Looking for Work?

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

Phil looked at the classified ad for the thousandth time.

“Looking for a new job filled with excitement and eye-opening experiences?” it asked. “Come to 1329 Home Ave. at 3:00 pm on Monday for open interviews.”

Ordinarily, Phil wouldn’t have answered something so vague, but he was reaching the point of desperation. There were bills that needed to be paid and food that needed to be bought. If there had been anything else in the paper that seemed even remotely promising, he wouldn’t have gone.

But there hadn’t been, so he found himself parked in front of 1329 Home Ave. at a few minutes past 3:00 wearing a shirt and tie he’d bought over the weekend. He’d even polished his shoes that afternoon in order to make a good impression. As he looked out his windshield at the front of the building, though, he wondered why he’d bothered.

When Phil thought about what a business was supposed to look like, many things came to mind. Shop fronts, offices filled with cubicles, and even restaurants. In his mind they all had exteriors that, if not new, were at least professional looking. This place did not qualify.

He was parked in the gravel driveway of the building. The gravel driveway that was also an alley. The cracked, brick sides of the two neighboring structures loomed over him, blanketing everything in shadow. At the far end of the alley was an old, monkey-shit brown Buick. It was parked at the foot of a metal staircase that, like the Buick, was spotted with the reddish tint of rust. The stairs were connected to a deck that overlooked the alley, but he couldn’t see anything past that. All in all, though, he didn’t have a good feeling about this interview.

“What am I doing?” he asked the air. “Do I really need a job this bad?”

Yes, he thought. I do.

He climbed the staircase, taking each step with hesitant caution. The metal groaned, bowing with his weight. When he finally reached the top, he breathed a sigh of relief. As he looked around, he wondered again why he’d bothered. There were piles of junk strewn across the weathered deck, and Phil couldn’t help thinking he’d walked into a particularly frightening episode of Sanford and Son. There were chairs with no seats, a tired-looking old oven, and several hunks of metal he couldn’t identify. The more he looked around, the more he suspected the ad had been a misprint.

I’m here, he thought. I might as well talk to someone. If it ‘s the wrong place, it’s the wrong place, right? What’s the worst that can happen?

He’d heard a story once about a serial killer that used classified ads to trick people into coming to his home. Images of being bound and gagged by a greasy-shirted maniac flashed through his mind, but he squashed them. He really needed money.

There was a door a few feet away from the top of the stairs, and Phil made his way to it through the piles of junk. The screen door opened with a startling screech, and he knocked on the door. He waited. A minute went by. He knocked again.

“Oh, fuck this,” he said.

As he turned to leave, the door swung in, causing Phil to jump. Looking out from the darkened doorway was a very angry man.

“What the fuck do you want?”

The man looked as though he’d just woken up. His eyes were red and there was a red mark along the left side of his face. He wore a white t-shirt and a pair of faded camouflage pants, both of which were beyond wrinkled. His head was shaved, but there was a good deal of stubble covering his face and scalp, suggesting it had been a few days since either had seen a razor. It was difficult to tell, but Phil thought the man was in his mid-forties.

“I… uh… I mean…” Phil stammered, trying to find the words to explain himself.

“I said what the fuck do you want? You better have a good excuse for waking a man up so early.”

Phil looked at his watch again. It was now 3:15.

“Sorry, I think I have the wrong place. I was answering an ad I found in the paper.”

The man looked him up and down, letting his eyes linger on Phil’s tie before saying: “You’re here about the ad?”

“Yeah, about the job. Like I said, I think I have the wrong place. Sorry to have bothered you.” Phil turned to leave, but the man stopped him.

“No. You’ve got the right place,” he said.

Confused, but strangely interested, Phil decided to stick around for a minute. He looked around at the piles of junk again. There was what looked like the remains of a blender on the mound next to him.

“So, uh, what exactly is it you do?”

“Follow me,” the man said. “I’ll explain inside.”

The man turned and walked into the dark apartment. Phil moved to follow him, but slowly. The situation had started to feel a little more than weird. As he stepped across the threshold, he saw the man sit on a stained couch and light a cigarette.

“Close the door behind you,” he said, exhaling.

Phil checked the room for anyone that might be waiting to jump out and attack him. When he was sure there was no one else there, he shut the door and moved toward the cluttered living room.

Empty pizza boxes were stacked around the cramped apartment. Phil wasn’t sure, but he thought they might be the cause of the strange odor. Then he saw the trashcan. It was overflowing with beer cans, pizza crusts, and what looked like chicken bones. He tried not to disturb the precarious pile, wondering how a person could live in such filth.

“So,” the man said when Phil sat down. “I guess I should ask you a few questions.”

“That’s usually how these things work.” Phil knew sarcasm wasn’t the best tool with which to procure employment, but it was all he had to keep from running out of the room.

“First, what’s your name?”

“Phillip Martin. You can call me Phil.”

“All right, Phil. You religious?”

“What? I didn’t think you could ask that sort of thing in an interview.”

“Yeah, well, this isn’t a normal job. Besides, it won’t affect whether you get the job or not. I’m just trying to find out what kind of person you are.”

“All right then, no. I’m not particularly religious.”

“Good. What about education?”

“I finished high school in the top ten percent of my class, and I have some college experience. I didn’t finish, though.”

“That’s all right, you don’t need a degree. Out of curiosity, though, what did you study?”

“Philosophy, mainly. I did take a few classes on mythology and religious studies, though.”

“I thought you weren’t religious?”

“I’m not, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t interest me.”

“That’s good. Curiosity is good in this line of work. The mythology might help out, too. When would you be able to start?”

“Immediately, I guess. Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Go ahead.”

“Thanks.” Phil took a cigarette from the pack in his pocket and lit it. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Not at all.”

“I guess it’s just one question, really. I mean, I still don’t know anything about this job. The ad was pretty vague. What exactly would I be doing?”

“It’s a difficult job to explain,” the man said, taking another drag from his cigarette. “It’s easier to show than to tell. Know what I mean?”

“I think so. It would be nice if you could give me some sort of idea, though.”

“Well, if you get the job, you’ll be working with me as a sort of Park Ranger, but for everywhere.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe Animal Control would be a better comparison. We’ll patrol the area and make sure there’s nothing running loose that shouldn’t be.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“Like I said, man, it’s easier to just show you. I’ll tell you what,” the man looked at his watch. “It’s almost four now. I was going to leave for patrol tonight at sundown, which should be around seven or so. If you want, why don’t you come back this evening and ride out with me? That’ll give you a hands-on feel for it, and you can decide if you like it or not.”

“I don’t know, man.” Phil stood to leave.

“Wait, I know I’m being pretty vague, but like I said it’s hard to explain. If you ride out with me tonight, though, you’ll know exactly what the job will be like. I’ll pay you ten dollars an hour, too. If you get out there and decide you don’t like it, I’ll bring you back to your car and still pay you for the night.”

“I don’t know. I have to think about it.”

“That’s all I can ask. Like I said, I’m leaving at around seven. If you’re not here by fifteen after, I’ll know you’re not coming.”

The man stood and offered his hand. Phil took it tentatively and then headed for the door. When he was halfway out, he stopped.

“Wait, I never got your name, man.”

“Oh, sorry. Name’s Hal. Hal Jorgenson.”

* * * * *

Phil pulled back into the alley that served as Hal’s driveway at five minutes till seven. He parked beside the Buick and wondered what the hell he was thinking.

I have to be crazy, he thought. Either that or dead fucking broke. As he killed the engine of his truck, he decided it had to be a bit of both. It can’t be that bad. I’ll ride around with him for a few hours tonight, and at the end I’ll at least have enough money to buy a few groceries.

Still, as Hal appeared at the bottom of the stairs dressed in almost the same thing he’d been wearing earlier with two over-stuffed backpacks, Phil wondered again what he was doing. He waved to Hal as he got out of his truck.

“I’m surprised you came back,” Hal said as he threw the backpacks into the Buick’s back seat.

“I am, too,” Phil said, trying to smile.

“I’m glad to see you changed,” Hal said. “That tie wouldn’t’ve worked very well where we’re going.”

“Where, exactly, is that?”

“Millennium Park. I’ve been tracking one for the past few nights. That’s where the trail ends.”

“Tracking one what?”

“I’ll explain on the way. You ready?”

In answer, Phil opened the passenger door and climbed into the old Buick. When they were on the road a few minutes later, Hal lit a cigarette and turned the radio down.

“You believe in ghosts?”

Phil looked away from the window, a little surprised at the question.

“I guess, yeah.”

“Ever seen one?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so. I’ve seen some weird shit in my life, but never a ghost.”

“What have you seen?”

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Try me.”

“All right. When I was, I don’t know, twelve, maybe, I was riding in the backseat of my mom’s car on the way to school. It was about three in the morning, but I was in the band, and we were taking a ‘band-trip’ to King’s Island. What a theme park had to do with the band I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter anyway. On the way there, I was looking out the window and I happened to see a… well, I don’t know what it was. It was sort of man-like, but it was big. And white. I remember that like it was yesterday. It seemed like it was glowing as it went through the street lights. Anyway, it was moving in the opposite direction as us, and it was using its arms to run, sort of like a gorilla or something. I tried to get my mom to look, but by the time she did it had already run over the hill and out of sight. I still don’t know what it was. Could’ve been a dog or something, I guess. It still sort of freaks me out to think about.”

“Do you remember if there was a full moon?”

Phil laughed. “What? You think it was a werewolf or something?”

“Maybe. Never heard of them being white before, but I’ve seen stranger things. Could’ve been an albino.”

I’m in the car with a crazy person.

“You believe in werewolves?” Phil asked, lighting a cigarette. He cracked his window to let the smoke escape.

“Don’t you?”

“Not since I was a kid, man. Ghosts are one thing. I can see how someone could leave an imprint of themselves in a place or something when they die, but werewolves? That’s like believing in vampires.”

Hal took a drag off his cigarette, but said nothing. After a few minutes of riding in silence, Phil turned the radio back up. “Gallows Pole” by Led Zeppelin was playing. Phil tried not to think about the strange man next to him, hoping that the night would hurry and be over so he could get his money and go home, but Hal turned the radio back down.

“Look,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of other people ride out with me before. They didn’t work out. I think I told some of them too much at the outset, others just couldn’t hack it. I have a good feeling about you, though, so I want to be up front. There’re things in this world that people have convinced themselves aren’t real. Like ghosts and werewolves for example. But just because we don’t believe in them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

“Wait a minute…”

“Let me finish. If it turns out that you aren’t into this job, fine. But I don’t want you making up your mind before you know the truth. These creatures, entities, whatever, that our society has decided aren’t real; they’re all around us, all the time. Humans are damn good at tricking themselves, though. Even if met head on by one of these things, most people will swear they didn’t see it or that they saw something else entirely. For the sake of most people’s sanity, this is probably a good thing. But in this line of work, you have to have an open mind. All I’m asking of you right now is that you keep an open mind. Can you do that?”

“How much are you paying me again?”

Hal smiled sardonically. “Ten an hour.”

“Well then, if all you’re paying me for is to keep an open mind, I guess the least I can do is give it my best shot.”

“I guess that’s good enough.”

Hal turned the radio back up. “Swinging on the gallows pole; swinging on the gallows po-oh-ole.” Robert Plant’s wail carried them through the next few minutes until Hal pulled to the side of the road.

“Here we are,” he said, turning off the car.

“I thought the park entrance was up further?”

“It is. We’re not going through the entrance, though. This is where I found the trail, and I’m going to follow it. Here,” Hal handed a sheathed knife to Phil. It was the length of his forearm. “Hang on to this. You might need it.”

Phil was about to say something, but Hal was out of the car and lugging the bags out of the backseat before he could. Shaking his head, Phil undid his belt and ran it through the sheath’s belt loop. He didn’t know why he would need a knife, especially such a large one, but at least he was armed. If Hal was really crazy and wanted to hurt him, at least he’d have something to defend himself with. He couldn’t think why a man that wanted to hurt him would give him a weapon, though.

Phil pulled one of the backpacks on and watched while Hal pulled a large, black case out of the trunk.

“What is all this stuff?”

“Tools,” Hal said. “We probably won’t need all of it, but it’s better to be prepared.”

“A regular boy scout, huh?”

“Something like that.”

They jumped the ditch and made their way into the trees. The ground was thick with leaves, and Phil had a hard time keeping up with Hal’s pace. He moved through the trees like someone that had spent more of his life out in nature than inside, barely making any noise. Phil, on the other hand, was making enough noise to more than make up for Hal’s silence.

After close to half an hour of trudging through the forest, a howl in the not far distance caused Hal to stop. He looked around for a moment, as though trying to determine the direction from which it came, and then set off again. Phil, trying not to lose him in the darkness, caught his foot on a hidden root and fell face first onto the ground. He pulled himself back up, cussing, but Hal was gone.

As he turned around, looking for his companion, Phil became aware of how quiet it was. There were no birds chirping; not even the wind made a sound.

“Hal?” he called, his voice jarring in the silence. “Where are you?”

A hand gripped his shoulder from behind, and he whirled around. Hal held his finger before his mouth, signaling for Phil to be quiet.

“It’s not far,” he whispered. “Try to stay quiet.”

Hal turned, leading them deeper into the trees. Phil followed, making as little sound as possible. After several minutes, Hal stopped and pulled his backpack from his shoulders. He set it on the ground and opened it, rummaging until he found what he was looking for. “Here,” he whispered, holding something out.

The object was heavier than its size would suggest. Phil realized after a moment that it was a set of binoculars.

“Those are night vision and very expensive,” Hal said. “Be careful.”

“What am I supposed to do with them?”

“Look through them. Over there,” he pointed toward what looked to be a clearing a few hundred yards down the hill. “Tell me what you see.”

Phil looked through the binoculars, not sure what he was supposed to be looking for. He scanned back and forth a few times, but there was nothing.

“I don’t see anything,” he said. “Wait. Is that… I think I see a dog.”

“What kind of dog?”

“I don’t know. A rottweiler; maybe a mastiff. Shit, I don’t know. It’s big.”

“I bet it is. Look at its legs. See anything weird?”

“Not really. It’s just scratching its back against a tree.”

The dog reared back its head and howled. A shiver ran up Phil’s spine.

“What about its legs?” Hal asked. “The legs always give them away.”

“What are you talking about?”

Phil lowered the binoculars. A new wave of fright coursed through him. Hal was holding a rifle. Before Phil could say anything, Hal turned and pointed it toward the dog.

“What are you doing, man?”

“Are you sure you don’t see what I’m talking about?”

Phil raised the binoculars to his eyes again, but all he saw was a large dog. It was rolling around on the ground now. Its legs did seem a bit longer than normal, but he couldn’t see anything particularly odd about them.

“Watch,” Hal said.

“You can’t fire that thing in the park,” Phil said. “And I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to kill an animal, too. You can’t just…”

Hal pulled the trigger; the shot echoed through the trees. A second later, Phil heard a growl followed by a high-pitched wail. Hal fired again; the dog fell silent.

“There,” Hal said. “I got it.”

“You’re fucking crazy man. What the hell are you thinking? I can’t believe you just…”

“Shut up and come with me. I’ll show you.”

“I don’t want to see a dead dog, man. I can’t believe…”

Hal grabbed Phil by the shoulders. “Calm down. Just walk over here with me. I told you it’s easier to see for yourself than to have someone tell you, didn’t I?”

Still in shock, but somewhat afraid Hal would shoot him if he didn’t, Phil followed him down to the clearing. As they got closer, Phil could hear a whimpering, but it didn’t sound like a dog anymore. The closer they got, the more Phil thought the whining sounded human.

“What’s going on,” he asked, but Hal ignored him.

They entered the clearing, but the dog was gone. In the exact same place where Phil had seen it rolling around before, though, was a man. He was naked and bleeding.

“See what I was telling you now?”

“What the fuck have we done?”

Phil followed Hal over to the body, overcome with panic. The dying man looked up at them, blood covering his face. Phil couldn’t believe his eyes. The man was smiling.

“Thank you,” the man said, coughing up blood. “Thank you so much. I… I…” he coughed again. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he died.

“So,” Hal said, turning away from the dead man. “You want the job or not?”

 

Chronic Symptoms

by Sean MacKendrick

 

The cold wet mud sucked at Mary’s feet as she trudged towards the doors of the Dog’s Head. Effluvia seeped into the holes of her shoes and squelched between her toes. The hem of her skirt was gathered in a bunch in a failing attempt to keep it out of the sewage. Fever burned in her lungs in sharp contrast to the cold mud.

Leaning against the outside wall, Mary removed her left shoe and began scooping out the mud and filth with her fingers. A young man was watching her from across the street. He shifted his weight from foot to foot and made a move as if to start her way, only to stop and shift again. Mary did her best to smile at him as she cleaned the inside of her shoe. The mud stank of cold urine this close to the tavern. The shoe slipped from her numbing fingers, falling with a soft plop back into the muck. The man watched her, not meeting her eyes, looking ready to take a step. She wouldn’t be able to approach him, he would come to her on his own or not at all. Mary sighed and bent down to pick up her shoe. By the time she put it back on and straightened, he was gone. Just another back running away from her. Mary sighed again, wiping the filth off her hands against the wall.

Evening clouds were already soaking up the last of the daylight when she entered the tavern, dusky and thick with the mixed smells of old ale and human rot. Mary fixed her smile into place and approached the nearest table.

“Enjoying this fine day, gentlemen?” The room suddenly tilted and Mary grabbed the edge of the table for support.

“Yes, fine,” said the older man at the opposite end of the table. The other two men stared into their drinks. “Thank you.”

Mary tried to laugh and choked on a dry cough. “A fine day like this, you’ll want a fine day to…” She swallowed, careful not to wince, and tried again. “You’ll want a fine way to end it, surely?” The man glanced at her hands clutching the table edge, saying nothing.

“Thank you,” he answered finally. “I believe we shall be leaving for home.” His two companions stood without a word and headed towards the door.

“And where is home, love?” Mary smiled more broadly. “Not as close as a short walk upstairs, I wager.”

“No,” said the man. Mary couldn’t understand what he was saying, exactly. Was he interested? Saying, no, he wasn’t going home? No, he was already hurrying away to catch up with his companions. She sat in one of the newly vacant chairs for a moment, trying to catch her breath, feeling the swollen lumps under her arm with one hand, the tenderness under her jaw with the other. When she realized a young man at a nearby table was staring at her, she dropped her hands and jerked up out of the chair. The room tilted again, and Mary found herself steadied by the massive arms of the owner of the Dog’s Head.

“Mary,” Bruce rumbled, shaking his head. She smiled at the broad face frowning down at her, this time the smile coming easily. “I did ask you not to come in tonight.”

“Bruce, my Bruce.” Mary regained her footing and patted his shoulder. “All I needed was a rest. Now, I’d go for another laying down, if there’s any a man would care to join me…” She tried to find the face that had just been watching her, but everyone was carefully looking elsewhere and she couldn’t seem to remember where the man had been sitting, or what his features had been.

Bruce swept her hair aside and glared at her neck, releasing her and stepping away. “By god, Mary, look at yourself.” Mary ran her fingers along her jaw line and chuckled. “I’d rather be looking at the beautiful young man you do have in here this evening.” She spoke loudly. “Young men, I mean.” Still no one else would meet her eyes. Bruce grabbed a polished mug and shoved it into her hands.

“Look at yourself,” he repeated. In the milky reflection she could see the darkness of the lumps even in the dim candlelight. He hissed, “You need to leave immediately or they’ll paint a red cross on my door and shut us all in. You included.”

Mary dropped the mug. “Just a bruise,” she muttered. “Some of the younger ones get a bit rough. I don’t mind.” As Bruce bent to pick up the mug, her legs gave out and Mary fell to her knees. Bruce grabbed her roughly by the shoulders. Her head lolled from front to back.

“Boy!” Mary brought her head upright and placed her hand over Bruce’s. “Find a doctor, boy!” Bruce’s youngest dashed out the door. Mary couldn’t find the strength to thank him. Everything swirled into blackness.

* * * * *

The room she awoke to was little more than a small box with no furnishings beyond the simple pallet she found herself on, a small bench in the corner, and a curtain covering the entrance. In a bowl by the pallet, Mary was grateful to discover water. She tried to sit up and quickly fell back as the bile rose in her throat. She dipped a hand into the bowl and dribbled most of it on herself as she sucked at the moisture on her fingers. It did little to abate the dry fire smoldering in her mouth, but her senses were returning all the same.

As her head cleared a little, she began to remember, and realized she was in one of the rooms above the tavern hall where she so often worked before the Pest returned and scared so many customers away. She scooped another palm’s worth of water into her mouth, managing to get most of it to her mouth this time, and rested a damp hand on her face.

There were thudding footsteps in the corridor. Mary sat up, trying to ignore the sickly way the water sloshed in her stomach and how the room wobbled around her. Bruce swept the curtain aside and stared in, wordless. The forced casual expression on Mary’s face began to falter as he stared, until she realized his eyes must still be adjusting to the darkness.

“You’re awake.” Bruce sounded surprised.

Mary laughed and waved a dismissive gesture. “It was only a nap I needed.” It was impossible to read his expression with the light behind him. “My big strong Bruce, always saving me.”

Bruce mumbled something to the floor and cleared his throat. “I sent the boy to find the doctor. He said one would be by and tend to you today.”

“If you insist.” Mary flopped back on the pallet, trying not to grimace as the sudden motion sent her stomach into a spin. “I do suppose it wouldn’t hurt to have a man look me over.” It didn’t sound quite as lewd as she had hoped. It sounded pathetic.

Bruce stepped back into the hall. “I do. Insist, that is. The doctor will be by soon. Rest until then.” He left Mary to her darkness.

Although sleep came back almost immediately, it was fitful. The sounds of people shouting in the streets gave way to thundering rain, drumming on the roof and gurgling over the eaves to the alley below. Somewhere in the dark room a trickle of rainwater was dripping onto the floor. Mary was startled awake several times by a crash of thunder, unsure how long she had been asleep each time. Had she been here for more than a day? Was there a half-eaten trencher with a scrap of meat waiting beside the bowl of water at one point, or had she only imagined that? Was that hunger in her belly or fever twisting her insides?

And then she awoke to find that the rain had stopped. Mary tried to feel the time of day, wondering if it was in the early hours or very late. No weather or conversation was reaching her any more. She decided it was late. That’s when all the customers would be gone. Bruce would probably be waiting for her to come keep him company as he cleaned.

Yet even in the quiet, she did not hear the slight man enter the room. He was waiting for her when she sat up, watching her from just inside the door.

“You give me quite a start, sir,” Mary said. Her throat was not quite as raw as it had been before sleeping for… however long it had been.

The man was still, and silent except for the sound of his breathing. “Are you Mary?” Even his voice was slight, not much above a whisper.

“Indeed I am.” Mary stood, deciding at the last minute not to try a curtsey, rested or no. “Are you the doctor, then?”

The man nodded after a moment. “Yes,” he said, his voice louder now. “Yes, I’m the doctor. I’m here to make you better.” His accent was curiously flat and carefully enunciated. Mary had never heard one like it before.

“Well then, let’s let you have a look at me, yes?”

The man nodded again. He removed a bag slung over his shoulder and opened it with a loud tearing sound. “You are having fever and swelling, correct?”

