Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 16.1

CHAPTER SIXTEEN
Aleph-Two
            Matt was there. 
            He was solid -- everything else was light and shadows.  As he caught her, lowered her to the ground, Lily felt like she was made of feathers...if he spoke, if he even breathed, she thought she would fly apart.
            He was there.
            Lily had not expected to find him like this.  Some part of her had not expected to find him at all; she had been convincing herself that the decision to look for him was all that was really important. 
            But he was there.
            For him suddenly to appear, out of nothing...she would have been overwhelmed even if the walls, the floor, the entire room had not been rippling like a flag in the galewinds of his arrival.
            She heard herself say something to him, something like hello, but not exactly.  The words she was saying still weren’t the same as the ones she was thinking.  What was that look on his face?  Surprise?  Why did his smile seem sad, now?  What had she said?
            Matt helped her to her feet.  The touch of his fingers was irrefutable.  Lily kept hold of his hand, and his smile brightened a bit.  He looked...he looked awful, in fact.  He was still wearing the red shirt and jeans that he had worn on the day he vanished, but the shirt seemed sun-bleached and crusted with salt, while his jeans suggested that he had waded through an abattoir.  There were scrapes and bruises on his hands and face, and there was something deep and wild about his eyes.  His hair was even spikier than normal.  Without thinking about it, she reached up and ran the fingers of one hand through it; it was stiff, and crackled ever so slightly...
            He flinched slightly, and the sadness crept onto his face again.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “That tickles a bit.”  She pulled back her hand, wondering if she had done something wrong.
            Then he closed his eyes for a moment; when he opened them, the sly grin that she had been thinking about for weeks was there as well.  “Oh, what the hell,” he said.  “If this is the only way I get to see you, I’ll take it.”
            Before she could wonder what he meant, he swept her into his arms.  She reached around the back of his neck, drew his face down to hers; their lips met, and she tasted infinity.
* * *
            “If you’re planning to have that kind of dream, would you mind using someone else’s room?” a voice said.  “This bed’s occupied.  If you were going to bother with the bed, that is.”
            Startled, Lily remembered they weren’t alone.  She felt herself blush.
            “Going to introduce me?”  Mina asked.
            Lily turned, but kept on arm around Matt in case he decided to vanish.  “Oh...I’m...sorry...this is Matt.  I was here looking for him.”
            “Of course you were.”  Mina got up, and stuck her hand out at Matt.  “Good to meet you, kid.  You’re an odd one, aren’t you?”
            Matt looked puzzled, but shook Mina’s hand briefly.  Then he turned to face Lily again, and took her by the shoulders.  Looking straight into her eyes, he said, “Lily, listen to me.  I know this is hard, but I need you to focus.  I need your help.  You’re dreaming.  When you wake up, I need you to tell Professor Harte that I’m alive and that I’m waiting for help.”
             “I’m not dreaming,” Lily said.  “I’m really here.  I took the Visulex.  Harte sent me to find you and bring you back,” she thought, but said something completely different.
            “That’s right, I took the Visulex, and entered the dream world,” Matt replied.  “Now you’re seeing me because you’re asleep.”
            She shook her head, and tried again, but when she tried to force the right words out, her mind fogged and her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth.  Matt just watched her, a sad smile on his face.  Of course, she realized.  He thought he had stumbled across her in one of her own dreams. 
            She didn’t know why she couldn’t speak to Matt properly, but there had to be some way to communicate.  Could she write?  If she had the visual feedback on motor skills that writing provided, maybe she could control herself more easily. 
            “Mina – is there a pen or something in here?  Anything to write with?”  She made a little scribbling gesture.
            “Not that I’ve ever found.”
            Matt tapped Lily on the shoulder, and made the little scribbling motion himself.  Lily nodded, and he took a purple crayon, broken in half, out of his pocket.  He handed the pointy half to her.
            Lily looked around, and took the chart off the end of Mina’s bed.
            “Hey!” the other woman protested.
