This story is by Joslyn Chase and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Adam Carson woke from an anesthetized sleep and stared down the long barrel of a gun. It loomed, unwavering, two feet from his head. If he could see the hand that held it, and move his gaze up the arm, he would view the face of his captor, but his head throbbed and his eyes swam, making it impossible to concentrate beyond the solid metal of the gun.
“Good morning, Detective Carson.” A woman’s voice, clipped and cultured. He imagined a sleek blonde. “Ready for breakfast?”
His bleary eyes dropped to the table before him. A glass of water and a red and white capsule rested there.
“Swallow it,” she said.
“Tell me what it is.”
“I’ll be happy to…after.”
The cold eye of the gun dipped down to indicate the capsule and back up, targeting his head. Adam remembered the icy pinch of the needle in his neck as he’d slid behind the wheel of his car. Upset and preoccupied after the morning’s bleak discussion with his wife, his guard had been down.
“I’m not a patient woman.”
If she wanted him dead, wouldn’t she just shoot him? He reasoned the pill must be another drug to keep him docile. Wiping his eyes, he struggled to focus on a face. It shimmered into view, like a shadowed reflection. Not blonde, or sleek, but broad-cheeked and crowned with short, russet curls. Familiar to him, somehow.
She met his gaze, nodding. “This is not the first time we’ve met. While you rack your brain, tip the glass and take the pill. We’re wasting time.”
He hesitated, and the cold snick of metal on metal echoed in the room as she chambered a round. Adam raised the capsule to his lips and washed it down.
“Very good. Note the time, Detective—9:48. What you’ve just swallowed is a time-released toxin. After thirty minutes, you’ll feel its first effects, sweating and nausea. In forty-five minutes, the chills and stomach pains begin, and in an hour you’ll be dead.”
Adam leaned forward and stuck a finger down his throat.
“I wouldn’t advise that. The capsule is tamper-resistant. Once it interacts with your stomach acid, it will self-destruct if you bring it back up, dissolving your esophagus along the way. There’s no rewind button here. The only way out is forward. On the other side of that door,” she pointed, “is the antidote. If you can reach it within the hour, you may survive this little experiment.”
Experiment. That’s how he knew her. This was Dr. Theodora Swenstein, famous for the Swenstein Solution, a breakthrough in behavioral conditioning.
“It’s your life, or mine, Detective. You know who I am. If you live to tell it, my life is over. If you fail to reach the antidote, your life is over. Either way, you’ll provide me with some interesting primary research.”
Adam swiveled, taking in the confines of the room, the stark metal walls of a warehouse. This was starting to make so much more sense.
“I can practically see the puzzle pieces flying together in that head of yours,” she said. “I’ll leave you to it, then. Good luck, Detective. I’ll be watching.”
The door clicked shut with a resounding thud, leaving Homicide Detective, Adam Carson, with the first real lead in the serial killer case he’d been working for six weeks. An investigative reporter, a software designer, and a statistician had been found, dead by poisoning, in deserted warehouses throughout the city. He’d turned up very little forensic evidence or explanation as to why or how, and nothing whatever to indicate who.
The door she’d indicated was steel, and featured three combination dials. The clock overhead read 9:51. His mind went blank and panic fluttered in his chest, threatening to overwhelm him. The morning’s scene with Jill came back to him, her words bitter as she zipped the suitcase and shouldered her bag.
“There’s no more zing, Adam. No synergy. I need a husband, not a roommate.”
He’d said nothing in reply, watching her go. He couldn’t bear it to end that way, a big, fat zero in the gradebook of life.
He shook himself and surveyed the room, working to calm his mind. A fan whirred behind a wire mesh screen and he ran to it, peering inside. Something glinted behind the fan blades, but they spun too fast for Adam to determine what. Across the room stood a metal bunk, fastened to the wall, the table with its half-full glass of water, and a single chair. That was all.
Adam examined the pillow, peeling back the thin mattress to reveal a painted surface, scratched with a network of graffiti. He studied the marks for anything that made sense. A circle that might represent a combination dial was scratched next to the words get hi, ether, evens. He glanced at the clock. 10:01, and he was getting nowhere.
Graffiti. The day he met Jill, she was sitting at a bus stop. He’d been captivated and pretended he was waiting for a bus, too, giving him an excuse to sit by her. The wall behind the bench was covered with graffiti, giving them plenty to talk about. As her bus approached, she’d taken his hand and written her number across his palm in purple ink.
Numbers. He looked at the scratched words again, moving the “s” from evens to the front. Seven. Excited, he turned ether into three, and after an agonizing minute, realized that get hi could be eight. He ran to the steel door and spun 8-3-7 into each of the three dials. Nothing happened.
The time was now 10:07, and slipping by far too quickly. He hurled the mattress to the floor, checked under the table, toppled the chair. Taped under the seat, he found a cellphone with no signal. He stared at the number pad and tapped in 8-3-7. The tiny screen lit up with a response: 5-2-9.
He spun those numbers into the first dial and was rewarded with an audible ping and a green light. One down, 10:15, and ticking.
Adam searched the room for another clue. He didn’t feel so alone anymore. Thinking about Jill had helped, almost like she was there, beside him. His gaze flew back to the bed. Crawling beneath it, he found wirecutters wedged against the wall. Sweat dripped into his eyes as he pried the tool loose, and when he rolled to his feet, a wave of nausea washed over him, making him stagger. It was 10:20.
He ran to the screen and clipped through the mesh, exposing the fan. Jamming the wirecutters into the blades, he stopped their rotation, reached through, and retrieved the item. It was a screwdriver. His eyes roved frantically, looking for something to use it on.
High above the bunk, was a metal plate, fastened by screws. Adam replaced the mattress, stacked the chair on top, and balanced precariously while removing the plate. A screen appeared, flanked by a circular depression, designed for a particular item. His finger and the butt-end of the screwdriver did not qualify. He climbed down, searching the room, trying not to look at the clock, but he couldn’t help noticing it was 10:29.
Stomach cramps seized him, and he doubled over in misery, like the time he had the flu. Jill had been his ministering angel, fixing him chicken soup and making sure he stayed hydrated. He realized how thirsty he was, and downed the glass of water, nearly choking on the clear glass ball hiding in plain sight.
Hastily, he inserted the ball and the screen lit up with the numbers 6-4-1. He dialed that into the door and got another ping and green light. 10:36.
This is what was missing from their marriage, this working through problems together. He’d tried too hard to shield her from the difficulties of his career, and she’d stopped bothering him for help with her struggles. This was the zing that fanned their passion. The fan.
Returning to the ruined mesh, he noticed a digit inked on each blade. He entered them into the dial until he found the right order. Ping, and a wink of green. The door clicked open. 10:45.
“Impressive, detective. You win.”
Dr. Swenstein held out a cushion, topped by a filled syringe. Adam lunged for it, but in the moment before he administered the antidote, he remembered the coroner’s report mentioned needle marks on all three victims.
The poison was in the syringe, never in the pill.
He veered, jabbing the needle into Dr. Swenstein’s neck, depressing the plunger. She gasped, eyes wide with surprise, but as she sank to the floor, her shock was replaced by frank approval.
“You’ve verified my theory, detective. See that my work is published. You can call it the Carson Effect.”
Adam watched the life leave her eyes. He cared nothing for the Carson Effect. He knew how to reach Jill, how to bring back the zing, and now he had a second chance.