RUNNING Saundra Langford sighed. The elderly drunk who had been harassing her finally deci

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Skeptic Tank!

RUNNING Saundra Langford sighed. The elderly drunk who had been harassing her finally decided to leave and wobbled across the store, bouncing off a L'egg's display, multicolored plastic eggs rolling across the floor, then staggered out one of the double doors. As she started around the counter to pick up the panty hose, two wild-eyed black men in their mid-twenties hurried into the store, the door buzzer announcing them stridently. "Hey, baby, we too late to buy beer?" one asked Saundra. "I'm afraid so. It's ten after two," she replied steadily, moving back behind the counter, near the register, and braced herself for the argument. "Aw, c'mon!" the other man frowned as they walked up to the counter on the other side of her. "Ain't gonna hurt ya to let us get a coupla jumbos. You a sister... sort of. Help us out." "I can't," Saundra said shortly, her left hand hovering near the silent alarm button beneath the counter. Her as-always accurate sixth sense was warning her that these two were going to be more trouble than usual. "Now lookie here," the taller of the two, whom Saundra noted had lighter skin and a scar over the bridge of his nose, leaned forward and she stepped back without moving her hand. "You here all by yerself, ain'cha? Now who gonna stop us iff'n we wanna take the beer, an' even the money?" "I am!" With a silent sigh of relief Saundra, keeping one eye on the troublemakers, saw a tall, burly young white man step out of the back room with a 2x4 in one hand, a hammer in the other. "And while I'm kicking your asses, she'll be calling the police." The two black men eyed him for a moment, then with snarled curses they stalked out, slamming the doors back. Saundra, shaking slightly, let her hand drop from the button and said, "Thanks, Marshall." He ignored her and went into the back room again. A moment later she heard the cooler door open, the blowers stop, then the clink of bottles. Her shoulders slumped as she went around the counter and began to pick up the L'eggs that had rolled across the floor, ignoring the hurt that swept through her at the snub. Still, she couldn't help but wonder why Marshall--and Janet, for that matter--disliked her. Was it because she was mixed? Nobody else who worked in the store, black or white, seemed to care. She carefully arraigned the pantyhose display then turned around and was surprised to see a crumpled green bill on the floor mat in front of the counter. She quickly picked it up and smoothed it out, getting a pleasant surprise to find that it was a twenty, rather than the single she'd assumed it was. One of the would-be robbers must've dropped it, she thought, since the old man hadn't had any money and had been trying to get her to give him a bottle of cheap wine. Who knew, maybe there was some justice in the world. "Hey, I dropped that!" Saundra looked up into Marshall's pale blue eyes and her temper snapped. "Kiss my ass, you did! I just found it on the floor and you haven't been out here since we started." He stared at her with undisguised surprise, since Saundra was usually quiet and rather shy, then spat unthinkingly, "You'll be sorry for that, nig-" He shut up suddenly, looking uncomfortable. "Go on, say it. Nigger bitch is what you meant, isn't it?" Though her eyes burned, she held back the tears with steely will, well used to this sort of thing. "Come to think of it, Marshall, I wouldn't let you kiss my ass. I might get AIDS or herpes or some other nasty kind of disease." With tightly controlled dignity she stalked past him and went behind the counter, pretending to check the coffee pots. When he'd disappeared into the cooler again, she sagged against the side of the Frozen Coke machine and nearly gave in to her tears, but held them back. Why do people hate me? Because I'm mixed? But I didn't have anything to do with it! she thought angrily as she had many times before. I'm not accepted by whites because they can see my black blood, and blacks don't like me because I look too white. Forget it and go on, she told herself as she had many times before, too. It was worse in school and I survived that... barely. She busied herself in work, making fresh coffee and filling the overhead cigarette racks, but often caught sight of her reflection in the long two-way mirrored wall behind the counter. She tried not to look, but couldn't help it. Long, straight, slightly coarse dark brown hair, an oval face with full lips and a thin nose, large, dark, tilted eyes, and amber-colored skin. Yella, the blacks called her. Nigger, the whites called her. Nothing, she called herself. Morning finally arrived and at seven o'clock she checked out her register, talking briefly with the girls on the next shift and giving them a good description of the two men who had almost robbed her, then left shortly after Marshall had driven off. This October morning was dawning beautifully, gold and pink lighting the eastern sky beyond the many tall buildings. As she walked the city streets home, she ignored the interested looks and occasional honks or shouts from passing drivers. Despite wearing a loose sweatshirt and fashionably baggy jeans beneath her heavy jacket and cashier's smock, Saundra knew that men seemed to sense the full figure that she had- and hated. It was a tiring, three-story climb to her attic apartment for her sore feet, but once inside, Saundra kicked off her shoes and tore off her clothes, putting on a comfortable old robe. She relaxed in an overstuffed easy chair and watched the morning