Apologies, this hasn’t been proofread yet.
A few days ago…
A spider crouched in the corner.
As a rule, Elinor King hated spiders, loathed them with a fiery passion. She wouldn’t call it a phobia, exactly, but they bothered her. It was a black fuzzy one, too, the kind that jumped.
Her skin crawled as she imagined it landing on her.
She tried not to think of it as a bad omen, a portent of things to come. Ellie had a lot on her mind at the moment and a terrible feeling of foreboding, which she couldn’t shake. It was much easier to focus on the problem at hand.
Namely, a spider in need of squashing.
Ellie slipped off her sneaker and approached it slowly. The spider darted to the left, evidently sensing her movement. Ellie stopped, standing perfectly still, waiting for it to relax again so she could pounce.
Unfortunately, the delay gave her time to think.
She lived on the second floor of a low rent apartment complex. And her place faced a swimming pool in the center.
Outside young children splashed and played, kicking their feet as they learned how to swim. They sounded happy, without a care in the world.
Ellie was a hot mess.
She hadn’t been sleeping much, things were tense at work, and worst of all, Ellie had some nagging doubts about her live-in boyfriend, Dave Miller, she couldn’t lay to rest.
Things between them were bad to begin with, but not crappy enough to leave. They hadn’t made love in weeks, argued about money all the time, and she wasn’t happy anymore.
Ellie was about to take it to a whole new level.
Dave liked to run her down in front of his friends. Whenever she confronted him about it, Dave said he’d been joking and suggested she should lighten up. Only, Ellie didn’t find it funny. And he continued to do it, even though she’d told him several times it bothered her.
It was only a matter of time before this thing ends. Who knows? Maybe tonight was the night.
It was nearly six o’clock. Dave would be arriving any second now. When he got home, things would change between them. She had to ask him a critical question. One Ellie feared she already knew the answer to.
She swallowed the sudden lump in her throat and turned her attention back to the matter at hand.
Ha. Gotcha, Charlotte.
Only this wasn’t a friendly arachnid weaving messages into her web.
The spider settled once more. With a war cry, Ellie swatted it with her shoe a couple of times, and then picked up the corpse with a paper towel. Ellie deposited it in the garbage can, washed her hands, and examined the rest of the room for more insect intruders.
There must be more of those furry little bastards around here somewhere.
She’d spent more than one sleepless night on spidey patrol.
Just then, Dave walked in the door. And Ellie immediately tensed.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hey,” Ellie replied awkwardly.
At one time, she would’ve wrapped her arms around him, kissed him, eager to be back in his arms again. The hours they spent apart had felt like years. Now, she couldn’t wait to get away from him.
He was a handsome man with light brown hair streaked with blond, hazel eyes, an inch under six feet tall. Dave was fit from spending so much time working outdoors.
Since losing his full-time job as a corrections officer, Dave worked as a landscaper part-time, and his skin was tanned a golden brown. He wore a pair of faded jeans and a green polo shirt. It was stained with sweat under his arms and down the middle of his back.
Shortly after they’d moved in together, he’d been let go due to budget cuts. He’d gone from making thirty thousand a year to barely making ends meet. It was one hell of a pay cut, but he hadn’t been able to find a gig in his field.
Dave had tried everything. Every Sunday morning, he poured over the classified section. He’d registered at every single employment site he could find online. And he’d had a handful of interviews, but no offers. Since their income had been cut in half, they’d had to tighten their belts.
Ellie suspected he resented the money she made, although he’d never directly said so. It had never mattered to her, who earned more, or who did what. She’d seen it as contributing to their household.
Evidently, Dave was keeping score.
His eyes narrowed. “Why are you lookin’ at me like that?”
This was her opening. All Ellie had to do was say the words, but she choked.
Once I start this dance I’ve gotta finish it.
“Nothin’. Um, I killed a spider.” She nodded to the paper towel laying on top of the garbage.
At one time, he would’ve laughed, teased her about being afraid of a little bitty bug.