            “Sorry, I need the paper. I’ll use the back.”  She flipped the chart over on the clipboard, and began printing letters.
            Lily felt like an idiot child; her hand kept trying to twist in weird directions, and her letters looked pre-literate, but she was able to get them out: NOT AZLEEP.  TOOK VISL DRUG.  HERE II RESQ U.  She presented it to Matt.
            He took the clipboard, and looked at her again, sharply.  “You’re here awake?”
            Lily nodded with relief, but he looked worried.  “You look like a sleepwalker to me, like your friend there,” Matt said.  Lily shrugged and turned her palms up.  “I don’t know much about this place, but I don’t think that’s such a good sign,” he said.  “I wish I could talk to Captain Forrest.  He might be able to explain this.”  He seemed to be drifting off in thought.
            Lily poked him on the arm and looked at him pointedly, tapping her foot.  He looked at her.  “What...oh.  What a jackass I am.  Thank you...”  He hugged her again; it was very nice.  “I don’t know what to say...”  She reached up and patted him on the head.
            He let go of her, and now it was Matt’s turn to blush.  “Oh...oh, before, when I thought you were asleep, I...”  She reached up, took his face in her hands, and kissed him again soundly.  “Really?” he said.  Lily smiled and gave him a thumbs-up sign, and now his smile was unabashedly joyful.
            This relationship should be easy, Lily thought – all I have to do is keep my mouth shut and he’ll do whatever I say.  She kissed him once more, just for good measure.
            After they came up for air, she picked up the crayon again.  KNEED TOO GET OUT OF HAIR HEAR.  NITEHORSESMARES COMIGN 4 HER/US.
            “Right, then,” Matt replied.  “Hold on tight.  If you haven’t done this before, it can be a bit of a jolt.”  He slipped his arm around Lily, looked at Mina, and in a firm voice said, “You have to take us to the marketplace, right now.”
            “Love to.  Let me know when you’ve found the door,” Mina responded.  Matt couldn’t understand her, but it was obvious he’d expected something else to happen. 
            He put his hand on Mina’s shoulder.  “Take us to the schoolhouse.”
             “Mitts off, buster.”  She slapped his hand away. 
            He peered at the other woman.  “Is there something unusual about your friend?  Did she come with you from the real world?” he asked Lily.
            IN COMA.  NOSE SHEZ DREAMNG.
            “I guess that might do it,” Matt said, but didn’t elaborate.  He looked around.  “Um.  Have you noticed there’s no door?”
            “He’s a quick one, isn’t he?” asked Mina.
            “Be nice, he’s had a bit of a shock,” Lily said. 
            “I can tell,” Mina replied, grinning.  Matt was looking between the two of them with suspicion.
            How were they going to get out, though?  Lily wondered.  According to Mina, it was only a matter of time before they were drawn into another nightmare.  Would they even realize what had happened, or would they simply become part of it, the way Mina did on the path in the meadow? 
            Lily bounced the crayon in her hand idly.  Cartoons were often dreamlike, right?  Both dealt in archetypes and twisted logic.  She moved to one wall and pushed a metal trolley out of the way.
            “What are you doing?” Matt asked.  She wasn’t about to take the time to sign out a response, and would need the crayon for this, so she ignored the question.  Instead, she just drew the outline of a door on the wall, and a circle for a knob.  She tried to grasp the knob, but her hand just slid across the surface.
            Matt watched her with interest.  “Maybe you need more detail?”  He moved in next to her, and, with the other half of the crayon, started adding features...panels, hinges, the dimensionality of the knob.  He tore the paper off of the crayon stub to slide it sideways across the white wall, and then used his fingers to work the wax into shadows and contours. 
            Lily tried to help for a bit, then stepped out of the way as flecks of purple fell to the ground.  She had never really seen Matt work before.  He started slowly, but soon was attacking the wall; when he stepped back to look at his work, he was breathing heavily, almost panting.
