Skip to the start of Chapter Seven
TG-Garfieldo is one classy character, and I’ve been a fan of his writing for a long time now. So when this gem of a story crossed my desk, saying that I was delighted is probably an unfair assessment of my excitement! Half the fun of “Layman’s Lines” is piecing together who’s who, adding a new layer of mystery to a story that already has its fair share of intriguing hooks. If you want to see more of this author’s work, check out the Deviant Art Gallery!
Corey Valiant’s gag reflex triggered the moment he opened the office door. The collective stench of a decade’s worth of cigarettes assaulted his nostrils, and the cloying reek of a snickerdoodle Scentsy attempting to mask the stench only succeeded in creating an unholy amalgam that rendered Valiant virtually immobile with nausea. The entire office gave off the impression of a half-successful cleanup job: a thoroughly-vacuumed carpet with stains that wouldn’t come out; polished furniture covered with deep scratches and termite holes; framed photographs hung in awkward positions on the wall that barely concealed the peeling wallpaper; and the aforementioned stench all told a sad story of someone’s desperate attempt to put a cocktail gown on a warthog.
The room itself was small and dimly lit; even though the sun was shining bright, the blinds were closed tight, leaving the room illuminated by a collection of weak fluorescent tubes. A smartly dressed man sat at the office desk, though he did not appear to notice his visitor’s entrance. Rather, his eyes danced across the papers spread out on his desk, as though he were trying to read them all simultaneously. He was not an old man, but his bony features and large glasses added an extra decade or two to his appearance. The lit cigarette in the man’s fingers and the haggard appearance of his trench coat suggested to Valiant that he was not responsible for the room’s attempted makeover.
“Vision, Meiter!” Valiant choked out, pulling his lapel over the lower half of his face. “How can you stand to work in a place like this?”
The man at the desk continued to act as though he were completely alone in the room. He stooped over to examine a page more closely, leaning forward until his nose was an inch from touching the page. After squinting his spectacled eyes at the page for about a minute, he pinched the sides of his thick-rimmed glasses, titled his head slightly to the left, and continued to stare at his papers in silence.
“I’m not in the mood for this, Meiter,” Valiant groaned in exasperation.
The man at the desk finally raised his eyes to his visitor. “What are you in the mood for, then?” asked the man with a subtle smirk. The weak fluorescent lighting gave his skin a sickly tone that was not unlike that of a fresh corpse.
Reluctant as he was to enter the room, Valiant stormed up to the desk and glared down at Meiter’s condescending smile. “Cut the crap and give me the information I’m paying you for.” Valiant said firmly.
The private detective’s gaze fell back on his papers. “That’s odd; if my memory serves, you haven’t paid me anything yet.”
“You’ll get your money as soon as you tell me what happened to my wife,” Valiant said evenly, gaining some composure. He straightened his tie and took a seat in a rusty folding chair. “They found her in a ditch by the highway. The results of the autopsy were inconclusive. The police say there’s nothing to suggest foul play.”
“I’m on a schedule, mister governor, so I do hope you haven’t merely come to parrot what the press are saying on twitter,” the detective deadpanned. Valiant rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to speak, but Meiter cut him off. “Someone paid the good men in blue to bury the actual autopsy results. The actual documents are long gone, but the coroner said that there was definitely foul play.”
“They were bribed?” Valiant asked, gaping at his companion in exasperated disbelief.
“Twice. I had to pay them just to learn that they’d been bribed before. It was a significant monetary contribution, so I’ll be sure to include it among my expenses.”
Valiant rose to his feet, his hand pressed tightly against his forehead and his teeth clenched in rage. “I swear, I’ll clear that place out from top to bottom!” He pounded a fist on the desk, leaving an oily streak on the finely polished wood. “Answer me something, Meiter: are my children safe?”
The detective smirked and shuffled his papers into a messy pile. “As safe as a politician’s kids can possibly be. Now if you’ll excuse me, I did mention I’m on a schedule,” he said, rising to leave. “You can leave my payment with the assistant. It was a pleasure to have you as a client, mister governor.”
Valiant shot him an icy glare. “That’s all you have to say?” he seethed. “With all the money you’re asking for, you think ‘it was foul play’ is going to cut it?”
