Urban Fantasy Suspense R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
A t    eighteen    it’s    tough    to    decide    a    life    path    when    the    threat    of pandemic   hangs   over   the   world,   your   brother   is   the   genius   who engineered   the   plague,   and   you’re   repeatedly   drawn   into   the   fight against   the   terrorists   spreading   it.   Plenty   of   people   would   kill   an Abernathy   on   sight   so   it   would   be   wise   for   Mar   to   visit   the   dojo, otherwise   play   invisible,   but   her   brother   is   manipulating   her   into another adventure.
Chapter 1 ~ A fter   two   semesters   of   college   psychology   I   should   better   understand   my   own   psychosis. I   failed   the   diagnosis   of   sociopath   merely   because   I   loved   a   dog   more   than   myself,   and latched   onto   a   homeless   man.   The   way   I   nag   at   the   poor   man,   I   must   care.   Though   in truth,   can’t   say   I   empathize   with   him.   That   could   be   because   I’ve   never   leaned   toward four    hundred    pounds.    So    can’t    appreciate    his    struggle    to    get    down    to    human proportions. Making him weigh in every day at the dojo hasn’t made me his favorite person. But then, I’m not my favorite person. Or anyone else’s. Can’t   say   I   have   a   favorite   person.   I   hate   my   brother.   Despise   even   thinking   about my   late   parents.   I   do   have   a   few   people   in   my   life   now,   despite   my   many   colorful   faults. I’m not an easy person to like. To put up with. Even my own shrink fired me. I   can’t   be   called   a   mass   murderer,   or   a   serial   murderer,   by   definition.   Though   I’ve killed   three   men.   Self   defense.   Well,   one   was   sort   of   an   accident.   He   was   trying   to   get away from me, but he was hired to kill me, so in my book, it’s okay I croaked him. I    folded    the    thick    deck    of    four-by-seven    cards    together    and    sighed.    If    I    hadn’t memorized   enough   minutiae   in   the   past   four   months,   another   twenty   seconds   wasn’t going   to   help.   Sliding   my   study   notes   into   my   bag,   I   strode   to   the   near   wall   and   dropped it to the floor next to others, and walked back to my desk. Smiles   shown   on   faces   around   me,   for   a   final   exam.   Smiles   not   directed   to    me.   But to   others.   Fellow   students   chatted.   Everyone   seemed   to   study   in   clusters.   They   can’t study   alone?   No.   They   met   off   campus,   for   whatever.   Were   friends.   Weird.   Why   are people who sit for fifty minutes in a classroom together, drawn together? This class didn’t explain it to me. The   professor   and   his   teaching   assistant   walked   in.   Desk   tops   clear.   No   books,   no binders,    packs,    crimp    notes,    smart    phones.     He    left    out    encyclopedias    and    friendly androids.   The   man   pointed   to   the   wall   where   scores   of   bookbags   and   packs   lined   up. Several   students   jumped   up   to   deposit   theirs,   like   the   anti-cheating   process   was   new. Dummies. Last   final   of   semester   number   two   and   I   still   had   no   clue   what   direction   I   was   meant to take. Nothing loomed interesting. Life itself leaned pretty tarnished, in my eyes. And that had nothing to do with the threat of world pandemic. Chapter Two ~ D acey   sat   in   the   corridor   reading   his   tablet   as   I   straggled   out   of   the   classroom,   the   last bonehead   to   finish   the   exam.   I   hate   taking   tests.   He   looked   up   and   gave   me   that   grin, asked how I did. I ignored his question. “Thought we were meeting in the—” “I missed you,” he quipped. No   one   misses   me,   unless   it’s   up   there   with   missing   an   agonizing   death   from   the plague. “Don’t give me that look.” He waddled to a standing position. He   needed   to   drop   another   seventy   pounds   before   I   got   off   his   back.   Last   month’s tummy, butt, and arm tucks helped his appearance more than I could say. “It’s summer. What do you want to do to celebrate the end of finals?” “Celebrate?”   Abernathys   don’t   celebrate.   Though   those   drunken   parents   of   mine threw   an   annual   drink   till   you   throw   up   event   every   Christmas,   which   is   really   ironic, considering they were vocal atheists. Dacey   took   my   pack   and   drew   it   over   his   shoulder.   “It’s   something   normal   people do to reward themselves for a task well done.” “You’re claiming you know someone normal?” I asked. He   was   busy   now   studying   the   few   faces   remaining   in   the   hall,   left   and   right.   Always the   deliberate   bodyguard.   If   someone   was   going   to   kill   me,   they   should   have   done   it earlier in the semester, before I spent all that time studying. Hopefully. “Why   don’t   you   consider   kicking   back,   going   to   the   beach,   or   something?   You   own   a swimsuit? I bet the beach would be really—” “So you don’t know anyone normal?” I pressed as we strode down the hall. “I   met   a   really   nice   lady   in   cooking   class   who   seems   normal.   Except   for   the   fact   she hinted she wanted me to ask her out.” “You going to ask her out?” I asked. “You keep me too busy.” Poor    man.    I    do    keep    him    pretty    distracted.    