Chapter One

There’s a gun pointed at me and all I can think of is whether I should take this seriously.

It’s not that I have a thick skin, I’ll be the first to admit that. No. It’s just, at this moment, my sense of doubt is greater than my need to fear. My mind is occupied with the assumption that someone I know would be gutsy, or stupid enough, to pull such a prank on me, waiting to leap out from behind the shadows and lay claim to the look of terror on my face.

I wait for it.

No dice.

Right, I think to myself.

I meet my gunman’s gaze, my hands up in the air. “Look, officer. How about we calm down for a bit and think about what we’re doing here. There’s no need to get hasty.”

Standing two feet from me is Sergeant Dunson, an officer of the San Jose PD. He’s a middle-aged man with a rugged look to him. I’m rather tall myself, but this guy dwarfs me, making me look up at him. He has to be close to six-eight, at the least. His glacial blue eyes shine under the night sky. His blond hair is combed to the side in a clean cut, and his five o’clock shadow is stubby but even all around. This man looks like he takes his job seriously, but seldom does he go to the gym—though it looks like he tries every so often.

And right now, he has me at gunpoint.

Inches from my forehead is a .44 revolver that I’ve seen all too often associated with Dirty Harry. I can feel a chill coming from the metal barrel, caressing my brow and giving me a taste of its power. The gun looks real enough. It looks heavy. But talk about old fashion.

Dunson studies me, his face is cold and shallow. “Son, don’t think for a second that you can talk yourself out of this one.”

“It’s not ‘son.’ It’s Olan,” I say. “We met not even an hour ago. How could you already forget that?”

“Listen, son,” the officer says, emphasizing the second word. “Who you are is not important to me. And do forgive me, for I’ve no need for this banter.”

“You should really lighten up. Someone might actually take you seriously.”

“Do I look to be in the joking mood?” The corner of the officer’s lip curves slightly. “If you value your life, it would do you well not do anything unwise.”

I scoff at him. “Or else what? Shoot an unarmed civilian out here like this? The news will eat this up, you know.”

“That matters not to me. It won’t make any difference one way or another, so long as you’re dealt with.”

“Whoa, hold a second. There’s no reason to get bent out of shape. I don’t even know why you’re holding me hostage here. Can’t we just talk it out?”

Dunson stares at me in silence, maintaining his posture.

“Look,” I begin. “You’re the one who came to my workplace, asking me to keep an eye out for some fugitive on the run. And now you’re shoving a gun down my throat all because I, what? Didn’t give you free donuts? Not exactly lawful of you.”

“Keep on with that attitude,” Dunson says, “and you’ll see exactly how unlawful I can be.”

I roll my eyes at him. “Uh huh. Right.”

Given the circumstances, it’d be stupid of me to continue on this idiotic performance. It’s certainly not an approach anyone should take in such a situation. But I’m a cynic. I’ll always remain that way for as long as I live, and there’s a perfectly good reason as to why.

When our society conditions us not to take everything at face value, life becomes a guessing game every bit of the way. When the world takes advantage of our own reality, it’s difficult to accept anything as is. There’s usually something dubious behind everything.

Take for example something horrifying, like a group of zombies parading through the streets. Their limbs hang by the tendon, their jaws drenched in blood that’s dripping on the very ground they walk on, and their growls are as carnal and intimidating as a hyena’s. Yet somehow, not all that just ever seems real enough. Maybe fifty years ago, but not today. Because these days, the only thing on our mind is wanting to know where the hidden cameras are. Admit it, none of us wants to become a martyr for someone’s nightly entertainment fix.

That’s exactly how I feel about this.

So I’m doing the only thing I can do. Talk my way out of it, and hope he either gives up on the charade or—if he’s actually being serious—doesn’t shoot me.

I exhale, relaxing both my mind and body. “You’re a cop, man. Just look at the situation. There’s no need to make this worse than it already is. Can’t I at least get an explanation as to why you’re holding me here?”

“I’ve already told you why,” Dunson answers. “I don’t appreciate having to repeat myself. And I don’t appreciate being lied to.”

