The Overlap

Cover art for the Overlap

Mark Duncan rented the room in the Overlap with the last of his cash. Either sell some paintings, or he’d be out on the street at the end of the month.

The Overlap surprises him each day. From his odd neighbors to the uncommunicative manager Heinrich.

Figuring out the Overlap’s secret might just solve all of his problems.

💀

As last hopes went, the Overlap left a lot to be desired. Mark Duncan clenched a paintbrush in his teeth, the dusty sweet taste of dried watercolors on the wood reminding him of the reason for coming here.

Didn’t artists suffer?

Traffic rushed past on the street behind him, an endless river of noise. Honks blared from taxi cabs. A couple blocks over, near the subway entrance, a jackhammer pounded away. The people walking past never even looked up at the Overlap. It was an invisible holdout against the newer construction in the city.

On this block, the Overlap stood somewhat alone, out of step with the rest of the buildings. As if the music had stopped and the massive brick edifice had sat down too soon. It was set back further from the street than the buildings on either side. And was dwarfed by their greater height and sleeker, modern architecture. Long alleys stretched along both sides of the Overlap, further isolating it. The building on the right cast a broad shadow across the Overlap’s face.

It had character. Mark’s portfolio and easel shifted under his arm. He adjusted his grip and another brush threatened to escape. His duffel dragged down on his shoulder. If he got the place, he’d have to come back out here and paint the Overlap.

Overlap? What was with that name, anyway? It was odd. The whole building was odd-looking, almost gothic, with cement gargoyles peering down from the corners of the building. None of the windows were boarded up. It didn’t have graffiti painted on it. Old, yes. Probably a hundred years old at least. Odd, definitely.

And, from the ad, rent-controlled and in his price range. Which was essentially what he had in his pocket. No credit check required, the ad said. Immediate move in. Furnished to boot.

Chances were, the apartment was already taken. That’d be his luck. Then it was either find a place to squat or squander more of his dwindling reserve for a flea-bag room for the night. Unless he wanted to sleep on the streets.

Mark balanced his bags and managed to transfer the brush back to his hand along with the rest. The rubber band had broken. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to show up juggling everything he owned, but what other choice was there?

No sense delaying.

He licked his lips and tasted a trace of the sweet watercolor paint. His stomach growled. He’d last had a grilled cheese and cup of chicken soup yesterday afternoon, at the Last Caboose diner. Coffee and a piece of wheat toast for breakfast before that. Anything to stretch out each dollar. He shouldn’t have ever agreed to move in with Stacy, when he knew how potentially unstable she was, but he had thought they’d make it work. An actress, and an artist? Right, it worked until her producer boyfriend swept her up, and Mark out onto the street.

He still hadn’t taken a step. This, or the street. What other choice was there? Mark adjusted the strap on his duffel one more time and headed to the front doors.

He nearly lost the easel again, opening the door, but he managed. Stepping inside the Overlap was like walking into an old library. It was cool, dim and musty smelling. The noise from the street cut off completely as soon as the door closed. That was nice. The silence of the place was welcome.

Tomb-like silence. The lobby was marble. A bank of brass-fronted mailboxes inset into the wall on his right. Straight ahead a staircase rose up into the building. A narrow, dark hallway stretched along the staircase on the right. Elevators, and dimly lit by a single pocket light, a sign hung that read, Manager.

That had to be the place.

Beneath the sign was a blue door with a brass nameplate. Heinrich.

Mark raised his fistful of brushes and knocked with his knuckles.

The door flew open, yanked by the broad-faced man towering over him as if the man had been waiting right on the other side of the door for the knock. The man was tall, he had at least a foot on Mark’s five-foot-eight. His broad shoulders that filled the door frame. His face was all hard lines and white bristles. His left eye was missing, leaving only a ruined landscape of scar tissue. His remaining eye was huge, watery blue as if it had swelled to compensate for the missing eye. His face looked reshaped by tectonic forces, that had shifted the eye higher and crooked his nose into a series of jagged peaks. The overhead light emphasized his cyclopean nature, enhancing the crags and lines of his face. It was a face demanding to be drawn, something out of legends.

Despite that, Heinrich wore blue jeans, a white shirt, and a black leather jacket. On his feet, he wore big black boots. It was biker gear.

“Ya?” The man asked in a deep, deep voice that Mark felt in his bones.

Mark broke into a cold sweat. He was staring. This had to be Heinrich, the manager, and he was staring like an idiot. “Ah, I’m here about the room? I saw the ad. Is it still available?”

Heinrich’s single eye narrowed. He ducked and stepped through the door.

“Ya. I will show you. Come.” Heinrich shoved past, trailing a scent that was leather and hot spices. A big clutch of keys hanging from his belt clanked and jangled with each step.

There wasn’t any question of following or not. Mark hurried to keep up with Heinrich’s large stride, down the hall, and up the stairs.

At the first floor, the railing changed from wrought iron to polished oak. Mark noticed as they went up the flight. He hesitated, meaning to ask about it, but Heinrich wasn’t slowing. His long stride took two steps at a time.

Mark hurried after. On the third floor, the railing switched back to metal, square, painted white and chipping. It wasn’t only that, the carpets were different too. Each floor was designed differently, Mark realized. Carpets on the third floor were orange, stamped dark along the center line. A dark cherry wainscoting ran along the walls and it smelled of dust.

When they got to the fourth floor the air smelled clean, like after a spring rain. The floor was covered in wide tiles in marbled browns, dull with age. The walls were done in a similar fashion. It was had the look of something once modern, and now antique.

It was the fourth floor where Heinrich left the stairs. That made Mark’s leg muscles happy. He’d get used to the stairs. At least it wasn’t all the way up on the top, two more flights up.

The apartment door was black, with a number in white stencil on the door, 4F. Simple, easy to remember. Heinrich pulled his key ring free and flipped immediately to a particular key, undistinguished from any of the others. He slipped it into the bottom lock, turned it and shoved the door open, then stepped back, out of the way. A gesture indicated Mark should go ahead.

Love-on-first-sight strikes the heart without warning. Mark felt as home as he walked into the apartment. If his jaw wasn’t attached, it would have been on the floor, along with his eyes. Hardwood floors and exposed wood beams crossed the living area. There was a big carved stone fireplace with a massive mantel and a Renaissance-looking painting hanging above it. Dark leather sitting area around the fireplace.

It was a corner apartment, at the front of the building, which gave him windows along the living area, a kitchen, and dining area on his right. Straight ahead an open door let into a bedroom suite. The windows on that side overlooked the alley, letting in light while giving him some privacy. It was huge, beautiful and should have been going for a hundred times what the ad said.

Mark shook his head. “Did I read the ad wrong? I thought it said five hundred per month.”

“Ya. Due first of the month,” Heinrich said from the hall. “I have appointment to keep, you want it?”

“Absolutely.” Mark laughed. He down the duffel, the easel, and his portfolio. He put the brushes down on top of the duffel. His shoulder ached with relief.

He went back to the doorway and pulled out his wallet. Heinrich waited, a massive gnarled hand held flat, while Mark counted out five hundred dollars onto his palm. The fingers closed into a fist, crushing the money, which he stuffed into his pocket.

“First of the month. Put your name on mailbox.” Heinrich lifted his key ring and twisted free the key he had used to open the door. He held it out. “Your key.”

Mark pinched the key between his fingers. It was heavy, thick and cold. “Thanks. You don’t need anything else?”

“No.” Heinrich’s blue eye looked down at him. “First of the month, you don’t pay, you’re out. That’s the deal.”

“Okay. Great. The first, I’ll remember.”

Heinrich turned, leaving. Mark put his hand on the door, solid wood worn smooth with age. “What happened to the last tenant?”

Heinrich’s stride didn’t falter. “She go crazy.”

Then he was gone, jangling off down the stairs. Mark slowly closed the door. It swung easily, silently. The apartment was absolutely quiet. No sounds from neighbors. Quieter than the museums.

Crazy. Right. Surely Heinrich was joking when he said that.

💀

Unpacking didn’t keep him busy for long, there wasn’t that much to unpack. He set up the easel near the windows where there was tons of space. When he could afford some more canvases, it’d make a great place to paint.

By then it was nearly lunch time, which meant getting to work. He needed to make some money if he was going to eat and keep this apartment. He grabbed his sketchbook, shoved the pencil case in his back pocket and made sure he had the key that Heinrich gave him. An hour or two drawing caricatures on the street should earn enough to pay for lunch, and maybe put away some money for tomorrow.

Stepping out of the apartment, he carefully locked the door. The lock moved easily, smoothly, snicking securely into place. Mark pocketed the key and turned to leave.

The door at the far end of the hall was open, but closing. For just a moment there was a woman there, stepping into the apartment. He caught a glimpse of a pale leg and stockings, a slender back and what looked like a black corset. The last he saw of her was her hand, covered in a lacy black glove, shutting the door.

So there were neighbors at least. He wasn’t alone here with Heinrich.

💀

It was late when he got back to the apartment, carrying three new canvases, a takeaway from the Thai noodle place, and a new blank sketchbook. In the night, the shadows had swallowed up the Overlap, hiding it in the dark between the buildings. Lights were on, though, in some of the apartment, like dim embers.

Mark couldn’t be happier. It’d been a good afternoon. Hell, a great afternoon! He’d made enough doing sketches that he not only got lunch but the supplies and still had an extra fifteen dollars in his pocket.

He entered the Overlap’s lobby. He wasn’t alone. There was a woman dancing in front of the mailboxes. She twirled around, kicking out her leg, throwing up her arm, then arched backward. She bent farther and farther until she was nearly upside down. Her face was painted red around her big dark eyes, and it glittered. Beautiful, if odd, with flaming red hair that spread out around her.

She go crazy. Heinrich’s words. Was this the woman? Surely not.

Shiny, full red lips parted revealing a mouth full of sharp, pointed teeth.

“Hell!” Mark backpedaled, bringing the canvases around in front of him. What were those going to do?

She rose back up, spinning around, drawing in her arms. The gauzy dress she wore fell down around her, barely covering her. She was small, petite, and something was obviously very wrong with her. Beneath the thin fabric, a dark metal chain hung between her breasts, from nipple to nipple.

“Mark Duncan,” she said. Her voice was accented, except he was terrible with accents. Irish, maybe? Or Scottish? Something like that.

How the hell did she know his name?

“I looked around your apartment. I’m Kiera. I put your name on your mailbox for you. You’re an artist, right?” Her head snapped around, and she said harshly. “Of course he is! You saw the easel! He’s holding canvases!”

“Uh, thank you. Nice to meet you. I’m going to go up, now.”

“Great!” She skipped forward a couple steps. Her feet were bare and there was something wrong with them. She was up on her toes, except they weren’t really toes at all. Her foot was split in thirds, with a long middle toe, and two shorter, thinner toes on each side.

It wasn’t a human foot, both looked the same. Birth defect, it had to be.

“I’m in three F,” she said. Her head tilted and she winked. “Right below you. You like being on top?”

His mind was numb.

He retreated up the stairs. That was the best thing to do, under the circumstances. Get upstairs and in his apartment. With the chain on. Hell, she’d said that she was in his apartment. Kiera followed him, having no problem keeping up.

“I live with my parents still. One of these days, I’d like to get a place of my own, you know? They say I have to wait until I get married, which is ridiculous, I think. Don’t you?”

They’d reached the second floor. Mark pressed on. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I do. I could run away, but where would I go?”

Sharp teeth and freaky feet aside, Mark understood the question. It was the same one he’d had when he moved out, but things at home were messed up with his stepdad and everything. Tom didn’t understand art, like at all, and a stepson wanting to be an artist even less.

They reached the third floor. Kiera swung on the railing, kicking her leg up onto the square metal rail. She leaned back, arching down low to the floor.

“Nice meeting you, Mark!.”

He paused on the next step. Maybe it was birth defects. He didn’t need to be an asshole. “Yeah, um, you too.”

He took another step before she called out.

“Mark?”

He hesitated, glanced down. Kiera leaned against the railing leading up. “Stay away from Lisette, down in 4D. Okay?”

Four D, that was the apartment at the other end of the hall. The woman he’d caught a glimpse of earlier. That must be who she meant.

“Sure, okay,” he said, to get away.

“Bye!”

Mark looked down. She was gone.

“Bye,” he said.

He made it back to his apartment without encountering anyone else. As soon as he got inside he locked the door and hooked the chain. It wasn’t a flimsy little chain for show either, but a weighty chain with a fat solid knob at the end. It’d take something pretty serious to break that down.

He breathed a little easier, and put the canvases over beneath the windows near the easel and took the noodles into the kitchen.

The spicy scent of the noodles was reassuring. Her teeth were probably fake. Even her feet, as realistic as they looked, most likely some sort of prosthetic costume. She was probably a performance artist. That would account for all of it, the dancing included.

Mark slurped up noodles. Everything except the comment about her going through his apartment, and knowing his name. He’d have to deal with that.

💀

Just before ten o’clock the next morning, he was downstairs knocking on Heinrich’s door again. This time the manager didn’t open the door until Mark’s second knock. Heinrich was wearing the same outfit, minus the leather jacket.

“Ya?”

Mark smiled. “Look, the apartment is great. I meant one of the neighbors, though, from the apartment below me. Kiera? She said she’d been in my apartment while I was gone.”

Heinrich’s single eye drilled into him.

“So, I thought, maybe the locks could be changed?”

“No,” Heinrich said.

What the hell? Mark started to laugh, but Heinrich just kept staring. The laughter died. “No?”

“No,” Heinrich repeated. He reached back and started to close the door.

Mark reached out, putting his hand flat on the door. Heinrich looked at Mark’s hand.

He jerked it back. “Maybe I’m not being clear. She was in my apartment. Don’t you see a problem with that? How’d she even get in?”

“All keys same,” Heinrich said.

“All the keys are the same?” Mark rubbed his jaw. He didn’t have much. Nothing most people would take. Still, it weirded him out. “But she was in there.”

“Anything stolen?” Heinrich asked.

“No, but —”

“Then no problem. You don’t want visitor, you tell them. Not my job.”

Clearly, this wasn’t getting anywhere. Who would Heinrich side with, the guy that just moved in? Or a family that’d been living there who knew how long? Mark nodded.

“Okay. Fine. I’m not trying to cause trouble, it just freaked me out.” Ask about her teeth and her feet. No. He couldn’t. Not without sounding like more of a nutcase than he already did.

The door was closing again.

“Um, sorry, before you go. The utilities? How’s that handled?”

“Included,” Heinrich grunted and shut the door. Hard.

Mark stepped back.

Included. At the price he was paying? It was cool. Fantastic. He turned around. If he saw Kiera again, not something he wanted, he’d tell her she couldn’t come into his apartment unless invited. That was all.

And chain the door at night.

💀

Three days after moving into the Overlap, Mark came home late and discouraged. The past few days he’d barely scraped together enough money from drawing on the street to buy a couple meals a day. There hadn’t been any problems at the Overlap, he hadn’t seen anyone on his way in or out. And the apartment was fantastic.

He hadn’t started a new painting yet. Too discouraged and tired when he got home, he couldn’t even get his head into a place to think about painting. The blank canvas on the easel made a statement all on its own. The emptiness revealed the futility of his plans.

He needed better work or he was going to lose the apartment. If he could finish and sell a painting, that’d be one thing. In theory, he might get enough to pay the rent for the month.

If he could paint.

Kiera was in the lobby as he entered, twirling in the center of the space, wearing a bright red tutu. She spun faster and faster, arms drawing down, tucking in as she spun.

She was between him and the stairs.

She stopped facing him. Her makeup was more subtle today, and green. Her dark eyes lined and huge against the pale skin on her cheeks. Her smile once again revealed rows of shark-like teeth, serrated and sharp. Her feet, the same, three-toed, with bright red claws.

Kiera lifted her foot, spreading the three toes wide. Mark sucked in air. That wasn’t a prosthetic. It was too perfectly organic, he could see the tendons and muscles move.

“Do you like my nails?” Kiera asked. “I did them today.”

He felt dizzy as if he’d been the one spinning. Kiera uncoiled her arm, pointing a long finger at the mailboxes. “You’ve got mail, Mark.”

Mail? What was she talking about? He hadn’t even told anyone he was here. Hadn’t sent the address anywhere.

She waited, expectant.

He coughed and found his voice. “Ah, how do you know?”

She giggled. “I looked, silly.”

Right. What a ridiculous question. It must be mail for occupant, or resident. Junk mail. But she was obviously waiting, and he didn’t have a clue what was wrong with her. Prudence suggested he play along until he could get upstairs.

The brass boxes were old and didn’t lock. At least that explained how she had looked. He lifted the catch and opened the door. There was a card in a gray envelope inside. A bright yellow forwarding sticker was stuck across the front, over his old address.

The return address was his mother’s house, back in Olympia.

Kiera appeared at his elbow. He jerked, but she was looking at the card, not at him. “Who’s it from?”

“My mother,” he said automatically.

“Are you going to open it?”

What the hell? He hadn’t heard from her in months, hadn’t made the effort since their last fight. She didn’t want to believe him about Tom’s cheating, so what was the point?

Mark ripped it open. It was a simple Hallmark card with a tiny cartoon bird on the front. Thinking of you.

Inside, she’d filled up the interior with her neat flowing handwriting.

I was wrong about Tom, she wrote. Mark’s hand went to his mouth as he continued reading.

It’d all blown up. Tom, the affairs, everything. She was moving out, had moved out. They were getting a divorce. At the end, she invited him back home if he wanted. She’d talked to Stacy. No pressure, she wanted him to know that he had a place with her if he needed it while he got on his feet.

“That’s so sweet,” Kiera said, reading over his shoulder. “But you’re not going, are you?”

There was a stone bench beside the mailboxes. Mark went and sat down. Kiera came and perched on the bench, her three-toed feet gripping the front edge of the bench like a bird. It was weird as hell, but he was numb. Instead of freaking out, he actually looked at her. She was sweet and interesting. Pretty too, in a terrifying way.

“I don’t know,” he said. He looked at the Overlap’s stairs rising up into the building. He’d only been here for a few days. The apartment itself was fantastic, the rent and paid utilities unbelievable. “If I can’t make rent I won’t be able to stay anyway. The whole art thing, it’s not working out like I expected. I’m barely scraping by. It was one thing when I was living with Stacy. She was supporting us with her job, and her acting. More than I was doing. I’m not surprised that she took off with her producer.”

“She’s an idiot,” Kiera said. She bared her teeth and hissed.

Mark jerked back.

She laughed and grabbed his arm. “Don’t be scared, silly. I wouldn’t hurt you!”

God help him, he believed her. She was odd, terrifying, but he believed her. “I know.”

He stood. “Look, I’ve got to get some rest, and think about this. I’ll see you around, okay?”

Kiera blinked her eyes. “Sure. See you around.”

💀

It was too quiet in his apartment. He couldn’t sleep, listening for something, anything. He didn’t have a fan, which might have helped. Instead, he opened the window. The honks and rush of traffic lulled him to sleep.

💀

The next day was raining buckets. Even if he found a dry spot to work, no one was going to want caricatures on a day like today. It was a perfect day to get started on the painting.

Or look into a bus ticket home.

Mark paced in front of the blank canvas, tapping a brush on his hand.

Turning thirty was closer than he liked to think, and what did he have to show for his work? Nothing. No paintings, nothing except a couple sketchbooks. He gave his work away for next to nothing. He had a couple pieces in his portfolio, but those were the ones that hadn’t sold.  Even if he could get a gallery interested, he didn’t have enough work for a show. The best he could hope for was a piece in a group show right now.

At least until he created more work and that took money. Not only the rent, and some food, but supplies too. This apartment was a stroke of luck, a lottery win at what he was paying Heinrich. To give that up, it made him want to vomit the contents of his empty stomach.

He needed time, and time was running out. If he didn’t create something, and sell it, then he’d get evicted. On the other hand, if he did, he might make rent this month and hopefully get enough to stay in supplies. But then it’d repeat again next month. And the month after.

On the surface, going home made sense. He could heal things with his mother. They could help each other get back on their feet. Get a job. Maybe even go back to school and finish his teaching certification. He’d run away from it once before.

Those who can’t, and all of that crap.

The blank canvas stared at him like Heinrich’s watery blue eye.

Heinrich’s rugged visage, that’d make a striking portrait. He could paint the man from memory and imagination, but to really capture him, it’d be better to have him sit.

Mark laughed. That’d be something, ask Heinrich up to sit for him. Ya, right. He tapped his brush on his hand.

Kiera would sit for him. The idea popped into his head. She’d be thrilled. He knew it. An electric thrill went down his back at the thought. Why not? With her looks, that shark-tooth smile?

Done well, that might get notice.

If it didn’t? What then? The long bus ride. It was a ball-shriveling thought. Right or wrong, that bus ride meant giving up. He couldn’t do that. Not now.

💀

His mouth was dry as he knocked on 3F. There were light footsteps, then the door opened.

The woman who opened the door had Kiera’s looks, aged to elegant maturity. She smiled, showing the same sharp teeth. Behind her, bright sunlight streamed through the apartment windows. The apartment smelled of fresh baked bread and sugar.

“Yes?” The woman asked.

Mark focused. “Hi, I’m Mark Duncan. I live upstairs? Is Kiera home?”

“Mark!” Kiera yelled, coming into the living room. She skipped across the apartment.

Her mother smile was tolerant as she stepped back out of the way. “My daughter has been talking about you, the resident artist of the Overlap.”

Kiera stopped in front of the door, breathless. “Hi!”

Her mother moved off back into the apartment.

“Hi,” Mark said. His stomach growled from the smells pouring out of the apartment on warm air. “How is it sunny? It was pouring rain a second ago?”

Kiera laughed and grabbed his hand. “No, it’s not, silly. Come on, I’ll show you.”

He let her drag him into the apartment. She shut the door behind him. A man rose up from the dining area table and came forward. He was thin and short, moving with a skip and a hop, beaming equally sharp teeth.

“Hello!” The man held out his hand. “Fletcher Dubois, my wife, Faye. You know Kiera, of course.”

“Yes, nice to meet you all.”

“What brings you by?” Fletcher asked. “Can you stay for lunch?”

“I don’t want to impose —”

“You’re not! And you must,” Kiera said.

Fletcher shook his head. “You must, apparently.”

“Thank you,” Mark managed. “It smells wonderful in here.”

Faye chuckled from the kitchen.

“Come on!” Kiera tugged at his hand.

He followed her into the apartment. It was longer than his, extending past where his living room ended, into what must be the next unit upstairs. But the windows looked out of the front of the building, same as his. Only these were filled with golden sunshine.

Outside the sky was clear and sharp blue, with a blazing sun showing. On the street below a trolley rolled up the center of the street. People hopped and walked around and there wasn’t a car to be seen. The buildings were different too, shorter, with big open windows and balconies.

There was a park down on the right, between the intersections of two streets. Two men sat perched on a wood rail, toes gripping it, conversing as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

“See?” Kiera leaned on the window sill. “That’s our world.”

“Your world?”

“The Overlap, why do you think it’s called that?”

“I didn’t know. It sounded odd.”

“It straddles the worlds,” Kiera said. “Each apartment in the Overlap looks out on a different world, but they all share the same building.”

