Another absolutely FANTASTIC submission from you my dear. You have a knack for capturing your audience and keeping them sucked in. Can't wait to hear more from you!
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For now you will know me as Cole.
I will never forget the day my life changed forever , or at least I never thought I would forget.
Fall nights are always the best nights to think, to clear your mind. I was doing just that when the phone chimed away on the table beside me. The air was very crisp tonight and laced with a smoky hickory. The night sky was clear and the moon was full, the last thing I wanted (or needed) was that blasted thing whining like a bratty 6 year old child. Better answer it, and then it's back to my precious solitude. It was on the 4th ring when I punched "on" and answered with a stern but polite, "Yeah?"
"We need to talk." The voice on the other end replied.
"I figured that much, that's what these thing's are for." I answered back, half joking. My mood remained positive but was slightly leaning towards-, "Who the he-"
"Listen we need to talk face-to-face. It's a matter of life or death. Your death maybe." The voice did not waver. Who was this? I did not even think to check the I.D, and when I was about to ask another question the voice seemed to pick up on my very thoughts. "You will meet me at the Mi Luna Café at midnight. Only you. Everything you have wondered or have been only dreaming about will be answered. Someone is watching." The line went dead.
A chill went through me and it was not from the night air, but as if someone has walked over my grave.
Your death maybe. Those three little words carried as much weight as the one on my shoulders. Midnight seemed decades away, only a couple hours to plan though.
An ambush? Don't get me wrong, threats don't scare me, but I am not stupid either. This nut job could be a psycho fresh from the funny farm, and oh yeah, that I.D I forgot to check? Turned out to be a CCphone, Credits Charged, so no help there. My instincts tell me to pack light, so I grab something that's easily concealed and easy to handle. If it somehow ended up in the wrong hands it could not be used against me. A LaserBlade. The handle is vein analysis imprinted. It scans the vein pattern just beneath the palm of your hand. Like fingerprints, no 2 patterns are alike. This provides a higher level of security. A LaserBlade uses a chemically enhanced laser that can carve through flesh, bone, or steel if needed. Standing at 6’ 4’’ 250, of muscle and no nonsense. My physical presence deterred even the most determined thief. I had no worries about having to use any other self protection.
As time ticked to the 11th hour I made my way into my truck and onto the road. I swallowed the sourness that rose into the back of my throat. The night remained clear, moon full. I was hardly ever the one to be easily shaken. Got to have nerves of steel to do what I do. Those words kept coming to me and whispering in my ear like a bitter lullaby.
This could be a test. Something someone wants to prove. But who? Why? The life I live isn't peaches and cream and I wouldn't expect whoever is behind this to be a softie. That thought sent a bit of a chill through me.
The Mi Café Luna was lit up like a Christmas tree. An all night coffee shop with a 50's diner ambiance. They had 50's style, but service with a smile will cost you extra. I pulled across the street from Mi Café Luna and cased the place. The regulars seemed out in full force. Older gent, black hair streaked gray with wisdom. Or worry. Looking scruffy, he was (probably) slumped over the remnants of a late dinner. A couple of teens in a booth looking hyped up probably about to get kicked out or "leave anyway". No one that would have sent a chill through me was present, at least not from this view. Then there was tap, tap, tap on my window.
A stunning blonde with blue eyes, red lips and a blouse playing peek a boo leaned over and smiled. I rolled down the window a crack. "Can I help you, miss?" The smell of her perfume hit me square in the face.
"Yeah, I believe you can. I am the one that called you earlier Mr. Stobe. I believe you are in danger." The voice was a pretty blonde huh? Was this some kind of a joke?
"So you were sent to warn me? Maybe I should frisk you, just to be on the safe side." I replied with a half grin.
"Mr. Stobe please. Let's go inside, order some coffee. Time is of the essence." The Voice, with her well manicured style, walked across the street and was in the Mi Café Luna while I followed close behind. This was not her side of town. This was not the type of lady that was sent to deliver a believe it or not message. Someone was definitely testing me.
In more ways than one.
"After you." I gestured towards the booth at the far end of the diner. Once we sat down we got right to the point, "So are you going to tell me your name miss?" Inside the café was warm and smelled like coffee and grease.
"Yes, Of course Mr. Stobe. You can call me what you have always know me by," A knowing gleam flashed in the woman's gaze, "Jane Smith"
"Oh yes, Mrs. Smith, right. I should have remembered from the moment I saw your beautiful.. Face" Generic name but something about her was familiar, whatever information she had interested me. "Now that we have the 'friendliness' out of the way, can you please tell me why the need for the threats?"
"Mr. Stobe I apologize for sounding so…apocalyptic over the phone, but I needed to get your attention. Your not who you think you are." Before I could say a word or crack a smile Jane went on. "Several years ago an unknown organization wanted information. They felt the only way to get this information was to send in a uncover agent. However their best agent refused the assignment because it was too risky. It involved complete and total severing of ties from life outside the operation. So the Organization did what they wanted, took the agent by force, to the facility. She underwent extensive mental and physical reassignment. She was given a new life and identity. By the end of the trial, she no longer knew her old life existed. She was now… Cole Stobe. She was you." Now when my whole body tensed for a few seconds and then shook with a fit of laughter that I had not experienced in years. Maybe even a decade or two. I am sure patrons and staff had their full attention on us, or perhaps this was the norm for the graveyard shift.
"Hold…hold..hold on please. Whoa. Let me catch my breath here." I had to take a moment.
"Cole. I am dead serious about this. People don't want me telling you this for obvious reasons and you need to know the real you. You need your life back, if you want it." Jane slide her hand, palm down. She had something for me, so I reached gingerly across the table and received the item.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Your life, if you want it back." Just as Jane was about to get up and leave I grabbed her hand.
"Why are you telling me this? Why now? Like this?"
"Because," She looked away a tear slipped down her cheek, "When you have a chance to right a wrong you take it. Even if it means your own life is in jeopardy." She yanked her hand away from grip and was gone in a flash, like that. I was to stunned by her revelation to speak and to weak from laughter to stand.
Truth is stranger than fiction. Whoever coined that phrase must have heard a lot of outrageous stories, or told them. Can the truth be harmful? Yes. Is it worth a life? That's what I am about to find out. I figured out I was given a memory stick. I took it home and plugged it into the corresponding port on my computer. There was a pass code to get into the files. Somehow, it was in my head, the word: Phoenix.
