Snowfall

by Lisa Franek

 

The bus lurched around a corner, causing the woman next to Rupert to slide into him, pressing him up against the cold glass of the window. He sighed, knowing he should have sat somewhere else. But he was tired. It had been a long day. Winters had the longest days. That was when old people and children took ill, and the illnesses spread like wildfire through households, claiming anyone with even the slightest weakness. It was tragic to see the tiny bodies of children come in, and merciful to see the old, knowing they had fought to the end. And when he saw them, Rupert always sighed and looked out to the grassy hills, knowing there was still plenty of space out there for them. If only he could dig fast enough. He knew tomorrow would be worse, and that there was a storm coming after that. And after the storm, there would be more.

Rupert looked out the window at the grimy streets full of blackened snow and smudged people and wondered which faces he would soon see, either white and still, or streaked with grief. There would be many. That much he knew. The bus stopped, and the woman got up to exit. Rupert felt the seat sigh with relief, just quickly enough for another person to take her place. Rupert looked sideways as the man sat next to him, feeling uneasy in the close quarters of a seat too small for two grown men. At least the woman was soft and cushiony. This man was angular and gruff, and seemed to be made entirely of sandpaper. Rupert knew he himself didn’t exactly exude grace or softness, but this man was hard like stone. Rupert leaned into the window glass, looking for space and finding none.

Sometimes the vast open spaces of the graveyard were lonely, but mostly he longed for them. Especially in times like this. Rupert’s friends, if one could call the rabble at the tavern that, thought it depressing that Rupert dug graves for the dead, but Rupert rather enjoyed it. It was solitary work, where he was left alone with only his thoughts and his shovel. That was enough. He knew what was expected, and he knew what to do. It was the confinement of the city streets that gave him anxiety. The noise, the chatter. It was endless and pointless, and he found himself knowing too much about people that he would rather not know. He marveled at their ability to ignore things that were painfully obvious; the cheating lover, the pilfering employee, the duplicitous friend. No one seemed to know they were all being duped, but Rupert saw it with alarming clarity. He would take the silence of the graves to the treacherousness of the city any day.

The man peered at Rupert, causing him to stiffen, as if waiting for a blow. “Do I know you?” the man asked.

Rupert exhaled only slightly to answer. “I don’t believe so.” He gave a quick smile that ended up being more of a grimace, but the man didn’t waver. He examined Rupert’s face carefully, his brain searching for the name that would match. Or even a place of meeting. Rupert was relieved to see that none came. He knew he did not know this man, but also knew the possibility of mistaken identity was high, given the number of people in Chicago. And Rupert knew he had one of those faces that seemed to be familiar to everyone, since he was often called by other people’s names. Sometimes he wondered if those people had somehow seen him in passing while digging his graves. They could easily be visiting a departed friend or relative, or attending a funeral, and their brain had recorded his face in that moment of heightened emotions. He knew it was much easier to remember things when there were emotions tied to them, and no one came to the cemetery without their emotions on display. At least, not the normal ones.

Every now and then, Rupert would see one with no emotion walking among the headstones, and a chill would run through him. They always looked like everyone else, and sometimes even managed to produce crocodile tears, but he saw them. Empty and lifeless. This man had a similar countenance. Rupert closed his eyes and rested his head against the window, hoping things would stay quiet. The bus was full of people who were tired; their thoughts slow and quiet. Rupert was grateful.

But then it came. Rupert opened his eyes and looked at the man sitting next to him. The man stared intensely at his hands clasped on his lap, moving one thumb to cover the other and back again. Of all the people on this bus, the man sitting next to Rupert was deep in thought, fixating on one thing and one thing only: money.

Rupert looked at the man’s hands. They were dirty and calloused; not the hands of a man used to having money. His clothes looked old, but were clean. Rupert looked up to find the man staring directly at him. “Something wrong?” the man asked. Rupert shook his head and shrugged. Part of him knew he should stay quiet, but he had to know.

“I was going to ask you the same question,” Rupert said. The man looked at him quizzically, raising an eyebrow and scowling. “You seem tense, that’s all.” Rupert indicated the man’s tightly gripped hands, and the man stared at him for a moment, then smiled slightly.

“I guess I’m not used to being around all these people,” he said. Rupert nodded. At least they had this in common. “Damon,” he said, holding out his hand. Rupert shook it, knowing he didn’t really want to know this man, but now they were here, meeting. He would know things about Damon before too long. Damon shook his head and looked around the bus, then leaned over to Rupert. “All these people coming home from work. Lots of people.”

Rupert nodded. Damon was clearly not coming home from work, he asked the question anyway: “You’re not?”

Damon shook his head. “Looking. It’s not easy. Especially during the winter. Things are slow.” Rupert nodded in agreement as Damon continued. “What do you do?”

“I dig graves. Cavalry Cemetery.”

Damon shook his head and smiled. “Wow. You’re like the cryptkeeper or something. Wild.”

“It’s a living.”

“You know, it’s steady work. At least there’s that. In this day and age, that’s something.”

Rupert nodded. “This is my stop,” he said as the bus slowed and pulled towards the curb, and Rupert was grateful.

*****

Rupert walked along the hill at the end of the cemetery towards the big oak tree at the back. It had been there since the cemetery had been staked out; a marker of where the edge of the property was. Rupert kicked the snow as he walked, knowing that in a couple of days, it would require boots and a thick coat, and it would silence everything in a thick layer of softness. He stood next to the oak and looked out onto the expanse, with headstones jutting up in somewhat regular patterns. Some had angels perched over them, while others were simple and bare. There were some small mausoleums on the other end of the cemetery where the more fortunate laid their kin to rest, but no matter where they were, Rupert knew it was always cold and dark. He sighed as he looked at the tree again, then drove a stake into the ground. Before too long, a deep hole would take its place. But for now, Rupert had others to dig.

He walked out of the cemetery, blowing on his hands for warmth. “Thought I might find you here,” Damon said. Rupert stopped short, startled. Damon stood leaning against the pillar of the entrance, and Rupert wondered how long he had been standing there. He didn’t look cold, but his hands were jammed deep into his pockets and his collar was pulled up around his cheeks.

“What are you doing here?” Rupert asked more pointedly than he had intended. Damon wasn’t someone to provoke. Rupert already knew that. Damon kicked a rock and slowly walked toward Rupert, then shrugged.

“Looking for work. Think you could get me on?”

Rupert looked back at the gates behind them. Cavalry was a big place; there was always room for another hand. Still, Rupert was hesitant. As big as it was, Rupert knew that having Damon close by would feel just like the bus. Damon was loud, and he had no idea. Rupert looked back at Damon and shrugged.

“It’s just for a little while,” Damon said, “until I get back on my feet.” He chuckled. “Who wants to dig graves forever? Certainly not me.” Rupert drew his mouth up into what was almost a smile. Rupert had tried other jobs, but this was the one for him. It was somehow comforting that he and Damon did not have that in common. And even more comforting that Damon didn’t plan on staying long. Rupert looked at Damon, who stared intently back at him. It was unnerving, really.

“Well, I guess until you get on your feet again, it should be alright. Start tomorrow?”

“I’ll be here bright and early.” Damon shoved his hands down into his pockets again and stalked away, and Rupert sighed, glad to have distance between them.

*****

Damon leaned on his shovel and looked around. “Don’t you ever get bored? Digging the same holes every day?” Rupert shook his head as he drove his shovel into the hard ground.

“I find it peaceful. Quieting.”

Damon laughed. “You’re a weird guy, Rupert.” Damon lifted himself off his shovel and started digging again. “I don’t know how you do it,” he continued. “Me, I’d rather do a million other things. This is just temporary for me, you know.”

“You said that. A few times.”

“Well, you’re not saying much, so there’s only so many things I have to say.”

Rupert shook his head, knowing that wasn’t the truth. “I doubt it,” was all he said in answer. It had only been one day, and Rupert was already tired of having Damon here. Damon was uncomfortable with the vast silence of death, and did his best to fill it with noise. Rupert gritted his teeth as he continued digging. It’s only temporary, he kept telling himself. It would become his mantra over the next several weeks.

*****

Rupert lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. Damon’s thoughts had become so loud over the last few days that they drowned out his own. The time Rupert spent in his bed were the only quiet moments of his day now, and he was anxious to be rid of Damon. Damon had taken to the work quickly, his strong back making the work go faster than expected. It was a good thing, too. The storm had come a week ago, and the bodies were already starting to come in. Starvation, exposure, illness. Just as Rupert had expected.

Rupert closed his eyes and took a deep breath, knowing that sleep would come quickly. He rolled over and embraced the quiet. But then it came. Damon’s thoughts. Rupert pushed them away, exasperated. Damon had infiltrated every corner of Rupert’s life, when all he had wanted was to be left alone to the quiet. He still hadn’t dug the hole near the tree, but he knew he would have to soon.

*****

“Why are you always so quiet?” Damon asked.

“Seems like you do enough talking for both of us,” Rupert joked. Damon didn’t laugh, so Rupert took a more serious tone. “I like the quiet.”

“You must, working here.”

Rupert watched as Damon dug, asking the question he already knew the answer to. “What would you rather be doing?”

“Anything. Back in the day, me and my boys had all kinds of fun.”

“I bet you did.” Rupert already knew, but he went along with it anyway.

“All the trouble we caused,” Damon shook his head and smiled at the memory. “Drinking and carrying on. Boy, did we get into some trouble back then.”

“What kind of trouble?” Rupert had already seen it. Angry barkeeps, smashed windows, police giving chase. He’d seen Damon and his friends drinking and carousing with women, gambling, and generally causing trouble. But here, Rupert heard a new thought. Damon was diving down a deep hole that Rupert had unwittingly pushed him into.

“I killed a man.” Damon said it quietly, more to himself than to Rupert. And then Rupert saw it. He saw Damon rifling through the man’s pockets and finding a key before running. “It was an accident. It was supposed to be your run of the mill back alley fight. We’d had a disagreement, and we’d both had plenty to drink. I was just going to give him a good drubbing and a couple of black eyes. But that dummy had to bring his beer bottle with him. He smashed it on the wall and tried to stab me with it, but I moved out of the way and pushed him.”

Damon stopped digging for a second and leaned on his shovel, looking up into the sky. It was grey with clouds, and neither Damon or Rupert could remember when they had last seen the sun. It had been a harsh winter, and it was going to get worse before it got better.

“Then what?” Rupert asked.

Damon sighed as he continued digging. “He went down. Fell on the bottle. Right on his neck. By the time I turned him over, he was already bleeding out, so all that was left was to rifle through his pockets to see if there was anything worth anything.”

“And?”

“And then I got the hell out of there. I hid out for a couple of days, but it was inevitable. The cops came and got me and took me away.”

“How long were you locked up?” Rupert hadn’t seen the answer to this question.

“Seven years.”

Damon continued to dig, but with new intensity. Rupert watched him, feeling the strength of his anger every time the shovel pierced the dirt. Damon had a score to settle. Rupert still wasn’t sure who the score was with, but it was there, obvious as day.

“Storm’s coming,” Rupert changed the subject. Damon nodded slightly and kept digging. “It’s going to be a big one, they say. A foot or so.”

“About time too,” Damon answered.

Rupert watched him, wondering what he meant. For the first time, Rupert found himself digging through Damon’s thoughts, looking for whatever he was scheming. Why would a storm be so important? Then he found it.

The key. Damon didn’t know what it was for, but the dead man’s wallet indicated that he was just some rich guy who ended up on the wrong side of town one day, drunk and belligerent. Rupert kept digging. He had to know. Damon had lost all contact with his friends while he was in prison, and filled his days with books, learning about the world. Learning about the stock market, learning about other cities, travel, and so on. Damon could weather anything. Any storm, any situation, any difficulty. He was the ultimate survivor, and now here he was, digging graves for a living. Temporarily, he kept insisting. For the first time in ages, Rupert finally believed it. Damon had a plan, and Rupert was an accidental part of it.

*****

Rupert felt a chill in the air, colder than the day before. The storm was coming. His time was running out, so he walked up to the oak tree to start digging. When Damon finally found him, he just stood and watched as Rupert dug.

“I don’t remember seeing this plot in the list,” he said.

“Special project,” Rupert said. It wasn’t something he felt like explaining, and even if he did, Damon wouldn’t understand. It was best that he did this one himself. “You can get started on the graves for the twins if you want.”

Damon shrugged, but didn’t move otherwise. “I don’t feel much like digging today. That ever happen to you?”

“Sometimes. Usually in the spring. Things slow down then, so it’s easier to take a rest here and there.”

Damon nodded and spat on the ground. “Well, I don’t feel like it today. I think today will probably be my last day, anyway.” Rupert stopped digging and looked at Damon. The key. Damon had figured it out. And now Rupert knew as well. He hadn’t wanted to know. He had just wanted Damon to be gone and leave him alone, but now it was too late. There was no going back from this. Damon was sitting on freedom. Rupert was surprised he had come to the cemetery at all, now that he had a way out.

“Last day?” Rupert asked. “Well, you said it was temporary. Where you off to?” He wanted to hear the lie.

“Movin’ on. Thinking I may head west. Maybe out to California.” That part was true. Rupert smiled. Damon may be a thug and a criminal, but he wasn’t a liar. At least there was that. “What’s so funny?” Damon asked.

Rupert shook his head. “Nothing. I’m just happy for you, that’s all. California seems pretty nice right about now.”

Damon scoffed. “You bet your ass it does. I’m done with the cold.” He looked up at the sky for emphasis. He was going to try to beat the storm, but he was going to have to hurry.

Rupert stopped digging and looked up at the sky with Damon, then picked up his shovel. “Well, I guess we should get those graves done. It’ll go faster if we both do it.”

Damon smiled. “What about the one you’re digging now?”

Rupert glanced back at the hole he had started and sighed. “I can finish it tomorrow.” Damon looked confused, but clapped Rupert on the shoulder heartily.

“Alright then. Let’s get to it.”

*****

Rupert’s hands were stiff with cold. He and Damon had finished the graves as the cold crept across the cemetery. As the day had worn on, Damon’s mood had improved, and he put his back into his work with fresh gusto. Rupert had never seen him work so hard, but he knew the excitement that filled Damon’s head was drifting down his chest to his legs, making him jittery. The work was the only thing keeping him together as he worked through his plan with more focus than Rupert had ever seen in him.

“Well, I think that’s enough for today,” Rupert said as he leaned on his shovel. “Beers to celebrate? I mean, it is your last day and all. I never had a partner before. It was kinda nice, actually.” Lie. Rupert had hated every moment of working with Damon. But he was happy now. Tomorrow, everything would be different.

Damon thought for a moment, then nodded. “Okay. But just one. I’ve got stuff to do before I go.”

“Sure thing.”

They each pulled up a stool at the bar, letting their weight sink with the satisfaction of fatigue. Beers were set in front of them, and Damon gulped it down, probably more out of habit than thirst. Rupert sipped his drink as he watched Damon empty his glass, then ordered him another. It was a celebration, after all. Damon protested only momentarily; he had missed the taste of beer, and it was refreshing. Rupert didn’t have to talk him into the third or fourth beers, and it all became too easy after that. As Damon drank, Rupert watched the snow fall lightly outside. He hoped the brunt of the storm would hold off until morning at least. That would make things easier.

Rupert helped Damon get home and put him to bed, then found the book with the key in it. He went back outside and trudged down the street. Snow was already collecting, and it was coming down harder every moment. He would have to hurry. He thought he might be able to wait until morning, but now he considered the possibility that the dark would make things a lot easier. No one pays attention in the dark. Especially when it’s snowing.

He pulled his collar up around his cheeks and forged ahead through the wintry night. He didn’t have far to go, and came upon a dark house on the edge of the less rough part of town. It was a home that had fallen in disrepair, but it was obvious that it had been beautiful at one time. Rupert went around to the back of the house and pushed a door open. It scraped against the floor as he leaned into it with his shoulder. Once inside, he pulled a flashlight out and clicked it on, then made his way upstairs to the bedroom. The walls were dark stained wood, making the room seem even darker in the black night. Rupert looked around the room at the paintings and wondered if any of them were worth anything. He shrugged. He wasn’t here for the paintings, anyway. Rupert spotted a built-in bookcase and held his flashlight up to read the titles. He found the collection of Dickens novels and pulled one out, smiling when they all came together, revealing a safe behind them. He pulled the key from his pocket and opened the safe, chuckling that the gift he had cursed his entire life had finally yielded something good. He slid a metal box from the safe and opened it. Loose jewels, cash, and gold. It was all there. He could do whatever he wanted now. Find his own open space away from everyone and live in peace.

As Rupert stepped back outside, the snow hit him in the face immediately. It was really coming down now; it was difficult to see very far ahead. He had to hurry. He made his way to the train station, not noticing that he was the only person out on the streets. It was late, and the cold was keeping people inside near their fires.

He threw open the doors of the station wide, excited about what the next adventure would be. The sound of his footsteps echoed throughout the cavernous building, and it was only then that Rupert realized he was one of few people inside. There was no one staffing the ticket windows, and there was no sound of trains coming or going. Rupert found an empty bench and curled up to wait for someone to come in. He could buy a ticket then.

*****

The snow had piled up; biggest storm Chicago had ever seen. Snow was two feet deep, and Rupert had trudged through it, up to the oak tree. It was easy to clear the snow away from the hole he had started yesterday, and he had made good progress for the last few hours. The dirt was piling up quickly, and every few minutes, Rupert would glance over to the box on the ground next to him. He was fueled by anger and frustration, and the sinking feeling that he needed to finish quickly, even though he already knew he would finish at exactly the right time. He took a moment to stretch; his muscles sore from the digging and from sleeping on a wooden bench all night.

The train station was at a standstill, and he’d learned that there was no way they were going to reopen that day. Begrudgingly, he had come to work; there was nowhere else to go. He jammed his shovel deep into the hard ground, feeling the cocoon of snow on all sides, insulating him from the city and the noise. It was welcome, as if he had come back full circle to the beginning, with snowflakes falling lightly around him; the brunt of the storm over. Until he heard Damon.

Rupert leaned on his shovel and watched Damon trudge slowly up the hill, seething with anger. He gripped his shovel tighter, knowing it could be used if he could get close enough. If. Damon stopped when he was close, and sighed with fatigue. His face was ruddy and there were bags under his eyes. Rupert lifted his shovel just slightly above the dirt until Damon pulled a gun from his jacket. Rupert sighed and let the shovel rest again.

“How did you know?” Damon asked.

“It’s hard to explain.” Damon didn’t answer, but his look said he expected one from Rupert. “I have this thing. I always thought of it as a curse. Until you came along, that is.”

“I didn’t do nothin’.”

“You made plans. You spent the last seven weeks figuring things out. I have to admit, I never expected you to come up with the answer. But you did. And when you thought of it, I heard it.”

“What do you mean, you heard it?” Damon lifted the gun higher, agitated. Rupert raised his hands, letting the shovel fall flat.

“It’s this thing I have. I can hear people’s thoughts, see what’s going to happen.”

“You mean like a psychic or somethin’?”

Rupert shrugged. “Kind of.”

“Is that why you work here?” Damon was sharp, Rupert had to give him that.

“It’s the only place that’s quiet.”

“And this?” Damon motioned toward the hole in front of them.

“Started digging it the day after I met you.”

“You knew way back then?”

“Not exactly. It was just a feeling back then. I didn’t know everything until I saw you walking up that hill five minutes ago.”

“So you know what happens now, right?”

Rupert sighed and nodded.

“Too bad,” Damon said, “I actually kind of liked you.” Before Rupert could take another breath, a shot rang through the air, causing snow to fall from the branches of the oak. Rupert closed his eyes, then fell squarely into the hole at his feet. Damon picked up the box, then trudged back down the hill as the snowflakes started their work of burying the gravedigger.

 

The New Guy

by Ben Pierce

 

Clark stumbled backward, putting his hand on his chest as blood ran through his fingers. A voice roared from behind him, telling him to get down. He hit the floor as quickly as he could. He heard a gunshot and saw the hound flinch as the bullet ripped through the massive beast. It must have been as long as Clark was tall. As it growled, exposing rotting teeth, it turned and Clark saw that its ribs were protruding out from a bit of decaying flesh.

It lunged at Clark, but this time he intercepted it with one of his daggers. The hound yelped as it hit the ground.

“Move!” Pain said from behind him. Clark was shoved aside as Pain pointed his revolver at the hound’s head and pulled the trigger. A blinding flash of blue light emanated from the gun. When Clark opened his eyes again, the hound was nowhere to be seen.

“What was that?” Clark asked.

“It’s called a Dip.” Pain’s robe seemed to disintegrate into thin air. “Nasty little things,” he chuckled. “Or I should say nasty big things. People once believed them to be dogs under the devil’s control, but now most people simply believe that they’re myths.” He glanced at Clark, “You okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just a flesh wound.” He winced as he put his hand to his chest once more. “It’s not a big deal.”

Pain nodded. “You can take the robe off now.”

“How do I do that? Getting it on was hard enough!”

“Just focus on reverting back to your human self,” Pain said as he started to walk down the beach. “You can do it. You’re a big boy.”

Clark did his best to concentrate, trying to block out the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. He thought of the life he once had, the taste of his favorite dessert, the smell of pine needles from his home up north. He felt his psychic senses leave him, and his clothes seemed to get lighter. He opened his eyes to find that he was once again wearing his t-shirt and jeans. He also saw that Pain was now quite a distance away. Clark had to run to catch up with him.

“So, is that it?” Clark asked. “Are we done for the night?”

“It?” Pain said with a hint of surprise. “You’ve just seen something that most people believe to be nothing but a nightmare, and you want more?”

“Yeah, I’m not afraid of what Hell has to offer.”

Pain gave a wicked cackle. “Boy, you know nothing of Hell.”

After arriving back at the beach’s parking lot they climbed into Pain’s car and took off. Pain was listening to talk radio, which literally managed to put Clark to sleep.

When Clark’s eyes drifted open, he found that they were driving through a small patch of suburbia.

“Is there a reason we’re in the suburbs?” Clark asked impatiently. “I mean, there can’t possibly be any hellhounds here.”

