Sophie, Sophie, Sophie

Sophie's Coming BackI’ve decided to continue to release a pages from my next Sophie book, a few more every Wednesday until I’ve actually finished the manuscript. My reasoning is:

  1. My readers have waited too long for this book. I owe you at least this much

  2. It will motivate me to work my ass off to get this book finished because honestly, I don’t want to give this whole thing away for free 😅

I will also create a new page on this site that will have the Sophie pages I’ve released all together in one cohesive format.

I’m going to be offline for the day as I prepare for and celebrate my only son’s high school graduation this afternoon (Oh my God, where did the time go???) But while I’m gone, enjoy!

 

CHAPTER 2

When you hear hoofbeats it’s usually horses. Occasionally it’s zebras. But every once in a while it’s some terrifying, previously unknown creature that will completely change the way you think about hoofbeats.

–Dying to Laugh

 

 

I sat next to our guest, Aaron London, as Anatoly examined him from behind our desk. Mr. London was polite but jittery and had already requested to see our Drivers’ licenses to prove our identities. But when we handed them over he seemed to have a tough time reading the words, holding them up this way and that in order to bring them into focus. My eyes kept wandering to his lips. They were so chapped they didn’t even look fully human. A drop of blood rested behind a flap of dry skin near the corner of his mouth.

I offered him the Fiji water I had been hauling around with me in my purse along with an encouraging smile. He accepted both, taking a long drink before placing the bottle on the floor by his feet. I held my pen over the notepad in anticipation. “I’m sorry I’m so early,” he said for about the fifth time.

“It’s not a problem,” Anatoly said, perceptibly irritated by being forced to repeat the reassurance.

“I believe it might throw them off if I don’t show up where I’m expected, when I’m expected.”

“Who exactly are you trying to throw off?” Anatoly asked.

“The people tracking me,” he replied after an uncomfortably long pause. “There are people trying to kill me.”

Anatoly nodded as if being the target of a planned homicide was a normal and easily solvable inconvenience. “I assume you think the two are one and the same? The people who put the tracking device on your car are the ones who want you dead?”

“Of course they’re the same!” London sputtered. I made a quick note: homicidal tracking experts (bad guys).

“Tell me about them,” Anatoly requested. “Why are they going to such extreme measures?”

He shook his head, a few strands of his hair moved with him, but it was too thin to really be whipped around. “I know things,” he explained. “Things I’m not supposed to know.” His eyes locked on me again and this time the anxiety there was so intense I found myself pulling back as if it might be contagious. Yes, I sought a degree of turmoil, but there was something off about this man. “What do you know about the pharmaceutical industry?” he asked.

I looked over at Anatoly who rewarded me with a barely perceptible shrug. “It’s safe to assume neither one of us are experts,” I admitted.

“I used to be in pharmaceuticals,” London rubbed his hands against his wrinkled pants. “I know things about the way the business is run. It’s not good, not good at all.”

“I’m not sure I’m following,” Anatoly said as I wrote pharmaceutical industry: bad!

“The amount of money spent on developing a drug, you have no idea. And when you spend all that money only to discover that your drug can have dangerous side effects, well the companies don’t want to cop to that. They want to get their product to market even if it kills. And they want to kill me because I know that.”

“What pharmaceutical company are we talking about, specifically?” I asked as I furiously scribbled away.

“Nolan-Volz is the worst of the wrong-doers, but it could be that they’ve enlisted other companies in this as well. There’s a lot of collusion with these organizations. Anti-trust laws are being broken right and left. We just keep seeing the same story play out over and over again. Rispolex prescribed off label! Thalidomide! Doctors on the take! The whole medical establishment is in on it!”

“The whole medical establishment?” I asked, giving him the opportunity to pull back on the hyperbole. I would ask what the hell he was talking about in regards to the rest of it in a moment.

But rather than correct himself he nodded sagely and leaned forward, and urgently whispered. “The government is in on it too.”

