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    Herr D

    **(EDIT) This project currently tabled due to lost files and overload. Incomplete! Your patience is appreciated. Please check out “The Show Must Go Off,” My completed, standalone in scifi.

    There comes a time when authors need to create a character so unlike themselves that they can’t resist listing traits. Something else authors occasionally feel compelled to do is pick a cause. Something people know little about. Another thing is research. I, for the most part, do casual research all the time–I was doing that before it was possible to net-surf. On PAPER. Using, you know–books . . . [pauses in case of jeering.]

    So–the cause. And the cause for research:
    Troyers Syndrome is an actual neuromuscular condition, coming with “mood difficulties.” It is degenerative, uncurable, and has no telethon or colored ribbon or celebrity sponsor. The details that the doctor characters mention about it in this story are true and accurate to the best of my knowledge. Other characters, naturally, might be completely wrong about it. Few people follow Shakespeare’s advice to “speak not on what you know not of,” muddying the water.

    The main character is female. I am not. She requires a doctor’s care. I do not. She has an artistic career related to journalism, lives in a small town, is unattached, has some verifiable Asian ancestry . . . um–not, not, not . . . how many nots is that?–well, none of those.

    As a cautionary note, the main character is VERY negative, so I would advise against reading this when imbibing large quantities of caffeine. Caffeine is, after all, a very effective hypnosuggestibility drug on the majority of the human population, and I want this community to remain positive.



    I do look forward to reading this story


    Herr D

    Thank you, DCL.
    Okay: [knuckle crack, stretch–]


    Chapter 1: Bad Morning

    Raggedy breathing, wheezing, and ugly rattling sounds deafeningly loud in my ears–buhBUMPbuhBUMPbuhBUMPbuhBUMPbuhBUMPbuhBUMPbuhBUMPbuhBUMP
    –hollow hammering? Ugly gray smoke like car exhaust covering–writhing matted spikes? wind in underbrush?

    AAAUGH! Oh, thank the Lord. Just another bad dream. Jennifer sat up abruptly, peeling sweat-soaked nightie away from her puckered skin. MORE LAUNDRY. GREAT! She picked up her wrist canes and went to the bathroom. Dear Lord, is that the time? Why didn’t my alarm wake me? Without time for a shower, she wet a washrag, sponged herself off, sprayed cologne, dressed, bagged yesterday’s sandwich, hung bag and purse from her left hand right on her wrist cane handle, and keyed out from her apartment in less time than it took to get down the hallway past– Brandon’s stupid MUTT! *&#*@#! Laying in the hall sprawled out like that, it’s lucky I’m not mean as Mr. Po used to be. The elevator chimed and opened for her as she arrived, revealing– Oh, great, Mr. Han “Hi, Mr. Han, I’m glad you got the elev–“
    “Miss Duke. I have news.” He waited for her to step in, pushed the button. Pompous jerk. “I’ve rented all three downstairs apartments.”
    Ex-squeeze-me? “Really?”
    “I could stall one of the new tenants and swap you,” he smiled pointedly, “but I’d have to charge you the new, higher rent and move you quickly. If you want it I’ll need a decision by tomorrow at noon.”
    You KNOW I can’t be here at noon, you jerk. And mid-work-week? I’m not falling for THAT. Jennifer smiled sweetly. “I’m staying put.” HAH! I saw that! I messed you up, didn’t I? “Thank you SO-OO much for keeping me in mind, but this new program is working–” In my dreams, turning them to nightmares.
    “They’re doctors. Very stable income–” he began rapidly, then more smoothly, “They’ll stay a long time. You know I worry–“
    Yeah, right. “That’s very sweet, Mr. Han, but don’t worry. Gotta go. The bus won’t wait.” Jennifer left him listening to the click of her wrist canes. If you WORRIED about me, you’d make Brandon keep his dog out of that narrow hallway so I couldn’t fall over him and wouldn’t have to turn sideways. If you WORRIED about me, you’d make sure the elevators don’t BOTH need maintenance AT THE SAME TIME. Jerk. You’re not getting a key or more rent out of ME. That should burn you good! Despite record-breaking speed leaving for work, Jennifer only had time to eat three bites before the bus arrived, leaving her stomach growling in front of the bus driver that would make her get off for eating. Putting on makeup during the potholes on Washington Avenue didn’t go well, but at least there were no injuries. Not even when that ancient-looking homeless guy startled her by bending close to her suddenly and blurting out, “Very good!” She downed the last of her sandwich at the bus stop and caned as quickly as she could past the Backington Building. No early-morning vendors were in the courtyard. Just that stupid fountain. No lunch AGAIN? *&^%$#@! I’m not putting up with this today. She caned past the Crowe building to the deli, ordered a footlong coldcut extra veggies no mayo, and caned back to the Crowe building and up the two flights of steps arriving less than five minutes late.
    Another record–to the deli and back in ten minutes with no leg twitches. What gives?
    “Huh!” said David Crowe, checking his watch.
    Jerk! “Yes, David?”
    “Late again? You shouldn’t bet your talents are so valuable. Betting your job is a bad idea.”
    “I’m not done betting yet. I bet that no one would be so petty as to fire someone who has my talents, does the editing and production work of three people, and not only takes home the pay of one part-time non-salaried and poorly waged employee, but also never complains about the completely illegal lack of handicapped access to the authorities. All over being late less often than you or the other anchors. If you wanted me on time, you’d invest in elevator access on THIS side of the building” –you useless, self-important, stupid, overblown, oh-I’m-the-boss’-nephew-but-that’s-not-why, sleazy S-O-B! This place only runs smoothly when you’re ON VACATION!! It’s such a shame. You look as good as a perfectly-basted store-window marketing-poster Christmas turkey stuffed with gravel, lead shot, and arsenic-soaked croutons.
    Nathan looked up from shuffling papers on his desk. Grabbed his coffee cup. Got up and power-walked out. Made better time than when your lunch caught fire in the microwave. Man up, Nate. This doesn’t even concern you. David’s face twisted in that way that normally made Jennifer bite back a smile. But right then all she wanted to do was smash it in with her wrist canes. He stomped past the equipment bays and sets, then into his uncle’s office, and she achieved ten minutes of peace to start up her day.
    All in all it was a quiet morning after that, Nathan only sent out one team, and HE was the one listening to the Bearcat scanner.