“You’d be surprised what you can find in the suburbs,” Pain said. “And it was called a Dip.” Clark looked down at the clock to see that he had been asleep for almost an hour, so it was a very good thing that Pain’s BMW was comfortable. Suddenly, Pain pulled off the road and parked in a patch of grass. “Here we are.”

Clark looked around. Aside from a park that had its gate closed, there was nothing here but infinitely more suburban homes. “This is nowhere.”

“We’re going to the park.”

“At three in the morning? It’s clearly closed.” Without another word, Pain stepped out of the car and started walking toward the park. A shadow engulfed him, and suddenly he was clad in his black robes. Clark followed him, allowing the shadows to consume him as well; the two hopped the gate with ease. “Why are we here?” Clark asked impatiently.

“We’re looking for Oak Trail,” Pain said approaching the nearest map. “And keep your voice down. We don’t want them to hear us.”

“Them?” Clark whispered. “More dogs?”

“I’m afraid that it’s going to be quite a bit worse than that,” Pain whispered as he took off down a trail. Clark followed him. He found himself doing it a lot that night. Suddenly, a feminine scream pierced the silence.

Clark took off sprinting. The screaming continued as he ran deeper into the woods searching for the source of the sound. Clark arrived at a clearing, and suddenly the noise ceased as he saw a woman looking at him. She was on her knees, crying at the base of an oak tree. Something wasn’t right about this. Clark kept a hand on one of his daggers and approached her. “This is the spot,” she muttered. “This is the spot.” She kept repeating it over and over again.

“What spot?” he asked her. She was wearing all white, and she almost seemed to glow.

“The spot where he killed us,” she answered, as her eyes burnt a hole in Clark’s face.

He was struck with an intense fear. He heard another scream, this time masculine, but not a pained scream like before. It was filled with anger. Clark looked up to see a shapeless black object moving toward him with the face of a man. It swooped in and sent Clark flying backward. It felt like a train had just hit him. As he stood up, he saw the shapeless mass coming in once more. This time Clark charged it, drew back his daggers and stabbed, with perfect timing. The blob retreated, then hovered in midair until the face appeared once more. It said nothing, it only continued to yell.

Then Clark heard the familiar sound of gunfire, and watched the face twist and distort until it faded back into the black. Pain slowly approached it, with his gun pointed at it the whole time. The face appeared once more and came at him, but Pain simply fired again. It crashed into the ground and stopped moving.

“Finish it off,” Pain said as he walked away from it and towards the phantom girl.

Clark approached the now still black mass, and stabbed it with his daggers. It began to shake, and then pieces started to rise up into the air and fade away. Tiny black spheres continued to fly upward until the entire shadow disappeared. He looked over to see that Pain had taken the girl’s hand and she was now standing. Clark walked over in time to hear Pain say: “It’s alright. You can go now.”

The girl smiled. “Thank you.” With that she too began to turn into small white orbs, which floated up into the sky. They rose up until they were too small to see.

“Is that what the Reapers do?” Clark asked, still looking towards the heavens.

“Yes,” Pain said as he began to walk away. “That’s what the Reapers do.”

 

Leeches and Men

by James Maddox

 

The vampires took over two days after my eleventh birthday. And between you and me, it was a damn good strategy they had. Families. The nuclear kind with nine-to-five work schedules, house pets, and summer vacations to the beach: they weren’t prepared when the vamps made their move, and before we could say “Family fun night,” the war that really wasn’t a war was lost. Just fuckin’ lost. After all, a parent is much more prone to open that locked window or that bolted door when a son or daughter is on the other side, begging to be let in—and vice versa.

Damn good strategy.

We may act like we came out of that conflict as the holders of the reins, but the truth is, we’re just as scared now as we were during the siege, only we’re too systematic about things to know it. Gained too much false security.

There was a quote I read just before the war was officially ended—but damned if I can remember who said it… Probably a politician. Went like this:

“We approach a new era. Just like the transitions that occurred after Oppenheimer released his great fury, mankind must adjust itself to the coming changes of this new world: new technologies, new religions, new philosophies, and new hates and prejudices. Even in the shadow of this unveiled threat, adaptation will occur, and it will be bloody.”

Now, you ask me just exactly what that means, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you; but back then, it gave me hope that we still had a future to look forward to, you know? Keeping that perspective was just something to get me through the day.

Still is, I guess. Still will be.

Because despite what you may think, I am still and will remain human to my very core. And as a human, I’ll adapt and I’ll survive in a new environment before I roll over and die. That’s just what we do, and maybe that’s what we should really be afraid of.

*****

The vampire scratched at the window, creating a screech that human nails would have found difficult to withstand. Karen pried open her eyes, and as her vision was directed by the sound, she breathed long and slow: a yawn. Appearing to Karen in all its classic horror-movie bravado, the vampire scratched again. The monster fluttered its eyes and hovered just beyond the window frame.

“Steve,” Karen said. She nudged her sleeping husband, and when he simply hugged the covers tighter, Karen shook him by the shoulder. “We’ve got a leech outside. The cleaning service forgot to hang a new wreath of garlic.”

“Wha–?” Steve asked, still half asleep. He wiped at his eyes and slowly came to understand Karen’s complaint. Some grumbled muttering was lost to the gloom of the surrounding walls, but the creature outside the window, its ears didn’t miss a thing. The monster laughed, lewd and low. A vampire’s laugh.

Steve tossed back the covers and stepped out of bed. He stretched and walked out of the room. The house remained silent, save for the occasional attention-getting attempt from the vampire; Let me inside, Karen, its sweet voice called from inside the housewife’s mind. I want to touch you all over. Taste your sweetness. Karen felt a twinge of reaction shiver through her body. It had been a while since she’d had any reaction at all to a vampire’s wiles. This one was good, which made her slightly uncomfortable.

The doorway that led from their bedroom gaped from across the room. What was taking Steve so long?

He’s left you, Karen, the vampire breathed into her thoughts. Let me in. I can take care of you in ways he never would. Ways he never could.

A crash erupted from downstairs, traveling up to Karen’s ears like warning bells. An air raid siren in the dead of night. Karen surged forward, attentive and anticipating. The silence that refilled the room made her flesh tingle.

“Honey?” she called. “You okay?” She waited for a reply, any reply. No need to panic. Everything was fine: the security system was set, locks triple fastened… But there was the fact of the expired garlic wreath. What other precautions could be failing her at that very moment?

It’s over, Karen, the vampire hissed, voice excited, breaths deep and raspy in her head. No more relationship on autopilot. No more lazy, hazy little life. Your husband is dead, and they’re coming for you next. The villains! Terrible wretches! But not me. I’m so tender and caring. Let me in and I’ll be merciful. You’ll even enjoy it.

A gleam of tears began to coat her eyes.

Karen shifted under the covers, reassuring herself that everything was fine. Just fine. The vampire outside the window hissed and raked a single nail down the entire span of the window.

“Just go away,” Karen said, and again heard that low, lewd laugh. It made her want to scream, but before she could, Steve entered the bedroom carrying a new wreath at arm’s length, trying to keep the smell off him. He opened the window.

“I tripped over the coffee table,” he said in his half-sleep, then shooed away the vampire with a dismissive wave. It fled from the new cloves as the old wreath fell to the ground.

“No problem,” Karen said, and it wasn’t. There were no problems.

After closing the window and washing his hands, Steve returned to bed, and the house quieted. It remained silent until the morning’s sunshine filled the master bedroom.

*****

The next day began with familiar steps, but quickly diverged into uncustomary choices. Karen woke, prepared for her day, left the house, and met a friend for brunch. The friend had just been to the nicest gym with the nicest spa, and Karen just had to come drive into the city and see it for herself. Karen had made vague almost-commitments to attend a Chamber of Commerce gathering, but she quickly convinced herself that 1) she had been neglecting this particular friend for far too long, and 2) the Chamber meeting would not greatly miss her presence.

Most of all, although she couldn’t say why, Karen wanted to explore something new, to prove that she could experience something removed from the regular sights, sounds, and motives that frequented her days.

She needed a break, she decided. A break from her lazy, hazy little life—

The words had formed and taken hold before she could shake free of them. Her lazy, hazy little life. The vampire’s taunt hissed like deadly gas in her thoughts.

From that moment, until the onset of evening, Karen couldn’t slip the image of the vampire from her mind, couldn’t drown out the things it had said to her. Things your husband wouldn’t do. Couldn’t do. Somehow, a vile connection had been made with the creature.

Driving home now, she ground her slim fingers on the steering wheel. The leather creaked and groaned under her hold. She gulped at a bottle of water and tried to think about other subjects, but no matter what tangent she moved to, her thoughts always returned to the leech. Its undead eyes formed themselves perfectly in her imagination. Those eyes had stared greedily at her from beyond the windowpane, and now Karen wondered if hunger was the only desire that motivated it, or if there were other emotions: loss, love, jealousy, hate?

A rusted-out truck swerved into Karen’s lane, jarring her thoughts away from vampires and onto the rugged sound that bellowed from her tires as they ventured outside the interstate’s lined boundary. Karen laid on the horn and received an obligatory finger from the truck’s driver. She saw that the truck’s bed was filled with scrap appliances and other random bits of trash.

“And in other news,” a woman’s voice said from the radio speakers. The station she’d been playing to keep her company during her commute had switched to a news break. The voice brought her back inside her car, and back to a topic she had been happy to leave behind. “The vampire count has declined steadily with the setting-in of cooler temperatures. With any luck, vampire numbers will be at an all-time low by mid-winter. Good news, and just in time for the holiday season.”

Karen turned off the radio.

She breathed deep, slowly exhaled. As she tried to do so many times that day, Karen willed the thoughts of vampires from her mind, but that was a losing battle from the start. When she and Steve had first started dating in college, he had won her over with the confession that he couldn’t get Karen out of his mind.

“It’s like trying not to think of a pink elephant,” he’d said to her over the small table of a little outdoor café, his hair outgrown and hanging just above his eyes—hanging much differently from the style he’d fallen into and that had lasted for the past eight years. “You try not to think of a pink elephant, and the only thing you can think about from that moment on is a pink elephant.”

Karen had responded that she wasn’t fond of the comparison, but that she understood the intention. They had laughed. They had loved each other, or maybe they hadn’t. Maybe it was the future she had seen in him that she loved. The future of what the vampire had called her lazy, hazy little life. She became lost in this thought, meditating on it in a way she would never have admitted in public.

At the same time, the pickup truck that had cut off her just moments ago was jostled over a set of breaks in the pavement. The trash-filled truck bed shook and a scatter of debris showered the road, sending a particularly jagged pice of scrap metal to be lodged under Karen’s passenger-side front tire. There was a pop and a reeling moment of unbalance. Karen clenched her eyes and locked her brakes. Skid marks painted the pavement in long arching scribbles that stretched for yards. A cacophony of sound held itself as the only factor in her life for a single moment, and then everything stopped. Only the constant sound of her pulse beating out the passing seconds remained.

*****

Easy listening droned from the radio as the sundown traffic passed Karen and her broken-down car. Though she had reactivated the radio to help pass the time—Karen had a habit of relying on music to pass the time—she was now very close to turning it off again. On the UV-lit highway, no one stopped to help her. The cloud-covered moon peeked out from time to time like a giant headlight behind a passing train. Karen gazed at it while waiting along the highway. Behind her, headlights washed over a large yellow sign that read “Keep Moving: No Stopping for Any Reason!” A smaller sign positioned just underneath this command read “Next Service and Rest Stop 3.5 Mi.”

Damn phone, she thought. It hadn’t had a signal bar pop up since leaving the city. Hell of a lot of good AAA is when you can’t call them. She slapped the phone in her open palm and checked its display again. Nothing.

None of the other cars had stopped to give her assistance, mainly because they were afraid of encountering a loose vampire. Preposterous. Karen saw them all staring out their windows as they passed by her, wide-eyed and unbelieving. As they looked on, she had to remind herself that not everyone had the means to afford the kind of protection she had. Hopefully, one or two of them would at least call a patrolman once they cleared the dead zone.

“Why do these tragedies always happen to me?” Karen wondered aloud.

“Maybe you attract misfortune,” said a voice from behind her, a voice that seemed so close that she spun around expecting to see someone breathing down her neck; however, no one could be seen. A moment passed, and then a large woman appeared from the darkness just beyond the highway’s shoulder. Her ragged black hair hung in slashes and streaks.

“Oh, hello. My tire went out,” Karen explained to the stranger, but the woman didn’t seem to care. She just stood watching, her struggled breath coming out as though every exhale challenged her. “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” she said, talking slowly. Deliberately. Menace filled the stranger’s eyes. “I’m doing just fine.”

Karen took a step back, toward her useless car. If she could get inside and lock the doors, maybe she would be all right. Maybe. She smiled weakly. A trembling lower lip betrayed any false signs of confidence.

“Alright, I’m going to wait in the car then. Have a pleasant night.”

Karen motioned to her car, but when she turned, the dark-haired lady was already standing in front of her, blocking Karen’s way with her stout figure and toothsome smile.

“Oh, thank god,” Karen said, relief washing over her. The monster paused, a questioning expression stuck to it’s face, but Karen felt her newfound ease was simple to understand: This wasn’t a human being. Not a her or a she at all; the vampire was an it. “I thought you were some kind of murderer or something.”

“Isn’t that exactly what I am?” the vampire asked and drew back its lips to reveal elongated incisors, glistening points that aimed at Karen like finely sharpened daggers. Then it sniffed the air and was taken aback by an odor.

“Not tonight,” Karen said. “Unless you care for a taste of the holy. Chanel Trip-Seven. Top of the line.”

The vampire tried to retreat, but was caught by the BMW’s windows. The monster released a scream and punched at the reflective window, but despite the power of the punch, the durable structure of the windows held. The vampire howled, grabbed its arm in pain, and dropped to one knee.

Karen winced at this display, almost felt sorry for it.

“Highly reflective, triple-reinforced windows, standard,” she noted. Passing the monster, she felt a brief urge to pat it on the shoulder as a kind of sympathetic gesture—she quickly pushed this compulsion aside. “I’m sorry that vampires don’t retain intelligence after the change.”

The creature looked up from its anguish.

“Fuck you, lady.”

Karen soured. “This is what I get for talking to a leech.”

“Typical human, thinking you’re more than food,” the vampire said, working and flexing the pain out of its fingers. “That drove us forward all those years ago. The delusions of humans. The world’s dominant species? Laughable. Then you defanged us in fiction, even portrayed us as sympathetic. Sympathetic to our prey!” The vampire scowled. “Insults can only be thrown so far.”

Karen tossed up a halting hand.

“Please, waste your ideology on someone who…” The rebuke tapered as an engine revved and broke the dialogue. Behind the vampire, lights were flashing on and off, high beams to low beams. The police, Karen thought. Now I can finally get out of here. The vampire spun and faced the approaching vehicle, and with one bound, the monster disappeared into the night clouds.

Karen saw then that the approaching car wasn’t the police. Instead of a shiny new cruiser, a brown Chevy station wagon, probably older than Karen herself, screeched to a halt. She winced at the dust cloud the wagon’s tires produced. The door to the vehicle was tossed open and an old man in a beaten Carhartt jacket hopped out. He held a cross over his head, as though a cross alone would prevent the vampire from descending.

The man’s shaggy white hair swayed as he made his way to Karen and then grabbed her, dragging her by the arm toward the rust-spotted car (was she the only person on this road who took care of her car?). The whole time, he kept his eyes to the sky.

“Come on, come on,” he rasped when Karen began putting up a fight. “I hate to pull you along like this, but it’ll back any minute.”

“Let go!”

“I’m sorry, miss. But this has to happen.” The man threw Karen over his shoulder and carried her the rest of the way. Once inside the wagon, his peeling tires put them back on the interstate; several cars had to swerve into the far lane to keep from hitting them.

“Are you insane?” Karen cried. “What are you doing?”

“What’m I doing? What’re you doing on the side of the road? At night?”

“My car blew a tire.”

So? Why were you standing outside?”

“I was trying to get a signal for my phone,” she said. “You don’t happen to have a phone on you, do you?” The old man shot a look at her, and she glanced again at the interior of the car. “No, I guess you wouldn’t.”

“My name is Richard, by the way, and you’re lucky I was out tonight. That thing could have killed you.”

“Are you serious?” she scoffed. “A leech? Kill me? I’ll have more to worry about with your driving.”

The old man opened his mouth to respond, but whatever was about to emerge was lost forever as Karen’s roadside vampire landed on the hood of the old wagon. Its feet dented the hood down to the engine block, and Karen watched as its skin burned in the UV spotlights that protected the highways from just such an attack. The vampire didn’t seem to notice; instead, it punched the windshield. A standard windshield. As the glass splintered into a web of tiny cracks, the car jutted from side to side; the vampire, however, remained fixed, like a grotesque hood ornament. The vampire’s second punch broke a hole through the windshield. Its fist opened, got a grip on the inside of the window, and tore it off completely, throwing the broken remains to the soft shoulder. A blast of rushing air filled the interior cab.

Through all this, a fear had gripped Karen with more intensity than it had during her earlier blowout. The events of the evening had partly stolen a sense of control that she’d been taking for granted over a span of at least two decades. In that instant, she wanted to scream and flail wildly to protect herself, but another part of her, some deep-seated part that still thought itself untouchable, muttered about trading car travel for bus travel from here on out. Maybe it was the shock talking, but that part of her mind still had hope.

Richard cried out and jerked the wheel left, bashing into the side of another car, and then right, veering onto the shoulder, before steering the station wagon off the road entirely.

Now, that muttering voice was growing dim, not half as sure as it had been seconds ago. Karen dug her fingertips into the vehicle’s armrest. The tires of the old car bounced and rattled, the motions tossing Karen and the old man savagely, to the point that fighting to keep control was no longer an option. The vampire continued riding the hood like a surfboard, until suddenly it jumped away and revealed that the car was on a crash course with the thick trunk of a tree. A last minute thought screamed inside Karen’s mind: That’s too solid to break through.

The world went black.

When Karen came to, she saw Richard on the hood of the car, his neck ripped open, a pool of blood gathered around him. Instinctively, she grasped at her own slender jugular. Nothing. Well, not nothing. The dull yet prevalent pain of whiplash clamped to her like Velcro, but nothing as bad as poor Richard’s wound.

She stumbled out of the car and looked to the distant road, which rested maybe a football field’s length away. The moon was completely covered by clouds now.

“Your protection is fading, Karen,” the vampire sang. She spun around and looked up the tree they’d collided with. In a thick of branches, the monster crouched. “I could have torn you apart already, but I’m a patient gal.”

“Go away,” Karen yelled, but the vamp just smirked, it’s psychotic cat eyes glowing among the shadows.

“I’m excited. Privileged blood is always the tastiest.” Karen glanced again to the road. Crickets counted the seconds with their chirps. “You won’t make it to the road.”

“Watch me,” she countered and turned to start back to the highway. Much to her expectations, the vampire stood in front of her. Good. Karen already had a hand in her now-tattered purse and wrapped around a small cylinder. She pulled the device out and held it to the vampire’s face.

“Mace?” the vampire asked. “Don’t believe I’ve ever had the opportunity to test myself against it.”

Karen pressed the button atop the cylinder. A flash delivered a quick UV blast into the surrounding darkness. The vampire wailed; its skin burned and charred before Karen’s eyes, just as the back label instructions said it would. “Sun Shock: Take Back the Night!”

Karen stepped around the vampire and continued briskly toward the road.

“It’s not that I mean to provoke you,” Karen said at normal volumes, knowing the thing could still hear her. “But we’ve found ways of protecting oursel—”

Before Karen could fully finish the sentence, the vampire again blocked her path, all its previous inflictions had vanished. The creature was disgustingly attractive and unscarred once again.

“What’s the battery’s lifespan?” the monster asked, seeming genuinely curious. “How many flashes does it carry? Ten? Twenty? The sensation’s not pleasant, I’ll give you that, but I can outlast it. I can outlast anything devised by a human.”

Karen’s mouth opened, but her voice was absent.

The vampire broke into laughter. “Amazing how your species gives itself up to technology. Trust me, Karen. When tech is your god, the best you can really hope for is a quick and tidy death. A systematic death.” The vampire studied the points of its nails. “Sadly, I’m of the old ways. Nothing tonight will be quick or tidy.”

Before she had the chance to fight, Karen’s nervous hand loosened and the small black canister of Sun Shock dropped to the ground, settling onto a tuft of grass. She began to cry, and any voices that might have whispered of security or entitlement or even hope were silent. For Karen, the future had dead-ended into the smiling face of a vampire.

“You don’t have to cry,” said the monster, “but I’m really hoping you will.”

*****

Becomin’ alive again was sweet terror. I saw blood spilled across the car’s hood and slowly came to realize that it had belonged to me. The first thought that swiped through my mind: Jesus, I’m too old to live forever.

It was the hunger that opened my eyes—I could feel it instantly and recognized it for what it was—but it was you that got me to my feet again, Karen. I could hear that woman, and I could hear you, but your thoughts simply mirrored hers. “You don’t have to cry,” she said, and you dropped the canister, tore open your blouse, all at her instruction. You bore your neck, and to me that all seemed perfectly acceptable. The only thing that nagged was that it wasn’t voluntary, and you hadn’t done a thing to warrant such an invasion.

Fucked up, isn’t it? I understand taking blood, but not by undue force.

Helluva leech I’m gonna make…

*****

Teeth. Karen couldn’t help but continue to stare at the vampire’s teeth. A great fatigue had weighed down her emotions; she was no longer able to fight the monster’s suggestive will, so she resigned herself to… What? Death? Undeath? Would the monster drain her and leave her to reanimate, or would it take the time to ensure Karen’s life was ended? With so many questions, Karen didn’t have the capacity to consider which fate she would have preferred if given the choice.

The vampire skimmed its teeth along Karen’s exposed neckline. She trembled. She wept. Her legs had gone numb, but wouldn’t collapse. They were stone pillars, holding her in place for the coming slaughter. The vampire would take its time. After all it had been through tonight to have her, it would make Karen’s final grisly moments last. In the distance, cars continued to pass along the freeway; they were too far away. Too far to see this undignified ending.

