University of California, Berkeley, Oakland, CA
In the dim light of a windowless room, two Asian men paced while the third, an American, sat at a solitary table sweating over his laptop.
“James Kemp had an assistant.” said the American, whose name was Frank Martin, perusing the information that was scrolling down his computer screen.
“Who?” The native Chinese man demanded, crossing the small room to investigate.
“Just a kid really,” the American, a balding middle aged man, tensed up as the smaller Asian, no less intimidating because of his stature, leaned over his shoulder. Frank thought his name was Chee-Something, Cai Lu had been the name he’d read on the paper Dr. Zhang had given him. Frank could smell the faint odor of talcum powder on his person.
Frank knew his two superiors viewed him only as a tool, an outlet from which any piece of information they requested could be instantly granted. To them, Frank Martin was a nobody whom Dr. Leo Zhang had flown in from Kansas, just for the occasion. Though he ran a small sunflower farm on the side, Frank had always known he had a special talent when it came to understanding computers. He’d returned to school and graduated at the top of his class. He’d been job hunting when he’d seen the ad for computer tech advisor posted at Monster.com and applied for it. As the famous scientist had told him, he’d won the lottery landing this job. The amount of money offered would help tremendously and Leo Zhang had left him no choice but to take it. He knew he was expendable, that he couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. He double checked the digital photograph he’d minimized up in the corner of his screen to make sure it was the same guy.
“Derrick Griffin, age 29. Already working on his Ph. D, was hired last year to teach a few basic physics classes to the lower masses here at U of C Berkley. Quiet, kept to himself.”
“Was Honorable Zhang aware of this man?” The Chinese man’s accent was even more pronounced as he hissed into Frank’s ear.
His fellow colleague stopped his pacing and joined him in peering over Frank’s shoulder at the screen. If the small old man from China made him nervous, this guy, Robert Chang, scared the piss out of him. Chang had been born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He could read the English on the screen better than his elder superior, yet as the junior officer he clearly carried more power. His first meeting with Chang had involved some physical actions that had been painful to say the least. Chang was American born but clearly his attitude of nationalism left something to be desired.
Frank’s knowledge about the Chinese and their ways was stereotypical to say the least, based on all the Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies he’d ever seen. Robert Chang had made it clear by his surprising show of dexterity with his hands on Frank’s arm and neck that if Frank didn’t do exactly as he was told then he would suffer consequences. He wasn’t ready to die by water torture or any other means they might devise if he stepped out of line.
“Answer the honorable Cai Lu’s question, farm boy,” demanded Chang, pronouncing it “Sigh-Loo”.
Frank’s voice shook, “From…from what I heard…Dr. Zhang and Dr. Kemp were always arguing in circles about involving the NPC and that news agency of your country that starts with an X. Zee-or Zin-something…” Xinhua News Agency was the number one source of media for the People’s Republic of China, Frank knew that much.
“The letter X is pronounced “Shin” it’s the “Shin-hwah” News Agency! My God, next time I’m insisting Dr. Zhang get someone from his own country who can speak English. Go on, farm boy.”
“Well,” continued Frank ignoring the jibe at what he used to do for a living, not to mention he was hardly a boy, he’d just turned forty last week, “these records I found show the date Dr. Zhang’s men reported James was keeping company in the lab. He decided to handle it himself and not mention it to your “honorable doctor”. They infiltrated the lab, brought Mr. Kemp’s body back with them while Derrick was restrained and left alive but he escaped shortly after they returned from dumping the body. That’s all I know.”
“Well then, we seem to have had a breach in the line of communication!” Chang spat angrily as if the whole lapse had been Frank’s fault. “How dare James bring such dishonor on himself, letting an outsider in on our little secret? What was he thinking, huh Frank?”
“I…I don’t know, sir.”
“I wasn’t asking you,” Robert snapped. “Dr. Zhang believed the men killed only one person, now he wants proof of a corpse. Honorable Cai, what have you learned so far?”
The old man spoke slowly, struggling to pronounce the English words correctly,
“According to the last report of my soldiers, no one has been able to locate the body of Derrick Griffin.”
“And did you take care of the homicide report of James?” This question was addressed to the American computer geek.
“Sure, a few clicks and the aggravated murder of Dr. James Kemp by Zhang’s men is now just another ‘hate crime’ incident,” He replied easily. “A few ten thousands will keep the San Francisco PD and the University Campus Police quiet. No details are being leaked to the media about the incident. As far as anyone knows Dr. James Kemp, alleged gay man and brilliant physics research professor on sabbatical from Berkley, was the unfortunate victim of a hate crime that night by Derrick Griffin who is still at large here in Oakland.”
“But he’s supposed to be dead!” The Chinese American cried, “Dr. Zhang wants no one but the gang of four to know about Formula D, he gave me specific instructions, find Kemp’s flash drive, that’s where he kept our last known update of the formula, and destroy it, after you extract the information we need to complete the formula. So where the ‘eff’s the flash drive? ”
“I know, I know. I’m working on it! It’s like Formula D and Kemp’s flash drive just…disappeared, along with all traces of Derrick Griffin.”
“Can’t you hack your way into his Blackberry files, find out where he emailed the password to his flash drive?”
“I think I could.” The American from Kansas began typing furiously on his laptop. He brought up the requested files and waited for the computer to crack the three security codes.
Frank ventured a question to Mr. Chang, “Um, sir, you know I still haven’t been able to locate Kemp’s flash drive. I think he might’ve snail-mailed it somewhere. When’s your next conference meeting with Zhang?”
“He’s flying back from Beijing tonight. He’s supposed to text me the details. Can I check my account on your computer? I don’t have my phone on me right now.”
“Not while it’s trying to run 3 billion combinations!” The man swore softly as the control bar on the notebook screen crawled along showing how long until the uploaded information was complete. Robert Chang began pacing again while the old man stood still, meditating on this new information.
Frank spoke again, “My battery’s really getting low, I may loose my connection any minute now; can’t this wait until we get back to my PC at the hotel?”
