Charity’s Gift

“Charity’s Gift”

by John M. Olsen

 

Devin Christiansen approached his twin sister Charity’s house. As empaths, they could read the push and pull of emotions in others, although his gift was stronger. They trusted each other completely. He grinned as he strolled up to the doorstep and pushed the doorbell. He held it down, knowing it annoyed her.

When she didn’t answer immediately, he eased his normal mental walls down a touch to feel for her within the old yellow and blue Creole townhouse. She had moved to the French Quarter to be near her paralegal job.

His concern grew as he stood in front of the door flanked by vibrant potted plants. Charity had asked to see him after she got off work, and said it was important. She hadn’t given him any details.

He got an unfocussed and confused impression from her instead of the annoyance he’d expected. Something was wrong. He used his key to let himself in and called out into the foyer, “Hey, sis! Are you okay?”

Devin found her sitting on the carpeted floor of the tidy living room, slumped against her old couch. He’d laughed at her for being so attached to their parent’s old couch. He fell to his knees beside her and patted her cheek. “Wake up, sis! What’s wrong? Hey, talk to me.”

She managed a faint mumble, but didn’t lift her head.

He dropped his walls to nothing and was engulfed in her mental wreckage. Her mind reeled and wandered at random, with her desires and drives ripped out by the roots and ruthlessly rearranged by some outside force. Beneath the surface of her wandering thoughts was a burning desire for drugs, something completely alien to her.

“No, no, no! Stay with me, Charity!” He got out his cell phone and dialed 911. As the call went through, an empty prescription bottle fell from her hand. Tears welled in his eyes as he described the scene to the dispatch officer. “What can I do?”

The woman said, “Keep her awake. I have people on the way now. I’ll stay on the line with you until they arrive.”

Devin knelt beside her and encouraged her to hold on, but he sensed Charity losing ground as he prodded her with shaky hands. As the EMTs arrived, she faded away. They worked to restart her heart and breathing, but Devin could tell it wasn’t working.

He sensed the EMTs had little hope. They tried their best anyway, managing to coax a few more heartbeats out of her though Devin knew she was gone. He rode along in the ambulance as they transported her to Tulane Medical Center a few short blocks away. He knew it was a formality. The sterile smell of the hospital matched his numb mood. His walls went back up to defend himself against the barrage of others’ feelings as he sat on a colorful padded bench in the emergency room waiting area, head in hands.

She was gone. Taken away from him. She had been the only family he had left. He wondered what could have caused the dissonance and damage he had seen when he had seen her emotional state. True empaths were a rare and precious thing, although the people of New Orleans seemed to have more than their share of odd mental talents, and you never knew what weird thing might pop up next.

But who would twist others’ emotions with such callous disregard? Wouldn’t they feel the harm they did? He clenched his jaw at the depravity of the act.

His anger made it hard to think, but he forced himself to concentrate on the situation. He’d already slammed his empathic senses shut and rebuilt his walls to block out the clamor around him. He knew what had happened, but not why. Someone had murdered his sister by her own hand, leaving no evidence behind. He had nothing concrete to report, and no authority would believe him and help track down … who? Someone who could project and force emotions upon others? People with special abilities avoided the authorities for good reason. You could get locked up for being crazy if they didn’t believe you, or get locked up or disappear for the safety of others if they did believe you. His fear of discovery kept him from pushing out and testing his own ability.

Why had his sister been killed? Had she learned something dangerous? Had she made someone angry? He didn’t know.

Devin and Charity had friends who would believe him and who would want to know the truth. Even the local parish priest understood and accepted their special nature. He’d told them how spiritual gifts can come from God in a single direct step or through His other creations in unexplainable ways. What mattered was how one used those gifts. Charity had taken his message to heart and reached out to everyone she met, while Devin had often hidden behind his walls because he felt too weak to deal with everyone’s stresses and fears in addition to his own.

He knew he should get in touch with Charity’s best friend Latisha and the others soon, but what good would it do? He didn’t want to drag any friends into this mess by explaining the real cause of her death. He would have to step up on his own. He had to find who killed Charity, and stop the monster before he killed again. Devin had to find out who Charity had been with recently.

The sort of damage she suffered would have required physical contact to strengthen the connection if the killer’s ability worked anything like his. A quick check of her apartment and cell phone turned up nothing. He would go to her office first thing tomorrow to inform them of her passing. Maybe he could find something to tell him who she had seen in the last couple of weeks. There might be important clues in her desk, or even in the logs of her recent phone calls from work.

