Scroll on down to enjoy at least three of my favorite excerpts from each book in the 46. Ascending Collection. Yes, they are color coded.
One of One
On Wednesday Lola decided to sleep in late, and then to spend a few hours by the pool relaxing before the nineteen-hour sojourn home. Sleep came and went that night, with a blurry feeling nervousness but nothing upsetting. It wasn’t until morning, when she woke up naturally with no alarm clock, that she felt the sense of turmoil.
You’re leaving? You just got here. You can’t go! It was an unmistakable thought, as clear as if it had come from a distraught lover, needy parent, clingy friend. Anger and disappointment. Even a bit of panic. Who the hell cared if she stayed in Nigeria?
Impatiently, she got out of bed, began to gather together her toiletries. Leave me alone, she thought with vehemence. I do not want to hear from you. Whoever you are. Get out of my head. And then to herself. Stop thinking this is real. It is not. You have a thirteen-year-old daughter and two other kids counting on you and this is absolutely no time in your life to have mental issues. You are fine. Get a grip. Act like a normal person.
She took a moment and sat in the uncomfortable easy chair and forced herself to use the mental imagery she had learned in Lamaze classes so long ago. Instead of picturing a beautiful lake at sunset like they had taught her to do in order to relax, she pictured the giant steel doors to a vault, glimmering in a cold artificial light, clanking closed in her head. The doors seemed to work. She got out of the chair feeling better. As she finished packing and headed poolside for lunch, she felt fine, although strangely alone.
In the days that followed, Djimon discovered how extraordinarily fortunate his choice in a second wife had been. Throughout the drive southwest toward Lagos, sometimes over major highways and twice over bad roads as he detoured for “business meetings,” Nwanyi was not only timid, she asked for almost nothing and did not even seem to expect kindness from him. She stopped her attempts at conversation early on when they were met with stony silence, only asking twice to use his cell phone to call her sister. He informed her curtly that his charger worked poorly and he was saving the battery for important calls. After the second time she did not ask again.
She appeared to be fearful about sex, or at least shy enough about it that although they slept in the same bed at night, she never brought up his lack of interest. As they traveled, he saw to it she stayed covered and had whatever meager food and water she required, and in return she did not complain to him. He figured she was scared of him and vowed to see that useful condition continue throughout what he had come to think of as “phase two.” Phase one, of course, had been finding and procuring her.
Four days later they arrived at his home, where Mairo, his true and beloved wife with her beautiful Fulani features, dutifully got Nwanyi settled into a particularly cramped and poorly ventilated room in the rear of the house, and promptly assigned her a sizable share of less desirable household chores that would normally have fallen to the servants. Djimon had to smile. Even though Mairo understood all too well how important Nwanyi was to their plans, and what little husbandly interest Djimon had in the woman, Mairo was apparently not inspired to exhibit the least bit of kindness to the Igbo. Now that Djimon thought about it, it was just as well. He would let Mairo inflict all the petty insults she wanted.
For part of each evening, Lola allowed herself to sit on the porch and imagine the sound of rushing water and to think about how she now had trouble washing her hair without cringing. This intrigued her a little. She would never have guessed a brief experience like hers, which ended perfectly well with no harm done, at least once all the minor cuts had healed, could linger on in her mind with such intensity. To a woman who had reacted to the idea of mental problems and syndromes of all types with why don’t you just get over it? it was informative to discover some things were surprisingly difficult to get over.
Then Lola’s thoughts would invariably wander off to the strange woman with whom Lola had agreed, bizarre as it seemed, to listen. The woman seemed to be younger, less educated, and probably more superstitious. She also seemed foreign and, based on her not wanting Lola to leave Lagos, Lola assumed she was Nigerian.
She had a younger sister, of that Lola was certain. She was worried for the sister, and puzzled as to why she was unable to sense the sister’s emotions when she was able to pick up the feelings of so many others. The woman seemed to lack firm knowledge about the sister’s whereabouts, too. Was the sister lost? Kidnapped? Had she run-away from home? Certainly she was gone and could not be found.
Sometimes Lola tried to mutter comforting things back to the woman, but that never seemed to help. Lola had not a clue what else she could do.
Other times she sat on the porch and thought about nothing at all. It was one of those times, when her mind was on nothing, when she heard an elderly gentleman’s voice in her head.
Lola? Little Lola Conroy? Good heavens dear, is that you?
Lola searched her mind for knowledge of any older man who might have known her by her maiden name.
It’s okay honey. You’re fine. I didn’t mean to startle you. It’s okay. She could almost see an elderly man backing out of her mind with great care.
Good grief, she thought. Now what?
Shape of Secrets
One afternoon, Zane took a deep breath as he watched Balthazar change colors, and he forced back his fear as he made himself remember that time last summer. Zane’s dad had made him go outside and play, and he’d gotten stuck in a game of hide and seek with neighbor boys he didn’t like. They did more mean things than most, so Zane hid well because he didn’t want to be “it” with these guys.
As one boy came close to the bushes where he hid, Zane saw his own bare foot sticking out over the orange-brown soil. He dare not move it, so he thought hard about his foot and tried to flatten it tight against the ground.
The skin on his foot had started to burn and itch, and an alarmed Zane saw his foot was blushing. At least, it had turned an orange brown that mimicked the dirt. It had been his first inkling he could do more than make his body’s shape twist and warp. Zane watched his orange brown foot in fascination while the neighbor boy ran by.
Every so often after that, Zane’s skin would surprise him in the same way his muscles did. He could feel a color change coming, but didn’t know how to control it. He figured he needed a wise teacher, like Balthazar.
“Can I learn to do that when I want to, wise one?” he asked his chameleon. He tried to make the feeling he felt when his skin did this. He concentrated hard on his arm. At first nothing happened. Then, yes. He felt the feeling. He made the feeling. His skin went from its normal color to a tan orange.
“You and I are going to be great friends,” Zane told Balthazar as his grin widened. “You can teach me ways to fight bullies and you’ll be the only one who knows what I can do.”
Toby was considering whether he should buy more pineapples. Samoan pineapples were tasty, but he didn’t want more than he could eat before they spoiled. He was concerned he’d already bought too much fish, but it was too late to remedy that.
