The Unseen

“Ouch!” Brandon crumbled to the floor of his freshly minted apartment. His right shin throbbed as he laid in the fetal position rubbing it. Not even the second day of his new adventure and he was already on the injured list.

It was a new city for him. He barely even went outside yet. After his parents and some friends helped him move in, he thought he would be ready to handle life on his terms.

After laying there for a couple minutes, Brandon finally got the nerve to get up and continue. He cautiously approached the kitchen and found the sink. Reaching up to the right, he opened the cupboard and grabbed a glass. He felt for the faucet levers and sighed with relief as the cold water flowed into the glass.

Brandon longed for some familiarity. He couldn’t wait to get started in the morning on his new project. The newspaper was waiting for his newest proposal. If his research backed up his claims, heads would roll in Pittsburgh. It was the same story of political corruption with a new twist.

He set the empty glass in the sink and managed to find his bedroom again. Tomorrow would be a new day and another chance to adjust to life in the fast lane.

***

Pittsburgh was louder than Brandon remembered. He jerked awake with the sudden noise of police sirens outside his apartment. As he yawned, his body stretched in every direction. Then he lay there for a few more minutes.

It was time to begin. Still drowsy, he sauntered into the master bathroom for his morning routine. After showering and shaving, he walked into his bedroom and pushed the closet doors apart. He chose the third outfit from the left, green dress shirt with black dress pants. No tie for the home worker.

He settled into his slippers. The best part about working from home is that any video calls he made would never go below his shirt. His belly rumbled, reminding him that it was time for breakfast.

The apartment smelled clean, lemon and bleach invading his nostrils as he headed to the kitchen. He positioned himself in front of the Keurig and carefully filled it with water. He opened the main lid and slid his favorite French roast brew cup into the slot. Pushing his favorite coffee mug under the deliverer of happy mornings, he pressed the start button and listened to the glory of the sound of water pouring into the mixture and beginning to steam.

Then he turned to the fridge to get two eggs. He laid them on the counter and got two sausage links out of the freezer. He took them over to the counter beside the stove. Pushing his foot up under the bottom of the stove, his toes pulled the bottom drawer out. He bent down and chose his favorite egg pan.

He was relieved that the stove was electric. He set the pan down on the top and clicked the dial to medium. Opening the cupboard to his left, he grabbed a bowl and a plate. He cracked the egg shells on the lip of the bowl and filled it.  He cracked the second egg and did the same.

Brandon snapped his fingers. “Forgot milk!” He often talked himself through many processes throughout his day. He wandered over to the fridge, grabbed the milk, and poured a tiny amount in the bowl. He returned the milk to its home.

To the left of the oven was the silverware drawer and the drawer under that held the whisk. He was glad the bowl had higher walls because he could get pretty messy preparing food.

The sizzle was music to his ears as he poured the scrambled egg into the pan. It was easier to cheat on the sausages, so he put them in a glass plate in the microwave. He would wait to turn that on almost until the eggs were finished. He put one minute on the timer.

Brandon found that his food tasted a lot better when he concentrated on it, so he waited until the ding startled him. Then he flipped the scrambled eggs over and set a second one minute timer. The microwave dinged again, and he turned off the stove. He put the microwave on for 45 seconds for the sausage links. He used a spatula to cut up the eggs in the pan. Then he poured them out onto his plate. By the time he did that, the microwave beeped again. The sausages joined the eggs on the plate.

Now all that was left was to set the plate down on the dining room table in his kitchen and grab some orange juice. He finally sat down to enjoy his breakfast in peace. He expected the city to be louder than the suburbs, and he was not disappointed.

His keen ears listened to neighbors as they walked downstairs and out to the street to go to work. He listened to the cars in the street. Perhaps it would be quieter in his office after the hubbub of getting to work and school calmed down.

As he finished his breakfast, he took his plate and cup to the sink. Giving them a quick rinse, he suddenly remembered what he had wanted to do before he started work. He quickly pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed the familiar number.

The phone rang twice and Jen’s chipper voice was the third ring, “Pittsburgh Vision Services! Jen speaking.”

“Hi Jen, it’s Brandon Peters. How are you today?”

