Sabotage, Chapter 18

“Whooooo-hooooo!” Zartex cried out in jubilee as the dragon roller coaster cascaded down the tracks. He appeared to be more animated about the experience than the kids that were also on the ride, which the park manager was quick to notice. Carmen simply explained, “He’s European.” The park manager seemed to take that as a justifiable explanation and walked away.

As he walked away, Garith slipped a newspaper in his tool belt. Garith told Carmen, “That was my last one. They’re all out!”

“Great!” Carmen responded listlessly. She joined the crowd of parents watching the roller coaster to watch Zartex enjoying himself. All the newspapers were out. The bombshell information about Mirage now could be seen by people outside the cult. Their secrets were now out, which is what Carmen had been waiting to do for a long time. And yet, now that this moment was here, she actually felt pretty depressed.

Garith seemed to notice this and joined her in watching the ride. “It’s not exactly happily ever after, is it?”

“I guess I was hoping that once the article got out that people would get outraged by the truth and that Mirage would go down immediately. It would set me free from sneaking around and I wouldn’t have to survive assassination attempts anymore. But people aren’t reading it. I know they gotta look after their kids, but not one person has read it! So, that means we gotta keep living like criminal nomads for a little longer. Or a lot longer, who knows! I just wanted this nightmare to end!” Carmen sighed.

Garith assured her, “These things take time. At some point on our way back to the Bay Area, the right person will read the article and spread the news. It doesn’t end here, trust me!” He pat her back, which made her feel a little better. She couldn’t shake the surge of disappointment, but it was nice to have someone who had faith in her.

Zartex surfaced by them with an exhilarated expression and slightly staggered walk. “I’m a little dizzy and a little nauseous, but I would do it again in a heartbeat! These machines are awesome!”

“So, now what?” Carmen asked.

“How about the teacups?” Zartex suggested.

Garith pointed out to him, “I think she meant travel-wise. Besides, you were lucky enough finding one ticket, good luck finding three more!” Zartex took him literally and began to search the grounds. Garith talked to Carmen, “We don’t have much money left, but I do remember that there’s a charter bus that goes to San Francisco for a discount. If we leave at six a.m., our tickets would only be a dollar. I think people would be too groggy that early in the morning to pay to us. What do you think?”

“I think I would pick a green teacup,” Zartex remarked.

Carmen noted, “We’ll have to spend the night here again. But yes, I think you have a good idea. I don’t feel much like walking long distances again! Once we get there, I could take the BART to…wait, I don’t have any money. I could borrow a phone to call my dad to come get me. Oh, but they’re probably monitoring his phone calls. I don’t know! Ugh!”

Garith put his hand on her arm, “You’ll figure it out. You always do.”

Carmen smiled. Even though she didn’t quite believe it, she found comfort not necessarily in his words but for the fact that he really cared. Before she could respond, Zartex showed them something. “Hey guys! I found three tickets! Isn’t that great?”

“Yeah…” Garith and Carmen said unison.

Zartex didn’t catch their tone and grabbed their hands. “Yes, let’s go!” Zartex dragged them towards the teacup ride. “Garith, I thought you wanted to have more fun?”

“You know what sounds fun right now?” Garith responded, “A stiff drink!”

As they stood in line, Carmen inquired to Zartex, “You steal these tickets, did you?”

Zartex handed them each a ticket and revealed, “Of course not! I found them in a puddle!” As soon as it hit their hands, they felt the wetness of the paper and grimaced.

Jayesh Chakrabarti brought up the last of their belongings from their day trip to their apartment. He took a deep breath to decompress from all of the exercise he just did. For a moment, everything was peaceful. Suddenly, a teapot whistled and his toddler came out of the kitchen, bawling. His wife, carrying their six month old, chased after the screaming child. “Oh good, you’re finished! Change his diaper!” She handed the baby to him.

Jayesh groaned, “Sweetheart, can’t I rest a moment?”

“Do I get to rest? she snapped. “It’s hard enough to cook dinner with a child who won’t-!”

“Alright, alright!” he relented. His wife gave him the stink eye but quickly got back to what she was doing before.

As Jayesh reached for a diaper on the changing table shelf, he realized that the shelf was empty. He grumbled a little and grabbed the diaper bag. After he unzipped it, he saw a map from the amusement park they were just at. He did not want to remember that chaotic experience at the moment and threw it to the ground. As he reached for a diaper, he felt a newspaper. That was strange since he typically didn’t read a newspaper let alone pack one for a family outing! He unfurled it and began to read out of sheer curiosity. Something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye, and he dodged out of the way just in time to avoid getting sprayed by his son.

After he quickly changed his son’s diaper, he went to the third bedroom where his home office stood. He had several shelves of law books behind his desk, which had a computer and a few case files on it. He sat down and red the entire article, growing more agitated the more he read. When he finished, he set the paper down and looked up a phone number on the computer. He got on his office phone and waited for someone to pick up. When someone did pick up, he immediately jumped in, “Hi, this is attorney Jayesh Chakrabarti. We need to take immediate action against Mirage…”

“Noooo!” Lilith growled. Limping quite a bit, she hobbled over to Seth, who was asleep at his desk. She shook him, but he did not budge. She turned on the light, revealing his decadent space with ebony walls, tabriz carpet, oil paintings, a marble fountain, and yew desk. As he groggily sat up, she turned her laptop towards him. “They got the article out!”

Rubbing his eyes, Seth told her, “So? Just delete the article from whatever site they published it on. It’s not like the first time someone has tried that.”

“The article isn’t online,” she informed him, growing more and more angry by the minute. “Our tech caught an email conversation between a lawyer and a government official! They want to find Carmen and this reporter so they can testify against us! How do we stop them?”

Seth, finally awake, read everything on her screen and concluded, “Their article isn’t a nail in the coffin. They want to talk to get more details. Well, they can’t prove anything if they don’t have their witnesses! We’ll have to get to them first.”

Lilith thought for a moment. “If they didn’t publish their article online or on television, they must have distributed it on paper. So, this lawyer must have visited wherever they are hiding! I’ll have our tech look at his credit and debit purchase history.”

“While you do that, I’m gonna start packing!” Seth took his gun out and cocked it.

Meanwhile, Hank couldn’t sleep. He got out of bed and started pacing. He often got inklings that Carmen was in trouble, and he did his best to figure out where she was. He turned on his newly purchased police scanner and opened up his laptop. He searched crime news from various stations in Northern California. Orlando jumped onto the bed and rubbed his head on the police scanner. Keeping his eye on the screen, he spoke to the cat, “I haven’t seen any articles about spotting her. I lost track of her after she left Reno. I know she was in Reno ’cause a man named Teddy got attacked by a bear. That isn’t a coincidence! But where is she now?” Orlando began meowing, but Hank ignored him. “I just need some clue or sign where she might be!” He couldn’t ignore Orlando’s meows anymore and snapped, “What?”

When he turned to the cat, he noticed the police radio next to him. That’s when he heard an officer report, “That’s a negative. Truck was clear. Suspects are likely still in Sacramento.” Orlando was now silent but stared at him expectantly.

“How did you…? Oh, whatever!” Hank bolted out of bed and grabbed his jacket as he ran out the door.

Carmen opened her eyes, but she had not slept. She feigned sleep for the sake of normalcy, but she couldn’t relax. Something about this part of the journey made her incredibly nervous. She reasoned that perhaps it stemmed from the increase in police presence. She felt like a mouse getting chased by a cat; the moment she got caught, her life was over. “You could just get a lawyer,” Garith suggested.

Carmen jumped slightly. She thought she was alone in not being able to sleep. “Can you read my mind?”

Garith chuckled, “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what you’re thinking. You’re innocent. How can they convict you?”

“Because Mirage executives are professional liars!” Carmen told him. “Besides, do you think that they would get a conviction out of me and leave it at that? There’s nothing to prevent me from talking in prison. And I’m willing to bet they have connections on the inside. No, they didn’t involve the police to put me away. They used them to make it more difficult to get away from Mirage! They used them to trap me.” The thought hadn’t occurred to her until now, and it completely creeped her out.

“They also probably wanted to discredit her,” Zartex chimed in. At that moment, a notification sounded on his watch. He viewed it and frowned, “Uh, guys…”

“We know, it’s time for us to go,” Garith responded. He hopped out of their hiding spot and began to help Carmen down.

“Well, it’s time for you to go,” Zartex said sadly, “I’ll be going home in a few hours.”

“What?” Carmen and Garith replied in unison. Out of shock, Garith stood still, and Carmen was so stunned that she didn’t realize she was dangling off the pergola.

“No!” Garith lamented. “You gotta leave the planet today?”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Carmen asked ruefully. Her arms began to feel sore. “Uh, a little help?”

As Garith’s attention snapped to her, Zartex also climbed down and explained, “I requested an extension, and since my subject was in mortal peril, I really thought they would grant it. I got denied, so they’re going to beam me back today.”

“Wow, this really sucks,” Carmen said forlornly.

“We’ll miss you!” Garith remarked. “I can’t imagine going on without you!”

“Guys,” Zartex related to them, “I still have a little while. It’s not time to say goodbye yet!”

“I disagree!” Seth seethed. With the utmost horror, Zartex, Carmen, and Garith turned to see Seth, Lilith, Elden, Jorden, and Arius all smirking as one does when they catch their prey. Seth cocked his gun.

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Sabotage, Chapter 17

“I think this would be a good spot,” Zartex declared as they rowed down the river. It was still dark, but Zartex had been navigating with the map on his watch to pinpoint a good spot to land the canoe. They rowed towards the shore, but when they police lights, he revoked his previous opinion, “Never mind!”

“Duck!” Carmen instructed. Gartith, Zartex, and Carmen got low as the police searched the river. Zartex, with a little stealth, stuck his hand outside of the canoe and pushed it away from the land so they could get out of the police’s eye.