It was right there, right out the window. A whole other world. “So if I went out there, I’d be in a different world?”

“You can’t! No one can cross between the worlds.” Kiera turned and leaned back against the window. “If you went out there, you’d find yourself in your own world. You can look, but you can’t touch.”

He didn’t have words for it. Kiera laughed.

Mark shook his head. “I guess that explains why you’re, well, the way you are?”

She batted her eyes. “Lovely? Of course! So what do you think? Now that you know, will you stay?”

Stay. Right. “That’s why I came down. I’d already decided to stay. I wanted to ask if you’d sit for me, I’d like to paint your portrait.”

Kiera squealed and spun in place. She skipped away. “He wants to paint my picture!”

“That’s nice, honey,” Faye said tolerantly.

“Yes,” Fletcher added. “Very nice. Can you do that here, Mark?”

“Father!”

Mark laughed. “Yes. I can. I’ll bring down my materials.”

💀

What a change brought by a week? Mark returned to the Overlap, portfolio lighter and wallet heavier. Kiera’s portrait had sold, enough to pay the rent and keep him in supplies well into the next month.

And the Overlap? Amazing. Magical. Kiera promised to introduce him around to the neighbors. Faye was even talking about a rooftop cookout, a welcome to the building event. Her bread and soup were fantastic.

He practically flew up the stairs.

“You’re back!” Kiera called, perched on the railing above. “Did it work?”

Mark hoisted his lightened portfolio. “Yes! A dealer I know, he loved it. He said you were beautiful.”

Kiera clapped her hands. “I’m glad!”

“So am I. And I’m sure Heinrich will be happy I can pay the rent for next month.” Mark climbed the stairs, the rail changing from metal to wood beneath his hand, then metal again on reaching the third floor.

“Thank you,” he said, as Kiera hopped from her perch.

“What are friends for? Just wait until you meet everyone else!”

He couldn’t wait. As last hopes went, the Overlap was proving to be much more than met the eye at first glance.

💀

5,173 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 88th short story release, written in March 2013.

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. Next up is my story, Commuter.

Dreamstone

Emma’s dreams take reality with the purchase  of her first house. A chance to start over, start fresh with her son Emmett. A new future reborn as she rebuilds the house.

The Plan.

A plan disrupted by unwelcome visitors in the night, turning dreams into nightmares.

💀

Emma rolled out of bed before she was fully awake. Emmett’s cry echoed in her mind. She skidded on the worn wood floor as she left the room and collided painfully with the doorframe.

Her shoulder throbbed as she went down across the hall to Emmett’s room. Moonlight filled the room with a pearly glow but it was enough light that she could see him sleeping peacefully in his crib. Mr. Moo sat nearby keeping a placid watch over the child. In one fat hand Emmett clutched his Ragman doll.

He’s fine, she realized. She had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing out loud and waking him up.

Emma backed out of his room. Her hands shook. On her left was the stone ring she’d found when she moved in, down between the torn up floorboards in the laundry room. She ran her fingers across the worn carvings on the ring. She could almost still hear him crying out. Not one of his normal frustrated cries or an upset cry because his diaper needed changing. The cry she’d heard had been one of pain and fear. Even before she had woken up she’d been sure that something absolutely horrible was happening to her son.

And yet he lay undisturbed in his crib.

She found it hard to reconcile those two different realities. Tears welled up in her eyes and she didn’t know why. Chalk it up to emotional overload. She wiped them away. It was silly. He’s fine. She choked back a sob and headed down the hall towards the stairs. The window about the stairs let in more moonlight. She made herself take deep, even breaths as she reached for the railing. She clutched the old wood and held on as if it were a handhold and she stood on the deck of a storm-tossed ship instead of her hallway.

A pile of boxes stood beside her in front of the railing. Only a half-dozen of the stacks scattered around the house. Their first house, her’s and Emmett’s. It still seemed incredible that she had been able to get the financing necessary to buy this place. It needed work but the house inspection didn’t turn up any show stoppers. It was basically sound but the last owners had originally planned to fix the place up and then sell it for a profit. Only they had several such projects and with the collapse of the market had decided to unload the least profitable houses. They left the place with the paint stripped and an unfinished kitchen remodel.

Emma felt better. Think about the house might stress her out some of the time but right now it helped calm her nerves. Fixing up the place was one of the things that anchored her right now. The Plan. Fix the place up and run a yoga studio out of the first floor. That gave her the upstairs and some of the downstairs rooms to live in. With only her and Emmett that meant they still had plenty of room and that was without counting the basement. A cup of ginger-sage tea. That sounded good right now. And a slice of the pecan pie she’d made before the move. After all, it had to be eaten.

Before going downstairs she went back and looked in on Emmett again. He still looked as peaceful as ever.  Emma took a deep breath and headed downstairs.

She was in the kitchen with her head in the refrigerator when she heard the noise upstairs. She pulled back and listened while slowly setting the pie down on the piece of plywood serving as her counter top. It had sounded like something moving upstairs across the floor of the room above. Or maybe it was the ice-maker, she thought.

Then more scratching noises from the floor above. Definitely something moving upstairs! In the spare bedroom which just had boxes in it that she hadn’t sorted through yet, but that didn’t mean that a raccoon or something hadn’t gotten into the house. Emma shut the fridge and hurried back upstairs. Her bare feet didn’t make a sound on the bare wood steps. She went quickly but quietly up to the hallway so that she could hear if it made any more noise.

As she reached the hallway she heard it again. It sounded bigger now. She heard a box fall to the floor with a heavy thud. The noise brought her up short. Would a raccoon tip over boxes? She thought about calling the police but if it was only an animal how would that look?

The room above the kitchen was across the hall from Emmett’s room. She had to check first. Maybe it would go back out however it had gotten in. Emma reached out and turned the knob. The sound stopped. She held her breath. One, two, on three she shoved the door open with her left hand and reached in to hit the light with her right. Instead of the smooth plastic of the light switch she felt something hard, prickly and it moved beneath her hand.

She screamed and jerked her hand away. She didn’t let go of the door but before she could pull it shut three long hairy black legs thrust through the opening around and grabbed the door around the knob.

Emma screamed again and jumped back.

Seeing those legs against the wood with the bits of white paint still clinging brought back her dream. Her nightmare. She’d forgotten in the panic of hearing Emmett screaming.

She stumbled further back from the door until she hit the wall opposite. On the door the legs flexed and moved. Like in her nightmare. The spider. She’d dreamed about this spider. In the dream it had chased her through the house and now here it was in that room. It couldn’t possibly be real. It couldn’t.

I’m still dreaming.

Except she felt a sick feeling in her gut that she wasn’t dreaming. She considered herself grounded. She practiced yoga daily. She ate right. She practiced meditation. She knew when she dreamed and when she was awake.

This was real. It couldn’t be and was, all at the same time.

In the doorway the spider moved. In the moonlight it looked like a living shadow against the pale wood. Another leg had joined the others as it crawled onto the door. As yet all she could see were the long legs. At least a foot long that she could see and the head hadn’t come into view yet. She could still see it in her memory of the nightmare. A head the size of a grapefruit with dark plum-sized eyes and thick fangs that dripped poisons. Right before she woke the spider had been after her. Not only her, but Emmett!

Her paralysis broke and ran to Emmett’s room. Inside and shut the door. She turned to the crib and saw a dark hairy moonlit body crouching on the edge of the crib.

“Emmett!”

She charged across the room. The spider reared up and chittered at her. She grabbed Mr. Moo from the side of the crib and swung the stuffed cow at the spider. It moved faster than her swing and she missed completely. She didn’t know where the spider had gone. She reached into the crib and grabbed Emmett. She heard a noise and looked around. Movement above her caught her attention and she jumped back as the spider dropped from the ceiling above. It landed in the crib. Emma kept moving away. In her arms Emmett stirred and made fussy sounds but he hadn’t yet woken up. The spider reached out with two legs between the slats of the crib.

At the door Emma turned the knob and peeked into the hallway. The door to the spare room stood open. No sign of the spider. She looked up and couldn’t tell in the dark if there was one above her. What choice did she have? She looked back. The spider in the crib had reached up for the top rail. It might jump from the crib any moment. She opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. She closed the door firmly behind her. At least that one wouldn’t be getting out soon.

She had to get Emmett out of here. She went towards the stairs, easing up to the open spare bedroom. When she got close she took a breath and quickly reached out and grabbed the door knob. She expected the spider to strike and yanked the door back. It slammed shut. Emmett stirred in her arms and made little protest sounds. The spider hadn’t struck. It might be trapped inside now. She hoped it was but she didn’t hear anything moving inside. She looked up but the ceiling looked clear. She couldn’t be sure with the shadows but it seemed safe for the moment. She eased past the door and got within arm’s reach of the light switch. She flicked it on.

Bright light filled the hallway. By that clear light she could see thick strands of webbing covering the ceiling. Beyond Emmett’s room the strands came down to meet more strands on the floors and walls to create a funnel leading back to her bedroom. Emma found it hard to breath. Dark shapes moved in the depths of the funnel. Legs moved into the light and she saw there had to be at least three of the spiders lurking in the shadows at the end of the funnel.  Each one of the hairy monsters was as big as a medium-sized dog but the long legs made them appear even larger.

It’s impossible, she thought. It was her nightmare made real. Except it couldn’t be real. She knew better. She’d read it somewhere, that giant spiders couldn’t really work. Something about the way they breathed.

The spiders crawling towards her down the funnel must not have read that article.

Emma backed to the staircase and found herself looking down into more webs. They crisscrossed the space from the top of the stairwell to the floor below. Two fat spiders were busy working on what appeared to be another funnel. Anchor lines ran from the funnel to the walls across the stairs themselves. The way out was blocked.

The spiders noticed her standing at the top of the stairs and started running up the lines towards her.

A glance down the hall showed three more leaving the funnel to run at her.

Emma ran back to the spare bedroom. She yanked the door open. Hit the light switch. A stack of boxes sat in the middle of the room. One box lay on the floor with photo envelopes spilling out of the open top. She didn’t see anything moving. The spider that had been in here might be one of the ones that had gone out into the hall to construct those webs. She shut the door, knowing that there were at least five spiders loose in the hall. She checked the corners of the room that she could see. No sign of a vicious spider. She circled the pile of boxes slowly, keeping an eye out for anything moving. She made her way entirely around the pile and didn’t see any spiders.

Scratching noises at the door made her jump. Dark legs thrust beneath the door and clawed at the wood floor. Emma looked around the room. There wasn’t anything soft but that didn’t matter at the moment. As gently as possible she lay Emmett down on the floor beneath the window. His brow wrinkled but he didn’t wake. She went to the pile of boxes. The spider kept scratching. She picked up a box containing books and lugged it over to the door. The closer she got the more excited the spider appeared to get. Another leg joined the first two. It wouldn’t be able to fit its bulk under the door.

She put the box against the door. Something hit the other side of the door. It sounded like a spider had jumped at the wood.

Emma released the box. It fell right on the legs beneath the door with a loud crack and crunch. The spider screamed a thin scratchy noise.

“Get out of my house!” she screamed back and stomped down on the box.

Two more heavy thuds hit the door. Emma looked at her son. He was still asleep. A sob escaped her lips. He was amazing.

She grabbed the next closest box and shoved it next to the one she’d dropped on the spider’s legs. Then a third on the other side. She started stacking them after that, moving the pile of boxes up against the door. Most of the boxes were full of books and had a comforting weight to them.

“Let’s see you get through that!”

Something hairy crawled across her hand. Emma screamed and jerked her hand away from the box she’d been about to pick up. She looked down and saw a plum-sized spider fall onto the cardboard where it joined dozens of fellows. A white, egg-shaped web casing had split open at the heart of the pile of boxes and the spiders were spilling out in all directions.

Including over the remaining pile towards Emmett.

Emma ran around the pile. One of the spiders was right in front of her and she danced around it to keep it away from her bare feet. She got to the other side of the room and saw several crawling towards Emmett. She sprinted past them and picked him up.

This time he woke up and looked at her with wide eyes. She kissed his forehead. “It’s okay. Shhh.”

His face turned red and he screamed at her. It was the cry that she’d heard when she woke up. Full of pain and fear.

“Emmett!”

She lifted him up and there, on his leg, she saw one of the baby spiders. She brought him close with one arm and swatted with the other. The spider tumbled away. She lifted him again and looked at his leg. Two bright red spots were on his thigh and the sight of them made her shiver. It had bitten him!

Dozens of the young spiders crawled towards them. She didn’t have on shoes or she’d have stomped them flat. She backed up until her arm touched the cool glass of the window. Emma turned around and looked out the window. It was hard to see through the reflection but the steep porch roof outside looked clear. She looked down. The spiders were close. Emmett sobbed into her shoulder and made muffled ma, ma sounds.

“It’ll be okay,” she told him.

She unlatched the window and shoved it up. There was a screen outside. She hit it and it popped out and clattered down the porch roof, then fell to the ground. She bent, swung a leg through and stepped out onto the roof. Her feet gripped the slate tiles better than shoes. She reached back and shoved the window down behind her. Now she just had to get down. She walked gingerly down the slates until she could see the ground below. It sloped down away from the porch. It looked steep. If she jumped she’d probably fall and roll down the hill. She couldn’t do that with Emmett. She had to find another spot. The porch wrapped around the front of the house. It should be easier to get down to the lawn.

She hadn’t gone far when she heard a scratching noise above her. She looked up in time to see the full-grown giant spider crouching on the eves above her. It jumped. Emma gasped and ducked. The spider missed her and landed on the slates. It slid on the tiles and tumbled off the porch with a hissing noise. Emma hurried along the porch towards the front of the house. That spider would probably climb back up and there could be others. She needed to get down and get to her car. There was an emergency cell phone in the glove compartment. She could call for help and the spiders wouldn’t be able to get into the car.

She reached the front of the house and saw webbing strung across the upper stories. Two of the big spiders turned away from their task towards her.

Emma went to the edge of the roof. The lawn looked clear. She held onto Emmett and turned around facing the spiders as they raced towards her. She knelt and slid her feet off the edge. She could only hold on with one hand. She dropped onto her side, cradling Emmet and slid over the edge. She tensed, fearing that a spider would grab her feet. Nothing happened and the two spiders above were getting close. She slid down, slowing her descent with her outstretched free hand. She was falling. She couldn’t stop it now. In her head she pictured her landing and rolling onto her back to protect Emmett from the fall. As she went over the edge of the gutter caught the stone ring on her finger and painfully ripped it off, taking skin with it. She cried out.

She fell.

Hit hard on her heels and rolled back. The impact almost knocked the wind from her. She lifted Emmett up and looked at his face. He sniffled and wiped at his eyes but seemed okay. Except for the bite marks on his leg. She hugged him close and rolled up onto her knee and pushed herself up. She looked up at the roof for signs of pursuit. No spiders where in view. She didn’t wait for them to show up. She ran across the wet grass, cold against her bare feet, jumped over the marigolds along the driveway and made it to the car. She grabbed the door handle and yanked. It didn’t budge. Locked.

Emmett squirmed in her arms. She readjusted as she ran around the car, keeping an eye out for the spiders. Still no sign of them. The driver’s door was unlocked and she slid in and yanked the door shut. She leaned over and opened the glove compartment. The phone wasn’t there.

Emma bit her lip to keep from crying out in frustration. She hit the steering wheel then leaned forward, checking for the spiders.

None.

From the car she could see the porch roof and it was empty of spiders. More than that the webbing that had been spun across the front of the house was gone. She leaned over to try and see more but still didn’t see any sign of the spiders. How could they have just vanished? She hadn’t imagined it. The bite mark on Emmett’s leg was evidence enough that the spiders were real. She checked his leg and found it hot to the touch. She needed to get him to a doctor. To do that she needed the car keys. They’d be just inside the front door, on the little table. Except that was right near where the web funnel filling the stairwell. If she was fast she might be able to get in, grab the keys and get out. She’d leave Emmett here, in his car seat ready to go.

He started crying as soon as she buckled him into the car seat.

“Shhh.” She kissed his forehead. “Mommy will be right back. I need to run in and get the keys and then we’re out of here.”

He cried harder. She wanted to make it all better but he wouldn’t understand. At least in the car he was safe for now. She got out, shut the door and faced the house. Nothing moved. Her partially-restored Victorian looked perfectly ordinary. She ran silently up the dirt driveway towards the house. Not going fast yet so she could keep an eye out. She slowed the closer she got and then when she was almost to the porch and still didn’t see anything, then she sprinted up the steps. Two strides to cross the porch.

She yanked open the front door expecting to see the thick web funnel hanging down from above, crawling with giant spiders, and instead the stairwell was clear. No web. No spiders.

Emma didn’t move, she was so stunned by the absence of the spiders. She heard Emmett crying all the way out in the car and that got her moving. She grabbed the keys, spun about and sprinted out, slamming the door behind her. She didn’t bother to lock it. She ran full speed down the driveway to the car. Got it. Started it and drove it around the drive and away from the house. She kept looking back out the rear window and checking the mirrors. No sign of spiders. Emmett quieted down now that the car was moving. She put the spiders out of her mind and headed down the road towards the hospital.

💀

Two days later she stood in the driveway again. The sun was shining and the house looked dingy with all the paint peeled off. But no signs of spiders. She’d half-expected it to be covered in webs.

That night still felt like a nightmare. Except Emmett had been treated for an “unusual” spider bite at the hospital and her finger still had scratches from when the stone ring was scrapped off as she slid off the roof. Those minor injuries had been the only evidence she had of what had happened. She didn’t tell anyone at the hospital about giant spiders for fear that they’d lock her in some psychiatric ward. She also didn’t call anyone like an exterminator to go to the house because she didn’t want to put anyone at risk if they didn’t know what could happen.

So instead she left Emmett with her sister and came back to the house to check it herself. She remembered how the spiders had chased her across the roof but then when she got to the car she hadn’t seen them. And the funnel she had seen in the stairwell hadn’t been there when she went back for the keys.

She needed to know what had happened. It was hard to walk up to the house again but nothing threatening moved. She went in, tensing when she opened the door, and found only her house. It didn’t take long to go through the house and discover no sign of the spiders. The spare bedroom was difficult to get into because the boxes were still piled in front of the door but she eventually forced it open, toppling the pile in the process. The baby spiders were gone too, and the egg sack that had been on the boxes.

Emma shoved aside the boxes until she could turn over the one that she’d dropped on the spider’s legs. No legs beneath the box, but the cardboard did looked warped like it had gotten wet. She didn’t find any other evidence.

The house looked safe.

She went to the window that she’d climbed out and lifted it up. The harrowing flight across the roof holding Emmett looked worse in the daylight. She could see how steep and slippery the roof looked. The screen lying in at the bottom of the hill looked very far away. She went around to her room at the front of the house and looked out that window too.

No evidence of the spiders, but in the gutter she could see the stone ring. This had all happened after she put the ring on and the spiders were gone after it got yanked off.

It all happened after she found that ring. She put it on, had a nightmare and then the nightmare had been real. There had to be a connection. The spiders disappeared the instant the ring was off. So what? She had a magic ring?

Emma went back downstairs and out to the garage beside the house. She opened the door and reached over for the light switch. She felt webbing against her hand and screamed. She jerked back and jumped away from the door.

Nothing moved. Carefully, ready to bolt, she moved closer and peeked inside. Nothing but a cobweb across the light switch. No visible spiders.

She flicked on the light and the long fluorescent tubes buzzed to life. Cobwebs up among the rafters but no giant spiders. She went across the stained concrete and took down her adjustable ladder.

Emma carried the ladder over beneath her window and used it to climb up to the gutter. She plucked the stone ring out of the gutter and ran her fingers across the worn stone carvings. It was very pretty but she didn’t dare wear it again. She’d put it away someplace safe. Emma stuffed it into her jeans pocket and climbed back down.

💀

3,969 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 64th weekly short story release, written in September 2009 . 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 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. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Sooner Murder.

Stay Extended

Darkness engulfs the shitty Park Vista Hotel, trapping guests inside with no power. Ben, a touring cyclist looking for a night in a bed, regrets not pushing on to the campground.

Three days trapped in the concrete hotel. Three days with that prick Carver appearing out of the darkness to demand a volunteer before feeding the trapped guests.

Ben seeks answers. A way out. An explanation for the darkness, for Carver. Answers that change everything.

A story of things that do more than go bump in the night.

💀

Ben joined the rest of the guests in the Park Vista Hotel lobby to hear what that prick Carver had to say today. Walking down the stairs in the dark all he could think was how much he hated this massive concrete silo. Why design it to look out into this massive empty space and then do nothing with the space? At least with the power out he didn’t have to ride the elevator and look at it, but he remembered the dull gray space. A dozen or so brightly colored kites hanging from the different levels would make the whole thing much more cheerful. At least it would give guests something to look at when they rode the glass-walled elevator, instead of the few fake plants and brown furniture waiting at the bottom.

Ben pushed open the door and walked out into the dark corridor. He knew the way now so well there was no need to use the flashlight he carried in his pocket. Lights flashed around on the walls from the flashlights the guests held. One hit his eyes, causing him to wince.

He heard raised voices from the crowd and picked up his pace.

Cole Petersen, a gray-haired overweight golfer from somewhere in the mid-West shook his pudgy finger at Carver. “You can’t keep fucking doing this!”

Carver didn’t budge. He didn’t even blink. Ben slid into the crowd, nodded to Tuyet who was rubbing her hands together nervously, and made his way closer. Carver looked unchanged since the first day when this all started. About five six, thin, probably no more than a hundred and thirty pounds. He had these sunken eyes that all the same looked very bright and a narrow nose. He wore the same perfectly pressed blue suit as the first day too.

Carver smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “It’s very simple. One person submits to the blood test and then you all get to eat. It’s just a blood test. I only need one. And then you eat.”

Carver gestured at the tables behind him. Bracketed by two bright Coleman lanterns were at least a dozen pizza boxes. Now that Ben saw them he realized that he could smell pepperoni and sausage. His stomach growled. Nothing since the leftovers he ate this morning and that was with rationing. Some of these people probably hadn’t eaten since yesterday.

Ben raised his hand. “I’ll do it.”

Sweet old Sara Thompson reached out with one liver-spotted hand. “But you did it already, Ben.”

Carver snapped his fingers. “And so right you are, Mrs. Thompson. Sorry Benny, one to a customer. I need a new volunteer. One who hasn’t been tested before? The pizzas aren’t going to stay hot forever. Pepperoni, sausage and Canadian bacon for the meat lovers among you, and some vegetarian selections for the sheep. Even a couple plain cheese for anyone that has had enough excitement already. Alright? Who is it going to be?”

“I’ll do it!” That came from one of the guests Ben didn’t know well. Mary? No, Margaret. Something like that. She was short and stocky. She stepped forward and pushed up her glasses. “Let’s get it over with.”

Carver turned sideways and gestured back at the reception desk. “If you’ll just come with me to the office, miss?”

“Marlene Carlton.”

“Ms. Carlton, thank you so much for your assistance. I’ll send you back out with the others soon enough.” Carver followed her around the tables. “The rest of you? Enjoy!”

Cole made it to the table first and snatched an entire pizza box off the tables. Ben turned to Mrs. Thompson. “Why don’t you have a seat here? I’ll bring you some food.”