“Oh, Brandon! You don’t have to use your last name. We know who you are. For goodness sake, you’ve been here for the last two years. What can I do for you?”

Brandon licked his dry lips. It was strange contacting the school. He had just graduated and this was his first attempt at putting what he learned into practice.

“Can you put Denise on the line for me?”

“Absolutely! Give me one second to transfer you… And Brandon, we’re so proud of you!”

Before he could say thanks, Denise was on the line. “Hello, Brandon?”

“Yes, it’s me!”

“What can I do for you?”

“You know how you said if I wanted to I could take you to dinner?”

The silence felt like it would never end. Finally, after about five seconds, Denise answered. “Yes, I remember.”

Brandon was really stepping out of his comfort zone, “How about tonight?”

Another long pause. “Of course! I would love that.”

The ball was in Brandon’s court, “How about seven.”

“That sounds wonderful. Would you like me to meet you there?”

Brandon hated that he couldn’t drive. He wasn’t used to the transportation system quite yet either. “Yes. We can meet at the restaurant. Are you up for the Olive Garden?”

The sudden joy in Denise’s voice was unmistakable to his trained ears, “I love that place! Can’t wait to see you again. But I’ve gotta run. I’ve got a class in five minutes.”

It was rote memory to Brandon by now, “Okay. Enjoy your mobility class and I’ll see you at seven.”

“Have a good day Brandon! Bye!” The phone beeped twice to signal the end of the call.

Brandon walked to his office. He didn’t even catch himself smiling and humming. This was the start he was hoping for.

***

The door clicked shut as Brandon entered his sanctuary. 10 short steps to his favorite chair, an ergonomic executive office chair. Life didn’t get any better than sitting at that desk doing his research.

He settled into the luxurious and comfy chair. Opening his laptop in front of him, he pressed the power button and waited. Sitting back, he sipped his coffee in absolute peace. He could hear the DVD drive click a few times as the laptop purred to life.

Finally the screen came up. It greeted him with the common options and he started his favorite browser and word processor. He had three interviews to do today. It would be a long day, but dinner with Denise tonight would be the perfect end.

The office was the perfect workspace. He knew where everything was without even thinking about it. It was the one room that never changed no matter where he lived. He set it up so that anyone who spent any time in it would be able to find anything even with their eyes closed.

While the programs started, he got up and went to his file cabinet. He pulled two manila folders out. The first was marked, “Witness Interviews” and the second, “Court Documents.” If anyone knew how he got access to the second folder, he probably wouldn’t be alive.

He settled back in his comfy chair and checked his email first. Nothing new there. He moved on to check his interview list. Three earth shattering names were listed for this Monday morning. Tom Stiltz, Amanda Frats, and Andrew Connors. These three alone would sink the governor’s ship.

The first interview was scheduled for 10 AM. He had half an hour. He decided to research Mr. Stiltz further before the interview. He started with the commonplaces to look up the lieutenant governor. Ninety percent of the information was not new to him. It was time to dig a little deeper.

He opened up the forbidden dark web portal. This was where research really happened on the web these days. After logging in, he typed in Tom Stiltz into the search box. After pressing enter, the freakish underworld of politics littered the screen. He clicked away for another 20 minutes, bookmarking page after page for further study.

***

Brandon sat back in his chair and mused. A busy, but productive day. If only his interview with Andrew Connors, known as Drew on the streets, would have worked out. Unfortunately for Brandon, he did receive an IOU for tomorrow. He had to meet Drew in a seedy part of town.

The baby grandfather clock struck 5 o’clock. His first full day of work for the Pittsburgh Gazette was complete. Brandon worked his way to his bedroom to change for dinner.

This time, to change it up, he picked from the right side of the closet, the black suit with the navy blue tie. If he was going to catch the bus in time, he needed to leave now. Brandon gathered his things and walked out the door.

The bus was on time, but it would take an hour to get to the restaurant. And he would have to walk a block to get there. Not to worry. He left early. He boarded the bus, used his new monthly pass, and sat down, imagining everyone staring through the back of his head.

Brandon didn’t care. All his life people treated him differently. He pulled a pair of earbuds out of his suit coat pocket and his phone from his breast pocket. He only used one earbud so he could hear the bus stops. His favorite tunes soothed his nerves. He was in his own world now.

