Friday, May 6, 2011
FICTION: Million Dollar Question by Tara McMillen
The newspaper had mistakenly been delivered to Taylor Cook’s doorstep. Normally he stole his neighbor’s newspaper, but luck had been on his side today. He flipped through the pages as he descended the stairs to the street and found the full-page ad.
“What would you do for a million dollars? If the first thing to pop into your mind was a crime, then we want to talk to you.”
Why would anyone call for people who think of crimes? For hire? Too good to be true. Maybe they’re looking for guinea pigs, Taylor thought. Crazy scientists performing experiments? Course they really could be looking for someone to commit a crime. It wasn’t out of the question that they were mafia wanna-bes. Taylor could identify with that.
Taylor didn’t think he’d be of much interest to them, though. He’d only dreamed of stealing a car. Once he’d wanted to rob a bank, but that was just to get back at the snotty teller. He’d run naked through the streets for fifty bucks, or touch an unsuspecting woman’s double Ds and run away laughing at her horrified expression. Hell, he’d do that for free.
Taylor ripped the ad out of the newspaper, laughing out loud. An old man pulling a Jack Russell terrier on a short lease waddled by, scowled at him and shuffled by at a quicker pace.
Taylor looked at the dog for a long moment; then scrunched his face at the old man. Run away, old fart. Run away.
Who cared what people thought of him? He was a big guy, 6’2”, rock-hard abs and bulging biceps. Maybe not bulging or rock-hard, but he could take care of himself. He puffed out his chest, imagining his Pecs bursting out in tight little packages, then deflated when it took too much energy to hold it. Who was he kidding anyway? Girls didn’t give him a second look.
He looked back at the ad. If they were offering money, it could help pay Rocco back, maybe earn back some of the respect he’d lost. Taylor fished the cell phone out of his pocket. He hated the stupid things, but the kid he’d played finder’s keepers with seemed attached it. With the way the stupid brat had cried, you’d think he’d been looking at porn on the thing. Taylor dialed the number for the clinic.
After two rings, a female voice said, “Thank you for calling the Hartberg Clinic. This is Carol, how may I help you?”
At first he thought he’d gotten an answering machine then realized it was a woman on the other end. He spoke up quickly. “Hi, I saw you’re a-. . .uh. . .ad in the newspaper and was wondering what the hell it meant?”
“We are conducting an experiment on thought patterns as relates to the quality of sleep people get at night. If your first thought could be classified as a crime, either felony or misdemeanor, then we want to talk to you about your possible qualification for this study. Do you think you might qualify?”
He pictured the handsome reward for participating in their little “study”, and answered honestly. “Yes.”
“I have a 10:15 appointment.”
“10:15 when?” Taylor asked.
Her reply was as crisp and cold as an automated voice. “Tonight.”
Taylor flinched. What kind of clinic operated at night? He spoke his reservation out loud.
“Most people sleep at night. As you sleep in one of our private suites, we chart your brain waves, heartbeat, and breathing, and record any sleep disorders the doctors discover.” Taylor swore he heard her voice tremble.
A sleep study at night made sense, though. Nighttime was a time he slept, but he couldn’t be sure what they did to him while he was unconscious. He was about to hang up, when the secretary said:
“If you would prefer a morning time, I have an 8:15 tomorrow morning. There is also an orientation fifteen minutes before appointment time, so we ask that you show up early to attend it with the other participants.”
Safety in numbers popped into his head, knocking the first red flag down. Then she said:
“We pay you $100 for participating.”
Taylor made the appointment for 10:15 that night.
* * *
Dumb ass, he thought to himself. What had he been thinking? $100 was nowhere close to the $10,000 he owed Rocco. He could take the $100 to the track . . . maybe get lucky. Rocco might give him a “stay of execution” if he came up with a couple thousand. Taylor laughed at himself. Rocco had made his feelings clear when he’d abandoned him the first time. He was likely to kill Taylor over this, not take him in.
100 bucks just might save your thumb, his internal Rocco spoke abruptly. Taylor looked at his thumb. It was bony, double-jointed, and he hardly used it.
“Eh,” he shrugged. “I don’t need it.”
The secretary frowned at him.
