Story Archive

The Early Years -


by Unruhe & Lywendre

The Early Years - Baltimore
by Unruhe & Lywendre
Category: Angst, UST, RSV, and a dash of humor.
    No-romo safe: Scaly isn't even in the FBI yet!
Rating: a mild NC-17 for some violence, language, and adult situations
Summary: More about those early days of the Lone Gunmen.
Set post-Unusual Suspects.
Disclaimer: We own Byers, Langly, Frohike, a large tin of extra-virgin
olive oil and some furry handcuffs. Unfortunately, there's this pesky
little guy named Chris Carter who keeps getting in the way of our fun.
He's always babbling something about 'copyright infringement' and
'profit'. Geez Chris, we say, what kind of girls do you think we are?
We only do this for fun. Goddess knows, we aren't making any money off

It was inevitable, I guess. From the time we saw how she looked at him
with those helpless doe eyes, we should have known that woman would be
nothing but trouble. Now, don't get me wrong. I was as in awe of her
as any of us, at first. I mean, I'm not dead, for God's sake. Who
wouldn't be a little struck by a woman of mystery with legs up to her
chin and an IQ to match?
It was like that for Byers, only times ten. I could see it in his
expression, the way his body language changed when she was around.
Everything was pointed toward magnetic north, and that direction
happened to be a woman named Susanne.
The first time I recognized that look in his blue eyes, I couldn't keep
myself from wincing. I mean, I've been there. Seeing that expression
brought it all back for me, and I'll admit it was a little painful. You
don't hang around for as long as I have without getting a few battle
scars. A few gaping wounds.
In Byers' feelings, I saw a trashed heart in progress, and for some
reason it was the last thing I wanted to happen. At the time, I
couldn't figure out quite why I cared, and it bugged me. What the hell
did it matter if this hopelessly idealistic government man got his heart
stomped on by one of Susanne's black suede pumps? It's part of the
human experience, right? Life. Besides, this was the same man that
almost got me killed. More than once in a fairly short period of time,
I might add.
But somehow, it mattered to me. I cared way too much, and the fact
bothered me. I didn't like feeling that way, about anyone, much less
some weedy man in an ugly bureaucratic uniform with overly stiff and
under thought-out philosophies.
So why did I, you ask? And how did I get myself roped into becoming
friend and sometime guardian to this child-man? I suppose I should say
that I don't know. It's none of your business, really. I need to tell
someone, though. I don't think I can deal with it, otherwise.
I admired him, okay?
Before you get the wrong idea, let me clarify things a little. I had no
admiration for Byers' simplistic acceptance of the values handed him by
the establishment. I'd been there once, right before I was handed a gun
and a uniform. Before Uncle Sam stuck me in a whispering, sticky hell
in the middle of nowhere. No. That's not what I admired.
It was his passion. Until I saw it in his eyes, staring back at
Susanne, I had forgotten how it had slipped away from me. I let life
hammer it away, said good-bye with little awareness and fewer regrets.
Byers, though, he wasn't about to go that route. He was going to fight,
you could see it in his eyes.
And fight he did.
It was kind of comical, really. He was so new to the whole idea of not
accepting absolutely everything the almighty US government said, that he
had absolutely no idea how to go against his 26 years of conforming to
Big Brother's rules. But now that Susanne had opened up that first tiny
hole in the dike holding back the flood, all the little Dutch boys in
the world wouldn't be able to prevent the chaos coming to wash away the
safe, comfortable life he'd always known.
Thank God he was smart enough to know his own limitations and start
small, or he'd have probably never survived the process. Or that final,
bloody blow that severed him completely from his sheltered life. But
I'm getting ahead of myself here.
I think Susanne was the Eve to Byers' Adam. She brought the apple from
the tree of knowledge of good and evil and her story was so good, so
compelling, that Byers willingly took that first bite. In spite of
everything that has happened since, I really don't think he ever regrets
that first act of rebellion.
Or at least, not for long.
Because the one thing John Fitzgerald Byers is incapable of is
self-deception. If he'd never met Susanne, Byers would never have
discovered the real world behind the facade Big Brother had put up. He'd
have lived his happy little middle-management bureaucratic existence,
content with life as he knew it. But they had met. And that honest
core in him will never let him ignore the injustices Susanne had
In another age, a previous life, I think Byers would have been a Knight
of the Round Table. Being pure of heart, a quest for the Holy Grail
would have been right up his alley. In this life, his quest now is to
seek the truth behind the lies. To me, that truth looks more elusive
than the Holy Grail ever was. But that doesn't seem to discourage Byers
- he's definitely in it for the long haul.
It might not have turned out that way if Byers had never heard from
Susanne again after those 24 hours in Baltimore. But he did. About 3
months after that convention, she turned up on his doorstep. Literally.
Cold and shivering, a little thinner, a little paler, her hair a little
less glossy, Susanne Modeski knocked on Byers' front door the day after
Christmas. I guess he thought his Christmas wish had been granted after
all. He was so happy to see her, I doubt he even noticed the changes in
her. But I did.
I knew she could only mean heartache and trouble, but Byers is a softy
and couldn't just turn her away. And I guess I'm at least as bad,
because I couldn't look into those big blue eyes and say "No" either.
Langly and I left Byers' apartment shortly after Susanne arrived. We'd
been making plans for a hack into a corporation's system. The said
company had a government contract that we suspected might be for
research into the same type of nastiness that we had originally
uncovered thanks to Susanne.
Anyway, discussions of that company as a back door to get into the
project files had to wait with her arrival. Seeing her, the first thing
I guess both Langly and I thought after the shock of her being even
alive wore off was that she might be able to help us. Selfish, I know.
Byers, though, immediately fell into mother hen mode. He ushered
Susanne into his small living room and got her coffee.
"We're amazed to see you alive," I told her.
She smiled. The small, sad smile she had the last time we'd seen her
had been replaced by something a little wider, a little harder. Seeing
her expression, it was as if she'd finished mourning for the life that
the shadowy government forces had taken away and instead learned how to
be angry.
"I'm surprised to be here, too." When she said that, the first worm of
anxiety burrowed into the pit of my stomach. They'd taken her. What if
they'd turned her, and she was here to get information about us? I
tried to still my suspicion by telling myself that if the government
wanted to find us, it would be an easy matter. In their eyes, we were
trivial, and I was happy to keep it that way.