I looked down at my notepad and considered writing government: Bad! But these days that went without saying.

“They want me dead too! Our own government!” London continued.

Anatoly shifted his head toward the window as a siren briefly disrupted the more benign background noises of the streets. “I find that unlikely, Mr. London.”

“Do you?” London retorted, sarcastically. “Why is that? You think our government doesn’t kill its own citizens? The death penalty! Covert operations! How many do you think they drove to suicide while testing LSD on unsuspecting Americans? What about eugenics? Where do you think the Nazis got that idea, huh?”

Following London’s train of thought was getting harder by the second. My notes had become a jumbled mash up of conspiracy theory catch phrases. I was seeking turmoil, not incoherence. “Maybe we can put the drugs and Nazis aside for a moment and focus on what’s going on with you in the here and now?”

He looked at me blankly and then fell back in his chair as if exhausted from his own ranting. “Of course. I’m sorry,” he said, hoarsely. “I know I sound crazed. I’ve been under such stress. It’s not just that they’re following me.” With a slow purposeful movement he ran his hand through his hair, then held up his flattened palm. It was covered with dozens of strands, apparently dislodged from his scalp with only the lightest touch. “I think they’re poisoning me too,” he whispered. “I’m not thinking straight. I’m weak and…” he looked down at the loose hairs, allowing the disturbing visual to complete his sentence. “I don’t know how it’s being done, how it’s transmitted…I’ve taken to washing my hands immediately before touching another person. There could be toxins in my sweat. I don’t know how they’ve gotten to me, but they have. Putin isn’t the only government leader who poisons those who cross him. It can happen anywhere, to any of us.”

“Maybe we can start with the evidence that you’re being followed,” Anatoly suggested. “Do you still have the tracking device they put on your car?”

I could tell by the way Anatoly said the word “they,” that he was dubious of the pronoun’s accuracy.

London looked up at Anatoly, surprised. “It’s still on my car.”

Anatoly’s stare chilled me and clearly shamed London who began fiddling with his glasses, pulling them down and then pushing them back up on the bridge of his nose. “Don’t you think it’s a good idea to take the device off?” Anatoly asked. “So they can’t follow you anymore?”

“Of course it is,” London conceded. “But I can’t find it. I’ve taken it to a mechanic but they said they’d have to take apart the whole car to locate it. I took it to the police and they couldn’t find it either and they weren’t even sure if they had the legal authority to arrest anyone even if they did find it. Our legal system hasn’t caught up with our technology! There are no laws against putting GPS tracking devices on anything. The politicians are just now figuring out how to use GPS on their own damn phones! They don’t understand all the horrible ways technology can be applied! There’s no regulation, no protections, no–”

“Evidence,” Anatoly interrupted. “There is no evidence that there ever was a tracking device on your car. Maybe that’s because there isn’t one.”

“No, no, it’s there! I’ll be driving around and no one will be on my tail. And then suddenly there’s a Zipcar!”

“A Zipcar,” Anatoly repeated.

“Yes! And it will follow me at a distance. Too much of a distance for me to make out the driver. Then if I do a u-turn or pull over the Zipcar will drive off, in the opposite direction of course, so I can’t see who’s in it! And then maybe an hour later, maybe two, the Zipcar will be back! Sometimes it’s the same one. Sometimes a different one. But it will come out of nowhere! I know it wasn’t following me all that time so how did it find me? It was tracking me! You see? It knows where I’m going to be! It shows up at the most unlikely places!”

“There are a lot of Zipcars in the city.” I was doing my level best to point out the obvious without sounding patronizing. “Maybe that’s the reason they keep popping up. Especially since you’re not always seeing the same car.”

“No, you see that’s not how it works!” London said, imploringly. “The driver must have a computer with them. A laptop maybe. And they bring it from Zipcar to Zipcar–” but he wasn’t able to finish due to a coughing fit. It was a wet, ugly cough and I found myself torn between wanting to pat him on the back and desperately searching my bag for my bottle of Purell.

