Alien Conspiracy Theory

Cleveland Parrish dreamed big and his waistline grew bigger. Success as an inventor remained just out of reach.

At least until the alien walked into his basement and gave him a chance to improve his life.

Fans of aliens visiting Earth will enjoy this light-hearted look at an Alien Conspiracy Theory.

🚀

Cleveland Parrish, forty-one years old with an expanding midsection and a thinning top-section, enjoyed the warm air the dehumidifier blew across his feet. The Frigidaire appliance looked something like a Star Wars droid, a fact that he enjoyed. It squatted next to his desk, a battered state surplus piece of furniture complete with scratched putty-colored paint and a peeling wood veneer top. The desk and Cleveland were right in the center of his mother’s basement beneath the hula dancer lamp with a single bulb that was strapped to the ceiling and plugged into a squid surge protector also held to the ceiling by a thin strip of metal. More power cords plugged into the surge protector’s many arms and dangled down to the computers and monitors that covered the desk in a web of components not too unlike something from a Borg cube. This was his special place, his top secret workshop, that no one—not even his mother—was allowed to enter. Which made it all the more surprising when the door at the top of the stairs opened and the alien walked down into the basement as if he owned it.

Cleveland didn’t doubt for a second that the alien was in fact an alien, even though the shadows on the stairs somewhat obscured his features. To someone less observant the alien might even pass as human, with the long black business coat, collar flipped up like some hard-boiled detective, an expensive black suit and a hat on top of a too-pale head. But to Cleveland, he saw that the alien’s legs didn’t bend in the right places as he walked down the stairs and two of the fingers in the black gloves he wore didn’t move at all but stuck straight out unnaturally stiff. Even what was visible of his neck and face was pale and waxy as if he was an escaped exhibit from a wax museum. When Cleveland saw that he had an alien intruder in his basement he pressed four keys simultaneously on his primary keyboard and just like that all of his systems went into a lock-down mode.

Leaning back in his Aeron chair—deliberately not even glancing at the hidden panic room—Cleveland folded his hands on his ample belly. “I don’t know what you want, sir, but you aren’t going to get it out of me. I doubt even you will be able to get past my encryption.”

The alien walked until he reached the circle of light cast by the lamp strapped to the ceiling and he stopped. He held his hands out to his side, palms up. “Mr. Parrish?”

“That’s me.” Cleveland was pleased that his voice remained steady. Aliens knew about him. There was actually a freaking alien standing right in front of him. Even though he suspected that the alien wanted his invention, he still found it sort of awesome. “Who are you and what planet are you from?”

The alien reached up as if to take his hat off but his face and neck came with it, peeling free of the alien’s head. Wet fur glistened in the dim light. The pale dangling mask looked like Michael Meyers, and Cleveland rubbed his moist hands on his stained lab coat. Beneath the mask the alien’s face screamed “animal” to Cleveland. Furred, big domed head, with bright yellow eyes and a mouth full of white teeth. It should have looked like a monkey’s head, or an ape’s, but somehow it didn’t look like those at all. Something about it still suggested a non-terrestrial organism. Cleveland looked into the alien’s eyes and had no doubt that they had evolved under a different sun. No special effects makeup ever could look so real and yet so alien at the same time. Even with CGI it would probably prove impossible to ever capture the exact sense of alien that he got from his visitor. The alien was like a live actor inserted into a cartoon. No matter how much it interacted with the cartoon characters it just never felt like it belonged. This being, this person who had evolved under a different sun, didn’t belong on Earth.

“Mr. Parrish, I came to offer my assistance with your invention.”

Despite the constant warm breeze from the dehumidifier, Cleveland felt a chill. “My invention?”

He knew his voice came out too high-pitched, as it always did when he was nervous.

“We’ve detected your early tests. Without our assistance there is a risk that you might destroy your entire planet.”

“That quake was totally not my fault!” Cleveland winced. He tried to lower his voice. “I don’t believe that my invention could do what you’re suggesting.”

“Not now, but further testing could lead to the construction of a stable singularity that could engulf your entire planet.”

Cleveland shook his hand at the alien, warming to the topic. “Ah, but you’re mistaken my alien friend. Even if I somehow created an artificial black hole it would evaporate quickly. And that’s not what I’m doing anyway. Why are you really here?”

The alien looked at him and blinked. The silence stretched on. Cleveland picked up a red plastic eight-sided die and rolled it from one hand to the other. The alien kept blinking. Cleveland rocked back in the chair, he rolled the die. Still the alien didn’t move. Didn’t do anything except blink. It’s a test. A test and Cleveland could wait. He’d wait all day if he had to. If the alien had any sort of expression Cleveland couldn’t read it. The alien might as well not exist.

That made him wonder. What if the alien didn’t really exist? Suppose this was nothing more than a sugar-induced hallucination, a bit of chocolate that had gone bad? That could explain why he thought the alien didn’t look like it belonged here—maybe it didn’t. Cleveland got up from the chair. Enough of this, he’d find out if this was something more than a stale Twinkie.

His stained lab coat billowed out behind him as he walked around the desk. He reached out his right hand. He only meant to touch the alien, to ascertain the reality of what could after all, be reasonably taken as a potential hallucination. Cleveland didn’t even seen the alien move but in the next second his hand was caught in an incredibly painful pincher grip. The alien squeezed with enough force that it felt like he would pulp Cleveland’s hand. Not only that but the alien used his grip to pull Cleveland around and twisted his arm up behind his back. Another hand seized the back of his neck and applied equally painful pressure. The trinity of pain, his hand, his shoulder and his neck, had Cleveland gasping.

“Please! Stop! I just wanted to make sure you were real!”

The pressure vanished in an instant. Cleveland staggered away and dropped down onto his knees. He cradled his wounded hand. He didn’t want to look—had to look—and oh, shit! Already the center of his palm was turning purple with an alien-induced stigmata.

“Apologies, Cleveland Parrish. I took your approach as some form of attack.”

Cleveland cradled his hand. “How am I supposed to work with my hand like this?”

“Ah.”

Cleveland dared a glance up at the alien. He still couldn’t read any expression on that furry face.

The alien smacked his lips together. “I will return with a medical device. I believe it’ll be safe to use on you, and it should heal your injuries.”

Believe it’ll be safe? Cleveland opened his mouth to protest but the alien was already pulling back on his Michael Meyers mask and hat as he turned away to stomp back up the stairs.

🚀

The alien returned with two silvery hula hoops. Cleveland had considered leaving but he didn’t dare leave without his equipment. What if the alien came back and found him gone? He had gotten up and made it back to his chair at least before the alien returned and he had dried his tears. He knew his eyes would look red—they always did after he cried—but he doubted the alien would understand his expressions any more than he could read the alien’s face. The hula hoops drew Cleveland’s attention. What were those?

As if reading his mind the alien lifted the hoops up. “This is the medical device I mentioned.”

“That?”

“Yes. This.” The alien dropped one hoop onto the floor. It thunked as if very heavy. He dropped the other above the first only it flew upwards and thudded against the ceiling.

“Wow, nifty trick. What —”

A column of blue light filled the space between the two hoops. It pulsed slowly from bright to faint and back. The alien peeled off his Michael Meyers mask and tossed it aside. He spread his arms. “Please, enter the device.”

Cleveland’s hand was killing him at that point. The pain throbbed with his heart-beat. He couldn’t even hardly move his fingers and the hand was swelling rapidly into a balloon-caricature of a hand.

“You’re sure this is safe?”

“I believe it’ll be safe, Mr. Parrish.”

“Right.” Cleveland struggled up out of his chair, harder to do with one hand, and walked right up to the column. “I just step inside? What does it feel like?”

“Yes. It feels like sunshine. It’ll make you well.”

Cleveland took a deep breath and stepped into the column. Wow! Sunshine on a hot day! It felt like a hundred degrees in the light. Looking out the whole basement was blue tinted. The heat soaked into his bones. After the shock of going from the cool basement to the hot light passed it actually felt good. He realized that his pain was gone. Even the headache that had been creeping around in the back of his skull. And the backache he always had. He took a deep breath and felt remarkable. Like he could run and jump. The warmth soaked deep inside and he couldn’t remember a time he had ever felt better than right at that moment. He laughed from the sheer joy of it!

“Are you in distress?”

Cleveland looked at the alien. “No, I feel great, actually. This is amazing.”

And his hand! Cleveland lifted it up in front of his face. All of the swelling was gone, the bruise was vanishing before his eyes like water drying on a hot sidewalk. It shrank and shrank away until it was only a dot and then nothing! He wiggled his fingers. No pain! He laughed again.

Then his pants fell off, puddling around his ankles.

Cleveland bent down to grab them and pull them up. They were huge! He held his pants up to his waist. “What’s going on?”

“You are being healed.”

“My pants got bigger!”

“No, Mr. Parrish, your excessive fat deposits have been removed.”

“What?” Cleveland looked down and for the first time in he couldn’t remember how many years he wasn’t looking down the rising slope of his belly. He looked down and saw his feet in last year’s worn leather Christmas slippers.

“Remain in the light until the cycle completes.”

“Uh, okay.” Cleveland licked his lips. Talk about your weight loss miracles. He still felt fantastic, but as he looked down he realized his shirt also hung loose. The warmth reached a peak intensity that almost felt like he was being scalded from the inside out. He grimaced but didn’t dare move.

The light stopped a moment later. Cleveland stepped out of the metal hoop, still holding his pants up. He licked his lips nervously. “Maybe I’d better go change into something that fits?”

“Certainly.” The alien bent and picked up the hoop from the floor. When he moved it the one stuck up on the ceiling fell but the alien caught it as easily as a juggler. “I will put this device away.”

Away. Cleveland looked up the stairs. “So you’ve got like some sort of spaceship outside?”

“Yes.”

“Won’t people notice?”

“No. My vessel is shielded from detection.”

Oh. “Well, that’s great. We’ll meet back here in five minutes?”

“Agreed.”

Good, because Cleveland didn’t want to leave the alien down in the basement alone. Still, it made him think of something. “What do I call you?”

Big yellow eyes blinked at him and then the alien said, “Deep.”

“Deep? I’m supposed to call you Deep?”

“Yes. Deep.”

“Okay.” Cleveland gestured to the stairs. “Go ahead, Deep.”

Deep picked up his mask, slipping it on again before he went upstairs. Cleveland suppressed a remark about the alien’s—about Deep’s—disguise, and followed him upstairs.

The kitchen was empty and Deep went right out the screen door without any hesitation. Through the door in the living room Cleveland heard the sound of the television. He walked past the long counter, everything shining from his mother’s dust rag, and into the living room. His mother looked pretty much as she’d always looked to him, just more gray and heavier, the gray and weight creeping up on her over the years. She sat where she always sat on the right side of the couch, her feet up on the recliner’s support, and a glass of iced tea on the end table beside her.

“Having fun with your friend?” she asked, without looking away from the show she was watching.

“Yeah, mom.” Cleveland hurried on past, glad that she didn’t bother turning around since she’d see him standing there holding up his pants.

Cleveland went through the living room, up the stairs past the photos showing him getting older and heavier on the way to the top. His room was the second on the right. He got inside and closed the door behind him. He leaned against the door and closed his eyes for one second, then two, and then he thought of Deep coming back from his apparently invisible spaceship and going downstairs. Cleveland opened his eyes. He didn’t have time to waste.

He let go of his pants and marveled as they slid down his legs to the floor. He stepped out and then shucked off his lab coat and pulled the t-shirt off over his head. A mirror hung behind his door, he hardly ever looked at it anymore, but now he stood in front of it and looked. Several things happened.

First, he didn’t recognize himself. It was like looking at a stranger that sort of resembled him, maybe a distant cousin, but it definitely wasn’t the way he pictured himself. The guy in the mirror was ripped, muscles everywhere without being overly bulky. Unruly hair cascaded down to his shoulders. He looked like he might be in his mid-twenties.

If that wasn’t enough the guy in the mirror wasn’t circumcised!

Cleveland gaped at his reflection and the reflection gaped right back at him. “No way!”

The reflection moved as if it was him, but how could it be? Cleveland looked down and sure enough—he was intact! Plus, looking down he could see his rippling abs and the muscles in his thighs. He felt dizzy and groped behind himself for the bed. His fingers touched his comforter and he sat gratefully down onto the bed. The medical device Deep had produced would make him billions! Everyone would want access to that device. He had to convince Deep to give it to him, or at least the specs! But to do that he might have to share his invention. Still, for this? It might be worthwhile.

Thinking of that reminded him that he didn’t have much time. He got up from the bed and went over to the closet. On the bottom shelves he pulled out a box of old clothing that didn’t fit, stuff that he’d kept meaning to take to the Goodwill. He pulled out a pair of black jeans—so small it was hard to believe he could have ever fit in them.

He slid on the pants, not bothering with underwear because everything he had was too big, and even those jeans were loose on him. They hung on his hip like the way a lot of the kids wore them. From the same box he found a Warcraft t-shirt and pulled it on. Also too big but it had to do. Good enough. He grabbed his lab coat on the way out of the room.

Running into the living room he heard the screen door opening. Deep was back. This time Cleveland’s mother turned around. Her eyes widened when she saw him.

“Cleveland?”

“Yeah, Mom?”

“What did you do? How?”

“I’ve been working out,” he lied. He saw Deep lingering in the kitchen. “Look, Mom, I’ve got to get downstairs. Sorry. Talk later?”

“Okay.”

Cleveland ran out of the living room into the kitchen. Deep’s eyes watched him from the pale Michael Meyer’s mask. Unreadable eyes that had seen who-knows-what amazing things. Cleveland forced himself to smile.

“All set then, let’s get back downstairs before my mother starts asking too many questions.”

Deep stood back when Cleveland opened the basement door. They went back downstairs. As soon as they were safely down Cleveland turned back around to face the alien.

“Listen, that medical device. It’s interesting. I’d like to take a look at the specs, if I could?”

Deep had peeled off the mask, and his coat. He stood looking down at Cleveland. “I don’t have that information.”

“You don’t have it?”

“That is correct.”

“Well, how about the device? I could study it. If I could make that available, do you know how much good I could do? The people that could be cured?”

“The device is powered by my vessel. The one won’t work without the other.” The alien made a sneezing noise, although without any convulsive head movements. “No.”

Cleveland crossed his arms and then immediately uncrossed them because the muscles felt so weird. His arms were hard! “So what do you want?”

“Your tests caught my attention because they match predicted readings indicating a temporal wormhole. The technology to create stable temporal wormholes doesn’t exist.”

“Until now,” Cleveland added proudly. He crossed his arms again and held the pose this time. “What are you going to do about it? Suppress the knowledge? Tell me not to violate some temporal prime directive? I’ve built safeguards into the system. Even if you destroy my equipment here my time capsules will open and send the information to every news media company, scientist, government and blogger on the planet.”

“Our readings indicate that you have not yet achieved a stable connection.”

“And?”

Deep’s big eyes blinked with exaggerated slowness, as if he was trying to wink with both eyes. “Our theories may help stabilize the field generated by your technology.”

“Okay, that sounds good. But if you already know how this works why are you helping me?”

Deep took two steps forward and then spread out his hands as if he planned to give Cleveland a giant bear hug. Cleveland stepped back. Deep didn’t seem to notice.

“Your planet’s history is a mess. No one can seem to remember what happened, and even when something is explained there are those among you that deny the explanation. Recently a number of balloons in New York were believed to be alien spaceships —”

“You’re proof that aliens are visiting Earth!”

“True, but our ships would not appear as a bunch of balloons over the city. Even now no one suspects the ship in your backyard.”

“Point.”

“Most people do not believe the official account of the death of your President John F. Kennedy. Some believe that the attack on Pearl Harbor was not a surprise, or that other administrations had prior knowledge of other disasters. There is a strong distrust of authority figures in your society.”

Cleveland nodded. “And I suppose that the military doesn’t have any of your ships at Area 51?”

“They do not.”

“Right.” Cleveland walked over to his chair feeling like he could bounce along like the astronauts on the moon. He felt as light as but the concrete was cold on his bare feet. He sat down and tucked his feet up onto the seat. He hadn’t been able to do that since he was a kid. “What’s your point about these conspiracy theories?”

“Your device, if it works, could serve as an objective witness to historical events.” Deep pushed forward, right up to the edge of the desk. Cleveland leaned away.

“Don’t you see?” Deep asked. “Your invention will enable your people to stop lying to one another. The truth will be known. Anyone doubting the landings on the moon—and I’ve seen the foot prints myself—can use this technology to witness those events. You can trace back any detail, all of history will be laid open. You must finish the device.”

Cleveland tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. “That’s it? That’s why you came? To make sure that I finish the device?”

“Yes. As a historian it is impossible to get an accurate view of your world’s history without this technology.”

“Well, that’s nice. And I want that medical technology. It sounds to me like we should make a trade.”

Deep stared at Cleveland. The silence lengthened. Cleveland stood up and waved his arms. “Forget it, we’re not going to start that again.” He looked up at the alien. “I want your medical technology. You want my invention. Even swap. I show you how to look back in time and you give me the medical technology. Easy.”

Deep made a rumbling noise. “The medical device is integrated into the ship’s computers and power systems. To give you the device I’d have to give you the entire ship.”

“Okay, then call for a ride and give me the ship. Still sounds like a fair swap.”

“I must consult with the others, but we may reach an agreement.”

“I get the ship first,” Cleveland said, barely concealing his excitement.

Deep picked up his mask again. “I will return.”

Cleveland raised a hand. “I’ll be waiting here.”

When Deep went back upstairs Cleveland went to his workstation. He pressed five keys simultaneously. The system came back up. He sat down and entered several commands into a terminal window. With a hiss a panel appeared in the wall on his right. Cleveland spun his chair around and pushed away from the desk as the panel swung open.

Four aliens walked out of the hidden panic room that Cleveland had set up years ago. Unless someone was very observant they’d never notice that the main room of the basement was smaller than the house above. The first alien was short, as tall as a child of five or six, with scaly green skin and walked on four legs. Her outfit was silvery and layered. Once out she sat down her tongue flicked out, tasting the air. Behind her was a tall, slender, naked alien that moved with boneless grace and lacked any sort of visible head. Thousands of thin pseudo pods lined its arms and legs, while pearl-white eyes clustered around the mouth at the center of its body. The other two aliens belonged to Deep’s species and wore black suits, white shirts and thin black ties. Like Deep they wore masks and these two also wore black glasses.

Sc’int—the scaly alien—hissed and warbled. A pendant she wore around her neck translated. “Our plan worked. We will gain access to the historian’s ship.”

One of the alien men-in-black, Cleveland couldn’t tell them apart, spoke. “Yes. The plan worked, for now. Assuming our human doesn’t make a mistake.”

Cleveland shook his head. “I’m not going to make a mistake.”

“There must be no mistake,” the other man-in-black said. “He can’t discover the deception.”

“He won’t,” Cleveland insisted. “The equipment will function long enough to convince him before it fails.”

Sc’int hissed some more. “You must be correct.”

“I am. And we’ll have the ship, but I still want the medical device, you didn’t tell me about that.” Cleveland spread his arms. “Look at me! That thing is amazing.”

The tall alien’s limbs thrashed about. Sc’int watched it with one eye and then turned her attention back to Cleveland. “General Crush agrees to share the technology with you for your assistance in ending our exile here.”

Cleveland heard the screen door upstairs open. “Great! Get back inside. I’ll take care of everything.”

They all went back into the panic room and the door sealed shut behind them. Deep came back down the stairs. He peeled off his mask and shook his head.

“Uncomfortable?” Cleveland asked.

“Yes. The mask is not to my liking. I look forward to being rid of it.”

“Couldn’t you make something more realistic?”

“Duplicating faces is a difficult task. With an obvious mask people accept it and look away, some sort of societal taboo?”

“Sure, you could say that. So what was the decision? Are you going to help me finish the time camera in exchange for the ship?”

“No.” Deep reached into his coat pocket and brought out a black pointed device. Cleveland didn’t need any explanation to understand he was staring down the barrel of a gun. Up above the screen door opened and he heard more footsteps. “Step away from the equipment.”

Cleveland slowly raised his hands and stepped back. “What’s this?”

More aliens came down the stairs holding weapons. Cleveland held very, very still. Deep’s gun never wavered. The other aliens headed over to the panic room panel and took up positions on each side.

“We are here to apprehend the exiles before they create more trouble. The next world that they are left on has a more primitive culture.”

“You were always after them?”

“Yes. When we detected the signature of time manipulation it was clear that the exiles must be involved.”

“I could have come up with this on my own,” Cleveland said defensively.

Deep shook his head. “Unlikely. Open the chamber.”

Cleveland didn’t move for a second but what other choice was there? He literally had a gun pointed at him. He went back to the station and hit the keys that opened the chamber. The exiles had screens inside, so they already knew what waited for them. They all shuffled out without a struggle.

“Too good to be true,” Sc’int said, through her translator.

The exiles were cuffed and led back out up the stairs until only Deep remained.

“What about me?” Cleveland asked. “What are you going to do to me now?”

“Nothing. I will leave you,” Deep said.

Cleveland gestured at his equipment. “And this?”

“That too. It is unlikely that you will succeed in creating a stable temporal wormhole.”

“I have some ideas. I might get it figured out.”

“Unlikely. If you do, we may return. The technology would be of interest.”

Deep put away the gun and picked up mask. He didn’t put it on, but shoved it in his pocket. Cleveland watched him head up the stairs. Right before he reached the top Cleveland’s mother opened the door. For a second they looked at each other.

“Excuse me,” Deep said.

Cleveland’s mother stepped aside and the alien left. The screen door banged behind him. Cleveland sank down into his chair and looked at the equations on the screen. Deep didn’t think he could solve the problem, but what if he could? What if he could look back and find out what happened in Dallas? Or Roswell? His mother looked back down into the basement.

“Cleveland?”

“Yeah?”

“That’s some mask your friend had on. What are you guys up to?”

“Nothing mother.”

“Do you want something to eat?”

He thought about a plate of Twinkies and pushed it aside. He took one last look at the equations and then shut down the system. He got up and started up the stairs.

“I think I’ll go out for a run instead. Clear my head. Is it sunny outside?”

She moved back as he reached the top and then he could see out the window that there was nothing but blue skies and sunshine.

🚀
4,691 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 51st weekly short story release, written in October 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Playing Possum.

Flame Breaker

Estelle lives a simple life, her needs easily met with the gratitude of those she serves. Her wagon provides shelter and purpose with the magic contained in the simple walls. Colic, her snub-winged drake, provides companionship and pulls the wagon.

Inquisitors threaten her peaceful existence with accusations and threats. Estelle faces them not with sword, but with her wits.

If you love fantasy and books, check out Flame Breaker.

📚

A beautiful day, at least up until the point when three black horses with uniformed riders came pounding down the forest trail and surrounded Estelle’s modest wagon. Colic, her snub-winged drake, hissed in alarm and tried to twist around in the harness. Estelle hissed back.

“Still yourself! You silly lizard!”

Colic glared at her with one golden eye and slowly pressed his entire green-scaled self down into the muddy path.

Not bandits, these men. Estelle could tell that much by the quality of their cloth. The red suits and black neck ties cinched their identity. Inquisitors. Trouble-makers by another name. Thugs, some said and she never disagreed. Gold thread hemmed the cloak of their leader. A small concession to vanity that identified the leader to her. Not that she wondered. He placed his horse right in front of Colic. Ignoring the drake which under other circumstances wouldn’t mind a nice bite of horse flesh. He sat straight, all ruddy fat in the face and contempt in his narrowed eyes. The tall dark evergreens surrounding the path served as mute witnesses to the encounter.

Pity they lacked eyes or tongues. A matter that might change, should circumstances require it.

The Inquisitor raised on black-gloved hand and pointed at the wagon behind her. “What sort of cargo do you haul, mother?”

“No brat ever escaped my loins,” Estelle said. “Neither am I a merchant to haul cargo. My home, that’s all I carry like the snail with its shell.”

“You lie, lady. Poorly, I might add. Best you confess now and avoid the screws.”

So mote it be. “Fly your pole somewhere else, Inquisitor. Nothing I carry concerns such as you.”

The ruddy bastard laughed. Fat cheeks shaking. More chuckles from the two lesser inquisitors on either side. The leader leaned forward, saddle creaking. Colic sneezed. The horse whinnied and jerked back. The inquisitor nearly tumbled forward from the saddle, only just catching himself his horse’s neck. He straightened up and his already red cheeks burned like coals in a fire.

He waved a hand at his men. “Search it!”

Estelle held up her hand. “Warrant? I’ve seen none.”

He started to lean forward and his eyes glanced down at Colic. He stopped and pressed a hand to his chest. “I am the official representative of the Magistrate. Surely no one with legitimate business would refuse to cooperate? Resisting could be construed as probably cause.”

“Your tongue wiggles more than my lizard’s –”

Colic snorted.

“– and isn’t nearly as truthful. Any search of my dwelling requires the presentation of a warrant. I don’t need your men pawing through my underthings.”

He stared at her and she looked back giving neither an inch or any obvious offense. His stupidity remained the primary question. He raised a hand and rubbed at the side of his head.

“I’ve heard reports of dangerous books appearing in otherwise wholesome communities.”

“Dangerous? In what way? Are these books more prone than others to cause paper cuts?”

His eyes narrowed. “You claim to know nothing of these reports?”

“First I’ve heard. Who makes these claims?”

“Citizens of good standing wishing for their children to remain safe.”

“From paper cuts?”

“From dangerous ideas. Blasphemy. Black arts,” he said. “Your wagon might transport many such books.”

Estelle shrugged. “Any books I transport are my own and dangerous only to ignorance. Are you seeking something to read?”

He pointed at her. “Trading in forbidden books brings substantial penalties.”

“How fortunate we are to live in a free society,” Estelle said. “Many miles I must cover before dark, if I may continue?”

A cluck of the tongue and a flick of the reins sent his horse side-stepping out of her path. Colic rose up and yawned, displaying an impressive array of teeth. Estelle whistled and the drake lunched into motion, pulling her and the wagon away from the inquisitors. She waved cheerfully as she passed.

📚

Her destination for the night? Raven’s Craw. Another dozen or so miles down the road from the site of her encounter with the Inquisitors. Not a direct shot, either. At the crossroads she took the path heading South, South-West. Left the tall trees behind, replaced by mounded prairie. The mounds rose up in general about as high as her wagon. The road wiggled back and forth between the mounds, cutting in the sides of some. As bumpy as a toad’s behind but much prettier. Wildflowers covered the mounds and all over bees, birds and dragonfly-riding fairies flew around the mounds. A squadron of fairies buzzed her wagon twice. On the second pass pelting her with grass seed. No harm in it. A perfunctory welcome, nothing more.

Nothing much at Raven’s Craw of note except the mill and the steamer dock. By the time Estelle rolled into town the sun hung low above the prairie and the buildings cast long shadows. Beside the mill and the dock warehouses the town included one hotel, a general store, a small school building, doctor’s office and the houses of those calling the place home. So few people came to town by road that Estelle’s arrival soon filled the streets. From little ones running around in nothing but diapers to the oldest watching from windows and porches. These people knew her. Mothers, fathers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins and all the rest. Word spread through town faster than a fire. At the center of town a junction of the prairie road and the road to the steamer docks created a sort of town square. Estelle’s whistle and sharp flick of the reins brought Colic to a stop.

Colic raised his throat and let out a ear-scratching warble that drew shrieks and laughter from the children already gathering with their arm-loads of branches. With the children stood many adults and most all carried arm-loads of branches. Colic snapped his tail, a loud whip-crack that split the air. Twice. A third time and the crowd stilled in anticipation. Time to take the stage, then.

Estelle rose up from her bench, trusting Colic not to jerk the wagon and send her sprawling. She clutched her hands to her chest. When she spoke her voice rang out over the gathered townsfolk.

“Good evening, my what a welcome! It warms the heart. I see many bundles of twigs and branches here.” She looked a fair-haired young girl standing bravely near Colic. “Who can tell me the purpose of these sticks?”

The little girl spoke up, her voice like the piping of birds. “Books! Books! Books!”

Laughter spread among those gathered. Estelle nodded. “Very wise, young one. Books, indeed. If someone will help an old woman down from this perch, let’s see what we can do.”

A broad-shouldered young man with coal-stained hands came to her aid. She held his fine, strong callused hand and made her way down the folding steps from the bench to earth below. He smiled down at her, showing a mouth full of straight teeth.

“Looking at you warms this woman’s heart and makes me wish for the return of my lost years,” she said.

“Surely there aren’t too many years lost,” he replied.

She swatted his shoulder. “Flatterer.”

More laughter from the crowd. Estelle walked to the side of the wagon. She beckoned to the little girl who spoke earlier. “Since you answered so smartly, you may be first.”

The girl walked over clutching her bundle of branches. “I’d like a book please.”

“Of course. What’s your name?”

“Missie.”

“Okay, Missie, whisper what you want in my ear here and we’ll see what we can do.” Estelle bent down.

The sweet child leaned in close. She cupped tiny hands to her mouth. “Alice, if I may?”

Estelle winked at her. “I think that is possible. Let’s feed the hopper.”

Along the bright green wooden side of the wagon was a red hatch. Estelle unlatched it and pulled it open, revealing a long drawer. She bent and picked up the little girl around the waist and hoisted her up. No, not so many years lost, in truth.

“Feed the hopper!”

Missie tossed her branches into the hopper. Estelle set her down and shoved it closed. She reached into her cloak and produced a short fat wand of gleaming oak. She whispered to the wand and then shoved it into a hole in the wagon beside the hopper. The wagon shook. Crunching and grinding noises sounded inside like as if she kept a beaver to eat the wood. A moment later the noises ceased. Then a loud thunk, as if something fell. Estelle bent and lifted Missie once more.

“Open the hopper, see what’s inside.”

With both hands Missie pulled the red hopper open. She shrieked and reached inside, lifting out a brightly colored book. She held it up and a murmur of delight passed through the crowd. Estelle brought Missie down and nestled the child on her hip.

“May I see?”

“Yes.” Missie held the book so that she could see the cover.

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I believe you will enjoy this book a good deal.”

Missie nodded enthusiastically and hugged the book to her chest. Estelle let her down and turned to the crowd. “I see much fuel for my hopper. Who will be next?”

A boy with hair curly and dark as night stepped forward with a small bundle of twigs. Estelle beckoned him close. “Your name, son?”

“Patun.”

“Okay, Patun. What sort of book do you seek? Whisper it here in my ear.”

Estelle bent down.

“Fishing book, so I can catch fish for my ma.”

Estelle patted his head. “That’s a good boy.” She pulled the hopper out and held out her hands. The boy handed her the branches. She tossed them in and then pulled the oak peg from the slot. She whispered to it and shoved it back into the hole. Then she pushed the hopper closed.

Once again the wagon shook and trembled. Colic snorted and settled. The wagon fell silent again. Estelle opened the hoper and pulled out a book. The bright picture on the front showed a man with a pole and line in hand. The Art & Craft of Fishing. She handed it to Patun.

“Gee, thanks!” He shot off running with the book. The crowd parted and like a pebble dropped in a pond he vanished.

Estelle smiled. “Everyone will have a chance. Who’s next?”

“I’ll try your wagon,” a voice rang out. A voice she recognized having heard it not so many hours before.

She turned and sure enough, the inquisitors on their horses. The ruddy-faced leader swung down from the saddle. Up front of the wagon Colic twisted his long head to see around the wagon. He sneezed loudly. The inquisitor reached into his shirt and pulled out a blue sheet of paper. He held it up in the air.

“By order of the Magistrate, as stated in this warrant, I intend to search this wagon and confiscate anything illegal. Clearly this lady runs a scam of sorts and I promise the good people of Raven’s Claw that I will uncover the truth and her accomplice inside.”

Estelle held out her hand. “I’ll see that warrant which you did not produce when you stopped me only hours ago outside of Raven’s Craw.”

He smiled nastily and slipped the paper back into his shirt. If he heard her correction he gave no sign of it. “I’ll not have you tossing the warrant into your device there to be torn to pieces.”

“I only seek to verify the wording of the warrant.”

The crowd’s murmuring grew louder. The inquisitor cocked his head at the other two, who moved their horses up, nudging the crowd back from the wagon. The protests grew louder.

“Clear off, all of you! By order of the Magistrate, return to your business elsewhere!”

Some among the crowd moved back. Others drew off a bit and spoke among themselves. No one really left, Estelle noted.

“Inquisitor, what do they call you?”

“Harris, lady. Now open the wagon for inspection.”

Estelle walked to the end of the wagon and opened the small door at the rear. “Look, if it will give end to this business, Inquisitor Harris. Only you, and I trust you’ll not damage what few things I own.”

Inquisitor Harris swung down from his horse. Grunted when his boots hit the ground. He briefly placed a hand on his back. Then he stomped over to the wagon and leaned in the small door.

“As you see,” Estelle said. “Only my meager bed and little else.”

The Inquisitor rifled through the few books she kept on her small bedside shelf. He lifted the mattress and knocked his knuckles against the wood. Then he straightened and bent to look beneath the wagon. He came up scratching at the side of his head.

“What manner of sorcery is this?” Inquisitor Harris faced her. He shook his hand at the wagon. “How is it that these books are produced?”

“Another demonstration, perhaps?” Estelle looked at the Raven’s Craw townsfolk, none had gone far. She beckoned to another child. “Lad, come here with your branches.”

The fair-haired boy walked over to her, his mother close behind with a wrinkled brow. She kept touching the boy’s shoulders. Estelle smiled. “Worry not, mother. The good Inquisitor Harris aims only to safeguard this town and its people. We will reassure him.”

She crouched down in front of the boy. “What are you called?”

“Ricky.”

“Okay, Ricky. What book would you like?”

He shrugged. “I dunno.”

“What sorts of things do you like?”

Ricky smiled. “Bears.”

His mother touched his shoulder again. “He’s always going on about bears.”

“I know just the thing.” Estelle took the branches from the boy and stood. She held them out towards the Inquisitor. “Inquisitor Harris, perhaps you’d care to do the honors?”

He took the small bundle. Estelle went to the hopper in the side of the wagon. Inquisitor Harris jerked his head at one of his men. “Watch inside.”