“Undignified?” the vampire asked as this last thought jumped between the two. “You think natural death would be as courteous? As meaningful? Life’s a dance, sweetie. A dance with no dignity. You end up where you end up, just like everyone else.”

“Natural death might not be as courteous, but it wouldn’t talk quite as much,” said Richard.

That was all the notice he afforded before the attack. Richard tackled the vampire to the ground and wrapped a thick and heavy hand around its neck. Squeezing, Richard imagined that he could pop the monster’s head off its shoulders, but the reality of achieving this goal was easier to visualize than to realize.

The vampire slipped away from Richard’s grasp. The initial surprise had worked to land a sucker punch, but now the vampire—who had presumably lived a very long time and had complete control of its facilities—seized the upper hand.

Three hits—kneecap, abdomen, nose—and Richard was down, his vision blurry. Deep, dark blood soaked into the cotton t-shirt that was already stained by a brighter shade of crusting red. A growing darkness bordered his vision, then his sight focused on a particular object. Life reentered the man’s eyes, an angry vitality that centered all its wrath on the monster. The old man (who was not looking or feeling so old anymore) charged again at the vampire, then quickly dropped to his aching knees before contact could be made. A hand reached out and claimed the fallen canister of Sun Shock.

The vampire was prepared for Richard’s attack, but withered at the sight of the recovered cylinder.

Richard held the bulb near the vampire’s face and placed a finger over the trigger.

“But you’ll—” was all the monster managed before the button was pushed and another blast of light bloomed on the field.

For a moment, Richard was transported to the surface of the sun, but before he could be conquered by the pain, he steeled himself, recovered his senses, and remembered exactly where the vampire had stood. Despite the blindness hiding his target, Richard’s hand surged forward and connected with the bridge of the vampire’s nose, and because the creature’s structure was made malleable by the blast, the charred skin and weakened bones collapsed under Richard’s force and coated his hand in gore. A solid hit made deadly. The vampire dropped lifeless to the ground.

Richard shook blood and bone off his knuckles. He had done it; killed the vampire, saved the damsel. What this victory had cost him would be another topic for another night, but he couldn’t completely shut it out, not with his face burning as it was. Then again, that would fade. Already, the searing heat of his burns were cooling. A hazy vision restored itself.

He turned to Karen, and saw both the flight in her eyes and the curious hope that held her in place. Scenes and still images radiated from her mind, vivid enough to study and dissect, conflicting emotions of victory over the conquered vampire, fear of what Richard had become, a persistent gloom from her loss of faith in securities and protections.

“Don’t worry,” he said. He sensed that the ease of his voice calmed her slightly. “It’s over. Come on, I’ll wait with you as long as I can, but I don’t know how great of company I’ll be.” Richard slid his arm into hers, and began walking her toward the roadside. He could smell her red scent drifting in the misty evening like a pleasant perfume.

“It’s funny,” Richard said as they reached the road and had a seat on the bank. “I’ve lived with the cold hard truth of vampires for the majority of my natural life, but I never thought I’d become one. I guess I should have considered it. After all, the vampires took over two days after my eleventh birthday…”

*****

“I’m sorry,” Karen said.

Richard had given her his Carhartt to help keep her warm. It smelled of spent cigarettes and singed hair, but Karen sank into the lining like it was made from fine silk. Tears had carved paths down her dirty cheeks. She had lost a shoe somewhere between the crash scene and the walk to the highway, but she had calmed down considerably since they’d arrived back at her car.

He was keeping her calm, and she was thankful for that. Still, the only words she could think to say anymore to Richard were “I’m sorry,” so she repeated them until they didn’t resemble meaningful words at all, just sounds that had no real definition.

“She was right, you know?” Richard said. “About the dance. Might have had a different view on it, but she certainly was dead on in the general sense. People do with what they got, dance with the floor and tunes they’re given.” Richard quieted himself, before adding: “The ones that don’t seem to dance toward a particular spot in the room tend to be the most fulfilled. You ever notice that?”

“I’m sorry,” Karen said again in her utterly collapsed voice.

“Yeah.” Richard looked up to the stars. “Me, too.”

He took Karen’s hand in his and lifted it to his lips. She let him kiss it without the slightest hint of unease. This man wasn’t a vampire. He wasn’t a leech. He had swung in, put himself in danger, and rescued her. Twice. Vampires didn’t do that.

She wrapped herself around Richard’s arm.

“I’m so sorry,” Karen repeated. What she really wanted to say was thank you, express her gratitude and offer him some recourse to the state he now found himself in (because of her), but she couldn’t bring the right words to mind. And whenever she reached for them, all that came to mind were variations on the same apology.

Richard half-grinned and gazed at the approaching red and blue flashers. Police sirens wailed into the night. They were coming to help, which meant that they’d kill him the moment they discovered what Richard had become—and for a moment, a briefly enticing moment, Richard considered letting them do their job. He shivered.

“I have to go,” Richard said and pulled his arm away from Karen. “It was nice meeting you, Karen.”

Karen opened her mouth, but closed it when Richard smiled down at her.

“I know: ‘You’re sorry,’” he said. “But as much as you may mean it, that’s not gonna change a thing.”

Then he was gone, and the siren lights were glowing on Karen’s damp cheeks and she was left somewhere new. Somewhere between the world of vampires and men.

 

Blasted Tower

by Brian Boru

 

When Sean was six years old, his parents died and he was foisted upon his only living relative and black sheep of the family, his aunt Carly. She was extremely reluctant to take him in; a young boy had no place in the torrid, chaotic life of a barfly seeking out Mr. Right or at least Mr. Right Now. But when she learned of his meager college trust fund, she snatched him right up. The estate lawyer informed her that as legal guardian she could use it sparingly to pay for Sean’s necessities. All she heard was that she’d be getting extra money to help pay some of her outstanding debts and bar tabs. She’d finally have some breathing room even if she’d have to put a little food in the brat’s stomach, and put some second-hand clothes on his back. “If you don’t have family, what do you have,” she chuckled as she signed the adoption papers.

Carly had abandoned Sean in her cold, dank apartment for days, leaving him to fend off a battalion of cockroaches and a few rats that outweighed most cats. When Carly finally stumbled home from her weekend of debauchery, the landlord caught her in the hallway, and threatened to call the police on her if she ever left Sean alone again. He didn’t want to evict her now since she was finally able to pay rent, and the kid didn’t deserve that. Not wanting to risk losing the extra money, she was forced to make a decision. Changing her lifestyle wasn’t an option, so Carly dragged him behind her like a ragdoll from bar to bar in pursuit of chemical-induced happiness and a temporary reprieve from the delirium tremens.

During his first year of captivity, dozens of men drifted in and out of Carly’s life. Thankfully, none stuck around long enough for Sean to learn their names. Some of them were relatively harmless, looking for any port in a storm. Unfortunately, most were garden-variety abusive assholes. They’d shack up with Carly for a few nights and then the yelling and beatings would start. Once they’d tired of using Carly for a punching bag, they’d come looking for him. Over a short period of time, Sean had accumulated a grotesque roadmap of abuse—cuts, bruises, cigarette burns, and broken bones. He’d hide under his bed or in his closet and pray to be rescued from this life of misery, but every morning he awoke in the same situation. Sean wondered, if there really was a compassionate god in the universe, why had he forsaken him?

He spent the next few years in smoky dive bars that reeked of stale vomit and fresh urine. They were the kind of bars where everything goes and the cops looked the other way for a small donation to the police retirement fund. No one batted an eye when an underfed nine-year-old went around collecting empty drinks and overflowing ashtrays. In exchange, the bartenders would buy Sean a cup of soup or a sandwich. One night, Sean felt someone behind him staring a hole through the back of his head. He whirled around to find an elderly woman sitting in a previously empty corner booth. The same empty booth he’d just passed. Cigarette smoke hung around her like a shadow, obfuscating everything but her wraith-like eyes and her gnarled hands shuffling oversized cards. An icy chill ran down his spine as he met her piercing gaze. Sean did his best to avoid that corner like the plague. Every time he glanced in that direction, her eyes were stalking him like a bird of prey. Quietly staring and shuffling. As the night dwindled on, she ran out of patience waiting for him and beckoned him over with a twisted, crooked finger. Sean vehemently shook his head no, and then she croaked out, “Sean. Come here.” Sean hesitated but his feet moved on their own inching toward her. Sean fought with every ounce of his willpower but she drew him like a moth to a flame. She spread the cards face down across the table.

“Hello, Sean,” she rasped. Her ancient face was lined and wrinkled from unknown decades of hard living. Her steel-grey hair was wrapped up in a tight bun atop her head.

“H-how’d you know my name?”

“Sit. I’ve been sent to give you something and I’m running out of time.”

He stared up at her, afraid to get any closer.

“I haven’t come all this way just to hurt you. Now stop this foolishness at once,” she commanded.

Sean meekly climbed up on the chair across from her.

“Sean,” she said and ran her fingers over the cards, “You have great potential.”

He stared at the cards because he couldn’t meet her soulless eyes.

“I can only start you on the path.”

“Path?”

Her gnarled fingers separated three cards from the spread and slid them in front of him.

“The Blasted Tower.” She flipped the first one over to reveal a picture of a crumbling medieval castle. “The Devil,” she flipped the next, showing a picture of a large dancing goat. “The Magician,” she flipped the last card to reveal a young man kneeling at the edge of a big circle with a star inside. Inside the star was a tongue of flame. He stared at the tarot cards in awe, “What does this mean?” When he looked up, she was gone. The only thing left were the three cards and a haze of smoke.

“Sean!” Carly screeched from across the bar. “We’re leaving,” she slurred and stumbled out into the night, hugging onto Mr. Right Now. Sean hesitated then snatched the cards off the sticky table and chased after his aunt.

Sean managed to get through the next few years reasonably unscathed. He attributed his newfound good fortune to those three tarot cards, which he kept in a zip lock bag to protect them from the elements. Just as they had protected him. Sean would keep them in his pocket whenever he left the confines of the apartment. When Carly drank herself into a coma, which was every weekend she could, Sean would sneak off to the library. He read every book he could find on the subject of tarot and the occult. Although, it had a sparse selection, he was able to gain rudimentary education on the esoteric arts.

By his freshmen year of high school, he’d scrounged up enough money to buy a tarot deck and a few books on witchcraft. During his sophomore year, he did everything he could to fit in to the cutthroat world of high school popularity, for he had fallen for Mandy, the head cheerleader. But, no matter what he did, he couldn’t break out of the poverty stricken, geek caste he was forced into. Sean performed several tarot divinations for guidance on this matter and they all told him that it was not the right time to act. Over the next few weeks, Sean ran out of patience and took matters into his own hands. He delved into his books and put together an attraction spell from a mish-mash of sources. He’d never done one before so he employed the three cards for extra luck. He did everything right, so he thought. The spell was done outside in the day and hour of Venus using three green candles. Then he waited and dreamed of and lusted after her from afar.

The morning of Halloween, he awoke and felt that the day had finally come. So he decided to divine for guidance to make sure. Instead of his normal tarot spread, he shuffled in the original cards and drew only three cards face down. He closed his eyes and turned each one over, and then hoping with every fiber of being, he slowly opened his eyes. Sean’s heart stopped when he saw the original cards laid out before him—the Blasted Tower, The Devil, and The Magician. Tears of joy rolled down his emaciated cheeks and he said a heartfelt prayer of gratitude. He put on his favorite black shirt and well-worn corduroys and slipped the cards in his pocket.

When he arrived at school, the student body was buzzing with news that Mandy and her boyfriend, Zach, the captain of the football team, had broken up. “Gods be praised,” Sean whispered. He’d planned and rehearsed what he was going to say to her at least a hundred times in his head. But when he saw her standing at her locker, his mind froze. He took several deep breaths to ease the anxiety, and rubbed his sweaty hands on his cords. Sean pushed out his scrawny chest the best he could and approached her with the swagger and coolness of a dead fish. When he was close enough to smell her perfume, he tripped over his own feet and spilled out across the hall behind her. Sean scrambled back to his feet as she looked at him with those beautiful hazel eyes. “Mandy?” He could feel and hear his blood pumping. Panic set in and he blurted out, “Will you go to the prom with me?” Time stopped and he forgot how to breathe. Mandy turned her nose up at him. “Eeww! No! You are so gross! Get away from me!” She turned and walked away laughing at his expense.

Crestfallen and heartbroken, he slumped against the lockers and went over everything in his head, trying to figure out what went wrong. Then Zach turned the corner and punched him in the stomach. Sean doubled up, fell to his knees, and was thankful for not having money for breakfast. “I’m going to beat the shit out of you after school, dork!”

All throughout the day, he tried to discern what went wrong but couldn’t figure it out. So he plotted out a different way home to avoid running into Zach. Then he skipped his last class and snuck out early to prevent getting his brains beaten in. The new route was longer, but well off the beaten path. He zigzagged through burned out and dilapidated buildings to arrive at the halfway point, the abandoned train station. He stopped for a minute to catch his breath and take in the unfamiliar surroundings.

The train station had been a major thoroughfare decades ago when major industry flourished in the city. But when the plants closed and moved away, there was no need to keep this station alive. So it was closed and boarded up. The two-acre plot behind the station held a warehouse and several smaller storage units that were fenced off and falling into decay and disrepair. Sean tried to peek through cracks in the boards to get a glimpse inside the station when the slate-gray October sky unleashed a frigid downpour on him. “Shit!” he exclaimed, and rattled and pounded on the locked doors in vain. Within seconds, he was soaked to the bone. “Dammit!” he screamed out in frustration.

He hung his head and began the second half of his waterlogged, arduous journey home. The rain came down in sheets now. Water squished between his toes with every step. He sloshed through puddles and piles of dead autumnal leaves. The once-proud and majestic oaks looked meek and embarrassed, unable to conceal their naked vulnerability; having shed their once-bright yellow and fiery ochre coats. His teeth chattered and goosebumps rioted along his skin. Sans coat, he empathized with the unprotected trees as the cold October wind buffeted him.

Behind him, Sean heard the squeal of tires braking on wet pavement and whipped around. Zach and three other football players emptied out of a late-model sports car. Each of them easily outweighed Sean by eighty pounds. A lead weight of fear lodged in his belly. “Thought you were going to get away?” Hatred and malice beamed from Zach’s eyes. “Oh shit!” Sean exclaimed and broke pell mell for the fence. He reached the razorwire-topped fence to cries of “You’re dead, geek!” Sean hopelessly searched for a hole in the fence but couldn’t find one. He glanced over his shoulder; they were only a short distance behind him and closing fast. “Shit! Shit! Shit!” Sean dug his fingers into the rusted, diamond segments and climbed to the top but hesitated at the razorwire. Then a hand clamped onto his pant leg and Sean envisioned them pulling him down and beating him to death. So he reached into the razorwire coils and pulled himself out of their reach, cutting his hands and arms to ribbons. He flipped over the fence and ran as fast as he could into the heart of the storage area.

Sean heard the rattle of the fence behind him as he snaked through derelict buildings leaving a trail of blood in his wake. His hands were torn wide and deep and a rivulet of blood ran down his left arm. His lungs burned and black spots dotted his peripheral vision. He’d have to stop running soon, but needed somewhere to hide. Then he saw it—the Blasted Tower!

The derelict warehouse had been built with red and brown bricks, opalescent windows and a massive set of steel doors. Through the years, the bricks had accumulated a patina of grime and black mold. Most of the windows had been shattered and the doors were tagged with assorted gang signs. Sean dug into his pocket—wincing as he irritated his wounds—and pulled out the three cards. He extracted the tower card from the bag and held it up for comparison. So, he reasoned, this is where I’m supposed to go.

Strewn about its perimeter was a kaleidoscope of broken bottles; shards of green, brown, and clear glass cracked and echoed from under his feet. He did his best to minimize the noise by not stepping on the larger pieces. A rustle of feathers from above drew his attention. He looked up to see a murder of crows standing sentry along the crenelated rooftop like petite feathered gargoyles. Dozens of bright orange eyes peered down at him with contempt. He put a bloody finger to his lips in hopes of their continued silence, but his luck ran out and in unison they let out a series of “caws.” “Fuck!” Sean whispered, staring daggers at them and silently cursing their existence. “He’s over here!” Zach yelled and spiders of panic pounced into Sean’s brain. Catcalls and high-pitched hyena laughter filled the damp air. Sean scrambled to the steel doors, but his heart sank into his stomach when he saw a rusted and padlocked chain barring his entrance. He slumped against the door and was about to let blood loss and exhaustion take him under when he saw his salvation. One of the ground floor windows was broken, leaving just enough room to crawl inside. The sound of crackling glass announced that he had company, so he quickly darted under the guillotine of broken glass.

The warehouse smelled moldy, of stagnant water, of rot and decay. The sparse illumination came from a single fluorescent light hanging from the ceiling. The sickly pale luminescence cast monstrous shadows of broken train engines, axles, and gutted seats onto the walls. Rain cascaded through the gaping holes in the ceiling, creating oily black puddles on the floor. “I think he went in here,” Zach said and kicked out the window Sean used. The icy fingers of death closed in around him as more of his blood escaped from his body. He glanced around and saw his only possible sanctuary—the gaping maw of a stairwell descending into the bowels of hell, probably.

With the last of his reserves, he pushed toward the stairwell. Half loping, half running, he slipped and tumbled down the steps, landing in a shallow pool of stagnant, brackish water. The pain was immediate and intense, but thankfully no jagged stabbing pain of a broken bone. A miniscule bulb encased in a wire cage flickered above him casting light onto a steel door beside him. Sean got to his hands and knees when windows shattered and voices echoed through the warehouse. Zach and his crew were relentless. Their riotous laughter and murderous howls further solidified their intentions.

Bleeding, sopping wet and almost dead, Sean threw his body into the door with reckless abandon. Its rusted hinges screeched from ages of disuse, but the door swung open. He winced at the sharp noise and sprawled into the pitch black room. Footsteps slapped the stairs behind him and Sean frantically pushed and leaned into the door. It clanked closed behind him, sealing him in a dark tomb. Sean slumped down against it; hands and feet pummeled it but its thickness buffered their attacks. His short, pain-filled life flashed before him and he wept like never before. The end was near. He took out the tarot cards and ran his diced fingers across them one last time, leaving steaks of blood across each one. He whimpered while tears ran down his face. A merciful darkness washed over him, blotting out his consciousness and stealing his breath.

The blood-soaked cards fell from his hands and fluttered to the floor. When they kissed the floor, a brilliant white spark jumped into the air. Then a pinprick of light sputtered to life in the center of the room. It expanded into a tongue of flame that grew exponentially, until it was a raging column over five feet wide and touched the ceiling. A choir of glossolalia cut the silence and impregnated the room. Sean’s wounds stopped weeping and he felt the icy grip of death release him. His breath returned to him and he gasped and pried open his swollen eyes. He looked down at his hands and arms, which were healed, leaving only a slight scar here and there. “What the fuck?”

The column of fire exploded, sending spurts and gouts of fire across the empty room. Sean shielded his eyes and was assaulted by the stench of offal and burning flesh. It was so potent that his stomach churned and bile caught in his throat. Sean looked up and saw a tall, alabaster Goddess, beautiful beyond comparison standing naked in the center of the pentagram etched into the floor. She was perfect in every way, until she approached and he noticed a pair of small, bone-colored horns poking out from under her silken, white-blond hair. Then he saw her scythe-like claws and cloven hooves. “Magician,” she purred, “what is thy bidding?” Her sensual voice made him weak in the knees and strong elsewhere. Sean stared agape for what seemed like an eternity then managed, “What?” He couldn’t take his eyes off her and ran through hundreds of erotic fantasies.

She strutted closer. The sound of her hooves click clacking on the concrete snapped Sean from his lust-filled trance. She smiled and showed off sharp canine fangs that gave her an otherworldly seductiveness. The sensual heat she produced was stifling. “You called me?”

“Did I? How?” Sean stammered.

“You caught my attention with that attraction spell.”

“But that was for Mandy…”

“Magician, you are more powerful than you realize,” she smiled again. “Would you rather have her or me?” With that she raised an eyebrow and ran a clawed finger between perfect breasts that defied gravity. Sean blushed and averted his eyes, she giggled at his embarrassment. “You are cute,” she said, reaching out to him as a red spark burned her hand. She glared at the lines of the confining pentagram and let out a guttural, demonic growl of frustration that reverberated off the walls.

Sean scrambled back from the pentagram and pressed himself against the door. “I will not hurt you, man-child, unless you want me to.” She smiled again and leaned toward him. Sean stared into her ink black eyes and shook his head “no.” She sighed and strutted around the confines of the pentagram.

“Fate drew you here with those cards,” she pointed to them with a clawed finger. “This pentagram and your…” she hesitated as if tasting the words then purred out, “blood,” and licked her lips.

“Eons ago one of your ancestors bound me into servitude. Every generation of your lineage has had an opportunity to call upon me on All Hallows Eve using those cards.”

“But I didn’t mean to,” Sean argued.

“Yes, well you were about to die and I am bound to protect you until you have made your request of me,” the succubus said matter of factly.

“What?”

She sighed again. “I stopped you from dying from those wounds. Consider yourself extremely lucky. I am bound to grant you one request.”

“You’re like a genie?”

“Do I look like a jinn?” she snapped.

“Well, no. More like a porn star,” Sean replied.

She smiled with otherworldly seductiveness, “Sex?”

Sean shook his head “no” and she pouted at him.

“Can you bring back my parents?” he blurted out.

“No. Their souls have moved on, besides that would be beyond my capabilities.”

Sean sadly exhaled and said, “Ok.”

“So. What will it be? Money? Fame?”

“Gimme a few minutes, ok?”

She rolled her eyes, shook her head, “Whatever.”

Sean contemplated what he’d read about a demon’s abilities.

“I could arrange a night with this… Mandy,” she said while admiring her claws.

“That’s quite alright,” Sean said while looking at his hands. “I almost died from that endeavor.”

“True,” she replied.

Sean thought long and hard, and then it came to him. A wolfish grin crept across his face while he stared at her.

“What?” she asked with a look of surprise.

As Sean informed her of the request, her eyebrow arched. “Man-child,” she said, “I have never received such a request in all my years.”

