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Black Hole Son: All Chapters

Black Hole Son

It’s come to my attention that I posted all of my first novel, Black Hole Son, but then forgot to put a way to navigate the chapters. Silly me. So here’s the table of contents.

Black Hole Son – Part 53

Black Hole Son

DAY ?

The world was white and bright.

He was lying down.

In a bed.

In a white room.

Was this another dream? Was this what it was like to be dead?

Hours passed. Or minutes. Ghosts hovered over him, vaporous gray apparitions. They were there. They were gone. He was surrounded with light. This must have been heaven. Or the afterlife. Shapes floated above.

“Help…” he said weakly.

“Oh, good, you’re awake.”

Ash refocused his eyes. The ‘ghost’ was wearing a bulky white biohazard suit. It was folding a set of sheets.

He wasn’t dead. He was in a white room. There was a door and a plate glass window opposite him. He was lying on a hospital bed, with a beeping machine next to him. Beside that was a metal cart full of laundry.

“Who…” Ash said.

“Don’t bother moving. You’re too weak. And you’re strapped down.”

Ash tried to lift his hand. Leather straps bound both his arms and legs. It didn’t matter–just opening his jaw made him sore.

“Here, drink this,” the man said. He took a glass of water from the bedside table and held it to his mouth. “Try not to spit it up this time.”

Ash drank. It felt like liquid magic. “Who are you?” Ash repeated, his vocal chords no longer desiccated

“You don’t remember me? Oh.” The man pulled his suit down so that the window mask revealed his face. It was Rion.

Ash moaned.

“Now, don’t get all agitated. I don’t want you to have another seizure.”

Ash licked his lips. “Why are you wearing that ridiculous outfit?”

“It’s a fireproof suit.” Rion picked up the sheet again and finished folding it.

“You don’t need that,” Ash said. He knew he’d been beaten.

“Oh, I know. I don’t think you could light a match in your current condition. It’s just a precaution.” Rion waved his hand. “In fact, everything in this room is fireproof.”

Ash looked at the walls. “Isn’t that convenient…”

“Recognize it?” Rion asked.

Ash shook his head.

“It’s the room you were born in. Well, raised in, I should say. I think you slept here. I knew it had to be your room, since it was the only one with fireproofing.”

“Are we still in the building?” Ash croaked.

“Yeah. When you were sleeping–which was most of the time–I went exploring. Trying to find out more about us.” Rion set the sheets down. “There… uh, there were quite a few rooms like this. Some weren’t so pretty.”

“You find anything?” Ash asked.

“Not in particular. I think they either didn’t keep any records or they were wiped out, so they could disavow knowledge.”

Ash thought hard about what to say next, because it was a lot of words and movement caused pain. “Why are we still here? Are we safe?”

“There’s a lockdown function. Puts steel plating on all the doors and openings, like a cocoon. I guess it’s for a war or riot. There were lots of curious people at the door the next morning. I think as far as anyone knows, Starkweather Tower’s a dead obelisk in the sky.” Rion fiddled with the machine next to Ash’s bed.

“How long?”

“It’ll stay that way until long after we’re out of here. There’s an underground tunnel that’ll lead outside the city, when we’re ready to go.”

“We?”

“Well, sure, I’m taking care of you, aren’t I?” Rion headed towards the door. He turned back and smiled. “You’re my lemon.”

Ash scrunched up his face. How could his brother be so chipper?

“Now, that’s enough questions,” Rion said. “You get some sleep. I’ll check on you in the morning.”

Rion shut the door before Ash could protest. He tried to hold out his hand, but forgot it was strapped down. He still had so many questions.

Whatever Rion did to the machine made him sleepy. Probably a knockout drug, the bastard. Before Ash could have another thought, he passed out.

#

Over days, Rion gave Ash food, water, changes of clothes, sponge baths, and even led him to the bathroom when needed.

Ash did all these things without argument. That was the way it was now. He was the loser, the weak one, and he deserved complete subjugation. He would have done the same thing had the situations been reversed. He owed Rion his life, and therefore had to submit to him. It was the way of things.

There was no concept of time. It was like prison, except the caretakers didn’t zap him. He didn’t ask for a magazine or TV–boredom was his punishment. And healing from whatever Rion had done was a full time job.

Rion came in more frequently. They talked. They each told the stories of their short lives, starting from the park bench and the alley. They told of their powers. They told of their feelings through their trials. Eventually, Rion stopped wearing his fireproof suit. One day, he led Ash back from the bathroom and didn’t strap him down.

Ash asked a lot of questions, and Rion answered them all. But there was one Ash wanted to ask, but never could. He made up excuses instead–Rion needed to fix something, Rion was concentrating on something else, Rion had better things to do. The truth was that he was scared of the answer. It might be something he didn’t want to know.

Until one day, Rion said, “Why don’t you go ahead and ask it.”

Ash did without hesitation. “Why am I still alive?”

“Well, there’s a lot of stuff left over. It’s a medical business, so there’s a lot of equipment and medications lying around. And I can use my power to find out how to use-“

“No,” Ash said. “I mean, why did you keep me alive? Why did you bother?”

“Cause you’re my brother,” Rion said.

Ash shook his head. “Not good enough. We both know I’m a dangerous man. I can set things on fire with my mind. I could walk inside a nuclear reactor and start World War III.”

“Oh, come on. Why would you do that?” Rion said. “If you started World War III, we’d all be dead. You know that.”

Ash rolled his eyes. “You don’t think someone like me would want to start World War III? I wanted revenge on humanity. Kill ’em all, and let God sort ’em out.”

“I thought you said you were God.”

Ash sat up carefully. “It doesn’t have to be World War III. It could be a mall or a whole town.” He leaned forward. “I want to kill people. Doesn’t that make me dangerous?”

“No more dangerous than I am.”

“Not because of our powers. I mean, I was ready to kill you and then move onto the rest of the world. And you’re the only one who could have stopped me.” Ash paused to let Rion argue his point, if he had one.

“True,” he said.

“So it’s clearly you against me.”

Rion shook his head. “See, that’s your problem. You gotta stop thinking of everyone as either a friend or an enemy. Life doesn’t work like that.”

“It doesn’t?” Ash cocked his head. “What other categories are there? Neutral?”

Rion shook his head. “It’s not about categories. That’s the thing. You can’t divide the world the way you want to–those people who should live or die–because life doesn’t work like that. You’re trying to shove a black and white solution into a problem that’s way too colorful.”

Ash rolled his eyes. “Whatever. The point is, by letting me live, I could still enact my plan. To…” He rolled his hand, trying to think of the word. “To fix the world.”

“I don’t think breaking things can be called fixing.”

“Will you let me finish?” Ash said. Rion pursed his mouth, showing he’d be quiet. “What’s stopping me from escaping? Or jamming a knife in your back when you’re turned around? Or something? Why didn’t you kill me when you had the chance? It’s not like you can change me.”

“Aha,” Rion said, “That’s where you’re wrong. You see, Ash, you’ve been so set on the idea of keeping the good ones and chucking out the bad, that you don’t see there’s a third option–repair.”

“Repair?” Ash snorted. “Repair doesn’t work, you’ve already seen that.”

“It doesn’t?” Rion asked pointedly. “Why not? You’re a living example.”

“How do you figure that?”

“You haven’t torched me yet.”

Ash’s jaw dropped. He hadn’t even thought of doing so. It would have been easy. He could have done it a dozen times over by now. Was it because he was biding his time until he was at full strength? Because he hadn’t planned his course of action afterward? Surely, it wasn’t because he had feelings for Rion?

And then he realized–it was. Rion was the one emotional connection he had left. If he killed Rion, he would truly have nothing, even less than before.

“You didn’t keep me alive just to make an example of me…” Ash muttered.

“No,” Rion shook his head. “For my own best interests, healing you would not be on my list of priorities. It would have been to get as much distance between this godforsaken city and me.” Rion adjusted himself on the bed. “Here’s the real reason. For all I disagree with your plan, and your methods, you’re right.”

Ash furrowed his brows. “You… think I’m right?”

Rion nodded. “The system no longer works. The guilty aren’t being punished. And the innocent are being victimized. The world is too full of people who ‘get away with it’, and that’s not acceptable. But,” Rion held up his finger. “It’s not going to be fixed by deciding who lives and who dies.”

Ash sat back with a self-satisfied smile. Rion, for all his free-spirited ways, actually understood the problem. If he didn’t agree with the methods, at least they were both on the same wavelength.

“So you do want to join me?” Ash said.

“No. Haven’t you been listening? I said you’ve got the right idea, you just have it backwards. Evil is like a virus, like a cycle. And lots of people have trouble breaking that cycle. Because they perpetuate it among themselves. Well, why can’t it be reversed?”

“Because it’s too strong.”

Rion shook his head. “You can do it. Spin the cycle the other way.”

“And you seriously propose to do this? You’re gonna save them all?”

Rion sighed. “No, not all of them. Some are the ones that Darwin missed. That’s where you come in.”

Ash smirked slyly.

Rion ignored him and continued. “You know why we were paired up, right?”

“Because we were brothers? Cause we were the only ones to survive the program?”

Rion shook his head. “No, it’s because we worked together well. Think about it. Think about why hired killers and hitmen always work alone. Because bringing a second is a liability. Not with us. We sustain each other. We keep each other in balance. That’s why I kept you alive.”

Rion stood up, and walked toward the door. Ash looked puzzled, not quite sure what to make of his brother. He couldn’t tell if Rion was trying to help or acting as an obstacle. Maybe this was what he meant–not everyone was a friend or enemy.

Rion turned back, “We leave tomorrow.”

Ash nodded. Rion left the room.

#

The next evening, Ash selected a new set of clothes, and walked out of the room that had been his home for… who knew how long.

Rion was waiting at the door. He was also dressed and holding a pack. Ash glanced at Rion’s hand, and how much shorter his pinky had become–the sacrifice he had been willing to make–and followed him down the hallway.

Every window was covered by a steel gray shutter. Only the red emergency lights gave off light, just enough to walk around. It was like an ancient, sealed-up pyramid.

Rion led Ash to the nearest stairwell. The elevator was closed, since the building used minimal power when in lockdown mode. This meant the only working systems were lights, ventilation, plumbing, and not much else.

They descended the 108 flights and then some, ending up well below ground level. They moved through an underground storage area until they came to another door.

They looked into a dark sewer-like tunnel. Rion grabbed an emergency flashlight from his pack.

“I think we can follow this tunnel out,” Rion said.

Ash sneezed from the displaced dust. “You don’t sound very sure.”

“I’m sure. Wherever it goes, it’s better than here.”

They walked through the corridor, hearing only creaks and low noises. “You sure no one knows about this place?” Ash asked after a particularly loud plunk. “You sure there aren’t S.W.A.T. teams or military breaking through right now?”

“I’m sure. The map said this tunnel was Starkweather’s emergency escape hatch. I checked it out while you were incapacitated to make sure.”

“Kinda ironic, that we’re using it now.”

“Yeah.” There was a silence. He knew what Ash did, and he was glad it hadn’t been up to him. “Shame I never got to meet him.” There was no hint of malice in his voice.

“I don’t think you missed much. He was a crazy old man. Lonely.”

“Yeah, but he was the only one who knew what we were like before we lost our memory.”

“I don’t think it matters. Whether we get our memory back or not, it’s not gonna change who we are now.”

“I know, I’m just curious. I’d like to see who I was before and compare who I am now.”

“Why? Are you going to fund a study?”

“Look,” Rion said, “I don’t know what we did before we lost our memory. But look at us–we’re the same person, we started the same way. And we went out and became totally different people. Yet we came back to each other, like we were meant to. Don’t you think that says something about human nature?”

Ash shrugged. “It’s the same thing for everyone–people trapped in the same cycle. Even when we got our second chance, we ended up doing the same things we did before. Except I failed where you succeeded. That just makes me depressed.”

“It makes me all the more hopeful,” Rion said, “And I think it proves my point.”

They continued walking for a long time, both in quiet contemplation. Ash broke the silence. “You know, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions about us.”

“Like?” Rion said, swishing his flashlight back and forth.

“Like where we came from. How did we get our powers? Who worked on us?”

“What happened to Dr. Mason? And where’s Geri Baxter? What role did she play in all this, besides being a friend, apparently.”

“Maybe she wants her sweater back,” Ash said. “She’s probably cold.”

“I think they’re still alive. And if so, they’re definitely out of Starkweather’s city. And maybe there’s other people out there who know about us. Maybe they could help us.”

“Or maybe they want us dead.”

“There were others like us. Maybe they’re still out there.”

Ash reacted. “I thought Gray was the last.”

“I don’t know. If Gray was alive, if Dr. Mason’s still out there, maybe we’re not the last. Could be none, could be a thousand.”

“Thanks, I’ll be able to sleep easy tonight.”

Rion stopped in his tracks as Ash bumped into him. He flashed the light up and down. Ash was about to ask what he was doing, when he drifted over to a wall and put a hand against it. Almost immediately after, he focused the light on a ladder hanging at the top. A long thin piece of rope dangled down.

“This is it.” Rion jumped up, caught the rope, and pulled the ladder the rest of the way down. He went up first, and stopped at the ceiling. There was a manhole cover blocking the path. After several pushes, he said, “It won’t budge. It’s rusted in.”

