Post Fri Jan 06, 2006 4:43 am

Shadow Tracker

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I'll try anything once; futuristic occult mystery anyone? The premise is a good one. There's a murderer afoot, only the killer isn't alive, it's dead... and a ghost. There's more to it... a conspiracy-- but we'll leave it at that. This was written sometime back... when I wrote about 586s it was just a joke. Now the jokes on me.

Prologue


His nose bloody, his coat ripped, Matt Pallamary stumbled through the front door and let the storm slam it shut behind him. Ripping off his soaked, vintage Levi’s jacket and hurling it to the floor, he opened the closet, booted in the jacket, then tossed a leather briefcase after it.

At least they only got the version six microcode. Worthless without the version seven’s controls. Why’d I even put up a fight? He touched his nose’s swollen bridge. “Ow. Shit.”

Thunder shook the windows of the beach cottage. His best Toulouse-Lautrec, a valuable limited edition, fell off the wall. The antique frame broke in two, separating the glass and backing from the matted print like a card deck cut from the middle.

“Same to you.” He gestured to the sky, middle finger upraised. “Why don’t you rip out my heart while you’re at it?” He kicked the closet shut.

He ran his fingers through rusty brown hair and picked up the frame half that still held the print. Behind him the door knob rattled.

He whirled to face the sound. One edge of the print came loose from the broken frame as he spun.

Nothing there. Just the wind.

Heart thudding, the back of his neck tingled. “Those bastards really have me spooked. I’m losing it. Going shithouse.” Letting out a breath, he examined the loose print. The dance hall girl held her skirt high and sly smile brightening her face.

Matt jumped as the hall lit up with a flash, and a gust of wind rattled the entire door.

Clenching a fist, he stood there lock-kneed. He forced himself back under control; his stomach knotted. “No. I am not going to lose it. No way.”

He walked into the equipment-cluttered living room and snapped on the lights. In one corner sat his entertainment center, in the other his CAD station and work table. The print laid carefully on the table, he knelt next to the window, picked up the hammered-iron shaman’s knife, and set it back on the display table next to the other collectibles.

Must have fallen off during the tremor this morning.

A light blinked on the vid-phone: messages waiting. Stepping over to the design board, he found that the chaos graphics results the CAD file-attached across the optinet to Old-SALK had been processed by the mainframes and downlinked to his workstation.

Bastard thinks he has my back to the wall. His algorithm’s junk without this version seven microcode. His goons touch me again and I’ll flush the whole mess.

He reached toward the screen for a printer send and did a double take. The security window was flashing a log-in time. It should have been blank.

A blue-white tendril of electricity licked out of the monitor. “Ow!” He shook his hand and stamped his foot, then sucked on the stung fingers. What the hell? I checked all the grounds and surge protectors just last week.

A thunder-stroke whited-out the windows, cracking through the hiss of rain outside. Just what I need. A fried system. Who the fuck ever heard of a July thunderstorm in San Diego. What next?

He punched the send block on the touch screen. The security window was blank again. Probably the surge had played hell with the system. He’d have to do a complete check. Relief smoothed his brow when he heard the electrostatic plotter hum to life.

At least it’s still up and running.

Checking that the paper had fed correctly, he went back to the kitchen. He washed his face at the sink, wincing as he touched his nose. His hands and face blotted dry on napkins, he reached out to open the refrigerator.

A jolt knocked him back a step.

Cursing, he shook his hand. The air smelled of ozone. I can’t believe this static.

Determined, he jerked the door open and grabbed a beer off the tray, popped the top, and downed a quarter of it. Taking slower sips, he leaned against the counter and watched the fractal map taking shape on the plotter in the living room.

Too bad the stingy bastards cut the version eight funding. I’d have loved to see their faces when they realized what’s out there. It would have blown some minds.

“Doctor” Agate must have figured it out and had those goons nail me. Had to be him, no one else knows enough.

Sirens wailed in the distance, and the storm gained in pitch. An odor vaguely like ammonia overpowered the taint of o-zone. He frowned and sniffed at the beer. Poked around the kitchen, searching for a container that could account for the smell. Nothing. He shrugged.

He left the beer on the counter, went to the living room, and flopped on the couch. He punched the replay on the vid-phone. The laserdisk stepper clicked and a tone sounded. The image of gray tufted John Wyatt flashed on the screen, lab coat stained more from food than chemicals.

“Matt, hey, we need the key for that antique 586 box. The funds finally came through, so we’re going to move up to something only a couple years behind the times. Get back to me. Thanks.” The picture faded, a low hum followed by a soft feminine voice.

“Recorded Monday, two oh three p. m.”

The stepper clicked again. Ely Fulgrum wavered into being, dark hair slicked back, collar too tight. “Matt, sorry buddy, researched the patent precedents. There’s not enough to hang a suit on. Maybe lunch next week?” The time stamp followed.

He held his temples. “Shit. So what else can go wrong.”

“Matt, I’m worried.” He looked up and saw Melissa’s bespeckled face, dark eyes concerned, unruly blond curls dangling across her forehead. “Two guys came here looking for you. I think one of them had a gun. Call me, I’m scared.”

Sorry, Babe. Sorry.

He looked up as a metallic crunch came from the kitchen, the sound of liquid trickling.

The vid-phone broke into static. “Call me, I’m scared.” A snap. “Call me, I’m scared.” Snap. “Call me, I’m . . .”

The plotter, humming its musical monotone, grew louder, an electronic rasp becoming a snarl.

His eyes scanned the room as equipment came to life, fluctuating off and on.

What did those bastards . . .

The overhead fluorescents flashed and shattered. Blinded at first, his eyes adjusted quickly and focused on the wavering monitors and flickering red status lights.

The ammonia smell made his head reel. His heart galloped. The air turned cold, as though an arctic wind had blasted through the house. Storm-shocks clashed outside.

A blue-white arc rose over the kitchen counter, the stainless steel sink crinkling like aluminum foil. The stereo system snapped on, blasting the newest cover version of ‘Stairway to Heaven.’

Matt shielded his eyes as the television erupted, flash-bulb brilliant. He threw himself to the floor as needle-like impacts stung his back.

The refrigerator flew open, casting a brief flash of light before a detonation blew glass containers against the wall like mortar shells. The alkali smell, choking now.

He scrambled to his feet and ran for the front entrance. The closet door spun open into his path. A crash like a hammer between the eyes, like a brick to the chest before he hit the carpet.

Speakers vibrating plaster from the walls. “. . . AND MY SPIRIT IS CRYING FOR LEAVING . . .”

Frost-raw breaths. A flurry of his hands and knees. More explosions in the kitchen and living room.

He yanked on the door. “Oh, God. Open!”

As he snatched at the knob, a searing blast of electricity. The walls shuddered. He fell back, writhing and coughing.

“. . . WILL ECHO WITH LAUGHTER . . .”

“Got to get out.” Knives of agony in his chest. The window.

