Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ocean- Part 24

            “This is Grady.  Hooper, tell me you’ve got some good news for me.”
            “To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what I have. We’ve tested the tissue and that…I don’t know; slime stuff, that’s covering most of the remains and we can’t figure out what the heck it is. I even sent samples out to a few of my old professors and they’re equally stumped.”
            “Great,” Grady sighed. “I’m coming up blank here as well. We managed to salvage some video but it raises more questions than answers.”
            “If you want, I’d be happy to take a look at it. It can’t hurt, right?”
            “Barker, can you send the video over to Hooper? Can we do that?” Yes? Good, here talk to him and get his info. I need to pop over to the hospital and check on Poole. I swear, if that doctor hasn’t made some progress with Poole he’s gonna end up a patient there too!”
Lack of sleep teamed with a never-ending parade of dead ends had chewed away at Chief Grady’s nerves, wearing them down to the raw nubs. He made a concerted effort to take deep breaths as he rode up in the elevator, harnessing his focus on keeping his cool.  Room 908 was teeming with medical personnel: nurses, therapists, aides, all attempting to draw the young deputy out from the shell behind which he’d been hiding.  Grady’s appearance was met with icy disregard but he didn’t care, lives were in danger and it was his job to protect them. 
            “I don’t think you’re going to get much,” one of the nurses chirped. “Doctor Garrett upped his meds. Your deputy has been pretty much comatose all day.”
Much to Grady’s dismay, the pert nurse wasn’t exaggerating.  As far as he could tell, Poole had no clue anyone was there in the room with him. Not even a flicker of recognition registered on his face as he was peppered with questions.
            “C’mon, buddy, I need your help. Please? Can’t you just try?” Grady pleaded to no avail.
After thirty minutes of appeals, demands and a touch of grumbling, the chief finally threw in the towel.  The medical staff said nothing but a titter of giggles erupted as he stalked down the hall.  He sought out the information desk and had Dr. Garrett paged. I’m not running all over the place looking for him, Grady thought, let him come to me. After repeated pages, the doctor finally arrived. He had the decency to appear out of breath, as if he was rushing to accommodate the lawman. 
            “Chief Grady,” Dr. Garret exclaimed. “Sorry to keep you waiting. I wasn’t expecting you today. Whew, it’s been a crazy day! Let’s go to the conference room and I’ll have my assistant order us a late lunch.”
After a longer lunch than he’d planned, Grady popped in on Bob the Coroner. He knew he was grasping at straws but there was always the off-chance someone had made an observation that they’d overlooked previously.  Together, he and Bob looked at all the facts and racked their brains trying to speculate the true cause of death.  When he left, they were no closer to an answer than when they’d started.  A day full of running around with nothing to show for it, his inner voice whined. The days are getting shorter; already the sun is making its way to the horizon. Grady was caught up in his inner monologue when his cell phone rang, startling him back to reality. 
            “Grady? Oh, thank God! Please, I need your help. Please, please hurry!”
The frightened and tearful voice on the other end was Mayor Farmington. The urgency in Dale’s voice made Chief Grady forget all about his beef with the mayor. 
            “She’s gonna do it. There’s no time, please, you have to stop her. Go get her. Bring her back. I’ll do anything!”
Mayor Farmington dissolved into a torrent of tears and heart-wrenching sobs, pausing only to sniffle back the gobs of snot, threatening to gush forth from his nose.  Between the fitful gasps and sobs, Grady eventually managed to piece together the gist of the story. There had been some bickering the night before and again in the morning before Mayor Farmington had gone into the office. Knowing he’d been out of line, the mayor had cut out a little early from work and stopped at the florist on his way home.
            “I-I-I knew she was mad at me b-b-but this?” He wailed.
            “Dale, just take a deep breath and tell me. What happened and what do you need me to do?”
            “Letter, she left me a letter. She’s gone to the beach. She’s gonna let it kill her. You have to stop her!”
A torrent of expletives flew from Grady’s mouth before he could catch himself.  Popping the Bluetooth earpiece into his ear, he ran to his car. With sirens blaring, Chief Grady sped to the beach, all the while, listening as Mayor Farmington read the letter aloud.  Though his voice hitched and tears splattered the page, he continued reading, only hesitating where either Sylvia’s tears, or his own, had smeared the ink.  
 As Grady’s cruiser screeched to a halt, he disconnected the call and sprang out.  The sun’s lazy descent was nearly complete and there wasn’t a moment to spare.  Running on the sand felt like a flashback from his worst nightmares. His feet sank deep into the powder, making it difficult to pick up speed, while his eyes scanned the beach for signs of Sylvia Farmington.  Finally, he spotted a something resembling the female form close to the waterline.
“Sylvia!” Grady screamed.
Please, God, let her be alive, repeated over and over again in his mind. With no time to check, he scooped her up and draped her over his shoulder as he sprinted as fast as the sand would allow.  Overhead, the fiery oranges, reds, and pinks of sunset were melting into deeper, richer tones. Grady’s prayer switched to, “please God let us both live” as drew closer to the steps that would bring them up to street level.
            “Nearly there, Sylvia,” he panted.
Grady resisted the urge to look back; instead, he allowed the panic to fuel his final dash. The last fifty yards to the steps were a race against Mother Nature and whatever forces were at work in the ocean. Each footfall seemed to trigger a darkening of the sky and panic seized Grady’s heart in an iron grip. Once his feet were firmly planted on the street’s macadam, the chief sucked in huge gulps of air, hoping to calm the savage pounding of his own heart. 
            “We made it,” he panted.
A sudden, undeniable, overwhelming thrill to be alive filled every fiber of his being. He wanted to dance, cry, sing and jump for joy.
“That’s right,” Grady cried out. “We made it! We’re alive…ALIVE!”
He turned, facing the water as the sun disappeared from sight, and stared out at the rolling waves. Still carefully balancing Sylvia on his shoulder, Grady thrust his fists high into the air and extended his middle fingers.  We’re alive.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ocean- Part 23

