By K. B. Cribbett
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After Chloe had come home from Elliot's funeral, she shed no more tears, but she was hardly done mourning. She managed to maintain standing while their friends and family gave her their sympathies, pity, condolences, and support. By the time the day was over, Chloe did not even bother washing the tear-stained make-up from her face, and just fell into her pillow.
The first night at home, completely alone, was the worst. Chloe woke up dozens of times that night, reaching across the bed, hoping Elliot would magically be there. And every time the sheets were empty. Her unconscious mind spun with hypothetical situations, dreaming variations of how she had been told he was killed, while each conscious moment was wrought with despair and loneliness.
When Chloe's morning alarm finally went off, she involuntarily waited for Elliot to turn it off before she remembered that he could not, not ever again. She stared at the dull red digits as the edgy beep repeated over and over, matching the throb of Chloe's sleep-deprived mind. She heaved a sigh, reaching over and gently tapping the snooze button.
She desperately felt the need to call in sick today, but she knew that would be a bad idea. While her boss at the computer lab would easily understand her need to have some time to herself after such a traumatic event, she also realized that if she called in today, she would call in tomorrow, and the day after, and if she did not get up right now, she would melt into the bed and disappear.
Groaning through a dry morning throat, Chloe turned off the alarm completely and rolled into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. Her drowsy, puffy eyes looked around their bedroom, where hers and Elliot's clothes were still strewn from a wild night the previous weekend. The redhead's chest tightened; that was only two days ago. Two days ago when Elliot had gotten the call, the one offering him the job at the hospital, and they had celebrated--all night.
Chloe's eyes gradually hardened, and she got to her feet. The hospital. That stupid, stupid place. The police told her that some dumb idiot decided he wanted to rob the place, something about medical equipment being worth quite a pretty penny on the black market. Elliot, on his first day as receptionist, was right there at the front door to greet the bastard, the cops said, and was used as an example. A single shot to the head, she was told. Painless.
How could that be painless? He was gone. Her anger building, Chloe grabbed a few clothes and a towel and headed for the shower. Her mind spun through the policeman's words as he had told her that the proximity of the gun to Elliot's face left nothing for her to ID him with, and that they had to match his body with fingerprint and dental records. They didn't even let her see him before they put him in a jar.
Chloe slammed the knob on the shower to its hottest setting, which in their lower-middle-class home still meant slightly steamier than lukewarm. Cremation was not in Elliot's life insurance policy, at least not to Chloe's knowledge. The fact that they had gone ahead with it before they even came to tell her the news stoked the fiery rage building within the young redhead.
Releasing fists she did not realize she had been clenching, Chloe stripped yesterday's clothes she had carelessly slept in, and stepped under the high-pressure nozzle. An earlier shower than usual, the water was a comfortable heat, and Chloe let it pound on the back of her neck and shoulders. She closed her eyes and let the water wash away the previous day's muck and grime.
She was determined to keep going, even though she wanted to curl in a ball and ignore the world for the rest of forever. If she knew one thing about Elliot, it was that he would not condone any kind of mopey behavior on his behalf, regardless of the violence of his death. She could almost hear his words:
“Get up off your ass, woman, and get the answers you need. Could you grab me a few pounds of beef while you're up?”
Chloe let a small smile creep onto her lips, lifting her head and getting her shampoo and body wash. She began to plan her day with a new determination. Answers. Elliot would want answers. From beyond the grave, she could feel him demanding them. Even if she could not still quite accept that he was gone, she would do her part as a diligent wife, and get some closure.
Alright, answers. Chloe stepped from the shower, drying herself and throwing on some work clothes. Answers to what? Chloe supposed that first, she needed to figure out what kind of questions she should be asking. She skipped make-up for the day; it would fail to draw out the puffiness still left in her eyes anyway.
Heading down the stairs, the redhead pondered what kind of questions she felt the need to be answered. Elliot was gone, so now what? How would she pay the bills without his unemployment check each week? Even though it was a sad little bit of money, with Chloe working overtime, they were able to make it work. Could she pick up more hours at work? Hmm.
Chloe thew a couple of pieces of bread into the toaster and tapped her foot impatiently. The money thing would be tough, but she would find a way. Something else kept nagging at her, tugging at the back of her mind, if only she could put it into the right words. The toast jumped up, golden brown, and Chloe smothered it with butter and jelly, taking the food and a bit of coffee in a thermos for the road.
She was halfway to the door when she remembered the coffee. Elliot usually drank it like water, and they commonly went through two full pots a day between the two of them, so it was always Elliot's job to turn it off in the morning, or afternoon, or whenever it was empty.
Chloe realized that a lot of the little habits they had been building and perfecting over their first year of marriage were now completely obsolete, and that a lot of those little things would have to change. In addition to needing to possibly take on more hours or get a second job, Chloe would have to find time to clean, cook, do laundry, mow the lawn...
As the list grew in her head, Chloe's early-morning determination and strength waned, and she dropped the thermos in her hand. It clattered noisily through the still, silent house, and Chloe collapsed with it, a fresh wave of pain and grief overcoming her. She curled up on the floor and just cried.
Chloe wept until her tear ducts refused to provide any more, and her episode exhausted her. Without moving, she fell asleep in the middle of the cold kitchen floor, toast laying jam-side-down and her coffee thermos tucked under her head like a pillow. When she awoke, her limbs were stiff and her muscles were sore.
As she slowly, tenderly sat up, the redhead tried to swallow, but she had dehydrated herself. She shakily got to her feet and went to the kitchen sink, running some cold water and splashing it on her face. She snatched a glass from the drainer and filled it, drank the entire thing, and filled it again. As she tilted back the second filling, her eyes caught the clock on the microwave.
Eleven forty-five. She was already more than three hours late for work. Too tired to get excited about it, she shuffled over to where her purse had been cast onto the kitchen floor, and shuffled around for her phone. Three voicemails. Chloe sank into a kitchen chair and put the phone to her ear.
The first message was from her mother, just checking in, and demanding Chloe call her back soon. The second was from work, her boss Reggie asking if she planned to come in today. Chloe could not tell if he was being extra short with her, or was just skipping the 'you're late again' rant because of her recent loss.
