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Nathaniel Dawkins recognized the limitations of his capacity for compassion. Unfortunately, his employer at the Port Arthur Pulse had greatly overestimated those limits.
For the last few weeks, Nathaniel had been inundated with sad stories of those whom had lost homes and their places of employment.
Earlier in the summer, a category five hurricane had hit the city hard. It was the first storm in over a century to create swells high enough to breach the city's seawall and plunge much of the city under several feet of water. The neighborhood near Sabine Pass was hit hardest as there was nothing to slow the deluge of storm waters.
He had spent much of the aftermath of the storm in areas like the Sabine Pass neighborhood interviewing residents and slowly losing his mind. As selfish or cold as it sounded, Nathaniel did not get into journalism to be the human interest guy.
Exposing corruption and assisting the police in capturing serial criminals was where his interests lay. His preferred emotional outpourings came in the form of gratitude and commendations rather than sob stories.
Few men ever took proper heed of the warning “Be careful what you wish for.” Unfortunately for Nathaniel, he would count himself among the people that had to learn that lesson the hard way.
Judging by the two uninvited men occupying space in his living room, Nathaniel was getting his wish.
He recognized the first man immediately. Eddie Granger sported his usual colorful attire. Nathaniel knew next to nothing about fashion, but something told him Eddie’s sense was even less developed. He wore a lime green shirt left unbuttoned enough to see the top of his rock solid abs and jeans a shade of red Nathaniel found impossible to believe had been purchased in a store that actually aspired towards having customers.
Despite the potent mix of surprise, anxiety, and fear that momentarily robbed Nathaniel of the ability to speak, Eddie's ridiculously spiky blonde hair still managed to annoy him. He knew Eddie through a mutual acquaintance. Eddie had a way of finding the right anonymous source whenever the paper needed one. Nathaniel respected that about the man, despite his doubts about the man’s character, but they were not friends. Eddie did not seem to be in the market for new friends if breaking into Nathaniel’s apartment was any indication.
The other man was a mystery. He stood a few inches shorter and several pounds heavier than Nathaniel with thinning hair on his head and thick curls on his bare arms. His dark, collared shirt and khaki’s would not look out of place in most grocery stores.
“Sorry for barging in like this," Eddie said from his relaxed position on the sofa. The second man migrated towards the window as Eddie scooted to the edge of the sofa.
“What are you doing in my apartment, Eddie?”
“Just came to talk is all...”
“Got nothing to say to you Eddie.”
“Good, because you need to listen. This won't take long. From one professional to another, I figured I’d offer you an unique opportunity to elevate your career."
"Doing pretty well on my own Eddie. What could you possibly do to help me?"
"You would be surprised. I'm going to help you out on one condition."
"I haven't agreed to anything."
"Where's your journalistic curiosity? Don’t you want to know why Chuck here is staring out of your window?”
“What’s your game, Eddie?”
“Okay, Chuck. Why are you here?”
"Plenty of time for questions tomorrow. You have a great view of the park. I like the park. Going to miss going there." Chuck turned away from the window and Nathaniel swallowed the panic threatening to erupt from him when he saw the gun.
"Let's stay calm," Nathaniel said barely above a whisper. Eddie looked over his shoulder, noted the gun and shrugged as Chuck began to speak.
"That's just it. I am calm. Very, very calm. Too calm really. I should be freaking out. Shouldn’t I be freaking out, Eddie? I killed a man. I didn't mean to do it. No, I did mean to do it. I don't think I wanted to do it."
"Who did you kill?"
"I don't know. Eddie said you’d know though. Hey, no questions remember? I'll see you tomorrow, okay."
“You heard the man,” Eddie said as she stood to join the man called Chuck. “If any of that piqued your interest, wait until you see what we left on your computer. Talk to you later.”
The two men left out the front door as if this were any ordinary meeting between any ordinary group of people. Curiosity overruled the urge to call the cops. Besides, what would he tell them? The former football hero turned entertainment news anchor and his friend that looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly broke into his apartment to confess to the murder of someone he may or may not know then left promising to visit again soon? Who the heck would believe that? Without realizing it, he had wandered over to his desk.
The computer was on, but in sleep mode. As he typed in his password, he noticed the faint red glow of a thumb drive’s LED then clicked the dialogue box that requested he open new media. A few seconds of loading led to a visual assault of grizzly images taken from a crime scene investigation.
Was this the person Chuck claimed to have killed? There was enough blood to indicate a fatality but there were no clear shots of the victim’s face. He had to know who this poor unfortunate soul was and how he was connected to the person.