Still, the thought persisted. What if.
It was like Susanne, slumped into the wooden
rocker Byers had gotten from his mother, could read my mind. "Relax. I
was released. I have no idea why they didn't kill me, but it wasn't
because I decided to spy for them." Further probing was cut off by
Byers' return. He gave her a steaming mug and sat down next to her,
perching on his chair like he was frightened he might have to get up
suddenly. I suppose he was afraid she might leave again, be taken like
she was last time.
Susanne smiled at Byers and blinked into the living room, clearly trying
to keep her eyes open. I recognized our cue to leave.
"I think I'd better get home. Langly, you still going to show me that
new hardware you keep bragging about?" He was always going off on some
device or other. Langly was a bright boy; he didn't question which
particular one I was referring to. I think he recognized our cue to
leave as well as I did, because he only nodded.
Byers hardly seemed to notice our exit.
We gave them some time. The next day was spent minus Byers. Langly and
I did research on the business that we were interested in getting
information from. After about two hours at the library looking into the
government contract and board of directors, I checked into a hotel
room. Once in the room, I stripped off my jacket, jerked off the tie,
rolled up my sleeves. Langly took the scenic route to follow me.
"Well?" That's one thing I like about Langly. That was all I had to
say. Maybe it's just because we have overlapping area of expertise, but
few words are generally required when we're working together. We may be
years apart in age and life experience, and I may want to throttle him
when he plays that abrasive, electronic music he loves, but where
computers are concerned, we fit like hand in glove.
He drew the blinds, cutting us off from the sun and prying eyes. "I've
found a box. The guy on the repair line must be new, he believed me
right away. It's in a pretty secluded part of the neighborhood, so
we'll have plenty of warning if something goes wrong. Three exits to
the division, lower middle class so they won't notice a strange car
hanging around." He grinned with satisfaction.
"Good. If this is what we think, we'll need the time. You ready to
eyeball their system?"
"Sure." He set up his laptop. Since all we wanted to do was get a
general idea of what kind of systems they had in place, we only needed
to bounce ourselves around a few times. In and out.
"Frohike?" Langly stared at the small screen, not making eye contact
with me.
"Byers has it bad, doesn't he?" The glare from the screen against his
glasses hid his expression. For the first time in our two-odd year
association, I realized how little I actually knew about this man's
personal life.
"Yeah," I said, "I think he does." I changed the subject. "Are you
almost done?"
"No sooner said. This doesn't look too bad, but I didn't go too far
in." Langly started disentangling himself from the intricate path of
computer servers he'd used to hide our location.
"Okay. We'll see tomorrow, I suppose. Can you think of anything we've
missed?" For some reason, this job was making me more nervous than
"Nah. Let's go get Byers. He's had enough R and R." Langly grinned and
pushed up his glasses. I couldn't help but smile in return in spite of
my apprehension.
When we got back to Byers' place, they weren't there. Or they just
weren't answering the door. I got *really* nervous - I still didn't
know Byers all that well, but he didn't strike me as the kind of guy
who'd be doing the wild thing with a hot babe in the middle of the
afternoon when he knew his friends would be coming back. And besides,
if they'd wanted to do that, I figured they'd have done it last night -
Byers was, after all, pretty conventional.
Rather than make a fuss pounding on the door, I looked up and down the
hall: nobody but Langly and me. I fished my lock pick out of my jacket
pocket. Langly's eyes got really big, but he didn't say a word as I
quickly and quietly unlocked the door. All the hairs on the back of my
neck were telling me to be careful, so I entered the dim apartment
cautiously, wishing I still carried a gun. Langly nervously checked up
and down the hall one more time before he slipped in behind me and
locked the door.
Although the curtains were drawn, nothing seemed out of place in the
living room. It was just as neat and tidy as always; even the
bookshelves were arranged alphabetically. Without saying a word, I
gestured that Langly should check the kitchen. Taking a deep breath, I
headed for the dark hallway leading to the bedroom.
Using the stealth training I'd put to good use in 'Nam, I slowly pushed
the door open as far as it would go. Here, too, the drapes were drawn
and the room was dark, so I switched on the light. Byers even kept his
bedroom neat as a pin; the bed was made and nothing was out of place.
Likewise for the bathroom. I'd never before met a guy living alone who
had a place that would easily win the Good Housekeeping Seal of
Approval. Weird.
Breathing a little easier, I met Langly back in the living room. He
shook his head to show his search had been negative as well. I was
stumped. No sign of a struggle, or even of a good time, but neither
Byers nor Susanne were here and he hadn't called to tell us what was
going on.
Just then, we heard voices out in the hall. There was no place to hide
in the living room, so we both headed for the kitchen. We heard keys
being dropped and laughter. Then the door was unlocked and opened. We
ducked all the way back around the corner as two shapes were silhouetted
against the light in the hallway before they entered and shut the door
behind them.
As someone turned on a light in the living room, I heard Byers say,
"I've got to call the guys."
Although I was relieved to find out it was Byers and Susanne who'd come
in, I was reluctant to step out and let them know we were already
there. I admit it: I felt guilty for letting us into his apartment, but
I still felt we were justified in being worried when he didn't answer
his door. So, I expected him to yell or at least to be upset enough to
throw us out. I certainly would have, if he'd done the same to me.
Instead, Byers said the absolutely last thing I expected to hear him
say, "Hey, guys, I'm glad you're here. Susanne and I just went to City
Hall; we got a marriage license so we can get married tomorrow. You'll
come, won't you?"
I think that I managed to pick my jaw up off the floor before he and
Susanne noticed, but I'm still not sure. My brain tripped over normally
easy thoughts. Christ, a wedding? Them? What in the hell were they
It was pretty easy to figure out what the answer to that question was,
though, and it was what made me keep my mouth shut about the rest.
"That's wonderful, Byers. Susanne, congratulations! Of course we'll
come, won't we, Langly?" I shot him a pointed glance, and he grinned and
nodded excitedly.
"Congratulations, man. Way to go."
At that point, I noticed something that bothered me a great deal.