The next morning, Devin trudged into a tall granite-faced office building in the business district near the hospital. He’d managed to convince his boss at the call center to give him the day off, but it was without pay. It beat being fired. The cheerful background music in the lobby annoyed him, deepening his dark mood. He held the barest sliver of his senses open to the feelings of those around him.

The faint smell of fruity perfume reached him as he stopped at the reception desk to get a visitor badge. The receptionist, Gladys, sat behind the polished walnut desk as always, and made the blocky, formal lobby more inviting and friendly. She fit the image of the company mom perfectly, a large woman with a gray beehive hairdo and candy dish at the ready for visitors. She glanced up from a stack of paperwork and smiled as he approached.

“Hey, Devin. Charity’s not here yet. Y’all want to wait out here in the lobby?” He had liked her since the first time he had visited the office.

Devin steeled himself to go through the message he had rehearsed, but the words fled. He gave a weak wave of the hand as if to clear away the pain, and a single tear made its way down his cheek.

“Oh, honey. What’s happened? Is she all right?”

He shook his head, and then managed to speak a few choppy words. “No. She’s gone. Died. Last night. I was with her when she …” He couldn’t put the rest of the words together so he stood there lost in his grief.

Gladys dropped her headset into her chair and rumbled her way around the desk to wrap her arms around him. “I’m so sorry. She was one of the sweetest girls in the building.” After a moment she sniffed and held him at arm’s length so she could look him in the eye. “I’ll let folks here know about it and get all the formal paperwork out of the way here, so don’t you worry your head over that.”

He appreciated how much she cared, and hearing her voice had calmed him down. It was time, however, to get on with his self-assigned task. “Thank you. Charity always liked you. Could you get me a pass to go up to her office so I can collect her things?”

“Of course, Devin. I’ll call her boss to go with you.” Even feelings of support from Gladys threatened to overwhelm him now. Devin pulled into his shell like a turtle. He had hoped earlier he would learn something about the killer from the swirl of emotions running through the building, but he couldn’t do it. He wasn’t ready to deal with both collecting his sister’s things and sorting through the mental turbulence for clues. He made his way to a chair in the lobby, disappointed at his own weakness.

A short while after Devin sat down to wait, the elevator dinged and a well-dressed man entered the lobby. The click of his shoes made a regular rhythm on the polished floor as he approached, dressed in a tailored charcoal suit and a red tie.

“Devin, I’m Vincent Torini, your sister’s new manager.” He held out a hand. “I’m sorry for your loss. I didn’t have time to get to know her much in only two weeks. I’ll go up with you to her office. Company policy requires me to escort you, although I don’t see the need.”

Devin shook Vincent’s hand, and then they rode the elevator up to the fourth floor and walked down the hall together. Devin could tell from the whispers and pained expressions of the faces peeking over the cubicle walls that the news had spread quickly. Gladys must have asked people to give him some space, but it didn’t stop the glances filled with pity. He cinched his walls into place even tighter. Without the walls, this place would overwhelm him as the word of his sister’s death spread through the building. He realized any one of those cubicle prairie dogs could be the killer, and he would never know in his current state. He could do nothing about it.

Vincent spoke again as they entered Charity’s office. “They don’t want any official files to leave along with her personal effects. She worked on some important cases.” He reached for the main desk drawer and rattled the handle. It was locked. “Did you bring her keys with you?”

Devin stared at the desk dumbfounded, and thought himself a complete fool for leaving the keys at her place last night. “No, I didn’t think to bring them.” How could he gather her things if he didn’t have her keys? The stress was causing him to forget things. “I’ll bring them later. Maybe tomorrow.”

“Maybe I can help with the lock.” Vincent walked to the phone and punched some numbers and waited.

Devin wanted to check the phone call logs to see who she had talked to, but had to wait for Vincent to leave. Checking the phone might be hard to explain to Vincent, since it wasn’t part of Charity’s personal effects.

Vincent punched several more buttons as he listened to the headset, then hung up.

“I’m sorry. The maintenance man is away from his desk right now.” He then moved to a side table and organized a stack of several folders, dropping each into a pile with a thump. “I’ll get these out of your way and bring a box for you.”

Vincent left with an armload of papers. So much for seeing what coworkers she had been spending time with by examining her paperwork. This wasn’t working out anything like he had planned.

At least he could check out the phone now with Vincent gone. He recognized the logo on it as a VOIP phone brand he’d used before at the call center, so he navigated the menu screen with a couple of button presses to reach the call log.