He looked behind him and saw a young man with straight jet-black hair and a Polynesian’s round face with East Asian eyes. A genetic blend of the Pacific Rim, the young man was wandering along the dock near the back of his boat. He was thin and wiry for a local, and looked harmless as he took off his shirt and shoes as though he were thinking of jumping into the water. Toby glanced away, taking one last look at the pretty harbor with the older wooden houses framed by the fast-rising hills and dense trees. He heard a splash, and focused on getting the rest of his gear aboard.
He started his engine when he noticed three stout Samoan men wearing the traditional lava-lavas marching towards his boat. The oldest of the three waved at him and shouted. “Stop your engines. We need to check your boat for a missing boy we saw head onto this dock.”
“Oh, sure, I saw him.” Toby pointed to a shirt lying on the pier as he yelled back “He jumped in. He didn’t bother me.”
“We’d like to make sure he’s not on your boat,” the Samoan said as the three men approached the craft. Toby shrugged. “Look for yourself.”
There wasn’t much looking to do on his vessel. Seating for up to six was above deck, and below was a cabin with a head and shower, a compact galley area and sleeping for up to five, depending on what was raised or lowered. The men boarded without further courtesy, which irked Toby. He was sensitive to people walking into his home. One man began opening each of his storage areas above deck, while another descended below and opened the door to the head. The small toilet seat had no one on it.
“I’ve been right here. I promise you, no one is onboard.” Toby wasn’t anxious to have strangers pawing through his possessions, legal though they were. “Please gentleman, I’d like to be on my way.”
The man who’d opened the door to the head ignored him, opening the larger storage areas below deck, starting with those beneath the sleeping and sitting areas. One was filled with kitchen supplies, another held clothes and toiletries, yet another lifejackets. He shrugged to his cohorts.
“Guess he jumped in the water then. Radio back if you see him. He could be dangerous.”
Toby’s dark brown eyes widened. “Really? What’s he done?”
“We don’t know. He’s one of the young men at that special school for troubled teens. These kids are lavished with good care and opportunities, but sometimes they don’t realize what they’ve been given, and try to escape so they can return to their troubled ways. We help the school by returning these misguided ones.
“Well then, I hope you find him.”
As he headed out into the harbor, Toby thought maybe the men had a point. He hadn’t realized there were schools for misguided youth. Go figure.
He’d gotten past both reefs and was tacking under a nice slow breeze, heading northwest on a course for Fiji, when he decided to go below and grab some water. A movement caught his eye. The lid to one of the smaller storage areas was opening. No person could fit into it; it had to be an animal. Toby looked around for something to use as a weapon.
He grabbed a knife as the stowaway tumbled to the floor in a mess of ropes. A small young man in the briefest of underwear stood, shook himself, then turned to face Toby with apology in his eyes.
“I’m sorry. And sorry about no clothes. Please don’t hurt me.”
Toby took a deep breath and decided to hear the other side of the story.
It was hard not to like Peter Hulson when one met him in person. In spite of his age, he had a liveliness about him, and his sharp, bright blue eyes were probing but not unfriendly. He shook Zane’s hand, gestured him onto a soft green velvet-covered settee and offered Zane water or coffee. Zane passed, although he wasn’t sure if it was ruder to accept or to decline. He allowed himself an appreciative peek at the surprisingly unobstructed view of Lake Michigan.
“I’ll get right to the point, young man,” Peter began, drawing his attention back. “It’s well known I’m seeking bright new young people, and I like to mentor them myself. I get a fair amount of grief from my VPs about it being beneath my pay grade, but the fact is I want my company to thrive for a long time. The way I see it, that only happens if I can hand the reins over to at least two more generations of focused and brilliant successors.”
A swirl of sorrow came and went from his face so fast Zane thought he might have imagined it. The older man kept talking.
“I’m finding these brilliant successors to be in short supply. But, you’ve landed on our doorstep with excellent grades from an exceptional school, and managed to get yourself in a position reporting directly to my director of sales and marketing. Word is she thinks you have excellent potential.”
Zane tried to smile appreciatively.
“Excellent potential.” Peter repeated the words for emphasis. “I don’t think there are two finer words in the English language. So I’d like to personally do what I can to encourage you.”
Zane tried to make the smile even more appreciative because he had no idea what to say.
“Would you consider a trip to Fiji to be encouragement?”
Okay, he could answer this one.
“Yes. I think most people would.”
The older man chuckled. “Good, good. Brenda and Gil are in the process of putting together an important conference for us and I’ve told them to spare no expense. We believe we can save families huge amounts of grief by providing a treatment to guide young people into making more mature and acceptable choices. Mind you, the drugs aren’t new, but the combination and the approach are. This conference in Fiji will introduce our new product in the most favorable light possible, so its success is important. I’ve okayed sending Brenda to Fiji late this month to do a recon and I want you to go with her. Help her with travel and logistics, but also keep your eyes open and your brain on. Help us find ways to make this symposium better. Have ideas for us, Zane. Think for us. Will you do that?”
Of course Zane said yes. He said it sincerely and shook the man’s hand and thanked him. Because Zane wasn’t an idiot.
But on the ride back down on the elevator, Zane kept seeing his fourteen-year-old sister Teddie’s face. She had anger. She had issues. More than he’d had at that age, for sure. But she also had a huge heart and a creative streak a mile wide and Zane really wondered if both Teddie and the world would be better off if some doctor was convinced to medicate her now.
Twists of Time
“Dad. I did not flirt with those boys, okay? Ick. They’re wannabe skinheads. Look, I was nice to them when I talked to them, probably nicer than I would’ve been. But that’s just common sense. Who’s going to give you information if you’re rude? Come on.” Alex had to agree.
Teddie was angry at Ms. Johnson’s accusation, but Alex wondered if she resented being accused of flirting, or of flirting with these particular boys. Either way, from Teddie’s point of view she’d done nothing wrong.
“Shouldn’t you have told the boys you were asking about their projects on behalf of the school paper?”
“Oh, that would have gotten me a lot of information. Those kids really believe all school-sponsored activities are part of a liberal propaganda machine. Seriously paranoid people.”