“Let me try.” Ash scooted up the ladder. Rion leaned to the side to let him through.

Ash placed his fingertips on the center of the manhole cover, like he was delivering a pizza. They began to glow red and the cover popped off.

Rion climbed out and helped Ash up. It was the dead of night. Crickets chirped. The half moon shone on the desert plain, scattered with small bushes and scrub brush. No cars coming for miles. Behind them, the city lights glowed effervescently.

“Well, where do we go now?” Ash said.

“I don’t know,” Rion said and shrugged.

They started walking down the road, towards the rising sun.

#END#

Black Hole Son – Part 52

Black Hole Son

RION AND ASH

“Rion.”

“Rion,” Ash said. “Can I call you Rion? Or ‘brother’?”

Rion looked at him. The computers and snaking wires made it look like he was sitting in a cyberpunk throne room.

“You don’t seem delighted,” Ash said. “Isn’t it great? You finally get to understand your past.”

“How long have you been here?” Rion said.

“Not long,” Ash said, pointing to the corner. Two freshly burned corpses lay together, smoke wisping from their bodies. Rion grimaced.

Ash shook some pills out of a bottle and knocked them back like candy. “I supposed there’s no need to introduce myself. Is there?” He smiled. “You know who I am.”

“Yes,” Rion said. “What I don’t know is exactly why we’re here. I read the report, but it didn’t help.”

“Instruction manuals never do,” Ash shook his head. “Fortunately, I’ve had the chance to look at some of the computer files. You know Starkweather, right?”

“Yes. Is he here?”

“After what you’ve seen, do you think he’s here?” Ash held up his hands.

Rion’s face turned down.

“This was his personal observatory. Billions of bytes of data coursing through, giving him information on nearly every person in the world. He could see each new birth and death as it happened.”

“Did he create us?”

“Well, we were both born here. We were part of some psychic experiment, and I guess we were the two best.”

“So are we clones? Or twins?”

“I don’t know. We weren’t introduced to each other until we were five. And as I understand, we became fast friends. One report said that we sustained each other. We fed off each other. One person said he thought that’s why we survived. Why we didn’t turn out…” Ash waved his hand in a circle, not wanting to say something vulgar.

“Like Gray?” Rion said.

“Perhaps. His story was quite sad, wasn’t it? Just kept around as a precaution for us. Anyway, Starkweather was delighted that he had not one, but two great candidates for the project.”

“We were supposed to work as a team,” Rion said. “He trained us so that we’d work as a team, since our powers were so complimentary.”

Ash nodded. “You find, I destroy. We were dropped in a different city each time. We were supposed to cull a few out, then move on so no one grew suspicious. We left no evidence and couldn’t be tracked. Pretty good plan, all things considered.” Ash shifted on his throne. “So then the question begs itself–how did it go wrong?”

Rion shook his head. “I wish I knew. I woke up on a park bench six days ago–no idea who I am.”

“Sounds like my story,” Ash said. “I was in an alley.” Ash tapped his fingers on his arm rest. “I have a theory, if you care to hear it.”

“Shoot,” Rion said.

“I suppose one of us rebelled against our lot in life. Either sick of being a slave, or disgusted with what we were doing. He wanted to leave the project. The way to do that, I think, would be to deactivate the chip.”

Rion continued. “The other didn’t like that idea very much. So the one ran away, did it in secret with the doctor who would know how. But the other interrupted the process. They broke into the lab. There was a fight. But by then the damage was done.”

“They got the chip out. But I thought that would kill the person,” Ash said.

“I did too. But I think what was supposed to kill us made us lose our memory instead. Your guess is as good as mine,” Rion shrugged. “After the fight, we went our separate ways, and we both ended up where we were.”

“If only one of us wanted to deactivate the chip, why did we both lose our memory?”

Rion shook his head. “No idea. Maybe the chips were tied together.”

“Maybe there’s a psychic bond between us, because I feel like I know who you are,” Ash said.

“Me too. And not just because we look alike, but somehow we’re… the same.”

“Like brothers should be,” Ash said. “For instance, I know throughout this entire conversation, you’ve been thinking one thing–what do we do now?”

“And I know you’ve been wanting to answer that since you saw me. And it’s got something to do with our powers.”

Ash shrugged. “Well, we are here, aren’t we? And we have these abilities beyond normal humans.”

“I don’t get what you’re saying.”

“It’s like this–I think Starkweather was on the right track. There are a lot of people out there who are ruining the world for everybody. They take and take and get away with it. You get that?”

“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Rion asked, aghast. “We’d just be jumping back into the same thing that wrecked our lives in the first place.”

“Ah, but this time, we play it by our rules. Not some fuddy-duddy old man in a glass tower. He intended for us to remove just a few bad apples from the bunch. Except he was one of them.” Ash opened his palm. “Whereas we are a higher form of life.”

“That’s not true.”

“Oh, Rion, don’t pretend you’re not. Nature treats us on ability alone, and we have abilities they don’t. It doesn’t make them bad, it just makes us more impartial. Don’t lie to me and pretend you don’t feel that way, because I know you do.”

Rion looked away, ashamed. “You’ve got a point. So what?”

“So don’t you think that humanity needs a push in the right direction?”

“What do you want to do? Become leaders of the world?”

“No, not leaders. Judges. That’s what we were designed for–not vengeance or punishment. We deal in justice. If we don’t act, humanity will burn itself to the ground. How many car bombs will it take? How many schools get shot up? How many borderline personalities are we going to gawk at while some lawyer undercuts the Bill of Rights? We can do something about this.”

“You want us to corral them like horses?”

“No, no. You’re thinking in their terms. This isn’t like ethnic cleansing. That would be grotesque–something a dictator would do to assert power. There’s no purpose behind it. This is subtle. It’s necessary. It’s making sure the bad guys don’t keep winning.”

“It’s justice,” Rion said.

“Exactly. It’s justice that society left out, that it forgot.”

“How are you going to judge them? By their laws? By ours?”

“It’s not that hard,” Ash said, folding his arms. “You’ve been out there. You’re telling me you can’t tell who the bad guys are and who aren’t?”

Rion had seen plenty of what Ash was talking about in his time on the streets–the one’s who took everything while the good people got screwed. People like Memory, Tuesday, and even himself. He’d be lying if he said the proposal didn’t have some merit.

“It just takes common sense,” Ash said, “Their laws let the inmates run the asylum. We don’t need them.”

“But what about people who make mistakes? What about a second chance?”

“Life doesn’t give you second chances. People don’t change who they are.”

“Some people can change. Are you saying we step in and crush them no matter what? Why don’t we save them?”

“Saving them doesn’t work. And it takes too much time. Prisons are overcrowded, courts are backed up. And nine times out of ten, it’s the same people. The same people who get those second chances,” Ash leaned forward. “Does society need them? Really?”

“And you think that’s going to save humanity?” Rion said, fists clenched. “These people need to be educated, not eliminated. If you kill them, they won’t learn anything. You’d have to kill them all until there’s none left. Everyone’s guilty of something. You’ll be killing forever.”

“Oh, come on. That’s ridiculous,” Ash said. “If a tree falls in the forest, do all the trees around it fall?”

“People aren’t trees. Even if your plan worked, what do you expect to happen? Do you think people will stop being assholes because you killed them all?”

“Yes,” Ash said. “They’ll evolve. Without assholes in the mix, they’ll breed themselves out.”

“This is learned behavior, not genetics.”

“Evil breeds evil. Maybe it’s because of environment, maybe genetics. I don’t know. But we have to eliminate it. We’re humanity’s antibiotic. We’re their judge.”

“There’s no justice in your kind of judgment. Because in justice, there is mercy. There’s forgiveness.”

“Justice and mercy cannot co-exist.” Ash said, “One must be eliminated.”

Ash stared at Rion, willing him to back down. Rion flexed his fists, and remained stoic. Ash glared back. Neither of them spoke for a long time.

Ash had waited for Rion’s arrival with the hope that he could find a kindred spirit. Someone who thought as he did. Someone to be his ally, his friend. Someone to help achieve a mutual goal.

Rion had anticipated finding his past. He had expected to find Starkweather, only to discover a replacement. Ash’s face shifted into the countenances of people like Paul, Scooter, Harrington, Gray. And behind him, the souls of Tuesday and Memory pleaded to be saved.

“Rion,” Ash said, “I’m only going to ask you this once. And I want you to think very carefully about the answer. Will you join me?”

Rion needed little time to comprehend what ‘think very carefully’ really meant. He spoke calmly. “I have to save the turtle,” he said. “If I don’t do it, no one else will.”

Ash sighed and shook his head. “I’ve been watching you, Rion. I’ve seen what you’re capable of. But I just don’t think there’s room for you in the new kingdom.”

“We may be special, but we’re not humanity’s rulers. And there’s no kingdom. Just because you’ve got power doesn’t mean you’ve got to use it.”

“And let great potential be wasted?” He stood up from his throne.

Rion raised his arms, expecting Ash to throw a punch. “What are you going to do? You wouldn’t kill your brother. I’m the only tie you have to your past.”

“What can I do?” Ash spat. “I can’t have any qualms about destroying those who intend to stop me. There are already too many who have.” He gestured to the bodies in the corner.

“But they weren’t like me.”

Rion leapt forward. A giant wall of fire burst up in front of Ash. Rion flew back to the perimeter of machines.

“Do you intend to kill a god?” Ash said over the hissing shield. He made the firewall dissipate gradually.

It wasn’t until then that Rion truly understood Ash’s motivations–why Ash killed those people, why he had set up a throne room. “You don’t want to help humanity,” Rion said, “You want revenge on it.”

Ash looked shocked. “Maybe humanity deserves it. They deserve to burn.” Ash stepped forward. “Oh, yes, it will be a pleasure… to BURN.”

Ash’s eyes lit up like two smoldering lumps of coal. He pounded his fists together and they burst into flames. Orange leaping sheets covered his forearms as if they were burning logs.

Ash stepped down from his throne and glowered at his fallen brother. Rion lay frozen like a mouse before a cat.

Ash reared back his arm and thrust it forward. A giant sphere of fire leapt from his hand and shot towards Rion. On pure instinct, he rolled out the way, behind one of the giant server towers.

The fireball exploded on contact with the floor, casting off billows of smoke. Ash lost Rion in the haze.

“Rion… come out, come out,” Ash said in a sing-song voice. “I can’t burn what I can’t see.” No response, obviously. He spun in a circle, looking for movement or shadows.

“Fine, then,” Ash said. “I’ll just burn down the whole damn thing.” He threw out his hand at the nearest server. The top half of the chassis exploded, sending metal and plastic flying. “Doesn’t make a difference to me.”

Ash backed against the next machine, hoping to catch Rion cowering behind it, and sidled around. “I wonder if we used to play hide and seek when we were kids. Mm, Rion?”

He turned and looked behind the server. Nothing but darkness. He turned back.

Rion stood in front of him, hands outstretched. Ash didn’t have time to react.

Rion grabbed Ash’s head and focused. The heat radiating from Ash’s arms and eyes threatened to scald him, but Rion kept contact. He sent out a snapping pulse of power.

Ash froze. He grunted. Then he shoved Rion in the chest. Ash fell against the server tower, while Rion sprawled on the floor.

“What was that?” Ash said with a mix of hurt and confusion. “It felt like you were trying to electrocute my mind. But I shut you out.”

Rion crab-crawled backwards. He felt exactly what Ash had described–he couldn’t penetrate. Like he wasn’t strong enough. Maybe he couldn’t use psychic power against another psychic. “I was trying to stop you,” Rion said.

Ash smirked. “It didn’t work.”

Ash whipped his hand out, but Rion saw it coming. A stream of fire poured out of Ash’s hand but, Rion ducked back into the shadows.

Ash grunted. “It’s all a matter of wills, Rion.” He skipped forward, looking left and right. “My will is stronger than yours. I get fewer headaches than you do. I don’t need as much strength to use my power. You can’t break into my brain.”

Rion hunkered down in his hiding spot. His adrenaline was betraying him by making him breathe heavy. He had to find a weapon, but the closes thing was a box of tools–wire cutters, a hammer, electrical tape, pliers.

No, that wouldn’t work. Ash would ignite anything he could throw at him. Even sharpened steel could be melted or heated enough that he couldn’t hold it. The special powers he had depended on had been rendered inert. The only thing that could fight fire, in this case, was fire.

He had to figure something out. The longer this went on, the greater the chance he would lose. Ash had all the advantages, like he said. More useful power, fewer headaches. All his headaches were good for was…

Rion looked again at the wire cutters.

Ash started singing maniacally. “You keep a-knockin’ but you can’t come in. You keep a-knockin’ but you can’t come in. Ha, ha, ha,” he laughed as he prowled the circle.

Ash sprang in between two servers, but saw nothing. Where the hell was he? This was getting ridiculous. He wanted to eat his food, not play with it.

Ash explored the room all the way around. No noise, no movement. He ducked his head in and out, trying to catch Rion moving. He checked around every corner, and backtracked just in case.

Ash returned to the inner circle perplexed. There were only so many places the kid could be. There was only one way out, and he would have seen the door open. He stood in the center of the room and scratched his head with his flaming arm.

