"Come into the kitchen."
Johnny couldn't for the life of him figure out what Lyle was so pissed about. Everything had been going beautifully. They hadn't been the first ones into the acid vacuum left by last year's busts, but they had been hot on the heels and there was a lot of money to be made. Ever since Ivan had hooked them up with a connection in Russia that would ship them Ergotamine by the half-kilo in air sealed coffee packages, they'd been pulling in about five grand a month. So, what was the problem?
"The fucking problem is that this isn't fucking acid." Lyle held the blotter like a used condom.
"What do you mean it isn't acid?"
"I mean it's not lysergic acid di-ethylamide twenty fucking five."
"What is it then?"
"This is the substance Dr. Bronski was working towards when he disappeared. It took me almost a year to work out the synthesis, but this is it. This is a lysergic compound Hoffman never imagined."
Johnny's heart was in his throat. "So what happens if you eat it?"
Lyle paused, maybe for drama, more likely from fear. "I have no idea."
Visions of teenagers dropping dead all over the city flashed through Johnny's head. "Fuck."
"So what are we going to do?"
"What do you think we're going to do?"
"I have a horrible feeling we're about to eat whatever that is you're holding and see what happens to us."
"Well," Lyle said lifting his fist in a universal gesture, "at least one of us is."
They dropped their fists one, two, three times. Johnny chose paper.
Johnny dealt another hand of crazy eights. Five hits of something that wasn't quite acid were sitting on the corner of the table. The other five hits were gone. They had figured that at least someone would take that much, so that was how much they had to test.
"So what else do we know about it?" Johnny was asking.
Lyle lay his cards face down on the table, stood up and walked wordlessly over to his dresser. From the top drawer he pulled out a dozen or so sheets of legal sized paper. He handed them to Johnny. They were covered in chemical equations, sketches of atomic structure and scribblings which Johnny couldn't tell whether it was some sort of short hand or just incredibly bad handwriting. In all, it told him nothing.
"This tells me nothing."
"That would tell a lot of things to a lot of people, but the one thing that it will tell no-one is what sort of effects this chemical will have on the human brain. How long has it been?"
Johnny looked at the clock. "Fifteen minutes."
Lyle picked up his cards and made his play. Johnny looked at the chemical diagrams for a few moments longer, as though expecting them to suddenly make sense. Finally he put them down, considered Lyle's play, looked at his own hand, and drew a card.
"Kinda like when Hoffman first discovered the effects of acid by accident, eh?" Johnny said diplomatically as play continued. "And then tested it on himself to study it."
"Yeah," Lyle agreed, "only Hoffman didn't have two hundred and some teenagers as unwilling guinea pigs. That and he wasn't committing a criminal offence when he synthed the acid in the first place. Fuck! How long has it been?"
"How long does this take?"
"What? You said yourself we don't know anything about it."
"No. How long does acid take? I've never done it before."
Johnny felt his jaw drop. He had heard wrong. "You've never done what before?"
"Acid, you fucking idiot." The stress had driven Lyle almost to the point of tears.
"Fuck! You're joking me. Why didn't you say something?" Johnny knew he should have been the one to eat it. It had been his fuck-up, he should have been the one to pay for it. And now here Lyle was, a complete bloody mess on their kitchen table and how would they ever know what the effects had been if he had nothing to compare it to? But what did it matter, really? They weren't trying to do science here, at least Johnny wasn't. So long as Lyle came through the other side alive, kicking and sane, they had nothing to worry about. They had nothing to worry about. Right?
"Don't worry," Johnny said, "it will be fine. I'll talk you through it. It usually takes like twenty minutes to half an hour. We'll just keep playing cards and you tell me what you're feeling. Everything will be fine."
Would it be fine? Fucked if he knew.
"I'm feeling a little light-headed," Lyle said ten minutes later, "The cards feel sweaty and the light seems brighter than before."
Johnny let out a sigh of relief. "You're having your first acid trip, man. Enjoy."
Lyle laughed. "An hour ago, I would have cried to find out that I had synthesized nothing more than an analog of acid. But now, it's maybe the best news I can remember ever getting. Well, what should we do? Have a drink to celebrate? Heh... I guess I'm not going to need one."
"Sure, we'll do whatever you want, man. Let's just play a couple more games of cards to be sure your head's not going to explode or something."
"Why not?" Lyle said, "I don't mind kicking your ass for a few more rounds until things get too crazy."
And it was true. Johnny had lost about five straight hands. He seemed to be losing faster every time. He drew eight cards and heard Lyle laugh a sort of defeated laugh.
"Explains why Bronski disappeared."
Johnny grunted. "Huh?"
