Friday, August 12, 2011
FICTION: Summer Variety by Richard E Marion
She had defied nature all her life. Her occupation was defined by qualification, not certification. There were no obstacles based on age, sex, race, or education. In fact, cultural preconceptions made Louise Reilly an unlikely suspect in case she had to make a quick getaway at the end of her contract.
She was whiter than white, and it was July, so her sun hat, a child's size because she was so little, helped her anonymity. She took her time and walked South on Western Avenue. About a half mile according to Google Maps, Western Avenue came to a Y-shaped junction meeting Ocean Avenue.
Her tiny feet stepped up and stepped down curbside on the sidewalk, bleached white by the white-hot sun blazing the azure Atlantic Sky. The sidewalk was dotted with dried, sun-baked dots of chewing gum and other items fresher, and less attractive. The sidewalk clearly postdated the rest of the region; she stepped around a bright yellow fireplug, dead center, which resembled a little man with a funny hat like hers, white, except hers was smaller.
Louise Reilly arrived at Summer Variety Store down at the convergence of Western Avenue and Ocean Avenue. She was one of the Progressives, a subspecies of the Human Race.
She thought that Cross-Cognitive was a more appropriate description, as her kind seemed to be very good at multi-tasking, a popular description. The Progressives, and their counterparts correspondingly known as Regressives began populating Planet Earth in the mid-forties of the prior century.
The two appellations sounded like human political parties, but that wasn't intentional. It related to the way they saw their world, and what they ate.
Her mental processing was vast, but her memory not much larger than the mainstream group of the species, humans, on the planet. Louise employed audio clips both as background music and as mental index locations, bookmarks she called them. "Summer In The City" by the Lovin' Spoonful had been playing in her head, walking down heated Western Avenue. Then, it segued into The Beatles's "Me And My Monkey" when she came to the Summer Variety Store. Why, she didn't know.
Outside the Summer Variety were two white circular tables with glass tops, they were superficially clean. The plastic chairs, the same degree of cleanliness, passable, were the white flexy ones which, unless you were a man, or a woman with a size-zero butt, bent and grabbed your ass in a friendly, neutral sort of way.
It must have been a hundred Fahrenheit at that corner. She went inside.
The man looked tan compared to Louise, most folks did. Louise was a ghost, translucent with a trace of pink. The man was large, which might be a tipoff. She was hunting Regressives.
He had finished building a pair of sub sandwiches with ham, swiss, mustard, onions, and some sort of peppers. The scents were splashing colors across her field of vision. Synesthesia was universal in Cross-Cognitives. The peppers were green, pickled, and sliced. The two customers, lean and tan construction-worker types, took their food, chips, and cola drinks, paid the man, courteously nodded to Louise, and left.
The proprietor had been eating well, and that was the problem, the need for Louise's investigation. He was aware, alert, in their narrowly focused way. He came from humans, but he has not a part of their destiny. Louise, being a Cross-Cognitive was equally unique. They were two sides of the evolutionary coin. Louise often wondered how it all would play out.
The burgeoning human diversity began in the 1940's. It seemed to be a combination of mutated recessive genes, a solar event that over a half-century later was "discovered", and... No one was sure. The short story is Regressives and Progressives, the subspecies, were both gaining in numbers.
The situation was awkward. A silent civil war had started on Planet Earth. A Darwinian conflict with an unpredictable outcome. Either way, the mainstream Homo Sapiens varieties were shrinking. The only variable was the degree of dignity involved, the nature of necessity.
"Good day lovely lady, it must be a hundred out there." In spite of the AC cranking full-bore, the proprietor was sweating. She was not.
"Powerball, please, one pick, 5-6-11-21-42-19." She grabbed a tiny 3 Musketeers Bar from a bowl marked "10 Cents." It was thumb-sized like the ones children get for trick-or-treat. She put a dollar and a dime on the counter.
"Keep the dime."
"Thank you." She left.
Back at the Embassy Hotel, top floor, she got on the cell phone to William Blake, after wiping the candy residue off her mouth.
"William. He's eating well, too well, even for his kind. It's after Memorial Day, an influx of people, mainly inland day-trippers. That makes it difficult to track them when they're gone missing.
"The store in general is haphazardly arranged but fairly well lit. For some reason the rear section, about one-fourth of the square footage, is not so well illuminated, and filled with incoming products, like a stockroom. I'm not sure if it's part of his cover: lots of non-perishable stuff, beach towels, souvenirs, wiffle balls, plastic wiffle bats, kites, string.
"It's cluttered, disorderly, but not dusty or disgusting."
Louise Reilly paused. The impromptu stockroom filled with stuff reminded her of an old house she lived in as a child, in North Carolina. She had been rocking in her crib; it began to glide, the hard little wheels traversing the hardwood floor smoothly, gliding...
