Monday, March 20, 2006

EXCERPT: "The Watchman Project"

If nothing else, this past weekend gave me more snippets for the eventual "How to Go Shopping and Not Annoy the Salespeople" nonfiction bestseller. Why does cold, windy, sunny weather bring out all the crazies? The cheap crazies, no less. Do people leave their common sense in the car when they go shopping?

In the spirit of letting it go (or going postal, which is more fun, but usually frowned upon), I won't vent here. That's what a glass of White Zinfandel and my best friend are for. Instead, I thought I'd post an excerpt from one of my finished novels, "The Watchman Project." It hovers on this odd plateau between science fiction and mainstream suspense. I described it to a friend once as The A-Team meets The X-Files. The comparison is apropos.


Chapter Two: Reconnections

He picked his way across the lawn to the cracked stone pathway that snaked up to the porch. The first step creaked under his weight, as loud as a shotgun blast in the empty quiet of the evening. A car door slammed down the block. Dean's heart palpitated, and a new sheen of sweat broke out over his brow. Now that he was there, he wanted to be anywhere else. The second step creaked, but not as loudly. The third made no sound. Dean's feet shuffled softly across the wood porch, taking him to the front door of their own accord. Dean's hand reached up and pressed the doorbell to the right of the screen door.

Nothing. Not a sound from inside. He wondered if the doorbell was broken, thanked his lucky stars, but rang again. Instinct told him to run, but common sense made him stay. This time he rapped loudly on the door jam. He knocked continuously for several minutes until fear of disturbing a neighbor made him stop. He gazed around, but no one seemed to be paying attention to the dilapidated home on this end of the block. Or of the disheveled, curly-haired man trying to get inside.

He stood back and stared at the front door. It was painted fire engine red, peeled around the edges. The hinges had rusted over, and he bet they made a mighty squeak when they opened. There was no peephole that he could see, only an old nail that may have once held a wreath. The door itself looked weak enough, like a well placed action-movie kick could displace it, but he had no doubts there were double locks of all sorts on the other side. Either that or a state-of-the-art security system was ready to scream to life the minute he tried to break in.

Either way, breaking in would not help his case.

Dean backed off the porch and stepped down the creaky steps. He followed the stone path around to the side of the house. A white plank fence blocked off any view of the backyard from the front and the stone path went straight under it. He felt along the smooth wood for some sort of gate, a latch or lever. His fingers finally caught just below a knot. He felt a slender thread of metal and pushed upward. Something clicked and the wall of slats moved back a few inches. Dean pushed and his hidden gate opened further. He slipped through, leaving it open just in case he had to make a speedy exit.

If the wild front lawn surprised him, the backyard took his breath away. Three large willow trees reached toward the sky, their long bowing limbs creating a canopy of green that stretched out across the majority of the lawn. The grass was manicured and green, even in the dim light of the setting sun. Flower beds lined the metal siding around the base of the house, recently mulched by the odor of it. Late marigolds, last spring's tulips and johnny-jump-ups were planted there, along with chicks-n-hens and various herbs that Dean did not recognize. He caught a faint hint of peppermint over the smoldering odor of the mulch.

A small vegetable garden grew thick and green in the far left corner of the yard. He recognized tomato vines, two rows of corn, and leafy stalks that may have been broccoli. A black, wrought-iron bench and table stood beneath the center willow tree. The entire backyard was surrounded by the same white plank fence, taller than Dean, and with no other apparent gate. The backyard felt like a small haven, a retreat that wasn't to be shared with anyone else.

Dean thought of his mother's flower beds, and how she could never keep them properly weeded. The marigolds grew too wild, the bear grass sneaked in and choked everything else. She didn't bother with mulch, because the stray cats just dug it up. She'd stopped planting the garden when he was ten. Too much of a hassle, she'd proclaimed, tossing her garden gloves into the kitchen wastebasket and pouring a glass of instant lemonade. Little Dean had nodded along, taken his glass of lemonade and wandered into the living room to play with his Tinker Toys.

The care Dr. Younger must have taken with this yard astounded him.

Dean walked around, looking up toward the second-story windows, hoping to spot some light. Any indication that someone was awake or alive inside. He reached the back porch, just a stoop, really, with a small rail that went up a few steps. For a moment, he debated the merits of knocking here. It was probably worth a shot. One hand reached for the rail, newly painted, unlike the front porch. Just as his fingers closed over the smooth surface something cold and small pressed against the back of his neck.

Dean froze.

"You have illegally entered upon my private property," a deep, gruff voice said. The voice connected to whatever was pressing into his neck, which Dean was fairly certain was a shotgun of some caliber. "You have ten seconds to convince me I shouldn't shoot you as a trespasser."

Dean took in a shaky breath, trying to find his voice before his gray matter was splattered all over the back stoop. He had no doubts that the man behind him would keep that threat. "I, uh, I'm looking for Benjamin Younger," he said.

The barrel pressed harder. Dean winced and closed his eyes.

"Did they send you to kill me?"

"What?" Dean asked. His eyes flying open. He dared to turn his head, felt the gun barrel disappear and found himself staring down the end of it. He turned around fully, following the shotgun's length to the face of the man holding it.

He stood several inches taller than Dean, white hair shorn close in a near-buzz. Deep wrinkles set his eyes back so far he couldn't easily make out the color. But those eyes watched him with an intensity that seemed to look right through him. The man had the saggy jowls of someone who'd gained and lost weight several times over the course of his life, leaving his skin a bit too large for his now lean frame. But it was the uncanny resemblance to Anthony that struck Dean the hardest—a snapshot of the same man thirty years younger.

"Are you Benjamin Younger?" Dean asked. It couldn't be anyone else.

"Depends on who's looking for him," Younger replied. The shotgun lowered to his waist, but remained pointed at Dean's gut.

"My name is Dr. Dean Frey," he said. "I used to work for the Wilderness Institute, in their Cybernetic Development Department."

Younger's left eye twitched, but Dean was certain he had the man's full attention now. He'd practiced this speech over and over in his head as he'd walked across Wheeling, trying to say things just the right way to convince Younger he needed help. Now everything had flown from his mind, and those impassioned pleas were forgotten, replaced by a mind-numbing fear. This wasn't going to work.

"I don't work for Wilderness," Younger said. Angry now, his voice had the consistency of gravel scraping over sheet metal. A smoker's voice, minus the wet cough.

"I know," Dean said, "but you did once. You headed up Project UR-348 when it began in 1973. You were the cutting edge leader in robotic technology at the time and Wilderness gave you complete autonomy with the project."

The shotgun came up a few inches. "How do you know all that?"

"I read your file when I took over the Project in 2000," Dean continued, eyes darting to the shotgun. "I built Anthony. Or finished him, if you prefer, since his frame was mostly built when I came on board."

A dazed, slightly dreamy glaze came over Younger's face, like a child who was finally handed proof that Santa Claus existed. The joy was quickly replaced by sadness so profound and complete that Dean felt choked by it. He looked away; his eyes fixed on one of the swaying willow trees.

"Anthony works?"

The desperate question brought Dean's attention back to the aging doctor. He met the man's wet-eyed gaze and nodded.

Younger swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down. "Tell me."

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