"He must have just run away. Been too embarrassed to reveal that he was chasing a dead end after how enthusiastic he had been in his papers." Lyle slapped his hand down on his notes for emphasis. "Hard to get people excited about a new, more complicated and expensive, synthesis for an illegal hallucino-- Why the hell would you do that?"
Johnny stopped suddenly. "Do what?"
"Play the two of spades when you know damn well that I have the queen."
Johnny looked at the card he was holding in his left hand, about to play. It was face down with its back to Lyle. "How would I know you have the queen of spades, Lyle."
Lyle grimaced. "Well, I do."
"And how did you know what I was about to play?" Johnny flipped over the two of spades. "Are these cards marked?"
"No," Lyle said, "I think I must have just seen your hand by accident or something."
Johnny looked instinctively behind him for a mirror he knew wasn't there, shrugged and said "pick up two cards."
Lyle drew two cards, narrowed his eyes and shook his head. "Weird," he said, "I could have swore I knew what I was going to draw before I drew them."
"It's the acid," Johnny said, "fucking with your sense of time. It will do that."
Lyle shrugged and threw down the queen of spades. Resignedly, Johnny began the long process of drawing seven cards.
"Ace of hearts," Lyle said just as Johnny drew it. Johnny looked over his shoulder again. Still nothing. He dropped his cards on the table. "All right, I give up. What's the trick."
Lyle shook his head and said "I just had a feeling."
Johnny put a finger on the draw pile. "Oh yeah? Well, do you have a feeling about this one?"
"Nine of clubs."
Johnny hesitated for a moment. He looked at the back of the card. He couldn't see any markings, but they wouldn't be very effective if they were obvious. "And the one beneath it?"
"Eight of diamonds."
Johnny flipped the nine of clubs and followed it with the eight of diamonds. Lyle picked up the deck in his hand and started naming cards as he flipped them, faster and faster. "Three of hearts. King of hearts, four of spades seven of clubs two-of-hearts jack-of-diamondsnineofhearts FUCK!"
He threw the rest of the deck against the refrigerator and leaped up from his chair, sending it crashing over backwards. They both watched as the cards fluttered to the floor. It seemed to Johnny that many more of the red cards landed face up than the black. There was a pattern in the cards, a pattern he couldn't quite see. Johnny looked up from the cards to Lyle. He was holding his head in both hands and making a low keening noise.
Johnny stood up and was trying to think of something to say when Lyle preempted him. "It's not acid. It wasn't fucking acid. It's something else entirely."
"So what is it then?"
"I already told you," Lyle said, taking his hands off his head and looking at Johnny with crazy eyes, "that I don't know. I'm hearing things in the wind that were never there before. I'm seeing patterns in the swirling of dust in the air between us."
"That's just acid," Johnny said, trying not to let his fear show, "it's just the acid. There's nothing to worry about man."
"I'm hearing thunder, Johnny. I'm hearing thunder ten seconds before it gets here."
Johnny opened his mouth to speak but the thunder cut him off. It was the low rumbling kind that you could sometimes mistake for a train. But not this time. It was the kind that came long before the rain. It knocked the wind from Johnny's lungs. He had to put one hand on the table for support. His eyes were locked with Lyle's and it wasn't a pretty sight.
"Dr. Bronski didn't run away from anything," Lyle said, "he was kidnapped."
"Fine. Whatever you say Lyle. Sit back down. You're fucking scaring me."
"I'm fucking scaring ME, Johnny. What was it you told me about those drug busts last year?"
"They shut down three acid shops and started arresting everyone on the distribution list."
"And why would they care about the small time dealers when they've got the cooks? That's the question right?"
"Yeah. That's it, Lyle." Johnny found himself backing up half a step without meaning to. Lyle's eyes were getting more frightening by the second.
"Do you know what they were looking for?"
"Acid, Lyle. They were looking for fucking acid."
"Wrong!" Lyle said grabbing the tiny crumpled sheet of blotter off of the table and thrusting it towards Johnny, "they were looking for this!"
Johnny breathed in too fast, choked on some spittle and started to cough. Lyle's eyes got a faraway look in them. "And now," he said quietly, "and now they're on their way here."
Just as Johnny caught his breath, Lyle shoved the blotter into his hand. Lyle pushed the sheaf of notes onto him as well. The fear and tension in the room had doubled and redoubled in less than five seconds.
"Quick!" Lyle said, "get out of here. Hide these somewhere safe. Somewhere no-one will ever think to look for them."
Lyle rushed over to his dresser and began frantically tearing open the drawers. He looked over his shoulder, saw Johnny still standing there and yelled "What the fuck are you still doing here? GO!"