“Not if you value your life. The honorable Zhang Li wants to meet with me tomorrow and if you don’t have Kemp’s updated formula D files emailed to me heads are gonna roll and yours is first in line.” With a surprising show of strength, Robert Chang spun the computer chair on which the large man was sitting around to face him. Lowering his voice to make himself as intimidating as possible, Robert bent over the frightened man placing his hands on the armrests. “You, our little computer geek, are in our exclusive group now. You, number five, like our late number four, the traitor, James Kemp, took the sacred oath of secrecy and, like James, we can kill you at anytime.”
“But…” the man’s fleshy face turned red as he tried to defend himself, “Zhang hired ME personally, to do this job. I have access to extraction and diagnostic programs no else can get.”
Robert Chang’s fowl tobacco smelling breath made Frank wince, “Believe me you can be easily replaced. There are hundreds of young punk kids in San Jose who would love to have your job, not to mention your ten grand payroll and all they have to know is basic computer hacking skills. ”
Beads of sweat were now forming on the other man’s bald head. He thought of his wife and two year old daughter and seven year old son. His family thought he was in Iraq, overseeing all the boring details of the army supply shipments. They would be devastated if anything happened to him, if they found out who he’d been secretly working for. Not to mention the trouble he’d be in if the US military found out. If Zhang did order him killed, or worse, turned him over to the American government, what would happen to his family?
“I’ll…I’ll find the missing flashdrive. I’ll get back your files on the formula.” He gulped, “I will, I just need a few more hours.” A chime indicated the completion of the uploaded file and Frank, who had never been a religious man, silently thanked God for the first time in ten years as he breathed, “There it is.”
Robert smirked and whirled Frank’s chair back so he could face the screen.
A few clicks of the mouse and, as his eyes took in the long list of numbers and dates of all of the late James Kemp’s recent email activity, Frank wished he’d never been born.
He was now looking at all of James Kemp’s Blackberry files but the Formula D file password was not among them. A few more clicks showed him that on the date of his death, just five minutes before his lab at Berkley had been infiltrated; James Kemp sent two outgoing emails, both to secure locations, meaning one had gone to another computer in the same building, the other was unknown. There was no way he could hack into those systems, not tonight. If James had made copies of his updated Formula D file before permanently deleting and mailing them off, they were lost to them. In a voice that grew considerably fainter and more frightened, he shared this newfound information with his cohorts.
“Perhaps he sent part of file to one and part to the other,” suggested Cai Lu.
“Where? Whose computer?” Robert Chang demanded rolling a second chair over to the table and sitting too close to the man who was trying to concentrate on his work.
“I don’t know!” he cried, “I’ll have to use another software program to unscramble the security codes and passwords for just one of these addresses. It’ll take hours!”
“And the other half? Can you find out where it went? Give me a name, a location, an address, anything!” His tone grew even more threatening and Frank knew he was dead. When Dr. Zhang Li found out what James had done to his precious files someone was going to pay with his life and Frank had no doubt that Robert Chang would relish making him the scapegoat.
‘I-just a minute,” the man tapped furiously, silently begging his battery to stay with him and feed him just one more shred of information before it failed completely. This had to be the one day he’d left his backups and power cord behind at his temporary office. “Here it is,” Frank breathed a sigh of relief, “the other half was sent to a private email account at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.” The Berkeley professor from Chinatown stood back up so quickly that Frank cringed as if he’d been dealt a blow.
“His niece!” cried Dr. Chang in realization.
“Leo Zhang has a niece?” The American asked in disbelief.
“No, you idiot, Dr. James Kemp! He has one living relative left, a sister, but as Fong Quock reported to us, she was just a dead end.”
“But this sister had a daughter.” Cai Lu commented softly.
“And all Fong learned was that she was studying at the University of Utah, some kind of Chemistry major. But we also know James never had any contact with that side of the family, not for years.” He stopped pacing and turned to Frank who was still intent on his screen, his fat face ghostly pale in the blue light. “Can you give me names? Who did he send that file to?”
“Too late,” he squeaked, “my battery just died.”
“No matter,” the Chinese American replied. “As the honorable Cai suggested, he either sent a copy of the file to his niece or to someone in one of the science departments on the campus. Dr. Zhang has an old friend who teaches in the Chemistry department at the University of Utah. He’ll be quite willing to help us out, I’m sure.”
Robert Chang smiled but the smile wasn’t a happy one. He clamped a hand on the Frank’s fleshy shoulder, “Soon as you can get back online, you’re booking us on the next flight to Salt Lake tomorrow, right after our meeting with Dr. Zhang.” He patted his shoulder again emphasizing his words, “You may live to see another day after all, Frank,” he said, his jovial tone not very reassuring to the nervous man from Kansas. “In fact, I might just take you along to our meeting. The honorable Dr. Zhang will be very interested in this new development of our missing Formula D.”
* * *
“Your what teachers?” Derrick was on his feet now too, completely baffled, “You Mormons must be obsessed with education; teachers coming over at all hours of the night.”
“Be quiet, don’t let them see you!” Anne whispered frantically from the bedroom.
“No problem,” muttered the invisible man, unzipping his jacket.
The knocking came again, “Coming,” Anne called out as she reappeared wearing a white, terry cloth robe, “you can wait in my room,” she suggested aside to Derrick as she passed, not looking at him as she finished tying the sash around her waist. Then she looked up and what she saw made her shriek, “Derrick!”
One by one, the jacket and pants he’d been wearing flew off his form leaving a trail behind him on the carpet. It was too late to stop him. Grabbing the quilt, Anne was about to hiss that Derrick put his clothes back on, right now! Then, realizing how that would sound, especially if the two women waiting outside heard, threw the quilt back down in defeat and continued for the door. Then, all at once, she stumbled over Derrick, crying out as she landed face down, her body smacking the polished surface of the cherry wood coffee table as she fell.
“Anne,” someone was knocking, “you okay?”
There was nothing she could do. Anne had to answer the door. Outside she could hear the familiar voices of Emily Christensen and Kristina Lewis.