“Taylor Cook,” he spoke, thrusting his shoulders back to increase the area of his chest. “I have an appointment.”
“Well then, Mr. Cook, fill this out.” She smiled at him, but it looked forced. Taylor wondered how he’d made her uncomfortable when he’d barely spoken to her. It made him question if he shouldn’t leave. Then she handed him a clipboard, her arm at an angle to get around her large breasts.
Taylor smiled as her cleavage popped out at him. “Excuse me?”
Her smile faltered when she noticed his gaze on her chest. “What?”
Taylor leaned forward. “Do you have a pen?”
The secretary clenched her jaw and pulled a pen out of the holder directly in front of Taylor. She turned so Taylor couldn’t see her cleavage, her eyes shifting nervously about the room as she did so. He found her behavior odd, but took the pen and looked for a seat.
The waiting room was typical with its array of fake plants and women’s magazines. Couldn’t they get anything decent? National Geographic with the naked pics would be good. Or Spin, even Rolling Stone. He wished for his guitar right then. The creepiness of this place awoke his inspiration and a song suddenly came to him. He settled for playing it in his mind as he took a seat away from the other two occupants.
He looked at the form. Parts one and two were normal enough. Name, address, medical history, current medical condition, etc.
The question that gave him pause fell under the category “Beneficiary”. He leaned over to the woman two seats over.
She ignored him.
The woman looked up.
“What are you here for?”
“Sleep study.” She might as well have said fuck off.
“What kind of sleep study?”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Sleep disorder.” She pulled her clipboard closer to her face blocking Taylor’s view of her.
For the criminally insane? He almost spoke out loud, but instead went back to his clipboard.
He skipped over the beneficiary part.
Are you currently taking any antipsychotic medications?
Have you ever been convicted of a felony?
Considering the nature of the study, he supposed the questions were normal enough. Where was the harm in answering some questions that he could honestly answer without incriminating himself? He’d never been to a therapist or a psychiatrist and the most medication he took was aspirin and some blow. He didn’t write down the coke.
As for the conviction, it had been bullshit. The dumb bitch had overreacted. Don’t wear such fucking teeny clothes if you don’t want people touching you. He checked off NO under convictions.
Have you thought of committing a crime?
How do you feel at the thought of this crime?
Does it sexually arouse you?
Taylor looked up at the woman and man who occupied the room with him. The woman had finished and returned her clipboard to the big-racked secretary. She sat with her hands folded neatly in her lap and made an obvious effort to avoid eye contact with Taylor.
The man picked his nose while looking around the room. He made eye contact with Taylor, then retreated into his coat collar, picked up a magazine and flipped through the pages.
Have you thought of committing a crime? He wrote NO.
How do you feel at the thought of this crime? N/A.
Does it sexually arouse you? He wrote an emphatic NO, then marched up to the front desk and thrust the clipboard under the secretary’s nose. She took it with a big smile, and he returned to his seat, thinking her smile was a bit excessive. At least she had been kind enough to not wear a bra.
Fifteen minutes later, a nurse emerged.
Taylor stood too quickly and knocked his chair over. He quickly righted the chair. “That’s me.”
The nurse raised her eyebrows, snapped her gum, and indicated with a long bony finger that he was to follow into the dark recesses of the doctor’s office.
The office hallway was dark, but the nurse’s swinging ass fit nicely in her tight scrubs. If they wanted criminals, he could think of a few things he could do to Nurse Tight Ass. As long as he didn’t look at her face. Her bun was so tight that it stretched her eyes too far apart, making her look like an alien. He shivered.
The nurse threw a cursory glance over her shoulder, and pointed at a room to her right. “Have a seat inside. The doctor will be with you shortly. Give him this.” The nurse handed him a sealed envelope.
He looked up at her. “What about the orientation?”
Her dull eyes looked to his left.
“Where are the others?” The hallway was eerily quiet and empty. He considered throwing her up against the wall, knowing she wanted it, but something wasn’t right. It was a doctor’s office. Where were the people?