“Well, you’ve made an enemy in Ms. Johnson, dear. I don’t think she’s a fan of mine now, either.”
Teddie winced. It was hard enough being a freshman without having to worry about how everything you did reflected on your teacher father.
“You know, dad, I don’t think Ms. Johnson is the kind of friend you want anyway. I hear she tows the line in front of the administration, but in the classroom, she comes out with some pretty racist things. She always phrases them like questions, so if they get repeated they don’t sound so bad, but her class spends a lot of time talking about things that make some kids uncomfortable.”
“Teddie, you’re exaggerating. If that were the case, kids would be speaking up, to their parents, and to the department head.”
Teddie responded with her you-adults-do-not-understand expression. “Dad, if a kid reports her, she twists it around like they were having a class discussion and this kid is saying stuff because he didn’t do well on a test or something. And that kid can kiss a good grade from her goodbye.”
Her dad gave the possibility some thought. “I think the other history teachers would say something if this lady was crossing a line.”
More of the look. “Dad, you need to get out of the science department more. Word is most of the Early Gulch history teachers agree with everything Ms. Johnson teaches, even though they keep their opinions more to themselves. The few that object, like Mr. Hanson, they don’t last long. I think the whole history department is part of some racist group.”
“Now who sounds paranoid?”
“You know what they say. Doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Look, I’m sorry I put you on Ms. Johnson’s radar. Be careful, Dad. I think she likes hurting people who don’t agree with her.”
Stan tried to control his enthusiasm the next morning as he woofed down breakfast at the hotel and supervised loading the trucks. The department head had chastised him by phone last night for even opening the box, and for doing as little as brushing off the dirt. Stan expected that and was willing to take the criticism. He hadn’t spent twelve years of his life swatting mosquitoes to let some senior faculty member fly down here and do all the honors. This was his research. These were his kids. They deserved their moment in the sun. Yesterday, he’d taken it.
Today, however, they’d back off and show restraint, as they photographed and measured while they waited for more expertise before anything else was disturbed.
There was lightness in Stan’s step as he helped unload the two trucks and made his way to the cave’s small entrance.
“You first, Dr. Drexler,” Nelson said.
Stan wasn’t even all the way in when he noticed mud tracks he was sure neither he nor his students had made.
No! Surely we didn’t have intruders last night.
He looked around. Everything else they’d found over the last few days was undisturbed. Only the ornate box and its half disintegrated cloth covering were gone, as if they’d never existed.
You’ve got to be kidding. Locals? For christsakes, did one of my students tell somebody? Or maybe one of them is that good at reading hieroglyphics from this region.
Dr. Stan Drexler, of course, was quite good at it. He’d studied nothing but for years. Even though he’d only gotten a quick glance, there are certain words anyone who’s ever loved archeology knows in the culture where they have expertise. “Treasure” is one. Even higher on the list is any phrase translating as “the greatest treasure ever.”
Alex and Xuha continued their tennis workouts into the summer, with Xuha growing stronger each week, as his left-handed playing improved. After two and a half months, he felt confident enough to try his right hand.
“I think I’ll always practice left-handed, too. It could be an asset, giving my right arm a rest or even using my left to throw off an opponent.”
Alex agreed. “I’d focus on serving with both hands. That’s where you’ll get the most impact.” The two of them worked on serves, until the June sun rose high enough for the summer heat to take over the morning.
“That day you got attacked. You still have no idea who they were or why they picked you?” Alex wondered aloud as they both gulped water and gathered up their gear.
Xuha shook his head. “I mean, I can guess. It’s pretty obvious around school who’d be inclined to do that. But they didn’t say anything to me and no one has threatened me since”
“Given the way you fought the first two attackers off, I’d guess you’ve been in a fight or two. I have to admit, I had no idea you could move that fast, and I coach you.”
Xuha grinned. “I don’t like to fight, but I can if I have to. I know this will sound odd, but if it’s a situation where I really have to make my body do something, it’s like everything slows down for me, so I can do it. Does that make any sense?”
Alex felt his own heart loose a beat.
“I tried to tell this to a boy I played soccer with. He was like scary good and was trying to give me tips and stuff, and I was afraid he’d think I was crazy, you know?” Xuha made a crazy face. By now Alex had gotten used to the boy’s odd facial humor and he ignored it.
“But this soccer player didn’t think I was crazy. He said that’s exactly what happened to him sometimes on the soccer field.”
Now Xuha really had Alex’s attention.
“He told me he wished he could control it, like make a kiss with a pretty girl last longer, but it didn’t work that way. It happened when it needed to. He thought maybe all great athletes could do this when they played, even if they didn’t realize they were doing it.”
“That’s interesting. Do you think maybe some people become good at a sport because they can do that? Or maybe they get good first and the technique follows?”
Xuha shrugged. “I’ve heard people describe something like it during a car crash, too. You said you used to be a good basketball player, Mr. Z? Did you ever have this happen to you?”
“Yeah. I think I know what it is you’re talking about.”
“Okay. So, that’s what happened to me during the fight you saw. Like I didn’t ask for it or anything, but these guys started moving slower, you know, slower to me and it made it easier to defend myself.”
“I wish it could have protected you from the idiot behind you who you couldn’t see.”
“Me too. For that kind of protection, I have to go to my alternate plan.”
“Stay out of fights.”
Layers of Light
At night, Teddie took refuge from the strangeness. The collage of colors, faces, and smells that permeated her world by day subsided into the comforting greys of darkness. She lay in her bed and thought of how much she missed boots. Western boots, and pickup trucks. Country music and dead armadillos in the road. Now wasn’t that stupid? Pine trees and Tex-Mex food and churches everywhere even though her family didn’t belong to one. It was her world, and she missed its familiarity.
In fairness, this place wasn’t all bad. She could understand people better each day. The classes were challenging, but she was a good student, and doing well in class earned respect here, not disdain. Teddie knew she was surrounded by sixteen-year-olds from India, Nepal and Bhutan, who came from wealthier and better-educated families. They kept mostly to themselves, but no clique was rude to her. It made Teddie sad that a girl from India would not have fared as well at her own high school outside of Houston.