“Thank you Ben, you’re so kind.” He held her hand as fragile as twigs as she sat down.

As soon as she was safe he made his way quickly to the tables where people were starting to crowd around. Cole reached for an entire bottle of soda but Ben put his hand on it first.

“There’s plenty of food if we share,” he said loudly.

Cole’s chubby face flushed.

“Cole’s going to help serve everyone, right?”

Ben took the pizza box from Cole’s hands and put it back on the table. Everyone had stopped and was watching. “I’ll help. Let’s form an orderly line and we’ll all get through in moments. Okay?”

Cole looked around at everyone watching. He opened his mouth and closed it again.

“Great! Cole, thanks for giving me hand.”

Ben walked around the table. He put down the pizza box and opened the top. Supreme, with peppers and olives. The smell caused his stomach to rumble louder. he ignored it. Cole joined him at the other table. They opened all of the boxes and the rest of the guests formed a line. It went quickly then. They picked up paper plates and Ben and Cole served out the slices and poured the sodas into the paper cups Carver had provided. When a box was emptied they moved it down to the floor beneath the tables.

When Tuyet reached the line Ben handed her a second plate. “Can you take a plate over to Mrs. Thompson and come back for the drinks?”

“Yes, of course.”

Ben put three slices on each plate. Mrs. Thompson wouldn’t eat so much in one sitting but she could save it for later. Cole noticed and scowled but he didn’t say anything. Just as Ben had said, they got everyone through in short order. Marlene, he would remember it now, came back just as they were finishing the last guest. Ben handed her a plate. She had a bit of a gauze pad tapped with blue tape to inside her elbow.

“How’d it go?” Ben asked.

Marlene wrinkled her lip. “It hurt! I think he did it on purpose. I saw him smiling about it. Is there any supreme left?”

Ben gave her the last two slices and added the last pepperoni as well. “You need to get your iron up.”

After she left Ben picked up a plate and handed it to Cole. “Take your pick.”

Vegetarian or cheese, that’s all that was left. Cole looked at both, scowling and finally grabbed the last three slices of cheese pizza. He poured the last root beer into a cup and stomped off. Ben tried not to chuckle as he happily piled the four remaining vegetarian slices on his plate and picked up a two-liter Coke bottle with a little left at the bottom. Later he’d take the empties and fill them with water.

He carried the plate over to the coffee table where Tuyet was keeping Mrs. Thompson company and tried not to pay attention to blackness covering the Park Vista’s front doors. He should be able to see out towards the Great Smokey Mountains but there was nothing out there. Literally nothing. The first day they all must have gone out on the balconies thinking that someone had pulled a prank and painted their windows black during the night. But the blackness wasn’t paint, but it did envelop the hotel.

And yet somehow Carver managed to have fresh hot pizza for them.

“There’s Ben,” Mrs. Thompson said. She pushed the paper plate with two remaining slices an inch across the coffee table. “Dear boy, this young girl brought me too much. I can’t possibly eat all that!”

Ben nudged her plate back. “You’ll want to save those for later Mrs. Thompson. Our Mr. Carver hasn’t been bringing us three square meals. You might get hungry.”

Mrs. Thompson curled her lip and waved her hand, as if shooing off a fly. “That Mr. Carver is a sadistic prick!”

Tuyet coughed on her food. Ben handed her a napkin. “Are you okay?”

She nodded quickly.

“I don’t disagree, Mrs. Thompson, but that doesn’t change the fact that we don’t know for sure when our next meal will come.”

Mrs. Thompson looked past him at Cole. “No. You never do know.”

Hard to believe they’d only been in this situation four days. Sometimes it seemed like hours. And yet each day Mr. Carver only wanted one person to donate blood for whatever tests it was that he was doing. As for the man himself, no one saw him come or go.

Ben bit into a slice of pizza and looked around. No sign of Carver at all. He put the piece back down on his plate and stood up. Tuyet looked up at him with wide eyes.

“Where are you going?”

“I want to check something out. Keep an eye on my plate for me, okay?”

“Of course.”

Ben walked away from the table towards the reception desk. Behind him he heard Mrs. Thompson’s voice, louder than she probably realized.

“Such a good-looking young man, don’t you think, dear? Are you married? You should be so lucky as to get someone like him.”

Ben grinned. Mrs. Thompson sure spoke her mind. He loved her for it too, but he worried about her in their current situation. No power, cut off from everything, what if something happened?

Past the modest reception desk was a door marked, “Staff Only.” Ben had been back once already, when Carver conducted his blood test. Maybe now would be a good time to get answers. Ben picked up one of the Coleman lanterns from the food tables on his way. He shoved the door open and went inside. A narrow hallway with vertigo-inducing stripped wallpaper, faded now with age. A grim sort of place with no expense spent to make the staff feel more comfortable. His lantern light barely lit the long hallway. If Carver was back here he didn’t have a lantern on.

Ben walked past the door to the reception desk to the next door on his right, the manager’s office. That’s where Carver had been doing the blood tests. The dark brown door was open and no light was coming from inside. Ben edged the door open and lifted the light high.

“Mr. Carver? It’s Ben Paulson. Are you in there?”

Inside the same boring office he’d seen on his first trip back here with Carver. Nothing but unattractive beige filing cabinets on one wall, a fake wood desk with a dusty computer taking up most of the room. Piles of paper had claimed the rest of the desk except on one side. Those papers lay scattered on the floor behind the desk and in their place was a box of gauze and blue tape. Nothing else to indicate Carver had even been here.

So where had Carver gone? He had to have a back way out. Maybe a way that they could take advantage of if they found it. Ben turned around and a bright light shone in his face. He could just see someone behind the light, holding the lantern. Ben raised his hand.

“Mr. Carver?”

“Think again asshole.”

Ben recognized the voice. Cole fucking Petersen. The last thing he needed right now. Ben kept his tone even.

“Did you see Carver when you came in?”

Cole swung the lantern at Ben’s head. Ben turned away barely in time. Even so the heavy base caught his shoulder. The pain was sharp and immediate. He stumbled away from Cole and collided with one of the chairs, dropping his own lantern on the floor.

“Asshole, think you can order me around!”

Cole brought the lantern swinging down at Ben’s head. Ben’s hands tightened on the arm of the chair and he swung it up. The thin, curved metal legs caught Cole’s arm and the lantern and knocked them aside.

Cole grunted and charged.

Ben thrust the chair at him. The legs caught Cole in the ribs. The man bellowed and the force shoved Ben back towards the wall. Cole grabbed the chair and pushed towards Ben. Ben resisted just for a moment then he let go and stepped quickly to the side.

Cole, off balance, crashed forward and landed on the chair. He groaned and started getting up. Ben waited until Cole shakily regained his feet and then sent a sharp right into Cole’s face. Like hitting bread dough on the counter. Two more quick jabs and Cole dropped. He fell on his side.

Ben shook his hand. What now? Tie the man up? Leave him to try it again? Maybe he wouldn’t.

Ben left the office and pulled the door closed behind him. He took both lanterns with him. Let Cole blunder around in the dark for a while. Maybe he’d remember who the real enemy was.

The others would need one of the lanterns. Ben went back out to the lobby. Heads turned when he came out, groups clustered around the flashlights that Carver had passed out the first day. People whispered to one another. They must have seen Cole go in and hadn’t done anything about it. And now Ben comes out with both lanterns. There’d be lots of talk now. Ben replaced the lantern on the table. Tuyet waved to him.

“Are you okay?” she asked when he reached their chairs.

“Fine.”

Her eyes turned past him back to the “Staff Only” door. “Cole?”

“He’s taking a nap.” Ben shook his head. “We’ve got to find out what’s going on here and we can’t have people like Peterson creating trouble. I need to go back. Have you seen Carver?”

“No.”

“Such a nasty man,” Mrs. Thompson commented. “I don’t like him.”

“Yeah, I don’t like him either,” Ben said. “But right now he’s our only connection to what is going on here. I’m going to go back and see if I can find out how he’s coming and going.”

Back through the door into that unappealing hallway. He paused at the office door and checked on Cole. Still out, but breathing with a slight snore. Bruises already forming on his cheek. Ben left him. Nothing he could do for the man right now.

Down the hallway. The light chased away the darkness as he moved forward. More rooms. Doors to the kitchens, storage rooms and a staff lounge. All disturbingly quiet. Ben hesitated and went into the kitchen. There could be food. He went to the big refrigerator and pulled open the door. Even though he knew the power was out it still surprised him when the light didn’t come on. Ingrained habits.

Nothing inside. Bare racks and a faint smell of mold and cleansers as if someone had cleaned it out quickly without getting down into all the corners. He shut it and looked around. Another door open to what must have been a dry goods pantry. Nothing there. Not even toilet paper.

It would have surprised him if Carver had left anything back here for them. The bastard must have cleaned it all out before starting his little blood test experiments. Couldn’t have them running to the kitchen for meals, could he?

Ben leaned back against the counter. So nothing. Vending machines empty. No power anywhere. Fortunately the water worked but nothing else. And nothing but blackness outside. It was so dark in here that the lantern only made a small pool of light. Hardly seemed any different than the stuff outside.

Except the darkness outside never went away. It didn’t have substance. It didn’t even prevent anyone from going out into it.

Three days ago. People still didn’t have a clue what was going on. Carver had shown up with sub sandwiches that day. Asked for a volunteer to give blood and then they could have the food.

Thinking back, the thing that struck Ben as the strangest about it all was that no one threatened Carver. A small man with his oddly bright but sunken eyes and that perfectly pressed blue suit. A lightweight. The sort of guy that men like Peterson delighted in picking on. Outnumbered by all of the guests but not one of them threatened Carver. Ben had felt it when he stepped forward and looked into Carver’ eyes. There was an emptiness there that said, that said, Ben rubbed his eyes thinking,

Go right ahead bucko, and see what it gets ya.

And more than that, something else. In Carver’ pocket. He played with it. His fingers fondling the cool metal switch. A switchblade.

Ben’s head snapped up. A switchblade in Carver’ pocket. That’s what he had. No reason that Ben should know it but he didn’t doubt what his gut told him. Good ol’ Carver carried a six-inch switchblade and in days past he liked to cut on people with that blade.

“Lost, Benny? Maybe you ought to get back on to the others.” Carver stood leaning against the pantry door frame as if he’d been there all the time.

Except Ben knew that Carver hadn’t been there. The pantry had been empty and Ben had closed the door after he checked. Regardless, Carver stood there now watching him.

Ben stood his ground. “How long is this going to go on? How much longer are you going to keep us here?”

Carver shook his head. “Benny, you’ve been tested already. My advice? Go back to your room. Stay there until my work here is done.”

“That’s it?”

Carver spread his empty hands.

“Great. Fucking great.” Ben clenched his fists. He wasn’t a cowardly man, but he also wasn’t the sort that started fights. As strange as everything was he couldn’t just go after the guy.

Ben forced his fingers open and walked away trying to tell himself that he wasn’t a coward. That he was doing the right thing and that he wasn’t — snick — afraid that Carver would pull out a switchblade kept sharp and cleaned many times.

Passing the office Ben checked on Cole, but the office was empty. Ben went on out to the lobby again. He carried the lantern over to the table where Tuyet and Mrs. Thompson were waiting. He put the lantern on the table and dropped heavily into his chair. He rubbed his eyes.

“Are you okay?” Tuyet asked.

He looked up and forced a smile. “Fine.” He thought about telling them about his run in with Carver and decided against it. His stomach growled. “Just tired. And hungry.”

Ben snagged a slice of pizza from his plate. Only lukewarm now but he didn’t care. It still smelled of garlic and cheese and tasted great when he bit into it.

Mrs. Thompson hadn’t touched her pizza.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” he asked.

Mrs. Thompson shook one brown-spotted hand. “I’m not hungry now. Maybe later. I think I’ll go to my room and rest.”

Tuyet stood and offered Mrs. Thompson a hand. Mrs. Thompson accepted her help and slowly rose. Tuyet picked up Mrs. Thompson’s plate. “Here, I’ll help you.”

“Thank you dear, you’re so sweet. Both of you, absolutely delicious.”

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Ben asked.

“Fine, dear boy. I just need to rest.”

“Okay. Be sure you drink plenty of water.”

Mrs. Thompson’s thin lips spread in a smile. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll get plenty to drink.”

Ben watched them walk away across the darkened lobby towards the stairs. Then he turned his attention back to the food. He finished the slice he’d been working on, enjoying the rich onion and garlic flavor, and eyed the remaining three slices. Best save them. Eat one later and then he’d have two for tomorrow. With nothing to wrap them up he didn’t think they’d last longer than that.

He picked up the plate and the Coke bottle and headed for his own room. After he safely stashed the food and filled the Coke bottle he’d come back for the other empties and fill them too. He didn’t have any bleach to sanitize the bottles but they could rotate them out. So far water hadn’t been a problem but he wasn’t counting on it lasting any more than all the food in the hotel kitchens had lasted. Carver had to be behind cleaning the place out. If it served his purpose he’d probably turn off the water too.

Maybe Carver would if he didn’t get what he wanted. Ben thought about the switchblade again. He could imagine Carver cleaning blood from the gleaming silver blade — silver? Ben shook his head. He was just making things up. He couldn’t know for sure if any of this was real or all in his head. He might have imagined the switchblade.

Except it felt real. It felt true. He couldn’t explain how he knew, but then he also couldn’t explain the darkness that had engulfed this monstrous, soulless hotel.

As he came out of the stairwell on his floor he could see light from down below. A few people were still hanging out in the lobby. Little pools of light from their flashlights. Wasting batteries so that they could see each other’s faces. Three had taken the chairs around the lantern he had left behind. Anything to get away from the ever-present darkness.

Ben still didn’t take his flashlight out when he headed back towards his room. In the hallway he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face but he knew the way and his hands were full with the plate and Coke bottle. He stopped when he had counted out enough steps. He put down the bottle and took out the flashlight and clicked it on.

There was his door. Room 413 in this shit hotel. He put the plate down too and pulled open the door. With the power off the electronic locks didn’t work. At least they hadn’t been locked in, probably some fire regulation. He pushed the door open and held it with his foot while he picked up the plate and managed to hook a finger around the bottle so he could carry both inside. Once in he turned immediately to the right and put both down on the counter beside the bathroom sink. Then he went back to the door and flipped the security bar.

Ben hated the room. If there was any other way to strip a room of personality and charm, he couldn’t imagine it. The room was functional but it lacked anything of interest. A bed, a small desk and a television on a stand. One abstract painting on the wall done in nothing but orange and green that looked like some sort of sore. The darkness was the best thing that ever happened to the room. If he only saw it through the small, dim circle of the flashlight then it didn’t seem quite as bad.

The light caught his red reflectors on his Street Machine recumbent bike where he’d leaned it against the wall. Not for the first time he wished he had pushed on to the campground instead of deciding to splurge and stay the night in this concrete death trap.

He crossed the room to the sliding glass door and unlatched it. He slid it open and walked out onto the balcony. Nothing more than a three-foot deep concrete balcony that ended in a waist-high concrete wall that had a square metal railing running around the top. The air outside felt just as it did inside, warm and humid. The flashlight illuminated the faint circle in front of him and then nothing beyond.

It was quiet. Quieter than anyplace Ben had ever been before and darker. No glow reflecting off of clouds from the city that should be at the bottom of the hill. No lights at all except for his weakening flashlight. He might as well be suspended in a void with only the small piece of the balcony remaining. It didn’t even induce vertigo because there was nothing below to see.

Ben turned around and the flashlight pulled the sliding glass door and his room out of the darkness. He went inside to the nightstand and took out the Bible there. Then he carried the book out to the balcony and set it on the concrete wall. He carefully place the flashlight on the wall to illuminate the book, then he flipped it open at random.

1 Samuel 23.16. Ben ripped the page from the Bible. He worked quickly and folded the thin paper into a long narrow paper airplane. Then he picked up the airplane, and his flashlight. He threw the airplane off the balcony and kept the light on it. For a couple seconds the airplane hung suspended against the darkness. Then it vanished.

Ben put the flashlight down and flipped to another section. Ecclesiastes 10.10. He ripped the page and folded another. This second one he threw at an angle downward. It flew straight but when it got about four feet away from the building it too vanished in the darkness.

Ben closed the Bible and shut off the flashlight. Everything vanished around him except for what he could feel beneath his feet and in his hands. The edge looked clearly defined. It surrounded the core part of the building but that meant the sections of the base that extended outwards from the central core were cut off. What happened beyond the darkness? After what had happened that first day Ben hadn’t dared test it.

There’d been a man, Ted Wright. Young guy, in shape. Neatly dressed. He kept cracking dentist jokes to calm everyone down. He had volunteered to go out before Carver showed up. Walked off into the darkness and never came back. Peterson had been one that had argued that it must mean Ted got out, but Peterson hadn’t volunteered to follow him.

Ben knew it in his gut. Wise-cracking Teddy was as gone as those paper airplanes. Maybe Carver could bring him back out of it but — snick! — he wouldn’t.

By feel alone Ben walked back into his room, shut the door and returned the Bible to the nightstand. He sat down on the bed. Tomorrow he’d do some more experimenting. They needed to map the boundary, mark it somehow so that they could monitor any changes. It was better than sitting around doing nothing while Carver tested them one-by-one.

 

#

 

Morning. If it could be called morning when Ben couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, but his alarm had woken him up to a breakfast of pizza and water. Now he was on his way downstairs to check the boundaries of their dark prison. He left the flashlight off to conserve the batteries and made his out to the balcony overlooking the center of the hotel. Nothing but darkness. Everyone was probably still in bed. That suited him. Especially if Peterson stayed up in his room. That’d be great.

He walked along the balcony with his hand grazing the concrete wall until it ended at the elevators. They’d been lucky that no one had gotten stuck inside. He crossed the hallway to the stairs and pushed the heavy door open. It banged shut behind him, the echoes fading out in the dark.

Ben started down, thinking not for the first time, that this must be what it was like to be blind. No light whatsoever. Nothing but absolute blackness that could be hiding anything. Carver could be standing right there in the dark and Ben had a feeling that Carver didn’t mind the dark at all. Ben listened carefully but didn’t hear anything that suggested anyone else was in the stairwell with him. He took his time going down with one hand on the stairwell rail the whole way.

At the bottom Ben headed out into the main lobby. He wanted something to mark the boundary. Masking tape would be good. He flicked on the flashlight a couple times to stay on track for the front desk. He shoved the door open and made his way behind the desk. Cupboards beneath the desk hung open. Papers and other supplies lay scattered about. He hadn’t been the first to poke around back here.

He didn’t find any masking tape but he did discover a package of small yellow Post-It note pads. Those would do the trick. He stuffed them in his pocket and headed back out to the front of the lobby, keeping his flashlight on. He wanted to do this quickly. He walked out past the first set of open doors into the main foyer past the brochure rack of local attractions and the newspaper machines that still had papers from almost a week ago.

His flashlight couldn’t illuminate the doors to the outside. The light vanished as if swallowed by a black hole. He ran the dim circle along the floor until the darkness cut across it, sharp-edge and unyielding.

Holding the light on that point Ben walked right up to the darkness. He crouched and set the flashlight on the ground so that a long beam illuminated the edge between the hotel and whatever the blackness was that had engulfed them. He peeled Post-It notes off the first pad and placed them on the floor right up against that darkness. His knuckles grazed the boundary line and he felt a deep cold but no substance.

Ben used a half-dozen notes to mark this segment and then he rocked back on his heels. Cautiously he reached out with just his fingertips to try the barrier. Cold, but not unbearably so. No resistance to his touch. He pulled his hand back and his fingertips were unharmed. So what had happened to Ted Wright? Could he have gotten through? But if he had, why hadn’t anyone come to help?

Ben picked up the flashlight and stood. No way to know but he wasn’t going to try the darkness, not just yet anyway.

Instead Ben worked his way along the barrier, placing Post-It notes every few inches. The way the light cut off even though there wasn’t anything solid was unnerving. He stuck notes all along the boundary line across the lobby from one wall to the next and then stood back to survey his work. The arc was gentle, but obvious, as if a wall of darkness had gone up around the hotel.

He went back into the hotel and headed over towards the gift shop. He walked past empty candy shelves — guests or Carver? — and aimed the flashlight at the back corners. No wall of darkness interrupted the beam. Evidently the gift shop didn’t extend back far enough to intersect with the wall.

Next he tried the staff only corridor again. The place was empty and silent. He walked back towards the kitchens and staff lounge. Once again he felt as if there were silent people watching him from the darkness. Ben turned in a circle but the flashlight only showed the worn, dull brown wallpaper. Nothing else.

Just past the staff lounge the flashlight’s beam was cut off by the wall of darkness. Ben walked up close, put the flashlight down on the floor and used the Post-It notes again to mark the boundary. He played the flashlight along the dividing line on the wall. The darkness, whatever it was, bisected the entire hallway. He stuck a couple more Post-Its on the wall to mark the line there. Then he picked up the flashlight and turned it off.

The darkness was absolute. He could hear his own breathing. Ben took a breath and held it as he listened for any other sounds. Nothing. Pressing in all around him, an unnatural absence of everything. He reached out his arm towards the wall and was rewarded by his fingers touching that numbing cold. It had no substance but there was something there.

Ben imagined bone-white gnarled hands grabbing his own hand and pulling him into that cold dark. He jerked his hand away and rubbed the fingertips on his pants.

He resisted the urge to turn on the flashlight and instead turned away from the barrier and walked blindly down the hall back towards the main lobby.

Lights flashed across the lobby into his face as he emerged. A young family, father, mother and a small boy stood across the lobby. He’d seen them before, in line for food. The boy had dark hair and grinned as he pointed the light at Ben.

“That’s not him,” the mother murmured.

Ben shielded his eyes with his hand. “Good morning.”

The father coughed. “We thought maybe mister Carver —”

“I haven’t seen him.” Ben clicked his own light off. “I’m Ben. You are?”

“Matt and Trina Parker.” Matt touched his son’s head. “This is Connor.”

“What are you doing?” Trina asked.

“Looking around to see if we’ve missed anything.”

“You mean a way out?” Matt looked at his wife and back to Ben. “I could help.”

Ben shook his head. “Best you all wait in your room. If I find anything I’ll let you all know.”

Matt shook his head. “No. I’ll come with you. Trina, take Matt back to the room.”

“What?” Trina lowered her voice. “But Matt, it’s so —”

“We’ll be fine. No sense all of us blundering around in the dark.”

Ben waited. Trina sighed and took Connor’s hand. “Fine. We’ll go back.”

Connor tried to pull away. “No! A want to go with them!”

Ben shook his head. Matt touched his son’s shoulder. “Listen, go to the room and look after things there, okay?”

Connor looked at Ben and back at Matt. “But—”

“Connor.”

“Fine.”

Trina leaned close and kissed Matt’s cheek. “Be careful.”

“Go on now.”

They walked away, slowly. Matt turned back to Ben. “Now what?”

“I’ve already marked the line across the lobby and down the hall in the staff area back there. I was going to go into the restaurant next. I think it might extend out far enough. Then the conference areas.”

“How are you marking it?”

Ben held up the package of Post It notes.

“Oh, okay. What will that tell us?”