Nothing. The call log had no entries at all. It looked like Vincent had reset the phone. He sent the phone back to its main menu with a dejected harrumph and went back to gathering Charity’s knickknacks.

He gathered up a New Orleans Saints bobble head, a mug with her name on it, and assorted other decorations. They scraped and clinked as he pushed them together on the desktop. He leaned back in Charity’s chair and noticed a calendar with pictures of kittens on the wall. Even though it was only the third of June, she’d already flipped the calendar forward. She was always so organized. He pulled the calendar down and set it with her other things. On a whim, he flipped it back to May and saw three entries on the previous week. They all read, “Visit Trent”. He folded it closed and placed it with her other things as Vincent returned and dropped an empty cardboard box on top of a short filing cabinet.

It didn’t take long to pack her things. A whole career came down to one box of trinkets rattling against each other as he picked them up. It wasn’t fair.

Devin hadn’t felt so frustrated in all his life. He had forgotten the desk keys, and something about the phone’s empty call log bothered him. He’d even forgotten to charge his cell phone amid all the chaos of last night and it sat dead in his pocket. At least he had most of her things, and could come back for anything inside the desk later. As he walked out the office door, he remembered her old boss was named Trent. Charity had talked about her work, and how she had liked everyone here.

Why would Charity spend so much time with Trent in the past week? Three face-to-face visits seemed like a lot. Gladys would know where to find Trent, since he was no longer Charity’s boss. He would have to go visit Trent this afternoon.

Happy Acres Care Center sat nestled in among the bedroom communities across the Mississippi on the West Bank. Gladys had been able to tell him all about Trent, how he’d had a major nervous breakdown and required constant supervision in a psych ward.

Devin followed a nurse to Trent’s room. Trent sat in a soft chair where he stared across the room at the swirls in the wallpaper. The large windows let in sunshine which had no effect on Devin’s somber mood. A vase of fake flowers sat on the counter across from the hospital-style bed which sat against the wall.

“Does he talk?”

The nurse shook her head. “He doesn’t talk, doesn’t feed himself, and only moves when we guide and help him.”

Devin scooted a chair over and sat beside Trent. “Trent. I’m here to ask you about my sister Charity. Can you help me?”

Trent blinked, then returned to staring, seemingly unaware of Devin.

Devin steeled his emotions and proceeded. “She died last night, Trent. I need to find out why.”

Trent turned to look at him, wrinkled his brow for a moment, then turned back to stare at nothing.

The nurse’s eyes widened. “She’s dead? She was such a sweet thing. She was always so full of concern, talking to him like it was a normal conversation. She would sit and listen and smile sometimes like she heard things nobody else could hear. I’m so sorry she’s gone.” That was like Charity. She wouldn’t flinch to open herself up to others, even here.

After a short time the nurse rubbed her chin, then continued, “You know, that’s the biggest response I’ve seen from Trent. Maybe we can work with him better if he responds to your sister’s name.” She made a note on his chart.

Devin said, “Yeah, if he responds, do what you can. What medications is he on? Is he sedated?”

“No, he’s not on any meds at all right now. He’s been this way since he arrived. The hospital ran an MRI and a CT scan, so we know it wasn’t a stroke or any other detectable physical change. We’re giving him a few more days of light therapy and simple interactions to see if he becomes more aware and responsive over time.”

Unlike Charity, Devin dreaded the thought of lowering his walls in such a place. A concentration of those with difficult mental challenges would strain him terribly. At least it was better than the office, where everyone had been filled with emotions from his sister’s death.

Devin reached out and placed a hand on Trent’s arm for a better mental connection. He lowered his defenses a little bit at a time and concentrated on Trent as he worked to ignore the jackhammer of outbursts and paranoia that pounded in on him from nearby patients.

With his thoughts focused in on Trent, Devin saw the details of the trauma he had suspected. The damage exceeded what he’d seen with Charity; it was more of a blunt, vicious tearing with no attempt to direct or control his desires. Even so, Devin also saw some signs of regrowth. The fragile new structures within Trent’s mind bore the feel of Charity. She had been working with him to rebuild what had been destroyed.

Since Devin and Charity had no ability to manipulate or force the normal emotions of others like the attacker did, she must have gone by feel, talking to Trent and watching for emotional responses. The patience of his sister amazed him because it was like building a sand castle by blowing on the beach through a straw. Such complicated, indirect work must have drained her. He treasured the thought of Charity caring so much for others.