news for a while, but it was, as always, too depressing and she shut the old black-and-white TV off. Then, remembering the twenty dollars she'd found, thought about walking down to the diner for breakfast. No, I'm too damned tired to climb up and down all those stairs again. I'll go to bed and get something when I get up. But even with the shade down and drapes pulled, enough sunlight penetrated to keep her awake. She lay on the hide-a-bed couch's lumpy mattress, staring up at the ceiling, her mind wandering restlessly. She thought of her mother, who had been Amerasian--half black and half Vietnamese--and her white father, whom she strongly resembled, though with darker coloring. They had been so happy for the first fifteen years of her life, living in a small brick house in a mixed city neighborhood where they weren't discriminated against or thought odd, until the evening that her parents had gone out for their twentieth anniversary dinner and never come back. A drunk driver had ended their lives, and may as well have taken Saundra's too, she thought as tears ran down the sides of her cheeks at the memory. Then going to live with her single Aunt Patty, her father's younger sister, in the suburbs. The white suburbs. Sticking out like a sore thumb with her exotic features and coloring, called the "token nigger" by most of the whites. Shortly after graduating, on her eighteenth birthday, she'd come back to the city- alone. But, a year later, it wasn't much better. All she had was a cheap place to live and a job; no friends, no car, no social life. She survived, but that was all. The ringing telephone woke her. A glance at the clock told her that she'd only been asleep about five hours as she climbed out of bed and hurried into the kitchen. "Hello?" "Saundra? It's Nellie, from the store. Listen, Janet just called and said she's not coming in today, her little boy's sick. Can you come in and work her shift? Dave said he'd work for you tonight, even though he's supposed to be off." "Who else is coming in?" she asked groggily. "Elmer works four to midnight. I need you for one to ten. I know it's a long shift, but..." "Couldn't Dave come in now? I haven't had much sleep, Nellie, and I'll never make it there by one." It was twelve-thirty. "No, he goes to school part-time and I caught him just as he was leaving the house. But I'll give you tonight and tomorrow night off, how's that for a deal?" "Yeah, okay. I'll be there as soon as I can, then." "Thanks, Saundra, take your time, wake up first. I'll stay until you get here. You always come through when I need you, and I appreciate that." As she hung up the phone Saundra mused, that's because I don't have anything else to do except sit home. And I need to save all the money I can so I can get the hell out of here. Work, home, work. A trip to the grocery store is a big deal to me. She put water on to boil for a quick cup of instant coffee as she washed and dressed, then gulped it standing at the counter wearing her jacket. As she locked the door behind her Saundra felt an odd chill of premonition, a feeling that something was going to happen. Remembering when she'd almost been broken into once, she re-checked the strong new locks, then shrugged. She got these weird feelings from her sixth sense, as she called it, once in a while. They didn't always come true, but every time something bad had happened in her life she'd at least been warned by the feeling, though she could rarely tell what was going to happen. At the store she was dismayed to see that it was a madhouse, nothing unusual for the afternoon shift, which was why she preferred quieter, if more dangerous, midnights. Kept busy by the hoards of customers, she didn't even have time to think as she ran the register and tried to watch people who might steal, which was damn near every person who came through the doors in this neighborhood. Finally, near four-thirty, when the schoolkids tapered off, she was able to relax for a moment. "Pretty busy, huh?" She turned to see Elmer Postin, the stockman, smiling at her from the back room doorway. He was a tall, almost cadaverously thin black man in his early sixties, with a lively sense of humor yet a somber demeanor about him. "Yeah. Hi, Elmer. I was so busy I didn't even see you come in or Dayna leave." "You were so busy that I didn't bother you. How you doin', girl? You switchin' to afternoons?" He came behind the counter and stood beside an ashtray as he lit a cigar. "No, Janet called in. Nellie's giving me a couple of days off since I came in at one-thirty," Saundra explained. Besides the manager, Nellie, Elmer was the person she liked to work with the most, but he rarely worked a midnight shift. He didn't talk much, yet was comfortable to be around and often made her laugh with biting observations of customers. "You worked last night, huh? I see," he nodded his graying head sagely. "Could be that Janet knew today was the day Mark, Dave, and Wendy all had off an' there was nobody but you to come in." Saundra smiled slightly. "Could be." She was always careful not to gossip about the other cashiers and stockboys, knowing from experience that gossip always turned back on you and bit. "She did say her kid's sick, though." Elmer snorted derisively. "Likely he's got allergies, jus' like everybody around here gets come fall. That girl the laziest body I ever did see." Saundra couldn't help but laugh. "You're terrible, Elmer." He grinned back at her. "Yeah, I am, an' after sixty-three years ain't nobody gonna change me." Then he looked across the store, out the front windows, and frowned. Saundra followed his gaze and saw a large group of rowdy