“Aye. Nothing a bit of a bleeding wouldn’t fix, I’d wager.”

“No!” The man looked up from his bag and stepped closer to Mary. He smelled warm and clean. “No, bleeding is not a solution.”

“But,” Mary said, “I was bled not a year ago when I had similar fevers and was cured in a moment.”

The man sighed. “Look, I need you to trust me on this. Please sit down and I’ll… Do you mind if we have some light in here?”

“I believe Bruce has some candles downstairs he wouldn’t mind letting us use. I’ll go ask him.”

“No need, I have one here. Please, do sit down.” The man pulled something out of his bag and put it on the bench in the corner. It burned with impossible brightness.

“Do you not have a mask, doctor?” Mary blinked in the sudden light. The doctor was olive skinned, with a head of tight black curls. He was grinning. His teeth were as white as a child’s.

He took her hand and sat next to her. “My name is Michael, Mary. You can call me Michael. And no, I don’t have a mask. It’s OK, I’ve been… I have taken precautions against the… the Pest.”

Mary couldn’t understand how he could stay warm in such odd, thin clothing. The gray fabric shimmered in the bright light, thin enough that she could see the shape of his arms. His hand was warm, and soft, and dry. She let it go reluctantly as he dug into his bag, also made of some odd thin material.

“I know the current thinking is that blood makes you warm and too warm means too much blood, but it’s actually a lot—a lot—more complicated than that.” He pulled two small vials out of the bag. “First we need to get you eating right. Have you eaten lately?”

Mary’s stomach churned at the thought. “There might have been some food not long ago, I can’t remember for certain. I am sure I can vomit if need be.”

The doctor popped covers off the vials and shook a few white granules out of each. “Emetics? Are the doctors making you vomit? Of course they are,” he continued without waiting for her to answer. “No, that’s not what you want to do. Here, swallow these.” He dumped three of the small white pieces into her hand and gestured to the water bowl. “Please.”

They tasted bitter when she washed them down with a long drink of water. Michael dug through his bag again as she swallowed. “Now, you should get some more rest. Your stomach should settle soon enough.”

“Please, no more rest for now,” protested Mary. “I’ve been resting for more than long enough now.”

Two shiny bars came out of the bag, crinkling in his grip. “It’s only for a little while longer, I promise.” The doctor unwrapped one of the bars and bit into it. He held out the other and nodded to it. “When you wake up again you’ll be hungry, and you can eat this. Trust me, you’ll quite enjoy it. What I gave you will help you sleep and not feel nauseated any longer. Nauseous? No, nauseated,” he muttered to himself. “Always get those mixed up.”

“Are you sure you don’t wish to bleed me, doctor?”

“It’s Michael. Just Michael. Please. Lay back and I’ll keep you company.”

Mary did. She closed her eyes. “When Father kept me company, he would tell me stories until I slept. Will you do the same?”

Michael was looking at something attached to his wrist. “What? I don’t know any stories.”

“It was only a tease, doctor. Men do sometimes tell me stories when I’m in bed with them, though.”

It was quiet for long enough that Mary wondered if she was alone. Her eyes were heavy though, and it felt so good to have them closed, she couldn’t bring herself to open them and see if he was still with her.

“I’ve got a story,” Michael said suddenly. His voice was quiet again.

“Oh, good,” slurred Mary. “What is this story?”

“It’s a story about…” There was a creak as he shifted in the bench and scooted it closer. “It’s a story about how medicine will work one day. See, there are very, very tiny little things that we will soon know about. As small to a flea as a flea is to a dog, or rat. Actually, that brings me to a particular point about fleas. It’s about how you got sick, and how the sickness got here. After a while, people are going to be blaming the rats, but that’s not it, not exactly. You see…”

Mary found the strength to open her eyes and saw that he was staring at her. “Yes, doctor? I see what?” Her face felt numb and distant.

“Can I tell you a different story, Mary?” His grin was gone now.

“You can do anything to me you wish,” she said, not at all feeling the ease she was pretending. After all the dangerous men in her life, why did this small man make her feel so nervous?

Michael stood and paced the room. He rubbed his palms together in small, rapid circles. “Do you ever dream about things that could have been? Things that might have happened? No, I see that’s a confusing question. What I mean is this.” He sat back down on the pallet suddenly and leaned towards Mary, breathing audibly through his nose. His eyes were wide.

“Imagine if you could see how things would have turned out if you had done something differently. Turned left on the street and run into a stranger you become friends with, instead of turned right and not run into anyone?”

There was no sound other than his breathing. “Why would I want to see that, sir?”

“Because if you could do it on a big enough scale, just imagine how useful that would be! Politics, or economics.” He held out his left hand, palm up. “Either you try giving money to rich people, expecting them to spend the money,” Michael continued, holding out his other hand, “or you give money to the poor, expecting them to invest it. Which one is better? Which one results in a better system?” He clapped both hands together. “Why not see how both would turn out? Or, oh, a better example, whether to plant a particular crop or different one?”

“That’s a fun dream, to be sure.”

Michael took another bite of his food bar and chewed noisily. “See, there are certain places where choices have different possible outcomes. Each one of those creates different possibilities.”

Mary closed her eyes again. Surprisingly, sleep was tugging at her mind once more. “That would be many possibilities.”

“Exactly!” Michael laughed. “It would take a tremendous amount of time and effort to check them all out. You would need a lot of people to dig through all those points and sort out the data. Now imagine you are one of those people, and you could travel to all those different possibilities for that research. If you found something in one of them, something outside of the parameters you were sent there for, what would you do?”

She started to murmur a reply, but Michael didn’t seem to be looking for an answer.

“Imagine you saw the person you’d run into by turning whichever direction I said, and you knew you could make that happen, you’d sure do that, wouldn’t you? I mean, if it was someone you’d like to meet. Mary, pretend I found that person! She only exists in one of the three hundred possibilities I went to, and I found her in the last one. And it took a hell of a long time but I tracked back that possibility to an ancestor way back here, one particular version who didn’t get treated by a doctor and lived long enough to give birth some ten months after the fact. I could track down that point in the possibility matrix if I tried hard enough.”

There was a rustle and a shift in weight. Mary could feel Michael sitting again, watching her. “In this dream you’re imagining,” she said, “you can change the choice?”

“Look, you need to not see any other doctors for a while. You are one of the rare cases that would fully recover on your own. Can you do that?”

Mary glanced at Michael’s wrist. “You are glowing.”

He jerked his sleeve back from his wrist. A metallic cuff was blinking red. Michael jumped up.

“No way could they find me already. Damn it. Wait. OK. OK, look.” He tripped over his bag and grabbed it wildly. “It’s very important you don’t see another doctor, please?”

Mary didn’t know what to say. Her head was swimming. Everything felt heavy.

Michael pulled a needle out of his bag, attached to a clear vial, and a tiny jar of faint yellow liquid. He stuck the needle through the top of the jar and began drawing out some of the liquid. “OK, this will help ward off infection but isn’t for sure. You don’t need to be bled. A doctor will come in and want to cut your buboes, where you’re swelling. Do not let him! There are germs all over—”

The air crackled and opened to disgorge another man into the room, much larger and landing in a crouch.

The two men froze. Michael with the needle in his hand, the second man tensed and looking ready to pounce. Michael nodded towards Mary, his eyes locked on the new arrival. “Please, don’t stop me. I love her.”

“Jesus, Mikhail,” the second man said.

“No, no, listen.”

“There are absolutely no alterations allowed this far back! Are you trying to collapse the entire freaking matrix?”

“All she needs is ten months. The Great Fire is going to take care of things after that.”

“You know it doesn’t matter if she dies then, it matters if she dies now. No offspring. You are way out of bounds on this one.”

“Mary?” Michael spoke without shifting his eyes to her. “Take this syringe.” He slowly reached towards her.

The larger man lunged forward and knocked the object out of Michael’s hand. He grabbed Michael by the wrist and threw him to the floor, twisting his wrist behind his back.

“No! Mary, grab it and stick it into your shoulder and press down on the plunger.” Mary watched as the larger man smashed the vial under his foot and Michael screamed.

“She’s my wife when she exists! Don’t you understand?”

The larger man pulled a blinking disk from a hip pocket and slapped it on Michael’s back. Michael turned enough under the man’s grip to look at Mary. “Don’t let the doctor bleed you!” he said. “Stay away from doctors for a year! The knife is dirty, don’t let the knife—” Michael popped out of existence with a crackling thump.

The man stood and faced Mary for the first time. As he touched a device on his wrist similar to the one Michael had worn, he looked her in the eye. He whispered something that could have been, “I’m sorry.”

As soon as he was gone, sound slammed back into the room. Rain thundered down over Mary’s head.

* * * * *

“Are you awake?” Bruce and a doctor wearing a bird mask were at her bedside. Mary nodded. The rain had subsided again, with the last remaining water still draining down the gutters outside.

There were candles in the room, flickering over the walls. The light was very dim. “There were two men here, trying to save me. Or, one of them was.” She couldn’t quite find the spot on the floor where the vial had broken. If there was a stain or a shard left behind it was invisible in the dim light.

“There were no men.” Dark shadows bruised the areas under Bruce’s eyes, as though he hadn’t slept in days. “I’ve been outside the room the entire time.”

Hunger gnawed at Mary’s insides. She realized her fever was gone, or at least substantially lessened. Where was that shiny food he had offered her?

The doctor took off his mask and held a strongly perfumed handkerchief to his nose. “You may be suffering from your fever, and imagining your dreams to be real,” he said. He set his heavy cloak aside and rummaged through the folds.

“It wasn’t a dream, I’m sure of it.” Her stomach growled. “Do you have anything to eat? The man said I should eat something when I woke.”

The doctor pulled a long dagger from his cloak. “Eating is the last thing you need right now, my dear. We want to drain the troublesome heat from your body and heal you.”

“I’m sure that he said I should eat. I’m so hungry,” Mary said. “Is that knife to bleed me?”

The doctor picked up the empty water bowl and sat next to Mary. “Yes, we’ll remove the excess and have you up and about.”

Mary stared at the dagger glinting in the candlelight. “Can you make sure the knife is clean? I’m sure that was important to the man. He said diseases are on it, I think…”

Bruce sighed. The doctor smiled and wiped the knife with his handkerchief. “I assure you, no disease has ever been carried on a blade.” He positioned the bowl under her neck and held the blade against her throat. It was ice cold. “Shall we begin?”

 

Girl in a Mask

by Gregg Zimmerman

 

1. Epiphany

The evening wind picked up, sending waves and furrows racing through the wheat fields, and mountainous cumulus clouds scudded across a sky of deepening blue. Leaves rustled and the loose doors of barns and sheds rattled as the dying reds and yellows of a beautiful sunset faded in the west.

The two sisters, auburn Angelika and blonde Serafina, whirled in the wind in ecstasy, aprons and colorful sashes flying behind them. Never since the innocent days of childhood had they felt such elation: it was if the world had arrived at a new beginning and the horrors of war and a brutal occupation were things of the past.

“The Nazis are gone, the Nazis are gone!” sang out Angelika in a sweet-voiced but unmusical chant, while Serafina, two years younger, sang a provincial folk song full of joy and happy expectations from her youth.

The young women waltzed and pirouetted, bumping each other and giggling like schoolgirls as the impact nearly knocked them sprawling in the tall grass.

Angelika, ever on the alert, stopped abruptly and stood staring as she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye; Serafina kept singing and twirling, waving her slender arms in the air like flashing bronze-peach colored stalks in the last rays of the declining sun.

Angelika took one half-running step toward the farmhouse which was concealed from view behind the milling shed. But she could not abandon her little sister, even to summon help.

Three men had slouched into view from the field behind the tool shed. Ragged, scruffily bearded, and grimy in their worn Russian military fatigues, gaunt and pale as if they were half-starved, the three advanced slowly with the downcast demeanor of beaten mongrels.

“Ladies, beautiful ladies,” said the man in the lead, raising a dirty white hand in a gesture of supplication. “We have walked for days and days, and have not eaten.” The man, whom Angelika noticed bore a jagged scar high on his cheekbone, half-concealed beneath a frayed beret, spoke Russian in a soft, plaintive voice. Both women, of course, spoke Russian fluently.

Serafina stopped twirling with a gasp of alarm, which quickly gave way to another emotion when she recognized the men as belonging to the Soviet military.

“Soldiers, Angelika, Russian soldiers!” she said in an adoring tone, as if she were addressing war heroes from her homeland. She moved toward them with a greeting on her lips. Angelika looked on with trepidation, her mouth forming a severe line.

Suddenly, as if at a pre-concerted signal, the two soldiers behind the leader sprang forward. Serafina made not a sound, and Angelika’s warning cry was cut off by strangling fingers at her throat as the men grasped the two women and hustled them after the man with the scar, who had kicked open the door of the nearby tool shed.

2. Horror

The two girls, auburn Angelika and blonde Serafina, crouched against the shed wall beneath a broken horse yolk that was suspended by pegs. Their lower clothing lay in a tangled heap just beyond their reach; their upper clothing had been clawed to tatters and no longer concealed their breasts or privates, which they both felt a desperate need to cover. Neither woman reached for the discarded clothing.

The man with the scar favored the girls with a leering look as he stood, slowly fastening his breeches. His two companions lay back against a pile of leather harnesses, passing back and forth between them a water bottle filled with contraband vodka. Unlike their leader, they avoided eye contact with the women and made no remarks to them.

Serafina sobbed quietly. Angelika stared at their persecutors with eyes of stone.

“Ladies,” said the man with the scar. “That was a very kind welcome, I’m sure my comrades will agree. Your country women are renowned sluts, and as I expected it was not the first time for either of you. But now with deepest regrets we must be leaving.”

He lazily withdrew a German Luger from his pocket and pointed it about in an offhand manner as he spoke.

Serafina’s eyes opened wide, she inhaled loudly to launch a scream. The man with the scar lowered the pistol and shot her through the temple.

Serafina slumped sideways against Angelika, splashing her neck and breast with blood. Angelika shuddered with a spasm that she quickly suppressed. She said nothing, cradling her sister’s bleeding head in her lap and fixing her stony, menacing glare on the man with the scar.

The two other soldiers leaped to their feet and put away the bottle. The discharge of the gun sounded like an exploding mortar round in the confined space of the shed. One of them fastened his eye to the crack at the edge of the shed door, checking if the coast was clear.

The man with the scar approached Angelika in an unhurried manner and placed the gun barrel against her forehead. Angelika neither flinched nor blinked, continuing to fix his eyes with her stare.

“Andrey, the other one!” hissed the man at the door. “They will be coming!”

The man called Andrey caressed Angelika’s cheek gently with the gun barrel. “Blondie would have talked,” he said with a grin that revealed large, stained, horse-like teeth. “But not this one. She is proud!”

“Andrey!” the man called again with a note of panic.

“She would kill me with her look if she could, this one. Sweet-faced vixen, remember me by this,” and he took Angelika’s chin in his hand and tilted up her face. He pointed the gun barrel at the lightning-shaped scar high up on his right cheekbone. Then he brought the handle of the pistol down with a crack on the crown of her head. Angelika’s world exploded into blazing stars, followed by darkness.

3. The Mask

The Leather Flask was a run down public house at the edge of the city’s business district that was heavily patronized by the newly arrived Soviet soldiers, mainly because it was close to their base. The soldiers threw around their scanty silver half-rubles as if they were Dutch guilders, as they may as well have been with their power to purchase the services of the aging hookers with crow’s feet at the corners of their eyes and missing teeth or the scrawny half-starved village girls with their frayed sleeves and dirty necks who had begun to congregate there.

The less inebriated regulars noticed the recent attendance of a girl of a different class, well dressed with a statuesque figure and auburn hair that gleamed like fine golden mesh in the harsh light of the incandescent bulbs without shades. She came in regularly at the fall of darkness and sat for a couple of hours at a corner table away from the others, spurning company but watching the comings and goings of the soldiers with the fixity of a spy from the central government. She always left alone.

On the third day of her presence a non-commissioned officer by the name of Egor, who wore the characteristic red breeches of the hussars—a great bear of a man with a kindly face and a twinkling eye—threw down a few extra brandies and water and determined to make a pass at her. He approached her table and sat down, blocking her view of the entrance. Leaning forward, he caught her upper arm in a familiar grasp and whispered his proposition into her ear. His offer was answered with a resounding slap on the face. Egor’s bushy mustache rose to reveal an indulgent smile and he began to move away when the lady caught his upper arm in turn. “Wait,” she said imperiously.

He looked into the glacial grey-blue eyes that stared coldly into his own and for a passing moment he felt something akin to fear. He also noticed the surpassing beauty of the woman and quickly banished any reservations.

“Andrey with the scar,” she said, “do you know him?”

“Andrey, Andrey, there are a hundred Andreys, dearest lady—”

“Andrey with a jagged scar like a lightning bolt above his right cheek.”

“I’m afraid, sweetest love—”

“Find him for me and you can do what you will with me. And you can keep your dirty kopeks.”

Three days later Egor the bear-like hussar led a slim village errand boy wearing an oversized hat with earflaps through the encampment to the motor pool. A mechanic and his helper were leaning over the engine compartment of a transport vehicle, working on the engine block with a pair of wrenches.

“Andrey with the scar,” muttered Egor, and he felt the slim figure beside him give a sudden start as if of recognition.

Later that night in an un-mown hay field behind the makeshift barracks, Egor the hussar grasped in his arms the most delectable, frigid woman he had lain with during the course of a long and hideous war.

* * * * *

Tomas Stefanik, biochemistry professor turned house painter, wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and climbed down the scaffolding to the dusty street. A well-dressed woman noticeable for her profusion of auburn-golden hair was waiting for him at the curbside.

“Tomas,” she said in a hushed voice that was familiar to him.

He gave a start, staring at her face. “Angelika, my God, I have not seen you for—it must be more than a year now!” And he hugged her to his breast, the joy of this unexpected meeting overwhelming his usual circumspection.

“My god, the Nazis are gone, can you believe it! At long last life can return to normal, and no one has risked more for this moment, has sacrificed more, than you—”

“The Russians are worse,” she said.

“No, no, Angelika, they are a little crude, perhaps, a little ill-mannered, but—”

“The Russians are worse. The rest of you will find out in time what I know now.” And then she related to him her story in as few words as possible. The joyous smile on Stefanik’s face melted away, a growing horror overspread his features, his hand went out to her with fingers splayed apart as if beseeching her to end the assault her words were making on his sensibilities.

“I, I have to sit down,” he said, slipping to the pavement. “How many atrocities can a man bear in one lifetime? She is—was—more than a daughter to me. She was the savior of my family!”

He rocked back and forth as if in physical pain. “Serafina!” he whispered.

“Yes, Serafina,” she said, dry-eyed.

“Oh, oh,” said Stefanik, making an effort to regain his composure. He owed these two women—Angelika and Serafina—a debt of gratitude that time would never efface and that he would never be able to repay. In the dreadful days of 1939 when the Nazis stormed into Poland, Tomas Stefanik was verging on world recognition as a research biochemist in his professorship at the University of Krakow. He had made breakthroughs in the function of the adrenal gland and was delaying the publication of his results until he completed his investigations into certain practical applications of his discoveries.

The invasion could not have come at a more disruptive time for him. As the Nazi persecution of the Jews intensified, it was Angelika Pacek, his brilliant undergraduate student and research assistant who stepped forward to assist him in protecting Jolanta, his Jewish wife, and their two daughters when all the others turned their backs. She hid the family in a cellar on the family farm for six months, and when Angelika went off to join the partisans in their unequal struggle against the occupiers, her angelic sister Serafina served as the lifeline to the concealed family, bringing them food and supplies and keeping them informed of the great, tragic events happening in the outside world. For six months the family knew no greater joy than Serafina’s regular visits when she gave all she could of herself to cheer them up, even teaching the two girls, who adored her, folk songs and keeping them amused by telling them fairy tales and ancient legends of the Polish countryside. At the end of six months Angelika returned to the farm bringing the official papers after having established the needed contacts to spirit Jolanta and the two girls out of the country to a safe haven in Sweden. Stefanik, less worldly than his young protégée, never fully understand how she had accomplished this seemingly impossible feat; all she would ever tell him about it is that he would sleep better not knowing. To this day, Stefanik’s family awaited the coming reunion in their tenement in Stockholm.

“Now,” said Angelika, “my mentor, my esteemed professor, my friend, I need you to do something for me. I need you to do a thing that only you can do.” And she kneeled down beside him on the curbside and whispered her request into his ear.

“No!” he cried, “it cannot be done! The science is not perfected—”

Again Angelika made her request, and again he protested. “It would kill you, my dear, kill you, do you hear? Request anything, but not that!”

“Very well,” she said coldly, rising to her feet. “Tomas, be easy. I will never again trouble you with a request.” And ashen-faced, she turned from him and began to walk away.

Tomas Stefanik, scientist and now house painter, found himself crawling after her on his hands and knees. Lunging forward, he wrapped his arms around her legs and brought her to a halt.

“A week from Tuesday, 3:00 pm, at my studio on Lubicz Street,” he stammered. “It will take me that long to gather supplies—and even that is only possible because of the disorganized security of the Soviets. Come alone, and please, oh please, try to change your mind.”

* * * * *

The studio was tiny, and the truckle bed had to be collapsed and turned on its side to make room for the medical equipment and chemical supplies.

Angelika sat on the edge of the coffin-like wooden box that would have to serve as a surgical table for the upcoming operation.

“When I complete the procedure that will stimulate your adrenal gland, the production of adrenalin will be constantly elevated. Your rate of metabolism will increase, and you will need to breathe a richer mix of oxygen than the atmosphere provides. So you will have to wear an oxygen cylinder and a gas mask wherever you go.” Stefanik held up the mask for her to view—a conventional army-issue combat-green gas mask with a tinted glass eye plate and a breathing port from which the activated carbon had been removed. A small, malleable copper tube provided a connection to the oxygen tank that would need to be strapped to her back.

“I smuggled out six oxygen tanks,” Stefanik resumed. “At the feed rate we must set, each tank will last you 24 hours. You’ll use up one per day, and have to change them. That gives you six days. I will try to obtain more tanks in the meantime. Remember, without the oxygen you will quickly grow lethargic and suffocate within an hour. When you finish your mission come back here and I will try to reverse the procedure. You know about the adaptive memory of our biological processes—I’m not sure I can do it. If not, oh Angelika,” and he squeezed her hand, “this will be irreversible—a death sentence.”

“I have fought beside the partisans,” she replied quietly. “I am not afraid.”

“When you wake up your strength and speed will be abnormal, incredible. But you are still made of the old flesh and bones. You can break your own as easily as your opponent’s.”

There was a silence. Stefanik was clearly reluctant to start the procedure.

“If that’s all, let’s do it,” said Angelika.

“I just can’t bear the thought of losing you both. Can’t you get the partisans together again? There should be a sniper who can take care of your mission by the more conventional means.”

“Where they are all now,” Angelika replied, “Serafina has joined them there.” She lay back on the box while Stefanik applied the anesthetic.