The man in question dismounted and went to the open door at the rear. Estelle drew open the hopper, then pulled the oak peg from the hole. She whispered to the peg and then shoved it back into the hole.

“Toss in the branches, Inquisitor.”

Inquisitor Harris tossed in the branches. She pushed in the hopper. The wagon started to shake. The crunching and grinding noises started. Up front Colic sneezed. Inquisitor Harris took a step back. He looked to his man at the rear of the wagon.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing, sir!”

The shaking and noise reached its peak and then stopped. The wagon settled down. Estelle gestured to the hopper. “If you will, Inquisitor Harris?”

He rubbed his jaw then stepped up to the wagon. He grabbed the round knob on the front of the hopper and pulled it out. He reached in and lifted out a book. He looked at the front cover.

“Winnie-the-Pooh?”

Estelle reached up and took the book from the Inquisitor’s hand. She held it out to Ricky. “A very special bear.”

“Thank you!” Ricky hugged the book.

His mother looked at Estelle. “Thank you.” She looked to the Inquisitor. “Thank you, sir. Come on Ricky. Let’s go home and you can read your book.”

Inquisitor Harris raised his hand. “People of Raven’s Craw! Bring those branches here!”

Excited voices rose up. The people drew in closer. Inquisitor Harris beamed at the assembled crowd clutching their bundles of sticks and twigs. Abruptly his smile vanished like a drop of water on a hot stove. “Toss your branches at the base of this wagon!”

Cries of protests rang out. He held up his hands. “This woman trades in forbidden books. Her mechanism, this infernal wagon, must be destroyed!”

The young man that had helped her down from the wagon stepped forward. “Inquisitor, do not do this.”

Inquisitor Harris shook his head. “I do this for your sake, lad. And the good of this town.” He motioned to his men. “The branches, now.”

The third inquisitor dismounted, then he and one at the rear of the wagon went among the people. They snatched the branches and twigs away and threw them at the base of the wagon. Colic rose up and started to pull the wagon away.

Inquisitor Harris drew his sword. “Still the beast or I’ll still him for good.”

Estelle hissed at Colic. “Be still, you brute. Let me release your harness, you daft creature.”

She left the inquisitors to their wood-piling and went to the front to release Colic. He came free snapping his tail like a whip. She patted his ugly scaled head. “Don’t worry about it.”

Estelle motioned to the young man with the coal-stained hands. He joined her. “Yes, lady?”

“Please watch this stupid drake. Make sure he doesn’t do anything injurious.”

“Of course.”

Estelle left the drake in the care of the young man and went back to the wagon and the inquisitors. Inquisitor Harris held up a hand at her approach. “Do not interfere. This device must be destroyed.”

“Why, exactly?”

“You trade in forbidden books!”

“What books? I give the books freely, it costs me nothing. There’s no trade involved.”

“You receive nothing?”

“Their gratitude, nothing more. My needs are simple and easily met.”

“It matters not.” Inquisitor Harris pulled out a match from a pocket along with a flask. “Such a device might produce dangerous books as easily as a children’s book.”

“And who decides? You? I believe we live in a free society. Isn’t that what we claim? I only give people what they ask for. Freedom to read what they wish, surely that’s the foundation of any free society.”

“Security is the foundation of a free society.” Inquisitor Harris flipped the cap on the flask and splashed the contents on the piles of branches. He struck the match and dropped it onto the pile. Flames spread blue and yellow across the branches. Cries of dismay rang out from the crowd.

Estelle walked around to the rear of the wagon. None made any move to stop her. She hurried and climbed inside. She heard Inquisitor Harris shout something but didn’t wait. Up front, strapped to the side of the wagon she pulled down a red cylinder. She scooted back out and slid out of the wagon. A cheer went up from the crowd. Inquisitor Harris grabbed her arm.

“Foolish woman! What is so worth your life?”

“Knowledge, books.” Estelle pulled away. She pulled a silver pin from the top of the cylinder and pointed the nozzle at the flames. A cloud of white vapor shot out, engulfing the flames. She worked her way along the pile until every last flame was extinguished. Excited murmurs spread through the crowd and became cheers. The people of Raven’s Craw started clapping. Colic snapped his tail three times.

Inquisitor Harris caught up with her. “What is that device?”

“A fire extinguisher,” Estelle said. “It is very useful dealing with fires. Inquisitor, have you considered that there might be many useful books you might ask for? Things that might help you in areas other than persecuting someone like me?”

His eyes narrowed. “What sort of books?”

“Leadership, tactics, books on all sorts of instruments you might find useful?”

Inquisitor Harris stroked his jaw. “Perhaps I should confiscate the wagon, and keep it for myself.”

Estelle shook her head. “It works only for me.”

“I could take you, along with the wagon.”

“You could and find I have forgotten how to make it work.” Estelle smiled. “Inquisitor Harris, do not make your job harder! Ask for a book and I shall happily provide it to you, as I do anyone who asks. Not in trade, or from coercion. Perhaps one final demonstration?”

When he made no move to stop her Estelle pulled open the hoper. She picked up scorched branches from the pile and threw them in. She took out the peg, whispered to it and put it back. Then she closed the hopper. As before the wagon shook. When the noise and shaking ceased she opened the hopper and pulled out a book. Without looking at the title she handed it to Inquisitor Harris.

Color drained from his ruddy fat face. He looked up at her, back to the book, then shoved the book into his vest. He waved his hand at the other inquisitors. “Mount up! By order of the magistrate this woman shall be free to continue her business, unfettered and unencumbered.”

Inquisitor Harris mounted his own horse when his man led it over. He mounted up and then rode away without another word. Estelle chuckled and turned to the crowd.

“Where were we, then?”

📚

Dew covered the mounded prairie grass the next morning when she stepped outside her wagon and stretched. From atop one of the mounds beside the wagon Colic lifted his scaled head and blinked sleepily. The wagon creaked behind her. Strong young arms wrapped around her waist.

“Must you leave so soon?”

Estelle reached up and patted Martin’s, the young man of the coal-stained hands, face. “Yes, but I shall return. People will want more books.”

“It never stops, does it?”

She leaned against his solid chest. “I hope not.”

Above the mounded prairie the sun rose again with the promise of a new day.

📚
3,572 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 49th weekly short story release, written in May 2010, and originally released under a pen name. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Two for Death.

Dumping Ground

A crime fifty million years in the making challenges Special Agent Alex Marks.

In the isolated town of Republic in rural Washington state fossil hunters uncover a barrel with a body inside and none of the clues make sense.

If you love science fiction mysteries, check out Dumping Ground.

🔍

The dry wind kicked up dust from the dig site as if to mock any attempt to contain the crime scene and maintain evidence. Alex Marks, FBI Special Agent Marks to the folks around here, snapped his fingers at a couple county sheriff deputies standing nearby.

“Howdy, think you could get us some tents or something to cover the crime scene with before the wind blows everything away?”

The two deputies looked at each other, shrugged and ambled away. Alex couldn’t decide if that meant they were actually going for the tents or not. At thirty-five he had seen all sorts of local law enforcement and some were pretty good. He hadn’t made up his mind about these guys yet. He knew that they only saw the suit. They didn’t see the guy that liked to kick back and watch the game with some buddies. That was expected and he was okay with that, so long as they did the job he needed them to do.

Right now he wanted to take in the crime scene. It was in a cut in the earth across the hill. A fossil dig site, with pine trees on the hill up above, and the town of Republic laid out below him, mostly along the highway 22. The site itself showed signs of lots of people having been back and forth through the area. The chance of getting anything useful was slim. More than anything what struck him was the quiet. He’d seen the briefing. Small population, minimal traffic, and a short distance to the Canadian border. But the fossil dig site was public. The killer wanted the body to be found. There were acres and acres of national forest just outside of the town where the killer could have stashed the body, not to mention all of the abandoned mines scattered throughout the county. Someone put the body here for it to be found.

Ten feet away the county sheriff, mid-fifties, runner-thin man with his hair buzzed short, was talking to a gray-haired old woman in a stained yellow t-shirt. Alex walked over to join them. The sheriff nodded and gestured at the woman.

“Special Agent Marks, this is Martha Brown. She volunteers down at the fossil museum. She’s the one that called me when the tourists uncovered what we’ve got over there.”

Over there was ten feet further, right in the side of the dig. A black barrel with a clear toxic warning symbol on the side sticking out of the hillside. Martha’s eyes were red and she wiped at her eyes.

“How could they do that? Dump it in our dig site? What’s going to happen, Roy? That’s what I want to know? Are they going to shut us down?”

The sheriff patted her arm. “Why don’t we let these folks do what they do and worry about that later. We don’t even know what we have here.”

She sniffled but nodded and started to move away. Alex spoke up. “Just a sec. You haven’t seen anything unusual up here lately, have you?”

“No, nothing, and I’m up here every day. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for someone to bury that up here. But the rock flaked away, and there it was. I don’t know how they got it in there. I removed a beautiful Alnus parvifolia from right above it yesterday. How could they have buried it without disturbing the fossils?”

“I don’t know about that,” Roy answered. “We’ll let the folks with bigger budgets figure that one out.”

“Thank you,” Alex said.

He walked toward the site. Roy stuck with him. They climbed up the slope and then Alex saw the barrel up close for the first time. It looked like any other barrel designed to hold toxic waste. Though corroded with time the toxic warning symbol was still visible on the side. The top of the barrel had been removed and inside he could see the curve of a skull. The bulk of the barrel was still stuck in the ground. Despite what Martha said he didn’t see what was so hard about digging a hole and dropping in the barrel, then covering it up. Doctor Marcus Hodgens stood beside the barrel brushing along the line where the barrel disappeared into the earth with a long bristle brush. He looked more like a surfer than a scientist, but Alex had worked with Marcus before and knew that there wasn’t anyone better to investigate the site. He looked up with his watery blue eyes when Alex and the sheriff walked up.

“We’ve got a mystery here, Alex.” Marcus grinned. “This is the sort of thing that hits headlines.”

“A dump site? How’s that news?” Alex asked.

Marcus shook his head. He pointed the brush at the barrel. “Look at this.”

Alex walked closer and looked at the place Marcus pointed to, where the barrel vanished into the earth. It took him a second but then he realized what Marcus was getting at. It wasn’t loose earth and broken rock around the barrel. It was stone. Unbroken stone that pressed right up against the barrel. He looked up and found Marcus grinning at him.

“Any idea how they cut the rock perfectly to fit this barrel?”

“Sounds like a lot of work to go to just to hide a body.”

“I’ve seen people do weirder things.”

“I’m sure you have,” Marcus said. “But that’s not the most important detail. Look at this.”

Marcus pointed to a ridge that ran around the exposed section of the barrel. Alex had seen things like it before.

“So?”

Marcus ran his brush back along the ring until it disappeared into the stone at the back of the barrel. “See? The stone is formed around the barrel. There’s another ring further down on the barrel. The rings make it easier to lift the barrels. But if someone dug a hole so that they could put the barrel in the would have had to — “

“Cut it to the size of the rings,” Alex finished for Marcus.

Marcus nodded. Roy looked at them both, then focused on Alex. “So what does that mean?”

“It means that the stone had to form around the barrel,” Marcus said, grinning widening. “And this particular stone formed something like fifty million years ago.”

“Fifty million years ago?” Roy took off his hat and rubbed his jaw. “Come again?”

Alex felt that empty feeling in his gut that told him this case was trouble. He looked into the barrel where the skeleton of a man sat with just the top of his skull visible. The wind blew dust that tickled Alex’s nose, but other than the sound of the wind and the murmurs of people gathered the whole place seemed quiet. Like they were all holding their breath.

“You’re telling me that this barrel and the man inside have been buried here for fifty million years?”

Marcus tapped the rock with the handle of his brush. “We’ve got lots of tests to run, but my initial observations suggest that this rock hasn’t been disturbed until our fossil hunters cleared away the layer right above the barrel.”

🔍

Alex walked into the Spokane lab hoping that Marcus had better answers for him now than he had forty-eight hours ago. Marcus had called him to the lab to go over the evidence. Before Alex filed anything he wanted some answers that explained how a barrel for toxic waste ended up in a hillside, embedded in rocks fifty million years old.

Marcus was wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt and khaki shorts beneath his lab coat. His feet were bare. That was normal for him, something about humans didn’t evolve wearing shoes so why should he wear them in climate controlled labs? He was at a long examination table bent over the skeleton from the barrel. When Alex walked in he looked up, brushing back his blond hair.

“Agent Marks, thanks for coming. This is really, really amazing!”

Alex stopped beside the table containing the skeleton. It didn’t look normal, he bent closer and looked at the bones. The color seemed wrong to him and the texture. It reminded him of something.

“You see it, don’t you?”

“Why don’t you tell me what I’m seeing?”

Marcus took a big breath. “He’s fossilized. This is a fossilized human.”

“Fossilized, in a toxic waste barrel? Did someone try hide a theft? Take him out of some exhibit?”

Marcus shook his head. He turned around and picked up a stainless steel tray. He held it out to Alex. Alex didn’t take the tray or touch the items on the tray, each labeled with numbers. It looked like bits of glass or rock, some metals. Nothing that he recognized.

“What are those?”

“Those are pieces of what I believe was an iPhone, or maybe an android, something like a Galaxy. We’ll have to do more analysis before we really know. The components have mostly broken down. Do you have any idea how long that would take?”

“Let me guess, fifty million years?”

“Not that long, but a long time. It doesn’t give us an exact age. But there’s more. This skeleton, he’s a modern human. There’s even a collar bone repair that used a new technique. Instead of plates screwed to the broken bones it uses a variant of a Chinese finger puzzle to hold the bones together. There are a couple very small screws to help make sure it stays in place but it does a much better job of holding the bones together while allowing some flex without breaking the way plates break. That allows patients —”

“Marcus. What are you trying to tell me?”

Marcus took a deep breath. His broad face split into a goofy grin. “Well, we’ve got a paradox. A modern day man that was fossilized in a barrel found in fifty million year old rocks.”

“Then it must be a hoax.”

Marcus laughed.

“What? What’s so funny? Obviously it can’t really be a man from fifty million years ago, can it? You said yourself, the medical procedure was current.”

“I don’t think you get it. To fake something like this? I can’t even begin to figure out how that could be done. The details, the barrel, the way the rock had formed around it — did you see what we had to do to get it out? And that was being careful.”

“But it could be done.”

Marcus shook his head. “I don’t see how.”

“Maybe not, but it’s the only possibility. And if it is a hoax, is this even a murder? You said this is a fossilized body. Couldn’t it be a fake?”

“It isn’t fake. You’re still not getting it Alex.”

Alex shoved aside his irritation. “Look, I just need to know what we’re dealing with right now. Do we have a murder or a hoax? Let’s focus on that right now.”

Marcus turned and picked up a folder. He handed it across the skeleton to Alex. “Oh, we’ve got a murder alright.”

“A murder, and the body is fossilized?”

Marcus pointed at the report. “Take a look.”

Alex opened the folder. “Nathan Tolliver, forty-three, married.” Alex looked at the fossilized remains on the table. “Are you telling me that these fossilized remains belong to Tolliver?”

“Yes!” Marcus leaned on the table for a second and then pushed back. “Alex, we’ve matched the dental records along with the details of the surgical procedure. And what’s even more interesting? Elena Tolliver, his wife, reported him missing three days ago.”

“Where?”

“Chicago.”

Alex looked at the summary in the folder. Nathan Tolliver, reported missing three days ago, but that was after he had already been missing for two days. The local police wouldn’t take the case until then but Elena had reported him after he didn’t come home from work.

“Alex, there’s evidence that he was shot. Close range, from a .45. I found the slug in the bottom of the barrel. We’re running ballistics now. Also, from looking at the bones it seems he was dumped into a vat of toxic waste. There are high levels of lead and other contaminants in the barrel and on the bones.”

“In three days?” Alex closed the folder and looked down at the bare skull. “So how did our Mr. Tolliver end up fossilized in a toxic waste barrel after three days? What did he do?”

“This is awesome. He worked for a company called TachWorks that bills itself as green waste disposal company.”

“TachWorks?”

Marcus grinned. “Tach, as in Tachyons? As in time travel theories?”

“No.”

“But—”

“No.” Alex picked up the folder. “There’s a better explanation.”

“For how a man disappears in Chicago and three days later is uncovered by fossil hunters in a remote dig in Washington state?” Marcus crossed his arms. “Dude, I’m all ears for this one.”

Alex shook his head. “I don’t have the answer yet, but I will. It looks like I’m going to Chicago.”

🔍

Alex didn’t like how the meeting with TachWorks was going. Or not going. After being greeted in the lobby he had been led to this glass-walled conference room over-looking an atrium in the center of the building and left. The table was glass and the chairs black mesh. The whole thing suggested transparency but he didn’t think that was what he was going to get from the people working here.

After ten minutes of waiting, right before his patience ended, he saw several people walking to the conference room. Two men, and a woman. One of the men looked like the man in charge. Tall, thin with a runner’s build, mid-fifties, he walked quickly and the others looked strained to keep up the pace. The woman had her hair back in a complicated French braid, young and carrying too many files. An assistant, maybe. The other man was late thirties, all sharp angles and cold eyes. Lawyer. Alex could smell him.

Alex spun his chair around to face the door. The delegation came into the conference room and the thin man went immediately to the head of the table. The other two took chairs across the table from Alex.

“Special Agent Alex Marks,” the young woman said to her boss.

The lawyer leaned forward, interlaced his hands and smiled. “Agent Marks. I’m Saxton Thompson, representing the legal interests of TachWorks. What can we do for you today?”

Their boss hadn’t said anything yet. He leaned back in his chair with his fingers steepled together.

Alex ignored the lawyer. “Jonathan Hanson, I’m here about the disappearance of one of your researchers. Nathan Tolliver.”

Saxton spoke up. “Mr. Hanson has no knowledge of Mr. Tolliver’s whereabouts. When he failed to report to work for three days in a row without contacting TachWorks his employment was terminated.”

Still talking directly to Hanson, Alex continued. “I’d like to take a look at Mr. Tolliver’s workplace and interview his co-workers.”

“Mr. Tolliver’s workplace has already been cleaned out and reassigned,” Saxton said. “And any investigation will require a —”

Alex stood up and leaned toward Hanson. “You’re being awfully quiet, Mr. Hanson. While your flunky over there wastes my time. We’ve found Mr. Tolliver, murdered. This is a murder investigation and I can make it as minimally disruptive as possible or I can shut down this whole operation and bring in teams to look into everything. It’d be much better if you cooperate.”

Hanson rose to his feet as well. After a second both the young woman and Saxton also stood. Saxton opened his mouth but Hanson held up a hand and the lawyer closed his mouth.

Hanson’s eyes were hazel shot through with flex’s of green. They studied Alex’s face. “Murdered? How?”

“Shot, put in a barrel of toxic waste and buried. Not well, obviously, or he wouldn’t have surfaced so soon.”

Hanson’s eyes narrowed for a moment. “And you think that his death is connect to the company. Why?”

“That’s what I’m here to find out.”

“Mr. Hanson?” Saxton sounded concerned.

Hanson held up a hand and Saxton fell silent. “What do you know about the work we do here?”

“Only what is public knowledge. You run a waste-disposal company that has consistently underbid your competition and you are aggressive in seeking out new customers. We’ve already identified the barrel as being consistent with those that are used by your company.”

“And many other companies.” Hanson held up a hand. “But I can see why, in your position, that it looks suspicious. Come. I’ll show you around myself to make sure you get full cooperation.”

The young woman spoke up. “Mr. Hanson, your afternoon —”

“Cancel everything April. Reschedule. Agent Marks?” Hanson gestured for him to go first.

Alex took him up on the offer and went to the door. For a man like Hanson to take a personal interest in this case was very fascinating. He obviously wanted Alex to believe that the company had nothing to do with Tolliver’s death. But why go to such efforts? Why not just tell his people to cooperate and then get back to his job? It suggested there was something else going on here.

They left the conference room and, at Hanson’s suggestion, went directly to the lab where Tolliver had worked. It was located on the third floor of the building, taking up a large corner of prime space. When they walked in they were immediately greeted by loud music being played over speakers. Two men in lab coats were arguing in front of them but broke it off when they saw Hanson come through the doors with Alex. The air smelled of ozone but Alex also smelled rotting vegetation and something sulfuric in the air. The men were both young and wore lab coats over street clothes. Hanson introduced them.

“Dr. Varen Patel.” Alex shook his hand. Good grip, but Patel looked like he could be early twenties, but a doctor already, so he might be older.

“Dr. Clarence Ford.”

Wide, wide smile from Clarence and he offered his fingers instead of a hand-shake. Alex took his hand and brought it up for a quick kiss across the knuckles. Clarence laughed happily. “Oh, boy, this is one dishy FBI agent. Call me Charley.”

Alex noted the twitch of Patel’s lip. He looked disgusted. Hanson kept his face better controlled but he too looked uncomfortable. All of which told him that Charley must be pretty good at his job if they put up with his flamboyant act. And it was just a feeling but he didn’t think that Charley behaved like that when he was comfortable.

“Dr. Patel and Dr. Ford worked with Dr. Tolliver,” Hanson said. He turned to look at the two men. “I want you to cooperate with Agent Marks’ investigation. Answer his questions and let me know when you are finished. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Dr. Patel said.

“Right.” Charley took Alex’s arm. “Sorry about that little tiff you saw when you came in. We just were having a difference of opinion about how to run a stress test on the barrels.”

Hanson nodded. “If there’s nothing else you need, Agent Marks?”

“Not right now, thanks. I’ll let you know.”

“Of course.” Hanson nodded and left the lab.

Alex stepped away from Charley. “Okay. Let’s talk about Tolliver.”

🔍

After his many years on the FBI, Alex trusted his gut when it came to talking to people, and it seemed to him that Charley, the flamboyant researcher, was using that to cover up for what was really going on in the lab. He probably thought that if he was really over the top it would make Alex uncomfortable. Which meant that he had something to hide.

Alex pointed to the chairs at the nearby workstation counters. “Please, both of you, have a seat.”

Dr. Patel took a seat first. Charley flounced dramatically over to the chair and threw himself into it. “You do know that we didn’t have anything to do with what happened to Nathan, don’t you?”

“How would I know that, Charley? We haven’t even talked about it yet.”

“Because we’re scientists. The last thing we’re likely to do is kill someone.”

Patel’s eyes widened. “Wait a second, Nathan is dead?”

Alex nodded but he kept looking at Charley. “How is it that you knew he was dead and Patel here didn’t?”

“Maybe,” Charley waved his finger in the air. “Because I’m in touch with the grapevine around here? April, Mr. Hanson’s assistant, told her friend Beth on the fourth floor, who called me to find out if it was true. Of course I don’t know anything about how he ended up dead, but obviously it wasn’t us.”

“I did not kill Nathan,” Patel said. “I respected him as a scientist.”

“And of course I couldn’t kill anyone. Not even a fly. So you’re wasting time here, but hey, I don’t mind.”

“Who has access to the waste barrels that your company uses to store toxic waste?”

Charley whistled. “That’d be a big list. I mean there’s all of the research staff, that’s us and all of the other teams. We’ve each got our thing that we work on. And of course all of the shippers and movers that have to collect the stuff, and take it to storage. Plus anyone in management, I mean it isn’t like they aren’t going to have access to it.”

“Fine. What about his last day here? Did anything unusual happen? Anyone around that shouldn’t be? Did he act unusual at all?”

“Yes,” Dr. Patel said. “Nathan seemed very nervous. I remember because I asked him what was wrong. He didn’t want to talk about it. But we didn’t really see much of him.”

“No, because he was always working on his special project. He’d disappear for hours at a time,” Charley added.

“Special project? What was that?”

Dr. Patel shook his head. “He said it was secret. Something he wasn’t able to talk about, he had signed an NDA.”

“Non-disclosure agreements? Is that standard?”

Charley shrugged. “Sure, for some of the things we do. Especially if there are patents or regulatory hurdles to get through. They don’t want anyone talking about that stuff. I figured they had him on something like that.”

“Anything else unusual that you’ve noticed?”

Patel and Charley looked at each other. Alex waited while they figured out their non-verbal cues. Patel finally looked back at Alex. “I don’t know if it means anything at all, but I noticed a change in the out-going shipping manifests.”

“What does that mean?”

“The same amounts of waste were being collected,” Patel said. “Only the amounts going to our storage facility dropped by almost twenty percent. I asked Nathan about it because he had been doing some work on routing plans. When he saw that he got upset.”

“When was that?”

“The day before he disappeared,” Patel said. “After he disappeared I wondered if it had any connection but I don’t see how it could.”

“I need to see what Nathan was working on. Where did he do his secret project work?”

Patel shook his head. “You’d have to talk to Mr. Hanson about that, we don’t know and don’t have access.”

Alex got up. He shook his finger at the researcher. “And see? I thought we were getting along so well. But then you go and do that. Now you’re going to show me where Nathan was working when he disappeared.”

“I don’t have access!” Patel held his hands out. “Please, you must ask Mr. Hanson.”

Through it all Charley sat still, any flamboyance gone. Alex looked at him. Smiled. “Charley. How about you? You’ve got access, don’t you?”

Charley jumped up off the chair and bolted for the door. But before he got there the door opened. Mr. Hanson walked in trailed by Saxton and April. Charley froze. He looked around but it had to be clear that he didn’t have anywhere to go. Alex grabbed his arm and propelled him back to the chair.

🔍

Alex crossed his arms and waited for Charley to say something.

“Clarence?” Mr. Hanson said, his tone cold. “What’s going on here?”

Charley looked around at everyone watching him. No one looked like they wanted to help him out. Finally he sagged in the chair. He put his hands on his knees as if to brace himself. “All he had to do was keep quiet. I mean, it isn’t like it even matters, you know?” He looked over at Mr. Hanson. “He insisted on coming to you with his results. We argued. I told him that he needed to do more tests. He wouldn’t listen. Mr. Hanson, he was going to shut down the entire program. I needed the bonuses you had promised.”

Mr. Hanson stepped closer. He towered over Charley. “What did he find out?”

“It sounded crazy, you know? But that’s what we’ve been dealing with here.”

“Cut to the chase,” Alex said. “What happened?”

“He wouldn’t listen. We were out in the parking lot and I begged him not to report his results until later, just hold off a few months —”

“Until you were paid your bonus?” Mr. Hanson asked.

Charley nodded. “He refused. I keep the gun in my glove box. I just snapped and grabbed the gun. I shot him. I couldn’t believe it had happened so fast. He just went down. I got him up into the car and then I went around to the docks. I off loaded him into a barrel and then slapped a test label on it so that it would go through to the lab. Those are full of toxic waste. No one was going to touch it. I put it through the phase shift and just like that he was gone.”

“You murdered him?” Patel jumped up off his chair as if he thought Charley was contagious. He moved over to stand next to April.

“Phase shift?” Alex asked.

Charley had covered his face. His shoulders shook. Mr. Hanson answered. “That’s TachWorks new discovery. We’ve found a way to shift the toxic waste out of phase with the planet, gravity doesn’t hold them and the planet’s own motion leaves them behind. They can’t interact with normal matter and they’re left behind in space.”

A laugh escaped from behind Charley’s hands. He uncovered his face. “That’s what we thought was happening. Nathan figured out that we had it all wrong. We were shifting the barrels in time, and they could interact with normal matter. He found an article about a die-off discovered in the fossil record. The researchers couldn’t figure out what caused this patch of ocean to have a die-off. Turns out it was caused by barrels we sent through. We caused that dead spot.”

“Through time?” Mr. Hanson asked.

Alex felt chilled. “So he really did go through to fifty million years ago? You sent him.”

Charley took a deep shuddering breath. “Yes. But don’t you see? It doesn’t matter. How can it matter? If we send the waste that far in the past it can’t possibly harm us.”

Patel spoke up. “And if the toxic waste we send prevents some species from evolving?” Patel’s voice rose. “You could wipe out the human race without even meaning too!”

Alex shook his head. He moved forward and took Charley’s arm. “I don’t know about that, but I do know you confessed to murdering Nathan Tolliver.”

As Alex led Charley out of the building in cuffs he thought about the barrels of toxic waste poisoning the past, jeopardizing the future. If they really wanted to deal with it they should find a better answer than burying it and crossing their fingers that it wouldn’t cause a problem later.

But that was a job for someone else.

🔍
4,645 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 47th weekly short story release, written in November 2010. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Headless Server.

Trick or Treat

Christina wanted little Roy to have a perfect first Halloween.

She never considered what might happen, taking her innocent son up to strangers houses in the night.

On a dark Halloween night, the trick is on her.

1

The house stood proudly alone at the end of the dark street, surrounded by the dark wet boughs of the towering Douglas fir trees, but the street light across the street cast a pool of lurid orange light across the wet pavement. A three-story tall Victorian was painted like a bruise in deep purples, with yellow trim. Along the tops of the steep shingled roof iron spikes stabbed up at the heavens. The gutters ended in thick iron chains, down which the water splashed and tumbled into stained wooden rain barrels. The closest house, at a diagonal across the street, was an empty double-wide with a realtor sign in the window and Christina had already been to the last house before this one on this dead-end street. The people there must have gone to a Halloween party because her knocks had only raised the rabid barking of what must be a monstrous dog.

Christina popped the front wheel of the stroller up to swivel around a large puddle. Nestled in the seat Roy looked around at the dark night with wide eyes above the whiskers she had drawn on his face. His little tiger outfit was so cute but so far they’d only found one house where someone answered her knock and that was way back down the other street. For all the trouble she went through to get into her own witch outfit — and she looked totally hot despite the few extra pounds of baby weight — and to get Roy into his outfit, it didn’t look like it was going to be worth the trouble.

“I don’t know, little man. It might be your first Halloween but it looks like it’s going to be a bust.” Except for the pictures she took with the camera. Those came out good. If nothing else she could point to the fact that he at least had a costume and got to go out for his first Halloween.

Big Roy told her not to bother. He said that Roy wouldn’t even remember it, but she had said that she would remember it and when they looked back she wanted to have a picture of the holiday. And since Big Roy was deployed in Afghanistan right now it wasn’t like it even mattered to him anyway.

The house might look scary but it was dark and it was Halloween. On a sunny day it would probably look totally cute. The flower beds and lawns looked immaculate, plus they had on three lanterns on that big porch which wrapped around two sides of the house. At least a half-dozen Jack-o’-lanterns that leered, scowled and glowered from the porch railing. A skeleton reclined in a faded floral dress in a rocking chair near the door and another in overalls without a shirt leaned against the wall beside the door cupping the bowl of a pipe in his bony hands. She half expected to see the skeleton light the pipe and bring it up to his grinning teeth. To top it off tiny wizened shrunken heads with their eyelids sewed closed hung in between each of the pumpkins from the top porch beam. Clearly these people had gone all out to get their house decorated. With them being so isolated it was surprising that they had gone to so much trouble. How could she disappoint them? And besides, she deserved a bit more than a single tootsie-roll for all of her trouble.

She pushed the stroller up the concrete driveway and noticed that the flat stones among the flowers were done up as tombstones, with names and dates on them. They looked real, not like those cheap plastic ones sold at the store. So real that it made her feel all shivery inside. Or the cold night was finally getting to her through the thin black dress. It already made her breasts ache.

“We do this last house,” she told Roy. “And then we can go home and you can nurse until you pass out. How does that sound?”

Roy didn’t answer. Of course not. At least he wasn’t crying. He stared up at the bright lanterns that hung from the walls as she pushed the stroller up the ramp onto the porch. The tires made small thud, thud noises as she rolled across the boards. Her heels added sharper raps with each step. By the time she reached the door she wouldn’t even need to knock. These people had to hear her coming. The shrunken heads were like the tombstones in the flower beds. They didn’t look like plastic at all. She slowed and reached up, extending her index finger to touch one. The wrinkled skin felt just like dry skin! Christina gave a little yelp and jerked her hand away while the shrunken head rocked gently in the breeze and turned to look at her with sightless eyes.

She laughed softly at her fright and leaned over to look at Roy. “Momma’s silly! So silly.”

She pushed the stroller on toward the door. The heads had to be made of leather, that had to be it. Maybe rabbit hide or something like that. She considered turning back but if she did that she could never tell Big Roy about this. He’d never stop teasing her if she let a few Halloween decorations scare her off. Besides, they really were pretty cool. These folks obviously had the money to pay for that sort of thing. And besides all of that, they had to have heard her coming by now. Wouldn’t they think it was weird if she turned around and left now?

Christina reached the front door after navigating the stroller around the skeleton in the rocking chair. She gave both skeletons an uneasy look. Up close they looked startling realistic, horror-movie special effects realism. Bits of tissue clung to the bones just like a turkey carcass at Thanksgiving. Mold spotted the tattered floral dress and other dark stains marred the pattern. Beneath the rocker was a dark pile of something, it could be dirt but it looked more like mud with a few leaves stuck to it. A couple chilled flies took off from the skeleton and buzzed up around the lantern hanging above the porch. Too realistic. These people obviously wanted to carry the whole thing a little too far.

She raised her hand and knocked twice on the door. Two sharp knocks, and if no one came quickly she was going to turn the stroller around and leave. At least she could say that she was brave enough to get up to the door and knock. Maybe despite the decorations they wouldn’t come —

A woman opened the door. She was really tall, almost to the top of the door frame. Long blond hair cascaded down past her shoulders in complex motionless waves that look so unreal it had to be a wig. She wore a low-cut strapless red dress with pearls around her neck. From behind her came the sounds of music and laughter and the smells of roast turkey mingled with pie. The gigantic woman clapped her hands together and did a little bounce.

“Trick or treat,” Christina managed to say.

“How he’s so adorable! I could just eat him up!” She bent down and plucked Roy right out of the stroller.

Christina was so stunned for a half second. She just blinked in shock and in that moment the woman stepped back into the house and slammed the door in Christina’s face.

Christina hurled herself at the door, screaming Roy’s name. The door knob wouldn’t budge. She pummeled the door with her fists still calling for Roy. The door didn’t open.

She ran to the window, knocking against the pipe-holding skeleton in the process. He clattered to the porch behind her. There were dark curtains across the windows. She couldn’t see anything inside. Christina banged on the glass. She didn’t care if she broke a window or not. She wanted to break the window! That woman had stolen her baby!

