Chapter 1: Diane Nine and the Fusion Machine

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Thrillers  |  House: Booksie Classic

Reads: 593

CHAPTER ONE
She adjusted the pocket scope, allowing the image to come into view.The next runner-up looked promising. Michelangelo could have chiseled this one out—broad shoulders, rippling quads, and abs she could iron a shirt on.He had a nice copper-toned sheen of sweat going on, but she couldn’t see his face since he had his head kinked down.You can jog without looking down at your feet, she thought.Just flash me a little face.He did, just once when he reared to straighten his back.She quickly stashed the scope in her side pocket then flipped her hair back.He was not only hot, he was incendiary!
She nudged the joystick, bringing the wheelchair up to the fringe of the jogging trail.Mr. Stud Cake was just making the S-turn on the path like a Standardbred pacer on the homestretch at Woodbine.She pulled the charcoal sketchpad from her side and set it on her lap.Just as the young man approached, she dropped the pad, letting it bounce twice on the grass. The handsome runner chirped to a stop, panting.He walked three steps, retrieved the pad from the grass and stepped up to the wheelchair.His eyes locked on hers for a brief moment before they panned down to her legs.He extended the sketchpad.
“Looks like you dropped this,” he said between breaths.
She studied his eyes, looking for that inner light of recognition—that certain spark.It only took a microsecond to make the determination.Nobody was home.He might have been fine as first impressions went, like a trendy piece of clothing pulled off the rack.But once donned, it itched and felt clunky.Candidate number two did not look promising.
She grasped her sketchpad, knowing he hadn’t looked at it.“Thanks for getting that for me.A clumsy slip.”
“Name’s Mac,” he said.“They call me Mac Attack.”
“Diane Nine,” she said pleasantly enough.He sounded like something off a McDonalds menu.
He shook his head, his eyes grave.“It’s a real shame that you had to end up like that.Can’t be much fun for you, stuck in that chair when the rest of us are out here shovin’ rubber to the road.”
“Oh, I get my rubber on the road.”She patted the wheelchair tire.
“Yeah, but what do you do about…you know…”His eyes lowered again.He seemed to be in a quandary or hurry.Maybe both.“… About feeling things down there,” he went on.“I mean, does it stop you from partying down?”
She knew where this was going.Yet she dared, “What do you mean, partying down?”
“Well, gettin’ gigged—laid.”
This interview was over.“Look, I have my ways of having fun.I have enough parts to party down with.Okay?Sorry I cooled your run.”
Then he really popped off.“It can’t be any fun with your legs all lamed up like that.That’s all I’m sayin’, dude.”
This guy flies right out of the gate before the bell.
Diane flashed a dangerous grin.“That’s mighty white trash of you, dude.Ya know, I hear there’s a snipe hunt going on at a trailer park around the corner.I have a paper bag you can have free of charge.It’s great fun—there’s always a lot of bending over and laughing going on.”
It took him a while to process the insult.She could almost see the gears trying to mesh in his head, the synaptic nerves groping for contact, the tiny bulbs flickering.He backed away and resumed his position on the path.With a of swagger, he crouched and kicked off.She watched him jog around the bend, mentally scratching him off her list.Next.
With one of the largest public libraries in Southern California sitting on the crest of the hill overlooking a picturesque lake, it was hoped that most of its visitors, including the recreational joggers, would be intellectually competent.Or at least bright enough to carry on a conversation, she reasoned. With USC and UCLA serving as major educational hubs a few dozen miles away, Huntington Beach, along with several other coastal cities, served as the playground and residence for upwardly mobile academics.Bars, dance clubs, and fraternity houses were not the ideal meeting grounds for potential mates.Radio Shack and computer stores drew nerds.Hardware outlets attracted either married men or roughneck slobaholics.Ultimately, she needed a straight shooter—a high-caliber bullet with plenty of powder and momentum – a shot that would pierce her heart.She had no patience with hang-fires or blanks.
