Chapter 7 & 8

Chapter 7: Finding Equility

 

After an hour of waiting in a dead man’s cruiser, I hear a Reg cruiser’s siren wailing. I look in the rearview mirror, not seeing any flashing lights behind me. The siren closes in, then the cruiser drops from gravity next to me and pulls up to the hotel. If neither Hines nor the bellman have come out by now, they’re not coming out for a while. I can’t bank that Equility will know where to find me. Still I have a million aers of their money, so I know they will make every effort. Right now, my next stop is food.

I ignite the cruiser and tap my Econ, “GPS to the nearest restaurant.”

The female voice alerts, “Searching… The nearest restaurant is on Sopp and Flounder. Would you like directions?”

I tap my Econ to end the call and begin driving. It’s not a busy night tonight. The social gatherings and formal balls usually don’t happen in the center of the city, so it’s mainly only crowded during opening and closing hours of the business day. I rush into the restaurant and order the first advertisement I see outside from the server MechCi.

Once I get my food, I grab my bag of clothes, then ditch the cruiser and take local transit back to underground west as I nibble on my meal. The Regs will most likely put a search team out for the vehicle’s owner; plus, I’m sure they want me already for that chase on the rooftop. The MechCi that roam the streets with their owners are all hardwired with Reg search parameters for wanted vehicles at all times. According to Trex, having people-search data is too much for a MechCi, what with all of the data it already has.

Basically, there could be too many law-breakers to keep track of, but only a few cruisers; that way, MechCi functions won’t be tampered with and Regulators will still have a job. If a MechCi were to spot a suspicious cruiser, it would run a search, then the Regs would be notified and the vehicle would be pursued. I board the trolley heading north. There aren’t many people who ride the trollies, except for criminals like me, and people who choose not to buy a cruiser to save electricity.

Traffic starts to pick up as the trolley approaches the outer perimeter of the city. I get off the trolley, then board the next one that’ll take me around to the northeast underground entrance. I leave the trolley, then head over to a manhole off the side of the road next to a couple of old vacant shops. I open up the hole and drop my bag of clothes inside. Holding my bag of food between my teeth, I climb in and close the manhole over the top of me.

I climb down, then pick up my bag and take the food from between my teeth. I make my way through the tunnel to underground. This manhole entry brings me straight to the ground floor where Deserted all walk aimlessly. I slowly walk over to my shack and push the sheet out of the way to enter.

I drop my bag next to my bed and sit down as I take off my jacket. I toss it on the ground and start to quickly eat my food as I try figuring out what to do. My face is all over the cameras in that hotel, so I’m going to be number two on their list, with the bellman set at number one. I don’t know anything about the bellman and can’t even begin to think where to find him. I have a better chance of trying to find Equility; they don’t know where to find me and if they even suspect I’m in underground, they won’t come down here to look for me.

No one understands Deserted and that makes everyone afraid of them. I, on the other hand, don’t care about the Deserted. When I first came down here, I expected to have to fight to live here, but they just zombie around me like they zombie around each other. Sometimes they get loud, but, unless anyone makes contact with them directly, they won’t do any harm. I don’t think anyone is aware of that except me, which makes underground the perfect place for disappearing.

It’s up to me to get the word out that I’m searching for Equility, or maybe I can draw them out to come find me. They’re trying to take the fight to Menta-Life and I’ve only got one man’s name: Hines Aldwich. That’s all I know about them. In order to get weapons into the city to fight Menta-Life, the weapons need to be built, stolen, or smuggled in.

Trex may have an idea where I can start looking. After I finish eating, I set my plate down on the ground, then lie down and go to sleep. The next morning, I open up my eyes to another day; to the same rusty aluminum ceiling. I look around from my bed to make sure none of the Deserted wandered in while I was asleep.

I tap my Econ and the female voice greets, “Good morning. What can I do for you?”

“Call Trex.”

“Connecting…”

The Econ goes silent. Econs don’t use dial tones like the previous model phones used to. The receiver either answers or doesn’t, then the caller is notified only if the call isn’t answered.

Trex picks up and requests, “Van, whatchya need?”

“I need your help finding someone.”

“You know how much information costs?”

“I know it’s cheaper for your favorite smuggler.”

He assures, “You’re not and it’s not.”

My voice takes an aggravation, “I know the price.”

“Then come down so we can talk.”

I tap my Econ to end the call, then get up and stretch. Afterwards, I grab my bag and take it with me to go. The murmurs from the Deserted flood underground as I stand at the front of my makeshift door. I turn left, then head through the maze of huts and tents. I never thought that Menta-Life could be responsible for all of this.

Hines does have a point; I vaguely recognize some of the people walking around down here. Some of them used to be in magazines and on television. I can’t say for sure if they have any ties to Menta-Life, though I have a feeling he knows what he’s talking about. Underground has tunnels scattered throughout the entire city with different districts and no leader to control the Deserted, if there is anyone who can.

I make my way through the dirt-walled tunnels to the northern exit. I exit through the manhole and the sun beams me right in the eyes. I’d been underground for too long and didn’t think to check what time it was. I ride the transit to Feegle’s bakery and enter his shop to see him behind the counter talking with his MechCi.

I walk straight through, passing the counter as I greet, “Hey, Feegle.”

Feegle follows behind me as he gets to the point, “Vanessa, dear, are you free this evening for a gathering?”

I head through towards the stairs as I answer, “I don’t really have time tonight. I have people I’m trying to find. Maybe next time.”

Feegle begs, “Oh please, Vanessa. I have quite an esteemed guest-list for the evening. A few of the best and brightest professors at the medical institutes, high-end attorneys of the law branches–”

I mildly whisper, “You know the law and I don’t belong together.”

He continues, “–technological developers, Menta-Life representatives–”

I halt and quickly confirm, “Menta-Life?”

He proudly answers, “Yes, the founding capitalists of our new civilization will be attending.”

“I’ll do it for free if you introduce me.”

“Absolutely, dear. I’m not sure what un-pleasantries you have planned for today, nevertheless please be back here by six so we can doll ourselves up appropriately.”

I walk away as I reply, “Yes, Feegle. I’m gonna use your shower.”

I skip up the stairs and hear him agree, “Okay, I’ll be up front if you need anything.”

I go to Feegle’s bedroom, then straight into the bathroom and start the shower. I take my clothes, gloves, and Econ off and jump into the shower without adjusting the temperature. It’s pretty chilly, but I’m too focused in thought to fix it. I have to find out what Trex knows either way, so I quickly scrub myself down and get out. I put my underwear on, then notice a purple bruise on my left shoulder from the night before last when I fell on it. I put the rest of my clothes and Econ back on. I head down to the passage and into Trex’s office.

Trex, eating at his desk, mentions, “I hear you’ve been getting into trouble.”

I approach his desk as I sluggishly reply, “Well, you know me.”

“Who are you looking for?”

“Equility.”

He stops chewing and stares at me. That’s an obvious sign that he knows something. He continues chewing and I let him revel in the silence as he gets together whatever he’s going to say.

He swallows his food then refuses, “Uh, uh. You don’t find Equility. And if you’re lucky, Equility doesn’t find you.”

I request some clarification, “What do you mean?”

“Equility are terrorists. They’ve been trying to bring Menta-Life down for a little over a year now.”

“Any idea why?”

“With them it could be anything. They’re an organized group. I hear they have, like, a signature tattoo kind of brand to prove they’re involved.”

“So, they’re like assassins?”

“No. I’d say more like revolutionaries. There was something big between them and Menta-Life recently, but it was completely covered up.”

If they do their own dirty work, what do they need me for? Maybe they need more skilled bodies to pull off the Menta-Life job or something.

Trex continues, “As far as where to find them, I have no idea. Nor would I want to know.”

“Ever heard of the name Hines Aldwich before?”

“Sounds familiar. Hang on a sec.”

He turns to his computer and starts typing away. I fall into thought while pacing back and forth in front of his desk. Finding him won’t be an easy task although, with my stroke of luck these days, what is?

Trex swiftly recalls, “Oh yeah, this guy. He was one of the executives at Menta-Life.”

I loudly question, “What?”

I reach over his desk and turn his flat screen towards me. On the screen is a profile picture of Hines shaking hands with an older man at a podium and looking at the crowd in front of him. It is definitely Hines, but if he’s an executive at Menta-Life, why does he want to bring it down? An inside job would make it easier to accomplish their goal of bringing the place down.

Is that why Hines was kidnapped by the bellman? If so, does the bellman work for Menta-Life? He has to. The members of Equility were killed in the hotel and Hines had to have been taken back to his bosses at the corporation. If that’s the case, who was the guy that paid me the million?

I turn the screen back to him. “What did you hear about me?”

“Last night some people were found dead at a hotel and you were seen fleeing the scene. Regs are out to get you. I just made you a clean IDN and two days later, you’re already back in the system.”

“I can safely blame that rooftop incident on you.” I remember him mentioning that members of Equility have special tattoos as brands, so I add, “Did you hear anything about who the bodies were? Any mention of Equility?”

“No nothing like that. They’re keeping that stuff tight under wraps.”

“Looks like I have to go see for myself.”

I turn around and walk toward the door as Trex asks with confusion, “To the morgue?”

I answer as I walk out, “Yep.”

I shut the door to the office behind me and make my way back out to the city streets. My destination is Clomy Morgue on the east side of the city. It is the only morgue in the city, so it is only somewhat guarded. Most people nowadays only die of natural causes like old age or clumsiness. The morgue isn’t as occupied as it should be, but a person’s death is to be kept private.

It’s too bad I have no consideration for that. I take the city transit around to the southeast side of the city. The building isn’t too tall following the standard, though it’s in a middle edge of the city near the hospital. Once I reach the morgue, I scope out the building from across the street. The building is five stories high with pillars around the entire entry level.

The front has a courtyard a few feet in from the sidewalk. I’m pretty sure there is a basement floor underneath as well, for cremations; maybe a basement window can work as an entry point. There is a small concrete wall bordering the inner portion of the sidewalk so no one can just wander in. The left side of the morgue has another building next to it, but the concrete wall goes all the way around through the grassy lawn.

The building is a peaceful, neutral shade just like every other building. The security guards out front have pulser rifles and are wearing dark blue jumpsuits. With the two guards pacing by the front entrance and the four in the courtyard, there is no way I’m getting in through the front. For a morgue, it’s more fortified than I’d initially think; probably because of their esteemed new arrivals.

I make my way around the corner to the right side of the building. Two guards are on patrol here. I continue to work my way around the building. The rear entrance is just as covered as the front and the left side is a little more relaxed. One of the two guards are heading inside through the small door on the back left edge of the building.

With one guard posted, I can sneak around by using the small inner concrete squares as cover. Once the door closes, I quickly walk across the street towards the northwestern alley of the morgue’s outer wall. As soon as my feet touch the grass, I crouch down to pretend tying my shoe and wait for the civilians to pass. I quickly make my way to the small gapped side entrance in between the wall and another building. I peek around into the courtyard to see there are two square structures in the middle that are the same height as this small wall; one on the left and right, standing three feet high.

The guard appears from behind the left structure, walking along to my right. He disappears behind the right structure then I sneak in and take cover behind the one on the left. I hear the light sound of water above me. I’m not so curious as to want to poke my head up and confirm it, though. I peek around the left corner and see the door.

It doesn’t have any kind of keypad or card reader, so it’s mine for the opening. I look behind me and see the top of the guard’s head approaching from the other structure’s far corner. Just before his head turns my way, I quickly shift around to the other side. That was too close. I should have followed his pattern before I came in, but the other guy might be back out soon, making it harder.

I scoot down to the other end and peek around. I can see the two guards from the left-front entrance at their post, staring across the street. I’m not sure if I should shift around again or wait and see if I happen to get lucky with the guard not walking over here. I quickly peek up from the corner and see that the guard has stopped at the middle. He is staring towards the stone entrance and looking left then right.

Instead of waiting to see where he goes next, I make a light run for the pillar closest to me, then hide behind it. I don’t hear anyone shout, so they must not have seen me. I quickly peek out again to see the guard still standing in the same spot. I quickly make my way through the door and shut it behind me. As soon as I turn around, the guard that left his post is standing right in front of me.

He is a young man with a medium build. He reaches out and grabs me with his right hand. I smack his hand off me, then head-butt the guard and he stumbles backwards down the small hallway. Before he could stumble too far, I catch his jumpsuit with both of my hands and swing him into a closed door on the right. When his back hits it, the door flies open and we both spin through into a very small storage room.

I pound my back against the wall. I let go of him as he takes a swing at my head. I duck down, then punch him in the gut. He bends over and lets out a gasp. I quickly spin around to the right and use my left knee to smash him in the face. He falls sideways, back behind the door, and hits the wall. He’s unconscious, for now.

I have to hurry and find the bodies before he wakes up. I walk out of the storage room, then shut the door. I start walking to the right, down the long hallway and make the only available right turn at the end. There’s an abrupt end to the hall with a left and right turn ahead of me. As I approach, a digital sign appears above that reads: “Check-In” with an arrow pointing right; below reads: “Elevators” with an arrow pointing left.

Check-In will be the main lobby area, so I head left towards the elevators. I speed walk around the corner without looking behind me. The hallway leads straight to an elevator and a door on the left that conceals a stairway. I reach the end and press the “up” button. I look behind me and see two guards at the other end, talking to each other.

Standing at the right is a rugged male, and on the left, a female. They haven’t noticed me since neither of them is facing towards the hallway wondering who I am. I look up at the top right corner at the arrows that point up and down. The upward arrow shines green, and the elevator sounds. “Ping.” I turn around and see the two guards turn my way.

The female guard sternly yells, “Hey! Excuse me!”

The elevator still hasn’t opened. They pull out pulser pistols and begin to fire electrical pulses, meant to stun. I run into the door on the left leading to the stairwell and they stop shooting. I hold the door open to wait for the elevator.

I hear the same guard shout again, “We have an intruder in the west wing of the building, in the stairway!”

I hear them start running as the elevator door opens. I bolt out of the room and straight into the elevator, then take cover at the side.

The male guard shouts, “She’s out!”

They both start to shoot into the elevator as the door closes. There’s a list of buttons next to me from one to five then the “B” for basement is at the bottom. I hit the buttons marked “4” and “5”. The elevator door closes and I can hear the two guards banging on it. The elevator makes it up to level four in about twenty seconds.

I’m not sure what’s up here or where I’m going, but I’ll find out when I can lie low for a second to gather my bearings. Each floor should have a directory on it, so I’ll find the one on the fourth floor while the guards are searching for me on the fifth. Once the elevator opens, I hit the button to make the door close faster as I quickly get out. I’m in another hallway. The door to my right leads to the stairs and the hallway has two more doors on each side before a turn going left.

Past the turn are four more doors on each side and a window; the sun is shining brightly through it. This place seems very empty for a morgue. Then again, there aren’t many deaths nowadays, so there’s probably a lot of extra room here. I jog down the hallway towards the center of the building, then see a small C-shaped reception area where the left turn is, leading down another hallway.

I speed walk behind the reception area. There is a computer on the desk’s surface and a chair next to it. A few page files are neatly placed on the desk as well. The computer is on the screen-saver showing the morgue company logo. I place my finger on the touchpad to bring up the home screen. I pull up the document files and bring up the most recent entries.

There’s a folder that was created last night that has four files, so I open it and see four names listed. I click the first one and a description pops up. I slide my finger across the screen to bring up a second one. A picture of one of the four henchmen comes up. I slide across again and a picture of the body on a table in a room appears.

At the bottom right corner is a note that reads: “Screening Level 2”. I continue quickly looking through the rest of the file with no mention or visual of any tattoos. I have to go downstairs and look for myself, even so, the picture should be here already. I hear a loud bang come from the hallway I came from, so I hurriedly scroll through the pages and find one with a different level besides two. An entry for a dead woman in the basement pops up.

It couldn’t be more perfect as a cover to deter the guards. I dart around the reception area to the nearest door on the left and go through it before the guards notice me. The room is an office. The office just has a desk with a computer, two wooden chairs, and a computer chair on the opposite side. I place my ear on the door to listen to what’s going on outside.

I hear a commanding guard demand, “Check down that way. And you secure this corridor.”

Another guard calls out in a normal tone, “Take a look at this. There’s a file here on the computer that’s open. It’s for a body in the basement.”

The commanding guard concludes, “The intruder must have gotten around us. I want you four to stay here and clear out every room, then guard the two stair doors and elevator. We have to box her in. You three with me; we’re heading to the basement.”

I hear the footsteps start to quickly putter away as I move away from the door. I walk over to the desk and sit down in the computer chair, then spin around in it. There are four guards out there and the rest are probably converging in the basement. I need to get to the second floor fast and look at the bodies. The sounds of puttering feet disappear and I hear the remaining guards muffling out in the corridor.

I begin to hear the loud bangs from them kicking in doors. I can’t get out of here without a fight, so I might as well get ready. I stand up and stretch as I walk over and have a stand-off with the door. The banging gets louder as the guards get closer to my door. I hear a group of feet huddle near my door.

The shadows are darkening the gap underneath it. I place my right foot behind me and lean forward. I hear a loud bang and sprint forward as the door flies open. A guard stumbles into the room, having used his shoulder to bash in the door. I quickly jump up and swing my right leg around, kicking him in the face. He falls over.

There is another guard outside of the door with an electric baton. I sprint into his stomach and tackle him to the wall. I slide around him to the left and grab his right arm that’s holding the baton. One more guard approaches from the reception desk. I wrap my left arm around the front of his neck and yank his body backwards.

I pull his right arm back then shoot it forward at the approaching guard, making the baton fly straight at her. She gets hit in the shoulder. Her body stiffens up and immediately drops down. I use my left knee to hit the guard in the back, then my right elbow to put him down. There are supposed to be four guards here; however, I’ve only taken down three. The last one must be waiting to surprise me.

I figure I could wait the guard out, although whoever it is may have contacted backup already. I speedily walk towards the stairway door and enter it. The last guard has his back to me, looking down the stairs. He turns around and his face goes from calm to surprised the second he sees me. I bring my left fist back then thrust it into his right cheek.

His body swings to my right and I give him a straight kick to the wall. He bounces from the wall, then begins to tumble down the stairs. I follow him down as I descend the two zig-zagged flights to the second floor. The indicator “2” is marked on a sign on the side of the door. I walk in and there is one patrol guard with her back towards me, walking the hall.

I quietly close the door behind me and walk up behind her. The blonde bun on her head looks horribly done and her uniform doesn’t seem to fit her snugly like everyone else’s. Her body flinches, so she knows I’m behind her. My first reaction is to duck. The guard swings around, granting me notice that she has her baton low instead of high. I jump backwards and roll off my back and spring up onto my feet.

As I regain my posture, she is already speeding towards me with the baton posed and ready to strike. She begins swinging the baton at me as I swiftly, but cautiously, avoid its electrifying touch. She throws her right arm back for a heavy swing. When she does a swinging thrust towards my ribs, I spin to my right, then let her baton and her slide past me. I throw my right elbow up and hit her in the back to make her fall to the ground.

She drops her baton. I can’t pick it up without a glove, so I can only stop her from getting it back. She starts crawling towards it. I rush over to her, then grab her by her left foot and begin pulling her back towards me. She starts smacking her hands down on the tile in an attempt to pull herself forward. I pull even harder to get her back away from the baton.

She releases her hands and allows me to yank her away. She rolls to her right, then kicks me across the face with her loose foot. The kick makes me do a slight stumble back, yet I don’t let go of her foot. She reaches up to me, grabs my shirt, and turns her right leg inward. She slides it across my neck and pulls me into it, choking me.

I let go of her foot and start to press her leg away from me with no luck. I feel myself blacking out; she’s pressing against me so tightly. For an average guard, she sure does have skill. Most human guards aren’t equipped to deal with animals like me; still, she seems to be an expert at it. I tilt my head back, then wiggle my hands in-between her leg and my neck to push out for some breathing room.

I take a deep breath as she moves her leg to my left and uses her knee to hit me in the head. I fall over to the right side of the hallway by a door. I quickly get up and turn towards her, then I feel a sharp exhalation from my stomach like I’ve been punched in the gut, but worse. As I get lifted into the air, she rams me through the door. She slams me onto a desk in front of us. I wrap my right arm around her head to keep her tucked in so she can’t have the advantage of pinning me down.

She starts struggling pretty hard to get out of my grasp, but I won’t let her. She places both of her forearms down on the desk, then drops her weight on me; I can tell she is about to pick me up again. As soon as I feel her body start to lift, I release her. She accidentally falls backwards. I roll backwards over the desk and watch her hastily rise from the other side and run towards me.

She’s not curving around the desk; she’s going straight over it. I lean down to my right and pull out a desk drawer, then turn it to its long back half. She dives over the desk towards me. I quickly wind the drawer back and swing it around at her. I smack her in the shoulder with it and she crashes into me.

My timing was off. We fall back into the rolling chair, then off it onto the floor. I grab the drawer next to me and smack her in the head with it. She falls back down to the ground and doesn’t move. I drop the drawer to catch my breath. That was intense. Who is this woman?

She very clearly isn’t like the average help around here. I’d love to go down for a nap right now, although I’ve still got dead bodies to find. I slowly get up, then limp my way out of the small office and continue down the hallway. The hallway looks just about the same as the other upstairs, aside from the double doors in the center. Next to the double doors, a small sign pops up that reads: “Examination.” I enter the black double doors.

In front of me are two rows of four tables with white body-formed sheets over them. The sharp points at the bottom of each one are obviously feet and they are all facing my direction. I scan the rest of the room: bright lights, small chrome tables holding up surgical tools, X-rays along the walls, photos of interesting additions like cause of death, scars, etc., are all around. I step up to the table closest to me in the middle and slowly pull the sheet off the head.

The guy doesn’t look familiar. I walk to the table on the left of it and pull up that sheet. It’s a girl, so I move to the table on the upper left corner. I pull the sheet and it is the driver. He looks so pale, like he’s been in a freezer. I walk over to the wall then look up at the photos of him and see burn wounds from the pulser, but no tattoos.

The bellman hit the henchmen multiple times in lethal spots to be able to kill them with heat pulses. Of all the photos, there is one clearly missing from the bunch. No sign of the tattoo that Trex mentioned. I walk back over to the body and pull the sheet all the way off him. He is naked except for a pair of briefs. I see a black smear on his left chest like something was washed off him.

Being a morgue attendant must be dirty business. I walk over to the next body and remove the sheet off the head to reveal the angry man I fought with. I look over at his pictures on the wall and see a blank spot just like the last one. I remove the sheet from the body and see the same smear on his left chest as well; it looks like an ink stain.

I rapidly walk to the other tables and start taking the sheets off, one by one. I see the same stain on the other two bodies. Whatever tattoos were there are gone and so are the pictures that were taken of them. Who would erase these, and how? These guys successfully tricked me into thinking they were Equility to try and get me to take out Menta-Life. I push the dead body that is second from the right corner off the table, then sit down on it.

Posing as Equility doesn’t make sense. Whoever they were, why not just come clean? I had never even heard of Equility until last night, so I didn’t care about their motives or intentions. Someone went through great lengths to try and fool me. This doesn’t answer who these guys really are. So far, Menta-Life and Equility are the only two suspects in this game.

These guys posed as Equility, meaning if they worked for Menta-Life, then the bellman couldn’t have. Hines works for Menta-Life and four of his men are dead; maybe the bellman is Equility. None of this has moved me anywhere closer to him and I doubt I have the time to find out who he was. I use my hands to push myself off the table, then look down at the dead guy on the other side of it.

I apologize to the corpse, “Sorry, guy.”

I notice a black smudge on the table where I had used my hand to push myself off. I quickly look into my hands and see the smudge of ink on my right one; the ink is still freshly erased. There was only one person on this floor when I got here and she’s unconscious in the office. I run out of the room and head back towards the office where I left her. Did she do this?

She’s covering up evidence for Equility, so she must work for them. I enter the office, then walk around the desk. Just my luck, she’s gone. I lost another link to possibly locating Equility. I realize the files on those guys in the examination room might shed a little light on who they worked for. I might be able to get an idea of what I’m dealing with. Connected to the tables in the examination room are individual tablets that hold information on its patient.

I need to get each drive out of them and take them to Trex so I can look over the files. I’m not sure how desperate the guards are getting, but I sense them cautiously moving closer to my floor. I quickly run back to the examination room and snatch the small drives out of the four tablets, then run back out into the hallway. I turn and continue running towards the elevator then hear the elevator’s ping. I stop dead in my tracks and stare at it.

The door opens up and three guards hastily exit, “There she is!”

Two of them begin running over towards me while the other stays back to alert the others using his earpiece, “We have the intruder on the second floor! All units. Second floor!”

I have to hurry up and take these guards down so I can get out of here. The first male guard is sprinting towards me like he’s going to try to ram me down. When he gets dangerously close, he reaches out to grab me. I quickly dodge to the right, leaving my left foot in place to trip him. When our calves touch, I move my arms to his back and push him past me, making him stumble and drop to the ground.

The second guard approaches with a heavy left swing. I duck under it, then use my left elbow to hit his ribs. He hunches over and I throw my left leg back and upward to his face. He falls backwards and I see the other guard from the elevator on the approach. I look behind me and the other guard that fell is already back on his feet coming at me.

He wraps his arms around me from behind. I push myself into him, making him lose his balance and start stumbling backwards. As I flip backwards over the guard, I kick the guard in front of me. Once my feet hit the floor, the guard now in front of me regains his balance. I hear the elevator ping again. I look up at the elevator door opening and see two BAMechs; an extremely bad sign.

Their title stands for Battle Assault Mechanics; these mechs are built for ground assault situations and are pretty much impossible to take down without wiring removal. Their weapons are only stun-capable, like the batons that the guards use. The BAMechs are created like the MechCi except they’re bulkier and are only created in the silver color. The two BAMechs bolt out of the elevator towards the guard and me while firing electrical stun rounds at us.

I run for cover and the guard gets hit with a round, and then drops to the floor. I slide into cover around the hallway corner opposite the examination room door. I peek out from the corner and notice the guard on the floor twitching from the shock. When I look back up, I see an electrical round flying at me. I quickly hide my head and the round hits the wall in front of me while another hits the wall at my back.

The round pushes a little poof of dust off the wall. These BAMechs don’t mess around. I have to get out of here before I end up in prison again, but they’re blocking the exit. There should be another stairwell exit on the opposite side, but they will surely take me down if I step out of cover. I stand and sprint down the hallway towards a dead-end window.

There’s nowhere I can go and I’m only on the second floor. The drop shouldn’t be any more than twenty to thirty feet from the ground. I look back as I sprint towards the huge window and the BAMechs come spiraling around the corner, firing their electrical rounds at me. The rounds fly past me in a barrage, knocking out the window. I push off the floor with my right foot and tuck straight out of the window into the sunlight.

I feel the wind beating against me as I soar through the air, falling down towards the traffic below. I bend my knees in preparation for my crash landing on the concrete. I quickly look back and see a BAMech jump out of the window; the other one bursts through part of the wall next to the remaining part of the window it couldn’t fit out of. I look back down and see a cruiser zooming by.

I am about to land on top of it. I miss my landing and hit the trunk, then tumble off the cruiser. Once my back hits the ground, I turn my head to the left to see a cruiser speeding at me and honking its horn. I roll backwards out of the way and onto my feet between the two lanes of traffic. I hear a loud crash on my left. I snap over and see a brown cruiser flipping over into the lane behind me as a BAMech slides toward the ground in a slanted position.

It must have come down so fast and hard that it knocked the cruiser over when it shoulder bumped it. The other BAMech lands on top of a white cruiser behind me, crushing the roof. A green cruiser crashes behind the white one, still the BAMech doesn’t get pushed off. I spin and run west while the BAMechs pursue me, shooting their electric rounds.

I try my best to stay behind cruisers for cover as I dodge the rounds. My escape isn’t looking too good. I’m running as fast as I can and I’ll eventually get tired. The BAMechs won’t. I see an office building ahead of me and to the left. I can’t lose them out here and I’m starting to feel my lungs give out.

I turn left between two cruisers and the cruiser on my left comes to a halt. The BAMechs continue following my trail towards the turn. I quickly jump to the sidewalk, then run up the eight steps and push the glass door open. The lobby of the office building is huge with granite flooring and walls. There’s a granite reception counter along the back wall and a hallway on the right of it leading to six elevators.

As I dash past the receptionist counter, the receptionist panics. “Hey, you can’t go back there!”

A loud sound of breaking glass echoes from behind me. An elevator is about to close with a small crowd inside. I quickly run into it just before it closes. I hear a loud bang on the elevator door as I catch my breath. Everyone in the elevator, all dressed in their suits and dresses, gasps in fear, then the elevator starts moving up.

The BAMechs wouldn’t dare wait for an elevator, and will most likely beat me up to any floor where I get off. The buttons for the fifth and seventh floor are highlighted. Maybe if I hit the button for the fourth floor just before we reach the fifth level, it will stop there while the BAMechs are making their way to the fifth. That way I can get a chance to catch my breath some more and probably lose them. After I see the number at the top of the elevator change from two to three, I press the button marked “4”.

It highlights and the elevator comes to a stop. The door begins to open and a BAMech’s hand punches through it, stopping the door, and grabs me by my green jacket. All of the riders back away from me and let out a shocking scream. I start using my right forearm to hit the BAMech’s arm to make it let go of me, but the steel begins hurting me after the third hit, so I stop. The BAMech uses its other arm to force the door open, then lifts me up off my feet.

I lift my right leg and kick the BAMech twice in the head; its head just flinches back and forth a tiny bit after each kick. During my third attempt, the BAMech swings me to the right and throws me onto the floor. I hit the ground hard, then uncontrollably tumble for a couple of seconds and crash into the side of an office cubicle. I look up and see the BAMech lift its arm and fire two rounds through the hole in its hand.

I quickly get up and run around the outside of the cubicle. I attempt to get lost in the maze of work-stations to the right. As I rapidly make my way around in a crouched position, I hear the BAMech making a ruckus as it tries to keep up without hurting any of the civilians who are being nosey. The noise from the BAMech stops and so do I. I’m against the wall, so I slowly cruise my head around the room, trying to see through each foggy cubicle window. The sudden change in volume has me curious about what’s going on.

The BAMech’s most likely still trying to find some other method to search for me. Since it’s so quiet, sitting still is my best bet until I figure out something else. I turn and look behind me, then take a small step forward. The BAMech bursts through the cubicle next to me on my right and pushes me through the following cubicle. It’s a good thing the cubicle walls are made of cheap drywall or that would have hurt a lot more than it does.

The BAMech breaks through the remaining pieces of the cubicle as it storms towards me. It reaches down to grab me with its left hand, so I turn my body and use my left leg to kick its arm away from me. It immediately continues trying to reach with the right hand now, then grabs me by the back of my jacket and throws me back where we came from. I fly straight through the glass of two cubicles, then land on top of a desk inside the third one. The other BAMech startles me when it grabs me with both of its hands and lifts me off the desk.

I tuck both of my legs into my chest then bring them between the BAMechs arms and over its shoulders. I turn my head around and see the other BAMech in the same spot with its arm ready to fire. I see a small spark from inside the hole in its hand. I quickly fall backwards off the BAMech and it gets hit in the face with an electric round. The BAMech starts twitching and sparking.

I land in a crouched position, then sprint to my left between cubicles. These BAMechs are smart; however, most of their judgments are based on predictions. I look to my left and the BAMech is following me from the opposite side of the room as it shoots electric rounds at me, during every passing chance. I head straight towards the window in front of me that leads outside. I snatch a small hard drive off a desk as I run by it.

I get close to the window at full speed then toss the drive through it and stop myself by running into the wall next to the window. I hear glass break on the other end of the room. I look out of the window and see the BAMech falling down towards the ground. It starts shooting rounds up into the window, so I quickly move away from it to avoid being shot. I hear the crash on the streets below.

Talk about a close call. I’ve been having quite a bit of those in the last couple of days. The BAMechs are the only ground assault mechs that the Regs have at their disposal and they put up the best fights. Those things are impossible to take down, but losing them is the best option if the perp has the stamina. I’ve just taken down two of them and I’m proud of it.

 

Chapter 8: Socialite Ball

 

I check my pockets and pull out the four drives to make sure they hadn’t been damaged. They seem perfectly intact despite all the roughhousing I just went through. I slide them back into my pocket and jog back towards the elevator. I should get out of here as soon as possible. Since the BAMechs are down, I don’t know what’s going to happen next.

The BAMech that was hit by the round has darkened from the shock and collapsed. I head to the elevator next to the one that the BAMech broke, then press the “P” button and take it down to the parking garage. I step out of the elevator to the lot of cruisers, then jog around to find something not so new and easy to steal. There’s a white lectrocycle parked between two cruisers that is pretty much calling out to me.

A lectrocycle is a motorcycle powered by a battery and one of the only vehicles left that uses its wheels. I get on it, lean to the right side, and force open the small circuit panel. I disconnect the tracking wire and connect the alarm wire to the ignition port. I kick the lectrocycle’s pedal to start the battery, then quickly take off. I exit the garage and take to the street toward Feegle’s shop to have Trex look into the files.

I see the chaos behind me as the Reg cruisers slowly sweep the area. I quickly maneuver through the traffic so I can get off this street. Lectrocycles can’t enter gravity because there is an increased risk of dying from a fall that high, in the event an accident or sudden stop does occur. When I arrive, I pull into the alley around the left side of the bakery.

I tap my Econ and the female voice greets, “Good afterno–”

I interrupt, “Call Feegle.”

“Connecting…”

Feegle greets me cordially, “Greetings and salutations, Vanessa. Are you going to make the party?”

I had completely forgotten about it. Another distraction that I don’t need, yet it’s not often I get to do a favor for a friend.

I answer, “I’m here now. Open your garage.”

Feegle excitedly approves, “Yes, right away. We have lots to do.”

I tap the Econ to hang up and the garage door begins to open. I ride into the garage, then park the cycle and get off.

Feegle enters the garage to greet me, “Dear girl, chop, chop. We–”

He notices I’m all dirty and bruised as I walk towards him. The look of disappointment is actually quite amusing to me, but I kind of feel bad that he’s got so much to work on now.

I stop in front of him and he examines me as he speaks with disappointment. “Why must you always make my joyous obsession with fashion such a difficult task to accomplish?”

“I had a lot of running around to do.”

He comments in a tiresome tone as he shakes his head, “Clearly. Well, come on then.”

He turns around and starts walking back inside. I follow behind him. I want to go talk to Trex and look over the drives I gathered, but Feegle usually takes a while to prep me for a party. He has enough of a workload already; therefore, I won’t make him wait. If there is any time before the party, I will go take a peek at what I found and try to piece together this mystery. We head through the mint clean ballroom and upstairs to Feegle’s bedroom.

He demands, “Okay, darling, you commence with a shower and disrobe from those distressed garments.”

I ask, “You gonna at least ask me out first?”

He sarcastically states, “Very comical, Ms. Pheros; however, we’ve no time for games at the moment.”

I reply as I pace to the bathroom, “Yes, Feegle.”

I close the bathroom door, then take my clothes off and start the shower. I look over the purple bruises on my arms and then turn my back towards the mirror to look over my shoulder at the purple and red bruises on my back. There’s one bruise underneath my right eye and a small cut on my right cheek that has a little dried blood around it. The bathroom begins to slowly fog up from the hot water, so I get in as my skin starts to feel clammy. Feegle takes his parties and presentations very seriously. Everything has to be absolutely perfect for his guests or else he feels he’ll become a laughing stock of the city.

The high-class people he entertains aren’t the quietest; they gossip and spread every piece of news they can. If they see a crooked painting on the wall, everyone in attendance will know in a matter of seconds. These gatherings get Feegle a lot of important business and catering jobs, but, oddly enough, that’s not why he does it. He likes to be a big public figure in the city and to be a destination that everyone can come to, to take a load off. The popularity and the trendsetting, with colorful weird clothing, is what he lives for.

Take popularity away from him and he wouldn’t know how to survive. After my scrub down, I turn off the shower and get out, then wrap a towel around myself. I walk out of the bathroom and see Feegle is neatly laying a dress out on the bed for me. It’s a bright royal blue, bare-shoulder dress. I hate dresses. I walk towards the bed and sit down next to the dress.

Feegle hands a possible compliment to me without looking. “I believe that you will look divine in this dress for the evening.”

I turn my body to look down at the back of the dress and reply, “As long as you think so.”

He looks over at me, then stops messing with the dress. The look of sadness and concern is smeared on his face as he looks over my injuries.

He gloomily inquires, “Do you need rest, darling?”

I show my happiness to lighten the mood, “No, I’m fine, Feegle. Really.”

“If only your father could see you now.”

I dunk my head down at the floor. He’s not referring to my dead father, but the man who died after I lost my birth father; the man who kept me on the shuttle the day my birth father died. He and Feegle were friends for a short time after the war, when the city was first a refugee camp. After Feegle and I had finally re-met, years later, anytime I ran away from foster homes and other places with rules, I was here.

Feegle asks, “Why do you do this to yourself?”

I simply answer, “Money.”

“You can be so much more if you wanted to be.”

“You and I both know that I don’t fit into your little society here. We’ve been over this before.”

“I just want what’s best for you, my dear.”

“Trust me, so do I.”

Although I don’t know what it is that’s best for me yet, one thing I am certain about is that this isn’t it. I’m not meant to live like a queen with the rest of these high-class snobs.

I change the subject. “So, do we start the makeup first, or do I throw on the dress?”

He clears his throat, then responds. “No throwing will be necessary, your dress goes on from the bottom up, so the makeup is where we will begin. I’ll grab a patch for the scratch on your cheek.”

He walks into the bathroom, opens the medicine cabinet, and grabs a small tube. He walks back over to me and I turn my head to the left. He rests the small nozzle over my scratch and follows the scar as he applies it.

Feegle removes it, then kindly demands, “Now rub.”

Feegle walks over to his desk where he does makeup. I begin rubbing the gel-like substance around my scratch. Patch is just a protectant against anything that can come in contact with an open wound. It works like putting a coat of paint over a wall; someone can write on the wall, but once it’s cleaned, the protectant remains. Patch isn’t as effective as paint, but none of the makeup will get into my scratch, so that’s a plus. I get up as I continue rubbing and walk over to Feegle’s makeup desk and sit down.

I face the mirror and he updates me, “Okay, we’ll begin in one second.”

He opens a small drawer and pulls out a small box full of brushes. He sets it down in front of me.

“Now, let’s take you from beautiful to gorgeous.”

He starts applying things to my face; however, I become too distracted to pay further attention because I can’t help thinking about Equility and Menta-Life. Hines Aldwich succeeded in his plan of making Menta-Life look like the bad guys, but why hadn’t the bellman just killed him, too? He was also posing as Equility. Finding out who these guys worked for wouldn’t get me anywhere; it would just lead to more questions. If those guys worked for Menta-Life, why did Menta-Life kill them and not Hines?

If they didn’t work for Menta-Life, is there a third organization in play? As far as I understand, Hines and his men tried to steal a package from Menta-Life, then posed as Equility to reel me in. A mystery bellman killed the four henchmen and kidnapped Hines, who actually works for Menta-Life. Now I’ve got the records on four guys and I need to find out if Menta-Life would go as far as to kill their own men or if they were part of the faction trying to take down Menta-Life.

Feegle breaks my trance, “All done.”

Without realizing it, I’ve been sitting in the chair for almost an hour and now have a completely different face. I definitely look like the British woman I should have been raised to become. There is blue eyeshadow around my eyes and dark lines heading out towards my temples, light pink lipstick, a fake blush on my cheeks, and my hair is in a false bun since my hair isn’t long. If I wasn’t one of the snobs before, I am now. He also coated over my visible shoulder bruises.

Feegle says, “Alrighty, now. The guests should have already begun to arrive, so carefully put your dress on and I will await you at the bottom of the stairs.”

I acknowledge his orders, “Okay.”

I get up from the chair and my legs, as I have been sitting down for so long, have lost feeling. Feegle exits the room and I lean up against the makeup table until my legs feel strong enough to walk straight again. A rest would be nice, but I can’t let Feegle down. When my legs recover, I walk over to the closet. The inside of the closet is huge; I don’t bother looking around, I just turn right to the dresser.

I open the top drawer, then search through for some underwear. The dress is strapless, so I don’t need a bra. I find a pair of black underwear and put them on. I walk back out to the dress, then carefully pick it up by the shoulders, or, technically, by its bicep since that’s where it’s cropped down to. I raise it up above me, then examine it with disgust. It’s a dress that goes all the way down to my feet.

I drop the dress down and put each foot through as I begin to pull it up. I insert each arm into the sleeves, then raise the dress over my breasts as high as it’s supposed to go. I notice that there are no shoes or accessories laid out for me. The way Feegle would like to always have me dressed, I doubt he’d want me to walk out there without any jewelry on, so I decide to look for accessories. I find a diamond necklace and diamond studded earrings in the drawer of the makeup desk, then a pair of blue heels in the closet to match the dress.

The heels are in plain sight like he planned to put them out, but just forgot to place them. I put on the last ingredients, then check myself out in the mirror. I can honestly say I look okay. Hopefully this is what Feegle wanted, otherwise he’ll just reject me like he doesn’t know me. Time to go mingle with Menta-Life.

I open the door and the soft classical music from the ballroom leaks in. I put one foot in front of the other and gracefully cruise towards the stairs. The party is already packed with people socializing in groups of four or more. While holding the handrail, I slowly step down the half-spiral stairs and watch all eyes turn towards me. Feegle is at the bottom of the stairs with two guests.

He places his hand out for me to place mine over his. I place my right hand and he guides me down the last two steps. I wrap my right arm around his. He is over a foot shorter than I am with these heels on, so our arms have to be uncomfortable momentarily. The party resumes as we stroll together through the guests. Everyone greets Feegle as we pass.

He whispers to me, “I completely forgot about the accessories.”

I whisper back, “I know. Where are the executives from Menta-Life?”

“It seems they are tardy for the moment; nevertheless, no worries. They will be in attendance.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Simply because they said they would be.”

“Well they’d better show. I’d hate to feel like I’ve done this for nothing.”

“Let’s converse with some of the guests until they arrive, shall we?”

He walks me around to a few of the big shot owners and company representatives in the city. I have nothing in common with them, or even Feegle, so I just stand in his shadow with my fake smile planted under my nose. After meeting four uninterestingly distinguished guests, he walks me over to a man standing with a fellow associate and two others. As we approach the group, a middle-aged African-American man notices us. He says a couple of quick words to the men in front of him, then they shake hands and part ways. The man and his young Caucasian associate turn to us.

The older man greets, “Good evening, Mr. Tolen.”

Feegle returns more formally, “Good evening to you, Mr. McKoy. How are you?”

Mr. McKoy turns to me and answers, “I’m well. And who is this lovely lady?”

“This is my dear friend Vanessa Pheros.”

He places his palm out and greets. “Ms. Pheros…”

I put my hand over his, then he lightly grabs it and leans over to kiss it.

He continues, “Delighted to meet you.”

I post a half-smile and reply, “Likewise Mr. McKoy.”

As he lets go of my hand Mr. McKoy requests, “Please, call me Geilium. And behind me is my assistant, Mitchell.”

I shake Mitchell’s hand as I state, “Pleasure to meet you.”

Mitchell replies, “The pleasure is mine.”

His voice is soft and he sounds younger than he looks. His glasses and the portfolio he’s carrying definitely make him assistant material.

Feegle informs me, “Mr. McKoy here is the founder of one of the major publishing associations in the city.”

I turn to Geilium and ask, “What is it you publish, Mr. Geilium?”

“I approve stories for the news, essentially. My company decides what’s worthy for the people to see on the networks.”

“That seems like a very demanding career.”

“It is, very much so, nevertheless it is a big company with a large staff. The workload is nothing that we can’t handle. And what is it you do, Miss?”

Feegle quickly lies for me, “She is a model.”

It was smart of him to chime in, because I honestly wasn’t sure what answer to give him. Most guests take an interest in Feegle while I remain invisible.

Feegle changes the subject back over to them. “Are there any new projects in motion right now that we can get an inside scoop on?”

Geilium answers, “Currently nothing of boundless importance. We’re actually expecting something big from a source outside of the city, still even we won’t know until it arrives.”

I hear sounds of excitement over to the right of us at the entry, so we all turn to see what’s going on. A crowd of people are gathering around an elderly man in a gray suit and a couple of camera crews are taking pictures.

I ask Feegle, “What’s that about?”

Feegle grows a star-struck look on his face as he states in amazement, “I don’t believe it. Gene Winfred Archibald himself is in attendance at my party!”

That name sounds familiar so I investigate, “Who is Gene Archibald?”

“The face of Menta-Life. He is the actual founder of the corporation.”

I turn my head to Feegle and slyly request with a smile, “Is that so?”

The look on Feegle’s face changes from stunned to confused. He realizes he’s made a mistake by telling me that. The founder of Menta-Life is a lot better of a catch for me than an executive that just does the numbers.

I turn to Geilium and Mitchell, then grant parting words. “Excuse us. We have other business to attend to.”

I swiftly wrap my arm around Feegle’s and initiate walking him over towards the crowd. He whispers, “Ms. Pheros, please slow down. We’ll get there.” I stop pulling him, then he begins to fuss about his appearance as he continues. “We won’t be able to have a stable conversation with them right now, amongst all of those guests. Let everyone settle down then we’ll casually approach and have a word.”

“I have more than a word.”

“Please try not to embarrass me, Ms. Pheros.”

“I won’t, Feegle. Don’t worry.”

He puts his arm out, then I wrap mine around his and we continue to mingle with those less interested in Gene Archibald. My patience wore out the second they walked in the door. As a result, I’ve constantly been keeping my eyes on them to make sure they don’t leave without saying goodbye to Feegle and me. After about fifteen minutes, I still can’t bring myself to take my eyes off Gene and the four people who appear to be with him. Other guests attempt speaking with me as they mingle with Feegle, though I’m too distracted to pay attention. I chime in here and there when they speak to me directly.

Feegle is the man of the hour, so not many of his guests acknowledge me aside from my fake chuckles at their classy sense of humor. When they’re not paying attention to me, I scan the room. I notice that Geilium and Mitchell are watching Gene as well; not with eyes of interest, like me, but with eyes of envy. I notice two others standing with Geilium and Mitchell. They are dressed a tad more casually than the others.

A majority of the party guests are wearing brightly colored suits or the standard black. These two men, however, have on all-black suits with white vests and no jacket, like servers. Geilium turns his head to the two men standing behind him, then shields his mouth and whispers something to them. The two men leave the party as he removes his shield and starts mingling with others again. If that wasn’t suspicious, I don’t know what is. I turn my attention back to Gene and his entourage. They are still socializing, with a lesser crowd now.

I hear Feegle call out to me, “Ms. Pheros?”

I turn to him and see everyone staring at me. “Pardon?”

“What do you think about the recent contributions of the Miloris Bureau?”