Susanne was holding Byers' hand tightly, and she was smiling. However,
the smile didn't quite reach past her lips. When Byers looked at her,
her expression softened a little, but never quite lost that guarded
look. It was painfully clear to me that she was trying, struggling
hard. It was as if she wanted to be with Byers, she wanted to be happy,
but something just wouldn't let her.
It was also around this time that I told myself that I was reading way
too damn much in the eyes of a person that was practically a stranger.
That was all.
Looking at Byers, I knew that if I could will it to be all, I would.
The skinny, reserved man hugged Langly and then me for an obscenely long
time. Then he reached over and grabbed Susanne. The two locked
together for several moments while Langly and I tried hard not to
stare. I don't know about him, but I was shocked. Who knew Byers had
that kind of display in him?
It was obvious at that point that business would have to wait. "Come
on, guys. This calls for a celebration. I'm taking you both out.
Langly, you're coming."
So, I took the three out. It wasn't a bachelor party, because leaving
Susanne alone would have been cruel as well as stupid. However, it was
as much of a celebration as I could make it. We ate dinner at a nice
but private Italian restaurant I'd been going to for a few years, then
to the rowdiest bar I could think of, just because.
I have to say that I knew Byers was really, really drunk when he was
dancing with Langly to some guitar-heavy song. Later, Langly told me it
was from 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show'. Knowing him, it figures he
would request something like that from the DJ.
Susanne and I stayed behind in our secluded booth. If she was drunk at that point she could
really handle her booze.
She'd done a few shots of tequila with the rest of us,
and it had to have affected her skinny frame.
"Who knew Byers could bust a move?" I grinned at her. She smiled over
at the dance floor, where the other patrons had cleared a wide berth.
Even Langly, as wasted as he was, seemed a little afraid of his flying
"Why are you doing all this?" She stared at me.
I couldn't stop myself from stiffening. The truth was, I wasn't really
sure myself. I shrugged and looked over at her. "He deserves to be
Susanne winced. "I'll make him happy." I don't think she could help the
defensiveness in her voice. I stared at her for a long moment, then
glanced over at her soon-to-be husband, who showed no sign of losing
steam. If anything, the other dancers were giving him an even wider
I poured two more shots from the half-empty bottle of Jose Cuervo on the
table, and slid one over to her along with a salt shaker. I waited
until we'd both finished. She gasped slightly as the alcohol went down her
throat. Finally, I asked what I'd sworn that I wouldn't.
"Will you really, Susanne? More to the point, will he make you happy?"
She froze at my words. Nothing was forthcoming from her to stop me, so
I plowed ahead. "Does Byers know what they did to you there? When you
were taken?"
Immediately, seeing her expression, I felt lower than the lowest form of
worm-like life crawling somewhere beneath a rock in a dark cave. The
day before what should have been the happiest day of her life, and what
did I do? I decided that she was too damn pleased with life.
I almost missed her whispered response. "No. And I don't want him to
know. Ever." She looked up from her empty shot glass, and her eyes were
crystal clear, as sober as a punch in the jaw. "Do you understand me?"
I only nodded and looked away. Luckily, it wasn't long before Langly
and Byers stumbled back to the table. We left shortly afterward.
By that time, I was the only one left who was semi-functional. Of
course, that meant I was designated driver, so the Frohike Taxi Service
headed back towards Byers' place. Langly rode shotgun up front with me
and the happy couple cuddled up in the back seat and promptly passed
out. Even asleep, I have to admit they made a good-looking couple.
Byers still had a big smile on his face.
It's a good thing my tolerance for booze is a lot higher than any of the
lightweights with me or none of us might have made the wedding ceremony
planned for the next day - no, for later that afternoon, by that time.
Pulling up in front of the building, I punched Langly lightly in the arm
to wake him up. No response. "Hey, Langly, wake up." I shook his
shoulder harder. Finally, a muffled grunt. "Come on, I need your help
getting the lovebirds upstairs." Still not fully aware, he managed to
follow my simple commands to get not only himself, but Byers too, out of
the car. Byers woke up enough to stand and even walk, as long as he
could lean heavily on Langly.
Susanne was my problem; she was out for the count. If Byers hadn't been
semi-aware, I might have just slung her over my shoulder in a fireman's
carry, but I just couldn't do to her that in front of him. So I
gathered her up in my arms, shut the car door with my hip, and led the
small, wobbly parade into the building.
Thank God the building had an elevator, because Susanne was getting
heavier by the second and I was starting to work up a sweat. When we
got to 3C, though, my blood ran cold: the door was slightly ajar. The
Langly/Byers combo didn't stop until they ran into my back. Before they
managed to formulate a question, I hissed, "Quiet. Here." And I handed
Susanne's limp body to them to support against the wall they were
already leaning on.
By now I was completely sober. Slipping again into stealth mode, I
cautiously pushed the door open. The room was pitch dark and silent.
After checking to make sure the non-functional trio was still supporting
the wall, I reached in and turned on the overhead light. "Whoa."
Byers had obviously had company while we were gone. And the company
didn't have much in the line of manners - they'd trashed the place
completely. What wasn't broken was upside down or covered with some
sort of yellow slime. Good-bye Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
Backing up, I bumped into two wide-eyed drunks with their mouths hanging
open. "Come on, we gotta get out of here." I turned off the light and
shut the door firmly behind me.
Feeling the need for speed rather than chivalry, this time I did sling
Susanne over my shoulder as I made for the exit with Langly and Byers
stumbling closely behind. Retracing our steps, we hurried back to my
car and piled in. I pulled out with only a slight screech of tires.
Nothing suspicious in my rear-view mirror, but I took the scenic route.
Even without much traffic at that hour, I wanted to be absolutely sure
no one was following us, so the 15 minute drive to my place took well
over an hour. I even circled the block twice, but I didn't see anything
unusual, so I hit the button on the garage door opener, pulled inside,
and shut the door to hide us from any prying eyes.
"I don't think we were followed. Let's go upstairs."
Luckily, I have two bedrooms upstairs from my workshop, so I was able to
find a place for everybody to sleep. I carefully deposited Susanne on
the double bed of the larger room. Byers, following, kicked off his
shoes and approached the bed.
Before he crawled in beside his soon-to-be-wife, he regarded me
blearily. "Fro-hi-ke." Byers said haltingly, swaying slightly in his
trouser socks and suit.
