Catch up on the story: | Story Guide |
Shadows of the Mind Collection
by Mandi Jourdan
At the sound of a knock on the front door, Desi tightened her grip on the mug of tea she held between her palms. She pulled her focus from the tea’s brown ripples and exchanged glances with her brother Derek, who tensed. He slid off the sofa where he’d been sitting beside her and started for the door.
“Yes?” he called.
“It’s Captain Scott Ryder, Mr. Lawrence. NYPD.”
Her heart pounding at a sickening rate, Desi watched as Derek rolled his shoulders backward and opened the door. On the other side stood a uniformed man with greying brown hair whose mouth was pressed into a tight line.
“Sorry to bother you at home.” The police captain cleared his throat and continued. “There, ah… there’s a new development in your brother’s case.”
“Come in,” said Derek. “Please.”
He stepped back to allow Ryder to enter and then closed the door. Ryder inclined his head to Desi.
“Miss Lawrence,” he said. “So sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Desi muttered.
She had no idea how to begin to process the day’s events. She’d awoken to thirty missed calls from friends and family members, and she’d turned on her telesense to find the robotics company her brothers ran with their friend plastered across every news channel along with the words, “DAMIAN LAWRENCE, SLAIN.”
Desi had never been so numb, so sickened.
He’s too young, she thought. Was too young.
Her mouth went dry, and she blinked away her thoughts to focus on the conversation at hand, which she realized had moved on without her. Derek settled onto the sofa at her side once more, and Ryder addressed him.
“Your company’s security system recorded your brother’s attack.”
Desi squeezed the mug in an effort to still her trembling hands.
He can’t let us see that, can he?
“Show me,” said Derek. “Please.”
Desi elbowed him hard in the ribs, and he let out a hiss.
“What the hell are you doing?” she whispered. “You really think you can handle that? That I can handle that?”
“You don’t have to watch,” he mumbled. “I’ll tell you what I learn.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Desi. She watched him with her jaw set in determination until he turned back to the captain.
“Show us,” Derek pressed.
Ryder produced his phone from his pocket and flicked it in the direction of the telesense set into the wall in front of where Desi and Derek sat. The main lobby of the Manhattan headquarters for Lawrence-Dodson Enterprises filled the screen.
The chandelier that brought life to the immense lobby during the day was dim, shrouding the foreground of the video in blackness. The back of the room was partially illuminated by a light from down the hall. As Desi watched, the light was interrupted by a shadow that grew rapidly larger as it moved toward the camera. When the figure came into view, only enough light touched the figure’s outline to make it clearly that of a man. A dim red light flashed from somewhere in the video’s foreground–Desi knew it meant the building was on lockdown. The security protocol had been activated, and no one would be able to get in or out until it was disabled.
The figure launched himself over the security desk. In the split second he was airborne, the light caught him at just the right angle to allow Desi to see his face. The man on the screen had light brown hair and eyes a few shades darker, and his face was lined with fear.
The face Desi had known her entire life but would never see again.
At the sound of Derek’s gasp from beside her, Desi tore her gaze from their brother’s face to scan the rest of the screen.
A woman approached the lobby from the corridor behind it. When she reached the room’s edge, the fluid confidence of her motions gave way to an unsteady raising of her arms. The lobby’s dim lighting made it difficult to tell, but Desi believed she recognized the smooth outline of a plasma gun in the woman’s hands.
Caught by the glow of the streetlamps, Damian was easier to see. While the woman’s gun had been difficult to see, the one Damian had found was clearly visible in the light streaming through the row of glass doors at the lobby’s front.
Damian launched himself at the doors and pulled on them to no avail. Desperately, he fired three times at the glass, but each time the plasma ricocheted uselessly and scorched a black mark in the polished marble floor. Damian turned back toward his pursuer, his hands raised in a gesture of pleading.
Another gunshot rang through the lobby.
