Sabotage, Chapter 20

She never thought she would ever see him again. That was always the goal, but until now, it didn’t feel real. She bellowed, “Papi!”

Hank, still in in his pajamas and robe, clearly had been stressed for a long time, but when he saw his daughter, his tension melted. He grinned broadly as he ran to her. “Carmen!” As soon as she got close enough, he scooped her up and hugged her tight. “Mija, thank god!”

Carmen, overwhelmed with emotion, hugged him tight and started to cry. All of the fear she felt vanished from inside her and came flooding out. when she was a little girl, her dad was a source of strength and comfort whenever she had a nightmare or got hurt, physically or emotionally. At thirty years old, she found that nothing had changed. Now that it was over and he was here, she had a chance to really process all of her emotions. She didn’t realize how scared she was before, but she felt safe now. “I’m so sorry! I’m sorry!”

“Sorry for what?” Hank asked, slightly surprised.

“I’m sorry for leaving you!” she wailed. “I’m sorry for making you worry about me! I’m sorry that-!”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Hank interrupted her. “None of that matters. All that matters is that you’re safe!”

In the midst of their hugging, Carmen heard a familiar female’s voice call out, “Carmen!”

Her heart fluttered. It just couldn’t be! Carmen lifted her head to see a blonde woman in her fifties who closely resembled her own facial features and wore army fatigues. “Mom?”

Greta smiled and ran to her. She got on her knees and grasped Carmen tight. “As soon as I found out you were in danger, they sent me back. Oh baby, you had me so worried!” Greta sobbed uncontrollably as she clutched onto her daughter.

After a moment, she glanced over to Zartex and Garith. Zartex bawled unabashedly, and even Garith seemed a little overwhelmed with emotion. As a couple of reporters greeted Garith, Greta and Hank reunited with each other. Carmen told them, “I gotta say goodbye to them.” Her parents were too busy hugging and kissing each other to say anything, but they nodded to acknowledge that they heard her.

When she approached Zartex, she wanted to ask how long he had left, but before she could, he informed her, “It’s almost time.”

Carmen felt a surge of sadness sweep over her. “I don’t know how to thank you for everything!”

“I know how you feel,” Zartex replied. “Literally, I have been watching your emotions this whole time!”

Carmen softly snickered and turned Garith. She was sure he would want to say goodbye to Zartex too. He chatted with his reporter colleagues, so she waited a moment. She didn’t want to appear as though she were eavesdropping, so she watched the crime scene investigators clean up the scene and listened to the rock music the park had turned on. She couldn’t help but hear what Garith had been saying, “Thanks again, Marge! Oh, did you guys hire my production assistant?”

As Marge revealed that she hadn’t, Carmen’s heart stopped. She felt hurt and utterly betrayed. Abandoning all pretense, she grabbed Garith’s shoulder, spun him around, and barked, “You lied to me!”

Completely confused, Garith responded, “What?”

“Remember in Utah, I asked you if you knew anyone that was hiring in the Bay Area?” Carmen vented. “You said you didn’t! That wasn’t true, obviously! You must’ve known that, with my theatre degree, that I could qualify to be a production assistant! You didn’t even consider me for the job! You must not think much of me! And to think I was starting to feel-!” She cut herself off right there. He didn’t deserve to hear anything positive about himself right now.

Garith, with a hopeful gleam in his eyes, stepped up to her. “Yes?”

“Nevermind!” She snarled. “I hope that article was worth it!”

Fuming, Carmen turned her back to him. She saw Garith struggle with a decision, but she didn’t care. As she walked away, something stopped her dead in her tracks. It was Garith, who cried out, “It’s because I love you, okay?”

Garith sighed and confessed, “Things at the studio grew tense as my marriage went sour, and after a bitter divorce, they made a rule about inter-office romances. I know you would be perfect for the job, but…well…The more time I spend with you, the more these feelings grow. I could pretend that there was nothing there, but every day I would see you, and they’d come right back. I would remember what an amazing woman you are, and I couldn’t resist your smile, your curves, your eyes…oh, those eyes!”

Carmen often wondered why certain people couldn’t accept a compliment, but now she got it. Garith was the kindest, bravest, and most handsome man she had ever met. She didn’t feel worthy to inspire these kinds of feelings in him. “But…I…I’m just…I don’t have much to offer. I’m a penniless, jobless thirty year old who still lives with her parents! How could I…How could you…?”

