The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

Black Hole Son – Part 33

Black Hole Son

ASH

Ash struggled to put his cell phone back in his pocket, trying not to elbow Ivy in the face as she drove.

“Just take off your seat belt,” Ivy hissed.

Ash grunted and did so.

“So where are we going already?” Ivy whined. “It’s dark, and it’s downtown. I could get carjacked, you know.”

“I know where we’re going. I’ll tell you.”

“What, is it a surprise?”

“Not for you.”

She gave him a fiery look while he kept his eyes forward. “This is some date.”

“This is not a date,” Ash replied. “But I promise, you will be entertained.”

She chuckled and shook her head. “You’re weird, kid.”

“I’m not a kid,” he said.

“You act like one. Gettin’ all-“

“I’m not weak,” he shouted like something had burst inside him. “I’m not taking any more shit. From you or anyone. Now DRIVE.”

Ivy didn’t shrink back, but she shut up. She seemed more comfortable being yelled at than talked to politely. When I’m a dick, she becomes a lady.

He ordered her to turn once more, then into the parking lot. The strip mall was deserted and dark. Ivy parked where Ash told her to–in front of the only storefront with lights on.

“White Knights?” she read the sign. “This is where you wanted to go?”

Ash whipped off his safety belt and got out.

“Do you want me to stay in the car?” she asked.

“You can come in if you want.” He shut the car door. This won’t take long.

While Ivy fiddled with her keys and purse, Ash walked up to the window.

The floor had been cleared. Ivan’s shirt was off, blond & gray hair speckling his chest. Anfernee and Jamal rested on the sidelines in their White Knights jumpsuits, while Squirrel approached Ivan with a fake knife that looked like a toy.

Ivan said something–his voiced blocked by the window–and grabbed Squirrel’s hand. He dropped the knife before Ivan had completed the wrist lock. Squirrel’s face contorted in pain, while Ivan bent him over and dragged him around in a circle, all while lecturing.

Without warning, Ivan thrust Squirrel’s arm upward. Squirrel had to either let his elbows break or flip over, which he did, undignified and out of breath.

Ivy had joined him by now, but Ash had seen enough. He stepped up to the door and knocked on it three times.

Ivan opened it as far as the chain-latch would let him.

“Ye-, oh. Ash. It’s you,” Ivan said.

Ash smiled. “Hey there, you remember me. That’s good, because, you know, I thought you had a memory lapse or something. Good thing, that. Cause I could have sworn you didn’t remember who I was.”

“Ash, what do you want?”

“What do I want? Hmm, that’s a funny question. I guess it depends on what you want. Did you get what you wanted, Ivan? Did you get rid of me? Did you sweep me under the rug like you hoped?”

“Look, Ash, I’ve already told you several times to shape up. And then you went and got arrested. I thought I’d try and avoid a big confrontation.”

“Ah, in that case, no.”

“Look, let’s let this go, and go our separate ways? Okay? I’m sure you’ll be happier somewhere else, but not here. You didn’t fit in. You and I both know that.”

“Everyone else seems to fit in, even though they’re less effective,” Ash said.

“They also know how to follow orders.”

“They know how to be sheep.”

“Look,” Ivan said, elevating his tone. “I’m saying it now. You’re just not a good fit with my vision for the White Knights. You and I just didn’t mesh. That’s all that needs to be said. Good luck.” He shut the door.

Ash, standing in the shadows, stared blankly into space.

“Ash?” said Ivy, who was watching nearby.

Ash nodded his head solemnly. He turned to Ivy. “He said I wasn’t a good fit with his vision. Mm,” he said in a contemplating tone.

Ivy said, “What-“

Ash raised his arm, as if to silence her. A red, iridescent glow dilated until it enveloped his fist.

“What the hell?” she asked, eyes growing wide.

Ash breathed in deep, reared back his hands like a martial artist, and shoved forward. The door ripped open, tearing off the chain-latch.

The four people inside looked up, stunned. Ash entered like he was at a Western saloon.

“I don’t believe I was finished talking to you,” Ash said.

“Ash? What are you doing here?” Anfernee said.

Squirrel, nursing his wrist, said, “Ash? You’re back! What happened to you? I thought… Ivan said…”

Ash grinned. “Oh, yes, I figured Fearless Leader would have to explain my absence. What did you come up with?”

Ivan stood in the middle of the room with his arms at his sides. He said nothing. “He said you quit,” Squirrel said.

“Yeah, he said you walked off the job,” Anfernee said.

Ash nodded. “It would have to be something like that. ‘Ash decided to go his own way.’ ‘Ash didn’t fit in with my vision‘,” he made quote marks with his fingers, “‘So he decided to quit.’ Well… yes, actually, that’s pretty accurate. I did quit. I quit listening to cowardly chumps. I quit following people who say one thing and do another. I quit working with people who trade their ideals for a dollar. Like they were worth something to begin with.”

“Ash,” Ivan said, “Quit now. I don’t want this to turn into something. I’ll call the cops. This is breaking and entering.”

“Now, that’s funny,” Ash said. “You–call the cops. Have you ever stopped a crime in your entire career, I wonder?”

“Do you think it’s easy running this thing? I founded the White Knights. It’s a lot of responsibility making sure no one gets killed in the line of duty.”

“Yes, it’s easy to take responsibility when you never do anything to be responsible for.”

“You never wanted to follow the rules.”

“The rules are stupid. The rules don’t work.”

“The rules are there to keep us safe,” Ivan said.

“If you want to make an omelet, you gotta break a few eggs. You just don’t want to take the risk,” Ash said.

“We are not vigilantes. We never have been. You can be arrested for what you’re talking about.” He squinted at Ash. “That was your problem. You thought you were some bandito. Some Zorro for the people. You just wanted to crack some skulls.”

“I wanted to crack the right skulls.”

“You didn’t behave. Bottom line.”

“There’s no point to behave when the rules don’t do anything. I was here three days and not one person was arrested.”

Ivan brought himself to his tallest stance. “This is my organization. You have no right to tell me how to run it. You don’t have the experience. Three days? Hah. I started this thing with nothing. Nothing!” He stepped closer to Ash. “Sometimes my vision is the only thing that’s kept this going.”

“Ah, your vision. You know, that’s funny–your vision. You talk a lot about ‘your vision’. Tell me, what is your vision? You never quite explained it to me. Do you even know what it is?” Ash said.

“It’s about helping others and retaking the neighborhood,” Ivan said through gritted teeth.

“The neighborhood doesn’t need to be taken. All you want to do is dress up and play army. You’re like little boy soldiers.”

Ivan shook his head. “I don’t need to justify myself to you. I’m not going to continue this conversation.”

“What happened? Couldn’t get on the force? Were they full up on assholes?”

“I’m done with you, Ash. I’m calling the cops.” Ivan started towards the phone on the desk.

“That’s right, call the cops. Because why confront people on your own, when someone else can do it? Except there’s one thing I forgot to tell you.”

Even though the motion was unnecessary, Ash wound up like he was pitching a baseball and threw out his arm. The carpet between Ivan and the desk ignited in a three-foot high pillar of flame. Everyone in the room gasped. Ivan jumped back and turned to Ash, fear in his eyes.

“I’m a pyromaniac!” Ash gleefully said.

So far, everything had gone according to the plan–the confrontation, the bursting through the door, the revelation of his power. At this point, he expected Ivan to either mewl for forgiveness, or run away, never to be seen again. He did not expect him to rush forward and sucker-punch Ash in the mouth.

Ash spun away and struggled to stay on his feet while his mouth filled with warm blood. Ivy squealed with surprise. The other White Knights started forward, but did nothing, too scared and confused.

Ivan snuck up behind Ash while he was doubled over and locked his arms in a full-nelson. “Ow, ow, ow,” Ash said.

Ivan pulled Ash back, straining the ligaments. “You see what I did there? The element of surprise?”

Son of a bitch was using him to teach his class? With the way he’d handled Squirrel, Ash was sure Ivan would hold nothing back in this demonstration.

“You see how my punch was smooth and straight?” Ivan said. “How it came from the hip? You do that each time, the guy will never see it coming.”

Ash tried using his power, but it only came out in burps of energy that coursed through his body and petered out. If he couldn’t see him, he couldn’t focus on him.

“See how trapped he is?” Ivan continued, “Once you have him in this hold, you should keep tightening up, or else he’ll get used to the pain.” Ivan clenched his grip.

Ash’s arms felt like they were going to rip out. His eyes welled, and he closed them to stop people from seeing.

He was trapped, like Ivan said. Trapped, and weak, and incompetent. He couldn’t do anything right. He could set things on fire with a thought, and he was still getting beaten up by some third-rate asshole.

“Now from here,” Ivan continued. “You can do several things. If you’re in a good position, there’s a nerve cluster in the back of the knee you can kick.” Ivan did so. Ash howled with pain and rage. The only thing holding him up was Ivan’s arm lock.

“That… that doesn’t seem fair,” Squirrel mumbled.

“When someone’s attacking you on the street…” Ivan looked down at Ash, “Or in your own headquarters, you don’t think about fighting fair. Right, Ash?” Ivan tweaked his hold to drive the point home.

Ash sighed. “I couldn’t agree more.” He opened his eyes.

They glowed hot red.

A violent red fringe radiated from the center of his body, pulsing outward into his arms. Ash wrenched his arms down on Ivan’s elbows. There was a distinct double-crack as Ivan’s shoulders broke and his arms whipped out loosely. He cried out and staggered back as Ash faced him, eyes glowing red.

Ivan backed up, looking like he was getting ready to kick. He charged forward.

Ash snapped out his wrist, quick as an asp, and pointed his thin finger at him.

Ivan didn’t react at first. Fire was like that. He probably saw the bright flash of yellow before his nerves became hot enough to send signals to his brain. He looked confused, probably wondering why his arm was lighting up? Then he screamed like a record spun too fast.

Ash brought up his other hand, and set Ivan’s other arm ablaze. He spread the orange flames across his body. Ivan’s screams faded to a raspy whisper. The fire was sucking all the oxygen from around him, and he couldn’t breathe.

The ceiling sprinklers snapped on and rained water, but could do nothing to douse the orange sheets leaping over Ivan’s body.

Ivan took three steps towards Ash, his skin black and bubbling, and fell to his knees. His eyes burst like balloons of jelly. His hair crackled like kindling. And Ash kept the fire on him.

Ivan toppled over, lifeless. Ash kept sending out his power for good measure, then turned it off like a spigot.