The roar of Desi’s pulse in her ears was nearly deafening, and she couldn’t focus on what Derek and Captain Ryder were saying. She watched the woman on the screen take a few halting steps forward and fire again, and when the light of the streetlamps fell on the attacker’s face, Desi felt her mug slip from her grasp and to the floor.
She knew the sharp jawline and the pale blue eyes too well not to recognize the first android her brothers’ company had created.
Desi stared at the woman standing before her. Ravenna’s black clothing and hair nearly as dark made her stand out in Desi’s unpainted entryway like a solitary inkblot on a blank page. Ravenna’s face was more drawn than Desi remembered, her eyes lined with heavy circles as she studied Desi in turn.
She must be seeing him. I’ve always been told we look alike.
Desi knew calling her murdered brother’s fiancée for this job had probably been a mistake, but she had no idea what else to do or where else she could turn.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said. “Please, come in.”
She took Ravenna’s arm carefully and led her into the apartment, closing the door behind them.
“I know I probably should’ve waited until morning, but I couldn’t.”
“It’s not like you interrupted anything,” said Ravenna.
Desi fiddled with the satin sash of her robe as she debated where to begin.
This was a terrible idea. All of it.
“Desi, nothing is going to make things right, again. I know you’re going to try, and I appreciate it, but don’t waste your breath.”
Desi sighed. “I called you because, while I know you’re right about that, I think I have something that comes as close to a solution as we could ask for. Before I explain, though, I want to ask you something.” She slid onto a hovering stool at the breakfast bar and patted the seat beside her. When Ravenna had taken the seat, Desi continued. “When was the last time you accepted an offer involving someone’s apprehension?”
Ravenna frowned and folded her arms across her chest. “Why are you asking me that?”
“I promise I’ll explain. Just answer me, please.”
Ravenna shook her head tightly. “I don’t do that, anymore.”
“What if I told you I knew who killed him?”
Several seconds of silence passed. Desi watched as Ravenna’s fingernails dug into her folded arms, and with as pale as her knuckles were turning, Desi was surprised she hadn’t drawn blood.
“I would sincerely hope you wouldn’t joke with me about that.”
“Rae, you know I’m not joking. I wouldn’t have called you at this time of night if I didn’t have a good reason, especially now. I wouldn’t add to what you’re already going through unless I thought it was completely necessary. Now, please, answer my question. If I told you I knew who was responsible, would you reconsider your ‘retirement’?”
“Desi, if you had even the smallest hint pointing to someone with a millionth of a chance at guilt, I would chase them to the end of this Earth and make them suffer.”
Desi blinked. After an instant’s pause, she nodded. “That’s how I hoped you would feel. Before I say anything about what I know, I need you to make me a promise.”
Ravenna’s eyes narrowed. “I never ask for much information about the promises I have to make,” she said, “but that’s vague even for me.”
“Just promise that you won’t kill her.”
“Desi, are you okay? You look like you’re a million miles away.”
Desi blinked away the thoughts of Ravenna, Lila, and her brothers and did her best to return to the present time and place. She sat at a high table at the bistro she frequented with her friends, the concentrated gaze of whom bored into her, pressing her into her chair. Lucy sat to Desi’s immediate left, twist of her mouth concerned. Beside Lucy and across the table from Desi sat Marley, who chewed the edge of her lip as she watched Desi closely.
“I’m fine.” Desi lifted her soda to her lips and sipped it while looking over the rim at the space between her friends. She had never been a good liar, as they’d often taken to telling her. She knew they would see through her feeble attempt. In the meantime, avoiding eye contact appeared to be the best course of action.
“You really don’t need to lie,” said Lucy. “We don’t expect you to be yourself, right now. We just thought getting you out of your apartment might make you feel a little bit better.”
Desi watched her glass thoughtfully as she lowered it to rest on the table. “I know, and I want you both to know that I appreciate it. I really do. It just… doesn’t seem right to act like everything is still how it was.”