Garith stepped close to her again, putting his hands around her hips. “Hey, you’re enough! Okay, so you got some baggage. I can carry it! I’m real strong, remember?”

Remembering the day they met, Carmen laughed. Garith gazed intensely at her, and her heart fluttered. She couldn’t believe this was real! She didn’t want to admit to herself before, but those feelings that she couldn’t figure out before were romance. Her nerves were all lit up, and she relished in the fact that she would now get to experience the exciting type of love that she so ardently craved. Garith leaned in for a kiss, and her heart beat wildly….!

Suddenly, Garith and Carmen found themselves kissing Zartex’s cheeks! “Sorry guys! I really hate to interrupt, but it’s almost time for me to go, so could I…? One more time? Please!”

Carmen laughed, “Go ahead!”

“Yes!” Zartex exclaimed as the song Nothin’ But a Good Time by Poison played. They soon felt their world morph to a nineteen-eighties concert venue…

(Zartex, totally decked out like an eighties rocker,
sang into a microphone. Garith played the
guitar, Carmen played the tamborine,
Hank played the drums, and Greta
played the bass guitar. Garith and Carmen
stood together to sing back up. All of them
dressed like eighties rock stars.)
Zartex:     Now listen,
Not a dime, I can’t pay my rent,
I can barely make it through the week!
Saturday night, I’d like to treat my girl,
but right now, I can’t make ends meet.

I’m always working, slaving every day!
Gotta get away from the same old, same old!
I need a chance to get away!
If you could hear me think, this is what I’d say:

Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
How can I resist?
Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time,
and it don’t get better than this!

(Everyone abandoned  their instruments
and took turns singing into the camera.)
Garith:     They say I spend my money on women
and wine,
Carmen:     But I couldn’t tell you where I
spent last night!
Garith & Carmen:     I’m really sorry for the
shape I’m in,
I Just like my fun every now and then!

Hank:     I’m always working, slaving every day!
Greta:     Gotta get away from the same old, same old!
Hank & Greta:     I need a chance to get away!
If you could hear me think, this is what I’d say:

Garith:     Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
Carmen:      How can I resist?
Greta:     Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time!
Hank:     And it don’t get better than this!

(Zartex, now raised on a platform high above
the rest of the stage, sang as the other
four watched below).
Zartex:     You see, I raise a toast to all of us,
who are breaking our backs every day!
If wanting a good life is such a crime,
Lord, then put me away!
Here’s to ya!

(During the musical break, the other four
dance. During the guitar solo, Garith
grabbed Carmen’s waist, dipped her,
and kissed her passionately. The others
silently said rock on.)

(Greta and Hank dance together as does
Carmen and and Garith. Zartex sang.)
Zartex:     Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
How can I resist?
Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time!
And it don’t get better than this!

(Zartex’s stage leveled down to theirs and
he partied with them.)
Zartex:     Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
How can I resist?
Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time!
and it don’t get better than this!

(The audience, which consisted of the police and
the park workers, all sang with the five on
stage for the last verse.)
Everyone:     Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!
How can I resist?
Ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time!
And it don’t get better than this!

(As the song faded, the crowd cheered. Confetti
rained down on the stage. Greta, Hank,
Garith, Carmen, and Zartex took a bow.)

The world morphed back into the amusement park crime scene, but Zartex didn’t come back. A thick, azure blue light hovered over Garith and Carmen, who waved goodbye fervently with one arm while their other arm was around each other. Before the light disappeared completely, Hank saluted it with two fingers. Garith and Carmen watched it disappear. Though they were sad to see him go, they were proud of Zartex and really appreciated his role in their journey.

Detective Dinsung shook his head, pulling himself out of a reverie he didn’t remember having. He went over to where Zartex had stood, searching around the area in confusion. “Where did your friend go? We still have questions for him!”

“You wouldn’t believe it if we told you!” Garith replied truthfully.

“Is he coming back?” Detective Dinsung asked.

Hank answered, “He wishes!”

Totally confused, Detective Dinsung shook his head and moved onto another part of the investigation. Carmen grabbed Garith’s other hip, and they both snickered delightfully. Hank pushed himself between them, faced Garith, cleared his throat, and said brusquely, “Excuse me, who are you? I’m the daddy!”

“Papi” Carmen groaned. “I’m thirty years old!”

“What’s your point?” Hank surveyed Garith with high skepticism.

“Mister Alvaro, I’m Garith Kendric.” Garith offered him a firm handshake.

