Kevin Allen – Writer ♦ Melissa Bird – Editing ♦ Tia Myricks – Part time contributor ♦ Krystal Clear Logics – Digital Promotion
The first stop on his list is one Dove Lane. A sprawling white complex sitting on nearly one full acre, hedged on all sides by three lush, open acres of grassy land, trees, brushes, tufts, hedges and adorned gardens with elaborate designs and floral arrangements, several bodies of water flowing; to, from, and on the property, and various types of roads and cut paths; to, from, and interconnecting the property’s adjoining roads and places of interest, and its forestry and trails and, interwoven into several entry and exit points. Dotted around the behemoth are several sheds and smaller dwellings, some of which are used as remote offices by various domestic and security staff, in gleaming white and grays, spread several yards from one another.
Through the stained front door with the upper section of half-glass, mosaic window with crisscrossed brass etchings in the pattern of large diamonds and a white curtain guarding the view inside from anyone at the door. Into the wide belly of the foyer, past a white staircase leading up to a high ceiling above a second and third floor living space. Down past a hallway lit by sunlight, streaming through several high-hung, downward, angled windows, reflecting off mirrors situated at strategic puts to bear natural light all through the house during the day and moonlight at nights. Well-placed paintings gild the walls along all the hallways, curtains rich with design and texture, colorful sashes are suspended above some of the hallways by articulations of varying designs fitting their colorings and shapes, along with a myriad sculpts and statuettes throughout.
An empty doorway to the right, leads into an empty white room with a staircase that leads to another upstairs niche, with inset light fixtures kept on to brighten the place, along with the sunlight bathing the walls. It is here, at the base of the stairs, while making his way through another open doorway to the left, just beyond the staircase, the guardian of the complex jolts Jason to a sudden halt, snarling legs and impeding further travel into the monstrous gut. He knows he will have to explain his presence since that is protocol.
That, or spend the rest of the day wasting away until one of his men comes to bail him out.
One look down and Jason sees there is no hope of escape today. The excited bursts of “daddy daddy daddy”, diminishes any wish to be rescued and rob her of every moment she holds him captive. Small arms reaching up for him. Eyes full and bright under a dark mop of bouncing curls and a witty smile to make the sun shining through the windows jealous, compels Jason to kneel. A burst of giggles escapes the guardian when he bends to get a better look and chubby arms and too wet kisses makes sure any thought of escape is done for. Jason grins at the all too familiar sight and hauls her into a bear hug and is on his knees holding the giddiest five-year-old he knows.
“Alix, you look like you grew while I was gone.” He says.
Giggles. “No daddy, I waited till you came home.” She spouts excitedly. “Do you wanna see a game me and Nana was playing? She showed me it yest-u-day.”
“Were.” Jason corrects instinctively.
“Were?” Alix puzzles.
“Never mind, Alix. I missed you, you know.” Jason surrenders.
“I missed you, too daddy. I even waited up till late last night for you.” She says. “Nana put me to bed when I fell asleep. She said you might come home today.”
“Looks like Nana, knows her stuff.” He says.
“Uhuh.” Alix agrees with an emphatic nod. “She’s smart. She’s helping me do all my writing from school. And she says I’ll be able to read soon. I think I can read already, but Nana said I have to sound it out.” She makes breathy sounds; breathing tangy, hot breath into his face to show him how she sounds out the words she’s learning how to read.
Jason laughs heartily when an ocean of pride washes over him, at his brilliant girl. He wants to toss her around to celebrate, but he remembers her reaction from the last time he tried doing that. The shaking. The fright in her eyes. Squeezing her lovingly will have to do. “You’ve been reading which book?”
“The picture book you got me with the pig and the mouse and the spider.” She points to another open door behind her. The one Jason had been heading for when she ambushed him.
“Ah!” He stands, whisking her off the ground and into his arms. “How many pages did you learn to read already?”
