Operation: Harvest Book Two – Loose Strands (Chapter One)

CHAPTER ONE

“You know, Detroit gets a bad rap.” The words were slightly slurred, which was an impressive feat considering the kid speaking had been drinking cheap beer for the better part of four hours.  With the careful scrutiny of a Major League Baseball pitcher he bounced the ping pong ball, but it clattered off the edge of the plastic cup and was gone.  The young man was of slender build and dark skin, his mouth twisting into mock exasperation as the light, white plastic ball slapped along the concrete floor of the garage.  A slight breeze swept in through the open door, letting in the foggy haze of eggshell colored street lights from the neighborhood outside.  The neighborhood was quiet at this time of night, being just far enough away from the most squirrelly parts of Detroit to not bear witness to extraneous shouts, curses, or worse.

“You an expert now?” the kid next to him asked, smirking.

Danny Jameson looked over to his left, regarding the looming dark skeleton of high rise buildings, shrouded in black from the lack of moonlight on this cloudy evening.  He could see the darkened spine of the city of Detroit proper through the opened door and couldn’t help but let a soft smile turn his lips.

His friend tossed his own ping pong ball, which was even less successful than Danny’s.  “Shit, kid, you been at school, what?  Six months?  You think you know Detroit already?”

Danny turned and flashed one of his toothy grins.  “Well, I am going to school to be an Analyst.”

“Did someone say ‘anal’?” another young man chuckled, walking up to the two others.  Danny rolled his eyes, checking off in his head the 14,000th time that particular joke had been uttered at his expense.

“Seriously, man,” Danny said, his thin, button-up shirt fluttering in this sudden new breeze.  The target of his derision was his closest friend Rollie, who had been an inner city kid from Detroit whose family couldn’t afford to get him out of the city for college.   Danny on the other hand was from an affluent family and chose the urban South Lake University because he wanted to broaden his horizons while studying at one of the more underrated business schools in the Midwest.  As the city of Detroit practically crumbled around it, South Lake University had sprouted among the weeds, attracting some of the sharpest minds in the country.  Danny’s father had remarked that the future business leaders of America were going to come from South Lake, flowering under the thick looming tree of Detroit.  A tree that had been slowly rotting from the inside over the past four decades, but a tree nonetheless, that was starting to bud again.  Many suspected the influx of rich college students passing through South Lake University, and then sticking around, had something to do with that.

Danny’s dad had been proud of him for his acceptance to South Lake, and even more proud that he chose to attend, when he had several other schools chasing after him.  But his dad also knew the area, and he would readily admit, if asked, that he would have preferred his son had made a different choice.  Most of Danny’s closest friends at the small Michigan school were there on academic scholarships, hoping that maybe this small town college in Detroit’s southern shadow might just give them their first step out of the poverty-stricken city and Southeast towards better things.  Danny often wondered if they resented his family and his wealthy upbringing, but if 20-year-old boys were anything, they were equal opportunity assholes.

“It’s not such a bad place,” Danny continued, setting down his half empty beer bottle.  Once his analyst brain started working, the desire to do most other activities faded away, and he very rarely allowed that brain to be subdued by alcohol.  Especially this cheap shit.

“You gonna save the city?” Rollie asked, smirking at his friend.  “Dude, I grew up here.  The man’s been tryin’ to save it almost my whole life.  Nothing’s changed yet.”

In truth, Detroit was an example of American Industry that was quickly drifting into the past.  Iron and thick metal were being replaced by carbon fiber and microchips, and while Detroit was desperately trying to adapt to this long coming shift in production focus, it was like trying to steer an aircraft carrier while sleek, light cigarette boats swarmed all around it.  It didn’t hurt that several years’ worth of recent South Lake graduates had moved into the city, and were doing their best to try and change course.

Danny was still looking out at the tall buildings, shrouded by a suddenly deep lack of light.  “I don’t think it even needs saving, Roll.  Just needs someone to show the world what it’s still capable of.”

Rollie turned towards a small group of other fraternity brothers, who rolled their eyes almost in unison.  This wasn’t the first time they’d heard this conversation.  Danny had never said anything about pursuing a political career to them, but when he wasn’t around, they often called him ‘Junior Senator Jameson’ after his father.  Danny could sense the impending ridicule.  He half-heartedly tossed the ping pong ball, which struck the table and bounced wide right of the small plastic cup.  Leaving his beer bottle where it was, he turned from the game and faced the breeze coming in through the open garage door.

“I’m going to head back to the dorm.  Gotta work on a paper tomorrow.”

