What are you reading?

I haven’t been reading much lately. In fact, this month’s book is the same as last month’s book.

So what are you reading?

Until next time, stay healthy.

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Seeds of Destruction, Chapter 4

seedsChapter 4

Iona dismounted her bicycle before it stopped. Holding onto the handlebars, she stumbled forward then brought the bike under control just as she reached the fence of her apartment complex. The hinges of the wrought iron gate creaked as she opened it and wheeled her bike through. Bits of green paint clung to the wheels. The gate clanged shut behind her. On her right, the humid smell of laundry soap mingled with the hum of a dryer before the path opened onto the apartment grounds.  

Green and yellow grass unrolled in patches to lap at the bases of towering pines. The brown drooping needles of the boughs testified to the presence of the bark beetle’s relentless assault. A shout of laughter from the park behind her cut through the rails of the fence. Twilight shrouded the entire area in shadow.

 She waded deeper into the quad, and her eyes struggled against the gloom. Her normal mile and a half bike ride from work had turned into two when she circled the park twice before finally crossing the street. Such good news as the potential bonus needed to be celebrated and savored with others, not alone in her empty studio apartment.

She paused by the grill, still reeking of wet charcoal and sweet barbecue sauce and tugged her cell phone out of her pocket. Her hand trembled as she thumbed through her contacts. Multi-digit European numbers scrolled past. She wanted an American one, the only one that mattered. Her sister Sabine’s name appeared in the frame of the screen. Three times she’d texted her sister about Christmas plans.

Three times she’d been informed of Sabine’s various obligations to her husband’s family.

Iona wasn’t family. Not since their parents’ deaths. Taking a deep breath, she typed in her message. “How about a Christmas Eve brunch at Federico’s? My treat for you and your family.”

She read and reread the message three times before hitting send. A minute past. Her heart thudded in her ears. ‘Delivered’ appeared near the message, but no floating bubbles indicated a reply was forthcoming. Would Sabine accuse Iona of trying to buy her nephews’ affections again? Or would her invitation open the door to ugly accusations that Iona was shaming her non-college educated sister about her low income? 

Releasing a long breath, Iona stared at the screen. She’d be able to deal with whatever fallout happened in person, not long-distance from a studio flat in Europe. After five minutes, she guided her bicycle toward the three-story building where she lived.

An elderly lady mounted the steps from a basement apartment. Gripping the rail with both hands, she climbed like a toddler, feet meeting on one step before tackling the next. Her housecoat was buttoned askew. Her steel-gray curls poked the air at odd angles as if she had just rolled out of bed. Her powder blue slippers were worn, allowing one toenail to peek out. The pink polish was chipped at the end. Hazel Fields had escaped.

Iona slowed as she approached Hazel. The ticking wheel counted down like a dying heart. Would the old woman recognize Iona or recall their first meeting? Hazel had shown up at Iona’s door looking for her friend Pearl. 

The old woman had become quite angry when Iona hadn’t known any Pearl. Thank heavens Hazel’s daughter had appeared to take her home. Iona was certain that Hazel would have punched her on Pearl’s behalf and snapped the brittle bird bones underneath Hazel’s liver-spotted skin. 

“Mama.” Libby, the daughter, appeared on the step behind Hazel. “Can you come back to the apartment now?”

Crying out, Hazel raised her arm as if to strike her daughter. “Who are you? Leave me alone. I’ll call the police.”  The old woman gripped the railing so tight, her crepe paper skin smoothed over her white knuckles. “My daughter won’t let you get away with this.”

Pain tightened the edges of Libby’s features. “Marsha is expecting you in the apartment. You two always watch The Price is Right together.”

Hazel’s wrinkled brow resembled a Shar Pei’s. “The Price is Right?”

“That handsome devil Bob Barker is waiting.” Libby set her hand on her mother’s back and stroked it slowly.

Iona slowed. Bob Barker had been on The Price is Right when she was a child, surely there was another host by now. Then again Hazel Fields lived in the past.

Hazel released her death grip on the railing and clung instead to her daughter’s arm. “My daughter is a cop, you know. A detective. She’s a success, not like the other drug-addled thief.”

Libby nodded. “Tell me all about Marsha.”

Iona pushed her bike away from the two, her chest tight. Libby was the one doing the hard work of taking care of her mother. Libby had to watch her mother’s mind leave this earthly plane long before her soul departed her body. Yet, it was Marsha’s company the old woman craved, and Libby was abandoned.

Just like Iona. Except her parents’ deaths had been much quicker. But the score and a half of years between then and now still drove a wedge between siblings.

Hoisting her bike on her shoulder, Iona mounted the stairs. The wheel continued to spin and click as she reached the first landing. It stopped on the second. She huffed to a stop on the fourth. Her third-floor apartment seemed higher than usual.

Maybe she should take longer bike rides, build up her stamina for when she returned to Europe? Those walk-up apartments were always cheaper than modern places with elevators. And cheaper meant she could stay longer. Her neighbor’s door stood open, the overly cheerful music of a children’s show streamed outside accompanied by the pungent, oily scent of fast food.

