Another outtakes blog post. I’ve always loved this story, but I could never sell it. It’s all part of my conflicted relationship with short stories. I adore them, I have a million and one ideas for short fiction.
Editors of short fiction tell me to go write another book. So I do.
I wrote the first rough draft of this story in 2004. In the quest to sell it, I’ve rewritten it at least five times. In 2012 I gave up and let it sit.
Pretty sure this another fall between genre cracks story; not SF enough, not dystopian enough, a touch of 1984, but not completely mainstream. It is what it is.
Dreaming Of Mercy
In dreams I drift like a phantom through her house, the shadow at her shoulder rifling through her life. She can’t hide anything from me. I learn the words to her favorite songs, the titles of the books on her nightstand, and that she keeps pressed flowers wrapped in blue paper at the bottom of her sock drawer.
A silent voyeur, I record everything. I can’t turn away as Mercy quivers under a lover’s caress, or hide from her tears. She’s only a case file. I can’t afford to care.
The dreams always end with me standing next to her bed. I watch her sleep. Moonlight shines through the window, falls across her face in slanted stripes of alternating shadow and light. Long brown hair pools around her head, a dark cloud on the pillow. I reach out to brush a strand off her face.
She opens her eyes and grabs my hand. “Kristen…help me.”
That’s when I wake, drenched in sweat, breathing too fast and tangled in the sheets. Some nights I don’t get back to sleep at all.
I ghost through Mercy’s days, quietly stealing her life. She haunts my nights.
Her case file described her as female, twenty-two years old, and in her last year of college. Mercy Daniels lived just outside of town in a small two-bedroom cottage set back from the road. An only child, she’d had an average middle class childhood with trips to the beach, vacations to amusement parks and dance lessons. Both of her parents taught art at an exclusive private school in another state.
According to the reports I read, Mercy lived alone, cultivated disturbing ideas, and shared them with the world. Her reputation on campus as a voice for the opposition party grew as her writing spread via online forums and blogs. In her quiet way, she made the government nervous. The security agency I worked for marked Mercy Daniels as someone to watch.
Once her file landed on my desk, watching her became my job. Real time video and sound are fed to my screens, while communications in and out of her house are rerouted through my computer. I followed Mercy through her day and never left my chair.
In less than a week, I was confident I knew everything about Mercy Daniels. How little she tried to keep secret about herself and her activities baffled me. What puzzled me even more was that the agency put such a high priority on tracking her.
Nothing I downloaded seemed to merit the resources being poured into this investigation. She appeared to be an average college kid, not much different from me at that age, or my younger sister. I struggled to connect the person I monitored to the person in the case file. Mercy, with her long brown hair and ready smile, didn’t look like an enemy of the state. She didn’t behave like one either.
Two months into working the Daniel’s case I still hadn’t found a hint of anything she could be charged with. Something was off, something I couldn’t put my finger on. I gathered all the data I’d compiled onto a disc and went to see my supervisor. Richard glanced up from his computer screen when I knocked on the door-frame and waved me inside to a chair.
I ignored his one-sided conversation about manpower allotments and amused myself by studying his office. The personal items, and photographs of him posing with cabinet members, were all placed for maximum effect, each one serving a purpose. All the careful decorating let him maintain the illusion of status and power. Reality was that he could be replaced within hours, all without leaving a ripple in the agency’s pond. Just like the rest of us.
He finished his conversation and turned off his cell. The dark circles under his gray eyes made Richard look older than the forty-six years his bio claimed. “I hope this is important, Kristan. The budget director’s office wants the new manpower figures compiled by Wednesday.”
“I’d like your input about this assignment.” I leaned forward and dropped the disc with Mercy Daniels’ file on his desk. “I’ve been working on this case for a couple of months now. I don’t know why I’m watching this kid. She’s not doing anything wrong. Not that I can find.”
Richard leaned back in his chair. He rested his elbows on the padded vinyl arms and steepled his fingers in front of his chest. “Remind me. Which case is this again?”
“Mercy Daniels.” I gestured toward the two-inch disc lying in the middle of his precisely ordered desktop. The overhead lights sent rainbow shimmers across the polished silver. “It’s all in the file. Her blog glorifies the opposition party and isn’t anything the government wants to encourage, I’ll grant you that much. But I can’t find any criminal activity.”
He swiveled his chair around to face the window. “How long have you been a surveillance specialist, Kristan?”
“A little over eight months.”
“Eight months.” Richard swung around to face me again. “Do you foresee a long career with us? Advancement even?”
I started to ask what my career goals had to do with Mercy Daniels. The attentive way he sat forward stopped me. I settled for nodding my head.