“Come on, man,” Rollie complained.  “We’re just shitting with you.”

Danny smirked, and Rollie knew they weren’t going to convince him to stay.  “I’ll check you guys later.”

Within a few minutes, the white frat house with attached garage disappeared behind him as Danny walked determinedly down the sidewalk, his hands crammed neatly in jean pockets.  As his analyst mind rolled over, he weaved close to the boarded up brick buildings that made up the outskirts of the warehouse district.  A smile creased his face as he thought about where he’d come from, a dark-skinned teenager among the swath of Caucasian yuppies.  Growing up in the Maryland suburbs where he was treated as a subtle outsider from neighbors who would have scoffed, aghast at the mere suggestion that they might be racist.  The truth was regardless of the upper class white neighbor’s behavior, he never felt like he really belonged there.  Ironically, here he was in Detroit, hanging out with his frat brothers, and there was a still a sense that he didn’t belong.  Sure, he looked like them, but he came from a totally different place.

Where so many of his friends at school grew up surrounded by crumbling brick and hastily nailed up boards, he had walked past iron gates wrapped with Ivy and luscious green parks on the way to his bus stop.  That was when he even took the bus, as most of the time he was transported to school by a paid driver.  As he walked, he could almost see the street lights straining under overloaded circuits, and a few of them actually threatened to blink out before his eyes, drawing the shadows nearer to his path of travel.  Danny was a typical 20-year-old kid, feeling invincible, even though the frat house was off the beaten path and this particular walk was far different than the ones he used to take down Primrose Lane in his gated community back home. As he walked, his eyes roamed hungrily over the broken down buildings that were once a vibrant community of neighborhood shops and locally owned union warehouses, offering hundreds of jobs to the locals.  Most who walked by this row of broken shells would have shaken their head in sadness, but Danny saw not a reason to be sad, but an opportunity to be great again.  The domino effect of his neighborhood had begun as these warehouses had gone under, which had reduced foot traffic, forcing the shops closed, which left thousands out of work, and what seemed like overnight, the entire neighborhood nearly ceased to exist.  It seemed too implausible.  There should be something someone could do about it.  Unlike so many other young adults his age, Danny felt like that someone could be him.  Not just could be him.  It should be him.

While politics did run in the Jameson bloodline, until this moment, Danny hadn’t even really considered the possibility.  He had been student body president at Pleasant Valley High School, but that was more a popularity contest than anything.  Then again, all of politics was, wasn’t it?  Did he really think he could do it?  He’d been going to South Lake University’s surprisingly well established business school for three semesters and as he wandered through the dark streets, a newly christened sophomore, the possible direction of his entire life started coming together in his mind.  He smiled more broadly.

Then he stopped, his eyes darting to the right, towards one of the dark and looming, boarded up buildings.

What was that noise?

The frat house was about six blocks from campus, and the trek from one to the other traversed some of the more questionable parts of this small Detroit suburb, which had made Danny’s parents nervous when they first visited the campus.  Since a majority of the students on campus were from the mean streets of Detroit anyway, many of them were accustomed to this type of commute, but Danny’s parents hadn’t been.  For the most part, Danny himself had avoided it, too, but suddenly and unexpectedly he found himself in the middle of one of these ramshackle neighborhoods and in the dark of night no less.  The young man had always considered himself smart, but quite suddenly this long walk back to campus felt like a pretty dumb move.

A thin scrape and click came again, this time a little bit closer.  An impatient tap of a pencil on the desk of an irate teacher, followed by a chalkboard scratch. The 20-year-old college kid was not a paranoid person by any stretch, but that noise did not sound… right.  It sounded like a single long fingernail drawing a jagged trench down a blackboard, and gave him the same kind chills.  One of those frigid Northeast winters where the back of your jacket had come untucked, and that subzero wind swept straight up your spine.  It was a sound he had heard before, somewhere deep in his sub-conscious, but he couldn’t quite recall the source.  Putting his eyes back forward, Danny continued walking, picking up his pace just a little.  Up ahead he could see the street lights flickering, but staying lit, even though all around him they had dimmed to the point of near blackness.

Scrape click.

His heart thumped.  That familiar sound…a sound he knew, but in these surroundings, it was a sound that was inherently foreign.

Scrape click.

Danny picked up his pace, not wanting to break into a run, because he was a 20-year-old man and that would be the act of a scared child.  Men his age had a stupid amount of macho resistance, and he would be damned if he went running back to school, arms flailing like a frightened twelve-year-old.