4. The First One

Oleg Pravdin, assistant mechanic with the Soviet Infantry, walked through the un-mown hay field behind the garrison’s barracks. He felt the desire to have a woman strongly tonight, and had meant to remind Andrey of the “girling” expedition he had been promising to lead for a week now. Andrey’s girling expeditions simultaneously satisfied Oleg’s two most pressing cravings: the thrill of the chase, and the sensual bliss of having his way with a woman. It was far more rewarding than throwing away his scant earnings on aging whores or village sluts that smelled of garlic and onions at low dives like the Leather Flask.

But Andrey was stubborn, maintaining that girling must not be done too frequently. “These war-ravaged peasants,” Andrey had observed, “are used to a few dead women popping up here and there, but too many and they will revolt.” Oleg had come to consider Andrey somewhat of a barrack room philosopher, and it was rumored that he had picked up some university education somewhere along the way. At any rate, it was Andrey—and of course he had the final word on the matter.

Andrey had disappeared from the motor pool an hour earlier than usual. So tonight Oleg would be on his own.

Descending a shallow declivity that put him out of sight of the garrison, he thought that he heard a noise to his right. A burnt and abandoned building left by the Nazis, little more than a foundation with a couple of fire-scarred crumbling block walls rose from the weeds at the edge of the field. A rather small, strange figure stepped out of a ruinous doorway and stood facing him.

Oleg’s mouth fell open and he craned his neck forward. At first he took the figure to be a soldier who had somehow emerged from the front line of battle. Dressed in green military fatigues, the figure wore an outlandish head gear that Oleg recognized after some effort as a gas mask. Some sort of metal cylinder rose up from behind the shoulders and was connected by a gleaming copper tube to the gas mask. “Hell’s devils,” Oleg muttered as he discerned, both by its slender build and by the cascade of golden-red hair that surrounded the mask, that it was a woman. The distinctive color of the hair told him which woman.

“You,” he said.

“Yes, me.”

“What do you want?” He fumbled for a moment and drew a Soviet issue Tokarev pistol from the ill-fitting German holster he had pilfered from an abandoned Nazi encampment.

There was no answer.

“I don’t want no trouble, miss.” He pointed the pistol in her direction with a trembling hand. “It was Andrey who offed your friend. I didn’t want to do it. Why the mask—”

The figure lunged to its right with blinding speed. Then it darted to the left. Oleg did not realize, did not have time to notice, that the two movements had also eliminated the distance that separated them.

The handgun was struck from his hand with a force that broke three of his fingers and sent the weapon spinning over the top of the scorched wall. Then Oleg experienced a series of sensations unlike anything he had encountered before. It was as if some sort of lethal machine clasped and crushed his body with unfathomable strength. He felt himself shaken as a mastiff shakes a kitten, and heard his own bones popping and cracking and felt his flesh being mashed to a pulp through waves of unbearable physical agony.

In the morning they found Oleg Pravdin’s corpse at the foot of the ruined wall. Every bone in his body had been broken and splintered and his rib cage was crushed in as if he had been hurled from a vast height. In fact there was some speculation, soon discarded as implausible, that he had been dropped from an airplane. It was also noticed that high on his right cheekbone there was a large jagged wound in the shape of a lightning bolt, apparently carved with a knife.

5. The Second One

Andrey and Pavel the gunner sat on a wad of disheveled blankets that served as a bunk in the corner of a barrack building. The room was lit by a kerosene lantern as the high command had not bothered to extend an electrical feed to the barracks. Pavel was pale and agitated, swiveling his head at every sound, real or imagined, and shuffling his feet or twitching his hands. Andrey, on the other hand, appeared calm and unperturbed as he meditatively smoked a small briarwood pipe.

“You saw the scar,” Pavel uttered abruptly.

“Yes, shut up, be quiet. Do you want the whole garrison to hear us?”

“The body was smashed—like a fly—smashed!” The last word was almost shrieked.

“Yes,” said Andrey.

“It had to be—because of the woman. The blonde woman you shot when we were out girling.”

“Yes,” said Andrey.

“Well, we’re next, you—don’t be stupid!”

There was a silence that Pavel once again felt constrained to break.

“How did they do that to him?”

“That’s the only mystery.”

“You should have shot the other one, you stupid bastard! Like I told you.”

Andrey grinned, revealing his great horse-like teeth. “They may get you, but they won’t get me.”

Pavel lunged at him, but Andrey moved deftly aside.

“Pull yourself together, you fool. I am not the enemy.”

“This girling business was your plan, you brought this upon us.”

“You were not complaining when you were riding the little mares with their legs in the air.”

“Go to hell and be damned, you devil,” said Pavel, but his tone was conciliatory.

“Anyway, it won’t help things to let you know, numbskull, but I have a plan.”

* * * * *

At a discrete distance, so as not to be recognized, Andrey and Pavel watched the roaring flames that consumed the Pacek family’s farmhouse lick upwards into the night sky. The farmhouse which had endured six years of Nazi occupation did not survive six weeks under the Soviets.

“Well, they weren’t home, what did you expect,” grumbled Pavel. “So this is your plan? A lot of good it will do us.”

“They know we struck back, and that the Soviet military is on to them. Let’s go.”

The next morning Andrey submitted a request for a transfer to the Warsaw garrison. He said not a word of it to Pavel.

For his part, Pavel made a concerted effort not to be alone. Wherever the soldiers congregated, that was where he would be found. This was after hours, on his own time. But while on duty he was subject to the orders of his superiors.

The Soviet authorities had begun rounding up the Polish intelligentsia: doctors, university professors, and highly educated professionals that Stalin’s government anticipated might interfere with their plans for Poland. As the jails and prisons were not spacious enough to accommodate these detainees as they awaited transportation to destinations still being worked out—Siberia, military detention centers, or oblivion—the military units were called upon to assist in creating temporary local detention centers.

Pavel’s superior officer knew that he had carpentry and building experience in his private life before the war, therefore he was co-opted to join a team of two other soldiers and a supervising lieutenant to inspect and report on the condition and suitability for use of an abandoned spa and resort complex twenty kilometers outside of Krakow.

Upon arrival of the transport vehicle on the grounds of the resort, the lieutenant dusted off and unfolded a set of blueprints for the facility that he had somehow acquired. To Pavel’s chagrin, the lieutenant dispatched the three soldiers to inspect the buildings separately.

Pavel argued, irrationally the lieutenant thought, to be allowed to team up with one of the others. His request was denied, and the three were ordered to return from their assignments with logged inspection reports by 4:00 pm. The blueprints were distributed and each man provided with a kerosene lantern.

The weather was cool and drizzly as Pavel set out on foot across the overgrown entrance drive to a large deteriorated building at the rear of the compound. The structure still retained the vestiges of luxury, although it had been in disuse since the Nazi occupation.

Electric power had long been cut off, which made the building, whose window spacing was designed for incandescent illumination, exceedingly gloomy inside. Just as Pavel closed the grand, nine-foot tall entry door behind him and prepared to light his kerosene lantern, he thought he heard a sound common enough along the busy streets of Krakow, but out of place in this secluded place—the rumble of a motorbike. He quickly opened the door again—silence. Shaking his head, he lit the lantern and set to work.

In spite of his strained nerves, Pavel soon became immersed in his work, and made his way through room after room, inspecting walls, flooring, fixtures, and making notes. His focus was interrupted by the distinct sound of the opening and slamming shut of the entrance door. Dropping his log book and snatching up the lantern, Pavel rushed into the corridor and called out “Who’s there?”

There was no answer.

Instantly apprehension transformed into icy terror, causing his knees to wobble and beads of cold sweat to break out on his forehead.

He must get out and join the others at all cost. There would be protection where there were numbers.

He sprinted toward the entryway, the kerosene lantern swaying and causing crazy shadows to rush up and down the walls. Then he stopped short with a gasp.

A solitary figure in military fatigues and wearing a gas mask stood against the door as if barring his exit. It occurred to him that, caught by his enemy like a rat, he would be gassed and suffocated in the corridor. With a shout, he pulled his handgun from the pocket of his uniform jacket and fired off two rounds. But the figure was no longer in the doorway.

Was he seeing things? No, there it was, springing out from behind an ornamental column. But the rapidity of it movements! The unbelievable, shocking quickness!

Disconcerted, he dropped the handgun rather than the lantern as he intended. He darted up a high-piled carpeted staircase with a rich mahogany banister, and wheeled around at the top. His pursuer was almost upon him; he dashed the lantern into its face and rushed through a heavy-paneled oak door into one of the upstairs luxury suites. Slamming shut the door, he noticed a heavy metal latch which he shot into place. Immediately a thunderous impact rattled the door in its frame. The doorknob was twisted and he heard metal snap within the lockset. Next there was a second impact against the door and an upper panel buckled inward but did not give way, as if it had been struck by a battering ram. There was a high-pitched scream of pain—could that be a woman’s voice? Pavel turned and raced in almost total darkness down the hallway. A band of light could be seen beneath the door at the far end. Once past that, he might be able to exit the building and hide among the overgrown bushes and trees in the landscaped yard.

Another explosive noise, and—was it possible?—something seemed to be inside the annular space of the wall on the left side of the hallway. He heard wall studs cracking and breaking at the impact of an irresistible force. He threw open the door in front of him; a flood of daylight entered the hallway. A brief glance over his shoulder revealed a large chunk of plaster falling from the wall and crashing to powder against the floor boards while an ominous moving bulge in the plaster followed in the direction of his flight. Internal boards and studs cracked and splintered as a large body made its passage through the annular space in the wall. It appeared that only the strength of the heavy oak wainscoting prevented his attacker form bursting through the wall and into the hallway. It was the vision of a nightmare.

Pavel ran toward the balcony, fully prepared to hurtle over the balustrade to drop down to the overgrown sward below. He flung open the French door leading to the balcony. With a horrible crash and explosion of plaster, the wall behind him burst outward. He once again whirled around—he could not help himself.

There before him, fatigues covered with plaster powder and the splinters of wall boards, and with a splash of kerosene flaming above the left breast, stood his attacker. Brief as the vision was, he could not be mistaken—the figure was a woman.

* * * * *

The lieutenant saw it first—a cloud of smoke rising above the building Pavel had been assigned to inspect. By the time he and the two remaining soldiers reached it, the entrance corridor was fully involved in flames. He now regretted not investigating the two earlier popping sounds that could have been distant gun shots.

“Pavel, Pavel!” the lieutenant shouted. There was no response. He took a step as if to enter the inferno, then thought better of it.

“One of you, go around the back!” he ordered. “There may be a way in from that side. You, help me here,” he said to the other soldier.

The two of them moved in opposite directions along the ground floor, breaking windows with a shovel and a garden hoe they had found and peering inside the rooms shouting Pavel’s name. They had not proceeded far when the lieutenant heard a voice behind him.

“Sir, it’s no use going in.”

He faced the speaker. It was the soldier who had made the circuit of the building. The lieutenant started—the last time he had seen such a horror-stricken face was when he had led teenage boys into a fire fight for the first time.

“Sir, follow me, you’ll want to see this.” Without another word he led the lieutenant and the second soldier around to the rear side of the building. There, beneath an overhanging second floor balcony with an ornate limestone balustrade lay Pavel’s body. It was nearly unrecognizable, having been crushed and pulverized to a near jelly-like state. The lieutenant observed, high on the right cheekbone, a jagged cut in the shape of a lightning bolt. This wound did not seem to be related to the other injuries.

6. Andrey with the scar

The day after word came back of Pavel’s hideous death, Andrey sat alone in the barracks. He rolled the notice carrying the denial of his transfer request into a tight tube, lit it with a match, and applied it to the tobacco packed in the bowl of his briarwood pipe. He drank shot after shot of straight vodka until his lips pulled back to reveal his horse-like teeth in a sardonic grin.

He held his hand straight out in front of him—it did not quiver.

“Ha, ha,” he laughed. “Ha, ha, ha! For once justice is being done; I thought I would never see the day. Well,” and he rose to his feet, “let’s finish this. If I have to go, I hope it’s my little red-haired vixen who takes me out. Because,” and he wobbled on his feet for a moment before steadying himself, “because of all women I love her best.”

He marched with two duffel bags brazenly into the armory, throwing into them a protective vest, a submachine gun and two ammo belts with a hundred rounds, two handguns, and a battle helmet. He was not able to lay his hands on any grenades, which had been at the top of his list. It is a testimony to the utter lack of discipline among the Soviet occupiers that he was neither stopped nor challenged as he made this unauthorized appropriation of military hardware and walked slowly out of the armory and then the garrison half carrying and half dragging his heavy bags.

* * * * *

Andrey had not forgotten his vodka, and had consumed a dangerous, near lethal dosage when he rose to his feet once more. He had been sitting with his back against the Pacek farm tool shed where all of this had started only two weeks ago. For over an hour he had seen no human beings. His liquor was now gone, he saw no reason to protract things.

He put on his battle helmet, then the protective vest which weighed like lead. He thrust the two handguns into his large pockets, and inserted an ammo belt into the submachine gun, throwing the strap around his shoulders. Being a veteran soldier, he accomplished these preparations successfully in spite of his inebriation.

“Ladies,” he shouted, “or shall I say lady. I’m back. This business between us is not finished. Come out, wherever you are.”

He pointed the submachine gun into the air and fired off a burst of rounds.

“Come out now,” he resumed. You’ve traded kiss for kiss with your other two boyfriends. Now it’s my turn. Best for last.”

He skirted the milling shed and was next to the foundation of the house now.

“I know you’re here watching me. You’ve been watching us all along. You Polish girls can be coy, but no need for that now. We know each other like husband and wife. Like husband and wife, I say, you know it’s true. There are no secrets between us.”

Silence.

“I miss you, you fiery-haired virago. I want to marry you, that’s why I’m here. Ha, ha!”

Time passed, the hot sun beat down on his helmeted head. His mood changed.

“Your friend, the blonde—was she your sister? Now there’s one, I tell you. But she got what she deserved. None of us—your three boyfriends I mean—thought her performance was very good that day. Now, you… that’s another story!”

Andrey suddenly noticed a solitary figure standing at the edge of the wheat field. He did not see how it arrived there. He squinted and began walking toward it.

“You are the most vile scum of creation,” said a woman’s quiet voice.

“Oh, it’s you at last!” Andrey cried. “I knew you would come. Having once tasted, how could you resist!”

“I am going to kill you now,” she said.

“Ha, ha! Maybe that’s better than marrying you after all. Marrying you would be a living death.”

She came for him, and for a moment he was taken aback by the rapidity of her movements. As she darted from side to side in a tacking motion, drawing ever closer, he sent a spray of rounds in her direction. He lost sight of her as the gun stock kicked against him.

“Drunken fool,” she said from her place of concealment. “You have the arms of the Kremlin with you, and I bring only my bare hands. Still, I will kill you now.”

“Where are you?” he muttered, moving in the direction he had lost sight of her.

There was a frenzied motion among the wheat stalks and he discharged a second prolonged spray of rounds into the field.

Suddenly she shot out of the wheat field and ran behind the tool shed. He strafed the shed with rounds until the ammo belt was empty. He suddenly recalled that the other ammo belt was in the duffel bag. Angelika stole out of the shelter behind the shed and raced to the duffel bag. “Are you looking for this?” she said, withdrawing the ammo belt and flinging it into the wheat.

Roaring wordlessly, Andrey threw the submachine gun from him and pulled out the two pistols from his pockets. He began firing at her with both hands. But Angelika had retreated behind the shed again.

Andrey stalked forward, meaning to circle around the shed and flush her out. He told himself that if he could get between her and the field and cut off her retreat he would have her where he wanted her.

As he rounded the corner of the shed he noticed that its door was hanging ajar. “Stupid slut, I have you now!” he yelled triumphantly, running to the doorway. He was convinced that she was hiding inside.

The loud metallic squeak of a hinge caused him to look up in time to see the open shed door swinging toward him with incredible velocity. He half turned; the wooden door slammed into him and exploded into fragments. Andrey was thrown headlong into the shed. The two guns flew out of his hands at the impact of his heavy face-forward fall to the floor. He lost consciousness momentarily, reawakening to his own retching. He wheezed amidst the puddle of vodka he had made, trying to regain the wind that had been knocked out of him. He spit several splinters out of his bloody mouth which he became vaguely aware were broken teeth.

When he was able to direct his attention to external things, he saw before him in the doorway the girl in the mask.

“What’s your name?” he asked thickly, trying to navigate his words around the ruins of his mouth.

“It won’t matter, where you’re going.”

She advanced toward him in a slow, deliberate manner.

Appearing to awaken at last to his predicament, he thrust out his left hand in a placating gesture. “Is there nothing I can do?” he asked, a plaintive quaver in his voice.

“Yes,” she said with silky sweetness. “You can bring back my sister that you stole from me.”

“I can do it! I have the power to do it, to bring her back to you!” With his right hand, which had been hidden from her behind his outstretched arm, he flung the thin-bladed knife that he had withdrawn from a compartment in his boot. The half-obscured light from the doorway was sufficient for him to see the knife sink to the handle in her side below her left breast.

“But you would not like her smell,” he finished in his old taunting tone.

Angelika gasped, fell back a step, dropped to a knee, fought to suck in a breath of air. Then gathering herself, she was on him like a tigress.

7. Epiphany

The moonlight streamed down on the village cemetery that had grown greatly in size over the past six years. The chirping crickets stilled their song at the sound of an approaching footstep. A strange figure came into view. It was a woman dressed incongruently in battle fatigues and wearing an army-issue gas mask. Blood streamed from a wound in her side and she moved as if she were at the end of her strength. She dropped to her knees when she reached the most recent grave site, then unhooked and flung away the gas mask, revealing a face pale with suffering, but filled with a sort of ethereal beauty. Angelika lowered her face to the ground, her spreading auburn tresses looking spectral in the moonlight. Then she wept for the first and last time, her tears mingling with the freshly placed soil over her sister Serafina’s grave.

 

The Fantastique

by Joseph Jude

 

It was a blurry mass. Mostly black and dim blue. However, there was one point that stood out. It was a mix of pink and green with some red. It was moving.

Ethan became afraid. He tried to focus on it more intently with no reward. His vision was returning at its own pace. He watched the thing’s motion. Then he relaxed slightly, determining that it wasn’t moving towards him. It just seemed to be bobbling up and down. It was the dash board hula girl his kid sister gave him when he first bought his Lexus. It was sideways; or rather the entire car was sideways. Ethan was upside down. Despite a migraine that felt like it would blow his skull apart, he tried to remember what had happened.

He was driving. He had left the office directly after speaking with Mrs. Jennifer Heisensten about the flap reconstruction on her left breast. Both she and her husband, Douglas, seemed quite pleased with the decision to transplant to the chest as a micro vascular flap. There would be the longer healing time on the scar, but Mrs. Heisensten liked the news that the tissue would be taken from another part of her body, and that she could even have an improved abdominal contour. In fact, she requested she have the skin taken from her thighs.

Ethan loved that part of his job. The rich people were always so agreeable when they were told they could look as good as new, even better, whatever the cost. Money was no object but they certainly were and wished to remain so. Even after, when they didn’t look instantly beautiful, they could be talked into believing that more time, and more checks, were all that was necessary. It was such an easy sell. It was so much different from the other jobs he took to get him through school. Many that he lost when he was too pushy with the customers who didn’t want to see it his way.

It was very dark for six. There was a brief patch where he turned off the bridge, a spot of trees and very little traffic. It was never his favorite part of the drive home, and he always tried to make his way through it as fast as possible. It was here that the red truck came at him. It had to be right out of the foliage as there was no intersection. He remembered seeing it at the last second before it collided with the passenger’s side. The Lexus rocked and slid, and he could remember it flipping as it glided off the road, into the forest behind. That was when he blacked out.

His eyesight was finally clearing up. He could see the dashboard and the dark shadowy trees beyond his broken windshield. He tried to right himself, and then he heard the noise. Somebody was walking though the grass, towards him. He turned to the sound of the driver’s door opening, people coming at him. He couldn’t make out their faces in time. He couldn’t make out anything. It seemed anywhere between two and ten people the way he perceived the commotion. So many faces and hands reaching at him.

Then he was out again.

* * * * *

This time, his vision wasn’t blurry. He sprung straight up with a scream. He saw the same events play out over and over in his dreams; variances included strange people doing strange things to him. They were groping, pulling at him. He felt like he was floating. He was moving, he was being moved. Then he wasn’t moving, but he was. He was in something that was moving. He was taken out of his car, and placed in a different one. Then he was floating again. He could hear a terrible squeal, some kind of animal. It couldn’t be. It was too regular. The people were all around him. He couldn’t make out their faces. It was blurry, fractured, as if looking in a broken mirror.

Ethan jumped to attention, swinging his arms and searching around. There was no one there, nobody attacking him. He checked his body, he seemed to be intact.

But he wasn’t safe. He was in a strange place. He was on an old hospital stretcher that was stained and musty. A single bulb hung above him barely lighting the room. He was shrouded in dark hues of umber, a combination of the lighting and the dirty walls.

“It’s okay. You’re protected.”

Ethan looked in the direction of the voice, there was someone approaching him. It seemed to be a woman but there was something wrong with her voice. It reverberated oddly with a deep bass like she had the worst frog in her throat.

“We’ve been waiting for you to come to. You can meet us now.”

Ethan could see her. He could see it.

It was humanoid in the loosest sense. It had a face made up of many faces, different pieces from different people, sewn together roughshod. A blue eye in a Caucasian socket was entangled with a brown eye in an African American socket which led down to a man’s mouth sewn to the right side of another woman’s mouth. There may have been twenty different pieces, sewn together with no concern for symmetry. One side of a nose stretched and twisted into the other side which was far too short to match. Veins were extra prominent due to the inadequate fashion in which they were attached or reattached. Much of the skin seemed ready to rip open from the pieces of skull that jutted out entirely too much. The eyes, the ears, the hairline that held a multitude of different strands of hair, it was a horrible mess of features that stared at him.

That was only for starters, the head sat atop a body equal in it misshapen mess. One breast of the darkest skin was attached to a lily white chest merged to a male sternal region leading down an inframammary region, abdomen and flank of five different colors. There were a lot of patches of blue on it, flesh that blood wasn’t properly flowing to, tissue that was rotting off this living creature.

The thing walked awkwardly towards him. It simply didn’t function well. One shoulder twisted in and out of is frame as if it could snap loose at any second. One leg was entirely too short compared to the other. It could barely keep its balance. An unfortunate amount of curiosity made him glance between those legs. He saw half of what would be hanging between a man’s. It was perfectly halved with exposed insides, and something meshed and pink in the body sewn into the base of it. Ethan quickly looked away.

It was right in front of him. It spoke and Ethan could deduce why its voice was so distorted. Heaven knows what was done to the vocal cords.

“You must come now.” Half of its mouth smiled with some muscles pulling so tight they pressed right through the skin, the Zygomaticus minor and major. The other half of the mouth didn’t work at all.

“I don’t want to. I don’t want to be here.” Ethan was as forceful as ever. No matter what this thing looked like he wasn’t in the mood for its nonsense.

It lost its smile. It rose above him.

“Come. We won’t hurt you. What we have to show you is amazing.”

Hope for an exit drove him forward.

The thing led him down a long hallway. The place seemed to be a typical doctor’s office once. There was a hallway with various rooms on each side. He saw one doorway at the end far ahead without a door that could lead to the entrance from the outside, and he considered just running to it, but decided to wait. Ethan didn’t want to admit he was scared. The thing was a walking card house, but the dementia it emitted kept infecting him to his heart.