In spite of his wife’s best attempts, Chief Grady found it virtually impossible to relax. He’d put on a good show for her behalf but while Sharon slept, he reviewed the video again and re-read all of their case files.  I’ve got to be missing something here, his weary mind insisted. No matter how many times he watched the video, pausing, zooming, changing the speeds, it was impossible to tell what had attacked Josh Austen.  Grady continued to fiddle with it until sunrise then he showered and headed over to the station.  His pot of coffee hadn’t even finished brewing before Barker and Kline strolled through the door. 
            “You two are here early,” said Grady.
            “We figured you’d probably roll in just after sun-up,” Kline replied. “Early bird catches the worm….or in this case the Cthulhu-land shark-demon bird-octopus-serial killer.”
            “You are one twisted kid, Kline,” Grady laughed. “But I’m glad you’re both here. Let’s watch this video again and try to brainstorm a little bit…think outside the box.”
    As Grady and his deputies viewed the video, their ordinarily-quiet town was bustling with activity.  After the meeting, families like the Westbrooks, Crayburns, Millers, Goldsteins, Warrens, and Simms, decided they needed to get out while the getting was still good. Fortunata Reality had been overwhelmed with after-hours phone calls.  When Mike and Janie Fortunata entered their office, the voicemail box was completely filled.  Janie was still trying to retrieve the messages as calls poured in faster than they could answer them.  All over town, frightened residents were packing up and looking for a fresh start someplace else, far away from the ocean. 
    Even the local schools were barren; most parents had decided to keep their children home and under close supervision.  The handful of kids in attendance were lumped together in one room to watch videos, read or do whatever they wanted as long as they remained quiet. The school board policy against cell phones in the class room was flat-out ignored. Those in attendance were flagrantly interacting with their friends who’d remained home, the ones whose parents worried too much to let their precious angels out of their sight.  The remaining faculty, the ones that had actually shown up, felt too worked up over the previous night’s meeting to care about something as trivial as students texting, or using Facebook and Twitter.
    Local business either decided to close “until further notice” or they posted revised hours of operation.  Even the convenience stores and gas stations were adjusting their hours to ensure no one was forced to be on the premises between dusk and dawn.  No one wanted to assume liability in a worst-case scenario situation. 
    Mayor Farmington, freshly showered and shaved, wandered into the kitchen expecting to find his wife preparing his breakfast.  Instead, she was huddled in the corner seat of their breakfast nook under a thick blanket sipping at tea that smelled suspiciously laced with liquor. 
            “Sylvia, what are you doing? You’ve got that meeting with the League of Women Voters this morning and you’re not even dressed. You’d better get moving!”
            “Not going….already called…told ‘em I have a migraine. They’ll survive without me. Took a couple Valium and going back to bed,” Sylvia Farmington slurred.
            “No! You have to go! After last night we can’t afford to look like we’re…we’re…”
            “Like we’re what, Dale? There’s no ‘we in what happened last night and, quite frankly, I am too embarrassed to go anywhere, except back to bed.  Why do you always make me feel so unimportant? You didn’t even bother to ask if I’m alright. You only care about your precious image.”
            “That’s not true and you know it. Of course I care about you but you already told me you have a migraine. What do you want me to do about it?”
            “I want you to go to work.” She murmured, rising slowly from her chair and padding across their imported tile floor.  At the base of the stairs she stopped and turned to face her husband. “No, I want you to go to Hell.”
    Hours later, Chief Grady and his deputies were no closer to unraveling the mystery than when they’d started. Even with Barker and Kline’s advanced training in technology there was nothing they could do to enhance the images or improve the clarity.  They were just about to cue it up for another viewing when a visitor shuffled through the front door. 
            “Hello? Is anyone here? I’d like a word with Chief Grady, if possible,” an elderly woman in purple pantsuit called out.
Hearing his name and a familiar voice, Grady poked his head out of his office.  Seeing Poole’s grandmother, Rose, he rushed out to meet her.  He smiled warmly and offered her his arm, which she gladly accepted. 
            “Kline, Barker, this is Mrs. Rose Poole.  Doug’s grandmother,” Grady explained. “What can I do for you? Is everything okay at the hospital?”
            “Well, they’re keeping Doug pretty well sedated. I wish I could say he’s improving but I don’t really know. Listen, I hate to be a bother but I have a favor to ask of you, Chief.  You see, I was a little rattled yesterday after what happened at the hospital and I, well, it’s embarrassing to admit but I had a little hot toddy to help me relax. Well, it worked and I slept straight through last night’s town meeting. Chief, I’d like to ask you if I can see the video? Please? I understand it was disturbing but I…well, I just feel as if I might find closure.”
Grady sighed heavily as he raked his fingers through his thinning hair.  The poor woman had already been through so much. He hated the idea of bringing her anymore pain yet an acceptable excuse had eluded him.
            “Chief, I hope you’re not trying to think of an excuse. You know I’m a tough old bird and if I hadn’t fallen asleep I would have seen it last night.” Rose Poole’s tone was light, a direct contradiction to the stern expression on her face. 
The three lawmen exchanged bemused glances and ushered her into Grady’s office for a private viewing.  Maybe an extra set of eyes will help, the chief thought to himself, well at least it can’t hurt. For Rose’s benefit they didn’t fast-forward through the forty-plus minutes of banal chit-chat but Barker was quick to turn off the video before Josh’s bloody arm splattered across the screen.  The old woman thanked them and bid them a good day. Chief Grady offered to drive her home but Rose declined, insisting a good walk would help clear her mind. Before he could offer up a good argument, Grady was called to the phone.
            “Hey, Chief, you’ve got a call.”
            “Yeah, they can wait. I’m going to see Mrs. Poole home.”
            “But it’s Hooper!”