“No one is asking you to,” Marley said. “If you want to talk about anything, we’ll listen.”
Desi allowed herself a smile. “Thanks, Mar.”
“It’s what we’re here for.”
The touch of a gentle but unexpected hand on her shoulder caused Desi to jump. The others stared in alarm, but their expressions seemed directed more at her reaction than at the presence that had caused it.
She recognized that voice. It was a cool tenor with an air of dignity and poise, confidence and polite reservation. A fluttery feeling surged up through her stomach, and the skin of her shoulder tingled beneath the touch.
Why does it have to be him?
“Edward,” she said coolly.
Desi kept her eyes facing pointedly forward, staring at the table just in front of where Lucy’s hands were clasped. In her periphery, she saw her friends exchange glances. They began to shift, and her jaw clenched. She knew what was about to happen.
“I need to get back to my parents’ hotel in time to meet them after their negotiations,” said Lucy. “That shareholder keeps trying to buy them out.”
“We took my car,” added Marley. “I need to take Lucy back and meet my sister.”
Desi closed her eyes and sighed. “You don’t have a sister.”
“Sister-in-law,” Marley amended hastily. She and Lucy stood in messy succession and gave Desi quick goodbyes and a few more apologies for rushing off so hastily.
Desi said nothing. After her friends had scurried off, she let out a small breath and plastered on a smile.
“Would you like to take a seat?” she asked without looking at him.
Into the seat Marley had just occupied slid a man wearing a business suit. Desi realized that for the sake of decorum she needed to stop deliberately avoiding his gaze, and she lifted hers away from the table. He was watching her with kindness in his grey eyes.
Desi had never been able to fully understand the way she felt about Edward Dodson. She resented him for being closer to her brothers than she was, though she knew that was petty and she had trouble admitting it even to herself. He had never been anything but the image of politeness and propriety to her–at least until a night several weeks earlier–which led her to wonder sometimes if he had any flaws at all. His was the presence that had always been near but just distant enough to be inaccessible, and therefore as irritating as it was intriguing.
And then she’d slept with him.
“Was there something you wanted to talk about?” she asked. She forced her expression to remain even and calm, betraying nothing of her thoughts.
He was watching her carefully, searching her. It was as though he saw through her, past the façade she had so meticulously devised. Perhaps he knew her as well as she believed she knew him, and neither of them would admit to trying to solve the riddle of the other.
“I wanted to see if you were all right.” The words and the sympathy in his eyes were genuine.
“I’m wonderful.” Desi was grateful for the make-up hiding the puffiness around her eyes. She’d found it difficult to sleep, but he didn’t need to know that.
“Forgive me for saying so, but your face says otherwise.” She frowned and prepared to fire a pointed reply, but he hurried on before she had the chance. “It looks as lovely as always, but you can’t hide sadness with eyeshadow.”
Desi felt her cheeks begin to burn.
“There’s nothing wrong with allowing yourself to hurt. I hope you know that.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but no answer would come. Instead, she replied with a small shrug.
“I wanted to tell you,” Eddie went on, “that if you decide you need to talk with someone about any of this, or about anything else, then I would be more than happy to listen.”
“I… don’t know if that’s wise.”
A hand passed in front of Desi, lowering onto the table the pasta she’d ordered when her friends had been present. The confused waitress paused with the other plates balanced precariously on her arms, glanced at Eddie, and then gave Desi a confused look.
“My friends had to deal with an emergency,” she explained with unconcealed bitterness. The waitress glared and nodded. She then plastered on a smile and looked to Eddie expectantly.
He shook his head. “Nothing for me, thank you.”
The waitress’s smile vanished, and she departed in a huff with the surplus food. A moment of silence passed, and then Desi resumed her careful study of Eddie’s face. He seemed to be trying for calm, but the set of his jaw told her he was bracing for a hurricane. She let out a long breath.
“What do you want from me?” she asked quietly.
