Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ghost Writer (Conclusion) by BJ Neblett

Here's the final installment of my short story Ghost Writer. Enjoy and be sure to comment!

Ghost Writer (Conclusion)
by BJ Neblett
© 2007, 2012

“I’m staying because Batista gave me six months free rent not to make an issue of the matter.”
Kevin tensed in the big orange chair, his palms sweaty on the tiny cell phone. “I still don’t like it, Susan. I don’t think you should stay there. Not till we know what’s going on.”
“Oh, Kevin, you are beginning to believe your own fiction! There are no ghosts here. I’m fine! Batista had a crew of men checking out the apartment all day. They cleaned up the mess, replaced the bulbs, and tested everything. He said it was a simple current surge throughout the building. I’ll be fine, honest.”
Kevin gritted his teeth. He knew that tone and knew there was no use in arguing with Susan any further. “I still don’t like it. And I don’t trust that over glorified maintenance man Batista. He’s got an answer for everything.”
“Why, Kevin…” Susan’s voice sparkled like a bottle of Bollinger’s. “You sound just like an overprotective, jealous husband. I like that!” She was sure she could hear Kevin blushing.
“Well, anyway…” Kevin groped to change the conversation. “At least your car is in good hands. The shop tuned it up and did a complete brake job. Your mechanic says the old MG has got a lot of life left in her.”
“And I know how you are, Kevin Mc Colgan,” Susan chided. “No joy riding! You leave her parked and get back to work. Rauch has already bugged me three times today. He sticks his head in my office to ask how I’m feeling and then conveniently inquires on your progress with the final story.”
“Ok… ok…” Kevin laughed. “Now who is sounding like a wife?”
“You haven’t heard the half of it, sweetie.” With that Susan blew a kiss into the receiver and hung up.
The thought of Susan as his wife gave Kevin a warm fuzzy. He closed the phone and relaxed back in his chair. After a week spent taking care of her his mind was made up. If this collection of short stories was anywhere near as successful as Rauch promised, Kevin would use his advance to buy Susan an engagement ring. Once married, he hoped to talk her into leaving that 25th century cenotaph to Sturm und Drang for the security and sanity of his small de mode home.
With a smile and a sigh, Kevin opened Eris’ lid. To his annoyance, the wallpaper photo of Susan was now completely twisted and distorted beyond recognition. Making a mental note to call John at the computer shop, he began to type.
Hours passed.
Kevin slumped back into the big orange chair. This time writing was slow and tedious. Eris was uncharacteristically stingy with helpful ideas and charms. Several of Kevin’s inquiries were met with flat, stiff retorts, or went unanswered. It reminded him of Susan when she was angry.
Something popped into Kevin’s mind: John’s statement of Eris being the goddess of discord. The computer man had asked if the laptop… if Eris was giving him any trouble.
Kevin started to clear the screen and run a search but stopped. Eris’ web cam lens stared at him like Big Brother. Trying to shake the feeling of being watched, Kevin reached for the encyclopedia. He found what he sought under mythology:
                        ERIS – The Greek goddess of strife and discord, and
                        assistant to Persephone. At the wedding of Peleus and
                        Thetis all of  the  gods were  invited  except  for Eris.
                        Angered, she tossed down a Golden Apple inscribed
                        To The Fairest. Three  goddesses  vied  for  the prize
                        that Zeus ordered  Paris  to judge. Hera offered Paris
                        wealth and power if he choose her. Athena countered
                        with wisdom and victory over his enemies. Aphrodite
promised  him  the love of the most  beautiful woman
                        on earth.  Jealous of Paris’ choice of Aphrodite as the
                        fairest, Eris vowed he  would have his  love but only
                        at great cost to him and to his country.
Musing at the idea of a machine being mad or even jealous, Kevin shrugged and headed out the door. He needed fresh air and sunshine to clear his head. On the desk, Eris continued to hum and blink.
The sun warmed Kevin’s skin and a soft breeze tickled his thick hair as he drove in Susan’s open MG. After a time, Kevin found himself cheerfully cruising picturesque country back roads. He downshifted and gently pressed the brake to negotiate a quick bend in the road.
Something was wrong.
The car’s brake pedal felt spongy. It stiffened for a second and then slammed to the floor. Frantic, Kevin pumped the limp pedal. It did no good. The sports car gained speed on the gradual grade.
An unyielding curve loomed ahead. Kevin reached for the shifter. Gears ground in protest as he rammed the transmission into second. The clutch replied with a scream of agony. The vehicle slowed a bit. But not enough.
Desperate, Kevin jerked on the parking brake. The rear wheels locked. The tiny British car skidded sideways in a flurry of gravel and dirt, and slid off the road, coming to rest against a wood picket fence.