    Herr D

    Chapter 2: Enter The Draggin’ Engineer

    At five minutes to noon, Po shuffled out from behind the main set, grumbling. Jennifer looked up. Is something COMPLETELY unfixable, Po? “Hi, Po. You okay?”
    Po startled. “Hmp. Need two part.”
    “PartSSS,” she hissed, smiling.
    He smiled back. “PartSSS.” He has–at least half of his teeth.
    “Good.” He must have been really cute back in the stone age.
    He smiled again. “Pl-urrallSS are harder.”
    OMG! “I didn’t know you were that quick, Po.”
    “Have to be quick to figure out THIS junk.” Yeah. Got to be a scavenger to work for the Crowes! She nodded. “What you workin–What ARE you working on now, Jennifer?”
    “I had this thought. When I put our logo on our footage to be sent out, I have to trim it so that it doesn’t look like it’s just pasted over important footage, right?”
    “So I’m finishing a translucent image that can be put on the footage. You should be able to see right through it, but know it’s there. See?” She pointed.
    “What that one?”
    “What IS that one?”
    “Yes. What is that one.”
    “That’s the original image of the fountain mid-cycle. I looked at it, but I can’t make it translucent enough. So I’m using the logo itself and just generating a translucent version.”
    “Real water always more pretty.” Po reached out, took the mouse, copied the image to yet another box on the screen.
    “Wha–” Rude. What’s got him so excited?
    “Important part of phi-llosss-ophy. Everything contains opposite. Light you see is darkness inside, darkness you see is light inside.” What is he– He opened the proprietary graphics program and clicked and rolled the mouse so rapidly she couldn’t follow it. “Water is element. It is pure and so we see good and bad clearer.” The image in Po’s box looked completely blank. Then he pulled down a menu and clicked ‘delete original image.’ Suddenly the negative of the image appeared.
    WHAT?! “What was that?”
    “If image already prepared, a negative over it can cancel it. This program neat that way. Young Mike teach me this.”
    Mike? He can use this? “Huh. Neat. Pity it would be so big of a file. That’s a neat idea, Po, but that would only be good for a few frames. It would overload our server to send doubled footage.”
    Po nodded. “Many ideas are only good once.” And shuffled over to the freight elevator, got on, headed down.


    Herr D

    Chapter 3: Headline Deadline

    The lunch room was empty when Jennifer walked in. She had barely taken her first bite though, when: @#&%*! Anchors away, PLEASE anchors away! What are they on about NOW?
    “We do need pages by two,” said David Crowe, eyes all over Tia. OMG, Mr. and Mrs. Eggshell–pretty smooth outside, painfully fragile, and full of salmonella. “But I’m thinking we need to stress the followup and give it more in-depth later. That at least should ease the rush now.” He put Cafe R.D.E. to-go boxes in the fridge, pulled out his pen, and leaned on the table to write ‘nine a.m.’ in the three timecards he’d walked in with. Not even trying to hide it from me now, huh? “Do you think you can rough that out with your lunches?”
    Tia and Shelley, holding their own to-go boxes, looked at each other. Tia, arching an eyebrow, reached into her bag, pulled out her dessert box, and quietly stuck it into Shelley’s bag without making a sound. David’s eyes were elsewhere on Tia. Shelley nodded.
    “Yes, David. Pages by two. The only thing I’m not sure about is what we should call it.”
    As Nathan, Stuart, Po, Nguyen, and Mike Claren walked into view, David blurted out “What’s wrong with ‘the Chinatown Ghost?'”
    “Hah!” Oops. Everyone turned to look at Jennifer.
    David clenched his teeth. “What’s wrong with that?”
    Jennifer quietly took a rapid, deep breath. “For starters, that poll Stuart finished up says locals don’t react well to calling those three square blocks Chinatown.” She waved at him.
    Stuart paled a bit. “Well . . . um . . . ” Oh, poor guy, did some of us look at you TOO? “Yes. That’s what we found.”
    “Really?” David’s voice sounded flat. “Where is my copy?”
    “I put it in your box last night,” said Stuart quietly. Uh oh, you weren’t sure they CLAIMED to be in this morning did you?
    David’s eyes narrowed slightly. “I must have missed it. What’s wrong with ‘Ghost?'” He looked back at Jennifer.
    “She doesn’t act like a ghost.”
    “What?” David guffawed. Wow. If he just ridicules me in front of everyone, maybe he won’t push me. Just don’t ask–
    “How DOES she act then?” He opened his eyes, craned his neck. Honesty always, from those wanting truth.
    “Not like a ghost.”
    He laughed again. “How does a ghost act?”
    “She doesn’t haunt just one place. She doesn’t always look the same. She doesn’t always do the same things . . . ” You stupid *^$! “As long as you’re going to call her something, you should pick something that fits.