After they felt it was safe enough, they brought the canoe to the shore. Garith asked Zartex, “Are we still downtown?”

Zartex checked the map on his watch. “Yes. If we go down Sutterville and turn left on Land Park, we’ll be there…unless we run into more police!”

“I’m gonna be optimistic,” Carmen asserted. “We won’t run into anymore police for a while.” They heard sirens in the distance. “And I’m done with optimism!”

They ran down the road, but they heard the sirens coming from the street they were supposed to turn on. Instead, they ran straight, coming to a concrete wall. Zartex grabbed Carmen and said, “I’ll see you inside!”

“What?” Carmen responded. “We don’t know what’s in there!” She saw flashing lights coming closer. “Ah, who cares?”

Zartex tossed her over the wall. She landed on some gravel. Garith landed next to her, and Zartex teleported in front of them. They stood still as the flashing lights and sirens passed them. Afterwards, they gave a sigh of relief. “Well, whatever place this is, there’s no vicious dogs coming after us, so I think we’re okay!” Garith commented.

“I’m not so sure!” Carmen pointed to the black box on the wall behind them. “Whoever owns this place is practically watching us right now!”

“They might have caught a glimpse of you,” Zartex stated, “But as long as you stay with me, they can’t catch you on video tape.” The other two stared at him quizzically. “If I push a button on my watch, I can temporarily suspend the program, but the Universal Coalition put in a security measure to block me from appearing on film. Our identity is top secret, so we can’t risk anything leaking to the media.”

Carmen found this information suprising, but Garith seemed to be a little vexed. “So, you’re telling me all this time we could have stayed in vacant hotel rooms?”

“I thought you wanted to sleep outside!” Zartex defended himself, looking slightly guilty.

“We avoided hotels to avoid being seen on camera!” Garith admonished him.

“Shh!” Carmen put her hand on his mouth. “Hold onto your anger until we’re safe!”

She removed her hand, and Garith admitted, “I guess I deserved that.” He paused, mentally collected himself, and inquired, “Where are we?”

Carmen dared to step forward and felt something on the ground. She stooped down and grazed the object since she couldn’t totally see it in the dark. When she realized what it was, she was puzzled. “They’re train tracks! Small ones though. How strange!”

The three of them followed the track until they saw something glimmering in the moonlight next to the track. They took a closer look and saw twisted metal. Carmen’s mind couldn’t comprehend this place. They stood on tracks, but there were different tracks above them. She didn’t know what to think until Garith snapped his fingers. “It’s an amusement park!”

Carmen chuckled, “An amusement park in the middle of a city park? That’s so random!”

“Well, odds are no one would think to look for you here,” Zartex surmised. “And with no lights, this place can’t function ’til daylight. Shall we find a place to sleep here?” Carmen and Garith shrugged but agreed.

They followed the train tracks until they came to a couple of towers that supported a pergola, which rested above some wooden picnic benches. Garith noticed, “It looks like there’s a small platform between the towers. We can probably hide in there.”

Zartex lifted Garith and Carmen up, and then he climbed up after them. They had a good view of the amusement park from up there, but they couldn’t see much in the dark. They did see large shadows lurking where the rides must have been located. Carmen opinionated, “Amusement parks are kind of creepy at night!”

“So, people pay money to go on these machines?” Zartex said judgmentally.

As Garith got comfortable, he told Zartex, “You would probably love it! I’d buy you a ticket, but the last thing we need is for you to go on an emotional overload.”

Carmen situated herself next to Garith and Zartex so she could comfortably sleep. “Zartex, you love machines. You spent all night reading instructions on how to use the printing press, remember?”

Garith, who was half asleep, remarked, “I’m sure he was just killing time since he doesn’t need to sleep. He’s gotta do something to pass the time!”

“Actually,” Zartex informed them, “I do require daily sleep. I just haven’t been able to.” Garith and Carmen’s eyes flew open and looked greatly concerned. “It’s okay. It’ll be worth it in the end. Plus, I’m due for vacation time anyway.” He surveyed the area directly by them. “There aren’t any cameras pointing over here, and you guys won’t move much if you are sleeping. I will be back before you wake.”

Carmen bolted up. “You’re doing it tonight?”

“With the police so intent on finding you,” Zartex reasoned, “I think it’s now or never.”

Garith sat up and put his hand on Zartex’s shoulder. “You have no idea how much we appreciate this!”

“Yes I do!” Zartex pointed to his emotional reader. “I only have one question-why is it called the Sacramento Bee?” Carmen and Garith shrugged. “Oh well. Just don’t move until I get back!”

Zartex teleported out of the park, and Carmen laid still for a moment. The three of them had been inseparable for two weeks, so it felt strange for one of them to leave. They knew it would be temporary, but it felt oddly lonely with their buddy missing. They both laid down, but neither of them could fall asleep. Suddenly, Garith exclaimed, “Uh oh!” Carmen sat up, looking concerned. “How are we going to go to the bathroom?” Carmen wanted to roll her eyes, but she realized he had a point, so she pondered it for a moment.

Zartex appeared in Hank’s living room, which was totally dark. He wondered aloud, “How am I supposed to find a black cat in the dark?” Orlando jumped onto the coach and mewed. “Oh, hi!” He lifted the cat’s sweater, but before he could get the article, Orlando hopped down. “No, don’t do that!” He went a couple of steps to find him, but he didn’t realize that the cat went in front of his feet, so he tripped. Zartex managed to catch himself by holding on to the couch, but he knocked over a lamp in the process. The lamp did not shatter, but it scared Orlando, causing him to howl and scurry upstairs. “Oh great!” Zartex muttered. At that moment,  the lights flickered on. Automatically, Zartex put his hands in the air and spouted, “I’m not Mirage!”

“I know,” Hank replied. Clearly, Zartex had woken him up because he was still in his pajamas and had a woozy stance. He did not give off an angry vibe but instead looked a little concerned. “Those s.o.b.’s would be a lot more sneaky and quiet if they broke into my house. Plus, I got your message that a tall stranger would come by to get the article, though I didn’t expect you until tomorrow.”

“We had to speed things up,” Zartex explained. “So, you’re probably wondering how I’ve been able to teleport all this time. The thing is-”

Hank interrupted him, “You’re an alien.”

Zartex’s jaw dropped. “How did you know?”

“Well, no one on Earth can teleport objects or beings,” Hank rationalized. “My wife has access to the best technology on the planet and has yet to find anything remotely like this. Plus, there was Universal Coalition emblem stamped on the bottom of the papers. I put two and two together.” He paused for a moment, and then he commanded, “Orlando, come!”

He sat down on the stairs, and the cat hopped onto his lap. As he retrieved the rolled up papers, Zartex observed, “Your personality is so much like Carmen’s!”

Hank’s head jolted up,and his eyes glistened a little. “How is my daughter?”

Zartex mulled over the best way to answer that question. “She is safe and sound, all things considered. Once we get the article out, it won’t take long for her to come home.”

Hank got the last paper out and handed it to Zartex. “Watch over her, please!”

“That’s literally my job!” After Zartex said that, he saw tears well up in Hank’s eyes. “She’s in good hands.” He put a sympathetic hand on his shoulders, and then he teleported out. Hank listlessly turned off the lights and slowly trotted upstairs.

When she heard a scream, Carmen jolted awake. For a moment, she had forgotten where she was, and she didn’t even remember falling asleep. She glanced over and saw the scream had come from a child on a roller coaster, and her heart rate began to slow back down. Garith, apparently, had also worried that the scream came from a place of danger and now looked relieved. “Where’s Zartex?” Garith wondered.

“I wish I knew,” Carmen told him. “We will have to get down though or eventually someone will see us up here.” Garith and Carmen used the pergola and a small, concrete wall to carefully climb down. Thankfully, no one had noticed them. They half hid in the picnic bench area, surveying their surroundings. Just ahead of them, a very bored teenage boy blew a bubble with his gum as he watched his ride spin fast. A mother desperately tried to convince her toddler to climb down from a giant, ceramic airplane. One of the teenage girls that worked there casually answered a text message as her ride began to gather a group of impatient children. A woman hurried off the carousel ride carrying a small child, who was throwing a tantrum. A worker grumpily swept up a puddle of popcorn as a kid inadvertently kept spilling his food as he walked. “This is great!” Carmen commented. “Everyone here is too distracted to notice or care what we’re up to!”

“I agree!’ Zartex, who carried a hefty satchel of newspapers on his back, sauntered up them looking tired but satisfied.

“There you are!” Garith said happily. Carmen, too, felt a surge of relief. They didn’t totally believe that he was in any kind of peril, but it was good to verify any inkling of doubt. “Where have you been?”

“I had to walk back here,” Zartex informed them. “Unfortunately, these papers don’t teleport even if I’m wearing them. I should have foreseen this complication. But, in any case, I got it done before they opened up for the day and made it back here without incident…unless you count my interaction with a vagrant man. He asked if I had a quarter, and I asked ‘a quarter of what?’ Then we were both confused. Anyway, to distribute these, we’ll need to find a very public place where people are too busy to care what we’re doing but plentiful enough to have a few people actually take this home and read it. Can you guys think of anywhere like that?”

After he said that, a small child asked loudly, “Mommy! Where’s the bathroom?” She looked down at her dress and said, “Never mind!” A bunch of little kids screamed and ran away from her. The workers all pretended like they didn’t see it happen until the manager came over to see what happened and demanded an explanation. Carmen remarked, “I don’t think we’ll have to look far!”

Sabotage, Chapter 12

“What did they do to you?” Seth peered at the scruffy recovery agent, who had googly eyes and, even though he sat in a chair, he swayed to music that no one could hear.

Lilith observed, “Here’s trying to speak!”

