by Morris J. Marshall
Greg Sanders sat up in bed when his cell phone went off. Damn. The one time he’d forgotten to turn it off. “Pachelbel Canon” droned on, beckoning him to answer. Until now, it had been his favorite classical piece.
He glanced at the TV mantel in the corner of his bachelor apartment. In the faint glow of the streetlights outside, his ex-wife and daughter smiled down at him from a photo on the middle shelf. Krista had been seven at the time. Such beautiful green eyes and red pigtails. She’d died two weeks after the picture was taken: his last record of her life.
To the left of the photo, the red LED numbers from his clock radio read two fifteen. Greg thought about letting the call go to voice mail, but something told him it was important. He jumped out of bed, glanced at the name and number and grabbed his phone. “Hello?”
“Hi, Greg. Edward Simms here.”
Greg yawned and rubbed his eyes. “What’s up?”
“Sorry to call so late. Were you awake?”
“I am now.”
“I wouldn’t have called unless it was absolutely necessary,” Simms said.
Yeah, I know, Greg thought. Why don’t you get to the point?
“Greg, are you—”
“I need you for one last probe.”
Greg took a deep breath and glanced out the front window of his apartment. The leaves on the trees across the street had begun to turn bright yellow, and a young man who lived on his floor was coming up the walkway. “I’ve been retired for a year now,” he told Simms. “There must be someone else you can ask. What about Kerensky or Jennings?”
“Jack is on a month-long assignment in Israel, and Sally’s recovering from appendix surgery. If there was anyone else...”
Greg saw the problem. He was one of maybe ten probes in Canada who had the skills Simms needed. More were being trained, but it took time. Although Greg was tired, he’d always promised himself that he would never turn down an assignment. More accurately, he had promised that to his daughter, Krista, while standing above her grave.
“Last job,” Simms was saying.
“I’m sorry?” Greg had missed most of what he’d said.
“This’ll be your last job. By month’s end, we’ll have enough probes to get by.”
“This time it’s going to cost you,” Greg said.
There was a pause. “What do you want?”
“A small cottage in rural Ontario where my nearest neighbor is a mile away, and my only friends are white-tailed deer and wolves. No distractions.”
“It’s yours,” Simms said. “A cottage in the middle of nowhere. We’ll even have groceries delivered once a month.”
“And I never want to hear from any government officials again.”
“Done. I’ll text your assignment right away.” Simms hung up.
Greg already had some idea of what was involved. The only difference between his assignments was their location. As he read Simms’s message, his mind drifted back over the years before colleges had Probes. Fatal school shootings had been common during those early days. It had all begun with Columbine, a name that became a synonym for “mass shooting.”
Sandy Hook Public School in Newtown, Connecticut, was the last straw for government authorities. In December 2012, twenty children had been killed by a lunatic who offed his mom as well. Instead of banning automatic weapons, the Federal and state governments embarked on a classified project to prevent another Newtown from ever occurring. Or, at least, reduce the probability. Millions of dollars were invested in university research departments. Probes were placed in colleges and universities as well as other vulnerable locations: airports, landmarks and sports stadia.
After he’d finished reading the details of his assignment, Greg turned off his cell phone, lay down in bed and closed his eyes. Footfalls sounded in the hallway outside his apartment. He focused on the physical sounds first: the hurried footsteps, the periodic coughs. Then the smell of excess cologne. Normally he avoided probing just anyone but, being retired, he wanted to see if he still had the touch. A year without probing was a long time.
Slowly, determinedly, Greg’s mind honed in on the person in the hallway, targeting brainwaves, sucking in thoughts as easily as dust balls into a high-powered vacuum cleaner. It was the young man he’d seen from his window. He could hear the guy’s thoughts, muffled at first, but slowly they began to materialize: She didn’t like me... Looked at her phone all through dinner... Cost me sixty bucks and not even a goodnight kiss... Don’t think I’ll see her again. Waste of time.
Greg unlocked his mind from the target. Less experienced probes could only hear thoughts while in the same room as the target. With practice, Greg had learned to do it through walls. He could block out most unwanted thought noise by simply ignoring it, but some always got through the windows, doors and walls of his apartment. If he had to listen to one more heated road-rage diatribe coming up from the street, he’d...
He glanced back at Krista’s picture, glad that he had accepted this assignment. Within minutes, he drifted off to sleep, finally free of thought noise for at least a few hours.
Six o’clock in the morning came quickly. Greg was up before the alarm went off. He got breakfast together: fruit, a piece of toast and two boiled eggs. As he ate, he reread the text Simms had sent:
Go to Standview College for an 8 o’clock class. You’ll be teaching Economics from 8:00 to 11:00 and Business Math from 12:00 to 3:00. Someone emailed in a threat last night from a public library computer. The security camera wasn’t working, so we have no visuals. Try to cover as much space as possible.
After a quick shower, Greg put on his underclothes and bulletproof vest. He put his shirt and tie on over top. If he got shot in any of the vital organs, he’d probably live. Hopefully he wouldn’t get hit in the head.
He left his apartment, hoping to avoid people. Whenever he met someone in the hallway or elevator, he deflected thoughts downward toward the floor or sideways against the wall to avoid “thought noise,” which mentally sounded to him like fingernails scratching a chalkboard. If he didn’t concentrate, it was hard to receive complete, coherent thought messages. They usually came in incomprehensible broken sentences, in dribs and drabs like a person’s stream of consciousness.