“Zero! I’m heading out,” Meiter said, rapping on a flimsy plywood door. “Take care of Mr. Valiant for me.”
“Are you really just going to leave me here to—”
“Goodbye, Mr. Valiant,” the detective interrupted before promptly stepping out onto the sun-bleached sidewalk and vanishing into the labyrinthine city streets. A tired-looking man emerged from behind the plywood door moments later.
“What did he say?” the fellow asked, running his hands through his bright red Mohawk and fluffing it upright. Even though his skin was already rather tanned, the dark rings of sleeplessness and exhaustion around his eyes were clearly visible.
Valiant sat back down in his rickety seat and popped and Advil into his mouth. “It’s three in the afternoon, Zino,” he said with a sigh. “How long have you been asleep?”
“Not nearly long enough when you consider how late he makes me work,” Zino stated matter-of-factly, leaning against the wooden doorframe. “He told me on Monday that I’m only allowed to keep the hair if I work extra hours. The earliest I’ve gotten to bed since then is four in the morning.”
“Quite the charmer, your employer,” Valiant murmured distantly, already scribbling the day’s date on a custom-printed check. “Working for him must be a joy. He’s even given you that delightful nickname.”
Zino shrugged. “You get used to him after a while. Besides, he pays pretty well. At the very least it’s nice to be working back in the city again.”
“Why? Did he not get you the information you needed?” Zino asked as the governor handed him the hastily written check.
“Not enough information to justify his price,” Valiant grumbled. “But at least now I know for certain that Vanna was murdered.”
Zino’s head drooped, his eyes locked on the coarse, stained carpet. “Oh,” was all he said at first, before adding, “How have Mia and Tom been since she died?”
“You know Mia; she’s more like Vanna than Vanna was. As for Thomas, well, who knows what goes on inside that head of his?” Rising to his feet, the governor put a hand on Zino’s shoulder and handed him the check. “What about you? How are you taking it?”
The detective’s assistant silently took the check in his hands, folded it twice, and placed it carefully in the pocket of his khaki slacks. “She was like a mother to me,” he finally said.
Valiant gave Zino’s shoulder one last reassuring squeeze before raising his watch to his eyes and staring at it in vexed fixation, signaling that he was ready to leave.
“I’d better be on my way,” he said with an air of finality, clasping his hands together. “Good to see you, as always. If you ever need anything, feel free to call me anytime after two o’clock.”
“Will do,” Zino said, giving the politician a small salute. “Have a good day, sir.”
And with that, Valiant promptly made his way to the exit. But as his fingers wrapped around the hand of the door, he suddenly paused.
“Tell your boss that I might visit him again in the future,” he said without turning around. “I want to see what he can tell me about my brother. But I’m not saying another word to him until he lets you get some shuteye.”
Zino smiled. “I’ll be sure to tell him that. Thanks.”
The governor’s head turned slightly to the right for a moment, as though he planned to turn around but changed his mind. However, in that one, brief moment, Zino thought he saw Valiant smiling back.
“By the way,” the politician said evenly, “your sweater vest is on backwards.”
And then Corey Valiant pushed the door open and descended into the blinding sunlight.
One of the lights flickered sporadically above the passengers, completing the feeling of dreariness and decay in the subway car. Names, tags, obscenities, and promises of ‘good times’ were scribbled over most of the available wall space, and the whole train gave a loud, heavy groan with every turn. It was a vastly less impressive way to travel than the monorail aboveground, and that’s precisely why Tom liked it.
He strode onto the train with a spring in his step, clicking his flip-flops as looked for an available seat, which eventually found next to a young boy playing a game on a Nintendo 3DS. Peeking over the kid’s shoulder, he watched as the small sprite of Nikiwa sprinted across a surreal landscape, jumping over obstacles, trampling enemies, and collecting pancakes before he was eventually crushed by a giant blue pancake. The same scenario played out again, then again, until finally Nikiwa was left with only one life remaining.
“Hey,” Tom said, tapping the boy on the shoulder, “there’s a trapdoor under the patch of blue flowers. You can use the Muzhu Key on it and get to the next level.”