The whole time he looked at the walls, the cracks and the mold and occasional foggy picture that hung crooked, left behind from whoever owned this place before. Anything to keep from having to look at his guide; oozing pus, colored liquids, and thick blood flowing from its seams. It opened a door to the left, between two stands with vases. No flowers in them, just dirt and maggots.

They entered and three other “people” turned to Ethan. One spoke. Its voice could be male or female depending on the word.

“Ethan Foree. We’re happy to meet you.”

“Who are you people?”

“We don’t use names anymore. We… are we.”

“Huh?”

“We are a people that exist under a brilliant new philosophy. A solution to the horrors of the world. An amazingly simple one. What our society does instead of tackling the prejudice and hate on a cerebral level, is attack it on a physical one.”

“Physical?”

“We are perfect. We are without individual identity. We are all people, all races, all sexes. Once we convert everyone there will be no longer a reason to argue about differences, about identity. There will no longer be a reason to hate.”

“That’s great.” Ethan didn’t smile. “So when can I leave?”

They said nothing.

Ethan sucked in a gust of air, then asked. “Okay, So… what do you want from… me?”

“We want you to join us.”

“Of course.”

“We regularly choose new members to join our people, but we’re especially anxious about you. Before we cut your driver’s license up, we noticed it said MD. You are a doctor?”

“Plastic surgeon.”

“Oh, that is especially fortunate. You will be of great help to us.”

“You cut up my driver’s license?”

“Yes. We each have a piece now.”

He was looking at the others closely. The one that spoke seemed to have more masculine parts than feminine. At least on the body, the head however was entirely female.

There was more. Hanging off of the body were extra parts. A bicep dangled off its side. An entire arm erupted from its back. Extra patellae protruded from the same knee. Looking closer, Ethan could see additional fingers, toes, ears, noses, and not just on the parts of the body they belong, but sprinkled all over as ugly growths. Bones and joints seemed randomly inserted through the body with skin pulled over them giving the person long spokes, some of which could move and twist by themselves.

The other two people were equally mixed and matched. One had two hands where its feet should be. Its face made up of more hands, fingers intertwined and sewn together except where the mouth, nostrils, and eyes should be. Long thin muscles tightened, and metacarpophalangeal articulations of the hand seemed spread all over the body. For the third one, about fifty eyes covered its body like a leopard’s spots. Some of them still moved and blinked.

“How many of you are here?”

“Millions.”

Ethan figured not to push it. Trying to get straight answers out of these people would be like trying to push a toothpick through cement. He also knew that there had to be a lot of donors for these parts, people that probably didn’t want to come over to their way of thinking.

“What happens if I don’t want to join your community?”

“Everyone joins us.”

“Crap.”

“You should see our newest member. We picked her up a week ago. Like you, she was hesitant, but soon she saw the logic in our life. She is currently becoming part of us. We can show you.”

“I don’t want to see.”

“But you must. You must see.”

What Ethan did see were knives; long, homemade, bloody ones in their hands, and they had a lot of hands.

* * * * *

Ethan was taken to an operating room at the far end of the hall, right next to the waiting room he was first led out of. He had seen the doors back then. It chilled him to think that he was looking at a person in some horrible state just behind them. Ethan didn’t want to go through those doors. He had pulled apart skin and muscle, repaired people after circumstances broke them to shards, and he still didn’t want to see what was beyond those doors.

It was what was behind their logic. The horrible truth behind their logic.

“I’m telling you people, I don’t want any part of this.”

“You’ll see.” The one from before couldn’t stop grinning. It had extra teeth jutting out from its gums.

The mixed people pushed open both doors for Ethan to cross through. He took one step, then another. He tried to stretch it out as long as he could, but he could see his hosts growing impatient. As he moved further in, he could see a curtain drawn in front of what he assumed was the bed holding their newest convert. A light behind lit the curtain blue.

Ethan paced around the curtain to see. There was a thin carcass lying on an operating table. No skin left, much of the musculature had been torn out. Fresh components had already been fastened in some places. Tendons from outside sources weaved with her own, creating new pulley systems for the extra parts to be added later. Additional bones were tied to her leftover ones with locks of dead flesh. A third working lung was imbedded in the remaining leg, alongside new roots for growing hair inside the skin. It was questionable who had the other leg.

Ethan sighed and sucked his lips in as he looked at the head that stared back. It had to. There were no eyelids. Much of the face was removed, and the woman breathed in and out in short, strained breathes. A number of intravenous tubes led into the holes through the remaining portions of her face, the buccinator, the masseter, and the levator labii superioris. The tubes fed her any possible combination of fluids that kept her alive, nothing that Ethan could recognize. Many were a putrid brown. One looked like urine.

“She is still in the process. It has to be slow or she’ll die.”

“How long before she’s done?” Ethan sarcastically pouted.

“None of us are complete. We must continue to change and evolve.”

Ethan mulled his options. There’s no way these thrown together clunkers could outmaneuver or overpower him. Still, those knives. They were all around him. All they needed was a lucky jab, and it would be curtains. On the other hand, there was no way that things were going to get better.

“This is what I have to look forward to?”

“Yes. Beautiful, isn’t it.”

“Can I… Can I have some time to think about it?”

It looked at him. It tried to furrow its brow in a confused expression but the skin just compressed together and one eyeball rolled completely backwards.

“We guess you can.”

It must not be a question too many visitors have asked.

* * * * *

Ethan was led into a small room, a utility room. He was tied to an old metal chair and left alone. They locked the door behind them.

Ethan started to notice the cold. The furnace wasn’t working. Most likely nothing was working. These people probably warmed themselves with bonfires, drank the remaining water out of the toilets, and ate whatever meat they didn’t attach to themselves. Ethan looked around for a clue, more information on them. Who were they? Where did they come from? There was nothing of use.

“Damn it.”

Ethan sat for several minutes in silence trying to formulate a plan. He hadn’t counted on them tying him up. As loopy as they were, these living quilts weren’t totally out of it. He regretted not making a break for it when he was free. He imagined he was stepping in the footprints of the poor girl in the operating room who now stared endlessly at the ceiling while alien flesh devoured her.

His thoughts were broken when the door opened again. Two new hosts entered or was it one? Ethan couldn’t tell. One set of legs stepped in, followed by another set of legs, all belonging to the same animal. It was a jumble like the others. Two of them sharing one torso, a chest from which two heads sprouted out the top and two waists sprouted out the bottom. It was two people perpetually facing each other. It was impossible to pin ownership to either side. Both had backs. There was no front. They shared a pair of arms with thumbs on both ends. Two sets of muscles on each side of the hands with no palms on either. The fingers crudely bent both ways.

The heads turned, and smiled at Ethan. They could’ve been female or male.

“We understand you are unsure about becoming one of us.” One of the heads said. “We can show you the splendor of what we are.” The other one said. Both heads kissed long and hard.

While they kissed, it inched closer to Ethan until it dominated his view. Ethan turned his head to both sides, trying to avoid it. He closed his eyes, tight. He could hear them still, the sound of their lips smacking, body parts rubbing.

A hand suddenly dug into Ethan’s face. He screamed through it.

“Open your eyes and watch.”

“I don’t want to watch this, you freaks.”

“Open them. Open them.”

The hand dug tighter.

“Alright! Alright. Let go.”

The hand unclasped from his face. It drew away from his sight and he could see it, both heads smiling at him. Then they went back to their spectacle. Squinting his eyes, but having to leave them open enough so it could tell he was looking, Ethan watched it explore itself. The hands rubbed over the pieces that one head owned, then the same hands went over the other head’s pieces. Back and forth, all over the legs, buttocks, back, between the legs where they had an arrangement like his first host had. On each waist were mirror images on either side. A half of one male genitalia merged with the half of one female across from another half of each. They could’ve been two halves of the same wholes.

They were designed to fit into each other, although not quite perfectly due to the quality of the surgery.

Ethan could taste sickness in his throat as his stomach churned. He tried to concentrate on not throwing up. This helped divert his attention. He had to keep staring. They would constantly turn to make sure he was watching to see how fabulous this freak show was. Their sex organs slid in and out of each other. As before, there was no skin to cover the insides of what was cut off and they chafed against each other too. Brownish clear liquid slimed between it all, dripping off. The same could be said for the rest of its body where the cuts and seams were only fairly seamless, and the ordeal and rubbing was too much for the form.

They continued anyway, moaning and groaning. Their expressions contorted in eccentric ways. Their teeth glistened nonstop. Part of it was the way their new faces were constructed, but Ethan knew that despite whatever psychoses these people were suffering from, they were also in a lot of pain. They probably didn’t even know why at this point. They hopped onto this strange answer to whatever problems they were tormented from before and continued to push, convinced it was the cure. All the hurt it caused only persuaded them they needed further adjustment.

Ethan wasn’t even paying attention. His eyes were locked on them but he wasn’t seeing. His face had settled into a sad relaxed gaze. They did manage to instill a sense of understanding.

He felt pity for these people.

They climaxed together, dripping with blood-tainted sweat. Weakly, they both faced him and beamed, totally converted to their twisted world.

* * * * *

The two-headed creature left, and Ethan was alone again for a minute. Then they all came back. The one who spoke the most, the leader who probably first dreamt up this crap, approached Ethan.

“Have you made your decision?”

“I have… I want to get the fuck out of here.”

It sighed. “You still do not grasp our reasoning. You still hold on to your desire to be separate. Why?”

“Why?”

“Everyone we’ve ever known who wanted to be separate, wanted to so they could hurt others. Why do you want to hurt others? We can cure you.”

“I don’t want your cure. I don’t hurt anyone. I’m a doctor. I’ve spent my life healing people.”

They didn’t respond. Ethan made an attempt to reach out.

“I can heal you. All of you.”

The leader thought a moment.

“Of course, I understand now.”

“You do?” Ethan could tell it didn’t understand in the least.

“I see what you need to understand.”

“What?”

* * * * *

Dr. Foree was back in the operating room. Back standing over the girl picked up a week ago. This time, two small tables stood on each side of him. On one was a collection of the tools they had been using; old scalpels, saws, needles, thread, pliers, screwdrivers. Everything was rusted solid. On the other table were the materials for use; a forearm, a thigh, the gaping head of a thirty-some-year-old man, and a pile of random skin.

The crowd waited eagerly behind him.

Ethan looked at the girl, at the table of parts, at the knife in his hand.

“What do you want me to do, exactly?”

“Do what your expertise tells you. Heal her. Complete her.”

“I… I…”

“You said you could. Don’t you do it all the time?”

“Not like this.” Ethan looked at them. The leader, especially, was getting edgy. Ethan couldn’t think at all. They wanted him to—what?

Go hog wild? Chop and sew this girl any way he wanted like she’s a blank canvas?

He looked down at her. She was still conscious. She was witnessing everything that was going on. Worse, she was probably still feeling it. Ethan was hoping that the agony she had gone though had short-circuited her sense of comprehension, but maybe not. She looked up at him, blade in his hand, intention to cause her more pain to impress these nuts and buy him time.

“DOCTOR!”

“Alright.”

He looked at the supply table. He avoided looking at the head, lest it look back as well. He focused on the arm. Making a show out of inspecting it, he picked it up, looked at all the sides, as if there was actually something he was trying to determine. Then his took his knife and slid it into the dead limb, cutting through the skin, removing a rectangular piece as if he was a butcher cutting lunch meat. He carefully lifted the hunk of skin, all the while knowing that it made no difference if the damn thing bounced off the floor a few times.

Cradling it in his hands, he took another look at the fidgeting crowd. Then he laid the skin down next to the girl’s side, and looked at the knife in his hand. He would have to jab her with it sooner or later.

He looked at her eyes, blank but alive.

Ethan could feel his heart beating so much it almost hurt. He could hear her heart beating just as rapidly. It was pretty easy to, considering how exposed her insides were. She was aware.

He lightly pressed his knife against her shoulder, what remained of it, about to push harder. He could draw blood with a feather nudge.

Then, inspiration hit him.

“Anesthesia.”

No one said anything.

“I said anesthesia.”

They looked back and forth to each other. The eye-spotted one spoke. “We—we have none.”

“You have none? How do you expect me to work without it? In fact, how do you expect me to work with any of this? These tools are totally inadequate.”

“They are all we have.”

“That will not do. I am the expert and if anyone knows how to properly apply your theory to living subjects, it would be me. Now, to complete her as well as the rest of you, I need the proper tools. Then you will all be… perfect.”

The leader spoke. “Really?”

“Yes.” Ethan was grinning ear to ear, his best salesman smile.

“Before I complete any more work. I will compile a lift of necessary items. Then a few of us will go to retrieve them, and yes, I must go with you. Only I have the knowledge to pick out what we need. Once we have done that we can start on truly transforming you all into flawless people.

They all smiled. They were excited.

“Tell us. We have no time to waste.”

Ethan rattled off some random items; whatever came to mind first; lipo suction cannulas, nagata sculpture knives, an auricular septum elevator, some diamond dermabraders, and a flux capacitor for good measure. They scrawled down the words on a tablet. Then, they exited the room. They had to gather clothes, and ready themselves for another trip outside. They would have to be extra prepared. They were doing more than simply running someone off the road this time.

They all scurried out, leaving Ethan alone with the patient. He thought about trying to make a run for it, but considered that it might be better to wait until he was on the road. He could overpower whoever there was riding with him, and take the car to the police. They might try to tie him up again for the trip though. He would have to have some bullshit ready, a reason why he must be free.

Ethan remembered the girl behind him. She was quivering. She was crying.

He wondered if there was any way to save her. Nothing that he could think of could undo the damage. Even if she did live, would she want to? Worse, what if he came back with the cops and they weren’t here. What if they went on the lam, taking her with them. This may be the last time anyone normal would have access to her.

He knew what he had to do to heal her.

Ethan grabbed the bottom of the curtain, scrunching it up. He took the curtain in both his hands, and pressed them down on what was left of her face. Her body shook violently for about a minute. Then it was done.

He couldn’t hear her heart anymore.

He turned away from her and the leader was right there, stabbing him in the stomach. Stunned, Ethan dropped to his knees. Soon the others were back, surrounding and holding him.

“We believed you.”

“Wait, you—you don’t understand.”

“We should’ve known. You have none of us in you yet. You are still tainted. We have to introduce you to us first.”

It lifted its knife.

“NO! WAIT!”

It held Ethan’s head firm and placed the blade to his cheek. Ethan pulled, but couldn’t move. He could feel the blade sliding under his skin.

“Wait! Wait! I’ll do it! I’ll really help you! Whatever you want. I’ll join you. Stop! Just for a second. Please!”

“But why would I stop if you want to join?”

It slit deep into Ethan’s face. He felt it cutting in, deeper and deeper. It felt like it was going to reach his eye. He screamed then blacked out.

“One way or another, everyone becomes part of us.”

* * * * *

Ethan awoke. He was on the stretcher. The pain was extraordinary. He instinctively grabbed his face then pulled his hand away when it hurt even more. He looked at his palm. It was coated in blood. Ethan’s breath trembled. Low, quick moans of panic escaped him. His hand leveled over his sore that he couldn’t see but feel. He wondered how much of his face was left. He lightly tapped parts of his head to see if the skin was intact. He could determine the breaks directly below his left eye to his jawbone, through his lip. There must’ve been a good two-inch chunk missing.

Then he deciphered another pain, one farther down, around his thigh.

Terrified, he slowly pushed himself upright, constantly glancing down his body, then looking away, not wanting to see what they did. Finally, the point of violence came into his view.

His right leg was gone, cut from the femoral depression. In its place was a small, more slender leg, a woman’s leg sewn on.

A mix of horror and disgust filled his scream. He tried to grab the leg with his hands but couldn’t. His hands wouldn’t touch it. His whole body shook, including the foreign leg that shuddered both to his body’s instructions and of its own authority, a parasite trying to become one with him.

He couldn’t stop spilling out small screams.

Eventually, his brain functioned again and he realized an important fact. He was alone, and he wasn’t tied down.

He was still in the operating room. He looked next to him, the table where the woman still laid. Ethan looked at her right thigh where there used to be a leg.

“Fuckers.”

He looked around. He didn’t hear anything. He needed a weapon. There were the doors that led to the hall. There was another small door, some kind of closet.

He swung his body, lowered the legs to the floor and lifted himself off the stretcher. He could feel the slow cold oozing of blood down the rest of his face. More spurted out the seams between his body and the leg. He tried his best to operate the new appendage, but it only worked on a rudimentary level. When Ethan concentrated, he was able to support his weight on it for a few seconds, enough to limp on it and use his other leg and his arms on the surroundings to move about.

He pushed the stretcher along with him, leaning on it as he made his way towards the closet door. He pulled it open. Inside was a pile of unused limbs and organs. Flies and maggots infested it all.

He noticed something else. The pieces were all on top of some kind of clothes. He strained to reach down without falling. He pulled on the cloth. The parts tumbled out of the closet, but he pulled out what seemed to be a few straight jackets with more possibly underneath. The first skin shed by these people.

Nothing else of use, he limped himself and the stretcher over to the hallway doors. He slid one door open a bit, peeking down the hallway.

It was a clear path.

Ethan knew he had to hightail it. He was already feeling weak and dizzy. He pushed open the door, cursing himself for the loud noise it made. The stretcher was even worse. Its old rusted wheels wailed down the hall, alerting everyone to its movement.

The entrance in front of him opened and one of the mix people came out, the leader.

“You cannot leave. You are part of us now.”

Ethan was ready with the proper course of action this time.

“You want part of me? Have my fist!”

Propelling himself from the stretcher, he sprung forward, driving his clenched fist out. He connected with the leader who dropped backwards. Ethan fell to the ground too. He was feeling very faint at this point. He squinted his eyes, concentrating on the one necessary task of getting up.

He pushed himself to his feet, feeling backwards for the stretcher to brace himself. He could see the leader struggling on the ground. It was plain how Ethan managed to drop him with one shot.

The mix’s neck had tore open and its head hung only by a few cords. It gagged and choked out, striving to speak, juices gushing out all over the floor.

“Just shut up damn it.” Ethan looked at him. It was a prime moment when he could poise his disgust with these people and what they were doing with what he thought was the most humane solution to their disease. Steadying himself on the new leg just long enough, he stomped down his own foot through the leaders head. It exploded like a water balloon.

Ethan had to keep it up. He picked up the leader’s blade, and continued pushing the stretcher down the hall. More doors opened and more mix people charged out at him, their eyes fluttering in disbelief. Somehow, despite how many times victims must have rebelled, this group still could not process that anyone would want to fight back. Familiar from before, these people rushed at Ethan. They couldn’t run, they really could only move with a minute amount more precision than Ethan. He swung the blade across and clipped all three of the fanatics across their necks and faces, dropping them. Loose meat ruptured out of the holes, spraying Ethan across his own wound. This only made the doctor angrier. Even in death, these things were trying to merge with him.

Next, the two-headed creature appeared in front of him, as shocked as the others. Each head had something to say.

“Please, don’t leave.”

“Please stay.”

“You can join us.”

“We always wanted you to be part of us.”

“GET OUT OF MY WAY!” Ethan jabbed the blade straight down between their heads into the one chest. Both owners gasped, and then looked at Ethan, simultaneously screaming “NO!” The devastating terror of being torn apart was all over them. They grabbed his hand, trying to force it back up. Instead of pushing the blade farther down, he yanked his hand back out of their weak grasp. Each of his hands grabbed a head, and he pulled them away from each other. Their mouths swung open but silent as he pulled the being apart, leaving only a second long gusher of blood and organs that dropped to the floor.

“Anyone else? Huh? I’ll rip your arm off and beat you with it.”

Ethan slid a bit, walking over the remains, but was gaining confidence in his new limb and didn’t fall. He heard the screaming behind him. He looked at three more beings coming out of rooms that he already passed, people that he hadn’t seen before. One was missing a head and had its face sewn into its stomach. Another slithered out, no major body parts, just a twisting stalk of necks and random skin bound together with an elongated head on top, possibly made of several fractured skulls. The last was a web of torsos and limbs. It took the most time to crawl, spider-like into view. On top of a thick neck were three heads that met at the mouth, each piece taking the place of one lower jaw. All three heads had a brain inside; all three clicked their teeth against each others. Their eyes shifted all around, fighting to get some of the view. These things were spectacular in a way. A marvel of engineering despite the fact that none of them worked right. They all struggled to get down the hall. It was clear why it took them so long to make an entrance. Ethan decided not to even pay them mind, and instead rushed forward toward the front door.

Outside the door was a small staircase that led up to another door. Ethan left the stretcher behind and climbed up. Unlocking the deadbolt, he slipped out into the deserted street. The fresh night air hit him, and he felt a second wind.

He couldn’t tell where he was. It looked like an abandoned neighborhood, mostly closed stores and empty lots. Ethan didn’t know what to do, where to go. He wouldn’t last long; he was too weak, dying. He scuffled along, scanning everywhere. Behind the building was a parking lot with several cars, all covered by tarps. Ethan hurried to them. Yanking a few of the tarps off, he found several different vehicles, including the Ford Truck that hit his own. Wherever they obtained the cars was questionable, what they were used for wasn’t. All of them were smashed in the front or back. Ethan tried the door on an old Dodge Ram. Not surprisingly, it was unlocked. The keys left in the ignition.

“Mental patients.”

Ethan started the Dodge. His first idea was to clear out of there, but then he saw a pack of matches in the ashtray. All of these cars were probably sitting in a similar state of readiness, and Ethan figured out a way to improve the circumstances.

He used his good leg to hit the gas and sped the truck around the corner, past the doctor’s office. After several feet, Ethan swung the truck around, and flew it right back to the front of the office. He braced himself under the dashboard as the truck bashed through the front of the building. When he felt the thing finally stop moving, he poked his head up to see that he had broke through all the way to the main hall.

He couldn’t see where any of the mix people were, nor did he care. He swung open the door and climbed out the truck to the gas tank, carrying with him the matches and a map from the glove compartment. Twisting the map up into a long stalk, he opened the flap to the gas tank and stuffed the map in leaving a good portion of it pointing out as a wick. Enough for him to light. He climbed out the front hole he made.

Ethan limped all the way to the parking lot when he heard the explosion. He could see the orange glow from the front of the building and smoke was already rising out in large puffs. He stepped into an old white van, its keys waiting to be turned. He slammed the pedal, and was on the road in no time.

He looked behind him. The fire was clear to be seen but none of the tenants were. He was very weak now, could barely keep his eyes open. The bright white lights of a gas station drew him. When he saw an eighteen-year-old kid rushing to his bloody body that had spilled out of the door, he knew it was safe to pass out.

* * * * *

It was five months later. Ethan’s friends had pitched in to ensure he received the best treatment, many handling the work themselves. His face never looked the same. In spite of their best efforts, there was just too much lost. Luckily it was only half of his face, and he always had a joke about his good side at the ready. His exercise was a bit grueling at first, but he adapted to the prosthetic leg sooner than anyone thought. With the help of a cane, he was back to moving naturally. He couldn’t do much surgery anymore. He settled into teaching and advising roles, and of course, there was an interest in his story for its potboiler value and among the medical profession. Indeed, seeing the work the mix people completed did give him a unique perspective on just what medicine could accomplish and the human body was capable of. Whether or not it should be accomplished was another story.

