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The Pale Horse

I stumbled out of my glass cage and into the hallway. No one was out here and the people on the other side weren’t playing any attention. My cell was tucked into the far corner of the basement—or sub-basement or wherever that stupid elevator took us. There was a glass wall separating us from the center of the room with all the worker bees and around the perimeter were seven smaller rooms that looked about the same size as mine.

If I went right or left, I could probably find Lucas, Chase, or Robert, maybe even all three and get the same runaround I had been getting.  But there, just mere steps away from where I stood, was the door into the bullpen. I watched the busy people on their phones, staring at computer screens, and talking to the man in khakis Robert had pointed out as Matthews. He was the one with answers who could tell me exactly what was happening.

I went for the door and placed my hand over the keypad. My visions, for some reason, were stronger in here. It had to work. Come on, premonition. It suddenly flashed. 1-1-9-8-9-#-#. I pressed in the spongy keys and there was an audible click as the door unlock. Ha-ha.

The roar of the room was almost comforting compared to the manufactured silence of the hallway and my room. Excited talking and the strange ring of the phone—beep, beep, ble-uuuu, beep, beep, ble-uuu—made all of this feel like I had stumbled into a movie.

“The pale horse is in the nest.”

I glanced over at the woman speaking.  She wasn’t looking in my direction at all as she spoke into her headset. “Yes, Matthews said Revelation is a go….Yes, sir. Yes. I will tell him.”

“You,” a loud deep voice boomed over out from across the room, making me jump. Matthews crossed the room with long confident steps and an unyielding glare. “How did you get in here? We’re supposed to be secure, people. Who let her in?” He grabbed my arm (careful not to touch my skin) and dragged me back out to the hallway. “How did you get inside?”

He was at least a foot taller than me. His light blue eyes had the color and warmth of a glacier. I stomped on his foot and twisted away. “Who’s pale horse and what is Revelation?”

“You aren’t the one asking questions,” he growled.

“If someone doesn’t cut the crap and tell me what is happening, I’m leaving.” I crossed my arms.

He stood like a wall in front of me, unmoved.

“Scout, what’s happening?” Lucas came up behind me. “We’re back here.”

He touched my elbow and I pulled away. “Answer me,” I said to Matthews.

“What’s going on out here?” Chase asked, walking up to the other side of me.

A low growl sounded deep in Matthews’ throat as he looked at the three of us. “Keep her in check. If she finds her way into the pit again, I will personally see to her security.”

I never knew the word security could sound like a threat, but it did coming from him. Matthews turned around to go back inside.

“There’s going to be an attack,” I said at his back. “It’s a virus and it’ll spread faster than anyone can control. Ten of thousands of people will die. Maybe more.”

“How do you know?” Matthews asked.

“She has premonitions,” Chase said.

“I wasn’t asking you , Banana Republic. I’m talking to her. Did you have a vision?”

“Maybe I did.” This was it. This was my bargaining chip and hopefully my way out of this mess.

He nodded once. “You two, back in your cells.” He pointed at the guys then took my arm again, pulling me in the opposite direction and into another room that only had a table, two chairs, and a computer. “Sit.”

“Quit dragging me around, will ya?” I didn’t sit. “I’m trying help you, G.I. Joe. I don’t need this.”

“Sit or I will make you sit.”

I flopped down in the hard wooden chair. He opened the computer and leaned against the table directly in front of me. “You need to trust me.”

“You know, I’m hearing that a lot today and yet no one actually seems like they’re helping me. Why should I trust any of you?”

“Because you don’t have a choice.” He took a hold of my head.

“What are you doing?” I tried to squirm away.

He placed an electrode on each of my temples. “I need to see what you are seeing. The human brain while marvelous has imperfect recollection. As you said, lives are at stake. Do you really want to risk them all on an error in your memory?”

“If your computer is so great then why is the chip even in my head? Why can’t it have the premonitions?”

“That’s not the way they work. The chips need a human host.”

“Why me?”

“I guess you’re just lucky. Stop stalling. Are you going to put all of those lives at risk because you are too scared to do what is right?”

“I guess not.” My eyebrows were pulled together so tight I probably had a unibrow. “What are you going to do?”

“This computer can read the chip. Theoretically, I should be able to see what you are seeing.”

“Theoretically? You haven’t tested this. No way, man. This my brain we are talking about. I’m not going to be your lab rat.”

He sighed. “It will be a lot easier if you cooperate. We wouldn’t do anything to harm you or your brain. You’re the piece we have been waiting for. You have made Revelation possible.”

“Tell me what it is and I’ll cooperate.” Those blue eyes drilled into me, making me squirm more.