The door opened and Anne stuck her head around to greet them still rubbing her throbbing shin, “Hi! Sorry,” she spoke breathless, “I forgot you were coming tonight.”
“Do you have company?” Kristina asked
“What? No! No, there’s no one here. Come on in. I was just, uh, watching TV.” She realized how ridiculous that sounded since the TV set wasn’t even on. A cold hard object suddenly slid into her hand. “I mean, I was on my…phone!” she cried, holding it up for them to see as they crossed the threshold and entered her apartment. “Thanks!” she muttered aside to Derrick.
“I thought I heard…” Kristina began as Anne shut the door behind her,
“Uh, it was on speaker,” Anne quickly stuffed the phone back into its pocket on her backpack and made room for her guests to sit down on her worn couch. “Anyway, the conversation’s over now. It’s not important. Sorry about the mess; I have about a million papers I still need to check over for my lab tomorrow.”
“Is this a bad time?” Emily asked gently, “We can reschedule or,”
Anne made an effort to speak more calmly, “No, no. Please,” she motioned to her couch and rearranged the pile of papers she’d removed from her backpack earlier in order to get to her laptop, placing them on the coffee table.
The two young women, both in their early twenties, sat down. Anne dragged a chair over from her kitchen table wondering how she could make this visit quick and get them to leave. She swallowed a gasp of surprise when a pair of discarded ski pants obligingly moved out of her way, so indiscreetly, her guests didn’t even notice.
“So,” Emily said smiling at Anne after she was seated, “how’s everything going?” Emily was everything Anne was not: tall, skinny, and gorgeous with perfectly sculptured features, flawless skin, large blue eyes, her flipped back hair falling over her shoulders. The perfectly streaked blonde and red tresses showed no hint of a wave and again Anne marveled at how Emily managed to keep her hair so straight and shiny while Anne had long since given up trying to tame her own natural dark brown waves with a flat iron into the sleek fashionable styles of the day.
“Just fine,” answered Anne easily.
“Oh, here’s the lesson manual.” Emily suddenly remembered the book on her lap and handed it to Anne, “Jared said he spoke to you earlier today and I offered to bring it by for him.”
“Thanks, Emily.” Anne accepted the book and placed it under her chair, “How about you, how’s your life going?”
“Oh, I’m keeping busy of course with my job at the gym, now that the holidays are over, we’re just swamped with new members and they all want me to be their trainer. I didn’t even have time to change tonight.” Emily gestured at the outfit she was still wearing, the latest in workout apparel. Emily could look good in a paper bag.
“And how’s school?” Kristina asked her.
“I could ask the same of you, Kristina,” Anne grinned for Kristina was a second grade teacher.
“Oh, I don’t even want to talk about it,” the plump redhead groaned, “with the inversion, I got stuck with indoor recess and those kids have been bouncing off the walls all week!” The two women nodded sympathetically in response. “I haven’t been able to get them interested in learning anything, they’re so restless.”
“I can imagine,” commented Anne.
“So Anne,” Kristina said changing the subject back to her, “how long until you’re done with school?”
As the three women chatted, Derrick moved lightly across the room to stand behind Anne’s chair. This wasn’t the first time he’d eavesdropped on women’s conversations. It was too bad he was a student of physics and not psychology or sociology. The advantages of his invisible form to allow him so many opportunities to observe the human psyche had already provided him with enough information to publish his own paper if he wished. It was times like these, he mused, as the pleasingly plump redhead’s bubbly personality made itself apparent while Emily (Derrick wondered if Anne had dropped their names for his benefit) continued to make condescending remarks as if she were only there because it was her duty. Her body was so well proportioned Derrick wondered if she really worked as a fitness instructor, she could easily find work as a model. Utah girls, he’d noticed, certainly took better care of themselves than many of the girls he knew in California. Checking out women’s bodies while remaining completely oblivious, he noted ironically, did have its advantages sometimes.
Bored with the girlfriend talk, always pointless but, he knew, to them it served a very important purpose of communicating without actually solving anything. He focused his attention around Anne’s mostly bare living room. He’d had ample time this evening to look her apartment over, even snoop in her purse to commit her name and address to memory if the need arose. It was obvious any money she had was carefully hoarded. A typical poor college student, he’d realized with a spark of empathy on her behalf. Derrick had been there himself. He well remembered those lean years before graduation before he’d been offered his current position and salary at Berkeley.
Careful of his every movement, Derrick wandered over to the TV stand to investigate his hostess’ modest collection of DVDs. He noted she was a Tom Hanks fan, preferred many of the animated classic Disney fairy tales and other classics such as Out of Africa, Gone with the Wind, and The American President gave her away as a hopeless romantic. A brilliant scientist with a weakness for romantic books and movies. He smiled wryly. Alicia had been a chick flick girl too, even though vector algebra didn’t fascinate her like it did him, she’d been a great partner. Nostalgically, he allowed himself one moment of indulgence to reminisce over their more intimate times together. Alicia had taught him well about women’s preferences when it came to how to behave as a boyfriend. He wondered what kind of Friday nights the modest Anne Penninger indulged in and hoped it was more than just popcorn movies in this lonely hole-in-the-wall apartment by herself.
There was a lull in the conversation and his attention was brought back as Kristina half jokingly asked Anne, “And how’s your love life?”
Amusingly, the subject had switched to that common favorite of all women, relationships, and the bashing of the men in their lives when those men weren’t around to overhear. He heard Anne groan, “What love life?”
Emily chimed in with her own comment about a boy named Jared, who, she whined, never seemed to have time to spend with her anymore. Obligingly, Anne asked her how their plans were going sending the blonde, tanned beauty off on a long tirade about shopping and making decisions for an upcoming wedding. She wanted to serve only the healthiest of refreshments at the reception while her fiancé had other ideas.
“You’ll be taking out your endowments soon too won’t you?” Anne asked her, Emily replied in the affirmative.
