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Monday, July 29, 2013

Kill Switch: An excerpt from a work in progress

The following is the first chapter of Kill Switch, my current work-in-progress.  I would love to have some feedback!

            There were only a few items on the list of things that Chris Franzia expected to come home to after closing up his classroom on the last day of school.   A nap in the hammock, a cold bottle of celebratory beer, some time playing with his dog, maybe a movie in the evening.  He hadn’t thought much beyond that.  Summer still stretched before him, an endless expanse of leisure, sunshine, and few responsibilities.
            This happy, far-from-September mental fog is probably why he didn’t notice the white four-door sedan that was parked in his driveway until he had nearly rear-ended it.
            Chris shut off his car, heart pounding, and got out.  At the same time, two men exited the sedan.  Both were dressed in tailored suits, and as they approached him, they were reaching for wallets, flipping out badges and ID cards.
            Chris’ heart accelerated further.  Police? he thought.  This can’t be good news.  Did someone  in my family die?  But would they send plainclothes detectives for something like that?
            “Christopher Franzia?” said the one who had gotten out of the driver’s side.  He was an older man, silver at the temples, with dark eyes and an angular, weather-beaten face.  He carried an elegant dark leather briefcase.
            Chris nodded, trying not to let the alarm show in his face.  “That’s me.”
            “I’m Jim Hargis,” he said.  “This is my partner, Mark Drolezki.  We’re from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Can we have a few moments of your time?”
            Chris, his mouth open a little, nodded again.  He swallowed.  “Let’s go inside.  I… um, I just have to get my chinchilla out of the car.”
            He went around the back of his car, opened the hatch, and pulled out a spacious cage that contained the biology classroom pet, an irritable chinchilla named Jabberwock.  Jim Hargis, he noticed, followed him, watching from a few feet away.  He’s making sure I’m not getting out a weapon, Chris thought, and even his mental voice sounded incredulous.  He set the cage down briefly to close the hatch, and then headed off toward the house, thinking, FBI?  What can the FBI want with me? At least they didn’t look like they were ready to accuse him of espionage and arrest him on the spot. 
            “Those little guys are so damn cute,” said Mark Drolezki, a tall blond man with a linebacker’s build and an incongruous little boy’s face, as the two agents followed Chris up the sidewalk toward his house.  “My niece has one.”
            “He lives in my classroom, usually,” Chris said.  He balanced the cage on one knee and turned the doorknob with the other.  “I take him home on vacations.”
            “You don’t lock your door?” Jim Hargis said.
            “Around here?” Chris said, and his face relaxed into a smile.  “No need.  Besides…”  As he opened the door, a large, furry form pushed its way out, gave Chris no heed at all, and barreled right into Jim Hargis, nearly knocking him to the ground.  Then it ran about ten feet away, barking merrily, turned around and cannoned into Mark Drolezki, trotted over and peed on a bush, and then came up to Chris, tongue hanging out, tail wagging furiously.
            “… I have a dog,” Chris finished.  “C’mon, Baxter, get in here.”  He pushed the door open, and the dog went inside, followed by Chris and the two FBI men, Jim Hargis brushing the dog hair off his immaculately-pressed trouser leg.
            Chris set Jabberwock’s cage on the top of a bookshelf, and gestured for the two men to sit down on a disreputable-looking sofa.  Chris sat in a rocking chair on the other side of a coffee table strewn with magazines, papers, and three unwashed coffee cups.  Baxter, now that the excitement was over and having decided that his master didn’t need him to defend hearth and home against the two strangers, loped over to his dog bed and flopped down with a heavy sigh.
            “We apologize for descending on you unannounced,” Hargis said.  “We just have a few questions for you.”
            “Yeah, no problem,” Chris said, and then said, “But I don’t see why you could want me…”  He trailed off.
            “We’re not here to accuse you of anything,” Hargis said, as if he’d read Chris’ thoughts.  “Like I said.  Just a few questions.”
            “Okay.”  He took a deep breath.  “Shoot.”
            “Do you know two men named Glen Cederstrom and Gavin McCormick?”
            Chris leaned back in his chair.  Now that was a blast from the past…  “Yes, years ago,” he said.  “I knew them at college.”
            “At the University of Washington,” Hargis said.
            Chris nodded.
            Hargis opened his briefcase, pulled out a folder, and extracted one sheet from it.  He handed it to Chris.  “Would you happen to know what this is about?”
            Chris took his reading glasses from his shirt pocket, put them on, and looked at the page.  It was a printout of an email, dated May 28, 2013.