Seth, Lilith, Arius, and Elden all leaned in and listened carefully. The recovery agent indeed whispered something unintelligible. The more they listened, the more pins and needles of anticipation grew. Suddenly, he bolted up and sang, “Zephyr in the sky, at night I wonder/do my tears of morning sink beneath sun?”

The other four all deflated. Seth kicked a small table and exclaimed, “Damn it! They broke him!”

She did,” Lilith corrected him. “We taught her how too. Now she’s using it against us!”

Seth concluded, “It’s not safe for us to keep sending out recovery agents after her. They’re good for the entry level who escape. Their minds are weak, and they can get silenced easily. There’ll be no point in trying to get to get to her mind, she’s proven she’s too strong for that…”

“And obviously she’s proven she can outsmart the recovery agents too,” Elden added bitterly.

“Like a ray of light, she’s flying!” the recovery agent crooned enthusiastically.

Lilith sat him down and commented, “Too bad she had a change of heart; she could have been a great asset to Mirage!”

Seth responded, “That’s exactly why she’s so dangerous now! We only have one option-”

Arius stepped in and finished, “We’ll need to go after her ourselves! Since she’s in my region, I volunteer to get her! It’s my region, I have to protect it!”

Seth nodded in approval. Elden looked to his notes and informed him, “The Recovery Agent found her heading towards Provo. The rail heads to Salt Lake City, so, more than likely, she’s heading there.”

“More than likely!” Lilith reacted sourly. “How is it that we can’t get any video of her? They must pass by cameras sometimes!”

Seth and Elden shrugged at each other. Arius disregarded this, “It doesn’t matter! I’ll find her! I’ll go to Salt Lake City and turn every corner!” Everyone but the recovery agent laughed.

As Carmen, Garith, and Zartex walked down a bustling street in downtown Salt Lake City, Garith argued, “Oh come on! We could’ve gotten those tickets for free! It’s not like we have gotten a lot of chances to have fun!”

“Fun?” Carmen questioned. “How is Nightmare on Thirteenth fun? Haven’t we had enough scary people popping out of the corner brandishing weapons?”

“It’s almost Halloween!” Garith pleaded. “Let’s go back and find that guy before someone else grabs those tickets!”

“You really wanna make it easy for them to corner us?” Carmen said wryly.

“Why would they look for us there?” Garith retorted

Zartex opinionated, “I’ve yet to learn why humans enjoy getting scared. How does fear release endorphin?”

“See, we need to go there and find out the answer to his question!” Garith implored.

Carmen shook her head and smiled. She decided to change the subject, “Do you know anyone in San Francisco that’s hiring? You know, in case we make it back…”

“We will make it back!” Garith asserted. “I have no idea what’s happening in San Francisco right now. How can I? I had to ditch my cell phone in Colorado. It has been strange for me, as a reporter, to be so uninformed about what’s happening in the world.”

Zartex pointed out, “Except your involvement in a story that will get broadcast from coast to coast!”

“Thank Captain Obvious,” Garith responded. “I didn’t realize how glued I was to my cell phone until now. I used it all the time for work and communicate with people.”

Carmen inquired, “Is there someone waiting for you back home?”

“Oh no!” Garith replied. “I communicated with my family and friends via text. I hardly had time for them let alone a personal life. I spent so much time in the field interviewing people, but I spent more time doing research in the office. That’s how I ended up with my ex wife. And that’s also why we divorced. Well, one of the reasons.”

“What was the other reason?” Carmen felt compelled to learn more about him. After all this time they spent together, she didn’t know much about him. They had devoted their energy to surviving the journey and writing the article, and now she felt a twinge a guilt for not getting to know him.

Garith blushed a little. “I normally don’t talk about this in front of a lady.”

Whatever response Carmen was expecting, it wasn’t that. “Well…tell Zartex then!”

“Okay, Zartex!” Garith recalled, “She didn’t like having sex. Like, we hardly ever did it, and when we did, she would just lie there like a cold fish. When I love someone, I like to really get into it, like really make her moan and squirm, you know?”

“Do I?” Zartex looked to Carmen, who nodded. “Okay, yes, I know what you mean.”

“I wanted to please her,” Garith explained. “But, get this, she didn’t even like to orgasm!”

“What?” Carmen reacted vehemently. “If Teddy ever gave me a real one, maybe I wouldn’t have ran out on him!”

Garith had no idea she would be so comfortable about the subject, but since now he knew that she was, he abandoned all pretense. “A real one? You mean, you faked it?”

“It’s like we both did,” Carmen divulged. “We were both so convinced we were in love that we believed our lovemaking was passionate and pleasurable. I realize now that I brainwashed myself to loving him as much as I tricked myself into liking that job. I moaned deeply because I thought I was supposed to feel orgasmic. Teddy did too. But really, I felt nothing. I mean, how could I? We were lying perfectly still!” At this point, Garith burst into mirthful laughter. “It’s not funny!”

“Are you kidding me?” Garith howled. “You were both lying still like statues but still shouted in passion? Teddy must’ve looked like a beached whale!” Garith stood perfectly still and let out a huge moan.

“Stop that!” Carmen playfully hit him. Now that she heard, and saw, it out loud, she did realize how comical her relationship was. Everything about it was fake, just like Mirage. They made everything look flashy and prestigious, but it was just theatre. She got so lost in the act that she never realized that she was just playing a role. She had adopted a whole other identity! “We should probably stop talking about sex so loud. Isn’t this the Mormon capitol?”

Garith pointed to a sign in front of them. “There’s a bar! Look around, do these people look like religious fundamentalists? Plus, it’s not like Mormons don’t have sex. How do you think they make so many kids?”

Carmen laughed, “You have a point. Not that all Mormons have a particular ‘look,’ but these people staggering out of the bar definitely don’t look like Mormons!” She had referred to a group of young people dressed up to clubbing.

“That guy definitely isn’t.” Garith pointed to a rabbi that passed by them. The three of them laughed.

Zartex joined in, “Well, we know that guy isn’t Mormon! Not enough morals!” Zartex pointed to the distance and laughed.

Garith and Carmen stopped dead in their tracks. The man he pointed to was Arius! Garith and Carmen hid behind a building around the corner, and Zartex followed. “What is he doing here?” Carmen groaned. She was not mentally prepared to see him again. She was starting to move on with her life, and seeing a person from her past was like seeing a ghost. She figured she would run into nameless henchmen, but she didn’t think she would have to confront him or any of the Mirage executives unless they were in court. At that point, more time would have passed and they would have the barrier of police and legal teams to prevent them from hurting anyone. Now there would be very litte to stop him, especially since Mirage had the police convinced Carmen was a murderer.

Zartex remarked, “They know you can outfox their recovery agents, so they didn’t have a choice but to send their best and brightest.”

Carmen began to panic, so Garith snapped his fingers. “Don’t you give up on me now! Don’t let your fears cloud your mind! Now think…you’ve known him for several years, and you know these executives better than anyone. You know his strengths and his weaknesses, so tell me, what do we do?”

Carmen’s mind raced. Arius always reminded her of a wolf, and when he’s on the hunt, he chased his prey until the bitter end. He rarely made mistakes. Zartex suggested, “That bar is playing music, maybe we can do another song.”

Garith liked that suggested, and the two guys started to head out, but Carmen physically stopped them. Zartex’s suggestion triggered a memory for her. “A bar…he’s a booze hound! That’s how we’ll get him! Zartex, is there any music that won’t give you an emotional overload?”

“Country,” Zartex replied firmly.

“Let’s find a country bar!” Garith directed.

Arius walked down the streets with a determined look on his face. He scanned every person’s face and even read between the lines. His instincts told him she was close by. Suddenly, from across the street, he heard a small crash. He saw Carmen recovering from tripping. When she saw him, she suddenly grew a deer-in-the-headlights look and bolted into a nearby bar. Arius darted after her.

His heart pumped knowing that he was getting close to catching her. When he entered the bar, there was no sign of her. A couple of people in Western wear sat at the bar. The jukebox played a country song that reminded him of home, which made him feel at ease. At the opposite side of the bar stood a beer pong table. After he noticed that, a very tall man came up to him and jovially invited, “You up for a game? I’m losing terribly. You any good?”

“Are you kidding? I’m the best!” Arius boasted. “But I can’t right now. I’m looking for someone important.”

“You mean that girl?” Zartex said as casually as he could. “She got chased out by police.”

“Really?” Arius seemed pleased. “She’s not a very fast runner, so they probably got her. So, yes, I do have some time to play!”

Zartex and Arius played against a couple of strangers, and Arius had not lied aobut his prodigious skills at this game. He helped Zartex win easily. As the evening went on, the bar got different patrons, and since his adrenaline was up, he challenged more people each time they finished a game. After a few hours, Arius had less control of his body and slurred speech. He craned his head to the front door to welcome a new challenger. He saw Carmen, which prompted him to remember his mission. “Youuuu! Y’er supposed to be in ja-il!” Arius uttered.

Carmen ducked away, and Arius clumsily went after her. At that moment, Garith shouted, “Bartender! That man’s trying to run out on his bill!”

Arius stopped and swiveled around. “What bill?”

The bartender informed him, “You said you would cover the tabe from all these beer pong games!”

Arius got a confused expression on his face. “Wha….? No, I gotta go!” Arius ran out and ignored the anger from the people in the bar.

He went out on the street, but everything felt blurred. “Wherrre did you go?” He meandered down the road, glancing at everyone. People could tell he was drunk and felt uneasy by his appearance. He asked multiple people if they were Carmen, but they shook him off.

He came to a statue and saw her from across a plaza. He stumbled, and the next thing he knew, he was being awakened by a police officer poking him with a baton. “Wake up, buddy!”

Totally disoriented, he woke up to see himself on top of the statue buck naked. “It wasn’t me!” he slurred. “It wasss the wanted killller, Carmen!”

