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 15

“I can’t believe it’s finished!” Carmen exclaimed as they walked down a rustic neighborhood lane with historic shops that still got used in modern times. They still, technically, were in Reno, but as they headed closer to the mountains, the area began to look more like a small town. Actually, Carmen got a small town vibe from the way everyone stared at them-incredulously as if they didn’t understand what was happening. Everyone probably knew everyone, and, more than likely, the three of them would be the source of gossip around here. Luckily, they just needed to get provisions for the night. In the morning, they would take a charter bus to Roseville, California. As long as this journey felt, it also felt like it went by so fast! They just had to survive a night in Reno, then Sacramento, and then they’d be back in the Bay Area! She didn’t let herself get too hopeful yet though-a lot could happen between now and then!

Garith seemed to share her sentiments. “I’m glad we finished the article! It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was just soliciting people involved with Mirage. I began to give up hope that I would ever get to do this story. The last step will be the hardest though. Nowadays, it isn’t easy to publish anything without electronics.”

“I like this place!” Zartex randomly commented. “It reminds me of a town I was assigned to years ago! I didn’t get to stay there long enough to stay long though because my subject died of cholera.”

“Cholera?” Garith questioned. “How old are you?”

Before Zartex could reply, they heard a man cry out, “Yep, I think we found an alien!”

The three of them froze immediately. They turned to see a scruffy man whose scraggly appearance could have fit in naturally as a scalawag in the Old West. He marched over with a slight limp and ogled them blatantly. Carmen spent so much time worrying about someone turning them into the police that she forgot that Zartex’s true identity could be detrimental if revealed. Zartex stammered, “What? Me? You’re quite mistaken!”

“Not you!” He pointed to Carmen, whose heart skipped a beat from shock. She couldn’t believe that he thought she was extraterrestrial! She thought he was utterly mad and was ready to dismiss him until he probed, “Do you have your papers?”

Carmen’s temper flared up. It seldom came up anymore, but occasionally people discriminated against her for being biracial or for her Hispanic heritage. It incensed her! She firmly believed in not judging people based on their ethnicity but their actions and character, and she grew very defensive to see discrimination against her family or anyone else. It didn’t make it easier when it happened to her though. She seethed, “I am a citizen! I was born here!”

“I wasn’t!” Zartex jumped in.

The man ignored him and focused on Carmen. “You’re legal, fine. Prove it!”

Carmen’s blood began to boil. Before she could let her steam out on him, Garith stepped in, “Why don’t you ask her mother, Sergeant First Class Greta Alvaro?”

“Greta? Oh, you’re white! My apologies!” He scuffled away.

Carmen still burned inside and marched towards him, but Garith stopped her. “Fools don’t listen to reason, and we can’t afford his hospital bills! Let that asshole think what he wants, he’s not worth it!” Carmen realized that he was right, but she still felt amped up. Garith directed, “Zartex, take her to our home base. I’ll grab the supplies.”

Zartex agreed, but Carmen couldn’t move. She was still fuming. “Come on, Carmen!” He physically had to steer her before she found her footing and began to recover from that emotional upheaval.

That night, Carmen and Garith laid on a cave floor while Zartex sat by the cave entrance, gazing at the expansive view. Carmen opened her eyes, too wrapped up in thought to really sleep. She still hadn’t fully absorbed everything that happened in the last couple of weeks. This all felt like a strange dream, and she wasn’t sure where it was heading. She couldn’t help but worry about what would happen in California. If they didn’t get killed by anyone in Mirage, they still could get captured by police, especially as they distributed the article. She scolded herself for being so pessimistic, but she realized that this was THE VOBS talking. She got taught to dismiss negative feelings, but that isn’t healthy for anyone, spiritually or mentally. Negative feelings should be felt! She needed to go through the motions and find a way to release the negativity. Having Zartex around during this process actually seemed to really help her because he could read her emotions and she couldn’t lie about her feelings. She found it funny that an alien had taught her how to be human again!

