The Paranoia Club
by Dorian TenoreSurviving a fire at New York’s most celebrated therapeutic preschool as a child, Sean Wilder hasn’t let the odd recurring nightmare keep him from growing up a capable young man in a family of eccentrics. Now two decades later, Sean is overjoyed by the return of his childhood sweetheart Claire, but horrified to learn that people connected to that long-ago fire are turning up dead. Coincidence? Are Sean and Claire next? His fugitive brother Gordie might have the answers, but can their detective sister Cori pin him down long enough to ask the questions? The Paranoia Club is a character-driven, New York-set thriller with an undercurrent of humor. Think of it as Donald E. Westlake meets Andrew Klavan.
The Paranoia Club by Dorian Tenore
Chapter One: Burning (2,937 words)
Sean Wilder realized he wasn’t having a nightmare. He was having a memory dressed up like one. Either way, it hurled him twenty years into the past. The twenty-five-year-old Sean remembering the past wanted to yell something to the poor scared kid living it, to tell him to get the hell out of there. So why couldn’t he? Sean felt powerless to stop it or look away; like it or not, he was reliving the whole ordeal through the eyes of the five-year-old he’d been when the fire had happened.
He looked over at Claire Dennerlaine, who had just turned five herself. Beautiful Claire with the Long Blonde Hair. That had been his nickname for her ever since they’d met at the Building Blocks Preschool. In the dream, he and Claire were back at Building Blocks, but this wasn’t the classic I’m-back-in-school nightmare. Their voices almost gone from screaming for help, he and Claire were caught in the fire that had destroyed the school.
Orange tongues of flame licked greedily at cotton candy spun from dark gray smoke. The classroom toys looked like melting candles. All that safe, soft, kid-friendly plastic and rubber wasn’t made to be fireproof. The hand puppet family’s heat-swollen faces scared him more than anything else. A bubble formed on the daddy puppet’s rubber face like a giant pimple. The brown Magic Marker coating that Sean’s best friend Johnny Melendes had put on the boy puppet’s face simmered like the brown sugar glaze Sean’s mother always used on the Easter ham.
As Sean and Claire lurched toward the door, a figure materialized, like that magician who’d stepped out of a cloud of smoke at Johnny’s fifth birthday party. It was a man. He looked familiar, but Sean couldn’t remember his name. Claire didn’t seem to know him, either. But the way the strange man glared at them, Sean knew he wasn’t there to help. He reminded Sean of those gargoyles on that big, spooky-looking building near Central Park.
The door vanished behind the gargoyle man as he lunged toward them. “What did you see?” As the man came closer, he kept asking that same question, his voice scarier each time. Blinking back the tears and sweat rolling down their faces, Sean and Claire clung to each other as if that would protect them. “Safety in numbers,” like Da always used to say. They tried to yell for help one more time, but the sounds were locked in their sore, burning throats.
Frantically searching for another escape route, all they saw was a seething, pulsing wall of orange and gold, gray and black. The man kept coming, like the fire couldn’t hurt him. Maybe it can’t hurt him, Sean thought. Maybe he’s the Devil.He didn’t know what felt worse, the terror, the awful heat, or Claire’s slim little body going limp against his. “No, Claire, no, please don’t close your eyes, please.” That headband slipped off her hair again, for good this time.
“C’mon, wake up, Claire. Wake up!” Sean shook her as hard as he could, grabbing her shoulders so tight it should’ve hurt her like crazy. But all that did was make Claire’s head loll back and forth, her hair hanging in her face. He might as well have been shaking one of her rag dolls. Now he felt his own knees buckling even though he didn’t want them to, his head swimming no matter how hard he tried to stay awake. Still, he held Claire’s limp, sleeping—please, God, please, only sleeping—body as tight as he could, as long as he could, so she wouldn’t fall and get hurt. Well, more hurt.
Sneering, the man swooped down on them, his rigid arms trapping them like a net. Sean couldn’t squirm out of the man’s tight grip. At least it helped him keep his arms around Claire.