The last message was from Chloe's co-worker, a sweet girl named Darcy Harris who kept Chloe sane during her computer help desk hours. Darcy mentioned that she missed Chloe's face, and if she did not show up by her lunch hour, Darcy was coming over to check on her. Aside from Elliot, Darcy had quickly become Chloe's closest friend when they moved to Bloomington. Chloe put down her phone and checked the microwave clock again. Darcy usually took her lunch around noon.
A knock at the door signaled to Chloe that the impatient and easily excitable Darcy could not wait until noon. Chloe pondered yelling for her to just come in, but her throat was still pretty dry. She took another swig from the glass of water and headed to the door.
“Hey, chica,” the brunette at the door greeted her with a firm hug. “Missed you at work today.”
“Yeah,” Chloe's voice cracked, and she cleared her throat. “Wasn't feeling it.”
“I don't blame you,” Darcy followed Chloe inside. “You sound like you just woke up...”
“Kinda,” Chloe's eyes darted toward the kitchen, and when she remembered the mess she had made on the floor there, instead invited Darcy to take a seat in the front room.
“You holding up okay?” Darcy seemed at a loss for the right words to comfort her friend. Chloe half-nodded, half-shrugged as the two women sat on opposite ends of the couch.
“I just....” Chloe started, then realized she had no idea what to say. “I'll be fine.”
“Well, until you get to 'fine,' how about you let me help you out with some things?” Darcy offered, looking around the room. “You know, clean up, do laundry, vacuum. Whatever you don't feel like doing right now.”
“That would be great, thank you,” Chloe pulled her feet up from the ground, hugging her knees to her chest. “I just.... I don't really know how to cope.”
“Oh, hunny,” Darcy scooted across the couch and put a hand on Chloe's arm. “That comes later. Right now, you just let your mind and body react. When that passes, and you can think clearly, then you can worry about silly things like 'coping' and 'remembering to watch Bones with your best friend'.”
“Shit,” Chloe sniffed, her eyes reflexively darting towards the television. “Sorry, I--”
“Don't worry about it, Chloes,” smiled the brunette. “I was just teasing you. TV should be the last thing on your mind. Unless you think it will help you clear your head. Just let me know what you need me to do to help.”
“I don't even know,” the redhead sighed. “I just don't know.”
“Would it help to talk about it?” Darcy offered. “I mean, I don't really know what happened, the evil boss man just said....well, he didn't give us any details. And I couldn't get any answers from anyone at the funeral, as sleuth-y as I was.”
“Yeah, I can maybe talk about it,” Chloe sat up a bit on the couch. “I think I've run the tear well dry for the day anyhow.”
“Oh, hunny,” Darcy gave Chloe's hand a good squeeze. “You don't have to stay here alone, you know. If you want me to come stay with you, just so the house doesn't feel so empty...or if it's hard to be here right now, I've got room at my place...”
“Thanks, Darce,” Chloe managed a small smile. “I should be okay here for a while. But I might be needing a few slumber parties.”
“Deal,” Darcy grinned, exposing the metal bar of her retainer. “So...what happened?”
“Oh, hell,” Chloe let out a deep breath, staring up at the ceiling. “I barely got anything from the police myself. El--” Chloe cut off, suddenly finding it hard to say his name. She paused, swallowed, and tried again. “He...he went to his first day of work, and there was an armed robbery...”
“Holy shit, he worked at that hospital?” Darcy's grey eyes widened slightly behind her designer glasses. “I saw something about that on the news...they said there was a hostage situation, possible casualties, but that was the end of it.”
“That's right.... Are they still following it?” Chloe grabbed for the remote, but Darcy stopped her.
“Not anymore,” the younger woman clarified. “Some story about a missing kid took over the headlines. Sorry...”
“Probably wouldn't have told me anything, anyway,” Chloe grumbled. “No one else has.”
“How do you mean?” Darcy prompted her.
“I don't know, just the whole thing,” Chloe waved her hands helplessly in the air, forgetting that she was still holding the remote, and it went flying across the room. Ignoring it, she continued, “Just, they didn't let me ID his body, because they said he took the shot to his face. And then they cremated him. Without my consent. It pisses me off, but I can't do anything about it now that it's done.”
“Well, that does seem a bit odd...” encouraged her friend.
“And that's just the start of it,” Chloe felt the anger from the morning returning, overwhelming her exhaustion. “First they cremate him, and then they tell me that they caught the guy who did it, but they won't release Elliot's things to me because it's an 'ongoing investigation.' If they caught the guy, what's left to keep going on about?”
“Okay, you know I'm queen of conspiracy theories, but even this creeps me out,” Darcy admitted. “So, they tell you he's dead, but won't give you any real proof? How's that supposed to give you closure?”
“Exactly,” Chloe sighed. “I keep waiting for him to walk through that door like he owns the place, like he just got on the wrong bus and ended up in Vegas. I even thought I saw him at his funeral.”
“Seriously?” Darcy leaned slightly forward, very intrigued in Chloe's ranting.
“Well, yeah,” Chloe brushed it aside, “But I mean, I thought I saw my grandpa after he'd passed, too. They say it's a post-traumatic psychologic...something or other.”
“But what if....” the brunette paused, unsure of whether or not to continue, but she did anyway, “What if it's not? I mean, what if you really saw him?”
“Please, Darcy, don't give me hope,” pleaded the redhead. “If that bastard faked his own death, or if there was some kind of mix-up, and some other Elliot Washington died that day, then where the hell is he? I mean, if he had the balls to show up to his own funeral, knowing I would be there, and not saying anything to me, he's got another thing coming. I'll kick his ectoplasmic ass into next year!”
“Easy, Chloes,” Darcy put a hand out to sedate the older woman's anger. “It was just a stupid thought. I'm not very good at this. I should be telling you he's gone, move on with your life, blah blah blah.”
“...But?” Chloe prompted her.
“But, you have a point,” Darcy explained. “You need closure before anything else, and if finding out what really happened to Elliot gives you that, then I'll back you, one hundred and ten percent. Maybe all it will take is to get the police to release the case records to you or something. I know a guy.”
