If you’ve been reading along with these chapters as I’ve been rolling them out, you should know that the character Amar has now become Miriam. The book was a little male heavy. Reviewing the first twelve chapters, I realized I needed more female voices, and I think Amar works better as a girl, so I made the shift.
I’m about a third of the way through the manuscript and am still on track to publish the finished book in the Fall. If you have any feedback on the chapter, I’d love to hear it in the comments.
Chatting with Ms. Krispen
Simon sighed at the stairs. He’d have to scale the equivalent of two steep flights before he would reach the front door. He took the first one and it sent a pinch of pain through his leg and then up his back. He took a breath before taking the next one. The second step had the same effect.
“This is going to take me a while,” he said to Miriam, who was standing behind him. “Maybe you should go around me.”
“Nonsense,” she said from behind him. “Besides, if I go first, who is going to catch you when you collapse halfway up?”
Simon laughed at the thought of Miriam trying to catch his two-hundred-thirty-pound frame. “Your funeral,” he said.
She rubbed his back. Her touch sent chills through his body, but he shook it off, doing his best not to reveal his desire for her. “Take you time,” she said. “We’re not in any hurry.”
Simon took the next step and bit back the pain. It increased as he ascended. He tried to focus on the front door of the small house, gripping the thin iron railing, pulling himself forward.
“It reminds me of physical therapy,” he said at the halfway point.
“What was the name of that psycho physical therapist you had?”
“Dereck the Dementor.”
“That’s so mean,” Miriam said with a laugh.
“It’s not my nickname. He gave it to himself,” Simon said, wincing as he pulled himself up to the next step. The pain had changed from a momentary pinching to a surging wave. “He used to say, ‘My names Dereck the Dementor and I’ve come to suck all the happiness from your face.’”
“That’s messed up,” Miriam said. “It worked though.”
“Did it?” Simon said, gritting his teeth as he pulled himself up another step.
“You can walk again,” she said.
“Sort of,” he said.
They moved up the next several steps in silence. Simon’s breath became heavy. The pain moved from a wave to an ever present tide that crested and waned with each step, but never disappeared.
“I miss running,” Simon said as he took another step.
“You were so fast,” Miriam said, rubbing his back again. “I used to love watching you play ball.”
A knot formed in Simon’s throat. “Yeah,” he said with a pain filled sigh, “I used to love playing ball.” He stopped moving forward and hung his head. “Now I can’t even climb some damn stairs.”
“We’re almost there,” she said, patting his back.
Simon took the final two steps in silence, hobbled to the front door, and rang the doorbell.
An elderly woman with white hair, oversized spectacle, and a silver cane answered the door. She was a good foot shorter than Simon and dressed in a fading pink nightgown. “Can I help you?” she said in a piercing but aged voice.
“Ms. Krispen?” Miriam said, peeking behind Simon.
“Bless my heart,” the elderly woman said. “Is that a Walker one of the Walker girls?”
“It’s good to see you, Ms. Krispen,” Miriam said.
“Come in, dear girl. Get this slab of meat out of the way and come inside so I can see you better,” the elderly woman said as she opened the door and began poking Simon with her cane.
Even though the cane hurt his side, he laughed at being assaulted by an elderly woman. He warmed when Miriam touched his should and moved past him. Hugs and laughter were exchanged. Ms. Kripsen commented on how much Miriam had grown, and then two women disappeared into the house. Simon followed slowly behind, gritting his teeth to fight through the pain.
Passing through a small living room, the stopped in the kitchen and sat at a small round wooden table intended for four. Simon fought through the pain and stretched his leg out to the side. He knew if he didn’t stretch it now, he’d regret it when he tried to stand up.
The elderly woman put a glass of water with in front of him. “You look like you could use this,” she said. A lemon slice floated in the top of the glass.
“Thank you,” he said. Picking up the glass, he finished it all in one drink. The cold citrusy water felt good on his parched throat. “Could I have another?” he said.
Ms. Krispen laughed. “Of course, but once I sit down, I’m not getting back up, so pace yourself this time.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“Ooh, ma’am,” the old woman said at the tap. “I like this one. Ma’am. So polite.”
