A WORLD WITHOUT FACES
By David Wright
"You have a mask or something? She'll see our faces."
"Don't worry about that." Frank snorted with his usual disdain.
Jason felt his heart pounding in his chest, and for a split second at least, he considered backing out. The clerk had seen his dad's Honda with its broken left headlight and flaking yellow paint job. And soon she would see their faces. He would never be able to come into this Easy Park again. He lived in this area. It was his home turf. What if she saw him walking down the street or in the mall? What if she knew who he was already?
But he couldn’t resist Frank. He knew that.
He jumped out of the yellow Honda and jogged past the rows of empty car stalls to catch up to his fast-walking friend.
The clerk in the booth saw them coming, a look of half-suspicion, half-fear in her pale, washed-out eyes. Frank had called her the dragon lady, but Jason wasn't sure why. She was in her late thirties, her skin already drawn and wrinkled, her hair blond but not attractive, thin and wispy and probably unwashed. Her cheekbones were sharp and bony and her chin jutted out like a witch's chin in the movies. She reminded Jason of his mother in many ways, but he was relieved that he did not know her.
He knew that right away. He did not know her.
Frank put the gun on the counter like it was a pack of cigarettes.
"Empty the cash."
When she did not immediately respond, perhaps from shock, Frank got angry.
"Empty the cash, you b–!"
It tweaked Jason's conscience to hear Frank say the word, to say it to this woman who was much like his mom, but he kept his mouth shut. Gratefully, the dragon lady recovered her wits enough to open the cash box and empty its contents onto the counter next to the gun.
Frank started grabbing the wads of tens and twenties and shoving them into his jeans' pockets. When they became full, he glared at Jason.
"Come on, man."
Jason followed suit, but he couldn't help brooding to himself. Frank wasn’t well prepared for this heist. He hadn’t brought masks. He hadn't even brought a bag?
All the while the gun lay there on the counter, mere inches away from the dragon lady's frozen hands, stained yellow with nicotine. She could have reached for it. It was closer to her now than it was to them, and they were otherwise engaged in the foolish act of stuffing their too-small jeans' pockets with cash.
But she didn't.
She just stood there like a statue staring at them, surely memorizing every feature of their youthful, stupid faces.
When the last of the cash had been squared away, a job that took only a few seconds, but seemed an eternity to Jason, Frank lunged for the immobile woman and caught her by her tanned, bare forearm. She did not resist although her pale eyes danced with terror.
Jason dreaded what would follow.
What if Frank wanted more than just cash from this frightened woman who looked like his mom? Would he just stand by and let it happen? Would he be compelled to join in?
Before Jason could fully weigh the depths of his depravity in regards to these questions, Frank sprayed the woman in the face with something that smelled like mint. She screamed, but seemed otherwise unhurt. Frank took hold of her shoulders and squeezed.
"Look at me!" he demanded. The woman did as she was told, suppressing a terrified whimper. "You will forget our faces. Do you understand me? You will forget you ever saw us."
She nodded in compliance. Jason didn't see how she could ever forget them, not until her last, dying breath.
* * *
Lieutenant Vickers knelt down to examine the black trail of rubber skid marks and motioned for CS to snap a few shots.
No masks, with security cameras everywhere, an eye witness who had looked the morons right in the eyes, and physical evidence that would link them to their vehicle--whoever had robbed the Easy Park in the wee hours of the morning, they were no master criminals. That much was for certain.
Vickers straightened up with a groan.
"What'd you get from the blond?"
"Ms. Thomas? She says she didn't get a good look at them on account of the broken light over her booth."
"That's horse hockey. She's just scared."
The detective cocked his head.
"Maybe so. The perps sprayed her in the face with something. Might have been a narcotic. She's pretty shook up. But she did get a good look at the car they squealed in here with–an old, yellow Honda with chipped paint and a broken headlight."
"Nah. They parked too far away for that. I guess they weren't total idiots."
Vickers gauged the distance to the pay booth, squinting. The blond was with the paramedics, a blanket draped over her shoulders. He couldn't quite see what she looked like from here, but he knew she was nothing special.
"Check it out," was all he said. Chan rolled his eyes.
* * *
Jason fully expected the cops to swarm him from all sides when he pulled up to the garage the next day, but there was nothing so dramatic. Instead Frank just looked up at him from under a leaky, ninety-something Chevy and said, "What do you want?"
Frank squinted like a drunk after a late night–maybe he was high–and then nodded.
"Oh yeah. What do you want?"
Frank was what you might call tow-headed, with jet-black, greasy hair that stuck up at the crown and hung over his gray-brown eyes at the front. His lips were perpetually dry from smoking and his face drawn and thin, the skin sucked in like a dried raisin. In this regard, he was very much like the other juvenile delinquents who haunted the neighborhood and idolized him, Jason included.