The adrenaline rush from fleeing Byers' apartment had charged and then
drained me, but in spite of my need for sleep and/or coffee, I found
myself amused at the sight of the normally rigid Byers loosened.
"Yes, Byers?" I asked quietly.
"I wanta thank you, Frohike. Wait!" His blue eyes widened in comedic
"What is it, Byers?" I decided it would be coffee instead of sleep. I
was the only one who was qualified to make sure this was going to be a
safe place to stay. I wondered when I had become the responsible one.
Suddenly, I felt very old.
"I-Wait. Um. Oh, yeah. What's your first name?" He smiled in perfect
happiness. God, he was drunk.
I pressed back my laughter. "Melvin."
"Mel-vin." Byers' forehead furrowed, and I knew beyond doubt that he
would not remember any of what he was saying.
"Uh-huh. You should get some sleep, Byers." I turned to leave, but was
stopped by a hand on my upper arm.
"I want to say thank you." His words were slurred slightly, but his eyes
were clear.
I was momentarily at a loss. "That's okay, Byers. No problem." Again I
turned to leave, and again I was restrained.
"No, it's not. You are a good friend, Frohike." Byers leaned forward
and gave me a hug. Unfortunately, his balance wasn't the greatest,
especially with the slippery dress socks he had on. One of his feet
slid on the wood floor, and he fell against me, momentarily pressing
himself full against me. Byers struggled to right himself, his head on
my shoulder and breath harsh on my neck as he pushed against me.
I was totally unprepared for my body's response to that accidental
contact. It was like taking an ice cube and throwing it into a pan full
of scorching butter. I could feel myself start to harden. Quickly, in
shock, I shoved Byers away, holding on to his upper arms to keep him
from falling over. "Go to bed, Byers." I hated the harshness in my
Byers nodded, not seeming to notice my tone or obvious arousal. He
slipped fully clothed into bed, his eyes shut before his head hit the
I stayed up all night without the coffee.
"Do you, John Fitzgerald Byers, take Susanne..."
I tuned out the Justice and watched the couple. Byers' eyes moved from
the man delivering the lines, none of which he would probably remember,
to lock with Susanne's.
The charge between them riveted me. Susanne looked completely happy,
radiant even in a simple white dress and heels. Where she had produced
it from, I had no idea. I guess it must be in the female handbook they
give girls in school, listed under the chapter on how to produce clothes
from nowhere while on the run. That one must be right after the 'how to
twist three men around your little finger' lesson.
"...To love, honor, and cherish..."
All of our eyes were on the bride and Susanne beamed at Byers. Whatever
was shadowing her, somehow she had managed to banish it for her wedding
day. I hoped, then and there, that Susanne and Byers would be able to
have a normal life, and that the darkness was behind them for good. The
knot in my stomach told me otherwise, but I willed my tired brain to
ignore it.
Langly coughed slightly. It was only when I realized that I had the
I handed over the two simple gold bands with a knot in my throat.
Finally, the short ceremony was over and the happy couple kissed. After
they signed the marriage certificate, we all headed back to my place for
a quiet celebration. After all the excitement last night, none of us was
in any shape for much more.
Money was more than a little tight for the newlyweds: Byers had finally
quit the FCC a few weeks ago and Susanne certainly didn't have any
money. So this morning, once a lot of aspirin and coffee helped clear
up the worst of the aftereffects of the night before, I'd convinced them
to take me up on my offer of hospitality. After all, Byers' place had
been trashed by persons unknown and I did have plenty of room. So I'd
moved my things to the spare bedroom and welcomed them to their new
home. For the time being, at least.
John and Susanne couldn't stop looking at each other while our little
group celebrated the wedding with a bottle of wine and three large
pizzas. I doubt they even heard me announce, "Come on, Langly, we've
got some work to do downstairs. See you two in the morning." We'd been
going over our schematics for our current project for a good hour before
we even heard two sets of footsteps slowly heading for my bedroom. I
tried not to think about why they'd been so quiet so long in the living
room; it was too distracting.
There was no escaping the fact that my workshop area was right below my
bedroom and we could hear a lot of what was going on over our heads. It
had never occurred to me to soundproof the building, since I was usually
the sole occupant. I decided I'd better rectify that little detail
really soon - preferably tomorrow - if the happy couple was going to
continue to stay here.
We heard giggles and outright laughter. We heard shoes drop, but only
three. I kept waiting for that last one to hit the floor, but it never
did. The box springs on my bed had a definite squeak I'd never
noticed. More thumps I can only assume came from the headboard hitting
the wall. And then it sounded like they were *really* getting down to
I couldn't help it: I was getting very turned on picturing what was
going on in my bed and I wished I had video to go with the audio.
Realizing Langly had turned into a statue next to me, I glanced at him.
Conflicting, or maybe just consecutive, emotions crossed his face turned
towards the ceiling: curiosity, guilt, arousal, embarrassment...
Definitely embarrassment.
I should have known that with Langly's blond hair and fair skin, he'd
blush easily. Right now, he was blushing a very deep pink. His ears
were blushed almost purple. He was obviously *really* embarrassed and
me giving in to the temptation to laugh at the entire situation would
probably make it even worse, so I just shook my head without meeting his
eyes and said, "There goes the neighborhood. We might just as well give
up trying to work here. I hope your place is quieter."
For a second there, Langly looked startled - a lot like a deer caught in
headlights. But he recovered quickly as he realized escape from all
those noises and laughter was at hand. "Sure, it's a real quiet
neighborhood, except for the occasional shootings."
Shootings? Great. Of course, I knew the general area where Langly
lived: down near the University where all the other freaks and mutants
hung out. I'd just never actually been there before and I wouldn't have
chosen night for my first foray into that particular jungle. "You'll
have to give me directions once I get off the freeway."
Actually, not only had I not foreseen a nighttime trip to that
particular shabby district in my future, I'd certainly never imagined
myself becoming friends with a certain long-haired royal pain in the
ass. But look how things had changed in the three months since that
convention. Somehow, Langly and I had gone from techno-rivals constantly
harassing each other to associates - through necessity, mind you - to
almost friends. And now I was going to spend the night at his place
while another new friend and his brand new bride did things in my own
bedroom I hadn't done much of myself the last few years. Tonight was
certainly memorable in a number of ways.