The attacks on Trent and Charity bore striking similarities in how the emotional centers had been damaged. Now he knew the pattern to watch for in others. Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to wander the entire city with his walls down barely enough to feel those nearby. It would take far too long.

He would need to open up like he had never dared to before in a city full of everything from the most pure to the basest emotions threatening to overwhelm him. It would be his greatest challenge ever to open up and embrace the chaos and let it flow through and past him as Charity had, rather than hide from it like he had for so long. He knew he must do whatever it took to search for others who had been attacked now he knew for certain what to watch for. Perhaps he could even find some direct sign of the attacker, but it would be draining and dangerous. If he could see the killer, then the killer might see him as well. He had no choice. He had to search for the damage that would lead him to the attacker.

He headed to his place in Bywater, a couple of miles East of Charity’s place, where he would have the best chance to avoid distractions and clear his mind.

After a quick dinner of canned ravioli, he sat cross legged on a yoga mat with the lights turned off. The sun had set, so he had lit several scented candles around the mat. Some New Age music from Windham Hill played in the background. None of it was necessary in the strict sense, but a cup of herbal mint tea had done a great deal to calm him down for the attempt.

Devin closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He pushed his awareness out, taking down his defensive walls step by step. He felt the emotions of the people of the city around him. He sensed a jazz-like jumble of harsh and smooth, a mixture of fighting, laughing, grief and joy all swirled into a cacophony of desires and fears. He didn’t know how his sister had opened up to everyone, or the way she had reveled in the ebb and flow that always threatened him. Maybe his stronger ability had led to his feeling of suffocation through the sheer volume of what he could sense. Or maybe she had better focus.

He sensed an angry but familiar presence nearby as he adjusted to the barrage. In fact, it moved closer and threatened to overwhelm his search before he’d even begun. A loud pounding at his door made him jump. The locked doorknob rattled as he heard his friend Latisha’s piercing yell, “You open up this door, Devin! You think you can hide from me? I said, open up this door! I know you’re in there.”

His meditation ruined, he got up and unlocked the door. She opened it as soon as he had flipped the lock and barged through. She wore a bold red knee-length dress, and carried her black purse like a weapon. Her imposing, yet graceful, form demanded space and respect despite her petite size. She acted and danced in local theater productions. Her dark brown eyes flared with intensity well beyond normal, and she wasn’t acting now. “What were you thinking, not calling me? I’ve been trying to find you since I heard the news this morning! I heard it from Charity’s office! They answered my phone call. But you? You’ve been gone all day not answering your phone. I know you have my number. It’s next to my name in your contact list. You remember, Latisha Green?” She gesticulated above her cornrows with her hands as she scowled at him. “About this tall, and this angry with you? And now you’re here hiding with …”

She took in the scene and her tone changed from angry to sarcastic. “Candles? Dim lights? Tea and soft music? Huh. You and the candles got somethin’ special goin’?”

“Stop. I’m not in the mood for joking around.” He regretted it as soon as he spoke because she was a good friend and had been trying to lighten his glum mood.

“You’ve been doing this alone, haven’t you?” Latisha gave him a sad smile and rested a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry. The news hit me hard, and they don’t know nothin’ at her office. Nobody would tell me more no matter who I called.”

Devin cleared his throat. He couldn’t control his pain even with all of the outside influences blocked off. “I think the police are going to rule it a suicide, but it wasn’t. Please don’t think she could ever do that.”

Latisha steered him around the candles and toward the couch so they could sit down. She said, “Look at me, Devin. No, I mean look at me with all you got. Do I trust you?”

The question sounded odd, backwards from what he had expected. Of course he knew she trusted him. It had always been as clear as a bell to him, in ways nobody else could see. He gave her a nod.

She nodded back and continued, “Now, can you trust me? Level with me. I know you can tell what people feel. I’ve seen you and your sister do it for years, the way you glanced at each other and knew things. What do I feel now?”

She had always been there for both him and Charity through thick and thin. He trusted her, sometimes more than he trusted himself. He lowered his walls at her prompting. He saw her foundation of concern and support, and saw her trust, and he also saw a background of anger, and bitter sadness at the loss of her dear friend. Beneath it all, he saw how Charity’s death had changed her and somehow made her stronger. He smiled and said, “Thank you.”

She put her tough face back on and said, “You’re not alone here, cupcake. So now what are we gonna do?”

“I need to search for something. This will sound weird, but Charity and her old boss were attacked the same way, and I need to find some other victims. If I can find the pattern I’ve put together and filter out the chaos, I can find out who did it. Please stay here, and wait for a while. And for heaven’s sake, don’t yell at me unless it’s important.”