The Huntington Beach Library was her best bet and Diane knew it.At least the frog population was kept to a minimum, aside from a few exceptions.In fact, she had met some of the nicest men inside the library.Particularly in the art and history stacks.But today she felt adventurous, opting for the sun and the breeze. If all else failed, she’d brought popcorn for the ducks.
She brought the eyeglass to her face again, scoping the trail.
The next prospect was a distant speck.Clearly, he was moving and sucking oxegen.Always a good sign.As he approached, she became aware that he was wearing an enormous full-sleeved jogging suit.His arms flapped spastically, kind of like a large pterodactyl trying to get airborne.His stride was crazy-legged, totally out of firing order.He appeared to run as much sideways as forward.She nearly laughed out loud but thought better of it.Instead, she felt somewhat sorry for him.It might have been his first experience at jogging.Diane was no stranger to barbs or insults.And even with a slung gut and knocked knees, wasn’t Seabisquit hard on the eyes but chockfull of speed and heart?
Diane perched the sketchpad on her knee, waiting.She couldn’t get a good look at his face; his hair kept fouling the view.When he hove into view, his height became obvious.He was more than gangly.Not that it was a deterrent.Everyone towered over her.
She waited a few seconds more then dropped the pad.But the scope left her grasp to land on the grass at her feet.Frantic that the small telescope would be discovered, she twisted in the chair and reached down extending her fingers.Having forgotten to cinch her lap belt, she nosed over and fell from the chair.She held her hands out to absorb the impact.The body weight won out.Her upper chest struck the ground and she rolled on her side, facing away from the jogging path.She sucked a breath, then hissed, “Holy Christ”, but not too loudly.
“Oh!Hold on there,” said a male voice to her backside.
She spit a few blades of grass.“Oh, it’s really nothing. Happens quite often.”Which was an outright lie.She always buckled up.Except for this time.
He said, “You’ll just have to forgive the hands.”
She felt an arm slide around her upper torso, followed by the sensation of being lifted.She settled face up in the man’s arms like a little sack of potatoes.She found herself gazing at a pair of root beer-brown eyes and a strong cleft chin.His panting breath, smelling of coffee creamer, washed over her.French vanilla, she decided. He had a pleasant smile, showing just a crack of teeth.
“Now if I were to grade you on that dive,” he said, “I would have given you a solid nine-point-five.Only because you threw a little twist into it.”
She almost erupted in laughter, nearly averting her eyes.But she couldn’t look away.She saw something in those eyes—something indescribable that drew her into dangerous depths.Dangerous but thrilling.He was strong, steady in his embrace.Besides, it was nice to be this far off the ground without a lifting harness and, in a strange man’s arms.She processed all of this in ten seconds.
“I really don’t make a habit of getting picked up this way,” she said, giving him a timid blush.“Figuratively or literally.”
He pulled her tighter into his chest.“I wouldn’t think you’d have to try.”
She almost gobbled.“Uh, that’s really swee … kind.I hope I’m not a burden, and it was great of you to—“
“No problem.I needed an excuse to stop.I was slaughtering the blacktop.”
He bent over, gently placed her into the chair.Then he drew her seatbelt taunt and snapped it.He backpedaled and picked up the sketchpad and scope, momentarily studying the charcoal landscape rendering she had made of the hills and lake.“Looks a little bit like Autumn by Lena Kurovska,” he said.“I like the way you captured the eucalyptus in the background.”
“Oh, you have the appreciation?I was more influenced by Hilary Burnett, especially some of her earlier work. But I’m splitting hairs.”She paused a beat, watched his reaction.He wasn’t poised for flight.That was a good sign.This might go around the bases.“I’d offer you chair but the only one around here is occupied.”
He handed the scope to her.She told him she used it to pick up extra landscape definition.He bought the explanation, then sat on the grass at the foot of the chair.He cuffed a dollop of sweat from his forehead.