Langly was quiet, staring out the window at the dirty snow along the
highway while I drove. When I took his exit, he stirred enough to give
brief directions, "left at the light," "right into the alley..."
Finally, we pulled into a short driveway behind a ramshackle garage that
seemed to be attached to a big old house. Langly dug in his pocket for
his keys, got out, and unlocked the garage door. He raised it easily,
motioned me to drive in, and closed it again behind me. The garage and
its door looked a lot more solid and secure from the inside than it had
from the outside. Camouflage, I supposed.
The 2-story house had seen better days, but it wasn't too bad.
Considering Langly had the same sort of electronic mess I had pretty
much all over my workshop and living area, who was I to complain? The
kitchen was too small to hold much other than the required dining
furniture, but the whole rest of the house had odds and ends
everywhere. I even found a motherboard from a computer in the bathroom.
Langly still seemed uncharacteristically quiet, so I thought I'd see if
I could find out why. I asked if he had any beer and, as a matter of
fact, he had a whole refrigerator full of it. And an unopened bag of
pretzels. Perfect.
So we had a few cold ones as we sat at his dining room table, munched on
pretzels, and talked. We started talking about the research we'd been
doing and put on hold once Susanne showed up. Then I maneuvered the
conversation to other topics.
I found out Langly had grown up in California - now why wasn't I
surprised? - and most of his family still lived out there. He'd
originally moved to Baltimore to learn more about electronics from an
uncle who used to have a little electronics store. Then the big chain
store moved into the neighborhood and forced him out. Uncle Bob gave
Langly all the inventory and moved to New York.
No family nearby. A geek from the word Go. Hmmm.
I mentioned I used to live with a woman, but she wanted more than I
could give her, so we drifted apart and finally split up. I asked
Langly about female companionship in his life.
No girlfriend. It's not that he was actually afraid of the fairer sex.
He said he'd done lots of stuff in mixed groups in high school, but he'd
never actually gone out on a date with someone. And females weren't
exactly raining down on him in the monastic lifestyle he currently led.
Even Dungeons and Dragons, the game he seemed to be a master of, was
male-dominated; female players were very few and very far between. And
none of them were currently living in the Baltimore area. But hearing
the sounds coming from my bedroom tonight seemed to have awakened a need
in him that he hadn't been aware of. I was curious to see where that
would lead.
Finally, Langly seemed all talked out. He gave me his bedroom and said
he'd use the couch in the living room where he usually fell asleep
watching TV. I wasn't surprised to see posters for obscure rock bands
all over the walls and ceiling in his room; I felt like I was having a
flashback to the 70's after I'd come back from a tour in 'Nam. I was
pleasantly surprised to find his bed comfortable and the pillows weren't
even lumpy.
Considering all the talking we'd done, I was astonished I fell asleep as
fast as I did. Usually I get a little wound up and it takes a while to
settle down. But it had been a busy couple of days with very little
sleep and a fair amount of drinking, so I zonked out quickly.
I can sleep almost anywhere, under any conditions, but never for very
long. I always feel the need to wake up and check on my surroundings.
Paranoia, thy name is Frohike. But that annoying little habit had saved
my life a time or two, so I wasn't ever going to try to change it.
When the dim light of dawn reached the bedroom window a few hours later,
I was awake. Hearing Langly moving around out in the living room, I
decided I might as well get up, too. I got dressed and joined him in
front of the three TV sets in the crowded room. I hoped he wasn't using
his own rather combustible black boxes to get the cable feeds for them
in this firetrap of his.
His long hair was a little more straggly, but he had on a different
black T-shirt for another band I'd never heard of. "You hungry?"
I stretched a little. "Yeah. And I could really use some coffee."
"I don't cook much. I usually eat at the diner down the street. We can
just walk there and get something."
So, we put on our jackets and headed down the street to the diner around
the corner. Unfortunately, the area didn't look any better in the gray
light of a cloudy morning than it had in the dark the previous night. I
was surprised to see a fair number of people were out and about on foot,
but then I realized few probably had regular jobs and even fewer
probably had cars. The good news is that I wasn't the oldest guy on the
block, like I thought I'd be. The bad news is that I was pretty much
the cleanest.
Mickey's Diner was old, but reasonably clean. Rather than get into any
of the discussion topics from last night, Langly and I talked some about
the area and its residents while we ate. The food was okay, but I will
admit the coffee was really good. Four cups later, I was ready to face
the day.
We'd only been back from the diner a few minutes when Byers called. I
gathered he'd been trying to get us for almost an hour, but, hey, we'd
taken our time with breakfast. Who expected newlyweds to be out of bed
before noon on the day after their wedding, anyway? Not only were they
up, but they had something they wanted to share with us right away, so
we put our jackets back on and I drove us back to my place.
It turned out that Susanne had information for us.
She sat beside Byers and played absently with the fabric of his trousers
as it loosened near his knee. For once, he was actually wearing casual
docker-type pants. For our uptight Byers, I mused, this was practically
walking around naked.
Susanne said, staring at the motion of her long, slim fingers, "I didn't
tell anyone this before because I didn't think it would make any
difference, but there were a few things I remember in the time I was,"
she swallowed, "gone, that I think are relevant to the plans you three
Shock made me freeze, suspend all superfluous motion. I couldn't
believe it. She still hadn't told him. God, how I had been hoping she
was only drunk that night. Byers thought that she couldn't remember
what happened, and Susanne would let details slip to him as it was
convenient for her. I shook myself from those dark thoughts as Susanne
spoke, still avoiding all eye contact.
"I was kept in a kind of lab, I guess. I only remember that I heard the
name of the company, Triparamin, whose computer network you've been
trying to access. There were two men who talked about extending their
tests to a place called George Washington Carver," Susanne's eyes moved
up, finally, to meet with mine. "Elementary School."
Langly stared at Susanne, at Byers, and finally at me, his eyes wide
with shock. The silence that met her words was finally broken again by
"There was something in the way they were talking that led me to believe
that they were planning more than one test. That the experimentation
would be extensive." She broke my gaze as Byers took her hand and
squeezed it gently in reassurance.
She continued, "I want a copy of the files you retrieve. The men that
were talking mentioned things that I remember but still can't make sense
of." Her voice was cool and certain, and I think that I was the only one
in the room who knew how hard that must have been for her. "I think that
if I can see the data, I can decipher a code they mentioned. It should
list what the testing timetable will be."