Ben shrugged. “Maybe nothing. It might help someone avoid walking into it. And it’ll give us an idea if the line moves.”

“You think it’ll move?”

“I don’t know but it feels like a noose around this hell hole and the thing about a noose? It tightens.”

“Right.” Matt twitched his light back towards the restaurant. “After you?”

Ben headed for the restaurant. He didn’t turn on his flashlight. Matt’s looked brighter, the batteries would probably last longer. Matt walked beside him. He flashed the light up into the silo. Ben caught a glimpse of a white face looking down from the balcony four floors up. Whoever it was pulled back before he could recognize who it was.

“Keep the light on the floor,” Ben said. “We want to see the edge when we reach it.”

“Right. Okay.” Matt pointed the flashlight at the floor. Dark brown carpet in this section around the chairs. “Why did you come here?”

“The park,” Ben answered. “I’ve on a cross-country bicycle tour. Just made the bad mistake of deciding to stay in a hotel one night.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah.” That’s what Ben had thought the moment he walked into the hotel. Three things had convinced him to stay. First, no one told him he couldn’t bring in his bike. Second, it was already getting dark outside and he had put in a lot of miles already. Twenty more in the dark seemed too much. Plus he’d already climbed the hill to the hotel. And last, the prospect of a hot shower. Big mistake.

They left the carpeted area for the fake marble floors and the restaurant was just ahead. The sign board out front still proclaimed the grilled salmon special. The darkness swallowed everything else.

“Slowly,” Ben said. “Let’s not walk into whatever it is around the hotel.”

Together they moved into the restaurant, both of them watching the circle of light on the dark floors. They walked past the cash register and the bar deeper into the restaurant. Ben remembered seeing seating back under the windows. It seemed like the restaurant must stick far enough out to intersect the darkness surrounding the place.

Sure enough, right before the step up at the back, a line of darkness cut a sharp edge across the circle of light.

“Wow.” Matt moved the circle further across the line and back. “Look at that! What happens to the light? How can it just stop like that?”

“I don’t know.” Ben pulled out the Post It notes. “Hold the light still while I mark the boundary.”

The light steadied. “Sure. Okay. That’s just weird.”

Ben crouched down at the edge of the circle of light. He extended his hand out to that sharp edge and felt the cold on his fingertips. He pulled his hand back.

“What’s it feel like?”

“Nothing. It doesn’t feel like anything except cold.” Ben peeled off a Post It note and stuck it right down at the boundary line.

“That’s a good idea,” Matt said.

“Maybe.” Ben added another. “It might help as long as the batteries last in the flashlights. After that, not so much.”

“But —”

Matt’s words cut off in a yelp. The flashlight flipped away across the restaurant, hit a table and bounced off to the floor. The light flashed across Ben’s eyes. Very aware of the barrier only inches away he pulled out his own flashlight.

Matt screamed. He heard Matt or someone crash into some chairs. Ben aimed the light towards the noise. He saw Matt’s terrified face, very pale in the light. Someone with frizzy white hair clung to his back. Then they stumbled out of the light.

Ben rose and headed towards the sound, trying to catch them in the light. Matt screamed more. Ben found him with the light and saw that the person on Matt’s back appeared to be biting his neck. Bright red blood spread down Matt’s blue shirt. Once again whoever had Matt jerked him out of the light. Ben went after them.

Ben heard a grunt and then a thud, like someone falling. His light found Matt face down on the floor. Mrs. Thompson stood beside him in the shadows with blood covering her chin. She grinned at him and ran her hands up her sides suggestively.

“Ben, dear boy. Will you help me carry this —” she kicked Matt “— up to my room?”

A deep biting chill touched Ben’s back. He turned the flashlight away from the horrific image back towards the barrier and his arm swept into that deadly chill. The light vanished, including Matt’s dropped flashlight. He lurched away from the cold and his light returned. He heard a snarl from Mrs. Thompson but before he could get the light on her the cold hit him again.

It was moving!

Ben backed away and aimed the flashlight at the floor. The line advanced steadily. He walked backwards and the light kept pace with him. He reached Matt and reached down to check on the man.

A polished black shoe and perfectly pressed blue suit leg emerged from the darkness, followed by the rest of Carver. He walked out of the barrier and looked down at Ben.

“Leave him, Benny. He’s gone. Who did it?”

Ben slowly rose. “Mrs. Thompson. What is she?”

“My problem.” A brief smile flitted across Sander’s face. His hand slid into his pocket and came back out holding something. Snick. A bright silver switchblade popped up. “Now that I know who it is I’ll take care of it.”

The line continued to advance and Carver walked forward at the same pace. Ben held his ground.

“That’s what all of this has been about? Finding her?”

Carver looked out into the darkness. “Of course. Contain, identify.” Carver grinned. “And remove.”

And then Carver disappeared into the darkness. Ben tried to follow him with the light but the man moved too fast. A second later the barrier touched Ben’s back again and he hurried forward. He ran past Matt’s body, sorry he couldn’t do anything for him, and left the restaurant. From above he heard a man shout and swear as if surprised. The cold darkness was closing in on the building. By now it must be intersecting with the rooms.

Flashlights flickered to life above like so many fireflies in the night. The lights danced around the concrete walls. Voices were raised and the hotel echoed with the sound. The smell of Matt’s blood clung to Ben and when he pointed his flashlight down he saw that he was leaving bloody footprints. He must have walked through Matt’s blood.

Ben heard more shouts and saw people pointing their lights up the central shaft. Several floors up the lights cut off. The darkness descended at the same rate it advanced inward. People started screaming and running along the balconies towards the stairwells.

“Stay calm!” Ben shouted. “Don’t panic!”

No one heard him over the din. He saw a middle-aged woman with brightly dyed red hair trip and fall. Up on the floor right below the approaching darkness a balding man climbed over the balcony and appeared to be trying to reach the next floor. He let go. Fell towards the next balcony and his hands bounced off. He screamed and tumbled as he fell eight floors down until he landed with an audible crack across the back of one of the chairs.

Ben clenched his fists. Carver. That prick Carver was behind it all of this. Okay, so Mrs. Thompson was some sort of vampire, but trapping them all here? Obviously Carver didn’t care who got hurt in the process.

“Ben!”

Ben looked up and saw Tuyet three floors up struggling through the panicking guests.

“Hold on! Let them go past!”

Tuyet clung to the balcony as others shoved past her. Ben started towards the stairwell but people poured out into the lobby. He backed up and looked for Mrs. Thompson. He didn’t see her. Those coming down saw the body of the man who fell and backed away. Several people were crying.

Above he saw Tuyet moving now towards the stairs. He shoved his way through the thinning crowd towards the stairs. He met Tuyet there when she came down and pulled her aside.

“Are you okay?”

She wrapped her arms around him, her body thin and light. She smelled faintly of apple. She nodded against his shoulder. She drew back and ducked her head.

“Sorry.”

He squeezed her hand gently. “Don’t be. Are you okay?”

“Yes. What’s going on?”

Ben held onto her hand and led her out into the lobby. With so many using their flashlights he turned his off and stuffed it in his pocket. Several people had their lights pointed up at the balconies as they watched the impenetrable darkness descend.

“Carver’s barrier is closing in on us. He’s looking for Mrs. Thompson. Have you seen her?”

Tuyet shook her head. “Wait, Carver is doing this? Why is he looking for Mrs. Thompson?”

“She’s not what she seems. I saw her kill a man.”

Tuyet covered her mouth.

Just then a scream cut through the babble of the guests. More people started screaming and running away from the other side of the lobby. Lights flashed in Ben’s eyes. A man ran right at him. Ben braced himself so that the man hit his shoulder and bounced off. The guy staggered and ran around Ben.

“Stay here,” Ben said to Tuyet.

He plunged into the crowd, shoving his way through as people backed away from something. When he got through all he saw was another body, a woman in a auburn dress, lying on the ground with a bloodied throat. He saw Marlene standing at the edge of the crowd, pointing a flashlight out into the darkness beyond the body.

“What happened?” Ben asked. Tuyet came up behind him and touched his shoulder.

“The old woman. She attacked her,” Marlene said. “She’s gone crazy.”

Ben took out his own flashlight and stepped out away from the crowd. Tuyet tried to pull him back but he waved her off. Ben walked slowly towards the body with his flashlight on. Carver’s darkness hadn’t reached the lobby yet. Past the woman’s body was the opening into the conference areas. Ben aimed the light that way and caught a glimpse of something moving in the dark.

“Mrs. Thompson! It’s Ben, please talk to me.”

Laughter floated out of the darkness.

Ben walked around the body and deeper into the dark. “There’s nowhere to go. We’re all trapped here. Come out.”

Another throaty chuckle from the dark ahead. Ben hesitated. Where was Carver and his silver switchblade? What was the man going to do? Kill her? What if she had already killed Carver? But then if she did that wouldn’t it mean that the darkness would go away?

Ben walked deeper into the dark beneath the balconies, into the wide hallway. On either side were conference rooms and ahead a wide staircase that led down into more conference areas. Except Carver’ blackness cut off the stairs. A flash of white in his light drew Ben’s attention towards the conference room on his right.

The light illuminated a woman standing in the doorway. Mrs. Thompson, except her skin wasn’t wrinkled anymore and her blood-splattered dress clung to firm breasts. More blood smeared across her full lips. She was young again. She smiled at Ben and licked her lips.

“You, my dear boy, are an unexpected treat.”

Ben shivered. He didn’t have any weapon. No way to fight her. He kept the light on her. “If we stop Carver will the darkness go away?”

She tilted her head to the side. “You’d help me?”

Carver stepped forward out of the dark conference room behind her. Mrs. Thompson gasped and her back arched, thrusting her chest forward. She screamed and spun around. Her hand lashed out, long nails ripping out Carver’ throat. He blinked and dropped to his knees.

Carver’ silver switchblade stuck out of her back. Ben ran forward and grabbed the knife.

It felt like ice burning his hand. He yanked it free. Mrs. Thompson turned around but he was ready for it and ducked beneath her swing. He rose up and plunged the knife up beneath her breast bone, seeking her heart. She gasped.

Ben slid his other arm around her and pulled her close. He shoved the knife up harder. She shuddered against him. Their eyes met.

“Dear boy, why?”

“Really? You have to ask?” he whispered.

She went limp in his arm, forcing the knife even deeper. Ben lowered her to the floor beside Carver’ body. He pulled the knife free. Blood covered the silver and dripped to the floor. He crouched down and used her dress to wipe the blade clean.

Then he stood and — snick — retracted the blade. He pocketed the knife.

Light flooded the hallway as the ceiling lights came on. He looked down at the floor but the bodies were gone. Not really gone, he knew. Left in the other place. Since he took up the switchblade he understood it all. Carver had shifted all of the guests into a pocket in the other place. Now they had returned and the pocket had collapsed, taking the bodies along with it. Ben walked back out into the lobby where the guests were already leaving. Some going back to their rooms but others just headed out towards the doors.

Tuyet came towards him and folded her hands together. She looked at him with big dark eyes. “What happened?”

“They’re both gone.”

She nodded. An awkward silence grew between them. Ben could say something, he knew. Make some effort but he understood Carver now. Mrs. Thompson hadn’t been the only one of these creatures. There were others out there. How could he just forget that? The switchblade gave him the ability to fight them. He knew how to walk in the darkness and shadows now.

Tuyet looked away for a second and that’s all it took for him to move into the shadows. Just enough to hide from view. She looked back and gasped. From her perspective he had vanished.

“Ben?” She looked all around, bit her lip, and then turned and walked away towards the elevators.

Ben trailed along. He’d go up to his own room, sticking to the shadows, and get his bike and gear. That’s all he needed. A way to get around, until he found another one. He had a feeling he needed to go north.

💀

8,088 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 60th weekly short story release, written in September 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 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. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Truth-Seeker.

The Caretaker

The warming baked the fields to dust, turned forests into stands of dead wood. And the vamp infection spread.

Among his other jobs, Damien tends the high school football field, one bit of green left in the small town of Elk Park.

He worked all day so he didn’t have to think about being alone, aching for someone to touch, to love.

Warning: Graphic content.

 

They had crucified another cheerleader on the home team’s goal post, the third of that hot August, which must set some kind of record for a town like Elk Park with two thousand people on a good day. But why’d they have to do it on the goal post, leaving it to him to clean up the mess? Damien pulled a stained handkerchief from his pocket, mopping his forehead. The day was already hot — even though the sun hadn’t actually risen yet.

The sun coming up was like a hot oven at his back. Ordinarily he got out earlier to take care of the field, that one solitary patch of green grass left in the whole town. They’d had a meeting on it and everything, when it turned out that denying a thing didn’t stop it from coming and baking the fields to dust, and turning forests into stands of dead wood. The town had voted to keep on watering the football field, so Damien kept his job and came out in the early morning to mow and trim, and lay out the chalk lines again each week and before each game. When he finished he went on to his job at the Thompson’s IGA grocery market until his evening shift over at the solar charging station. Three jobs to cover for his ex’s gambling debts. It wasn’t too bad, at least at the store and the station he got to work in air conditioned buildings, but at home with the broken air conditioner, lying on the sheets damp with his sweat, he ached for someone to hold again.

Continue reading “The Caretaker”

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.

The Bug Builder

Jeb Petersen discovers an inexplicable talent. Give him a few dried maple leaves, a bit of walnut shell, twigs and blades of grass and he can create a butterfly. But what gives his creations life?

When ten-year-old Katie trespasses on his farm her presence threatens his creations and the tie they give him with his son.

A story of love, loss, miracles and healing.

1

Jeb Petersen watched his property from Peter’s room on the second floor of his old, weathered gray farm house. He wasn’t watching the apples rotting on the trees in the orchard. Or the chickens scratching in their yard.

He was watching for the bald girl that had trespassed on his property. Twice!

Shaking his head, Jeb looked down at the desk. The same worn desk where Peter had done his school work, put right beneath the window so he could look outside. Sometimes Jeb had threatened to put the desk over in the corner if Peter couldn’t focus on his work. That boy loved being outside.

One finger stroked down the smooth spine of a dried apple leaf, carefully pressed so that it lay flat and brown beneath his finger. Each rib stood out. Beside it, another brown and pressed leaf. A matched set for the apple bug he was building.

Jeb pulled over a dried brown cigar-shaped piece of apple. It looked just about perfect. It took practice to carve the shape you wanted out of a fresh apple and know how it would look when the apple dried in the sun on the window sill. It felt tough and leathery beneath his finger.

Working carefully, Jeb picked up one of the leaves and studied the stem at the end. Out came his pocket knife and he carved off a couple woody slivers, leaving a sharp point at the end. He poked the end of his finger. Just about perfect, or as perfect as you got this side of the rainbow.

Jeb pressed the pointy end of the leaf stem into the flesh of the dried apple. It stuck nicely out at an angle. He picked up the next and carefully trimmed its stem down to a point, then stuck it into the apple as well. Two wings for the apple bug and they looked real good too.

He picked it up and gave it a good eyeballing. Even unfinished it looked like a bug, especially the way some bugs could mimic leaves or other parts of plants. But there was still work to get done.

Jeb put the unfinished apple bug down and picked up two apple seeds. They had to be small, not too big or they looked wrong. He shoved the pointy end into the apple bug’s head, first one than the other. Two black eyes glimmered up at him. All the other parts were laid out and ready, but they were delicate and easy to break.

A couple antenna from dandelion puffs.

Legs selected from tiny delicate twigs on the apple tree.

He was sticking on the fourth leg when he glanced up, looked out the window and there was the bald girl, just running behind the old oak tree out by the chicken coop! Jeb shook his head, but the hand holding the apple bug was steady.

Jeb had to work quickly now and sweat beaded on his brow. The last thing he wanted to do was mess up this bug. He got the fourth leg stuck on fine. The fifth was harder because he didn’t have much to hold on to and for the sixth he pinched the body of the apple bug with a pair of tweezers. That worked and he got the sixth leg stuck into the dried apple body.

His breath blew out and the wings rustled with the faint sound of falling leaves.

The bald girl was out there, getting into who knows what. Jeb put the apple bug down, gently, gently! It stood proudly on its six legs, one front leg raised as if caught taking a step.

He clutched the desk and waited. Come on!

Then the apple bug reached up and ran first one front leg, then the other across its antenna. The wings flexed, swung forward and back, then vibrated so fast that they made a faint humming sound. Its twiggy legs creaked as it crouched and then it sprang up into the air. The apple leaf wings beat rapidly, carrying it on up into the space above the room’s rafters.

Jeb jumped up and ran out of the room. He stopped in the doorway and looked back at the apple bug, now walking upside down along one of the rafters. His throat tightened.

“I’ll be right back. I’ve got to chase that trespassing girl off before she causes more trouble.”

The apple bug fluttered its wings. Jeb left.

Downstairs he banged out the screen door onto the wide wrap-around porch. His boots crunched on dried maple and oak leaves blown up on the porch during the storms. He kept meaning to get out with a broom. Ophelia wouldn’t like it, the place looking like this, but he thought that maybe she understood.

Jeb stomped out to the top of the steps. “Hey! I saw you! I’m going to call the police if you don’t get off my property!”

She popped out from behind the oak tree like a jack-in-the-box. A tiny wisp of a thing, not more than a couple turkey’s weight on her bones. She wore glasses with dark cat-eye frames. Not a bit of hair on her head. She had on a pair of worn blue jeans, frayed and holes in the knees, and a white t-shirt. A man’s t-shirt, much too large for her that it hung off one bony shoulder, and hung so low it almost reached her knees.

“Will not!”

Jeb took a step down onto the middle of the three steps off the porch. He dug into his pocket and pulled out the cell phone. Damn thing wasn’t even charged but she didn’t have any way of knowing that. He waggled it in the air at her.

“I will. I’ve got my phone right here. I’ll call ‘em and press charges of trespassing. They’ll toss you in jail, child, so you’d better high-tail it on home before I stop being nice!”

The bald girl planted her hands on her hips. “Will not, ‘cause I’ll tell them about those bugs you’ve got.”

Jeb felt a knot in his stomach like he was going to be sick, but he knew kids. He had to stay firm. Make her go home and stay there before she ruined everything.

“And you know what else will happen then? CPS, you know what that is? Child protective services. You’ll get locked up as a trespasser and then they’ll come in with their social workers and their rules asking if your parents are really good parents or not. They might just decide that you have to be taken out of your house and given to a different family. One that will teach you manners, teach you to listen to your elders and not trespass on other people’s property!” That left Jeb feeling a bit dizzy and breathless but he held the phone up, flipped it open. “So what’s it going to be? You gonna get out of here and leave me alone or am I going to make that call?”

She crossed her arms and shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere. Call who you want, but they aren’t gonna do any of that to me.”

“No?”

“No.” She said it so confidently Jeb felt like the time he had played poker in Las Vegas, only to realize that the other players at the table were taking him for everything that he had in his pockets.

“Why’s that?”

“‘Cause I’m dying.” She said it so matter-of-factly, with a hint of regret, that Jeb believed her instantly.

All the wind went out of his sails. He sank down, reaching back as he sat on the edge of the porch, his hands draped over his knees holding the useless cell phone. “Oh child.”

Jeb heard a scratching noise and saw one of his spiders, made from dried melon rinds for the body and long willow twigs for the legs, crawling along the porch railing. It stopped for a minute and then crawled onward. Out in the yard the girl lowered her arms and took a few steps forward.

“So? Are you gonna tell on me? I just wanted to know about the bugs.”

Jeb rubbed his upper lip. His tongue felt thick, useless and he could taste a bit of the chicken that he had for lunch stuck to his teeth. A flutter of wings and a maple butterfly, its bright yellow wings made from pressed maple leaves, fluttered past his head as it flew around the porch. He watched it fly in a circle, then flutter off around the corner of the house. When he looked back into the yard the girl was closer, her eyes big as she watched the maple butterfly disappear around the corner.

“What’s your name, girl?”

Her name was Katie. Ten years old and bald because of the cancer treatments that didn’t work. She didn’t come closer than ten feet from the porch at first, as skittish as a feral cat, but that was okay with Jeb.

Just thinking about how Katie was going to get buried beneath the black earth made his head hurt so bad that all he wanted was to curl up on the couch and sleep with the afghan Ophelia had knitted. After Peter’s passing he had done a lot of that.

Jeb cleared his throat. “How —” His voice broke. He tried again. “How long?”

Katie shrugged her bare shoulder. “Any time, I guess. They don’t know. I have seizures. They say that one of these times my heart will just stop and I’ll go to heaven.”

Words escaped him. What did you say to a ten-year-old after that?

The girl edged a couple steps closer and he saw her watching one of his egg shell beetles trundle along through the leaf cover. Dry leaves tumbled out of its path as it clambered up and over obstacles. She reached out with her hands as if she could catch it, grab it —

“Don’t!”

Katie jerked, jumping in place.

I have seizures. Jeb heard her say it again and felt badly for barking at her. He forced himself to take a breath.

“They’re very fragile. It might break if you touch it.” Or worse, like the last time.

“I’m not going to try to break it. I just want to see.”

“You broke the last one.” The words came out harsher than Jeb intended. He didn’t shout, but the shout was buried there in his tone, ready to erupt again.

One of these times my heart will just stop. He knew how that felt. He still couldn’t understand why his heart hadn’t stopped yet.

“I didn’t!” Katie crossed her arms tightly, hugging her thin ribs. “I didn’t do anything to it, but it did something to me.”

“What’re you talking about?”

Her fingers brushed across her forearm. That’s right where he’d seen the hazelnut ant, three days ago when she’d first come onto his property. He’d come out back to check for the eggs and found her sitting on the porch with the hazelnut ant on her arm. She jumped up and the ant tumbled onto the porch and had broken apart, nothing but nuts and grass and twigs. She left him there staring at the pieces while she ran off.

“I had a bruise. I bruise easily. But I didn’t do anything to it, I just held out my hand and it crawled onto my arm. I just wanted to see it, I wasn’t trying to break it or anything. It got to my bruise and just stopped. Then you came out and scared me!”

“I wasn’t trying to scare you.”

“Well you did!” Katie rubbed her arm again. “I didn’t notice until I got home, but the bruise was gone. Just like magic. I kept coming back because I thought the ant might help me more, because I’m sick.”

Jeb saw that Katie was about to cry but he steeled himself against that. It wouldn’t work. Not with him. “Maybe you didn’t mean too, but you killed it. It fell down and just fell apart. And it was a piece of my son, a piece of Peter. That’s what they are, pieces of his soul. He makes them live and you took that away.”

“I didn’t take anything. It crawled onto me. I didn’t pick it up or anything!”

“It was still broken.” He’d taken the pieces and tried putting them back together again but it hadn’t worked. The hazelnut ant hadn’t moved again. It was still on top of his dresser. “That piece of his soul, it’s gone thanks to you.”

Tears glimmered in Katie’s eyes like drew drops on the grass. “It isn’t my fault.”

She jumped up and dragged an arm across her nose. Jeb couldn’t keep looking at her. He looked down at his hands. On the ground the egg shell beetle kept going on its way, exploring whatever there was to see down among the leaves.

It was Peter. He had loved being outside, and that love of the outdoors, that’s part of what kept the bugs going. Jeb knew it, he felt it down in his bones. Watching the bugs was like hearing Peter’s laughter on the wind or catching a glimpse of his reflection in the pond. He was gone but as long as the bugs were here part of him was still here, too.