teenagers approaching across the empty parking lot from the direction of the high school down the street. "I do believe I'm done in the back for now," Elmer said as he stubbed out his cigar. "I think mebbe them kids need watchin'." Saundra was glad that he stayed up front with her, since there was no way she could have watched seven people by herself. After the kids left, Elmer went into the back room, putting returnable bottles away, then into the cooler while she swept the store and neatened up, occasionally waiting on a customer. Then she got busy with the five o'clock rush hour crowd again, feeling the heavy lassitude that came from lack of sleep but too busy to drink coffee to help combat it. The store was finally empty when he emerged from the cooler. "I'm done," he announced, shrugging off a jacket. "That Marshall boy doan' do nuthin' in there but mess it up." Saundra nodded. "I know. I think he just sits in there and drinks- I thought I smelled beer on his breath last night, but I wasn't sure." "An' you can't tell Nellie cause you ain't got no proof," Elmer supplied correctly. "I dunno why he doan' like you, but I 'spect it's cause you won't go out with him. Yeah, I heard 'bout that." Saundra shrugged and sprayed Fantastik on the counter, wiping away stains from Frozen Cokes. "It doesn't matter, either one. I can't do anything about it." Elmer fixed her slender back with a deep, knowing look, then said, "An' I know Janet doan' like you 'cause you won't do her work for her. She doan' like me either cause I doan' take her shit." Saundra glanced at him in surprise as he continued, "You jus' keep doin' right, girl. Nellie knows you a good worker and the shit dat Janet's pullin' ain't gonna go on for long." Saundra mulled over his words as the older man pulled a lunch bag from beneath the counter and went into the back room with it. Could he mean the open assistant manager's position? Lost in her thoughts, she looked up startled when the door buzzer went off. Two elderly white women entered and returned her greeting with dirty looks, so she went back to cleaning the counter stoically. She was well used to looks like that. A creepy, otherworldly feeling stole over her and gradually Saundra realized that it was a warning. But for what? The two old women were no threat, and neither was Elmer, so why was the warning growing so strong? As she glanced around the store worriedly, her eye was caught by something in the sky outside. Above a bank of dark clouds to the west that heralded the night approaching, she saw a light in the sky. It had the shape and color of a single flame, but it didn't flicker or light the sky around it. It was just there, hanging in the clear blue air above the darkening clouds. As she watched it hovering, a shiver chased down her back and goosebumps raised every hair on her body. She was vaguely aware of Elmer coming out of the back room to stand beside her, but she was too entranced by staring at the unusual and wonderful flame to look at him. It wasn't just hanging there, she suddenly realized. Slowly, like the hands of a clock which move so gradually that they seem not to move at all, it was inching downward toward the bank of heavy blue-black clouds. She couldn't think, only watch, feeling her wonder at the sight change to something very akin to fear as the sixth sense's warning pulsed through her. "Miss? Miss!" Saundra snapped out of her trance and stared blankly at the wrinkled face on the other side of the counter. "Wha... what?" "I said, where's your eggs?" the old woman demanded harshly in a cracked, annoyed, shrill voice that rasped on her nerves like fingernails on a blackboard. Elmer took charge, seeing the glazed look in Saundra's eyes. "Third door from the other end of the cooler, ma'am," he said, pointing. As the old lady hobbled away, muttering, he put a gentle and comforting hand on Saundra's shoulder. "You okay, girl?" Her eyes flicked from his dark, seamed face to the clear blue sky, which was empty but for the bank of dark clouds which were nearly invisible beyond the buildings. "It's gone. Did you see it, Elmer?" He struggled with himself for a moment, then made a decision. "We'll talk 'bout it later. For now you do your work." "But..!" "Listen to me, Saundra. Yeah, I seen it, but now's not the time to talk 'bout it. I doan' think too many people saw it, and those that did are in serious danger." She followed the line of his eyes and saw the two old women approaching the counter. "Go 'head, take care of them." Mechanically Saundra waited on the two women, who complained long and bitterly about the high prices in the 24-hour convenience store, which she'd heard so many times before that it was barely noticed. But when she made an error on the register and had to void it out, that snapped her out of her daze. She rarely messed up, and her good record was a source of pride for her. After the old women left she started to follow Elmer in the back room, urgently wanting to talk to him, but customers came in with annoying regularity as rush hour continued. It wasn't until the next shift worker came in at ten that she realized what time it was. Elmer walked up to her after she'd checked out and was getting her purse and jacket from the back room. "How you gettin' home?" "Guess I'll have to call a cab. That's how I get here at night." She didn't dare walk after dark around here, though it was safe enough during the day. "Lissen, you know that donut shop down the street? By Conner Avenue?" "Yeah?" she looked at him curiously. "You go on down there an' wait for me. I'll run you home after we talks. We got to talk, child." Saundra nodded slowly as