Nathaniel Atkinson rang up the green and red nozzle, holstering it in the 7-Eleven gas pump, his other hand occupied with a half-eaten dragonfruit. The pump offered him a receipt, abruptly, which he refused outright with a slap across the keypad. The dragonfruit plopped onto his coupe's center console as he shut the door, burying his face in his hands for a moment. He could hardly imagine facing his co-workers this morning. Hell, his tank was full; the act of 'filling up' only bore semblance of a way to pass time rather than go into work. He had no contact information for Doctor Hart, who he, more than anything, wanted to speak to at that moment. Nathan flicked on the radio and sat in place, car still off beside the gas pump. His fingers reamed through his hair as he tried to make sense of the previous day.
Nothing about it made sense. It had been a hellish amalgamation of the strangest natural incidents he had seen in his career to date, and he was eager to experience more. The overwhelming curiosity was killing him more than anything in the situation, he realized as he finally started the car. It gave a reluctant purr, but started nonetheless, turning out of the gas station. He glanced down Tampa Road with a consolidating glare. For a moment, he considered driving home, taking the day off to think about things. Nathan swallowed a spoonful of the damnably bitter fruit. Something about it had always piqued his taste buds with the strangest of sensations.
His phone rang.
His hand froze, hovering over it. He had reacted far faster than he had thought, his eyes stuck to their corners and reading the number. It was nothing he recognized, but the unknown wasn't unwelcome. 'Accept Call' was pressed and flicked faster than he could bring the phone to his ear.
" —kinson, is this the correct number?"
Nathan blinked. "Yes, yes it is," he murmured, trancelike, pulling out onto Tampa. A car had pulled up behind him some time ago, waiting, and he felt their hand hovering on the horn. "Who is this?"
"Doctor Hart. Drive down to Clearwater. 5380 Tech Data Drive. You got that? Park in any of the handicapped spots. Someone will pick you up."
The address was already in his phone's GPS, typed out the moment each word left the speaker. "On my way," he breathed, swerving across a lane to make a u-turn. He set his phone in a cupholder, switching on the GPS function and beginning to make his way down to Clearwater.
He didn't look back once.
<An hour before.>
"Hello? Is this the Region 352 office?"
"Yes, Doctor Hart. How may I help you today?"
"Get me through to Kate."
The secretary hummed as she checked the lines. "You're in luck. Her line's open. Patching you through."
The dial tone rang again. Hart tapped his foot impatiently, leaning back against the wall of his office. The cord for the phone swayed and dangled back to his desk as he waited.
"Director McTiriss, Region 352."
Hart breathed out. "Kate, it's Hart."
"Hart? Shouldn't you be focusing on the outbreak?"
"Yes, yes. I need to ask you something. It's important. Mostly."
"Go on," the director breathed. Hart sat back in his chair, gathering himself.
"I dragged a civilian into it. He was useful, so I just grabbed him, gave him a gun, and… fuck, I don't know where my head was."
Hart paused. "And what?"
The regional director smacked her lips over the line. "I once deputized an intern from the Montenegrin Parliament on a whim. Handed him a gun, gave him some direction. Local resources can be put to use rather well in these situations."
Hart almost felt taken aback, but he wasn't entirely surprised. He plopped his free hand over a stack of papers still to process for the new anomalies. "You remember mention of Diario?"
"Yeah, the one whose body wasn't found? I recall, yes."
"We need a replacement still. And this one, Atkinson, he's not so much as flinched. He's approached this far different than you'd think. Like… like…"
"He's curious. He seems to be interested. He's been helping?"
"To a degree," Hart admitted. "We dragged him with Green Thumb without giving him much direction."
"So, he didn't freak out under pressure? Hire the guy yesterday."
Hart chuckled. "You act like it's so easy. It's—"
"Don't try and complicate it. If he has some credentials, and recommendations, he may very well be joining you. From what I can hear, this Atkinson has got a word in from me on his case, should this opportunity be given."
The doctor nodded to himself, drumming his fingers on his desk. "Then that's all I needed to hear. Ciao."
Hart hung up the phone without waiting for a reply. He rapidly dialed the office's secretary. "Wilma? Find me the number of Nathaniel Atkinson. Yes, the one we grabbed yesterday. Get me everything you have on him."
"Mmn. Doctor Atkinson?"