    [Continued next block]

    Herr D

    Continuing with Chapter 3: Headline Deadline

    “You’re talking about consistency,” muttered Tia. Ouch. Even the bimbo gets it. Where does that leave you, Davy-boy?
    “I am.”
    “Hey–yeah,” said Nathan. So now even YOU know it’s safe to agree with me, Nate? “There are other words for–you know, occult stuff. What’s a wraith?”
    “Brandon Lee!” blurted out Shelley, “You know–his part in ‘The Crow.’ That was a wraith. My ex-boyfriend did a term paper on that.”
    A what?
    “I thought the crow just brought back a soul.” OMG Tia! Even Po smiled.
    “Soul have weight? Can lift gun and wear makeup?” said Po. Well put, actually.
    “Oh.” Tia began smiling too. David, however, was fuming.
    “So you’d bet anyone would actually CARE what we call it. That we should google it till we get the technically correct name?”
    Jennifer smiled widely. “I’m not done betting yet. Google is a good plan, but people care about accuracy less than they do a LOT of other things. I bet an in-kind lunch that this lunchroom can come up with THREE names that your uncle will like better. Before one-o’clock.”
    “What” said David, “is an ‘in-kind’ lunch?’
    I may have made that up?
    “Well, you know I’m not unethical enough to bet what I can’t pay. So I bet that without leaving this lunchroom, anyone who eats lunch here today that comes up with two names that no one else does gets lunch. A sub from the deli if three names aren’t liked better by Mr. Crowe. Lunch from wherever you eat if he does.”
    David frowned. “I may make more than you, but that’s a bit much. One appetizer or dessert per person.”
    “It would be a hardship for me to pay for subs for NINE. An appetizer or a dessert from Cafe R.D.E. goes for what–fifty cents more?”
    David frowned deeper. He picked up Jennifer’s bag and looked at the receipt stapled to the side. He raised his eyebrows. He handed her back the bag. “I’m not unethical enough to bet what I don’t have either. I could do lunches on Monday.” Yeah, right. You’re a saint.
    Nguyen spoke up. “I’m not here on Monday, and I don’t like subs. What about sodas and chips from the deli against appetizers or desserts from the cafe?”
    “Fine.” Jennifer smoothed the bag out, pulled a pen out, and began the list right on the bag.

    [Continued next block]

    Herr D

    Continuing with Chapter 3: Headline Deadline

    By 12:30, everyone but David had put in at least two names. That’s when Young Mike walked in. Nguyen explained the bet as he walked to the refrigerator and got out his food, then trotted out, explaining that she had to leave work early.
    “So,” he said, “I have a question. How do we present this to Mr. Crowe?”
    “What do you mean?” I have a question for you. Why do you wear suspenders?
    “None of us are supposed to bother him. Should we e-mail him?” Looks exchanged. David smiled.
    “You don’t need to worry about that. You weren’t a part of the original bet.” Cheapskate.
    Po raised a hand. “Did you say everyone in the lunchroom?”
    “Doesn’t matter,” said Young Mike, “That means I give it to him.”
    “What?” David frowned.
    “I’m not a part of the contest. That means I have no stake in it. So I should give it to him.” Young Mike pulled a length of paper towel out of the dispenser and a pen from a pocket and began copying the list. “While I’m at it I’ll alphabetize them. That’s more fair.” He looked at Jennifer. “You’ll have to keep the original list so we’ll have a record of who thought up which names.”
    Well, DUHH.
    David frowned deeper. “You know you’re not supposed to disturb him?” Oh, you had a way to cheat in mind, didn’t you?
    “It’s okay,” said Young Mike, “I have a meeting with him in about fifteen minutes.”
    Shocked silence took over the lunchroom. David got up and walked out. Hah!
    “If you don’t mind,” said Young Mike, “I’ll ask your opinions on which ones you think are best.”

    [Continued next block]

    Herr D

    Chapter 4: The Skinny On The Unknown

    Shelley rapidly motioned Tia to sit down. Shelley then pulled her ‘extra’ dessert box out of her bag without anyone noticing but Jennifer and trotted up to the table where Jennifer and Young Mike sat. “May I borrow your pen?” she said to Jennifer.
    Shelley took the pen and pulled out a small notebook and a few photos. “If you’re really going to look at these names, why don’t you look at my rough draft to give you a sense of how accurate they are?” She looked significantly at Jennifer, pen poised.
    Young Mike looked up from copying the list. He took the notebook and photos. “Neat! Pre-broken news.”
    Jennifer peeked into the dessert box. Peanut butter pie?! Yecch! She shook her head. Shelley pursed her lips, then mouthed the words ‘Chocolate Pecan Pie.’ Jennifer nodded. Shelley took the pen to Tia’s table, wrote ‘Jennifer Duke’ on her own dessert box and swapped them. She opened the box just a bit and held it open as she walked past Jennifer. Jennifer nodded.
    “Let me see that too,” she said to Young Mike. If I’m gonna proof this and have it to them by two, I should see it now.
    He turned it her way. She tuned out Young Mike asking the others questions to read it. Alternately in Shelley’s and Tia’s writing it read:
    Tia to practice WWWWW. I’ll add notes. 1. No name as yet. Not apparently a person–strange phenomenon. Two detectives baffled–source check? Yes. Yes. Yes.
    2. Some pranks, some funny some vicious. See summary next page.
    3. 1rst instance March 17th. Various instances in growing frequency through ‘verified’ May 9th, continuing. More specific
    Usually in dim light just before dawn. Some early afternoon (2pm-ish) more often as closer to dusk. Very few in full dark and none in morning after full sun (9am-ish) ? Not morning person?
    4. Centering on Backington’s ‘Chinatown’ but some incidents reported to Backington’s southern edge. All Washington Street and Main Street. Blue bus line? Does match the map.
    5. No understandable motive. Avoid talking about it.