Johnny grabbed his skateboard and went.
The alcohol in his blood hardly prevented him from skating a straight line Eastward down the center of Dupont. The streets seemed unnaturally empty and the sky loomed with thunderheads of the type Johnny usually found strangely reassuring but now more traditionally menacing. Not just menacing, it occurred to him as he turned south onto Bathurst, but downright apocalyptic.
On Harbord, less than half a block from campus, Johnny nudged a curb and was thrown from his skateboard. There was a moment of weightlessness followed by a moment of tremendous weight. There were hands striking the pavement and there were pages of notes dispersing in the gathering wind because there never really is a calm before a storm and there was blood everywhere but really just on his palms and left cheek and of course everything he touched. And there was a girl, pretty, maybe thirteen, already collecting the pages and handing them back to him and saying "are you all right?"
And Johnny was taking them from her being careful not to get any blood on them but not quite careful enough and saying "Thanks yeah fine" and running now Eastward again toward campus feeling this gathering fear and becoming less convinced with every passing second despite no further evidence that Lyle was actually getting all worked up about nothing. And the girl was yelling after him "hey! your skateboard" and he was yelling back "keep it!" and then he was leaning up against the door into the Computer Science work-lab and trying to catch his breath and wishing you could just stick your finger down your throat and puke up adrenaline.
He was logged on to a computer in the lab before the jangling in his nerves began to quiet. All around him computer science students were grinding away desperately at keyboards trying to finish their assignments before midnight. The girl to his left coughed, ate a handful of anti-histamines that Johnny recognized as being ephedrine based, and chased it with coffee. She wouldn't be sleeping any time soon. And neither would Johnny by the way he felt. He lifted the tray of the scanner and shoved the sheets underneath one by one.
"Somewhere no-one will look for them," Johnny whispered to himself when the scanning was done. After half a moment he called up a terminal and started SSH. Logging onto a server run by a friend of his, he uploaded the images to his private directory. He then ran an encryption program on them, using his student number followed by his phone number as a sixteen byte key. Sure, it would only keep out the most easily discouraged of snoops, but the only one with access to the files was the guy who ran the server. A sixteen byte encryption code was enough to give the message "Hey Tom, these are private, not for prying eyes."
Johnny was about to log-off when he found himself checking his mail almost by instinct. Tom had mail services on his server and Johnny had always preferred using them over Hotmail or UofT mail. There was one new message. It was from Ivan. The subject line was "what the fuck did you do?" and according to the time stamp it had been sent ten minutes ago. Johnny's heart almost stopped. He looked around himself for... what? cops? He placed both hands on the desk and took a second to catch his breath before opening the mail.
To: firstname.lastname@example.org From: email@example.com Subject: what the fuck did you do? Johnny, You've fucked something up big. No time for a smoke at the corner this time, you have to run. I've heard your name twice in the last two hours and not from the kinds of lips you want to hear say the name of a friend. There's a price on your head right now Johnny and I'm not certain whether you're worth more alive or dead. Every organized crime syndicate from the Triad to the Toronto fucking Police is going to be looking for you. Lay low. I'll be in touch in two days. I'm going to try my best to get you out of this one because I love you, but you're in deeper than anyone I've ever known. -I- p.s. is this account secure?
The adrenaline came flooding back into Johnny's system echoing "I told you so" down every nerve ending that had desperately wanted free of it fifteen minutes earlier. Johnny flashed off a three word email, "I hope so," to Ivan and logged off of Tom's server.
On autopilot, as his mind unhelpfully vacillated between images of himself in prison and at the bottom of Lake Ontario with a hole in his skull, Johnny purged the computer's temporary memory of the scanned images. Figuring it was impossible to be too paranoid, he also used a sysadmin account he had secretly acquired while still a student to wipe any trace of his having used the computer.
Johnny was just about to leave when another thought struck him. He logged back on and ran a check of dormant processes. Sure enough, someone had installed a keypress recorder and was dumping it all to a text file elsewhere on the network. It was amateurish work, almost certainly an attempt at password theft by some first year comp sci student destined to be expelled. Johnny deleted the program and wiped the text file.
"Am I sure that's everything?" he asked himself. The answer of course was no. He could sit at the computer checking processes and sockets for hours and still not be sure. In the end, there was only one way to be certain. Johnny pounded out two dozen lines of code, set his program running and left.
Five minutes after Johnny walked out the door, the hard drives of every computer in the lab and the hard drives of the lab server itself were simultaneously overwritten by a long string of zeros. Hundreds of tired-eyed students broke out crying or laughing or, realizing the futility of doing anything else, simply slumped forwards onto their keyboards and went directly to sleep.