She felt a warm touch on the hand that rested beside her untouched silverware. She watched as Eddie moved to the seat beside her.
“For you to stop pushing me away,” he said softly. “Desdemona, I don’t know why you’re so determined to pretend there’s nothing between us. I want you to let me be there for you. Talk to me. I know you have to be suffering, and that kills me.”
She kept his eyes on his and did not pull back when she felt his hand against her cheek.
“Do you honestly not know how I feel about you?” he asked.
Desi opened her mouth to reply, but no words would come. Before she could find the ability to push them from her lungs, he leaned forward and kissed her.
Her heart seemed to stop beating.
Desi felt the warmth of sunlight on her face and of arms enclosing her waist. She felt the rise and fall of a chest pressed to her back and the soft touch of satin sheets against her bare skin.
She blinked away the temptation of returning to sleep in this enveloping comfort. As she turned her head to take in her surroundings, her heart leapt into her throat.
I couldn’t have. She thought.
Eddie slept beside her, his dark hair tousled, his face peaceful and handsome and content. The ghost of a smile graced his lips, and Desi fought down the urge to lean closer and wake him with a kiss.
How could she have done this? Eddie was her brothers’ best friend–how could she have risked damaging their relationship? Her stomach turned. Would Damian and Derek still trust Eddie, if they knew? Would they still trust Desi?
You’re overreacting, she told herself. They want you both to be happy. If this is what you want, they have to support you. But is it what you want?
She watched Eddie sleep for a moment longer and then slid out from under his arm. The hardwood floor was cold beneath her feet, and she moved quickly to retrieve her clothes, desperate to be anywhere else.
She pulled back, uncertain and more than a little afraid. She wanted to be alone to process the hurricane everything had been since Damian’s death, but she wanted to be with Eddie.
I can’t make these kinds of decisions right now.
“I’m sorry, I have to go.” She slipped her hand out of his and stood. He watched her with a composite of alarm and regret.
“I–I’m sorry, Desi. I–”
“Desdemona.” He closed his eyes. “I don’t know–”
“Please don’t apologize. I’m sure you, ah–don’t you have an investigation to keep track of? Derek isn’t in the mental state to be… messing with any of it.”
“Yes, you’re right.” He opened his eyes and looked into hers, and her stomach twisted with guilt.
Desi turned away, unwilling to see more of the hurt she had caused him. Under her breath as she strode from the table, she muttered, “What have I done?”
Desi sat at the end of her sofa, her head in her hands. She couldn’t stop mentally replaying the call she’d received from Ravenna.
“I lost her.”
Pulling in a deep breath, Desi considered her next words carefully. She still wasn’t thoroughly convinced by what Derek had told her, but she had to trust him enough to give his plan a chance.
“Rae,” she began at last, “there was someone else in the room when my brother was killed. Derek thinks it… well, it might not have been all Lila’s fault.”
“Even if there was someone else there, how does that adjust the blame? Lila pulled the trigger, Desi!”
“I don’t know exactly what Derek thinks this is going to change, but I don’t think we can assume anything without understanding every fact at our disposal. We both know things aren’t always as they–”
“I have to go. I’ll call you soon.”
“Rae, wait, I–”
The conversation had ended so abruptly that Desi’s already paramount confusion and despair had escalated into all-consuming helplessness. There was nothing left for her to do. Everything rested on Derek, now. If Ravenna wouldn’t listen to her… Desi could only pray she would listen to him.
Nausea rolled through Desi’s stomach. Derek was all she had left. She couldn’t allow anything to happen to him. If Lila had somehow been coerced into killing Damian as Derek suspected, she was still dangerous, as was whoever was responsible for forcing her hand. If Derek was wrong, Lila could just as easily kill him next.
And what can I do? He’s decided he’s going after her, and there’s nothing I can say to convince him to stop.
Desi sat still, forcing deep breaths and trying to slow her pulse. She closed her eyes against the tears prickling at her eyes, but they refused to be held at bay. She wiped them away and reached for the phone resting on the end table.