He opened his mouth to say so, but she nudged him backward and closed the door in his face, leaving him alone in the office that smelled faintly of sweat. He forced himself to look at the room, and noted nothing strange at first glance. Along with the sweat, which disturbed him on levels he did not wish to visit, he smelled the cleaning solution of any doctor’s office. He had a brief desire to open the many cabinets, but the thought of finding severed heads and other body parts floating in formaldehyde jars stopped him.
The envelope weighed heavy in his hands. He should open it. Fuck ‘em, right? No doubt it was about him, so he had every right. That little voice in his head he’d come to know as his conscience begged him not to do anything to anger these people. He blocked it out and opened the envelope. He didn’t know what to expect, but didn’t expect what he found. The pages were blank. It stank of Rocco’s calling card. Rocco had betrayed him once by abandoning him after his father was killed, and now lured him to this doctor’s office? The idea evaporated as quickly as it’d appeared. Rocco would torture and kill him, not lure him into an elaborate conspiracy. Thoughts of what Rocco would do to him when he caught him filled his mind. He willed the images away, but they refused and his brain surfed the panic waves. The damn overhead fluorescents! Did they have to hum so fucking loud? Cars raced by on the expressway, electrifying his nerves. Were they right outside the freaking window?
This ain’t worth $100! Get out now!
He tried to open the door, but it was locked from the outside.
This made no sense. If Rocco had nothing to do with this, it left only one question. Who were these people?
His mind drifted back to the ad: “If the first thing to pop into your mind was a crime, then we want to talk to you.” They wanted to lock him up.
“NO!” he slammed his fist against the door, turning the knob violently back and forth trying to undo it by force. The knob gave way, and the door opened inward, throwing Taylor back.
A doctor poked his head in. “Taylor Cook?”
Stand up, comb your hair. You look insane. He did as his inner voice commanded, panting and wiping the drool from the corner of his mouth.
Say whatever they want to hear so you can get out. He didn’t care about the $100 anymore. He wanted to smell the fresh air of freedom.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Is everything all right?” The doctor stepped inside, leaving the door open a crack. Sweat beads dripped down his face.
“I’m fine,” Taylor said. “I just have to take a piss. Do you mind?” He thought he could outmuscle the thin doctor who couldn’t weigh more than 130 pounds and barely came up to Taylor’s chin.
The doctor snatched the envelope. “Let’s sit for a moment first.” He noticed the broken seal. Taylor waited for the doctor to question him about it, but he did not.
Is that a smile? Taylor couldn’t tell if he’d imagined it.
The doctor opened the envelope, took out the blank pages and scanned the document with his beady eyes. What game was being played here?
The doctor had a mole under his right ear, and a huge honker with a savage scar along the right nostril. The shadows under his eyes threatened to swallow up his forehead and he sweat way too much. The room was temperature controlled, so why was the doc sweating? Were his hands trembling?
Taylor tried to remember if he’d seen any big guards on his walk down the hallway. The doctor might be hiding a taser in his oversized lab coat, waiting for Taylor to make a break for it. Taylor could wake up bound and gagged on an operating table, or worse, with the rubber ball in his mouth and the soggy sponges on his temples as they sent shock therapy bolts of lightning through his system to right his wrong mind.
“Taylor, I have a question about your questionnaire.”
Oh, God. This is it. He knows I lied. Crap! What do I do?
The doctor laughed congenially. “It’s okay, Taylor. I noticed you wrote down that you don’t have thoughts of crimes, yet in order to get an appointment, you had to have answered that you do have thoughts of crimes.” He looked expectantly at Taylor.
No. It’s a test. Don’t answer.
“Let me explain,” the doctor continued to smile. “It’s okay for you to think of crimes. We encourage that here.”
Taylor’s eyes opened wide. Maybe they were looking to hire criminals.
“See, the study we’re conducting depends on people like you. So you don’t have to be ashamed. We’re here to help you.”
Taylor’s tongue suddenly found life. “Help? What study? What are you going to do while I sleep?”
“Nothing you need to worry about. We monitor your sleep patterns, and from that, we go to the lab and determine if a cure can be made.”
The doctor blinked and a huge sweat bead dropped to the floor. “We have a couple tests for you to take before you can go to sleep. It won’t take more than twenty-four minutes.”
Who said such an exact amount of time? Why not just say a half-hour?
