Richard ignored the alarm clock and laid, staring at the ceiling. His eyes bored a hole that was filled in with static if he stared too long without blinking. He’d wink his eyes and re-wet the lens, then stare again for a few minutes or so. To his disappointment, though, this was a staring contest he would lose every time.
His mind drifted again to the whining alarm clock on the night stand and, once again, he forced his mind to ignore it, refocusing his energy and concentration on the ceiling. Not only was he haunted by the dream that wasn’t a dream, he really didn’t want to give that presentation this afternoon.
Mary had already gotten up. Their typical routine was, well, routine. If Mary was up before her alarm went off (as per the usual), they’d have time for a quickie before she hopped in the shower. Richard would go back to sleep while she went through her morning ritual. Then, dressed and freshly showered, she’d climb back into bed and nap for another 15-20 minutes, usually remembering to reset her alarm beforehand.
While he never understood the point of the post-shower nap, Richard welcomed the company. He wasn’t ready to be alone with his thoughts, not yet. Unfortunately, Mary had gotten up for her second alarm and set out for the day. Since he didn’t have to get an early start today, Richard had expected to snag an extra hour of shuteye before heading in to work.
He’d been staring at the ceiling since 5am. A full thirty minutes before Mary woke up and started fooling around.
Now it was 7:15 and Richard knew he’d have to get out of bed eventually. His presentation was prepped, and he was as ready as anyone could have been. He just didn’t really feel like giving a presentation. It was a mix of nervousness – would the client like his design? – excitement – This is a huge contract! – and flat out fear – What if I fail as a partner?
The project had seemed simple enough when he took it on. Just a routine remodel of a corporate office – a new company was moving in the wake of the latest recession and wanted a fresh canvas for their office. The post-modern feel the previous tenants had enjoyed didn’t jive with their “rebuilding the world” mentality. They wanted something new, something cutting edge, something uniquely Richard Drake.
He’d had hundreds of projects like this before. That was why the partners had hired him in the first place. Why they gave him a promotion. When it came to cutting edge, new era remodels, there was no one better in the industry. At least, that’s the way he sold it on his resume.
Richard groaned and sat over the side of the bed.
My resume! He rubbed the sleep from his eyes with his right hand, rubbing his temple with his left. Why did I have to be so ambitious with my resume?
This client wasn’t like the normal clients, that’s why everything was so stressful. Back when he was looking for a job, Richard mass-mailed copies of his resume to every reputable architecture firm in the nation. The majority ignored him. Five or six asked him to fill out formal applications. One took a real interest in him – his present employers.
Then, over a decade later, someone at a rival firm dusted off his resume. They read through his quirky self-descriptions and laughed at his naïve attempts at humor in describing college internships. That’s when they decided that, yes, they did want to hire him.
A few days of calling around found his phone number in the hands of the hiring manager. He called and asked if Richard would be available to interview for the junior account manager role. Sadly enough for Richard, they called his boss! It took nearly a month to convince his boss that he wasn’t thinking of leaving the company.
The hiring manager at the rival firm didn’t laugh at the humorous mix-up with resume files, though. He didn’t care how old a resume was – he had spent valuable time trying to hire this man, and he wanted satisfaction. So he bid for the highest-profile redesign project in the city.
Then he hired Richard’s firm to actually do the redesign.
And demanded Richard lead the team.
It was a nightmare confluence of events.
Richard’s boss had just put in for his promotion, and Richard’s loyalty to the firm was once again in question.
“Show us how good you really are. Design this suite, close the contract, and impress the client. But make it perfectly clear to both him and us that you’re here to stay. Do that, and you’re a full partner. Otherwise … well, he already has your resume.”
Yesterday, Richard had been on top of the world. A new promotion, a high-profile new contract, even a new office with a view. Then the partners introduced him to the client and laid down their ultimatum.
He still hadn’t told Mary.
Richard pulled on a pair of shorts and his running shoes. He needed to clear his head before meeting with the team in a few hours. He ran out the door into the crisp Autumn air and was lost in a world of reds and oranges and rock music on his iPod.
