A New Chance
Alex and Judith
A thought occurred to him as he waited; there was someone he could possibly tap for a bit of information gathering. Firing up his e-mail client, he sent this out to an old friend.
Judy, I must discuss some things with you at my apartment. Dinner is served promptly at six. I would appreciate it if you could come_…_for old time’s sake. Alex.
After a few minutes, she headed over and sits down cross-legged in front of the old cabinet that had her elderly computer on it, turning it on and humming to herself as the thing slowly started up. She’d had the thing all the way through college, and while it was pretty slow, at least it didn’t break down on her. A new one would strain her pockets quite a bit right now. About to see what she could find on the various news sites, she realized she has mail.
Alex? Hmmm. Now there was someone she hadn’t seen for a while. Not since she graduated, really. Still the same Alex, I see. She took a moment to chuckle over his slightly formal wording, typing out a reply.
_Sure, I’d love to. It’s been a while since I’ve seen you. Be nice to get caught up again. Jude_
It would be nice, she realized. A lot of her friends had been criminally involved with her the past couple years, and her decision to go straight had made things awkward with most of them, on both sides. Her attempt to go into business as an investigator hadn’t helped, although she’d told herself she’d try to stay away from cases involving them. As a result, she didn’t have many friends she kept in touch with at the moment, and none of them were all that close. She did wonder what it was Alex had called to discuss, though… and why he’d done it now. She grimaced. Figures; even when I get an invitation to dinner, I still have to fix myself something.
After picking up some wine and other fine alcohol, he makes his way back to his place. It was decorated fairly sparsely, a stylish couch, chair, and entertainment system in the living room, the den consisting of a large desk, powerful computer, and a huge window that overlooks the western skyline and out into suburbia. His bedroom was just a bed and a nightstand; all his clothes hung in his closet.
He spent the rest of the afternoon fixing dinner. It was going to be simple fare…buttered pasta, a lovely meat sauce, garlic bread, a light salad, wine, and some fresh cookies for desert. Setting up a table in the den (which had a lot of room in it even with the desk,) he waited for his distinguished guest to arrive.
Hopefully, she would be prompt. It was considered bad form to arrive to a meal late…but even worse to throttle someone because of it.
Glancing at her watch (the one at the cafe was wearing it), she realized it was getting close to 6. Better get going. She was surprised to realize she still felt hungry. Well, she couldn’t very well eat before dinner… did eating feed both of her, she wondered? Maybe that has something to do with it.
Lacking a car, she takes the bus to Alex’s address, and is a couple minutes late as a result by the time she finds his apartment and knocks on the door. She is dressed a little more nicely than usual, although not formally, in a gray shirt, knee-length black skirt, and coat.
“It’s open.” Like someone would be foolish enough to rob him now…
Alex stood in the den, just off the doorway. The setting sun cast an eerie glow over the room. Only his outline is recognizable, but it is obvious he is standing with his back toward her. “Although you are late, I can forgive a little tardiness. Public transit is never as reliable as we would like. I also hope you like what I have prepared for dinner…I could not remember if you had any food allergies.
“As you well know, the entire face of Rainport has been changed. These…mutations that have been manifesting as a result of poor business practices and shoddy safety records have been all over the news. We stand on the edge of a new epoch, for good or for ill. I imagine that you have at least a passing knowledge from that joke of a press conference earlier today.
“What you don’t know, though, could kill you. Forthwind Shipping, the company that was storing the chemical, is going to wind up taking the fall for this, but they are not necessarily at fault. I have my theories as to the nature of the event, but they will stay with me because I would be telling tales out of school.
But I would like to hear your take on the situation.” Alex had always talked with his hands and every so often, to punctuate what he said, she could see his arms and hands making various expressions.
Jude begins to remove her coat as Alex speaks. A half-grin adorns her face at his first words. Haven’t changed much, have you, Alex? Almost like you invited me here to hear a lecture on Current Events. The coat is left hanging half-on when he mentions the day’s events, and the smile fades. Well, of course he would mention it. No doubt everyone was thinking about it. Nothing to do with her in particular… except, why had he invited her tonight, it occurred to her to wonder? He must have closer friends than she.
Her uneasiness not really appeased, she stops again with the coat dangling from one hand. Not that it isn’t a common metaphor, but… he’s not talking as though it’s a metaphor. Finally, she hangs the coat by the door, walking a little further into the apartment. “Not even a hello for an old friend, Alex?” she asks, her light tone falling a little flat on its face. Alex tended to be focused, driven, and somber, yes, but this was a little strange.