Monday, April 28, 2014

Ocean- Part 22

     Mayor Farmington paced angrily in his home office. His plan had backfired, making his panicked mind race. I can’t believe they rallied around that dim-witted, pathetic excuse for a cop, he thought bitterly. If those morons had any sense they’d boot him out while we still have the chance. As he mulled over the ramifications of his failed vote of no-confidence, there was a knock at the front door. Knowing his wife Sylvia would handle it; Dale Farmington took a seat behind his stately antique desk and brooded, believing he looked dignified in that pose.  Minutes passed but no one was brought to his office, making him wonder what was going on and what his wife might be concealing.
            “Sylvia?” He called out, but no one responded.  “Sweetheart? Was someone at the door?”
The house was eerily quiet and for reasons he could not explain, Mayor Farmington ‘s heart skipped a beat, forcing a feeling of dread to settle in the pit of his stomach.  As he crept out into the hallway, the dim lighting reminded him of a horror movie. Part of him expected a dark limb or tentacle to shoot out at him and drag him off to the beach.  Don’t forget demon-bird, he silently scoffed at his own foolishness.  Yet, as he rounded the corner, the evil he saw was worse than he’d imagined; only this vile monster had a name that Mayor Farmington knew all too well. Harold Martin, I should have known! He’s worse than a shark; sensing blood in the water and creeping in…smiling that shark-tooth smile. Thinks he can make a mockery of me, does he? Well, we’ll just see about that.
            “Sylvia, I…Oh! I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t know you had company,” Dale Farmington lied.  “How nice of your cousin to pay us a visit. Is Marge with you, Harold?”
Sylvia glared at her husband, that bug-eye expression she only used when she was truly furious. He knows Marge left Harold last spring and he’s rubbing it in, she thought bitterly. Why must he insist on treating my family like dirt? It wasn’t Harold’s fault that real estate venture went south. 
            “No, I’m here on my own. Wanted to check in on poor Sylvia. We’d heard there had been some kind of attacks going on here and we worried about our precious cousin’s safety.  From the sound of it, at that town meeting, I’d say things here are pretty grim. Dale.  Whatcha gonna do about your town?”
            “I have things well in hand, don’t you worry about that. When something precious is entrusted to my care, you can be damned sure I protect my investments.”
Yet again, Sylvia was forced to step between her blood and her husband to diffuse the powder keg of emotions that always threatened to explode whenever both sides met. When they finally retired to separate corners, Harold to his hotel room and Dale to the sofa, Sylvia felt completely drained.  Still angry, she hurled her husband’s pillow and a blanket downstairs and slammed the bedroom door behind her. 
     Just a few blocks away, Chief Grady and his wife Sharon were snuggled together sipping at a shared snifter of brandy.  The day had been long, and the evening even longer, so the influx of alcohol was as soothing as a warm bubble bath.  Sharon kneaded her husband’s tight shoulders as she placed delicate kisses on his knotted neck. 
            “Aw, baby, your neck is so tense,” she whispered.  “Try to relax.  The worst of it is over now.”
            “Relax?” Grady laughed, pouring more liquor into the glass. “I don’t think I remember what that means anymore. And not to sound like a downer but I don’t think the worst is over…not by a long shot, Shar.”
            “But the people, they all support you.”
            “For now they do and believe me; I am grateful but I need you to promise me you won’t let it get to you if…make that when….that changes.  Dale won’t go down without a fight. He was humiliated and he’ll be looking for vindication.  You can’t go spouting off every time someone disagrees with your husband, my dear.”
            “But I didn’t,” She tried to argue and dissolved into a fit of laughter. “Okay, okay, I promise. Besides, it was worth being forced to keep my trap shut just to hear everyone else rush to your aid. I was so proud, I thought I’d burst.”
            “I’ve got to admit, it really was nice to hear…you know, to be appreciated. Now, I just have to live up to all that praise and figure out how to protect this community. I wish I knew what we’re up against; at least then I’d know where to start. The sooner we clean this mess up, the better our chances that everyone will forget all about it by the summer. I can promise you this; if we take a hit with the summer tourists those same people who loved me today will be calling for my head on platter come July! As it is, the number of For Sale signs has spread like a bad rash.  This is serious.”
            “Tom, I know it is but burning yourself out isn’t going to help you solve the mystery. Just for tonight, put it out of your mind. Your adoring fans want to show you’re their admiration.”
She giggled seductively and toyed with the buttons on her blouse before pulling her husband to his feet and dragging him toward their bedroom. 
            “Just for tonight…”