The office was remarkable animated for a Tuesday morning. The interns were still abuzz about their previous weekends. One of the junior partners was running back and forth from his desk to the copier as if the fate of the world depended on the timeliness of his report. Even Tom, the one man from the office Richard kept track of outside of work, seemed in an energetic and excited mood.
“Did they spike the coffee this morning?”
“Good, you’re in,” Tom dodged the question. “So you haven’t heard the good news?”
“We discovered oil on Mars and are dumping more money into NASA?”
“Funny guy. No, Architectural Digest called this morning. They want to do a before-and-after piece on your new project. Feature stuff. You might get a cover!”
Richard’s heart dropped. It couldn’t get any worse.
“Yeah, the partners just announced it. Even better, you get to pick your team. Because of the magazine, you get 2 people, plus 3 interns for the hard stuff.”
Richard opened the door to his office and threw his jacket across his already overfilling inbox. “Let me guess, you’ve already got someone in mind?”
“Ok, one intern down, two to go.”
Richard’s thin attempt at humor caught Tom off guard. He grinned in the sideways way he did when he was surprised and gently elbowed his friend.
“No, really, you’re career’s skyrocketing right now. Just don’t forget us little guys …”
“Tom, trust me, you don’t want to work on this project. There are … circumstances …”
“Yeah, OK, I get it.” Tom turned and sulked slowly out the door, turning to look back at Richard with the most pathetic puppy dog eyes anyone had ever attempted.
“Fine, just don’t get mad at me when it goes up in smoke. This project’s jinxed already.”
Richard tasked Tom with recruiting and vetting the interns. The partners might be setting him up to fail on this project, but he’d be damned if he let them get away with it. He really was the best in the field of restorative design, and this project would prove it. He started asking around to see who had room on their plates for another large gig. Tony turned him down.
Martha flat out ignored him. The new girl, Rebecca, who had just finished her internship the week before overheard Richard’s pleas for help. She knew the project was too high profile for her, but wanted at least to get some practice pitching her portfolio, even if it was to a colleague.
She tracked Richard down in the break room. He was in the middle of his latest rejection, this time from Peter, one of the oldest “junior” partners in the firm. For all she knew, he was older than all of the interns put together.
“… No way … do that Rick,” Peter said between sloppy mouthfuls of sandwich. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and took a swig of Coke. “The Big Guy’s gunning for you, we all know it, and no one here with half a brain is gonna work on your project.”
“I’ve already talked Tom”
“Half a brain,” Peter interrupted. “Like I said.” With that, he got up and sauntered out of the room. Richard slumped into a chair, defeated.
Rebecca took the opportunity to step forward and get his attention.
“Mr. Drake? I heard you were looking for help on the remodel project. I know I’m new, but as you can see from my portfolio, I have lots of,” she struggled to open her unwieldy binder and speak at the same time. “Experience … in … oh dear,” she dropped half of her portfolio all over the break room floor. If she had been alone, she would have started crying.
Richard chuckled. “You know, that’s the first vote of confidence I’ve had all day. Are you sure you want to work with someone as bad at this as me?”
The self-deprecating remark suddenly put Rebecca at ease. She exhaled, releasing all of her pent-up anxiety in one breath. Just as quickly, she switched to excitement and became suddenly bouncy.
“Really? You mean I can really work with you? Really?”
“Don’t get too excited, it’s not like you’ve won the lottery or anything.”
What Richard didn’t know was that he was the sole reason Rebecca had stayed after her internship. She respected his opinion, valued his skills as a mentor and teacher, and had a little bit of a crush on him, too. Accepting her onto his team, for however small or large a project, was a dream come true.
“Well, we’re meeting in conference room ‘M’ at 1. Don’t be late, there’s a hundred people vying for your spot on the team.”
Tom had picked a good crop of interns. Two women and one man, all from different corners of the US and each with a unique eye for design and aesthetics. He didn’t know them personally, yet, but he was familiar enough with their different styles to know that he had a well-rounded team.
