Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Day Thirty

Day 30: 31 Aug 2010

We met Vince at the airport this morning, and I have to admit I was disappointed.

It was Cassie's fault. She built the guy up way too much. She told me that Vince used to be an operator -- a covert agent for the Department of Defense.

"Vince is hardcore," she told me. "He was in the Middle East before we even had a war going there. Before that -- Central Africa. He worked in some sort of Intelligence capacity, but he got his hands dirty, too."

I was expecting a Super Soldier, a Terminator. Someone like Robert Patrick or Ray Liotta -- someone who just looked like a badass.

When Vince came in (late) I almost laughed. The guy was maybe 5'5" in boots, going bald, and had a beer gut that made him look pregnant. He wore jeans and a Babylon 5 T-shirt. He didn't look hardcore at all, even for a guy in his 50s.

"This the kid?" he said as he walked in, pointing a pudgy finger.

"'The kid' has a name, Chief," I told him.

"Fine. Fine. Are you Travis?" he said slowly, as if he were talking to a child.

"You know I am, genius. I assume you've met the other people here before," I said.

"Watch yourself, Travis. He has a temper. And remember, he was Special Forces," Dane muttered from behind me.

"Yeah, maybe 10 years and 50 pounds ago," I snickered.

"Tell your boy to lock it up before I do it for him," Vince said to Cassie. "Now, we have to get his majesty here out of town, soon. Get him out in the middle of the desert and strongpoint our position."

Cassie nodded.

"They can't bring the slug out there."

"Exactly," Vince told her, "and in the desert, we'll be able to see them for a mile in any direction if they try to take him. I've got a place out there. It's not the Hilton, but it's off the grid."

"Hey, doesn't 'the kid' get any say in this?" I said.

"Not if he wants to stay alive," Vince said quickly, not even bothering to look at me. "Cassie, I picked up your Thunderbird. You and Dane use it to tail me and the kid out there. I'll take your car, Dane."

Dane nodded and tossed Vince his keys.

"Their dog -- what's his name -- Jared. He still in town?" Vince asked, snatching the keys from the air without looking.

"Yeah. Saw him just the other night," Cassie said.

"All right. That means you," he said, finally looking in my direction, "go to sleep."

"Cassie and I have already gone over this. I'm not getting knocked out again," I said, growling.

"Tell you what, Sport. You keep me from knocking you out, and you get to stay conscious. After all, I'm just an old, fat guy, right?" Vince said, grinning.

"You're on," I said before I thought. Dammit -- I've managed to avoid fighting thus far in my life, but this guy Vince pissed me off. Anyway, how hard could it be to take him down? He was old and out of shape, after all.

"Please," Vince said, spreading his arms. "After you."

I didn't give him time to change his mind. After all, I would probably need the advantage of taking the first shot. I pulled back my right arm and swung -- next thing I knew, Vince was behind me, one of his arms around my throat. Dude was strong.

"Vince, let him breathe," I heard Cassie say as my vision started to swim.

"Not cutting off his air flow, Cass. He can breathe. I'm cutting off the blood flow to his brain. In about two more seconds --"

That was the last thing I heard. It wasn't unpleasant. It was just like falling asleep.

When I opened my eyes, I was in what I could only describe as a shack. There was no power. It was getting dark, and the place depended on a few kerosene lamps for light.

"Hey, Travis. Welcome back," I heard Vince say. I looked up to find him sitting across from me on an old, threadbare couch. I was in a leather armchair.

"Head hurts," I said.

"Yeah, sorry about that. And sorry about being such a dick earlier -- I'm hypoglycemic. I hadn't eaten in a couple of days. . . when I don't eat, I get belligerent. Again, sorry."

"'S all right," I mumbled.

"There's a room for you back that way," he said. "Why don't you go sack out for the night? There are some books and a lamp if you're not tired, but we'll all be taking watches. Yours isn't until midnight," Vince said.

I nodded and walked back to the room he'd pointed out. There was a mattress on the floor. Though I'd been unconscious for who-knew-how-long, sleep sounded good -- so I flopped down on the mattress and passed out.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Day Twenty-Nine

Day 29: 30 Aug 2010

Dane took us to a room in Caesar's Palace, one that barely looked occupied. There was a backpack on the floor. Apart from that, there were no other signs anyone had checked in.

"Nice place," Cassie commented.

"Strategic," Dane told her. "This place is so goddamn big that even the employees don't know their way around too well. I had to ditch my apartment yesterday."

"Russians?" Cassie asked.

"No. Chinese. I saw 'em tooling up in my parking lot about 30 seconds before they kicked in my door."

"You been able to get in touch with Vince?"

I was starting to feel left out of this conversation, so I wandered to the window.

"Not yet," Dane answered. "But you know Vince can take care of himself. He'll turn up."

Dane's room had a pretty crappy view. Instead of facing the Strip, his main window looked over at one of the other towers.

"Hey, Travis," Dane said, waving to me. "Sorry about the cloak-and-dagger surrounding our first meeting. I assure you, I'm not really a stumbling drunk. Don't even drink."

"So why were you playing drunk?"

"Again, strategic. Gave me a chance to check out the area without raising any red flags."

"You weren't really blending into the scenery," I said.

"It's a city with no open container laws and full of kids on vacation. People are used to seeing young dudes drunk off their asses. No one even bothers to notice them anymore," Dane said, shrugging.

He unzipped the backpack and pulled out a netbook. As the computer started up, he pulled off his stained shirt and tossed it aside. I watched him dig in the bag for a fresh shirt, and noticed that his entire upper body was covered in tattoos, all of them in black.

"What, exactly, are you a doctor of?" I asked.

"Anthropology. Yeah, I know. Kind of a hippie degree. Useful, though," he said. "I was out at UCLA until about a year ago. Now I'm on sabbatical. Ah. Here's what I wanted to show you."

He pointed to the screen. This is the video that came up:

"Is that what I think it is?" I asked.

"Yep. That's the slug," Cassie said. "Where'd you find this, Dane?"


"That sounded like Russian," I said.

"You have a good ear for languages. Do you speak Russian?" Dane asked.

"No," I said. "Just familiar with what it sounds like."

"Well, you're right. Couple of guys on a Russian fishing ship found it a few weeks back. They didn't know what they had, but the Russian Mob sure did," Dane said.

"So the Russians have it," Cassie said.

"They did. Chinese took it from them about ten days ago. We don't know where it is right now, but whoever has it, we know it's on the way here."

"To be put in me," I said. Part of me wanted to be disgusted -- I mean, look at that thing. Still, another part of me. . .wasn't. A part of me felt sorry for the thing, being poked with sticks, being kept captive. It was weird -- didn't seem like my own thought.

"Well, not on its way here, exactly. It needs to stay close to the water when it's like that. It's fragile until it implants. But it's on its way somewhere close," Dane continued. "My guess is Los Angeles."

I started to ask a question, but I didn't get to. Dane's cell phone rang, and he grabbed it and checked the screen.

"It's Vince," he said. He put the call on speakerphone.

"Dane. Cassie and the kid are with you, yes?" a deep voice poured out of the phone.

"Yeah, Vince. We're all here. Where are you?"

"Watching. Five big dudes just cruised the door to Caesar's -- West Coast guys. They're on the way to you. You have to get out."

"Shit. Where should we meet you?" Dane said, closing the computer and throwing it into his bag.

"McCarran. Freight Terminal B. Wait there. I'll handle these guys and meet you tomorrow morning. They're sure to have someone tail you, but Cassie can lose 'em."

"Gotcha. We'll see you at, what, 6 a.m.?"

"Copy that."

The line went dead -- Cassie and Dane hustled me out of the room. We ran like mad through the halls -- Dane seemed to know where he was going, which was good, because I was hopelessly lost.

"Hammer it, Cass," Dane said as we rushed into the parking garage and piled into the stolen Lexus.

"Right on," she said, grinning.

We tore out of the garage and onto the strip, and a huge SUV fell in right behind us. Cassie dodged cabs and limos, swearing.

"These guys can motor," she mumbled as I struggled to get my seat belt buckled.

"Once you lose 'em, we should ditch this car. Mine's in the parking garage at the Sahara," Dane told her.

"Hang on. Hard left," Cassie grunted, spinning the wheel with one hand. We cut across three lanes of oncoming traffic, narrowly avoiding an accident with one of those "Hot Girls to Your Room!" trucks.

The SUV behind wasn't so lucky -- it slammed into the truck full-on, wrecking both vehicles and a limo in the next lane.

"Heh. Nice move," Dane chuckled from the back seat.

"You said Sahara, right?" Cassie asked as she slowed to the speed limit.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Day Twenty-Eight

Day 28: 29 Aug 2010

Still driving the stolen Lexus.

Cassie wanted to go back for her Thunderbird -- apparently, her dad gave it to her -- but I convinced her it wasn't a good idea. If those guys with the bad suits and Russian accents could find us at the El Cortez, chances are other people could do the same.

We spent most of today at a shitty motor lodge about twenty miles outside of Vegas -- Cassie fully planned to keep me out of town. Her run-in with Jared had scared the shit out of her.

She called her contact at noon -- one of the last two guys from her "group." The guy insisted on meeting in Vegas, and Cassie planned to go alone and convince the guy to meet with me outside of the city limits. I insisted on tagging along, though, finally taking the Lexus' keys and driving us to the Stratosphere myself (thanks, in-dash GPS). The guy said he'd meet us out in front of the casino, then lead us to somewhere "secure" where we could talk.

I needed some air. I stepped out of the Lexus and parked myself on a bench just next to it to have a smoke (yep, I think I've officially started again). That's when I took the video of the limo sliding by the Lexus. Also when I took this one:

See the dude drunkenly dancing around with his shirt off? Yeah. That's our contact.

Shit. I should've stayed in Wilmington.

Just before midnight, after dancing through the Stratosphere's taxi area three times, the guy hopped in the back of the Lexus.