I knew better almost immediately, and the fact that I sat there, saying
nothing, is something that will probably haunt me for the rest of my
life. I knew what it was Susanne really wanted. She wanted revenge for
the time they had kept her. I didn't know what it was that 'they' had
done to her, but I knew that whatever it had been, Susanne remembered it
very clearly, indeed.
Her voice flat and expressionless, she said, "The file or directory
should be listed under the name Red Horse."
So, we implemented our plan, and it worked like a fifty in the palm of a
two bit whore. In the middle of the day, we "borrowed" a phone line.
The two of us cracked Triparamin's system with only the most basic
social engineering, provided earlier in the day by Byers. It turned out
that with his bureaucratic background, he was very slick when he wanted
to be. In minutes, he knew the names of all the upper-level system
administrators in the company. Getting the relevant vital stats from
personnel and the DMV was easy enough.
Human nature hasn't let me down much in my life, and it didn't that day,
either, although I wish now that it had. Some idiot had used his middle
name as a backdoor into the system and we slipped in.
Langly said, hunched over the computer, "Okay, she said Red Horse,
"Yeah." I stood and looked out at the street. The empty rental house we
were using was on the corner of the street, so if we needed to leave
suddenly, we had a few avenues.
"Okay...Shit, Frohike, there are..." Langly swore under his breath as he
chewed on the corner of his mouth. "This file is huge. How long do we
I shrugged. "You tell me. How careful were you?"
"Not an hour fucking careful." He stared at me in consternation. "How
good is our escape route?"
I remembered the look of raw pain on Susanne's face at the bar before
her wedding and rubbed one hand over my face. "Good enough. Do it."
While Langly monitored the data dump, I monitored the neighborhood
activity outside, moving from room to room, window to window. I really
was surprised that nothing suspicious happened to make us cut and run
before we got all the Red Horse files. Looking back, I guess that right
there should have made me suspicious. Hindsight is so much easier,
after all.
It really was almost an hour before Langly and I packed up our toys and
left our suburban Home for a Day. Still no suspicious activity around
us; no parked trucks or vans on the streets we passed.
After dropping Langly and the equipment off at my car, I returned the
van to the rental agency and caught a bus downtown. Several transfers
and two taxi rides later, I was sure no one had followed me. I hoped
Langly was half as good at spotting tails as he seemed to think he was
or all my efforts would be for nothing.
Langly picked me up at our pre-arranged spot and drove to the motel
where I'd made reservations under the name of Tim Leary. Our room faced
the park, not the road, so we drove to the back parking lot and took in
our special 'luggage,' planning on spending the night, but not planning
on getting much sleep.
We'd only brought in a simple computer setup to help with the data:
computer, monitor, dot-matrix printer, and a box of paper. Langly and I
worked well together: we had the files decoded and almost all printed
out by the time Byers and Susanne arrived.
Barely acknowledging our presence, Susanne dove into the piles of folded
printouts, quickly scanning each page before unfolding the next and
repeating the process. It was obvious she'd forgotten we were even
there. Langly was frankly staring with his mouth open and Byers had
this little wrinkle etched between his eyebrows that I didn't like.
Deciding they needed distraction, I gave each of us a pile of printouts
Susanne had already discarded so we could analyze what we'd 'found.' I
mean, even if it wasn't what Susanne was looking for, and I still wasn't
so sure I really wanted to find out for sure what that was, we still had
a whole shitload of highly classified information from a DOD
contractor. Even before Susanne showed up three days ago, we knew
Triparamin was dirty and we'd wanted to get the specifics, so here was
our chance.
By the time the sun came up, Susanne was sound asleep on one of the
double beds, surrounded by printouts. The rest of us were sprawled
around the room, also surrounded by reams of paper. And a lot of
questions. But no answers. At least, not yet.
Since checkout time wasn't until 11 am, we decided a few hours of sleep
were in order. After stacking all the printouts back in the box and
stowing all the equipment in their luggage carrying cases, Byers joined
his bride on the one bed and Langly and I shared the other double.
Maybe the ventilation in the room was bad. I guess I wasn't really
surprised to wake up a few hours later with a blond head nestled into my
shoulder and a skinny arm across my chest. And a morning erection
pressed into my hip. 'Shit.' I sighed and elbowed Langly none too
gently in the stomach to get him off me. As he rolled back to his side
of the bed, I could see the newlyweds in the next bed had made their way
under the covers and were making like spoons.
Must have been all the pheromones in the air, but my hormones were
definitely starting to raise their ugly little heads. As was something
else, but this was not the time nor the place for such things. Much as
I hated to disturb this bizarre little tableau, I got everybody up and
out and to the coffeeshop across the street by 10:30.
Over food and a couple of pots of coffee, we all finally woke up. After
discussing our lack of results using generalities and vague references
to 'the customer' and 'the goods,' we decided we needed more
information. Susanne sat quietly, seemingly greatly disappointed at our
lack of success.
When we split up to prepare for another hack, Susanne suggested she take
the printouts back to my place and go over them again. She was positive
the information was in there somewhere; she just had to find it. Since
she didn't have the know-how to help us with the other things that
needed doing, we all agreed, even Byers. No one noticed that Susanne
didn't kiss Byers good-bye like a new bride would; it wasn't until later
that I realized she'd kissed him as if she knew she'd never see him
If it had been up to me, I would have been happy to just walk away from
those files at that point. Red Horse, Red Hair, Scarlet Left Testicle;
whatever they were called, those files were something I was steadily
wishing we could just forget about. I was all for fighting injustice,
and I probably wanted to get the information as much if not more than
any of the others. There was something, though, about the whole
situation that was making me vaguely uneasy in a way that I did not like
one bit. I hadn't itched with this particular feeling in close to
twenty years.
I didn't walk away, though. Every time the thought crossed my mind, I
would see the expression on Byers' face again. That small line etched
between his eyebrows reminded me. This might be something I could just
walk away from, but for Susanne and those children it was deadly
Langly, Byers and I went to location number two, another in Langly's
seemingly endless supply of empty rental units. This time it was an
apartment, a third floor walk-up. There was a second staircase, but I
didn't harbor any illusions that would help us much if we were
"I hope Susanne is okay." Byers huffed slightly as we reached the third
floor. Thankfully, it was getting darker so we weren't quite as exposed
to view. Not that the residents in that particular neighborhood were
likely to call the cops. We probably could have staged a full-scale gun
battle without notice there. It explained, I thought, why Langly had
dug it up for our riskiest hack. In spite of myself, I guess I was
starting to respect the little hippie.
