Excerpt for The Xactilias Prelude: A Thriller by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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A Thriller

By RJ Lawrence

Copyright 2019 RJ Lawrence

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Chapter 1

“Have you noticed any insects behaving strangely?” the man asked, his pen tapping the table in consistent rhythmic beats. “Avoiding you, perhaps?”

“No,” Claire answered.

“Good,” the man said. “That's different from the other subjects.”

He scribbled something onto his clipboard.

“What about sleep? Have you slept yet?”


“Interesting,” he muttered. “That's 72 hours.”

He scribbled again and set the clipboard aside. He removed his glasses and placed them flat on the table.

“And how do you feel?”

Claire glanced down at her hands. The leather straps had cut flawless red circles into her milky white wrists.

“I have a headache.”

“Well, that's to be expected with the dehydration.”

She looked at the two guards standing by the door, their bodies impossibly large and still, as if they'd been cut all at once from two granite hunks. The man rubbed his eyes and sighed.

“Let's hurry this along. I don't want to be here any longer than you do.”

“I doubt that,” Claire whispered to no one in particular.

“Fine, then, let's proceed.” He put his glasses back on and collected his clipboard. “Any itching of the skin?”


“What about sudden blindness, visual impairments?”


He pursed his lips and nodded approvingly.

“Are your fingernails growing?”

She looked at her hands.

“I have no idea.”

“Fine,” he said.

She cocked her head to the side and assessed the man before her. He was bald and his Adam's apple jutted forth like a misplaced elbow, its sharp point bobbing with every spoken word. She lowered her head and sucked the saliva in her mouth.


The man looked up and frowned.

“I'm afraid it will be a few hours more at least.”


He frowned.

“Let's continue.”

The questions came quicker now.

“Any lesions? Is your stool strangely colored? Abnormal hair loss or growth? Have your feet begun to curl?”


He released the clipboard and took the pen by each end, his elbows propped upon the table, a look of embarrassment taking root within his pale gray eyes.

“Have you passed any fluids since the injection? Urine, sweat, anything?”

Claire shook her head from side to side.


She shook her head again.

“Are you sure?”


He looked at one of the guards.

“98.6,” the shadowed figure said. “We check hourly.”

The man nodded and wrote furiously on his clipboard for several minutes, only stopping to brush away a fly which had somehow entered the facility.

“Well then,” he said as he stood. “I'll return tomorrow.”

He turned and took a couple steps toward the door.

“Wait,” Claire said. “I need water.”

The man stopped without turning around. He looked at the guards and shook his head from side to side. Then he passed through the doorway, leaving her alone with the two hulking men, their stony faces unmoved and uncaring, scars throughout.

Both stood stoically until the door closed and then each one relaxed. The larger one removed a pack of cigarettes and worked two free. He handed one to his partner and set fire to them both. He looked at the other man and gave him an elbow, a smile unfurling beneath his broad mustache.

“I can get you water,” he said, as big spindles of white smoke curled from his fingers: the thickest Claire had ever seen.

Claire stared at the floor, her long hair draped around her sulking head.

“I'm serious,” he continued. “I can bring you a big cup of cold water. It would take me five seconds.”

He glanced at his partner and they exchanged smiles.

“You be nice to me and I'll be nice to you.”

He approached her from the front and looked down at the back of her neck. The fly circled his head as if it smelled something familiar. He swatted at it and cleared his throat.

“And, of course, you'll have to be nice to my friend here, too.”

Claire raised her head and looked up at his face, her mahogany eyes boring forth, jaw undulating beneath the skin. The guard smiled boldly and drew from his cigarette. He started to say something else, but before he could, the door swung open and Demetri entered.

Both guards looked at their cigarettes and nearly swallowed the smoke in their mouths.

Demetri waved his hand against the stinking fog and coughed.

“Outside,” he said without looking at either.

The two men rushed passed him, heads pointed down, a telling fear within their watering eyes.

Demetri shut the door behind them and approached. He had a small plastic cup of water in his hand, and he held it so it could not be missed.

“I'm honestly surprised to find you here,” he said, as he took a seat across the table. “I thought you would have left by now.”

Claire pinched her eyebrows together and raised her wrists against the leather straps.

“Please,” Demetri said, as if truly insulted, his black eyes like little holes behind the glasses he wore.

He leaned back in his chair and sighed, his expression casual, as if he sat across an old friend on the most ordinary of days.

“So, why are you still in this room?”

“Where would I go?” she asked. “How would I even know?”

Demetri frowned, his dark Latin features bold and handsome despite his age.

“Let me tell you a story,” he said.

He brought his chair flat and placed the water on the table. He removed his glasses for a moment to massage his nose and then replaced them with care.

“I come from a place unlike your home,” he said. “It is a choiceless place controlled by cruel men. There, children are made to work like adults. Sometimes with men standing behind them, pistols strapped to their waists.”

He cleared his throat and put his hands together, his forearms resting on the table, a stern look in his cold, hard eyes.

“I was born into this place a fatherless child. My mother looked over me and my brothers and sisters as best she could, which was to say inadequately. I spent much of my time taking things that were not mine, a common thing in this place. Even at a very young age, children must learn to steal if they hope to survive for very long. Those who do, do. Those who don't.”

He shrugged and turned his palms upward.

“One day, I took something from a soldier. A gold pocket watch that looked very important. Very valuable. Having a practiced hand, I easily lifted it from his jacket and casually made my way through the crowds. Simple as always. One of a thousand times.”

He leaned forward in his chair.

“Except this time, another man had seen me. This man, a colonel of the army. As I cleared through all the humanity, there he was to snatch my wrist with his gloved hand. I looked up and saw his face, entirely marred by scars, a thick black beard snarling in all directions. Then I saw the butt of his rifle as it came into my face, and then darkness.”