There was something wet on his scalp. He pulled his hand back and rubbed a viscous liquid over his finger tips. It had no smell, and though the light was weak, it seemed reddish.

Blood. His blood? But he hadn’t taken any blows to the head. Another drop fell on his open palm.

“What th’?” Ash said and looked up.

Rion was hanging from the ceiling, holding onto the power cables. He screamed, let go, and dove headfirst onto Ash. In the split second Rion touched Ash’s head, he focused.

Ash screamed and flew back. He felt like he had touched his tongue to a live wire while standing in a puddle. The flames in his eyes and arms winked out. He groaned, muscles frozen from the shock. He could barely lift his head to see. Rion was standing over him.

“Wh- wh-” Ash tried to form words with his cottonmouth.

“I finally understood,” Rion said. “I understood why we keep getting headaches. Why the powers increase the more pain you’re in. It’s not from overstrain. It’s from getting stronger. It’s the powers getting better, like working out. The more pain there is, the stronger you are.”

Rion held up his left hand, which was missing the tip of its pinky finger up to the first knuckle. Blood dribbled down from the stump.

“Y- y- you,” Ash wheezed. “You’re insane.”

Rion approached Ash. “You want a contest of wills?” Rion held up his hands, fingers crooked and ready to clutch.

“No, no.” Ash tried to creep away, but only managed to wriggle back a few inches. His legs wouldn’t work, his arms wouldn’t work. His power wouldn’t work.

“I’m going to give you back all the pain you caused,” Rion said. Electricity crackled over his palms like crawling snakes.

Ash’s eyes widened. There was nothing he could do.

Rion bent down and laid his hands on the sides of Ash’s temples. Ash’s eyes darted left and right as he felt the touch of skin on his head.

He felt the first jolt and yelped. Then he yelled out again.

Then came the big one.

Ash’s screams penetrated even the thickest walls of the roof.

Black Hole Son – Part 51

Black Hole Son

RION

Rion flipped over the last two pages, finding them blank, and closed the folder. Now he knew everything about the project–the objective, how it was done, why it was done, where, when, and what.

While he had read, Harrington dismissed everyone. They were now the only people standing on the grounds of Starkweather Tower.

Rion held up the folder. “Is all this true?”

“I have no reason to lie,” Harrington said.

“This still doesn’t tell me who I am,” Rion said, “Just what I do.”

“What you do is who you are. Man is defined by his actions.”

Rion frowned. “What do you mean?”

Harrington sighed and pointed behind him. “You’ll find what you’re looking for at the top floor. Go up to floor sixty-five. Then get off and go to the executive elevator.” He pointed to the folder. “The pass code is the project name.”

“Why are you doing this?”

Harrington shrugged. “I’m just trying to help you out. I owe you that much. But after this, we don’t know each other.” He straightened his jacket and walked towards the exit. As he passed Rion, he said, “Do whatever you want.” Harrington walked out to the street and turned the corner.

Rion looked over his shoulder, expecting him to say something more. When he didn’t, Rion entered Starkweather Tower through the unlocked door.

The first floor was a vast plaza. Rion passed a collection of plush chairs, meant for waiting in until the limousines came around. After that, information desks, kiosks, and computer terminals lined the hall.

Further down, a cross-shaped hallway bisected the ground floor into quadrants. Stores sat at each corner–a coffee shop, a drug store, a gift shop–each gated off and shut down for the night. A sign posted in the center listed a directory, making it more like a mall than an office building.

Rion pushed the call button on the nearest elevator. Inside the wall, a whirring started. The doors opened, and Rion stepped in. He pressed the highest number–65.

What was he supposed to find at the top? Starkweather? The plans for the experiment? What was he supposed to do with it? Destroy it? Was that what Harrington wanted?

The elevator was quick. Rion wasn’t used to such advanced technology–he’d been wandering the streets too long. The doors opened to a two-toned hallway with beige on the bottom and a dark green marble on top. Framed pictures were spaced at regular intervals, all of one man posing with various people. Starkweather, most likely. The photos showed him progressing through age, and stopped when he reached about fifty.

Wide windows looked in on luxurious offices. Each had a cherrywood desk, two computer monitors, and various expensive knick-knacks like samurai armor and Malaysian Tiki idols. Rion didn’t see anything significant, so he continued down until he found a single elevator at the end. There was a white panel to the side.

Rion grimaced. He’d expected a keypad, like Harrington said. He put his hand on the pane, ready to sense.

Before he did anything, the white plate turned red, then blue with teal grid lines. Rion almost took his hand off, until he read the message at the top–VEIN PATTERN RECOGNITION SCAN: IN PROGRESS.

The light showed through his hand, like an egg being candled. A white bar swept up and down, then left to right.

The panel lit a pleasant green and said, SCANNING COMPLETE – VERIFIED.

Verified? Did he work here? Was he an employee? Did he have an office and a steady paycheck? That was unlikely, but it meant he was on someone’s file. Someone knew his name, at least.

The elevator doors opened onto a smaller, more luxurious car. The numbers ranged from 65 to 108. A red LED display above the button panel said ENTER PASS CODE. Below it was an alphanumeric keypad.

Rion checked the folder one more time, to make sure he had the spelling right, even though it was already rooted in his head. He hit each button carefully.

B. L. A. C. K. H. O. L. E. S. O. N.

The doors closed and he started to rise. The numbers blinked past each successive floor, past 108. Pressure built behind his ears from the change in altitude.

The doors opened in the middle of a living room, carpeted in thick tan shag. He felt like he was teleported to a mansion. In a corner, a suit of armor stood at attention. Leather sofas and chairs, accented with dark cherrywood, encircled a roaring fire. A clock, a painting, and other affluent ornaments rested above the mantle.

There were dead bodies everywhere.

Corpses lay scattered the floor, the couch, the hallways. Every one of them was burnt beyond recognition–charred skin and clothes, like black plastic dolls. They grinned devilishly in death, their lips burned away.

Suppressing his queasiness, Rion stepped in. Was this what Harrington wanted him to see? Was this why he had been so vague? Maybe he would have changed his mind if he had known.

He stepped over the first carcass, shivering when his calf brushed its flaking arm, and entered the living room. He followed the bodies in a path through a hallway.

He walked through a drawing room, a kitchen, and a dining room. Each had fire damage, but only random places, like someone had walked through with a flamethrower. He followed the trail of the dead to a plain door in the middle of a hall. It opened onto a set of metal stairs, leading into cerulean blue darkness.

First, he couldn’t believe there was a floor higher than this. Then he realized that the stairs were too industrial to be part of the penthouse. Maybe storage? A kind of attic?

He grabbed hold of the banister and climbed up, bumping his head on the ceiling. After five steps, the stairs ended in pitch black. Feeling around, he found a door handle and opened it.

The room looked like a loft apartment–one panoramic half-moon window, etched with wrought iron bars, stretched from wall to wall, offering a great view of the city. But the floor was covered with haphazardly strewn monitors, cords, boxes, shelving, and wires.

There was a collection of giant computer servers in the center of the room, arranged in a ring. Cords hung from the scaffolding, draping down into a cool azure fog effervescing from the middle. Why weren’t they arranged in normal rows? If this room was for storage, that wasn’t its purpose any more.

Rion walked across a smooth hardwood floor through a gap in the ring. Inside, there was a large chair. On that chair, someone was staring him in the face. Someone who looked exactly like him.

“Hello,” he said. “My name’s Ash. What’s yours?”

Black Hole Son – Part 50

Black Hole Son

ASH

“Sir?” the butler said.

Starkweather looked up from the piece of steak on his fork.

“We’ve got him,” Charles said.

Starkweather smiled. “Any casualties?” he said, then inserted the bite into his mouth.

The butler shrugged. “Nothing significant. We were able to obtain him before the police back-up arrived.”

“Good. Bring him up.”

“Sir?” the butler cocked his head to the side. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”

“What are you worried about?” Starkweather shrugged, still focused on his dinner.

“He’s lost his memory. Anything could have happened to him since then. We don’t even know why he’s still alive. It’s been nearly a week. He could have developed into a psychopath.”

Starkweather laughed. “Not him. Not my son.”

“It’s got to be someone’s son.”

Starkweather set his fork down and looked at him. “Charles, after all the years of tests, all the training and experiments, all the drugs, are you suggesting he has become unstable?”

The butler shook his head. “I’m not talking about the experiment. I’m talking about his humanity.”

Starkweather looked up at the Rembrandt painting hanging over the mahogany cabinet. “It’s better I see him alone. It will ease his apprehension. If he’s lost his memory, he’s probably disoriented and frightened. Better he ask questions of the man responsible than a room full of scientists.”

“Sir, wouldn’t it be better to meet in a holding cell? Or some other location where we can control him?”

“Nonsense. Where are you more likely to panic–in a white-walled psych room or a pleasantly furnished mansion?”

The butler tensed, trying to think of another argument. Starkweather picked up his fork again. “Besides, I want to see what sort of person he is now. I want to see how he did without any strings attached,” Starkweather waved his arm in the air. “Go get him.”

The butler bowed. “Right away, sir.”

#

Ash could only remember bare images of what happened. He was cleaned off in a room with white walls, and had a fresh set of clothes put on him. He wasn’t in a police station, or a hospital. He was in a posh apartment penthouse and standing in front of a double door. Two big guards stood on either side. Wherever he was, it beat being dead, like he thought he was after he fainted.

He could have blazed the guards and made a break for it, but they had to know about his powers. A human bomb is nothing you leave lying around. Plus, he wouldn’t learn why he was here.

Besides, why escape? Where would he go? Everything he had worked for had crumbled. His new identity had gone up in smoke. All his bridges were burned.

The guards opened the doors to a lush dining room with paintings and a chandelier. A long cherrywood table with candlesticks made the room crowded with luxury.

Although there were settings for twelve, only one guest was seated, all the way at the other end. Ash could barely see him over the foliage centerpieces.

“Ah,” he clapped his hands. “The prodigal son has returned.”

Ash guessed he was seventy years old. Probably the owner of this apartment, if not the building.

“Leave us alone now,” the man said. The guards bowed and exited, closing the doors behind them.

The old man dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. “Well. Well, well, well. You had me going for quite some time, little one. All of us. Quite scared.”

“All of us?”

“You don’t remember? You really did lose your memory. Interesting. You don’t remember this room? This building?” When Ash gave no response, he shook his head again. “That must have been just awful. I’m sorry, little one.”

“Look, I don’t have the slightest fucking idea where I am, who I am, or how I am. I assume you have those answers so why don’t you start talking. And stop calling me ‘little one’. My name’s Ash.”

“Ash?” the old man said. “Oh, that’s what you call yourself now. I see.”

“Do you know my real name?”

“Does it matter? It’s no longer your identity. I doubt anything could change that. Unless you have another mind-wipe.”

“Is that what happened to me?”

The old man cleared his throat. “Let’s start over. My name’s Leonard Starkweather. Have you heard of me?”

“If you’re the Starkweather who’s plastered over every drug ad, then yeah.”

“Oh, good,” he said. “I hoped they were still using the name. Yes, that is me. I’m the Starkweather behind Starkweather Industries. We made our money creating a lucrative market in anti-depressants and psychiatric medications. I won’t bore you with all the details of my life, but suffice to say, many books have been written about my life. Understand?”

“Right. Big-wig conglomerate. Get to the part about me.”

Starkweather laughed like Santa Claus. “Oh my, you have changed. More than I expected. Yet, I still see the same old you.”

Ash rolled his arms, indicating he should move along. This was like a puzzle he couldn’t find the last piece for.

“Yes, you,” Starkweather said. “You see… I always figured I should do more with my money than let some spoiled next of kin inherit it. Call me a philanthropist. Once I reached a satisfactory sum, I started using our facilities for some of my personal interests.”

“And I was one of those interests?”

“More like a result of it. Of inspiration.” He coughed. “I get ahead of myself. Our specialty was neuroscience, as I said before. And, once we had the money to buy that research, we made a bit of a breakthrough with ‘fluid electricity’.”

“Fluid electricity?” Ash cocked his eyebrow. “That from a comic book?”

“Oh, that’s just a name. Marketing, you know. It’s more of a biological synaptic electrical thingummy, condensed to liquid form. I can show you how it works if you’d like?”

“Thanks, we’ll save that for later.”

Starkweather laughed and clapped his hands. “This fluid electricity, we never released it. With good reason. It created people like you.” He pointed a bony finger at Ash. “Only not consistently. We went through so many. Some people could do nothing. Others, well, their brains exploded as soon as we injected them.”

“Jeez.”

“Yes, the initial phases were brutal and glum. But we stuck with it, because we knew we had something. Some failed miserably, others were somewhat successful, useful at least. And then there was you.”

Ash nodded. “So that’s it. I’m just a guinea pig that got free?” He couldn’t help but feel let down.

“I realize this must all be confusing and scary. I can’t imagine what you’re thinking. Would you like some hot tea? Or some cocoa? You always loved cocoa.”

“I did?” Ash said, baffled. He didn’t feel like a ‘cocoa’ guy.

“Yes, I’ve known you since birth. I’m sort of your father in a way. I made sure to be there at every milestone–training you, guiding you, keeping you safe, keeping your life structured. That was the problem we kept seeing. They never ended up… stable enough.”