“My take? I don’t know. I don’t know much more than what’s been on the news.” She grimaces. Alex had hinted he knew more than most about the explosion. “All I could really tell you that they didn’t mention at the conference or on the news is that there were other companies with chemicals in the warehouse. Probably some sort of reaction between two of them caused the explosion, but that’s just a guess.” She could go on, about how it was likely that the chemicals involved had probably belonged to different companies—hence the lack of knowledge about what would happen when they came into contact—but it was still just speculation. Besides, she was curious, too.
“Why? What have you heard about it?”
“I do apologize, old friend. Yes, it has been some time, but the pressures of the business world have kept me from keeping in contact. Of course, you are more than welcome here. If you are thirsty, feel free to raid the fridge.
“I have, quite possibly, heard more than you can fathom about the moment itself, but the surrounding circumstances remain in a fog. You wouldn’t expect these people to PUBLISH records involving disaster-like events, especially not online. Any information than what I can give you is, as far as I know, is either trade secrets or mere conjecture.
“The parent company who developed this chemical is called Balchem. In their 32 years of existence, they have been taken to court eight separate times, though only the most recent, an incident seven years ago involving malfunctioning ventilation systems, has ever been ruled on. The payout is a matter of their records and not published, but this seems to have fallen under the radar of most people.
“An interesting side note is Balchem’s profits have been slipping of late. They’ve been grabbing up other assets, sometimes taking huge losses. There’s something big going on here, but it is impossible to pin down without being able to access the sealed records within Balchem’s offices.
“I wonder…do you happen to be among the affected by this event?” Alex stepped forward some, smiling friendly…but there is an undertone of creepiness within it. There has been no malice in his voice, though it has dropped into the calculating tone he often spoke in when the subject matter was business. You didn’t get to his position without playing hardball.
Jude shifted uneasily. Now there was a topic she would rather have avoided even if she’d been with a close relative. Not that she was particularly close to her remaining family. She wasn’t used to the idea that this—what had Alex called it; an epoch-altering event?—was going to personally change her life. She didn’t want to be regarded as out of the ordinary. And moreover, Alex’s manner was beginning to disturb her. He had to loosen up sometime; she knew he used to be more casual some of the time. But not when it was business.
“I… don’t know, Alex. I live pretty close to the warehouse district, so maybe… hell, I don’t know. How do you tell? I haven’t started breathing fire yet or anything.” She looks as if she was going to try to laugh at that last, but didn’t quite manage it.
To try to distract herself (and maybe him) from that line of inquiry, she took him up on his earlier offer, turning away and looking into the fridge. “Sounds like Balchem was up to something,” she says back over her shoulder. “This, maybe—if they’d been able to sell it, they could have made a fortune. Wonder what they’ll do now that it’s out and about?”
”’How do you tell?!’ Maybe this will help you find out!” Alex steps forward some so she can see him clearly. Two fleshy tentacles with black tips whip out from behind him, writhing some. “I get the feeling you are leaving some things out of this; personally, if you did manifest something, WHAT your abilities are would be none of my business. However, if you DID become affected, would you want it? Would you consider it a blessing, a curse…or something different?”
Alex smiles some, his tone becoming level again. “Come, let us eat. I did not ask you here to intimidate you; I invited you for dinner.
“As to Balchem’s next step, it is blatantly obvious: coverup. They will bury all information they have on this and pretend they knew nothing. If you caught the mayor’s speech today, you would have noticed he said nothing about sanctions or justice for the afflicted.” One of his new additions pours the wine, a lovely Pino Noir, while the other dishes up the food. His hands become occupied with buttering a slice of bread. “I would like to offer you…a job. With my work schedule, I am not active on the street or able to find out much of the ‘common’ man’s thoughts. This is where I’d like you to come in. All I ask is that you be my eyes and ears on the outside and I will pay you well, based on both your need and the value of what you bring me.
“What say you, Judy? Are you willing to aid an old friend in exchange for his aid?”
Jude steps back in alarm at Alex’s sudden step forward, both at his tone and at his revelation; she can’t help but stare at the appendages as they whip about, slightly revulsed. Immediately, she wished she hadn’t. How would she have felt if someone reacted that way to her affliction? She’s also worried, though; aside from the physical change, this has obviously affected Alex deeply.