Back at the Embassy Hotel, in Louise Reilly's suite, Ben E. King, front man for The Drifters, was singing "Stand By Me," accompanied by his R&B Soul Band. It was another one of Louise's mental audio clips, of course. They were always with her, except in her dreams. She remembered about twenty years back, actually seeing him perform live in Manchester New Hampshire. There, she touched his hand, it was soft.
"Louise..." William wasn't finished.
"The deli section, spotless, right? Stainless steel, quite a bit of refrigeration for a couple of sandwiches, what fifty, on a good day?"
Louise, whose mind had been run through a genetic blender, bombarded with solar particles from that big flare in 1944, then barely surviving a premature birth, perceived life differently. Once more, she was back in that child's crib in North Carolina. At last the combined forces of her rocking motions and gravity and the bent floor brought the crib to the edge of the stairs, and then it went down...
William Blake still on the cell phone. She hadn't missed a word. "What else," he wanted the full story.
"Yeah, a lot of refrigeration for a Mom & Pop Store. The Mom today was a different Mom than the one there last week, submissive, deferential, but prettier. She smelled human, clean. That's Mom number two."
"Louise, go back on Wednesday, this could all be circumstantial, remember that politician, a blood disorder? He was big for a human, and nearly scent-free, close to the profile. We caught it in time. We mustn't get off-track. We're still in beta phase."
Wednesday, around noontime, Louise decided to take Ocean Avenue which ran parallel to Western Avenue, down to the Summer Variety Store. She looked cute in her capri pants, t-shirt with white iron-on-transfer butterfly, and her customary brimmed hat, a child's size with a chinstrap so the wind wouldn't blow it away.
On small white sneakers, she moved gracefully. Except for the sneakers and the butterfly, both white, she was dressed in pastel shades of blue. She passed as a tiny grandmother, which she actually was. She considered her work a duty. There was no downside to eliminating the Regressives. They were inconvenient.
Today, Louise was hearing The Travelling Wilburys's "End Of The Line." Her numerous layers of thought precluded the need for an iPod, or any other audio device. Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison. Brother Roy, angel voice with a three-octave range, was performing his lines. Concurrently, she was reviewing the layout of the Summer Variety Store, while she was being careful of the traffic, and studiously monitoring the seasonal summer crowd.
Humans were a mixed lot. Why did the good ones like Roy Orbison seem to have such short lives, while others didn't deserve any life at all? Directly ahead appeared a perfect example.
She was following a couple of young men, boys, actually. They were barely out of their teens. One was wearing a Black Sabbath Band T-shirt. There were far worse people than Ozzy and Black Sabbath she thought. Why were they given such a bad rap? In fact, Sabbath's "War Pigs" really rocked.
The second boy, marginally human, reeked of sweat, tobacco, vinegar, and oily distress. He too, was wearing a t-shirt, same color, Dawn Of Ashes. She had never heard of Dawn Of Ashes. Another, slightly more obscure Metal Band? What caught her gaze was the Ashes Boy was smoking a cigarette, bad. She knew what was next...
The swine-boy finished his smoke, and tossed it on the pavement of Ocean Avenue, in the midst of the mostly bare-footed crowd.
Cross-Cognitives were capable of subtle time manipulation, but only to a minor degree. It generally wasn't of much productive use. Just an oddity.
Louise Reilly reversed time, just a little, levitated the red burning ember back into the Ashes Boy's hand. Then she willed that hand shut tight. Now, that Ashes Boy was smokin...
The Beatle's song, the mental bookmark clip, "Me And My Monkey," indicated she was at her destination, Summer Variety Store.
Louise Reilly paused for what was a split-second externally, but about ninety times that to her own internal clock-speed, and played back her childhood crib-ride down the stairs one more time.
Yes, that explosion of joy and rattling and flashing like fireworks, the far end of the stairway a looming black hole ready to consume her and divide her into a thousand tiny fragments of blazing sentient light, that was a rush, wasn't it?
She spliced in the Ozzy Osbourne Black Sabbath "War Pigs" soundtrack, copied the crib-ride data file into a memory which was properly managed, therefore measured larger than any Homo Sapiens's. The hardware was similar, but the firmware, the organization, made the difference.
The ride clip with the Ozzy soundtrack was a keeper.
Louise Reilly went inside for the Wednesday Powerball Ticket.
The same man recognized and greeted her. He looked a little cooler, the AC was still maxxed, but it was only in the eighties today.
The second Mom, the pretty one who looked like an Italian Actress, was gone today. Instead there was a young, teens, blue-eyed girl, equally dramatic, but nearly as white as Louise. She didn't seem related to either of the hypothetical parents. Also, a slightly more mature, maybe twenty at best, very thin, very dark young man was there, training for work? He nearly blended, merged, into the background quasi-stockroom area.
