STRATAGEM Chapter 1
STRATAGEM by JOSHUA GRAHAM
IT WAS THE STILLNESS that woke Derek the morning the world had come to an end.
The soreness under his reluctant eyelids confirmed he had overslept. The digital clock’s display was empty. Rolling over toward the nightstand, he picked up his cellphone—the charging cable still plugged in—only to find the battery and display dead.
A blade of sunlight pierced the darkness from the edge of the blinds and cut straight into his eye.
Definitely going to be late for work. Ordinarily, his phone would have jolted him awake before sunrise. Any such solar intrusion meant it had to be at least 6:45. But where were the buses, the garbage trucks, the cars that always harmonized in a dissonant chorale across Broadway, just eight stories below his apartment window?
With a groan, Derek sat up, nudged Hulk aside, and swung his feet out onto the cold hardwood floor. Protesting, Hulk leapt down, his little paws stabbing Derek’s toes.
Hulk shot him an annoyed look, then waddled off to the kitchen on stubby Corgi legs, where he proceeded to lap up his water, splashing drops all over the floor.
“Whatever. Don’t complain next time I accidentally step on your toes.” He was about to rush to the bathroom to get ready for work but decided, Nah. Karen’ll dock my pay half a day even if I’m only ten minutes late.
He stood before the mirror and flipped the light switch up.
Tripped circuit breaker?
Didn’t matter. Daylight from the window would suffice for shaving. He picked up his electric razor. Clicked the power switch.
No way. He’d just charged it on Monday and each charge would last over a month. What’s going on?
Not one to freak out easily, Derek found his heart rate increasing and his chest tightening. It wasn’t the series of oddities he awoke to. It was the silence. In the “City that Never Sleeps”, the absence of traffic outside on a weekday morning, neighbors walking around upstairs, or any sign of life otherwise felt completely alien.
That’s all it was. No matter how realistic, he would soon wake up by the sheer realization as he always did, and it would fade into the remote past within seconds.
He stood there smiling…
…until the smile faded…
…the silence expanded, pushed against his skull, against the very walls of the apartment.
Okay, just get out.
Out of the bathroom, out of the apartment, the entire building—just get out and get some air before the silence squeezed every last square inch of it out of his lungs, out of existence.
Without deliberation, Derek threw on his clothes, tossed his expired phone, charger and battery pack into his backpack and rushed out of the bedroom. He slipped on his shoes, snatched Hulk’s leash, rolled it up and stuffed it into his pocket. No time for the daily battle of getting it on the little beast.
“Come on, Hulk. Let’s go!”
Hulk growled and kept his nose in his food bowl, chomping away.
Derek bent down, scooped him up under his arm and rushed out to the hallway.
Hulk was having none of it. He snarled. Hell hath no fury like a Corgi torn from his food. In most cases, Derek regarded the perils of Corgus Interuptus, but this was too urgent to let the nips and growls stop him.
His footfalls echoed in the hallway as he passed Mrs. Klein’s apartment, the Columbia University girls’ apartment, and that crazy old guy who always talked to himself only. Finally, the elevator.
He pushed the button.
Of course, it didn’t light up.
Pressing his ear up against the doors, he detected no sound of activity or motion. Of course…power outage. Nothing works.
Hulk squirmed as Derek made his way to the stairwell. “Dude, it’s eight flights and your legs are too short. Now, quit wiggling.”
The monster let out an offended growl.
Derek never cared for Hulk and clearly, the antipathy was mutual. But a promise is a promise and he owed it to Sabine to look after him—longest three weeks of his life.
Not one person in the stairway. Strange, with the elevator out, everyone should be taking the stairs. This only made him pick up the pace. Hulk’s entire body grew stiffer while Derek flew down the stairs.
Oh sure, now you’re calm.
When he opened the door to the lobby, he expected to see…not sure what he expected, Fred the doorman, the police, FBI?
“Fred?” Derek’s voice resounded throughout the empty lobby. “What the Hell!” Had everyone slept in? At least Fred should be there, he’s always there. Dread bore a dark cavity into his gut. “Hulk, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
To his inevitable dismay, the lobby was empty. The only variance in sound or motion came from the open door. A singular, oversized and creased page from the New York Times rustled as it floated down the utterly vacant street.
Just then, Hulk leapt from Derek’s arm, skittered across the mosaic tile, and ran after the newspaper page, barking angrily.
“Ugh!” Derek felt tempted to let the grumpy SOB run away. But he’d probably get lost, snarl at and scare off anyone who might try to help him, and starve. “You little booger! Stop!”
Forgetting everything else, he ran after him. Amazing how fast that little dog could run with its short legs. Derek sprinted outside onto the concrete where his shoes suddenly got more traction and propelled him faster than anticipated.
He stumbled forward just as Hulk dashed into the street. Broadway was a death trap if you did that…ordinarily. But not today.
“HULK, Stay!” For a split second, he considered how laughable those words sounded without context. Thankfully, judging by the way his voice echoed between the apartment buildings on West 108th, no one was around.
Surprise! Hulk actually stopped. But it wasn’t because of Derek’s command. Something had caught the Corgi’s attention. With a head-tilt, Hulk stared into the sky.
Now was his chance. Derek double-timed over and bent down to scoop him up.
But Hulk continued to gaze skyward and withdrew sharply.
With one eye scanning the periphery upon where Hulk’s eyes had transfixed, Derek picked him up.
A sudden swell of sound flooded the undisturbed silence.
First came the shadow–a huge black form, its wings clearly visible, crossing the buildings, racing across the pavement.
Next came the shriek, the frightful scream that filled the air like nothing he’d ever experienced before.
He should run, but it all happened so quickly he froze in place.
In a fraction of a second, the wings of a commercial airliner clipped the top of several buildings over Columbus, and roared into a thunderous explosion around Cental Park West.
The fireball blossomed into the air with a detonating concussion that slammed Derek’s chest like a sledgehammer.
Joshua Graham is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM, LATENT IMAGE and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.
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