I won’t say it was the longest night of my life. I won’t because it wasn’t, but it did rank up there among the top ten. Hanging from one’s wrists is incredibly uncomfortable. The handcuffs sliced into my hands. My weight hung from my shoulders, until I thought they were going to rip free of my body. The position constricted my chest, so I couldn’t breathe. If I stretched, I could just get some pressure onto my toes on the floor, but I couldn’t hold that position for long. On top of that, I felt nauseous from the slight swinging, combined with the fact that I hadn’t eaten anything in a day and a half.
I have found that when discomfort becomes too great, and you feel as if you are going to panic, the only thing to do is to put yourself in a semi-hypnotic state. I concentrated on a crack in the wall, and let myself focus on that crack. Slowly everything else, including the pain if you’re lucky, starts to go fuzzy. It blurs, and time stops. Stopping time doesn’t sound like the right plan, but what it really means is a minute, a second, an hour, they have no meaning. You are aware of everything, every second that passes, but more as if you are watching silent static on an old TV. You know it’s happening, but you feel detached from it. When you look back and try to remember the time you were in such a state, it is never clear, and you find yourself wondering about details that should be obvious but aren’t. The memory will be punctuated by a single smell, color, or light, but everything else with be almost impossible to recall.
Before I reached this state, I imagined up the story I would tell them, since I knew if I didn’t talk, they would only do worse. I imagined my story and then as I slowly fell into the mindless state, I let that story be the only thing in my mind. I let it take hold of my consciousness, so that if felt true.
The release from the hypnotic state comes only when there is relief to the discomfort you are trying to endure. I know, logically, that at some point it started to get light again. I know someone came and released my handcuffs, but I don’t remember who, or how long it had been. What I do remember is hitting the ground as I collapsed. I remember the blood rushing into my shoulders and arms, almost as painful as hanging. Time came crashing back into place. I blinked and looked up.
The Boss was staring at me, his disgusting little smile stuck to his mouth. The large man from last night was pulling the chain back over the pipe. I didn’t know what time it was, probably sometime midmorning on Monday.
“Ready to cooperate?” the Boss asked.
I took a breath preparing to respond, but instead of words I felt uncontrollable coughs rise rise in my throat. My mouth must have been open during a large part of the night. My throat was so dry, I couldn’t speak. I tried, twice. Each time led to a violent round of coughing. If there had been anything in my stomach, I would have vomited it up.
The Boss went to the intercom, “bring me some water.” He stood and waited, watching me cough and wheeze, still half lying on the ground until the door opened and someone I didn’t see handed the large man a bottle of water. He dropped it on the ground and then kicked it in my direction. It rolled to my left, and I crawled over to it, still bound at the ankles.
After drinking the whole bottle, and sitting with my arms wrapped around my knees for a moment, the Boss spoke again, “I trust you had a pleasant night,” he said, then chuckled. “I have a wonderful breakfast waiting for you. But only if you cooperate.”
“I can go without breakfast,” I said hoarsely, but it didn’t sound convincing. I really could go without breakfast. The water had filled my stomach, and I knew that eating a large meal now would give me cramps worse than going hungry. But he didn’t need to know that.
“Perhaps for another day,” He said. “But I wouldn’t recommend that.”
“Why not?” I responded.
“Because, starving you is the nicest thing that will happen,” he said. I just scowled. “Who do you work for? Why are you here? What have you found?”
I continued to scowl silently as I contemplated how long I should wait before talking. The Boss waved the large man over to him. “Jamie, I’d like you to meet Jones,” He said, indicating the large man. “Jones has informed me that he has taken a certain…interest in you. He has asked me if I could give him a little time alone with you,” the Boss said, watching carefully to see if I understood. I wasn’t worried, but I let my scowl turn a little fearful anyway. “I’m sure Jones would enjoy the time much more than you would.”
I hesitated just a moment longer, and the Boss nodded to Jones and turned away toward the door. In one step, Jones had his hand around my arm and a huge, stupid smile on his lips. He dragged me halfway up.