            I know we haven’t seen each other in years, and I wonder if you even remember me.  We were in a Field Biology class together back in the mid-80s at UW, and maybe a couple of other classes, too – Cellular, I think?  Not sure about that.  Anyway, it’s been a while, and I’m hoping that you’ll remember me well enough to take what I’m about to say seriously.

            Your life is in danger.  So is mine, but I knew about it ahead of time, and I’m taking precautions.  I know this will seem to make no sense, but it has to do with that field work we did up in the Cascades.  I’m not sure I completely understand it myself, yet, but I’m figuring out more and more.  Most of it I wouldn’t put in an email, or in print at all, because you never know who’s listening in.  I found you through a Google search – and if I can, anyone can.

            You’re the only one I’ve contacted yet, mostly because I remember you as being the most level-headed of all of our circle of friends.  I’m going to try to find the others – Mary, Deirdre, Chris, Elisa, and Lewis – and I’d like your help.  Call me – my number is 503-555-7108, and we can discuss it more.  I’m in Vancouver, Washington, so we’re only an hour or so’s drive apart – at least a couple of the others, I think, scattered further afield.  But we need to let everyone know, soon, about the danger.

            Please take this seriously.  It’s important.

            Your old friend,

            Gavin McCormick

            Chris finished reading, and looked up.  The two FBI agents regarded him questioningly.
            “Well?” Hargis said.  “Do you have any idea what this is about?”
            Chris shook his head.  “I have no idea.  What possible reason could there be that we’re in danger?  We were in class together almost thirty years ago, and as far as I know, haven’t seen each other since.”
            “We were hoping you’d tell us.  You see, Glen Cederstrom never responded to this email, because he was already dead.”
            Chris gaped at them.
            “He was struck by a car while riding his bicycle on May 26, and killed instantly,” Drolezki said.  “The driver was never caught.”
            “It was assumed to be a simple hit-and-run,” Hargis said.  “We wouldn’t have even gotten involved – it would have been a matter for local police – if Cederstrom’s wife hadn’t found this email when she was taking care of his personal things after he died.  She informed the police, who tracked down Gavin McCormick, who worked as a pharmacist in Vancouver, Washington.”
            Chris felt a light sweat break out on his forehead.  “Worked?  As in past tense?”
            Hargis nodded.  “McCormick didn’t show up at work on the morning of June 2.  His assistant was concerned, and called his house, and received no answer.  That afternoon, the assistant and another store employee, who were personal friends of McCormick’s, went over to his house, and found him dead.”
            “Murdered?” Chris said, his voice sounding thin in his own ears.
            Hargis shook his head.  “No.  Apparent heart failure.  An autopsy showed nothing that allowed the authorities to claim foul play.  He just seemed to have died quietly in his sleep.”
            “Good lord,” Chris said.
            “At that point, we were called in, and started to try to track down the others mentioned in the email.  We got access to UW records for the Field Biology class that Cederstrom and McCormick had taken in 1983, and looked for the first names he mentioned.  They seemed to correspond to Lewis Corelli, Mary Michaels, Deirdre Ross, Elisa Howard, and you.”
            Chris nodded.  “Yes,” he said.  “Those were the ones in the class.”
            “Three of them – Corelli, Michaels, and Ross – were still in the Pacific Northwest, and were fairly easy to track down.  We were worried about the women, because of names changing at marriage, but Michaels never married and Ross kept her maiden name.”
            “Well?” Chris said.  “Are they all right?”
            Hargis for the first time looked ill at ease; everything else he had said had been delivered with a clinical lack of emotion.  “Corelli was an EPA lawyer, working in Seattle.  He had a stroke on June 11th while walking to work and was dead before the ambulance arrived.  Michaels was a jazz pianist in Eugene, Oregon, and she fell from a bridge on the 14th.  She apparently had a history of mental health problems, and her death was ruled a suicide – until our investigation tied her to the rest of you.  Deirdre Ross went missing on a hiking trip in the Olympics, probably on either the 15th or 16th.  Another hiker found her clothes on the morning of June 17th, dry and neatly folded, on a rock near the shore of Lake Quinault, as if she had gone in for a swim and never returned.  She is still missing and presumed drowned.”