The window held and no one so much as peeked through the curtain.

“Give him back!” She screamed so hard that the words tore at her throat.

She raced back to the stroller, stumbling over the fallen skeleton. She grabbed the stroller and carried it to the window. She drew back like a batter in the world series and let it fly at the window. The stroller hit hard enough to shatter the plastic that held the front wheel to the frame. The jolt numbed her arms but the window held. Christina stabbed the broken frame at the window again and it made a horrible screech as it slid down the glass without leaving so much as a scratch. Screaming in frustration she threw the stroller over the railing out into the yard.

Christina charged down the length of the porch looking at the other windows for any opening, any way she might even get a look inside. Nothing. She ran back the other way, jumping over the fallen skeleton, and checked the other windows along the porch. Not a single one showed anything from the inside. She threw herself at the nearest window, pounding against the glass with her fists while screaming Roy’s name over and over again.

Exhausted after several minutes of that she fell away. Her hands throbbed with pain. The skin on several of her knuckles had split open. She panted and stumbled down the porch, off onto the sidewalk, and then out into the yard. She collapsed on the lawn and vomited. The heaves brought up the tea she’d had before coming out. It felt like her insides were trying to claw out of her throat. She gasped and spit into the grass, then she got back up and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. She had to get her baby back! She saw the headstones in the flower bed. The stroller might not have broken the window but how about one of those!

Christina ran to the flower bed. She clawed at the ground. One of her nails ripped, the pain a bright star that she dismissed and kept digging. She got her fingers beneath the stone and yanked it out of the ground. The marble felt heavy in her hands. Abigail Mission, may she rest in Heaven. Too nice for a decoration. Much better as a battering ram!

She ran back to the porch. At the first big window she heaved the stone at the glass shouting, “Eat this!”

She rushed forward, raising her arms to protect her from the broken glass. The grave stone hit the glass and tumbled down. Christina couldn’t stop, she was already in motion. She crashed into the glass after the stone and the grave stone dropped onto her foot. The pain burned past her foot and up her leg. Sobbing, Christina stumbled away and fell on the porch. She hit the hard wood and raised her hands up to her head. Tears burned her eyes and sobs choked her. Her foot felt immense and on fire. Through her tears she could see that the window remained intact. There wasn’t even a scratch on the glass. She wanted to curl up in a ball but she couldn’t do that. That woman, those people inside, they had Roy. Her sweet little boy.

Christina got up and tried to stand but the pain in her foot was too much. She fell back to the porch. It felt like the shoe was closing around her foot. She kicked off her pumps. Her right foot was already turning red and purple across the top and sides. It was swelling out like a balloon beneath her tights. She dragged herself across the porch to the railing and used it to pull herself up, keeping her weight off her foot as much as possible. She must have broken it with the gravestone. It wouldn’t be so bad otherwise. Still, she made it up and wiped her face with her sleeves. They were probably all having a good laugh at her expense inside. For all she knew those curtains were like one-way mirrors and they were watching her throw herself at the windows. She pointed a finger at the nearest window.

“You’d better bring Roy back out here right now! Please, he’s my son. I won’t tell anyone, I just want my baby back!”

The curtains didn’t move. The door didn’t open and Christina wanted to wail but that wouldn’t get Roy back. She needed a better plan and she could hardly walk. She needed help.

She started shuffling down the porch. There might be another way in. She could go around the house and check. If she only had a cell phone this would be over so easily. She could just call the police. But she didn’t have a cell phone. Big Roy thought that they were a rip-off. They had one when he was stationed at home because he had to carry one, but he wouldn’t get one of their own for her to use. He went on about how it was a conspiracy to take over the nation’s communications. She’d take that right now if it meant getting Roy back. She reached the first Jack-o’-lantern and shoved it off the railing. It bounced unharmed into the flower bed. When she reached the next shrunken head she reached up and yanked it down. It left a few strands of dark hair trapped in the nail that had held it up. She chucked it after the Jack-o’-lantern.

Two more Jack-o’-lanterns and two more shrunken heads followed the others before she got to the end of the porch. She couldn’t put her weight on her foot at all, which made her next move difficult. She hoped around the post at the end of the porch and started back along the porch so that she could keep her hand on the house and avoid putting her weight on her swollen foot. God, it looked twice the size as normal and the tights were pulled taunt against the swollen skin. It throbbed with her pulse. She rubbed her nose and smelled the pumpkins on her skin. It suddenly made her think of carving pumpkins with Roy earlier in the evening. He had watched, not understanding, but it seemed like he had fun. He had smiled a lot. And those horrible people! They had stolen him!

Christina limped along the porch. She felt like puking again both from the pain in her foot and the thought of what might be happening to Roy. That woman had said she could just eat him up but she couldn’t possibly be serious, could she? It was hard getting across the uneven ground of the flower bed on one foot but she took great delight in each flower that she crushed. She reached one of the shrunken heads that she had thrown down and delighted in smashing it down into the earth. Horrid thing! She stepped off and a thought occurred to her.

What if that’s what the woman had in mind for Roy? The shrunken head’s stitched up eyes seemed to blindly look at her. She had thought that they must be made out of rabbit skin but what if these heads were actually the heads from babies?

Christina heard a low wailing sound that started building in intensity. It took her a couple steps away from the head before she realized that the sound was coming from her. She tried to stop making the noise. The shrunken heads couldn’t be baby heads. That was insane.

Nonetheless she saw Roy’s head hanging by his fine baby-soft hair from a nail in the porch beam. His plump cheeks withering like a raisin, and his beautiful eyes stitched closed with heavy black stitches.

No.

No. No. No!

Christina lunched along the porch. She was going to find a way into this house. She’d get Roy back. And she’d make them pay for what they had done.

She reached the end of porch and started around the side of the house. It was dark away from even the dim light of the street light. Not far across the narrow strip of lawn tall Douglas fir trees towered over the house, dripping with moss and menace. The ground started sloping down and that put the windows out of her reach. She stooped and grabbed a handful of rocks from along the base of the wall and threw them at the window overhead. They rattled off without harming the window.

“Roy!” She grabbed another handful and threw it at the house, not even caring what she hit anymore. “Give him back!”

The house stayed as silent and as impenetrable as the grave. Christina hobbled onward.

Around the side of the house she saw her first sign of hope. The ground continued to drop away and there was a daylight basement window only a few feet ahead. She hopped and shuffled over to the window and looked down. It was a good-sized window with a curved metal barrier holding back the earth. Like the other windows a dark curtain made it impossible to see inside. Christina scooped up a rock lying by the culvert and threw it as hard as she could at the window.

It bounced off with the same dull thunk as the others. She bit back her screams and sat down with her legs in the small area in front of the window. She crouched down, gasping when her foot hit the walls of the barrier, and tried pulling the window open. It wouldn’t budge. She pounded on the window with no result.

She had to get in. She had to find Roy! Christina grabbed the rock she had thrown from the ground and held it in her hand as she hit the window again. Her arm ached from the impact but the window remained unmarred.

Christina threw the rock aside. There had to be another way. She stood up on her good leg and grabbed the side of the barrier to pull herself up. She got up on the side on her knees and leaned against the house to stand again.

Just as she did she saw the curtain in the window twitch, just a tiny bit, but the flash of light from inside caught her eye.

“Give him back!”

The curtain didn’t move again. Christina leaned her head against the wall of the house. “Please give him back,” she muttered. “Give me back my son!”

The house might as well not be there at all, she couldn’t hear anything from inside. The light didn’t escape from the windows. She could just as well be asking a mountain to open up. The pain in her foot radiated all the way up her leg and made her teeth ache. She was tempted, despite the chill and the dew, to stretch out on the grass and just sleep. Escape from everything.

But she wouldn’t give up. Christina shook her head. She’d never give up Roy.

It was the house, or the people in the house, that even made her consider giving up. Like some Jedi mind trick, they wanted her to give up and go away, leaving Roy at their whims. She wouldn’t do it.

Christina started limping along the wall of the house again. As she rounded the back corner of the house without finding any way in a dog starting barking at her. She flinched, expecting to see it flying across the back lawn at her but it was contained within a chain link pen at the back corner of the lawn. Next to that were the desiccated remains of a garden. Dry stalks of corn like rows of spears. At the center of the garden a skeleton scarecrow hung from a cross. The dog barred his teeth and snarled at her. She couldn’t see much of him at all in the dim light. His teeth, and glowing eyes, beyond that he was pretty much just a black shadow. She ignored the barking. Let him bark, if he couldn’t get out then he didn’t worry her and the barking might bring someone outside.

There was a deck along the back of the house. Christina grabbed the railing and hopped up onto the first step. Her leg ached so much that she barely made it. She sank down to her knees and crawled instead. She made sure to keep her foot up so that she didn’t bang it on the steps. Once she made it up to the top of the short stairs she stopped and looked at the house.

One dim yellow bulb was responsible for what light there was in the back. Fancy double doors with framed glass were closed and curtains blocked any view of the inside, just like the windows on either side. It had to be locked. Everything else had been locked up tight. But she couldn’t let herself give in. She had to try. She thought of Roy’s perfect pink cheeks and his little fingers and she started crawling to the doors. It took a minute, but she got there. She reached up and tried the door handle.

It didn’t budge.

Even though she had expected the door to be locked, it felt like the door had maliciously taunted her. As if the door had been unlocked just until the second before she touched the handle. She grabbed the handles and yanked on them as hard as she could. They didn’t even rattle. She screamed despite her sore throat and banged her bloodied fists on the glass.

Nothing. No response. The whole place was locked down tight. There was no way she was getting inside.

Christina slumped against the doors, covered her face and wept. Roy’s face kept appearing in her mind. First the Halloween costume, his little Tigger outfit with the whiskers drawn on his adorable face. Or his to-die-for coveralls with the Thomas train engine shirt. The fuzzy monster pajamas covered in red and green monsters with green monsters on the feet. He loved to growl at them.

And now a real monster had him and she couldn’t get to him. She needed help. The two closest houses were empty, but if she went further back up the road there had to be houses with people home. All she needed was one place, one that would let her use a phone and she could call for help. Call the police. Then the people in this house would have to give her back her son. It’d be hard. She couldn’t even think about how hard it was going to be to walk all that way with her broken foot but it didn’t matter. She’d crawl if she had too. It made her sick to even think of leaving the house while they had Roy but what other choice did she have? She couldn’t get in and they just ignored her.

Christina lowered her hands and there was a small boy standing right in front of her on the deck. She hadn’t heard him at all. He wore a black outfit with a glow-in-the-dark skeleton on it. In one hand he held a black plastic bag with the picture of a Jack-o’-lantern design. He wasn’t such a little baby anymore, but she recognized him. How could she not?

It was Roy, a toddler but still Roy!

She reached out for him. “Roy —”

Roy turned and ran away across the deck, toward the stairs. He could fall!

Christina lunged to her feet and pain shot up her leg. It wouldn’t support her weight and she fell flat on the deck. She lifted her head just in time to see Roy descend the stairs and race away across the lawn toward the other side of the house. He moved so fast for a toddler!

She scrambled across the wood and got up holding onto the railing. She couldn’t put any weight at all on her foot without sharp pain. She hopped along the railing toward the stairs.

“Roy! Come back!”

He stopped running. But he wasn’t a toddler anymore. A boy of maybe five years old. Still wearing a black skeleton costume and holding the trick or treat bag.

Christina held out her hand. “Please come back, Roy, honey!”

He looked like he was listening to her. At least he didn’t run. Christina couldn’t stand anymore. She sank down on the step. “Please, come back.”

Roy waved to her and gave her his bright smile that made her heart ache. Then he turned away from her and walked around the corner of the house and disappeared again.

Christina pushed herself forward. She went down on her hands and knees and crawled down the steps. She kept crawling when she got to the grass. She didn’t care. She couldn’t walk and she wasn’t going to let Roy get away. Not this time. She crawled as fast as she could to the corner of the house.

Roy was walking away from her along the side of the house. Into the darkness. He wasn’t five anymore, more like ten, but he still wore the same costume.

“Roy!”

He glanced back and for a second she could just make out his face. His eyes searched the darkness but he didn’t seem to see her. Then he was gone again, around to the front of the house.

Christina scrambled forward, crawling as fast as she could manage. When she forgot to keep her foot up the pain flared up her leg and nearly made her give up. But she couldn’t let her son get away again.

So she crawled.

The wet grass soaked her clothes even more. Hidden stones dug into her palms. Her nose ran and dripped but she didn’t stop crawling awkwardly forward until she finally reached the front of the house.

A young man stood in front of the porch, lit by light from the open door. He was good-looking, with the same blond hair that she remembered, only not a boy or a baby anymore. It was Roy, dressed entirely in black but a long black coat had replaced his costume. She heard music coming from the house. Music so beautiful and dark it made her want to put her head down and just die. Christina crawled out of the shadows at the side of the house, and then used the corner of the house to brace herself so that she could stand up on her good leg.

“Roy?”

The young man that was somehow her son turned and looked at her. His eyes narrowed and then widened in slight recognition. He walked to her and she saw he was wearing an expensive black suit. A small curved silver tie-tack held a scarlet tie in place. A metallic black watch glittered on his wrist. He stopped several steps back.

“You’re her, aren’t you?” he asked, his voice gentle.

“Please Roy, please come back.”

Roy shook his head. “No mother, that’s a whole other world, don’t you know that? There can’t be any going back. Not now.”

“I don’t understand,” Christina said. “What’s happened to you?”

“I can’t explain it to you.” He looked at the watch. “But I remember seeing you, when I was little. I thought you were a ghost.”

“I’m not a ghost!”

Roy nodded. “I know. I understand it better now. I wish I could make it easier for you.”

The woman appeared in the front doorway. The same one that had snatched Roy away when he was a baby. “Roy, we’re ready to go. It’s time you went to work.”

Roy nodded. He gave Christina a sad smile and turned away. The woman that stole him came out. She wore a long flowing black gown. She was beautiful. When Roy stopped in front of her she straightened his tie, brushed his hair to the side with her fingers, and then they started walking down the porch. The front door shut behind them but the lanterns still lit the porch. The Jack-o’-lanterns were back, Christina realized, and the shrunken heads that swung in the breeze. Not only that the sky had cleared and the moonlight shown down on the yard and reflected off the roof of a long black car that sat in the driveway.

Christina limped along the wall of the house. “Wait! Roy! Wait!”

Neither Roy or the woman paid her any attention. They walked past her as if she wasn’t there at all and went to the car. Roy got in on the driver’s side, the woman on the other. Christina tried to step away from the house and fell. Her head struck the corner of one of the gravestones and the world went dark.

2

Hands grabbed her. Christina shrieked and fought.

“It’s okay! It’s okay!”

Someone held her arms. “It’s okay, ma’am. We’ll take care of you.”

The voice sounded soothing. She opened her eyes, blinked against the blinding light, and finally could see the face of the man holding her arms. He reminded her of her grandfather, with his white hair and round face. He smiled at her.

“There you go, we’ll take care of you.”

Christina swallowed and looked around. There were other people. Police. A woman beside her in blue. She wasn’t on the ground, but a bed, a gurney. And it was daytime.

Roy. “Did you get my son! Roy! They took him into the house!”

The older policeman looked over at the woman in blue and back to her. “House?”

Christina tried to sit up. They pushed her back with their hands but not before she saw the blackened overgrown foundation at the center of the empty lot. No house. No sign that a house had been there in a long time. An enormous howling emptiness engulfed her mind and she went limp. The only thing that remained was the memory of Roy, smiling.

4,996 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 36th weekly short story release, written in November 2010, originally published under my pen name “R.M. Haag.”

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is the One more spooky story The Thing in the Snow.

Future Wasn’t

Rodney Cross dreamed of a brighter future filled with robots, flying cars and space colonies.

And after inventing the quantum temporal machine he can make sure the future he wants exists.

Just as soon as he works out a few bugs.

If you enjoy fun science fiction stories, check out “Future Wasn’t.”

1

Rodney’s keys clacked like the rapid fire of a machine gun while the words glowed green on the oak-framed screen. Yes! Yes! Right there.

“God damn! Yes!” Rodney slapped the carriage return with a satisfying swat. The bell rang out. He’d done it. He’d finally cracked the final bit of code. He spun his chair around and jumped up. He ran for the stairs his long legs carrying his lanky frame rapidly across the cluttered basement. His stained lab coat billowed out behind him as he took two of the stairs at a time. He reached the top and banged the door open.

“Ouch!” The door bounced back at him. Rodney caught it and peeked around the edge.

Jessica glared at him and rubbed her arm. The door knob must have hit her elbow. A full eight inches shorter than him and curvy, she still had the long black curls that he loved about her the first time he’d seen her in college. Unlike him she didn’t have a stitch of gray in her hair. He didn’t think she dyed it.

“That hurt,” she complained.

“Sorry.” Rodney slipped out into the kitchen. Small with a tiny island at the center. Rodney slipped onto one of the two worn bar stools sitting at the island. He leaned on the battered wood. “Are you okay?”

She rolled her dark eyes. “Yeah. I’ll be fine.”

Rodney let a small smile escape. “I finished, Jess! I really finished it.”

“What? Your time machine? You can’t be serious.”

“I did! Except I’ve told you before it isn’t a time machine. It isn’t possible to travel through time.”

“I know, but —”

Rodney clapped his hands together. “I just can’t decide what to fix first.”

“You can’t seriously mean it works?” Jessica walked over to the sink. She turned on the faucet and water squirted up into the air. She cursed and shut it off. “How about fixing the sink?”

Rodney snapped his fingers. “Great idea! Wouldn’t you have thought that someone could make a sink that doesn’t leak?”

“Rodney—”

“Just give me a minute!” Rodney jumped off the stool and in two strides crossed over to the basement door and yanked it open. He looked back and held out his hand. “Come on.”

Jessica shook her head. “I’ve got too much to do.”

“You’ve got to come downstairs. The exclusion bubble doesn’t extend far beyond the temporal singularity. If you aren’t within the exclusion bubble then you’ll be changed along with everything else. You won’t remember how things were.”

“Rodney, come on. I’ve got to work tomorrow. One of us has to make some money.” Jessica rubbed the side of her head. “You don’t even look for a job anymore. You’re always down there working on these crazy —”

“Please? Come down into the basement with me and I’ll fix the sink. I’ll fix everything. I’ll make it all the way it should be.”

“Is this going to take long?”

Rodney grinned. “Depends on how you look at it, I suppose.”

“Rodney.”

He held up his hands. “No, not long at all. We’ll run the test and you’ll see that it works. Then we can figure out what needs to be changed.”

Jessica grabbed a red and white dish towel and started drying her hands as she walked around the island. She dropped the towel on the surface.

“I’ll come down, but only for a couple minutes. I have dinner to fix. Unless you want to do it yourself.”

“When I’m done you’ll have a robot that can cook our dinner for us,” Rodney promised.

His workstation took up one whole corner of the basement. He’d built the work surfaces from two-by-fours and plywood covered with a golden laminate. He built all of his own equipment with custom oak and cherry cases, internally-lit water cooled systems, refurbished vintage typewriter keyboards and hand-crafted monitor frames. Far better than all that plastic crap put out by the computer industry. Didn’t people understand how wrong things had gone?

But the pride of the workshop stood alone beside his work area. Bronze and oak frame with polished copper edging, it looked like a large ornate safe complete with a large numbered dial on the front and a handle. Rodney patted the top.

“What do you think?”

Jessica crossed her arms. “Very pretty. Maybe you can sell it on eBay for enough to cover the cost of building the thing.”

He laughed. He dropped into his chair. “Just wait until you see what it can do.”

“I’m waiting.”

Rodney’s fingers pounded the keys. “Just let me key in the parameters and the quantum temporal machine will scan the probabilities to find the key.”

“Meaning?”

A burst of rapid keystrokes and Rodney slapped the shiny carriage return. It snapped across the keys and the bell rang out. “Hang on!”

Jessica didn’t move.

On the monitor a stream of green on black numbers cascaded down the screen in a rapid stream. Then they swirled and spiraled around until they became a blur. A fractal pattern burst out of the center all blues and reds, replicated across the screen and then left the screen black except for a small text prompt in the upper left-hand corner.

“That’s it!” Rodney bounded up from his chair. He patted the quantum temporal machine. “It worked!”

“What worked? Nothing happened except for your screen saver coming on.”

Rodney waved a finger. “Oh, you doubt me. Well, come on. Let’s go take a look.”

Jessica turned and walked back up the stairs. Rodney followed on her heels. When they got up in the kitchen he slipped past her and ran around the island. He stopped beside the sink and gestured with his hands at the faucets. “Behold!”

She stopped and her eyes widened. Then she came over and looked more closely. Rodney enjoyed seeing her expression. Their old faucets had been cheap plastic knobs, for hot and cold and a thin curved faucet. Now it’d all changed. A wider chrome faucet rose up from the back of the deep shining sink look more like art than plumbing. No knobs at all. Jessica reached out towards the faucet and green numbers floated up — seemingly out of the metal surface of the faucet.

100°F

Jessica pulled her hand back and the numbers sank away. She pressed her hands to her mouth and looked at him. Rodney couldn’t help but laugh. He hugged his arms around his middle.

“Well?”

Jessica turned back to the faucet. She reached out and the numbers floated up again. She stuck her hands beneath the faucet and water streamed smoothly out of the wide faucet. She reached up towards the numbers and they changed.

101°F, 102°F

She lowered her hand and the numbers decreased. She pulled back and the water shut off and the numbers shrank away. Rodney reached over and plucked the dish towel off the island. He handed it to her.

“Well?” He repeated. “What do you think?”

“How?” Jessica looked back at the sink, then at him. “How could you possibly have done this? You didn’t do anything!”

Rodney shook his head. “I did. I changed history.”

“You changed history?”

“Yes. You can’t travel to other times, but you can alter the past. Shift one tiny thing and the future changes.”

“But how?”

“I inspired someone.”

“You inspired someone?”

“Yep.” Rodney took her hands. “The quantum time machine scans through all the probable universes and finds the right moment susceptible to be nudged. And it nudges. Knocks an electron into another state. Causes a proton to take another path. Tiny changes that cascade until something bigger happens. In this case a bit of inspiration in the right brain and history came together to make this the standard technology in kitchens.”

Jessica looked around the kitchen. She walked over to the stove. “It changed too!”

Sure enough. No visible burners or controls but when she reached out displays rose up around the stove. Floating screens and controls. Jessica pulled her hand back. “You didn’t just change the sink!”

Rodney shrugged. “Of course the technology used is going to have other applications too. But isn’t this better?”

“I guess so.” She turned back to him. “How could you do this?”

“I’ve been working on it for months. I told you about it.”

She laughed. She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t believe you.”

Rodney went to her. He pulled her into an embrace. “That’s okay. There’s so much we can do now.”

Jessica looked up. He bent down to kiss her. He rested his forehead against hers. “What should we do next?”

Jessica stepped back. “We can’t keep changing things!”

“Why not? You’re not going to cite the temporal prime directive, are you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She waved her hand towards the stove. “We don’t know what all of the changes are with just this one thing. Don’t you think we should find out before you do anything else?”

Rodney pursed his lips. “You’ve got a point. I’m getting carried away. How about we fix dinner and then I’ll do some research afterwards? Find out just how much things have changed.”

Jessica nodded. “That sounds good.”

“Okay, what’s for dinner?” Rodney asked. “I’m starved!”

2

Research didn’t take long. Interactive holographic interfaces showed up everywhere these days. Browsing quickly showed that the technology had penetrated all levels of society. Rodney quickly placed orders for components to upgrade his own system since every site complained about his antiquated two dimensional interface.

Rodney laughed and spun his chair around. His eyes fell on the floor-to-ceiling book cases that covered the walls beside his workstation. Many classics of science fiction. Examples of the way the future should have turned out, but wasn’t. Time to indulge in one of his personal favorites. Rodney spun back to the keyboard. His fingers stabbed down at the round keys. Clack. Crack. Snap! He built up steam, building the query, searching for the answer. Over the decades the answer had proved elusive. All it needed was the right person. Maybe someone that hadn’t survived in the past by accident or design. The quantum temporal machine located the highest probability solution. He hit the carriage return. Colors and numbers flashed on the screen. The screen saver cycled through several cycles. Rodney tapped his fingers impatiently on his chair. Then the screen cleared. Success. The prompt waited for more input.

Rodney slapped the arm of the chair and bounded up the stairs. He stopped himself before banging the kitchen door open and eased it open instead. A shiny silver person stood at the sink, metal fingers dancing across holographic controls for the dish washer. The head turned and eyes glowed green.

“Mr. Cross, is there something you need?”

Rodney laughed. “No, thanks.”

He walked out into the kitchen. The robot was short. Five six or so with smooth rounded limbs. Bright and shiny. It moved easily, elegantly, almost like a dancer as it returned to the task of loading the dish washer. It shut the door and the machine started up.

“We’re going to have to do something about that,” Rodney said.

“Excuse me, sir. Do something about what?”

“The dish washer. Doesn’t it strike you as a silly device? Why not have a matter-energy converter and replicator? Then we wouldn’t have to wash anything. Just dematerialize it and return the energy for other use.”

“I’m not aware that such an appliance is available, sir, but I could do some searches and find out.”

“Don’t worry about it. Where’s Mrs. Cross?”

“I believe she is in the living room.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it, sir.”

Rodney left the robot to do whatever the robot did around the house and went into the other room. Jessica sat on a couch with a book floating in front of her. Rodney stopped, amazed. She reached up and flicked the page. It flipped over and he heard the whisper of paper against paper. It looked real, but come on, it was floating! And Jessica, she had changed too. Her hair was shorter, more styled. She looked thinner too, wearing a loose white top with thin straps over her tanned shoulders. She had matching pants. Like some sort of yoga outfit.

He’d forgotten to get her into the basement before he altered the timeline. His gut clenched. That was dangerous. What if the changes cost him Jessica? He couldn’t make that mistake again.

Jessica looked up at him and smiled. “There you are. What have you been up to?”

Rodney walked over to the couch and dropped heavily beside her. Jessica brought her hands together, closing the book. It shrank down drained into a ring she wore.

“Making the robot.”

Jessica’s forehead wrinkled. “Danny? Honey, we bought Danny two years ago.”

Rodney shook his head. “No. I mean, sure, yes, but only because I changed history.”

“What do you mean you changed history?” Her eyes widened. “You did it again without warning me?”

“I know. I’m sorry. I was looking at the books and I just thought it was too bad that we still didn’t have robots like in the books. I had the QTM scan probabilities for the right moment that would lead to the creation of intelligent robots in our lifetimes. And here he is.”

“But the first positronic brain was built nearly ten years ago! I remember it being on all the news sites.”

Rodney reached over and placed his hand on her leg. “That’s because I didn’t think. I’m sorry. If you’d been down in the exclusion field then you would have been protected from the changes.”

“Would we still have Danny?”

“Yes, but we wouldn’t remember buying him.”

“So the more you do this, the more out of sync you’re getting, aren’t you? You don’t remember what has happened?” She sat up straighter. “You don’t remember what has happened with us, do you?”

“I do.” Rodney rubbed his eyes. “I mean, as far as my memories go they might be different. Either way I love you. I won’t make this mistake again. The next time I change anything we’ll both be in the exclusion field.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t change anything else.”

“I have to.” Rodney got up off the couch. His hands waved about. “I can change it all. Solve the big problems. I can make the world a better place! You can’t expect me not to do anything!”

“It’s scary. It’s too much power, Rodney! What if you make a mistake?”

He shook his head. “I won’t. It’ll be wonderful. You’ll see.”

3

The next day — with Jessica and Danny by his side — Rodney used the QTM to order up flying cars. Out in the driveway they found they owned an old but working Toyota Peregrine. The road out front shrank by a lane and seemed to be used primarily by walkers and bicyclists. But since none of them remembered how to fly the thing Jessica forbid him from flying it until they had a chance to get lessons.

Standing outside on the cracked concrete landing pad Rodney looked at the house. The yellow paint peeling on the walls, the shingles growing moss. The old place needed a lot of work.

4

Changing the probabilities on last week’s Powerball lottery turned out to be child’s play for the QTM. Jessica quit her job immediately and allowed that the QTM might just be a good idea after all, but wouldn’t it be better if they took some time to enjoy the changes he’d already made? Rodney agreed. With their lottery winnings they could afford to remodel the house so long as the workers stayed out of the basement. Not that anyone would know what the QTM could do — but he didn’t want to risk damage to the equipment. He needn’t have worried. The crew that arrived to do the work were all robots except for the foreman, a heavy-set man with a silver goatee and a cane. He landed a big silver Ford Albatross on the front lawn. The whole thing rocked as he climbed down from the cockpit. Rodney came out to meet him. Jessica had gone out shopping with Danny piloting their new Lexus Enterprise.

“Mr. Lorkin?”

The foreman beamed. “One and only. My crew should be arriving. Ah, here they are!”

A much larger Ford 2010 descended and landed on the lawn beside the Albatross. A crew of robots dressed in blue jumpsuits marched out of the 2010 and assembled in formation in front of the house.

Rodney couldn’t help grinning. “Very nice. You’ve got the specs I sent?”

“Indeed,” Lorkin said. “Full retrofit and an expansion out the back to add three additional rooms. We’ll work around your schedules but the work should be complete within one week. The crew will remain on site the entire time.”

“Excellent.” Rodney clapped his hands together and gestured at the house. “Go ahead, then.”

Mr. Lorkin turned to the robots. “You heard the boss! Go ahead and get started. Usual protocols for an occupied dwelling.”

Without a word the robots broke ranks and headed for the house. They moved in complete coordination. Mr. Lorkin turned back to Rodney. “Do you have any questions?”

“No, thank you. I’ll be working in the basement.”

“Very good. I won’t keep you any longer. If you have any concerns, don’t hesitate to let me know. Or tell the robots. They’ll follow your instructions.”

“I understand.” Rodney headed back to the house. As he entered two robots busy pulling up the fake wood flooring stopped their work and stood aside as he passed. Rodney nodded and headed to the basement.

His first order of business now was to find out what else had changed in this future. With robots like these just what could have been accomplished? It didn’t take long to discover that the space program still languished in near Earth orbit. No sign of fusion power. In fact with all the robots running around the demand for power was higher than ever. Even so no solar power satellites, fusion generators or antimatter production facilities existed. People had an amazing tool now — the robotic workforce — but it had a tremendous thirst for power. That had to change! He couldn’t do that. Not just yet. Not with Jessica out shopping. Upstairs the robots pounded on the floor. No matter. He could at least begin the calculations. There were a number of changes that needed to be made to the timeline. Rodney flicked open a new document and started listing the changes. Starting with human colonies throughout the solar system. At least space-based habitats, asteroid settlements and colonies on Mars. The outer solar system could wait awhile longer.

And that wasn’t all. What about wars? All this thirst for power had led to an increasing number of conflicts. He accessed a map showing current military conflicts around the globe and discovered an appalling number of conflicts. Add in all the sites of terrorist activities and it looked like the world was tearing itself apart in conflicts over resources and ideals.

Rodney leaned back in his chair. Some of these issues might be resolved by increasing the power supply to the planet. After all, if they didn’t have a lack of resources — including space — what would there be to fight over?

5

“Here’s what I want to do next.” Rodney floated a holographic screen over to Jessica.

The list scrolled across her eyes. Danny stood nearby, neatly kitted out in a tux. The list reflected on his chrome head. Jessica looked up. “You’re kidding!”

Rodney felt shocked. “Kidding? No. What do you mean?”

“How can you do all of this?”

He leaned forward. “That’s what the QTM does. It goes back and finds those points that need to be adjusted to create the change we’re looking for. These changes will achieve world peace and prosperity. More than that — we won’t be confined to one planet anymore!”

“But, Rodney, this is going to change everything. All of history will be different! We don’t have the right.”

“With great power, comes great responsibility,” Rodney intoned. He slapped the carriage return.

The bell rang.

Upstairs the sound of robots working ceased as if their switches had been flipped. Then he heard a loud crash and thundering boot steps. The basement door exploded into sawdust in an instant. Men with lights in black uniforms with featureless helmets ran through down the steps faster than a human could ordinarily move. Jessica screamed.

“Shall I clean?” Danny asked.

“Don’t move! Don’t move!” Shouted the men pouring down the stairs.

Rodney saw sleek matte black guns pointed at him. He shrank back against his chair and slowly raised his hands.

“You! Over there!” One of the men grabbed Jessica and shoved her away from the workstation. “Hands on your head?”

Jessica did as ordered.

“Shall I clean?” Danny repeated.

“Shut down!” Ordered one of the men, his gun pointed at Danny’s positronic brain. “Power down now!”

“Yes, sir.” Danny froze.

More weapons pointed at Rodney. Then a woman entered the basement. She wore the same outfit without the helmet and her gun was slung across her back. Short blond hair. Violet eyes, Rodney didn’t know what to make of that. She walked down the steps. Each footfall light, stirring the sawdust. The men moved aside for her but continued to point their weapons at Rodney. He scarcely dared to breathe, much less offer any resistance.

The woman stopped in front of his chair and looked around. “A home-made temporal adjustment device. Impressive. You’re under arrest as a temporal terrorist for crimes against humanity.”

“I making things better for humanity,” Rodney protested.

“That’s what they all say. Take him for processing. Call in a team to study and disassemble his equipment. Try to discover what exactly he was doing with it.”

“Stand-up. Turn around and put your hands on your head,” said one of the men.

Rodney looked at Jessica. Things had obviously gone wrong. He slowly stood. There was only one way out of this. He turned around and quickly reached out and hit the control and z-key.

Something hit him in the back. Hard. He cried out and fell to his knees. On the monitor a confirmation dialog waited for input. Stupid confirmation. Another blow hit him between his shoulders. He cried out and slapped the carriage return.

The bell rang.

Something hit his head and everything went black.

6

Rodney woke up on the floor. He looked at the wood flooring and wondered why he was on the floor. Had he fallen asleep? He started to move and his back throbbed in several places. It hurt! He groaned and slowly rolled over. His head hurt.

Hands grabbed him and hauled him up into a sitting position. His head swam and his gut lurched. He thought he might vomit. A woman’s face. He focused. Violet eyes looked at him.

“What did you do?”