“We’ll be working with the Monroe building downtown. The top 3 floors used to be the executive suite of one of the big banks that failed last year before the bal-out. Our client,” he grimaced at the term, “has been contracted to give the top five floors a consistent look and feel. The bottom two of the five used to be sub-divided office space, leased out piecemeal to a dozen failed startups.
“Our client has asked for the design to be ‘new’ and ‘cutting-edge.’ They want to avoid any possibility of being associated with the pre-recession companies that used to rent the building. Oh, and to top it off, the client is apparently a fan of some of my earlier work. We’ll need to either borrow from some of my older designs or come up with a way to relate anything we do now with some of the same styles.”
One of the interns raised his hand.
“Seriously, we’re all adults here. If I need to call on you, you’re in the wrong meeting.”
The intern looked nervously at his colleagues and then chose to speak.
“I’m not familiar with any of your ‘earlier’ work Mr. Drake.”
“Richard. I’ve prepared a handful of slides to demonstrate just that. But I don’t want this to become ‘Richard Drake’s’ building. Everything we borrow from my older pieces I want to match with something new and out-of-the-box from your styles.
“Any other questions?”
They all had a million questions, but no one wanted to speak. And after what Richard had said to Dennis, no one wanted to raise their hands either.
“OK, let’s get started,” Richard said, turning off the lights and turning on the projector with his remote.
It took Richard two hours to explain the basic concept of the build. He covered everything from the existing floor plan to the way he envisioned redesigning things. They would be removing the floor from the center of all of the floors to make a grand skylight-style hanging garden. Each floor would be jigsawed together with the others to form a flowing, organic centerpiece to the entire building.
Very cutting edge, very unique, a bit edgy, and very into the “green” theme that most new designs were beginning to cater to. In reality, it all but disgusted Richard. He understood the hype around “green engineering,” but he didn’t like to feel like he was giving in to a trend. Just like any trend, particularly in engineering, he was sure it would run its course in a handful of years. He had intended to resist it as much as possible, but he knew this particular client was big into green washing.
Being able to point to a multi-story garden feature as a central aspect of his design would be a huge selling point.
Integrating solar cells into all of the exterior windows to power sun-replicating growth lamps in the central corridor would be another.
Actually, in terms of green engineering, Richard was fairly impressed with his own level of ingenuity. He doubted anyone else would have come up with this idea, and it was not likely to be replicated any time soon. How many other architects had access to the 5 top floors of a highrise and an unlimited interior design budget?
Now that they were through with the initial part of the meeting, Richard turned things over to Tom, who was going over the more mundane parts of the project. “This is how we’ll organize files.” “This is what our document sharing server looks like.” It was a routine song and dance, particularly with new interns, and they did it with every project every time.
No sense getting lax on routine, particularly when teams shared staff so many times. A consistent set of work processes made for consistent work across the firm. Richard just wished it wasn’t so stuffy and bureaucratic.
He took a seat towards the back of the conference room so he could watch his new interns’ reactions to some of Tom’s more complicated instructions. The security protocols for using the off-site VPN were particularly tough to wrap your head around. Richard wanted to be sure they had the protocols down – having any leaks in his design specs could sour the whole deal. Particularly if the senior partners were really hoping to sabotage his project.
He watched as Tom walked them through a log-in process on the projector. Suddenly, there seemed to be a flash of light near one of the interns – Claire, he remembered her name. Richard couldn’t tell where the flash came from. He stood up to see if she was playing around with a cell phone.
Claire sat up straight and raised her hand.
“I thought Rick told you not to raise your hands.”
“Sorry, it’s just, I think there’s a better way to set this up. With that protocol, it’s fairly easy to root out a password. We really should be using an SSL tunnel.”
Really, that was a fantastic suggestion. Richard wasn’t sure why he hadn’t thought of it before. He looked at Tom, just in time to see a similar, although dimmer, flash from his direction.
“I never thought of that, Claire. Thanks for the suggestion.”
