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About the Author

Dennis Latham has published stories in The Palmer Writer, Live Writers, VietNow, Byline, and Deep Outside SFFH. His novels, The Bad Season and Michael In Hell, are currently published by Page Free Press as CD ROM books. A Marine Vietnam veteran, he writes a bi-monthly newsletter for combat veterans, The S-2 Report, dealing with VA benefits and the psychological affect of war. He is working on a third novel, Something Evil. He has been among other things an ironworker, a bar bouncer, and a lead singer in a professional road band. Entering the University of Cincinnati at age forty, he graduated as an English Major in 1992. He currently lives in Guilford, Indiana.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Outside In: Review by A.L. Sirois

Shrieks

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If the young man in a wrinkled black suit had waited another hour that summer morning, I would have probably missed his dive off the Park Office Tower outdoor patio. I've always avoided the noon business lunch crowd and the line at the deli just inside the double doors leading to the fifteenth floor patio. I didn't fit the suit and tie crowd. I wore jeans at work and kept to myself. After a nasty divorce last year, my social self-confidence had taken a beating.

But at eleven o'clock, I was smoking at a shaded umbrella table with the only other person on the patio, the gorgeous Jenna Sparks, an advertising firm secretary, who had a lover named Mary.

We had met during the winter while smoking outside the lobby front entrance. She was one of the few people I knew in the building, other than Harvey, the security guard at the front desk, and the people in my VA Benefit office. Harvey told me Jenna was a lesbian. She proudly confirmed the story, which made me want her more.

Jenna knew how I felt and tempted me constantly. At age thirty, I still refused to acknowledge that sex drive killed brain function. I believed I could change her.

A hot breeze wafted Jenna's curly brown hair as I sat in the chair across from her. Wearing a short, sleeveless lime green dress cinched tight around her narrow waist, she crossed her legs to display more thigh, brushed her left hand through her hair, and arched back to push out her breasts.

"Hi, Mark." She smiled. "I'm just cooling it off."

"Stop messing with me."

I tried glancing over the umbrella up the remaining twenty floors of the glass tower. A flag jerked in the slight breeze, furled against blue sky. When I looked down and lit a Winston, I got lost in her brown fawn eyes. Her smooth white complexion was accented by bright red lipstick. She pulled a long, reed thin cigarette from a blue case and moved it back and forth between her lips as if sucking it.

"Stop it."

Jenna lit the cigarette and grinned, her teeth too white for a nicotine habit.

"It's my birthday next week," she said.

"How old?"

"Twenty-five. What would you like to give me?"

I inhaled deep.

"I know what you're thinking." She blew smoke and a kiss at me.

That's when the double doors opened, and the young man in the black suit walked past without a glance our way. He climbed the yard high, concrete safety wall, maintained perfect footing on the round iron railing, then spread his arms and did a swan dive across the narrow alley through the Chinese restaurant roof fourteen floors below.

Jenna's red lips formed a circle; her brown eyes bulged and smoke wafted from her nose as she held her breath. We heard a thud impact, a cracking crunch, and a clash like a thousand tin cans spilling on concrete.

Jenna's voice rose an octave. "What just happened?"

Crushing my cigarette, I stood and tried to remain calm. "He jumped."

"Oh, my God."

I walked to the wall and gripped the railing. I'm afraid of heights, and when I looked down, my stomach tingled like a quick roller-coaster dip. Traffic moved along the streets; people waited at crosswalks. A taller glass building across the street to my left reflected blue sky. I saw empty black tar and gravel roofs on the older smaller buildings beyond the Chinese restaurant. No one else had seen his jump, but people in the restaurant kitchen sure knew about it. The black tar roof had a circular hole about five feet wide.

Jenna now stood on my right. We heard faint frantic voices yelling what must have been Chinese. An oily black smoke wisp rose from the hole, spreading until it faded. A distant siren whooped.

Then, something weird happened.

Thick gray smoke rose from the opening, but didn't rise. Rolling sideways like fog, it formed a perfect circle around the hole. I felt Jenna's trembling fingers on my right hand.

"Do you think he's dead, Mark?"

I wanted to look at her because for once I had control, but I couldn't pull away from the gathering smoke, which seemed stuck to the roof. The sirens continued, louder, then stopped suddenly. Doors opened and slammed shut.

"No one could survive that fall. Did you know him?"

"I don't think so."

"Do you see that smoke?"

"That black smoke from before?"

I glanced at her. Perspiration dotted her forehead.

"No, the gray smoke."

"Where?"

"Around the hole in the roof, like fog."

"I just see the hole."

"Stop messing with me."

"I don't see any damn smoke." Small frown lines appeared at the bridge of her nose.

She was telling the truth, and I felt a chill. The gray smoke changed then, forming a ball with an elongated tail and floated upwards, like a balloon on a thick cord.

"Jesus, tell me you see it now."