Oh. Shit. Right. Rodney chuckled and then groaned at how it made his head hurt. “Undo.”

“Undo?”

He coughed. “I hit undo.”

Her lips pressed together. She leaned in close. “What are you talking about?”

Rodney blinked. “Your world? All that stuff you remember? It didn’t exist until I made changes with my QTM.”

She shook her head. “Temporal adjustment machines were discovered five years ago.”

“No. I mean, sure, in your timeline. But it was my QTM that brought your timeline into existence. And I hit undo. It’s all gone now. Sorry.”

She grabbed the front of his shirt and hauled him up. She dumped him in the chair. “Watch him. Don’t let him touch anything, but for Darwin’s sake don’t hurt him. I’m going to try to contact base.”

Upstairs robots pounded away on the floors. The commander walked away from the group, trying to contact her base. Rodney closed his eyes and tried to shut out the pounding. His head throbbed.

“Can I get a pain-killer? My head is killing me.”

“Rodney?” Jessica asked. “What’s going on?”

He opened his eyes. “Don’t worry. A little miscalculation.”

The commander came back. She crossed her arms. “I’m not getting any contact with my people. What’s that racket upstairs?”

“Robots, working on our remodel.”

One of the men stirred. “Commander, the place was empty when we came in.”

She looked at him, then back to Rodney. “You’re saying that your temporal adjustment machine was the first? What’s your name?”

“Rodney Cross.”

She sagged. She ran her gloved hand through her short blond hair. “Cross? Rodney Cross created the first temporal adjustment machine five years ago. He didn’t have the sense to keep it quiet and shared it with everyone. That led to the creation of temporal terrorists all intent on remaking reality to suit their ideals. He was killed within a year.”

Rodney nodded. “Interesting. But that was a different timeline, a different Rodney Cross. Not me.”

She shook her head. “If you’re Cross and you’ve just erased our timeline how come we’re still here?”

“The exclusion field. It doesn’t extend past the basement but it protects us from changes in the timeline.”

“Our Cross didn’t have anything like that. Temporal terrorists are like suicide bombers. One change and they might not exist. If they had something like that — by Darwin, it’d change everything.” She shook her head. “So in this timeline we don’t exist?”

Rodney shrugged. “I have no idea. Maybe you do, somewhere. Maybe not. The changes I made were pretty extensive. It was supposed to create peace and prosperity everywhere. Obviously I overlooked something or there wouldn’t be these temporal terrorists you talk about.” He glanced at the equipment. “I could fix it.”

Her eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”

“Well, with your help I can define parameters that restore your timeline, except without the temporal terrorists. It might put you out of a job, but otherwise things would be back to normal for you.”

“Let me talk to my people. Don’t do anything.”

“I won’t.”

She led the men over to a corner of the basement in his book stacks. Jessica came over to his chair. She crouched beside him. “Are you sure about this, Rodney?”

“Yes. I know what to do. Trust me. Stay close.”

Her eyes widened but she nodded.

The commander led her men back over. “Okay. We don’t have a better option. Restore our timeline and I’ll let you go.”

“Okay, let’s get to work. I need to get some information from you.”

7

An hour later Rodney finished adding the last parameters. He reached up and took Jessica’s hand. “Okay, commander. Here we go. This should fix everything.”

He hit the carriage return. The bell rang.

In that instant they were alone in the basement. Jessica let out a little squeak. “What happened?”

“I narrowed the exclusion field. It only included us. They’re all living out their lives without any memory of what happened here.”

“What about Danny?”

“Oh, I’m sure he’s around. When did people first land on Mars?”

“Cali Longshore, wasn’t it, in eight-one?” Jessica frowned. “How did I know that?”

Rodney grinned. “I added a merge feature. Should have thought of that before. Basically, I made sure that our alternate selves in this timeline ended up here in the same spot and we merged within the exclusion field. It’s all quantum foam. That way we keep our original memories but gain the new ones from this timeline. No more alternates going off messing up our plans.”

Jessica bent down and kissed him lightly. “You’re brilliant, you know? Scary brilliant.”

Rodney keyed the shut-down and stood up. “How about we take that trip out to Ceres? I think the future might just be brighter.”

She laughed, slipped her arm around his waist and walked with him to the stairs. To their new future.

4,646 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 32nd weekly short story release, finished in June 2010 and published as an e-book in September 2010.

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. For October I thought I’d focus on scary stories. Next up is a such a story, Eating Disorder.

People Love Rocketships

Hank wanted a rocketship. Classic style. Shiny. Perched on fins and ready to take on the galaxy.

Something better than the Westerfield’s old green rocketship. A rocketship the envy of the neighborhood.

A dream rocketship falls into his lap right as the sales of his latest novel take off. The future looks shiny! What could go wrong?

For readers that enjoy fun, light science fiction stories.

1

Hank’s first rocketship sat out behind the house on what had once been the backyard but was now a large concrete pad complete with inset concentric OLED circles.  The rocketship perched on three thin fins, bright red with shiny chrome trim, rising up higher than the two-story house.  Higher even than the Westerfield’s old green rocketship next door.  A full five stories tall.  It boasted an integrated 5G drive complete with inertial dampers and a cabins for a dozen passengers.  All the amenities anyone might require for space travel.  Escape pods.  Space suits.  Even vehicles for exploring the worlds they might visit.

When Veronica, Hank’s wife, joined him out on the landing pad he slipped her arm around her waist.

“Isn’t she a beauty?”

“Uh, uh.  Hank, what are we going to do with that?”

“Come on, honey!  Just look at her.  Sleek as can be!  She looks eager to thrust!  Like she just can wait for it!  It’s a beautiful sight!”

“How in the worlds can we afford this?”  Veronica didn’t at all like the look on Hank’s face.  He wasn’t much of a looker.  Too round in the face, a little too flabby, but he was kind and she didn’t worry so much about him leaving her for another woman.  Now she wondered if she didn’t have bigger things to worry about.

“It’s all coming together,” Hank said.  He beamed at her.  “That last novel I uploaded is selling like hotcakes.  Better than hotcakes!  No more struggling to get by for us.  We’re heading to space!”

“Space?”  Veronica couldn’t believe her ears.  “And what about the kids?  And our parents?  Are you planning on bringing them all along too?”

“Of course!  There’s plenty of room.”  Hank squeezed her tight.  “Not right away, I’m sure.  I mean I might need to take her out for a shake-down cruise or something.”

THAT scared her.  “Hank!  What do you know about flying a rocketship anyway?”

He laughed.  He actually laughed.  “There’s nothing to know.  It’s like playing a video game these days.  The computer does all the hard work and calculations and stuff.  Just tell it where you want to go and it figures all that stuff out.”

Veronica shook her head.  This was crazy but she’d get him talked out of this sooner or later.  As long as she kept his feet on the ground.  The last thing she needed was him flying off into space on some rocketship!

“We’ll see.  Right now I’ve got dinner coming to the table.  Steaks, with mashed potatoes and gravy.  Why don’t you come on in and get washed up?”  Steak always worked.  Hank loved his meat.

So Veronica couldn’t believe it when he shook his head instead.  “I think I’m going to spend some time buffing her.  I can see some spots they left when they delivered her and I think a bird crapped on her.  Just put my dinner in the suspender and I’ll eat it when I come in.”

Veronica felt sick.  She managed a weak smile.  “Don’t be too long.”

Hank’s eyes never left the rocketship.  “Oh, I won’t.”

 

2

The next morning when Veronica brought Hank’s coffee to his study he wasn’t there.  For several long minutes she just looked at his leather chair.  Where was he?  Every morning he sat in the chair writing.  Nothing interrupted that routine.  Not even the time when he came down with that avian flu bug.  He had wrapped an afghan around himself but that was it.

No denying it, though.  He wasn’t writing today.  Veronica honestly couldn’t remember the last time that happened.  Hank took pride in his writing streak.  She carried his coffee down the hall to the mud room and went through out to what had been her backyard.  The rocketship stood glistening with morning dew.  A touch of sunshine hit the pointed top and made it shine like a star come to Earth.  No sign of Hank.

She called out.  “Hank!  Hank!  Are you in there?”

An arched opening appeared in the side of the rocketship, the whole opening sliding silently out of the way.  A shiny silver ramp appeared and slid downward to the landing pad.  Hank waved from the top of the ramp.

“Hank?  What are you wearing?”

“You like?”  Hank turned in place showing off a silvery suit with red bands at his wrists, ankles, waist, neck and the bottoms of his feet.  “It’s an AES!  That’s an all-environment-suit.  Perfectly comfortable from the bottom of the ocean to the blazing sands of Mercury!  Of course you have to have the gloves and helmet on to get the full effect!  Wait right there!”

Veronica couldn’t believe it.  Before she could object Hank disappeared into the rocketship.  He came back a minute later but now he wore a helmet and gloves.  The helmet was mostly transparent with a bright red back side.  The fingertips of his gloves matched the red on the suit.  He waved.

“See?”  His amplified voice blasted out like a loudspeaker.  “Oops!”  That also came out loud.  He waved his hands in the air.  “There?  Better.”

Yes, he sounded normal again.  Veronica shook her head.  “Hank, what are you doing?  Aren’t you going to write this morning?”

Hank laughed.  “I already did!  I came out here this morning and worked in the Captain’s office.  You should see this place!  Come on up!”

She didn’t want to go into the rocketship.  The longer he kept this nonsense up the more likely it became that he’d do something colossally stupid.  She shook her head.  “Come into the house.  We’ve got a lot to do today.”

Hank reached up and twisted the helmet free.  Tubes sprang away and retracted into the small pack at the back of the suit.  “Do?  Like what?”

“The kid’s lessons for one thing.  Plus we need to clean the place.  And there’s the shopping.  You don’t expect me to do it all, do you?”

Hank shook his head.  “No dear.  I’ll be right down.”

“Okay.  I’ll put your coffee in the suspender so it stays hot.”

“Thanks.”

Hank disappeared back into the ship.  Veronica gave it a distrustful look and went back into the house.

Fifteen minutes later she felt like screaming.  Hank still hadn’t come back inside!

Veronica went back outside onto the landing pad.  The rocketship stood just as the same except the sunlight had crept a bit further down the gleaming red sides.  It hurt to look at, it was so bright.  She shaded her eyes.

It was a beautiful thing.  Still, she wished that they still had the flower beds and maybe a patch of lawn instead of just a landing pad.  But that’s the way it was these days.  The Westerfield’s dingy old green rocketship stood next door on a cracked landing pad.  The house behind theirs had a smaller rocketship all thin lines and the whole thing shiny silver.  It looked like a needle balanced on one end.  A couple more houses over a brilliant blue saucer perched on three narrow legs.  The whole thing stood taller than any of the rocketships around but was really just trying to compensate for being so small.  Beyond all of those she could see other bright glints.  All of the rockets rising up from the backyards throughout the neighborhood.  Not only the neighborhood or the city but the whole country really.  Even other countries were getting in on the act now.  A rocketship for every household.

Veronica shook her head.  That wasn’t the worst of it.  A lot of people now asked why ― when they had a rocketship ― they needed to have a house at all?  Why not just live in the rocketship?  Of course a lot of people still couldn’t afford that but just last week Millie told her about her sister whose husband retired after a career in pharmaceuticals.  They bought a very nice rocketship and sold their house and anything that didn’t fit in the rocketship.  Last Millie had heard her sister was off around one of those moons out there.  Io or something like that.  Emailed her photos and everything.

Well, if Hank thought he could convince her to leave their house he had another thing coming.  She strode over to the bottom of the ramp and banged her heel down on the metal.  It hardly made any noise at all.  She tried again.  Still nothing.

“Hank!  Hank!”

Nothing.  He must not hear her.  She’d have to go in after him.  Veronica shook her head and started walking up the ramp.  Boy, it was steep.  Her lungs burned and she about froze when she made the mistake of looking over the side.  Didn’t the designers ever consider the possibility of hand-rails?  Puffing and about scared out of her wits she finally reached the top of the ramp and lunged to grab the handle just inside the open doorway.  She pulled herself up into the rocketship and looked back out.

Wow.  She was up higher than the house!  She could see the red flyer Frisbee on the roof.  Rodney threw that up there last year and Hank still hadn’t gotten it down.  Out past the house she could see the houses spread out all around and from many of the backyards rocketships gleamed in the sunshine.  Reds, yellows, blues, greens, silver, all sorts of colors, some painted with fantastic images.  She hadn’t realized there were quite so many now.

Down below the back door opened and Rodney came out with Tif in tow.

“Mom!  Can we come up?”  Rodney called.

“No!  Stay down there!”

“Aw, Mom, please?”

Veronica shook her head.  “There’s no railing!  It isn’t safe.  What if your sister fell off?”

“I wouldn’t,” Tif objected.

“Just stay down there while I get your father.”

“But Mom?”

“Don’t.”  Veronica held her hand out.  “Just don’t.  I mean it.  Stay there.”

Inside the door was a round room about the size of a one-car garage all white and shiny OLED panels displaying all sorts of classy-looking readouts.  The panels on the walls almost looked like cotton but when she poked one it felt rigid and unyielding to her finger.  On the far side of the room a closed door, with a small hexagonal window at head-height.  Veronica walked across the room to the other door and looked for a handle.  None apparent but there was one of those screens right at door-knob height on the wall beside the door.  Actually two, one on each side.  She reached out and touched the screen.  It lit up with floating dialogs and several options.  The one at the top read, “Open inner airlock door.”

She touched it.

The inner door slid away into the wall revealing a larger chamber inside the rocketship.  That chamber looked just as slick and polished as the airlock but with lockers along the wall.  Six per side.  Each locker had a transparent door and a colored trim.  Long benches sat in front of the lockers.  The red locker door hung open and the red helmet she’d seen Hank holding was sitting on one of the benches.  She also noticed that the room narrowed towards the far end where there was another door.  The air smelled like a new car.

“Hank?”  Veronica put her hands on her hips.  “Hank?  Where are you?  I thought you were coming inside?”

If he could hear her he wasn’t answering.  Veronica picked up the helmet ― actually very nice and substantial looking ― and put it away in the red-trimmed locker.  She closed the door.  Red was nice but the locker on the other side had a lovely deep purple trim.  She liked that one.  Not that she was going to tell Hank that right now.  She crossed the room to the next door and touched the panel.  Hit the command to open the door.

After the door got out of her way she walked on into the next chamber.  This looked like some sort of social area.  A holographic pedestal display sat at the center of the room.  Very lovely leather recliners in the same colors as the suit were arranged in pairs around the display.  Some sort of home theater system?  Nice.  Expensive and she couldn’t help but wonder again just how many sales Hank’s novel must have gotten to make this kind of money.

“Hank?  Hank?  Where are you?”

Nothing.  No answer.

Beside the door she had entered there were six other doors out of this room.  They couldn’t all lead to locker rooms.  And there had to be some sort of elevator or something to move between one level and the next.  She went to the next door on her right.  No signs on the door.  She couldn’t see anything through the window.  No lights inside.  She touched the panel and noticed a tag along the top.  Ground Vehicles.  Okay, that wasn’t what she was looking for but maybe Hank was inside checking out some sort of Moon buggy.  With the lights off.  It didn’t seem likely but she tapped to open the door.  It slid aside and all along the ceiling lights turned on with a bright daylight-like glow.  This chamber actually curved around and looked like it must be twice as large as the locker room.  Sleek powerful looking vehicles sat parked in rows close together like in a parking lot.  Not only big-wheeled buggies but smaller quads and two-wheeled motorcycles as well.  But no Hank.

Veronica stepped back and closed the door.  The lights went off.  Well, this was just ridiculous.  Where had Hank gotten off too?  And the kids, what were they doing?  Veronica hurried back over to the locker room, double-tapping the panel to go through the doors.  She got out into the open doorway in the airlock and looked down.  Rodney sat on the ramp while Tif bounced a ball on the landing pad.

Okay, they were fine.  She just needed to find Hank.  Something had to be wrong.  He should have been out by now.

Veronica went back into the rocketship to the main chamber.  One of these other doors must lead to an elevator.  She went to the first door on the left and touched the pad.  Atmospheric Vehicles.  She opened the door and glanced in.  A couple small shuttle craft as well as jetpacks hanging on the wall.  No sign of Hank.  Another big room that curved around to take up a couple chambers.  Veronica stepped out and closed the door.  If those two vehicle rooms curved around they wouldn’t quite reach each other.  That meant the door straight across the room from the locker room must be the way to get to the other levels.  She hurried over.

Sure enough.  Through the door was an elevator lobby with an elevator at the far end.  And two bathrooms.  “Hank?”

No answer.  He must not be in the can.  The elevator panel lit up with up or down arrows.  Which way?  She noticed a handle icon on the display and pulled that open.  It showed a schematic of the rocketship with the different floors labeled.  The floors below this one were marked Storage and Rocketship Systems.  This floor was the Excursions deck.  Above that Living Quarters and then Command Bridge.  She tapped the Command Bridge.  He had to be there, messing around with things.  But he better have a good reason for not coming inside!

The elevator opened and Veronica walked inside.  Nice big elevator.  No crowding.  The doors slid silently shut and then it moved.  She wanted to see the living quarters, the whole rocketship did seem very nice but she refused to let it distract her.  Hank hadn’t even asked her if she wanted to get a rocketship or pave over the entire backyard!

A soft ding announced the elevator had reached the command bridge.  The doors slid open, revealing a round chamber with sleek workstations, executive padded black leather chairs complete with safety belts.  All facing a wide viewscreen that curved around half of the opposite wall.

And Hank, strapped into the center seat with his arms crossed across his chest and two large four-armed, blue-skinned aliens pulling on his legs.  They wore silver sleeveless outfits and had big bare feet.  The one on the right noticed her first and his head came up.  A half-dozen eye-stalks swiveled around to focus on her while the other half-dozen remained focused on Hank.  The alien’s small mouth warbled out a series of bird-call like notes and the other looked up at her.

Veronica snapped her fingers.  “You let go of my husband right now!”

When both aliens didn’t immediately release him she left the elevator and marched across the room making a shooing motion with her hands.  “Let him go!  Right now!”

The aliens spared a couple eye-stalks to look at each other and then let go of Hank’s legs.  Hank twisted around in his seat.   “Veronica!  Get out!  Quick!  Call the police!  They’re trying to steal the rocketship!”

Veronica planted her hands on her hips.  At least Hank had a good reason for not coming in.  She studied the aliens.  “Do you understand me?”

Both aliens nodded.  The one on the right made another series of bird-like noises and then a pendant hanging from its neck spoke up.  “This is our rocketship.  It was stolen!  We are the owners.”

Veronica bit her lip.  Took a breath.  “Hank?  Is that true?”

He shook his head.  “I didn’t steal it.  I mean, the price did seem a bit low but ―”

“If this is your ship how come the panels and suits all seem designed for people like us?  This doesn’t look like an alien ship.”

More bird noises.  The pendant spoke up again.  “The ship has been reconfigured for your kind, but it is our ship.”

“It’s not!  I bought it,” Hank said.  “For all we know you sold the ship and are just trying to steal it back!”

“That did not happen,” the alien’s pendant translated.  The alien reached into a pocket in the silvery suit it wore and pulled out a small tablet.  It tapped on the surface of the pad and then held the pad out towards Veronica.  “See?  This is the police report we filed.”

Veronica accepted the pad.  Sure enough, it looked like an official city police report on the theft of a rocketship.  She tapped the description and it displayed a gallery of images of this rocketship.  “Hank, this looks like their ship.”

Hank slumped in the chair.  Then he reached down and unsnapped the restraints.  “It’s not fair!  I got ripped off.  Now what are we going to do?”

“I guess you’ll have to go to the police.  Report what happened.  I’m sure these gentle beings won’t press charges if you cooperate.”

“That is correct,” the alien’s pendant translated.

“Good.  Now, why don’t we all go in the house and give them a call so we can get this all straightened out?  Okay?”

3

Veronica stood with Hank, her arm around his waist, with the kids on either side and watched as the rocketship rose silently up into the sky and disappeared from view.  It was a beautiful sight.  She sighed and looked at their landing pad backyard.

“At least you used the credit card, it sounds like the bank is going to reverse the charges.”

“I know.”  Hank shook his head.  “But we were going to go visit the gardens on Venus and the snow plains of Mars.  I wanted us to see the behemoths of Europa.  There’s so much I wanted us to see!”

Veronica gave him a squeeze.  “Well, we still have the landing pad and your books are selling well.  Maybe we can afford one of those saucer rocketships?  It’s not the sort of thing we can live in but it’d be great for vacations.”

Rodney reached up and grabbed Hank’s hand.  “Really?  Dad, can we get a saucer?  I think they’re cool!”

Hank laughed and ran his hand through Rodney’s hair.  “I think we just might.  What color should it be?”

“Red!” Tif shouted.  “I want a red rocketship!”

3,356 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 30th weekly short story release, written in July 2010. I originally released this in March 2011 as an e-book. I’ve left it up at Amazon since it was under my own name, though I plan to replace that edition. Someday. I’d also like to revisit this world again in new stories.

Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is a paranormal story, The Witch on Floor Six, originally written under a pen name.

Artifact Angst

One didn’t lose a key to Hell, Hades didn’t want anyone getting out.

Natalie didn’t have time to waste. Child of an incubus and a human nymphomaniac  — if she didn’t find the key her soul belonged to Hades.

Unless she found it soon, among a antique hoarder’s collection of junk, before the hunky nephilim upstairs got his hands on it.

For readers that love paranormal stories of the less-than-divine walking the Earth.

Snatch and grab. Natalie shoved open the door to the Golden Anchor Inn. That was the plan. Snatch and grab. Be gone before anyone knew different. The bell above the door clanked. Natalie stopped moving when she saw the inside of the place.

The plan had to change. She bit her lip, a bad habit that showed her fangs. That damn little sprite!

Organized clutter. A mechanical toy with looping metal tubes sat beside a glass reception area that looked like a repurposed display case, and that was only the start. Everywhere she looked she saw something else. A painting, a sign nailed to the wall and behind the desk, a hutch held a whole collection that would take her hours to sort through all by itself. And this was just the entryway. She found it doubtful that the rest of the place would suddenly turn into sterile empty hallways like a lot of hotels.

Heavy footsteps echoed on the floor as someone approached the desk, no doubt alerted by the bell. Natalie quickly stopped biting her lip, hopefully her lipstick didn’t look too bad, gave her hair a quick shake to make sure her ears weren’t poking through and then the man appeared.

Human, hardly a surprise there, almost as tall as her with dark hair. On the younger side of thirty. He flushed like so many men did when they saw her and smiled widely. “Hi there, can I help you?”

Natalie walked towards the desk. Her heels made sharp taps on the worn tile floor. “Your sign said you had a vacancy?”

He coughed. “Uh, we do, but um, the Anchor isn’t like a lot of places.”

“I’m not like a lot of women, either,” she said quickly. “I think it looks absolutely charming.”

“Well, um, okay then. Let’s just take a look here.” He fumbled with the computer sitting on the registration desk. “Yes, I can get you that room. How long do you plan on?”

Natalie leaned forward on the counter. “I think a week, if that’s not too much trouble?”

He chuckled. “Not at all. Okay, if I could just see a driver’s license and credit card?”

Natalie handed them over and relaxed. This could work. She’d just spend a few days, hopefully not a week, and get to know the place and the people. This man, for instance. With a little conversation she would probably be able to find out what new acquisitions had been added to the collection. Not quite a snatch and grab but close enough. She had to get the artifact back before the week was out or there would be Hell to pay.

Literally. One didn’t let a Hell key disappear. Hades didn’t like the idea that anyone might get out.

 

She gazed at the man as he finished checking her in. “What’s your name?”

“Kane.” He held up actual keys on a plastic key chain. How quaint. “Here are your keys. Have you stayed with us before?”

“I haven’t had the pleasure.” She straightened as he opened the swinging door to the reception area. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“Well, let me show you around.” Kane eased around her with charming nervousness. Most men reacted but he was positively blushing. So cute. This might be fun. He glanced at her small purse. “Do you have any bags?”

“I’ll bring them in later.” Safer for everyone concerned that way. Kane walked a few steps ahead and gestured at the shelves of DVDs in the corner before the hallway turned. “If you want to watch anything just let us know.”

A movie-theater style popcorn maker sat between two shelves of DVDs. She inhaled deeply. Butter and salted popcorn, but nothing else. It didn’t seem likely that the artifact would be disguised as a popcorn maker but she couldn’t be too careful.

“That sounds lovely,” she said. “Maybe you’d like to watch something with me while I’m here?”

Kane blushed deeper. “I’d better show you to your room.”

He hurried around the corner. Natalie smiled. She’d actually managed to scare the poor man. Maybe she’d better turn it down a notch. Then she saw the large room at the end of the hallway and nearly snarled. Kane turned into a side hallway with a glass-paned door but she kept going.

“What. Is. This?”

“That’s the dining room. Complimentary breakfast at nine. It’s very good. Um, your room is back here?”

Natalie didn’t move. Objects covered every space surface of the dining room. A whole entire boat hung upside down from the ceiling. A bicycle, flags and a propeller and that was only for starters. More items hung on the walls and any one of them could be the artifact she sought. That damn sprite must be laughing in his grave right now at the thought of it. The truth stone had worked before it drained the sprite of his life, the artifact had to be here somewhere, but damn him again! If she had time to track down a necromancer and rip the sprite out of his grave she’d do it, but there wasn’t time. A few days, no more than that.

“Ma’am?”

Natalie forced her brightest smile onto her face, the one that went all the way to her jade eyes and turned to face Kane. “You didn’t just call me ma’am, did you?”

“Um, sorry?”

She reached out and ran her long red nails down his arm. “Really, dear. Natalie, please.”

He nodded and stepped back into the adjoining hallway. “Your room is this way.”

Natalie sighed and followed him. The hallway continued the yard sale decor that she’d already seen. A bookcase filled with books cluttered the hallway. Books! Did she have to look at each one?

Kane stopped in front of one of the doors. He pointed up at a small brass plaque. “This is the Sick Bay, that’s just what we call it. All the rooms have names.”

“Charming.”

He held up keys. “The rounded one opens the back door, if you’re out after eight we lock the front. The triangle one opens this door. “

Kane used the door and pushed it open, walked in and held the door for her. Natalie walked in. Boats. Paintings of boats hung on each wall along with an obnoxiously large pelican and a psychedelic crab. More books, enough to make her weep, and an enormously tacky sea-shell framed mirror above a small sink and microwave.

“The bathroom is through there, and the bedroom on the other side. They used to be shared —”

“Are all the rooms like this?”

“Yes? If you don’t like —”

Natalie held out her hand and made herself smile again even though she really wanted to break something. Maybe that model 18th century ship? “It’s fine. Really. Thank you so much.”

He dropped the keys into her palm. A brief push of power and no answering surge from the keys. That would have been two easy. Natalie curled her fingers around the keys and resisted the urge to melt them on the spot. Two objects down, who knew how many to go?

Kane rubbed his hands on his jeans and looked around the room like he’d forgotten something. Cute, too bad she was working right now.

“Thank you, Kane.” Natalie curved her lips into a smile. “You’ve been very helpful.”

He nodded and edged past her towards the door. “No problem. Sure you don’t need a hand with any luggage?”

“No thanks.” Natalie slid a hand into her small red purse and came out with a folded five between two fingers. She held it out. “Thanks again.”

Kane shook his head and held up his hands. “That’s not necessary here.”

“I insist.”

He blushed. Natalie waited. He reached out, hesitated, and then took the five. “Thanks.”

He left the room and she gave him points for not breaking into a run immediately. Natalie shut the door and turned around, leaning back against the wood. She looked around the room again. There wasn’t even a theme to the place, except an overall nautical feel. But a seashell mirror frame? And then one of the paintings on the wall was of two penguins in a snowstorm. At least it looked like that to her and the smaller of the two penguins looked pissed. The other looked scared. It brought to mind a movie she’d seen once, or television miniseries, by that man that always made Hades laugh. She could just hear the smaller penguin.

If you give me your egg, I’ll go away.

Natalie sighed. Best get started. Clear this room and then, assuming it wasn’t that easy, she could get settled in and start checking out the rest of the place. She reached out and ran red fingernails across the seashell mirror frame. A brief push of power and nothing. One more object down. She skipped the microwave. The sprite could have disguised the Hell key as any object but not functioning machines. The first painting of a fishing boat at dock? No.

After a tedious inventory — particularly going through the three shelves of books — of the Sick Bay Natalie felt like breaking something so she went out into the hall and out the back door. She stalked out onto the wood porch and out into the gravel parking lot at the back of the hotel. The cool ocean air helped. She bit her lip again almost hard enough to draw blood with her fangs. She took a deep breath and pressed her lips together. She had to be patient, this was going to take time. Hopefully she’d have the time, as far as she knew Hades might not even know yet about the key. If she had her way he never would.

She walked across the lot to her cherry red VW New Beetle to get her luggage out. She flipped up the logo on the back, unlocked the hatch and pulled out her single black suitcase. She shut the hatch and turned around.

A man stood up on the second floor balcony, leaning on the rail watching her. Handsome, with a strong jaw line and longish dirty brown hair hanging around his face. Nice broad, muscular shoulders and large hands loosely folded together. He wore jeans and a flannel shirt like any Northwest woodsman, but with his looks he’d be better in a tux. Very James Bond. Of course James Bond didn’t normally go around barefoot either, and this guy was. He didn’t look away when she saw him but continued gazing at her. Was that a bit of a smile on his lips? Of course from that angle he was getting a good look at her cleavage. Natalie titled her head.

“Is there something I can help you with?”

He laughed and in the sound of his laughter she head the faint echo of thunder cracking. He straightened up and placed his hands on the rail.

“I can help you,” he said. “A bit of advice?”

“Oh?”

“It’d be best if you gave up looking for the key.”

Natalie shifted her focus and really looked. He still looked as handsome as ever but his hair moved as if blown by a never-ending wind and from his massive shoulders wide white wings flexed and settled against his back. Nephilim!

She dropped the bag to the ground.

He laughed again and once more she heard the sound of thunder in his laugh. “If we fight here, succubus, it will make it more difficult to find what you seek. It will draw attention.”

Natalie answered his laugh with one of her own. Did he hear the echoes in her voice? People moaning? Crying out in pleasure and pain? “A minor inconvenience if it means getting rid of you!”

“And if the battle doesn’t go your way? What then? I suppose you’ll just be forgiven?”

“Oh, I don’t think I have to worry about that.”

He shrugged. “Maybe not. It seems counter-productive for us to fight when we could work together to get the key.”

“Work together?” Natalie chuckled, this nephilim had guts. “And how would we determine who keeps the key?”

He vaulted over the railing in one instant smooth motion. He fell to Earth and landed lightly on his bare feet as if the gravel didn’t bother him at all. Natalie raised her hands, falling back into a fighting stance. He shook his head and walked towards her with one hand outstretched.

“I’m called Peter.”

Natalie relaxed just slightly. She took his hand. His grip was strong, warm, and firm. He shook without squeezing too hard or holding her hand as if it would break. He held her hand just a second longer than necessary before letting go.

“Natalie.”

Peter smiled. “Okay, so whoever finds the key keeps it.”

“That’s hardly a good bargain.”

“It’s better than exposure if we fight and this way we cover the place twice as fast. Have you seen the inside? With two of us clearing objects —”

“I get it.” Natalie looked up into his eyes colored like storm clouds. “Okay. I’ll take everything on the first floor including the cabins.”

Peter shook his head. “We split those too. You can have this row, on this side of the lot, I’ll take the other and the second floor of the main building. All we have to do is stay out of the other’s area and we won’t have a problem. If the key is in your section you take it.”

“And if you find it I’m just supposed to let you go?”

“That’s the deal.”

Or she could always take it from him after he left the hotel. Technically that wouldn’t be breaking the deal. He had to know that, which meant he’d be planning the same thing.

“Okay.” Natalie held out her hand. Peter took her hand again. Natalie brought up her left and lightly stroked the back of his hand. “This is going to be so great!”

Peter grinned. “Oh, I thinks so too.”

Natalie let go. She made a shooing motion with her hands. “Go on then, you stay on your side of the hotel, and I’ll stay on mine.”

“Right. Oh, except I do get to come down to the dining room for breakfast. I’ve heard that they make a fabulous breakfast here.”

“All of the objects in that room are mine. No touching!”

“I’ll stick to eating breakfast.”

“You’d better or all bargains are off!”

“Of course.” Peter backed away. “I guess I’ll see you at breakfast, then?”

“I don’t eat breakfast.”

“Right. Well, then good luck!”

Natalie gave him her sweetest smile. He answered with a small wave then turned and walked away underneath the balcony above, turned and started up the wood stairs leading up. Natalie picked up her bag and headed back to her room. Once back in the Sick Bay she carried her bag to the bedroom and dropped her bag on the queen-sized bed. There was a second door leading out of the bedroom into the hallway.

How had she made a deal with a nephilim? If word got back to Hades, well, that wouldn’t help her chances of getting rid of her contract.

She unzipped the bag and flipped the heavy lid open. Silver blades caught the light as the lid dropped down to the bed. She ran her finger along the biggest of the knives, one that almost qualified as a short sword with an elegant blade that widened out before narrowing down to a point. There was a clutch of throwing knives, and four narrow forearm blades. With a nephilim in the hotel it was time to change. If she found the artifact Peter would try to take it, and in all fairness, she’d already decided to take it back from him if he found it. She needed to be ready.

Natalie reached back, undid the short zipper at the small of her back and then pulled the red dress off her shoulders. It slid down her skin into a puddle around her feet. She stepped out and took off her heels. She glanced at the curtains just to make sure they were open and stretched her arms above her head, arching her back. Kane was walking past through the garden outside. He glanced at the window and stopped as if she’d put up a wall. Not looking at him, she lowered hands and ran them down across her bare breasts and down her stomach until her nails slid just beneath the top of her red lace panties. In the corner of her eye she saw a blushing Kane hurry away.

Chuckling softly, Natalie bent over and picked up the dress. She shook it straight and carefully folded it. After this Kane would tell her anything she wanted to know. She wasn’t heartless. She didn’t need to take it any farther. She had a job to do and didn’t mind using her charms to get it done but she wasn’t entirely her father’s daughter. She had no interest in Kane’s destruction. The worst thing she’d leave him with was an image he could fantasize about on lonely nights.

