Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Shaving in the winter can be a real bitch.
I let the faucet run until steam clouds rise up and the water reaches a boiling temperature. Cupping my hands under the cascading water, I rub it over my face to open the pores of my skin.
A few seconds later, the water dripping from my face adapts to the temperature surrounding it and turns colder than ice. Shivering, I force myself to slather on a handful of shaving cream and, being the creature of habit that I am, I pick up my razor and start with the left side. I always shave the left side first. It’s not tradition or superstition. It’s just a random habit I’ve yet to break.
Natalie’s voice distracts me from the doorway and the razor slips, nicking my cheek.
The blood trickles down my cheek and swirls around the drain, mixing with the water and shaving cream to form an odd pinkish hue.
“I’m thirsty,” she says, standing in the door wearing nothing but one of my plain black T-shirts. The shirt is huge on her and it goes down to her thighs, sheathing her naked body. I’m freezing just looking at her.
Natalie Hernandez is one of those freaks of nature who never get cold. There could be snow on the ground and you’ll see her out in a T-shirt, shorts, and flip flops. She doesn’t feel it at all, not even the frost bite nipping at her toes.
“Gringo, are you listening to me?” It’s not my name, but she’s called me Gringo ever since we met. I don’t know, it just stuck. “I’m thirsty.”
“So have a drink,” I say. “There’s still some left in the fridge. We’ll get more soon when we make another delivery.”
“But what?” I say, irritation resonating in my voice. I’ve had little patience for Natalie these days. Whatever it was that first attracted me to her, whatever it was that first brought us together… is gone. I can feel it. The only person who doesn’t seem to feel it is her.
“Are we bad people?” she asks.
“No,” I assure her again. But we sure as shit aren’t good people anymore, either. And as she goes to the fridge to finish off the last of the vial, I wonder if there’s a God. And if there is a God, I wonder what category he’d place us in.
It wasn’t always this way. But things changed when the mutated blood hit the black market.
Yes, the black market does exist. You can find anything you’re looking for. Drugs, illegal firearms, banned books or toys, Cuban cigars, outlawed pornography, and of course, vials of mutated blood that can be used for recreational purposes.
Nobody truly believed in the theory of evolution until the human body actually started to evolve. Now, it’s estimated that one out of every ten thousand people carry the mutation gene that gives their blood its psychoactive potency.
These people are illegally hunted and their blood harvested for profit by the Factory, an organization as underground as the black market itself. Their operations are run by a finicky pedant named Brian Vanacore. My employer.
Brian obsesses over every minor rule or detail. And punctuality is a big factor in that fixation. Show up late once and you’ll never work for him again.
Brian lives by a code of esoteric rules that was designed for only him to understand. But Brian has been successful up to this point, so who am I to judge these arbitrary methods he uses to conduct business?
And as I mentioned punctuality, I should mention that Brian is expecting me tomorrow. And he’s expecting two fresh packages.
These packages will be easy to acquire. They live right in my building.
* * *
Natalie stands at my side as I knock. It takes a moment for Merinda Johnston to answer her door. “Can I help you?” she asks.
“Yes ma’am,” I say, faking a smile to appear benevolent. “We live downstairs and I hate to trouble you, but could you please lower your television? It’s right above us.”
“The TV? The TV isn’t on.”
“Are you sure?” I ask.
“Of course I’m sure,” she snaps at me. “I think I’d know if my TV was on or off. You trying to say I’m an idiot?”
“No ma’am,” I say. “I’m sorry. We must have the wrong place.”
I push my way in, knocking her flat on her back. The hammer concealed in my jacket is released and I bring the blunt end down across her head three or four times until she stops squirming.
I let Natalie test it out. She takes a dab of blood with her fingertip and licks it off like she’s licking chocolate. Instant euphoria.
We have package number one. Now where is package number two?
A toilet flushes and the bathroom door swings open. Tim Johnston steps out and sees his wife, sees the hammer, and comes charging.
The hammer swipes through the air and levels him with one vicious crack to the skull. Blood oozes forth from the wound and I lean forward to gather some of it on my finger, bringing it to my tongue.
No high. No instant euphoria. All I taste is the vile metallic sting of blood. This man has not undergone genetic mutation. He’s not the second package. So who is?