“I didn’t mean to break your rhythm,” she said.“It looked like you had a good draft going.”
“Don’t kid yourself.It’s a wonder I didn’t blow a hamstring.Truth be told, it’s my second time out. I’ll need to find another activity to boost my cardio, because this is downright hazardous to my health.I’ve always loved the library grounds and couldn’t think of any other trail to run.”He looked out across the lake.“It’s always been one of my favorite spots to idle the hours away.I should have stayed put instead of trying to run through it.”
“It’s my favorite place, too.”She found herself agreeing with him, almost finishing his sentences in her mind.“I have no choice but to stay put unless I want to putt-putt around the trail, but I’d only get in the way of the runners.”Now she was babbling.She checked herself and remembered some missing preliminaries.Like, uh, duh, introductions.
“I’m Diane Nine,” she said.“I’m a Huntington resident and I cruise this place like a stalker.Lots of free time lately.”Does it really go this easily?Why is this any different from the others?What’s happening here?
He extended his hand.“Chet Strauss.Huntington, also.So how does a nine-to-five allow you out to enjoy the ambrosia of a day like this?”
She took the hand and flinched.It was cold, but very life-like. His right arm and hand are prosthetic, she mused, a bit caught off guard.
“I only work two days, knocking out enough panels to keep the editors stocked for the next issue and the dailies.It has its liberties.”
“You’re an artist by profession?”
“Comics.I work for Majestic, responsible for my own issue.The Aurora series, featuring Endura.”
His face brightened.“Oh, yeah.You’re syndicated!I’ve seen the series and read your strip.You’re all over the place.Endura of Futura, from the planet behind the sun.Arch nemesis roll call:Mr. Twist, Donna Bella, Wax Man, and Colonel Chaos.Nice work!How’d you manage that?”
“Pretty easy.I went to Majestic Comics ten years ago with an armload of story ideas, panels and samples.Laid down a heavy-duty pitch.I got a call a week later for a trial run in a single issue.It got some great reviews and tagged some extra sales.So they featured me in the next issue, ran a profile-bio with pics, which led to my first stint as a comic book artist.I was an art major straight out of USC, so nobody had to twist my arm or chain me to my art board.I’m beginning to think that cartoon graphics and comics are in my blood since I have frequent bubble thoughts.” She giggled.
“I’m impressed.Fine arts is a tough gig.”
“It pays the bills.Sometimes I’m a little guilty about the size of the checks.Then there are permissions and subsidy rights sales, but William Morris takes care of all that now.We’ve been in talks with Hasbro about an Endura action figure.I can’t wait to accessorize her.I’m going to smother that gal in bling-bling.”
“Whoa, looks like Majestic knew a good thing when they saw it.Hiring you was the best thing they ever did.”
“I couldn’t stop hyperventilating after I signed the contract.It was a real paper bag moment.And you?” Her eyes landed on his hand.“Sorry, I noticed that—“
“Not to worry.It was an industrial accident five years ago.I lost it from the elbow down.I designed the replacement myself – the internal framework, actuators, sensors, and the dermal sensiflesh.”
“No way!”
“Way.”
“Are you a doctor or something?”
“Mechanical engineer, MIT.Picked up a PHD in physics while at Cambridge.Spent some time designing at NASA for the last two rover missions.I’ve contributed to some breakthrough technology in biomechanics and robotic telepresence.To date, I hold 41 patents—not a real good showing, but the lecture circuit pays well sometimes. As far as the missing limb, it slows me down a bit, but I can turn wrenches with the best of them.All I need is fingers for calculator buttons.”He screwed up his face.“Gak.I just barfed up my whole resume.”
Diane cocked her head.“You sound like MacGyver, that guy who could make a light saber out of a paper clip.Don’t worry.You’re intriguing me.Is there anything you haven’t done?”