she pulled her jacket on. "Okay. Elmer, what was that-" He cut her off. "Not now. See you at midnight." She left the store and walked to the donut shop two blocks away, every sense alert as she passed darkened doorways, looking around with paranoid energy, ready to run at the slightest threat. Inside the shop, she ignored curious stares as she mulled over several cups of coffee and a Danish, coldly and angrily rebuffing the advances of a man who thought she was a hooker after she's been sitting in the place for an hour. She was relieved when Elmer's familiar tan car pulled up outside the window she sat beside and quickly got up, her bill paid, and went outside and got in. "You hungry?" Elmer asked as he pulled back out into traffic. "Not really. Had coffee and a danish while I was waiting." "Well, I am. I already called m'wife and let her know I was gonna be late, so we goin' to a restaurant and you get what you wants, you hear me? You too thin, girl." "Okay," she said with resignation, knowing that to argue with Elmer when he'd made up his mind was about as productive as arguing with a brick wall. She waited until they were in a secluded corner booth in a 24-hour restaurant and a waiter had taken their order before looking expectantly at him and saying firmly, "Now will you tell me what's going on?" He nodded and looked back at her speculatively. "Yeah, you needs to know. Saundra, you gots one powerful talent an' you don't even know it, do you?" She frowned across the table at him. "I don't have any talents, not really. I can sing and carry a tune, and I've tried learning to play the piano-" "Not like that," he interrupted her. "In here." He tapped the side of his head. "You got the Light." A realization dawned on her and Saundra shook her head. "Wait. I don't-" "Yes you do know!" Elmer hissed, fixing her with his intense black eyes. "You get funny feelin's, what you call warnings, but that ain't what it is. You just don't know how to use it yet." Saundra stared at him in amazement. She's never told anyone, not even her parents or aunt, about her sixth sense. "How did you know? And what's that got to do with whatever it was we saw in the sky tonight?" "I gots it too, that's how I know, only I knows how to use it. My grammy, she see it and train me how to use it. Mebbe nobody in your family knew you had it, though it usually runs in families..." Saundra gazed at him, seeing the inner strength and power in his dark face for the first time. "My parents couldn't have known. I never said anything. And after they were married neither of their families wanted anything to do with them. The only other relative I knew was my Aunt Patty, my father's sister, and she didn't like me and we didn't talk much." Elmer recognized her pain, felt it coming off her in resentful waves, and wished he could get her to talk more about herself to relieve some of it. But he knew she was a private person, not someone who spilled her guts, and they did have something more important to talk about. Instead he said, "That light in the sky we saw today, not everybody could see that, you know. An' I doan' know how it ties in with our powers, but I think only us that's got the Light could see it." When their food came she picked at little at the hamburger Elmer had insisted she order, but she had no appetite. "How do you know that?" "I jus' know. The way you sometimes know when something bad's gonna happen." He pushed his mashed potatoes around with a water-spotted fork, apparently not very hungry either. "I senses it. That was a... a warning, I think. Or a call. I'm not sure but it ain't no good for us, I know that much." "Us? You mean... psychics? That's what I am, isn't it?" Saundra winced as she said it. This was the stuff of books and movies, not reality. "You could call it that. Me, I c'n sorta read minds, but I more sense feelins. I think you could do more'n me iff'n you was trained--you gots it strong, stronger than anybody I ever met 'fore--but that means you in the greatest danger, too." As tired as she was Saundra couldn't sleep after Elmer dropped her off near one o'clock. Finally she got out of the couch-bed, turned the radio on low to her favorite jazz station, and sat by the window and looked out the front window. Her view from the third floor was of the tops of many houses, trees, and some factories as far as she could see. In the dark it was a panorama of many tiny twinkling lights in the inky surroundings, but she found no beauty in it. She thought about her life so far a lot, cried a little remembering both good and bad, and finally returned to bed when she began to yawn. If nothing else, she was certain, Elmer was right about two things: she had a talent and something was definitely going to happen that involved it. Just what, she also had no idea. She slept until nearly noon and slowly rose from the depths of sleep groggy, confused, and disoriented. Hazy remnants of dreams clung and she twisted and turned, trying to go back to sleep, but finally she gave up and swung her feet over the side of the lumpy mattress. As she padded toward the bathroom, her toes curling away from the cold bare floors, she recalled some of the odd dreams she'd had. They seemed to have something to do with that flame in the sky they'd seen... she'd been following it... drawn to it helplessly like a moth... Saundra spent the day cleaning her three small rooms, went to the Laundromat then, as she was gathering up her purse and jacket to go grocery shopping, was startled by a knock at her only door, which faced the back of the house. Surprised since no one had ever come by since she'd lived there, she paused in the middle