“Mmm. Three I think.” Alix says after thinking about it. Her arms twine around her dad’s neck to secure her balance as he begins their walk through the port and hall into an adjoining, round beige room with three average height windows and with curtains. A colorful rounded, wooden table set off in a corner under a window with four wooden chairs – green, red, orange, and blue around it. Several neatly stacked bookshelves hug the rounded walls joining two on each side of the three doorways leading from the room with its glass-rimmed skylight.
A graying woman sits on the green chair smiling warmly, her eyes on them as they enter the room. Jason makes his way to her, places a hand around her neck and lowers himself to hug her tenderly and receives a warm hug in return. “Hey, mom.”
“Bright girl a yours said you were coming.” She glosses. “Just like you used to sit by the window when you were a boy, and Larry would come home.”
“Is uncle Larry coming home? Is momma coming with him?” Alix seizes on the words, on the hope that she might get to see her mother at long last. They’d been gone forever. Forever, forever.
“No!” Jason says. A wide-eyed, pleading glance toward his mother. “He’s still watching over momma.” Jason explains quickly, his joy suddenly feels like it is being crushed by the world. Larry had been killed a little more than four years ago protecting Carmen while they were out shopping and having fun, after he’d volunteered to be her chauffer for a day of relaxation. Carmen had left a mirror image of herself to remind Jason of her. It hurt to see Alix looking more and more like her mother every day, but it is pain Jason is willing to endure for as long as he needs to. His eldest brother Larry had given his life trying to make sure, Jason did not feel that kind of pain, in so doing taught Jason that he needed to bear as much of the pain as possible so that Alix’s pain would be lessened as she grew. If he can help it she won’t feel any of what he feels for the loss.
“When are they coming home?” Alix sulks, twiddling the collar of his polo shirt. She has never met her mother, officially. She had only been a few months old when the botched robbery happened, ripping Carmen from their lives. Pictures of Carmen were all Alix would ever know. Pictures by her father’s bed. Pictures on the walls of her father’s bedroom. So many of them he always tries to pack away or cover whenever Alix goes near the room. She still sees them. Alix sees the pictures through his eyes sometimes. Sometimes she feels what her mother was like when he’s in the room watching her. But she’s never felt her mother’s arms around her, and she hasn’t told him that she sees her, either. She just does not understand why they can’t come home because they tell her they’re with her all the time.
Jason draws in a pained breath and releases it slowly while his mother tries to figure out what to say. She mouths sorry when he looks to her for guidance and strength. He follows words she mouths silently, despite the feeling of wanting to break, to let Alix know everything.
“One day when you’re older, I’ll tell you all about it.” He says solemnly.
“You always say one day.” Alix sulks. “I wanna see momma.”
He does too. Jason has missed Carmen every day since the day a man was seen on camera trailing behind her and Larry, at every store they’d been to, until he got his chance to intercept them at gunpoint. Carmen had only wanted to get out and do something other than sit home watching the baby. A desperate thief had his own plans. Robbed Carmen of a much-needed break and her life. Larry’s life. Larry, who took Jason aside when he needed to give him tough advice when he’d been starting his life. He wanted them both back.
The dark arts Miriam knew had tempted Jason on several occasions, to bring them back to him. To give them back their lives. He’d learned some of it and knew what to do. It was Miriam that knew how to call them back. Jason didn’t pay much attention to the lessons because he did not want to dabble in the dark arts. He doesn’t think it would be so bad to use black magic to get Carmen and Larry back now though. Miriam had brought Carmen back from the dead as a living corpse before, long before he knew them.
Jason did force Miriam to try it, before she ran away from him, months after Carmen died. Carmen didn’t remember him and she didn’t remember Alix or anything about the life she left behind. It was normal, Miriam had said. The dead simply wanted to stay where they were and not come back to the life they left behind on Earth. They had to be forced back and controlled or they may take the life of the one who disrupted their existence on the other side.