“So, is it a deal?”

She paused, “Man-child, are you sure?”

He nodded and said “yes” with total confidence.

They discussed the details of his request; when they were done, she called up another column of fire with a series of hand gestures and phrases in some ancient language. She glanced over her shoulder with a smile and said, “I suggest you stay here tonight for your safety. Until then…” Then she stepped into the flame and was gone. In the morning, Sean safely made his way home.

Months later, there was a knock at the apartment door. Carly, half-drunk stumbled to the door, unlocked the puzzle of locks and pried it open. The succubus was wearing a slinky, tight-fitting black evening gown replete with black stiletto heels. All semblance of her demonhood was concealed. “Sean!” Carly screamed, “There’s a very expensive-looking call girl here. Where did you get the money for her?” Sean emerged from the bathroom wearing a rented tuxedo, holding a corsage. He pushed past his aunt, “That’s not a call girl. She’s my prom date.”

 

A Perfect Moment

by C.J. Henderson

 

Duties are not performed for duty’s sake, but because their neglect would make the man uncomfortable.
A man performs but one duty—the duty of contenting his spirit, the duty of making himself agreeable to himself.
–Mark Twain

Vrenten of Sperica had not reached the rank of enjele because he was a member of the royal family. If anything, his birthright had worked against him mightily after his decision to join his world’s military. Not that such mattered to him. He had succeeded despite his title. As he told his fellows, he had never been overly interested in politics. Who would rule, would rule, he knew. And in all honesty, he could care less whose behind filled the jade throne.

“I’m certain you’re curious as to why you were called in.”

Enjele Vrenten broke his proper, forward gaze just long enough to indicate that his superior was correct. The twelve planets of their solar system were maintaining a reasonable peace with their neighbors in the galaxy, no upheavals mentioned on the news, no national disasters, his personal record clean—he could not even begin to cobble together the beginnings of a guess at what could have caused him to be roused at such a time in the morning—let alone to be summoned on the run to the ge’het’s private office. He sensed a raw level of tension in everyone around him, however, including the ge’het, which intrigued him greatly.

“Just what in seven suns is going on around here?” he asked. Hoping he was betraying none of his interest on his face, he added, “And could it possibly, just once, be something even a touch exciting?”

Ge’het Krec stared at the officer before him, then looked down at his desk. The commander allowed himself one deep breath, then, sufficiently steeled, looked up once more, saying;

“You’re being offered a mission, Vrenten. One so important, and most likely dangerous, that the word ‘offer’ was not a mistake. Normally such an undertaking would have entailed an extensive training period. The officer first chosen was prepared for seven months.”

The enjele’s heartbeat sped up, despite the iron grip he was exerting over his emotions.

“But, five hours ago, he was murdered.”

When Vrenten remained rigidly at attention, the ge’het sighed, then said to him;

“Release, Enjele. Your control is proper and admirable, but now is not the time. What you’re being asked to consider, you deserve the right to ask questions—”

“As you deserve the right to hear what questions I might ask, eh, sir?”

Krec smiled. Such honest impertinence was just one further assurance they had chosen wisely. Pulling a pair of smokers from the box on his desk, he tossed one to Vrenten, then allowed the officer to light up as he did so himself. Across the desk, the enjele inhaled deeply, his mind racing. Whatever was going on, it was at least twice as big as he had suspected. Clearing his mind, he asked;

“Murdered by who, sir? Do we know?”

“We suspect… but we can’t prove. It doesn’t matter. It’s the Atthans.”

Vrenten grinned internally over the fact that he managed to keep his eyes from going wide. Nodding gravely, he settled into the chair his superior indicated, letting the ge’het fill him in on what he needed to know.

“We’re going to be at war soon. Matter of weeks, the whole system will be on fire. No stopping it. Attha’s been spoiling for a turmoil. Making alliances, pushing borders…”

Krec stopped himself as if realizing there was no need to explain the obvious. Bowing his head for a moment, he raised it again, took a long drag on his smoker, then said;

“Thirty-eight thousand years, that’s how long we’ve been recording our history. We’ve been around a long time. Seen a lot, learned a lot. And yes, even we, the great and wonderful Sperican… even we’ve made some mistakes. Your mission, Vrenten, if you accept, is going to be to correct the most serious one of those mistakes our people ever made.”

The enjele exhaled, releasing a large cloud of smoke into the room. This time, he allowed himself to smile. Allowed his self-pleasure to be observed.

What, the back of his mind whispered in triumph, could it possibly matter now?

*****

Two hours later, Vrenten stood on a launch platform in a heavy-assault tactical suit, his head fairly reeling from all he had learned. Every ten cycles, time and space shattered, the walls of the universe collapsing for a time—inter-dimensional chaos known throughout the galaxies that shared information as the ShatterTime. A secret history of expeditions and wars, unknown to anyone but the ruling class. And the last time around, they put their foot into it.

Big time.

Last time, they had lost the Light. The divine power that had created their world, their culture, their entire way of being. An unlimited source of energy which the government’s chief wizards had nurtured and experimented with for millennia. Gone, allowed to slip through this idiotic breech which befell the universe—all the universes possible—every ten thousand cycles. In frustration, the college of sorcerers had been able to follow its movements, but had been unable to do anything to recapture it.

The Light, Vrenten had been informed, had fallen into a pattern, revealing itself upon a planet named Earth every twenty-five hundred years. It was there—now. And it had to be recovered—it had to be brought back.

Now.

Which would not be accomplished easily, the enjele was assured, for the natives had knowledge of the Light, and would not release it easily.

“It must be returned to the council,” Krec had pressed upon him, the commander’s voice laced with desperation. “Attha spent a planetary ransom in an attempt to make certain this mission fails. You must thwart their desires, Vrenten. The Light must be returned, for if it is not, our world dies!”

Of course, the enjele had accepted. How could he not? After all, this was a mission worthy of a warrior. This was a deed worth doing. As he waited for the breech to open, his excitement was something he could feel in his fingertips, hear in the air around him, taste it there as well. He had a device he was assured would lead him to the Light. He had been given any weapon he had asked for. He had but a handful of days to find the lost power, liberate it from wherever it was being held, and return it to the council.

Madness, he thought, unable to stop grinning. The greatest madness a man could ask for.

And then, suddenly the air turned a thin yellow, hazing over before him, filling with the scent of fresh halinbred buds. It was the sign—the breech was opening. Stepping forward without hesitation, the enjele moved into the shimmering disruption and in an instant… was elsewhere.

His new reality slammed against him with the force of a falling mountain. His armor caught the blow and dispersed it with typical efficiency, shattering the landscape around him as it did so. With a thought he commanded his visor to locate whatever force had hit him. His suit responded, turning him in a rapid arc until he saw—

“What in the seven suns is that?”

Staggering tall, improbably wide, the wildly constructed lifeform waddling across the cityscape before the enjele left him too startled to immediately respond. The thing was too oddly put together. There was no central trunk, no core hub of construction, no nucleus from which its appendages might sensibly fall. It was insanity given flesh, and the sight of it transfixed him—crippling his ability to react.

“Look out!”

Vrenten had only paused for the briefest of moments, stunned as he was by the maddeningly impossible thing before him. But, in the scant seconds his brain had needed to scan the horror, it had taken note of him. The first blow he had received from the creature had been but the merest edge of one meant for another. Now, as the enjele stared forward, blinking hard, struggling to focus his mind, he realized the thing was about to direct its next attack at him. Was doing so even as he fumbled to respond.

“Down!”

The earthling that had shouted at him a second earlier had now thrown himself against the enjele, knocking him to the ground an instant before another of the monstrosity’s beams had left its body. The force tore the atmosphere open, filling the air with fractured atoms, frying their edges, clogging their lungs with the stink of ozone. Behind the pair, several buildings shook violently, then collapsed inward upon themselves, filling the area with a monstrous cloud of rapidly-swelling dust and debris.

“Quick,” shouted the earthling, his speech translated by Vrenten’s suit, “we’ve got to move—now!”

The enjele shook his head within his helmet, trying to clear it. The indicator link within his helmet showed him that the Light was indeed within his immediate vicinity. Everything had worked as Krec’s experts had hoped. He had been delivered directly to his objective.

Gather intelligence, he told himself. You’re already in the right spot, and you have days to complete your mission. Best guess, that whatever-it-is possesses the Light. Make certain. Only way to find out—interact. Get what information you can from the local.

Standing, Vrenten assumed the same hunched-over stance as the earthling and then followed it as it ran into the billowing dust. The pair ran a very short distance, then the earthling grabbed at the enjele’s arm, pulling him around the corner of what Vrenten assumed was a building of some sort.

“Thank you,” the enjele heard his suit translate. “I believe you may have saved my life.”

“Night’s not over,” answered the native. “Might need you to do the same for me, you know.”

Vrenten used the moment to study the life form. The earthling was not so terribly dissimilar from himself. Squatter, far more hairy, an extra finger on each hand—but still, bipedal, two eyes, set forward, still actually possessed teeth, but close enough to normal to find some sort of common ground. The fellow did not seem to be carrying any weapons. He was fully clothed, but not armored.

Not naked or wearing face paint, thought the enjele, they build cities. At least there’s some level of civilization.

As Vrenten was taking his tally, the native asked;

“You military?”

“Yes,” he answered honestly, not seeing any harm, needing to establish some sort of basis for communication.

“What’re your orders?”

“Making it up as I go along,” the enjele replied.

“Yeah,” agreed the earthling, “tonight, aren’t we all?”

“What is that which you combat?”

“No idea,” answered the local. “Crap has been popping out of thin air all day. One damned thing after another. My tech people tell me we’re in for a bad bout for up to a week.”

They understand the breech, thought Vrenten. Nodding, he began to run a fast inventory of his weapons, making certain that not only had everything transferred through the breech along with him, but that none of it had suffered damage either during the transition or the attack. As he did, the native said;

“This thing here, though, we’re thinking it’s the worst that’s going to come through. Doesn’t have a name we can put to it. Just a whole lot of nasty that’s gotta be stopped.”

Vrenten frowned slightly. His information was that the Light existed on this world. The creature before them, however, appeared to have arrived as he had—through the breech. Then he thought, Krec had told him the lost power interacted with the planet on a cycle, much like the one causing the breech.

Thing slides through the breech, he thought, possesses the Light… possible—

“Time to move.”

The enjele heard the local’s words, but as the earthling ran quickly toward the shadows created by the growing debris cloud, Vrenten answered—

“Yes, time to move, indeed,” and hit his vertical thrusters, throwing himself a rapid fifty feet into the air. A flaming gelatin shot through with vibrant strands of a green lightning splattered against the ground where the two had been, thrown at the spot by the towering horror. Ready for battle, the enjele snapped one of his firearms into his left wrist cradle and spat;

“I can deal heat, too, ugly.”

With a thought, his zelcator reached out in every direction, pulling all the thermotic energy within a hundred yard radius to itself, and then converted it to a tight beam and sent it pulsing back toward his foe. The purple/pink stream of incalescent scintillation tore across the area between them at the speed of thought, splattering against the monstrosity, burning through the first two layers of its semi-metallic scales.

As the creature roared, spitting its anger into the sky, Vrenten smiled, thinking;

Oh, if you liked that…

Snapping a much bulkier unit onto his other wrist, the enjele thought the proper release sequence and then braced himself as his converter ranged through the available atmosphere, scooping all available metallic atoms and converting them into inch-thick, yard-long segments of a type of razor wire which it flung with terrible force into the monstrosity’s flesh.

As the creature howled, its raging bringing the sound of breaking glass through the ever-billowing debris cloud now covering a several-mile radius, Vrenten chuckled. He had followed a science-driven, esoteric attack with one of standard metal. It never failed to catch such enemies off guard. He knew the thing had been bracing its defenses for a like attack and thus had suffered far more damage when his fester spears had struck home.

Maintaining what he assumed was a safe distance, allowing his suit to fall into a standard bob-and-weave pattern, the enjele switched the fester attachment back to its place on his utilization rack, and was pulling down another weapon—one he had always wanted to see used against something capable of withstanding its power—when suddenly, his mind froze as it heard a black and choking thought—

*worthy*

A great, mocking bellow splattered across the landscape, and then the towering horror threw forth a second volley of flame and lightning—one several hundred times the diameter of the first. Although Vrenten’s zelcator had been left armed, it could not begin to pull the heat energy from the air being created at that moment. The temperature of the enjele’s armor rose dramatically, even as the maelstrom of electricity sluiced through every circuit it could find.

His suit stunned, Vrenten fell helplessly toward the ground, even as his monstrous foe slid forward a massive cephalopodic length to ensnare him. But, before the enjele could fall into the outstretched appendage, his native ally leapt into the air, making an incredible, unassisted jump which not only brought him in contact with Vrenten, but allowed him to shove the soldier out of the horror’s grasp. As the two of them hit the ground some distance away and began to roll, the enjele shouted;

“Behind me!”

As he had thought, the monstrosity followed up its attack by hurling another overwhelming blast of flame and current their way. Vrenten knew not all of his offensive equipment would be back on line yet, but he was certain he could count on his armor’s defensive net to protect them. As the enjele’s suit actually rebuilt its power from the energy being thrown against it, he shouted;

“I’ll be topped off in a moment, but if you have anything you could throw at that thing, this might be a good time.”

“Well,” answered the earthling, giving Vrenten a short smile, “I guess I can’t let you have all the fun.”

The enjele could not help but admire the native. He wore nothing but standard civilian issue, carried no weapons of any size—oh, his indicator had marked the fellow as carrying several small metallic items on his person, but they were trifles—and yet he was ready to move forward against the monstrous shape before them. Watching the gauge on his forearm, knowing it would still take several seconds for his regen-unit to finish charging his circuits, Vrenten thought;

You will be avenged, good sir.

And then was struck speechless.

Sucking down a deep breath, the native braced himself, then extended his arms, pointing his hands at their foe. The fellow took a moment to shout;

“I gave you a chance to move on, but you wanted to dance. Well then, let’s shake it, baby!”

As the creature threw itself forward, it was suddenly stunned as if hit by a battery of pulse cannons. No discharge left the native’s hands, at least, none the enjele’s eyes could track. His armor, however, was better equipped. Running through his visor’s various range modes, he found one which revealed the truth. Through some unexplainable power, the fellow had converted matter from all around them into energy and hurled it at their enemy. His systems instantly calculated the mass, letting him know that some ninety-six tons of rubble, buildings and street had been reduced to their basic atomic matter and then directed through the native and against the creature. In amazement, he whispered;

“Gralg, stuff a dilly.”

Vrenten’s armor revitalized as the monstrosity fell over backwards. As it slammed against the ground, the enjele shouted;

“Did you kill it?”

“Possible,” answered his companion, not turning to look at him. Indeed, Vrenten noted immediately that the fellow did not even break his defensive stance. As the native turned his head from side to side, his eyes straining against the still swirling billow all about them, the enjele began to do the same, asking;

“What are we looking for?”

“The other two.”

Vrenten froze, not from fear, but self-reproach. Sending a mental command to his armor, he had the location of at least one of the creatures instantly. Even as he began to inform his companion, his radar located the second.

“That way,” he said, pointing toward the west. “One half as close as the other.”

“Headed this way?”

The enjele looked to his scanner for a movement reading, when suddenly the atmosphere was shattered by a terrible, drilling scream, a pounding clang of uncomprehending fear and sadness which signaled the final breath of the thing he and the native had just dispatched. Double checking his scanner, he said;

“They are now. You ready for two of them?”

“I could use a breather. How about yourself?” When Vrenten agreed, the native extended his hand, touched the enjele on the shoulder, then said;

“Brace yourself.”

Vrenten was about to ask what his companion meant when suddenly he found himself shifted through space to a point in the city quite a good distance from the site of their combat. Outside of the dust cloud for the first time since arriving on the target planet, he looked about at the primitive poured stone buildings, wondering if his newfound friend and his race had been walking upright for even fifty thousand cycles. Then, remembering what had just happened, he looked at the native with even more respect than he had after his last show of power and said;

“You teleported us—with but a thought!” Trying to get his mind around his own words, Vrenten asked;

“Forgive the question, but what are you? Some local god come down off the mountain, or something equally entertaining?”

The fellow bowed his head a bit, a gesture the enjele accepted as a universal one for indicating embarrassment. Understanding, knowing on so many levels what his words had done, Vrenten immediately extended his hand, saying;

“Forgive the armor. Enjele Cormac Vrenten. Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise,” said the native. Taking the fingers of the enjele’s glove in a grasp rather than his wrist as Vrenten had expected, the fellow gave them a slight shake, then released his grip, adding;

“Theodore London. I’m assuming ‘enjele’ is some rank I just don’t recognize. I’m a private detective myself. Although, obviously, I can throw around a bit more power than most guys.”

“I noticed.”

“Yeah,” answered London, his face not changing. “I noticed you noticed. And that you didn’t freak out while doing so. Can I assume you’ve seen a bit of the strange in your time?”

“A bit… here and there.”

And, in that moment, Vrenten made a decision. His armor had confirmed moments after his arrival that the local atmosphere could support his life functions adequately. Reaching upward, he thumbed the tab which would recess his helmet. As the metal and frosted glass collapsed into its partitioned chamber, the enjele smiled as he noted the change in London’s expression as the fellow took note of his alien features.

“Yes,” he said, the sides of his own mouth relaxing as well, “I’m not from around here.”

“I didn’t think so,” answered the native. “You had that ‘elsewheres’ feel to you. But then, so much stuff the last few hours has, it’s hard to tell friend from foe. Well, that being the case, welcome to New York City.”

“Much appreciation.”

“No problem. But, if it’s not being too nosey, might I ask what’re you here for? Not that I’m looking to turn down help, but why’d you join in?”

Checking his scanner, seeing that the second two creatures had just reached the site of their fallen third, Vrenten answered;

“My world lost something valuable the last time this disruption came through the universe. I have been dispatched to retrieve it.”

“And you’re thinking this trio has what you’re after?” When the enjele answered in the affirmative, London told him;

“Well, you’re welcome to whatever they might have once we’re done with them.” Vrenten started to answer, but as the warning alarm he had set on his scanner beeped, he said instead;

“Our targets are on the move again.” Once more he was about to say one thing, only to receive a further notice from his armor which caused him to replace a pleasantry with something far more urgent.

“London,” he snapped, “bad news. My instruments reveal that our foes are far more powerful than their fallen comrade.”

“I was afraid of that,” answered the detective, not seeming terribly surprised. “I never met these boys personally, but I know the type. Symbionts, sort of.”

“They are sharing power. With the death of the one…”

“The other two are now each fifty percent stronger. Maybe only thirty-five or forty, but… still feel like joining in?”

Vrenten stared at his companion, marveling over the fellow. Amazed not only at his power level, but at his easy acceptance of facing such monsters, he found himself asking;

“If I might pose a question—”

“Shoot.”

“You know why I am doing this, what I have to gain. What is your motivation in this—if such is not… nosey?”

“Hey,” answered London, smiling again, “as I told a buddy of mine a long time ago, any guy who jumps into a monster fight and asks questions later is all right by me.”

The sound of buildings being knocked over stole the pair’s attention for a moment. The enjele let his companion know that their foes were moving directly toward them once more. Nodding, London said;

“Anyway, the job of stopping crap like this kind of fell into my lap a while back when I unexpectedly came into a little extra power. Do I want it? No… not really. But, there’s no one else who can handle it, so…”

The native shrugged his shoulders, the sight of the gesture making Vrenten chuckle. He had met hundreds of beings from other worlds within his own universe. Yet never, he realized, had he ever understood one from another race so completely, trusted one so utterly, as this one.

Has there ever been an Atthan that shrugged its shoulders, he thought, or did so for so utterly the right reason?

“Let us go,” responded the enjele, hitting the tab to close his helmet once more, “we have more monsters to kill.”

And then, before London could respond, the brutish things were upon them. The first of them slid through the dusty haze, its body reformed into a defensive mass of far-reaching appendages. All the grasping lengths were armored, all were covered with harshly staring eyes and screaming mouths. At the sight, the native indicated that Vrenten should become airborne. The enjele did so, just avoiding a massive attack as the horror flooded the area with an over-whelming barrage of fire and lightning, the power of it consuming the ground where they had stood downward to a level of some sixty feet.

Not worried about his companion, certain the clever London could not only avoid so obvious an attack, but that he had most likely meant to draw the thing’s fire, Vrenten did what he knew was expected—he slammed the creature with everything he could. Hoping that the monstrosities shared experience as well as power, he unleashed his razor wire lengths first.

“Yes!”

Expecting the shape-shifting beast to simply create passages through its body to allow the bladed edges to pass through itself harmlessly, he immediately followed the blast from his one arm with a second from his other. Unleashing a new weapon, he sent out his full complement of directional explosives. The bombs followed the razor wires along their trajectories, but then at a signal from the enjele they switched course, all streaking to the closest heat source—in this case the monstrosity’s body.

Vrenten cued his armor instantly, moving himself some thousand feet backward seconds before the explosions began. Sixty detonations rang out, shattering much of the horror from the inside. Again the air was fried by the unexpected burst of pain which radiated from the second beast. Scarlet agony blasted from the monster in all directions—but not enough to indicate its demise. Although damaged extensively, the beast had no true form. It could remake itself into any form it desired.

If, of course, it was given sufficient time.

“Nice set up, Vrenten,” London’s voice rang in the enjele’s earpiece somehow, “let me see if I can do it justice.”

Vrenten’s armor placed the native for him instantly, hanging in the sky well above their foe. Watching him at the proper frequency, the enjele saw the entire action as it was happening. Again, using whatever power it was he possessed, London disassembled the buildings the creatures had destroyed, and even the body of their fallen companion, and turned it into a pure beam of colorless force which he drove through the beast. Spearing it to the ground, he pushed with all the force he could muster, tearing the remainder of it into shreds too small to allow reassembly.

And then, the native fell from the sky, done in—overwhelmed. Throwing all the power he had into his rear jets, Vrenten rocketed forward, swooping in at just the right angle to hopefully intercept the falling man without injuring him. Upon reaching London, the enjele then hit his upward thrusters, changing his trajectory radically just as the third creature blanketed the area with a holocaust of blazing energy.