of the kitchen, wondering and suspicious. Then it hit her. Only one person knew where she lived, and that was Elmer, since he'd dropped her off last night. She hurried over and unlocked the door, pulling it open even as a pulse of warning shot through her like an electric shock. She stopped dead. Outside, on the tiny landing beyond the storm door, stood two white men, their khaki uniforms reminding her of those worn by the military, but there were no name tags or patches on them. As she gaped in total surprise, feeling the warning coursing through her, the one with crewcut black hair spoke. "Are you Saundra Langford?" "Yeah-yes," she stammered, making no move to unlock the storm door though she could barley hear them through it. "What do-" "I'm Lieutenant Cassidy of the U.S.A.F. Special Forces unit. This is Colonel Rossman. May we come in and speak to you?" Saundra eyed them warily. Not only her sixth sense but her street sense as well told her not to let them in. "Tell me what you want." "May we come in?" Colonel Rossman spoke politely, but she saw an odd, almost wary look in his light gray eyes. "No, not yet. Can I see your credentials?" she asked warily, wondering if they were impostors. A girl living alone learned to be exceptionally wary, even with her sixth sense to warn and, at times, guide her. "What do you want?" she repeated, feeling more uneasy by the moment. Neither moved toward a wallet or pocket. "Miz Langford, we understand that you may have seen something you don't understand, a UFO possibly, yesterday..." Colonel Rossman let his voice trail off meaningfully, watching her closely. She started. "How in..?" "I can't disclose my sources, miss. Can you give us a statement as to exactly what you saw?" He stared at her through the storm window, gray eyes as cold as ice on the river in January. "No, I will not," Saundra replied firmly, getting angry on top of being scared. She had noted that they carried no weapons, apparently along with no ID. "Not until you tell me, first of all, how you found out, second, why you want to know, and third, who in the hell you really are! Air Force my ass, you ain't got no badges or ID!" Out of habit Saundra slipped into the street vernacular she'd picked up as a defense mechanism and often used when talking to people that irritated her. The two men glanced at each other, then stared at her expressionlessly. "Miz Langford, this is serious. It's a government matter. We aren't allowed to discolse any information, only gather it. We only want a few minutes of your time." The lieutenant tried to smile, but it never went past his lips. "You've already taken more than a few," she retorted. "If you ain't gonna answer my questions first, I ain't having nothing to do with you. Go away or I'll call the police." She slammed the door in their faces and leaned back against it, shaking and breathing heavily. They knocked a while longer, then she heard the clump of their boots descending the long flights of stairs, fading away. After a few moments she peeked out the door then carefully crept halfway down the first flight to a small, cloudy side window that faced the driveway far below. Just starting up, a plume of smoke curling out from behind it, was a plain, dark blue four-door Ford sedan, and as it backed out into the street and pulled away she saw that there was something unusual about the back plate, but it was too far away for her to make out what it was. Maybe they hadn't lied, she mused as she went back up the steep stairway. They might have been Air Force, but she was still mystified as to how they'd found out about what she'd seen... and why it was so important that she tell them. Forgetting about shopping, Saundra locked both doors and headed through the small kitchen toward the living room. Suddenly she paused just before the archway as a thought hit her: call Elmer. That had to be where they found out from, because she hadn't told anyone else! She dialed the store and asked Mark for Elmer's phone number from the employee list, and was shocked when he told her that Elmer's written notice of quitting had been delivered by some guy none of them recognized. She wrote down the number anyway but after dialing it, was told by an impersonal electronic voice that it was no longer in service. Thoughtfully she went to the living room window and perched on the couch arm after flicking on the radio. Low, mellow old jazz played in the background as she gazed out over the familiar landscape of metal, shingles, and the tops of a few autumn-hued trees. Her mind worked over the tangle of sudden new problems, trying to figure out what all of it meant, but nothing made sense anymore. Finally she stood and, feeling slight hunger pangs, glanced at the clock and was surprised to see that it was near six o'clock. She went in the kitchen and glanced in the refrigerator, then frowned. Nothing to eat, no meat thawed for dinner. However, she still had five dollars left out of the money she'd found at the store the other day and decided to walk down to the diner--a truck stop, really--they had a great cheeseburger plate for $2.75. As she stepped out into the crisp, amber-tinted autumn air she noted that the sun was nearing the horizon and decided to get take-out rather than eat there. It wasn't that bad of a neighborhood, for the inner city, but Saundra knew well the dangers of a young woman out alone after dark. At the tiny corner restaurant, sitting on a stool at the counter and talking to the waitress, whom she vaguely knew, Saundra felt the warning gradually creep over her. She glanced around, seeing only three other people in the place: a derelict slumped over