“This is Simon Webster,” Miriam said. “We’ve been friends since we were little kids.”
“Now,” the elderly woman said as she placed another glass in front of Simon and then took a seat, “go slow please.” Taking Miriam’s hand, Ms. Krispen said, “I’m sorry, dear. You’re going to have to tell me which one you are. I could never tell you and your sister apart.”
“I’m Miriam,” she said.
“Ah, the studious one,” the elderly woman said.
Miriam smiled and looked down. “That’s me,” she said.
“And how is your sister Deborah?”
“I haven’t seen her in a long time,” Miriam said. There was a crack in her voice. With both hands, she picked up her glass and took a sip of water. There was a crack in her voice. Simon could tell how painful the topic was for her. He wondered if the elderly woman noticed.
“That’s a shame,” the elderly woman said. “When you were little, you were so close. I remember coming to your house and watching you play in the backyard. You were so happy together.”
“That was a long time ago,” Miriam said, holding her glass tightly. “A lot’s changed since then.”
“And how’s your father?” the elderly woman said.
“Not good,” Miriam said.
Ms. Krispen gave a knowing nod. “We were all pretty messed up after what happened. I imagine Dr. Walker took it harder than most of us.”
“That’s actually what we’ve come to talk to you about, ma’am,” Simon said, knowing that Miriam needed a moment to gather her emotions. “We were so young when the project closed. Would you mind telling us a little about what you were doing there?”
“Well,” Ms. Krispen said. “I’m not really supposed to talk about it at all, mind you.”
“I’ve known Dr. Walker since I can remember,” Simon said. “And that project changed him. We were still just kids, like nine or ten, but he was different after that. And now that we’re older, we’re just trying to understand.”
Ms. Krispen looked at Miriam, then at the table. She scratched her nose, took a drink of water, and then, with a sigh, finally spoke. “I guess you’re entitled to some answers. You can’t tell anyone it was me that told you though.”
“We won’t say anything to anyone,” Miriam said. “We promise.”
“I mean it,” Ms. Krispen said. “I haven’t had Feds around here for a decade and I don’t miss them.”
“Feds?” Simon said. “Like, as in the FBI? I thought you worked at Hopkins.”
The elderly lady smiled. “Stupid Feds. Never have any clue what they’re sticking their noses in.” She took another drink of water and then said, “I guess we should start from the beginning. Your father worked at Hopkins, but he worked for the NASA. We all did.”
“No,” Miriam said, shaking her head. “He was a physicist. He taught classes and ran a small lab.”
“Not everybody working for the NASA is a super spy, dear. Your father and Dr. Weiss and Dr. Yu ran an experimental weapons lab in the basement of Hopkins. I mean, if you’d asked me at the time, I would have told you I was the administrative secretary for the Theoretical Physics Laboratory, but that was just a cover. The truth is, I was a retired CIA operative working as the office administrator for a secret weapons lab.”
“Damn,” Simon said, looking to Miriam. Miriam sat in silence with her mouth hanging open.
“The CIA sent me all around the world. I’d been stationed in London, and Israel, and Syria,” the elderly woman said. “But my favorite job was working at the lab. We were like a family. It’s the only time in my life I remember enjoying coming to work.”
“So you’re like some kind of James Bond badass?” Simon said, leaning back in his chair. He’d completely forgotten about the pain in his leg.
“James Bond,” Ms. Krispen said with a grimace. “Please. I was good at my job. Only the sloppy agents have to fight as much as he does. And what kind of spy introduces himself with the same name every mission anyway? Bond, James Bond. That’s a good way to get yourself locked up for life in a Russian prison. James Bond. What a moron.”
“I wasn’t a ‘badass,’” she said making quotation marks with her fingers around the word. “I was just a young woman who believed in her country and loved adventure.” She took another sip of water. “By the time I’d come to the lab, I was bored with all of that though. I was in my fifties and tired of running around. I’d never been married though and never had any kids, so there was nothing really to do but keep working. And the lab wasn’t boring. They were constantly bringing us strange things. Supposed ray-guns, and parts from flying saucers, and weird looking pieces of tech. Nine times out of ten it was all junk. I’d pick up whatever the newest mystery was, bring it into the office, put it on the table, and then the three docs would gather around and declare it to be total crap within a few seconds.”
