Bionic Bug: “Wicked Bloom” (Chapter 1)

12 October 2027

Now that’s where I draw the line.

A documentary about the dawn of passenger drones flashed across the lonely flat-screen television hanging on the wall. Lara Kingsley imagined for a moment what it would be like to live in the 1960s animated sitcom The Jetsons, and her inner control freak shuddered. In her lifetime, she’d be forced to embrace flying through the sky in some autonomous contraption.

Suppressing the thought, Lara squeezed herself between two stools and leaned over the sticky wooden counter to shout her drink order to the bartender—a beer for herself and a cocktail for Maggie, who tended to run late. She avoided soiling her stretchy black dress; it was the first one she’d bought since her late twenties, and she wanted it to last just as long as the previous one.

Located at the edge of NoMa, a trendy neighborhood north of Massachusetts Avenue in Washington D.C., Wicked Bloom offered a cozy urban décor of exposed brick and wood paneling, and the perfect mix of local draft beers, upscale cocktails, and home-style cooking. Her friend, and fellow private investigator, Phil “Sully” Sullivan, owned a townhouse a few blocks away. This bar had quickly become their favorite hangout spot. Every week, they met, grabbed a drink, and exchanged information on their latest cases.

Waiting for the drinks, Lara glanced toward the end of the bar where a strange young man in his twenties sat by himself and nursed a beer. There was something off about the kid. Lara couldn’t shake the feeling he was watching her, but when she looked at him again, he turned his pale blue eyes back to the liquor bottles on the back-lit shelves lining the wall behind the bar.

The kid wore black, thick-framed glasses and preppy, college-style clothing. Despite his youthful appearance, there were dark circles under his eyes and a foreboding about his presence. She made a deliberate note of his features in her head. Probably just one of the many university students that swarmed the D.C. social scene during the academic year.

“Who are you and what have you done with my mate?”

Lara looked up to see her friend Maggie towering over her, like a supermodel, in three-inch red heels and a matching floral dress. It had taken a little work, but she’d convinced Sully

to let her introduce Maggie to him at this party. Once he laid eyes on her, of course, he’d drool just like any other man.

Lara rolled her eyes and laughed.

Maggie lightly tapped Lara’s shoulder. “No leather jacket today? Is the world coming to an end?” She laughed. “But, seriously, you look great. I thought we were forever caught in a cycle of leather and leggings.”

For once, Lara had left her black leggings and leather riding jacket at home. With an actual purse slung over her shoulder, she felt less out of place beside Maggie, who was always decked out from head-to-toe in the latest trends. It didn’t help that she also had a Ph.D. in Entomology. No one was supposed to be that perfect.

“It wasn’t easy. You’re lucky I’m not wearing my Army cammies.” Lara smirked. Dressing up meant she had to do two things she hated: leave her motorcycle at home and take a driverless cab.

But she willingly made the sacrifice for Sully. They’d first bonded years ago over their shared orphan status while working on a group project as undergrad students at MIT. From that point onwards, they’d pledged to have each other’s backs for life. They were family.

Sully had just secured the safe return of a kidnapped teenage girl. The girls’ wealthy father had given him a large reward for his private investigation, which had cinched the case. The mayor had even given Sully a personal accolade. With his five minutes of fame, Sully wanted to celebrate. He also wanted to blow off steam. The past couple weeks had been intense. So, he’d invited his friends and several colleagues from the D.C. Metropolitan Police, and the FBI Violent Crimes Division for drinks and food at the Wicked Bloom.

“So, which one is Sully?” Maggie asked as she bit her lower lip and scanned the room.

Lara turned and pointed to a table in the far corner where Sully talked to another black man. As usual, he gestured with every word, his facial expressions dedicated to whatever story he was telling. “He’s the well-built, handsome black guy at the table over there.”

She frowned. “I thought you said the bloke was a PI. With that starched white shirt and khakis, he looks just like a federal agent.”