“Thanks…” the native managed weakly.

“You called it earlier, didn’t you,” answered Vrenten, angling to move both of them out of range before the last of the monsters figured out what he had done. “I had to do something to even the score between us.”

“Well, here’s hoping someone pins a medal on you… if that’s what they do…when you get back, back—”

The enjele ordered London to save his strength. He could feel his companion’s weakness. Knew that he had not done a perfect job of catching the native as he fell. Something had snapped in London’s side. Landing them down far enough away from the last of the monsters to give them a moment, Vrenten said;

“You are injured.”

“Yeah… not the first time.”

The fellow started to say more, then suddenly coughed, vomiting out a thick, sticky fluid, the purpose of which the enjele was certain he knew. The native had been more than just slightly damaged. From the way the color of his skin was changing, it was obvious he had been hurt severely. Setting London as carefully as he could on the ground, his back supported by some manner of large plant, Vrenten took stock of his situation.

The last creature was approaching. It would be upon their position soon—with not only its own power, but that of its fallen brothers as well. And this one he would have to face alone. His companion, brave as he was, looked as if he would certainly die if he went into battle once more.

Still, his mind whispered to him, this isn’t our concern. We are here for the Light. Nothing more. This fellow’s just trying to save his world. If we get the power out of that thing, his world is saved. What does it matter if he dies, if he gets what he wants out of it?

The enjele did still possess the device that was supposed to make his task simpler. Krec had called it a “drainer.” Said all that had to be done was to slap it against whatever it was that had captured the energy of the Light, and that would be that. His world’s divine power would be reclaimed. He would be a hero, to all—everyone. Forever.

If London can just attract the thing’s attention long enough for me to fly in from behind—

And then, suddenly, a different notion struck him. His locator was supposed to bring him directly to wherever the Light was. To whatever or whomever had claimed it. The locator had brought him into the vicinity of the first of the creatures. That was true.

But it had brought him to within feet of London.

His eyes flashing wide, Vrenten was as horrified as he was certain he was correct. The creatures were not what had taken possession of the Light—

Anyway, the job of stopping crap like this kind of fell into my lap a while back when I unexpectedly came into a little extra power.

The enjele remembered the native’s words—

Do I want it? No… not really. But, there’s no one else who can handle it, so…

“It’s not them…”

“Hey,” asked London weakly, staring up at the enjele, “something wrong, pal?”

Vrenten’s mind swam for an answer. All he had to do to complete his mission was to merely touch the broken man at his feet with the drainer. The Light would be his. His world would be spared.

And his will die!

The final condemnation from the back of his mind stung the soldier, forcing him to look away. As he did, the warning alarm in his armor alerted him to the position of the last creature. Whatever he was going to do, he was going to have to do it soon.

Reaching his hand down to London, the enjele asked;

“Like the last time, do you think you can attract the thing’s attention?”

“I can give it the old college try.”

“Then do so,” answered Vrenten, helping his companion to his feet as carefully as he could.

“I believe I have an idea.”

And then the enjele rocketed off, hoping his decision would only doom one world and not two.

*****

“So, if I understand you, enjele,” snarled Ge’het Krec, “you used the drainer on this monster, not this London, and drained its energy instead? You came home without the Light? You disobeyed orders? Is that what you’re telling me?”

When Vrenten responded that the ge’het was correct, the officer stormed across his office and threw himself into the chair behind his desk, demanding;

“And can you tell me why you did this? And while you’re at it, why you bothered to come back afterward?”

“Sir, it wasn’t right. The fellow saved me—more than once. His world needs him. Needs him to have the Light. More than we do.”

“And what makes you say that?”

“Sir, we’ve survived without this Light for ten thousand cycles. If we can’t beat the Attha without it, the Attha, for the sake of pity, then we don’t deserve to survive.”

When Krec said nothing in response, merely continued to sit and stare at him, Vrenten realized he had not responded to all he was asked. Clearing his throat, he added;

“I returned, sir, in the hopes the energy drained from the creature might be enough to serve. And…”

“Yes—”

“It wasn’t right to leave you with your neck the only one in sight when they came looking for a place to bury their knives. Ah… sir.”

No longer able to contain his joy, Krec stood, reaching out to grasp Vrenten’s wrist, shouting;

“You magnificent bastard, I told them you were the man for the job.”

It took a while for the ge’het to explain the entirety of what had actually been going on to Vrenten, but eventually the enjele came to realize what had truly happened.

“So, I’m not in trouble?”

“None.”

“There never was anything called the Light?”

“Not at all.”

“This was just a test…”

“Let’s not make too little of it,” said Krec, indicating that the enjele should take a seat. “Ever since our people have become aware of this event, we’ve put it to good use. Only the Supreme knows, and then only when he’s told by those who carry the secret. One in the military—that’s me right now—one of the faith, one in the populace. Between us, when the time comes, we look over the available candidates, and one is chosen to be tested.”

“Tested for what… ah, sir?”

“To be the Supreme, to rule. To strengthen the blood. To sweep out the old. Look, my boy, you know your history. Ten thousand back, the Gorben dynasty, ousted overnight. Suddenly a new line of succession.”

“But…”

“New ideas, new ideals, comfort and waste thrown out. Respect for all revived. Something we’ve been losing the past few thousand years. Something—”

Krec continued to talk, and Vrenten did hear most of it, but he could not concentrate on the individual words. He had, in a perfect moment, turned his back on all that had been expected from him, and instead had done what he had felt was truly right.

And by doing so, the back of his mind whispered, I have gained…

His thoughts trailed off as he realized he could not actually tabulate all that he had acquired.

Everything, the same voice whispered from the back of his mind, comforting—chuckling. Everything that shall be for the Sperican people from now on, will be of your design.

At least, he thought to himself, enjoying the sounds of Krec telling him what a splendid fellow he was, for the next ten thousand cycles, anyway.

*****

London slid into the booth seat being offered to him by a tall, thin man with thick black hair, save for the white streak which zig-zagged through it back from his temple across his head. The detective held his side as he moved to make certain he did not bump it against anything. As he parked himself carefully with a sigh, the man on the other side of the booth commented;

“You really should have that looked at.”

“I’ll be fine, Doc,” answered London. Signalling for a waitress, he added, “But, thanks for the heads up on that guy.”

“You have your job,” said Anton Zarnak with a tired smile, “I have mine.”

When the waitress arrived, London ordered a black coffee with amaretto. His friend merely pointed at his glass and nodded, indicating that he simply wanted another of the same. As the woman headed back to the bar, the detective said;

“You think things will quiet down out there soon, Anton?”

“Got a long way to go, old friend,” answered the other. Fishing in his pocket, he pulled out a pair of twenties, placing them on the table just as the waitress returned. As she moved the drinks on her tray to spots before her customers, London’s friend turned to her, tapping the bills as he said;

“I got this. Give my friend another on me. The rest is yours.”

The woman gave the fellow the brightest smile she owned. He nodded, then turned back to London.

“You going to make it home all right?”

“I’m not totally helpless.” The detective took a sip of his coffee, then added, “Although, I doubt I’ll be much more help on this one. You going to be able to handle things?”

Zarnak set down his empty glass—which London could have sworn he never picked up, let alone drained—and slid himself out of their booth. Slipping his hat on, he said;

“If I can’t…”

London nodded, toasted his friend with his cup, then watched as he made his way to the door. As the detective made to pick his cup up again, he winced, realizing he had moved too fast. Of course, he thought, he could simply use the same energies he had utilized earlier in the evening to heal himself. But that, he knew, was a cheat. Fate had handed him the power it had to use in the service of others, not himself.

As a part of his mind criticized his thinking, reminding him that ribs took a painfully long time to mend on their own, he reached for his mug but waited to raise it as he noticed the waitress returning. As she stopped at the table, he asked;

“Yes?”

“I hate to be like this, but my shift is ending, and I was just wondering… were you going to have anything else?”

“No,” London answered softly, sympathetically. “I’m not much of a drinker. Go ahead, take it. I’m sure you earned it.”

Grateful, feeling somewhat playful, the waitress pocketed the twenties, asking the detective;

“What makes you so sure?”

“We all earn what we get… sooner or later.”

London drained his mug then and began the slow process of removing himself from the booth. When the waitress asked if he needed help, he told her to wait, just in case he did. Making it to his feet without too much trouble, he thanked her, then headed for the door. As he did, she called out;

“Hey, your buddy, he was nice. What’s he do for a living?”

“Well, he used to be a doctor. Now,” the detective thought for a moment, then with a smile, he finished, “Now, he’s more of a salesman.” The woman considered the detective’s answer for a moment, then asked;

“Yeah… what’s he sell?”

London stopped, then turned and said in a voice only the waitress could hear;

“Hope for the future.”

“Crap,” she said, unconsciously patting the twenties in her apron, “he’s got a worse job than mine.”

London nodded, resuming his march to the door, wondering if his friend Anton might not have a worse job than everyone.

 

Freezeheads

by Andrew Hoffman

 

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know? What?”

Reynolds kept looking at him quizzically.

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

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

“Two,” Kevin said, matter-of-factly.

“What happened there?”

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

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

“Alright,” Kevin reluctantly agreed.

“Three scoops is the focus this month.”

“It’s February.”

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

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

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

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

“Maybe.”

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

“Yep.”

“Just think about tomorrow.”

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

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

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

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

“Sure. Why not?”

“Alone?”

Kevin held up his arms in why not formation.

“Take me,” she said.

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

“What’s a Chip?”

“A Canadian.”

“Why do you call them Chips?”

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

“How did you know Chip?”

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

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

Janisse just winked again.

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doing okay?” Kevin asked.

Janisse tried to clamp up her grimace and nodded resolutely.

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

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

Kevin nodded and smiled back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We were just attacked,” Kevin blurted out.

“Who?”

“We were,” Janisse seconded.

“By who?”

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

“Like a nasal breathing patch?”

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

“A nasal what?” Janisse asked, incredulously.

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

“You hungry?”

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

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

“I’m not either.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure. Come on.”

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

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

She stuck out her tongue in reply.

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

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

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

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

The young man slowed to a stop ten feet away.

“Hi,” the young man said.

Kevin and Janisse didn’t say anything back.

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

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

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

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

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

The young man was staring directly at Kevin.

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

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

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

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

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

The door was unlocked.

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

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

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

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

“I hate to do this,” Kevin said.

“What?” she whispered in a frail voice.

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin’s heart started to beat harder.

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

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

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

“Someone will walk by.”

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

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

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

“What’s with the sharp teeth, then?”

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“You use blood to get stoned?”

“I’m getting bored with this conversation.”

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

“God knows about me.”

“What do you mean?”

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

“Like what?”

“Thick as a cedar stump.”

“God only knows about you as my hallucination.”

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

He started humming again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You ask boring questions.”

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

“I’m getting very…”

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

* * * * *

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

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

Kevin nodded.

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

Kevin nodded.

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

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

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

“I know,” Kevin said, in defeat.

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

“Keep looking.”

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

“Yes, sir.”

Kevin wiped a splotch of blood on his pants.

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t die.”

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

“How do you feel?”

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

“Are you dreaming now?”

“I don’t think so.”

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

“Why would I?”

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

“Why wouldn’t they?”

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

“You Kevin?”

“No,” Eli said.

“Where’s Kevin?”

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

“I’ve been looking for you.”

“About what?”

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

“You must be Ben.”

“Must be.”

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

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

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

Astonished, Ben said, “See about what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

“Hello,” Kevin said, politely.

“Hi, Kevin.”

“How did you know where I live?”

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

“Handled what?”

“Ben.”

“You heard?”

“She did. I think Eli called her.”

“Oh.” Kevin almost looked ashamed.

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

“I won’t,” Kevin said.

They both grinned.

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

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

 

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?”

 

The Case of the Tiny Man

by Richard Wolkomir

 

So I’m hearing two-ton feet clomp up the stairs to my office, and I’m smelling landfill, and I’m thinking: “Uh-oh.” I pull the .45 out of my drawer and lay it on the desk, my way of saying, “Howdy.”

Sure enough, the door opens—no knock, thank you—and it’s a troll. Big buster, too. He’s got to duck through the doorway. He’s wearing blue sunglasses. He’s also toting a jumbo rolled-up white parasol, which you can bet he carried opened outside, because if sunshine hits him, you’ve got a troll statue. He lowers himself into my client chair, and I’m thinking, you break it, you buy it. But it just creaks, and he sits glaring at me and reeking.

I’d open a window, except my office doesn’t have one.

To kill the aroma, I finger a smoke out of the pack on my desk and stick it in my kisser and butane it with my .45. Then I lean back, blow a smoke ring, give him the raised-eyebrows look.

“Need a shamus,” he grunts.

“Get an elf shamus,” I tell him.

“No,” he says. “You.”

He’s glaring at me with those cape-buffalo eyes, and I’m thinking, maybe—in demonstrating that my .45 merely ignites coffin nails—I erred. A real pea shooter would be helpful. But just now I’m short the kale.

“I don’t do magicals,” I tell him.

“Need a human,” he says. “You.”

“I don’t work over in Magictown,” I tell him.

“She says, this young man, he could sniff out a lost pickle in a pickle factory,” Big Stinky tells me.

“Who says?” I say, cracking wise. “My mother?”

“Yes,” he says. “Your mother.”

I’m thinking, Damn it, Mom!

She’s got this shop over where our half of the city nudges Magictown, and she sells everything organic and herby in there, from dried St. John’s wort to genuine fairy dust, flown in fresh every Friday from wee factories in Europe. She’s got human customers, from right here in Folkcity, plus all sorts creeping in from Magictown, a regular little shop of horrors.

“She says you need money,” says the troll. “Boss will pay $50,000.”

He had me at “need money.” At “$50,000” I felt faint.

But I play it cool—lean back, blow smoke rings at the tin ceiling. Big Stinky doesn’t need to know I’m three months into the shamus business, and so far my only case was a granny a-twitter because her heirloom earrings got heisted, and it turned out she’d absent-mindedly stashed them in the drawer with her undies. Twenty-five bucks for that. And the office rent due.

Big Stinky doesn’t say anything. Just watches me blow smoke rings. No expression except ugly.

“What’s the job?” I finally ask, faking a yawn, to indicate I sometimes do lower myself to accept a $50,000 case, but only if it offers both edification and spiritual development.

“You find the homunculus,” he says.

Okay, it’s edifying.

“Bring homunculus back,” he says.

Spiritual? You betcha!

“I’ll need a third up front, for expenses,” I say, like that’s my policy with these minor cases. “Also, I need facts, like what’s up?”

You can see he’s struggling to marshal his mosquito brain’s three neurons. But his strong suit is muscle. I figure he’s bodyguard for some Mr. Big, which is a bull’s-eye.

“I work in the Magictown Mayoral Personal Protection Division,” Big Stinky divulges. And then he whispers, as if invoking the deity: “Mayor Duskowl.”

“Ah,” I say, and blow another ring at the ceiling. “Wulf Duskowl won two gold medals in the Sorcery Olympics, then got elected Magictown’s mayor, slogan being ‘Let’s Have a Spell of Progress,’ and he gets kudos in the Magictown Monitorfor providing benefits to aging gnomes and boggarts, and orphaned pixies, and going after Saturday-night-special wands.”

I’m showing Big Stinky I’m up on his bailiwick’s news. I’m keeping it to myself that his ilk—Magictown’s citizenry—gives me the creeps.

“Election coming,” he says. “And the ogres…”

Turns out Mayor Duskowl’s up against the Ogre-Goblin Alliance in the next go-round, and they’re running on the platform, “Is It Dark Enough For You?” Wulf Duskowl and his Go-To-The-Light Party should be a shoo-in, but the ogres and goblins play dirty, zinging in well-placed spells, a hex where it hurts…

“Mayor needed a homunculus,” Big Stinky confides.

Duskowl, he says, contracted with Amalgamated Alchemical Laboratories, Inc., to brew a homunculus, which Big Stinky says is “a little guy, grows in a flask.”

I glean that a homunculus will magnify the mayor’s sorcery, double his whammy. And that will offset the ogre-goblin mud-balls.

But now the homunculus has gone missing. And a homunculus in bad hands…

“Went up in smoke?” I ask.

And I think Big Stinky’s going to cry.

“Long day—meetings and meetings,” he says. “Then a speech, then a soiree, and I’ve got to be watching because, well, you know how goblins are, and then it’s night, and I’m in the mayor’s office guarding the homunculus and…”

He looks, believe it or not, pathetic. The big lug.

“Hey, spill it,” I say. “I’m feeling your pain.”

“I fell asleep,” he moans. “On the mayor’s sofa.”

When he woke up, the next morning, no homunculus. He tells me nobody can get into the office but trusted aids, like him. Big Stinky’s convinced the homunculus went AWOL.

“Bugger!” he says.

He holds up his thumb, which is the size of my head: at the tip, it’s got a nasty bite mark.

“Homunculus, he’s a lemon,” Big Stinky says.

He tells me that Amalgamated Alchemical cut corners. For one thing, homunculus brewing’s main ingredient is a mandrake root dug up under a gallows. But the Magictown Fair-Trade Commission investigated—turns out Amalgamated got their mandrake root from a low-bid supplier, who claimed it was gallows certified, when it actually came from his backyard. Also, the Alchemical Regulatory Act stipulates a black dog must dig up the root before dawn on a Friday. But the supplier deployed his aged golden retriever, who slept in Friday, finally dug up the root on Saturday afternoon, then went back to sleep exhausted.

Net result: a malfunctioning homunculus.

“Why hire me?” I ask. “You’ve got plenty of elf shamuses over there.”

“Homunculus only talks to humans, the bugger,” says Big Stinky. “And he’s probably hiding over here in Folkcity, so we need a human shamus.”

“Okay,” I say. “I’m on it, just send my check—I’ll keep you informed.”

He picks up his parasol. He shambles to the door, taking his reek with him. Just as he’s about to duck out, I say, “Hey, one more question.”

He turns, stooped over, half in, half out.

“Who cleans the mayor’s office?” I ask.

“That would be Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services,” he says.

“Maybe I’ll give them a try,” I tell him. “Dust in here inflames my sinuses.”

I hear those two-ton footsteps clomping down the stairs and I’m feeling queasy. I’d vowed, no cases involving magicals. That their whole tribe has negative appeal, like a wart on your nose, that much I know. Otherwise, it’s all don’t knows.

I pocket my trusty .45—who knows?—and head for the obvious place.

Except, when I exit my edifice, across the street a twosome eyes me, a butterball of a guy and a woman with carrot-colored hair sticking up in that chic stuck-my-finger-in-a-light-socket look. He’s got a cast on one leg and a crutch and she’s got her arm in a sling, and they’re both peppered all over with Band-Aids. They pretend to check out omelet pans in the window of a used kitchenware store over there, but I’m not buying it. On the other hand, I don’t know what to do about it, either.

So off I go on my mission.

* * * * *

“Hey, Mom?” I say.

It’s a busy day at Piffin’s Naturals. Mom’s handing over a biodegradable corn-based plastic baggie, tied with a twisty and filled with yellow stuff, to a guy with pimples and a pallor who could probably benefit from just about anything. Meanwhile, a young woman is waiting to pay for three sticks of cinnamon, and behind her stands a gray-faced gnome with a bottle of Nature’s Glue.

I join the lineup, behind the gnome, and shout, “Mom—you know a big troll, wears blue sunglasses, smells like garbage?”

“Arlo,” Mom mouths at me. “Be polite.”

Now she’s ringing up the cinnamon sticks.

“That’s my son, Arlo,” she tells the young woman. “He wasted his childhood reading thousands of private-eye novels, and now he’s a shamus, when he could be helping the planet, like being an organic farmer, and that will be $6.57 for the cinnamon sticks, with tax, Janie—they’re particularly efficacious for your affliction if you brew them with jasmine tea.”

Janie stares at her purchase.

“You don’t think with rain-forest-friendly organic cocoa, Mrs. Piffin?” she asks.

“It’s your itch, not mine, dear, but I do think jasmine tea…”

Janie goes off to fetch jasmine tea. Now the gnome’s forking over a fiver for his Nature’s Glue.

“Mom,” I say. “About the troll…”

Mom sighs.

Addressing the gnome, she says: “I thought, since he’s a genius, he might get an exchange-student scholarship to Thaumaturgy U. in Magictown—he couldn’t be a clinical wizard, of course, but I thought maybe on the theoretical side…”

“Theoreticians are important, certainly,” says the gnome, pocketing his change. “Where else would the new spells come from?”

Mom sighs again, displaying her sad, disappointed look. Me, I’ve got my own disappointments. Like, since Dad took off for Nepal with a Starbuck’s barista, when I was three, Mom’s worn only black Victorian-era widow’s gowns, with little black bonnets, and who wants to bring fellow students home from the Folkcity Institute of Criminal Investigation to see that?

“Remember, don’t use too much glue, Edlok,” she tells the gnome. “And press the two pieces of bat’s wing together for at least five minutes, so it seals nicely.”

Exeunt gnome.

“Mom,” I say. “About the troll…”

“It was Grunlie,” she tells me. “He needed a human shamus, and guess who I said? Grunlie stops in for persimmon juice, for his digestion, and… Arlo, are you getting enough to eat?”

Now some guy in a gray suit comes over to pay for a broccoli-sprouts-and-organic-portabella-mushroom sandwich, with soy cheese, on organic spelt bread, in a biodegradable container made from compressed organically grown peanut shells. He’s looking at me, critical.

“This boy’s too skinny for a shamus,” he tells Mom.

He hands over his money, still eyeing me.

“Awfully young for a shamus, too—what, just out of college?” he tells Mom. “And he ought to lose that skimpy little mustache because it gives the impression he’s trying to look more mature.”

Mom, ringing up the transaction, sighs.

“Mr. Bridges,” she says. “You have no idea how many times I’ve told him to strengthen his chakras…”

She sighs again. Mr. Bridges shakes his head in sympathy with my mother’s burdens.

Exeunt Mr. Bridges.

By now Janie’s back with jasmine tea, which works well with cinnamon sticks versus the itch.