As she spoke, Ms. Krispen became increasingly animated. Years seemed to melt from her voice. Simon felt like he was getting the first glimpse of the fiery woman she must have once been.
“There was this one time, the boys at the NASA were certain they’d discovered some piece to some extraterrestrial rocket ship. They brought it over themselves, all proud and puffed up. There were three of them, all in suits. And they laid it on the table with all this gusto. It was this long, silver looking thing with all these wires sticking out of it. And your father comes over, looks at it for five seconds, and declares, ‘It’s American.’ Then he goes back to work at his desk. The NASA boys were so mad. They start demanding he come over and give it a ‘true examination.’ So your father comes back over with a black magic marker in hand, moves a few of the wires aside, and draws a circle around a small American flag printed on the side of the casing. Those boys were so disappointed. I laughed and laughed. Your father was such a brilliant man,” she said taking Miriam’s hand again. “He had a marvelous mind.”
“So it wasn’t a space ship?” Simon said.
“It was part of some satellite that had fallen off. The thing had been out of commission for so long, they’d forgotten it was even up there. We got a lot of stuff like that.”
“So,” Simon said. “You said working there messed you up? What happened?”
“Well,” the elderly woman said, taking a deep breath. “We got the box.”
Miriam pulled the file from her purse and sat it on the table. “I found this in my father’s files,” she said.
Ms. Krispen adjusted her glasses and opened the file. “Yep,” she said as she thumbed through the pages, “This is it. I’d been there ten years and we’d never gotten anything like this monstrosity.”
“Can you tell us about it?” Miriam said.
Ms. Krispen closed the file and pushed it back to Miriam. “I still have nightmares about it,” she said. “I think we all do.”
“Was it some kind of weapon?” Simon asked.
“I don’t know what it was,” she said. “It’s the first thing the doctors couldn’t figure out. They examined it for months before they ever opened it. And then, before they did, we had to have this vacuum sealed space created.” She stared off past Simon as if she were looking back into another world. She took a drink and then continued in a softer tone. “Everything went fine with the animal trials. The mice ran faster. The bunnies jumped higher. The rats got stronger. We’d put an animal in the containment unit, open the box, a pink cloud would come out of it, surround the animal, and then return to the box, and suddenly, the animal was stronger. We thought it was just enhancing them.”
“That doesn’t sound bad,” Simon said.
“I didn’t think so either, and Dr. Weiss agreed with me. He thought it was just some kind of performance enhancer. Your father was always cautious with it though. He didn’t trust things he couldn’t figure out, and this was technology far beyond anything any of us had ever seen.”
“Where did it come from?” Miriam asked.
“No clue,” Ms. Krispen laughed. “There were words on the bottom of it that read, ‘Property of the Tinker.’ It took us two weeks to discover that they appeared to everyone in their native tongue. And that discovery was an accident. You father was staring at them and Dr. Yu said, ‘I didn’t know you could read Mandarin.’” Looking at the confused look on Simon’s face, Ms. Krispen explain, “Dr. Yu was seeing the words in Mandarin Chinese but Dr. Walker was seeing them in English.”
“Oh. Damn,” Simon said.
“Exactly,” Ms. Krispen said.
“So it’s just an ability enhancer?” Miriam said. “I read the file. It stops at the beginning of the human trials.”
Ms. Krispen sighed. “We paid homeless men to come in and be experimented on. And it enhanced them alright. Some became faster or stronger or more intelligent. One developed a high tolerance to heroin. Another became immune to the effects of alcohol. Other though, the results were horrific. One man lost his eyes. And by that, I mean where his eyes were before we opened the box became just smooth skin after the pink cloud went away. Another lost the ability to hear. Another just completely disappeared. There was one that grew a third arm out of his back. It was horrible.”
“Could you predict the change?” Miriam asked.
“Sorry,” Ms. Krispen said. “I need something stronger. Would you mind, baby,” she said rubbing Simon’s arm, “going over to the stove and getting the bottle out of the drawer on the right.”
