Cyber Kill By Lawrence Buentello

Jun 29 2014

The room lay bare of all technology, a bizarre stipulation made by Eric Gastif, Director of Technical Operations for Cyber Barriers Security.

But why the man would make such a request of the senior leadership for one of the most respected computer system security providers in the world, Ken Johnson didn’t know.

Gastif had requested—rather, had demanded—that absolutely no technological devices be admitted to the meeting room, whether computers, digital recorders, miniature net devices or cellular communications. He even asked that only mechanical wristwatches be worn into the room.

But as the three directors approached their seats at the conference table, Johnson considered the dark expression on the older man’s face more the product of deep concern than psychosis. The lines drawn across the pale cheeks spoke of many sleepless nights. Gastif’s coat hung on his shoulders much too loosely; the last two weeks seemed to have aged him considerably.

Johnson, the Chief Liaison, took his seat, uncomfortable without the presence of a briefcase, or at least a folder of papers. These, too, were things Gastif refused to allow into the safe room, perhaps fearing that someone might covertly substitute some device in their place.

Gastif leaned forward in his chair and sighed.

“I want to thank you all for agreeing to my requests,” he said, placing his hands on the table. “But if you’ll indulge me a few minutes to explain, I’m sure you’ll understand.”

Johnson glanced around the table at the other members of the board to gauge their reactions to this statement. Edra Hannish, the President of Cyber Barriers Security, sat wordlessly, reserved, her face drawn in the poor lighting. Jim Tolland, Head of Technological Research and Development, stared at the older man curiously, as if watching a disturbing natural phenomenon; he’d made no secret of his feelings about Gastif’s recent behavior.

“The security breaches have become a world-wide phenomenon,” Gastif continued. “You’ve all read the reports. Hundreds of security systems have detected infiltrations from an unknown source. Not the typical disruptions that we’re used to. Those vulnerabilities we can trace fairly easily, whether they originate from private individuals or curious governments. The first incident to capture my attention was the one the Pentagon reported. They believed some of their computers were being breached by the Chinese, or possibly the Russians. When our team arrived at Bitterroot, we thought the same thing. But when we observed the system there we found something else entirely.”

Johnson leaned back in his chair. This was the first time he’d heard about a breach of security at Bitterroot, which, he previously believed, was impossible to achieve. The facility in Colorado was a single-storage system, in which no external lines of communication were attached to the servers. Storage devices downloaded and transferred highly sensitive information from the system manually, which meant that individual service modules could easily be tested for breaches before they were used within other systems.

The Bitterroot system was a closed circuit, and yet Gastif was now declaring it compromised.

Johnson glanced at Hannish’s face to see if her expression might betray her knowledge of this, but as usual her thoughts were unreadable. At the first sign of trouble she’d calmly organized the company’s personnel into a multi-tiered investigation team, and had since reserved her opinions of the matter. An ability to not rush to judgment as hundreds of clients were crying foul made her an excellent leader, if not the only clearly thinking person in Cyber Barriers Security.

But now the investigation was done, and Johnson wondered what her conclusion would actually be.

“Impossible,” Tolland said, waving his hand. “Bitterroot couldn’t possibly be contaminated. It’s the most secure system in the country.”

“That’s what I believed,” Gastif said, “until I drove down into the tunnels and monitored the system with the chief engineer. Something, some program was running throughout the entire system. We couldn’t isolate it, but we could see where it was multiplying files within the system. After a while the copied files simply vanished.”

“Vanished?” Tolland said. “They couldn’t just vanish.”

“They did,” Gastif said, raising his hands like a magician. “Into thin air. They left no magnetic footprint whatsoever. After a few days of similar episodes, the ghost program ceased. During that time, of course, no storage units were allowed into or out of the installation. I thought it was a particularly ingenious Trojan program that would copy information and then covertly deposit it in any storage units we subsequently introduced to the system. So we searched for any foreign algorithms in the system, but came up empty. Then we cleansed the storage units and scanned them twenty times before, during and after any information transfers. But we still couldn’t find anything.”

“An aberration?” Edra Hannish suggested. “A system failure?”

Gastif shook his head. “We analyzed every part of the system, tested every program, scanned every file for corruption, even the deep storage. The system was in perfect condition.”

“Well,” Hannish continued, smiling briefly, “if there wasn’t any exposure why are you so concerned?”

Gastif nodded gravely.

“That was my initial reaction, too,” he said, “but then I became curious. This—malfunction, if you will—was particularly noticeable at Bitterroot, where you wouldn’t expect a breach of security. I began to wonder if this same phenomenon might be detected elsewhere, so I called our European offices and had them observe some of our more sensitive clients, foreign governments, utility services, financial institutions. I told them to monitor for radiation exposures, additional energy loads, or any other type of significant event.”

“And?” Tolland asked.

“And they observed the same phenomenon in nearly every system they monitored. As if some program were collating all the available information, copying it, and then simply deleting the copies and every trace of the ghost program. But none of this collated information—let me emphasize this point—was ever transferred to any system. There simply was no loss of proprietary information, no cyber attack to trace.”

“A nuisance virus, then. Something delivered into a variety of systems just to annoy us. The equivalent of territorial graffiti.”

“I would be comforted by that thought,” Gastif said, “if I could make myself believe it was that innocuous. Actually, I almost did make myself believe it. A hacker might very well create such a program to avoid prosecution should he be caught. But then the other incidents began to occur, and I couldn’t believe it was so simple anymore.”

“The shutdowns,” Johnson said, feeling he should speak. As liaison to so many clients, he’d had to suppress too many fires in recent weeks, fires that grew proportionately terrifying.

First, several energy systems went offline, and then miraculously recovered. Then hospitals in several cities lost their networks, including their emergency networks, before recovering them. And then the military computers shut down completely before coming back online after a few hours. Some disruptions were as minor as television cable companies, and some were completely untenable, like the FAA systems.

Most recently, communications and other orbiting satellites were experiencing inexplicable outages. Nothing had been permanently affected, but the fact that they had all occurred so closely together was impossible to ignore.

“Yes,” Gastif said, nodding. “The shutdowns. The pattern has been as baffling as the infiltrations I’ve described. Nothing’s been permanently affected, only temporarily compromised. Which seems to have left too many people—too many important people—with the impression that nothing significant has occurred.”

“And has something significant occurred?” Tolland said. “I’ve studied the same reports, and I can’t see anything about these aberrations that can’t be explained by advanced hacking techniques. If the creators of this virus, or whatever it is, intended to hurt us we’d already be injured. We would have suffered some damage, some loss of information, some adulterated program, some loss, wouldn’t we?”

“Perhaps. If these acts were being committed by the people with which we’re familiar.”

“You don’t believe they are?” Johnson asked. He was beginning to see a darker expression fall over Gastif’s face, as if they were quickly approaching the subject matter which had painted the man’s deathly pall.

“No,” Gastif said, “I don’t. And I don’t believe whoever conducted these exercises intended to ruin any of these systems.”

“Exercises?” Hannish said. “What do you mean by calling them exercises?”

“Just that, Edra. The Bitterroot attack gave me the best clue to what we’re dealing with. You see, after these systems came back online—all of them, as far as I know—they conducted a systems check on themselves across the board. Most systems do, of course, but these checks were comprehensive, at times more thorough than they should have been.”

“You suspected they were part of the infiltration?”

“Yes. After these checks, though, the systems functioned normally, so they seemed unrelated. But they weren’t.”

“It was just another part of the hack,” Tolland said dismissively.

Gastif shook his head. “If a malicious hacker had meant to cause some damage or to compromise sensitive information, he would have done so. There’s no point in creating a sophisticated program to infiltrate the most secure computers just for bragging rights. It’s simply not worth a life sentence in a federal prison. And the shutdowns? Malicious mischief? How could one person, or even one group, cause so many disruptions in so many places all around the world? And leave absolutely no footprint?”

“How indeed?” Johnson asked. “That’s why we’re all in this room, to try to uncover who’s behind these attacks.”

Gastif frowned at this statement, stared at his hands a moment, then looked up fearfully. Johnson thought he was imagining the fear in Gastif’s eyes, but as the man’s steady gaze held everyone at the table he realized that it wasn’t an illusion.

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you who’s behind the attacks,” Gastif said grimly. “Or what. Not specifically. I arranged this meeting to describe what I believe is about to happen. That’s why I wanted to meet in this particular room, protected from electrical surveillance and absent of any electronic equipment. Because I believe it’s found in even the simplest computerized system. I believe it can infiltrate any electromagnetic system it pleases.”

“What can infiltrate these systems?” Tolland said impatiently.

Gastif paused a moment before continuing. His eyes focused first on the table’s surface, then on his fellow directors.

“As I said before,” he said, “I requested that our foreign offices monitor our systems for disruptions. At first they found nothing. I suppose that was because they were using traditional analysis tools. But a technician in Belgium, because he was lacking available personnel, decided to set up a hyperspectral imaging camera to capture any fluctuations in the electromagnetic fields within his systems. Should the typical fields fluctuate within the room the variations would be recorded. This is what he found one day after the camera was tripped.”

Gastif reached into his coat and pulled out a series of glossy prints. He slid the sheets toward Hannish, who then passed copies to the others.

Johnson stared at the strange image of a symmetrical oval of light hovering in a pale field. An artifact on the digital image? But the glowing oval seemed well-defined.

“What is this?” Tolland asked.

“The first recorded image of our hacker,” Gastif replied. “But not the last. When I received this image I instructed several other technicians to set up the same type of monitoring equipment. Over the next few days several identical images were recorded, each manifestation occurring during the breach of a system.”

“But what exactly is it?” Hannish said.

Gastif cleared his throat. “I believe it’s some sort of being.”

Tolland’s laugh was short and incredulous. “What are you talking about?”

“I believe this thing, this entity, whatever it is, infiltrated our systems as easily as sea water is absorbed by sand. This entity, perhaps several of them, simply entered into our electronic systems, assessed the data, recorded the data within itself and left the equipment undamaged. It wouldn’t have to transfer information outside of the system it infiltrated because it could record the data within itself. Now, I’m not certain if this is a living entity, or simply the agent of some entity, but it is completely beyond anything we understand. It is an organized energy system that can infiltrate any electromagnetic mechanism, I’m sure of that now.”

“This is preposterous,” Tolland said. “Is that why you called us together in this cave? Because you believe electric ghosts are invading the world’s computers?”

“Let him continue,” Johnson said. He rubbed his hand across his mouth because he felt the same growing fear that Gastif undoubtedly felt. Perhaps it was too much for the others to absorb so quickly—

“I might have remained skeptical,” Gastif said, “if I hadn’t been present during one of the disruptions. Pure chance, I imagine. But I was in the room when one of the entities—when its energy field—was recorded. We watched it materialize in the camera’s display screen. At the time I still didn’t know its precise nature, but I felt an impulse to test the strength of the field, so I walked forward and extended my hand into it. I tell you, I felt its intelligence. Not a human intelligence, but it was as if the entity phased into my own bio-electrical field, just briefly, but long enough for me to perceive that I was being analyzed by a thinking mind. I know that sounds insane, but I knew it was sentient. And dangerous. That was enough to convince me.”

“I thought I was hallucinating,” Johnson said, though he wondered if he should speak of it at all. “I had the same experience in Washington during one of the events. I felt there was something in the room with me—”

“Perhaps it’s because of the electrical capacities of the human brain, I’m not certain. But I’m sure I sensed the presence of an intelligent being.”

“A plasmal life force?”

“I can’t say what they are precisely. But I suspect I know their intentions.”

“What are their intentions?” Hannish asked evenly, but Johnson could see the unease in her eyes, hear the worry in her voice. Was it because she was beginning to believe Gastif? Or did she fear the man was suffering a mental breakdown? Johnson worried that his own experience wasn’t just an illusion.

“Let’s just say this,” Gastif said, leaning forward and speaking softly, perhaps too softly for anyone or anything outside the room to hear. “What would you be able to do to the human species if you controlled all the existing computer systems in the world? First you would have to examine all the pertinent systems and all the information those systems held, and then you would have to experiment to see if the information you’ve learned actually allows you to manipulate those systems. And once you’ve learned the intricacies of those systems and were confident that you could manipulate them perfectly, what would you be capable of doing? If you had control over the electrical plants, the refineries, the air traffic, military equipment, hospitals, communications centers all over the world. Nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons, weapons of all kinds all over the world in every nation. What if you had that kind of control?”

The room was silent. The directors at the table stared at one another, not knowing what to believe.

“This is fantastic,” Tolland finally said, and laughed. “You’ve created a monster in your imagination, a monster that doesn’t exist. There’s some other reason for these incidents. There must be.”

Gastif sighed, then said, “I know all this sounds incredible, but who do you think would be the first people to recognize such an invasion? Not the military, not the news media. It would be the people who monitor the security of the systems that were being compromised. We are the ones who would see it happening first.”

The silence in the room became uncomfortable after a few moments. Johnson finally broke the silence.

“We could just shut everything down if it were a matter of security,” he said. “We could control it.”

“Could we really?” Gastif said. “Do you actually think you could convince every world government to put its military defenses offline, to shut down the power plants, to cripple industry? Exactly how would you go about accomplishing that? No, that’s what makes this attack so brilliant. Consider this for a moment: if you were an invading force, that is, if you were invading an entire world, how would you go about it? Destroy everything and hope that what remains is viable? No. The more intelligent method would be to wait until a species had advanced far enough technologically to take advantage of their weapons and devices. All you would have to do was to create a method for infiltrating their electronic systems, some sort of remote capability that could infiltrate even the best security systems. To that kind of technology, our security systems wouldn’t even exist. It may be the best way, the most painless way, to enslave intelligent species everywhere.”

Johnson thought a moment, then said, “We could insulate the most important systems against electromagnetic infiltration.”

“Perhaps. But I suspect they have the ability to breach any type of insulation we might come up with. In any case, we may not have enough time.”

“We have to notify every government we can. Let them know what to expect. Surely there’s something we can do—”

“Are you even listening to what you’re saying?” Tolland said, his voice echoing sharply in the room. “You’re creating a global scenario from isolated incidents. It’s ridiculous!”

“I’ve seen the evidence,” Gastif said. “The shut-downs were precisely orchestrated events conducted from within the systems themselves. The entity or entities entered the systems, manipulated the programs and left. They walk through energy fields as easily as we walked through that door. And they can do it whenever they please.”

“Is that why you have us isolated in this room like Neanderthals? Because you think electromagnetic ghosts are haunting you?”

“Yes, to be honest.” Gastif glanced around the table, smiling weakly. “Once I came in contact with one of the entities they knew that I knew about their existence. I began sensing their presence whenever I spoke on the phone, or turned on my computer. I think they were monitoring me through electromagnetic devices. And since they were privileged to know my every interaction with the people in the company, surely they were able to define the company’s hierarchy.”

“You mean everyone at this table,” Johnson said, now acutely afraid.

Gastif nodded, his mouth drawn.

But Jim Tolland wasn’t so easily convinced.

“You’ve lost your mind,” he said, shaking his head. “You’ve completely lost touch with reality.”

Johnson turned toward Edra Hannish. If Cyber Barriers Security’s president was going to declare Gastif’s analysis the product of a deranged mind, now would be the time. But she didn’t.

“If all of this is true,” Hannish said instead, without emotion, though her face seemed ashen, “what do you think will happen next?”

“Next?” Gastif said. “Subjugation, perhaps. If we’re lucky.”

“And what if we aren’t lucky?” Johnson asked, leaning back in his chair.

“Annihilation.”

“But there must be some way to intervene—” Hannish began.

A faint chime interrupted her statement.

Gastif stared around the table in disbelief; then Tolland, his nose wrinkling in irritation, reached into his pocket and retrieved a small cell phone. He apologized perfunctorily, but Johnson’s eyes widened in fear.

“I told you not to bring any devices into this room!” he said, nearly screaming. “I told you—”

“You really didn’t expect us to take your paranoia seriously, did you?” Tolland said, shaking his head again. “My responsibilities require me to be accessible, Mr. Gastif. This meeting has been an exercise in lunacy. As far as I’m concerned, you should seek out medical help. I, for one, am not going to act as an enabler for your delusions.”

The phone chimed again; no one in the room said anything for a moment, but as Tolland began thumbing the device Gastif shouted, “Don’t answer that phone! Someone take that phone from him!”

Gastif moved from his chair, but he was too far away, and neither Hannish or Johnson seemed to comprehend the command

Finally, Johnson lurched from his chair, stumbling.

Tolland tapped the cell phone, placed it to his ear and said, “This is Jim Tolland, how can I help you?”

By the time Johnson reached him the lights began flickering in the room.

And by the time he was able to terminate the call, it was much too late.

The End

Bio: Lawrence Buentello has published over 80 short stories in a variety of genres, and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. His fiction has appeared in Short Story America, Stupefying Stories, Perihelion Science Fiction, and several other publications. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, with his wife, Susan, and two Australian shepherds.

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The Fortune Cookie by Catherine Carlson

Jun 22 2014

Frank Bowen had been waiting ever since he went to  lunch at the Laughing Dragon and he was plenty scared.  The guys at Stephens and Wayne, the ad company he worked for went every week to the Dragon for its buffet. The food was great and Frank had his usual sweet and sour chicken with veggies, an egg roll and peach cobbler for dessert.