The police thoroughly investigated the area, especially the remains of the doctor’s office. None of the mix people could be found, although a slew of dead bodies, or what remained of them, were uncovered. It took a while for the police to identify them as teeth, fingerprints and any other parts that could be used to establish identity were intentionally removed, even from their dead. No individuality, no names, just flesh.

Ethan wondered whatever became of them. The detectives gave him a few updates when he inquired. Ultimately, there was no resolution. No mental hospital ever emerged as the source of the mix people. No occurrences in which they appeared again. Ethan wondered what the survivors could be doing now. They could be dead. They could be mixing themselves with animal parts. They could be joined together into one giant muddled mass, which he assumed was their eventual goal.

Ethan was concerned about whether they would come back for him. He figured that they probably didn’t even remember who he was, just more meat. Then again, he was an expert on bodies. Perhaps the reason why the mix people’s methods would never work was that there are simply some things the body doesn’t want, just as there are some things the body does. He remained a little scared because, if nothing else, there was always the possibility that one day, wherever it was, that leg of his would track him down.

Ruby Reds and Baby Blues

by Sean MacKendrick

 

Saturday morning, and the sun was shining brightly. There was hardly a cloud present to dampen the rays of light gushing from the robin-egg blue heavens down to the smooth tanned shoulders of the pedestrians making their way along the off-white Plasticrete walks twisting in gentle curves through the city. The sunlight glinted off the silvery multitude of spotless windows covering the skyscrapers along the streets where a few quiet, clean and efficient electric cars whispered along, coated with polish that further reflected the perfect sunlight until the whole city was awash with so much light you’d think God himself was beaming down on the happy populous.

There were birds chirping, of course, singing their tributes to the perfection surrounding them. Sparrows in the green trees and geese in the blue sky and ducks in the blue pond and on the green grass around the pond that sat like a mirror in the middle of the park on the opposite side of the building where I made my home and workplace, where lovers sat on soft blankets with their picnic baskets, feeding each other fresh strawberries purchased from the friendly street merchants and listened to the birds and to the laughter of children running barefoot in the park and to the old man playing his wooden flute at the pond’s edge. There was no sound from the streets, hadn’t been since the city traffic grid was fully computerized a couple years ago to synchronize the movement of vehicles and cutting out any need for shouting and gesturing and honking and making the walking public stay on their toes and try to avoid the sweeping scythe of the grim reaper for one more day. All that was gone, and you could hear the birds and laughter and music waft through the fresh quiet air that breezed softly through the city. Birds and children singing and lovers smiling and the fresh air soaking all the stress and care out of the world leaving only joy and peace and calm serene contentment. That’s the world outside my building. It’s like this every day.

All of which I mention to explain why I’ve had my windows blacked out and sound proofed for years. A private dick can’t have constant good weather and cheer running rampant through his atmosphere when he’s entertaining a client. A customer expects the works when they step into the Lone Eye detective agency and shovel out a few hundred greenbacks to yours truly, and the works is exactly what they get. You won’t see none of that phony “It’s my pleasure to help you and please enjoy this cool beverage while you bask in the glory of the day” garbage when you ask Trigger Steel, P.I., to find the guy that bumped off your Aunt Trudy. It’s a dark and gloomy office I work in, and that suits customer and crime fighter alike just fine, thank you.

Case in point: the dame I been working over verbally and visually all morning is looking at me right now with those big baby blues of hers, and she’s doing it through a curtain of tears. No way she’s looking for someone to flash a big white smile at her and tell her to relax, they’ll find the murderer. Nosir. I keep my pearly whites locked up out of sight behind my lips the whole time, so she knows I’m just as cheesed as she is at a society that would produce a member capable of murdering a friend of the stunning example of bosomy perfection sitting on the other side of my desk. And I sit her where she can see the 3-Deo screen on my wall and look all she wants at the night-rain effects pelting down on the images hustling across the dirty artificial streets with their hair all matted down in their faces. And look she does.

But I only bring this up to set the stage. This story should really start at the beginning, as all good stories do. So now let me begin in earnest the story I call (Note to self: Think of a good name for this case. Incorporate the word “Bloody” if at all possible.)

It was early. Too early. An hour when all the decent folk are asleep. I was celebrating yet another case closed with my long-time companion Jim Beam when the motion sensors registered movement in the hall and buzzed a warning. I grabbed my Plastisteel Saturday Night Special model and slipped it into the holster under my charcoal-grey raincoat. A guy can make quite a few enemies when he puts scum behind bars at a regular pace like myself, especially when he steps on a few toes in the process, and the waffle tread of my size 12 has been pressed into more than one set of toenail polish.

A figure stepped into view on the opposite side of the dirty frosted glass on my outside door. I tugged down my battered fedora and set my features in their best scowl. The door crept open slowly, with a distinct non-squeak, I noticed with dismay. Something to fix when the next meal ticket pays off. My landlord thinks he’s doing me a favor, always fixing my door. I needed to pick up a new batch of old rusty hinges.

I release the grip on my Saturday Night Special as two globes walked in, so round and perfect Magellan would have dropped to his knees and begged for permission to be the first to circumnavigate them, had he been sitting in my chair. Their owner stepped through the door a full second later.

She was tall, blonde and had enough curves in her possession to make a figure eight turn green with jealousy. She barely wore a black dress. The fabric seemed to be struggling for all its might to cover the beauty queen with its meager surface area. The hem sat a few inches below her belt while the top plunged down in a tasteful fashion to stop just shy of her belly button. The whole getup was so tight you could count her freckles through the silky fabric.

She paused in the doorway to look at me briefly with her big blue eyes and tried to stop the tremble in her ruby red lips, which had apparently been stung by some damned lucky bee in the recent past. Then she stepped forward and tripped the light beam I have set up for just such an occasion, and a lonely trumpet sighed out some muted notes from my stereo speakers in response. She paused once again to look for the source of the music, then set forward again with so much sway in her walk I heard a fizzle and smelled smoke as a motion sensor blew a fuse trying to track all the movement in the room. I was vaguely surprised that there was no thumping drum accompaniment. That kind of walk usually carries one.

“I hear you’re the kind of guy that solves problems, Mr. Steel,” she said when the trek from door to desk ended, much too soon for my taste.

I pulled the brim of my Fedora down another notch to make sure my eyes were properly shaded from the dirty light bulb I keep swinging slowly from my ceiling, and leaned back in my chair. After an appropriate pause I leaned forward again and nodded. “You might say that, doll face,” I said, letting the artificial Plastipaper cigarette surgically implanted on the surface of my lower lip bob as I spoke. “You just might say that. When you spend as much time chasing trouble as I do, you can’t help but learn a thing or two about problem-solving.”

I flicked the brim of my hat with my thumb to lift it up, so she could see me narrow my eyes thoughtfully before I continued. “Seems to me that anyone asking a question like that probably has a reason for asking. Could it be that you have the kind of problem that needs special attention like maybe I could provide?”

The leggy hourglass of a prospective client bit her luscious ruby lip with perfect teeth so white I could see the swinging light bulb above slump in shame at the amount of light they reflected while her pendulous walk carried her over to my 3-Deo screen. She stared at the buzzing neon hologram flickering on the side of the fake building next door, reading “MOTEL, va ancy”. I rumpled my raincoat a little more while her back was turned, and turned up the control under my desk to give the room a touch more haze. A puff of smoke floated from the ashtray-shaped smoke puffer on my desk while Dollface sighed at the false window. She turned just enough to say, “There’s been a murder.”

I suppose she thought that would shock me, to hear that someone could get bumped off their mortal coil in this day and age of happy citizenry and high-tech safety, but I solve a murder case a week, and that’s during the slow times. She could have told me the world was round for all the shock I felt. I said, “It’ll cost ya two hundred a day, plus expenses. If I feel like taking the case.”

That got her to turn around entirely. She looked at me in surprise with her bedroom eyes roofed by the kind of eyebrows Michelangelo neglected to paint on the Mona Lisa. “But you haven’t even heard the story yet, Mr. Steel,” she breathed. It was a good thing she had so much room for her lungs; her voice was so breathy she was probably losing a liter of air for every word she spoke.

I smirked and took a long pretend drag on my artificial cigarette. “I just wanted you to know what you were in for before you got started. If you want cheap, don’t even waste your time forming those plump puckerers into another syllable, because my price tag is as firm as those headlights of yours. If you want good then sit right down and spill the cat out of its bag of beans. You want cheap you’re in the wrong place, sister. So go ahead and pick which item in this room has more appeal to you, the door or the chair.” She didn’t hesitate one second before gliding across my hardwood floor and planted herself into the green Plastivinyl chair opposite my little desk. She seemed to have a little trouble sitting still, probably because her legs were too smooth to offer any sort of friction with the chair to keep her in one place.

“Well, let’s get started then,” she sighed. Her batting eyelashes were long enough to knock a few papers of my desk with the resultant breeze. She swallowed heavily once before continuing. “It’s my grandfather. He’s been murdered.” I took out my battered notepad and scribbled Grandfather = dead on it. It’s a move that a client usually finds reassuring. Shows I’m paying attention.

“He was visiting us for a week, just a friendly visit while he was on the East Coast.” A tear dropped from her cheek and ran down her cleavage. “He lives in Kansas, Mr. Steel, and doesn’t get much of a chance to see the family, what with his business and—”

“Just hold it right there,” I interrupted gruffly. “Let’s take this one step and a time. First of all, my mother calls me Mr. Steel. You can call me Trigger. And second, I need a name to call you by, too.”

“Bambi Smith,” Bambi said, smiling for the first time. She ran her velvety tongue over her lips, which somehow pouted even as they smiled, and said, “You can call me Bambi.”

“That’ll work just fine, Bambi. Now let’s get back to the case at hand. You said ‘visiting us’. Just who is it exactly that the old guy was paying a visit to?”

“Well, let’s see.” Bambi gazed at the perforated tiles in my ceiling and tapped the desk with one rounded red nail. “There’s my sister Candy, her husband Englebert and their son Peter, and myself.”

I wrote the names down in my notebook. “All of you live in the same house?”

“It’s a big house, Mr. Steel.”

“I’ve asked you to call me Trigger. If this house is so big, you must have some kind of help to keep the place up.”

Bambi shook her head, working loose a strand of woven gold that made up her hair. “Not really. Just the autoservants.”

“Mm-hm.” I scribbled a little more in my notepad, a doodle of a bunny in a top hat, just moving the pencil to maintain Bambi’s interest. “Cleaner, cook, the usual package?”

“Yes. We’ve got a Maid XLc and a Butler 3200. And a dog, named Spot.” Bambi grimaced. “It seemed like a clever name at the time.”

I wrote the three new names down in my notebook and pondered the suspect list as I had it so far. Two years ago I had surgery to stop my facial hair at three days length so I could scratch my whiskers thoughtfully at times such as this. I slowly did so as I spun the mental wheels. After a while I scratched off the dog’s name as a possible suspect. “How old is this boy Peter?”

“Two months.”

I scratched off Peter’s name as well.

“This granddaddy of yours,” I muttered. “Rich?” Of course he was. There are certain rules a good mystery case must abide by. But a little confirmation always looks good.

Bambi nodded. “Yes, he is. He was, I mean.” Her lips trembled, and she sighed heavily. Her lips stopped trembling, her chest stopped a half minute later. “The whole family is rich. Except for Englebert, maybe.”

I glared at my notepad, pondering. The bunny stared back, mockingly. I normally aim for one small page worth of names and doodles as my meter. Too much info and I run the risk of solving the case before I’m properly dragged into it by the proper intrigue and noir. Two possible lines left to fill in, but that seemed like enough. At any rate, I was running low on metaphors. Gathering up the baggie of cigarette butts I keep ready for traveling with me to crime scenes, I muttered, “Let’s take a walk, sister.”

Bambi looked up at me with those baby blues, questioning. “Nothing left to do but visit the sight itself,” I growled. Bambi sighed, and I had to lean back to give her room to inflate.

The sun greeted us with its normal infuriating brand of cheery goodness as we stepped free of the building, darkening my mood another notch. I pulled Bambi quickly to the safety of my car, where the severely tinted windows keep the fiendish solar glow at bay. Once in I opened up the ashtray to expose the old cigarette butts, which Bambi was kind enough to notice. I started the motor, wincing at the quiet hum the car gave off as it idled. One more thing to look into, when the clams come in from the successful and stylish completion of my passenger’s mystery. Fortunately I always have a backup. I started the misfiring sound effects, and pumped in some burning oil fumes from the spare canister of smells for good measure.

Back in the day, a man in my position could afford to waste a little more time on the set up. A case like this, maybe I could have sent her away twice before allowing Ms. Smith to lure me into her bosomy embrace, at which point I could play the proper reluctant hero and begrudgingly accept the challenge. Nowadays, with everything so backwards, the Feds barge their way in immediately. Wait a good hour, and you’ll probably miss out on your chance.

Pulling up to the house, I saw it was a mansion, of course, resplendent with a dark wrought iron gate to keep riffraff like me out. Bambi pushed it open and sauntered to the door. Being at least two-thirds leg, she made it in a few steps. I hurried to catch up. Bambi pushed the door open when I reached her. I dug out a cigarette butt and threw it on the step, grinding it under my heel before entering. We paused in the lobby to give me time to pull out my notebook and scribble something official in it. To let Bambi know she was getting her money’s worth, I took several minutes to scowl at various objects and scratch my whiskers. I even went so far as to chew on my pencil while glaring suspiciously at an umbrella stand, a move I reserve for select clientele.

“Any clues here?” Bambi asked with a quaver when I turned from the canister. I smirked and slapped the notepad shut.

“There may be, Dollface. There just may be. Where did this dastardly deed take place?”

Bambi nodded towards the stairs. “In the guest bedroom.”

She led the way, struggling against the fabric of her dress, which afforded little room to move. As she grabbed the banister, the varnish oozed underneath her warm grip. A few stitches burst as she sashayed, sending shrapnels of thread in every direction. I tipped down my battered fedora to protect my eyes, steadying myself against the wind generated by her swaying posterior.

We were already too late. The bedroom was crawling with Feds. I recognized one snake in particular and snuck up behind him. As he turned I grabbed him by the shirt and slammed him against a wall. “What’s the deal, Kirker? Not enough satisfaction failing at your own cases, now you gotta butt into my gig?”

Kirker gasped in fear, thinking he was dealing with the devil himself. He wasn’t, quite. I’m not as easy going. “Christ, Percy, what are you doing here? I thought they took your license away.”

I twisted the end of my fake cigarette, which spat out smoke dutifully, billowing into Kirker’s face. “Don’t need a license to find the truth, Kirker. Why not stand back and let a pro show you how it’s done?” I let him go to dig out another cigarette butt and grind it into the floor. “By the way, the name’s Trigger, pal, not Percy. You’ve got me mixed with some other sap.”

“Whatever. Anyway, we’re done. There was no foul play, of course,” he sighed at me. “The old guy’s heart failed.”

I turned to Bambi, who was misty eyed with awe watching a real man like myself in action. “Maybe that’s what someone wants you to think, Kirker. Ms. Smith here thinks different.”

Bambi nodded and sighed, knocking down a few of the Feds in the room during inhalation.

“Nope,” Kirker said, looking through a sheaf of plastipapers. “Full enzymatic profile, biochemical analysis, genetic sweep… no intruders or suspicious physiological condition. Heart attack.”

“You trust your fancy schmancy technology, Kirker,” I growled as I glared at each of the Feds in turn. “I’ve got a different kind of tool. It’s called instinct, Kirker. A man in my profession learns to trust his gut.”

“Whatever you say, Percy.”

“Trigger, Kirker. The name is Trigger Steel. I think someone in the family fixed Pops an arsenic omelet for breakfast. And I think it was Candy.”

Kirker looked through his report. “Who’s Candy? There’s no Candy in my records. Will you please back off and let us finish up here?”

I smirked. “Probably because she wanted it that way. Candy doesn’t want to be noticed. And why would that be?”

“Because she doesn’t exist? Go away, please?”

“Because she killed Pops, that’s why.” I nodded to Bambi. “Something Ms. Smith told me earlier gave me the clue I needed. Seems her husband Englebert is less then successful in financial respects. Set herself up as a recipient to Granddaddy’s fortune, then slipped him a terminal Mickey. Nice and neat.”

“Who’s Englebert?” Kirker sighed, fearing my inevitable solvation of the case.

“That’s right,” Bambi said from the doorway. Her chin dropped to rest on the platform of cleavage just underneath it. “Candy was in the will…”

“We did a full genetic sweep of the house, Percy. No DNA but the victim and the lady right here. Heart attack.”

I scowled. Everything fell into place in my mind like the pieces of a well-oiled jigsaw puzzle. “No, Kirker, that’s just what someone wanted you to think. Someone in this room.”

“He was 106 years old, Percy!” Kirker shouted in desperation, trying to stave off my crime-solving geniusness. “His heart was way overdue to give out!”

“How did you know Candy was on Granddaddy’s will, Bambi?” I asked quietly. “Unless, perhaps, you saw the will yourself. Maybe while checking to see what your cut was, just before you bought him a one-way ticket to Never Ever Land.”

Bambi broke under the relentless pressure of my gritty questioning. “It’s true!” she wailed, shaking with sobs. Everyone in the room grabbed for something to support them while the air shook with her tremors. “I killed him, and tried to pin it on Candy! I wanted to hire a detective to make sure I had a convincing story to tell.”

“You made just one mistake, Dollface,” I said gruffly. “You hired Trigger Steel to solve the case. And Trigger Steel always does just that.” I checked my watch. Solved the case in a less than thirty minutes, and still had time for a brief bout of intrigue. Not bad, Trigger.

“City monitors put you at lunch in a deli four miles from here when the heart attack occurred, Ms. Smith,” Kirker said. “I think you’re innocent.”

“No one’s innocent in this life, Kirker,” I said while fixing Bambi with a withering glare. “No one.”

“He’s right, Mr. Kirker,” Bambi sobbed. “He’s right.”

Kirker looked back and forth between us, gumshoe and goddess. “You’re as delusional as he is, aren’t you, Ms. Smith? You actually enjoy all this detective pulp nonsense?”

“Just take her away, boys,” I said. “She’s got a date with a judge and an electric chair.”

Bambi kissed me suddenly, mashing herself against me. “I’m sorry, Trigger,” she sobbed.

“You call me Mr. Steel.”

“Or call him Percy Slechthauser, since that’s his name,” Kirker muttered, ever the sore loser. “I’ll take her away, but only so she can get some help. God knows we don’t need more of your type.” He escorted Bambi to her destiny.

As for me, I left the Federal boys to clean things up. Let them get the kudos. I had a promise to keep to an old friend who was waiting patiently in a flask back at the office.

Behind my desk once more, Jim and I got intimate while I marked a folder “Bambi” and stuck it in the Case Solved file cabinet. I no sooner sat back down at my desk than a pair of stiletto heels walked into my office, carrying a set of legs genetically engineered for those heels. The owner of the gams stopped just short of my desk, and two dark pools of chocolate milk posing as eyes stared at me from under a long wavy curtain of raven hair. “I hear you solve problems, Mr. Steel,” the slightly pouted lips breathed.

“You might say that, Angel,” I said between pulls on my flask. “You just might say exactly that.”

 

THE BIG PLAN or The Karma Caper

by Dan Edwards

 

As a child I never dwelled on the subject of murder much. Oh, I might have wanted to get back at another kid for some dirty deed they did to me, but with all the bullying, needling, and general kid-abuse I suffered, murder wasn’t an option—that is, until the curse of adolescence came upon me in Junior High School.

In my initial brush with near-murder, I didn’t quite kill the other kid; however, his five-day hospital stay got me expelled from classes and made me an untouchable at school when I returned. The principal called my parents and soberly learned our family secret which I had figured out for myself many years before: the two people that gave me life didn’t appear to have much interest past the initial act. They were working on careers that precluded raising offspring. My dad traveled, and when he would finally work me in for a meeting, he frowned a lot. Wrinkles from his nose up. My mom frowned also, but hid the wrinkles with the low-density cement she smeared on her face. I remember wondering, were all families like mine?

Another unsuccessful, attempted near-murder occurred in high school and that episode got me sent home for good. I was tired of faking interest in school anyway. I, Barely Parr, didn’t need a formal education; I could absorb everything I needed by osmosis from just living my life and watching television. Mr. and Mrs. Parr had no idea that they had accidently produced the Messiah of Social Change.

A short time after my exit from public school, the Beatles convinced me that a revolution was necessary to replace Capitalism with a worldwide love of everybody. Peace, love, and bell bottoms! But that proved to be just as disappointing as believing that I was a normal kid. My genius mind eventually worked it all out: you can’t love everybody. Some people just don’t deserve your love. In fact, some people just don’t deserve to breathe.

So it was with that revelation reverberating in my brain, I decided to embark on a mission to rid the world of the lower-than-scum, extreme miscreants that were ruining life for the rest of us. This was surely my calling, because it excited me when nothing else would. After all, we exterminate harmful insects, euthanize rabid dogs, kill poisonous snakes—the list goes on of necessary eliminations that somebody has to take care of. In the end, with my mission accomplished, I would announce globally that everyone could now relax and enjoy life as it was meant to be.

I was born with musical talent, so even as a high school dropout, I could always get a job. In the sixties and seventies, beer joints and nightclubs in the South were like bus stops—one popped up every few blocks or so all over town. Back then, the bars all had some funky little house band that could get through enough danceable tunes to make a night. And the bar-hopping regulars didn’t care about the musical ability of the pickers anyway; they mostly sought alcohol’s ability to make them act cool while playing musical beds. What an excellent environment for rubbing shoulders with the targeted subjects of my important mission!

Not to justify my mission, which needed no verifiable justification to the mentally astute, but to explain a relevant point in the execution of my tasks, I was patently opposed to the act of murder. Not for any moral reasons mind you, because my parents never took me to Sunday School, but only since I felt that a substantial number of governments around the world were not taking care of the problem themselves. Removing the curs of humanity was plainly the job of the world’s politicians; they were more suited to it than the rank-and-file average citizen. The perfection of my plan to eliminate certain individuals from the population without resorting to the aberrant practice of killing was what set me apart from your average social genius. My remarkable BIG PLAN came upon me with my first serious love affair.

Girls at school were always a lot of fun for me. They could be talked into anything short of sex, especially the ones that had a dysfunctional home life like me. On my first music job, a woman named Madeleine heatedly confessed that she still lived at home with her parents, and at twenty-two, she did so want to be on her own with a man by her side. She only came in the bar where I worked each night to ease the misery of being under her parents’ dictatorial rule. After a few nights together, she told me that she loved me and so I repeated that sentiment back to her. Actually, this time it was true. I had fallen in love with her due to the eager passion of her misery. I offered to let her bunk with me at my place. “Thank you, Barely,” she said, “but only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.” When I asked why only two days a week, she accused me of sounding like her father.