Iona slid her key in the lock, twisted it, and pushed open her door. Using her heel, she swung the door shut and then positioned her bicycle against the wall. She paused. There had been no click as the door hit home. Her skin prickled as she turned. 

A hand wrapped around the door and pushed it open on silent hinges. 

preorder now

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Friday Fun Fact

Folks today may never experience the fun of eating an ice cream cone from both ends.

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Still burns

With the new month, I did switch out my candles. The big one is Warm Apple Pie my daughter gave me for Mother’s Day. It makes me soooo hungry.

The others I’ve had for a few years. Sadly, they don’t really have a scent anymore.

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But they still burn. And since I have some sort of affinity to writing by candlelight, they work well. I have about 2 dozen tealights that have lost their scents, so I might just use these small ones up and save the other ones for another time.

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Until next time, stay healthy.

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Seeds of Destruction, Chapter 3

seedsChapter 3

Kim Garcia cranked the AC to full blast. Cool air blew out of the vents she aimed at herself but did little to mitigate the furnace inside the sedan. Leaning forward, she rested her wrists on the steering wheel and winced as the hot surface seared her skin. Her crimson raw silk shirt clung to her torso like crêpe paper. Only some of her sweat was due to the ungodly heat of this place. 

Through the windshield, she watched her partner strut across the parking lot. 

Tupper swaggered like a former pro-athlete, taking up space as only someone who had the will and power to pommel anyone daring to complain. Add in his family’s enormous wealth, and the man was a bully plain and simple. 

And speaking of bullies… Kim placed her phone on the dash and watched as the sun’s rays bleached her screen. Holding her thumb to the home button, she cleared her throat once then ran her tongue across her dry lips. She might be better off downing her bottle of water, but that would let on that she was nervous in front of Tupper. Not a smart move. Tupper was a shark in bloody water, leaving carnage in his wake as he moved up the food chain.

But he was a mischievous puppy compared to the man she needed to call. A man waiting for her call.

 Screwing her courage to the sticking point, she sieved the words through her clenched teeth. “Dial Contact 21.”

Contact 21. He’d given her no name, no indication of who he was or where he worked. The one time she had attempted to unearth more about Contact 21 and his mysterious fungus, her top investigator had disappeared for three days. Then his mutilated corpse had ended up in her company’s parking lot with her locket in its death grip. 

A fresh round of sweat beaded her upper lip. Her cell phone beeped and booped as it dialed, turning the car’s interior into a klaxon.

“Is it done?” The man’s voice added a chill to the air. The deep notes of his baritone soothed like hot chocolate on a wintery day. 

“Yes.” Kim had heard serial killer Ted Bundy oozed charm, too. And something told Kim, Contact 21’s body count was much, much higher. 

“And their reaction?”

She chewed on her bottom lip, tasted the waxiness of her scarlet lip fondant. “The same as the others I’ve visited. Eager for money, eager for higher production numbers, and more than happy to take someone else’s cash to keep their struggling business solvent.”

Silence floated in the air after her standard report. But this time, something malevolent grew in the void.

The hair on the back of her neck prickled. Contact 21 knew the players in the fungus farce. Was it a test of her knowledge, her skill at the job? Sweat trickled down her temple. Swiping it away, she kept her voice neutral. “But this company did have one thing the others didn’t have. Marcus Stanislav works here.” Her stomach bubbled, and for a moment, she felt light-headed. The good doctor had been her idol through undergrad and grad school with the simple brilliance he displayed by coaxing stubborn life into flourishing.

Her business success was due to him. Dr. Stanislav had insisted on using only public funds in his research, making all that information available for anyone to use. She’d landed six clients from just one of his papers. But what was he doing in such a dump?

“Good.” Contact 21 chuckled on the line. “Consider my sending you to meet your hero a little bonus.”

Fear trailed a frigid finger down her spine. How in the world had the man figured out her fondness for Dr. Stanislav? More importantly, what else did he know? “Dr. Stanislav seems pretty confident he and his team will have the fungus producing at peak levels by December.”

“Good.” Contact 21 paused. “What have you discovered about the woman? Iona Edwards?”

Kim’s nails dug into her palms. “None of her international contacts are in the field. There’s nothing to indicate she poses an information risk.”

“Good. Good. Still, one can’t be too careful. Have Tupper stay there and keep an eye on her. There can’t be any hint of the project, and you must deliver before the deadline.” Contact 21 severed their connection.

 Kim shivered despite the heat. Was it her imagination, or had he emphasized the word dead in deadline?

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Friday Fun Fact

There are two kinds of painters:

Those who use a brush; and those who use a roller.

Magicians can do both.

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C’est Fini

Well, okay, I still have to patch the extra hole in the wall, but we managed to finish the bathroom.

Mirrors are up (if slightly crooked, no judging please) New switch plates are installed. New towel holders.