Claire looked down and shook her head slowly.

“I don't care about any of this, Demetri,” she said.

He gave a patient smile and continued.

“When I awoke, I found myself shackled to a stone wall in some sort of dungeon cell. On this damp wall, a very colorful algae grew to make a stench that nearly choked the oxygen from the room. This I remember the most, even more than the beatings, which were substantial and severe. For five years, I lived in this place, without any way out. Without any sort of hope.”

He frowned and looked thoughtful.

“And each day, I became more trained, and with time, my obedience became ordinary. A thing that was taken for granted. And with this apathy came opportunity. More than enough, in fact. And yet, despite these possibilities, I remained a prisoner, because of fear.”

He pointed a finger at her.

“Men of power know this one true fact: that more than knives and guns and bombs and steel walls a hundred feet thick, fear is the one true controller. And so it was with me. Until one day, when I finally took my opportunity and freed myself.”

He folded his hands and bit his lower lip.

“I had to kill three people to do it, one an old woman who happened across my path at the wrong time. I had never dreamed myself capable of such things. And yet, there I was with a blood-soaked shirt and gore and death in my wake. And do you know what caused me to risk my life and my soul on that one particular day and not the others leading up?”

He waited for a moment, as if he thought she might answer, and then he removed his glasses once more and studied her with his naked eyes.

“Because one of the guards I trusted very much told me I would be subject to heinous things if I did not. You see, the bearded colonel who took me by the wrist so many years before had made regular visits throughout my stay. And, each time, he brought some new misery with him. Miseries which left me broken and scarred for weeks following. And this guard told me with earnest words that this bearded colonel meant to visit again in one day's time to make a toy of me in such a way that would have surely left me dead.”

He shook his head once.

“And that was when I acted.”

Claire looked up and his eyes sunk deep within hers.

“You see, for five years I remained paralyzed with fear. And had my hand not been forced, perhaps I would have died. Or, perhaps I would remain in that place, still alive, even today.”

He smiled and put his glasses back on.

“Thankfully, we will never know.”

He stood up and dusted his slacks.

“For one hour, you'll find yourself undisturbed,” he said, his eyes serious and bold even behind his glasses. “Then, the guards will return to do as they please. I will not stop them. The cameras will be off.”

He collected the cup of water and looked it over. He took a small sip and set it on the table.

“Of course, that will all depend on whether or not you still occupy this room.”

He turned and took two steps toward the door.

“Wait,” Claire said. “Please don't do this.”

Demetri smiled and put a finger to his lips.

“Sometimes, you cannot win,” he said. “But you can still decide how you will lose.”

With that, he exited, leaving the door open and unprotected, the hallway outside bright and white and smelling of disinfectant.

Claire bit her lip and wrestled against the straps, their edges biting down on her flesh, blood trickling from her veins and splattering brightly atop the tile floor. From the corner of her eye, she saw the fly land on the table and rush forward, an invisible trail of filth in its wake. It stopped immediately before her and pawed at itself before taking flight once more.

Down the hall, voices murmured, the guards chuckling to themselves, foul plans rooting within their twisted minds. She glanced at the clock, its pace the same for everything in any circumstance: the guilty, the innocent, animal, insect and man. She took several short breaths and reengaged the restraints. But even after 15 minutes of fury, they remained as they had been: firmly fashioned around her bloody wrists, the leather thick and without seams.

She dropped her head to sob, and when she did, the fly landed on the nape of her neck. Without thinking, she jerked her head back and whipped her hair around. The insect took flight and orbited her head a number of times, its buzzing made loud by the hollowness of the room. In a rage, she shrieked and jerked at the leather straps, the chair squealing against the bolts that held it to the floor.

All the noise brought laughter from down the hall, and now the guards whistled and made crude comments, one shouting the time every five minutes.

She settled in her chair and cried dryly, her body aching for water the way the drowning ache for air. But even as she cried, the clock kept ticking, its gentle racket like a train whistle inside her head.

She thought she might take her own life if given the power, but this was a wasted thought. And more came with it: her childhood, her father's face, a boy she once loved. And time held its pace through it all, unmoved by the problems of men, the clock on the wall tracking its progress with gentle, rhythmic clicks.

At last, she resigned to her fate, her body resting weakly, eyes fixed upon the cup of water. They'd enter the room shortly, she thought. And there was nothing within her to stop them. And no one would be coming to her aid.

She rested her head against her shoulder, and when she did, the fly set down on her cheek and scuttled over her nose.

As if poked by something electric, her weakened body jerked to life. She writhed about, but the insect stayed affixed to her skin, its vile extremities tickling their way across this new terrain of supple flesh. At last, something within her broke and she screamed until her lungs ran empty and her mind went black.

Seconds later, her clarity returned, the fly within her right hand, the leather confinements broken atop the floor. She looked at her free hand as if it had just grown from her wrist, the wounds gone, faint bruises where there had been open sores not minutes before.

She glanced at the clock, but the time was gone. In a panic, she gathered the other strap into her free hand and pulled. With little effort, the thing came apart like something made of paper. She held the fragments and studied them, her face pallid and awestruck.

Suddenly, footsteps gathered outside. She stumbled from the chair, her body wavering atop infant-like legs. But before she could take even one step, the two monstrous guards appeared in the entryway, their jaws made unhinged by her inexplicable freedom.

For what seemed like several minutes, she stared at them and they at her. And then all three looked at the cup of water.

In a panic, both men raced toward it, their hands reaching out, eyes wide as dinner plates. But before they could close the distance, Claire threw herself forward and bent over the table. She gathered up the cup and brought it to her lips, even as one of the guards took her right arm and twisted it backward.