“How long do I sleep?”
The doctor looked at him queerly. “I believe you will tell us.”
“Mr. Cook, now for science, tell me a little about yourself.”
He tried to remain silent, but his mouth betrayed him. “My name is Taylor Lee Cook. I love burgers and beer, playing video games on my giant plasma TV, sitting on the couch watching NASCAR and the horse races, betting on football games, which I usually pick the loser making me the biggest loser, and I love women’s boobs. I can’t help it. I gotta stare at ‘em. They’re just . . .so. . .round. I love when their nipples get hard and poke out through the girl’s shirt. I picture flicking em with my tongue… Damn, that gets me hard.”
The doctor raised an eyebrow. Taylor scanned the room again for a way out, begging himself to shut up, but his words tumbled out like the hundred yard dash. “But I never do it without the woman’s permission. That one time was totally blown out of proportion...”
The doctor scribbled on his pad.
“But what was your question? Oh, yeah. Do I think of crime? You wanna know if it gets me hard?” Shit! Taylor looked up at the ceiling fan. Had that been there the whole time? “Not real crime, but fantasy crime does. Like a Borg woman? Man, that’s hot. A woman on top. You didn’t hear that from me, cause I’m a man and always on top, but an alien woman? Ohhh, fuck. That’s the stuff. Then she injects her nanoprobes into my system making me like her, assimilating me into her Borg collective . . .Yeah. I love burgers and beer. And boobs. What? Why are you looking at me like that?” He was babbling. He should shut-up.
The doctor shook his head and scribbled notes in his book.
“Did I answer wrong?”
“Not at all. There are no wrong answers . . .” The room darkened as if the sun had gone behind a cloud.
The doctor produced a needle and grabbed him by the nape of the neck so swiftly Taylor barely had time to react before finding his face smashed against the examining table.
He turned his face to the side, talking faster. “Was it the Star Trek stuff? You know, the Borg women are fictional. Just a stupid fantasy.”
“Mr. Cook, you deflect your feelings by talking of sex and making inappropriate remarks toward women, demonstrating that you in fact have no relations with women, and are in fact, lonely.”
“You don’t have to be so blunt. What’s the needle for?”
Taylor had time to see the needle was filled with a golden fluid before the doctor sank it into his neck. The vein twitched where the needlepoint had punctured his skin. It burned as the fluid trailed down his neck.
“What the . . .” His mouth slowly froze and his limbs felt heavy and sluggish. He tried to throw one of his punches of death, but his arm did not move.
The doctor threw the needle out, and drew the instrument table to him. As Taylor watched with horror, the doctor picked up a large clamp that could only be meant for him. He hummed a tune Taylor did not at first recognize.
Great. Just great. How could he be so stupid as to answer an ad like that? He was probably the only one. No one else was stupid enough. The others in the waiting room were probably for show. Now that he thought of it, the neighbor’s newspaper had been on their doorstep where it belonged. So where had the newspaper with the strange ad come from? How could he be so stupid as to think they were looking to hire criminals? He attempted to laugh at himself, but even if he were not paralyzed, the laugh would have fallen flat.
How valuable was his thumb now?
“Now, Taylor, I know you must be a little scared right now, but I want to assure you, I’m not going to hurt you . . . much.” The doctor sat on a stool by Taylor’s immobile face and fitted the jock strap to Taylor’s head. He attached a cable to the back of the strap, plugged the other end into a computer, and then clipped a metal bud to his earlobe. “Your muscles will be frozen for several minutes, during which time you will tell us everything we need to know. You see, I’m going to use a computer-based technique called brain fingerprinting, used by the professionals to determine guilt in a suspect. I’m going to ask you questions that are designed to stimulate a nervous response. The sensors attached to this headband are going to measure your brain’s response to that stimulation. Try to relax and let it happen.” The doctor hummed that infuriating song as he typed at the computer. “Is your name Taylor Cook?”
You know it is numb nuts.
“Are you 22 years old?”
“Have you ever hurt an animal?”
Taylor’s breath caught in his frozen throat.
“Have you ever wanted to hurt an animal?”