“Not the stocky one, the taller guy with the goatee wearing the blue polo shirt.”

Maggie’s frown turned into a broad smile. “Yeew, he’s cute all right. Good-looking, smart, a successful private investigator, and now a bloody local hero. I can’t understand why you don’t go for him now that you’re single again. Are you sure you’re okay setting us up?”

Lara sighed. “If we had that kind of chemistry, it would’ve happened already. Plus, now we’re practically colleagues. It’s never a good idea, mixing business and pleasure.”

Sully must have sensed they were staring at him. He looked, grinned, and gave a casual wave. But he remained seated, engrossed in his conversation, and didn’t come over to greet them.

The bartender placed two drinks on the counter and slid them toward Lara. “Put these on Sully’s tab?”

Lara nodded, grabbed the cold, wet, pint-sized glass of Blue Moon and handed the Champagne cocktail to Maggie. She glanced over at the counter. The creepy kid had disappeared. The beer sat unfinished, a thick layer of foam at the top of the glass. Lara scanned the bar, but there was no sign of him.

“Cheers,” Maggie said, clinking her glass against Lara’s, but she barely noticed it. “Earth to Lara?”

“Sorry.” Lara turned back to her friend and smiled, taking a large sip of beer. The cold citrus tasting liquid soothed her parched throat.

“Hey, Lara!” A familiar voice called out.

Nearly spilling her beer all over the floor, she spun around to see Vik bounding into the bar with a goofy grin on his face and excitement beaming from his dark brown eyes. His thin arms swayed back and forth as he approached. For a young Indian man, Vik was on the taller side, but the rest of his features betrayed his nationality and age.

“Do you always have to surprise me like that?” Lara groaned at the splatter of beer on the front of her dress.

Vik made an “I’m sorry face” and shrugged. “The Langstons want to sign with us for their new surveillance system.” Having spent his formative years in the U.S., Vik’s accent barely registered. When excited, he couldn’t hide his natural inflection.

“That’s great news,” Lara said, relieved Kingsley Investigations might finally have a new client. She’d been waiting on pins and needles for their email after sending them a quote last week. “I’m really glad you could make it. Sully desperately wants to talk to you about some computer work you can help him with. But, you should grab a drink or something to eat first.”

Vik looked around the room as if he were calculating the costs based on what people were wearing. His eyes dimmed as he gave a half smile to Lara. “I’m not really hungry.”

“Sully’s buying.”

“Oh goodie,” he said as his eyes lit back up. “I’m actually famished! What’s good here?” Vik stared up at the giant chalkboard where the specials of the day were displayed.

“Uh, barbecue, brisket, steak, and burgers…” Lara read off the list on the chalkboard, gauging Vik’s expressions for a positive response.

His shoulders slumped with disappointment. “I guess I’ll just have the spicy collard greens then.” Vik walked over to the bartender to place an order. Maggie followed after him, her auburn curls bouncing.

Shaking her head, Lara didn’t understand how vegetarians could survive. Tofu was not a satisfactory replacement for meat.

Sully walked toward her, holding a pint of Guinness in his hands.

“Cheers to the man of the hour,” Lara said, raising her glass.

“Thank you, and thanks for coming. I’ve been so wrapped up lately, we haven’t had time to celebrate your last case. Does that put you in the black yet?”

Lara looked away and shuffled her feet. “Getting closer.”

Sully smiled, clinked his glass against hers, and took a long, slow drink.

“Besides, tonight is supposed to be about you, and I have a certain someone here to meet you.” She looked back to the bar.

“Is that the Maggie?” He beamed, pointing across the room to where Maggie and Vik were ordering food.

Lara nodded.

“Wowza! She’s friends with you? How did that happen?” Sully shot her a mischievous grin and took another long drink.

Lara glared at him. “Hey, that’s not funny. I met her two years ago at a Mensa event. We’re different, but we clicked. She’s a great person. Incredibly successful, too.”

