by Bill Bowler
Jenny Clearfield stashed her bike in the bike room and walked out to the driveway, still feeling groggy. She struggled to clear her head and focus her thoughts. It felt like she had a horrible hangover or someone had drugged her, and the sense of dread that came with it still lingered. Whatever it was, it wasn’t over. She felt the instinct to run, but from who or what?
Instead of going up to her apartment, she turned and hurried up Broadway, her mind racing. Maybe it was temporary? Maybe she could ride it out? She felt slightly better already. But the people on the sidewalk crowded around her, threatening and oppressive, blocking her way. The street noise rose to an awful cacophony.
She caught her reflection in a store window. God! She looked awful! She hated her hair, she hated her clothes, she hated her weight. She hated how she looked! She couldn’t stand it. In the next block, she pushed through the door into a hair salon. When she came out, long strands of her dark hair lay scattered on the salon floor. Her head was shaved. She looked around at the sunlit street, beginning to feel better, more like herself again.
* * *
Frank and Nick stood looking intently at a map displayed on Frank’s computer monitor.
“We’re getting good coverage,” said Frank, “about a twenty-mile radius. We’ve got most of Bergen and Hudson Counties, a piece of Westchester and a good chunk of New York City. Hmm, look at that. That’s interesting. Wait a minute...”
“What have you got, Frank?”
“You see that flashing blip there on the right side of the screen?”
“I see it.”
Frank zoomed in to get a closer look. “It’s the jackpot, Nick! We’ve hit paydirt.”
“That’s the signature for a Class-A receiver, Nick!”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure! And it’s right across the river.”
Nick broke into a broad grin. “Well, what are you waiting for? Go get it!”
“I’m on it!” Frank rushed towards the door and called over his shoulder, “Hold everything till I get back!”
Nick stood alone in the lab for a moment watching the screen and then walked back to his office, still smiling to himself. He went around behind his desk, plopped down into his adjustable chair, picked up the phone, and called his contact at the Defense Department.
* * *
Frank’s black SUV sped across the bridge and raced down the West Side Highway, weaving in and out of the fast-moving traffic. He drove with one hand on the wheel and one eye on his handheld with the psi-tracking software, one of his more elegant coding solutions, if he did say so himself. He pulled off at 79th Street, by some miracle saw a spot near West End, and grabbed it. He locked the car and followed the signal on foot.
The current location of the class-A receiver turned out to be a residential high-rise on the corner of 77th Street. Frank stood outside for a moment, plotting his next move, and decided to wing it. He pushed through the revolving door, said “Hi” to the doorman, waved to the guy behind the desk and strode past reception to the elevator bank as if he lived in the building. He fit the part, and no one challenged him.
So far, so good. As Frank rode up the elevator, the psi wave strength increased until he passed the eleventh floor, and then began to fade.
Frank rode back down to eleven, stepped out into a well-lit corridor and followed the signal to the end of the hallway where it maxed out at the door to apartment 11-11. He pocketed his handheld, smoothed his hair, and pushed the buzzer.
Jenny was in the shower and dropped the soap when the doorbell rang. Her heart began to race. She didn’t know who was at the door and didn’t want to know. The doorbell rang again insistently. Jenny stepped out of the shower, wrapped a towel around herself, tiptoed to the front door, and peeked out the peephole.
A strange man was standing in the hallway. She had never seen the man before and just wished he would go away. She was having trouble breathing and began to feel dizzy. A faint ringing in her ears grew louder and louder until it was deafening. The shadows on the man’s face distorted his features into a grotesque mask. He started banging on the door and the pounding echoed the beating of her heart. Jenny pulled away from the door and froze in place. Suddenly, it was silent.
Frank had felt the eyes watching him through the peephole. He stopped knocking, not wanting to make a ruckus. The neighbors would be sticking their heads out.
Inside, Jenny stood perfectly still, not making the slightest sound. A business card slid under the door and appeared at her feet. She was afraid to move. After a few long moments of silence, she worked up her courage and looked out through the peephole again. The hall was empty.
She knelt down and picked up the card. It read: “Franklin Stone, Director of Research & Development, Institute of Psionic Applications” with an address and phone number in Englewood, New Jersey.
Jenny turned the card over and saw a hand-written note: “Call me, please. It’s important. F. S.”
She walked slowly into the bedroom to get dressed and dropped the card on her night table.
* * *
“She didn’t call,” said Frank.
“It’s only been one day,” said Nick.
“She’s not going to call.”
“I just know it,” said Frank.
“So what are we supposed to do?” asked Nick, “Sit on our hands? Put the entire project on hold?”
“We have to take action,” said Frank. “I found out who she is. I know what she looks like.” He sat at the computer terminal and clicked the mouse. “I Googled her address, got her name, and found her on FaceBook. Look: Jenny Clearfield.”
Nick looked over Frank’s shoulder and saw a picture of a young woman in a ripped t-shirt and tight shorts, with long brown hair and a friendly smile. She appeared to be in her early twenties.
“You sure that’s her?”