Latisha folded her arms and gave him a scowl. “It’s always important when I yell at you. Now you sit yourself down with your candles and music, and pay no mind to me.” She picked up his almost empty mug and made her way around the still burning candles to the kitchen.

Devin was amazed at the difference it made having her nearby as he returned to his meditation. Latisha was a haven of calm assurance and confidence which chased away his own self-doubt. His confidence grew not because he had a safe retreat, but because he knew Latisha had his back no matter what. He worked from a base of confidence rather than of fear. He opened up his senses and reached out farther than before to seek out the signature of the damage he had seen in Trent and Charity.

The baser emotions didn’t drag on him as much as they had before as he pushed farther out. He had a rough sense of direction as he reached out to encompass the restaurants, bars and casinos in the French Quarter and farther south as his meditation deepened.

Devin had never seen the city like this, and wondered what was different this time since he’d never succeeded at such a broad view before. He peered closer with his mental eye, and saw a difference in his connection with Latisha. They didn’t feel the same emotions, but a building synergy gave him a stronger emotional foundation and positive reinforcement.

After an exhausting hour, he saw signs of damage matching what he looked for. He saw angry red wounds among a twinkling sea of pastels. The manipulation he saw now was more subtle than the trauma he’d seen in Charity and Trent, but it followed the same pattern. He found he could focus in on one person with great effort. Force had been applied to weaken distrust or to encourage excitement and adventure. Based on their emotions, he got an impression of young women out bar hopping.

Then there were the others. Among them, Devin felt an overwhelming case of agoraphobia and an extreme dislike of warm weather, both forced upon their victims. He realized the killer twisted people around to get what he wanted, both professionally and personally. The level of damage ranged from slight touches to the all-out devastation he’d seen in Trent and the extreme changes forced upon Charity.

As he strained to filter through the empathic landscape to see only those who had been manipulated, he felt a new wound pop up in his view of the city. He watched in dismay as a young woman’s suspicion was cut out. The attack meant the killer was out there right now.

How dare he do such a thing? Devin sensed the damage as it took hold and altered the girl’s emotions. The audacity of the man astounded him. The only good thing about the situation was that Devin thought the killer was too busy to sense Devin’s wandering perceptions. The killer must believe nobody could catch him, acting as an invisible threat and able to do as he pleased to anyone at all. This had to end.

Devin needed to find him, so he needed to move to do a crude triangulation while he watched this new victim. Her location would give him the location of the murderer, but he would need help. He pulled his extended view back in close so he could concentrate on his surroundings.

“Latisha, grab your keys.”

A minute later they settled into her car. Latisha cranked the engine to life and asked, “Where to?”

He thought for a moment then replied, “I can get a general direction, so if we go perpendicular for a while, I can get two lines to intersect and give us a spot to search. Do you have a map?”

She scowled at him. “You don’t look stupid, but you’re sure acting like it. What’s wrong with driving right at him? You point, I’ll drive. I been driving these streets my whole life.”

He looked at her sheepishly. “Oh, right. I’m trying to watch for one person among tens of thousands, so I’m a little distracted, you know? But don’t be afraid to set me straight.”

Latisha let out a bark of a laugh. “I ain’t never been afraid to set you straight. Buckle up and hold on!”

He sat with his eyes closed as she drove, hoping to block out distractions. Her calm but determined presence assured him as he reached out to track the young woman who might lead him to the killer.

He called out occasional directions as he once again located and followed the young woman’s emotional state. They drove south through the French Quarter on Royal Street as they headed toward the central business district. The difficulty increased as they moved, and he had to refocus several times to find her in the mental crowd. As he tried to track her, he realized the young woman moved along the roads as well, which made it doubly difficult to concentrate.

“Hold up a minute. They’re headed somewhere.” He tried to ignore his own feelings so he could focus. Later, he would have time for his own lurking anger, sadness and frustration. Now he had to concentrate on an endangered young woman who didn’t know what she was up against.

Latisha pulled over and waited, quiet for a change as she watched him turn his head back and forth as if the direction he faced might change his view of the panorama of desires unfolding around him. The jumbled mass of others’ feelings weighed him down, but he focused enough to see what he needed.

“I think they’re coming toward us.” He turned to the side a little bit. “No, they passed behind us headed away from the river. Turn around!”

Latisha let out an annoyed snort. “I can’t turn around yet. It’s a one-way street. Give me a minute to find a cross street going the way we want.”