With the fire out, the sprinklers ceased. Seeing his enemy defeated, Ash breathed deeply. The reddish aura dissipated and his eyes returned to normal. He turned to the others.

They were all soaking wet. Ivy hugged herself and shivered, either from fear or cold. Mascara ran down her cheeks. The others stood like statues, jaws hanging. Jamal looked like he might be crying, but he was too wet to tell.

“Jesus… Christ…,” Anfernee stumbled.

“Ash…” Squirrel said. “You killed him.”

“If there’s any one of you who think what I did was unjust, speak up.” Ash pointed to Ivan’s corpse. “If there’s anyone here who thinks he didn’t get what he deserved, go ahead and say something.”

No one spoke up.

“Go ahead. I won’t hurt you. You haven’t done anything wrong. You’re my friends. You’re the good ones. He,” Ash pointed an accusing finger at the corpse, “He was the bad apple in this bunch. I stopped him from rotting the rest.”

They continued to stare, unconvinced. Jamal started to back away.

“I only did what was demanded,” Ash said. “I deal in justice. In retribution. That is our new vision. And I will execute it. I’m not afraid, like he was. He hid behind policies and rhetoric.” Ash approached the desk and looked down at the top of Ivan’s tracksuit. “And uniforms.”

Ash picked up the shirt. “Look at this. What is this, West Side Story? I’m expecting you all to start singing and dancing about Sergeant Krupke.”

With a quick wave, it burst into flames, smoldering away into black carbonized ribbons in a few seconds. Ash picked up the red sash.

“All you need is this.” He wrapped the sash around him like a belt. “The rest of it, you can look as badass as you want. But this is how the people will know we’re there. No one’s ever going to respect us based on how we look. They’ll respect us by what we do. Our actions. Our integrity. That’s how we’re going to do things from now on..”

Ash hopped up on the desk. Their eyes were softening. Maybe it was working.

“Things are going to be different around here now. No more flyers. No more diamond formation. No more searches. You all want to clean up this town? That’s why you came here right? You wanted to make a difference? It’s not gonna happen babysitting protestors. It’s gonna happen making headlines. We can do it, if we’re all together. It’s a war out there. And in war, the side that’s most united wins. Every time.”

Ash paused to assess their faces. They looked calm but scared. Maybe burning the shirt was too much. They still expected him to go psycho and kill them all. A new leader had to establish trust.

Ash sighed. “Look, I’m going to lay it all on the line for you. Ash isn’t my real name. I don’t know what my real name is. I woke up four days ago in an alley, and I have no memory before that. No identity. I got the name Ash from a poster. The only thing I had in my pockets was fifty dollars and some pills. And I lost both of them because of the kind of people I’m trying to stop. The only thing I know about myself is that I can set things on fire with my mind.

“I don’t expect you to follow me because of that–because you think I have some power over you. I don’t. But if you’ve got some ambition… if you’ve got an idea of what this city could be if we tried, then I hope to see you tomorrow at eight.”

The three others stayed slack-jawed. They glanced at each other, hoping someone else would speak for the group.

Ivy walked up beside Ash, looked out at the others, and crossed her arms. “Well?” she said. “Are you in or out? I know which one’s the winning side. I’m not stupid.”

Ash smiled, nodded, and turned to the others. “Well?”

Squirrel looked between Anfernee and Jamal. Then raised his fist in the air. “Fuck Ivan. You go, Ash.”

Jamal and Anfernee nodded in approval. “Yeah, you da man, Ash,” Jamal said.

Ash sat back and smiled wide.

I could get used to this, he thought.

Black Hole Son – Part 32

Black Hole Son

RION

Rion saw the car pass by the block once. From his vantage point on the roof, he knew it was them because they slowed down, and he could see Scooter leaning out the window. Then they drove off as Rion scrambled down the ladder. By the time he started to chase after them, the car had come around again.

Scooter rolled out the window. “Hey, get in here, quick.” He said to the driver. “See, I told you.”

Rion ran up to them. “Sorry. Sorry. My fault.” He jumped in the car.

“We just passed by and you weren’t here. Then ten seconds later you were. You’re like a ghost.”

Rion ran up to them. “I know. I’m sorry. I was on the roof.”

The car sped off.

“We almost skipped you. But I said, ‘no, no, he’ll be here, don’t worry about it.'”

“I’m here. I’m ready. Just tell me what to do,” Rion said.

“Okay, that’s Vian and Skyler up there.” Scooter pointed out the driver and passenger, then handed Rion a piece of lined paper. “Here’s a list of some stuff we could use.”

Skyler said, “Dude, you better burn that after.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Scooter said.

Rion squinted in the dark and held the sheet up to his face. “What does the doctor need coffee filters for?”

“For coffee, duh,” Scooter said, looking out the window.

“What about starting fluid? What’s that for?”

“Look, if you’re gonna ask about everything on the list, we’re never going to get this done. Just get the stuff you recognize and don’t worry about the rest.”

Rion studied the list, committing it to memory. “Are we going to have to break in somewhere?”

“Not breaking in,” Scooter said, “Building’s already broken. No one owns it.”

“Like the moon. Can’t steal the moon,” Vian said.

“The moon’s way up in the sky, how would you steal it?” Skyler said.

“I don’t know. Maybe you could plant a flag or file a lawsuit.”

“There’s already a flag up there. Does that mean we own it?”

“My point is,” Scooter said, “That no one gives a shit. We went into an old crack house once. No one was there, no one saw us, but I didn’t even go into any public places for three days. Then I realized no one cares. Thousands of crimes happen every day–bikes get stolen, people get assaulted.”

“But we are technically stealing, aren’t we?”

Scooter rolled his eyes. “Would you steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?”

Rion crossed his arms, and looked out the window. “I don’t have a family.”

Scooter huffed. “Well, would you steal some bread to feed yourself? We can’t afford to be all nice and kind every time. If you want to do surgery on someone, you have to cut them open first.”

Vian said, “Boy, Scooter, you sure got friends.”

“Shut up,” Scooter said.

Rion didn’t say anything more for the rest of the ride.

“Is that it?” Vian pointed out.

“I think so,” Scooter responded.

They passed by a generic brick building with no names or signs. Yellow caution tape had been wrapped around the front door and windows. They pulled around the block and into the alley.

“Holy shit,” Skyler said. “Look at that.”

There was a large hole gouged out of the building’s back wall, marked by another ineffective strip of caution tape. Jagged bricks lined the gap, making it look like a shark’s mouth. Inside Rion could see boxes and computers strewn amid the debris.

“Looks like Bigfoot attacked it,” Vian said.

“Bigfoots need their fix too,” Scooter said. “Maybe there was an explosion.”

Rion knew this wasn’t true, but didn’t know why. He thought it looked like someone had busted in, maybe driven a car through. The hole looked too neat for an explosion.

Vian shut off the car and the four got out. Scooter opened the trunk and pulled out some tote bags. He gave one to Rion. “Don’t waste time. If you don’t know what it is, just take it. We’ll sort through it all later.”

“Don’t worry, I know what to look for.”

Everyone took a bag and stepped under the caution tape. “Rion, you take this room,” Scooter said. “We’ll take the others.”

Rion nodded with the determination of a soldier as the other three left through the nearby door. He wandered around, looking for valuables. There was a nice overturned computer in the corner. The doctor could sure use it, but it wasn’t on the list.

What this building was for? Maybe finding out would help him know where to look. In the center of the room, there was a large metal gurney knocked over on its side, covered in papers and debris. It looked like an operating table with a flat, perforated metal back. Maybe this was a dentist’s office, but it felt too industrial.

He looked through some drawers, seeing nothing but papers, baskets of pens, paper clips. He found a PDA with a cracked screen, and tried turning it on, but nothing happened.

Rion tapped his fingers on the counter as he surveyed the room. Was it a doctor’s office? A research lab? If so, why had there been an explosion?

Or was it an explosion? Nothing was burnt or broken. It would take a Mack truck to break through the brick wall, and it wouldn’t be able to get up enough speed in the alley. If he sensed something-

No, he wasn’t here to play detective. He was here to find things. He resisted the urge and moved across the room to a three-drawer file cabinet.

The top drawer held nothing but more documents. He leafed through them, checking for hidden items like money or misplaced tools. There was nothing but a lot of text and photographs of brains and cells.

The second one yielded several pads of paper with the words Rx on it. Nothing the doctor needed, but he could always use something to write on. He pocketed it for himself. Then he opened the third drawer.

Combipositors. Eight of them. All lined up in a specially designed rack. He took one out and examined it. The clear parts of the barrel were filled with a translucent blue substance, like colored water.

“What the hell is this?” Rion muttered as he held it up to the light.

Now his curiosity couldn’t wait. He used his sense on it, but received only blackness. Either the device had no memory, or had nothing to say. No headache yet. He risked using his power with another combipositor. Still nothing. The same results on the third.

There were other objects in the drawer–tweezers, empty plastic containers, tubing covered in metal foil. Nothing looked valuable or like a clue to what went on in this place.

On a whim, he grabbed some folders and tried sensing them. Nothing. White pain pinpricked the base of his neck. His rational side told him to cool it with the power, but his curiosity wanted him to go on.

Rion returned to the center of the room and gripped it with both hands. It was heavy–whatever had knocked it over had been strong. He briefly focused on the table, wanting to conserve his pain and his pills.

Someone screams. Something crashes. Then heat, warm and comforting. A body is thrown into it.

Rion let go as the ache blossomed. The visions were dream-like. He could tell the action was happening, but no idea of whose body or what it looked like. And where did the heat come from? There was no charred black on the walls or scorched furniture.

But he could assume whatever happened wasn’t an accident. More like an attack. But it would take more than a fist-fight to cause this kind of damage.

This was getting him nowhere. Picking up individual objects would take forever, and he still had to gather up things for the doctor. Maybe he could do a little experimenting with his power. He palmed the painkillers in his pocket, and decided it was worth the risk.

Rion stood in the middle of the room and raised his arms as if he were pandering to an audience. Then he kneeled to the floor and touched the ground. With one big breath, he sensed.

There were no images, no sounds, no movement, just feelings. Terror, horror, fear. They felt… recent.

Underneath he found interest, wonder, frustration, rage, discovery, fury, innocence. It was a smorgasbord of emotions, one from every facet. Whoever was here worked for a long time, and was working on something significant and dangerous.

Then it was all wiped out by overwhelming loss and despair. It blanketed every other emotion.

Why? Why couldn’t he see anything? Rion concentrated on his sense, as if clenching his fist tighter. The pain filled his brain like a water jug.