She decided to search deep inside herself and really delve into what she felt right now. First off, this cave floor was totally uncomfortable and the entrance let in too much light for her to sleep soundly. She was nervous about completing the journey, and she was afraid of what would happen afterwards. She felt really low. She used to feel like she was working towards a higher goal and got accepted by a higher class of people-alphas who were at the top of their game. She wanted to get to an elevated place socially so that she could build others up, but she didn’t know where to go for comfort or guidance as she took the first steps towards her new goals. She saw Garith shuffle in his sleep, which reminded her that one person had been helping her. He did benefit by having the groundbreaking exclusive on a dangerous cult, but no one had to go through all that he had. He could easily walk away-he could go back to San Francisco, beg for forgiveness, and get famous from the article, but he chose to stick around until the end. It took a really selfless person to show such loyalty! She felt a rush of admiration towards him now.

Garith peeked behind him and inquired, “Still awake?”

“No, I sleep with my eyes open,” Carmen kidded.

Garith glanced at his watch and then conversed, “A penny for your thoughts?”

“I don’t have a penny,” Carmen lamented. “I don’t have a dime to my name.” She realized the truth of these words as she said it, which made her feel a little shame. “I know money isn’t everything in our society, but you gotta have a little to be normal.”

“No you don’t,” Garith debated.

Carmen groaned, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter how much money you have, it’s what on the inside that counts! I know I’m a good person, but it doesn’t really fill the void.”

“Actually,” Garith checked his watch again and told her, “I was gonna say a lot of people are satisfied being dependent on others for their whole life. Some kids choose to live in their parents’ house, even when they’re middle aged. Or, some women find a sugar daddy who dotes on them like a child. You chose to leave a man with money and make it on your own. You would rather be penniless than be dependent on a man you didn’t love. You are strong enough to leave a life of comfort to start over on your own! A lot of people wouldn’t have the courage that you have!” His words really heartened Carmen. It was true that she actually wanted to be independent, and that was a trait she could be proud of. And, obviously he didn’t think less of her for having no job and no place of her own. He concluded, “You got a lot of hoo-eh-vos!”

Carmen giggled, “I’ts pronounced huevos! You don’t pronounce the h in Spanish.”

Garith puzzled, “Then why did your father’s immigrant parents name their son Hank?”

Carmen reminisced, “Right before my dad was born, literally right before my grandmother went into labor, they got their green cards. A lot of people thought they couldn’t assimilate to American culture. They couldn’t even speak properly! Hank Aaron was the all-American player of the moment, so they named their son Hank. He kind of symbolized that they decided that they belong here. They didn’t let negative people show them who they should be-they took charge of their life, persevered, and made the life they wanted!”

“That’s great!” Garith fiddled with something and tried to hide it from Carmen.

Carmen caught on that he was concealing something. “You better not be doing anything nasty over there!” Garith laughed as he tried to flick on a flame to a lighter. “What on Earth are you doing?” He didn’t answer. The flame lit up, and he set it up to something. Carmen sat up as he put out the flame. “What are you-?”

The wind escaped from her lungs from total surprise. He held up a brown little cupcake with a birthday cake candle lit up on top. “Make a wish!” he invited.

“Wha…?” Carmen’s brain couldn’t comprehend what was happening right now. It felt exciting but she couldn’t totally accept that something amazing was happening right now before her eyes!

Garith showed Carmen his watch. “It’s after midnight, which means now it’s the twenty-seventh!”

“Oh my god, it’s my birthday!” Carmen gasped.

“I don’t blame you for forgetting,” Garith remarked. “It’s not much of a birthday stuck in a cold cave with none of your friends here. I know it’s not much, but…” Garith trailed off, his face looking a little crestfallen.

“Are you kidding?” Carmen’s heart practically exploded from mirth. “This is the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me!”

“Really?” He perked up.