Derrick wondered if she was talking about some kind of Mormon baptism as Emily replied, “Jordan River, of course,”
Already curious about any previous relationships Anne might’ve had, Derrick ambled back to Anne’s side to listen, hoping that funny word ‘endowments’ might be explained, didn’t it have something to do with those secret Mormon temple marriages?
But the topic was changed again. The redhead, Kristina, was commenting about a boy she knew who seemed content to be just friends but, she giggled wistfully as she spoke, if only she could get him interested in her so it could be more.
“Maybe it’s best if you just stayed friends,” Anne suggested knowingly, “I went out with this guy last month. My sister set me up with him, since we’re both the same age and still single, but we had nothing in common. I couldn’t even see myself as being friends with this guy, I mean, I know my major can be a little intimidating,”
“Intimidating?” Kristina cut in laughing. “You’re studying chemistry, you’re like a mad scientist. He was probably afraid you would think he was a total loser before wanting to do experiments on him.” All shared a round of good humored chuckling.
“He was a loser,” Anne stated more seriously. “I don’t mean to sound harsh but he was thirty years old, had no ambition of any kind, and still lived with his parents!”
“Surely you had some common interests,” said Emily. Derrick silently agreed with her, Anne could at least have given this guy a chance.
“None,” Anne said. “Chemistry and science are my first passions but he had absolutely nothing to say about the subjects. I tried music. I like alternative rock, but it turns out he was only into country. I’m a sucker for romantic movies and good books,” Derrick almost laughed out loud, “while he told me, flat out, he avoids reading whenever he can. He asked me if I’d seen any of the current R-rated movies and of course I never go to those.”
“Good for you,” Emily said.
“Then he told me he prefers golf to any other sport and saw nothing wrong with going to the golf course on a Sunday.” She paused as a thought occurred to her, “You know, I never found out if he even served a mission for the church, the subject never came up.”
“Ah,” the enlightened girls chorused together which puzzled Derrick. In his opinion the only good movies these days were the ones that pushed the envelope. Sunday, at least for him and Alicia, was a day for relaxing and perusing one’s hobbies and whatever ‘mission’ this man might’ve had, he didn’t sound all that bad to Derrick. These Mormon girls sure set high standards. No wonder they were all still single and looking. But then Emily made an interesting comment,
“Well, you obviously didn’t hit it off but you could’ve asked him to take you to the golf course sometime, learn more about the sport. When Jared and I first started going out he wanted to teach me to play racquetball. He loved it, I’d never even heard of it but now I’m growing to love it too.”
“Yes, but you don’t go play on Sunday.” Anne countered.
Touché Derrick silently added.
“Speaking of activities, I’m trying to get a head count. Nobody’s responding to the Facebook invite except the guys. Are you going to Family Home Evening this Monday?” Emily asked Anne who shook her head.
“What? But, why?” Emily asked in offense. “The priesthood was put in charge, I was told they’re getting worried us sisters are feeling left out. That we’re not really interested about the activity they’ve planned.”
“I can tell you why none of the girls are accepting the invite, the activity consists of doing nothing but watching the guys play video games all evening,” Anne argued. “I was so tempted to speak up last Sunday, you know, when you asked for a hand count of who was planning on attending, I wanted to say ‘If the guys want so badly to get together with us, they have our phone numbers.’”
“Yeah,” Kristina let out a quick bark of a laugh, “You know how long it’s been since anyone called me up and asked me out? The dating field in our ward is turning into a parched desert.”
“But this is for family home evening, a group activity.” Emily emphasized, “I know it’s frustrating that so many of the guys in our ward don’t really date but you two just need to have patience and it certainly couldn’t hurt you both to try a little harder.” She brushed a gleaming lock of hair out of her eyes and Derrick couldn’t help but notice the ring she wore on her left hand. “Kristina, I’ve been trying to encourage you for months to come to the gym with me sometime. How about you, Anne, would you be interested in joining?”
“Not this semester, sorry, I just don’t have the time.”
“I might come with you tomorrow,” Kristina mumbled studying her hands in her lap, “But I honestly wonder sometimes if it’ll do any good. I lost ten pounds last year but none of my guy friends even seemed to notice.”
“I remember I felt the same way both of you did one year ago,” Emily spoke in a big-sisterly fashion, “I felt so alone. My boyfriend had just broken up with me before graduation; it was like I was the first single woman who’d managed to graduate from BYU without that MRS degree, if you know what I mean.” She winked slyly, “I was scared to death of having to go out now and look for a job. I remember wondering if Heavenly Father even cared about me anymore.” Her voice lowered dramatically, “I almost quit going to church. But then I moved into this ward, got my calling and everything started falling into place. I found a job and Jared started noticing me. Then he came to the gym one night just to see me and he asked me out and then, well, you know the rest.” She giggled, “Now we’re engaged!”
Anne exchanged a meaningful look with the redhead. It was so quick Derrick was the only one to catch it. “It’ll happen to the two of you,” she promised, “all you have to do is just keep waiting patiently,” she counseled as if she’d had years of experience in these matters, “and have faith in the Lord,” she added meaningfully.
Derrick let out an involuntary “Humph!” at such trite advice which Anne quickly covered by coughing. The two girls eyes widened but let the interruption pass without comment.
“Anyway,” the awkward moment was saved by Kristina, “shall we share the message now?” She produced a magazine and proceeded to open it while Emily unlocked the screen on her phone.
“Please,” Anne smiled gratefully.
So it was a religious visit after all, Derrick thought. He was beginning to think the girls had only come like Job’s friends in that story in the Bible, not to mourn with him but to point out how he’d brought all this on himself, though Anne was hardly a disease infested old man, and Job had been married with a wife and children, if he recalled the story correctly.
Kristina spread the magazine open on her thick legs, Derrick tip-toed around Anne to have a closer look as Kristina turned the glossy pages. He recognized a well-known picture of Jesus sitting on a rock, in an attitude of instruction, with his hand pointed up in the air. The words Feed my Sheep printed in large bold print flashed by as pages were turned. Derrick had read some of the Bible so it was obviously a religious magazine printed by their church.