            He nodded with satisfaction.  Matt had the emotional defensiveness typical of someone with his history, but at least in the context of his art he could look at himself honestly and see something of value.  Not for the first time, Lily found herself thinking that Visulex really would be the perfect treatment for him, if only it worked properly.  It was a pity they’d probably never get the chance to refine its use.
            “It looks great,” she said, and meant it; she hadn’t been aware you could do that kind of thing with crayon.  Whatever it was Matt heard, he seemed to get the point, because he smiled and reached for the knob.
            And his fingers scrabbled at the wall, just like hers had.  Lily’s shoulders sagged, letting go of anticipation she hadn’t realized was building.
            Then, just as she started to relax, she jumped at a new voice from behind them.  “What do you think you’re doing?  I’m going to have to scrub that off, you know.”
            A previously unseen door had opened in the far wall; a man in a grey jumpsuit with a mop and bucket stood there glaring at them.
            “Quick!” Matt shouted, but Mina was already moving.  She brushed the outraged janitor out of the way with the sweep of a heavily muscled arm, and blocked the door from closing as Lily and Matt ran through after her.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 16.2]

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 15.5


            Elizabeth had expected the man responsible for Matt’s disappearance to look like a mad scientist, a wild-eyed, shock-haired Dr. Frankenstein with a white lab coat and glossy black rubber gloves.  Not this fairly well-groomed older man in flannel and denim with a sad face.
            Still, there were less than a ten seconds between Elizabeth’s realizing who the new prisoner was and her slamming him against the wall of the cell.
            “What did you do to Matt?  Where is he?” she shouted in Harte’s surprised face.
            “Oh, Professor?” interjected Hector.  “May I introduce Matt’s sister, Elizabeth?  You’ll want to watch out for her left hook.”
            “Young lady, please release me.  I will explain what I can, subject to the potentially inherent...” Harte was cut off as Elizabeth twisted her grip on his collar.
            “Do you go by a nickname?” Hector asked her suddenly.  “Beth?  Liz?  Betty?  There are lots of options – sort of the opposite of Ed, you know, lots of Ed names, Edward, Edwin, Edgar, all get shortened to the same thing. Al’s even better; Alfred, Albert, Alvin, Alistair, Alphonse, um...oh, of course, Algernon, how could a psychologist forget Algernon?” 
Elizabeth loosened her grip and looked at Hector; Harte gasped a breath.  “What are you talking about?” she said.
“Just wanted to get your attention before you choked the guy with the answers, champ.  I can understand the urge to throttle him when he’s talking, though.  Low-level Asperger’s, or something like that, isn’t it, Professor?”
            “Mr. Ojeda,” Harte wheezed, “my condition is not a matter for discussion.”
             “After the day we’ve had, Professor, I think we’re entitled to talk about whatever we want,” Hector said.  “Why don’t you let him go, Eliz... – actually, what do you prefer to be called?”
            “Elizabeth’s fine,” she said.  She liked the way Chavez had said it, at least.  She released Harte, and he staggered over to the cot.
            Hector leaned over him.  “So, explain.”
            Harte hung his head for a long moment before he spoke.  “All right.  In 1976, a United States Army Captain by the name of Todd Forrest volunteered for a certain experiment.  It involved administration of certain psychoactive substances in order to modify the awareness of soldiers in combat.”
            “What does this have to do with Matt?” Elizabeth interrupted.
            “Patience,” Hector said.  “I expect the Professor is about to tell us he administered the experiment.  Right?”
            “Wrong,” Harte snapped.  “I tried to help the Captain afterwards.  The substances he had taken in the experiment had drastic effects upon his brain chemistry.  He experienced hallucinations and paranoia.  Many of Captain Forrest’s delusions derived from popular fiction of the time, stories of spies and secret agents. 
            “Captain Forrest’s particular delusions centered around the belief that he was the leader of a team of super soldiers, all of whom had been part of the army’s experiment.  In fact, Forrest alone was the subject. 