“Given our circumstances, it’s a treasure! I’ve had years of half-baked gestures that had no thoughts behind them, but this…this!” Carmen started to tear up. No one had ever done anything so sweet! She could still hardly believe that it happened. She closed her eyes an thought of a wish. She decided to wish for more moments like this in the future. She opened her eyes and blew out the candle. He took out the candle and handed her the cupcake. She felt herself smile. Literally, she had to put her hands on her mouth to see that it was true. She couldn’t remember the last time anything made her genuinely grin from ear to ear! Garith beamed warmly. Words couldn’t express how much it meant to Carmen to have someone actually and honestly care about her like this! She flung her arms around him and hugged him tight. He hugged back very willingly. They lingered for a moment, and Carmen felt as if her heart radiated with light. She realized that she didn’t want to let go! How strang it was to have such a feeling!

All of a sudden, Zartex ran up and scooped them both up. Utterly bewildered, they looked to him for clarification. “Sorry guys, we have company!” They assumed that he meant an assassin or a police officer, but they heard large footsteps and growling. They screamed, which alerted the bear to their presence! Zartex raced to the back of the cave, where there was an opening in the ceiling. “Meet you outside!” He tossed up Carmen then Garith and then he used his teleportation device to beam himself out, leaving the bear totally confused.

In the morning, by a small creek, a figure found Zartex, Carmen, and Garith huddled together, asleep. The figure pulled out a gun and used it to poke Carmen awake. She opened her eyes and gasped, which woke up the other two. They jolted up out of fright. Carmen probed, “Teddy?”

Teddy, who kept his gun pointed at them, greeted her coldly, “Hello, darling.”

This is Teddy?” Garith surveyed him in disgust. Carmen thought she detected a hint of jealousy, but the situation warranted no time to acknowledge it.

“I’ve got a job to do,” he stated firmly.

“So, kill us and get it over with, ” Carmen dared him.

“He won’t kill us,” Zartex remarked. “If he wanted to, he would’ve done it when we were unconscious.”

“You’re right,” Teddy acknowledged. “They want me to, but I can’t! I miss you, Carmen. Come back with me! I’ll protect you. We could have a nice life together.”

Carmen stood up and enspeeched, “Teddy, I don’t love you. It took me a while to realize…I never did! I’m a new person now. Even though the circumstances suck big time, I’m glad that I left my old life behind. I can finally be myself again! I can never go back. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I don’t belong in your world. Sorry, but I have to be true to myself.”

Teddy obviously tried to hide his hurt at her rejection. “Where are you going?”

“To the girl I was the night before Mirage found me,” she replied.

“I’ll figure it out.” He looked around and observed, “You left your stuff somewhere.”

“It’s in that cave.” She tried to warn him, “Don’t go in there!”

“I’m going!” he defied her. “I can’t bring myself to kill you, but I can at least get that article for Mirage!”

As he started scale the ridge the cave was on, Carmen shouted at him, “The article isn’t in there!”

“You’re hiding something there!” Teddy said defiantly.

Zartex yelled, “Yeah, a bear!”

“Yeah right!” He ignored their warnings and cries to stop as he entered the cave. After a moment, they heard him scream.

Carmen immediately sprinted towards the village. Garith caught up with her. “What are you doing?”

“I may not like him, but nothing he’s done deserves him the death penalty!” she exclaimed.

They got back to the shops and ran into the same man that accosted them before. “Help!” Carmen cried out. “There’s a man getting attacked by a bear!”

The man sprang into action. “Ya hear that, boys? Gear up!” A few men came out with rifles.

“You’re not calling the police?” Garith asked.

The man answered, “Listen, it’ll take twenty minutes for the police to come to our neck of the woods. If y’all really wanna see results, always go with a bunch of rednecks with guns!” They hollered to bolster their spirits and ran into the woods.

Carmen stood there looking very shocked. Garith tapped her shoulders. “Teddy has a whole posse to look after him. We have a bus to catch!” She still felt surreal about running into her ex, but she knew Garith was probably right about the townsmen protecting him. Either way, she did all that she could. She very willingly walked off with Garith and Zartex.

 

Sabotage, Chapter 13

“Thank you kind sir!” Zartex waved to a trucker as he left an old gas station. He turned to Carmen and Garith, who had a look of discomfort mixed with surprise. “I don’t know why you were so worried about taking a ride from a stranger!”