Well, Madeleine wrapped herself around me for a couple of months until I was a fool goner for her. Then one early morning when we were out of whisky and cough syrup, she let it slip that her mother and father were actually her husband and some other woman he kept around the house. Instead of revealing my rage at being suckered, I played the sympathy role. She was desperately distraught and a little miffed that I didn’t earn enough money to keep her if she left her rotten hubby. She raved on and on about the unfairness of life and allowed that her marriage was just a sham. Worked herself into a real tizzy fit. Without stifling my innermost disdain for her social choices, I blurted out that possibly self-destruction was her only way out. “Right on!” she gushed, but only if I would go too. It took some ardent and intense convincing, but she ultimately talked me into simultaneous suicide.

That very night we sat in her car, her in the driver’s seat. With the barrels of her husband’s matched, antique pistols in our mouths and the Beatles’ “Revolution” screaming from the dash speaker, we counted it down. At zero, she squeezed the trigger and I didn’t. I wiped down the gun I had touched, replaced it in its velvet-lined case, and left it on the seat in her Corvair. I removed any other prints from where I had sat in her car, exited, climbed into my old pickup and split for my apartment. The seeds of a highly workable plan had sprouted.

Some might feel that Madeleine’s husband deserved the same as she got; however, he had placed the “other woman” right there in the house with his wife so he wouldn’t have to lie about anything. That took a certain amount of honesty I decided, so I let him slide. Besides, there were plenty of other snakes in the pit to choose from.

Occasionally on a busy Saturday night, I would gaze down from the stage at the dancers gyrating around the dance floor. Quite often, those self-conscious bumpers and grinders resembled the animals on the nature shows on television: bobbing and weaving around like two exotic birds circling each other—the males looking for an opening, and the females coyly trying to show one. A fairly normal scene I guess, until one of those dancing female birds would smile up at me, and pardner, there was nothing coy about those smiles. Since many of the club-hopping women either came in with a date or their husband, as a matter of respect, I wouldn’t smile back. Yet, every so often, especially in the winter when it was cold and thoughts of a warm snuggle filled my head, I would smile back uncontrollably. And if memory serves me, I would also smile back in the summer when the eighty-degree southern nights heated up everyone’s biological inclinations as well. Now, that memory brings me to Sheila.

Sheila was a big girl with big needs. She needed big food to sustain her big energy. She needed big bucks to make her big Cadillac payments. She needed big men to satisfy her big need for compatible friendship. Why she picked on little old me, I couldn’t figure out; I was an even six foot and diet-pill skinny. After giving me the short version of her long story, I fell in love with her too. What a fun gal! She loved to get high and it didn’t matter on what. She loved to go out dancing every night, which was right up my driveway because I worked six nights out of seven in a fancy Texas dance hall. My music pay had gotten much better by then also. So, we swung together for about two or three months until she too dropped a bomb: she told me she had several bad organs that needed transplants. Did I know anyone? When I stuttered out a shocked “N-no,” she said that money would also help. Did I know anyone? “Well, no,” I grunted and then heard the previously dormant long version of her story. Her parents wouldn’t give her any more money because they were raising her three kids and she hadn’t been to see them for six months. Some mother she was.

Three kids! Was she married? She wouldn’t say one way or the other. Her résumé also listed several arrests for possession and possession with intent. My passion for her cooled rather quickly. It wasn’t really love anyway. When the rapid, libido cooling reached thirty-two degrees F, I told her that I had no money to help her and my friends weren’t into the donation thing. She faked a good depression attack so I told her to get high, she would feel better and forget all about her troubles. She went for that. She was already chronically drunk so I fashioned a plan to facilitate her space cadet aspirations. That night after the gig I deposited one hundred bennies into a Rexall candy box and dropped it through the mail slot in her front door. No card. I never missed the cheap uppers (by then I was downing twelve at a time) and I never missed her. I hope I did her children a favor. Society will thank me someday.

The next night two of her friends came in the bar soliciting money for her funeral. I handed over twenty dollars and assured them that, “Cremation was the latest rage.”

Now I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that I only had it in for women. My next socially engineered plan gave an old school chum exactly what he deserved. At my north Dallas high school, the worst thing a boy could do in the early sixties was to get caught smoking in the boy’s room. Big Chester Haire took the worst and made it worser. Chester impregnated three honor roll girls who quietly disappeared from classes. When it became apparent that Chester was the head stud hoss in charge of conception, he laughed it off and challenged anyone who opposed his amatory hobby to prove that he fathered any children. Paternity testing was as distant as moon walking back then.

So I and several of my fellow folly-mongers decided to teach Big Chester a lesson and snap him out of his evil endeavors. Of the five boys who planned the attack, Chester wounded three with his pistol and slashed me and another fool with his switchblade. I didn’t see him again while I was still in school. Then years later on one slow Thursday night at the Circus Bar on Denton Drive, in he walked. I knew him right off because he had a bulge about the size of a revolver under the pocket of his sport coat and a long, skinny bulge in his pants pocket exactly the shape of a formidable switchblade knife. Like a movie, the memory of the night he shot my friends and stabbed me played out on the wide Cinemascope screen in my mind. Back live in the bar, I watched while he played touchy-feely on every female within arm’s reach. It was him alright. Out of respect for his victims I immediately began to connive another plan.

The only other person I knew who packed heat was Marsha the bartender. She and her pistol were always loaded and ready for action. Marsha looked like a blonde fireplug with squinty blue eyes. She was strong as an ox, a male ox. I wanted no part of Chester’s action so I slipped off the stage at break time and circled around to the bar.

“Hi, Marsha, gimme a Stinger,” I said and drew a bead on her steely blues. “See that big fella with his hand on the waitress’s…?”

“Yep,” she replied quickly.

“Someone told me that he’s had his eyes on your fluff.”

“On Lois?” she roared.

“That’s what they told me,” I stated with all the honesty I could muster.

“I’ll kill the SOB,” she said and reached under the bar.

“You better hurry, Marsha, he keeps looking Lois up and down.”

Marsha plowed down to the end of the bar like a Sherman tank in the North African desert. As she approached Chester’s position, he sealed the deal just like I knew he would.

“Hey barkeep,” he barked, “pour me up a rum and coke and be quick about it.”

“I got your rum and coke right here,” Marsha snapped and raised her pistol.

Chester went for his, but it was too late. She waited just long enough for him to get his hand around the pearl handle, then, she squeezed. The loud pop from Marsha’s weapon brought on an impotent gasp or two, but mostly a light buzzing sound filled the room. Just another shooting… ho hum.

“Somebody call the law on this fella,” Marsha ordered. “He drew on me and I had to shoot him.”

And that was all there was to it. After the ambulance and the cops left, we returned to the stage and played a danceable cover version of Jody Reynolds’ hit record, “Endless Sleep.”

For the next few years I had some pretty good hits and several disappointing misses in my campaign to expel the world’s bottom-feeders from society. Sometimes I used the simultaneous suicide plan; sometimes the overdose plan; and sometimes the extreme jealously plan. All were devilishly fun to execute. Proudly, I had come up with, THE BIG PLAN. The plan to end all other plans. The colossal plan that would install me as the head potentate of the social engineering crowd. I had never been the head of anything before.

Somewhere in the mid-seventies, my band got a break. We were honored with a contract to tour several important cities across the South: Shreveport, Biloxi, Jackson, Key West, and a few smaller venues between Texas and Georgia. My campaign, my mission, could then be expanded to other hotbeds of sin that were defiling the warmer portions of our great country. Today, Jackson, Mississippi—tomorrow, Chicago! New York!

Our drummer quit in Biloxi. Said he felt uncomfortable in my presence. I believe he had some emotional problems that he was dealing with that impeded his ability to reason correctly. We hired a cool cat right off the stage in the lounge at our hotel and he and I hit it off right away. Here was a guy that saw the world as I did: a truly wonderful place to live once you deleted the riffraff. Never before had I divulged my great mission to anyone, yet, this dude had a mind almost as big as mine. We bunked together; we took our meals together; we shared groupies together. Me and Mattly Crow were tight. One early morning in Dothan, Alabama, Mattly and I were having a bowl of watery chili after the gig and I laid it all out. And just as I suspected, he was duly impressed with the plans I had used to accomplish my magnanimous goals. He also agreed with me, my BIG PLAN would shoot us to the top of the list in the revived New Deal, the Great Society, and the coming Era of Change!

It had occurred to me before that I possibly might need to franchise my efforts out to cover a more broad area of the world’s population. Yes, it would be risky business in light of all the bored policemen out there looking for someone to nab. Not concerned for myself, of course, since I was fervently opposed to murder, but the members of our team who might over-zealously be tempted to bypass the established plans and just shoot the low-lifes on sight. Franchisee training would have to be strict. Anyone caught murdering would be flogged publicly in the square. A lot of hard work to be sure, but worth it in the end. Any crusade for enlightenment has to have its authority figures to force the people to comply with what is best for them.

Mattly, who suggested round-aboutly that he had been to law school, drew up our franchise agreements and loyalty contracts. During our next month on the road, I signed up twenty-two incredibly smart people who agreed to use my BIG PLAN to remove only the most repulsive of the mad dogs of society. We didn’t charge a franchise fee because we might someday decide to apply for charity status on our taxes. Since our MO might inexplicably be misconstrued by some to be a little shady, we ordered everyone to spy on each other and report any non-compliance immediately. This worked well in spite of the Gestapo reference remarks of a small few of our followers. Tattletale or Gestapo, it didn’t matter, we knew that common people can’t be trusted to police their own behavior.

This common human behavior unexpectedly reared its ugly pointed head in none other than my semi-trusted partner, Mattly Crow. His brilliance must have been more than his mind could handle and he began to deviate from the published rules of the BIG PLAN. Delusions of dictatorial entitlement found their way into his rhetoric, leaving me to wonder how a man of his social intelligence could drift so far afield. Daily he got worse, until one afternoon on a dusty street corner somewhere in Georgia, he finally snapped. He commanded that we round up everybody that didn’t conform to our version of propriety and gas the lot. Think of the travel expenses we could save, he declared loudly. When I reminded him that the BIG PLAN did not include outright murder, he bristled. It seemed to him that I was letting something as insignificant as morality get in the way of social progress.

“But outright murder,” I explained, “makes us no better than the vermin we seek to remove from our Great Society.”

“Au contraire,” Mattly boldly interposed, “we have risen above the bourgeois concept of morality. The vermin problem must be addressed by those of us on a higher level. It is our duty… our destiny, to accept this responsibility thrust upon us by the degradation of society. Only we know what is best for the world!”

By the time he reached the end of his rant, he was panting and sweating. “Sit down for a moment,” I told him calmly, “and get yourself together.”

“Never shall I sit!” he bellowed for the entire world to hear. “Not until my BIG PLAN is taken to its final conclusion! My name will go down in history! Crow! Crow! The people will shout my name from the rooftops! Crow! Mattly Crow!”

His BIG PLAN? Wait a minute, it was my BIG PLAN. He staggered and grabbed my shoulders to steady himself. Then, as if delivering a line in a low-budget war movie, he dramatically whispered, “Barely, are you with me? Will you stand beside me? Tell me Barely, are you willing to kill to elevate the whole of society up to our level?”

I pondered for a moment. “No Mattly, I don’t believe I’ll do that,” I sincerely stated.

“But you must!” he shrieked. “You’re a committed member of the elite! You’re locked in! You can’t back out!”

His back stiffened, his chin shot out, his voice rose an octave as he taunted tritely, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem! Common! Average! Unknowing! Unfeeling! Just another cockroach on the kitchen counter of life!”

His roaring had drawn a crowd. The previously empty, small-town street corner where we stood became surrounded by nosy, peeping, prying, inquisitive busybodies needing a diversion from their one-horse existence.

“You… are a traitor!” Mattly screamed. “A lowdown traitor to the elite group that I so painstakingly founded!”

In my face and back down to a whisper, he repeated, “A lowdown traitor… you’ll have to step aside or be eliminated, you know that don’t you.”

“By who?” I grunted indignantly. “You?”

His wild eyes widened and his face flushed to crimson. “Yes, by me,” he replied sardonically.

When Mattly thrust his hands toward my neck, I hit him. I punched him so hard that he was out before he hit the ground. Some silly female screamed and everyone froze for a moment. Then two good Samaritans knelt over Mattly’s prone figure.

“Why… this man is dead,” one of the fellas said.

The other whipped out his cell and punched 911. Two more farmers seized my arms. “Murderer!” one of the women yelled. “Yes, murderer!” cried another.

“Stand easy,” the man twisting my right arm behind me said. “You’re in big trouble now, you long-haired, low-life punk. This town don’t tolerate killers. The more vermin like you we can take off the street, the better off society will be.”

Now, here I am in a dank city jail somewhere in Georgia. There’s no use trying to explain to the authorities that Mattly had threatened me… or that he reached for me first. It seems the folks here are very diligent about removing the vermin from their streets. A worthwhile labor, I concur; however…

As I sit here on this filthy cot in my cramped cell, I earnestly pray that someone will find this narrative. Jailhouse conversion? Not really. I knew He was there all along. If someone can benefit from my experience, good for them. My main mistake was to trust my BIG PLAN to a fellow human. Because no matter how intelligent they are, they still can’t be trusted.

 

One Bad Choice After Another

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

“Tell me one more time why I agreed to this.”

Karen looked at me with embers behind her green eyes. The headlamp she wore cast a glare as she stared at me, making it difficult to tell if the fire there was at all playful.

“Because,” she said, her tone suggesting she was more irritated than I’d hoped. Not that I could have hoped for anything else, really. “You’re the one who is always bitching about needing some sort of adventure. Something exciting. Well here we are: excitement coming out of our asses! Happy now?”

She was right. As always. I had been the one that insisted we explore the cave we found while hiking. I had, in fact, been the one that insisted we go for a hike at all. Everyone else would have been happy hanging at the camp and swimming or reading or doing anything other than wandering aimlessly through a cave that had so many passages you had to wonder how the ground didn’t collapse.

Still, her tone had been a little sharper than necessary, but I guess that’s marriage for you. Some days one or the other of you is wound just a little tighter than usual, and the words come with just a little too much zing attached.

I swallowed the burst of anger in my throat and reminded myself that we were all tired. We had hiked for nearly three hours before we even found the cave, and the four of us had wandered for close to another three before we would admit to ourselves we were lost. That had been nearly six hours before.

And still, the fact that it was my fault we were there hadn’t changed.

So, I left off my usual sarcasm. I took out my water bottle and had a long drink before I leaned against the wall and said: “Sorry. I’m just a nervous talker.”

“I know, babe.” She smiled weakly, but I could tell her exhaustion had her feeling raw on the inside.

“I think we should all take a rest for a minute. What do you two think?”

Rachel dropped her pack to the ground and plopped down beside it. She unzipped it and dug around inside for a moment before pulling out a water bottle and two Clif bars. She tossed one to her husband, Alex, before tearing into her own. He sat down beside her and took a drink from her water bottle when she offered. The four of us had been friends for well over a decade, but I could tell that at that moment they both wished they’d never met either of us before.

When they finished eating, Rachel looked at her watch and let out a bewildered sigh.

“Well, I think we should think about setting up some sort of camp. We’ve been walking all day. And all night for that matter. I need to just sit here for a while or I’m going to collapse. It’s dark outside, anyway. We probably wouldn’t even be able to see the exit.”

“I agree,” Alex said, leaning back against the rock wall. “I could use a little more to eat, and maybe even a few hours sleep. I hate to ask this, but does anyone have any idea where we are?”

“We’ve been in this same stretch of cave for the past three hours,” Karen said. “Which makes me think we’re nowhere near where we first entered. There were tons of side tunnels coming off that first tunnel.”

“Yeah,” I said, remembering. There had been one to our left after only about fifteen minutes after we set foot inside. From there we passed a tunnel on the right or left every twenty minutes or so. “We’d walked for close to two hours before we made that first right-hand turn.”

“That was when we first heard the water,” Karen said, her eyes glazed with memory. “We never did find that damn river.”

The statement hung in the air like an insult handed to you just after someone socked you in the gut. We all felt it, but it stung me the most. Just like all the other events of the day, it had been my idea that we try to find it, after all. The whole day had just been one bad choice after another.

“So, we should turn back, then, right?” Rachel asked, looking first to Alex, then to Karen, and then, finally, to me.

It seemed that no one wanted to be the first to speak. There was something in the question that seemed charged, loaded. Like it might explode in our mouths if we tried to answer. We all just sat there, leaning against the rough stone walls, looking at anything but each other.

“It doesn’t really help that none of us know what we’re doing,” Alex said.

We all agreed silently. For my part, I had never been in a cave that hadn’t also been some kind of tourist attraction, and I was pretty sure that was true for the others as well. That fact alone should have been enough to keep us all outside.

“We should never have come in here,” I said.

“Well now,” Karen said. “That’s not going to help us get out of here.”

“I know. I just feel like shit for getting us all into this.”

“As you should,” Alex said, grinning beneath the light of his headlamp. “Come on, man. We all chose to come in here. You didn’t force anyone.”

I frowned, wanting to believe him. I didn’t.

“I say we all try to get some sleep,” I said, changing the subject. “We can try to come to a decision once we’ve had a bit of rest. Right now I’m so tired I can barely think at all, much less straight.”

Everyone nodded and grumbled their consent. We spent the next few minutes digging Clif bars and individually wrapped cheeses out of our packs and then stuffing our faces. We made sure not to eat all of our rations, though, just in case it took us longer to get out of the cave than we were all hoping. After our impromptu dinner by headlamp, Rachel and Alex curled up together beside the cave wall. They mumbled a half-hearted “good-night” and then turned off their lights. I could see they were using their packs as pillows, and I wondered vaguely if that was comfortable.

Karen and I decided to try the same arrangement, but without much luck. She had always been prone to insomnia, even in the least stressful of times. With a real reason to be anxious—like being lost in a cave, for example—sleep was as unattainable for her as the Fountain of Youth is for everyone else. After what felt like hours, but was probably only a few minutes, she sat up and whispered to me in the dark.

“It’s no use,” she hissed. “I can’t sleep. I’m going to go a little further down the passage to see if I can makes heads or tails of where we are. It might help us decide if we should turn around or not.”

“I’ll go with you,” I whispered back, sitting up.

“No. Try to get some sleep. I won’t go far.”

“I really think we should stick together, Karen. What if something happens and you get hurt?”

“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Hang here and get some rest. If I’m not back in half an hour or so, come find me.”

After eight years of marriage, I recognized that tone. There would be no arguing with her now that her mind was made up. I could try, of course, but I knew how it would end: both of us pissed at each other and even more unhappy than we were when we started. She was going to do what she wanted no matter how I felt about it.

“Okay,” I said, more than a little irritated.

“Don’t worry,” she said again. “I won’t be gone long.”

She turned and switched her headlamp on. I leaned against the wall and watched as it moved steadily away from our mock camp. After a few minutes, the passage must have curved, because the light vanished. I looked at my watch. It was about two o’clock in the morning. I would give her half an hour and then I’d go after her if she wasn’t back yet.

I rested my head against the wall and closed my eyes for half a second. The stress of the day and all the energy I had spent hiking worked together so that that brief instant was all it took for me to fall dead asleep.

* * * * *

Rachel pushed me gently, and I woke with a start. A quick glance at my watch told me it was just after five in the morning.

“Fuck!” I said aloud, and then to myself: Why do I screw everything up?

“Is Karen back?” I asked. As I looked around the makeshift camp, the panic in my throat eased for an instant as the hope that she’d returned while I slept popped into my mind.

Before Rachel shook her head in response, though, I knew she hadn’t. She would have woken me.

After spending about five seconds making sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind, I turned in the direction I last saw Karen heading and was off.

“When did she leave?” Rachel asked from behind me after a quarter of an hour. I hadn’t turned to check, but I could sense that both she and Alex had followed me from the start.

“Around two,” I said, not slowing my pace.

“You let her go off alone?”

“Come on, Rachel. You know how she can be sometimes. I tried to go with her, but I got the feeling she was just wanting to be alone for a little while. She’s probably just up the tunnel here, curled up asleep.”

“Maybe.”

She sounded about as certain as I felt. Karen required more solitude than most people, and sometimes if she could go off by herself for a little while she could get around her insomnia long enough to catch a little rest. But, unfortunately, as the minutes ticked by and turned into an hour, we still hadn’t found her. Asleep or otherwise.

After two hours of walking I was growing very nervous and was having trouble keeping myself calm enough to keep moving. Just when I thought I couldn’t handle anymore uncertainty, we came to a fork.

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“What do we do now?” Rachel asked.

“When in doubt, Merriadoc,” Alex said from behind, “follow your nose.”

I wanted to laugh. I did. He was trying to ease the tension we were all feeling, but I just didn’t have it in me.

Which way did she go?

I felt so desperate that for a few minutes I actually did try to sniff out a difference between the two tunnels. Maybe if I’d had any experience spelunking I could have detected something, but to me both passages had the same musty dirt smell that I’d always associated with basements and Halloween Haunted Caves.

Even though I couldn’t smell a difference, after a moment of standing there I thought I did detect something. Not in the smell, but in the sound. There was a deep, rhythmic pulse that I almost felt more than heard coming from the right-hand passage. It was a very slow and drawn out sound, but it repeated over and over: hhhuuuuuuuhhhhhh-nnnuuuuuuuhhhhhh. Hhuuuuuuuhhhhhh-nnnuuuuuuuhhhhhh. It seemed so familiar that I couldn’t quite place it for the longest time. And then I had it.

It sounded like someone breathing.

Sleeping, to be more exact. It sounded like someone—or something—breathing while in the midst of a deep dream.

It was so faint, though, that I had almost convinced myself it was my imagination. If Alex hadn’t said something then, I probably would have ignored it.

“Does anyone else hear that?” he asked.

“I do.”

“Do you think it’s Karen sleeping up ahead?”

The terror that had been growing in my chest gave way for a moment. That possibility hadn’t occurred to me. “Maybe,” I said, hopeful.

I stepped a few feet into the tunnel, straining to hear. “Karen!” I called, still a little spooked, so that I didn’t do it as loud as I could. The breathing seemed to pause for a moment, but then resumed.

I started to go deeper in the tunnel, and Rachel followed.

From behind Alex asked: “What if it’s a bear?”

“We’ll figure that out when the time comes,” I said and continued without pausing.

About a hundred yards down the passage the floor fell away to a steep incline. It wasn’t a straight drop, but it would have been a nasty fall if I’d come upon it unawares. We stood there for a moment, looking into the darkness.

“I don’t think Karen came this way,” Rachel said as she and Alex crowded around me at the edge of the slope, hoping to see better.

“Neither do I,” I said. Something about the place felt wrong. There was thick dust and muck over everything. “I don’t think anyone’s been through here in a long, long while. Nothing looks like it’s been disturbed recently.”

“Right. And when did you get your Tracker’s merit badge?”

“Okay, Alex, good point. I don’t know what I’m talking about, but something about this just doesn’t seem right. I don’t think Karen would have come this way alone.”

“She could have not been paying attention and fallen,” Rachel offered.

I frowned and shook my head. Looking more closely at the ground, I noticed that the ground was much softer through this part of the cave. I looked closely and was able to spot the footprints the three of us had left as we came through. I pointed it out to the others.

“While Alex is right,” I said, “and I don’t know shit about tracking, it really only looks like three sets of tracks have come through here. I don’t see anything by the edge of the slope, either.”

