Friday, March 29, 2013

A Change of Mind by Jim Bartlett

Kristen Manseebo and Craig Sheltonham wake up in each other's bodies, in Jim Bartlett's science fiction novella.

CHAPTER ONE

I'm sitting at a bar. Which throws me because I don't drink.

Well, maybe a beer now and again.

But not at a bar.

Yet, sitting on the counter in front of me is one of those tropical looking drinks, you know, a Mai Tai, margarita... hell, something like that.

The bartender wanders over. He's a younger guy, big handlebar mustache, burly arms, some kind of tattoo that peeks out from under his shirt sleeve. He points at my glass - I assume it's mine, but you know what "assume" means - and says something. Mick Jagger is shouting out "Brown Sugar" over the banter of the crowd behind me - and maybe I'm drunk, because my head is swimming in a deep fog - so whatever he said sounds like mush. But if I had to guess, I'm thinking he's asking if I want another.

I shake my head no. Or hope I do. "Coffee," I say.

I must be drunk. My voice is a squeak.

I reach over to push the glass toward him but my hand stops at the counter's ledge. Something is wrong here. The hand I see is slender, with long pale fingers and painted nails. Bright red with little gold sparkles.

I raise the hand closer to my face. I close it into a fist and tap on the counter. I feel it just fine. But that sure ain't my hand. Working construction left them calloused and leather tanned.

Yeah, construction. I'm pretty sure I do construction.

The bartender returns with the coffee. I nod and with the foreign hand pick up the cup and take a sip. It's coffee alright.

At least something makes sense.

I gulp down a good portion of the warm brew yet my head's not getting any better, so I decide it's time to go... head home. I reach to my back for my wallet, but there's not one. And my jeans feel odd. Smooth, soft. It's then I notice a little purse hanging over my left shoulder. I snap it open. There are several bills stuffed right in the top. Ten? No... fifteen, maybe? I'm buzzing, so that couldn't have been the first drink... could it? I find a twenty and a five and leave 'em on the counter.

Spinning around on the stool I stand and immediately tumble into a couple of young guys, knocking their laptop to the floor.

"Sorry," is all I can manage.

Without so much as a nod they grab their computer and head for the door.

I shrug it off and look down to see what it was I tripped over. I'm wearing high heels. A dress that hems out just above my knees.

What the hell? Even my damn legs are shaved.

I try to take another step in the heels and nearly bust my ankle as the shoe rolls to its side. Shit... how do women walk in these things?

More importantly... why am I wearing them?

I plop back onto the stool and slip off the heels. No way I'm getting all the way to the door wearing these goddamn shoes.

AC/DC is "Back in Black" by the time I make the exit. Outside it's dusk. A cool breeze helps with clearing the fog bank that looms in my brain. The street is narrow, busy, and lined with high buildings. Lots of folks hustle by me on the sidewalk, going to and coming from who knows where.

Definitely not Bakersfield.

I muddle my way to the corner, staying close to the wall just in case I need support. Here the buildings are taller, the street wider, the crowd thicker. I try to remember what little I know of Manhattan. Seems like the buildings are bigger there, you know, skyscrapers. Hell, I don't know.

Standing at the intersection I try to make sense of what's happening. Those passing by, those not staring at the ground at least, give that "oh, he's drunk" look.

Where was I before the bar? I press my... these hands... against my temples.

Think, damn it.

Horns honk. Cars stream by. I lean against the concrete building. Fuzzy images of a TV, a football game, slip in and out. Were there others? Was I by myself?

I continue down the sidewalk, but I've no idea where I'm heading. Someone rushing for the bus bumps me and the little purse thingy flips up against my arm.

Driver's license. Hell, yes.

I pop it open and dig through the wad of money. There is a credit card - Visa - a pair of earrings - gold hoops - a key of some sort, a cell phone, and, voila, the driver's license.

Kristen Manseebo.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Who on God's green Earth is Kristen Manseebo?

I take a long look around. Is this Pittsburgh?

How would I know? Never been there.

I clap the purse closed. Next to me is a storefront with children's clothes all laid out in a large window display. What catches my attention, however, are the reflections of the passers-by on the sidewalk. Especially the one that moves as I move.

But it's not me. Can't be.

She's tall, slim, blond. Shoulder length hair, nice figure. She's wearing a floral design short dress and has a tiny purse hanging over her left shoulder.

I put my hand to the glass and she meets it with hers.

Not possible. Who is this woman, and what am I doing in her body?

What's going on here?

I turn away. The reflection is more than I can take so I stagger down along the building a little farther. I no longer see the others walking the sidewalk, no longer hear the crush of traffic in the street.

Is this some kind of weird dream?

Then it hits me. The driver's license. Kristen's address. That has to be my next stop.



CHAPTER TWO

The crowd cheers for Mick Jagger. No, wait... it's a football game. On a large flat screen. What?

I sit up.

Oh my God... I'm on a sofa. One of those really big sectional ones.

Making matters worse, between the TV, which is even louder than Mick, the smell of beer and pizza in this room, and the marching band parading through my head, I feel like I could puke.

How much did I have to drink, anyway? How did I get here?

Not cool. I told myself no heavy drinking. I have that presentation on... well, soon. I think.

Girl, you must've really tied one on.

Slipping up a little higher in the couch I look around the room hoping for something, anything I might recognize.

Nada.

I haven't a clue whose house - apartment? - this is.

I turn back and notice that I'm wearing jeans. Crap... that's not good. How long have I been here? When did I change into jeans?

Wait... something's wrong with them. My legs aren't that big.

I move my hand down to touch them, but it's not my hand. It's big, rough, leathery from too much sun. And there's a plaid shirtsleeve that comes down to the wrist.

Like I would ever wear plaid.

I move the hand to the jeans and rub my... the... leg. I feel the jeans. I can feel the hand with the leg.

What's up with this?

I try to stand, but still a bit woozy. And I have to pee.

"Hello... anyone here?"

Wait, maybe that's not such a good idea. What if I was really, really drunk and someone took me home? Oh man, don't even want to think about it.

Okay, got my balance. Slipping around the end of the sofa I catch sight of a hallway. Must be a bathroom down there somewhere. I pass by the first door - looks like a bedroom - completely filled with boxes. Someone's either moving in... or moving out.

Next one is the bathroom. Thank the lord.

It's small, but this is no time to be picky. Bending over, I yank on the untucked shirt to get at the belt when I catch movement reflecting in the mirror.

It's a man.

I scream and dive for the floor.

But no one is there.

Shaking, I get back up to my knees and take a look around. Where'd he go? There's really nowhere to hide.

Only one explanation... he must have slipped out the bathroom door.

Crap... what should I do?

I grab the edge of the sink and stand. Maybe I'll just have a peek out into the hall. But as I pass the mirror, there he is again.

I spin around, my hands, or these hands, raised.

Once again, no one there.

Slowly I turn back to the mirror. The man in the reflection is doing the same. He's older, maybe fiftyish, salt and pepper hair, sunbeaten with a couple of days' stubble.

It's like one of those bad horror movies.

Or that show... what was it? The Twilight Zone... that's it.

"Who are you?" I ask, but it hits me that his mouth moves with my words.

And my voice is all wrong. Low, gruff. Not me at all.

"Who are you?" This time I scream. Tears begin to flow, but he only taunts me with tears of his own. "Please tell me... who are yooou..."

The rough hands to my face, I drop to my knees and then to the floor.

What kind of cruel trick is this? Why is this happening to me?



I must have passed out crying. My cheek lies against the cool tile floor. The only sounds are the distant TV and the marching band still playing in my head.

I could sure use a drink.

No. No more drinks.

Rolling over I feel a lump under my butt. I reach back onto the floor but there's nothing. Rather it's in the back pocket of the jeans.

A wallet.

I pull it out and flip it open. It's one of those leather ones that fold in half. There's a California driver's license on the one side peeking through a plastic window. The picture is of the man in the mirror.

Craig Sheltonham.

I'm lost. I don't know a Craig Sheltonham.

And Bakersfield? Never even heard of it.

None of this makes any sense. I'm not understanding what's going on here.

I take a deep breath. Tears threaten, but I hold them back. Then another reality more pressing strikes me. I still need to pee.

I set the wallet down on the sink, being careful to keep my gaze away from that damn mirror, and push myself up from the floor. Back up comes the shirt and I unbuckle the belt. The jeans have those buttons instead of a zipper so I end up fumbling with them for a couple of minutes. With the pants down I find myself staring at - can you believe it - a pair of boxers. With race cars.