He’s    taken    watching    over    me    too seriously. But I wasn’t going to let him off that easy. “I never go out at night,” I said. “So what’s your excuse exactly?” “Meh. She’s kind of middle age. A bit hefty.” I gave him a slow glance, shoulder to hikers. “I’m not middle aged,” he hissed. “Why do you have to be such a witch?” “I was raised—” “That way,” he finished for me. It is a common refrain between us. My   mind   flicked   to   the   buttery-soft   polo   I   bought   him   the   other   day.   It   ticked   him off.   Why?   Gifts   are   about   the   only   way   I   know   to   please   him,   to   show   him   I—appreciate him.   Can’t   do   it   with   my   sparkling   personality.   I   could   bring   down   the   spirits   at   a Mordor sacrifice. We   didn’t   speak   again   until   we   reached   my   Expedition   in   the   parking   garage   and exchanged my pack for my gym bag. “Really?”   he   snarled.   “You   just   finished   finals   and   you’re   going   to   celebrate   doing what you do every day?” I didn’t play hoops every day. “Yes you do,” he said. “Why    don’t    you    take    the    Expedition,”    I    said.    “Go    to    the    mall    or    something. Celebrate. That’s what you want to do, right? I can walk home.” “It isn’t a celebration if you do it alone.” I   sensed   a   loss   of   oxygen,   but   didn’t   gasp   for   air.   Maybe   it   was   my   tight   throat.   He knew   from   the   first   day   I’m   not   such   great   company.   The   double   straps   of   my   bag slipped a bit in my hand. “Besides,”   he   hissed.   “You   can’t   walk   down   the   street   alone.   You   Abernathys   are   the two most hated people in this country.” He was wrong. Most hated in the world. That    was    a    mean    thing    to    say,    even    though    it’s    true.    But    there    are    plenty    of politicians   plenty   of   people   hate.   Collectively,   they’re   hated   more   than   Reggie   and   me. That   struck   me   whimsical.   Should   I   try   it   on   Dacey?   No.   Not   with   the   glare   he   was beating me with. I sighed. I had only been the messenger. Not   fair   the   world   didn’t   understand.   They   didn’t   have   the   full   context.   And   the government wasn’t going to share it. Why was Dacey expecting a comeback? Fine. I’d give him one. “Only because they don’t really know us.” That was far from original. Why   did   people   hate   me ?   It   was   Reg   who   created   the   dang   plague.   At   least   gave   it muscle and stamina. Dacey    rolled    his    eyes.    I    complained    the    garage    was    hot,    if    we    could    have    this conversation somewhere else. Maybe never. “You want some alone time?” he asked. Alone time? That whiffed over my head. What was he saying? “You   want   some   time   you   don’t   have   to   look   at   my   ugly   face?”   I   must   have   stared   at him too long. “You tired of my ugly self?” “Tired?   Of   you?”   I   don’t   think   I   actually   spoke   the   words.   I   may   have   only   mouthed them. “If you are, I can disappear for a while. No one’s tried to kill you in months.” That hurt. “Are you crying?” The anger in his face faded. I blinked and was startled to find my vision cleared. “I’m    sorry,”    he    said.    “Never    will    get    used    to    you    Abernathys.    Your    lack    of communication skills—” Thankfully he didn’t continue that sentence. “I mean. You’re not much for expressing your feelings.” He was digging a hole. He realized it and closed his eyes for a four-count. “And you know, we Greeks—” “Wear   it   on   your   sleeves,”   I   finished   for   him.   We   have   a   lot   of   clichés   we   finish   for each other. I   wiped   sweat   out   of   my   eyes,   off   my   forehead.   Dang.   It   was   hot   in   here.   I   reached inside the truck and drew my phone out of my pack. “I’ll call you, when I’m through, okay?” I asked him. “I got nothing better to do anyway,” he grouched. “Fine,” I blurted, turning to go. The   truck   door   slammed   shut   and   he   caught   up   with   me   after   ten   steps.   We   walked to   the   gym   in   silence.   He   mopped   the   sweat   off   his   face   every   thirteen   steps.   How   many sweat    towels    did    he    go    through    every    week?    I’d    never    know.    He    kept    the    laundry hampers empty. Ho boy, he takes good care of me and Reg. The   gym   was   as   quiet   as   we   had   been.   It   didn’t   look   good   to   get   a   pickup   game going.   A   gym   with   six   basketball   courts   and   no   one   but   me   and   Dacey   can   be   a   spooky place.   I   could   hear   the   wood   of   the   bleachers   breathing.   Where   was   everyone?   Okay,   so we were hours away from semester break, but still. Maybe I could get a game at USF. I   looked   down   at   Dacey’s   feet.   Hikers.   He   couldn’t   even   play   horse   with   me,   not   that he   could   hit   a   free   throw   if   I   lowered   the   basket   and   moved   him   up   ten   feet.   I   headed   for the locker room anyway, changed and was out in ten. Still   not   a   sole.   I   crossed   the   court   to   get   in   conversation   distance   of   Dacey,   and pulled   up   a   patch   of   hardwood   to   stretch.   Neither   of   us   spoke   until   I   was   almost   a noodle. He’s the conversationalist. Why didn’t he say something? “I’m sorry about the shirt,” I said softly. He pulled his face out of his tablet. Huh? “I don’t know why it upset you. But for whatever reason—” His eyes widened. “Oh. The shirt.” I waited. “The shirt didn’t upset me.” “Then, what?” He   sighed.   It   reflected   a   bit   of   frustration,   I   think.   “You’ve   opened   your   house   to   me. Treated   me   better   than   anyone   ever   has.   Bought   me   stuff.   