That little Mom & Pop Store was turning into a veritable United Nations get-together, one big virtual family. Equal opportunity cannibalism, Louise Reilly thought wryly.
She bought her Powerball Ticket, skipped the dime-candy, and gave the man a dollar. She pretended not to notice he was still getting bigger, not like a typical human being, although. He still looked soft, as if he had been working out, gaining muscle, yet still over-eating. Scary. It fit the pattern.
There were no other customers today, and she sorted through the scents of the luncheon meats, spices, the new seasonal products made of plastics, chemicals, and cloth. The young girl and boy smelled natural, not like that sweaty swine-boy she had passed on her way down.
The proprietor, Pop, remained predictably scent-free.
She thanked him pleasantly and left.
"William, I'm certain. Mom Number Two was gone, I knew it; and there's fresh candidates, two young ones, and they do look tasty... He's growing, there's a disposer there of course, 15-Inch Rotor it looks like, in the deli section. We're talking steer-rib capability here, not sub sandwich and deli scrap cleanup.
"He doesn't smell, he's efficient even for a Regressive. Of course the grinder is for backup, for interruptions, inconveniences. Mostly the cops just drive around looking for break-ins; it's the ocean, lots of rentals, for-sales, some of them well on the way to abandoned-stage; especially on the Western Avenue Side... with the economy, the jobs gone."
"Louise, the Missing Persons Database shows that South from Route 99, down to where the suspension bridge crosses over the inlet, lost people are up twenty percent; summer's just started."
Her ears were beginning to ring, as they did when everything came together. The ratio of Regressives to Cross-Cognitives was getting smaller. Relatively speaking, for her kind, the Progressives, they were gaining.
For the rest, the majority, Homo Sapiens, the narrow comfort zone was still there for a while.
She continued her report. "There's an alley, too, and a Food & Spirits place next door. It stays open as late as code lets them, Midnight.
"There's a subtle but intentional arrangement of dumpsters, fences, vegetation, and minimal lighting, so crossing from the food place to the store is handy and unobtrusive, particularly late in the evening. Oh, and the smokers... Well, it would be easy to become careless especially just before closing time, after food and drink. A single one wouldn't be missed.
"I'm going in this evening," said the tiny grandmother. Louise terminated the call from the top floor of the Embassy Hotel.
Louise Reilly took Ocean Avenue, the busier route, to its junction at Western Avenue, where Food & Spirit and Summer Variety Store stood. It was 23:30, nearly midnight. The store was closed, and Food & Spirits was winding down; which meant many last-minute food orders, drinks, and smoking excursions outside to the sidewalk and narrow drive separating the restaurant and the corner store.
She was wearing her best color, blue, but darker shades. She didn't want to stand out. The town law officers were gearing up for closing time, Midnight, and after that the subsequent drunk-patrol. Louise had no concerns; she was small, and almost as quick as the comic-book hero Superman when needed.
Cross-Cognitives did possess human foibles, as did the Regressives, who were soon to be history. That was Louise's mission. She, William Blake, and others were the new wave, the latest version of life on earth, inevitable as a summer rain. Their agenda contained elements of observing, planning and social manipulation, didn't it always? She considered the Regressives to be worse than her kind, inferior. Someone always had to lose.
Still, she felt empathy with those humans, the mainstream species. She recalled that in the twentieth-century, the sixties, her own country's MKULTRA program, purported to be a mind-control experiment on an eager and unwitting public youth, hippies. MKULTRA fed them LSD-25, which made for very strange days in the 1970's.
Yet, MKULTRA was a ploy, a distraction. A conspiracy within a conspiracy. She recalled the reports that some of the drug-crazed hippies were committing particularly heinous murders, they called them cult-killings.
People with names like Vito and Charlie and Ojay, innocents by no stretch of the imagination, yet they were just the fall-guys for the newly hatched Regressives. Like the Vampires, the Werewolves, the Wendigos of legend, they were the bad people, and had to be dealt with. Good public relations and protocol counted a lot.
The Regressives were the worse. They were a refinement of horror unprecedented. They killed for pleasure, and fast. They were tidy, meticulous to the extreme. They seldom left behind any messy evidence. Even horror deserved a re-spin occasionally.
Since Western Avenue and Ocean Avenue joined into something like a U-turn and Y-configuration, Food & Spirits had two front entrances. Louise Reilly walked past the first one on Ocean Avenue, the original, primary main entrance. It was well lit, outside there were live potted plants, and inside a live band was performing a highly original rendition of the The Searchers's Hit Song "Needles And Pins," circa 1964.
According to her eidetic memory, Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzsche, who had died at ages 62 and 63, wrote the song.