As Garith introduced himself, Carmen stood by his side. Greta joined Hank’s side and surveyed Garith in a very different way than her husband did. She met Carmen’s gaze and silently mouthed, “He’s cute!”

Carmen silently giggled as Hank and Garith got to know each other. After all the wondering about what laid on the other side of her journey, it laid out before her now. She may not have instantly found a job or ran into her own place, but she had something she hadn’t thought of-lots of love and support. In all of Mirage’s secrets to success, they hadn’t counted on how magical having these kind of people in one’s life could be. Money and status would come and go, but friends and family were a constant value that should never get discarded again! In a way, she felt sorry for the higher ups of this cult because they would never know this kind of happiness. They never had a chance because they were always chasing the next big thing. They focused so much on the future that they forgot about the now. The present was important too, and some moments and opportunities will leave if they aren’t captured immediately. She decided to stop worrying about the future and enjoy the bits of joy that would come her way in the present. The biggest lesson she learned was that she had no way of knowing any good or bad in her future, but if something good was here and now, she must savor it!

The End

Epilogue: On a clear television set, a judge asked, “How do you plea?”

The camera panned to Jorden, who stated, “I plea guilty.”

The camera panned to Arius, who stated, “Guilty.”

The camera panned to Elden, who stated, “Guilty.”

The camera panned to Lilith, who stated, “Your Honor, I plea guilty.”

The camera panned to Seth, who very begrudgingly stated, “Guilty.”

On the other side of the court room, Carmen, who now looked relieved, sat by her lawyer, Jayesh Chakrabarti. Garith, who sat in the audience behind her, put his hand on her shoulder. She put her hand on his hand, which showed a simple but very elegant engagement ring!

Munching on some popcorn and lounging on a white couch in a room with mostly white furniture, Zartex, back in alien face, commented delightedly, “Yes Oh, I love Earthlings-my favorite aliens!”

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Sabotage, Chapter 19

Carmen’s mind stood still in a dream-like trance. None of this felt real. Seth wasn’t supposed to be here! She wasn’t supposed to be facing a gun! People always said that before a person dies, their life flashes before their eyes. That didn’t happen to her. It was more like the effect one has at the end of an epic film-everything came together like a puzzle that was now complete. She couldn’t believe that this was it. She had a hard time accepting that her life didn’t mean more than this; she had goals, dreams, she wanted to make a difference in the world! She searched for a solution, a way out, but she drew a blank. This really felt like the end.

A simple question drew them back into reality. Zartex asked, “How did you get in here?”

Seth answered, “The door in the back was unlocked.”

“There was a door?” Zartex cried out incredulously. “We sure did it the hard way!”

Jorden used Seth befuddlement over that interaction to her advantage. She took out a gun and gently pushed it to Carmen, who quickly scooped it up. Arius reacted vehemently, “What are you doing?”

“Traitor!” Elden declared.

“She saved my life,” Jorden pouted. “I can’t do it! She has a fighting chance now. My conscious is clear.” She folded her arms, clearly upset that she couldn’t stomach her duties to Mirage.

Carmen pointed the gun at Seth, who turned his attention away from Jorden and finally realized what the situation was. Carmen felt uncomfortable toeing the thin line between taking a life and protecting herself. She had no experience with guns, so she really didn’t feel confident at her shooting ability at the moment. If she missed, she would get killed. Or worse, she could get an innocent bystander hurt. She concentrated as much as possible, going over every fact she knew about a gun based on the handful of times her mom took her to the shooting range. She really hoped the police would interrupt this standoff so that she wouldn’t have to make this difficult decision. Inwardly, she knew she couldn’t show fear to Seth right now, so she sarcastically said, “By the way, I’m declining your Head of Security job offer!”

Lilith made an almost hissing noise, but Seth just laughed, “Look at you, pretending to be brave! You never were good at hiding your emotions. You were always scared to go to the field, everyone knew that. I kept waiting for the day it would snap together for you, but you never got it. Truth is you didn’t have the guts to be a manager!”

“She didn’t need to be fearless!” Garith couldn’t refrain from shouting passionately. Zartex had to physically hold Garith back, who was basically shaking from anger. “Each day, she faced her fears! She was braver than you’ll ever be! She walked away from Mirage! She rejected you, not the other way around! She walked away because she was too good of a person to ever rank up! Don’t you dare try to make her feel inferior!”

Arius and Elden pulled out their guns, but Seth just chuckled. “Give them to me!” Even though they were confused, Arius and Elden handed over their guns. “Yours too, Lilith.” Scowling, Lilith reluctantly gave Seth her gun. “Guys, she’s not gonna shoot me!” He put down his own gun and put his hands up. Carmen wasn’t sure what his intentions were, but she didn’t trust him, so she refused to stand down. “Go ahead, shoot me!” Everyone at the scene looked from Seth to Carmen, back and forth. Seth, totally cocky, taunted Carmen, who concentrated only on his movements and fixing her gun at him. “You’re too goody-two-shoes to pull the trigger. That’s the difference between you and us-we do we gotta do to succeed. You have the upper hand! You can solve your problems right now by eliminating me! But you won’t! You’re too weak!” Carmen was starting to get irritated and hoped that it wasn’t apparent. Seth did notice and did a little dance to egg her on. “Shoot me, bitch! Shoot me! Go on, shoot me! Do it! Come on, do it!”

Carmen’s scowl deepened. It was too tempting to pull the trigger. That SOB would deserve it! He was evil and hurt a lot of people! She would but doing the world a favor…Ultimately, she knew she couldn’t hurt anyone unless she absolutely had to. She kept thinking of solutions that didn’t involve anyone dying, including herself. She tried to think of ways to subdue him without killing him. He kept mocking her, which made it hard to concentrate. The situation was tense, no one knew what would happen. If Seth reached for his gun again, she knew she would have to hit him before he could shoot her. But where could she shoot him that would stop him physically but not fatally? Seth saw her arms grew weaker, so he remarked, “That’s what I thought!” He bent down slightly to the left where his gun laid. Instinctively, she aimed her gun and pulled the trigger!

The girls shrieked, and the guys moaned in sympathetic pain. Seth screeched louder than anything Carmen had ever heard. He rolled and writhed in pain as blood flowed from…his groin! Lilith, Jorden, Arius, and Elden timidly turned to Carmen, who still held up her gun. “Get down on the ground!” The four got onto their bellies, peeking at Carmen as she spoke to Seth, “You’re right-I’m not like you. I don’t need to kill people to reach my goals! No, I didn’t spare your life out of pity or remorse. The thing I realized was that upon your death, your body would be at peace. You don’t deserve that! There are things so much worse than death!”

“That’s so cliche’!” Seth groaned. He felt some sharp pain, which made him cry out. “Ugh! You bitch! You bitch!”

“I’m the bitch? I got your balls! You don’t!” Carmen mocked him. She put down her gun and turned to Garith and Zartex, who had a mixed look of sheer terror and utter admiration.

Before anyone could say anything, a group of police swarmed in and surrounded the Mirage executives. “You’re all under arrest!”

“What?” Seth roared out. “She tried to kill me!”

The police informed him, “The amusement park caught you guys breaking in and ambushing them. Thought they were trespassing, we’re gonna let that go ’cause clearly you attacked them!”

Seth argued, “She killed Colt Duncan! We were trying to apprehend her so she could go to jail-where she belongs!”

At that moment, a man in a nice suit flashed his police badge at them. “Detective Disung. I’ve been in touch with the Grand Junction police. Colt’s autopsy showed that he got killed by someone who’s left handed. Carmen is holding a gun with her right hand. We are starting to doubt that she did it.”

Still writhing in pain, Seth pointed out, “So, she shot with her left hand to cover her tracks!”

Detective Disung took out his phone, where he read his notes, “She had the opportunity to let one Teddy Amsan die, but she risked her own freedom to get him help. That just doesn’t seem like the behavior of a guilty person.”

Crying in anguish, Seth yelled, “She wants you to think that! I demand that you arrest her!”

As an ambulance came and began to render him first aid, the police all shrugged at each other. Garith stepped forward and asked, “When was Colt’s time of death?”

Detective Disung gazed at his notes answered, “Colt’s time and date of death: October thirteenth at seven-o-three p.m. Unless you guys have proof of your whereabouts at that date and time, we’ll have to arrest Carmen too.”

Carmen’s heart sunk. She couldn’t believe after everything she went through that it would end this way. As a police officer approached her, Zartex unexpectedly interjected, “Wait, I have proof!” This statement stunned everyone, who watched him with total anticipation as he dug through his pocket and gave something to Detective Disung.

Carmen glanced over the detective’s shoulders, and her sunken heart reinflated. Zartex gave him the photo that they took with the cardboard cutouts at the Green River railroad station! She finally broke her silence, “Look, there’s the receipt stapled to it with the date and time of the transaction! I wasn’t even in the same state as him when he died! I’m innocent! This is proof!”

As Seth got strapped to the gurney, he insisted, “Anyone can fake that! She did it!”

Detective Disung suggested, “Watch what you say-just ’cause you’re going to the hospital doesn’t mean we won’t use what you say in the court of law! Plus, you should be grateful to be alive right now. She could have killed you! I would have!”

As the ambulance wheeled him away, he shouted, “No, she did it! She went into his office and shot him in cold blood! She left him there to bleed all over his family’s picture!”

Detective Disung grinned. “Funny, that detail wasn’t released to any public records!” Seth realized his mistake and cringed as the ambulance loaded him in.

Carmen stood in disbelief. Was it really over? What just happened? What will happen now? The park manager stood before his crew and scolded them, “You guys have GOT to start locking the doors!” Suddenly, it clicked for her-she didn’t have to run anymore! Everyone knew the truth! She was free!

At that moment, something caught her eye that made her beam from ear to ear! She ran in pure joy. She never thought she would ever see…

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.

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 16

With tears rolling down his cheek, Seth made a plea to a reporter, “She killed my buddy in cold blood, and she didn’t stop there! She humiliated our Western Regional Manager in public and framed him for a crime he didn’t commit. She got a vicious dog to attack our vice president. Our head of security is still missing. Our accountant got attacked by a bear. Our recovery agents have lost their minds. I knew she’s after me next! Please, find her before she destroys everyone I hold dear!”

The reporter put up Carmen’s picture alongside Garith’s, who got listed as an accomplice. Peering into the shop window, Carmen’s face turned to pure disgust. “That miserable f-!”

Garith interrupted her by putting his hand over her mouth. Some people stared curiously, so he casually waved them off, “She has Tourette’s Syndrome. Please, don’t stare! She just wants to be like everybody else!” People seemed to accept his explanation and went along their way down the row of vintage, downtown shops. Garith continued to muffle Carmen as he whispered, “He’s a liar, a murderer, and a horrible human being. I’m mad too, but we have to lay low since he’s framing us for his crimes! So please, hold onto your anger until we’re safe!”

Carmen pushed his hand off her mouth and hissed, “He tried to kill me! I defended myself and now I’m getting punished for surviving?”

Before Garith could calm her vexed nerves, a woman proclaimed, “Hey! You look familiar!”

A million excuses ran through Carmen’s mind, but Zartex was first to speak, “I get that a lot. People say I’m a dead ringer for Pee Wee Herman!”

The woman, who hadn’t noticed Zartex until now, realized he was right. “Oh my god, you do! Can I get a selfie?”

“A what?” Zartex replied. The woman took that as a yes and posed for a picture with him. Carmen and Garith slipped away to an alley behind them.

While they trotted through the alley behind the shops, Carmen apologized, “I’m sorry I am so emotional. I feel like such an anti-hero!”

Garith assured her, “No need to apologize for having feelings! You’re human, and you went through a horrific experience, so it’s totally normal to freak out a little. You’re stronger than I am! If I went through what you did, I’d be a big, freakin’ baby about it!” His comment made Carmen laugh, so he went on, “No, seriously! Men actl like we don’t feel anything but hungry and horny, so we stuff our feelings until eventually we blow up over something stupid like a dumb call at a football game!” Carmen laughed again, so he added, “I’m a reporter, so I’m worse! We aren’t supposed to show any emotion even when we talk about horrible stories. I’m a ticking time bomb!”

“Sounds like I’d be safer traveling with a recovery agent!” Carmen joked. Garith laughed this time, and Carmen commented, “I can’t believe it! A minute ago I was really upset. How do you do that?”

Behind them, Zartex teleported and abruptly related, “He uses humor as a defense mechanism.” Carmen and Garith turned to him, and Zartex inquired, “So, how do we get to Sacramento from Roseville?”

Carmen thought out loud, “Well, originally we were gonna take the train, but it’s probably not safe to do that. The city bus is gonna be crowded too. We could take the back roads and alleyways to a point, but eventually, we would walk right into a people-filled area. I don’t know! There’s gotta be a way! Don’t worry, it’ll hit me!”