By the time it reached her mouth, the cup had nearly emptied, but for a few drops which splashed onto her face and slipped between her open lips. Soon she was on the ground, the two men restraining her, one clubbing her face with what seemed like a two-ton fist.

But even as he whaled away, she felt a growing heat within her body. And soon, she was on her feet, one of the great, giant men cowering against a wall, the other clutching a useless arm that now bent in all the wrong places.

“Please,” the other guard said, as he pressed his body flat against the wall. “I'm sorry. Just go, please.”

She approached him and bent low, taking his bristly jaw in her small, delicate hand. And then his screams invaded the halls and traveled deep and far throughout the facility, where Demetri sat at his desk, sipping coffee and smiling.

Chapter 2

9 months earlier

Claire Foley slept under warm blankets in a cold room. Below her, floor vents whispered. Outside, the sky grew purple and soft. On her nightstand, an alarm clock threatened to sound in 30 minutes, but this didn't matter much. The birds would cut through everything soon, puncturing the serenity with their thin little cries.

When the first one came on, she turned over her body and worked the covers between her naked feet. She watched the clock keep time as her mind made the murky path toward full-on consciousness. She reached out into the coldness and flipped off the alarm just seconds before it brought more unwanted clatter. She withdrew back into the warmth and listened to the ballad of tweets and calls, the birds growing ever louder, as if they believed it necessary to coax the sun from its wherever place. At last, she spilled out from the covers and rushed toward the bathroom, the cold tile floor stinging her little feet with every pattering step.

In the bathroom, she dressed, spread makeup onto her skin and studied in the mirror a young but serious face. She ate little before leaving for work, her car parked along the curb outside, abrasive morning radio voices filling the interior with a twist of the ignition key. She zipped onto the freeway and off the curled exit. She slowed to pay the homeless familiar and the ones that looked new. She cleared security without any eye contact. She slotted her vehicle in the parking space that said staff only without really meaning it. All this she did without thought, as if she'd practiced the sequence hundreds of times before.

And so it was, because she had.

For nearly half a decade, Claire had worked at Clairmont University, assisting a brilliant man, while he continued the research of another brilliant man who'd lived many years before. Like most brilliant men, Paul Devaney knew he was brilliant, but he didn't seem to notice that Claire was, too. Or if he did, he intentionally kept it to himself, out of pride or thoughtlessness, who could say?

Over the course of those five years, Claire worked alongside this disgusting man, while his big fleshy nose squealed like a teakettle with every breath. While she worked, he’d pace behind her, years of abrasion patterns marking the cut of his lazy, scuffling path.

“No, no,” he'd say. “Do it again.”

And she always did, while his tiny black eyes burned holes in the back of her head.

Nearly everyone at the university had contemplated murder fantasies for Paul Devaney; however, most seemed content enough when they learned he'd accepted a job at Viox Genomics, one of the most prominent genetic labs in the country. That was a big day. People passed cute little smiles as they crossed in the hallways: secrets between subjects, better times ahead.

In the summer, Claire had dreamed up a darker fantasy, but she must have wished too hard, because instead of showing to collect his things and claim his long-awaited glory, Paul Devaney just stopped coming to work altogether and ultimately disappeared.

The people at Viox Genomics were concerned, the university heads, too. But no one dragged the world's reservoirs looking for Paul Devaney. Instead, they moved forward, the university slotting apt candidates into relevant vacancies, one to fill his void, one to fill the void made by the filling.

This brought opportunity for Claire, but not the opportunity she deserved. It turned out Paul Devaney had hoarded so much credit, she couldn't assemble a portfolio to prove her contributions. And so she took what came: a suitable offering that allowed her to continue the research which had become her life. And for the next several months, she spent each and every day ruining her eyes on microscopic particles and endless strings of numbers unintelligible to all but her.

She spent endless nights in that place, life getting away, neither dates, nor parties, nor invitations to decline. But then, everything seemed to change, when a very important person from Viox Genomics called to offer her the job once promised to Paul Devaney. Without hesitation, she claimed the hand-me-down opportunity as her own, a broad smile cutting across her face, mahogany eyes beaming and wet. That night, she drank margaritas from a yawning, salt-rimmed glass, a rush of warmth flooding her core, newfound confidence at root somewhere within.

Over the following weeks, the past closed out with a wink. Free from Paul Devaney, the facility’s social atmosphere bloomed. Attitudes improved and so did just about everything else. How-are-yous became commonplace. Smiles occurred out in the open. People transformed into themselves. Did the air smell better?

On this day, bright thoughts accompanied Claire into the building, an overwhelmingly tall man holding the door as she entered. She stepped inside and surveyed the footwork before her. People came and went across the linoleum floor on practiced feet made experienced by days prior. She sucked in a big breath and pushed her way within their ordinary every day.

For half a decade, she'd worked here, subordinate to geniuses, subordinate to fools. But those days were over, and she wore this truth on her bright, beaming face.

Stacey, the young receptionist with the nose ring, saw it at once.

“Hi you,” she said through a broadening, slick little grin. “Getting excited?”

Claire nodded, Stacey up on her feet, face drawing soppy and wet.

“I'm going to miss you so fucking much. I just can't believe this is happening.”

The young girl fled the desk and offered a hug. Claire forced a smile and bent so only their shoulders met.

“Oh, it's alright,” she said. “It'll be alright.”

“No,” said Stacey, a stern look setting in. “It's fucking not going to be alright.”

She looked over each shoulder, as if she made a habit of qualifying her remarks by the presence of others.

“It's not alright.” She began to cry. “I hate all these fucking people. Each and every goddamned one.” She rubbed the back of her hand across her nose and it shined like polished brass. “I hate their faces.”

Claire pulled free and patted the top of her head.