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The light is very bright.

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And the old shelves for storage and to stop the kittens from shredding the toilet paper.

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It’s good to be done. Until next time, stay healthy.

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Seeds of Destruction, Chapter 2

seedsChapter 2

“No. The company is not shutting down.” Marcus nearly choked on the thought. He quickly sealed his plastic container closing up the last bite of sausage and cabbage. Cabbage and sausage. The same thing every day. His life was a rut, one carved by other people. But today, he might have found a way out of the suffocating groove. “Why do you two always jump to the worst-case scenario?”

Across the wobbly cafeteria table, Quentin shrugged. “Because it’s usually true. And it’s always better to be prepared than to be caught unaware. That’s how you get killed.”

Marcus grunted. Some chose their ruts; others had them forced on them. Would the ex-marine resent his path when he was middle-aged the way Marcus did? “Maybe in the military. Civilian life rarely happens that way.”

On his left, Iona nodded.

Not that life didn’t have its own trials and tribulations. Marcus wanted to live Iona’s life. Free. Traveling where the wind blew. No ties to hold him down. And, now, maybe he could. Reaching into his cooler, he fished out an apple and a knife. He leaned forward and cut up the fruit. “In this case, LifeZone is giving us business.”

“Who are they?” Mae, the fresh-faced college graduate, had joined the team the day after she had received her microbiology degree. She leaned forward. Her hands rested softly on the Styrofoam container holding the crusts of her half sandwich and smears of potato salad.

Marcus stopped slicing the apple. “The woman is Kim Garcia. The guy’s name is Brian Tupper. They manage LifeZone’s small start-up facility back east.”

Iona arched a brown eyebrow. Expressions flit across her face—interest, confusion, and surprise— masks she tried on until she settled on pensive. Lips pursed and brow furrowed. 

What must her life have been like before she landed in Phoenix? Marcus drew air into his tight lungs. She started the day he’d returned from his father’s funeral, appearing like an exotic bird trying to hide among pigeons. He stared at the two soda cans by her lunch box. One can was normal on a Monday. The second… that second one meant she planned to stick around, just a little longer.

He still had time to learn from her, borrow off her courage, and take his journey to anywhere but here.

“Back east?” Quentin chewed on a brownie, and his eyes narrowed. “A lot of alphabet soup government agencies are back east. All that’s missing from their black ops uniforms are the mirrored sunglasses.”

Marcus wrenched his attention from things he’d never said to Iona, may never say, if he didn’t find his backbone. He was a vertebrate. He should have one of those. He tucked a slice of apple into his mouth and chewed. Notes of tartness punctuated the sweet juice rolling over his tongue. He liked his young coworkers, but sometimes he wasn’t sure how they’d made it out of bed. 

The ex-marine was too busy in conspiracy-land, and the young woman was all too happy to join his clown-filled circus. 

Iona packed her bag of carrots back in her lunch sack. “It’s not unusual for people to dress alike, especially in business and power situations. It’s called mirror imaging. Or as most folks call it, fake it until you make it.”

Quentin tsked in dismissal and threw his brownie wrapper on top of his lunch remains. Closing his styrofoam burrito container, he set his hands over the top. “The government always has a pat excuse for suspicious behavior. The simpler it is, the more you know something is going on.”

Mae bit her lip but nodded.

Iona shrugged one shoulder. “Well, then, I guess you two are part of the same conspiracy.” 

Quentin opened his mouth to argue, then he caught it. Both he and Mae leaned forward, hunched over their dirty lunch containers, right hand over left protecting nothing of importance.  

“It’s human nature to mirror your tribe.” Iona leaned forward, propped her chin in her hands. “We are a tribe. They’re outsiders coming onto our territory, and worse, they are here to ask a favor. Their shoulders are square. They take up as little space as possible by keeping their hand gestures close. Their uniform is their armor. If they meant battle, they would be wearing sunglasses, hiding their vulnerability and distancing themselves from their actions.”

Had Iona always been so insightful, or was it a result of her living in so many different cultures? Marcus’s Ph.D. seemed a poor education compared to her life experience.

Quentin leaned back and drummed his fingers on the wobbly table. His lips moved, no doubt as his brain processed the information.

“Okay, yeah. I can see that.” Mae picked at the edges of her container. “But how do you know who they are? Are they famous or something?”

Quentin deliberately pushed his Styrofoam container into the center of the table then folded his arms across his chest. Muscles bulged as too many tried to occupy the same space. “They’re not the Majestic Twelve.”

Marcus refrained from rolling his eyes. If a super-secret agency did exist, how would the former marine know? As for Mae, her idea of famous meant a star on some scripted reality show.

“The company is legit.” Iona set her lunch sack on the floor.  “I recognize Kim Garcia’s picture from the research I did when I knew I’d be returning to the States and needed a job. Their company is located in the Research Triangle in North Carolina.”

Marcus nibbled on the core of his apple. Iona had changed since joining them. No longer stuck in observer mode, she now participated in their conversations and challenged the others’ assumptions. Thank God, she was also a voice of reason.