Richard stared at me for another few seconds, his expression impossible to read. He picked up the disc and flipped it into my lap. “Questioning the validity of your assignments is not a wise career move. Get back to work.”
I took the hint and went back to watching Mercy.
In the dream, the door to her house stands open. As I walk inside I worry that she doesn’t keep it locked, that she does so little to protect herself.
At first I stand in her front room, hoping to see Mercy curled up in the blue, overstuffed chair. She isn’t there. Instead, the room is full of black lacquered shelves lined with books, and shadowed corners the lamplight never penetrates.
I know I’ll find her in the small room at the end of the hall. Her face lit by the glow of the computer screen, Mercy sits in the dark and writes. Little pieces of her shine in each word. I steal them from her, plucking her thoughts, her dreams, from the net before they reach their intended destination.
Compiling evidence to seal her fate.
New orders came down from the assistant director two weeks after my conversation with Richard. Existing surveillance logs on Mercy were to be copied. Any visitors to her house observed on the video feed were to be identified and screened for records of past criminal activity. All data, old and new, was to be forwarded and flagged for his eyes only.
It didn’t feel right that the assistant director had taken a personal interest in this case. He’d never shown a flicker of interest in my progress on investigations with a higher profile, or cases with real merit. I brooded about that while I copied all the voice transcripts and video files to send to his office.
When the copy process finished, I stared at the disc sitting in the middle of my desk. Without knowing exactly why, I picked it up and popped the disc back into the reader to make a second copy. I sealed the original into a transfer folder for the director. The duplicate I dropped into my pocket.
The request for her records left a lingering bad taste in my mouth. I logged into the archive database, pulling up the original transcripts of the net traffic that first brought Mercy to the Agency’s attention. Maybe if I started at the beginning I’d find the reason her case was so important.
A sick ache grew in the pit of my stomach as I read. Most of the records they’d red-flagged were chat room transcripts and emails to a boyfriend going back to Mercy’s second year in college. Other than being a little more politically aware, none of it was any different than the emails my younger sister Lindsey sent me.
For the first time since I joined the agency surveillance team, I had serious doubts about an assignment. I kept asking myself what was so special about Mercy’s case. Pulling the copy of her file out of my pocket, I added the archived records to the data.
I took the disc out of the reader and tried not to think about what would happen if I got caught. Grabbing my jacket, I turned off the lights and went home.
Trying to decide what to do with the information kept me from sleeping that night. Warning her she was being watched could be prosecuted as an act of treason; going to the press was just as risky. By the time I walked through the office security doors in the morning I’d convinced myself that stealing a copy of Mercy’s records was a stupid thing to do. I vowed to feed the disc into a shredder and stop looking for trouble.
I laid my palm on the glass plate set into the main desk and nodded to the guard. “Good morning, Saul. How’s your wife doing?”
“Much better.” Saul watched the readings on the screen as the scanner verified my identity. “The doctors think they’ve found the right medication this time. They might send her home in a week.”
“That’s good news.” I caught sight of the time. “Shit, I’m late. Andrew’s going to be pissed. He was supposed to leave ten minutes ago.”
I hurried down the pale green and gray corridor towards the office I shared with Andrew, pausing long enough to grab a cup of coffee and a bagel off the snack cart. The coded locks cycled and released, letting me nudge the door open with my shoulder.
The overhead lights were dimmed as I walked in. A flickering, bluish glow from the flat screen filling one wall lit Andrew’s face. He glanced away from the display in front of him long enough to flash a hello grin before he turned his attention back to the video feed.
I turned my back to the screen and caught my breath. Putting my coffee down, I shuffled through my email messages and surveyed the mess he’d made of our office. A snowy trail of powered sugar snaked across the top of the dark wood-grain desk. The half-empty box of raspberry jelly donuts next to Andrew’s right hand made me cringe. I sincerely hoped he hadn’t dripped jelly on the keyboard again.
“Just in time, Kristan.” Andrew sucked raspberry goo off his fingers. “You almost missed the morning show. Daniels put on quite the performance last night.”
“What are you talking about?” I took a sip of my coffee, pulling the rich smell deep into my lungs before I moved to stand behind him. Habit made me automatically note the feed rate of the video images and the time stamp on the views Andrew had open.
The difference in the display clicked in my brain a few seconds later. “You have more than one live feed running at once.”
“The funding level for this operation got kicked up to a whole new level after you left yesterday. Orders came straight from the assistant director’s office. Watch this.” The view screen flickered as Andrew typed out a set of instructions. “The techies performed some kind of magic overnight. Better resolution on all the images, plus we have more control over the angles of the shots. The best part is we can zoom in on anything we want a closer look at. No one said so, but I think they must have sent a team in to insert more cameras.”