Paid   for   those   expensive procedures. I don’t know how—” “How what?” I asked after a too-long lull. “How I can ever repay you—” “Repay?” I echoed. “I don’t expect—” “I know you don’t. But—” “You’re family I’ve never had,” I said. “Ditto.” My eyes thickened and the blasted tears managed over my bottom lid. “That isn’t—” He took an audible breath. “Really fair to say, with Reggie and—” I   laughed,   drawing   my   legs   out   of   my   stretch   and   sitting   Indian   style,   which   is harder than it sounds with size ten basketball shoes on. “You’ve lived with Reg for a year,” I said. “He come across very brotherly?” “He’s special,” Dacey mumbled. Special.   Right.   A   long   time   ago   I   decided   Reg’s   behavior   had   nothing   to   do   with   the Asperger’s. Just regular Abernathy genes. “If   I   had   any   self-respect,”   Dacey   said,   “I’d   have   found   a   job   and   gotten   my   own apartment by now.” I lost a little of the air in my lungs. He couldn’t leave me. “What?” His expression implied I’d grown horns. “Don’t   ever   leave   me.”   The   words   just   whooshed   out.   The   tears   streamed   down   my cheek. “Oh, Margarite,” he whispered. “I mean it.” I got that out without a smidgeon of air, fought off a gasp. His   face   contoured   into   five   different   emotions   before   he   opened   his   mouth   to speak,   but   closed   his   trap   without   saying,   whatever.   We’d   started   this   conversation   a couple times. I had successfully changed the topic. Maybe it was time to get it said. “I would be all right with you living with us forever.” “You’re eighteen, girl. You’ll change your tune—” “No I won’t,” I said. “You’ll meet someone and I’ll become a pain in the rear.” I   tried   to   get   a   laugh   out.   It   came   out   like   a   strangled   quack.   “You’ve   always   been   a pain, but I wouldn’t know what to do without you.” He sighed. I waited. “So, you’re okay with me having no self-respect?” I nodded. “Absolutely.” “Ah,”   he   drawled.   “You’ll   always   be   the   daughter   I’ll   never   have.   But   you   need   to move on.” “Nonsense. We’ll go into business together and it’ll make sense to—” “Margarite—” “Mar!” I hissed. “You only get one Margarite a month.” Dacey   smiled,   drew   a   set   of   thick   fingers   through   that   mop   of   black   hair.   I   needed   to trim   it   again.   I   love   to   trim   his   hair.   I   don’t   know   why.   But   do.   He   seems   to   enjoy   it   too. It isn’t just  that he’s too cheap to pay for a cut. We’re an odd couple. Not that we’re a couple, I know. But— “What business?” he asked. That   stopped   my   mind   from   spinning.   Yeah.   Exactly.   What   did   I   want   to   do   when   I grow    up?    No    medical    school    for    this    Abernathy.    I    even    hated    biology,    too    much memorizing, so no following Reggie with or without medical school. “You   have   to—”   I   had   to   swallow.   “Help   me   figure   out   what   I   want   to   do   when   I grow up.” He    smiled.    If    he    suggested    the    service    again    I    was    going    to    punch    him.    This Abernathy   doesn’t   take   orders   well.   Dig   a   trench    would   sound   more   like   hit   me   over   the head with your trenching tool . “Maybe we should both become cops,” he said slowly. That   was   an   idea.   I   had   told   him   a   dozen   times   I   was   getting   him   into   human proportions   so   he   could   go   back   to   that.   Really   sad,   being   discharged   from   the   Army   for his    weight.    What    kind    of    MP    was    he?    Probably    a    good    one.    Logical.    Patient. Sympathetic. All traits I can’t claim. I   shrugged,   stood,   and   started   running   a   set   of   lines,   backward,   feet   crisscrossing. The   best   exercise   in   the   world   for   the   legs   and   abs.   Some   sparring   at   the   dojo   after   this would be my celebration. Chapter Three ~ M y   lead   feet   barely   managed   the   three   steps   to   the   front   deck.   Behind   me   a   familiar voice called. “So, finished with your first year of college, eh?” Turning   slowly,   I   worked   to   get   a   smile   on   my   face.   The   admiral   wasn’t   alone.   He strode   toward   us   with   my   former   shrink   in   tow,   the   shrink   who   fired   me.   Not   really   in tow. They held hands. Oh, gag me. Get a room already. “You just getting back from the gym?” he asked. “Dojo,”   Dacey   answered   for   me.   “After   running   the   base   lines   for   forty-five   minutes at   the   gym.   Did   a   set   of   fifteen,   three-minute   sessions   kicking   the   bag   after   that.   Then made a poor guy spar with her. He whined like a baby. Did you know she’s crazy?” Dacey    probably    directed    that    last    bit    to    Tebs.    She    certainly    smiled.    Tony,    the admiral,   closed   his   eyes   as   he   walked   the   last   five   steps   toward   us.   He   worries   about   me, for some reason. Not like I’ve ever given him reason to. There’s an inside joke. Besides, what was so weird about taking a hard workout? “Take   a   shower,   sweetie,”   Tebs   said,   “and   we’ll   take   you   two   for   steak   to   celebrate the end of the semester.” Again   with   the   celebration   stuff.   Celebration   was   meh   to   me,   but   steak   is   always   a great   idea.   I   think   I   managed   a   smile   as   I   turned   back   for   the   door.   Dacey   lead   us   in, drawing   his   9mm   from   the   waist   of   his   cargo   shorts   to   check   out   the   house.   I   turned   off the   alarm   behind   him.   I   thought   about   telling   him   he   could   relax   if   the   alarm   was   still on, but held the thought. Dacey   had   to   do   what   Dacey   had   to   do.   