“O.k. Alright.” She nudged the young girl backward. “We still have another week, don't we?”

Stacey's face went flat.

“Oh, right.” She dusted her chest. “Another week. Sure.”

She returned to her desk, and started working her cellphone.

“That guy's got an appointment,” she said, without looking up.

Claire looked over to the man sitting poised upon the lobby couch.

“Oh, hello,” she said, making steps to meet him. “I'm sorry. I didn't see you there.”

“Hello, ma'am,” the man said. He bowed a little and tipped forward his hat, a fedora that suited him well.

“I wasn't aware I had any appointments.” She turned toward Stacey, but she was only there in body.

“That's perfectly my fault,” the man said. “It was a last second thing.”

“Ok,” she said. “Ok. Well, let me just have a chance to settle a few things, and I'll be right with you.”

He put his hand up and regained his seat.

“You take your time, absolutely.”

She nodded, her expression showing traces of confusion. Normally, she had few meetings if any, and as she entered her office and closed the door, a temptation to straighten overtook. She looked around for signs of loose organization, but there was already too much order, so she took some files from the cabinet and fanned them out on her desk. She opened one of the drawers, removed a handful of pens, set them on the files and looked around. Someone had given her a coffee mug that read, 'cancel my subscription; I'm tired of your issues,' and this she put in the waste basket.

She checked the messages on her voicemail, and then waited an appropriate amount of minutes to show that unexpected appointments must wait if for no other reason than to prove the value of her time. Then she buzzed Stacey, who let the man in.

He entered and gave a little bow, and Claire lifted from her seat slightly, because it seemed like the thing to do.

“Hello,” she said as the man approached. He held a black folder in his right hand and a pen in the other.

“Hello to you. Do you mind?”

He pointed to a stiff little chair propped against the wall, and she lifted from her seat once more.

“Please,” she said, as she looked over her appointment book. “Mr. Harris, is it?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. He lifted the chair with one hand and spun it to face her desk. He sat down and organized himself as comfortably as the thing would allow.

“I'm sorry for the chair,” she said. “Truth be told, I don't really get that many appointments.”

He pushed away her apology with a flip of the hand.

“It's good for my posture.”

Mr. Harris wore a bland gray sport coat that seemed too tight and slacks that seemed too short. Burgundy suspenders arched over his belly and stretched thin against its forthcoming weight. He was handsome in the face, but his age and small stature stole greatly from it. Indeed, it took effort to notice his kind, square features over the plainness of the rest. But something about his manner suggested he might not care either way.

“How can I help you,” she asked, her hands folded neatly on the empty wood desk.

“Do you mind?” he asked, hesitating to set the folder upon his side of the varnished barrier.

She turned her hand over, and he placed it flat.

“Now, Ms. Foley, I'm here today to offer you a proposal, and I hope you'll listen to me the whole way through even if at times, you don't feel like you need to, or want to, or whatever.”

He had some sort of rural accent, but he didn't seem rural at all. She leaned back in her chair and it cried a little.

“I've got enough copy toner if that's what you have on your mind.”

“No, no,” he shook his head. “This is way better than toner, I assure you.”

“Alright,” she said. “Well, I think I should warn you that I won't be here much longer, so you might be better off taking your offers upstairs.”

He shook his head and pursed his lips.

“No, ma'am. I'm here today to see you and you alone.”

She put an index finger to her chin and lowered her eyebrows.


He smiled and wrinkles shot out from his eyes.

“Now, it may not look like it, but I represent some very powerful people. People who have the power to make dreams come true.” He put both hands flat against the desk. “People who have the power to give people like you everything they need to reach their goals.”

She frowned.

“Ok,” she said. “That's an aggressive statement.”

“Absolutely,” he said.

She picked up one of the pens and set it back down.

“What makes you think I'd be interested?”

Mr. Harris leaned forward and scratched the back of his head.

“Well, because we know a lot about you.”

She smirked without realizing.

“Really?” she asked. “What do you know about me?”

He tightened his lips and raised his eyebrows.

“We know plenty. You'd better believe it.”

Claire chuckled and shook her head.

“Mr. Harris, is it?”

He nodded.

“Well, I'm not sure what you are selling, but you'll have to do better than this.” She leaned forward and folded her hands. “If you really know plenty about me, you'll know I'm uncomfortable with ambiguous language. I deal in certainties, and I'd expect the same from anyone who hopes to do business with me.”

He bowed his head and raised his left hand.

“I'm sorry. I'll be as forthcoming as I can.”

“Why can't you be 100 percent forthcoming?”

“Because the people I represent don't feel it's in their best interest.”

“Forgive me, but these people sound somewhat shady.”

He placed his hand flat upon the folder in front of him.

“I assure you, they're as shady as your average corporate or political man, which is to say, somewhat.”

He pushed the folder forward, and sat back in his chair. He crossed one leg over the other with some obvious discomfort.

“Please have a look, and take your time.”

She lifted the folder and flipped it open. A single loose page sat upon a stack of pictures, followed by more pages and still more pictures. She thumbed through the top three, eyes darting around, widening. She closed the folder and looked up.

“Who are you exactly?”

Mr. Harris put his hands together as if truly frustrated.

“Ma'am, it really isn't important who I am, I assure you. What's more important is who you are.”

“Who do you think I am?”

He shook his head a little and pushed his hat back to reveal a balding scalp.

“Doesn't matter. It's what they think.”

“Your employer?”

“That's correct.”

She looked down at the folder.

“And who do they think I am?”

“I know few details.”

She looked up.

“What do you know?”

He leaned forward and propped his forearms against his knees, face casual, eyes set.

“Just that you're headed for a position at Viox Genomics after working for five years under Paul Devaney, his death the main reason for it.”

