Chapter Three: The Unnumbered
With every passing minute and every new arrival, I was growing more concerned and confused. I still stood beside the booth. I had intended to make my way to Marcus and the paramedic, but the whole room seemed to have paused when the family came in. They were wet, but not wet like they’d come in from a sprinkle. They were drenched. Like they’d come in from a hurricane. I looked out the window again. Not a trace of rain.
“You guys came through a storm?”
“Yes. Just now. It was pouring even in the parking lot. I don’t understand…” The man responded. He wore dark-framed glasses and I assumed his black hair had been perfectly styled before the alleged downpour. His wife was petite and blonde and seemed to just be absorbing everything. The boy I guessed to be around ten. Looked almost exactly like his dad, just without the glasses. Hid behind his mom a bit.
“It hasn’t rained here.” I glanced around at the others in the diner. Marcus still sat with the paramedic, though their conversation had stopped. They were observing the new arrivals also. Charlie the cook seemed to have vanished into thin air.
“Yes, it has.”
“I didn’t see anything from in here.”
Glasses Guy arched an eyebrow. “Well, let me tell you, from out there, it was a monsoon.” He pulled up the edge of his shirt and wrung it out for dramatic effect. Water splattered on the floor.
“Brett!” The woman finally spoke up.
“Well, what am I supposed to do?”
The paramedic jumped in. “How could it not be raining here but be raining wherever you were right before you came in here? That’s impossible.”
“We were here right before we came in here. In this parking lot.” Brett selected a table for his family and pulled out a chair.
Marcus removed himself from the booth. “Charlie? You back there?”
The cook in the apron came out from the kitchen. “Yep.”
“Start taking orders. Get some food going. We don’t have a lot of time.”
Something was happening. I didn’t have a name for it and couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but my gut knew. Something about this entire night was off. The lighting seemed hazy now, but maybe that was just my eyes getting tired. The air in the diner felt electric, like there was static ready to discharge if anyone touched anything. There was a sense of… otherness… in the building. Part of me wanted to leave right then. Another part of me somehow knew I wouldn’t be able to. Whatever that meant.
Marcus seemed to be the only one not confused or freaking out. He actually seemed to know what was happening. I wanted answers.
He was walking toward the new family when I grabbed his shoulder. “What’s going on?” I asked the question loud enough for the entire room to hear.
“Daniel, just give me a couple minutes. I need to–”
“No! Something is weird. Something is wrong. This place is… I don’t know. It feels like some sci-fi movie crap. It’s not normal. And you seem to be the only one who has any clue what’s going on. And you know stuff that you should have no idea knowing. I want some answers.”
“You all do. I understand. We’re getting to that. But I don’t have a lot of time and I–”
“You keep saying that and it’s really unnerving.”
“Daniel, you’re really important to all–”
“No. Don’t tell me I’m important. Tell me where we are. Tell me why I’m here.”
He sighed. “You’ll understand soon. But right now I need to introduce myself to the family. Why don’t you talk with Emily for a bit?” He nodded over his shoulder toward the paramedic. Smiled. Moved around me and headed toward the table where the family was seated.
Everyone in the room had both seen and heard our conversation, including Emily. Charlie was setting a cup of coffee in front of her. He placed cream and sugar in the center of the table and then placed another cup of coffee in front of the other seat. He nodded toward it. Emily offered a small smile and a nod. I wondered if whatever Marcus had said to her had made her more welcoming.
I slid into the booth across from her. Up close, I could see her eyes were blue. Not the harsh winter kind of blue, but the warm summer kind. She looked down and reached across the table, and for a moment I had the odd thought that she was reaching for me.
She wasn’t. She was reaching for the creamer.
Charlie’s voice cut into my consciousness, and I realized I’d missed whatever he was saying. “What?”
Emily gave a half smile and a delightful crimson edged into her cheeks.
Charlie glanced back and forth between us. “I asked if you wanted to see a menu again. But maybe I’ll just give you two a couple minutes.” He walked back toward the kitchen.
I awkwardly stuck my hand out across the table. “Daniel.”
“Emily.” Her hand gripped mine firmly. Her skin was soft and, odd as it sounds, I could feel the precision of her career in the delicateness of her fingers. “No fistbump?”
I chuckled. “No. He’s a little different, huh?”
She looked over my shoulder at Marcus. “Yeah.”
“Did he give you any idea what’s going on here?”
“Not at all. But apparently I’m important to it.”
“Apparently I am too.”
“Hi. I’m Marcus.”