“Stable enough for what? Wait a minute.” Ash put his hand to his chin. “This wasn’t just research, was it?”

“Very good. You were always the quickest on the draw,” he said with a cheesy laugh. “I did have a purpose in mind. I suppose your memory has betrayed you there as well.”

“What was that purpose?” Ash said.

“You see, my interests weren’t just in neuroscience. Social issues, too. Social sciences–history, anthropology, politics. I was a senator once, you know.”

“Really, that’s fascinating. A politician who makes psychics in his spare time.”

“Sarcasm,” Starkweather laughed. “How delightful. Yes, well, I was always interested in how people interact with each other. Where is humanity going? How do people live and survive?”

“So then why did you create me?”

Starkweather sighed and looked down. “Oh, it sounds so brutal, to hear it for the first time. This is the part I dreaded. It’s always been second nature to you.”

“What was second nature to me?” Ash said.

“Well, I- I don’t like to say. Oh, but that’s foolish. Just an old man’s unease. If I can’t admit it to my own son, I don’t deserve my wealth.”

“Are you going to say it, or am I going to have to beat it out of you?”

Starkweather paused. “Ash,” he said. “You were out in the world alone. You got to witness humanity firsthand. As I understand it, you were not in the most affluent of neighborhoods. You see, I’ve been living in this ivory tower for quite some time. I think I lost my reins on the business when I was forty or forty-five. That leaves you with a lot of time. One of the great things to do with time is to read the news. It’s always changing, and there’s plenty of it.”

“Yeah, got it.” Ash had given up on pushing.

“But that was the problem, wasn’t it? That there was plenty of it. So much killing, so much corruption, sleaze, riots, sickness, death, dying. Did you see it?”

Ash shrugged.

“Ash, you’re what I like to call a human predator.”

“Huh?”

“Now I don’t want you to get this confused with a hired gun, or assassin, or something like that. You see, there’s a great deal of people out there who would, and should, have been killed years ago, if nature could take its course. The alcoholics, the wife-beaters, the drug users, the adulterers, the pedophiles, the murderers, the sickos, the insane, and a million others that have no name.”

He paused waiting for Ash to nod with comprehension, which he did.

“Your job… our job… was to eliminate those people who Darwin had forgiven.”

“So… we kill people?”

“Oh, Ash. It’s not like that.” Starkweather regarded his painting. “You see, it’s not just that these people are allowed to exist. That, in itself, is harmless. But they breed. They have little scum children of their own, who make more scum children. And often they have multiple partners, increasing their numbers. It’s a cycle that spreads itself to others, like bacteria.”

Ash nodded. Finally, something was starting to make sense.

“These are the people that, in a former society, would have died off through natural selection or banishment. That’s why I call you a predator. It’s something that this society has missed. It’s this one percent that ruin it for everyone else. Suddenly, the weak, the sick, the unintelligent, are allowed to thrive.”

“If it’s all the ‘breeding’,” Ash quoted in the air, “that you’re worried about, why don’t you just… castrate them instead?”

“Well, I haven’t found a psychic power for that.” Starkweather laughed. “But seriously, even cutting them off at the source wouldn’t do it. It’s the effects that they have on those around them–the abusers, the pedophiles, the alcoholics.”

“So you decided the human herd needed some thinning?” Ash said.

Starkweather shook his head. “Ash, I want you to understand why I did what I did. I don’t want you to see me as some sort of mass-murderer. You’ve seen it yourself, haven’t you? The dregs of society, the obstacles to progress. If it weren’t for them, we’d have colonies on the moon by now. This is a culture that’s gotten out of hand. A culture where we argue whether or not the Holocaust took place. A world where people need drugs to stay focused in school, to feel happy, to lose weight, to make sex feel better. Legal drugs that people use just to make it through another day.”

“All right, I get it. So what went wrong? Why did I end up with no memory?”

“That, I’m not quite sure about. We think it- well, let me start from the beginning. The powers came with a price–we’d shoved something into your brain it wasn’t designed to have. Using your powers caused terrible headaches over time. You’ve had those?” Ash nodded. “Yes. You needed a constant supply of painkillers to stave them off. That’s why we implanted a chip that injected pain suppressors. It was also a global locator. A tracker. And a week ago, yours stopped working.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, but–and I do hope you trust me on this, I only had the best of intentions–if those chips were removed, it was supposed to kill you.”

“Kill me? Oh, I see. A little insurance to make sure you stay in the clear.”

“It was so that everyone would stay in the clear. I only wanted to keep track of your whereabouts. You understand, right? You know the capabilities of your powers and how devastating they could be without control.”

Ash crossed his arms. “So you get to decide who lives and who dies, you pull the strings from your ivory tower, telling me to soldier through the muck.”

“Ash, if you’d seen the other experiments, you’d understand. It would be like throwing a loaded gun into a prison. And, no offense, but you are still a child. I have the benefit of experience.”

“Yeah. You’re older… and wiser… and ridiculous,” Ash scowled. “You think because this money and power gives you permission to lay down your own brand of justice?”

“I never thought that at all, Ash. I was only doing what I was doing because there was a need. These people pollute our society. They never learn, they never have ambition, they never grow up, never mature, and never bring anything to humanity’s table. They’re like little black holes, sucking away everything from the people around them. Do we need them around? Are they necessary for life? This is something people want, only no one will admit it.”

“So then you can make people do or say whatever because you pay them or put chips in their head? Or maybe you’d turn someone like me on them if they defy you.”

“Ash, please. You don’t understand my vision. Let me-“

“Your vision? YOUR vision?” Ash slammed his hand on the table. “Fuck your vision. Fuck all your visions. I am not your puppet. I’m not your soldier of fortune. I’m not your worker bee or your lap dog. I’m my own person. And you will listen to my goddamn vision!”

“Ash, please calm down.”

“What did you expect was going to happen when you brought me here?” Ash pulled out the chair in front of him. “Did you think everything was going to go back to the way it was? We’d go back to business as usual?” Ash stepped onto the chair, and then onto the table. “What makes you think I should listen to you, when I can do this?”

Keeping eye contact, Ash threw his arms to the side. Flames burst from the wall. The picture on his right caught fire.

Starkweather trembled. “What are you doing? They’ll put you away. They’ll euthanize you.”

“What makes you think you can use me to decide where humanity is going? That you can create people to judge the weak? Well, guess what? I judge you weak.”

Ash sliced the air in front of him with his hand. A stream of fire sailed down the table like a giant cleaver, and burst at Starkweather’s end. Plates and candles flew in the air.

“Guards! Guards!” Starkweather called, then coughed ferociously from the smoke.

“I’m not playing your game anymore.” Ash walked down the length of the table as the firelight cast him in a smoky glow.

Starkweather rose from his chair, hacking into his hand. Ash sent a burst of fire in his path. Starkweather turned to go the other way. Ash sent another wall of fire. Starkweather huddled in the corner. Ash stopped at the edge of the table, grinned, and jumped down.

Starkweather crumpled up like a tissue, and looked up as if Death was standing over him. He held up a trembling hand as Ash’s shadow swept over him. “If you won’t judge them, who will? Who will carry out proper punishment?”

“God.”

Starkweather dropped his hand. His face took on a grim countenance. “God is a crutch for the weak. He doesn’t exist.”

Ash brought up his hand. “Oh, no?”

Black Hole Son – Part 49

Black Hole Son

RION

Rion had been staring out the back window for the last two miles. “Are you sure they’re still following us?”

“I can’t believe we gave them the slip,” Tuesday said, making a hard left turn. “And yet I still can’t beat Ridge Racer on Hard.”

Rion turned back in his seat. “Aren’t you going to be in trouble?” He felt like he was always being blamed for something he wasn’t responsible for, and he didn’t want it to happen to anyone else.

“Trouble? Yeah, probably. But I’d rather get fired than live knowing you were back in ‘Hangar 18’ with some scientist pulling your toenails out. Besides, I don’t think it’s the police chasing me,” she gestured behind her. “Those cars are meant for running silent.”

“What does that mean?”

“Usually private security or government. Cheaper than black helicopters.”

“Spooks?”

Tuesday’s radio clicked on, fuzzing static at first. The red-orange light flicked to green. “Code one-four-oh-seven, code one-four-oh-seven, come in.” Tuesday glanced at the box, then at Rion. “Huxley, I know you’re there, pick up. Pick up, now,” the radio said.

Tuesday hit the call button. “Sweet-talker,” she said.

“Huxley, report your current location.”

“Mmm, no.”

A pause. “What? Huxley-“

“No. We need some answ- I need some answers.” She rolled her eyes. “Shit.”

“You have him? Report your location, Huxley,” the voice bellowed, “Just tell us where to find him.”

“Cut the crap, Horace. There’s no charges filed against this guy. No criminal record. You don’t have a leg to stand on. So what’s the deal? Who’s chasing us? Government?”

“Tuesday, you do not want to fuck around with these people. Trust me.”

“Do they have something to do with Starkweather Industries?”

Her statement was met with silence. Rion glanced between the road and the box, waiting for an answer.

After five seconds, the radio light turned red.

“Uh,” Rion said. “What does that mean?”

“I have no idea, but we should probably find a hiding place for you.”

“NO!” Rion shouted, scaring Tuesday. “No, we have to go to Starkweather Tower. Don’t you see?” he pointed to the radio. “This proves they’re the key. We have to go there now.”

Tuesday bit her lip. “I don’t know. If those guys have something to do with Starkweather… well, that guy’s got more money than most countries. He can do anything he wants.”

“I don’t care. I can’t keep running. I’m sick of running. I’m not even good at it. Eventually, they’re going to find me, and they might kill me in the process,” Rion said. “If we go now, they won’t expect it. We can take advantage of their confusion. And we can’t keep driving forever.”

Tuesday took a deep breath. “All right. Guess we didn’t get dressed up for nothing.”

She turned on her siren, and sped up.

It took them five minutes to get to the center of the city. The building took up an entire city block–a long black obelisk standing on end, wrapped in mirrors. Every centimeter was polished and smooth like a single, unbroken element.

A courtyard of sculptures and fountains stood at the perimeter–a pleasant distraction from the harsh, cold tower. A decorative steel and concrete blockade encircled the first floor, blocking view of the entrance.

Tuesday drove around the iron-wrought fence marking the tower’s boundaries. Rion sat up in his seat. “I don’t see how you get into the building.”

“That barricade must be a security checkpoint. Maybe they’ll let us in if we bring cookies.”

They turned the corner, and saw the vehicle entrance gates. A hedge maze lay beyond the fence in the courtyard. Tuesday pulled into the car-sized inlet and rolled down her window to talk to the speakerbox.

She pressed one of the unlabeled buttons. “Y’ello? Anyone there?”

“State your business.”

“Three double cheeseburgers with everything. No onions on one, and an apple pie.”

“What? What’s your name?”

“Fachina. First name, Alotta.”

There was a pause. Rion glanced between the speakerbox and the gate. “Display your badge,” the speaker said.

Tuesday flashed her pocket identification to the box. “Hey, let us in already. Your pizza’s getting cold.”

The gates creaked, clicked and pulled back. Four men, all wearing black suits with hands in their pockets, approached from the sides.

Rion looked back, hoping for clear escape. Two black sedans drove towards them from the side streets. “They’re trapping us.”

“Hold onto your butts.” She hit something on the dashboard and jammed the gas pedal down. Rion white-knuckled the armrest.

The car took off and scraped against the half-open gates, spouting out sparks. “Look out!” Rion yelled.

“For what? The hedges we’re going to crash into?” she said, yelling over the roar of tires on cobblestone.

The agents pulled their guns out and fired. But they only managed to cause spider-web cracks in the side windows.

Rion screamed as they bounced on the hump of grass and plunged into the hedges. They penetrated two layers before their inertia dwindled and the car ground to a halt, stuck halfway through a wall.

Tuesday shut off the car and climbed out. “Those guns aren’t government issue,” she said. “They aren’t going to hesitate to use them.”

Agents shuffled and shouted indistinct orders outside. The car had sealed off their escape route, so the agents would have to enter the maze to find them. The problem was, they were also victims to the labyrinth.

Tuesday ran left. “Come on,” she said. Rion followed her.

They ran deeper into the maze, along a path with many turns, until they came to a wall, splitting the path in two.

“Shit,” she said, “Which way do we go?” Both paths turned a corner, so neither looked good. “If we turn wrong, we might get trapped.”

Rion ran to one end of the passage, and looked around. There was nothing to touch, so he sent out a wavelength of power. In return, he got a feeling of confusion that was not his.

He ran to the other end. No sensations when he focused there.

“This way,” Rion said and ran off.

“How do you know?”

“I don’t. The maze knows.”

“Oh,” Tuesday rolled her eyes. “Right, psychic. Sorry, keep forgetting.”

The feeling of puzzlement came from people walking back and forth, perplexed because they had reached a dead end. The other path didn’t have those feelings, because it was taken by people who knew their way.

Rion used this skill at each fork. With object memory, emotions were the easiest to sense. One more turn and they were out of the maze, facing the wall that encircled the building. But there were no doors or windows.

“Now what?” Tuesday said, looking around. “There’s got to be some way in.”

Rion examined a ceramic fountain built into the wall, bursting with water and lights at regular intervals. Outside the fountain, a statue of a half-naked woman poured in water from a jug.