This just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

Man, making things worse, it doesn't look like I've shaved my legs in months.

I'll take care of that later. Right now I just want to pee. And then I'll go back to bed. When I wake up, this will be all over. A terrible nightmare.

I push down the boxers and... oh, Jesus...



CHAPTER THREE

The taxi pulls up in front of an apartment complex and screeches to a stop. The driver, half turning, sticks a finger toward the window.

"47805 is the third build'n back," he says.

He's got some kind of southern accent and his breath reeks of cigarettes and coffee.

I follow his point and nod. Sneaking a quick peek at the fare - $32.50, shit, it sure ain't cheap to get around in Pittsburgh - I dig into the purse. I hand him two twenties which doesn't leave much cash. If this nightmare doesn't end soon I'm gonna have to start using Kristen's Visa.

A hedge-lined flagstone path that hurts my bare feet leads me between two good sized buildings and to the face of the "third build'n back."

In the light I take another look at the license. Apartment 2309. Must be the second floor.

There's a main door, all glass, and inside I can see a shallow lobby with elevators along the back wall. I grab the door, but it's locked. Backing up a bit I notice a touch panel just to the side of the entrance.

Dammit... I need some kind of code to get in.

I try the apartment number, but the little light stays red.

Frustrated, I stand there hoping someone will happen by when 5577 pops into my head.

Where did that come from?

I punch in the numbers and there is a loud buzz from the door. Grabbing the handle, I pull it open and slip into the lobby. The elevator is old and the ride up creaky but I am quickly stepping out onto the second floor. The hallway has been recently painted, there's new carpet, and a group of fancy paintings line the wall. The closest door is to the left and labeled 2305, so I head off in that direction.

2309. What if she has a boyfriend? Husband? My eyes dart to her, my, left ring finger.

No ring. Good.

Should I knock?

Why? It's my, her, apartment, for Christ's sake.

I pull out the key and open the door. Inside it's dark except for a dim light in a hall directly across the front room.

I throw on a light. The place is a showroom. You know, like Levitz. No, wait... what's that other place? Ikea... that's it.

The apartment smells of some kind of flower, but I can't quite place it. Lilac, lavender... something like that.

I walk to the kitchen, set those shit for shoes on the counter, and open the fridge.

No beer. Damn. I could sure use a beer right now.

But there is some wine.

Have to do.

Sipping wine from a coffee cup I found on the counter, I tour the rest of the house. Off a short hall I find two bedrooms - one made up as an office - and a bath. All resemble the front room - way too neat and tidy.

Back in the kitchen I catch a peek at the time on the microwave: 6:37 p.m.

Thought it's early I know at some point I'm going to have to get some shut-eye. Maybe that's the answer. When I wake up this whole damn mess will be over. Just a badass dream, that's all. Just a badass dream.

I pop open the fridge again lookin' for something to munch on. There's yogurt and rabbit food, but not a stitch of anything worth eatin'.

I start rummaging through cupboards pushing stuff around until I find a box of Fruit Loops hidden behind some organic granola bars. I knew this chick couldn't survive solely on lettuce and carrots.

Digging out a bowl and spoon, I pour some milk - damn 1% watered down shit - and head back down the hall, spilling a trail along the way as I go. I find myself drawn to the bedroom she's converted to an office and next thing you know I'm sitting at the laptop.

Never had much use for these things, but this one, for some reason, sucks me in. I find the power switch and flick it on, crunching Fruit Loops all the while. It boots up to a password screen and without thinking I type in Casper01.

The desktop screen appears.

How the hell did I know that?

Maybe I don't want to know.

The laptop grinds for a few more minutes and then a window pops up from something called "Outlook." It's a reminder screen that the Jefferson Project is due Monday.

I realize that I've only built two of the spreadsheets and barely started the proposal... wait... what am I thinking? Where did that come from?

I've never made a freakin' spreadsheet in my life. And what's with the "freakin'?" It's a fucking spreadsheet. There... I said it. It's a fucking spreadsheet. And I don't make them. I make... I make...

Damn... what is it I do?



CHAPTER FOUR

I wake up to sunlight dribbling in through dusty blinds. Last night I somehow made it back to the sofa - there was just no way I was going to sleep in that filthy, unmade bed.

It takes everything I have to get up and drag my way to the kitchen. There's a door leading outside at the far end so I open it up and take a peek. The first thing that hits me is the heat. Pretty damn warm for this time of the morning.

The thought causes me to glance over at the clock.

Wow! I must have slept hard. It's already nine.

I turn back and glance outside. The fence-lined yard has been recently mowed. There are a couple of flower beds, well tended. And a giant shade tree stands in the corner, underneath which sits one of those chairs you always see in the pictures of beaches in Martha's Vineyard. Adirondack?

In any case, the yard is quite the contrast to this shitty mess of a house.

Whoa... where is that language coming from?

Cut yourself some slack, girl, these are weird times.

Closing the door I move through the kitchen and living area to open the front door. A short yard, once again well mown, hedges around the edge, and a long driveway that disappears through the shrubs.

I walk out to the edge of the driveway. It's a rural road; the house is pretty much by itself. Up the street - quite a ways up the street - I can see one or two houses scattered here and there.

I am in the freakin' boondocks.

Turning, I nearly bump into the mailbox, something I need to reset. It's got a nasty lean from when I hit it with the truck last week.

What? I don't even have a car, much less a truck. I am definitely losing it.

Back inside the house I sit at the counter, face in my hands. I feel like I need to call someone, but really not sure who. The cops? Like they would believe me.

"Hi, my name is Craig, but I used to be a girl..."

Oh, yeah... that'd work.

Wait... if I'm in this Craig guy's body... is he in mine? Oh my god.

Maybe I could call my cell. Would he answer?

I walk over to the phone mounted on the wall. Jesus, it's got one of those dial things. No buttons.

I pick up the handset. My, his, finger in one of the little holes on the dial.

What's my number? Shit.

I slam the handset back down. Spinning around I face the fridge. I'm not really hungry, but go ahead I open it up. The middle shelf is stocked to the edge with cans of Budweiser beer.

Breakfast of champions... and today, exactly what the doctor ordered.

By the fourth beer I'm sitting out in back under the shade tree. Must be a regular spot, for next to the chair is an old fifty-five gallon drum that's been converted for trash or recycling. As if this guy would ever recycle.

Nonetheless, it's half full of empty cans.

The fourth one is too much and I pour what's left out onto the grass. Tears begin run down my cheek, but, for the life of me, I don't know why.

I toss the can and before I know it I'm in the house and headed for the bedroom. By god if I'm going to be Craig Sheltonham I need to know more about him.

I pull drawers open, fumble through the closet. Dig in pockets, even empty the wallet. Other than his birthday and address, some dirty socks and wrinkled clothes, there's really nothing here.

It's then I remember the other bedroom. The boxes.

I shift over to that room and what last night seemed to be a messy stack of containers that were either ready to move or waiting to be unpacked unveils itself as a shrine. The boxes are stacked in a specific fashion. I can see it now.

Starting at the left I carefully open the top box uncovering a stash of clothes. Women's clothing. Floral dresses neatly folded with tissue paper in between each one.

They're all the same size: six.

The next box is heavier, and I slide it to the floor. Necklaces, bracelets, earrings in nice jewelry boxes, and a few framed pictures.

The top picture is a man and woman standing outside a church, a good-sized group of well-wishers tossing rice. He's in a suit, definitely not Armani, but nice, and she's radiant in her wedding gown.

It only takes me a minute to recognize the man as a much younger version of the Craig Sheltonham I saw in the mirror.

After sifting through the rest of the pictures - each catching a frozen moment of a better time - I move on to the other cardboard treasure chests. More pictures, mementos, leis from a trip to Hawaii, books, even a stained apron tucked into to the side.

Replacing the lid I notice one last box set to the back. It's different from the first group, not only in its color, but shape. The top folds back as opposed to coming off like the rest.

Inside there are stacks of papers. Insurance forms. Hospital and doctor bills. Empty prescription bottles.

I pick up one of the larger bottles. The label says something about treatment for acute nausea resulting from chemotherapy, but my eyes have suddenly become blurry. Tears run down my cheeks. I suck in air, but it comes out in gasps.

The patient's name is Marie Sheltonham.



CHAPTER FIVE

Morning came and went. I seemed to have missed it and wake to find myself stretched out on the couch. I stayed up late last night being nosy, too much so, on the girl's laptop.