“Really?” the boy asked, his eyes widening. Moments later, Nikiwa was hopping into the hole right before the pancake fell to the ground with a crushing thud. “You were right! How’d you know?”
“Oh, I might have played it once, a long time ago,” the man replied modestly.
The boy looked at him skeptically. “This game came out last month.” Then, his attention finally away from his video game, he came to notice the odd appearance of his companion. “Why do you have hair like a black guy?” he inquired, looking quizzically at Tom’s dreadlocks. “And why are there huge rings in your earlobes?
Tom’s eyes narrowed. Leaning forward, he whispered, “Government experimentation. Don’t tell anyone.” He pressed a finger to his lips.
The boy just grinned at opened his 3DS back up. “You’re weird, man.”
“Why, thank you!” Tom said, giving the lad a seated bow. He then reached into the pocket of his cargo shorts and produced a black 3DS with the image of Nikiwa emblazoned on the front.
“Is that a limited-edition Nikiwa Adventures 3DS?” the boy asked, thoroughly impressed.
“You bet it is,” Tom assured him, beaming. “Up for a multiplayer match?”
“Thank you very much for coming to talk with me,” the woman said in an even but amiable tone. Her professional manner complemented her pressed white suit and black bob haircut.
Mia shrugged. “You’re the FBI; it’s not like I had much of a choice.”
Ignoring the complaint, the woman placed a suitcase on the conference table. “I’ll try to keep this brief,” she said, dialing the combinations on the suitcase’s locks. “My name is Madeline Collins. We have reason to believe your family is being targeted. We aren’t certain of whether this is the work of an individual or an organization, but until the responsible party is apprehended, you are in grave danger.”
“Why?” Mia asked as calmly as she could. “Is it because of Dad’s job?”
“His position as governor is a factor, but I’m afraid it goes much deeper than that.”
Mrs. Collins popped the case open, pulled out several thick folders, and handed one to Mia.
“These are historical documents,” Mia said, thumbing through the folder. “What do these have to do with me and my family?”
Taking a seat across the table from the frightened young woman, Mrs. Collins put on a pair of reading glasses and began to sift through the papers. “Sometime in the third century, a political family experienced a series of events that precisely mirror those that your own family have recently been through. Similarities includes major events, such as the death of your mother, as well certain … ‘qualities’ of your family dynamic.”
Mia shivered. She was still wearing her nightgown and the room seemed to be getting colder by the minute. “I don’t get it. What does all this mean?”
“Perhaps you and your family are the va Nazas themselves, reincarnated and forced to relive the past,” Collins suggested casually. “Or maybe you were displaced in time, experiencing the same sequence of events in a different era.”
“Are you making fun of me?” Mia said loudly, rising to her feet. “Did my father put you up to this? This about my LSD problem, isn’t it? He wants to make sure that I’m still in touch with reali—”
“I was merely trying to lighten the mood, Ms. Valiant,” Collins interrupted, “and certainly not at your expense; I was not aware of your condition. I’m very sorry for offending you. In all seriousness, we believe someone noticed your family’s coincidental similarity to the va Naza clan and decided to reenact history by murdering your mother. If this is indeed the case, it’s likely that the copycat intends to harm you and your relatives as well.”
Though still visibly angry, Mia sighed and sat back down. “All right, so we’re being hunted by a psychopathic maniac. What are we going to do about it?”
“My coworkers and I will track down the murderer before they can do any further harm. In the meantime, your bodyguard, Mr. Warren, is to accompany you whenever you leave your home. Also, it is imperative that you avoid using any form of train-based transportation, including subways and monorails.”
Mia grew less happy with every word she heard. “All right,” she conceded. “I’ll do whatever it takes. Just track down whoever’s doing this.”
“We’re doing everything we can, Ms. Valiant,” Collins said reassuringly, snapping her suitcase shut. “Thank you again for coming to talk with me. We’ll be sure to inform you of any major developments in the case.”
He was dressed from head to toe in full cowboy regalia. “Wonderful job, as always,” he said, handing over roll of bills.
“You’re too kind,” his companion replied, receiving the payment with her left hand, since her right was clutching a black wig.
Louis tipped his ten-gallon hat and smiled. “Like you said: things are going to turn out differently this time.”