When they’d done the séance Carmen fought hard against being forced back into the flesh of her body. It was only when Jason ordered, and then forced Miriam to stop the séance that the love of his life had ceased wailing and holding onto whatever life she had in death. And that was only because Carmen had forced the suffering she was going through onto him. Literally sent it gushing at him like a flood of chaotic emotions at their rawest.
Larry had done the same thing when Jason had Miriam try bringing him back to life, weeks after the first attempt to get Carmen back. He didn’t want to come back. He’d pleaded with Miriam to let him be. Jason was so tempted to ask what was there that he’d actually started asking, before Miriam silenced him.
She seemed to be a wiz at that sort of thing, Miriam did. Her and her black magic. Jason hadn’t taken to the lessons. He was not as interested in bringing back the dead as he’d been about learning how to use his new power properly. He still wasn’t interested in dark magic after he’d learned a little of it because the practice terrified him. One lesson in particular stuck with him; all of the souls beyond who wanted their lives back, felt as if they had scores to settle. Not like when they were alive, but a sadistic sort of settling that chills him to the core every time he feels them. There is something about those. Those, Jason would purge from death into oblivion, if he only knew how. But Carmen didn’t belong to the beyond. She belonged to him. To Alix. One day he would have to convince her of that.
The last time they’d tried to seduce her back to life, Carmen made Jason promise to leave her alone. To never call her that way. It was the one time she hadn’t been defiant as Miriam had her come forth as a specter dangling between life and death while attempting to speak her back into her corpse. The way she shrieked and the pain that riveted through Jason that night, he would never try it again, even to see her smile. He missed her terribly.
“I want to see her, too.” Jason leans his forehead against Alix’s solemnly.
“Why don’t you call Uncle Larry and tell him to bring momma home then?” Alix pleads.
Jason sighs deeply. Looks to his mother for help. This is not a conversation he’s ready to have. Not now. Maybe not ever. He wants to go somewhere and cry for sending two of the most important people in his life out without a security detail and without him. She had only wanted a break and Larry volunteered to go with her because Jason had work to do and said he would stay with Alix, if Carmen wanted to go. There was always work to do. Always.
There’s a feeling of helplessness lingering between him and the child and the generation before, who comes to wrap them both apologetically in her loving arms and walks them out of the edifice, to the kitchen where recalls stories of when Jason was a boy, while fussing over a pot of hot cocoa. She does not use the fancy machine to make Cocoa. Robs it of taste, she says. Alix doesn’t like the machine either. Not since Nana made her first cup with a little extra sugar and nutmeg and milk.
Although Nana grieves for her oldest son, Larry, Jason and Alix had lost him too, but they lost so much more in that botched robbery. Mother and loving wife. Bringing up Larry always brings back painful memories for them all. But for Alix, mentioning Larry is the same as telling her that she will never see her mother or hear her brawling voice rippling through the house. And for Jason, it reminds him that he failed to protect the woman he loves. Failed to protect one of the brothers he brought into his inner sanctum where the strange and unheard of happen at all time.
Carmen had been one of those unheard of things. But she had also been a good woman to Jason and, a good mother to Alix for the first few months of her life. A good protector. A trusted friend. Missed and loved.
According to the words in Jason’s ears, Miriam still had the man who shot Carmen and Larry imprisoned and constantly tortured, not allowed to die. Something about no one being allowed to harm Carmen but her, as if Jason would even have allowed her near Carmen. Still, he couldn’t have come up with a better punishment than Miriam had. Right now Jason is thankful he hadn’t forced Miriam to turn the killer over. He knows the pain the man is constantly in and, it pleases him immensely.
Someday He may even say thank you to, Miriam, when she finally stops running or when he gets tired of pretending he can’t find her. Much better the way things turned out. For now Alix needs his undivided.
In the hours that follow, they watch TV and talk after, and sit together bathing in sunlight before it turns to dusk. Jason wakes before Alix does the next morning, at five AM and meanders to the kitchen and has the chef begrudgingly alter her breakfast menu with something special for Alix.