“Mom,” I say, “I’m on a big case here, and I’m wondering if any of your customers mentioned seeing a little guy around, small enough to take a nap in an orange-juice carton?”

Mom rings up Janie’s cinnamon sticks and jasmine tea.

“Well, somebody mentioned a human-headed pigeon perched up over the subway entrance at…”

But now Janie turns around and gives me a look.

“Funny you should mention that,” she says.

It turns out her boyfriend, just an hour ago, stopped for a brew at Sneaky Pete’s Tavern, three blocks from Piffin’s Naturals, and sitting in there on a bar-stool is a one-foot midget, wearing a Roman toga, totally skunked, buying beers all around, and regaling everyone in the establishment with a stream of invective targeting Magictown’s mayor, his assistants, and all the various races of magicals in general. So, like a slug from a revolver, I shoot out of there.

Then I shoot back.

“One question, Mom,” I say. “Ever hear of Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services?”

“No,” she says. “Have you tried the phone book?”

I give her look. And then I do shoot off to that tavern.

* * * * *

He’s there all right.

If he stood up real tall he’d be halfway to your knee. But, in fact, he’s lying on the bar on his back, snoring. His toga’s got a beer stain on it, but he’s got the face of a cherub. To me, though, he looks like $50,000. I just need to whisk him off to his rightful home.

Sneaky Pete, a bald beefalo with a seen-it-all look in his squinty eyes, is standing behind the bar wiping just-washed steins with a towel and clinking them onto a shelf. I give him a friendly wink.

“If you’re done with my Uncle Maynard here,” I say, nodding at the supine homunculus, “I believe Auntie Bridgett wants him home to help polish the silver.”

He gives me an “oh, yeah” look.

“Haul him out of here,” he says. “But not until—as his beloved nephew—you pay the thirty-two-bucks he owes, buying rounds.”

“Let me start a tab,” I say.

“Cash,” he says.

I’m thinking of snatching the little fellow and running like hell. But then I hear a woman’s voice behind me.

“Such a dear, cute teeny man, and that toga’s to die for,” she says. “Oscar, let’s pay his bill, as a charity.”

I turn, and it’s the woman I saw across the street from my office, with electrified red hair. Standing beside her is Mr. Butterball, and they’ve both still got their assorted casts, crutches, slings, and Band-Aids.

“We insist,” she says, snapping open her purse.

She extracts a Jackson, a Hamilton, and two Washingtons and slaps them onto the bar.

“Accept our family’s gratitude,” I say, scooping up the $50,000 homunculus before she gets her blue-enameled talons into him. “When Uncle Maynard wakes up, I know he’ll love you for it.”

“Our pleasure,” she says. “We’ll say our goodbyes outside, won’t we, Oscar.”

Her partner gives her a wink. I’m not liking this. But I’ve got the homunculus in my mitts, and I’m headed for the door, and I don’t see what these two bandaged-up semi- cripples can do about it.

Outside the bar, I feel something hard pushed into my back.

“That’s a .45,” says Oscar. “Hand over our little friend.”

“What you’ve got there,” I say, wry, “is a butane lighter shaped like a .45, examples of which I’ve seen.”

I feel the pistol withdrawn from my back. I turn, and Oscar’s holding the thing, looking at it.

“Why would you say that?” he says. “I paid a lot for this weapon in a gun shop this morning, and I’ve already test fired it in the alley in back of our apartment, and if you’re implying that I’m no good as a shopper…”

Clearly he’s got the nervous twitchies. Which bodes ill in a fellow waving a loaded Smith and Wesson. Especially since I notice we’ve got the street to ourselves.

“Look,” I tell him. “What I’m saying is, murder somebody for a midget, you sit on Old Sparky.”

“I’ll just shoot off your kneecap,” he says.

“Gimme,” says Carrot Top.

And she takes.

So now she’s holding the little darling, who’s still snoring. And I’m standing there with Oscar shakily pointing his popper at me. And I’m thinking, so what’s wrong with being an organic farmer?

“Turn around,” Oscar says.

When I do that, my head explodes, from getting hammered with Oscar’s pistol’s hilt. Next, I’m sitting on the sidewalk watching shooting stars. And when the fireworks end, I’m sitting there all alone, sans the $50,000 homunculus, but with a headache.

Which gets my gumption up. So I moan my way to a telephone booth and check the book.

* * * * *

I find the place squeezed between a plumbing equipment wholesaler and a glass-repair shop. Its faded window sign says: “Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services—We’ll Come Clean.” Smaller letters spell out “Oscar and Nadine Slocum, Proprietors.” It’s closed-up tight, nobody home.

At the glass shop next door, I check their phone book for Slocum. Then I’m on my way. But, en route, I duck into a pet store and purchase a kitty carrier, using the last of my fortune. So I’m toting that when I walk up the front steps of their grimy brick tenement, where a muscle-bound bearded guy in a black suit and a black fedora leans against the balustrade, smoking something black and acrid. He gives me a yellow-eyed look.

I check the foyer mailboxes, then slog up three flights, smelling various residents’ cuisine, mostly hotdogs. I fetch up at 3C, from which emanate thumps and thuds.

I’d guess the Slocums are practicing their free-style dance routine, except I also hear an “Ouch!” I can’t see anything through the keyhole. But I have in my pocket a wire for jimmying locks, which is illegal. But $50,000 trumps scruples.

I get the door open an inch, peep inside, and see Oscar on his keister beside an overturned lamp. He’s rolled up one trouser leg to examine a gash in his shin, and Nadine’s brandishing a kitchen chair, lion-tamer style, to ward off the homunculus, who’s waving a fork at her, yelling in a high squeak: “Fraternizes with the enemy!” Off to one side I see a chicken-wire cage, where I suppose they were keeping him, with the door busted open. I’m betting Oscar doesn’t have his automatic handy.

So I step right on in with my kitty carrier.

All three stop their mayhem and look at me. I pull out my own .45 and wave it at Oscar, then at Nadine, and forget to mention it’s only a smokes lighter. Then I turn my attention to the little fellow in the toga, still holding his fork and eyeing me, undecided.

“Hey there, Mr. Homunculus,” I say. “I’m with the Folkcity Anti-Kidnapping Squad—have you been abducted?”

“Hah,” he says, in that squeaker of a voice.

He peers at me, looking like an infant. Except that he’s a perfectly formed man the size of a squirrel.

“Don’t listen to him,” says Nadine. “He’s a shamus working for Wulf Duskowl and…”

I show her my .45, wordlessly threatening her with the wrath of butane. So she zips it and I give the homunculus a warm smile.

“Let’s get you out of here,” I tell him.

He narrows his eyes, expressing distrust.

“What’s Duskowl paying you?” Oscar says, from the floor.

“Our people will double it,” says Nadine.

“Trust ogres and goblins?” I say.

Now the homunculus puts down his fork and applauds.

“Ogres and goblins are slime,” he squeaks. “Wizards and sorcerers are puke, and elves, kobolds, pixies, kelpies, and imps are goat spit, and…”

Such thoughts have occurred to me. But squeaked out loud, they sound bigoted.

“Just because a few bad apples,” I start to say, “act in ways we might disapprove…”

But the homunculus sticks out his tongue at me and utters a Bronx cheer.

So I grab the little bugger by his toga and toss him into my kitty carrier and lock its door. He’s screaming curses at me and kicking the wires with his perfectly formed tiny foot.

“Toodle-oo,” I tell Oscar and Nadine, on my way out the door.

But then I back into the room again, because charging down the hall is the yellow-eyed creep in black who was hanging around the apartment house’s front stoop. And as he comes he’s transforming into a gangster-clothes-wearing wolf. I have a really bad feeling about this.

In his kitty carrier, where he is now sitting cross-armed and cross-legged, like a pipsqueak yogi, the homunculus proclaims: “Werewolves eat donkey dung!”

I’ve got my .45 out, pointed at the wolf’s drooling snout.

“Hold it right there, Rin-Tin-Tin,” I say.

I mean it to sound tough, but it comes out a shriek. Upon which the werewolf sits down on his hairy butt and starts silently laughing, shoulders shaking. He wolfishly grins, showing off his fangs.

“You took your time getting up here,” Nadine tells the werewolf. “And you people never told us the homunculus is a little jerk who bites and kicks and scratches and that he might bust free and go on a toot, and…”

A growl shuts her up. Wolfie gives them a yellow-eyed glare, then turns those yellow eyes on me. He crouches for a spring, planning a dinner of shamus tartare.

I’m thinking, maybe I can butane him, and then he’ll stop to hold his burnt nose. So I’m aiming my .45, except I’ve got my eyes closed, yearning for magical powers of my own, like the ability to change a werewolf into a werecanary, waiting for that hairy body to hit me, and the teeth…

But nothing happens.

I open my eyes and there on the floor at my feet stands a confused-looking canary.

So I hoist up the kitty carrier and evacuate the joint, drunk-lurching on rubber legs. I wobble down the stairs, and only after I’ve put a couple of blocks between me and Chez Slocum do I realize the homunculus shot out a little magic on my behalf.

I peer into the kitty carrier.

He’s sitting in his yogi position, arms and legs folded, scowling.

“Thanks,” I say.

He looks away, making it clear we’re not on speaking terms.

“Hey,” I say. “You’re the magical, not me!”

He won’t look at me.

But I’m looking at $50,000. It’ll almost make up for losing his friendship. Now I need to get him to Magictown’s City Hall without getting hexed. I figure they’ll be watching my office.

So I go to the obvious place.

* * * * *

“Hey, Mom,” I say. “My cell phone’s getting zero bars—can I use your landline?”

We’re sitting in her office cubicle, just off the shop, and she’s counting the day’s take. She looks up at me over her octagonal rimless reading specs.

“But I always get lots of bars here,” she says.

“Uh-oh,” I say.

I try the landline phone. It’s dead.

So I won’t be calling Big Stinky at the Magictown Mayor’s office, saying come collect the merchandise. I inch back the window curtain to peep at the street. Two goblins lean against separate telephone poles. Two more skulk in a doorway, smoking. They’re all wearing black fedoras. One wears a Miley Cyrus backpack. And they’ve all got their beady reds fixed on Piffin’s Naturals’ front door, which is its only door.

“They’ve blanked the phones,” I tell the homunculus, who’s sulking in his kitty carrier. “So you choose—Mayor Duskowl? Or those goblins out there?”

He gives me a raspberry.

“Look, give me some support here,” I say. “Pop some more magic—do it for the Gipper.”

He turns his back.

“Arlo, homunculi don’t do magic on their own,” Mom tells me.

“He just turned a werewolf into a werecanary,” I say.

“Oh, dear,” Mom says, giving me a wide-eyed look.

A bang on the door.

We’re disinclined to open it. So now the door gets the full running four-shoulder whamo. That busts its puny lock. It careens open, and I’m looking at four sets of red eyes.

“Arlo,” my mother says. “We have to talk.”

“Not a good time,” I say, pulling out my .45 and showing it to the goblins.

One of them lazily points a finger and the gun sears my hand. I drop it, trying to shake away the burn, which gives the goblins the giggles. Now they spot the homunculus in his kitty carrier, and my question is, do we get out of this still breathing?

I see my mother take a deep breath and sigh.

“Arlo, you should know your dad’s mother was an undine,” she tells me. “His father—your grandpa—met her at an inter-university mixer.”

Now the goblins start toward the kitty carrier, on a collision course with me. Because in this little cubicle I’ve got nowhere to duck.

“I thought you should know,” Mom says.

I get whammed onto the floor. I see goblin hiking boots pass over my prostrate form. I see a hairy goblin hand, claws badly needing a clipping, reach for the kitty carrier. I see the homunculus looking from me to the goblins.

I find myself longing—a deep, aching yen—for Big Stinky’s companionship.

The goblin holds up the kitty carrier, peering at the homunculus inside. The homunculus glares back.

“Goblins,” the homunculus declares, “are bat guano.”

Which causes the goblin to shriek and shake the cage, proving goblins are so sensitive it’s a wonder they get through their days. And do they always stash rope in their backpacks?

Because now Mom and I are sitting on the floor, each with our ankles tied together, and our wrists tied behind our backs. And the goblins are holding a meeting, of which I hear snatches.

“…witnesses…”

“…yeah, and the Elections Commission would…”

“Burn the place down, with them in it?”

Goblin giggling.

Out of the backpack comes a can of lighter fluid. A goblin pours the stuff around on the floor, whistling while he works. Meanwhile, another goblin digs in his pocket for matches.

“So, because of your paternal grandmother being an undine, Arlo, you’re one-quarter magical,” Mom whispers. “Which opens up the possibility…”

“Magicals disgust me,” I moan. “I’ve always despised them.”

“Arlo, that’s because of a suppressed childhood memory,” Mom says.

I’m watching the goblin finally strike a match. He stares at the flame, giggling.

“It’s my fault,” Mom whispers. “Because your father didn’t actually run off to Nepal with a Starbucks barista, which I told you because I was so mad at the hussy.”

She sighs.

“Actually, he ran off to Nepal with a succubus, whom I thought was sort of my friend and… I think you knew the truth, though, and it left you with this sad prejudice, as if one depraved, sex-addicted, toxic-waste-super-site of a succubus means the whole race of magicals is…”

I glumly watch the goblin lean down to ignite the puddle of lighter fluid on the floor.

“I’m only a quarter magical,” I tell Mom. “It’s not enough.”

“This homunculus is a magic magnifier,” Mom says.

I squint my eyes shut and think: snuff the match!

I open my eyes and the goblin is staring with irritated red eyes at a snuffed match. He reaches for another.

How big can I go with this, I wonder. Fill the room with pink fog that puts goblins—and only goblins—into a deep snooze? Probably beyond me. Also, I see the homunculus glaring at me from the kitty carrier. He hates goblins, he hates me. If he’s not a willing magic magnifier, does the enterprise fizzle? Now the goblin has match number two lit. I’m about to snuff it, when I notice that all four goblins hold lit matches. Which they throw onto the lighter fluid on the floor before I can say presto, and giggle around the resulting campfires, pretending to warm their hands.

One of them gives me an ironic salute, clawed forefinger to his forehead, and they start out the door with the homunculus in his carrier. And I’m thinking, there goes the magic.

“Arlo, do something,” Mom says.

And I’m really, really wanting to. But all I can think of is “rabid canary,” remembering my werewolf triumph.

Next, all four goblins back into the cubicle again, where the fire is crackling and it’s getting smoky—a werecanary is flying at them and pecking, while they try to swat it away. I squint my eyes again and wish real hard and when I open them the fires on the floor are snuffed.

But now, while two goblins swat at the attacking canary, which is executing barrel rolls and nosedives, the other two gaze at the homunculus, then at me, with wild surmise. They start toward me with a red glare in their eyes.

I squint my eyes shut and wish away my ropes. Which works. I stand, retrieve my .45 from the floor, squint again, wish again, and voila! I am now holding a genuine automatic, which I point at the goblins, figuring that if they point at my hand to give me the burns, the trigger gets pulled.

So we’re all glaring at each other when something big and smelly, wearing blue sunglasses, shoulders through the doorway.

“Hey, what took you so long?” I say.

“Your message comes, all funny and hard to understand,” he says, one-handedly grabbing two goblins by their shirt fronts and with his other paw grabbing two more, and holding them up like chickens he just bought at the Chinese market.

Coming in behind him is a skinny guy, not much older than me, wearing a wizard’s robe.

“I’m Wulf Duskowl,” he says, taking in the scene.

“I’m Arlo Piffin,” I say. “And in that kitty carrier is your homunculus, and you’re welcome to him.”

“Did you know we’re distant cousins?” Duskowl says.

Turns out my paternal grandmother, the undine, was his maternal grandfather’s sister. Are we all family, or what?

“How do you feel about nepotism?” he asks.

* * * * *

So that’s how I come to be sitting in my new office, over here in Magictown. Sign on the door says: “Mayoral Bureau of Special Investigations, Arlo Piffin, Director.”

Salary? Substantial.

Benefits? Cool.

Satisfaction? Not bad, except for the reek—Big Stinky’s got the office next door. And the homunculus has his tiny desk beside mine, and we don’t get along.

 

Sissy the Vampire Hummingbird Slayer

Sissy the Vampire Hummingbird Slayer

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by Helen Lloyd Montgomery

 

I was attacked by hummingbirds on my way home from work today. You know what they are. Tiny emerald speed demons. People used to hang out jars of red sugar water for them. They don’t any more. They’ve learned better.

A lot of things have changed over the years but not the aggressive nature of hummingbirds. I’d just come out of the office when they swarmed over the top of the building and were all over me like stupid on a chicken. Tiny wings blurred and neck feathers flared bright as the thumb-sized creatures buzzed me. A needle-like pain in my thigh was the first clue that I’d been struck. The second clue was the iridescent bastard that hung there with his beak buried in my flesh to feed.

Oh, did I forget to mention? Hummers don’t go for nectar these days. They’ve learned to prefer the taste of blood.

With an angry shriek, I swung my pocketbook at it. It darted away before I could connect but I took out a couple others on the fly as I took off running for my car. It was a fair run, too, because, I’d parked at the far end of the parking lot that morning. Meanwhile, I was taking a lot of hits from these guys. I swing a mean pocketbook though, and by coupling a wild counter-attack with a chaotic advance, I managed to break free of most of them by the time I reached my car. Bleeding from a hundred tiny puncture wounds, I opened the door while trying to sling off a die-hard who’d clamped onto my finger with a grip like razor-wire. When slinging didn’t work, I made a fist and smashed him into the back window before jumping inside to safety.

One of the little pee-wees accidentally got inside with me. I began to smile, his buzzing antics amusing now that I had him alone, without backup. If he hadn’t already realized his mistake, he’d learn soon enough that the tables had turned.

Outside, the tiny army regrouped. Hordes of angry hummers hovered about the car, glaring through the windshield at me.

“Well, well. Looks like I’ve got your buddy.” I grinned at my audience. “Would you like to watch what I’m going do to him?”

They beat wildly at the windows while he whirred frantically here and there trying to escape. I rummaged around and came up with a can of windshield de-icer. On his next pass, I let him have it. Several fly-bys later, I’d soaked not only the passenger seat but the bird’s lovely plumage, too. The alcohol in the de-icer cut through the protective oil on his feathers, clipping his wings rather effectively I thought, and he fumbled a landing. Chortling wickedly, I picked the little bugger up by his head and dangled him in front of me.

“Here, now, you don’t look so big and bad. I ought to pinch your head off.”

The tiny bloodsucker twisted in my grip and emitted a squawk.

“What?” I said, cupping a hand to my ear. “You don’t like that plan? Okay, I’ve got a better one.”

I have a Tupperware container I keep in the floorboard of the car for storing auto insurance papers, CDs, Minnesota winter survival gear, stuff like that. I dumped the contents out and dropped him in, setting it on the seat where all his pals could watch. I pulled my lighter out of a pocket and struck the flint, brandishing the resulting flame at my diminutive, bedraggled prisoner. He chirped a birdie profanity at me and tried to drag himself away.

“You little hot-shots think you’re so tough. You think you can jump anybody you please,” I said, flourishing the torch at the bird. He dripped ponderously away from each thrust. “Well, pay attention to who you’re messing with next time. I can take that aerosol can and turn it into a blowtorch, so—”

The bird apparently decided he’d had enough of either my lighter or my bluster and tried to fly away, something I hadn’t anticipated. Bad mistake on both our parts. One wing-tip brushed the flame and poof—instant fireball. I jerked my hand back from the conflagration as the reek of burning feathers and sizzling meat filled the confines of my car. I grabbed an old towel and beat the fire out. Too late, both for the bird and my container. He’d fried to oblivion and nearly melted a hole in the plastic. The hummers outside went nuts.

I cranked the car and turned the air conditioner on high to help clear out some of the stench, then shook my fist at the little devils outside.

“Anyway, as you can see, I don’t appreciate being messed around with. And don’t you ever forget it!”

Apparently they had no intention of forgetting anything. They zipped around the car as I drove out of the parking lot and into slow-moving traffic. They beat their wings against the windows. Their throats flashed like angry red beacons as they stared in at me, demented expressions etched on their cross-eyed little faces. It was embarrassing. They stayed with me for three stoplights until I got up enough speed to outdistance them. It was a pleasure to see them dwindling in the rearview mirror… those that hadn’t ended up plastered against the grill of the car behind me, that is.

I reached my apartment complex without further incident and pulled up in front of the garage. The door opened when I pressed the button on the remote control clipped to the sun visor, until about halfway up when it suddenly reversed direction and started to close.

I hit the button a second time. It rose several feet and then mindlessly about-faced and trundled back down again.

I snatched the remote from the visor and aimed it pointblank at the door. Mashing the button repeatedly, I argued with it electronically until it opened enough for me to roll in underneath. I shook my head, parked in my assigned stall and switched the car off. Seemed like life was getting stranger every day, like I was living in the Twilight Zone or something. I got out of the car and headed for the foyer, glumly noting that my Honda was speckled with hummingbird crap.

I heard a low groan coming from the foyer ahead of me. As I rounded the corner, I saw Sal Osseo lying there on the floor in front of the door.

I only barely know Sal. He seems to be a nice enough guy, I’ve just always been reclusive. At any rate, it was sort of a shock to see him lying there like that. His legs were crumpled like an accordion and his back looked twisted. He had raised up on one elbow and was trying to reach the doorknob.

“Hey, Sal, whatcha doing, lying down there like that?”

He sighed heavily. “Trying to get into the building. Guess you might help me with that?”

“Sure, Sal. Having trouble reaching the doorknob?”

“You could say that, yeah. Just a little trouble.”

I eased past, careful not to bump him, and opened the door, watching with horrified amusement as he crawled through. He panted and groaned the whole way.

“Thanks, Sissy,” he said as he crawled over to the elevator.

My name’s not Sissy, but I let it go. He lay there for a moment staring up at the elevator call button.

“Going up, Sal?”

“No, I’m going down.” He rolled his eyes. “Of course I’m going up. We’re in the garage, for gosh sakes. Nowhere to go from here but up.”

“Well, gee, Sal, you don’t have to get testy.”

I pushed the button and waited to see if the elevator would work today. Finally the silence grew uncomfortable and my curiosity got the better of me.

