Brightness stung his eyes as he came back to the world of the living. He rolled over but pulled back suddenly when his skin touched the edge of the wall. The cold surface shocked him further awake, was it metal?
Ash's vision refused to return properly at first, but as he adjusted he found himself in a white-permeated room. After further examination, the walls were made of a hard metal, painted in high-gloss white, with no seams anywhere to be seen. A soft hissing sound came from overhead. He tried to see where it was coming from but the thousand tiny lights were too bright to see past, maybe the air conditioner. A white cardboard box sat on a thin snow-white metallic table in a small space covered in white painted titanium walls. The monochromatic nature of the room, combined with the hissing and brightness were a disorienting combination.
"How did I get here?” Ash said out loud. The slight echo of his voice his only reply.
Looking down he noticed for the first time he wearing a white form-fitting uniform. A single thick black stripe ran down the side of both arms and legs. It was like spandex, full body style. His pale southern sunburn looked worse against the white fabric. Despite years in hot arid climates, he could never hold a tan. Disorientation started to settle down and he found his bearings to stand. He walked the ten by ten room, feeling the wall for a seam or any indication that there was an opening.
Finding no escape, thoughts move to business, take stock. Name/Rank: "Captain Therun Ashland, USAF”, he said out loud again. He waited for some kind of movement or someone to address him through a speaker system, but he received no such response. Taking inventory of his body, every part was accounted for, legs, arms, toes, fingers, the scar on his neck under his left ear. No pains, other than the usual.
Ash tried to recall his last memory before finding himself in this room, but he couldn't seem place a specific memory. His mind was empty of anything more relevant than Name/Rank. Obviously he'd been handled before arriving here and must be under surveillance this very moment. There were no apparent doors or windows and no way to defend against attack without knowing where the openings are. Then again if he were going to be killed he would be in some dank dark prison cell not this whitewashed room in some overly tailored biking suit. Still, better to be defensive and keep himself against a wall ready to react.“Bring it in Ash, bring yourself together… What is the last thing you recall? The last solid memory was opening an invitation to meet with General Akbar and walking down the hall to his office. There was no other memory. He woke up here.
The box on the table was the only thing in the room with him, besides the table itself, which seemed to be built into the floor. He approached the table cautiously. The legs and table appeared to be built of high strength metal, not breakable by hand. He gave the table a shove putting his weight behind it, not even a budge. The package seemed like any US Post Office shipping box-minus the labels. It was sealed in white duct tape end to end.
Ash peeled at the tape slowly, ready to react to its contents. This box was obviously here for him, it was the only thing in the room, and no-one had reacted to his being awake. Laying the tape aside he opened the lid and found an iPhone, neatly wrapped in plastic. He opened the bag and turned on the phone.
It booted silently- then he heard the sound of metal scraping.
Keys in a gate, or latch... the sound seemed to come from everywhere...Then Ash woke up, silently. As though he'd been awake for hours. He took a deep breath which completed the transition to morning. He was sweating slightly, but not drenched. He could hear voices down the hall but couldn't make our the words. Two sets of shoes approached, one heavy footed male, Bobby if he wasn't mistaken. The other clicked and clacked, high heels if he wasn't mistaken.
"He's right through here. I can't let you in, but there's a chair by the door." It was Bobby, that one for two.
"Thanks, Bobby," the voice was female and familiar. "I really appreciate your letting me see him." Grace rounded the corner first, followed by Bobby in Uniform. Gone was the jogging outfit and red hoodie, replaced by a red blazer, black pencil skirt, and red high heels. Two for two.
Bobby brought the chair over and set it by the door of the cell, then tipped his Ashland PD Ball Cap and left. Grace took a seat and pulled a yellow legal pad and pen from her bag. He hair was pulled back in a pony tail still, but the loose strand from yesterday was now fully tucked away. She glanced over her shoulder and watched Bobby shut the outer hallway door, then turned back and gave Ash a weak and somewhat pathetic smile.
"Do I look that bad?" Ash asked and sat up on the edge of the bed to face her.
"I'd say you looked a fair bit better yesterday," Grace replied. "I hope you don't mind. They let me in when I said I was a friend, and flashed my reporter 'get anywhere you want' credentials."
"No," Ash said and started to chuckle at the absurdity of this second meeting. "I'd like some company to keep me in the land of the sane for just a little longer." He liked this person. Something about her was disarming and he felt the walls he'd spent so many years building crumble to the ground like old burned newspaper.
"So..." She hesitated. Her nose wrinkled and she bit her lip. Then she started again. "Have they told you what's going on yet?"
"Well," he started to say then shook his head. Where do I start? "I was attacked by a crazy homeless man, Frank, the day before yesterday. I had a horrible night that night, took several meds and drank until I passed out. The next morning my Glock 9mm was missing and Frank was dead. George confirmed the bullets were a match the gun registered in my name, the one that was missing but when I took George back to my house the Glock was suddenly back again. That's when George arrested me. Someone could have broken into my house last night, but all the possibilities around that make no sense. Who would have known I'd pulled the gun out that night, I usually keep them locked up. So now I'm starting to think I went sleep walking, half way across town to another hillside, and killed a homeless man... in my sleep? That doesn't make any sense either. I must sound nuts... huh?" Ash couldn't tell if she was reacting to any of this, her expression looked worried before he started talking. She didn't seem any more surprised, so that's was a consolation.
