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.”

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ghost Writer (Part Three) by BJ Neblett

Part Three of Ghost Writer. Enjoy and be sure to comment. Thanks. BJ

 Ghost Writer
by BJ Neblett
© 2007, 2012

            Yellow darts of waking sunshine pierced the dusky den, carrying with them welcomed warmth. They also brought with them Butch’s daily ranting.
            Kevin stretched and yawned in his big orange chair. His back was disjointed. His eyes were road mapped. His left foot was numb. The screen’s digital clock melted from 6:18 to 6:19.
            “Woouph! Woouph! Yourself,” Kevin cried out. Despite the stiffness, he felt great. With Eris’ help the story was finished. As before, while he typed, the computer asked questions, made suggestions, and provided charms to enliven and richen the story and fill in needed details. Happily, Kevin mashed the print button, rose, stretched again, and headed out of the den. The laser printer awoke and began to hum. When Kevin returned, refreshed from a shower, with a large, steaming mug, a stack of neatly printed pages awaited him in the printer’s out tray.
            “Damn,” Kevin exclaimed between pages and sips of frothy mocha. “This is great!”
            Relaxed in the big orange chair, his bare feet propped up on the desk, Kevin read over his story. He was impressed.
            And confused.
            Once again Kevin recognized his work. Once again it wasn’t his work… exactly. Several passages, even whole sections, were foreign to him. He didn’t remember writing them. But they worked; worked perfectly.
            Curious, Kevin checked the laptop’s screen against the printed pages. They were identical. Then Kevin noticed some sections on the screen were in a different font from the rest. These corresponded to the sections he didn’t remember writing. Upon closer investigation, Kevin found his work, the sections he recalled as his, saved under a separate file name. They had been replaced by the new, vastly improved passages. His story had been revised and edited. This was just the first draft. Yet it read like a completed, polished manuscript.
            Kevin eyeballed the laptop.
            Eris’ web cam peered innocently back at him.
            The phone broke Kevin’s concentration. It was Nanny. Susan was in the hospital. Kevin made sure his work was saved, cleared the program, and bolted from his chair.
            The LCD screen blinked. The hard drive hummed. The wall paper photo appeared. The icons which once covered a part of Susan’s tanned right leg were replaced by ugly red and blue and black marks.
            Singer Doris day’s lush version of Secret Love flowed from Eris’ speakers, filling the empty room.