Once opened there was audio, video and word documents listed. They were separated in to folders, and those opened into subfolders and so on and so forth. Thankfully everything was separated into dates and some even had specific events. The one I was most drawn to was the video folders. I was most curious to view what supposedly happened to me.
When I opened the first folder my media player automatically loaded a video of someone narrating a scene. There lay a woman on a table and she had a metal helmet on with a wire running to and from it. There were metal casts with, what looked like spikes coming out of them, on her legs. "The subject seems to be adjusting well to the visual and audio stimuli now. The earlier complications have been eliminated almost completely. I do believe this trial will be successful." At the end of he clip the metal helmet was removed and the woman sat up and stared into the camera.
It was Jane Smith.
* * *
This was getting to be like a freak show, but I went along for the ride. Enough for tonight though. Dawn was approaching and the aches in my neck and back weren't going away. I made it to my bed and just fell into it. Sleep came upon me like fog rolling up on a beach. At first it was light and misty, then it engulfed until only my dreams remained.
When I woke up I felt mildly dazed and not very rested. What was in that coffee last night at the diner? I chuckled and then chided myself for beginning to sound like a conspiracy nut with just one person on my back. I got out of bed anyway. I stretched, yawned, and scratched here and there. I then made my way across the room to the bathroom. The steamy water felt great! The hot shower washed away any remaining stiffness that tried to root itself in my joints. Getting old is for the birds.
Drying off I headed back towards my bedroom and picked out more appropriate attire for today's outing. A crispy pressed white shirt, tie, slacks, black socks, boxer briefs and black shined shoes. I spritzed on some fresh smelling cologne and styled my hair as usual. Time to look the part. I grabbed the memory stick, my keys wallet, and protection (never leave home w/o it), and headed for the door.
My truck was equipped w/ a hands free phone capability. Not something I would personally go for but comes with the perils of being me. Hmmm, me. Cole Stobe. Has a nice ring to it., and most people that know me respect me. They understand and value my honesty and friendship. I am loyal and take great pride in what I do.
I got to the nice neighborhoods with the nice homes and nice families in a matter of minutes. This was definitely my kind of scenery. I had to see what
this memory stick stuff was really about and there was only one person I really trusted to show this to. "What's up, Doc?" The usual greeting I get, or anyone for that matter.
"Hello Chris. Can I come in please?" The red-headed, freckle face nodded his head in agreement. I was ushered into the family den. It took seconds for my eyes to adjust from the brightness of the natural sunlight I had just left to the dim cocoon like atmosphere of the Steven’s inner sanctum. "Are we alone?" I asked looking around for his folks.
"Hmmm? Yes indeed we are, and just what might cause for such a visit as this?" Squinting my eyes and cocking my head to the left I thought, as always, such a strange kid. No slang or a laid back dopey grin pasted on his face. Just courteous banter and respect, always.
"Chris, I need your helps. This is gonna sound crazy, but this seems like the real deal sort of thing. I think someone is testing me." The one thing Chris likes about me is my naivety about computers and his superiority with them. He does not flaunt his abilities, he is always more than willing to help. Plus I get a kick out of shocking the kid with my wild stories.
Any other time I would not mind if his folks were home, nor would they mind my company. They realize their son is a computer whiz and a lot of people come asking for his advice. I am just, an average Joe, like everyone.
I handed Chris the stick and he worked his magic. He had what we needed to look at sorted better than what was already presorted. Even with his skills, that alone killed a couple of hours.
"OK Doc, what I have established are your basics. What you need to look at first. Then if you want more details, click on the subfolders in that same category, ok? The set-up they had was more from a note taking than chapter by chapter reading format like we, um, you wanted." There was an odd gleam in Chris's eyes
"What's the deal?" I questioned him.
"Well, I will not tell a lie. There seems to be a lot of stuff in here that can be apart of a sci-fi movie if you ask me. Plus, I don't know if I'd want to get my mind cluttered with all this if it is not fact."
"I want to know who's behind this. Some wacko or the government maybe?" Again, Chris, with the look.
"I doubt the government has time to spend the man hours producing the amount of footage alone, on this, plus you said the woman was someone you thought you knew. Why would the government send someone you knew to try and set you up, for whatever reason."
"Whoa. Slow down there X-files." I called Chris that on occasion He was a really huge fan and whenever I mention government cover-up or conspiracy he is always on top of things with a great and thorough explanation. "I don't know if anyone from my clique has even got the coconuts to think this would be funny. So there's got to be a reason, a serious reason, for all this." I shuddered to think of the implications.
"So what I skimmed off the top, from sorting and all, you think of secret agency turned you into Cole Stobe? For what? Your you. You live in Sunshine, USA and have a great life. You are not exactly secret agent/uncover material." Chris replied, barely concealing a snicker.
"Oh wow thank you for the vote of confidence. Can you just help me figure out what some of this all means? I got no one else to go to with all this right now. It is kind of embarrassing enough to have to tell a 15 year old."
"Oh gee, now who's slathering on the confidence booster extra thick?" Chris sarcastically injected.
You know what I mean X-files." I replied
"OK. Apology accepted." with lightening speed Chris was able to access everything we needed to view first, then lined up what we would be viewing later on. When I asked him about seeing Jane Smith on the table he told me,
"It's not her."
"What?" I asked eyebrows raised.
"According to the notes taken that day by a Dr. Clyde Holden. It's a Joanna Smith." Chris pulled up some more notes. My mind bubbled and stewed. Another name with a familiar ring to it. This was really starting to freak me out. I am not the type of person that likes surprises especially in the form of, "Excuse me sir but you used to be a miss."
"It seems that there was a visitor that day by the name of Jane Smith. So Joanna Smith and Jane Smith could be related, but they are definitely 2 people according to these logs."
"OK." I took a breath, squeezed the bridge of my nose and shut my eyes. Immediately the tension that was cutting into my brain like a piece of wood clutched in a vise, released. "Let us assume that Jane and Joanna are sisters, um, twins evens ok? For the sake of argument, what the heck is she doing letting her sister…" Then it happened. I actually felt my head get warmer as the light went on.