At the end of the meal, the waiter brought the check and laid down four individually wrapped fortune cookies. Steve, Jim, Keith and Lonnie all cracked their cookie in half, pulled out the little white paper and read their fortunes out loud, laughing and slapping each other on the back as they kidded each other about their ridiculously silly fortunes. Jim’s fortune told him not to spend money he didn’t have. Everyone laughed at this because Jim had inherited his parents’ wealth and many properties when they died ten years ago. Steve‘s fortune said Be content with what you have. If he had been content he would have never climbed the ladder to the top of the agency.

The four friends urged Frank to open his cookie. Snapping it in half, he pulled the paper out and it was blank. Not a word was written on it.

“Guess they forgot yours,” Jim said. “Just make up your own.”

Some of the other guys laughed. “Leave it to Frank to get the blank paper,” Steve piped up.

But Frank didn’t laugh it off because the whole situation made him feel uncomfortable and not just the kidding around. After finishing their drinks, Jim, always the conscientious one, said they’d better get back to the office.

Leaving a generous tip, the five friends walked to the front of the restaurant to pay their bill. Each one paid his own bill and when it was Frank’s turn, his hands shook uncontrollably and instead of taking two twenties out, he almost handed the woman behind the register a hundred dollar bill, He caught himself in time and pretended to laugh it off.

“See you back at the office, Steve called out as he slid into his new Ford Sports Track. He had a sweet souped up Corvette, but today he had taken his wife’s vehicle because he needed to stop by the hardware store and pick up a few things that would never fit in his car.

The rest of the group called out their farewells as each one slid into his respective vehicles and headed back to the office after a long and leisurely lunch.

Frank’s mind wandered as he walked into the middle of the street headed for his Jeep Cherokee on the other side. An old white pickup traveling at least five miles above the speed limit screeched on its brakes as Frank fell to the pavement. The driver didn’t stop, and a crowd formed around him, but Frank opened his eyes, felt his face, arms and hands for injuries. Nothing hurt and everything seemed to be intact, so he got to his feet, brushing off his jacket and tucking his shirt back inside his pants.

“I’m fine, he told the open mouthed spectators, just a little scared, but nothing seems to be broken. You can all go back to whatever you were doing now.”

The audience remained silent for a second, as if not quite knowing what to do, and then one by one, they pulled away from the group. Pulling himself together, Frank walked over to his Jeep and was happy to see that he had no pain anywhere. His fortune cookie should have said, Today’s your lucky day, because he couldn’t have gotten much luckier to have been knocked to the ground by a hit and run driver with not even a scratch on him.

Slamming the door and sliding in behind the wheel, Frank checked his face in the rear view mirror. He had a small smudge on his forehead, or was that a bruise? It didn’t matter whatever it was didn’t hurt. His face, slightly pale as his reflection stared back at him told of his narrow escape. He started up the car vowing to put the unfortunate experience behind him.

As he neared home, Frank found himself regretting his lifestyle. He’d always loved the free and easy life, no wife, no kids, no one to worry about except himself. Thinking of the empty house that awaited him put Frank in a reflective pensive mood as he drove into his driveway, parked his car and got out. Harry Gerken, his next door neighbor stood in his yard watering his flowers. “Hi, Harry. How’re you doing today?”

Harry never even turned to look at him. Either he was so absorbed in his work that he didn’t hear him, or he just didn’t fee l like answering. Harry had always been a good friend, so Frank chalked it up to old age and immersion in his task.

Frank climbed the porch steps, unlocked the door and let himself in. His house wasn’t very large, but had big open rooms. Sunlight streamed in the living room windows where the curtains parted.

He went upstairs to his bedroom, took off his work clothes and donned a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. While dressing, Frank had a strange feeling. He’d felt it as soon as he entered his house. The feeling, like a dark heavy burden hovered over him and weighted him down. It made it difficult for him to move from one place to another in his house. Frank was tethered like a ball on a pole to his home and he didn’t like the sensation, didn’t like it at all.

His thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the phone. Frank picked up the receiver but it continued to ring and even though he said “Hello, who is this,” it continued to ring.

Determined to call the phone company to report the malfunction, he replaced the hand set. Tomorrow would be soon enough to report it. He just wanted to relax for the rest of the day,  Pulling back the living room curtains he looked out at the sun drenched street and yards of his neighbors. Maybe he’d go out and sit on the porch for a few minutes, relax and enjoy the quiet spring day. The more he thought about it, the better the idea sounded.

Grabbing a glass of iced tea from the refrigerator, he headed out to the small cement stoop that served as his porch. Its black iron railings wrapped around inside itself. Frank had always liked that iron railing. The black color and curling of the iron gave the house a homier look than it had before he had put it there five years ago.

Sitting there lost in his thoughts, he heard a loud screeching sound and was surprised to see a black cat standing in front of him, its fur raised inches off its back.

He’d always liked animals although he didn’t have any pets. His work schedule demanded he be away from home a lot and he didn’t think he could put the time and effort and love into taking care of an animal.

Frank wished he had a pet now. Maybe he wouldn’t feel so alone. Maybe he should have gone back to the office instead of coming straight home, but after the accident, he thought maybe he’d better take it easy and make sure he didn’t have any injuries that might land him in a doctor’s office.

The cat still stood there, growling as he rose from the stoop and inched his way over to the animal to assure him that he wasn’t going to hurt him. Standing in front of the cat Frank slowly extended his hand. Just then, the cat let out another inhuman scream and ran away.

Frank stood up and looked after the animal. What had gotten into that cat? He’d never had that affect on animals before.

He looked at his watch and realized it was later than he had thought. Where had the afternoon gone? Soon the newspaper boy would ride up on his bike and throw the paper onto the porch. Frank wondered if there would be anything about his accident in there. Probably not, the driver had left and he hadn’t gotten hurt or required an ambulance. He had gotten up and left before they could answer the man’s 911 call. If the ambulance came at all, it was after he’d been long gone.

Sitting down on his porch again, Frank waited for the paper boy and didn’t have long to wait.  John Wilson, his paperboy rode up, and threw the paper into the yard. Frank waved at the boy but he didn’t wave back even though he looked right at Frank. John rode on after barely pausing to throw the paper.

He got up and walked to the middle of the yard and picked up the paper. Taking it back to the house, Frank picked up his empty iced tea glass and entered his house, closing the screen door carefully behind him.

Walking slowly into the kitchen, Frank rinsed his glass out and put it rim side down in the dish drainer.  He’d read the paper later. It was time for supper, but he didn’t feel hungry. Maybe he’d skip tonight and just watch TV until bed time.  Bed time? When was the last time he worried about that?

At the end of the day Frank usually stopped at O’Malley’s on his way home for a drink or two. More often than not he didn’t come back alone. That’s probably the reason he felt so lonely today coming into an empty house. He hadn’t remembered feeling that way before, just today.

That’s alright; things would straighten out tomorrow once he got back to work. He should have gone in after the accident. He was alright, not a broken bone on him and no aches and pains. He felt pretty good for being knocked down by a truck racing the clock.

He watched a drama on TV and then the tail end of the news, something about an accident, but he didn’t catch the whole thing, just something about a hit and run driver. Maybe that was the driver who hit him. Frank wondered if they caught him/her yet. It didn’t matter. It turned out alright, but he certainly didn’t want that guy doing that again to someone else, they might not be so lucky.

As the night wore on, Frank discovered he wasn’t a bit tired so he decided to stay up and have a few beers. Maybe that would make him sleepy, but after three drinks, he still was no more tired than he had been earlier.

He lay down on the couch and tried to rest while watching a scary movie on TV. The cable stations were on all night so he kept it on hoping the droning voices would tire him even more.

Frank turned off the TV and went into the kitchen to make coffee. The sun was just peeking out of the clouds and after a quick shower, he felt more refreshed.

After two cups of coffee he debated whether to eat breakfast or not. He still wasn’t hungry and hadn’t eaten since the lunch yesterday, but there was no sense in eating if he didn’t have an appetite. By lunch time he’d probably be famished.

Checking the kitchen wall clock, he saw he’d better get going. He didn’t want to be late, especially since there might be some repercussions from his hooky-playing yesterday afternoon.

Grabbing his briefcase and leaving the house, Frank felt a strange pulling sensation but tried to ignore it as he walked to his Jeep, opened the door and slid behind the wheel.

Minutes later, he noticed cars pulled over to the side of the road and a crowd gathered in a circle as if hiding something. An ambulance, fire engine and two police cars also were on the scene, the policemen directing traffic around the accident.

Frank recognized this place as where the hit and run driver got him. Maybe the driver came back and hit someone else. He hoped that they got him this time.

Climbing out of his car, he slowly walked over to where the crowd gathered. As he got closer he felt the pull even stronger, like a magnet drawing him closer.

It wasn’t hard for him to squeeze in between the thinning crowd. The paramedics hovered over the body listening for a breath and taking vital signs until one of the men said.

“He’s gone. We’ve done what we can.”

Frank felt the force pull him down and inside the body of the man lying in the middle of the street. His expensive suit was torn and dirty In his right hand, he held a fortune cookie with a blank paper  flapping in the gentle breeze.

*****

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shem Dating Service by David Macpherson

Jun 15 2014

“I did the speed dating nightmare,” Sharon said. “The last one was in the basement of the synagogue. The rabbi was acting like he was a combination of yenta and football ref. He was encouraging us to talk truly and then he blew his whistle when the time was up. Have you done it?”

Mish laughed, “Yeah. The thing with speed dating is that it does exactly what it promises, you learn the true nature of a lot of men in a brief moment. The problem is that what I learned is that most guys are shallow, useless monsters who can only remember how much cleavage you had showing when the time was up.”

“Or they talk so much you realize that they have nothing to say. On the other hand, the greasy guys who will stop and go, but enough about me, tell me about you. I am sure all they are thinking is…”

Mish jumped in and said, “Cleavage. That’s all. You know, I gave up all that. I gave it up like bad luggage. I joined another service.and its not going to get you a nice husband, it ain’t even going to get you a nice soul mate to look forward. They promise company. It works for me.”

Sharon put down her glass, “That sounds a little escorty to me Mish. I don’t think I’m going to be looking for Richard Gere in American Gigolo. Though if I ever did, he’s the guy I’d order from the menu.”

Mish smiled. “It’s not like that. Blondie is singing Call Me on the soundtrack. It’s a company I heard about from a speed dating night. This woman told me about it. It’s Shem Dating Service.”

“Shem. The names of God? They are not a modest service, are they?” Sharon pushed her glasses back on the ridge of her nose. which was the thing she did when she found herself uncomfortable and interested all at once, though not sure why she was feeling that..

“Is that what shem means? I wish I knew things. Oh well, they are a nice little group. They set you up with, hold on, I can say it. They set you up with simulacrums.”

“Okay, Mish, you got me. I know what shem means, but you go big latin words, I’m out.”

“Simple word then. Golems. They make golems. It’s clay, but they look good. They set you up with a good Jewish golem and they are everything you need them to be. I think I got their card.”

***

Linda El was dressed in a good charcoal suit and spread out the brochures in front of Sharon. “First, you must forget about all you saw in the old movies or maybe in the stories you bubbe might have told. The giant slab of clay wrecking Poland. That’s not what we do with Shem. We use special glazes and these golems are handsome, lifelike companions. They talk, tell tales, listen and are pleasant to be with. This is not a torrid service. We believe that we free the modern woman from struggling with dating, and always having to worry about the man they are seeing. We create good men.”

Sharon shook her head slowly. “So they aren’t hulking walking ceramic bowls with hebrew letters written on their foreheads.”

“Not anymore.We put the written shem, the name of god that brings life, in a slit in the back of their neck. The shem actually transforms the glazed surface into something like skin. They are supplied with good teeth and hair. These are not husbands, they are someone who can have dinner. watch television with, be warm and companionable. Think of our gentle golems as the best of dating and solitude combined. Just a reminder. They become inactive on the sabbath, so Friday night and Saturday day, they do not move or interact, But think of that as a time to expand yourself, do things for you. See friends, read a book.”

Sharon stacked the brochures into a pile and then pushed her glasses up her nose. “This is crazy. I can’t believe what you are saying. And I also can’t believe that I am going to ask you how much the subscription is.”

“Before we talk the membership fees to access all our services, let me give you a free sample. You can have a complimentary date of up to eight hours with one of our standard golem models.”

***

He was to be called Joseph. He was tall and slender and spoke in a quiet lilt. It was an accent that Sharon could not place. She thought, this is how clay and dirt speaks, soft and grounded. They had dinner at a Thai place, though Joseph seemed to push the food around instead of eating. They strolled down to the movie and saw something she picked. He laughed at the right places, he seemed sad at the deathbed scene.

They kissed near midnight at the town gazebo and she was almost disappointed that it didn’t taste of clay or dirt. It tasted more of moonlight and antique words from an old language. He did not ask to be let upstairs or worried about her number or her email. He just smiled contentedly like a cherub statue and walked her home in the peaceful knowledge there was no inherent need or insistence, only a nice night out with someone pleasant.

***

She called up Linda El and had her send over the papers to sign up for the deluxe membership. She was going to have a pick of available golems. All golems in all forms for her disposal, though she was not quite sure..

***

The golem Noah was in her bed, sleeping soundly. He snored like gentle rocks, she thought. She had been his pick for the past several weeks. He felt warm and solid next to her. She was never afraid. He slept like he was formed in the bed, part of the landscape. Sharon asked him to tell her a story earlier and he did. It was about the trickster Joha and his family. He laughed at the punchline, but Sharon just smiled. There were lessons in old stories that she had a hard time finding.

The moonlight hit his back and he looked like he was from a black and white movie. He continued his tectonic breathing, she felt safe. Sharon got up, found her glasses, and went behind the sleeping form of Noah. She ran her finger up and down the back of his neck and then found it. She found a seam about an inch long at the bottom of his neck. She pushed two fingers in and felt the piece of paper. She pinched it between her fingers and removed it from the golem in her bed. There was a slight twitch from Noah and then he broke down into dust. It was all that remained, dust.

It took her two hours to clean up the mess that he left behind. When all the dust was cleaned up, she examined the sheets. They were not worth saving, so Sharon tossed them into the trash. She put on a clean set of sheets and slept well and comfortably.

***

Linda El, from the dating service, was not happy. “Of course the package you purchased allows from the golem to be destroyed. But you removed the shem, you did this on purpose. Why did you do that? Noah couldn’t have done anything untoward or incorrect?”

Sharon said, “No, not at all, he was perfect. It couldn’t get any more perfect, which is why I did it. I wanted to finish the feeling, the moment I was having.”

Linda El paused, began to speak and stopped. After another span of time she said, “The reason you do such things is, of course, your choice, whether it makes sense or not. I will not be sending any additional golems to you, though you will still have to fulfill your contractual obligation of seven more monthly payments.”

“I was going to cancel anyway. I feel satisfied.”

Linda El said again, “You do have seven more monthly payments on your contract.”

Sharon smiled at a distant thought, “That’s fine.”

***

Sharon and Nic met at the grocers. It was too cute to even admit to. They were awkward for the entire first date. She tripped while walking to the restaurant. He spilled a water pitcher over the entire table. It was that kind of date. His hands were clammy, he stuttered when he was nervous.

Sharon pushed her glasses up and said, “Sold.”

But almost every evening, before she would kiss him goodnight, Sharon ran her finger around the back of his neck. Only when feeling nothing like a seam or scar or obvious flaw, she would surrender and close her eyes and touch his lips with hers.

David Macpherson lives in Central Massachusetts. He has published short work in Every Day Fiction, Linguistic Erosion, Haggard and Halloo, 365 Tommorrows, among other publications.

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GOD’S CLAY by Jake Walters

Jun 08 2014

              Joe was looking for a white house, small, at the edge of a village called Hamilton somewhere in Pennsylvania, not that he knew where Hamilton was, or Pennsylvania, for that matter; this land was all just trees and dusty roads and streams and fallen leaves to trudge through.  When he was thirsty he crouched at the brook and cradled his hands in the water and raised them to his cracked lips in the same way he had done since he could drink by himself.  He had never used a cup.

The people that lived in the white house would help him.  They were named Mr. and Mrs. Dodge.  They had helped others like him to hide, to get something good to eat, to rest, and then they had pointed them in the right direction further north.

At night Joe walked along roads, directed by a vague sense inside him of where he was going and by the moon and stars and the direction of the wind—what mattered, he supposed, was not that he got to the white house, because he knew there were other houses like it, but that he put distance between himself and the place he was coming from.  He was alone, which worked against him, he figured, but he could not risk coming with others.  They would make noise.  They would ask questions.  They would die.

There, in that place that he was coming from, sometimes they were brought back, they who had gone far indeed and then had been caught, lucky to escape the rope or a fate even worse, and hauled to their masters, where they were forced to hold onto a pole and were whipped for hours, their screams searing the night.  Joe spent a few nights fully alert, curled up on the hard wooden floor, listening.  Each strap was a crack as clear as a bucket of water splashed in the face.  The screams came later, but they always screamed, eventually.  And then, after a few days, they were out with the rest of them, digging, picking, planting, carrying, their faces cast down, their steps careful, as if by merely breathing wrong they would be brought back to the shed to receive the treatment again.  And, maybe they would.