"Dane Harris, pHD," he introduced himself. "Cassie, put your foot down. Head for the South Strip."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Day Twenty-Seven

Day 27: 28 Aug 2010

We drove for a good 10 or 15 minutes before either of us said anything. We were both in shock, I guess. Cassie didn't even seem to know where she was going -- she just kept making sporadic right turns, her head on a constant swivel.

"So, you want to tell me just what the fuck happened?" I said, breaking the silence.

"I don't know, really," she said, shrugging. "That was the first time I've seen it that close."

"All right, Cassie. Let's stop fucking around here," I spat. My face felt red. "Tell me what the fuck they did to my brother. Now. No more stalling, no more 'this guy can explain it to you,' none of that shit."

"I told you they turned him into a monster," she said, slowing the Lexus down to stop at a red light.

"You're playing that? Again? Fine. Fuck you, then."

As the Lexus rolled to a stop, I opened my door and got out, slamming it behind me.


Even through the closed doors and windows, I could hear Cassie. But no. I wasn't going back to that car. I'd find my own answers. Don't get me wrong -- I was glad she wasn't dead, and all, but I was just about through letting Cassie jerk me around. Fuck that.

I heard the Lexus' tires squeal, and it rocketed down the street in front of me. Cassie slammed on the brakes just five feet from me. She rolled down the passenger window.

"If I don't get you out of Las Vegas. . . I don't even want to think what it'll do to me."

"Your problem, not mine."

"Look, if you get back in the car, I'll tell you everything I know. No bullshit, no stalling."

"Not getting back in the car, Cassie. You'd probably tase me, punch me out, or drug me. You want to tell me? Fine. You do it here. Right now, on the street. Otherwise, take your chances with Jared."

Cassie pulled the car into a parking spot along the street. She quickly killed the engine and got out, jogging to catch up to me.

We were in a residential part of town, and not a good one. The houses were tiny and cheap, and all of them had sand instead of yards. Most of the lights were out, and a few were boarded up.

"There's a. . . thing. It's at the bottom of the sea, and it's dead, but also not dead. It moves."

"You're not making sense."

"I'm trying to. OK, OK. You ever read any Greek legends? Hercules, the Iliad, stuff like that?"

"I did go to college, yes."

"OK. So you remember they wrote about monsters all the time. The Hydra, Medusa, Scylla and Charybdis. . ."

"Yeah, I remember. And Zeus used to turn himself into a cow to have sex with women. We're not talking in the realm of believability, here," I said.

"Bear with me. Some of the stories were just stories, but there are people who believe that some of them were more or less true. That, at one point, humans and monsters existed together."

"Bullshit. Someone would have found evidence by now. Like, fossils."

"Not necessarily. Not if there was only one Hydra, say, and someone managed to kill it. That thing's bones would be picked clean. Sold off, made into fancy weapons and trophies."

"Fine. So you're saying there's a Greek sea monster somewhere. Poseidon, maybe?"

"Don't be an ass. The Greek legend thing was just an example. And Poseidon was a god, not a monster," she said, glaring at me. "I'm saying that imagine -- just for a second -- that there used to be monsters in the world. And there aren't anymore. Not really. But there's this one -- a dead one -- at the bottom of the ocean. Down so deep we humans can't get to it -- the pressure, the cold. They'd kill us, but not this thing."

"You said it was dead."

"In the way we understand death. Maybe more like a coma."

"Comatose ancient sea monster. Right. Got it," I said, sighing. "Really, I didn't expect your bullshit to be this creative. Kudos. You get points for originality."

"I would if I was making it up. This thing. . . it's real. And every six years or so. . . well, it's a little longer, actually, but it. . . gives birth, sort of. It sends this small, living thing up to the surface. A little slug-like thing about eight inches long. Most of them die in the sunlight, but in the rare case someone picks one up. . ."

She trailed off, and I tapped her on the shoulder.

"Yes? Believe it or not, I'm actually listening to you."

"I know. This is the part where it really gets tough to explain," she said.

"Oh. This is the part," I snickered.

"You're being an ass. Again. OK, so, back in the 1700s, one of them washed up on the coast of France. It was alive, barely. A guy found it, picked it up. It went into him, and changed him. He became. . . stronger. Faster. Tougher. No sword could cut him, no man could take him down. At least, that's what made it into the stories. But after a year, boom, he just dropped dead. The slug was dead, too."


"There are a lot of these stories around, if you know where to look. It happened to a lot of people. And always the same result. A year, two at the outside, then -- dead."

"So they became -- "

"Monsters. Walking around in human bodies. Like your brother. Organized crime started paying top dollar for these things in the 40s, and had varying degrees of success. Sometimes it worked. They got themselves a super-assassin. Other times, as soon as the slug went in, the host body liquefied almost immediately. Really. Just turned right to goop. But even the good ones lasted maybe a year and a half. They never could hold it."

"This sounds. . ."

"Made up? Complete bullshit? Wait, it gets better. Your brother got implanted with one of these slugs. . . six years ago. And I think you'll agree, he doesn't look even remotely like a pile of goop."

I said nothing. I just stopped walking, stood still. I looked at her for a long second.

"How do you know all this?" I finally said. "You're, like, 12."

"I'm 26, jerk," she said. "I just look young. And I know this because Kevin told me. He was part of a group -- a really tiny group, now. Me and two other guys. They knew about these things, had seen a couple first-hand. And they reached out to you because Jared was different. Special."

"Because he could hold onto the slug thingy."

"Yes. But more than that -- he retained some of his personality, Kevin thought. The others became almost mindless, but Jared -- Kevin knew him before the change. He said there were times when Jared broke through. He knew things. He talked about you, your family. He even joked. None of the others did any of that. We think he's still in there."

I was starting to get it now.

"That's why you wanted to get me and him together. To see if he'd recognize me. Know who I was. Maybe see if you could use me to get through to him."

"Yes. But we have a big problem now."

"Me. Everyone thinks I can. . . They think I can be like Jared. Hold onto the slug. Be like he is."

"Exactly. They think they can use you like they use him."

"Can they?"

"My guess is -- yeah. It has to be something genetic, something in Jared's DNA. If he has it, you probably do, too."

Cassie pulled out a cigarette and lit it -- she offered one to me, and I took it. I hadn't smoked in years, but I wanted one now. I hate to say it, but smoking was every bit as great as I remembered it.

"There are two guys left in my group. They know. . . well, a lot more than I do. One of them is here, in Vegas. I can arrange to meet with him. He can fill you in," Cassie told me.

I nodded. My head hurt. I wanted to sit down.

"Now, will you get back in the goddamn car?"

I nodded again.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Day Twenty-Six

Day 26: 27 Aug 2010

True to his word, the tall, muscular guy in the black suit sent someone twice a day to walk me to a bathroom. The quality of the meals still sucked, though.

On those rare trips outside my cell, I picked up a few pieces of information. First, these guys were Russian. I heard a couple of them talking (didn't see them, though), and I've heard the language before. Jared took it in high school, so I know what it sounds like. I took French -- which I've never used and am convinced I never will.

Second, we were still in Las Vegas. There was only one window I ever passed, but through it, I could see the lights of the Strip. They were off in the distance, but the laser thingy on top of the Luxor makes a hell of an impression.

Third, Cassie was here. I caught a glimpse of her as we passed by another cell -- one of the Russians had cracked her door to talk to her. OK, yell at her. But I saw her, and I think she saw me.

Apart from those trips to the bathroom -- a mere fifty feet or so down the hall -- nothing. They kept me in my cell, and no one but the short guy with the tazer -- my official bathroom escort -- came by to see me even once. He did bring me a crappy military-surplus cot and a pillow I'm pretty sure they made from rocks, though, so at least there was that. I was just about to use said horrid cot and try to sleep for a couple of hours when the short guy poked his head in.


That was the first word he'd ever said to me.

"Uh, hey yourself," I said.

"You need toilet? Before sleep?" he asked, nodding. His English was pretty terrible, and heavily accented.

I didn't need toilet before sleep, but I nodded anyway.

"Yeah. Thanks."

It was just good to be out of the cell for a few minutes, even if the concrete hallway outside was almost as gray and depressing. I followed him down the hall, washed my hands a couple of times, and debated how long I could stay in the bathroom before he knocked.

He didn't knock. But someone did -- and it sounded like they used an Patriot missile to do the knocking. The floor shook. The lights flickered, then went off. And outside, I could hear people screaming, only to have their screams cut off seconds later.

I certainly didn't want to leave the bathroom now, but after a minute or so -- seemed longer -- it was finally quiet out there. I opened the door and poked my head out.

The place had emergency lighting, and it had kicked in. It was just bright enough to see. But as soon as I saw the short guy slumped against the wall, his head split open and the wall covered in blood, I wished it wasn't.

I looked down the hall and saw more of the men in suits -- a lot of them -- all very dead and littering the concrete hallway. The blood was running along the floor like a pipe had burst somewhere. I didn't want to go into the hallway, but this was my chance. This was my time to escape.

Cassie's cell. If she's alive, grab her and get the fuck out, I thought. I stepped into the hall. I hadn't taken three steps before someone grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. It was Jared, wearing sunglasses in the dark.

"Jared!" I said. I couldn't think of what to say next.

He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out for a second. I heard a low, wailing drone start, and when the words finally came, they weren't in Jared's voice. Not even anything close to it. "I told you to stop looking!" the words came in a rasping, screeching monotone -- like a thousand screams frozen at their crescendo. Screams of death and rage, taken to their highest volume, then modulated down into a low, moaning impression of a human voice.

Jared let go of me then, and moved to Cassie's cell door. He ripped it open, and I saw the concrete around the lock turn to powder.

"Take him and get him out of Las Vegas."

The same voice, the same frozen scream turned into a recording.