            Chris stared at the two men.  “What about Elisa?”
            “We haven’t been able to find her.  We know from university records that she lived in Spokane for a while, where she worked as an artist.  But she left Spokane in the early 90s and we haven’t been able to trace her further.  We think that she may have changed her name.”  Hargis looked down at the folder he was holding.  “In any case, we haven’t found her yet.”
            “And that leaves you,” Drolezki said.
            “They’re all gone?” Chris said.  The horror in his voice was unmistakable.
            Hargis’ voice was calm, but insistent.  “They were not the only ones in the Field Biology class that semester, were they?”
            Chris leaned back in his chair, the faces of his long-ago classmates running through his head.  He brought himself back to the present with an effort.  “No.  I’d guess that there were about twenty-five people in the class.  Give or take.”
            “Twenty-three,” Drolezki said.
            “Do you have any idea why the seven of you were mentioned, and none of the others in the class?” Hargis asked.
            “No.  None at all.”
             “And those seven…”  Jim Hargis shifted slightly in his seat.  “Do you know anything about their deaths, Mr. Franzia?  Have any of them had any contact with you in the past two months?”
            “Me?” Chris said, and it came out in a squeak.  A frantic thought went through his head, They think I killed them, it’s like in the murder mysteries, you watch until they die one by one, and the one left must be the murderer…  But he got control of his voice, and said, as calmly as he could manage, “No.  None at all.  I haven’t had any contact with any of them since graduate school.  I got my master’s degree in… let’s see, it was 1984 or 1985…”
            “1985,” Mark Drolezki said.
            Chris turned and looked at him in astonishment, but his boyish face showed no emotion other than mild interest.  Chris suddenly realized that there might well be more going on behind those guileless blue eyes than had appeared at first. 
            “Right,” Chris said.  “1985.  Well, I lived in Seattle for another eight months or so, and applied for jobs in the northwest, but the market for teaching jobs was pretty bad at that point.  So I started looking further afield.  I came out here at the end of summer of 1987 for a job at Guildford High School, and have been here ever since.”
            “What made you choose Guildford?” Hargis asked.  “Family from this area?”
            Chris looked over at him, trying to keep the suspicion from his own face.  They know when I got my master’s degree – they surely know the answer to this.  “No,” he said.  “I came out here knowing no one.”
            “Really?” Hargis said.
            Suddenly, the anger rose in Chris’ chest.  “I don’t understand what any of this has to do…”
            Hargis raised one hand.  “No need to get angry, Mr. Franzia.  But we would appreciate it if you would answer the question.”
            Chris took a deep breath.  “Look, why do I have the feeling that you already know the answers to all of these questions?  If you know the answers, why are you asking them?”
            Hargis gave a chilly little smile.  “We want to hear what your answers are.  You must understand, Mr. Franzia, it isn’t always the facts that are important, but the connections between them.  And the connections come from talking to people, not from researching the records in a university registrar’s office.”
            Chris looked at him, directly into the eyes, but those eyes wouldn’t give anything up; they were receivers of information, not transmitters, trained through years not to allow anyone to see what was going on in the brain behind them.  “Fine,” Chris said, keeping his voice level.  If he’s not going to give me anything more than the bare minimum, I won’t give him any more than that, myself.  “I came out here knowing no one.  I grew up in a rural area.  Seattle was a great place to go to school, but I never had any intention of staying there.  Upstate New York appealed to me because it was rural.”
            “And far away from Seattle,” Drolezki observed.
