words left his mouth, he felt foolish for allowing Carol to goad him into answering.
“So, who did?”
Marvin wasn’t sure if she really didn’t know, or if she wanted to keep him off balance by bringing up the incident that happened nine months ago. Despite what he told himself and how hard he tried, it still pained him to think about the little girl who did kill Matthews and destroyed an entire building in the process. He refused to give any more information to Carol and changed the subject. “And your center is located where?”
Carol smiled seductively and said, “Nice try, Marvey. Anyway,” she looked back to the envelope on the desk, “you’ll like this one. I’m sure you can use him as one of your thugs. That’ll be two million, please. Would you like some fries with that?”
Marvin frowned. “Two million? The last name you gave me was one million, and I didn’t even use him. Some birdman created by your center.”
Carol shrugged her shoulders and made a pouty face. “But, Marvey, it costs money to run a so-super-secret-that-it’s-more-super-secret-than-the-CIA organization.”
“Then fleece the tax payers like you do with everything else.”
Carol laughed. “I didn’t say we are government. We just do certain jobs for the government.”
“I still say that’s a bit high.”
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