“Sure, you lush!” The police clearly didn’t believe him. “You’re wanted on multiple charges: larceny, drunk and disorderly conduct, public nudity…” Arius protested more, trying to get the police to look for Carmen. They ignored him and put him in their squad car.

Just outside of town, Zartex, Carmen, and Garith hiked along a railroad. Carmed buzzed, “Oh, I wish I could see the look on his face as he got arrested!”

Garith wondered, “We are safe from him for a few days. But, do you think he’ll go after us again once he’s released?”

“No,” Zartex stated. “They’ll try again with someone else to solve their problem faster. You know what’s ironic though? He got arrested for stealing, but technically, I’m the only thief here!” Garith and Carmen stared at him in disbelief. “I technically ran up that bar tab. I also stole that food from the dumpster. Oh, and I stole that boat at the lake on your wedding day!”

“That was you?” Carmen was shocked, but she felt a rush of gratitude for him. If Zartex hadn’t done that, she may not have been able to escape. Garith also played a huge role that day too. If weren’t for the two of them, who knows what would have happened to her? She may have escaped one day, she was certainly capable of it. But she realized that no one could do everything alone all the time. She now had powerful allies. She didn’t know if she would be successful, but, thanks to Garith and Zartex, she at least had a chance. She compulsively gave them both a hug. They were surprised by this gesture, but they accepted it and hugged back.

Sabotage, Chapter 11

With a dour face, Hank typed an email on his laptop. He had to pause, take a sip of his hot apple cider, and sigh. Right after that moment, a heavy knock sounded at the door. He set down his computer and prepared to face an ongoing nuisance. He seriously doubted that they came to deliver bad news. sure, it was a possibility, but he had a strong hunch that if Carmen got hurt in any way, they would not have the decency to tell him first. He saw the way they kept trying to discredit her in the media, so they would only revel in her destruction. He knew why they were here, and he was willing to put up with it to help bring justice to Carmen.

He answered the door and came to face a young but short woman with dark blonde hair tied back tightly. She had remarkably plain features except for her dark blues, which had a glare that could scare anyone into attention. Hank couldn’t guess her role in Mirage based on her appearance. Her clothes looked as though they could be expensive, however, she did not fit into them very snuggly as the tightness exposed her muffin top. Regardless of her position, he knew she represented those vile snakes from that evil so-called company, so he took pleasure in telling her, “Sorry, no soliciting!”

He relished in the brief emotion she showed at that insult, but as he tried to slam the front door, she stopped it with her foot and sharply informed him, “Actually, Mister Alvaro, I’m Jorden Kasper, head of the Northern California division of Mirage.”

Hank figured that her titled must usually command respect and obedience, but it did not work on him. After all, he dealt with wealthy and glamorous clients all the time. He saw a flicker of annoyance on her face as her ploy didn’t work. Instead of cowering at her presence, he kept cool. Knowing full well why she was there, he decided to tell her, “If you’re interested in real estate development, you’ll have to come back during business hours.”

Once again, she tried to hide her vexed mood. Jorden motioned behind her, and two police officers approached the front porch. “These guys have a warrant. We believe that you have illegal information that I’m here to recover on behalf of our company.”

Hank, in mock politeness, gestured for them to enter. “The passcode for the safe is five one two two.” Jorden came in, scowling fiercely at his impertinence. “Yes?” Hank grinned.

She leered, “You’re hiding confidential information only privy to our people. You have no right to possess it! We’re far more clever than you think! We’ll find what you’re hiding!”

“By all means, Pintamonas, feel free to look for yourself!” Hank invited.

Jorden took him up on his offer. She searched every end of the living room while one officer searched upstairs and the other searched the kitchen and backyard. Jorden checked each nook and cranny-the entertainment center, the couch cushions, even the rug. When she checked under the couch, she gasped. The cat hissed and ran out of the room. Hank chuckled, and she shook her head and maintained a nonchalant attitude. She pat him down, which prompted him to joke, “Hey, Cabrona, I’m a married man!”

She gave him an evil eye and kept searching. She saw a bowl next to the front door where Hank stored a pile of mail. “Of course!” she deduced. “While we were so busy sifting through your electronic communications to find hidden messages, she slipped under the radar and conveyed her status the old fashioned way!”

“Don’t look through that,” Hank said pleasantly. “It’ll  totally waste your time!”

“Ohhhh, you don’t want me to look here!” Jorden practically cackled. She scanned each letter and examined each detail scrupulously. Hank sat down on a chair that faced the front door, kicking back and not bothering to disguise his amusement at her fury. She turned back to see the cat sitting next to him on the arm of his chair wearing a pumpkin sweater. He pet the cat’s unadorned fur and grinned toothily at her. She gritted her teeth and kept foraging for suspicious letters. finally, something caught her eye. “Since when are you friends with Hermione Granger?”

“Don’t read that.” He pretended to be worried. “You won’t be happy.”

Jorden smiled maliciously as she opened the envelope and took a look at the letter. She read out loud, “Nine, apostrophe, thirteen, space, fifteen, fourteen, space, twenty, eight, five space, eight, nine, seven, eight, twenty-three, one, twenty-five, space, twenty fifteen, space, eight, five, twelve, twelve, period. The bottom of the page says seven, fifteen, space, six, twenty-one, three, eleven, space, twenty-five, fifteen, twenty-one, eighteen, nineteen, five, twelve, six. This is an easy encryption to decipher. She thinks she’s so clever! The numbers clearly correspond to their position in the alphabet.” She took a pen off the table and began to translate. “Nine would be I, and thirteen is M. Yup, that’s what she did. The first word is I’m. Let’s see…I’m…on…the…highway…to…” She eagerly anticipated the answer, fully believing it would reveal important information. “I’m on the highway to…hell? Very funny! I bet the bottom of the page is more serious.” She translated the bottom and stood up in anger. “Go fuck yourself!?!”

Hank roared in laughter. “I told you not to look at that! Didn’t I say it would waste your time?”

“Why you-!” She stepped towards him as if she was going to attack him.

Just then, the police officers returned from the kitchen and upstairs. The cat ran into the kitchen, almost tripping the cop. The other officer reported, “We searched every inch of the house. It’s clear.”

Jorden didn’t like hearing this. she ogled Hank, who simply smiled and shrugged. She reluctantly relented, “We’ll come back again another day. He’s hiding something, I know it!” Giving him an angry face, Jorden stormed out. The police indifferently followed.

The cat returned to the living, staring up at Hank, who praised him, “Good boy, Orlando! They have no respect for your prowess, so they underestimated your worth.” He peeked under the sweater and saw the three pieces of Zartex’s papers rolled up into a fine tube. He put the sweater back into place. “Good boy!” He pat Orlando on the head, and the cat seemed pleased.

As Carmen, Garith, and Zartex gingerly scaled down a sandy, pebble-filled hill, Garith discussed, “Okay, let’s go over it one more time. THE VOBS were the company’s sale system?”

“Yes,” Carmen concurred. “But after we got promoted and began to build our teams, they said it would help us with managing a company too. It wasn’t a sale system-they called it the system.”

“Right. So the T stood for turn every corner,” Garith recited. “In sales, it referred to thoroughly working your territory.”

“And in management, it referred to recruiting people from high and low,” Carmen explained. “Sales are a numbers game, but so is recruitment, especially for a job people generally aren’t willing to do.”

Zartex added, “On a corporate level, they turn every corner to find people who escape, as we’ve seen.”

“That’s true!” Garith agreed. “H stood for haste. The quicker you move, the quicker you reach your goals. People forget about a deal if you don’t nab it quickly. And managers will lose recruits to other jobs if they don’t act fast. And corporate wants to grow quickly, of course. If they can get ahead enough, one failure won’t mean that much of a loss. That’s why they were so fast to kill off one of their managers. Find the problems quick. Like escapees, find them fast!”

“E is for envy,” Carmen continued. “They turn sales people into the cool kids on campus so everyone will get jealous of their life. It gets recruits excited for a chance to share the spotlight. They dress sharply and make it look like we did all these fun things to create that insatiable desire to be trendy and fabulous. That’s how they motivated people to stay.”

Zartex stated, “That goes along with V for voracity. They play on people’s greed to get sales and to trick people into thinking they want to get promoted. They got so focused on making lots of money and doing flashy things that their voracity clouded their judgment, which allowed them to heinous things like murder.”

Carmen bitterly commented, “O is optimism. They claim it was to attract positive things by thinking positive. They didn’t want us to think any negative thoughts. So, any negative impulse we had about the job we had to ignore or destroy. They brainwashed us into thinking we were happy. It made us compliant to their whims.”

“B, big picture, did the same sort of thing,” Garith appended. “They talked about delayed gratification, paying now so you can play later. Forget about how miserable you are now, focus on the goals we made for you stemming from greed and envy! It made you forget your identity.”

Zartex finished with, “S is for seize control. That’s the obvious end goal.”

At the bottom of the hill, they came to an expansive lake with a clear view of the mountains on the opposite side. Carmen breathed, “It’s beautiful!”

“Didn’t I tell you that Utah Lake would be a great place to camp out?” Garith remarked.

“I won’t say you were right,” Carmen bickered.

“You don’t have to,” Garith gloated, “not wehen it’s obvious.”

“Who are you bragging to?” Carmen retorted. “There’s no one here that cares.”

“I’m sorry, I won’t be cheerful then,” Garith said sarcastically.

“I don’t have a problem with your cheerfulness!” Carmen argued. “In the last week, I had to deal with failing in sales and running out a doomed marriage. I have to walk to California with company that I didn’t have a choice on! I gotta live like a homeless person to survive while trying to avoid getting killed by hit men! I’m usually hungry and always tired! I’ve had so much go wrong that I don’t need a smug jerk pointing out another reason why I suck at life! So, I’m sorry if I’m a little cranky, but if you know this, why are you purposely making it worse?”