Sully frowned, itching his elbow. “Mensa? That’s not the genius group thing you used to attend all the time, is it?”

Lara nodded. She’d joined the elite high-IQ group as an alternative to online dating. She was sick of dumbing herself down to get a first date. The guys always found out the truth eventually, and then they’d go running for the hills. Lara had a penchant for learning nerdy details about everything and couldn’t hide her technical knowledge.

At Mensa events, she’d hoped to find herself a match among the brightest top-two percent of the population. Instead, she ended up meeting Rob. Her motorcycle had run out of gas two miles from a Mensa event. To make matters worse, she had forgotten her wallet again. Rob, the FBI special agent with a normal-ish IQ, bought her a tank of gas, won her heart, and eventually shattered it.

“Are you intimidated because she’s smarter than you? Cuz if that’s the case, I don’t think we can be friends anymore.” Lara stuck her tongue out at him.

Sully smirked. “Nah, you know I can hang with smart women. I’m not insecure like your ex-boyfriend. Plus, she’s smoking hot. You said she’s Australian right?” When Lara nodded, Sully pressed his lips together. “Mmm-hmm. I can’t resist a woman with an accent…”

Lara grimaced. “I sure hope you’re interested in more than that.”

Sully smiled and rolled his eyes. “Course I am. Those are just nice perks.”

Lara shook her head in disapproval. “Anyway, speaking of my ex… why isn’t he here tonight? I thought he weaseled his way into working with you on the kidnapping case.”

Sully finished his beer and motioned for the bartender to give him a refill. “No weaseling, just the regular jurisdiction game.”

Lara raised an eyebrow. “But he doesn’t work kidnappings.”

“Ricin. The kidnapper threatened to poison the girl if the ransom wasn’t paid. Since it involved a chance of biological weapons, Rob’s entire unit was called in.”

Lara furrowed her brow. “Ricin, again?” Bad guys seemed obsessed with the rare toxin. She and Sully had a lot of theories, her favorite being it all started with a TV show protagonist using ricin to kill off his enemies. “Any chance you might have slipped Rob some?”

Sully gazed awkwardly at the floor.

“Just kidding. I’m okay if he’s here.”

Please don’t be here.

Another woman had lured Rob away from her six months ago. Lara couldn’t fathom why he’d dumped her for Bimbo Barbie Doll. It grated on Lara’s ego that Bimbo Barbie was nothing like her, except for the blond hair and blue eyes. Though she tried not to let the whole thing bother her, it still did, even after so much time. She’d thought she knew Rob, thought she knew what he wanted. Maybe she never knew him at all.

Sully absentmindedly scratched his neck. “He’s not coming. I didn’t invite him. You’ve worked so hard to get over him, and you’re finally back on your feet. I didn’t want to mess with that.”

Lara snorted. “You mean you want me out working so I can pay you back…” She fidgeted with the sleeve of her dress. “You know I’m good for it, right?”

Sully shook his head. “C’mon, Lara. You know it isn’t like that with us. And I just got a huge chunk of change from this case, so I’m good, okay? You pay me back when you’ve got the cash.”

Lara nodded. She felt uncomfortable even using the take-a-penny at the gas station, and Sully had loaned her enough to cover three months of bills. It wasn’t enough, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask any more of him.

The bartender took Sully’s empty glass and handed him a fresh pint.

Lara gave Sully a curious look. “How many is that?” Sully never threw back beers so quickly. “Is something going on with you?”

Grasping the beer glass tightly, Sully shifted back and forth on his feet. “Nah, I’m fine, Lara… just kicking back after a stressful few days.”

Lara could tell he was lying. “Is it another case?” Sweat glistened on his brow. As she looked down, Lara’s eyes caught a strange discoloration in his fingernails on the hand wrapped around the beer glass. “What’s wrong with your nails?”