Cassie stood. She stared at Jared for a second, then nodded once, moving towards me. She kept as far away from Jared as the space would let her.

"Let's go, Travis," she said softly, putting her hand on my arm.

"No fucking way. Jared, what's --"

Jared didn't look at me. He stood there, frozen, his back to us. He didn't even acknowledge that I spoke. I moved toward him, and in a flash, he was gone. He didn't disappear -- just moved so fast he might as well have.

"Come on," Cassie whispered again. "We need to go. Now. I'm sure the police will be here soon."

I let Cassie drag me outside, where we found a black Lexus idling with the keys in it. She took the wheel, and drove slowly away from the curb.

I looked at the dashboard clock -- midnight.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Day Twenty-Five

Day 25: 26 Aug 2010

After today's meal -- same as yesterday's -- a bucket slid into the room. I guess I'm meant to stay a while. I'd already. . . refilled yesterday's water bottles, and was getting pretty close to having to use the bucket when the door opened.

Another man in a black suit walked in, also dragging a chair with him. He set the chair in the middle of the floor, like before. However, he didn't gesture at me to sit down. He sat in the chair himself, and pulled out a pack of smokes. He lit one and inhaled. He tipped the pack toward me, but I shook my head.

"Suit yourself," he said. His voice was deep, accented, but quiet. He came from somewhere in Eastern Europe, I'd guess. He was just as muscular as his friend from yesterday, but slightly taller.

"Don't suppose you want to tell me what I'm doing here," I said after a few moments of watching him smoke.

"Interesting," he said. "The girl hasn't told you yet."

"She's been a bit light on the information, yeah."

"We don't know very much about her. My guess is she's working for the Chinese, but she won't say anything."

"Like I said, she hasn't told me very much," I said.

"We're holding you because, at the present time, you're worth quite a bit of money. You'll be worth even more soon, but now. . ."

The man in the black suit shrugged and took a long drag.

"OK. I'm a little slow here. Why am I worth money? And to who?"

"To who," the man in the black suit said, chuckling, "to anyone who has enemies, my friend. And especially to the West Coast people. They wouldn't want to lose their edge."

"I'm still not following."

"Let me put it this way. You remember the Cold War, yes?"

"I know about it. The USSR broke up when I was three."

"Ah, the fortune of youth. I, myself, lived through it. But no matter. Why does the United States have so many nuclear weapons, my friend?"

"Well, because Russia -- the Soviets, I mean -- had a bunch. We couldn't let them have more than us."

"Exactly. Now, what if America never developed the nuclear bomb, but the USSR did?"

"I guess the USSR would be running things right now," I said.

"Exactly. Our situation here -- it is very much the same thing. Except. . . you're the bomb. The second one. The one that can balance out the power structure."

"Why me?"

He looked at me. And not just for a second, either -- for a long, uncomfortable moment.

"The Chinese girl really didn't tell you, did she?"

I shrugged.

"Get some sleep, and we will talk more soon. I was afraid you would be a threat, but I am assured you are not. I will have some furniture brought in, give you some access to facilities, as long as you promise to behave yourself."

He didn't wait for an answer -- he just took his chair and left.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Day Twenty-Four

Day 24: 25 Aug 2010

Slept on the hard concrete floor last night. If you've never done so, I really don't recommend it. At all. My back and neck were like granite knots, and my arms felt like the blood had drained out of them.

Nothing happened for a while. I just sat around stretching out my arms and legs, trying to work the kinks out of my spine; I'd given up yelling the day before. My BlackBerry's battery died sometime during the night -- it was useless in a concrete box anyway, as there was no signal. But I don't wear a watch, so I couldn't tell you what time when the door finally opened. Day, I think, but I had no way to be sure.

A young man in a black suit and white shirt walked into the room. He was short, but muscular, with close-cropped black hair. He held a tazer in one hand and dragged a wooden chair with the other. He put the chair in the center of the room and pointed to it. When I just stared at him instead of sitting it the chair, he brandished the tazer, then pointed to the chair again.

I sat down. The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a small case. As he opened it, I could see it contained a syringe and a needle. I started to stand up again, but the man glared at me and waved the tazer. I sat still.

There were no drugs. That surprised me. Instead, the muscular little man took a vial of blood from my left arm, and did it very competently.

He handed me a bandage. As I placed the bandage on my arm, he put the syringe back in the case and left the room.

A few minutes later, the door opened. A tray of food -- two greasy takeout burgers and two bottles of water -- slid in.

And that's it. That's all that happened today.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Day Twenty-Three

Day 23: 24 Aug 2010

Everything in Vegas looks closer than it is. I'm not sure if it's some trick of the desert air or what. Distances are deceiving here, especially when you're on foot.

It doesn't help that my hotel is the tallest building in town. I guess you can see the Stratosphere from anywhere, so it always looks like it's just up the street when, in fact, it's miles away. So I feel like the garage was just a couple of blocks from the Stratosphere, but I really can't be sure.

"So, where to?"

As I got into the passenger seat of her car, Cassie looked at me as if that was the dumbest question anyone had ever asked her.

"Something wrong with that question?" I said.

"No, just not the one I was expecting."

"Oh, you mean the obvious one, yeah? Why the fuck do you people keep knocking me out?"

I couldn't really contain my anger any more, so I wasn't even going to try.

"Yeah, that's what I was expecting. Would you believe me if I told you it was for your own safety?"

"That's pretty fucking funny. In all the safety lectures and stuff I've been subjected to in my life, getting hit on the head was never mentioned as a good thing."

"They can't track you when you're unconscious," she said, as if that answer made any kind of sense. "You drop off the grid."

"You know, Cassie, I pride myself on never having hit a girl. But if you don't tell me right now who 'they' are, I will slap you. I'll probably feel bad about it, but I promise you I'll do it."

Cassie sighed and started the engine. She pulled out a cigarette.

"'They' are an organized criminal faction. Like the Mafia, only not Italian. They're not any racial group, really," she said. She lit her smoke and took a long drag. "And they're the ones who turned your brother Jared into a monster. Now they want you."

"For what?"

"Same thing. To turn you into something horrible. But there's a hitch -- they're not the only ones who want you."

"When you say monster, you mean. . ."

"The type of thing that can tear a man in half with its bare hands," she said. "Something evil. Something else. There's a man who can explain it to you much better than I can. He used to work for them. That's the answer to your 'where to' question."

Cassie drove us out onto The Strip for a moment, then turned left on Riviera. A half-minute later, we pulled into the Las Vegas Hilton's parking garage.

"Come on," she said, shutting off the T-bird's engine. "This is where we can find him most nights."

We walked into the Hilton, Cassie taking the lead. She walked fast -- really fast. For someone so tiny, she took long, quick strides -- I almost lost her twice in the busy, labyrinthine casino, but I did keep up.

This is where we stopped:

It looked more sophisticated than NORAD to me, but instead of nuclear missile target coordinates, the screens showed sports odds. Cassie scanned the room, finishing off her cigarette and crushing it into a nearby ashtray.

"Shit. Thought he'd be here for sure. He's always here," she grumbled.

"This operation doesn't seem to well-planned, if you don't mind my saying so," I told her.

"Quiet, you. Aha. There's someone to talk to."

Cassie strode over to a fat, balding white guy squeezed into a leather chair. He didn't look like someone anyone would particularly want to talk to.

"Hey, Freddie," she said, plopping down next to him.

"Well, I am lucky indeed tonight," the fat guy said, smiling and sweating profusely. "How are you this evening, darling?"

"Good. Hey, you seen Mark around here lately? I was supposed to meet with him," Cassie asked, smiling wide.

"Mark, you say? Hmm. I didn't know he was a client. Yeah, he was here up to about 15 minutes ago, but he said he had to step out back for a moment. Said he'd be back soon enough," Freddie said.

"Thanks, Freddie. You're a doll," Cassie said, kissing him on the cheek. She got up.With a quick hand motion, she indicated that I should follow her, and she was off again, bouncing through the packed gaming floor.

Cassie led me out a back door, where we found a young man face-down in the alley. A black Lexus was just tearing away.

"Shit!" Cassie yelled, pulling me back inside and dragging me through the casino once more.

"Wait, what the fuck just happened?" I said.

"That was Mark. They killed him. Try to keep up -- if they found him, they can damn well find us."

We ran for the garage. Cassie had the car started and in gear before I even got my door closed, and we flew out into the street.

* * *

That brings us to the picture from last night. Fremont Street, around 8 p.m. We'd stopped at the Stratosphere first to get my stuff. No luck -- my room was tossed and everything had been stolen.

"Knew they'd find you sooner or later. We'll go to my place. Plan our next move," she said, sighing. "I might have to put you out again."

"You'd fucking better not," I growled.

"Fine. I'll let you stay conscious if you're going to be a crybaby about it," she said. "Just try to keep your thoughts ordered. Logical. Don't let your mind wander. Can you do that?"

"That's pretty much what I do," I told her.

So, on to Fremont Street. Cassie told me Mark lived at a suite in the El Cortez, and we should get there before someone else did. He had data, apparently. What kind of data, I don't know.

We stopped somewhere off the beaten track for burgers, then drove out to Downtown Vegas. The Concierge at the El Cortez seemed to recognize Cassie -- he nodded at her, and she nodded back. We went to the elevators.

"Mark was a good friend," she told me as we ascended. "I've got a key to his room. It's pretty secure, too -- we should be fine here. At least for a little while."

The elevator stopped, and she led me to Mark's room. She opened the door, and we went inside.

"All right. I'm going to look for --"

Cassie stopped dead as she turned on the lights, illuminating a pair of rather large men. Both of them were dressed in black cargo pants and T-shirts, and both had automatic weapons. One of them was grinning.

I took that picture just before we got to the El Cortez, and it was the last time I saw the outside for a while. The guys grabbed us. They threw hoods over our heads, shuffled us down a staircase, and put us in a car. I'm just thankful they didn't knock me out.