“Lied to?” I ponder. “What on Earth could I have possibly lied about? The last time we talked you kept trying to strong-arm me around when I’ve been trying to tell you I’ve never met this fugitive of yours. I mean, I’m trying to help here. But we can’t get anywhere because you people are trained to be so cryptic.”

Disappointment forms over Dunson’s face. “You truly are a simple creature. Son, you’ve any idea what position you’re in? There’s nothing you can say that’s going to change the outcome.”

“You’re joking, right?” I ask. “Clearly, you’re overreacting. Or maybe someone’s paid you enough to act this through. In which case, I’ll have to commend you for that. But just to go along with this farce, convince me that you’ve got the right person.”

The officer looks unimpressed and he arches his lip at me. Dunson then looks over his shoulder as a second officer walks on over.

Lurking a few feet behind Dunson is his partner, Officer Miller. This guy is built more like a tank than a human being. Ex-military, former MMA fighter, somewhere along those lines. He has squinty eyes, a crooked nose, thick lips, and his quiet demeanor only adds to his eerie nature. The size of his fist is the same as my forehead, maybe bigger. I’d be afraid to be on the receiving end of that.

The look they share with one another says it all: Who’s this idiot trying to blow smoke up our asses?

That would be me.

Dunson gives his partner a nod toward a nearby alley and Miller makes his way over there. His uniform struggles to stay on with every move he makes. The seams are screaming and they’re ready to rip apart at any moment. The hulking officer moves like a stiff robot, no doubt from having all that muscle. He disappears behind a large grey dumpster next to the alley’s entrance.

Alleys are made by design to take in as little light as possible, or so I like to believe. This one is no exception. The nearest working light source even points away from it.

That’s when it dawns on me. The perfect setting to commit the perfect crime. And no other soul in sight.

Well, that’s just great.

After a brief moment, Miller returns with a person leaning against his shoulder. A young man.

He’s about six feet, around my own height. He wears a white long-sleeved button shirt that looks like a straitjacket from a distance. His blue jeans are smeared and tattered. His wavy brown hair that hangs down like wet noodle. He looks passed out, eyes shut, chest still moving, likely from drugs or something. Even his shoes have seen better days.

My eyes return to Dunson. There’s a smirk on his face, which still makes him look intimidating.

“You told me you’ve never seen this man before,” he says. “What do you have to say about that?”

“You can’t be serious,” I remark. “I met this guy tonight. After you guys had already left. And it was only for two seconds.”

“But no sooner than leaving your establishment do we find you in cohesion with him.”

My jaw hits the ground.

“Wow,” I say, trying to hold back my amusement. “Now I’m sure you’re joking. I think I see what you’re playing at. You think because I work at a bakery, I’m dumb enough to fall for this setup? Wait for me to leave and then try to pin my involvement with the likes of him—if he is indeed a real criminal. That is quite the coincidence, don’t you think?”

“Still think this is a game?” Dunson asks.

“Well, duh. What else can it be? Either way, you have no grounds to place me along with whatever he’s committed.”

“How foolish,” Dunson says in a low voice.

“Foolish? The only fools here are you two, still trying to go with the obvious act. I don’t know who set you up for this, but whatever your goal is, it’s not going working.”

Both officers give me the silent treatment while shooting death glares in my direction.

“Look, whatever. I’m done trying to deal with this nonsense.” I put my arms down. “If you’ll excuse me, I have more important—”

Dunson pulls back on the hammer.

It doesn’t matter how tough you think you are, no matter who you are or where. That sound will make you pay attention. Like a switch to your body’s autopilot mode, and when it goes off, your body listens. No matter what your head was telling you to do.

No exceptions. Not even me, who still believes there’s some sort of misunderstanding going on.

A chill enters my spine, rendering it useless, along with everything else connected to it. The hair on the back of my neck stands up. My legs feel short, my knees rattle, and my feet glues themselves to the ground.

This is really happening, isn’t it?