But after some time, they started to talk; about how they had gotten away, about what the world was like outside of there.  And, once, one of them said, “I never made it that far, but you get up to Hamilton, Pennsylvania, you look for a white house.  Man there named Dodge.  He help you.”  That was the first time Joe even thought about escape, in a serious kind of way.  Oh, he had dreamed, as had all of them, about how it would be to sprout wings one fine day and take off into the air, and look down on their hell and then to flit off wherever his heart felt.  But his business was not so clean.  No wings.  Only tattered shoes and mud, and swimming across rivers by instinct because he had never properly learned how, and running crouched over so that he could not be easily seen.

After two days, he could sense them on his trail.  Dogs, men on horses, the law.  He knew that if the dogs got to him first, they would rip at his legs and genitals like ravenous monsters.  The men were not necessarily better.  And he knew that all he could do then would be to curl up into a tight little ball and hope for death, sure that it would mercifully come, but by what means, and when, a mystery.  But he never saw his pursuers.  He did not know how it was supposed to work.  If they would wait for him in the next village, or if they would overtake him in the forest and string him up to a tree.  He always assumed the latter, but now, in fleeing, he supposed some of the game was in the waiting to see.

When the sun broke over the horizon in the morning he walked a little deeper into the woods and found a hollow place to sleep for a few hours, covering himself with brush and branches and mud.  When he cocooned himself inside he allowed himself to pray a few words, his eyes still searching through the branches for intruders, his ears still alert for the sound of footsteps and heavy canine breathing.  When he did drift off, he did not know if it could be technically called sleep, but rather some kind of slow-state, where there were no colors or smells, no future, no past.  He liked that time the most.  It was when he felt most free.

When evening crept back in he brushed himself off and continued on his chosen route, trying to keep the road in his peripheral vision, but finding it nearly impossible because there was no traffic, not at night.  Sometimes a falling branch sounded like a command: “Stop!”  And his heart would freeze for that moment, terrified, and a primal wound opened in him and he would decide, without really deciding, whether to obey or not.  Before discovering whether or not he would run, it would dawn on him in a wash of relief that there was nobody in these woods except for him, that nature was playing tricks on him, and his veins would slowly cool again until he could breathe normally.

Joe lost track of his days and nights until they were all just a period of moving slowly and hiding, foraging for berries and grass and water from the stream, which sometimes wound deep into the woods and after a half-day of walking would reappear like a recaptured slave.  Its water was clear and cold.

He had memorized the way it was written: Hamilton.  After some long age of wandering, he saw it from a distance scrawled on a sign at a bar, and despite not being able to read, he recognized the H and its brethren letters immediately, and he knew that this was his village.  Hamilton, Pennsylvania.  He emerged from the woods in the morning, just enough light to see and to give himself away by.  Men were gathered around horses, chewing tobacco and smoking.  They watched him as he neared them, and he knew that they knew who he was.  He was a black man, sneaking out of the dark forest.

“Hey,” one of them called to Joe.  “You.”

“Yes sir,” Joe responded automatically.

“What are you doing?”

These were the first people he had spoken with since his flight—except for God, not that He was a person.  “I’m going home,” he said without thinking.

The men nodded slowly.  “And where is home?” one of them asked.  “You look lost to me.”

“I ain’t lost,” Joe responded.  “But I got to talk to Mr. Dodge.”

“I figured it,” the man said.  “You’d be better off turning tail and heading back.”

The thought was an excruciating one, like sticking his bare hand into a fire.  That was a sensation he knew from experience.  To imagine going back of his own free will, his legs functioning, his eyes able to move in their sockets and look upon whatever they saw with joy, his lungs able to suck air in their own time and at their rhythm, not rushed nor labored; to leave these things behind was an impossibility.  “No,” Joe said, unaccustomed to telling any white man no.  “I need to see Mr. Dodge.”

“All right then,” the man said.  A smile stretched across his lips and his face looked decimated, a skull smiling.  “Head on down the main road.  Last house on the right.  Clear out of town.”

“Thank you, sir,” Joe said, setting off.  He put the men behind him as quickly as possible, the muscles in his shoulders and back tensed, waiting for stones to strike him, already listening for the cruel laughter that would accompany this.  But when he screwed up the courage to glance back at them, they were already gone.  “Good,” he muttered.  Maybe they were not bad men.  But they all were, in one way or another, it was just that with some it took more digging to find out how.

The village consisted of a few small shops, some houses, a post office and a couple more bars.  He recognized his word, Hamilton, several times as he walked.  He saw in the faces of men and women and children an odd curiosity as he passed their gardens and lawns.  He felt something like a mule being shown and somehow this treatment was just as bad as where he had fled from.  Sometimes he thought he heard whispers as he passed, but when he dared look at whomever had spoken, no lips were moving—just that cold stare, curious but anxious for him to pass.

He put the village behind him and the house, small, stood like a jewel at the base of a gentle hill.  The grass was long and in the full and green garden there was a bare-backed man crouched at his crop.  Joe stood for a moment at the road, staring—he had never seen a white man do this kind of work before, and the way the muscles and tendons in his back stretched across his shoulders was just like a black man, except that the skin was pink and obviously sweaty.  The man raised his head to the air, as if sniffing, and then turned and saw Joe watching him.

“Can I help you?” the man called out, standing without difficulty.

Joe did not know what to say.  I hope so.  Please.  He took a tentative step toward the man, aware now of the sun, the slight breeze, the fact that despite his clothes he was naked.  “My name is Joe,” he called, his voice cracked.  “Are you Mr. Dodge?”

The man’s face broke into a bright grin.  “Call me Steve,” he said, striding toward him.  “I bet I know why you’re here.  Right?”

“I reckon so,” Joe said.

“I’ve helped a bunch of you before,” he said, now standing only a few feet in front of Joe.  He was a tall man and despite being white his face was dark.  Joe had the impulse to take his own shirt off and offer it to him, but he beat it down within himself—it was a stupid notion, that a white man would accept it, that it was reasonable to offer it.  “Why don’t you come in?”

Joe took one last look about him: the road, stretching off deeper into Pennsylvania, the blue sky, the clouds skittering above him.  He was not sure he could give it up.  But he felt something crumble inside himself, a kind of wall, and then there were hot tears pooling in his eyes, and he realized that this was what he wanted, what he needed.  To give it up, to let someone take him and take care of him.  He stepped onto Steve’s lawn.

“You hungry?” Steve asked.

“Oh boy, am I,” Joe responded.

“Well, follow me.”  Steve wiped his hands on his trousers as he led Joe into the small white house.  It was cool and dark inside, cramped but not in an unpleasant way.  His master had had a much nicer home, a mansion really, and Joe had only been inside a few times, mostly to move some of the larger furniture from one sun-soaked corner of the sitting room to another.  But he liked this house much better.  “Why don’t you sit at the table?” Steve said, indicating a stool pulled up to a wooden table.  “I’ll have my wife fix something up.”

“Steve?” Joe heard.  It was a woman’s voice.  “We got company?”

“Yes, we do.”  He winked at Joe, and Joe felt instantly embarrassed.  A trim young woman entered the kitchen hurriedly, crimping her hair.  “His name is Joe.  He needs our help.”

“I’m Hannah,” she said, curtseying ever so slightly.  “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

As a force of habit, he looked down and away from her feet as he spoke to her.  “The pleasure is all mine, ma’am.”

“Why don’t you fix some stew for Joe?” Steve said.  “I have to go finish up in the garden.”  For a terrifying moment, Joe thought that Steve would wink at him again as his wife turned to the stove.  But he was already out the door and in the sunshine.

“How long have you been running?” she asked, rattling pans.

“I don’t know.  Seemed like forever.”

She nodded.  Her hair slid against her back.  “We got one come all the way up from Georgia before.  I can’t even imagine it.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Joe said.  “First time I was ever on my own like that.”

She turned to look at him for a moment before returning her attention to her work.  “A lot of them say that.  They been cramped up with everyone else all their lives, they didn’t even know what it was like to be alone for a minute.  To have only your thoughts to keep you company.”

“And God,” Joe said.

“Yes, of course.  Sometimes I think He brings you here.  Because He knows.”

Joe wanted to tell her how alone he was, even on the plantation.  He had many friends, and of course everyone knew him.  Many of the older ones had sat around in the evening laughing at him running around naked as a baby.  But he was alone, regardless.  When he was picking, or digging, the only things that existed for him were his sore hands, or the shovel, scraping some insignificant hole into the earth.  Even the master disappeared.  That was how he survived, really.  Any other way, and he would have jumped up at his snide remarks and his whip, wrapped it around his sunburned neck, and squeezed with all his strength until his face turned purple or his head popped off like an apple being plucked from a tree.  “Well, I’m glad I found the place,” Joe said.

“So am I,” Hannah said, already stirring something wonderful in a giant pot.

Steve came in after a few more minutes and their conversation took a quiet turn.  Of course, Joe would never have even spoken to a white woman before, and his sense of danger, now a thing finely tuned inside him, would have been screeching even at being alone in a room with one.  But he was in Pennsylvania now, and so their conversation had a different texture.  It was as though Hannah did not want to let on to her husband that they had been speaking about anything more important than the soup.  It was a kind of secret she and Joe shared, and it made him nervous and excited him at the same time.

They ate.  Joe, ravenously.  He felt sick afterward, unable to properly move, but it was a good pain, a kind he had never known, picking scraps off the salty strips of meat the master sometimes threw them around Christmas.  They drank coffee afterward, and it was the first time Joe had ever had any.  He did not understand why men loved it so—it was bitter and hot and did not mix well with his insides.  But he was energized, and it encouraged him to broach the most important subject.  “So,” he said, “where do I go from here?”

Hannah and Steve looked at each other.  “What is the hurry?” Steve asked him.

“Well,” Joe said, contemplating his answer carefully.  “I want to get settled somewhere as soon as I can.  I got a life to get living.”

Steve laughed, which Joe took as a good sign.  Hannah said, “Of course, but surely you want to rest a few days?  You can’t have it in mind to leave too soon.”

“I would hate to get in the way,” Joe said.

“We’ve had runaways stay for a long time,” Hannah said.  “How long did the one stay, Steve?”

Steve nodded his head slowly, and for some inexplicable reason Joe felt an unpleasant tingle rush down his spine.  “A real long time,” Steve finally answered softly.  Now he was staring at Joe, and Joe shifted on his stool.

“Maybe I’ll take a little nap, if that’s all right,” Joe said, imagining himself crawling out a window and running away, but knowing that he would not, because beyond Hamilton, he knew nothing.  He still needed their help.  The problem was that he was starting to feel trapped, and he wondered if there was any place on earth where he would no longer feel that way.

“You can sleep in our bed,” Steve said brightly.  This was a thing Joe could not even fathom.  A white man and woman, giving their bed to a runaway slave?  Joe was about to object as a natural reaction but Steve ordered his wife, “Show him where.”

She nodded once and stood from the table, and Joe followed her.  It was a small house indeed, and their room was the first that Joe and Hannah came upon.  Joe saw a curious room with a narrow door in the back of the house, and he was about to ask what it was for, but Hannah interrupted by saying, “You just sleep for as long as you need to.  You need your rest.”

“This is awful kind of you,” Joe said.  “I didn’t think I would ever sleep in a bed.”

She left him alone and he slid under the sheet fully clothed.  He had often tried to imagine what it would be like to lay in such comfort.  After a few minutes, he crept out of the bed, laid on the floor, and fell asleep.

***

In the early morning, he roused himself awake and listened to the intense silence of the house.  This was when he would be waking into his public morning ritual, along with the rest of the slaves; all of them yawning, stretching, peeing and shitting just outside, trying to find enough light within themselves to stumble to the fields, or the house where they would cook and clean, for another day, given away for nothing, no returns on their time, no love, no purpose.  The saddest part was always the biggest perspective; Joe could handle the work easily, but working with no opportunity for love was like planting gardens in the desert sand, and it was the thing that finally made him run away—not the love he hoped he might find in a woman, or in making a child with her, but any human love that he could freely express.  It was a dream he knew existed, somewhere.  Back on the plantation, that was what Hamilton meant to him.

He sat up and stretched, and then stood and started toward the door.  Quietly—he did not want to wake his hosts.  He would step outside and breathe some free air and wait for them.

Just outside the bedroom he glanced toward the strange room that had caught his eye the day before.  The door was cracked open, a slit of sharp morning light stabbing into the darkness beyond.  Going somewhere in a white man’s house without his permission was akin to stealing a horse, and he could be hanged for it, probably even in Pennsylvania, but still, something drew him there, step by silent step, until he was just outside.  He listened carefully for the sounds of breathing, because he did not want to enter the room if Steve and Hannah were sleeping there.  Such a thing was unthinkable.  But there were no sounds, and so he slowly pushed the door open.

There was enough gray morning light to barely see by.  The room was empty but for a sturdy table in the middle.  Joe could discern shapes, lumps, and his mind scratched for some solid hold as to what they might be, even as he knew.  But still he needed to go closer, to see, to feel, to know.  And he did go closer, his knees weak, his lips trembling, bladder about to open.

The biggest lumps were two naked legs, one presumably male, the other female; an entire ribcage, laying like the frame of a burned-out ship; arms, but with separated hands, all from different donors; and a face created from too many people—eyes, lips, cheeks, teeth, a fat, bloody nose, all of them laying slightly askew so that it looked like God had created a man while under the influence of some powerful drug.  Joe was drawn toward the eyes.  He never knew eyes were that big in a person.

A noise from behind him.  Joe spun around.  Hannah stood in the doorway, her hands grasping the frame, her legs wide, blocking his exit.  “Steve,” she screeched, her voice high and thin like an attacking alley cat.  “He found it.”

Then the sound of someone rolling out of sleep, and the quick shuffling of feet.  “What?” Steve cried as he appeared behind his wife.  “What are you doing here?” he demanded of Joe, pushing past his wife but not entering the room.

Joe began to stutter.  He could think of nothing to say—indeed, what was he doing here?  “What is this?” he finally managed to ask, trying to creep away from the table and its gruesome setting at his back, but afraid to move closer to Steve and Hannah.

“It’s our slave,” Hannah said, her voice coming from behind Steve’s broad shoulders.

“Quiet,” Steve snapped.  “It’s nothing.”

But now Hannah moved past her husband.  “We might as well tell him,” she said.  “It’s kind of like building a man from clay,” she said evenly, “except it’s God’s clay we are using.”  She moved close, and he felt like a ghost was brushing near him when she put her fingers on the tabletop and let them skim over it like leaves on a pond.  “We take a part from each runaway that comes through.  And when he’s finished, he’ll be ours.”  She paused for a long moment and Joe had the horrifying thought that she would start to recount from whom they had stolen each limb: Remember that nigger we took the left hand from?  How he screamed!

“Why?” Joe croaked, aware that Steve was inching closer now.

“We don’t condone slavery in Hamilton,” Hannah said, putting her hand on Joe’s shoulder.  He had never been touched by a white woman and now he shivered.  “But it isn’t slavery if we create him.”

Now Steve was at his side, and he too put his hand on Joe’s shoulder.  Joe looked down once again at the morbid collection on the table.  “Only one part remains, and then he will be alive,” Steve said.  “He needs a heart.”

Joe felt his own heart burn with fear as he swung his massive right fist out at Steve, connecting with his temple.  Steve crumpled to the ground like a bag of ashes, and Hannah screamed: “No!”  Joe wanted to run out of the house, north, south, it did not matter to him; but he kicked Steve in the throat, and then in the face, over and over, his foot sinking into the softer parts and cracking against the harder parts, each stomp a blessing, a spit in the face of any master, anywhere.  Steve’s wife was still screaming, and when he was satisfied that Steve was dead, he turned to her.

“Don’t,” she said, cocking her head and backing up, her eyes gleaming.  “Please don’t.”

He did.

***

Henry had heard in the week before his slipping off the plantation grounds that he should look for a small, white house in Hamilton, Pennsylvania, should his path take him there.  There were other suggestions, too, from those that had been around and shipped back: places in New York, even risky houses in Kentucky, places where at least he could eat something and lay his head down for a few hours before resuming his flight north.  Not that he wanted to run, because there was a kind of safety where he was, despite the roaches and the snakes, the sun bearing down on them, the whip.  But he had to run.

He kept to the woods, moving at night; he imagined that other, successful runaways, had done the same, and that he was following some kind of sacred trail in their footsteps.  He hid under fallen trees to sleep during the day, and once he climbed into the branches of a tall tree and dreamt there.  He never moved when he slept, probably because he had always laid between two other sweaty slaves at night, and if he rolled into one of them he was bound to get smacked upside the head.

It appeared from nowhere, like a mirage, a forest clearing—Henry could not read, but he recognized the word he had scratched once in the dirt with his grimy, sore index finger: HAMILTON.  He remembered how he had wiped it away immediately after writing it, afraid some white man would see it and thrash him, how he had spread dirt over it after it was erased, as if the evidence could never be fully cleared away.

He saw no one as he walked through the village, which seemed strange to him.  The stores, the bars, the post office, all empty, as if they had been fled from at the feet of Armageddon.  A couple of horses, walking freely down the main street, whinnied as he walked past them.  “Hey fellas,” he crooned to them.  “Where is everybody?”  He thought he saw something like terror in their gigantic, otherwise calm eyes.

The village was behind him in minutes, and there, set back just a stone’s throw from the main road, was a small white house.  He knew it was the house, but something told him to keep walking.  He squinted and saw movement in the garden, but whomever was working there was crouched low, his face in the soil.

