Rosa Robelski leaned back in the bucket seat. Punching the start/stop button of her hybrid card, she inhaled deeply. Ahh, that new car smell. She hadn’t experienced it until yesterday. What a waste of twenty-four years. As the engine stilled, she ran her hands down the dove gray upholstery. Not a single cut, tear, or stain.
Minions began to sing as her iPhone went off. Right. She had to work to pay for her Honda. Slinging her purse over her shoulder, she removed the double caramel ice latte from the cupholder and held her hand underneath to catch any rogue drops. Opening the door, she stepped out.
Rain spat on the solar panels serving as cover for the parking lot. The area darkened as the scent of wet asphalt enveloped her. She buried her nose in her cup before sipping her latte. Caramel and cream chased away the bitterness of the coffee.
“Maybe the rain will cool tempers.” Marcus West swung his skinny leg over the bar of his ten speed bicycle. The tick-tick of the wheels slowed before he hit the ground at a run. Two red and green rubberbands circled his jeans over his right ankle and shin. Grease stains attested to his run in with his exposed chain.
Closing her door with her hip, Rosa joined him by the trunk of her car. “The rain will cause accidents. That will make people angrier.”
“I don’t think that’s possible.” Marcus guided his bicycle with one hand on the handlebars. “I finally got an email last night from the water company. They say they haven’t made any changes to their water disinfection processes.”
Rose nodded. “It was a good theory.”
Many radio and television personalities had made that assumption since the rash of murder/suicides had begun six months ago. Although the city had been quick to deny any fault, there had been two attacks on the nearby water treatment plant. Leaving residents without water during the recent heat wave hadn’t cooled tempers one bit.
Marcus raked his fingers through his dirty blond hair. With the buzz cut, his curls stood straight up. “Yeah, but do you think they’re telling the truth? I mean, imagine the lawsuits they’d get if they added the wrong chemical to the water and made people crazy.”
Tires squealed behind them. A black corvette bumped over the curb and headed straight at them.
Rosa’s heart fluttered in her dry mouth. Son of a biscuit. Jay Martin planned to run them over!
“Speaking of crazy.” Marcus drew up short, placing himself and his bike between her and the oncoming vehicle.
“What are you doing?” Grabbing onto his free arm, she yanked him toward one of the steel supports holding up the solar panels. “Your bike isn’t a shield. It’ll be permanently attached to your side, if he hits us.”
Jay jerked on the steering wheel at the last minute. The vet swerved to the left and screeched to a halt in the spot next to hers. The passenger window zipped down. Peeking over the rims of his designer shades, he smirked at them. “Scared you, didn’t I?”
“Asshole.” Marcus showed him a flightless bird on its perch.
Jay’s upper lip curled back. “Don’t blame me if you have to change your shorts after a little fun.”
“Grow up, Jay.” Rosa had a pair to match Marcus’s but refrained. She was a professional. Once she ran the day’s autoclave load, no one would know she added laxative to his creamer. She headed for the building ahead.
Two bands of smokey glass striped the tan brick building. Moisture sweated on the discreet brass placard embedded in the modern building proclaimed it to be property of Hadean Industries. Cameras drooped from the eaves of the metal roof, in the fringe of black beads. Every room had the most advanced technology, and her job entailed playing with it.
Oozing out of the seat, Jay bounded toward them. The knife-sharp pleat of his charcoal trousers ended atop his polished shoes. A gold watch winked from the cuff of his blue dress shirt as he trotted. “So you finally bought the baby car. Guess you couldn’t handle a real one.”
Marcus snorted. “Her car is real enough to run you over.”
Jay’s brown eyes narrowed. A muscle ticked in his clean shaven jaw. Swinging his keys around his index finger, he held open his arms. “You wanna start something, Martian?”
Marcus veered toward the other man. His knuckles showed white where he gripped the bicycle tightly.
“Knock it off, you two.” Her hip vibrated. Dagnabit! She’d missed her mother’s call. Balls of tissue and receipts scraped the back of her hand when she fished inside her purse. Her fingers slid across the pebbled cover before she pinched the cell between her fingers. Her relief exited in a huff. If she didn’t return the call in twelve seconds, her mother would no doubt call the police.