She got them heading in the right direction, but it required a much larger detour than he’d hoped since the first cross street had been one-way going the wrong direction as well.

Latisha grumbled, “Gimme a shot at the designer of this road system. I’d smack him into next week, then wait a week to smack him again.” She continued to mutter and curse under her breath about construction and closed roads as she followed his occasional directions.

“I thought you said you’ve driven these roads for years. Why all the venom now?”

Latisha paused to say, “Knowing how don’t mean I gotta like it.”

They ended up parked in front of a skinny ten-story apartment building halfway between the river and the Superdome, nestled between the much taller business buildings. Devin’s confidence had increased as they had come closer, allowing him to both filter out the environment, and to better see the state of the victim. He stepped out onto the herringbone brick sidewalk and pointed up. “She’s somewhere in this building, up near the top.”

Latisha asked the question he’d been avoiding. “Now what?”

It was a great question. How could he stop this attack, or better yet, all the attacks? What accusation could he make? Devin couldn’t turn the man in to the police without a lot of dangerous questions. There was no evidence of any broken laws. Not only that, but the girl the killer had attacked would likely defend him rather than to help confront him.

Devin had to do something, but wasn’t sure what. He’d never been much of a fighter; a physical confrontation would probably end in disaster. An emotional appeal to a suspected sociopath would be even worse. Despite his lack of a plan, he worried that if he did nothing, it would mean the killer would get away with it as he worked toward his twisted goals. Other people would die if he backed away.

Latisha asked again, “So, are we gonna do something here, or did I take you on a drive for the fresh air? Step it up, Devin.”

She was right. He had to do something. He knew something about how the attacks worked. It might be enough to notice a weakness or opportunity, to have a chance to avoid disaster. Either way, it had to happen now, or the victims would continue to pile up.

The building’s lobby was locked. Devin saw a list of resident names beside the door, each with a small white button next to it.

Latisha said, “Can we buzz someone at random and see if they’ll open up the door without checking who it is? Lemme see. We got Branson, Jones, Torini, Calvin …”

“Did you say Torini?”

“Yeah. Want me to punch the button?”

“No!” Devin held up a hand. “It’s not Vincent Torini, is it?” He checked the name to confirm the match. It must be his sister’s new boss since the name couldn’t be very common. It also made sense how Torini knew two victims, both Trent and Charity, through work. “It’s him.”

Latisha said, “Knowing it’s him won’t do us any good if we’re stuck out here.”

She was right. They still needed to get past the locked door in order to do anything. Without any warning, Latisha leaned into him, put her arms around his waist and brushed her lips against his as she pushed him against the wall next to the door. She whispered, “Play along. I’m getting us in.”

Devin couldn’t see how this would get them in, and his train of thought derailed as she kissed his neck. He put his right hand on her back as he breathed in the scent of her hair and tried to figure out what she was up to, since the obvious answer didn’t fit. His senses were still part way open, and he felt Latisha’s mix of confidence, concern, and fear, all behind a good dose of amusement, probably at having surprised him so completely.

They stood against the wall like a couple engaged in a long, intimate goodbye until a teenaged boy exited the lobby through the door next to them. Latisha stuck her heel out to catch the door before it closed. Once the teenager turned a corner, they entered the lobby. She pulled a tissue from her purse and wiped dark red lipstick off his neck. She whispered, “If I had time for my camera, I’d have the best blackmail picture ever. The expression on your face is priceless.”

Devin blushed. “I, um, how, I mean, what made you think to, uh … I’m making this worse, aren’t I?”

Latisha nearly laughed as she said, “You think?”

Her ploy had not been an act. As they had leaned against the wall with their arms around each other, Devin had seen how she headed into danger with him because she cared about him in a way he hadn’t considered before. He didn’t mind at all. Maybe their deepening relationship gave him the extra stability he felt while he was with her.

Devin pushed the elevator button with a nervous jab and waited for the doors to open with a ding.

He somehow returned his thoughts to the problem they faced as they rode up. If only he hadn’t had his defensive walls up when he’d been at the office, he might have noticed something off about Torini.

A chill gripped his heart as he remembered the danger of the situation. Sneaking up on the man who had killed his sister and had hurt and maimed others seemed a fool’s errand. Who knew how strong Vincent was, or if Devin could do anything about it? Even getting into the building qualified as trespassing. They had sneaked in, but could they get back out without a problem? He had no idea if they could make things work out, but this was their best shot to do something, to do anything.

