Hooray for Saturday Scenes! I’ve shared all from Valkyrie that’s currently worth sharing (you can start with the first installment here if you missed it) so it’s time to pillage another novel from the backlog. Chaos Theory is an Alice in Wonderland pastiche that, with some vigorous tweaking, will fit in the same continuity as Ignition, the novel I’m about to shop. It stars a grumpy grad student, and we meet him here coping with the fact that the dismal house he rents is again without power.
Derek found himself in an exceedingly bad mood that afternoon. This was not an unusual situation; he was so frequently in a foul mood that he had developed a sort of ranking system for them, named after the actors who had played James Bond. A George Lazenby was a mild irritation, the sort that would usually fade away without incident if he could successfully distract himself. In the event of a Sean Connery, get out of the way. He’d only had a Connery once, and it ended with a broken hand and some compulsory community service.
Right now, he was wavering somewhere between a Craig and a Brosnan. The handyman had called, asked a few cryptic questions, and confirmed that they would be there that afternoon. He had thought about going out somewhere and attempting to salvage at least some of his day off, but now he was stuck waiting. But at least this would get sorted out today, and Mrs. Krakarian had miraculously agreed to pay, so he tried to think positively.
His frequent bad moods did have one bright side, which kept his friends from trying to throw him over a cliff any more frequently than friends usually did and Jennifer from ditching him altogether: when he could, he channeled his frustration into productivity. The house was never tidier than when he was well and truly pissed off. The lack of power complicated matters (which, naturally, did not improve his mood), but he rigged up a sort of headlamp by sticking his trusty flashlight through the gap in an old baseball hat and scrubbed sinks, bagged garbage, swept, shone mirrors, and generally let his mind slip into its James Bond fugue state. He was so remarkably effective at this, in fact, that the doorbell rang (a shrill tone that was less ding-dong and more shrieks of the forgotten damned) for quite some time before he registered the sound. He scrambled to the door and tore it open.
He stared into the yard for half a moment, wondering why no one was at the door. Then the rest of his brain engaged, and he dropped his glance several inches. A petite woman in coveralls stood on the doorstep, her high brunette ponytail not even up to his shoulder. A streak of purple of a shade almost indistinguishable from the brown ran over her right temple. She glanced him up and down, her eyebrow quirking slightly, but her amber eyes betraying nothing further. “Um, Derek McAllister?” she said, looking at the clipboard propped against her hip.
Derek glanced down at himself, having momentarily forgotten the headgear and the yellow rubber gloves, not to mention the fact that he hadn’t changed his colorblind outfit. He knocked the hat off, causing the flashlight to roll off into a corner. “Yes, that’s me.”
“Hmm,” she said. She seemed to be saying rather a lot with that half-syllable, but he couldn’t decide exactly what. “Having some trouble with the power, then?” Her voice had a rather posh accent and a rich, velvety undercurrent that made him think, bewilderingly, of fur.
If there were a hamster in Derek’s head, it had just registered the presence of a wheel and was contemplating what purpose it might serve. “You’re the handyman?”
She grinned. It was a chimpanzee sort of grin, the kind that seemed focused more on displaying as many teeth as possible than communicating any sort of amusement or mirth. “More or less. Breaker’s in the basement?”
“Oh. Right. Yes, downstairs,” he said, but she’d already slipped past him inside. He stripped off the gloves, fumbled for the dropped flashlight, and rushed to catch her up, snagging his foot on one of the more severe pits in the floor and nearly knocking the both of them down the stairs.
He felt like he needed to regain control of the situation, but he wasn’t sure exactly what that would require, or what even the situation was. “So, erm, what’s your name?” he tried. He usually had a gentlemanly sort of charm that went over well with the ladies (much to Jennifer’s chagrin), but it never served him well when he was in one of his James Bond-level moods. The irony of this, if he ever picked up on it, would likely escalate things by another actor or two.
“Katrina,” she replied readily enough, though she didn’t offer to elaborate. She picked her way nimbly across the darkened floor and made straight for the rusted box.