The only thing uniquely striking about Frank's appearance, perhaps, was his set of thick eyebrows that, although he plucked them madly, always seemed to grow together into one, long, ugly uni-brow.
"You already got your take. I ain't giving you no more."
"It's not that. I just wondered if you'd heard anything, you know, about the thing that went down."
He squinted again. There was sweat running down his forehead although the garage wasn't heated and it was the middle of February.
"It's just that, well, how do you know the woman won't talk? She saw our faces." Jason emphasized this last sentence although he knew he was straying into dangerous territory.
Frank grinned smugly, and for a second Jason had a flash of insight into the years of incarceration that awaited him in his future adult life.
"You don't have to worry about that, JC," he said. He dragged himself out from under the Chevy, scraping his knee on the chrome bumper. After a minute of profound cursing, he showed Jason the little spray bottle.
"I broke into my dad's lab a while back to score some drugs. All I could get was this. Didn't even have a name, just some random letters and numbers on it. Thought it might get you high but it just makes you forget stuff." He laughed. "That b– at the Easy Park will be lucky if she recognizes her own face in the mirror."
He squirted the tube in the air. It billowed a white cloud of mist and Jason smelled peppermint.
"Bet you didn't know my dad was some hot-shot doctor. Yeah, he's real proud of me–fixing old cars and knocking off Easy Parks." His grin fell and he put the cylinder back in his pocket. Without warning, he grabbed Jason's bare arm and stared at him blankly. Jason froze.
"JC, right?" he said.
"Yeah, it's me, Jason."
Frank snapped his fingers into a gun as if he'd just remembered his name. "So what do you want, kid?"
* * *
Vickers glared impatiently around the crowded medical ward searching for his partner. Chan was easy to spot with his shiny bald head, perpetually jovial round face and little wisp of a goatee and mustache. In the sea of stern-faced, clean-cut doctors and sour-faced patients, he stood out like the proverbial sore thumb.
"So you really couldn't do this on the phone?" Vickers snapped. "Why'd you have to drag me all the way down here?" He hated hospitals. They were overcrowded, disease-infested, petri-dishes of human misery. He had enough of that on the job.
"Are you kidding me?" Chan snapped back with a grin. "You expect me to explain this medical stuff to you over the phone? I can't even pronounce most of these words, never mind tell you what they mean."
He handed Vickers a clipboard with a long list of incomprehensible words on it.
"If you can't explain this to me, then find somebody who can."
"That's why I called you down here. Tell him, doc." Chan's jovial frustration was bordering on disrespect, something Vickers wouldn't put up with for long. Fortunately for both of them, Dr. Lewinsky was more than willing to interrupt.
"It's not a narcotic," he said without preamble. "It's a pathogen, a virus that affects the fusiform gyrus, the area of the brain associated with facial recognition."
Vickers wasn't trying to be dense, but at the moment he was juggling half a dozen cases, any one of which might have involved drugs in one way or another.
"The stuff he sprayed her with," Chan stepped in.
"Yes. Apparently the virus was transmitted via an aerosol."
"He put it in a breath spray," Chan clarified.
"So what does it do?" Vickers was just now putting the pieces together. "I mean, will she be all right? Is she going to die? And how did our perp get ahold of this virus thing in the first place?"
Lewinsky tilted his head back, his eyes widening almost imperceptibly and darting up to the right, the muscle in his right cheek twitching. It was perhaps an odd reaction, but it only lasted a fraction of a second.
Vickers was not a casual observer. Reading people was his business, and although he did not register these subtle changes in facial expression on a conscious level, he knew instinctively that the good doctor was lying, or about to.
"We haven't been able to identify the precise molecular breakdown of the virus at this point, but it appears to cause a severe form of prosopagnosia, or in layman's terms, face blindness."
"What's that? Like snow blindness? How about you explain it in dummy terms, doc."
"She can't see faces," Chan jumped in. "That's why Ms. Thomas couldn't give a description of the perps even though she looked them right in the eye. She wasn't scared. She was face blind."
"Great!" Vickers grunted his disgust. "There goes our eye witness."
"I'm afraid you have a larger problem than that, detective," the doctor stated soberly.
"Oh yeah? And what's that?"
"This particular virus appears to be highly contagious." He gestured to the sour-faced patients in the medical ward. "So far everybody who has had physical contact with Ms. Thomas–her daughter, her husband, her sister, her sister's children–has contracted the disease. And there is no known antidote. It doesn't appear to be airborne, as of yet, so you should be safe, but..."
"But there's still a whack-job out there with a breath spray full of the stuff."
Lewinsky nodded gravely.
Vickers turned to his round-faced partner.
"We need to find that Honda."