Finding the page she was looking for, Kristina left it open on her lap almost on purpose for him. He perused it as the redhead spoke animatedly of a women’s role in some kind of society which emphasized service to others. As she spoke he realized this “message” wasn’t any of the fake, superficial Christian fluff and nonsense he’d been expecting.
Kristina’s face, which he’d considered homely before, took on a glow that transformed her. She seemed to genuinely believe what she sharing was important. Anne was smiling too and making comments that showed she also cared about this stuff. He skimmed over the page Kristina was reading, noting the words Visiting Teaching Message printed in tiny block lettering on the top of the page and his earlier confusion by Anne’s words were now clarified. More bold lettering: Apostles…Relief Society general president…Elder all stood out in the article on strengthening the family. As Derrick had always suspected, Mormons were great advocates of the traditional family. He suddenly recalled James Kemp mentioning that he’d been a Mormon at one time.
“…a banner, not unlike General Moroni’s ‘title of liberty’, which does include us, even though we don’t have homes and families of our own yet. We can find inspiration in Moroni’s words. We can take a stand ourselves to defend the family just like the Nephites had to do,” Kristina was saying. Derrick was completely lost by this. Nephites? General who? Was this lesson about the current Middle East conflicts? But Anne was nodding and commenting.
“I love that scripture about the title of liberty, Moroni is one of my heroes.”
“Mine too.” Kristina agreed. “I also really liked this quote by…”
Derrick stopped listening as his eyes were drawn to the opposite page of a drawing of a black man, the article was about a Mormon man living in Zimbabwe, Africa. Intrigued, he began to read until Kristina, having finished her thought, closed the magazine, unknowingly cutting off the man who’d been reading over her shoulder.
Nevertheless, Derrick was impressed; Anne’s church wasn’t just for white Americans as he’d always believed, and it encouraged its members to live clean, moral lives. He’d known a few Mormons in his high school in Oakland but Dr. Kemp was the closest one he’d ever had as a friend and all James ever had to say about his former religion was that he’d been excommunicated from it, just because of his lifestyle.
“Can we have a closing prayer before we go?” Emily asked. Fascinated, Derrick watched as they all simultaneously folded their arms across their chests and bowed their heads like it was all part of some ritual. Why didn’t they stand in a circle or join hands? Wasn’t that how religious fanatics prayed? These Mormons were all crazy, he decided, while Emily said a prayer unlike any he’d ever heard in his life. But then, he considered, it had been a long time since he’d heard a prayer of any kind, or even been to church.
Humbly, Emily mentioned Anne’s name and asked God to bless her and keep her safe. She petitioned the Almighty to bless her in her work at school and in her studies, she even spoke the name of Jesus Christ just before the “Amen”. Though Derrick was himself invisible, he thought he felt something tangible seeping into the room. A peacefulness, he identified the feeling, which had entered the room, like himself, an equally invisible presence.
As Emily prayed, Anne let her thoughts wander to her invisible guest. She’d been very annoyed at first by his rude interruption but her anger was gone now replaced by worry. He’d been so quiet she’d almost forgotten he was in the same room with them. Where was he now? What if Derrick had slipped out? Did he ever need to use the bathroom in his current condition, she wondered, trying to imagine how she’d explain the sudden flushing of her toilet. Did Derrick have such a sick sense of humor? She hoped not, she decided as the prayer ended.
“So,” Kristina chuckled, Anne grinned back in return. She was very familiar with the visiting teaching routine and the asking of the traditional question, “Can we do anything for you before we go?”
“Well, there’s always my dishes,” Anne offered trying not to be embarrassed over the week’s pile on her countertops in the kitchen and the general state of her apartment. She’d meant it as a joke but Emily looked horrified while Kristina was readily accepting.
“Sure,” she agreed getting to her feet.
“No, no I was just kidding.” Anne insisted as Kristina hurried past her chair, “you don’t have to do my dishes.”
“We really need to get going,” Emily hinted meaningfully at her friend’s retreating back. Jared was probably waiting for her back at their apartment, Anne realized, remembering the two girls were roommates as well her assigned visiting teaching companions. Anne had visiting teaching assignments of her own in the ward, just like all the other girls. Right now though, her own companion was also engaged to e married while the girls they taught were getting ready to change apartments due to graduation and another was herself about to get married and Anne knew from past experience that visiting teaching assignments in the single adult scene quickly dissolved once major life changes like these entered the picture. Why was she always the one being left out of such exciting life changes?
Remembering her earlier conversation with Derrick, Anne stood and retrieved her laptop from the kitchen table as an excuse for her friends to leave. “I have some work I need to do on my computer anyway. My phone’s almost dead and I really need to check my email.”
“Oo, you finally got your laptop!” Kristina squealed from the kitchen where she’d been about to tackle some dirty dishes. She bounced back over to sitting area. “How much memory does it have? Is it touch screen?”
“4 GB of course, and no, I just missed the newer versions, technology is just moving too fast these days. A smart pad or tablet would’ve been nice but the guy at Best Buy assured me laptops still have more memory.” Anne set the laptop on the coffee table and turned it on, proudly displaying her Christmas present to herself which she’d spent the better part of a year saving up to purchase. It had been hard but, she’d decided, having a laptop was essential now so she could take her work in biological chemistry research home with her thereby earning her master’s degree faster.
Kristina was full of questions as she enthusiastically admired Anne’s new computer. “Why didn’t the school provide you with a tablet? Did you have a choice? Do you use the new Windows Vista program? I heard it’s not very good for laptops.”
“That’s what the sales guy told me too, he said Windows XP can’t handle that much memory on a laptop so I went with the standard three gigs.”
“Kristina,” Emily warned, “we really need to…”
Both women ignored Emily, “You do chemistry stuff on this don’t you?” Kristina indicated the laptop screen as she resumed her seat on the couch to admire the computer which was slowly lighting up to show the desktop screen. Anne made a noise of assent as she unlocked her security and ran her finger over the mouse pad to open Internet Explorer. “You’re so lucky.” Kristina continued, “All the teachers were promised two used laptops for the classroom last year at my school but then the district funding was cut. I bet that never happens at the U.”