Taylor fought to breathe, fought to stop the image from coming to his mind. His struggle was futile. He saw Jack, his poor eye bulging out. He’d never wanted Jack to die! Taylor had been only six at the time, and curious.
“Ever wonder what it’d be like to say . . . cut their cute little floppy ears?”
Taylor tried to punch the doctor again, but his arm lay lifeless by his side. Though a silent partner, the guilt had remained . . . could Jack have lived if Taylor hadn’t sat there and watched him suffer before calling for help? There’s no way he could have lived . . . not with his eye bulging out like that . . .no matter how soon Taylor called for help. The son of a bitch who’d hit him hadn’t bothered to stop. So who was the sicko?
“Ever think of hurting a person?”
The memory of his Daddy asleep on the couch flashed through his mind. Only in his daydream, Taylor had beaten his Mom to it and had killed him with a sledgehammer instead of an ax.
As the rage flowed through Taylor’s veins, the stupid doctor leaned toward the computer screen, and quickly scribbled notes.
“Ever wonder what it’s like to watch a man die? . . . How about an animal? Ever watch an animal die?”
Taylor’s rage subsided to a dull ache. Memories of Taylor playing with the youthful puppy faded into the memory of watching him struggle to get up, blood oozing out the side of his mouth. Instead of running for help, Taylor had watched his eye. What made it bulge out like that?
“Has this sadistic fascination ever made you wonder that something’s wrong with you?”
Taylor’s shame spiraled into numbness and his mind went blank. His neck throbbed suddenly and his head twitched. The doctor noticed. “It’s a very slow process getting your muscles back. There will be pain first, so don’t worry. It will still be another few minutes before you will be able to twitch your fingers and toes. It’ll be like when a limb goes to sleep, and you get the pins and needles. Like that. Something familiar, eh?”
How about the familiarity of getting your face punched in? Taylor’s lungs felt buried under blocks of ice.
The doctor scribbled on his pad.
“Now then. Ever stolen anything?”
This question broke through his emotional paralysis. Could the doctor know Rocco?
“Does it get you off? Why else would your moral compass not alert you that sometimes it’s better not to steal what isn’t yours?”
It made sense. How else did the doc have intimate knowledge of Taylor?
“Do you dream of raping a girl?”
Taylor wanted to punch the doctor so bad he imagined his finger twitched.
“Do you dream of raping a boy? Is it the resistance that turns you on?”
Taylor’s voice broke out weak and throaty. “I dream of turning your brains into pulp, you stupid bastard.” His entire hand twitched.
The doctor snapped his clipboard under his arm and backed up to the door. “Very well, that concludes our prep work. Now it’s time for you to sleep.”
Taylor flexed his jaw. “And if I decide to bash your head in instead?”
The doctor smiled. “Impossible. I handcuffed your foot to the table when you were preoccupied by your daydreams.”
Cold metal chaffed Taylor’s ankle.
“Don’t bother trying to get out. The table is bolted to the ground, and I have the only key.” The doctor patted his chest pocket. He left the room humming the song that Taylor finally recognized.
Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult. Taylor stared after him, praying he’d wake up and this would all be only a bad dream.
* * *
The familiar burning in his neck woke him up and he knew they’d shot him up again. He was still chained to the table and his iced lungs had melted to leave what felt like wet rocks constricting his airways. He gagged on the thin air.
Taylor was surrounded by four nurses. The tight-ass nurse he’d imagined pushing up against the wall scowled at him as if reading his mind. Also in the room were two doctors and four big men he assumed to be the bodyguards as they mashed their fists into their upturned palms and stared at him with cold lifeless eyes.
Taylor did not try to speak or move. Though he fought hard against them, the tears flowed.
How could he have been so stupid?
They undid his anklet, rolled him onto a gurney, and strapped him down. The entourage wheeled him out of the room and down to a door at the end of the hallway. It opened into a dark passage, lit only by red and blue track lighting that cast his escorts in a death glow. The fear would have paralyzed him even if the neck cocktail had not.
They passed two doors, before turning into the third one. The stark contrast between the dark lighting of the hallway and this bright room caught him off guard. He tried to close his eyes but found them frozen open. A moan escaped his lips that would have been a scream had his lungs been capable of drawing more air than could fit through a cocktail straw. No one responded to his pain.