"See what?"

It drifted across the narrow alley and hugged our building, still rising.

"Mark, see what?"

I released the railing and backed up a few feet.

"What is wrong with you?"

The gray smoke cloud stopped just above the patio, shifting patterns of dark and light gray thick enough to block the sky behind it. I thought I saw a vague human outline forming.

At the railing, Jenna glanced down at the restaurant roof, and then looked straight at the cloud.

"I don't see anything."

It shrieked. I don't know how else to describe the sound. Maybe like stadium speakers on extreme feedback. My heart stuck in my throat. I closed my eyes and covered my ears. A hot air blast, stinking of rotten meat, washed over me for a full ten seconds before the shriek stopped.

When I opened my eyes, Jenna leaned against the railing. Her lips curled to one side with the same disgusted look she gave street beggars. From the cloud behind her, two gray tendrils, like small twirling snakes, eased over her right shoulder as she took a puff off her cigarette.

I wanted to warn her, but I couldn't. She already thought I was crazy, or less of a man because of the way I seemed to react to the suicide.

The gray snakes entered each of her nostrils, even as she exhaled cigarette smoke. Like some bizarre vacuum cleaner, she sucked up the cloud only I could see, until it was gone. My eyes must have been the size of cueballs. My pulse throbbed at my temples. I tasted the rotten meat odor on my tongue.

Jenna crushed her cigarette against the railing. Her eyebrows titled toward her nose. I stared, expecting some physical change in her, a puffing up or something, but she appeared normal.

"Are you okay, Jenna?"

"Why are you staring at me like that?"

"You sure you're okay?"

"Yes. Your acting crazy is getting on my nerves." Without turning, she dropped her cigarette over the railing. "I guess I won't be ordering any more meat dishes at China Gate."

Jenna was in control again, beautiful, but hard as nails. The double doors opened and two uniformed police officers came out on the patio.

About 9:30 the next morning, the office secretary, Libby, told me I had a visitor. He dropped a magazine and stood when I entered the reception area. I recognized him from a newspaper picture. He had been wounded in a shootout with a bank robber while trying to cash his paycheck. He had close-cropped gray hair, blue eyes, and a square jaw with just a hint of sagging beneath his chin. His nose was slightly crooked. I figured him to be about fifty and maybe ex-military.

"Mark Wright?" he said, reaching out.

"Yes." I shook his sandpaper rough hand.

"I'm Detective Victor Prentiss."

"Homicide, right?" I said, before he could show me his badge. "I saw you in the paper last year."

His cheeks went a pinkish red. "Yeah, right."

"I have a good recall for faces."

"Is there some place we can talk?"

"Step into my office."

My cubbyhole, with a bookshelf desk and a chair on wheels, offered some privacy since the VA home inspector in the next cubbyhole was in training out of town. The wall behind me was one solid window with a street view one floor below. I spent many afternoons watching people out that window. I learned most men above age twenty-five were going bald. It made me glad I had thick hair because I had enough problems.

Detective Prentiss sat in the client chair on the left side of my desk. I turned my chair to face him.

He smiled, but I'm sure it was more a courtesy than being friendly. "What is it you do here?"

"I help veterans with VA claims and some job referrals."

He pointed to the USMC on my right forearm. "You were in the Marine Corps?"

I nodded. "And you?"

"Vietnam."

"I thought so. I was in Beirut."

"When they bombed the barracks?"

"Yeah. I rode the building to the ground. I broke my foot in three places, but I walked out."

"You were lucky." Prentiss cleared his throat. "I spoke to a Jenna Sparks a few minutes ago. You were with her when Steven Babcock jumped."

"So that was his name. I didn't know him."

"He had just come back after a nervous breakdown."

"He looked awful young to go nuts."

"He was also about to be fired for stealing money."

"I guess some people have a lot of problems."

Prentiss cleared his throat again, sighed, and tugged at his right ear. Then, he looked into my eyes. "Miss Sparks said you acted strange after he jumped. Did you see something she didn't?"

I would sound like a nut if I told him.

"No. I guess I kind of went into shock."

"So, he walked out and jumped and didn't say anything?"

"Not a word."

Prentiss stared out the window then shrugged, rising. "I've taken enough of your time."

"That's it?"

"I believe so."

We shook hands and I walked him out in the hall where he pushed the elevator button.

"Did Jenna seem all right to you?" I said.

Prentiss smiled. "She looks as good as any woman I've met."

"Looks aside. I mean does she seem normal to you?"

"Normal?"

"I mean, did she act weird or anything?"

The elevator doors slid open. Prentiss glanced at me sideways, arching his brow.

"She seemed fine."

"Thanks. I was just wondering."

The detective stared at me as the doors closed. I could imagine his mental wheels turning. I had created an air of suspicion. But I had an uneasy feeling Jenna had become the dead Steven Babcock.

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