a cup of coffee at the other end of the counter and a dark-haired, olive-skinned couple who spoke in a rapid, guttural language sitting at one of the booths near the windows. Then she caught sight of the rear end of a dark car as it pulled away from in front of the restaurant and shuddered. Had that been..? When she stepped out into the gathering dusk a short time later she scanned the street for the car but didn't see it. It was noteworthy in this neighborhood just because it didn't have any rust. Carrying the grease-spotted bag with her dinner, Saundra walked quickly down the block, keeping her senses alert to possible danger. Something told her that the Air Force men, if that was what they were, hadn't given up as easily as it seemed. She was relieved when the streetlights winked on, but no less wary as she approached her building, a huge, slightly decrepit old boardinghouse. Two equally large buildings sat close on either side and suddenly Saundra dreaded having to walk up the narrow driveway. But her private entrance (her rooms had once been the manager's until the old man became too feeble to climb all the stairs and before that, the maids' residence) was in the rear. There was another doorway leading to her stairwell off the main floor, but it was locked from inside Saundra's side. She relaxed a bit as she walked up the empty, familiar driveway. Then, as she rounded the corner to the back of the building, a flash of pale warned her in time to leap back and dodge her attacker. As he stumbled past her, off-balance, Saundra yanked her keychain out of her front jeans pocket and found the small canister unerringly, having practiced. Even as she aimed and pressed the tiny trigger, she recognized the tan uniform and dark hair. Lieutenant Cassidy stumbled back, screaming in sudden, unexpected agony, clawing at his eyes where the mace had penetrated. Suddenly, without thinking about it, Saundra ducked and whirled, spraying from the tiny but dangerous can of mace just as she felt the whoosh of a solid object just miss the back of her head. It was then that she screamed for the first time, the colonel's hoarse cry as the mace penetrated his eyes, too, lost in her piercing, pealing screams for help. Then, as people began to appear in the yards around the building, doors slamming and voices calling out, she whirled and, with shaking hands, fumbled the key into the downstairs door. After what seemed like an eternity but was really no more than a few seconds, she stumbled inside and slammed the door, shot the deadbolt that was near the bottom of the door, and raced breathlessly up the steep, narrow staircase. She paused near the window and glanced out, frightened to see that both men weren't in sight but their car was parked out in the alley, not visible from the driveway by a ramshackle garage that sat behind the building. In her apartment, she quickly shut the inner steel door that she'd insisted on and thanked God that she lived on the third floor- her windows were inaccessible to all but birds and maybe a comic book hero or two. Just as she shot all three bolts home, she heard the sound of pounding and wood splintering below, then the approaching wail of police sirens and the hammering quit. She dropped the bag with her hamburger and fries, which she'd never let go of, onto the tiny kitchen table then raced into the living room. From beneath the mattress of the hideaway bed she pulled a gleaming .38 Special, checked the bullets in the chamber, than ran back to the front door. Shaking, she clutched the big gun in a deathgrip, double-handed as she'd seen on TV since no one had ever taught her to use the gun, and pointed it at the door. If they somehow got through the thick steel panel, they had a big surprise coming, she thought grimly. The sound of heavy footsteps ascending the stairs made her tense, startled, and nearly pull the trigger, but its strong resistance gave her time to relax her finger before the gun discharged. Then she nearly broke down as a man's voice called, faint through the thick door, "It's the police, miss. Are you all right?" Nearly sobbing in sudden relief Saundra lowered the gun and reached for the deadbolt. Then the warning flashed and her hand drew back as if the metal had shocked her. Never had it been so sudden and powerful and she knew she was in terrible, life-threatening danger. She stared at the blank gray steel door in terrible, complete confusion. "Miss Langford? Are you in there?" How did they know her name? Fighting to keep her voice calm, she called, "I'm fine, officer, you can go now." "We'd like to talk to you about what just happened outside." She recognized the voice with a jolt. "It won't work, Colonel. Leave me alone!" Silence. Saundra waited wordlessly, breathlessly waiting to see what they'd do. Then, lower, just barely audible, the colonel said, "We'll get you, you know. If you'll come with us peacefully we won't hurt you- we do need you alive and cooperative. But our orders are to bring you in, willing or not." "My ass you will!" Saundra screamed, terrified, as her control broke. "This is America, you can't do things like this!" "The President can in times of war, and though you don't know it, war's coming. We'll get you, Langford. Just like your friend Postin. Make it easy on yourself." They'd gotten Elmer, she realized. As she listened to his boots descend the stairs, Saundra suddenly and completely remembered the odd dream she'd had the previous night. She had listened to the light speak, and it had told her that the flame in the sky was a Call; a Call to all psychics to heed the cry of war, a silent cry but deadlier than any all the same. It was a war for all human minds. Saundra let out a low, helpless cry as she crumpled to the floor, dropping the gun on the warped, faded tiles. Oh, God, why me? Before she's seen the flame yesterday--was it really only about 24 hours ago?