“The four of you—the white horse, the red horse, the black horse and the pale horse—were chosen and crafted to be the best terror prevention team the world has ever known. Robert can read minds, Chase can solve any puzzle, Lucas can detect any lie, and you are the golden goose.”

“I can see the future.”

“Exactly.”

“So who are you?”

The left side of his mouth lifted in a half smile. “’Behold, a pale horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and hell was following with him.’ Welcome to project Revelation.” He handed me a bite guard and waited until I chomped down on it. “This is going to hurt.”

Black Death, Blue Pill

“How about I get the clean clothes first?” I said, trying to sound tough, firm, authoritative and not so scared shitless. Lucas had seen me naked plenty of times, but those days were long over. I eyed the closet-sized bathroom with standing shower, stocked with cheap soap and scratchy white towels bleached far too many times. “I’m not getting in that shower without clothes…here.”

“Why do always have to be such a pain in the ass?” he grumbled and left. I noted a schwik of a door locking behind him. Great, I’d simply traded one cell for another. At least I knew the rules of the other place. Don’t bite anyone or break the Crayons and you got pudding.

This place didn’t look like it had pudding.

A moment later, Lucas returned with a gray tracksuit, undergarments, socks and Nikes.

A laugh burst from me before I could stifle it.

“What?” He made a face.

“Seriously?” I pointed to the clothes and raised an eyebrow. “You know Hale-Bopp won’t be back until 4385, and I’m not drinking any of your Kool-Aid.”

He scowled. “Rite-Aid.”

“What?” I unfolded the heavy gray tracksuit, which was nicely lined. Would be warmer than what I had on.

“Jim Jones used Rite Aid, not Kool-Aid. And ha ha about the clothes. They’re free so stop bitching and get cleaned up.”

“You always were such a charmer, Lucas. Darling.” I batted my eyelashes and shoved him toward the door. “Now be a dear and piss off.”

As Lucas was leaving, I asked, “Since the door locks, how will you know when to come get me? Are there cameras? Because if I find out you assholes are streaming video of me going pee on the Interne—”

“Call button,” he said and pointed to a square LED display. “And you can unlock the door anytime you want. Just like any other door. You do know that if you cover your eyes I don’t really disappear, right?”

“Smartass. Forgive me if I am not current on How to Act Natural in an Underground Secret Lab.”

He shrugged. “You can leave any time you want.”

“I can?” I didn’t know why I asked, but it seemed important.

“Sure.” His dark eyes bore into mine. A deep sadness had etched lines in his face. “But where would you go?” With that, he left.

I turned on the shower as hot as it would go until steam billowed around me in fluffy moist clouds. The elements had chilled me to my bones and I let the hot water run over my body and defrost my muscles. I stared up to the showerhead, then felt the world tip out from beneath my feet.

Images flashed high-speed and from all angles. A handyman? Working on a showerhead. He removed it then deposited a white tablet that resembled a giant Alka Seltzer then reattached the head, packed his tools and walked out of a penthouse. I saw somber guards with earpieces. Secret Service?

My mind’s eye flitted to another location. Men and women in lab coats with worried faces. Vials and petri dishes. Scribbled images on a whiteboard. Hexagonal shapes with letters? Organic chemistry? One of the scientists held a bright blue pill. A screen glowed in the background showing a filovirus.

Ebola?

Then, psychic whiplash back to the hotel. Secret Service summoned into the spacious multi-room penthouse. The same penthouse with the handyman. Someone, a woman, was asking for a doctor. Someone in the bedroom was coming down with a cold. Had an important speech to make in the morning.

I slumped to the bottom of the shower. Images of people in bed with the flu scrolled through my mind so fast I felt as if I’d been strapped to Hell’s Tilt-A-Whirl. Normal people. Regular working folk. Gray and weak, dazed, leaking mucus and rattling with a bronchial cough that sounded like flesh being torn. Loved ones tending them with chicken soup and heaping on more quilts to try and break the fevers. The sick people changed. Eyes shifted to gray, the entire eye, like the eye of a corpse left in the sun.

Cold water roused me from the visions. I was curled in the fetal position in the corner. Scrabbling to my feet, I turned off the now-freezing water and nearly slipped and fell as I pawed for a towel. My head pounded as if something was trapped inside my skull and clawing its way out. The visions had changed. Become far more intense and less specific. No names. Strange details. I barely made it to the toilet before I threw up. Oily ropes of thick black vomit, spotted with large blood clots. I puked until I swore my liver might show any moment.

Trembling, I wiped my face. I was terrified to check, but I had to. The toilet was empty, save for maybe spit? My towel? Clean. No black vomit, no blood.

I shrugged on the idiot tracksuit and Nikes and didn’t even bother to dry my hair. I had to talk to the others. Something big was coming down the pipeline. Something bigger than a dead assistant or debutante who committed suicide. Whatever was coming? It was coming for us all.