"I don't think you did it," She said. "I have reason to believe that something else is happening here, I just haven't put my finger on it yet. You, my friend, are at the epicenter of it. Congratulations," Grace said and put her notebook down. "You just got a living shadow. I'm not leaving your side until we figure this out." She forced a smile, and tilted her head back in a show of confidence.
"I hate to waste your time," Ash replied. The tiny window, high on the wall, revealed a few clouds rolling over the hills. It's getting darker by the second. He turned back to Grace and replied, "...I really am a messed up guy, lots of psychiatric history, it really is possible, however unlikely, that I killed that guy. I guess you can at least get the exclusive interview, but I don't think I'm going anywhere."
"Maybe-" She started. "Let me ask you something, have you ever seen this man?" Grace pulled out a photo of a pudgy man with bald head and graying hair around the sides.
"Yes, actually, I think I have," Ash took the photo through the bars of the cell door and stared at it a moment. The picture caused the hair on the back of his neck and head to stand on end. "I met this guy yesterday, a doctor something."
"His name is Dr. Richard T. Briar PhD, author of a book entitled 'Unlocking the Paranormal Mind. A study of how the human mind’s unlocked potential', and he is a very bad man. What if I told you that it was he, and not you, who was responsible for the missing gun showing up again, and the death of the old homeless man?" Grace's eyes portrayed a stronger confidence in this statement than anything he'd seen from her yet, which encouraged him slightly.
"How is that possible?" He asked. "What would a scientist want with an old man, and why use my gun--" The revelation slowly dawned on him as plausible, the pieces fit better than anything he'd conjured so far. The easiest way to get away with killing someone was to frame it on someone else. "Oh... But... why kill an old homeless man?"
"Honestly," She said with a shrug, "I don't know. I haven't put that piece of the puzzle together. But I've actually been following this guy for several years. I believe he's been systematically assassinating random people around the country, and Frank was one of many more to come."
"That's an odd thing for a scientist to be involved in." Ash almost lost track of the fact he was sitting in a cell.
"That hulking guy in the turtleneck that follows Dr. Briar around..." Grace said and pulled out another photo, "... he's been with tagging along on these adventures for a few years now too. His name is Sven, I still can't get a last name. He usually shows up in town a few days after the doctor. Then, mysteriously, one or more people die within 48 hours."
"Hm..." Ash couldn't put his finger on it, but the story had a certain ring to it.
"So you can say 'thank you' now." Grace said, with a broad smile.
"Thank you for..." Ash felt puzzled by the statement.
"For saving your life," She said.
"Saving my life? I think you're jumping the gun a little, I'm still locked up."
"Not that. I mean," She mimed the action of a jogger knocking into him with her shoulder. "For knocking the coffee out of your hand yesterday. Sven bumped into you just outside the door of the coffee shop and dropped something that looked like white pills into your drink. I bumped into you to prevent you from drinking it...." She squirmed a bit in her chair. "And this is where I make a confession... My car didn't break down. I was at your house to see if you were still alive."
"Really?" Ash cocked his head and took a deep breath, trying to process this revelation.
"I've followed this guy around the country, but I usually ended up arriving after he'd made the kill. This is the first time I made it to a place before anyone died. This is my big breakthrough." Grace started to smile, then made a frown. "Now we just need to get you out of here."
"I can help with that." George walked up behind her without either of them noticing. "Turns out there are no prints on the gun or bullets, but we managed find a few prints in the house that were not yours. They came up with no hits, which is odd. They aren't yours or mine or Grace's here. I checked everywhere in and around the house, and there are signs that someone climbed down your roof and rappelled onto your balcony. The DA and I talked it over and he sent his own people out to confirm. You're blood tests came back with way too much sedative still in the system to have allowed you to make the trek out to the kill site yourself. The house has been sealed for evidence. He's asked for you not to leave town, but he says you are free to go for now. You'll need to get a hotel."
"George," Ash said. "You are a God-send. What would I do without you?"
"Don't thank me yet," George held up one hand as a warning. "This is enough to cast doubt on you being the killer, but not to remove you from the suspect list. You keep your head down and I'll let you know what I'm allowed to tell you when I'm allowed to tell you it. For now, stay low."
After a quick processing, Grace and Ash ere back on the sidewalk in front of the police station breathing the clean mountain air. The little hippy-town wasn't much to some, but it never felt more like home.
"Come on," She said. "Let's get another Ice Cream and I'll tell you more about my research. Then I can drive you back to your place." She held out her keys, pressed a round button, and a red BMW parked across the street beeped twice. "I really am sorry for lying to you yesterday. But it's kind-of part of the job for a reporter. I didn't know if you were trustworthy until now." She gave him a look that said she wasn't moving until he did.
"I understand," He didn't really totally understand, but it sounded like the right thing to say. Still, there was something about her he liked. Only George had managed to break that barrier before now, and she was better looking that George.
"I'll take you up on that Ice Cream," Ash said and led the way across the street."... and I'll raise you a coffee."
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