Why did they give this to him? More importantly, did they really plan to return to his home tomorrow?
That night, he slept in the bathroom armed with the sharpest knife from his kitchen.
Clouds the color of charcoal drifted ominously overhead. Sleep deprived, Nathaniel approached the weather damaged, but still functional building that was temporarily housing the Port Arthur Pulse’s printing presses.
The office buzzed with a renewed sense of energy. Nathaniel was actually surprised. He had gotten accustomed to the more subdued workspace of the previous three months.
"What the heck is going on here?" he asked no one in particular. Carly, their newest temporary receptionist, popped her gum in an oddly refreshing and nostalgic way. She spun around and fixed her big baby blue eyes on him. She was adorable in that "way too young to hit on" sort of way.
"The boss wants to see you."
"Fantastic. See you later." She smiled that innocent smile of hers and blew him a farewell bubble.
Nathaniel strolled past his co-workers hacking away at keyboards in a manner reminiscent of children imitating adults rather than experienced typists.
Others held animated conversations with unseen contacts over cell phones with spotty reception.
Something big must be going on and part of him was curious as to if it had anything to do with what Eddie had given him a few hours ago.
Kaleb Brown was the last breed of those turn of the century internet billionaires who lost the majority of their money during the last recession. But he was a kid back then barely out of high school.
Mr. Brown had taken in all in stride and learned from those setbacks. Within four years he had regained most of his net worth during a comeback that generated international headlines. For God knows what reason, he had purchased the local newspaper and was somehow making more in print than the digital imprint had in the last few years.
Nathaniel entered the office and found the younger man standing on his desk surrounded by transparent screens of streaming data and images.
It never ceased to amaze Nathaniel that this young man who who thrived on bleeding edge technology was in charge of an ink and paper news daily with a circulation double the size of the city's population. It was a wonder that Mr. Brown was not on the ground floor of Eye-Feed and its app that downloaded links from news aggregators directly to people’s eyewear of choice. Then again, he was in the black and Eye-Feed was still running at a loss.
"Nathaniel!" He yelled excited. He threw open his arms excitedly and the monitors parted. Mr. Brown then sat down cross legged on his desk and motioned for Nathaniel to come closer.
"Big things are happening Nathaniel and I want you to be part of it.”
"Yes sir. What do you need me to do?”
"You and Cherie are going to dig into the Lakeshore Initiative."
"You have a problem with her?"
"No sir, just curious why you would team me with a glorified intern."
"Experience plus youth my good man. So, Lakeshore. You in?"
"If there's something to find, I'll find it."
It was eight minutes after two and the air conditioner in the Walgreen's on Thomas Jefferson Boulevard was working overtime to combat the heat outside its walls. Nathaniel had been inside long enough to place his order at the retro style lunch counter and was still dabbing perspiration from his forehead with the napkins Cherie Boudreaux had offered him.
He rolled his eyes in annoyance as the young lady purposely and loudly slurped her strawberry milkshake. Hate was a strong word. Nathaniel tended to express his displeasure by stating he had an intense dislike for something. Yet Cherie had a way of infuriating him over the tiniest infractions he would otherwise ignore. God, he better not be falling for this broad.
His eyes drifted from the crimson streaks in her dark hair and towards the window above the counter. He could have sworn the sky should be brighter given the temperature. The current shade of blah out there was not helping his mood at all.
He settled his gaze on her once again and she winked at him as she wrapped her lips around the straw for one final suck. The screaming inside his head nearly gave him a migraine. There was no question that she did things like this to annoy him.
"Got something real interesting for you partner," she said with enough sweetness to make his teeth hurt.
"Don't call me partner."
"Well I'm not calling you daddy." He grit his teeth. It was his fault she had that card to play. Six weeks ago when she started with the paper, all evidence had pointed to her being the type of eager young apprentice that would do anything to share a byline up to and including sharing a night of drunken sex.
Evidence, as he was very aware of, could easily be fabricated. Those rumors had in fact been fabricated. Worse still, she had masterminded them and did everything short of actually substantiating the rumors to make sure he fell for every deliciously sinful word.
"Let’s pretend you didn’t just say that. What did you find?"
"You're going to love this," she said and slid her glass to the right to make space. She pulled out her cell phone, slid her finger across the screen a few times and placed the phone on the counter where he could see a microphone icon. "I wanted to run something by you. Call me crazy," she started, and his brain finished with something unflattering, "but I have a theory about Lakeshore that could explain why all their employees are so gosh darn happy go lucky."