“Darce, come on,” Chloe slouched into the couch, her anger consumed by the growling of her stomach. “They wouldn't even give me his shirt and wallet. What makes you think they'll give me the case file?”
“Look,” Darcy reached into her purse for her phone. “I've got a friend, Darren Kaufman, he works a few floors up from us, and he does a lot of private outsourcing, detective kind of stuff. I'll leave his number with you, and his office information, and if you feel like you want to go see him, great. If not, well, maybe you should talk to Bryant.”
“Bryant?” Chloe looked up as Darcy scribbled down some information on a scrap of newpaper on the coffee table. “Bryant Gardner? The shrink?”
“He's specifically a cognitive and behavioral psychologist,” Darcy corrected her friend. “But he does good work. He got me to quit smoking without any meds or patches or gum or anything. But I think you should call Darren first.”
“I don't know, Darcy, this seems a bit...” Chloe started, but Darcy shoved the paper into the redhead's hand.
“Nonsense, hunny,” the brunette stretched and stood. “You do what you gotta do, and I'll be here for you whatever you choose. Now, where do you keep your cleaning supplies?”
“I--” Chloe started. “But.... don't you have to go to work? Hell, I should be at work...”
“Nope!” Darcy patted Chloe's tussled hair. “Told the Reg-man I'm taking the rest of the day off for a family emergency. You're the closest to family I've got, so let's get crackin. Now: broom.”
The next few days ran together like raindrops on a windshield for Chloe. Darcy seemed to have sixth sense about her, giving her room when she needed it, and being constantly around when Chloe just couldn't bear to be alone. Chloe only took two days off of work, returning on Wednesday.
The worst part of coming back to work was the looks. Those pitying, sad-eyed glances that either held her gaze with an apologetic, empathetic stare, or dropped away in awkward avoidance. Not particularly feeling like answering the phones, Chloe was surprised to see Darcy show up on her day off and take the help desk for her.
“Darce, you don't need to baby me,” Chloe told her friend as they sat side by side at the help desk terminals.
“I'm not babying you,” Darcy snickered. “I'm just better at it than you are, and you now owe me three days of help desk in return. Oh yes, I'm keeping track, missy.”
“Fine, fine,” Chloe laughed, grabbing the pile of paperwork from her inbox. “Crimeny, it's like no one does anything when I'm not here.”
“True story,” Darcy sighed, plucking a disinfectant wipe from the bin beside the headphones and wiping down the earpiece before putting it on. “I was there. We just partied. Had a keg and everything. You missed all the fun.”
“Sometimes, Darce, you're a real jerk,” Chloe teased, “But sometimes, you're just wonderful.”
“Yeah, I'm pretty awesome,” agreed the brunette as she plugged the headphones into the phone jack and clicked the first button. “CrimsonTech Computer Solutions, my name is Darcy and I'll be helping you today. What can I do for you?”
Chloe shuffled through the mess of papers that had been thrown on her desk while she was away. It seemed as if anything that anyone else was unable to figure out ended up on her plate, giving her the most random and sporadic technical issues to resolve. At least her brain got a healthy amount of exercise each day.
The redhead paused her sorting when her eye caught the framed five-by-seven photo, partially hidden behind the barricade of paperwork. She reached for it, moving the papers to pull it out. It was a wedding photo of herself and Elliot, under a giant oak tree in the park.
Elliot had come to visit her at work one day and had used a dry-erase marker to scribble 'hot dude' under his face and 'some chick' under Chloe's. The playful ignorance always gave her a half grin and a roll of her green eyes, even now, but she never had the heart to erase it. Returning the photo to its proper home with a sad smile, Chloe went back to her work.
As she sifted through the first few layers, something vaguely familiar sticking out of the side of the stack caught her eye. Lifting the papers to release the foreign object from its entrapment, Chloe picked up the scrap of newspaper that Darcy had scribbled two phone numbers on.
“Hey, how did this get--” Chloe started, turning the scrap towards Darcy. But the brunette was deep in a conversation with someone who had tried to overclock their processor and apparently set the motherboard aflame. Furrowing her dainty eyebrows, Chloe stared at the paper.
She had convinced herself two days ago that she needed answers. She had gotten to the point where she knew she needed to ask the right questions, but after that, her brain had seemed to turn to mush. The days since Elliot's funeral had seemed surreal, hazy, like a dream, and Chloe felt like the sleep was finally leaving her eyes. She stood up.
Darcy noticed the movement and looked up at her friend. Chloe mimicked snapping a twig, and pointed to the clock as she grabbed her purse, their signal for going on break. Darcy nodded without a second thought and turned back to her station, asking the person on the other end of the phone to repeat the last thing he did before trying to turn his computer back on.
Making her way through the uncomfortable stares of the office, Chloe boarded the elevator and pressed the button for the seventh floor. She decided that if she was unable to sort through the confusion in her own head, maybe someone else could. When a computer breaks down, consult a professional. Waiting impatiently for the elevator doors to creak shut, Chloe debating backing out, and just going back to her desk.
“Quit being such a wuss,” she growled under her breath to herself. Hearing herself say it gave her a small bit of strength, even if she had made the decision to get help. As the well-used elevator slid up to the seventh floor and stopped, Chloe could not shake the feeling of whether or not she was doing the right thing.
“Screw it,” she sighed. As the doors began opening on the seventh floor, she jammed on the 'Close Doors' button, and then pressed the lit number sixteen. Screw psychiatry, she was getting some answers.
“So, Miss Washington--” the man began.
“Mrs.” Chloe interrupted him “Mrs. Washington, thank you.”
“My apologies,” responded the gentleman from the other side of his cherry-maple desk. “Mrs. Washington, let me see if I understand you. Your partner--”
“Right, husband, has recently deceased--”
“Okay. And you want me to do what exactly?”
Chloe sat in the fancy, lush red chair opposite the middle-aged private detective. Several minutes earlier, she had burst through the door, made her appointment immediate, and threw a rambling series of information at the man, expecting him to do something about it. Taking a sharp breath to collect her thoughts, the redhead continued.