“Oh, I bought this myself.” Anne clarified. “I use a program called Protein Explorer in my research.”
“You do real research?” Emily asked in almost rude disbelief. She was obviously ready to take her leave and Anne turned, feeling a little put out by Emily’s condescending attitude.
Kristina tried to smooth the awkward moment, “Tell us about it.” She caught Emily’s eye and added, “The shortest explanation on record, then we’ll get out of your hair.”
Anne proceeded to give the condensed version of her major to her two friends while her computer’s internet homepage, Yahoo, slowly loaded. She was in the middle of explaining how all upper graduates in the Chemistry department were required to pick a thesis as she leaned over to navigate her computer, idly moving her fingertip over the pad, the arrow hovering over her mail icon.
She straightened up in her chair again to finish, “Then we spend the next three years researching and developing it under the guidance of a department faculty member,” she was in the middle of saying this when a pair of hands suddenly clamped down on her temples and turned her head, forcing her to look at her computer screen.
“Derrick?” She blurted out in disbelief. Emily and Kristina followed to stare at the screen along with Anne who couldn’t believe what had just popped up. The drop down inbox had opened showing that Anne had 12 new incoming messages. The first name displayed was DGRIFFIN the subject column contained the words URGENT, OPEN IMMEDIATLY.
“Is something wrong?” Kristina asked confused.
“Just…” Anne attempted to gather her thoughts at this sudden invisible interruption. How in the world had Derrick managed to send her an email? “It’s nothing, I was just surprised by something in my inbox. I think it’s just spam.”
“Well, then,” Emily said briskly, “we should let you read your emails and get back to your evening,” she got to her feet. “Kristina,” she added meaningfully.
“Yeah,” the redhead rose rather sheepishly to her feet, “Are you sure there isn’t anything you need, anything we can do for you?”
Derrick’s invisible hands released her and Anne was able to shake her head as she also stood, “I’m fine,” she spoke as casually as she could, walking them over to the door, “Thanks for coming by.” She let them out into the dark, frosty night, noticing the snow had stopped and the sky was clearing.
Anne stood staring at the closed door. Did she just hear Emily say, “Living alone too long, poor thing.” The sound of their footsteps on the cement stairs died away. Anne waited until she heard the car’s engine start up on the street below before she turned to face the empty room. She realized she had a sudden craving for something sweet and headed for the refrigerator. After the ups and downs of the day it was no wonder she could hear her half empty pint of Ben & Jerry’s calling to her.
“I think I need some ice cream. Derrick?”
Silence answered her. Anne noticed that his discarded clothes had disappeared from the rug, “They probably think I’m some kind of closet junkie or something the way I had to cover for you.” Anne’s accusation was directed at the closed bathroom door as she entered the kitchen. “Bishop Warner will probably be calling me into his office this Sunday,” she closed the freezer door with a little more force than was probably necessary, “Why couldn’t you have just waited in my room like I told you too?” She heard her toilet flush, and grinned. That cleared one thing up; he DID have normal bodily functions like everyone else.
“What, and miss the Mormon hypocrite show?” Derrick asked sarcastically as he exited the bathroom, back in his ski outfit.
Anne really needed to take out her contact lenses and replace them with her glasses, as she always did the minute she got home. Derrick waited for her.
“I don’t get what purpose that visit served, that lesson they shared was nice, I’ll grant you that, but those girls hardly acted like your friends. Take that one girl, Emily. She’s a real looker but she was awfully condescending. ‘Oh, just look what I caught with my big expensive engagement ring!’” He did a bad imitation of Emily in a high falsetto voice that made Anne laugh in spite of herself.
“Well, Emily is president of the Relief Society. Did you want any ice cream?” Anne showed him the container, “There’s not much left but I’ll share.”
“No thanks, looks like you need it more than I do.” Derrick sat down on the couch to stare at the laptop monitor.
Anne dug her spoon into the container, “You’d better have a good explanation for that email in my inbox.”
“Oh, this email in your inbox isn’t from me,” he informed her, matter-of-factly. “I was just as surprised as you were though it did come in handy in getting rid of your annoying guests. This could be a virus. Don’t open it until I’ve had a chance to run a scan on it first.”
“They were only here to check up on me, that’s what visiting teaching is,” Anne attempted the best explanation she could think of in defense of her church and its members. “Ministering to the needs of all women in the church both physical and spiritual. Kristina’s my friend and Emily has a lot of responsibilities as president, it takes up a lot of her time.” Anne joined Derrick on the couch, “So if you didn’t send this, who did?”
“I would guess Dr. Zhang or one of his cronies have infiltrated my email account and are trying to force me out of hiding by stealing my identity. But tell me more about these responsibilities Emily has, how much does she get paid for acting so self satisfied?”
“We have no lay clergy in my church, we don’t get paid anything. I should know. I once served in the presidency. I’ve put up with girls like Emily before, when a girl gets engaged she becomes overwhelmed by all the upcoming changes and starts to go a little crazy. I believe they’re calling them ‘Bridezillas” now. I’m sure I’d never act like that.” She added in mock haughtiness.
“Oh, I just bet you would.” Derrick nudged her playfully, “But how of big of a ring would you need to go crazy like that?”
Was he flirting with her? Anne suddenly wondered, glad she’d just taken a big spoonful of chocolate ice cream so she didn’t have to answer. She rolled her eyes at him.
“Oh, don’t give me that,” Derrick scoffed and Anne suddenly realized she would love to see an actual face right now addressing her from above the dark collar of the jacket. “You religious girls are all the same. My old girlfriend, Alicia, never wanted to get married. You and Kristina are both jealous of Emily. Both of you would give your right arms to be in her shoes right now. Come on, admit it. You wish you were getting married and living happily ever after just like her. Your church brainwashes its female members into these ridiculous ideas of marriage, James told me all about it.”