Mae’s eyes rounded. “Is that like the Bermuda triangle?”

Iona smiled but didn’t openly laugh at the girl’s naïveté. “It’s a think tank. Since most small companies can’t afford Research and Development, Kim Garcia’s company takes freeware and shareware, then designs and tests their product ideas on a small scale.”

Marcus appreciated that Iona mentored their younger coworkers without them knowing it. Pride could be a tricky thing. His own was a bit prickly at the moment.  Iona knew a lot more than he. And he’d had advanced warning that Kim Garcia and her partner were coming. “If the product is successful, Kim’s company finds a buyer.”  

“Great, so our dumb ass employer purchased another new product to bring to market.” Quentin’s fingers dug into his biceps, making them swell like rising dough. “They’ve already launched three product failures this year, and it’s only April. The financial hit has RIFfed the third shift. Guess the Big Whigs figure they have two more to sacrifice.”

“Are you finished?” Marcus pinned Quentin with a stare. One more outburst like that and Marcus wouldn’t be able to share the good news. Already folks were tracking the couple’s progress across the room.

Kim Garcia and Brian Tupper glanced his way as their guide no doubt explained about the mothballed cafeteria.

The vet’s lower jaw jutted out. “Yeah. I’m finished.”

 Marcus nodded once. If he acted casually, then hopefully, their little gathering wouldn’t draw the Big Whigs’ attention. He balanced the apple core on his pyramid of trash. “I know the company didn’t purchase any new products from them. In fact, it’s just like Iona said. They’ve here to ask a favor.”

“Doesn’t look like they’re asking too nicely.” Quentin’s attention bounced off Marcus to stick on the two suits. 

Marcus didn’t try to pull his focus off the couple. Most of the people in the cafeteria watched the power duo. It would be odd if everyone at their table focused at their meal.

The suited couple dug in their heels at the double doors leading to the food trucks outside. After moments of discussion, their supervisor’s smile fell, and he shook hands with the couple then showed them out the front door. 

Marcus’s stomach clenched. He hoped that wasn’t a bad sign. In the ten minutes since he heard the assignment, his imagination had spun a nice future for himself. 

“I guess food trucks aren’t their thing.” Mae leaned back in her chair. “They’d don’t know what they’re missing.”

Iona shrugged. “More likely they don’t want to go out in the heat. People from back east aren’t accustomed to triple digit temperatures in April. Even the dry heat must feel like a sauna to them. Much better to move from an air-conditioned car to an air-conditioned building than to stand around in the sweltering sun making small talk.”

Quentin snorted. “And it isn’t even hot yet.”

Iona focused her attention on Marcus. “So, what’s the big secret?”

Marcus sat up straighter. “While working with a new batch of probiotics, Tupper noticed a fungus had contaminated the batch.”

Mae blinked and confusion left pink furrows in her pale forehead. “A fungus?”

“Yes. Cohabitation on the Petri dish with the bacteria.” Marcus paused, letting his words sink in, knowing they’d get the repercussions.

 “That makes no sense.” Mae wrinkled her nose. 

Quentin frowned. “The idiot must be mistaken. Fungi like penicillin gave us the first antibiotics. It should have killed those probiotic bacteria or developed a zone of inhibition in the Petri dish, not cohabited with the gut bugs.”

Marcus grinned. Score one for the education system. “And yet, that’s exactly what happened. Tupper described it as a symbiotic relationship with the fungi boosting the potency of the bacteria.”

“That sounds like the beginning of a zombie movie,” Mae whispered.

Iona snorted then covered her mouth. Color brushed her cheeks as if she were embarrassed. “Excuse me. Guess the soda gave me a hiccough. What does this superbiotic have to do with us?”

Quentin sneered. “Superbiotic. Does it wear a cape and tights?”

Marcus inhaled deeply then released his breath slowly. Sometimes, his coworker’s snark got to him. But not today. Today, an opportunity landed in his lap and showed him a different future. “Tupper isn’t interested in the bacteria. He’s convinced the fungi is the key.”

Mae and Quentin stared blankly back at him. Guess one linking thought per hour had maxed out their brainpower.

Iona rubbed her chin as her eyes unfocused.

Marcus would give anything to know what she was thinking. As for the others, he’d spell it out for them. They needed to be on the same pages. “You two know about organ donations, right?” He waited for them to nod then plowed on. “Well, after a transplant, the lucky recipient must take anti-rejection drugs for life to keep the healthy organ. It’s the same with the probiotics. If you stop taking them, the beneficial effects start to wane, and your body returns to normal.”

Iona snapped her fingers. “They want to use the fungi to restore a person’s natural bioflora and not introduce unfamiliar strains of bacteria.”

Bingo. God, she was smart. Marcus nodded. “Tupper has isolated the fungus, but it won’t grow without a bacterial companion, and they don’t want to taint the strain.”