“Look, Mr. Kaufman, I've been told my husband is dead,” Chloe repeated the words Darcy had spoken to her earlier, “But I've been given no proof to substantiate it. No body to ID, no personal effects to collect, just a jar of ash and a nice ceremony. I need closure, and to get that, I need to see my husband's case file.”
“The police report,” Darren Kaufman paused to look down at the notes he had frantically scribbled during Chloe's first onslaught. A half-eaten egg salad sandwich sat next to the spiral, awaiting the man to finish it. “The shooting at the White Oak Hospital?”
“Correct,” Chloe nodded, “It was his first day there.”
“First day, huh?” Darren jotted down a couple of things in his notebook and then shut it. “Alright, Mrs. Washington, this isn't really the kind of thing I usually take interest in, but business is slow, and there's a faint possibility that you might have something here.
“Now,” he cautioned her as he folded his hands together over the closed notebook, “I don't want you to get your hopes up. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, these kinds of things just turn out to be someone slacking in the paperwork department, maybe the person who was supposed to release his things to you was on vacation, and someone else put it in the evidence vault. It's possible that we can resolve this quickly and quietly, and you can be on your way.”
“...but?” Chloe prompted him.
“But?” Darren lowered his eyebrows.
“There was definitely a 'but' at the end of that statement, Mr. Kaufman, even if you didn't say it. What happens one time out of a hundred?”
“Once in a while,” Darren started with hesitation, “And mind you, this is once in a very great while, a person comes to me with a hunch, and it just happens to turn out something interesting. This is no television show, Mrs. Washington. A PI's work isn't glamorous or exciting. It's a lot of sitting and waiting and handing out disappointing news.”
“So long as I get solid, true answers,” Chloe bobbed her head in a brisk nod. “Either way. I just want to know.”
“Then I think we can do business,” Darren stood and extended a hand to Chloe, who took it as she rose from her own chair.
Chloe left work that day with a slightly more upright gait. She even felt like she could go to her yoga class, which she had missed on Tuesday because her grief-stricken body could not handle anything other than sleep. Now her sore limbs demanded the relief of the well-rehearsed stretching motions that yoga offered. She drove from the downtown office buildings up towards the shopping district, where her yoga class met above an old book store.
Between the cold weather and lack of gift-worthy holidays, the strip of businesses was quiet that afternoon. Chloe was glad for it, unable to take any more pitiful glances, even from perfect strangers. She pulled her sedan around to the back of the building and parked in a two hour zone. Chloe prepared to leave her vehicle, but her phone buzzed from her purse.
“Hello?” the redhead held the phone with her shoulder against her cheek as she reached to snatch her spare yoga mat from the backseat.
“Mrs. Washington?” came the husky, slightly out-of-breath voice from the other end. “It's Darren Kaufman.”
“That was quick. I hope you have good news,” Chloe reached for her car door handle.
“I'm afraid not,” Darren replied. “Let's just say that your case seems to be that one in a hundred.”
“What do you mean?” Chloe's heart raced as her hopes were raised.
“What I mean is that, whatever your husband got into, it's dangerous.”
“Dangerous? He was unemployed, Mr. Kaufman. I hardly believe--”
“Not when he allegedly died.” She could hear Darren take a deep, calming breath before he continued. “Look, I've only scratched the surface, but all of the case files linked to that report have been wiped and redacted. All of the footage of the hospital has been seized, any witnesses seem to have fallen from the face of the planet, and even the videos on the internet have been deleted. The only time I've seen someone go through this much work to cover up a cover story was...well, I can't tell you about that. But it can't be good.”
“So what are you saying?” Chloe demanded. “That this whole thing is a dead end?”
“I'm saying you need to watch where you step, Mrs. Washington,” Darren warned her. “These people are no amateurs with a good hacker; this goes up all the way to the Chief of Police, maybe higher. I was barely able to get out of the precinct with my skin intact.”
“The cops really turned on you?” Chloe stared out her window is disbelief.
“Not turned, exactly, but my questions were definitely not welcome. I knew my rights, so I was able to get them to release the records to me, because a public incident like that, after its been aired, is supposed to be public domain. But everything had been redacted. I've talked to three different newspapers in the area, and even they can't find any of the articles they wrote up about it. I'm telling you, it was a clean sweep, and they did it fast.”
“I'll say,” Chloe grunted, then glanced at her watch. “So what's next?”
“I'm going to keep digging,” Darren informed her. “But I need you to be on high alert. Keep your head down, don't do anything crazy, and just take extra precautions. If these guys get the sniff that you're on to them, it could be Bad News Bears.”
“Gotcha. Look I have to--”
“It's okay, I'll keep this line open if you need anything or if you hear anything. If anything happens, just call this number, okay?”
“Sure, sure. I'll talk to you later.”
As Chloe flipped her phone shut with a strange new sense of paranoia, she wondered if she had really struck a nerve with whoever was responsible for the attack on the White Oak Hospital. Darren Kaufman did not seem like the kind of professional who would lead a client on a wild goose chase just for the paycheck.
Taking a deep breath to calm herself, Chloe got out of her car. Before she had time to react, the redhead was face-down on the pavement, her fingers and extremities tingling as a dull pain arced from her back.
Chloe coughed as a gasp of surprised air sucked into her lungs after the shock. Feeling as though she had stuck her finger into an electrical outlet, the redhead slowly pushed herself up to her hands and knees. Shaking her head to clear it, she put one hand on the side of her car and used it to get herself back up to her feet.
She had only managed to get one foot flat on the ground when a bright light thudded into the side of her car, only inches from her hand. Jerking her fingers back as the shock sparked on them, she turned around too quickly and landed on her rear.
Down the alley near the street corner were two figures, and one seemed to be holding a flashlight. Only, it was bright daylight, and Chloe was sure that no flashlight would produce a beam that bright. The light seemed to bounce in the hand of its holder, like a softball player testing the weight of a new game ball. Frozen in shock and confusion, Chloe was helpless to sit and watch as the figure reeled back and pitched, and the light became brighter as it shot speedily towards Chloe.