* * *
Jason heard the car pull up and looked out the window. Two men in dour-looking dress jackets got out of a blue Ford and walked up to his driveway. They stopped to look at his dad's yellow Honda, bending over to examine the chipped paint and broken headlight.
Jason could tell right away that they were cops, although they didn't have a cop car or wear a uniform. They just looked like cops, something about the way they walked and moved, like they owned the place and mistrusted everybody.
But there was something else that bothered him, perhaps even more than the fact that they were cops. Although they had very different builds, one tall and athletic, the other short and round, they both had the same face. In fact, they could have been brothers.
But as Jason continued to study them from his upstairs bedroom window, he realized they didn't have the same face–they had no face–eyes, nose, mouth, but no face, like blank manikins before being stamped with some kind of expression–happy, sad, wistful, something.
Jason felt his heart pounding in his chest again. He had to get out of there.
Racing down the stairs he nearly crashed into a faceless man in boxer shorts and his father's grimy, Blue Jays tank top.
"What the h–?"
He heard his father's voice, but he could not see him. The faceless man reached for him. He ducked under the thick arm and darted towards the back door.
His forehead dripped with sweat. His heart pounded with terror. He was no longer a teenager, no longer human. He was a frightened animal with only one thought–escape.
He wrenched open the back door, but another faceless man blocked his way.
"Hi, Jason. Where are you off to in such a hurry?"
Jason raised his hand to fight, but the Taser dropped him like a stone.
* * *
The kid was shaking like a leaf, the sweat running down his forehead in rivers. Vickers turned to his partner.
"You wore gloves?"
Chan rolled his eyes. "Of course I wore gloves. You think I wanna catch this thing? He's obviously sick. We'll have to turn him over to the doc soon."
"Not before we get his buddy."
Vickers turned back to the delirious teenager straining madly against his cuffs.
"We know you were there, Jason."
Jason glanced up at the detective, but there was nothing but fear in his eyes.
"You have no face, man!" he exclaimed.
"Jason. You're sick, and we want to get you some help, but first we need to know the name of your accomplice."
Jason writhed in his chair like a landed fish gasping for his last watery breath. At last he seemed to come to himself and stiffened.
"His name is Frank, Frank Lewinsky."
Vickers glanced quickly at his partner, but Jason wasn't finished with his confession just yet.
"He said we wouldn't get caught–that she wouldn't remember our faces."
"You sprayed her with something. What was it?"
"I don't know, man. Some junk. Frank did it, not me."
"Where did he get the junk?"
"From his dad. He's some hot-shot doctor or something." Jason groaned. "Get me out of here, man. Get me out of this nightmare."
Vickers nodded to his partner.
"I knew that smug S.O.B. was lying. I just knew it."
* * *
The medical ward was in complete chaos by the time Vickers pulled up. In fact, the whole world seemed to have gone mad. Traffic was at a virtual standstill, cars just abandoned in the middle of the road or driven up onto the sidewalk. People were screaming, about what, he couldn't tell. If it weren't for his police siren and thick bumper, he never would have made it through town at all.
"Great time for a hockey riot," he thought, but somewhere in the back of his mind he feared it might just be more serious than that.
"Where's Dr. Lewinsky," he barked to a frazzled orderly who was struggling to restrain a screaming child.
"Who are you?" he grunted. He squinted like he forgot to put in his contacts.
"I'm Lieutenant Vickers, LAPD. Where's the doctor who was here earlier? Lewinsky."
He shook his head, and frowned stupidly.
"He doesn't work here. He's just a consultant, a researcher from the institute."
The orderly rolled his dull gray eyes.
"The Lewinsky Institute, of course. Their labs are way over in Orange County." The conversation broke off then as the little girl the orderly was trying to restrain bit down hard on his hand.
Vickers heard his phone ring and turned away. It was Chan.
"That Frank kid is in bad shape," he said without the slightest trace of sympathy. "He's running a fever and he can't tell his mom's face from the postman’s. I've got him in the back of the squad car right now. You got the doc?"
"No. He doesn't actually work here. Orderly says he's at the Lewinsky Institute in Orange County."
"Never heard of it."
"Me neither. Look it up and I'll meet you there. The kid say anything?"
"Sure did. Said he didn't do it."
Vickers chuckled. "Figures."
"No, I mean he says he never put the virus in the breath spray. He just found it like that. I kind of believe him. The aerosol tube is not like any breath spray I've ever seen."
"Then if he didn't do it, who did?"
"That's what we need to find out, and fast. Things are starting to fall apart out there."
"I know what you mean."
* * *
The Lewinsky Institute wasn't easy to find, even with GPS, or easy to get into, for that matter. There was no sign outside, only a number, and security wouldn't even let Vickers enter the non-descript, ten-story, office building until he'd jammed his badge up against the glass.