The words stuck in his throat. He wanted to explain, make Katie understand but he heard leaves crunch underfoot and when he looked up she was running away.

Poor child. Any time, I guess.

“It isn’t my fault,” Jeb said. The egg shell beetle stopped. Two chicken feather antenna waved at him.

“It isn’t my fault,” Jeb whispered again. “And what am I supposed to do? I can’t lose you again.”

The beetle trundled on, pushing under the next leaf as Jeb lowered his head onto his arms. What could he do? The bugs were all he had left of Peter. He had to keep them safe. If she thought they could make her better, she might come back.

Jeb slid down off the porch, watching his feet, and crouched in front of the eggshell beetle. It crawled out from under the leaves. Ever so gently, as carefully as the first time he had held Peter after his birth, Jeb scooped up the eggshell beetle. He held it in his hands, twig legs scratching at his skin as it tried crawling up over his thumbs.

“I’ll keep you safe. Shhh. Don’t worry.” Jeb turned and carried the beetle back up into the house.

2

Gathering up the bugs took the rest of the afternoon ‘cause they kept finding ways to hide and then each time he tried bringing in another one into the house he had to watch out because the others kept trying to escape. The maple butterfly, oak-leaf moth and the new apple bug fluttered against the windows like a fall storm. The spiders and beetles and stick bugs crawled around the room scritching and scratching.

Jeb sat on the couch with his face in his hands.

This was as bad as the times he had to send Peter to his room for something or another. All that boy wanted to do was run and play out in the fields and woods. To be outside breathing fresh air. Locking him up was the worst punishment Jeb ever inflicted. He never raised a hand to the boy, never had to because mostly Peter was a good boy.

Wings and legs scrambled, seeking a way out.

Jeb rubbed his face, wiped his eyes and looked up where the bugs battered themselves against the windows. If they kept it up they’d break something. The egg shell beetle had tipped over and was kicking its legs in the air.

Peter couldn’t understand being punished now. The bugs held pieces of his soul. His laughter. His love of sunlight on fresh green leaves. The fun of twisting dried grass into new shapes. The joy of walking through dry leaves in the fall. The delight he had of snow on tree limbs. Everything that Peter had loved about being outside, that was in the bugs and here Jeb was, punishing him for it.

Outside the sun hadn’t quite set yet, in fact the sky was turning a lovely shade of red with the setting sun. It was going to be a real fine sunset. Jeb let out a breath he didn’t even know he was holding and choked back a sob that threatened to overwhelm him. He sniffled, rubbed his eyes again and stood up.

“Shhh.” He took a couple steps toward the door. The bugs kept trying to get out. “Shhh. It’s okay. Let’s go back out. I’m sorry. I didn’t —”

Jeb took a deep breath. “Let’s go see the sunset, okay?”

On the way to the door he righted the eggshell beetle and moved it aside so he could open the door. The apple bug, the newest one of the bugs, flew past his head. The others followed and Jeb stepped outside as they all flew and hopped and crawled out with him. The butterflies and moths flew in circles around him and the sound of their wings reminded him of Peter’s laughter.

He wasn’t even surprised to see Katie back. She came out from behind the oak tree. He saw her look at him, look at the bugs flying around him and she laughed and her laughter was clear and lively, the pure joy of a child. It made his heart feel good to hear.

Then the bugs left him. They flew and hopped and crawled toward Katie. The eggshell beetle stopped next to Jeb’s foot.

“It’s okay,” Jeb said, though the words threatened to stick in his throat. “You go on now.”

The eggshell beetle waved its feathers and then crawled off down from the porch.

Katie saw the bugs coming and she took a step back and raised her hands as if to ward them off.

“Don’t be afraid, child. They aren’t gonna hurt you,” Jeb called. “I think Peter wants to help you. I’m sorry I tried to stop him. I shouldn’t of done that.”

Katie lowered her arms, clasped her frail fingers together and watched the bugs with wide-eyed wonderment. The apple bug reached her first, fluttering around her head and then it settled gently on her bare shoulder where it stuck out of the too-large t-shirt.

The other bugs reached her and Katie carefully sat down on the ground and reached out her arms to them. She laughed when the melon-rind spider crawled up onto her hand. She giggled when the maple-leaf butterfly landed on her head. They all came, pushing through the leaves to reach her, crawling up on her faded jeans to settle on spots where she had worn holes in the knees.

Each one found a place of bare skin. The eggshell beetle reached her last and she cupped it gently in her hands while the others balanced on her arms.

She sat like that for a couple minutes and Jeb thought his heart would break from the beauty of it as she sat with the bugs beneath the oak tree and the brilliant red sky above. Then the sun slipped over the horizon. A wind came up, stirring the leaves in the yard and when it reached Katie the bugs just drifted apart. They floated away into all of the other leaves.

The wind died and the bugs were gone. Katie looked up at him and he could see her tears catching the fading light. She stood up and brushed off her pants.

“Thank you,” she said.

Jeb shook his head. “No need to thank me, child. That was Peter. I believe he wanted to help you. I don’t know if he did or not, but that was my son. He was the sweetest boy.”

Katie smiled a brilliant smile like a sunrise. “I know he helped me. I can tell.”

“That’s good, then.” Jeb’s throat tightened. “You’d best get home before your parents worry.”

“Okay.” She waved and then she was gone, sprinting off with the grace of a deer.

Jeb sat back down on the porch. He watched the wind blow the leaves and heard Peter’s laughter. He saw the stars come out and saw Peter’s bright smile.

3,405 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 35th weekly short story release, written in November 2011, originally published under my pen name “Michael Burges.”

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 Halloween story Trick or Treat.

Eating Disorder

Some people would call it an eating disorder but a ghoul has to eat, right?

It’s actually a funny story, how I ended up this way. Why don’t you settle back and I’ll tell you all about it.

Yeah, I wasn’t really asking.

Kick off your October with a ghoulishly fun story in “Eating Disorder.”

1

I’ve got what you could call an eating disorder. I don’t like talking about it. Hell, I don’t even like thinking about it, but at three in the morning, listening to the sound of ice-coated branches and trees breaking all around me it’s hard not to think about how I ended up here, in Olympia, I guess that’s the capital, right smack in the middle of the worst storm in like fifteen years or something.

See I’m one of those people that no one likes looking at. Not that I’m bad on the eyes. I’m petite but what the guys call stacked. I’ve hacked off my hair, it’s all white, but you couldn’t tell that from the dirt, so it sort of just sticks up in every direction. It used to be black and long and I paid whatever it cost to have it look good.

Not anymore. A ghoul like me can’t afford that sort of thing.

Instead of designer clothes and jewelry I get what I can shoplift from Goodwill. Nothing pretty about that but when you’ve got what I’ve got you learn real quick not to get too attached to your clothes.

Or fingernails. Hell, I’d love to have the beautiful patterned nails like I used to get but instead I’ve got these thick yellow and black nails, not even nails. Let’s tell the truth. These babies are sharp enough to shave with. Not that I bother with shaving anything anymore.

You have a keen sense of smell, don’t you? It must be torture for you being close to me right now. But you’re going to help me with that.

This storm is sure something, isn’t it? A foot of snow overnight, that was bad enough, but then this ice storm on its heels? I usually don’t let things go this far, but the storm really messed up my plans.

See I never stay in one place too long. Too easy for the hunter to become the hunted, but then your type likes staying in one place. Ties to your dirt and all of that sort of thing. It’s usually pretty easy to spot your kind. From the money, the whores and the expensive houses closed up all day, your sort always stands out.

I know, you don’t think that you do, but it’s true. I spotted you right off.

Me? I’m on that. A Trek Marlin 29er, that’s a mountain bike. Big wheels, see. I don’t carry much. What’d be the point? Mostly my sleep-gear backed in that trunk bag.

Ordinarily I’m not one much for the chit-chat. I’m the go straight to the eating sort, if you get it?

Sorry about laughing, but you should have seen your face then. Your sort, how you’ve changed! Used to be among the worst sort of monsters imaginable, the kind of nightmare that made grown men wet their beds. Now you get their women to wet their beds and not the same way.

Now they all want to fuck you.

Talk about your PR campaign!

Oh? You want to know where this place is? I’d think even someone like you would recognize the piss-stink of an overpass. That’s the Woodland trail down there beneath us, street up there, duh.

Yeah, don’t worry about anyone coming by. You hear those cracks and snaps like firecrackers going off? That’s the sound of branches breaking and trees falling. This ice storm is making a mess of everything. Roads up there are awful.

No one’s coming. No one’s going to be using the trail. And I already dumped your car.

You and me, we’ve got time. That’s why I’m so chatty, and I’m not normally that sort of ghoul.

Sorry. Can’t help it. Do you think I like this? Fuck-you-very-much.

I don’t know if this is your lucky night or not. Thanks to that storm I can’t be riding or I’d have already eaten and gotten on my bike and put some miles in before I crashed for the night.

What with the ice storm and all I can’t do that right now and I don’t like sleeping where I eat. So you’re the lucky fuck. I’m going to tell you how I ended up like this. Just so you see it isn’t personal.

Like I said before, I wasn’t always like this. That changed six months ago. Before that I was a mostly normal girl, doing her thing. Oh I still rode the bike, that didn’t change. Give me an epic ride any day. Nothing I liked better getting out and hitting the trails, you know? I could ride all day until I didn’t have any energy left at all and then just crash. If I was back home that was cool but sometimes I’d just crash where ever I was at, stealth camp, you know? I always rode with my full kit so it didn’t really matter. I was always more home on the bike than I was back in my cheap apartment. That was just a place to keep the stuff that didn’t fit on my bike. But everything important fit on my bike.

So six months ago. I was out in Canada hitting the Tour Divide.

No? Haven’t heard of it? No reason you would have, heck even most people that get out during daylight hours haven’t heard of the Tour Divide.

Two thousand seven hundred and forty-five miles along the continental divide from Banff, Canada all the way down to a Mexico border crossing at Antelope Wells. Epic. Totally epic, that was the big thing that I’d been building toward hard for two years before that June.

Two years! More than that if you really went back, but two years that I had actually intended to ride the race. I’d even thought about doing it the year before but didn’t figure I was ready. I should have done it then.

The Divide throws everything at you. Climbing up passes, snow, brutal trails in the middle of nowhere. Total shitting in the woods, epic riding all frickin’ day. And the riders, they worry about things like grizzly bears because it totally goes through grizzly bear country.

I wish that’s all I had to worry about.

First day of riding and that night I’m up in the Flathead valley just pushing my bike up this trail that you can’t even hardly see along a mountain side covered in snow. There’s a bit of a moon, but not much. Enough to keep going. Not snow like you see out there right now, there wasn’t the fucking ice for one thing. This was old snow, all rotten and slippery. It used to be deep but now it didn’t even come up to my knee but I couldn’t ride through it, not if I hoped to get across the mountainside without tumbling down the cliff to an early death.

Even that would have been better.

So I’d gotten past the worst of it, so I thought, when I heard a motor. That  freaked me out. You’ve got to see it, you’re in the middle of shit-knows-where on this hillside and it’s all quiet. No cars, no sounds except animals and shit. And then there’s this sound of motors. Engines revving. I could hear shit getting kicked up and I’m freaking out. Who the hell is crazy enough to be out here at night except Divide riders?

I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

ATVs. Two of them ripping across the mountain without headlights. Crazy mother-fuckers, to ride those unstable machines across this mountain only by moonlight. Or that’s what I thought at the time. I didn’t know, couldn’t know right then, that they could see in the dark as well as an owl.

I could only see them as dark shapes roaring across the mountain, more shadow than substance. The sound and the size made it clear that they weren’t grizzly bears charging. They were much worse.

Only two ATVs but four riders. The came at me, engines snarling as they spun around in the snow and stopped. I was pissed but also scared. A woman alone in the middle of that God-forsaken country, with a pack of backwoods idiots on ATVs? It sounded like a recipe to get tortured, killed and thrown off the cliff for the animals. By the time anyone found any remains they wouldn’t have a clue what killed me, the animals or the fall.

Yeah, laugh it up. Obviously none of that happened. But that’s what I was afraid of back then. Only I wasn’t about to let these guys know that.

I raised a hand. “Hey, any of you got some Snickers? M&Ms? Really, any kind of chocolate would do.”

They gave me snickers, but not the kind I was looking for. The leader, Raul, I learned that later, got off the ATV first. In the dark moonlight he looked like any other raggedy thin guy you might find at some bar tossing back one or ten beers.

“What’re you doing out here?” He spread his arms. “Does this look like a fucking bicycle trail?”

“Sure as hell does, fuckwad,” I said. “And it’s going to take me all the way to Mexico, so why don’t you get out of my way. I’ve got a lot of riding to do.”

Saved my bacon. Sort of.

Raul, he sort of bent over and let out this hacking laugh. He slapped his legs as he did it and I thought he sounded seriously fucking sick. He hawked and spat into the dirty snow.

“Mexico? You’re a long ways from Mexico.”

“And I’m not getting any closer talking to you.”

He sort of stood up straighter then and an eye-blink later he was right up against me, like pressed up hard enough that I would have gone over and tumbled down the hillside except he had a hand around my waist and was holding me in a grip that felt like a fucking steel band. And the smell!

Well, you know all about that.

That dude smelled like something left dead on the road under a hot sun, even though it was cold. And when I looked into his moonlit face from a kissing-distance away I saw just how sharp and black his teeth were and I was suddenly truly, fucking scared. Far more than I’d been only a moment before. I didn’t understand how he moved like that. Worse, all of his buddies were off the ATVs and around us in a close circle like they were all waiting for a turn.

And they were, right then. All waiting for Raul to take his piece. He sniffed me real close. He knew before then, but he was making a show of it. He did a little pout.

“She’s muggle, every bit. Nothing special about her.”

I brought my hands up and pushed against his chest but I might as well have tried to push the mountain aside. “Whatever. I’m sure you find lots of women riding a mountain bike from Canada to Mexico.”

More snickers all around. Raul tilted his head. “We’re in Canada now?”

“Yes, don’t you know where you’re at?”

Raul stared at me. I couldn’t figure out what was going on with the guy, how he moved that fast, why his teeth looked like they did or why he smelled so bad. The rest stank too and I was starting to feel sick from it.

“I told you, I’m riding the tour divide from Canada to Mexico, so it sounds like we’re going opposite ways. Why don’t you get the hell out of my way and we’ll call it good.”

“Why?” Raul asked softly.

“Why what?”

“Why should we let you go?” The others all snickered more. “We could have fun with you.”

“Thanks, I’ll pass. Now let me go.”

Raul leaned in closer. I didn’t know what he meant to do but he was fucking freaking me out. So I did the one thing I could do. I lifted my can of bear spray that I had right there in my hand, on my bike and gave him a shot right in the eyes and mouth from inches away.

He howled! The sound split the night, and he flew back away from me. In the process that fucker scratched my back. I felt it tear, four long scratches that cut right through my jersey but I didn’t stop to worry about it. I was on that bike and I took off riding.

Snow flew from my tires and I got going. I was flying along that mountain side as if it was nothing but a smooth paved multi-use trail like that Woodland trail right down there. Or at least it seemed like that for a few minutes.

Then there was a tree down across the trail ahead of me. Not the first, or the last. I barely saw it in the dark and sort of braked and slid down the side of the mountain. I actually slid underneath the tree like I was going to slide under and pop back up on the other side. That would have been cool but that didn’t happen. I didn’t make it all the way. My head hit the tree and I was going so fast that it snapped my neck in an instant. I didn’t even know I was dead yet when I slid out the other side with my legs twitching on the pedals like I was still riding.

Being undead sucks. Being an undead ghoul really bites.

Yeah, very funny.

Raul and his buds thought my accident was hilarious. I don’t know about you vamps, but the change for ghouls happens pretty fast. You rot. I mean there I am, newly dead, and my skin bloats, the stink comes out and I started looking as nasty as something lying dead on the hillside for a week. My neck bones reset themselves at least.

See that’s the thing about us ghouls. We’re tough. We look and smell like shit, but there’s not much that can take us down.

Raul showed me that right off. Tore my jersey to shreds along with the skin underneath just to prove a fucking point.

But you know what happened then? He made the mistake. He told me that my only hope to look normal was to eat other supernatural critters. Humans might help for an hour, but there were other things out there that would make me look alive and human for days at a time. Maybe even weeks, but those sort of targets were dangerous.

Or I could hang out with them and just pick off anyone unfortunate to cross their paths.

I had another idea.

I thought I’d be squeamish about it, but it’s instinct. I went for Raul first. Ghouls are tough but I wasn’t just any old ghoul. They hadn’t considered that. Idiots.

Some might call that cannibalism. I called it justice. Maybe I’m deluded, but it felt that way at the time. I packed away extra nibbles and had myself enough to finish the whole Tour Divide race all the way down to Mexico. What I found there is a whole other, and much longer story.

Now, now. Don’t even think about trying to get away.

2,558 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 33rd weekly short story release, finished in January 2012.

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, and next up is Tortures Small Animals, Seeks Same.

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.

Trailer Park of the Dead Things

The call on Stefan Roland’s supernatural tip line describes the Willow Lane trailer park as haunted and terrifying.

It’s possibly the only opportunity for Stefan to revitalize his Dead Things series of films.

The whole gang comes back for one more shot at filming dead things before the Inquisition sweeps in to cover it all up.

Assuming they can get out alive!

1

The call on Stefan Roland’s supernatural tip line described the Willow Lane trailer park as haunted and terrifying. Leaning forward to look out the van window, Stefan agreed, but probably not for the same reasons as the caller.

Out of habit he pulled back and checked himself in the side mirror. At fifty-three he still managed to look good for the camera. Or good enough. He had that sort of Peter Jenkins look these days with his hair mostly gray, but he stayed in shape. When you had a reputation for filming zombies the last thing you wanted was to be huffing and wheezing on camera when you tried to get away. He straightened his bright red tie and straightened up in time to see his driver and cameraman, Craig Marshal grinning at him.

“What?” Stefan asked. “I have to look good when we shoot this.”

Behind his sunglasses Craig raised an eyebrow but remained silent as he steered the van around a child’s bike abandoned in the road. Roan Collins stuck her head up between the seats, still sporting the same spiky blond hair she had back in the days when they’d gone to Afghanistan to film War of the Dead Things. She looked more or less the same, actually more tanned with a few lines around her eyes but he wouldn’t dare mess with the petite sound wizard.

“Shoot what?” she asked. “This place is a dump. I can’t even believe that we’re doing this.”

Stefan shrugged. “I thought we all agreed that we needed another film. We can’t ride on the royalties from the first three forever. People want something new.”

“But this?” Roan grabbed the seat backs as Craig stopped the van in front of one of the trailers. A hand-painted sign out front read ‘Manager’. “We haven’t gotten anything better from the tip line?”

“No. These days the Inquisition swoops in too fast. They’ve usually got the witch in custody before we ever hear about it.” Which was part of the reason he hadn’t put out a new documentary in twenty years. That and after Afghanistan he had needed years of therapy. Not to mention the book deals, talk circuit and merchandising.

Craig spoke in his deep voice. “Then why aren’t they here? If there’s anything to this, shouldn’t they be all over it?”

“When I talked to the manager he said that they did send out a team and nothing happened while they were around, but he said it has started up again since then.” Stefan popped open his door. “Come on, grab your gear and let’s go talk to him.”

Craig and Roan exchanged a look before she disappeared into the back. Craig climbed out of the driver’s seat to follow. Stefan got out of the van and shut the door behind him. It felt good to have the team back together, out in the field. A cool breeze blew dry leaves around his feet that sounded like whispers and smelled like rain. He looked up at dark clouds massing overhead. Hopefully it’d hold off on the rain until they got set up, but it would make for some good atmospheric shots later.

The Willow Lane trailer park looked run down and worn out, but not really haunted. None of the trailers looked new and some looked dangerous. The one to the right of the manager’s had cardboard duct taped up over a broken window with big pointy shards of glass still dangling from the frame. More glass reflected light up from the weeds around the trailer. Moss and branches from the willow trees littered the roofs of the trailers. Garbage bags, boxes, kids toys and cars crowded around the trailers. He heard the van door open and walked around the front of the van, barely missing a pile of dog crap on the tiny patch of weedy grass around the manager’s sign. At least he hoped the crap was from a dog, it was fresh enough to smell, but he couldn’t shake the disturbing thought of some dirty child crouching to dump beside the sign as a prank.

 

Craig and Roan had their gear sorted when he reached the other side. These days Craig still had his height but he had put on more weight over the years. Like Stefan his hair was mostly gray now, but he wore it longer.

“Let’s do a quick intro,” Stefan suggested. “Do we have the wireless recording set up?”

Roan gave him that look that said he had dared to question her abilities. “Everything is transmitted back to the van and recorded. The system checks out.”

“Okay.” Stefan grinned. “You know me and new technology. Ready?”

Craig adjusted the camera. “Sure, any time you’re ready.”

Stefan glanced back and positioned himself in front of the willow tree leaning over the manager’s trailer. “How does it look?”

Craig gave him a thumbs up.

“Roan?”

“Ready.”

“Okay, on three, two, one.” He smiled for the camera. “Welcome to Willow Lane, a simple trailer park home to hard-working people just trying to get by, and just possibly, a witch. I’m Stefan Roland and I’ve made it my life’s work to document instances of witches waking dead things. From our rural countryside, to our malls, all the way to the deserts of Afghanistan, my team and I have traveled the globe to bring you the true stories of the behind these horrible events that the Inquisition doesn’t want you to see.”

Stefan walked a few steps closer to the trailer’s front door. “We’ve received tips that this seemingly peaceful trailer park is haunted by a dark force unlike any we’ve seen before. We’re here to uncover the truth.”

The front door opened and a man stepped out. At least he thought it was a man. There was enough white hairs on his chin to suggest a beard, but he was also fat and wore bright purple sweat pants and a stained pink sweat shirt. White hair stuck out in all directions on his head like pictures of Einstein. Stefan couldn’t have timed it better. He walked quickly toward the small porch.

“Hello? I’m Stefan Roland. Are you Pete Larson, the manager?”

“Yep, that’s me.” Pete grinned and pointed a finger at Craig and Roan. “Are you filming this?”

“Don’t worry about the camera,” Stefan said smoothly. “We film everything. Most of it never ends up in the actual movie. When we’re done we have to go back and edit it all together to make the documentary. Do you mind if we come inside, so you can tell us what’s been happening?”

“Sure, sure.” Pete turned back to the door and pulled it open, hinges creaking. “Come on in.”

Stefan looked back at the camera. “Let’s go find out about the haunting of Willow Lane.”

The porch steps sagged beneath Stefan’s feet when he stepped up to join Pete on the small porch. When Stefan got up close to the manager he smelled like dirty gym socks and fried chicken. It wasn’t only stains on the front of Pete’s sweat shirt but also bits of breading. Stefan breathed through his mouth and stepped on into the trailer. Given Pete’s appearance he expected a mess but it wasn’t all that bad. He went right into the small living room, which held furniture that would have looked at home on the curb with a cardboard ‘free’ sign. A kitchenette occupied one corner of the room but there weren’t even dishes piled in the sink. A small mini-fridge was tucked away beneath the counter. A big bucket of KFC sat on the battered and stained coffee table and the smell of fried chicken was even stronger. Stefan’s stomach growled, but the thought of eating held little appeal at the moment. Still, the place wasn’t actually messy. The lack of some sort of disarray made Stefan wonder if Pete hadn’t cleaned up specially for their visit. He turned back around as Craig came in with the camera, followed by Roan.