The redhead instinctively ducked, and the energy ball shattered her driver's side window with a loud crash. Chunks of thick glass rained down on Chloe's head as she scrambled around to the front of the car to hide behind it.
The ground beneath her rumbled, and Chloe's eyes darted frantically around the alleyway. Not another soul was to be found, not even a peep from a window at the unusual time and place for an earthquake. Chloe tried to find her phone, to call for help, but the ground rumbled again, and Chloe skittered on her hands and knees to the passenger side of her car, which offered more safety against a large brick building.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” came a man's heavily accented, sing-song voice from down the alley. “No time for hide and seek, little girl.”
“She doesn't want to play with us, Nuri,” another man's voice, distinctively Eastern Asian, replied.
“Suuuure she does,” the first man, Nuri, chided.
Chloe could hear their voices drawing near, and tried again to find her phone. Pressing the redial, she waited impatiently as the line rang on the other end. The sound was deafening to Chloe's ears, and she hoped and prayed it was not audible to the two strange men approaching.
“Masaki, she's no fun,” Nuri's voice pouted like a child's. “I have a light show for her, and she doesn't want to see it.”
“Hello?” Darren's voice was like thunder. Chloe pulled the phone slightly away from her face, realizing that in her panic she was cramming it into her jawline.
“I need help,” Chloe whispered into the receiver. “There are two men, and--”
“Okay, okay, calm down Mrs. Washington,” Darren's voice reflected his heightened sense of danger. “I'll send someone to come and get you. Where are you?”
“On the corner of East Market and Fifty One,” she whispered, snapping her phone closed when she heard footsteps approaching.
“You hear something, Nuri?” inquired Masaki.
“Shhh,” Nuri shushed him.
Chloe did not move a muscle, feeling like the noise of her overactive heart pumping against her terror alone was enough to lead them straight to her. Her ears, heightened by the adrenaline coursing through her veins, heard the gentle crunching noise of shoes on uneven gravel. They were just around the front of her car. She squeezed her eyes shut and waited for the pain.
Instead, the grinding noise of car tires on loose gravel made Chloe cringe. Her eyes were still tightly closed, and she pulled back against the brick wall behind her. A single gun shot snapped them open, and she heard several voices shouting over each other.
“Hands in the air!”
“Do it now!”
“Shit! Mother fu--”
“On the ground!”
“No Masaki, don't!”
“Next time I won't miss!”
The voices were all silenced when the ground began to rumble again. Chloe turned her head in the direction of the noise, seeing the blue-and-white nose of a police car behind the trunk of her own. Crawling away from where she thought that Nuri and Masaki were by the front of her car, she inched her way along the ground towards the cops.
“Masaki, you'll get us killed!” Nuri's voice whimpered over the earth's quiet roar. “Let's just go! She's not worth it!”
“We have a job to do!” Masaki shouted back as Chloe made it to the end of her car and dared a peek around the edge.
Two plains-clothes officers had their Glock-17s targeted at Chloe's two attackers, neither of whom she could see from this angle. The smaller woman had the passenger side door open, and was using it as a shield, standing behind it with her arms resting on the door frame for steadiness. The broad shouldered driver had his door open as well, his hands and gun resting on the car's roof and pointing just to Chloe's right.
“Hands up!” the female cop demanded, re-aiming her weapon slightly downward and sending another warning shot that landed right at the feet of the taller villain.
“As you wish,” the grin in Masaki's voice was evident.
Chloe leaned her head around the edge of the back of her car and saw him raise his arms, and with them came a large chunk of the pavement. The redhead jumped back in surprise and terror as what had formerly been the parking lot became a gravel and blacktop shield.
As the two police officers opened fire on Masaki and the now-retreating Nuri, the female cop noticed Chloe by her sudden movement in an attempt to jump back behind her car.
“Over here!” the woman shouted over her shoulder to her partner, and put a hand out towards Chloe. “Come on! Jump!”
Chloe's green eyes widened even more as she skittered backwards away from the quickly building wall cutting her off from the police. Instead, she took a page from Nuri's book, and, clambering to her feet, took off in the opposite direction, hoping to head around the corner towards the street.
She slid to a stop as she rounded the corner because Nuri was there waiting for her with a malicious grin. She backpedaled so fast that she almost lost her footing and went down, but she managed to get her forward momentum to turn herself around and get away from him.
The wall between Masaki and the police officers was growing too quickly, and was now too high for Chloe to jump, or even to climb. She ducked behind her car as an energy ball from Nuri flew passed her head. Over the sizzling of the electric attack and the grumbling of Masaki's parking lot wall, Chloe thought she heard sirens.
Backup. The cops had not come alone. Thank the heavens. Chloe dove for the passenger's side door, throwing it open so that it caught Nuri's next energy ball. A thunderous sound began to roar in the redhead's ears, and she was terrified to turn to see where the sound was coming from, but she did anyway.
Masaki's wall had stopped growing, and the center of it seemed to be trembling. The tall, skinny man lowered his hands to straight out in front of him, his feet sliding slowly backwards as if he were being pushed back. The center of the wall finally broke open to the weight of dozens of guns' worth of ammunition.
“No!” Masaki cried as the center of the wall came tumbling down in front of him.
Chloe could see the small cop reloading her pistol, and, taking aim, shot Masaki straight in the heart. The terrakinetic grasped his chest as he was thrown backwards from the close-range shot, and Chloe swallowed the urge to vomit as she saw a puddle of red immediately forming on and under him.
From behind her, Chloe could hear Nuri swearing a long list of profanities in both English and his native language, and the small female cop signaled to the reinforcements.
“Go after him!” she commanded them. “Don't let him get away!”
Making hand motions to some of the other men around her, the woman carefully stepped over the rubble and towards Chloe, who involuntarily flinched at her approach. Two police officers followed her, heading straight for Masaki's unmoving form. One checked for a pulse and shook his head to the other.
“It's okay, ma'am,” the female officer offered a hand out to Chloe. “My name is Kaida Tanaka, and I got the call from Darren Kaufman. You're safe now. Come on, let's get you out of here.”
“I...what....” Chloe stammered, carefully standing up straight as Kaida reached down and scooped up Chloe's purse, including the contents that had spilled from it in her back-and-forth haste around the car.