“So, Sal,” I ventured. “What happened to you?”

“Thought you’d never ask.” Sal shifted his weight as if settling himself more comfortably and twisted around to glance at my ankles. “I tried to kill myself a few nights ago. Jumped off my balcony. Of course, it didn’t work. It just sort of twisted my back and crumpled my legs up. Been laying out there for the last three nights. Kept calling for help, but nobody ever heard me.”

“Gee, Sal, that’s a shame. Why were you trying to kill yourself?”

“I’ve tried a few times already. A couple of months ago, I tried poison. See?”

Sal rolled over on his back and pulled up his grass-stained shirt. There, in the middle of his pasty-white belly was the most god-awful ruin I’ve ever seen. A half-healed hole in his guts big enough to put my fist through, had I been so inclined. I turned away, squeezing my eyes shut.

“Oh, jeez, Sal, cover that up. That’s gross! Don’t be showing it to people, what’s the matter with you?” I stabbed a finger into the call button a few more times. As if awakened from a deep slumber, the light behind it flickered dimly.

I don’t know. This used to be a nice place. Now nothing works right anymore and people crawl around with their guts hanging out.

With an unnerving thump, the elevator arrived. The door slid open with a raspy whine and Sal started to crawl through.

“Hey, Sissy, hold that door, will you? I don’t move as fast as I used to.”

I obliged, holding it open until he’d squirmed inside.

“Oh, that’s good!” he sighed. “So nice to be on carpet for a change.”

I got on behind him and said nothing, figuring Sal might not enjoy it so much once he had carpet burns all over his elbows. The elevator door wheezed shut and with a lurch, it began to rise.

The ride up to the third floor wasn’t as long as the wait but when the door opened, I discovered we hadn’t quite made it all the way to three. In fact, the elevator was about a foot shy of having gotten there. For me the step-up wasn’t that much of a problem. But for Sal—
Old Sal was game, I’ll admit. He was trying to make it. I shook my head again and with one hand on the elevator door to hold it open, I reached down and caught hold of the back of his belt.

“Here, lemme give you a hand.” I tugged at his lower body and half carried, half shoved him up onto the floor.

“Ooh, ouch, hey, watch it—whew. Thanks Sissy, I appreciate the lift up.”

“No problem. Hey, Sal, look at this,” I said, climbing out into the hallway. “Somebody left a grocery cart sitting here. Guess you can use it?”

Sal’s face lit up like a kid a Christmas. The cart, supplied courtesy of the apartment complex for residents to use and then never return to the garage for the next person to use, was of the variety that had a big basket up top and a large child-storage area below. He clambered into the child storage area. I raised the basket so he didn’t have to scrunch over so far. He did a triple-take when he turned to thank me and saw me for the first time.

“What happened to you?”

I must have looked a mess. I expect a hundred tiny puncture wounds can to that to a person.

“Don’t ask,” I said, wheeling him away down hall. “You live in apartment three-twenty, don’t you?”

“Yeah, this is it right here. Hang on, let me see if I can find my door key.”

He squirmed around in the bottom of the cart, searching his pockets and leaving me to wonder why someone committing suicide would take their door key with them. But he had, and grunting with effort, he reached up and unlatched his door.

I made a three-point road turn with the cart and backed in. I had a little trouble getting it over the door-frame with Sal’s weight on it. He tried to help until I rolled over his fingers. Finally, with much creative cursing on my part and reams of unnecessary direction from my passenger, I got him pulled inside. I wiped sweat from my forehead, performed another three-point turn, and pushed the cart into Sal’s den.

I came to a halt as soon as I saw the hummingbirds. They were everywhere.

There must have been hundreds. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands! The furniture crawled with them. They perched on lampshades, curtain rods, picture frames, the lop-eared antennas sprouting from the back of an ancient television. At any given moment, at least fifty were buzzing slowly through the room, searching for a place to light.

It looked like the town’s entire hummingbird population now populated Sal’s apartment. I heard Rod Serling’s voice whispering in the back of my mind.

“Sal,” I said, “why’s your balcony door open?”

Sal cleared his throat. “I must’ve left it that way when I went out to jump.”

“You didn’t close it behind you?”

“You’ll understand, I’m sure, that I didn’t expect to be coming back.”

“You thought to take your door key,” I pointed out.

“Okay! I’ll admit, maybe I wasn’t thinking too clearly at the time.”

One of the hummers saw us and with a shriek, launched himself directly at us. Immediately the air turned green with hummers following suit. I hunkered down and flung my arms over my head for protection. As I did, my elbow hit the basket on the cart and sent it crashing down. It landed with a clang and a loud “Ouch!” from Sal.

I was wishing I had time to be sorry that had happened, but birds had covered me like a down comforter. One somebody had stuck needles all through, that is. Screaming obscenities I’d learned from a sailor boyfriend a few years back, I shook off as many hummers as I could and began swinging my pocketbook again. Birds went flying in directions they had not intended. So did Sal’s face when I accidentally whacked him.

I don’t understand how a man bent on committing suicide could be so vocal about getting smacked in the chops with a pocketbook, which I was finding to be about as helpful against this barrage of birdies as a fly-swatter would be against a mad swarm of killer bees. While Sal bellowed about being hit in the face, I swam through an emerald cloud of hummingbirds to a bank of light switches, flipping each one until I found one that spun up the ceiling fan. It whirred gently to life, catching a few, but not enough to make a difference. Obviously, whoever had designed the ceiling fan hadn’t designed a very efficient weapon. I needed something more.

That’s when I noticed a strange thing. Sal was sitting helplessly in the bottom of his cart, clutching his head in his hands and wailing something that sounded like “Chernobyl!” But never mind that. The strange thing was that the birds weren’t attacking him. Not a single one of them. His caterwauling must have been fending them off. I wondered if wailing “Chernobyl!” at the top of my lungs would help me, as I thought I could feel my iron level dropping under the assault. Instead, I dashed through the room and hit the “on” button on his stereo receiver and cranked up the volume, hoping the noise might drive the hummers back out the open balcony door.

I should have guessed Sal’s stereo would be tuned to National Public Radio.

A subdued conversation between an NPR moderator and a member of the local Audubon Society emanated from the woefully under-used Polk speakers as I ran into the kitchen. In the den, Sal whimpered “Exxon Valdez!” while I dashed past the gas stove, flipping on burners. Hummers swarmed after me as I skidded into fighting position between the stove and the sink. Those that I relocated with my pocketbook never recovered from the blast of heat and flames I sent them careening through with my deadly backhand.

That was more like it! I sent scads of the little devils tumbling straight to hell. It would have been quite fun to watch the tiny flaming explosions under other circumstances. But at this rate, I’d be drained of blood before I got them all. Besides, they were catching on to this tactic and countered by flanking me. What I needed was a diversion. I created a small one when my pocketbook knocked a blender off the countertop. It struck the floor about the same time a faint hope struck me.

“Weapons testing in the sixties!” Sal cried.

“Hey Sal!” I shouted over NPR while maintaining a steadfast defense. “What’ve you got in the refrigerator?”

Through a shifting peacock-colored cloud, I saw him angle his head curiously at me.

“Surely you’re not going to eat at a time like this?”

“Dammit, Sal! I’m being sucked dry in here!”

He thought for a minute.

“Well, my last dinner was supposed to be liver and onions. Then, somehow, I just couldn’t stomach the idea.”

That made sense to me. I imagined the headlines on the front of the Weekly World Sun: Man With Gaping Stomach Wound Attempts Suicide Rather Than Eat Meal Of Liver And Onions.

As Sal recommenced his howling: “—mercury in our streams! Three-legged frogs!—” I snatched the blender off the floor and plugged it into an outlet by the stove. Sweat mingled with rivulets of blood as I pawed through items in the fridge and came up with the package of liver. Working as fast as I could while swatting hummers away, I filled the blender with water, hacked off a chunk of liver, tossed it in, and turned it on. Presto! Blood soup! The blender splattered the walls with what I hoped would provide a delightful change from human blood.

“Come and get it, you little bloodsuckers!” I shouted.

It worked better than I’d expected, creating a sufficient diversion. The stink of raw blood drove the hummers into a feeding frenzy. They fought each other for position. Thousands were drawn to the feast, giving me time to ransack the contents of the cabinet under Sal’s sink. While Sal lamented “migrating ozone holes!” and the blender began to suck up hummers, I came up with treasure.

I can imagine Sal, a man who eats liver and onion while listening to NPR, being a very organized type of person. The type person who, at winter’s end, brings in the car’s winter survival kit for summer storage. And he was. For there, under the sink, was a three-gallon container with candles, matches, flares, etc., all those things you might need if stranded in a sudden blizzard… and beside it, a large spray can of windshield de-icer.

In the den, Sal wailed, “Vampire hummingbirds!”

Yep. Maybe that’s what they are. And if so, maybe the environmental disaster that re-wired their tiny bodies to thrive on blood had also rewired the way their tiny minds worked. Maybe they’re telepathic, too. How else to explain an unprecedented attack such as this, considering what I’d done to one of their own not an hour earlier?

I ignored a new hypodermic jab and popped the plastic cap off the can of de-icer. I pulled my lighter from my pocket. Careful to aim the spray nozzle away from me, I flicked the lid open, and struck the flint. You can always count on a Zippo. I held the flame to the front of the nozzle, and pressed it.

Whoosh! Instant flame-thrower. It was spectacular! The three-foot tongue of flame blasted a picture from the wall. The recoil flung my grip on the can up and over my shoulder like the recoil from a 9mm cannon. Startled, I dropped the lighter. The flame went out. Birds withdrew questioningly, hung uncertainly in the air.

I grinned at ’em.

With a Rambo-like scream of defiance, I re-lit the flame-thrower and began sweeping the kitchen. It scorched the front of the refrigerator. Blasted refrigerator magnets. Seared the counters. Sautéed the chopped liver. Toasted cookbooks. Detonated a roll of paper towels hanging from a holder on the wall. Burning ash mingled with scorched feathers, drifting to the floor amidst dozens of fried hummers.

The survivors fled the holocaust back into the den, screaming tiny birdie screams of terror. I ran screaming after them. Sal screamed when he saw me.

I raked the retreating hummers with the flame-thrower. They plummeted to the floor in flames. Carpet smoldered where they crashed. Burning birdie bodies crunched underfoot as I rousted the invaders. There was no escape from my flame-throwing prowess except through the open balcony door. Panicked by my powerful advance, the hummers seemed to have forgotten it. What a shame. They dropped by the score for that mistake. I wreaked havoc on them, swept hell through their ranks. Curtains burst into flame at the touch of the flame-thrower.

“Oh!” Sal cried. “Oh, my curtains! You’ve caught my curtains on fire!”

A lampshade went up in a fiery inferno as hummers died.

“Oh, no! My new lamp!”

The sofa smoked from the heat of my revenge as I decimated the enemy. Throw pillows went up in raging glory, taking out more of the foe. The soft cloth covers on the Polk speakers flared brilliantly. Decorative candles turned to slag. Burnt hummers fell like black hailstones.

“My apartment! My things!”

I stumbled over something behind me. It was Sal, crawling as fast as he could across the floor. He was holding a fire extinguisher in one hand. He pulled the pin and began tracing my trail of destruction with destruction of his own. Many more hummers fell as I trapped them between death by fire and Sal’s stream of CO2.

Suddenly, without warning, my flame-thrower petered out. The Zippo burned my fingertips. Sucking my breath between my teeth, I dropped the lighter and tried to fling off the sting as I investigated the can of de-icer. Was it clogged? I turned the can upside down and pressed the nozzle. Air shot from it. I turned the can right-side up and pressed the nozzle. Air shot from it. I shook the can. It was empty.

“Thank god!” Sal cried.

The buzzing of hummers took on an undertone of interest. I smiled weakly at the several hundred birds still left alive.

“So, you guys ready to talk surrender?” I asked. The humming grew vengeful as I rapidly rethought my options. “A truce maybe?”

Guess not. Understanding that I was now weaponless, my antagonists regrouped and swooped after me. I turned and ran squealing into the bedroom section of Sal’s apartment.

“Oh, no! Don’t go in there!” Sal despaired. “It’s the only room you haven’t destroyed!”

I had hoped to find sanctuary in the bathroom. But before I could shut the door and lock them out, they soared in like tiny fighter jets and started dropping little bombs on me. I jumped up and down swinging my fists at them. They stayed effectively out of reach. I raged uselessly as hummingbird crap rained down on me, then I spun to a crouch and jerked open the cabinet door under the sink.

Aha! I grabbed a bottle of cleaning ammonia. Instantly half the hummers broke formation, forsaking the aerial assault to form an opposition to force me away from the cabinet. I managed to snag a jug of Clorox before the sword-beaks won. I charged out of the bathroom, back through the den where Sal lay sobbing softly and into the kitchen again with kamikazes hot on my tail.

They thought they had me on the run.

I grabbed a bowl of fruit from the counter, dumped the fruit, and dashed into the den with the remaining hummers in hot pursuit. I dropped to my knees in the center of the room, fumbled the cap off the ammonia and poured a fair amount into the bowl. While hummers dive-bombed me from above and applied sophisticated knowledge of bayonet usage from below, I wrenched the cap off the jug of Clorox.

Dammit! It had never been opened. It was sealed tight with one of those seals it takes a pocketknife to break. Screaming like a karate master, I stabbed it with an acrylic thumbnail, ripped the seal away, and splashed bleach into the bowl with the ammonia.

The resultant fumes hit me immediately. My nose started running. So did my eyes. I coughed and gagged and fumbled to my feet, backing way from the bowl.

“My eyes!” Sal wailed. “They’re burning! They’re burning!”

With their maniacally fast metabolisms, the gas was hitting the hummers hard. The ceiling fan helped disperse the noxious gas through the room, and I knew Sal and I didn’t have much time. I stumbled into the bathroom, grabbed a couple of washcloths, and soaked them with tap water. I held one over my mouth and nose. It helped me to breathe easier and so I hurried the other one out to Sal.

“Ahgh! No! Keep away!” he screamed, flinging his hands across his face when I tried to help him.

“It’s a wet washcloth, Sal! You need to breathe through this!”

I practically had to stuff it up his nose before I got him to hold it in place. I held my own washcloth to my face with one hand, hooked my other arm across his chest and under his arms, and dragged him out to the balcony and fresh air. I dropped him with a thud and closed the balcony door. Covered in sweat, blood, and hummingbird crap, panting with exhaustion, coughing sporadically as my lungs tried to clear themselves, I peered in through the glass as the last of the hummingbirds descended slowly into death.

“Wow, Sal, that was really something,” I said between ragged breaths.

Puzzled by his lack of response, I turned to check on him. He had curled into a fetal position, rocking gently as he sucked his thumb. He was making these weird mewling noises. I figured he was upset because I hadn’t given him his chance to really commit suicide.

I seem to have gained some notoriety from this event. It took a couple hours for my lawyer to get me out of jail for what Sal claimed was vandalism, destruction of personal property, assault with intent to inflict bodily harm, assault with intent to kill, and I don’t know what other kinds of charges. Upon finally being released, I found the press hanging around outside the courthouse waiting for me. Everyone wanted an interview! The local newspapers, the TV stations, the radio stations. The interview with Trent West from ZRock 109 might be fun; he’s kind of cute. I might even become famous!

I finally managed to break free of the microphones and cameras and reporters-in-my-face and go home, where I called my friends and told them all about it. They’re calling me “Sissy the Vampire Hummingbird Slayer.”

You know, I sort of like that. Do you think it will stick?

 

Champagne and Balducci’s

Champagne

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Laurel Anne Hill

 

Real trees didn’t dance in kitchens or anywhere else, so what the hell was going on now? Just five feet away from Warren Lund, a scrawny redwood sapling pirouetted on root tips as though the New York City Ballet had opened a show in Fangorn Forest. The tree wiggled outstretched branches, split its lower trunk to form two timber legs and leaped in his direction.

Warren dodged sideways. The envelopes he held scattered like broken crackers tossed to pigeons. His shoulder hit the refrigerator hard. His dinner sack thumped against the floor. The tree vanished in a puff of cream-colored smoke, as though on stage. A whiff of fresh evergreen lingered.

This prank had to be his roommate’s doing. Arlo, a dancer and magician, was warped. Okay, where had he hidden? The pantry?

But Arlo had boarded a plane three days ago, had even said not to call except in dire emergency. Arlo had too much on his plate to sneak back to Manhattan for a gag. Sweat dripped off the tip of Warren’s long, narrow nose. His damp T-shirt clung to his chest. Another poof and the kitchen filled with lemon-yellow vapor. Who—or what—would he find when the air cleared? Tolkien’s Treebeard or Harry Potter?

The smoke dissipated, revealing a gaunt figure hunched over a three-ring binder, sitting on a wooden stool. The man bore a deadpan expression, like a crafty poker player dealt four aces. A cigarette dangled from the side of his mouth and shed ashes on his black pants and V-necked sweater. Why, this was Warren’s boyhood idol—Bob Fosse.

No way Fosse could have stolen into Warren’s apartment. The renowned director, choreographer and Broadway icon had died over twenty years ago, in 1987. Ghosts—like dancing saplings—existed only in the realm of fantasy. Warren would figure out a reasonable explanation for all this… wouldn’t he?

He rubbed his sore shoulder and glanced at the clock. Two hours before midnight. He had gotten off work at nine, after an ordinary humid July day. Ordinary, that is, until he had returned home, fetched the mail and flipped on his kitchen light. Fosse glanced up, as though in rehearsal for Chicago or Damn Yankees.

“You call yourself a dancer?” Fosse said. “You’ll never land a job on a Broadway stage at the rate you’re going, other than to push a broom. You barely made the chorus of an off- Broadway flop.”

An unruly lock of Warren’s curly black hair hung in front of his eyes. He ought to defend himself but Fosse had pegged the problem. It was time to return to California and become an accountant. Meet the right woman. Get a life. Warren stammered a lame remark, more syllables of sounds than words.

“That’s not good enough.” Fosse peered over the top of his granny glasses and shifted position. “I want more.” A column of beige smoke oozed up from the base of the stool. The icon’s image faded.

A husky, melodious voice called out Warren’s name. What now? A thin young woman with long legs stood in the kitchen doorway, her right leg raised high in a vertical split, toes pointed and ankle at brow level. A maroon leotard and tights, as taut as skin, hugged her petite curves. Where had she come from? Thick cocoa-brown hair draped her shoulders with sensual waves.

“It’s been two weeks since you’ve gone for a jazz class and three since you’ve hit the gym,” she said, still perfectly balanced. “Bet you’d tear a muscle if you tried this.”

How did she know what he did or didn’t do? Warren pressed his back against the refrigerator, studying her wide blue-gray eyes. They looked soft enough to melt. The mixed fragrances of Christmas trees and expensive perfume wafted to his nose.

“Who are you?” he whispered. “What are you?”

“A space alien.” She morphed into a pulsing gelatinous mass—an enormous fluorescent green blob with three maraschino cherry eyes. “Remember when you were seventeen and auditioned for that academy? They told you to pretend to be a bowl of lime Jell-O. If only you’d quivered more.”

A pressure surged within Warren’s head and throttled his temples. The lime Jell-O blurred with the scattered envelopes on the floor. He sank to his knees. Something was seriously wrong. Drugs! Some street wacko could have dusted the mailbox with crack or methamphetamine. Verizon had disconnected Warren’s cell phone yesterday for nonpayment. He crawled toward the living room and Arlo’s land line telephone. What was the number for Poison Control? Or had the government discontinued that service? It didn’t matter. The phone was gone.

The Jello-O giggled with a musical sound and sprouted two maroon-clad legs. “I’m not really from outer space. Now, it’s your turn to do an improvisation.” She balanced on the balls of her feet and rocked from side-to-side, like a metronome on slow speed. “Pretend you’re a ripe avocado or a rotting pear.”

Warren, still on his hands and knees, parted his lips, unable to speak. Nobody knew about his recurring nightmare—being backstage at the Ambassador Theater on Forty- Ninth Street, dressed in an avocado costume with a jammed zipper. Gene Kelly always belted out “Singing in the Rain” from a lamppost in the audience. Fosse always shouted for Warren to get on stage and be a pear.

The mustard-yellow sofa with the flattened cushions drifted in and out of focus. Warren hadn’t eaten much since six in the morning. Food might help. He crawled back into the kitchen and enlisted the support of the stove to stand. The woman in maroon opened the cabinet under the sink and tossed his white plastic sack into the garbage.

“That’s my dinner,” Warren protested.

Was your dinner.”

She opened a drawer, pulled out a large manila envelope and extracted one of the eight-by-ten glossy photos Warren handed out at auditions. She scrunched her face, then turned the picture upside-down.

“Know what this headshot says about you?”

He stared at the lackluster image with the dark complexion, boxy jaw and phony smile. The faint crinkles below its eyes suggested an older age, maybe forty instead of twenty-eight. He massaged his throbbing temples. What was he supposed to reply? That he was black-and-white, tired, and worked for cheap?

“This man,” the woman said, “eats disgusting leftover falafel from a fast-food hole-in-the-wall and lets balsamic vinegar the color of crankcase oil dribble down his arms.” She tapped the tip of her first finger against the photograph.

“I happen to like balsamic on my falafel,” Warren said. “And what do you expect on my income? Champagne and caviar?”

There was nothing wrong with the occupational perk of free food, even if it came from a third-rate restaurant. Okay, he danced rotten. But what right had she to bust into the apartment and pick apart his entire life?

“I can’t afford crab cakes from Balducci’s,” he snapped.

His stomach gurgled as he pictured the wheels and pie-shaped wedges of pungent imported cheeses in Balducci’s. The crusts on the fresh loaves of bread always looked so crisp. A sharp bite might make them shatter.

“It’s time you improved your image and got a real job,” the woman said. Her eyes crinkled to disapproving little slits, like lopsided sections of miniature Venetian blinds. “You can’t mooch off Arlo forever.”

“You think I like living this way?” The warmth of mixed embarrassment and anger spread across Warren’s cheeks.

