It’s time to post an excerpt of my upcoming book, The Affix. It’s a fast-paced novel that’s part thriller, part sci-fi, part paranormal fantasy. The titular MacGuffin is a gem that screws with probability, and has glommed onto the main character, Matt Kellogg; it cannot be thrown away without coming back. Rather than post just a small section, I thought an entire chapter would be the way to go. This is the fifth chapter, “Meet the Keeper”.
The only introduction I think is needed here is a minor language warning. This excerpt is PG, I would say, with some light language and no F bombs. (Those do come out elsewhere, as it seemed appropriate to the characters and their situations. I don’t think most people getting shot at make it a priority to keep their language clean, for instance.)
Ten minutes later I was at the nearest Frank’s Joe franchise, a sort of regional Dunkin Donuts clone. My own GPS had taken me right to it. Frank’s Joe didn’t make good donuts, but they made good sandwiches and outstanding coffee, and they were open 24 hours. A pretty steady line of cars was already going strong at the drive-thru and the line of customers inside was to the door. Lots of iced coffee moving this morning; small wonder with the heat.
I skipped to the head of the line with Angie right behind me. “Wait your turn,” a woman in a black blazer said.
“I’m not ordering,” I answered, and ignored her further protests. “Excuse me,” I said to the baristas. “Excuse me, quick question here.”
“We’ll be happy to serve you in turn, sir,” a younger woman behind the counter said. Younger than Angie or me, probably still in college or fresh out of it.
“I’m not ordering,” I repeated. “Can you tell me if a woman has been in here today ordering a low-fat double-shot caramel latte?”
“No,” the woman said. “Not from me.”
“Me either,” said her male coworker. The other girl just shook her head.
“Okay, thanks,” I said. I walked to a table near the window and sat there with Angie. I faced the street, to watch traffic, but I could only see the front entrance to the parking lot well.
“Why are we staying here?” she said. “We already had breakfast.”
“I’m playing a hunch.”
My phone rang. The ringtone was Mark’s. He actually had a bad habit of calling me early, so the call wouldn’t have been unexpected on any other day.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey, Matt. I took the day off today, and I was wondering if you wanted to shoot some hoops and hang out.”
“I’d love to, but something came up. I don’t know when I’ll be free.”
“Shoot. Well, rain check then. Gina’s at her sister’s so I don’t know what to do with myself till she gets back. What are you up to?”
“Well that sucks. Are you gonna be free tomorrow or Sunday? We could watch a game. All the guys.”
“Wish I could, but I’m stuck helping Mike out of a mess. By the way if he calls you for a favor, do not get involved. Trust me.”
“Okay. Maybe I’ll call Greg.”
“Out of town.”
“Dammit. Vic and Sara are busy too, and Ed’s sick. You sure you don’t want my help? I got nothin’ else to do.”
“It’s BFT, Mark. I told Mike not to call you. If he does I’m gonna kill him.”
“What kind of trouble? Liz?”
I sighed. “We ran into her last night, but I don’t think she’s involved in this yet.” Yet. After last night I knew that she was, somehow, already in orbit. We were like asteroids swirling around an 11-pointed black hole at differing speeds, all of us, and I had the feeling there were more on the other side that I couldn’t see yet.
“Well whatever it is, good luck. But if you do need anything, I’m around.”
“Thanks. Keep your phone on just in case, but I’m not gonna call you unless it’s a last resort.”
“Okay. So when this blows over, are you gonna ask Angie out or what?”
She looked up at me.
“Or would that be weird with Mike?” he continued.
“It’s… heh,” I laughed guiltily. “It’s…”
“Complicated. Yeah, I know. You should do it. At least Angie won’t get weirded out whenever Liz shows up.”
“Yeah. Well hey, I gotta go, Mark. Tell Gina I said hi.”
“I will. Seeya.”
I put the phone down on the table. Angie grinned a little at my embarrassment. “You were gonna ask me out?”
“I was gonna clear it with Mike first, but after you told me he cheated I figured, screw him. But I didn’t want to say anything until this was over, ’cause I didn’t want to put you in an awkward spot. And now, I guess we’re both kind of in an awkward spot.”
She laughed. “Okay. After we figure out what to do with that thing, let’s give it a shot.”
I smiled back at her. “Okay then. It’s a date.”
If I thought the moment before that was awkward, I had no idea. We sat in strained silence for the next several minutes, neither one of us sure what to say and both seeming on the verge of giggling. It was either that or talk about the stone again. Finally Angie was the one to break the tension. “I feel like a cookie. You want a cookie?”
“No thanks,” I said. Still grinning stupidly.
“Okay. I’ll get in line while you wait for your hunch.”
