Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between

Excerpt: Blood and Strawberries

Reporter Rafaella Ortiz went to DC the Tuesday before Halloween looking for
a story. What she found was dowsing, conspiracy and something like a god.

Runners in the 2011 Washington, DC, High Heel Race (Photo by Jean Marie Ward)

The man’s glasses weren’t just impossible to miss, they were just plain impossible. On the shady side of Connecticut Avenue, with the sun blocked by the building behind him, they blazed like copper suns, complete with death ray flares. I couldn’t write them off as mirrored sunglasses, either. Mirrors don’t prism in shadow.

The guy attached to the glasses was merely improbable—long and lean, with a nice set of shoulders under his white lab coat. You don’t see many lab coats in that part of DC. The nearest hospital is a half mile away, and the nearest anything with “research” in the title is across the District line in the Outer Dark of the Maryland suburbs. Still, I might’ve overlooked that particular singularity if the coat hadn’t acted like it was wearing him instead of the other way around. While he scanned the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Building across the street, the crisp front panels fretted against each other like prehensile feathers.

You didn’t see that, my guardian angel informed me.

Like hell I didn’t. I straightened on the bench of the umbrella-shaded sidewalk table for a better look. Pedestrians in business clothes sheared past, oblivious to the glasses and the lab coat’s antics. They listened to their good angels. They weren’t reporters.

The guy fished a flint arrowhead on a silver chain from under his t-shirt, flipped it over his head and dangled it over the pavement. The arrowhead started to spin.

I stuffed my tablet, keyboard and water bottle in my messenger bag and abandoned the table. Dowsing in the heart of DC’s business district in a lab coat on the Tuesday before Halloween qualified as story material in my book. So it would be a feature article instead of the juicy news item I’d been anticipating. Freelancers can’t be choosers, especially when all I had to show for the day was a human interest sidebar on the High Heel Race happening later that evening.

The pendant whooshed to the side, pulling the silver chain taut. The arrowhead strained toward the windshield of the Sun Network (“Shining a light on your world (TM)”) satellite van that had been parked outside the Chamber Building almost as long as I had. The chain held the horizontal as if it never heard of gravity. The skin on the back of my neck tried to slither under my hair.

The arrow didn’t drop. It reversed direction and spun clockwise. The flaked tip rose with each circuit until it locked on a shaded window nestled between the leafy caps of two pilasters on the fourth floor of the Chamber of Commerce Building. The woad-slathered Celt living inside my lizard brain, the one responsible for my prized reporter’s instincts and intuitions, started shaking her crazy spear, insisting the arrow pointed not to the room hiding behind the closed white blinds, but to the small media room across the hall in back of it, the one you never see on TV. The one which, according to my source, Sun Network pundit Laura Judson had booked from eleven to one. Suddenly my mouth was too dry to swallow.

The force supporting the pendant collapsed. The man caught the arrow with a casual twist of his wrist. His eyes remained hidden behind the copper glare of his lenses, but his mouth lifted in a smirk.

“Here be dragons,” he intoned dramatically.

Really? You just broke enough laws of physics to make an omelet, and that’s the best you’ve got? Disappointment hit the reset button on my snark.

“Scaly and reptilian—I see you’ve met the Chamber’s lobbyists.” I cocked my head at the pendant. “What are you looking for?”

Dark eyebrows winged over glasses that were no longer opaque. The eyes behind them appeared small, friendly, and if I may say so, impressed. “I thought I’d know when I found it. What’s up with the van?”

“That is the question, Horatio.”

“Val,” he chuckled. He extended his hand, only to realize he was still holding the flint. He stuffed it in his coat pocket and tried again. “Valentine Ross—Horatio wasn’t in that scene.”

My heart jumped into my throat. Valentine Ross? The Valentine Ross—the Arlington Cemetery Sorcerer? Time had carved away the baby fat I remembered from photos of the incident, and the little beard was new, but yeah, the mouth, the jaw, the shape of his face—even with the glasses, I could see it.

I could also see what it meant to my story quota and the prospect of the job it represented—a job I trained for, a job I was good at, a job to get both feet in the door the Sun affiliate in Madison, Wisconsin, closed in my face. All the goose bumps I’d decided to ignore morphed into a tingling in my typing fingers. Holy crap, today wasn’t the Tuesday before Halloween; it was Christmas in October. Visions of “ten years after” features danced in my head.

“No Valentine, either, unless you count Ophelia. I’m Rafaella Ortiz.”

I extended my hand. He got points for not wasting time with the usual double-take. I’m half-Mexican and damn proud of it, but I take after my Irish mom. Given how long the U.S. has called itself a melting pot, you’d think people would be less shocked.

His handshake was pleasantly firm and quick. He didn’t try to hang on, but he didn’t back away.

“So, what’s a nice guy who knows Hamlet doing in a place like this—besides dowsing, that is?”

His grin widened. “I’m in the restoration business. Art, usually. I’m working at St. Matthew’s. You?”

An art restoration job—that explained the combination of lab coat, graphic tee and paint-splattered jeans. I was about to confess I was a reporter who only wanted him for his interview when the traffic signals on both ends of the block blinked out. The lights inside the corner lunch-by-the-pound cafe went dark, immediately followed by a blast of Cantonese from the cashier-slash-manager. Waves of tourists in color-coded t-shirts, civil servants in jackets, office drones and retail clerks peered at the dark windows. Horns blared all along the street.
“What the hell?” I muttered.