            “I was brought in to consult on his case.  I tried standard therapies, but they were ineffective.  So I was forced to turn to other, stronger, more radical treatments in order to control his condition.  While those treatments were potentially risky, they had been extensively tested, and I judged the risks acceptable.
            “What I did not anticipate was that the military had not been honest with me about the true nature of the drugs that they had already given the Captain.
            “It took me over a decade to figure out what had happened.  As I am sure you have guessed, the combined effect of the drugs was similar to that which we call Visulex, only much more potent, and uncontrolled.
            “Captain Forrest disappeared in front of me, but he reappeared at various times and places, much in the way Mr. Larkin now does.  Where he appeared, he could alter reality.  His delusions became manifest.
“Even after the Captain’s appearances tapered off in the early 1980s, I continued to search for a way to cure his condition.  The danger he posed was still incalculable, and he was, is, my patient.  There were times when, to my shame, I hoped that he was dead, but I could not take that chance.  The Visulex experiments were part of my extended attempts to find a way to access aleph-two, the dream world, and retrieve Forrest.”
“And the men-in-black outside?” Hector asked.
“Central to Forrest’s fantasy was the belief that he and his team were being used or opposed by a nefarious and secret group within the government.  There was no truth to these beliefs, of course.  The man who supposedly led this secret group was named Robert Black.
“The commander of this base likewise identifies himself as Robert Black.  For reasons which I do not understand, this person is pretending to be, or actually believes himself to be, a man who does not exist.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 16.1]

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 15.4


“We’ve got a contact...oh, you’re going to love this, sir.” said the Lead Monitor.
Robert Black had always liked the Lead Monitor.  So many of his personnel lacked a sense of humor; it was generally a benefit in their work, but it could be so dull.  The LM had a dry wit that Black found refreshing given the terror with which most of his staff appeared to regard him.  Exactly why the LM was not afraid of him was a valid question, though; it could either be excess confidence as a result of his elevated position, or the sign of an impending psychotic break, which was also not uncommon in their work.  Black made a mental note to have the LM demoted, once this current crisis was over.
“Report,” Black said cheerfully.
“Larkin tripped the matrix on level two.  He’s in an oubliette.”
“Excellent.  Is there a nightmare cycle?”
“Yes...calculating that now.  Ooh, it’s a fast one – only fifteen to twenty subjective minutes between nightmares.”
“Fast indeed,” Black said.  “That should keep him occupied until we can collect him.  Any sign of this third trace Ms. Rodgers tells we should be looking for?  This Breckenridge woman?”
“Not that we can be sure of.  There was a flicker earlier, but it never resolved properly.  There are two coma-type traces with Larkin’s, no surprise in an oubliette.  Possible Breckenridge could be one of those, if she’s been absorbed by the dream state.”
“Keep watch anyway.”  So much to do today, Black thought.  Soon, he would have a meeting to attend with an old friend.  It was a conceit, he knew, to think Tim would be glad to see him.  Still, Black liked to believe that they were friends, and that the other man simply hadn’t realized it yet.  “I’ll be in my office.  No interruptions.  LM, you’re in charge.”
            “Yes, sir,” the Lead Monitor said smugly.
* * *
            Some hours after his interrogation of his would-be assassin, Chavez was driving along Route 44 in Connecticut.  He had called into the Albuquerque field office to report the attempt on his life, the apparent kidnapping of Elizabeth Wright and Hector Ojeda, and the location in rural New Jersey that the false DEA agent had provided.  The SAC had promised to route the information to the field offices in New Haven and Newark; those offices would then take over and coordinate with local law enforcement to investigate the site. 
            Chavez himself had been ordered back to New Mexico; he was headed back to the airport now.  His boss had decided that the assault on Douglas Wright was unconnected to the strange events in Connecticut, and that the matter was best left in the hands of the Bureau’s local offices.  As far as Albuquerque was concerned, Larkin had been cleared by Harkness University’s confirmation that he was a patient in their hospital at the time of the attack. 