“So toss some bread at it.” Quentin’s solution was simple but accurate. Fungus did grow on bread.

Except in this case. Marcus’s blood warmed. He hadn’t had this kind of challenge even when he was teaching at the university. His palms itched with the need to get started. “It’s not that easy. Tupper believes the DNA of the fungus has altered enough to make symbiosis a requirement, not an option.”

“So, this Tupper guy wants us to undo the required symbiosis?” Mae shredded the lid of her styrofoam container. “But wouldn’t that undo the Superbiotic?”

Marcus blinked. How had they gotten off-topic? “It would, and that’s why we are to look for a way to get the fungus to grow on a large scale, without the bacteria but still retaining all its properties.” 

“We’re not exactly set up to grow fungus.” Quentin gathered Mae’s styrofoam confetti and tucked it into his container before adding her garbage to it. “They spread their spores everywhere. I don’t think anyone wants a side of antibiotic with the Vitamin D the company produces.”

“LifeZone is providing a mobile fungal lab to be set up in the parking lot tomorrow.” Marcus suppressed a shudder. He hated cramped spaces. They were worse in a bunny suit designed to keep everything sterile. “The experts will certify it for use, and we should be good to go by the end of the day.”

“Great. There goes our Christmas bonus.” Quentin slumped in his chair.

Marcus refrained from kicking the kid. Seriously, the woe-is-me routine was growing old. “The company isn’t paying for the mobile lab. Kim Garcia is. She is also footing the bill for the time we spend on the fungus project.” 

Iona whistled under her breath. “They really believe in it that much?”

“The numbers back it up.” Not that Marcus was a numbers guy. But he did know how much money was to be made in magic bullets. The fungus could be worth its weight in platinum. “What’s more, Kim Garcia is offering a cash prize to the team that scales up the production, and a long term contract to their company.”

Mae sat up straight in her chair. “How much of a cash prize?”

“A hundred grand.” Marcus observed Iona from the corner of his eye. She was interested.

 Quentin’s eyes narrowed. “The upperlings will keep the prize and maybe toss us a hotdog at the holiday party.”

 “Nope. It goes to us. The four of us, to split evenly.” Marcus held up four fingers. “Our supervisor gets his own prize and isn’t included in the pot. Kim was very clear about it and the fact that the money would be transferred from her company directly to the winning team’s bank accounts. It’s all spelled out on the nondisclosure agreement waiting for us in the lab.”

“Then the money is as good as ours.” Iona beamed at the group.

Quentin snorted. “Please. They’ve gotta be offering this prize to lots of other groups. We make vitamins, not antibiotics. We don’t stand a chance.”

Iona’s mouth opened and closed before she found the words. “You really don’t know who you’re working with. Marcus has a Ph.D. in mycology, the study of fungi. His dissertation was on some obscure tree mold from the rain forest that he made grow when no one else could.”

Embarrassment held a flame to Marcus’s cheeks. How did she know about that? 

Iona cleared her throat and looked away. “I googled everyone after we met.”

Marcus leaned back in his chair. He’d been googled. By Iona, no less. Well, how about that.

Mae tapped the tips of her fingers together in a silent round of applause. “Twenty-five grand would go a long way to paying off my student loans.”

Quentin nodded. “That would be a nice down payment on a motorcycle I want.”

Marcus studied Iona. She hadn’t committed yet. “That could be another a year in Europe for you if you could stay until Christmas.”

Iona shrugged and studied her fingernails. “New year, new location. My sister does want me around for the holidays.”

Marcus would take it. “So, we’re in this to win?”

Everyone nodded.

Rising, Marcus gathered his lunch. Eight months wasn’t a long time, but it was enough time to sell his parents’ house,  stockpile his nest egg, and, most importantly, solve this little fungi problem. All while putting money in his account to fund his escape.

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Happy Independence Day

This weekend, those of us in the US will celebrate our Independence Day. In honor of the occasion, I have written the following poem:

Anthem of the Ordinary

We are old

Backs bent from the weight of time

Faces charted by the past

Joints swollen and arteries clogged

Vulnerability wrapped in parchment skin

We are the middlin’

Level pegging with age

Beginning to repay the debts our of youth

Bellies full and hand layered with calluses 

On a hill, shoring up a breaking bridge

We are young

Spending an endless supply of days

Standing tall, crowded with life

Fooled by a mirage of immortality

Stalked by silent killers serving time

We are children

Nascent in knowledge

Trusting our protectors

Teetering on the edge of a lifetime

Bright stars on a new horizon clouded by the smog of doubt

We are the People

Divided

Falling to an invisible enemy

Sacrificed by those worshipping at a green and orange altar

Holding onto self-evident truths

a scrap of cloth between life and needless suffering

Created equal

Old and young, middlin’ and child

Cut down by a blind Reaper’s scythe 

Endowed by Liberties and Pursuits

Tarnishing the Golden Rule with selfish coats of another’s ash

We the People

Lean against our Declaration

The founding principal ordaining our safety

Our strong Constitution

Promoting the general welfare

Endowed by the Better Angels of our nature

Tasked by Divine Providence as our brother’s keeper

Meet on a new battlefield

A scrap of cloth is our banner

For future’s security

Prosperity

Freedom and Independence.