            “She’s alright, more shaken that anything.” By the time Kevin arrived at the hospital, Susan had been treated and taken to her room. “They just want to keep her overnight,” Nanny said, trying to relax. “She’s fine, Kevin, fine.”
            Out of breath from jogging up three flights, Kevin collapsed against a wall. “Thank God,” he managed between gasps for air. “What… what happened?” Kevin pulled his inhaler out of his jeans pocket and took two deep puffs.
            Nanny’s face soured. “It’s that damn apartment of hers! I warned her when she moved in… people put too much trust in these new fangled gadgets these days. Imagine… machines talking to machines… running our lives for us!”
            “I know… I agree…” he replied, finally catching his breath. “That apartment of hers gives me the creeps. But what happened?”
            “Well, Susan was in the middle of her morning routine. Apparently she was about to get into the Jacuzzi tub. She says she set the automatically controlled thermostat thingy. It must have malfunctioned. When she stepped in, the water temperature was near boiling. Her right foot and calf are pretty badly scalded.”
            “Is she awake?”
            Nanny painted on a thin smile. “Yes. They gave her a sedative. But she’s awake right now… don’t know for how long. Thank heavens you are here, Kevin.”
            Kevin returned the woman’s smile and entered the semi-private room. Susan lay in the far bed next to the window. Her right foot and leg were bandaged and resting on a large pillow. Her left ankle was wrapped in a wide ace bandage. She looked up from under heavy eyelids, “Hey, you.”
            “Hey, yourself.” Kevin kissed her forehead, brushing back strands of uncombed hair. “How are you feeling, sweetheart?”
            “I’m… I’m ok… just kinda sleepy.”
            “The doctors gave you a sedative.”
            “I must look a sight…” Susan winced in pain as she tried to raise herself in her bed.
            “Hey, take it easy.” Kevin fluffed her pillows and laughed to himself. He always thought Susan looked more attractive with little or no make-up, and told her so often. And he knew how she hated to leave her apartment without her lipstick and eye liner. “You are prettier than ever… do you need anything?”
            Susan groaned and settled back into the pillows. “I’ll probably need a cane… or crutches,” she replied sourly.
            “I thought Nanny said it was your right foot.”
            “I sprained my left ankle jumping out of the tub,” Frustration shown on Susan’s sleepy face. “Oh, Kevin… I don’t know what happened. I know I set the temperature correctly. And it’s designed not to get that hot.” She sighed, her eyes slowly closing. “I don’t know… these last few days… it seems…” With that she was asleep.
            Kevin learned from the doctors Susan’s burns were not too serious. She’d have a few small scars, but there was no internal damage. He could take her home the next day.
            That afternoon, Kevin and Nanny drove over to Susan’s high rise. While Nanny collected some items for her daughter, Kevin spoke to the building’s super.
            “I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Mc Colgan. I’ve been over the entire system three times. I can’t find anything wrong.”
            “Obviously something did go wrong,” Kevin said flatly. “The doctors said the water must have been near boiling temperature to burn like that.”
            John Batista was the building superintendent since the modern apartment’s inception. Everything in the imposing building was controlled by computer, from the elevators, to lighting and climate control, to security, to the built in toasters. The computers were linked back to a massive central control across town which continually monitored and automatically adjusted the building’s complex systems.
            Batista gave Kevin a distrustful look. The last thing he needed was an irate tenant and a law suit. “It’s impossible, Mr. Mc Colgan. Water temperature is set to a max of one hundred degrees, and is checked by no less than three systems: one in the boilers; one in the individual apartment hot tanks, and one in the tub. The only way for the water to have gotten that hot is if somebody at central control reprogrammed the computers. And no one did… I checked.”
            Unsatisfied, Kevin thanked the man. None of this made sense. But Susan was ok and that was all that mattered.
            After dropping off Nanny, Kevin drove home for a quick nap and shower before returning to the hospital. From the oldies station on his car radio came the dark, prophetic lyrics of an old Zager and Evans tune: … your legs won’t find a thing to do, some machine’s doing that for you…

            Two days later, Kevin and Susan sat in Susan’s living room. Her foot and leg wore a large wrapped bandage, and she did indeed have crutches, although she was given strict instructions to stay off her feet for a week. Kevin insisted on taking care of her, making himself a bed on the comfortable couch.
            “Yes… yes, Mr. Batista… yes… I know… I’m sure… yes, sir, it was just some burnt bread…. no need for the fire department. Yes, sir… I understand… yes, the smoke detectors did work perfectly… yes, thank you.” Kevin punched end and dropped the cell phone. “That superintendent irks me!”
            From her position on the sofa, her foot propped up on the ottoman, Susan began to giggle.
            “You… you’re red faced,” she managed between bursts of laughter. “And you look so cute in my apron and oven mitts.”
            Shaking off the embarrassment and the paisley pattern mitts, Kevin flopped down next to Susan. “I don’t understand. The toaster is set for light, just the way you like. Even if the bread got stuck, the unit should have shut down. But it kept on. I finally had to flip the circuit breaker.”
            “Now, do you see what I’ve been telling you? Things have been screwy in this apartment for the past week, since a day or so after your birthday.” Susan began to tap a cigarette from the package, and then tossed them back on the coffee table. “I can’t even smoke… every time I light up the smoke detectors go nuts. They never did that before. Mom and dad were here Monday. I had a nice ham baking. The oven switched to self clean mode and locked up tight. Dinner was burnt crisp. And that Mr. Batista insists he can find nothing wrong.”
            “Oh, sorry… I was just thinking out loud.”
            “You said something about… gremlins?”
            Kevin relaxed back into the plush sofa, staring up at the ceiling. “During the second World War bomber pilots blamed mechanical problems they couldn’t figure out on gremlins.” He grinned and patted Susan’s hand. “You either have gremlins or a poltergeist.”
            “Thanks… thanks a lot. That makes me feel a lot better.”
            Kevin rose and kissed Susan’s cheek. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you. I’ve got some errands to run. And I want to pick up my computer. Rauch’s been screaming for more stories. I’ll drop the MG off at the shop for you. This is a good time to have it serviced, while you’re laid up.”
            “You’re my hero.” Susan began to laugh again.
            “Maybe you’d better take off my apron first.”