    Oh, great, a complete rewrite from notes. Should’ve held out for more than one dessert.
    Jennifer turned the page to look at the summary of incidents, barely breathing, just chewing and reading. It continued much like the previous page, but in neater handwriting:

    [Continued next block]

    Herr D

    [continuation of Chapter 4]

    Incident tallies with footage detail

    March 17: Medical Office Building incident. Construction crew [use no names per agreement — sources verified] reports new building south of town had ‘help.’ Three stud walls were lifted and nailed into place by what they describe variously as ‘dust devil’ ‘living fog’ ‘figure made of smoke.’ High wind sounds, trash scattered whole area ‘warm’ ‘warmer’ ‘oddly hot.’ Ten to twelve times as many nails used as necessary. Extra safety inspection declared okay and work proceeded. Stills only.
    No bent nails or nails nailed anywhere but stud walls. Four nails almost out other side of wood like twister stories. Pic#4! Took between 2-4 min. Gusts of wind before and after had crew seeking cover from debris. Walls went up abt 4:50pm.

    Jennifer pursed her lips. I remember that from the radio report. They sure took their time following up on THIS incident. She read on:
    March 30th: Washington St. 2 1/2 blocks east of Chinatown. Three officers, one metermaid, two drivers, one passenger, six passersby same story. One totalled compact car had rear-ended large pickup. Tow truck arrived. Tow driver hurt hand, pausing. High wind sounds, trash scattered, one parking sign bent. Area became warmer. Tow truck locked itself, loaded itself with car, hooked itself to truck, drove away. Turned right on Ebert, left on Jefferson, right on Flowers, left on Polk. Crashed into condemned building at end of Polk, totalling tow truck. No pictures but of wreckage. No figure seen. Abt 6:45-7:10pm. No other injuries.

    Jennifer frowned. I remember that day too. My bus was really late getting me home. I hate rush hour. This shouldn’t be hard to write up after all. Can Shelley REALLY not manage this? All I do is copy an old teleprompter feed and edit it to match. Sheesh. What’s next?

    [Continued next block]

    Herr D

    [continuation of Chapter 4]

    April 12th: Ng Building Fire. Police and emergency services have refused comment multiple times. 911 dispatched fire, local cops, ambulance to scene at 9pm. The entire top floor burned. Sources in construction industry say elevator shafts and stairwells were boarded up at that level. No one has been seen dining on the roof patio and no lights have been seen shining from that level since. Footage from witness phone shows human-shaped figure floating outside, kicking in top-floor windows, darting in and out as fire starts. No one but witness will comment about what was seen. Pic #5. Follow-up with hospital has no patients likely logged in from fire. (No one seen being put in ambulance and no coroner’s wagon showed either. No patients? Refusal of treatment? Mr. Ng was wearing no bandages the next day and did not sound hoarse during speech. Same for known associates.) No comment from known insurers of Ng property. YM managed to enhance one good still.

    Jennifer shook her head. Mr. Ng is well-hated. Everyone knows that. His business deals prevented that other clinic from being built . . . but we don’t know anything about what happened? She rubbed her temples. I hope I’m not getting a headache. She read on.

    April 25th: Three different security cameras captured images of hazy figure gesturing violently at windows of the home of David Crowe. The figure did not seem to touch the windows, but the windows were breaking. Vandalism occurred between 9:15-9:30pm. A downed power line caused enough damage / confusion that the time could not be ascertained closer. No one was home and no one heard what was happening. Damages were over ten thousand dollars. Claims have been filed. There is a one thousand dollar reward still being offered for information positively identifying the responsible party or parties by Mr. Simon Crowe at Backington Productions. YM managed to enhance one good still.

    Jennifer smiled. She gave me a birthday present, whoever she was. It doesn’t make up for Davy-boy cutting my schedule down that week, but it helped. She closed her eyes. What would it have been like, to have been there to watch? Mmmmh. Loud moaning sounds of gusting wind, cozy warmth almost too hot. CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! Yikes! Did I just doze off? Jennifer glanced around. Young Mike was shaking his head at Tia’s entry, ‘Dixie Pixie,’ and Nathan was explaining to Po that he thought grainy pictures were cool-looking. Shelley looked up.
    “Did you have a question?”
    Nobody saw, thank the Lord. “I doubt it’s important, but how many windows at the Crowe home?”
    “Sixteen.” Shelley shrugged. “I think he got a deal on having them replaced.”
    Jennifer nodded. I’ve never been there. I must have heard them talking before. How ELSE would I know there were sixteen?