He scrambled back to the living room. Nails groaned and burst out of the wall plaster in a sparking rain.

Bastards. Won’t let them get me!

He charged for the window, his foot catching in a loop of electrical cord. Matt tumbled, scattering the collectibles on the display table, his arm crunching in agony beneath him.

Something writhed around him, its changing, translucent form outlined by a lightning flash.

He struggled to get up. An amorphous appendage slammed him back to the floor.

Glowing white pin points became glowing white eyes that narrowed near his face. His chest tightened. Ammonia burning his eyes and nose.

“No!” He swung instinctively. His arm cut through it. Sizzles of pain. His shirt smoldered and crackled. He swung again. Something clamped down like bands of steel on his throat.

No air!

“. . . YOUR HEAD IS HUMMING AND IT WON’T GO . . .”

He groped wildly. Grabbed cold metal. Sliced upward with it.

A hissing shriek and a burning spray, but still it gripped his throat.

Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe...




ONE


Hanson Thomas thought the site looked remarkably intact for having been the target of an H-bomb. On the cell-phone the techie had mumbled something about an atomic warhead and clammed up. Even a scrap of information like that was a breech of routine. As a para-sleuth he went to a site with no pre-knowledge.

He looked across the alley at the beach-house swathed in yellow barrier tape; the site of Matt Pallamary’s death. A dirt encrusted ‘98 Cordoba was parked in the driveway; Singleton’s.

He sighed. First time back in the saddle in six weeks and the office gave him Mister Cynical for a partner. No wonder the dispatcher turned evasive when he asked about it.

He checked himself in the mirror running a hand through his thinning hair and scratched at the russet stubble covering his upper lip. Before they broke up, his ex-girlfriend had told him that the mustache made him look more like a Keystone Kop than an investigator.

He took a swig of diet soda then grabbed an apple fritter out of a cardboard carrying tray. Hands full with opening the door and carrying a briefcase, he exited the car with the fritter between his teeth.

Eating the pastry, he strolled toward the building getting a feel for the area, listening to the breakers crashing nearby and the cries of gulls. He caught a whiff of ammonia.

He finished his fritter while studying the area and began to smooth his non-existent mustache, then stopped. The gesture was meaningless now. Carol had been wrong about a lot of things. Shaving his ‘thinking follicles’, no doubt among them.

Hanson felt a subtle tingling in the back of his head. Strange.

He loosened his focus. Sounds, smells and colors commingled as he raised his sensitivity to the environment. He went to the garage door and ran his hand across the surface. Slashes of crimson raked through his mind. He jerked away. Hanson rubbed his tingling fingers, his stomach tightened, and he felt dizzy. He’d never experienced such powerful feedback without using his aura scanner.

Dazed, he stumbled on his way to the front door. What kind of nightmare could be this strong?

While he was still on the walkway, the front door opened. Dane Singleton and another man stepped out.

Dane grinned. The sun-scarred skin of his narrow face looked ready to split. “Here’s Doctor Strange now. Wondered if you were going to show.”

Hanson blinked. “I was getting my bearings.” He realized his palms were sweaty, and wondered if he looked pale.

If he did, Dane didn’t mention it. “Han, what happened to your handlebars? I liked that rustic ‘MacDougal’ look.”

He shook his head. “Let’s not get into it.” Hanson looked at the other man. “Who’s our visitor?”

Singleton raised an eyebrow. “Sergeant Hart, OCSD. He has an identical case in Orange County.”

Hanson shook hands. Hart was of medium height with broad shoulders and a deeply lined face. His aquiline nose looked crimped as if it had been broken several times. Hanson guessed from his build and the look of his hands that he must have been a boxer.

The man glanced at Dane. “Call me Eric. I’ve heard interesting things about you, Mister Thomas.”

Han smiled. “Interesting? I don’t have many fans.” He shook his head and pointed at the front door. “You have an identical case?”

Hart nodded. “The property damage and cause of death are identical.”

“Property damage?”

Dane shook his head. “Check it out, Han. Damnedest thing we’ve seen. Has the staff scratching their heads.”

They gestured toward the door crossed with broken barrier tape. Hanson stepped onto the porch. The entire house felt charged.

This whole place is one big hotspot.

He found himself holding his breath as he stepped into the foyer.

Walking down the hall, he noticed a bloodstain on the edge of the closet door. He reached for it and stopped when the tingle in his hand became painful. The two men followed quietly.

Hanson moved into the living room. Bullet hole sized craters ran down the walls in lines. Springs in the couch jutted from the fabric. Expensive pieces of equipment lay scattered, their fused circuitry exposed like the innards of corpses.

He didn’t need to look to see where the death had occurred. The skin of his face felt hot when he turned toward the corner where a display table had been overturned. Everything in this place was amplified beyond reason; like the psychic horrors impressed on the walls of old English castles, only more so.

“Well, what do you make of it?” Singleton asked.

He drew a breath. “What I make of it, doesn’t make sense.”

“What do you mean?”

Hanson’s throat felt tight. “I don’t need my scanner. The residue in here is what I’d expect to feel in an inquisition chamber. It’s as if a thousand people died here.”

Singleton and Hart stiffened and took out their pads.

Hanson put his briefcase down and forced himself to study the carpet, overturned display table and wrecked electronic equipment.

He clenched and loosened his hands. Two days ago a man died on this spot. He’d done consulting work on murders before, but he never felt the tragedy this intimately. Icy claws raked through him and tingles raced along the back of his neck and scalp. So much fear and pain.

Taking a breath, he steeled himself to experience the impressions.

Stay objective. Maintain your distance. He scanned the area being critical of each facet of the objects before him. Once braced, he unfocused, allowing his aura-awareness to fill his mind...

The reek of ammonia made his eyes burn. Won’t let them get me-- The window! Something clamped around his ankle. Struggling. Lashing out with something sharp. A howl. Blood splattering. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe...

Hanson pulled at his tie, fighting the sensation of choking. Pallamary had been running for the window. He fell only a few feet short of his goal. The man struggled to the last.

He jerked when Dane tapped his shoulder. “Han, you going to elucidate? What do you mean ‘a thousand people died here’?”

He drew a breath and peered at the wiry man. “Nothing.” He pointed to blood spots on the wall. “That blood isn’t Pallamary’s, is it?” Without waiting for an answer, he gestured to a cable on the floor. “And that coax was around his leg, right?”

Dane and sergeant Hart looked at one another. Dane cleared his throat. “No, it wasn’t.”

“DNA probably wasn’t on the active list--“

“Whoa, stop!” Dane held up a hand. “Who did you talk to?”

Hanson frowned. “Dammit Dane, let’s not go through this again. I came into this case cold, like always.” He folded his arms and studied the room. The peculiar damage and the strength of the impressions gave him an idea of what had happened here.

Could someone have taken the O-realm experiments beyond the theoretic stages?