I really got caught up in those spreadsheets. Some kind of massive housing development east of Pittsburgh. Her company is knee deep in bidding for the development phase of it. One thing's for sure, this young lady is pretty sharp and knows the business, but after I dug through the spreadsheets and got a hint of how the damn things work - why didn't I let Lenny talk me into using a computer for the business, anyway? - I noticed that her time estimates for the framing and concrete pouring were off. Way off. We're talkin' some big bucks here. So I fixed 'em.

Shit... what did I do?

I did good. I helped her. I'm sure of it.

Something told me - hell if I know what - that the draft for her proposal was in her email, which was part of that Outlook program. I opened her inbox to look for it but instead, when it popped up, I came across a sad exchange of back and forths with some guy that had obviously - or at least obviously to me - found himself some hot honey in Chicago. Okay, he didn't come right out and say it, the asshole, but come on, Kristen, you've been dumped.

It must have been late by then. I remember struggling to keep my eyes open. There was something there from an adoption agency in California, but my head was spinning so I gave up for the night. Poor kid, and that dick of a boyfriend must have been thinking of adopting. I wonder if she's not able to have kids? Or... maybe ol' mister can't-keep-his-zipper-up shoots blanks. Either way, they must have been pretty serious if they were already thinking along those lines.

I feel the air drain out of my lungs. There's a heavy weight on my shoulders pushing them down to an awkward slump.

My... my... wife... couldn't have kids. Something happened before we got married.

Jesus... why can't I remember her name? Who the fuck am I? Kristen what's her name? No... I'm not. I'm someone else. I was married. I was...

I jump from the couch and head to the refrigerator. Fruit Loops are the last thing I remember eating and they aren't doing it. I stand with the door open knowing there's nothing in there that I would eat even if I had just wandered in after two weeks in the Mojave Desert.

I slam the door shut and spin around. There's no phone in the kitchen. Nothing on the nightstand next to the bed. What's up with the young folks these days and regular old phones? I'm about to give up when I remember the cell phone in the purse.

Kristen is about to order Domino's.

While I wait for the pizza I take those godforsaken high heels and head back to dig through her closet - damn thing's nearly as big as the bedroom - hoping to find some jeans and maybe another top. I've had it with this dress.

And there's got to be some decent shoes.

I could use a shower, but not sure I'm ready for that just yet. This whole thing is fuckin' weird enough without seeing myself... uhhh... her naked.

More comfortably dressed, I wander a bit wondering what to do next. Is there anyone I can talk to about this? Would anyone even believe me?

Damn... not a chance. I'd end up in some shitty psycho ward. Rubber walls. Straight jacket.

But, what the hell? Maybe that's what I need... maybe I've gone off the deep end.

No. There's got to be an answer to this. People don't just wake up in someone else's body one day.

So, where do I start? What am I looking for?

The pizza comes along with a giant Coke. A diet Coke. Gotta have some regard for this girl's body. Looks like she's taken pretty good care of it to this point.

Much more than I can say for myself over the last... year? Has it been two? Must be... hell, I don't know how much time has passed since she...

I brush away the thought. Even so, tears flow down my cheeks.

After lunch, breakfast, whatever that was, I find myself carefully wiping the counter, rinsing the bowl from last night, tossing the pizza box, and placing the Coke bottle in the recycle. I even wipe up the milk and Fruit Loops that I spilled last night.

Rag in hand I stand in the kitchen for several minutes staring. What was that all about?

I hang the rag to dry. Suddenly it feels like the outside world is calling. I debate on taking a walk, talking to the neighbors, trying to find out more about this girl. Maybe she has friends, places she goes. Maybe I could pass by her place of work.

Something... anything.

But instead I'm pulled back to the laptop. A quick sign-in and I bring up her email. Second day and I'm already getting pretty good at this computer shit.

I find the last note from the Chicago pretty boy. Full of sad excuses why he doesn't seem to have time to call or can't come to see her because he's working so much. Bullshit. I hate bullshit.

Along the top I find the REPLY button and click it.

I type:

"Just because I'm blond doesn't mean I'm brainless, asshole. I get it, OKAY?

So fuck off and leave me alone."

SEND

I'm pretty sure I fixed that way better than those spreadsheets.



CHAPTER SIX

Porter Ellington sits at his desk, phone to his ear. At the other end there's an echoing clunk as the handset is set down on a desk. He can hear the aide who answered talking to Senator Marksworth off in the distance.

"Him again?" It's a deep voice that is unmistakably Marksworth. "Tell him I'm still busy. And will be for some time."

Porter clasps the bridge of his nose and sighs. There's a light tap at the door and Colonel Brighton steps in. He nods at the colonel and waves him to the chair at the side of his desk.

He covers the transmitter on the phone.

"Marksworth. Goddamn Senate is trying to cut our appropriations again."

The colonel nods as he sits and crosses his arms. Ellington notes the colonel looking toward the door, window, anywhere but at him. He sits stiffly, as if bound to a board.

He cups the transmitter again.

"Something up?"

Another nod.

"Not good, is it?"

"'Fraid not."

The senator's aide returns full of apologies, but Ellington, now distracted by whatever the colonel's news might be, loses his urge to fight. With a quick thank you, he simply hangs up the phone.

"Okay... so let's have it."

The colonel stands and begins to pace in front of the NSA Research Director's desk.

"There's been a breach of security into the lab database."

Porter leans back. "A hacker?"

The colonel nods again. "Some kids out of Pitt."

"University?"

"Yes."

"Damn. Do we know when this took place? And, hell, more importantly, do we know what they accessed?"

"Looks like they first got in about a week ago."

Porter scoots back up in the chair. "And I'm just now hearing about this... why?"

"Well... well, we just didn't know. And once things broke, we jumped on it like flies on shit. Fortunately they'd left behind a trail, IPs and such, so we were able to fish them out pretty damn quick. Two of our guys rounded them up this morning. I just came from talking with them. I think we scared the crap out of them."

"Did they know what they'd gotten themselves into?"

"It doesn't look like they ever really understood what the module was designed to do. But, and I'm guessing here, once they started messing around with it I think they figured out they were digging into something pretty damn deep."

"And how deep were they able to dig, my friend?"

"They struck gold."

"Shit... can we have some good news for a change?" The director stands and looks out the window. Several trees toss their leaves against the panes as they blow in a light breeze. He turns back to the colonel.

"So, what'd they hit?"

"The SatNet Infiltration Exchange prototype."

"That's not even active yet, is it?"

"It was still in development when funding was cut, but there are some active components on it."

Porter Ellington drops into his chair, rubbing his temples as he leans back again. "So, I'm assuming you're here not because we had a minor security breach where some kids stumbled upon a half-ass test database."

"They were able to figure out the satellite redirects, set some trajectories, and designate a target."

"Jesus. Are you telling me they successfully targeted an exchange?"

"Well, sir -"

"Dammit, Glenn, enough of the sir crap. You and I have been doing this too long together to play the tip the hat, dance around the bush bullshit. We're in deep shit here. Give it to me straight."

"They coordinated a single target. They really didn't know how the thing worked, so there was never a second target specified."

"Wait... I know the thing had a million bugs, but for the infiltration to be successful even at the stage it was in you need a secondary target. Right? How could it work without a secondary exchange? For Christ's sake, that thing was designed to allow our agents to become active in a foreign body. That was our best hope of infiltrating al Qaeda, not to mention half a dozen other 'entities'."

"I know, I know. But there is a lower loop in the software that, should the operator not select a second target, polls the first and finds a suitable match."

"What? So it picks one on its own?

"That appears to be the case. The developer stuck the extra loop in there because they were still in test phase. And then the project lost funding, so nothing was ever updated."

"How the hell does it poll the primary... and what's considered a suitable match?"

"Kingsley is looking into that. Some sort of brainwave pattern matching. Out of my league, Porter. Those guys do some pretty strange shit with that high freq crap."

The director leans forward, elbows on the desk, and buries his face into his hands.

"Do we have an ID on the primary target?"

"No ID yet. The kids were using a laptop late night in a bar somewhere in downtown Pittsburgh. They tried inserting their own long-lat, but when nothing happened they figured they did it wrong. They told me they were expecting a laser beam or something." A sly smile crosses the colonel's face and he shakes his head and chuckles. "Nonetheless the attempt triggered a warning here in the center and our guys logged them out remotely at that point. The kids freaked and went home."

"So nothing happened?"

"Wouldn't that be peachy. Not on the cards for us, Porter. Our luck just ain't that good. It found a target."

"Christ. We know who?"