“This statue,” Rion said. “I think there’s something…” He climbed onto the square pedestal and ran his hand along her leg and back.

“Hey, hey, don’t molest the statue,” Tuesday said.

“No, I think there’s something…” He looked down. Two grooves of metal ran through the space where the pedestal converged with the fountain. “I think it slides back.”

Rion jumped down, and pushed on the sculpture. With Tuesday’s help, the statue scraped along the cobblestone landing and revealed a blue plastic panel with a keyhole.

“Maintenance hatch,” Tuesday read.

“Good enough for me.” Rion pulled on the handle. “Dammit, everything is locked.”

Before Tuesday could say ‘where’s the key’, Rion laid his hands on it. Headaches be damned.

A man with olive skin and wavy black hair in a green uniform, a night shift groundskeeper, walks around the cobblestone pathway.

Rion took his hands off and looked around.

“Well?” Tuesday said, “What’d you see? Did you see where the key is?”

“Yeah, um… I got a person.”

“A person? Who?”

Rion saw movement to his left. A man with olive skin and wavy black hair was walking towards them.

“Him,” he said.

He stopped surprised. It didn’t look like he knew anything about the security breach going on. But when he saw a cop and a teenager bent down in front of the maintenance hatch, he called out, “Hey, what are you doing?”

He reached for a radio on his belt, but his surprise made his movements clumsy and awkward.

Tuesday was anything but. She grabbed the taser in her holster and fired it in one fluid motion. Two strings flew forth and embedded in his chest. There was a sickening crackle. The man convulsed, flailed his arms, and collapsed on his back.

“His pocket.” Rion crawled to him and pulled out a ring of keys.

Rion hunched over the hatch and pulled out the first one. A loud bang went off. The statue’s face cracked, and bits of concrete rained on them.

Rion and Tuesday crouched down as they saw an agent standing at the exit to the hedge maze. He fired again, chiseling out the statue. Tears welled up in Rion’s eyes– the fear had finally reached a breaking point.

Tuesday put a hand on Rion’s back. “Get the hatch,” she said. “I’ll cover you.”

She sprang up, backed against the statue, and fired a warning shot. Rion forced himself to stop staring like a cow and get to work. The first key jammed in the lock, but didn’t turn. Same with the second key. Another agent joined the first and traded shots back and forth with Tuesday.

The third key worked. Rion tugged on the handle, and flung the door back. It led to a deep hole with a ladder. “Come on, I got it open.”

“You first, kid,” she said. A third guard emerged from the outside of the hedge maze. Tuesday fired in his direction, and he ducked back. “I’ll hold them off.”

Rion didn’t want to argue and delay. He slipped his legs over the side of the hole, felt for the metal rungs, and stepped down as fast as he could. The gunshots above echoed in the chamber. Chips of concrete tinkled down on him.

He jumped the last few rungs and backed away. All he could see was the light-polluted sky.

“Tuesday, come on,” he shouted.

“Coming, dear,” she mocked. More gunshots. Then Rion saw her foot step onto the first rung. Reassured that she was coming, he started down the hall.

Yellow fluorescent tubes lined the tunnel. It felt like he was in the sewer. Maybe it was where they housed the plumbing systems for the courtyard.

Light doused as the maintenance hatch locked. “I think this might lead to some sort of control center,” Rion said. “I bet it connects to the building. We could get in from there.”

Behind him, Tuesday climbed down the last of the rungs, and dropped. She landed hard.

“Rion, wait,” she said.

He turned around and saw her doubled over. She had her hand held up to stop him. In the middle of her palm, there was a black splotch of seared flesh.

“Oh my god,” he said, “What happened to your hand?”

“They shot it,” she said.

“Are you all right? Can you take the bullet out?”

“Don’t think so,” she rasped.

“Can you keep going?”

“Well, no. It actually came out of my hand,” she murmured. “And passed through… here.”

Rion didn’t realize she was clutching her chest, until she pulled her hand away. Blood dribbled down her blue uniform, although in this light, he could only see the wet shine.

“Wha-…” Rion froze. It wasn’t until Tuesday’s legs collapsed that instincts took over. He sprang forward and put his arm under her head. “Are you all right? Are you all right?”

She looked up at him. “N- no, don’t think so. Trouble breathing.” She coughed. A dribble of red oozed from her mouth. “Feels like I’m drowning. Maybe a punctured lung.”

“Um, I’ll get help. I… I can…”

“No, no, don’t go back up there. They’ll kill you. You gotta keep going.” She coughed again. A dollop of blood spurted onto her chest, which she covered with her hand.

“No, no, I can’t leave you here. They’ll find you,” Rion said.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” she said, “You’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

Her eyes were moistening, and soon Rion’s were doing the same. He didn’t know what to say. She was going to die, for nothing, because of him, and he could do nothing about it.

She laid there on Rion’s lap, staring at the ceiling. All Rion could do was watch her, waiting for that terrible moment. Neither of them moved.

When Rion was sure that she had gone, she spoke. “Rion, do you think I’m pretty?”

There was no hesitation. “Yes, yes I do,” he said. He would have said anything if it would take that bullet out of her chest.

Tuesday snickered and turned her head to the side. “I wish I had something more profound to say to you, but all I can think of is when I was twelve and Andy Bateman told me to move my fat ass because I was too close to his locker.”

“It’s all right,” Rion said. “You can think whatever you want to.”

“Why is that all I can think of? It’s all I can remember,” she sobbed.

“Hey, at least you got memories,” he said, crying and laughing. He stroked a wisp of hair out of her eyes.

She laughed weakly, and coughed again. “Good point,” she said. “Thanks… glad…”

Her voice lowered until Rion could no longer hear her. He bowed his head down to her.

“Tuesday? Tuesday?” He felt no breath from her mouth. “Tuesday, come on, wake up.”

He jostled her shoulders, but in his heart, he knew it didn’t matter anymore. “Tuesday? Tuesday?” He called her name again and again. She did not answer.

He waited for something to happen, like a transition. Something to whisk her body away. But it did not come. Her body remained, her weight pressing on him.

His hands curled into fists. Now he had to approach Starkweather alone.

And he would. He would walk right up to that man and ask why she had to die. He would ask what was so dangerous about him that he was worth killing for. And why he shouldn’t kill them. All of them.

Rion slid out and laid Tuesday’s head on the floor. He would come back for her, to bury her proper. Her family and friends would want to see her one last time, for closure. Rion’s closure lay elsewhere.

He stormed down the warren, Tuesday’s blood sticking between his fingers. They must not have known he was in the maintenance tunnel or they would have sent troops in. After a few hundred yards, far enough to be past the barricade, he came to an unlocked door.

He entered a small room with another door, presumably the exit, and a ladder leading up. A swivel chair stood in front of a desk full of monitors. Some showed video feeds, others displayed running diagnostics. One showed power flow around the courtyard, which made it a map. Rion analyzed it, and confirmed where he could find the entrance to Starkweather Tower.

If he used the ladder, he’d end up facing twenty gun barrels in the middle of the basement. He wouldn’t give them that chance. Not after Tuesday. He went through the exit door and took his memorized path to another ladder, much like the first. He climbed up and clenched the handle for the hatch. Taking a deep breath, he pushed on the door.

He was lucky it made no noise. Through the crack, Rion saw the back of an agent’s legs. But he was looking at the concrete walkway to the tower’s entrance.

Rion crawled out of the hole, keeping silent. The guard stood oblivious. Rion rose, snuck up behind him, and drew back his arms.

The guard flicked his head, like he had heard something behind him. Rion grabbed his head and sent out his power. His eyes glowed red and black as tendrils of electricity skipped over the man’s cranium. He screamed like a banshee and dropped, with a look on his face like his innards had been torn out. Rion felt satisfied, but the scream was as good as a red alarm. Cries for assistance and rustling noises surrounded him.

Rion grabbed the man’s gun–it felt like his combipositor–and faced the cobblestone walkway. The path was lined with rectangular hedge partitions, planters, and ceramic statues. A wide swath of glass doors led into a lobby. He had to save one bullet to break the glass.

An agent emerged from the side of the tower, and Rion fired before he was noticed. Two more black suits appeared and headed down the walkway towards him. Each had a gun at the ready. More were on the way. The only way to get to the doors would be to run.

Rion ran forward and fired a shot at each agent. One rolled behind a bench, the other jumped backwards. Rion hoped he’d gotten at least one.

Gun blasts exploded. He was a sitting duck running in a straight line. He juked left, and climbed the bench. He jumped off, spun in the air, and fired two warning shots. The suits ducked back behind their cover.

Rion stumbled on the landing, stopping in front of a gap in the hedge walls. An agent stepped in front of him, gun drawn.

Rion grabbed his arm and sent out his power. The man reacted like he’d been hit in the face with a mallet. He collapsed, knocked out and Rion was off before he hit the ground.

Rion fired the gun left and right. He didn’t intend to hit anyone, just to scare them away. Getting to the entrance was his only thought–everything else was tangential. As long as the path was unblocked, nothing could stop him.

Twenty feet away, his gun ticked instead of fired. Empty. No way to get in.

Screaming like a barbarian, he chucked the heavy gun at the door. It flew end over end and hit dead center. The glass instantly became opaque and disintegrated, shards falling like rain. He was home free.

Until ten men, dressed in black armored body suits and gas masks emerged from the inside walls of the foyer and ran out.

Seeing the machine gun rifles in their hands, Rion skidded to a stop. The remaining agents came forward, all pointing handguns, and encircled him.

Rion crouched like a trapped tiger, moving his eyes from one side to the other as they closed in. Their tactics, their guns, didn’t matter. He couldn’t see them as anything but lambs to the slaughter. Guns were useless compared to his power. He had only one choice.

Starting slow, he gathered energy in his brain, brick by brick, accelerating in intensity. This was going to be the biggest blast he had ever tried. It had to wipe them all out. It might even wipe himself out, but he had to take that risk.

They moved closer. Pressure hammered in his skull. He grunted from the pain. The grunt turned to a shout, into a primal howl. He raised his arms to the sky.

“Stop.”

Everyone froze. The agents relaxed their guns and looked towards the tower. Someone was coming out of the building.

“Move it,” he said as he squeezed in-between two soldiers. Rion’s eyes widened. It was one of the agents that chased him from the hotel. He had no armor or weapons, just a folder under one arm.

They regarded each other for a moment. “Here.” He held out the folder.

“What?” Rion said, still on edge.

“This is all you need to know.” He turned to the others. “You all can go now. Your services are no longer required.”

“Sir?” one of the agents said, still fingering his trigger.

“It’s all over. I advise you to drop your weapons where they are. You no longer have the authority to hold them. And I’d suggest leaving the premises.”

“Sir? Mr. Harrington? I don’t understand.”

“We no longer have a need for you. Your employment is terminated, if you prefer that term,” Harrington said calmly. “In other words, ‘you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here’.”

None of the agents moved from their spots, but they did lower their weapons.

Rion looked at Harrington. “What’s going on? How come- It- Why-?” The questions flooded in, too many at once.

“Read this folder,” Harrington repeated. “It’ll tell you everything.”

Rion took the folder and gave him a dirty look, angry at his vagueness. But since he had enough authority to stop everyone with a word, he gave him the benefit of the doubt and opened the folder.

Black Hole Son – Part 48

Black Hole Son

ASH

“Jesus Christ, they’re right on us!” Ivy glanced at her rear view mirror. “What the fuck were you thinking?”

“Me? You’re the one who told me to break free.”

“I just suggested it!” she screamed. “I just said it cause it looked like you forgot. You didn’t have to do it.”

“I forgot? You think I forgot I have psychic powers? I thought you had a plan.”

“What the hell makes you think I have a plan?” They came to an intersection. “Where the hell am I supposed to go?”

“Get back to your house,” Ash said, rubbing his temples.

“Why my house?”

“I don’t know. It’ll give us some time at least.”

The intersection came up fast, she spun her wheel hard to the right. “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” she chanted as the compact car threatened to roll over.

“Just go,” he yelled.

“I’m fucking going. I’m going. Oh, god, I’m gonna die. I’m gonna die.” Her eyes darted around like a trapped fox. “What the hell were you thinking?” she screamed.

“Quit fucking asking me that.” He slumped back in his seat and rubbed his neck. He shut his eyes, trying to drown out the sirens. It was only a matter of time before they got a chopper, or a tank. If that happened-

A hard bump jostled Ash out of his thoughts. He opened his eyes and saw the strip mall looming ahead. And they were headed for the one lit compartment.

“What the hell are you doing?” Ash screamed. “I said go to your house.”

“I’m not fucking going to my house. I’m not going to let the cops run into my house and break everything.”

“You fucking idiot. I- you-” His thoughts jammed up in his mouth. “At least you could have told me. I could have thought of a different plan.”

“Oh, like you fucking have a plan. Hold on.”

Still barreling at forty miles per hour, the car skidded to a stop on the sidewalk, short of breaking the windows. Ash’s head rocked forward and bumped the glovebox.

Ivy was already getting out as Ash recovered. Police cars trickled into the lot, their whooping sirens growing louder. Ash fell out of the car and hustled inside.