She set the folder flat.

“He's dead?”

Mr. Harris nodded without losing eye contact.

“From what I understand.”

She bit her lip and closed the folder.

“How do you know?”

He shrugged.

“I don't know; but my employer does, and I have no reason to doubt it.”

She put both hands on her desk, the sweat on her palms making suction for a moment.

“I think I'm going to pass on your offer, Mr. Harris. But thank you anyway.”

He stood.

“This isn't unexpected.” He pulled the fedora back in place. “Please give a look to the rest of the folder. You'll receive a call from me within the next couple months in case you change your mind.”

He put his hand to the front of his hat and turned toward the door. She traced the folder's face with the edges of a finger.

“Wait,” she said. “Why don't you give me your number?”

He turned and looked at her. She wore an uncertain expression, as if her words still hung in the air waiting to be taken back.

“Because my employers don't feel it's in their best interest.” He opened the door a crack and then shut it firm without leaving. “I will tell you this. The people I represent, they aren't the type to quit asking.”

With that, he put his fingers to the front of his hat once more. Then he opened the door, acknowledged the receptionist and made his way to the elevator.

Claire eyed the folder and considered its contents. During her brief glance, she'd seen an oddly-worded cover letter, a few head shots and not much else. The remaining contents were a mystery and would stay that way for at least a little longer. The clock demanded action and she'd never been late in her life. She lifted the thing and looked it over once more. It was nearly an inch thick and heavy as a book. She opened a drawer and slipped it inside. She left her office and locked the door.

For the rest of the day, she went about the usual routine. But within her mind, Mr. Harris had found a place in which to live. She thought of his words while she ate. She thought of them during phone conversations. She thought of them while she worked in the lab. And she thought of them during her drive home, the file sitting alone in the passenger seat, a few subtle glances here and there.

When she finally arrived home, she gathered the hefty thing up and made her way inside. Without deterrence, she unlocked her front door and hurried to her bedroom, where she opened the folder and spread the contents across her bed. As she thumbed through it all, her heart picked up, its quickened beats audibly thumping within her ears.

No single piece was shocking in itself, but as a whole, the contents were terrifying. They had everything on her: credit scores, middle school grades, bank statements, orthodontic records. There were receipts and phone records. Letters she'd written long ago to people she no longer knew. Car leases, rental agreements, and somewhere in the middle, she found a picture she'd never seen before. It was her as a child, maybe six, maybe nine, brittle-edged and sepia, freckles on her cheeks.

What she didn't find was an offer, a job outline, a copy of her resume or letter of recommendation. The contents were deeply personal, not professional, and it became clear that what Harris had given her was no pitch at all, but a veiled, methodical warning that she should take their offer, whatever it was, whenever it came again. It was their power revealed and nothing more, and as she closed the folder, she felt the threat working within her as designed, and she did not sleep well or much, and by the time morning broke, she was greatly diminished.

The next day, Claire received a call from Gunther Billingsly, the man who'd begged her to accept the position at Viox Genomics in lieu of the prestigious Paul Devaney. Then, his voice had been pleasant, soft and pleading. This time, it was terse, his words as if from a script.

“I'm sorry to say that Viox has withdrawn its offer and will be seeking other candidates,” it said without any obvious inflections. And no questions were answered, and no reasons given, and if she'd been a pleader, Claire might have argued on her behalf, but she'd have done so to a fallow receiver, the opposite party removed the moment his words crossed the wires.

In a daze, she left her office and stumbled outside. She looked about as waves of hurrying people split around her without regard. The air was cold against her skin, and as the pale sunlight disappeared behind a passing cloud, it grew even colder.

She walked along the street, alone and afraid, her mind so frayed and so long without sleep. She passed a cafe and stopped to enter, but the tables were all occupied, so she pulled her coat collar up and took a seat alone outside.

The waiter brought coffee to ease her predicament, and she sipped it gratefully, while the human rush moved before her eyes in a blinding mesh of wool coats and brightly-colored scarves. After a while, her disappointment gave way to terror, as she put the author to its effect.

This Mr. Harris worked for powerful people, indeed. Viox was a multi-billion dollar company with its own version of the CIA. There was no lie this behemoth corporation couldn't dismantle, and no person able to stand firm in the way of its goals. But, somehow, this entity had gotten to them, made them do its will. And if Viox's defenses were but a day's worth of aggravation, what were hers?

The waiter appeared from inside, his demeanor strained against the weather's cruelty. He placed a bill on the table, the wind nearly seizing it before she could slap it down with her hand. She withdrew a credit card and handed it over. The tall young man took it and hurried to take refuge within the cafe's interior.

She sipped her coffee and thought, the caffeine rush lifting her spirits and sharpening her mind. She considered Mr. Harris and his people. What was her value to them? Where would they stop to get what they wanted?

Without Viox, she would have to withdraw her resignation from the university, but things could be worse. Whatever the case, she would not be won by coercion, and she nodded to herself to solidify the stance.

She looked up to see the waiter approaching, his soft, youthful face apologetic and somewhat sad.

“I'm sorry, ma'am, but this card has been declined.”

She looked up, her cheeks growing red without permission.

“That's impossible,” she said. “Are you sure?”

He squinted into the wind as it stung his face.

“Yes. I ran it twice.”

She lifted her purse and withdrew another.

“I'm sorry. I don't know how that can be. Can you try this one?”

He took it and hurried away, only to return with the same results. After a third try, she paid with stray coins from the bottom of her purse, and when she took her place among the flowing mob upon the city sidewalk, she was truly afraid.

She walked to the bank, where she spoke to a bald man who resembled the Mr. Clean character from television.

“Let me look into this for you,” he said, his voice dry as stale bread.