“Hey!” Henry heard.  He looked toward the house and saw a black man coming toward him, grinning.  “You need some help?”

“I was looking for a Mr. Dodge,” Henry said.  He saw the black man glance toward the garden at the name, Mr. Dodge.  “Who are you?” Henry asked.

“My name is Joe.”

Now the man in the garden seemed to finally be aware that there was company.  Slowly he rose, like a weed growing, and shambled over toward where the men were speaking.  His clothes were in tatters, so much so that he was practically naked, and his arms and legs were pink and black and raw, like he had been hideously burned.  The man’s eyes darted independently of one another and his curly hair was streaked with mud.  With dawning horror, Henry saw that this monster’s face hadn’t just been in the dirt.  It had been eating it.

“Don’t mind him,” Joe said, whacking the beast with his palm.  A bit of skin sloughed off.  “He’s just my slave.”  Joe watched after it as it lurched back toward the garden, finally collapsing there onto its knees, its face low to the ground like an anteater’s.  “Say, you look hungry,” he said, smiling.  “How’s about I get my woman to fix something up for you?”

Henry watched the thing for a moment as it sniffed in the garden, and he imagined what Joe’s wife might look like, who she must be.  And he said, “Can you just tell me which way north is?”  Joe shrugged, and pointed, and Henry hurried away.  By the time he had walked a few miles, he knew two things: he was sure that none of Hamilton had been real, and he was sure that he had finally escaped.

END

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Parking By Margaret Karmazin

Jun 01 2014

“How long we been working this dull ass job, Stony?” asks Briggs.
“’29?” says Stony. He is cracking open a container of mock Irish stew, which automatically heats the moment he scratches the grid on its side.“I’m so bored I could burn a hole in my arm just to see if it’s still living,” says Briggs.
“Well, nobody ever said parking is an exciting profession, but it pays the rent.”
“I’m just saying, there’s got to be more to life than this.”
Stony sits up. His screens brighten, signaling a parker coming in. The south end hatch opens to admit a green Subaru Raven, which gears down and hovers, waiting for directions.
“Will ya look at that?” Stony says, as he waves a hand over one screen to order a placement search. “I didn’t know they still made those.” A slot on level three is located and as soon as he hits directives, the Subaru whooshes to one of the upshafts.
“My neighbor has one,” says Briggs. “She’s a hundred and four and refuses to give it up. Says that year was the best model.”
“Well, I don’t know, they don’t climb too well.”
“How often do you need climbing?” says Briggs. “I don’t think I’ve ever gone off greenroads in my life, but then my life, as I said, is so dull it, it’d bore a Buddhist monk to death.”
“What about that woman you’re seeing?”
“Lily? She left Tuesday; got all huffed up over the fact I wouldn’t let her bring home one of those short-legged cats. I hate those weird little things. A cat is supposed to have cat legs, period the end.”
“Well, sorry, man. I’m not too sure I liked her anyway, not that it’s any of my business.”
“What didn’t you like about her?” Briggs looks a little like someone smacked him.
“I donno, she seemed insanely in love with herself, particularly her hair. I got that impression.”
Briggs’ screen flashes to life. “Firefly, south end.” He checks for placement, waves over the screen and says, “Let’s put ‘em on nine.” Another car appears at the same hatch. “Check that out, a Mokin! It’s signaling to pair with Firefly.” He sends them both to the same upshaft.
Briggs is suddenly silent.
“Yo,” says Stony.
“Something about that Mokin. Black, shaded windows…looks…you know, organized crime, government agent, whatever.”
“You’ve been watching too many kickass holos. It’s probably just two partners going to work at the same time.”
Briggs manages to maneuver two vehicles leaving before focusing back on the Mokin and Firefly. He magnifies the screen.
“We’re not supposed to do that,” Stony reminds him.
“Okay if checking for contraband.”
“Uh, that would be if the cops were here and asked you to do it,” Stony states firmly.
“Are you going to report me? And bullshit, how would the cops know to come here to check on contraband unless we saw something suspicious and called them?”
“Well, I don’t know,” says Stony, “I just know what the guide says.”
Briggs waves a disdainful hand as he observes the two vehicles. The Mokin door opens and a stunning woman steps out. She is tall with a cloud of black hair and wearing a maroon suit. The Firefly hatch opens and a short male gets out. It is hard to tell his ethnic background, possibly Indian or Mediterranean. He stands stiffly until the woman hands him a small envelope, which, after glancing about, he slips into a pocket.
“I highly doubt they are partners,” Briggs says as he ups the sound.
“You’re really not allowed to do that,” says Stony. Briggs ignores him.
“Destroy it ASAP,” says the woman. “Unless….” She doesn’t finish.
The man nods, gets back into the Firefly and signals for directions out. The woman stands there a moment, then climbs back into her Mokin and also signals.
“You see?” says Briggs as he transmits the information, sending both vehicles whizzing in different directions. “Something smells.”
Stony shakes his head. “Hell, if we watched or listened to every encounter in here, we’d go nuts. How about that weirdo comes in with the revved up saucer? Did you see the time he had on the alien head?”
Briggs shrugs. “He’s just a regular nut case doing regular nut case stuff. This is different.”
“Yeah? How regular was it the time he accosted those two women of advanced years?”
“Did you see them get upset? One of them kicked him in the balls. Have you seen him back since?”
Stony waves his hand. “Whatever,” he says, turning back to his screens.
The rest of the day is exceptionally busy, especially with a convention going on, meat growers from Alaska.
Next morning, Briggs face looks swollen. Stony gives him a stare.
“Spit it out,” says Briggs, somewhat nastily.
“Well, you look like you were bawling your eyes out.”
Briggs shrugs before he holds his face to a small panel on the wall for an iris read and his puter wall flashes on. He doesn’t answer Stony’s question, not for a couple of hours. There is more coming and going than they’ve seen since the robo-gear convention in March.
After things simmer down late morning, Briggs says, “She was back yesterday to pick up her stuff. Had some guy with her, I think he was only half bio the way he walked and the weird expression on his stiff face, but they seemed pretty cozy. He was letting her boss him around like she used to do with me.”
“What all did she take? Did she stick to just her stuff?
“Hell no, she tried to get the holovis, but I assure as hell vetoed that! Does she expect me to stare at the walls all night?”
Stony face changed. “Briggs! You’re gonna love this.” He points to one of his screens.
The Mokin is back, this time followed by a Hondel Falcon. Briggs forgets his pain and takes over. “Hope you don’t mind,” he says.
“Be my guest,” says Stony.
Just as Briggs expected, the Mokin signals that it wants to park with the Falcon. Briggs sends the cars to 4 M7 in neighboring slots. A woman emerges from the Falcon and this time a man from the Mokin. The man looks like he could be a twin of the woman who stepped out last time, same black hair only this time pulled sleekly into a pony tail. The woman is small and very thin. The Mokin’s passenger passes the other a small box, which she slips into a side pocket. Then the two get back into their vehicles and the Falcon signals to leave.
Just then, another Mokin, this one smaller and shiny brown, appears at the East entrance. Stony reluctantly leaves Briggs screen to communicate with the newcomer. At the same time, the black Mokin signals that it wants to be with the brown one.
“What the hell?” says Briggs as he makes the arrangements. “I’m putting them both in SW C9. Better cameras there.”
Stony shakes his head.
Once the two vehicles are in position, Briggs glances around as if the Feds are descending, then turns up the magnifiers. He waves on another camera feature that cuts through shaded windows and into a car’s interior. No objections out of Stony; Briggs figures it’s because he feels sorry about the Lily business.
Briggs face is centimeters from the screen, though there is no need with the excellent magnification. He is waving his fingers about, madly making adjustments.
“Hey, I can’t see,” says Stony.
Briggs backs away. “Check it out.”
The Mokin’s front seat has slid back, giving the driver more room. Right before their eyes, the driver morphs into the woman they saw the first time. “She” pulls off the ponytail band and shakes out her mane, then scrambles to change clothing. They see a flash of a breast, apparently real, and soon she is zipping up her shirt. She leans into what is evidently a mirror, then looks at the vehicle parked next to her, which has been waiting with no movement of its driver.
“What the-” they both gasp.
Briggs closes in with interior sound. “This isn’t perfected yet,” he says, but they hear the “woman” grunt.
“Classy,” Stony says.
“Stony, she just changed sex!”
The Mokin signals the Falcon and both vehicles’ passenger doors slide open. Out of the Falcon steps a tall, silver haired man. The two meet between the cars and perform what has now become the expected exchange. This time the “woman” lays a hand on the man’s arm in what appears to be a friendly, slightly sexual gesture, but the man stiffly backs away.
“What are they saying?” whispers Stony.
“Not permitted, not desired,” says the man firmly, his voice quite high for the size of him.
“My apologies,” says the “woman.” “I misread the intent in your eyes.”
The man does not address this. “You are being watched,” he says.
Briggs and Stony automatically back away from the screen.
She says, “They are always watching, it is nothing. We let them believe that they see things, it keeps them occupied.”
“I wouldn’t be too confident on this matter,” says the man. “We intercepted a report going to Klate-nine-to. They are aware of your participation.”
This has an interesting effect upon the woman. For a moment, she seems to blur, then returns to herself, yet now the color of her hair has changed.
“Do you see that?” barks Stony. “What the hell?”
The man sees it too and backs away. His face, formerly impassive, now registers fear and he makes a beeline for his vehicle, but not before the now brown haired female pulls something from a pocket and shoots him. As he sinks to the pavement, she is back in her car, signaling for departure.
Briggs and Stony look at each other, their eyes wide with panic. If they let her go, what then? If they try to trap her here, what if she does the same to them?
“We gotta stay calm,” says Briggs. “We gotta think.” Meanwhile, her signaling grows agitated.
Stony remembers the Safe Room controls, which they have never actually used, though it is suggested in training that they test frequently. He fumbles at them madly and waves it on. They hear the hiss of seals and clank of bolts. While mouthing the word “police” to his partner, Briggs signals back to the Mokin while Stony hits the alarm.
Briggs transmits, “Problem with doors,” and the Mokin transmits back, “*&^%$#( idiots.” He hears curse words with which he is only slightly familiar and some not at all, but he knows good ones when he hears them. His heart thuds.
Stony meanwhile is on with the cops who tell him that two patrol cars are on their way.
But by the time they signal for entry, the shot man is no longer slumped on the pavement. He has vanished. Did he somehow crawl back into his car?
“What the-” mutters Briggs as he tries to get another camera on. The one on the other side of the brown Mokin seems to be damaged.
The cops signal their arrival. They have their own way of getting in. Soon a patrol car is hovering outside the office/saferoom. Stony sets the door to open.
Two cops are marched in by the “woman.” “Shut the door,” she commands. She has the officers in some kind of stiff-necked trance.
Briggs’ heart leaps to his mouth. “You idiots,” he wants to yell at the cops, but what’s the point? They’re both young and look scared shitless. They are probably all going to die now. Whatever this female is, she can’t be human and she’s already done something nasty to that man out there.
“You boys are going to-” she begins in a velvety voice, and is about to do to Stony whatever it is that she has done to the starry eyed cops, but he moves faster than Briggs ever imagined possible, being that he is normally a slow, lazy type guy. But now Stony whirls around, fiddles his fingers over a spot on one of his screens and the floor under the woman drops. She disappears in a flash before he fiddles some more and the hole in the floor closes up.
Briggs had totally forgotten about the storeroom. The last time he went down there was maybe four years ago. It was only six feet high, empty except for out of date parts and, if he remembers right, damp and full of spiders.
“Wow,” he says to Stony.
The cops appear to be regaining control of their minds and bodies, staggering about in zombi-ish fashion. Finally one says, “What the hell was that?” He taps his wrist and signals headquarters.
“Is she secure down there, wherever she went?” asks the smaller cop.
Briggs shrugs. “Who knows? We don’t know her capabilities.
“Is there another way out down there?
“Unfortunately, yes,” says Stony. “She’d have to find it in the dark, though, and since she has no controls, would need to open it manually.”
They hear banging around down there. Stony points a shaky finger at Briggs’ screen. They see the black Mokin rise into the air and back out of its receptacle. Then it turns and makes a beeline for their office. Simultaneously, more cops show up at the South and North ends and Briggs goes to work clearing their paths. The two cops are frantically transmitting to their associates and all at once, the black Mokin is hit with a white hot blast and clatters to the garage floor, then slides into an innocent little Ford Eagle.
A swat team arrives in three vehicles, which buzz around outside the office like so many dragonflies. They surround the black and brown Mokins in foam that hardens into a rubber-like net. All that is left is what is down there in the storeroom, now dangerously silent. Briggs and Stony receive orders to shut down all public entrances into the garage.
A VIP cop car arrives and hovers. A voice booms from inside. “I am going in to secure the suspect. Everyone stay where you are. Where is the entry?”
Briggs gets on speaker and explains.
VIP car lowers to the pavement, its door slides open and out steps a short, nattily dressed man in his sixties. His face has the plastic look of someone who has had “work done.” He exudes authority.
While the SWAT cars hover, boss man disappears from view. Everyone holds his breath. He reemerges with the woman in tow. She is not cuffed, but nonchalantly walks beside him. The couple disappears into VIP car, which rises into the air without comment from within and zooms off.
Two SWAT cars attach the netted Mokins and tow them out. The remaining SWAT car signals Briggs and Stony that they are coming in. Two soldiers burst into the room and bark, “Show us your related recorded scenes.”
Stony rolls it back to Encounter One where the woman meets with the Firefly and contains it through the most recent encounter. A soldier steps forward, aims something at the wall and poof, the recording is gone.
“Hey!” says Briggs. “We have to account for-”
The other solder moves toward him with subtle threat. “I wouldn’t object if I were you.”
Briggs swallows and shuts up.
The doors whoosh shut behind the soldiers and their vehicle zooms out of the parking lot.
The remaining two cops, looking sheepish, lurk in the doorway. “You can open to the public now,” says one.
Briggs is indignant. “What the hell was all that? What was that…that person? It changed sex back and forth!”
The cops glance at each other and back to Briggs. “It’s probably on a need-to-know basis. Just return to your lives. If the company gives you trouble, tell them to ask for Officer Redfern and I will explain that we had an incident.”
After they leave, Briggs and Stony give each other disgusted looks.
“Something is very smelly here,” says Briggs. “Why did VIP go in that storeroom alone and without fear and why did man/woman come out placidly? Do they know each other? If so, why would Mr. Muck Muck know someone who engages in nefarious activities that smack of spy work and more creepy stuff I don’t even want to think about?”
“There are a lot of weird things going on that the average person can’t even imagine,” says Stony.
“Well, maybe we ought to tell somebody,” says Briggs. “Like the media, for instance?”
Brigg’s input buzzes. When he answers, a rough male voice booms through the room, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. That woman you care about, Lily is her name? And Stony there – your mother and that dog you’re fond of. If you want them all to reach old age, you’ll shut up.”
Briggs is so terrified that he fears he might lose control of his bowels, which haven’t been in too good a shape since all this began. He backs into the monitors. “Uh, okay, yeah, I see your point.” Stony is too shocked to speak at all.
“Enjoy your week,” the voice says, then shuts off.
Briggs and Stony are silent for a few moments, then Briggs says, ‘Not that I care if they get Lily or not. Apparently, they’re not up to date on that situation.” He pauses a moment. “Well, maybe I do. Some.”
“You care,” says Stony.
They sigh heavily before sitting back down. At the south hatch hovers a shiny, red Jaguar Kite and at the north end, a Mazda Condor, this year’s model.
Briggs says, “I liked it better when it was dull as hell around here.”
“Me too,” says Stony.
“I never imagined myself saying that,” says Briggs.

 

Margaret Karmazin’s stories are published in literary and speculative fiction magazines including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Mobius, Confrontation, Pennsylvania Review, Speculative Edge, Another Realm and WiFiles. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine and Licking River Review were nominated for Pushcart awards, and her story, “The Manly Thing,” was nominated for the 2010 Million Writers Award. She has stories included in Still Going Strong, Ten Twisted Tales, Pieces of Eight (Autism Acceptance), Zero Gravity, Cover of Darkness, Daughters of Icarus, M-Brane Sci-Fi Quarterlies, and a YA novel, Replacing Fiona and children’s book, Flick-Flick & Dreamer, published by etreasurespublishing.com.

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The Honeymooners By R.W.W. Greene

May 25 2014

The car bumped over the motel’s pitted parking lot and pulled into a rusting docking station. After some negotiation, the word “Charging” began scrolling in red letters across the auto’s windshield.

The car was dreaming it was still parked in its garage 736 miles to the north. The motel’s AI didn’t quibble with the car’s delusions, didn’t even try to wake it up. It often pretended it was somewhere else, too.

The driver’s door lifted, and a man with a plastic shopping bag got out. He jogged around to the passenger side to keep the broken gullwing door there from slamming down like a guillotine on the woman who emerged.

She rubbed the small of her back as she stood. “Will it be okay?”

“For tonight,” he said. “We’ll get something else tomorrow.”

The motel’s entrance rattled open as they approached and scraped shut behind them. Stinking air from the outside spun into the machine-clean interior, recreating, for a single breath, the taste of the 20th century. The air filters whispered the flavor away.

The desk clerk eyed the pair. They were youngish and pretty, or at least pretty enough. “Help you folks?”