Marcus cocked a blond eyebrow. “See you inside?”
“Yeah.” Sucking on her bottom lip, she tapped in her passcode. A voicemail notification jiggled the cell. Please don’t let it be bad news. Please don’t let it be bad news.
Jay slowed. “Anything I can do?”
“Nah.” Holding her breath, she raised the phone to her ear. Jay wasn’t such a douche. Maybe she shouldn’t have spiked his creamer. “I’ll only be a minute.”
“Studies say that sex is a great way to deal with grief.” Jay waggled his ebony brows.
Then again, maybe she should have added twice the amount. She turned her back to him.
A huff echoed through the line. “Call me when you arrive at work.” Fear sharpened Mom’s words. “But don’t call me until you get there. It’s dangerous to talk and drive. Heavens, it’s dangerous to just drive nowadays.”
Dad’s baritone droned on in the background.
“What? I worry.” The phone disconnected.
Rosa exhaled slowly. Grandmother hadn’t worsened. A ray of sunshine broke through the clouds, yet raindrops pricked her scalp. Later, after the air cleared, she would turn her face to the rain and allow the cold drops to slide down her throat. For now, it was enough for the rain to baptize her. She tapped her thumb on the screen and redialed her mother.
“Rosa? Rosa? Where are you?” Mom’s words rushed out on a ragged breath.
“I’m at work. Safe.” Water pooled in the gutter. She tapped the tip of her boot in it. Her toes curled, wanting to stand in it. Every native Phoenician felt the same. Rain revealed the pagan in all of them. “There were a couple of accidents on the way, but nobody shot anyone because of it.”
There had been lots of yelling and screaming in the first one. Fist waving in the second. At the third, the Department of Public Safety officers had handcuffed two disheveled women and were wrestling them into the back of their cruisers.
“Thank the good Lord.”
Rosa heard her mother crossing herself. “When do you leave for Grandmother’s?”
“As soon as Raine heads out, we’ll take the backroads and hook up with I-17 at New River.”
She nodded. They’d often taken the side roads when accidents bogged down the interstate. “Any word on Grandma?”
“She’s holding on. You know her birthday isn’t until tomorrow and she always swore she’d make ninety.” The leather of the kitchen banquette creaked. Mom sniffed. “The old buzzard had better keep her promise. There’s still things not settled, and I know your Aunt Middy is trying to steal Mama’s china.”
“I’ll be up this weekend.” Rosa pictured her mother sitting at the scarred kitchen table from her childhood, a list of things to do in front of her. She had another going for her mother’s funeral. The two of them had hashed out the details when Grandma’s kidney’s failed.
“Now, I’ve changed all the sheets in the house and hung new towels.”
Biting her lip, Rosa kept from smiling. She and her cousin would only sleep on them for two days before joining the vigil at Grandmother’s bedside.
“Dinner is in the fridge. 350 degrees for thirty minutes. Your dad’s stocked the freezer with those horrible things you kids like, and I made a lasagna. I know you girls like it, so I don’t have to worry about you eating it. And don’t mind Raine. She’ll say she’s watching her weight, but there’s not much to watch so she’ll soon be hungry.” Mom smacked her lips as she thought. “Oh, and invite your sister, Ellen. That dippity dog ex-husband of hers has the kids this weekend, and I don’t want her alone. She sounded like she’d been crying last time we talked.”
Rosa rolled her eyes. “Mom, Ellen has a cold.”
“So she says, but she actually liked the dippity dog, and I know how much the break-up of her marriage hurt her.”
Rosa clamped her lips together. Alan’s infidelities had hurt her sister; the separation had been a relief. And there was that tingle between Ellen and her next door neighbor. But Andrew Whiteangel had an edge that made Rosa’s teeth hurt. Then again, she liked her men a little geeky. “Ellen didn’t want you over there so you wouldn’t carry the flu to Grandma.”
“Your grandmother is being taken off life support in two days. I don’t think it’s likely she’d care, if a damn cold took her out a few hours earlier.”
Removing the phone from her ear, Rosa stared at it. Had her mother really just sworn? The world really must have gone mad.