There hadn’t been much laughter between the two of them lately. Ellie missed the sound of it, the connection with him, a shared future and dreams. They’d been a couple, but now they felt like roommates and every day they drifted even further apart. He barely noticed her anymore.
In the early days of their relationship, she’d asked Dave to kill the creepy crawlies, but he’d insisted on teaching her how to do it herself. It sounded silly, but Ellie had wanted him to take care of it. In a strange way, protecting her from gross bugs was chivalrous, but Dave didn’t see it that way.
Zane killed your spiders. You didn’t even have to ask. Ellie deliberately shoved the sly inner voice away.
“How was work?” she asked, floundering for something to say.
“Backbreakin’, as usual.”
All trace of humor drained from his face.
Just like that, Dave was icy once more.
He grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat in a recliner in front of the television. When Dave wasn’t at work, or in front of the boob tube, he spent time with his friends. All of them were former military guys. They’d had a couple of cookouts and a card night, but Ellie didn’t like them much, which was strange.
Elie’s father was a career Navy man, and her brother, Tommy King, had been a SEAL until he’d retired to join the Black Star Security team. She’d grown up around military men, but Ellie didn’t like these guys. Something about them was off, although she couldn’t quite put her finger on what exactly.
At first, she’d tried to discourage Dave from hanging out with them. All they did was complain and whine about the government. Some of the things they said bothered Ellie, but Dave defended them. They’d had a massive argument about it, so she’d given in.
And when he’d started spending more and more time with them, she’d been grateful for the reprieve. It got him out of the house. Anything was better than one of their screaming matches. Or the chilly silence.
And lately, he’d gotten even more distant.
“Can we talk a minute?”
“Can’t it wait?” He already settled on ESPN. “I just wanna watch the game.”
No, it can’t. It’s time.
“No.” She stepped between him and the TV.
For once, she wouldn’t allow him to ignore her. Ellie needed some answers.
Dave sighed. “Fine. What is it?”
Now or never. Come on, do it.
She took a deep breath, steeling herself. “Remember how my master keycard went missin’?”
Ellie worked for Lawson Chemical, and security was tight. Lawson was a multinational conglomerate, which manufactured everything from household cleaners to pharmaceuticals.
They also had a lot of government contracts, in addition to private research and development. She’d been working on the Anubis Project for a year, which had come from the Department of Defense, and those DOD guys didn’t mess around.
Three days ago, she hadn’t been able to find her swipe card. Ellie kept it in a special pocket in her purse, so she wouldn’t lose the damn thing. Securing the card was even part of her nightly routine. When it went missing, she’d ripped the house apart, as well as her car, and the office searching for it.
And she hadn’t told anyone at work it had gone missing.
Ellie was scared to lose her job, so she’d kept it quiet. The government had impressed upon them the importance of security before she’d been hired for the project. And once she found out what Anubis was all about, Ellie could see why. They’d actually said if she lost the key card, Ellie should come straight to human resources, instead of her supervisors.
In other words, she’d be fired.
“Yeah?” He shrugged, as though it didn’t matter.
“I found it when I got in my truck this morning.”
The swipe card had mysteriously shown up on the floorboard, peeking out from beneath the floormat, which didn’t make any sense. She’d covered every square inch of it, multiple times. There’s no possible way she missed it.
Ellie hadn’t gotten the chance to tell him earlier. Dave had left for work two hours before she did, which was strange. His shift hadn’t started until ten a.m. It was yet another bizarre coincidence.
“That’s great news.” His expression was smooth, blank. “I knew you were dreadin’ the Friday morning meetin’.”
Whenever she met with her supervisor, Ellie had to show him the key card, as an added safety measure. She’d been counting down the days, like a condemned woman. Ellie had been a basket case all week, convinced she’d be fired.
And since her income covered the essentials like rent and groceries, they’d be out on the streets unless she found another job fast. They didn’t even have an emergency fund in place.
And then, like a miracle, the swipe card had just shown up.