“We'll explain back at headquarters,” Kaida promised. “It'll be okay.”
Chloe let herself be led out of the alley, into the awaiting police car, and to wherever they were leading her. She stared blankly out of the window, but the entire ordeal had left her drained so much that she barely registered the buildings flying by outside.
The two cops who had first shown up on the scene glanced at each other, and Kaida turned back every once and a while to see if Chloe was still with them. Seeming to know the effect the chase and strange events had on her, they did not question her, or try and get her to tell them what happened.
The car slowed when they reached the business district, and it turned into an underground parking lot under one of the taller office buildings. The driver showed his badge to the postman at the entrance, allowing him passage without paying for a pass. They circled around and found a spot near the elevator.
“Alright, Mrs. Washington,” Kaida turned around again, making sure she had Chloe's attention. “We're here. Come on inside, we'll get you all cleaned up and caught up.”
Chloe took the first look down at herself. Aside from being completely dusted in dirt and gravel, her khaki pants were crumpled, her pink shirt was disheveled and torn at the sleeve, her arms were covered in dozens of tiny cuts from when her window was shattered, her work flats were barely shoes anymore, and Chloe dreaded to even think about what her hair looked like. She felt like she might need a full HazMat team to get her back to looking like normal.
When she looked up, Kaida was giving her a concerned look through her dark eyes, and Chloe saw the blonde driver give her a friendly blue-eyed grin through the rear-view mirror. Chloe gave them a faint nod, and the two police officers exited the vehicle. Kaida turned and opened the back door for Chloe, and even though she was considerably shorter than Chloe, the cop offered her arm to the redhead in case she needed assistance walking.
Chloe shook her head, doing her best to put one foot in front of the other as they traversed to the elevator, boarded it, and headed upstairs. Normally quite particular about how she appeared to others, Chloe count not muster the extra strength to even run her fingers through her tangled red tresses. They got off of the elevator on an isolated floor and headed for a room to their left.
Inside, Darren Kaufman was waiting for her. Even though they had only met that afternoon, he rushed to Chloe's side. An emergency medical technician was behind him, and whisked up to the young woman, giving her a thorough visual inspection.
“Good grief, are you okay? What happened?” Darren asked her, taking her hand, then touching his fingers to her cheek to assess the damage to her face. When Chloe did not answer, he turned to Kaida and her partner, repeating, “What happened?”
“A couple of freaks tried to get to her,” the blonde man reported in a soft, deep voice. “She's a bit shaken up, but she'll come out of it.”
“Well, go get her some water or something,” Darren demanded, pointing the officers towards the door. The two looked at each other, and the man took off to find something for Chloe to drink.
“Here, sit down,” Darren ushered Chloe to one of four padded chairs circling a small meeting table in the middle of the small room. “You're safe now, it's okay. Can you hear me?”
Chloe nodded, blinking as she looked up and seemed to see him for the first time. The EMT had already began dabbing wet gauze on where her arms were bleeding, using tweezers to gently remove the pieces of glass still embedded in her skin. Her eyes tightened, her fatigue breaking through the mask she had put up over her grief at the loss of Elliot.
“It's okay,” Darren took her hand when tears threatened to well up and spill over, and she dropped her gaze. “You've been through a lot this week. There's nothing to be ashamed of.”
Feeling too tired to cry properly, a few tears trickled down Chloe's dirt-stained cheeks, but the well was pretty dry. Darren offered her a tissue, and she took it, but only held on to it, gripping it tightly in one fist. The EMT gestured to Darren that he was through, and Darren shooed him from the room.
As Kaida's partner returned with a glass of water, which Chloe gratefully drank, Darren sighed the sigh of a man who has something important to say, but did not want to create more tension by adding it to Chloe's already full plate. As she put her glass down, Chloe half-nodded to him, letting him know it was alright.
“Mrs. Washington,” Darren started, pausing for a moment as he calculated where to begin. “I'm afraid we've stumbled on to something a little bit out of our league. I should have known something was fishy the minute I started investigating your case from the way I was black walled at every turn. You first hunch that something was off was right, and I feel the need to apologize; when you first came into my office, I didn't quite take you seriously.
“After today, I have no doubt that there's a larger conspiracy around you and your late husband. Whether he was mixed up in something before, or got in the middle of something that day of the hostage situation at the hospital, I don't know. But I promise you, I aim to find out. I'm not letting go of this until we get some answers.”
Chloe nodded in agreement, still coming out of the haze of the day's events. After a stretch of silence, she finally spoke:
“Let's get the bastards who killed my husband.”
The next several days whisked by for Chloe, blurring together in a muddle mess. Darren made sure that Chloe was looked after, getting her cleaned up after the accident, getting her moved into protective custody in an apartment in the building next to her workplace, and posting surveillance teams at her house, her work, and her new apartment.
Chloe felt like her world had dropped out from under her. When she had been told that Elliot was dead, she thought the world had ended. Her grief had overcome her, engulfing her in despair and overwhelming her with everything she had to do to be strong enough to push through.
Now, after she had seen the things she had seen, it was as if that old world did not even exist anymore. The young woman felt as if her entire life had been a cover, a thin veil partitioning her sheltered, comfortable existence from the impossibly horrific real world, a world where even physics had no jurisdiction.
It was now exactly a week after the White Oak Hospital incident, and Chloe was beginning to feel the weight of mourning pounding on the door of her current expressionless state. She walked aimlessly around her new apartment, still not comfortable with the new furniture and the stale smell of fresh paint. This was not home.
A knock at her door startled her so much that she dropped the shirt she was putting away and forgot what she had been doing when her internal musings kicked in. Closing her emerald eyes for a moment to try and clear her head, Chloe sighed, opened them, and made her way to the door. She checked through the peephole before unlocking it, and seeing Kaida waiting patiently on the other side, Chloe unlatched the bolt and let her in.
“Good morning, Mrs. Washington,” Kaida greeted her with her characteristic stoic visage. “How are you holding up today?”
“Alright, I suppose,” Chloe shut the door and went towards the bathroom, intending to get Kaida a cup of coffee, but paused, realizing she was going the wrong way. Turning, she headed to the kitchen.