Pete let the door bang shut and shuffled in behind Roan. Stefan noticed Pete watching Roan’s backside and hoped, for the manager’s sake, that she didn’t catch him checking her out.

“Thank you so much for talking to us,” Stefan said. “How about we sit on the couch?”

“Sure, sure.” Pete brushed the front of his sweat shirt. “Should I change? Sorry, everything was dirty. Today’s laundry day but I haven’t had a chance yet.”

“It’s fine,” Stefan said. “We want to capture real life, here. I want you to feel comfortable.”

Pete beamed and dropped down onto one end of the couch. Stefan went over and sat on the other side, his arm along the back, and tried to project an air of relaxed interest. “Okay, Pete, whenever you’re ready, can you tell us about what has been happening in Willow Lane?”

Stefan heard a low groan. At first he thought it came from Pete, but the manager’s head turned and looked toward the hallway. Stefan leaned forward. “What was that? Is there someone back there?”

Pete wrung his hands in front of his chest. “No. I live alone.”

The moan came again, low and drawn out, like someone in pain. Or possibly pleasure. Stefan motioned for Craig to turn the camera. Craig did, filming Roan as she moved into the hallway entrance. She held up her mic, her head turned slightly to the right. Her left hand adjusted the controls on the equipment.

“What have you got?” Stefan asked.

“Someone’s in the bedroom,” she said flatly.

“Not ‘un,” Pete said. “See, that’s what’s going on! Stuff like that!”

Stefan stood up motioning for Pete to stay on the couch. He went around the coffee table to stand behind Roan so he could see down the hallway. With the light off it was dim, the room at the end darkened with closed curtains.

Another moan. The hairs on his arms and neck rose up. His mouth seemed dry. He swallowed. “Well, let’s take a look. That’s why we’re here.” He held his hand out to Craig. “Flashlight?”

Craig pulled a small Maglite out of his pocket and handed it over. Stefan twisted it on. The tiny dot of light danced along the walls.

Roan reached over and flicked a light switch. The light in the hall above the front door came on. “You get to go first.”

“Thanks.” Stefan turned the flashlight off and slipped past Roan.

“Don’t mention it. You’re the on-screen personality.”

He took a step forward and another moan rose out of the bedroom. It sounded like someone in pain. He made himself walk down the short hall, past a bathroom, to the bedroom.

“What is it?” Pete called out.

Stefan didn’t answer. From the hall light he couldn’t see anything. He slid his hand in along the wall and found the bedroom light switch. He flicked it up. Nobody there. A queen-sized bed with a dark blue bedspread covered the mattress. Other than a dark wood dresser beside a closet with mirrored doors, there wasn’t anything in the room. He turned back around to face the hallway and the camera.

“I don’t see anything in the room. Pete, do you mind if we look around?”

“That’s fine!”

Stefan went in and walked over to the closet. He really didn’t want to pull that open and see what was inside, but the camera was watching. He slid the door open. No zombies jumped out. Mostly the closet held empty clothes hangers, and a closet organizer with multiple pairs of shoes ranging from worn out sneakers to black dress shoes. Nothing that could have created the moaning noise.

“There’s nothing here.” Stefan closed the closet and moved over to the dresser. It felt wrong to dig through Pete’s stuff, but if the manager wasn’t going to complain, he wanted to rule out a prank.

It didn’t take long to pull out each drawer. Socks, underwear that Stefan wasn’t going to touch, some sweaters and in the bottom drawer stacks of Penthouse magazines. Stefan looked up at Craig after he closed that drawer. “Cut that when we edit.”

He went over to the bed and got down on his hands and knees. He grabbed the bedspread and suddenly froze. He really didn’t want to lift it up and find someone staring back at him from beneath the bed. What if Pete had tied up someone and hid them under the bed?

Stefan chuckled. “I hope there’s nothing under here.”

“Wait, let me shoot it,” Craig said.

Stefan waited until Craig got the camera down in position and gave him the nod, then he lifted the bedspread. Nothing. Not unless dust bunnies had started moaning. Stefan saw Roan’s sneakers over on the other side of the bed. As he dropped the bedspread she started walking back around the bed. He climbed up.

“What were you doing over ther—”

“What?” Roan asked behind him.

“Holy fuck!” Stefan jerked back from the petite sound technician. She was standing over by the closet. “No way.”

Craig brought the camera up. “What?”

There wasn’t anyone else in the room.

“We’ve got to play that back,” Stefan said. “Did you see the feet on the other side of the bed?”

“Yeah, I thought it was Roan.”

Roan grinned. “I haven’t been over on the other side of the bed, guys.”

“What’s going on?” Pete called from the other room.

Stefan shook his head. “Okay, I’m convinced there’s something going on. Let’s go finish talking to Pete, he’s got a vacant trailer for us. I want to play back that footage and see if we caught anything on tape.”

They all went back out the living room. Pete looked up from the bucket of KFC he cradled on his lap. “Want some chicken?”

“No thanks.” Stefan went back to the couch and sat back down.

“What’d you see?” Pete asked. “Was there something there?”

“We don’t know. We’ll have to review the footage. Pete, tell us what’s been happening in Willow Lane.”

Pete’s big shoulders rolled. “Weird stuff like that, noises, things happening. One time last week I heard my trailer door open. I always lock it. I’m like compulsive about it, you know? But I heard the door open and someone went into the bathroom. I heard that door close. I got up and asked who was there, but they didn’t answer. When I turned on the lights I went into the hall and I was so scared I thought I might pee my pants, but there wasn’t anyone there. Then I really had to pee but I didn’t want to go into the bathroom but I didn’t have any choice.”

“Is it only here, in your trailer?”

“No! I’m getting pestered all the time by people with weird shit happening. I don’t know what they think I can do about it, but I’m the manager so they think I have to do something. People tell me that stuff has moved around. Pets have disappeared. Things have gotten broken. I think it’s because of the cemetery.”

“Cemetery?”

“Yeah, it’s on the other side of the trailer park, been there for a long time. I think that’s why we’re getting haunted. Some of the dead folks are restless, coming over here and making trouble. That’s what I told the inquisitors that came. They said they’d look into it but nothing strange happened while they were here.” Pete looked back at the hallway. “I don’t know if I want to sleep back there with something strange going on.”

“Whatever it was, it seems to have stopped,” Stefan said. “On the phone you said that you had a trailer that we could use during our investigation?”

“Yeah, old Mrs. Kunkle’s trailer. They carted her off to hospice two months ago but no family showed up to take care of the place. I cleared out the fridge, just so things didn’t spoil in there, but all the furniture and stuff is still there. There’s soups and stuff in the cupboards. I don’t know who is going to take care of it, so I don’t think anyone would mind if you use it. Plus she was a real nice lady so I don’t think she would haunt it or anything.”

“Okay.” Stefan turned and smiled for the camera. “It looks like we have a haunting to investigate. Thank you Pete Larson, manager of Willow Lane trailer park.”

“You’re welcome,” Pete said.

2

Mrs. Kunkle’s trailer smelled of lilac, medicine and dust with just a hint of mold. She obviously enjoyed collecting dog figurines since the dusty ceramic figures filled shelves in each room of the single-wide trailer. Her trailer was larger than Pete Larson’s with a full kitchen, larger living room and a much bigger bathroom. Craig moved from room to room working on setting up cameras, just in case whatever was going on came back to this trailer too.

Stefan and Roan sat in the living room. Looking around at Mrs. Kunkle’s living room, the dozens of ceramic dogs, and the dried up spider planet on the window sill, it made him sad that no family had come forward to take care of the place. Who would turn out if he died? Would Craig and Roan clear out his studio apartment? They were the closest he had to family. He had the die-hard fans, of course, but that wasn’t the same thing.

“When did we become ghost hunters?” Roan asked.

Stefan shrugged. “Ghosts, zombies, what’s the difference? They’re all dead things.”

“Yeah, but ghosts don’t do us any good if we can’t catch them on film.”

That still bothered him. The first thing Craig did when they got back to the van was use the portable player to take a look at the bedroom recording. The video they’d shot under the bed didn’t show any sneakers on the other side of the bed. But both he and Craig had seen it, he was sure of that. Without it on camera he looked like an idiot reacting to something that wasn’t there. Likewise Roan’s playback of the audio didn’t show any of the moaning that they had all heard. She thought she might have more luck when she got the recording back to the studio and could really take a look at it, but playing it straight back they only heard their own voices. Once again making it look like they were trying to stage the whole thing.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and the witch will wake the zombies in the graveyard next door.”

Roan swatted at his arm. “Don’t even joke.”

Stefan laughed. “Who said I was joking? If we can’t record ghosts, we need something else.”

Craig came back into the room. “Cameras are set up. If anything moves during the night it’ll trigger the motion sensors and turn on the cameras.”

“Good job.” Stefan gestured to the recliner at the end of Mrs. Kunkle’s glass-topped coffee table. “Have a seat. I’ve ordered a pizza.”

Craig dropped into the chair. “Excellent. Better than Afghanistan, at least.”

“Yeah,” Roan said dryly. “I haven’t gotten shot yet.”

“What’s the plan?” Craig asked.

“We see if anything happens tonight, and tomorrow we start interviewing the residents. I want as many stories as we can get. Let’s keep our eyes out for anyone that might turn out to be the witch behind this.”

“You think there is a witch behind this?” Roan asked.

There was a knock at the door. Stefan glanced at his watch. “Under thirty minutes. Not bad.” He got up and looked down at Roan. “And yes, I do think there’s a witch involved.”

He went to get the food.

3

A loud crash woke Stefan. He sat up in the dark, his heart hammering in his chest. Had he —

Crash!

It sounded like something hit a wall and shattered. He threw aside the covers and sat up. On the other side of the bed Roan stirred.

Crash! Crash!

“What the hell?” She sat up too.

“I don’t know.” Stefan reached over for the lamp and felt rather than saw something fly past his head. He flinched as whatever it was smashed into the wall right in front of him. Tiny sharp fragments peppered his face as he dove back onto the bed.

Roan yelled in alarm.

From the other room Stefan heard Craig call out. More crashes, in rapid fire. Something hit his shoulder! He grabbed the object, recognizing by feel one of Mrs. Kunkle’s ceramic dogs. “Under the covers!”

He lifted the blankets and dived beneath. On the other side Roan copied him and from somewhere produced a small Maglite which she turned on. They looked at each other in the light while above the blankets more ceramic dogs shattered on the walls. Roan started giggling. A second later Stefan joined her. He held out the ceramic dog that had hit his shoulder. An English bulldog about the size of a baseball. His shoulder still throbbed.

“Not hardly a bullet it, but it still hurt,” he complained.

Roan laughed harder.

Stefan reached out and took her hand. “Thanks for coming.”

She grinned. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

The barrage slowed. A few more crashes and then nothing. Roan sat up more beneath the blanket. The flashlight pointed up at her face like she was about to tell a spooky story. Except they were in the middle of a ghost story right now.

“Do you think it’s over?” she asked.

“Only one way to find out.” Stefan pulled back the blanket, ready to duck back beneath. Nothing flew out of the dark at him.

Roan shown the flashlight around. “Holy shit!”

Even though he expected it, there was something horrible about the dozens of ceramic dogs lying shattered to pieces on the floor. Pieces marred the walls where they had been hit. No wall was left unmarked and the entire floor was covered in sharp shards of broken canines.

There was movement and a shape in the doorway. Stefan’s breath caught in his throat and Roan let out a little squeak as she pointed the flashlight at the shape.

Craig shielded his eyes. He was wearing nothing but boxer shorts and sneakers. A few scratches on his chest beaded with blood. “Are you guys okay?”

“I think so.” Stefan moved his arm. “One of them hit me.”

Craig looked at the bedroom. “I guess she didn’t like sharing her trailer after all.”

Stefan reached over the side of the bed to find his shoes. He shook out pieces of the dogs and pulled them on. “Let’s check the cameras. I hope it caught this!”

It did. Fortunately the cameras survived the incident, although one had gotten knocked over by a flying poodle. The three of them sat around the portable monitor watching the replay from the camera facing the bedroom. Stefan bit his knuckle watching the scene. Even unedited the night vision footage was chilling. The dogs shot across the room as if shot from a gun to explode on impact.

Roan made a disgusted snort and flopped back on the couch. He couldn’t believe it.

“What’s wrong?”

“That!” She shook her hand at the screen. “Who is going to believe that? With the night vision and everything they’re going to say it was all rigged.”

“We can prove the video wasn’t tampered with,” Craig said.

She shook her head. “Anyone with a brain watching that will assume you used filaments to pull the figurines across the room!”

Stefan shook his head. “There are dozens of figurines in that shot, plus the ones out here. It wouldn’t be easy to rig that.”

“I’m telling you it won’t matter.”

It was a sobering thought. Craig stopped the playback. “I think you’ll change your mind when we get this back to the studio. It’ll look better.”

“Not good enough.”

Craig’s jaw tightened. “I’m not offering you advice on sound recording.”

Roan got up. “I’m going to find a broom and get some of this mess cleaned up. Unless you want to take more pictures?”

“No, I’ve already got it.”

She left and Stefan looked over at his cameraman. He trusted Craig’s opinion, but he couldn’t discount what Roan said. “You could both turn out right.”

Craig surprised him by nodding. “Yep.”

“It’ll work out,” Stefan said. “We just move ahead with the plan. Get the interviews, see what else we can record. When we have enough footage then we call the Inquisition and turn over copies. We film them in action and then we’ve got another movie. Everything documented and verified.”

It had to work. They all needed another successful documentary in the series. This was his retirement plan.

Craig stood up. “Sounds good to me, man. I’ll give Roan a hand.”

While Craig went into the other room, bits of ceramic dogs crunching under his sneakers, Stefan hit the play button on the camera. There wasn’t any sound on the playback. He watched the blankets moved as he and Roan took shelter. She’d been scared, that’s why she was acting all pissed. The ghost or whatever force was here scared her. He rubbed his jaw, feeling the rough beginnings of a beard. He was already up, might as well get started figuring out what he was going to ask the residents today.

4

Willow Lane held twenty trailers and so far Stefan hadn’t found any really credible witness. They had great footage of half-literate types saying that they’d seen stuff move around in their trailer. A window or door opened or closed. One lady had a boxer that kept barking at a particular corner in her trailer, but he wouldn’t do it on camera.

Trailer eighteen, a double-wide trailer with flowered curtains and rose bushes growing in a small flower bed beside the porch. It almost looked out of place among the other trailers in Willow Lane. Stefan consulted the list that Pete Larson gave them this morning of resident names.

“Helen Richardson, lives alone. Pete said she gets lots of guests.”

“You know what she does,” Roan said, grinning. She was in a better mood since breakfast.

Stefan got the nod from Craig and walked up the three steps to the porch. He rang the doorbell and heard it ding dong inside. A dog barked somewhere inside, its voice deep and raspy. There were footsteps and then a woman opened the door, leaning out to look at him. She was something. Long legs that ended in a small blue jeans miniskirt, and a fuzzy white tube top that showed off her bare midriff. She wore way too much blue eye-shadow and her hair rose up in sculpted waves. Stefan’s eyes stung from the cloying scent she wore. Big red lips parted into a man-eating smile.

“Hey handsome, what’re you doing here?” She looked at Craig and Roan standing at the bottom of the porch with her equipment. “Hey! Are you like from publisher’s clearinghouse or something? Did I win a ton of money or something?”

“Helen Richardson?” Stefan asked.

She looked him up and down then reached out and ran one hideously purple fingernail down his tie. He resisted the urge to swat her hand away. “That’s me, honey. So what’s the story?”

“I’m Stefan Roland, the filmmaker? Farm of the Dead Things?”

Helen laughed and clapped her hands together. “So you are! Shit, I’ve seen that movie! That was really good. I’ve watched them all! I didn’t know you were still making movies!”

Stefan tried not to wince. “I’m here because of reports of strange things happening here in Willow Lane. Have you noticed anything odd happening? Things moving on their own? Doors or cupboards opening and closing? Anything like that?”

“Honey, are you going to put me in a movie?”

“It’s possible,” Stefan said, although at the moment that was the last thing he wanted to do.

Helen pressed closer to him and it was a struggle not to hold his breath. “Heck, if you’re going to put me in one of your movies then we’d better get a lot better acquainted. Why don’t you all come inside and I’ll tell you all about it.”

“Really? So you have seen things?”

Helen winked at him then tugged on his tie. “Honey, I’ve seen everything. You can’t surprise me, and heck yeah, I’ve seen some weird shit around here.” She covered her mouth. “Oops. Can you say shit in your movie?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Stefan said. “We’ll take care of all of that sort of thing.”

She laughed. “I’ll bet you will. Probably put in a beep or something, am I right?”

“It’s possible.”

“Come on.” Helen held the door open. “Inside with you.”

Stefan walked into the trailer. Craig and Roan followed him up the steps and inside. They came into a linoleum section between a living room on the left and a dining room on the right off the kitchen. An arched entry on one side of the living room must lead on down to the bedrooms and a bathroom. Beneath the over-powering scent of Helen’s perfume he smelled something else that stunk, a hint of rot or decay. The whole place was a disaster area. Clothes were scattered around the room, draped over furniture and piles of newspapers. Everywhere he looked there were more newspapers in stacks. Half of the dining room table was covered with more papers, and just trashed all piled up on the table. From where he stood he could see dirty dishes in stacks on the counter, and piled high in the sink. This was what he had expected when he first went into Pete’s place, but that was spotless compared to this trailer. And it had looked so nice on the outside.

Helen headed back to the kitchen, her red pumps clicking against the floor.

“Can I get you anything?” She called over her shoulder. “I’ve got beer or wine, if you want.”

“No thanks,” Stefan said. “We only have a few quick questions.”

“I’ll get you a beer.”

Roan handed the equipment over to Stefan. He took it as her hand went to her mouth. Her eyes watered. “Sorry, got to go. I’ll, uh, check the equipment in the van.”

She bolted before Helen came back. As the door banged shut behind her Stefan heard retching noises outside. He slung the strap over his shoulder as Helen walked back holding a couple beers in her hands.

“Did someone leave? Or was that just the door banging on its own again?” She held out a beer to Stefan.

“Thanks.” He took it, and set it immediately down in a tiny clear patch on the coffee table. A fly buzzed up away. “She needed to check on our gear.”

Helen shrugged and smiled at him. She raised her beer can and took a drink without ever taking her eyes off his. “So you came all this way about some little noises out here?”

“We thought we’d check it out. Do you think the place is haunted?”

She laughed. “Honey, what place isn’t haunted? Plus we got that big ‘ole cemetery out back. Seems to me there’s bound to be a few things going bump in the night.” She grinned. “If you know what I mean.”

That wasn’t a thought he even wanted in his brain. “What can you tell us about the —”

The dog started barking again, its voice scratchy and harsh, somewhere back in one of the other rooms. Stefan heard nails scratching and then the clear sound of a door opening. Claws rattled on the hard floor of the hall and the dog ran out right at him. Craig moved smoothly out of the way, still filming the whole thing.

The dog skidded to stop a few feet away and lowered its head. Stefan’s gut tightened up at the sight of the dog. Some sort of mutt, maybe a Rottweiler mix. It was mostly black with brown on the paws and muzzle, but its fur looked greasy and unkempt. It barred yellowed teeth at him. Worse of all was the look in its flat eyes, almost like it had cataracts and couldn’t quite see him. A deep growl rumbled out of its throat.

Helen came to his rescue, stepping in front of it. She stamped a foot down and pointed. “Get back there! Get! How dare you fucking come out here and growl at my guests! Go on! Get!”

The dog’s heavy head turned her direction and its lips raised higher. The dog’s tongue vibrated in front of its teeth.

Helen cocked her head to the side and stared back at the dog. Stefan couldn’t believe it. He felt frozen, expecting the monster to leap on her any second. And what was he going to do?

The dog staggered, its growl cut off. A whimper crawled out of its throat. Just like that the tail dropped and it turned quickly around, feet slipping on the floor, and ran back into the hallway. Helen looked over at Stefan and smiled.

“Just a sec, honey. I’ll lock him back up. I swear sometimes I think he stands up and turns the knob himself. That door never wants to stay shut!”

Her heels tapped on the floor as she went back to the other room.

“Stay the fuck in there!” She yelled.

Stefan heard a door slam. Craig looked at him, eyebrow raised. The stink in the place was giving him a headache. He started thinking of an excuse to leave when Helen came back, taking a swig from her beer.

“Okay, sorry about that. I think Chuckles is upset today.”

“Do you need to take him to a vet or something? We could come back another time.”

Helen waved her hand. “No, hon. Don’t worry about that dog. He hasn’t been himself lately, that’s all. It’ll pass.”

Not himself? Stefan decided to try again. “Let’s start at the beginning. We’re talking to folks in the park about strange things that some people have noticed. How about you? Anything happen here?”

“Honey, I specialize in strange. Just ask my daughter!” Helen laughed. “I need a cigarette. Why don’t we go in the dining room? We can have a seat and I’ll tell you what’s going on.”

The idea of sitting around that filthy table disgusted him but Stefan forced a smile onto his face. It couldn’t get any worse than it already was. Actually, if she started smoking the cigarette smoke might help cover up some of the other stink. He could already feel the headache coming on.

“Okay.” Stefan motioned to Craig to follow. “Let’s go sit down.”

Helen didn’t move until he got gloss and then she pressed herself up against him, intertwining her arm around his. She leaned close. “You’re even better looking in person.”

He smelled the beer on her breath, even through her perfume. He was totally going to shower after this interview. No way he was going through the rest of the day smelling like this woman. In the dining room he pulled out the chair at the less cluttered end of the table for her.

“Such a gentleman,” she said and laughed. She picked up a pack of cigarettes and tapped one out. She extended it to him. “Want one?”

He raised a hand. “No thanks.”

Helen shrugged and pulled one out. She slid it slowly between her red lips and used a lighter on the table to light up.

Craig moved around by the kitchen counter to get them both in the shot. Helen blew out a cloud of smoke at Stefan. He struggled not to cough. She pointed the cigarette at Craig. “Do we have to have that camera on? I thought maybe you and I could have a private chat, off the record, you know?”

That was interesting. Stefan looked at Craig. They’d worked together long enough that Craig understood what he wanted when he said, “No problem. Why don’t you put that down and take a break?”

“Sure, boss,” Craig said. He put the camera on the counter, shoving some glasses out of the way.

The shot wouldn’t be quite as good, but it’d work.

Stefan leaned forward. “Okay, Helen, whenever you’re ready?”

“That’s off?”

“Yes,” Stefan lied.

Craig pointed his thumb at the door. “I’m going to go check on Roan, make sure she’s okay.”

“Sure,” Roland said, keeping his eyes Helen.

Her smiled widened, a predatory, chilling grin. He smiled back. Craig left quickly. When the door banged shut the dog started barking again back in the bedroom.