The house band was wrapping it up, "...The tears I gotta hide... Ah, Needles And Pins...Ah..." The lead singer had suffered too many house drinks; his lyrics were slurring into something like "...Nino Comprinza..." Louise rounded the corner past the white tables and white plastic chairs.
She entered the secondary front entrance of Food & Spirits on Western Avenue. Climbing up the reasonably clean red carpeted steps, she studied the bland but intentional arrangement inside the narrow zone between the food place and the variety. There was a pair of conveniently aligned but discretely situated delivery entrances, both of the solid doors had white steel security grids which were not yet shut for the evening.
Inside the band was winding down. Comprinza, the lead singer, managed to exit vertically, simulating dignity. Matters were improving, as the daytime proprietor of the convenience store was moonlighting in the restaurant.
It would be easy. She wondered if there was a God. The same one for Regressives, Humans, Cross-Cognitives? How would that work?
"Lovely Lady, you're out late, its past last call."
"I don't drink, for some reason, I couldn't sleep, I forgot the Powerball, it's silly. I don't even need the cash, I'm just hooked on my two dollar a week gambling habit," said the petite, pristine grandmother who was named Louise Reilly.
"The draw isn't until tomorrow, you're here, come on over, I don't think the law will mind..." She knew it! The large man didn't even care if it was a sting operation, although unlikely. From his point of view she was already gone, comsumed. Inconsequentials such as clothing, State ID... well these were just dessert, a source of dietary fiber to his kind, a hungry Regressive.
"We can cross over," he nodded to the pair of gridded white security gates she had noticed. "Powerball, 3 Musketeers, bottle of water? I don't drink either..." That was something they had in common. The Regressives and Cross-Cognitives were teetotalers.
"I can walk you back. Even though it's pretty safe if you go along Ocean Avenue." She nodded.
He took the bait.
They crossed over to Summer Variety Store. The improvised stockroom area followed the real stockroom area. Louise wondered if the original proprietor, already devoured by his revenant replacement had been a bit more organized. Probably. The new guy, shark in man's clothing, was smart enough to know his cover would soon be discovered, then he would vanish. He was, after all, not crazy, just a people eater.
The Regressive, to Louise's trained vision, was shimmering, growing. For different reasons, they both wanted to finish the night.
Louise was pondering the God Question again. The Cross-Cognitives, they were logical, versatile, and possibly infallible. Godlike one might say. She always wondered, wished, and doubted. Was that Regressive mentally saying grace before his dinner?
He was looking like that Indian guy on the Internet, World's Widest Mouth, except instead of a Coca-Cola can engulfed, longitudinally; she was fixated on the proprietor's perfect teeth. The teeth looked too small for the mouth. Did a Regressive "...gum them to death?" It was surreal. She was crazy. Too much LSD-25 nearly a half a century back.
The Regressive bit down on her white forearm.
Louise felt the teeth like knives, and the gums were hard rubber like the hockey puck that had hit her in the head when she was small. Cross-Cognitive's ability to control the flow of time and circumstances helped her not to panic. Plus, healing to them was more regeneration rather than repair and patchwork.
She wasn't in trouble yet, but would be. Something had to happen sooner rather than later...
Suddenly she felt the Regressive's grip of teeth and gums release. Her flesh was already pulling back from where it was torn, like time-lapse photography in reverse. The Regressive, like a felled tree, tipped and toppled to the tidy flooring in the deli section within the Summer Variety Store.
"I warned you not to aggravate the animals," said a dark figure. "Did you smile at him? They react like dogs a bit; he was already hungry, but when they see teeth, it makes them worse."
"He was already committed, William. Nice uniform."
Her partner, William Blake, was flattered. "I travel well equipped. The uniform is a little closer to Sheriff's Department than the Local Force, but nobody's going to remember. I need to get their cruiser back, or the new kid is going to have teeth marks of his own from getting his ass chewed out."
Blake looked down at the proprieter, who had irreparably blown his cover and was now a very guilty and very dead Regressive.
"They are a bit like canines, the feral type. Thick skull, but a broken neck seems to clarify the distinction between life and death."
William Blake, for a Cross-Cognitive, was large. Smaller than the dead guy but not by much. He grabbed the proprietor's right arm, and snapped it, like a turkey drumstick. The bright, thick arterial blood made a coppery stream to the floor drain in the middle of the white ceramic tiles.
"Want some?" William Blake had an annoying habit of talking with his mouth full.
Louise Reilly ate, too. The 15-inch commercial disposal capable of grinding everything from artichokes to rib bones, waited its turn for scraps.
She and Blake were no different from their supper; except they were polite enough, kind, she thought, not to indiscriminately consume family and friends first.
While she chewed, Louise Reilly ruminated on the concept of angels, buddhas, and gods.