“I haven’t won the Nobel Prize yet.It’s on my serious hit list.I find enough applications for my inventions to keep me more than busy.For instance …” He stood up and walked a slow circuit around her wheelchair.He ducked once to look at the undercarriage.“For instance, I could change out those batteries and replace them with some high-output Cads, then tweak that drive motor to put out some more torque.The suspension could use a retrofit.There’s a lot of wasted space in this frame.”He paused, jiggled one of the wheels.“It’s just a matter of improving on what’s been done.I love to tinker.”
He moved around to the rear of the chair.She could almost feel his eyes on the back of her head.She couldn’t turn to meet his face, and hoped that he was admiring her hair.She’d had compliments on her platinum locks.He didn’t disappoint.
“You’ve got hair like moonshine,” he said.“Nice.Stop the presses.What’s this bulky bag apparatus on the back of your wheelchair?”
“That’s just my papoose carryall.It’s a modified Sierra pack that I use for hauling everything.There’s a running joke that I transport illegal aliens across the border in it.It’ll hold a hundred pounds of stuff.I had it especially designed.”
She watched him reappear in front of her, but he did not sit down.His eyes fell to her legs for the first time.She felt the slightest crimp in her heart.Somehow she knew it wouldn’t last, this attention, this profound sincerity.She brought her emotions to heel, expecting the worst.But he surprised her again when he took a small tape measure and pocket calculator out of his baggy pants.
“Forgive me,” he said, then ran the tape from the crown of her head to the outside of her hip and then down to her toes. He measured her shoulder, stabbed some buttons on the little Casio.
“You tape out at about five-four,” he said.“Look, I don’t normally do this, but I’ve been working on a prototype for the military.I just about have it ready for demonstration.It’s a full combat military exoskeleton, titanium chassis with telepresence servos and motivators.It has a Nova power pack, that’s a mini-nuclear powered generator similar to the Bell Lab’s model, you know.”
“Oh, sure.”
“With some modifications, we could fit you in the bottom half of the torso chassis.I could rig up the sensors to pull commands off the upper body nerve or muscle track.It’s just a matter of where to plug in.”He stepped back, worked his jaw.“Yep, I think it could work.Now, from what point does the nerve damage begin?”
“Well, from about the bellybutton on down—it was a lumbar fracture.I don’t understand.What are you trying to say?”
“It’s really simple.How long has it been since you’ve walked?”
“About 23 years.Um, why?”
“How would like to walk again?Unassisted.Even run.”
She shook her head.“You’re kidding.You’re blowing smoke up my fanny.”
“No, not at all.With a little luck and pluck we should have you blowing a smoke trail behind your sneakers. That’s unless you don’t feel like—“
“No, wait.What are you trying to say?First, I have to know what’s going on.”
He looked over his shoulder, giving the jogging path a nervous glance.He brought his eyes around again.“Sorry, I’ve been having some paranoia bouts lately.As for the other, let’s hammer out the details over dinner.What say, tomorrow night at seven?Pick your restaurant.Give me your address and I’ll call to verify before picking you up.Don’t worry about transport.I have a utility van with a lift gate.”
“I don’t know…it’s kind of sudden.”She thought about it for another five seconds. “Okay.This should be interesting.I wouldn’t mind hearing what you just told me in laymen’s terms.”She pulled her purse from a side pouch and gave him a business card.“I’m in Huntington Harbor.Come in through the gate from the Pacific Coast Highway side and show that to the guard.It’s already initialed, so he’ll allow access.”
He took her hand again, gave it a quick peck.“I’m looking forward to it, Diane.It’s been a pleasant visit, short drive-by that it was, but nice nevertheless.”
“Thanks, Chet.Yep, interesting.I guess I’ll see you.”
“You will.”He gave her a meek wave then turned around.He rocked back and forth a few times, building up momentum.He launched.His legs flailed wildly, while the body seemed to fly along by default.She watched him in awe, hoping, praying that he would not tangle up and go down.He had a near miss and stumbled just before he made it around the bend.She let out the breath she had been holding.Wow, she thought.Did she just have an exchange with an eligible, professional bachelor?Chet Strauss was a gimmie this and let’s do that type of guy.Anything he had to say was quick, painless.Nothing lost in translation.She hoped she hadn’t stepped in a pile by accepting his invitation.