Anfernee, Jamal, and Squirrel stood in the middle of the room, puzzled and stunned. Ash stumbled over as he crossed the threshold. Red and blue twinkled on the wall.

“Ash? What-” Anfernee said.

Ash reached up and set the deadbolt. “Lock the doors. Barricade the place.

He reached for the nearest window to pull the blinds down, even as the voice in his head said The blinds aren’t bulletproof, you moron.

Anfernee and Jamal sprang into action, pulling down the others. Squirrel stared out the window. “Jesus, what’s going on?”

“No time to explain,” Ash said, looking for supplies he could use.

“You can ask this fuck-up here,” Ivy said.

“Shut up,” he yelled back. “Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up!”

Stop panicking, he thought. How are you going to lead if you panic at the first unforeseen circumstance. He turned to the three. “Cops are after me. They’re trying to arrest me.”

“Arrest you?” Squirrel said.

“I didn’t do it. But no time for details. We’ve got to barricade ourselves. At least until they’ll listen to reason. What weapons do we have? Any guns?”

“No, you said ‘no guns’,” Jamal said.

“Oh, right. Well, get whatever you can.”

Outside, a gruff voice shouted. “Open the door!”

Ash jumped back. They were going to attack. Maybe trying to find the back door.

“Back door,” Ash said. “Help me!”

He barreled into the storeroom and found the emergency exit. It was covered by shelving, but that wouldn’t stop the cops. “Shove everything in front of it,” he said as he toppled the shelf.

Jamal, Anfernee, and Squirrel threw boxes and anything heavy they could find at the door.

“That’s good,” Ash said. “It’ll slow them down at least. What about our food rations?”

“Food rations?” Jamal said. “We were supposed to have food rations?”

“Yes! In case of emergency. Oh, never mind,” Ash said. He shoved them aside and went back up.

“How long are we planning to stay here?” Jamal asked.

“Um, um, let me think,” Ash said. He rubbed his forehead. “I don’t know. I need to get calm. Everybody needs to calm down. We can get out of this.”

“What do they want?” Squirrel said.

“They want him,” Ivy said.

“They’re not getting me,” Ash said. “I’m not going back to jail. The way they treated me when I didn’t do anything wrong…” He approached the window, then thought better of it. “Squirrel, peek outside. What’s happening?”

Squirrel’s lip trembled. He didn’t move.

“I said, peek outside. NOW!” Ash said and pointed to the farthest window. “Just glance out and tell me what you see.”

Squirrel pulled apart the blinds of the furthest window for a half-second. “There’s three cars. The cops are hiding behind them. One has a bullhorn. The others looked like they were just talking.”

“They’re deploying positions,” Ash said. “Dammit.”

“What do we do?” Squirrel said. “Oh, Jesus.”

“Calm down. Don’t panic. We all need to calm down. We can get through this. Think, think, what do we need?”

“We need, uh, to talk to them?” Squirrel said.

“Yes, that’s it. How? Do we have a bullhorn?”

“I don’t think so,” Anfernee answered. “What about the phone?”

Ash looked toward the phone on the desk. “Unless you’ve got their direct number, I don’t think they’re going to wait for me to get routed through the system.”

“Set something on fire!” Squirrel said.

“How is that supposed to help?” Ash said.

“Just surrender yourself,” Ivy said. “They only want you.”

“Oh, yeah, says the person who told me to get away in the first place. You haven’t been to jail. I have. They threw me in the hole, just because I didn’t have ID. Think of what they’re going to do to me now.”

“So now you’re putting all of us in danger?” Ivy said.

Anfernee brought himself up to full height. “We’re the White Knights,” he said. “We can’t shirk away from danger.”

“Right, good man.” Ash patted him. “We can get through this. I know I can depend on you. We might need to fight, but we can hole up here until everything calms down.”

“Open the door now!” the cop repeated.

Ash’s mind went blank again. He had to say something. “Uh, don’t come in. I have… hostages!” Ash shouted back.

“You do?” Anfernee whispered.

“I’m just saying that, idiot. I’m trying to buy some time. Can we get to the roof?”

“And do what?” Ivy said.

“I don’t know. Escape? We can’t stay in here forever.”

“In the movies, they always put up snipers on the roof,” Squirrel said.

“What if we send out a letter or something?” Jamal said.

“White flag!” Squirrel said, “We need a white flag. I saw this one thing, where they were robbing a bank-“

“I don’t have time for movie reviews right now, Squirrel,” Ash said. “I need some options.”

“Tell them to send someone in to negotiate,” Squirrel added.

The bullhorn blared, “This is your last warning. Open the door.”

“Shit,” Ash said. “Not enough time.”

The door banged, like someone was taking a battering ram to it.

“They’re breaking down the door,” Jamal said.

“Shit. Get your weapons ready,” Ash said. He backed up towards the desk, towards Ivy.

“Oh, this is real good, genius,” Ivy said.

“I said, shut up. And get down.” He grabbed her arm and threw her to the floor.

The door banged again. The doorknob fell off and the deadbolt splintered off the wood.

“Jesus,” Squirrel said. Jamal fumbled for his mace. Anfernee pulled out his club.

“Oh god, where is it?” Squirrel said as he fished for his taser. “Oh god, come on, come on.”

The door burst open. A cop stood in the doorway, shoulder braced. Another stood behind him.

Squirrel pulled out his taser out and pointed it.

“Gun!” the cop shouted.

The man in front crouched as the police force behind him started firing.

The surprise made Ash fall over behind the desk. He rolled over and bunched up into a ball.

Bits of debris broke off from the walls. The plastic blinds shuddered and collapsed. The windows shattered with a tremendous blast. Ash held his ears and shut his eyes.

Clicks and pops, flashes like lightning repeated over and over. Someone screamed out. He couldn’t tell who, but it sounded like one of his.

He felt so powerless, so inadequate. Here he was, hiding and crying like a little boy. His men were dying and there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t come out. He couldn’t do anything. He was weak. He was useless.

The shots ceased. “Hold! Hold!” someone yelled.

Ash opened his eyes. From the side of the desk, he saw Jamal’s outstretched hand on the floor, fingers curled to the sky. Blood pooled around the wrist.

“Get out now!” the cops yelled, “Hands on your head! Get out from there!”

Ash gritted his teeth. He stood up straight. The cops whipped towards him, guns outstretched.

For them, he thought.

He summoned the biggest surge of power he had ever felt and sent it forth. The blaze was more like a hot-white nuclear blast. They didn’t even have time to scream before their flesh evaporated from their bones.

He caught movement in the shot-out windows. More of them. Scattering around their cars, running for cover. Ash thrust his hands out and set them smoldering.

One by one, the four remaining police went up in flames, concentric circles of fire thrumming up and down their bodies. They flailed and screamed, running into each other and falling. Ash kept the fire on them. They should suffer.

As they burned, he took the cars. The parts that were most flammable–the seats, the tires–started up quickly. The fire grew hotter until there was a strange noise.

One of the car’s gas tank’s exploded, sending up a huge sphere of flame. Ash ducked as the explosion set off the two cars next to it. A massive fireball puffed into the sky and dissipated.

Hearing nothing but the crackle of fire, Ash uncovered his eyes. Everything was black and ashen. Cinders popped in the air. It was over.

And there were his men on the floor, lying under broken glass and crumbs of drywall, like three children at naptime. Jamal was dotted with red, like a clown. Anfernee had a sharp piece of glass embedded in his chest but the yawning wound on the forehead was what killed him. Squirrel had held onto his taser gun all the way down. His eyes were still open, staring in perpetual surprised.

“No, no, no,” Ash muttered. He stumbled to one knee and gasped. “Everything I worked for is gone. Everything I tried to rebuild.”

Ivy ventured out. “Oh my God,” she whispered. “You turned this place into a war zone.”

“I didn’t… I didn’t mean to,” Ash said.

“Look at all this,” Ivy said. “This was all you. You did this.”

“It was a mistake. I didn’t mean to.”

“Yeah, like the restaurant was a mistake. And running away was a mistake. Jesus, Ash, what is with you? You’re such a fuck-up.”

Ash wiped his eyes and stood up. He cleared his throat and said, “Oh, what, like you’re so great? What about the mistakes you made?” He approached her. “You act like you’re above everyone, but you’re not. You use people to get what you want. You use your sexuality like a weapon.”

“Hey,” she held up her hands. “Don’t judge me. You can’t judge me.”

“Wrong.” Ash grabbed her hands and held them to the wall like shackles. “That’s exactly what I should have been doing in the first place.”

She burst into flames before she realized what was happening. Her screeches dwindled to a strained groan as the oxygen was sucked from her. Her skin dripped off in black flakes and blood, like a wax sculpture.

Ash held her in place as she struggled. He wanted to look into her eyes, watch them liquefy.

Within the orange glow, she went limp. Ash let her go. Her charred skeleton collapsed in a heap.

Silence again. The adrenaline gave way to a headache like a venomous pounding hammer. With his hand on his forehead, he walked towards the exit, glass crunching under his feet.

More sirens, growing closer. Reinforcements. Of course they would call for backup. He leaned in the doorway, waiting for them to arrive.

Two black sedans with a single red light on the roof escorted a steel van into the parking lot. They’d sent in the big boys now.

How long could he keep this going? Forever? When would it stop? When all the cops in the world were dead?

The vehicles parked halfway across the lot. Four men in suits got out. He couldn’t see their faces through his tunnel vision–holding his head up was difficult–but they were holding guns and calling to each other, like secret agents.

Ash grinned and stepped forward. It felt like he was slogging through a swamp. But body condition didn’t matter when all his power was in his mind.

“Come on,” he whispered. “Come and get me. I got enough pain for all of you.” Smarmy bastards in their nice suits, while he was bleeding, dirty, barely able to stand up. Who did they think they were? Did they think they could take him on?

He hobbled forward. They watched him, and put their hands on their holsters. Why weren’t they raising them? Maybe they thought he was too weak. If only they knew how wrong they were.

“You bastards. You think you can do anything to me? I’ll destroy you all.”

He grinned and held out his hand. With nails driving into his skull, he focused his power until his entire body glowed red. He would show them who they were dealing with.

A sudden wave of overwhelmed him. The pain seeped into all the muscles of his body, like a weight dropping. He doubled over and threw up. White liquid spewed out onto the asphalt.

Ash dropped to his knees, too weak to stand anymore. He was exhausted and sick–the side-effects of overuse. His power did have a limit.

He fell over on his side, avoiding the puddle of puke. Two agents approached and stood over him.

Ash looked up. “Fuckers,” he muttered. He passed out.

Black Hole Son – Part 47

Black Hole Son

RION

Rion watched the lights of the city flash past him one after the other. Tuesday sang along to the local rock station and bobbed her head.

“Hey, cheer up, bucko,” Tuesday said. “We’re on the way to find some answers for you.”

“Why are you doing this?” Rion asked.

“Cause there might be a clue at this place we’re looking for.”

“No, I mean helping me. I could be lying to you. You don’t know for sure if I have psychic powers or amnesia.”

“True. But there were a thousand cops trying to find you. So that must mean something.”

“But it doesn’t prove what I’m saying is true.”

“No, it doesn’t. But it’s my job to help the helpless. You seem pretty helpless, last time I checked.”

Rion leaned against the window. “What’s the point? Even if I get my identity back, nothing will change. Everyone I’ve gotten close to has tried to kill me, or capture me, or lied to me, or rejected me. Except you.”

“Pretty rough life for only being around six days.”

“So why bother? Getting my memory back won’t change me.”

“It might. When life gives you lemons-“

“Make lemonade?” Rion said.

“Exactly. Although I like my lemonade with lots of sugar. Also, if no one’s watching, I put a little vodka in it, but you’re underage.”

“So the lesson is ‘make lemonade, but don’t drink yours’.”

“Precisely,” she smiled. Tuesday lifted her foot off the gas as her GPS beeped. “We’re getting close.”

“There,” Rion pointed across the street at a familiar-looking aperture. “That could be it. Try there.”

Tuesday pulled into a rock-strewn alley.

“This road feels right,” Rion said. They pulled up to a dumpster. “I recognize that,” Rion said.

The corner of the wall pulled away, revealing a gigantic hole in the side of the building. “This is it.”

As soon as Tuesday stopped, he bounded up to hole and ran his hand along the jagged bricks. “Do you think I did this?” Rion asked.

“Can you?” Tuesday said.

“I haven’t been able to, yet.”

“Then don’t worry about it. That’s how you get wrinkles.” Tuesday inspected the crater. “Caution tape. Police issue. That’s interesting. They don’t give these away in cracker jack boxes.”

“What do you mean?”

“It means this place has got to be on someone’s radar.” She yanked her phone out of her utility belt. “Hey, Freddy, guess who. Working late or lately working? …Want something to do? See if there’s anything on 323 Baker Street off of 45th Ave. Thanks, Freddy. What? Pay you back for a Coke? What’s that? You’re breaking up.” She clicked it off.

Rion stared at her, mystified.

“It’s a little game we play,” she said.

Rion stepped further in. The room looked the same as when he last saw it. The frame was still in the sink. “This is her.” He handed the picture to Tuesday.

“Cute couple,” Tuesday said. “Those May-December romances make great soft news.”

“I don’t think they were romantically involved. I don’t know why, though.”