This time, there was no scrape click.  There was something else.  It was an almost breathy snort from just to his left and behind him.  Where the scrapes had come from his right, this one was on the other side, and it wasn’t just a snort, but a grumbling, husky pant.  It sounded like a pair of dark nostrils flaring in the equally dark Detroit night.  It was an unnatural sound.  One that would have been normal in certain circumstances, but here, in this urban sprawl, it was a noise that simply did not belong.  Like the scraping and clicking, this other sound triggered a strange memory in his head.  A completely random event from his childhood that immediately thrust to the surface.

Growing up in his small Annapolis neighborhood, Danny and his parents would often visit the National Zoo.  He’d spent many hours there, underneath the dull yellow sun, soaking in the wonder of nature encased within the tightly controlled suburbia.  Animals in their cages performing for the human beings in their own sort of middle class cage.  Over three separate summers, during that young impressionable time when Danny was infatuated with anything with more legs and fur than he had, they visited the National Zoo almost constantly.  His father was philanthropic, and the Zoo was one of the benefactors of his charitable donations, so they made the most of their high rolling perks.

Over those three years, Danny must have heard that sound countless times…so many times that he was surprised he couldn’t immediately place it.  However, that familiar scrape click had come across large outcroppings of wilderness framed rocks, not in the middle of the dark, urban night, with boarded up buildings replacing plush green trees.  That scrape click felt like it had belonged where it was, not completely out of its element.

That scrape click had been the slow, stalking gait of a large white wolf, who had been circling the zoo helper as he entered his cage with his next meal.

Scrape click.

The memory was clear now.  Those narrow, piercing green eyes focused tightly on the middle aged man who had wandered into his territory, carrying a bag of meat.  The eyes that said the creature would be just as happy leaping on the man and dining on him as he would be taking the offered meal from the bag.  As the large wolf roamed diagonally across that large rock, its eyes never moved from the invading presence, even as its long, dark claws scraped over the hard surface, then clicked with every cautious step.

Scrape click.

Snort.

Danny’s last visit to the National Zoo had been about three years ago, and it had lost much of its luster in that final year.  There were only so many times, even as an eager youth, that you could visit the same animals and come away impressed.  But he still remembered that scene in the early fall morning.  The focused green eyes and those scraping claws, the two soft bursts of steam coming from the wolf’s nostrils as he acquired this foreign scent.

Danny picked up his pace.  He was sure his brain was just translating those sounds wrong.  Besides, the scraping and clicking wasn’t coming frequently enough to be a four-legged creature.  His brain tried to rationalize it, while his legs picked up their pace even more.  Yes, his brain was rationalizing strange noises, but the fact remained that there had been strange noises, and at this time of night in this neighborhood, the likelihood of human predators was still very high.  He felt a sudden need to make a mad dash for campus, which now sat just three blocks ahead.  The street lights flanking the campus green were bright, warm and inviting.

Scrape click.  Scrape click.  Scrape click.

Danny Jameson broke into a run.  His 20-year-old male bravado scattered into the wind like a pile of dry leaves, and he dashed forward, keeping his eyes focused on the open arms of the expansive campus ahead of him.  The shuttered and broken buildings seemed to fall away, leading to the impeccable well-manicured greens, bricks, and ivy of this small oasis in the middle of blemished urban sprawl.  He reached the next street and picked up his pace even faster.  His own breath was coming in short gasps, and he wished he had run track in high school like his dad wanted him to, but he could no longer hear the scrape and click, which he considered a blessing.  The next street loomed right ahead of him, and just beyond was South Lake University… his home.  He smirked and hoped that none of the young freshman college girls were roaming around to see him running home like a scared ten-year-old.

His eyes were so focused on the closely mowed green grass of the school that he didn’t even see the black blur lumber towards him from the alley to his right.  It was a large, broad shape, held up on two narrow, crooked legs.  It was a blessing that Danny Jameson never saw it coming.  He never saw those slim green slits glaring at him with inhuman malice.  He never saw the split of yellow-white teeth and the strands of brown drool sliding from between clenched fangs.  He never heard those last scrape clicks as the creature inched slightly forward, tensed, and then leaped.

The first impact of the massive thing struck Danny broadside, knocking his glasses from his head and sending them scattering across the uneven pavement just a block from his destination.  He was swarmed by a bizarre mass of wet black fur as he fell and struck his head on the concrete, a white flash behind his eyes bringing deep, swift blackness.

Unlike the large creature that draped over the fallen college student, the blackness in his eyes was soft and merciful.

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