    Pic #5

    [**editor’s note: one more picture coming for this block.]

    [Continued next block]

    Herr D

    [continuation of Chapter 4]

    Jennifer stared at the pictures for a few moments. That’s so weird how they look familiar. Maybe I’ve seen too many hazy ‘pictures’ of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. What’s YM? She frowned. The next several pages had been torn out. Shelley did at least summarize it and go to the trouble of organizing it and rewriting it once.

    April 26th – May 9th

    Fifty-three instances attributed, six seen by credible witnesses, twelve with physical evidence linkages over fourteen days.
    Seven doors and four windows jammed shut with shredded trash. Chinatown. 2pm to 10pm.
    Three Chinatown alleys had trashcans flattened and gouged into brick walls, preventing pickup. 5am-7am.
    Garbage truck had exhaust pipe crimped, stalling it and making restarting impossible before maintenance. Twice! Thursday at 5:25am precisely. Corner of Washington and Main.
    Nine stereos, two t.v.s, four radio alarm clocks have been smashed along with the windows closest to them, unless they were open. Chinatown, sunrise to 7:30am.
    Two vehicles known to backfire were completely disassembled, parts scattered in trashcans, in mailboxes, and on rooftops. Possessions from inside the vehicles were neatly stacked, in both instances, under tarped construction areas nearby, preventing rain damage. This was done silently.
    Nine small dogs and six cats have been found dead. Most were flattened against walls out of reach of anyone without a ladder. Two of them seem to have died of smoke inhalation where there was no smoke.
    Three doors have been found removed from their hinges at random locations blocks away in hard-to-reach places.
    Two bells have been removed from shopkeeper’s doors when they were staying open late for specific customers. The bells were flattened before their eyes, “carefully, so as not to damage merchandise.”
    –Motive in all cases, based on testimony, was to ensure quiet.

    Jennifer stared at the pages. Is THAT why Brandon’s been leaving his mutt in the hall? To keep him . . . alive? It never barks in the hall, just happily wags it’s tail, sleeps half-on-half-off his welcome mat and– Wait. It was all the way off the mat this morning. It never sleeps off the mat. buhBUMPbuhBUMPbuhBUMP–hollow hammering? Ugly gray smoke like car exhaust covering–writhing matted spikes? wind in underbrush?
    Jennifer recoiled slightly. She felt hot all over.
    Shelley sat down next to her, snapping her back to the present. “Are you okay?”
    Young Mike glanced up, “You look pale.”
    Jennifer opened her mouth. She closed her mouth. Um, yeah. I’ll just tell everyone I’m a psychic, and I know that the whatsit killed my neighbor’s dog. Yeah. Go ahead. Commit me, PLEASE? “I just realized my neighbor’s dog might be dead too. It was sleeping in the middle of the hallway this morning. I had to turn sideways to get around it.”
    “I’m sorry, Jen,” Shelley said. You’re just worried I won’t finish your work.
    Young Mike glanced at her wrist canes. “Is it difficult to go sideways with those things?”
    “It’s more like it’s hard not to fall without going really slow. It’s a narrow hallway.”
    Shelley began to speak and then stopped, frowned. She pulled a notebook page out of a pocket. “Is one of these addresses your building?”
    “Yes. Why?”
    Shelley frowned, “No one in those two buildings will talk to us. If you could verify the dog is dead, that would be EVERY BUILDING BUT ONE in Chinatown. Is there any part of your work you couldn’t take with you?”
    Yikes! “You mean, you’d drive me home after work?”
    Shelley blinked, “No, I mean, I’d take you home now–would you LIKE a ride home after work? I can compensate informants.” She smiled. Wow. Honesty. Keepin’ it real with your mercenary self.
    What would I need? “My laptop won’t hold a charge.”
    Young Mike grinned. “I got an adaptor. Po’s custom work. You’re riding shotgun–the cord won’t reach the back of the van. Shelley? Get me an office chair.”
    Shelley looked at him funny but trotted right out to get the rolling office chair. Young Mike snatched up Jennifer’s wrist canes, handed them to her, lifted her up–WHOA THERE! placed her in the office chair as it arrived, handed her everything off the table including his own Tupperware container, and rolled her right out of a lunchroom full of raised eyebrows. Not even out of breath, Young Mike parked her at her desk. You’re a LOT stronger than YOU look, Tarzan!
    “I’m gonna take my meeting early and get back here quick. Be ready.”
    Jennifer turned to object and saw him halfway across the building. Maybe I should’ve spoken sooner? %$^&!
    Shelley came puffing up to Jennifer. “Do you need me to carry anything?”
    “Um? This laptop is a heavy model. Do you have a case?” Is he ALWAYS this fast? I never see him, and you’re acting like this is normal.
    Shelley trotted to a drawer and pulled out a box full of mouse pads, a large ziploc full of bungee cords, and two round flat pillows.
    She plopped the smaller one right on Jennifer’s lap, startling her in the middle of choosing a download. Those look like dog pillows. “Be ready to power down the instant he comes out.” Shelley pointed at Mr. Crowe’s office, where Nguyen was already buzzing Young Mike in. Shelley grabbed the box of mouse pads, the ziploc, the other pillow, and Jennifer’s wrist canes, HEY? and ran straight for the open freight elevator. I guess I’m going, then. She shook her head, and packaged everything up as best she could.