12 score and four years on

We the People

Rededicated to our unfinished work

Devoted to our cause

Asking what we can do for our fellow countrymen

Pledging our energy and faith to this new fight

Stand united

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Seeds of Destruction, Chapter 1

seedsChapter 1

Iona Edwards watched as her insulated mug twirled once then toppled over, splashing her freshly poured Dr. Pepper on the chipped cafeteria table. For the love of Pete.

Despite the din swirling inside the lunchroom, the number of people on first shift barely filled up three-quarters of the room. And that counted her three coworkers, especially the one who’d knocked the table. Another person was by the trio of fridges by the disused cash register. Cobwebs waved from the shuttered cafeteria doors since the company decided to outsource meals.

“You won’t survive the coming apocalypse.” Quentin York steadied the wobbly table with one hand, keeping the pool of fizzing brown liquid from approaching his pressed slacks and button-down green shirt.

Iona glared at the widening spill and struggled to control her temper. She’d limited herself to one Dr. Pepper a week. One. And now, half of it was gone. She righted the insulated mug, thunking it hard on the surface. 

“And you just decided my fate now.” Not that Iona gave a fig, but the twenty-something military veteran brooded if he didn’t get a response to his crackpot theories. And at least he included her in his group of cannon fodder. That was more than could be said of her own family.

 “Yep.” Quentin’s buzz cut and chunky Semper Fi gold pinky ring gave fair warning he was still one of the few, the proud, and the pains in the rear end.

Mae Gardner dumped a grocery bag containing her lunch on the chair next to Iona’s. Young and fresh, she resembled a cherry tree in full bloom—all pinks and whites and willowy. Nimble fingers made quick work of the knot in the plastic sack. With a flick of her wrist, a shower of napkins rained onto the oozing spill, quickly saturating the fat brown ones, thin white ones, and blurring the emblems of the assorted fast-food chains. “You’d think with all the money the company brags about making, they’d invest a little in tables that don’t wobble.”

“I don’t think any company makes cafeteria tables that don’t wobble.” Iona’s fingers tingled from the chill as she mopped up the mess. As for the nutraceutical company that employed them, she suspected things were not as they seemed. Much like her life, and the fact that she knew six ways to kill someone with a plastic spoon. Not that everyone deserved to die; just a few. She smiled at Quentin.

The air thickened with the sultry aroma of cilantro, cumin, and charred meat. Monday—Mexican food truck day. 

Iona quickly swallowed the saliva pooling in her mouth. In a rare indulgence last month, she had tried Carl’s street tacos. The tango of heat and spice across her tongue had carried her back to her favorite café in Barcelona. Maybe, she should revisit her favorite places.

Maybe, the cafe wouldn’t be there anymore. Her year in Spain had been more than a decade ago.

And she had given herself until New Year’s Day to mend the family rift. She should have specified a year, not a day. Iona sighed. One decade in her nearly four on the planet. Her life was almost as limited as her bank account. She eyed her mug. She’d lost half her drink. She could buy another one, spend a dollar. But that dollar could better serve at a boulangerie in Paris, or a waffle cart in Belgium, or a hazelnut candy shop in Italy. She fisted the soggy napkins and looked around for the ever ambulatory waste bin.

Screw it. She was still eight months away from her deadline. Eight months until she could immerse herself in another culture and find… Heaven only knew what. Whatever she was looking for, she hadn’t found it yet. She was beginning to suspect it wasn’t out there. Money warmed her pocket. Why not enjoy a soda and the illusion of belonging?

“I finally figured it out.” Quentin shifted to his left and plopped his styrofoam container on the table. Two fat burritos rested on a bed of lettuce. Green sauce dripped onto the chipped table.

“Figured what out?” Mae pulled her chair closer to the table as she sat. Sun streaked her black hair as she tucked the long strands behind the shell of her ears.

“Figured out that Iona won’t survive the coming apocalypse.” Quentin folded his arms over his chest and grinned. Muscles played under his short sleeves.

Geez, his boobs were bigger than hers. Iona spied the garbage can by the cafeteria door and quickly crossed to it, soggy napkins in hand. Maybe the conversation would be over when she returned. Maybe Korean barbecued ribs would take up flying. Dumping her napkins, she veered toward the vending machine and watched the last Dr. Pepper tumble free. She’d take the little victories. Picking up the chilled can, she headed back to her table.

“Really, Quentin?” Mae jabbed her fork in the vet’s direction. “Just because Iona spilled her drink, you placed her in the dead category? That’s lame.”

 Iona hooked her ankle around her chair and plopped down. Opening and closing her fingers, she stared at them. Gooey and sticky. Maybe she should wash her hands and avoid the bickering. Nah, she’d rather avoid walking past the guard station and the skeevy looks they cast at women. “I don’t know. I think dying is better than surviving just because someone wants to screw you.”