“Darren asked me if I would bother convincing you to see a doctor,” Kaida informed her as she took a seat on one of the deep red couches in the front room. “He thinks that there may be some minor concussion damage that could be hindering your directional synapses.”
“What now?” Chloe returned with two small cups of coffee, and handed one to her guest. “I'm fine, the nurses already checked me out.”
“Still,” Kaida took a sip from her mug, “It wouldn't hurt. Any medical issues relating to the alley incident are being paid for by CrimsonTech.”
“By CT?” Chloe repeated, holding her drink without drinking it. “What does my work have to do with the accident?”
Kaida froze with her mug half-way to her small, thin lips. As she slowly lowered it back down, she looked up at Chloe, and the redhead thought she caught a glimpse of emotion, possibly guilt, cross behind the other woman's eyes.
“I gauge your confusion to mean that Darren has not yet met with you,” Kaida intoned. She raised her cup and took a drink.
“Apparently not,” Chloe's eyebrows met as they lowered. “What did he want to meet with me about?”
“Several things,” mentioned Kaida simply. “Have you checked your phone? He may have texted you.”
“No, I haven't,” Chloe admitted, patting her pockets and realizing that her cell was not on her, revealing yet another habit that had changed since she had her world torn away. Over the past couple of days, for the most part isolated in her new confines, not allowed to go to work or to yoga or do much of anything, Chloe realized that aside from Elliot and Darcy, her circle of friends was pretty loose. She doubted most people even realized that something had happened, and would only contact her come holidays when they did not hear from her.
A sudden terror seized Chloe as she realized just how far gone she had come. She saw a cliff's edge before her, teetering on the edge of disappearing from the public eye altogether. Aside from the handful of family members who had shown up for Elliot's headstone dedication, Chloe felt as if the other seven billion people on the planet would just keep going without her.
“Mrs. Washington?” Kaida's voice cut through Chloe's anxiety. The woman had moved across the room to Chloe's side when she saw the redhead begin to lose it, and had removed the mug from her hands, as if expecting an episode.
“I'm fine,” Chloe insisted, blinking away the fears and shoving them into a dark corner of her mind. “Just spaced out a bit. No big deal.” She smiled up at Kaida, but how it failed to hit her eyes did not seem to convince either woman.
“I thought you might...” Kaida trailed off, then seemed to change her mind mid-thought. “Well, anyway, when you get a chance, you should get a hold of Darren. He has some information for you.”
“Will do,” Chloe promised as she followed Kaida to the door.
After the raven-haired police officer had left, Chloe went to find and check her phone. There was one single text from Darren, a simple statement asking her to call or stop by his office some time today. Chloe flipped through her phone's history, realizing not a single other person had called or texted her since she had called Darren in the alley.
Chloe slowly sat down, sinking into the thick mattress of her new queen-sized bed. She flipped further back and saw the last time that Darcy had called, six days ago, the day after the funeral. She wondered why her closest friend, who was so insistent on taking care of Chloe after the funeral, had not called to see why Chloe had not shown up to work for the past three days.
Chloe punched the dial button to call Darcy and put her phone to her ear. She had no idea what she would tell her, but she felt like she could really use the comfort of Darcy's peppy, overenthusiastic company right about now. The phone beeped, and a monotone woman's voice indicated that the line was no longer connected.
“Huh?” Chloe pulled her phone away from her ear, punching the 'End Call' button, and redialed. She got the same result. Confused, she scrolled through her contacts until she got to the one labeled 'Work.' If nothing else, she really should call Reggie and let him nag her a bit before she told him that she would not be in to work for a while. The line rang three times until a man's voice answered.
“May I speak with Mr. Reginald, please?” Chloe asked.
“I'm sorry, who?” the man on the other end of the line asked.
“Marcus Reginald, he works in the IT department,” Chloe clarified, which she felt she should not have.
“Hold please,” she was told. The number Chloe dialed should have gone directly to Reggie's secretary's desk, so unless he got a new secretary who had no idea who he was working for...
“I'm sorry, ma'am, there's no listing for a Marcus Reginald in my directory. May I ask who's calling?”
“My name is Chloe, I work for him,” sighed the redhead. “How about Darcy Harris? Can you connect me with her?”
“Hold please,” the man told her. A moment later he returned, saying, “I'm sorry, Miss Chloe, but I don't have a Darcy Harris working here, either. Are you sure you have the right number?”
“This is CrimsonTech Computer Solutions, isn't it?” Chloe felt like growling.
“Then yes, I have the right number.”
“I'm afraid I can't help you; I have no records associated with those names. Is there something else I can help you with today?”
“No, thanks.” Chloe slammed her phone shut and pinched the bridge of her nose with one hand. Her world was making less and less sense. She felt like she were being deleted from it. Grabbing her purse and a bottle of water from the fridge, the young woman headed to Darren's office. He had some explaining to do.
“Alright, Mr. Kaufman, spill it,” Chloe demanded as she stomped through the private investigator's door. She threw her purse into the chair opposite his desk and stood there waiting, arms crossed, mood sour.
“Mrs. Washington, thank goodness,” Darren stood up to greet her. “I was beginning to worry about you. Please, sit down.”
“No,” replied Chloe firmly. She may as well have stomped her foot, too, but she resisted.
“As you please,” Darren seemed taken aback, but only slightly. He returned to his chair, however, and after waiting a moment to make sure Chloe was not going to take hers, he continued.
“Things are a bit weird right now, trust me, I know,” his facial expression softened. “This conspiracy we've uncovered, it's larger than we previously imagined. I thought it was just your husband they were trying to rid the world of, but when I dug deeper, I found dozens of others who have vanished from the face of the planet. In many cases, no one even filed a missing persons report, and in a few, no one was left to file a report. It seems like a disease, just wiping people from existence, and it all started here.”
“Here? Here where? At CrimsonTech?” inquired the young woman. Darren shook his head.
“No, CrimsonTech is fighting it,” he seemed angry at the accusation. “But they're not immune to it. People have gone missing from there, too. No, there's another corporation, some kind of secret society, and from what I've been able to piece together, they've been abducting people right off the streets to experiment on them and use them for their own dark purposes.”