First Piece of the Puzzle

“There are four of us Scout—you, me, Chase and Robert—four that we know of.

There are more but we don’t know how many or what they might bring to the table.”

“OK, I got that part, not that I believe it. We’re sort of like superheros… or the four amigos, it seems to me. We’re thinking it’s not real but it is, and we’re making fools of ourselves, right?”

“Closer than you may think, Scout. Closer than you may think. We’ve all come to this point knowing no more than you know. None of us knew why we were implanted as infants and we all have our stories and disbeliefs. The three of us are just a step ahead of you.”

“And let me guess… Chase is ‘Control Man,’ right? When do we get our capes and costumes?”

“Hey, don’t be down on Chase. He’s not the same one who put you here. Actually, you are sort of right though. Chase IS ‘the brains.’ He knows almost everything and if we ever see normal again, don’t bet against him on Jeopardy. If you want a cape, I’m guessing that can be arranged.”

“And all those people and all that equipment out there, that’s the real agency from “Men in Black,” I suppose. We’re looking for aliens from outer space… average people who turn into slimey green or purple things and take over the world… or destroy it.”

“If you stop being so damned cynical and listen, Scout, you’ll learn a lot more.

“All THAT out there is an elite group of alphabet soup… CIA, NSA, DOD, you name it, with a few Nobel Prize winners thrown in for what they know. Only the President and a small number of “need-to-knows” have any idea. What we have been told so far is that there will be a briefing within the next few days as the rest of our group shows up. I’m guessing, from what I’ve heard, maybe one or two more are expected.

“See that taller guy in the khakis and cranberry shirt? That’s Mathews. He’s the top man. We’ve been kept away from most of the rest of them so far.”

“All my life there have been questions without answers, doors that never open and thoughts and dreams that came from nothing I know. I’m not crazy, but isn’t that what everyone who is crazy thinks? This whole thing is a scene from a bad movie and I want O-U-T.”

“You were in Scout, from when you were six-months-old. We all were. Thank your parents for that, I suppose, or whoever else might have been in on it. Why don’t get cleaned up. There’ll be clean clothes waiting. You’ve got to be hungry too. And I know Chase, the REAL Chase, is anxious to talk with you.”

Caged

I was stunned. No, that’s not it. I was reeling from way too much shifting in the reality surrounding me. I would have cried if that was something I did.

The lights were too bright and there was a background electrical hum and the murmur of too many people talking into their headsets. They looked like the people in the rec room in North 3 who wandered around talking to themselves only without the bathrobes. Glass partitions added glare. I hated glass partitions – they afforded no privacy and only increased paranoia because I can see people talking, and I know they are talking about me, but I can’t hear what they are saying. Glass partitions are just mean. So now I’m mad and paranoid again and if I keep shifting emotionally, I’ll never be able to focus.

“This way,” Robert said over his shoulder ushering me into a quiet glass cage in the far corner.

Once inside he pressed a button and the glass fogged. I couldn’t see out and no one could see in. There was a table, a couple of chairs, a cot, a dresser, and a door that closed. There was another door in the corner which opened into a bathroom.

“There’s a bathroom and shower through there, a change of clothes in there, the bathroom door and this door lock from the inside so you can have all the privacy you want. You can rest if you need to or there’s food outside. Come out when you are ready.”

I stood there for a full minute trying to decide what to do. For the first time in days I was able to determine for myself what I wanted to do. What really bothered me was even though I may have had physical privacy, Robert had telepathy so I wasn’t private in my thoughts which made me feel even more violated. Who else out there had it? I laughed out loud and laughed and laughed, collapsing onto the floor, and stopped myself just before I became hysterical.

There was a knock on the open door and Lucas stuck his head in. “How ya doin’, Scout? Can I come in?”

“Are you going to be straight with me?”

“As much as I can be.” He sat at the table.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What do you want to know, Scout?”

“Do you have an implant in your head? Or am I and the creepy guy the only ones?”

“I have one. Chase has one. We all have one.”

“Do you have telepathy or premonitions?”

“No. We all have a different gift.”

“‘Gift’? Are you kidding me? What’s your ‘gift’?”

“I am a lie detector. I can tell when a person is lying and what they are lying about.”

“What am I doing here? Why are you here? Chase?”

“I don’t know. I do know that we all have a role to play but I don’t know the whole plan. That’s why it’s called the Collective. We are all needed. Our gifts are needed.”

“They aren’t ‘gifts’ you idiot! This was done to us! We were f-ing implanted!” I slapped him as hard as I could leaving a red handprint on his left cheek.

I gathered my wits, breathing deep and slow, eyes closed. Be calm, be calm, be calm.

“In one of my premonitions I saw Robert kill a woman. He shot her, or he will shoot her, or something. I saw him – green coat, Cubs cap – I felt it. Why did he kill her? Did he kill the other women I’ve seen? Serena? Bee?”

Lucas sat there, calmly watching me pace around my cell, silent, assessing. He sighed deeply and took my hand. “I’ll tell you what I know.”

The Bermuda Triangle

Robert was dumber than dirt if he thought I’d buy this “Collective” spiel without cold, hard facts—and that I’d believe Bee, Serena, and Jessica needed me. I was a nobody. Had been a nobody for as long as I could remember. The fact that Lucas Fairfax even paid attention to me had floored a girl from the south side, and Chase Steinway had been another psychological jolt altogether. I should’ve known none of it was true…or was it? So if the Lucas and Chase I now knew were doppelgängers, where the hell were the originals? And when did they perform the ole switcheroo? At what point did they both tell me they loved me? And had either of them really said they loved me…or had that been the Collective doppelgängers borrowing their skin and spinning their world of lies?

When I followed Robert inside, he lit up a Marlboro and took a long draw, allowing the inhale to fill the lowest part of his lungs. When he pushed out an exhale, the smoke circled my face in a mushroom cloud. I stuffed down a cough I wasn’t willing to let him have. “You smell like an ashtray,” I muttered. “But more power to you.”

“We don’t have much time,” Robert said, motioning to an elevator in the back of the building. “Come.”

I followed Robert past wooden crates that said “Fragile” on the side and swung a left behind a forklift. Robert punched a sequence of numbers into a side panel, and after a few seconds of awkward silence, an elevator came up from the basement and stopped on our floor. The elevator jerked when I stepped inside, feeling like it wouldn’t hold the weight of a mouse. When Robert followed after, he pushed a series of numbers and down we went…to God only knows where.

Robert claimed I had a chip in my head. The only chips I was interested in were the chips in my ice cream in my freezer at home. How my bright idea of bringing a deep dish pizza to Chase turned into disaster. I should’ve stayed home. I should’ve relaxed…I should’ve returned Lucas’ umpteenth phone call…oh hell, I should’ve done anything than what I was currently doing.

In some sort of Jason Bourne daydream, the elevator doors slid open, and I followed Robert into a control room of sorts. Large mainframe computers filled the space with a big conference room table and spinny chairs in the middle. People were running around like chickens with their heads cut off, some wearing headsets, some talking into bluetooth devices. The mood was fast paced and frenzied. I was totally out of place, but nothing looked more wrong than Chase and Lucas drinking a cup of coffee in the rear. My gut told me they were the “real” Chase and Lucas…what corner of the Bermuda Freaking Triangle was I living in??

More Questions Than Answers

This was really too much. I must still be drugged and hallucinating. The premonitions I was used to, well, not used to so much as I knew what they felt like. They felt sad and odd but they felt true. This bullshit was too much. It didn’t feel true. An implant when I was 6 months old? Doppelgangers of my friends? As if I couldn’t tell my former lover  from a stranger who just looked like him. I needed to shake off the sedatives

“I know you don’t believe me. And this is not the sedatives,” he said .

“Stop,” I said turning to face him. He’s making lucky guesses like fortunetellers, I thought.

“Don’t look at me,” he whispered. “You never know who’s watching.”

I tried not to think, or sleep, and just stare straight ahead. Have you ever tried not to think? It’s like trying not to think about polar bears. The next thing you know you’re thinking about nothing but polar bears. And the only thing I could do is think no matter how hard I tried not to. Questions, questions. The more I tried to fashion a reasonable answer to the circumstances of the past few hours, the more questions that came up. Just what the hell was this Collective?

I turned to face him again, mainly because it pissed him off. Maybe he was more paranoid than I was. “What is the Collective?” I asked.

“Not here, Rebecca. And don’t look at me. You never know who’s watching.”

“What’s your name?” I continued to look at him. “How do you know my name? What do you want with me? What do they want with me?”

The train came to another stop; he rose from his seat and headed toward the door. “Coming?”

I followed him but I kept a step behind and out of reach. I didn’t remember being in this neighborhood but it was familiar. Maybe it was familiar the way all Southside neighborhoods were, or maybe I had been there before.

He stopped at an old building with boarded windows and opened the caged door. “In here.”

The hair stood up on the back of my neck. All the warnings my mother told me about strangers came back in a flowing stream. The words of Lucas about victims being taken to a secondary location. Even Chase had told me about cases where the victims were lured by someone who easily won their trust. I had spent a lifetime being victimized by the people who didn’t believe me. But the professionals who wanted to “help” me, and even by myself who had to create a reality to make everyone happy. It was my turn to be made happy.

“What’s your name? How do you know my name? What do you want with me? What do they want with me?”

“Not here. You never know…”

“Yeah, yeah, you never know who’s watching,” I mocked. “But if you’re telepathic, then you would, wouldn’t you? So, who? Who is watching? You don’t know.”

“I’m Robert.”

I felt the impact in the center of my chest and the sudden loss of air. The pain was searing and then I was above the girl. Blood flowed from her chest onto a brick floor and her cold eyes stared up into mine telling me her last secrets. A gun. A green jacket. A Cubs cap. Jessica. The dizziness and the sudden rush of cold air into my lungs burned as I gasped for breath.

“Rebecca, do you want to know they were? Bee, Serena, Jessica? Do you want to know your role? Do you want to know why they need you? Then step inside. The Collective is watching. I know who but you don’t. And you need to if you want to stay alive.”

Two Words

I was trapped. The air in my lungs thinned, leaving me gasping for air. My only hope was the window in front of me. Screams emerged from the other side, stopping me in my tracks.  

“No.” I wheezed, pulling on the collar of my shirt as if it would open my airway. “If I don’t break through that window I’ll die.” 

The screaming grew louder as the distance between me and the window narrowed. My heart banged so hard against my rib cage I thought for sure it would burst through my chest. I stopped. Something about the screaming changed. Instead of a high-pitched, shrill sound, it sounded more like words were trying to find their way out of an abyss.

Now the window stood one inch in front of my face. I reached for it, almost afraid to touch it.  “Al..most…there.” My panting was uncontrollable. It felt like someone poked holes inside of my lungs.  The more I tried to breathe, the worse off I was. My fingers were almost on the glass. I was almost to freedom.

Blood sprayed onto the window from the other side. I jumped back, losing my balance and landing on my rear. My entire body felt numb. My mouth hung open as I watched the blood drip down the glass, forming letters. The message was clear, like fingers were used to write it out.

RUN SCOUT

The floor underneath me shook. I opened my eyes, relieved it was all a dream. I was still on the subway, headed to nowhere. Falling asleep surprised me. I knew better than to let my guard down. On the other hand, I didn’t sleep much the past few days. It wouldn’t take much to lull me. 

“You need to be more careful.” His words made me realize I wasn’t alone.

I turned to find the mysterious stranger I thought I left behind at the station, sitting next to me.

“Never know who might sneak up on you,” he said.

Fear surged through me. I searched through my pockets looking for something – anything – I could use to fight.

“Forget it,” he began. “You don’t have anything on you that could hurt me.”

Dizziness overcame me without warning. I slumped back into my seat, grabbing the railing next to me for support. Damn exhaustion. “What makes you think I was looking for a weapon?

The stranger sat in his seat, never taking his eyes off the front of the subway car. “I know all about you, Rebecca. And, right now, I’m the only one who can help you.”

This guy was one determined freak; I’ll give him that much. The subway jolted to a stop. I eyed the doors, wondering if I could jump over him and break free.

“Hear me out before you run. If you don’t like what I have to say, I’ll let you disappear into the night.”

Something about his request made me rethink my escape. As much as I wanted to run, I had to know who this guy was and why he was following me. “All right,” I said. “I’ll bite. What do you know about Bee’s murder?”

“Bee’s murder.” He laughed. “You were never going to go to jail for Bee’s murder. The whole thing was a setup – a ploy – to make you so desperate you’d take help from anyone offering it.”

I squirmed around in my seat. Cold air wormed its way into the car from the window seal. I folded my arms across my chest to keep warm.

“And who, exactly, is it I was supposed to go to for help.”

“The same people who put that chip in your head when you were an infant. The same people who are after me.”

“Whoa!” What in the hell is this freak talking about?  “What chip?  I don’t have a chip.”

He turned to face me. It was the first time I got a good look at him. Gray hair matched the stubble across his face. His green eyes looked as tired as mine. The one feature I took note of was the triangle-shaped tattoo on the back of his left hand. Snakes were coiled around it and a halo of light hovered over the apex.  I knew this symbol, but I couldn’t remember where I saw it before tonight.

“You’re premonitions were no gift, Rebecca. They’re caused by a neurological implant placed in your brain when you were six months old. The same neurological implant I have, except mine doesn’t cause premonitions. My implant has cursed me with mental telepathy.”

I died and woke up in The Twilight Zone. That’s what this is? That’s why Lucas and Chase were acting so weird? They were invaded by body snatchers?

Stranger knocked his head back, roaring in laughter. “Twilight Zone? Now really Rebecca, I expected more from you. And as for your friends Lucas and Chase…well….you might be right about them. The two men who came to you in the hospital are not the same men you knew before.”

Holy shit! This asshole wasn’t kidding. He really can read minds.

“Okay….if those weren’t my friends, then who were they?”

The subway car jolted to a stop again. A small group of people bustled their way off the train, replaced by a larger group of rowdy, drunk teenagers. I watched the doors shut; the urge to escape was gone.

They,” he began, “Are part of the organization responsible for our implants.”

“Who are they?” How hard is he going to make me work for this information?

His dry, cracked lips remained pursed for a second before he answered. “The Collective.”

The Stranger

I was probably losing my mind.

It didn’t matter, though. My feet smacked against the pavement and the cold air burned in my lungs. Nothing made sense and Chase sure as hell wasn’t helping make things any clearer. How could he get his assistant’s name wrong—the woman he was having an affair with. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. Not Chase.

Forcing my eyes to remain straight ahead, I ran between cars as Chase, or whoever he was, shouted from behind. The feeling started in my spine and spread through me fast, I was in so much more trouble than just being arrested for murder. If he caught me, it would all be over. I’d be as good as dead.

The squat tan and brown brick buildings that had little-to-no identifying markers made it hard for my drug-addled mind to place where exactly I was, but I pressed on. A building to my left finally looked familiar: tan stucco with giant red diamonds with a patch of cobalt blue in the center—a restaurant I had been to once or twice before it closed down. I was on Fremont, which meant the metro line was close. The north side was Chase’s turf. He knew people here. He had what he called a “network”. So the first thing I needed to do was head south, my home territory. Taking a left into an alley between two industrial buildings, I ran like hell, though my head pounded and darkness seeped in along the edge of my vision.

I made it all the way to the North/Clybourn station before I stopped, gasping for air. People stared as they walked by, slowing down slightly which made my heart beat faster. My eyes closed against the paranoia threatening to take hold. Everyone wasn’t watching me and believing they were wasn’t going to help anything.

I replayed what happened the night before in my head, though my thoughts were still foggy. Chase had stopped even trying to hide his affair, almost daring me to say something. So I took the bait and the fight started in the middle of his apartment. Who was she? His assistant…could he be more cliché? Words were said, objects were broken, and threats were made. When my blood pressure was at its very highest, there was a knock on the door and two police officers came in. My first thought was did a neighbor call the police because we were too loud—narc. They asked us to sit down and started questioning Chase about Bee…sort of. I didn’t think about it at the time, but looking back the questions were more about me than him.

They had come for me from the start.

The shrill blare of a horn snapped me back to attention. My hands and face were like ice. I didn’t even have a coat and only a fool would go outside in the winter in Chicago without a coat. People were still staring, making it harder to dismiss the conspiracy theories brewing in my mind. Mental institutions, the nurse calling Chase, being released, Chase’s face transforming in front of me, and even Lucas, who never showed up and apparently owed Chase for something—the pieces didn’t fit, but they had a common element: Chase Steinway.

I held my breath and squeezed my eye shut. Come on premonition. Nothing happened. The drugs probably weren’t helping, but it never showed up when I needed it. Some frakkin’ gift this was.

Okay, Scout. You aren’t completely helpless. You’ve been taking care of yourself your whole life. Focus.

Across the street, a Starbucks caught my eye. My chin lifted and I smoothed my curly hair the best I could. A small group of pedestrians waited at the crosswalk. I strolled over and stood next to them, blending in and trying not to shiver. There were two things I needed right now: money and a metro card.

The door chimed as I ducked into the coffee shop. Standing in the back pretending to read the menu, I scoped out the other patrons. I wasn’t a good enough thief to reliably pick someone’s pocket on the street, but in a place like this people became lax. They focused on menus, orders, and friends, not strangers. One minute your purse was there and the next, it was on its way to the south side with me.

Finally, I spotted my mark. A girl was tucked into the corner near the restroom reading a book, removed from everyone else and the barista’s line of sight. I picked up an abandoned, half empty cup of coffee and headed her way before “tripping”. The contents of the hopefully cold coffee hit her in the face and dripped off her jaw.

She gasped, eyes widening, and hands splaying as she dropped her book.

“Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry. I’m such an idiot. The corner of the rug… Oh no. I am such a klutz. Please tell me it wasn’t still hot. Here let me get you some napkins. I will totally pay for your dry cleaning,” I said with my best wide-eyed I-hope-she-didn’t-see-my-pupils-dilated look.

She stood up shaking her head, though a vein pulsed at her temple probably fighting back the knee-jerk anger. “I think I’m beyond napkins. Do you mind watching my stuff for a second?”

“It’s the least I can do.” I put a hand on her arm as she squeezed passed me. “I really am sorry.”

She nodded and headed for the restroom. I collected her blue scarf, a calf length gray coat, sunglasses and her wallet before slipping outside again.

Okay, so maybe I was an asshole, but I wasn’t a murderer. The only way to prove that minor detail was to find help and get myself to safety even if that meant ruining someone else’s day. I draped her scarf over my hair and slipped on the coat and sunglasses as I crossed the street again toward the station, already feeling a little more secure and calm.

Inside the station, my back pressed against the white tiled wall as I waited for the train. The other passengers with me never even glanced in my direction. Good. They looked harmless enough: the old lady with the plastic bonnet, the woman in a suit with a newspaper tucked under her arm, and the two skinny jeaned androgynous hipsters. I let out a breath.

“Rebecca,” a man’s voice came from beside me.

Ice trickled through my veins. No one called me Rebecca…ever. It was my birth name, but even from my earliest memory everyone had always called me Scout. When I was of age, I had my name legally changed.

My head turned to the left. The man was taller than me, but not overly tall. He wore a green army jacket that was too big for him and a Cubs hat pulled down low. He didn’t look at me, but the corner of his mouth rose in acknowledgement that I was staring at him.

“They’re looking for you, Rebecca. As we speak, they’re combing through your apartment, your parents’ house, and watching everyone you would turn to for help.” His soft voice was slow, annunciating each word carefully.

The train pulled up. “Who are you?” I asked.

“Someone who can help.” He finally faced me. “If you leave with me now.”

I stared into his nearly black eyes for just a moment before I squeezed onto the train as the door closed. His gaze never broke from mine as the train pulled out of the station.

Escape

Police lights flashed, reflecting off the gray banks of dirty snow. A shivering rookie with a whistle and winter gear directed traffic away from the cordoned off area. Horns blared and voices shouted, the noise like shards of glass in my gray matter. Beyond a large Fed Ex truck and a wall of hulking construction vehicles, I caught sight of people through the gaps. Lots of pedestrians, faces creased with a mixture of denial and horror. They shuffled, heads bowed, clustering in groups as much to ward off the wind’s relentless assault as to gather for comfort. Strangers. Together. In Chicago.

Bystanders.

Chase drummed leather-gloved fingers on the steering wheel then, cursing, consulted the navigation display for a way out of the mess beyond waiting his turn. Men like Chase didn’t take turns, unless one counted golf and women. I stared at the scene ahead and the buzzing began. My vision changed. The world warbled like I was witnessing reality through one of those flexible fun house mirrors. Emotions that weren’t mine expanded like a coil of razor wire in my chest.

Bottomless sorrow. The loosening sensation, like a boat slipping from its moorings and drifting away with no pilot. Wind on my face from some high place, biting my cheeks and numbing my bare hands and feet. Then rushing, rushing, faster, accelerating…then impact.

I jerked in my seat from the force of the vision, but Chase was still too busy cursing at the GPS and didn’t seem to notice. I felt the impact, the powdering crush of bones. The jolt as inertia met an immovable ground. Closing my eyes, I floated above her, seeing her in my mind. Young. Too young. Ebony hair and porcelain skin, dressed in a red satin robe several shades lighter than the blood now pooling around her. Her arms and legs were twisted at hideous angles. Once beautiful face, collapsed.

I used to tell people the things I saw, but that’s how I ended up in my first nuthouse, rooming with a fat acne-covered girl who’d tried to kill herself by setting herself on fire. By the time I was fifteen I learned people didn’t want reality, they wanted an illusion. Anyone who questioned The Collective was medicated until they towed the party line. The first three times my family put me away, I fought it. But large people in white uniforms with angry faces restrained me, stripped me and strapped me down until I was out of fight. They tore away any sliver of dignity. Traded my second-hand clothes for scrubs with no zippers or buttons. No shoes, only socks with rubber tread; a plastic world of rounded edges, sporks, and toilets with no seats.

No personal items allowed. The staff said it was for my safety even though I wasn’t suicidal…back then. I freaked out the first time, but by the third? I saw through it. Saw the method to contain the madness.

Break me down. Strip me away. Make me comply.

Made it easier to drug me, force me open and insert their professional opinions. Mind-rape. I learned it was easier if you played along. Maybe even act as if you liked it. Smile with a face as placid and calm as water. Know your lines.

Oh no, I’m happy I’m here. It will make me a better person. I want to be a productive member of society. The meds are working great. I feel much calmer. Pass the green yarn…

Eventually when I had meltdowns or breakdowns, I made up stories of childhood abuse, rape, incest, nasty breakups, or family member in satanic cults. I was quite a talented storyteller. The lies they bought. Lies got me out in a week or less. The truth? Could have gotten me locked away permanently if I hadn’t figured out the game as a juvie.

I watched Chase with growing irritation as the cars inched forward. There was no way I could know what I knew. That there was a girl, Serena, being scraped off the pavement. A jumper who couldn’t take that her boyfriend was cheating. A rich girl crafted to be delicate, and who cracked like the blown glass soul she was when the pressure was on. When Mommy and Daddy couldn’t redact the harshness of life.

Which begged the question. Why only visions like these? Unwanted. Random. With a gift or curse like this, I should have seen Chase was banging Bee behind my… 

Wait a minute.

Nothing had added up since Chase picked me up. If I was a real suspect in a murder investigation, I would’ve only been at the hospital until the doctors cleared me as competent enough to be questioned by detectives. Chase was a shit-hot lawyer, but even he had to follow some of the rules. Especially if he was a suspect too. He’d have to be on his best behavior and bailing me out of a quack house was just dumb…and random.

Chase laid on his horn and yelled. I stared at his strong jaw, the one I once loved to trail my fingertips down on lazy cold mornings. When he turned to me, his face shimmered as if glowworms crawled beneath his flesh. He was saying something but his face was different, inhuman. Sinew and fire and teeth…then normal.

“Excuse me?” I stammered. “Sorry. Drugs have me slow.”

“I asked what you told them about Dee,” he said slowly as if talking to someone mentally retarded. 

Dee. My head throbbed in time with my racing heart.

He kept talking, frowning at the gnarled traffic ahead. “I read your story second-hand, but need to I hear it. You didn’t kill her, but what’s your alibi? Since I know you weren’t with me. I’ll never get reservations at Les Nomade again, by the way.”

I licked my chapped lips. Adrenalin fizzed through my system like my blood had been carbonated.

We were still inching forward. The crowds had expanded. Stranded drivers had simply parked and began fiddling with smart phones. Some got out to see what was going on beyond the wall of large trucks and police barricades.

Finally, shaking, I said in a voice barely above a whisper, “Her name was Bee.”

“What?” he said distractedly, brushing me off like a gnat hovering over his wine.

“Not DEE. BEE,” I shouted, then unlocked the door and bolted. I ran. Ran like hell into the frozen tangle of metal and concrete…

The Real World

Now I get it. It’s not what YOU want, it’s what THEY tell you you want. That’s the shitty world of being mentally typecast.

“Bring her clothes,” Chase commanded without ever looking at the nurse. Chase always commands.

“Get yourself looking like you’re not a homeless person who just lost her shopping cart and let’s get the hell out of here.”

Chase could spring a fox from a leg trap, that’s how he makes his bucks.

In Chicago, the wind hits you in the face no matter which way you walk. Old windy hasn’t had a “mild” winter since the Cubs won the World Series forever ago.

“A car this fancy should have a heater from hell. Turn the damn thing on.”

“You can talk nice to me now, Scout, nobody’s listening.”

“Talk to a murderer? Drop dead two-face.”

“Look Scout, I didn’t kill her and you didn’t kill her… “

“Well, one out of two ain’t bad for a guy who gets murderers free. Why should I believe you when you haven’t told me the truth since summer?

“TO FINISH MY SENTENCE… if I didn’t kill her and you didn’t kill her, then we’d better find out who did… and fast! Dee wasn’t as dumb as everyone thought. She was a good housekeeper–kept every house her and her ex-husband ever owned–and had something on all of us. It wouldn’t make either of us look good if anything came out at the wrong time. You need an attorney and I need your help.”

“What makes you think we can find the killer before the cops?

“We know things they don’t. They’ll question everyone and sooner or later, they’ll put two and two together. Cops aren’t dumb, just slow catching on sometimes. And I’ve built a pretty impressive , uh, network, shall we say, that can put us a step ahead.

“Let’s start with your friend Lucas.”

“Lucas? Don’t get him involved, He’s a world of different than you. He’s a GENTLEMAN with a moral compass that could’a saved the Titanic.”

“I know you and Lucas were ‘a thing’ for a couple of years. You know every pimple below his belt but you don’t know as much about him as you think. Lucas and I go way back to when he was a rookie cop. I saved his ass when he ruffled a few feathers of a bad guy he shouldn’t have tried to squeeze. In fact, I saved more than that… I saved his life. He tells me everyth….

“GEEZUS SCOUT! You sure slap hard for a girl.”

“Don’t thank me now, jerk-head, but you only need to get a tan on the other side of your face to look Florida-fresh. Explain that to your wife! And I’m saving my best swing for Lucas….Damn! I really trusted him.”

“You still can. Lucas is a great guy who plays fair. If you come up through the CPD, your coat gets a little dirty… that’s just to stay alive. Most cops, like Lucas, are good guys but in murderville, ya gotta do what is necessary and make sure you have a buddy to watch your back.

“Lucas is working the 11 to 7 tonight. We can catch him at Mr. Donut if we’re lucky.”

“What the hell…? Lots of flashing blue and whites. I don’t like the looks of this Scout.”

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