“We’re alone now,” Helen said. “I like that. It gives us a chance to get better acquainted.”

“How about we start with what’s going on? I get the feeling that you’ve been avoiding the question, you know what’s happening don’t you?”

Helen took a long drag from her cigarette and glanced into the kitchen. She looked back at him. “Sure I know. I know all about it. Seems to me we can help each other out.”

“How’s that?”

“You’ve got connections. Seems to me that if you make a movie about me, I should get something out of it. That’s only fair isn’t it?”

Stefan interlaced his fingers. “Is this movie about you? Are you saying that you’re behind what’s been happening here?”

A fly landed on the table near his elbow, a big fat black fly. It jerked and toppled over. The legs twitched one and stopped. Helen lowered her cigarette and pressed the ash and glowing tip into the fly’s fat body. Stefan smelled a sharp stink and a thin column of smoke rose into the air. She lifted her cigarette off the charred body and took another drag.

“I don’t mind flies,” she said, smoke pouring from her mouth. “A lot of people don’t like them, but they’re just doing their thing, you know?”

The fly twitched. Its wings buzzed against the table. Stefan jerked away in surprise. After a couple attempts the fly righted itself and took off buzzing into the air. It circled his head. He swatted at it and missed.

More flies rose up from the dishes in the sink and took to the air.

Stefan looked at Helen watching him coolly. “You’re doing that? You brought that fly back to life?”

“That’s right honey, I can wake dead things. Sometimes it happens all on its own. It’s like I’m full of static electricity or something and they just start doing their thing again like someone put new batteries in them.”

He heard a glass move in the kitchen, sliding across the counter, but when he looked he didn’t see which of the dirty glasses had moved. “Was that you too?”

“Nope.”

He let that go for the moment, but he was glad that Craig and Roan could watch what was happening from the van. “So what are you going to do with this ability? Aren’t you afraid of the Inquisition?”

Helen shook her head. “That’s where you come in, honey. I’m gonna raise me a whole big flock of dead things. More than anyone, more than that big woman you filmed. And I’m not gonna be stupid about it either. I’ll raise ‘em up and people are going to have to start paying attention to me. The Inquisition won’t do nothing.”

“They’re pretty effective at what they do. I don’t know if you’d want them showing up.” Stefan didn’t dare look at the camera but he hoped that Craig and Roan were paying attention. “At least not until we have everything ready.”

Helen’s smile broadened. “See, that’s what I’m talking about!”

More dishes clinked together in the kitchen. The dog barked back in the bedroom. The air felt charged and the flies flew in faster circles around the table.

Helen leaned forward. “Honey, we’re going to make a fortune together! Just wait and see. Once I get started they aren’t ever gonna stop me. You can put me on TV, can’t you? Get me on the news?”

“Yes.”

A dish fell off the counter and shattered on the floor. Stefan tried not to looked startled. He forced a chuckle. “But maybe we’d better dial back until we’re ready?”

Helen took another long drag on her cigarette and blew out the smoke. “What’s wrong? You’re scared?”

“I’m just wondering what’s going on?”

“Nothing but some itty bitty little ghost in a tizzy.” Helen glared at the kitchen. She caught him looking too and laughed. “You’re not gonna see him. Not unless you’ve got the gift too.”

“I don’t see anyone.”

She waved the cigarette, tracing smoke circles in the air. “There you go. That’s why you need me. See, what I figure is we stir things up around here. I know some people that have been a pain in my ass, I wouldn’t mind scaring them in the process, and then we bargain with the Inquisition.”

“Bargain about what?”

“Whatever I want! It’s about time that people like me got the respect we deserve. Instead we’ve got the Inquisition running around burning out people’s brains! It isn’t right.”

He wasn’t going to argue the relative merits of the Inquisition. As far as he was concerned, since it shed its religious affiliation a long time ago to become a secular, international police force designed to protect people from those with paranormal abilities, he didn’t have a problem with it.

She wouldn’t want to hear that. “I don’t think they’ll listen me.”

“What choice do they have? If we’ve got hostages they won’t have any option.”

“Hostages? Helen, maybe you should rethink that plan.”

She waved her hand. “I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry about it. You put us on TV and they aren’t going to do anything that might get the poor people of Willow Lane killed. That’s all you have to do. Then we’ll be the ones in control.”

Stefan decided to try again to convince her to cooperate before this thing blew up. “Helen, don’t you think that taking hostages and making demands just reinforces the Inquisitions’ mandate? People aren’t going to cheer for you if I put it on TV, they’re going to be cheering for the inquisitors to put a bullet in your brain!”

Helen took a long drag on the cigarette. Her hand shook. She just sat there looking at him. The combined odors from her kitchen, her perfume and the cigarette smoke was making his head pound. Back in the bedroom the dog started barking again. Helen turned her head and looked at something he couldn’t see, then her eyes slid back and fixed on him. It was the same look he’d seen in the dog.

“You lied to me.” Her words came out flat and cold.

Stefan stood up fast enough that the chair tumbled back with a crash to the floor. The dog’s barking took on a new level of ferocity. Then he heard it chewing on the wood of the door. The camera moved and Stefan lunged without thinking. He grabbed it and hung on. It felt very cold to the touch. Some unseen force pulled it but he clung to it and when whatever had a grip on it let go he stumbled back. He tried to keep it turned toward Helen. Flies buzzed around his head but he ignored them.

She started panting.

Stefan hoisted the camera up, but backed up. He tried to distract her. “What are you talking about?”

Helen grinned and at him, her face taking on a skull-like appearance. With her eyes open wide she lowered the cigarette to the pale underside of her arm and pressed it to her skin.

She screamed at him. Stefan nearly jumped backward but held his ground. The smell of her singed flesh mingled with the rest of the odors in the place. She clawed at her own arms, her purple nails leaving long welts of bloodied flesh as she panted and screamed. There was a loud thud in the bed room, and the crack of wood breaking.

Stefan backed quickly to the front door. Helen screamed over and over in quick succession, clawing at her neck, and ripping at her hair. There was another thud from the bedroom and a louder crack of wood followed by the sound of teeth ripping and cracking the wood further. He turned the camera down the hall and saw the dog’s head burst through the door. It looked at him with maddened eyes and struggled to pull itself free.

He moved faster, getting the hell out of there, but unwilling to stop filming. Helen reached down and clawed at her inner thighs, screaming all the while, but her cries were changing, turning to deep moans.

Stefan grabbed the door and yanked it open. He almost tripped stepping out and the strap of the recording equipment slid down his arm. He caught it and hurried down the steps. His heart pounded so hard in his chest that he worried about a heart attack. Wouldn’t that be perfect? Dying right outside of the witches’ trailer?

A long yowl of protest on his right made him jump. It came from a trailer beside Helen’s where a decaying leg pushed through a hole in the siding around the base of the trailer. Claws extended from the bony paw.

She was waking dead things. The air seemed thick with flying specks. Bugs, he realized. All of the dead flies, bees, moths, mosquitoes, gnats and nits were up and moving again. The air was filled with their buzzing as they flew around him. He ran through the park to their van outside Mrs. Kunkle’s’ trailer. Craig and Roan jumped out as he got close and ran out to meet him.

“Holy shit!” Roan reached him first and took the recording equipment. “That was intense! You’ve got a way of pissing people off, you know that?”

Craig accepted the camera back. “Thanks for grabbing it.”

Stefan tried to catch his breath and looked back the way he’d come. Beside all of the bugs flying around the place he saw bigger things too. Dead birds had joined the party. The whole mass of them swirled around the trailer park in a sort of funnel that reached into the sky.

“I think she’s a bit upset. Did you call the Inquisition?”

“Hell yes,” Craig said. “She’s as crazy as they come.”

Stefan heard a motor revving and a small four-door Volvo sped into the parking lot. It blasted past their van and went on around the loop away from Helen’s trailer.

“They’re in a hurry,” Craig said. “I wonder why?”

Roan swatted at bugs flying around her face. “Can we take this inside? I don’t like bugs, and I really don’t like dead bugs still moving around.”

“Good idea,” Stefan said.

They all piled into the van. Stefan got into the driver’s seat so he could keep an eye on what was happening outside. Craig went around and got into the passenger’s side with the camera while Roan got in the back and shut the door. A few bugs managed to get inside. Roan pulled out a fly swatter.

“I’ll get ‘em,” she said grimly.

“I already got the gear out of the trailer,” Craig said. “We’re good to go if we need to get out of here.”

Thwack! Stefan glanced in the back. Roan grinned. “Got one.”

A fly buzzed past Stefan and landed on the dash. It sat there cleaning its head for a second until Roan lunged forward between the seats and smacked it with the fly swatter. Another one gone. She flicked it off to the floor.

“Don’t worry, I’ll clean them up later.”

“We need to warn these people,” Stefan said. “If she wakes the cemetery this place is going to turn into ground zero with zombies.”

“It sounds like that’s her plan,” Craig said.

“So we’d better move.” Stefan dug the keys out of his pocket. “Stay alert. If you see anything zombies, shoot them.”

“Too bad we don’t have guns,” Roan said in the back.

“Funny.” He looked in the back. “You still got that loud speaker back there? Can you give the warnings?”

Roan grabbed a box of equipment and started pulling out components. “Sure. Go, I’ll have it patched in a second.”

Stefan started the van and pulled out, moving slowly forward to the next trailer. “Roan?”

“I’m good, keep going.” He heard a noise and glanced back and saw her wedging the loud speaker in the side window. She grabbed a mic and thumbed it on. “Evacuate. Attention, please evacuate the trailer park.”

Stefan kept the speed down under ten miles per hour while Roan repeated her warning. He saw people coming out of their trailers. Then he saw something that chilled him to the core. Past the trailers, through a broken and falling down fence, a crowd of people staggered toward the trailer park. Even from here he could see that they weren’t really people but zombies, dead things woken by Helen. Even after all these years he recognized the dead and they were coming. Now the people coming out of the trailers saw them too. A muscled guy with tattoos and a shaved head jumped on a Harley and gunned it out into the road right in front of the van, swerved and kept going.

“Evacuate now! The dead are coming. Attention, evacuate the trailer park!”

More cars pulled out ahead of them. A woman in a blue bathrobe came out of her trailer rubbing her eyes and holding a coffee cup. She squinted at the van.

“Yes you!” Roan shouted. “Look the fuck behind you! Get out now!”

The woman turned around in time to see several zombies crash through the fence not ten feet from her trailer. The coffee cup tumbled from her fingers and shattered on the porch. Then she darted back inside, slamming the door behind her. Stefan braked.

“What are you doing?” Roan asked.

Craig had the camera out the passenger window, filming the dead things converging on the trailer. Stefan heard their moans again and felt ill. More zombies followed the first three and soon there were at least seven dead things dressed in their funeral finery pounding on the side of the trailer. A window in the side of the trailer slid open and a shotgun barrel poked out.

Blam! The head of one of the zombies exploded in a spray of gore. The others continued pounding on the wall. The gun shifted to the side and with another loud crack a second zombie toppled to the ground.

“Yeah! You go girl!” Roan shouted in the loud speaker.

Several pairs of dead eyes turned to look at the van. Roan clicked off the loud speaker. “Uh, boss, maybe we’d better move.”

She got back on the loud speaker. “Evacuate! The dead are coming! Evacuate the trailer park!”

Blam! A third zombie fell.

Stefan gave the van gas and picked up speed around the driveway. Around the next corner was Helen’s trailer and he tensed up approaching it. Other cars were moving now. People were running away from the cemetery end of the trailer park. He saw Helen’s trailer and she was actually standing right there on the porch with her arms spread and her head thrown back. She’d ripped off her top and stood bare-chested, with more welts crisscrossing her front. Her tits sagged without support but she had what looked like teeth marks on both. Self-inflicted? Stefan gave the van more gas and it picked up speed.

The idea of ramming her with it flitted through his mind. No more witch, no more dead things walking around.

He rejected the idea. Let the Inquisition deal with her. They’d do what they could for the people in the park. Zombies gathered near Helen’s trailer, looking up at her with dead gazes. The whole time Craig filmed the scene.

Stefan drove the rest of the way around Willow Lane and joined the stream of cars, pedestrians and cyclists getting the hell out of the park. It looked like most of the residents had opted to flee. He hit the street and drove north a half-mile before pulling over when he saw sirens and lights approaching.

“We’ve got to go back and get this on film,” he said. “Or we don’t have an ending.”

Craig grinned. “Just like old times.”

“You’re both crazy.” Roan grinned. “Count me in.”

Police cars blasted past them, heading to the trailer park. And right behind the police came several black SUVs with the red pin stripe that identified them as Inquisition vehicles. Stefan got out and hurried around the van to the sidewalk. The others joined him.

His mouth felt dry as he started back. Inside he felt sick, like it was all his fault. Was it? Had he goaded her into doing this? He pushed the thought away. Helen was crazy. Whether her ability made her that way, or she became crazy after it he didn’t know. Sooner or later she would have lost it, if not today than some other time.

Down the road was chaos, but the police and the Inquisitors were already getting the situation under control. Stefan waved to the others and picked up his pace. They made it back as the police started putting up barricades. Zombies staggered out of the trailer park into the street.

One of the zombies, who looked like a forty-something guy in a suit, stepped right out in front of an old green Volkswagen Beetle pulling over to the side of the road in between the police vehicles. The driver obviously didn’t see the zombie in time and hit it. The dead thing tumbled down to the road.

The passenger side opened and a young man got out. He looked back at the police cars and then down at the fallen zombie. Cries rang out from the trailer park evacuees watching but he didn’t listen.

Stefan willed the man to stop. He could see the confusion on the guy’s face. They’re driving along and suddenly there’s all these people and police and they’ve hit someone. He tried to do the right thing and ran over to the fallen zombie.

It felt like time stopped. People were crying out, no! Sirens still rang out. Over by the barricades Stefan saw men in deep red suits with black ties, inquisitors, moving past the barricades with weapons in their hands.

No one could reach the guy in time.

The passenger bent down over the zombie, not realizing that the zombie was already dead.

The zombie grabbed the passenger and yanked him down, going for his throat. Stefan was too far away, there was nothing he can do to help. He couldn’t hear the sounds but in his head he imagined the meaty tear as the zombie tore skin and flesh, chewing and eating its way into the guy’s throat in a spray of hot blood.

A crowd of zombies shuffled out of the trailer park. Stefan heard screams. There was movement in the Beetle as the driver leaned across the car and yanked the passenger door closed.

Stefan looked at Craig and Roan. Their faces were set as they recorded the scene. Right now there wasn’t anything he could do. Later there’d be things for him to say, interviews to record. For the moment he couldn’t do anything except watch.

The inquisitors moved forward, eight of them, shooting zombies in the head with deadly accuracy.

5

Stefan stood in front of the barricades facing the camera when they brought out Helen. The inquisitors had her in cuffs, wrapped in a blanket. A bloody bandage was wrapped around her leg.

“They’re bringing her out now, Helen Richardson, the witch of Willow Lane. It appears she’s been injured, we’re told that she was shot attempting to flee the scene. According to the laws regarding individuals with paranormal abilities the Inquisition will evaluate her and determine whether or not her abilities can be safely removed. Until such a time she will remain in their custody.”

Stefan turned and watched as they bundled her into the back of one of their vehicles. No ambulance, no trial. Most likely they’d burn out the part of her brain responsible and, if it was determined that she was no longer a threat, she’d end up released but likely with significant brain damage. He couldn’t really say that he felt bad about that either.

He noticed the others looking at him. “That’s it. I’m done. This is my last one. I’m retiring.”

Craig nodded. Roan came over and slipped an arm around his waist and gave him a squeeze. Stefan felt better, lighter somehow. Maybe now he could rest.

9,272 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 21st weekly short story release and the fourth in the Filming Dead Things series. I’d originally published these as written by my pen name Tennessee Hicks along with the rest of the Dead Things series. Stefan Roland returns to the series in Killing Dead Things.

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 Attack of the Sand Gnomes, a fantasy set in a different world.

War of the Dead Things

It’s 1979 and filmmaker Stefan Roland’s career needs a transfusion, a new film to restore him to his former glory.

As the Soviets invade Afghanistan, Stefan gets word that dead things are being used in the conflict.

Risking everything, Stefan and his crew brave the desert conflict to capture the footage for their latest and most daring film yet.

1

Stefan Roland squinted into the blowing dust and sand, trying to see the source of the distant sounds of gunfire without luck. His cheeks above the handkerchief tied around his face had turned red and peeling from sunburn. His white suit was wrinkled and stained after the long trip to Afghanistan. Hardly the stuff of legends but he knew it’d all look good on the camera and he needed film to relaunch his faltering career.

Nearby his team huddled together in the blowing sand, their shapes and details obscured. Craig Marshal, carrying the new camera that had nearly emptied Stefan’s bank account, was a tall figure wearing dark payraan tumbaan and even a turban, like a local. But his height and lack of a beard gave away his American origins. Using him as a wind-break was their new sound wizard, the petite Roan Collins, with her spiky blond hair, clearly out of place in this country with her blue jeans and t-shirt that she insisted on wearing.

“If they don’t like it,” she had told Stefan. “They can kiss my ass.”

With more muscles than either Stefan or Craig, he pitied any man that gave her a hard time.

Again the sound of gunfire, muted by distance and the wind. Most likely the Soviets, but unlike the other journalists, Roland wasn’t here to cover the Soviet invasion. He and his team had come because his tip line had finally produced reliable information that someone here was waking dead things. Some warlord was apparently planning a surprise for the Soviets and Stefan planned on getting to him before the Inquisition swooped in and took over. In every other incident in the past five years, since he had released Mall of the Dead Things, the Inquisition had gotten to the witch first. If his career or his bank account had any hope of surviving he needed this trip to pay off.

“How far away is that?” Stefan asked of the other member of their group.

Nabeh Sesay their guide, was a thin man with dark eyes and quick smile standing beside a worn sand-colored jeep. He flashed white teeth at Stefan. “Many miles distant, no worries.”

“Is it where we are going?”

“Maybe, maybe not. Hard to say,” Nabeh shrugged. “En shaalaa!”

“We’re supposed to meet an United States Army group stationed here.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Nabeh said. “The CIA. We know all about them. They bring many weapons to the mujahidin.”

“Not CIA, army. I’m sure they are army observers.”

“Yes, yes. CIA, we know.” Nabeh laughed. “Wink, wink. Right?”

“Sure, sure,” Stefan said, letting it go. He’d been told Army observers, but as far as he knew Nabeh could be right. The word he got was certainly that the CIA was backing the rebels, supplying them with weapons and training. “Let’s get going.”

“Right away,” Nabeh said. He climbed into the driver’s side of the jeep and again flashed his bright smile. “Come, come. Let us be on our way.”

Stefan turned and faced the camera, giving Craig a chance to catch a shot of him before he climbed into the jeep. His people were good and all set with the gear. Stefan smiled and spread his arms.

“This sun-drenched desert might not look it, but it is home to dead things. It was on this ground that many armies have fallen to their enemies and the inhospitable terrain, where even now Soviet forces press inward against the forces of democracy. We’ve been told that in the midst of this conflict is a witch, a necromancer, one who wakes dead things to fight the invaders and their supporters. And we’re here to document the truth of those rumors, here in the heart of Afghanistan.” Stefan paused and looked at Nabeh in the jeep. “Our guide has promised to show us where these dead things walk. Come with us into the desert of the dead things.”

 

He turned and walked over to the jeep and climbed in. A second later Craig gave him a thumbs up and lowered the camera. “That’s great, man.”

“Roan?”

She came over to the jeep and climbed easily into the back with her gear. “Sounded great. There’s quite a bit of wind noise but I picked you up fine. We can clean up some of the wind when we get back to the studio.”

“I don’t want it all gone,” Stefan said. “The audience is going to want to hear that.”

She started at him until he raised his hands in surrender. “Sorry. Sorry, I know I can trust you to take care of it.”

Craig climbed in the other side of the jeep and then repositioned his camera so that he could shoot footage on the drive. Stefan clapped Nabeh on the shoulder. “Alright then, let’s go find us some dead things.”

“Many dead things in Afghanistan.” Nabeh laughed. “Many, many. En shaalaa, we will find them.”

The jeep started up with a loud rattling and a couple backfiring coughs. A cloud of exhaust fumes blew past Stefan reeking of the dirty diesel fueling the jeep. Nabeh gunned it and the jeep roared forward, kicking up a dust cloud behind. He spun the wheel and they slid around a large rock that had blocked their path, then skidded onto a pitted road leading off into the hills. Stefan looked for a seat belt but saw nothing. He clung to the door instead as the wind blasted his face. Nabeh drove like he was on an interstate, flooring the gas pedal. Stefan looked in the back but the others seemed fine. Craig had the camera up, filming the landscape as they tore through it. Roan had closed her eyes, her head back, impossibly looking like she was going to fall to sleep despite the shaking and the noise. Stefan held on and tried not to look panicked. Just then Nabeh slid into another skid to miss a large crater in the dirt road.

Stefan clung to the side of the jeep and tried very hard not to get sick.

The road went on up higher into the rugged, scrub-covered mountains. It twisted in and out of gullies with sharp, crumbling corners. That Nabeh managed to keep the jeep on the road seemed nothing less than a miracle. Stefan was just glad that the cliff was on Nabeh’s side. Bad enough that he couldn’t see anything except air and a long fall past Nabeh. He didn’t need to see the wheels running right on the side of a steep drop off. Sometimes the road dropped out from beneath them so suddenly that Stefan felt a moment of free fall before they crashed back down onto the rocky road with a metal crashing sound. Each time it happened he was sure that the axles on the jeep would break, or the whole thing would simply break apart.

Nabeh looked at him and laughed each time it happened. “Much fun, yes?”

“As long as we don’t get killed!” Stefan shouted to make himself heard.

Nabeh laughed hard at that, hardly looking like he was paying attention to the road. They skidded around a sharp corner in a cloud of dust. God help anyone that got in the man’s way. Nabeh snapped the jeep out of the skid.

“En shaalaa, my friend. En shaalaa!”

Right. Stefan clutched the door hard enough he thought he might dent the already battered metal. A hole in the door caught his eye, the metal peeling out away from it. A bullet hole? His stomach lurched as the jeep rattled across a series of washboard bumps. Maybe coming to Afghanistan to film dead things wasn’t the best decision he had made.

The ride went on and on. An hour in the terrain didn’t looked significantly different than what they’d already seen. So far there hadn’t been many signs of people at all. They passed few buildings, none in great condition, with people that stared at the speeding jeep. So did their goats. If the buildings represented farms he couldn’t see what they were farming.

Finally Stefan couldn’t resist. He had to know. “How much further is it?”

“Not far,” Nabeh said loudly. He gestured at the peaks ahead of them. “Up there, not far now.”

There was no other choice but to hang on and hope that he survived the trip. Unbelievably, Roan was still sleeping in the back. While he was looking the jeep hit a large bump, but Roan’s head rolled with it and she stayed asleep. Incredible.

It took another hour of bone-rattling road before Nabeh spun the jeep around a sharp corner and a large military truck blocked the road ahead. Brakes screamed and their own dust cloud caught up with them, enveloped them and hid the truck from view. Stefan’s heart pounded. Before the dust made it impossible to see he was sure he had seen turbaned men with automatic weapons. Nabeh killed the jeep’s engine and stuck his hands up in the air.