One of the biggest adjustments was not having a cell phone. Teddie was surprised to discover texting was a big part of her life. However, the school was adamant; no students were allowed to have cell phones. At least she had her laptop, and today she had gotten to video chat with her parents before class. The sight of the two of them sitting on the geranium-filled porch in the Texas evening had left her yearning for surroundings she was used to.
That night, she starting sleepwalking.
She didn’t remember getting out of bed, or walking down the hall or going out the door of the school. Didn’t they keep it locked at night? She thought they must. Maybe she had climbed out the window? Could she do that in her sleep?
Yet there she was, walking down the street in front of the school in the middle of the night. Lights were mostly off and half a moon was high in the sky. A group of older boys stood huddled together a couple of blocks away, smoking cigarettes. If they noticed Teddie they ignored her.
She looked around. The mountains in the distance glistened with snow and she took the time to enjoy the view without people jostling into her. The boys down the street all wore jackets, and Teddie wondered if she’d thought to grab a coat. She glanced towards her arm, and the next thing she knew she was back in her bed, with no memory of how she got there.
Well, sleep-walking was supposed to be an odd phenomenon. It had probably been set off by homesickness, to be honest. Good thing her subconscious found ways to navigate her in and out of the school. This time. Hopefully it wasn’t going to become a habit.
Lhatu came to India often, and he had become adept at absorbing the noise and chaos without allowing it to warp his inner peace. He tried instead to gain energy from the surroundings, energy to do the bidding of those he served.
His large size made travel harder on him, but he recognized it also made him an unusually capable operative on behalf of his group’s needs. At thirty-one years old, he was tall and physically strong by the standards of any race. He could see over the crowds to find others, and thanks to clearly visible muscles he was seldom a target of the pickpockets or scammers who preyed on those who traveled. The simple robes he sometimes wore bought him respect from those of any faith.
Today he arrived in Bagdogra, and had been told to take the train to Darjeeling. He liked Darjeeling; it had a certain spirit about it. There was a girl attending a school there, a young woman whom he’d been asked to observe. Do not make contact. Just bring back information.
Very well. Lhatu was used to odd assignments. He did not question the wisdom of those who directed his life.
So when the three American girls came to her office begging for help in finding their friend, Amy knew this had all the markings of a case that would get her in trouble with the agency. The involvement of three American students only made it more probable this would reach the press and the ears of Amy’s superiors back home. A savvy woman would give these girls the brush off.
“What did you say her name was?” Amy asked.
“Usha.” It was the tall confident girl with the long blond hair girl who spoke first. “She’s really smart and so happy to be in school, and she has these beautiful big trusting eyes and you’ve got to help us find her.”
The girl with the East-Asian ancestry jumped in. “The school’s been busy with the aftermath of the earthquake all week. Last night they got a hold of her mother who says she has no idea where her daughter’s gone and so the school now says she’s a runaway who couldn’t handle the advanced classes and they’re washing their hands of it!”
The pretty one with the head full of black curls picked up the narrative. “We know better. There’s no way that’s true. Usha was doing great in her classes. She has to be in real trouble.”
“Okay,” Amy said. “Start at the beginning and tell me everything you know. No holding back.”
The three girls starting talking all at once. Amy smiled at their vehemence, their innocence and their concern for their friend. There was an uncle from another city, and huge debts to be paid. The girl wasn’t even from Darjeeling so there was no one local to help her. Amy looked at the photo one of the girls had on her laptop. She sat for a minute in silence as she studied Usha’s face.
A young hopeful human being, full of potential. Just as all young people were. Was that reason enough to get involved? Of course it was.
“So why not kill her?’ Vasily persisted as they finished their lunch. “You don’t want her. She’s useless.” He was talking about the American girl of course, in which Pavel had no interest and who now sat bound, gagged and heavily sedated in a walk-in closet in a vacant rental home in Manali.
“Because if she is dead, we know that she is useless,” Pavel said. “If she’s alive, it remains to be seen. Get her out of here, far away from this town. In fact, get her to Southeast Asia where she looks like the other girls and won’t stand out. We have a business in Bangkok, send her there. I do not—repeat, do not—want any trouble to come from this one. Make sure that you don’t lose track of her, just in case she turns out to be any kind of bargaining chip down the road. Now go. I need some peace and quiet to drink my coffee and think about what to do next.”
“Okay,” Vasily sighed. He had been looking forward to killing the girl.
Pavel, who knew him too well, admonished him as he started to leave. “I don’t want you or any of your goons laying a hand on her either. I’ve told you before. Your guys do not know the meaning of the word restraint.”
“Plenty of others gonna lay hands on her where she’s going,” Vasily muttered.
“Yeah well most of them don’t like to do so many things that leave marks,” his boss glared back. “I mean it, Vasily. Get her to Bangkok where she can earn her keep and be out of our way. If we can use her, we’ll bring her back.”
“Yes boss.” Vasily thought sadly that power did strange things to men. There had been a time not that long ago when Pavel not only would have okayed the kill, he would happily have joined his men in the fun.
The next time Teddie went sleepwalking, it occurred to her that she wasn’t really walking. She was floating. And she was pretty sure that she was headed towards the train station. It was the middle of the night and this was no time to catch a train. What was she doing going there? Wasn’t this the same way she had gone to check on her brother Zane, when she was only four years old?
She was moving fast now, almost like she was in a car, and certainly like she knew exactly where she was headed. How did she know where she was going?
She thought that maybe she should go back to her bed when it occurred to her that if she actually got to the station, she could take a train all the way to the airport. And if she could just get to Bagdogra where the airport was, then she could get on an airplane and fly far, far away to a place where eleven-year-old children didn’t have to be scared when their mother got a cold, and girls didn’t have to plead to get admitted to classes for men only, and high school juniors from Texas didn’t have to cough up their entire allowance just to keep a roommate from getting taken out of school by evil uncles.
Was the uncle really evil? He must be.
And then she thought that she felt the uncle grab her arm and she jumped. But it was just Usha grabbing her arm, and she was in bed.
“You were making noises in your sleep,” Usha said worriedly. “You were having a bad dream?”
“I didn’t think I was dreaming at all,” Teddie muttered as she turned over, and then she felt confused. So she wasn’t going places in her sleep? She was just having dreams about going? Why?