“A single,” the man said. “Just for the night.”

The clerk sucked his teeth and checked his inventory on screen. “I think we can set you up.” He inspected the couple again. They were fit, or at least not fat. He turned back to the screen. “The honeymoon suite is open.” He licked his lips. “I could cut you a deal.”

The clerk risked another peek at the pair. The man looked like he’d know about such things, but he wasn’t sure about the lady.

The man rubbed the back of his neck and looked sidelong at the woman. “You game?” he said. “You’re supposed to be the creative one.”

The woman shrugged.

The man squeezed out a grin for the clerk. “Sounds like a deal.”

They shared the elevator with a nuclear family. The lift wheezed up six floors before coughing them all out into the hallway. Doors followed doors in either direction. The man counted down to 613 and shoved the plastic card in the lock. The door clunked open, and the overhead light beyond fluttered on.

“You want to shower first?” he said.

She shook her head. “I’ll do it later.”

The man set the bag inside the closet and closed the door. “Let me brush my teeth.”

The woman studied a diagram mounted on the wall. The exits and fire extinguisher were clearly marked there, among other things. She traced lines on the diagram with her finger and compared it to the story growing in her mind.

The man came out of the bathroom. “There’s another toothbrush in there.”

“I’m fine.”

“You worked it out?”

She nodded.

“Fast or slow?”

“Medium,” she said. “I’m tired.” She checked her watch. “Kiss me now.”

He grabbed her shoulders and kissed her. She was glad he’d brushed his teeth.

She let him undress her and made a playful lunge to undo his pants. He sat on the bed while she pulled off his boots.

She leaned in close, her hair brushing his chest, and breathed soft sounds into his ear. “Stand up and move me to the right.”

He stood and buried his face in the left of her neck, tasting salt. She ran her nails over his back, feeling old scars and crossing the boundaries of crude tattoos. He pulled her to his chest. Her breasts flattened against his skin, and he swung her to the right.

She licked her way down his body, hands sliding down his chest, over his hips and down the backs of his thighs. She took his penis into her mouth and checked her position against the plan in her head. She felt his hands in her hair — rough, but not demanding. Reluctantly, she was grateful again. She used her teeth, and he groaned toward the ceiling.

He took her hand and pulled her to her feet. He kissed her again as he slid his hand down her stomach and between her legs.

“On the bed,” she whispered. “Make it look good.”

She pushed him backward onto the mattress and straddled his hips. She rocked gently and remembered to moan as he cupped her breasts and drew tight circles around her nipples with his thumbs.

She let him turn her onto her back and ran her fingers over his close-cropped hair as he kissed and nibbled down to her crotch. Then she rolled him back over and rode his face.

He trusted her instincts. She knew what would work. He licked and let her use him.

The orgasm surprised her. The last twenty-four hours had made her anxious and tense, and the tiny release was a relief. She’d only had to exaggerate, not fake it entirely.

She rose up, and he slid out from under her like a mechanic. He rose to his knees to kiss her shoulder. She met his ear with her lips. “From the back,” she whispered.

The woman lowered her hands to the floral bedspread and swayed on hands and knees as he stroked her back and the sides of her breasts. His hands moved to her hips, and she grunted as he pushed into her. His right hand found her hair and tugged, showing her face to the eyes in the headboard. She bit her lip and closed her eyes to pant. Her breasts swung as he thrust and thrust and thrust, then swayed to stillness as he stiffened with a moan. He toppled, taking her with him to lie on the bed.

They breathed hard together but out of sync.

“Was it any good?” he said.

“We’ll know in the morning. Give it another three minutes, then I’ll get up and take a shower.”

They checked out early. The desk clerk was still on duty. He grinned when he saw them and pointed at his screen. “We’ve been getting about a thousand hits on the site every hour. Not a record but not bad.”

“All her.” The man pointed at the woman with his thumb.

“Sure,” the clerk said. “You signed the release when you came in, but I’m supposed to remind you the recording is motel property.”

“Got it,” the man said. “What’s our cut?”

The clerk clicked his mouse. “$500 in cash and three nights at any of our franchises in the continental U.S.”

The clerk handed over the cash and room voucher. He watched the couple leave with the shopping bag, then reached into his pants with one hand and clicked “play” with the other. It had been a long shift.

The man unlocked the car and opened the woman’s door for her. He dropped into the seat beside her and twisted two wires together to wake the engine. He set the shopping bag on the seat between them and let his hand linger on the shape of the sleeping TeraDrive within.

“Is it enough?” she said.

He shrugged.  “It’ll get the three of us to Mexico.”

 

-End-

BIO:

Fiction writer R.W. W. Greene lives in New Hampshire, USA with wife Brenda, their son Devin, and two cats. He teaches high school creative writing and journalism and tries to stay at least two steps ahead of his students at all times. Greene grew up with a head full of Robert Heinlein. Stephen King, and Isaac Asimov and has since built up that brain mélange with William Gibson, Richard K. Morgan, Cory Doctorow, Joe Hill, and Margaret Atwood, among others. Greene serves on the board of the New Hampshire Writers Project and blogs about writing, teaching, and the twenty-first century at RWWGreene.com. He Tweets about all of the above @rwwgreene.

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Arabesque By Edward Ahern

May 18 2014

It was simple, really. Gus had retreated into meditation after a bad day of work and another argument with Cynthia.  He’d ignored the leg cramps from his lotus position, and cleared his mind of everything except his focal point, a rusty Philips head screw. He suppressed feeling and thought but couldn’t reach a higher state. Frustration began to chew on his tranquility.

Maybe if I think myself forward in space or time? Or maybe if I visualize myself high above my body, looking down? But as soon as he tried for a spiritual destination his tranquility ruffled like windblown water.

I need a nonsense thought to restore my oblivion. And from nowhere came a memory of a dance step he’d always thought of as sexy- feet close together, then swing the toes forty five degrees to the side and bring the heels up behind them, while slightly waggling his backside.

Still kneeling in his lotus position, Gus visualized himself syncopating sideways. Toes and heels, toes and heels, nowhere to go but sideways. Toes and heels…

And slipped through a crease in the world. Gus snapped into full consciousness, but his body was nowhere to be seen. And  that was weird, because he had no eyes. Literally senseless, he somehow knew- that he now looked like a slivered sheet of mica.  What the hell is going on? Where am I, no really, where’s my body? As he peered around colors blurred and reshaded like someone quickly turning a prism. Panic gurgled up in him like bad-food vomit.

Get a grip, chubby. What can I see? No, not see, sense? Shit. What am I aware of?

He was vertical in a horizontal sea flood of other mica sheets, blurred multi colors that poured past and over him. The sheets emanated annoyance at his obstruction.

“Hey, you!”

“You can talk!”

“Don’t be an idiot. All you know is sound so that’s what you think you’re hearing. You’re a pudgy little sucker. Turn sideways before you cause a serious inconvenience.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Everybody does. It’s like teat sucking, comes naturally. Wait- you’re not dead!”

“Huh?”

“Dead, dummy. Your colors are camel dung drab. You’re not supposed to be here.”

The mica sheets flowed more densely, and their push made Gus start to teeter.

“You’ve got to turn sideways and get up to group speed or you’ll cause us to sprawl. You really don’t want that to happen.”

“Why does it matter? And I still don’t know how.”

“The group’s corrective action would be to skewer you with what feels like thousands of acid tipped fishing hooks. An obstinate dead person can tolerate it, barely. It would drive you mad.  You have to turn and swim. Remember being on a swing and swinging so high that you almost were able to circle the bar, but starting to dead drop? That’s the feeling. Do it now!”

Gus remembered the sensation with vivid fear and snapped into horizontal. He began slowly gliding in the direction of the flow, feeling the almost bumps of the mica sheets as they overtook him.

“Kick it in the ass.  Visualize yourself as sprinting.”

Gus lurched, too fast, then too slow, but eventually matched the endless flow of sparkling mica. “Are you still there?”

“For now. How did you manage to get here while alive?”

“Don’t know, I was meditating and started sidling to the left when – pop- here I am.” Gus paused. “Are all these sparkling sheets souls? Is this heaven?”

The other voice sighed. “Where to begin. It’d be so much easier if you’d died. Everybody comes here, good, bad and indifferent.”

“How do you know the good ones from the bad?”

The mica-like horde swerved in seamless joy, like a huge school of bait fish. Gus lurched and caused thousands of annoyances before getting back on pace.

“We’re all amalgams of good and bad, but the bonding agent is the same. Once we’re here we can look at one another and know what sort of blend we were.”

“Do the bad stay bad?

“No. Most quickly lose their pretenses.  It’s kind of like lying about your physique at a nudist colony, everybody here eventually buffs up. The pathologically bad are fish hooked until they follow acceptable behavior. But what the hell are we going to do with you? You’re the unchangeable color of dirt.  You can’t survive here.”

Gus had a thought that almost caused him to lose his cruising tempo. “Could I meet my parents?”

“I told you everybody comes here. Everybody. From the beginning of human history to now. Trillions upon trillions, that’s why we’re crowded up in a space without perceived limits.”

Gus became aware of his own hues. Sweet Jesus, all those moldy, blotchy bits. I need to cover myself with a huge fig leaf. “What about God, and Jesus, and the saints? And hell?”

“Dunno. We don’t eat, drink or screw. No measured time. No clothes or possessions. No social status. All we have is membership. Once the other stuff dropped away we lost our need for a catechism. We’re coming to a cascade. Touch the tip of your sheet to mine, I’ll guide you through.”

Oh my God, I’m undulating like a hula dancer. Free fall, vertigo, oh, the sinuous motions stroke my facets. I’m bursting with light.

“That was incredible! My mind feels like a honed knife.”

“Pretty good. Being here is like riding a series of roller coasters without getting sick. Some are incredibly fast, some drop uncontrollably, some whip you in facet shaving turns. And after each cascade we’re more sharply colored.

“All right, Gus, we’ve decided you have to go back.”

“Wait! I just got here, how could you have decided that, or decided anything at all if you’re just a swarm of souls or a school of holy fish?”

Gus sensed something sigh like. “Remember there’s no measured time here. And we exist in consensus. Like the hymn says, ‘We are all one spirit.’ Or maybe ‘We’ve got rhythm.’ Anyway, no fault of yours, but you’re a fart in our perfume factory. We’re going to be swirling left here.”

Gus felt lost and supremely well guided at the same time. “Who are you that you’re the one to help me? Why isn’t it a committee?”

“Any one is many here. I’m your guide back to the physical.  We have hopes that you’ll do something for your brethren when you get back.”

“Like what?”

“We have some suggestions that we’d like you to publicize.”

“No one will believe me.”

“We think we’ve worked that out. You’ve heard about secrets going to the grave? Guess what, they’re all filed away here.”

“Like how JFK was really assassinated?”

“Nah. We know, of course, but that’s an unverifiable truth that would only cause more arguments. What we’re going to tell you is mostly where things are hidden. Sunken ships, written confessions, lost cities, buried treasure. If you succumb to greed you’ll become a very wealthy man. But then you’d look even more like crap when you get back here.”

“So you want me to discover these things?”

“You need to be flushed through a few more cascades. No, dummy, you’ll use these hidden items to establish your credibility about our suggestions. You’ll dangle agoodie in front of several thousand people and make them listen to our hints before you give them the location.”

“Why aren’t they commandments, like Moses?”

“Yeah, that worked really well. Hang on, this next one is going to knock off some of your moldy bits.”

The immense school glided into a raging froth of something. It’s like swimming through tonic water, no, like a scalding hot spring that stripping off my skin, no, swimming through aloe vera with bubbles of rose attar.

“I, I’ve never felt this clean!”

“Yeah, better maybe, but you still look pretty scummy. So here’s our list of suggestions:”

Get used to crowds, you’ll be a permanent member soon enough.

The dead already mourn the acts of the living, the living needn’t bother to mourn the dead.

Sex really is overrated.

It should be the seven deadening sins.

Eat and drink well, it’s your only chance.

Anything done to excess is self-defeating.

“That’s it? What about messages from you all to your children and grandchildren, expressions of love, warnings…”

“Everything only moves forward, Gus, we’re just hoping that since you never really left you’ll be an exception. We’re going to give you a memory dump now. It’s going to feel like belly bloating.”

Gus’ dung-shaded but somewhat sparkly sheet suddenly felt like the mica flecks would pop off, like an overcharged bottle of pop. “God, this is worse than my colonoscopy!”

“It’ll diffuse. We’ve also told you how you should return- basically just a reversal of the arabesque, sidling to the right rather than the left. Think as if you had feet.”

“Wait, will I remember my experiences here?”

“Of course. They’re yours, we wouldn’t take them away.”

“And will I remember you” I don’t even know your name.”

Gus sensed a smile. “Think of me… think of me as your father, some part of me was. And know that as the living go, you’re a decent piece of work.  Now get those missing feet shuffling.”Gus syncopated to the right, still aligned with the school. Toes and heels, toes and heels, heels, toes, sideways…And was back in his lotus position, visualizing his rusty screw.  A raging memory torrent poured through his head and torso, but after several minutes he was able to channel the flow within the limits of his comprehension. He felt fresh-from-the-womb clean, immaculately reborn.

Once his legs quit tingling Gus checked his phone messages, tweets and e mails. He’d been officially warned that his extended job absence was unacceptable and grounds for dismissal. Cynthia had left twenty seven messages, the last of which was that she needed space to rethink their relationship. I’ll miss Cynthia, but I don’t think I’m going to need that job. Got no money, have to start this small.

Gus drove his eight year old car to an abandoned apartment building. He pushed aside the corrugated sheeting that partly blocked the doorway and entered, then walked carefully up to the fifth floor.  The door to apartment 523 had been removed, probably for firewood. Two badly stained mattresses lay on the floor, and glassine packets were strewed everywhere. Used to be a shooting gallery I guess.

Gus pulled out the ball peen hammer he’d brought with him and began smashing through the wallboard. On the floor behind the wall was a large, towel-wrapped bundle. He crouched down, grabbed the bundle, brushed off the rat droppings, and left without opening it.

Once back at his apartment he lay a plastic sheet on the bed, set the bundle on the sheet, and opened it. Holy hell. One, no two really long strands of pearls. The stones I think are what they call rose cut. Big, so big I’d choke if I tried to swallow them. Emeralds, I think, and rubies, and diamonds, must be hundreds of big diamonds. All set in heavy gold. Holy hell.

He arranged the jewelry on the sheet and took several pictures with his phone. Then he called the Providence Journal. “Editorial please”

“Copy desk, Harrington.”

“Mr. Harrington I’d like to send you a picture of the Weatheral jewelry that was stolen in the 1920’s from what was then the Biltmore hotel. Once you verify that the pieces are the same I’d like you to send over a camera crew.”

“Ah, and who are you?”

“Gus gave his name, address and phone number, and got the phone number of the reporter. The reporter had the pictures within seconds and within fifteen minutes had called back.

“Mr. Gustaufsen, Jim Harrington. The pictures seem to jibe with the list of the stolen items. I repeat, stolen. Have you called the police?”

“As soon as you show up with the camera crew. I want a reliable witness to their recovery of the stones.”

“Thirty minutes.”

Gus called the cops as soon as he saw the TV truck pull up in front of the building. The two officers were on camera with Gus when he showed them the gems. Gus seemed to almost glow on the televised report, like a total body halo. People began to forward the news report just so friends could see Gus.. He didn’t mention the suggestions, it wasn’t time yet.

Gus was interrogated for a week on and off, but since he hadn’t been born when the gems were stolen he was concluded to be the finder of the cache and not the perpetrating felon. The insurance company was expected to pay him ten percent, something just south of one million dollars.

A week after the Weatheral stones hit the news Gus went back to work. This time he called the FBI. “FBI?  Agent Williams, this is Gus Gustaufsen. You may have read about my recovery of the Weatheral treasure? Good. And this is being recorded? Better. I believe I know the location of the financial records for the DeStefano crime family in Worcester. No, this time I think I want moral and armed support when I show you the location. Call me back once you verify who I am.”

The DeStefano ledgers didn’t make the news, nor make any money for him, but Gus had established his bona fides. Two weeks after the ledgers were confiscated he called the FBI again.

“Agent Tom Williams, please. Agent Willisms? May I call you Tom? Tom, I can help solve one of the agency’s biggest failures. But you have to agree to do something for me.

“ No, no, nothing like that. I just want you to help publicize six brief suggestions. You can say that they come from me, and that the FBI has nothing to do with them, but I want you to hand them out at every press briefing about the event and me.

“Oh I think you’ll be willing to do so. You missed by just fifteen feet. Pity. But I’ll give you what’s left of Jimmy Hoffa.”

Gus hung up and smiled to himself. Once the suggestions hit the news it’s time to find some Aztec gold and get real publicity. Then I’ll take some of the money and have the suggestions put up on the big sign in Times Square. Get somebody to create a web site and ghost write a book about them. Maybe go on the Tonight show. He smiled to himself again. And I don’t yet believe that it’ll make any difference.

First things first though.  Despite suggestion three.  I need a new girlfriend.

 

End

 

Bio: Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He has his original wife, but advises that after forty six years they are both out of warranty. Ed has had forty one stories accepted thus far.