"Getting close. The primary left at the same time as the boys, so our tracking lagged a bit. We're closing in, though."

"The secondary?"

"Somewhere just outside Bakersfield, California."



CHAPTER SEVEN

I found the laundry room in a covered breezeway between the house and the garage. It pretty much looked like an abandoned building - cobwebs, dust on the machines, you name it. Took a little cleaning, and ripping down the rotted curtains to get in some light, but now I've got the sheets and towels washing, blankets next. My, his, pickup - a white Ford F250 with one of those big silver toolboxes right behind the cab - is parked in the garage next to one of the newer Volkswagen Beetles. Red.

The garage is deep with a workbench, giant Craftsman toolboxes on wheels, and a million other tools hanging on a pegboard along the back wall. Just beyond I come to a door I assume will take me out into the back yard. However, when I open it I'm surprised to find a good-sized office. The centerpiece, up against the back wall, is a big wooden desk with one of those wooden chairs that squeak when you lean back. Couple of tall, four-drawer, wooden file cabinets, one to either side. A white board hangs on the wall with names, dates, addresses, and some details about a project.

Work assignments.

The last close date is well over six months ago.

I step over to the desk and take a seat; the chair complains with the expected creak. I find a stack of unopened mail, mostly from the Gas Company, Edison, Shell Oil, etcetera. I slide the mountain of envelopes to the side only to uncover a checkbook bound in the standard plastic bank-provided cover.

Do people still use these things? I don't think I even have a checkbook... do I?

I shake my head. Along the back of the desk I can see piles of receipts, pens in holders, and a phone/answering machine combo - light a-blinking.

Hmmm.

Turning to my left I take in a framed picture with me - Craig - and I assume Lenny, arms around each other's shoulders, standing in front of a construction site. On the other side is a picture of Marie. She's older than in the wedding shot, but every bit as lovely. I feel a tightness in my chest.

It's so easy to see why Craig fell in love with this woman. Yet, there's something else. Something I can't explain or understand. I stare into her eyes searching, but no answers come.

I stand and take a deep breath. As with the back yard, the office has a complete different feel than the house. Though it's obvious I've... he's... not been here for a while, it's not unkempt.

On a whim I lean over the desk, push the PLAY button on the answering machine and listen to the messages.

Lenny wondering how I'm doing. He's got three new jobs, just call him when I'm ready.

A lady named Marcia who needs an addition on her house. Wants an estimate.

Edison, reminding me that my service can be disconnected if my three-month overdue bill isn't resolved.

At least a dozen more requests for estimates on everything from decks to complete houses.

The last one is from Sam. My attorney. Call me, he says... there's something I need to talk with you about. Concerning Marie. She left some papers for you.

Marie. The name hits me like a brick. I fall into the chair, tears from nowhere roll down my cheeks.

Marie.

Moments - hours? - pass and I am frozen to the chair. The distant chime of the washing machine finishing its load frees me from the ice and I start to get up to move the linens.

But then I stop, my eyes are back on the stack of bills.

I pick up the checkbook and flip it open. Bank of America, Castle Ranch branch. As if in a trance I grab up the phone and dial the bank, knowing the number by heart. There is an automated menu - thankfully this phone has buttons - and in a matter of seconds I am talking to my old friend Hilda Compton who manages my account.

"Hilda, things have been a bit on the down side and I haven't been doing a very good job of taking care of business," I say. "Can you tell me my account balance, please?"

"Of course. Craig, we've been so worried about you. You doing better? I know how much you miss her." There's a bit of a cough, but she quickly continues. "How much we all miss her."

"Been tough, but a little better every day."

"Good. So good to hear. I have to say... you do sound... uh, 'different', today. A good different."

"Oh... well, thanks." I think?

I can hear her hitting computer keys on the other end. "Okay, the current balance in your personal account is $36,405.38, savings $637,733.97, and your business account, which Lenny has been handling, is $1,459,712.33, not counting the latest deposits. And you know he moved the payroll to another account, don't you?"

"Uh, no."

"Would you like that balance as well?"

"Please. That would be great, Hilda."

"Okay... that's $87,955.22. Looks like they just paid out Friday or it would have been more. Lenny's been keeping the boys busy, but you know how he hates the business part of it. He sure misses you. We both miss you, Craig."

I'm gasping for air at the numbers and maybe more so the sentiment, but find my voice.

"Yes... Lenny is a good man. I'm lucky to have him working for me. You've both been so understanding and supportive. I'd be lost without you two."

I can feel her smile over the phone and thank her as we hang up, realizing only then that Lenny is Lenny Compton, Hilda's husband, and that we've all been friends for more than tweny-five years. It was Lenny who introduced me, uh, Craig, to Marie.

I seem... dammit, Craig seems to remember her being leery at the time. Lenny said something about a bad experience.

So I vowed we'd take it slow. But, despite that, we, they, were married within a year. And she stuck to me, geesh... HIM... like glue for twenty-four years. Just short of twenty-five.

Hard to believe she's been gone almost a year.

I blink away the tears and catch my breath. I'm twenty-seven and these two were married almost as long as I've been alive.

Amazing. I feel a twinge of... jealousy?... envy?... at their strong love. But, deep inside, I more so feel a warm contentment that such a thing does exist.

I wipe my nose - I hate the sniffles - and pull over the pad with my notes from the phone messages, but my eyes can't help but fall to the stack of bills once again.

Time for some catching up.



CHAPTER EIGHT

When you get up at noon three o'clock in the afternoon rolls around pretty quick. Aside from becoming an expert in email relationship management and eating pizza, I've done little and now feel like I'm letting the day slip away.

I wander through my, her, apartment - probably for a third time - with something nagging at me in the back of my mind. Yet I can't quite put a finger on it.

Even with my intrusion, the rooms are neat as a pin, nothing out of order. It was the first thing I noticed when I stepped in last night.

Damn... was it only last night? Seems like a lifetime ago.

It's as if no one actually LIVES here. Sure... it's a bed and a shower, but life goes deeper than that... doesn't it?

Shit... listen to me talk.

Without much thought I find myself sitting back in front of the laptop. I'm tempted to see if lover boy has replied to my smackdown when I hear a song playing on what sounds like a cheap speaker somewhere.

I stare at the computer for a moment, but I quickly realize it's coming from the kitchen. By the time I'm standing in front of the fridge the music has stopped.

I stand quiet, wondering if this is just another symptom of my deranged mind, when the music starts again. It's coming from the countertop.

It's her damn phone. Imagine that.

I pick it up and there is a note on the screen that says there are six voicemails and I have eight missed calls.

Press send to access your voicemail.

So I do.

Five of the calls are from my... Kristen's work. I dial in the passcode.

They're all from the same coworker. Rachel, if I remember right. Sits right across from me.

And the message is the same in each voicemail:

It's Thursday, you know. A WORK day. Where are you?

Shit. Just fuckin' great. Now what'd I do?

I catch my breath and call the number back, not the slightest idea what I'm going to say. I get lucky when she gives me the lead. The first words out of her mouth are: "Are you working from home today?"

Well, of course I am.

And the spreadsheets are done.

"How about the proposal?"

Shit... forgot about that. "Isn't that supposed to be due Monday?"

"McCutchen wants it like yesterday... you know the drill."

"Gotcha... I'm on it."

"Are you okay, Kristen?"

I'm caught off guard by the question.

"I'm great... why do you ask?"

"Well... you sound, you know... uh, different."

"Good different... or bad?"

There's a pause. "Good. Real good. Wait... I get it. You dumped dipshit, didn't you?"

"You bet your sweet ass I did."

"Go, girl! I can say it now... that guy was a jerk-off."

My words exactly, sister. My words exactly.

We make some small talk, mostly office gossip (how is it I know any of this stuff?), before I say my goodbyes and hang up. It occurs to me there is one last message so I check the voicemail again.

Great... it's lover boy from Chicago.

Full of apologies and how about we meet for the weekend.

Fat chance, asshole.

I debate on calling him back, but, screw that... I need to get on this proposal thing.

I recall seeing the document stored in Outlook as a draft, so I head back to the office and click open the program. There is a slew of new emails, all work related, and I make my way through them one at a time. The answers to the questions seem to roll right off the tip of my tongue, even though I've never dealt with any of this nonsense before.

That behind me, I find and open the proposal. It's only an outline at this point, and it quickly becomes obvious this baby needs a lot of TLC. There are headings for a simple statement of work, the job bid, and timeframes, mostly based on the spreadsheets and information that I... she... gathered from discussions with the trades, but not much else.