As the man clutched them, his hideous gargoyle face began to change. Sean didn’t know why; he didn’t know how. All he knew was that a lady now stood where the awful man had been. A tall blonde lady who was beautiful, like a movie star. But now hate—maybe even a trace of fear—had twisted the lady’s features until she looked as scary as the man. This time Sean knew who it was: Claire’s mother. But how come she’s just standing there? How come she’s not helping us?Her sharp, angry voice hurt his ears: “I should leave you here. It’s your own fault!”
In his head, Sean whimpered, Please, please let me wake up. But he couldn’t even open his eyes. Slowly, Sean felt the heat of the fire and the confusion of the childhood nightmare fading, replaced in bits and pieces by bitter cold and adult reality.
But he still couldn’t open his eyes.
* * * * * *
As he finally awakened, Sean felt a damp, insistent chill slicing through his entire body. Another dream? No. He didn’t say that out loud, if only because he didn’t have the energy to open his mouth.
He grew dimly aware that he was in an unaccustomed position. Uncomfortable, too; his leg muscles felt as if a giant had been twanging them like rubber bands. It didn’t take long to figure out why, even without opening his eyes. Instead of being in bed, he was seated—more like slumped—at a table.
Either this table was outdoors, or there was one hell of a draft in the room. Ideas and memories were still coming in random fits and starts. He tried to force a coherent thought out of his jigsaw brain: Patio table? Don’t remember goin’ to a barbecue. Too damn cold for barbecues. His mouth tasted like vomit for the first time since Da’s death; that was when he and his sister Cori had agreed once and for all to cut back on their drinking and throw out their cigarettes, hoping to head cancer off at the pass.
He took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m awake.” Sean hadn’t thought out loud in years, but this was an odd enough experience that he considered it warranted. Besides, the sound of his own voice was somewhat soothing, even if moving his lips made his cheek sting a little.
He wasn’t ready to lift his head yet, so he tried to move his legs a little, if only to shake out those damn cramps. They wouldn’t move more than a fraction of an inch. Just a little stiff, he thought. He tried again once—twice—three times. Nope. A little tied up. Somehow, the extra-long shoelaces of his artificial-snakeskin sneakers had gotten tied around the bench legs, as if to hold his legs in place. Real funny, smart-ass, whoever you are. He vowed to get mad at whoever had pulled this stunt, as soon as he was fully conscious. While he was at it, he might even untie the laces.
Even as consciousness returned, the dream’s most horrifying images wouldn’t leave Sean’s mind. Figuring he had nothing to lose but what little dignity he had, he tried one of those goofy mind exercises Dr. George Greenlee had taught him back at Building Blocks. An imaginary animated janitor, looking like the one in those old Peabody’s Improbable History cartoons, forcefully swept the scary thoughts away.
Judging from that Freezer Burn from Hell searing his left cheek, Sean figured out that the table his face rested upon was some kind of metal, probably aluminum. At least he could actually feel his cheek. His numb arms rested in front of him, his coat sleeves making them feel like blocks of ice. Between that and his current state of exhaustion—screw the idea of lifting his arms.
Sean considered lifting his head and taking stock of this situation, but another part of his brain was hell-bent on sinking back into blissful unconsciousness. Fine with me, long as I don’t dream about fires again. He sighed. Fire…a fireplace would be nice right now. Especially if Claire was beside him, the flames’ reflected light bronzing her hair, making her eyes shimmer like kaleidoscopes.
But Claire wasn’t here, and the chill was. Jesus, it’s freezing out here. Then it occurred to him: If it’s cold out and you’re drowsy, doesn’t that mean you’re freezing to death? Gordie would have known. Good ol’ Gordie, The Great Doctor. Is there a doctor in the house? An ancient family joke, but Sean snickered anyway. Then it all started coming back to him: what the hell had happened to Gordie?