    Herr D

    Chapter 5: The Away Team

    Jennifer had barely downloaded her text files when Shelley came bursting out of the stairwell, snapping shut her compact.
    “Do you need an excuse to have guests? Should one of us be a relative?” She said breathlessly.
    “Not enough hands,” said Jennifer, looking up to see Young Mike emerging from Mr. Crowe’s office. ALREADY?! If you were carrying my dessert from the refrigerator, and I was carrying the laptop–” She held down the power button and pulled it onto her lap. “Well–other way around.”
    Shelley pulled out a keychain, waved it in the air, and put it beside the laptop. “Perfect,” she said. She dashed for the breakroom and wasn’t quite back when Young Mike practically blurred around Jennifer, grabbed her chair, and started for the freight elevator.
    I’m gonna have to know stuff more often! This is cool!
    It was halfway to being a circus act how Young Mike and Shelley wheeled Jennifer right off the end of the loading dock into the van without the ramp, trusting her to hold the laptop, Shelley taking things from Jennifer’s lap to the one rear seat while Young Mike strapped the office chair to an equipment locker and trotted around to start the van. It was surprisingly easy to half-swing from the rope handles hanging from the roof up to the front but a clumsy business for Jennifer to pull her legs around to the front seat, buckle in despite her wrist canes, and take the laptop and pillow on her lap while Young Mike drove out of the lot. Jennifer stared at Mike while he used his left hand to steer, signal, and sip from a water bottle while he used his right to shift, rummage through a basket of various cables, and feel the ends without looking until he said, “Ha – HA!” He plugged one end into the cigarette lighter and handed the other to Jennifer, who, unable to keep from smiling and shaking her head, plugged it into the laptop and began editing. Lunch traffic was ending by the time they reached Washington Street, and that’s when Shelley stopped stressing with her makeup and reached forward, stuffing rubber-banded bundles of mousepads between the laptop and the glove compartment above Jennifer’s knees. Ohhh. “Want one under your mouse elbow?”
    “Yes, thanks.” Ironically, this is probably the easiest rewrite I’ve had in awhile. Imply, suggest, give a great fact, repeat.
    “Why are you typing?” said Young Mike, “I thought all you did was graphics.”
    Um, oops. “Have you SEEN Shelley’s typing? I edit just about everything we produce.”
    “Ah.” Well, if you’ll buy it, I guess it’ll do.
    “Why are you called ‘Young Mike?'” Hmmp. Nice smile.
    “Mike Clarend has seniority. My name is Mike Claren with no ‘d,’ and both of us have the same middle name. I was ‘Old Mike’ in my college group.”
    “Was there another Mike Clarend there?”
    “A Mike McClaren.”
    Young Mike’s phone rang at that moment.


    Herr D

    Chapter 6: Bonding Over Lies

    Young Mike plugged in his hands-free ear wire, stuffed the bud in his left ear and answered the phone. He looked surprised.
    “Yes sir? Um. Okay. Yes–she’s here. Hold on.” He put the phone in the cable basket between himself and Jennifer and handed the earbud to Jennifer, still practically juggling.
    “For me?” Who even knows I’m here? Jennifer looked at the earbud. At least it looks clean. She put it in. “Hello?”
    “Miss Duke?” Big boss alert!
    “Yes, Mr. Crowe? You might call me Jennifer–I still don’t always know who Miss Duke is.”
    Simon Crowe laughed. “Congratulations.”
    What– “Thank you. For what?”
    He laughed again. “I liked your entry for the new story best. Please call it ‘Zephyr’ from now on.”
    Zephyr?! That wasn’t in the entries! Wh– Jennifer glanced sideways at Young Mike.
    “Sh,” Young Mike said quietly.
    “I–” she began.
    “I numbered them,” said Mr. Crowe, “like your current driver requested. He didn’t fool me though.”
    “Fool you?” Jennifer asked innocently. But he DID. Zephyr must have been HIS idea.
    “I know you, Jennifer. And I know my nephew. No one had to tell me this is some sort of bet between the two of you. What are the stakes? I need you to tell me. I’ve explicitly told David there is to be no betting of money on the job.”
    “We bet food items for the group. Not a whole lunch or anything.”
    “Thank you. I should tell you that I know my nephew VERY well. I’ve tried to teach him how to run a business, but I’m afraid he feeds his ego and not his intellect. I have promised him his decisions about Backington Studios will stick. That means you may have to be careful. I know you two don’t get along well.” So, you’re not going to make him keep me. Didn’t think so.
    “Thank you.”
    “For what?”
    “For making that clear. I know from –” She looked around at Shelley. “Before. I know from before that you talked about keeping opposing views nearby to learn from them.” How do I make this sound like it’s about something else? “Where in the list is Chinatown Ghost?”
    Mr. Crowe laughed again. “Well done. You are actually good at this sort of intrigue. It is next to last. The worst one was Dixie Pixie. That was Tia’s?”
    “Haha–you know it. Po put in ‘yokai’ and ‘sorei,’ where are they?”
    “Third and fourth. But people might think we’re making ethnic comments, so I’m glad your entry won.”
    “What was second?”
    “The Backington Boogeyman. I have another call.”
    “Goodbye Mr. Crowe.”
    “Goodbye.” The phone clicked off. Jennifer didn’t even hunt for the right button, just wiped the earbud on her shirt and stuck it in Young Mike’s ear. He looked surprised. And slightly pink. Ooh, buddy can BLUSH. Cute!
    “Thanks,” he said. And not used to getting any help with anything. Jennifer pondered his suspenders, his unfortunate plaid shirt, his Buddy Holly glasses, and his too-short haircut and stubble. “I’m looking over, a three-leaf clover, that I overlooked be-THREEEE. Bugs Bunny said it best.
    –DAH! “What is it, Shelley?”
    “What was that about?”
    Oops. “Did you put in Backington Boogeyman?”
    “It came in second.”
    Shelley smiled. “Hey! Wait. What was that bit about opposing views?”
    “Oh.” %^&*! She’s a good reporter; I shouldn’t forget that. “He knows it was a bet.”
    Shelley’s smile disappeared and she looked worriedly at Jennifer. “Are you in trouble?”
    “No more than I was. He likes people coming clean when he catches them.” Jennifer turned to face forward again and frowned at the screen. Zephyr. Not bad.
    “What did you enter?”
    Jennifer froze. She raised her eyebrows. “Um, if I’m gonna finish this–“
    Mike smiled. “Don’t be too modest, Jennifer. She entered ‘Zephyr,’ and ‘Miasma,’ and Zephyr won.”
    “What’s a miasma?”
    Um?“Yeah, Mike, what’s a miasma?”
    Shelley laughed.
    “I’m not sure. So what are we doing when we get there? I’m guessing we won’t be flashing press cards.”
    “Oh!” said Shelley, “Jennifer’s hanging bags of food from her canes and leading us up. I’m carrying the laptop and two dog pillows. You hide a camera in a box or something. We take ‘her’ stuff to her place and knock on the dog owner’s door, saying I have a dog pillow I don’t need. I’ll probably try to look like I’m fighting back tears and claim my dog died recently. Try to look sympathetic and either irritated or like you want to avoid the subject. Tell him where to park, but not too close. We don’t want people to see the passenger side of the van. Is that an ambulance?”
    There was an ambulance parked in front of the building.