The digital clock on the desk corner reads nearly ten-thirty when I give the document one final look before sending it off with the spreadsheets to my manager.

I'm feeling pretty good. It's a home run.

And suddenly I'm starving.

In the kitchen, I put together a light green salad topped with some grilled chicken and sit down at the counter with a bottle of water. I decide that tomorrow I will call the contact listed on the proposal and make some conversation. Butter the guy up a bit. Take him out to lunch. I'm not sure how they do business here in Pittsburgh, but that works in Bakersfield every time, by God.

I take the salad with me back to the laptop and make reminder notes in Outlook. I'll call the guy around 9:30. Yeah... that gives him time to get coffee and do his email. Then 11:30 for lunch. Piniche's. That'll impress his ass.

Shit... that means taking a shower. I've been able to work out the pee thing - women sure got the short end of the stick on that one - but the shower is a whole nuther matter.

And there's the hair thing. And picking out clothes.

Clothes. Jesus, I guess that also means I'd better start practicing walking in those goddamn heels.

I start to head to the bedroom - now's as good of time as any to give it a go - when there is a knock at the door.

What the? It's almost 11 at night. Who the hell could that be?

The Chicago lover boy... of course. Who else would have the code to get in the building?

I look around the room for something as a "just in case." Peeking out from under the bed I see the end of a baseball bat.

Good girl, Kristen. A Louisville Slugger.

Holding it behind me I walk to the door and start to put my eye to the peephole.

I never reach it. The door flies open knocking me backwards. Two big guys, dressed in black like some sort of ninja wannabees, race in and throw me to the floor.

One holds me down while the other closes the door.

On the way back he picks up the bat and smiles.

"Don't worry, Ms. Manseebo, we're not here to hurt you."

Yeah, I'm sure she's heard that line before.

I'd give the guy my opinion, you know, in nice lady-like terms, but the guy holding me down covers my mouth with his hand. The other guy then pulls out a hypodermic needle and pushes the plunger a bit squirting some clear liquid into the air. He drops to one knee and jabs it into my arm.

Ouch.

I decide I'm gonna bite the shit out of the guy's hand covering my mouth, but just then everything fades to black.



CHAPTER NINE

In the mirror I can see remnants of the sun settling in behind the distant foothills as I pull into the garage, stopping in almost the exact spot where the truck was parked before I left.

Damn, I'm driving this pickup like a pro.

I'd thought about taking the Bug, much smaller and I'd feel more comfortable, but, that was Marie's and it just didn't seem right.

Besides, no tellin' who I might run in to and the pickup would look more natural.

I sit quiet there in the driver's seat for a second - been a hell of a day - before finally hopping out. Grabbing a couple of bags and the paperwork, I head back into the house. I make a mental note to come back out and take the boxes to the office after I put up the groceries.

Standing in front of the now beer-less refrigerator I realize I forgot to stop by Sam's office. Damn. There's something important in those papers, I can just feel it.

It hits me how odd it is that Sam waited almost a year before telling me... uh, Craig.

I sit down at the kitchen table to go over my list. Funny, it's the first time in a year... well, a really long time... that I've sat down at the table. With a rustic thick wood top and giant spun legs, it looks like it's a million years old and Paul Bunyan (that's the lumberjack guy with the big blue ox, right?) carved it out with his axe. Marie found it at a moving sale and fell in love with it.

My eyes are drawn to the dent on the far corner where I dropped the coffee pot.

Marie hadn't felt good that morning - not that she had for any number of mornings during that time - but for the first time actually mentioned something about it when we got up.

I knew something wasn't right.

Shit.

I remember turning; she stood there white as a ghost, one hand held on to the back of the chair.

Same one I'm sitting in now.

It's all slow motion then. I started pouring the coffee - hers first like always - and then I could only watch as she fell to the floor. My feet, encased in concrete, wouldn't move fast enough. I... I...

A deep breath and I brush the thought away. From now on I'm only thinking of the good. There were twenty-four magical years, by God, and I'm not going to let six fucked-up months ruin that.

I glance back down at my list. I found a couple of those legal pads out in the office, you know, the yellow-sheeted ones. It seems hard to believe people still use these... yet, there was something crazy good about sitting down and writing. With a pen.

Most everything is scratched off as done.

But that only means tomorrow will be yet another busy day.

I flip the page and fold it under the pad to start a new list for tomorrow.

Number one... I need to get by Sam's. Something's important there and I really need to know.

The puppy at the shelter will be ready. Got to pick him up. This place is missing life.

I have to stop by the office. I managed to land us several new jobs, but, more than anything, Lenny needs a hug, a handshake, and me, Craig, to be back there supporting him. He's a good man.

And Marie would want that.

I put down the pen - I'll finish this later - and head back out toward the garage. Grabbing two boxes from the front seat of the truck I make my way into the office.

The light on the answering machine is once again flashing. No time now. Another thing to add that to the "to do" list for tomorrow.

I move a few things on the desk and set the new laptop in the clearing. Feeding the power and cables down through a slot I realize that one of them is the LAN connection.

I grab a pen and make a quick note on the telephone pad.

Order internet.

I wonder... do we have email at the downtown office?

A web site?

Tomorrow's gettin' busier and busier.

While the laptop powers up and begins to initialize, I open the second box to take a look at the iPhone.

The tech at the store did most of the setup, so, at this point, the phone only needs a charge. Crawling under the desk I find an outlet, plug the adapter in, and let it do its thing. I sit back in the chair staring at the two devices. Really not much more I can do for now, so I head back to the kitchen. A hefty growl from my tummy reminds me that I've not eaten since, well, since the beer, if that counts.

Stepping into the kitchen I suddenly have a wild urge for Fruit Loops - where'd that come from? - but wave it off and start some pasta boiling instead. Thinking it's probably late for something that heavy I glance up at the time - we've got one of those cat clocks, you know, black and white with a tail that swings back and forth - and see it's already 9:30.

Geesh... where did the day go?

But yet, on the other side of the coin... I'm feeling pretty good about all that I was able to accomplish, especially with the late start.

Real good.

And tomorrow will be even better.

I pull a jar of sauce from the cupboard - Mario Batali, Arrabbiata... never heard of you, Mario, but, you're all I have on the shelf, so you'll have to do - and pour it into a bowl.

A few minutes of nuking in the microwave and, voila, dinner is served.

I start to settle in at the table but decide to head back out to the office instead. I find the laptop has completed the preliminary stuff and sits at a logon screen. Perfect timing.

With a mouthful of angel hair pasta, I set up a login and start playing around with placing icons for Word and Excel on the desktop. It's then something catches my attention - a noise of some sort from the direction of the garage.

At first I'm not too concerned - it's late, this is an old house, it was freakin' hot today, and probably the house is settling - but I feel the hair on the back of my neck rise.

Instinctively I reach under the desk where I have a hidden shelf, only to remember I moved the .45 into the house. Tucked away in the bedroom closet. I stopped coming out here as much, but really, to be honest, I didn't trust myself with it those first few months after Marie passed. In fact, I almost gave it to Lenny.

Another noise. Definitely not the house settling. Sounds more like the shuffling of feet.

I pick up the phone - gonna call 911. No dial tone.

Shit.

I remember the iPhone, but the lights go out. Fumbling in the dark I grab it and dive to the floor.

I dial... 9-1-

BAM.

The door flies open. Men are yelling and something is hurled into the room bouncing up against the wall near me.

CRACK-BOOM.

There's a bright light and ear-shattering explosion that fills the room with smoke and throws me up against the desk. I can't breathe.

My ears ringing, I'm in a sort of shell shock.

Yet, above it all I hear the clap of approaching feet.

The phone... I must have dropped it. I drag my hands around on the floor trying to find it by feel - I can't see a damn thing - when my arms are grabbed from either side and I am tossed over on my back like a sack of potatoes.

I ain't no sissy, been working construction all my life and, without trying to sound like I'm bragging, I can hang in there with the best of them. But these guys - there must be four or more of them - toss me around like a rag doll.

While my legs are being held down by one, another leans a knee into my chest. A third stretches out my arms above my head.

Another pulls out my wallet and splits open the dark with a short burst of white from a small flashlight. He swings it toward my face blinding me with a shot straight into my eyes.

The dark returns and no one speaks or moves. My eyes still sting from both the smoke and the laser beam of light. Several minutes go by before a deep voice breaks the silence.

"Is it him?"

"Confirmed."

"Okay."

A hand pulls up my shirt sleeve and I feel the needle as it slides into my arm.