Kevin couldn’t concentrate. The recent unusual events kept repeating over in his mind: his renewed interest in writing; Susan’s accident in the tub; the strange occurrences in her apartment; even the baffling but beneficial Eris. Whatever was going on, Susan and he were closer than ever and Kevin was enjoying the relationship again.
            He stared blankly at Eris. The laptop and printer were on Susan’s coffee table.
            It was 12:30 AM.
            “You seem distracted tonight, Kevin,” Eris said in a concerned tone. “May I help?”
            “No… no, I guess I’m just tired. I think…” Kevin caught himself in mid sentence. “Great, now I’m having conversations with a machine.”
            Eris beeped sharply and cleared her screen. Key word? appeared followed by the winking green eye cursor. Kevin thought for a moment and then typed gremlins and hit enter.
            Eris’ hard drive hummed, her infrared WIFI communicating with Susan’s internet connection. The LCD screen began to melt into free flowing shapes of lines and colors. Kevin watched intrigued. The slowly dissolving and changing patterns had a hypnotic affect. In minutes Kevin was asleep.
            Eris blinked and clicked and Susan’s apartment grew dark. The only light shone from Eris’ screen as she silently worked into the night.
            “I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to wake you.” It was morning. Kevin lay under a blanket on the downy sofa. Susan’s affecting laughter filled his ears as daylight filled the modern living room. “This is really funny…”
            Wiping the sleep from his eyes, Kevin could see Susan seated across from him. She held a quarter inch thick sheaf of printer paper.
            “I don’t know how you do it, Kevin. You seem to be able to draw inspiration from the simplest things.” Susan set the papers down and rose with the aid of her crutches. “And I think it is sweet, you used my little problem here to base your story.” She blew him a kiss. “I have a doctor’s appointment this morning. There’s coffee on the counter, sweetheart.” With that she hobbled off to the bedroom.
            Kevin’s body was sore from his night on the couch. Shaking his head to clear it, he poured himself a cup of black coffee, then settled into a chair and reached for the stack of papers.
Specter Of Love
Kevin Mc Colgan
            This time Kevin had no recollection of writing anything. The last thing he remembered was putting Susan to bed around 11 PM.
            Sipping the steaming coffee, he began to read the story of an unusual love triangle. It involved a World War Two American pilot stationed in England, the British country girl he loved, and a playful, overprotective goblin with a crush on her.
Despite himself, Kevin was laughing out loud when Susan entered the room. “I never realized you enjoyed your own work so much,” she remarked. “You sound like you are reading it for the first time.”
            He set the last page down. “It is good, isn’t it? I mean, really, really good.”
Susan looked at him puzzled. “Why, Kevin, I’ve never known you to fish for compliments like that. Yes, I told you. It is very good. Your writing gets better with each story.”
Kevin stared blankly at the innocuous laptop. Try as he may he just couldn’t remember writing Specter of Love. Yet it was his work, his style: a funny, romantic story he certainly could have conceived and written.
But he hadn’t.
Or had he?
“Hello… earth to Kevin.”
“Huh… Oh, I’m sorry…”
Susan lowered herself onto the sofa, propping up her foot. “You’re still half asleep. You must have been up all night writing. C’mon, jump in the shower. You’ve got to drive me to the hospital, and then you can do some grocery shopping for me.”