She put the red dress down on the bed. She took out a black polyamide top with a very low black lace V across the front and a back slit and pulled that on. Then she took out custom black leather wrist sheaths and strapped those to her arms. She added two of the long forearm knives. Black lace stockings, garters and then a pleated black skirt that hung just above her knee and gave her plenty of freedom to move. The skirt also had small hidden sheaths on the back to hold two throwing knives on each side. Over the top she put on a black double front evening coat that covered the wrist sheaths but with enough room at the wrists to give her easy access. The sleeves ended in black lace cuffs. Last of all she took out her black knee-high boots and pulled those on.

Better. She took her cosmetics bag over to the sink and wash area and turned on the light. Not too bad. She switched to a darker, blood red lipstick and a few touch ups. The tip of her left ear stuck out of her hair. A little shake hid the tip again.

Natalie smiled. Much better. She preferred having the knives with her instead of sitting in her suitcase. She put away the red dress and heels then zipped up the bag. The charm promised a nasty jolt for anyone, except her, trying to open it.

Now she could start taking a look for the artifact. No time to waste. She picked up her purse, dropped in her room keys, and headed out of the Sick Bay.

When she got out of the room she started right at the back door. A small round painting of a pelican hung on the wall. One finger and a brief push, that’s all it took to confirm it wasn’t the artifact. Another one down. The long dark hallway of tedium stretched out before her. Nothing to do but take them one at a time. The sprite’s spell hid the artifact too well for her to sense it any other way. Natalie stretched up on her tiptoes trying to reach the canoe hanging from the hallway ceiling. Too high. She didn’t sense anyone close, glanced behind her to make sure there wasn’t someone outside the door, and jumped up. Her fingers brushed the worn wood frame of the canoe. Nothing. She landed lightly.

Two down. Natalie bit her lip and turned to a boat lifesaver hanging on the wall.

She’d gotten through two thirds of the hallway when she reached the first book case. Five shelves, full of books. She’d never been in a hotel with so many books! She was on her fourth book when she heard footsteps and the door nearest the book case opened.

A woman stepped out, middle-aged, a bit heavy, with graying hair. She wore bright blue sweats with white pin stripes and sneakers. She stopped when she saw Natalie standing in the hall and her eyes widened. “Oh, hello?”

Natalie gave her a friendly smile. “Hi. How are you?”

“Fine.” The woman laughed nervously and gestured at the book shelves. “Looking for something to read? The Anchor has so many great books. A lot of them are from other writers that stay here, they leave copies.”

“Really? Are you a writer then?”

The woman smiled, held out a hand, “Michelle Ward, I write romances.”

Natalie took her hand. “Natalie, romances are my favorite. I’ve just been looking around, taking it all in. There’s so many fascinating things here.”

Michelle beamed. “I know! Isn’t it great? I love it here. I usually try to come down the last week or so that when I’m going to finish a novel. I get the one done and then start the next before I go home.”

“That’s impressive. Are you going out for a run?”

“Oh, um, no.” Michelle rubbed her palms on the sweats. “These are just comfortable. Your outfit, that’s beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

Michelle fidgeted. “I was going to go for a walk down on the beach.”

“Okay. Have a nice walk, maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Sure, yes. Oh, and you have to come for breakfast. It’s wonderful.”

“I’ve heard that. I think I just might.”

Michelle nodded, gave a little wave and then turned and walked down the hallway. Natalie waited until she went out the back door and then she walked over to Michelle’s room. She gripped the knob and gave a push to the lock. It clicked free. She opened the door and walked in.

No time to be shy. The room had just as many possible artifacts as the Sick Bay. She probably wouldn’t get a better chance to clear a room. She went to work.

 

2

 

Natalie left Michelle’s room, easing the door closed behind her as she checked the hallway. Nobody around to see her coming out of the wrong room. Michelle’s room had proved just as fruitless as her own. The same sort of decor, all unique items, but a general aquatic theme. Seascape paintings on the walls, another model ship and a boat wheel with rich dark wood and a clock in the center. A second clock in the bedroom was embedded in the heart of a gray piece of driftwood. And of course there were books. Three more shelves of books that Natalie had to go through, one at a time. It wasn’t as easy as it might have sounded to go through a room, touch and push each object. The sprite could have hidden the artifact anywhere, as anything.

She returned to the bookshelf outside Michelle’s room and touched the next spine. No. The next. No. At this rate she’d need a tall latte soon just to ward off the headache.

She finished checking the books before Michelle returned and continued down the hall. An oar strapped to the wall, no. A painting of a 1940’s nurse pin-up, no.

Natalie reached the end of the hall. Nothing in this wing, unless it was in one of the other two rooms on the ground floor. She turned right — no way was she going to face that dining room now — and ran her fingers across a picture of Marilyn Monroe. Not the artifact. The DVD shelves were just ahead and she couldn’t stand the thought of having to touch every one. The popcorn machine gave off a rich, warm, salty buttered popcorn smell. Someone had just made a new batch. She needed an edge. Something to give her a step up over Peter.

No one was down by the service desk. Just past the desk the stairs went up four steps and then turned and went up towards the back of the building. The hallway between the DVDs and the desk was full of potential artifacts. Chairs, a lamp, pictures and objects on the wall, an aquarium with a bamboo stand — all of it taunting her. If she could only look and see the truth, but she couldn’t.

Natalie walked to the service desk and tapped her fingernails on the top of the glass case. On the left, behind the counter a beaded curtain hung in the entrance. Not at all like other hotels, but she’d grant it a certain charm. More if she wasn’t trying to find the artifact among all of this stuff. She noticed a small plastic box with a button in the center sitting on top a scrap of paper with the words scrawled, “Press for service.”

She pushed the button. A loud electronic bell tolled. Natalie smiled and touched a glass paperweight with an embedded bit of seaweed. Push. Nope.

She heard footsteps behind the beaded curtain. A large green vase on the case was filled with peppermints. She picked one out, touching the vase with her other hand. Nope. Not that either. A woman appeared on the other side of the curtain. Not a pretty woman, with limp brown hair tied back in a pony-tail. She smiled and that brightened up her face considerably. Not pretty, but not unattractive either. She looked up at Natalie.

“Hi there, I’m Paige. What can I do for you?”

Natalie had hoped that Kane would be around but the poor man was probably hiding out somewhere. “I’ve been admiring the decor. I’ve never been here before. There’s so much to see.”

Paige glanced around. “I guess so. I’ve gotten used to it, working here.”

“I found out about the place from a friend of mind that stayed here a couple weeks back. Short, dark hair, thin? He’s kind of a nervous guy but very clever.”

“Oh, you mean Mark?”

Natalie smiled, careful not to show bare her fangs. She hadn’t known what name the sprite used when he stayed here. “Yes. He said I should come check out the place.”

“That’s nice of him. He seemed sweet, quiet. Sat alone at breakfast but then we had a bunch of writers here that week. He might have felt out of place.”

“He’s shy,” Natalie said. She leaned forward slightly. “He said that he left a piece here, something for your collection. Have you seen it?”

The woman shook her head. “If he did I didn’t know about it. The boss takes care of all new acquisitions.”

“Is that Kane?”

Paige laughed. “No, Kane helps out but no way is he the boss. No, that’d be Brian. But he’s not around right now.”

“That’s too bad. I was hoping that he could show me what Mark left. Sometimes Mark borrows things that don’t belong to him, a bad habit, and I’d hate to think that the hotel’s reputation might be tarnished by buying stolen property.”

“You’re in Sick Bay, right?”

“Yes, I’m Natalie. How did you know?”

“You flustered Kane, a bit,” Paige said. “He doesn’t usually stutter when he tells us about a new guest.”

Natalie smiled. “Isn’t that sweet?”

“Yep. I’ll tell Brian about your concern. I’m sure he’ll be happy to talk to you about anything Mark might have left.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” Page started to take a step back and hesitated. “Was there anything else?”

“Sorry, you probably have a lot to do. Just one thing, you’ve been so helpful. Where can a girl go for good coffee around here?”

“Just down the hill a bit there’s a cafe, coffee is pretty good. Not far to walk.”

“Great, thanks!”

Paige nodded and ducked back through the beaded curtain. Her footsteps receded away.

Natalie looked around at the front hallway. Later. She’d come back and check everything here after she had a decent latte. And who knew? Maybe Brian would be around and could take her straight to the artifact.

 

3

 

The Country Cup turned out to be farther down the hill than Natalie had expected to walk in heels but the tall latte made it all worthwhile. She walked back up the hill towards the Anchor enjoying the hot beverage. Chilly wind blew her hair around in her face. The whole city stretched along highway 101, sandwiched between the highway and the ocean on one side and trees and hills on the other. There was probably more to the city back away from the highway but clearly the whole place centered on that stretch of blacktop. Traffic rushed past in both directions full of fat vacationers in RVs. A bicyclist with bright red panniers shot down the hill past her. She approved of his color choice but why would anyone choose to travel like that and arrive everywhere dirty and sweaty?

Natalie made it back to the Anchor with her latte still half full. She took her time coming across the parking lot to the main building. There were plenty of decorations out along the rows of cabins that needed to be checked. Oars, ropes, floats and life preservers, and not one of them was the artifact. Not the wood cutouts of crabs and dolphins painted like they belonged in a nursery school. Or the bicycle chained up front. Not the mannequin holding the welcome sign on one side of the porch. Above the entryway hung a golden anchor, out of reach for the moment, but she’d check it later.

Nothing she touched responded. She went through the door again and reached up to touch the bell above the door. Nope. No one was around in the front area. Natalie didn’t hesitate. She went to the swinging door to the area behind the welcome desk and reached over to flip the latch up and step through.

The hutch behind the case was full of objects. Plates painted with images of lighthouses, someone’s lost key ring, a tall silver and black thermos. Natalie ran her fingers across each of them. Push after push and nothing. She heard footsteps upstairs but it didn’t sound like anyone coming down the stairs. She kept going.

It didn’t take hours to check everything in and on the hutch but it felt like hours had passed. She sipped her latte and wished she had another. Her head pounded. She didn’t normally have to use her power so much. All of those little pushes were building up to a really annoying headache.

“No luck then?”

Natalie felt a little jolt in her nerves but it never so much as reached her little finger. Nothing to let Peter know that he had startled her. She turned around smoothly.

Peter stood on the other side of the swinging door as if he’d just come downstairs. Without making a single one of the wooden steps squeak. Damn angel-spawn, he’d done it just to sneak up on her.

“It’s not as if I’d share if I had found it.”

He looked fantastic if you liked the whole broad shoulders and perfect jaw-line sort of thing, which as much as she hated it, did work for her. He was still dressed the same as when she’d seen him earlier, complete with bare feet.

“Do you always go around bare foot?”

“Sure beats the alternative,” Peter said. He walked around to the front of the counter. Natalie rotated to keep facing him. “You know if the staff see you back there, they might not be too happy.”

Natalie smiled slowly and put a hand on her hip. “Oh, I think I can manage that.”

Peter chuckled. “I’m sure you can. Listen, Natalie, you know you don’t actually have to do this whole thing? I mean working for Hades.”

“What do you know about it?”

“You’re like me, you’ve got a parent from Hell. Literally in your case, but you’ve also got a human parent. You’re just as free as any person that walks the face of this planet to make your own choices. You can fight back.”

“Right, like you?”

“I’m not above earning a few favors,” Peter said. “Getting this key would be like getting a get out of jail free card. I could use that.”

“Yeah, well, you don’t know anything. I don’t have a choice. I’m not free and I suggest that you get out of my way and stay away.”

“How about dinner?”

“What?”

“Dinner. You do eat, so why don’t we go have dinner? Get out of this place with me for an hour or two. Have something to eat and just take a break.”

Natalie laughed. “Oh, you’re hilarious. Did you actually think that’d work? What? You get me out of the here and then have some of your friends scout out the first floor? I don’t think so.”

Peter straightened. “That wasn’t it at all. I thought we might have a nice time. You might find we have a lot in common.”

Gutsy, she’d give him that much. “Thanks, but I’ll pass.”

“Okay.” Peter rapped his knuckles on the top of the case. “I’ll see you at breakfast tomorrow then.”

He walked back around the counter, reached the steps and bounded up the first three steps. Then he was gone. Natalie heard someone coming from the other side of the beaded curtain. She opened the swinging door and stepped through. She was around the counter when Paige pushed through the beaded curtain.

“Oh, hi! Did you ring the bell?”

Natalie shook her head. “No, didn’t even have a chance. Hey, about the DVDs, how does that work?”

“Just let me know which one you have and then you can take it back to your room. We’d prefer that you only take one at a time. If we’re not around, just leave a note.”

“Okay. Thanks, I’ll check them out, see if there’s anything I want to watch.”

Paige motioned towards the shelves. “Knock yourself out.”

Right. Natalie turned around and walked down to the shelves. She drained the last of her latte. She should have bought two. Oh well, best get it over with.

 

4

 

Natalie shut the Sick Bay door and peeled off her boots. She dropped them beside the door. She still had her stockings on but the feel of the floor against her mostly bare feet made her think of Peter. The nephilim was taunting her. Asking he out to dinner, who does that? He was the offspring of an angel and a human woman, and her father was an incubus. It wasn’t as if she had a choice in any of this.

She lay down on the brass-studded leather couch and found it surprisingly comfortable for something that looked like it belonged in a Goodwill. On the wall above her feet was the painting of the penguins.

Give me your egg, and I’ll go away.

Natalie grinned. Right, if she could talk to Brian then she’d be asking essentially the same thing. Give me the artifact and I’ll go away. Natalie put her right arm over her eyes. Yet when she did she saw Peter jumping down from the balcony, all that power, casually showing off. His bare feet landing so lightly on the ground. The way he left the top buttons of his shirt undone, just giving a hint of a smooth muscled chest.

She ran her left hand down across her stomach, grazing the smooth fabric of her top. She pressed gently and moved her hand in a slow circle, dipping lower, imagining Peter’s warm hand —

Natalie sat up. She clenched her hands, fingers pressing into the smooth leather couch. She was just frustrated, in part because of the fruitless search. Going through the DVDs had been like one of Hades’ tortures. Touch and push, over and over again and not in a good way. And that was the other problem. She hadn’t had a good touch and push in days. Her father was an incubus and her mother a nymphomaniac, she had needs that demanded a certain satisfaction.

But she’d promised herself not to let that drive her. She was in control and right now she didn’t have time to go mess around. She’d cleared the main hallways but that left the dining room, full of artifacts, the rest of the rooms on this floor and the cabins outside. She just needed to make friends and influence people. After she took a short cat nap. She didn’t like sleeping long stretches, naps worked for her. She got up from the couch and headed into the bedroom. She shucked the evening coat and draped it over the foot board.

She laid down and closed her eyes. Her hand reached down and ran along the edge of the skirt. A little solo touch and push might not be a bad idea, it’d help calm her nerves and make it easier to nap. Her nails slid beneath the edge of the skirt when a reddish light appeared through her eyelids. She heard a rough, familiar chuckle.

Natalie opened her eyes and rolled over up onto one elbow to look at the mirror above the wash area. Not a mirror at the moment, but what looked like a window into a dark room of polished black stone and dark chains. The light looked like moonlight but had no definable source. It came from everywhere and nowhere. Right on the other side of the mirror-window stood a man with a handsome, if cruel face. He sneered at her and reached up to finger a nipple pierced by six silver barbs.

“Natalie, you don’t need to stop the show on my account.”

Natalie held very still. “Abaddon.”

“Hades is getting impatient, child. He wonders why it is taking so long to retrieve a simple artifact.”

“And he asked you to check up on me?”

Abaddon smiled, just enough to show a hint of the fangs filling his mouth. “I have my own interest in this. If you were to hand the artifact over to me I’d be very grateful.”

The last thing, the very last thing she needed right now was to piss off Abaddon, angel of death. “Perhaps if I didn’t have explicit orders from Hades, but he was extremely clear in describing what would happen to me if I didn’t put the artifact directly into his hand.”

“And if I am displeased? Does that not distress you as well?”

Natalie ran her hand down her hip and tugged at the skirt, pulling it slightly up her hip. “The last thing I’d want to do is distress you.”

A familiar look entered Abaddon’s eyes, that look that said you had a man’s attention. It was like hunger but fiercer. Natalie ran her hand past the end of the skirt and toyed with her garter belt, running a finger under the black lace edges.

Abaddon laughed. “Wench! You dare to try your charms on me?”

Natalie locked her eyes with his and smiled enough to show the tips of her fangs. “I want us to be on good terms, Abaddon, but I’m bound to follow Hades’ orders in this.”

“Fine.” Abaddon waved his hand in dismissal. “I’ll seek my entertainment elsewhere.”

The light in the mirror started to dim. Abaddon turned away, then paused. He didn’t look back when he spoke. “We’ll pick this up another time.”

Then the mirror was just a mirror and Natalie sat up and swung her legs off the bed. If Abaddon spoke the truth, and Hades was getting impatient — not something that stretched the imagination — then she needed to hurry up. It didn’t sound like she’d have another week to wrap this up after all. No matter what deadlines Hades originally set.

She grabbed her coat and pulled it on as she headed back to the sitting room. She picked up her boots and pulled them back on before heading out of the Sick Bay. It was time to stop being shy.

In the hall she knocked on the door across the hall from her room. She listened and didn’t hear any sounds coming from the room. She knocked again and still didn’t get an answer.

Fine. She pushed at the lock and was rewarded by the door opening. Natalie stepped inside and quickly closed the door behind her. A quick glance suggested that the room was vacant. Nothing in the sitting room looked like it was left by a guest. She went to work despite the headache and the monotony of checking each object in the room. She’d just finished the sitting room when she heard a key in the lock. Natalie crossed quickly to the door and turned the nob, opening it up.

Kane stepped back, blinking in surprise. An older gray-haired couple was with him. Natalie stepped out close to Kane. She reached out and tapped a nail on one of the buttons on his shirt.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you folks. Can you believe it? I got all turned around and went into the wrong room!” Natalie gave them all a bright smile and locked eyes with the older gentleman. His pale skin flushed. “I’m right over there, across the hall. If you’ll excuse me?”

Natalie walked past, her fingers grazing Kane’s arm, and went to her room. She pulled out her key and used it to open the door. She went on in but left the door open so that she could see out into the hallway. She heard Kane stammering as he showed the couple their room. She picked a book at random off the shelf and sat down on the leather couch. She stretched her legs out and crossed them at the ankle as she opened the book, a novel called Family, Pack. Werewolves. Cute.

Across the hall Kane finished up answering the couples’ questions and then came out the door, pulling it closed behind him. Natalie closed the book, keeping her finger in to mark her page. “I’m so sorry, Kane. I don’t know how I got turned around.”

Kane came to the door. He grinned at her. “It’s an unfamiliar place.”

Natalie leaned forward. “It’s wonderful! I’ve been going around looking at everything. I’ll admit, I was confused how things had changed in my room, and my stuff was gone, but then I figured it out. I felt so stupid!”

“I’m sure you’re not stupid.”

“You’re sweet.” Natalie tilted her head. “I don’t suppose you have any recommendations on where a girl might get something to eat for dinner around here?”

“Um, well, there’s a seafood place down by the beach that is nice.”

“Does it have cozy, semi-private booths?”

Kane swallowed. He opened his mouth as if he was going to say something, then nodded instead.

Natalie set the book down and rose smoothly from the couch. She walked right up to Kane. He was already blushing again but he also didn’t move away. Points for that.

She leaned deeply into his space, looking right into his eyes. “Paige told me that Brian might have gotten something from my friend Mark. But I haven’t seen Brian around today. Do you have any idea what it was? Knowing Mark, he might have stolen it and I wouldn’t want to see this wonderful place get in trouble.”

Kane shook his head quickly. “I d-don’t know. Brian handles all of that stuff. B-but he does have a guy doing appraisals upstairs.”

“Guy?” Natalie took Kane’s hands in hers and leaned in very close so that her breath caressed his face. “What guy?”

“Ah, Peter? His n-name is Peter.”

Natalie leaned in and just barely brushed Kane’s lips with hers in the barest of kisses. She stepped back from him and slowly let his hands slide out of hers.

“I see. I think I’ll go up and talk to him. When are you off work?”

“S-seven.”

“Okay, then I’ll meet you out front at seven. Okay?”

“Sure.” Kane laughed and took a step back. “Right. Seven. For dinner.”

Natalie waved her fingers at him.

Kane lifted a hand and then headed away down the hall. The door across the hallway opened up and the older man looked out into the hall. Natalie looked at him and gave the tiniest pout. He ducked back into the room and shut the door. Natalie laughed and walked out into the hall, closing her door behind her.

Peter, no wonder that sneaky nephilim had suggested the bargain. He already had the artifact, he just had to identify it and stash it until her time ran out. With her out of the picture then he could take the key and be gone. No one would be the wiser.

Except that now she knew. She headed out the back door. From there she went up the wide wood steps. She stepped lightly, glad for the leather boots instead of her heels. She could move silently in this outfit. The wind caught her hair and the evening jacket and blew them out behind her. Dark gray clouds filled the sky in all directions. A real storm was brewing. Tiny drops misted her cheeks and clung to her eyelashes.

She reached the deck and moved quickly around the corner to the second floor back door. It wasn’t closed entirely. She pulled it open and stepped inside. Another long hallway with throw rugs on the floor and a couple book cases on the walls. It was poorly lit, but she saw easily in the dark, preferred it to bright artificial lights. Two rooms down the hallway was an open room and a few lamps that cast golden light on the wood paneled walls. From this end she could see some rundown couches and chairs that would have looked at home on a curb with a cardboard “Free” sign.

Natalie shook her head and started walking down the hallway. All of her senses were alert. The first two rooms were closed. She heard muffled music coming from one and some sexy giggles. She felt the energy through the door. Illicit and tempting, just the sort of thing that appealed to her. Two people who probably shouldn’t be hooking up were together in that room.

Intriguing, but not her business right now. She kept going until she reached the room ahead. Furniture all around the sides of the room. A young woman sat back in an over-stuffed leather chair with a netbook on her lap. Her fingers flew along the keys. Nice bone structure, bleached blond hair, and a body thin from not eating enough. She looked up and her eyes widened when she saw Natalie.

“Oh, uh, hi? Are you here for the workshop?”

“No. Have you seen Peter?”

A hint of color came to the woman’s cheeks. She pointed down the hallway past the room. “Last I saw he was down there, across from the kitchen.”

“Thanks.”

Natalie walked on, feeling the woman’s eyes on her as she left. She passed an open door to a meeting room with a long table at the center, then the stairs leading back down to the first floor and the reception desk. On the other side an open doorway led to a kitchen area with a bar and a seating booth and across from that was another room with a table piled high with all sorts of objects. Lamps and paintings and sculptures and other things and sitting at the head of the table was Peter turning an orange glass float ball in his hands.

He looked up as she entered the room and smiled warmly. “Natalie, you’re out of bounds!”

She wanted to draw one of the long knives from her wrist sheaths and cut the smile from his face. She wanted him afraid and in pain, or begging her for a touch. Either would work but right now he didn’t have either of those expressions on his face. He looked smug.

“Bastard! You’ve already got the artifact, don’t you?”

Peter gentle sat down the float. He didn’t try to get up. He just put his hands on the arms of the chair. “Why would you think that?”

“You’re just stalling, waiting until I’m out of time.”

Now Peter did rise, slowly, and slid the chair back. He stood relaxed with his hands at his sides. “And if I tell you I don’t have it?”

She could taste the lie on her lips like kissing someone who hadn’t brushed their teeth recently. She shook her head. “I know you’re lying. It doesn’t belong to you, just hand it over now.”

“Natalie, before we go down this road, just listen to me. We don’t have to turn it over. If we keep it we can use it to bargain for our freedom.”

“No, Peter, we can’t. If I don’t turn it over they’re going to send Abaddon to drag me to Hell. Thank you, but I’d rather serve on Earth. I’ve worked hard to get this position and I’m not about to risk it. I do what they tell me.”

“And if I don’t turn it over they’re going to take me to Heaven.”

“Oh, poor baby. That must be tough.”

Peter shook his head. “I’d like a chance at a life on Earth first. I can do so much good here and that’s not possible in Heaven. It sounds great, it is great, but I can’t make a difference there. We could make a difference together.”

Natalie felt a cool calm spread throughout her mind. She couldn’t solve Peter’s problems. She could stay out of Abaddon’s dark room. She reached into her sleeves and drew the knives.

“I really, really think you should give me the key now,” she said. “I’d rather not hurt you —”

Peter moved so fast he was a blur. She moved too and slashed out with her knives. He blocked with his arm and the blow almost numbed her wrist. She kept the knife and pressed her attack. Peter was faster. He stayed away from the blades and one of his long legs swept up to kick at her side.

She barely got her arm down in time to block the kick. The force knocked her off balance.

He got behind her in that second. His hands grabbed her coat and he spun, throwing her up across the table. Natalie hit the wall and the impact stunned her. She fell to the floor just managing not to land on her own blades.

Peter grabbed the table and tipped it over. She covered her head as everything on the table rained down on her and the table hit with a loud bang right in front of her face. The glass float shattered around her, a lamp broke on her left. A heavy iron-work sign hit her shoulder hard enough to cause an ache.

Natalie shook off everything and rose up still holding her knives. Peter wasn’t in the room. She jumped the table and ran out of the room just in time to see Peter disappearing down the stairs.

She ran after him. As she skipped down the stairs three at a time she heard the front door bell ring. She hit the landing before the stairs turned and then jumped the rest of the way down. The front door was swinging shut.

She slipped out onto the porch. Peter was in the parking lot, facing her. He looked as handsome as ever. He smiled at her.

“Last chance, Natalie. Join me. We don’t have to be slaves to them. We work together, use it to bargain our freedom on Earth.”

Natalie shook her head. “No. Give it to me.”

“That’s it?”

She tensed. “That’s it.”

Peter ran at her. She ran at him and she was armed. Before they came together Peter jumped. No, he flew. She looked and saw those massive wings sweep down. The wind blew her hair back. He flew straight at the golden anchor hanging above the entryway.

“No!” Natalie flipped one of the long knives in her hand and caught the blade.

Peter ripped the golden anchor free from the building. The wind from his wings blew all around her. A light flared and she smelled sulfur and the anchor melted away until all he held was a twisted black iron key. It hurt to even look at the key, like looking into a bright light, but this was dark. Foul, and covered with barbs.

Natalie threw the knife. It wasn’t weighted for throwing. It was too big. But Peter was so close and her aim was true.

The knife sunk into his forearm. Peter gasped. The key fell from fingers bloodied by the barbs. More blood dripped from the wound. Then he fell. He landed heavily and rolled.

Natalie picked up the key, gingerly, hating the feel of it. She dropped it into her coat pocket and held her remaining knife ready.

Peter grimaced and pulled her other knife from his arm. He cast it aside at her feet. Then he pressed his good hand over the wound. He looked at her with sad eyes.

“We could have done so much good on Earth. Now I’m going to have to go back, why?”

Natalie crouched and picked up her bloodied knife. “I don’t date angels. And I do get to stay on Earth.”

Peter smiled. “That’s something, then. You should go. Before they come for me.”

Above them a bright light appeared behind the clouds, like the sun breaking through, but Peter was right. It wasn’t the sun. Natalie backed away from him up onto the Anchor’s porch. She reached the door and sunlight shone down from the sky all around him. He shielded his eyes and looked up. The light brightened.

She looked away, shield her eyes with her arm. Then the light vanished. Natalie lowered her arm and Peter was just gone. The parking lot was empty and a faint drizzle was falling from the sky.

Natalie turned and went back to her room. She cleaned her knife and put it back in the wrist sheath. From her bag she took out an iron box. She opened it up and laid the key inside. The lid closed with a click. The whole box started glowing as if red hot and heated from within. Tendrils of sulfur-smelling smoke rose into the air and then the whole box flared brighter. She heard a pop and it was just gone. The smoke faded.

Abaddon wasn’t going to get her this time, not that it’d stop him from trying again.

Natalie looked in the mirror that was only a mirror right now and fixed her lipstick and hair. Then she went into the other room and settled back onto the couch. She picked up the book she’d looked at earlier. Her muscles ached from the fight, but that would pass. She still had time until seven. She didn’t need to keep the date with Kane, but a nice dinner, with a nice man? That sounded like Heaven on Earth right now.

9,166 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 29th weekly short story release, written in September 2010. I originally released this that December as an e-book under my pen name “Tennessee Hicks,” until I took it down to consolidate everything under my name. My fellow Oregon coast workshop attendees may recognize the setting for this story.

Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is a science fiction story, People Love Rocketships.

Strange Babies

The daycare embodied Terry’s dreams in bright colors, chalk, and  giant crayons.

Terry Jackson built a modern daycare with all of the amenities. A safe haven for the children — and the key to his future. Opening day, time for the children to arrive.

Only these children looked at him with very unusual eyes, strange eyes.

For science fiction readers who enjoy a vision of a new sort of childhood.

Terry stood in the middle of the room looking at a dream made real, with giant crayons on the walls above the waist-height chalk boards. Two wood pyramid shaped shelving units, with purple and green cloth block drawers, and secret passages, took up the center of the room. A wading pool filled with assorted rubber and inflated balls, none smaller than his fist, sat to one side and there were three small tables surrounded by pillow animals. It was a world of bright colors and fun made physical and it was all quiet and still new. But outside a car pulled up and signaled the final realization of his dream. The room was only missing one thing. Kids.

He took a deep breath. This was it, he was confident that he had covered everything. The door burst open and Angie leaned in grinning ear-to-ear beneath her spiky blond hair. “Ready, boss? Is the paint dry?”

“Yeah. Send them in as they get here.”

Through the windows he saw a woman, middle-aged, with straight red hair, walking up the sidewalk carrying a small child wearing a knitted white cap. Snow white curls peeked out beneath the cap. Girl or boy, he couldn’t tell at this distance but he thought she looked like a girl. Tiny thing. But he took all ages. The different rooms of the first floor were all decorated as well, but this was the living room. Most of the kids would be in here. If he did get any older kids he had the family room set up with more age-appropriate diversions like the Wii.

He walked over to the chalk boards mounted along the wall beneath the fake giant crayons. He looked down into one of two buckets at either end of the boards. Both were full of different colored sidewalk chalk. He had several erasers in the tray along the top of the boards. He touched them, brushed off his hands.

The doors opened again. Angie sending in the woman he had seen and her child. The woman was dressed in an expensive-looking black suit dress.

“Good morning,” he said cheerfully. He hurried over and looked at the mother, then the child. Bright blue eyes looked back at him. A pretty child, a girl he surmised from the green dress that she wore beneath the white jacket. “Hi there.”

“This is Mrs. Watson and her daughter Emily,” Angie said. “I’ve got someone else coming in?”

“Thanks Angie.” Terry looked at Mrs. Watson. “I’m glad you brought Emily here. I’m sure we’ll have a good time. Right Emily?”

Emily looked right at him with brilliant blue eyes. So blue they almost looked like gemstones, they were really quite remarkable. She didn’t blink and didn’t seem the least bit nervous. And she didn’t respond. He glanced at her mother.

 

Mrs. Watson bent and put Emily down. “Emily is a special girl. I’ve given your assistant her lunch.”

“We provide meals as a part of our serv—”

“Please don’t. I’ve already explained to your assistant. Emily has a particular diet. No snacks, nothing except the lunches that I pack.”

Terry nodded. “Of course. Is she allergic?”

“No, her condition is genetic. I think you’ll find several of the children have the same condition.”

“I don’t understand. Are they related?”

Mrs. Watson took out an iPhone. “I’m sorry Mr. Jackson, but I really must go. I’ve given your assistant all the particulars, please familiarize yourself with the material. I appreciate your cooperation on this.”

“Of course. Whatever you say. We’re here to help.”

“Excellent. I’ll be back before six to pick Emily up. Good bye.” Mrs. Watson turned around and left, her shoes leaving small dimples in the rubberized flooring that slowly faded.

Terry turned around and saw Emily slowly walking around the room just looking at everything, taking it all in. He started over to say hi again when the door opened and Angie was showing through a man in a business suit. He was also carrying a young girl with snow-white curls that looked so much like Emily that she had to be her sister. Her eyes were also blue, also had that gem-like quality, but in her case the color was a deeper blue heading toward violet. It made him wonder if the girls were wearing colored contacts. But who would give kids this age colored contacts? And why had they brought them separately? A divorced couple, each with custody of one of the girls?

“This is Mr. Highsmith,” Angie said, her tone clearly troubled. “And Elisabeth. I’ve got others coming in.”

“Mr. Highsmith, Terry Jackson. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Of course.” Mr. Highsmith put down Elisabeth. “I’ve left instructions at the desk, but I find it best to tell everyone involved. Elisabeth and the others should only have the specific meals that the parents have provided. Don’t stray from our guidelines. No snacks outside what is provided. Adjust your schedule to suit their meal plans.”

Terry didn’t care at all for Mr. Highsmith’s tone. “Just a second, I don’t understand what’s going on here. Are the girls related?”

“In a sense, Mr. Jackson, but you don’t need to concern yourself with that. Just provide a safe and engaging environment during work hours. That’s all you need to worry about.”

“Of course, that’s what we do.” In a sense? Terry wanted to ask what he meant but Mr. Highsmith looked ready to leave already.

Mr. Highsmith looked at his watch. “Great. I’ll be back before six to pick her up.”

He turned and left. Terry reached out, thinking to shake his hand, but the other man was already going through the door as someone else came in. Two more parents, two more girls, but these two didn’t look like Emily and Elisabeth. The first had raven dark hair and the second had nothing but peach fuzz on her head. Erin, with the dark hair, the other was Edwina. Both also had remarkable eyes. Erin’s like obsidian, so dark he couldn’t even see her pupils. That definitely wasn’t normal. Neither were Edwina’s eyes, a sort of rose quartz in color. The girls ran around him into the room. Terry greeted the parents, a Mr. Conway and Ms. Smith, but he was drawn more to the children. All four girls were exploring the room but spent no more than glances on each other. No laughter. No interacting. He was still watching the girls when their parents left.

Screaming behind him caught his attention. Terry turned around just as Angie was opening the door.