"You sons-a-bitches," is the last thing I say before I pass out.



CHAPTER TEN

Deep in my brain, somewhere just behind the bridge of my nose, a train has crashed. I'm thinking, based on the impact, there are no survivors.

Nearby, maybe just to my left, I can hear a loud - too loud - buzzing noise that seems to be in sync with the throb. High, low, high, low.

Make it go away.

Please.

I peel open an eye and peer out from under the cover. Straight lines of sunlight paint their way across the nightstand and the alarm clock that rests on top of it. I want to reach over and turn the dang thing off, but quickly realize that it would take less effort to push over the Rock of Gibraltar. A lot less.

How late did I stay at Carnies? And how much did I have to drink? Girl, you promised yourself no more of that.

To top it off, Cliff didn't even show.

What a jerk.

Probably couldn't make it back from Chicago because he had to "work" again.

Like I'm supposed to believe that.

What's your work's name, hey Cliff? Sarah? Renee? Marie?

Why am I such a sucker?

Wait... Marie... something about that name. Who do I know named Marie?

The throbbing keeps me from following the thought. But I know there is more there. Can't look for it now, though. Can't do much of anything.

I slide back the cover just enough to get an arm out and slam the top of the alarm clock, sending the room into a needed quiet. In doing so I catch a glimpse of the time.

6:05 A.M.

What was I thinking setting the clock so early?

Then it hits me.

Shit... err... shoot... it's a work day, dammit. I have to get those spreadsheets out and figure out what to do about that proposal. When McCutchen threw that project on my desk I knew he was testing me, being the new kid on the block and all.

Sink or swim, kiddo.

Well I'm not sinking... that's all there is to it.

I throw the covers back and try to sit up. Whoa... some serious dizzy going on here.

And if that's not bad enough I feel like I haven't taken a shower in days. Crap... I'm still wearing my jeans and top. Yuck.

Wait... wasn't I wearing...

Don't even think about it, Kristen.

Once I get my feet under me, I head for a good soak in a long hot shower. From there I tread my way into the kitchen. The throb has subsided to mere jungle drums - the volume of which makes me wonder why the neighbors aren't complaining - and I can almost see clearly now. I'm guessing... hoping... that some breakfast might finish off these woozies.

On the counter next to the refrigerator is the box of Fruit Loops that I normally hide back behind the granola. An empty bowl and spoon sit in the sink.

I stand somewhat stunned for a moment. What did I do last night?

At least I rinsed them out.

It looks like Fruit Loops and tea it will be for breakfast.

Water boiled and the tea in my cup sufficiently strong - or close enough - I open the trash to toss the bag. I'm taken aback. For there, jammed in the can, is a crushed Domino's Pizza box.

Domino's? Really, Kristen?

Something really weird is going on here.

I lean against the counter and try to put the pieces together. I remember sitting at the bar in Carnies Grill, some classic rock playing in the background. Maybe the Stones? Then a football game.

Wait... now that I think of it, I don't recall ever seeing a TV at Carnies.

Was I really that drunk?

Did someone drop something in my drink?

Crap... I don't even want to go down that road.

I take the tea and cereal into the office. Might as well get a head start on the project 'cause it's most likely gonna take me all weekend to get it right.

Luckily the proposal isn't due until Monday.

Stepping into the office I stumble across the next surprise.

My bat leans against the door's trim.

What in the...?

I look around the room for anything that seems out of place.

Nothing.

Until I go to set the cereal and tea down next to the computer, that is. There sits what's left of a bowl of wilted salad and half a bottle of water.

I'm beyond confused now... maybe even a little scared. My hands shaking, I decide to do a quick walk through of the apartment, you know... check things out. It's not until I wander into the closet that I find the next oddity. There, my dress - the dress I wore to Carnies - is laid out over the top of one of the dressers.

And my shoes seem to have been tossed against the wall (I can see the ding in paint) and now rest on the floor next to the doorway.

I lean on the dresser for support. My breath comes in gasps. Why can't I remember doing any of this?

Nothing makes sense. Except I have some work to do and little time to do it. I get my legs back under me and head to the office.

The laptop boots up and I sign in, yet here again the confusion continues to grow. Outlook is reminding me to call Dan Westley, Development Manager for the Jefferson Project, at 9:30 and that I have reservations at Piniche's for lunch with him at 11:30.

For today... Friday.

But isn't today Thursday?

And isn't Westley the guy that I'm supposed to be presenting the proposal to?

Holy shit. I haven't even started it.

I glance down at the laptop's task bar and look at the date and time.

6:47 A.M. Friday, June 8.

My mind is blank. I've somehow missed a day.

Did I sleep right through Thursday?

I grab my phone and look at the time and date there.

It reads exactly the same.

My shoulders slump.

"Jesus, I'm in some deep shit here."

Wait... did I really say that?



CHAPTER ELEVEN

Advil.

It's my first thought of the day. Lots of Advil.

There's a vise clamp on my head and cement holding my eyes closed.

I lie there just a little bit longer. The bed hasn't felt this good since... well, since Marie used to make it. There's a light fragrance, must be the detergent or softener stuff that she uses.

Doesn't make sense. I stopped using that better than, what, six, maybe seven months ago?

I force my eyes open. Christ, they're dry and my eyelids are sandpaper. The sunlight blasts through the window and I want to squint, but it hurts like hell to do so.

Something about the light in my eyes... can't put a finger on it.

I sit up; roll my feet to the floor. Ooooh man, I'm staying right here for the moment. If I stood up now I'd tumble to the floor like a chopped tree.

What the hell did I do last night? I remember watching the game I'd taped. Or at least some of it. Pizza. I remember Domino's Pizza.

I take a stab at standing. It takes twice, but I'm on my feet. First things first... a shower.

I'm halfway to the bathroom when I notice I still have my clothes on from yesterday. There must be SOME story behind all this, but damned if I can remember much of anything about it.

The shower is hot, doesn't seem long enough, but the steam and heat lubricate my eyes and my body. By the time I'm making my way for the kitchen even the headache is beginning to fade.

My plan is to head for the coffee maker, but I'm detoured immediately as I notice a legal pad sitting on the table.

The writing is mine, yet I have no memory of putting pen to paper. It's a list - a "to do" list - for tomorrow, Friday.

1. Stop by Sam's and pick up Marie's papers

Marie's papers? What papers? What the hell's that about?

Without thinking I find myself seated in the chair. Something I haven't done in a very long time.

For the life of me I can't understand why Sam would still have any paperwork. And why wouldn't I remember writing something so soul shaking as that?

I continue on.

2. Pick up puppy at the shelter. Need to come up with a name.

Dumbfounded doesn't adequately describe my feelings. A puppy?

3. Stop by office. Drop off estimates on new jobs. Lenny.

I most certainly don't remember anything about any new jobs either.

There's nothing more on the page, but another page is folded under the pad. I pan through it, finding references - all of which are scratched off - to stopping by the grocery store, the bank, the animal shelter, Best Buy, and several sites to provide estimates on the mystery jobs.

I stare at the pad for several minutes. The writing is mine, but something about the way it is worded strikes me as different. Not quite me.

And yet, even now, as I listen to myself, I sense something different there, too.

Thoughts swirl around in my head about Alzheimer's and dementia. Am I cracking up?

I glance up at the clock.

Ten to eight.

Sam won't be in until nine. Might as well get some coffee and breakfast and quell this stomach down a bit. Maybe some of this will begin to come back to me.

I start the coffee and pop open the fridge. My beer is gone - wonder why that doesn't seem to bother me? - and instead I find a variety of vegetables and fruits along with a bunch of organic shit.

"Cage-free eggs?" What's the hell's that supposed to mean?

With a shrug, I scramble up some of the cage-free eggs, toast some organic whole wheat, whole grain bread, and grab my coffee. Normally I would stroll out to the driveway and pick up the paper, but today is anything but normal.

I practically swallow everything whole - damn good if I do say so myself - top off my coffee, and head for the office. It's not until I'm opening the door and stepping into the office that it hits me that something was different about the breezeway.

I shake it off and continue toward my desk. Two steps in I stop dead in my tracks.

Right smack in the middle of it I see an opened laptop. And just to the side one of those fancy cell phones. Shit, who do you suppose left these behind?

I take my seat, eyes on the mystery computer. There's an odd smell in the air, can't quite pin it down. It's like when a fuse blows in the truck. Sort of electrical.

The box for the computer sits on the desk just to the side in front of the answering machine. I move it to find a plate of cold pasta and a half a bottle of Dasani water.

