By Kelli Stanley
Jumping jacks can be fun, and God knows, writers are sedentary creatures. This week, thanks to our brilliant question whiz (who I believe is a crusading attorney by day and a fabulous mystery writer at night), we get to do some calisthenics for our brains and imaginations.
Two stories, one set-up. One a mystery ... the other a thriller. You ready?
On your mark ... get set ... GO.
Out of Time: A Thriller
That's all the time she had. All the time she might ever have.
Kasia pushed the thought away at the same time that she flashed a disarming "thank you" smile at the security guard and adjusted the backpack on her shoulder. Backpack, jeans, an old college ID with no expiration date. She looked like what she was supposed to look like: an earnest young journalism student here at McPhee International in order to interview one of the research scientists.
She strode quickly past the mirrored wall on the way to the elevator, and barely recognized herself. When was the last time she wore jeans during the work week? Not exactly the wardrobe of a high-profile environmental lawyer. But then, she wasn't Kasia McCormick any more, was she?
The elevator doors opened with a clang and she jumped, searching the bored corporate faces for a sign of recognition. Head down, she filed in with the others. A woman in a lab coat pushed the 27th floor.
Kasia closed her eyes for a moment, the memories of two days ago flooding over her. Men in black with gold shields and automatic rifles, the gloved hands destroying her apartment ... her life. They wanted something they thought she had, and her only clue--the only idea she could come up with in the 48 hour fight to keep running, keep alive--was the deposition she'd taken, just the day before.
Charles Lloyd ... the witness against the McPhee corporation and Roger McPhee himself.
She'd planned it out, calculated. She'd have maybe 12 to 13 minutes to get in McPhee's inner office. Find whatever it was they thought she had, find out who was setting her up.
The bell clanged again, and she stepped out on the 27th floor.
Step one: Ladies room, drop the smoke bomb.
Step two: Supply closet. Open the backpack, put on the gas mask. Drop the canister of tear gas.
Step three: Hallway. Hit the fire alarm.
Screams, coughing, smoke. Chaos and an empty office. So far so good. Sirens were starting to wail outside.
Step four: One more bomb, on the opposite end of the floor. No one around, time to detonate. 27th floor window, plenty of glass.
Security alarms, more sirens, burly men in orange vests. Hide in the ladies room again, stand on the toilet. Five minutes left, and there goes McPhee, escorted by two flacks and three security officers.
Kasia could barely breathe through the gas mask. She slid into McPhee's office, the thick-walled room dark from no lights--they must have cut the power.
Her flashlight cut through the gloom like a razor.
A man in a lab coat was sitting behind the desk, a smile on his face and a gun in his hand. It was Charles Lloyd.
Half of his skull was missing.
Katia was out of time.
Out of Time: A Mystery
The magical smell of chocolate brought a smile to Kasia's face. It had been far too long since she'd seen her uncle Roger, CEO of McPhee Chocolates, Forbes poster boy, and all-around chocolate king, as sweet as his milk chocolate caramels.
You shouldn't have waited until he called you, she chided herself. Family comes before career. You never take enough time with the family you have left. Never enough time.
Ah, but in this case Uncle Roger called precisely because you're a criminal attorney ... not just because he misses your mother.
A shadow crossed Kasia's face, and she pushed the thought away. Work had helped her deal with losing her mom, but had she really dealt with it? She glanced in the hallway mirror on the way to the elevator.
No joy in her eyes. What happened to that little girl who loved her chocolate Easter Eggs? What happened to the young woman full of idealism, a crusader out to write wrongs and fight injustice?
The elevator dinged a welcome distraction. Kasia concentrated on the small talk around her, two women in the corner debating on whether almonds or cashews were better in the latest McPhee Miracle bar.
By the time she reached the 27th floor, she'd regained her composure. She was looking forward to seeing her uncle, even if it took time away from her latest project. Then again, if he needed her help ... it might be something serious.
Gayle smiled at her from behind glasses only a devoted secretary could wear, and pushed the buzzer. Kasia tapped on the door, then walked in, smiling shyly.
Her uncle looked virtually the same, the unruly mop of his hair a dull gray where it used to be blond. The only thing truly different was the frown he wore. It came unnaturally to his face, just like the anxiety lines around his eyes that she could swear hadn't been there half a year ago.
"Ah. Kasia. My not-so-little niece. Sit down, sweetheart." He gestured to his desk, and she perched on a comfortable, leather-bound chair. Then she noticed the gun in front of her uncle.
"Uncle Roger, why do you--why do you have a hand gun? What's wrong?"
He gave her a puzzled look before his face relaxed into its customary grin. "Oh--sorry. That's the latest mold. Realistic design--looks just like a .44 Magnum, doesn't it? We're developing a whole new "Chocolate Trick" line--jokes, parties, you know, that kind of stuff. I always test the first chocolate item off the line."
He picked up the chocolate gun and broke off a piece of the barrel. "You want some?"
Kasia smiled and shook her head, wondering what was bothering him and when he'd get to the point. Her uncle shrugged his big shoulders, and folded the dark chocolate into his mouth.
Roger had chewed twice when Kasia realized something was wrong. He dropped the chocolate gun on the floor. His eyes were round, huge, suddenly red. The big man stumbled up from his chair, his hand clutching his throat, retching, trying to speak.
She jumped up and ran behind him, trying the Heimlich maneuver. He coughed, sprayed a chocolate spittle over the carpet, doubled over. She tried again.
He fought her off, trying to face her. His eyes were pleading. "Chas" he said, over and over. "Chas."
He coughed one more time, his hand at his throat, before he crumpled and fell to the floor. Kasia stood over him in shock. Then she bent down to feel his pulse. She ran to the door, screaming to Gayle: "Call an ambulance! There's something wrong with my uncle!"
Later, she stood mute in the office, a silent sentinel looking down at her uncle's desk. Tears wouldn't come, not yet. Kasia stood there for an hour, until Gayle gently knocked at the door and helped her into a coat and out of the room.
Kasia looked up at the secretary, her eyes gray and hard. "I ran out of time for him. Never enough time. But I promise you--as God is my witness--I'll find my uncle's killer. No matter how long it takes."
There you have it ... and thanks for the exercise!