Carmen was clearly fuming, which immediately made Garith uncomfortable. “I’m gonna…I gotta go to the bathroom. There’s no bathroom here, but you know what I mean. I’ll find a tree to hide behind far enough away so that I don’t disturb you…again!” He ran off.

Zartex observed, “You sure scare him when you’re angry!”

Carmen didn’t respond. She sat down and faced the lake. As she gazed at the lake, she felt a little more peaceful. She shifted a little to make herself more comfortable, which made her remember that she had to sleep there. The prospect made her a little more disappointed. She thought about their discussion on THE VOBS and how they had used that on her to trick her into joining their cult. “Why didn’t I see it sooner?”

“See what?” Zartex asked.

“The red flags!” Carmen answered dramatically. “They exaggerated the earning potential, but I ignored this because of the big picture. For once in my life, I felt like a somebody! I thought I closed the chapter on petty, dead end jobs. No one gave me a shot at leadership because I’m an actress and I’m pretty; no one took me seriously! II never cared about management though, I just wanted to make enough money to pay rent so I didn’t have to be an adult dependent on family to survive. I don’t care about making a ton of money, and I’ve never cared about materialistic things. I wanted a circle of friends and a sense of being part of an important team. I wanted to belong somewhere! And I just wanted to prove myself to the world. When I make a goal, I see through it ’til the end. I’m fine closing that chapter of my life, but I just wish I knew what was coming next! So far, this has been a miserable experience, but when it’s over, what’s next? Will it, just be more of my old life of floating from place to place never truly finding my sense of independence or belonging? They say everyone goes through hard times, but my whole life has been this way! Why can’t I just be happy? This job made me give up on my dream, and I gave up on this job too. I’m just an all around failure, aren’t I?” As she said this, tears welled up in her eyes. Suddenly, all of her hurt seemed to surface. All of the hard times that THE VOBS made her bury came out. The sacrifices she made, the heartbreak, the defeat…she didn’t feel it then, but she felt it now!

Carmen buried her head into her knees and sobbed uncontrollably. Zartex noted, “I don’t need to use my emotional reader to know how you feel!” Carmen heard him but did not acknowledge his assessment. She couldn’t. Zartex observed, “I spent my whole career analyzing humans and their emotions, but not once did I learn how to deal with them. I understand you’ve been through more hardship than most people have ever or ever will deal with. This is overwhelming and caused an out pour of emotion. I know all of this, but I don’t know how to make it better. I’ve never had to know. It’s not a requirement of the job to make our subjects feel better, just understand them. I do understand you, but you’re different than my other clients because I actually want to make you feel better! You’re the first subject I’ve ever cared about! I never had an Earthling as a friend. The problem is my species doesn’t process emotions the same way yours does. So, I don’t know how to help you. But I want to, I really do!” Carmen continued to sob, so he made an awkward attempt at comfort by stiffly patting her back and spouting, “There, there!”

She continued to cry as Garith came back. “Oh good! You can show me what to do!” Zartex requested. “You are human and experience these emotions. Help!”

Garith ineptly sat next to her and gracelessly pat her back much like the way Zartex did. He bumbled, “There, there!”

Carmen wailed, “Forget it guys! I’m hopeless!”

Zartex looked to Garith, who quickly analyzed the situation. “What was she saying before it happened?”

“Um…” Zartex thought back. “She wanted to be successful in Mirage because she didn’t succeed in acting or getting a job that pays rent. She gave up on her dreams and she gave up on Mirage too, so now she wonders if the next part of her life will ever make her feel like less of a failure.”

“Okay, I got this!” Garith put his arm around her and rested his hand on her shoulder. “There’s a big difference between giving up and realizing that you’ve had enough. Like, it’s why I stopped getting houseplants. I got busy at work and went straight to bed when I got home. I forgot about it until Fourth of July. I stayed home ’cause it was a holiday, and as I tidied up, I saw it turning yellow. I felt guilty and vowed to bring it back to life. I kept giving it plant food and watered it like crazy, but it just grew more and more brown. One day, I realized that there’s no point in watering something that will never live. when something in your life is over, it’s better to let go ’cause holding onto the past will break your back. Your life will get better as long as you do something different. Doing the same habits will get you the same results. I can’t guarantee success, but at least you can take pride in the fact that you gave a shot. No matter how often you fall, get back up again! Keep trying different things until you succeed. If you don’t give up, at least you can say you did everything you could. If you try, you might fail, however, if you never try at all, failure is guaranteed. You’re not a failure from walking away from an unhappy situation. I’m proud of you for overcoming all you went through and for having the courage to move on!”

Carmen pondered his words for a moment. Mirage always made anyone who gave up on their goals feel lower than dirt, but sometimes important to let yourself fail so you can move on. It’s true that a person can’t focus on new ideas if they stick to the old ones. She still feared perpetual failure, but she knew she wouldn’t stop trying and took some pride on that. This didn’t make her feel optimistic, but she realized that she had stopped crying. Zartex inquired, “How are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling…”Carmen listened to her innermost feelings and heart before she finished her thought. “I’m feeling like I gotta pee!” She had so much mixed emotions that she couldn’t even process it all right now, and she said that without even thinking about it. She had decided that she didn’t have to understand it all tonight. She gingerly got up and headed for the trees. Garith and Zartex high fived, and Garith sprawled out to go to sleep.

Sabotage, Chapter 10

“I can’t believe we’re doing this!” Carmen grumbled. She stood with her arms folded in front of a chain link fence that guarded a dumpster.

Garith, who had had his arms folded for entirely different reasons, assured her, “I told you, restaurants throw away perfectly good food at the end of the day. I worked in a kitchen in college, and it always killed me to waste so much food. But, for health code reasons, they can’t use old food the next day, so they don’t have a choice. It’s not like it’s rotting. We’ll be fine!”

“I understand that,” Carmen responded. “Although I don’t consider anything coming from the dumpster exactly sanitary, I’m more worried about breaking and entering.”

“Oh, well, I guess technically it would be,” Garith professed. Then, he joked, “Hey, we’re already criminals in their eyes, right?”

Zartex popped up from inside the dumpster. “Actually, I’m the only thief here!” He held up a couple of pizza boxes. “These look pretty untouched!”

As Zartex climbed out of the dumpster bin, Carmen still looked a little unsure. Garith pointed out, “The more we save on food, the less we have to walk!”

Zartex hopped over the fence and handed them the pizza boxes. Garith opened up one of the boxes and Carmen saw that it was a thin crust, cheese pizza. It was hard to tell in the dark, but aside from it being cold, it looked okay. She relented and picked up a slice. “Bon apetit!” She took a bite and half expected it to taste like dirt, but it tasted alright. Actually, it tasted really good! “I can’t believe I’m kind of enjoying this! This has to be the strangest part of our journey!”

Garith practically choked on his food. “This? THIS? Out of all the crazy shit that’s happened, this bothers you the most?”

Before Carmen could reply, they heard footsteps come from across the parking lot. They quickly hid what they were doing and cautiously waited for the perpetrator of  the noise. A voice called out, “What are you doing?”

“Nothing!” Carmen answered with a mouth full of food. She cringed and hoped the person didn’t notice.

The figure stepped under the street light, and it turned out to be a teenage boy in a dark blue football jersey. Carmen, Zartex, and Garith felt relieved since he seemed to be non-threatening. The boy gazed at them in confusion. “Come on! The bus is leaving in a couple of minutes!”

“Bus?” Garith said in surprise.

The boy pointed to across the parking lot. In the distance, they saw a group of people wearing similar jerseys waiting by a bus with a giant yellow cat on it. The boy challenged, “You are cougar fans, right?”

“Cougars are okay, but I wouldn’t call myself a fan,” Garith told him. “I prefer women my own age.”

Carmen hit him gently on the back of the head. “Do you think they have shuttles to go pick up women? Don’t worry, kid, we’re coming.” The kid ran back to the bus, and the other two ogled her quizzically. “They’re heading to the college, which is in the same city we were heading to anyways. We won’t have to walk there. Plus, what are the odds of one of their assassins attending a primarily Mormon school?” They shrugged, grabbed their things, and headed to the bus.

They got on the bus and saw that it was mostly full. Zartex sat next to a young man in the middle. Garith sat next to an older man who sent a quick text and passed out with a very audible snore. Behind both of them, Carmen sat next to a tiny old lady, who greeted her with, “Hello, young lady!”

“Hi,” Carmen replied. She felt so out of place there and hoped no one would discover their secret. She dreaded the idea of getting humiliated and kicked off the bus. Or even worse, if they detained them while they really had nowhere to run. She bean to have second thoughts on this idea.

The old lady pleasantly conversed, “You must be new here. I’m Bette.” She pointed to her name tag.

Bette held out her hand to shake it. As Carmen shook her hand, she had to think of an alibi fast. “Bette, Bette…I’m…Joan.”

“Joan! How funny!” Bette giggled. “I guess we’re supposed to be rivals like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.”

“I don’t need any more enemies,” Carmen stated truthfully.

Bette laughed, “Is that why you’ve done so much walking?”

Carmen got a jolt of surprise upon hearing this. “How did you know?”

Bette sagely told her, “At my age, I’ve seen it all. We’ve all fallen on hard times. Don’t feel too ashamed. In fact, a lot of the original settlers of Utah came here by foot.”

“I didn’t know that.” Carmen was surprised that this conversation had become mildly interesting. She noted how strange it felt to have someone genuinely be nice to her.

“Oh yes!” Bette went on. “It’s not like it’s easy to get transportation when you’re escaping persecution!”

“Tell me about it.” Carmen hid her grin.

Later on that night, most of the bus was asleep as the driver navigated through the mountain top. The kid sitting next to Zartex gazed at the stars above the treetops. He asked Zartex, “Aren’t they beautiful?”

Zartex looked out the window and replied listlessly, “Reminds me too much of work. The days are getting closer and closer where I gotta go back. I like where I’m at now. My office is so boring!”