It is six-thirty AM before he wakes Alix, first shaking her, then taking her out of the bed and talking to her until she drowses from sleep. Not a happy camper. Showers her and gets her dressed for her pre-k classes. Then they eat breakfast, him talking to keep her awake long enough to finish her breakfast and then being forced to carry her over his shoulder, bag and all into the waiting limousine that arrives promptly at seven-fifteen.
After getting Alix checked in to school for the day, Jason returns to the limo where the waiting driver hustles to let him in the rear seats. “Diicom Corporate.” Jason instructs before he sits, watching the driver acknowledge he hears what he’d been told.
“Yes, sir.” The driver acknowledges and closes the door carefully when Jason sits, and hustles back behind the wheel and puts the vehicle in drive.
Jason dials his mother. He waits until he hears her answer and greets her. “Mom, I’m going to pick Alix up later. I’ll call if I get hung up at work.” He hangs up only after she finishes scolding him for not spending more time with, Alix. A necessary annoyance to keep his mother happy. Plus, she’s right.
The limousine pulls into a circular driveway in front of a large glass-front building four stories high, sectioned in large squares with desks and workers behind them. Jason waits for the driver to hustle back to the door to open it and let him out, something he’d recently gotten used to. Then he makes his way inside the building through the revolving door where a man in a dark suit, flanked by a security guard in uniform, is waiting for him. Suit greets Jason and talks up a storm about meetings and sales figures and how great things are going.
In they go, up an extra wide flight of stairs that climb the four flights, getting off on the third floor, the security guard keeping a distance ahead to scan his badge at doors they would be walking through, at each staircase. He leaves them halfway down the hall on the third floor and vanishes through a portal to their immediate left.
“… so, we’re just waiting on the results from Dunfer before we make a decision.” The suit finishes a long sentence that he’d started from the stairwell to the door they pause at, to finish talking. “I think we’ll be able to figure out why the bearings overheated once we get all the data back.”
“And the client’s ok with the delay?” Jason asks.
The suit shakes his head. “Not really,” he says nervously. “But I think they want to curry favor, so they’re keeping it bottled up. I know people on their side who’re keeping me abreast.”
“Good work.” Jason says. “If they get impatient let me know and I’ll have a talk with, Aziz.”
“Will do, sir.” The suit says.
“Thanks for escorting me in.” Jason says. “I’ll call to reactivate the badge once I find it.”
“Pleasure’s mine, sir” The suit shakes hands when Jason offers. He turns and leaves when Jason walks into the office behind him and the door shuts.
“Welcome back, Mr. Nelson. Did you have a good trip?” A woman greets from behind a plain wooden desk without looking up. The sound of a keyboard rap in rapid succession fill the nearly empty office space while her eyes swing left to right to keep up with her typing, hair cut short and puffed in a curly fro.
“You know what, Tatiana,” he walks to his desk in a separate office, in the left corner of the room, equally empty, except for desk and computer screen and two chairs, behind a glass door with his name in brass lettering across it, before he finishes through the door he leaves open. “We’re coming up on four years of me reminding you, Jason works just fine with me? You know that, right?”
“Mhm,” Tatiana agrees, without a pause in her typing, to look at him. “I also know I have bills to pay and if you so happen to change your mind and want to fire me, you’ll have to come up with a reason other than un-professionalism, Mr. Nelson.”
“You’re a comedian today?” Sarcasm drips through the door when he takes the load off.
Tatiana nods and points a grin, fro bobbing, and keeps tapping away.
“How are you holding up?”
“Still no word, but I’ll find him.” She says. Her hands move from the keyboard and her expression depresses when she addresses Jason. “He’s a tough kid. He’s been through a lot, so I know he’ll be fine.”
“That’s the spirit!” Jason says. “You know, when I turned twenty-two I barely called home. Worked so much after getting my bachelors, I barely had time. Mom cursed me every time I called home, about not calling home more often.”