            Chavez had protested, but without anything in the way of proof to back up either Elizabeth’s fantastic story or Hector’s description of the Visulex catastrophe, there was little he could say beyond asking for more time to look into the case.
            A sign passed by, informing Chavez that he could reach “Satan’s Kingdom” via the next exit.  Wouldn’t be a bit surprised, he thought to himself.  Chavez wondered when he had started to accept the unlikely scenario playing out around him.  The weird thing was that his instincts told him that it all fit together, that everyone’s actions made sense so long as Hector and Elizabeth and the original police report were all accurate.  It just depended on the world itself being insane.
            It wasn’t the first time, of course, that he had evaluated suspects’ behavior based upon outlandish assumptions; the whole trick of profiling was figuring out the beliefs and perceptions that motivated a criminal, when those beliefs and perceptions might have little to do with reality.  But none of the people Chavez had met in this case seemed out of touch with the real world.  They had simply seen something beyond their comprehension and behaved like normal people would: the local PD in Albuquerque, passing the buck and then ignoring it; Hector Ojeda, running away; Elizabeth, trying to figure out what happened, but not telling anyone out of fear that she would appear crazy.  And wasn’t he doing the same thing himself, not telling his boss what he actually suspected was going on?
            Whatever the Newark office found in the Hibernia iron mines, he doubted that it would be anything they were prepared to handle.  It made no sense for him to leave now, when he might be the last person who had even a hint of what they might encounter.
            Chavez pulled over at the next rest stop, and punched Hibernia into the car’s GPS system.  He could get there in a few hours, and help when the other agents went in.  And damn it, he had to be there to see it for himself.
* * *
The door to the small interrogation room opened, and Harte looked up as a man in his mid-to-late sixties walked in, the guard outside holding the door for him.  The man looked fit for his age, and was neatly dressed in a dark turtleneck and beige corduroy pants.  His white hair swept back from his forehead, as if his face were moving forward leaving condensation trails in its wake.
“You don’t seem surprised to see me,” the man said, sitting in the chair on the other side of the table.
“Should I be?” Harte replied.
“Well, it has been over twenty years since we last spoke, Tim.  I can’t imagine that you were expecting me here.”
“I do not recognize you.  Have we met?”
“My God, Tim...it’s Bob Black; I can’t have changed that much.  You’ll make me think all that time on the cross-trainer was for nothing!”
Harte’s eyes widened.  “Robert Black?”
“Ah, there’s the surprise I was looking for!  I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed at how blasé you seemed to be.”
“I know who you say you are now,” Harte said grimly.  “You are correct, I was not expecting to see you.  Is Captain Forrest is still alive?”
“Always so practical.  I’d hoped we might be able to catch up a bit before getting to business, but there it is.  Yes, Tim, the good Captain is still with us, I have him in a, well, let’s call it a temporary holding area in aleph-two, for his own safety.”
“Why have you abducted me?”
“Because I wasn’t sure you’d come, otherwise.  After all,” Black said, spreading his hands, “we did have a bit of a falling out.  But it strikes me that you and I have the same problem.  We both want to be able to retrieve conscious subjects from the dream world and return them to base reality.  I thought we might work together to make that happen.”
“You are looking for a method to restore the Captain to aleph-one?”  Harte asked.
“Well, I didn’t say that, exactly.  He’s been there for a long time, and for now he’s fine where he is.  Really, at this point I’d be more interested in bringing Matthew Larkin home.”
Harte felt the air leave his lungs in a rush.  “What do you know about him?”
“More than you, most likely.  For example, I know that Matthew Larkin is alive and well, at least within certain parameters of ‘well,’ and has been performing stunts in the dream world that my operatives have never been able to accomplish.  I’d be interested to know how.”
“How did you obtain that information?”
“I can’t reveal all of my techniques until we’ve decided to work together, now can I?  So, what do you say?”