Once she was out of my line of sight I felt my head clear enough to put together two thoughts. To kill the time I thought I’d browse on my phone, see if I could tease out any new information that she hadn’t seen yet.
Search: Oliver Pembroke.
Paranormal Curio was the ninth result down. The top eight were unrelated, five of the results for the same person who was some kind of local somebody in Wisconsin. The second page was full of useless police blotters and listings of the members of various small-town groups and churches. By page five I gave up and tried “Oliver Pembroke gem”.
Now Lexi’s website was the third entry on the list, with Mr. Wisconsin praised in the first two as “a gem of a man”. Good for him. There was more random junk, but at the bottom of the page there was a geology website. I clicked the link and found a badly-formatted page from the dark beginnings of the Internet, the kind where someone found a cute background with poor contrast and used a gigantic font for the content (my phone didn’t improve it much), and stuffed it full of links that had expired before I ever made it to second base with a girl.
The zombie web page was a mishmash of oddball geology facts, sort of their version of Paranormal Curio if it had been run by nerds and completely abandoned for fifteen years. It had one entry of any interest to me.
Q: If there was a mineral harder than diamond, what would it look like?
A: Nobody knows, but the English geologist Oliver Pembroke wrote a letter to a colleague in 1876 claiming that he had once discovered an unusual specimen that might be harder. He described the stone as a translucent gray crystal. Incredibly, he said that not only was it impossible to scratch with a diamond, but it had already been carved to perfection into a faceted gemstone in the shape of a regular hendecagon!!! The claim was never taken seriously, and today the letter is considered a “tall tale” rather than a true account. Pembroke never backed up his claim, but we do know that eleven-sided symmetry is impossible in any known crystalline structure. This would make a flawless hendecagon an unlikely shape, especially for a mineral no one could cut!
Angie got back to the table faster than I expected. She had an oatmeal raisin chocolate chunk cookie the size of a Kaiser roll.
“Find anything interesting?” she said.
“Sadly yes. There’s a little independent verification of the Pembroke story. And now I know what a hendecagon is.”
“Sir?” said a voice behind me. “Sir?”
Angie pointed. “She’s waving at you.”
I turned around. The barista I had talked to was looking right at me. “I think your friend is here. Low-fat double-shot caramel latte?”
“Is she in a silver SUV?”
“I’ll check.” She disappeared from view for a moment and came back. “Yep.”
“Tell her Matt is here.”
* * *
Two minutes later, a woman walked into the coffee shop. It was my first good look at Alexandra Dulce up close. Her hair was dyed black, and fell straight a little past shoulder-length, but it was a little worse for wear and only seemed to have been hastily brushed. She had on a light brown peasant blouse with thick fabric; it looked uncomfortable to wear on a hot day. Her black cargo pants seemed to be a little better off, and those were tucked into medium-length brown leather boots. Her outfit looked like it would be stylish for autumn if she hadn’t slept in it, and comfortable if the temperature was anywhere near where it belonged for November.
Actually on second look, she hadn’t slept at all. It showed in weary lines on her face, and was not concealed by her dark sunglasses. At least the look wasn’t too out of place for the coffee shop clientele. She looked a few years older than either of us, maybe in her early thirties. She saw us at the table by the window and sat down with her drink.
“How did you know I’d be here?” she said.
“This is the closest Frank’s to my house. Bigger question: Where have you been?”
“I’m sorry. Right after we talked last night, I ran into someone I know. Someone you don’t want to meet. I don’t know how he followed me here. Maybe the Affix drew him. It does that.”
“Hadn’t noticed,” I said through my teeth.
“Well since you ruined my tire, I had to get out of there before he saw me. I got a ride with a woman who was coming out.”
“Dye job,” I said. I was already getting too good at this. “Red Hyundai.”
“That’s the one. I had the feeling she knew you. We barely got a block away when you called. When she saw your number she freaked and slapped it out of my hand. Bitch broke my phone.”
“That’s our Liz,” said Angie.
“She started screaming at me and threw me out of the car. I had to make my way to an all-night diner on foot. After dawn I took a cab back to Walmart ’cause I thought the coast would be clear by then, and I got a new tire. I stopped at my hotel just long enough to wash up a bit. Now I’m here.”
“You could’ve called on a pay phone,” I said.
“Not without your number,” she said in a very strained singsong tone that implied the word stupid was meant to follow it. “It was in a coffee cup in my car, and by the time I got back to it I had forgotten all about it and accidentally threw it out. So now I don’t have a phone, and I left my car unlocked when I was planning to meet with you guys and someone stole my laptop.”
“It’s in my car.”
I can’t even describe the look she gave me over that, but from lack of sleep or sheer annoyance she seemed ready to fly into a rage. “Why would you do that?”