Richard sat back down and looked at Tom, who continued in his presentation, this time using Claire’s suggested encryption protocol. He looked at Claire, who now seemed even more engaged in the conversation. There was something familiar about that flash, but Richard couldn’t quite place it.
There was another, brighter flash to his right.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Drake? You said we’d be using city water for the irrigation system in the hanging garden, right?” Ayut, the only male intern, asked in an excited whisper.
“Um, yes. Why?”
“Well, “ Ayut began explaining a truly revolutionary system to add on to the “green” aspect of the b
uilding. Richard’s mind began to wander as he described a sophisticated rainwater collection system on the roof paired with a graywater purification system piped in from sinks and drinking fountains.
As his mind drifted, thinking about the way all of these different piping systems could be connected to the garden’s intricate irrigation system it hit him.
The field! The building and the rays of light! Richard’s mind was back to the strange boy, Peter, and the way he had lit up when he suddenly knew his dog’s name. Richard remembered the just as sudden flood of information about the boy that hit his head with skull-splitting force. The flash of imagination, connection, and impossible genius had been stronger than the three flashes he’d just seen in his team, but they were definitely the same flash.
He stared across the table at Ayut and, in the darkness, he could almost make out a faint ray of light emanating from him. It shot in no particular direction, but somehow in every direction at the same time. The more Richard focused on it, the more apparent it seemed to be. Like the optical illusion of the old crone that was also a portrait of a young lady.
How could he have missed this before?
Richard looked across the table at Claire and the other intern whose name he’d already forgotten. They, too, were casting beams of light. As he stared, he watched their beams flicker and flash as Tom exposed new information. Following each brief flash was either a flurry of note-taking or a half-raised hand and hastily blurted question.
Even Tom and Rebecca were casting light, although somewhat less – or was it dimmer – than the younger interns. The brilliance of their inner candles seemed to diminish with their age. Ayut’s was by far the brightest, Tom’s the least. It was an interesting revelation to have, and Richard felt a flicker and a flash deep in the back of his mind as he came to it. As if someone had struck a match against the back of his skull and quickly blown it back out.
Richard was deep in thought, pondering what this meant when he saw an even brighter flash. He had to blink his eyes a few times to regain his vision. Then he realized Tom had turned the lights on.
The meeting was over.
“OK team,” Richard reacted by instinct. “You have your first assignments. We’ll meet up next week to go over the initial rough drawings and break out into more specialized projects.”
With that, everyone gathered their papers and went back to the other projects lording over their desks. Tom wanted to ask Richard a few questions, but his mind was abuzz with his own questions about what he’d just seen.
Was the dream real? What cause these beams of light he had just learned to see? Most importantly, was he going crazy?
Richard put his laptop in his office and closed out the few messages that he had left in his voicemail before checking out for the day. He left the building and walked three blocks to the Starbucks he looked out at every day from his office. It was crowded this late in the afternoon, and that’s exactly what he wanted.
He ordered a large drip coffee and, after a few minutes of explaining to the barista what plain coffee was – no, there aren’t any shots, no whip, no milk, just plain coffee – he took his drink and sat at one of the few open chairs in the corner. He could see just about everyone in the room, which was good.
The glass-front Starbucks was nowhere near as dark as the curtained conference room, so Richard really had to focus to see his first flash. It was a young man reading a textbook near the counter. At first, Richard thought he had just seen sunlight glinting off a watch or a glass, so he stared for a minute more. That’s all it took for him to see a second flash, then a third. Once again, followed by furious writing on the part of the young man – obviously a student who had just learned something profound.
Richard panned across the room and watched two older women having a conversation. He had to watch for a fair amount of time longer, but was soon able to see tiny flickers surrounding them as well.
He leaned back in his chair, opening his eyes wide as to take in the whole room at once. Now that he knew what to look for, the room was ablaze with inventive thought, beaming down from some omnipotent, silent, benevolent source. What exactly this source was, Richard didn’t know. He didn’t really care to know. Just to know that there was something so large he didn’t know was impressive, frightening, and humbling enough.