He stood up, keeping his arms out, unaware he was even rising. He focused on his power, extending it beyond mere touch. Its strength was weakened, but encompassed more objects.

Then there was something. Not an image or a sound, but pure knowledge. A name–Dr. Mason.

A single jolt of shocked nerves broke him out of his reverie. Once he realized the agony he had caused himself, he fell to one knee. It felt like someone taking a power drill to his temples.

Rion crawled to the counter, and pulled himself up. It hurt to move. He fished a gray pill from his pocket and downed them. He leaned over the sink, breathing in and out. The torture wasn’t subsiding, so he took another pill. Maybe two was dangerous, but anymore pain and he was going to pass out again.

He stared into the sink as he waited for them to start having an effect. His eye caught a picture frame that had fallen in face down. He pulled it out.

It was a picture of a man in his fifties, embracing a young woman, maybe his daughter, in a forest or garden. The man had a white polo shirt on.

The woman was wearing the pink sweater.

“Oh my god!” Rion said.

The door burst open. Vian and Scooter ran through. “Rion! We gotta go, come on,” Scooter said.

Rion tore his gaze from the photo and looked up. “What?”

“Cops. We gotta cheese it,” Vian said.

“Cops? I didn’t see any cops,” Rion said as Skyler bolted past.

“Out front. We’ve-got-to-go,” Scooter commanded.

Rion turned back to the photo. “No, no, I can’t. I gotta stay here. I gotta-“

“No fucking around, Rion,” Scooter said, and grabbed him by his collar. The tightening around his trachea made Rion drop the photo in the sink.

Scooter pulled on his shirt. “Come on.”

Rion clung to the countertop, but the formica slipped from his hands. “NO! Let me go.” Rion screeched and lashed out to grab the picture.

“Leave him,” Skyler said as he jumped in the passenger side.

“Rion, let’s go. I’m not letting you get arrested,” Scooter said, pulling him out of the hole.

“No,” Rion squeaked. He was forced to turn around and head in the same direction as Scooter, lest he choke to death.

Scooter opened the car door and shoved Rion inside like a sack of potatoes. Rion started to climb out again, but saw the cherry red klaxons bouncing against the alley walls. Even though the building beckoned to him, he couldn’t be the cause of his friends’ arrest.

Vian’s three point turn rocked the passengers back and forth, and they zipped out of the alley.

Rion pressed his hands against the window, trying to find an address or street signs, but it was too dark and they were moving too fast.

The first real clue to his past disappeared around a corner.

25 Favorite Tweets

twitter box

Black Hole Son – Part 31

Black Hole Son

ASH

Lt. Patterson entered the hallway to go down to the holding cell. He almost ran into a walking tower of boxes. “Hey, watch it,” he said.

“Sorry,” Lt. Huxley said. She slunk around him and wobbled through the maze of desks. Patterson watched her ass as she dropped the boxes with a bang. He smirked. Whoever was in the holding cell could wait.

“They got you doing custodial work now?” He leaned on her desk, jingling the keys in his pocket.

“No, I just like boxes,” she chirped. “The more, the better, I say. They make my desk look cozy.”

“Yeah, I bet.” He read the top box’s label. “Unidentified persons? From thirty years ago? They got you on a case?”

“No case. Just a little meantime fun.”

“You know we’ve got things like computers now. There’s one right on your desk. You make banging motions on the letters and the screen lights up.”

She cocked her head. “I seem to recall having to tell you how to find the control panel on your desktop. Besides, my Google-fu isn’t going to get me out of this one. All I’ve got is a face.”

“Wait, is this that kid you told me about? The amnesia one? Tuesday, he was just a runaway messing with you.”

“I don’t think so. When I went to get him, he didn’t show up.”

“He ran. That’s what runaways do.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think he wanted to. I found out there was a chase at the hotel earlier. They found someone using a room for three days without paying for it.”

“So they chased him out.”

Tuesday shook her head. “Why’d it take three days to find him? I think whatever he was running from caught up.”

“So why doesn’t he call you? Or the police?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s scared. It’s not like we have a good reputation in these parts.”

“He didn’t tell you where he was going?”

“He doesn’t remember anything. He doesn’t know where he’s going. I bet he’s hiding somewhere, but I’ve checked all the places a kid like him would go.”

“You’d think an amnesiac would want to be found. Unless he had reason to run,” Patterson said.

“Or he got scared,” Tuesday answered back. “Innocent until proven guilty, remember?”

Patterson rolled his eyes. “So if he’s not a runaway, you think he’s a missing person?”

“Right.”

“From thirty years ago.”

“Right.”

“Even though you said he’s eighteen.”

“I’m following a hunch. You ever heard of Rip Van Winkle?”

“You think this kid’s a time traveler?”

She laughed. “Rip Van Winkle didn’t travel through time, silly. He went to sleep for thirty years and woke up in the future with no idea what happened.”

“How in the world did you come to that conclusion?”

“Just a guess. I read a lot of science fiction. Maybe he was in suspended animation somehow.”

“Come on, Tuesday, this is your hunch? Something out of a comic book?”

“Well, all my other hunches have run dry. Besides, this kid wasn’t running away from something, he was running to something. He just didn’t know what.”

“Well, did you check the bulletins? Someone’s bound to be looking for him.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. There’s something special about this kid, I know it. I’m afraid that whoever’s looking for him is going to find him.”

“What, because he can travel through time?”

“Not as far as I know, but if I find him I’ll ask,” she grinned.

“Good, I’d like to find out how the Canucks are going to do, if you don’t mind asking.” Patterson pushed off her desk. “I got a pound puppy to fetch. Kid keeps making trouble. Won’t show us his ID. Had to trank him in the bullpen.”

“His parents pick him up?” Tuesday said, not looking up from her box.

“No, some social services guys want to talk to him.”

“Give ’em hell, gipper.” She disappeared behind her boxes.

Roger whistled as he went downstairs to the hole, thinking about how he could see down her shirt the entire time.

#

Well, it can’t get much worse than this,

Ash shivered in the corner, away from the dim yellow lamp that shone down like a sickly spotlight. He looked at the door’s single slit, that overlooked the end of the precinct’s cell block.

All he had wanted to do was report a crime. But it kept getting worse. Next there was going to be a man in a black hood strapping him to a wooden wheel.

The door clicked. White light streamed in. Ash hoped no one heard his thoughts.

“Hey, kid, get up.”

Ash raised his head. Yet another officer who thought he was better than everyone. He was holding a small cardboard box.

“Where the hell am I?” Ash asked.

“You’re in solitary confinement. You got put here for fighting.”

“He started it.”

“Doesn’t matter. Look-“

“All I wanted to do was bring in a criminal. And you’re treating me like one.”

“We can keep you in here, if you want.”

Ash breathed out. He shouldn’t use his power for petty outbursts. Vengeance was best saved for the big picture.

He followed the man down the hallway and upstairs. The officer unlocked a room with a table, chairs, and a two-way mirror. He set the box with Ash’s belongings on the table.

“Goody. A new room. What are we going to do here?” Ash said.

“This is a holding room. Some people want to ask you some questions. Is that all right?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Well, technically, you’re free to go. The people who want to talk to you aren’t part of the force, so they can’t legally hold you here. You can say no if you want.”

“But I’m free? Why the hell now?”

“We got nothing to hold you on. You haven’t committed any crime. You can take your stuff and go, if you want.”

“Then why was I detained in the first place?”

“No one could identify you. You had no fingerprints on file, no ID, no one to vouch for you.”

“And that’s a fucking crime?” Fire burned in Ash’s chest.

“Hey,” the officer said, pointing his finger. “We could have kept you longer for that stunt you pulled. Could have sent you to juvey for processing.”

“But you didn’t want to deal with all that paperwork, did you?” Ash finished. “Since when did having no ID mean you got treated like a common thug?”

“This is a dangerous world, kid. We got terrorists, gang members, hermits with A-bombs. They don’t carry licenses. About forty percent of murders go unsolved.”

“So that means innocent people can be blamed for them? Some justice system.”

“Are you going to make trouble in here? Because we can send you right back down.”

Ash wanted to dare him to do it, just to piss him off. But that wouldn’t accomplish anything besides prolonging his suffering.

The officer said, “So do you want to go, or do you want to talk to these people?”

Ash gave him a shit-eating grin. “Sure, send them in. Why not? Let’s keep the party going. Who are they, anyway?”

“I don’t know. Some social services thing. For homeless children.”

“I’m not homeless and I’m not a child. What good are they going to do?”

“I think they just want to help you.” Patterson turned to leave. “Just give them a chance. They want to keep you out of trouble.”

“Why do I keep getting treated like I’ve done something wrong?”

Exasperated, the officer turned back. “Look, kid, no one knows who you are, and no one wants to figure it out. So we’re giving you a break, okay?”

Ash saw his cell phone in the box. “What about Ivan? Didn’t you ever get a hold of him? The leader of the White Knights?”

“Huh? Oh, him?” The officer paused in the doorway. “Yeah, we called that number a long time ago. The guy said he didn’t know you and you weren’t ever part of that organization.” The officer left the room.

Ash froze. “…What?”

He plopped in the chair in disbelief and clutched the side of the table.

“He… said…” Ash ground his teeth. His conscious thoughts withered away as a thousand emotions frothed inside. A warm flow bubbled in his chest. It took all his willpower to stop it from flowing out and bursting.

His hand felt uncomfortable. He released the table and saw he had made an indentation in the plywood veneer.

Screw those social services people. He picked up the cell phone and dialed. After two rings, someone picked up. “Hello?”

“Ivy?” Ash said.

“Hello? Who is this?”

“It’s Ash.”

“Ash?” She clucked her tongue. “Well, if it isn’t Mr. Fancypants. Do you know what time it is? Let me tell you something. If you think-“

“Ivy. Shut up. I need you to pick me up. I’m at the police station.” Ash stopped at the door, discovering it was locked.

“Police station? What are you doing there?”

“Long story. I’ll tell you on the way.” Ash stared at his hand. The warming glow tinged his hand red like glowing embers–a reactor at the edge of exploding. He pushed on the handle and something inside the door’s frame snapped.

Ivy asked, “The way to what? Are we still going out tonight?”

Ash opened the door and walked into the hall. “Not quite. Change of plans.”

Black Hole Son – Part 30

Black Hole Son

RION

“All right, open sesame!” the doctor said.

Dax and Scooter pulled on the ropes that opened the garage door. The other teens were sitting at the three folding tables set end-to-end. Some had cash boxes in front of them, while others sat beside boxes and organized bottles of pills. They looked like an inner-city farmer’s market. The doctor stood at one end with Rion, observing it all.