A buzzing noise came through the speaker. “I’ll leave a note if there’s anything I’ve forgotten. Just don’t let your little sister go to any parties.”
Rosa blinked. Mom must really be upset about Grandma, she hadn’t claimed to have a third daughter since Raine’s thirteenth birthday. Her cousin had pitched a fit, telling all the guests that her real mother and father were dead. “I’ll keep an eye on Raine.”
“Of course you will. And I know she’s a good girl, but there was that news program about good kids caught up in drug parties and gang rapes.” Mom’s shudder came down the line. “That girl is too trusting and wants to help everyone. Serial killers lure their victims by acting helpless, you know.”
“Uh-huh.” What kind of programs had her mother been watching?
A window on the second floor inched open.
Great, her boss Dr. Autopsy must be watching. And noting that Rosa was late.
She snarfed down the rest of her iced latte, tossed the ice onto the bushes, then pitched the plastic cup into the recycle bin.
“We’ll call when we arrive at Grandma’s.” Tapping punctuated each word. Mom’s habit with a pen. “If we run into traffic, then call us when you get home.”
“I will, Mom.” Rosa dried her badge on her damp pants before holding it to the card reader. Now, she’d officially clocked it. “I have to go now, or it’ll be that much later leaving.”
“Love you. And be careful.”
“Love you, too.” Disconnecting, she dropped her phone into her purse and tugged open the door. When she stepped into the lobby, the air conditioning sowed goosebumps across her damp skin.
“Oh.” The guard behind the hulking, bamboo desk pinched his bottom lip and pointed to the bank of screens before him. “Did you see that?”
“Oh, hell, yeah. He’s not getting up from that.” Jay rose out of the chrome and fabric seat he’d appropriated from the waiting area on the right.
“That’s because he’s dead.” Marcus’s head popped above the chest-high counter ringing the guard station. Tire tracks on the chocolate marble led to the closet where he’d stored his bike. “How can you watch that?”
“Watch what?” Instead of swerving for the elevators on the left, Rosa headed toward the trio. She tossed her purse into the locker then shut it inside.
Through the raindrops on the cameras, she spied swarms of people streaming between rows of stopped cars. Some headed for the off-ramps. Others ripped tires irons, wiperblades, and antennas from their cars and came out swinging. For every person that went down, two more joined the fury.
Her stomach turned. Oh, no. This couldn’t be real, could it?
“News footage.” The guard leaned forward in his chair. “Commuters are rioting along I-17.” The burly man bounced in his seat. His oversized gut jiggled. “Look. Look! They’re going for the bus. Snot nosed college students. I hope they beat the shit out of every single one of ’em.”
O—kay. Since she was a college graduate, maybe she should leave now.
A SWAT team deployed on the overpass. Men in black helmets aimed automatic weapons down into the crowd. A police helicopter warned the crowd to disperse. More images flickered on the two right screens. According to the ticker tape, the riots had spread to the 101 and 202. All was quiet on the 60 and 51.
She pushed away from the guard station. What was wrong with everyone? “I’m going upstairs now. Dr. Au—Arthur saw me in the parking lot.”
“Heard his chair squeaking earlier.” Jay pumped his hips suggestively. “I think the new secretary was raising his spirits.”
“You’re such a pig.” Stalking away, she jabbed the elevator call button.
Marcus’s scuffed sneakers squeaked on the marble. Bracing his hand on the wall, he skidded to a stop next to her. “Any news on your grandmother?”
“No change.” Rosa stabbed the button again. “What kind of person chooses to die on their birthday?”
It just wasn’t right. There were forty people in her immediate family. Surely, one of them could have donated a kidney.
Marcus brushed her shoulder. “From what you’ve told me about your Gran, her choosing when she wants to die is like flipping Death a big up-yours.”
The door opened on a cloud of fresh bleach.
Eyes tearing from the stench, she breathed into the crook of her arm. The scent of her vanilla lotion couldn’t compete. “Can you talk to the cleaning crew to use less bleach?”
“Sure.” He stuck his hands in his jeans and hunched over, shortening his six foot height.
The damp elevator floor sucked at her loafers when she walked in.