“This is the last one,” Angie said.

The mother coming in behind her was entirely unlike the cold, standoffish business types that had dropped off the girls. She was tall with a big build and brown hair with lighter streaks. She wore a nice blue blouse cut low enough to show a hint of generous creamy cleavage. The screaming came from the boy she towed into the room by one arm. Auburn hair flying away in all directions, he tried to set his feet and pull away but he didn’t have a chance against her. He grabbed for the door frame and missed. The whole time wailing at the top of his lungs.

Terry glanced back at the girls. They had all stopped what they were doing and were staring at the boy the way kids might watch an interesting bug. Terry left the girls and went straight to the boy. He crouched down in front of the boy. As he expected the boy saw him, stopped screaming and tried to hid behind his mother’s ample thighs.

“Hey, there. I’m Terry. What’s your name?”

The boy peeked out, staring at him with wide, perfectly ordinary hazel eyes. Nice enough, but this guy was out of his league in this room.

“Let me guess, is it Logan?” Terry waited. The boy didn’t respond, but he leaned out a little farther. “Richard? Paul? John?”

The boy’s mother nudged him with her knee.

“Max,” the boy said.

“Ahh, like Max in Where the Wild Things Are?”

The boy grinned widely and growled.

“I see, a wild thing. Okay, Max. How old are you?”

Max held up four fingers.

“Great. Well, Max, you see this room?” Terry moved to the side so that Max could see the room. The girls hadn’t moved and were watching this exchange. “We’ve got all sorts of fun things for you to do here for a little while. Then later your mother will come back and pick you up. How’s that?”

“Okay!” Max left his mother and charged over to the bucket holding the chalk. He grabbed a big blue piece and started drawing on the board.

Terry stood up and looked at Max’s mother. “Hi, Terry Jackson.”

“Sarah Nichols. You’re good. I’m glad I decided to bring him here. He can be a handful.”

Terry shrugged. “No problem. We’re happy to have him.”

“Great.” Sarah kept looking at him directly. The prolonged eye contact was interesting. Her eyes were like her sons, a nice warm hazel color. “I’ll be back at four, after I get off work. Ever since his father decided to go for younger, thinner and dumber it’s been a struggle.”

Terry held out his hand. “I’m happy to help. We’ll have fun.”

She shook and her hand was warm and soft. She smiled and Terry felt his heart skip a beat. He let go reluctantly.

Sarah crouched down. “Max? Momma’s going to go now.”

Max glanced over his shoulder and absently waved at his mother. More of a go away now gesture than anything else. Sara stood back up. She smiled at Terry. “Thanks again.”

“Happy to help.” Terry followed her to the door. He looked back and the girls had returned to exploring the room, but they kept glancing over at Max. Still, it seemed safe enough at the moment. He slipped out after Sarah. “Ah, Mrs. Nichols —”

She turned around, still smiling. “Sarah, please. I’m not missus anything now. I took back my maiden name in the divorce.”

“Sarah, does Max have any particular dietary concerns we should know about?” Terry noticed Angie watching him from the front desk. Probably wondering what he was doing since she would already have the information.

Sarah shook her head. “No, that kid’ll eat anything.”

She waved her fingers at him and headed for the door, with a perky “Bye!” directed at Angie as she passed the desk. Angie came out from behind the desk after Sarah was gone. She smirked at him and glanced back at the door.

“You liked her, didn’t you?”

“I’m friendly with all of the parents.”

“Yeah, a regular prince charming. Did you notice how strange those girls are?”

Terry nodded. “You mean their eyes? Yeah. I should probably get back to the room. I don’t want to leave them alone too long.”

He headed that way and wasn’t surprised that Angie followed him.

“I mean no one has eyes like that,” Angie said. “I especially didn’t like Erin’s eyes. She looks like she belongs in a horror movie. And what about the names?”

Terry reached the door to the room and looked through the glass. He didn’t see Max anywhere and the four girls were standing around one of the pyramid units. “Shit.”

He pushed through the door and went inside. All four girls looked up at him as he came in and those strange eyes of theirs brought him to a stop. He looked around the room. No sign of Max. “Max? Where are you?”

Angie came in beside him.

“Max? It’s Terry, remember?”

He heard a muffled, “Yeah.”

“It came from the purple pyramid,” Angie said.

That was the one that the girls were standing around. Terry walked past the green pyramid and looked down at the girls. They were all watching him. He smiled broadly and crouched down so that he’d be on their level.

“Girls, where is Max? Do you know where Max is?”

As one all four girls pointed at the pyramid. Terry reached past Erin with the creepy dark eyes and Elisabeth with the almost violet eyes and pulled out the purple cloth drawer at the middle of the pyramid. It was full of foam blocks, so it was very light, and he sat it to the side. In the dim center of the pyramid Max sat with his legs up to his chest and his arms wrapped around the legs. He looked scared.

“Hey, man. It’s okay. Are you hiding in there?”

Max nodded but his face scrunched up like he was fighting back tears.

The shelf that the drawer had sat on hinged up. Terry lifted it and the magnet on the end held it up out of the way. Terry pulled out the two bottom drawers, also full of blocks, and pushed them aside so that the way into the pyramid was open. He held out his arms. “Come on, buddy. Let’s come out. It’ll be okay.”

Max shook his head.

Terry got down on his knees and sat back on his heels. “You don’t want to come out?”

Max shook his head again.

“Why not?”

Max leaned over and looked past Terry. Terry turned and saw the girls crowding around beside him, all peering in at Max. When he looked back Max had his face hidden in his arms. Terry turned to the girls.

“Girls, can you give Max some space? He’s feeling shy right now. Why don’t you take a look at some of the other things in the room?”

“No,” Emily said.

Erin said, “We.”

“Don’t,” added Edwina.

“Want to,” finished Elisabeth.

Then all at once, together, they said, “We want to play with the boy.”

A cold shiver ran down Terry’s spine and for the first time he really understood what it meant when people said that someone had walked over his grave. Suddenly he felt like crawling right into the pyramid with Max and pulling the drawers in behind him. That’s what Max must have done in those few minutes when Terry had left him alone because he was attracted to Max’s mother.

Except he wasn’t a four-year-old boy. He was a grown adult and no matter how creepy the girls acted he still believed that they were little girls. They weren’t monsters. They weren’t demons or aliens. Something was definitely strange about these girls but they were still only little girls.

He reached out and placed a hand on Elisabeth’s shoulder and one on Edwina’s since they were the closest. “I know. I know you want to play with the boy. I understand that. You want to play with the boy because he’s different. I get it. But right now he’s not ready to play. If you give me a chance, I might be able to change his mind, but to do that you need to go find some other things to play with right now. Okay?”

“Okay,” Edwina said.

“We’ll,” Erin added.

Elisabeth said, “Go.”

“Play,” finished Emily.

Creepy, creepy, creepy. Terry struggled to keep his smile pleasant and warm. It evidently worked because the girls stayed true to their word and wandered away to explore the other toys in the room again, but they didn’t stay together. The way there were talking together he expected them to stay in a group but once they left they drifted apart. Emily went to the green pyramid and pulled out one of the drawers full of bright red foam blocks and dumped them on the floor. She sat down and started building something.

Elisabeth went to the chalk board and started drawing with green chalk.

In the corner of the room Erin sat down at one of the tables with a the Toy Story 3 tag junior alien and started using it on one of the tag books while Edwina sat on the opposite side playing with a doll.

Terry turned back to Max. “Max? Max, look at me.”

Max kept his face buried in his arms and shook his head.

“Come on Max. What happened? Did they tease you?”

Max went very still for a moment, but then shook his head.

“Pinch you?”

Another head shake.

“Lift you over their heads and throw you around the room like a giant beach ball?”

Max lifted his head with a small smile on his face. “They couldn’t do that!”

“No? Oh, that’s right. I’ll bet they walked around on their hands.”

Max laughed. “That’s not it!”

“No?”

Max shook his head.

Terry rocked back on his heels. “Farted fantastic farts?” A snort of laughter and another head shake. “Scratched their fingernails on the chalk boards?”

Max shook his head again, biting his lip when he looked past Terry. Terry looked back and saw Emily sitting on the floor with her red block building rising in front of her. Some sort of tower. “So, what are you doing hiding in a pyramid?”

“I don’t know.”

Terry crawled forward part way into the pyramid and turned sideways. He put his arms over his knees, copying Max’s posture. “Look man,” he whispered. “I get it. These girls, they’re different than any little girls I’ve ever seen too.”

“Their eyes,” Max whispered.

Terry nodded. “I know, right? And the way they talked? Finishing each other’s sentences? That was pretty strange too, wasn’t it?”

Max nodded quickly.

“But that doesn’t make them bad or anything, does it? And don’t you think they’re pretty?”

Max’s eyes narrowed and his mouth opened in a silent laugh. He shook his head.

Terry shrugged. “Okay, man. I guess you’re still a little young to be interested in girls. No problem. But hey, they’re just kids right? So they’re different. To them you’re the one that is different. That’s why they were so interested in you. I’ll bet it just surprised you and sort of freaked you out. Am I right?”

“Maybe,” Max whispered.

“Okay. Great. Then why don’t we go out there? You don’t have to play with them if you don’t want but just don’t hide from them. Deal?”

Max seemed to think about it for a few seconds and then he nodded.

“Great. Let’s get out of here.” Terry paused and looked around the inside of the pyramid. “Although this is sort of cool.”

Max laughed.

Terry crawled out. Emily glanced over but didn’t stop her construction of the foam block tower. Terry stood up as Max came out of the pyramid. Max stood for a minute, biting his lip, then walked over to where Emily was building with the blocks.

“Can I help?” he asked.

Terry noticed that all four girls looked at Max, but the others stayed where they were and only Emily answered.

“Yes,” she said. She picked up a block and held it out. “You can put the blocks on that side.”

“Okay.” Max took the block and put it on the tower wall on his side. The tower had a hexagon shape with everything precisely lined up. He didn’t place it as precisely as Emily had been doing but she didn’t say anything, just picked up the next block and handed it to Max as well. He put that one on the right side of the wall. Emily put the next one perfectly in place.

Terry went over to one of the other tables and sat down where he could watch the kids play without being in the way, glad that the first trial of the day looked resolved. It was actually very cute the way Max and Emily kept looking at each other. Both of them were studying each other. At least it was cute until Terry noticed something else strange about the girls. Every time Emily took a peek around the tower to look at Max, the other girls also peeked at him. Elisabeth would turn and look away from her chalk board drawing to look at him, somehow managing to keep drawing as she did, while Erin and Edwina would both look up from their play at the table to look at Max. The glances were quick, but perfectly synchronized.

Terry shivered. How could the girls possibly do that? They didn’t look at each other first, but as one they turned or leaned or lifted their heads to look at Max. Even though they all kept doing what they had been doing it was clear that their actions weren’t occupying their attention. All of their attention was still focused on Max, just as it had been when he was still hiding inside the pyramid. It was like one of those cop shows, when they showed the undercover cops staking out someone and even though they might look like someone homeless, or a harried mom, or a guy out for a jog they’d all be watching the same guy. And if you watched the big picture long enough you could pick out each of the undercover cops because they didn’t quite fit.

The girls were like that. They didn’t quite play. Anyone looking in might think it was a quiet day care with some children playing. But watch long enough and discover that the girls were all interested in the boy. Even more than that, though, was the eerie synchronicity to their movements.

Terry’s cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out. There was a text. From Angie. Come out front.

Terry pocketed the phone and stood up. That got everyone’s attention. He held his hand up to the kids. “No worries. I’m just going to help Angie out up front. Go ahead and keep playing, and I’ll be right back.”

The girls all turned back to what they were doing. Max shrugged and accepted another foam block from Emily. Great, hopefully he wouldn’t come back to another problem after he left the room.

Out front Angie was standing behind the desk looking at the monitor which showed the feed from the four webcams in the corners of the room. She twisted her hands together as she looked at him.

“Terry? What’s going on? Those girls, they aren’t normal!”

Terry nodded. “Noticed that did you?”

“Terry!”

“What? What do you want me to do about it? The kids are getting along now. When their parents come back to pick them up maybe we can find something out.”

“We should call them now.”

“Angie—”

“Look!” Angie pointed at the monitor.

Terry sighed but he looked. All four girls were still doing the same thing that they’d been doing before. Emily and Max were both standing now to build the tower and had moved on to the green blocks after running out of the reds. They seemed intent on building the tower as tall as possible. Emily’s side looked perfect but on cam three Terry could see that Max’s side was much less even, but the tower still stood. Erin and Edwina hadn’t left their table, and Elisabeth remained at the chalk board drawing, he realized, a picture of Max and Emily with their tower. She had already drawn Emily with far more skill than he would have expected from a child her age and was working on the tower drawing now.

“They’re unusual,” he said. “But —”

“They’re strange.” Angie took a deep breath. “Look, I’ve been watching. The way they move? How they act? It seems very strange. And what about their eyes? That can’t be normal.”

“What do you think it going on?”

Angie sank down into her chair. “I don’t know, but no way those kids aren’t related.”

Terry noticed something happening in the room. It started with Elisabeth. She looked away from the drawing on the chalk board and looked right up at the webcam. As soon as she did the other girls also stopped what they were doing and looked at a webcam. Each of them picked a different camera to face.

Angie kept talking, oblivious to what was happening. “Maybe it’s like that old movie, the one with the kids —”

“Angie. Look.”

Erin and Edwina had risen to their feet without letting their strange eyes shift from the cameras in the corners of the room on that side. Emily had turned away from the tower she was building with Max and was looking straight at camera two. Erin’s eyes bothered him the most, because they looked like dark pits.

Angie hugged herself. “What are they doing?”

Max finally noticed that Emily had stopped building. He looked around the room and obviously saw that the other girls were also looking up at the webcams. He looked up too, and his forehead wrinkled, then he looked back at Emily. Terry saw Max say something but they didn’t have the mics enabled. The system was set up so that parents could log in with their child’s information and watch what was going on with their kids.

“Turn on the sound.”

Angie didn’t move.

“Angie! Turn on the sound.”

Max was saying something else but Emily didn’t budge. None of the girls moved. They all stared at the cameras without moving. Angie tapped a couple keys and suddenly they could hear Max.

“—wrong? Don’t you want to play?”

All together the girls spoke. “Our parents are coming. They’ll be here soon. Do not be alarmed.”

Angie gasped. Moving again with that eerie synchronicity, the girls all lay down on the floor, heads pillowed on their arms in a fetal position, and appeared to go to sleep.

“I’ll take care of Max,” Terry said. “Try to get their parents on the phone.”

“They said their parents — “

“I know. Try anyway.” Terry was already on his way to the door. He reached it and went inside.

Max was shaking Emily’s shoulder, but when Terry came in Max ran to him. Terry braced himself as Terry flung his arms around Terry’s legs. Terry patted his shoulder. “It’s okay Max.”

Max drew back slightly. “What’s wrong with her?”

“They’re tired, that’s all. They needed to take a nap.”

Still holding onto Terry’s legs, Max twisted around to look at Emily. As far as Terry could tell she looked peaceful, her side rising and falling with each breath. With her eyes closed she looked like any child. The same with the other girls. Terry crouched down and put his hands on Max’s shoulders.

“Say, do you like video games?” Max nodded. “Great, we’ve got all of the Lego games in the other room. What do you say we let Emily and the others nap and we’ll play a game?”

“Okay,” Max said. “I’m not tired.”

“That’s good.” Terry stood up and held out his hand. Max took it and walked with him to the other room.

Angie was just getting off the phone when they got out to the main desk. She smiled at Max, and looked up at Terry. “I talked to Mr. Highsmith. He’s on the way with the others. He asked us not to do anything about the girls.”

“Great. I’m going to show Max the Wii.”

“Okay. I’ll keep an eye on the girls.” Angie settled back into her chair.

In the front room Terry turned on the television and the Wii. He handed controllers to Max. “What do you think? Lego Star Wars? Harry Potter?”

“Harry Potter!”

“Harry it is then.” Terry loaded the game disc into the console and picked up a second set of controllers. “Let’s play.”

“I get to be Harry. You can play Ron.”

“That’s fine, Max.”

Mr. Highsmith, Ms. Watson, Ms. Smith and Mr. Conway all showed up together. Terry saw the large black van pull into the parking lot. He relinquished his character to computer control and put down the controllers.

“I’ve got to talk to some parents, Max. Are you okay here?”

“Sure!”

“Great.” Terry reached the front hallway as the parent delegation, led by Mr. Highsmith came into the hallway. Terry held out his hand. “Mr. Highsmith, thanks for coming.”

Mr. Highsmith shook his hand quickly. “Yes, Mr. Jackson, I suppose some explanations are in order.”

Terry nodded. “I’d think so.”

Mr. Highsmith glanced back at the other parents for a second. Terry couldn’t quite interpret the looks they exchanged but then Mr. Highsmith turned back to him. “Our girls aren’t exactly normal.”

“We noticed that they seemed kinda strange, not just their eyes.”

Ms. Smith managed a weak smile. “The eyes were deliberate.”

“Deliberate?” What exactly did she mean by that?

“Mr. Jackson,” Mr. Highsmith started again.

“Terry.”

“Okay, Terry. I’ll make this as simple as possible. Our girls aren’t human, they’re like robots —”

“Cyborgs, actually,” Ms. Watson said. “They’re hybrid organisms, both machine and organic.”

“I’ve read science fiction,” Terry said. “I know about cyborgs. Okay, so what are cyborgs doing in my daycare?”

“We wanted to try them in a natural environment, interacting with regular kids. A Turing test of their behavior.”

That made sense. “To see if they could pass for normal kids?”

“To other kids,” Ms. Watson clarified. “We were able to monitor them remotely both through your webcams and their own built-in feeds.”

“Needless to say the test was a failure,” Ms. Smith said. “They have the ability to link to one another, which gave rise to the strange behavior you observed. I had made the recommendation that their links be deactivated —”

“In any case,” Mr. Highsmith said. “I’m sure you can see that we still have work to do.”

Terry shook his head. “I don’t know that it’s a good idea to drop cyborgs into a daycare. What if they had injured a real child?”

“They would never harm a human,” Mr. Conway said. “There are strict safety protocols in place.”

“We don’t need to burden you with the details, Terry. But we do thank you for your assistance, this was a valuable test. I believe we paid for all four prototypes for the month, that should provide sufficient reimbursement for your trouble?”

Angie gave Terry a look that suggested he’d better keep his mouth shut. It bothered him that they dropped off their cyborgs for a test. He crossed his arms. “And I suppose we have to keep our mouths shut about this?”

Mr. Highsmith gave him a thin smile. “That would be the wisest course of action. Otherwise the legal debate could be quite ruinous to an operation such as yours. I think we’ll take our property back now?”

“Right.” Terry stepped out of the way. “I’m not stopping you.”

With a nod Mr. Highsmith and the others walked past him to the room. As they came back out Max came out of the front room and pressed up against Terry.

“What are they doing?”

“Taking them home,” Terry said.

“Oh.” Max raised a hand as they headed out the doors. “Bye bye.”

2

That evening Terry sat alone in the dark playroom after Sarah picked up Max. He had enjoyed how excited Max was to tell his mother about their games of Lego Harry Potter, and what they had for lunch, and how Terry read to him. Sarah’s eyes had looked at Terry warmly after that, which was interesting. Max hadn’t brought up the girls. It was as if they never existed.

That’s what kept him up now. The girls had seemed strange, that much was true. Unnerving. But he hadn’t doubted that they were real girls. Not at first anyway. How much longer would it be before the company perfected their cyborgs? Perfect little children that followed directions and always did what they were told. Would people choose them over real children? Some might.

Terry got up and turned out the light. The playroom seemed very empty, and dark. Tomorrow he’d see about getting some more kids so that Max would have someone to play with.

5,310 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 28th weekly short story release, written in December 2010. I originally released this about a month later on Amazon.com and other retailers. I’ve taken it down everywhere else, leaving it up at Amazon since it was under my name (I pulled down everything under my pen names).

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is a paranormal story, Artifact Angst.

Attack of the Sand Gnomes

Pete’s family came to reclaim the desert and their futures. Pete, Reny and Keri chased lizards and played in the desert. They dug cool forts in the ground and disguised the entrances with tumbleweeds. They climbed the spiny Joshua trees.

And they dreamed of rain.

And had nightmares about sand gnomes riding hot winds scented with blooming cactus.

Pete lay down on the hot sand between the thorny tumbleweeds and looked over the rise at the house. Not much to see at the moment, nothing moved except the shimmer of heat waves that made the house dance like a mirage. A spiny lizard crawled out from under a green tumbleweed and crouched when it saw Pete. He knew just how the lizard felt.

He slid backwards through the sand to the entrance of the fort and slid his hand beneath the tumbleweed to grab the stems where there weren’t so many thorns. He lifted it only enough to slide under into the cool dark earthen space beneath.

Pete slid the shield on the lantern open only a crack. Enough to see Keri’s dirt-stained face where she lay curled into a ball like a pill bug as far under the sloped roof as she could get, and Reny sitting up against the higher back wall.

“They still out there?” Reny asked.

“Don’t know. Didn’t see anyone but they could be anywhere.”

Keri whimpered which earned Pete a dark look from Reny. Reny leaned forward and patted Keri’s bare foot.

“Shhh, don’t worry. We’re safe here.”

Pete scooted across the rough dirt floor and put his back against the dirt wall. He lifted the lantern and hung it from the twisted nail hook on the ceiling.

“We can’t stay here forever,” he whispered. “We need water. Food.”

“Not yet,” Reny whispered back. “They could be out there waiting for us.”

“And if we wait too long?”

Reny’s dirty face looked like a mirror of his own. Pete reached up for the lamp. “We need to save the candle.”

Keri whimpered softly again. Pete closed the shutter anyway.

“I want to go home,” Keri said from the dark.

Pete heard Reny shift. Bits of dirt rattled in the dark. “We can’t, Keri. Try to take a nap, okay?”

That’d be best for all of them but Pete couldn’t shake the images that stuck in his mind.

It had all started with the wind. He and Reny and Keri had been out in the desert chasing lizards but the small stripped ones ran so fast and if you grabbed them by the tail it could come right off in your hand. They’d come back together at the fort when the wind blew up and sent dust and sand into their faces. And it smelled of blooming cactus, just like they had been warned. The wind that heralded the coming of the sand gnomes.

Reny had been the one that pulled the tumbleweed out of the entrance of the fort and saved them all. He had pricked his hand in several places doing it.

Reny yelled for them to get inside. They all knew the drill. Keri dropped and went in as quick as a jack rabbit. Pete had stood there like an idiot staring at the house as four enormous dust devils converged on the house from every direction. They were monstrous large dust devils filled with sand and dust and tumbleweeds all twirling around. Pete had seen his parents, and Reny’s parents, running for the shelter of the house, his mother yelling for him even though he couldn’t hear her words over the wind. Then Reny had grabbed and shoved him towards the fort, shouting to make himself heard.

 

They had gotten inside and Reny had pulled the tumbleweed into place in the entrance. Then they sat in the dark holding on to one another while they waited for the sickly sweet smelling wind to go away. The wind howled outside for a long time before it finally stopped and the smell faded. Reny had saved them and Pete felt sick inside when he thought about how he had frozen.

That’s why, after they waited a long time, he had insisted on being the one to go out and check on the house.

But now, what would they do now?

They didn’t have any weapons. What weapons their families owned were in the house with their parents, if their parents were even still there. Maybe they had driven the sand gnomes off. It could have happened. They had planned for it and drilled for it ever since they came down from the North to try and reclaim this spot of desert.

But if it hadn’t worked, if the sand gnomes had taken their parents, then it was just them and what hope did they have against something that could ride dust devils like the ones he had seen?

Reny and Pete agreed that going out after the sun set gave them the greatest chance of getting to the house. Reny thought they all should go but Pete thought Reny should stay behind with his sister.

“I want to go.” Keri was nothing more than a shadow in the dark fort.

“You’re too slow. If we have to run, you’d get caught.”

“I’m faster than you!”

“Are not!”

“I’ll go,” Reny said.

“No!” “No!” Pete and Keri said at the same time.

“You should stay with your sister,” Pete added quickly. “I’ll go check it out. I’m faster than you too. If they spot me, I’ll shout and run away from the house. That’ll be your chance to get out. Head up the wagon road towards Quartz Hill. Get help from the marshals.”

“We could all go for the marshals,” Reny said.

“I need to check the house. I’ll get water if I can.”

“I’m thirsty,” Keri said.

They were all thirsty. Pete’s mouth tasted of nothing but sand and grit. His lips felt as dry as a lizard’s back. And, even though none of them had said anything, he could already feel the chill in the air. When night came completely it would be very cold and they had nothing except shorts and thin shirts.

“I’ll be fast. If the sand gnomes took them then they’re probably gone and we’ll need the Marshal’s help to track them anyway.”

“Fine,” Reny said. “Be careful. Watch the sand.”

Pete shuddered at the thought of a dirty hand suddenly coming out of the sand and grabbing his ankles. He didn’t need to be warned.

He needed to move but suddenly he didn’t want to leave the comforting darkness of the fort. He felt safe with the close earth walls and Reny. Even Keri. He knew better. The only thing that had protected them this long was the fact that they had remained hidden. Going out again could expose them all, but what other choice did they have?

“I can go.” Reny’s voice sounded shaky.

“No.” Pete got onto his hands and knees and crawled to the faint opening shadowed by the big tumbleweed. “I’m going. Remember, listen in case I yell and then go yourselves.”

“We will,” Reny said.

Pete reached out for the tumbleweed and pinched a spot with a thorn. He jerked his hand back then reached out again and very lightly ran his fingers along the thicker stems at the base. He got a grip on the tumbleweed and pushed it out. He immediately pulled his hand back in and listened. If there were any sand gnomes about he wanted them to think that the wind had shifted the tumbleweed.

He couldn’t hear hardly anything except his own heart pounding and Keri’s sniffles. He inhaled deeply and only smelled the dirt in the fort and the sand. He reached forward and started to wiggle out the entrance. A sharp barking howl cut through the night like a warning. Pete dropped to the sand. The grains pressing into his cheek felt soft, except for one twig, and still had some warmth. The cry repeated itself and he relaxed his body against the sand. Nothing but a coyote. Another answered from farther away.

Pete wiggled the rest of the way out and picked up the tumbleweed. In the faint light he could see better and didn’t have to fumble around to avoid the thorns. He dropped it in place over the opening and then crawled up the small rise again just as he had done earlier. The desert looked blue now that the sun had gone down. Light still bled over the horizon behind him but the area around the house looked still and empty as if no one lived there.

He chewed a piece of loose skin free on his lip while he studied his options. Crawl along, trying to hide between tumbleweeds or just make a run for it? The sand gnomes could just be resting right under the sand. In that case it wouldn’t make any difference if he ran or crawled, if he got close enough they would hear him and reach out of the sand with their dirty claws to pull him down and juice him.

Anyway, that’s what the stories said. Sand gnomes squeezed and pressed their victims until every last drop had been squeezed out of them just like he’d seen his mother wring a rag.

Running it was. It felt riskier but he’d rather already be running if they tried to grab him. It gave him a better chance to get away and a shout warning for the others. Pete took a big breath. He got up on his hands and feet. The cold air made him shiver. No one yelled as he stood. Everything remained still.

Pete ran like the jack rabbits they chased through the tumbleweeds. Sand flew from beneath his feet. He twisted and dodged around the tumbleweeds that blocked his path. His breath scratched at his dry throat. He kept his eyes fixed on the weathered gray boards of the house porch. One hundred feet. Seventy. He passed the big water trough that Pappy kept for the horses. The big wood lid lay cast aside and split in two. There was only sand gathering in small dunes along the bottom of the trough.

Fifty feet. The Joshua tree beside the porch reached for the house with spiny limbs. Forty.

Sand erupted in front of Pete. It flew in his mouth. In his nose. He coughed and choked couldn’t see anything with all the sand in his stinging eyes.

A harsh voice came out of the sand. “Gotcha!”

Rough hands grabbed his arms and yanked him almost off his feet. Pete opened his mouth to yell but the hands threw him face-first to the ground. More sand went up his nose and mouth. Then something pressed down on the back of his head. It felt hot and dry, hard but it curled over the back of his head and something sharp pricked at his neck. A foot! It pressed his face harder into the sand. He couldn’t breathe!

Pete panicked. He kicked and reached up to grab the sand gnome’s ankle — it could only be a sand gnome — but his flailing arms were knocked away. Pete reached up and clawed at the sand around his face. If he could clear away enough —

The foot came off his head and shoved against his shoulder. Pete flopped over coughing out sand. It felt like his whole mouth was full of nothing but sand. He spit and spit and still his mouth felt gritty and dry. Through the sand in his eyes he could only make out a blurry shape standing over him.

“Quiet now!”

Pete coughed out more sand. A foot kicked him in the stomach. The pain was sharp and shocking. For several seconds Pete couldn’t breathe at all.

“I said quiet!”

Pete lay as still as possible. He didn’t move though the sand clung still to his tongue. He did the only thing he could do and blinked rapidly to clear sand from his eyes. Gradually he was able to see again.

A sort-of man stood above Pete, with the stars above his head as he looked at the desert with suspicious eyes. A sand gnome, just like the stories said, with a bald scaly head. Bony spikes started small above his little eyes and then curved around down either side of his head, getting bigger as they went. If he had ears Pete couldn’t see them but obviously the sand gnome could hear. Almost no nose at all, a bump with slits. He wore light sand colored robes that covered most of his body which looked much wider side to side than front to back. It was one of his clawed bare feet that had pressed Pete’s face into the sand. He snorted and looked down at Pete.

“Call your friends.”

“Who?” Pete croaked, and coughed out more sand.

The sand gnome pointed a short scaly finger at Pete. “Call them now.”

“I don’t have —”

The sand gnome kicked at him. Pete rolled away and the sand gnome snarled and came after him. Pete tried to get up but the sand gnome caught him before he could even get one leg under him. Clawed fingers grabbed the front of his shirt and lifted him up, tearing the cloth. The sand gnome shook Pete until he thought his teeth would turn to sand.

“Call them! Call them! Call them!”

Stay put, Pete thought desperately at Reny. If they tried to run now the sand gnome would see them.

“Alone! I’m alone!”

The sand gnome dropped him. It caught Pete by surprise and he didn’t catch himself. He sprawled backwards and fell onto a tumbleweed. Thorns dug into his back and arms. He yelped and jerked away.

The sand gnome laughed at him and grabbed an arm. “Come on!”

Pete tried to stand but the sand gnome didn’t give him a chance and dragged him across the yard to the house. Pete gave up struggling and let himself be dragged along. And he watched the desert for any sign of Reny or Keri. He didn’t see them and that made him feel a little better. At least they still had a chance to get away even if the plan had gone horribly wrong.

The sand gnome yanked him up against the weather boards of the porch steps and let him go. “Get inside!”

Pete felt a small bit of hope. If Reny saw them go inside then it’d be a chance for Reny and Keri to escape, get to Quartz Hill like they’d talked about and find the marshals to come and help. Pete held up a hand as he climbed to his feet.

Standing up he discovered that the sand gnome wasn’t really any taller than him, but so wide it made him seem bigger. The sand gnome shoved him towards the porch.

“Go!”

“I’m going.” Pete walked up the porch steps and pulled open the screen door. Inside he might be able to get his hands on a weapon.

The sand gnome followed him on up into the porch where Pete’s mother usually sat to shell peas. Just the other day she had put an apple pie out on that rickety one-legged table to cool in the night air. Now sand covered the boards that she had him sweep all the time and the screens were torn in several places. A couple smaller tumbleweeds sat against one side of the porch. The door to the house hung open with the top hinge torn clear of the splintered wood frame.

“Inside!” The sand gnome shoved Pete towards the broken door.

Pete did as he was ordered but it didn’t feel like his house when he got inside. The orderly refuge that protected two families against the heat of the desert was in shambles. The floor rugs scattered in heaps of sand. Chairs toppled, two splintered into kindling, and the wide mantle board that Pete’s dad had spent many nights polishing, torn free from the place above the fireplace. One of the pretty blue curtains that Reny’s mother patiently stitched hung in tatters as if shredded by claws. If Pete hadn’t known that only hours before the house had been full of life he would have assumed the place was long abandoned.

Tears, the first his eyes had managed, welled up in his eyes. He clenched his fists and —

The sand gnome grabbed him and shoved him roughly towards the wall. Pete came back at him, not thinking at all, raising his fists to try and fight. The sand gnome moved fast and shoved him hard again and didn’t let go. He drove Pete right back into the wall with enough force that Pete felt stunned. His tears flowed freely now and through them he saw the sand gnome’s face right in front of him. A clawed hand came up and grabbed his jaw. And squeezed. Pete hit at the gnome but his hand only bruised his hand on the bony spines beneath the sand gnome’s robes.

A long tongue flicked up the side of his face, retracing the tracks of his tears. Pete tried to squirm and push the sand gnome away but the sand gnome held him fast. The tongue flicked across his eye and sucked away his tears. Then his head was forced to the side. Again the tongue retraced his tears and flicked across his eyes. Pete tried to choke back his sobs but more tears came.

The sand gnome hummed under his breath and his tongue flicked out again. And again.

Then Pete heard a loud thud and the sand gnome fell. It happened so fast that his knees hardly held him. He pressed his hands against the wood wall to steady himself. Reny stood on the other side of the fallen sand gnome, with their hardwood bat in his hands. Keri hovered in the doorway, rising on tiptoes to see.

“You okay?” Reny asked.

Pete sniffled and pushed away from the wall. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“Is he dead?” Keri asked.

The sand gnome snorted, blowing sand across the boards. They all jumped and Keri let out a small shriek.

“No.” Pete pointed at the torn curtains. “Grab those. We’ll tie him up.”

Reny handed Pete the bat then Reny and Keri went to the windows and pulled down the shredded curtains. The sound of the fabric being torn into strips made Pete clench his teeth. These sand gnomes! Pete tightened his hands on the worn sweat-stained wood. He wanted to hit the sand gnome as hard as he could and his arms shook with the effort it took not to swing. He felt tears sting his eyes again and blinked them away.