Like everyone else in the area, I took our power grid for granted. Mother Nature has to work to bring the District to its electronic knees. But we were enjoying the kind of clear, balmy October afternoon that makes you wish Indian summer would last all year. This shouldn’t be happening.

Val didn’t answer. He tore off in the direction of Farragut Square as if all those angry drivers were about to jump the curb after him.

“Oh no, you don’t!” You don’t get out of an interview that easy.

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have stood a chance against his long legs and ground-eating stride. But dead signals meant instant gridlock. He had to think about how to dodge bumpers. I’d been chasing stories since high school. By now I had a doctorate in broken field running. I could do it in high heels if I had to—and pin my source to the ground with the spikes once I caught up with him.

Or her. Since I’d made Laura Judson my assignment for the day, I’d gone for the harmless look: a junior-miss black pantsuit and kitten heels. I wasn’t up to leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but hot engines, the diesel farts of stalled buses, clumps of people making like mushrooms on the square’s chain-bordered sidewalks? No problem. We rounded Admiral Farragut’s statue shoulder to shoulder.

“Why’re you running?”

“Know what this means to Metro?”

“Dark stations,” I panted lightly. “Stopped trains.”

“Invisible trains,” he corrected, not even breathing hard. “Sensors and communication are down. Inbound trains are blind, only they don’t know it yet.”

My steps faltered as my brain processed the implications. The Golden Triangle, DC’s business district, was grounded on four of the city’s busiest subway stations, serving three different lines, with incoming trains from six directions. Metro trains are roughly the same length as six tractor trailers strung together—shorter than a freight train, but I wouldn’t want to try braking one in a hurry. If the drivers didn’t know there were trains stopped in front of them…

No. If the power went out, the trains would just stop where they were. Wouldn’t they?

My gaze drifted to the people exiting the Farragut North station. I remembered the body count the last time a Red Line driver didn’t see the train ahead of him. What if the trains got their power from someplace else? What if inertia took over when the power gave out, and the trains continued to move?

“You don’t know that!” I yelled across K Street.

At the sharp corner where Connecticut resumes after the interruption of the square, he glanced over his shoulder. His hair and glasses flashed like burnished gold. He started running again.

It took me a second to realize the snarl in my ears came from my mouth. This was the point a sane person—or a salaried reporter who could afford rent, food, utilities and all those other little luxuries I used to take for granted—would’ve spiked the Valentine Ross feature and headed to the PEPCO offices on Ninth Street for a quote about the black-out. Instead I ran after him, ignoring my burning calves and the Bag of Doom pounding my hip.

Here be dragons? No. Here be story. An innocent bystander doesn’t appear out of nowhere, put on a magic show, then race down crowded sidewalks in the middle of an inexplicable power outage—an outage that occurred almost immediately after he showed up. Instinct insisted he was connected somehow, and in case I haven’t said it enough, I’m a big believer in instinct. The fact that the not-so-innocent party happened to be the Cemetery Sorcerer was the cherry on top, and a guaranteed sale to every paying market in town.

Thank God he was wearing white. On a street lined with smoked glass and civil servants in every shade of drab, his flapping lab coat stood out like Superman’s red cape.

I trailed him across L and past DeSales. He built his lead on the long unbroken stretch of sidewalk on Connecticut’s west side. But at the corner of M Street, where Rhode Island Avenue and Connecticut collide in a crazy quilt of tight angles and tiny parks, two uniformed policemen had established a beachhead of traffic cones. Val’s head dipped as if he’d stepped onto the street. A police whistle squealed. His head bobbed back up.

Law-abiding—I love that in a source. I zipped between the rows of people filling in behind him and grasped his arm.

I thought I grasped his arm. The fabric of his coat sifted through my fingers like a fistful of feathers. My hand clenched reflexively. On a tautly muscled arm clothed in some kind of stiff cotton blend. Sweaty palms, I told myself.

Then I looked up. An iridescent wall, like a flattened soap bubble, separated us from the statue of Longfellow on the triangular lawn across the street. Pearlescent membranes rose from the cross streets, intersecting with the straight edges and curves of the surrounding buildings like the facets of an organic jewel.

My senses went haywire. I tasted the bitter narcissus sweetness of a passing woman’s perfume, the sulfur and salt of carbonized fuel. My skin itched from a sunburn created by the aromas of curry and frying chilies wafting from nearby restaurants. The numberless separate strides of the people around me struck the pavement like fingers on a keyboard, pounding out codes too complex for me to grasp. Tributaries of a steel river—metal veins beneath the city’s skin—streamed information like blood through a giant body. But something was missing. I felt its absence in the quiet between the policemen’s whistles, scuffing shoes and conversation, the grumble of engines and the hiss of breaks. No pulse. No warm sighs rising from the sidewalk grates. Paralyzed, the city seemed to say.

Val growled something. I half expected him to be transformed, as well. No such luck, unless you count the way he morphed from flirty to annoyed.

“Let go,” he said. That’s what it looked like, anyway. My sense of hearing was as messed up as everything else.

Numbly, I released his arm. Like a snapped rubber band, my jazz senses imploded into normal perception. The cop waved at the people on our corner. Without thinking, I obeyed and stepped off the curb. My heel caught on something, but my brain was too scrambled to react. With nightmare slowness I pitched forward at the feet of the impatient, inattentive horde…

*

Read more in Blood and Strawberries, coming soon from Falstaff Books.