Sully switched the beer glass to his left hand and shoved his right into his pocket, hiding his nails from sight. His eyes darted around the room as he lowered his voice to a whisper. “Lara, I can’t talk about it here.”

She shot him a concerned look. “You’d tell me if you were in any real trouble, right?”

Sully nodded, stealing a glance across the room. “This is just not the right time or place.”

Lara couldn’t shake the feeling something was off but didn’t want to force the issue. At least not now. “Okay, let’s meet up later this week then? I want to hear all about it.”

He didn’t respond.

Lara caught a glimpse of the kid out of the corner of her eye as he returned to the corner. His gaze pointed straight at them. “Do you know that guy over there? Something seems weird about him.”

Sully glanced, and his body went tense. “Lara, I gotta go. We’ll talk later, okay?”

“But, it’s your party,” she said as he raced out the front door, phone in hand.

And I haven’t introduced you to Maggie yet.

Lara shook her head. She wanted to call after him, but didn’t want to cause a scene. She looked back at the corner bar.

He’s gone again. Lara swung her head around, searching for the kid. Does Sully know him? Was that kid why he ran off? Or was it something else?

She spent the next several minutes searching but couldn’t see the kid anywhere. She sipped her drink and tried to turn her detective voice off. It’s a party, not a mystery.

“Hey Lara, I’m going—”

Startled by Vik’s voice, Lara dropped her beer glass on the ceramic tile floor. As the glass shattered and flew in multiple directions, the blood drained from her face. Lara stood frozen in place, surrounded by glass and beer splatter.

“Uh… Lara? I’m sorry I scared you,” Vik said sheepishly. “I’m starving. I’ve got to get some real food.”

A server rushed about her with a broom and dust pan, cleaning up the glass, and reassuring her that it was fine while she kept apologizing.

After the mess was cleaned Lara turned her attention back toward Vik. “Yeah, you should get something to eat.”

“You going to be okay by yourself?” Vik asked.

“I’ll be fine. Maggie’s here.”

“No, Bug Lady left a few minutes after she noticed Sully leaving.”

“Why can’t you just call her Maggie?” He’d given her the nickname after finding out about her obsession with insects.

Vik shrugged.

Lara glanced around for Maggie, but didn’t see her. “I guess I’ll be calling it an early night, too. I should have driven.” A terrible realization crossed her mind, and Lara dug her hand into her purse, feeling around for her keys. Shit. “I locked myself out of the townhouse again. Could you lend me your keys?”

Vik scrunched up his face. “You remember I’m coming to work at the office super early tomorrow morning, before class, right?”

Lara grimaced. “Ugh, I had forgotten all about that.” She’d rather not get out of bed at zero dark thirty to let him in. “Would you mind coming with me so I don’t have to call the landlord?”

Vik seemed hesitant.

“I’ll pay you for your cab and even buy you a veggie pizza.”

Vik laughed. “Sure, boss. Whatever you say…”

*****

The driverless cab pulled up to her Georgetown townhouse, the brakes screeching like they were overdue for maintenance. D.C. Council may have had a laundry list of reasons for approving the mandate on self-driving vehicles, but for Lara, driverless cabs had only one redeeming quality: no more tipping drivers.

The motorcycle lobby fought against a blanket requirement for autonomy advocated by the local government, arguing it would mean the end of the biking industry. Had she owned her bike at the time, she would have been on the picket line too.

As Lara tapped her credit card on the machine to pay the fare and waited for the transaction to go through, Vik climbed out of the back seat and hopped up the stairs to unlock the front door.

She gazed fondly at her shiny, blue Harley Davidson Street 500 parked in front of the townhouse. The only thing she loved more than her bike was her baseball glove. Until she bought the bike she didn’t realize how much she coveted freedom of the road. Sure, riding a motorcycle was incredibly convenient in the city of self-driving cars. Easy street parking and incredible fuel economy were great perks, but the liberation she felt with each roar of the engine kept her falling in love with the bike all over again with every ride.