Derek followed with considerably less agility. “You must be able to see in the dark,” he joked.
That grin again. “More or less,” she purred. “You can make yourself useful with that flashlight, though.”
He maneuvered himself to a step or two behind her and aimed the little device at the rusted hunk of metal that was currently holding his electricity hostage. She looked it over, whistled softly under her breath, and bent to rummage in the bulky blue toolbox he hadn’t noticed her carrying. She came back up with a sledgehammer of such a size that it looked like it should knock her over. Derek felt that this was an unusual tool for an electrician, and opened his mouth to offer his opinion to that effect, but while he was still processing this thought, she choked up on the long wooden handle like a ‘roided-up batter preparing for the pitch that will be smashed over the fence into a different time zone, and took a mighty swing.
Derek heard a strangled yelp, and it took him a moment to realize that it had come from him. He steadied his flashlight, expecting to see a ruined lump, or possibly a hole in the wall. To his astonishment, the door of his traitorous breaker box sat patiently open, unaware that anything unusual had happened. The whole thing did hang crookedly on the wall, but this was certainly nothing out of the ordinary. This was, after all, the sort of house where straight lines were a cause for concern, and squared right angles justification for outright panic.
Katrina dropped her massive Nordic hammer carelessly back into the shadows, where it disappeared without a sound. Her amber eyes widened just a hair as she examined the contents of the newly exposed console. “Impressive,” she murmured. “I’ve never actually seen one of these outside of a book. A very, very old book. Quite a house you have here, Mr. McAllister,” she added, a slight change in tone indicating that she was addressing him, and that she was suppressing another grin.
“It’s a rental,” he replied, rather more weakly than he had intended. It wasn’t that he never brought people around, but he’d usually had enough time to prepare them for the place’s quirks, in a charming and self-deprecating manner, of course, that he never felt overly self-conscious about the matter. He was rather dismayed by the demonstration of how the place must look to someone who hadn’t been sufficiently prepared.
“How long have the breakers been tripping?” she asked, not acknowledging that she’d heard him.
“Five, maybe six months,” he said. “How can you tell?”
Again, she basically ignored him. “Well, I can probably get it to stop that, but it would be better to rewire the whole box so it’s not going through a master. That’ll take longer, though.”
“Can you do that?”
“Of course,” she replied, mildly offended. She seemed to take his question as assent, and produced a screwdriver from a pocket and began to fiddle with the box.
Derek shifted the flashlight to his other hand. The muscles in his arm began to ache. He felt quite useless, like a kid hanging around getting in the way of the grownups. She seemed rather indifferent to his presence, but he rather thought that he should leave the light for her somehow. He looked around for a way to rig up the flashlight, still rooted in uncertainty to his spot.
A flash and a buzz from the toolbox. Katrina didn’t appear to notice, deeply engrossed in her work. She’d already removed the housing of the breaker box, and was starting to address the wiring behind. Derek stepped forward for a closer look. On top of the indeterminate mass of metal and wooden implements sat a blocky device that looked almost, but not entirely, like a smartphone. Instead of a single large screen, it seemed to be comprised of several smaller ones, each flashing in a different combination of colors and odd abstract patterns. It shook and vibrated its way across the pile, though it didn’t set everything else to rattling noisily as it should have done. Thinking that he might make himself at least marginally useful, he bent down for it. “Hey, your phone’s ringing,” he said.
The electrician’s brown head whipped in his direction, and she reached for his arm. “No, don’t touch–” she cried, and her rough, calloused hand closed on his wrist a fraction of a second before the fingers of his other hand clasped the flashing gadget. It felt oddly heavy and warm to the touch, not at all like the cool plastic and glass he expected. It also sent a jolt through his entire body, knocking him backwards and off his feet. If pressed, he would have described the sensation as rather akin to what it might feel like to grab onto an electrified fence, when the surge of power shocks your hands into rigidity so you couldn’t let go even if you wanted to. This was a rather fair description, though unfortunately it was wholly inaccurate.