This is a bad decision. Very bad.
She reached for the phone resting on the end table.
“What’s going on, Desi?” asked Eddie. He took a sip from the coffee mug she’d given him, and she left her own untouched on the table.
“I just don’t know what do to, anymore. Ravenna won’t listen to me, and Derek is convinced that Lila isn’t guilty. He’s been studying the security footage. He says someone else was there when Damian was killed and that Lila was moving so jerkily that it was like she wasn’t under her own control. I hired Ravenna to bring Lila back in one piece, but I know she wants to kill her. If Derek is right and it isn’t Lila’s fault, what if I’m responsible for her death? I don’t want anyone else to die, Eddie!”
He pulled in a long breath and set his mug on the table in front of the sofa as he reached for her hand and traced its back with his thumb.
Desi couldn’t stop herself from shivering under his touch.
“Come here,” Eddie said gently. He pulled her closer and slid an arm around her.
Desi kept her posture rigid for a moment, and then she relaxed with a sigh, resting her head against his chest as she embraced him.
“Thank you for being here,” she said quietly. “I really don’t think you understand how much it means to me.”
“I meant it when I said I’d always be here.” Eddie traced her back gently with his fingertips, and her grip on his shoulders tightened.
“Why?” asked Desi. “Why me? You honestly think I deserve someone like you?”
“Someone like me?” he repeated, frowning.
“You know what you’re doing with your life, Eddie. You always have. You’re brilliant, and the world loves what you’ve done at LDE. You could have someone who does something substantial instead of going to one audition a month because she can’t stand getting rejected and didn’t get arrested for being shitty at handling her liquor.”
Eddie laughed softly and rested his hand against her cheek, guiding her gaze upward. When their eyes met, he gave her a small smile.
“It’s always been you,” he said. “Since you got back from school and just seemed to glow with how much you love to act even though it breaks your heart. You’re made of passion and love, even if you don’t see it. You feel things in a way I’ve never seen in anyone else. You care with your whole heart. Even when you try to pretend you don’t.”
She watched him, taking in the affection in his eyes. She opened her mouth to speak but realized she had no idea what to say. Instead, she let out a quick sigh, pulled him closer, and kissed him.
Eddie’s hand slid downward to rest at the small of her back as his lips caressed hers. Desi’s heart pounded as her fingertips brushed against his chest through the thin material of his shirt, and he traced her jaw and slid his fingers into her hair.
She slid closer, and Eddie guided her onto his lap as their kisses grew more fervent with each passing moment.
When Desi eventually pulled back and rested her forehead against his, she felt the rapidness of his breath against his lips. They tingled at the touch.
“I…” Desi swallowed. “We both need rest.”
Eddie nodded. “You’re right,” he said with a nod. “I’ll head home before it gets later.”
“No,” she said quickly. She gave his shoulder a squeeze. “I don’t want you driving this late when… when it’s not safe.”
Eddie slipped his hand from where his fingers had tangled themselves in her hair and interlocked his fingers with hers.
“What would you like me to do?” he asked.
“You can stay here. I’ll… go get pillows.”
Desi squeezed his hand and released it as she slid off of him and to her feet. She hurried into her bedroom to retrieve a pair of pillows and a heavy blanket, and when she returned, she passed them to Eddie. He thanked her and laid the pillows at one end of the sofa before draping the blanket over himself as he lay back.
“Please help yourself to anything you want,” said Desi, gesturing toward the kitchen. “I’ll be… in there, if you need me.”
“Thank you,” Eddie said again.
“Goodnight,” said Desi. “Lights.”
At her word, they turned off, and Desi departed for her bedroom without another word.
I shouldn’t be here.
Damian’s visitation service had been held in the company’s headquarters, as requested in his will. Derek and Eddie had left as soon as the service had concluded. Desi knew Derek was off somewhere trying to find evidence of Lila’s innocence, and she hadn’t bothered telling him how clear it was that he was in over his head.