I quickly disregard, “Not much. C’mon, darling. Let’s go.”

I wrap my arm around Feegle’s, then guide him away from the man and two women that he was talking to. We start towards Gene.

Feegle glances back at his guests with a fast farewell, “My apologies. I have to run.” He turns to me, then angrily questions in a low tone, “Ms. Pheros, are you insane?”

I answer, “Yes. Something’s going on. I have to speak to him right now.”

I practically drag Feegle over to the entourage of five; three men and two women.

We stop next to them, then Gene turns to us and happily sparks the greeting. “Feegle Tolen, delighted to see you.”

Gene has a bit of a long face and a short white hairstyle with a matching white beard. He undeniably seems like a founder type of guy.

Feegle snaps back to normal and shakes Gene’s hand as he responds, “To you as well, Mr. Archibald.”

“Feegle, I know I’m a man of great importance, still there’s no need for us to be so formal. Gene is fine.”

Feegle corrects himself. “Apologies, Gene.” I clear my throat. Feegle gets the message and introduces me. “Oh, this is my dear friend, Vanessa Pheros.”

Gene reaches out for a handshake as he introduces, “Hello. I’m–”

I interrupt as I shake his hand, “Gene Archibald. I’ve seen you before. Not in person, but everywhere else.”

I had only seen him on the page Trex showed me, and if I had anywhere else, I don’t recall. He’s important to the public, so I’m sure he gets that statement quite often anyway.

He replies with a smile as he scratches his white beard, “I’m flattered to be acknowledged by someone as beautiful as yourself.”

Yeah right. The sweet and smooth talk doesn’t work on me. I’m on the defensive fence because I know the big company secret. I need to start by easing into casual conversation, then pry deeper once he’s good and comfortable.

Gene asks, “What is it you do, Ms. Pheros?”

I fumble my words, forgetting how Feegle introduced me, “I’m a fashion designer.”

Gene quickly compliments, “Well that elucidates the spectacular evening attire.”

I present my lie. “I made it myself.” I place my arm out then continue. “Feel the fabric?”

He reaches out with both hands, then begins to lightly caress my arm, complimenting me again. “I’m not sure which feels better, the dress or the skin underneath.”

He surely can’t feel the skin underneath, though I reply positively to his compliment, “The fabric is very rare.”

“I bet it is.”

“And who are your… associates?”

One thing I notice about them is that they all have custom-tailored gray suits. I see a piece of Hines in this bunch. He’d been wearing a gray suit just like theirs when I met with him at the hotel.

Gene quickly answers, “Colleagues, actually.” He turns and introduces them from left to right, “This is Booker.”

Booker is a Caucasian man who appears to be in his mid-twenties. He has slicked back hair, dark blue eyes, and a medium build. He seems like more of a bodyguard than a corporate figure and very attractive, so maybe a model.

Gene continues, “And this is Payge.”

Payge is a brown-skinned woman with long, flowing hair down to the middle of her back. She has gorgeous eyes and an even more gorgeous smile. I can barely tell her face is drowned in makeup because it’s blended so well with her skin. She is also young looking; probably in her mid-twenties as well.

Gene continues, “This here is our brightest, Ryishi.”

Ryishi is of Asian descent, appears to be much younger than the rest, and also the quietest. Instead of making eye contact and greeting us like everyone else has, she puts her head down after her introduction, in a bow. She has hair that is slightly longer than mine and is split into two ponytails.

Gene continues, “Last is Tylyn.”

Tylyn smiles and nods his head. He shares Payge’s complexion and is also attractive, but not more than Booker. He is buff and it shows through his suit, yet not too obviously. His short haircut, dark brown eyes, and muscles definitely make him a winner in my book, though he seems like another bodyguard.

I say, “Pleased to meet you all. I’m Vanessa Pheros.” I ask Gene, “What does the gray represent?”

Gene asks, “Come again?”

I clarify, “The suits you’re all wearing.”

He chuckles as he states, “Oh. I thought you were referring to my hair and beard.”

I sell a laugh to make him think I thought it was funny, and Feegle laughs as well. The colleagues must have heard the joke before because only Booker smirks at Gene’s humor.

Gene explains, “The gray represents the neutral efforts of our cause. We, as a whole, are inclined to cater to our clients without prejudice, staying neutral to their ideals and backgrounds.”

I ask, “In other words, you allow anyone who is anyone to participate in your program.”

“Not program, Ms. Pheros. See, a program is created to fit a certain purpose. You want to start an army; you create a program that shapes them into the soldier you want. We prefer to call our system, Life. Our company will actually be holding a free introductory seminar tomorrow to inform new arrivals, and people who are interested, about the Life system. You’re more than welcome to attend.”

I am definitely going to attend, but I don’t want him to know that. Depending on how things go here, he may not like me by the end of the night.

I respond, “No, thank you. I feel like your Life takes away from humanity.”

I hear Feegle spit out whatever beverage he had in his mouth back into his cup as the Menta-Life entourage stare at me. They are each wearing the same blank expression, like they hear comments like mine often. It was very stupid of me to be so straight-forward, nonetheless I suck at beating around bushes.

Gene asks with interest, “Why is it, you feel that way?”

I answer, “I heard four of your people were murdered in a hotel yesterday and that your corporation has been stealing people’s memories, which also makes you and your employees responsible for the Deserted.”

I can’t imagine what’s going on in Feegle’s head right now. I’d only ever embarrassed him by trying to answer my own questions. He must be blowing his top.

Gene replies, “Ms. Pheros, I’m not sure where you heard these wild–”

I interrupt. “The story is all over the city. I’m sure the people would be interested in hearing about Menta-Life’s involvement.”

Gene asks, “Are you certain you’re not a journalist?”

I decide to start messing with him. He certainly won’t tell me anything. I can tell because he doesn’t seem shocked by any of what I’m saying; a liar too good to break cover. Hearing myself say it out loud, no one else could possibly be responsible for the Deserted.

I answer, “I’m still the same florist I was when I introduced myself.”

Gene smiles and corrects me, “Fashion designer.”

I nod my head then ask, “So, will you be talking about your dead employees in the hotel or your kidnapped employee Hines Aldwich at the gathering tomorrow?”

Gene enthusiastically speaks, “Have a great evening, Ms. Pheros.” He turns to Feegle and adds, “Mr. Tolen.”

Gene and his entourage begin to walk away. Feegle and I stand there watching them as they head for the exit. Feegle is broken-hearted with a jaw-dropping expression. Part of me feels bad for him; however, my paycheck is walking away.

He furiously whispers to me, “Of all the guests you could have possibly–”

The lights go out and I hear the voices of the guests faintly whispering to each other, but no one is in a panic. I start quickly blinking my eyes to adjust them to the darkness so I can see what’s going on around me. I start maneuvering through the sea of confused people to make my way up the stairs. From there, I can get a better vantage point of what’s happening. Gene is leaving and this sudden blackout is of no coincidence.