When he returned moments later, he explained that a hold had been placed on her account through legal means that were appropriate and neat. She would have to consult a lawyer for more information. He was obliged by bank policy. She asked for more information, for help of any kind, but bank policy was his god, so she gave up and left the building.

Outside, the winter wind licked her face, each cheek a healthy rose from the gathering daily same. She wept openly for all to see, few taking notice as they hurried on their way. She dawdled within the crowd for a while. Then she caught a cab and aimed it someplace safe.

Chapter 3

Claire wept as she hadn't in years, her mother trying to understand the muddled, furious words pouring from her mouth. The old woman stared at the dining room floor, sipping her tea, eyebrows pinched together, head nodding, judgments. When her daughter had finished, she stood and walked to the kitchen. Seconds later, she returned with two small plates of muffins that looked as if they'd been freshly made for the occasion.

“You need a lawyer,” she said, as she centered a plate beneath Claire's chin.

Claire shook her head and leaned back.

“It won't do any good. These people, whoever they are, whatever they are, they seem too capable.”

A garbage truck strained and gurgled out front, and they waited for the calamity of crunching glass and plastic to quiet.

Her mother frowned.

“This is why you should always put some cash aside.”

Claire shook her head and looked down the hall.

“Where's dad?”

Her mother's mouth firmed, the corners descending.

“Just resting.”

Claire turned and studied her mother’s face, so weary and weathered by life.

“How is it?”

The old woman looked down the hall.

“Sometimes it's o.k.,” she said, and that was all.

Claire tapped her fingernails against the table.

“Should I see him?”

For a moment, her mother's eyes grew pale as his, and Claire found her answer within them. Through the years, a cloud had grown over her father's mind, an unforgiving dementia at root within. At first, its subtleties inspired endearing little teases. He'd forget things, coin odd remarks, like who made ketchup so red? And, how do you look at the stars long enough to count them? After a while, though, it became how is a shoe buttoned; why didn't the dog vote; and when will we eat anymore?

At first, her mother sought to best the doctors and all their certain words. But soon more and more memories went like bits of pepper in the wind, and her resolve ultimately fell away from the fight and settled on the caring instead.

“Maybe wait for a better day,” she said, as she cleared the table.

Outside, on the stoop, her mother fiddled with her pocket book under the shamed gaze of her genius daughter.

“This is all I have on me, but there'll be more. I just have to cash my social security check.”

Claire took the money with a swift motion, abbreviating the moment.

“I won't need more.” She held both her mother’s hands, the skin like tissue paper. “I will return this with more upon more.”

Her mother smiled.

“What will you do?”

Claire let go of her hands and straightened herself.

“Practical things.”

The old woman put her palms on her daughter's shoulders.

“Long ago, I gave up telling you the ways of the world, my dear, but it wasn't because I didn't think they applied.”

She leaned in and kissed the girl's forehead.

“Be careful. Life doesn't care about your abilities, will use them against you if it can.”

Claire's eyes shot forth.

“Don't worry. The decision is made for me. I can see no way to resist.”

They embraced as awkward friends, the bare tree tops clattering above them in all the rushing wind. After a quick goodbye, she left in a taxi, the old woman outside, waving even after there was no one left to receive the gesture.

Claire sat back and watched the city flash outside the backseat glass. The driver tried to make conversation without success, so he pinned the radio to something foreign and off-putting. When they finally arrived at her apartment, she paid the man with money unearned, a miserly hand at the end of her wrist. He grunted and forced the gas pedal down, the tires spinning without much noise, despite his best efforts toward the otherwise.

She climbed the steps with a heavy heart and even heavier legs. She opened the door and let her keys splash against the kitchen Formica. She filled her lungs with the familiar scent of home, and for a moment, she was overcome by peace. But within seconds, the telephone broke the spell and brought the outside within.

She lifted the receiver and said hello.

“Ms. Foley?”

She breathed deeply, her stomach lurching at the sound of his voice.

“Hello, Mr. Harris,” she said. “How are you?”

“Just fine, ma'am. Do you have a second?”



She heard the rustling of papers.

“I'm going to read a statement to you given to me by my employer regarding the opportunity I spoke of the other day. Is that clear?”

“Of course,” she said.

“Alright, begin quote:” He cleared his throat. “We'd like to offer you a lucrative position. We value your expertise and believe you can prosper with our organization.”

She waited.

“End quote,” he said.

“That's it?”

“I'm afraid so.”

She dropped the phone to her waist and rubbed her left eye.

“Are you still there, Ms. Foley?”

She put the phone to her ear.

“Yes. I'm still here.”

“I'm sorry I don't have more to offer, but that was the only thing given to me.”

She said nothing.

“Are you interested, ma'am?”

Her mind worked over all opposing eventualities: risks, rewards and the forever lack thereof.

“I suppose so.”

“Good,” Mr. Harris said. “Very good.”

That night, she laid in her bed with her eyes closed, mind frenetically turning stones at search for sleep. But it would not be found in its usual places. And each time she drew close, it skipped away, her eyes rolling upwards and then snapping back, body flinching, palms bleeding sweat.

After a while, the light from the windows grew soft and purple; so she quit the enterprise entirely and moved to the kitchen, where she drank black coffee and drew sound, practical plans.

Chapter 4

Mr. Harris had said noon with an impactful tone, so she left at nine for anxiety's sake. The park wasn't within walking distance, but she didn't care. The journey provided room for thought and chances to reconsider. Cornered and sleep deprived, she moved over the pavement, each step forced, yet terrifyingly productive. Something waited at the end, but its mystery was absolute. They wanted her; she did not want them, the former everything, the latter, a wrinkle under an iron.