Langly produced a set of keys and let us into the apartment. I remember
it was number 308. The interior was all musty smells, dark water spots
and small scurrying creatures. Langly strode over to the far windows,
shut the blinds, and flicked on the lights. I started hooking up the
equipment, and Langly joined me. I glanced back as we were doing this;
Byers was still standing in the archway between the kitchen and the
living room. He was gaping in the general direction of a small hole in
the wall.
"I guess you don't get out slumming much, do you Byers?" I said. Langly
grinned appreciatively. I think that by that time we knew Byers came
from some kind of money. It just seemed to explain everything about
Byers blinked and shoved his hands into the pockets of his trench coat.
"I thought I saw something move." He sounded defensive.
I suppressed my laughter. "Why don't you run to the store and get us all
something to eat, Byers? It'll take us a few minutes to set all this
up." To his credit, he did, leaving without comment.
Langly and I were twice as careful this time, but Byers still wasn't
back by the time we had once again accessed the Red Horse files. I was
starting to question the wisdom of sending him out into the neighborhood
when it happened: the files started to delete themselves.
"Oh my god, Frohike, what's happening?" I stared at him. Langly was
asking me? It was my first indication that something was, indeed,
seriously wrong. I peered over his shoulder at the monitor. Langly was
typing furiously and cursing under his breath. Directories were
disappearing before our eyes.
"Red Horse is being deleted."
It would have to be then that Byers showed up, right? Later, I wished
that I sent him somewhere else. Anywhere else, as long as it meant that
he wasn't around to see what happened next.
Langly continued as Byers gingerly set a paper sack down on the filthy
"There's a new one." He stared at the screen, and breathed, "Oh no." He
twisted his head up to look at Byers. I suppressed my sudden icy terror
and took over trying to get into the new file.
It was labeled "s_modeski". It was too late, though. We had been
kicked out of the system.
We didn't even bother to log out before racing after Byers toward the
car. He wasn't a tall man, but he was already in the car and screeching
tires out of the parking lot when we got to the bottom landing. I think
that if we hadn't run in front of the car that he would have been gone.
What was normally a half-hour drive became a white-knuckled, fifteen
minute terror ride. Watching Byers screech through lights and
residential areas, narrowly avoid hitting pedestrians and ignoring all
attempts at conversation was a revelation. Not that there were that
many attempts made to talk to the man, really. Langly and I were too
busy hanging on for dear life.
Byers slammed the car to a halt at a crazed diagonal and did a dead run
to my front door. I followed as quickly as I could, knowing that he
would need my keys to get into the front door. It turned out that I was
wrong, though. Byers didn't need my key.
The door had been kicked in.
Byers and I paused in shock. The thick wood door hung at a crazy angle,
supported only by the bottom hinge. The inside of my building wasn't
much better, from what we could see. My workshop had been demolished.
Electronic equipment had been smashed and strewn everywhere. Tools,
papers, a smashed-in monitor all littered the floor.
After only a second, Byers rushed in, oblivious to the possible danger.
"Susanne? Susanne? Honey?" He rushed up the stairs, ignoring anything
but finding his wife. "Susanne?" He ran to the bedroom with me hard on
his heels. He froze in the doorway, and I slammed into him. I drew
back, mumbling an apology.
Byers didn't answer, though. Something seemed to have left his body, a
tension that was holding him together, keeping him from losing it in the
face of emergency. He sagged against the doorframe.
Finally, I saw what was in the room.
Susanne had been home, after all. Her thin frame was slumped on the
bed, and the covers were stained red with her blood.
Byers didn't scream, he didn't yell at me to call for an ambulance. I
think that even he knew from the extent of her injuries that she was
dead. Helplessly, he move to hold her in his arms, crooning her name.
His eyes slipped closed as if he were bargaining with the gods to bring
her back. I watched, helpless to do or say anything.
Langly, with characteristic good timing, chose that moment to show up.
Still standing only two steps into the master bedroom, I turned to him.
"Don't touch anything. Leave the house and call the police from a pay
phone. Wipe your prints. Don't go home. I'll meet you at your
brother's house when it's safe." Langly nodded, his eyes wide and
frightened behind his thick black frames. He did as I said. It could
have been minutes, it could have been seconds later that I heard a door
slam shut downstairs. I was still standing in the bedroom, trying to
hold it together.
Finally, I found the strength. I managed to pry Byers from Susanne and
lead him downstairs. Even then, I think the only reason I was able to
get him down the staircase was that he was too tired to fight me. I
placed Byers down in the workshop and, bracing myself, went back
upstairs. I wasn't sure why I did this. Truthfully, I don't think I
really had a logical reason. Once I was there, though, I saw something
that I had missed the first time: two envelopes.
They had been knocked off the dresser and kicked half-underneath it by
whoever had been there, probably the same person who had killed Susanne.
That was probably the only reason they had been missed. Slowly, I
stooped and collected them up off the floor. In Susanne's elegant
writing, one was labeled, "John", and the other, "Melvin and Ringo". I
tucked them into my inside jacket pocket and went back downstairs to
rejoin Byers just as the sirens arrived.
The two of us sat amidst the broken wreckage of my workshop while the
law enforcement crew did their thing all over my building. Forensics
dusted for fingerprints and took pictures of the wreckage. The medical
examiner headed upstairs and I tried not to think about what he was
doing. The uniforms spread out to canvass the neighborhood.
Two detectives tried to talk to Byers, but it was obvious he wasn't
going to be much help. Byers was obviously in shock. His trenchcoat
and suit were soaked with big splotches of Susanne's blood from when
he'd held her in his arms and I was covered in a variety of second­hand
splotches from pulling him away from her lifeless body. The detectives
took my statement and I promised to bring Byers to the station house in
the morning, after he became more coherent.
During all this, Byers rocked on his chair, mumbling to himself.