Reny came back with the strips and hovered above the sand gnome, shifting from one foot to the other. Keri held more of the curtain remnants.

“Do it. Tie him tight.” Pete lifted the bat as if about to swing. “If he tries anything I’ll clobber him.”

Reny set the strips aside. He used both hands to shove the sand gnome over onto his back. The sand gnome snorted again but his head fell back exposing his wide flat white throat. Pete watched carefully for any sign that the sand gnome might wake.

“Hurry!”

“I am!” Reny grabbed a long strip and laid it across the sand gnome’s belly. He lifted one arm and set it across the ribbon and then the other. Then he grabbed both ends and quickly tied a knot which he pulled tight until the sand gnome’s wrists came together.

“More,” Pete said. “Wrap it around. And through the middle.”

“I know.” Reny wrapped the strip around and tied another knot. And again. Then around through the middle. He ran out of cloth and picked up another.

Keri danced from one foot to the next. “Hurry!”

The sand gnome snorted more loudly and started to lift his head. Pete raised the bat above his head. Reny froze with a strip of cloth in his hands. The sand gnome’s head dropped back and he started snoring again.

Reny wrapped and tied two more strips around the sand gnome’s wrists until they couldn’t hardly even see his hands anymore.

Pete pointed the bat at the sand gnome’s feet. “His feet too. Then his knees. We need to make sure he can’t get away.”

Around the time Reny was working on the sand gnome’s knees the sand gnome groaned and lifted his head. Pete lifted the bat.

“Keep going!”

Reny worked fast. He wrapped and tied. Keri handed him more strips when he needed them until they ran out of cloth. Just in time. The sand gnome’s eyes opened. He his lids snapped shut and back open again. He lifted his head and looked up at Pete standing over him with the bat.

“What?”

Pete lifted the bat. “You’re going to tell us what happened to our parents!”

The sand gnome snorted and shook his head. He tried to sit up and flopped back to the floor. “What?”

Reny scrambled back and stood. Keri went to him and pressed to the backs of his legs and peeked around at their captive.

Pete swung the bat down so that it pointed at the sand gnome’s head. “Our parents. They aren’t here. Where did the others take them?”

The sand gnome rolled onto his side. Keri shrieked and hid her face behind her brother’s legs. Pete took a step back and swung the bat up above his shoulder. The sand gnome put his tied hands on the floor and shoved himself up into a sitting position. He brought his hands up to his mouth and bit at the bindings.

“Stop it!’

The sand gnome kept worrying at the knot.

“Stop it!” Pete swung the bat and hit the sand gnome in the side of his head.

The sand gnome’s tongue stuck out and he toppled over to the floor again.

Keri peeked out. “Is he dead now?”

Pete edged an inch closer and held out a hand for the others to stay back. The sand gnome let out a rough sigh and Pete saw the sand gnome’s chest rise and fall, then rise again.

“No. Not yet, but he’s out again.”

“I messed up,” Reny said. “I should have tied his hands up behind his back.”

“We’re not redoing it,” Pete said. “You guys need to see if there’s any water in the house and food. Then get going to Quartz Hill to tell the marshals what’s happened.”

“You’re coming too,” Reny said.

Pete shook his head. “I’m going to try to find our parents.”

“Let the marshals do that!”

“Reny, you know what they do.” Pete glanced at Keri. “You’ve got to get your sister someplace safe. I’ll get him to tell me and I’ll go after our parents.”

“With a bat?”

Pete held out the bat to Reny. “No. Not with that. Watch him.”

Reny took the bat and came over to stand over the sand gnome. Pete crouched down close to the sand gnome and tried not to think about it licking his face. He searched through the sand gnome’s robes. A whiff of cactus bloom came up from the sand gnome as he worked. Just like on the wind. He found a leather belt around the sand gnome’s waist with several pouches. One contained thick pieces of cactus meat. Another some sort of dry plants. Pete left those alone. On the other side he found a sheath with a long curved dagger. It was thin and white, made of bone or something. Pete thought it looked like a snake’s fang except no snake ever grew that big. He hoped. One side was sharped and the point looked as sharp as a needle. He sat it aside on the wood.

Reny whistled. “Good thing he didn’t get that out.”

Lucky for them. Pete kept searching. He didn’t find anything else on the belt. But up around the sand gnome’s neck he noticed a gold chain. He pulled it out of the robes and found what looked like a golden whistle on one end but like no whistle he had ever seen. Two golden fangs curved upwards on the mouthpiece, making it impossible to blow the whistle without poking your lips. Pete grimaced but he twisted the whistle free from the thin wire holding it to the chain and put it aside too. More searching failed to turn up anything else.

Pete scooped up the knife and whistle. He slipped them into his pockets and held out his hand for the bat. “Go see if you can find some clothes and get dressed.” The air in the house was already getting cold without a fire. “I’ll watch him.”

“Holler if you need help.”

While the sand gnome snored Pete dragged over an unbroken chair and sat down with the bat balanced across his knees until the others came back downstairs. They had both gotten dressed in their long pants, coats and shoes. Keri had on the colorful hat her mother had knit.

Reny brushed at his arms. “They’re sandy but they left the clothes and stuff. It’s just all scattered around.”

Pete got up and passed the bat over to Reny. “I’ll be quick. Watch him close.”

Just as Reny said their bedrooms upstairs looked like the dust devils had come inside and thrown things around just for fun. His school books looked like bleached leaves scattered around the room. A lizard skittered out from under a tumbleweed in the middle of the floor and ran for the shelter of the toppled dresser. Pete pulled clothes off the floor, shook the sand out as best he could and dressed. He took the knife and whistle and put the whistle in his pants pocket. The knife he slipped through his belt.

Then he went out of his room and around the landing into his parents’ room. It felt weird to walk in there with them gone but the room itself didn’t look anything like it usually did. The bed leaned up against one wall with a sand dune against the bottom. Everything destroyed, just like the other rooms, but it smelled strongly of mother’s rose perfume that she brought down from the North. He saw the broken crystal bottle against the wall.

Pete blinked back tears and went down on his hands and knees. He brushed sand aside with his hands, looking for the notch.

There. A chip in the side of the board. He tried getting his fingernail under it. His finger slipped and the nail tore. The pain was sharp and immediate. He stuck the finger in his mouth and sucked on it, tasting blood and sand, then took his hand out and shook it. He needed something else.

Pete thought of the dagger. He pulled it out of his belt and tried the tip on the notch. Slowly, carefully he eased the board up. Sand made a faint hissing sound as it poured down into the space in the floor. Pete shoved the board aside.

Just enough moonlight came through the window that he could see a dark cloth shape in the space beneath. He reached in and took it out, surprised about the weight and feeling like he was going to get in a lot of trouble.

Except there was no one here to tell him otherwise.

He drew back the cloth and his breath caught when he saw the rainmaker. Only about the size of an apple, it was a ball of engraved metal strips wrapping around and around from different directions. He turned it and caught just a glimpse of some bright spark inside that caught the moonlight. Pop had believed that the rainmaker would help them tame the desert and drive back the sand gnomes if he could only figure out how to make it work.

Pete didn’t have any idea but if it could drive back sand gnomes then he would take it. Maybe he could figure out a way to use it.

Reny shouted downstairs and Keri screamed. He heard the sand gnome roaring.

Pete dropped the rainmaker into its bag and stuffed it in his shirt. He snatched up the dagger and ran out onto the landing. His feet slid on the sand and he very nearly fell the entire way down the stairs. He caught his balance on the railing and hurried downstairs.

Reny and the sand gnome wrestled over the bat. The sand gnome was sitting up and had a grip with his fingers on the fat end. He was trying to yank it from Reny’s grasp. Reny yelled as his feet slipped in the sand and he fell to his knees, but he hung on. The sand gnome shoved the bat at Reny’s face so that his own hands hit his nose. He still clung to the bat.

Pete ran up behind the sand gnome. He pressed the point of the dagger against the back of the sand gnome’s neck. “Let go. Now.”

The sand gnome held very still. Pete pressed a bit harder and drew a drop of blood. The sand gnome let go of the bat.

Reny got to his feet. He swung the bat back.

“No!”

Reny stopped his swing. “Why not?”

“I’ll take care of him. Just get going. You know what to do. Take care of your sister.”

Keri was sitting against the wall by the door with her hands around her knees. Reny looked over and when he saw her he lowered the bat. He looked back at Pete.

“We can’t leave you.”

“You have to.” Pete looked at the spot of blood trickling down the back of the sand gnome’s neck. It looked as red as anyone’s. “If we leave him he’ll just get loose. Instead he’s going to take me to our parents.”

The sand gnome laughed. “I’m not taking you anywhere!”

Pete twisted the dagger. The sand gnome hissed and tried to pull away. Pete pressed hard. “Don’t move! You do what I say!”

A louder hiss from the sand gnome but he stopped moving. Pete looked at Reny. “Go. Now.”

Reny put the bat to his shoulder and went over to Keri. He crouched down and whispered something in her ear. She turned and wrapped her arms around his neck. He stood up and she swung her legs around his waist.

“We’ll send help.”

“You won’t get far enough to find help,” the sand gnome taunted. “After I juice this one I’ll come for you and your little sister, too!”

“You’re not juicing anyone,” Pete said. He met Reny’s eyes. “Go.”

Reny carried Keri out of the room. Pete listened to him walk across the porch and down the steps. Then they were gone and it was just him and the sand gnome. He wanted to kill the sand gnome but that wouldn’t get their parents back. Pete took a step back away from the sand gnome but held the dagger ready. If the sand gnome made him, he would do it.

“What’s your name?” Pete asked.

The sand gnome twisted around and looked up. His broad tongue flicked out. “Cinctores.” He lifted his hands towards his mouth to bite at the knots again.

Pete swiped the dagger at Cinctores. The sand gnome jerked away and lowered his hands. Pete pointed the dagger at him. “Don’t try to escape. If you make me, I’ll kill you.”

Cinctores laughed. “You think a scrawny little human like you is going to kill me?”

“You’re the one tied up, aren’t you?” Pete pointed at the door. “And now you’re going to show me where my parents are.”

“Sure,” Cinctores said agreeably. He gestured with his bound hands at his legs. “Cut me free and we can go.”

Pete hesitated, sure it was a trap. “You’d better not try to escape.”

“Or what? Oh, right. You’ll kill me. But I can’t show you where your parents are just sitting here, now can I?” Cinctores shrugged. “You’re probably too late anyway. I’ll bet that right about now they’re being fed into the millstones. But if we hurry you can probably join them.”

Pete slid the dagger under the bindings on Cinctores knees while watching him warily. The sharp edge cut through the curtain cloth like it was tissue paper. He moved down and slit the bindings around Cinctores’ ankles and quickly moved back.

Almost as fast Cinctores got to his feet. He stopped against the wood floors. “That’s better. All right, boy. Come along then if you’re so eager to be juiced.”

Cinctores walked out of the room, his claws rapping hard against the wood. Pete hurried after him expecting some treachery from the sand gnome. But Cinctores just went out across the porch, down the steps and started walking off into the desert. Pete ran after him but trailed along several feet back. He held the dagger ready.

The desert looked different at night under the moon and stars like another world altogether. The sand gleamed like the snow they used to get up in the mountains. Each cactus, each tumbleweed looked like boulders. It was a world of blue light and shadows. In the distance Pete heard coyotes singing again and wondered what they sang about. A few minutes later he heard the mournful sound of an owl hooting.

Cinctores set a hard pace but he didn’t seem to be trying to get away. He didn’t try for the bindings on his hands again. Pete kept up with him, just staying far enough back that Cinctores couldn’t surprise him and attack. Pete’s mouth still tasted like it was full of sand. His throat hurt. His lips cracked and he chewed on another piece of loose skin as he walked.

Pete watched Cinctores broad back carefully. The sand gnome could be leading him to their base or he could just be leading him off into the desert to die. While they kept walking Pete wasn’t going to freeze but what if they kept going until the sun came up? How long could he really keep this up? Cinctores was a sand gnome. He could probably go without water for weeks.

“How much further?”

Cinctores pointed with his bound hands. “See that rock formation? That’s the claw. Our nest is on the other side.”

Pete didn’t know if Cinctores was telling the truth or not. A rock tripped Pete and he almost fell. Pete felt the rainmaker shift in his shirt. He had almost forgotten about the device. He caught his balance and looked at the sand gnome but Cinctores didn’t show any sign of noticing.

Pete transferred the dagger to his other hand and reached into his shirt. He pushed the rainmaker out of the rough cloth bag. Pop had thought the rainmaker could help them reclaim the desert. That’s what brought them South in the first place. They’d been promised free land if they could reclaim it from the desert. Pop and Reny’s dad believed they could do it. Pete and Reny used to spend hours watching their fathers design irrigation systems and talk about the crops that would be planted.

The man that sold the rainmaker said it was an ancient device built by a powerful alchemist. Pop said he had papers that proved it, but the means to make the device work had been lost. Reny’s father and Pop had argued over the purchase but Pop had used his own share to buy it. Pete didn’t have any idea how the device worked. But if he could get it to Pop, maybe he would have an idea.

The rock formation drew closer but Cinctores kept the same tough pace. Pete surprised a snake which slithered off under a bunch of cactus. Had Reny and Keri made it out safe? There could have been other sand gnomes lying in wait to capture them. But if Reny did make it to Quartz Hill then the marshals could come and track down the sand gnomes. Pete and Cinctores had left enough of a trail that it shouldn’t be hard for the marshals to follow.

It worried Pete that Cinctores wasn’t trying to escape. The sand gnome had to have something planned, Pete just couldn’t figure out what it was yet. He slid his hand into his pocket and felt the sand gnome’s whistle. The sharp fangs almost pricked his fingers. He had that too. Cinctores might not realize yet that it was missing off the chain he still wore. It was gold. Maybe he could use it to bargain back his parents.

Pete clenched the dagger and wished he had a better plan.

At last they reached the rock formation and Pete saw a dim glow coming up from the other side. Cinctores walked up the sandstone rocks with Pete following behind. Cinctores stopped at the crest.

“See! There’s the nest! And look? Your parents haven’t been juiced yet!”

Pete rushed forward eagerly. On the other side of the sandstone a gully opened up and led into the ground. Clever dwellings had been built underneath the overhangs. A massive mill with big woven sails and huge grinding stones sat in the center of the gully but the air had gone still. The sails hung limp. Pete’s heart jumped to see his parents, and Reny’s parents, sitting with their backs to the base of the mill. Several feet away a large bonfire roared. Many sand gnomes laid flat on rocks around the fire while others busied themselves with tasks. A couple stood guarding the parents.

Pete was so caught up in seeing his parents that he didn’t hear Cinctores creep up stealthily behind him. He only realized when he heard a harsh chuckle right behind him. He spun around, slashing with the dagger, but too slowly. Cinctores hit him in the chest with his bound hands and sent Pete flying backwards over the edge of the gully.

The impact drove the breath from Pete’s lungs. He slid backwards down the gully wall in a shower of dirt and rocks. Sand gnomes hissed in surprise. Pete slid to a stop and looked up. Cinctores stood at the top of the galley and tore the bindings on his hands free with his teeth. He pointed a claw at Pete.

“I found this one sneaking around back at the farm!”

Pete looked up and all around him scaly, spiky sand gnomes gathered. Pete managed to draw a breath and scrambled up into a crouch. He held the knife out to ward off the sand gnomes.

“Stay back! I’m taking our parents and we’re going!”

“Pete!” his mother sobbed.

“Son! Watch out!”

Pete spun around at Pop’s shout and slashed at a sand gnome that drew too close. The sand gnome jumped back and chuckled. It was a female, Pete thought. Her head dodged back and forth.

Pete slashed again. “Back! Back!”

A loud snort made him turn around again. A mound of sand rose up in front of the fire. The sand gnomes moved aside. Another loud snort and twin geysers of dust blue out of the moving sand pile. The way to his parents had cleared. Pete hurried over, watching the sand. Their parents were tied up with leather cords. Pete cut Pop free first and handed him the dagger.

Bony spines erupted from the sand pile as it poured away like sand in an hourglass. The top of a scaly head emerged, but bigger than any of the sand gnomes he had seen so far. The eyes appeared and were fixed right on Pete beneath large spikes. With a loud groan the largest sand gnome Pete had seen pulled himself up out of the ground. He stood almost as tall as Pop and twice as wide with a hide lit orange by the dancing bonfire.

“What’s this?” A deep chuckle. “A boy. How sweet, Cinctores? You brought me a child.”

Cinctores had scrambled down the slope and joined the others. Now he stepped forward and bowed. “Should I juice him, for you, Lord?”

The massive sand gnome ran a thick tongue across his lips. “No. I want to suck the juice out of this one myself. I’ll squeeze his flesh dry!”

The crowd of sand gnomes laughed. Pop stepped forward, having cut the bindings on the others. He held out the dagger. “You’ll not touch him!”

With a roar the sand gnome Lord snatch a rock from the ground and hurled it at Pop. It hit him high on the head and he crumpled to the sand.

“No!” Pete reached into his shirt and yanked out the rainmaker. He didn’t think beyond that they’d been told it would drive back the sand gnomes. He threw it as hard as he could at the sand gnomes’ lord.

The massive sand gnome hardly blinked when the rainmaker flew past his broad head and vanished into the bonfire. He looked back at Pete. “You missed, boy. Now you’ll feed me!”

The sand gnome lord took two steps towards Pete when a loud crack split the sky. A lightning bolt hit the sand near the gathered sand gnomes and scattered them like sand in a wind.

Right above the fire the rainmaker reappeared. The long metal strips rotated and expanded outward. The symbols etched in the device glowed red hot while an inner core shown with a cold blue light like the moon.

On th ground Pop groaned.

Another lightning bolt hit the ground nearby. The sand gnome lord turned and looked at the rainmaker slowly floating higher above the bonfire.

“What is this?”

Pete hurried to his parents. Pop stirred and Reny’s father helped him to his feet, but he looked dazed. Above the fire the rainmaker’s metal strips started spinning faster. The symbols blurred and the glowing ball in the middle expanded.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Pete said.

Reny’s mother screamed and pointed at something behind Pete. He turned and saw Cinctores snarling at him.

Pete dove and grabbed up Cinctores fallen dagger. The sand gnome lunged at him and Pete thrust the dagger upwards.

It sank into Cinctores broad neck. Hot blood gushed over Pete’s hand. The sharp, sulfurous smell of it made him gag.

The sand gnome made a gurgling, coughing noise and staggered back.

The sky cracked again and a lightning bolt came down and hit Cinctores and from there jumped to the sand gnome lord. Reny’s dad helped Pete up.

“We really need to get out of here!” Reny’s dad pointed up the steep gully wall. “We need to climb!”

Pete reached into his pocket and pulled out the sand gnome’s whistle. “Wait!”

His parents and Reny’s parents gathered around him.

Cinctores and the sand gnome lord collapsed to the sand. Another bolt of lightning hit one of the buildings in the gully. In the sky above a dark cloud gathered over the sand gnome nest.

Pete looked at the whistle. The sand gnomes commanded dust devils, what if this was the way? He grimaced and put the whistle into his mouth. He pressed down and the fangs sank into his cracked lips.

He blew.

A wind smelling of cactus blooms swept around them. Sand and dust swirled up. The mill sails filled and started turning. The massive stones ground together and a voice that could have come from the stones themselves spoke.

“What is your wish?”

Pete pulled the whistle free and shouted into the wind. “Take me, my parents and Reny’s parents home!”

The dust devil swirled around them. The biggest dust devil he had ever seen. Sand flew in his face. He tried to grab his parents but he couldn’t see them. He felt his feet leave the ground and then he was spinning around faster than he had ever spun around on his own. He felt sick.

Time lost meaning. Pete knew sand and wind. The smell of cactus. Then it faded away. His feet touched ground. He was too dizzy to stand and fell onto the ground coughing out sand.

When he looked up he saw his parents, and Reny’s parents, also on the ground. Reny’s mother retched onto the sand. He heard a noise. It sounded like shouting. He looked the other way and there was the weathered farm house. The dust devil brought them home.

But the shouting came from dark shapes heading towards them across the sand. His head spun and he couldn’t quite see what it was. The sand gnomes come to drag them back?

Pete blinked. Not unless sand gnomes had taken to riding horses. The marshals! And that was Reny behind one of the marshals, waving!

Thunder rumbled through the sky. The marshals dismounted and one helped him to his feet. Pete saw Keri run to her mother. Thunder shook the sky again and one of the marshals shouted.

Pete turned to look. Lightning bolt after lightning bolt split the sky so bright that it hurt to look at. And with it came a different scent in the air that tickled his nose.

Something wet hit his face. Pete looked up. Another cold drop landed on his cheek.

Then they came faster. Pattering into the sand around them, soft at first and then harder.

The captain of the marshals went to Pop. “We should get everyone inside! There’s going to be flooding!”

Reny’s family went first, up the porch steps into the house. Pete’s parents came to him and put their hands on his shoulders and urged him inside.

“Not yet! Give me a minute!”

Pete walked away from them out into the falling rain. It came harder and harder. He laughed and threw back his head. He let the water wash over him, across his split and dry lips. He felt like the desert itself taking a long drink after far too long.

***

The next morning when the sun came back out Pete joined the others outside when the marshals returned from their mission to scout out the fate of the sand gnomes.

The marshals rode up in a group, mud splashed on their horses. The captain, a tall man with long blond hair dismounted and came to stand in front of Pop.

“No sign of the sand gnomes. The gully sits at the bottom of a lake. Any that lived must have fled. But we did find this on the shore.” The captain held out the rainmaker, tightly curled into a ball again. “A toy, perhaps?”

Pop took the rainmaker. He handed it to Pete. “My son’s. He must have dropped it before we escaped.”

The captain turned and looked at their fields. All of the irrigation ditches and the low fields gleamed with water. “You are lucky! It looks like you’ll have plenty of water for your crops!”

Pete tucked the rainmaker into his shirt. Pop hugged him to his chest. “Very fortunate indeed.”

7,792 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 22nd weekly short story release. I originally put this story out under my pen name “Michael Burges.” I wrote this at a workshop back in 2010, drawing on elements of my childhood. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which elements.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Alley Cat, a fantasy set in a my Goblin Alley series that introduces a character who makes a guest appearance in the series.

The Murders in the Reed Moore Library

Dupin expects simple things out of his day. A sunny spot beside the fountain to nap. His tuna delivered at precisely the right time by librarian Penny Copper. He didn’t expect someone to stuff bodies in the book returns and disrupt his entire day!

The only thing left to do? Apply his considerable intellect to the task of identifying the killer while guiding Penny to the answer.

1

On top of the hill, right above the green swath of lawn where C. Dupin liked to nap in the sun and watch the humans walk past, sprawled the Reed Moore library. Named, of course, after Reed Moore, the founder of the logging company Moore Wood, who built the long-house library for the town. The library sported massive logs that gleamed golden in the sunshine and a green metal roof. Soaking in the sunshine, the library looked like it enjoyed the warmth as much as a cat. Dupin stretched out a leg and took a long lazy lick off the long white fur on the back of his leg. He rubbed his leg across his face, then repeated the process on the other side.

There. Ready to go inside, just as soon as the librarian, Penny Copper caught up and opened the doors.

As she always did on sunny mornings, Penny had stopped at the fountain to read and eat an apple while Dupin lounged nearby. Sometimes she forgot all about opening the library and Dupin had to rub against her legs to remind her.

Today she remembered on her own and Dupin ran on ahead.

“Slow down!” Penny complained, but laughed.

Dupin sat down. It wasn’t as if he hurried. She walked towards him up the concrete sidewalk, a typical enough human although more slender than most, with short blond fur on her head. The rest of her was so bare that, like many humans, she wore clothing. In this case a dark blue skirt, white shirt and a blazer that matched the skirt. As humans went she looked as neat as a cat, which was saying a great deal. Dupin closed his eyes. He stayed that way until his whiskers picked up the breeze of her passing and the faint scent of apple tickled his nose. Then he opened his eyes and followed along behind.

At the library doors Penny pulled out her brass key ring and stopped. “Would you look at that!”

Dupin curled around her legs and leaned against the back of her calves. It was time to get inside where she kept a can of tuna. Anything else could wait.

Instead Penny actually walked away from him towards the book drop that crouched beside the doors like a big green toad. Books stuck out of the drop’s mouth and a few had fallen to the ground.

Dupin sat down. The end of his tail twitched.

Penny picked up the fallen books and pulled more out of the mouth of the drop. “If the drop is full, why not bring them back when we’re open?”

Dupin closed his eyes. He knew the answer, just as he knew all the answers, but if Penny really wanted to know she’d have to figure it out herself.

Except when he closed his eyes Dupin smelled something almost as interesting as tuna. He opened his mouth slightly and breathed in. Yes, nearby. It smelled almost like a freshly killed field mouse but stronger and greasier. Dupin stood up and followed the scent. It was coming from the book drop where Penny was still pulling out books.

Dupin crouched right beside the metal door in the side. Yes, indeed. Right there, just a small pool of blood had oozed out from inside the drop. Dupin opened his mouth wider and breathed in deep. It made his fur stand on end. This wasn’t a field mouse, gopher or bird. It smelled like a person. All sweat and chemicals with an under-scent of fire and smoke.

He backed away from the drop and a growl rumbled through his throat.

“Dupin? What’s wrong, silly cat?”

Penny bent down to stroke him, tucking the books she had gathered into one arm, but Dupin flattened his ears and didn’t look away from the blood. Finally she looked at the metal door and saw the blood herself. Her hand went to her mouth.

“Oh!”

She stood up and hurried towards the doors, the keys jangled on the brass key ring and her shoes made sharp knocking noises against the flagstones.

Dupin followed right on her heels.

Penny unlocked the door and, as soon as it opened a few inches, Dupin darted inside. He immediately felt safer surrounded by the rich smell of the library. He padded quickly across the lobby to the polished cedar service desk, crouched, and sprang right up on top. He turned in a circle surveying the library as Penny followed him inside.

With the hanging lights out shadows draped the library. To Dupin’s left was the children’s end of the library with the short shelves and a large open area at the center where Penny told stories. On his right the taller adult shelving, comfortable chairs and, under the wing, the computer lab. At a cursory glance all looked as it should but Dupin still had the scent of the blood in his nose and it kept his fur up. He needed his tuna, and some water, and a good cleaning before he would feel completely calm.

It didn’t look like Penny was getting his tuna. She put the books down on the counter next to a computer and picked up the phone instead.

Dupin padded across the counter, hopped over one computer keyboard, and batted at the coiled black phone cord. Penny shook her head and pulled the cord away from him!

That wasn’t right. It was too late to do anything about the man — from the smell it had to be a man — in the book drop. But she could still get Dupin his tuna!

“Police?” Penny pressed a hand to her chest. “This is Ms. Copper, at the library? There’s blood in my book drop.”

Dupin sat down, tail twitching.

“Right. Blood, on the ground from inside. Like something was bleeding.” Penny shook her head. “No, I haven’t opened it. I was taking out books that were stuck in the slot and Dupin noticed the blood. Yes, my cat. I came inside and called you.”

As if they could do anything about the man either, it was too late! Dupin stared at Penny. Tuna? Remember that?

“Yes, thank you. I won’t touch it.” Penny put down the phone and looked at Dupin. “What could it be? Do you think someone poured blood into the drop? Why would they do that?”

Dupin meowed and stood up. Time to worry about the tuna, and no, the blood hadn’t been poured into the drop. Beneath the blood he had smelled the salty, sour smell of a man and a whiff of decay. Someone put a dead man in the book drop as if he was an overdue book. It was too late to do anything about him. The police could handle getting him out. Dupin turned in a circle and looked back at Penny. Tuna!

Penny reached out and scratched his head with one hand. Dupin forced down the purr. Not scratches! Tuna!

“We should look around,” Penny announced. “Make sure nothing else looks out of place.”

No, not a good idea. Penny walked away from the counter into the back work area, which took her closer to the tuna. Okay, maybe a good idea. Dupin jumped down to the floor and walked quickly after her. He caught up, walked through her legs and headed towards the door to the staff room.

Dupin walked around the workstations at the center of the work area, past the rows of Coroplast boxes full of books along the back wall, into the staff room. Home away from home. Not much of a room with an old green couch marked with his claws, and a wobbly table and two scratched dark wood chairs. Dupin went to the cupboard where Penny kept the tuna and rubbed against the door. He arched his back and looked back at her.

Penny put her hands on the door frame and leaned into the room. Then she pulled back and walked away, her footsteps muffled by the short carpet.

He couldn’t believe it. She left. Without getting the tuna. Dupin stood still in shock. She actually walked away without getting his tuna out. Looking around the library could wait, he couldn’t!

Humans! If they didn’t have thumbs they’d be no use at all!

Dupin ran after Penny.

He caught up when she flicked on the light in her office. He rubbed against her legs and twitched his tail to catch her attention. Instead she ignored him, looking around the office as if the glass-topped computer desk, or the pictures of Mt. Rainier from her climbs, held some secret. Everything looked as neat as ever, but more importantly, it smelled fine. Dupin circled her legs again.

She sighed and walked away from the office, out of the work area altogether. Dupin was trying to decide what to do about it when Penny screamed! He crouched down and flattened his ears.

Why had she screamed? She was standing just out of the work area, behind the circulation desk. She had her hands pressed to her face now. Dupin rose slightly and opened his mouth. He breathed deep and picked up a faint sticky scent of decay, but mingled with it a floral smell. That wasn’t the smell of the man in the book drop.

Dupin padded up beside Penny. There, in the wood book drop beneath the counter he saw dark red curls, the top of some woman’s head. Another dead person in a book drop? What was going on? He smelled salt and looked up to see tears falling from Penny’s eyes. She sniffed and wiped her hand against her eyes. She took a deep breath and turned and headed back towards her office, nearly stepping on Dupin. Not that he’d be so slow as to let that happen.

He heard Penny in her office picking up the phone again. More calls to the police. Dupin walked closer to the drop and breathed deep. He didn’t smell any blood. The woman didn’t die the same way as the man in the outside book drop. Dead people in book drops, that wasn’t right. His fur rose up and he growled deep in his throat. Not right at all. Who hid their kills in a book drop? There had to be better places. Whoever did this put the bodies there for a reason. They wanted the bodies found. Why?

Penny sounded upset, almost yelling into the phone. Dupin walked closer to the drop but he couldn’t see inside. Just the dark red curls sticking up out of the drop. In the office he heard Penny put down the phone. He went over to the drop and rose up, putting his front paws against the wood. He opened his mouth and breathed in deep.

Death smells, he knew those from killing mice and birds. Stronger from the much larger human. It made him sneeze.

“Dupin!”

He tried to turn but he had been so focused that Penny was right behind him. She grabbed him before he could twist away and lifted him up into the air. Human thumbs! He didn’t fight. He just went limp. She marched across the work area, turned right and then held him just with one hand. She opened the metal door in the back corner and set him outside on the concrete ramp!

Dupin shook himself and started to turn and dart back inside but at that moment Penny pulled the door closed. Dupin stared at the gray metal in shock.

She put him out! Without his tuna?!

Dupin reached out one paw and drew his claws along the metal. He waited a second, then did it again. Nothing. Twice more and no response. Annoyed Dupin sat down in front of the door and used both paws, alternating. Scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch!

Penny didn’t come!

Dupin gave out a frustrated yowl and swiped at the door again. She actually put him out without his tuna because of dead bodies? Clearly she didn’t have her priorities in order. Which meant she was going to need his help to put things right. Dupin gave the door a final swipe.

First things, first. How was he going to get back inside?

2

Sirens screeched through the morning air. Dupin flattened his ears and looked towards the road. Police. He bounded off the concrete path into the dark space beneath the rhododendron bushes. Dried leaves crunched beneath his feet. He padded quickly away from the back door, slipping from one bush to the next. He caught a whiff of squirrel but didn’t stop. Out on the street the police sirens rang out again and again.

Dupin reached the corner of the building and broke into a trot as the police cars pulled into the parking lot. Uniformed bodies poured out of the cars. Vans pulled behind the cars and more people got out. So many people! He picked up the pace and made it to the front doors before any of the police or other humans even got close to the building. Dupin crouched beneath the bench along the left side of the walkway, near the black metal bike racks. It smelled of burnt tobacco beneath the bench and one stale bag of chips.

The library’s front door swung open. Penny’s shoes shuffled on the concrete as she edged away from the book drop. Dupin darted out from his place of concealment, like the shadow of a bird he flew across the concrete for the narrow open gap.

“Dupin!”

He sensed rather than saw her reach for him but she was far too slow. By then he’d already entered the library. He headed at first towards the counter area but that’s where the other body was in the other book drop. He swerved and headed instead towards the heavy padded chairs and one of his favorite spots beneath. Enclosed on three sides, but with an opening beneath the back, he liked watching people come and go in the library.

Safe in the shadows beneath the chair Dupin, surrounded by his own scent markings, settled down and watched Penny at the door with the police. Another scent distracted him. Dupin sniffed around and found an envelope beneath the chair that smelled of mint. He rubbed his face against it, one side, then the other. Out by the lobby the police crowded around Penny but she didn’t cringe or back away from them. She stood right up to the man who was in charge.

That man wore a long black coat that reminded Dupin of ravens. He tried to get some raven chicks once. Actually went so far as to climb the tree after the nest but the parents saw him and chased him away. Even after he was on the ground they kept coming after him with their harsh cries and nasty beaks. Dupin narrowed his eyes, wondering if that man was like the ravens.

Penny led the police into the library right towards Dupin’s hiding place. He shrank back a bit further into the shadows. Penny’s hand waved at the counter.

“The other one is over there, in the bin.”

The man in the black coat stood close to Penny. Dupin could smell a fishy sort of smell about the man from where he was hiding. It made him feel a little better about the man, but reminded him that he still hadn’t got his tuna. Even so he stayed concealed.

“Ms. Copper, you said the door was locked when you entered the library?”

“I thought so. I didn’t check before I put the key in and turned it to open the door. I always do it that way, the door stays locked until you flip the little switch on the door.”

“So it was possible that it wasn’t locked?”

“I guess so, although I always double-check the locks when I leave.”

Dupin eased forward a bit. That man was writing something in a notebook. Abruptly he looked down past his pad and fixed blue eyes on Dupin.