Friday, April 25, 2014

Ocean- Part 21

     The auditorium lights dimmed and a nervous hush fell over the crowd. At first, there was no picture, only a grainy, dark gray screen and a choppy, nasally, voice.
            “Doug, can you hear me okay?”
            “Yeah, I hear ya.
            “Cool. I’m gonna get these fires lit and then I’ll check back in via the walkie-talkie but if you notice anything, anything at all, you’d better give me a heads-up Got it?”
            “Whatever. Just remember, your hour started five minutes ago.”
The screen dipped down as the man behind the camera, Josh Austen, nestled it on a tripod. He was seen spraying an ample amount of lighter fluid on a pile of wood. Deputy Barker’s voice interrupted the silence.
            “Folks, I’m gonna fast-forward through the next forty minutes because there’s nothing but a sunset and some idle chit-chat.”
There was a murmur of agreement from the audience and Chief Grady gave him a nod of approval. The tension in the room was palpable. Nearly everyone in the auditorium had lost a friend or loved one and the prospect of seeing what had happened, first hand, filled them with trepidation and dread. They stared, slack-jawed, at the screen as familiar scenery flashed from brilliant sunset to dusk in mere seconds.  Their cameraman, Josh, announced that he was switching on the night-vision filter and the screen took on an eerie green glow. 
“Everything okay up there?” Josh’s voice crackled.
            “Yup, everything’s cool here. How ‘bout you?”
            “So far, so good.  See, I told you there was nothing to…hang on.  Did you see something?”
The camera was lifted off the tripod and Josh fiddled with the zoom. The rapid back-and-forth motions, as he struggled to adjust the focus, made many nervous stomachs in the audience do flip-flops.
            “Doug? Did you see that? What the hell is that?”
            “Josh, get off the beach. GET OFF THE BEACH!”
            “HEEELLLP MEEEEE”
The already grainy images on the screen blurred as something dark and lightning-fast darted in front of the lens, seemingly knocking the camera out of Josh’s hands. The scenery pinwheeled over and over until the camera landed in the sand while high-pitched screams of agony echoed through the auditorium as Josh Austen met with certain death.  Ladies in the audience screamed and some cried. Just as Barker was about to turn off the video, a chunk of severed arm splattered onto the sand directly in front of the camera. A river of blood gushed from the appendage and flooded the lens. 
            “Lights!” Mayor Farmington screamed angrily as he stormed to the front of the auditorium. 
The mayor’s face was flushed with fury as he snatched the microphone from the podium.  He blinked repeatedly, another telltale sign of his anger, as his eyes adjusted to the sudden change in light.  He scanned the room, taking in the apparent fear and distress of his townsfolk, allowing it to fuel his own outrage.
            “Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize. I am shocked and offended by this pathetic ploy from our own Chief of Police to sensationalize our community’s tragedy. This ridiculous video offered absolutely no insight into our problem. It was a dark, blurry waste of time. Perhaps, what we need is a police force that is focused on the safety of our residents rather than gimmicks to hide their ineptitude. I mean, honestly, for all we know this could be a trick, some kind of set up for a horror film. Like that Blair Witch video thing a while back…remember that…how everyone thought it was real but it was just a publicity stunt! I propose a vote of no confidence in Chief Grady and his staff.”
