STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham



NYPD 33rd Precinct

Washington Heights, New York


“ALL RIGHT STORM, GET YOUR ASS UP.” The uniformed officer walked into the interrogation room, working his bubblegum like a bull chewing cud. He stood about six-foot-five and probably about a hundred pounds larger than Derek, evoking a smaller version of Shaq. Best not share that analogy.



Derek stood and walked out the door with the officer—Robinson, according to his placard. “I’m supposed to get a phone call.”

“Talk to the detective.”

“I did.”

“Not my problem.” Robinson led him out past a maze of desks. Beyond the last row, Paige sat on a bench holding Hulk’s leash. A female officer sat with her but seemed preoccupied with her cell phone.

Paige looked up. “Derek!”

“It’s okay, Paige! I’ll be back,” he lied, not knowing if it would ever come to pass. And as much as Hulk got on his nerves, he worried about what might happen to him. He’d promised Sabine to take care of him until…would he ever see Sabine or Mom again?

“Keep moving, man.” Robinson brought him to a holding pen facing the sprawl of desks, its steel bars looked like something from the last century, with peeling paint and an old fashioned lock. He pulled the key attached to a retractable cord extending from a tiny box clipped to his belt and opened the door. “In ya go.” He gave him a rude shove.

Derek caught his balance. “What’s your problem?”

“No, problem,” he said, sarcasm surfacing through his deadpan voice. “Enjoy your stay.”

Robinson shut the door. So that’s why they call it ‘the slammer.”

A disheveled man—probably a vagrant—paced around the tiny cell. Derek smelled his presence well before he saw his face. He came right up and pointed at Derek’s nose. All that malodor culminated in that one grimy fingertip. “You!”

“What?” Derek took a step back and tried to hide his revulsion.

“You!” The hobo wagged his putrid finger, then shuffled away, muttering unintelligibly.

“All right, y’all. Settle down.” Robinson stood guard by the steel bars rocking back and forth on his heels, his thumbs in his belt. Derek considered asking if he could make that phone call—at least to check on Mom, but decided it was best not to annoy him. Anyway, the big guy’s eyes were fixed on the wall-mounted television screen playing the news. A reporter stood in the middle of Central Park West, emergency vehicles in the street, black smoke rising above the treetops.

“Hey,” Derek said to Robinson. “Turn up the volume?”

The officer ignored him.

“Come on, man. That’s my neighborhood.”

He turned and gave him a cold stare.

Derek didn’t relent. “Please?”

Without taking his eyes off of Derek, Robinson reached back and peeled the Velcro-mounted remote control from the back of the TV. He pointed it back and the volume went from five down to zero.

Derek rolled his eyes. “Thanks a lot.”

At least the broadcast used closed-caption subtitles. Though out of sync with the reporter’s spoken words and often typoed, Derek could still comprehend what he was saying.

He just couldn’t believe what he saw.

Behind the reporter, crowds of people walked by the camera, some waved, others gathered. Business as usual—nothing like the completely desolate streets earlier.

The camera went back to the reporter. “Authorities have not ruled out terrorism as the cause of the crash. Unfortunately, there were no survivors found in the wreckage.” The camera zoomed out to show a young woman in a business suit standing with him. “Joining me now is Upper West Side resident Francine Wright, who witnessed the crash from her apartment window. Francine, tell us what you saw. Did you notice anything unusual this morning before it happened?”

The young woman smiled. “That’s the weird part of it. I do remember hearing a loud bang. But I just thought it was a truck going over a pothole. I mean, the streets were busy as usual, first thing in the morning.”

Derek’s brow twisted. “What? That’s not true!”

“Lies! All lies!” The hobo stood right behind him and shouted. “Don’t believe a thing they say! It’s mind control…I seen it happen!” He let out a profound belch adding to his overwhelming miasma. “It’s them illegal aliens like…like…” He pounded his fist into his palm trying to remember, then pointed at Derek again. “Yeah! Like Men in Black! It’s 5G, man! I’m tellin’ ya!”

Officer Robinson came to the steel bars and grinned. “Oh, so it’s 5G this week, eh, Randy?”

“They’re comin’ for ya, Robinson!” Randy shouted out into the police station, “They’re comin’ for you all!”

“A’ight…” Robinson snorted, barely able to keep from laughing. “You just chill, old man. Okay?”

“Actually,” Derek met Officer Robinson’s gaze. “It didn’t happen like that woman on TV said. I was there.”

Robinson rolled his eyes. “Dang! You looked sober to me. Guess you just crazy, is all.”

“No, seriously. The entire city was deserted, and the few people around were dropping like flies.”

