I placed shrimp shumai and baked brie on a paper plate and grabbed a plastic fork. It was another company party at the same park and I had no one to talk to except the bird of paradise’s broad leaves. Couples in formal wear mingled under the lights strung over the buffet, grateful to live in a climate of balmy evenings while the rest of the country was buried in snow.
“Enough shop talk,” Jessica Hamming said. “How about breaking up your cliques with a little cha-cha?” The boss’ wife must have been twenty years younger than him. While Ed Hamming had stooped shoulders and a combover that failed to disguise his bald spot, she was tall, blonde, stunning. Her sky-blue gown’s open back revealed tanned shoulders that were strong as a rower’s.
When the music started, I stepped into the melee of swirling couples to look for a partner. Hoping not to embarrass myself, I tried to remember the steps from a ballroom class years ago. All the women the women chose other partners leaving me stranded and looking like an idiot. My face felt hot and I wanted to slip away when no one was looking. Jessica came to my rescue.
“Shall we?” She held out her arms.
I took her left hand and placed my right on the small of her back. Pressing her warm body close to mine, she followed my basic step: left, right, left, right to the side, and feet together with grace.
“What do you do when you’re not at company parties?” Her hair smelled of night jasmine.
“Travel when I get the chance.”
“Where have you been recently?”
“Egypt. I liked the Temple of Horus at Edfu. You?”
“Haven’t been recently but I spent six months in Tombos in northern Sudan digging at a Nubian site when I was studying archaeology at Princeton.”
I did a half turn, danced backwards, and went back to normal.
“That was the woman’s step,” Jessica said.
“In honor of the Nubians. They’re matrilineal. Aren’t they?”
“Much use for matrilineal culture in high tech?”
“I’m working on it. Can I show you something?” She took my hand and led me like an eager lover across the lawn and to a dirt path.
I followed her through the pines for a hundred yards until we arrived at a clearing. A shovel stuck blade first into a dirt pile beside a hole. We stepped forward to look inside. My body lay in the shallow grave with a bullet hole in my white tuxedo jacket. I touched my chest to feel my heartbeat. It didn’t make sense.
“I don’t understand.”
“No time to explain. You need to hide it.” Jessica started back to the party. “I’ll keep them distracted while you get it out of here.”
I climbed into the grave and grabbed my doppelganger under the arms. I had no reason to believe Jessica but somehow, I did. I strained to lift and pull but lost my footing, slipped, and landed on my rear end getting dirt on my pants. I tried again and got the body out of the depression. As I dragged him down the path toward the parking lot, his feet made furrows in the dirt. I had no clue what I was going to do with him beyond getting him in my car’s trunk.
I stopped to catch my breath. Sweat had drenched my shirt and jacket. My doppelganger had lost a shoe. He’d have to make do with a sock that had a hole in its toe because I wasn’t going back. After more effort, I left him in the bushes by the parking lot so I could move my Camry closer. As I put the key in the door, Art Feigenbaum and his wife walked by.
“Gee Jake, if I’d know you were building a fort out of dirt, I would have joined you,” Feigenbaum said.
“Last time I wear leather-soled shoes,” I replied.
“You okay?” His wife asked. “Need to go to urgent care?”
“No, just a bruise.” I pointed to my rear end. “I’ll take an aspirin and put some ice on it.”
The body didn’t fit in my trunk until I bent its neck at an extreme angle. Tucking its knees to chest caused a wallet to slip out of its hip pocket. I took it, closed the trunk, and noticed blood had stained my shirt. I drove north on I-5 and exited on Manchester. On a deserted stretch approaching the San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center, I saw a police car’s red-and-blue flashing lights in the rearview mirror. I pulled over in the shadows and buttoned my jacket to hide the blood.
“License and registration.”
The patrolman shone his flashlight in my eyes making it hard to see his face. All I could tell was that he was pale and had a scar on his cheek. Maybe this was only a routine traffic stop. I didn’t want to think of what would happen if it wasn’t. The officer took my documents back to his car. He returned moments later.