"I'm all ears," he told her dryly.
"Then listen to this." She jabbed the icon with a chewed up purple fingernail and a moment later a shaky voice asked to have something given back to them.
"A bottle of pills," Cherie volunteered as they listened to her voice over the recording ask what the pills were for. The young man said his anxiety and that she was being a real disagreeable woman in the most unflattering way he could. Then the recording ended.
"So you got audio of you harassing some poor kid. What am I supposed to take from this?"
"This." Another few finger swipes brought up her picture gallery. She enlarged one of the pictures and showed it to him.
Nathaniel read the name on the bottle of pills Cherie must have swiped from the kid. He had no idea how to pronounce the drug's name, but the prescribing doctor's name was very familiar.
"I looked up the name and it’s an antidepressant from about ten years back. Kinda weird don't you think?"
"Yeah. Pretty sure it was discontinued because of the side effects. So what are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking you talk with Dr. Warren Hinerman and find out why he's using stuff that made several lawyers very rich ten years ago."
"And why would I do that? Maybe I got my own stuff to work on."
"Because you want to do filthy things to my body and I might let you," she said nonchalantly. He nearly choked on his water at just how casually she made the remark.
"Be serious," he warned as he regained his composure.
"Okay, I have a couple other theories to work out and you're a respected journalist. Figured you'd be up to doing something other than interviewing grieving families. Besides, nobody's going to take me serious right now and I thought..."
"You'd manipulate me with your womanly wiles?"
"Wiles is such a funny word," she said as she rolled her straw between her thumb and middle finger. "And manipulation makes me think you think I'm some sort of hussy."
"One, I would never use the word hussy. Two, really, hussy? People stopped saying that before you were born. Three, it's not like it would be the first time a woman has tried to seduce me into sharing a byline."
"That's the beauty of it. Your contact, your byline. That is, if you get the story."
"I know you're playing me, but I accept your challenge." As the words left his mouth, he felt a prickle of unease. Turning towards the entrance, he was greeted with the unexpected arrival of Eddie perpetrating another crime against fashion.
This afternoon’s eye sore consisted of a scarlet and leopard print sleeveless tee, high waisted orange jeans with about a dozen pockets, a chain link belt and sandals for some inexplicable reason. Even if being observant was not beneficial to his job, there was no way not to remember everything Eddie wore.
In one fluid motion, Eddie, snatched up a chair from an unoccupied table and set it back first against the counter in-between their stools.
Eddie straddled his chair and rested his chin on the back of the chair. He flashed Nathaniel a quick smile and blew a kiss at Cherie.
Nathaniel's face remained a mask of annoyance and Cherie returned the kiss with a dramatic flair.
"So how is it hep cat and kitten?" Eddie’s voice had a much friendlier tone than the previous evening.
"Just discussing a bit of business, sugar pie."
The two of them talked for a few minutes and Nathaniel tuned out their inane conversation until invited to comment. He declined and they trailed off in a murmur for another minute or so before Cherie announced her intentions to leave.
"I have to go. You boys play nice. Nate, don't let me down and thanks for the drink cutie." She winked and smiled. Nathaniel sighed audibly. Her milkshake was going to cost him six bucks.
“Isn't she’s great,” Eddie said in a way that made Nathaniel immediately want to mock him. Instead he laid his card on the counter.
“Yeah, she's something alright." The cashier nodded at him and he lifted his card from the counter and slipped it back into his pocket.
"Look, as fun as it is to hang out with you, I have to go."
As he tried to stand up, he felt Eddie’s surprisingly strong grip on his shoulder.
“So, what did you think of your surprise?”
“I gave it to the police.”
“That’s is disappointing. Well can’t win them all. Though, I really thought you’d want to do your part to make the City by the Sea the place to be." He finally relinquished his grip and Nathaniel's entire arm immediately started to throb. He watched the man leave and pondered Eddie's interesting choice of parting words.
They were the current mayor's slogan. It was his promise to make Port Arthur the type of place businesses could invest in yet still hold onto its small town values. Regardless of any antipathy Nathaniel had for Eddie, Eddie had pushed the right buttons to engage his curiosity.
Two days and zero answers later, Nathaniel waited anxiously for Cherie at their usual spot. A minute later, she burst through the doors with an unbridled energy. She spoke at a rapid clip and he shook his head and buried his face into his hands.
"Slow down," he told her.