“We want to get through business as efficient as possible,” the doctor had said. “Less chance for the police to wonder why there’s a bunch of people gathered around an abandoned warehouse.”

The door squeaked like nails dragging on glass as it rose and revealed the customers waiting to come in. They shuffled in the parking lot like zombies formed into lines. Many sneezed or coughed or scratched their crotches as subtly as possible.

“Evening,” the doctor said to them.

Scooter opened up the cashbox and said, “All right, first up?”

A man in a old windbreaker approached. “Hey, Scoot.”

“Hey Albright, how’s your dog?”

“Trixie? Still kicking. The heartworm medicine really did him up.”

“Good. You need some more?”

“Please. And can you get me some lithium dibromide? I’m all out.”

“Lithium dibromide… um, that is… the, um.”

“Dehalcynate,” the doctor replied. “Red pill.”

“This box, here,” Jane said.

“Oh, good, thanks.” Scooter took the box, picked out a small orange bottle and handed it to him, along with a circular pack in tinfoil. “Forty-five dollars.”

The doctor leaned into Rion, “That would have cost two hundred and forty-five if he didn’t have insurance.”

“What’s Dehalcynate?”

“It’s a painkiller. Most painkillers are prescription only because of FDA regulations, and the OTCs are too weak to do any good.”

Another customer approached. “Birth control, please. Orthotricyclene-Lo. Three packs.” She handed over fifty dollars. Scooter counted out three foil packs and the transaction was over in under fifteen seconds.

The pharmy took orders and made change, hand over fist. The doctor and Rion organized and handed out product, as well as guarded the stash. They never gave out the drugs until the money was in their hands.

Jane explained it to someone in line. “You, I don’t know so well. You could be an Olympic sprinter run off with fifty dollars of this Blindside without me even getting out of the starting gate. But us–we can’t run off. We’ve got nothing to gain by stealing from you. People wouldn’t trust us anymore. So could you just favor us this, kay?”

The man, who wore a white nylon jumpsuit with a red sash, handed over his money. “Okay, okay, jeez. Sorry, just hurry up, come on. I got a class. I got training. Can’t screw up again. Got to be focused. Come on, come on.” He kept his eyes down, didn’t look at a soul as he rambled.

Jane handed him a paper bag. “Thank you.” He ran back into the night like he was late for something.

“I wonder if he should really be getting his pills from us,” Rion said to the doctor. “He seems like he needs more than medication.”

“That’s our life,” the doctor said. “Oh, excuse me. Line’s forming.”

A line of people had gathered at the end of the table, where the doctor had been sitting. “I also do some free consultations,” he said. “Mostly for people who don’t know what they need. They can come right to me.”

The first was a teenage girl who had brought a friend. “I have this stomach thing?” she said, her voice upturning at the end of every sentence. “Like every time I eat vegetables? I already talked to my doctor, and he gave me something, but it’s making me sick every time I take it.”

“Did he give you Cloveritol?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Get some Glycolauric Octanol.”

“Gly… glyco-“

“Glycolauric Octanol. Two per day.”

“Okay, thanks.”

She and her friend nodded and slid out to the customer line, repeating the medication’s name.

Rion was astonished. “How did you know that so fast?”

“I’ve been doing this for a long time. Half the battle is knowing everything it could be. Then you cull out the necessary information to find a match. Thanks to the pharmaceutical companies, just about everything can be solved with a pill, if it’s minor.”

“What if it’s not a stomach thing? What if it’s a tumor or cancer?”

He shrugged. “There’s no drug that can help with that. I don’t make any bones about what I am. I’m a street doctor. I can only do so much. It’s all observational, but that’s not too different from any other doctor visit. They fool you by doing things like blood counts and X-rays. But those are just CYA tests.”

“CYA?”

“Cover your ass. Hospitals are constantly on the watch for malpractice suits. People love to sue. So they order a lot more tests than are necessary on the off-chance that one person with purple-spotted elephant disease gets the wrong diagnosis and sues the hospital. Yes, this is more risky than going to a hospital, but you get what you pay for. And I try the best I can.”

A twenty-something man with a goatee approached.

“I have, like, a soreness on my arm. I think I need some Polyprovilene.”

“Hmm, really,” the doctor propped one arm on the other. “Any swelling? Any feeling of pressure or fullness?”

“No, not really.”

“Is it internal or external?”

“It kinda feels like it’s under my skin. Like under the top layer. My last doctor gave me Polyprovilene.”

“Look, if you want to get high, go somewhere else. We’re not your fucking suppliers. Now, do you actually have a rash, or you want to waste more of my time?”

“I… I… yeah, I have a rash.” He showed his arm, which was covered in a bumpy rash. “But I really think I need some Polyprovilene.”

“I’m not giving you Polyprovilene. You don’t need it. Do you do any work with chemicals?” the doctor asked.

“No.”

“Construction?”

“Yeah, I do construction.”

“Work around insulation?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s probably a chemical burn. Try getting some topical gel. We don’t have any, but you can find some in the supermarket for cheap. Bactrinol is a good one.”

“Okay, thanks,” he sighed.

Kinneburg said to Rion, “Some of the addicts, you can easily tell. That’s the nice thing about my job. I don’t need to be nice if I don’t want,” he smiled.

Rion shook his head. “I still don’t understand. Why are they coming to you? Can’t they go to a hospital where they have to be treated?”

“Some do. Some people go, find out what they need, then come here and get the same thing cheaper. These days, hospitals and government are hard to differentiate. It’s the old people who vote, and their biggest priority is their health. The government knows this and works with the medical profession to create programs that are profitable to both of them. That means, instead of real, long-term treatment, they get pills. Pills are like designer clothing–they’re cheap to produce and people will buy them at any price.”

“They’re treating patients like consumers.”

“Exactly.”

“Hey, doc, are you getting senile?” Scooter called out.

“What? Sorry,” he said, coming out of his reverie. There was a man standing in front of him, waiting for help.

“Hi, doc. I’ve got a problem with my dentistim thingy. I think it’s broken.”

“Open, please.” The man opened his mouth wide. Dr. Kinneburg held his breath and looked inside. To Rion he said, “You know what a dentistim is? It’s a drug delivery device they put in the tooth. It releases the drug at a certain time, so you never have to worry about when to pop your pills.”

“Yeah, it was expensive too,” the patient said. “Then the piece of shit up and dies on me. Can’t afford to replace it now.”

“How long have you had it?”

“Since a year ago.”

“Mm-hm,” he said. “Is it loose?”

“No, I think it’s stuck. It’s not releasing the drug.”

“What drug is it?”

“Safsprin.”

“Did this happen after you refilled it?”

“Yeah.”

“Hmm… I don’t have any safsprin in stock right now,” Doctor Kinneburg said. “Do you mind a house call?”

“Sure, that’d be fine.”

“Let me get my appointment book.” He left for the storage room, leaving Rion and him alone.

“So, are you his apprentice or something?” he smiled at Rion.

“Me? No, no. I’m, uh, with them.” He pointed to Scooter, Jane, and Dax.

“Ah,” he said. “Sounded like he was teaching you everything he knows.”

“He does that with everyone,” Scooter said as he handed back change to a lanky black man. “Anyone who’ll listen to him rant about the health care system,” he smiled.

The doctor came back with a three-ring binder and they scheduled a time next month for him to come and visit. “Sorry, about this. We don’t get too many people who need dentistim work. Get a month’s worth of Trinex in the meantime. And take some painkillers if your dentistim starts giving you trouble.”

He left the line. The doctor said, “Sometimes the system just leaves them in the cold. They give them what they need, then they abandon them.”

Rion was only half-paying attention. He kept rubbing his neck, feeling his scar, wondering where it came from.

“You feeling all right? Headache didn’t come back did it?”

“No, it’s my scar. Just wondering where it came from.”

“Good, because prozium should keep you pain-free for at least three days. It’s banned in Mexico. You don’t know where your scar came from?”

“No… I mean, at least, I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember a thing like that? I wonder if you’re experiencing memory loss.”

“Could be,” Rion said.

“Hmm, memory loss plus headaches. Not good,” the doctor said. “What are you doing tomorrow afternoon?”

“Afternoon? Uh, nothing I know of? Working here?”

“Tomorrow’s a half-day. Days after shop are always half-days–not much to do. How about tomorrow we go see a friend of mine? He’s a neurologist-slash-psychologist. He’s been boasting about this new experimental hypnosis thing. I’m sure he’d love to meet you. Maybe try it out. You up for it?”

“Sure!” Rion said. He had to restrain himself from hugging the doctor.

After thirty minutes, the customers tapered off. They only kept the shop open long enough to serve a reasonable amount of people. Any longer and they risked a police car wandering by.

While the doctor worked with others to close the gate and count the money, Rion worked with Jane, Dax, and Scooter to pack up their little overstock.

“Did you notice Mr. Friendly wasn’t there today?” Dax said.

The others laughed.

Jane explained, “Mr. Friendly is this guy who’s always trying to buddy up to us, trying to get a discount on pills.”

“He’ll say ‘FITTY DOLLARS! Goo’ lord. How ’bout you just gimme the bottle and I’ll lick off the rim’,” Scooter said. Everyone laughed.

The doctor came back. “He’s oblivious to the fact that we’re a black market, and we don’t have coupons in the penny-saver.”

“How much did we make, doc?” Jane said.

“Nine hundred thirty two, and seventeen cents.”

“Niiiiiice,” Scooter said.

The doctor fingered the wad of bills in his hand. “So deducting for meds… Dax has a week’s worth of melange on credit. And Jane, your polydichloric euthimal. Scooter pays for his stuff on Friday…”

He handed each person counted out money.

“How do you remember all that?” Rion asked. “Every medication, every disease, what everyone’s taking?”

“Got to have good memory to be a doctor,” he smirked.

Well, I’m out, Rion thought.

The doc handed Scooter the last of the money. “Rion, you’re still paying off your prozium. Sorry.”

“That’s okay,” he said. “I completely understand. It’s a business.”

“Exactly.” The doctor puffed out his chest and yelled, “Quitting time! Lock it up!”

The kids gathered together all the tables and boxes, replacing them in their hidden cubby holes. Soon the warehouse barely looked like anyone had been inside for a year. They all emptied into the parking lot.

A heavy-set girl was climbing down from the roof via a maintenance ladder.

“Look, it’s a Yolanda-bird,” Scooter said, “It’s emerging from its natural habitat to search for food.”

“Hardee-har. Thanks for telling me the store was over, guys,” she said, and dropped the last few feet.