“Wow, do you work for NASA?” the boy asked full of wonder.

Zartex, who hadn’t thought of an alias before, clumsily agreed, “Okay, yeah, sure.”

“That’s awesome!” the boy complimented. “I’m studying astronomy myself. I like NASA, but I really wanna prove the existence of aliens.”

That last line got Carmen and Garith’s attention. Zartex, however, did not appear alarmed by it at all. “So, you know a lot about aliens, huh?”

“Oh yes!” the boy gushed. “I know everything there is to know about them! Ask me anything!”

“Okay!” Zartex obviously felt tickled pink about this situation. “Would you recognize if an alien was in your presence?”

“Of course!” the boy replied enthusiastically. “No alien could get past me!”

Carmen and Garith tried to hide their laughter. Zartex could hardly keep a straight face as he told him, “Nah, I think aliens are more clever then you think. Why, one could be right in front of you and you’d never know it!”

The boy argued, “No way! I see where you’re heading with this, and I already know there’s one around us now.” Carmen, Garith, and Zartex sobered up a little after that assertion. “Someone’s been watching us. I noticed a flash on the mountain earlier. This whole bus trip has eyes on us.” Garith and Carmen gave each other a a look that said without words that he may have sensed Mirage watching them. “Something is about to happen. That’s why I’m keeping myself awake.”

Garith and Carmen leaned in the aisle to get close enough to talk. Carmen whispered, “We need to get off this bus!”

Garith said quietly, “We could tell the driver, but I seriously doubt that he would stop on the top of a mountain. Besides, what could they do to us on a bus full of witnesses?”

As if on cue, a loud boom sounded ahead, and the shock waves woke up everyone on the bus. The bus driver slammed on the brakes, lurching everyone forward. The bus stopped, but the driver’s face showed sheer fright. He informed the bus, “The road ahead of us is destroyed, and the ground beneath us is very soft. I’m going to reverse slowly, but while I do, for everyone’s safety, don’t move.” As he reversed, the grave tension on the bus was palpable. Suddenly, the ground behind his rear tires crumbled. The driver quickly moved forward, but now they were stuck on an island!

The bus arched upwards, and everyone held onto the back of their seats, dangling like autumn leaves at the onset of winter. The boy that studied aliens shouted, “See, I told you something would happen!”

“Hey kid,” Garith retorted, “now’s not the time!” He turned to Carmen. “What do we do?”

Carmen tried to think fast. People’s belongings began to slide to the back. Someone’s toddler fell, and Zartex stopped it from sliding to the back. A cell phone slid by Carmen, and as she grabbed it. Her eyes flitted from the phone to Zartex wrangling the baby and back to the phone, which made something click for her. The bus began to slowly slide into the hole, making everyone panic. Carmen held herself up with one hand and held the phone with the other. She held it up to her mouth and commanded, “Okay Google…Play Magic Bus by the Who.”

“You’re joking!” Garith shrieked.

As the music caught Zartex’s ear, they felt the world shift. Carmen grinned broadly as her plan unfolded. They shifted to a new world where the bus became a giant hippie vehicle, and everyone wore outfits from the seventies. The bus driver happily drove through a pink and gold cloud. Zartex played a guitar and sang as the passengers partied behind him:

Zartex:     Everyday I get in the queue
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     To get on the bus that takes me to you.
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     I’m so nervous, I just sit and smile.
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     Your house is only another mile.
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!

Zartex:     Thank you driver, for getting me here.
(Zartex began to sing to the driver)
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     You’ll be an inspector, have no fear.
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     I don’t want to cause no fuss,
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     but can I buy your magic bus?
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Driver:     Nooooo!

Zartex:     I don’t care how much I have to pay!
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Garith & Carmen:     I wanna drive my bus to my baby every day.
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!

Zartex:     I want it, I want it, I want it, I want it!
Driver:     You can’t have it!

(Zartex turned to the party and sang to them)
Zartex:     Thruppence and sixpence every day
just to drive to my baby.
Thruppence and sixpence each day
‘Cause I drive my baby every way!

(After Zartex put down the guitar, he picked up the driver
and tossed him in the air, causing him to float away.
Everyone else sang as they did this.)
Party Guests:    Magic bus, magic bus, magic bus!
Magic bus, magic bus, magic bus!
Magic bus, magic bus, magic bus!
Magic bus, magic bus, magic bus!

(Zartex sang as he drove)
Zartex:     I said now I’ve got my magic bus!
Party Guests:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     I said now I’ve got my magic bus!
Party Guests:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     I drive my baby every way!
Party Guests:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     Each time I go a different way!
Party Guests:     Too much, magic bus!

(The driver floats back down and begins to
wrestle with Zartex to get his seat back.)
Zartex:     I want it, I want it, I want it, I want it!
I want it, I want it, I want it, I want it!

(The driver gets his seat back, so Zartex
picked up his guitar and sang to the party again.)
Zartex:     Every day, you’ll see the dust!
Party Guests:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     As I drive my baby in my magic bus!
Party Guests:     Too much, magic bus!

As the song fades, the bus arrived at the end of the mountain, and it stopped to let Carmen, Garith, and Zartex out. The rest of the guests keep partying until the world shifted back to reality. Zartex, Carmen, and Garith found themselves on an actual road just outside the forest. The mountain stood behind them, which let Carmen know that her plan had succeeded. The cougar bus chugged away as the passengers pondered how they got out of that but shrugged as to why they didn’t perish. Everyone did but Bette, who stuck her head out the window and gave them a peace sign. They gave one back, which snapped Bette back to reality. She wondered why she did that, shrugged, and returned to her seat.

Garith was the first to speak, “Thank you for not teleporting out to save yourself!”

“I just had a feeling,” Zartex said warmly.

“A lot of them, thank god!” Carmen commented. “If you didn’t have that ability, we would have died!”

Garith complimented Carmen, “Don’t sell yourself short! If you hadn’t thought of it, we would’ve been goners! Good thinking there!”

Carmen felt taken about aback. With all of the bickering they did, she got caught off guard when he said something nice. No hint of sarcasm, he actually looked grateful for her! Before she could respond, a convertible pulled up next to them, and it was a scruffy man in a nice suit who pointed a gun at them. They put up their hands, but they didn’t seem worried. Perhaps it was because their spirits were still high from the emotional overload, or maybe it was due to the fact they had successfully evaded danger several times now, but they actually felt calm faced with this new adversary. Carmen addressed him, “Who told?”

“Let’s just say a little bird told me,” the recovery agent leered.

Zartex concluded, “It was probably that old man sitting next to him. He texted as soon as he saw us.

“We had a rat!” Carmen exclaimed.

“That’s right!” the recovery agent reveled.

“No, there were no rodents on the bus,” Zartex remarked. “There was a cat on the side of the vehicle though.” Carmen and Garith grinned at the assassin’s confused look.

The recovery agent shook his head. He then cocked his gun, ready to fire. “Any last requests?”

Garith noticed some music was softly playing on the radio. “Yeah, can you turn it up?”

He gave them a curious look but complied. Zartex, Carmen, and Garith knowingly smiled at each other and braced themselves for another emotional overload.

 

 

 

Sabotage, Chapter 9

Seth hovered over Elden’s shoulder as he scrolled through the Dropbox system on a company computer. Elden concluded, “It is no use, sir. Colt erased all of the company’s records on Carmen’s background!”

Seth raged, “Damn you, Colt!” Arius, who stood in the doorway with his arms folded, shook his head in disappointment.

Lilith silkily walked across the dark computer lab and nudged Elden out of his seat with her hip. “Amateurs! Scoot over!”

As she took his spot, she quickly typed in a web address. Seth scoffed, “You won’t find anything in Dropbox. That prick erased everything!”

Lilith leered, “Good thing I’m not looking in Dropbox!”

Seth, with his curiousity peaked, glanced over her shoulder. “Facebook?”

Without losing her concentration, Lilith explained, “People put their whole life on social media. Let’s see, she has a mother stationed in Afghanistan, so she wouldn’t be going there. Her father lives in Santa Cruz, California, which is where she listed as her hometown. Two of her featured photos have her father in it. She’s going to Santa Cruz.”

Seth appeared impressed but did not outwardly admit it. “She was spotted at an Amtrak station. She could have gone to Denver and flew to California. She may also be on the train. We need to figure out which route she went.”

Elden volunteered, “I’ll send recovery agents to Santa Cruz to scope out her father.”

“Thank you!” Seth turned to Arius. “Can you have men check out train stations that could get visited on the way to California?”

“You got it!” Arius winked and left the room.

Elden dialed a number on his cell phone. “Jorden Kasper? This is Elden Gundulf, head of security for Mirage.” He paused while the lady on the other line spoke. “Yes, you are right. This is about Carmen’s disappearance. She has secrets tthat cannot get revealed, and we have reason to believe that she may be heading to, or may already be at, Santa Cruz, California. Please send recovery agents to investigate.” The lady on the other end agreed and sounded like she had a lot of angry opinions on the subject.

Lilith cackled, “That’s right, you little bitch, you can run but you can’t hide!” Seth grinned maliciously.

On a construction site, Hank gave directions to some contractors. From the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of light. “What the hell?” He scanned the area but could not see a thing. He shook his head and continued his work.

Later that day, Hank played pool in a small bar with one of his buddies. They had a pint of beer and had a good chat as they played pool. His friend said jovially, “I don’t have a team! The Raiders lost my loyalty by moving to Vegas. They betrayed their fans who grew up watching them in Oakland.”

As he put chalk on the end of his cue stick, Hank argued, “They were in LA before they were in Oakland. If you’re a real fan, you’ll support them no matter where-” He stopped mid-sentence as he saw the same flash of light again. He abandoned his conversation and visually searched the side of the bar that the flash came from. He saw a young, stocky man in a suit staring at him in a cocky way. He knew it must have been him, but he could not prove it. He continued playing pool but had considerably less fun since he felt eyes constantly on him.