“Wait!,” I cried, just as the Boss reached the door. He turned smiling, and I tried to make sure my face looked terrified. “Wait,” I said again. “I’ll talk.”
The Boss’s smile grew bigger at the same rate that Jones’s shrunk. Without being told, he let go, dropping me back to the ground. Jones retreated back to the corner of the room as the Boss set the stool back upright and sat down. “That’s what I like to here,” he said patronizingly. “Remember, I can be your best friend.” He paused. “Who do you work for?”
I propped myself up on my elbow, and swiveled into a sitting position. I took a deep breath, “I don’t know.”
Anger flashed across the Boss’s face and he quickly stood up. “Wrong answer,” he said. And I could tell he was losing patience.
“Wait,” I said. “I really don’t know. Let me explain.”
He had been preparing to leave, but stopped and turned glowering at me.
“I’m freelance,” I said, beginning the story I had concocted during the night. “Someone calls me, asks me to do a job, I do it. Three-quarters of the time I never even know their name.”
He turned and sat back down on the stool. “You seem a little too young to have established a business like that.”
“I’m not as young as I seem,” I replied. “And I took over for my mother.”
He smiled, “A family business. How sweet. And I suppose you are going to tell me your dear mommy will come and save you.”
I looked away, sadness in my eyes. “I haven’t seen my mother in a few years,” I said quietly. “She left on a job, never came back. The next time the phone rang, I answered it, and did the job myself. Been doing it ever since.”
“And you have no idea who the client is for this job,” he said, believing me. I shook my head. “Tell me everything you do know about him. How did he contact you, how much are you being paid? What is he looking for? Everything.”
I hesitated again. “I was contacted by phone, like always. The client used an audio-distorter.” I looked up, shifting my eyes, like I was trying to decide if I should tell him something. He leaned forward in anticipation. “But I’m pretty sure the client is a woman.”
The Boss’s eyebrows raised and he leaned back in surprise. “A woman? Are you sure?”
I rolled my eyes. “No, obviously. I can’t be sure. It just sounded a little different than when a man talks. It’s just a guess. She told me the job. Said she’d pay long term expenses, ten up front. 50 on completion.” I paused for just a moment, and then scowled. “I didn’t know long term expenses would be provided as government foster care,” I grumbled.
“If you’ve never seen the client, how’d she pay you?” he asked looking for holes in my story.
“Cash, left in a bag in a public trash bin on a certain day,” I said without missing a beat. “It’s how I always get paid. I choose the locations.”
“And the client—all your clients trust a kid like you to get their work done?”
“They use me because I’m a kid. Or I can look like one at least. You used kids too, remember. I fill a unique niche,” I replied.
The Boss laughed and it sounded almost like a giggle. An evil giggle. I had drawn him in, just as I wanted to. He believed every word of my lie. “Yes I can see that,” he said. “A very unique niche. I can see how that might be useful. Now tell me what the job is. What does the client want?”
I hesitated, looked worried. “If I do that, things could turn out badly for me. If the client doesn’t kill me, I’ll lose my credibility. Word will get around. I’ll lose business,” I said.
“If you don’t, I’ll make you wish the client could kill you,” the Boss replied matter of factly. “Besides, you won’t need a client list. I told you I take care of my friends. I can keep someone like you happily employed for as long as you want.”
“What if I don’t want to work for you?” I responded defiantly.
The Boss stood and stepped right up next to me. He squatted down so his face was just inches from mine. “I guess that’s a choice you can make,” he said. “But I am a very generous boss.”
“Prove it,” I shot back. “So far you’ve treated me like crap, and maybe I deserved it because we were enemies, but now I’ve told you something, so it’s your turn to prove that I can trust you.”
He paused, smiled and stood up. As he walked towards the intercom, he signaled Jones who came out of the corner. Jones cut the bonds around my ankles while the boss asked someone to bring in a plate of breakfast.
As I rubbed my ankles, the Boss sat down to wait. He pulled the gun out from under his jacket and held it casually across his lap. “In case you get any crazy ideas,” he said, when he saw me eyeing it.