Occasionally I heard him say, "I can't believe this is happening...." I
couldn't help but agree with him there. 'Merry Fucking Christmas and
Happy Fucking New Year, kid!'
Big surprise: the detectives reported that the money drawer was missing
from my storefront. I never kept much cash in there, because I had a
wall safe built into the concrete block wall along one side of the
workshop. Scratches and dents on the safe suggested the thieves had
gotten really frustrated at their lack of financial gain and took it out
on all the breakable objects around them, and one of them happened to be
Susanne. Considering how much some of the equipment that they'd trashed
was worth, I thought that was pretty stupid on their part, but I didn't
say so to the police.
The timing of Susanne's murder was just too perfect to be a result of
some random burglary. Langly, Byers, and I saw the Red Horse files -
including the one with her name on it - deleted before our very eyes.
But we couldn't tell the police that. I mean, after all, we were
committing a major felony at the time, so we couldn't exactly use that
as proof that her murder was the intended crime and the botched burglary
was just a cover-up. So I just kept my mouth shut.
Byers froze in place when they brought Susanne's body down in a black
body bag. Putting my arm around his shoulders, I could feel him
trembling deep inside. I thought he was going to lose it, but, somehow,
he didn't. When he heard the M.E.'s van door slide shut, his eyes
closed and he slumped against me.
Thank God the detectives were sympathetic and let me get him out of
there, finally. I bundled him into my car and headed out towards the
motels near the airport. Picking up a bottle of J&B first, I checked us
into a Budgetel.
Byers' teeth were chattering, so I cranked up the heat. Once it started
to feel like a sauna, I turned the shower on, nice and hot, and turned
the bathroom into a steam room, hoping to get him warm in a hurry.
Already sweating, I peeled off my bloody clothes. Then I stripped the
clothes stiff with Susanne's dried blood from Byers and guided him into
the hot shower.
He didn't resist me, but he didn't help either. If I hadn't been
supporting him, I think he would have just slid down to the tile floor
and stayed there. Instead, Byers sobbed on my shoulder, the shower
washing his tears away. I don't know how long we stood there, together
under the hot spray. Byers' sobs slowed and his teeth finally stopped
chattering, though, so I turned off the water and dried us both off.
At least we had some fairly clean clothes to put on - I always keep a
bag packed in the trunk of my car. Of course, nothing I own is really
up to Byers' usual fashion standards. Couple that with the fact that
I'm a few inches shorter and a few pounds heavier and nothing of mine is
ever going to fit him, either. So I dressed him in my sweatpants and a
T-shirt before tucking him into bed.
I poured three fingers of J & B in one of the motel's plastic glasses
and made Byers drink it. At least that got a reaction from him: his
already red eyes watered some more as he coughed and handed the glass
back to me. He looked me in the eye and said, "You really are a good
friend, Melvin. Thank you." With that, he laid back, closed his eyes,
and pulled the covers up to his chin.
I poured myself a stiff drink, turned out the light, and sat in a chair
to wait for morning.
Morning came, for Byers, with brutal quickness. I sat in the chair with
the company of a few more fingers of J&B. I guess I had fallen asleep,
because the next thing I knew, I was jerked awake. Byers was writhing
underneath the covers in bed. He tossed, flailing against some unseen
enemy. This continued for several minutes with me watching, uncertain
what to do.
Finally, I couldn't bear that pitiful whimpering anymore and climbed
into bed. I sat beside Byers, and when he continued to flail, I pulled
him tightly against me. His head on my chest, he continued to thrash
against me for long moments as I shushed and clucked at him. Finally,
Byers fell back into a dreamless sleep, one arm thrown across my chest.
Even though I was miserably uncomfortable, I didn't move until I saw the
first rays of the sun work their way through the hotel room drapes.
The morning after Susanne was murdered, Byers and I checked out of the
motel and went to meet Langly. I'd told him to go to "his brother's,"
which was actually a code for a hacker friend that we had in common.
On the ride over, and for days afterward, Byers was silent. If asked a
direct question, he would respond, but otherwise it was like living with
an empty shell. He would attend to what was going on with the same
solemn gaze as normal, but the spark of intelligence and caring in his
eyes had died.
Langly met us in the parking lot of the apartment complex where he'd
been staying. Our friend was much too paranoid to let someone he didn't
know come up and there was no way in hell I was leaving Byers alone,
even for a minute. Even if Byers was indifferent to his own welfare, I
wasn't. I guess the truth is that I was a little afraid he would just
wander off, never to be seen or heard from again.
The three of us went to a diner on the far side of town.
"We need to relocate." Langly's voice was matter of fact. I don't think
that the apocalypse would phase that boy. Seeing fire fall from the
sky, he'd probably just gaze upward calmly and pull out a steel
Byers looked on indifferently, then stared out the window.
"Relocate? To where?" I'd traveled and even fought in Vietnam, but I'd
lived in Baltimore my whole life, so I guess I was a little alarmed.
"Washington. It makes sense. Think about it: all the movers and
shakers live in DC." The blonde man stared at Byers. I think that the
wax version of Byers, however understandable, was creeping Langly out as
well. "The people that took Susanne were in a sedan with Maryland
There was a long silence. Byers finally pulled his eyes from the
parking lot and said dully, "It won't bring her back." He stared at the
labeling on a packet of creamer with swimming eyes.
"No, it won't, Byers. Nothing will. The question is, what are you
going to do now?" Langly sipped his coke and watched Byers for reaction,
as did I.
Finally, Byers blinked and said, "When do we leave?"
On the way out of town, I met Byers at Susanne's freshly-turned grave.
The sky was becoming heavy in preparation for a storm as I pulled into
the cemetery parking lot. The first thing I noticed on Susanne's grave
were the blossoms. They littered the area in an obscene riot of color;
every imaginable type was represented. All I could think, looking at
them, was what a waste it was. The rain was going to ruin the flowers.
Byers shoes sunk into the edge of the brown earth pile. Without making
eye contact, he explained, "I didn't know what kind was her favorite."
I nodded and stared at Susanne's headstone with him. 'Susanne
Modeski-Byers. Beloved, we lost you far too soon.' In spite of myself,
I could feel the tears come. Byers regarded me, his head cocked and an
unreadable expression in his eye. He took one last, long look at the grave and turned away.
"Come on, let's get going."
-END (for now)

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