Hanson gestured to the holes in the wall. “Technical probably told you the damage was caused by an electromagnetic burst like the EM wavefront from an H-bomb. All the ferrous metal is magnetized.”

Hart looked at Dane. “This guy is scary.”

“He’s scaring me,” Dane replied.

Hanson shrugged. “The evidence is burned into the walls.” He eyed Hart. “And your case is identical?”

The sergeant nodded. “Half the physicists in LA are scrambling for an explanation on this EM burst. They swear the effect would rip the iron out of the victim’s blood and level structures for blocks.”

Hanson nodded. He picked his way through the destroyed living room to the remains of a workstation computer. The case looked crumpled as though the unit had imploded.

Dane spoke. “Techies said the data wouldn’t be salvageable.”

“They should look closer.” He flipped the computer over, slid a panel aside and popped a disk-caddy out of the fused drive mechanism. He wagged the disk at Dane. “EM pulse won’t do anything to an optical drive.” He scanned around and spied the ruined answering machine. “Same here--“

“We found the answering machine disk.” Dane took the platter from Hanson.

Even though the sensations in this room were like sandpaper on his senses Hanson managed to smile.

Sergeant Hart pointed at him. “Thomas, you know something. I saw recognition in your eyes when I said ‘EM burst’.”

Hanson met his gaze. “I don’t run investigations. I’m only a consultant. I suggest leads to my liaison. He follows up.” Hanson glanced at Dane. “I’ve been burned for breaching etiquette or providing tenuous foundations. I keep my mouth shut ‘til I’m sure.”

Hart looked as if he’d eaten something sour. “Off the record then, take a wild stab at it.”

Hanson rubbed the stubble on his lip and looked at Dane. The detective nodded. He sighed. “O-realm.”

“What the hell is that?” Dane asked.

“It’s the space between atoms.” He picked his way around the debris into the kitchen area, relaxing as the poignant sensations decreased. The two men followed. The sergeant jotted more notes.

The reek of spoiled milk and decaying food hung in the area. Hanson massaged his nose to lessen the stink. Broken glass, twisted metal containers, and old cartons lay strewn across the tile floor. The counters leaned askew, all the nails holding them together torn out. The sink and refrigerator looked like they’d been through a car crusher.

Hanson continued. “I did my master’s thesis on O-realm. Chaos theorists at Old-Salk were exploring fractal space for music patterns when they stumbled on some unusual harmonics.”

“I heard about that,” Dane said. “They found all kinds of pictures exploring fractal math, so they started searching for musical symphonies and such.”

Hanson nodded. “Researchers with too much time on their hands. Put simply, those harmonics unlocked a cold fission reaction.”

Hart chimed in. “The EM burst.”

“Right. The idea got shelved because the reaction wasn’t controllable.”

The sergeant scribbled more notes.

Dane frowned. “A fine theory for the damage-- Pallamary worked at O.S., but both our victims strangled to death. No evidence of gas or drugs.”

Gas. Hanson flashed on the whiff of ammonia he’d smelled outdoors. He stored that for later. “You asked for a ‘wild stab’.” He shrugged. “Let me poke around with my aura-scanner, see if the data on that disk sheds anything.” He pointed to the caddy in Dane’s hand. “We’ll correlate our findings.”

Dane nodded.

The sergeant looked at him. “Think you can check my site?”

Hanson raised an eyebrow. “You actually put stock in my ranting?”

Hart winced. “I don’t care if you jingle rosary beads and stick pins in a voodoo doll if you get results.”

“Get my Captain to okay the time, I’ll be glad to take a look.”

Dane nodded.

Hanson nudged some debris with his foot. “This case has me intrigued.” He paused and picked up a beer can squeezed into the shape of an hourglass. “Whatever happened here played hell with nature. This isn’t ferrous.” He held the can up so they could see how the aluminum had been compressed to the width of a pencil lead. “That took tons of force. Why didn’t it crush the whole thing?”

He held the can in his palms, sensing its impressions.

Had to be him... The words seeped out of the metal. Had to be whom? Did Pallamary know his murderer?

“You’re fading again, Han.” He heard an edge in Singleton’s voice.

He focused. “Lighten up, Dane, psi-impressions aren’t like a video tape. It takes time to make sense of them.” He set the can on a counter that listed to one side.

Hart picked up the aluminum can and eyed it. “You know, I found some forks and knives fused into inter linking rings at my site.”

Dane glanced at Hanson.

He shook his head. “Only one ‘wild stab’ per day.” Hanson took a pad and pen from his pocket. “Give me a list of evidence they took down to the station.”

The detective flipped open his notes. “An iron knife they found in the victim’s hand, a briefcase and a damp jacket, the answering machine messages, and the remains of a computer printout found in the plotter. Lab has samples of the blood smears and a few of the nails that came out of the walls.”

Hanson tapped the pad with the pen. “I’d like a chance to look at the knife, printout, and the coroner’s report when it’s ready.” He looked around. “That’s another thing-- look at all those shorted out electronics. Nothing caught fire, no burn damage anywhere. I’d be interested in how the techies explain that.”

Dane smacked his chin with the note pad. “Damn, the odds are high against nothing burning.”

Hart rubbed his chin. “Thomas, how come you aren’t a detective?”

Hanson chuckled. “Getting shot at isn’t my idea of a good way to make a living. Too many people think badges are for target practice.”

Dane finished his notes. “So when do you want to meet and go over this?”

“Let’s review preliminaries tomorrow around 5:00. You like Chinese, right? Meet you at that Szechuan place at Midway and Rosecrans. Come along, Eric, if you’ll still be in town.”

“I’ll take a rain check. I have to file a report this afternoon. If you like Thai food, I know a good one up north.”

Hanson grinned. “The hotter the better.”

Dane pocketed his pad. “Chinese sounds great. I’ll see if I can get the coroner’s report by then.”

“Good.” On impulse, Hanson walked back into the living room where he’d left his briefcase. He gestured to Dane. The detective came in. “One last thing.” He pointed to the blood spots on the wall. “The DNA prints don’t match in the active file, right?”

Dane shrugged. “There are still JohnDoes out there. They only started printing everyone five years ago.”

Hart scratched his head, glancing between them.

Hanson felt his heart speed. The revelation rang clear. “I think you’ll find this guy.”

“Yeah. Where?”

“The dead file.”

Dane snorted. “What? Are you serious?”

He stared at Dane and kept his voice level. “Check for a match against the records in the deceased archive.”

“You’re telling me a dead guy strangled Pallamary?”

“I said nothing of the sort. I suggested where you might find a match.”

“A dead guy..?”

Hanson nodded. “Very dead.”




TWO


Looking out at the ocean, Hanson leaned against the back-porch rail fingering a beer can crushed into the shape of an hourglass. Storm breakers crashed on the shore. Gulls spiraled in the pewter sky. A short distance away the gnarled finger of PB pier jutted out into the ocean. Combers picked through rafts of kelp and flotsam beached by the pitched sea.

