Author’s Note: I’ll be releasing my thriller, Alpha City, in its entirety on my blog during 2019. It will also be available for free as an ebook for anyone who signs up for my newsletter (at right). The book is about telepathic twins, Aaron and Tamara, who must save Alpha City from terrorists intent on blowing it sky high and causing as many casualties as possible. Alpha City originated as a prequel to a re-imagined Dimorphic, but stands on its own. Enjoy!
I couldn’t breathe. My brain was awake before my body and I wondered why. I wasn’t having a nightmare, rather it was a night cat. Three of them, in fact. One rested on my chest, a hefty Main Coon mix that must have weighed twenty pounds. A tabby sat on either side of my head, watching me closely. All three cats were purring. About that jet engine I’d dreamed was taking off from the pillow next to me? Nope. Just cats.
I sat up and Main Coon rolled onto my lap, righted himself after a struggle, jumped off the bed, and turned to stare at me. Tabby Left and Tabby Right also abandoned the bed, took up places flanking Main Coon, and considered me with bright eyes. My cat audience.
“Jeez,” I said to the cats.
I’m not supposed to wake up to cats. No cats in the sanctum, that’s our rule and our building. I swung my legs off the bed, sending the cats scampering away, and went to the windows. One on the north side had an open sash. It was clearly responsible for the insufficiency of our air conditioning and the resultant sweat I’d slept in. I stuck my head outside and looked around.
I was on the fifth floor of a former industrial storage and office facility, fifty feet up. I had cat ladders scaling the south side of the building, but there were no cat ladders here on the north side, because there were supposed be no cats.
My brother, Aaron, had a hap-hazard lattice of steel cables criss-crossing the gaps between buildings around our site. He had strung them at odd intervals, some higher and some lower, so he could practice Parkour. A lesser Spiderman, he traversed the cables effortlessly. “They’re a cheat,” he once told me. “But, they’re good for instruction.” Indeed, next door to our building, Sanctuary, was the Flying School—a retrofitted warehouse that held Aaron’s school for acrobats, stunt men, and traceurs. He was mostly hands off by that point, a distant figurehead, appearing infrequently in cameo, the school flourishing under his delegates in spite of his absence.
Here on the north side of Sanctuary, Aaron’s cables only reached to the second floor. Between them and me was nothing but brick wall and window ledges. Was it possible the cats tightrope-walked those cables, then scaled brick and concrete to our window? From my vantage point, I didn’t see how. But then, I was neither a traceur nor a cat.
I pulled my head back inside and shot the cats my sternest glare. “All right. Tell me how you got in here.”
Maine Coon flicked his ears. “Yowl,” he said. Otherwise, they gave no hint.
I looked over my shoulder. That had come from behind me, out the window. I stuck my head back out the window, craning my neck as far as I could. On the window ledge directly beneath me sat Little Bee, a tiny black cat with big ears who was full grown but probably weighed six pounds wet.
She looked stuck. Her window was boarded up on the bottom. Perhaps she had tried to follow the other cats on whatever diabolical route they took to invade my sleep, but then got left behind. I closed my eyes and reached out to my brother with my mind. We’d been telepathic our whole lives, but only with each other as far as we knew.
Aaron. We have a trapped cat on the north wall. It’s Little Bee.
A telepathic tickling in my head that I interpreted as chuckling came and went, then Aaron replied with transmitted words.
I’m almost there. Traffic’s crap. Ten minutes.
He was on his motorbike, returning from morning prayer. Little Bee would just have to stay put for ten minutes. I certainly wasn’t about to climb out the window and rescue her. That kind of thing was Aaron’s domain.
Upstairs on the roof, I hosed off the paths of our cat garden. We had grass, mulch, dirt, gravel, and flower pots up there. It was enough greenery to provide respite from the city around us but not enough to collapse the roof. Our landscaping was in constant use by the unwanted cats we cared for. Sometimes I even found “presents” among the flowers. Today, it was a bird and a barf. Both were dead, both needed to be hosed off into the wide drains lining the roof’s edge.
After cleaning, I turned the spigots on our huge vats of kibble, releasing the day’s food quota into metal troughs which were immediately swarmed with cats. In spite of their number and their reputation for social aggression, the scene was orderly, if not cooperative. There was a little growling, a hiss or two, but no screaming cat fights. I estimated we had thirty today, including the three interlopers who had found their way to our bedroom. I didn’t see Little Bee.
