“It’s so nice of you to show me around, Grace. I’ve always liked Smithville, but that was from driving through. Once I got transferred here and moved into the apartment, it dawned on me that I don’t know where anything is. I feel a little silly.”
She stared at me blankly. “What?”
I didn’t know her either, of course, other than her being my neighbor in the new building, and thought she might be hard of hearing. “Thank you,” I said, being sure to enunciate clearly, “for showing me around.” Suddenly she seemed to get it.
She was an odd-looking duck, that was for sure, though that wasn’t a very nice thing to think. Her red hair was coiffed nicely on one side, while the other one was wild and unkempt — like she’d forgotten to finish the job. And her shirt, I noticed eventually, was buttoned in the wrong holes. We had toured the downtown area, where I’d marked the grocery store and a pharmacy I could use, and a little shop that was full of the knick-knacks I go for. I would definitely spend an afternoon there one day. We crossed the main street, chatting, but when I got to the far curb, she wasn’t at my side. I found her in the middle of the road, looking lost. The light had changed and traffic was coming. Rushing into the crosswalk, I grabbed her hand and dragged her the rest of the way. “I’m so sorry, Lisa,” she said, flustered. “Sometimes I lose my bearings.”
“Clio,” I corrected. “And that’s quite alright.”
Now we’d reached the town park. I’d be spending some time here too, I decided; it seemed like the perfect place to enjoy a novel. There was a gazebo, a pond, laurel bushes and maple trees, and a walk that snaked through it all with pretty wooden benches. “What did you say you did for a living, Grace? You work in a lab, is that correct?” She’d mentioned that she was going there later, and I’d imagined that she was a tech of some sort.
“Oh, I don’t work there,” she said. “I go there for tests.” Suddenly she lit up. “Oh, look! It’s my friend!” On a bench ahead of us was a young man about her age (thirty or so I guessed), in jeans and flannel, his long hair tied in a ponytail beneath a black baseball cap. The cap was adorned with an intricate, mult-colored star design I’d never seen before. He had his head back and was staring at the sky. I couldn’t help glancing up myself, but didn’t see a thing.
“Hi, Dud!” said Grace brightly. “This is my new neighbor, uh, I’ve forgotten your name already.”
“Yes, that’s right. Dud, this is Clio, my new neighbor from across the hall. She’s a teacher in the grammar school. Clio, this is Dudley Smirff, my good friend.”
He removed the dark glasses. One of his eyes was purple and puffy, like he’d been slugged. “Not my real name, of course. You can’t be too safe.”
“Mind if we join you?” asked Grace. We sat down on the bench. “Dud and I met in the basement of the YMCA. He was attending a gathering there, and I came in to use the powder room. I have to go all the time lately, and the door was locked, so —”
“A meeting of the Underground,” said Dud, his eyes taking on a gleam I didn’t much care for. Feverish, I guess you’d call it. “We exchange information and discuss strategy. About the Web.”
“Ah. So, you’re interested in computers.”
“No, no,” he said. “Not that web, the other one,” and his gaze drifted skyward once again. This time I didn’t take the bait.
Sitting between us, Grace seemed to be daydreaming. “I’ll need to go to the bathroom soon.”
“Well, don’t let us keep you, dear. If you have to go…”
“No, thank you, that’s O.K. I’ve gotten very good at holding it. It’s one of the side effects.” She smiled at me, and I noticed that one of her teeth was missing. A canine.
“Are you taking medication?”
Her friend snorted. “Poison, is what she’s taking. What is it called again?”
“Turbonil,” said Grace. “No, wait, that was last time. This one’s Zadgart. Or maybe Apretrak. I don’t always get the names straight.”
“It’s a wonder you get anything straight with those toxins in your system.” He spoke to me. “She volunteers as a human guinea pig. They pay her to take this swill to see what it does to people. When they get the formula down, they’ll give it to the rest of us. Put it in the water, or the milk. Baby food. You don’t drink the water, do you?”
He made this last sound accusatory, and I wasn’t sure what to say. “Well, I —”
“I mean city water, out of the tap, from a drinking fountain, like that.”