I’ll bet Mary doesn’t believe this, he thought to himself as he bottomed his coffee and stood to leave. But even if she doesn’t, it sure is cool.
Rush hour traffic was a bit heavier than usual, but Richard didn’t really mind. In fact, his mind was in an entirely different place altogether. Whether it was the high from knowing he was working with the right team on his project, or the more insurmountable high of his newfound epiphany regarding, well, epiphanies, it didn’t matter. The facts were that Richard was in a good mood, and he had learned something today, something supernatural and somewhat mysterious. Something taboo in just about any circle he traveled in.
Something that could get him locked up – either because he was crazy or because it was so groundbreaking it would be too controversial not to lock him up. Either way, it set a positive tone.
Richard pulled off the interstate and made his way along the congested side streets deeper into his neighborhood. In his blissful daze, he almost missed the photo radar van set up in the school zone near his house. He managed to hit the brakes and slow to the requisite 20 miles per hour just out of range of the long arm of the photo van.
He even smiled and waved at the grumpy-looking officer sitting in the front of the van.
Who’d he piss off to get that assignment, he wondered idly. Shivering at the fact that he, too, was rewarded with a crap assignment for pissing off the wrong manager. Karma. Definitely not with him these days.
Richard pulled into the driveway and parked beside Mary’s car, excited that she had beaten him home and hoping she hadn’t started dinner just yet. He was in such a good mood that he wanted to take her out tonight. Not for any reason in particular, just for fun.
He locked the car, keying the remote twice and listening for the characteristic HONK of the car arming its alarm. Then he hopped up the driveway and to the front door.
Which was slightly ajar.
“Hmm. That’s odd.” Richard pushed the door open. “Honey, I’m home!”
He blindly grabbed the day’s mail out of the box and started reading through the various letters, bills, and trial offers while his feet walked up the stairs on autopilot.
“I was thinking we might go out tonight. Have a little fun, splurge, you know,” he tossed the stack of mail idly on the counter and froze.
The kitchen table was in pieces.
Chairs were on their sides.
The knife block by the television was overturned.
The refrigerator door stood open and already spoiling food spilled out onto the floor, a broken milk jug contributing just enough liquid to make the mess seem almost artistic.
Richard stood there in shock. For just a moment. Then the shouting started.
“MARY!!!” He ran through the house, checking every room. Everything but the kitchen seemed in its place. The newspaper was on the coffee table, her purse was on the bed, discarded after she returned home. Clothes were folded in the basement by the laundry room door. With the exception of the chaos of the kitchen, everything was where he expected it to be.
Everything except Mary.
He pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. It took a full thirty seconds for the operator to get him to slow his breathing enough to m
ake sense. “Wife … gone … kitchen … ransacked … purse … car … here … HELP!”
Part of Richard heard the comforting words of the operator and a vague promise that help was close. The rest of him didn’t know what to do. He walked back to the kitchen and stared at the rubble of what had once been the perfect afternoon.
Mary was missing.
It didn’t look like it was her idea.
Richard felt his rage rising. Part at whoever had done … whatever they had done. Part at himself for not being there to prevent it. But most at himself for being powerless to do anything now.
Despite the 911 operator’s pleas to stay on the line, Richard dropped the phone and sat down on the floor. He curled his knees to his chest and started crying.
Ten minutes later when the police arrived, they still couldn’t get him to stop.
As the hours turned into days turned into weeks, Richard still couldn’t focus. He’d show up late to work, drift into a daze in mid-sentence, and wander off long before closing time. It was no surprise when the partners fired him, though they at least gave him a generous severance package. Even they knew he wouldn’t be seeking employment elsewhere anytime soon.
After 5 weeks, the police had all but given up searching for Mary. That’s when a small voice in Richard’s head popped up. I haven’t seen Cari and John in a while.
He mentioned it idly to one of the investigating officers. The younger detective, Alan, who made a point to stop by the house twice a week, whether he had an update or not.
“I spoke to all of your neighbors, Rick. I don’t remember a John or a Cari.”
