[Check out the exciting previous chapter. In which our hero microwaves some burritos.]
My first thought was a momentary twinge of admiration at how epic the whole thing looked, the mysterious and menacing figure lit from behind by a brilliant light, the gun held casually at his side. But my second thought was the realization that the guy must have planned for me to see him that way. Because stuff like that doesn’t happen on accident. This made me feel a little sheepish about the first thought, but fortunately I didn’t have much time to be embarrassed because the man with the gun said, “Get your rest?”
“Is that how you’re going to play it?” I asked. “Smooth and snarky? Kinda cliché don’t you think?”
I feel obligated to point out that I’m not generally brave enough to tell off menacing, gun-toting, strangers. Not that I’ve met that many of them, but if I did, I’m pretty sure I’d be scared out of my mind. All I can say is that I was tired, and being tired, spouted off the first thing that came to mind.
The next moment I was reminded why it was a bad idea to talk smack to gun-toting strangers, because the one in my bedroom snarled and lunged forward pressing the gun to my temple. “That the way you want to play it fat boy? You think you’re cute with that mouth of yours?”
I winced at the feel of the metal barrel pressing into my skull and said, “Ow, all right, sorry.”
“You’re going to be if you don’t cooperate.”
“What do you want?” And then I added, because it seemed relevant, “Who are you?”
He didn’t answer the second question. Instead he snarled, “The e-mail.”
The stranger hauled back and punched me square in the gut. “Don’t get cute with me!” he yelled.
Actually, that time I hadn’t been trying to be difficult. I honestly couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. But then I remembered the nonsense message Frog had sent me. Only, how did this guy know about that?
The stranger grabbed me by my shirt and slammed my head back against the headboard of my bed. “Answer the question loser.”
I thought about holding out on him, but I was already in pain, and I’m not really much of a hero, so I said, “I did get a weird email the other day.”
“Well no kidding.” The guy reached into the pocket of his suit and pulled out a piece of paper. He unfolded it and held it up in front of my face. “Look familiar?”
It was a printout of Frog’s email. “Yeah,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t hit me again. “That’s the one.”
“I KNOW its the one!” he screamed, his face inches from mine, flecks of his spittle spraying out into my eyes. “What does it MEAN?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Really, you’ve got to believe me I-”
But before I could finish he slammed my head back against the headboard again and this time the world seemed to pop like a dying light bulb, and I fell into darkness.
When I woke up I was seated in a dimly lit room with my arms and legs duct-taped to a what seemed to be an old wooden chair. A few feet away, across a battered metal table sat the man in the suit regarding me with almost an almost reptilian smile.
“Welcome back,” he said.
I didn’t answer. My head was still throbbing and I wasn’t sure, but it felt like my hair was crusted with dried blood.
Also I was hungry. There’s a thing where kids say “I’m starving,” and moms say, “Honey you’re not starving, you’re just hungry.” Technically the moms are right (moms often are), but I feel they miss the point. All hunger is not created equal. The hunger you feel after skipping lunch is not the same as the hunger of man lost in the mountains for days without food. But more than that, I think hunger varies from person to person. Some people just don’t seem to feel the need to eat. They think of food with a kind of detachment, like a nuisance ritual that they must partake of to remain alive and little more.
But for me things are different. By the time I reach my mealtimes the prospect of food looms in front of me like a welcome homecoming, a joyous and celebratory occasion. But even more than that, there’s an emotional component to the whole thing. When I’m eating I feel good, no matter what’s happening in my life, it’s like the food pushes it all away. And when your life is as messed up as mine you need that comfort more often than not.
I said all that to say this: I was starving. Not actually in a, “I’m going to die in a few hours if I don’t get some food” kind of way. (If the apocalypse turns out to be some sort of food shortage, I can take consolation in the fact that I’ll outlive all of you who have worked so hard to stay skinny and fit.) Rather there was a gnawing empty void in my stomach that screamed to be filled. Between that, my pounding head injury and being duct taped to a chair it was turning out to be a very bad day to be Vincent Price.
“You got all the lip out of your system?” the suit snarled.
I nodded, a little too fast, and winced with the explosion of new pain that it brought.
“You wanna tell me about the email?”
“I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean. I’m telling you the truth.”
He flicked on a light that seared into my retinas and shut out the rest of the dim room. I squeezed my eyes shut, and some strange part of my brain imagined him standing there in the darkness examining me like some insect under a microscope. I thought how I must look to him: fat, pasty, pathetic.
“You’ve got to do better than that,” he said.
“Why don’t you believe me? I. Don’t. Know. You think I’m going to decode it here with my arms duct taped to a chair, and my head half bashed in?”
“There goes that lip again,” the suit said. He reached out and laid something on the table between us; a pair of rusty pruning shears. It didn’t take a genius to decode that message. My heart started to beat faster, and a jolt of fear shot through my gut. I thought fast.
“Well I’m not sure, but if I recall correctly they were all normal English words, so maybe they just need to be rearranged? Or if you looked at the first or last letters of each of them?”
The suit slammed his fist down on the table. “We TRIED all that,” he screamed. “You think this is a game?”
I didn’t know what this was, but I wasn’t about to say that to him on account of the fact that he might decide to get creative with the pruning shears. While my brain was working overtime trying to figure a way out of this he leaned forward into the circle of light. “There are experts who’ve been over this thing that can’t turn up anything. Whatever the message is, your friend sent it to you, which means you must have some way to decode it.”
I started to protest that I didn’t know anything about it, but then I realized that the only value I had to the suit was as a decoder. I didn’t know that he would kill me if I couldn’t help him, but it wouldn’t be smart to assume otherwise. Finally I said, “Look Frog was a weird guy. He knew all kinds of codes. Call it kind of a hobby with him.”
“I don’t need the guy’s life story.”
“I’m just saying, if it is a code then it won’t be just one. Frog had this obsession with layering. One code to break another code to break another code, you see? Even if you broke the first code you wouldn’t know it because the message would still be tangled up in a different code.”
“So how do you break it?” the suit asked.
“Same way you break any code,” I answered. “With the key. Or in this case with several keys.”
“And what is the key?”
I shook my head. “I told you, no clue. Not the first one. I can’t tell you why he sent it so me.”
He looked at me with something like suspicion in his eyes. For a long time neither of us said anything. Then at last he spoke. “Fine. Let’s say I believe you.”
“Good. Yes. Let’s say that.”
“If I believe you then you’ve done your civic duty and you can go about your merry way. Only…the people I work for don’t like people talking about them. And I’ve seen how good you are at keeping your mouth shut.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. But the suit went right on talking. “On the other hand,” he said with a grin, “Let’s say I don’t believe you. That means you’re holding out on me. In a different world I might torture you to within an inch of your life and then another foot beyond that, just to be sure. Fortunately for you my employers like to avoid bloodshed whenever possible.”
“How nice of them.”
“But,” the suit continued, “If you’re holding out on me, that might mean that you do have information, information someone less scrupulous than me might want to extract. So…” He place a small metal case on the table, clicked the latches open and opened the lid. “We’re going to give you a little something that will help you forget all about this nasty business,” he said.
And then he pulled out the biggest needle I have ever seen in my life.
[Check out the riveting next chapter: in which our hero stumbles around in a Walmart parking lot.]