"Doc? Hello? Anybody home?" Chris was standing in front of me snapping his fingers and waving alternately, but he may as well have been a million miles away for I was on my own planet at that point.
"Oh my gosh Chris. If this means what I this it does I am going to be sick."
"Doc, you don't look so good. Would you like to rest your feet a spell?"
"X-files listen. Jane may have been telling the truth. In some sick and twisted way. I mean how hard would it really be for someone with a TON of money to take part in a twisted plan to erase someone's life. Could I really be Joanna?" The words really did come out of my mouth. No, I was not describing the less favored 1996 Swartznegger release Eraser, I wish I was. It was literally like someone else was making me say and think what I was thinking. This was just not me!
"OK Doc. Listen to what you are saying, just for the briefest of moments. If you want to buy into this you would have to think a little more clearly. Jane and Joanna Smith at the most 5’ 10’’''. Blond and blue-eyed, thin framed. You are about 6’4’’'', "thinning", and eyes as dark as night.." I could not listen anymore.
"Don't you see? They could do anything. It doesn't take much. If you want to take everything away from someone, their complete identity, you have to strip them completely. Medical procedures to change height and color aren't all that uncommon these days, they are just expensive."
"Again Doc I have to ask you why. Why would someone want to do this to you? Even in my best mystery I would have never seen this coming and for you to actually believe it, wow."
"I can't not consider the possibilities Chris. My life is on hold until I can debunk this thing. No one has ever tried anything like this on me before, and believe me I've had some things done. If something happened in my former life this "change" would have been the perfect way out."
"Or the perfect cover-up."
In my head I could deal with the fact of the matter. Having to put a voice to the most unrealistic of ideas was totally different altogether. Talking briefly to Chris made me realize I am in this alone. Just the mere mention of this outside the confines of my own thoughts, and life as I know it, is most certainly over.
The clock may have very well already started ticking last night when Jane first contacted me. I must think clearly on this and keep the facts as straight as they appear. No one can get away with this. Not for much longer anyway.
But how? How can I believe such an absurdity. Since when am I prone to people feeding me stories and me swallowing whole?
Ugh. I could feel the icy shill of adrenaline spill into my veins, throughout my chest, bloom into my face like a frosted rose, and continue to spread. Leaving an oddly soothing numbness in it's wake. Beads of sweat formed on my upper lip and the hairline across my forehead. Soon all of my skin was cooling and my hands were tingly. All this happening in a matter of seconds, then the feeling was gone.
What the heck just happened? If I couldn't talk about the facts of the matter could I as least question the reality of what was starting to change in me? Something was evolving within me that a Doctor could easily explain. Then I could explain the symptoms, with as little information as possible. Right? I wouldn't need a full mental and/or physical evaluation. Wait a minute. I'll go see Dr. Martin. He'll definitely understand . He'll give me what I need to know.
With a rush of relief and a sense of clear headedness I was finally able to relax enough to lay down and close my eyes and not replay the events of today over and over and over.
* * *
In the morning after dressing and grabbing a quick breakfast. I headed out early to Dr. Martin's downtown office. It was chic, all clean and smooth glass and shiny metal. It was decorated with waterfall machines, scented w/ lavender and other soothing scents. The lights were even muted to make to feel ready to take a nap rather than nervous about getting a check-up. Smart. I liked that my lifestyle could afford me such luxuries, even my Dr. was pimped.
"Dr. Martin is expecting me." I informed the nurse at the front desk.
"One moment please." She closed the glass and picked up the phone. With a smile and a few words, there was only a moment and then Dr. Martin appeared at the door that separated the waiting room and back office. As the waiting room had a calming effect so did the back rooms. The feeling of floating on dopamine continued as I entered the room the Dr. directed me too. I begin to smile, slightly, as the feeling of apprehension was almost forgotten, almost.
"Cole my friend, what brings you in? Long time since you last requested a visit." Dr. Martin had my chart and was already busy making notes and skimming through my history.
"I just had some questions."
"Well, are we doing some role reversal today? Aren't questions my job?" Dr. Martin replied with ease, impeccable bedside manner. The tension threatening to send me into momentary, or permanent depending on the severity, blackout, eased considerably.
"I've been feeling like someone is pouring ice water in my heart and it running through my veins, am I dying or something? What's going on?"
"Well have you been under more stress than normal?" Knowing my job Dr. Martin knew just what to ask, and when to stop.
"No, not really. Just the usual I'd say."
"No drugs? Excessive alcohol consumption?
"No, Dr. None."
"Seems to me from the physical symptoms you are describing it's anxiety, or panic attacks. I could subject you to more extensive tests, send you out for testing."
"Well I trust your judgment just fine Dr. Martin, you've never lead me astray. How's about you up the dose on my meds or something?"
"The medication you are taking does not necessarily diminish or treat anxiety. I can give u something P.R.N, uh to take whenever you are feeling panicky. A mild anti-anxiety medicine, because these medicine” Dr. Martin paused, “These are addictive Cole, and I wouldn't give them to just anyone, but I trust your judgment that you will take them as prescribed. These will help, but they aren’t the answer. I'd like you to reconsider my offer for testing.“ Yes, it does seem a bit odd right? The Dr. asking the patient for the best treatment option. In my world the usual rules were modified to fit my needs, that's how it's always been.
Now even reality had proven to me, that in my world, stranger things existed just below the surface. Not knowing if I could face it, my body was already betraying me. How long before my mind would soon follow?
That afternoon when I left Dr. Martin's with my new RX I decided to take a walk. I was a fairly fit individual. Not that I hit the gym everyday, but I wasn't a tub of lard either. So now its time to get to work. I had to start to find the source of the videos that Jane had given me. Heck, I had to track down Jane as soon as possible. If she wanted to be found, she'd let me find her. She had already risked so much, if she thought, no, if she knew I believed her, she'd have to help me hunt these people down.