The ocean seemed to be mirroring his own inner turmoil. Something about this murder made alarms go off in his head. A squall brewed out of sight behind obscuring clouds.

He sniffed the salt air. Smell--why did his instincts keep pointing back to that? So many different facets to this case. The impressions were layered like the skin of an onion. Before this he’d only encountered random scattered bits of information that forced him to piece them together like a puzzle. Here the impressions seemed organized. How? More importantly--why?

Singleton stepped out onto the porch. “Thomas, we’re ready to seal it up. You coming?”

Hanson looked around. “I guess. Let’s do it.”

The detective narrowed his eyes. “What’s bugging you?”

He let out a breath. “You know what I do isn’t exactly a precise science.”

“Yeah?”

Hanson frowned, hearing the sarcasm. “This one will be bad, Dane.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’ve consulted cases for years and I’ve been called every kind of crazy. Fact is, despite what anybody has said, my talent works.”

The detective made a sound in his throat and didn’t dispute Hanson’s statement.

“Never once have I found evidence of anything else being out there. Everyone has the same antenna for detecting psi-impressions. Mine’s simply more sensitive than other people’s.”

“So. What’s your point?”

Hanson picked up the can he’d been examining. “Instinct tells me these psi-clues were left for us to find.”

“Huh?”

Hanson put the can in Singleton’s hand. “This and other things I sensed. I can’t be sure, of course.”

Singleton shook his head. “Too deep for me, Thomas. All I see is a murderer who’s found a messy way to kill people.”

He straightened, glancing to the ocean then to Singleton. “Let’s hope that’s all it is.”

Sergeant Hart stepped out next to Singleton. His thick features were set, brow beetled in concentration. Hanson guessed he’d noticed something significant but wasn’t ready to share it. “My notes and photos are finished.”

Singleton eyed Hanson. “Let’s close it then.”

He nodded. “I’d like to come back and run the scanner tomorrow, before our prelim.”

“How come you didn’t do it now?”

Hanson’s jaw tightened. “It’s still too strong for me. Even without the scanner, it’s like a hot poker shoved in my ear.”

Singleton shrugged. “Whatever--re-close it when you’re finished.”

The three of them took sealing tape and marked all the doors and windows. As he worked, Hanson felt impressions like gusts of hot air escaping from the house.

When he focused on the sensations they only resolved into nebulous images, sounds and smells; traces of a man’s life now gone.

By the time they finished and stood out front, Hanson’s hands shook and his stomach burned. He’d never experienced such intense energy.

Hands knotted, he stared at the small edifice. Terror hid behind the building’s innocuous facade. He didn’t relish facing those visions again. The mysteries in this place hinted at a broader scope than a simple murder.

The O-Realm project. Was somebody insane enough to try to tap into that uncontrolled resource? More than control problems scared those researchers off.

“What’s the matter, Thomas?” Hart asked. “Pardon the pun, but you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

The sergeant’s words forced a smile from him. “In a way, maybe I have.” He shook his head. “Well, if we don’t meet later, good luck.”

“Thanks.”

They shook hands.

Singleton opened the door to his car. “Catch you tomorrow, Thomas, five o’clock at Chinese.”

He signaled a thumbs up.

Hart got in with the detective. Hanson crossed the street to his rented Lectroswift, watching as they drove away down the alley.

Before getting in, he glanced one more time at the house. You won’t keep secrets from me for long.

He sat behind the wheel and turned the key.

Nothing.

He started to curse then stopped. Sighing, he stepped on the accelerator. The vehicle hummed and pulled forward.

Electric. For the twentieth time he cursed this car. He longed to have his ‘94 Camaro back from the shop. A car with a real motor; one with character, not a battery-powered cookie-cutter-clone.

Out of the alleys and onto Garnet avenue Hanson pushed the case out of his mind. He knew too well, if he kept rehashing the details, he’d spend a sleepless night while the possibilities ricocheted inside his head.

San Diego’s typical overcast gave the shoe-box buildings of Pacific Beach a dingy look. He slowed to watch a curvaceous brunette in tattered shorts and tie-off rollerblading down the sidewalk. The girl looked oblivious to the world, only conscious of the headphones and a golfball-sized wad of gum she masticated with obvious joy.

He sometimes wished things could be that simple again; to be able to skate through life heedless of the harsh realities so close by.

The cell-phone rang and he hit the hands-free button. “Thomas.”

“Hi, Han.”

He let out a breath. “Hello, Carol.”

“Don’t sound so glad to hear from me.” Her voice had an edge. Some things never changed.

“Sorry. What can I do for you?”

“Wanted to tell you I borrowed your Racquetball equipment. Didn’t want you to freak out when you found it gone. I left a note but figured I should call.”

He gripped the steering wheel. “Didn’t you return your key to me?”

“I had two.” He detected the smile in her voice. “I’ll bring them back before Friday.”

She would pick now to start nosing back into his life. “Carol...”

“Yes--darling.”

He kept his voice level. “Don’t--break--my--racquets.”

“Wouldn’t think of it. Ciao.” She hung up.

Hanson listened to the drone of the dial tone for a moment before shutting off the phone. When he and Carol broke up he’d briefly considered changing the locks, but dismissed the idea as being overreacting. He knew Carol’s pushy nature; it was one of the love/hate aspects that drew him to her to begin with. He never thought that after they agreed to separate, she’d try to push her way back in.

Nobody said life had to be simple.

After a half-hour traffic snarl in Chula Vista he reached his flat. Putting the car on charge in the stall, he went upstairs.

He called his two bedroom apartment the ‘Packrat lair’. A dichotomy of art and electronics battled for toeholds on the horizontal surfaces. Bookshelves crammed with yellowing paperbacks took up the entire south wall of his living room.

After checking his messages, he found Carol’s note about the missing equipment.

He stepped into the kitchen. Grease dotted the surface of his normally pristine stove and pan-streaks marked the sink. An ache grew in his temples.

Taking a still-damp skillet off the wall, he sniffed it and detected a familiar meaty odor. “She cooked hamburger in my seasoned sautéing pan?”

As a cook, he admitted being a prima donna. Nobody used his kitchen. Putting the pan in the sink and shook his head; a perfect example of why he kept people out. He situated the refrigerator outside the cooking area simply to minimize traffic. What did Carol hope to gain by pissing him off?

Fabulous. Something else I have to try not to think about.

He cleaned his kitchen, paid some bills and mailed off some report updates. Normally he would enjoy a half-empty day like this, but he felt edgy, full of nervous energy.

In his paper-cluttered office, he caught up on back-logged follow-ups. One case required duplicate photographs that he knew were submerged deep in his filing cabinet.

While he searched, he stopped at the letter ‘O’.

“I wonder.” Rummaging through, he found his thesis on O-realm technology. That should make interesting reading. He dropped the bound sheaf of paper next to the computer.