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The Seer by Chuck Robertson

May 11 2014

Harold Adams shivered like a wet puppy.  He took a desperate look back at the only exit from Bugs’ penthouse.  Two gorilla-sized men in cheap suits blocked the elevator doors. Most people who found themselves in Harold’s position usually ended up leaving the hotel in the back of a hearse. 

Bugs leaned back in his leather chair.  “So, you’re the guy who can see people die before it happens. Tell me, Mister Adams, how come you’re hangin’ out on the street with the rest o’ the bums?  A lot of folks would pay good money ta know when they’re gonna die.  I’d think a man with your abilities would be filthy rich by now.”

Harold pressed his knees together to stop them from quivering.  He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.

Bugs scratched a match on the bottom of his shoe and lit a cigar.  “Relax.  Nobody’s gonna hurt ya.” A cloud of smoke flew out of his mouth.  “Just gimme an answer.  How come ya ain’t rich?”

Harold swallowed hard and did his best to comfort himself that he had not foreseen his own death.  Perhaps Bugs had not brought him here to kill him, at least not yet.  “It’s not as easy being me as it looks. A couple nights ago I dreamed about a punk who was stabbed in the kidneys at a speakeasy. I felt the knife cut through every nerve.  The night before that I dreamed about a woman who was thrown from a balcony.  The fall broke her back and crushed her larynx.  She choked to death on her own blood.  The few seconds it took her to die seemed like hours to me. I experienced every moment of it.”

Bugs glanced at the bigger of the two goons.  “Lenny, get the paper.”  He turned back to Harold.  “I don’t care about them other people.  Can you dream about my death before it happens?”

Harold relaxed his knees.  “It depends.  The more violent the death the clearer I see it.  Also, the better I know the person, the easier it is for me.  In that case it does not have to be a violent death at all.  Something as mundane as a heart attack in a guy’s sleep could be enough.”

Lenny handed Bugs the paper.  His eyes scanned the text back and forth until they fixed on one spot.

“Well I’ll be.  Says here a Mrs. Mabel Donohue bit the big one last night when her husband threw her off their apartment balcony.  Could be the same one.  What about the punk, Mister Adams?”

“Sometimes I have the dreams several nights in advance.  He might not have died yet.”

“I guess I’ll just have ta check tomorrow’s paper then.  Let me tell ya what I’m up to, Mister Adams.  Things have been gettin’ real tough here lately with Johnny the Undertaker tryin’ to horn his way into everybody’s territory.  He’s already whacked two o’ my best men.  It just ain’t safe for a business man like me.  You can be my good luck charm.  What d’ ya think?”

Harold pondered a moment.  Bugs was a hard guy to say no to.  Those who did usually ended up in the river, floating face down.  “Do I have a choice?”

“Not unless ya wanna feel a real knife in your kidneys.  Lenny, take Mister Adams downstairs and get him cleaned up.  He smells worse than you.  And one more thing, Mister Adams.  I take care o’ those who take care of me, and I also take care o’ those who don’t.  Know what I’m sayin’?”

#

Lenny laid his massive hand on Harold’s shoulder. “Don’t ya try ta escape. I’d hate ta have ta rough ya up.”

Escape? Harold thought.  He looked around the hotel suite.  This was the best accommodation he could remember for a long time.  He had a bath and a shave, and now a room with a radio and a real bed.  They even brought up a nice pasta dinner. And to top it all off, lots of booze.  It was Bugs’ own brew, not the best by any means, but it was free.

Night closed in over the city.  A train whistle blew in the distance. The lights from the radio towers flashed red into the room.  Soon, the visions would come.  He shuddered, anticipating the horrible deaths he would experience tonight.

He grabbed the only thing that offered even an ounce of relief, a bottle of beer. Popping the top, he looked over at Lenny, who stood against the door with his arms folded.  “Would you like one?”

“Nah.  The boss don’t like his people drinkin’ when they’s s’posed ta be workin’.”

“Suit yourself.  Are you going to be here all night?”

“There’s a man comin’ in a few minutes ta take over.  Then I gets ta go home ta the wife and kids.”

“I had a family once.”

“What happened?”

“My wife couldn’t take living with me any longer, so she took our daughter and left.”

“Why?”

”Look at me, Lenny.  I’m a worthless drunk.  I don’t blame them for going. I can’t stand myself either.”

Someone knocked on the door.  Another man, nearly as big as Lenny took his place.  This man didn’t try to talk, he just stood there with a glum look on his face.  Harold ignored him and continued to drink.  As much as he dreaded it, he drifted to sleep.

#

He had been passed out drunk on the railroad tracks, waking just in time to see an enormous HHHHHHH locomotive barrel over him.  It’s wheels sliced him into three parts. Then, he ended up going for a swim with concrete blocks chained to his ankles.  His lungs filled with water.  They burned for oxygen for what seemed like an eternity as the life went out of him.

Worst than that, though, he had been a schoolgirl bound and held in a dark room.  Somewhere outside, a horn sounding like it belonged to a ship hooted.  The door opened, nearly blinding her with light.  She looked up at a man holding a butcher knife.

She whimpered and tugged at her bonds, but they didn’t give. The pervert chopped off a finger.  Pain shot all the way up her arm.  A scream tried to escape from her mouth, but a gag muffled it.  He sliced off another finger, than another.  At some point she mercifully passed into unconsciousness.

Harold awoke screaming.  It took him several minutes to catch his breath.   Morning’s first rays shot into the room.  The sky shone orange over the waterfront.  The cheerfulness of the new day did nothing to comfort him from the previous night.

His thoughts drifted back to the day his wife left with his daughter.  He recalled the sadness as his little girl’s bright eyes turned away from him for the last time.  Somewhere in the city the parents of that schoolgirl were about to experience a hurt one thousand times worse.

He trembled like a plucked guitar string, worse than any case of the shakes the booze could have given him.  His head pounded like it had been split open.  He rolled over and vomited last night’s beer into the trashcan.

The door burst open, and in stepped Bugs with a smile stretching the entire width of his face.  “Hey, Mister Adams, guess what? Our man in the second precinct says they found a stiff last night with his kidneys sliced just as you said.  It looks like ya really can tell who’s gonna die before it happens.”

Harold wiped his face on the pillow.  “Yes, and you know there’s a certain little girl who’s going to be sliced up like a loaf of bread if they don’t find her real soon.”

“Yeah, but is there anything in your visions about me?”

“No, you’re going to live a little bit longer. What about that poor girl?  There might still be time to find her if we move fast.”

“I read all about her in the paper.  Her folks ain’t got no money.  It’d just be a waste of time.  Let’s just see if we can keep me alive.  It’d help you stay alive too, if ya know what I mean.”

Bugs walked out.  The goon looked at him.  “Yer lucky da Boss was in a good mood.  He’s been real edgy lately an’ don’t like it when people talk back ta him.  Just a little pointer that might keep ya’ livin’ a little longer.”

#

Another pointless day passed.  Harold thought of all those ordinary people out there, who only had to handle one death every now and then.  Tonight, he knew he would experience many.

He looked forward to the one bright spot of the night. It was Lenny’s turn to guard him.  He prepared for the night by drowning in as many beers as he could to anesthetize the upcoming pain.

Lenny watched him guzzle bottle after bottle. “Hey, Mister Adams, I don’t think ya should be drinkin’ all that beer.  My mamma says alcohol ain’t no good for da liver.”

“You actually listen to your mother?”

“Yeah.  Shouldn’t everybody?”

“Didn’t she tell you not to become a gangster?”

“Sure.  But I got me a family and there ain’t no good jobs for an uneducated oaf like me.  Bugs, he takes care o’ his people real well.  He gave my wife a set o’ gold earrings for her birthday. He does all kind o’ good stuff like that.”

“Doesn’t it bother you where all that money comes from?”

“It used ta, but not no more.  The way I got it figured, people was gittin’ whacked before I came along and they’ll be gittin’ whacked long after I’m gone.  I might as well make a livin’ off it if I can.  You’s doin’ the same thing, ain’t ya?”

Harold had to admit Lenny was right.  He was now just as much a part of Bugs’ wretched machine as anyone else.  It gave him one more reason to despise himself.

#

Night came as always.  Harold turned on the radio and waited for it to warm up. The room filled with music, but it did nothing to calm his thoughts.  Despite his wishes to the contrary, he went to sleep.  Death agonies throughout the entire city forced themselves into his dreams again.  One particular memory came across clear as morning dew.

He saw Bugs and three other men walk out of a restaurant, toward their cars.  Just as their drivers were opening the doors to let them in, another group of cars squealed by.  Men clung to the running boards, firing tommy guns.  Harold felt a swarm of .45 slugs penetrate the chests of all four.

As soon as the first light of morning came through his window, he told the goon on duty to get a message to Bugs.

A few minutes later, the Boss stuck his big, grinning face in the room.  “I understand you have something for me?”

“You aren’t by chance going to a restaurant anytime soon, are you?”

The smile left his face.  “As a matter o’ fact, I got a business meeting at Antonio’s tonight with Tony Legano and a couple o’ his lieutenants.  Why?”

“I wouldn’t go if I were you.  Not unless you want to end up with a body full of lead.”

The smile returned, this time running from ear to ear.  “Really?  I guess I’ll have ta take a rain check then.  Never could stand Tony.  I can’t wait ta see what happens ta the clown.”

Lenny came in at mid-day and Harold told him what happened that morning.  “You gonna be in with the boss after this.  That is if yer tellin’ the truth.  If nothin’ happens, I wouldn’t wanna be in yer shoes though.  They might just end up in concrete.”

Harold’s stomach tightened at the notion he might be wrong.  Then he thought, what’s the use of worrying about it?  The worst thing that would happen is Bugs would rub him out and at least it would be an end to his miserable existence.  He would consider death a relief.

A couple hours after sundown, Bugs burst into his room again.  “Guess what? You were right.  They plugged Tony like a pincushion.  If I’d been there, I’d o’ been a goner too.” He laughed and danced into the air. He fell when he landed.

Bugs stood and dusted his suit off. “Listen, all you mugs.  This guy saved my life tonight, take good care o’ him, hear? Harold, I’ll get you anything you want.  Booze, broads, cigars, you just name it.”

“How about if you spare some men to find that missing girl?  There may still be time.”

Bugs grabbed Harold by the collar.  “Don’t be a knucklehead, Adams.  I don’t care about all them other folks. You’re here ta save my life.”

He shoved Harold on the floor and stormed out of the room.  Lenny bent over to help him up.  “You’re lucky he needs you t’ stay alive, Mister Adams.  Otherwise I think he’d o’ shot ya on the spot.”

#

Harold went to bed that night, drunk as usual.  Later, he awoke, but not screaming like so many other dreams.  He remembered seeing a river of blood in his sleep.  He lay awake trying to figure out what it could mean.  Finally, the answer came to him.  He rolled over and fell into the most restful sleep of his entire life.

Lenny came in at daybreak.  “Ya look really rested this morning.  What happened?  Nobody died last night?”

“I had a dream about a river of blood.  I think it meant my blood.  It’s been nice knowing you.”

Lenny’s mouth dropped open.  “Don’t say that, Mister Adams. A man in Bugs’ business deals in rivers of blood every day.  There’s so many things it might mean.”

“I need to talk to Bugs.”

“Gosh, you think that’s wise?  You seen how he acted with ya last night.  The other day, he shot at Mel.  It’s a good thing his hands ain’t been the most steady lately, or I think Mel’d be pushin’ up daisies right now.”

“Just get me up there.”

“Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”

Lenny took him up the elevator, the longest ride of what Harold figured to be the remainder of his life.  His thoughts turned to Lenny.

“You know, you need to get out of this business while you still can.  If you don’t, you’ll end up dead like so many of Bugs’ other men.”

“Was I in one o’ your dreams last night?”

“No.  I don’t need my ability to see that, though.  I’m just saying if you keep doing what you’re doing, your number will come up too some day.”

“You sound real serious there, Harold.  You know somethin’ I don’t?”

“Just take good care of your wife and kids.  You’re a lucky man to have them.  One more thing, I think you’re going to need to find a new job soon.”

The elevator dinged.  The door opened.  Two goons cast Harold a cold look.

“I need to see Bugs.”

“An’ why would that be?” one asked.

“I know how he’s going to die.”

The thug raised an eyebrow and stepped aside.  Harold walked through without knocking.

Bugs sat at his desk, chomping on a cigar.  “What the hell are ya doin’ here, Mister Adams?”

“I’ve figured out how you’re going to die.”

“Well, tell me!”

“No.  First, I want you to find that missing girl before it’s too late.”

The gangster stood and slapped his desk with both hands.  “What do you mean you want me?  I give the orders around here.”  His breath grew heavy and rapid.  It seemed to Harold the man would explode from his rage.

“I meant what I said.  Your men can use methods to find her that the police can’t. You make sure she comes home safe and sound and I tell you how you’re going to die. I think it’s a fair bargain.”

Bugs drew his gun.  He leveled it at Harold’s forehead.  “Tell me or I’m gonna drill ya right now!”

Harold’s heart leapt up into his throat.  He smelled his own perspiration.  He swallowed.  “Think for a minute.  If you kill me, how will you ever find out how you’re supposed to die?”

Bugs stood frozen.  The gun trembled in his hand.  He lowered it and turned toward his goons.  “Find her!  I don’t care how many men you gotta take.  Just get this man ta tell me when I’m gonna die!”

“One more thing.  I think I heard a ship horn in one of my dreams.  I suggest you concentrate on the waterfront district.”

Harold went back to his room, his knees still shaking. He opened the window.  Cool air blew into his face and evaporated the sweat that had accumulated all over it.  He sat and took a few deep breaths.  His muscles relaxed.

Lenny showed up to begin his shift.  “I heard what happened between you and the Boss.  You tryin’ ta get yourself killed?”

“It was a chance I had to take.  Besides, I’m going to die anyway.  I didn’t have much to lose.”

“I don’t get it.  If ya know when yer gonna die, why don’t ya just not be there when it’s supposed ta happen?  People tell me I’m as dumb as a rock, an’ even I can figure that out.”

“It’s not that simple.  When I first realized I had the gift, I thought I could do a lot of good for people.  Then, the knowledge started driving me crazy.  Look what I am now.

“I can’t get this kidnapped schoolgirl out of my head.  She reminds me so much of my own daughter.  I have one chance to do something good for someone before I die and I’m going to take it.”

#

Harold lay down to sleep again that night.  He kicked the covers off, turning over every few minutes.  The dreams forced themselves into his head, but for once they did not dominate his mind.  Instead, he found his thoughts focusing on just one person – that poor girl.

One of Bugs’s men brought him breakfast, but he didn’t eat it.  His head throbbed as the morning dragged on.  Finally, his door burst open.  Bugs rushed in, with two goons close behind.  He had a newspaper in his hand.

“All right, Adams, we found the girl.”  He slapped the paper into Harold’s hands.  “Look at the front page.”

He read the headline.  KIDNAPPED GIRL FOUND ALIVE.  A huge photograph on the front page showed the child in her overjoyed mother’s arms.  Harold smiled for the first time he could remember.

“Okay, Adams, you got your way.  Now tell me how I’m gonna die.”

Harold cleared his throat.  “I had a dream the night before about a river of blood.  I didn’t know until yesterday exactly what that meant.”

“So what does that mean?”

“Tell me, Bugs, how have you been feeling lately?  More agitated?  Have you had trouble holding things maybe?”

Bugs’ eyes shot wide open.  “What the hell is that all about?”

“It has to do with my blood all right, but also your blood.  You have syphilis.  Advanced.  Face it, Bugs, you’re going to die soon.”

Bugs pulled out his pistol.  “Damn you, Adams, you were supposed ta stop all this!”

“I can’t.  You probably contracted the disease before you even met me.  Besides, I can’t save you from your own decrepit lifestyle.  It’s too late.”

Bugs unloaded his gun into Harold.  He fell to the floor and rolled onto his side.  As the final darkness closed in, he saw was his own blood flowing out of him like a river.

End

 

As a teenager, I spent many hours reading Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein and aspired to become the next Isaac Asimov.  I graduated from Missouri State University and started my career as a science teacher but am now employed in the information systems field.

My work has appeared in Timid Pirate Publishing’s Benevolent Apocalypse Anthology and The Fifth Dimension.  I also have stories under contract with Stupefying Stories and Cosmic Vegetable’s Anthology of Humorous Science Fiction.

I have been married for eighteen years to a registered nurse but most of all a compassionate wife and mother.  Together we are raising two brilliant and (mostly) well-behaved teenage children.  When not working, doing family things or writing I like to build military models or play with model trains.

 

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In a Bubble by Lara Alonso Corona

May 04 2014

There are two ways for historians to do this:

You either go there yourself and examine the thing, or you take someone back who can explain it to you.

***

When the girl opened her eyes she didn’t know what the bright lights were. It wasn’t the sun, and it wasn’t any fire she knew.

The machines that kept her down made no sense to her. The medicine they used to sedate her. Noises she had never heard before. She remembered blue, a shard of blue light blinding her, making her fall. She was strapped to a bed now. Beep, beep. Sounds she had never heard before. The air was different. Colder, like winter, but humid, like somewhere she had never been.

The girl found herself in a foreign world, and yet something about it, a distant echo – it felt like this had been happened before. Happened to her. Like she had been coming back here.

She’s awake, somebody was saying.

***

Rena was not a Historian, no way, she was just a Stenographer.