With a new plan I ducked into the "Health Nut" health food store. Deciding on free-range chicken and organic veggies. I also needed supplements to improve my mind and body functions (ginseng, St. John's Wort and B-12). I checked out and headed back to my truck about a block away. I was no more than a few feet down the block when I felt a strange sensation. I turned back half expecting someone to be right behind me. Of course there was! It was the middle of the afternoon. Dozens of people milled the sidewalks. Was I being paranoid? Then, I spotted someone. The longer I stared a them, they stared back. I wondered if maybe, now, I was being watched. When they saw I wasn't just going to turn around and continue walking they turned in the opposite direction and swiftly walked away, turned a corner and disappeared. Good. No need to start a foot chase and cause a scene. They could be in a building or car by now, long gone. Or not even watching me at all, right? Besides, the chicken and veggies are best cooked fresh.
Unless my life was threatened I'll just have to limit myself to being aware but not wildly superstitious of every little thing.
I reached my vehicle safely. No more Sneaky Pete's. The drive home was uneventful too, not counting the idiots the DVM will allow licenses these days. I was almost hoping for someone to start a chase, you know? Keep it interesting. Pulling into my driveway my house lights lit up. Motion sensors digitally connected to my truck and timed to come on at night. Working as they should I see.
Getting out the crisp, clean breeze bit my cheeks and nose. The smell of hickory burning in chimney’s drifted by. I got the groceries, pushed the auto lock and the alarm simultaneously engaged. I hustled up the short walkway to the small black iron gate between my house and front door. Once inside the temperature change immediately apparent as my cheeks and nose warmed and tingled. I kicked off my shoes, set down my food and hit the button on my answering machine. The warm air scented with pumpkin spice and what was that vanilla? Ah Linda was to good to me. Always adding that womanly touch that no man could do w/o messing up. The source of the heavenly scent was not a divine bakery creation but a centerpiece of floating candles in a crystal bowl etched with fall leaves. "Oh how nice." A card that read Enjoy. Stay safe. Was propped up against it. Hmmm, that's thoughtful.
"Hey, ah Doc , was wondering if ya wanted to get whooped in some poker tonight? Meet me in room 207. The usual place, and ante. Later"
"Tues, 11:07 am"
"1300 Rose Ave. Ste 2. Tonight 8 pm. Red Kit. Don't be late Cole."
"Tues, 2:03 pm" The last message while ominous in tone wasn't unnerving, just my job. Rather than be bothered 24/7 on my cell, boss always left a bare bones message at home. Genius.
I roll up the cuffs on my shirt, wash and dry my hands, and start unpacking my food, placing it on the counter. I wash off the veggies and cut the plastic off the chicken, placed in a plastic bowl, rinsed and put in the fridge for later. As I cut up the veggies I click on the TV that sets on the counter in the kitchen and switch it to the food channel., hoping to be inspired. Before I could find the remote the announcer was reporting, "The body of an unidentified woman was found last night brutally murdered. She was found about 2 blocks from Mi Café Luna by a man. Details of the murder and identity are still unknown at this time." Please don't let it be Jane…Please don't let it be Jane…"We ask if there are any other possible witnesses at this time, to please come forward." I turned off the TV and grabbed the phone. I dialed the number they flashed on TV
"Yes. Hello? The story about they murdered woman. Why didn't you show her picture?"
"Do you have more information, sir?"
"Was she blonde with blue eyes?”
"Sir, did you witness the crime?”
"Was it Jane!" I shrieked. My voice shot out, belying my usual cool, calm collectiveness.
"I am sorry sir. We have not been able to identify the deceased. If you believe you may be related to the deceased and make and I.D please come to the county coroner's office.” Then, the line went dead. What more could be done? What could I do? Jane wasn't related to me! I mean, she was if you included the underbelly of my reality where this Jane/Joanna twin sisters thing made sense, but try explaining that to the police. I slumped into the dining table chair, my head in my hands. I wanted to cry or yell or something! I needed a release.
It was nearing late afternoon. I put away what I had started preparing to cook when I had come home. I called the Big Boss.
I never called the Big Boss before. I have met him before of course, but since I do my job so well, I have never had to contact him directly. Unlike with me I don't leave a message. I dial a numeric page code and get a callback. Within moments the thing I found so previously annoying was like a sweet symphony. I flipped open my cell phone.
"I would hope so. What can I help you with Cole?" The Big Boss had a voice that sounded like he swallowed gravel and washed it down with rocks. It was like he needed to clear his throat, I kept waiting for the ahem whenever spoke.
"I was wondering if you if you had any work for me? Something before tonight?" I tried sounding a lot less nervous than I felt, a lot less.
"It depends. What are you up for?"
"Just a little something to keep my busy until I have my job to do tonight.? My breathing exercises are coming in handy. I covered the phone with one hand, took a deep breath in through my nose and slowly exhaled out through my mouth, before the Big Boss answered.
"315 North Broadway , 30 minutes? I'll take Johnson off the job, give it to you special ok? It's a black kit."
"Thank you BB."
"No problem." We both hung up When you have an unblemished record, as I have, with the Big Boss you can ask for favors.
Just a couple of preparations before heading out once again. Putting away the veggies and turning off the TV I went ahead and grabbed a set of ordinary keys . I pasted my bedroom door to my right the hall closet to my left and another room I used as storage. This is where I stopped.
Two where latch key locks and one dead bolt. This measure wasn't to stopped anyone, only slow them down until I got there. Once inside there was a light located just to the right, on the wall, I flipped it on. Against every wall was a metal cabinet, also locked . In the middle of the room was a table with a computer. I now I kept the "Joanna" files locked in this room.
I went to one cabinet and retrieved a red kit and locked it back securely, and then went to the next cabinet and obtained a black kit. No one other than the people in my group knew what was in the contents of the boxes of course. The reason for all the security? Everything we had attained was very private and needed to be handled with a level of discretion.
I might not have had a lot of computer smarts, but with such a fantastic turn of events in my life. I will definitely have to up my techie knowledge. Maybe not to the level of my buddy Chris, but darn close. My other talents were prized and the Big Boss often called upon me for delicate jobs. I took great pride in that.
My thoughts briefly turned to Chris and what I may have exposed him to. I am glad I did not go further into he files in his presence. Again my need for computer comprehension heightened all the more. When tonight's job was done I will begin my own training to sharpen my skills. Best to keep the call of duty above all else.
Taking the kits, that I had placed in an ordinary looking briefcase, I headed out the doorway. Down the and out another door to the garage. I would not be taking my Black GMC tonight. Something with a tad more elbow room was needed.