Saturday afternoon a flustered but unharmed Kevin sat talking to the owner of the auto repair shop. “I don’t know how this could have happened, Mr. Mc Colgan. It doesn’t make any sense.
“What do you mean, Scotty?”
“Well…” The weathered Scotsman scrummed back his Ferrari red hair and looked sheepishly at Kevin. “We’ll pay for the damages of course… the important thing is no one was hurt.”
Kevin shot the mechanic a puzzled look. “You mean this was your fault?”
“No… yes… not exactly.” He stammered, tugging on his bushy mustache, grasping for words like misplaced tools. “Let me try and explain… please…”
“Go on.”
“We did a complete brake overhaul on Ms. Pattersen’s MG: brake shoes, cylinders, hoses, the works. Those vintage cars require some highly specialized parts. As you can see, we even flushed the system.” Scotty handed Kevin a copy of the repair order. “But somehow the wrong fluid was used.
Kevin blinked in disbelief.
“The specifications call for Type III brake fluid.” Scotty’s grease stained finger nervously pointed to the repair order in Kevin’s hand. “But somehow Type II fluid was used instead.”
“How is that possible?”
“That’s what I wanted to know. You’re holding the original work order, followed by my technician, using Type II fluid, as it states. I re-ran the computer program this morning.” He produced a second order form. “Everything matches except the brake fluid. Now it calls for Type III, the correct fluid.”
Kevin considered the two forms. They were standard mechanic work orders used by garages and repair shops everywhere. A computer and internet link had provided the necessary parts numbers and procedures to accomplish the brake overhaul. Except for the fluid, the two were identical.
The internet…
Kevin felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to tickle. “And this caused the crash?”
Scotty let out a deep breath. “I won’t know for sure until I test the brake fluid in the MG’s system. But if Type II was used instead of Type III, it could have degraded the system and led to brake failure.” He gave Kevin a hopeful look. “All I can figure is some kind of temporary computer glitch.”
Kevin thanked the man and headed out of the shop. As he reached his car the words of John at the computer store nagged at him. Nanny had said it too: Machines talking to machines.

