“It’s a nuclear reactor of some kind,” Andre whispered conspiratorially, staring at the antique phonograph. “Compact, mini, made for home use probably.” Strands of his long gray hair hung down in front of his bespectacled brown eyes; the rest of it, tied back in a pony tail, reached to the middle of his back. He turned his thin, craggy face to Julia. “You know? For the person who has everything, I guess.”
“Uh huh.” Julia knew better than to question AnDre’s pronouncement. This wasn’t the first “camouflaged” artifact he’d found, although it had been about a month since they’d stumbled across one. Not for the first time, she had been hoping this whole “Mystic Search” thing was over and that they could get back to a normal existence. If they remembered how.
She ran a hand through her own white mop of fuzzy, shoulder-length curls. Maybe I should cut it short and start coloring it, she thought absently, looking down at the wrinkled T-shirt and faded jeans she wore. A blue-colored toenail stuck out from the hole in one of her sneakers. In case we ever get pulled in by the feds, at least I’d look presentable in court.
“Can we use your credit card again?” Andre asked as if this was the first time they had done something like this. Julia knew he felt bad about spending her money and never failed to say that, one day, he’d pay her back. But hey, that’s what lottery winnings were for, weren’t they? Although she’d always fantasized about taking a cruise or starting a charity, not buying secret, disguised military and alien artifacts. Oh well...
“I promise I’ll pay you back...”
“Sure,” she answered as if by rote, rummaging in her purse for her wallet. “But, you know, honey, I just got lucky. I didn’t earn that money so don’t stress about it. I don’t know why you don’t let me apply for a credit card for you too.” Julia paused for a moment as if remembering something. “How much is that, er, reactor, anyway?”
It had been Andre getting hit by lightning that day three years ago when they had been vacationing in Florida. Julia was sure of it. Just like some pulpy superhero from the golden age of comics, the electricity from the lightning strike had altered his brain or something. He first started seeing the artifacts about a week or so after getting back from the hospital. OHIPLS--that’s what Andre called those things that lay hidden behind some shape-shifting force fields or morphing grids or cloaking webs--Objects Hidden in Plain Sight. Something huge had happened to him after being shot through with all that voltage, something that changed the way he viewed the world. Literally.
She remembered when they bought the first one--an old standing lamp with a soiled fringed shade. Andre had been beside himself to purchase it and bring it back to their trailer (only a few weeks before Julia hit the lottery). “Watch, Jule,” he had said, his hands visibly shaking. “Watch this.” He touched the lamp at its base and Julia heard a sudden humming sound as if a piece of machinery was powering up. A strong, bluish glow emanated from the lamp, lighting up Andre’s grinning, wide-eyed face. “It’s some kind of fuel cell,” he said. “It’s not a lamp at all.”
“How...? she had tried to ask, incredulous.
A shrug. “I just know.”
That night, even though they had no cable or satellite dish, they had picked up HBO and the Food Network on their little TV with its tin-foil antenna. And so it became their purpose in life to find and store these things, these OHIPLS, if such a purpose could be called living.
“If they’re weapons, we have to keep them out of the wrong hands,” he would tell her, using his favorite rationalization. “Terrorists, you know. On the other hand, what if one of them can cure cancer? Or Alzheimer’s? Or AIDS? It’s what the Mystic Search is all about.”
Oh, those were good points, she knew. But Andre was fifty-two and she was forty-eight. If they were lucky (or not), they might both live another thirty years and still not find out the artifacts’ true purposes!
“Shouldn’t we contact the FBI or the NSA or Star Fleet Command or someone?” she would counter.
“And what if they’re the ones that are hiding these in the first place?” was the stock answer. “Then we’re really hosed.”
She would sigh in response. “Can we at least change the acronym from OHIPLS to something a little less goofy sounding?”