“I guess being invisible gives you the advantage of reading people without anyone knowing they’re being read.” Anne said. “I’m no different than any other woman my age, with the exception I don’t “give my milk away for free” as your Alicia did. Sure I’d like to meet someone and have him do the asking for once. I’d like to live happily ever after, within reason of course. And you and Uncle James probably think marriage is a silly, outdated idea, right?”
“I can’t speak for James,” there was regret in Derrick’s voice, “but, I do believe the only way two people can ever discover if they’re compatible is if they share the day to day stresses of life first. Then, if they feel marriage is a good next step in the relationship, they should go for it.”
“Not me,” Anne set her empty ice cream carton on the table, “I was taught the proper order in any relationship is dating first, then marriage, then children. Kinda defeats the purpose of the whole thing if you’re talking about gay marriage, huh?”
“Kids are a whole different ballgame, that’s for sure and we better not get into a discussion about the recent national issues. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree then. But since we’re on the subject of cohabitation outside of marriage, I do need a place to sleep tonight. What are your standards on that?”
Anne appreciated his frank and open manner, she’d never had a conversation like this with any man in her life. Taking a deep breath she spoke, “Normally, I’d have to say no. But considering the time,” Anne glanced at the clock on the wall, “and the circumstances, it wouldn’t be very Christian of me to turn a stranger out into a cold night like this where he would surely freeze. On the other hand, you’re still a man and I’m still a vulnerable, single woman.”
“You can lock your bedroom door if it makes you feel safer,” he suggested in all seriousness.
“No, I think I can trust you. I’m not even worried about you robbing me blind.”
“You don’t have much worth stealing anyway,” Derrick said.
“I’d be just as much a hypocrite as you said if I turned you out tonight with no place to go.”
“Thank you,” he answered. “Like you said, you can trust me. I’m so dead tired,” she felt him patting the cushions next to her, “that even this will feel like a feather bed tonight.”
“I have an extra pillow and blanket I’ll give you.” Anne offered, “Just don’t follow me into the shower tonight, if you don’t mind.”
“You are formidable aren’t you?” Derrick almost sounded as if he was laughing and again Anne wished she could see his face. “All right, now that we’ve got my sleeping arrangements for tonight out of the way, let’s check that email and,” he spoke as an afterthought, “I’ll have to ride the train back to the school with you tomorrow to get my things.”
“That won’t be easy,” Anne said, “it gets pretty crowded on the morning commute into the city, I don’t know where I could hide you.”
“Do you own a car?”
“Yes, but I didn’t want to pay extra for a parking permit when I can take TRAX and save my gas money.” Anne slumped, elbows on knees, cupping her chin in her hands to think; knowing she felt too exhausted to do so.
“We’ll figure it out tomorrow,” Derrick said reassuringly. He clicked on her University icon which was bookmarked on a side screen, “Do you have a University email account?”
“How long since you last checked it?”
“Oh, wow, I hadn’t thought of that!”
“Here, type in your PIN.”
Anne wasn’t surprised to find she had mail over two weeks old waiting for her including one labeled, DFILE.PSWD_0.5 from an address titled BERKELY.EDU that Derrick verified as James Kemp’s personal email address and it was dated the day of his death. Seeing that, Anne felt her stomach turn over in dread. He’d been right, her Uncle James had tried to contact her.
“You know what this means.” Derrick told her, “you’re involved in this now, whether you want to be or not.”
“Should I call the police?” Anne’s throat was dry as she weakly looked at Derrick for advice and questioning her own sanity for even asking him.
“I’m the one who’s being accused of murder, not you. Open it and let’s see what it says.”
Anne adjusted her glasses on her nose and read,
I’M SORRY TO INVOLVE YOU IN THIS, BUT CIRCUMSTANCES HAVE MADE IT NECESSARY. THE ATTACHMENT CONTAINS A PASSWORD TO ACCESS MY FILES CONTAINING A TOP SECRET FORMULA.
IF DERRICK GRIFFIN CONTACTS YOU, PLEASE HELP HIM, HE WILL NEED SOMEONE WHO UNDRESTANDS THE FILES. LZ MUST NOT BE ALLOWED TO USE OUR DISCOVERY TO TAKE HUMAN LIVES.
I ALREADY SUSPECT LZ KNOWS ABOUT MY BETRAYAL AND WHEN HIS MEN CATCH UP TO ME, IT WILL MEAN MY DEATH.
LOVE, YOUR UNCLE,
“Is ‘LZ’ Leo Zhang?”
“Yes,” Derrick confirmed.
Tears formed in Anne’s eyes, “This was probably the last thing he ever wrote before he died,” she whispered. “You were right; he did try to contact me. He sent me the password so I could help you.”
“My friend, even in death,” Derrick said quietly. “According to the time, he sent this out just before I arrived that morning in the lab, the day James wanted to try out the new changes to the formula, the day he was killed.”
“Oh,” responded Anne.
“Open the attachment.” Derrick instructed.
Anne clicked on the file and quickly realized she needed to open some necessary programs first before she could read whatever the attachment contained that Adobe couldn’t.
‘”This may take a few minutes. In fact this whole attachment is so big I may not have time tonight to really study it. I’m sorry.”
“That’s OK.” Derrick sighed his disappointment obvious, “We can look at it tomorrow. At least I was right in my theory that he would send you part of the file along with his password to the rest of his flash drive.”
Anne quickly clicked cancel and the file stopped downloading onto her computer.
“What about this other email?” she asked, indicating the one that was supposedly from him.
“We’d better wait until tomorrow when I can get my things. I have a software program I can use to do a viral scan on your computer. It’s getting late,” he noted, “I think it would be best if you finished whatever chores you still need to do tonight and I’ll just stay out of your way. You’ll never even know I’m here.”
“Oh, I get it, like you were invisible.” Anne joked, “You seem to have this all figured out, just how long should I plan on you staying here?”
“Dunno. A few days, maybe a month, who knows? You let me stay on your couch tonight; tomorrow we’ll open James’ attachment and get the password. You help me at the lab and recover the rest of the formula. We’ll study it together and hopefully you can recreate it and find a way to reverse it. I get restored back to Derrick Griffin, the one everyone can see, we publish our formula to the scientific world, patent it and make millions. And we do it before Leo Zhang and his men can catch up to us.”