The next day, he was unloading groceries from his SUV when he saw a dark figure out of the corner of his eye. He gave an exasperated sigh and shouted, “She isn’t here!”

He turned around. At first, no one seemed to be there. Eventually, once he realized his cover was blown, the same man he saw in the bar emerged. Totally devoid of emotion, the man told Hank, “If you’ve truly done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to worry about.” Hank rolled his eyes and angrily shut his trunk. As he stormed into the house, the man across the street snickered.

Carmen, Zartex, and Garith sat on some rocks that rested next to a small, Old West building remake. In the distance, they could hear an actor portraying an old miner while giving a tour of the historic district. Zartex handed Garith his clipboard and clicked his pen open for him. Garith turned to Carmen and instructed, “Okay, let’s start from the beginning.”

“The beginning…” Carmen felt a flurry of mixed emotions. Before she started working for Mirage, she went through a lot of stress. Now that a little time had passed, she started to feel the emotions that she had buried. That line of work required a lot of focus on numbers and not feelings, and now she realized they went too far with that idea. She had to internally search for when her time with Mirage truly began, which was painful. If she had to go back in time, she wished she never came across them. Perhaps she could be leading a normal life right now! That thought gave her a proper starting point though. “Well, I guess it began before I even knew Mirage existed. I graduated college right after the stock market crashed, so it was hard to find steady work. Instead of going back to Santa Cruz, I stayed in Las Vegas to find work in my field. It was the entertainment capital of the world, so where better to find a theatre job, right? The best I could do was retail, and since the recession hit the city’s economy hard, lots of stores closed down. I gave up after a few years and tried my luck in Florida. I got a job at a community center teaching theatre. Things were okay for a while, but then the hurricane destroyed my aunt’s house. My aunt and uncle didn’t want me to live in the shelter with them because rebuilding their house would take a while. I couldn’t live on my own out there, not with the lousy hours I got at work. I had no choice, I had to go back to Santa Cruz. I was tired of moving around and changing jobs, so I vowed to find something I could stick with. That’s when I saw this ad on Craigslist…”

“You weren’t at all skeptical of a job advertising on Craigslist?” Garith questioned.

“That’s not fair!” Carmen defended herself. “You have the foresight and know how the story ends. I found jobs and roommates on that site before, so I had no reason to doubt it. I saw a place saying that they were looking to train a high amount of managers and didn’t require a lot of experience. Everything they promised seemed so appetizing to me.”

“They offered food to bribe you to work?” Zartex asked.

Garith answered him, “She didn’t mean a literal hunger.” He paused because he had just thought of something. “How come you never eat?”

“I only need to eat once a month,” he replied. “I ate enough to survive while I’m here.”

Garith seemed skeptical of this information but shrugged and went back to his notes. “So, they advertised management and promotions. What else?”

Carmen had to practically rewind her brain to remember the ad. “Training from a peer mentor. They said there was the ability to make a six figure income. Coworkers offered a family-like environment…”

Garith surmised, “In a weak economy, they took advantage of the people who were victims of all the financial setbacks. I can see why a lot of people may be attracted to that. It’s not often people with no experience can make a lot of money.”

That sparked a connection in Carmen’s mind. “Voracity. They applied THE VOBS to recruit! That’s the key to this all! It’s what they’re trying to prevent me from leaking!”

Garith and Zartex stared at her in confusion, but before Carmen could explain, they heard the sound of spurs clinking onto the desert floor. Garith whispered, “Part of the tourist attraction?”

“A miner is giving the tour, and they’re heading in the opposite direction,” Carmen said quietly.

They heard the footsteps getting closer. Zartex quickly transported the paper in Garith’s hand through a program on his phone. Garith stood up and blocked him to protect the view of what he was doing. Zartex made the paper disappear just in time because before they knew it, an unfriendly-looking man stood before them in a black cowboy outfit. He leered, “What are y’all doing away from the tour group? Hmm? It’s like you don’t wanna be seen…”

Zartex sprung up at that moment. “We were doing drugs! You know, illegal stuff…” Carmen and Garith nodded vigorously in agreement.

The man seemed suspicious of this response. “You mind if I take a look?”

“Sure, we have the drugs right…” Carmen bent down to the ground. “…here!” She threw a fistful of sand in his eyes. The three of them ran away, which incidentally took them towards the tourists. The man, now visible to the crowd, fired a gun at them. The crowd gasped and awed as if they were watching a play. Garith shouted, “Not part of the show, people!”

They pushed past the crowd, and the man chased them. They came across a fake gold mine with a cart on a real track. Garith and Zartex hid around the corner while Carmen hid closer to the cave. When the man came into their vicinity, Zartex quickly stretched out his leg, tripping the man. Garith pushed him into the cart, and Carmen pushed the cart, sending him flying into the makeshift cave. As they ran away, they heard a crash come from the cave. They knew this bought them some time, so they ran away to get a head start.

When they came back to the fake Old West town, the tourists clapped politely. “Good show!” one woman cheered.

A man complained, “That was an unsatisfying chase scene! You hardly ran far, and it was over way too quick. You could’ve done more to make it more exciting!”

Garith seethed, “Sorry that our desire to live got in the way of your entertainment!”

As they continued to retreat, a young boy asked, “Why is she wearing a tutu? They didn’t have that in the Old West!” The three ignored the tourists as they continued to escape.

They retreated to a Catholic cathedral and shut the door behind them. They breathed heavily but felt relieved to get a break. A couple of old nuns gazed at them curiously. The three of them waved hello as cheerily as they could portray themselves to be. The nuns raised an eyebrow but decided not to ask questions. As they got back to their busywork, Garith asked Carmen, “Who was that?”

“Probably a recovery agent,” Carmen replied breathily. “They get called when someone goes missing in each region.”

Garith probed, “Seriously, that didn’t raise any red flags for you?”

Carmen hissed “I thought they were helping! I got duped, okay? I get it. Can stop rubbing it in? Don’t you think I’ve feel bad enough?”

Zartex butt in, “It’s scary how the things about Mirage that you thought were designed to help you were actually hurting you!”

Carmen couldn’t help but agree, but she didn’t say it outwardly. She went to a pew and braced herself. She felt so much rage burning inside her. She couldn’t believe that she allowed herself to get fooled. She hated that they used her for their own ill gain. She loathed the fact they made her homeless and an outlaw. She had to walk across two states in a ridiculous outfit with people that got on her nerves. Nothing about this journey would be easy, and she had a hard time believing that their struggles would lessen anytime soon. The fact that made her the most angry was that while she had escaped, there were thousands of people still out there still going through all of that. They were all brainwashed into thinking their misery meant something and that they had no choice but to go forward with the cult’s program. People signed up for this not knowing what they were getting into. That really incensed her and motivated her to proceed with the article. She turned to Zartex and asked seriously, “Did you send it to him?”

“Yes,” Zartex answered. “Are you sure that he can hide it from them?”

“Yes!” Carmen asserted with absolute certainty. “They will go after him, but he’s clever enough to keep it hidden. He will have tons of questions later though!”

“I should hope so!” Garith remarked. “A paper appears out of nowhere with bits of random information, any rational person would have questions! Speaking of questions, if your paper isn’t carbon based, what is it made of?”

Zartex laughed, “Material from a plant on my planet, both of which you’ve never heard of!”

All of a sudden, they heard a gun cock behind them. Fear flooded their bodies as they turned to see the recover agent, thoroughly roughed up and holding a gun. They didn’t see a way out of this situation and started to panic as if they were done for. At that moment, the two nuns appeared behind him, and one of them hit him on the head with a candelabra! He dropped his gun out of surprise but could not recover it as the two old nuns beat him with candelabras. They scolded him, “How dare you soil our sacred grounds! This is the Lord’s house! You don’t sin in our holy place! Especially against those who seek sanctuary!” They continued to beat him as they chased him out the door. Zartex, Carmen, and Garith watched in both impressed and humorous views.

Zartex was the first to break their silence, “So, now what?” Carmen and Garith simply shurgged.

Sabotage, Chapter 5

“I can’t breathe!” Carmen croaked. She always knew this day was coming, but it felt like a fantasy this whole time. Carmen had a comfortable rut for the last three years that she realized that she never really liked but had become accustomed to this lifestyle. Even on bad days or weeks, she could foresee the consequences of her actions. On the flip side, once the wedding finished, she knew her path. After her honeymoon, she would move in with Teddy and work on becoming manager. Today was a different story though. Today felt as though it would never come. Yesterday, she was in the field as normal. She didn’t felt any pressure during the week to make sales because she couldn’t earn any interviews while she was out of town. That level of indifference should’ve garnered her some promising sales, but it didn’t. When she got back, she would have to work really hard to get sales so that she wouldn’t have to scrimp so much. That was a normal thought on a normal day for her, but today was far from normal. The change she spent so much time working toward was upon her, and she wasn’t ready!

She gazed at her stricken expression in the full length, antique mirror. She had a v-neck bodice with a lacy flower pattern that went down to her waist with a tiered tulle skirt that flowed down to the floor. Normally, stilettos hurt her feet, but she couldn’t feel anything right now. She had her make up professionally done, and they had added heavy eye shadow and lots of blush, a level of cosmetics she had not dealt with since her theatre days. She didn’t have her hair in an up-do but only because the veil,which her maid of honor would bring soon,had such an intricate template. She reminded herself of a Barbie doll that she had in the nineties! The gown itself was worth more than she made from a whole month of sales. Every detail down to the most minute facet wreaked of luxury. This was the moment every woman dreamed of, and so now she wondered why she didn’t feel more excited.