I didn’t respond. Clearly food was on the way. No more talking until I ate, which gave me more time to collect my thoughts. So far, I was ahead in the game, only, just like I hoped, the Boss thought he was ahead. My story was genuine enough that he fell for it. Now I just had to start getting the details I needed from him.
The door opened slightly, and Jones received a steamy plate covered in plastic wrap. I smelt the food before I saw it. And what I smelled made my stomach turn. Grease. Jones, probably still bitter that his lust went unrequited, put the plate on the floor ten feet from me, and then kicked it over closer. Without the plastic wrap I would have been eating dirt along with my breakfast.
I grabbed the plate and peeled off the wrap. There was a generous serving of bacon, sausage, hash browns, and toast, all of it glistening with grease. If this is what the Boss regularly ate for breakfast, I could probably gamble on him dying of a heart attack before anything bad happened to me. I didn’t want to eat it, but I would need the energy. I hadn’t eaten in almost two days.
Sensing my reluctance, the Boss nodded to Jones, who approached. “Don’t worry, sweetie,” the Boss said. “I can tell you think something might be wrong with the food. I wouldn’t do that to you.” The smell of grease, my empty stomach, a nasty headache, and his sickening voice were making me nauseous. “Jones, go take a bite of that food, so our friend knows it’s safe to eat.” Jones did not look overly pleased, but he approached. I handed him a piece of bacon, and he ate it in one bite, and withdrew back into the shadows.
I cautiously picked up some food and began to eat. I started with the bacon. It was the greasiest. Aware that the Boss was watching me closely, I tried to act ravenously hungry, but as expected, the more I stuffed into my mouth the sicker I felt.
I got through almost everything except the toast before I couldn’t do it anymore. I scrambled up and away from the men, stumbling on stiff joints, into the corner of the room, where I threw it all up again. I stayed in the corner on my hands and knees for a few minutes, catching my breath.
The Boss was watching calmly. “You shouldn’t eat so fast,” he said.
I slowly walked back toward him, stopping next to a pillar. I slid to the floor and leaned against it, feeling weak, achy, and tired. The toast still sat abandoned on the plate half way between me and the Boss. I hoped he’d leave it, so that later, I’d be able to eat it slowly. That is why I had left it for last.
“Okay,” the Boss said. “Now it’s time to talk again.”
“What do you already know?” I asked.
“Just tell me everything.”
“Okay, the client told me there was a man named Jason Sheagul who worked for the government as a researcher,” I started.
“Yes I know,” the Boss said, impatiently.
“She didn’t say what branch of government he worked for, but he researched various new weapon technologies. The kind of stuff you’d see in a sci-fi movie,” I continued. “Sheagul was a meticulous man, maybe even OCD, but also some kind of genius. He mostly kept to himself, didn’t like to have many research assistants or collaborators, or anything,” I droned on, hoping the Boss would interrupt with some details of his own. “Some even said he was wasting time and money. That he was researching some impossible fantasy that could never really happen. They campaigned to get his funding removed, but he must have had a friend or something, because the request was shot down and he continued his research in peace.”
“Get to the part that matters,” the Boss said tapping is foot impatiently.
“I’m just trying to tell you the background. You said everything,” I responded.
“Don’t get smart with me,” he snapped.
I shrugged. Not my fault if he didn’t want to know the details. These facts were 100% true, and the very things that helped me figure out Sheagul’s system. Of course they weren’t secret, so the Boss knew all of it already. “So anyway, a rumor started that Sheagul had made a breakthrough in his research, that his totally futuristic, completely impossible weapon could be a reality. The rumor was he just had to check a few numbers and the plans would be ready to be made into a prototype.”
“Only the prototype didn’t get made,” the Boss said. He was enthralled with my story, waiting for the juicy bits. So far, I guessed, nothing I had said was news.
“Right before these last few calculations could be done, he dies of a heart-attack,” I said.
The Boss smiled. “And no one could prove otherwise,” he said and I learned something new. The Boss killed Sheagul. I couldn’t prove it or anything, but the way he smiled, straightened his shoulders, sat up taller. He was taking ownership.