He poked the second floor button, then the doors closed.
Jay slid through the doors before they shut then bounced off the back wall. “The SWAT team is firing into the crowd, but it’s not phasing the rioters.” His leg jiggled with impatience. “I’m gonna stop in the break room and see if the people have turned on the cops.”
“You sound like you’re enjoying it.” Her latte bubbled up her throat. How could people do that to each other?
Jay smiled. “What’s not to enjoy? It’s not happening here, to us.”
“But it could.” She shivered. No one knew what set it off. Or if they did, no one said anything. “The freeways are only a few miles from here.”
Jay dismissed her fears with a wave of his hand. “Stop worrying. I can protect you. I’ve got two rifles in my car.”
Jay with a gun. Why did she not find comfort in that thought? From the corner of her eye, she glanced at Marcus.
Color spotted his cheeks. “I think the best way to survive the crazy mob, is not to engage it.”
“That’s because you’re a coward.”
The elevator coasted to a stop. When the bell chimed, the doors slid open. A janitor’s cart stood outside the bathrooms across from them. A cleaning sign hung on the men’s door handle.
“Oh, man.” Jay strode to the ladies and leaned against the door. “Doody calls.”
“Put the seat down when you’re finished.” She was beginning to understand the need to riot.
“How many Jays does it take to tip mankind into the anger apocalypse?” Marcus fell into step beside her as they turned left toward the labs.
Their footsteps echoed on the white linoleum. A fluorescent bulb blinked Morse Code over the emergency exit. Blinds shuttered the dark autopsy room, food storage area, conference room, and their personal offices on the right. There was a meaty scent above the musty animal bedding, bacterial media, and disinfectant.
“Don’t worry. I’ll have the staff clean the bathroom once Jay’s finished.”
“Thanks.” She swiped her badge over the electronic lock to the animal room. The red light on the black pad flashed green. Tumblers clicked. Pushing the faux wood-grain door open, she hit the light switch.
Rats and mice scrambled in the cages filling the baker’s racks along the walls. Some dove under the bedding. Others piled on top of each other in the corners. Tumors distorted the furry bodies in hideous ways. The experiment was nearing the end of a decade. Cancers from eating Genetically-Modified foods had cut a quarter off the two-year lifespan of the rodents. Made them antisocial and afraid of her, even after months of handling them.
Grabbing her lab coat, she stuffed her arms into the sleeves. “Hello kiddies. Anyone hungry?”
On the stainless steel tables in the center of the room, she tapped the cages of the hairless newborns under the heat lamps. This generation was less than a third of its normal size. Many of the females were sterile. Half the mothers had stopped feeding the litters, leaving Rosa frantically trying to save them.
This just wasn’t right.
But was it the food?
It followed reports from farmers. But the science had to be checked and quadruple-checked. The last time a scientist reported links between cancer and GMOs, the powerful chemical corporations had sicced their bought-and-paid for Science Mafia on the evidence and those behind it. Even the world health watchdogs belittled those cultures who did not embrace GMOs, stopping just short of calling the naysayers superstitious and ignorant.
She shook the plastic cage again. None of the eight hairless bodies inside moved. Her stomach dropped to her knees. “No. Please let one be alive.”
These labs animals were allowed to live out their natural life span while eating GMOs, all to study the effects. Now, it seemed that life crashed to a halt at the sixth generation.
The very generation, she planned to feed organic foods to see if the process could be reversed.
Marcus set his hand on her shoulder. “I’ll get the morgue bucket for Dr. Autopsy before I check the computer wiring.”
She swiped at her damp cheeks. The only reason she’d taken this stupid job was because she wasn’t required to kill the animals. She hated killing them, even in the name of science.
Sliding the lid off the cage, she ran a finger down each body in turn. All were rigid under her touch.
Marcus crossed the room to the double doors, leading to the lab next door and peeked inside.
Jay skidded into the room. Toilet tissue stuck to one shiny loafer, and his eyes were wide in his chalky face. “You’re not going to believe this.”
She shifted the cage of dead rats to the sink then turned. “What is it?”
God help him if it was another riot on TV.
“The rats in the overflow room. Someone has killed them!”