    Herr D

    Chapter 7: Foiled Plans

    Parking turned out to be easy. They piled out of the van, and Shelley packed the laptop while Young Mike rigged a cardboard box with double-faced tape on the inside, putting the lens up to a subtle hole and fastening it, then arranging the viewer module on a bendy wire up near the half-open flaps. Like most of the equipment owned by Backington Studios, it looked like junk but was in fine working order. He added a Backington phone book to the bottom of the box and hefted it. He added a handful of mouse pads and a small cloth shopping bag and hefted it again. He positioned it in his hands as if it were heavy and glanced down into the darkened box. He nodded. “Ready.”
    He led the way up to Jennifer’s apartment building, gliding instead of walking so as not to bounce the camera. Just as they arrived at the front door, the paramedics came out with the gurney. Shelley trotted to the lead, “Oh, no; what happened?”
    The smaller paramedic looked up at her and smiled with recognition, “Bye, Shelley.” They piled in the ambulance.
    Shelley turned to face the box. “Paramedics had no comment on the injuries sustained. Ma’am? Do you know what happened?” Jennifer was standing completely still, shocked expression on her face. “I don’t know. He was my apartment manager.” Mr. Han IS a jerk, but that looked BAD! She resumed walking inside. Shelley held the door for them.
    Inside, Jennifer caned herself right up to Mrs. Smith. “Mrs. Smith, what happened?”
    Mrs. Smith turned slightly. “I don’t know, dear. Mr. Han had some kind of accident with his stove. We may have to turn the gas off and on this evening for an inspection.”
    “An inspection?”
    “He said he wasn’t using his stove. But I found burn marks and smoke all over the kitchen. He probably somehow turned on the gas without lighting it.” Mrs. Smith turned to appraise Shelley and Young Mike. “You’re home early. No trouble I hope?”
    “They’re carrying some things up for me.” Ugh, it’s like lying to a grandmother I never had.
    “Oh. It’s good that they’re here. The elevator won’t work until the fire chief finishes. It shouldn’t be very long, but he has to check all the breakers on the same wall and all the fire alarms in this hall.” Mrs. Smith then made a face. “Mr. Han told me he offered to move you again when he called me this morning. I may have to fire him when he’s better.”
    What? “Fi-fire him?”
    Mrs. Smith made another face and snaked her hand around the doorjamb into Mr. Han’s apartment. Around the doorway out of sight there was a crumpling noise. She pulled a large paper bag to herself and held it out to Jennifer. “Do you recognize any of these?”
    Jennifer looked down into the bag and her face began to redden. He HAS been stealing my laundry.
    “The polka-dotted and the B-cup there,” she whispered, “I don’t recognize the others.”
    Mrs. Smith nodded, tight-lipped. “I’m going to take these to the police. They were all over his couch when I found him. You were right about him, Jennifer. I’m glad I did what you asked and kept your keys myself.” She sighed.
    Poor old Mrs. Smith. That’s the second manager you’ve had to let go in two years. See if I ever try to retire on rental properties! “If my legs weren’t a problem, I might take the job myself, Mrs. Smith.”
    She smiled. “I might not mind your legs, Jennifer. At least I could trust you.”
    Jennifer smiled back. “If it weren’t for my legs and my other job I might apply. But I’ll help you find someone.”
    Mrs. Smith patted her on the shoulder. “I may need that, dear.” She walked toward the fire chief, who was just visible at the fire exit.
    Burn him. I remember thinking that about Mr. Han . . . when was that? . . .
    Jennifer walked back to Shelley and Young Mike. “Stove accident,” she said. Why don’t I believe that? “No elevators.”