I hopped into the cab of the refrigerated truck. Equipped with the tracking instruments and directional screen lit up, it lit up the moment I placed my hands on the steering wheel. I had already put the briefcase in the hidden compartment on the passenger side floor. "All set." I reassured myself. I was a bit curious, perhaps fearful to a point, about the files (and the people behind the files). I would not allow my mind to wander for a split second. I needed to focus 110% for the steps ahead.
I was on the road that would lead down to my first job. Always located in out of the way places. These dark, deserted roads, with no one around for miles. A thick snake of excitement wrestled inside me, causing me to smile slightly, shift in my seat and clear my throat. I readied myself as I saw the shadows darken even more.
My destination was no more than a cluster of buildings. I stopped the truck at the first set of securities. I entered the code needed to raise the briefcase from the floor. I announced my password in a clear, a calm and even voice. A small buzz-click-whoosh and the briefcase opened on the passenger seat where I had placed it. I took out the red box. It contained all that I needed to complete my task at this location. "4-L-7-2-B-6-T" Not only did I enter this code into a keypad that was wirelessly connected to a device inside the building beyond the securities I had to pass. Next, I had to recite the numeric-alphabetical code into the microphone attached to the keypad controller. I replaced the device back into the red kit, and set it back into the briefcase.
I parked the truck inside the first building, well lit I must say. Almost blinding after being in near complete darkness on my drive over here. Again I got the red kit from the briefcase and removed a card. I got out of the truck and approached a door. I slid the card through the reader at the door, noticing the air was a bit stale in odor. I opened the door and I went through it. So far no one questioned my presence.
I was the only one here. Well, in the building at least. Looking up at the small crevice above the door that ran the entire length of the hallway was the only other "real" presence to speak of, in the building. Securities installed in the line above the doors in the hallway and that was all that was needed to insure the protection of the person and contents within the building.
Next I scanned the list of items I would need from behind each door to complete my task in this building. I entered the code needed into my card and slid it through the reader. Not only was I efficient but my Boss takes precautions as well. If I decided I wanted to somehow break into the building, get past Securities outside, and past the first coded doors, I would not be able to access in the inner doors. The card I held was coded w/ a different code every 60 seconds. I only had a limited amount of time to enter it from the time I opened the outer door. The codes changed and weren't even known to me until I was standing there ready to enter them into the card.
It was a very brilliant set-up I thought. I would be suicide to try and do anything other than my job. Besides I loved my job. Yes, I have these rather drawn out, complex thoughts, I think to, entertain myself and to just wonder "what if?". Like any other human being I was somewhat satisfied with my employer, but I might need a promotion should we say? Securities and improvement upon Securities definitely made the snake inside my belly writhe all the more.
I simply let the door close and lock behind me before proceeding through the one in front of me. Once inside the first room I was surrounded by a metal cage. There was a walkway and rooms on each side of me. The rooms were sectioned off with a plastic with a bashing strength of steel, also the plastic was vented with holes along the top and bottom. Fresh O
2 was pumped into the room 24/7, artificial sunlight lit the entire room when necessary (now it was nighttime so the sunlamps were dimmed to simulate moonlight). There was an environment for each section in each room. I took great appreciation for the care given here for I don't think I could complete my job knowing there was any mistreatment or torture.
After completing the code to release the lock on the metal cage surrounding the entrance to he door I went to the far end of the room I took out the card again. I slid the card down the reader. Two stainless steel doors disappeared into the walls and revealed several shelves of items. Waving away a layer of cold air wafting from the shelves, I grabbed what was needed, closed the doors, and headed to the next room.
All the rooms were fashioned in a similar décor, only differing slightly. For example, if the size of the section of an environment needed to be larger or smaller, adjustments were made. The earthy smell of nature mixed with a musky smell. Not strong, but noticeable.
I suppose secrecy was needed strictly to keep any questioning to a minimum. If I were ever questioned though, I doubt anyone could get very much from me anyway. I have taken in the Joanna files fully and immediately out of plain curiosity. This just seems too elaborate to be a joke. I am thinking this is not even a test anymore.
For now anyway.
Now that I had all that I needed I got back into the truck. All the items safely in the fridge in the back. Onto the next building. The necessary securities basically repetitive as entering into the first building. Everything being recorded by unseen cameras. Eerily silent, but I was used to the isolation this place created. Either get used to it, or get out. I placed all the items on the table once inside the room in the second building.
The first box contains undeveloped Red Python eggs. The second box contains rejected fetus of a 3 toed gecko. The third contains a freshly deceased corpse of a hairy bottom toad (named so for it's hairy bottom). That completed the reptilian arrangement before me. I went to he cabinet to my left, above a counter with a sink, and retrieved the necessary tools to complete the task ahead. It took all of about 45 minutes. Once finished I marveled at my own handiwork. While my own personal opinion did not count at his moment, and I was scientifically limited, the job was done. The toad was the main attraction, as it was a rarity. The fetus served as a gravy base the toad rested in, and the eggs placed around the toad in a sensible fashion. While undeveloped they still complemented the dish quite well. I only knew that because the instructions detailed everything down to how to prop up the toad. The eggs are not much bigger than pictured. They are shown actual size in the photo (for the purpose of posing, not consumption).
While whoever was dining on this exquisite cuisine would pay a pretty penny, none was ever to my liking. None of the items presented were ever breed for the sole purpose of consumption. They were rejected or undeveloped or freshly deceased animals from testing labs within the facility I was in. So my conscious was clean enough anyway. While the animal were highly and well maintained some were not licensed to be in this state, let alone the country. When you've got consumers willing to pay any price, flying below the radar is worth the risk.
With my part of the task done I pressed the button that would seal everything in a thermal container. My job was complete, so I left with time to drive to my next task. Similar to this one, only differing slightly depending on what was called for.
After some time had pasted and a few more jobs, each with it's own unique burst of sheer delight, I wanted to ask the Big Boss for a change. I had studied computer securities and security technology. While no where near the professional level needed to be head hauncho, perhaps not even a rookie, nevertheless I did have the nerve to inquire about the position.
The Joanna Files and it's progress was slow coming. I did find out more about Joanna, um, myself. I could process that thought without so much as a shudder. I pieced together that this research, or at least my files, dated back 10 years. My previous life (as I have come to think of it) wasn't very informative, besides what my twin already gave me. Of course a NETsearch turned up about 10,000,000 Joanna Smith's. Even the couple hundred I had time to look up weren't useful to me. I had to have more of a certain way to direct my search.