“Put him over here.”
He was wheeled to the corner of the room.
“Good. Now uncover him.”
“What are you doing?” The compassionate voice caught his attention.
“I told you, if you can’t be a part of this, then you should not be here.” This from the doctor who’d tortured him with questions.
“Doctor, which instruments do you want?” A female voice . . .cold and exacting.
Goose bumps broke out on Taylor’s body.
“This isn’t right.” The compassionate female.
“Gaby, I think you need to leave. I invited you to participate because you seemed to understand our purpose.”
“And I do, but you told me he understood what was going to happen. But you’ve had to drug him and keep him locked in a room and now he’s strapped down. You’re doing this against his will.”
Taylor could see her out of the corner of his left eye. She was a pretty young thing in pink scrubs. Her blond hair was pulled into a loose ponytail. She seemed vaguely familiar to Taylor, but he couldn’t place her. He thought the halo was a bit much but the white light enshrouding her body helped relax him.
The doctor made a hand gesture to someone he could not see, and Gaby was taken by the elbow and led to the door.
“No, Doctor Hibbins. I want to learn. I’m sorry. I won’t say anything else.”
Doctor Hibbins seemed to consider this and nodded. The escort stepped back.
“Now, Gaby, what you need to understand is, I’m a brilliant doctor. You think anyone will willingly volunteer for this procedure? They need to be conditioned first before they’ll stay on their own.”
“Procedure? But you’re supposed to . . .”
“Now Mr. Cook here,” Hibbins interrupted. “I’m sure he thinks we’ll never let him walk out of here alive. He doesn’t understand what we’re doing here. He has his theories, but that’s all they are. You notice he didn’t fight this time? Because he’s broken. I thought Mr. Cook would be harder to break, but luckily, he’s soft.”
“Pervert kept drooling over my boobs. I swear he thought I talked through them.” When had the robot secretary entered the room?
Doctor Hibbins pulled the instrument tray to him. The other doctors and nurses gathered around as if this was rounds. Hibbins pulled out the long needle nose pliers, widening the jaws then clacking them open and shut.
Taylor wondered who’d been the last victim to see those pliers.
Hibbins let them fall to the table. Taylor shuddered at the sharp loudness of it and saw, or thought he did, the doctor’s sarcastic smile. Taylor imagined ripping his lips off. The doctor extracted a foot long needle and aimed at his lower extremities. This man was the devil. Taylor swore he could see horns poking through his bald scalp and wet himself.
Tight-ass nurse scowled at him again, then ripped his pants and underwear off, careful to hold them away from herself.
Please, God, let me out of here before that needle touches me and I swear I’ll never . . .
The scream ripped from Taylor’s wet lungs as the needle penetrated the tip of his penis.
* * *
The compassionate voice shook him awake. He could only crack his sleep encrusted eyes open. Gaby the Angel leaned over him, shaking his shoulders.
“Hey! Wake up! You need to wake up! They’ll be back soon!”
Even her eyes glowed compassion, but what did it matter? They had poked and prodded and shot him up and extracted God only knew what. He had no idea how long he’d been there and no longer cared what other things they could do to him. Maybe he deserved it. He did not care about escape. He wanted only oblivion.
“Please, wake up! I can get you out, but you need to stand up on your own. I can’t carry you and if I wheel you out of here, we’ll have to take the elevator and that will alert them.”
“Who cares. I’m no one. A freak.”
Gaby slapped him and his eyes peeled open. She wiped his face with a cold washcloth. It felt good and helped wash the sleep from his eyes. A faint glimmer of hope shone in the far recesses of his as yet untouched brain.
“Did you say,” his voice croaked. “That you can get me out of here?”
“Yes, but we have to hurry. Can you stand?”1
He didn’t know how to answer that question. “My legs are chained to the table.”
“I removed the chains.” She held up the key. “Dr. Hibbins isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. Try to stand.”
Taylor didn’t think he could, but when he tried to move his legs, they obeyed. With Gaby’s help, she got him to a standing position. The dizziness he’d expected was not there.