The phone rang.

“Thomas... Yes Dane, what’s up?” He sat down.

He could hear precinct noises in Singleton’s background. “We’re interviewing Pallamary’s sister and his girlfriend. You want to be in the loop?”

Hanson fingered the edge of the thesis. “Definitely. When?”

“Not pinned down yet. I’ll clue you. The family wants in the house. You’ve said that ruins the scanning, so tomorrow is it.”

He sighed. “Understood. Anything else?”

“Gave the disk to the techies. It’s a washout. Pallamary must have been real paranoid. Everything’s encrypted.”

“Encrypted?” He leaned back and wound the phone cord around his finger. “Don’t give up. I know a good hacker if I can get hold of him.”

The detective snorted. “Whatever. Clue me. I’ll have the disk released to you. That’s all I have. Have you got something?”

“No, I’ll check you tomorrow.”

He put the phone down. Encrypted--Pallamary knew someone was after his information. The impression on the beer can. Had to be them... Pallamary felt strongly about something people he knew had done. Did the two tie?

Hanson put his face in his hands. He’d promised not to do this to himself. You want to sleep tonight? Drop it until the morning.

He struggled to keep the case out of his head the rest of the day. He always fought the urge to analyze his cases when off-duty. It worked best if he sublimated. If he didn’t, he usually suffered.

He cooked an omelette for dinner, watched the news, and did some reading. While he sat on the bed ready for sleep, the phone rang. The ring sounded clipped. He stared at the phone. It rang again, the noise somehow flat.

He picked up. “Hello?”

A static crackle answered him. After a few moments, he hung up, and went to brush his teeth. The phone rang again, kept up through six and seven rings.

Hanson answered and heard the same strange crackle; no voice, not even heavy breathing. The back of his neck prickled. He hung up.

He dialed time and listened to the voice. The line sounded clear. So the phone wasn’t broken. Odd--like the rest of this day.

The phone didn’t ring again before he fell asleep. He managed to get through the night with a minimum of tossing.

Hanson skipped breakfast and reached the freeway before seven. He spent the entire time readying himself for the ordeal with the impressions in the house. Twenty hours wouldn’t make much of dent in images as strong as those at the site. He would simply have to grit his way through.

He’d reached Garnet when the cell phone twittered.

He answered and heard a crackle identical to the one he’d heard last night. He listened for a few moments to see if anything gave away what this might be. Nothing but a garbled carrier.

He clicked the phone off.

“Weird.” A twinge of concern nibbled at the lining of his stomach. Could Carol be playing some kind of prank? Not many people outside the department knew the cell number. No, it wasn’t her style. What could someone be trying to accomplish? Verify he was in the car away from the house? It didn’t make sense.

He’d come back to it later.

Reaching the house, he parked and pulled the scanner’s case out of the back seat and opened it. Designed to be worn around his neck, the scanner looked like a large Christmas wreath of wires and tiny circuit boards. A battery worn like a fanny pack powered it. Several wires with adhesive patches on them were attached to his head and hands.

Though called a ‘scanner’, its function was to stimulate a brain-wave pattern similar to that found while dreaming. His research had uncovered the fact that certain alpha-patterns enhanced his sensitivity to impressions. This device has been designed around the concept.

Without turning the scanner on, he went to the garage and ran a hand across the wood.

Cold. No aura at all.

Strange. Yesterday, it reached out and bit him.

He went to the front door, took quick breaths, steeling himself to enter. Cutting the seals with a pocket knife he pushed in without stopping. He halted in the foyer waiting for the tense sandpapery feel he detected yesterday.

Nothing. His chest tightened. What the hell?

He went to the door stained with blood, and reached into the corner that he remembered being so painful.

A tiny tingle, echoes of a long ago fear.

He turned on the scanner. The impression grew in strength. A flash of color. He jerked feeling an impact--pain, panic, escape... He recoiled as remembered electricity sizzled across his skin. Jagged slashes of sensory images crowded into his mind. He jumped back and flipped the scanner off.

Gasping, he leaned against the wall. His temples throbbed. The psi-imprints were still here but they’d been masked or drained of strength somehow. How could somebody do that?

His mouth felt dry. He became acutely aware that he was alone, the same way Pallamary had been isolated.

He gathered his will to venture into the living room. His neck hair prickled. The reek of ammonia filled the room.

He turned, sensing something wrong. The air grew cold and he felt a breeze. Empty. Dots swam in his vision. Something brushed against his chest. He jumped away.

Again. This time on his back.

He spun to catch sight of it.

Nothing.

Though he couldn’t see anything, Hanson Thomas knew he wasn’t alone.




THREE


Choking on ammonia fumes and feeling the invisible aggressor’s touch, Hanson backed toward the entrance. His heart pounded and the room blurred. As his shoulder scrubbed the foyer wall, colors burst in his head like igniting flashbulbs.

He yelled and lunged for the door. Pain shot through his arm accompanied by a sizzling sound. The air burst from his lungs as he slammed onto the floor. His jacket crackled like popping corn as a glowing amorphous form coiled around his torso.

A vise clamped around his chest.

He flailed at the glowing tendrils surrounding him. His hands burned. Lights on the scanner flashed.

It felt as if an emotional strobe-light focused on him, icy blasts of fear, slashes of anger, flares of jealousy. Hanson fought to push the dizzying sensations away and break free.

The force squeezed tighter.

Can’t breathe. Fight!

He heard bones grinding. The pain didn’t register through the torrent of perceptions. Each higher effort only brought greater floods of sensation.

Pallamary fought to the end...

The end.

Fighting.

Struggling.

It seemed to feed on the strength he opposed it with. Instinct screamed fight. Intellect said play dead.

God, let me be right.

Hanson clamped down on his fear, went still and quit resisting.

Blood thundered in his temples. His ribs groaned under pressure.

The grip around his chest loosened. The lights playing in his head stopped. The burning smell retreated. The thing uncoiled and formed a mass on his chest. He felt no weight but his chest tingled. It appeared confused by his surrender. A broad tentacle reached toward his face and stopped an inch away. It swayed like a ghostly cobra ready to strike.

Green eyes peered at him out of the snakelike head.

Psychicly deafened by the deluge he couldn’t receive any impressions from this thing.

What are you?

It reared back. He shielded himself with his arm.

The creature only continued to rock. It looked insubstantial, like a misfocused hologram, but the thing affected objects as if it were made of steel.

He thought back to the aluminum can squeezed into an hourglass shape. It could have easily crushed him. Why didn’t it?

Hanson reached out to get a purchase and slide away. A strand of its substance hissed out and pinned his arm.

He tensed and it crunched down on his wrist.

Hanson grunted in pain. With effort he relaxed his arm. The pressure eased off and the strand retreated.

“You don’t want me to move. What the hell do you want me to do?”

Hanson didn’t see or hear an answer. Colors now rippled around the edges of its snakelike shape. The air crackled with static as it shifted.