“Shoot it! They’re dangerous when angered,” another teen said.

The doctor smiled, obviously trying to keep from laughing and handed her some money. “Good job, Yolanda. Nothing interesting happen?”

“Didn’t see a thing,” she said. “You get a good view of the neighborhood though.”

The doctor pulled down the garage door and locked it.

The doctor said, “All right, well, thanks for your help today everyone.”

“We’ll see you tomorrow, Dr. Kinney,” one of the girls in a plaid shirt said. “See you, Rion.”

Rion looked up, unaware that someone had spoken his name. “Yeah, see you.”

The groups of teens banded together, many of them lighting up cigarettes. The ones who had cars gathered together in them. The doctor got into an old rusty car on the side street and bellowed away. Rion tried to look like he was busy thinking or waiting for something–adjusting his hands, looking down the street. He didn’t want people to think he had nowhere to go.

Scooter approached him, “You going back to the shelter?”

“Uh, no, no. I’m going… somewhere else.”

“You sure? I can give you a ride? It’s a walk-“

“No, I’m fine, I’ll be all right. I have a place to stay,” Rion lied.

“So, no money for you this time. That kinda sucks.”

“I’ll make do,” Rion said. The relief from headaches would be worth it. “It’s not like I’m not used to having limited funds.”

“True, true,” Scooter nodded. “Say, what would you say to some ‘overtime’?”

“Overtime?”

“Well, it goes like this.” Scooter put his arm around Rion’s shoulder. “Did the doctor tell you about our little scavenger hunt?”

“No.”

“Yeah, figures. You’ve only been here a day. It’s kind of a trust thing. But here’s the deal. You know how we got nothing but junk equipment, always breaking down. We need constant supplies, can’t pay for them. So some of us do some, I don’t know, I guess you’d call it dumpster diving.”

“I’ve done that before,” Rion said brightly.

“All right, atta boy. And he pays us for the stuff we bring back. It’s not much, but you need all the money you can get. Am I right?”

“Sure.”

“So usually we do this alone, but there was this place I just heard about. It’s like an abandoned science lab or something. Lots of stuff. There’s police tape all over, but no one’s been in there for like a week.”

“How do you know that?”

“There was some kind of raid, I guess. Neighbors told me about it. One person says ‘private residence’, another guy says it was a front.”

“But if there’s police tape, doesn’t that mean it’s off-limits?”

“I think it was an ‘abandoned drug lab’. Whoever was leading it was probably killed or arrested or something. But there’s a ton of stuff we could use just sitting there.”

“Don’t the police need it for evidence?”

Scooter scoffed. “What’s it going to do? The police bag it up and it sits in a locker for twenty years until they throw it out. Meanwhile, we could be using it.”

“That’s a good point. But isn’t this technically a crime?”

Scooter shrugged. “Isn’t everything we do technically a crime?” He punched Rion on the shoulder. “Look, I know you need the cash. And you’ve got a good eye for finding things. We could really use you on this.”

Rion looked around, as if there was someone who was going to tell him the right decision. Maybe this was like saving the turtle–putting yourself at risk to help another. No one would be hurt by taking a few things.

“Well, all right. I’ll come.”

“Great,” Scooter said. “Where can we pick you up?”

“I’ll be here. I mean, you can pick me up here.”

“Awesome. All right, be here at ten o’clock sharp tonight. Don’t be late. Oh, and don’t breathe a word of this to anybody. We don’t want other people taking our stuff, right?”

“Like pirates and treasure.”

“Exactly. See you, Rion.” Scooter headed to the car, where the teens he had driven with today were waiting for him.

Black Hole Son – Part 29

Black Hole Son

ASH

Every so often, Ash would hear footsteps outside, and his hopes that someone was coming in would rise. Someone to talk to him or let him go. But no one did.

What were they doing with him? If they were going to ask him questions, they wouldn’t get far. Having no identity wasn’t a crime, especially if he hadn’t done anything wrong in the first place.

Or maybe he had. He did have amnesia after all–who knows what he could have done. But even so, there was no reason for the police to hold him like a prisoner while real criminals got to walk out.

He could set fire to something, like he did in the clinic, to try and escape. But there had to be security cameras watching him. They’d discover his secret and turn him into a lab rat, if he wasn’t one before he lost his memory.

Ash looked up at the clock and realized he’d been in this room for an hour. This was so unfair. The pothead hadn’t even stayed at the station this long. And he was the one being punished?

Enough of that. He wasn’t going to be a fool for the police. He opened the door and poked his head out as an officer in full dress walked past.

“Hey,” Ash said, “I’ve been waiting here for an hour. What’s going on? Is someone coming?”

“Just stay in the room,” the officer said. “Someone will come in soon, I’m sure.” “Not ‘I’m sure’,” Ash said. “I deserve to know what I’m being detained for. I haven’t committed any crimes. The drug dealer gets let go, and I’m here because I have no ID.”

“I’ll find out where they’re at with you, sir. Just stay in the room.”

The officer approached, moving so close that Ash had to retreat back into the room. The door closed, followed by the unmistakable sound of a setting lock.

Oh shit. Now he was trapped in here. He’d just made it worse. Now he was scared, more than he’d ever been in his short life.

Ash paced around the table, trying to think straight and evaluate the situation. He couldn’t start acting like a panicky child.

They don’t know who I am, do they? he thought. They don’t know what I’m capable of. I’m probably a wanted man, and they’re contacting whoever’s in charge of me. They’re keeping me ignorant for their own safety.

But if they knew what he was capable of, they’d take more precautions to protect themselves. They were the police, they wouldn’t hold someone who didn’t deserve it. Being anonymous wasn’t a crime. They were probably seeing if he matched any missing persons.

The door clicked and opened. A different officer walked in, holding a pair of handcuffs.

“What-” Ash started.

“I’m here to transfer you to a holding cell.”

Ash jumped at the word cell. “What?” he yelled. “Why? I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“You don’t have any identification or known address, and you refuse to give any.”

“I don’t know any. I can’t give you what I don’t have.”

“Since you either can’t or refuse to cooperate, we have the right to detain you for at least twenty-four hours.”

“Twenty-four hours? You can’t do that. I came here to report a crime, and you’re treating me like the criminal.”

The officer told him to turn around and bend down to the table. Ash considered making a break for it. He could use his power, but that would hurt innocent people.

“What about Ivan? Did you call Ivan?” Ash said. Tears started to form as he felt the metal rings encircle his wrists.

“Ivan?”

“The leader of the White Knights.”

He shrugged. “We’re still trying to get a hold of him.”

“Well…” Ash didn’t know what else to say. “There’s other people. Anfernee or Jamal or Ivy. They know me. They know who I am.”

“All right, we’ll get that information from you later. But right now, you have to come with me.”

“You’ll call them?”

“Yes, but we need to transfer you first.”

If they weren’t willing to call, Ash would have fought back. He would have blazed the station up to try and get out, but out of four possible people to call, one of them had to get him out of here.

#

Ash touched his pocket, empty of his cell phone. They made him drop all his belongings in a cardboard box and sent him into a large barred room–the bullpen, they called it. He didn’t have much to give them besides his sash, his phone, and some pocket change.

He was really regretting not going with his original plan.

Six other genuine criminals milled around him as he sat on a bench with his arms crossed. He felt like pacing with them, but he didn’t want to lose his seat.

So he watched the window in the upper wall. Each time he looked, the sky had darkened and he thought how he was supposed to be on a date with Ivy. The only reason he hadn’t collapsed into tears or smoldered the station was that he had to be strong for her. He thought about being with her, what she would say when he got out, her beautiful face. But he had to limit his thoughts, because each time he did, he had to cover his crotch.

If he really was a criminal, this treatment would do nothing but make him resent authority. The whole point of the police was to make people respect the rules, but all he wanted to do was spray paint the precinct wall and steal some shit, just to throw it back in their face. No wonder most criminals were repeat offenders.

His fellow occupants were no strangers to the system. They weren’t worried about getting out, talking to each other in accented Spanish and ghetto slang. How much did it cost to hold these people, only to have them come back. All that time, all that money wasted.

Were these people that needed to be kept around? People that contributed to society? He could do the police a service by burning them all right here and now. Save them a lot of time.

A big man’s shadow woke Ash out of his reverie.

“Gimme that bench,” he said.

Ash looked up at a black man with a big nose and piggy eyes. These lowlifes were ugly too. He could also make the world more pleasant to look at by striking a few.

“No,” Ash said.

“Gimme that bench. I wanna sit down.”

“I found it first,” Ash said, keeping his arms crossed. “Go lie on the floor.”

“Hey,” he said in a thick accent. “You a queer?”

“What?”

“I said, you a queer.”

“No, I’m not a queer,” Ash said, wishing he’d said something wittier.

“You look like a queer,” Piggy-Eyes laughed. “You got them queer clothes, queer haircut.”

A Hispanic from the back said, “Lea’im alone.”

Piggy-Eyes turned. “Hey, shut up. I’m done talking with you.”

“You know” Ash said, “Psychologists say wives should listen to their husbands.” This prompted some chuckles from the others. “It makes for a good marriage.”

His tormentor fumed. “You think you’re funny, don’t you?”

“I think I’m funnier than you. How many brain cells did you kill to come up with ‘you a queer’?”

“Gimme that bench, ya little bitch,” he said and moved closer.

Ash threw back his hand like he was holding a samurai sword, and reared back. He wasn’t going to start the fight, but he was sure as hell going to finish it.

“Come and get it.” Ash brought his power to the edge, ready to unleash it.

Piggy-Eyes grabbed Ash’s shoulder. Ash shoved him as hard as he could.

Piggy-Eyes flew back like he had touched an electric fence, colliding with two others and clanging against the barred wall. The onlookers fell silent and froze.

What was this strength? This was what he felt when he fought the Vortex owner, and the panhandler, and Ivy’s stalker. There was a faint red glowing within his hands.

Piggy-Eyes staggered as he got up, balancing his bulk. “Mother fucker, I’m gonna fuck you up.” He raised his fist in the air like a hammer.

Ash stepped back and summoned the fire again, ready to light him up like a torch. Secrets or not, he wasn’t taking any more shit. Piggy-Eyes screamed and charged like a rhino.

There was a small chuff of air. Piggy-Eyes’s knees collapsed, his eyes rolled back, and he melted to the floor like Jell-O.

An officer had a small metal rod stuck through the bars.

“Ooh,” someone said, “Bitch got tranked.”

“What?” Ash said, still charged up.

“Cattle prod for humans,” another said.