Gaby handed him a cup of water. “Here. Drink this. You need it. They haven’t fed you or given you anything to drink in twenty-four hours.”
The water glistened in the cup, and Taylor grabbed it from her, downing it in a single gulp. She filled the cup again and handed it to him. He drank that down in a single gulp, and thrust the cup at her.
“We have to go. You can have all you need when we’re safely outside.”
“Why?” he asked loudly.
Gaby shushed him, then with one hand on his elbow and the other arm around his waist, she led him out the door.
The hallway was empty and dark. They shuffled down the hall quickly and quietly. Taylor found his legs stiff and weak; he had trouble remembering why.
“Where is everyone?”
“Most went home for the night hours ago.”
“What time is it?”
Gaby looked around nervously. He knew she wanted him to stay quiet, but he couldn’t help it. “It’s dawn.”
“Where is here?”
“Shh! Please, we need to stay quiet.” She whispered so quietly, he could barely hear her.
Taylor lowered his voice to match her whisper. “Who is here?”
“Dr. Hibbins left me and one other nurse, along with two of the guards. They’ll be at the only exit.”
They descended the stairs, Gaby looking over her shoulder every other second. When they reached the landing, Gaby left him standing against the wall, opened the door as quietly, and peeked out. Her fingernails dug into the doorframe and her knuckles were bone white. When she turned back to him, her face matched the color of her hands. Her halo had also been replaced with a steak.
Steak sounded good. Taylor shook the image away. He didn’t feel so good.
“We have to go out that way. There’s no other option. I laced their coffee with lorazepam.”
“Something that’ll knock them out for long enough. You stay here. I’m going to see if it worked.”
Before he could argue, she whisked through the door and was gone.
Had he imagined her? A fly buzzed lazily around a single low-wattage bulb, bonking into it repeatedly. It was too quiet. Maybe if he begged Rocco’s forgiveness. He owed Taylor a second chance. What was that? Was that a scream? Or was that the sound of a hatchet sinking between two shoulder blades? What was taking so long? She’d been caught no doubt. Would they search for him? Probably. He should run. Where?
Taylor had no idea if this was the only exit. He’d watched the nurse’s ass while she led him from the waiting room. He didn’t have to piss or shit so they either took care of that for him or he’d been able to move about, but didn’t remember. In that case, they could have moved him to a different building without his being aware. It was best to trust the only one who seemed to have compassion for him.
He had known right away from the tone of her voice that she was different. Could he trust his senses though? He’d seen a halo over her head that turned into a steak.
What was taking so long? He poked his head through the door. The hallway was dark, empty, and quiet. He pushed through the door, straining to hear any sounds as he shuffled down the hallway.
Led more by confusion than any idea which direction he should go, he wandered through the halls until he saw a bright shiny object immediately ahead. It lassoed his attention, but as he drew closer to the object, his heart rate shot up, his palms sweat, and his penis ached. Why with that again? What had they done to him while he slept?
The object seemed to call out to him, and he found himself reaching out.
Stop it! This is why you get into trouble! It was true. He acted before thinking; spoke without thinking, and all on very important decisions that most people took the time to consider before taking action.
The object hummed and he felt that familiar stirring down below. Sure enough, he was getting hard. If this weren’t a normal reaction for him around bright and shiny objects, he’d be worried.
Something small and white moved off to his right. Taylor recognized it, but when he turned to see Jack, the dog lay on its side and did not move. Taylor walked toward it, praying this time would be different, but as he got closer, he saw the same eye bulging out. It threatened to paralyze him again, but the pulsing light started to buzz.
“This isn’t real.” The sound of his voice echoed in the narrow halls and he jumped. No cavalry responded to his loud voice, and he knew what he had to do. Taylor reached out and without touching the bright light, tried to get a feel for the size. It had a circular center, about the size of his fist, and dark dimensions shot out in a rectangular pattern. He edged his hand around the vibration.
Go ahead. Touch it, a familiar voice spoke in his head. The bright circle swirled like a vortex. He liked the advice of that unfamiliar voice. The swirling vortex relaxed him. Was this what it was like to get hypnotized?
He extended a finger. He’d just tap it, and see that it had substance. He almost imagined his finger would go right through it into some alternate dimension. The hair stood up on his arms and he jumped as a spark ignited off the end of his finger.