“Look, lady,” I said, “yesterday I had no idea who you were except someone who was following me and my friends. You didn’t show up, so I wanted to find out what I was dealing with. You have a terrible password.”
“So that’s how you knew I’d be at Frank’s. Okay, so sue me, I’m a creature of habit. That doesn’t give you a pass. That’s twice now you’ve screwed me over.”
“Don’t preach at me,” I said indignantly. “If you hadn’t broke into Angie’s place I wouldn’t even be involved.”
“So where’s your friend Mike?” she said. “I thought he was with you. I need to talk to him most of all, if he’s the new keeper.”
I was about to ask her what the hell she meant, when Mike walked in at that exact moment. Any second I was sure Liz would follow him in.
“Hey guys,” he said. He sat down next to us at an empty table. “Sorry I’m late getting here. Traffic was terrible on the way over. So your hunch panned out, huh? You must be Lexi.” He actually extended his hand.
Lexi shook it, but her mood didn’t improve. “Mike, I’m sorry I got your hackles up by following you, but it’s important we talk now. The Affix has gone active and it’s picked you as its new keeper.”
“No it didn’t,” said Angie. She was holding back a laugh.
Lexi looked at her questioningly. “He sent it to me yesterday,” I said. “It was in a package outside my house when I got home last night. After you never showed up, I gave it back to him and told him to deal with it himself. We just agreed to help him learn more about it without getting too involved.”
She looked back to Mike. “There’s a hole in my pocket,” he said with a shrug.
“It came back to me this morning.” I left out the crow. “So what’s this about a keeper?”
Lexi took a sip of her latte and cleared her throat. “Every time the Affix has been active, it’s had a keeper, as far as I can tell. There’s only a handful of documented cases though, if you stretch the meaning of ‘documented’.”
“You only mentioned Pembroke,” Angie said.
“That’s the only one that I felt confident publishing. I’ve been gathering notes on other cases for a long time, but they’re not on my laptop.”
“So what does it mean that it’s active?” I said. “Active how?”
“You said you saw it glowing. That’s part of it.”
“It isn’t now.” I pulled the stone out of my pocket and showed it to her. I felt a little odd doing so, since she was the only person so far who had expressed any interest in it.
Lexi stared in silence. In a corner of her mind, maybe she still wanted to believe it didn’t really exist. Surprisingly, she didn’t ask to hold it.
After a minute she roused herself and took another sip of fancy coffee. “I’ve never seen an artifact like this before,” she said. “Everything on my site is all notes and sketches, sometimes pictures. And I’m not crazy; I know some of them may not exist.”
“Let’s hope not,” said Angie.
I put the stone back in my pocket because it still seemed to transfix Lexi.
“Well anyway,” she said, “when the gem is active things get strange. Bad strange. Last night was an example. So you already know it warps the laws of probability.”
“No it doesn’t,” Mike said.
“No no, I get that this is freaky stuff, but the laws of probability are math, not physics. That’s like saying it can make two plus two equal six.”
“Quantum theory uses probabilities as a model,” he said. “The cat in the box is either alive or dead. The probability wave is a stand-in for what we can’t measure. We live in a deterministic universe where A causes B causes C.”
“There’s still such a thing as personal responsibility,” I said.
“I am painfully aware of that. I’m just saying, whatever this thing does has nothing to do with luck.”
“Call it chaos theory then,” Lexi said. “All real-world applications of probability boil down to chaos theory. Either way, it bends the rules.” She turned her attention back to me. “Whatever it does, it needs a keeper. First that was Mike, now it’s you.”
“Are there keeper perks?” I said grumpily. “If this thing could pay off my mortgage, that’d be nice.”
“There must be some kind of perk to owning it, because some people want the stone. I couldn’t begin to guess why or what for.”
“But you obviously know who,” Angie said.
Lexi inhaled a long breath and let it out quickly. “I only know of a couple by name. I think I should explain. People like me, we network with each other.”
“Am I allowed to say crackpots?” I said.
“Whatever,” she glared. “It applies to any community interested in the paranormal. There’s gossip, and rumors, and we all trade tips and information. I like to publish; others keep secrets. But about half my sources are people with similar interests. Most of us are just hobbyists. Some do it for a living, like me. I make a decent living as a ghost hunter.”
“Do you have a nuclear backpack or do you just use one of those foot-pedal vacuum traps?” said Mike. I grinned at him; that was the Mike I liked. Even Angie smirked.
“Will you two shut up? I’m being serious here. People think they have ghosts and other stuff like that, and I investigate. But I know my limits; I know where science ends. I’ve had a few clients who I think are a little more serious about this stuff than it’s safe to be, and there are rumors of even more people who keep tabs on enthusiasts and professionals like us. Understand?”
“Just cut to the chase,” said Mike. “Like who’s driving the black SUV that was after me?”
“Black SUV?” she said. “I don’t know who that would belong to. Carlos and his boys were in a convertible.”
“Carlos?” I said.
“Is that his real name or did he swipe that off a coffee can?”
Her temper was going through the roof, but I couldn’t help myself. “He’s sort of rumored to be in bed with a Mexican drug cartel, and he’s completely batshit. I saw him and a couple of his goons last night. They didn’t see me.”
“And the SUV?”
“How should I know? You know how common black SUVs are? There’s six out in the parking lot.”
“How many with Massachusetts plates?” said Mike.
“You didn’t tell me that part,” I said. “That could be totally unrelated.”
“He tried to run me off the road!”
“Tried to, or didn’t try not to? There’s a difference.” For a brief time in college I had a long-distance girlfriend who went to an Ivy League school. The traffic still gave me nightmares.
Lexi seemed contemplative. “That could be Kilraen. He’s… well, he’s only in it as a collector, I think. I’ve never seen his collection, but I’ve suspected for a long time that he has the Eye of Sorrows and one of the Tuscan amulets.”
I banged my head against the table. Partly I was irritated at the gobbledygook and felt like I was getting suckered into a UFO watchers’ club. Also it was to keep from saying anything else flippant, and because I was irritated still further that I couldn’t think of a single joke to go with that. I mean seriously, the Tuscan amulets?
“I don’t care if you think I’m a loon,” she said. “You’ve seen for yourself what the Affix can do. My point is there are others out there who’ve studied it just as much as I have, and some of them have sources that I don’t. There are people who know way more about this than me, and they think it’s worth having at any cost.”
“And if they ask nicely, they can have it,” I said. “I don’t want it.”
“But it wants you. I don’t know why.”
I glanced at Angie; she seemed to take this pretty gravely. Either that or she was trying to come up with a Tuscan amulet wisecrack herself. Mike had kind of a blank look that I thought was probably affected, because it looked like he was covering up a smirk that he was off the hook.
“Well here’s an idea,” I said. “Why don’t you get in touch with some of your enthusiast friends and find out if they’re holding anything back about the Affix that could help me out?”
“Tus-can am-u-lets,” I said.
“Do you really think it’s a great idea to let more people know the Affix has been found and it’s active? If Kilraen and Carlos are here, who knows who else is after it?”
“What does it matter?” Mike said. “I want to know why. That’s the real issue here. I mean sure I’m up 63 grand, but the casino really doesn’t want me to cash out that card.”
I used two fingers in a V to point to Lexi and Mike together. “How about you two look into that?”
“Why me?” he said. I gave him a look for that, and watched his victim act wither under it until he winced. “Okay, okay, I’ll look into it. Maybe Lexi knows a way to get those records from the storage yard.”
Lexi protested. “Contacting the others is really a bad—”
“Just start with the ones you trust,” I said. “Here’s some incentive.” I took the gem back out of my pocket again and slapped it on the table in front of her. “You take it.”
“I don’t want it!” she said, like I was offering her polio.
“Great, that makes four of us.” I stood up. “Right now I’m getting out of here, and I’m gonna go enjoy my day off before Crikey the Australian shows up with the Mask of Galileo and blasts us all to hell. Angie, you wanna catch a movie?”
“Sure,” she said.
“Don’t be silly,” said Mike. “You know all the good stuff isn’t out till Thanksgiving.”
“Mike has my number,” I said to Lexi. “Come on out with us and you can have your laptop back.”
“I’m not taking this,” she said.
“Fine. Then leave it here. Just pick up some bread and stop by my house later so I can pay the crow.” Blank response. I kind of loved that. “You heard me.”
Angie and I walked out of the shop. Mike was out right behind us, followed by Lexi with her fist closed around the jewel.
“Matt,” she said, “be reasonable! You’re the keeper!”
“I’m the completely uninterested party on his long weekend. You keep it for a while. Call it delegation.” I opened my door and pulled the laptop and the car charger out from under the driver’s seat. “Here,” I said, practically shoving it into her chest. “I’ll call Mike when the movie gets out. Or after lunch. Don’t let him put the stone in his pocket.”
“Please, you have to take this seriously.”
“You want serious?” I turned to Mike. “One woman at a time. How hard is that?”
Mike deflated. He knew I had to say something sooner or later, because I wouldn’t be any kind of friend if I didn’t. I had known him for a long time, and he did have a highly developed conscience; it struggled sometimes with his ability to rationalize anything into a pretzel, but he could feel guilt and he learned from his mistakes.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry, Angie.”
She didn’t say anything. I let it hang there and got in the car. She came around the back and sat next to me.
“Let’s go,” she said.