    Shocked gasps tittered through the auditorium. Outraged, Sharon Grady sprang to her feet, prepared to defend her husband to her dying breath but before she could utter a word, her husband shook his head no and motioned for her to sit down. Angry tears prickled her eyes but she took her seat. In her place, others rose up and shouted their disapproval. Boos, jeers, and grumbles grew louder as Mayor Farmington tried to smooth over the ruffled feathers.
            “How dare you?” A voice shrieked from the outer edge of the room. “Chief Grady cares about every single person who lives here, not just the rich or important neither. He never treated me no different than everyone else just ‘cause I ain’t got so much money and didn’t get a fancy education. He don’t look down on me ‘cause of where I work.  He even came to my Kurt’s funeral!  So don’t you dare say he doesn’t care about us!”
            “That’s right,” another chimed in. “He came to my boy’s funeral too!”
            “Yeah,” Eric Downey bellowed. “Four of my friends were killed by this…thing…and Chief Grady was at all of their funerals. Not only that, he took the time to talk to me after we found out about it, you know, to help me cope with what happened. Most of the people in this town treated me and my friends like a bunch of burned out losers but not Chief Grady. He treated us like regular people.”
            “If it wasn’t for Chief Grady, I might never have quit drinking. I can’t even count how many times I’d woken up in the drunk-tank. Chief would feed me some breakfast out of his own pocket, mind you, and he introduced me to the leaders of our local AA chapter. When I finally agreed to go to a meeting, it was Chief Grady that went along with me,” added Carl Hogan.
            “I can personally confirm that Chief Grady has been to every single funeral service for each and every victim we’ve had,” Walter Cummings, the local funeral director announced.       
One by one, members of the community stood up and defended Grady, offering personal testimony to his dedication and compassion.  The chief felt an unfamiliar tightening in his chest and, for the first time, he truly understood the expression ‘tugging at your heartstrings”. He’d never realized that the rest of the community felt so strongly about him and he was touched.  He even went to bat for the Mayor, insisting that he and Dale Farmington went way back and, surely, Dale wasn’t trying to pin the blame on him. The townspeople disagreed and continued their testimonials in favor of their Chief. Basking in the warm, fuzzy, glow of professional respect and admiration, Grady missed the abrupt turn in conversation.
            “No way! It looked more like a tentacle than an arm!”
            “Get outta here, that was definitely a man’s arm.”
            “I thought it looked more like a shark’s profile.”
            “They were on land, you idiot! What are you saying; we have land sharks, now?”
            “It was so fast, like some kind of demon bird or something!”
Already short tempers were threatening to flare into a full blaze. Grady knew he needed to diffuse the tension quickly and get people on their way home. He and his staff still had a great deal of work to do.
            “Folks! Please, l need your attention!” He called out in his most official police-business voice. “Quiet down, please! Thank you.  As you know, this is the first time I’m seeing this video.  My deputies and I are going to head back to the station and review it some more. We’re also waiting on a report from Max Hooper, the oceanographer we’d called in, he’s doing some sort of enzyme work up to help us zero in on what we’re dealing with here. Before we wrap things up for the evening, I’d like for us, as a community, to decide whether we want to enforce a curfew or just let everyone be accountable for themselves.  So, all in favor of a curfew, please raise your hands.”

***Be sure to return, Monday, April 28th for the next installment of Ocean***