“Have you gone to a doctor?” Anatoly asked. “To get tested for poison or…anything else?”

“Didn’t you hear me? The medical establishment can’t be trusted! Doctors are taking bribes from drug companies, preforming needless procedures on homeless people, these are not good people!” He broke into another short coughing fit but then managed to continue. “Did you know that right now, as we speak, people are forming a New World Order? Oligarchs and their bought and paid for politicians are going to try to take over everything!”

“Wait,” I asked, “are you talking about Super Pacs?”

“No! Or yes, but no! It’s going to get so much worse than it is now! We can’t trust anyone. No one has our interests at heart. Not the little guy, not blacks!” He jabbed his finger at me with an almost desperate zeal. “They don’t care about what happens to the blacks!”

“Fucking Zipcar driving racists,” I replied, managing to keep a straight face.

“Mr. London, I think maybe we have to start again,” Anatoly suggested. “Do you, or do you not, have the names of any individuals who might want to do you harm and do you have any concrete evidence that someone is actively trying to?”

“They’re poisoning me,” he said, weakly. “Look at me. Use your eyes and see me dying. You’re witnessing my murder.”

Anatoly studied him for a moment and I could see the cocktail of pity and disappointment pouring out of him. “I’m afraid I can’t take your case.”

“But I’ve nowhere else to go,” London whispered. “You’re the only P.I. of good repute who would agree to even see me.”

“I’m sure others would take a meeting.”

London blushed. The little bit of color actually made him seem less crazed and more, well, vulnerable. I felt shame creep down my throat, settling in my gut. I had been attracted to the idea of a nefarious stalker that could be tracked down and held accountable. I had loved this stranger for the turbulence I assumed surrounded him. But the turbulence was within him. The demons stalking him could never be caught. This wasn’t an adventure, it was a tragedy.

“All right it’s true,” London said after a long pause, “there are others. You’re the fourth detective I’ve met with.”

“I see,” Anatoly said, stiffly.

“I don’t know how to do this,” London pleaded. “Didn’t know where to start. But the others they…laughed at me. They kicked me out of their office before I was even able to settle into my seat. You’ve been the most attentive. You’ve listened. Now all you have to do is see.”

Anatoly had listened but with thinly veiled impatience. To be fair, that was the best this man could ever realistically hope for given the insanity of his story. And yet he had hoped for more.

Quietly I put the pad and pen on Anatoly’s desk. There was no longer a need for note taking.

“I can’t take your case,” Anatoly repeated, his voice kind but firm.

“What will I do?” London moaned.

“I strongly recommend you speak with a doctor,” Anatoly suggested and rose from his chair. “But that’s up to you. Regardless, we should wrap things up here. I don’t want to waste your time.”

“No,” London agreed. “After all, I may not have much left to waste.”

There was an awkward silence as we all remained in our places, Anatoly and I both waiting for London to get up. But London seemed to be unaware that this was the logical next step. Sullenly meditative, he picked idly at loose hairs on his pant leg. Most looked like they were his, but I noted that others were short and black.

“Maybe I could walk you to your car?” I offered.

He looked at me blankly for what seemed like an eternity.

“It wouldn’t be an inconvenience,” I added. “I have to head out to make a lunch thing anyway.”

Again nothing and then finally a nod. I mouthed I’ll call you to Anatoly as London got to his feet. When he walked with me toward the door his movements seemed labored, like every step was a small challenge. Was he moving like that when he came into the office or was it just the mass of disillusionment that he was struggling under?

We left the office and took the stairs slowly. When he seemed to falter I linked my arm through his, offering him support but masking it in companionship to spare whatever remained of his pride. The gesture stopped him in his tracks.

“Aren’t you afraid?”

“Of what?” I asked.

“Of touching me. Even people who don’t believe me, they don’t want to touch me, or be close to me. They see something’s wrong with me and it scares them.”