He glanced at a framed portrait of Arlo in the vestibule, taken by Jason Leigh, one of Manhattan’s finest photographers. Arlo could act, sing or dance his way across any stage as though he owned it. He had just left for a three-month gig in Las Vegas—had even arranged to lease a pricey mid-town apartment upon his return. The photo radiated the image of his growing success.

Warren sat on the vinyl floor and drew his knees toward his chest. What was he doing, carrying on an argument with some phantom dredged from the depths of his own screwed-up mind? He smelled evergreen and recalled an audition for a school play in the third grade. He had wanted the role of John Muir but had been cast as a redwood tree. His hands tensed.

The woman in maroon did a slow horizontal split and landed. She stretched her torso forward until her elbows pivoted against the floor. Her palms rested under her chin.

“Poor dear,” she said, “you were mortified. Muir was manly, the epitome of the rugged mountaineer. And you had to stand at the rear of the stage for twenty whole minutes, decked out in cheap cardboard and waving two funky plastic branches, while some overconfident creep you despised stole the show.”

“I’m dying.” Warren buried his face in his hands. “That’s the only explanation.”

“No, you’re not,” she said. “I abhor trite endings.”

The woman stood and snapped her fingers. She wore a black tuxedo now, complete with gold studs and a rose silk cummerbund. She slung a soiled dishtowel over one arm, with a grand gesture, and opened the refrigerator door.

“My stage name’s Velvet Skye. I’ll be your waiter tonight. Among other things, the specialty of the house includes champagne, caviar and crab cakes from Balducci’s.”

Velvet transferred a plaid liquor sack and a green-and-white shopping bag to the kitchen counter. Warren inventoried the array of delicacies—crispy Roman artichokes and chocolate torte, even buckwheat blinis for the Beluga. The food looked so good.

“The crab cakes are cooked,” she said. “You don’t mind if we nuke them, do you?”

“That… that’s fine.”

He touched the neck of the bottle of chilled Mumm’s with the tip of his first finger. The vessel neither imploded nor vanished in a puff of smoke. He crinkled the edge of a paper wrapper. The wrapper seemed real, too.

“Set the table, or do I have to do everything?” Velvet laughed—a musical laugh, as clear as the tinkle of a glass bell. “Besides, I’m starving. I haven’t eaten in years.”

Warren pinched the skin on his forearm. Nothing worse than momentary discomfort resulted. He grabbed a sponge from under the sink and mopped off the gummy metal top of the nearby card table. He frowned, then rummaged through a drawer. A clean towel would have to do for a tablecloth. He washed two mismatched plates, some stainless steel utensils and a couple of ten-ounce plastic tumblers. Arlo hated to shop for housewares.

Warren folded paper towels for napkins. Blue-and-crimson lights flickered across them, like the images of flames in mirrors. He held linen now, not paper, and faced a mahogany table set with sterling silver, gold-rimmed champagne flutes and china. Velvet tilted each flute and filled the sparkling crystal with Mumm’s.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “Is the pattern on the Wedgwood too busy?”

“Oh, nothing’s wrong.” He swallowed hard, as though trying to clear a lump of meat from a dry throat. Nothing was wrong at all, in a way.

Velvet spread caviar on several buckwheat pancakes the size of silver dollars. She added dollops of sour cream and slid one of the appetizers into his mouth. The mild tang of the blini and cream muted the stronger but pleasing flavors of salt and fish. Warren chewed in slow motion. She had just transformed paper into linen and metal into mahogany. What the hell was he really eating—stale raisin bran and lumpy outdated milk?

“Table setting’s a fake but the food’s real,” she said, as though she had read his mind. She licked her fingers and tapped her crystal flute against his. “Your tax dollars at work. I walked into Balducci’s and the nearest liquor store this afternoon, projected the persona of our dear mayor and charged this whole damn meal to the City.”

Warren chuckled. She was outrageous—totally, wonderfully outrageous. He broke into unrestrained guffaws. Velvet laughed with him, her eyes sparkling like sapphires reflecting shafts of sunlight. Perhaps he was eating raisin bran. He didn’t really care.

After dinner, he and Velvet stood by the open bedroom window, against the backdrop of a wrought iron railing and a graveyard for cigarette butts. They did cold readings of dialogues by Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. She closed the book and grasped his hand. They sat on his futon and listened to the honks and brake squeals of taxis navigating a Manhattan summer’s night.

“The theater’s a mistress,” she said. “But…”

Warren didn’t hear the rest. She toyed with his curly black hair, twisting the longer strands around her slender fingers. He cupped his hands around her petite breasts, her skin softer than clouds.

They made love on Arlo’s double bed, dancing an ancient dance on white sheets as though every movement had been choreographed anew. Velvet was Eve, Juliet, Helen of Troy—then Delilah afire. She ignited her Samson until his strength was consumed. A warm breeze slipped through the window, too humid to evaporate sweat from sticky flesh. A phantom light from the outside world played on the ceiling. Warren stroked Velvet from her head to her toes, afraid she might vanish.

* * * * *

Warren awakened to the annoying pulse of his digital alarm clock. Daylight streamed through the window. Morning was here. Velvet wasn’t. He called for her several times. Perhaps she was hiding, playing another game. He checked under the bed and dug through the closet. Had she turned herself into a piece of clothing or an umbrella? Warren sniffed Arlo’s leather jacket and inspected a polished loafer.

He stumbled toward the kitchen. Where was she? He noticed the cabinet doors under the sink, ajar, and flung them open. The shopping bag from Balducci’s was tucked inside of the plastic garbage pail, beside the empty champagne bottle. The trash smelled of Christmas trees. The aroma faded. Warren slumped to the floor, cradled the pail in his arms and cried.

The telephone rang. Velvet? Warren scrambled to reach the phone, hoping to hear her laugh. The male voice on the other end was effeminate and unmistakable—his agent, Larry. Warren tried to conceal his disappointment.

“I just lined up an audition,” Larry said. “Next Friday morning at ten sharp.”

Warren opened a drawer and grabbed a pencil and pad. Of course, he wouldn’t get a private audition. He never did.

“Another cattle call?”

“One for blue ribbon stock,” Larry gloated. “We’re talking best of Fosse.”

The new restaging of Fosse’s most spectacular musical numbers? The show scheduled to open soon? The pace of Warren’s heartbeats quickened.

“You mean,” Warren said, “on Broadway?”
“Well, I don’t mean the Brooklyn Bridge. Listen, an unexpected slot turned up. Not principal, but good. I talked you up big, okay? Said Bob Fosse was your idol and you could dance his routines in your sleep. The Broadhurst at ten—no, nine-thirty’s safer. And, for godsakes, don’t let me down and dance sloppy, or my reputation’s dead meat.”

The phone call ended. This was the potential break—the big one—and Warren had skipped jazz class for two weeks and dropped his membership at the gym. His credit cards were maxed. His headshot looked stupid. An eighteen-wheel truck might as well flatten him right now. Warren pounded his fist on the counter and swore. His dream girl had just gone virtual unreality and now this.

Warren needed coffee. He brewed the last of the house blend he had filched from the restaurant. Flashbacks of Velvet blazed through his memory like fireworks in a cloudless night sky. Could even a wacked-out imagination create a fantasy that real? The weak coffee tasted lousy. He downed it anyway and decided to audition.

Warren piled his meager supply of cash on the kitchen table and found his checkbook. It would take money to make money. He hunted through Arlo’s closet and dresser drawers, unearthing a MasterCard, two fifties, seven tens and a dozen twenties. Arlo’s money went on the left side of the table. His own stayed on the right. Warren put on his leotard and sweats, stuffed thirty right-side dollars into his pocket and caught the subway uptown.

The dance studio occupied the third floor. He plunked down the fee on the registration table and signed in. The instructor was new. At least the guy wouldn’t make any cute remarks about why Warren kept missing class. Warren cut to the rear of the room to warm up muscles stiffened from neglect. The ninety-minute ordeal seemed endless.

* * * * *

The next morning, Warren felt like a hood ornament after a head-on collision. He soaked in a hot bath. It didn’t help. His dancing sucked. He’d totally blow the audition. Larry would dump his portfolio into the East River.

He mushed some stale raisin bran with water. Arlo’s portrait seemed to watch his every move. Arlo had said not to call except in an emergency, would go postal if Warren woke him up to beg for money. Warren slurped down breakfast. How could he afford new shots? He covered Arlo’s photo with a dishtowel and checked the listings of photographers in the phone book. His guts ached, as though two hands twisted them. He’d never stolen money before.

It was Sunday. After jazz class, Warren headed for the Jason Leigh Studio near Grand Central Station. The steel gate was open but the place looked dark. He prayed and turned the knob. The door creaked open.

The proprietor’s bell tinkled with an old-fashioned sound, straight out of a Forties flick. Warren stood motionless in the doorway. A balding man wearing narrow-rimmed glasses emerged from the back room. His tight black turtleneck and jeans accentuated his broad shoulders and flat gut. The diamond stud embedded in the lobe of his left ear glittered. The man matched Arlo’s vague description of Jason Leigh. He coughed as though he smoked too much and cleared his throat. An air-conditioning unit, wedged in a small window above the front door, rattled.

“I need a decent headshot,” Warren said. “At least two copies by Thursday night.”

“Are you kidding?” Jason flipped through the appointment book on the counter. “I can’t even guarantee a shoot by then.”

“You did as much for Arlo Brandon last year,” Warren said, unsure if the guy would wink or throw him out.

Jason’s gaze shifted, obviously scrutinizing Warren from head to toe. Warren fidgeted with the lower edge of his sweatshirt. He dug out Arlo’s credit card and two fifty-dollar bills.

“I’ve got an important audition Friday morning,” Warren said. “The shot I’ve got won’t do. And Arlo claims you’re the best photographer around.”

Jason removed his glasses and rubbed his right eye. He squinted at the lenses, then eradicated a smudge with a linen handkerchief. Would he agree?

“You just can’t charge something to somebody else’s account. I don’t know you from beans.”

Warren offered his California driver’s license. Maybe he should have phoned Arlo. Too late, now. The photographer studied the license in the light from a goose-necked lamp. He ran his finger across the hologram of Warren’s picture and the State of California seal. He inspected the two fifties. Probably thought they might be counterfeit. Jason smoothed back the thinning black hair on the sides of his head, then gestured toward the back room.

“Put on the white polo shirt at the front of the rack,” Jason said. “Let me do your makeup, though.” The air conditioner seemed to rattle louder. “If you’ve stolen that card—if you’re lying—you won’t perform for anyone in New York again. Understand?”

Warren understood all too well.

* * * * *

Warren returned to the photographer’s on Thursday at three o’clock. The studio was dark, its steel gate locked. Where was Jason? Warren needed those new shots for the audition tomorrow. He rattled the bars and pounded his fists against the sun-warmed metal. Two middle-aged women in chinos and floppy blouses walked by and stared.

“You don’t have to bust my place in,” a voice said.

Warren faced the photographer. Jason frowned, the skin on his forehead as rutted as a ploughed field. He set a small paper sack on the pavement and dug a single key out of the side pocket of his white Dockers.

“I skipped lunch to finish your pictures,” Jason said. “A man has to eat.”

Warren’s mouth froze in neutral gear. A taxi driver wearing a turban wove his cab through traffic, leaning on the horn. A pigeon flapped by and landed on a discarded donut. Was Warren the only New Yorker who didn’t express himself worth a damn or know where he was headed?

Jason rolled the gate aside. He motioned Warren over to the counter and disappeared into the back room. He emerged carrying several eight-by-ten glossy photos stacked on a sheet of white mounting board.

“This is the real you,” he said. “I mean, if you ever grow up and calm down.”

Warren focused on the image of a soul in black and white. The eyes in the photo looked alert and sensual—almost alive. The lips were slightly parted, curved in a natural smile. The overall combination radiated artistic sensitivity… success.

“How can I ever thank you?” Warren’s tongue felt thick, as though he’d been drinking.

The photographer placed seven photos into a shallow nine-by-twelve-inch cardboard box. He rested his hand atop Warren’s, his palm warm.

“Get a good night’s sleep,” Jason said. His voice sounded genuine and kind. “You’re prettier than Arlo but you’ll need all the help you can get.”

Warren returned to the apartment. He left the box of photos on the living room sofa and hit the sack by nine. His brain chanted the photographer’s advice like a television set blaring an obnoxious commercial. Warren listened to the sounds of traffic for two hours. His leg muscles ached. He stumbled toward the kitchen to down his last three Advil.

One of his new headshots sat on the kitchen counter. The hairs on the backs of his hands stood as though spray-painted in position. The image of his eyes sparkled with an intense crimson light. Warren blinked. The light vanished. The room spun. He awakened in Arlo’s bed at sunrise. What the hell had happened the night before?

* * * * *

Warren arrived at the Broadhurst Theater at nine-thirteen. The shocking-pink lettering on a promotional poster challenged him from behind a brass-framed plate of glass: Sexy! Hot! Go! He stepped onto the green-and-white floor tiles in the foyer, his tongue daubed with a metallic taste. Apprehension always wacked his taste buds before an audition. He glanced up at a crystal chandelier, then entered the main theater and stretched his muscles to prepare for the test.

A thin, sandy-haired man with a clipboard set up a card table near the front row of seats. Warren signed a roster, filled out a card and placed his headshot on the table.

Eight other men arrived and registered, dressed in sweatpants and T-shirts. Several limbered their legs. A chestnut-skinned man with a stubby ponytail stripped down to his black leotard and tights. He practiced the splits in the center aisle, his thighs taut, and his movements smoother than a Teflon-coated zipper.

“You look terriff, Barry,” a dancer with one pierced ear said, obviously trying to ease the surrounding competitive tension.

Warren’s stomach churned, as though he was about to drill his own teeth. The other guys all seemed to know each other. They probably attended classes together or had worked some of the same shows. Only one person in Warren’s jazz class was employed as a dancer—the instructor. Warren exercised his feet and calves with a therapeutic stretch band. These guys looked so damned professional. What chance had he to get the part?

A high-pitched feminine voice drew Warren’s attention. A willowy brunette in stretchy white slacks strode down the center aisle toward the stage, accompanied by a man in his forties, probably a choreographer. They sat in the second row of seats. The brunette crossed her legs. A teal polyester blouse clung to her flat chest. The man with the clipboard handed her the stack of glossy prints, then turned toward the assembled group. He rattled off a string of instructions for the dancers. Each would cross the stage one at a time for a warm-up, doing steps from “Steam Heat,” a Fifties showstopper—sexy, smooth, precise and classic Fosse.

Warren and the others lined up single file by height in the wing at stage right. At five-foot-eleven, he stood third from the rear of the line. He breathed in, mentally counting to four. He counted to four again and exhaled. If only Warren were two inches taller, he’d go last.

The first man in line, the Barry guy, danced across the stage sideways, on his knees, facing his audience of three. Both his hands clutched an imaginary bowler. His arms—and the hat that wasn’t—drew a large, continuous circle in the air as he moved. Warren could almost hear the click of an advancing locomotive’s wheel against steel rail. No way for Warren to beat that.

Barry reached the opposite wing, stood and gave his name. The second dancer crossed the stage. The third. The fourth… Warren’s turn arrived. His heart pounded like a lead drummer high on drugs. Then the image of Bob Fosse, clothed in black, appeared in the opposite wing. The other dancers didn’t seem to notice. Fosse pushed a derby down over his brow and gestured toward center stage.

“Get out there,” Fosse called. He took a long, hard drag on a fresh cigarette while he stubbed the butt of the previous one in a translucent bucket of sand. “Be me and give it all.”

The theater darkened. Beams from twin spotlights pierced the blackness. Their golden pools hit center stage and flared. Velvet posed statue-still in the far beam, her sequined crimson tuxedo glittering like a chain reaction of light.

Warren’s skin tingled at the sight of Velvet. Was she truly there? She faced him, her knees bent and legs apart. Her pelvis rocked with sensuous thrusts. The red bowler in her right hand accentuated the suggestive rhythm. Her eyes glistened, pupils sparkling like two ruby sequins.

“Come on,” Velvet called to him. “Get hot.”

She belted out one of yesterday’s songs, as though she could be heard and seen by all—as though her song resonated fresh and new. Even her verbal mechanical sound effects, her banging-on-the radiator clicks and steam hisses, swelled fresh and new.

Warren moved onto the stage—cool, slow, sharp and very Fosse. Velvet might vanish in a minute, but for now she was vibrant and real. The center spots blazed red. She switched the step. Warren did, too. He entered the crimson beam beside hers.

They danced side-by-side across the other half of the He stage, under the hot lights. The mingled odors of woman, sweat and redwood permeated Warren’s nose, mouth and mind. Just short of the wing, Warren called out his name, facing a standing ovation from the packed house that wasn’t. He was Fosse, Arlo Brandon, John Muir—everything he’d ever dreamed.

The rest of the audition simply happened. Nine male dancers faced their critical audience of three. No one actually told Warren, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” No one had to. Warren read the expression in the choreographer’s eyes. Barry would get the part.

* * * * *

Warren walked away from the Broadhurst, the pack containing his dance gear against his back. He let the hot, wet midday air numb his feelings as it sapped his strength. He passed a closed theater. A cardboard-and-newspaper bed blocked the boarded-up stage doors. Was that his fate?

A sidewalk vendor hawked rice and kabobs. The smells of grease and chicken nauseated Warren. Water flowed along hosed-down gutters. He purchased a bottle of Crystal Geyser and sat on the stairs leading to the subway downtown.

He should have hunched his shoulders more during the audition and snapped his fingers less. His movements should have been more angular and clear. Warren gulped down the cool water, as though the liquid might evaporate. He fished a subway token from his pocket, hoping Larry, his agent, wouldn’t call today.

The stifling underground station appeared unusually empty. Warren mopped his forehead and gazed down at the tracks, then into the blackness of the bore. He had stolen Arlo’s money, couldn’t pay it back. The rumble of an approaching train drew him closer to the edge of the platform. He could smell the stink of his own sweat. The rumble intensified. A yellow ball of light hung in the tunnel, like a coastal beacon in the fog. His left foot inched into the void.

“I abhor trite endings,” a voice said.

Startled, Warren teetered backwards to safety. The train emerged from the darkness. His heart pounded. What the hell had he almost done?

“The theater’s a mistress,” the voice said, “but she demands all and belongs to all.”

Warren recognized the voice now. The words and inflection were Velvet’s. The voice was his own. He boarded the train and slumped in an empty seat, struggling to solve the intangible puzzle of Velvet’s identity. A boom box thumped rap ten feet away. A swarm of squealing kids buzzed into the car at the next station and out, two stations later. The train picked up speed again and swayed. Who was she? His inner self or some sort of muse? Nothing made sense.

Warren stepped off the subway and climbed the stairs toward daylight. A humid draught hit his face and a sharp click caught his attention. A translucent image of Fosse, holding a leather case, stood on the sidewalk. The gaunt icon lit a cigarette, coughed, and opened the case.

“You almost killed yourself down there,” Fosse said. “If you really want to dare the Devil, do it right, the way I did.” He offered three plastic vials of pills in his outstretched palm. “Poppers, Dexamil, Seconal, everything you need.”

The world undulated around Warren, cold as a dead halibut packed in ice. A ruby-red neon arrow flickered across the street, pointing toward the parking lot below. He smelled evergreen, then dug his hands into his pants pockets and walked away from Fosse’s image.

* * * * *

The telephone rang an hour later in the apartment. Larry must be calling. Warren should admit failure and accept the consequences.

“I know you didn’t get the part,” Larry said. He sounded as wound-up as a coil of wire humming with electricity. “Hey, sit down if you aren’t already. Madison and Moore—that hot new ad agency—wants you to do a commercial.”

“What gives?” Warren hadn’t auditioned for any commercial in months.

“Christine Phillips—one of their managers called,” Larry said. “Her younger sister was at the audition this morning. Christine wants to meet you Monday at eleven and offer a contract. To do a wacky commercial for the next Super Bowl.”

“The Super Bowl?” Had he misheard?

“A beer commercial,” Larry gloated. “Something woodsy with a tree dancing a pseudo-Fosse routine. Christine’s sister swears you’d be perfect. Claims she saw you on stage and could even smell pines.”

Warren’s elementary school play. The message hit as though a giant sequoia had crashed-landed beside him. The whole blasted country would watch him dance—and he’d be a damned tree? What would they have him do, hand Mean Joe Green a can of carbonated sap? Warren stifled the urge to deliver a sarcastic quip.

“That’s fantastic,” Warren said. “What’s the address?”

Warren hung up the phone five minutes later and burst into unrestrained laughter. Life had typecast him as a tree. He pretended to wave two funky plastic branches at the choreographer, Barry Ryan and the brunette in the teal blouse. He did the splits, his arms raised in mock triumph.

“Warren Lund,” he announced, “a dancer who puts his best root forward. A redwood for all seasons.” He laughed a hard, bitter laugh. “The theater demands all and delivers squat.”

Warren inhaled the odor of an old wooden stage sprinkled with sawdust. Images of him and Velvet dancing “Steam Heat” flipped through his mind. He recalled his own voice reciting her words with her inflection. He turned a mental key. Velvet had known he wouldn’t get the Broadway part. She had inspired him to dance his best for the brunette—the Phillips woman. Had somehow convinced the brunette to hire him. Why hadn’t he seen the whole truth before? Velvet really was a muse yet so much more—a little bit of him, Fosse and Broadway.

Warren rested his palms against the smooth vinyl floor. An ache of loneliness seared his mind and soul. The feeling retreated to the pit of his stomach and gnawed with the blunt teeth of emotional distress. Velvet didn’t belong to him and never could. She belonged to art, was the substance and illusion of theatrical art.

The front door opened with the sound of rushing wind. Velvet appeared in a puff of crimson stage smoke. The shopping bag she clutched bore the green-and-white Balducci’s logo. She uttered a strained giggle, then pinched her lips between her front teeth. Warren turned away. Should he order her to leave or beg her to stay?

“The theater could use a few good trees,” she said.

Velvet opened a bottle of champagne. The cork bounced off the kitchen ceiling. She jabbered about imported cheeses and beer commercials, her words all strung together, as though her voice were a recording played at high speed. She twisted a lock of her cocoa-brown hair around her slender fingers and laughed.