My time between jobs were mostly spent working on my new/old past. I did have a social life to maintain as well. Mostly lounge clubs and stiff drinks. Laid back men and women looking for the time of their lives, at least for that night.
I scratched the scruff of a beard on my face. Tonight yielded a tiny crack in a otherwise formidable fortress of information.
When I magnified the lettering on an ID card I got not only the name of the company but also the person.
What was going on? If Jane worked for these people and was my twin, and I did not want to be involved in their operation, what did she do? I paced back and forth, motioning my hands to relate my frustration in a sign language only I could understand.
Then it hit me. This is the only way, I, Joanna Smith, would have been Cole Stobe. It's like my mind reeled back to that day.
It's so hot you can fry an egg on the sidewalk. Can that happen? I dunno but I often think about trivial things when I am stressed.
Today would count as a big stressor. I am tied to a wooden straight back chair, no padding. Hands behind my back, feet apart and also tied. And yes, it's hot! I am sweating profusely and the 2 men in the room don't seem to notice, or care. Either way I am miserable and it seems I'll be this way until whoever has me here feels I've earned a reasonable explanation.
I tilt my head back and laugh. Not a braying laugh of madness, although I was not far from it. I was not ready to break yet. I was just pissed I had even let myself be in this situation. They wanted the best and yet they were able to trap me, drug me and convince the world I was dead.
After everything they subjected me to: Endless questions, Sleep deprivation, Gender-role reversal, Gourmet chef training? I harbored the belief these people were responsible for the worst event in my life. I don't even think I was really even dealing with people, clones or androids even. We had the technology to achieve that level of deception. As machines could detect and record the slightest electrical and biological changes within the human body. Of course, it is getting harder and harder to tell the difference if the clone was an illegal. After what I'd been through any scenario, even science fiction, was plausible.
I heard footsteps echoing behind me. What was to come immediately cut off my giggle fit. It was me. I mean, there was an exact copy of me standing there with a smirk and lab coat. “Joanna. I am only letting you know this because you have been the most cooperative subject. You were reported dead after your nasty accident but no body was every recovered. After a decent amount of time has past I” a gracious hand swept down the clone’s body, “will reappear with amnesia begin the cause of my absence.” I swallowed. I was not what you would call cooperative, except once I realized I wasn't going to get anywhere by not doing what they told me. I was stubborn but they had unlimited patience, or so I thought.
After I had tried to holdout a little longer than they were willing to wait once. I didn't do that again. This time there was no waiting. No time for questions. No explanations. First the shock, then the dark. When I next awoke my head was killing me. I tried to sit up my the room started to spin and I felt sick. I was home, I realized that before I passed out…Cole you party animal.
That was my last memory as Joanna, and my first memory as me. Why I decided to have that revelation now was something I should be grateful for? I guess so. The memory suppressed under countless hours of brainwashing and not surgically removed. Who were these people? What did they want? Who wasJane really? A clone? A twin? Or only related through a genetic connection.
Yes, I was grateful for the revelation. For one my head ached, like I had the worst hangover/sinus infection/migraine rolled into one. This pain came on suddenly and if there wasn't a chair next to me I would have made the floor a suitable target to aim for. I landed hard in the chair, buckets of sweat pouring down my face. I swallowed the bile rising in my throat. The thought of having more pressure on my head from having to vomit made my the master of self control. I leaned back in the plush arm chair. Goodness that felt nice. Already the pressure was releasing itself. One memory of my former life nearly caused my mind to shatter, literally. I wonder if that trigger was implanted to. So I would not not mentally probe anything that I might undercover from being Joanna.
Later that night, not much later mind you, I had my next job. It was doing the same sort of work as the first but at another facility a little further out of the way. The Boss knew better than to keep all his "eggs in one basket". At least that is what I thought of the many facilities. I had one stop to make before getting to he final job, picking up my co-worker for the evening. "How you doing tonight Kevin?" I inquired as he hopped in my black truck and shut the door. Looking over with those dark eyes, he flashed his pearly whites and said,
"Pretty good Cole." AS he exhaled he rubbed his chest. A little anxious perhaps. He then warmed his hands in front of the vent.
"How's your jobs been lately?" I pulled into the road and kept to the speed limit. Although we didn't have much of a social life at work, there wasn't anything forbidding us from talking amongst ourselves about our work. In fact the Boss may have preferred we stayed within the company of each other for friendship. Lest privileged information reach those not worthy.
"Ah well I have gotten some pretty hefty new cases, some more of the big guys have been coming in. I think they are working on a new code." I liked Kevin because he was not only friendly and did not mind chatting, but he was also well informed. He was able to keep up with the changes and goings-on, not to much but enough, at some of the facilities.
"Oh really?" I questioned. This should be interesting. It wasn't long before we were at the facility. Going through the motions, security checks and so on. At this facility we had fingerprint and retinal scan, and our keycards to be scanned simultaneously so we could both receive the same codes for the first set of doors. We wouldn't have the enter the codes at the same time or within 60 seconds of each other though. They just had to match.
When we got into the first room we donned protective gear. Chew-proof protective gear. "It's eat or be eaten tonight." We joked. It's an old joke but it does help ease the tension of the salutation. Even with protocol, guidelines and rehearsed emergency/evacuation. Things happened.
Keycards scanned. Codes entered. Doors open. We brace ourselves.
Oh yeah, we also were armed to the teeth with tranks, but you don't stop shaking in your boots until your out of this room and in the prep room next door. The heavy steel door had released it's pneumatic locks, behind that door was a set of bars. There was no protective 2-3 shatter proof plastic on the inside of the bars, unfortunately. Because we had to aim the guns at the restless creatures waiting inside. "Ready?"
"As I'll ever be." If anyone ever thought this was a cool, fun job. They were right. Expect for this one part coming up. When then hybrid came within shooting range we both pulled the trigger. Instantly she went down, the serum entered her bloodstream, and in only moments was out cold.
Once the people behind the cameras saw this, the bars retracted and we entered the room in which the big cat now slumbered. I placed my hand on her side and she began to purr almost instantly. Her bulging belly indicted our reason for begin here.