"You're right, sorry, sorry, sorry." She took a deep breath and let it out all at once. "Okay, okay, okay. Been a pretty crazy couple of days. I bought a new phone and Corey solved a freakin' murder. Did you know Dr. Hinerman was dead?"
"Yeah, I saw the paper." He kept to himself the fact that he had seen the pictures used in the article three nights ago on his home computer.
"A literal dead end. How’s your end of the investigation going?” She spun around on the stool.
"Not the way I’d like. Why are you so hyper?"
"Don't know. I'm just, buzzing. Like a little bee. But never mind that. So what’s next partner?”
"We lay low for a bit. Don’t make any waves for a few days.”
“Okay.” She did not seem thrilled with the idea.
“Trust me, right now, the last thing we want is someone else turning up dead and throwing us further off track. Any way, I wanted to talk to you about Eddie."
"What about him?"
"What is he to you?"
"Excuse me? That's personal." He cursed and stood up. Cherie grabbed his hand. "What's the matter with you?"
"I, I just need to clear my head. I'm sorry. Forget I brought it up"
As he stepped outside, he could not shake the feeling that Eddie had orchestrated Dr. Hinerman death as a sort of initiation for him. Was it to test if he could keep quiet? Why was the doctor considered expendable enough to test something like that?
Chuck had been charged with the murder, but Eddie was just as guilty if not more. Had Nathaniel allowed the mastermind behind a murder to simply walk out of his home without so much as alerting the police beyond the photos he returned to them? He just wanted to crawl into bed and stay there until things started to make sense again.
His exile lasted nearly six weeks. Nathaniel checked in once a week with the Pulse via email, but otherwise stayed within the bubble of his bedroom.
During that time period, the Pulse had sold a mind boggling half million copies of the paper bolstered by the meteoric rise of Corey Johnson.
The unassuming copywriter had gone from a nobody to superstar in less than two months. In addition to being credited with the Dr. Hinerman story, Johnson had also laid claim to uncovering corruption within the city council. The whole affair reeked of a set up. The alleged was not a career politician, but an outsider that had been elected mainly because her platform had been that she could not be bought. Johnson’s story dismantled Councilwoman Rahmon’s character in a way that felt maliciously vindictive.
Johnson’s crowning moment however, was his exclusive interview with notoriously shy pop star Pearl. That issue alone sold nearly a quarter million hard copies and the internet exclusive photos generate ten times as many unique visitors.
Nathaniel had found it difficult to meet with Cherie in person throughout this ordeal. After the first three weeks, she took the hint. Terse text messages that he could practically hear being said in her most irritated voice were their only communication.
While he played lip service to continuing the Lakeshore investigation, she has been hitting the pavement every day. Unfortunately, every avenue she pursued had been fruitless and he wished he could say he was surprised.
Mr. Brown, patient to a fault, had not added any pressure to speed up the Lakeshore story. Between Johnson’s sudden emergence as an investigative ace and newly acquired celebrity magnet, the paper was reaching unheard of circulation numbers. While good for the company’s bottom line and a few of his co-worker’s bank accounts, there was little else good about the entire situation.
Nathaniel climbed out of bed and if Eddie was expecting to surprise him with another appearance in his living room, the rainbow colored buffon was out of luck.
“You okay, man? You been out of circulation for a while. How’s it feel to see all that money and fame go to that Johnson kid. That’s why you gotta learn to play ball.”
“I want to see your boss.”
“Look at the brass ones on this guy. Who do you think I work for exactly?”
“At first, I thought it was Lakeshore, since I kept getting stonewalled there. But now, I’m thinking you work for De La Luna.”
“No point in lying to you if you figured that much out. Guess those reporter skills still work.”
“Actually you tipped me off with the mayor’s words. De La Luna was his biggest, if not most public supporter. Did a little digging and figured, what the heck, wouldn’t hurt to talk to the man.”
“See, that’s pretty smart. I’ll set it up.”
Mariner Colony was the most expensive and exclusive neighborhood in the city. Houses easily fetched half a million dollar price tags in a town where a tenth of that got you 3 beds and 2 baths in just about any other part of the city.
Outside of the largest home in the area, a man dressed like a government agent-dark shades included-looked Nathaniel up and down then allowed him access to Luis De La Luna's residence.
Every woman he saw was a study in expensive elegance. He could only guess how many months' worth of his salary it would take to purchase any of the jeweled evening gowns.
There was no slacking on the men's part either. Nathaniel recognize a few of the suits from advertisements in the paper. In a room full of fifteen hundred dollar suits, he was woefully out of place in his casual get up that retailed at barely a hundred bucks. He did not want to jump to conclusions but he could feel several very judgmental eyes following his every movement.