Maybe it was his mind’s way of escaping the cold, but Sean’s thoughts kept backtracking to the Building Blocks fire. One minute, little Sean had been in the burning playroom with Claire and the scary grownups. The next thing he knew, he’d been waking up outside in the sunshine, with a sick feeling in his stomach and his fifteen-year-old brother Gordie’s face hovering above his. What’s Gordie doing here? Sean wondered if Gordie knew he and Claire had run back into the burning school to find her lost headband. Was Gordie mad at him? Would he tell Mommy?
But Gordie hadn’t looked angry; instead, he’d looked as scared as Sean had felt during the fire, and a little dirty and smudgy. Sean’s eyes focused on Gordie while his ears homed in on that increasingly loud, annoying whine, like a cat whose tail was being stepped on. No, wait, not a whine—a siren.
“Gordie?” Sean hadn’t been able to talk above a whisper, his throat burned so much. “Ambulance?”
Relief melted Gordie’s terrified look. “Yeah, little guy. An ambulance. You’ll be okay.”
He was there. Gordie was there. But where was…. “Claire! Gordie, where’s Claire? She’s not dead, is she?” He felt tears springing into his eyes. Please, God, don’t let Claire be dead, please!“Don’t be scared, little guy.” Gordie’s voice was gentle. “Claire’s gonna be okay, too. She’s on her way to the hospital, the same one you’re going to.” Big brother’s hand tightened around little brother’s. “I’m going in the ambulance with you.”
Sean was puzzled. “How come? Are you sick?”
As the ambulance guys put him on one of those cool stretchers with the wheels on them, he’d wondered why Gordie was kind of laughing and crying at the same time.
Sean was pulled back into the here-and-now by an icy wind biting into his now-exposed ankles, not that he was entirely sure where or when this “here and now” was. Gotta get some new socks soon. First, maybe I’d better untie myself and go inside.Before he could do that, he’d have to do something really tough—like open his eyes. But his eyelids wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t just drowsiness, either. Sean tried hard, but he couldn’t get his eyelids to move. What the hell? He gritted his teeth and did his damndest to force his eyes open. But his eyelashes seemed to be glued together, like he had a major case of pinkeye. Sean tried moving his arms again, hoping to rub his eyes back into functioning. But no, his arms had decided to stay anchored to the table. Paralyzed, blind, and hobbled. Great, just fucking great!
“Relax, little guy. Let me give you a hand.”
There was only one person who’d still call a six-foot-three beanpole like him “little guy.” No mistaking that raspy baritone voice and the efficient yet vaguely surly attitude.
“Gordie?” Sean’s surprised voice was hoarse; but he was glad he could at least get his mouth open, with a little effort. And a little unexpected pain.
Sean started lifting his head in earnest, but decided against it once the searing pain struck. He waited a moment. Tried again. Same results. “Uh, Gordie? I think I’m stuck.” Talking hurt, so everything else on the tip of his tongue became an internal monologue: Oh, great. My goddamn face and arms are frozen to this goddamn table. Goddamn New York winters!
Another childhood memory made a guest appearance: the time he’d gotten his wet fingers stuck to the bottom of the recently-defrosted, newly-cold freezer. With a mighty surge of panic-induced strength, he’d torn his fingers off the metal surface. Yeah, that was a good month for the gauze industry.
“Sean, quit fidgeting. I’ll help you out in a second.” Gordie sounded annoyed now. More than that, Sean noticed, he sounded tired and defeated.
Sean felt the table move, as if someone had gotten up from sitting there. That made sense. If he remembered correctly, Gordie’s patio table, a sentimental hand-me-down from their parents, had its four curved benches attached to the table itself, with spaces between each bench for happy barbecuers to slip in and out. He wondered how long he and Gordie had been sitting there, and why.
He heard an odd sound above his head—“shlurp.” It made him think of a dragon smacking its lips, anticipating a tasty treat, like maybe a knight. A moment later, Gordie said, “Hold your breath or you’ll get water up your nose.” Splashes of cold, brackish water assaulted Sean’s face. Gordie’s hands briskly yet gently wiped the clammy slime from Sean’s eyes. “It’s not the most sanitary stuff in the world, but it’ll help unstick you.”