A pungent salty odor replaced the ammonia.

The scanner’s activity lights blinked on, indicating charge. How could it still be functional?

Colors played through the creature like a kaleidoscope. The thing must be intelligent. None of its acts seemed random or coincidental. It left the scanner intact on purpose. Hanson glanced at the scanner’s ‘on’ button.

If this creature killed Pallamary, was it because he kept fighting? From the way it attacked him, he guessed it could have killed Pallamary without damaging the surrounding property.

A tendril shaped like a corkscrew reached out and poked him in the chest.

It felt like a hot needle. “Ow!” The creature’s head spread wider and the colors in it whirled faster. “What?” It poked him again.

Hanson gritted his teeth. You only live once.

He switched on the scanner.

It took effort to relax. He still felt dizzy from the cacophony of impressions blasted at him earlier.

An itching started in his head, as if part of his skull had turned to wool. The area moved like the beam of a searchlight played against nighttime clouds.

He struggled to read something from this entity but is was like trying to read dark print on a black page. The creature froze. The glowing slits of its eyes widened. The colors playing through it stopped.

Hanson abruptly felt tired, as if he’d run a marathon.

Its head inched forward. The green slits locked on his eyes. The coils of its body elongated and the head spread until it looked human in size. The eyes blinked.

A tingle shot through him. A sense of hunger--desire.

He thought he could make out humanoid features in the swelling mass.

The scent of ammonia filled the air. For an instant, a gale rushed through the foyer and the thing was sucked backward. It compressed into a pinpoint. The glowing dot winked out followed by a clap.

Hanson lay still for a long moment. Only traces of the ammonia remained. He felt hollow. All of his energy had been sucked away, even the adrenaline rush. His hands looked sunburned and the one wrist was abraded.

The scientist in him wanted to exult. He’d observed something never seen outside a horror flick and survived. The rest of him wanted hide under a rock.

What the hell will I say at the prelim? Sorry, Singleton, we can’t prosecute because the perp isn’t corporeal! They’d commit him.

Nothing he ever read about resembled the thing. The creature behaved as if it were made of matter in a plasma state; intense gravity and mass but still technically a gas.

Have to find proof before it cools off.

It took a few tries to stand. Dazed, he stumbled around the area. No evidence of the creature’s presence remained. Even using the scanner, every section of the house read flatline.

He sat in the living room and rubbed his eyes.

Empty.

Hanson shook his head. He felt as barren of emotion as this house. He held out his hand; steady. Not right. The one shooting episode he’d experienced rattled him so bad it took a day for his blood pressure to normalize. He came much closer to dying this time.

Hanson checked his pulse and found one. That ruled out being dead. Did it do something to him? Even that alarm rang dully.

He blinked. Why spend energy worrying about being calm and rational after a violent encounter? Stupid. Count your blessings that you can think at all.

He scanned the destroyed electrical equipment. The damage here and in Orange County must have been to destroy evidence. Of what, some connection to that creature?

Could some application of O-realm result in a strange super poltergeist? Ball-lightning and other unpredictable manifestations scared off conventional researchers. Perhaps less cautious individuals had moved the investigation ahead.

If it wasn’t for the duplicate incident in Orange County he might think this incident a freak phenomenon. Hart must have figured how the two tied. That explained his reaction yesterday.

He closed his eyes. Stuck, what now?

Hanson felt a tugging in his mind. Opening his eyes, his gaze fixed on the shredded couch with springs protruding in all directions.

Working around debris he pulled the cushions out and searched the sofa. Shoved deep in a crack he found a crumpled piece of yellow carbon paper.

He straightened what remained of a ripped invoice. “Silicon Specialties Inc., San Francisco.” The parts were VLSI and multi-processor components, elements usually in a sophisticated computer.

Hanson took a last look around. Nothing more could be learned here. Who killed Pallamary would have to wait until he found something to substantiate his ghostly perp. That meant finding a motive.

He left the house and resealed it. Sitting again in his car he looked at the building and sighed. “Looks like you win this round.”


He spent the next few hours in a daze. He called the Silicon Specialties’ phone number several times but always found it busy. A few stops at local electronics shops revealed nothing new. None of the individuals could tell him any more than the components were probably part of a computer.

Shortly after noon he returned to his flat and relaxed in his chair to drink some diet soda and recover from the morning’s encounter.

He managed to finish off the first can before the phone rang.

“Howdy, Han.” A familiar female voice said from the receiver.

“Carol.” His voice sounded flat.

“My, but we sound cool.”

He felt the first strong emotion since the encounter. “You went in my kitchen and cooked hamburger in my expensive cookware--you did it on purpose.”

She paused. “I know, it was childish and I apologize.”

“You what?” Carol never apologized in her life.

“I apologize. I don’t know what I was thinking. That line you drew always bothered me, so I had to step over it. Good hamburger by the way.”

He growled. “At twenty-five a pound, that choice ground tenderloin ought to be. Maybe we should drop the cooking thing before I get mad again.”

“Okay. I’ll make it up to you, say dinner on me at Alarios?”

The sting. Hanson chuckled to himself. When Carol engineered a situation she covered her bases. Now did he want to act like a dummy and step in the noose. Why not? It might be the only way he could get his racquets back.

“Sure.”

“Thursday, say 7:30?” He heard a note of satisfaction in her voice. After this long, did she think him so naive as to not suspect maneuvering? Knowing Carol, it must be more complex than that.

“Fine. Anything else?”

“Nope, my break’s over, gotta go. Ciao baby.”

He put the phone back on the hook and stared at it; another note in the book on this strange day.

Hanson mused for a while longer, cooked a small lunch, and caught up on some more paperwork. He spent a lot of time considering what to tell Singleton.

He dialed Silicon Specialties one more time.

“S.S.I, Mark speaking, can I help you?”

The pickup had been so abrupt that it caught him off guard. The guy on the other end sounded young. “Mark--Hanson Thomas, can I talk to a salesperson?”

“I’m him, Mister Thomas, what can I do for you?”

“Could you tell me a little about SSI?”

“Mostly SSI does custom printed circuit implementation. We do reverse engineering, component integration, and tech location.”

“Tech location?”

“Sure, nowadays its tough to know what already exists. Our service keeps customers from having to reinvent the wheel.” He paused. “Tell me, Mister Thomas, how did you get our number?”

“Referred by a friend, Matt Pallamary. Know him?”

“Yeah, we worked on a real-time fractal processor for him.”

“Real-time?” Hanson’s brow furrowed. “Is that possible?”

“I don’t understand it myself, it’s very advanced. SSI implemented some of his microcode a week ago.”

“Sounds good, Mark. Let me check with my boss and we’ll see if we can send some business your direction.”

“Thanks, look forward to it.”

He hung up. Dead center. A real-time fractal processor was one of the breakthroughs missing in the O-realm research. Now he needed to decide whether to tell Singleton.