The grocery store was just a half a block from the computer shop. After loading several bags into his car, Kevin wandered down the street.
“Afternoon, Mr. Mc Colgan.” John the owner glanced up from the mini-tower he was working on. “Haven’t seen much of you lately.”
“Hello, John, how’s business?”
“Not bad, I guess… you know. By the way, how’s that Beta working out for you?”
Kevin gave the store owner a perplexed look, “Beta?”
“You know… the laptop… Eris.”
“Oh, Eris… alright I guess.” A fond smile formed on his lips, “Quite different from the old Wang.”
John laughed out loud. “I should think so.”
“What did you mean by Beta?”
“Beta… it’s a computer term… kinda like a proto type. When a company has a new product ready for field testing they send out a few to businesses like mine for evaluation. They call ‘em Betas.” His manner turned serious. “You didn’t know?”
Kevin shook his head. “No”
“Gee, Mr. Mc Colgan, I’m sorry. When Susan told me what she wanted I thought of Eris right off. I figured it would be perfect for you.” He looked down, shuffling his feet nervously. “I didn’t mean for you to be a guinnie pig or anything.”
“No… no… that’s ok. Actually Eris, the laptop, has worked wonderfully.”
John let out a sigh of relief, “Oh, well… glad to hear it.”
“Tell me, where did you get her… err… Eris from?”
The computer man scratched his thinning hair in thought. “You know, that’s the oddest thing. It just showed up on the UPS truck one day, from some company I’ve never heard of up in Salem, Massachusetts. When I called the number on the invoice a woman answered and said she owned the company and built and programmed the machine herself. She said she only produced a couple of them and would appreciate it if I could evaluate it for her. Since it was designed for writers I figured… well… you being a writer and all.”
“I see…”
“Not giving you any problems is she? I hope she’s not living up to her name.”
Kevin’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
The store owner laughed again. “Eris, she was the Greek goddess of strife and discord. Eris isn’t giving you a hard time is she?”
“No…” Kevin replied in an unsure voice. “Actually just the opposite, she’s very helpful.”
“Oh, good…”
Kevin headed to the door and then stopped and turned. “There is one thing, the reason I came by. The picture of Susan you used, I think you call it wallpaper? It seems to be deteriorating, distorting or something.”
John smiled up from the counter. “Oh, that doesn’t sound serious, just a second.” Moving to an operating computer on a desk, he typed a few keystrokes. Seconds later he nodded his head. “Here we go…” Typing again, he studied the monitor. “It looks like just a glitch in the programming somewhere. One evening when you won’t be using her give me a call and I’ll trace it out for you, no charge.”
Kevin stared at the man, his mouth open. “You mean you… you can fix it… from here? I don’t have to bring her in?”
A broad grin crossed John’s face. “Sure, I just call up Eris from here via the internet. All I need is an IP address and the software to remotely control her.” He beamed like a cat that’d just caught a mouse. “I see Eris is at Susan’s house.”
“That’s amazing.”
“Naw… just technology… machines talking to machines. It goes on all the time. They are getting smarter than us.”

The week passed uneventfully. Susan’s leg healed and she was ready to return to work. Kevin’s publisher raved over Specter of Love and Tears of A Fool, and was eager for the third story. Even Susan’s apartment didn’t give any more trouble. Sunday night after dinner the couple sat talking on Susan’s sofa, drinking Chablis.
“So… I’ll drop you off at the auto shop tomorrow morning and then head on to work.” She sipped the wine and looked at Kevin over the rim of the glass. “You sure you don’t mind me using your car?”
“Not at all, sweetheart. You can’t work the clutch with your ankle still sore and weak. Use my car as long as you need. I’ll drive the MG.”
“You know, honey, you’ve really been wonderful, taking care of me and everything.” Susan leaned into Kevin, love in her eyes.
“I’ve enjoyed the job,” Kevin replied, blushing. “Here’s to us.”
They clinked glasses and drank deeply. Kevin set the empty stem wear on the end table. He ran a hand around the back of Susan’s neck, drawing her close. They kissed.
On the coffee table, Eris’ web cam blinked. The laptop beeped and squealed, its screen flashing erratically.
Suddenly every light in the apartment switched on. The room burned like a noon day sun.
A table lamp bulb shattered.
Other bulbs began to explode.
Pop! Pop!

Kevin tried his best to shield Susan as glass from the modern ceiling lamp rained down. Just then the smoke detectors howled and the security system began to wail.

Conclusion next Week!