I want to go to Usha and see if she’s unharmed.
It was a simple command and Teddie had no idea what to expect. She began to move, not by force, but by what felt like her own choice, down the hall and out the door and down the street. Teddie had never been comfortable with heights, so she was relieved that while it felt like she was flying, she was flying in the manner she’d have chosen. She was skimming really, maybe ten feet above the ground, close enough that if she fell she’d be okay. She made her path down roads rather than over buildings, but she was picking up speed as she went. It seemed like she was guiding herself, that a part of her knew Usha’s location and was leading the rest of her to where she wished to go.
She was headed north towards the mountains, speeding now over the major road out of Darjeeling into the Himalayas. Weren’t those some of the renowned tea fields off to the left? Teddie looked closer, and the next thing she knew she was standing in the middle of the tea field, examining the beautiful green tea leaves up close. Great. She was stuck in a field and had no idea what to do next. She felt herself about to snap back.
No. If my body is safe then I want to go to Usha and see if she is unharmed.
With that, she was back on the road and moving again. This time she concentrated on not becoming distracted, and she picked up speed as she went. After a while, she slowed down as she entered a large city. Gangtok? She made her way through streets to a far edge of the town, where she found herself standing next to an old pick-up truck parked outside a roadside hotel. Usha was sleeping in the back of the truck. Oh dear. Her friend was homeless, and had stopped to sleep in the soft hay lining the back of a stranger’s vehicle.
Flickers of Fortune
“You want me to move out of London? But I’ve only been here six months!” Ariel heard the shrillness in her voice, and knew she was being unreasonable. The company was within its rights to ask her to transfer if she wanted this opportunity. It was just such a surprise, and Ariel didn’t deal well with surprises. They almost never happened.
If she’d paid more attention to gossip, she’d have known. Last week everyone was whispering about Gloria, a support engineer Ariel met at a few social events. Clyde, known around the office as Gloria’s asshole boyfriend, surprised everyone by proposing to Gloria after she accepted a transfer to the Dublin office. Everyone guessed a few too many brews, and Clyde’s growing realization he’d be having sex far less often, combined to overcome his dislike of commitment. Gloria responded with a happy yes and decided she had to stay in London.
Now Ullow needed someone in Dublin next week and nobody wanted to go. Not that Dublin didn’t have its charms, but the office was located in one of the least charming parts of town. All of Ullow’s glamorous wining and dining was done in London, where the perks were better and the chance to impress management was higher. Of the few clients who were handled there, rumor had it none of them would enhance a young engineer’s career.
Ariel picked up a wink when co-workers spoke of these customers. There seemed to be an understanding that the Irish would find ways to bend rules where the British would not. Work that raised eyebrows in London was diverted westward, where eyebrows were, by custom, less likely to raise.
Ariel understood she was expected to go without complaint, but she didn’t like being forced into this move. She tried to make her voice more pleasant as she reached for the manila folder the HR man had been trying to hand her.
As she took out the contents, she must have brushed against something once handled by Gloria, because she knew there was a fifty-fifty chance Clyde wouldn’t even go through with the wedding. It didn’t matter. As she handled more papers she got more information. The more she learned, the more surprised she was.
Before today, there’d been nothing spectacular in her near future. Now, she was probably going to Ireland where she’d meet people and learn things that would change her forever.
“I’d really like to think about it.” She said it as calmly as she could while she crinkled the papers between her thumb and index finger, trying to learn more.
“We’d like to get the paperwork started before the end of the week,” the man from HR said. “Tomorrow is Friday.”
“Right. Let me take this information home and I’ll give you my answer in the morning.”
As she stepped outside for air, she had a pretty good idea of what her answer would be. The nice man from HR hadn’t noticed her placing her hand against the wall after handling his manila folder, and he had no way of knowing it was to steady herself against a kaleidoscope of new visions rushing at her while a tiny percent probability turned into an almost certainty.
Ariel muttered it as she made her way out of the building, her eyes half closed as she tried to calm her mind.
She sat down on the cold concrete steps to steady herself.
“Holy crap.” She couldn’t quit saying it.
What Clyde didn’t know, couldn’t know, would never know, was that in making his proposal he probably affected the fate of the world. Many weeks from now, Ariel was likely to discover she had a chance to play a role in the survival of the human race. She couldn’t see how, she couldn’t see when, and as the flashes of little specks of her most distant visions whirled their way through her brain, all she got with any clarity was that her going to Ireland mattered. A lot.
Yes, she ought to accept the transfer.
“Slumming today?” Jake asked.
Jake was a senior coder in the group, and considered the coordinator for Baldur’s project. He was one of those tall, chubby men with dark curly hair and a gentle way about him that made the comparison to a teddy bear inevitable. Ariel had already established a friendly working relationship with him, even though he’d pointed out more than once that Ariel spent too little time with the programmers.
“Just wondering if you guys will ever finish what you’re working on,” Ariel teased him back. She wanted to ask him more questions about his work, but Eoin continued to discourage their interaction in myriad little ways.
“Of course we won’t.” Jake played along. “Will Microsoft ever stop releasing new operating systems? Will Google stop reinventing itself? Programming is long-term job security, baby. Better than building roads because you never run out of a place to put new software.”
Ariel gave him an appreciative smile back. She liked Jake for his sense of humor and for the fact that he seemed impervious to office politics.
“Do you have a time to talk about Baldur’s latest request for modifications?” As Ariel asked the question, she reached out in what she hoped was a sisterly way and touched Jake’s arm. “Because I really am trying to be of some use here, both to our company and our customer.”
Jake nodded, apparently impressed by Ariel’s sincerity.
“Okay. I’ll let the front office people in on some of the secrets.” He winked. “As you know, Baldur is mostly concerned with tools for making faster changes to his parameters. Seriously, one minute he wants the defaults to go one way and two minutes later he wants them to do something else, and then three minutes later he wants it to go back to the way it was. It’s insane, because no one has worthwhile information on stocks that changes that fast.”
“So why does he care?”
Jake gestured for Ariel to have a seat in his office as he got up to close his door. He lowered his voice.
“At first I thought he liked fooling around with the software for entertainment, but he’s spending too much money on these changes. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who thinks play time is all that important.”