By   the   grunt   down   the   hall,   Reggie   must have been in his room, disliked Dacey sticking his head in. I   stopped   and   peeked   in   too.   Told   him   Dacey   and   I   were   going   to   eat   with   the   next door   neighbors.   Tebs   might   as   well   be   considered   my   neighbor.   Why   hadn’t   she   sold   her apartment   yet?   She   was   always   either   at   the   admiral’s   or   checking   in   on   me.   Why’d   she need an apartment? Without   waiting   to   hear   Reg’s   negative,   Tebs   hissed,   “Oh,   come   out   with   us   for   a change.” He   rose,   crossed   to   his   bedroom   door   and   closed   it   in   my   face.   He   had   tried   to   form a   smile   for   me   though,   so   he   wasn’t   ticked   about   anything   in   particular.   He   just   likes   his quiet. Tebs   and   the   admiral   followed   me   into   the   kitchen,   propping   themselves   into   their regular   bar   chairs   behind   the   breakfast   counter.   I   grabbed   three,   eight   ounce   orange juices   from   the   pantry,   hefted   one   at   my   sort-of   guests.   Sort-of ,   because   they   spent   so much   time   in   the   chairs   they   were   presently   plunked   down   in   they   could   use   our   address for all their snail-mail correspondence. They   both   gave   me   a   head   shake.   Tebs   asked   me   how   I   could   drink   warm   orange juice.   I   thought   about   that   for   three   seconds.   Go   figure.   Other   people   stored   these   in   the fridge? Who knew? I might try it one day. She followed up with, “You had two finals today?” I nodded. “Psych and criminal justice.” “And?” she pressed. I   never   answer   how   I   did   on   an   exam.   I   learned   long   ago,   even   when   I   know   all   the answers,   there   is   always   those   questions   I   read   backward   and   answered   in   reverse.   Dang dyslexia. At   one   point   in   my   life   I   decided   that’s   why   Mother   hated   me.   An   unforgivable imperfection.   But   Reggie   said   she   hated   me   from   the   day   they   brought   me   home   from the   hospital.   Presumably   my   learning   disability   hadn’t   shown   up   yet.   So   I   disgusted   her simply for being the mistake. That’s a heck of a thing. Dacey jogged past in the hall to check upstairs. I finished off the second bottle and cracked open the third. The   admiral   busted   my   chops   with   a,   “Great.   Thanks   for   asking,   Quorra.”   I   must have missed a conversational cue. I do that. Sigh.   Quorra.   As   though   I’d   ever   switch   from   what   I’ve   called   her   since   I   was   seven. I parroted the admiral and flashed what probably wasn’t a very sincere smile to Tebs. The   admiral   asked   me   what   I   was   doing   for   the   summer   as   I   finished   the   last   orange juice. “There’s a couple classes at USF I may take. They’ll transfer to TU.” Tebs said, “You haven’t taken a break since—” I   eyed   her,   a   challenge   to   finish.   Like   I   needed   to   take   a   sabbatical   after   killing   three men?   As   though   that   would   screw   with   my   head   any   more   than   having   two   highly educated   parents   who   never   touched   me,   or   even   had   a   conversation   with   me,   before they   killed   themselves,   or   growing   up   with   a   brother   twenty   years   older   than   me   with Asperger’s syndrome. Dacey   walked   in   holstering   his   9mm.   I   asked   him   if   we   were   safe   from   all   things evil.   He   grimaced   at   me.   One   day   before   he   dies   he’ll   embrace   my   sarcasm.   He   suggested showers,   since   he   was   starving.   Poor   man.   I   had   made   him   dress   out   and   spar   with   the manager at the dojo. He must have burned two calories too many. He pointed a finger at me. “Don’t.” “What?”   I   asked   innocently,   grabbing   two   more   juices   from   the   pantry.   “Did   you know   some   people   put   these   in   the   fridge?”   I   lobbed   one   of   the   bottles   his   way.   He snatched   it   out   of   the   air   without   a   stray   blink.   Hard   to   believe   he   was   the   mess   he   was twelve months ago. Walking   for   my   bedroom   I   worked   one   arm   out   of   the   tee   and   tank   I   had   layered over   my   sports   bra.   I   was   out   of   all   three   as   I   crossed   the   threshold   of   my   room.   My   eyes automatically   glanced   down   toward   the   spot   Brassy’s   bed   used   to   lie.   A   year.   Still   my chest tightened like it always did, since— Kicking   off   my   teal   Crocs,   I   reminded   myself   I   needed   to   get   my   wet   stuff   out   of   my bag. Ack. Dacey was probably doing it for me that moment. Maybe   I   was   born   to   lousy   parents,   but   I   lucked   into   the   best   mother   a   girl   could have. I    took    a    quick    shower,    quick    except    for    the    dismantling    of    my    braid    and    the shampooing.   I’d   sweat   too   much   to   forego   that.   There   was   no   quick    about   that   task.   I might have to cut my hair one day. Not likely. No   more   than   thirty   minutes   later   though   I   rejoined   my   adopted   family   in   the kitchen.   Without   a   word   we   threaded   for   the   front   door.   Tebs   grabbed   my   brush   and pressed   me   in   front   of   her.   Her   hand   on   my   shoulder   felt   cool.   It   had   taken   me   a   long time to adjust to anyone touching me. The admiral and Dacey held back, making that small talk I never will understand. Tebs   wrung   my   hair   one   more   good   time   with   the   towel   I   had   looped   across   my shoulders   as   we   crossed   the   front   deck.   