She pauses before she answers, a flinch, the muscles in her neck tense. “That’s not Cory at all.” She sounds certain in her conviction. “He always finds a way to get in touch with me or calls every day, if he can. That’s why I’m worried.”
He knows he should be kinder, but a dose of reality is what she really needs. “Yeah,” he says. “I did, too, until I got my first taste of freedom.”
She sighs. “Yeah, I hear you.”
“Oh come on, seriously?” He says and then argues with her about how she raised Cory and how loving he is, before adding, “Tatiana, I got the best people keeping an eye out for, Cory. If they spot him they will drag him home whether he likes it or not.”
She looks questioningly at Jason through the glass in front of the office.
“No!” Jason says. “Don’t you look at me like that! They have orders not to hurt him. But they are going to let him know he’s worrying his mom half to death, and bring him right to you. First. You can do the dragging if you want.”
Chuckling at his silly answer, she shakes away the apprehension. “I truly appreciate all of this, Jason.” She sighs relief. “I didn’t even know where to begin.”
“Okay.” He waves her off and watches her head lower as she moves to get back to work on whatever dictation she is preparing. He checks her hand, the left one, for the small silver ring she didn’t know he knew about. The one that she uses to disrupt the electrical impulses used to read people’s minds, when it comes in direct contact with the skin. She’s always worn it and he wonders where she got it from. The conversations they’ve had, all of them, have always strayed far from her ring, though once, she’d mentioned that Cory and her had agreed to her getting it when he asked her about it.
“So how did your hunting trip go?” Tatiana interrupts the flow of his thoughts when her sixth sense tells her his eyes have lingered too long.
“We, um…” Jason pauses. Unsure. Caught by the switch up. “Couple. Cubs. We trapped two of them. One got away.”
“Oh no!” Tatiana reacts, hands clasped in front of her mouth. “What happened to the other one?” She eyes him keenly, suspiciously, a bit saddened in the face. Jason hadn’t expected anything different from her after all these years of Tatiana working for him. He could tell she is a great mother by the way she reacts to violence of any sort, but she is far too soft and timid and afraid of life, or, taking one.
It is one of the biggest differences between Tatiana and Carmen. Jason never had to hide anything from Carmen, not even the details of what he’d done to people who crossed him and had to be dealt with. In fact, Carmen had been the one he’d sent after some of them and she’d only been too happy, saying how much she’d missed having something to do, like going to hurt someone was just going out for a walk. Tatiana, on the other hand, is one of those women that will plead mercy for the life of a mouse, even while she screams to get it out of sight. It is as an annoying a trait as it is an endearing one. “No sport in a helpless cub.” He doesn’t explain any further. The lie is enough. He fiddles around on the desk.
Rory, his captive cub, has been awake panicking since three in the morning, he knows. He’d seen her on screen several times arguing with guards or trying to overpower them. Some of his best people guard her. But as long as Tatiana doesn’t know the truth, she will remain in his possession without being guilted into letting her go.
The smile of relief Jason sees helps him ease back into the seat. Now, he can feel for Rory probing in the facility two miles away for any sign of weakness that she can exploit. She is to be held in that facility until Cory and whomever is helping him, comes to rescue her.
“So you didn’t get to kill anything during the hunting trip?” Tatiana sounds hopeful and begins typing again.
“There you go,” Jason teases. “Loving yourself some drumsticks but don’t know some chicken paid the price so you could fatten up off her.” Tatiana hates the sight of anything with blood on it or that once had blood in it, sitting on a plate. She mainly ate like rabbits or that stuff that tastes like chalk mixed with too much seasoning.
“Huge difference between that and shooting some animal in the forest, you know.” She doesn’t break from her typing.
“Oh yeah.” Jason sits deeper in his chair. “The chicken gets knifed instead. Ethical?”
“And seasoned just right in some kitchens, don’t forget that.” She points her left index at him, keeping the right tapping her notes into the screen.