My stomach soured and I set the coffee aside. “Why?”
“Watch and learn, Kristen. The big boys always know what they’re doing.” He settled back in his chair and reached for another donut. “Ah–there we go. Looks like you got here just in time. She’s not awake yet.”
A close up image of Mercy lying on top of her bed filled the screen. The baseball jersey she normally slept in lay wadded in a ball next to her pillow. A corner of a sheet draped across her legs, the only part of her nude body hidden from view.
“What the hell are you doing?” Anger flared hot and swift inside me as Andrew panned the camera the length of her body, lingering on a picture of the slow rise and fall of her breasts as she slept. I leaned over his shoulder to flip off the power switch. “This is a criminal investigation. Not your private peep show.”
“Simmer down, Kristan.” Andrews grabbed my wrist and kept me from shutting down the feed. “This is all part of the investigation. I’m just enjoying the fringe benefits while I wait for the action to start.” He gestured at the screen. “Look who showed up last night.”
A young man came out of the bathroom attached to Mercy’s bedroom. He slid into bed next to her, running a hand down her hip, kissing her shoulder and her neck. She woke under his caress and turned to face him, a sleepy smile on her face.
“The computer red flagged his picture in less than a minute after I started the identity search.” Andrew adjusted the angle of the cameras for a better view. “His name is Justin Kimmer. Government security has been trying to nail this guy for a year. Remember the group that hacked into the network feeds during the last election? The guys over in intelligence are sure lover boy was the brains behind the cyber attack.”
“Then why hasn’t he been arrested?”
He brushed at the powered sugar on his shirt. “None of the spooks have been able find anything on him that would stick in court. They haven’t been able to come up with anything to use as leverage against him either. Up until now, that is.”
“They found evidence to prove he’s the hacker?” I’d heard rumors about the pressure on the assistant director to find the person responsible for high-jacking the government broadcasts. The incident embarrassed the President and made his security forces look like jackasses.
“No.” He nodded toward the screen. “They found her.”
My mind blocked out the sound of Mercy’s laugh coming from the speakers, tried to ignore the playful growl Justin made deep in his throat as he rolled her over on top of him.
“This is why we’ve been watching this kid day and night? To get at a boyfriend?” I ran my hand through my hair and shook my head. “You’ve seen all the files, Andrew. There’s nothing there. Hell, she doesn’t know anything about what happened to the election broadcasts. We’d have found evidence if she did.”
“She doesn’t have to know anything. She knows him.” Andrew grabbed the last donut from the box. A blanket of fine white sugar rained down on his lap as he waved it around. “All it takes is association. Suspicion of involvement in a conspiracy is all it takes to hold her as long as they want.”
“So why isn’t Justin behind bars already? What gives him the free pass and not her?” The knot in my stomach tightened. I didn’t like where this was going.
“Because he was smart enough to be born into the right family. Justin’s daddy is an ex-Senator with all the right connections. Pulled lots of strings to keep the heat off his son’s back.” He wiped his hand on the front of his shirt before he typed in the code to change the camera angle again. “Using Mercy against the boyfriend is an end run around the old man. Time in the detention center will do amazing things for her memory.”
Once Mercy went into the system there was no guarantee she’d come out again. I wanted to throw something, anything, at Andrew right then. The smirk on his face disgusted me. “This isn’t right and both of us know it’s not legal. Our job is to protect the government from subversives, not to ruin this girl’s life.”
“Don’t be so naive, Kristan. It’s us against them.” He pushed the chair back abruptly and stood. “This isn’t the first time intelligence has tweaked the rules a little to get the result they want. And it sure as hell won’t be the last.”
Andrew went to the coat rack and pulled his leather jacket off the peg. He turned back to face me. The cold look in his eye shook me. I began to wonder if I’d ever met the real Andrew Dale.
“Nailing this little prick to the wall is the important thing. If Mercy goes down with him, so be it. I don’t feel sorry for her at all. She gave up all rights to sympathy when she crawled into bed and opened her legs.” He stuffed one hand in his pocket and leaned back against the edge of the desk. “Do you know what college kids like Justin and Mercy call agents who do this job?”
I shook my head. “No. I don’t.”
“They call us trolls.” A nasty smile played around his mouth. “The idea is that we’re like the dirty troll who hides under the bridge, lying in wait for his pound of flesh. And no one knows he’s there until he takes a bite.” He started to leave, but paused at the door, his hand on the handle. “You’d better get used to being a troll if you’re going to keep doing this job, Kristan. It gets muddy under that bridge. If you don’t have the stomach for the job, get out.”