She navigated the sidewalks, people rushing past, scarves whipping airborne, a mob of expressionless faces paled by the dim autumn light. Each made way toward his or her next thing, heads pointed straight with intent, as if its measure trumped all others, and as theirs, rightly so.

She bought a cup of coffee at the place with the smallest line, the cashier palming her mother's social security money like any other, no judgment opposite her shame. Outside, she drank as quickly as possible, wisps of steam curling up and wetting the tip of her nose. The caffeine ran its route, and she used it for its worth. But halfway to the park, the muscles in her legs caught fire, so she flagged a cab and rode too quickly the rest of the way.

At the park, on a bench, Mr. Harris sat against all reason, two hours too early, with the posture of someone anticipating an immediate arrival. She stood behind a big tree, watching him as if he mattered more than he did. But his decisions couldn't save her from this imposed destiny, and after a while, she stepped from her hiding and approached him from behind.

As she neared, he did not turn to face her, and for some reason, this brought relief. Despite his all-knowing, he could not predict the moment of her coming, and as she entered his field of vision from the side, he seemed to flinch.

He stood and outstretched his hand, and when she refused it, he did not seem offended. They sat quietly with good space between them, an obvious awkwardness at root. The weather so, few used the park for its designed purpose. But it made an ideal timesaver for the working lunch-goers, and mobs of white-collared people passed before them in regular flashes with middling breaks between.

Mr. Harris started to speak but shut his mouth at the break of her voice.

“Why the hell are you doing this?” she asked.

He pursed his lips and shook his head.

“I understand your frustration, but I am not doing anything.”

She slapped her palms against her knees.

“Bullshit. You are ruining my life.”

He shook his head again.

“I understand why it seems that way, but your life is not ruined, and I am not responsible for any of this either way.”

A fat, whiskered man sold hotdogs from a wheeled stand nearby, the smell of flavored roasting meats travelling all the cold, surrounding air.

Claire pulled a tissue from her purse and wiped her nose.

“Do you have any idea how freaked out I am?”

Mr. Harris nodded.

“I can imagine.”

She waited for something more, but he only sat, his face made no less handsome by its unsympathetic mold. She looked off somewhere and then back to his ardent stare.

“Well, what now?”

“Now, I give you the information you need, and you use it however you like.”

She leaned back and rubbed her forehead.

“However I like?”

He nodded.

“Yes, ma'am.”

“What I'd like is to have things as they were.”

He frowned.

“The job you would've had?”

She opened her hands to the air.

“At least that, yes.”

He squared his shoulders to face her.

“Ask yourself what you would have been there.” He slid about an inch closer to her on the bench. “Just a background figure cooking up stuff for others to take credit for. That's all. And these places like Viox, they're corrupt. They bribe politicians to get drugs rushed through trials. Next thing you know, you've got thousands sick or dead and you're responsible for it.”

She shook her head and sighed.

“None of it matters, anyway,” he said. “What choice have you got?”

She passed a glance at a blue-eyed girl wandering over the dead grass. The mother sat immediately across them on the opposite bench, her interest tied to some publication documenting the activities of the famous and those balanced along the fringe.

“At times, you seem like a nice man, Mr. Harris.”

He nodded his head slightly.

“I thank you for the compliment.”

She squared her shoulders to face him.

“Are you doing a nice thing now?”

He shook his head.

“I honestly have no way of knowing.”

She rubbed her eyes and sat back on the bench.

“Tell me this,” she said. “Why do you work for these people?”

He sighed.

“I would have thought you'd know that by now.”

She looked off toward nothing in particular.

“Because you don't have any choice,” she whispered.

He put his hand on her shoulder.

“If you want to continue what you've started in this life, want to be anything at all, you will have to do this.” He took his hand away and moved it flat across the air in front of them. “You will have no consideration, elsewhere. They'll have you cut out until you're like a woodpecker in a petrified forest. No doors will open; nobody's going to want to touch you.”

He frowned and scratched with his fingers the corners of his mouth.

“It is what it is.”

From the opposing bench across the path, the mother attracted her child and gave her blueberries from a Ziploc bag. The girl winced from the sourness and then smiled with delight.

“Why did this have to happen?” Claire asked the wind.

Harris said nothing.

“Can't you tell me anything about these people?”

He shook his head.

“I'm sorry. All I can do is tell you where to be and when to be there.”

He handed her a very small yellow envelope the size of a business card.

“Inside that, you'll find an address and a time.” He firmed his position upon the bench. “Now, I need to give you some important information, and I want you to listen to me very closely. Are you listening?”

She nodded.

“Good. Now, I've warned you of the passive fallout that will occur if you refuse this offer, correct?”

She nodded.

“Okay, now I'm going to give you some important instructions, and you need to follow them, or desert this whole thing before you get started.”

He waited a moment and then went on.

“If you decide to come to the specified location inside that envelope, you need to be on time, and you need to go alone. Don't bring someone else, or they will be in danger. Don’t call the authorities, or you will be in danger. Do you understand?”

She took a breath and nodded.

“Do not disregard my warning, okay?”

“I understand.”

He shook his head.

“No, I mean it. Violence to these people is like you or me having orange juice in the morning.”

The two from across got up to leave, and Claire watched them go forward, the child at a stumble, mother at a considerate pace, until they were smalled by the distance and lost in the flowing human mass.

“What's your first name, Mr. Harris?”

“I'm not allowed to say.”

“Say it anyway.”

He scratched hard the skin above his eyes.


She tipped her head back and closed her eyes.

“Henry Harris,” she whispered.

The wind kicked up and desiccated leaves rushed between the benches, some whirling, some atomized under boots and heels.

She wiped her eyes, but they were dry.

“What's all this for?”

He slapped his hands against his knees.

“I don't even have a guess.” He stood and smoothed the wrinkles on his shirt. “Something important.”