Plus, it would never lie, cheat, or slip out in the middle of the night. Or drive away with Bimbo Barbie and later have the nerve to ask through text if she could pack its things and drop them off.

Lara bought herself the bike as a reward for hitting her first salary goal a year ago. She still had a way to go before hitting her dream salary, but she was all about baby steps. And rewards. Given her current financial circumstances, the purchase might have been premature. She flinched at the thought.

Never count your chickens before they hatch. Or better yet… before they have chicks of their own.

The credit card machine beeped, and a receipt shot out of the slot. Lara grabbed the slip and exited the cab. With her feet back on solid ground, the knot in her stomach loosened. Vik had already gone inside the townhouse and left the front door cracked open. She glanced nervously up at the third floor.

No lights, thank God.

The outside of the three-story row house was in decent shape for being built in the late 1800s, but the interior needed an update. Despite the building’s three separate units, only two tenants occupied the old red brick townhouse. Her firm was located on the first floor of the building with her apartment conveniently situated on the second floor. Her third floor neighbor and landlord, Jake Crawford, was an extremely quiet and overworked lawyer, who came and went mostly during the wee hours.

Jake made a killing each month renting out the other two floors to Lara. For the past two months, however, she couldn’t pay the rent. He’d given her a formal notice to pay, but she asked him to cut her a break. To avoid the trouble of finding a new tenant, he agreed to stand down for a month. His patience had just run out, and he recently filed an eviction lawsuit against her to recover past due rent and force her removal from the premises. She now had thirty days to pay the past due rent or to move out.

Lara remained on the fence about whether to stay or move. There were more affordable locations, but for her two-year-old business, the posh location in Georgetown sent the right impression to prospective wealthy clients. If things didn’t turn around fast for Kingsley Investigations in the next few weeks, she might not have a choice in business location or anything else.

Hopefully, it won’t come to that.

When she walked through the door into her office on the first floor, Vik was already on the phone ordering the pizza she’d promised him. Lara put her purse down on the island in the kitchen area and plopped down on a stool.

When she moved in two years ago, she’d converted the entire first floor apartment into her base of operations. The living area with direct access to the kitchen served as office space for herself and Vik. The bedroom in the back housed the photocopier and other office equipment. Filing cabinets took up any extra space in the room; they contained all her case records and personal files.

Vik put the phone down and shot Lara a serious look.

“What?” Lara glowered back.

He shoved his hands in his pockets. “I’ve been meaning to have a conversation with you. There’s never a good time, but I suppose now is as good as any other.”

Lara raised her eyebrow. “What’s up?” She was too tired to have an important talk.

Vik pressed his palms to his cheeks. “Um, I’ve been noticing some troubling trends in the business expense account. There are large sums of money going out, but nothing coming in at the moment. I am not sure if we have enough to cover this month’s expenses.”

Lara shrugged her shoulders. “Oh that? I wouldn’t worry. I’ve been paying off the back bills from the few months when… well, you know, with Rob.” Vik opened his mouth to speak but Lara kept talking, “You know we’re about to land a huge client. I’m planning to take the Langstons to the ballgame next week. I’ll close the deal before the ninth inning. The retainer should cover everything for this month.”

Vik frowned. “But what if something goes wrong? Will you still be able to…” he broke eye contact and finished. “… pay me? Because Sully needs some work done and—”

“Of course. I’ve got you covered. Don’t worry about it, okay? And I don’t mind you working for Sully, but I’m going to need you here for the new job.” Now Lara looked away. If she was being honest, she couldn’t guarantee she could pay Vik for his time. But the thought of losing him, even to Sully, was too much. Vik wasn’t just an employee; he’d been her rock through the roughest months since her return from Afghanistan two years ago.

After deploying twice to Afghanistan and returning home wounded from an IED attack, Lara concluded her term of service with an honorable discharge from the Army and transitioned to the National Guard. She could never have imagined the government would repay her years of service and tremendous sacrifice with betrayal.