“Yeah, and my Momma’s the freakin’ the queen of England.” Robinson shook his head and looked behind Derek. “Yo, Randy! You in good company, man! Ha-haa!”


Derek’s shoulders slumped and a dejected breath leaked out his nostrils.

No one believed him.

I wouldn’t believe me either.

Just then, a small commotion caught Derek’s eye. Over by the bench where Paige was sitting, the female officer and a pair of detectives gathered. They were talking quietly, but the gesticulations and defensive posture of the officer holding Paige’s hand gave Derek pause.

“Hey Robinson,” Derek said. “What’s going on over there?”

He shot back a sour look. “Hell if I know. Something about that girl and an Amber Alert.” Then, piecing it all together, Robinson glared at Derek. “You sick bastard.”

“What? No, wait. I wasn’t—”

“That’s her parents, there. What the hell did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything!” Derek said.

Before he could say another word, the television went black. The lights flickered.

Not again. This time, there was nowhere to run.

A deep vibration hummed through the building, yet no one seemed to react.

Except for Randy.

Grabbing the bars with white knuckles, he swayed about like an excited ape. “Wooo! They’re here! It’s them 5G-Men-in-Black-illegal-aliens!”

All at once, the entire station went black.

Multiple thuds.

Derek must have blinked because all around people had either fallen on the floor or over their desks, completely motionless.

Except Randy?

Eyes wide, smile frozen in place, he looked genuinely surprised. “Eh? EH? What’d I tell you?”

Right outside the bars of the cell, Officer Robinson lay sprawled across the floor.

“We need to get out of here,” Derek said.

Randy chuckled. “Ya think?”

Derek reached outside the bars and pushed against Robinson’s considerable frame. “Randy, help me roll him over!”

“No way!”

“Come on, we need to get out.”

“I ain’t going nowhere. Safer in here!”

Derek sighed, and continued to push.

Finally, he rolled Robinson over.

Derek stretched his hand out toward the key.

Just half-an-inch out of reach!

I squeezed his shoulder between the bars—hurt like the devil—and reached again.

His fingertips brushed against the key, but it flipped over and moved further.

He let out a frustrated grunt.

He pushed himself deeper into the bars which now pinched his collarbone, probably about to crack it.

“Got it!”

The cord buzzed as Derek stood up and yanked the key up to the keyhole.

He fumbled a bit to get into position and finally unlocked the door.

“Yes!” Pushing the door against Robinson, he made just enough room to slip out. “Come on, Randy!”

Randy shook his head. “No, no, no. This is the part where you say, ‘Come with me if you want to live,’ and then turn into some murder-robot and skewer my brain through the eye socket!”

“Suit yourself.” Derek spun around looking for Paige.


At least she hadn’t dropped dead, but where was she?

He ran over the bodies, past the desks, and over to the bench.

“Come back!” Randy shouted, still clinging to the bars of the holding cell. “You’re going die out there!”

Derek looked back.

“5G!” Randy shouted, then fell to the floor like everyone else.

All this madness almost made Randy look normal by comparison. Deranged as he was, the poor guy died in terror. At least the others never saw it coming.

Derek rushed to the door. “Paige!” He blasted out of the exit door and ran down the steps to the sidewalk. At the curb, across the street, several bodies lay still on the ground. Cars stopped in the middle of the road.

From his right side, he heard Paige shout. “Let me go! Let me go!”

Then Hulk’s angry bark.

The two people who had come to the station held Paige’s hands and walked her down the sidewalk to a dark blue car. He could see them much better outside, but their backs were turned to him.

Hulk ran after them, barking and snapping at their heels.

The man kicked Hulk away.

Hulk stumbled aside and whimpered.

Furious, Derek sprinted toward them. For some reason, they didn’t seem to move all that quickly despite trying to escape him.

As he passed Hulk, the Corgi followed.

“Stop!” Derek shouted at the abductors.

They paid him no mind.

But Paige turned around. “Derek! Help!”

They yanked her back and continued toward the car. The woman pushed Paige into the back seat, shut the door, and walked over to the open the trunk.

The man opened the driver’s seat and started the engine.

Derek caught up, grabbed the man by the arm, and pulled him out. He had expected a great struggle, even a fight.

But the man just turned to look at him.

The woman did as well.

Pins and needles ran through his entire body when he saw their faces.

It was them.

“Wait. You’re Paige’s parents,” Derek said. “I thought you were—”

“No!” Paige shrieked in terror. “They’re not my Mommy and Daddy!”




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.

Legal Notice: All information on this website and blog are from Mr. Graham's personal experience and insight and should not be viewed in any way, directly or inferred, as qualified professional advice.

All creative writing on this website or Mr. Graham's books: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. (novels, short stories)

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