“Neither do I.” The voice came from behind us so suddenly that it startled us all, but none so much as Rachel. She let out a gasp that was almost a shriek and jumped almost two feet into the air—away from the source of the sound. Which meant toward the drop off.

When she landed, a large rock slipped out from under her foot, and her momentum carried her toward the edge of the precipice. She slammed down hard on her tailbone before her momentum carried her into Alex’s legs, sending him tumbling after her. Alex cried out in either fright or pain—I couldn’t tell which—and then the two of them went crashing into the dark.

Karen was at my side and holding my hand in an instant. I nearly jumped out of my skin again, but the realization of what had just happened dawned upon me. In stunned silence, Karen and I turned toward the sound of Rachel and Alex’s calamitous journey down the slope. When the crashing came to an end, I waited for a moment before calling down after them.

“Alex? Rachel? Can you hear me? Are you all right?”

It took a second, but Alex’s voice drifted up from below.

“We’re all right. A little banged up, but nothing seems to be broken. There’s a pretty nasty drop off at the bottom here. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get back up without some rope.”

“I found a way out,” Karen yelled. “I can run back to the camp and bring rope and help.”

“Yeah, you might want to do that.”

There was something different in Alex’s voice. Something that sounded very much like fear. A second later I thought I heard Rachel say something. It sounded like a question.

“Mike,” Alex yelled. “I think there’s something down here with us.”

Then Rachel screamed.

Karen gripped my hand with one of hers and squeezed my bicep with the other. Her nails dug deep into my arm.

I gasped as Alex’s voice joined his wife’s. A second later both voices were drowned out by a sound unlike any I had heard before. Somewhere between a screech and a snarl, the sound brought goose bumps across my flesh as it echoed through the cavern.

The timbre of the screams in the dark below us changed. They went from a bone-chilling tone of fright to a sickening chorus of pain as a second screeching/snarling voice joined the first. Then a third came, and a fourth, until there were so many that it was impossible to count. Within seconds Alex and Rachel’s voices diminished. Eventually, they died out all together.

Karen began to back away from the edge of the downward slope, her face a mask of panic-stricken terror. The way her headlamp illuminated it against the utter darkness of the cave around us suddenly seemed to me the most frightening part of everything that was happening. It took me a second to realize she was still clinging to my arm and pulling me away from the slope with her.

I almost began to protest, not wanting to leave Rachel and Alex behind, but then I heard something from the pit below. The things that had attacked my friends, whatever they were, were talking to each other.

I couldn’t understand their language, but there was no doubt in my mind that what I heard was intelligent communication. This, on top of everything else, was just too much. As we turned to run, I heard something else from the bottom of the slope. Despite my better judgement, I paused and cocked my ear in order to hear what was going on. The things were still chattering to each other, but there was a strange scraping sound that I couldn’t quite place. In a gift of vision, it suddenly occurred to me that what I was hearing was these things crawling up the rocks toward us.

“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing Karen’s hand. She led the way out, taking me into the passage we’d ignored when we first heard the strange breathing sound.

“The way out is pretty far,” she said. “But if we hurry, I think we can make it.”

We took off running, with her in the lead. The cave was much rockier and wet here, not to mention that it had a fairly serious uphill grade. Our boots fought for every foothold, and we both slipped several times as we tore through the tunnel. Once or twice we lost our balance and hit the ground. As these happened more often, I became aware of sounds behind us. Scratches, grunts, and other disheartening sounds were growing louder and more frequent, and I felt the same terror from before sprung to life anew in my throat.

But each step we took brought fresher air that carried with it hope. Hope that we might actually make it to the outside. What we would do when we got there was irrelevant. One goal at a time was all my mind could handle at that point.

Karen slipped and fell, crashing down hard on her left knee. She let out a cry of pain and slumped onto her right side, cradling her knee.

We had been running for half an hour by then, and how I was able to pick her up without stopping still confounds me. But I lifted her onto my shoulder and carried her through the cavern on a wave of adrenaline. My pace was slowed, though, and I could hear the sounds of our pursuit growing closer.

“I can walk now,” Karen said several minutes later.

I grunted and picked up my pace, not trusting her knee yet. If she was wrong and stumbled again it would likely mean our deaths.

Minutes ticked by and the cave grew closer around us, making it difficult for me to carry Karen. I ducked and slid as much as I could, but the passages were shrinking and my back was starting to get pretty adamant in its protests. Not for the first time since we set out to go hiking yesterday, I made a decision.

“We’ll try it now,” I grunted. “Be ready to run the second I put you down.”

“I will.”

I heard in her voice the same fear that was in my mind: what if her knee won’t support her?

Pushing the thought as far into the back of my mind as I could, I paused for an instant and set her down. She stumbled on her first step, and I nearly grabbed her. But she stayed up and kept moving. I could tell it was causing her serious pain the way she was favoring it, but we were keeping a pretty brisk pace regardless.

Seconds turned to minutes and as our pace began to diminish, the sounds of pursuit were getting louder. I spared a glance back once and thought I saw something, but it had to have been my imagination. If it had been as close to us as I’d thought we would have died seconds later.

I was beginning to lose hope, beginning to think that maybe lying down and letting them have me not be so bad after all. But then it appeared. It started as no more than a thumb-sized dot, but each step I took brought it closer: sunlight.

The sight of it renewed me, and Karen must have seen it, too, because her pace quickened as well.

We were sprinting by then. How we managed to keep our feet in that rocky terrain is a topic for theologians to discuss. All that mattered was that the sunlight was getting closer, and we would be safe there.

I don’t know why I believed that, but I did. Maybe I read too many stories as a kid or maybe something was happening on a deeper, more instinctual level. Either way I thought—no, I knew—that we would be safe as soon as we hit the surface.

As if sensing the same thing as I, but preferring a different outcome, the things behind us began moving faster, narrowing the gap between us. The snarls and screams and screeches were getting louder faster than the light was getting closer. I thought I could feel the heat of their breath on my skin, and imagined they were nipping at my legs, taking tiny scrapes of flesh with them until my skin felt sunburned.

Fear and pain mounted, and with one final burst of speed I didn’t think either of us had left in reserves, we broke through the cave mouth. As I crossed into the morning sunlight, I felt a jab of pain in my left heel and went tumbling forward. I rolled head over heel down a rocky hill, eventually slamming back first into a boulder and stopping.

Through the haze of pain, I could make out several shapes in the mouth of the cavern, crossing back and forth, yammering to each other. They were pointing at me and Karen, who had run down to where I’d fallen and was leaning against the same boulder I’d crashed into, gulping air and nursing her knee. Otherwise she seemed fine.

The creatures were never completely visible. They ducked in and out of the pockets of shadow inside and around the cave. At first I thought they were very doglike, but the longer I watched them the more they took on feline characteristics.

Covered in what looked like filthy, matted fur, their snouts were long like a dog’s with large mouths and very sharp teeth. Saliva dripped from their chins and large tongues as they barked and chattered to one another. They sat on their hindquarters and held their front paws in front of them, though to call them paws is a little misleading. Long, slender fingers with sharp claws opened and closed in ways that were uncannily hand-like, and it seemed that they might even have had thumbs, but it was too far away to say.

“They seem like they’re trying to decide something,” Karen said between breaths.

She was right. I got the distinct impression that they were discussing something, and I didn’t need three questions to guess what it was.

I looked at my heel, which was now but one of many injuries commanding my attention. My whole body, especially my head, throbbed with a pain so intense I was finding it difficult to understand what was happening around me. My sock, just above the top of my hiking boot was torn and soaked in blood. I pulled myself up on the boulder and tried to put weight on my left leg and nearly passed out from the pain.

The chattering of the creatures got more excited.

Karen, seeing the extent of my injuries, and not knowing what else to do, found a long, straight stick that I could use as a crutch. I thanked her as I leaned against it, still feeling nauseous from the last attempt at walking.

I took one last look at the creatures, which seemed on the verge of disregarding whatever it was keeping them at bay and coming after us, and started moving as fast as I could away from them and down the hill. I was in too much pain to worry about whether we were headed toward the camp or not, but luckily Karen had a clearer head. She removed the old-school GPS her uncle had insisted we take with us the day before. It took her a few minutes since we were afraid to stop moving, but she got us pointed in the right direction. We thought we had the radio with us for a moment, but then we remembered that Rachel had been carrying it.

We were lucky in one small way: since we hadn’t returned the night before as expected, and since they couldn’t raise us on the radio, Karen’s aunt and uncle had organized a search party. Several of the members of this party knew about the caves in the area and had sent people to all the known entrances. We stumbled upon them about twenty minutes after exiting the cave.

Help was called in and we were escorted back to camp where the police had already arrived. They weren’t very convinced by our descriptions of the creatures or our accounts of what happened to Alex and Rachel, despite the fact that they questioned us separately and our stories matched exactly.

I can’t say I blamed them. I wouldn’t have believed me, either.

Another search party went out, headed toward the cave we used to make our escape. We warned them repeatedly and begged them not to go, but I think that just made them more suspicious of us.

Karen and I were taken to the hospital to make sure we would be well enough to be taken into custody. My achilles tendon had been severed, and the imagined cuts on the backs of my legs turned out to be real. Most of the skin on my legs and parts of my back and arms was gone. On top of that, I shattered several ribs when I hit the boulder, which was also when I got the concussion.

The good news is the doctors say I’ll be all right.

It’s just going to be a little while before they can get me in to surgery. In the meantime, I have the morphine which is administered by the all-powerful button to keep all my troubles at bay: the pain that won’t stop, the screams of Rachel and Alex that I still hear, and the feeling that those—things—are still nipping at my legs that I can’t shake.

The morphine is all that I have to help with all of that, and it isn’t working.

 

Precipice

by Erin Woods

 

It was dark in the dressing room and Kale was hot despite the cool air circulating from nearby windows. Again his deft fingers caressed the heavy silk robe he carried while sounds of ecstasy drifted from the empress’ chamber. Kale was the only servant with the privilege of being so near on such an occasion. His fellow valets would want to hear details, but he was too deep in his own covetous thoughts to remember the information for which they so hungered.

Most men lusted after the empress for she was the embodiment of beauty, but the emperor… Kale’s twin had already expressed his jealousy in the letters they exchanged. He took a deep breath and tried to think of something else, tried to ignore the tightness of his breeches. Kale was almost startled when his lord came through the doorway for the robe. The emperor was silent, but Kale knew nothing escaped notice; nothing ever did with immortals, especially not this one. His fellow servants said they could often feel their lord’s magic permeate any room. Kale had yet to have that experience in the year he’d been there.

The emperor looked in his thirties, but was one of the oldest and most powerful mages in the world. He was the empress’ match; he was refined, beautifully masculine, strong, with an arrogance about him that Kale found alluring. He was wakeful, volatile, fastidious, but Kale was willing to play the thinking game. He had a knack for predicting what was desired before it was commanded. For the emperor, like the lords before, he was prepared to serve as desired.

The smell of exotic soaps in the marble bathing room filled Kale’s senses as he followed his lord. As the emperor stepped down into the hot water, Kale poured wine from a waiting decanter. He then admired the manicured hand that took the goblet from the tray.

Kale allowed himself a brief distraction while his peers refreshed the bathwater. What it would be like to run his hands through the emperor’s extensive black hair… But so far his lord seemed uninterested in such diversions. It was only fitting that his attention was on the most beautiful, most powerful woman in the world.

“Kale,” his lord rumbled.

Goosebumps spread across Kale’s skin. He hadn’t realized the emperor knew his name. It must have been magic. He went to his lord’s side and bowed. It was rare the emperor spoke to a servant directly. His voice was calm and tantalizing.

“You were formerly employed by Lord Tiernan.”

“Yes, sire.” Kale’s twin, Kalil, still served Tiernan.

The emperor’s smirk lingered on his face. “I can see why he liked you. You are a pretty man, and attentive.”

Kale bowed again. “Thank you, sire.” The compliment made his blood surge.

“Why did you leave him?”

“Sire, I saw a better opportunity.”

The emperor placed the goblet down on the edge of the marble bathing pool. “Perhaps not the opportunity you were hoping for.”

“Sire.” He had to proceed with caution, not let his lust run away with him. Such a relationship would ensure his place; bring him wealth and a life of leisure.

His lord turned his head, just a little, so he could look up at Kale from under a wave of damp black hair. His eyes were cool and deep, his kohl was still pristine. “My regular attendant has disappeared, so it is up to you.” He ran his hand under his mane and fanned it over the stone floor.

Kale tried to remember to breathe as he picked up the comb and returned to his majesty. He hesitated for a moment before beginning the delicate grooming ritual. He was careful not to break a hair or snag any fashionable bejeweled braids. His lord’s bare shoulder was so close; beads of moisture speckled the surface and the heat rising from his newly bathed skin sank into Kale’s core. Kale wanted to touch that shoulder, feel the heat on his fingertips, trace the nape of his neck, smell his hair. He envisioned the emperor turning and embracing him. Touching another’s hair under most circumstances was a signal for imminent lust. Only trained courtesans were bold enough to try such a gesture towards royalty.

“Perhaps you’re better than the regular man,” the emperor said, breaking Kale from his thoughts. “Perhaps it should be your permanent position.”

“I do as you please, sire,” Kale said.

“I hope it would also please you, Kale.” The emperor’s voice was a purr, thick with temptation.

Kale tried to calm down. “I wish to do whatever is your majesty’s pleasure.”

“I don’t know if you know anything about that.”

“I will do my best to learn, sire.”

“I have no doubt, for you are rumored to be most clever. I’m sure you’ve heard word of the benefits of being efficient in my service.”

“Yes, sire.” He looked around to see they were alone. The emperor must have sent the others away with a thought. Kale watched his hands work through the emperor’s pristine hair. He had to prevent himself from fondling the strands. He had to wait…

“But I am nefarious. There will be no such rewards.” His eyes were closed.

It wasn’t true. Kale had seen the proof of the legend, perhaps the emperor was ruthless and malevolent when dealing with treacherous nobles, but had always treated his servants well. He supposed servants were not known to fan the fires of the eternal civil war. “Sire, if I may be so bold.”

“You may. We are alone.” His voice was soft; Kale had to strain to hear him.

“We have known only contentedness in this service, sire.”

“You do not seem content, Kale,” he said. “You will regret your arrival. You should leave as soon as you’re able.”

“Never, sire. My only desire is to be of use to your majesty in any way I’m able.”

The emperor rose and Kale scrambled for a fresh robe. In his state of nerves he touched the emperor’s arm through the rich fabric. He could feel the warmth that radiated from the body he so wished to caress. Kale immediately fell to his knees and pressed his forehead to the ornate stone floor. The cold felt good against his hot skin. He hoped his infraction would not seal his fate; hoped it would give him a sign for his next course of action. “I beg forgiveness for my mistake, sire.” He could feel the robe brush him as the emperor passed.

“Mistakes are entirely subjective,” the emperor said and entered his bed chamber.

The emperor’s words echoed in Kale’s mind as he went into the dressing room to collect clothing he knew the emperor would want. He stole a look at his lord before reentering the lavish chamber. The emperor had lit the room with small spheres of light. Kale was still the only servant.

Kale dressed his lord, and as he stood from adjusting the royal boots found he was being watched. For a moment their eyes held before Kale looked away and could breathe again. Nobles didn’t look at their servants in such a way, or at all, unless… He bowed and retreated to put away the discarded robe.

In the dark once more he paused to try to forget his fantasies, but the fabric in his hands still carried the emperor’s scent. The emperor desired something different than what the empress could give. Kale needed another sign to be sure.

When he returned the emperor was gone, his fellows were tidying the chamber. They begged for torrid images of the empress. “It was dark,” Kale said. “I saw nothing.”

They didn’t hide their disappointment.

The next night the emperor was especially restless. He stared at the night sky through the clearstory windows of his chamber. The war was never far from anyone’s mind and couldn’t be from the emperor’s. It was late into the night when Kale was brought news that needed to be relayed, but it wasn’t about battle. He hoped his fear was well hidden; the servants drew straws to see who would bring the bad news. Kale approached the stargazing emperor, sure that he knew Kale was there. Mages such as he knew where everyone was, certainly the servant right behind him. Kale couldn’t help but feel he was nearing a brooding dragon. “Sire, the masseur is missing.”

The emperor looked over his shoulder at Kale. His response was without hesitation. “You’ll have to do then, won’t you?”

It was barely believable that Kale would find himself in such a position under normal conditions. He was still wary of pursuing his ideas, but for what other reason would he be chosen? Any other servant would do an equally mediocre massage. Again he tried to rein in his imagination, tried to turn his thoughts to something chaste, but it was to no avail. A knot started in his stomach. He kept his hands moving over the emperor’s muscular shoulders.

“You have the hands of a swordsman,” the emperor said.

“I’ve never even held a sword, sire.” He hoped his playing the fool would convince the emperor to give him a solid answer.

The emperor chuckled. “How amusing you are, Kale.” A messenger appeared before them with folded note. Kale dropped his hands to his sides as the emperor read it and rose, started to dress. He gazed at Kale, who held his breath, then left the servant with his thoughts.

* * * * *

Kale walked a circle only a few paces wide in the stuffy, tiny room he shared. Even writing a long letter his brother, Kalil, didn’t help when it usually did. By the time his roommates returned from their nightly festivities he had tried to unsuccessfully end his tension.

“You need attention, man,” his friend and roommate, Itzal said. Each of them shucked off their clothes and climbed into their narrow bunks. They were inebriated and smelled of recent passion. “There were plenty of choices, we must have seen, what? Five young men waiting for work.”

“At least five,” another roommate said. “If not more. And of course there were as many ladies if you wanted something different from your usual.”

Kale shook his head. He didn’t want to risk jealousy. Servants for the emperor were hand picked for very specific reasons. There were no women serving the emperor, nor did he show interest in any other woman than the empress.

For three days their lord only returned to his chambers during the day, when Kale was asleep or elsewhere. Every time the door opened, any time he heard the others talking he held his breath to hear if his lord was returning. His fellows offered to pay for the companion of his choice, but no one else interested him. The emperor had more concerns than the other lords, other factors demanding his time. Kale started to work for longer hours, sleeping as little as possible to catch a glimpse of their elusive emperor.

Kale was elated when the man of his desire appeared once more. Kale could only watch from behind the velvet drapes of the adjoining room while the emperor tried on a new doublet. Several men with mirrors nearly danced around their emperor. “What do you think, Kale?” the emperor asked.

Kale’s breath caught in his throat. The other servants stared at him. “It’s a beautiful piece, sire,” he said as he bowed. Pride grew in his breast as the others were made aware of the emperor’s favor, but only Itzal seemed pleased.

The emperor motioned for everyone to leave, but he held out his hand for Kale to stay. “I would imagine you have a great knowledge of the finer things, considering the fine nobles you’ve served,” the emperor said. He turned to Kale and gave him that impish smile Kale so enjoyed. He had never seen the emperor smile at any other servant before.

“Thank you, sire.” Kale hoped the proof of his arousal was not evident through his clothes. The night was cool and quiet. He was frozen where he stood. It was the first time he was unable to decide what he should do next so he waited. If he was desired, there would be indication.

“For once I have a moment to relax,” the emperor said. He looked into a wall mirror and examined one of his bejeweled braids in the candlelight. After a moment he started to remove the green doublet.

Kale came to his senses and rushed to help. The garment was still warm. The emperor smelled of cloves and forest as he always did. When Kale stepped back his lord gave his hair a toss and stared into Kale’s eyes, he was once more riveted. Looking at a royal so directly could carry a terrible price; others had been tortured for less. The emperor’s eyes were luminous as if he would laugh, yet scornful. Nobles went about things differently than normal folk. There were always these games. Still he held the emperor’s gaze and his blood thundered through his veins. The emperor took a few steps until he was standing directly before Kale, looking down at him almost playfully.

“I am here to serve you, sire,” Kale said almost breathlessly. As the room grew increasingly dimmer the smell of snuffed candles wafted throughout the velvet clad furnishings.

“I have yet to see your best talents,” the emperor said. “It is one of those days where one desires an ease in tension, don’t you think, Kale?”

Kale swallowed and could only watch his mouth as he spoke. “U-use me as you wish. I only wish to please, sire.”

The emperor picked up a lock of Kale’s longish dark hair and drew it to himself, looking at it as if it were a thing of interest. Kale nearly came unhinged. “I suppose a visit with the empress is in order… She is often difficult as I’m sure you’ve heard.”

“I know nothing of such things, sire.” Of course Kale knew how the two of them fought. All the servants knew it.

The emperor chuckled. “You’re so tactful, Kale. She is first to call me malevolent. It could be said she knows me best. The problem with women, Kale, is that one never knows where one stands. But you and I understand each other, don’t we?”

“I wish for nothing else, sire.”

“So perhaps you have something different to suggest. If you’re clever perhaps I could show you the true meaning of sublime torment.”

Kale’s breath was shallow, his heart raced and he felt himself in a cold sweat. He felt his hair fall gently onto his shoulder as the emperor released it. Kale merely waited for the final signal that the time was immediate. He held his breath. The emperor spoke again. “No, I promise I will.”

The door opened. “Sire, a messenger,” a servant said.

The emperor took a step back and sighed. Kale tried to ignore the horrible tension and tried to clear his thoughts. He watched as his lord exited before he hurried to his room and punched the wooden bed frame. He sat on his bunk for a long time with his head in his hands before Itzal entered. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “Were you trying to diddle the emperor? Are you mad?”

“I’m not a novice. You weren’t there,” Kale insisted. “He touched my hair, dammit.”

Itzal shook his head, “Propositioning you or not, you’re in over your head.” Itzal had been a friend since childhood, was the one who found the position for Kale. “There will be no turning back from this…”

When Kale ignored Itzal’s advice, Itzal left and Kale sat there until the frenzy became manageable. He couldn’t shirk his duties. Numbly he went about his chores thinking only of his next encounter with the emperor, even thought of how he would perform and impress.

Time was slow to pass and he paused for dinner even though he had no appetite. The feeling in his stomach still hadn’t subsided completely. Other servants gossiped nearby. He managed to turn his thoughts, but it was difficult pulling his mind away from the vision and the words of his lord.

“…well it’s the nobles. What’s-his-name in the east. Turned traitor he has, now it needs to be tidied up. We won’t be on a regular schedule ’til things are sorted out…”

“Who?” Kale asked.

“What? You mean the noble who’s causing the ruckus? Begins with a T. Lives in that garish castle near Lake Luthaine. Can’t remember what his name is…”

Tiernan, Kale thought. Kale’s mind started to work with new clarity. He hurried to his room and fumbled in his drawer for parchment, ink and quill. The letter to Kalil was short and as jovial as he could muster. Once it was sealed he scrambled through the narrow maze of servants’ corridors to find a messenger willing to take the letter to his brother. Next he found the emperor—who was speaking with several courtiers on the other side of the castle. It took him a long time to find a fellow servant who knew where to locate their sovereign.

A day when someone ventured out into a foreign part of the castle was a rare day indeed. It was too easy to become lost in the different ages of construction in the gloriousness that was the royal home. His fellows would complain of his lengthy absence. But when they cooled he would have to tell them about the other opulent locations he’d traveled through.