The man wore jeans and a plain white t-shirt. He sat down in the empty chair at the table for four. Jason’s normal response to strangers was timidity and withdrawal. But something about Marcus was appealing. Something easy and calm. Jason stared into the man’s eyes and realized they were an in-between color. Not quite blue and not quite green. Almost as if they couldn’t decide.
Marcus held a fist in the air over the table. Dad just started at it and said nothing. So did Mom.
Jason reached over and touched his fist to Marcus’s. “I’m Jason.”
Marcus smiled. “There we go! At least one of you knows what to do.” He held a fist out to Mom.
Mom had that look on her face that she got when any stranger was being too friendly to Jason. She touched her fist to Marcus’s using the least amount of skin possible and pulled it back as quickly as she could. “Denise.”
Dad already had his fist up before Marcus got to him. “Brett. Any idea what the heck is going on around here?”
Jason heard Marcus’s voice as he started to explain, but the conversation was aimed toward his parents and so he did what he always did when other grown-ups talked with Mom and Dad — faded out. He was wet and uncomfortable. He was hungry, but no one had come to take their order yet. He pulled the Rubik’s cube out of his pocket and, just for something to do, starting spinning it.
He wasn’t sure how long he had been working on it before Marcus shifted the conversation to him. “What do you have there?”
Jason looked up. Marcus was staring at Jason’s hands as if he were genuinely interested. “It’s a Rubik’s cube. Do you know what those are?”
“Yes. I’ve just never spent much time working on one. I’ve heard there’s a specific way you have to do it and once you figure that out, you can pretty much solve it every time.”
“That’s true.” Jason continued working the puzzle, moving faster now that someone was watching. “You have to solve for a certain color. Like you get to pick one and then go from there.”
“That’s cool. Which color do you pick?”
Jason looked up. He hoped Dad would jump in an answer for him. Dad seemed to like to do that a lot. And some small part of him hoped Dad would remember the answer. But both parents just stared at him, giving Jason the space to answer on his own. Jason returned to solving the cube. “Red. I solve for red because it’s my favorite color.”
“Red seems like a solid choice. And I bet you are really good at…”
Marcus never finished his sentence. Jason paused and looked up. Marcus was staring out the diner window. The one by the front door. Jason shifted a little to follow his gaze. He didn’t see anything other than the night sky and the desert.
But Marcus must have seen something. He stood. “I need to go help Charlie with the food. Do you guys know what you want?”
The next half hour was one of the most bizarre of my life. Well, aside from the hours that followed.
We ordered like nothing was wrong. We were served by Charlie and Marcus like nothing was wrong. We ate like nothing was wrong. Marcus didn’t explain any more about his ominous threats of time running out. He only requested that we push some tables together and all sit around them.
We introduced ourselves and ate, sharing a meal like we were old friends. It felt forced, almost pretend. Full of awkward smiles and nervous responses. I grew more irritable as the meal progressed. I wasn’t hungry anymore and if there wasn’t a lot of time to spare (for reasons I still didn’t understand), why were we sitting around like we hadn’t been transported through some wormhole to this other-worldly place? Marcus told us we needed to eat because we’d need strength for what was coming, which only made me more mad. Marcus made it sound like our death was impending but then wanted to chit-chat with the boy about his grades in school. I was tired of the cryptic platitudes.
Right as I opened my mouth to start addressing my concerns, Marcus stood. But my attention was pulled away from him because another set of headlights flickered off the walls of the diner. I looked out the closest window. Another vehicle had arrived. But this one was massive. I couldn’t see much in the darkness, but it looked like a big rig. A semi including both tractor and trailer. It was as loud as it was large.. I could hear and almost feel the rumble from where I was sitting at the table. The boy quickly turned away from the window and looked down at his shoes.
“Okay.” Marcus’s voice brought everyone’s attention back to him. He was standing at the head of the table. “I know you’re confused. I know you have a lot of questions. Thanks for your patience.” He smiled. “I’m really glad all of you are here. Things are about to get crazy. Crazier than they already are. But before they do, I want to tell you two things.” He raised an index finger in the air. “First, the truth is the safest place for you to be.” He raised another finger. “And second, no matter what you see or hear tonight, you do not have to be afraid.”
The only sound in the diner was the rumble of the semi outside. Then that stopped and complete silence engulfed us. No one knew how to respond to Marcus’s words. Or even what they meant. As I was processing, I could hear footsteps approaching the door of the diner. I turned and saw the door open. Heard the bell ring.