The feel of sand under the feet, that’s what she was sent to record. The scent of long-extinct animals. The particular glint off the highest dome, midday in the Sassanid Empire.

It was a meticulous work, but after the Collapse any evidence of written word from the past had been erased, so it would take decades to recover all that knowledge. It was all very professional, even the adventure of it all. You could not travel to the era of the Collapse, nobody had been able, but you could go anywhere else in the past, take notes and recompose History again.

What survived were indexes, some footnotes, a vague idea of when and where and what was important. Historian, stenographers, quantity surveyors, oral tradition techniques, those were the people used to quench the curiosity of the Now regarding the Then.

It was the most fantastical stories the ones which demanded the most exact minutiae. Rena felt like she was there to record each grain of sand in the desert.

***

The men dressed in white were staring at her now, taking notes.

Surgeons, doctors, they said they were. Here to help her.

She couldn’t see their faces. There were lights directed at her face. Her eyes hurt. The clothes they dressed her with were strange. She felt naked. Her feet were cold.

***

Everybody was interested in the past now. Now that it was safe to touch it.

At first time-travel technology had been something frightful, unbearable. The Collapse had enclosed all of the past in a bubble. A snow-ball containing the whole of history. The Collapse was the limit, the frontier. Nothing that came before, if altered, could affect the world Rena lived in. The past became a sandbox. Soon they would be issuing holiday tickets to the Then, Rena believed. Tourists and sniffers all around the past, until it became crowded like the present. What people admired about the past was all that space, so hard to imagine. People would come here for the views, not the stories.

Games, it was all games.

Ancient, lost languages were easy to learn. It was a safe bet of a hobby. Rena had been sent here of all places because she knew Persian, Hebrew, Turkish.

***

Tell a story.

That hadn’t changed. That the girl remembered.

The men spoke her language, but it came out of their mouths all wrong. Like the way birds could learn words but couldn’t understand them. She didn’t understand what they wanted from her, though they explained themselves over and over.

The doctors showed her a book. She recognized the titles, the names.

“This is my book, but I haven’t written it.”

“It’s a 12th century version, from Cairo. Well after your time.”

She didn’t understand. She had not been understanding at all. But she was happy that her hands were touching something familiar: paper, ink, bound by strings. She fought when they took the book away from her.

We thought you were a legend.

They strapped her to the bed again. I am a scholar, I’m not a martyr, she repeats to herself. They run more tests and she watches the colour of her blood change under the green lights. There are so many things we want to ask, they were saying. But the girl was weak. She was tired. She felt like a single moment had been trapped inside a jewel chest and now each second felt like ten hundred years to her.

When the doctors were gone she refused to sleep. Weak and trapped, yes, but she was still herself. She was a philosopher. She had painted cities in shimmering colours. She had discovered stars and used words in ways that had never been used. Wherever she was it was not a place fit for someone like her. She had to leave. Her scattered thoughts converged to this one idea. She had to run.

Take me with you when you go, a voice besides her, a whispered thunder.

She was not alone in the room. A presence that made her feel like she was standing on the highest balcony of her husband’s kingdom, and all the elements were unleashed against her, wind and rain, snow and lightning. It was unpleasant but it was real. The first real thing in this unreal place. The girl writhed and squirmed trying to see whom. She couldn’t. The room was in darkness except for the machines and their tiny lights and their noises. If there was something else here the girl could not tell. She was about to tell herself it had been her imagination, the exhaustion, the drugs they were pumping into her body.

“I can help you escape,” the voice repeated. “But you have to take me with you.”

She did not question the voice. She was beginning to understand. She did question what the voice was saying.

“How can you help me escape?”

“I just can.”

The girl felt the ropes that held her to the bed loosen just enough that she could fight them with some measure of hope.

***

There was something buried in the sand.

Just as well because Rena was tired of the same landscape, drawing in her sketchbook the shape of a dune that was exactly like the dune before, and the one before that, noting how the skin in her face dried as she stood under the sun. Scribbling about time. The unthinkable distances. She had been walking for hours just to record what walking for hours felt like.

She parted the veil of sand with her hand, uncovering what was solid underneath. A piece of pottery. She brushed her fingers over the curve; there was a deep crack running through it, but the object was still in one piece despite the damage. It was cracked. It wasn’t broken.

A relic. This was good luck. Everybody loved relics – specially if they could get them as close to the relevant historical period as they could. Which made them not relics, if you asked Rena. But nobody asked, they just paid very well. After the Collapse and with all these workers going back to the Then the antiques market was in boom but it had become a bizarre oxymoron.

Even with the imperfections Rena could probably get a good price on this. It was a simple, but pretty, not relic.

But something was wrong; as she freed the vase –no, wait, it was a jar– from under the ground Rena had the feeling she was not safe. With one hand she held the object, and the other was resting on the weapon on her belt. Everybody, even a mere Stenographer like her, was issued a standard Paralyzer. The kind proper historians used to carry people back to the Now from their respective periods. Collecting meaningful historical figures was a very lucrative business. There was a reason why low-rank travellers like Rena were sent to uninhabited places like the middle of the desert in the first place; among people the temptations were too great for the undisciplined.

There were bones inside the jar.

Rena reached and touched the tip of her fingers to one of them, a radius. She choked when the fog spilled out of the jar, like a river overflowing. A sense of suddenly not being alone overcame her. The grip on her weapon tightened. She took the safety off; the blue bubbles of the liquid powering the gun forming and popping in a frenzied dance.

But she didn’t take aim as had been her first instinct. Instead: she watched, dog-dumb, as the fog picked the bones up from the jar, and circled around them, solidifying, like muscles building a body from outside in. There were muscles but not like human muscles. There was skin but it was more like that of a snake, or a fish. It had eyes but they were not human eyes. They were charcoal black and without eyelids. Eyes like a wildcat, like tar, like the worst thought you ever had in your life, the one that kept you awake.

It was looking at her now. It was waiting, silent, but it understood the situation. It was intelligent, that much was clear. This “thing” didn’t seem at all surprised. Like it had done this before.

It was waiting for Rena.

And Rena, well, Rena didn’t really have the security clearance to interact with any living person of the time. Though she doubted this was a person, or that it was even living per se. She knew what was happening as she let the jar fall to the ground. She had read about stuff like this.

In the world after the Collapse legend and history were the same thing.

Rena was not surprised to find something so impossible here. The fact that she was here was already impossible in the first place so… what the hell. She was ready for it. The creature sensed it – it was not just alive, not just sentient, not just intelligent. It was more intelligent than.

“I know what you are,” Rena said and the creature nodded. It was a heavy nod, like it was someone carrying a heavy, planet-sized load on its shoulders. Rena was still holding her gun; these things had been known to be dangerous. Treacherous, cunning. She didn’t want to be made a fool of.

When the creature spoke its voice was storm-like, it could shake Rena out of this world.

“I can give you anything. Whatever your heart desires.”

Okay, Rena thought. Okay, I have a list.

***

She is an expert in running away, stalling, escaping her fate.

When she took out all the tubes and the needles from her body the beeping sound around her turned into a flat, continuous note. She would have gone crazy if she had stayed. She saw a door and she walked out. She doesn’t know how, she is just grateful she could.

It doesn’t matter where she is now. The strange lights, the sounds. The feel of stone under her feet, all the time. She’s barefoot. Her wrists itch from where she pried open the ropes that were holding her. She feels naked under her scarce clothes.

It’s as if she has been walking for hours.

Everything in this strange new world seems made to dazzle her; she has seen glorious cities, made out of a hundred different delicate threads of gold, like tender tendrils converging on a hundred minarets. But nothing so immense and colourful as the road she walks on now. The people and the clothes they are clad in. The wild animals passing her by, and flying above her head. Buildings made of metal and glass, built next to each other as if fighting for space. Flashes of light coming from every window, windows as large as whole buildings, paintings as high as the sky. The painting move, they follow the girl, but the girl treads on. People stop and stare at her. Just like the doctors. Their glances curious and threatening at the same time. The girl doesn’t glance back. She staggers on. She holds it close to her now, the one possession she has now, fingers clenched in fists, clutching it against her chest. The half-broken jar, the sharp contours where the clay cracked, it doesn’t matter even if it cuts into her hands. She must keep it with her. She has the feeling if she lets go, even for a moment, all will be lost.

They must be looking for her already. She might be new to this world but she knows that. She has experience. Maybe this time she has an advantage.

I can help you but you have to take me with you.

Maybe this time.

The girl keeps her head down. The noise around her pierces her. So loud. So unnatural. A city made of noise. It’s almost enough to stop her in her tracks. Confuse her, paralyze her. Almost enough but not quite enough. She is free. All her existence is composed of being free. Now she is a runaway. And a thief. Yes, let’s not forget that, she is a thief.

She will escape this place.

She always does.

***

Rena sees the figure coming up the next dune.

Perhaps it’s the next dune, or the next one, she can’t tell them apart. She has been walking for a couple of hours in the direction the creature had pointed. But Rena is quite good with directions and she has the feeling she has been walking in circles, though she doesn’t know how. The jar of clay now hangs from her belt, besides her weapon. She doesn’t think the jar will work when she comes back to the Now but there is no harm in trying.

Rena was beginning to think it had all been a scam when she sees the figure coming up, walking laboriously, dragging her feet across the desert.

There are two ways for historian to do their thing: you either go there to examine it or you take someone back to explain it to you.

This is not what she had been looking for when she arrived at this place, but… how could anyone pass up such opportunity? Audentes fortuna iuvat, although Latin was not really her thing. Bubbles forming and bursting. She knew who the girl was, before she said even one word. Rena had done her homework. A young girl, bruises on her arms, a piece of cloth barely held together over her slight frame. There’s no mistaking it.

The girl puts her free hand up to the sky, blocking the sun. She smiles when she sees Rena.

“My name is Scheherazade.” she will say.

The next thing is: a flash of blue light.

The bloodied hand of the girl lets go.

The noise of a body falling on sand. The noise of clay cracking but not breaking.

Lara A Corona was born in a small town in the north of Spain. She studied Film and TV at college in Madrid before moving to London. Her fiction has been showcased in ABC Tales and the Glass Woman Prize, and her translation of Heidi James’ experimental novel Carbon was published in Spain in 2011. Recently she has been published by The Copperfield Review. She is now working towards a degree in creative writing.

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The Spanish Cross by Tom Howard

Apr 27 2014

Clinton James was crawling across a Persian rug when he bumped into a chimpanzee with a gun.

“Keep your head down, you git!” the animal growled as a bullet smashed through a diamond-paned window above their heads.

An old man resembling Santa Claus scurried around the corner of the couch, waving a strange pistol with an oversized cylinder and external wires.

“What’s happening?” Clinton asked Santa. “Who is shooting at us?”

“Bastards!” said the bearded man with a faint German accent. “They don’t want me to find the Spanish Cross. I’ll show them!”

The old man sighted over the back of the couch and fired through a broken window. The gun, instead of firing black-powder bullets, emitted a hum and a bright red string of light. Someone screamed in the street outside.

“Please keep your head down, Professor,” said the chimpanzee, swapping the bearded gentleman an identical gun, this one crackling. The simian was dressed in a pinstripe suit and was much larger – and more verbal – than monkeys Clinton had seen in menageries.

Another bullet whizzed by Clinton’s head, and he acted before anyone was hurt. “Excuse me,” he said, grabbing the spent gun from the chimp and slipping into the hallway and out the back door where he’d entered the house earlier. He moved along the hedgerow and discovered two men – one of them nursing his left arm – firing at the house from across the street. Hoping the blinking lights on the gun indicated it had recharged enough to fire, Clinton pointed it at the two men.

“I’ll take those guns, gentlemen,” he said, trying to sound braver than he felt. “Lower your weapons.”

The men, dressed in dusters with hats pulled down over their faces, laughed. Clinton, though young and slender, had boxed in college, and his roommate had showed him a few moves of a Far Eastern fighting technique called karate. He fired at the uninjured man, grateful when the professor’s strange gun emitted another ruby beam. He leaped on the second man without waiting to see the first man hit the ground. When the professor and his chimpanzee arrived, both attackers were swaddled in their own coats and moaning on the ground.

“Well done, young man,” said the older gentleman, taking Clinton’s hand and shaking it enthusiastically. “I’m Professor Walker and this is my assistant, Bartholomew. I assume you’re the new assistant the university sent. You must tell me how you were able to subdue these two ruffians.”

Still shaking the professor’s hand, Clinton looked around at the neighborhood. The spacious houses sported gas lamps and carriage houses. In the warm afternoon breeze, he smelled dung from passing horse carriages and the open sewage of outhouses. Ah, he’d missed the smell of the city while he’d been away at university.

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” said Clinton, finally retrieving his hand and noticing the professor wore a three-piece suit, complete with golden watch chain and an emerald-colored ascot.

Clinton followed the colorful professor and his monkey into the house. “What about the men who attacked you? Should we summon the police?”

“Bartholomew will run along and tell the constable, won’t you?”

The monkey muttered something about being the senior assistant but waddled toward the town center. None of the neighbors had appeared at the sound of gunfire; perhaps they were accustomed to unusual noises coming from the professor’s house.

Back in the parlor, Professor Walker acted as if a shootout on his front lawn was nothing unusual, brushing broken glass from the seat of an upholstered chair before he sat down.

“Why were they trying to kill you?” asked Clinton.

The old man took off his spectacles and sighed. “I’m searching for a stolen artifact of great value. The Countess Von Hurstenburg, an old friend of mine, asked me to locate her Spanish Cross. I’ve several inventions that might enable us to find it. I assume you’ve read my papers.”

Clinton had not, and he spent a lengthy moment searching his memory for what he had heard about the professor. “I’m sorry, sir, this is my first job as an assistant. Dispatched on short notice.” His advisors, after he’d blown up the second laboratory, had given him the option of leaving university for good or helping Professor Walker through the end of the semester.

“I’m impressed you can make a monkey talk,” continued Clinton, “and I’d like to examine the light gun.” Clinton thought most older inventors were fossils, unable to grasp modern 1900 technology, but Professor Walker seemed to be inventing wondrous things.

“A chimpanzee,” corrected the professor, replacing his spectacles. “He’s sensitive about being referred to as a monkey. I got him from a dodgy surgeon who altered Bartholomew’s cranium to increase his brain power. I created the mechanical voice box he uses to speak.”

Clinton was surprised. He thought the monkey – chimpanzee – was similar to a parrot, imitating what the professor had said.

“He’s quite bright for a simian,” said the professor. “He even helped me construct those light beam guns we were using.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Better not to mention the scars on his skull and the two small bolts in his neck.”

“Bolts?” repeated Clinton. He hadn’t noticed them.

“Yes. One adjusts the sounds of his speech and the other winds his tick-tock vocal cords.”

Intrigued in spite of himself, Clinton asked, “How are you going to locate this Spanish Cross?”

The professor peered at the young man. “I suppose I can tell you since you’re going to be helping me. I intend to use a hot air balloon and a metal detection device of my own creation to search the city. Since the cross is expensive and distinctive, the police don’t believe it has left the area.”

Clinton nodded. “I see.” He’d never been up in hot air balloon before, but everyone at university was mad about them.

“The men shooting at us,” continued the professor, “were either competitors trying to find the cross before I do or the miscreants who took it in the first place.” The professor sighed again and looked out the broken window. “You may find being here dangerous.”

“I’m willing to take the chance.” It had to be more stimulating than the dry lectures at university. .

Just then the housekeeper, a large woman, appeared and clucked over the mess. The professor asked her to show Clinton to his room. Bartholomew reappeared with a constable, and the professor started outside to make a statement.

“Young man,” he said at the door, “I don’t even know your name.”

“Clinton James, sir,” he said. Someday everyone would know who he was.

#

Handymen had repaired the damaged windows by dinnertime. Ah, the advantages of living in the city. Clinton had toured the laboratory, read the professor’s papers, and considered how he’d go about finding a priceless relic. The professor had told him rubies encrusted the cross. Could Clinton come up with a device able to detect the oscillation of rubies? Surely they were dense enough to have their own vibration signature. Now he just needed a giant tuning fork and something to detect ruby vibrations.

He glanced up from the professor’s scientific journal to find Bartholomew studying him with an unfriendly scowl. The chimpanzee didn’t like him and made it clear the professor should send the idiot boy back to university at the earliest opportunity. Clinton had considered asking Bartholomew for a ruby or two to test its vibrations but decided against it.

“What do you think of alchemy, Mr. James?” Professor Walker asked at dinner over an obscenely large portion of lamb.

Its twin was on Clinton’s plate, swimming in a bath of hot melted grease. He looked enviously at Bartholomew’s plate of fruits and vegetables. “It’s a fairy tale from the dark ages.”

The professor laughed. “That’s just what I told Bartholomew! Magic and nonsense. Changing one element to another. What about one metal being attracted to another?”

“Such as magnetism?” asked Clinton, sawing away at the overcooked lamb while keeping one eye out to intercept the housekeeper’s next pass with the gravy boat. “I’ve experimented with magnets. I assisted the late Professor Hinkleberry. Briefly.”

“Yes,” said the professor. “Too bad about his passing. Perhaps the top of a cliff was not the right venue for his experiment.”

“I don’t understand why anyone would copy Leonardo Da Vinci’s antiquated designs,” said Clinton, “in this day and age.”

Clinton turned to the silent simian. “Bartholomew, the professor said you helped design the light gun. Could I see your designs?”