Ariel had to agree. “Do you think he’s delusional? Like, he’s convinced himself he needs to make changes that fast.”
Jake nodded. “I figured he was maybe, you know, harmless crazy. One of those weird smart guys who’s lost touch. So I looked into his trading history. We’ve got all sorts of records, so we can run tests using real data. I thought I’d establish how this stuff he’s asking for is frivolous, in case we couldn’t meet his demands down the road. Kind of a CYA thing.”
“I’d be careful. I don’t think Eoin would like the idea of you proving a big client is asking for things he doesn’t need.”
“I know. I didn’t tell Eoin. Look, if you want me to stop talking now, I will. I don’t want to put you in a compromising position.”
“It’s okay. Everyone does a little probing on their own. I’ve got no problem with where you’re going.”
“That’s just it. I’m not going there. I thought I was, but the truth is weirder. Baldur isn’t asking for tools he doesn’t need.”
Jake took a deep breath, like he was trying to decide if he should go on.
“Don’t you smoke?” Ariel asked.
“Yeah. Want to join me outside while I have a cigarette?”
Ariel nodded. This no longer seemed like the sort of conversation to hold in the office, and she was starting to have a funny feeling about how this tied in with the close-up visions she’d had when she touched Baldur’s hand. A cigarette would probably help Jake and fresh air would definitely help her.
Once they were outside, Jake resumed.
“I ran tests using what Baldur tried to do against what he could have done if he had the tools he wanted. I looked at the same kind of information for Cillian and for two other clients from London. Here’s the thing. If I improve the speed at which Cillian and the other clients make parameter changes, it doesn’t benefit them. But, Baldur would have done substantially better if he had the tools he wanted.”
“Really? Is he getting some kind of insider information?”
“Not that fast, he isn’t. Besides, his parameters deal with trends. It’s like he has a minute-to-minute sense of what whole segments of the market will do. He still needs us, our machines and our software, to make the trades, but the faster he can direct the software, the better he does. We give him more speed and he starts to beat out everyone else past any statistical probability.”
Ariel’s funny feeling about Baldur was growing. “Jake, do you believe somebody can, I don’t know, sense the future?”
“You mean be psychic? No, I don’t. Or I didn’t. But facts are facts. I don’t know how else to explain what this man can do.”
Ariel tried to make light of it. “In this case, it’s some speedy crystal ball, isn’t it? I don’t think any psychic claims to predict things that fast.”
She tried to redirect the conversation. “Should we be giving Baldur tools to beat out everyone else?”
Jake shrugged. “I don’t see that it’s Ullow’s job to penalize Baldur for being good. Just because I don’t know how he does it, doesn’t mean it’s unethical.” Jake looked uncomfortable. “I haven’t shared this information with anyone else. Could we keep this between us, at least until I figure out more about what I’ve figured out?” Jake gave Ariel the same friendly brush back on the arm. “Please?”
“Of course. Thanks Jake. I can do my job better if I know more, even if I don’t understand it either. If you figure out how he manages this, I’d love an update.”
As she headed back inside, she knew two things. The first was Jake had little role to play in whatever scenario Baldur was involved in down the road. At least, Jake’s touch set off no alarms. The second was that next week Jake’s wife would probably surprise him by bringing home a new puppy. A really cute one,
The work portion of the trip would all be at the end, so Ariel tried to enjoy the beginning of her vacation. She packed a few good books and her warmest clothes, and delighted in a window seat as she watched the late afternoon sun set on her way into Iceland. The giant Vatnajökull glacier gleamed beneath her when the plane dipped below the clouds and Ariel thought she’d never seen anything so beautiful as the various shades of blues glistening off of the ice in the light of low winter sun.
She joined her group at the Reykjavik airport for the evening flight on to Nuuk. The small band of mostly Icelandic travelers was quiet, but friendly, and she felt thankful to live in a time and place where a woman could travel alone without problems. Nuuk was a quick stopover, and the next morning they boarded the pint-sized plane for Ilulissat, the main tourist destination in Greenland.
Ariel stepped off the plane to her first view of the barren rocks mottled with bright colored lichens that make up the tundra. She’d never set foot inside of the Arctic Circle before. Tiny flickers and flashes erupted as her boot touched the ground.
My premonitions are stronger here. The cold dry air? The earth’s magnetic field? There had to be a reason.
While they were waiting for the luggage, Ariel wandered off, looking for a bathroom. She turned into an office and noticed a man’s legs sticking out from under a desk.
“Are you okay?” She felt like she should say something.
She heard him chuckle. “No, I’m in serious need of somebody to grab the other end of this wire. One man doing a two man job.” Ariel saw that he was trying to get a computer cable to go through a small hole in top of the desk.
“Let me help.” She came over, pulled the cord through and plugged it into the monitor where it was clearly intended to go.
“Thanks,” he said as he wriggled out from under the desk. He noticed she’d connected the cable. “A helpful tourist and one that knows how to connect hardware.”
“I can manage more than plugging in a monitor.” She laughed. “IT training here, though I don’t use it enough these days. I’m Ariel and I’m looking for a ladies’ room.”
“You came all the way to the arctic to find a place to pee?”
She rolled her eyes and when he held out his hand she took it without thinking.
“Siarnaq,” he said and Ariel saw a small spark in the air before their hands touched.
Then for a few seconds, neither of them could have said a word if they had wanted to.
Ariel saw the flickers of the distant future going wild in the corners of her brain, like far off flashing lights. He let go of her hand.
“You’re a seer.” He said it like it was fact. He studied her red hair, fair skin and blue eyes. She wasn’t of the People, or at least if she had Inuit ancestors they were few indeed. Had he ever met a seer who wasn’t mostly Inuit? He didn’t think so.
“You get visions of the future, too?” Ariel’s heart was beating harder. She’d never expected to be asking this question.
The Inuit man laughed. “The world is full of seers.”
I had no idea that would be so good to know.
“You have a lot to learn about your gift. You’re with the tour group?” She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. “Today, they give you time to shop and sightsee. Let’s go get a cup of coffee.”