She looked at him, his face suddenly grim and imposing.

“Just go along with it,” he said, pulling firmly the bill of his fedora. “That is my advice to you, and it is sound.”

With that, he stood and walked away, his figure square and smallish, and quickly lost in the hoard of passers.

She looked down at the tiny envelope in her gloved hand to make sure it was still there. She held it up to the light. She started to tear it open, but stopped to make sure no one was watching. Someone was. It was a man on the other side of the path. Amid the grass, he stood alone, his hands in his pockets, dark sunglasses shielding his eyes. She lowered the envelope and watched him, her heart throbbing wildly within her chest. He kept watching, his face disappearing behind the people that passed and then reappearing exactly as before.

She pushed the envelope into her pocket and toyed with it nervously. She glanced to the left and to the right, but there wasn't much to see. Her eyes drifted back toward the man, and she saw he was approaching. Her pulse raced as he closed the distance, her head growing faint, white flecks infesting her vision. Soon he reached the path and began sifting through the passing pedestrians, his face looking eager, mouth open and breathing.

After some difficulty, the man finally slipped through the human congestion and continued toward her. As he neared, Claire's body stiffened. She looked around. She started to call for help. But just as she opened her mouth, a young woman appeared from behind her and rushed into the man's arms. She buckled forward and breathed, her chest tight, hands trembling. She sat back and watched as the two entangled in what must have been a long-awaited embrace. At last, they separated and the man rubbed tears from beneath the girl's eyes. They smiled at one another and walked away, their hands interlaced as they disappeared from her sight and into their lives.

She sat a while longer, until her heart settled and her hands stilled. Then she stood up, took the path a ways and caught a quiet cab ride home.

That night, she sat in her bed, the lights dim and considerate, her legs Indian-fashioned beneath the weight of her body and soul. The television ran live in one far corner of the room, but its offerings competed poorly for her attention.

She held the enveloped message in her hand, its secret at wait inside the cheap manila shell. Weightless and sharply rectangular, it was a part of something. Fractional to some greater purpose, but key to its actualization.

Inside this thing was the answer, and loath as she was, a terrible curiosity festered within. She was pursued by the influential and powerful. Forcible as it was, this entity considered her important, and a horrible, unfamiliar satisfaction with that seemed rightly fixed to support the countering weight of her natural anxiety.

In time, it would all make sense; and she would cope and evolve and grow from whatever came with it. This was her destiny, and bound by it, she seemed definitively so.

But when she opened the envelope, she found it empty, and no action could make things any other way. And she cried to her core for a long time. For more time than she ever thought she could. And she did not, could not sleep the night, her crisp, brilliant mind growing wild and frayed and spoiled with dark thoughts.

Chapter 5

The spring dusted the city in gold, the warmth eroding all the browning snow drifts and opening lush pastures for children to play. Almost at once, the parks turned lavish with flowers and green-smelling things, the sunlight opening rich veins of pleasure for those who knew how to take it.

For others, the season came without notice, their lives ensnared by schedules, deadlines and obligations. Like oddly-uniformed soldiers, they marched toward their zombie enterprises, some fixated on rings of brass, others driven by the patter of wolven feet.

Claire's spring was spent at her parents’ home, supporting her mother's efforts to care for her father as they safely guided him toward his end. Intent on mindlessness, she cleaned dishes and dust and physical waste, pacified his delusions, and thoughtfully exterminated her mother's notions of perceived improvement. Bonded together, they forced food into his mouth, and his body into bed, restrained his panicked aggression with smoothed voices, and when that didn't work, combined to forcefully hold his arms and legs together to keep him from stumbling outright into the open, uncaring world.

At night, they drank together, the two embracing over old notes, photographs and stories, their thoughts cast back to sepia times, two minds remembering for three.

The summer brought fresh worry and a whole new kind of ache as they became strangers to the man they loved. Now, he cowered at the sight of their faces, balling up in corners and sobbing, like a shattered child at the unsettling approach of foreign smiles.

After a while, his mind became less a child's and more a void, dull and vacuous and uncomprehending. Most of the time, he stayed in his room, his eyes tracing minuscule fragments of dust that danced on beams of window light. All day he'd watch them move about, like wisps of evanescent magic left by fairy wings. Free and aloft and always refracting, until they passed through the sunlight entirely and vanished into the realm of imperception. Invisible and unconsidered, but there just the same.

One day, she handed her father a cup of juice and he immediately turned it over onto the carpet. While he sat on the bed watching, she scrubbed the floor. The heels of her hands grinded against the carpet as soap suds foamed atop the sucking fibers. After a while she stopped and looked up at him, his face vacant, drool gathering at the bottom of his lower lip. She got to her feet and approached him. She took his whiskered chin in her hand and lifted his head.

“Remember me,” she told his face, her fingers firming around his jaw. “Remember me, Goddammit.”

But he only stared through her, the drool pulling downward in a wobbly string and then falling free. She fell to her knees, dropped her head into his lap and wept. But he only stared vacantly at the space she no longer occupied, his eyes neither focused nor unfocused, mind uninhabited.

They subsisted by sparse consumption, eating when and what they could. Claire unable to tap her bank account, they devoured her mother's monthly pittance with painful care, like the last morsels of a cruel harvest, picked clean by hollow-looking things with dark, sunken sockets and manifest ribs.

Claire's problems remained her own, and rightly so. Her mother was too tired and too lost to consider anything else for even a single moment. Over the months, Claire had met with lawyer after lawyer with no real success. The script the same in every instance: they'd listen, fingers tapping chins, stroking beards, foreheads firmed by thoughtful thinking. With confident steady voices, they'd make big promises, each outlining his or her approach in clear, definitive language that would have been easy for anyone to understand.

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