The chimpanzee, who had been pointedly ignoring their conversation, dropped a half-peeled banana in surprise. “Certainly not,” he said. “I’m sure the science is far beyond your comprehension.”

Clinton shrugged. “Perhaps you’re afraid I’ll improve on the design.”

“Gentlemen,” warned the professor. “Let’s remember our dinner manners, please.”

The simian had grasped an orange so tightly it was dripping juice.

The old man laughed. “Remember, Bartholomew, when the original designs for the light gun were so large we had to buy rolls of wallpaper to illustrate it?”

“Made a terrible mess, Mr. James,” interjected Mrs. Sulisman, the housekeeper, as she carried in an ornate white chiffon cake. “I know they don’t feed you right at university, Mr. James. Too many brandies and cold chicken dinners, I imagine.” Her accent was even thicker than the professor’s.

Clinton smiled. If he ate Mrs. Sulisman’s food for an entire semester, he’d be as round as the professor. He ignored Bartholomew’s cold stare. He thought he smelled something strange, but it wasn’t cake.

Mrs. Sulisman served dessert, and Clinton sniffed deeply. He smelled cake, lamb, the professor’s sweat, and Bartholomew’s musk. He even smelled his own wool suit. In the laboratory, one’s nose was frequently the first warning when something was wrong.

When he turned his head and found he couldn’t smell anything, he suspected the answer – an odorless gas was blocking his olfactory receptors. “Professor, I smell gas.” He looked up at the lamps embedded into the walls, already lit and revealing gas was flowing. “Where does your gas line come into the house?”

“Through the back porch,” the professor said, “but I don’t smell anything. Do you, Bartholomew?”

Clinton didn’t hear the chimpanzee’s reply. He was on his feet and headed to the screened-in porch. The others followed him as he traced the lead pipe to an opening near the floor. “Look,” he said. “The soft connector is scarred as if something has been chewing on it. Gas is escaping, but not enough to cause the inside lights to die.”

“Will the house blow up?” asked Mrs. Sulisman, the worry plain in her voice. “I never trusted that new-fangled gas.”

“No, it would take all night for enough to accumulate to ignite. Probably wouldn’t have reached dangerous concentrations at all on this open screen porch.”

The professor frowned. “We shutter the porch at night, Mr. James. Mrs. Sulisman comes down early to begin the baking…carrying a candle.”

Clinton stood. Someone who knew their daily schedule planned for the professor to die in a blaze of glory. “I’ll patch these holes in the lead pipe. You should be fine, but you might replace it with copper tubing.”

The professor and his housekeeper left Clinton to repair the damage, but Bartholomew stayed behind after bringing Clinton some strips of lead.

Bartholomew snorted. “First, mysterious men shooting at us, then a gas leak. Funny none of this happened before you arrived.”

“No,” said Clinton, finishing wrapping the pipe in a strip of lead. “What’s funny is those marks look like they were made by monkey teeth.” He walked by the simian. He deserved a slice of beautiful chiffon cake as a reward for saving the professor’s life twice in one day.

#

Clinton leaned back in the velvet-covered chair in the parlor and relaxed for the first time in days. Over the last forty-eight hours, he’d stopped a fire, pulled the professor from the path of a runaway horse, and detected arsenic in the well water. Someone obviously knew the professor could find the cross and wanted him stopped.

He and the professor had dragged the haphazardly made balloon from a barn in the back pasture and spread the envelope out to air and patch. Clinton’s fingers were still sore from repairing holes in the paraffin-coated fabric. Suddenly he wasn’t as excited about flying as he had been.

He heard the old man splashing away in the kitchen in a large tin tub Mrs. Sulisman had prepared for him, sending Clinton and Bartholomew to carry water from a neighbor’s well and heating it over the new-fangled gas stove. Clinton checked the water temperature himself and placed a rubber-backed rug on the floor. Who knew there were so many ways to kill someone in their own home?

In addition to being a tailor and a butler, Clinton worked several days on four small pieces of metal for the professor, creating the most expensive dowsing rods ever made. The professor theorized that since gold was heavy, coating iron rods with lead and other heavy metals would somehow attune them to gold.

“Mr. James,” said Bartholomew from so close he made the young man jump. “Will you be requiring a bath?”

“No, thank you.” Clinton had already had a bath this week. “You?”

The simian shuddered. “No. I do not require…submersion.”

“Here,” said Clinton, pulling up a chair. “Take a load off.” And stay where I can see you. “Are you excited about our balloon trip tomorrow?”

“The professor is excited, but I doubt his idea will work. If you could attune metals as he proposes, there would have to be a big deposit to attract the rods.” He took the seat, looking comical with his short little legs, but Clinton didn’t laugh. He suspected the simian was behind all the attempts on the professor’s life.

“If it does work, it will destroy our society,” continued Bartholomew. “Imagine finding gold as easily as finding pennies on the street. Every man would be rich. Chaos.”

“True,” admitted Clinton. “Are you sure you won’t loan me one of your rubies from your light guns?”

“No,” said Bartholomew. “They were too hard to obtain for you to shatter them with ignorance.” He stared at Clinton. “I’ve read the letters from your teachers at university. They feel you are far too young and too impulsive to be a good scientist.”

“They are old and fossilized,” said Clinton. “If they had their way, the Earth would still be flat and orbited by the sun. Perhaps I’ll speak to the professor about my vibration theory if the divining rods don’t work.”

“Why should gems be any easier to find than gold?” asked Bartholomew. “You are a fool.”

“That’s a little extreme, Bartholomew,” said Clinton, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

“If you don’t help me convince the professor to cancel his balloon search, I will tell him you have been trying to sabotage his work.”

Clinton scowled but noticed Bartholomew did it better. “And I will tell him you have been trying to kill him.”

“Who will he believe?” asked Bartholomew. “His dedicated senior assistant or a boy who is known to leap before he looks?”

“I think I’d have to go with the young man in this case,” said the professor from the doorway. He was wearing a quilted bathrobe – over pajamas and long-handled underwear – in horrible maroon and green. “Although I’m more cross at you for endangering Mrs. Sulisman and Mr. James than I am at you for threatening me.”

Bartholomew jumped up from the chair and scampered to the desk, quickly grabbing the notes on the detection rods. “If you attempt to find the cross…” He held the paper over a nearby lamp and a corner caught on fire.

“I am very disappointed in you, Bartholomew,” said the professor. “I still have the rods,”

“No, Professor. I’ve melted them and thrown the lumps down the well. All your notes and all your calculations are gone.”

“No!” cried Clinton, but he was too late. Bartholomew dropped the smoldering pages onto the hearth and ran past the professor and out of the room.

Clinton snatched up the pages. He threw them to the floor and stomped them until the he’d extinguished the fire, but it was obvious little was left besides ashes.

The professor stood in shock. “It’s gone! All of it, gone!”

“It’ll be okay, Professor,” said Clinton, giving the pages up as a lost cause.

“No, you don’t understand,” the professor said, taking Bartholomew’s seat and looking as if he’d just lost his best friend. “I updated my notes as we went along. I can’t recreate the rods by tomorrow, much less recreate all my research from memory!”

“Professor,” said Clinton, blushing. “I’ve been keeping my own notes of your progress. Just in case I needed to refer to them…for some reason…in the future.” He pulled a small notebook from his pocket and held it out to the professor.

The professor looked hopeful. “You can recreate my process?”

“I think so, but I’ll need your help, and perhaps one of Mrs. Sulisman’s pecan pies if she hasn’t gone to bed already. She planned to rise early to go to the train station in the morning. President McKinley is coming through on the Freedom Train.”

#

It had been a long, hard night, but when the sun rose, two new sets of metal rods were drying on a stand in the laboratory. Clinton’s hands throbbed, his eyes hurt, and his back ached. This must be how it is to feel old, he told himself as he stretched. The professor had gone to inflate the balloon in the middle of the night and stayed with it to make sure the balloon didn’t catch fire. Clinton found him sound asleep in the backyard, leaning against the wicker basket. The balloon was almost full, so Clinton didn’t wake him.

He looked up at the orange moon in the night sky, slowly sinking toward the horizon, and wished he had higher hopes for the day. The professor’s plan seemed like alchemy, using related metals to find gold. Chances of it actually working were small, but he couldn’t blame the old man for trying. Bartholomew must have thought the professor was going to find the cross and tried to kill him before he could. Why? What had a ruby encrusted, golden artifact to do with Bartholomew?

Rubies. Bright red. Light. Oh god.

“Professor!” Clinton shouted. “Where did Bartholomew get the rubies for his light guns?”

“What?” mumbled the professor as he rubbed his eyes. “Did he come back?”

Clinton squatted down and looked the professor in the eye. “No. Where did you get the rubies for the guns?” he asked, but he was sure of the answer.

“I don’t know. Bartholomew said he got a good deal from a supplier back East.”

“Where are the guns now?” asked Clinton.

“In the safe in the parlor. Why?”

“Would you mind checking if they’re still there, Professor?” If Bartholomew was afraid they’d found out he was the jewel thief, why not just run away? Why try to kill the professor and leave the guns behind?

“Professor! Could you to draw a sketch of the cross showing all the rubies?” He helped the old man to his feet and watched him go into the house.

Mrs. Sulisman, still in her nightgown, opened the door for the professor and looked out. “Is everything all right?”

“Yes. Please make a pot of really strong tea, Mrs. Sulisman,” shouted Clinton, moving to help the balloon rise above the wicker basket. “I’ve a feeling it’s going to be a long day.”

#

“We’re still missing something,” Clinton told Professor Walker as they gently rose into the early morning air. He had to speak loudly because the heater over their heads roared as it produced enough hot air to make them rise above the chimney tops.

“Do you have the rods?” asked the professor, looking silly in his goggles and tight cap.

Clinton nodded, sure he looked as bizarre in his similar attire. He and the professor had been surprised when they found the light guns in the safe with the rubies still intact. Clinton was confused, and the professor seemed saddened by Bartholomew’s treason.

“As soon as we level off,” said the professor, “I want to try the rods. Maybe if we locate the cross, we’ll find Bartholomew and discover why he’s acting so peculiarly.”

Clinton nodded, wishing they’d brought the guns with them, although they only had a range of about fifty feet and would have been worthless in the balloon. Why had Bartholomew needed rolls of wallpaper to design such small devices?

The professor removed the foot-long needles from the oilskin and passed two of them to Clinton. They’d notched one end of each rod. Although the balloon was swaying slightly, they had little trouble connecting Clinton’s two needles to the professor’s using the notches at the end. As they had practiced over Mrs. Sulisman’s gold ring, they let the rods rest lightly in their upturned palms, point to point and facing each other.

Clinton gasped when the rods dipped down dramatically, forcing both men to grab them before they were pulled from their hands.

“Did you see that?” asked the professor.

“Down and to the southwest,” reported Clinton, still not believing the rods had found something.

They tried again, and the rods immediately dipped.

“Definitely something southwest of us,” said the professor, a smile as wide as a dinner plate on his face. He pulled the cord that closed the valve of the heater over their heads, allowing the air in the envelope to cool slightly.

Clinton was perplexed. “How did we go south when the winds are from the west?”

“We’ll need to find a thermal going south. Don’t worry, young man, I’ll explain it all to you.”

After an hour-long lecture on air streams and inversion layers, they hung stationary over the train station in the center of town. The needles jerked down to the floor of the basket each time they used them.

“It must be here,” said the professor. “We’ll return home and tell the constable to look in the warehouse beneath us for the Spanish Cross.”

“Something is attracting the needles,” Clinton agreed, “but shouldn’t we go down and verify it’s the jewel-encrusted artifact?”

“Could be dangerous,” said the professor, looking over the side. “What is going on at the station?”

Small groups of people were filling the platform and the loading dock. “Oh,” realized Clinton, “it must be nearly time for President McKinley’s train to arrive.”

“Well, we’ve certainly got the best seat in the house,” said the professor. “Too bad Bartholomew is missing it. He loves trains. He spent a lot of time down here, writing down engine numbers and memorizing timetables.”

Clinton looked at the warehouse. “Jewel-encrusted,” he repeated. “Professor, did you bring the sketch of the cross?”

The old man dug a square of folded paper out of his vest pocket. Clinton opened it on the floor of the basket. “I see four fair-sized stones and two large ones. These four are the size of the ones in the light guns.”

“Yes, it takes two in each weapon, one at each end of the electrification tube.”

“What happened to the two large rubies?” Clinton had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach, and the gently rocking balloon wasn’t causing it.

“I’ve never seen them, outside the cross, of course.”

Clinton realized why Bartholomew needed a large illustration of the weapon. “Could Bartholomew build a really big light gun? A cannon?”

“I suppose so. Why?”

“The guns are made of the same heavy metals you incorporated in the divining rods! Your alchemy didn’t find gold, it found Bartholomew’s cannon!”

“Like calling to like,” the professor said with a nod. “The rods were attracted to the heavy metals. What can we do?”

The sound of a train whistle in the distance made both men look east.

“Why?” asked the professor. “Why would he kill the President of the United States?”

“Perhaps to be famous like John Wilkes Booth,” said Clinton, “or maybe he blames the government for the experiments done on him.”

“Maybe he’s just a sick and twisted little monkey. We’ve got to get down in time to verify your hypothesis and stop him.” The professor yanked the cord above their heads and the balloon sank with alarming speed.

The crowd, grown larger as the train’s scheduled arrival neared, looked up and applauded when the professor’s balloon bounced down. They thought his arrival was part of the show. Clinton helped the professor scramble over the side, shaking his head as the old man waved at the crowd.

“Professor,” he said, tugging the old man through the gathered people to a dirty warehouse window, “how are we going to stop him? We didn’t bring any weapons.”

The old man stopped and checked his pockets. Finding nothing, he said, “We have our brains, Mr. James.”

Clinton peeked into the gloomy warehouse and saw a large tube pointing in their direction. “It’s him. He’s pointed his cannon this way. What can we do?”

The professor pointed at a water tower beside the warehouse. It had a discharge tube to fill the water cars for the train’s boiler.

“Bartholomew said he didn’t like to be wet,” recalled Clinton with a grin.

“More importantly, the electrification tube will be compromised,” said the professor. “I hope you’re a good climber.”

Clinton heard the train pulling into the station and scampered up the wooden ladder. Gasping for breath at the top, he dragged the metal tube toward the roof of the warehouse. Unfortunately, without an opening through the sloping roof, the deluge would simply run off.

Clinton took a look at the shingled roof and made a painful decision. The crowd had turned to watch the train pull in, but the President hadn’t yet made an appearance. Professor Walker stood by the warehouse door, looking up at Clinton with a worried look. Time was running out.

Clinton twisted the water valve several turns before the water splashed down onto the building.

Steeling himself, Clinton jumped off the water tower platform and onto the roof. He followed the arc of the water and broke through with a violent jolt. He’d expected to die when he fell the two stories to the ground, but instead, he smacked into a rafter beneath the roofline. It broke his fall, temporarily, and he fell a few feet farther onto a stack of crates. If he hadn’t already been unable to breathe from the rafter impact, what felt like broken ribs would have prevented him from crying out as he plummeted.

A waterfall swept over him and onto the floor below. Grasping the edge of a crate and sucking in air by sips, Clinton witnessed the professor run into the room to confront Bartholomew. The monkey sat on a giant-sized version of his light pistol. Water poured down on Bartholomew and his nefarious machine.

The simian screamed, jumped from the gun, and climbed the crates Clinton was on. Clinton, too injured to escape, simply watched him approach.

“You!” screeched Bartholomew, hanging onto Clinton’s crate by his fingertips. “This is your fault. I’m going to rip out your throat with my teeth.”

Clinton reached for a piece of wet rafter lying next to him and slid the timber forward into Bartholomew’s forehead. “Who’s the senior assistant now, monkey?” he whispered. Bartholomew fell, bouncing on the crates below on his way down.

Behind the professor, a group of men in dark suits rushed into the room with their pistols drawn. Clinton couldn’t hear what the professor said to them but managed to stay conscious long enough to see them lay their hands on Bartholomew.

#

When he awoke in his little room, he was dry and stationary, and the room smelled of lavender and warm pecans. It felt good to be alive, so long as he didn’t inhale too deeply.

The professor stuck his head in and smiled when he saw Clinton was awake. “How do you feel?” he asked.

“I had the strangest dream,” said Clinton, placing his hands gently on the bandages wrapping his chest. “I dreamt you and I saved the President of the United States from a wet monkey with a giant ray gun.”

“In a balloon no less,” said the professor with a big smile. “The Spanish Cross has been restored and returned. The Pinkerton Men carried off Bartholomew and the cannon. I suspect we’ll never see either again.”

“Never sounds good to me,” Clinton said. “I don’t think I’ll be much help in the laboratory for a while, Professor. You might want to get yourself another assistant.”

“Nonsense,” said the professor. “You get your rest and we’ll discuss your duties later. Being in the balloon gave me new ideas.”

Clinton smiled. “I don’t suppose you want to find out if the moon is really made of cheese or something?” He tried to laugh at his own ridiculous idea and a moan escaped him.

“Exactly,” the professor said as he left, leaving Clinton with his mouth open. “I’ll start work on the plans right away.”

THE END

Tom Howard is a fantasy and science fiction writer in Little Rock, Arkansas. He thanks his four children and the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group for their inspiration and support.

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