“Another fine product from Starkweather Enterprises,” the Hispanic mimicked.

Ash stood straight and relaxed, realizing the threat was over. “Thanks,” he said to the cop.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw another cop pushing a metal rod towards him.

“Hey, wait-” Ash said.

Black Hole Son – Part 28

Black Hole Son

RION

Rion yanked the gun out of the doctor’s hand.

“What is this? Where did you get this?” Rion pointed it at him.

The doctor held up his hands as if he were being held up. “Whoa, calm down. You’re gonna spill stuff everywhere.”

“What is it?” Rion said. “Tell me.”

“You’ve never seen a combipositor before? Seriously?” the doctor said.

“A combipositor?”

“Yeah, they use them on TV shows all the time. It’s replacing the hypodermic needle.”

Rion examined it. “Are you sure? You’re acting like it’s common knowledge.”

“It is. They were invented about the time I was in medical school. You’ve really never seen one before?”

“Uh, no, I guess not. I don’t watch much TV.” He handed it back to the doctor. “Sorry. I, uh, I thought… I thought it was a real gun. I was afraid you were going to shoot me,” Rion laughed weakly.

This didn’t make sense. If combipositors were common tools, why didn’t he know what it was? What was the connection?

“You okay, there, Rion?” the doctor asked.

“Sorry, no, it’s nothing. Never mind. Sorry.” Every word was probably making the doctor more suspicious. He offered up his arm. The doctor pressed the barrel of the combipositor to it and fired. There was a small hiss, and a pinch. Rion winced.

“What do you use a combipositor for?” Rion asked. “I mean, what kind of drugs?”

“Any kind, but usually for neurochemicals or things that need to be instantaneous. It works faster than a hypodermic, but it’s expensive. So neurosurgeons usually get first priority.”

“Where do you get them? Can you buy them?”

“Not really. They’re only available through certified suppliers. We only have one, and it sort of ‘fell off the truck’. That’s why I was scared at first. I thought you were going to arrest me.”

“Arrest you? Why? I thought you decided I wasn’t a Narc.”

“Yes, but almost everything that’s in a hospital is registered to it. Even the garbage cans. I don’t know if it’s supposed to prevent theft or drive up costs. See?”

He turned the gun over, showing him the bottom of the grip. There was a UPC number scratched off.

“Oh my god,” Rion said.

That was it. That was the message he had left himself. And now it was lying in a trash heap somewhere at a hotel he didn’t know how to get back to. He had lost the key to his identity.

The doctor continued, “I thought you tracked me down. Maybe you were from a private security firm.”

“No…” Rion said depressed. “I just… never mind.”

“Excuse me, I’ve got lots to do.” The doctor stepped over the littered boxes and exited the storage room. “Shop’s supposed to open tonight.”

Rion lingered after him, feeling the knotted tissue on the back of his neck. He had to find a phone to get in touch with Tuesday. She was the only one he dared trust now, with the ‘spooks’ that were after him. Any police station would be able to direct him.

But he couldn’t tell anyone in the pharmy. How would people running a drug lab react to that? Hey, guys, can you drive me to the police station. I just need to phone a friend. If they found out, he’d be kicked out. He’d have to bide his time before he could use a phone without them knowing.

“Hey, Rion,” the doctor called out. “Can you help Dax?”

Dax was dragging a folding table by one side toward the garage door. Rion ran over and picked up the other end. “Thanks. Kinda crunched on time. Shop days are always busy.”

“What’s the shop?” Rion asked.

“It’s our store. It’s how we make money. We sell what we make.”

“To just anyone? What if the cops sniff you out?”

“We have a watchdog on the roof. Yolanda drew the short straw this time. Plus we open it on different days and times so the cops don’t catch on.”

“How do the customers know when you open? I can’t imagine you advertise.”

“Word of mouth. We tell our regulars when the next one is, and the word gets spread. Word on the street spreads faster than anything. That’s why we set up in the warehouse district. Our best customers are from the lower class.”

“Why?”

“Because they can’t afford the health insurance. Even with insurance, things cost too much, and it’s a grind to try and get insurance to pay for things they should.”

They rejoined the others who were carrying pills, and organizing items from boxes. Dax said to the others, “Rion’s first day is a shop day.”

The other teens laughed. “You’re in for a treat,” Jane said. “Our customers are… kind of weird.”

“What do you mean?” Rion asked.

The doctor said, “When you’re dealing with drugs and people without a lot of money, you never know what they’ll do. Some of them are kinda unstable. That’s another reason we keep someone on the roof.”

“A lot of them are former drug addicts,” Jane piped up.

“Or current drug addicts,” Scooter added.

Rion arched his eyebrows. “You… you sell drugs to drug addicts? Then you are pushers.”

The doctor shook his head. “You can get addicted to anything, although it helps to have certain chemicals in it. What matters is the brain’s response.”

“But doesn’t that encourage their habit? Doesn’t that go against your oath of ‘do no harm’?”

The doctor sighed, “I can’t afford to be that choosy. I try and encourage them to seek help. But if I start denying them, they’d go someplace else, someplace where they might get drugs laced with all sorts of nasty stuff. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but it’s the truth.”

Rion joined Scooter, who was counting out jars of pills into sets of ten. “These are for the regular customers. We know they’re going to drop by, so we set some out.”

“So they go to a real doctor first to find out what they need?”

“Sometimes. But the doc also makes some consultations. You gotta watch him work, he’s like a damn psychic. He knows just what everyone needs.”

The door of the warehouse creaked open–an unsettling shaft of light beamed in.

“Knocky, knocky, it’s unlocky.”

A tall black man with dreadlocks and aviator shades stepped in. It was the same man who had saved Rion at the hotel. He was holding a plastic bag full of something.

“Moss?” the doctor said. “Thank god. I thought you weren’t going to make delivery.” The two met in the middle of the floor.

“Shit, you know me. I always deliver,” Moss said.

The doctor took the bag and pulled out one of items. A tablet of pills. “Great. Gimme a minute to count this out, and I’ll give you your money.”

“Sure thing,” Moss said. He spotted Rion. “Hey, little man. It’s you.” Moss walked up to him.

Rion looked up and recognized him. “You were the one who helped me out–the one who drove me here. I never got a chance to thank you, but why’d you do it?”

“Well, I popped out to see if you were all right. Then I saw those spooks coming after you, and I thought, ‘jeez, maybe he needs a ride’. I figure, anything you can do to put one over on the man is all right by me.”

“Spooks?”

“Spooks–the government spooks, agents, the ‘man’. You remember, right?”

Government agents? Maybe he was a CIA experiment gone wrong, and they had to capture him before he exploded and took out a city block.

“You look good, doctor fixed you up right,” Moss said. “You still in the clinic when that fire alarm started?”

“The clinic? I’ve never been to a clinic.”

“Sure you were, remember? Talking in the waiting room? You fooled them with a bunch of fake info on the app? Said you were having memory problems?”

“You remember me?” Rion gasped. “When was this?”

“Only a few days ago. Friday night.”

Friday night he was eating a hamburger in the Northwoods Bar and Grill. His mood dropped. “I don’t think it was me you saw.”

“Sure it was. Looked just like you. Unless you got a twin. At the free clinic on Washington Street?”

Rion shrugged. He didn’t know what to say.

“Guess you really do have memory problems. Maybe you should have that checked.”

Rion nodded. “You have no idea.”

The doctor approached them, still holding the bag, and an additional wad of money.

“Man, the kid’s been here one day, and you’ve already got him working,” Moss laughed. “Maybe I’m in the wrong business.”

“He likes to work. That’s never a problem with me,” the doctor smiled. “Here’s your dough.”

“Thanks, man. See you next shop.” Moss left.

“What’s in the bag?” Rion asked.

“Birth control pills. My most valuable crop.” He held out one of the foil-pack circles. “I don’t make them. It’s not something I want to screw up. If I get some inert or inactive chemicals from a supplier, then that means there might be some teen out there screwing around and getting pregnant without even knowing it.”

“Why are they so valuable?”

“For some reason, the government makes it hard to get. You’d think the last thing they’d want are more welfare kids. I mean, places like Planned Parenthood are great for people who don’t have insurance. That’s why they were created. But even then, people are worried about going down there. I guess they’re nervous about people judging them, wondering if their parents know where they are. Come on, help me sort these out.”

The doctor poured the bag onto the table. They opened each package, inspected the contents, and then divided the contents by active ingredient.

“How much can you make from these?” Rion asked.

“Let me put it this way–I’m going to sell all these in the next two weeks. And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t even break even with the cost of ingredients, tools, and wages.”

“So you don’t earn any money doing this?”

“If I did, that would make it illegal. I keep what I do ambiguous enough that it would take years and years to prosecute, and I take precautions. As long as I don’t use any of the money I make for personal use, I’m not violating any patents.”

“But you can still get arrested. What about us?” Rion gestured to the other teens.

The doctor hushed his voice, “They know the risks. Honestly, what’s it going to do to them? A night in jail? A free meal? I’m in the same boat as these guys. I’ve just got some extra training. Come on, help me sort these.”

“Then how did you get into this? There must be a less risky way to make money,” Rion said.

“I got sick of the way pharmaceutical companies were manipulating health care to get sales. When I was in practice, I got so much ‘informational material’ that were disguised advertisements. Then they offered all-expense paid conferences, little trinkets–it was insane. And it was all biased, no matter what they said. I saw the studies. ‘Manipulated data’ would be an understatement. Nowadays, they don’t even try to hide their lies.”

“Why?”

“You can’t know everything. It wasn’t these drugs, or the falsified studies. You have to expect that people are going to fudge facts. We all do it. But you’ve got to have people watching, which we used to. Consumer reports, investigative journalism, the FDA. But then, it started falling apart. Maybe people were sick of being told everything was bad for them, that they couldn’t trust anything. People liked having things packaged and advertised to them. Somehow, that became more trustworthy than their doctors.”

“What happened to all the watchdogs?” Rion said.

“Maybe people stopped listening to them. Maybe they faded out because there isn’t much profit in whistle-blowing. So misinformation kept slipping through the cracks. I know, I saw plenty. I mean, are you going to analyze every single study that comes out in JAMA? Are you going to dig out every fact, every bit of research? There’s not enough hours in the day.”

“But you did the research,” Rion said.

“Yes, but I’m trained in that kind of critical thinking. And if you go right to the consumer, you skip right over the whistle-blowers. Like I said, you can’t know everything.”

Rion opened the last pack and set it in it’s proper place. “Sounds kinda sad.”