Dupin froze in place, staring back at the man.

The man pointed a pencil at Dupin. “That your cat?”

“Yes, detective Clemm. I can’t understand why anyone would do this? Kill someone and put them here?”

The detective blinked first. Dupin yawned widely just so the detective got a good look at his fangs.

“Call me David, Ms. Copper. It’s too early to speculate. When did you last close up?”

“Saturday. Four p.m., our usual time.”

“And were you the last to leave?”

“No. Henry was with me. And Dupin, of course. We don’t like to have people leave alone, even if it isn’t dark. Just to be safe. We walked out together. I pulled on the doors to make sure that they were locked. I know I did.”

“Okay, and this Henry can confirm that? A last name?”

“Yes. Duvall.”

“Who has access to the building?”

“It’s a city-owned building, it was donated when the library was built. You’d know better than me who has access over there. All of my staff have keys. The city hires cleaning staff, so they must have keys too because they get in and clean the library after hours.”

Dupin eased out of the space beneath the chair. He walked over to Penny and rubbed against her legs. He let a low purr rumble through his chest.

Penny’s legs stayed anchored as if she had grown out of the floor.

“Do you have any enemies? Anyone with something against you? Or the library?”

Penny? Hardly. Dupin observed lots of humans and he knew better than most that everyone loved Penny. He’d even go so far as forgiving her for forgetting his tuna. Eventually. Bored, Dupin wandered away from Penny towards the circulation desk.

Teams of people had gathered around the desk while the detective talked to Penny. They had pulled the book return bin out from the desk. Dupin padded closer, edging around the end of the desk. He sat down beside one of the tall pillars where he could watch and still keep an eye on Penny. Just in case she decided to get his tuna.

They were all so busy about the dead people, it was like someone had stirred up a nest of yellow jackets. Another cluster of people buzzed around the book drop outside. They had that one open too and had pulled the bin partway out before it got stuck on books that had piled on top of the body.

“We’ll have more questions later,” the detective said.

“Can I go back to my office?” Penny asked. “I should call our staff and tell them we won’t be opening today.”

The detective shook his head. “Please stay here, until my people have a chance to look everything over.” Blue eyes found Dupin sitting beside the pillar. “If you could keep the cat out of our way, that’d be good too.”

Out of the way? Dupin closed his eyes just to show the man how important he was.

He heard Penny’s footsteps approaching and looked up. Penny got close and Dupin let out a small meow. He arched his back, expecting a scratch but instead she scooped him up. She brought him close to her chest and wrapped her arms around him. For a second Dupin tensed, then he relaxed and breathed in her apple scent. No tuna. Yet.

Penny carried him away before he could see anything interesting, including the dead body. She took him back to the stuffed chairs and sat in the one he had hid beneath. She absently stroked his back. Dupin flexed his claws and stretched out first his left leg, then his right. He put his head down and closed his eyes. If he couldn’t eat, he might as well sleep.

As he drifted off to sleep he heard Penny talking on her cell phone. He didn’t like her being sad so he purred loudly as he drifted off.

3

Dupin found himself rudely woken when Penny stood up and put him down on the floor. He shook himself and took a couple stiff steps away before he stopped to clean the nap from his fur.

“Thank you, detective.” Penny rubbed her arms. “Did you find anything? Who are those people?”

David reached out and put a hand on Penny’s arm. “I thought you might be able to help us with that. You get a lot of people in here, do you feel up to taking a look? See if you recognize them? They don’t have any identification on them.”

Dupin paused in his cleaning and looked at Penny. If she could lay her ears back or have her fur stand up, he thought she would do so. She took a deep breath and nodded.

“Yes. Of course, if it will help.”

David stepped close. “I’ll be right there with you. There’s something else?”

“Yes?”

“The books in the outside drop, can you tell who checked those out?”

Penny shivered. “Yes, but I’d need a subpoena to release those records. They’re confidential under state law. Why do you want to know who checked out the books?”

“A lot of the books we removed had fallen on the body. Others were beneath the body. Anyone returning books might have seen something suspicious or someone hanging around.”

“Makes sense, I’ll just need you to get a subpoena.”

David grinned. “Of course.”

“And I’ll need the books.”

He shook his head. “We’ve taken the books to examine for evidence. I can get you the barcode numbers.”

“That’d be fine.”

This all was about as interesting to Dupin as getting his nails trimmed. He stretched out his legs and took a long stretch with a satisfying yawn.

“If you’re ready?” David asked, gesturing towards the lobby where the two bodies waited on gurneys.

Penny crossed her arms but nodded. Figuring the most likely possibility of tuna lay in sticking close to Penny, Dupin followed along after Penny and David into the lobby. There lay the dead man and woman in black body bags upon the gurney, with all of the assorted smells of death.

David unzipped the first bag. “Do you recognize him?”

Dupin looked over at Penny. She nodded. “That’s Bill Wilson. He teaches over at the high school. Who would want to kill him?”

“That’s what we need to find out.” David zipped up the dead man’s bag and then moved around to the other one. He unzipped it. “Her?”

Penny didn’t move from the spot where she stood. She stared for several seconds then took a deep shuddering breath. “Camille. Camille L’Espanye. She works here at the library.” Penny brought her hand to her mouth and sniffed. “Camille? Why?”

Dupin stood up and looked at the body bag with more interest. He breathed deep and, yes, Penny was correct. The woman was Camille. She gave him extra cat treats when Penny wasn’t looking. And now she was dead too? His fur stood up.

“She had keys to the building.” David said. “Maybe she came back for something and interrupted whatever was happening with Mr. Wilson. Or maybe they were together? Do you know if they were dating?”

Penny shook her head. “Camille’s ten years younger than him. She’s just out of college. I don’t think she was seeing anyone seriously.”

David made notes in his book. “We’ll check on it anyway. Thank you Ms. Copper. If I have more questions I’ll let you know.”

The detective zipped up the bag and motioned to the people waiting outside. Two men in blue suits came and took away the gurneys. Dupin meowed softly.

Camille dead. That disturbed him. Bad enough he hadn’t gotten his tuna and Penny was upset, but killing Camilla? Dupin’s eyes narrowed. He wasn’t going to wait around for David to try and figure it out. The man seemed well-meaning enough, but he was hampered by being human. His only advantage was the fact of his thumbs but that didn’t matter.

Dupin looked up at Penny quietly crying. He had his own human, with her own set of thumbs. She wasn’t a cat, but for a human she seemed quiet bright. Between the two of them he felt confident in their ability to find the responsible party.

And then maybe she’d remember to get him his tuna!

4

Dupin watched the gurneys being wheeled down the sidewalk to the waiting ambulances before he turned his attention back to Penny, standing beside him with tears running down her cheeks.

No tuna. Penny upset. Camille and that teacher, Bill Wilson, dead. Someone had to pay for their crimes and Dupin didn’t trust David to figure out what happened. No, it’d be better for all concerned if Dupin and Penny identified the criminal.

First, he needed Penny to get curious.

He knew his human. She loved finding answers. He watched her each day in the library answering questions for the people that came in and out. While her intellect might not match his own — that would no doubt be impossible for a human — she still showed almost cat-like insight. And she had thumbs, the one human attribute that saved the entire species.

David came back inside. “You’ll be staying here?”

Penny nodded. “Is that okay? Are you done with—?”

“Yes. We’re done. I’m releasing the scene. I can send in a couple officers to help clean up, if you like?”

Dupin meowed and bumped against her legs. He didn’t want any more humans tromping all over.

Penny shook her head. “We’ll be okay. I’ll take care of it. I’ve got to clean things up. We won’t be opening today.”

David nodded. “Okay then. I’ll get that subpoena for the checkout records and stop by later?”

“Okay. I’ll need the barcode list, too.”

“I’ll have it for you.” David turned and left.

Penny looked down at Dupin. “It’s just you and me now.”

Just the way he liked it. Dupin rubbed against her legs. Penny stepped around him. “Let’s go clean up, then.”

Dupin ran between Penny’s legs into the library. The library smelled of latex gloves and fingerprint powders. He sneezed and stalked closer to the circulation counter. When he got there he padded across the top towards an area covered in fingerprint dust.

“Dupin!” Penny rushed up to the counter and put a hand out in his path. “Don’t walk in that! That’s all we need, are cat prints tracked all over.”

As if he wanted to track that stuff all over and get it in his fur? Dupin sat down and licked one paw to prove his point. Penny put her hands on her hips and sniffled. “It’s just so —”

A bright reflection beneath the keyboard caught Dupin’s eye. Ignoring the powder he walked through it to the keyboard and fished beneath with his claws.

“Dupin! You’re getting dirty!”

He ignored her and tried to get his claws into whatever it was beneath the keyboard. Not for the first time he considered the intangible mystery of why cats didn’t have thumbs. His claw hooked onto a metal ring and he dragged out a small brass key hooked to a red plastic tab by the ring on his claw. He shook his paw and the key clattered in the fingerprint dust. Dupin slammed a paw down on the rattling key.

“What’s that?” Penny asked. She reached out and Dupin drew back his paw.

She picked it up neatly, pinching the small ring between a finger and her thumb. “What’s the book drop key doing here?”

Confident in her ability to answer that for herself, Dupin jumped down from the counter and sniffed around the book bin that had held Camille. The police had gone over the wood bin but they didn’t have the benefit of a cat’s nose. The bin still smelled of death. It needed cleaning.

Penny lifted the key up in front of her face. “It looks like a fingerprint, in the dust on the plastic tab.” She lowered it to the counter and set it down. “We’ll have to show that to David when he comes back.”

Maybe so, but it didn’t answer any questions right now. Dupin left the bin and sat down to clean the fingerprint powder off his paws. It tasted like ashes and made him sneeze.

“Oh, you poor kitty,” Penny said. “Stop licking it! Let me get a rag and we’ll get this all cleaned up.”

Dupin didn’t bother stopping. Penny left the counter area and headed back into the staff room. Dupin realized that this put Penny near the tuna and took off running after her. Unfortunately he realized too late and she surprised him in the doorway holding wet paper towels. Dupin tried slipping around her but Penny caught him. She grabbed his feet and rubbed them with the wet towels. It was almost as bad as being licked by a dog! She finally released him and he headed under the nearby desk where he sat cleaning his drenched paws.

While he cleaned himself Penny busied herself cleaning the counter area, except for the spot where she left the key. She used a spray on the book drop, the sort that made his eyes water, so he stayed back beneath the desk and just watched. Penny noticed the scratch along the side of the bin.

“What happened —?” She sniffled. “Oh.”

Dupin rose and strolled out from under the desk as Penny finished cleaning the bin and pushed it back beneath the counter. She looked at Dupin.

“Why would anyone kill Camille?”

Dupin meowed.

Penny smiled. “Okay. You’re right. I should be trying to find out something to help David with his case. Like why Camille might have been here. Or why anyone would kill Bill Wilson. I always thought he seemed nice enough. He thought he was more charming than he was, but a lot of men are like that.”

Dupin jumped up on the desk and sniffed at the papers there. A red file folder sitting on the desk smelled like Camille. He pushed it with his paw towards the edge of the desk.

“Dupin!” Penny ran over and caught the folder before it fell. “You’re acting so strange. Do you miss her too?”

At least he missed the extra treats. People came and went in his life, always had until Penny.

Penny flipped through the folder. “These are Camille’s! How did you know?”

Didn’t they smell like Camille? It should be obvious, but Penny suffered from the same poor sense of smell as most humans. Dupin arched his back for a scratch but Penny didn’t notice.

“The deadline for these financial aid forms is today.” Penny looked at Dupin. “This could be very helpful. If she left these forms here, it could explain why she came back to the library last night.”

Penny carried folder towards the front desk. Dupin jumped off the desk and followed her to the counter. She put the folder down next to the key. Dupin jumped up on the counter. From the counter it was much easier to look at Penny’s face.

He meowed and arched his back again. Penny reached out and stroked his fur. “Good kitty.”

Dupin purred happily against her hand. He still wanted his tuna, but scratches were progress. Except then Penny stopped. She tapped her fingers on the counter.

“So Camille comes back to the library to get the folder she forgot. I still don’t see how that ties in with Bill Wilson. I can’t imagine they were involved.”

Dupin sat down and waited.

Penny crossed her arms and stared at the book drop key for several seconds. Then she glanced over at the cleansers she had used on the wood book drop bin.

“I should check the outside drop, make sure it’s been cleaned up before anyone puts more books in it.” Penny pulled open a drawer on the back of the counter and rummaged in a plastic basket with a good dozen keys, each attached to a bright plastic tag. Dupin yawned. Penny took out another key, a duplicate of the one sitting in that small patch of fingerprint dust.

Penny tossed it in the air and caught it. “Let’s do that.”

She tucked the spray bottle and a roll of paper towels beneath her arm before heading towards the outside doors. Dupin followed. Before they got to the lobby Penny stopped. Dupin came up from behind and rubbed against her leg and then stopped too. Several people were standing outside the main doors. Penny took a breath and then started walking again.

Dupin trotted along after. Penny went out to the main doors and pushed them open a crack. There were four humans standing outside. A man smelling of sawdust with red cheeks and dark hair stepped forward.

“We saw the police. What was going on?”

The other humans, a red-haired woman, and an older couple came closer. Dupin sat down just behind Penny where he could see everyone. He breathed in deeply. The woman smelled of fire and smoke. It reminded him of the body that had been in the bin, but much stronger. The older couple had smelled almost the same as each other, a dry, powdery, minty sort of old smell like dried leaves.

Penny took a deep breath. “Two people were killed. The library won’t be opening today, I’m sorry.”

“Killed?” The old woman gasped and looked up at her husband. He put an arm around her. “That’s awful!”

The red-haired woman stepped closer. Dupin watched her warily.

“Look, I’ve just got to pick up something for my class. It’ll only take a second,” the woman said.

Penny shook her head. “We’re not opening today.”

The woman moved her hand in a circle as she said, “Look, this is terrible, really. But you know life does go on. Everyone else still has places to go, things to do, and I don’t mean to be a bitch but Camille said my book was supposed to be in last week and it didn’t come in which meant I lost the whole weekend. Then I get this email saying it’s there and I just need to pick it up. You don’t even have to do anything, I’ll grab it and check it out.”

Penny shook her head. “I can’t let you in right now. If —”

“Look, how hard is it —”

“You just tell me your name I’ll get the book.”

The red-haired woman stared at Penny for a second then shook her head. “Look, just forget it. I don’t have time for this.”

The woman turned and left. Her heels made rapid clicks against the sidewalk as she walked quickly away. Dupin watched her go.

Then the man standing beside Penny shook his head. “Guess she didn’t need it that much after all.” He held out his hand. “Rod Allan.”

“I guess not.” Penny shook his hand and let go quickly. “Folks, I’m sorry, but we won’t be open today. If you’ll excuse me, I need to clean the drop.”

“Can I help?” Rod asked.

The old couple started to move away but the old man pulled free from his wife’s arm. Both Penny and the man looked up as the older man approached. He had pale blue eyes and very pale saggy skin.

“Lo! Death has reared himself a throne,” he said. “In a strange city lying alone —”

His wife tugged on his arm. “Come on Sullivan.” She looked at Penny. “He likes quoting. That’s about all he can remember these days, are poems and lines from plays.”

“It’s fine.” Penny looked at Rod. “I can take care of this myself. Please, I’d prefer to be alone.”

Dupin watched the old couple move off, the woman tugging on the man’s arm. Rod moved away a couple steps and rubbed his rough jaw. Dupin waited to see what he intended to say when a police car rolled up in front of the library. Rod ducked his head, stuffed his hands in his pockets and walked away down the sidewalk.

David got out of the police car. He walked past Rod and headed straight towards Penny. Dupin got up and strolled over to Penny. He rubbed against her legs.

“Hello,” Penny said, when David reached them.

“Hello again, yourself.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out a few sheets of paper. “I’ve got the subpoena and the barcode list. Are you ready to help me out now?”

Penny took the paper and looked it over. “This looks fine. You just need to know who had these checked out?”

“And any contact information you have. We’ll need to question them.”

Penny nodded. “In this case I don’t see that we have any choice, if it’ll help catch the killer.”

“It might.” David opened the library door. “Shall we?”

“I was going to clean the drop.”

“I’m sure my people cleaned it after they were done.”

“I don’t know about that,” Penny shook her head. “They left a mess inside.”

Dupin meowed.

“See? Dupin agrees.”

David chuckled. “Okay. If Dupin agrees, I stand corrected.”

Penny held up a finger. “It’ll only take a minute and I’ll feel better. Then I’ve got something to show you inside.”

“Okay.”

Penny unlocked the book drop, twisted the handle and pulled open the metal door. Dupin peered around into the drop. It still smelled of the dead man, Bill Wilson. Penny reached inside and pulled the bin out. Dupin moved aside, and once the drop was out of the way he went to the opening and looked into the drop. A dark flat shape lay against the side of the drop.

Dupin strolled inside. He went to the thing he had seen and sniffed. It turned out to be a leather wallet that smelled like the dead man. From outside he caught a whiff of the cleansers Penny sprayed on the drop.

He pawed at the wallet. It fell open. There were pictures inside. Dupin took a long look. Penny needed to see this. He meowed and crouched as the drop magnified and echoed the sound.

5

Dupin turned his head smoothly and looked at the bright opening of the book drop. Two human faces looked in at him. Penny on the right, smiling and on the left the blue-eyed gaze of David. Dupin crouched down and kept his paw on the wallet.

“What is that?” David asked.

“It looks like a wallet. Just a sec.” Penny crouched and walked into the drop bent over. Dupin backed off the wallet when she reached for it. “Good kitty.”

Penny picked up the wallet and waddled back out. For once she lacked her usual cat-like grace. Dupin wouldn’t hold it against her. He followed her out of the drop. Penny straightened and flipped the wallet open.

“It’s Bill Wilson’s.”

David fished in his pocket and pulled out a bag. “I’ll need to take that.”

“Wait a sec,” Penny said.

Dupin couldn’t see anything. Very frustrating. He looked around and then jumped up on top of the book drop. He walked to the edge and could finally see what Penny was looking at.

Pictures, in the wallet, of the dead man and a young woman with long blond hair. Lots of it, like a Persian cat he’d known once. Penny flipped to the next picture and it was a picture of the red-haired woman smelling of fire and smoke that had been here just a few minutes ago. Penny held the wallet out to David

“Look at this. She was here earlier, but who is the girl in this picture? Their daughter?”

David made a whistling sound. “If that’s his wife, what was she doing here? Did she say anything about her husband?”

Penny shook her head. “She just wanted to pick up a book.”

“You didn’t tell her?” David asked.

“No, I didn’t know who she was. Haven’t you already contacted the families?”

“Not her. We haven’t been able to get a hold of her.” David flipped back to the first photo. “But that girl isn’t their daughter. They don’t have a daughter. We already checked with the school.”

“Oh.”

David dropped the wallet into the baggy. “This might just be the clue we needed. Thanks!”

Penny shook her head. She reached out and scratched under Dupin’s chin. He closed his eyes with pleasure. “It was Dupin that found the wallet.”

David coughed. “Yes, I guess so. We’ve got some barcodes to look at?”

First Penny wanted to clean out the book drop bin before she put it back inside. Dupin stretched out on the warm metal drop and snoozed while she worked. When she finished he jumped down and inside first, as soon as she opened the door. Dupin stopped and looked back but the humans were moving so slowly. Penny laughed at something David had said.

Dupin recognized the signs of human courtship. Penny had, on occasion, dated various men. None of whom were good enough for her, a fact that she had quickly realized when Dupin had made his displeasure known.

Penny walked quickly across the library. So quickly that Dupin barely avoided being trod upon, escaping at the last moment by springing up onto the circulation counter once more. David followed at a more leisurely pace. Penny turned around, facing him with her hands resting on the counter behind her.

“I’ve got it!” Penny announced.

Dupin walked up behind her and rose up, rubbing the side of his face against her shoulder.

“What have you got?” David asked.

“I know who committed these crimes.” Penny’s voice turned colder. “I know who killed Camille.”

David tapped the list on his hand. “How could you possibly have figured it out?”

Penny shrugged. Dupin rubbed against her other shoulder. Then he sat down and stared at David.

“Well, if the red-head was Mr. Wilson’s wife and the girl in the other picture wasn’t, she must have killed them both. Jealous rage, over the affair.”

David shook his head. “That might be the case, but we don’t have any evidence of that.”

“Maybe we do?” Penny turned and gestured at the key sitting in its island of fingerprint dust and Camille’s binder. “I thought you might want to look at these. Dupin found key beneath one of the keyboards. It’s to the book drop outside.”

“Okay, we shouldn’t have missed that, but go on.”

“We also found Camille’s folder with her financial aid forms that needed to be filed today. I think she came back to get the forms. While she was here she decided to empty the book drop and got in the middle of Mrs. Wilson killing Mr. Wilson! Mrs. Wilson came back today because she realized that she had left this key and was afraid it would lead back to her.”

“We haven’t established that Mrs. Wilson was here, and why wouldn’t she have waited until her husband left the library? Why kill him and Camille?”

Penny frowned. “I don’t know. Maybe she didn’t think it through. Maybe she assumed that Camille was also sleeping with her husband.”

“I’m not ready to discount anything.”

Dupin rubbed against Penny’s arm. It was a good idea, but David had a point. Thumbs and the ability to speak, that’d make all of this much easier. So would tuna. He walked to the edge of the counter and meowed.

Penny shook her head. “Not now, Dupin.”

David lifted the paper. “Let’s take this one step at a time. Could you get me the list of people I need?”

“Do you want to wait while I pull it up?”

David shook his head. “No, thanks. It may not pan out, but I do need to talk to Mrs. Wilson before she finds out about her husband from someone else. Just email me the list, my card is there.”

“Oh, okay.”

“I’ll take the key and have it tested. And the folder.” David pulled a couple more bags from his pockets. He bagged the key in a small baggy and then the folders in a larger one. “If you find anything else just leave it where you find it and give the department a call. Believe it or not, we’ll figure this out.”

Dupin crouched and stared at David, his tail flicking back and forth. David noticed and edged back. “Thank you, Ms. Copper.”

As David left, Dupin got up and rubbed Penny’s arm again. She turned around and scratched his neck, then ran her hand down his back through his long fur. Almost as good as tuna, but he couldn’t quite forget the empty knot in his belly.

“I’m going to figure this out,” Penny said. “For Camille.”

Penny went into her office. Dupin followed and crawled into his bed beneath her desk. While she typed on the computer he busied himself cleaning his fur again.

It took longer than Dupin thought was possible. Twice he woke from short naps when the drone of the keyboard keys ceased, but each time Penny started typing again. On the third time she pushed her chair back from the desk. Dupin lifted his head and yawned.

Penny peeked beneath the desk at him. “I’ve finished the list. It’s very interesting.”

Of course. Dupin stretched out his legs and did a deep back bend.

“David identified the books that were underneath Mr. Wilson, and those on top of him. They kept track of the layers of books so we have an idea of when books were put in, in what order. There’s not a lot of names on the list.”

Dupin stretched his back legs out. She must have a point with all of this.

“That guy from earlier? Rod Allan? He turned in books that were beneath Bill Wilson. There was also a book checked out to Mr. Wilson. And that older couple, they came by yesterday too. I recognized the names when I saw it. Sullivan and Madeline Winters, they returned books that were right on top of the body.”

Dupin walked out from under the desk. Interesting. And all of them showed up the next morning? Maybe because one of them wanted to return for their kill? Did humans eat things they killed? They must, because they had things like tuna. Dupin’s stomach rumbled. He really needed to eat something.

“I’m going to call David, tell him I’ve emailed the list. He needs to know who came by today.” Penny picked up her cell phone and dialed quickly. She leaned back in the chair.

Dupin jumped up onto her lap so that he could hear the conversation better.

“David.”

“It’s Penny Copper. I just emailed the list you wanted.”

“Great, thanks.”

“You need to know, the man whose books were right beneath the body, Rod Allan, he came by earlier today. He was here when Bill Wilson’s wife was here.”

“Really?” Dupin heard the excitement in David voice even with the phone pressed up against Penny’s head.

“And there was an older couple today, the Winters. They had returned books that were on top of the body.”

“They’re regulars?”

“Yes. I recognized them. I didn’t place their names until I saw the list, but yeah, they’re in most days.”

“Good work. You said the other guy was Rod Allan?”

“Yes? Does that mean something? He offered to help clean the drop.”

“Really? Well, that’s interesting. We just found out that the picture in Wilson’s wallet, of him and the girl? That’s Lenore Allan. She’s a student in Wilson’s class.”

Penny ran a hand along Dupin’s back. “So he might have gone after Mr. Wilson because of his daughter. That sounds like a motive to me.”

“And with his books right beneath the body he might as well have signed a confession. I love it when cases solve themselves!”

Dupin felt water drip on his ear. He flicked it and looked up at Penny. Water flowed from her eyes. As much as he didn’t care for the water, he knew her well enough to know what she was thinking. It was Camille. If this man killed Bill Wilson, then he must have killed Camille just because she saw something. If she hadn’t gone back for her folder she would have been fine.

“Thank you, Ms. Copper. We’ll —”

“Penny, please.”

“Okay. Penny. Thank you. I think I need to go have a chat with this Allan fellow.”

“Alright, bye.” Penny hung up the cell phone and put it down on the arm of the couch. Dupin batted at it. Penny snatched it away and stuffed it in her pocket. “Stop that, you’re always redialing people.”

Penny pulled a tissue from the green Kleenex box on her desk and dried her tears. She tossed it into the plastic wastebasket beside the desk.

Penny stroked Dupin’s back. “Looks like we’ve solved the crime. Thanks to you. You found the folder, and the wallet. Plus that key! And all without your tuna.”

Dupin jumped down to the floor and turned in a circle. He meowed. Penny laughed and stood up. “Okay, okay! I’m sorry. It hasn’t been a typical day.”

6

Dupin was in the middle of his after-eating cleaning when the library phone rang. Penny picked up the extension on the end table beside the couch.

“Reed Moore Library, Penny. How may I help you?” Dupin noticed the change in her expression and paused in his cleaning. He couldn’t quite make out the voice on the other end.

“So he didn’t do it?” Penny asked after a moment. “But what about the picture?”

Dupin got up and padded over to the couch. He jumped up beside Penny and bumped her arm holding the phone.

Dupin heard David’s voice. “— pretty upset about it, but his alibi checked out. He was giving a business presentation at the time the murders happened. You don’t have any way to determine when he dropped the books in the drop, do you?”

“No. His books were just beneath the body.”

“Could he have hired someone to do it?”

“Maybe, we’ll check into it, but either he’s an excellent actor or he was surprised about that picture.”

“What about the wife?” Penny asked.

“She checked out too. Fell apart when we told her, was also shocked about the photo. She’s been taking evening classes and we’ve confirmed she was in class that night.” David was quiet for a minute. “At this point we don’t have much. We got a fingerprint off the key you found but I’m waiting for search results. Forensics are starting to come in but it’s starting to look like there might have been more than one assailant. Sorry I don’t have more.”

“That’s okay. Thanks for letting me know.” Penny hung up the phone. She stroked Dupin. “I guess we didn’t solve it after all.”

Penny picked Dupin up in her arms and stood. She kept stroking his back so he didn’t mind. “He said there might have been two people. That makes sense. Camille and Mr. Wilson died differently. The key might turn up a match, but what if it didn’t?”

He’d already gotten his tuna. As far as he was concerned David was welcome to figure out what really happened. He lay slack in Penny’s arms as she walked out of the staff room. She carried him back to the counter and put him down on top. She pressed her hands together. “Okay, Dupin, let’s work through this. Camille comes back to the library to pick up her folder. She decides – because she was like that – to go ahead and empty the book drop while she was here. She goes out to empty the drop and Bill Wilson is still out there. One person stabs him while the other goes after Camille. She tries to get away or call for help by coming in the library. The killer outside shoves the dying Mr. Wilson into the book bin and then pushes it into the book drop, closes and locks the drop. Their partner strangles poor Camille inside and lets the other in, who tosses the key on the counter where it slides beneath the keyboard. They put Camille in the drop in here and then leave.”

It made sense but Dupin’s eye noticed something beneath one of the padded chairs. He jumped down from the counter and walked over to the chair. He crouched down and inhaled. The minty-smelling letter still lay where he left it. Dupin reached in and scratched at it. He managed to pull the envelope partway out.

Penny stooped down and picked it up. Dupin rubbed against her legs. Penny’s breath caught. She stood very still for several seconds then looked down at Dupin. “Do you know what this is?”

He had a pretty good idea.

“I recognized the Winters, they come in all the time.” Penny blew out her breath. “And she’s always checking out those serial killer books, from the 364s. This letter is addressed to them. They must have dropped it! What if they’re serial killers, working together? They could have dropped the letter when they —”

Penny slid the letter into her pocket and started walking towards the door. “Come on, Dupin. We’re going to go talk to them!”

Dupin didn’t move. Somehow the idea of talking to a pair of potential killers didn’t have much appeal. Plus he’d just eaten all of that tuna and it sat like a lump in his belly. A nap was the order of the moment. A long nap to allow the tuna time to digest.

“Dupin?” Penny stopped in the doorway. “Here, kitty. Come on. There’s nothing to worry about. We’ll just be helping David out, see what they say when I ask if they saw anything. Maybe they’ll let something slip.”

Dupin yawned.

Penny marched towards him. He thought of dashing away, but he hated running on a full stomach. Penny scooped him up and held him close. She pressed her face to his back and he smelled the apples in her hair.

“I need you with me,” she said. “Come on.”

7

Dupin rolled on his back in the seat beside Penny and tried to bat at the phone again. She moved it away.

“We’re almost there now,” Penny said.

David was on the phone. “Wait for me. My people can look at the letter. We found hair on the inside drop and I have people checking the fingerprints on the books against the book drop key. We’ll get them.”

Penny didn’t answer as she turned the steering wheel and slowed. Dupin rolled over and stood up. “I’m on the street now. I need to know why they did it.”

“Damn it! Wait! I’ll be there soon and I’ll handle it.”

The car slowed. “Too late.”

“Don’t hang up,” David said. “At least stay on the line.”

Penny slipped the phone in her pocket without saying anything.

The house sat back from the road with fir trees and bird feeders along the fence line. Penny stopped the car. Small brown birds flitted around the tree branches. Dupin perked up his ears. The house itself looked like a lot of human dwellings, yellow and white, mostly uninteresting. The old couple was out front in the yard, the woman pruning rose bushes with a pair of snips and her husband digging in another flower bed with a trowel, when Penny lifted Dupin out of the front seat and carried him up the cracked concrete walk.

“Sully?” The old woman called. “Look who it is?”

The old man looked back and squinted so much that only one pale blue eye stayed open. Against his side Dupin felt Penny’s heart thumping away like a mouse caught beneath his paws. She was scared but she marched straight up the drive towards them. She stopped across the chain-link fence from the woman.

“Mrs. Winters?”

“Call me Maddy, dear. Don’t mind my Sully, he’s grumpy as usual.” The old woman looked at Dupin and smiled broadly. “You’d better keep a good grip on that cat. Wouldn’t want him to go after a bird or something and get squashed by a car!”

Penny’s arms tightened. “No. I’m helping the police with the murders at the library, and I thought maybe you could tell me something?”

“Murders.” Maddy pressed her hands together and her smile widened to show bright teeth. Dupin didn’t like the way she looked at him. “Why would you think we know anything about those poor people?”

“Books you returned were on the body.” Dupin felt Penny take a deep breath. “The police took a fingerprint from the books and matched it to the one on the book drop key. They’ve also found your hair in the inside book drop where you stuffed Camille.”

Dupin blinked. That wasn’t exactly what David had said. He tensed. If the old woman tried anything she’d find out how sharp his claws were.

Penny pulled out the letter. “And if that’s not enough, you dropped this when you murdered Camille!”

Maddy stared at Penny for several seconds then chuckled. “Sully? You’d better come here. We’ve got a bit of a problem.”

Penny took a step back. “Why? Why did you do it?”

At the other flower bed Sully rose and came towards them with his dirt-covered trowel. Maddy snipped her pruning snips closed. “Opportunity. We walked to the library to return books and there was that man talking to that young girl. No one was around.” She opened the snips and snapped them shut again. “As far as motive, well dear, it was our anniversary and we always try to do something special.”

Sully had nearly reached the gate. Penny backed away towards the car. Dupin’s fur stood up and he growled deep in his throat. Maddy laughed.

“Run, if you like, but if you’re here the police haven’t linked any of that evidence to us. Not yet, at least. We’ll disappear and find you another time, dear.”

Sully leered at Penny. “By a route obscure and lonely, haunted by ill angels only.”

Penny shoved the letter back in her pocket and pulled out the cell phone. Dupin heard the sirens coming towards them. Penny said, “Detective? Did you hear all that?”

“Yes, Ms. Copper.” Dupin heard David’s voice coming from two directions and turned to see the detective step around the trees along the front into the driveway. He had a gun in his hand. “Mr. and Mrs. Winters, put the tools down and come out here with your hands up.”

Penny slipped her phone in her pocket and moved back over to her car as David walked up and several squad cars pulled up in front of the drive.

“I’m glad you called, but you should have waited. We’ll confirm the evidence, but with her confession that’ll be icing.”

Penny shook her head. “I didn’t call. Dupin stepped on the phone in the car. He redialed the last number.”

“Huh, his timing couldn’t be better if he did it on purpose.” David held out his hand. “And I’ll need that letter as well as a statement on finding it.”

“Dupin found it. I think he figured it all out before any of us.”

Officers came up and took the couple into custody. Dupin purred against Penny’s chest. Of course he figured it out first, and why would David think he hadn’t made the call on purpose? Nevermore would this couple kill.

 

<<<<>>>>

10,233 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 15th weekly short story release and the first break from the Planetary Bodies series of science fiction stories. I wanted to post something different this week and decided to go with the first mystery featuring my feline detective, C. Dupin (based, of course, or Edgar Allan Poe’s famous detective). I wrote the story while managing a library and we were doing a community ‘big read’ of Poe’s works. Later on I published it under my “Ryan M. Welch” pen name. A novel followed, The Task of Auntie Didothat will get reissued as well one day.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is a romance story, Boldy, Sort Of.