She’s been too relieved, to think about it much, until later in the day. Her supervisor had left the lab, just before the end of work and his face had been pale, sweaty. When Ellie had asked him what was wrong, he refused to answer and muttered something about “calling DC” to inform them about a matter.
And now her imagination was on overload—the card’s mysterious departure and return, Dave and his friend’s views of the government, and their interest in her research.
It all added up to something unthinkable.
“Yeah, I’m relieved I found it.”
“I’m sure.” Dave offered a small, tight smile.
She bit her lower lip. Once she said this, Ellie could never take it back.
“What? Is there somethin’ you wanna ask me?”
“Did you take it?”
“Why on earth would I want your lab key?”
His reply had been automatic, as though he’d rehearsed it. Dave wasn’t upset, hurt that she suspected him? His reaction didn’t ring true.
“An excellent question. Maybe because of what I’ve been working on…?”
He didn’t speak, and she waited impatiently for him to respond.
Please let me wrong.
“Oh? And what have you been doin’?”
She sighed. “You know I can’t talk about it.”
She’d only applied to work on the project because it came with a big pay raise. The announcement had been purposely vague, and Ellie hadn’t known what she was getting into until it was too late.
At the time, keeping her missing card hush hush had seemed like a smart move, but now she was regretting not reporting the theft. If Ellie was right, and she was 99% percent sure she was, losing her job was the least of her worries.
The government was developing a new nerve agent.
Ellie had some ethical concerns with the government developing a chemical weapon but couldn’t do anything about it. It’s not like she was heading the project and could shut it down. Going up against the United States government was a losing proposition. She didn’t want to spend the rest of her life on the run like the female version of Snowden.
“What exactly are you accusin’ me of?” He stood, towering over Ellie, trying to intimidate her.
“I think you took my key. What are you and your friends up to?”
They’d been thicker than thieves lately. If she happened to walk in the room when they were talking on the phone, Dave refused to speak until she left. Most of the time, they met somewhere else, and Dave had been purposely vague when she’d asked questions.
She’d known something was up, but Ellie hadn’t investigated. And now something awful had been set in motion. Ellie just knew it.
“What are you and the government up to?”
“You know I can’t talk about it. Did you take my card?”
Dave set his jaw and didn’t respond.
“Was it Marshall? Does he have some kind of twisted plan?”
If the rest of his friends were sketchy, Marshall was unhinged. She’d heard him rant saying blood needed to be spilled, and another revolution was necessary. He trusted no one, never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like, and was super secretive, too.
The guy gave her creeps.
“Leave it alone, Ellie.”
“I can’t. Something’s wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“My boss was leaving the containment lab this evening, and he looked shaken.”
“Is he gonna call the feds?” Dave asked, not even bothering to be casual about the question.
“Why? Are you worried?”
They glared at one another. And then he whipped out his cell phone and texted somebody. Marshall?
Alarm bells rang in her head.
“Who did you text?”
He refused to answer.
“Dave, what have you gotten yourself into? What have you gotten me into?”
If he’d used the key card in the middle of the night, no one would have been at the facility. The custodians finished their work around 9 in the evening.
And it was only a matter of time until the FBI figure out her card had been misused if they didn’t have the information already. Since Ellie hadn’t reported the missing key, it looked as though she were in on it.
Oh, God. This can’t be happening.
Her knees turn to jelly, and she sagged against the wall. And to think, she’d been stressed about being fired.
“Dammit. Answer me, Dave.”
“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
“Yes, you do. I can see it on your face. Don’t lie to me. Whatever it is, tell me. I can take it.”
He clenched a fist. “I said, leave it alone.” Dave was angrier then she’d ever seen him before.
She took a step back. Dave could be emotionally abusive, grouchy, moody, but he’d never scared her until now. He wouldn’t physically hurt her, would he?
“Tell me what you did.”
Dave stood there, seething, lip curled.
“Did Marshall put you up to this? Look, we’ll go to the FBI and tell them everythin’ we know.” Hopefully, it would be enough to keep them out of jail.
“No, we won’t. You’ve done nothing wrong.” He took a step closer.