We check the rest of the apartment. There’s a spare bedroom they use for storage. Lots of family pictures and photo albums. But the Johnston’s don’t have any kids, nor do they have any family living with them. They’re all alone.
So where’s the second package? Did Vanacore give me the wrong figures, or did I screw up and get the apartment numbers mixed up? If it’s the latter, it’s the last time I’ll ever work for Vanacore again.
* * *
The cycle is a term I use to describe the full experience of a blood rush. You drink it, and in seconds, you start feeling the effects. An overwhelming sensation of bliss. An awesome wave of euphoria washes over you. As the drug spreads through your system, you will feel a warm tingling sensation in the pit of your stomach. That feeling slowly spreads until it’s evenly distributed amongst your extremities.
This feeling of warmth and bliss eventually converts to a feeling of indifference. You become disconnected, apathetic. This state lasts for an hour or so, and is followed by feelings of remorse, sorrow, and self-loathing. Then it all wears off and you’re back to square one, craving another fix to start the cycle over again.
I got my fix last night as I had taken a small sample of Merinda Johnston’s blood for myself. I didn’t want Natalie to be the only one with a buzz on.
But now the blood has worn off and my hands are trembling slightly at the wheel. My body is telling me it’s time to start the cycle over again. But first I have to pull this meeting off with Vanacore.
He’s expecting me to meet him in an underground parking garage at precisely eight o’clock.
“Gringo, can we stop for coffee?”
“No time,” I explain as I drive down Essex and make a right onto Fairview. I can’t speed because I can’t afford to draw attention to myself, but time is of the essence. I don’t have a second to spare for Natalie to grab a cup of Joe.
“You never have time for me anymore,” she says, pouting.
“Once we get through this, we’ll stop and get coffee, ok?”
“Ok,” she nods. Then add, “Joshua, do you still love me?”
She rarely calls me Joshua these days. But that’s my birth name. Joshua Crowe. And I know when she calls me that, it’s her attempt at sounding serious.
I look deep into her soulful brown eyes. I see a brief glint of hope in those eyes, and for a moment, I feel that spark I felt when we first met.
“Yes,” I tell her. “I still love you, Natalie.”
“That’s all I needed to hear,” she says, reassured.
I hang a left onto Old Barto Road and make a quick right into the underground parking structure. I pay the entry fee and check the time on my cell phone. It’s seven-fifty-five. I’m five minutes early.
I drive towards the end of the structure and find a black van with tinted windows parked in an empty row. The passenger door opens and Vanacore steps out to greet me as I exit my Buick LeSabre. He rolls up the left sleeve of his Brioni suit to check his watch as I anticipated.
“You’re early,” he says with a smile that is so out of character it frightens me. “I like that. Do you have the two packages?”
“There was a complication,” I say, my voice cracking from dread. “I have one package in the trunk. Merinda Johnston. Her husband’s blood was not a match. He doesn’t carry the gene.”
“I know,” Vanacore says, still wearing that disconcerting smile.
“But you said two packages, sir.”
“I said there were two packages in your apartment building. I never said they were a couple. Merinda Johnston was one. The other is sitting in the passenger seat of your Buick.”
“No,” I shake my head. “You never mentioned–”
“How could I tell you over the phone? It had to be in person for you to truly understand. Natalie is a mutant, no different than Merinda or the rest of them. And she’s coming with us one way or another. You can either profit from the fact, or you can die trying to resist us.”
In a downhearted state, I consider my options briefly. Then I walk over to the passenger side door of the Buick and Natalie opens it. I tell her Mr. Vanacore would like a word with her. I play it cool and walk around to the trunk, where Merinda Johnston’s body rests, and I unlock it. She doesn’t suspect a thing until the backdoors of the van open up and three men in hoods jump out the back and snatch her up. She kicks and screams as they drag her towards the back of the van.
Two more hooded men remove Merinda’s wrapped body from my trunk and stuff it into the van along with Natalie and slam the doors shut, silencing Natalie’s screams.
“Is it going to hurt?” I ask.
“No, she won’t feel a thing,” Vanacore says, but his words fail to assure me. “You look pale. You’re shaking. This will help.” He hands me a vial of red liquid. I down it without a moment’s hesitation, and the cycle starts over again.