Yes, she had thought of leaving Andre more than once after pleading and threatening failed. Despite the money from her winnings, it was not an especially fun life--living a sort of nomadic existence, holing up in motels and campgrounds, giving up their friends and families (ostensibly to escape the constant hounding for money from Julia’s winnings), haunting antique shops and flea markets and cheesy tourist traps in all kinds of weather, researching the Internet, bidding on Ebay for the occasional surprise find. But she never followed through on that intention.
Because--she had to admit even in the worst of times--she did find it a little exciting to see what would turn up next even if she couldn’t see it like Andre could. Both of them had always been loners and a little skewed in their life pursuits (she had once made candles for a living and he had been, among other things, a blacksmith)--those unique and difficult choices they made and lived by were the primary reasons they had hooked up in the first place.
Besides, she loved him. And, despite everything, she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him--they had been together so long and the thought of being alone again at her age wasn’t really pleasant to her. Plus, Andre was too trusting and slightly fried since the lightning strike--he could never make it on his own.
They pulled their pickup truck to the front of the storage compound that Julia had had built just for their use. It was out in the desert, far from prying eyes. An electric fence surrounded its six large storage buildings with security cameras, motion detectors and alarm systems mounted strategically--all powered by the mysterious standing lamp/fuel cell. She got out of the truck and ran her card key through the reader to open the gate and Andre drove on through, the phonograph/reactor tied down in the bed of the truck.
She followed the truck to Building Number Two. Number One was completely full of what looked like a bunch of antiques and junk while Two still had half of its space empty. They had collected a lot in three years and Andre was sure there was much more to be found that could easily fill up the remaining four buildings.
Julia had always wondered if anyone else had bought any OHIPLS--without knowing what they were, of course. How would she and Andre find them? He’d never really had a practical answer for that. “Maybe we can pose as census takers,” he would say. “And check out the inside of their houses.”
Census takers? Did they even do that anymore?
“Where we gonna put this?” she asked as they maneuvered the dolly and its cargo into the building. “Over there by the sideboard and the suit of armor?”
Andre squinted through his glasses. “You mean the time machine and the cross-dimensional environment suit? Yeah, that’s good.”
“Right,” Julia muttered as they pushed the dolly toward a corner of the building. “That’s exactly what I meant.”
Sometimes she thought it might be fun to take a trip in that time machine--maybe back three years ago to prevent Andre from getting hit by lightning.
“All I’m saying is--I wish I could see what you see!” Julia exclaimed around a mouthful of cheese and tomato sandwich. “It’s not like I don’t believe you! Jesus, Dre, you know me better than that.”
Julia washed down her food with a gulp of dark beer and glared at her husband. They had made love a short while ago-- which had surprised the hell out of Julia when Andre initiated it--it had been almost a year since their last romantic encounter. She sat on the floor of their “office” in Building Number Two wearing Andre’s Hawaiian print shirt over her nakedness. He stood tensely across from her in jean cutoffs and nothing else, his long hair unbound and draped across his thin shoulders.
The lovemaking had been good (and very welcome!) and for a while both she and Andre had forgotten about the last three years. It was nice, sort of like before the lightning strike. But then the argument had started--again. “I know, I know,” he replied. “What I mean is it’s a curse, Jule, you know? I wouldn’t wish this ‘gift’ of mine on anyone. Look what’s it done to our lives.”
Julia shook her head. This was an old discussion--she regretted now saying anything to ruin the mood. Their office was a living area set up next to the storage room of Building Number Two complete with a bed, sink, shower, refrigerator, a laptop and a couple of chairs--an efficiency apartment of sorts. It’s where they stayed for a few days each time they brought an OHIPL back, before they resumed the Mystic Search.
“We chose to use your special sight like this,” she replied testily. “You more than me, if you’ll remember. We could’ve sailed to Europe on my winnings or climbed Pike’s Peak or lived in an African village or something. God knows I wanted to!”
“Ah, screw it!” Andre stood up and walked away, throwing his hands up in the air. “It’s always my fault, isn’t it? You think I wanted this?” He turned back around at the doorway to the storage room, his features twisted with anger. “I was given this damned double vision for a reason. I can’t just ignore it! There has to be some good I can do with it!”