“But you have? Oh, my God.” Ellie closed her eyes. The room was spinning around her, rotating so fast, Ellie couldn’t catch her breath. “I can’t believe you’d do somethin’ so stupid. If—”
“Enough! Stop talking!” He roared, advancing on her.
She was stunned into silence. Dave had the strangest expression on his face, and she didn’t understand it. It’s almost as if he were silently pleading with her.
“Fine, if you won’t do something, I will.” Ellie headed for the door, but he snagged her arm.
“I can’t let you do this.”
“Let go of me,” Ellie tried to shake him off, but couldn’t break Dave’s hold on her.
Her purse, was all the way across the room, with her cell phone inside it. Assuming he released her, there’s no way she could call for help before he caught up with her. Besides, even if she did, it would take the police at least ten minutes to get here.
“Or what? What are you gonna do about it, huh?”
Not a damn thing.
She wasn’t strong enough to stop him, and they both knew it. This was one fight, she shouldn’t have picked.
“I’ll tell you exactly what you’re gonna do. Nothin’. When the FBI questions you, you’ll tell them you don’t know a damn thing, because you don’t.”
“Stop it.” She’d had enough of his crap. “I’m walkin’ out, and you’re—”
“You don’t wanna push me.” He said it with a quiet sort of menace. “Not now.”
“How can you talk to me like this?”
Dave shoved her.
Tears slid down her face, and she stumbled away from him, unable to believe her own ears. It’s like she didn’t know him at all.
“I’m tired of the way you talk to me. I’m the man of this house, not you. Or have you forgotten? I’m sick of not bein’ respected.” A white line formed around his mouth. “No, I’m sick of you.”
Ellie didn’t even think about it, she just hauled off and slapped his face.
They both stood there in stunned silence. The palm of her hand burned, and she’d left a small pink mark on his cheek.
And then his lips twisted. Dave grabbed Ellie by the shoulder, yanking her closer.
“No, Dave, stop. You don’t wanna do this.”
But he backhanded her, sending Ellie stumbling against the wall.
“The hell I don’t.”
She tried to run, but he placed an arm on either side of her, pinning her. Dave got in her face. His lip curled. It was almost a snarl.
Ellie swallowed, gripped by panic.
Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.
She trembled, trying to pull herself together.
“Are you afraid?”
“Yes.” It galled her to admit, but she’d never had anyone treat her this way, speak to her like this. She’d never seen him so volatile and didn’t know what to expect.
“What are you gonna do, if the FBI questions you?” Once again, he tried to communicate something with his gaze she didn’t quite understand.
“I won’t lie for you.”
He sighed in sheer exasperation. “I’m givin’ you an out, take it.”
She gulped. “What are you saying?” Had he just threatened her?
“Don’t make me do somethin’ we’ll both regret.”
Ellie gathered all her strength. “I want to leave. Now. Let me go.”
He seized her once more, slamming her back into the wall. Dave was much bigger than her, and he tossed her around like a rag doll, slapping her face, roughing her up. She didn’t stand a chance against him.
“No, please don’t! Stop!”
Ellie tumbled to the floor and tried to crawl away, but he seized her by the ankles, yanking her back toward him. Dave flipped her over, and he straddled her body, pinning her to the floor, while she tried to scratch and claw his face. He seized her wrists in one hand and bashed in her nose with the other.
And he didn’t stop hitting.
Until she blacked out.
Ever so slowly, painfully, Ellie picked herself up off the floor. She hurt everywhere, feeling like a big bruise.
Instantly, she was on guard, but there was no sign of Dave anywhere. Nothing but silence in the apartment and scream of sirens in the distance.
She limped to the window and looked outside. It was dark, and Dave’s car was gone.
How long have I been out?
Ellie didn’t have a clue, but she had to get out of there. She needed to be somewhere safe, where Dave wouldn’t follow her. Right now. Ellie needed to see Tommy.
Without thinking, Ellie grabbed her purse and ran for the door.
In the Black will be out on May 21st.
Read more about it here.