She heard the decibel busting voice of her personal assistant behind her.“Dang, girl, you’re awful close to the lake.You ought to back that buggy up so you don’t end up with the ducks.”
Bibi appeared at her side with an armload of takeout.The large woman set the bags on the ground then flopped down next to them.She stretched her muumuu over her knees, fashioning a small fabric table, then began to organize the food items.She handed Diane a small tub of salad, a napkin, and plastic fork.Then she lined up several hockey puck-sized burgers at her side.
“Chef salad with bacon bits,” said Bibi.“You can eat yourself gut-sick and not gain an ounce of fat.You had cottage cheese with pineapple yesterday, so I figured you were due for a good bowel movement today.As for me, I need fries and burgers cruising through my blood, or I’m one unhappy mama.
“You should be a nutritionist.”Diane looked at the woman who had the Whoopi Goldberg mouth and Nell Carter body.“Seriously, one of these days a piece of French fry is going to hang up in one of your arteries.Then ping!They’ll have to call the fire department to pick your grand piano-sized butt up off the deck then rush you to the hospital.”
“Just so they send a gaggle of hard-body hunks.”She stripped a sandwich rapper and cleaved a small burger in two with one bite.She pounded her breastbone, swallowing. “Down, boy!Down!”She looked around.“Now, how’d the shopping go?Find anything yet?”
Diane speared a small wad of salad.“Since you’ve been gone, two more losers.The last loser wanted to gig me, I think.I gave him the exit sign.Oh, and two autographs.A couple of kids recognized me.”
“Good on you for giving them the boot.They need to be playing with your mind first off.So you haven’t done any buying off the rack today?”
“Buying off the rack” was Bibi’s interpretation of potential dates.“I wouldn’t exactly say that.I kind of put one on layaway.An engineer named Chet Strauss.Seemed pretty decent.He wants to take me out tomorrow night.I dunno, Bibi.Everything went right.Almost too right…and fast.”
Bibi stabbed a straw in a Styrofoam cup. “What’s the problem with that?You’re pushing twenty-nine, way past the Hugh Heffner league.You have to get your priorities straight when you meet Mr. Right.Then you can count your blessings.”She took a long pull.“But don’t forget to count the little digits in his balance book.The rest of it will tumble into place.”
Diane looked wistfully out over the lake past the eucalyptus trees.Her eyes landed on a large ventricular cloud.She drew in sharp breath, exhaled slowly.“Bibi, I just hope you’re right.I’m damaged goods, like a dented can at the supermarket.I just need a guy who sees the value of the contents and overlooks the packaging.If he has something to offer in the deal, well, good on me.But I’m not ready to kick up my heels just yet.Pardon the irony.”
Bibi slapped at a fly on her cheek then took another burger from her assembly line.“All depends on what this Chad has to offer.What’s he bring to the table?”
“Chet.His name is Chet.He’s got a sense of humor and he’s smart as paint. Real brainy guy. Loves art, too.But what he told me almost seemed impossible.I still can’t believe it.”
Bibi spoke around a bite.“Yeah, that he’s lost royalty or something…like he’s the Duke of Windsor and he told you to keep it to yourself.”She laughed, the crumbs falling from her heaving breasts.
“No, it wasn’t anything like that, Bibi.”She leveled her eyes at the large woman.“He said, well, he said that he could make me walk again.Even run, if I wanted to!”
Bibi blew a geyser of cola from her mouth, spraying her lap.It took her a while to recover before she said, “Is he a white guy?”
“Yes.”
“That no good honky bitch!”


Submitted: December 23, 2009

© Copyright 2022 Chris Stevenson. All rights reserved.

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