She   mumbled   a,   I   love   your   hair ,   which   made my   eyes   well.   My   mother   never   said   anything   like   that   to   me.   No   one   else   ever   had either. Dacey   tweaked   us   into   the   Expedition.   Tebs   pressed   me   into   the   front   passenger seat,   sat   behind   me   so   she   could   brush   the   kinks   out   of   my   ten   miles.   Through   the   ten- minute   drive   Dacey   and   Tony   continued   that   light   chatter.   Tebs   didn’t   join   in.   Odd.   I closed   my   eyes   and   sucked   up   the   attention   as   the   bristles   finally   reached   to   my   scalp. She is an expert with tangles. I’m keeping her. Why was she so quiet though? A   Wednesday   night,   but   Bern’s   is   always   busy.   We   had   to   wait   for   a   table.   Tebs continued   to   brush   my   hair,   me   sitting   on   the   floor   in   front   of   her.   I   closed   my   eyes against   the   smiles   of   the   others   waiting   with   us.   Why   did   they   think   it   was   necessary   to demonstrate an opinion about Tebs’ mothering? Seated   at   a   table   ten   minutes   later,   it   took   our   server   another   fifteen   to   find   our table.   I   finally   got   my   shot   to   order   my   eighteen   ounce   Delmonico,   which   supposedly feeds two. They haven’t seen me eat in here for a while. Dacey was hitting me with an expression of horror. I mouthed a, What,  at him. These prices , he mouthed back. Yeah. Bern’s isn’t cheap. “You said you wanted to celebrate,” I told him. I   ignored   his   uncomfortable   expression.   When   the   words   eight   ounce   wafted   out   of Dacey’s    mouth,    the    cheapest    steak    on    the    menu,    the    admiral    spoke    up    with    a, “Nonsense.    Order    the    eighteen.    What    you    don’t    finish    will    make    a    great    lunch tomorrow.” Poor   Dacey   glowed   a   gentle   shade   of   rose.   I   should   have   prepared   him.   He   had gotten   used   to   me   treating   to   ten   dollar   meals   at   my   favorite   Italian,   but   this   was   a   new one   for   us.   The   admiral   could   afford   it.   Not   that   I   couldn’t.   The   executor   of   my   trust   was probably   more   generous   than   he   needed   to   be,   even   though   I   just   let   it   build   up   in   my savings   account.   I   paid   all   the   bills   out   of   Reg’s   account.   He   said   he   didn’t   otherwise know what to do with his six-digit salary from the University. I   really   should   roll   the   funds   in   that   savings   account   back   into   the   trust.   Our   guy was good at picking the right stocks and funds. Before   I   could   say   anything   more   to   Dacey,   I   caught   a   fist   rising   to   his   left.   A   busboy maybe.   Odd   to   refresh   our   glasses   while   we   were   in   the   process   of   ordering.   Our   waiter’s eyes   widened   though,   his   mouth   turning   oval.   I   hurried   to   turn   to   find   what   he   found   so shocking   as   a   tiny   supernova   exploded   two   feet   away   from   me.   A   blast   of   heat   hit   my face. My   ears   acknowledged   the   explosion   a   heartbeat   later,   and   a   second,   and   third   pop, as   I   lunged   out   of   my   chair   into   Tebs,   to   get   her   below   the   tabletop.   The   admiral   was tugging at her too. Our heads might have connected. The   staccato   voices   in   the   dining   room   turned   into   shrieks.   A   pain   shafted   through my left hip and a second later I was tumbling over Tebs’ chair. I   waited   for   a   fourth   explosion,   a   bullet   to   pierce   my   back,   as   I   scrambled   to   cover Tebs   with   my   body.   No   more   explosions,   only   hoarse,   loud   voices,   running   steps,   the restaurant     emptying.     Total     chaos.     Chairs     tipping.     Glasses     breaking,     plates     and dinnerware colliding in a concrete mixer. The   room   transitioned   from   speed   of   light   pandemonium   to   slow   motion   playback. The   admiral   pulled   away   from   me   and   Tebs   and   joined   Dacey.   Not   to   help   bring   down my assassin, but to keep Dacey from killing the man with his bare hands. At   least   five   voices   shouted   into   cell   phones,   the   word   police    hitting   my   left   temple and exiting the right. Tebs screamed. “Are you hit? Are you hit?” I   was   worried   about   her.   I   pushed   away   from   her   searching   for   blood.   She   looked good,   if   a   little   freaked.   Why   didn’t   I   feel   freaked?   I   felt   empty.   The   gas   gauge   was   on done. Way below the red stripe. There   was   another   diner   on   the   floor,   to   my   right.   He’d   been   seated   immediately behind   me.   Struggling   to   my   knees   I   looked   into   his   face.   His   eyes   wore   the   shocked stare I’d seen before. The face held that confused, loose jaw pose. As   the   realization   he   was   gone   settled   in   my   synapses,   a   mob   surrounded   him.   The same   was   happening   at   the   next   table   back.   But   by   the   rip   of   agony,   whoever   lay   on   the floor over there hadn’t caught a bullet in the heart. Tebs   scrambled   away   to   do   what   she   could.   I   fell   back   on   my   butt,   feet   straight   in front   of   me   as   I   stared,   watching   her   press   her   fingers   against   the   nearer   man’s   throat. She   repositioned   her   fingers   at   least   six   times   before   she   shook   her   head   and   slumped forward.   