by Dawn G. Patterson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Half-dug tunnels sucked. One concrete wall, the other dirt, with no more than a kick-drum span between them. I slid forward, cursing my womanhood, and wondering how many pounds of pressure per square inch my girls could withstand. Only a couple dozen steps in, the light behind me narrowed to a slit. A few more steps, and there would be no light. Worse, I feared there would be no more oxygen. Ten more feet in, the walls tapered again.
As I shimmied, the concrete grabbed at my vest, skin, and nano. A vest and some skin I could damage. The nano, I couldn’t. It had a built-in dismantling alarm. It was too tight to turn my head, so no looking back, ha ha.
I wondered again about the oxygen. I wasn’t claustrophobic. I was realistic. Getting stuck was a possibility. My heart quickened, and I took small gasps of damp air. I took another step. Urgency erupted in my belly. The need to go deeper — deeper than I’d ever gone — propelled me to the point of frantic self-injury.
Time kept ticking.
* * *
Skin catches on rugged concrete. Knees bleed. Sharp rocks bruise my bare heels. In a bedroom voice, my display croons, “Unit under distress.” Tell me about it.
The tunnel ends at a small vault door, as if built for seven mining dwarfs. At least here the tunnel widens to fit the door. But there are better pairings than pitch blackness and tiny numbers on a manual combination lock. I open my denim vest. Luckily, my nano forever shines its numbers.
I lick my lips as I spin the combination in the nano’s wan light. First time’s a charm. I grasp the handle. The slightest click will announce my entrance. I mentally cross my fingers and push down bile as I push down the handle.
The secret entrance opens into my bedroom closet. On my belly, I look under the closet door. There is no light in the hall. Further down into the den is a glow. I hear Stuart’s voice. My heart jackrabbits, ransacking my insides to find my dusty moral code — to think about what I’m doing. And, I’m not going to lie, I’m scared.
I’m a huntress fearful of her prey.
I replace his face with Mr. 16K’s face from the club. Nothing but a number.
Turning the knob, I slip out of the closet and pad to the bedroom doorway.
King says to Stuart, “Tell me again how you know York.” His voice smacks with suspicion.
I raise my automatic and aim for the den opening, waiting for Stuart’s 6-foot 2-inch frame to materialize. A shadow crosses in front of the den lamp. And there he is, back to me, and he actually pauses in the archway, bordering on a dare.
I take a quick breath, hold it, and steady the gun. Synapses fire in my head, traveling from brain to arm to firing hand. My finger tenses.
And the lights go out.
Pop! Pop! Pop! But not from my gun. My gun is saying What the hell?
Did Stuart shoot King? No, I hear him coming. King will know the escape tunnel. When he goes past me, I smell him. Maybe he’s thinking of our hidden weapon that’s in my hand, maybe he’s thinking of the tunnel. The tunnel will be too small for him. He’ll find out soon enough. I let him go past.
I slide against the wall toward the den.
“My pet, what are you doing?” Stuart knows I’m here for him. I pray King hasn’t figured out I’m here, too.
The hydraulics of the elevator engage. King’s not that stupid. Who’s joining our party?
The elevator still has power, as does the light within the elevator. The cables set the elevator down at basement level, and the doors open. Ash stands inside. Dang it. I shoot. Shattering pieces of bulbs and fiberglass shower down. Bye, bye light. Ash cusses, but thankfully I hear his footsteps running out of the “Here-I-Am” box.
I don’t know how it gets so quiet with all the active calculating going on in four different heads.
I hurry to the kitchen on my left, reluctantly slipping the gun into my back pocket. My fingers locate a roll of high-tack tape in a drawer and tear off a piece. Back at the elevator, I tape the door open, so the elevator car won’t rise. No easy escape for Stuart or for anyone.
With another piece of tape, I seal my mouth. It feels masochistic. Yet no matter what happens, Stuart’s piercing will not touch my mouth. It’s one thing to lose everything, my life, my hours. It’s another to give it to a Stuart. If I die, my hours die with me. I pull the gun back out.
King has got to be confused. Did he recognize Ash’s cursing?
Scooting away from the elevator, I stand in the center of the dark hall and visualize the loop: hall, den, kitchen, then back to the hall. Slow steps carry me into the den. In that room, I will either meet my maker or my savior or someone I will have to do a lot of explaining to later. My shin hits the coffee table. I stifle a grunt. I continue toward the kitchen bar that overhangs into the den. There is a soft collision — flesh to flesh — my outstretched hand to a face.
Frantic hands search for a clue. Who will identify whom first?
