Aphelion Issue 289, Volume 27
November 2023
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by Roderick D. Turner

The woman in the bed looked up as I entered the room, recognition in her eyes. For a moment I was confused -- so familiar, yet somehow a total stranger. Then my gaze took in the smiling, reassuring face of the nurse standing at the bedside, her starched white uniform tight against a stunning figure, a tray of food perched delicately in her hand. "I'm sorry I couldn't get here sooner," I said.

The nurse nodded knowingly, casting a quick glance from me to the patient. "I'll leave you together for a while," she said. Her eyebrows arched pointedly as she looked directly into my eyes. "I'm sure a visitor will do Gail a lot of good." There was a clear trace of contempt in her tone. She swept past me and out the door, pulling it closed behind her.

"It's so good of you to come, Jack," Gail said. "I'm so used to being independent. You can't imagine how awful it is for me to be forced to lie here and rot."

I stood looking down at her, unable now to keep the concern from my expression. She was no more than thirty, but weeks in bed had taken a brutal toll. The strong, compelling features I remembered were sunken, sparkling green eyes hollowed and dim. Her trim shoulder-length brown hair was now knotted and unkempt, firm shoulders thin and drooped. "They're trying to kill you," I said at last.

Gail looked at me in bewilderment for a moment, then her expression grew suddenly hard. "How do you know?"

I didn't know the answer, just that I was sure. "All that matters is that we get you out of here."

"I'm sick, Jack. Weak. I can hardly stand, barely even roll over." She looked imploringly into my eyes. "Take me away from this place," she whispered.

I checked to be sure the hallway was empty, then whisked back the covers. Gail's gown hung like a sack over so many bones. "My God, look what they've done to you," I said. I scooped her up, barely noticing her weight, and pulled the door open with one foot. The nurse stood in the doorway, her smile now twisted and evil, a scalpel clutched in her hand.

"You can tangle with me first," she said. Her smile broadened to show perfect teeth, doubly chilling in such a sinister, gorgeous face.

As she lunged I swung my burden through a wide arc, Gail's feet striking the nurse in the forearm and knocking the blade from her grasp. I followed through with my shoulder, felling our attacker with one quick spinning movement, then hurried for the stairwell. Two floors below I pushed wide the fire exit and ran for the car. Alarms blared unheeded behind me. Gail looked up with gratitude in her eyes as I strapped her into the passenger seat, some of the old sparkle miraculously restored. Then I had the car in gear and was racing away. I pulled onto the nearby highway, a sense of anticipation filling me. Gail would recover, with my help, and together we would seek revenge on those who had done this to her. Gail could do that. The Gail I knew. "I want to stay and help you get well again, Gail. But -- "

Suddenly I was watching the car from above as it swept along, turned off and followed snaking roads out into the country, stopping at a rambling farmhouse. Figures rushed from the house, helping to carry Gail inside. I knew she was safe, although I wasn't sure how. Then...



I looked up groggily, reluctant to leave Gail for others to help. My roommate Mark stood in the doorway, sunlight streaming from the hall behind him.

"Jack, get the hell out of bed. We're due at the marketing meeting in half an hour."

"Shit," I said. "Why didn't you wake me earlier?"

Mark grinned. "I know how much you love to sleep." He shrugged. "And my alarm only went off ten minutes ago."

I peered at him through bleary eyes. He looked ready for the meeting. "How is it you can jump out of bed and look like that, and it takes me three hours just to open my eyes properly?"

"You know the answer buddy," Mark jeered. "When you sleep it's like you've been pole-axed. Out for the count, totally." He moved into the room and pulled open the curtains, flooding the room with light and instantly blinding me. "Just as I thought," he said into my right ear. "Your alarm was set for six thirty. An hour ago. You slept through it again." He gave me a prod in the ribs. "Now get up. It'll take us fifteen minutes to get there, and you've already wasted five. That leaves us ten to get you in the car, which for you is impossible." His voice trailed off as he wandered out of the room. "I'll have a coffee ready for you if you're out here in five minutes."

I made the deadline, dropping into the passenger seat of the car at seven forty four, slopping coffee over my shoes as I climbed in. "Better drive slowly, Mark," I said. "I'm still not altogether here."

"So what's new? Just as well I usually start the presentations. Otherwise, I'd have abandoned you as a partner months ago."

"I still come up with the best ideas and you know it. Remember the cliff-edge ad for that Surge pop? Fifty foot cliff with a case of Surge on the rocks below, foaming waves surging all around it, and the gorgeous woman standing by a Ferrari at the top? The guy looks at both and then jumps?"

"Sometimes I think you come up with this stuff in your sleep, Jack. Who in their right mind would jump off a cliff for some soda when they had a girl like that as the alternative?"

"It worked, didn't it? Biggest contract we ever had. Still the best residuals."

Mark sighed. "Let's just get things straight for this morning. We're pushing the shadowy spy on the dark street-corner angle, the secretive exchange, the carrier tailed all the way to the house. I'm not so sure about the dark and sinister stuff. Is that really necessary?"

I took a quick slug of coffee, burning my tongue as usual. "Absolutely," I said, gulping hot liquid. "You need to grab people. Anyway, it goes with the product. Black Hat Vodka has always tried to use the sophisticated gentleman approach, and all they've ever got is a half percent market share. They need something more dramatic."

Mark nodded in resignation. "You're the boss," he said. He poked a thumb in the direction of the back seat. "I got the story boards done last night. Did both versions in case you changed your mind. Take a quick look through and pull out the tame ones."

I did as I was told, shuffling through a pile of Mark's typically incredible sketches, removing the ones that showed bright, cheery characters in a non-threatening setting. Something about the figure in the dark drawings seemed familiar, but I couldn't quite place it. Convincing, though. Perfect capture of the mood I was looking for. I turned back and took another sip of coffee.