“I don’t blame society for letting it get this way. I’m guilty of it myself. For example, I don’t know anything about cars. I use one everyday, but I don’t know how it works. All my friends say, ‘Why are you paying someone to fix your car? You can do it yourself. It’s cheaper.’ But with all the time I spend learning about it, that’s time I’m not using to do my job. Or it’s time not relaxing. Or it’s time with my family gone. I’d rather spend time improving my strengths than compensating for my weaknesses. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, right?”

Rion nodded, suppressing a laugh.

Finished Naga Story

naga slit eyes

Well, I finished naga story. No title yet (besides “Naga Hide” which is a bit too heady of a pun still). I’m not sure when I started (sometime in June?) but I was getting down 1700-1800 words per day consistently in the last quarter of it. It’s a full manuscript, rough draft as it is. 90,061 words. Just barely squeaked over that 90K mark, even though I had 70+ scenes.

And it’s shite. It’s just shite, all of it.

Remember how I said every word sounded juvenile and unsophisticated and disposable. Yeah, that never got better. Shite’s the only word I can call it, it’s the most appropriate. I don’t know why I kept going.

Well, that’s not true. I kept going because I remember Neil Gaiman’s words: Great artists finish things. And if I didn’t like what I was writing, at least I had to tools to see it to completion. So I can say it’s complete crap with emphasis on “complete”.

I find myself not caring so much about being a writer anymore. It seems my bubble of who I’m doing this for is shrinking every day. Now it’s just me, and I become less important as I grow older. I don’t even have any fans. I wrote Reprise and that barely got any feedback. People aren’t buying the erotica. And my own love for the work is waning as the response I get is pitiful. Why write jokes if I’m the only one who finds them funny? If I’m the only one who finds them.

butterfly book

The story was doomed from the start, writing the beginning felt energizing and fun. But then I got to the main story and everything felt dead in the water. It felt like I had gone backwards in quality. My only hope is that this is the last of my “million bad words” and maybe the next thing will be that thing.

If I’m going to be a writer, I need to step up my game. I’m tired of these rejections. I’m not writing anything that’s commercially viable. All my story ideas are just stories that I’d want to read. No one reads about snake-women or Indiana Jones saving a mermaid or a misogynist Harry Potter.

I’ve got Felicia Day’s new book, her guide to creativity, and I’ve got Neil Gaiman’s masterclass on the art of story telling and I’ve got Brandon Sanderson’s lecture series still to watch. I’m not going to write my next novel right away. It’s still outline-less anyway. I need to get back to basics. I’ve got to do like Rocky and retrain myself. Go up to the mountains and chase chickens. I think that’s what he did.

rocky meat
It involves a lot of beating my meat, as you might imagine…

Black Hole Son – Part 27

Black Hole Son

ASH

The precinct office wasn’t what Ash expected. He expected the world’s enforcers to work in an office building with state-of-the-art criminal-catching equipment. Instead they worked in a warehouse. Cracks in the wall leaked fuzzy insulation. Grumpy men in uncomfortable suits banged at boxy computers.

The cop who drove Ash led him through a maze of desks. He pointed at one for Ash to sit at. “Someone will be here to take a statement shortly.”

“All right, thanks,” Ash said. By the nameplate, the desk belonged to Lt. Crowe. The only items on his desk were a computer monitor and a pile of papers.

Ash waited for ten minutes, staring up at the ceiling, at the floor, at the other cops’ faces who gave him dirty looks. The ones who weren’t talking to distraught citizens looked bored and angry.

A black man holding a coffee mug walked up to the desk. “Who are you?” he said indignantly.

Ash scowled. “I’m Ash.”

“What are you doing at my desk?”

“I’m here to make a statement. The other cop brought me here.”

“What other cop?”

“I don’t know his name. I’m supposed to make a report on a marijuana user I caught this morning.”

“Marijuana user? Who sent you? You’re not supposed to be at my desk.”

“I- I-,” Ash stammered. “All I know is what I’ve been told.”

The man, presumably Lt. Crowe, shouted out to the cubicle farm, “Hey, anyone know about this kid?”

No one answered. This was how they ran this place? They just shouted to each other?

Crowe dropped his mug on his desk, splashing coffee on his papers. “Shit, goddammit.” He mopped up his papers with a Kleenex. “Look, you’re not supposed to be here.”

“Well, where am I supposed to be?” Ash said, “All I want to do is give a statement. That’s not hard.”

“Christ, just sit here. I’ll be back.” He stomped off.

Ash gritted his teeth. This was like the clinic. No wonder organizations like the White Knights existed. Who would want to protect the city when you had to sit in the office dealing with paperwork? It would be like teaching.

Crowe came back a moment later. “All right, you said your name’s Ash?” he said in a calmer tone.

“That’s right. Are you taking my statement now?”

“Apparently.” He pulled out his keyboard and started typing. “Why don’t you tell me what happened.”

“Why don’t I?” Ash told his story, starting from the protest at the library and up to spotting the drug use on the corner.

“So you went looking for trouble?” Crowe asked him.

“What? No. I saw a crime being committed, and I reacted. That’s what the White Knights do.” Or should do, he added in his head.

“Yeah, you mentioned that. Who are these White Knights again?”

“They’re a citizen’s watchdog group. You’ve never heard of us?”

“Nope,” he shook his head. “What do they do?”

“We patrol the streets. We look for crimes being committed. Help keep the streets clean. See the sash?” He held out his banner, as if anyone could miss the fire hydrant red across his chest.

“What sort of crimes?”

“Small stuff. Like alcohol on the beach. Driving off homeless people.”

“Ash, you know what vigilantes are?”

“We’re not vigilantes,” Ash said, “We’re the eyes and ears of the police. We’re where you guys can’t be. We’re peacekeepers.”

“Yeah, you say you’re peacekeepers, yet you got into a fight with this man.”

“Can I finish my story?” Ash said and detailed the steps he went through to try and stop him, finishing with, “Since he wasn’t listening, I decided to add my own style.”

“Meaning you decided to antagonize him.”

“No… well,” Ash admitted. “Yes. The standard operating procedure wasn’t working. He wasn’t respecting my authority. Look, I did nothing wrong. The guy was using illegal drugs.”

“I’m not saying that,” Crowe said. “No one’s accusing you. I’m just saying you could have handled it better. You could have gotten hurt if he had a gun.”

Ash shrugged. “You gotta take the risks when you wear the uniform. You know that, right?”

“I haven’t been on the streets in years. Hours were too long on my family.” He typed some more. “Anything else you want to add?”

“No, that is my complete story.”

“All right, Ash, what’s your last name?”

“Uh…” Ash tried to remember what he had wrote at the clinic, but then decided lying to the police would be inappropriate. “I don’t have one.”

Crowe looked up from the tops of his eyes. “You don’t have one?”

“I’m an amnesiac. To be honest, I don’t even know my real first name.”

“Uh-huh. Look, kid, if you’re dicking me around…”

“I’m not dicking you around. I lost all my memories three days ago. I tried to go to a hospital, but they couldn’t help me. So I found a job with the White Knights.”

“How about a driver’s license?”

“If I had that I could tell you my last name. Look, why does any of this matter? I’m just making a statement. I’m an eyewitness to a crime. Do I need to be a registered voter for that?”

“If you don’t know who you are, where do you live?”

Ash shrugged. “Various places. A friend’s house one night. Last night I stayed with my girlfriend.”

Crowe raised his eyebrows. “You have a girlfriend? You don’t have any idea who you are, but you have a girlfriend?”

“Yes, well, um, sort of a girlfriend. She moves fast.”

“I bet. Do you have some parents or someone I can call?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Mm-hm.” He typed some more. “All right, we’re done here. I’ll show you where you can take a seat.”

“Why? What do you have to do now?”

“Just some processing.” Lt. Crowe led Ash to a back corner of the wasteland, and set him on a vinyl bench. “Just sit here and someone will come get you when we’re done.”

I’ve heard that before, Ash thought, but complied. He should be working with the police, not against them. He had to make some concessions and let them handle things. The system of justice would work itself out.

The corner looked like a cobbled-together waiting room. No magazines, no newspapers, no TV. Just an empty water cooler. It gave him an excellent view of the precinct floor though.

Cops, clerical workers, civilians, and criminals traipsed back and forth like a factory floor. A grandma clutching her purse trembled as she talked to a pudgy policeman. An officer led a man with bottle-cap glasses down the hall by his handcuffs. Two cops argued with each other–angry, sullen, sick of their jobs. No wonder the criminal element was so rampant.

Then he spotted the pothead he’d caught, coming out of a taupe hallway at the far end of the floor. Ash smiled. He was going to be able to watch him led off. Seeing him go to jail would make everything worth it.

But no one was following him. And his hands were uncuffed. Why were the police letting him walk around free? Was security that good here?

“What the hell?” Ash mumbled. The pothead moved across the room and, with a smirk on his face, left through the lobby.

“Hey,” Ash called. “Hey, hey.” He jumped from his seat, and ran after him. Garbage cans and swivel chairs fell over in his wake. Lt. Crowe sprang from his desk and followed behind him.

By the time Ash made it to the lobby, the stoner had already opened the door to the outside.

“Stop him! He’s getting away,” Ash cried.

Crowe seized Ash’s arm from behind. “Get back here. What are you doing?

“What are you doing?” Ash tugged at him. “You’re letting him go.”

“Yeah.”

Ash stopped resisting. “What? What the hell for?”

“We’ve got nothing to hold him on. No evidence.”

“I brought in the joint he was using.”

“He said it wasn’t his,” Crowe said.

“What?” Ash’s eyes bulged. “Of course it is. Do a DNA test. Look for fingerprints.”

“Those tests are expensive. All we’ve got is one eyewitness, and you could have some kind of vendetta against him.”

“What? Do you think I go around accusing people of nothing?”

“I see it all the time. People call in the cops to screw somebody over.”

“Then punish those people, instead of letting people go because you think everyone’s a criminal.”

“Look, kid. If we bust him, that’s going to be a mountain of paperwork. And he’ll get off with a ticket and a fine he’ll never pay. It’s easier to let him go. If you want, you can file a complaint against him, but it ain’t gonna do no good.”

“You can’t just let him go. What’s the point of a system of justice if it doesn’t punish crimes? Do you think he’s scared of being caught now? He thinks you’re a joke.”

“It’s a waste of time to deal with punks like that. You, on the other hand,” he tightened his grip on Ash’s arm. “You don’t have a driver’s license, a social security number, and you won’t tell me your last name. But you have a job and a girlfriend. That looks pretty bad, don’t you think?”