The gossamer curtains of her preparation tent ruffled. The area was now empty except for the mirror and various things left behind from her bridesmaids. From one of the flaps at the entrance, Lilith entered. She commanded the attention of any room she went into. Her ivory skin was so smooth that people often forgot that she was in her forties. She had chestnut colored hair with a natural bounce, and her piercing brown eyes could terrify even the meanest person around. She wore a lavender chiffon gown with an empire bodice and a sweetheart sweep train, which made her look like a fierce princess. She could hardly believe that the vice president of Mirage agreed to be her maid of honor! Then again, Lilith was the one that set them up in the first place. She brought in Carmen’s elaborate rose bouquet and ornate flowery veil. Lilith leered, “Uh oh! Someone is getting cold feet!”

“This is different!” Carmen wailed. “I’ve gotten butterflies in my stomach before, plenty of times! Before running my first meeting, before my first play I was in…this is bigger! I’m scared! I’m petrified! I…I can’t breathe!”

Lilith straightened Carmen up and started to put on her veil. “It’s just nerves! You and Teddy are perfect for each other! That’s why I set you two up. I’ll never forget the day he first laid eyes on you. While I was in the western Colorado main office, he happened to see a picture of you on my phone. I just got off the phone with you after a one-on-one, which, by the way, I normally never do for anybody who isn’t a manager, so Teddy saw your picture ID. Teddy said he never saw anyone so beautiful! Just wait ’til he sees you today!” She heard music starting to play. “That’s my cue. I’m so proud to be your maid of honor! See you soon!” She winked and left the tent.

Carmen knew that she needed to walk to the other pier, but she was having a hard time moving. Zartex pulled up the back of the tent and checked in, “Oh good! I thought you were dying! Your emotional reading is off the charts!”

“I can’t do this!” Carmen shrieked.

Zartex slipped into the tent and encouraged her by saying, “You’re scared, but you get scared a lot. In the past week, I’ve seen you constantly brave your fears and knock on all of those doors. Do you know how many people fear all of that? Talking to people, going to strange houses, failure…Yet, you always persevere! I’m quite convinced you can overcome anything! Are you telling me that you don’t have the nerve to participate in this ritual?”

“Yes!” Carmen cried out. “I got good at ignoring my feelings for work, but I can’t ignore this Even on the days I got a serious injury I didn’t have anxiety like this! I feel like I’m walking into my own funeral!”

Zartex pointed out, “Well, you have to do something! You can’t stay in this tent forever!”

“You’re right!” Carmen bitterly admitted. “As we said in theatre, the show must go on!” She took a deep breath, opened the tent flaps, and marched outside.

As she stood on the old pier, a cold wind hit her face. She heard the attendees gasp in admiration as she stepped out. She jerked her head over to the other pier, and everyone looked like ants. She would have to walk fast to catch up. The sound of her heels hitting the pier seemed so loud. Everyone of note from Mirage and all of the Grand Junction office were there. She could see Seth Dabria, the president of Mirage, take a picture with a digital camera. It was hard to tell one person from another from a distance, but she knew it was him because he always wore the loudest suits. Today was no exception; he wore a purple plaid suit with a periwinkle tie! He always wore his Buddy Holly glasses, and the only ordinary thing about him was his brown, curly hair. The president and the vice president were there to honor her, so she should feel grateful, right?

Teddy stood at the alter waiting for her. As she quickened her step, she thought about how often people congratulated Teddy for finding a bride like her. They were happy for Teddy more than her. She never really thought about it before, but they never really made a big deal about her milestones. Why, in exactly two weeks she would be turning thirty, and no one had mentioned it yet, just like all her other birthdays. Her big days were never a big deal. In fact, she reasoned that Seth, Lilith, and the other executives were way closer to Teddy than her, so most of this ceremony was celebrating Teddy. They were all here because Teddy wanted to marry her, just like they wanted her to be a manager for them. Suddenly, she realized this whole thing was never about her! The field, the promotion, the wedding, they weren’t about her goals or needs. Sure, some of it fit her long term goals, and they knew that! They sold her on the idea to help them, not her! So no, they weren’t there to honor her, and they won’t make a big deal on her milestone birthday either. And they never would! This was the first day of the rest of her life!

Instinct overtook her body. The truth radiated through her body, and she stopped dead her tracks. The wedding party stared at her in bewilderment. She knew what she had to do. She turned around swiftly and ran in the other direction. She could hear chairs scraping and people rushing over. She couldn’t let them catch her. She didn’t know why, exactly, she needed to avoid them, all she knew was her intuition told her to run! Run! And never look back! Before they could get any closer, she jumped off the pier and into the lake!

Carmen sank down but bobbed back up a little. She then swam over to under the dock. She got her head above the water and took a deep breath. She heard almost the whole wedding party calling her name, so she knew eventually they would peek under the dock. Serendipitously, a motor boat jetted in her direction. She quickly pulled off her veil with one hand, and as the motor boat passed by, she threw the veil on it. She heard Arius shout, “She’s on the boat!” Everyone ran off the pier, and Carmen hid behind one of the support poles. She watched them all run along the lake shore, and once they were far enough away, she swam to shore.

Carmen could feel her heart pounding rapidly, and all of the nerves in her body were stirred. She ran for the nearby woods. Soon they would discover that she was never on that motorboat and would come looking for her. She had no time to ponder why her instincts told her to escape them, but she trusted her intuition. She ran, and she kept running as fast as she could. She ran and ran, dodging every bush and gnarled branch in her path. Suddenly, part of her skirt got caught onto some shrubbery. Panic flooded her body as she heard footsteps in the distance. She ripped off the bottom layer of her dress! When she freed herself, she heard footsteps coming from multiple directions. She spun around frantically, trying to figure it out. All of a sudden, Zartex appeared before her and commanded, “Stay hidden!” He threw her up into a tree.

After recovering from the momentary shock of getting flung into the air, she clung onto a large branch well above the ground. She laid on her stomach and watched the scene below her. Zartex must’ve teleported out of there. She didn’t move and even tried to slow down her breathing, although they worried that they could hear her heart pounding inside her ears. From one end, she saw Seth, Lilith, and a few executives searching across the forest floor. In the next moment, Seth held out his arms to stop the others as they glared at someone approaching from the other direction. Seth forcibly pried, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

Carmen caught a glimpse of the man from the back. He wore a brown suit, so Carmen’s curiosity was roused; what would someone like that be doing in the middle of the woods? She couldn’t tell if he was young or old, but she guessed that he must be somewhere close to his age since his dirty blond hair had no gray. From the sound of his voice, he projected strength and knowledge. The mysterious man pushed back, “I was gonna ask you the same thing! What business do you have here?”

Lilith seethed, “We’re looking for a fugitive!”

Most men would cower when Lilith gave them a stare down like that, but this man had the bravado walking up to her and staring at her dead in the eye! “Oh, you’re federal agents? I don’t like your type! Just ask your friend in that clearing!”

“A friend in the clearing?” Seth inquired skeptically.

“Yeah, let me help you get reacquainted.” The man reached into his back pocket as if he was pulling out a gun. Seth, Lilith, and the others unwillingly backed away.

Carmen didn’t move. She didn’t want to get mixed up with gangsters at a time like this, but somehow she didn’t think he was dangerous. There was something about his aura that made her trust him. He stood in the same place with a fixed stare in the direction where the Mirage executives came from. After what seemed like an eternity, the man gently instructed, “You can get down now, Carmen.”

Carmen’s heart fluttered at the mention of her name. She wondered how he could possibly know who she is! She hesitated as she silently debated if coming down would throw her from one danger to another, but since he already knew she was there, she didn’t have much of a choice. She couldn’t just stay in the tree! Besides, her nerves had calmed down, so she took that as a cue to follow him. She gingerly climbed down and saw him holding his arms out to catch her. She wanted to get a little closer so her fall didn’t have too much of an impact on the mysterious man, especially if he could turn into her ally! At that moment, a branch snapped, and she lost her footing. She fell threw a few more branches and…smack!

She landed on top of the man on her back causing the man to fall onto his back with a huge grunt. Carmen anguished, “I’m so sorry! Are you hurt?”

He breathed, “Get off! You’re too heavy!”

“Excuse me?” Carmen replied, slightly offended.

Zartex appeared and grabbed her by the hand. “I think he’s having trouble breathing ’cause you’re on his throat.”

Carmen took Zartex’s hand, and the man got up, gasping. Carmen apologized, “Are you okay? I hope I didn’t hurt you too badly!”

“It’s okay; I’m real strong!” the man responded breathily.

Carmen finally got to take a glimpse at his face. He had kind, blue eyes and facial features that conveyed a mix of fortitude and softness. He did seem to be in good shape as he claimed. It took her a while to realize that she had been staring at him too much, so she looked away shyly. She couldn’t believe that, for a moment, she forgot about what danger she was in or that she had a lot of hurt from the past that made her miserable. She remarked, “Thank you for helping me! You seem to know who I am, so can I know who you are?”

“Garith Kendric,” he told her.

“The reporter from San Francisco?” Carmen got surprised by discovering this, but then it occurred to her that she recognized him from all of his social media friend requests. “What are you doing here?”

“Well,” Garith explained hastily, “I came to spy on a big corporate wedding, but now I’m here to rescue you!” Now that he had recovered from the fall, his senses were reawakened. He finally registered that Zartex was there and made a strange face. “Who is this?”

“Zartex the alien!” Zartex held out his hand.

“What?” Garith didn’t believe him, but he didn’t have time to object. He absentmindedly shook his hand and notified Carmen, “Whatever. Look, they’ll be back soon, and we gotta get you out of here! You’re in terrible danger!”

Zartex grabbed Carmen’s hand and ran in the direction he came from. Zartex followed them as Garith led Carmen through the woods. Carmen felt compelled to ask, “I know I’m in danger, but could you explain to me exactly why I suddenly felt like I was at death’s door?”

Determinedly focused ahead, Garith told her, “Because you’re escaping from the world’s most dangerous cult!”