            “Look, I wasn’t running away from anything,” Chris snapped.
            “I didn’t say you were,” Drolezki said blandly, seeming a little surprised.
            “Sorry,” Chris said, not sounding particularly sorry, and not really caring.  “I apologize if I seem testy.  But I come home on the last day of school, and I find a couple of FBI on my doorstep, it’s kind of off-putting.”
            “I understand,” Hargis said.  “But you have to understand that we have some deaths to try to explain.  Clearly Cederstrom was a homicide; with Michaels we can’t rule out suicide, but given her connection to the rest of you, you can see that we’re considering that less and less likely.  The others… well, with McCormick and Corelli, there was a ruling of natural causes, but you probably know that there are poisons that can mimic the effects of stroke and heart attack.  And with Ross there’s been no body found, but she left for her backpacking trip almost two weeks ago and hasn’t been seen since – she was a doctor in Seattle, a thriving practice she was apparently devoted to.  She was gone for what was supposed to be a week’s vacation – her friends and coworkers describe her as a workaholic who had to be bullied into taking the vacation in the first place, and think it extraordinarily unlikely that she would simply not come home.  So do we.”
            “Yes, that’s Deirdre,” Chris said.  “Sounds like she didn’t change much.”
            “Has anything unusual happened lately?” Drolezki asked.  “Have you seen any strangers around?  Any odd phone calls?  Anything at all out of the ordinary?”
            Chris shook his head.  “Look, this is the quintessential small town.  I know everyone, and everyone knows me.  If anyone strange was hanging around, someone would notice, even if for some reason I didn’t.  There hasn’t been anything at all.”  Chris looked from one of them to the other.  “I’d tell you if there had been anything.”
            Hargis nodded.  “I’m sure you would.”
            Chris tried to extract anything – reassurance, doubt, suspicion – from Hargis’ words, but there was nothing there to grab on to.  It left him feeling like defending himself, but with an effort he stopped himself. 
            “What about Elisa?” he said.  “Do you have an idea if she’s all right?”
            Drolezki gave a little glance at his partner.  “You understand why we can’t give you any information about her whereabouts…”
            “Yeah, because I’m a suspect,” Chris said.  “Sure.  I’m not asking where she is.  I’m asking if she’s okay.”
            Neither man spoke, and Chris thought, They honestly have no idea.  That means that either they really did lose her trail, or else she’s their prime suspect.
            “Mr. Franzia,” Hargis began, but Chris interrupted him.
            “I can tell you that Elisa wouldn’t hurt anyone.  The others…”  He paused, swallowed, and then continued.  “If you think Elisa somehow has gone off her rocker, and is going back and killing all of her college classmates, you’re after the wrong person.”
            “But the others, you were going to say?” Drolezki said.
            Chris looked over at him, said nothing.
            “Mr. Franzia,” Hargis said, “if you really don’t know anything about what is happening here, you have every reason to help our investigation, not impede it.  Remember – with the possible exception of Elisa Howard, you are the only one mentioned in that email who is still alive.  It is hardly a leap of faith to conclude that your life may be in danger.  I urge you to tell us anything you remember about your classmates that might be helpful.  Even if it seems unimportant to you – as I said, it’s never the facts that are important, but the connections between them.”
            “All I was going to say,” Chris said, trying to fight back the feeling of having been caught in a lie, “was that of the seven of us, Elisa would be the last one who would ever hurt anyone.  She was kind, gentle, and sweet.”  Why am I talking about her in past tense? he thought, and wondered if they thought that was suspicious in and of itself.
            “What do you recall about the others?” Hargis said.  “Personalities?  Goals?  How did they interact with each other, and with you?”
            So much for not giving anything up, Chris thought.  “I can tell you that Gavin McCormick was an excitable guy, kind of a flake.  He wanted to go into biological research, but I never thought he had the personality for it.  The rest of us always thought he was a little weird.  Glen Cederstrom was the quiet, solid, steady one.  He was headed toward education, like me.  The others…”  He paused.  “Okay, Lewis Corelli wasn’t an especially nice guy.  And I always thought that Deirdre Ross had a ruthless streak, but we all knew she was thinking pre-med, and that kind of goes with the territory, doesn’t it?”