He thought about waiting for Chan before going upstairs, but who knew how long it would take him to fight through the traffic. And besides, the heat was making him edgy. Maybe the building's air conditioner was on the fritz. He couldn't help but wonder why the pug-faced security guard didn't just open a window or prop open a door. He was sweating like a pig.
The heck with it, Vickers thought. He marched through the parting elevator doors only to see his reflection staring back at him in mirrored walls. He looked like hell, his hair matted with sweat, his eyes bloodshot. It had been a long day and it wasn't over yet.
The medical research labs were on the top floor, or so the guard told him. There was no registry in the lobby so he had to go on faith. What kind of lab was this? It wasn't like anything he'd ever seen before, except in the movies.
When he reached the tenth floor, he found it deserted–no secretary at the front desk, no doctors or medical staff wandering the halls. Was it some kind of holiday, an unofficial day off? The hospital was open, and surely if the institute were closed, the guard in the lobby would have said so.
Vickers was just about to give up and give Chan a call when he heard a voice down the hall.
"Who's there?" it said, the unmistakable tremor of fear rippling through it. "I can't see who is there. Please identify yourself."
Vickers turned to see Dr. Lewinsky coming out of his office, his hands braced against the wall as if he was afraid he might fall. He was only twenty feet away, but still he blinked like a man struggling to read the words on a distant sign.
"It's me, doctor, Lieutenant Vickers of the LAPD. I have a few more questions for you." He took a step, but the doctor raised his hand to ward him off.
"Why? What's wrong?"
"I'm afraid you're too late. We are all too late."
Vickers felt a bead of sweat trickle down his sideburn.
"Too late for what? What are you talking about, doctor?"
"The virus has mutated, gone airborne. I was unable to synthesize an antidote in time. There is no stopping it now."
"Doctor, we have your son, Frank, in custody. He was the one who spread the virus. He said he got it from your lab."
Lewinsky nodded. "I suspected as much, although I didn't want to believe it. Frank was always a troubled child–just couldn't apply himself."
"He also claims that he never put the virus in the breath spray. He just found it like that."
The doctor fell silent.
"Doctor, why did your lab have a sample of the virus, and why was it in a can of breath spray?"
Lewinsky's already sad face wrinkled with strain.
"Oh what a tangled web we weave," he mumbled.
Vickers was getting impatient. The room was unbearably hot and his vision was starting to blur.
"Look, doctor, I don't have time for this. Things are getting crazy out there and you know something about it. Just tell me what's going on."
He took another step forward, but Lewinsky waved his hands in panic.
"It is already too late. I am infected by my own creation, and soon you will be, if you are not already."
"Your own creation?"
"PZ17 is a weapon, a biological weapon designed by my company."
Vickers couldn't believe it. He was a cop. He dealt in petty crimes, vice, robbery, even murder, but biological weapons? That was part of a whole other world and way above his pay grade.
"Ever since 9/11, the government has been researching all possible biological weaponry that could be used by terrorist organizations against the United States. Or, in the case of PZ17, weapons that could be used by the United States against terrorist organizations."
Vickers blinked his surprise, but it did little to clear his vision. Why was he so hot?
"Terrorist cells operate in isolation, often without documentation of any kind, with absolutely nothing binding member to member other than facial recognition alone. If just one of their agents could be exposed to PZ17, it could spread from member to member through personal contact, and once it had metastasized into full-blown face blindness, strip them of their only connection to each other, thus effectively crippling their organization from the inside."
Vickers pondered the doctor's words, seeing the flaw in his plan almost immediately.
"Yeah, but what about everybody else?"
The doctor bristled. "Collateral exposure could be controlled with the antidote."
"But there is no antidote."
He shook his head sadly.
"I'm afraid my son unwittingly broke the viral seal in the lab before we could develop one, and I didn't discover the breach until it was too late. And now my entire staff is infected, as am I."
Vickers felt dizzy. He shook his head, but this only made him feel nauseous. The doctor had become a faceless blob in the hallway ahead, but still he droned on.
"Crime will escalate. People will riot in the streets and the police, unable to distinguish one face from another, will be powerless to stop it. Not since the Tower of Babel has man faced such a period of human anarchy."
Vickers pushed himself away from the babbling doctor and back into the elevator, rubbing his eyes.
The doctor’s voice droned on. "Society will crumble, governments fall."
This couldn't be happening, Vickers thought. It was just a bad dream, a crazy nightmare. He looked into the elevator mirror, looked right into his own blue eyes, and saw the blank face of a stranger.
David Wright has published 50 short stories which have appeared in more than a dozen magazines including Heater, Martian Wave, and Aphelion. He has also published three novels at Smashwords and Amazon Kindle.
His story "Little Collectibles" was published in omdb! in May 2014.
Copyright © 2016 David Wright. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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