--she had lived a normal, if desperate and boring, life. Now she was being chased, her life in danger--hell, her very soul in danger!--by the government, yet, it would seem. On the President of the United State's orders. She flung her hair back and pushed clinging strands of her long, thick hair away from her wet face with a shaking hand. Having hysterics and whining wasn't going to help any. She picked up the .38, relieved to see that she'd never cocked it or she might've blown off her foot when she'd dropped it. She had found the gun in her aunt's closet just before she'd left, and though she wasn't really sure how to use it, Saundra thought she'd learned enough just from watching cop shows on TV to be able to. Finally she got up and laid the gun on the rickety little table beside the grease-spotted bag. She was surprised to find that she was still hungry. She set out the cheeseburger, onion rings, and coleslaw, got a bottle of Sprite from the refrigerator, and ate. There was only one thing she could do, Saundra realized as she wolfed down the cold food, and that was run. Tonight. Despite its squalor she liked her thre tiny rooms and would miss her job, but there was no other choice. Wiping her greasy fingers on a piece of paper towel Saundra got her purse from the bedroom and returned to the kitchen table. Her checkbook announced a total balance of $38.43--she only kept enough in there to pay the bills--and after a cursory glance, laid the slender blue book aside and picked up the slightly thicker, leather-bound savings book. Her frugality might now save her life, she mused as she opened the cover and flipped past several pages of deposit entries. Two years' worth of steady deposits, from ten to a hundred dollars each, greeted her eyes. After paying bills and buying only necessities, Saundra had put almost all of her paychecks in the bank. Rarely did she spend what she didn't have to, and if she needed clothes, she usually shopped at a nearby Salvation Army resale shop. Her balance in savings was just over $2,500. She had been saving to buy a nice car and get the hell out of the city, but the big flaw now was that she'd never gotten a driver's license and there was no time for that now. Slowly a plan began to form in her mind. Leaving both bankbooks sitting out, she went back into the bedroom to the closet and pulled down a large manila folder from the top shelf. For a moment she clutched it to her chest, remembering, then wiping away a lone tear, took it to the kitchen table and began to pull papers from it. Here were all her memories of her parents and past life... their marriage license, her birth certificate and the one paper that might allow her to escape: the birth certificate of her fraternal twin sister who had died at three weeks old of SIDS. Amelia Margaret Langford. The last name was still the same and possibly the government knew that she'd had a sister or could find out via old birth and death records, but it was the only chance Saundra had, however slim, and she knew it. To carry out the rest of her escape plan, however, she needed to get to the bank and then a department store. But how? She knew they must have her under constant surveillance. Unless... two hookers lived downstairs, one of them nearly as lightskinned as Saundra herself, though she had short, jet-black, jeri-curled hair. Could she pass as Shamita? Cut her hair or wrap it up under a scarf, then dress like a whore going out for the night? Saundra stared into space, her mind whirling. Did she have the guts, the brassiness, to walk these dangerous city streets after dark masquerading as a brash, experienced hooker? Then she remembered acting in high school. Despite the other kids' derision she'd tried out and made it into every school play, though often not for the lead role she tried out for. Her drama teacher had admitted that she had real talent and a natural flair for acting, but Saundra had been passed over for prettier white girls so often that the inclination was killed by the end of her senior year. However, if she just pretended that being a hooker was a role in a play... maybe... She had to try. Her very life depended on it. At four-thirty the next afternoon a young black hooker left through the front door of the boardinghouse on Rufus Street, sauntered the four blocks to Shopper's World, then moseyed back with two huge shopping bags. Men stared, made open remarks, and even approached her, but she just laughed throatily and told them to watch for her after dark. In the dimly-lit lower hallway of the boardinghouse Saundra raced down the corridor and forced open the old, warped wooden door that led to her stairway, locking it again from the other side. Upstairs she tore off the tight jeans and cut-off t-shirt, then ran a hot bath as she had no shower in the rooms. While it filled she thoroughly read the directions on both hair-care boxes, praying that she wouldn't damage her hair with both a perm and a coloring, then took off the bright scarf wrapped around her head and lopped off her hair at shoulder level. After she was through coloring and perming, she wrapped her head in a worn towel and unpacked the rest of the shopping bags. The check she'd written would bounce, but that was the least of her worries right now. If this disguise didn't get her past the Air Force people it really wouldn't matter anyway. Dressed and with the new, suitcase-sized purse