Instead, Desi had focused all her efforts on slinking off into the building when everyone had gone their separate ways. She’d made her way upstairs to Damian’s old office and to his computer.
Now, she tapped the projected display before her, sifting her way through the company’s multitude of files and programs and making her way to the security footage.
Thank God I needed to order a plane ticket the last time I was here. If I didn’t have his password…
She drew in a long breath.
I have to know. I need to see what Derek saw, and not the shortened version the cops showed us. Ryder doesn’t want us to worry; he wouldn’t want us to know, if there was someone else in the clip that they had no leads on. If Derek says that file exists, I will find it.
After a few tedious minutes of scraping through files, Desi succeeded in locating the video. Then, steeling herself to what she was about to see, she touched the words “7-25-2232, 11:15 PM.”
A red box popped up on the display,“The most recent version of the file ‘7-25-2232, 11:15 PM’ is unavailable.”
Desi frowned. “I don’t know why I expected any differently,” she muttered.
Another message followed.
“File information suggests that the most recent version was edited. Attempt to locate original?”
Desi raised an eyebrow and tapped “Yes.”
Desi swallowed and played the clip.
On the screen, the lobby was dark and barren. The only light came from down the hall, toward the lab where androids were designed and modified, and it was muted.
A shadow passed in front of the light.
This is it.
The shadow grew larger and was caught by the streetlamps, and Desi’s stomach lurched at the sight of the fear in her brother’s eyes.
Damian dove behind the security desk, surfacing again with a plasma gun in hand. Desi glanced between her brother and Lila, who had just appeared at the back of the room. She, too, had a gun.
Damian shot at the glass doors, but the plasma bolts only ricocheted backward, nearly crashing back into Damian each time he fired.
“Plasma-resistant,” breathed Desi.
“No!” screamed someone on the video. One glance toward the source of the voice told Desi that it had been Lila. Damian lay on the ground now, his back against the door. His leg was bleeding profusely just above the knee.
“You don’t have to do this, Lila,” said Damian.
Desi was only vaguely aware of the tears streaming down her face as she watched her brother plead for his life.
“You don’t have to–” Damian’s gaze drifted over Lila’s shoulder, toward someone or something in the background. “Just remember who you are. Remember who I–”
Lila fired again.
Damian lay motionless, slumped against the door.
“No. No, no, no.” But Desi knew that no matter how many times she said it–how many times she denied it, wished with every fiber of her being that it wasn’t true–the word would not bring her brother back.
“You’ve done well,” said a voice on the video.
That sounds like… No, it doesn’t.
Desi denied the train of thought that had begun and focused on the screen as her pulse pounded.
“What have I done?” asked Lila. She spun around, aiming the gun at the previous speaker, whom the shadows concealed. “What have you done to me? Help him!” she screamed.
“You’ve done your part,” said the man still hidden in shadow. “Deactivate.”
Lila fell to the ground instantly.
He was right, Desi thought over and over as her breathing slipped from her control and panic dripped ice cold through her veins. Derek was right. It wasn’t her fault.
There was silence in the lobby. After a moment, the man stepped forward to pick up Lila from the floor where she had fallen.
Desi’s breath caught in her throat as the sparse light from the street outside fell across Eddie’s face.
About the Author
Mandi Joudan studies Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Her prose has appeared in four anthologies by Sinister Saints Press, Coming Around Again by the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers Group, Quickfic, Beyond Science Fiction Digital Magazine, 9Tales from Elsewhere, Theme of Absence, the 2015 and 2016 editions of Grassroots Literary Magazine, and the Kaskaskia College Scroll. She has stories forthcoming in 9Tales, Digital Science Fiction, and the 2017 edition of Grassroots Literary Magazine. She can be found on Amazon and on Twitter (@MandiJourdan), or at Whatever Our Souls (whateveroursouls.com), the literary magazine she co-edits.