Garith noted, “People are rarely that nice without wanting something in return.”

Carmen observed her surroundings and remarked, “Who decided to call this place Oasis? Were they trying to be ironic?”

“So, this is Nevada, huh?” Zartex also looked around. “This doesn’t look that different than Utah!”

“Wait ’til we get to Elko,” Garith responded.

As the three of them walked through the desert alongside the highway, they ate breakfast sandwiches that they got from the gas station they passed. Carmen commented, “I never imagined I’d be in a situation where gas station food would taste amazing!”

Garith nodded in agreement. “Yeah, and I can’t believe how excited I got about using a gas station toilet!”

“I got you guys some of these free samples.” Zartex pulled some beef jerky out of his pocket.

“Those weren’t free!” Garith pointed out. “You’re supposed to bring it to the register.”

Carmen burried her face in her hands and shook her head. “Stop stealing things! Like we need another reason for the police to come after us!”

They all heard a low growl, and Garith joked, “Gee, Carmen, you don’t need to get that mad about it.”

“That wasn’t me!” Carmen stood still and looked around. The other two stopped and joined her in the search. They heard some rustling from a bush with inverted, whip-like branches, so they huddled together in preparation for an attack. The growling grew louder as the perpetrator emerged. “It’s a dog!” Carmen exclaimed as a tan, coyote-looking dog reared its teeth at them.

“Run!” Garith started to flee.

Carmen grabbed his shirt to prevent him from sprinting. “You can’t outrun a dog! Why do you think they have canine units in the police?”

“You want to fight it?” Garith asked incredulously as the dog crept closer to them. Carmen studied the dog closely and saw something the other two didn’t. She slowly approached it, prompting Garith to shout, “Are you crazy?”

Without breaking eye contact with the snarling beast, Carmen informed Garith, “She’s hurt!” After she said that, Zartex and Garith noticed the dog’s limp gait.

The dog let Carmen kneel before her, which made Garith really nervous. “Be careful!”

“Duh!” Carmen gingerly reached for its paw, which made the dog snap at her a little. That didn’t ease Garith’s nerves, so she assured him, “It’s okay. She’s in pain and isn’t sure if she can trust me.” Carmen’s pulse raced as she picked up its paw. Despite her assurances to Garith, she got forcibly reminded of when a dog bit her before. Her instincts made her trust this one though. She really hoped her gut feelings wouldn’t betray her since she just vouched for this dog. She saw a thorn stuck in her paw with some blood caked on around it. “You’ve been hurt for a while! Poor baby!” As she removed the thorn, the dog snapped a little again. Finally, the thorn wriggled out. Carmen felt a wave of relief, and evidently the dog felt the same way as they watched it scamper around and enjoy full use of her paws.

She licked Carmen in the face, which made her cringe a little. “Not the face!” She laughed and pet it. She glanced over at Garith, who appeared to be recovering form a near faint. “You’re not gonna say that’s what she said?”

“Don’t ever do that again!” Garith breathed.

Carmen laughed and stood up. As they continued their journey, Carmen noticed the dog following them. “Go home, doggy!” The dog happily followed them still. “No, no, no! Don’t pick us as your humans! Your life will constantly be in danger! Plus, you wouldn’t even have a home to go to. You’re better off finding someone here. Go on! Shoo!”

Garith laughed, “You can’t reason with an animal!” He grabbed Zartex’s beef jerky and threw it. The dog scampered after it and enjoyed gnawing on it. “That jerky was hard as a rock, that’ll keep her busy for a while!”

Zartex chirped, “Well, we helped her nurse her injury, and she helped us dispose of evidence!” Carmen shook her head but smiled.

Hours later, the town of Wells could be seen in the distance. Carmen conversed, “Wasn’t it uncomfortable working with your ex-wife?”

“She moved to L.A. once I said I wanted a divorce,” Garith told her. “It’s something she always wanted to do but didn’t because of me. It’s not like I ever said I wouldn’t leave San Francisco, but she said I held her back. She accepted a high end position at our headquarters and left me behind. Actually, I was okay with her getting far away from me ’cause it was easier to pick up my life where it was before I met her. The only difference between my old life and my single life was nicer furniture and Phoebe.”