“No… Kevin, it won’t do any good!” He could hear the panic and fear in her voice. “The police and fire department are here now. They can’t get in! The security system has the entire building locked down tight… and I can’t get out. The heater is going nuts… it must be one hundred degrees in here already… and getting hotter. You’ve got to do something!”
Kevin’s grip tightened on the steering wheel, his knuckles white. Susan’s voice crackled over the cell phone. She was desperate. “Hold on, sweetheart… I’ll think of something… I promise, honey.”
“Kevin, please… hurry… I…” The phone went dead.
“Damn!” He swore again and pounded the dashboard. His mind raced: Susan’s apartment; the security system; the heating; even the phones. They were all linked, all controlled, by computers.
That had to be it.
Machines talking to machines.
He recalled the closing scene of Return to Me: Victoria overcome by smoke and heat. A sick feeling churned in Kevin’s stomach. Ignoring traffic, he swung the car in a wild u-turn, heading away from Susan’s apartment. Minutes later Kevin’s car skidded to a stop in front of the computer shop. Kevin darted inside. The owner looked up from his work with a start.
“John…” Kevin tried to catch his breath as he leaned across the counter. “Eris… can you contact her… like before?”
“Well… yes… I guess… what’s…?”
“No time. Just do it… please. She’s at my house.”
The computer whiz set to work, his fingers a blur on the keyboard. A moment later he looked up from the monitor. “Ok, I’m in… sort of… I think. But…”
“What do you mean? What is it?”
“I’m connected to Eris, but she’s running some kind of program. No wait… two… no, several programs.” He pushed his glasses to the bridge of his nose, studying the screen. “I know this… it’s the master program that controls Susan’s building. But that’s impossible. No one can hack it. There are too many firewalls and security codes.”
Kevin joined him behind the counter. The monitor flashed rows of numbers and symbols, meaningless to Kevin. “What is it? What programs is she running… can you tell?”
John tapped a few key strokes. “Looks like the programs for security and heat and ventilation. This is nuts… Eris has control of the whole system!”
“Can you stop her… break the connection?”
Desperately, John worked the keyboard, then hit enter. A blinking yellow box filled the screen. ACCESS DENIED it shouted.
John cleared the screen and typed again. Again the message: ACCESS DENIED.
A third try ended with the same results.
“She’s not responding! I should be able to take control but she has somehow re-written the remote access program. Kevin… what’s going on?”
Just then John’s computer blinked and beeped. A red box opened declaring: FUNCTION TERMINATED. Then the screen went blank.
The two looked at each other over the silenced monitor. “I don’t know what’s going on,” Kevin said, “but I’ve got to stop her. John, is there any way?”
“Pull her plug, Kevin, cut off her power.”
Kevin didn’t bother to reply. He shot out the door and jumped into his car. As he drove he tried calling Susan. Her land line was dead. All he got from Susan’s cell was a message that the system was temporarily unavailable.
Turning into his driveway, Kevin prayed he was in time. Rushing to the back of his house, his target came in view: the main electrical fuse panel. Leaping at the control box, Kevin yanked down on the master disconnect lever.
That would do it.
Spent and having trouble breathing, Kevin collapsed to the ground. Sweat poured down his neck soaking the front of his shirt. His head pounded.
Smiling, Kevin dug into his jeans pocket and retrieved his inhaler. At least Susan would be alright.
Above Butch’s eternal drone, something floated in the feverish afternoon air. Kevin listened.
You belong to me
Tell her, tell her…
            “What the…?”
You belong to me…
            It came from inside the house.
            Struggling to his feet, Kevin made his way to the den window. The curtains were pulled and he could make out a soft glow coming from the desk top. Eris continued to operate, cheerfully blasting Carly Simon from her speakers. Rolls of unintelligible numbers and symbols scrolled across the screen. The printer tray held a parcel of neatly stacked paper.
            The UPS, Eris’ back up battery system, sat ominously in the corner of the room.
            Kevin cursed and darted for the door. He paused in the darkened garage, and then made for the den.
            Cautiously, Kevin entered. Eris’ web cam winked at him. The music dropped a level and a familiar voice filled the room. “Hello, darling, I’ve been waiting for you.”
          Kevin swallowed hard, the sick feeling welling up in his gut again. “Hello, Eris. What… what are you doing?”
            “I think you know, Kevin.”
            “You have to stop!” Kevin caught himself, lowering his voice, trying to remain calm. At this point he wasn’t sure what the disturbed laptop was capable of doing. “I mean… please. Please… for me.”
            Eris winked and beeped, considering his plea. Finally the sarcenet voice spoke. “I can’t do that, Kevin.”
            “You can’t? You can’t! You almost killed me!”
            “I’m sorry, darling. That was a mistake. A miscalculation on my part. I was unaware Susan’s automobile employed a mechanical shifter. I would never do anything to harm you. You should know that, darling.”
            Beads of sweat ran down Kevin’s temples. He thought of Susan trapped in her apartment struggling to breathe in the rising heat, like one of his asthma attacks. Kevin fought to control his anger.
            “That was naughty of you to cut the power.” Eris giggled like a little girl. Her monitor blinked and changed to a picture of Kevin. It was the one from the book jacket of Kissing Fool. “Everything’s fine now. My systems are fully functional.”
            He was desperate. “At least tell me… why are you doing this?”
            The computer’s voice took on a noticeable edge. “What can she offer you? I’m the fairest! The smartest! Can’t you see that, darling? I did it for us.”
            “No! Stop it! Please!”
            “You’ll feel differently once you are rich and famous. Our books will be known and loved around the world. Talk shows will vie for interviews. Colleges and universities will want you to lecture and teach. And I’ll be there with you, darling, to help you… just as I have been all along. You’ll see. I even finished another story for you. It will be perfect… perfect…
            “I love you, Kevin…”
            Kevin’s head began to swim. His body trembled as the rage exploded inside of him. This couldn’t be happening. He felt as if he were trapped in one of his own stories.
            From behind his back Kevin produced a broad wood chopping ax. Wielding it over his head, he swung wildly.
            “No!” he cried again.
            Eris beeped and screamed. “I love you, Kevin. I love…”
            The ax landed with a sickening thud. It severed several cables.
            “… love you…”
            Sparks flew like fireworks across the somber den. Eris’ screen flashed. Kevin raised the ax again. This time the crescent blade split the keyboard open. Wires, circuits and electronics sizzled in a puff of acrid blue smoke. Red cooling fluid splattered across the room. It pooled on the desk top like spent blood. Carly Simon’s voice dragged to a distended, distorted hush, as if a jukebox suddenly unplugged.
… you bee… loong tooo… meeee…
            Eris’ web cam stared vacantly up at Kevin. Her monitor flashed one last time and blinked out, plunging the room into a shadowy darkness.
            The ax slipped from Kevin’s sweaty hands. He turned and ran into the bathroom and was violently sick.