She watched him storm away into the storage area, her eyes burning with her own anger and sudden tears. She glanced at the digital clock hanging on the wall--9:56 PM. In a huff, Julia stood up, walked outside to the front of their office and sat down in one of the two lawn chairs that served as their “front porch.” She lit up a cigarette and stared out into the desert night beyond the electric fence.
The evening was cool, calm and dizzyingly clear. Everything--the distant dunes, the sagebrush, the scattered rocks--all stood out in the moonlight in stark shades of gray, outlined in crisp black lines as if inked there by some cosmic graphic artist.
God, he makes me so freaking mad! she thought, blowing out smoke in a quick, angry burst. It’s not like I haven’t stood by him through all of this.
That’s when she saw the headlights coming over the top of one of the dunes.
Oh shit. “Dre!” She ran back inside and closed and locked the door. A ringing sounded as if from far away. “Dre, there’s someone out there.” They’ve finally tracked us down! Damn, damn, damn...
Andre came running out of the storage area, gripping something in his right hand. “The perimeter alarms went off,” he said, accounting for the ringing Julia heard. The alarms had never gone off before, even for the random wild animal. The intruder had to be a certain size--human or larger. “Did you see something?”
“A truck. I don’t know, some kind of vehicle at the far dune. It’s too dark to tell for sure. What’s that?”
Andre held up the object clutched in his right hand--a gold cigarette lighter with something engraved on one side. “A weapon, I think,” he said. “I’ll use it if I have to.”
“Oh, hell, Dre,” Julia snorted. “You don’t know exactly what that thing can do. You’ve said yourself that sometimes your sight knows precisely what it’s looking at and what its function is and other times it doesn’t. You could activate that whatever it is, and blow us all to kingdom come!”
“Oh yeah? Well...” Andre looked around and then reached out to their bedside table. “What about this?” He held out a handgun, a Glock 9mm by the look of it, and pulled the trigger. A tiny jet of flame shot up from the barrel.
Julia sputtered and began to laugh at the irony. The gun really was a cigarette lighter! Andre looked as if he had been slapped. “What?” he said. “Whoever’s out there won’t know it’s a lighter. You know we don’t have any real guns.”
“Well, that’s something else I thought we should consider. But no, not Mister Peacenik...”
At that moment, the lights flickered, accompanied by a short, sharp crackling noise. Andre ran to the door and opened it, peering out into the dark. Only one outside light was operating on emergency power, lending a ghostly luminance to the fenced-in compound. Julia stood behind him, looked out over his shoulder, and gasped.
A man had unlocked the gate and was calmly walking into the storage area. “He’s deactivated the security system,” Andre whispered. “How’d he do that?” He turned to Julia. “Stay here,” he commanded and stepped outside.
“Andre!” Julia hissed. “What are you doing?”
Andre approached the intruder and held out the fake Glock. “Stop right there,” he said loudly. “You’re trespassing.”
The man did stop and, in the muted light, Julia saw him smile. “Thank you,” he said in a calm, low voice. “This saves me the trouble of looking in every one of these buildings.” He began walking toward Andre.
“I mean it,” Andre said, his voice wavering. Julia had never seen him like this--like some reluctant action hero (or idiot, more like it). “I’ll shoot.”
“Go ahead,” the man replied casually. The intruder was wearing all black--T-shirt, jeans, sneakers--only his face, shaved head and forearms were really visible and those were black too--African-American. He seemed like he was floating, like a ghost. “I just trashed your alarms and electronics,” he said. “And I know weapons. I can see that’s just a cigarette lighter.” He grinned. “Nice try though.”
Julia rushed out and grabbed Andre by the arm. “Get back inside!” she cried, pulling him with her. They tried to shut the door but the man was too quick. He shoved the door open again with surprising strength, knocking both Julia and Andre back into the room.