“Step out of the car, please.”
I was screwed. I had no way to explain the body in the trunk. Even if I told the police everything, they wouldn’t believe me. My best bet would be to demand a lawyer and hope that he could contact Jessica. Keeping my hands in view, I stepped out of the car.
“Turn around and place your hands on the roof,” the officer said.
A pickup truck rounded the corner with its high beams on. When I turned to look, the officer and police car had vanished. I got back in my car, did a U-turn, and swept the area with my lights but didn’t see my license and registration. It was too risky to stick around so I hurried home, soaked my bloodstained clothes in bleach, and fell into a narcotic sleep.
I woke with a sore neck and raging fever. I needed to talk to Jessica but didn’t have her number. After downing two Advil, I phoned my boss.
“Hi Ed. I just wanted to thank your wife for the excellent party.”
“You left a little early,” Hamming said.
“Sorry, I’m coming down with a cold or something.”
“I’ll pass your thanks on to Jessica. She had to head up to Santa Cruz. Her mother’s ill.”
“Send me the mother’s address and I’ll send a sympathy card. I lost mine last year and know how tough that can be.” I wrote down the address. “Thanks. See you Monday.”
I mailed a thankyou card to the Hamming’s home and a sympathy card to the mother’s place. Both had my return address. I included my cell number in the sympathy card along with the phrase, “If you need to talk,” in hopes that Jessica would get in touch.
I fished the corpse’s wallet out of my pocket. It was a Montblanc bifold. Inside I found a black American Express card issued by a bank in Dubai to Cyrus Fulani. My face stared back at me from the driver’s license. It listed an address in La Jolla. If I could return the corpse to its home, it would get it off my hands. Maybe the keys were still in its pocket. I slipped the drivers license into my wallet and took the credit card, too.
In the parking lot, I pretended interest in my smart phone until a couple walked past. Once the coast was clear, I opened the trunk and the stink of decay hit me. Even at 9:00 AM, the sun had made the interior hot enough to warm a leftover pizza. The blood had dried and the corpse’s face had turned the color of a pork chop. I had to get rid of him. I fished the keys out of its pants pocket and stopped at a convenience store to buy some ice to cool my guest before hitting the freeway.
I always got lost on the way to La Jolla. This time was no exception. I took a wrong turn and ended up in UCSD. I turned around, got on Torrey Pines Road, and parked at a tennis club not far from his house.
Responding to a silent alarm, the patrolman entered the office building and swept his flashlight over rows of gray cubicles. He glimpsed a moving shadow and turned on the light switch. The overhead light was dim but still bright enough to make the world outside the third-story windows appear black. He spotted something.
An intruder stood forty paces away. He was skinny and wore thick glassed held together at their bridge with white tape. The patrolman didn’t call for backup. He had fifty pounds on the guy and lifted weight every day at the police gym. The intruder closed the distance between them in the time a hummingbird takes to beat its wings. He lifted the patrolman with one hand and tossed him through the window.
The patrolman fell onto a steel railing. Its post penetrated his sternum. A shadow approached and looked on in amusement as the patrolman lay supine wiggling his arms and legs like a butterfly impaled on a pin.
“You had one job.” Mr. Seth pulled the patrolman off the post. “If you fail again, I won’t give you another chance.”
I walked through the neighborhood of stucco houses with tile roofs. The yards were bigger than I could afford. Hell, I couldn’t even afford enough ground to support my size-nine shoes in this neighborhood. My plan was to walk past the house and return with the body if the coast was clear. I needed to keep moving before someone decided to charge me rent. I smelled the exhaust before I rounded a corner and saw a police car parked with its motor running. It was a black-and-white SUV. The cop in the passenger’s seat had shoulder-length hair and a ring in his ear. I nodded, kept walking, and passed a pickup truck also with its motor running. A police car came down the street from the other direction. Something was definitely up and I didn’t want to find out what it was. I continued to the end of the block and circled back to the tennis club.