Immediately, after she said that, she crashed into a business truck! A man poked his outside and yelled, “What are you doing?”

Zartex answered truthfully, “Escaping the police!”

“Very funny!” the man came out to check the damage. “No damage, good! Will you freaks scram? I’m behind on my deliveries! Damn, there better not be too much traffic going down to Fair Oaks!” The man stormed back inside.

“Where’s Fair Oaks?” Garith wondered.

Zartex used his watch to look at a map. “Oh, it’s down here by the American River.”

Carmen also peered over the map. “That river flows to Sacramento! If we went to Fair Oaks, we could get to Sacramento by boat! But…we couldn’t!”

Garith, who already climbed inside, pointed out, “He’s running late, like he’ll check!”

Carmen seemed skeptical, but when Garith reached out his hand, she felt compelled to accept. They heard the delivery driver coming back, but luckily they quickly found boxes to hide behind as he shut the back door. Before he drove off, he saw Zartex standing there and glared at him. “I live in the dumpster.” The driver rolled his eyes and took off. Zartex shrugged and used his teleporter to get out of there.

The delivery driver opened up the back door and started loading boxes onto  his dolly. After he removed a few, he saw Garith and Carmen hiding in there. “Are you freakin’ kidding me!” he reacted vehemently.

“We can explain!” Garith claimed. The man ogled him skeptically. “We’re from the union. We work undercover to see who’s paying attention to safety precautions during their runs. You left your vehicle unsecured and overweight. We’ll have to report you!”

The driver’s tuned totally changed. “Oh please, don’t turn me in! I need this job! If I don’t pay my rent, me and my kid will be out on the street!”

Carmen and Garith made eye contact and pretended to silently debate the issue. Carmen told him, “Well…we’ll let you off with a warning this time, but only because we wouldn’t wanna see a kid on the streets!”

“Oh, thank you!” The man seemed truly grateful. As they hopped out of the truck, he secured his vehicle even though the restaurant owner, who had been waiting for her delivery, came out to yell at him.

Once they were out of sight, Carmen and Garith gave each other a high five. “Good thinking!” Carmen complimented.

“I don’t even know where that came from!” Garith relished.

Zartex appeared behind them, almost making them jump, and remarked “It came from you subconscious instincts.”

“You gotta stop doing that!” Carmen admonished him.

Zartex ignored that and informed them, “I got us a boat. Don’t ask me how!”

“We know how,” Garith responded. “What are we gonna do? Call the police?”

Zartex explained, “I hid it by the river. If we go by night, no one should spot us. All we gotta do is walk a couple of blocks down Sunrise Boulevard, which is right over there!”

“A couple of blocks?” Carmen lamented. “We’re doomed!”

“After all of the walking we did, you’re afraid of a couple of blocks?” Garith probed. “It’s almost too easy! Oh, I see your point now. What do we do?”

“What choice do we have?” Carmen said sagely, “We can’t stay here. We gotta move forward. All we have to do is walk briskly and try not to look too guilty.”

As they walked down Sunset Boulevard, Garith and Carmen avoided eye contact with everyone. Zartex whispered, “Act more normal!”

Carmen quickly noted, “An alien is giving advice on being normal!”

They peeked their heads up to take a look at their surroundings. People didn’t seem to notice them much. A mother and father walked their baby in her stroller. People drove to and from their jobs. A group of teenagers hung out and goofed off with each other. Everything just seemed so normal! It just felt so unbelievable that as her world came crashing down, life still carried on. Carmen wondered if her life would ever be so ordinary. At this point in her life, she couldn’t fathom going to work that she didn’t have stress about so much. As she stared at a businessman on his cell phone driving by, she saw him crack a smile. His worst worry right now would be paying a ticket for using his cell phone while driving, a minor inconvenience that he would forget about it as soon as he saw his buddies at the office. How perfectly extraordinary it was that all this unexceptional behavior went on while this madness happened in Carmen’s universe!

The last block was the most difficult. Carmen’s heart pounded in anticipation. She tried her hardest to walk normally, but she knew that any minute something dangerous would come along. Any minute someone would jump out of the shadows and take her whole world away. The park got closer and closer. She felt faint. Danger lurked around the corner, she just knew it! She lost awareness of her surroundings. She couldn’t breathe. Instincts took over as she walked through the shadows. She  wished it would just happen already so she could get it over with. The anticipation was too much to bear!