“We’ve called the police!” Julia shouted as she tried to button up her shirt, frighteningly aware and fearful of her semi-nakedness now. “They’ll be here any minute, any second!”
The man closed and locked the door. He looked young, maybe early thirties, with hardened muscles swelling out his T-shirt. He had an angry glint in his dark eyes as a gun was now held in one of his meaty hands. What looked to be a cell phone and some other small credit card-sized device hung from his belt. “Don’t insult me,” he said. “A lot of material has turned up missing from certain designated safe zones the last couple of years. I’m here for a specific piece and I suspect you two may have it. Just give it to me and I’ll be on my way. No one else knows about this and no one has to get hurt.”
“How did you find us?” Andre asked.
“No, no,” Julia said, moving closer to Andre’s side. “What he means is we don’t know what you’re talking about. We just collect antiques, that’s all.”
Andre shook his head. “He knows, Jule,” he said softly. “He knows.”
The man pursed his lips, his eyes studying his two captives. Julia looked away, pulling the shirt collar tightly around her neck. “I bumped into and had a little talk with one of the construction guys who built this,” the man said. “Thought I’d take a look for myself.”
“What are you?” Andre asked. “CIA, some kind of Black Ops?”
“Black Ops? Is that a joke?” The man stepped forward and backhanded Andre with his gun. With a grunt of pain, Andre fell to the floor.
“No! Stop it!” Julia shouted. “We’ll give you what you want!”
The next thing Julia knew, she too was on the floor, her jaw throbbing. Through swimming vision, she saw the man standing over Andre, pointing his gun back at her. “Give me what I came here for or I’ll kill your wife. Understand? I’m on a tight schedule here. I have a couple of potential buyers waiting so I don’t have time to piss around with a couple of old, strung-out ex-hippies.”
I am not old! Julia thought angrily, managing to get to her knees. The top of her shirt had come open; the intruder was suddenly looking at her very intently. That was when she saw Andre, with a rapidly darkening bruise on his face, rise up on one elbow and hold out the gold cigarette lighter. He nodded and silently mouthed something to Julia.
A rush of fear shot through her. “Dre! No!”
As the intruder averted his gaze to look back at her husband, Andre flicked the lighter...
There was a blinding flash of light. A force like a great hand scooped Julia up and bore her through the air as if she were a sack of feathers. She struck the far wall and, with a gasping cry, fell to the floor. Darkness enveloped her as a roaring sounded in her ears.
“Dre!” she croaked hoarsely, struggling to stay conscious. “Dre!” The last things she saw were crackling blue bolts of some kind of energy snaking over her body. “Dreeeeeeeeeeeee..”
She awoke sitting up, screaming and flailing her arms in front of her. “Dre! Dre!” Her chest heaved as her wild-eyed gaze fell upon the wall clock--10:12 PM. It was only a second or two after she had been knocked out, she was certain, only a heartbeat since their... home invasion? Terrorist attack? What the hell had happened?
Struggling to her knees she felt her arms, legs, her aching head. A strange tingling like an electrical charge coursed over her skin. “Dre?” she whispered as she looked straight ahead, her chest heaving. The spot where Andre and the intruder had been, where Andre had mouthed those last, melodramatic words--“Go! Live your life. You deserve more than this.”--was empty. There was nobody there now, no one.
She scrabbled on all fours to where she had last seen her husband. An odd, metallic smell filled her nostrils. The floor felt unnaturally warm. There! Only a feet away lay the cigarette lighter/weapon and the intruder’s gun. But both men were gone.
Rising on trembling legs, Julia searched Building Number Two. She ran outside, calling for Andre and then, in desperation, hiked to where the intruder had left his vehicle. It was still there--a beat-up Jeep Wrangler--not such a sexy vehicle for a supposed black-ops agent--but empty.