Shortly after returning home, a Pentagon bureaucrat contacted her with some bad news. Under pressure to fill gaps in the Army’s ranks, the recruiter had offered illegal incentives to entice her re-enlistment. To her disbelief, the bureaucrat explained to Lara that since these incentives were against the law, she’d have to pay them back in full with interest.

Requiring veterans to pay back bonuses when they’d no idea they were illegal fell squarely on the side of just plain wrong. Lara railed against the injustice of the system to no avail. The bureaucrat apologized for the inconvenience, claiming their hands were tied.

The law is the law, she said.

This left Lara with two choices. She could take it up with the justice system or begin repayment. She didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer, and her faith in the system to deliver justice was forever tainted. She agreed to repay the debt, but had recently fallen behind on payments. The few months she’d spent wallowing in her grief over Rob’s deception had made things even worse.

After several minutes of silence, Vik gave her a half smile. “I wouldn’t have brought it up… it’s just that my aunt and uncle have been on my back lately about finishing school and becoming financially independent. I need a steady income to secure my U.S. citizenship. Without that, they’re worried about the marriage proposal falling through. Shanaya’s family comes from money, and they have high expectations for her match. I need to demonstrate ‘the right way of living’ before they’ll agree to a wedding date. My aunt and uncle are threatening to make the trip all the way from New York City to put me back on the straight path.” He pretended to shoot himself in the head.

Lara chuckled uneasily. She found it odd that the institution of arranged marriages continued to thrive in many countries. Vik and Lara often debated the virtues of an arranged marriage versus falling in love, and she wasn’t about to get into it with him again.

Then again, maybe I could use the help.

After her last experience with love, she doubted she believed in marriage at all. Her parents died when she was young, she had no living relatives, and her time in the Army gave her front row seats to failed marriage after failed marriage. Lara had never seen the value of marriage, arranged or not.

The doorbell rang.

“That must be my pizza,” Vik smiled eagerly.

Lara’s eyebrows shot up as her stomach growled for thirty seconds straight. She and Vik both stared at her middle until it stopped.

“Geez,” Vik said, grimacing. “That was… disgusting.”

Lara rolled her eyes. “Here, take this and get us some food.” She thrust a twenty-dollar bill into his hand.

It’s official. I’m broke.

As Vik went to get the pizza, Lara’s smartphone buzzed, and a text appeared on the screen from Mr. Langston.

Sorry to cancel our meeting next week.

We’ve decided to go in a different direction.

Shit. Lara’s face fell. That didn’t take long. Different direction… so they’re hiring a man to do the job. She couldn’t confirm her assumption, but she’d run into too many men who didn’t think a woman could know her way around surveillance technology. Their loss.

Her stomach growled again in response to the intense aroma of melted cheese, grease, and green peppers floating through the air. Vik walked back into the kitchen and put the box on the counter. He grabbed a slice and stuffed the whole piece into his mouth. He froze at the look on her face.

“What’s wrong?” Vik asked through a mouth full of food.

His uncanny ability to detect the slightest change in her mood didn’t go unnoticed. Of course, he had tons of practice reading her, having been the only one capable of coaxing her off the couch after her heartbreak.

Change the mood. Lara forced a toothy smile. “Guess what?”

Vik’s eyes widened expectantly. “What?”

“You get to go to the baseball game with me next week!” Lara exclaimed with a facade of white teeth. Vik had been complaining about his cricket withdrawal for months. It wasn’t cricket, but baseball came close enough.

Vik screamed with delight and ran over to her, hugging her tightly. Then he pulled back, and a paranoid look came over his face. “But wait, I thought you were taking the Langstons? Did something happen?”

“They texted while you were getting the pizza. We had to reschedule our meeting.” Her stomach twisted as the words came out, but she kept the plastered smile in place and changed the subject. “Did you notice that strange kid sitting at the bar tonight?”

Read Chapter 2 Now

 

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The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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