“Well, at the school sometimes, I —”
“And I’m not a guinea pig, Bud. I’m a clinical trial volunteer. It’s very scientific. You’ll have to forgive him, Flora. He gets so enthusiastic.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“They poison her half to death with this venom. Gives her hives and swelling in the glands. Headaches, blurred vision, insomnia —”
“Bud is a policeman, you know.”
I tried to smile. “Is that what the star on your hat is for?”
He tore it off and glared at it. Revealed was a silver skull cap that looked a lot like — tin foil.
“No, no, this is a hex sign. I’m a crossing guard. Grace saw me with the vest on and got this idea in her head —”
“Oh, he’s too modest, Lori. He’s undercover. That’s his badge right there.” She indicated the object that was hanging around his neck. It was a dark blue glass disc with a lighter blue design inside.
“I think that’s an evil eye amulet,” I told her.
Her friend stiffened. “How did you know that?”
“I — I saw it in a TV show. A travel documentary, on Greece. Or maybe it was Turkey.”
“Ah-ha! Now you change it!”
“No! I’m just not sure, is all —”
Three boys came running down the path. Nine or ten, they might be among my art students when the school year started. The last one stopped and stood staring at Dud.
“Yeah? What is it? What do you want?”
“What kind of hat is that, mister?”
“Forget about it. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Aw, that’s what my dad always says. He thinks I’m stupid.”
“Maybe he’s onto something.”
I smiled at him. “And how old are you, young sir?”
“I’m nine. But I’m going to be ten.”
“Do you go to grammar school here in Smithville?”
“Uh huh. I’ll be in the fifth grade.”
“Well, my goodness. Do you like to draw?”
“Uh huh. I like to paint, too. With watercolors. When I get home, I’m going to paint a picture of this guy with the beanie.”
Dudley bristled. He put the cap back on over the foil. “It’s not a beanie, kid, it’s special protective gear. Now, get out of here. You bother me.” He half-rose from the bench, and the boy took to his heels.
“Now, Bub,” said Grace, “don’t be mean. He’s just a child.”
“Yeah? How do you know? Maybe he only looks like a child. They have agents everywhere. Collaborators.”
Grace giggled. “You policemen are so suspicious. So. Do you have another meeting tonight? At the SPCA?”
“Not tonight,” he said. “We have to find a new venue. We’re pretty sure they’re watching that one.”
It popped out before I could stop myself. “Who are ‘they’?”
His eyes widened. “You mean to tell me you don’t know? And you a teacher!”
I shook my head. “No. Honest.”
“Why, The Brothers! The Coterie! The Inner Circle! Now, do you understand?”
He sighed with frustration. “You’re as bad as Grace! They’re known by many names, of course. The Masons. The Bilderbergs. The Illuminati. The Global Web.”
I had to be careful. He seemed so tightly strung, and I didn’t want him to fly off the handle. After a pause I said, “Oh, I see. So you’re worried about, uh…”
“Mass hypnosis! Fluoride! Fake snow! Chemtrails —” He shot a finger into the air. “There! See for yourself! What do you think that is?”
I looked again. There was a jet flying over, way up high, with a white plume behind it. “You mean the trail? That’s water vapor, frozen in the upper atmosphere —”
“That’s what it used to be, but not anymore. They lace it now with heavy metals and mold spores and who knows what else. Sickness breeds weakness and weakness breeds mind control. Then they take out the leadership with targeted strikes —”
“I have to go to the bathroom,” said Grace, some urgency in her voice now.
“I’ll go with you. I could use a drink of —”
“Not water! Don’t drink the water!”
“Orange juice,” I clarified. “Or maybe a screwdriver’d make more sense at this point. Come along, dear. I saw a bar up the block. They’ll have a restroom. My treat.”
“Bye, Ned,” she said to her friend. “See you at the UCLA.”
“You won’t recognize me. I’m having my face redone. In Mexico.”
“Good thinking,” I said over my shoulder. “You can’t be too safe.”
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