My mind automatically traveled back to my childhood when everyone was afraid to so much as shake hands with all the people in this city who were diagnosed with AIDS. We isolated them, made them feel like pariahs doomed to die alone. “I’m not afraid,” I said, definitively.

I thought I saw the glimmer of a tear in his eye and I looked away, urging him forward. “Anatoly just moved into that office space today,” I said in an attempt to lighten the mood.

“It’s cute,” London replied, absently.

Right? I think there are apartments on the third floor. I’m sure they’re lovely but I don’t know if I’d want to live directly over a shopping district.”

“You live in Ashbury Heights,” he noted as I pushed open the heavy glass door that brought us to the street.

I turned and stared at him. “How?”

“Your drivers license.”

The cool air touched my face and I found myself smiling at London as the shoppers streamed around us. “You’re an observant man.”

“Observant, yes,” he started to lead me down the sidewalk, “but I’m beginning to question if I can still confidently call myself a man.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, lightly. “You’re just going through a rough patch, that’s all.”

He went quiet for a few minutes as we continued to walk past a parallel-parked line-up of Prius’ and Teslas’. I was about to ask him exactly where he parked his car when he piped up again. “Have you ever convinced yourself of something? Something that was unlikely?”

I exhaled in relief. I’m not sure it’s such a horrible thing to occasionally be delusional but if your delusions are as dark as London’s it’s much better to come back to more mundane realities. “We all do that,” I assured him. “Human nature.”

“That’s true,” he agreed, thoughtfully. “After all, what is God but something we’ve convinced ourselves of with no evidence to support? What is the American dream but a fallacy to give the poor false hope? We’re all convinced that we’re going to be the exception to the rule.”

Okay, so not exactly the direction I was hoping for. “What unlikely thing have you convinced yourself of specifically?”

He sighed as we walked by San Francisco’s latest farm-to-table restaurant. “I convinced myself that you would help me.”

Now it was me who abruptly stopped walking, pulling him to a stop with me before removing my arm from his. “I want to,” I said, sincerely. “But I think the kind of help you need is different than the kind of help you think you need.”

“You mean–” but before he could finish he started coughing. He lurched forward as the spasms violently wrenched away his physical control, causing the tip of his shoe to catch on a piece of uneven pavement. As he fell, his hands found the sidewalk in time to keep him from cracking open his skull. People around us stopped, as I kneeled next to him, helpless as I watched his body shake and his face contort.

“Is he okay?” I heard a woman ask. Now on his hands and knees, London’s coughs were getting worse. His glasses slipped from his face and dropped uselessly to the ground. He couldn’t seem to stop. Whopping cough maybe?

“London? Should I call a doctor?” I asked. It was a stupid question. The man couldn’t even talk. He looked up at me, his eyes fearful and milky, the convulsions racking through his delicate frame. “Call 911!” I cried out to the gathering crowd. But before I could fully get the words out he had fallen into unconsciousness, his glasses cracking beneath him. The coughs were now just gasps for breath and the time between each gasp kept getting a little longer. I looked up to see about five people on their cell phones, all calling for help. I reached into the pockets of London’s jacket to see if there was anything useful there. An inhaler maybe? Could he have asthma? Maybe an EpiPen? But all I found was a crumpled up failed-payment notification from his car insurance provider and his phone in a camouflage patterned case. The phone was displaying one new text message from a number apparently not in his contacts.

 

Confusion hath now made his masterpiece

 

That was the whole text. No explanation, no laughing emoji to imply it was a joke. The damp wind must have been working its way through the cloth of my sweater because my skin suddenly felt cold.

I looked up at the street just as a Zipcar passed us by.

Confusion hath now made his masterpiece

 

That was the whole text. No explanation, no laughing emoji to imply it was a joke. The damp wind must have been working its way through the cloth of my sweater because my skin suddenly felt cold.

I looked up at the street just as a Zipcar passed us by.

May 31, 2017

RELATED POSTS