“The live next door. They moved in a few days before Mary disappeared. We had them over for dinner once, I was just wondering why they haven’t come by at all.”
Alan stared at Richard for a long time before saying anything. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I even opened a really pricey wine to welcome them to the neighborhood. Are you saying you didn’t interview them?”
“Rick, no one lives next door. The house was condemned three months ago because of cracks in the foundation. It’s scheduled to be demolished next month.”
It was Richard’s turn to stare, only he stared at the wall again. All of the color drained from his face. “Then who …”
“I’ll find out.”
Luckily for Richard, Mary hadn’t gotten around to cleaning all of the dishes from their dinner party the day she’d gone missing. The wine glasses, having been in the kitchen – the crime scene as Richard now thought of it. He hadn’t had the strength to eat a meal at home since that day – were in evidence at the precinct. Alan had no problem dusting them for prints.
They cleared Richard’s and Mary’s fingerprints but found two clear marks. Unluckily for Richard, both prints were in the police database.
They matched two unknown suspects from a string of serial-style murders dating back as far as three years. None of the cases had been solved. All involved a woman being kidnapped from her own home, brutally tortured, then murdered. Ironically enough, they had suspected the husbands in the first two cases – both men were cleared after the third case turned up.
Richard sat in the precinct as Alan told him the story, listening for details but not really hearing. All he knew was that a pair of killers had shared dinner at his table. Had eaten his food. Had drank his wine. And had then kidnapped his wife.
“So what now,” he interrupted, suddenly serious, the rage rekindled and redirected at the two he knew were responsible.
“Rick, they’ve been doing this for three years. There was no evidence left in your home. The house they claimed to have moved in to had even less. Forensics has nothing to go on, the kidnappings have no pattern, and we have no leads.
“You’ve done all you can for now. We know where they’ve been and, thanks to you, we have sketches of both of them to pass along to other departments and agencies. Right now, you need to go home and let the system do its job.”
“Do its job? It’s been over a month and your first break in the case was when I remembered something that didn’t fit. Maybe I can remember something else. Ask me something, anything!” There was desperation in Richard’s voice.
“OK, when was the last time you slept?”
“What does … “ he sat back. “I see, you’re handling me now, that it?”
“Rick, let me do my job. You’re not doing Mary any good torturing yourself like this. Go home, get some rest, get up tomorrow and go through another day. I promise you, I won’t let this go. I’ll keep working until I find her, but you need to give me the space to do that. OK?”
Richard slumped his shoulders and bit his lower lip to keep from crying. He was taken back to that day, sitting on top of the stairs, powerless to do anything.
“You’ll find her?” He asked, raw emotion hanging on every word.
“I’ll find her,” Alan said, staring earnestly back at his new friend. Then he called a patrolman over to give Rick a ride home.
He normally didn’t take cases like this that hard, but something about Rick really got to Alan. For some strange reason, Rick reminded him of the older brother he’d never had. It was a strange sort of relationship, and had it formed under different circumstances they’d probably be best of friends. Working his ass off to solve this case and find Mary was the least he could do for the man who, in another life, could have been his best friend, brother, or both.
Alan shook his head when he got back to his desk. Find Mary, a dark voice deep in his head laughed. As much as I want to, I doubt it. There had been 10 known murders so far. Mary would be number 11. Thirty-five different detectives had worked individually and as parts of inter-agency task forces to track this pair. None had gotten anywhere.
Actually, Alan had gotten the farthest so far. In the previous 10 cases they had either a single eye witness ID the pair or they had found a set of prints on the scene. Never before had they gotten both. This was the first time they could conclusively match the faces to the fingerprints, and it finally proved that all 10 – eleven – cases were related.
“Now if I could just match those fingerprints to a pair of wrists I could slap the cuffs on and get a good night sleep.”
Alan absentmindedly fingered the ring on his left hand. He’d married just two months ago, and he could only imagine the anguish Rick must be going through.
He sat up straight and flipped open his cell phone. Usually cells weren’t allowed at your desk, but Alan dialed his wife anyway.