Mrs. Vickers, his 80-year-old neighbor, had just finished tossing her trash down the garbage chute. She was pushing her walker down the hall toward Greg. He looked at the floor, trying to avoid her thoughts, but the old lady gave off a lot of noise: Carpet in this building is looking really dirty. What’s wrong with management? I hope Wheel Trans is on time to pick me up. Have to go shopping today. I hope them peaches are still on sale. Oh, no, here comes that young whippersnapper. I bet he’s the one who smells up the hallway with pot.
“Good morning, Mrs. Vickers,” Greg said, smiling as he walked by.
“Morning, son. You have a good day at work now, okay?”
“Thanks. I will.”
“What do you do anyway?” the old lady asked. You wouldn’t be a drug dealer, would you?
“Enjoy your time shopping,” Greg said. “Don’t buy too many peaches now.”
The old lady gave Greg a strange look and continued pushing her walker. When she reached the end of the hall, she glanced around the corner at him and shook her head.
* * *
Located at the corner of Yonge and Dundas Streets in Toronto, Standview College had been operating for forty years and specialized in business studies and hospitality. There were two entrances, one from each of the main streets. The Security desk was located on the Yonge Street side.
Greg learned that the police were rarely on campus, although once, in 2007, an undercover officer had approached Jim Edwards, a business prof, during a lecture. He’d knocked on the classroom door and asked Edwards to come into the hallway. Apparently the officer wanted to talk to one of Edwards’ students, who was suspected of stalking a female international student. Not even a hint of guns on campus before now.
Greg entered Standview by the Yonge Street entrance and checked in at the Security Desk. He signed his name on the Visiting Professors List. “I’m going to need access to room 567,” he said to the guard on duty, a beefy man with a bald head and giant neck. “I have a class there at eight.”
“We’ve been expecting you, sir. Glad to have you aboard.”
Greg nodded. “Any specific details about the threat?”
“It was against a business student. The Dean found it on his email yesterday evening.”
“That’s pretty vague. There must be a thousand potential students involved.”
“Seven hundred,” the guard replied, “but the business classes are all restricted to the fourth and fifth floors. That narrows the scope of the search slightly.”
“It’s going to take time,” Greg said. “Who knows what the motive is? It could be anything. I wonder why the email was sent to the Dean. There must be a connection somewhere.”
“Of course, sir.” The guard accompanied Greg to his classroom. They hardly talked in the elevator, but Greg gleaned from the guy’s thoughts that if shooting broke out, the guard would hide under his desk. I’m no John Wayne type. I’ll run to save my own hide. I’ve got a family at home. This teacher in front of me doesn’t look too impressive. How’s he going to stop a shooter?
When they arrived at the classroom, the security guard removed his keys from his pocket and opened the door. “Here’s your own key,” he said to Greg. “Call me if you need anything at all. I’m at extension 8399. Just press the Security button on the desk phone.”
Greg smiled. “Thanks. I’m glad I can count on you.”
He walked into the class and looked around. Room for about sixty students. The chairs all faced the front and were spaced three to a desk. There was a Smart projector on the ceiling so he could write notes directly on the computer screen. One screen on either side of the class guaranteed that all students would be able to follow the lecture. Unfortunately, there was only one exit.
Greg took out the insertion that had been placed in his ear and checked the battery. To anyone else, it looked like a hearing aid, but if he pressed a button on his belt, he’d instantly be transferred to Simms who would contact the local tactical unit.
Twenty minutes before class started, Greg fired up the computer and downloaded a Learning Apps program offered by the college. He loaded “Smart Book” and wrote down the agenda for his economics class. Price Elasticity of Demand: What is it? How is it calculated? Five key types of price elasticity and their graphs. He savored the pre-class silence.
The regular professor had taken a sick day to allow Greg to substitute. Greg had taken Economics in university years ago, but he still remembered the basic concepts. During his career, he’d taught many subjects including calculus, algebra, accounting and economics. He enjoyed teaching critical thinking, but found that most Millennials would rather look at their phones than observe what was going on at the front of the class. Still, there were always enough outstanding students to make teaching worthwhile.
In retrospect, Greg had separated his life into two parts: “before” and “after” like a two-part play with an intermission in between. In the “before” part, he’d been a stockbroker. Risk-taking was built into his psyche and was one of the symptoms of his Bipolar Disorder. With medication, he’d built a normal life with his wife, Melanie, and seven-year-old daughter, Krista.
Then came Krista’s death in October 2014. Everything from then on comprised the “after”: Greg’s gnawing guilt over taking Krista to school the morning of the shooting even though she’d complained of a stomach ache. His wife’s affair and their eventual divorce. After she’d moved out, the isolation drove Greg to attempt suicide, followed by confinement to a psychiatric hospital.
Doctors had come to Greg after he’d been in hospital for a month. They were looking for volunteers to participate in an experiment. Only the bipolar brain was emotionally sensitive enough to fulfil the requirements. Extended employment was guaranteed to successful candidates. Brain surgery was needed to alter the cerebellum so that brain sensitivity would be further enhanced. All experimental. No guarantees. Greg didn’t need any; he had nothing to lose. He signed the required waiver.
Copyright © 2019 by Morris J. Marshall