There’s big news on the horizon, but there are little victories as well. Not long ago, I deleted my editing draft of The Data Collector. It is no longer in editing, it is only in manuscript form. Yes, there are more than a dozen little excerpts on my hard drive now, but each of those is tailored to a particular agency’s query requirements.
The Data Collector is a whole book, and I’m moving on to the next one. As such, here’s the opening chapter – the “Overture” – to whet your appetite. Enjoy.
Unpleasant answers arrive quick and sharp in this town. Just when you think you’re standing on stable ground, the knife of change twists like a key in a lock.
You can do this, Sylvia. What’s the worst that could happen?
I slide my keycard past the basement lock and the charming beep echoes through the tiny landing without a hint of reassurance. The office is closed. The Korean chicken place is closed. Even the lobby door behind me is closed. The only voices I hear are those of Silicon Valley hipsters marching around their decadent little downtown.
There’s a lot of money rolling around in the diners and bars of San Mateo. There’s good business to be had if you can keep the labor from demanding fair pay.
I pull the basement door open. Screeching hinges announce my entrance. No turning back now, Sylvia. Nathan knows you’re here.
The electronic lock shudders as the door closes. I love hearing the magnets activate and slide into place. It feels safe and secure. That’s why I came here. Bay Area salaries look ludicrous when you see them with Texas eyes. I thought I’d be rich, but I live two towns away from the office and eat more ramen than I did in college.
Hey, Nathan, wanna fuck?
That won’t make for much of an opening line. It could work. Maybe. I’ve known him for two months; I should know if that line would work.
I hear footsteps on the concrete downstairs. They clack and echo in a way that rubber-soled sneakers never do. Who is down there?
“Nathan?” I call down into the dim, cold red of the basement server room.
Months ago, I thought the red lights were spooky, but Nathan said it helped his vision. It keeps his eyes dark-adjusted for when he’s poking through the server blades or running cables. It was spooky then, but it grew cozy as I spent more time down here.
With one distant snarl, the red goes straight from spooky to terrifying.
“Shhhhhhh-!” Someone hisses as I hear the clack-clack-clack of footsteps.
At the base of the concrete steps, a man in a bathrobe appears. I can see denim shorts sticking out under the robe, and he’s wearing a plaid collared shirt. I can’t tell the color because red light is awful. More notably, the man sports a mullet and a beard which would put Tolkien’s dwarves to shame. It’s pretty epic.
And he’s basically in a hole in the ground. I’ve either stumbled on a real dwarf or some homeless guy has snuck into the basement and just shushed me. He’s pretty tall for a dwarf. He’s got to be six feet tall, and those plastic shoes aren’t very dwarf-like either.
Nope. This is definitely a scary vagrant. He’s coming closer, and he’s indicating I should stay quiet.
“Nathan!” I shout.
The cold, concrete chamber below echoes with the name, but those echoes are snuffed by a yet louder snarl. The echoes just… stopped. They weren’t overrun by some louder sound; they were just snapped out of the air.
“No!” The bearded man hisses, “no names!”
He’s looking back, but I saw a worried expression cross his face. He’s not moving closer anymore. He’s looking back into the basement.
I hear a pained groan from below. There’s the sound of movement, but I can’t tell what kind.
“Go home,” Nathan’s voice rolls up from below. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Are you alright?” I call down.
“I’m fine,” he sighs, “Just working late. These people are helping.”
A tense quiet follows. The bearded man at the base of the stairs leans casually against the wall, but I can see tension in his shoulders. I hear whispering, but I can’t make out what’s being said.
With a click and a creak, the door behind me opens.
There was no beep. No one operated the lock. How did it open?
I turn to face another man in a bathrobe. He’s wearing the same tacky shoes, but this man is as hairless as the bearded man is hairy. Thin, dark eyebrows raise over black sunglasses. The wearer’s head is bald without even the slightest hint of stubble. I can tell, because he’s less than three feet from me.
I shift my feet wide and lower my center of mass. I get ready to sprint.
“Good evening, sunshine,” the bald man smiles.
“Don’t be creepy,” the bearded man chuckles from below.
“Why not?” The bald man shrugs, “she won’t remember.”
The bald man steps aside, gesturing out the door like a bellhop bidding farewell at a snazzy hotel client.
I hear Nathan’s weak, forced voice call from below: “It’s fine. I’m fine. Go home, Sylvia.”
A wave of nausea rocks through me, and I stumble.
“Time to go!” The bald man grabs me by the arm and pulls me out the basement door and into the lobby.
He pushes open the lobby door and drags me to the street outside. I try to pull away, but I can hardly tell which way away even is. I’ve never felt vertigo like this.
“Hey. Hey!” He holds me still with one hand as he snaps his fingers in front of my eyes. “Hey! Look at me.”
I look at his eyes. He’s pulled down his sunglasses. One of his eyes is blue, and the other is cataract-white and swollen. His one good eye looks from one of mine to the other. He’s studying me.
“You’re fine,” he says as he pats me on the shoulder. “Forget about it. About this. Go have a nice night. Your friend will be fine.”
Quick as a whip, he marches back into the lobby, pulls the basement door open without using the lock, and starts down the stairs.
Nausea overtakes me, and my ramen dinner rushes to join my feet on the ground. Vomiting never feels good, but it’s all the worse when it’s sudden. Three quick hurls later, and I’m snorting the snot-bile mixture out of my sinuses.
I look up to see the front door of my office lobby closed. Something important just happened. I know it did. I was going to ask Nathan out on a date, but I can’t do that now. I’ve got vomit breath. And vomit shoes.
I’ve never gotten sick just working up the courage to speak to anyone. That must be what happened, though. I remember walking halfway down the stairs, then feeling ill, then running out here. Then I took my trip to Sudden Vomit Town, population: me.
Smooth, Sylvia, real smooth. Nathan would be impressed.
I’ll ask him out tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day, and it’s not like anything here ever changes.