Ash’s jaw dropped. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Maybe. But unless you give me your identity, we still gotta check it out. It’s just procedure.”

Ash relaxed his arm. He didn’t want to risk incriminating himself further.

Crowe yanked him into the station. “I’m going to take you to a room until we sort this out.”

They went through the same taupe hallway the pothead had come out of, and stopped in front of a brick room, painted robin egg blue. Crowe opened the steel door for him. “You really don’t have anyone I can talk to?”

Ash perked up. “Call Ivan. He’s the leader of the White Knights. He can vouch for me. He knows me.” Ash pulled out his cell phone and recited his number, which Crowe jotted down.

“All right, we’ll give this Ivan guy a call. Meanwhile, go on in and have a seat.”

Black Hole Son – Part 26

Black Hole Son

RION

Scooter tapped Rion on the shoulder. “Hey, let’s go have lunch.”

Rion looked up, startled. He had been lost in his own little world of tiny capsules that he didn’t see most of the other teens had left their tables, breaking for lunch. The doctor was dumping out sandwiches from three paper bags, with a scent of fried meat beckoning Rion.

“Dollar menu–a great thing,” the doctor said. “Do you want beef or chicken?”

“Um, beef, I guess.”

“I bet they’re all from the same animal anyway.” The doctor handed him a yellow-wrapped sandwich. “Listen, thanks again for helping us out with that distiller. Do you know a lot about machines?”

“Sort of. Mostly, I’m good at finding things.”

“Nice. I’m sure I’m going to have no trouble finding work for you.”

Rion smiled at him.

Scooter called out. “Rion, come on, let’s have lunch.” He was standing at a tall table with his red sandwich. Rion walked over to him and started ravaging his burger.

Scooter nodded, “Pretty nice of the doctor, eh? He buys us lunch every shop day.”

“He’s a really nice guy,” Rion nodded.

“And he likes you, I can tell. He knows how to pick ’em. It’s like being in some secret club.”

“Or like a family,” Rion said.

“Yeah. And everyone in the pharmy looks out for each other. If anyone ever tried to screw it up, I’d kick their ass.” Scooter swallowed his bite. “It’s a good thing you found us so early. New city. No friends. Gets dangerous here at night. Where were you staying before?”

“I found a hotel. I snuck in an empty room.”

“Jeez, you’re lucky. I’ve never heard of someone doing that. That’s a good move.”

“What?” Rion said. “I’m not homeless.”

“Dude,” Scooter cocked his head. “No need to bullshit me. A lot of us are.”

“No. No, I’m really not. I’m, um, just a little lost right now.”

“Dude, you can admit it. I’m not gonna rat you out or nothing. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“No, I’m telling the truth. I’m really not homeless.” I think, he added.

“But you don’t have anywhere to go, right? You don’t have a roof over your head?”

“Well, no, suppose not.”

“What about food? What’s the last time you ate something?”

Scooter clucked his tongue like a disappointed parent. “No wonder you scarfed that burger. Here, have some fries.” He rotated the box toward him. “How long have you been on the streets? A few days?”

“Three days.”

“You even have any money?”

“I used to have some, but I… lost it.”

“Good, here’s a tip. Don’t spend it on food. If you stand outside a Beefy Queen or something, just ask people. They’ll buy it for you.”

Rion squirmed. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“What? Begging? Dude, you’ve got to lose your pride. I know a lot of kids who ended up going off with some pimp because they had too much pride to say no.”

“How long have you been… homeless?” Rion disliked using that word with a friend.

“Off and on. I haven’t been home for a year. It’s hard, it’s not dignified, but you can do it. I’ve done some weird shit for food.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to beg for food.” He’d rather eat from a dumpster before he asked someone. Maybe self-respect was something that couldn’t be erased.

“C’mon, you’re so skinny. Look, you can come with me, and I’ll show you-“

“I said I’m not going to beg for food!” Rion snapped like a mad dog. Scooter fell back.

Rion looked down at his french fry. “Sorry, I have… anger issues.”

“Look, I’m just trying to be your friend. If you got nothing else, you need your friends. I know it’s rough at first.”

Through gritted teeth, Rion said, “You cannot possibly understand what I’m going through.”

“You’re right. Everyone gets here a different way.”

Rion considered whether or not to tell him his secrets. Could he help? He seemed street-smart, but what resources did he have?

“Did you run away?” Scooter asked.

“I think so. I mean, yes.”

“Me too. I just didn’t want to be living at home anymore. It was crap. I couldn’t leave $5 on the table without one of my friends grifting it.”

“Maybe you needed some better friends.”

Scooter laughed. “Yeah, you’re probably right. We were always living paycheck to paycheck, and my mom was always fucking whoever she could to get a roof over her head. I had to steal from her to get any money for myself. One day my friends say they’re gonna take a van and skip town, and I said ‘well, hell, why am I even staying here and being miserable?’ So I did, and then I wound up here.”

“Would you do it again if you knew where you’d end up?” Rion asked.

“Oh yeah. I think,” Scooter answered. “I mean it’s not like I choose to be homeless, but it’s better than before. I’d change a few things, but yeah, I’m happy about it. I’m free now. What about you?”

Rion shrugged. “It wasn’t really my choice.”

A girl came up to them holding a tool. “Scooter, how does this thing go on the centrifuge?”

“I don’t know,” Scooter said, “I’m trying to have lunch.”

“Well, you were working it last.”

“I don’t know. I didn’t use that part.”

Rion said, “Can I see that?”

The girl shrugged and handed him the object. Rion examined it. “This part goes on top, then it aligns with the little slots. That guy with a lot of acne was using it last. You can ask him.”

“Oh, thanks.” She left.

“Nice,” Scooter said. “Say, you could go pretty far with skills like that. You know, if you want to earn some-“

Rion rubbed his nose. He had a dull ache at the back of his eyes–halfway to another migraine. By tomorrow, it would be raging.

“What, you okay?” Scooter asked.

“Headache.”

“Again? Man, they are frequent. Why don’t you talk to the doctor while we’re on break.”

“Yeah, think I’ll do that. Were you going to ask me something.”

“Nah, go see the doctor first. I’ll hit you up later.”

Rion shook his head and went to find the doctor. He found him in a storage room full of boxes, filing cabinets, machines, and empty cartons. Most contained foil packs of capsules and tablets.

“Doctor Kinneburg?”

“What? Oh, Rion. Hi. How are you? Call me doc.” He was rifling through the boxes. “Hey, you’re good at finding things. You couldn’t find the lid for this jar, could you?” Doc said, half-joking. He held out a large white container.

Rion touched the rim, pretending to peer inside. “Is that it?” He pointed to the top of a filing cabinet where a purple jar lid rested.

“Ah, you are good,” Kinneburg laughed and picked it up. When he turned around, Rion was holding his temples. “Did you need something?”

“I just… I wanted to talk to you about my headaches. I was wondering if you could sell me some pills? Or I could work for them .”

“Sure, what do you want?”

“Do you have any pills that come in a red and yellow capsule?”

“What do you mean?” the doctor gave him a shady look. “The capsule is just a gelatin coating. We don’t use a specific capsule size or color for the drugs.”

“Oh, well, are there any that usually come in a red and yellow capsule?”

“Tons. Factory drugs all have their own standard shape. Do you have an example? I could find out.”

“No. What I was taking before, I lost it.” Rion cursed himself for being so stupid again. “What about the one I took before? Adravil?”

“Adravil? You sure you want that? It’s addicting.”

“I…” Rion grimaced at another wave of pain. “I just want some kind of painkiller for my headaches. And if I could get a fairly large supply, that would be good.”

“Do you have one now?” Rion nodded. “How much pain are you in? Do you get these headaches often?”

“Off and on. But it’s all right, I know what’s causing them.”

“You do? What?”

“Uh… stress.”

The doctor gave him another shady look. “What kind of stress? In your shoulders? Back of your neck?”

“No, it’s more inside my brain. And then it spreads.”

“Turn around. I want to check your head.” Rion turned around. The doctor placed his cool thin fingers on the back of his skull. He gently massaged the muscle. “Don’t think it’s muscle tension. Any pain in the back?”

“No.”

“Are you on anything else? Anything illegal?”

“No. I don’t want anything addicting,” Rion said, hoping to appease the doctor’s suspicions. “But it needs to be pretty strong, I think.”

“You can be addicted to anything, drug or not. Addiction is about how the chemicals in the brain react to stimuli.”

“The last thing I had worked almost instantly.”

“Nothing works instantly. It’s got to take time to be absorbed into the bloodstream. What’s this scar from?”

“Scar? What scar?”

“You have a small scar here, right under your cranium. A few millimeters long. Didn’t heal well.”

Rion felt the back of his head and felt a small knot of gnarled flesh. “I… I don’t know. I’ve never noticed it before.” Where did he get this? Some kind of mind control chip? Childhood injury? Did it mean anything? Maybe there would be hospital records.

“Feels weird, like a sliver or something. It’s like it healed too fast.”

“I do heal fast.”

“Hmm,” he thought for a long time, “Well, let’s go over the stores.”

The doctor searched through his boxes as Rion felt the back of his head, trying to suss out his scar.

The doctor pulled out a plastic case meant for nails and screws. Now it held pills and capsules. “I think the strongest non-addicting painkiller I got, that I know is safe, is this–prozium.” He held up a gray pill that looked nothing like what Rion had been taking. “The problem is it’s expensive. Ten pills are twenty dollars.”

Rion took a heavy breath. His head felt like it was being fed through a meat grinder. “Okay, that’ll do.”

“You sure? You’ll have to work the rest of today and tomorrow to pay it off.”

“No, that’s fine. It’s worth it.”

The doctor put ten gray pills in a nearby bottle. “Since you’re already working with us, I’ll give you the short version of the spiel. You say something to the cops, we never do business again, obviously.” Rion nodded. “Take two per dose. Don’t take more than four in three hours. And if you have any side-effects–vomiting, fever, drowsiness, depression–let me know right away, and we can make an exchange.” He handed Rion the bottle.

“All right.” He shook out two out right away and dry-swallowed them in front of the doctor.

The doctor smirked. “Let me give you something in case you get some side-effects. It’s a one-time injectable. No charge.” He stepped around the boxes back to a desk drawer. “It’s new. Agalo-something. It’s on the market in West Virginia, right now.”

“Sounds good.”

“Fingers crossed, it’ll counteract some of the nausea. Here we go.” The doctor found what he was looking for and came back around.

He held out a shiny silver gun, rounded in the grip and barrel, like a ray gun. Like Rion’s gun.