A particularly beautiful woman approached him and derailed any further thoughts. She was tall, with a complexion that hinted at Spanish ancestry. Luscious dark curls bounced freely against her shoulders.
"Good evening," she greeted sweetly. There was a faint hint of an accent and it was just enough to be memorable.
"Good evening," he replied. "I'm sorry. I had no idea there was a party tonight."
"Oh, you must be Mr. Dawkins. I'll take you to Luis." She offered her arm and after interlocking his with hers, he followed her lead. A minute later, they approached a very tall, very fit and handsome man commanding the attention of five of his guests.
“Senior De La Luna," the woman interrupted. Luis De La Luna excused himself and turned to face Nathaniel and the woman.
"Ah, my guest of honor. Sierra, if you would be so kind to escort Mr. Dawkins to the study, I will join him momentarily." Sierra smiled brightly, nodded her acquiescence and led Nathaniel to a door on the other side of the room.
"Make yourself comfortable." She closed the door and left him alone with his thoughts. He browsed the extensive collection of books lining three walls of the room. Many of them were leather bound and several were first editions of books nearly two centuries old.
"I apologize for keeping you waiting Mr. Dawkins. Please have a seat." Nathaniel chose an ornate high backed chair that looked as if it were plucked out of a British nobleman's home in the late 1800s. De La Luna sat in front of him roughly six feet away in a more modern office chair.
"Do you know why you are here?"
“Because you allow it?”
“Very good. In life, it is very important to know your place.” He noted Nathaniel’s look. “No offense intended.”
“Of course. If I can be so bold Senior De La Luna, what’s the end game here?”
“Good, let’s not prolong this any further.”
De La Luna proceeded to tell Nathaniel about his grand vision for Port Arthur. The more he listened, the more Nathaniel battled against his own misgivings. There were some scary implications about how casually the man spoke of turning the entire city into a petri dish.
Dr. Hinnerman had died, but only temporarily thanks to the most advanced cellular regeneration matrix that existed beyond a schematic in some researcher’s grant proposal. De La Luna’s people had a date set for a military demonstration.
The former Dr. Hinerman was currently rebuilding his practice under a new identity that was not pertinent at the moment.
Chuck, also known as Charles R. Wright, was being rewarded handsomely for his role as the fall guy for the pseudo murder that took away one of LakeShore’s most prominent assets.
De La Luna connected the dots for Nathaniel about where Eddie got his information as well as the truth behind his miraculous recovery from a career ending injury. The radical procedure involved a process that essentially boiled down to copying DNA from a healthy volunteer and imprinting it on the recipient. It was the sort of thing that could abolish the death rate of those that needed transplants once all the bugs were worked out of the system.
Like Chuck, but without the jail time, Tim White took credit for the rehabilitation and became a much sought out and very wealthy man.
Those were just a few of the examples of the people that had willingly allowed themselves to be caught up in this grand science and social experiment.
There were others, like the suddenly uncontrollably hyper Cherie, who had no idea that what she was experiencing was one of a dozen blind trials transpiring throughout the city.
It was a lot to digest. The storm had provided the perfect cover for the people that bankrolled De La Luna. Small town in need of aid? Who’s going to question the altruism of the group bringing hope to the hopeless? He was a reporter and never suspected a thing. What rational thinking person could even conceive of a small town in Texas being the breeding ground for medical science advances a decade or more ahead of their time?
De La Luna offered him a drink.
“The way I see it, you have two choices. The best choice is you reap the rewards of our little collective. You tell the stories I need to be told when I need them told. If you need something to ease your conscience, we have something for that. The not as progressive choice is to remain on the outside looking in. Your journalistic integrity will eventually flare up and you’ll suffer greatly trying to expose the brilliant minds to the scrutiny of a world that rather vote for televised talent shows than their leaders. And you will fail. I give you my word no one will go out of their way to interfere in your life if you decline initiation. But failure is the only option if at some point you try to blow the proverbial whistle. You can’t fight the future. Think it over.”
“I already made my choice.”
“Let’s make the City by the Sea, the place to be.”
“Smart man.” De La Luna poured himself a drink as well. “To the future.”
As they tapped glasses, Nathaniel made a silent oath that he was not selling his integrity. He was merely renting it. Curiosity was his curse, and it was doing an excellent job of damning him to a course that he wanted to see play out for the time being.
“To the future.”