“Right,” I said. “No matter how many tests they ran, it all came up as a classic heart attack. Plus, there was the Chinese food delivery boy to vouch for the fact that he wasn’t exactly the healthiest guy in the world.”
The Boss snorted. “The guy was such a loner,” he said smugly. Clearly, he had known Sheagul, or met him, or at least watched him.
“Well, of course the government wanted to get his research. They figured anyone could do the last few calculations. Sheagul had done the hard part. They were going to have some crazy awesome weapon that would put them ahead of everyone. Only, when they looked through his things, they found nothing.”
I paused, and the Boss nodded. I shifted my weight, stretching. “Get on with it,” the Boss said.
“Listen,” I replied. “You told me you wanted to know everything. Since I have no idea what you already know, I’m telling you everything. If you want me to speed it up, tell me what you already know.”
“Just get to the part where you come in,” he said.
“So my client sent me into the school to find the information on the weapon, the end,” I responded testily.
The Boss stood up, exasperated. “Fine, I know they didn’t find anything. I know Sheagul had no family, but that his will left all his money, assets, and a collection of literature to his public high school, with the stipulation that the collection remain intact.”
“So,” I interrupted, “we can assume the plans for the weapon were in the collection, because Sheagul wasn’t the kind of guy to keep everything bottled up in his head.”
“But the government already looked and they didn’t find anything, despite everyone knowing where to start: Shakespeare,” the Boss said. “But what I can’t figure out is how your client knew about Sheagul and the weapon.
I tried not to look surprised. I hadn’t known the beginning of the maze Sheagul left me. I suspected I had picked up the trail near its start, but I was missing a key piece. Shakespeare. Whatever was in Shakespeare might fill in enough holes. Only I couldn’t get there unless the Boss let me go. I had to tread carefully now, the lies were going to start adding up. I shrugged, “Maybe my client had the same source as you. Someone who can be bought off once usually jumps at the chance to be bought off twice.” I saw anger flash in his eyes, but not at me. My words had hit a chord. “I didn’t really ask how she got the information. Clients don’t like it when you get too curious.”
He was distracted by his anger, and I could see a plan forming for whomever his unlucky source happened to be, but he sat back down and tried to focus on me. “So just tell me what you have found out.”
“Sheagul hid his work in a series of classic literature, starting with Shakespeare, but I guess you already know that, since if it had just been Shakespeare, you wouldn’t still be here,” I said. The Boss nodded irritably. I continued, “It took me quite a while to figure out where the next step was,” I said.
“But you found it,” He stated, excitedly.
I paused. Should I give him the truth, or another lie. “Stegner,” I said telling him the beginning of my chain of research. I hoped he wouldn’t ask about the connection, since I didn’t know it, didn’t even know if there were any steps in between.
“Stegner!” he sounded surprised. He leaned back his shoulders relaxed, and a contented look fell over his face.
“But that’s not all,” I said. “That’s just the second step. There are more.”
“I don’t know,” I replied carefully. I knew he wouldn’t like the answer, but it was true. “There could be a hundred.” I was pretty sure there weren’t a hundred. Probably fifteen to twenty. I had found twelve. Shakespeare made thirteen.
His shoulders stiffened again. “And how many have you found?” He asked.
“Three.” He jumped up and stormed toward me a foot ready to ram into my gut. I tried to stumble away. “It’s not my fault,” I cried holding my hands up as a useless protection.
He slowed and instead of a hard kick, he used his foot to push me down and then put his shoe over my neck. My body immediately tried sucking in more air, but the path was constricted. If I made him angry again he could crush my neck without even trying. “What was the third?” he asked icily.
“Bronte,” I gasped. “It’s Bronte,” I lied. “Please.”
He smiled. “How do I know you’re not lying?”
“You could kill me right now,” I wheezed. His foot lifted. I sucked in air and slid away from him. The grit from the bottom of his shoe clung to my skin as I rubbed it.
“Only three,” He said calmly. “You have been here for months.”