The elevator stopped at the top floor with its annoying cheerful ding. The doors opened with a shushing sound to expose a short hallway leading to two doors on either side of the elevator. Maroon carpet with a black fleur-de-lis pattern muffled his steps as he eased down the left hallway.

“Stay back here by the elevator door, Latisha. We already know he’s willing to kill people, and I don’t want you to get hurt. You’ve got no way to protect yourself from what he can do.”

She gave him a scornful look. “Right. And you’ve got some sort of protection all worked up? Didn’t think so.”

He took her hand in his and said, “Please. Humor me. I know it’s only a few feet, but if he can’t see you right off, we have an advantage we can use. I’ll keep his attention on me.”

Devin crept to the door and let out a few relaxing breaths to calm himself as he concentrated on the other side of the door. It didn’t take much to recognize Vincent and the girl Vincent had manipulated. Devin could sense the dissonance of the irrational feeling of security which she suffered at Vincent’s hands.

Not knowing exactly what he’d do next, Devin reached out and pushed the doorbell with his thumb and held it in like at his sister’s place, leaving it to buzz endlessly. He hoped it annoyed Vincent as much as it had Charity.

Vincent yanked the door open with one hand, a drink in the other. He snapped, “What’s the big idea?” Then recognition dawned on him and he continued in an innocent tone, “Devin. This is a surprise. What brings you here?”

Devin stepped up to get in his face, hoping to unnerve him. “We’re going to end this right here. I know what you did to my sister, to Trent, and all the others.”

Vincent’s eyebrows went up. “How could I possibly have something to do with your sister’s death? Her overdose was her own tragic mistake. I can see you’re upset, but we can find a good counselor to help you work through all this.”

A piece of information clicked into place in Devin’s head. “I never told you how she died, and the police reports haven’t been released. You’re a butcher, and you disgust me.”

Vincent grabbed Devin’s forearm with his empty hand and lashed out with a mental attack that drove Devin gasping to his knees. Devin’s only defense was his knowledge of how the attacks had been done before, so he slammed his walls into place. He was great at walls. The pressure mounted as wave after wave of sharp mental stabs crashed against him with growing frequency and power, slowly eroding his defenses.

Devin gasped at the pain as he maintained his crumbling defensive wall. He had no time to brace himself better, and felt his walls thin out as his fear increased. He searched for whatever reserves he could find, and realized he was close to maxing out. Then he sensed Latisha, still waiting, still supporting him. He used the strength of their growing bond to regain a little ground as he squeezed his eyes shut and shook under the continued attack, beads of sweat forming on his brow.

Devin feared for the survival of those he cared about; for Latisha, for the mystery girl in the apartment, for Trent, and all the other victims. He also feared for himself, but his sense of self-preservation was a small thing compared to his concern for everyone else. Then it dawned on him Vincent had pushed fear up against his walls from the outside to influence him. Knowing what he faced didn’t help much because he still spent all his time on defense and lost ground moment by moment against the unrelenting push.

In the midst of the fight to hold his walls up a thought came to him. If Vincent could touch and manipulate emotions, maybe Devin could pull on his opponent’s mental projection as well. Vincent’s ability felt fundamentally different from what he normally sensed in others. If Vincent could stab at him, then the interaction should work both ways. He only needed a couple of seconds to switch from defense to offense without worrying about his mind being torn to shreds. He needed a distraction.

With some effort, Devin opened his eyes and turned his head to look at Latisha. He meant to yell, but only squeaked out “Get him!” in a weak voice.

In the back of his mind he knew it sounded pathetic, but he didn’t have the strength for anything better.

Spots grew in his vision and his ears rang from the stress on his mind, but he heard Latisha say something, and saw a black purse fly through the air and hit Vincent in the side of the head. It broke Vincent’s concentration. Devin changed directions, dropping his walls down to nothing as he prepared to accept and pull on the renewed incoming attack. He waved Latisha off, letting her know she’d done what he needed.

The attack came as he had suspected, and he pulled on it rather than block it. He gathered  the thrust of the attack as if winding it onto a giant spool.

He could sense Vincent’s confidence at Devin’s lack of defenses.  As Devin continued to pull, Vincent’s confidence turned to confusion, then to fear as he stumbled against the door frame and dropped his drink. Devin could tell Vincent had never considered the need for defenses.

Devin settled into the new tactic, leaning toward Vincent and grabbing hold of his extended arm. Devin’s power ramped up now because he wasn’t spending everything on defense, and in his head he heard a buzz rising through octaves as he pulled in more and more of the attack.