A man entered. And an entirely different air entered with him.
He looked to be about my height but had several pounds of muscle on me. His hair was black and streaked with gray. It hung to his shoulders and looked unwashed. I noticed his eyes because they were a disturbing color. Or lack of color, rather. They were a very light gray, like the random patches of his hair. He was monochromatic and cliche — black shirt, black jeans, black boots. And just so we couldn’t mistake his villainy, he covered it all with a black trenchcoat.
He walked up and slung two items on the bar. From my vantage point, they looked to be a bulging backpack and a longer, more slender pack. Almost like one of those bags you put a fold up lawn chair in.
He turned toward us. “Good evening, everyone.”
No one responded.
He walked toward our table and I got more uncomfortable the closer he came. Emily leaned away from him as he passed by. Jason ducked into his mother’s shoulder.
The man walked to the head of the table where Marcus was still standing. Held out a fist. “Hello, Marcus.”
“I’m not touching you, Gage.”
The man left his hand in the air for a moment, then lowered it and shrugged. “Very well then.” He turned to face us. “Everyone, as Marcus mentioned, my name is Gage. I want to thank you all for joining us this evening. It promises to be an exciting night. What are your names?”
No one responded. I wasn’t sure anyone even breathed.
Gage stared at each of us, moving individual to individual. My stomach squirmed when his gray eyes met mine. Eventually he had gone around the table. No one offered anything. He shrugged again. “Very well. I already know anyway. Allow me to explain why I’m here. Why all of you are here.”
He walked back to the bar where he had left his things. He unzipped the slender bag and pulled out what looked like a folded up tripod. He walked to the end of the bar and set the tripod up, facing the last stool of the bar. He then went back to the backpack, unzipped it, and pulled out a video camera. The clunky kind that I remembered from the 90’s. He returned to the tripod and set the camera on top of it. Fiddled with some buttons. A red light came on.
Gage turned back to us. “I am a journalist. I know I may not look the part, but I am. It’s one of the two careers I’ve had. Anyway, we’re here tonight to conduct some interviews. Well, I will be conducting the interviews. You all will be the interviewees.”
“Interviews about what?” I was the first to speak.
Gage shrugged again. “Your lives. How things used to be better. The good old glory days, if I may play on the words.”
I saw the same confusion around the table that must have been on my own face. “And if we have no intention of being interviewed?”
He reached behind his back, pulled out the gun, and leveled it at me before I could even respond. “I believe you can be persuaded.”
Gasps and murmurs came from around the table.
I reached for my gun.
“No, no, no.” Gage moved closer to me. Gun aimed directly at my heart. “I’ll take that.”
I didn’t move. If I surrendered my gun, any advantage we had over him reduced to zero.
“Your gun, Detective.” Gage held out his hand.
“I’m not going to give you–”
Gage moved the barrel of his gun and pointed it at Emily. She screamed and threw her hands up.
“Your gun, Detective.”
“Fine!” I withdrew the pistol from my holster and handed it to him.
He took it and laid it on the bar beside his backpack. Walked back over to the video camera. He fiddled with it with one hand while keeping his gun in the other. He turned back to me. “Now, since you have already decided to be a problem, you can go first.” He pointed the gun at me then at the stool. “Sit.”
I looked at Marcus. He had seemed collected and somewhat in charge. I was hoping for some guidance. But Marcus only stared back at me silently. The others around the table still seemed to be reeling.
The whole thing was outlandish to me. “I am not going to sit there and be interviewed or whatever this is. This is–”
“Yes, you are!” He roared. His gray eyes were wild. Even his breathing had started to thicken.
I leaned back in my seat. It was the first time I had seen a chink in the armor. Anything other than a shrug. Gage had presented himself collected. Ridiculous but somewhat calm. But the facade was slipping and I was beginning to understand.
This man, this… whatever he was, was unstable. And years of law enforcement had taught me that unstable people are the ones who hurt other people. I glanced at Jason. He was terrified. His mother’s arm was wrapped tightly around him.
I made a decision.
“Okay.” I got up and walked over to the last stool. Sat down and looked into the camera lens. Which seemed to be another kind of gun barrel.
Gage smiled and adjusted the camera.
He didn’t say anything for a long time, so I decided to start. “So I’m just supposed to tell you my whole life story?”
“Oh no. We don’t have near enough time for all that. I’ll just pick some random events to ask you about.” He looked up at me and smiled. Gray eyes and stained teeth. “Let’s start with the Hudson case.”
© 2020 Andy Brodrick