I stepped out from beneath the corrugated sheet of tin protecting the feeding structure and noticed it had begun to drizzle. It was hot—in the eighties—and muggy. I sweated heavily. I wiped my forehead and surveyed the city. Pale clouds dulled the sun, rendering the sky a flat canvas of gray. To the west, Mary Queen of the World stretched out her arms, her patinaed figure otherworldly luminous in the two dimensional light. Rio had Christ the Redeemer, Alpha City had Mary: sixty feet of sculpted bronze on a pedestal of limestone. She stood atop the densely treed Jordan Mountain that sat in the very center of downtown. To call the five-hundred-foot hill cresting Alpha City a “mountain” was like calling a candle an inferno, but we locals had christened it a mountain nonetheless. I noticed a sprinkling of leaves had begun to turn in spite of lingering high temperatures. Within weeks, Jordan would be ablaze with fall color, a bonfire at Mary’s sandalled feet.
I heard Aaron before I saw him, the drone of his superbike rising in the heavy air. We lived at one end of a twenty acre site known as the Moth Farm. It had once been a manufacturing complex, now it comprised a dozen last-century, decrepit brick and stone structures we were slowly reclaiming for our own purposes.
I liked to think of the Moth Farm as if we already owned it. Technically, we did not. Its legal owner, Ranger Dan, was an eighty-year-old eccentric who lived in a renovated shed in the shadow of Sanctuary. His shed was adjacent to what was once a foundry and was now home to tens of thousands of silk moths that Dan collected and bred. Before we came along, Dan used to lose generations of his darlings to predators or neglect. Now, he had a dedicated moth raising facility that had been our gift for his seventy-fifth birthday.
Ranger Dan had told Aaron that year that he was the sole beneficiary of his will and appointed him power of attorney. As far as we knew, Dan had no surviving blood relations. Or, at least, none that cared to make themselves known. I supposed it likely we’d meet one or two at his death, if they figured out what twenty prime acres of real estate in downtown Alpha City was worth. Too bad for them, or too bad for us, we would see.
We bartered space for services and our buildings housed a VFW post, veteran housing, a veterinarian, and artist’s lofts. The Moth Farm was one of Aaron’s more brilliant ideas. Most of our residents would have had no homes at all if it weren’t for his idea to crowd source the care and construction of Ranger Dan’s property. I wasn’t sure how much of what we did Ranger Dan knew about, but whenever Aaron asked for a signature, the answer was yes.
Aaron parked his superbike in Sanctuary’s courtyard and waved up at me. I waved back. He rounded the side of the building and I glimpsed him climbing his guide wires and the brick walls. He was dressed entirely in white and scaled the vertical expanse as if it was nothing. I headed inside to meet him.
By the time I made it downstairs to the window, Aaron had Little Bee in his arms and was basically standing erect on maybe eight inches of concrete window ledge. Most people would have been flat against the wall in a panic, but not Aaron. He casually craned his neck upward to look at me, then scaled invisible hand and foot holds to cover the distance between us. When he was close enough, he stretched out his hand and I grabbed it. He let me help him into the bedroom, not because he needed my assistance, but because I need assurance.
“Welcome home, Spiderman,” I said.
“Yeah, right,” he said. “I wish.”
My brother had no fear. He always claimed his feats were simply from years of practice, but I still found it incredible that he could trace routes through the city that involved climbing tall buildings, jumping vast distances, and traversing narrow wires. He set Little Bee on the floor.
“No!” I yelled.
He turned to me, eyebrows raised. “What’s wrong?”
Of course, Little Bee immediately raced under our bed. We had two king-sized beds joined at the head because being apart, even for a night, was difficult owing to our telepathic link.
“Damn it, Aaron. Now I’ll never be able to get her out,” I said. I lay on the floor and made kissy noises. Little Bee was in the exact center of our beds, completely inaccessible. She looked at me with wide shining eyes. I thumped my fist on the floor. “Silly cat.”
Aaron watched me. “I don’t get it.”
“You spend a ton of money and time on the cats, then you don’t let them inside, even for a moment.”