One of Two
Maurice woke up in the trunk of a car. He’d always been a positive sort of guy, so he made himself focus on what was good about the situation. Well, it was a large trunk. It was probably a luxury car. Could have been worse. And, he was the only person in it. Plenty of space and no unpleasant dead bodies lying next to him. He’d seen this sort of thing in the movies, and no dead bodies was always good.
His hands were bound loosely behind his back, but he could wiggle his legs around for comfort and there was no duct tape over his mouth, so breathing was easier. Better yet, it felt like he’d been drugged, presumably in his sleep, and the lingering effects were effusing him with such a nice sense of serenity.
On the down side, the wall that x0 was holding around him was as impermeable as ever. And he was in the trunk of a car. That was definitely a minus. He drifted back to sleep.
The invitation for this TV appearance had been presented to her as chance to explain her views and defend her ideas against these attackers. Yet now that she was in New York about to go on air, every instinct was telling her this was a huge mistake.
She looked off stage at the well dressed, tall Latina with shiny, long, black hair who had greeted her and appeared to be the producer of this segment. In spite of an otherwise strong, almost regal, body, the woman walked with a cane. A small amount of underlying pain was evident in her eyes. The rest of her mind was a gauzy grey of unreadableness. Very odd.
Lola’s misgivings were so strong that she considered simply walking back off the stage, perhaps feigning sudden illness. But then the words “on in five” blared, and the chirpy host she had met briefly a few minutes ago walked to his seat. The next thing Lola knew, he was saying, “Meet today’s guest, Lola Zeitman, a quiet geophysicist from Houston who has stirred some people up with her little article called ‘Face Painting for World Peace.’”
As he said the words, Lola was finally able to pick up a clear thought from him. Unfortunately, the thought was that this interview had no other purpose but to make her look like an absolute dimwit.
Telepathy is not always as useful as you’d think, she thought. Do your best to make it through this with your dignity intact.
His first reaction to the ringing phone was to be annoyed at the interruption. His second reaction was to guess who was probably at the other end of the line.
“Shit. I hate goddamned telepaths,” he muttered as he picked up the phone.
“Yes, you are correct. My name is Olumiji and of course we are quite capable of changing a password before you get the chance to use it. But we didn’t. I trust you are enjoying our website?”
The deep voice resonated with the melody of Africa.
“I’m finding it interesting, thank you.”
“Wonderful. My group and I have decided that even if we have different philosophies, it is a waste of valuable time for us to play hide and seek with each other. Needlessly dangerous as well, don’t you think?”
“So far it hasn’t been dangerous for me,” Warren remarked.
There was silence.
“What is it you want from me?” Warren asked.
“We’d like to meet you. Have you over for tea, so to speak. See if there are areas in which we could work together while we eliminate our mutual fear of the unknown by coming to understand each other. It would be efficient and potentially useful for all.”
“No thank you.”
There was more silence.
“You don’t even want to meet us?”
The man sounded genuinely baffled.
“Not really,” Warren said. “We’re not looking for play dates, and I don’t have time for new friends. My telepaths have serious work to do, and I don’t see a lot of common ground between us.”
His eyes flicked to the screen and he noticed that he had been logged out.
Don’t underestimate their technological capabilities, he told himself.
“That is correct. In fact, you’d be well advised not to underestimate any of our capabilities,” Olumiji said. “But suit yourself. Perhaps the members of your Entelechy who do choose to tell you about their encounters with us over the next few days will suggest you reconsider.”
“Encounters? How do you know about the Entelechy?” Warren asked.
He got no answer. The line went dead, then the screen went dead, and then the lights went off.
“Cheap trick,” he declared, and for once he hoped every telepath out there could hear him.
“What is upsetting you mom?”
Her mother’s sigh could be heard all the way in New York.
“It’s your boss.”
“Yes, and this compound that he is building.”
“It’s ugly? He’s not paying his bills? What’s the problem?”
Violeta kept her voice nonchalant, but her instincts were moving toward red alert.
“He has people there working ’round the clock now. His construction managers are all outsiders, of course, but the workers, many of them are local, and they talk.”
“Some people like attention, mom. So what are they saying?”
“That it’s a fortress. Or a prison. I’ve heard rumors of both. Don’t get me wrong, Violeta. Everyone understands that a U.S. company is going to have a security system with cameras and all that. But who has every one of their windows made from unbreakable bullet proof glass? Who puts in escape tunnels? Who wants security checkpoints along the perimeter and elevated platforms with assault weapons mounted to turn full circles.”
“That does sound extreme. Don’t you think some of the workers are making this up?”
“These are people I trust, Violeta.”
Her mother’s voice went from defensive to secretive.
“And they’re not broadcasting these things in bars, trying to get free drinks. They’d get fired. They are sharing this with the local police. I hear about it at work.”
Violeta’s mom Alma had worked as a police dispatcher ever since her husband was killed. Most thought that the job had been offered to the widow as a form a charity, but over the last decade Alma had proved herself to be an asset to the force.
“Okay. I believe you, mom. Honestly, I haven’t been much of a fan of Reel News for a while, and I’m less of one these days. Um, I guess you should know that I’m not quitting yet because I’m trying to get information for people who have another set of concerns about Warren Moore and his enterprises. How about I see if I can learn anything about his compound while I’m at it?”
“Oh I was hoping you might,” her mother said. “The chief of police was surprised and impressed when I told him that your New York news company was the same as these people. I know that he’ll be happy for anything you can find out.”
After Violeta hung up, all she could think was, My worst fears about this building project might be true. What in heaven’s name could a man like Warren want with such a place?
As soon as Ariel heard her mother’s voice, she knew that it was a bad time for a phone call.
“Honey, I’m in the cell lot at the airport, waiting to pick up Zane. Is everything okay?”
“It’s fine mom.”
“Good. I’m here with Teddie and Xuha in the car, and Zane’s going to text us any second, once he’s gotten his bag. There’s a ton of traffic. Talk later?”
“This is quick. I’m bringing two people with me to Houston, mom, to join us for Christmas.”
Then, with less irritation.
“Wait, is one of them this young man you went to Turkey with?”
“I wish. These are two friends of mine from Ireland, mom, and it’s kind of long story.”