Jason laughs and punches the keys on his computer. He’s done. Damned vegans and their meat-jokes and meatless-dinners. Besides, it was time to switch topic to her.
“There’s an urgent instant, with an attachment that came in earlier this morning.” Tatiana says. “The sensitivity tag is above my authorization level.” She adds before he asks what it says. Knowing what she knows about the organization Jason runs, though not from Jason, she would love to have read it to see if it has something to do with, Cory. She is worried about him. This work she does was meant to keep her abreast of everything happening to him and those like him so she can keep him safe and one step ahead.
Leaning forward into the screen at the desk, Jason sits impatiently waiting for the inset micro-cam to recognize his face and open the screen so he could see the message. He needs to speak with Tatiana, work in lunch and more talking time. It is past time that happened. But, with everything going on right now he needs to make sure the urgent message isn’t critical.
He takes a visor from under his desk, kept latched in a drawer, seeing who the message is from and sets it on his face, after the screen comes to life. He holds the tiny button on top of the visor’s frame to power on the visor and taps the link key on the keyboard on his desk, to synch the computer to the goggles. When the screen informs him that the goggles and the computer are connected he chooses the tiny blue flashing square, to open the message, by moving his hand to where it is displayed by the visor.
What he sees chills him. It is a four-second video, shot with high quality lenses from a distance. The unmistakable howl of a woman, Miriam, in pain, pierces his hearing. Then is silent. Jason taps to bring up a live screen with the message sender immediately. Types in “can you confirm”?
“Affirmative!” is the one word answer that comes back right away.
Viewing the video twice more, Jason then brings up a message screen and chooses the forwarding option, inputting an address for people who will know what to do next. He wants to verify that it actually happened for himself and he wants to be there when the body is recovered.
“Sending pickup for the body. Remain local and advise.” He sends to the original sender.
“Negative!” Another video arrives. This one is ten seconds long and shows the body that had fallen to the ground rising off of it before dissolving into thin air. “We did a sweep after they left and found no trace.”
“Send the results to my mobile. Every detail and full feed.”
Jason unclasps the goggles and puts them back in place before tapping the disengagement key. His body chills. He stares at the screen for a full minute, letting what he’d just seen sink in.
“Did it have something to do with, Cory?” Jason suddenly notices that, Tatiana has ceased typing and is staring hopefully at him from her perch at her desk. He could tell her the truth. But then he would have to explain the rest and deal with a hysterical mother on top of what he’d just seen. Cory bloodied on the ground beneath, Miriam, who was dangling in thin air and equally bloodied by someone nearly as powerful as anyone he knows. Nearly as himself.
“No!” He sits mulling what to do and what all this means. What Tyus has done to her body. A Houdini was not in his repertoire the last time they met in battle. Just raw power and lots of attitude.
“Are you ok, sir?” Tatiana asks formally. She knows that look of concentration and had watched a news story that didn’t take much figuring about how the grim details came about since they’d been involved only hours before with the man who had met his grizzly end. “Do you want me to get you water?” She asks when he shakes his head. “Should I call for someone?”
Jason looks at the door. At Tatiana. Her look is concern. He realizes then that the results of what he’d just seen is on display on his face. Tatiana is halfway raised out of her seat. Think. “Contractor died on a – off the record job. PR is handling it.” His eyes catch her ring again. “You’ll work from this office for the next couple of days. Report in to Mr. Thatcher every morning. I’m going to have security near you when you leave in the evening. They’ll escort you home and to work.”
“Don’t interrupt!” Jason warns abruptly. Carmen died because he wasn’t there. Miriam just died because he let her believe she’d been successful in escaping him. He was not about to lose anyone else. “You knew what you signed up for when I hired you. If anything out of the ordinary happens, call Mr. Thatcher, not the police. Understood?”
Tatiana slumps in the chair and nods meekly. She had only seen this look, maybe once. Whoever died, Jason cared about. He will be keeping everyone he knows as close to him as possible and that can be a problem.