Not more than a couple of hours ago when the boss called she had lost her litter. The people attending tonight's services were soon to receive their just desserts.
When Cole Stobe was just a mental blink on the radar of Dan Stevens mind he thought he had weeks even months to study the man. His habits and lifestyle.
At the first pre-planned meeting last night while dining on fetu’ de hybris, something went wrong. Was the food prepared wrong? Did Cole Stobe know who Dan Stevens was and try to poison him?
There was a vemon sac embedded within the venom sac of the hybrid feline. That is the modification that seems to terminate gestation. It can be carefully removed so that fetu’ de hybris can be humanely ingested. A new menu item that will probably be removed once the modification is corrected.
Perhaps there had been a mistake and Dan Stevens accidental poisioning was just that.
But Dan could not simply let what he kew gounsaid. Dan could not carefully stalk his prey as did the canus arachnid hybrid in their natural habitat. Dan would have to somehow make Cole understand, now, what he knew, and fast. Dan was running out of time.
I heard a knock at the door, or a fierce banging rather. I rushed to it. Jane? I thought almost to quickly wanting to throw open the door. I did not react as so. I checked the security window. An older white male slumped against the wall of my doorstop. Who is this? Intrigue got the best of me. Always prepared my hand gripped my favorite gadget, ready to activate the chemical laced laser. I opened the door. “Can I help you?” I questioned, but the man brushed past me and found the nearest chair. At the dining table he rested his head.
“Sorry…for…the intrusion. I have…something I must…tell you.” The air that trailed the man reeked of a life in danger. Fear, anxiety, pain and exhaustion. Ok. I had to think and be quick about. This man at the moment presented no threat. I went into the kitchen to the right on the dining area. I could still see, and hear him clearly. “You can believe me or not.” He had obviously rested enough to feel at ease. His breathing has returned to normal and he sat back in the chair. I returned to him to him with a towel and cold water. Still not feeling threatened I listened but I stayed on my feet. “Thank you.” He drank about two small sips of water and wiped his face and neck. His eyes glanced the handle that housed the blade that could form deadly dagger or killer katana. The man shifted and the spoke, “Sorry for coming in on you like that but I’ve not been myself these past couple of hours.” I believe I recognized the man. Then again he looked like Mr. Everyman. “You’ve been given some information that is proportionally incorrect.”
“OK. First off, I am going to let you speak your part, because I am a curious guy. Any funny business…” I rolled the handle in my palm for empathies, “I know how to handle myself. Get to the point. Make it quick. Then leave.”
“Alright.” The man looked down, and sighed heavily. His shoulders sagged. “My name is Dan. Dan Stevens. Someone let me in on a case about 10 years ago, said it was top secret, investigative and whatnot. I’d be getting paid a lot to be quiet , so I did what any smart guy would do. I said OK. I signed on the dotted, before I really knew what was going on. They said that wanted to study human social behavior and work related stress. So they assigned me to you. I am the best shadow man because I stay in the shadows, for 10 years I stayed in the shadows. Jane didn’t. Grew a conscious and now she cost us all.” I could not hide the small twinge in my gut when he mentioned Jane. How did he know Jane? How did know what Jane had said? Was he really stalking me?
“They started me with the idea I’d be the shadow man with a bit of extra work. I had no idea how big this thing really was. The experiments…” Dan stared ahead blankly. Seems as though Dan himself was having a conflict of his own. As he continued. I sat down.
“At first the basic social interactions the slight mental manipulations and subliminal suggestions, while strange were not below my ethical standards to stoop. I was only there to read the background, follow the client. But after a while the file got to have less descriptive terms, but more precise instructions on what to look for while shadowing. Deterioration of pre-planted state. Memort flashes. Non-listed personal contact. Everyone is constructed. From the inside out. Your life. Your mind. You. Soon I was following my client’s every move. Practically 24/7. What I did not see someone else did. I suppose after 10 years they felt they could trust me with more sensitive information involved with the client’s.” Another pause. Staring. Sip. “I don’t know why Jane decided to show up now. And I don’t know why she told you such preposterous lies but I hope my explanation seems more plausible.” Dan looked me right in the eye as if to dare me not to believe the next words he uttered. “You are not a transsexual. You were never a woman. You were never Cole Stobe either. That was partly true. You are part Gen-a-TEC’s Project Blank Slate. Yeah you work for Gen-a-TEC, but your also one of their experiments, pretty ironic huh?” Dan grimaced a little but continued. “Part of your profile state you were an undercover cop and they liked your propensity to detail and secrecy. You had high level clearance in your department and were on your way deep undercover. Well Gen-a-TEC decided you were best suited for them. They want to use people as lab rats and reassign the human brain. They feel the brain has a lot more potenial than say a man made robo-brain with enhanced A.I.” Dan seemed to pale by the minute. Sweat drenched his shirt. A smell resembling raw hot dogs wafted towards me from Dan. I gagged. I never liked hot dogs. “I didn’t figure out the real reason. Or my reason anyway, for their experiments. Not just reassigning people into society. But giving them new lives completely. Wiping out their old lives completely. You don’t have your parents, your spouse, you sons.” Dan paused looking away. The look on my face might have made him feel guilty. Or maybe he took pride in his job. Either way I wanted to leap up and strangle the only link I had the insane concoction my life was turning into.
Before I could make any sudden moves Dan tensed, his head jerked up suddenly and his mouth pulled down as if he were saying “E” but it was all oddly contorted. His eyes bugled and then he flopped out of his chair and went completely rigid. Foam was coming from his “E” formed mouth. His bulging eyes were crying tears of blood.
Dan Stevens then died. I now had 2 former lives.
Which would I believe? Which could I believe? Why couldn’t I have been Dan Stevens at that moment.
I did the only sane (and legal) thing a man in my position could do. I called 911 and explained that a man had expired in my home from an unknown cause. When questioned I had, it seems, a quite believable and trustworthy story. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Other than Mr. Stevens’ bodily condion being somewhat grotesque. As a good Sam I did the right thing. If I truly did commit a crime, why would I call the authorities? Of course I never pointed that fact out aloud.
That was a few days ago. Since then there have not been any black vans in the rear view or shadow men trailing me in the neighborhood when I take walks. Nothing that would hint at Gen-a-TEC trying to put me under their thumb again.