Harte’s hands began to shake.  “I...I will need to consider it.”
“Of course,” Black replied with a warm smile.  “You’ll understand that I cannot allow you to roam freely, of course.  Someone will show you to your room until you make up your mind.”
Black stood, then knocked at the door.  It locked behind him after he exited.  A few minutes later, three guards in black and silver uniforms entered, and escorted Harte to an elevator which took them down several floors.  The elevator opened to reveal a brightly lit corridor with heavy steel doors on each side of the hall.
The guards opened one of the cell doors and shoved Harte inside.  He stumbled; strong hands caught him before he fell.
Harte righted himself as the cell door slammed shut.  He looked up into the bruised and battered face of Hector Ojeda.  “Professor?” the big graduate student asked, “is that you?”  A woman Harte did not know was stretched out on the narrow bed in the cell.
“Yes, Mr. Ojeda.”
“Everyone’s been looking for you.  Do you know what’s happening here?”
“No,” Harte said.  “But I have certain suspicions.”
“Care to let us know?”
“Yes.  To put it in simple terms, we may very well be trapped in the mind of a madman and, for the life of me, I cannot see a way out.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 15.5]

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 15.3

            Nina sat opposite Timothy in the limousine; the older man was between the goons that Black had sent with her on the retrieval operation.  Dr. Harte didn’t seem like he was going to make trouble; as darkness brightened to day during their ride, he had appeared indifferent to the heavies on either side of him, as if he were the aging autocrat of a third world nation, and they his bodyguards.
            She flipped through the book that she had removed from Timothy’s library on Black’s orders.  The title was innocuous enough: Ontology and Perception.   It was by Harte himself.  According to Black, this was one of only two copies in existence after his organization had quashed the book’s publication; the other, of course, was owned by Black.
            The portion to which Nina opened was written in classic Harte style:
            The empirical evidence thus suggests that the vast majority of human beings, while in a waking state, perceives a continuous infinity that I will designate with a symbol taken from mathematical set theory: aleph-one, or א1.
            However, א1 (which colloquially, and inaccurately, is often referred to as the “real” world) is not the only level of abstraction that the human mind is capable of observing.  The most common example of perception at an abstraction greater than א1 occurs in the dream state, where events originally perceived and internalized in א1 are processed by the sleeping mind in a primarily symbolic language.  This next level of abstraction, which I designate א2, represents a distinction of infinite cardinality from א1, inasmuch as each point in א1, when viewed in א2, is capable of conveying infinitely more information in the symbolic mode...
It went on like that for a while.  Nina flipped ahead.
            The results of these experiments show, moreover, that the direct perception of א2 cannot be distinguished experientially from existence in א2.  This poses an apparent paradox, for abstraction to א2 necessarily entails the elimination of detailed distinctions between א1 locations and features via a process of superordinate categorization.  For example, every red house in א1, stripped of its detail, might become a single red house in א2.  But how can it be that a perceiving individual attuned to א2 can see all red houses simultaneously by virtue of this abstraction, when any individual in א1 has a fixed location? 
            The apparent paradox derives from the common misunderstanding discussed above that א1 represents the “real” world, and that all other levels of perception must have a foundation in this “base reality”.  In fact, there is no evidence that א1 holds any greater merit or importance than any other level of abstraction, apart from its apparent status as the default setting for the human mind.  Thus, an individual’s perceptions in א2 need not make logical sense in א1
            Indeed, to the extent that an individual in א2 is by definition existing and perceiving on a level inconsistent with the ontological and physical laws of א1, that individual will no longer be perceptible in א1...
            Nina closed the book, and put it down.  “Does this actually mean anything?” she asked Timothy.  He ignored her, and watched the road roll by.