“Phoebe?” Carmen questioned. “You have a daughter? Or is Phoebe one of your ex’s friends that you hooked up with?”

Garith chuckled, “Phoebe was her cat. I didn’t like cats much, but she grew on me. I felt bad for her, actually. I mean, her mom just abandoned her. Who does that?”

Carmen felt a surge of guilt hit her heart. “I left my cat behind when we moved to Colorado. I couldn’t have pets where I lived, so I let my dad take care of Orlando. I didn’t think I’d be gone long. The Grand Junction office was new, and it was supposed to give me more opportunities for building my team and getting promoted quicker. I thought I’d get promoted in like a year ’cause that’s what they told me. I didn’t think I’d be away from him for so long, and once I became a manager, It never occurred to me that they could be wrong or mislead me. I never got that promotion. I just abandoned my poor cat!”

Before Garith could reply, a sheriff’s car pulled up to them. The three of them tried to remain cool, but they were silently praying that this officer wasn’t here to arrest them. They had nowhere to run or hide in the middle of the desert! “Hey! You look like you’ve traveled across this highway for a while. Tell me…” Carmen felt like he could hear her heart pounding because she could feel the tension from the other two. “…have you guys seen my dog?”

Everyone took a breath of relief. Zartex addressed him, “A brown, coyote-looking dog?” The policeman nodded. “Yeah, she was just outside of Oasis. She helped her nurse an injury and he gave her my beef jerky.”

The officer clearly felt overjoyed to hear this news. “I sure do appreciate that! Y’all are decent folks!” He made a quick u-turn and raced towards Oasis.

Sometime later, they came just outside the town of Wells where, once again, all they could see was a gas station. Zartex inquired, “Why are there people gathering here?”

Garith squinted his eyes to get a better look. “It’s a sign for the Red Lion Casino. Oh, they must shuttle people to Elko.” Carmen gave him a glance that non-verbally told him that she wanted to go on the shuttle. Garith objected, “Oh no! Don’t you remember what happened last time we took a shuttle?”

Carmen argued, “There aren’t any mountains going from here to Elko! Plus, after over a week of non-stop walking, it sure would be nice to get a break!”

Garith still seemed weary. “I don’t like the idea of endangering so many people in an enclosed…” He stopped mid-sentence as a nearby bush rustled. The other two also stopped and gazed at directly at it. “Maybe the police dog followed us here.”

Carmen differentiated, “I think there’s a different bitch that’ll emerge from that bush.”

As Carmen predicted, Lilith came out from hiding and pointed a gun at them. They threw up their hands, and she gently told them, “Guys, I’m not here to kill you.” She threw the gun to the floor. They slowly put their arms down, but they did not trust her. Each of them kept an eye on her. “You got me all wrong. I’m here to save your life!”

“A Mirage executive wants to help us?” Garith challenged. “I have a hard time believing you care about anyone but yourself!”

Lilith tried to appear as docile as possible and spoke softly, “Look, they need a high ranking member to watch over people, that’s why I’ll never leave. I don’t like hunting people down like animals. I didn’t come to commit murder! But, I did catch you. If I wanted to, I could turn you over to the police. I’m not gonna do that. Actually, I want to promote you!”

That statement took everyone by surprise. Mirage had spent over a week chasing them down and tried to assassinate them, and now she claimed that they wanted to promote her! Carmen didn’t buy it. “Even if you decide to bypass the rules of building a team, I don’t wanna be a manager!”

“Actually,” Lilith revealed, “We want you to replace Elden Gundulf as head of security.” Zartex and Garith got a jolt of surprise from this, but Carmen did not. She stared at her hard. She wanted her to keep talking to see what game she was trying to play. Lilith continued, “You beat us! You won! We threw every trick in the book at you and you made it through each time. No one has ever gotten this far! Instead of trying to destroy you, we want to use you. You can think like the most clever employee that goes astray, so you can help us humanely rescue them. We need someone like you to make sure what you went through doesn’t happen again. Think about it. You can dedicate you life to saving lives!”