When the bag came off my head, I was being pushed into what I can only describe as a dungeon -- concrete walls, concrete floor. There was a heavy metal door that slammed shut as soon as I was in. And that's where I've spent all of today so far. No food, no water, and no one even coming by to peek in since about 9:00 last night.

And dammit -- I'm hungry.

Day Twenty-Two

Day 22: 23 Aug 2010

Been up and moving for 24 hours, almost. There's a bunch to tell, and some of it you will not fucking believe. I know I don't.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Day Twenty-One

Day 21: 22 Aug 2010

I woke up in the same place today, only sitting on the couch rather than laying. The TV was on and blaring.

It was some Chinese TV show -- I don't speak Chinese, but Tran once taught me how to recognize it when I hear it (versus, say, Thai). While I couldn't really understand what was being said, the show was pretty visual -- I could follow along with it well enough.

It seemed -- to me, anyway -- to be a hokey "fact or fiction" type of show, with Jonathan Frakes replaced by a tiny Chinese guy. The subject was some horrific sea monster, something that the artist's renditions made look as big as an ocean liner. Chinese legend? Or truth? You make the call!

Like I said, it was hokey. It didn't hold my interest for more than a few minutes, so I got up.

I wasn't as dizzy or disoriented this time. I headed for the office door and opened it a crack.

"Coming out now!" I yelled. "I'd appreciate it if no one bonked me on the head! My skull's getting all squishy!"

I opened the door wider. So far, so good. I walked out into the garage and found Cassie standing there next to her shitbox Thunderbird.

"Don't be such a pussy," she said. "Nobody's gonna hurt your precious widdle melon. Now man up. It's midnight, and we've got work to do."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Day Twenty

Day 20: 21 Aug 2010

I have to stop getting knocked out. It really can't be good for my health in the long term, and it hurts. Like a bitch.

I woke up around sundown today, on a couch in a nearly bare room -- looked like an office at a mechanic's. As I got to my feet --slowly, because I was massively dizzy -- I looked around and found I was, indeed, in an auto shop somewhere. No cars around, though. No people either.

As I stumbled toward the door, I was proved wrong on that "no people" thing. Someone hit me from behind, hard, and I fell to the floor.

"Shit. Not this again," I groaned as the person hit me again. My body was only to happy to go limp, and the world went dark for what seemed like the tenth time in the last three weeks.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Day Nineteen

Day 19: 20 Aug 2010

Slept for nearly 20 hours and got some food in me -- strange how much better one feels after that, right? Yeah, I know. The sarcasm isn't necessary -- but I'm not in a great mood at the moment, sleep and normal meal cycles aside.

Ever take your car to the mechanic? You're sitting there in the waiting room -- bad coffee, Oprah or Glenn Beck on TV -- you dig. The guy comes out and tells you what's wrong with the car, then leaves you with Oprah and Beck for a few minutes. Then he comes back:

"Oh, here's a little more we found," he says, and gives you some basic info on the problem.

Away he goes -- more bad coffee. Ten minutes later, he's back with even more problems. You start wondering how you even made it to the shop without exploding. You start thinking he's seen a mark, and is going to take you for as much cash as he can.

I don't like to speak ill of the dead. Still, around midnight, I started to get the sneaking suspicion that Kevin and his tiny Chinese friend were playing me as a mark. A bit of information here, a picture there -- they'd already gotten me to fly halfway across the country on essentially nothing. It definitely felt like I was being set up for something -- for what, though, I wasn't sure.

So I was in a foul mood by 2 a.m. I sat in the lobby of the Stratosphere, bouncing my legs impatiently and looking enviously at the smokers -- well, everywhere. Las Vegas is a smoky town.

Right at 2, at least according to my BlackBerry, Cassie walked into the lobby, heading right for me. I stood as she approached.

"You look much better. Got some sleep?" she said. Apparently, she didn't bother with "hello"s.

"Yeah. A bit. So, Cassie, it's answer time. I think I've jumped through enough hoops, don't you?"

She smiled and laughed a bit.

"OK, so you slept, but you got up on the wrong side of the bed. That's cool. I'd be pissed if I was running around like you, too. Let's get moving, then. Daylight's in three and a half hours, and we've got a lot of ground to cover before then," she told me.

Without waiting for a response, she walked away to the casino's front doors -- after a second's thought, I got up and followed her. If she didn't give me some real answers soon, though, I was out of here.

I caught up to her at the Stratosphere's valet stand. She was just handing her card to a young guy in a blue shirt, who took off at a run.

"You want anything to drink? Some water? We can make a quick stop on the way, but we'll be out for a little while," she said.

"No, I'm good."

"Right. Here we go, then."

The valet pulled up with her car -- I can't see why she decided to valet park it, as it was a complete piece of unmitigated shit. Her 1989 Ford Thunderbird was rusting out at the rear wheelwells, and whatever color it had been originally was lost under dirt. The engine was oddly quiet, though -- a low, steady rumble is all I heard as she tipped the valet and slid into the driver's seat.

I got into the passenger seat, and she tore out onto Las Vegas Boulevard before I even got my seat belt on.

"Sorry," she said. "Living here kinda makes you drive like a psycho, and I don't have passengers much."

She hammered the T-bird away from the Strip. I didn't really know where we were going -- first time in Vegas, and all -- but she sure seemed to know her way around the city. She took so many sharp, high-speed turns that I quickly became lost. After ten or so minutes of near-terror, she stopped the car.

We were in a dark, mostly industrial part of town. She killed the engine and all the lights, then turned in her seat to face me.

"Listen," she said, "because this is important. No matter what you see, you need to stay in the car. Are we clear on that?"

"Fine," I said, but I guess my answer wasn't convincing enough.

"I mean it. Get out of this car, and you'll be in a world of hurt. I don't know how to put it much clearer than that."

"That's. . . not really clear at all," I said. "But I get you. Stay in the car. Roger that."

"Good. Now, the building to my left. Keep your eyes glued to it."

I did. Seemed like an ordinary warehouse. Kind of shitty and run-down, really. There was a light on out front, and as I watched, a pale, thin guy came out and stood under it. He was dressed in brown coveralls, and was kind of filthy. I watched him pull out a cigarette, light up, and start smoking.

"Wow, fascinating," I said, sighing. "I never get to see guys smoke in North Carolina. Glad I made the trip."

"Quiet!" she hissed.

She pointed out the windshield, where a long, black Jaguar XJ8 was pulling up outside the warehouse. The passenger door opened fast. Someone leaped out and covered the distance between the Jag and the smoker in about half a blink. The smoker tried to turn, to yell.

Before he could do any of that, the man from the Jag was on him, ripping him apart with his bare hands. Really. I'm not kidding. He literally tore the guy open and threw chunks of him to either side in less time than it took you to read this sentence. It was about the most awful thing I've ever seen.

"Fuck," I said.

The guy from the Jag turned and looked right at us. I recognized him instantly -- I had, after all, grown up with the guy. It was Jared.

I went for the door handle immediately. My muscles suddenly seized up, my vision got black around the edges.

"I told you to stay in the car," I heard as I blacked out.

It was Cassie's voice, and she sighed as she said it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Day Eighteen

Day 18: 19 Aug 2010

Realized -- almost too late -- that I was ON the Strip and the location Kevin sent was just BEHIND the Strip. So I ran like fuck, dodging late-night drunks and packs of Asian college kids as I moved. I made it to the spot at just midnight.

The people element had thinned out quite a bit -- here there were a few quiet, shambling twentysomething drunks in $400 shoes. They -- almost all of them -- sat on curbs and stoops and looked at the pavement. One kept moving his hands through a nearby shrub. It was as if he'd found a hundred-dollar bill there once, years ago, and really hoped he'd find another now that he really needed it.

I knew I'd be easier to find here -- I was on my feet, for one. One of the drunks, a tiny Chinese girl, maybe 20, looked up.

"Youxia," she said quietly, grinning.

"You're Kevin's man on the ground?"

"Not a man, obviously. But yeah. Come on. Let's go somewhere where we can talk."

* * *

We ended up further off the Strip, where even the sad-eyed drunks vanished.

There was nothing around in sight but fenced-off vacant lots, some filled with junk and forgotten cars, others merely sand. Crazily, there was a bus bench next to the road, as if someone would actually need to get here -- to nowheresville -- right now. She sat and looked at me.

"You can stand if you want, but I'm not going to bite."

I sat next to her, and she stuck out her hand.

"Cassie," she said.

"Travis," I said, shaking her hand.

"Well, not in Vegas, you're not. Here, you're Robert Lincoln, staying at the Stratosphere."

Cassie handed me a keycard and a wallet -- the ID was from California, and it had my picture, but Robert Lincoln's name.

"I mean, they're gonna find you anyway, but this might slow 'em up."

"Uh, OK. Still don't know who 'they' are."

"Soon. Tomorrow, in fact. I'll pick you up in the Stratosphere lobby at 2 a.m., and you'll get more answers than you know what to do with."

Cassie smiled and stood up.

"Wait -- that's it? Just, meet me tomorrow?"

"'Fraid so, big guy," she said. "Love to talk more. But I gotta get to work, and you look like you haven't slept in days. Get some rest, yeah? I need your brain on full alert tomorrow."

And with that, Cassie turned and walked away, leaving me confused and exhausted on a bus bench in an urban wasteland.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Day Seventeen

Day 17: 18 Aug 2010

RDU International Airport

No problems with security at RDU, but I'm just carrying my netbook and two changes of clothes.

They also had no problem with me paying in cash -- I didn't know airlines even did that anymore. And now, the waiting.

It's my least favorite part of air travel, and why I prefer to drive everywhere. Dammit. Wish I'd brought a book or something.

Also (and just random bitching here, because I didn't sleep again last night) why send me to Vegas via Newark?

Newark Liberty International

Newark. Jesus, it's ugly even from the air.