The   three   men   who   had   evidently   been   dining   with   the   man   stared   down   at   her with eyes that didn’t quite focus. One   dead.   Another   groaning   in   pain.   A   gun   fired   feet   from   my   face   and   I   sat   here without   a   pip   of   blood.   I   finally   remembered   the   pain   I   felt   in   my   hip   and   explored   it with   my   hand.   No   blood.   I   figured   out   the   origin   though.   I   ploughed   it   into   the   corner   of the table. Blood   now   seeped   in   view   from   the   nearest   guy,   pooling   around   his   shoulders, soaking into the geometric mosaic of the carpet. I was the cause of yet another death. Tables   were   being   pushed   aside   to   accommodate   a   gurney.   Someone   pulled   me   to my   feet.   I   finally   searched   out   Dacey   and   the   admiral.   Dacey   straddled   a   man   in   black slacks,   which   blended   in   with   those   the   waiters   and   busboys   wore.   The   admiral’s   nose bled,   ran   in   a   furrow   around   his   mouth   and   off   his   jaw,   splattering   his   white   shirt   and sports coat. He mouthed, You okay? © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
SCI FI Fantasy Dystopian
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
6 Ways to Where Chapter 1 ~ A fter   two   semesters   of   college   psychology   I should   better   understand   my   own   psychosis. I    failed    the    diagnosis    of    sociopath    merely because   I   loved   a   dog   more   than   myself,   and latched   onto   a   homeless   man.   The   way   I   nag at    the    poor    man,    I    must    care.    Though    in truth,   can’t   say   I   empathize   with   him.   That could   be   because   I’ve   never   leaned   toward four    hundred    pounds.    So    can’t    appreciate his      struggle      to      get      down      to      human proportions. Making   him   weigh   in   every   day   at   the dojo hasn’t made me his favorite person. But   then,   I’m   not   my   favorite   person.   Or anyone else’s. Can’t   say   I   have   a   favorite   person.   I   hate my   brother.   Despise   even   thinking   about   my late   parents.   I   do   have   a   few   people   in   my life    now,    despite    my    many    colorful    faults. I’m   not   an   easy   person   to   like.   To   put   up with. Even my own shrink fired me. I   can’t   be   called   a   mass   murderer,   or   a serial   murderer,   by   definition.   Though   I’ve killed   three   men.   Self   defense.   Well,   one   was sort    of    an    accident.    He    was    trying    to    get away   from   me,   but   he   was   hired   to   kill   me, so in my book, it’s okay I croaked him. I   folded   the   thick   deck   of   four-by-seven cards     together     and     sighed.     If     I     hadn’t memorized    enough    minutiae    in    the    past four   months,   another   twenty   seconds   wasn’t going   to   help.   Sliding   my   study   notes   into my    bag,    I    strode    to    the    near    wall    and dropped   it   to   the   floor   next   to   others,   and walked back to my desk. Smiles   shown   on   faces   around   me,   for   a final   exam.   Smiles   not   directed   to    me.   But   to others.    Fellow    students    chatted.    Everyone seemed   to   study   in   clusters.   They   can’t   study alone?     No.     They     met     off     campus,     for whatever.    Were    friends.    Weird.    Why    are people     who     sit     for     fifty     minutes     in     a classroom together, drawn together? This class didn’t explain it to me. The   professor   and   his   teaching   assistant walked    in.    Desk    tops    clear.    No    books,    no binders,   packs,   crimp   notes,   smart   phones.   He     left     out     encyclopedias     and     friendly androids.    The    man    pointed    to    the    wall where   scores   of   bookbags   and   packs   lined up.   Several   students   jumped   up   to   deposit theirs,    like    the    anti-cheating    process    was new. Dummies. Last   final   of   semester   number   two   and   I still   had   no   clue   what   direction   I   was   meant to    take.    Nothing    loomed    interesting.    Life itself leaned pretty tarnished, in my eyes. And    that    had    nothing    to    do    with    the threat of world pandemic. Chapter Two ~ D acey   sat   in   the   corridor   reading   his   tablet as   I   straggled   out   of   the   classroom,   the   last bonehead   to   finish   the   exam.   I   hate   taking tests.   He   looked   up   and   gave   me   that   grin, asked how I did. I    ignored    his    question.    “Thought    we were meeting in the—” “I missed you,” he quipped. No   one   misses   me,   unless   it’s   up   there with   missing   an   agonizing   death   from   the plague. “Don’t   give   me   that   look.”   He   waddled   to a standing position. He     needed     to     drop     another     seventy pounds     before     I     got     off     his     back.     Last month’s   tummy,   butt,   and   arm   tucks   helped his appearance more than I could say. “It’s   summer.   What   do   you   want   to   do   to celebrate the end of finals?” “Celebrate?”   Abernathys   don’t   celebrate. Though     those     drunken     parents     of     mine threw    an    annual    drink    till    you    throw    up event     every     Christmas,     which     is     really ironic, considering they were vocal atheists. Dacey   took   my   pack   and   drew   it   over   his shoulder.   “It’s   something   normal   people   do to reward themselves for a task well done.” “You’re     claiming     you     know     someone normal?” I asked. He   was   busy   now   studying   the   few   faces remaining   in   the   hall,   left   and   right.   