“Yeah, well, I’m a soft touch for animals, but that doesn’t mean I want to actually live with any. Litter boxes, hairballs, small furry bodies to trip over and go bump in the night—no thanks.”
Aaron turned away, but not before I caught his smile. He walked over to our wall-sized aquarium. It was mostly dry and contained no fish. Instead, there was a six foot pewter corn snake by the name of Pearl, due to ivory circular markings amid her silver and gray scales. I stared at my brother and contemplated his pale skin, blue eyes, and dark brown curls, one of which had escaped the rest and dangled over his forehead. We were identical in every way except gender. An inappropriate feeling of attraction came over me and I found myself noticing how broad his shoulders were, and how lithe his legs looked in white denim.
His eyes narrowed. “Thou shalt not covet thy brother’s physique.”
I scoffed and felt my cheeks grow warm from blushing. I was as much irritated as embarrassed. A problem with our link was an inability to keep any opinions to ourselves, especially when we were in such close proximity. It wasn’t the first time I’d felt attracted to my brother, and I was sure it wouldn’t be the last. It hadn’t been as much of an issue before he had found religion and felt the need to apologize to God for every stray thought or act, including ones to which I felt we were entitled, as two halves of one whole.
He left the room and went down the hall to our storage area. Today was Yom Kippur. He had spent the morning asking for forgiveness at Temple Bess, which was what everyone called Temple B’nai Emet Shalom. The temple was one of the older religious buildings in Alpha City—large, architecturally interesting, and well kept. It lay in a borough called Riverside, an area informally known as God’s Quarter due to its high concentration of religious centers.
Are you going back to the temple? I asked Aaron in my mind.
Yeah, he answered telepathically. First, I’m going to the cathedral to get a puppy blessed.
One of Aaron’s idiosyncrasies, which he inherited from our late father, was the need to have a proxy animal blessed every year on the Feast of St. Francis. This year, the Feast unfortunately coincided with Yom Kippur, so Aaron was beating a roundabout path from morning prayer at Temple Bess to a blessing at Cathedral of Christ, then back to afternoon and evening services at Bess.
I had never picked up the church-going habit. Aaron continued our father’s annual pilgrimage to the cathedral to see Father Joe and tithe. Father Joe knew us well. Our father was interred in his cemetery, a constant reminder to the priest of our inherited membership in his flock.
As for Temple Bess, Aaron’s attendance was recent. This was his first Yom Kippur with Rabbi Rach, because he had only found out last year that our mother’s family was Jewish. Aaron returned to the bedroom, wearing a baby carrier. He stood over me and watched me stare sullenly at Little Bee, who was happily cleaning her front paws, oblivious to all.
“Why don’t you put some chicken down or something?” Aaron asked.
“I might,” I said. I turned over to face him. “How do you think Rabbi Rach would say with you entering the house of the gentiles on the most sacredly Jewish day of the year?”
He rubbed his stubbly chin. “No idea. Not sure if he’d even care.”
“Do you really believe prayer on one day, or one week, determines your entire year’s worth of God currency?”
Aaron said nothing.
“What if you screw up and accidentally drink water, or wear leather shoes? Will you spend the entire year in misery, eaten by fire and worms?”
“I know you don’t believe,” he said. “But, you know I do.”
How could we be one, and yet diverge on this basic fact? I didn’t know what to say. Religion was a constant source of contention between us.
“Tamara,” he said. “You don’t have to understand. It’s not something all your machines and textbooks will teach you. We’re still one, it’s just that I believe in God and you believe in Science.”
“That makes no sense,” I said. “You can’t ‘believe’ in science. If I jump out the window, the force of gravity makes me fall down, whether I believe in it or not. Science is just a way of describing the universe as it really is.”
“We’ve been over this a hundred times,” he said. “You tell me nothing in religion can be disproved, so it is vacuous. I turn it back on you—nothing can be proved, either, including the non-existence of God. Atheism is illogical.”
“So is belief.”
He smiled. “Try to stick to your own crusades, beautiful, and I’ll stick to mine.”
I scoffed. I walked the sword edge of skepticism alone, apparently, solo on that tiny slice of suspended judgment. My brother had obviously abandoned me some time ago by flinging himself off into the black hole of belief below. Would we ever see eye-to-eye on this again?