Garith and Zartex looked to Carmen, who did not seem remotely tempted by this offer. In some ways, her argument made sense. If she was head of security, she could stop them from murdering and kidnapping people. Carmen’s gut instincts would not let her consider accepting this offer. Zartex spoke up first, “What about the way you treat your low level employees? Would you expect her to condone that?”

This touched a nerve for Lilith. “We do not mistreat our employees! We have a success plan that has been proven to work! Even our lowest level employees can make over a grand in a week! What other company offers that for people with no experience? We help people get careers and fabulous lifestyles, and that’s supposed to be a bad thing? We’ve also given hundreds to charity-does that sound like an evil, malicious company?”

“Lots of wealthy people do that for tax purposes,” Garith pointed out.

Lilith almost blew a gasket, but she closed her eyes and collected herself. “Carmen, you have a choice. You can choose to believe the lies this reporter has filled in your head and go to prison for the rest of your life. But, if you want a better life, listen up. We’ll get you a lawyer and get that murder charge thrown away at no cost to you. We’ll send you to luxurious training camp at Mirage headquarters. We have the best training! The classes take dull leadership lessons and makes them fun. And, after class, you can get spa treatments, eat fine food, all sorts of stuff! After training, you’ll make a six figure income and live in a nice place all on your own. You can help your whole family out too. Isn’t that what you always wanted? I don’t think I need to ask which life you want-prison or luxury? So, come on, let’s go!”

Lilith turned away and started walking to her car. When she realized that she hadn’t followed her, she turned back around. “What’s the problem? Is it all that walk you did? Don’t worry, I’ll bring the car to you!”

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” Carmen said firmly. “The only thing that you said that I believe is that you wanna use me. A few weeks ago, I was just like you. I defended Mirage like it was my own family. Whenever someone criticized us, I responded exactly like you did. How dare they! How dare they spout such hate and disrespect! I did the same thing as you-I seduced people into Mirage by waving these temptations over their heads. Who doesn’t want to live a life of luxury? Only a few people get that posh lifestyle, and it comes at the price of the lowest level employees’ blood, sweat, and tears! You exploit hundreds to help a few people live well. You keep people in by distracting them with things they want to make them forget what they stand to lose. You got me for over three years, but you’ll get me no more! I won’t by snared by getting shiny things waved at me! How dare you insult my intelligence like that! Believe it or not, I’d rather sit in a prison cell than sell my soul again!”

Lilith’s frown was so pronounced that her lips practically disappeared. “Fine, have it your way!” She bent down as if she was retrieving her gun. Before the three of them could react, she spotted something behind them that made her eyes grow round as dinner plates. She darted off and ran in the opposite direction. They tried to comprehend why, but everything moved so fast that they didn’t have time to question it. A flash of brown brushed past them and made a beeline to Lilith. The flash caught her, and now that it had slowed down, they recognized it as the dog they saw in Oasis!

As the dog continuously bit her, the officer that owned her pulled up. He exclaimed, “Atta girl, Trigger! Good girl, you got a bad guy?”

He got out of his car to get Trigger off of her, but he continued to praise her for a job well done. The other three saw the shuttle for the Red Lion Casino pull up, so they ran to it before Lilith talked to the police. As they boarded, Carmen playfully teased Garith, “See, didn’t I tell you that you can’t outrun a dog?”

Garith rolled his eyes but didn’t look bothered. He smiled as he said, “That’s your favorite phrase, isn’t it?”

“Yes!” Carmen grinned as they took their seat. Garith chuckled as he slumped against the seat, ready to take a nap.

As the shuttle took off, Zartex noted, “We weren’t there to tell the police officer the crimes she committed against you, so she probably won’t get charged with anything.”

“That’s okay,” Carmen responded thoughtfully. “I’ve been bit by a dog before, so, trust me, her injuries will be punishment enough.” Carmen, too, slumped against her seat to take a nap. Zartex shrugged, kicked back, and relaxed as the other two dozed off.

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.