"Had another one of those dreams," I said. "I can still see her face."

"You telling me you would rather not have been wakened this morning?"

"Couldn't be helped. I'm kind of cursed that way. It seems so real while it's happening. Always a few details missing, you know, kind of like a generic setting. Still, the people are more lifelike than any movie character, and the emotions are so sincere. It's always tough waking up."

"Jesus, Jack. You've got to stop clinging to these images. A dream is a dream. Sometimes you moon over the girls you meet for days. Get a life!"

"It's not always girls, and you know it. Anyway, I have a life. I got a great girlfriend, a successful business, even an asshole roommate and partner. What more do I need?"

"A better attitude."

"I can't help what my head does to me. I just have to learn how to live with it. You know you'd be better off helping me deal with it rather than just mocking me all the time. It's part of who I am."

"Fair enough. I'll stop ribbing you about it if you promise to keep the stories to a minimum." He swung the car into an empty space, switched off the engine and turned to face me. "Deal?"

I nodded, still trying to blink my eyes open. "Alright," I said. "I'll try not to mention it."

The meeting room was on the eighth floor, offering amazing views of the harbor and the mountains to the north. Black Hat, in spite of its poor showing in the marketplace, made substantial profit from its coolers. It was in an attempt to improve the sale of their flagship product that they were launching a new advertising campaign. Our company, Rampage Media, was one of three in contention for the contract.

"I've prepared a full concept story-board for the commercial, possibly one of several with similar themes," Mark said, placing the covered sketches on the easel at the end of the table. He had presented the idea and the approach, the audience remaining stony-faced throughout. Still, it had given me a full twenty minutes to shift my mind into at least first gear. "My colleague, Jack Timson, will outline the actual storyline, as it was from his original idea." He nodded in my direction. "Jack?"

As I stood I was aware of a dimming of the lights in the room, and I thought my wakeup procedure was reversing itself. Peering about the room I saw that it was not the case. The blinds had closed and the room lighting softened to a faint shimmer, leaving the table in a deep brown gloom. A single pot light over the easel slowly brightened to the illumination level of a feeble streetlight. I looked at Mark, but he just shrugged. If not Mark, then, how was this...

My eyes went wide and I heard, over my shoulder, a collective gasp from the watching executives. A figure in a dark trenchcoat, wearing a black fedora pulled down low over the eyes, stepped slowly from the shadows near the door and into the edge of the light. From beneath one arm a black oblong box protruded.

I knew the drill. After all, I'd come up with the whole idea in the first place. Moving silently forward, I approached the figure cautiously, glancing surreptitiously from side to side, as if to be sure we were not being watched. The figure looked up slightly, and I made out the shadowy silhouette of a face. Then the box was in my hands and I had it clutched inside my jacket. As I turned, the light above us faded to darkness. There was a sound from the back of the room, footsteps echoing hollowly on pavement. A deeper shadow moved against the wall. I broke into a run, following the line of windows as the shadow passed silently along the opposite wall in pursuit. When I reached the door I wrenched it open wide and stepped through into the bright passage. I turned back towards the room, pulling the box clear of my jacket, and held it up label outwards. Then I shut the door to rousing applause and stood alone in the hallway, blinking in the light, wondering what had just happened.

A few moments later the door opened and the bulky CAO of Black Hat was shaking my hand as I stood there, bewildered, on the threshold.

"You have your contract, Mr. Timson," he said. "I've never been so surprised and delighted in my life."

Mark approached, looking just as stunned as I felt.

The big executive turned to face him, hand extended. "That was the most unexpected and impressive story-board concept I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing." The man literally glowed with delight. "However did you dream it up?"

Leaving Mark to conclude the arrangements, I scanned the now fully lit room for the mysterious spy who had inspired the performance. I quickly spotted the trenchcoated figure, hat still pulled down and face in shadow, leaning against the story-board easel. The executives were in various states of rapture, talking a mile a minute, completely oblivious to both myself and the walk-on spy. I strode up, my right hand outstretched.

"Thank you," I said. "You really saved this account for us. I was still half asleep, and I don't think I could have convinced them without you." I clasped the hand that appeared from the right pocket and shook it warmly. A firm, strong hand, with delicate, feminine fingers.

"I needed to repay you -- Jack." As she spoke my name she tipped back the black hat and I saw her face clearly for the first time. Dazzling green eyes, with a twinkle that hinted at her depth of character. Well-proportioned, radiant features and a smile both joyful and confident, her face complemented by tousled, well-trimmed brown hair.

"Gail," I whispered. "Gail, the way I -- remember you."

She frowned for a moment then nodded, very slightly. "I would really like to be here to see this all through, but -- like you, I think it's almost time to get up and go to work. Thank you for saving my life. I still owe you. I'll be back." She leaned forward and kissed me gently on the forehead. Then she turned away and I watched her wink out of existence as if she had never been.

I shook my head, my mouth hanging open in shock. Slowly, I reached up and touched my forehead. It was still moist. "I think," I muttered, "I will be seeing you again too. A matter of revenge."

"What's that about revenge?" Mark said, putting an arm on my shoulder. "After what you just did, how could you be thinking anything but positive?" He looked around. "What happened to our mysterious benefactor? You never introduced us."

I looked glumly at him and shook my head again. "Mark, you know that arrangement we made this morning?"

Mark held his hands up in denial. "No. Not another dream story."

I nodded. "I'm sorry," I said at last. "The deal is off."


© 2010 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: Roderick D. Turner has been actively writing fiction since 1990. To date he has written one novel and close to 100 short stories. Five of his stories have been published in paper or electronic form, and another recently reached the quarterfinals in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the FutureContest. His story The Rebound Effect appeared in the February 2010 Aphelion.

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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