He grabs my hand, prying my fingers open. In the center of my palm, a finger taps. Boom boom boooom, boomboombaboom, boom boom boooom, boom boom. An ancient riff. Smoke on the Water. Just like when we used to play Manhunt as kids. I do something so out of character, I’m surprised Ash doesn’t shoot me.
I sob. One hiccup of a sob. Ash’s hand goes to my taped mouth. The next sob gets stuck in my throat as a bullet whizzes past my ear. We bank left, and Ash throws something from the bar top — a shot glass? — into the far corner of den. Stuart takes the bait, shooting at the sound. Where is King? Ash and I circle through the kitchen and land in front of the elevator. The swish of pant legs broadcasts Stuart shuffling across the den toward us. I jerk Ash away into the kitchen.
To the right of the stove, I grope for the egg timer. I let Ash feel it. He taps my arm one time. Yes. I twist the cylinder a fraction and slide it across the bar. Ash yanks me to the ground. The alarm bashes the silence. Stuart blows the bar to smithereens.
Ash and I run into the den, hopefully coming up behind Stuart. Ash shoots at the dark. The blast gives my peripheral a micro moment to recognize King running up the hall. Thrown back into darkness, I grab a straight-back chair and bowl it down the hall, hoping I get a strike. A gun blast coincides with King falling over the chair. Ash yells.
I retrace my steps back through the kitchen and around what’s left of the bar. I run into Stuart retreating from the den. My gun hits his back. This time I do not hesitate. I do not think about the synapses. I simply pull the trigger.
The blast spins Stuart around, and his weapon whips me across the face before falling from his hand. I lose my balance. My head hits the corner of the splintered countertop. Still, I catch hold with my hands before going down.
Thud. Stuart hits the floor. With some groaning.
I jump on him. I rip his shirt open. His numbers are still there.
His numbers are moving. In his nano light, I look to my wrist at the pretty opal as it sparkles. I cram that mother in Stuart’s mouth. I want every stinking minute he has. My iFlesh melts over my soaring numbers.
There’s noise behind me. I hear a grunt and the smack of fists. I look back, and my wrist slips from Stuart’s mouth.
That’s all it takes. One tiny slip, and I get cursed. With final words.
“Pet. At least I leave a leg — ” His numbers zero out.
“Ah-see.” Ash comes up behind me, panting. “A legacy,” Ash whispers.
Damn it. Damn it to hell.
* * *
Ash and I walked through the temple corridors, with him assuring me King was fine. But from the looks of Ash, and he was still standing, I worried.
“Did you break anything?”
He shifted his jaw and rolled his shoulders. “Nah.”
“Not you. On King?”
“I don’t think so. I had to make sure he didn’t see us.”
We wouldn’t know what King knew until he regained consciousness. Dread over the possible outcomes filled my gut. I couldn’t think about that now. “How did you figure it out?” I asked.
“I didn’t. I was keyed up after the concert and just stopped by for a drink. Figured you’d be in the mood to celebrate after your big score.” He’d seen Mr. 16K. He looked at me. “What happened? And, holy crap, why did you take his hours?” I raised my eyebrows, indicating possible eavesdroppers.
Ten bodyguards surrounded us, soundless except for their marching boots. The rhythm ferried us into the Great Hall. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Only the tapping of my kitten heels provided variance. Everyone rose. If there wasn’t an eye on me, it was because it was blind. I smoothed down my dress. In the center of the room sat a velvet throne. For me.
As I sat down, images of Stuart accosted me. He’d sat in this chair for so many years, the cushions were bumpy from his butt print. Ash left my side to stand in the front row.
It was a pretty healthy group. No one coughed. No one sneezed. Their eyes stared at my nano, revealed by the low V-neck. It was ostentatious. It was vulgar: 211,666.
I had been mentally rolling the numbers around, hoping, with practice, they would stop making me shudder. Having Stuart’s hours made me feel slimy.
I looked out at the time hoarders. The Chairman put the mic to his mouth. I closed my eyes, willing him not to say it, begging him to say something else, like the Pledge of Allegiance or the weather forecast. But as he began, words I had been dreading, that no one had dared to speak yet, were proclaimed at the top of his sonorous voice.
“All... kneel... to the Popess Tempore Collectooooooooor!”
My temples throbbed. And as the knees fell and the heads bowed, I wondered: How vile had I become to protect the good in my life? How bad would I become?
I drew a deep breath. Then I rose. A few eyes looked up. Only I didn’t release them from their positions on the floor. Because today, this very moment, I began my reign over detestable people just like me. In a colony of selfish, time-hoarding killers, I was their queen.
To get rid of the title, someone would have to steal my hours. And that was simply not going to happen.
Copyright © 2017 by Dawn G. Patterson