He enjoyed his tunes until he arrived. He thanked the bus driver on the way out and began the block walk to the restaurant. Upon entering the Olive Garden, Denise called out to him, “Brandon, you made it!” He followed her voice but she had already jumped up and ran to see him.

She greeted him with a kiss on the cheek. He blushed and she replied, “Brandon, you graduated. You are no longer my student. Besides, it’s just an innocent peck on the cheek.”

Brandon loved Denise’s whimsical and witty banter. While he was in school, he wouldn’t have remotely considered anything more than a professional teacher-student relationship. But she did have a point. Still, he couldn’t let his mind go there even now.

They were seated about 15 minutes after waiting. They were catching up on old times. Brandon had only been out of the program for about a month. He moved to Pittsburgh as part of his first great experiment.

As they looked over the menu, Brandon wasn’t sure what he wanted. “Everything sounds so good! Every time I come here I can never decide.”

Denise agreed, “I usually have a mainstay at every restaurant that I pick, but I could eat anything on this menu.”

Brandon settled on Chicken Parmesan and Denise ordered Chicken Alfredo. Brandon couldn’t help but notice that they both chose a chicken dish. They continued with small talk until their meals arrived.

Denise couldn’t resist, “So, have you settled in well?”

Brandon cleared his mouth and throat as he wiped his mouth with his napkin before he responded, “For the most part. My parents were very helpful in making sure just about everything was in its place. I just wish they had stayed overnight so we could go shopping together. My fridge has only the bare essentials.”

Denise jumped on the chance, “I can help you with that.”

Brandon responded, “I didn’t ask you to dinner to get you to help me with groceries. I just enjoy your company.”

Denise smiled, “I know that. I enjoy your company also. Do you think I would’ve come to dinner with you if I thought you were just trying to get me to do something for you? I know how independent you are working to become.”

Brandon cherished and guarded his independence. Since he was a child, everyone treated him like an invalid. But he could honestly say that Denise always encouraged and pushed him toward independence.

“Denise, I know you wouldn’t treat me like a child. But it would be weird to have such a nice time together and end up in a grocery store.” The last few words came out like grocery was the plague.

Denise chuckled, “Let’s eat. Then, let’s do my next favorite thing. Shop!”

Brandon busted out in laughter and they continued their playful banter throughout the whole meal. At the end, Brandon called for the check.

After he paid it, Denise couldn’t help herself, “Wanna get out of here?”

Brandon shook his head and they left the restaurant together. Denise hailed a cab and they crowded the back seat. Brandon gave the cabbie his address and they were off.

Denise suddenly realized they weren’t headed to the grocery store. “Brandon, are we going to your place first?”

Brandon’s face broke out in terror, “No! I must have given you the wrong idea!” He immediately changed the address to the local supermarket in his area with the cabbie.

He could hear Denise giggling the entire time. She responded, “I didn’t think anything of it.”

***

Brandon paid the cabbie as they departed. They walked into the store and both took a shopping basket. As they traipsed around the store, Brandon was thankful he had helped to bring back all the food he needed. It would’ve taken him forever to do all of his food shopping.

They visited every part of the store, mapping out the new place. By the time they were finished, Brandon knew every corner of the market.

He checked out with the cashier. There were so many bags! There was no way he could carry them all by himself. Denise grabbed half of the bags and they walked out together.

They were close enough to Brandon’s new apartment, and Denise insisted on seeing his apartment anyway. It was a warm and breezy night, perfect for walking. Brandon never realized how much of a connection they shared. He knew he enjoyed learning from her in school. But hanging out with her was contagious.

They arrived at his apartment and he showed her the place. As always, Brandon couldn’t have been more organized. But in his case, organization was absolutely necessary. He was OCD by choice. The night waned on until they both realize they had work in the morning.

“I can’t believe we have so much in common,” Brandon said.

“Well, perhaps I can stop by again sometime.”

Brandon couldn’t have asked for a better friend in a new place. She had been such a blessing to him. He agreed to meet with her again.

“Oh no! I just remembered I have an interview on the streets tomorrow.”

Denise suddenly looked very serious, “That sounds mysterious and scary at the same time. Will you be okay?”

Brandon thought for a moment, “Yeah. I get the feeling this person has been waiting for someone to interview them. And I only have to be mysterious because investigative reporting can get people I know in trouble. If everything works out, you’ll see my work at the top of the news.”

Denise still sounded worried, “If it’s all the same, Brandon, can you give me your cell number and call me if you’re in danger tomorrow?”

“Sure.” They exchanged phone numbers.

Denise chuckled, “I guess research reporting on the front lines is your way to leave a legacy, isn’t it?”

Brandon smiled, “Is there any other way?”

***

The sun peeked through the horizon, calling the day to begin. Brandon got off the bus and walked a couple of blocks. He was supposed to meet Drew in an abandoned warehouse. It seemed shady, but then again, he was meeting the leader of the City Kings.

He entered the warehouse and waited. Hopefully, Drew would meet him and guide him to the interview. His ears perked up as he heard the smallest of noises. All of a sudden, a group of ruffians began laughing.

A voice on his left, “You’ve got to be kidding! This is the reporter? Some blind dude?”

Then a voice on his right, “No way. No freaking way! Drew, you can’t take this cat seriously.”

Then silence. Brandon couldn’t see Drew raise his hand. Then he spoke, “Brandon Peters, I presume?”

Nothing ever really scared Brandon in his life. If you can deal with being blind, you can deal with anything. But now he was rethinking the whole situation. Was the interview worth it? Yes, yes it was.

“Yes. I presume I’m speaking to Drew?”

“Yeah. I’m Drew. Didn’t know you were blind. This isn’t gonna work.”

“Why?” Brandon had dealt with people like this before. Everybody thinks you can’t do anything if you’re disabled or blind, but Brandon has proved he is capable all his life.

“Well, I don’t trust you. How do I know you’re actually a reporter?”

Brandon reached into his shirt and heard the gasps and clicks from loaded guns. “Relax! I’ve just got to show Drew something. He pulled a manila folder out of his jacket.

One of Drew’s goons ripped it out of his hands and gave it to Drew. He opened it and his eyes widened as his mouth opened. “Where did you get this?”

“I told you,” Brandon said, “I’m the reporter that contacted you. If I have that, you know I’m good at what I do.”

Absolute silence filled the room. Nobody moved as Drew looked over the documents inside. “Okay. Frankie, help the man to my office.” Brandon heard footsteps as Drew walked away and Frankie grabbed his shoulder.

“Frankie, that’s not how you guide blind people. Give me your elbow.” Frankie adjusted and put Brandon’s hand on his elbow. “Now just walk to the room and I’ll follow.”

Frankie helped Brandon find a seat. He pulled his recorder out of his briefcase. “I’m ready when you are, Drew.” He heard the door slam as Frankie left them alone.

“Yeah. What you want to know?”

“First of all, when can I talk to the real Andrew Cooper?”

“What kind of game you playin'” He could hear the anger and confusion in Drew’s voice.

“Well, I have a recording of the original Andrew Cooper, and while your voice is close, it’s not the same.”

Brandon couldn’t see the look of surprise on Drew’s face. But it’s hard to fool the seasoned ears of a blind man. Drew confessed, “Blind people’s ears really are good. Nobody ever questioned my identity before.”

Brandon was finally getting somewhere, “The police know they’ve never caught the real Andrew Cooper. By my count, they have six of them in prison.”

Drew shook his head, “Yeah, and I’m the seventh. I’ve been running City Kings for the last 10 years. Most of the kids in the gang don’t even know what Drew looks or sounds like.”

Brandon leaned forward, “So is he dead or what?”

The true voice of Andrew Cooper rang out from behind him, “He’s alive and well. And no one has ever questioned my puppets before.”

Brandon shivered. He didn’t expect that.

“Fortune favors the bold, or the stupid. For 30 years no one has figured it out. I’ve always had a double, but you’re the first to meet me in that amount of time.”

Brandon turned around, “Mr. Cooper, you have the key to bringing down the most corrupt politician I’ve ever come across. Are you willing?”

The sultry voice almost sang, “Lock that fool up!” Then it got serious with gravitas, “You know what’s in that folder. Katie deserves to be heard from the grave.”

Drew’s double stood, walked up to Cooper, and placed the folder in his hands. “This belongs to you and I apologize for looking at it.”

“Jack, you’ve been my number one man for 10 years. If anyone could see it, you’ve earned a look.” Brandon heard Jack’s shoes clack on the floor as he left the room. Then he listened to the smooth stride of Cooper as he sat down at the desk. He turned around to face him.

“Now it’s time to answer any questions you have for Katie’s sake.”

Brandon felt like he needed to apologize, “Mr. Cooper, I’m sorry for bringing that. I know how close she was to your heart. But I needed to be taken seriously if we’re going to bring down the most powerful governor Pennsylvania’s ever endured.”

“True dat. That monster needs to die.”

“I know about the murders. But what I saw in that file, let’s just say if I think about it enough I’m gonna hurl again.” Brandon was visibly shaken and grew more pale by the second.

“Please don’t puke on my mahogany desk. At least you didn’t find her…” His voice began to trail off.

Brandon clicked the record button. “This is the interview with Andrew Cooper, leader of the City Kings gang. My first question is, what else do you know of that Governor Perry has done?”

“Murder is the tip of the iceberg. Nathan Perry is a worse criminal than me. Rape, extortion, arson, you name it, he’s done it. And I should know because I helped him do most of it. You’re looking at one of his first henchmen.”

Brandon tried not to look surprised, “So you were an eyewitness to many of his crimes?”

“We grew up together as best friends. Like anybody else in the ghetto, we went into crime. At first, it was just the small stuff, a robbery here, a mugging there. But he was cruel and sadistic. He was way more violent than me. Nathan was the kind of guy who got off on other people’s pain. It was like a drug to him.”

“I know this is a touchy subject, but when did Katie get involved?” Brandon expected Cooper to come across the desk and strangle him with his bare hands.

“Katie was innocent. He met my sister maybe a week after we met. She was the sweetest person you’ll ever know. And he couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t stand anyone that was kind or caring. We were doing a big robbery of a bank back in the day. He wanted me to kill the teller who pressed the silent alarm. I wouldn’t do it. He threatened that if I didn’t he would kill someone I love. I didn’t believe him at the time.” Brandon could hear his voice waiver, “Katie paid for my mistake.”

Brandon stopped the recorder, “Do you want to take a minute?”

Cooper’s voice was firmer, “No. It would take forever to do this interview if I went through every emotion I felt about that jerk.”

Brandon pressed record, “Mr. Cooper, why aren’t you in prison for what you did with him?”

“Early on I realized I needed a backup plan if I was going to keep working with that maniac. I found another close friend whose voice sounded like mine. He was tougher than me, if you can believe that. I paid him with the money we stole from the bank to become my double and take on my identity. I was always working in the background, but he was my right-hand man until he got arrested. They took him to jail and realized after a while that no matter how close we were he didn’t know everything about me. They realized he wasn’t me. Five other close friends have also been jailed. Jack is the newest.”

Brandon smiled, “I gotta hand it to you. That’s an ingenious plan.”

“I’m not sure how proud I am of it anymore. All of my closest friends are in jail for things I told them to do. Especially without Katie, I’m just a lonely old man now.”

Brandon could almost sympathize with him, although that’s not what a good reporter does. He continued the interview with Cooper. Based on his answers, Brandon knew this would be a slam dunk.

After the interview, Cooper called Jack back in. “Brandon, you know we can’t let you just walk out of here, right?”

Brandon scowled, “I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, but I understand. What do you want me to do?”

“Well, we have to make it look real. Where do you want us to dump you off?”

“We actually have a mutual friend. I’m sure you know Pastor Robbie Robinson?”

Cooper chuckled, “You mean the only punk to ever leave City Kings and, of all things, become a man of the cloth?”

“The one and the same.”

“Yeah. Don’t tell anyone, but he is only the fourth person who knows my true identity.”

“After you rough me up, why not deliver me on the front steps of his church?”

“Yeah. That’ll work okay.” Brandon heard him rise from his chair, felt a sharp pain on the left side of his face, and passed out.

***

The black nondescript van slowed down just enough to open the door and push Brandon’s body onto the sidewalk. In this high crime neighborhood, no one stopped to check on him or ask for help.

Pastor Robinson burst out of the church not less than two minutes after Brandon was dumped off. He gathered him up in his arms and took him inside.

With the pastor’s help, Brandon finally came to. “Where am I? Pastor Robbie?” He was disoriented especially at first.

“I’m right here, son. Drew called me right after they loaded you in the van. Get your bearings and relax for a bit.”

Brandon realized after a few minutes he was safe and Cooper was a man of his word. He sat on the pastor’s couch in his office.

Pastor Robinson’s voice was full of anticipation. “So did he give you the lowdown?”

Brandon was still a bit groggy, “Yeah. I couldn’t believe some of the things he told me. I thought my records were damning but there’s no way when people hear this stuff that he’ll get away with it.”

“Unfortunately, criminals get away with things all the time on this earth. But they will stand before the Judge one day. They won’t be able to get away from him.”

Brandon agreed, “That day can’t come quick enough. But how have you and the church been doing?”

Pastor Robinson hung his head, “We’ve fallen on hard times. We might actually have to sell the church.”

Brandon was taken aback, “What happened?”

“People have stopped coming to church. I don’t know if it’s me or something else. I’ve been doing a lot of prayin’ but I don’t know what to do. I hate these dark nights of the soul.”

Brandon chirped up, “Pastor, if there’s anything I understand it’s being in the dark or being forced to step out in faith. When you can’t see the way ahead, all you can do is take the next step.”

Pastor Robinson thought for a moment, “There is a donor I haven’t talked to in a while.”

Brandon smiled, “There is your next step.”

Pastor Robinson chuckled, “I’m the one supposed to be giving you spiritual advice.”

“I may be blind, but spiritually, I find it helps me to see easier. I hate to leave, but I have a few interviews and a whale of a tale to share with the world.”

Pastor Robinson helped Brandon to the nearest bus stop so he could get back to work on his story.

***

Brandon’s cell phone rang incessantly. He picked it up by the second, “Hello?”

The voice on the line was familiar, but rushed, “Brandon, it’s Denise. Are you okay? I heard someone got delivered to Pastor Robinson’s church and they looked pretty beat up. I figured it was you.”

Brandon laughed, which made his cheeks hurt, “That was me! They couldn’t let me leave without looking like I didn’t belong. It’d look bad if I interviewed the City Kings and walked away without a scratch.”

“The City Kings? Brandon, you could’ve been murdered!” He could hear her genuine wary through the phone speaker.

Brandon assured her, “I said they just had to make it look good. I didn’t say they actually wanted to beat me up, quite the opposite, in fact.”

“You really need to let some people in, Brandon. What would we all do if you turned up dead?” She was still worried and confused. Why would anyone choose to become an investigative reporter?

“Don’t worry about me. I’m a tough guy.” He laughed and Denise finally let loose and laughed with him.

“Still, I want to know where you are when you have dangerous assignments like that. On a separate note, are you free for dinner?” Brandon couldn’t be happier.

Over the next two months, Brandon wrote and interviewed key people in the governor’s underground operations.

***

Brandon had the TV on in the living room. Today was the day. He heard the news alert in the kitchen and hurried to the couch. He was just in time.

“This is Newsbreak. I’m your host, Larry Stone.” Video of Governor Perry being arrested in public flashed on the screen. A police man was pushing his head down as they pushed him into the backseat of a police car.

“This morning in a surprise raid on Gov. Perry’s mansion, police discovered a plethora of illegal drugs, a prostitution ring in his basement, and several other illegal operations. He was immediately arrested and is waiting arraignment. Chief of police, Capt. Ron Ranger, told us much more would be released to the public tomorrow.

“Lieut. Gov. Tom Stiltz has assumed acting governor status.”

Video shifted to Acting Gov. Tom Stiltz standing at a podium in front of six microphones. “I’m saddened to hear the news of Governor Perry. But I will do everything in my power to make sure that Pennsylvania doesn’t miss a beat. I’m on the job for you and will get to the bottom of what’s been going on around here.” Reporters burst with questions and he began to answer them.

Brandon smiled to himself, “You did it. You, a blind investigative reporter that no one thought could do anything. But with the amount of money you made with this newspaper, you could take a nice vacation with that lovely Denise.”

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