“Sure I’m sure. We’ve got to make contact,” said Frank. “It’s just a matter of using the right approach. She’s in range of the main generator, there’s no telling what she’s been going through lately.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s a class-A receiver: total absorption and retransmission. It amplifies her own abilities, but we don’t know yet in what direction or mode. She’s been exposed to the wave generator without knowing it. The experience could be very confusing, even a bit unpleasant for her.”
“Jesus! What if she goes for help? What if they trace the waves here?”
“We’re OK if we move fast. I’ve got a plan.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“We, um...” Frank paused. “We set her up. Then I just have to get close to her and intercede at the right moment.”
“What do you mean, set her up?”
“Look, we push the generator to full power. She won’t know what hit her. I’ll track her and stay close, keep her in sight. When she starts to go bonkers from the psi-wave bath we’re giving her, I step in at the moment of crisis, the White Knight to the rescue. I’ll sweet-talk her back to the lab. She’ll be so messed up, she’ll have no way to resist. She’ll do whatever we tell her. When I get her back here into the chamber, I’ll turn down the juice. She’ll come out of it, be overcome with gratitude, and voilà ! She’ll be eating out of our hands. It’s foolproof!”
“I don’t know, Frank. It sounds risky. Look what happened to the other subjects. Two of them are still in the hospital.”
“You have to break some eggs to make an omelet. It’s their own fault, anyway. Those other subjects were minor league. They had no business being in the program. This one’s class-A, Nick. She soaks it up like a sponge. We’re rolling now. Just leave everything to me.”
* * *
Jenny woke up. She couldn’t remember what day it was or where she was. Gradually, the contours of the walls and furniture came into focus and she recognized her bedroom. She sat up, ran her hand over her shaved head and wondered what was happening to her.
She was feeling better after a trip to the Farmer’s Market on 66th Street. She trudged up Broadway towards her apartment lugging two full bags of groceries, enjoying the warm sun on her face. The people on the street were smiling and friendly. She had the urge to talk to them and share her good mood. The familiar city sounds were bright and festive.
Near 73rd Street, something happened. Jenny felt a clammy coldness seeping through her from inside. She began to hurry, clutching the grocery bags and looking fearfully at the people crowding around and blocking her way. At 75th, the sidewalk started to tilt and roll beneath her feet. She took another step but blackness swirled and welled up around her. Her legs buckled, she went limp and felt herself falling. The sidewalk rushed up to meet her.
* * *
Jenny opened her eyes. She was lying flat on her back. A man’s face was looking down at her, a nice funny crinkled old face with gray whiskers and bushy eyebrows.
“Are you all right?”
“I think so.”
“You were falling. I caught you. You could have hurt yourself badly on the pavement.”
“Thanks for helping me.”
“I don’t know. I suddenly felt faint and blacked out.” Jenny tried to sit up.
“Do you feel well enough to sit?”
“Yes, yes. I’m feeling much better.”
“Here, let me help you.”
The man reached under Jenny’s armpits and helped lift her to a sitting position. She looked around and saw a crowd of bystanders gawking at her and her groceries scattered across the sidewalk. She heard the wail of sirens coming up Broadway.
“I’m all right now. Can you help me stand up, please?”
“Are you sure?”
The man helped Jenny to her feet. An ambulance with lights flashing pulled up to the curb and two paramedics got out. A cop car pulled up behind. “You all right, miss?” the officer asked Jenny.
“Yes, I think so. Thank you.”
“She fainted,” said the man who had helped her.
“I’m OK now,” said Jenny.
“Maybe we should take you down to Roosevelt, miss,” said a paramedic, “just to be safe.”
“No, thank you. That won’t be necessary. I’m feeling fine now.”
The man who had helped her spoke again. “Why don’t you at least come inside my office, rest a moment, and have a cup of hot tea?”
Jenny looked again at the old man’s face. It was open and kind. She hesitated a moment and then decided.
“I will, thank you. I would like to sit down and a cup of tea would be nice.”
“A’right, miss.” The cop and the paramedics got back in their vehicles. The crowd began to break up now that the excitement was over. One of the woman bystanders helped the old man gather up the spilled groceries and put them back in the shopping bags.
“That’s very kind of you. Thank you so much,” Jenny said. The woman returned her smile and headed off down Broadway with a youngster in tow. Jenny turned to the man.
“Your shop is nearby?”
“You landed right on my doorstep,” the man replied and nodded at the storefront next to where they stood. He picked up the shopping bags, offered Jenny his arm, and pushed through the door. Little bells tinkled as the door swung open. On the way in, Jenny glanced at the sign in the window.
PARA-NORMAL CONSULTING SERVICES
Professor Preston Dibble
Ph.D., D.Litt, Doctor of Psychic Arts & Sciences
The show was over and the crowd outside had dispersed. One person remained, however, loitering across the street, someone whom Jenny had not noticed but whom she might have recognized: the man who had knocked uninvited at her apartment door. He was talking on his mobile phone.
“Nick, keep the generator at full. Somebody interfered and I didn’t have a chance to grab her. How do I know who? Some old geezer. The cops were here and everything. I’ll call you later.”
Frank hung up, crossed the street, and from a discrete location, read the sign in the shop window.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Bill Bowler