“Hmm, she certainly had a soft spot in his heart.”

“There was a fight in this room. I think that’s what caused the damage. It might have been from me, even,” he said as he opened the adjoining door.

The next room looked like another ransacked lab–overturned chairs, computers with loose connections, and lab equipment.

“Doesn’t look familiar,” Rion said. He started opening up the cabinets. Most were full of books about neuropathy, psychology, medical diseases, vitamins, drugs–nothing worth wasting his power on.

Tuesday kicked aside the debris. “I know you can’t answer this, but what should I be looking for?”

“Anything connected to me, I guess. Or Dr. Mason. Or the girl, Geri.”

Tuesday pulled out a drawer. “Lots of files here.” She rifled through a manila folder. “Looks like Dr. Mason was working on something major. He printed all the e-mails he ever sent and received. He has a whole folder dedicated to people who called his ideas insane and unfundable.”

Rion frowned. “There must be some contacts or phone numbers around here.”

“No, not in here. All the emails are aliased. But I haven’t read through them all.”

“Do they say what he was trying to do?”

“It looks like he was trying to combine electro-shock therapy and medication. Trying to make a more effective way to suppress pain, maybe?” She looked towards the end of the file. “It looks like he was near a breakthrough when he stopped.”

“Do you think I was that breakthrough?”

“Who knows? I mean, everything just stops. I can’t tell why. The last e-mail says he’s expecting a response from someone. Maybe he died before he could get it.”

Rion’s face fell.

Tuesday said, “Sorry, that’s probably not very comforting. He might not be dead.”

“Well, comfort won’t change anything.”

Between the cabinets, there was a window that showed another room composed of gray concrete bricks. Inside, there was an upright gurney and several large devices.

“Tuesday. Over here,” he called. “It’s the room from the video.”

“Ooh, bonus level,” she said.

Rion and Tuesday entered. It felt like a mechanic’s garage for people. “Little claustrophobic in here,” she commented. “Remember anything?”

Rion closed his eyes, trying to call back his repressed memories. “Nothing,” he sighed. He laid his hand on the table-bed and sensed hard.

It felt like pops, like a radio trying to come on, but there were no images or sounds. He tried harder.

“Ow.” He pulled his hand back like he’d been shocked. Then he noticed the device at the head of the gurney. “This is the ECT device. This is what he used in the video. Remember?”

“Do you remember?” Tuesday asked.

Rion stared at it. Then put his hand on and sensed. Nothing came. He placed his hands all over the chassis, on each button, trying to provoke a memory.

“Easy, tiger, I don’t think that machine’s father would approve.”

“Nothing. It’s like something’s interfering.”

His eyes wandered up to the corner of the ceiling, patterned in gray tiles. Something about it made him feel nostalgic. He focused on that corner and let his mind wander.

“She was here!” Rion shouted.

“Huh?”

Rion faced the bed and closed his eyes. “She was here,” he said. “She was in the room with me. I can smell her. She smells like the sweater.” In his mind’s eye he could see the girl sitting at the corner of the bed, smiling sweetly. “She sat over there, and I sat there, and we colored together. But I’m the same age I am now.”

He let his lower brain functions unroll and feed him the images, even though he could have been making this up for all he knew.

“She brings in coffee. And a hot chocolate for me, since I don’t like coffee. I love the foam. She brought in a People magazine, and we make fun of the celebrities together. I laugh. She’s important. She’s really nice. She’s funny, like you.”

Emotions started taking the place of images. “I feel love for her. Real love. When I’m done, I want to marry her. I want to spend my life with her. Spending time with her makes me feel good.” Rion scrunched his eyes. He shouted, “Why don’t I know who she is!?”

The images dissipated. Getting them back was like trying to hang on to soap, and all the emotions remained as residue on his hands. He opened his eyes.

He was sitting on the bed. “How did I get here?” He didn’t remember moving.

“You started walking,” Tuesday answered.

“I don’t remember walking.”

“What did you mean ‘when you were done’?”

Rion shook his head. “I don’t know. I lost it.” He put his hand to his forehead. “Christ, I’m getting a headache again.”

He jumped off the bed and went to the drawer. When would it ever end, he wondered. Finding the clues was more aggravating than starting off as a blank slate.

The drawer was empty. “Damn, must have taken all of them.” He slammed it shut.

“Taken what?”

“The medicine here… in the drawer.”

“How did you know there was supposed to be medicine in that drawer?”

“Uhhh…” Rion’s mouth hung open as if an answer would come. “I don’t know, I just did.” He had expected to see dozens of pain medication bottles when he opened the drawer. He used them freely, and way too often.

Tuesday smiled. “Looks like you’ve still got some of yourself in there.”

Rion smiled. There was something beyond his locked door, he just needed the key. “ECT. Pain suppression. And memory loss. Those are the pieces. So how do they fit together?”

Rion opened the other cabinets and shelves.

“Anything?” Tuesday asked.

“No, and I don’t remember opening any of them. Just the one.” He opened the first drawer. There was a business card, face down, in the back of the drawer.

“What’s this?” He pulled it out. “Starkweather Industries? What’s that?”

“You don’t know who Lionel Starkweather is?”

Rion shook his head.

“You should. He’s like the Microsoft of prescription drugs. He makes about everything available over the counter and behind it. You know–‘another fine product from Starkweather Industries’?”

Tuesday seemed to expect him to know that phrase.

“How can you be walking around with everything but your personal memory, and have no idea who Lionel Starkweather is…” She gasped. “Unless that’s part of it.”

“Is he still around?” Rion asked.

“Yeah. He’s like eighty-something. I think he’s sold most of the business, but he’s still the figurehead. It’s that big building in the middle of the city–Starkweather Tower. He still lives there, I think. He’s a recluse.”

Rion stared at the card. “I don’t know who he is, but I think he knows the answers.” Rion pointed to the other room. “Maybe that’s who he was waiting for a response from. Maybe Starkweather was interested in his research.”

“Then why does all the information stop there? What did Starkweather do with him? Make him an offer he couldn’t refuse?”

“Maybe that’s the reason the place is a mess. Starkweather destroyed it, then erased all traces of his presence. Save one.” He held up the card.

“It’s not much of a secret conspiracy when there’s a big hole in the wall.”

“If he isn’t responsible, who is?”

Before either could answer, Tuesday’s pocket started beeping. She took out her phone. “Y’ello… Hey, Freddy, what’s up?” Her face fell. “What? Fred, what do you mean?” Tuesday flashed fearful eyes at Rion. “Uh-huh. How… how long do we have?”

She speed-walked out of the gray room, phone to her ear, and out of the building. Rion followed, catching up with her at her car.

“Uh… no, no, that’s all right,” Tuesday continued, “No, I don’t think so. Thanks, though. I appreciate it. Okay. Bye.”

“What’s going on?” Rion asked.

As she opened the car door, she said, “Remember when I said that I thought we escaped scott-free? Yeah, that was way wrong.”

“Oh, god. They’re coming?”

“Coming? They’re here.”

She pointed down the alley. Rion saw flashing red lights growing brighter. “Shit.”

“We got time. Come on, we gotta motor,” she buckled her seat belt as Rion jumped in. “Time to live up to my name.”

Black Hole Son – Part 46

Black Hole Son

ASH

Ash breathed deep from the oxygen mask. Whoever gave him fire power should have been smart enough to also give him invulnerability to smoke. At least he wasn’t coughing anymore.

And what was the deal with the blanket? Why did the firemen cover him with it? He wasn’t cold.

After Ivy had pushed him out of the club, they struggled to the curb where all the looky-looks gathered. Paramedics and fire-trucks showed up moments later and helped anyone who looked like they needed it. The carbon scoring on Ash’s face had made him a prime candidate.

Ivy’s car pulled up to the police barrier. She got out, now fully clothed, and joined him on the fire truck bumper.

“The cops said I could take you home whenever,” she said. “Here’s your Adravil.” She poured out the bottle in his hand.

“Thanks,” he said and swallowed four tablets. The smoke had given him a pounding headache. “Sorry about your club.”

“Pssh, fuck it. You did the world a favor. Burn it to the ground, I say.”

Ash smiled. He could still see flickers of orange in the windows as the fire department continued to spray.

Ash waved his index finger and the flames simultaneously rose. Firemen shouted and scattered back with renewed vitality.

Ivy and Ash giggled. “Oh, do the sign,” she said.

Ash looked toward the unsinged VoRTEX sign and made it smolder. Now it looked like a sign to hell. The ‘O’ teetered off and crumpled on the ground.

“Neat,” she laughed.

A police officer walked up to them. “Excuse me, were you in the club at the time of the fire?”

“Yes, I was,” Ash said.

“Can you tell me what happened?”

Ash described the obnoxious guys in detail, and how he confronted them. “Then when I was on the ground, the wall burst into flames. Then the other wall did.”

The officer nodded. “So you’re telling me you threw a guy twice your size across the bar?”

“That’s right.”

“Pretty big feat for someone of your size, huh?”

“Yeah.” Ash didn’t know how to respond. Of course, a third party’s eyes wouldn’t find his story plausible, but he wouldn’t lie.

“I’ve got some eyewitnesses that say you started the fire. Care to explain that.”

Ash cocked his head, ready for this question. “How could I have started the fire? First, I was in the middle of a fight. Second that fire started like that,” he snapped his fingers. “I would have had to have a flamethrower to do that. I think maybe they were having electrical problems. Maybe the building wasn’t up to code.”

The officer nodded. “What’s your name?”

“Ash.”

“Last name?”

“Um… Lombardi,” Ash said. He’d forgotten the alias he was using before.

“You got any ID on you?” the officer asked.

“Uh, no, not with me. I left it at home.” Another lie. Shit, he was going to have to start getting some documents together if he was going to live in this world.

“They let you in without an ID?”

“Yeah, my girlfriend works here.” This irrelevant questioning was ridiculous. Were they going to accuse him of something? Was this going good or bad? The power he felt when he had described the fight, the righteousness, was being drained away from him like a still.

“Who’s your girlfriend?”

“Her,” he jabbed a thumb next to him. “Ivy.”

“Ivy? Is that your real name?”

“Um… no.”

“What’s your real name?”

She leaned in and mumbled something to the cop.

“What was that? I’m sorry,” the cop asked.

“Peggy,” she said louder. “Christ, let’s have the whole world know about it. I got an image, you know. A stripper needs to maintain a certain persona-”

“Calm down, ma’am, I’m just trying to get some information here.

“Christ…” Ivy muttered.

Another cop shouted and waved at the officer. “Stay here, please.” He walked away.

“Your name’s Peggy?” Ash asked.

“Yeah, don’t judge me. It’s my name. I didn’t pick me.”

“Calm the hell down,” Ash glowered at her.

“Well, why do they need it? Are they gonna do a background check?”

“Why would they do a background check on you? There was a fight, and there was a fire. Nothing they can arrest me for. I think they’re just getting information for their report.”

Another cop pulled up in his car. The first bent his head into the car window and talked to the third. The roar of the bystanders and the fire trucks drowned out their words.

After what seemed like an hour-long conversation, the first cop came back. “Ash, what’s your address?”

“My address?” He hadn’t stayed at the same place for even two days. “I, uh, live with her,” he pointed to Ivy.

“What’s your address?” the cop said.

Ivy flashed her bleached teeth. “I’m not giving you my address. I’m not the one on trial.”

“Ma’am, I’m just getting information.”

“He only stayed one time. I don’t know why he’s saying he lives with me.”

Ash gnashed his teeth. He suppressed his urge to slap her upside the head.

“You can give me it now, or you can give it to me at the station house,” the cop said, “Your choice.”

“Station house,” she sneered.

“All right that’s fine. Do you have any past history with either of the two men you were involved with?”

“No, never seen them before in my life.”

“They wouldn’t have any reason to be angry at you? Either of you?”

“Not at all,” Ivy said.

“Never seen ’em before tonight,” Ash said.

“Now what if I told you that those guys said you antagonized them before they got rowdy?”

“I’d say they were lying,” Ash said. Then he realized the cop was talking to Ivy.

“Those assholes. They would say that,” she said.

“What?” Ash said. “What are you talking about?” She didn’t answer so he turned back to the cop. “What happened?”

“Seems that this lady here promised them a lap dance earlier tonight. Then drank their drink. When they protested she threw it back in the guy’s face.”

“That’s such horseshit,” Ivy said. “They deserved it.”

Ash turned to Ivy, “You didn’t tell me that part.”

“So?” she said. “What difference does that make?”

“Uh, the difference of motivation?” Ash said sarcastically. “They probably wouldn’t have been such shits if someone hadn’t shitted on them in the first place.”

“Hey, don’t judge me. We’ve got to watch out for ourselves. I did what I had to do. You don’t have any right to judge me for that. Besides, I didn’t hear you asking a lot of questions about what their ‘motivation’ was.”

“Oh, sorry, next time I’ll get a detailed report from you. I’ll make up the forms and everything.”

“Whatever,” she crossed her arms and looked away.

Ash grunted. This all could’ve been different if he’d understood why they were behaving like assholes in the first place. He could have settled them down with a peace offering instead of riling them up further.

“So she told you to beat these people up?” the cop asked.

“No,” Ivy said.