Quentin shrugged. “Women are weaker than men, it’s natural they will be put back in their place. Everyone knows only the strong survive. Besides, we’ll need to repopulate the planet. So young women will have a place in it, and smart men will protect their harem.”

Iona sighed. What kind of apocalypse was it when folks had time to think about sex instead of survival? Not an apocalypse at all. Just a fantasy—like an average, middle-class man marrying a supermodel or a beautiful actress.

“Me? A sex slave or baby factory? That’s not going to happen.” Embarrassment flooded Mae’s cheeks, and she pressed her lips together so tightly a white ring formed around them. With shaking fingers, she peeled back the plastic bag and popped the top on her styrofoam container. Half a pulled pork sandwich and a portion of potato salad filled the partitioned inside.

“You’re the one that complained because I hadn’t decided where Iona belonged.” Quentin uncrossed his arms, then unearthed a plastic knife and fork from the pile of napkins he’d collected.

“It’s a stupid game.” Mae planted her fork in her potato salad then picked up her sandwich.

“No. It isn’t.” Quentin sliced off the end of one burrito and shoveled it into his mouth before the beans, onions, and cheese oozed out. He chewed furiously, no doubt as his brain worked at a feverish pace to formulate an argument.

Iona shook her head. Both brash, twenty-somethings were always on the brink of an argument about the most stupid things—podcasts, Lyft versus Uber, and who could wield Thor’s hammer. 

Not that she preferred Quentin’s game of who would survive the end of the world and who wouldn’t. She’d win the survival game thanks to her late fiancé. Still, the stupid debate was a step above Quentin’s patriot, collaborator, and enemy bins into which he sorted their coworkers and random strangers. 

A dull ache started at her temple. If she allowed the conversation to degenerate, the end of the day would be far away. And, their supervisor had already told them to expect overtime. She peeled back the lid on her plastic container and removed one triangle of a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich. “Okay, I’ll bite, since it’s not the spilled soda, why am I doomed to die in the coming apocalypse?”

“Quentin finally decided your fate, then?” Marcus Stanislav, the last coworker from first shift’s microbiology section, claimed the seat next to Iona’s. The thicker notes of his Czech heritage mingled freely with his Philadelphia accent. Wiry with smudged readers nestled on his curly hair and the ear pieces disappearing into the gray patches at his temples, he would look more at home in a university than the quality control section of a nutraceutical company. Two wet napkins plopped onto the table.

“Yep. I’m dead.” Setting down her sandwich, Iona scrubbed at the sticky table. Of course, Marcus must have seen the death of her Dr. Pepper. Wasn’t it some universal law that stupid human tricks always had an audience?

Marcus dried the surface after her washing. Dark hair dusted his wrist but thinned around the pale patch in a watch shape. “Interesting. What’s your rationale?”

Quentin chewed, licked a bit of cheese from the corner of his mouth, then swallowed. “Iona’s a vegetarian. And she has no pets. Since she hasn’t been exposed to animal diseases, and the next pandemic will be about a virus that jumps species, Iona won’t have any immunity. Given her age and that she lives alone with no family to take care of her, she’s gonna die.”

Cold air washed over Iona’s teeth. She snapped her mouth shut. That was his rationale? She didn’t know whether to laugh or stab a plastic knife in his eye. Her arm twitched. Killing him would be too easy.

Mae speared a chunk of cucumber and potato. “The Spanish Flu from last century took people our age more than old people.”

Old people? Old people! Iona gurgled as her rebuttal formed a jumble in her throat.

“And, yet, I am five years older than Iona, and I survived.” Marcus tugged the damp napkins from her hand and neatly folded them inside his used ones. Unlatching his mini-cooler, he fished out two moist towelettes then pressed one in her hand. “And Iona is not a vegetarian. She ate beef tacos just a couple weeks ago. And she likes pepperoni and sausage on her pizza.”

Iona blinked. How in the world did he know that? Lunch, of course, but why did he remember? Her skin tingled, and she shifted in her seat. Doh, he was a Ph.D. scientist, trained to observe.  Her used towelette joined the other napkins.  

Mae squinted at Quentin. “Don’t forget, Iona’s been everywhere on this planet. She’s been exposed to bugs of all sorts, not just from the environment but from things like the cheese she’s eaten. Her immune system is probably better than all of ours put together.”

“I’ve been around the world, too.” Quentin glared back.  Color spotted his cheeks. “And, I’ve eaten some pretty weird stuff.”

Life wasn’t a competition but… Food was a better topic then the end of the world. Iona selected a triangle of her sandwich. “I’ve actually eaten bugs. Sautéed, deep-fried, as protein in stir fry.” Her late fiancé had had more recipes for bugs than an Italian had for tomatoes. “I just knew about it, unlike most folks who have them in their food because regulations allow so many bug parts. Worms are soft, and the big beetles have legs that tickle when you swallow. And I’m not alone. I have a sister and her family in Tucson. That’s only an hour away.”