I had not gotten any calls from work. Sometimes assigments could take as much as a week. If I really was apart of Gen-a-TEC as staff as well as a patient as Dan Stevens claims. Wouldn’t two breaches in security can for a termination of the case? Something was not adding up. What was the reason for me being me?
Without work. I have had plenty of time to mull over The Stevens Briefing as I have come to call the incident. What is more farfetched me being Joanna or not even being the man I am now? What would be the point? Just to see if I could cope? Wouldn’t they know someone would come find me and tell me. Someday.
Was that apart of the plan. Geez, a fella could really go nuts trying to figure this out. His life. Lives. Plus I had video and files to back it up. Jane’s story anyway. What did I have from The Stevens briefing. Little did I know I was about to find out.
When I arrived home from a quick store run there was a package on my doorstep. Brown wrapped and addressed to me. I had to first put my groceries on the counter, inside, and come back for the package. Now of course I was careful in this day and age of mysterious mail you have to be. I got the ScanMe 2040 off the waist high bookcase. Nifty little number. The size of an 8 x 10 sheet of paper. It is able to be laid across any surface and reflect the contents. It is able to detect dangerous substances if programmed to do so. If there are reports of certain chemicals or dangers reported being shipped in the mail the ScanMe can receive alerts. The package had a 87 % safety rating. Which meant it met the requirements to ship across the US but could contain harmful but not fatal contents. Well I wasn’t going to be blown to bits. I set the ScanMe aside and picked up the package. It had some weight to it.
I carried it over to the kitchen table. I reached into my pocket and grabbed my LaserBlade. While not meant for this purpose I activated the blade and set it to a low setting and brushed it lightly across the tape, breaking the seal. The tape was cauterized and only left behind a mild smell of burnt plastic in the air.
The contents were varied. Pictures, papers, discs. I picked up the note.
It’s true what they are saying. It’s only what you choose to believe that makes it real.” A small case that is similar to what I use to transfer the environment sensitive items I prepare at work was tucked among the photos and papers. I was immediately curious about that but then I saw a very familiar face. The pit of my stomach shrank and my throat tightened. I felt a sharp burn sting my eyes. It was like seeing a lost friend.
Me with Joanna…I mean Jane. She was apart of me though. Not a sister. A copy. So much alike. Is that Dan Stevens next to her? The picture is not to clear. Next picture was of a woman and child. The woman was not stunning but had kind eyes and a gentle smile. The child was reaching out. “Daddy.” I could faintly recall a ghostly echo as the memory behind the photo played. “Chase. Michelle, daddy!” I tear slipped down my cheek. The pictures were the memories of Joanna/Jane and of me. Cole.
The case. The sleek silver flashed in the brightness of the kitchen. It was not security locked. I opened the clasp and a hiss of air escaped. A bit startled but recovered instantly. Inside was a blood testing kit and a small vial of blood. It was obvious. The blood provided was marked with a patient ID and the word WORRA.
What was going on? I felt connected to both these lives. But I could only be one of them. It felt so unreal but when I look at the photos I felt like I needed to be there with these people. I hastily wiped my face.
I reached in the box and dug out the papers. They were actually copies of headlines.
“Secret testing leads to investigation.”
“Many top officals still missing, feared dead.”
“What can be worse than cloning?”
What? What! I looked frantically for more, anything. I needed to know more. There just was so much but just not enough. I fell to the floor. Pain crippled me and all I saw was red.
“Slowly, slowly. Bring him out slowly. We don’t want another Stevens incident. We could actually get him to finish his part of the program if we do this right.” The tech slowly retracted the embedded cranial probe after the last dose of serum injected directly into the subject’s brain. The monitor’s had indicated an intense if not life-threatening amount of stress.
“Maybe this was a bit of a stretch.” The second tech replied as he eased the subject into a sitting position, making sure the restraints were secure.
“I have seen it over and over. I am sure with the proper amount of suggestion people will believe anything.”
Through my red haze of pulsing pain I tried to at least get up. Opening my eyes was an effort, but I at least tried. As my lids fluttered open I blinked several times, worked my jaw trying to release the tension in my temples. I brought my hands-
My hands! What the heck! I snapped out of whatever stupor I was in. My hands were immobilized and as my vision focused and cleared I realized I wasn't even in my kitchen anymore.
"Oh, well look. Someone realizes he ain't in Kansas no more." I glared at the man talking. I went to speak and realized that I could not. My heart began to pick up speed. "Whoa there. You have got to relax there big guy. We don't need another mess to clean up. We almost got you totally neautrelized and reintegrated. Yep, your almost you again. No more, "faking a female voice the tech replied, "am I Joanna? Or, "then in a macho male voice the tech said, "am I Cole Stobe?" I waited getting more anxious by the second dreading to hear what was next. "Well all I know is none of what you went through was real. God. There some damned devil of a statement I was supposed to give you. Basically your apart of an experiment and I personally don't know more than your subject number 4827911. To administer your medications." He gave me a moment. Let that little barb dig into my soul. "Sounds a little bit like a prison number don't it?" The tech gave me a backwards look. The meds, or something, was twisting in my guts and I wanted to heave. Turning back to his e-paper he continued to take notes.
The inventor of the thin membrane that had replaced even recycled paper was in short called e-paper. Able to be plugged into computers and download apps or upload information. It could be used with a writing wand or a projected keypad. The paper was thin and flexible enough to carry in a wallet. Or could be ordered for business-sized presentations. People even customized it to use for gift wrappping. Adding their own personalizations. I found it strange that, even in this life, I recognized and remembered things and mundane as e-paper. It did not shock me or confuse me in the least what the tech was doing with the black oily looking substance that seemed to be suspended between a thin layer glass and yet flexed like paper when he picked it up and placed it on top of another piece of e-paper. I had not considered all the equipment that surrounded me. So I asked when my eyes landed on a completely foreign looking contraption. "What is that?" I thought. I grunted loudly and the tech saw where my eyes were glued.
"Oh. That. I guess you'd consider is a time machine." With a smirk he simply turned and started back to his note taking. I indeed was no longer Cole Stobe. I was in a room with these two people who knew more about me life than I did. What I held so precious and wanted to search out about my life, never really existed.
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