She exhales, sitting down, and is silent as Alex returns to his calm, urbane voice, watching him a little warily and trying not to pay too much attention to the limbs serving her. She sits a few moments after he finishes, then gives her answer. “I… don’t know, Alex. I can’t say I wouldn’t like to know more about this, and I know you do…”
She looks down for a few moments, then back up, holdng her already half-empty wineglass. “I don’t know what I’d feel about it if I were affected. I mean… hell, I don’t know. How can you know how something will change your life until you’ve actually seen it happen?” She takes a sip—no, more of a drink—out of the glass.
“I guess I could give it a shot, but why? I mean, what is it you’re planning on doing about this?” She didn’t think Balchem ought to get away with having another corporation taking the blame, and she wanted to know more about whatever the chemical had been, but at the same time, Alex was starting to worry her. She starts to eat the pasta; it’s good, but it doesn’t really take her mind off Alex.
“Justice. Justice for those affected. I will find a way to make Balchem pay for what it has done. Regardless of how useful extra appendages are, this was forced on me and countless others out there. Balchem is no better than some sleazeball in a back alley raping unsuspecting women.” He ate slowly, savoring every bite of food or sip of wine. The villain is always undone in the exposition.
She nods slowly. “I guess you’re right.” Not quite the same, because they didn’t try to do it… they wouldn’t have wasted whatever chemical they were working on, would they? She hadn’t considered that someone might have caused the explosion intentionally, whether Balchem or something else. It would make sense… allowing two unknown chemicals contact, or storing explosives in the warehouse, would have been more corporate stupidity than she expected. Worth looking into, perhaps. “I’ll see what I can find out. You have more business contacts than I do, mind, so if I hear something, it’s probably going to have leaked from Balchem already.” It’d mean contacting some of her less-than-legal old acquaintances, of course; the legal authorities probably wouldn’t know anything that wasn’t public, and wouldn’t look kindly on her looking into this on her own.
“You might be surprised what gets leaked as rumors, but never make it to business journals.” Alex finished up and bussed the table when Judy finished. “Make no mistake, I doubt that they intended to have this happen, but that does not excuse them from liability…especially if they think they are not responsible.”
“You’d know better than I would,” Jude comments. “I think you’re right about that, for what it’s worth.” And… well, she had to admit it didn’t seem as if too many charges were going to be levelled against Balchem. She takes her own plate over to the sink as she finishes, partly out of helpfulness and partly out of sheer habit.
“Well… thanks for dinner, Alex. It was good.” She hesitates a moment longer, glancing slightly behind Alex; at the tentacles, it looks like. “Sorry about reacting like that, you know. You just… it startled me.” The appendages, and the speed with which Alex had gotten used to them, had made her uneasy and still did. “You haven’t been to the hospital, have you?” she asked, expecting him to say no. She hadn’t either, after all.
“I’m honestly not sure why ANYONE is still going to the hospital. With an event like this, they’re just going to treat us as guinea pigs, running tests that they have no way of knowing if the outcome is hazardous to the health of those affected. It’s all guesswork for them. As far as I’m concerned, I have suffered no major health affects, save these new appendages, and it will not interfere with my daily routine.
“As well, going to the hospital basically gives everyone free reign to label you as a mutant and a freak.” His appendages slid down his back again into their disguised position as he walked over and gave Judy a friendly hug. “Do not be a stranger. If they bother you, I can keep them hidden while you are around. Having two extra hands is just convenient for me.”
“No, it’s all right. I’ll get used to it. Just not as fast as you, I guess.” Jude returns the hug one-armed. “Be careful, though. I can’t say I’m planning on going in to the hospital either, but it’s not like we know any more about what’s happening to us than they do. If you do feel like… well, I don’t know. Never hurts to watch out, though, right?” She gives him a grin. It was good to see him again, even with everything that had been happening lately. Hell, maybe because of it. It was reassuring to know that she wasn’t alone in having been mutated. Well, she’d known she wasn’t alone, naturally; but it didn’t mean much when the others were only faces on the TV.
“I thank you for coming over tonight, Judy. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like, but I have some things I need to take care of online, so I’ll be busy for a while.”
Alex opened up his laptop again and headed directly toward Balchem’s website. Once there, he pokes around until he finds a way to access the mainframe and extract any new information. (He will do this again “Tomorrow” morning if he doesn’t find what he’s looking for.)
“No, I’ll be heading off.” The moment when she felt like she could have told him she’d been affected too had passed. Perhaps next time she visited, both of her would come; at least that way she’d know how to start. And given how quickly he’d gotten used to having tentacles, Alex wasn’t likely to be fazed for long.