Always the    deliberate    bodyguard.    If    someone    was going   to   kill   me,   they   should   have   done   it earlier    in    the    semester,    before    I    spent    all that time studying. Hopefully. “Why    don’t    you    consider    kicking    back, going   to   the   beach,   or   something?   You   own a     swimsuit?     I     bet     the     beach     would     be really—” “So   you   don’t   know   anyone   normal?”   I pressed as we strode down the hall. “I   met   a   really   nice   lady   in   cooking   class who   seems   normal.   Except   for   the   fact   she hinted she wanted me to ask her out.” “You going to ask her out?” I asked. “You keep me too busy.” Poor     man.     I     do     keep     him     pretty distracted.   He’s   taken   watching   over   me   too seriously.   But   I   wasn’t   going   to   let   him   off that easy. “I    never    go    out    at    night,”    I    said.    “So what’s your excuse exactly?” “Meh.    She’s    kind    of    middle    age.    A    bit hefty.” I    gave    him    a    slow    glance,    shoulder    to hikers. “I’m   not   middle   aged,”   he   hissed.   “Why do you have to be such a witch?” “I was raised—” “That   way,”   he   finished   for   me.   It   is   a common refrain between us. My   mind   flicked   to   the   buttery-soft   polo I   bought   him   the   other   day.   It   ticked   him   off. Why?   Gifts   are   about   the   only   way   I   know   to please   him,   to   show   him   I—appreciate   him. Can’t   do   it   with   my   sparkling   personality.   I could    bring    down    the    spirits    at    a    Mordor sacrifice. We   didn’t   speak   again   until   we   reached my    Expedition    in    the    parking    garage    and exchanged my pack for my gym bag. “Really?”   he   snarled.   “You   just   finished finals    and    you’re    going    to    celebrate    doing what you do every day?” I didn’t play hoops every day. “Yes you do,” he said. “Why   don’t   you   take   the   Expedition,”   I said.      “Go      to      the      mall      or      something. Celebrate.    That’s    what    you    want    to    do, right? I can walk home.” “It isn’t a celebration if you do it alone.” I   sensed   a   loss   of   oxygen,   but   didn’t   gasp for    air.    Maybe    it    was    my    tight    throat.    He knew   from   the   first   day   I’m   not   such   great company.    The    double    straps    of    my    bag slipped a bit in my hand. “Besides,”    he    hissed.    “You    can’t    walk down   the   street   alone.   You   Abernathys   are the two most hated people in this country.” He was wrong. Most hated in the world. That    was    a    mean    thing    to    say,    even though    it’s    true.    But    there    are    plenty    of politicians        plenty        of        people        hate. Collectively,   they’re   hated   more   than   Reggie and   me.   That   struck   me   whimsical.   Should   I try   it   on   Dacey?   No.   Not   with   the   glare   he was   beating   me   with.   I   sighed.   I   had   only been the messenger. Not    fair    the    world    didn’t    understand. They   didn’t   have   the   full   context.   And   the government wasn’t going to share it. Why   was   Dacey   expecting   a   comeback? Fine. I’d give him one. “Only    because    they    don’t    really    know us.” That was far from original. Why   did   people   hate   me ?   It   was   Reg   who created    the    dang    plague.    At    least    gave    it muscle and stamina. Dacey   rolled   his   eyes.   I   complained   the garage     was     hot,     if     we     could     have     this conversation somewhere else. Maybe never. “You want some alone time?” he asked. Alone   time?   That   whiffed   over   my   head. What was he saying? “You   want   some   time   you   don’t   have   to look   at   my   ugly   face?”   I   must   have   stared   at him too long. “You tired of my ugly self?” “Tired?   Of   you?”   I   don’t   think   I   actually spoke   the   words.   I   may   have   only   mouthed them. “If   you   are,   I   can   disappear   for   a   while. No one’s tried to kill you in months.” That hurt. “Are   you   crying?”   The   anger   in   his   face faded. I    blinked    and    was    startled    to    find    my vision cleared. “I’m   sorry,”   he   said.   “Never   will   get   used to       you       Abernathys.       Your       lack       of communication skills—” Thankfully      he      didn’t      continue      that sentence. “I   mean.   You’re   not   much   for   expressing your feelings.” He   was   digging   a   hole.   He   realized   it   and closed his eyes for a four-count. “And you know, we Greeks—” “Wear   it   on   your   sleeves,”   I   finished   for him.   We   have   a   lot   of   clichés   we   finish   for each other. I    wiped    sweat    out    of    my    eyes,    off    my forehead.   Dang.   It   was   hot   in   here.   I   reached inside   the   truck   and   drew   my   phone   out   of my pack. “I’ll   call   you,   when   I’m   through,   okay?”   I asked him. “I   got   nothing   better   to   do   anyway,”   he grouched. “Fine,” I blurted, turning to go. The    truck    door    slammed    shut    and    he caught    up    with    me    after    ten    steps.    We walked   to   the   gym   in   silence.   He   mopped the   sweat   off   his   face   every   thirteen   steps. How   many   sweat   towels   did   he   go   through every    week?    I’d    never    know.    He    kept    the laundry hampers empty. Ho   boy,   he   takes   good   care   of   me   and Reg. The   gym   was   as   quiet   as   we   had   been.   It didn’t   look   good   to   get   a   pickup   game   going. A   gym   with   six   basketball   courts   and   no   one but   me   and   Dacey   can   be   a   spooky   place.   