Hanson arrived at the Chinese restaurant for the prelim a few minutes early. He found seating, ordered some waters and sniffed the smells of chicken, beef, and vegetables coming from the large buffet. An eight-foot photo of hong-kong was framed on the wall in the back.

Dane Singleton showed a minute early. He stood in the doorway and waved at one of the waiters and pointed to Hanson. The lanky detective had removed his tie and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt. Hanson noted the serious look on the man’s face.

Singleton dropped an envelope in front of Hanson. “Coroner’s report, seems our man got beat up just before his demise.” He sat and took a sip of water. “Guy went through a real battle. Charring on the hands from electrical shock, shards of glass lodged in the face and arms. Ribs are broken from something like a rope tightened around the torso until it caused the asphyxiation.” He took another drink. “You come up with anything?”

Mention of the electrical shock and the broken ribs made Hanson wince. No doubt remained. The thing that attacked him also killed Pallamary. “I thought we were going to eat?”

Singleton glanced over to the buffet. “Okay, let’s load up then you can tell me what your mystic divining turned up.”

A hellofa lot less than I hoped.

They went through the line and filled their plates. Patrons trickled in, a few groups of sailors, some blue collar types, and a family of heavyset Mexicans.

They ate in silence for a while. Singleton spoke up first. “Oh yeah,” he pulled the disk from Pallamary’s computer from his pocket and slid it over. “Had this released for you.”

“Thanks.” Hanson put the disk away. “Dane, I didn’t turn up much. Pallamary knew the people responsible for his death.” He patted the pocket. “I think he was involved in some electronic design that they wanted. What I don’t understand is why they would kill him before they got it from him.”

Dane stopped chewing. “What makes you think they didn’t?”

Hanson pointed his fork at Singleton. “We have the disk with the data, and it’s still encrypted.”

Singleton nodded. “Cripes, I was hoping you’d have something that would keep this case from running into overtime.”

“Nothing yet, maybe the interviews will turn up something.”

“Maybe.”

Dane stuffed a few more mouthfuls away. “One more thing, I checked the deceased files to see if the killer’s DNA matched.”

“Huh?”

“Remember, you said check the dead file, so I did. Came up with a match.” He pulled a page from his pocket and read it. “Hobson Dambrose, died six years ago, total loon, offed twelve guys before his wife blew him away in some argument. Get this, he killed all of his victims by strangling them with a garrote. Is that wild or what?”

Hanson swallowed. “That’s wild all right.”




FOUR


Hanson put his fork down. Dane’s news carried an unexpected physical kick. He suddenly felt thirsty and drained his water glass with one long pull. The sounds in the restaurant full of talking people and bustling waiters grew in volume until the clinking of glasses and silverware sounded like cymbal clashes. The smells of ginger, red pepper, and fried vegetable oil became overpowering. His burned skin throbbed.

Dane’s voice warbled, faint at one moment then unbearably loud. “What’s the matter, Han? You having some kind of ghost trip right here?”

“I--don’t--know.” Hanson tried to focus on Singleton. The detective’s face stretched as if he were an image on a fun-house mirror. Lights criss-crossed through his distorted vision. He shook his head and blinked. His heart seemed to stutter in his chest.

Words flared through his consciousness and vanished. Bastard! Murdering bastard, killed him...

Singleton said something that broke up into static. Hanson held his breath and tried to measure his breathing. The world kept falling out of focus. Sounds, tastes, and smells fluctuated in strength as if he were having an LSD trip.

Dead!

He gripped the table and closed his eyes.

Hanson felt the detective shaking his arm. A cacophony of gibbering voices closed around him.

Gone!

He screamed. “Get away!”

Silence.

He opened his eyes. Everyone in the restaurant stared at him. Singleton stood at his elbow. The man’s narrow face looked tight. “What’s with you, Han?”

Hanson wiped the sweat off his forehead. “I’ve never tripped before and that’s the closest I want to come.” He drew a breath. His stomach tightened. The patrons continued to mutter and point. He tried to ignore it. “God, that was weird.”

His hands shook and he clenched them to stop it. It was as if the fear and tension he’d failed to experience at the murder scene had just exploded on him all at one time.

The sounds of the restaurant returned to normal. A waitress nervously approached and refilled his glass. He met the woman’s dark almond eyes. She looked away embarrassed.

Did I freak out even more than I think?

Singleton squeezed his shoulder. “You going to be all right?”

Hanson nodded.

The detective sat down again and started taking guarded stabs at his food.

He put his face in his hands and tried to get himself under control again. It was tough to think. His thoughts seemed to be filtering through molasses.

Could this be a delayed chemical reaction to that creature’s touch, or some kind of psychic echoes from the contact?

Minutes passed and so did the dizziness and shakes. Singleton kept a wary eye on him. For the moment, the detective had forgotten the case.

A good thing. Hanson could barely put two coherent sentences together at a time.

The meal wound to a close. Hanson didn’t eat much due to warning signals his stomach kept giving out.

Singleton wiped his mouth with a napkin. “So, are you going to the doctor?”

Hanson sighed. “Maybe I should. It’s so strange. I don’t even take prescriptions.”

“Maybe that scanner has done something to you.”

The thought made his stomach tighten. What if the physician couldn’t find a physiological reason for the experience? Did that mean he was crazy?

“I’ve used the scanner for a long time. I never experienced anything like this.”

Singleton frowned. “Whatever you decide. Take it easy for a few days. I noticed yesterday that you were stressed out. I’ll shake some trees and see what falls out and get back to you. The interviews won’t gel until Friday. That gives you Wednesday and Thursday to pull it together.”

He nodded. “Thanks Dane. I know you don’t like me much. I appreciate you being professional.”

Singleton eyed him. “Bringing in the bad-guys is what’s important. You’re not a bad-guy, Hanson, just strange. It’s my fault I have a low tolerance.” He pulled out his wallet and dropped some bills on the table. “You need a ride home?”

Hanson swallowed. “No, I think I’m okay. I’ll hang a little longer though and make sure.”

“All right,” the detective looked toward the door. “Assuming you get back in the saddle. You want to check Hart’s site in Orange?”

He paused. This case might be vital not only to him but possibly countless others. He had to follow up on that link to the O-Realm research. “I’ll suck it up. Get it okayed. I promise to come up with more than this last check.”

Dane smiled and aimed a finger. “I’ll hold you to it. Take care.”

“Later.”

He watched Singleton leave. He felt a certain amount of relief. At least if he acted up again, the detective wouldn’t be there to see it.

Hanson spent a half hour longer, drinking water, and picking at the cold remnants of his dinner. No more episodes. Everything appeared to have returned to normal.

He paid the check and headed home. The disturbing images kept replaying in his head. He’d never felt so out of control before.

The hum of the car and the sound of rubber on pavement was barely enough to keep him focused. The flicker of headlights and the strobe effect of the white line seemed more hypnotizing than usual.