I took the dead man’s keys from my pocket. The remote-entry fob sported the three-bladed Mercedes symbol. If I returned to the park that hosted Friday night’s party, I might dump the body inside his car. I started my Camry and returned to the I-5. Even with the air rushing past, I still smelled the corruption of death. I changed plans around Mission Bay. Until Jessica got in touch with me, I didn’t know whether the body needed to be found or remain hidden. I used the black card to get a fifty-thousand-dollar advance and paid cash to rent a storage facility for a year. Getting a freezer delivered that day cost extra but I had plenty. I waited until after dark to move the corpse to its new home. I packed the freezer with baking soda to absorb the smell. As long as the power stayed on, the body wouldn’t decay further.
I knocking on my door woke me at 5:00 AM. I put on my pants and looked through the peep hole. It was the patrolman who’d stopped me the night of the party.
“Open up, Jake. We need to talk.”
I crept back to the bedroom looking for a weapon. The best I could come up with was a steel flashlight.
“Jake, I can’t help you unless you open up.”
I stood by the door, trying to keep my breathing quiet until the first rays of dawn shone through the blinds. I looked out the peephole. The patrolman was gone. It wasn’t safe to stay at home so I packed, drove to the office, and parked in the underground lot. The area was deserted on Sunday morning. This made it easy to notice anyone taking an interest in me as I waited for my rideshare. The driver was a middle-aged woman who had a habit of laughing at her own jokes. It took fifteen minutes to get to the park. Even though she took an indirect route, I gave her a hefty tip.
Clicking the button on Cyrus’s key fob, I eventually found a silver-gray Mercedes E Type with a handful of parking tickets under its windshield wipers. I got in, opened the glove box, and found a pistol. It was square, black, and had a spare fifteen-round magazine, the kind that was illegal in this state. At this point, this no longer surprised me. I checked into a nondescript, family-run motel called La Posada Rosa using Cyrus’s ID. It was the kind of place that didn’t ask questions especially when you paid for the room in cash. The clerk was a grandmotherly woman with extra pounds, gray-streaked hair, and a kind smile. I found my room, tossed my bag on the king bed, and turned on a telenovela on Univision. I hoped Jessica would call soon.
After a weekend of intrigue, it was a relief to be back in my office cubicle on Monday morning. The beige-fabric walls, photo of me with two taiaha-wielding Māori in Rotorua, and spreadsheet with a logistics plan for the Constellation-class frigate. You know what they say about logisticians. They’re like accountants without the personality. They also say amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics. I went to the break room to get some hot water to refresh my Dragon Well tea and bumped into Ed Hamming.
“Jake, join me in the conference room. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
A thin man with ashen skin was sitting at the table when I arrived. He wore a three-piece suit and had curly, salt-and-pepper hair.
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Donald Seth.” His hand felt cold as marble when he shook mine.
“Mr. Seth is hiring us to plan logistics support for a foreign military sale,” Hamming said.
“Who’s the customer?” I asked.
“I’m not at liberty to tell you. Let’s just say it’s a middle eastern nation.” Seth touched his goatee with his little finger.
“What’s the weapons system?” I asked.
“I’m not at liberty to tell you that either.”
“I don’t see how I can help you,” I said. “Without knowing the weapon, I don’t know how to base it, what skills the maintainers need, or what kind of spares are required.”
“Here is a list of spare parts.” Seth took document out of a leather-covered notebook and handed it to me.
I scanned the list. It contained high-tech components like optical filters, CCDs, GaAs transistors, deformable mirrors, tunable lasers, and refrigerators to make liquid helium.
“Anyway, I look forward to working together.” Seth stood and shook our hands. “I’ll expect a POA&M by Friday.”
After Seth left, I told Hamming, “Are you sure this guy’s on the up and up? These components have to ITAR controlled.”
“Somebody else is working problem,” Hamming said. “This contract could be a big thing for us. I’m taking you off the Constellation project. Show me what you come up with on Thursday.”