“Experiment...” Chloe's mind snagged at the word. “How so?”
“Those people who attacked you in the alley,” Darren chose his words carefully, not knowing what level of sensitivity Chloe might have to a reference of that dark day. “They...were less than human. Or more than human, depending on how you look at it. I'm sure you noticed that they had some....rather unique skills. Those are the kinds of people that this secret society tracks down.”
“This is all a bit ridiculous,” Chloe finally gave in and flopped into a chair. “If I had not seen with my own eyes...”
“I'm having trouble believing it myself,” admitted the detective. “It's so surreal, like something out of the movies. But here we have it, staring us right in the face. I don't know how we could have missed it for so long, but I have a theory that this secret society is bent on hiding these....freaks. These people with special, superhuman powers. Hiding them, or making an army from them, or something. Whatever they're up to, I can guarantee you, it's not good.”
“But what can we do about it?” Chloe balled her fists, anger overcoming her. “I mean, they killed my husband, or staged his death, or whatever, and made him just disappear. And now I feel like they're doing the same to me--”
“Wait, hold up,” Darren cut her off, jerking forward in his chair. “What makes you say that?”
“I tried to call my friend Darcy today,” revealed the redhead. “A co-worker and friend of mine from where I work with the computer help desk next door. Her line had been disconnected.”
“You couldn't reach her?” confirmed Darren as he whisked out his notepad and began hastily adding notes to the dozens of pages he had already filled. “You don't have any other number for her?”
“No, but that was just the start,” Chloe continued. “Then I called work, because I thought it was weird that my boss hadn't called me to yell at me for not coming in, and that Darcy hadn't called to check up on me, because she's pretty nosy. But they didn't have a record of either of their names, and the guy who answered the phone didn't even know me.”
“This could be very, very bad,” Darren's hand shook as he frantically threw Chloe's information into his notebook, along with a long string of follow-up notes. “Can I have their names? I want to double check, but they may be victims of DarkWatch, too.”
“DarkWatch. It's the code name that secret society uses. Names?”
“Right....Marcus Reginald and Darcy Harris. They were both in the IT department.”
“Okay, I'll get cracking on that, but I can't promise that I'll come up with anything.”
“Darren...” Chloe used his first name for the first time. Darren's head snapped up to met Chloe's tedious green eyes. “Do you think....I mean, is it possible.....is Elliot still alive?”
Darren slowly set his pencil down, and folded his hands over his notebook with measured precision.
“Mrs. Washington,” he started, paused, and continued in a soft, careful voice. “I don't want to get your hopes up. I have no evidence to suggest anything, but my gut feeling....I think there is a slight, and I mean very, very slight possibility, that DarkWatch has kidnapped your husband. I don't know what that means for him, or for you. He may be dead, or he may be as good as dead.
“Chloe,” Darren locked eyes with her with a stern, fatherly gaze. “Don't dwell on this. As far as the world is concerned, your husband is deceased. As far as we know, he's gone. Right now, we need to protect you, and in order to do that, I need you to be on your guard, and to be very, very careful with everything that you say, do, and touch. We don't know how deep this thing goes.”
“I'm sorry Mr. Kaufman,” Chloe's eyes were steel emeralds as she stood with a regal motion, “But I can't do that. As long as there's the slightest chance that my husband is alive, I'm going to fight to find out what happened to him. I have to believe that he would, and is, doing the same. Otherwise, I have little to nothing to live for. My friends are gone, I have no job, not even a lingering reference letter.”
“Then I believe we can do business,” came a voice from behind Chloe.
A tall, handsome man with dark brown-red hair and an expensive Armani pinstripe blue suit stood with his broad yet trim frame filling the doorway. He stepped up to Chloe and offered his hand.
“My name is Payton Moreau,” the man introduced himself, giving Chloe's tentative hand a firm but respectful shake. “I am head of the Department of Internal Affairs with CrimsonTech, and I have a job offer for you.”
“So then I was all 'pew pew pew' with my orbs, right?” Nuri Cassar mimicked throwing energy balls over and over. “And Masaki was all 'gggggggrrrrrrrrr' with his earthshakes.” Nuri made claws of his hands and make them shake as he growled. “And Kaida and Emery show up and are all like, 'Bust up the party, kids,' and go 'bang bang bang' with their stupid human guns.” Nuri made pistols with his fingers and pretended to shoot like a cowboy. “And then Masaki got shot.”
“Damn, wish I coulda been there,” Darcy Harris half-rolled her eyes, but the playful gesture was betrayed by the grin smothering her face. “You guys get all the fun.”
“If by 'fun' you mean watching Nuri run from me like a little girl being chased by a pedophile, then yeah, it was awesome,” grunted Emery Richter, the blonde 'cop.'
“I ran with a manly swagger,” Nuri defended himself.
“So Kaida, did you really, honestly shoot your brother?” Darcy turned her excited grey eyes to the dark-haired woman.
“Ish,” Kaida Tanaka shrugged as she stood and helped herself to another cupful of coffee. “The kill shot was a blank, and he had packets of a ketchup-corn syrup mix to make it look real. Good thing the target is pretty sheltered, and has never been a part of a horror movie set. She totally bought it.”
“Well good,” Masaki Tanaka grunted, putting a skeleton hand on his chest and mimicking being hurt. “I don't know if my fragile ego could handle the collapse of my acting debut!"
“Suck it, tar-face,” Kaida pointed towards her brother, and a tiny flame shot from her fingertip towards Masaki's nose.
“Oh, imouto, my dear,” Masaki laughed. “I've only been immune to your stupid tinker toys since, oh, birth. Why must you insist on repeatedly offending me with them?”
“Because it's fun,” Kaida returned to her stoic state. “And you're an ass hat.”
“But yeah,” Emery intoned, “Darren says Chloe's conditioning is coming along just fine. Once she's broken, he's hoping we might take her on with us. Now, that's enough gossip mongering. Back to work.”
Continue reading: Episode 4 - "Circus" by K. B. Cribbett and Zachary A. Applebee.