    [Continued next block]

    Herr D

    [continuation of Chapter 7]

    Jennifer caned up to the mailboxes and unlocked her box. Junk mail and cable bill. She pocketed the bill, tore the rest in half and stuffed it in the slot marked ‘paper only.’ She turned to see Shelley pointing to the wall above the boxes. She looked up.
    Already on the wall were the spray-painted words ‘3 Dr. Li’s! No relation, I bet!’ in uneven black. Please–not even funny.
    “Uh huh.” She glanced down. The boxes DID all have the label ‘Dr. Li.’ She shrugged. “So, do you want to come back?”
    They startled her by doubling up. Shelley carried everything but the hidden camera box, Jennifer carried the box, and Young Mike carried her. I could get used to THIS, Tarzan. They put everything but the dog pillows and the hidden camera box into Jennifer’s place and, hearing a television on in Brandon’s room, knocked. Brandon opened up, looking surprised.
    “Hello? Jennifer, right?” He glanced at Shelley, wary.
    “Yes. My friend here wanted to ask you–“
    “If you’d like a dog pillow or two. I don’t need them anymore,” Shelley turned her head slightly more away from the camera, as if trying not to tear up. “Jennifer says you have a dog.”
    Brandon looked downcast. He opened the door wider, letting them see a full-size dog bed next to the television. “I can’t get Rocky to use what he has. Thanks, but no thanks.”
    “Sir? Is that a map from Vietnam?” said Young Mike, nodding at the wall above the t.v. set.
    Brandon nodded. “Man in a market there sold them. There were times it was better information than we had.” It was missing pieces near each corner and along two creases where it had been folded.
    Shelley looked around, as if confused. “Well, sorry to bother you; I’ll just donate them, I guess.”
    Jennifer leaned in further, “Brandon? Where IS Rocky?” He’s not going to get the hint, Shelley.
    “He’s at the vet.”
    “Oh, he’s not sick, is he?”
    Brandon frowned. “Funny thing. He’s acting healthier. Sometimes that means a dog is dying, so I’m having his pleurisy checked out.”
    Shelley blinked. “Pleurisy? I don’t know that one.”
    Brandon made a small smile. “I don’t know what they call it now. Rocky is an old dog. He gets fluid in his lungs. He likes putting his chest on the cold floor for a spell and then coughing it up. It’s probably bad for him, but it’s apparently easier to cough up that way. I guess it works pretty damn well. The vet said he was as well off as if he’d been on oxygen, but he needs to stay in for tests.”
    That was COUGHING? No wonder. I thought he just had a wimpy bark. “Well, do you know anyone around who needs them?”
    –Quick follow-up on inquiries was enough to tell them that no one knew of a pet that had died in either building. The only odd thing was a set of missing wind chimes being attributed to pranksters.
    They’d been back less than ten minutes when David came storming up to Jennifer. “Where were you!”
    Shelley looked up from her console and began walking toward them. You’re helping? “I helped Shelley with a lead.”
    “She did.” Shelley was only just close enough not to shout. Nate got up to go for coffee. Awh, my hero.
    “What?!” David was red-faced, shaking a piece of paper. “Tia needs this edited and put in the ‘prompter for the filming at two, and you weren’t where we could find you.” He tossed the page down onto her desk. One page? What, ten more minutes?
    “That shouldn’t be a problem.” Jennifer picked it up. Fluff piece for a fluff-brain. No problem at all.
    “What do you mean, you helped with a lead?! You’re not a reporter.” Neither are YOU, Davy-boy.
    “I helped introduce her to some informants.”
    “Excuse me?” No excuse FOR you, Davy-boy.
    “Excuse ME,” said Shelley, “I needed her. We got partial information on a mysterious accident, two petty thefts, one possible human-interest story–though that one’s doubtful, and a local pervert.” Did you record Mrs. Smith and I talking about my underwear?
    David reddened even more. “She was supposed to be editing.”
    “She was typing in the van,” Young Mike said. Where did you come from?! “That’s why we took her laptop.”
    David was obviously startled to see Young Mike too. “Wh–that laptop can’t hold a charge.” You didn’t notice it was GONE, did you? HAH!
    “You know Po rigged up a charge adaptor for the van,” said Shelley. David reddened even more.
    “But your ploy worked. You should be happy.” Young Mike nodded brightly. What are you doing?
    “Ploy?” David was reddening even more.
    “Yeah. That contest you inspired. You got a newsworthy name. Mr. Crowe picked his favorite already. Wasn’t much of a contest. Now every news service is gonna want our footage. All it cost you were a bunch of desserts and the company gets guaranteed success on follow-up reporting.” Wow. That was actually smooth. He’s slow enough to go for that if I keep quiet.
    David opened his mouth. He closed his mouth. He opened his mouth again. He closed his mouth again. He blinked twice. “I think we said appetizers or desserts.” He walked away, blinking. YESSSS! He might even forget to be mad that the winning entry is credited to me.

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