I lean back in the chair, head swimming. What the hell went on here yesterday? Who did these things? And where was I?

The laptop is in a screensaver mode so I touch the spacebar. It pops up to a logon screen. My name is in the user field, but the password is blank.

Without thinking I type MARIE and it goes to the desktop. There are only a couple of icons - Word, Excel, that sort of thing - so I turn my attention to the phone. It sits next to my notepad on which I notice some scribbling:

Order internet

Like the checklist it's in my handwriting.

Stumped, I pick up the cell phone. It seems to be in the dial mode (how would I even know that?) and on the screen I see:

9-1-

I feel a cold chill go down my back.

Something is really wrong here... yet, at the same time, I feel a sense of right. Something is right.

I take a quick glance at my watch. Lenny and the crew gave me it when I hit twenty years with the company. Sort of fancy, in an old fashion sense, in that it has nice gold edges and snazzy numbers. The watch is one of those sort that tells both the time - with hands, like a watch is supposed to do - and shows the day of the week in one of those little windows below the hands.

8:31

Friday.

What the hell?

I pull my truck keys from my pocket and head for the garage. By the time I get to Sam's office it should be close enough to nine.

That's where the answers start.



CHAPTER TWELVE

The CEO, Lionel Baxter, shakes my hand for a third time, all the while looking at McCutchen who's going on and on about how it was HE who brought me along and encouraged me to take the client to lunch and...

As excited as I am, it takes me only minutes to tune him out.

The lunch with the Development Manager for the Jefferson Project, despite my knocking knees, was a smashing success. Westley, a man in his late fifties who looked ten years younger, had a daughter my age and we clicked immediately.

Whatever it was I did with that proposal - I couldn't believe I'd already finished it - knocked his socks off. We won the contract hands down.

"I see a bright future for you, young lady," the CEO is saying as I come back down to Earth.

"Thank you, sir."

A final handshake and I return to my desk. Most everyone else has left for the day - guess I didn't realize how late it was - so I pack up and head out.

There's a brief thought of stopping along the way at Carnies to meet with some of my friends and have a drink... after all, it's Friday night and there is plenty to celebrate. Instead I head straight home. I'm thinking I might be staying away from Carnies for a while. A long while.

Before Baxter showed up from the home office, I spent some time catching up with Rachel on dumping Cliff. She roared when I told her about the email, but, to be honest, I think I got as much from her as she did me.

It was obviously quite an eventful Thursday, I'm only sorry I missed it. Or, I guess, more appropriately, can't remember it.

Home again, I opt for a long soak in the tub before heading in the kitchen to look for something to throw together for dinner.

Angel hair pasta.

While the water boils I pull out a jar of sauce. It's something I picked up at Whole Foods, but it's not until I almost drop it that I realize that I've been hypnotized by the jar and several minutes have passed.

The name Mario comes to mind.

But I have no idea why.

I shake it off and warm the sauce. Dinner is served.

Rather than sit at the table I grab the plate and wander into the office. Planning to catch up on email, and maybe Facebook, since I haven't been in there for a while, I plop down in front of the laptop.

Something about the whole thing seems routine. Been there, done that. I'm spacing out, but not sure why.

I shake it off and set down the plate of pasta to the side. Grabbing the iPhone, I reach over and plug it into the charger. Suddenly I find myself in another trance, sort of like the one in the kitchen with the sauce jar.

I get it... it's the placement of the laptop and iPhone. It's giving me one of those really weird feelings. What d'you call it?

Déjà vu... that's it.

I close my eyes. Try to think.

I can't help but feel this has something to do with my missing yesterday. That this is all tied in somehow.

But how?

What in the world happened yesterday?

Maybe I should go back by Carnies. Someone there might have seen something that would help me remember.

No. No more Carnies.

Maybe no more drinking, period.

Okay, enough, Kristen.

I slide over and log in to the laptop. While rereading the proposal I dig into my spaghetti feast.

Nothing strikes me as odd.

Pulling up the spreadsheets for a third, maybe fourth time, I pay particular attention to the figures. I know everything's a little off, but I could swear these numbers are different. Of course, this comes from someone who can't remember yesterday.

I lean back in the chair and think back to my talk with Milt.

One of the more well known contractors here in Pittsburgh, I'd used him as a paid consultant to help me provide some of the estimates for the pouring of the concrete and all the framing.

Didn't I keep those notes?

Sure enough, digging around in my desk drawer I find my scribbling. The numbers in the spreadsheet aren't even close to those I'd handwritten just a couple of days ago.

What caused me to change them? And, dammit, why don't I remember changing them?

I turn back to my laptop and, on a whim, google Milt Wojtasinski, general contractor.

There's the usual web page stuff, ads, etcetera, but halfway down the first page is an article from about three weeks ago in the Pittsburgh Star. The reference is just a couple of lines and I almost miss it, but something catches my eye and I click on the link.

I skim down to a paragraph near the end of the article.

"Milt Wojtasinski's firm, Three Rivers Contracting, has been added to an ever-growing list of consultants for Kamdon Associates, one of the east coast's largest home builders. Greg Frankfurg, Kamdon spokesperson, says that bringing on the local firm is a big part of their ongoing effort to win the bid on the Jefferson Project, the giant subdivision slated for east Pittsburgh."

I fall back into my chair.

I was duped.

I shake my head in disbelief. I am such a sucker.

Wait... I knew. How did I know? Why did I change those numbers?

I take another bite of my now cooling angel hair when my phone rings. I look at the number. It's from the 661 area code - never heard of it - and I start to dismiss it as a telemarketer when I get a funny feeling I should answer it.

"Hello?"

There's a long pause at the other end.

"Hello, there. Is this Kristen Manseebo?"

"May I ask who's calling, please?"

"Oh, yes, of course. I'm sorry, I should have given you my name. I'm just... well, I'm just not sure how to go about this."

There's another long pause. I start to say something but the man starts up again.

"My name is Craig Sheltonham. I live in Bakersfield, California. None of that probably means anything to you, but I'm calling on account of my wife, Marie."

With the mention of the name my face warms. Marie. There's that name.

"I know this is none of my business, but I'd like to ask, if you don't mind, were you adopted?"

His words strike me like... well, like my baseball bat. How would he know that?

Suddenly I remember. I'd written to that agency in Philly and they referred me to a volunteer organization in California.

"Ahhh, yes, as a matter of fact I was. Are you from the research agency there in California?"

Another pause. "Uh, no. Sorry. Actually I got your name from my attorney, Sam Featherstone. You see, a year or two before I met my wife, when she was only eighteen, she had a baby. There were some complications, and she was pretty ill for a bit, but the long and short of it is she felt, at the time, that the best thing was to put the child up for adoption."

There's another long pause and I can hear Craig - wasn't that his name? - taking a deep breath.

"She kept some notes, even went to meet the couple that adopted the little girl. But, times being what there were back then, actually, now that I think of it, not much different than the economics of today, the young couple moved on. From what I could tell it looks like the man took a job in Altoona. Guess that's a smaller town there in Pennsylvania."

"Yes. Yes it is, actually. Just a couple hours from Pittsburgh."

"You know it, then."

"I do, indeed. I grew up there."

"Oh, my..."

There's another long sigh at his end.

"Do your folks still live there?"

I start to answer, but choke on the words. It takes me a moment to catch my breath.

"Unfortunately they were both killed in a small plane crash. My dad took to flying, and something went wrong."

I realize I haven't spoken to anyone about that in a couple of years, and it shakes me. Shakes me hard. But, what gets me even more is that I can hear the man... crying?

"Are you okay?" I ask.

"Yes, thanks. I'm so very sorry for your loss. How long ago?"

"It's been five years now."

"Just not fair."

He pauses once again. I'm sort of getting used to it now, so I give him a minute.

"So you were just twenty-two when it happened."

"Yes... how did you know that?"

"Well... oh, boy, this is gonna sound strange, but you see, I'm pretty sure it was you that my Marie had to give away twenty-seven years ago."



CHAPTER THIRTEEN

There's an announcement over the loudspeaker that the plane has landed. I stand here in the lobby, shifting my feet, fidgeting with my hat, and trying to figure out just what to do with my hands.

Lenny and Hilda offered to come along, they could see how nervous I was, but I needed to do this for myself. And Marie.

The last three weeks have been a whirlwind. Our business has tripled and I've had to hire a secretary and add four more guys to the crew. We're getting two to three inquires a week off the new website and the phone never seems to stop ringing.