The raid on Mercy Daniels’ house happened two hours later. Justin tried to run when a tactical squad broke down the door. He only got as far as the yard before they brought him down with a stun gun. His body hung limp between the two agents who dragged him to the van waiting at the curb.
They made Mercy stand in the middle of her living room floor, hands on the top of her head, while they tore apart her house. Her computer was taken away first. All her notebooks, pictures and papers where sorted through. The ones they wanted as evidence went into boxes.
Mercy watched them haul her life out the front door in bits and pieces, tossing the parts they didn’t deem important into corners. She shook so hard she could hardly walk when they finally cuffed her and took her away. I saw it all, recording the raid for the court record.
The video feed ran to my station until the evidence team finished. My view of Mercy’s house faded away when they sealed the door and deactivated the cameras.
I sat staring at the empty screen. She was gone, but that didn’t matter. The panicked, confused look in Mercy’s eyes stared back at me. I smashed my fist into the keyboard and went to see Richard.
Richard barely looked up from his data screen when I slammed into his office. He continued to drone on to the person on the other end of the phone about resource allocations. The only acknowledgement of my presence was an occasional flicker of his eyes in my direction.
I prowled his office resisting the urge to kick something. If he thought making me wait was going to calm me down, he was wrong. I grabbed a book and threw it across the room. That got his attention.
“Todd? I need to call you back later.” Richard severed the connection and leaned back in his chair. “You have ten seconds to come up with a damn good reason why I shouldn’t have security haul your ass out of here.”
I balled my hands into fists, ignoring the sting as the nails bit half crescents into my palm. “Get them to call it off. Have her released.”
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to be more informative than that, Kristan.” His gray eyes watched me coldly. “Exactly what am I supposed to call off?”
“Mercy Daniels. Drop the charges against her.” I could feel my hands start to shake. I clenched my fists tighter. “This case has smelled bad from the beginning. The only thing she’s guilty of is bad taste in bed partners. What they’re doing to her is wrong and you know it.”
Richard studied me in silence. He sighed and leaned forward, resting his forearms on the desk. “There are times the end justifies the means. Justin Kimmer is exactly the kind of threat our agency was put in place to deal with. Our job is to end that threat.” He shrugged his shoulders. “It’s unfortunate she got caught in the crossfire, but there’s nothing I can do for Mercy Daniels.”
I slammed my fist down on the top of his desk. Richard didn’t even twitch.
“The opposition party is already screaming about how much power the President gave the intelligence and security agencies. How long do you think his coalition will last if the public finds out how that power is being abused?” My fingers itched with the urge to close around the disc in my jacket pocket. It suddenly felt as heavy as a lump of lead. “I’ll go to the press if I have to.”
His cool gray stare never wavered. “I can’t stop you if you’re determined to ruin your career over this girl. But going to the press would be an unfortunate choice.” Richard reached into a drawer and pulled out a folder. He dropped it on the desk in front of me. “I think you should take a look at this first before you make a decision.”
I opened the folder and leafed through the first few pages. The surveillance photos of my sister and her boyfriend were underneath the transcripts. A roaring sound filled my head, growing louder as I stared at the pictures. “You bastard. How dare you.”
“Our last conversation left me unsure about your commitment to your job. I decided to check up on a few things. Insurance, you could call it.” Richard reached across the desk and pulled a photo out of the folder. He flipped it on top of the others. “I think this camera angle is my favorite. The lighting was just right. It’s a shame Lindsay fell in with the wrong crowd at college.”
It took all my self-control not to wrap my hands around his throat. “That’s a lie and you know it.”
“I’ve always felt you had a lot of potential, Kristan. With the right guidance I think you could be a good agent. So I’m giving you a choice. Your sister or the girl.” Richard closed the folder and held it out to me. “Pick one. Take the afternoon off to think. If you make the right choice, you can be back at your desk tomorrow morning.”
My hand shook as I reached for the file. Richard held on to the folder when I tried to take it from him, forcing me to look him in the eye.
“One last thing, Kristan. Don’t slam the door on the way out.”
In the dream, my footsteps echo in the silence of an empty house. Lace curtains flutter at an open window, teased by a summer breeze. Flowers sit on tables and chests, bright spots of color in the mismatched vases Mercy bought at garage sales. The house looks as it always did, full of life, full of her touch.
I search everywhere, but I can’t find her. Nothing has changed, yet everything is different. Even as I drift from silent room to silent room, I know the house is a reflection of what I want, not what it is. Mercy’s house will always be a ghost within a dream.
Mercy is the phantom now, the shadow at my shoulder as I go through my days. An unseen part of me, she steals my dreams, steals what’s left of my soul.
It seems only fair.