Logic dictated that he should back off, but since when did he do anything logical? He reached forward and grabbed the bright shininess. His hand found no substance, but a bright light flashed and he felt like he was being pulled apart. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again, he was lying on a table surrounded by doctors. He felt the foggy haze of waking from a bad dream. Was he dead? But wait, was that Gaby in the corner by a computer terminal? What was she doing? Taylor reached toward her just as she said, “Got it!” and disappeared. A hand fell on his shoulder, and he nearly screamed, falling backward out of this strange vision and back into the hallway with the “shiny” object and a dead dog that belonged sixteen years in the past. Taylor understood now, but it still made no sense. This world was not real.
At what point had Taylor fallen asleep? When the doctor first paralyzed him with the neck cocktail? Had everything after been a dream?
Gaby stood behind him with a smile that widened a bit too much.
Gaby. Pretty, young impressionable Gaby. He knew her now. She was Rocco’s favorite niece.
Taylor wished for quicker reflexes as Gaby smashed him over the head with a large flashlight.
* * *
When he became aware, he was reaching for a cigarette, before remembering he’d quit two years before. Too bad, he thought. He wasn’t sure why, but he could really use one now.
He stood on a side street, outside a six-story brick building. The morning was overcast and cold. As he watched, a young man hurried past with a newspaper lodged under his armpit. He stared intently at the ground and the breeze blew a wisp of black hair off his forehead. Poor sucker, he thought, rushing to his cubicle prison at his crappy job.
Taylor breathed in the early morning air. This was his favorite time of day, but he couldn’t enjoy it. Invisible hands gripped his shoulders. Why was he standing on the sidewalk?
Why couldn’t he remember where he’d just been? Not important enough. The first thing he should do was get a cheeseburger and fries. Make that two burgers and bottomless fries. Wash it down with a couple six-packs of beer while watching horses pound the track and he’d be good.
He could do that. He could do that easily and never question another thing his entire life. The problem was, the invisible hands on his shoulders were now about his neck, throttling the freedom out of him. He was drawn to that building and he couldn’t understand why. With each step he felt his freedom evaporating, even as he dug in his pocket for the ten he remembered putting in there. He touched the bill and pulled it out.
The $10 bill stared up at him. Phew, he thought. At least he could get those cheeseburgers. He looked back to the building. Was there something he was going to do? His stomach growled, and suddenly he was drawn to the food.
Taylor laughed out loud, causing an old man pulling a Jack Russell terrier on a short leash to look at him queerly. Taylor had a disorienting feeling of déjà vu as the old man looked him up and down, then shuffled on at a quicker pace.
He couldn’t place the old timer, but he didn’t think it mattered. He had to get to the races before the betting windows closed.
* * *
“Is he asleep?”
“Yes. I led him away from the trigger mechanism and out into his ‘world’. He thinks he’s headed to the racetrack now. He won’t remember a thing.”
“Good. Mr. Manelli will be pleased.”
Gaby trailed a finger along the collar of Hibbin’s lab coat. “Uncle Rocco wants to make sure he is not injured. When we bring him back, he’s going to want Taylor working for him. He feels a connection with this kid. Some sort of father figure or whatever.”
“Not to worry. Mr. Manelli’s precious prize will come out with all his brain cells intact. Not that there were too many to begin with.” Hibbins laughed and pulled away from her touch. Gaby hesitated before smiling. Hibbins swallowed hard. “You’re sure he had no idea that you weren’t really there?”
“Of course not!” Gaby snapped, seemed to notice the strange look Hibbins gave her and spoke in a softer tone, “I had to cover my tracks when we lost transmission, but don’t worry. He bought it. He’ll never suspect a thing.”
Hibbins hesitated. Gaby’s odd behavior told him one thing: Rocco’s precious niece fucked up. Finally, a break in his favor. “I hope he didn’t suspect. If he figures it out, his awareness could complicate things, create layers that would make it near impossible to bring him back.”
“Then make sure that doesn’t happen,” Gaby hissed in his ear.
Dr. Hibbins smiled. “Not to worry. I’ll take care of everything.”