I got to work on the plan of action. With all the high-tech parts, I assumed the contractor would perform maintenance at the depot level. I could probably hack together some safety procedures but with no knowledge of how the parts went together, engineers couldn’t estimate reliability and I wouldn’t know how many spares to keep on hand. My cell phone rang.
“Jake, it’s Jessica. Get out of there, now!”
“Jessica, you need to tell me what’s going on.”
I took the elevator to the garage. Even in the middle of the day, the fluorescent lights and gray concrete made it resemble dusk. As I unlocked Cyrus’s Mercedes, a voice spoke from behind.
“Leaving so soon?”
I turned. I was Mr. Seth.
“Yeah, I need to run a few errands over lunch. If you have any reliability data, it would sure help with the logistics…”
Someone shoved a black bag over my head before I could finish my sentence. I heard tires squealing and they shoved me into a trunk. After twenty minutes, the car parked, I heard a garage door open, and the car drove inside. The trunk opened, someone lifted me out, marched me to a chair, and shackled my wrists to the armrests. The hood came off. Seth and the patrolman stood before me. I flinched as Seth approached.
“You think I’m going to torture you for information? I already know everything.” Seth removed a hypodermic needle from a crocodile-skin case and filled it with yellow fluid from a vial. “I have other plans for you.” He injected the drug into my arm.
I got dizzy. The sound of thousands of ball bearings hitting sheet metal came from inside my ears. The reality of Seth, the patrolman, and the garage parted like a curtain leaving me in interplanetary blackness. The sun gave off white light that grew brighter as I approached. I covered my eyes with a hand against the glare but the light went through showing me my bones. Closer and closer, I feared I was going to burn alive. I plunged into the nuclear furnace and felt cold.
It was damp and dark. The vehicle I sat on rocked and bumped around obstacles. A being with a man’s body and head of an animal I’d never seen before stood with its back to me. A drop of water dripped onto my forehead. There was a snake large as a semi. It exhaled acid that burned my face but I could not move or utter a sound. The half-man thrust a spear at the snake but the cold made me too tired to watch.
I hung onto the naked woman laying on top of me like a life raft. Her heat, her breath pulled me from the shadowy world. It was Jessica rocking her hips as she made love to me while I lay in the freezer inside to storage room. My mind was sluggish as my pulse. I had not thought of how I’d gotten there or what it meant. Only the animal part of me remained.
“Cyrus, I looked so hard for you.” She kissed me.
“Not Cyrus,” I croaked. “Jake.”
“You fool!” She slapped me so hard it loosened three teeth. “Do you know what you’ve done?”
The pain in my jaw woke me. I sat up and probed the loose teeth with my tongue. The familiar alarm clock, bookshelf, and dresser of my bedroom surrounded me. I stumbled to the bathroom and saw my cheek had turned purple. I downed a few ibuprofens and chased it with a glass of milk from the kitchen. My license and registration lay on the dining room table. After making a dentist appointment, I drove my Camry to work. An emailed layoff notice greeted me when I logged onto my computer. Hamming had sold the company and the new owners wanted to make a clean start. I didn’t bother to take my things. I had enough of Cyrus’s money to tide me over.
I never found out what the affair was all about though I heard the Hammings divorced and moved away. Intuition tells me that I’d stumbled into something too big to handle. If I stay quiet, forces larger than me might just let me alone.
Jon says about himself: “I am an editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual and have written novels (most recently The Prague Deception) as well as story and poetry collections (most recently The Shaman in the Library). I’ve published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, New Verse News, Paterson Literary Review, Pearl, Pirene’s Fountain, Slipstream, Space and Time, and Tales of the Talisman. The editors of Knot Magazine nominated my stories “The Visitor” and “A Story for the Rest of Us” for Pushcart Prizes. My poem “Meditation Instruction” won the Editor’s Choice Award in the 2016 Spirit First Contest. Another poem “Bread and Circuses” won second place in the 2007 African American Writers and Artists Contest. “Richard Feynman’s Commute” shared third place in the 2017 Rhysling Award’s short poem category.”