I could     hear     the     wood     of     the     bleachers breathing.    Where    was    everyone?    Okay,    so we   were   hours   away   from   semester   break, but still. Maybe I could get a game at USF. I    looked    down    at    Dacey’s    feet.    Hikers. He   couldn’t   even   play   horse   with   me,   not that   he   could   hit   a   free   throw   if   I   lowered   the basket   and   moved   him   up   ten   feet.   I   headed for    the    locker    room    anyway,    changed    and was out in ten. Still   not   a   sole.   I   crossed   the   court   to   get in     conversation     distance     of     Dacey,     and pulled   up   a   patch   of   hardwood   to   stretch. Neither    of    us    spoke    until    I    was    almost    a noodle.     He’s     the     conversationalist.     Why didn’t he say something? “I’m sorry about the shirt,” I said softly. He pulled his face out of his tablet. Huh? “I   don’t   know   why   it   upset   you.   But   for whatever reason—” His eyes widened. “Oh. The shirt.” I waited. “The shirt didn’t upset me.” “Then, what?” He      sighed.      It      reflected      a      bit      of frustration,    I    think.    “You’ve    opened    your house   to   me.   Treated   me   better   than   anyone ever    has.    Bought    me    stuff.    Paid    for    those expensive procedures. I don’t know how—” “How    what?”    I    asked    after    a    too-long lull. “How I can ever repay you—” “Repay?” I echoed. “I don’t expect—” “I know you don’t. But—” “You’re family I’ve never had,” I said. “Ditto.” My   eyes   thickened   and   the   blasted   tears managed over my bottom lid. “That   isn’t—”   He   took   an   audible   breath. “Really fair to say, with Reggie and—” I    laughed,    drawing    my    legs    out    of    my stretch    and    sitting    Indian    style,    which    is harder      than      it      sounds      with      size      ten basketball shoes on. “You’ve   lived   with   Reg   for   a   year,”   I   said. “He come across very brotherly?” “He’s special,” Dacey mumbled. Special.   Right.   A   long   time   ago   I   decided Reg’s   behavior   had   nothing   to   do   with   the Asperger’s. Just regular Abernathy genes. “If   I   had   any   self-respect,”   Dacey   said, “I’d   have   found   a   job   and   gotten   my   own apartment by now.” I   lost   a   little   of   the   air   in   my   lungs.   He couldn’t leave me. “What?”     His     expression     implied     I’d grown horns. “Don’t    ever    leave    me.”    The    words    just whooshed   out.   The   tears   streamed   down   my cheek. “Oh, Margarite,” he whispered. “I    mean    it.”    I    got    that    out    without    a smidgeon of air, fought off a gasp. His    face    contoured    into    five    different emotions    before    he    opened    his    mouth    to speak,    but    closed    his    trap    without    saying, whatever.   We’d   started   this   conversation   a couple   times.   I   had   successfully   changed   the topic. Maybe it was time to get it said. “I   would   be   all   right   with   you   living   with us forever.” “You’re   eighteen,   girl.   You’ll   change   your tune—” “No I won’t,” I said. “You’ll   meet   someone   and   I’ll   become   a pain in the rear.” I   tried   to   get   a   laugh   out.   It   came   out   like a    strangled    quack.    “You’ve    always    been    a pain,     but     I     wouldn’t     know     what     to     do without you.” He sighed. I waited. “So,   you’re   okay   with   me   having   no   self- respect?” I nodded. “Absolutely.” “Ah,”   he   drawled.   “You’ll   always   be   the daughter    I’ll    never    have.    But    you    need    to move on.” “Nonsense.      We’ll      go      into      business together and it’ll make sense to—” “Margarite—” “Mar!”     I     hissed.     “You     only     get     one Margarite a month.” Dacey   smiled,   drew   a   set   of   thick   fingers through   that   mop   of   black   hair.   I   needed   to trim   it   again.   I   love   to   trim   his   hair.   I   don’t know   why.   But   do.   He   seems   to   enjoy   it   too. It   isn’t   just    that   he’s   too   cheap   to   pay   for   a cut. We’re   an   odd   couple.   Not   that   we’re   a couple, I know. But— “What business?” he asked. That    stopped    my    mind    from    spinning. Yeah.   Exactly.   What   did   I   want   to   do   when   I grow     up?     No     medical     school     for     this Abernathy.   I   even   hated   biology,   too   much memorizing,   so   no   following   Reggie   with   or without medical school. “You   have   to—”   I   had   to   swallow.   “Help me   figure   out   what   I   want   to   do   when   I   grow up.” He    smiled.    If    he    suggested    the    service again     I     was     going     to     punch     him.     This Abernathy   doesn’t   take   orders   well.   Dig   a trench    would   sound   more   like   hit   me   over the head with your trenching tool . “Maybe    we    should    both    become    cops,” he said slowly. That   was   an   idea.   I   had   told   him   a   dozen times     I     was     getting     him     into     human proportions    so    he    could    go    back    to    that. Really   sad,   being   discharged   from   the   Army for   his   weight.   What   kind   of   MP   was   he? Probably     a     good     one.     Logical.     Patient. Sympathetic. All traits I can’t claim. I   shrugged,   stood,   and   started   running   a set    of    lines,    backward,    feet    crisscrossing. The   best   exercise   in   the   world   for   the   legs and   abs.   Some   sparring   at   the   dojo   after   this would be my celebration. © R. Mac Wheeler 2017