Blinking, Sean lifted his head. “Thanks—ow!” His cheek stung like crazy. Global warming, my ass.The first thing Sean saw was Gordie’s face, peppered with stubble as copper-red as his hair, black smudges, dried blood, and bruises, especially around his swollen nose and eyes. It looked like Gordie’s nose had bled on his long gray Burberry coat, too. “Shit, Gordie, what happened to you?”
Gordie snickered, then winced; with that beat-up face, any movement had to hurt. “Long story, little guy. Wait for the movie.”
“Whatever.” A slow scan up and around helped Sean confirm that he was in the secluded backyard of Gordie and Rachel’s secluded house in Montauk: four bedrooms, five baths, and six miles away from the nearest neighbor. Sean remembered Mom’s worry that if they got hurt or sick, they wouldn’t be discovered for days. But Sean had liked the way the yard rolled down an incline, stopping at the edge of a cliff with a breathtaking view of the ocean. Rachel always said that should Gordie “lift the ban,” as she put it, on having kids, a fence would go up the minute she knew she was pregnant.
With the sight of the backyard, the last piece of the puzzle snapped into place. Sean remembered now. He had driven out to see Gordie and…and…. Okay, maybe it’s the next-to-last piece. Gordie’s here, but…. Then it hit him. “Gordie, where’s Rachel?” His normally husky voice now sounded like gravel, and not just from the cold weather.
“Why the hell did you come here?” Gordie’s green eyes drilled into Sean’s. “I thought if anyone would pull the old ‘just passing by’ gag, it’d be Cori.”
“She and James took Greer to Disney World to do the family fun bit.”
“Then who sent you? Mom?”
“No, coming here was my own brilliant idea.” To get his bearings and buy time to think, Sean looked around some more. Over his head, the umbrella was open, one of those heavy, weatherproof vinyl-and-canvas monsters made for outdoor tables like this one. Once an eye-burning acid yellow, time and the elements had faded the umbrella to the color of straw. The material between its spokes sagged under the weight of Wednesday night’s half-melted wintry mix. He figured that was where the water had come from.
Except for one reddish-orange patch of clouds, the sky surrounding the umbrella was charcoal gray. Or as Claire would tell Sean when she was in one of her romantic Bronte moods, “Storm-cloud gray, like your eyes.” Yeah, storm-cloud gray like that glare Gordie’s giving me right now.
What time did I get here? Almost midnight, right? “Jeez, Gordie, is it dawn?”
Gordie’s eyes stopped their silent interrogation long enough to check his watch. Sean noticed Gordie’s hands were as bruised and dirty as his face, plus his knuckles were skinned. “Six twenty-four a.m., to be exact.” Back to business: “So why are you here, Sean?”
“Can’t a guy surprise his brother with a birthday visit? Especially since you’ve been doing such a good hermit imitation the past few months.” As his brain awakened more fully, so did his memories of last night. “I even had a present for you.”
“Was that the broken bottle at the bottom of the stairs?” As Sean nodded, Gordie looked puzzled. “What was it?”
“Shit, really?” Gordie sounded genuinely impressed.
“Jeez, even I’ve been having trouble finding Tully.”
“I, uh, took it out of my private stock.”
“Private stock.” Gordie couldn’t hold back a smirk, which slowly evolved into a grin, then a laugh. “My little brother, the great whiskey connoisseur.” His expression softened. “That had to be your last bottle. After the way I’ve been acting, you’d give me your last bottle of Tully?”
“I was gonna, but I dropped it. Sorry.”
Gordie shook his head in amazement. “Hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?”
“Why do I suddenly feel like I’m in an old Guinness ad?” Despite Sean’s attempts at flippancy, an icy lump of dread was hardening in his stomach. Until now, he’d hoped those images clamoring for attention in his head had only been part of another nightmare, the kind that happens when you’re asleep. But when he gazed straight ahead, past Gordie’s right shoulder, Sean saw the house in the distance.
Correction, he thought, swallowing his horror, what’s left of the house.
Next time: A disappointing movie that could be remade into a good one!