            He’s probably forgotten that he’s a prisoner, Nina thought with an internal smile.  She shrugged, then extended the gesture into a stretch, enjoying the soft leather of the seat against her shoulders.  Nina appreciated Robert Black’s attitude toward the comfort of his employees; the limousine was just one example of how Black’s apparently inexhaustible budget was used to create a pleasant working environment.  She could definitely get used to this; there was no question that freelancing had been the correct career move when she left the CIA after that ugly period at the turn of the millennium.
She honestly wasn’t sure if Black’s operation was government or quasi-government (or, for that matter, which government it was, quasi- or otherwise).  Black had made clear she was not supposed to ask.  She didn't even know the name of the organization, or if it had a name.  Regardless, it was obvious that Black had more pull, better equipment, and deeper funding than the Agency.
Certainly, Black’s primary research facility was the most advanced installation that she had ever seen.  And, oddly, the most stylish.  The man probably had interior decorators on retainer.  The overall effect was that of the secret base of a Bond villain, if Dr. No had decided to move his operations from Crab Key to rural New Jersey.  Presumably the property values were better in the Garden State.
Not that Nina considered Black, or herself, to be a mustache-twirling villain.  Timothy’s arrest was as much for his own good as it was for the good of Robert Black’s project.  Black’s team had been working in the same field for decades, and had been content to let Timothy pursue his research in academia (with employees such as herself keeping tabs on him) while they continued behind the veil of secrecy.  Now, however, Black said that the good Doctor Harte had reached a point where his work was becoming dangerous.
The limousine turned off of I-80; the facility had been built into one of the abandoned iron mines in that area of the state.  They would be stopping shortly, to be met by a vehicle more appropriate to unpaved roads that led to the base.  Then she could hand Timothy over, pick up her bonus check, and leave this part of the operation far behind.
“The nice part of the trip is almost over,” she told Harte, while she poured herself another diet cola.  The other, much more expensive bottle was untouched.  She wouldn’t be opening the good stuff until the job was done, her own personal rule.  “Last chance for a drink for while.”
“No, thank you.”
“Suit yourself,” Nina said, and sipped.
* * *
Chavez knew something wasn’t right when, except for “Agent Packer,” the DEA team was gone within fifteen minutes.
Forensics should have been crawling all over the room, turning it upside down for evidence, photographing the ten by fifteen room from every angle.  This team hadn’t even bothered to open a single drawer.
And Packer didn’t seem inclined to start an interview anytime soon, either.  He just checked his watch every couple of minutes.  What’s he waiting for?  Chavez wondered.
“What office are you guys out of?” he asked.
“I’m not supposed to answer any questions,” Packer replied gruffly.
“Mind if I get a drink of water before we start?” he asked.  Packer nodded, and Chavez went into the bathroom and turned on the tap.
“So, is the forensic team following behind you guys?” he called out over the sound of the faucet.
“Who?”
“The forensics team.”
“Oh, right.  They’ll be here soon.”  Sure they would, Chavez thought.  To take away my body, I expect.
“Be right there,” Chavez said.  “Just letting it get cold.”  Then he turned out the bathroom light.
“Hey - get out here!” Packer said.  Chavez heard him moving, and stepped into the bathtub.
He tensed as the agent’s shadow fell across the floor, the blunt shape of a pistol in one hand.  Chavez, pressing himself into the corner of the tub, grimly noted the silencer on the weapon.  So, a quiet bullet for me, he thought.  Come on, one more step, you bastard...
Packer flipped the light on as he stepped into the bathroom, saw Chavez in the mirror, and whirled around...then kept going as his feet went out from under him in the slick of water and shampoo that Chavez had spilled across the tile.  The gun went off in Packer’s hand, shattering the mirror; his head whacked the side of the tub on the way down, and he sprawled across the floor. 
Chavez scooped the pistol out of the shards of glass, and leaped on the agent before he could recover his wits.  Pinning the dazed man’s arms with his knees, Chavez slapped Packer’s face.
“Come on, wake up.”  He waited for Packer’s eyes to focus, then planted the pistol under the man’s chin.  “Now, where have you people taken my friends?” Chavez asked.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 15.4]