            “And Mary Michaels?” Hargis said.
            Chris looked down.  “She was an odd one.  She was taking biology classes purely because she thought it sounded interesting.”
            “There’s a problem with that?”
            “No, you misunderstand me.  I was a bio major; I loved that stuff.  I don’t mean interesting in that sense.  Mary more loved the idea of biology.  The actual work, she found pretty distasteful, because – you know, biology leaves your hands dirty.  But being able to tell people she was ‘studying biological science’ was somehow exciting and glamorous.   Honestly, most of us thought Mary Michaels was a neurotic primadonna.”
            “Really?” Hargis said, his voice level.
            Chris shook his head in frustration.  “Look – none of us hated the others.  It was just the usual odd mix of people thrown together in college classes. I don’t see why their personalities thirty years ago are somehow important.  We were young then.  Who knows, maybe they all grew up to be perfectly nice, ordinary people?”
            “We don’t know the answer to that ourselves,” Drolezki said.
            “I don’t understand any of this,” Chris said, a little desperately. “There was nothing special about this group; we weren’t even all that close.  We were just classmates. We used to study together, sometimes with one or two others, sometimes not.  We did field work together.”
            “So the email said,” Drolezki said.
            “But nothing happened,” Chris said, his voice rising.  “We did field work up in the Cascades.  But it was nothing unusual, and it involved all the students in the class.  I don’t remember a single thing that happened up there that was out of the ordinary.”
            “How often did you go, and for how long?” Hargis asked.
            “I think for that class, we went three times, for about four days at a time.  We camped up there, collected our data, came back.  It was routine.”
            “McCormick didn’t seem to think so,” Drolezki said.
            “I have no idea why,” Chris said.  “Do you have any idea of what he claims happened up there?”
            “If we did, we wouldn’t be asking you,” Hargis said.  He looked over at Drolezki, who gave a little nod.
            I wonder if that’s true, Chris thought, but he didn’t respond.
            “In any case,” Hargis continued, and closed up his briefcase, “we’ll leave a card with you.  If anything out of the ordinary happens – anything at all – call us.  We can have someone out here in fifteen minutes.  Don’t discount what seems insignificant.  We’d rather come out here unnecessarily than have a sixth murder to deal with.”
            Murder, Chris thought.  First time he’s used that word.  I guess they’re more sure than they let on.
            Hargis and Drolezki stood up, and Chris also rose to his feet, and reached out to take the card that Hargis was handing to him.  They walked toward the door, and Chris opened it for them.  “I have to move my car,” Chris said.  “I boxed you in.”
            As they were walking across the lawn toward the cars, Drolezki nudged an old tennis ball lying in the grass with the toe of his shoe.
            “Ankle breaker,” he said, amiably.  “Your dog leave this out here?”
            Chris picked it up.  “No, I can’t give Baxter tennis balls,” he said.  “He eats them.”  And then, suddenly, Chris thought, Someone put that there.  Maybe it’s booby trapped.  Spring-loaded miniature hypodermic needles sticking poison into my hand right now.  Maybe tonight I’ll die in my sleep, like Gavin.  Or collapse with a stroke, like Lewis.
            Chris waited until Hargis and Drolezki climbed into their car, and he turned and winged the ball as hard as he could into the field across the street.  Then he looked down at his hand, and felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise.
            You shouldn’t have touched it, he thought.  Now it’s too late.

1 comment:

  1. Finally had a quiet moment tonight to sit and read this... and you LEFT ME HANGING!!! omg! Seriously?! Where the hell is the rest of the story? No fair.

    I love the interplay of these characters, Chris' animals... locations...all of it! Now I just want to know what happens NEXT.