“You make it sound as easy as taking a trip to Disneyland,” Anne couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice. “This is dangerous, Derrick. How do you even know if I can replicate this formula?”
“You can. Your uncle had faith in you and so do I.”
His words filled Anne with hope, “Thanks,” she said gratefully, acknowledging his compliment and got to her feet to begin picking up her front room, “but I still don’t know how you think I can pull this off. I have responsibilities tomorrow, I have deadlines to meet which doesn’t include a lot of time for me to try and crack the formula of two men who have been studying these subjects a lot longer than me. What if there isn’t any way to reverse this and you have to stay invisible like this forever? There isn’t anyone else we can go to for help is there?”
“No,” a grim Derrick agreed joining her in clearing the table of their dirty dinner dishes, “there isn’t. My becoming invisible was an accident but James and I did consider all possible scenarios and we did plan ahead.” He went on to explain. “When I discovered how ultraviolet radiation acted as the catalyst we needed, James was already way ahead of me. He’d already devised a way to get access to money, clothing and shelter if one of us was to actually become invisible. James Kemp withdrew a significant amount of cash that I deposited, electronically, in a bank account under a pseudo name. There’s enough there to more than compensate you for your time and services. By the looks of this place I’m sure you could use it, am I right?”
“Well,” Anne hesitated, “I have accumulated a lot of student loans.”
“I thought so. And I’ll help you pay them all off. Think of it as a business proposition, Anne. I’m inviting you to pick up where your uncle left off, to be part of one of the greatest experiments in chemistry and physics the world has ever seen. What’s happened to me, it’s unbelievable!”
Anne still couldn’t believe it herself. Slowly she moved until she was standing in front of him. She picked up the flashdrive and began turning it thoughtfully in her hands.
“But, according to all the laws of science you should be dead. Either that or blind, the human retina has to absorb light, yet the rest of your body is repelling it. Your eyeballs should be floating around in the air, or the formula should be blinding you.”
Derrick carried his dirty plate to the sink, “It’s a topical formula only penetrating the outer surface of the epidermis which is all dead tissue anyway.”
Anne tried to remember her anatomy terms, “Stratified squamous cells,” she clarified, “which cover the entire body surface, including the eyeballs.”
“That’s right.” The snow suit walked back to the side of the table nearest the wall to finish gathering the dirty dishes. He faced her from across the table as he spoke, “Technically, the only body part I really need to see with are my pupils.” He must’ve reached for his glass because a flash of something made Anne gasp.
“What?” Derrick started
“Funny you should mention your pupils. Don’t move,” Anne whispered. She leaned closer to him over the table, peering through her glasses staring so hard at him Derrick couldn’t bring himself to name the emotion he was feeling.
“What?” he whispered again.
“You’re standing in front of my kitchen wall, drywall, an entirely white surface, and it makes your pupils stand out.”
“My pupils? You can see them?” A blissful feeling of hope surged through Derrick, it was a miracle.
“I can see that part of you,” she confirmed.
Derrick realized she was looking at him, really LOOKING at him. Derrick hadn’t made eye contact with anyone like this in the last three weeks. He stood as still as if he were in the middle of a crowded room unable to let anyone touch him for fear of discovery. Slowly she brought her hand up, never taking her eyes off the two black specks which stood out from the entirely white surface behind his invisible head. She could hear him breathing heavily as the palm of his hand gently caressed hers then pressed harder. A drop suddenly appeared in the air. Almost without thinking she brought her other hand up to wipe the tear away. The hardness of an invisible cheekbone caught her off guard, as did the stubble on his face. She explored the contours of his face as if she were a blind person until the moment became awkward. She let her hand drop but the other continued to press gently, almost tenderly, against his invisible palm. It was like a first kiss only with their hands. Let lips do what hands do the line from Shakespeare echoed in her head and, embarrassed as if he could read her mind, she pulled away.
“Why do you have stubble?” she asked stepping aside so he could take the rest of the dirty plates and glasses to the sink.
“Apparently, I can grow invisible hair. It’s all dead skin you know.”
“But your body sheds its entire epidermal layer once a month.”
“I don’t know everything.” The ski pants walked back to stand by the table again, “I only know that ever since the morning of January 5th my life was, in a way, taken from me and I want it back.”
“And I’ll help you Derrick,” Anne promised. “But I can’t promise you any results. I’m just a graduate student;” she reminded him, “shouldn’t you be telling all this to someone a little higher up the ladder?”
“You saw the email, your uncle knew I’d come to you. The professors at your school are too entangled in university policies to get involved in some top secret project that Dr. Zhang wants to use to take over the world starting with America.”
“You know, I should take you tomorrow to meet Dr. Erickson, maybe he could help us.”
“Maybe,” Derrick was doubtful, “but tomorrow you and I are going to Research Park. I need someone to distract the receptionist at the front desk so I can slip through the key padded entry to the labs in the back. If you think your Dr. Erickson can help us with that he’s certainly welcome to come along.”
“Wait a minute, I can’t just go with you tomorrow and rob a place, I have an early discussion section to teach, a bio-chemistry lab with my students, a conference with Dr. Erickson who still needs to review my research and I’ve got a thesis paper to write.”
“Ok, we won’t be breaking in tomorrow then. What are you doing on Saturday? If you can put me up for the next few days I promise you’ll be compensated for your time.”
“Saturday then,” Anne agreed. “Now I’ve got some papers to grade.”
“I’ll do the dishes.” Derrick offered carrying the last remains of their meal into the kitchen, “On second thought maybe not.” She heard him call out good naturedly.
Anne smiled as she made herself comfortable on her lumpy couch and opened the file where she’d recorded the progress of each of her students as she finished correcting their lab papers. “Ironic isn’t it?” She commented absently looking over her first paper, “This apartment came with satellite TV hookup as part of my monthly rent but my landlord hasn’t gotten around to updating all his units with automatic dishwashers yet.”