Still got an hour to kill before my flight to Vegas. I'm getting restless, cranky, and entirely too paranoid. There's a young guy, my age, sitting behind me who's been staring at me since RDU. Every time I look, he's looking back at me.

So what, right? Guy's probably just on the same unlikely combination of flights I am, heading to Vegas for vacation. I wish I could believe that. It just feels wrong.

Sure, he's dressed like he's on vacation -- shorts, t-shirt, backwards hat. But he doesn't look the part. He's got cold, staring eyes and a hard set to his jaw.

I'm probably just seeing things. Jesus, I need some sleep.

* * *

Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas Strip

Here. Waiting. Strip is crowded as all hell, but Kevin said his man on the ground would find me.

Yeah. Good luck with that.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Day Sixteen

Day 16: 17 Aug 2010

Took all the money out of my bank account -- in person -- at a branch of my bank in midtown Raleigh. If they could track me by my cell, they could probably track credit and debit card transactions, I reasoned. I had just over $4500.

From the bank, I drove to RDU International. All the flights going anywhere near Vegas today were sold out. Tomorrow looked better. I got myself on a weird, roundabout flight to Vegas via Newark (yeah, it didn't make sense to me, either) for tomorrow afternoon.

That done, I had very little to do but wait -- which is horrible. I suck at downtime -- I get itchy and restless without a task. I headed back to my shitty hotel room -- $28 a night, which is classy as all hell -- and went back to the maze of documents. I'd like to tell you what I learned, but after a whole day studying them, I was more confused than ever.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Day Fifteen

Day 15: 16 Aug 2010

The first call came in a couple of minutes after midnight. My BlackBerry screen said "Call from: PRIVATE." I don't answer those -- I figure if you're going to call me from a blocked number, then you're not saying anything I want to hear. A voicemail icon came up a few seconds after I hit "Ignore," so I checked it.

"Hello, Mr. Travis," a soft, male voice said. "You may call me Mr. William. It is quite important that you pick up your phone the next time I call -- your life may depend on it. Jared's, too."

The voicemail clicked off after those few words. His voice wasn't at all familiar to me, but it unnerved me. Something in the way he spoke -- his soft, even tone of voice when talking about the death of me and Jared -- was weird. Unsettling.

The phone rang again a few seconds later, same "PRIVATE" number. After two rings, I decided to answer.

"Hello?" I said.

"Mr. Travis, this is?"

Again, something off in the way he spoke -- his word order was all fucked up, and his voice was too calm.

"Yeah, this is Travis. Is this William?"

"Mr. William I am, sir. You should have the data now, I think?"

"What data?"

"Please, Mr. Travis. Do not think me stupid. I should not like to disembowel you for the information you carry, but I will do so."

His tone of voice didn't change -- not monotone, just soft and conversational. Like disemboweling was common water-cooler talk.

"I have some data," I said, swallowing hard. "I don't know what use it is."

"To you, nothing. To us, though, quite much. I should like to have it."

"I suppose I can give you the memory card. But you have to do something for me."

"It is the way. What things do you require? I am authorized to barter."

As he spoke, slowly and calmly, I realized what was really happening. This guy didn't give a shit about the memory card. It would take me seconds to copy it, anyway, making the card itself pointless. No, he just wanted to keep me on the phone -- so he could find out where I was.

"Oh, my mother's calling me to come inside. I'll have to get back to you," I said, hanging up the phone and immediately pulling the battery. I did some quick mental math.

I was on the phone with him for a minute, maybe two. If they were using cell towers to triangulate, they knew what city I was in. If they'd somehow managed to tap into my GPS chip, though, they'd know within about 50 feet where to find me. It was time to run. Again.

Darren had already gone to bed -- work in the morning -- and I didn't want to worry him. I grabbed my stuff and left. I'd call the police from a pay phone later and let them know I saw a guy lurking around his place. Should deter whoever was after me.

I checked my wallet as I started up my truck -- $60. Should be enough to get me a room at a dive motel somewhere, I figured. At least that would give me a chance to plan my next move.

* * *

My next move, I decided later that day, was to keep moving. Kevin had to have put some clue in all the data as to where I could find Jared -- I just needed to find it. Maybe he left an index.

In my crappy hotel room in Durham, I brought up my netbook and popped the microSD into the adapter. The mess of files appeared. I tried sorting them by date, but no luck -- they were all created within hours of each other. Copies of copies. Then I tried size.

There was a tiny *.txt file named "Youxia." I had no idea what the word meant, but I clicked the file anyway. It was a note.

"Travis -- if you've gotten this card, I didn't have the chance to sit down and lay this all out in person. Sorry about that. There's an awful lot of data here, but none of it is random -- all of it points to something larger, what they did to Jared and why. Worse yet, it points to their plans for you.

"Time is going to be a factor here, and I have to assume I'm out of play now. After all, you're reading this, so I couldn't have come to a good end. You'll need to go to where they're keeping your brother. I have an ally on the ground there who can fill you in. I sent the coordinates to your XBox several days ago -- find that spot. Be there by Wednesday, midnight local, and wait exactly there. My colleague will find you. Good luck, young man. You'll need it."

Shit. I remembered the XBox message then, but I couldn't remember what it said. There were just some numbers -- coordinates, I guess. I'd need to either get back to my apartment -- a bad idea -- or try to remember my login information, which I hadn't used in ages. The XBox auto-signed me in every time, so I'd forgotten my username and password long ago.

Thankfully, my brain worked for me. I got into my account on the Web after three tries, and brought up the message: 36.12121,-115.17773. I copied, pasted, and Googled. Here's what came up:

Looks like I have to find a way to get to Las Vegas.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Day Fourteen

Day 14: 15 Aug 2010

Woke up this morning with a bit of a hangover in Darren's tiny guest room. Forgot where I was for a minute. I'd been having the dream -- dimming the sun and walking into a tamed sea -- right before I woke up, so I thought I was at the coast. It took my brain a few seconds to catch up and realize that I was three hours inland, running from the police and guys with guns.

I smelled coffee coming from downstairs -- Darren lived in a narrow townhouse -- so I walked down to his kitchen. I looked like crap. I'd fallen asleep in my clothes, and I must've looked like I slept in a cardboard box.

"Wow. Rough night?" Darren said, grinning.

"Didn't sleep too well. Coffee should fix it," I said.

He poured me a cup, and I sat down.

"So, Travis," he started.

"I don't want to get too personal, but are you in some kinda trouble? Like, drugs or something? Not that I don't like seeing you --"

"-- but it's a little odd when a friend you haven't seen in two years calls you up out of the blue and asks to crash with you. I dig," I said. "No, no trouble. Just needed to get away from work and life for a while, been getting close to a nervous breakdown."

I didn't really lie much in my life, but man, I was becoming too good at it. Seemed to mollify Darren, anyway. He nodded.

"That's cool, man. Hey, I have to go into the office today. We've got some software to ship and we're not going to make it," he said. "Of course, me being low man on the pole means I get volunteered for the extra hours. You gonna be all right here on your own?"

"Yeah, man. I'll probably just poke around the city today and head back to Wilmington tonight or tomorrow morning," I said.

"Cool. There's a spare key on the coffee table if I'm not back when you get in. Maybe I'll be free for lunch, and we can hang out," he said.

"Totally, man. Do your thing. I'm good. And thanks again for letting me crash."

"No worries," he said, smiling and standing.

As soon as he was out the door, I had the netbook out and the microSD card in the adapter.

* * *

There was a lot of data. This card was the same size as the previous one -- 1GB -- but it was almost full of files where the other only had the one image. I saw Word documents, spreadsheets, text files, images, video files -- it was going to take me a while to make sense of them all. I double-clicked a random Word document and settled in with a cup of coffee.

The document didn't make a whole lot of sense. Not that I didn't know what it was -- it was a shipping manifest. I'd seen tons of them before. It just didn't make sense here. In stuff that Kevin needed me to see. It was from a Chinese freighter to the Port of Long Beach about six and a half years ago. The cargo was listed as "biological, one," and was cleared through customs by someone named Eric Hawkins. It seemed pretty normal.

So I tried another one, this one a picture. This is what came up:

Then, this:

I kept flipping through documents for a long time, getting more and more confused -- I stopped when Darren got home at eight p.m. I called it a day at that point -- but the day wasn't yet ready to be called.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Day Thirteen

Day 13: 14 Aug 2010

Cleared out of the office building early this morning, before anyone came in. I had no idea where to go. I just walked along the street, thinking. I realized I probably could have ditched the office building after a couple of hours. Still, I wasn't used to guys in classic Mercedes limos chasing after me with assault rifles. I was scared, so I stayed put.

My BlackBerry's battery was circling the drain, but it apparently had juice for one call -- the phone rang as I walked up Eastwood.

"Hey, Travis. Aki. How're you doing, brother?" Aki said when I answered.

"Had better days, man," I told him. "What's up?"

"Something weird. We got a letter here for you, private courier. I told the guy where you live, but he insisted on giving it to us."

"Any return address?" I asked as my BlackBerry beeped at me to let me know I had a few seconds of talk time before it suicided.

"Nah, just a plain white envelope with your name on it. Feels like it might be empty, but I didn't open it."

"Hold it there. I'll be by in an hour or so. That cool?"

"Yeah, man. I'll be here."

I moved to hang up, but my BlackBerry took care of that. With a last, pitiful beep, the battery died and the phone shut down.

"Well. . . I'd better start walking," I said to no one.

* * *

Aki was behind the register when I got there. He looked bored.

"Hey, Trav. Here ya go."

The handwriting was familiar. The envelope was addressed with the same long, flowing strokes as the one Kevin sent me downtown last week. I put it in my pocket.

"Oh, yeah. There were some cops outside your building earlier. You see what that was about?" Aki asked.

"No, didn't catch it."

"Three, four cars. Bunch of officers. Maybe someone got killed?"

"I don't know, maybe. Thanks for hanging onto this."

"Yeah, man. Beers later?"

"I'll let you know. I might not be around tonight."

"Cool. Give me a ring, we'll hook up."

The market was only a couple of blocks from my apartment -- with cops around, I figured it would be safe to go back and check it out. I could see the cars as I walked into the complex -- there were two of them, and officers were taking statements from my neighbors.

"Excuse me, sir. Are you Travis Sykes? Apartment 25?" a uniformed cop asked me.


"Can I talk to you for a minute?"

He asked nicely, but I got the feeling it wasn't really a question.

"Sure. C'mon in," I said, opening the door to my place.

"Just a couple of questions. Your neighbors here say the people who hit the man in the parking lot last night were after you, too."

"I don't know about that. I think they just chased me because I saw them. I ran like hell -- planned to call you today," I said.

"So you did see them?"

"Mm-hm. Two guys in black pants and shirts with machine guns. They pulled up in a big black car," I said. "A Mercedes 600 Grosser. Don't see many of those."

"A limousine is what your neighbors said."

"Yeah, the Grosser's a limo. Rare one -- they stopped making 'em in the 70s, I think. Big sons of bitches. I used to be into cars," I said.

"I see that. So anything else you can tell me?"

"No. Once I saw the guns, I just ran. I remember they were white guys, but not much else."

"Anyone you can think of that would want to hurt you?"

"Nah. Someone vandalized my truck earlier, but I doubt it was them."

"And the man who was hit in the parking lot. Did you know him?"

"Nope. He came to my door looking for someone else."

Why lie? I don't know, but the words came out of my mouth without thinking. I just wanted to get rid of the cop so I could grab some stuff. After that, I planned to get the hell out of Dodge.

"All right. I'll need you to stick around for a couple of days," the cop said. "In case I have further questions, or anything."

"Right on," I lied. "Thanks for coming by."

The cop left, and I grabbed a bag.

* * *

I remembered the envelope later that evening, while I was in my truck on the way to Raleigh to stay with a friend. One of my high school pals, Darren, had ended up working for IBM out in RTP -- I called him, and he was cool with me crashing out. After Darren and I had dinner and a few beers and he showed me to his spare room, I took the envelope out of my pocket and opened it.

Inside was another microSD card.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Day Twelve

Day 12: 13 Aug 2010

Didn't sleep last night -- I guess I'd had enough of unconsciousness over the last couple of days.

Honestly, I didn't know what to do with myself. The answer would seem to be obvious on the face of it: call the police, you jackass. And believe me, that was one of the first things I thought about doing.

I didn't, though. Really, what was I going to tell them? Oh, hi, officer, I was just kidnapped for the last couple of days. No, I didn't so much escape. He let me go. Proof? Um, yeah. . .

I had nothing in the way of proof. No one at work had called or emailed looking for me, so they hadn't missed me or didn't care. I had no marks on me, and when I walked back down to the place I'd been held around 3 in the morning, everything was gone.

So instead, I'd had some dinner and played some XBox. I know, it sounds strange, but again, I didn't know what to do with myself. I didn't bother to go to work this morning, either. I guessed I didn't have a job anymore, anyway. Turns out I did -- more later. I had breakfast at a place down by the beach, and had the definite temptation to walk into the ocean the whole time I was there.

The repeating dream had obviously had its effect on me.

I got back to the apartment about eight a.m., and decided to watch TV. I thought I was unemployed, remember -- might as well do what unemployed people do best. Also, my head wasn't really on straight. After I'd flipped through the channels a couple of times, someone knocked on my door. I looked out the peephole -- it was Kevin.

I opened the door, and he stood there grinning at me. Now, I'm not a fighter by any stretch -- never been in so much as a scuffle. But the temptation to punch that guy right in his smirking face was overwhelming. I had to keep telling myself he's handicapped.

"Yeah. . . I know you want to beat the shit out of me, and I don't blame you there. But we should talk. I have answers for you."

"So, talk."

"Can I come in first?"


"Yeah. . . fair enough. OK, I was there with your brother six years ago. At the port of Long Beach."

"Where he died."

"Where they made it look like he did," Kevin said. "No one died there that day."

"They found his car, with his hands inside."

"They found his car with someone's hands inside," Kevin said, holding up his dual prosthetics.

"The cops said his prints matched. You mean those were your hands?"

"Yeah. And do you know how cops run prints? Computers. Not a whole lot of work to switch one person's prints for another for quick verification. They hacked the Tallahassee PD's computers. Replaced the prints your brother had taken when he got pulled for DUI in 2001 with my prints."

"But the cops said. . . "

"That someone would bleed out really fast if their hands were chopped off? True. But they cauterized my stumps here immediately."

"Why'd you let them take your hands off? And who are 'they,' anyway?"

"I didn't let anyone take my hands. They took them. Back in those days, I was a thief, and I stole from the wrong people. They found me and went all old-school with a bone saw. Figured if they killed me, I wouldn't learn my lesson -- but they could still get information from me if they just cut me up a bit."

"You still haven't told me who they are."

"'They' are some bad people. And they've turned your brother into something. . . else."

Kevin and I just stared at each other for a few minutes. I didn't know what to say, but he was clearly waiting for a response.

"And?" I finally said.

Kevin sighed.

"I would have guessed some part of you would know already. Come on, Travis. I've got things to show you."

Without waiting for me to follow, Kevin turned around and walked out into the parking lot. I shrugged and grabbed my phone, keys, and wallet from the table by the door, intending to follow him -- he'd gotten me curious.

That short delay, the few seconds I took to grab my stuff, probably saved my life. A black Mercedes 600 Grosser came out of nowhere, its tires screaming as it rocketed through the parking lot. It hit Kevin full-on, sending him flying over the hood and roof. He landed with a loud thump on the pavement, not moving at all, blood slowly pooling around him.

The Mercedes stopped. Its massive rear doors opened, and two guys in what looked like black combat fatigues jumped out, machine guns in their hands. As I said, I'm in no way a fighter. I do work out every day, though, and I can run like mad -- which is exactly what I did. As soon as I saw those guys, I took off, running out the front door and around my building as fast as I could push myself.

I ran across the street, dodging cars as I ran -- I knew they'd be back in their huge Merc limo and after me in a matter of seconds. I needed to get off-road, and fast. There was an office building off in the distance, and I went for it, staying off the street. I cut through back yards and parking lots, never dropping my speed at all. My lungs burned and my legs were toast, but I made it. I bolted into the building and headed for the stairwell. No one came in looking for me -- I'd lost them, it looked like.

I spent the next twenty hours in an abandoned office on an abandoned floor, which is where I fell asleep tonight.

The irony didn't escape me that today was Friday the 13th.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Day Eleven

Day 11: 12 Aug 2010

When I opened my eyes again, it was night, and I was no longer taped to the chair in the dark, empty room. Instead, I was sitting on a red couch, an old one by the looks of it, in a nearly empty living room. No tape, no IV -- just sitting. A lot of thoughts came into my head at the same time, but the most powerful of all was the need to urinate, and do so very soon.

I found a bathroom off to my left -- outfitted only with a roll of toilet paper, one white towel, and an unused bottle of hand soap. I took care of business -- took a little while, actually -- flushed, washed my hands, and headed back out into the living room.

"Hello?" I said. My normal speaking voice sounded immensely loud in the silent room. "Kevin? Am I un-kidnapped now?"

Nothing. The kitchen cabinets and refrigerator were empty save for one can of Red Bull in the fridge. As near as I could tell, I was alone. The couch and chair comprised all of the furniture in the place -- I guess Kevin didn't have a long-term lease. Or much stuff.

I tested the front door -- it was unlocked. I grabbed the Red Bull out of the fridge, popped it open, and chugged it as I walked out. I didn't know how long I'd been out at that point, but I felt like I'd had the dream thousands of times. I guessed maybe three days.

So I was surprised when I looked up and saw three meteors streak by in ten seconds -- the Perseids, I realized. It was Thursday. Only Thursday -- I remembered reading on the Web that we were going to be deep in the meteor shower by late Thursday night.

As I looked around the parking lot, I realized I wasn't far from home -- in fact, I could see my truck 50 feet off in the distance. I was in my own apartment complex, only three buildings over from my own. I walked home -- all I had in my pocket was my keys. When I let myself in, I found my wallet and cell phone on the table by my door. My BlackBerry was on the charger, and I picked it up. As I checked my messages -- there weren't any texts, emails, or missed calls -- the clock rolled over to midnight.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Day Ten

Day 10: 11 Aug 2010

I can't tell you much about what actually happened today, because I was only conscious for minutes at a time.I have the feeling, though, that very little happened in that room -- apart from my few brief bouts of wakefulness, anyway.

I opened my eyes once in the day to find Kevin near me, fussing over an IV stand. The needle was in my right arm.

"Don't squirm. Hate to open a vein, but I gotta keep you hydrated," he said.

"Drowsy," I mumbled.

"Yeah. . . that's the drugs. Sorry."

"You say 'yeah' a lot. Almost every time you start a sentence," I said without thinking.

"Uh. . . yeah. Guess I do. G'night."

Kevin squished the IV bag a few times with his hands, and I noticed just before my eyes closed that his fingers didn't seem to work. Prosthetics, I realized. He was missing both of his hands.

* * *

When I woke up again, it was dark, and I was alone. I looked around for a few minutes, but the room hadn't changed at all since last I saw it. I heard a beeping -- four quick tones. A few seconds later, I was asleep again.

* * *

I can't tell you what happened today, but I can tell you what I dreamed. I don't often recall my dreams, but these were different -- or should I say this one was different, as it was the same every time. The same short dream, repeated over and over, broken up by brief moments of nothing, as if a black title card appeared in its place.

In the dream, I'm at work, but not in my office. I'm out on the docks. It's the middle of the day, but I'm the only person there. There aren't even any boats in the slips -- it's just me, the bright sun, the clean white concrete, and the broad Atlantic Ocean.

As I stand there staring off into the sea, I take off my sunglasses and throw them to the ground beside me. The sun almost blinds me. Instead of looking away, I look directly into the sun -- as I stare, it starts to fade. No clouds -- the sun actually gets dimmer.

I smile and look back at the sea. The chop isn't heavy, but as I look, the waves still completely -- the sea becomes as glass. I smile again -- none of this seems odd to me in the dream. Of course the sun and the sea should listen to me when I talk to them.

Of course, I haven't spoken out loud. But they know how to listen.

I take off my clothes -- all of them -- and start to walk. I'm heading for the end of the dock where the concrete becomes the sea, but I'm completely relaxed. My feet leave the pavement. I fall into the ocean without a splash and sink hard and fast, much deeper than the water should actually be in that area.

There's no fear, and I don't have any problem breathing -- the water fills my lungs like humid Florida air, thick and calming.

My feet hit the ocean floor, and my eyes snap open. I laugh, and the sound carries underwater.

Then, black. No sound. Nothing. That's where the dream ends, and I know I will be right back on the dock staring at the sun soon.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Day Nine

Day 9: 10 Aug 2010

I woke up briefly in the trunk of a car, but just as I was getting my bearings, the car hit a pretty big bump. My head slammed into the trunk door, and I was out again.

* * *

When I next woke up, I was in a nearly empty room.

It looked like an apartment or a house before anyone had moved in -- carpeted, clean, and empty, with even the closet door open. I was duct-taped around my chest, shoulders and legs to a not-uncomfortable chair -- at least it was padded. I couldn't move much. I wiggled around, but whoever had taped me to the chair must have used a couple of rolls. I wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.

It was daytime -- I could see sunlight through the closed blinds in the room. That meant I'd been knocked out (or asleep) all night. It also meant I hadn't showed up for work, so hopefully I was missed.

"Hey!" I yelled, but I couldn't think of anything after that. Turns out I didn't have to -- that "hey" was all I needed. The door opened a few seconds later.

"Hi, there. How's your head?"

The man who came into the room talking was in his mid-30s, I guessed from his face, but most of his hair had gone silver. He was dressed in black cargo pants and a black T-shirt, and his hands were clasped, Spock-like, behind his back as he walked in.

"How do you think my head feels? Like I got smacked in it a couple of times," I growled at the man.

"Yeah. . . sorry about that. I really didn't want to hit you, but I kinda panicked. You were going to go to the docks, and then, well. . ."

It hit me then. I blamed my not seeing it as soon as he walked into the room (obvious as it was) on the beating my head had taken the night before.

"You're maninblack422," I said.

"Yeah, but only because someone snatched up maninblack years ago," he said, grinning. "Call me Kevin."

"Fine, then, Kevin. I hope you know you're in a shitload of trouble, here. Kidnapping's a federal crime."

"Yeah, I'm aware. Couldn't be helped, though. Look, I wasn't planning on meeting you for a couple of days yet," he said, sighing. "I need to put some things in motion, so I'm going to need you to go ahead and take another nap."

I shook my head violently.

"Uh-uh. No way, Chief," I spat, jerking in my chair, trying to free myself.

"Yeah. . . that. . . wasn't a request," he said.

One of Kevin's hands came out from behind his back, lightning-fast. I had just enough time to see a rag before it was on my face. I tried not to breathe, but a few seconds later, my eyes slid closed.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Day Eight

Day 8: 09 Aug 2010.

Got into work early, and good thing I did -- a ship from Lithuania was just coming into port, an hour early. Frank, Kiplinger's Dock Supervisor, was standing outside the office when I arrived.

"G'Morning, Trav," he said, waving.

"Hey, Frank. That the freighter out of Vilnus?"

"Yeah. They're probably all fucked up on the time difference or something."

"Maybe they broke a few speed limits out there. Anyhow, you ready to get the office up and running? My boys are all set," Frank said.

"Yeah. Give me five minutes, then start scanning in cans," I said, unlocking the office.

"Right. Time to earn our checks. Such as they are," Frank said, grinning, as he headed down the stairs for the dock.

I booted up my machine and got to work.

* * *

We got the Vilnus ship processed by two that afternoon. The police called shortly after to talk about my truck.

"Mr. Sykes? My name's Detective Weinstein, I'm with Wilmington PD. I've been assigned to the vandalism of your 2003 F-150?"

"Right," I said. "Find out anything?"

"Not too much to go on. Yours was the only vehicle hit. Looks like a baseball bat was used. We did check for fingerprints on the note -- nothing. Probably gloves."

"So what's next?"

"Um. . . what's next is nothing. As I said, there's not much to go on. You probably know more about the vandalism than us."

"How do you mean?"

"One truck hit. A note left on the dashboard. That says you were targeted, personally. But you said yesterday you didn't know who might do this."

"That's true," I said, but of course it wasn't entirely. I knew that it had something to do with maninblack422 and Jared. I just couldn't explain that without coming off as a complete nutbag.

"Well, that's about it, then. Keep your eyes open. Call us if you see anything suspicious, anyone lurking around your vehicle. Did your insurance take care of the windshield?"

"Yeah, they replaced it yesterday afternoon."

"All right. Our end is wrapped up, unless you have anything more you want to add?"

"Nothing comes to mind, Detective."

"Have a pleasant day, sir."

* * *

I got home a little early, around five or so. Made a stir fry with Tofu and some spicy red sauce with a label I can't translate -- think it's Thai -- and sat down at the computer. Dicked around on the Internet until well past dark.

I was watching Burn Notice on Hulu when my phone rang -- it was the office.

"Travis. Jed Kiplinger. Listen, we have a last-minute arrival from St. Petersburg. I need you to come in and help out, OK? Maybe two hours of work, and you can take the day off tomorrow," Kiplinger said.

I was impressed -- he actually got my name right.

"Yeah, OK. Give me about ten minutes," I said, sighing and hanging up. I shut down my computer and put on my combat boots. Just as I was heading out the door, I noticed the message light on my BlackBerry flashing. I checked -- a new BBMessenger message.

It was from maninblack422. It said: "Stay away from the docks tonight. Can't explain more, but you're in a large amount of danger.

I was about getting sick of this shit, so I tapped out a quick reply: "Hey, fuck you, guy. I don't take orders from anyone. Especially not faceless ghost-men who hide behind the Internet."

I assumed he'd logged off already, but that was fine with me. He'd get the message eventually -- unlike IM, BlackBerry would deliver it when he turned his phone back on. I felt a little better. Sure, it was impotent rage at best, but at least I'd gotten some of it off my chest. I smirked and headed for the front door.

The last thing I remember is walking toward my truck -- everything went black just a second later.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Day Seven

Day 7: 8 Aug 2010.

Not the best day today. Woke up as early as usual, but felt slow and draggy. Decided to go out for breakfast.

This is what I found when I got out to my truck:

So, of course, I called the police and my insurance. When I looked in the truck to see if anything had been stolen, I found the note.

Sitting on the dash, just as polite as you please:

I shouldn't have even bothered to get out of bed today.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Day Six

Day 6: 07 Aug 2010.

It's been one of those "good thing I have a routine" days. Routines keep my mind from wandering off.

Of course, I have a bunch of them. Routines, that is. Routines and logic -- they're my homeboys, I guess. I used to make lists -- I don't need to anymore. Each day has a series of tasks I need to accomplish if I want to feel normal.

Here's the Saturday routine: Up at sunrise (as always). Breakfast: coffee and eggs (yeah, the Asian market has eggs. Don't want to know what bird they came from). Walk down to the fitness room at my apartment complex and do 45 minutes of circuit training, then run two miles on the treadmill. Come home and change into some junk clothes, then clean the entire apartment. My place isn't big, but I clean like a crazy person.

Usually takes about six hours to clean the place, and I end up smelling like bleach and carpet shampoo. Place is spotless, though. Then, of course, a shower is in order. After that, if I need it, a trip to the grocery store. My fridge was empty today, so. . .

Aki was working at the register today. He's one of the few people I have regular conversations with -- yeah, I know that's sad. I've been in Wilmington over a year, but I don't get out much. Aki, Marie, and a guy down at the dock, Frank, are my social circle. I don't have a girlfriend or anything, unless you count a girl I flirt with on Twitter from time to time.

Don't feel bad for me. I'm not lonely, or anything. I just don't feel the need to be around people much. I still keep in touch with my old friends, too. Facebook's great for that -- I keep contact with high school and college buddies almost daily.

Wow. I just looked at what I wrote. That does seem kinda pitiful, huh? It's not that bad, really. I say again -- not lonely or anything.

Anyway, back to the market. Like I said, Aki was at the register. He's a couple of years older than me, maybe 26 or 27. I like him -- he's always smiling.

"Hey, Travis. How're you doing, my brother?" Aki said as I put my groceries on the belt.

"You know. Muddling through. You?"

"Surviving, man. Mom's in town, and she brought the little sister with her. Of course, they're too cheap for a hotel, so. . ."

"Ugh. Don't envy you that."

Aki lived a few buildings over from me in the same complex. His apartment was the same as mine. That meant his mom and sister were sharing his studio apartment -- and while they were fine for one person, three was impossible.

"Yeah, I'm thinking about not going home tonight. They've been here all week -- I'm about to strangle 'em. Kidding. I think."

I held up the case of Tsingtao beer from my shopping cart.

"You could come over and help me kill these," I said, shrugging.

"Don't toy with me, man," Aki said, grinning.

"Beer, Modern Warfare 2. . . could be a plan," I told him.

"Sold," he said.

It wasn't the first time Aki had been over to my house for beer and XBox -- I'd also been over to his place (he had a PS3). And after the strange week I'd had, it wouldn't hurt to have another human being around.

I got home and read for a little while. I'm in the middle of a book called "The Weaponless Warriors" by Richard Kim -- history of Okinawan Martial Arts. It was interesting. I found it a few weeks back while grocery shopping, and it was cheap, so I threw it in the cart. I'll read pretty much anything.

About 7:00, Aki showed up and we drank and played XBox for the better part of five hours. We both suck, but we don't really care. It was good to have a normal day and some companionship. Aki finally decided to go home and face the music a little before midnight.

After he left, I cleaned up the bottles and went to turn off the XBox, but I noticed I had a new message on XBox Live. I went to my Inbox, figuring it would be Tran (my buddy from college and my one Live friend) trash-talking about our last Halo match.

The message had no sender, and only the following message: 36.12121,-115.17773.

I figured it was just a glitch or something. Yawning, I turned off the XBox and went to bed.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Day Five

Day 5: 06 Aug 2010

Not much actually happened today. Slept like crap last night, but still got up with the rising sun. Zombied my way through work -- no ships in or out, so I just ended up doing cleanup from the rest of the week. Fortunately mindless.

Of course I kept my eye pasted to Trillian all day. Had AIM up on my phone for the drive home -- nearly crashed twice checking it. Booted up one of my laptops as soon as I got home, set the Trillian window to "Always On Top," and brought up the picture again.

I'm not what you'd call a detective. My degree's in database management, not forensic pathology or photo identification. Try as I might, I couldn't find any clues in the picture that gave me any idea where the guy who could be Jared was standing. All I could tell was that it was a loading dock somewhere. Probably in America, as the "Fire Pump" sign was in English.

I gave up on the photo and tried to work some of the other information I had -- the screen name "maninblack422." I Googled like mad. The name itself brought up nothing, really -- something in Pakistan that I'm sure is unrelated. So then I tried just "maninblack. Got a halfway-decent rock band in New York, plenty of alien conspiracy stuff -- again, nothing really helpful at all. "422" was next.

Even less there. "422 = 2 x 211." Thanks a pantload, Wikipedia. Lian Wu also died in 422 A.D. Glad you know that, right?

All in all, a shitty, unproductive day with far too little sleep. Fuck it. I'm going to bed.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Day Four

Day 4: 05 Aug 2010.

I took an early lunch today and made it downtown by 11:30, parked my truck, and walked down to the river. It was hot out, and the dark brown cargo pants I was wearing didn't help much. I checked my watch: 11:42 when I hit Front and Market. I planted myself on the corner, my back to the river, and scanned the crowd.

Being lunchtime, the area was swimming with people. Foot traffic was insane, but the guy I was looking for -- I assumed a man in all black -- would stand out pretty easily among it all. Most of the folks were dressed for the weather -- except me, of course.

I was looking for a man in black, but I didn't see one. I looked down to check my watch again -- it was just rolling over to noon. When I looked up, someone was standing in front of me.

It wasn't a man in black, though -- it was a young woman in a blue Atlantic Courier polo and khaki shorts.

"Travis Sykes?"

"Uh, yeah."

"Sign here, please," she said, handing me a clipboard.

I signed, and she handed me an envelope. Here's the envelope. I waited around for a while, but this creepy-ass envelope is all that showed up.

And, of course, here's what was in it. I popped it in my netbook as soon as I got home.

It was a 1GB card, but just had one folder on it. It was password-protected, but that was easy enough for me to get around. Inside the folder was one file -- a JPEG. It was named with a number code: IMG00083-20100805-0945. I knew the naming convention. That meant it was taken with a Blackberry Curve, today at 9:45 a.m. I took a few deep breaths before I opened the file.

Here it is.

I know you're wondering -- and yes, it could be my brother Jared. Possibly.

I've studied the picture for hours now. Jared had a beard, and less gray (the stubble on the chin). Of course, he'd be 30 now. That could account for some silver, I guess.

Jared was fuller in the face. Eyebrows are a match, though. Nose is, too. Really, though, this could be anyone. Sunglasses hide a lot of the face, hood and angle hide the rest. If he was grinning, I'd know.

I spent the entire evening analyzing the picture, the file data, everything. When I finally stopped, it was past midnight.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Day Three

Day 3: 04 Aug 2010

Can't really tell you what happened at work today. Oh, I went, and I did my job, but I spaced out all day. That's the nice thing about my job, I guess -- I've been there long enough that I can do it on autopilot. Which is how today went.

Left at 5:30 and headed home -- skipped lunch, so I was hungry when I got there. Microwaved some banh xeo from the freezer. Ate it half-warmed with a cold PBR.

Oh, right. Forgot to get to that -- banh xeo is a Vietnamese crepe with shrimp and pork. I eat almost exclusively Vietnamese food, because the closest store to my house is an Asian market, and it's pretty cheap. My sophomore-year college roommate Tran is the one who taught me how to cook (my folks never did), so that's what I know how to make. That's why I eat fortune cookies with breakfast.

Anyway, after dinner, I convinced myself to relax and watch a movie or something. I poked around at Netflix Instant View for about 20 minutes, but nothing looked appealing. Another PBR sure looked appealing, though. So I had one of those. Then another, and another, and then I stopped counting.

I stopped drinking much after high school. Yeah, I know that's when most people start drinking, but remember, I grew up a Cracker. In my hometown, drinking started at 12. Started smoking at about 15. Quit that around 20. Something about finding parts of Jared's body, I don't know. . . it messed with me. Made me more careful.

So it didn't take me long to get pretty hammered off those few beers I put down. Hammered and giggly. I was on the Web, Facebook-stalking an old girlfriend (thanks, alcohol!) and listening to some horrible Death Metal when it happened. In the right corner of my screen, a window popped up that sobered me up almost immediately: "Message from maninblack422."

It said: "So, do I have your attention? Meet me at Front and Market tomorrow, noon. Be on time."

I hit the reply button, but nope. Same fire-and-vanish message delivery like last time -- guy was already offline.

I checked the clock -- 10:48 p.m. The sooner I got to bed, the less likely I was to be hung over when I met this guy in Downtown Wilmington tomorrow at noon. I quickly cleaned up my plate and bottles, turned off the lights, and went to bed. . . but it took me a while to get to sleep.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Day Two

Day 2: 03 Aug 2010

Slept like crap last night, which might be due to the fact that I ended up crashing on the couch.Yeah, I'll admit it. I fell asleep in front of my laptop with Trillian up and earbuds in, waiting for maninblack422 to show. He didn't, of course. Actually, no one IM'd me, but that didn't stop me from waking up every twenty minutes or so to check.

Still made it to work early, though. That's just how I roll.

"You look awful," were Marie's first words to me today. She was right, of course. I mumbled something about not sleeping well and turned on my computer (and, of course, Trillian).

So of course today was the day Jed Kiplinger made his annual visit to the office. The guy's 34 -- only ten years older than me. He inherited the company from his Dad, and as near as I can see, doesn't actually do anything that even really resembles "work."

"Trevor," he said, nodding as he walked into the office. "You look well." Never mind that my name's Travis -- says so on the desk. Or the fact that I look like shit. With another equally observant comment to Marie (or "Mary"), Jed vanished into his office.

No ships in today. There was one out, bound for somewhere in Estonia, but I finished all the numbers on that one last night. Jed bailed after 45 minutes, and Marie headed out for a long lunch at noon, so I had an empty office, no work, and time to think.

I hate letting my mind wander -- I prefer to know where it is at all times. When it wanders, it generally travels back in time. Six years back, to be exact -- and it does so even when I haven't been contacted by some random guy dropping my dead brother's name.

The last memory I have of Jared is when I was 18 -- he was 24, like I am now. It was early June in 2004, and I'd just graduated high school. School had been kind of easy for me -- school always was. Not so for Jared, who'd just gotten his B.A. at FSU the month before. He'd taken six years where most take four, but he wasn't regretting it.

"You're gonna love college, Trav," he said, swigging beer. Jared had come home to Appalachicola, FL to celebrate my high school graduation and his 24th birthday -- both good excuses to drink.

"Yeah. You'll have to come up next month and show me around," I said -- I was going to Florida State, as well. Hell, it was close. I'd never been more than a hundred or so miles from Appalachicola by that point. NoFlo (North Florida) all the way, I guess.

"Will do, little brother. You are not going to believe the girls at that campus," Jared said, smiling with half his mouth. Jared's smile was like that -- lopsided and goofy. His face was a little uneven, but that made him look. . . compelling, I guess. He certainly used his looks to his advantage -- when he was in high school and college, he had a new girlfriend every month.

I quickly got drunk after that, but that's the second-to-last image I have of Jared in my head -- that off-kilter, dopey grin.

The last image I have is from three months later, after I'd gotten off a flight at LAX. The Sheriff picked me up from the airport. He didn't say much -- just asked if I was Travis Sykes. He drove me out to a dingy, tiny warehouse just off a canal of some sort. There were a lot of other cops and forensic people around, all gathered by a filthy, wrecked car.

"Pulled it out of the port."

I'm not sure who said that -- my head was spinning, because the car was a 2002 Camaro with Florida plates. Jared's pride and joy.

"Is this your brother's car, sir?" someone in jeans and a police blazer asked me.

"Yeah," I croaked. "Was he inside the car?"

"We. . . found two severed hands in the trunk. Prints came back positive for your brother, Jared Sykes," the blazer guy said.

"Could he have survived?" I asked.

The cop shook his head. "From what we can tell, the hands were cut off while he was alive."

"He would have bled out pretty quick," another cop said quietly.

I nodded my head, and they led me out of the warehouse.

* * *

See, so I know Jared's dead. I know this maninblack422 person couldn't have found him, because there was no one to find.

Logically, I knew that he couldn't have survived both the dismemberment and the car sinking in the Pacific.

Logic failed again. I still spent most of the today with my eyes on my IM, hoping this guy would message me again and put the misunderstanding to rest.