filled with what little she dared take, Saundra picked up the phone and made two calls. Then, with a last, thorough double-check and a tear-filled look around her home, she locked the door and went down the stairs for the last time. A green-and-white cab picked her up fifteen minutes later and when she told the driver that her jealous ex-boyfriend might be trying to follow her in a dark four-door Ford, he grinned at her in the rearview mirror. "I kin see why he'd be jealous," the cabbie sneered. "But doncha worry. Ah could lose Jesus Himself iff'n I wanted to." He was true to his word. Within ten minutes the Ford appeared behind them, and in half that time he'd lost it, the cab jumping lights, dodging around other cabs in the busy downtown area, and racing through dark, narrow, twisting alleys. Then Saundra had him to stop at several 24-hour teller machines and withdrew the limit from her savings account, five hundred dollars each time. She had him drop her at a large, expensive hotel in the suburbs, then walked nearly five miles to a smaller, cheaper motel, afraid he'd come back and try to find her. Three days later she emerged from the Motorama Motel in her third, and final, disguise. She was sure that even her relatives wouldn't recognize her now, never mind a couple of men that had only seen her once or twice. Her shoulder-length reddish-blonde hair was an interesting contrast to her tan skin, and she was still amazed that she looked almost full white with the light hair, possibly half Indian or Mexican rather than black. Her new wardrobe of bright, stylish clothes and assumed attitude made her seem like a snobbish suburban girl rather than the self-effacing city person she really was, and she played the part to the hilt. She had new ID, issued in the name of Amelia M. Langford. The card itself would go to a nonexistent address, but the slip of paper and voter's registration she'd gotten at Secretary of State was good enough for now. She had no problems at the passport office either, and heaved a sigh of relief as she left it carrying the small black book. She'd been afraid that the computers would know that Amelia had been dead for over eighteen years, but now she was free and clear to fly. Saundra flagged down and cab and directed it to the airport, praying that this last step wouldn't prove to be the fatal one. It was the last leg of her journey, but not until the plane had cleared the United States did she relax, knowing that she had escaped. EPILOGUE Heads turned as the tall, slender young woman swept past the rows of motionless sun-worshippers at poolside. She held her head high, looking neither left nor right; despite her casual flowered t-shirt and shorts, nearly everyone recognized her as Ladybird Amelia, the exotic singer from the hotel bar. Saundra--even now she rarely thought of herself as Amelia though she was quick to answer to the name--had finally found her niche here in the Caribbean. After two years of gypsying across Europe, pretending to be an exchange student, she'd gotten drunk in a London basement cafe and let herself be talked into getting up and singing. No one more than Saundra herself had been surprised to find out that she had a low, rich contralto voice that spun out silky, smoky magic and an unerring ear for tone. Her popularity as a cabaret singer grew, but she had to keep moving lest the people looking for her find out by her fame who and where she was. She traveled across France and Germany, but this small Jamaican resort was the best yet; her mixed blood wasn't the least unusual in the Caribbean, and here she was making eight hundred American dollars a night, six nights a week, plus room and board at the resort hotel. She welcomed the coolness of the hotel's air conditioning as she headed across the lobby for the elevator and her rooms. As much as she liked the islands, she sensed that it was time to move on. After three months here, everyone was urging her to record an album or go to Hollywood. Another thing she'd discovered in her travels was the art of makeup. With the right cosmetics applied carefully, she went from a nominally pretty girl to a ravishing exotic beauty with smoky dark eyes and red, pouting lips. Though she was now used to men pursuing her, she rarely had more than a one-night stand as she dared not get involved, though she'd been tempted more than once. As she stood before the bank of highly reflective polished steel elevator doors her wide, slightly tilted eyes scanned her reflection and a slight smile crossed her face; hard to believe that this exotically beautiful woman was the same shy, defensive little store clerk that had run like a scared rabbit. Now she was in control of where she went and what she did, the dark cloud that hung over her notwithstanding. The elevator bell dinged and she looked up at the glowing red arrow over the doors. Anticipating lunch on the terrace of her room, which faced the sea, she took a small step forward as the doors began to open, then froze as the warning pulsed through her stronger than ever before. She hadn't felt it since the night she'd decided to run but it wasn't something easily forgettable. She stared at the elev- ator doors as they began to open, ready to bolt, then her jaw dropped in shock. As they slid back a body fell at her feet, Elmer's dead, sightless eyes staring up at her almost reproachfully from behind the mask of blood that covered his face. "He did his job, just as you will," Lt. Cassidy smiled at her coldly. "We told you we'd get you one way or the other."

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E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank