Patient Zero

by Stacy Neuberger-von Hoffman

 

There are some things that people just keep to themselves, secrets that never get told, and thoughts never shared. One doesn’t blurt out to their husband or wife that they are boffing their secretary or their pool boy. One also doesn’t tell their best friend that they have the ugliest baby ever seen on the planet, that in fact it is so ugly it should be in the Guinness Book of World Records. One should also make sure to compliment their mothers’ cooking, their wife’s clothing choices, or their boyfriends’ love for pizza, beer and football. That was the problem Baxter was facing right now, should he keep hiding the truth, or should he start telling people his secret?

Truth was Baxter was a zombie. He didn’t know how to tell people that he was one of the undead, especially since he was not the cool kind of undead. Plus, Baxter wasn’t a soulless monster, and he didn’t really want to be murdered because of what he had become. The idea that once he told people they would want to kill him made him a little uneasy, and he got this odd quivering feeling in the pit of his stomach, or the area of his body that used to be his stomach. Now he wasn’t sure what it contained, especially since he was unable to eat and feel sated.

Baxter believed that life would be better if he were a vampire rather than a zombie, even a werewolf would be a better supernatural being. For some reason vampires were cool, sexy; however, he was one of those people who didn’t understand the cult that the pale, blood-sucking undead had formed. Why would anyone want to be immortal and have a taste for sucking iron-tasting blood? The only problem he saw with being a werewolf was the excessive hairiness. Of course, it hadn’t been his choice, so he guessed that he couldn’t be too picky about which type of creature he was to be.

Death was the natural process of things. If he wasn’t so scared he would welcome death. He knew there had to be a reason he had become a zombie rather than a corpse, he just had to figure out what that reason was. The answer might never come. Quite possibly he had become a zombie because of his own mystical karma.

As far as he knew, Baxter was the only human zombie living. He might even be what the movies referred to as “patient zero.” Since he was the only one of his kind he knew he had to be extra careful. There were people out there, medical and government agencies, who would want to experiment on him, test him, find out why he was a zombie, and find out how much of a danger he was to others. In all honesty, he wasn’t a danger—at least not since he had become a zombie. Baxter believed that you were what you ate, and eating people would make him a cannibal.

Of course, before he became a zombie he had a nasty habit of raping and murdering prostitutes, although he didn’t consider it a horrible thing, just a thing that might have gotten him into trouble with his girlfriend, or the police, if he had been caught. He was sure his girlfriend wouldn’t have approved of him hacking a naked woman to bits and then throwing the dismembered corpse into the river, even though it was a family legacy. His father had been a Bible-thumping, whore murderer as well. Baxter was just following in his father’s footsteps. Except for Baxter, the electric chair was not an option. The problem, in this case, was if he hadn’t been a hooker-murdering businessman, he might never have become a zombie.

During one of his late night slash fests he was bitten by a cat. He should have been paying better attention to his surroundings. That night he was tired and just wanted to get through the bone and be done with it, so he could go home and have sex with his plain Jane girlfriend, whose name was actually Jane. Baxter was sure she would be waiting at his apartment, with some organic wine and organic berries in a vegan negligee. He tired of her clinginess and at times wished that he could kill her. She was weak, lived in a rent-controlled apartment, and liked to dine in.

Instead he was bitten on the right forearm by a scraggly orange tabby cat with one eye and a collar that jingled. The cat didn’t wear a nametag; Baxter guessed that at one point it did. Its name was probably something stupid like Twinkie, Buster, or Chuck Norris. Swearing, he turned to kill the cat, but it was gone, apparently it had not taken a liking to the taste of Baxter’s forearm and didn’t need a second taste. So he finished what he was doing, took care of the debris, cleaned himself up and went home. Having become a professional in the arena of murder, the clean-up only took him fifteen minutes. Killing in the nude had become habit, so there wasn’t much else to do besides push the body parts into the river. He was of course happy that the cat had not bitten him on his unprotected penis. Who would have guessed that there was a cat zombie roaming the world?

It wasn’t until two days later that he thought something was wrong. Antibiotic cream burned. In fact his arm had become swollen, also there was a weird, sickly smell that emanated from the wound. He was never a man with a tan, in fact his pale skin regularly seemed to reflect light, but he did seem paler than usual. Even his best friend and office mate, Toby, noticed. Toby commented on it one day, four days after he had been bitten.

“Man, Bax, you need to get out more in the daylight. You are so pale someone might mistake you for the StayPuft Marshmallow Man.” One of Toby’s favorite movies was Ghostbusters. He really loved watching the scenes with Sigourney Weaver, which was the reason he also like the Alien movies (even Alien Resurrection which was a horrible movie, but Sigourney Weaver was wet, so she was sexy).

Baxter had laughed it off, making a joke about Sigourney Weaver’s tits to distract Toby, but he wondered. He also worried and when he realized what had happened he began to use precautions. Formaldehyde became a staple of his daily skin care routine.

Baxter was forced to take two weeks off of work, the last three days of which he didn’t remember. When he woke up on the last day, he was covered in blood and there were several rat carcasses around his body. Apparently, while he slept the rats had decided he might taste like garbage, a favorite among the rat population, so they came in and nibbled on his feet. Thankfully they only got stuffing while they nibbled on his brown slippers. He wished they hadn’t come at all. The rats didn’t seem to bother him while he was sleeping, and from the looks of it he had gotten the best of them. There were easily fifteen dead rats, or at least the pieces of them, strewn about his pale green and yellow bedroom. Now his bedroom looked a little more like Christmas with the blood on the walls, carpet, and his body.

Jane had wanted to come over and bring him soup, or something to make him feel better. She wasn’t much of a cook and had gotten on a vegan kick, which was annoying since he was a rare steak and fries man. He didn’t care for miso soup, or tofu, or raw vegetables, or any of the other crap she brought by. So he told her no, don’t come over, and ignored the hurt and whiney voice on the other end of the line. Jane was beginning to bore him. She was too vanilla in her tastes, wanting to watch chick flicks and cry on his shoulder. Jane even begged to stick with the missionary position when they had sex. Baxter had begun to think about dumping her, yet it was so hard to find a simple, easy to maintain girlfriend.

Now, when he saw his pale face in the bathroom mirror he could see it all, could see what he had become, could see what he really was. He didn’t know how long he could hide the fact that he was a zombie. Baxter had to remember to breathe; if he didn’t breathe people would know what he was. A hard part was that he had to remember to eat, even though all the food he ate tasted like burnt hamburger. What he would have given for a bloody raw steak, or the raw flesh of something delicious, more savory than bloody rat. He had to remember to comb his receding blay (brown, blonde and gray) hair gently every day, so it didn’t all just fall out of his dead head. There was probably no possibility that hair grew back on zombie scalps.

When he walked into the office each day he knew he probably looked worse and worse. He would have stayed home, or quit, but he didn’t want people to figure out his secret, plus he needed the money.

His skin was becoming sallow, he looked as if he hadn’t slept in days, or even weeks, but he could pass off his more than unfortunate looks because he had just been out sick for a couple of weeks. However, just by the glimpses he had caught of himself in the urine-tainted men’s room he knew he wouldn’t be able continue blaming his mysterious illness for the way he looked. Baxter was surprised every day he walked into the office that no one noticed the slightly sweet smell that was beginning to emanate from his body. He knew from research that the smell was a beginning sign of decomposition, and he wasn’t sure how long he could keep himself together, literally.

“Hey, Mr. Kingsley, there is a meeting at ten in the main conference room. Mr. Derrwitaker wants to see you there,” said Ashley, the reception secretary.

She was always smiling her goofy bright smile. For some reason she thought that getting braces at the age of thirty was a good idea and might help her land a man. It was pretty silly of her to think that. A man wouldn’t want to kiss a mouth full of metal, unless he had a fetish for young schoolgirls. Maybe that was her hook, maybe she caught men by putting her hair in pigtails and offering them a little rub and tug. Ashley had tried to seduce him once. Jane had just become his serious girlfriend, so he had been forced to say no thank you. Maybe he should bite Ashley, make her his sexy zombie slave.

The smells that used to get him when he walked into the office weren’t as pleasant since he became a zombie. He used to love the smell of the freshly made coffee, the doughnuts from the mom and pop bakery down the street, the mix of perfumes that the ladies all wore. It was an intoxicating mix. The integration of smells made him want to eat and have anonymous sex all at once. Not a bad thing, sometimes he went home and masturbated to the remembrance of that mix of smells. Now he rarely masturbated. He was afraid that his penis would just fall off. Now the smells just made him want to vomit. The aromas that he liked more were the fragrant odors of the ladies—their skin, the blood pulsating through their bodies, and for some reason their heads smelled the best, a mix of sickly sweet shampoo and a butcher shop.

Baxter knew that today, almost a month after his transformation, was going to be another long day in acquisitions. It was a good thing that there were all these giant brains around here pretending to work. Meetings were the worst, always Mr. Derrwitaker talking, talking, talking, and nothing coming from it. Everyone knew big, fat Mr. Derrwitaker just liked to hear the sound of his own voice echo throughout the conference room, which was why he usually chose the main conference room to hold these meetings in; it was large and had pretty good acoustics.

When Baxter got to the room, four of the seven people were there already, he made five. Mr. Derrwitaker would arrive late, as per his usual routine. Hunger ached in Baxter’s newly transformed and forever-empty stomach. It often felt as if his stomach was eating itself. He knew that wasn’t possible, he assumed it was just the way things were when one became a zombie. What Baxter really wished was that he had found that cat instead of finishing with that stupid, heroin addicted hooker. She hadn’t even known who the sixteenth president was. Who didn’t know who the sixteenth president was?

When everyone finally arrived the hunger was overwhelming. While they were passing around the pink frosted doughnuts and the bear claws he was looking at each employees’ head wondering how hard it was to bite through bone (although he knew it was hard to cut through).

Reaching across the table for a bottle of water he instead grabbed the arm of his cubicle neighbor, Jeffery Darling, and took a toothy chunk out of his forearm.

“Son of a…” Jeffery screamed, grabbing his arm. “What the hell, Baxter?” Standing quickly, Jeffery grabbed his arm and watched as the blood flowed through his baby blue dress shirt, and pooled on the maroon carpet. That wouldn’t be too hard to hide later, blood mixed well with the color maroon.

“Hungry,” Baxter mumbled, blood dribbling down his hairless pale chin.

Screams echoed out in the hall as Jeffery stumbled out of the room holding his bleeding arm close to his chest. Girls screamed like girls, boys screamed like girls and everyone ran towards the room to find out what had happened.

Jeffery was quickly infected and almost immediately became a new species of zombie. Then it began.

Jeffery bit into Sally, the mail girl who just happened to be passing by, and she bit into Mark, her secret mail room lover who she liked to screw while sitting on the office mail in the mail cart. Mark bit Julie who he had wanted to bite for a long time but thought she was too beautiful with her large fake breasts, big blond hair, and bright blue eyes. Julie bit Anthony, her pool boy, when she got home—which is where she raced after being bitten by Mark. And Anthony, well he unfortunately bit his wife Alice and six-year-old daughter, Alyssa. Things just went downhill from there. Alyssa, being a child, was oooed and awwwed over and every person she came in contact with she bit. In fact she survived for three months, until Officer David Brennen found her—half her beautiful brown face missing, her left eye dangling out of its eye socket by a ligament. Everyone she ate wanted to help her, save her. Officer Brennen just shot her in the head and then shot her again, knowing that this was what you were supposed to do when you were going to kill a zombie.

Of course Baxter still knew how to survive, and his minor feeling of guilt at having started this whole zombie uprising thing, helped keep him hidden. He stayed low, didn’t go out if he didn’t have to, let his meals come to him, which they always did when stupid survivors were looking for a place to lay their weary heads. Baxter had moved three times since he had created the first zombie in Jeffery. After Jeffery he had eaten Toby because of all the stupid Sigourney Weaver comments he had been forced to listen to over the twenty years they had worked together. After finishing Toby he ran out of the building, screaming, “There is so much blood! Oh god, somebody help us!”

Currently Baxter lived in a nice three bedroom, two and one-half bathroom house. Formerly occupied by the Morris family, he had assumed control of the house after he had killed and eaten Mary, the mother, Steve, the father, and Seth, the teenage son.

Teenagers were especially meaty. The fat content in their bodies was almost as fresh as a chunky little babies’. Baxter couldn’t bring himself to eat a baby, and actually didn’t like the idea that he had been forced to become a cannibal. When he felt bad about eating a person he reminded himself again that you are what you eat and he was human so why not eat humans.

The good thing was that he realized he wasn’t the only zombie anymore; in fact he was the king of zombies. A god among zombies, the zombie maker, and he was sure that he could destroy both the humans and the zombies if he needed to.

Hearing a noise Baxter stood, wondering who would be coming in during the night, since everyone else had come in during the day, when they could open the forest green blinds and see the vast living room in the radiance of the sun. Tilting his head to the right, he was startled when his neck popped and wondered if it was a regular creak or if he had just snapped his neck by tilting it too hard.

Baxter heard a very audible click, and knew exactly what it was. There was nowhere for him to go, so he closed his eyes and waited. The blast wasn’t as loud as he thought it would be. Unfortunately a side effect of being dead was that his ears had also been dead for a few months now so they had lost some of their usefulness. His head ached as the birdshot exploded his face, he felt just a memory of pain, not actual pain. Falling to his knees he tried to smile, teeth fell from his mouth and tinkled on the floor, they sounded like the bells of a cat’s collar, the bell of that cat’s collar.

Looking up he saw the face of the person who had finally killed him, and he wanted to laugh. It was his girlfriend, Jane. Sweet Jane, the pathetic woman who would never hurt a fly, or an ant, or a spider. Boring Jane, who he had been planning to dump, and who he was thinking about possibly finding and eating. Plain Jane, now a beauty reflected in his cold dead eyes.

Patient Zero fell into a bloodless heap. Now a cure would never be found.

Let the zombie revolution begin.

 

More More More!

by Karen Albright Lin

 

Steamy walked in through the alley door of Billy Bob’s Big Jugs. Backstage she joined four other women who were preparing for their strip tease.

Cigar smoke filtered back to them as they pushed on layer after layer of shiny stick-ons, black zip-downs, and sequin Velcro tear-offs. Lacking the dignity of a dressing room, they could hear the catcalls beginning even before the stage was lit up and hurried introductions were made.

Billy Bob egged on the customers, “…a progressively erotic show featuring five dolls who will surpass your favorite wet dream.” Steamy sprinkled on the last powdered specks of glitter and checked her hair in a cracked mirror.

“Carnal Lace!” Billy Bob backed off the stage as Carnal glided on, hiding her black leotard body suit with two giant black feathers. The dull music began and the customary two bouncers moved next to the stage to bat men’s arms away from Carnal’s feathers. Billy Bob had paid too much, too many times to replace them.

Carnal floated to all corners of the tiny stage, undulating in and out of her feather cage until the music quickened and one feather was thrown behind the side curtain for Steamy to place in a prop trunk.

Steamy drew a pocketknife out of the trunk, afterward, and eased it into a slit in the back of her costume. She stopped watching Carnal’s act at this point. She didn’t like it. It only teased the howlers in the audience so they’d be hungrier for her act.

“Take it off!” a drunk man yelled through his cigar. But Carnal never removed her g-string. It wasn’t in her contract. Steamy was next.

Sweaty and clearly disgusted, Carnal ran past the footlights, brushed past the blood-red curtain, and threw the other feather away. “Tissue. Where’s the tissue?” she said past her frown.

Steamy’s cue, a rhythmic, groaning saxophone piece, crackled from the amplifiers. Automatically, just like every Friday and Saturday night, she placed one leg out onto the stage, a hint of things to come.

The roar from the smoky, dark room increased. Expectant men urged her onto center stage. She rhythmically slinked on, fully dressed in a shiny outfit that was about to become more provocative, more revealing.

Steamy slowly unzipped from her chest and stomach, down the contours of her crotch and around to her butt, the spandex, glittery costume. The stench of liquor blew at her from the howling audience. Steamy had on baby doll pajamas under the spandex. A g-string and pasties pinched under those. She took a deep breath as the music signaled her next move. She peeled off the PJs as the audience screamed, “Take it off!” Still attempting to swing elegantly in her spiked heels and uncomfortable pasties, she tried to stave off the nausea that always gripped her at that point. The men were getting restless and the bouncers could barely keep the beasts away.

“More more more!” In exchange for an extra twenty dollars, Steamy’s dance was a nude-follow up to Carnal’s tease; the caps would have to come off her nipples. Steamy pulled first one, then the other painfully off and threw them out to the audience. She rode the air as if on waves and tried to forget where she was, pretend she was rehearsing her moves in front of her mirror at home. Since the lights were in her eyes, she couldn’t see which morons caught the tiny nipple cups.

“More more more!” She pulled the pocketknife out from behind her back and made a few enticing circles with it around the fabric of the revealing g-string. “More more more!”

Grasping the warm knife, she snapped one thin string, leaving half of the symbolic cover dangling and half of her shaved flesh exposed. A wilder dance overtook her now. As she turned, it became obvious that the next step would be to cut the other side and move naked about the stage until the screams came for Wanton’s S&M act.

But “More more more!” rattled the stage. They wanted to see more. She had nothing on now. She was fully naked. What more could she expose?

“More more more!”

Dizzy, she peeked backstage where her boss waved a hand, motioning her to give them more. He wanted satisfied customers. Steamy’s stomach seized. She picked up the knife with which she’d cut the g-string and opened it.

“More more more!” Louder now.

Steamy did the only thing that came to mind. She clenched her teeth, shoved the knife into her abdomen, and cut a slit in her stomach.

Initially there was a hush as she smeared blood on herself.

Beginning with slow murmurs, the crowd’s noise began again.

Steamy’s foggy instinct, as she felt hands tugging her off the stage, was to pull out a strand of intestine for them to see. Instead, she passed out.

The next act in a cop suit, Wanton S&M, looked stunned, “Now how the hell am I going to follow that?”

 

Negotiating With Ants

by Kenneth Rutherford

 

Amber sits at her desk at work, reviewing a stack of purchase orders. She pushes a strand of her disheveled, platinum blonde hair behind her ear while frowning at Billy, who sits at a nearby desk. He winces as he rubs white cream all over his welt-ridden right hand.

Billy whines, “Amber, do we have any more Cortizone?”

“Try looking in the first aid kit,” she replies, rolling her eyes.

Amber tries to refocus her attention on her work but is unable to do so. Her thoughts wander to an encounter she had with Billy two days earlier.

* * * * *

She was sitting at her desk looking at an invoice when Billy peered over her shoulder.

“Okay, Amber. When US Foodservice comes tomorrow, there should be fifteen extra boxes of chicken carnitas, and I ordered ten boxes of parboiled rice yesterday evening to be shipped on the truck, too. Are you listening?”

Amber glares at him. “Yeah, I’m listening. I’m just waiting for you to take your hand off my thigh.”

“You mean that bothers you? I didn’t realize I’d struck a nerve.”

“Uh, yeah. I’d think after two sexual harassment complaints you’d realize that. But for some reason, the Office of Discipline Management has a habit of losing… Billy, why is your hand on my back?! Ugh.” Grabbing a pack of Marlboro Lights, Amber storms out of the office.

Billy yells after her, “The ODM office works for me, darlin’.”

* * * * *

Amber’s thoughts are interrupted as Craig, the supervisor, enters the office. “Okay, people. What are we going to do about our ant problem? They’re already eating through boxes and gorging themselves on our food. If I can’t eliminate this problem, I’m out of a job. I won’t lose my livelihood to a bunch of ornery ants!”

Amber replies, “We’ve tried everything. Two exterminators refuse to return, and Billy’s idea sure didn’t work.” She grins at him as he nurses his hand.

Billy exclaims, “I’ve never seen ants act like that! They were all over me in seconds. And fire ants… we don’t even have fire ants in this area. Where did they come from? Craig, why don’t we let Amber take a shot at it?”

Craig replies, “Okay, Amber. You’ve been drafted.”

“But…”

“No buts! Talk to your friend at EntoTech and report back to me.”

Her voice falters as she says, “Okay, but I’ll have to re-examine the entry site.”

“Fine. Do whatever it takes.”

* * * * *

Amber squats near a hole in the concrete floor. Boxes of twenty-four ounce cups tower above her. Struggling in the darkness, she presses a button on a lamp clamped to her clipboard. The light continuously flickers as it illuminates the clipboard, her pale, tired face, and the hole in the floor. She scribbles down a few notes on a clean piece of paper that reads “Distribution Center Report,” which sits on top of a two-inch stack of papers. Writing a report would be fruitless. The ants manage to elude all exterminators, leaving no sign of their whereabouts. As Amber peers into the opening, a pair of antennae emerge.

“Hello, human.”

Amber looks behind her to see where the voice is coming from. Seeing no one, she continues to fill out the report.

“Helllooooo, human! You aren’t dreaming. I thought human females were like their counterparts in the ant world, reasonably clever, and more intelligent than the males. Was I mistaken?”

Amber stares in disbelief at the ant who is talking through a megaphone. “What do you want?”

“Food.”

“Why our food? Can’t you find something to eat outside the warehouse and someone else to aggravate?”

“Ha! And miss out on terrorizing you humans? That one guy is particularly amusing.”

Her mouth shifts from a grimace into a grin, “Billy?”

“Yeah. What a schmuck! Typical male—convinced of his superiority and deserving of punishment.

Chuckling, she agrees, “I don’t deny that Billy is an arrogant schmuck. But why punish everyone because of one man? Your little occupation has wreaked havoc on our warehouse and cost us nearly a hundred dollars a week in food.”

One man?! He flooded our home with kerosene, killing all our male drones and a few female workers. How are we supposed to mate without males? We cannot mate if we cannot eat, so…”

“Okay, okay. I get the point. Hmmm…” Amber presses her pencil’s eraser against her lips, “Would providing a fifty-pound bag of sugar to your colony adequately sustain it until you emigrate?”

“You’re not listening. The only way our queen would move the colony would be if we avenged the death of our comrades.”

“Oh. Well, what if I locked him in the warehouse for you to do with him as you please? He is allergic to insect bites, after all.”

The ant’s antennae rise in interest. “Loosen the caps on six half-gallon jugs of honey, the third container from the left, and we have a deal pending approval from my queen. I’ll leave a sugar cube in the pencil mug on your desk if we get the go ahead. Do we have a deal?”

Amber’s eyebrows rise and she smirks, “Deal.”

* * * * *

Later that evening Amber stands by the door, waiting for Billy to lock it. He presses buttons on the security panel with a perplexed look on his face.

“It’s not accepting my pass code. What’s wrong with this thing?”

“Maybe you entered it incorrectly,” Amber suggests.

“No. I’m the assistant supervisor, damn it!” He makes an about-face, takes a deep breath, and turns back towards the panel to try again.

“Have a good evening, Billy,” Amber says, skirting out the door and slamming it behind her.

Click.

“Amber! Let me out of here!!”

Amber pops the sugar cube into her mouth as she walks through the parking lot to her hatchback. Revenge never tasted so sweet.

Soon, screams are heard from inside the warehouse. Covered in honey and fire ants Billy drops to the concrete floor, writhing in agony.

With his maroon Polo lying crumpled in a sticky heap, Billy fumbles with his belt. He unfastens the shiny, eagle head buckle; manages to unbutton and unzip his pants, chucking them half-way off; and rolls onto his forgotten glasses, crushing them. However, the ants seize the opportunity to migrate to his partially exposed legs. As the ants eat away at his skin, his body spasms and welts begin to form. They crawl into every hole and crevice, entering his ravaged body, knowing that their suicide mission will avenge their comrades.

A seemingly endless parade of ants streams into the room following a trail of pheromones and honey. Sweet revenge.

 

Freezeheads

by Andrew Hoffman

 

The bell on the door rang. Reynolds, the new manager of Blue Scoop, had installed them on his second day at the shop. His name was Jerome but he insisted they call him by his last name. The bells were put on the front door to alert employees of the entrance of a prospective customer. The shop was only twenty feet by twenty feet, with a full plate-glass front to it—it was hard not to notice customers, bell or no bell.

The bell was only one example, among many, which kept Kevin from liking his new boss, despite his best effort. Kevin had graduated from Western at the end of fall quarter with a degree in some forgettable field, which he had already almost forgotten. He had taken this ice cream job during his final two years in school, and now two months clear of academics, he had kept on. He liked being by Mt. Baker to snowboard and camp on. He liked his friends there. He had liked Leonard, the old man who owned the Blue Scoop, before a national ice cream chain had bought it. Now three scoops was the priority.

“Thanks,” Kevin said and smiled. A man and a little girl, probably the man’s daughter, exited the store.

“What happened there?” Reynolds asked, entering from the back room.

“I don’t know? What?”

Reynolds kept looking at him quizzically.

After a long moment, Kevin said, “I don’t think I understand the question.”

“How many scoops did they have on that cone?”

“Two,” Kevin said, matter-of-factly.

“What happened there?”

“That girl was probably forty pounds. As much as you would want her to try, she, I’m sure, couldn’t eat her weight in ice cream.”

“All I’m asking is that you ask. Everybody.”

“Alright,” Kevin reluctantly agreed.

“Three scoops is the focus this month.”

“It’s February.”

“I know the month. I know how to read a calendar, too. I know you don’t ask like you should. Like we pay you to do.”

Kevin frowned and nodded. Reynolds returned to the back room with an air of dignity only a middle-aged manager of a small ice cream shop can have after balling out an employee.

The bell rang again. Luckily it was Janisse. She stuck out her tongue at him.

“Gonna make it through today?” she asked, seeing the look of doom running down Kevin’s face.

“Maybe.”

“Is cow-nuts-for-brains riding your ass again?” she whispered as she passed.

“Yep.”

“Just think about tomorrow.”

Janisse was vacantly beautiful. She seemingly passed through life based on looks and flirting. Reynolds had hired her after only a five-minute interview. Kevin and Eli, another coworker, chalked it up to cleavage and gum chewing. Eli thought she was a very seductive gum chewer.

When Kevin asked him to clarify about the seductive gum chewing, Eli said, “you can’t explain something like that. But if that gum chewing were any closer to sex, newborn babies would be falling out of her mouth.”

So Janisse kept wearing her work polo with the buttons unbuttoned and kept chewing gum like a porn star—almost instantly she had fans and regulars. Kevin and Eli started blending into the background behind the new starlet, which was fine by them. Then, last week, Kevin was talking to Janisse about a solo snowboarding trip he was taking to Mt. Baker the following Tuesday and Wednesday.

“You’re going alone?” she asked, in disbelief.

“Sure. Why not?”

“Alone?”

Kevin held up his arms in why not formation.

“Take me,” she said.

Kevin knew for a fact she couldn’t ski or snowboard or even stand up on either based on previous conversations.

“My ex is being a raging dick lately. It would be fun to get away. I won’t bother you. Promise.”

Then she started chewing her gum. He noticed her unbuttoned buttons. Damnit, he thought to himself. “Sure.”

* * * * *

He picked her up as planned. She was wearing a bright pink ski suit. Kevin wondered what he had gotten himself into. They rode up to the mountain in his Toyota pickup truck on winding, uphill roads while keeping flat conversation. Exes this and party that and what a bitch, right? and so on. Kevin just looked straight ahead at the mountain and nodded at Janisse’s dissection of her twenty-year-old life.

The weather was getting bad that late morning. Thick flurries of snow and wind blew his truck around the road. Janisse’s conversation didn’t pause during any of it. She just kept on. They finally pulled into the lodge at 10:45. Kevin, being a gentleman, had splurged and rented two rooms there. He usually would just drive home late, but had wanted to make a real trip of it this time. He didn’t know why now that he was there. They checked in without a hitch, except for the moment when his heart nearly stopped at hearing the grand total for two rooms for one night at the lodge. He closed his eyes and handed over his Visa card that was closer to the limit than he would have liked it to be.

“There’s a lot of Chips here,” Janisse said while they wandered up to their rooms. Their rooms were next to each other on the third floor. The elevator was out of service, so they would be forced to use the stairs the next two days.

“What’s a Chip?”

“A Canadian.”

“Why do you call them Chips?”

“Because me and my friend Alison knew a Canadian named Chip. Ever since Chip we call them Chips.”

“How did you know Chip?”

Janisse just winked. Chip must have fallen for the gum chewing too.

“If I asked Alison about Chip, would she wink too?”

Janisse just winked again.

* * * * *

One hour later they met in the hallway in front of their rooms. Kevin would have preferred half an hour, but Janisse insisted that she needed a full hour. As they walked down the hall they saw a young man stretched out, lying across the floor a few feet in front of the staircase. Kevin looked over at the elevator. The out of order sign still hung from its closed door.

“You alive, or what?” Janisse blurted out.

The young man rolled over to look dead at the voice that had just spoken to him. He thoughtfully and deliberately said, “Yes.”

“Why don’t you get out of the way then?”

The young man continued looking at Janisse and Kevin, as if he was about to speak, the entire time he slowly moved aside. He didn’t say another word. He watched without blinking as they passed and descended the stairs. Janisse looked back over her shoulder—the young man was still watching them.

“He might have been cute if he wasn’t so weird.”

“He’s probably just a Chip,” Kevin said.

“Probably,” Janisse replied, sticking out her tongue at him.

* * * * *

After renting a snowboard for Janisse, they hit the mountain. Kevin patiently went up and down the beginner hill half a dozen times with Janisse before he could coax her onto the intermediate hill. He convinced her that she would be fine considering the fresh powdery layer that had fallen over the last forty-eight hours. Half-way down on the first intermediate attempt Janisse fell at a bad angle. Her left knee buckled and she shrieked. Kevin skidded to a stop and backtracked ten feet to the pink bundle that was holding its knee in the snow. She had lifted her goggles, and despite her best sniffling effort, tears were running her face.

“Can you move it alright?” Kevin asked after unbuckling her boot from the board.

She slowly extended her knee and winced. More tears ran.

Great, Kevin thought to himself. There goes a pleasant day of boarding.

“Do you want to try and stand up, or should I get the emergency team up here?”

Janisse shook her head, wiped the tears away. Just then a teenage boarder sliced by, yelling, “Get the hell outta the way!”

After getting to her feet, Kevin locked in her boot and slowly started loping down the hill holding her shoulders to steady her on their slow, coasting descent.

“Doing okay?” Kevin asked.

Janisse tried to clamp up her grimace and nodded resolutely.

“Maybe when we get down to the lodge we can get hot chocolate or something,” Kevin said.

Janisse nodded again, not hiding her balled-up expression as well this time.

Kevin nodded and smiled back.

They had about a quarter of the hill to go, and were going at a decent pace when, out of what seemed like nowhere, they were hit from behind dead on. It felt like being hit by a linebacker going full steam, not a snowboarder trying to avoid the injured girl in the pink snowsuit and the guy helping her down the run. The hit spun them in a half circle and they planted face first in the snow. Janisse plucked her goggled head from the white and screamed in frustration. Kevin turned and yelled, “HEY! ASSHOLE!” to the red-jacketed figure that had kept his footing and was still boarding down the hill without giving them a second glance. Kevin was turning his head back around to check on Janisse, but before he could do that he saw another red-jacketed boarder wearing a red balaclava coming straight at them at a blurring speed. Before the sight could even compute in Kevin’s head, the second boarder was on them, but swerved and avoided them at the last possible moment. As the second boarder careened around the just accosted duo sitting on the snow, he made a slashing motion with his hand, directly at the right shoulder of Kevin. The pain didn’t reach Kevin’s brain until the red balaclava-clad boarder was streaking down the hill twenty feet behind them. His shoulder suddenly exploded with heat. He touched his burning shoulder with his left hand and came away with a red smear of blood.

“That guy scratched me!” Kevin said, indignantly.

Janisse was crying to the point of hyperventilating. “That’s,” inhale, “more,” inhale, “than,” inhale, “a scratch.” She composed herself for a moment. “That guy cut you with something really sharp.” She inspected the wound a little more closely. “There’s actually two cuts. Right through your jacket and into your skin.”

Kevin disbelievingly looked closer for himself. He was so taken aback he couldn’t speak. His mind was racing through every filthy, degrading name that he could think of to call that guy, but his disbelieving mouth couldn’t function to form the words.

“Let’s get going,” Janisse said, with a sudden jolt of get-up-and-go. “We should turn that prick in.” Janisse seemed more composed now than she had since the lodge. The sudden attack had given her a greater threshold for her frustrations and hurt knee.

When they reached the bottom of the hill they both collapsed into a pile on the ground to rest. Kevin was breathing like he had just finished a marathon. With the combination of assisting Janisse, being steamrolled in the back, and then lightly slashed all in one run, his gas tank had run empty faster than normal. Skiers and snowboarders were looping around them and circling over to the chairlift. Some saying obscenities to them, others just avoiding them like every other obstacle to be avoided.

A worker skied over and said, “You look tired but you’re gonna have to move. You can’t just sit right here. It’s what those benches are for over there.”

“We were just attacked,” Kevin blurted out.

“Who?”

“We were,” Janisse seconded.

“By who?”

“I guy in a red jacket,” Kevin said. He started to look around, trying to locate the assailant. “He was wearing a red face thing.”

“Like a nasal breathing patch?”

“What? No. Like a mask thing,” Kevin said, running his hands over the length of his face.

“A nasal what?” Janisse asked, incredulously.

“Whoa-whoa-whoa,” The worker said, pointing to Kevin’s shoulder. Blood was running down the sleeve of his jacket, dripping from his elbow, and making a bloody flower in the snow. The worker seemed frantic, like the types who faint at the sight of blood. “We need to get you to our doctor.”

The worker helped Kevin to his feet. Janisse was left to get up on her own, bad knee and all. The worker picked up their two boards and ran them over to the ski stand. Kevin turned and surveyed the bottom of the hill one more time for red jackets. Suddenly he saw two. They had just sat on the ski lift not fifty feet from where Kevin and Janisse stood. The one pulled the balaclava from his head and smiled at Kevin. Then he began to lick his fingers. Just like you would lick barbecue sauce off. To his astonishment, he recognized the slasher. It was the young man who had been lying in the hallway of the lodge. The one Janisse said might be cute if he wasn’t so weird. Kevin turned to Janisse, who was rubbing her temples with her eyes closed. If she only knew how weird that guy was. Kevin looked back at the finger licker who was now laughing with his companion. He gave Kevin the PEACE sign but Kevin knew he wasn’t being wished any kind of peace by the maniac in red.

* * * * *

Kevin ended up getting four stitches on each laceration across his shoulder. The stitches hurt more than the birth of the cuts. Janisse all but forgot about the twisted knee she had sustained. She sat quietly by Kevin as the doctor worked on him, refusing to leave due to her paranoia of the boarders in red. Even though they hadn’t sliced into her, the knock down had shaken her, as well as the possibility of their return.

After a couple hours in the lodge emergency area, they made their way back to their rooms. Janisse shyly asked if she could stay in Kevin’s room a while. She was agitated by the idea of being alone, he could tell. He could also see there was no other motives in her request—simply the company of another at the end of a strange and singularly frightening day on the mountain.

They sat and watched television for a short time. They clicked through court shows, sit-coms, the obligatory Warren Miller documentary, and an array of other unwatchable and unnamable fodder. Kevin suddenly turned the T.V. off and jumped off the bed, then winced, as his shoulder screamed, reminding him of the injury he had momentarily forgotten.

“You hungry?”

Janisse nodded. “I didn’t think I would be, but I am.”

“How about I run down and grab some food and bring it back up. I’m not really in the mood for a restaurant or anything.”

“I’m not either.”

“Your order, ma’am,” Kevin asked with a slight bow, trying to bring a smile to Janisse’s beleaguered face.

She did smile—then stood and said, “Just a cheeseburger and a Coke please,” then held the sides of her imaginary dress and dipped into a curtsy.

“Coming right up,” he replied, and backed up to the door in his bowed down position, not turning his back on the queen of the room.

He closed the door behind him and proceeded to the stairs, passing the spot where the young man had been on the floor, stretched out, earlier that day. The memory of the young man did not escape him as he passed and his shoulder flared again. While in the emergency room they had filed a report about the incident, and they were assured it would be taken seriously, but that didn’t ease his thoughts of running into the weird young man again.

Just as he took the first step on the stairs Janisse stuck her head out into the hallway. “Kevin,” she pleasantly hollered. “Can I come with you?”

“Sure. Come on.”

She closed the door behind her and lightly ran to catch up. “Sorry if I’m being a pest,” she said. She didn’t seem to be able to make eye contact as she spoke but looked like she had sincerely tried.

“You’re not a pest. Just a slight nuisance,” he said, winking at her.

She stuck out her tongue in reply.

That was when Janisse heard footsteps behind them. She looked back over her shoulder. She tugged on Kevin’s shirt sleeve. He looked at her, saw she was looking back, and followed her gaze.

They both watched as the young man who had pulled the red balaclava from his head and had licked his fingers not four hours ago on the mountain was coming at a fast clip down the stairs in their direction. In his panic, not exactly knowing why, Kevin pulled on Janisse’s arm and guided her to the landing of the stairs the next floor down and ran toward a door that had an emergency exit sign. He wanted to get where people were. As many people as possible. This guy had really creeped them out and they didn’t want to be alone with him to learn any more.

The emergency exit door was locked. Kevin shoved at it one last time with all his energy. It didn’t budge. He turned around as the young man was making the corner toward them, maybe fifteen feet back.

“So much for an emergency,” Kevin mumbled. Janisse did not respond.

The young man slowed to a stop ten feet away.

“Hi,” the young man said.

Kevin and Janisse didn’t say anything back.

The young man’s jaw twitched. “Hi,” he repeated.

“What do you want?” Janisse asked in a genuine piss and vinegar voice.

The young man’s jaw twitched rapidly for a couple seconds. Then he smiled at them. He held up the peace sign that he had flashed at Kevin from the ski lift. Kevin was confused. Was this guy just mentally slow and dangerous?

“What do you want?” Janisse repeated more sternly.

“What I’ve wanted since I saw you,” the young man said thoughtfully. “I just wanted him to know he can’t protect you. I wanted him to understand that.”

The young man was staring directly at Kevin.

“Do you understand that?” The young man asked.

“Nope,” Kevin said. Janisse squeezed his arm at that answer.

The young man’s jaw twitched again. More harshly this time. He had been holding the peace sign up the entire time, never wavering. Then something unexpected happened. Something that neither Kevin nor Janisse could ever have imagined. The fingers that were signing peace to them grew. Then Kevin realized it wasn’t the fingers that were growing, it was his nails. They only grew a couple of inches, but the suddenness and unexpectedness of it made both Kevin and Janisse stop breathing. The young man stretched his hands. Only the pointer and middle fingers had extended nails, the others had stayed the same.

Then his jaw twitched harder, faster than it previously had. The effect the nails made on Kevin and Janisse almost overshadowed the strangeness of the increasingly rapid jaw tic. Until his jaw seemed to unhinge completely, and two fang-like teeth folded down from the roof of his mouth.

Kevin instinctively started to look for other routes of escape. The only option he saw was an unmarked door that was closed five feet from where he stood. He had no way to know if it was open, but there were no other outs. The young creature saw Kevin look at the door. All three darted for it.

The door was unlocked.

Kevin was through the door quickly, holding Janisse’s right hand as he sprinted. It had opened inward making entry quicker but closing the door behind them a little slower. They had just beat out the young fanged man by a heartbeat, and not much more. As Kevin turned to slam the door in the face of the young man, hopefully rattling around those too-large teeth in the process, Janisse jerked back. Kevin saw the young man had a hold of her left hand and was hacking at her wrist with his overgrown fingernails. And his nails were as sharp as Kevin’s shoulder remembered. In four swift rakes on her wrist, the young man had lopped her hand completely off. Just as the hand came free, the young man lost his balance very briefly in a backward direction, at which time Kevin helped him by giving him a boot to the chest and slammed the door. To Kevin’s amazement, the door had a lock. He locked themselves in.

Kevin fumbled around for a light switch. It took him a moment to find the string that hung from a bulb in the middle of the room. Janisse was sweating so much that she gleamed like George Washington’s face on a new quarter. She was hyperventilating. Kevin had never seen anything like a hand being chopped off, but he had seen plenty of broken bones on the slopes over the years and knew the onset of shock when he saw it. Blood was flowing out of her wrist at an Olympic swimmer’s pace. She was lightly banging her head against the wall it rested on. Kevin quickly took off his shirt and held it on Janiss’s stump. The light blue shirt was quickly turning dark blue.

He looked around at his surroundings. They were in a janitor’s closet, it seemed. Yellow bucket with a mop-handle sticking out of it. Assorted cleaners, cleansers, sponges, wet floor signs, and garbage bags lined the shelves. The room was probably eight feet by eight feet. He was looking for anything to help stop the bleeding and could see or think of nothing. Streak-free glass cleaner? Orange-scented sanitizers? The room was medically useless.

Sweat was dripping from Janisse’s chin and falling on Kevin’s arm, like rain from an awning. Now her breathing wasn’t so much hyperventilating as it was irregular he thought. Out of frustration and fatigue his body slumped down to the side. His skin hissed and he jerked back off of the radiator. He touched the hot coils with his fingers. They hissed too. The radiator was hot enough to cause a hospital-worthy burn. He looked over at Janisse. She was only breathing through her nose. Her mouth was wrenched up. She looked pale.

“I hate to do this,” Kevin said.

“What?” she whispered in a frail voice.

Kevin removed the soaked shirt from her sad wrist, threw it to the opposite corner with wet smack against the wall. He firmly pressed her wrist against the radiator. The blood cracked as it cooked—like bacon in a frying pan. Like cold glass that cracks on extreme summer days. All Janisse did was exhale loudly and slide over to the ground. Kevin almost felt sick. For reasons he could not explain, he felt like he had just put a horse with a broken leg out of its misery. Maybe it was just the lifeless way she slid to the floor of the janitor’s closet.

Kevin looked at her wrist. It was ugly but the bleeding had almost slowed to a stop. With Janisse out cold, and with his lack of medical wherewithal, he pressed her wrist against the radiator again, to cauterize it as well as a radiator could. It seemed to work. The little closet smelled like a horrific sunburn. Now Kevin’s breathing was irregular. He was sweating like a geyser. He lay his head down next to Janisse’s. Looked at her face. It was a face of repose. A gentle countenance. Then Kevin heard a light tap on the door.

“Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about you two,” said a young voice.

Kevin could hear the young man humming and the raspy in-out of Janisse’s breathing. He hadn’t responded to the crazy young man’s taunt. He just sat—thinking. His cell phone was back in his room. He checked Janisse’s pockets. Empty except for her room key and a pack of gum. She hadn’t brought her purse with her. The humming paused.

“I’m holding her hand,” the young man said, “like we’re on a date.”

Kevin’s heart started to beat harder.

“Not much blood, though,” the young man added.

Kevin couldn’t help but ask the dumbest sounding serious question he had ever asked. “What… are you a vampire or something?” The very question made his skin crawl, but what else could he ask after he had seen those needle-like teeth fold down and the blood comment.

“Vampires are myth and lore and for the movies. I’m real. I’m sitting outside your door.”

“Someone will walk by.”

“Let them. I can barely hear you through the door. I’m sure, twenty feet away, at the stairs, they wouldn’t even notice you yelling.”

“If you’re not a vampire, what are you?”

“Like I said, all I am is outside your door holding your girlfriend’s hand.”

“What’s with the sharp teeth, then?”

“Is that really what you’re curious about?”

“Why were you licking my blood off of your nails and why chop her hand off?”

“To be honest, I just wanted to get stoned.”

“What do you mean?”

“Does that mean more than one thing here in America? It sure as hell doesn’t mean I want to have rocks thrown at me.”

“You use blood to get stoned?”

“I’m getting bored with this conversation.”

“That can’t be true. You can’t be real.”

“God knows about me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I hope you’re not like this when you’re not panicking.”

“Like what?”

“Thick as a cedar stump.”

“God only knows about you as my hallucination.”

“No,” the young man said, “he knows about me for very different reasons.”

He started humming again.

Neither of them talked for the next ten minutes. Just humming that floated under the door like a poisonous gas. It rose up and dripped into Kevin’s ears. Do I know that tune? He wondered briefly at one point.

Janisse was still breathing like an old house sounds in a windstorm. A groan here. A creak there. All loose boards and rusty nails for lungs.

The small room with the warm radiator was starting to get muggy from the incessant sweating of Kevin and Janisse.

Kevin started to realize that they were not going to be saved from this Chip. If they were waiting to be rescued, they were apt to be waiting a good while. His eyes scanned the room in desperation. Cleansers and sanitizers and dusters yawned back at him, believing themselves to be useless to him. Then he saw something interesting, and a flint-spark idea came to him. He looked at the incapacitated body of Janisse, laying next to him, in an awkward position. He sat her up against the wall, next to the door. She sat limp like a forgotten ventriloquist’s puppet, jaw hanging by loose wires. Then he grabbed the replacement broom handle from the corner it was leaning in. He propped it against the wall, on the other side of the door from Janisse.

He shook her shoulder lightly. Nothing. She wasn’t waking up for awhile. Kevin sat a moment and took in the sight of her slack face. He gazed at her stumped arm. He put his hand on her knee.

“I need a sacrifice,” Kevin said, no louder than a light breath. Then he thought better of it. “I need a decoy,” he finished, more accurately.

Kevin looked at the door. He tried to look through it as much as he could. To the other side, where the young man sat holding Janisse’s severed hand.

“What are you going to do to us?” Kevin yelled.

“You ask boring questions.”

The voice sounded like it was a few feet back from the door. “What’re you going to do, huh?” Kevin yelled, again.

“I’m getting very…”

Kevin unlocked the door and threw it open quickly. He slid Janisse out across the hardwood floor away from both him and the young man. The young man stood frozen, looking at Kevin, glancing over at Janisse, then back at Kevin. The young man darted toward Janisse. Kevin grabbed the broom handle and sprinted after him. The young man arrived first, then turned to get his bearings on Kevin’s approach. That was when Kevin descended on him with the cleaning apparatus. A girl stepped down on the landing of the stairs, saw what was happening, and screamed.

* * * * *

Kevin sat on the floor, slouched against the wall. The bloody broom handle had just been confiscated by the police. The young man and Janisse had just been taken by the paramedics. Ski lodge management was standing by in horror. None of them could believe this had happened at their ski lodge. There were groups of snowboarders and skiers standing around gawking. Despite the shock of the display, the two factions had managed to separate themselves much like boys and girls at a middle school dance. An older cop walked up to Kevin.

“Gonna have to take you down to the station. You know that, right?”

Kevin nodded.

“I would categorize this as an abnormal display, son. Even among this group of partiers, and snowboarders, and snow-bunnies, and what-have-you’s.”

Kevin nodded.

“You beat the hell outta that boy. You realize that?”

“I told you already—he’s not some normal boy.”

“I know you said that. I heard your story, which just compounds the abnormality of this whole deal.”

“I know,” Kevin said, in defeat.

“We’ve yet to see signs of the nature you describe with that boy.”

“Keep looking.”

“We intend to do our job. No pep talk from you is going to change that.”

“Yes, sir.”

Kevin wiped a splotch of blood on his pants.

“Not to mention, that girl’s hand was hacked off.”

* * * * *

After a week of dealing with the police, Kevin finally was back at Blue Scoop. They had initially arrested him, but there were no charges brought against him by the young man. Then, Janisse finally came around and was able to talk, two days after the incident. She told the police the same far-fetched story that Kevin had. The police still could find no evidence of fangs or rapidly growing, razor-sharp fingernails on the young man. They released him but kept a close eye on him as they ruminated over what to charge him with if that day ever arrived.

Kevin went to see Janisse in the hospital. He waited in the hall until he saw her mother leave her room. He slipped inside.

“Hello,” he said, catching her by surprise. She had been looking out the window.

She smiled back at him. “They said I might’ve died if you hadn’t stopped the bleeding.”

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t die.”

She smiled again, but more sadly this time. “Me, too.”

“How do you feel?”

“I’m on painkillers most of the day. I don’t feel much—of anything. I just mostly feel like I’m in a dream.”

“Are you dreaming now?”

“I don’t think so.”

Kevin put his hands in his pockets. He looked out the window. There was a supermarket across the street. People were filing in and out. Loading their trunks and beds of their trucks with sacks of food.

“They can’t put my hand back on. They said there was probably never a good chance, but it’s impossible after you burned the wound closed. At least that’s what they said.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I lived.” She pulled her bandaged stump out from under the bed sheet. She moved it around in the air, trying to get a feel for the new sensation of weightlessness it gave her. “Just don’t stop being my friend. Okay?”

“Why would I?”

“My friends will be nice and supportive at the beginning. But with the types of friends I have, most of them probably won’t be around much longer.”

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m looking forward to getting rid of some friends that were never really friends.”

Then a nurse walked in. They said their pleasant goodbyes and Kevin left.

* * * * *

Things seemed very different now that he was back at Blue Scoop. Reynolds went about the corporate business of ice cream as if nothing strange had happened the previous week. Three scoops! was still his battle cry. Eli worked with Kevin his first day back, although he didn’t ask too many questions. The rumors, some true, some not, were flooding through Bellingham. Eli had heard that Kevin had actually stabbed the Canadian with a Swiss Army knife. Eli would get the whole story eventually. He would just give Kevin some space at first.

Kevin had worked half of his first shift back in a daze. He thought maybe he was dreaming, like Janisse had felt on the painkillers. As he was looking around for clues of reality, a man with black hair walked through the door.

“How’s it going today?” Eli asked before the bell on the door had time to stop clanging.

“You Kevin?”

“No,” Eli said.

“Where’s Kevin?”

“I’m Kevin,” Kevin said, deciding this was reality after all.

“I’ve been looking for you.”

“About what?”

“About fucking up my girl’s life, is what,” the black-haired man said, as menacingly as he could.

“You must be Ben.”

“Must be.”

“The one who was fucking up her life before I came around.”

Ben pointed at him. “I catch you outside these doors I’m cuttin’ your hands off. You hear me? Both of ’em”

Kevin felt no fear at all. This threat was as deadly to him as a kitten. He had confronted something very like a vampire and come out on top a week ago. What was some ex-boyfriend with a big mouth to him now? Not much. Kevin turned and picked up a slicing knife from the counter that they cut bananas for splits with. He tossed it on the ground in front of Ben. “Let’s see about it,” Kevin said.

Astonished, Ben said, “See about what?”

Kevin walked around the counter. Eli’s pulse was skyrocketing. Even if this didn’t scare Kevin, it was frightening the living tar out of Eli. Kevin pulled up his sleeves to expose his wrists. “Let’s see about it,” Kevin repeated, directly in front of Ben.

Ben stood silent. Maybe even shaking a little. Kevin picked up the knife from the ground, grabbed Ben’s hand, and placed the knife in it. “Cuttin’ time,” Kevin said.

Ben’s silence continued. Kevin shook his head. “Ben, you’ve disappointed me.”

“Kevin, what’s going on?” Reynolds said, walking out of the back office.

“Ben just finished disappointing me,” Kevin said evenly. “I won’t return the favor.” Kevin turned quickly back to Ben and pushed him as hard as he could. Ben stumbled backwards into the glass front of the store and went right through the glass onto the sidewalk outside. The glass broke just like sugar-glass in the movies. Ben lay on the ground, writhing a little. He kept spitting glass out of his mouth. He looked confused. Reynolds ran out the door to go check on the ejected man. He hunkered down next to Ben and called 911 on his cell.

“What have you done?” Reynolds yelled at Kevin.

Kevin walked behind the counter, got a scoop of Blueberry ice cream, and threw it at Reynolds. It hit him squarely in the shoulder of his white button-down shirt. “There’s your third scoop, you son-of-a-bitch.”

Kevin walked out of the store, left his truck in the parking lot and walked home.

* * * * *

He arrived at his apartment two hours later. No police. He was surprised. He walked inside and sat on the couch. After a half-hour, or so, of waiting, he fell asleep.

Knocking woke him up. He had been sleeping three hours. He figured it was the police. When he opened the door he saw Janisse’s mother. She was frowning at him in a very motherly way.

“Hello,” Kevin said, politely.

“Hi, Kevin.”

“How did you know where I live?”

“Janisse told me. She wanted me to thank you. I don’t agree with how you handled it but she wanted me to come thank you.”

“Handled what?”

“Ben.”

“You heard?”

“She did. I think Eli called her.”

“Oh.” Kevin almost looked ashamed.

“Don’t feel too bad about it, he deserved it. But don’t repeat that.”

“I won’t,” Kevin said.

They both grinned.

“The cops never showed up. I thought they would.”

Janisse’s mother shrugged. Kevin noticed she was chewing gum. It was very seductive, as Eli would have said. Kevin could see where Janisse got it from.

 

The Secret Keeper

by Christopher Iozzo

 

The stocky, hammer-faced man sitting behind the wheel of his late-model sedan leaned forward on the steering wheel. Flicking a cigarette onto the sidewalk to his left, he looked up at the lighted window across the street to his right. For many people, especially during the past few days as the riots broke out, it would not be safe to sit in a parked car in this section of the capital city. Frank LaFoe was not concerned, however. This was his neighborhood, his world. He’d shown up just in time to see the light go on behind the sheer curtains in Elwood Ducksworth’s office up there on the second floor. Hardly a need for the light tonight, he thought, looking left at the multiple orange glows lighting up the western horizon over the building tops. He looked at his watch and wondered if one of those glows was the actual sunset.

Noting the time, he redid the math in his head. LaFoe had some severe constraints to deal with. It’s gonna be close to get all three of them before the axe falls, he thought. Still, he needed patience, he told himself. You can’t rush it on a night like tonight. No second chances.

The truth was everyone was running out of time but almost no one knew it. Just like every other day, he chuckled. LaFoe had chosen Ducksworth as the second of his four stops for two reasons. First, he knew Ducky would not be around before a certain hour and, second, once he gave his lieutenants their marching orders, there’d be little in the way of security to deal with at this hour. The need for swift action kept competing with the need to wait until the only door into the building under that lighted window opened and eight or nine men walked out.

Admittedly, Ducksworth was out of his way but LaFoe knew it to be the biggest score on his list. The last two stops were close to each other and headed north, out of the city. First stop was that little weasel Scarandolo who LaFoe was seriously considering ending after he took his stash and then up to the cusp of town to that push-over Hartsdale and his book-making operation. Right here and now, he did not think Ducky would give him a hard time if Frank got past his men. Elwood was the boss of this quadrant for a reason and he’d see the only play left to him.

Red light poured out of the doorway of Ducksworth’s establishment. Red, thought Frank, Ducky enjoys being a throwback. One after another, a line of serious looking men emerged from the brothel. Some broke right, others left, down the street to their assigned duties. The fifth walked straight across the street and hopped into the driver’s seat of the vehicle parked five spaces ahead of him and pulled off. The door shut and the street returned to its usual mix of shadow and yellow street light.

Opening the sedan’s door, LaFoe reached for the leather sap lying on the seat next to him. Old school, he grinned. His sap was eight inches long and flat. The thin, flat handle was bound in leather and contained a spring within. This gave it more impact force when swung. The handle spread out to a flat, circular striking surface containing a medallion of lead for weight, earning it the nickname ‘beaver tail’. When swung relatively lightly, the weapon was capable of injuring. When swung hard, it could break bones. It was, of course, illegal to possess one in the capital city.

Rising from the car, he dropped the sap into his inside left jacket pocket. He locked the car with a swipe of his hand down the door jamb and strode down the sidewalk. Coming abreast of the Blue Parrot Cabaret, LaFoe crossed the street and banged loudly on the steel door. Nominally, the joint was a strip club but everyone, except for the occasional stray, knew what the place was really about.

A slat in the steel door opened and a familiar eye appraised LaFoe. It said nothing.

“Tell Ducky I gotta talk to him.” He waited a second and then added, “Now.”

“Hey man, he just got here,” said the eye. “He got shit to do first, ’fore he can take visitors.”

“I’ll burn this place down, you don’t let me in,” LaFoe’s expression was humorless.

The eye hesitated for a moment. Finally, the slat shut and LaFoe heard the latch release.

The door opened to reveal the rest of the man on the other side. Reagan Whitaker filled the hallway. He did not look pleased. LaFoe knew him fairly well. Not too bright but slow to anger, steady and reliable, with good judgment. He had a good temper for working a strip club/brothel where alcohol and hormones mixed in unexpected and sometimes explosive ways.

Frank stood only five foot nine but was thick. Whitaker had more than six inches on him with an arm nearly as big around as Frank’s thigh. Reagan began walking down the narrow, red-walled corridor saying over his shoulder at LaFoe, “Shut that.” Frank heaved the door as he walked away from it. It made a clattering sound as it hit the metal jamb and the latch clicked back into place.

Emerging into the club, the two men confronted a bartender behind his island bar and two women spinning lazily around the poles located at either end of it. The customers consisted of three men at the bar who looked more likely to be there for the drinks and drugs than the show and two men sitting off alone in a back booth. The man in the booth facing LaFoe glanced over the other’s shoulder for a moment as Frank entered the club and then resumed his intent gaze at the man who held him in conversation. Reagan nodded at the bartender as they passed him and pointed up at the ceiling. The bartender took two steps farther down the bar and reached under it. The door the two men were headed toward opened before Reagan got to it.

This hallway was painted a deep blue and was considerably wider than the entrance. No need for a bottleneck here, thought LaFoe. Whitaker entered, stood to the side to let LaFoe pass and shut the door behind them. When he got to the stairs, LaFoe climbed the first step and then turned to face Whitaker.

Reagan said, “I buzzed him. He watched you come in the club. The door should be open,” giving his head a nod up the stairs toward the door at the top of the landing.

“Thanks.” Frank said. As Whitaker turned to go, LaFoe pulled out his sap, “and… Sorry.” He swung with medium force and connected with the back of Whitaker’s head with a dull slapping sound. Reagan collapsed in a heap in the hall, unconscious.

Now! Frank thought. Now! Move! Move! He took the stairs two at a time, not knowing if Ducky had cameras in this hallway. At the top of the stairs he grasped the door handle and twisted. It opened.

* * * * *

“So what’s it gonna be… Mr. D?” The two men’s faces were literally inches apart. Seconds earlier, LaFoe had burst into Elwood Ducksworth’s office, sap in hand, and knocked out both of Mr. D’s “bodyguards” with two swipes. He then climbed over Ducky’s desk as the man tried to retrieve a pistol from one of its drawers. Before Elwood could get a handle on it though, LaFoe hit him in the chest with a foot, sending him and his wheeled office chair clattering against the curtain-covered, bulletproof picture window beyond. LaFoe then lifted him out of his chair and pinned him against glass.

Dropping the sap, Frank lifted his right leg and pulled out a Smith and Wesson double-edged boot knife, placing the blade to the man’s throat. This action was followed by the demand for all the gold in Ducksworth’s office.

Still confused about this turn of events, all Ducksworth could manage was, “You wouldn’t!” Then, desperately confused, “This ain’t you, man!” he objected.

“Let me show you something Ducky,” LaFoe said. He pulled the man away from the curtains and whipped them open. He then slammed Ducksworth back in place.

“Hey!” Ducksworth protested as his head bounced of the lexan. He struggled a bit until LaFoe pushed the blade harder against his throat, bringing the man to stillness once again.

Frank paused, looking over Ducky’s shoulder for a second to take in the scene outside. To Frank, there seemed to be more orange glows rising from more quadrants of the Capital city than the past few days. Are the riots getting worse? he thought to himself. Maybe. Or maybe it looks worse because I know what’s coming.

Bringing his attention back to the man in front of him, “You see that out there?”

Elwood struggled not to grimace at the smell of LaFoe’s stale tobacco breath and twisted his head to take in the view with one eye. “Yeah? So? That shit’s been goin’ on for days, man.”

“Maybe so, but there’s something new in the air tonight, Ducky,” Frank said firmly. Then changing his tone, “I’m not stealing from you tonight Big D, I’m trading you.” LaFoe eased back slightly from Ducksworth. Ducky had a good four inches on LaFoe and maybe twenty pounds but LaFoe was certain, as soon as he’d laid hands on the man, that success had made him soft.

“And what’ve you got that I need?” Ducksworth demanded bringing his attention back to the man with the knife at his throat.

He’s got a lot of sand for a guy with a knife at his throat, LaFoe thought. A smile came to his face. “I’ve got this: the government’s falling. Tonight.”

Elwood blinked. Two heartbeats passed. Then, “WHAT?!” as the news registered.

“I’ve got my sources. The government fell already, in fact. The news is being held back until key people can make their escape from the city, or the country. We’ve got two hours, at most, until the news can’t be contained and the whole city—hell, the whole country probably—tears itself apart.”

“So here’s the deal, Elwood. You’re a piece of shit but you’re a smart piece of shit. I know that after the last two currency devaluations you lost a lot of your worth and that you’ve been collecting gold and silver from customers instead of cash whenever you could. I know that you have at least two stashes. You have a little one here for emergencies,” LaFoe nodded his head slightly back toward the center of the room indicating the office they were in, “and a bigger one, your real stash. So the deal is this: you give me the stash here and I let you walk out of this office with a two-hour head start on the rest of the world or I slit your throat right here and now and walk out that door alone. Your choice.”

The spot just under Frank LaFoe’s left ear began to vibrate and, within that ear, he could hear a low-toned ringing. “Great. Perfect timing,” he said to himself. To Ducky he said, “Elwood, you’ve got ’til the end of this phone call to make up your mind.” With that, Frank let go of Ducksworth with his left hand and tapped the spot that was vibrating under his left ear. “LaFoe,” he said.

“Frank?”

LaFoe reclaimed his grip on Elwood’s suit, “Yeah… Who’s this?”

“Pickering.”

Frank’s eyes narrowed, “Yeah… ahhh… this ain’t really a good time,” he attempted.

“There’s no other.”

Shit, he thought. “Where are you?”

“The National Archives.”

That’s halfway across the goddamned city! he thought. “And this can’t wait?” No answer. “OK. Give me…” Frank paused and looked at Elwood Ducksworth. He could tell the man had made up his mind, “…twenty minutes. It’s bad out there.”

“Great. And Frank?”

“Yeah?”

“Bring your squad car.”

* * * * *

“Bring your squad car.” As LaFoe drove his unmarked vehicle across the city, trunk filled with four attaché cases of gold and silver jewelry, coins, heirlooms, and various other items, he wondered about the request. Bring your squad car? How else did he think I would make it across the city during a riot in twenty minutes? Better yet, why make a point of saying it?

LaFoe had, of course, gotten the loot from Ducksworth. Elwood was slippery and conniving and faithless but he was shrewd too. If the government had fallen, which it had, the only advantage left was to see it coming before anyone else and prepare. Ducksworth had been preparing for the worst in recent years by collecting gold and silver. His payoff to LaFoe gained this valuable information in advance of everyone else and continued his life. Two hours is a lot of time to prepare when all hell is about to break loose. Ducksworth had not only come to a decision during the time the phone call gave him, he’d formulated a plan and even helped Frank carry the cases to the car as he headed out to wherever his plans told him would be the best place to meet what was coming.

For his part, LaFoe really would have killed Elwood if it came to that. Elwood knew this too. The information was not free and only a co-conspirator could own it. During the few seconds of that phone call, Ducksworth had worked out that he was either in the-know or he was dead. Cop or no cop, LaFoe could not let that information spread before implementing his own escape plans. This truth was the reason LaFoe was considering killing Scarandolo at the next stop whether the man paid him or not. He’d never keep his mouth shut.

Bring your squad car? The last person LaFoe had expected to hear from on this night was Pickering. Dan Pickering had saved Frank’s life in the line of duty almost fifteen years ago. Pickering was a straight-laced cop who’d grown up in the suburbs and believed in the oath, believed in making the world a better place. LaFoe had grown up poor in this very city and had seen early on that one of the best ways to be a crook was to own a badge. He had managed to pretty much keep himself out of trouble during his youth in anticipation of gaining entrance to the police academy as an avenue to success. The two men had crossed paths once, coming at each other from opposite directions in life.

LaFoe was on the crooked end of a drug deal gone wrong. The two had met while LaFoe was lying on the ground, cocaine in a satchel next to him, a bullet in his chest, and Bobby Featherstone standing over him about to put another in his head. Pickering chanced upon the scene while on patrol. Not only did Pickering save LaFoe’s life by putting Featherstone down but he did not report the scene as he came upon it and LaFoe got a commendation instead of jail time. After the hospital photo-op and the decoration ceremony, they had never spoken again. LaFoe was left wonder about Pickering and why he had not turned him in.

Now, tonight of all nights, Pickering was calling in his marker. It could not be a coincidence. Not tonight. Could Pickering know what was coming? When Frank had said that this was not a good time, the response was “There’s no other,” and that troubled Frank.

LaFoe pulled up to the Archives to find a newer model Ford sedan parked on the sidewalk. No one actually lived anywhere around here and, though he could hear sirens and shots in the distance and see the skyline of the city behind him lit up in a fiery orange glow, LaFoe felt an eerie silence around him.

Popping the trunk, Frank pulled out his shotgun. He tapped his neck to activate his phone, and said, “redial last.” The connection was made and LaFoe said without preamble, “Dan, where are you? I’m out front.”

“Just come in the front door. It’s open. Take a left. I’m in the side atrium.”

The scene was nothing Frank LaFoe had expected. There were four dead bodies around the room. Three of them were normal looking punk kids with tattered clothes and odd haircuts, the kind he’d seen protesting on the streets the past few years. The fourth was an officer. The officer was propped upright against the wall and had a multi-pronged stainless steel device sitting atop his head. The whole atrium was wired with explosives. There was a detonator device sitting on a box about ten feet from the officer’s body.

Dan Pickering stood facing LaFoe as he came in the room. He too was taller than LaFoe. He still looked fit, LaFoe thought. Pickering was wearing casual civilian clothes and in his hands he held a small monitor. LaFoe saw this, along with the device on top of the officer’s head, and his heart sank. “Oh, shit,” he said. “Why’d you call me Dan? Tonight of all nights?”

“You’re the only one I can trust,” Pickering replied.

That was the last answer LaFoe expected to hear. “Me?!” he asked incredulously. He looked around the room again.

“You know that officer?” Dan pointed at the cop in the corner.

“No. Why? Should I?”

“Not really,” Dan shrugged. “I know him though. Pete Simpson. He was top of his class. Four-square, Internal Affairs, commendations, et cetera, et cetera… I shot him.”

“You…” Frank could just gape. This whole evening was beginning to go sideways on him.

“That’s why you’re the only one I can trust. You’re the most crooked cop I know. I can’t trust the ones I’m supposed to. Not after this,” he looked down at the monitor. “I was headed to work. They put out the call for all off-duty personnel about half an hour ago, right?”

“Right. I heard.”

“So I live out this way and, as I’m coming in, I see the lights on in the Archives. Just one room. It’s my job to stop and look, so I stop and look. They put the call out for everyone and that means big trouble, right? I parked out front and came in and, well…” He waved the monitor out in front of himself.

The hairs on LaFoe’s neck stood up and he felt a chill run down his spine. Definitely don’t like the way things are going, he thought.

He walked over, handed Dan the shotgun and took the monitor from Pickering’s outstretched hand. His right index finger hovered over the “Play” button on the screen.

The NXT-138, or NeXT Questioner, was a device the department had owned for about three years. The capital city was a test market. The metal device on the officer’s head had needles embedded within its six tips. These needles bored into the skull of the deceased and if the victim was recently expired, within about ten minutes depending on conditions, the NeXT Questioner could reanimate the memories and answer questions. The whole process was unsettling to witness or even watch on video because the victim’s mouth would move as the device worked off the victims artificially recharged electrical impulses and picked up the thought-words, playing them over the monitor’s speakers. A robotic voice synced with a moving corpse’s mouth did not make for a pleasant experience. Frank did not relish the idea of watching the video.

“Can you just give me the highlights?” he asked.

Pickering paused, thinking. “You’re going to want to see it after I tell you, but yes. That officer,” he pointed, “was setting the explosives. Those three,” pointing at the kids, “were brought here, dead, by him as patsies. I shot him when I interrupted his plans to blow up the Archives. He went for the detonator after I caught him. He was going to kill us both to achieve his plans.”

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah.”

“And you have that on here?” Frank looked down at the monitor in his hand.

“Yes.”

“OK,” Frank said and hit “Play.” The monitor showed a propped up Officer Simpson against the wall where he now sat. Down the right side of the screen there was a set of displays which showed the corpse’s temperature, synaptic response capacity to questioning, and the estimated time to signal degradation and session completion. On the device he could hear Dan Pickering ask, “What were you doing here?”

Simpson’s mouth moved. Roughly timed to its movements could be heard the artificial, emotionless male voice of the monitor, “Setting explosives to destroy the Archives.”

A surprised Pickering could be heard asking, “Why would you be doing that?!”

Simpson’s lips moved, “The government is falling tonight. There are secrets here that cannot see the light of day.”

“How do you know that? Who sent you?”

The corpse responded, “I am part of the Secret Keepers. I was tasked with this mission three hours ago.”

Now it was LaFoe’s turn to be shocked, he pressed “Pause.” He had a source high up within the government and he’d only heard about this news an hour ago.

Pickering interrupted LaFoe’s thoughts, “Now you know why I called you?”

“Huh?” Frank said absently.

“The government is going to fall and this guy is tasked with burning down the Archives to keep the secrets of some of the most corrupt people in government. If the public gets in here and goes through this building, who knows what they’d find?”

Focusing again LaFoe said, “Well, obviously, he and his buddies know what they‘d find,” nodding at Officer Simpson, “

“You don’t find this news unsettling? The government is collapsing!”

LaFoe managed to actually look a little embarrassed, “Yeah… well… I already knew about that.”

Pickering stared blankly at him for a full two seconds and then shook his head, “Of course you did. You’re you.

Getting back on topic LaFoe continued, “You called me because…?”

“Because this guy is the most reputable kind of officer I know. Because he’s connected high enough up into the government to know that it is falling. Because he was sent here by someone to blow up this building. Because this guy says that all the Secret Keepers are clean cut, upright citizens. They are on the side of the authorities; they don’t deal in the seedy world of criminals. Because if this guy is hiding in plain sight as a reputable officer, I need to find the most corrupt guy I know. That’s you. You are the only person in the world I know for sure isn’t working for these guys.” Pickering paused, “And I know you’ll help me.”

Frank shifted uncomfortably at the allusion to owing Pickering his life. “Alright,” he said resignedly. “What else does it say?” handing the monitor back to Pickering.

“I’ve got the full ten minutes on this thing,” Pickering said, shaking the monitor at LaFoe. “He says that this group, these Secret Keepers, have been doing these various jobs for centuries. When I asked him how long, he says theirmythology tells them they burned the ancient library at Alexandria in Egypt to keep the information within it from getting out. The library wasn’t sacked by barbarians. When I asked him why, he said that governing is messy and people would not like it if they knew the truth. This group of theirs cleans up little messes mostly but when something like tonight happens they have to wipe the whole slate clean. He says the corpses were to be left here and made to look like an act of vandalism by amateurs had gone wrong in the aftermath of the collapse. He says he killed them in Century Park and brought them here. He says…”

“OK, OK,” LaFoe interrupted, raising his hands in the air for the man to yield. Pickering was beginning to sound panicked repeating what he’d heard, as if saying these things out loud made them more real. “I get it. This information is dangerous. It could change the country; hell, the world. I get it all. It’s personally dangerous for you to know and I get why I’m the only one you can trust. What do you need?”

“You know more about saving your own skin than anyone. You know how to operate in this environment. I need your advice.”

“That’s easy. My advice is to move on out of here and forget this ever happened. Or you could blow up the Archives and destroy all the evidence.” LaFoe was serious, then added, “Your choice, because you’re you, includes whether or not to tell the world what you discovered.”

LaFoe waited a moment for his message to sink in, “And my car? Why’d I need to bring my squad car?”

“Rumor has it that there are a few unassigned monitors making the rounds on the black market. I needed you to bring your squad car because I am hoping that you have another monitor in it.”

Frank stared at Dan. He did have monitor and it was unassigned. The monitors used to activate the NeXT Questioner were assigned to a select group of officers. Each monitor had to be keyed in biometrically with the officer to whom they were assigned. Once keyed in, their ownership could not be altered. Once data was recorded into a device, that data could be neither altered nor erased. These were failsafe measures installed to assure that the devices could not be tampered with. They helped sell the public on the inviolability of the use of such technology and the unimpeachability of the information collected.

Dan Pickering had obviously wanted to collect the answers to why he had just been forced to shoot a fellow officer when he strapped that device to Pete Simpson’s head. Now that he had landed himself into a whole other mess, he was desperate to get himself out of it unscathed. Both Pickering and LaFoe knew that the Secret Keepers would be able tell the officer had been scanned. The bored holes in the skull could not be hidden. From that evidence, it was a short walk to finding out how many NeXT Questioners were issued in the capital region and even less distance from there to approaching these officers and requesting their monitors. Two of the three choices Dan had to get himself out of this jam required a new, unrecorded monitor.

“I do have a monitor, unassigned.” LaFoe carried an unassigned monitor for the very reason that he thought he might one day have to swap one out to keep a secret. The cost had been astronomical even with the dirt he had on the man he’d traded for it. LaFoe would most likely not need a monitor in the future with the way things were going tonight so he said, “I’ll get it,” without protest.

Three minutes later Frank LaFoe handed Pickering a new, unassigned monitor that had cost him seven months of a policeman’s salary. They shook hands, calling it even. As he was leaving, LaFoe turned and asked, “Why didn’t you ever turn me in?”

Pickering paused and then said, “I thought about it after you passed out and I was waiting for the ambulance. It was a close call. That was a mess you put me in. The problem was ‘what is the greatest good?’ You’re a corrupt cop but, relatively speaking, you’re small potatoes. The damage the news about you would have done to the department after the Murray affair, the betting scandal, the resignation of the Commissioner and the rest of the bad press at the time just seemed like unnecessary fuel on that fire. Our popularity was already pretty low and corrupt cops aren’t really news to the department even though they might be to the public. Letting you slide seemed like the better choice.”

“That was the only answer I could work out after all these years but it’s good to know for sure,” said LaFoe. “Good luck with this new ‘greatest good’ question you‘ve got in front of you now,” he continued, glancing over at the four dead bodies. He nodded and continued toward the door.

“Thanks.” Pickering did not seem pleased at the decision he was about to have to make as he looked down at the new monitor in his hand. “Thanks, Frank.”

* * * * *

Walking toward his squad car, LaFoe took one last look over his shoulder at the Archives building. He was pretty sure that Pickering wouldn’t blow it up. Pickering was a good man and that came with strictures: he couldn’t commit an overt wrong. As LaFoe saw it, the choice for Pickering was to tell the world or to cover his own ass and hope the mobs made it to the Archives before the Secret Keepers learned their plan had failed, sending someone else to finish the job. Personally, LaFoe knew, he’d blow the Archives up. At times like these, life turned into a stark math problem. There’s no sense in taking the chance that someone would come looking for you, he thought. Especially not someone calling himself a ‘Secret Keeper,’ and especially not when you had the world’s biggest secret. LaFoe thought self-sacrifice was a noble concept to wrestle with in the abstract but in real life he preferred considering self-preservation.

Frank’s plan was to get out of the city for the first week or two of what was coming. LaFoe wanted to make it to at least the suburbs before the news broke. Suburbanites weren’t too bright and the new reality of their situation would take a while to sink in. While they watched their world end on TV, he’d get past them and out to the hunting cabin his cousin owned. His hope was to avoid the worst of the carnage. He knew from experience that when everything went to hell people go crazy and everything becomes too unpredictable. Once order was restored, no matter what type, or by whom, LaFoe could safely operate in the world again.

Frank began putting the shotgun back into the trunk and then looked once again at the western horizon with its multiple orange sunsets and thought better of it. It couldn’t hurt to leave it on the passenger seat, he thought. With that thought, he looked at his watch. Just under an hour and a half left, at most. Two more hoodlums to hit up before this world ends, he thought. He started the car and put it in gear, pretty sure Scarandolo would not see the next dawn.

 

The Brothers of the Golden Tiger Slam Hong Kong: Four Trained Fists of Blazing Fury Meet Kang the Puppetmaster’s Minions in a 1970’s Kung Fu Fantasy Guaranteed to Make Your Chi Flow Like Blood Spurting from a Compound Fracture!

by Peter Huston

 

“Cash. I need your cash.” The mugger blocked the Hong Kong seaport alley, waving a switchblade stiletto. There wasn’t time for this. I took a deep breath of cool, early morning salt air and struck, my years of training serving me well.

A crescent kick disarmed him. As the knife clattered to the pavement, a quick pivot and a spinning side kick caught the man mid-chest. He flew back, stumbled, recovered and brought his hands up ready to fight.

It surprised me a mugger still had such fight in him.

I lashed out with my hands before he could catch his balance, a double single-fingered cobra strike to the nerve centers on each side of his neck, and with a sigh and a rolling of his eyes he fell to the ground, breathing deeply as if asleep.

“Took long enough,” said the deep voice behind me.

“No jokes,” I said. “A ship awaits and people depend on us.”

I was tense. I had a job to do. Thousands of lives hung in the balance, perhaps the very fate of the free world, but, worse, I felt guilt for having misused my art. Kung fu was supposed to be about self-discipline and devotion to a spiritual path, not casual violence against a down-on-his-luck street thief.

Behind me Barbed-wire Jackson chuckled. I glanced back noting the grin splitting the face of my large afro-ed friend. “Nelson, you bad-assed kung fu honkey. Up ahead our ship awaits.”

I gave him the power sign in answer, and headed down the alley, knowing he’d watch my back. He’d die for me and I’d die for him. We were both sworn Brothers of the Golden Tiger and we’d been sent here to stop a shipment of heroin destined for the streets of America. But this wasn’t just any simple shipment. It was so much more.

By the side of the alley, a beggar woman waited in the early morning dawn, wrapped in rags, leaning on her staff, the bowl in front of her holding just a few coins. I paused, placed a bill in the dish, then moved on.

“An Andrew Jackson? A twenty? Man, you sure are some soft-hearted honkey.”

“A warrior must show compassion even while heading into battle—so says the ancient proverb.” Kung fu was a deep philosophy handed down for thousands of generations.

“Man you so silly. I bet that chick is jiving you and there’s nothing even wrong with her. If you grew up on the streets like I did, man, you’d know that score.”

I adjusted the straps that held the backpack with the satchel charges and kept walking. “To the ship, Barbed-wire. Save it for the ship.”

We wove through the side streets of the Hong Kong seaport arriving at the docks. The ship, a large freighter, floated, conspicuous among the harbor full of Chinese fishermen’s junks.

It was a large ship with a large crew, some of them hand-picked warriors and assassins sworn to fight, kill and die at Kang’s whim. Aboard were countless kilos of heroin, heroin specially treated by that arch-nemesis of all that was good, Kang, the puppet master. Our job was to stop that shipment.

The moment of truth awaited, that sublime moment when a warrior looks in his heart and learns what he is made of, when life and death become one and action and justice are all that matter.

Gaining access to the large freighter was no problem. Hand over hand, we pulled ourselves up the anchor chain, then climbed a few feet and raised ourselves over the edge of the ship. It was dark and all was still save for the hum of a crane that lowered pallet-loads of plastic-wrapped crates into the recesses of the ship’s hold and the Cantonese chit-chat of its bored tenders. Barbed-wire Jackson and I watched from our perch in the shadows. We knew what was in those crates.

Heroin is a plague that destroys souls just as it rots minds and bodies, but Kang’s special heroin was even worse. Kang specialized in using Western science, Chinese tradition and the dark hidden sorcerous teachings of myriad cultures to fulfill his nefarious goals and increase his personal power.

The special heroin was part of his latest plan.

First he’d used occult inter-species breeding techniques to create the ravenous creatures known as “scorpion-mosquitoes.” A swarm of these fist-sized flying things could easily surround a man, paralyze him with their sting and then strip him of his flesh with their razor-like claws while simultaneously draining his blood and bodily fluids. From beginning to end the agonized victim was frozen, unable to scream. Three minutes later, nothing was left save for bare bones and a fleshless skull, its jaws locked in a horrible grimace.

There was only one known repellant to attacks from the scorpion-mosquitoes, and, of course, Kang controlled that too. His plan was to distribute it as an additive to heroin. The addictive drug laced with the repellent would then be sold on the streets of America’s greatest cities to desperate junkies eager for a fix.

That was phase one of the plan and these sales alone would fill Kang’s war coffers with dangerous wealth.

Phase two was even worse. Kang and his minions would then release swarms of scorpion-mosquitoes upon these same cities. Just as the few good citizens who managed to survive began to recover, they’d then find themselves surrounded by desperate heroin-addicts who emerged from the assault unscathed, desperate for another fix, already amoral and soul-damaged, and now completely willing to do anything Kang asked.

When our contacts at Interpol first learned of this, they’d realized it was far outside their expertise. Naturally, they’d contacted the Brothers of the Golden Tiger.

This is the sort of thing we specialize in and the sort of plan we’d learned to associate with Kang the Puppetmaster and his ilk. We knew how to stop it, by using the ancient art of Kung Fu and fighting fire with fire.

Kang, his followers, and the Brothers of the Golden Tiger studied the same arts of personal development. Of course, while traveling these paths, the Brothers of the Golden Tiger kept to the light while Kang the Puppetmaster and his like kept to the shadows. We were like the two sides of the classic paradigm of yin and yang. We knew society needed us to protect them from people like Kang, but we also knew that without villains like Kang, our art, our skills, our years of disciplined study would be of little value to society and we’d remain untested as warriors. Yin and Yang. Evil cannot exist without good and good cannot exist without evil. So says the ancient philosophies underlying our art.

We watched the workers steady the pallets and load them into the ship.

“So, Jackson, what do you think?”

“There’s only twelve of them, Nelson. Let’s do it.”

With a grin we charged. I aimed my flying kick so that I would take out two, one after another, before I landed. Jackson took a different approach and used a double flying kick, also taking two at a time, one with each foot.

This left us, two men, unarmed but skilled in the deadly art of kung fu, versus eight thugs. Hardly a fair fight at all. But they’d brought this upon themselves when they’d taken Kang’s pieces of silver.

We attacked, again without hesitation. They were aggressive and showed little fear, but they were clearly undisciplined. Our feet, fists and elbows cut them down one, two at a time.

It was just when we started to taste victory, things changed. Overhead came a high-pitched whistling sound. Hurtling towards us was Odo Mal, the death dwarf, one of Kang’s Twelve Deadly Assassins from his Inner Circle!

Using a kite to guide himself and with razor spurs fastened to his heels, the small muscle-bound man was like a cannonball of death. As he shot towards my head, I threw myself to the ground. I dodged the blow but I still felt him pass.

I jumped, pivoted and watched him land. Dropping the kite, he turned and threw himself towards me, closing the distance with cartwheeling leaps. Only four feet tall, as he built momentum his spinning little legs turned faster and faster, the slashing blades fastened to his heels cutting the wind as he closed the distance.

By my side, Jackson was holding his own against the thugs, so I focused on Odo Mal. We’d never met but I’d seen his handiwork. In fact, there were nights when the memories of the mutilated bodies of his victims haunted me, depriving me of sleep. Perhaps now I could avenge those deaths.

I grounded myself and prepared to block as he tumbled forward. My rising forearm caught his falling leg on the back of the calf. With a shock and a recoil, the leg glanced away and came down again. This time the razor spur bit my shoulder.

Pain like fire burned through me as I grabbed the wound, slowing the flow of blood. “Zounds!” I cried.

Odo Mal faced me, grinning.

I raised my hands, lowered my weight and assumed a tiger stance.

I blocked out the sensations of warm, sticky wetness and pain from my shoulder and focused.

He hurled himself forward and I easily stepped aside.

He recovered and prepared his next assault. Barbed-wire Jackson seemed to be taking his time defeating the thugs. There were five still standing, but it was clear those five were beginning to suspect they’d hired on with the wrong tyrant. In a few minutes, I figured, they’d either be down or have retreated, jumping into the sea over the ship’s edge.

Despite Odo Mal’s appearance, the ship would soon be ours. Or so I thought.

A search light scanned the deck of the ship, followed by the roar of whirling rotor blades. With wind and swirling dust, a helicopter landed, and a horde of violent men discharged from the chopper, fists waving, ready for a fight. Yet I almost didn’t notice them. That’s how much their leader dominated the scene.

He wore a large red face-mask and was dressed in shining, metal plate armor of an oriental style. About eight feet tall waving a pole arm that had a massive blade almost three feet long and weighed nearly two pounds. When I say red-faced I mean “red,” red like in “scarlet.”

“Fight, you dogs! Fight,” he cried as he waved the weapon. “There’s only two of them.” With heavy mechanical strides that shook the deck of the freighter, he advanced into the melee.

It was Salazar the Decapitator! Another of Kang’s Inner Circle of Twelve Deadly Assassins. All I could do was take solace in the belief that a warrior must be prepared to die without fear.

A voice like a shaken can of rusty nails interrupted my thoughts, and I turned, knowing it was Odo Mal behind me. “So, Brother of the Golden Tiger, do you choose to admit defeat or are you prepared to die?” A leer so large that it almost split his oversized head in two marked Odo Mal as he steadied himself for his next attack.

I faced off, again in a tiger stance. “If you understood the Brothers of the Golden Tiger you would not even ask such a question.”

With a giggle he somersaulted towards me. I sidestepped and shouted. “Jackson, how you doing?”

“Five by five, my man. Five by five,” he said as he downed one attacker with a side kick to the ribs and then the next with an open-hand palm lunge to the forehead. But the thugs were still coming, not to mention, Salazar, the Decapitator.

Almost as if hearing my thoughts, Salazar stepped into the fray with a mighty klunk, swinging the polearm. True to his own name, he hacked off the head of one of his own, less enthusiastic henchmen.

“At them, I say. At them! Fight harder. I will reward success with fortune and failure with death.” Reaching down, he lifted the thug’s decapitated head and dangled it by its hair as it dripped blood. “Let this man serve as an example to you all.” From within his red-metal mask, he stared deep into the eyes of the bodiless head. Apparently seeing little of interest there, he then hurled the head at Jackson.

Jackson blocked with a classical rising forearm block and the head soared upwards, still dripping blood, like some macabre volleyball from hell.

I turned just in time to sidestep Odo Mal’s next somersaulting attack. With a maniacal giggle, he cartwheeled on, disappearing into the crowd. I had no idea how we were going to survive but we’d been in worse fights before. The key, I knew, was to rely on my training and handle things one step at a time.

I took a position by Jackson’s side.

“About time, you got here,” cried Jackson as he smacked a pair of heads together using a technique that had been generations-old when the Shaolin temple had been founded. I was impressed by his style, but worried by the sheer numbers matched against us.

“Jackson, there may be too many.”

“So?”

“So,” I gestured at the satchel charge in my back-pack, “how do I leave you behind and blow this ship?”

“Ain’t you enjoying yo’self?” he asked as he punched, pivoted and chambered, then struck in a way that masterfully combined an elbow strike to the rear with a front punch that caused an actual bulge in the backside of its victim.

“That’s not the point. We have a mission.” I blocked an attack from behind feeling the attacker’s wrist snap as it came into contact with my forearm.

“Fair enough. Step one, I suggest, is we take out every single one of these dog-nappers.” And as if to emphasize his point, he downed one with a roundhouse kick to the head, then without pausing, cut the next one down with a hook kick.

I knocked out two more with a palm strike and a backwards axe kick. “But there’s so many, not to mention Odo Mal and Salazar the Decapitator.”

At the mention of that name another bodiless head came flying towards us dripping blood. “Fight harder, fight harder! See what happens to those who do not fight hard enough?” cried Salazar the Decapitator. “There’s only two of them. Wealth to the one who brings them down. Death to those sniveling puppies who fail.” I used an outer forearm block to deflect the flying head and it bounced to high left, trailing dripping blood behind like part of a sanguine fireworks display.

I soon downed two of the on-coming thugs; the first with a knife hand strike, the second with an oldie but a goodie, a punch to the face. Above I heard the roar of another helicopter and realized why the horde seemed never-ending. Kang the Puppetmaster knew just as we did that the fate of the free world hung on this battle and continued to send reinforcements.

“Jackson,” I cried between punches, kicks and blocks. “We’re outnumbered and more are coming. We’re never going to blow this ship.”

“Don’t think about me,” he answered while engaging in some very impressive foot-to-the-headwork. “Think of the mission.”

A man charged at me with a pipe and swung it down with both hands trying to split my head. I sidestepped, grabbed the pipe, gained control of his balance and momentum, pivoted and then threw him back into the crowd, watching him fly over the others as he did. No reason Salazar the Decapitator had to be the only one allowed to throw people today. “I am thinking of the mission. Unless something changes, and soon, we’ve lost this fight. We may have to postpone this mission.”

“And take the chance that Kang releases his plan upon just one or two American cities? No way, my man. It’s too terrible to think about. Not even the honkey side of Cleveland deserves that.” Barbed-Wire Jackson grunted and hit the next two thugs particularly hard to show what he thought of that. The sound of his fist crunching bone made even a hardened warrior like me queasy.

We fought on, weaving through the thugs, knocking them down where they stood, so that the bodies wouldn’t pile up and cause us to trip. Part of our training—practiced countless hours, blindfolded—had been maneuvering around scattered sandbags in the depths of secret dojos and kung fu training schools whose names were known only to the inner core of the deadliest fighters on Earth.

From behind the mob, something changed. Although most wouldn’t have sensed it, we were trained kung fu warriors, attuned to the rhythms of conflict. The thugs moved differently. Their rhythm was off, as if distracted. At first, we were merely grateful that it was now easier to down Kang’s thugs one after another. But in time we sought an explanation and moved the fight closer to where these new events were unfolding.

And there she was! The beggar woman from the alley was attacking Kang’s thugs from the rear. But she moved like no beggar woman I’d ever seen.

She waved her four foot jo staff like a conductor directing a massive symphony of carnage using motions that were carefully honed and centuries old.

Around her the thugs fell like bowling pins.

“You!” I cried. “But you were a crippled beggar lady.”

She tore off the rags that covered her face, revealing herself to be an astonishingly attractive woman with long, flowing obsidian hair and heavily lidded eyes. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Suzuki Chen, daughter of Tanaka Chen.”

In my astonishment I almost let myself be struck from behind, only sidestepping the blow at the last moment. “Tanaka Chen, the Grandmaster of Iron Fist Karate?”

“Of course,” she said as she pivoted and leaned low, returning to the melee. Her jo staff destroyed two more thugs almost before they realized they’d caught her attention. “And as you can see these spastic, arrhythmic monkey-boys have not only hijacked my father’s art and fighting style but they are performing it quite badly. I was raised from birth to restore the name of Iron Fist Karate by first taking vengeance upon those who misuse it for evil, and, secondly,” she emphasized her upcoming point with a front-to-back pair of sliding thrusts of the jo, “by taking special vengeance upon those who misuse the art of Iron Fist Karate in a sophomoric and flacid manner. I assure you gentlemen that if these thugs had been trained by my father himself we’d all have a much more serious fight on our hands. I, for one, feel more disgusted than fearful because of their attacks.”

Soon she spun, thrust, tripped and probed with the jo staff so quickly that I had lost count of the number of men she dispatched.

I blocked, kicked, and took down two more thugs myself, feeling barely adequate as I did. “But the beggar woman disguise?”

“You ask too many questions, Nelson Kane. I was simply, as your friend Barbed-wire Jackson told you, ‘jiving you.’ You should listen to him more. Now go, fulfill your mission. I will protect him.” She spun to the left and spun back to the right, striking a thug on both sides before he could fall from the first blow.

I was astonished by her flowing and deadly movements and could have watched her fight all day if there hadn’t been a mission to accomplish. I began to punch and kick my way to the hold, shouting back over my shoulder, “It’s nice to have you fight by our side.”

Between a block and strike combination that could only be described as elegant, she smiled a cynical smile. “No, Nelson Kane, please remember it is you and Jackson, the Brothers of the Golden Tiger, who fight by my side.”

“Fight, you dogs, fight. Two men and a mere woman? Fight harder!” And, again Salazar the Decapitator sliced the head off of one of his own men and threw it, but this time he hurled it at Suzuki Chen. She deflected it with the jo staff like a batter at a softball game and the head flew above the fight, dripping red like an aurora borealis of blood.

Then she stepped forward aiming at Salazar himself.

It was as if the melee stopped. All eyes were upon them. Their leader challenged, the thugs had forgotten about me and Jackson.

“Insolent she-whelp!” cried Salazar as he stepped towards her. “I will make an example of you.” He raised the deadly pole arm with its many-pound blade over his head and aimed it straight for her skull, bringing it down.

She stepped under the blow, catching the handle of the pole arm with the middle of her sturdy jo staff in a block that took both arms and all her strength. The battle paused, as strength against strength the contest continued. Then she spun the jo quickly, allowing the pole arm to fall and then striking it on the back to drive it down to the ground even harder. The pole arm bit deeply into the metal deck of the ship. As the deck shook, men tumbled, slipped and fell but Suzuki Chen held her ground and stood firm while Salazar the Decapitator struggled fruitlessly to pull his weapon free.

She spun, pivoted, cocked the jo staff back and with a solid two-handed strike aimed for Salazar’s armored head. With a mighty klang like a deep Buddhist funeral bell the blow connected. Salazar froze, still gripping his pole arm, his now unconscious state marked by only a slight loosening of his thumbs on the handle.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh! My sworn brooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooother! I shall avenge you. No one does this to one of the Inner Circle of Twelve Assassins without suffering agony.” I turned. The screams came from Odo Mal, the Death Dwarf who waved his hands in fury.

To my left, Jackson was dispatching thugs with machine-like precision.

“I just did,” answered Suzuki Chen, as she gave her jo staff an idle spin. “Would you, Odo Mal, care to try me in a bit of sport?”

With a wordless scream he launched himself towards her in another attack somersault. I knew Suzuki Chen and Barbed-wire Jackson could take care of themselves and headed for the entrance to the depths of the ship. The mission awaited.

I ignored the conflict behind me. I even ignored the thought that Odo Mal and Suzuki Chen would soon be locked in combat in a fight remembered for generations to come. Worst of all, I ignored that I was leaving my sworn brother, Barbed-wire Jackson, in danger. The mission, the heroin, the fate of the free world awaited and, for the moment, all depended on me. I adjusted the satchel charge on my back and headed for the doors leading into the depths of the freighter.

Two men tried to stop me but I made short work of them. As I made my way to the engine room, the few crew members who saw me turned and fled. The trained fighters were up on the deck and it was clear that they’d had little success against the Brothers of the Golden Tiger.

Placing the satchel charge was easy enough. I sighed as I worked. High explosives somehow lack the elegance of the ancient weapons of my art, the sword, staff and nunchaku, not to mention the most ancient and elegant of all weapons, a man’s hands and feet. Still, I had to use the explosives. The fate of the free world depended on destroying this shipment. I set the timer for three minutes and made my way back to the surface.

On the way, I pulled a fire alarm, setting off bells and horns. Not only did I expect this would add to the confusion and encourage the crew to flee, but I also felt it important to show mercy whenever possible. Confucius asked, “Why slaughter the deluded when you could be merciful and educate them in proper behavior instead?”

Few tried to stop me as I returned to the deck. When I arrived, the fight was continuing but its intensity had diminished. “Jackson, Chen, to the lifeboats,” I screamed. They looked up from the punch, kick, block of endless battle and saw me. “To the lifeboats!” I cried again.

Suzuki Chen defeated her opponent of the moment with a sweep of the jo staff to his ankle. “Got you with the Shanghai cobblestone maneuver!” she exclaimed as he landed on his back with a thud.

Meanwhile Jackson took out his opponent with a side skipping side kick. The man flew backwards four feet through the air and hit the deck.

“To the lifeboats!” I cried, gesturing.

“Right at you, my man,” answered Jackson as he turned and ran.

Suzuki Chen said nothing as she too turned and followed.

I was first in the lifeboat and began to lower it into the water. A couple minutes later, Jackson, then Suzuki Chen, dropped themselves next to me, forcing me to grip the sides and steady myself as the boat rocked. Soon after I’d regained balance, with a splash the boat hit the water. We undid the oars and began rowing.

We only had a minute or so before the ship blew.

Around us crew members were jumping into the water while other lifeboats, some jam-packed and others almost empty, did their best to escape. In their panic, the thugs, like the proverbial rats sinking a fleeing ship, chose to ignore us.

The ship exploded with a blaze of fire and a sound like a thousand cannons. Pieces of deck, hull and cargo flew through the sky as we covered ourselves, shielding our eyes.

We knew that, for the moment at least, Kang’s plan was foiled. His special heroin would never reach the streets of America, making his scorpion-mosquito attacks unnecessary and pointless. The free world was safe, for now.

The three of us looked at one another. “Odo Mal?” I asked. “What happened to him?”

“I defeated him,” Suzuki Chen answered. “But before we could finish the matter with a fight to the death, his own men dragged him off while he kicked, screamed and begged to be able to finish the combat. Yet even they could tell he was completely out-classed.”

“We’d best be ready,” I said. “He might have survived the blast and soon be seeking extra training.”

“And Salazar the Decapitator?”

“I didn’t see,” answered Jackson.

“Say,” I said, looking at Suzuki Chen, “Kang’s still out there as are most, if not all, of his Inner Circle of Twelve Deadly Assassins. Why don’t you join us in our fight against evil? I see no reason why we couldn’t have a Sister of the Golden Tiger.”

“Yeah! Why not?” said Barbed-wire Jackson.

“Hah!” she replied. “Although I must thank you for the offer, Nelson Kane, Barbed-wire Jackson, I also must decline. You two may, if you wish, follow me for a while. And Mr. Kane, one more thing I expect you to understand, do you remember the twenty dollars you placed in my bowl when you thought I was a beggar woman?”

“Yes,” I said wondering what she was going to say.

“Please understand I am keeping it.”

 

There I Was…

by Davyne DeSye

 

So, there was a scientist, a New York cabby, and a woodsman. That was me—the woodsman.

I know, sounds like a bad joke, and I guess it was.

The cabby had picked up his fare at La Guardia—this scientist-type from England: Real fine suit, real nice accent, soft-voiced and polite, and wearing the biggest glasses on his honker I’ve ever seen—looked like television screens if he looked into the light, with us as a whole group of characters reflecting off the lenses. Then the cabby’s copter wrecked—something about the maintenance team, but I had the impression he was just spouting off to keep from getting sued.

I was at the lodge, enjoying Selma’s stew with a big warm hunk of her heavy brown bread, when these two came stumbling in. I looked up, but most of us didn’t, and Selma kept mopping up the table nearest me as she said, “Howdy, folks.”

The cabby marched forward two steps, said, “Say,” real loud, looked around and then said, “Say, who runs this joint,” doing his best Rodney Dangerfield impression. It was pretty good. I chuckled. That was before I knew it was the only way he knew how to talk.

To make a long story short, they needed a guide, and I happened to be sitting there, so Selma led them over to me. She raised an eyebrow to ask if it was okay to interrupt me, and I almost said no, because the cabby was already annoying me with the way he was crowding her. For some reason—maybe the quiet way his fare was looking at me—I didn’t.

The cabby pulled a chair away from my table, spun it around, and sat with his legs spread around the back of the chair, leaning over toward me aggressively.

“Hey, pal,” he started, with an expression on his face like he was getting ready to pick a fight with me, “I’ll tell you what we need.”

“I know what you need,” I said very quietly, wondering if he’d shut his mouth if I stuffed my half loaf of warm bread in it—but not wanting to waste Selma’s cooking like that. “Why don’t you let your friend talk?”

The cabby just looked startled, said, “Hunh,” and looked up at his fare.

“May I?” said the fare, in a voice so quiet I felt like he was trying to make up for the loud mouth.

“Sure,” I answered.

“You see, sir, we are in need of a guide. Would you be the gentleman who can assist us?” Real nice manners. I liked that.

“Guide to where?” I asked.

“Kendrow Peak.”

Criminy.

I think I must have stared for a moment, because he said, “I see you’ve heard of the place.”

“Yeah. Why don’t you just call for another cab?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t the time to wait for another to reach these outer climes. It isn’t too great a distance is it?” He lifted his chin to look more closely at me through the bottoms of his glasses.

“There are a lot of strange things that go on up there,” I said.

The cabby spoke up in his bellowing voice. “Strange? Strange like how?”

I glared at the cabby whom I had nearly forgotten was still with us. Wishful thinking on my part.

“Excuse me for living!” he muttered, while straightening his collar and shooting non-existent cuffs.

The Englishman quietly said, “Indeed.”

“Why Kendrow Peak?” I asked. Wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

“I am a scientist. A specialist of sorts. I am sorely needed at the facility there and am running a bit late. You will be well paid, I assure you, if you can assist.”

We dickered over an exorbitant price—I didn’t really want this job—which got even more exorbitant when I found out he didn’t carry cash (what was he planning? to slide a credit card in and out of my mouth real quick?) and I’d be paid only on getting him there. At least part of the price was compensation for having to bring the cabby along, since the copter that was picking him up was already headed for the Peak. Within half an hour, I knew I hadn’t asked enough to make up for his loud mouth. Live and learn.

I had my kit, and Mr. Sanders, the scientist, was in a hurry, so we set off. It was only just noon, and I figured I could get them there and hike back down before nightfall. The cabby, unsurprisingly named Spike (I had guessed Mack or Spud, and ruled out Fat-Headed-Ignoramus only because I didn’t think he could handle that many syllables) spent the first half hour trying to sell us athletic shoes like his own (he “had a deal with a guy”) since my well-worn hiking boots were unfashionable (not that he used the word “unfashionable”—he had called them “hard on the eyes”), and the Brit’s polished shoes were not for hiking. I recited Robert Frost in my head to keep from braining the guy.

We came out of the trees at the top of a rise, stepped around a copse into a bright meadow, and nearly came face to face with a largish black bear.

The scientist whispered “Oh, my,” and loud-mouth stopped talking mid-word. In a normal voice, I said, “It’s fine. Just keep talking. We’re going to move up-wind slowly to give him a whiff of us. He doesn’t want to mess with us. We just need to let him know we’re human, and he’ll move on. Keep talking. Talk normally.”

Needless to say, this was the moment when the cabby couldn’t think of anything to say. Useless idiot.

The scientist whispered, “Are you sure this is quite alright?”

“Don’t whisper. Just talk. Yes, we’re fine. Back off and slide to your left. Stay close to the trees.” I slowly pulled the pepper spray from my pocket.

I had to pull on the cabby to get him to move. His eyes looked like cartoon pop-outs, glued to the bear, and his color looked like he was getting ready to attack the beast with projectile vomit. But he shuffled along with us, while Sanders and I talked about the weather. His voice shook a bit, but he was a trooper.

The bear stuck his snout in the air, snuffled a bit, and then growled his complaint about an interrupted lunch, and lumbered away.

It took a bit to convince the two neophytes that the bear wouldn’t be back, that we weren’t really in too much danger, that I run into bear pretty regularly in these hills.

“I was quite convinced we should run,” said Sanders. “It was only your calm response that stilled the instinct in me.”

“You can’t outrun a bear. They may look slow, but they run thirty, thirty-five miles an hour. Besides, that might have convinced him that you were prey. Bad idea.”

Sanders just raised an eyebrow at me, shoved his glasses higher onto his nose, and gestured for me to lead the way. It didn’t take many more minutes before the cabby came out of his funk and began regaling us with how he would have taken apart the bear if it had made a wrong move. “You shoulda’ seen the time a bunch of Hell’s Angels…” I went back to Robert Frost and counting backwards from ten million and such-like. I toyed with tracking the bear down and feeding Spike to him, but didn’t want to create a man-eater in the hills where I live.

The mountain lion we crossed paths with went much the same way. Sanders listened carefully when I told him to raise his arms and hold his suit coat out, in order to look bigger. Spike fell on his knees and started saying Hail Marys.

“‘Bigger,’ I said! Get off your knees!” This had no effect, naturally, so Sanders and I waved our arms and talked, until the lion darted away, thankfully deciding we were too big to attack.

I wanted to clout loud-mouth on the back of the head, but frankly, he looked pathetic at the time, down on his knees with his head bent over his hands.

The worst moment came when we walked up on a moose and calf. Mama stood six feet high at the shoulders, at least, and there’s no more dangerous animal in the woods than a fourteen hundred pound block of muscle with hooves protecting her baby. So what does the idiot cabby do? Just pretend you had no brains at all beyond those needed to make the ridiculous noises he calls speech, and you’ve guessed it.

“Yo! Now THAT’s an animal!” he said. Then he pointed at the calf and said, “Looks like my dog!”, and started walking toward it. What was he going to do, pet it?

“Stop!” I yelled, but too late. The fur on the back of Mama stood up, she started snorting, and I yelled, “Run! Run behind a tree!”

Sanders didn’t hesitate, Spike did, and I somehow managed to see the shocked expression on his face when Mama charged him. I’ll give him this. The man can run and dodge through trees like a professional running back. He nearly got hit twice by sixty pound antlers before Mama gave up to return to her calf, snorting threats all the way.

After I caught my breath, I took the time to explain to Spike just how stupid he was. I don’t think he heard a word, because he just clapped me on the back when I finally wound down and said, “You’re a funny guy!”

Thankfully, we were nearly to the foot of Kendrow Peak. I say ‘thankfully’ because the trip was nearly over—not because I wanted to go near the Peak. We all know better than to wander near Kendrow, what with the stories that circulate.

I paused for a water break, putting off the inevitable.

“So, professor, what’s up there?” I indicated the peak with my head.

“A crossroads of sorts,” he answered cryptically.

“Crossroads,” I repeated.

“I am, eh, needed to assist in translation.” A smile flickered faintly over his face, and he looked apologetic. “I am terribly sorry. I am afraid I cannot explain further.”

“My money’s at the top of the peak, right?”

“Oh, yes, quite,” he answered quickly.

“Cash?”

“Indeed. I would not deceive you, dear fellow. With perhaps a bonus for your excellent guidance thus far.” He smiled again.

I grunted and started leading them uphill.

We were nearly to the top, the cabby finally and thankfully quiet, when we heard a distinct rustling from the bushes ahead of us on the trail. I put an arm up and admonished silence. Then the damnedest thing happened.

This… creature steps out of the bushes. It wasn’t faintly like anything I’d ever seen or even had nightmares about. Looked like it had three heads, red leathery skin, and tentacles coming from the stomach area. It had no arms and big pear-like stumps, wider at the bottom than the top, for legs. I think it was drooling some kind of slime.

The cabby fainted like a tree crashing backward, and I took a step backward, ready to make the three-hour trip back to the lodge in ten minutes flat, when Sanders said, “My dear sir, please do not run. You will only entice it.” Or something like that. My head wasn’t working too well at the moment.

“I, uh… I, uh…” was all I could say.

“Please, do as I do,” he answered. “Flap your left elbow up and down,” he said, and started doing a one-armed funky chicken. I hesitated, and then decided that since I was dreaming, I could dream-flap my elbow, too.

“Now, plant your right foot, and walk in a circle around it, like this.”

I followed his lead.

“Rock your head back and forth from your shoulders,” he went on. I waggled my head. I didn’t try to copy the strange squealing sounds he was making, since I didn’t understand how anybody could possibly make such a noise.

In seconds, the creature was gone, back into the bushes. I could hear it crashing through underbrush for some time after that.

I stood frozen for a bit after the crashing finally faded away. I might still be standing there if Spike hadn’t sat up just then and said, “What the heck am I doing down here?”

I don’t remember much of the rest of the trip up, and then back to the lodge. The cabby caught his return copter, I got a pocket full of cash it’ll take a while to spend, and I figure I know what to do if I ever run into a Flapdoodle, or Humblebug, or whatever the heck that thing was.

That’s it. That’s the punchline.

When you figure out what’s funny about it, you let me know. Okay?

 

Ripple

by Rami Ungar

 

Colin remembered when they had first met, a year and a half ago. At that point the Boonat had been on Earth for nearly six months, but only recently had they been allowed to leave their ships. Their ships had appeared in the skies over Boston one day, gray metal ships shaped like rainbows or elbow macaroni hovering in the air. Over every radio wavelength and in perfect English, they had proclaimed themselves as the Boonat, a race of nomads from the far reaches of the galaxy who traveled from system to system looking for intelligent life so as to learn about other creatures in the universe.

“We are not your enemies,” the Boonat had said. “Our mission is the exchange of ideas, of seeing other beings and other cultures and helping each other mutually benefit from what we have to offer and from what you can offer us. We are a peaceful race, and will not harm you unless you harm us first. Come, let us go forth into the future and begin what can only be a new era of progress and prosperity.”

Despite the Boonat’s declaration of peace, the United Nations—the United States particularly—had asked that the Boonat stay aboard their ships until the UN could decide on how to deal with these strange beings that had suddenly appeared in the sky over the Massachusets Bay. After numerous meetings in the UN, and several televised discussions between the UN and the Boonat, both in the UN building and the main Boonat ship, the Boonat were finally able to set foot on Earth, on the understanding that they could do whatever they pleased as long as no human was harmed and no human harmed them.

Colin had met Ynarl not too long after the Boonat had been given permission to come to Earth, in the Boston Public Garden. It had been a beautiful, sunny day, with families playing by the lake, couples strolling hand in hand on the pathways, old men playing chess or Chinese checkers at stone tables. A freshman at Boston University, Colin had gone to see the flowers that were grown in the garden. He had always loved flowers, ever since his grandfather had allowed him to help out in his garden when Colin was seven.

When Colin arrived at the park, what caught his attention was not the beautiful array of flowers, but one of the people admiring them. The other people in the park were giving this person a wide berth and giving her fearful glances. Curious, he got closer, only realizing when he could make out the girl’s features that she was a Boonat.

Colin had seen pictures of the Boonat in the newspapers and online, humanoid creatures with blue-green skin below the collar bone and on their fingers, snow-white skin that extended down their arms from the shoulders and head, red or brown eyes and dark green hair worn long and loose. This was the first time Colin had seen one in person, though, and he was transfixed. The Boonat was wearing a beige dress with short sleeves and a knee-length skirt and was bent over a bougainvillea shrub, studying the flowers with a dreamy expression on her face.

Colin watched her as she pushed a strand of hair behind her ear and then he found himself walking over to her, desiring to talk with her. There was no particular reason as to why Colin wanted to talk with her, just that he enjoyed the company of weird people. Ever since high school in Idaho, where one had to be Christian and all-American to get by, Colin had preferred to befriend and hang out with those on the fringe—the goth, the ventriloquist, the girl who made her own clothes and would probably work for Lady Gaga one day. It wasn’t any conscious choice, it was just something he did and it was what compelled Colin to go near the Boonat that everyone else in the park was avoiding.

When Colin was standing right next to her, he realized he didn’t know what to say; what did you talk about with an alien? He racked his brain for something to say and finally came up with, “I didn’t know the Boonat had such a good grasp of human fashion.”

The Boonat girl looked up, a surprised expression on her face. For a second Colin wondered if he had said something stupid, but then the girl laughed, a sweet sound that reminded him of birdsong. “I wanted to blend in, as you humans say,” said the Boonat girl. “Boonat do not regularly wear clothes except in extreme environments, but humans tend to become nervous when confronted with full nudity. With your fellow humans avoiding me though, I thought I might have committed some sort of faux pas.”

“Nah, that’s not the reason,” said Colin, glad to see how friendly the Boonat girl was being. “I think they’re just afraid of talking to a Boonat. Really, I think you look great in that dress.” The Boonat girl smiled then, a perfectly beautiful smile.

Colin spent the rest of the day with the Boonat girl, whose name sounded something like Ynarl, going around the park and explaining the different flowers and statues to her. He wasn’t sure if Ynarl was listening, but Colin thought the smile on her face meant that she at least enjoyed seeing the park’s attractions. Later they went and got dinner together at a burger place, where Ynarl told him some of the aspects of Boonat life, including why they were nomads searching for knowledge.

“The histories of the Boonat say that long ago, the Boonat were visited on the home planet by beings from a faraway world,” Ynarl said. “It is similar to how the Boonat are now visiting your planet. The Boonat and this faraway people, they exchanged technologies, knowledge, and cultures and then the faraway people left. When a natural disaster forced the Boonat to flee our home planet, the Boonat leaders decided to search the universe for the faraway people we had encountered so long ago.”

“Did the Boonat ever find the faraway people?” Colin asked.

Ynarl shook her head. “There is not much information left of the faraway people. Much of it was lost in the disaster that forced us from our planet. That is why we go from planet to planet, exchanging information with those who can grasp what we offer them. We hope that someday, we may find the people who had visited us in the first place and thank them for the technology they had given us.”

“I hope you find them someday,” said Colin, taking a sip of his root beer. “Just don’t leave too soon to go find them, okay? We just started getting to know each other.” Ynarl laughed, reminding Colin of just how sweet her laugh was.

Ynarl and Colin continued to meet each other, in and around Boston and even on the Boonat’s main ship, a week before official tours of the strange ship were scheduled to commence. Ynarl came to some of Colin’s classes as a guest, and even to a few parties, though they stopped going to the parties when Ynarl discovered that alcohol had adverse effects on her species’ digestive system. Colin’s friends liked Ynarl once they got past the fact she was a Boonat, and Ynarl’s friends liked Colin as soon as they met him. They went to a lot of parks and even went on a road trip to the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park, mostly because Ynarl preferred nature to the city, and mostly because Colin preferred Ynarl’s company to anyone from school.

At one point Ynarl and Colin were even featured in an article in People magazine on Boonat-human relationships, showcasing what good friends they were. The article and press attention embarrassed both of them, but they allowed the press coverage because they thought it might help people warm up to the Boonat, though the way things had been going, it had seemed like humans would finally come to accept the Boonat and the age of progress and harmony the extraterrestrial visitors had predicted would truly come about.

And then Olberston messed up. A so-called expert on extraterrestrials from the History Channel, Henry Olberston had been appointed by the United States to be a liaison for the Boonat. During the first few months on the job, Olberston had worked hard to help the Boonat transition into Earth society, going so far as to lobby that Boonat and human children should go to school together.

However, in late December of that year, a report came out on Politico, in which a former aide to Olberston said that Olberston had links to Native Collective, a radical right-wing group that was against the Boonat being allowed to interact with humans and called for the Boonat to be exterminated. Olberston replied that the report was false and that the aide was angry over being fired for stealing money from his office. The furor died down and was forgotten a week after the report came out.

A month later though, a video appeared on the internet that showed someone who looked like Olberston having sex with two female Boonat. This video came out almost three days following a report from the FBI that some underground prostitution rings were incorporating Boonat into their illicit trade. Although the video’s quality was too grainy to positively identify Olberston, and Olberston and his wife insisted that Olberston had not had sex with any of the Boonat, the uproar lasted longer than that of the Native Collective story. The video accrued more than two million views on YouTube and other websites within two days, was debated about on several radio and television shows, and was lampooned in a memorable Saturday Night Live skit.

Not too long after that Olberston was audited by the IRS for inconsistencies in his tax returns. It later exploded into a media frenzy when a money trail back to Native Collective and a well-known prostitution ring involving Boonat women was discovered. Olberston denied the charges, saying they’d been created by his wife—from whom he was now separated—and claimed that she’d received the information to set up the money trails from “enemies who wish to discredit my name and the work I’m trying to do,” in his own words.

While the investigation was still going on into Olberston’s finances, the Boonat were trying to help facilitate peace talks between the United States and China. Their reason for doing so was that they believed that the tensions between the two nations would cause the Boonat to have to choose a side in the ongoing conflict and the Boonat wanted to stave that off before it happened. Olberston was invited to the peace talks to help make sure things between the Boonat and the two superpower nations ran smoothly. To prove how serious they were of creating peace, the entire Boonat high council volunteered to preside over the meeting.

Colin and Ynarl had been watching the peace talks together on a public computer in Boston University’s library. The video, streaming live on CSPAN’s website, showed first Chinese officials filing into a large, circular room, followed by American diplomats, Olberston among them, and then finally the Boonat high council. The meeting began with an outline of each party’s needs and grievances, followed by the Boonat high council’s opinion on what could be done about the situation.

Suddenly, midway through the high council’s solution to the United States’ economic problems, Olberston stood up and climbed onto the table. The whole room—and from their computers, the whole world—watched as Olberston took off his jacket, ripped his shirt open, and revealed a bomb strapped to his chest. There was a commotion, several security guards ran into the room with their guns waving, the diplomats scattered in fear, and then the feed was cut, leaving the whole world, including Ynarl and Colin, wondering what had happened after the feed had been cut.

It wasn’t too long after that the world received its answer: Olberston had succeeded in detonating his bomb. All those within a hundred-foot radius perished along with him. No explanation existed for why he decided to blow himself up along with the delegates or what Olberston had hoped to gain from killing them all. All the world got was one screaming headline: OLBERSTON BOMBS PEACE DELEGATES.

The uproar that followed was horrific: China accused the United States and the Boonat of conspiring against them, while the United States said that Olberston had been acting alone on his own motives. All the Boonat worldwide were recalled to their ships, including Ynarl, and a message was released from the Boonat main ship:

“In all the planets we have visited, we have never been deceived as we have on Earth, nor have we ever encountered such barbarity! We can only assume, based on the information we have gathered on Earth culture, that the humans’ intentions towards the Boonat have been all along to destroy and enslave us before we can do to the same to them. It is against the Boonat way of life to use violence of any sort. However, as you have shown the Boonat hostility and have humiliated us with your lies and schemes, we will respond in kind.”

Nobody was certain what information the Boonat were citing—whether it was the questioning from the U.N. when the Boonat had first appeared on Earth or the thousands of science-fiction novels and movies about aliens—but that didn’t seem to matter. China declared war on the United States, the United States retaliated against China, the Boonat attacked indiscriminately, and the nations of the world returned fire. In the span of a few short days, the whole planet was engulfed in war.

A year later the fighting was still raging, during which time Colin had been drafted into the army, forced to fight against the Chinese and the Boonat, had gone AWOL, and had found an isolated hippie commune in North Dakota where he could hide and wait for the day the war would end or humanity would be annihilated, Colin was never sure which would happen first or which one he hoped for more.

And then one day, while Colin was out looking for herbs to add to that night’s meal at the commune, a small Boonat scout ship appeared in the sky and scooped him up, grabbing his jacket with mechanical arms and throwing him in the cargo hold. Colin had been frightened senseless, until the hatch to the main deck opened and Ynarl stood before him, wearing the same beige dress she had worn when they first met.

Colin’s spirit lifted immediately upon seeing Ynarl. Shouting her name, Colin jumped out of the cargo hold and pulled her into a deep hug. Ynarl hugged him back, and then led him to the deck window. Looking out the window, Colin could see all of the Earth spread before him. “Look at it, Colin. It is just like you always wanted to see,” Ynarl said, gesturing at the swirl of green, white and blue. “You told me you always wanted to see Earth from space.”

Yeah, but that still begs the question, Colin thought. “Why did you bring me here, Ynarl? Please, tell me the truth.”

Ynarl just shook her head. “The truth,” she said. “Who can tell what the truth is and what is deception these days?”

“Please, don’t get philosophical on me,” said Colin. “Really Ynarl, what are you doing? I’m glad to see you, don’t get me wrong, but if someone finds out you picked me up—”

“No one is going to find out,” said Ynarl firmly. “I have a plan in mind. I have enough fuel on this ship to achieve speeds sufficient enough to let us reach the nearest life-sustaining planet within a month.”

Colin stared disbelievingly at Ynarl. “The nearest life-sustaining planet?” he repeated. “What for?”

“The Boonat have a tradition,” Ynarl explained. “Before we leave a planet to look for a new one, we allow those of us who have become attached to a planet to live there and start a new population. I know of a planet, the inhabitants of which call it Shunmi, in the Sagittarius loop of the galaxy. The planet cannot only sustain Boonat and Shunmiites, but Earthlings as well. If we can go there and explain everything to the local population, I am sure we can—”

“But what about you?” Colin interrupted, struggling to take all this information in. “It’s a great plan and all, but what about you, Ynarl? Are you really okay leaving everything you know just to save some human? And what about Earth? Can we really abandon everyone and everything just because we want to save our friendship?”

Ynarl shook her head. “I have been thinking lately,” she said. “And the conclusion I have reached is this: for some time now I have been disgusted with my people. Yes, I am disgusted with my own people. They have lost their warmth and kindness; all that is left is their hate and anger. I do not want to be with them, when all they can think of is the so-called treacherous humans and all I can think of is the one human who was kind to me.

“And as for the Earth,” said Ynarl, looking out the window. “I could not stand it, to tell you the truth. I hated it and the dirty air, the congested cities, the war and the pollution. The only things that I enjoyed about it were the places that were pure nature… and you, Colin.” Ynarl looked at Colin and Colin felt himself blushing.

“So really, it is all up to you,” said Ynarl. “Say the word and I will drop you back off in North Dakota. I will fly away and we will never see each other again. But if you want to… if you want to, all I’d have to do is press a few buttons and then we would not be able to see Earth by the end of the day. We could make a home on a new planet, where the people are friendly and are far removed from the conflict of Earth. It is your choice.” Ynarl looked at Colin expectantly, waiting for his answer.

Colin avoided Ynarl’s gaze and looked out the window. Below him was the Earth, Colin’s Earth, the only world he had ever known. Colin put his hand on the glass, tracing his fingers along the edge of the globe as if caressing it. Yes, he wanted to be with Ynarl. She was the best friend he had ever had. But this was Earth they were talking about. Could he really leave it?

And then the answer seemed strangely clear to him. Colin let his arm fall to his side, turned back to Ynarl, and took a deep breath. “Let’s leave,” he said. “Go to this planet of yours.”

Ynarl nodded her head and went to a control console in the middle of the deck. She sat down, pressed a few buttons on a touch-screen computer, and the ship roared to life. Within moments the Earth was getting smaller and smaller, the details becoming vague and melting together. Ynarl joined Colin back at the deck window and watched with him as the planet receded in the distance. Colin took Ynarl’s hand and squeezed it.

Colin had nothing left on the planet. His family was probably dead, any friends he had were very anti-Boonat, and the people at the commune came and went with no one noticing or caring. Really, all he was leaving behind was a bunch of heartbreak.

Still, leaving Earth behind was difficult; after all, Colin had lived there for twenty years of his life. As if reading his thoughts, Ynarl said, “Don’t worry, we are together. We can do anything when we are together.” Colin nodded his head in agreement and watched as Mars came into view.

 

Unlikely Portal

by Charles K. Carpenter

 

Crawling up onto the roof to fix the swamp-cooler is not on John’s list of favorite ways to waste a weekend, but he has promised his wife, Janet, he will have the repairs made before the real heat of June turns their house into an unbearable oven. And, of course, a promise is a promise, even though at the time he was just trying to get her to cut him some slack and let the problem lie for a while. How could he know the temperature was going to jump up into the nineties almost overnight, or that she would be so quick to leave for her mother’s place until the repairs were made. It’s unsettling just how fast those two things came together simultaneously. And very vexing.

Having brought his tools out of the garage at first light, he leans the ladder against the house to carry up everything he thinks he’ll need for the job, setting it on the roof near the alien-looking swamp-cooler unit. He isn’t all that certain what type of repairs he is going to make, but he can start by removing the mounting bolts from the four legs and tilting up one side, holding it there with the board he has brought up for that purpose. Having it tilted up that way, he will be able to see the plumbing, electrical wires, and the drain pipes, most of which hide inside the large, tin duct that connects the cooler to the ceiling vent down in the hallway. It’s a plan. A good one, he thinks. At least, until he drops a wrench down into the duct and tries to reach for it. Then things go from bad to worse.

Bent over the hole of the duct, he’s about as far inside it as he dares to go when he begins to slide slowly down the slick slope of the metal vent. Trying to stop his descent by pushing his arms out to his sides, he only succeeds in getting them ripped to shreds as his flesh comes into contact with the numerous metal screws that have been twisted into the tin to hold the pieces of duct together. As his uncontrollable slide gathers more speed, and before he has completely slid inside the hole, his feet come over the edge of the roof to knock the board out from under the cooler and cause it to slam down in place just missing his ankles. The next second he hits the ceiling vent down in the hallway and rams right through it, knocking it to the floor as he shoots from the vent, hits the wall, and crumbles to the floor.

In some form of shock, he lies there in the dark trying to understand what has happened, and also, how he avoided breaking his neck. Above and beyond all this, he begins to sense something is wrong. It takes him a few seconds, but he finally realizes what it is—it’s dark inside the house. Wondering how this can be, since it is morning, the sun should be streaming in through the windows. He hasn’t been knocked out for any length of time. At least he doesn’t think he has. And besides, he can still feel trickles of fresh blood running down his arms from his tiny, long-drawn-out wounds. No, something else is wrong here. As he ponders this, he begins to hear hushed voices coming down the hall from his bedroom. That’s right. His bedroom.

Wondering if he should run to or from the bedroom, instinct takes over for thought, and he knows he has to hide. Someone is in his house, and soon lights will be coming on. With panic as a helper, he struggles to a standing position and moves towards the stairs that will take him down to the lower floor of the split-level house and into the garage. As he leaves the landing, a strong beam of light flashes down the hallway behind him, and in his mind’s eye, he pictures a big guy standing there in his shorts, a flashlight in one hand and a baseball bat in the other.

Gaining the garage, he makes his way to the man-door that had been left open, but is now locked. Fumbling with the lock, he pulls the door open to the dark of the back yard and runs around the corner to the front of the house. Lights inside the house are flashing on behind him as he reaches the street, and he knows whoever is in the house will be calling the police.

But why? This house is mine, not theirs. Mine!

In the dim light of the corner street light, John turns back to the street to see something he has never seen before, and stops to squat down, running his hand over its cool, slick finish in wonderment. It’s a rail similar to those trains ride on, but not so large nor wide. A pair of them are running down his street. He takes a moment to glance around and finds to his amazement that each driveway has a set of rails running up its length to the garage. Even his! He runs a hand over his forehead which has begun to hurt. Trying to rationalize all this away, he wonders if the city has been secretly installing these rails while everyone is at work, and if they are going to make them convert their vehicles to the rails so they can keep track of them. He doesn’t know. He can’t even guess.

Standing, he notices with some alarm that the porch lights of every house on the street are coming on in a uniform pattern, starting down at the end of the street where the street T’s and coming back towards the cul-de-sac and his home. This can’t be good. Soon he will be spotlighted there in the middle of the street like an escapee in a prison movie. Deciding to hide, he runs towards the closest house sporting excessive greenery around it. If he can get beneath a large evergreen, he’ll be hidden from view.

After hiding himself, he sees with some concern that all the porch lights are now on, and people in robes and slippers are coming out of their homes to stand on the sidewalk near the curb. He has no idea what is going on, but is fascinated by the uniformity of it all—everyone doing the same thing at the same time.

The front door to the house he’s hiding in front of opens, and an older couple comes out onto their porch to look around. He begins to sweat. If they look to their right they’ll see him for sure. He begins to inch his way back into deeper cover. As he does so, he spies a rolled up newspaper the paperboy has thrown to the side of the porch. He stops sliding back when he sees something that brings on fear and astonishment. The date on the paper is June 19, 2042.

A loud humming sound coming up the street catches his attention as the older couple leave their porch and walk towards the sidewalk. Pulling the spider webs from his sweaty face, he adjusts his position so he can see more. A large, shiny globe about the size of a basketball is advancing towards the cul-de-sac, riding the air ten feet above the ground. The humming sound intensifies as it comes closer, and he hears a beeping in the background every time the two red, eye-like lights flash. This thing seems to be searching for something, and it doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to realize it searches for him.

Watching it move around the turn-around, he sees the two people from his house have also come to stand near the street like everyone else. Frowning in thought, he thinks this coming out must be a common practice. What its purpose is, he doesn’t know. But it’s weird.

A louder beep from the globe sounds off as if to draw attention, and is followed by a computerized voice saying, “Alert! There is an unregistered humanoid in your area that has not yet been located. Please move to the left side of the street and follow me down to the intersection so this area can be searched more fully.”

Watching the globe come full circle and start off down the street towards the intersection, John realizes this has to be the time to move, and does so by crawling out from under the shrubs and running towards his house. He believes he’ll make it if the silver globe doesn’t see him and shoot some kind of paralyzing ray his way. He glances back over his shoulder as he runs and sees the globe is still leading the people down the street. He begins to feel lucky and wants to cry out in joy. But, of course, he doesn’t. This nightmare is still a reality.

Slamming the door closed behind him, he twists the lock and dashes up the stairs to the kitchen. Removing a stool from the island, he hurries to pick up his wrench and kick the vent out of the way so he can set the stool beneath the hole in the ceiling. It’s not high enough. He has to get another from the island. Setting it on top of the first one, he begins to crawl up his makeshift ladder and finds the climb precarious; each stool wanting to go its own way Finally getting the height he needs to crawl back into the vent, he hears someone pounding hard fists on the front door, wanting in.

Trying not to panic, he jumps up and begins to pull himself inside the vent. He can feel the flesh on his fingertips being ripped anew by the sharp, wicked end of the penetrating screws, but pays the severe pain little heed. He has to make it to the roof on this first try. Something inside tells him he’s not going to get a second chance.

Once high enough so he can use his feet, he pushes up with them as his tortured hands claw their way towards the top. For the first time he can see sunlight streaming in around the cooler, and it occurs to him he has just left the dark of night. Bumping his head on the bottom of the unit, he braces his feet against the sides of the vent and slides the cooler to the side of the hole. Blinded momentarily by the bright sunlight, he crawls out onto the warming shingles to lie there for a second or two, the cool breeze caressing his sweaty face and body as though welcoming him back. Again he feels like weeping for joy, but there is no time for that. He has to slide the cooler back over the hole and fasten it in place. Slipping the washers and nuts onto the mounting bolts, he begins to tighten them to make the unit immobile.

The urge to weep comes upon him once again when he is finished, but he won’t give way to his feelings. Not now. There’s still one last thing he has to do. Picking up his wrench, he wipes the blood from it onto his shredded shirt front. Glancing at his arms and legs as he works, he sees his blood has stained his jeans and is still oozing from his arm wounds. Standing, he’s hit by dizziness and has to wait until it passes. From where he stands, he can see the street, and is more than happy not to find a floating globe or slot-car rails imbedded in the street.

Long-held tears of joy blur his eyes as he moves towards the ladder, but he hardly notices. He has to get back into the house and do the one thing that will make this nightmare go away forever.

Stepping into the kitchen, he pulls the phone book from a drawer, looks up a number, and with a bloody finger punches it out. Someone answers, saying, “Good morning. Clayton’s Heating and Cooling.”

“Help me,” John says in a feeble voice. “I really need a repairman to come out and see what’s wrong with my cooler.”

“We’ll be happy to come right out, sir. Give me your address, please.”

John relays the information while wiping the perspiration from his forehead onto the back of his arm.

“Oh, I see on the computer we’ve been out there once before. Ah, a couple of years ago.”

“We didn’t own the place then. We just bought it last year.”

“I see. Well, it won’t be the same repairman, anyway. He up and quit right after he finished that job.”

“He quit?”

“Yes. Just up and disappeared on us altogether.”

“But—”

“We’ll be out within the hour, sir. You’ll be there?”

“I hope so,” John says, eyeing the vent grille lying on the floor of the hallway.

 

The Sleep Diet

by Ronald Van Sant

 

Doctor Callenger sat at his desk, watching the online news broadcast while he fondled his father’s World War II forty-five automatic pistol. The world was going to hell. Shit, the world had been going to hell since the fifties. There was no way they could blame it on him. The pile of reports, however, was irrefutable. It was all his fault.

The reporter spoke from behind a wall of riot police in New York. People were killing their fellow humans, just as they had been doing in London for the past five hours. The rioters had killed fifty-eight in New York, hundreds more in London. Both were cities where his diet clinics had large clienteles. Within hours, he expected the same trouble to break out in his city, Dallas, and then finally Los Angeles. He put the freshly loaded clip into the ancient gun.

A rapping on his office door saved him from his dark reverie. At that moment, however, he didn’t want company. “Go away!” The physician ordered, but the pounding grew more insistent. Doctor Callenger placed the pistol into his desk drawer, rose unwillingly to his feet, crossed the office, and unlocked his door.

“It’s you,” he said. “Come in if you must.”

“You’re in a mood.” The night nurse replied. “The patients have received their evening meds. It should have them sleeping soundly soon.”

“OK.” He closed the door, opening it again instantly. “Nancy?”

“Yes?” she asked.

“Tell Dailey I would like to speak with him.”

“Yes, doctor.” She turned and walked down the long hall, lined with doors to the patients’ rooms. It was his clinic, his treatment and he was proud of it. He discovered a way for the overweight to shed pounds harmlessly while they slept. It would have replaced liposuction. Mr. Daily, his research assistant, walked down the hall toward him.

“What’s up?”

“Come into my office please.” The doctor allowed the younger man to pass and then closed the door behind him. “Have you seen the news?”

“Yeah, the world’s gone a bit crazy.” Mr. Dailey had been on the floor, but had caught bits and pieces of news from the clinic’s patients; enough to know there were riots in New York.

“There are people dying, I don’t think ‘a bit crazy’ covers it.” Doctor Callenger moved back to his seat.

“Sorry sir, I was trying to lighten the mood.”

“Well, don’t.” The doctor leaned back in his chair. “I suppose you’ve heard about Rachelle Taylor?”

“The actress? Yes, it’s tragic.” The young research assistant couldn’t have avoided the story. The story broke that morning and was blanketing the news stations. Her pregnancy had been fodder for talk shows. She was a wild woman who partied to excess and no one seriously thought she would be a good mother, but no one could have predicted that she would awaken in the middle of the night and eat her own infant.

“She was your patient.”

“Yes, but you can’t be implying this is our fault. The woman had post-partum depression.” Mr. Daily took the seat before the physician’s desk.

“I discharged her yesterday, after her course of treatment was over.” The doctor said.

“Yes, and if I recall correctly it was a complete success. The patient lost over twenty pounds in five days.”

“Do you recall the side effects of our initial treatments?” The doctor looked at the young man intently.

“Yes, abdominal cramps and intense cravings for meat and particularly fat. Mixing the lipophagic virus treatments with sedatives alleviated those symptoms. Now the patients sleep through the night when the symptoms are the worst.”

“That was a very good idea you had. Losing weight while you sleep is our best selling point.”

“It wasn’t just my idea sir, you were the one to genetically engineer the virus that ate fat cells and passed the byproducts out through the urine. That was the real stroke of brilliance.” The researcher was gratified at such praise, but he felt it was best to show some humility.

“Don’t be so modest; learn to take credit for your accomplishments. That’s how we make a name in this field. I will personally see to it you get full credit for this breakthrough.”

“Thank you, doctor.” Such a credit on his record could make his career. He could just about choose any university in the world for his doctoral studies, any project he wished to pursue.

“Back to the Rachelle Taylor case. We released her from the clinic yesterday at eleven AM and at approximately midnight she ate her child, just tore into him with her teeth. You don’t see a connection?”

“She was diagnosed with depression. Who knows what could have set her off? Nothing to do with us.” The researcher didn’t feel like it was his place to defend the clinic from its head physician. “You don’t think there will be a law suit?”

“It would be difficult to prove. However, there is one point of concern. She was still asleep when she did it.”

“Pardon?”

“She was sleepwalking,” the doctor said. “Her subconscious was in control.”

“Even if that were true, it still couldn’t have been the result of the treatment. The final stage of the treatment was to inject the patient with the antivirus and kill it. I gave her the injection myself the day before we released her. The virus was dead and the sedatives wore off long before we released her.”

“I don’t think so.” The doctor pushed the file toward his young protégée. “Read. There have been similar cases in our London and New York clinics.”

The research assistant opened the file and looked it over. “The virus adapted, mutated. The antiviral serum didn’t kill it?”

“The sedatives put the conscious mind to sleep while the virus ate the fat away; the patients’ bodies craved the lost fat. The subconscious took over—driving the patients to look for what they needed. They sleepwalk. And in Mrs. Taylor’s case the virus drove her to consume the nearest source of meat and fat, her son.”

“That’s not possible.”

“People have driven cars while asleep, and some have even cooked food and eaten while under the influence of sleep medications.” Callenger said. “There have been other incidents. Most cases have been simple assaults. The patient awoke, unaware of their actions.”

“You’re serious.” Daily could feel his newfound career faltering with each word his mentor spoke.

“The mutation went unnoticed and a batch was sent to all the clinics. They started using the new serum today.” The doctor picked up the television remote and turned up the news. The newswoman was reporting that the rioters appeared to be in a murderous trance, attacking and attempting to eat whoever they met.

“Dear god, no.” The researcher felt the enormity of the situation fall on him, he wanted to vomit. “We’ve treated and released over a hundred patients worldwide. What about them? We have to stop the treatments immediately.”

“It’s too late for that.” The doctor said. “The virus’ mutation was more radical than just immunity to the antiviral treatment, it’s gone airborne. Our patients became carriers, spreading the virus to all the general populace. Don’t you think it’s a bit coincidental that all these riots have been breaking out in cities where we have clinics? And that they start in the middle of the night?”

“I didn’t make the connection.”

“I did.” Doctor Callenger raised his hand and took back the file.

“What do we do?”

“Drink lots of coffee to stay awake.” The physician said. “We’re both probably exposed.”

“The antiviral won’t work?”

“No. When we go to sleep tonight there is a chance we’ll go into the same kind of feeding frenzy.”

The researcher thought of the patients in the rooms down the hall. “What about them?”

“Soon the virus will cause the sleeping patients to rise and engage in cannibalistic attacks,” the doctor said.

“Aren’t you going to do something?” the researcher asked.

Doctor Callenger reached into his desk and pulled out the newly loaded gun. “Yes.”

“You can’t mean to kill them.” Part of the young researcher wanted him to do it, before they infected him even further. “They’re your patients for christ’s sake.”

“Killing patients wasn’t my intention.” The doctor stood up as sounds of smashing equipment merged with the terror-filled, and soon silenced, scream of the night nurse echoing down the hall. “It begins.”

“Nancy!” Dailey ran into the hall as Doctor Callenger moved to the door as his assistant pushed the blood-soaked bodies of his sleepwalking patients aside to get to the nurse. Once he cleared them away, the doctor could see blood still gushing from her ripped throat. He shut and locked the door and walked back to his desk.

“They killed her!” Dailey shouted from behind the door. “Let me in!”

“Go away!” The doctor pulled his briefcase out from below his desk.

“What?” Daily cried. “They’re coming.”

“Then run, you fool.” The doctor pulled out a pile of files and replaced the ones on the desk. You’ll get the credit you deserve. 

“You’re insane,” the assistant pounded on the door.

“No. Thanks to you, however, I’m going to become extremely wealthy.” Doctor Callenger put the new files into the cabinet. “This plague will spread, carried on the wind. The overweight people of the world will lose those pesky inches they’ve long struggled with. Then they will go to sleep and awaken and seek out the only readily available source of human fat available to them, other people. It’ll be horrible, and I’ll have the only cure.”

“No.” The young researcher screamed. “Help me, let me in. They’re coming.” Outside the door, he could hear the growing groans of hunger that emanated from his patients and the wail of pain and terror from his research assistant as they tore his flesh apart with fingernails and teeth.

The doctor retrieved the file and virus samples. In his hands, he held the only samples of the improved retrovirus. The files he left behind meticulously documented the project research. They detailed how the sample was inadvertently corrupted by an overly ambitious research assistant who died, ironically enough, at the hands, or more accurately teeth, of his victims. Yes, he would indeed give the credit for the discovery to his dead protégée while he himself kept the credit for discovering its cure. The scientific community would soon be praising him as the next Curie.

Sleepwalking patients began to bang on the office door, moaning in primal hunger. The doctor put the files into his briefcase and grabbed his pistol. Although he couldn’t see them, he fired several shots through the door until he heard a body drop. That would give the cannibalistic monsters something to snack upon while he made his way out the window.

Old bones creaked as the physician twisted his body and dropped to the grassy lawn. He grabbed his case and moved nonchalantly toward his car in the parking lot a few dozen yards away. His gray Mercedes waited for him under a streetlight. The doctor, intent on making a clean getaway, failed to notice the lumbering, groaning, blood-soaked mob that came around the building until it was too late.

Reaching into his frock pocket, Doctor Callenger pulled out his father’s gun and emptied the pistol into the crowd. The noise from the weapon failed to awaken the sleepers, the virus was too strong. Two fell, but the group continued toward him unimpeded. They continued toward the physician, intent on live flesh. None of the victims were his patients, apparently the virus had spread more rapidly than he could have imagined. He turned and ran toward the clinic. They were on him in seconds.

“No! Stop! I’m a doctor. I can help you…” He screamed as the teeth tore into his arms, legs and finally his neck causing his blood to spray across the clinic entryway. When the sleepers finished eating, they went back toward the main strip to find more animal fat, intent on easing the insatiable cravings.