Devin put his entire will into one great pull. He felt a mental screech and a snap, and the attack ceased. He couldn’t feel any more push from Vincent at all. What was more, he couldn’t detect any emotions at all from him.

The spool of psychic energy Devin had pulled from Vincent unwound and dissipated like a wisp of smoke.

Devin got to his feet and leaned against the wall beside the door to catch his breath, then turned to Vincent who had barely moved since the start of the attack. Rather than the damage Devin had seen in the minds of others, he saw a crystal clear empty expanse. The rest of Vincent’s mind with all his knowledge and experience remained as it had been before, but he now had no capacity for emotion whatsoever.

Vincent stood at the door looking at Devin and Latisha.

He had no curiosity. No anger. Nothing.

Devin choked down the bile which threatened to empty his stomach. He’d done to Vincent almost the same thing Vincent had done to his victims. The only difference was Devin had been defending himself and protecting others, but justification made the act no less horrible.

Latisha approached and picked up her purse with a wary glance. She backed away as Devin stood and gave Vincent a gentle nudge so he would take a couple of steps back into the tiled entry to the apartment.

From somewhere inside the apartment came a voice. “Vinnie? What is it? Are you coming back in here, or what?”

Vincent turned toward the sound and said in a quiet voice, “I think so.”

Devin knew an emotional appeal wouldn’t do any good, so he came up with something without emotional ties for a quick answer. He whispered, “It’s time to call her a cab and send her home. You can’t let her stay.”

Vincent said, “Okay,” then got out his phone and dialed a number and talked to the cab company as Devin eased the apartment door closed. Latisha took his arm and supported him as he stumbled back toward the elevator.

Devin sighed with relief at having survived the attack. He had also prevented future attacks on innocent victims, yet it was a bittersweet victory. Devin watched with Latisha until they saw the girl storm out of the building, get into a waiting cab and snap directions at the driver. She might be furious, but at least she was safe. He couldn’t help the girl any more right now.

Devin thought about the other victims he had detected scattered around the city, unaware of the attacks and damage they had survived. Devin was even sad for Vincent. What a waste of talent to make such selfish use of what Vincent had been able to do.

Devin shuddered to think of what he had done to Vincent, but he saw no alternative. He had set out to stop a monster, and had succeeded, but at what cost? He thought about how you could never un-see things once seen, and realized you couldn’t un-feel things either. The best you could do is to take your past, whatever it might be, and use it to create a better future.

Charity was gone, and he could not change or undo the loss. Yet he would make her proud as she looked down on him from celestial realms. He owed it to her because now he knew he could help others like she had. He could help both the attack victims and others who faced emotional and mental challenges. He might even find a way to teach Vincent how to become a decent human being by encouraging the right emotional growth in him, but the victims came first. Devin realized he’d been selfish. He had locked himself away within his walls, which had blocked him off from those he could have helped.

Devin glanced at Latisha as they walked along the sidewalk. He worked out how he might introduce the idea forming in his head. “I can help his victims, and lots of other people, but I don’t think I can do it on my own.” The careful balance between overload and isolation was too much for him alone, but he had a plan as he glanced at Latisha again as they approached her car.

Devin stopped and gave Latisha a hug, then whispered into her ear, “Thank you for everything. You saved my life. Probably your own life, too. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” He smiled his first genuine smile since Charity’s death. He would always carry heartache, and still had details to attend to for her funeral, but tonight he had a newfound purpose.

He stepped back and took hold of her hand. With a peek at Latisha’s powerful store of strength he knew exactly what to say. “I know it can’t fix much, but how do beignets at the Café Du Monde sound to you?”

Latisha bumped his shoulder with hers and squeezed his hand. “Oh, you know the way to a girl’s heart. But I’m driving.”

_______________

Motivated by his lifelong love of reading, John M. Olsen writes about ordinary people doing extraordinary things and hopes to entertain and inspire others. His father’s library started him on this journey as a teenager, and he now owns and expands that library to pass his passion on to the next generation of avid readers.
He loves to create things, whether writing novels or short stories or working in his secret lair equipped with dangerous power tools. In all cases, he applies engineering principles and processes to the task at hand, often in unpredictable ways. He usually prefers “Renaissance Man” to “Mad Scientist” as a goal and aesthetic.
He lives in Utah with his lovely wife and a variable number of mostly grown children and a constantly changing subset of extended family.
Check out his ramblings on his blog at https://johnmolsen.blogspot.com/. Safety goggles are optional but recommended.

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