Knowing what we were up against I gave everyone a paid week off and a nice Christmas bonus... even though it's only July. Lenny is still at a loss for words on how to thank me for having Sam write up the paperwork making him part owner of the company.

The look on his face said it all.

After that first phone call Kristen and I stayed in touch pretty much every other day. As it turned out her adoptive parents made sure she had everything she needed, but weren't much for showing or providing emotion. Even at the young age of eighteen Marie's intuition had picked up on it. She'd made a note in with all the other paperwork about the Manseebos, and you could read the regret in her words.

But it was too late by then.

By the end of the first week Kristen made the decision that she wanted to come out west to see where her biological mother had lived... and where she was really born. Things were different back then and the Manseebos had thought it best to have a birth certificate made with Altoona as her birthplace. She'd never known any different until my call.

A small group begins to surge through the exit. At first I wonder if I will recognize her, all I have is her description, but when she walks through the doorway I know her immediately.

It's her eyes. She's got Marie's eyes.

With a nervous smile I stick out my hand for a shake but she pulls me in for a long hug.

"I've never seen you in a hat before," she says beaming ear to ear.

I'm a little taken back and at first not sure what to say.Not quite what I expected after all this anticipation.

"I guess I didn't know you'd ever seen me at all before."

Her eyes widen and she places an opened hand over her mouth. "Oh my gosh, you're right."

But then a look of confusion paints across her face.

"That is so weird. I could swear... maybe it's just because I feel like I've gotten to know you so well over these last couple of weeks."

"Gotta be it," I say.

Another hug, some excited words, and we make our way over to the baggage claim. Why exactly is it women that need to take so much crap on a trip?

Suitcases in hand, and I emphasize the plural, we head out to the truck.

As we pull up the driveway I can see a banner strung across the garage - the work of one Lenny Compton I'd say - that has "Welcome Kristen" printed with each letter in a different color. A light breeze carries the smell of the barbecue going strong in the backyard.

Free-range chicken and organic corn on the cob. Never would have imagined.

We cart her things into the guest bedroom. I catch myself staring... she acts like she knows the house by heart, heading straight for the bathroom before we stroll out to meet the gang.

And it doesn't stop there. Once outside, she goes directly to Lenny and Hilda and even though she introduces herself, big hugs all around, it's like she's known them all along.

The spell is broken as I giggle to myself watching Jack, Lenny's oldest son and a foreman on the crew (who's about Kristen's age), standing in line behind his parents, a little too obvious in his attempt to be next for a hug.

A good part of the crew are scattered around the yard, smiling, laughing, waiting impatiently for the food. And there's Sam, of course. He's plopped down in my corner chair playing with Domino, my new pup. To the side of the pit a couple of my neighbors wave and smile.

And to my surprise, a second guest of honor, Racine, Marie's sister, stands at the edge of the patio, wearing a long dress and a nervous look.

By the time Kristen finds her, Racine is already in tears and they lock into a hug. It only takes a moment for Kristen's charm and humor win her over and I can see the change in Racine's face. Relief. Love. Before you know it they're both laughing like old friends.

I'm just grabbing my lemonade - no more beer for me - when out of nowhere Lenny slides up to my side, crosses his arms, and leans up against my shoulder. Glancing over at my friend I see he's looking at Kristen and has a smile that's a mile wide.

For a moment I think he's had too much beer, maybe even something stronger, but I can't smell a whiff of it on his breath. And then I get it for what it is.

"Ain't she a peach?" he says, the smile even wider.

My words exactly, Lenny. My words exactly.



Ellington steps out of his office, a fisted hand holding three Excedrin extra strength, and bumps directly into Colonel Brighton.

The colonel places a hand on his director's shoulder.

"Sorry Porter... didn't expect you flying out the door like that."

Porter shakes his head.

"Don't worry about it. The only thing I'm seeing is red, so I'm probably just as much to blame." Ellington looks over at the colonel. "You're not here with more bad news are you? Lord knows I am up to my neck in shit already."

"Not necessarily bad news... just news."

Porter nods and turns back into the office motioning the colonel to follow along. He drops back into his chair and peeks into a partially filled coffee cup, the remnants of which have been sitting since early morning.

Shaking his head he tosses the three pills into his mouth and washes them down with the leftover coffee.

He points to the chair and the colonel sits.

"Must have been one hell of a day."

Porter nods. "And it ain't over yet." He looks up at his friend. "Whatcha got?"

"Remember our little 'oops' with the SatNet Infiltrator?"

"How could I forget?" Ellington leans forward and puts his elbows on the desk. "Wait a minute... I thought that was all taken care of. A story long forgotten."

"Well, it seems there's a tiny addendum to the story."

Ellington drops his head into his hands. "Shit. Come on, Glenn, give me a break here."

"It seems that the day after restoral, the Bakersfield target contacted the primary in Pittsburgh."

"Whaa...? How could that be?"

"We can't figure it out either. There's no way they could have known. For a couple days after the switchback we did some surveillance on them, but it was just a quickie follow-up sort of thing, nothing really elaborate. So we didn't even know they'd connected until we saw the phone records this morning."

"Do we know what was said?"

"No. We weren't recording. Like I said, we just watched them for a day or two to make sure their lives went back to normal. Then we pulled off."

"So what happened?"

"Kingsley thinks that maybe... well, he doesn't know what to think. To be honest, without some extensive testing, I think we're pretty much clueless."

Porter runs an open hand down the front of his face.

"Great. Just what we need. I can see it now... an agent makes the transfer and his target's leftover 'residual', or whatever shit this is, pops up and rats him out. He'd be dead in a New York minute."

The colonel nods. "Pretty scary when you think of all the potential consequences."

Ellington opens the bottom drawer on the right side of his desk and pulls out a thick red binder. He looks through the tabs until he finds one toward the end and flips it open.

His finger glides along a single line of text mid-page in the document.

"Okay, looks like this baby's still in my ball court. I've got the final say on its disposition."

The colonel, eyebrows raised, looks back at Porter.

"And the verdict is?"

"Can it. Pull the databases, dump the records. Need to know, only." Ellington closes the book with a loud thump. "Money's all going into the next generation of nanobots, anyway. CIA's been using drones to drop them in several hot spots and getting some pretty decent intel."

"Want me to do any follow-up on Bakersfield?"

"Colonel Brighton, as your friend and department head I can both officially and unofficially tell you that I don't want to hear the word 'Bakersfield' used in a conversation in this room ever again."

The colonel smiles. "Bakersfield? Never heard of it."

15 comments:

  1. the words sci & fi normally turn me off, but this
    really is outstanding. i know it´s sci fi but it is strangely convincing.

    great!

    michael mccarthy

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  2. scifi happens to be very popular right now, but this was refreshing in the sense that I wasn't bored to death by technical terms and all that. It had a good pace and I laughed quite often

    5 stars!

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    1. Thanks, Tyler - appreciate the comments and the read

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  3. Being from the general Bakersfield area (Taft) and an "enigma" as my friend calls me, being that I 'm a oil derrick jocky who loves to read, he sent me here thinking I might enjoy this site and particularly this story.
    And that I did! Enjoyed the 2 characters, and the nice little tie between them. And always like an uplifting ending.
    Keep 'um coming
    Rick S.

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  4. Thanks Rick! Appreciate the comments. Been through Taft many a time.
    Jim

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  5. Such a fun story; I think what makes it stand out beyond your typical body swap is the memory leakage; it makes everything congeal together so well. Thanks Jim!

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    1. Thanks Drew! It was a fun story to write. Appreciate the comments!

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  6. This story held my attention all the way to the satisfying ending. I enjoyed the very believable characters and their unusual circumstances. A very refreshing sci-fi tale and a great read! More please!

    Annie

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  7. I really enjoyed this story. It was well written and the reading was quick and smooth. I particularly liked the way the story sucked you in and kept you reading on to find out what was happening and why. Very clever. I look forward to more tales from Jim.

    Carol

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  8. Thanks for the kind comments, Annie and Carol! Thanks much for taking the time to read this one...a little longer than the normal short story. But, with all the compliments, I guess the pressure's really on me for the next one ;-)

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  9. This story intrigued me from the beginning. I don't usually read sci fi, but the characters kept me reading and I found myself on their side. What a good read!

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  10. Thanks for reading and the great comments, Danielle!

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  11. I have to say I really enjoyed this story. I was reading it before bed and then had an eerily similar dream(never more happy to wake up). Great job Jim!
    -Jason

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  12. Thanks ever so much, Jason! Dream...or nightmare? ;-)

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