“Sheagul was a genius,” I said. “And I’m pretty sure he was paranoid. It’s not like doing the puzzle on the back of the cereal box. My client seemed to expect it to take this long. Maybe she was paying her source better than you were.” The Boss glared and half-heartedly kicked in my direction, missing me by a foot or so. Then he walked away. Silently, he began pacing the floor.
“So tell me Jamie,” he said after a moment, still slowly pacing. “What have Shakespeare, Stegnar, and Bronte told you?”
“I haven’t had time—“
“No,” he said fiercely, cutting me off. “I don’t want any more of your excuses. What do you know?”
“I haven’t found enough to be sure,” I said desperately.
“Hypothesize for me.”
I sighed, sorting through what I was going to tell him. I was sure he already knew something about the weapon, so lying could be very dangerous. The best plan was to leave as many doors open as I could. “There are a few possibilities,” I said. “The weapon is likely powered by one of two forces.” The Bosses eyes lit up. He wanted to know this. “One is some kind of antimatter device. My understanding is that such a device would not have to be large to be extremely deadly. The other is a nuclear-powered weapon, I haven’t figured out what, but I think a smaller hand-held atom bomb. A nuke grenade maybe. That’s just a guess. There are still so many pieces missing.”
The Boss’s smile had grown as I spoke. His shoulders had straightened, his chest had puffed. “Cold fusion,” he said proudly. He knew. “That’s got to be it. Sheagul was a nuclear physicist. He didn’t make tenure at the university he started working at, and the official reason was that he didn’t publish enough. But he published more articles than the three previous tenured professors.”
“So why’d he get canned?” I asked.
“The rumor is, he got pushed out for being too far out there. My source says he was so much more advanced than anyone else, they thought he was crazy,” the Boss said.
“Sounds like your source is biased,” I commented.
He brushed it off. “After he got fired, he ended up in government. His research could lead to cold fusion, the possibilities are endless.”
“I thought we already figured out fusion,” I said.
“Not cold fusion,” the Boss said, his grin growing bigger. “Don’t you see, this isn’t about a weapon that kills people. It’s about power.”
Now I was learning something. I had assumed I was researching a weapon. If the Boss was right, that changed everything. I was going to have to re-orient my thinking. “I don’t understand. Power?”
“Yes, as in energy, and as in I control all the energy, so I am powerful,” the Boss said. “Cold fusion would change the energy game for the whole globe. If what you say about Sheagul’s work is true, that the device is small, then that makes it even more powerful. No more coal power, no more dams, no more oil and gas. Nuclear power will be everything. If you have the technology.”
“And only if you have the technology,” I said. He was planning on dominating the market.
“Global dynamics are based on resources, my friend. Suddenly those resources won’t matter,” The Boss said.
“Only your device will matter,” I said. He smiled, but then frowned, worried he had said too much.
“But we don’t have it yet,” He said. “You haven’t found much, have you,” he accused, as if it was my fault that I hadn’t followed his timetable. “Where are the calculations you have found?”
“In my locker at school.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I should have just had Crystal break into your locker. It would have saved her a headache.”
I scowled. “They are in my code. You won’t understand them unless I tell you how.”
The Boss stopped moving and stared at me, “We’ll see about that.” Yeah, I thought, we will, since my notes weren’t in my locker. They were at my house. With Ethan. It was just as well. I couldn’t give him the real thing, and I hadn’t sorted out all the equations and diagrams yet anyway. “Go get Joe,” he said, summoning Jones from the shadows. Jones left and the Boss turned back to me.
“When you get my notebooks, bring them to me and I’ll translate the code,” I said.
“I don’t think I can trust you yet,” he said, slowly approaching.
“I’ve told you everything thing,” I said annoyed. “What kind of proof do you need?”
The Boss smiled his disgusting little grin, and squatted down next to me. I felt the hair on the back of my neck raise as I watched his eyes travel down from my face, over my shoulders, chest, stomach. Pause, then farther down. Back up again just as slowly. “I’m sure we’ll think of something that can prove you’re trustworthy,” he said. I was so creeped out I didn’t see his elbow until too late. It made contact with my temple, and I don’t remember anything else.