Julia turned to look back at the storage compound, her and Andre’s home for the last three years. But it didn’t look like home any longer. It looked like an elaborate tomb. Her fists clenched at her side, she screamed Andre’s name into the moonlit sky.
And then she fell to her knees, sobbing. Damn him and that damned double vision! Andre was gone. She knew it, could feel it. He was gone.
Or was he?
She stopped crying, her mind suddenly reaching for answers, hypotheses, anything to help her make sense out of what had happened. The cigarette lighter--maybe it sent Andre into the past or the future. Hell, she thought, sniffling. Why not? Or... or maybe it opened some doorway into another dimension or just sent the two men to another part of the county even. Or maybe it just vaporized the both of them.
It didn’t matter now. Julia had to find out, she had to do something; she had to see if she could get Andre back! She jumped up and started running back down the dune toward Building Number Two.
It had been her getting hit by the energy blast of the cigarette lighter/weapon. Julia was sure of it. How else to explain what she was seeing now?
She leaned back against the park bench where she was sitting and rubbed her eyes--and looked again. Yep. Big as life, the damn thing was still there.
She thought back to that night when Andre had vanished--she remembered her lungs bursting as she barged into Building Number Two like a crazy woman. She remembered picking up the lighter, her hands shaking violently, and flicking the damn thing. Nothing happened. Nothing at all.
A one-shot weapon? Was there something else that needed to be done that Andre knew about and she didn’t? The tears and the anger started again and didn’t let up...
Three days later, after she had finished drinking herself into a grief-stricken stupor, she had sobered up and had been trying to figure out what to do (Report Andre missing? Pack up and go live on some island? Get someone to run the plates on the Jeep? Kill herself?), she looked at the lighter again and saw what it really was...
He passed it on to me, she thought, still not believing it. Through his kiss, sex, some kind of contact. And the explosion or whatever it was activated it just like the lightning strike did for him. Now I’ve got it too--this freaking double vision!
The intruder’s keys had still been in the Jeep--he must have thought that “a couple of old, strung-out ex-hippies” wouldn’t be much of a problem. Julia drove the vehicle into Building Number Four and decided to get away for a few days to think. It wasn’t like she couldn’t afford to.
But, ironically, she ended up here at Dinosaur Park--not that far from the storage compound but only just recently opened. The thirty-foot-tall plastic replica of T-Rex looked good from the parking lot but now Julia saw it in an entirely different way.
People and their young kids walked past, oohing and ahhing at the realistic displays. Julia crossed her arms and looked again--it was a missile of some kind, standing upright with three fins supporting it, right there, encased in the ghostly outline of the fake T-Rex.
This was Dre’s life at the end, she thought sadly. This... hidden crap! Those stupid OHIPLS!
Julia got up from the bench, anger burning in her veins. It wasn’t fair, she wanted to shout. It wasn’t...
And then she stopped. She had called him a “peacenik.” Well, what was wrong with wanting peace? She and Andre had never had kids but, here she was, surrounded by toddlers and adolescents. There were all kinds of hideous things they needed to be protected from, God knew.
Especially those that were hiding right in front of them, pretending to be something else. Who would protect them from that?
Julia looked away, chewing her lip. At the very least, it would be a shame if that crazy life of her husband’s had been lived in vain. There must be something back at the storage compound that could locate him, get him back. She could see all the OHIPLS now like Andre had, see them as they really were and, at least for some of them, understand what they were supposed to do.
Couldn’t she? Yes, she could! At least she had to try!
Of course there was the “black-ops” guy to consider now. If there was one, there may be others. And what about those “potential buyers” he mentioned?
Maybe there was a force field generator or an invisibility device in all that junk they had collected, something to protect and/or hide her. Ah, screw it! She knew what Andre would do--no matter what, the Mystic Search must go on!
Shaking her head in resignation, Julia smiled despite her aching heart. Well, hell, she thought, a sigh easing out of her throat as she once again gave the missile the once-over and wondered what fake dinosaurs went for these days, I guess I’m going to have to get a bigger truck.