Suddenly, she saw sunlight and took a deep breath. She found herself in front of a riverbank. It took her a minute to see a canoe hidden by brush, and she realized that she had made it safely! They didn’t get attacked or captured! Apparently, Garith thought along the same lines because Carmen heard him say, “I’m alive?”

Zartex pleasantly chuckled, “You guys got some funny looks, so I told them you just saw a scary movie. It’s kind of true. I can only imagine the images running in your heads!”

Garith and Carmen giggled nervously. It took them a moment to compose themselves. Garith asserted, “Now all we have to do is wait for the sun to set. And then find a place to hide in California’s capitol! That should be easy, right?”

Zartex was about to answer, but Carmen stopped him. “Don’t answer that.” Garith and Carmen laughed a little, starting to relax again.

As dusk loomed close, the three of them finished eating some chicken. Garith asked Zartex, “Where did you get this? I will make a trip back to Sacramento just for this!”

Zartex recalled, “It was on a picnic table by the lake. I wanted to steal the boat, so I shouted ‘Bear!’ The humans went running! I remember you guys like to eat every day, so I thought that since I’m already stealing from them, I may as well steal some more!”

Garith mused, “You should probably stop admitting to stealing so often!”

“Psh!” Zartex countered. “If I get arrested, I’ll just teleport out! The worst case scenario is my boss will lecture me about breaking the rules. Actually, she can be scary when she’s mad!” Zartex raised an eyebrow at the thought.

Carmen remarked, “You sure do move your eyebrows a lot for someone who doesn’t have any human muscles!”

Zartex retorted, “What kind of disguise would it be if I had a face that didn’t move? Besides, the human body is fun to play with!” He wiggled his eyebrows one at a time.

The three of them laughed, but Carmen shushed them shortly after. They listened for a moment, and the other two heard what she did-footsteps. They hid behind some bushes as Jorden came into the scene, surveying her surroundings with a flashlight. As she scanned everything, she spoke spitefully, “I know you’re here, Carmen! I heard your laugh! You’re here with that reporter! You guys can’t hide for long! I’m right here! I will find you!” She shined her light to where the canoe was hidden. The three had to hold their breath since Jorden had no idea how close she actually was to them. “Oh, this must be your canoe. I’ll wait.” She sat on the edge of the canoe but couldn’t resist baiting Carmen. “You really pride yourself in breaking the rules, don’t you? You’re just like your father!” Carmen felt herself get riled up but didn’t dare act on it. “Maybe we’ll just forget you and focus on him! He’s been successful at keeping secrets so far, so we can use him! And if he doesn’t cooperate, we would have no trouble getting rid of him…”

Carmen felt herself tense up with rage. Jorden was threatening her father and she couldn’t tolerate that! Jorden sat up and spoke to the river, which put her back in the position of being within inches of their hiding spot. “You wanna hide like a coward, fine! Don’t face your charges like an adult! I’m gonna call a recovery agent and tell him to go retrieve Hank! Forget giving him a job in Mirage! We’re gonna send his brown hyde back to the ass of Europe!” Without even thinking about it, Carmen stormed out of the bushes. Before Jorden had time to react, Carmen punched her in the face! Jorden fell to the ground, knocked out!

Garith emerged from the bushes and celebrated, “Yeah! Take that, you racist bitch!”

As Zartex came out, he noted, “The sun is almost down, we can probably get going.”

As they cleared the brush from the canoe, Carmen noticed that Jorden kept slipping closer and closer to the water. As they got the canoe out and began to climb in, Jorden’s head went totally underwater! “Oh no!” Carmen cried out.

As she waded through the water, Garith questioned, “Are you really gonna save someone who wants to kill you?”

“I hate her guts!” Carmen explained as she retrieved her. “But I’m not about to stoop to their level and be responsible for a loss of life!” She got her back onto the land, and as Zartex and Garith rowed to the bank, Carmen pushed down on Jorden’s chest to give her CPR. Finally, Jorden coughed up water, and as she came to, the other two grabbed Carmen. The three of them rowed out of sight before Jorden realized what was going on.

As they rowed down the shadowy river, Garith complimented Carmen, “You’re a better person than me!”

Carmen grinned, “Thanks!” She felt herself blush and was really glad it was so dark! She changed the subject, “How are we going to get away with this?”

Garith replied, “With dumb luck, just like every other part of the journey!”

The three of them laughed together as they rowed down through the shadows.

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.