The look in Dunson’s eyes tells you he’s a man who does not uphold any sense of moral. It is the look of someone who is going to enjoy what he’s about to do next. He is willing to sacrifice anything to get the job done. Whatever it is that drives him, it grants him the capacity to accomplish his goals without the need for reason.

Even if it means taking a life.

My life.

Never would I imagine seeing myself in this position. You hear all sorts of horror stories about brutality and wrongdoing, but you still keep some level of doubt. Most of us have never even seen it happen in person, much less have it happen to us.

Now it’s happening here in this city. To me.

I’m no model citizen by any means, but I’m positive there’s no record of me kept by any law enforcement agency. Hell, I doubt there’s even a sheet of paper with my name on it.

I stumble to keep my balance, falling on my ass. My throat runs dry and nothing comes out despite my attempts to speak out. Time itself slows down and everything begins moving at a snail’s pace.

“You’ve seen too much already,” Dunson says. “Sorry, son. Nothing personal. I’ve got orders to cut out loose ends.”

Then, Miller interrupts the tension with a loud groan, causing both Dunson and I to whip our heads in the direction of the alley.

The young man has somehow managed to regain consciousness and is pinning the hulking officer against the side of the building. I watch as a mammoth is being manhandled by someone half his size. The young man twists Miller’s arm behind him with one hand, and using his other he presses the officer’s face against the brick wall. A technique I’ve seen many cops themselves use before.

Miller’s body begins rippling and contorting, like something out of a science fiction movie. His skin turns to a shade of red that resembles the color of the brick building. He then lights up like a burning charcoal, with glowing lines surging through his face and arms.

Objects around us appear to move toward the two men, like a vacuum pulling everything in. Rocks and waste crawl on the ground as the air becomes visible like a whirling pool. The ground whines and quakes, along with the buildings.

Miller’s husky scream soon turns into a high-pitched whistle before going mute completely. Shortly after, sound itself falls flat. Silence cloaks over us, making it impossible to hear even my own heartbeat.

Dunson shields his face from the high wind and debris with both arms, abandoning his need to keep his gun on me. But just like him, I find myself unable to move away from the sight of what’s happening.

The young man winds himself back a couple steps and slams Miller’s body against the wall. The young man then collapses into the dumpster behind him as multiple bricks and dust erupts out into the opening.

Miller is nowhere in sight. Scanning the area only leaves me discovering a pile of bricks in the very same spot where the hulking office was standing moments ago.

Dunson rushes over to the alley, kicking away any object that gets in his way. He poises himself and holds his gun at the young man.

“Now you’ve done it,” he growls. “You defection. I was ordered to bring you back fully functional, but it appears that accidents are unavoidable.”

The young man pays no interest to the threat. He reaches up, grabbing Dunson by the forearm and kicking at his shin. Dunson falls to one knee and the two men struggle for control over Dunson’ arm. The young man, using two hands, gets an advantage and twists Dunson’ arm to the side.

The gun manages to fire off before falling out of Dunson’s hand. The bullet hits the ground next to the young man’s shoulder, bouncing onto the brick wall before flying away into obscurity.

Dunson falls over, his body twisting on the way down. The young man wraps an arm around Dunson’ neck from behind, choking him as hard as he can. But officer shows his many years of experience by jamming his elbow into the young man’s gut repeatedly until he’s let go.

The two men continue their struggle on the ground, wrestling each other and throwing punches when they can. They roll through dirt and puddle before coming to a complete halt. Dunson uses his superior size and strength to gain advantage. He pins the young man onto the ground, driving his elbow against the neck.

“Concede,” the officer warns.

The young man fights back from underneath, using whatever approach he can find. He grabs Dunson by the head using both hands and he presses his thumbs into the eye sockets.

Dunson screams in agony, echoing his former partner. And just like the hulking officer before him, Dunson goes through an unusual experience. His skin turns brass and he charcoals up in the similar way. A loud clap follows and Dunson bursts into dozens of mice, falling on top of the young man.

I watch on as the mice scatter about, running away from sight. Some down the alley, some down the street, and others right by me.

What the hell have you gotten yourself into, Olan?

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