Nathan looked up as he closed his car door. "I'm hardly a doctor, but, yes. That'd be me. Are you the one I'm supposed to meet?"
Wilma, the secretary for the Clearwater office, offered her hand. Nathan shook it, briefly. "Wilma Stern, secretary to Doctor Hart. I suppose he wants to see you right away. Just follow me."
Nathan followed the woman into the building, confining his hands to his pockets. At a glance, the building seemed no different from the average office complex. On the inside, however… well, he found it to still be the average office complex. A tad disappointing, but he wasn't sure what else he expected. "Where's everyone else?" he asked, as they climbed a set of stairs.
"Mmn, probably out dealing with the event going down at the Belcher Publix Supermarket. Some squirrels got affected. It's going to be hard to cover up."
Nathan nodded. It made just as much sense as everything else lately. "Now, normally, I'd subject you to an orientation video and give you a pamphlet, but Hart eschewed that. You'll fill some paperwork out later. Just make sure it's all accurate," Wilma spoke, opening the door to Hart's office. The doctor stood to greet Nathan, and before he could inquire about the paperwork, the door was shut.
He turned to face Hart, shaking his hand as well. "Yes, hi," Nathan breathed. Hart gave his hand a firm shake and walked back around his desk, seating himself. "We're leaving in a few minutes. Anything you'd like to bring along that you'd think would be useful?"
"Leaving for where? Why am I here?"
"The Publix I'm sure Wilma mentioned. We busted someone down there this morning trading off a designer drug. Now there's squirrels."
Nathan blinked. "I'm sorry, what? What do squirrels have to do with a drug dealer?"
"It's a long story. To be short, the drugs allow for reality bending. Minor. And the squirrels were set loose on the store in order to try and cover their tracks. Maybe. It may just be an act of harassment to warn us to back off. We're not sure of anything yet."
Nathan breathed out. "Right. Right, okay. This is dangerous, yeah? I mean, what are the squirrels doing?"
Hart chuckled. "Exactly what squirrels usually do, but worse."
"What? Feed on nuts?"
Nathan found a bottle of canola oil upended on his head, dousing him in the cooking liquid as he sputtered, grabbing for a plastic spatula he had grabbed off a nearby display. He whacked the squirrel that had pounced him in the face, stunning it just long enough to squirm out from under it. He heard gunfire elsewhere in the supermarket, relenting that he hadn't asked for a gun himself. He had lost the task force member that was supposed to be shadowing him some point in the Cereals and Dry Foods aisle, among a myriad of loop cereals and flakes.
They were starting to regain control, but it was tough. The squirrels were far larger than your average nut-thief, and they were in quite the ravenous mood. They weren't even hunting for nuts. As they found with a corpse found in Aisle 14, they were indeed feasting on human flesh. Specifically, they had a taste for calves.
"Atkinson, get your ass to me!" Jacob yelled, double-tapping the squirrel that had pounced Nathan first. "There aren't many left, but they're getting clever."
Nathan shot his glances down the aisle as most of the supermarket went silent. His breath was heavy, rapid, and his heart was beating frantically as his calves tingled with the prospect of being devoured like cashews. A few clears were shouted over the aisles as the duo gathered themselves, relaxing. "Going to be one Hell of a cover-up," Jacob muttered, leaving Nathan to collect his wits.
He squeezed at his coat, soaked in canola oil. He sighed. The garment was thoroughly trashed at this point, but, there was a bonus in this. He definitely still had calves.
Doctor Hart came down the hall, gun still in hand, offering Nathan a hand. The male blinked in confusion, unsure of when he had ended up on the ground. He gripped the doctor's hand and stood, gathering himself. "That was…"
"Exhilarating? Yes, but the cleanup crew's job here is going to be Hellish."
"Not what I had in mind," Nathan murmured, but followed the doctor as he began to walk further back in the store. "Find anything?"
"Nothing," Hart breathed. "Nothing. Nothing more than this morning."
"What did you get this morning? That weird reality drug?"
"Yes. We've seen it before, once. Michigan. I suppose I can divulge that a little more easily now, since you'll be on this case in records soon."
Nathan didn't bother to ask about what he meant. "So, what happened in Michigan?"
Hart sighed, and leaned against the meat counter. "We lost a good man that day. We were trying to shut down a drug operation run by some idiot that had found an anomalous ingredient, or some shit we never fully understood."
"What was his name?"
Hart shook his head.