Simon had forgotten completely about the pain in his leg until he tried to stand, then it all returned in a giant wave of agony that shivered through his whole body. Biting his lip, he forced his legs to move him across the room to the stove. Opening the drawer he found a large bottle of whiskey in it. He held it up to Ms. Krispen.
“That’s the one, baby,” she said, waving her empty water glass in the air.
Simon limped back over to the table and handed her the bottle. Ms. Krispen unscrewed the cap, filled her water glass with the brown liquid, and took a long drink. Then, holding out the bottle, she said, “Either of you want to join me?”
“Thank you,” Miriam said, “but we don’t drink.”
“You’re better for it,” Ms. Krispen said, taking another drink of the whiskey. She put the glass down on the table with more force. “So, the box,” she said, regaining her place in the story. “We all had theories. Dr. Weiss thought it had to do with rewarding or punishing behaviors as if the box was judging a person’s morality. Dr. Yu thought it was random. That there was some kind of pattern within the box that chose how to change the subject. That’s why we used it on so many people. Dr. Yu kept thinking a pattern would emerge, but none ever did. Dr. Walker was the one finally proved right. He believed it was reading the subject’s mind and somehow working from that knowledge.”
“Wow,” Simon said.
“After long and intensive interviews the subjects,” Ms. Krispen explained as she took another drink, “we found he was the closest. The box was somehow recalling the subject’s most tragic life event. The men would talk about reliving the moment when the pink cloud enveloped them. The box seemed to be giving them something it believed would have helped them change the outcome of that moment.”
“What happened to the enhanced men?” Miriam said.
Ms. Krispen sighed, took another drink, and looked Miriam in the eye. “We killed them,” she said. “That’s what was hardest on your father, but they couldn’t be left alive. So, once the docs got everything they needed from them, I’d put a bullet in their brains and then we’d burn their bodies.”
“Shit,” Simon said. He had a sudden and urgent need to move away from the table.
Ms. Krispen took another drink. “It was a different time,” she said. Then she laughed. “You didn’t really think I went from CIA operative to Secretary, did you?”
“Do you know what happened to the box?” Miriam asked.
“Nope,” she said. “Dr. Yu brought in another subject and your father went crazy. They started yelling at each other. Then that night there was a fire. Everything burned. I thought that file had burned too,” she said, motioning to the file on the table.
“So you think the fire destroyed it,” Simon said.
“Nope,” Ms. Krispen said. “We’d tried burning it during the testing phase. And crushing it, and hitting with a hammer, and freezing it. It was indestructible.”
“So someone took it?” Miriam said.
“Maybe the NASA, but I’d be surprised if they’d burned their own lab. They could have just come and claimed it. Maybe the CIA or the Feds, but I don’t think I’d still be alive if they knew where it was.”
“So who do you think has it,” Simon said.
“Well,” she said with a smile. “There was this janitor. Andi. Andi, um. Andi Tichus.” She took another drink. “He was the fifth member of the team. He used to help me with the bodies. Freakishly strong. Your father hired him. He looked like a big rat and had this grumbly voice. I used to tease him about being an alien, but he’d just laugh. He claimed he was from the Soviet Union, but I’d been all through there so I knew that was bullshit. He tried to hide it, but I could tell that he knew about the box. He was always making suggestions to the doctors, pushing them to try it on people. I think he and the box were from the same place, and I think your father knew it. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that, if anyone’s got the box, it’s Andi.”
They sat in silence for a moment, pondering all that Ms. Krispen had shared. Finally, after what felt to Simon like an eternity, Ms. Krispen said, “I don’t expect you to believe all of this, but I appreciate you letting an old woman talk. I’ve never told anyone about the lab. It feels good to share the story.”
Simon smiled. Ms. Krispen seemed old and feeble again. The glass of whiskey seemed out of place in front of her. He wished he’d known her when she was young and vibrant.
“Thank you,” Miriam said, rubbing Ms. Krispen’s hand. “I appreciate you telling us all of this.”
“I miss your father,” Ms. Krispen said. “He was a good man.”
“Yeah,” Miriam said. “He was.”