Lola took a breath and reached out to her daughter. She got that Ariel wasn’t particularly happy about this either. She got that Ariel felt bad about springing it on her parents. She got that these two would not be dissuaded from coming. And she got that they, too, had abilities that could be useful in the days ahead.
“Did you just read my mind, mom?”
“An emergency decision, dear. This is not good timing for guests, as you well know, but we’ll make the best of the situation. When do you get here?”
“We’ll be there Friday.”
“You do know that Teddie has people coming too, right? c3 people. They get here on Tuesday.”
“It’s all going to be okay mom.”
“Are you telling me that as a psychic, or as my daughter?”
Lola heard Ariel laugh.
“Just as your daughter, mom. Our futures over the next couple months could not be more confusing. Maybe there will be more clarity once I get there. I hope so.”
The phone bleeped with a text message. Lola said a quick goodbye as she made her way into in the mass of cars trying to pick up holiday travelers.
She did her best to avoid those pulling in and out of parking and those loading overstuffed luggage into car trunks, sucking in her breath and hitting her brakes as a small child darted out in front of her. A traffic cop whistled and motioned at her to keep moving. Where the hell was Zane? He had clearly texted her, but now he was nowhere to be seen.
“Do you see Zane?”
“No,” Teddie said. “But I see Xuha.”
“Of course, dear. That is not helpful. Look outside the car, please.”
“I am, mom. I see Xuha standing over there on the curb.”
Lola squinted where Teddie was pointing. A young man wearing Zane’s jacket but looking remarkably like a taller Xuha was waving at them with a pleased grin on his face.
“Oh for God’s sake,“ Lola muttered. “This is no time for comedy.”
Xuha stared at his double for a second, a strange look on his face. Then he broke into a grin of his own as he jumped out of the car to help Zane with his bag. The two of them climbed into the back seat laughing. Zane’s features quickly dissolved into his own.
“Thought I’d start my visit off with some of that absolute honesty you’ve been insisting on, mom,” he said. “Might as well have some fun, right?”
“Can you do me?” Teddie asked.
“Of course, but it’d be better with a wig. You’d be surprised how much difference hair makes.”
Lola glanced in the rearview mirror as Zane began to resemble Teddie.
“Would you like to be bright pink?” he asked.
“Oh please! No wait, lime green.”
“Sorry, I can’t do colors I don’t have pigments for,” he explained. “You’ll like the pink, trust me.”
Lola heard Teddie squeal with delight.
“This could be the longest Christmas holiday ever,” Lola muttered, as she merged onto the highway that led home.
The lawyer invited Violeta to have a seat in the plush grey leather guest chair in his top-floor office. He still had his suit coat on, and he checked his phone for messages as his admin left to get Violeta a cup of expresso. The combination of courtesy and rudeness was intimidating in a way Violeta could not quite explain. She felt that it was intended to be so.
“I see Warren often as I coordinate with Gabriel and handle my other responsibilities here in New York. I just talked to him earlier this morning. If he had something he wanted to tell me, why didn’t he say so?”
The lawyer smiled. “He felt this message was better conveyed in, um, a more formal setting.”
There was something cold behind the smile and Violeta felt a flush of fear. This Monday morning was not starting off particularly well.
The tiny cup of expresso was placed quietly in front of her, and then the admin closed the door as she left the office.
“Am I being fired?” she asked.
The man looked up from the device in his palm.
“No, not today.”
There was the smile again. He waited. She waited. He waited some more.
He doesn’t know how well I can play this game, Violeta thought. She had just started to peak into his thoughts, when he finally chose to speak.
“It’s very important to Mr. Moore that he be able to trust all of his employees, particularly those, like you, with whom he has personal contact.”
Violeta felt her insides turn squishy. Had they discovered her contact with Lola? How?
“Over the weekend, Mr. Moore received a rather disturbing report about you, and he has asked me to clarify the situation.”
It took every bit of training Violeta had to keep the panic off her face and the fear out of her eyes.
“It regards your mother.”
“Yes. We understand that she works part time for the police department in your hometown in Argentina. Is that correct?”
Violeta allowed herself to exhale very slowly.
“It is. She’s worked there ever since my father was killed in 2000. She does clerical work. Why would Warren care?”
The lawyer pursed his lips.
“Mr. Moore is building a rather extensive office complex in Ushuaia. He’s chosen to keep this development quiet for now, as I’m sure you know.”
“Of course. I’ve heard about it from my family. To the best of my knowledge it’s no secret there. Was I not supposed to talk to my mother about it?”
“Talking to one’s mother is fine. Suggesting to one’s mother that one will spy on their employer is not.”
“I did no such thing!”
As soon as Violeta said it, she realized that she kind of, sort of, had.
“I mean I was just, you know, humoring her. She gets a little, I don’t know, excited about things some times.”
The lawyer nodded, and Violeta felt the emotional temperature in the room go from freezing to merely chilly.
“That’s what Mr. Moore hoped was the case. Nonetheless it does present him with a slight problem. The Ushuaia chief of police understands that Reel News, and our Argentine subsidiary CNA, do not wish for publicity regarding the construction of this facility. A formal announcement about it will be made to employees and to the public at large, when Mr. Moore feels that the time is right. He needs to be absolutely sure that you are on board with this.”
“Of course I am,” Violeta said. “I’ve said nothing to anyone in New York. It was apparent that Warren preferred discretion on this.”
“Excellent. I’m happy to hear that. Unfortunately, there are those in Ushuaia who feel that your mother is not showing the same good sense.”
Violeta fought the urge to squirm.
“She has become somewhat of a focal point for unfounded local suspicions. People in small towns do tend to amuse themselves with gossip, don’t they? Mr. Moore has decided that he has no choice but to ask the chief of police to dismiss your mother and any other locals showing a similar lack of discretion. He wanted me to ensure that you understood why.”
Violeta knew that getting fired was going to devastate her mom, who relied on her job for far more than money.
“Is there anything I can do prevent this?”
“Not really, no. The remaining question is whether two members of your family need to lose their jobs over this. Does Reel News have your absolute loyalty?”
“Of course they do.”
She said it without thinking.
He stood as he answered, pushing a small button in his desk, and gestured to the door. It opened on cue, and Violeta understood that she was being dismissed.