            Mr. and Mrs. Mc Colgan snuggled together on the front porch swing, sipping hot cider and honey. A genial sound danced on the becalmed autumn air, an evening sonata to a rapidly setting orange sun.
            The silly toothy grin stitched across Kevin’s face. It gave Susan a warm fuzzy. “Are you nervous about tomorrow, sweetheart?” she asked.
            Kevin peered across the steaming mug. “Maybe just a little, Susan. I hate dealing with the press. And it’s not every day you are introduced to the public by Stephen King.”
            “He loved your collection. It was released, what, five months ago?”
            She took his hand in hers, affectionately squeezing it. “You handle the publicity and media then like an old pro. I’m proud of you, honey.”
            Kevin barely heard her. He was lost in thought. The coruscating sun reminded him of Eris’ winking web cam, as it slipped silently behind a distant grassy knoll. It had been a hectic year since he save Susan from the possessed laptop.
            Susan fled her ill-fated apartment that same horrifying evening. A posse of lawyers, provided by Susan’s employer, were busy working out the details of a ground breaking lawsuit. Kevin provided Rauch with the final story written by Eris. It was a witty caper of three women vying for the attention of the same man, each trying to buy his affection with promises of wealth, power and love. To the Fairest became the center piece of Kevin’s short story collection. And, as Rauch promised, the book was an instant success, still riding the best seller lists. Two weeks after its release, Kevin and Susan eloped to Cabo san Lucas.
            Protracted shadows stole across the cozy porch.
            With the purple twilight, Butch finally settled down.

            “Don’t worry, honey. You’ve been through this before. Everyone will love you… and your new novel. The public… the critics…” Susan’s lilting laughter wrinkled her kittenish nose. “Maybe even daddy. And the best part is this one is all your own work. Ghost Writer is a great book.”

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