“That’s four hours travel in rush hour traffic.” Quentin inspected his burrito before cutting off another bite. “Okay, fine, maybe you would survive, but only if you were part of a bigger crowd, full of liberals who don’t think about the long term cost of dead weight.”

“Well, at least, I’m not dead.” Iona bit into her sandwich, rolling the rich nutty flavor over her tongue. Small victories.

Marcus choked on his bite of food. “You have an interesting perspective.”

Quentin nodded. “I’ve been trained in survival.”

Silence blanketed the table as Iona and the others ate. Workers from the nutraceutical production floor tossed their white hairnets and blue booties into the wastebasket as they entered. Some headed for the fridges and microwaves on the vintage ’70s avocado-colored counter. Others veered to the double doors, leading to the outdoor smoking area and the day’s selection of food trucks. Despite the carpet tiles lining the walls, voices echoed off the drop tile ceiling and drowned out the buzz of fluorescent lights. 

Finished with her sandwich, Iona wet her finger then blotted up the crumbs in her plasticware. She needed to introduce a new topic of conversation before Quentin and Mae finished their meals. Side-eying Marcus, she knew the perfect distraction. “How was the visit with your boys?”

Marcus pushed aside an egg noodle to spear a piece of cabbage and round of sausage. “They really like the pool at my parents’ place and don’t want me to sell.”

Iona rested her hand on Marcus’s forearm, smoothing the hair down. She knew what it was like to lose both parents to cancer. But she hadn’t given up a career, an ex-wife, two kids, and a life back east to relocate to Tempe and battle stage four cancer with hope and chemotherapy.

Marcus cupped his warm palm over hers. The corners of his eyes crinkled when he smiled.

Quinten’s nose wrinkled. “I don’t see why you have to sell the house. You took care of your parents while your sibs went their merry way. You should get the house and the rest.”

After a soft squeeze, Iona slipped her hand out from under Marcus’s. “The house is part of the family estate. It’s always better to split everything evenly than for one person to get more.”

Inheritances caused a lot of family strife. Especially if one person felt they’d not received their fair share. Iona’s sister had spent more years holding that grudge than they’d actually lived together as siblings. Just last month, they’d lunched together. Iona might actually get to see where her sister lived by the end of the year.

Marcus frowned at his meal. “Even with two insurances, there are still bills to be paid. My parents were proud people. They would want to pay for everything. Besides, I have one sister whose kids enter private school this year and another three kids in daycare just to keep their business going.”

He tapered off.

Iona removed a carrot from her lunch box and bit off a piece to stop from offering useless sympathy. Marcus could go on, listing the others’ needed. He had two sisters, and, as the oldest, had helped raise both of them. She would have loved to have that kind of older sibling.

Mae tossed her fork and crumpled napkins into her empty Styrofoam dish. “Aren’t your boys starting college this year? You could use the money.”

Quentin nodded then speared the last bite of burrito. “Dude, your sibs owe you that money.”

 Iona stuffed the rest of the carrot into her mouth. The conversation turned a little surreal. Mae and Quentin were getting along. It was a bit like the sun rising in the west—unnatural and a bad omen.

Marcus finished his main dish. “My ex-wife is a tenured professor back east. The kids get free college. My parents worked to build a legacy for all their children, not just one. Besides, I have something my sisters will never have, and that is the memories of my parents for the last five years.”

Iona rolled the edge of her packet of baby carrots. It all came back to memories. She was rich in memories and experience. But not everyone kept their memories. Sometimes having family near was better. She poured her soda into her mug. Maybe she should consider staying here a little longer, give her sister more time.

Mae opened her mouth as if to respond. Her teeth clicked together when she closed her mouth again.

Quentin’s eyes narrowed, and he jerked his chin in the direction of the lunchroom’s entrance. “What’s with the suits?”

 Iona glanced to her right. 

A woman and man in black power suits and a blood-red slash of color bracketed the manager of the facility. A blue light blinked from the Bluetooth earbud stuffed in her ear. Their presence muffled the conversations in the room. Workers glanced in their direction before turning away and whispering to their companions.

Quentin leaned back in his chair and openly stared. “Got to be some black ops project. No reason for them to dress like that if they were regular civilians.”

Marcus cleared his throat, but the corner of his lip twitched. “Actually, they’re from another nutraceutical company.”

“You met them?” Quentin’s tone brimmed with accusation.

The hair at Iona’s nape stood on edge. She could almost hear Quentin moving Marcus from the friends to the enemy bin in his mental catalog. “That’s why you were late for lunch. That meeting with the supervisor wasn’t about the liquid vitamin run but meeting the suits.”

Marcus nodded. “Indeed. They’re from LifeZone, and they wanted to know the facility’s capabilities.”

“LifeZone.” Color fled Mae’s cheeks. “The only reason they acquire facilities is to shut them down. We’re going to be unemployed in a month.”

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