He turned on the radio. His favorite classics station was playing Queen’s song, Headlong.

Freddy Mercury’s familiar wail filled the speakers. ...And you’re rushing headlong out of control. And you think you’re so strong. But there ain’t no stopping no there’s nothin’ you can do about it...

He nodded to the music. The parallel wasn’t lost on him. Solving this case was vital. If an O-realm device was responsible for the murders, it had to be stopped. The killers either weren’t aware or didn’t care about the destruction they could accidentally unleash.

He couldn’t be sure. The encounter at the house could have been a murder attempt. No way of telling until he dug deeper.

By the time he pulled up into his stall at the Chula Vista apartment complex he felt exhausted. His mind felt numb.

Slogging upstairs, he let himself in. Standing in the living room he paused and looked around.

Something’s not right.

Frowning, he went to the refrigerator and pulled out a Coke. Sipping the cool beverage and waking up a little he surveyed the surroundings and tried to fathom what had changed.

A sniff revealed a caustic odor--ammonia? The thought froze him for a second. No, he refused to let his work follow him home. He rubbed his eyes.

It hit him. It’s clean!

The rugs and upholstery had been vacuumed and all the books stacked neatly. Even the pillows on the couch had been arranged.

Hanson sighed. “I have to change the locks,” he muttered. “If things don’t work out, next time I’ll probably find the place trashed.”

Curious, he looked around but found no note. Strange that she wouldn’t leave one. She’d done it fast too. He checked his watch. It had been less than three hours since he left.

How did she know I left? Has she taken to watching the apartment?

He laughed at himself. She probably dialed his number to see if he picked up. A glance at his answering machine revealed the messages indicator winking on and off.

He pressed the playback button.

The machine’s female voice spoke. **You have one new message. I will replay messages.** The speaker hummed followed by a beep. The familiar sound of static persisted for a while then stopped with a click of the phone hanging up. The machine chimed in, **Recorded, Tuesday at five oh seven P.M.**

Twice last night, once in the car, and now again. Should I start thinking there are snake creatures making really long distance phone calls? That sort of stuff only happened in the movies. No way to know. He couldn’t pick up an aura through a phone connection.

He sat down and watched television for a while. Two Cokes later he felt as tired as before. He remoted the television off, stood and stretched. Hopefully a night’s sleep would wash the shock out of his system. Such a strange day. How could he begin to catalog it? Phone calls, plasma things, psychedelic trips--it made him wonder if perhaps that scanner had fried a few of his brain cells.

The lights in the apartment flickered.

Frowning, he looked around. The lights dimmed again.

He looked out the window. None of the other apartments appeared affected. Couldn’t be a grid problem. He went to the refrigerator. The heat pump had kicked in. He put a heavier fuse on that circuit months ago.

The lamps fluttered a third time.

Hanson’s neck hair stiffened. Swallowing, he stared at the front door. His hand ached in memory of the electrical shock he received trying to exit Pallamary’s house.

He headed for the door. The overheads did their dance again.

His hand paused over the knob.

He turned and pulled in one motion. Stepping out rapidly, he slammed it behind him. Leaning on the causeway rail, he realized his heart was pounding.

The rush of adrenaline and the cool night air put a charge in his body. Hanson watched the illuminated window. Moments passed. One minute--two. Nothing but a steady glow.

I need less caffeine in my diet.

He waited for a while, feeling like an idiot. Embarrassed, that he’d let flickering lights scare him. It still took a few minutes to work up the nerve to reenter the apartment.

Inside, nothing appeared different. No aura emanations that would indicate some sort of ‘visitation’.

Singleton is right. I have to loosen up.

He paced around in his quarters for half an hour, keyed up from the excitement. Nothing else untoward occurred. When he finally geared down, he brushed his teeth and stripped down for bed.

Hanson rolled the covers back, sat and set the clock alarm. Rubbing his face, he sighed and lay down. He immediately jumped out of bed. He ran his hand across the sheets.

Warm. Like someone had been sleeping there only minutes ago.

What in the hell? The bed looked as he had left it this morning.

Stepping back, he stared at the mattress. After a pause, he stroked the sheets again. They still felt warm.

He couldn’t believe this. Could it all be his imagination?

Tired. He sat with a huff. Screw it. I won’t jump at every shadow.

Lying back, he snuggled his head into the pillow and gazed at the overhead lamp. He pushed the strange warmth in the sheets out of his mind and concentrated on relaxing.

A long time passed before he turned out the light.

* * * * *

In the morning he showered and shaved, feeling more at ease. Sleep had made yesterday’s events seem far away. It hit him all at once. He didn’t recall dropping off. No tossing or turning, only straight unconsciousness up until he woke to the sound of the alarm.

He fixed breakfast and read the newspaper. The phone rang two pages into the currents section.

“Yo, Chuck.” He felt a rush. “Tell me my car is ready!”

The mechanic paused on the other end of the line. Hanson could hear the sound of air ratchets and clanking metal in the background. “Sorry man, when the engine blew, the oil pump got fragged. Nobody has the part, the order will be in tomorrow noon. It should be up and running Friday morning.”

Hanson’s voice dropped. “Friday?”

“Friday.”

“Two more days driving this crummy wind-up toy?”

“Two more days.”

“Chuck, you know how to make my day.”

“It’s not my fault. What we’re you doing when this thing seized--running the indy 1000?”

“Chasing after a guy in a Porsche. It was on department time, so their insurance is covering it.”

“That was my next question. I got lots of work. See you Friday.”

He hung up the phone. “Friday--damn.”

Hanson spent the remainder of the morning cleaning up. Carol had done such a good job on the front room it seemed a shame not to make the rest of it match. He tried not to let the case creep into his head, but visions of that snake creature kept intruding.

When all the available chores were exhausted he went to the grocery store to restock his depleted larder. At first he headed for the big central shopping plaza, changed his mind and headed for Bonita. The stores weren’t as crowded there.

He pushed a cart inside the grocery store enjoying the mélange of odors. After wandering down the aisles for half an hour he headed to the checkout with his items.

Almost half asleep he stood in line. This day was such a startling contrast to the previous one. He had taken Singleton’s suggestion and relaxed. Maybe this short release of tension would keep him from imagining shadows around every corner.

The lady ahead of him appeared to have a ton of food. He prepared himself for the long wait, scanning the headlines of the scandal rags in the aisle. A glance behind showed two others preparing to camp out.

A female voice caught his attention. “Hello, Han.”

A dark-haired woman had stopped her cart by the end of the line. She looked fiftyish, with wrinkles that accentuated her cheerful demeanor. It took him a second to recognize the lady.

“Hi, Mrs. O, how’s things?”

She nodded. “Good, haven’t seen you around. The group missed you.”

“Me possibly, b

===================================================
Paradox Concepts, the breakfast of impossibilities.
Ring Realms Ring Leader & Webmaster
Will Greenway
greenway@_ringrealms.com