Kale hid behind a massive pillar, listened to the conversation but only really heard the emperor’s voice echo through the corridor. He wished the emperor would sense him so he could remain unseen. He also hoped he wouldn’t be reprimanded for leaving his post. In time his wish was granted. The emperor waved for Kale to approach as the courtiers left him. They were alone in the corridor for as much as Kale could see anyone else. The emperor looked magnificent, larger than life. He leaned closer, spoke softly, “Yes, Kale?”

“Sire,” Kale said and swallowed. “I have a solution to a problem.” He tried to only look at the tiny jewels embroidered into the emperor’s doublet, not those intense eyes.

The emperor cocked his head. “Which would that be?”

He could barely breathe when the emperor’s eyes were upon him. “Two, if I’m clever, sire.”

The emperor raised an eyebrow.

“Sire, I’ve sent word to my brother and suggested he come here for work. He is privy to all that Tiernan knows—they’re consorts. I can convince him to tell your majesty all he knows. He is a loyal brother. He’ll do as I ask.”

He granted Kale a beaming smile. “Sweet Kale, it would be most helpful. I’m sure we could find useful employment for him.”

Kale bowed and smiled up at the emperor who gave him a small gesture to leave as if telling a child to skedaddle.

* * * * *

Kale watched the rain as he stood just inside one of the many servants’ entrances to the castle. It was the agreed spot to meet Kalil, one of the less-used entrances so they could talk before rushing off to work. He was staring at a puddle when he felt someone near. It was the emperor. His majesty was leaning against a nearby doorway and watching Kale. “Your brother approaches,” he said. “He arrives in haste.”

Never in a hundred years did Kale think their liege would appear in such a corridor. “Sire. Your magic tells your majesty so?”

“Questions are bold,” he said with a languid smile. “I sense many things with magic. Pity you have none. But it’s inevitable I’ll share mine with you.” He tilted his head. “And you barely know what that means for you.”

Kale and the emperor’s eyes locked. Kale felt his body respond. There was no controlling it.

“Here’s your brother. I’ll leave you to your reunion,” the emperor said. He came near, close to Kale, very close. “But don’t avoid your duties,” he said and glanced downward. “I shall see you at your post…” He turned and sauntered away.

Kale greeted Kalil with an embrace. As Kale led him to their quarters they discussed the future. “I could live a comfortable life,” Kale said. “A man of leisure. Wait until you see him…”

“Your vivid letters have told me much,” Kalil said.

“How goes it with Tiernan?”

His brother shook his head. “As always. But I don’t think Tiernan will miss me as much as he misses you.”

Kale smiled and said, “It’s hard work but very rewarding, even without the perk of a tryst.”

“You seem tense, brother.”

“It’s nothing. I’ll be better soon.”

Kale left him to settle in and returned to his work. There would be enough time tomorrow to discuss further. The information Kalil had would make Kale’s days bearable and might grant him a loftier position and security. Kale was starting to feel like quite the conspirator. Tiernan would be undone, and Kale would gain.

When he finally entered the emperor’s chambers he found the attendants had already left. The emperor was reading a book by the fire, wearing only a shirt and breeches; his hair was loose and shimmered in the firelight. Kale approached he could barely breathe. The emperor smiled but didn’t look up. “You’ve returned,” he purred.

“Yes, yes sire.”

“…For something you’ve so yearned for.” He turned a page then closed the book.

Kale nodded and swallowed. The emperor rose and strolled towards Kale, who once more could only stand there in a cold sweat. The emperor was so close to him now, inches away. He resisted the urge to pull off the emperor’s clothes.

“Now for your reward,” he said and leaned in close.

Kale closed his eyes. He felt the emperor’s warm breath on his neck and he arched himself, reached with his arms to touch… “Get out,” the emperor whispered. He withdrew.

Kale choked and watched in horror as the emperor became increasingly distant. “You-you promised…”

“I give you what I promised.”

Kale shook his head.

“The most sublime and personalized torment. The work I had to do for you to arrive at this climatic moment. You should be honored.” He pointed at the door. “Enjoy.”

“No.”

“No? Do you dare defy me? You think I would have any interest in a magicless commoner like yourself? The arrogance.” Another servant, Itzal, appeared with a robe and helped the emperor into it. Their sovereign waved his brocade-draped arm. “How have I been surrounded by servants who think they’re my equal?”

Kale’s breath quickened. “I gave you everything you wanted.” He looked at Itzal for support, but his friend was smirking like a fiend.

The emperor laughed. “I’ve never asked you for anything but to be a good servant.” He smirked at Kale, his eyes narrow. “And that you’ve done.”

“You…” He clenched his fists.

“What do you think you’re going to do, Kale?”

Kale lunged. “You bastard!” He only made it a few steps closer. The emperor’s magic pushed him to the stone floor with a thud, knocked the breath from him.

The guards burst through the doors and seized Kale, pulled him to his feet and waited for a command from their lord. Kale hurt all over from the force of the fall and the grips of the men holding him. Itzal stood behind the emperor, saying nothing but still pleased, vindictive. Kale’s mind raced.

“I was going to let you go, but an assault on my person…” the emperor smiled a little. “Don’t be sad, Kale. You’ll be better off than your brother, for you have been amusing if nothing else.” He cocked his head. “Itzal was right about you. Not a whit smarter, but apparently holds quite the grudge against you. He is blinded by vengeance as you were blinded by lust. Perhaps he’ll see again, as you see now.”

Kale looked again at Itzal, his betrayer. What wrong did Kale do to doom himself and his brother? Then it came to him, a wrong against Itzal’s family when they were young…

The emperor nodded to the guards who then dragged Kale away.

The last thing Kale heard was the voice he used to so enjoy. “Perhaps when you stand on a precipice admiring the view, Kale, take a step backwards instead of forward.”

A Fragment of Hell

by Dave Hebden

 

“Hello, Frank. It’s me, Arlan. You should be fully awake by now, I think. I’ll bet you have been very anxious. After all, why would you have become conscious while you are still in your suspension pod, right? I know you have probably been struggling and can barely move in that snug little padded vessel so just lie still and my voice will explain everything. It took me quite some time to get this recording just the way I wanted it. I hope it suits.

Now, you know how upset I was when Brenda and I broke up. I will always remember how supportive you pretended to be. My goodness, it was very impressive how well you hid your secret. I thought Brenda’s performance was admirable as well but you see, we had been together for so long that she really couldn’t hide anything from me.

It was such a messy process, wasn’t it? What with you being what I considered a good friend at the time and Brenda being the only love I have ever had, I’m sure you knew it would be difficult for all of us once the truth came out. Of course, that didn’t stop you. Nothing ever stopped you from getting what you wanted, now did it?

I’m sure you remember that day when I finally started to act… what did you call it… “civilized”? Yes, I just suddenly stopped making those annoying calls and leaving those terrible messages all over the place. Perhaps you thought it was because of the success you had in getting me locked up a couple of times. Maybe you were thinking that I had finally come to my senses, that I finally realized that my crude behavior was going to get me nothing but trouble. Well, I’m afraid that wasn’t it at all. Actually it was on that day that I proved out the feasibility of my retribution plan. It took a lot of hard work but, well, here we are.

Where to begin? Well, I recall how elated you were when you were chosen for the Second Colony mission. And when you were able to pull your usual strings to get Brenda to come along you must have just been in Seventh Heaven. How exciting! Being chosen to be on board only the second ship of colonists ever to leave Earth bound for a new world must have been quite a feeling. To be going on that marvelous adventure with someone that loved you so much… how unspeakably wonderful!

I know those poor devils that went on the first ship so many years ago must have been very nervous about their mission. After all, they didn’t know what to expect. They could have awoken to find that Vita Nova wasn’t a habitable planet after all. They would have been doomed to live out their lives in that ship, just floating about a dead world that would remain dead. That not being the case, though, at least they got to spend a little time on the new world which certainly made it far from a wasted mission. I mean they all perished but the information they sent back has made this second mission possible and virtually sure to succeed. To be a member of the first generation of humans to establish a permanent colony on a new world would be an honor unequaled in the lifetime of almost anyone. However, you were afforded an honor that far surpasses that, Frank, and yet you never returned that honor.

Having Brenda fall in love with you was something that you took for granted, that you felt was somehow expected for a man of your stature and importance. Yes, I am sure you loved her as well but as with any other relationship you ever had, it was on your own terms and in your own selfish way. You knew she was enamored by your wealth, your fame, and your good looks and you took full advantage of that fact. You never respected her, simply holding her up as a trophy whenever the cameras were on you. Right to the last, as you were stepping into the suspension module with her, you couldn’t help turning her by the shoulder as you turned yourself for one last wave to the adoring masses, so beautifully adorning the final image of you here on Earth by having that angel at your side. Well, Frank, I am afraid your arrogance has cost you dearly. You see, you are never going to see that new world and you are never going to see Brenda again.

Now, please don’t think I would do something as primitive as to just murder you. That would be much too simple for me and far too lenient a punishment for someone like you. You have spent most of the years of your life using people for whatever they could do to help advance your selfish goals and boost your enormous ego. You have lived almost every waking moment in control of everyone around you. Well, not any more. Even though I am trillions of miles away right now, I am in total control of you. Fancy that.

You see, I had been working as a contractor on the software for this suspension module you are in right now. I saw you many times during your training sessions at the mission center. I know you thought I was far, far away so it is no surprise that you didn’t recognize me in my disguise. Perhaps you recall that man with the oddly puffy face, the full beard, and the port wine stain on his forehead that sat at the console closest to the water station on the promenade? That was me! Yes, I could have done my work from anywhere at the center but it was so much fun to watch you every day as you orchestrated the lives of so many others; smiling and laughing when you were obeyed, scowling and cursing when you weren’t. All the time, I knew that when this moment came, I would have been watching you do more and more to deserve it.

But I digress. As you are well aware, I have always been quite adept at all things technical, especially when it comes to software. I started to conceive my plan as soon as I heard that you were chosen for the mission. I’m not sure how but it just came to me. I had to take the job under a contrived identity but that was not so difficult for someone like me who has done so much work for the security industry. Once I went in and had a look at the suspension module’s control systems, I knew my plan would work. It was then that I stopped harassing you. I’ll bet you were quite pleased that day and probably thought that your conquest of Benda was complete. In retrospect, though, it was the most terrible day that you had ever had for it was precisely then that your fate was sealed. Go figure.

So here you are, Frank, lying in this padded shell unable to move anything but your eyelids. My program is controlling your pod and everything it is doing is masked from the main system by a very fancy little subroutine that I planted there. It will always report all things normal for you. As far as anyone or anything knows, you are and will be soundly in suspension sleep for another 72 years. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

What is going to happen is that my program is going to keep you in a nice, healthy cycle of eight hours of sleep and sixteen hours awake. It is going to provide all the nourishment, muscle stimulation, and waste management services that your body needs to live. I do realize that you will be drawing from the nutrient and oxygen banks and burdening some other systems much more than you would have had you remained in suspension. However, my calculations show that none of these excesses will adversely affect any of the other twelve hundred forty-nine colonists to the slightest degree. The variance will also be within the parameters that the main system has been programmed to handle autonomously without sending out notifications that there is a problem of any kind. I don’t think it would matter if anyone did find out what I had been up to anyway. After all, even in these modern times I am pretty sure no one has ever bothered to put a law on the books that would make it a crime to keep someone alive. Isn’t that deliciously ironic?

You are going to live out your natural life right where you are, Frank. Once you expire, my program will shut down your support system and then it will delete itself without a trace. Although you will probably get agonizingly close to your destination, you will not survive the entire journey as I don’t think you will make it to the ripe old age of one hundred and fifteen. And speaking of ripe, I do pity the poor other colonists that are going to have to open your pod when the ship arrives. That should be a very unpleasant experience to say the least.

You know, there is a Tradition of the Prophet stating that every journey is a fragment of hell. Boy, I guess he got that right in this case, huh? Perhaps at some point you will feel that you are better off dead. I can’t say that I would even hazard a guess as to whether someone like you, no matter what the situation, would ever consider ending their own life. No matter, though, as you have absolutely no way to do so. You could attempt to hold your breath even to the point of unconsciousness but your body will always begin to respire again. You are going to be in control of absolutely nothing except your own thoughts… unless you count blinking, of course. And the thing that satisfies me above all is that you will not be in control of Brenda. She will be very sad, I am sure, when she finds out what happened to you. You can rest assured that there will be no trace of my software and no one will ever know just how it happened. Eventually, she will get over it and I am sure that she will find that one of the other colonists can fill the void. In fact, she might end up with someone a little more selfless and realize that she is actually better off without you. I know I am.

Oh, and one more thing. I remember you telling me more than once that you never wanted me to speak to neither you nor Brenda again. You said in a very angry tone that you could not even stand the sound of my voice. Well, I suppose I could have sardonically granted your wish since having you lie there in silence could become unbearable and even drive you quite mad after a while. I do find that a pleasant thought but here’s something I find even more amusing. Ready?

Hello, Frank. It’s me, Arlan. You should be fully awake by now…”

 

A Domestic Disturbance

by Bernie Mojzes

 

“We’ve got to tell Dad.”

The response wasn’t a unanimous “No!” but it was a resounding one, echoing off the marble floor, off the polished granite ceiling, filling the Great Hall.

“Oh, come on,” Eris said with a mischievous smile. “Do tell Dad. That should be fun.” She elbowed Dionysus hard in the ribs. “Tell them.”

The handsome, olive-skinned god opened his eyes and rubbed his side. He looked around the room, burped delicately, then lowered his chin to his chest and resumed snoring.

Hephaestus grumbled through his copious beard. “You don’t get a vote.”

Eris batted her eyelashes. Aphrodite rolled her eyes, and kissed her husband softly on the neck.

Hephaestus cleared his throat.

“You don’t get a vote,” he repeated. “You or that drunken sot sitting beside you.”

“Hear, hear,” said a striking, severe woman with a longbow draped over her shoulder. “About time someone put you in your place.”

An older man rose from his aqueous seat in the corner, approaching the woman who had just spoken. “This is your fault.” He poked her with a dripping finger, hard enough that she stepped back. Briny water splashed. “Giving her ideas.”

“Ideas?” Artemis reached for her bow, but checked herself. “Pray, Uncle, what manner of ‘ideas’ do you speak of?”

“Just look at you! Running around dressed like a man. Riding a horse like a man. Running wild in the woods. It’s not proper.”

Artemis dropped her gaze to the seaweed draped strategically around Poseidon’s loins and raised her eyebrows. “And that is?”

“I think,” Eris said before Poseidon could formulate a retort, “what she’s trying to say is showing off works better if you have something to show off.”

Poseidon seized her throat, dangling her from his thick fist. She giggled and clapped her hands, even as her face grew red and mottled.

“We are forgetting why we are here.”

The voice was soft, but commanding. Athena laid a cooling hand on Poseidon’s wrist. Cursing, he released his grip, letting Eris drop, gasping, to the floor.

Athena crouched next to her sister. “This is why you don’t get invited to parties, dear.”

Athena stood. She glowed softly. Elegantly.

“We’re here to solve a problem. Preferably without involving Father. He’ll be angry enough as it is, even if we manage to solve everything without his help. If he has to intervene, heads will roll, and it won’t just be Demeter’s.”

Athena’s twin brother spoke up. “We have to find her. And if she won’t listen to reason, we must force her to take up her duties.”

Athena narrowed her eyes. “You can’t force someone to do something she doesn’t want to.”

Persephone bit her lip, turning her face away.

Apollo banged his fist on the wall. “Well, we can’t just go on without a Goddess of Fertility, now, can we? Who here wants us to be the Gods of the Desert? Leave that for Yahweh, and see where it gets him, a couple thousand years from now. I hate to say this, but we need her.”

“Perhaps someone else could do it?” Athena looked around the room at the assembled Olympians. None would meet her gaze. The room filled with the sound of nervous throat-clearing. “Just for a while, until she comes back.”

Apollo looked at his sister. “Brilliant idea. You should volunteer.”

“Hello? What part of Virgin Goddess don’t you understand?”

“That,” said the quicksilver boy in the shadows, “is a curable malady.” Hermes elbowed the blind boy sitting next to him. “C’mon, back me up here. Maybe your mom can help.”

“No.” Athena’s tone held indisputable finality.

She turned to Apollo. “Brother, who was it that suggested that Demeter would come back to us on her own?”

Apollo looked at his shoes.

“What’s that? I can’t hear you. Who was it that said it was just a phase she was going through? That she didn’t know how lucky she had it, and this was just the thing to teach her to be happy with her lot? That ‘women just get this way sometimes, and you just have to wait it out until they come to their senses’?”

Apollo bit his lip. “I didn’t…”

“You did. No, Brother. You let her go. You take her job.”

Apollo glared. “Harvest? Fertility? Marriage?

Athena nodded, an odd smile on her face.

“You tread on dangerous ground, Sister.”

“Do I?”

“You’d have me do women’s work? I am both god and man, and—”

“That’s also curable.” Hermes grinned and shrugged. “Just sayin’.”

Eris shook Dionysus. “Wake up, you’re missing all the fun!”

“I’ll not do women’s work, and I’ll not be made a mockery of by the likes of you!”

“Bit too late for that.” Eris’ eyes glittered.

Apollo’s fists clenched. “The answer is no. If one of us has to do it, it should be Persephone. After all, it’s her mother that caused this mess.”

“Oh, right. Pick on the girl who won’t defend herself.” Hermes leaned back in his chair, tipping it back on two legs. “C’mon, Athena, be my fertility goddess.”

Athena rolled her eyes.

“You don’t know what you’re missing, babe. My rod has wings.”

“I think Persephone is the perfect choice.” Poseidon’s words crashed like the surf against rocks. “Let Demeter’s daughter suffer for her crimes.”

“Oh, brilliant,” Artemis said, but before she could continue, Hades stood.

“I will not allow this.”

“But think about it,” Apollo said. “She’s already got the fertility goddess genes, and she’s already married, at least half the time. It’s a perfectly logical choice.”

“I find myself in reluctant agreement with my brother,” Athena said. “She is a good choice. With her consent, of course.” Athena turned to Persephone. “You do see how this is really for the best, don’t you, dear?”

“Absolutely not.”

“It’s not your choice, Hades,” Athena said.

“I think you’re outvoted.” Ares’ mocking sneer reflected in his voice.

“There is no vote.” Hades took a step toward the God of War. “She’s my wife, and that’s it.”

“Only for half the year.” Ares leered. “The other half…”

Hades’ fist connected squarely with Ares’ jaw, knocking him backward. Ares came back with sword drawn. Eris leaned against the wall, smiling contentedly. At least, until Ares’ sword vanished mid-swing.

“Looking for this?” Hermes dangled the great blade between two fingers.

With a roar, Ares launched himself at the God of Thieves. Had he reached where Hermes stood, he would have found himself clutching empty air, but he never made it that far. Hades and Hephaestus tackled the God of War to the ground. Coming to Ares’ rescue, Poseidon grabbed the two gods by the scruff of their necks, but his hands were slick with algae, and they slid free.

Scrambling, Hephaestus lost his footing in the puddle that accompanied Poseidon wherever he went. He grasped Hades and Ares for support, and all three tumbled against Poseidon’s legs, spilling him to the slippery-when-wet marble floor. Poseidon’s flailing arms caught Apollo and Athena, who went down with an offended shriek.

Artemis, reliving her tomboy youth, waded into the fray, punching anything that moved.

Eris grinned and clapped. This was more fun than Troy.

Aphrodite frowned as she watched the melee, then jumped when she realized someone stood uncomfortably close behind her.

“Hey, babe,” Hermes said softly in her ear. “Let’s blow this joint. If you ask nicely, I’ll even let you play with my sword.”

Aphrodite pursed her lips. “That’s not your sword. It’s Ares’, and it’s the one he uses for sticking boys. I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m not a boy.”

She ran soft, electric fingers up Hermes’ spine, and knotted them in his curly brown hair. Hermes’ breath caught. The wings on his feet curled with pleasure.

“You’ll have to get your hands on his other sword,” she whispered in his ear. Her breath upon his ear brought goosebumps to his flesh. “It’s in there somewhere.”

With her fingers still twined in Hermes’ hair, Aphrodite pulled sharply and pitched him into the middle of the scuffle, where gods wrestled and slipped and beat each other bloody.

Aphrodite smiled and leaned back against a wall, safely out of harm’s way.

“Oh, Aphrodite,” Eris called sweetly from off to the side where Dionysus still snored.

“What now?” Aphrodite turned to face Eris, and found herself blinking through a thick, creamy foam. She wiped sticky meringue from her eyes.

“Oh look!” cried Eris with delight. “An anachronism! Eep!”

Hades hath no fury like a goddess pied; Aphrodite tackled Eris like a born wrestler. They rolled over Eros, who groped blindly at anything he could reach, and broke Dionysus’ chair, nearly spilling his wine. Bits of lemon meringue flew everywhere. Dionysus found another chair, pulled it away from the bulk of the fighting to the corner where Persephone sat biting her nails, and promptly fell back asleep.

Only to be woken abruptly by a fierce thunderclap. Spots floated in front of his eyes. “I was in Sparta!” he cried. “I’ve got witnesses who’ll back me up!”

Eris sat up, wiping blood and pie from her lips. “Hi, Pops,” she said with a gap-toothed grin.

Zeus towered over the Olympians. “What is the meaning of this?” Each word was tinged with lightning.

Everyone answered at once.

“SILENCE!”

Eris rubbed her thumb and forefinger together, making cricket chirping sounds until Aphrodite slapped her hands. Zeus scowled at the assembly. “Athena? What’s going on?”

“It’s all Demeter’s fault. You see, she…”

“Demeter isn’t here.”

“Exactly. That’s why it’s her fault. You see…”

“If she’s not here, it can’t possibly be her fault.”

“But…”

“No. You’re the oldest. You should know better. You’re responsible. Whatever the problem is, you take care of it.”

Athena’s spine stiffened. “There’s nothing in my job description…”

“YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION IS ANYTHING I SAY IT IS!”

“But…”

“And that’s the last I want to hear about it. If you say another word, you’re going to be so sorry you’ll wish you were back in my head.”

Athena opened her mouth, then shut it.

Zeus nodded his head in dismissal. He turned away, grumbling into his beard. “Why did I ever let Edith talk me into writing job descriptions? Nothing good can ever come from job descriptions.” He took a deep breath, and turned to face the older Gods. “Hades. Poseidon. My dear brothers… If you are ever involved in anything like this again, we will have a brief lesson about why I’m in charge, and you’re… well, we won’t go there in front of the children. Let’s just say that a very hungry eagle has hatched some very hungry chicks.”

And then Zeus was gone in a haze of ozone, leaving the assembled gods and goddesses in stunned silence.

Athena straightened her helm and adjusted her clothing.

“Don’t worry,” Hermes said, the quicksilver boy sidling a little closer to Athena. “It’s a quick and easy fix, and I’m really good at quick. Yes, it’s a sacrifice, I know, but we all must do our parts for the greater good, and I’m here for you in your time of need.”

“You’re right,” Athena said, after a moment’s concentration. She stepped back to assess the quicksilver girl, Goddess of Thieves and Messengers, and now of a few other things. “That was quick and easy.”

Hermes’ hands moved in hesitant self-discovery, tracing unexpected curves. “Oh. Well. I suppose this could work, too.”