“Yes,” Ash said, but tried correcting himself. “I mean, no, not really. Not exactly. I don’t know.” He held his head, starting to get another headache. What did they want to hear? What responses would keep him out of jail? “She said to go over and say something to them. But they were drunk, and all they wanted to do was fight.”

“Right, but you made the first move.”

“Well, no.” Ash clenched his jaw. Not going well at all. “He poked me. He spilled his drink on me. I didn’t do anything to them before. I’m not lying. Everyone saw it.”

“Don’t worry, we’re going to get statements from everyone. I just want to hear your story.

“Hey, Geoff,” the cop in the car said. “Wanna take a look at this?” Ash’s officer walked away again, and bent his head into the car.

Ash turned up to Ivy and glared. How dare she use him as her personal goon. Using his power like a gun. Manipulating him. Why was he even with her in the first place? Everything was always a big fight.

She glared back. “What? Why are you staring at me?” she said. “Don’t judge me. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

The officer came back. “Ash, can you stand up for me?”

“Sure.” He did.

“Turn around, please. Do you have any weapons on you?”

“No,” Ash shook his head, as the officer patted him down. What the hell was this? Was he back in the White Knights?

“So I won’t find anything that’s going to stick me, any knives or needles or things like that?” the cop said.

“No. I have nothing.”

“All right, Ash. Why don’t you turn around for me?”

Turn around? What did that mean? Did that mean what he was being detained? Should he comply? Should he run away? Without knowing what to do, he obeyed.

“Put your hands behind your back for me.”

Ash did, knowing what was happening. His eyes glistened with tears as he darted them around, looking for some kind of escape.

“You’re arresting him?” Ivy screamed and got in the cop’s face. “What the hell for?”

“Step back, please, ma’am.” He pulled Ash upright by his arms.

“You can’t do that,” Ivy said, dancing around them. “You can’t do that. What the hell? You have no evidence. Arrest the other guys.”

“Ma’am, please step back. I’m not going to tell you again.”

Ash could only pay attention to the cold metal rings around his wrists. His mind went blank, like a deer in headlights. What was he going to do? How would this affect his life record? What was going to happen to him? How would he get out with no money, no identity, no friends?

“Ash, don’t let them arrest you,” Ivy said.

Being addressed by name snapped him back to reality.

“Don’t let them arrest you, you dumb fuck. Break free,” Ash said.

A bad thought occurred to him, and from lack of better ideas, he followed it.

Summoning strength to his arms, Ash pulled his wrists apart. The plastic stretched and snapped. Ash stood with his hands in the air like a triumphant bodybuilder.

The cop fell back. He started yelling, “Get on the ground! Get on the ground!” and reached for his gun.

Ash yanked Ivy’s arm and started running. The officer in the car emerged as the other spoke into his radio.

Ash pulled Ivy ahead of him, forcing her to run faster. “What the hell are you doing?” she protested. “Get off me. Don’t bring me into this.”

Ash kept silent–no time for an argument. The surprise and chaos of the emergency workers let them get ahead of the cops and past the police barrier.

Ash shoved Ivy against the driver’s side door of her car. “Open it.”

She rifled through her purse for her keys, mumbling cuss words.

Ash turned back to the street and saw the two cops coming at him, guns drawn. “Get on the gr-“

No choice. Ash waved his hand, and they ignited with red-orange fire. Their commands became high-pitched screams of terror.

He turned back to Ivy, who was staring at the men on fire. “GET THE CAR OPEN!”

She looked at him, eyes filled with fear, something he’d never seen before. She got the key in the door, and opened it.

Ash jumped in. One of the two cops was running around in a circle, bumping up against objects and people. The other rolled along the pavement. Ash kept his eyes on them until Ivy started the engine and they drove like a bat out of hell.

Black Hole Son – Part 45

Black Hole Son

RION

“Then Scooter said ‘This is the second time this has happened, hasn’t it?’, like he’s the doctor’s personal assistant or something. And the doctor just shakes his head and agrees.” Rion wrung the sweater in his lap.

Tuesday nodded as she made a left turn. The streets of downtown were a mess–misnamed signs, funny angles, crossroads that ended and began again three miles later. She needed to pay close attention.

“He wouldn’t even search his room,” Rion continued, “I know he still had the stuff. Why would he think I’m lying to him?”

“Well, he probably didn’t want to violate his privacy. Or the trust of the others.”

“I made up weird stuff like coffee filters and cough medicine?”

“You know, all that stuff you said sounds like ingredients for a meth lab.”

“Meth lab? Scooter was a meth addict?”

“Maybe, or he was just selling. Sounds like this ‘pharmy’ would be a perfect place to start a side business.”

Rion sighed, “I thought he was my friend. My first friend. He tried to help me.”

She clucked her tongue. “Just goes to show you. Never trust someone named after a muppet.”

“What’s a muppet?”

Tuesday’s jaw dropped. “You don’t know what a muppet is?” She shook her head. “What are they teaching kids these days?”

Rion was about to say something regarding his lost memory when he spotted a square, yellow sign with a anthropomorphic bull in a chef’s outfit. The phrase “King Bull’s Spicy Asian Cuisine” encircled the figure.

Rion pointed and before he even said anything, Tuesday was switching lanes. They parked along the curb in front of the store. Tuesday put a few coins in the parking meter. “I don’t really need to do this, but I’d feel funny otherwise, since this isn’t official police business.”

Rion nodded and noticed the other people walking the street were staring at them. Someone were speed-walking away. This didn’t look like a bad neighborhood, so why was everyone shying away from a parked police car.

The two of them entered a small dining hall draped in luscious red velvet. Tacky gold dragon statues with cartoonish eyes loomed around every corner as the smell of salty, savory cooking infused the air.

A creased Asian woman looked up from her podium. Her tight mouth sagged at the sight of Tuesday’s belt.

“Hello. How many?”

“None, sorry. We’re not here to eat tonight.”

Before Tuesday could continue, the hostess ducked under the podium and pulled out a small red envelope. She slid it across the counter. “Yes, yes. Thank you.”

“What?” Tuesday pinched the envelope’s sides so it opened. A thick pile of money sat inside. “What’s this for? Did I win the lottery.”

“Yes, take it. You go now. Another year, yes? You help?”

“Another year? No, no,” Tuesday slid it back. “I’m not here for any money. I just have some questions.”

“Oh,” the woman took back the money, as Rion realized it was some kind of bribe.

“What, do you think we’re from the health inspector?” Tuesday said.

“No…” she muttered, “Is not good neighborhood.”

“No, no. I’m not like that. I’m not here for a shakedown. We just want to ask you some questions. Although,” Tuesday sniffed the air, “I’m a sucker for good sesame chicken.”

The woman turned back to the kitchen at the other end of the empty restaurant. She barked out orders in a harsh, fast language, making Rion shirk back.

Tuesday held up her hands, “Just if you’re not busy.” She nodded to Rion.

“Do you remember me?” Rion said.

The hostess frowned.

“I never came in here to pick up food, or worked here, or anything like that?”

“No.”

“How about this?” Rion held up the pink sweater. “Do you recognize this?”

The hostess cocked her head. “No.”

“There was a girl who wore this. She was… uh, American. She had brown hair. Probably twenty-something, a little older than me. Not oriental.”

“Oriental?” the hostess said.

“Or… Asian, I mean. Like you.”

“I’m not Asian, I’m from Indonesia. We got people from Malaysia who work here. Another’s Filipino.”

“Wait a minute,” Rion said, “You work at a Chinese restaurant and none of you is Chinese?”

The hostess laughed. Tuesday joined in. “Kid, the Chinese food isn’t even Chinese. They never heard of moo goo gai pan over there. This is what they came up with when they were working on the railroads. It’s just chunks of meat deep fried in MSG with a few vegetables. Cause that’s all they had in the camps to throw together.”

The hostess smiled. “Very good. You know history well.”

“Thanks. It’s a lot like my cooking strategy, now that I think about it,” Tuesday beamed. “Say is there anyone working back there you could maybe bring out, and take a look at this sweater?”

The hostess nodded. “Follow, please.” They walked back toward the kitchen.

Tuesday asided to Rion, “Remind me to tell you about Taco Bell sometime.”

They entered into a white room, crowded with stainless steel cabinets and kitchen appliances. A set of Asian men, some young and thin, some old and fat slid past each other in spaces too small for one person to walk through. The hostess snapped at them in another series of nonsense syllables.

The men looked up. Rion held up the sweater like he was trying to sell it to tourists.

“Any of you gents recognize this sweater?” Tuesday said.

The gathered around and peered at it. An older mustached man shook his head. A younger man said, “You know who it’s from?”

“No,” Rion said. “That’s what we’re trying to find out. All I know is I saw a picture of a girl wearing it, and I think she’s got some connection to this place. Plus it smells like perfume.”

The boy held out his hand and Rion gave him the sweater. He took a deep breath of the knit wool. After a moment he shook his head. The man next to him offered his hand, wanting to smell it too.

“Can’t say I imagined I’d be doing this tonight,” Tuesday said. “You keep things interesting, Rion.”

The third gentleman took a deep breath, and his eyes sparkled. “Ah,” he exclaimed then spouted off a bunch of gibberish. The other men nodded. “Geri Baxter,” the young one said.

“Geri Baxter?”

“She used to work here. Sweater smells like her perfume. Very flowery, very good. We all remember it.”

“Nice break to smell than food,” said one of the older, fatter men. They all laughed.

Tuesday laughed with them. “So you know who she is?”

“She used to work here. Make deliveries for us.”

“Do you know where Geri’s address is? Or a phone number?”

The young man shook his head. “Geri stopped coming into work three weeks ago. All phone numbers dead. Couldn’t find her. You know where she is?”

“No, I was hoping you would,” Tuesday said. “You have no way to contact her? Don’t know any of her friends?”

They shook their heads. The bunch of them stood around, looking at the floor, the ceiling, trying to figure out what to do next.

“You said she made deliveries,” Rion said. “Do you know where?”

“All places. Each had a different route. Different region.”

The hostess piped up. “You can see receipts if you want. That’s only way we keep track.”

“Yes, please,” Rion said. As she bent down into a filing cabinet, Rion said to Tuesday, “Maybe she delivered to the lab?”

“Good thinking, kid,” she said. “It’s a longshot, but I like your thinking.”

#

Moments later, they were sitting at a desk next to the wall in the kitchen, as the kitchen workers bustled around, yelling at each other, like they weren’t there. Paper receipts covered the table, all with “DELIVERY: Geri” scrawled somewhere. Tuesday had her PDA out, with a map application loaded and made notes as Rion called out the addresses.

Rion sighed, “You know we could be barking up the wrong tree. She might never have made a delivery to this place.”

“True, but it’s our only lead.”

“This doesn’t bother you? All this tedious address hunting?”

Tuesday laughed, “This is police work kid–it’s a lot of mind-numbing data collection. Sorting through files and paperwork. It’s just a day and a dollar for me. But at least I got a little munch out of it.” She scraped the last bits of sesame chicken out of her box.

“This is good stuff. I should start coming here for lunch.” She had tried to pay the hostess who gave it to her, but she wouldn’t accept anything. She was just thankful for the excitement, and the fact that Tuesday wasn’t looking for a bribe. “I wonder how their cold noodles are.”

“Focus, please,” Rion said, looking through the box of receipts. “I don’t want to be here all night.”

“Sorry.” Tuesday picked up her PDA again and fed it another address. “You know, we could make this a regular thing. We could be like a crime-solving duo. I’d be the worldwise, funny one, and you’re the focused, rational one. Which would be great, because in the police shows, it’s always the guy who’s funny and the girl’s the bitch.”

Before Rion could respond, a new face came in through the back door. He was holding a large knapsack cooler on his hip. He looked surprised to see a cop and a boy sitting in the kitchen.

“Ah, hello?” he said.

“Hi,” Tuesday said.

One of the tubby kitchen workers shouted out at him. He seemed to be explaining their presence. Then the new face caught sight of the pink sweater on Rion’s lap. “Ah, Geri. You’re trying to find her?”

“We’re trying to find many things,” Tuesday said.

“Not the least of which is where she was making deliveries. Do you know her routes?” Rion said.

“I took over her routes when she left.”

Rion brightened. “Did you ever go to a place like a lab? Like a neurology lab?”

He shook his head, confused.

“I’m trying to find that place. It’s like a medical center. I think it might be like some kind of secret lab. But Geri had some connection with the doctor who worked there.”

The boy’s face became serious. “I know. Last week, there was a call for delivery to a place. Old building. They specifically asked for Geri. I took my car, but there was many police outside. Many black suits. Looking around. Yellow tape all around the doors. Very scary. I feel they were looking for me.” He dropped his head. “I did not go in.”

“Did you say black suits?” Rion asked. “And caution tape?”

“Yes. With black glasses.”

“And they specifically asked for Geri?” Tuesday said. “Baiting for her, maybe?”

Rion asked the boy, “Do you know where it was?”

The boy dug in his pocket and handed them the receipt. “I keep it, so I remember not to go there. Feels cold there. Not had a call from there since.”

Rion took the receipt from him and read off the address. Tuesday looked it up. “Says it’s a medical center. Unlisted phone number. No owner. Most anonymous commercial building I’ve ever seen.” Tuesday grinned at him. “In other words, jackpot.”