“Up, up!”

Stefan copied him just as dark shapes ran at them through the dust. Men shouted in Pashto. Nabeh answered back. The exchange sounded tense and hostile but the guns pointed at Stefan could shade the meaning.

Nabeh gestured at Stefan several times and each time the looks he got weren’t very friendly.

“What are they saying?” he asked, still holding up his hands. He didn’t dare look back and see what Roan and Marshal were doing.

“They are official toll collectors for the government. I am negotiating the amount.”

The exchange went on. Stefan wondered just how official these men were, but their guns rendered that question pointless. If they wanted they could shoot everyone in the jeep, dump the bodies, take their belongings and the jeep. He couldn’t help but wonder if some of them were thinking those same thoughts.

Nabeh laughed at something the man he’d been talking too said and lowered his hands. He looked at Stefan. “Fifty thousand Afghani. You pay and we go.”

Fifty thousand? It sounded like a lot until Stefan did the conversion in his head. Then it didn’t sound like so much, especially not compared to their lives. Feeling self-conscious with the men still around them, he took out the Afghani he carried and peeled off fifty, one-thousand Afghani notes. It felt like a lot but he handed it over to Nabeh.

Nabeh took the money, handed it over. “Another note, gratuity for negotiating.”

Stefan peeled off another and gave it to Nabeh, who immediately pocketed it in his own pocket. He and the man he had talked to laughed and exchanged a few more words. Then the men with guns all fell back away from the jeep. The dust had drifted enough that Stefan could see the truck. Its engine fired to life, black smoke blowing out of the exhaust pipes. The drive sounded a loud horn and immediately started backing up. Men scrambled out of the way as the truck backed up and straightened out. It only left a narrow strip on the cliff side of the road.

Nabeh didn’t hesitate. He started the jeep and gunned it for the gap. Stefan squeezed the door. It wasn’t possible that the jeep could fit in that gap. This was where his career and his life was going to end. They’d tumble right down that cliff into the ravine. He opened his mouth to protest but there wasn’t even time. The jeep shot into the gap. The truck was right there beside the jeep so close that Stefan snatched his fingers off the door for fear they’d get scraped off. He heard dirt crumbling and rocks cracking against one another. The jeep tilted toward the cliff and Nabeh gunned the engine. They kicked up dirt and rocks as the engine revved and they shot around the truck back onto the road.

Stefan twisted around, saw Marshal doing the same thing with the camera, and saw rocks and dirt sliding down the ravine from the side of the cliff. They’d started a mini rock slide and taken out a chunk of the road at the same time. He slid down in his seat, bracing his feet and held on to stop himself from covering his eyes. After a couple more bends in the road it dropped down into a valley that opened up in front of them. A small lake or large pond sat at one end of the valley behind a rock dam. Nearby was a walled fortress with armed men on the walls. Outside the fortress was an assemblage of buildings made of available materials without any building plans. Shacks, for the most part. It looked like paradise after the ordeal of riding in the jeep up that road. Stefan wondered if there was any way to get a helicopter in here to fly them out. Anything not to find themselves on that road again.

Nabeh drove the jeep like a missile at the fortress walls. Men with guns ran across the walls and dropped down, aiming their weapons at the jeep. Stefan tensed, expecting gunfire any second. The gates opened a crack and several men ran out with weapons ready. He glanced back and saw that both Roan and Marshal had their equipment running.

Well, if he was about to die at least it’d be caught on film. Stefan hung on as Nabeh brought the jeep to a skidding, dusty stop. He looked over at their driver, wondering if the man had double-crossed them somehow.

Nabeh’s teeth flashed as he smiled. “Here we are, see? No problem. Very safe road.”

“What is this place?” Stefan asked.

“We rest here, meet the CIA observers. Inside.” Nabeh climbed out of the jeep and walked toward the men with the guns. He called out, speaking loudly with many gestures back at Stefan.

The men lowered their guns. Nabeh turned around and came back to the jeep, beckoning with both arms. “Come, come. These are friends. We rest here, meet your CIA, yes?”

Hardly believing it possible, Stefan opened the jeep door and got out. Everything hurt. He stifled the groan that threatened to escape and shut the door. The air felt hotter here, but dusty still from the cloud that the jeep had kicked up. Marshal climbed out of the back while managing to keep the camera balanced. Roan jumped out the other side. Stefan noticed some of the men muttering to one another as she walked up around the jeep. She ignored them and came around to Stefan.

“Quite the ride, right boss? What now?”

“Come, come,” Nabeh urged.

Stefan raised a hand. “Yes, one moment. We need a shot, okay?”

Nabeh beamed. “Of course, yes!”

Marshal had the camera up and filming. Roan got her equipment going and joined Marshal. Stefan used a handkerchief to wipe the worst of the dust from his face. He looked at his team. “How do I look?”

Nabeh appeared at his elbow. “Very handsome!”

“Thanks.”

“Fine, boss,” Roan said. “Let’s shoot this and get a drink.”

“Okay. Let’s do it.”

Marshal raised three fingers and counted down.

Stefan smiled at the camera when Marshal pointed. “We’ve reached this unbelievable location deep in the mountains. In the fortress behind me we are supposed to meet the army observers assigned to the region who have offered to take us deeper into this ancient and war-torn country.”

Nabeh stood a couple feet away grinning at the camera. Behind him many of the men had also started grinning and aping about. Stefan hurried to wrap up before they ruined the shot.

“It is a land of much mystery and secrets. A place where the dead may walk.” He paused for the break. “Okay. Get a shot of the men as we go in. Let’s see what we have here.”

Stefan turned to Nabeh. “Thank you, we’re ready.”

Nabeh bowed and headed toward the fortress doors. On the way he passed the jeep’s keys to another man who immediately ran to jump in the driver’s side. As they walked up to the massive wood gates to the fortress the man spun the jeep in a circle, kicking up dirt and rocks, and then shot off into the village.

Stefan picked up his steps to catch up with Nabeh as they reached the doors. “Where’s he going with the jeep?”

“He will use it while we rest. No worries,” Nabeh said. “We shall have the jeep back when it is needed for our return.”

“Okay.” Stefan followed Nabeh through the doors, motioning for the others to hurry up and follow.

On the other side of the doors they entered a wide courtyard that was unlike anything Stefan had seen outside. A fountain shaped like a large urn bubbled cheerfully at the center of the courtyard in the center of an oval pool of water. Green plants abounded in planters around the courtyard. A group of men in desert-colored fatigues were waiting for them beside the fountain. These men clearly weren’t locals. They looked like the Army observers that Nabeh claimed were actually CIA operatives. Stefan fell back beside Marshal.

“Film everything. Unless they stop you, I want it all.”

“No problem, man.” Marshal hoisted the camera up to his shoulder.

Stefan glanced at Roan and didn’t even bother saying anything when he saw the look that she gave him. He turned his attention back to the men. Nabeh stood between them, smiling broadly, looking back and forth. Men from the fortress moved around the edges of the courtyard, holding their guns and watching the group. Stefan walked forward.

“I’m Stefan Roland. This is my cameraman Craig Marshal and sound wiz Roan Collins. Are you Colonel Anders?”

The guy in the center, not tall, he probably wasn’t over five seven or so, moved forward. He wore a dark, scruffy beard and had his sleeves rolled up. There was a rifle slung across his back and a gun on his hip. His broad shoulders strained the fabric of his shirt. A hand-twisted cigarette dangled from his mouth, the thin trail of smoke rising up into clear blue sky. He didn’t offer his hand.

“Right. The film guy. I’ve seen your work. Thought you might have some advice to help us with a situation here.”

“What’s the situation?”

Anders looked past Stefan at Marshal. He took out his cigarette and pointed it at Marshal. “He gonna film everything?”

“That’s why we came,” Stefan said. “That’s the deal.”

Anders squinted at Stefan. For a couple of seconds they stared at one another. Just when Stefan started to wonder what he’d gotten himself in for the colonel nodded. “Fine. You can film, unless I say otherwise. I tell him to stop and that camera goes off or it becomes scrap. Got it?”

Stefan shook his head. “No deal. We film what we decide to film. We don’t need to do this, Nabeh can take us back to the airport if you don’t like it.”

Nabeh’s smile broadened. “Yes, of course. Anytime.”

Stefan’s heart beat faster. His throat felt dry and choked with dust. Going back with nothing would ruin him. He couldn’t afford to go back but he also couldn’t let Anders direct what they shot. That had the potential to kill any film too.

“Is that so?” Anders asked.

“Yes.”

Anders chuckled and then took a long drag on his cigarette. Finally he gave Stefan a small nod. “Got to respect a man that stands his ground. Okay. Film whatever in the hell you want. What do I give a fuck? Let’s get out of the sun and we’ll talk about what’s going on.”

Without waiting for another word from Stefan, Anders turned and headed across the courtyard toward a shady entrance on the other side. Stefan followed him and Nabeh, Marshal and Roan all fell in behind him. The other soldiers fell in around and behind them. Stefan felt less protected than herded as they went under the balcony overhead and through another pair of dark wood doors into the building itself.

The interior was much cooler than the courtyard. Electric lights lit the entrance and the hallway beyond. The floor was polished marble. A staircase leading upstairs had a gleaming brass railing. In an alcove beneath the stairs was an ancient-looking clay vase. Their footsteps echoed as Stefan and the rest followed Anders deeper into the building. After passing several closed doors Anders turned into an open doorway on his left. They walked through a small sitting room across a carpet that looked like some expensive Persian weave, through another set of doors into a large library. Bookshelves lined the walls and rose up at least fourteen feet all around the room. Two other sets of doors, both closed led out of the room. A shuttered window on one side of the room blocked out the harsh sunlight, but a few sunbeams made it through to illuminate the dust motes floating in the air. The furniture all looked old, expensive and well-preserved. Ornate carved wood, stained dark, with deep red fabric covering the cushions. Anders went straight to a thick table on the side of the room near the window. A large map had been unrolled across the table. As Anders went around the far side Stefan joined him at the table. The other soldiers drifted in around Anders. Nabeh dropped into a big chair on the other side of the room and picked up a book. Marshal and Roan took up positions to record the meeting.

Anders stabbed a finger down on the map. “This is where we are right now.”

The map was printed on thin paper and was essentially a big topographic map covered with many, many squiggly lines and notations in Naskh script that Stefan couldn’t read. He had no idea if the spot on the map was actually the location of this fortress or not. None of it made any sense to him. “Okay.”

Anders ran his fingers along a squiggly line. A road? “The last sighting was here, not more than a mile away. A small village reported their graveyard disturbed. We’ve been waiting for you to take a look.”

“What other reports have you gotten?”

Anders touched three other points on the map. “Intel points to dead things moving around in these spots. Villagers say that their graveyards have been ransacked, whole graveyards have been emptied. They claim that the bodies have been possessed by unholy forces.”

“Any attacks?”

Anders shook his head. “None. In each case the dead were taken during the night. Anyone seeing them ran away rather than confront the walking dead.”

“Do the people have any idea who is behind this?”

Anders shook his head. “No specifics but the locals are blaming the Soviets. They believe that this is another strategy on the part of the Soviets. If they can control the dead it will drive these guys bat-shit.”

One of the soldiers, a sun-burned tall guy with reddish hair spoke up. “Local leaders take this desecration of their dead very seriously. If they find out who is behind it they will take up arms to stop them.”

Anders nodded to the guy. “This is lieutenant Bassett. He’s our cultural guide. I guess I should introduce you to the others.” Anders clapped a hand down on the shoulder of the man his left. The guy had a dark complexion, with a pink scar cutting across his forehead above his left eye. “Kane. And the other lump over there,” Anders gestured at the guy standing on the other side of Bassett, a broad-faced young man with a curly blond beard and hair. “That’s McIntosh.”

“And you’re all Army observers?” Stefan asked. “Someone suggested that you worked for the CIA.”

Anders grinned. “Doesn’t matter who we work for, Roland. What matters is that we’re the only help you’re going to get over here. Any other questions?”

“Yes, I’d like a chance to sit down and interview each of your about your experiences here.”

Anders laughed. He took a long drag on his cigarette and then stubbed it out in the crystal ash tray that held down one corner of the map. “Why don’t you all get comfortable? I’ll see that someone brings you some water, shows you the facilities. We’ve got some things to get ready before we can move out. We’ll come get you when we’re ready. I wouldn’t wander. We’re walking a fine line with these guys already. Wouldn’t want you upsetting anyone by poking your nose in where it isn’t welcome.”

At his gesture Anders’ people followed him on out of the room. Marshal filmed their departure. When McIntosh passed through the doors he turned and pulled them shut behind them.

Roan looked at him. “Shutting off to save the batteries.”

“Good.” Stefan nodded to Marshal. “I guess we get a break.”

“Very nice!” Nabeh said, slapping the chair.

 

2

 

Anders proved good to his word. A man dressed in a pure white payraan tumbaan and turban came in carrying a tray loaded with a glass pitcher of water with ice and glasses for all of them. He placed the tray on the table between the chairs and left without a word, not even acknowledging their presence.

“Friendly,” Stefan said as the door closed behind the man. He picked up the pitcher and filled the glasses. “What do you think about Ander’s story?”

“I don’t know, man, but what else are we going to do?”

“Very bad, the desecration of the dead,” Nabeh said, still sitting in the same chair. He picked up a glass of water, took a sip and grinned. “Ice! Very cold!”

When Stefan had hired Nabeh to guide them he hadn’t expected the man to hang around after they got here but so far Nabeh didn’t show any signs of leaving. He seemed like he considered himself a part of their group.

Stefan handed a glass to Roan and settled back on the leather couch. “Very bad. We’ve seen this sort of thing before.”

Nabeh nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, very famous, mister Roland. Even here I have seen your films.”

“What about the Inquisition?” Stefan asked. “Has there been any sign of them investigating these reports?”

Nabeh looked grave as he shook his head. “No, no Inquisition. But who knows when they show up. One day they are simply here.”

“That’s true,” Marshal said.

“Yeah.” Stefan sipped the water. It tasted very cold and full of minerals. He put the glass down. “We need to get the footage before they show up and take over the situation. And before the Soviets move in this direction.”

Roan scooted forward on the couch. “Shouldn’t we be looking around? I mean, what is this place? There’s a lot of money in all of this.”

“No.” Stefan shook his head. “We’re not here to get involved with whatever the various factions or warlords have going on. We’re here to get footage of the use of zombies in warfare. That’s what’s going to sell tickets back home. The rest of it doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t matter?” Roan’s voice rose. “I can’t believe that you just said that. You do realize that there are people here fighting against communism?”

“Hey,” Marshal objected. “Communism gets a bad rap because of the people in power. They’re the real problem.”

“Right, comrade,” Roan snapped.

Nabeh had gone back to his book, ignoring the exchange. Stefan shook his head. “Enough. We’re here to do the job, get the footage and make it back home in one piece. That’s it. We can’t document everything that’s going on. We’ll include what we can where it doesn’t get in the way of the movie.”

“Right now that’s all we’ve got, man.” Marshal rested his hand on the camera. “We’ve yet to see anything worthwhile to shoot. Maybe that’s why the Inquisition isn’t around. Maybe there’s nothing going on here.”

Stefan shook his head. “I don’t believe that. I’m sure they’ll show up soon. We’ve just —”

The big double doors to the room opened. Anders strolled in as if he owned the entire place. He put his hands on his hips. “Well, you all want to sit around gabbing or are we going to go find out what’s going on?”

Stefan got up. “We’re ready.”

“Actually,” Roan raised her hand. “I’d still like to visit the facilities.”

Anders grinned. “I’ll be happy to show you, miss. Why don’t you just follow me?”

Since she’d brought it up and the pressure on his own bladder was beginning to get uncomfortable, they all ended up trailing Anders down a couple hallways to a bathroom bigger than many of the shacks outside. They each took turns taking care of business and then the whole parade turned around and Anders led them back out into the sun and heat.

It took all of four steps to erase the relief provided by the interior of the fortress. If anything the heat had gotten even worse. Stefan felt his clothes sticking to his skin, gritty with dust. The air smelled smoky, but it was a sour-smelling smoke that billowed in black clouds from several chimneys in shacks around the fortress. Their jeep was back in front of the main gates. Nabeh climbed happily into the driver’s seat. Anders pointed at a bigger jeep parked in front of theirs.

“Keep up, we don’t want you to get lost out here. These back country roads can turn into a maze before you know it.” Anders chuckled and strolled off to his jeep.

Stefan got into the jeep next to Nabeh. The guide smiled brightly. “No worries, en shaalaa!”

Roan and Marshal got into the back and settled their equipment. Anders’ jeep started up and took off, kicking dust up in their face. Nabeh followed but stayed back far enough that the dust only obscured their vision rather than blinding them entirely. It’d be hard to lose sight of them with that dust cloud leading the way.

It didn’t take long to leave behind the relatively smooth dirt road through the village before they headed off onto another pitted mountain road. Fortunately Ander’s driver wasn’t as crazy as Nabeh, who took pleasure in pointing it out.

“Look at that! So slow! Are all Americans so timid?”

Stefan shook his head. “If I had to drive this road I’d get out and walk.”

Nabeh laughed hard at that, slapping his leg for emphasis while he slid around a corner, steering with one hand.

Stefan resisted the urge to bury his head and instead looked at the scenery. It was easier now. It helped that he was looking up at the hillside instead of off a cliff this time as the road descended down a valley between peaks on either side. The mountains were high enough to even provide some shade as they followed the twisting course.

When the road split Anders’ team didn’t hesitate on taking the right-hand fork. There weren’t any signs, Stefan doubt if the roads out here even had names of any sort. The drive went on for well over an hour to reach the first of the spots Anders had indicated were “nearby”.

As villages went this one was more substantial than the shacks around the fortress. The buildings were mostly of stone and mud construction. They looked old, but Stefan also realized he wasn’t necessarily the best judge of their age. What was missing were the people. The town was a ghost town with the doors closed and no one in the streets. Anders’ jeep stopped near the center of town. As the dust blew around the vehicle the doors opened and the soldiers jumped out, weapons ready, as they scanned the village. Nabeh brought their jeep to stop behind the soldiers. He shut it off and folded his hands across his middle.

“I will wait here,” he announced. “A curse is on this place.”

“A curse?” Stefan asked. He popped open his door. “We can only hope?”

Nabeh shook his head and closed his eyes. His lips moved as he recited a prayer. Stefan got out of the jeep and headed around front toward Anders. Marshal and Roan followed him, equipment already going to capture the moment.

“Colonel, is this the place?”

Anders scowled but walked over to meet Stefan. “It doesn’t look good. A week ago this place was crawling with people. I don’t see anyone now. And I don’t hear anything. They’re either hiding, gone or dead. I don’t suppose there’s any point in telling you to stay put?”

“Not really.”

“At least stay out of our line of fire, okay?”

Stefan swallowed. “We can do that.”

Anders motioned to his people. The spread out in a formation around the film crew. Anders took point, Bassett and McIntosh took up positions on either side while Kane brought up the rear. Stefan turned to face the camera and gave a short intro.

“We’ve come to this village, I’m sorry we don’t have a name yet, looking into reports that graves have been disturbed. Right now it looks like a ghost town. We haven’t seen anyone on the streets. They may have fled because of the Soviet invasion. We’re going to check it out.”

Anders moved out. As a group they followed him. Past the big military jeep, and quickly across the street to the nearest building. Anders motioned them all up against the wall. Stefan felt somewhat silly huddling against the stone and mud front of the building but he wasn’t about to make himself a target. Anders reached out and knocked hard on the wooden door. No one answered. Stefan didn’t hear anything. He eased back and looked at Roan.

“Are you picking up any sounds that we’re not getting?”

Roan held up a finger.

“Come on,” Anders said.

Stefan shook his head. “Wait.”

Anders came up and grabbed Stefan’s arm just above the elbow. He squeezed hard. Stefan refused to let anything show on his face but he was sure that there’d be a bruise later. “What are you doing?”

Stefan leaned closed, whispering. “She’s got sensitive sound equipment. I thought she might pick up something if there’s someone in town.”

Anders released his arm. Stefan rubbed the spot.

“Fine,” Anders said. “Is she getting anything?”

Roan pulled off her headphones and smiled sweetly at Anders. “As a matter of fact, yes. There’s someone crying, over there.”

She pointed at a building across the street, a couple buildings up. “I couldn’t make out much, but there’s definitely at least one person in there.”

Anders grinned back. “Okay then. Let’s check it out.” He looked at his men. “Watch your targets. I don’t want to go shooting civilians because they surprise us.”

“Right, sir,” Bassett said. The big red-head spit into the sand. “Wouldn’t want that.”

As a group they hurried across the street. Stefan ran after Anders tasting dust in his mouth and he wondered yet again if it had been wise to sink everything into this trip. What if it all ended up like this? Nothing but dirt and empty streets on film? They hadn’t even gotten any footage of the Soviets yet, something that they could sell to news groups back home.

They reached the building. Anders motioned them behind him and Bassett while Kane and McIntosh moved around to the other side of the door. Anders reached out and knocked on the door. “Hey in there!”

“They’re moving,” Roan said. “Running, I think.”

“We’re going in,” Anders said. “On three.”

“Two.”

Stefan licked his lips and tensed.

“One.” Anders lunged forward and kicked the door. The flimsy wood sprang open with a rain of splinters around the latch. Kane and McIntosh went in after him. Stefan followed them in, his shoulders clenching at the idea of shots being fired, but the guns stayed silent. He saw Anders sling his weapon around his back and spread his arms.

“Shhh,” Anders said. “We’re not here to hurt anyone.”

Stefan moved to the side and could finally see something besides Anders’ backside. A boy cowered on the far side of the room. There wasn’t much in the room, a wood table with a couple chairs, a bed on one side. A small iron cook stove near the wall. The boy had his knees up to his chest. Tear streaks marked his face.

Anders looked at Kane. “Tell him. Ask what happened to his parents.”

Kane moved forward and spoke to the boy in Pashto. The boy sniffled, wiped his nose against his arm and answered, short and clipped. Kane looked back at them. His scar looked redder than normal.

“He says his name is Hamal and that soldiers killed his parents and marched them away.”

Marshal had already moved around to get a better shot. Stefan asked Kane, “You’re sure about that sequence? They died and then marched?”

Anders nodded at Kane.

Kane looked back at Hamal and spoke again. This time the interchange went on a little longer. Finally Kane turned back to the group.

“Yes. He’s sure they died. Many died. The soldiers went through the village killing anyone they found. But after the people died they got back up and marched away. Hamal hid from the soldiers and the dead. He’s been hiding since then.”

“If they marched the dead away why is he still hiding?” Stefan asked.

Kane asked Hamal. The boy answered with several shakes of his head.

“They didn’t take everyone,” Kane said.

Anders turned and snapped his fingers at Bassett and McIntosh. “Make sure we’re secure here. Take a look outside. Let’s see if we’ve attracted any unwanted attention.”

Hamal spoke more.

Kane scowled as he translated. “You’ve made too much noise. They’re coming.”

Stefan went over to one of the shuttered windows. The wood was nothing but scraps cut and nailed together into a square that fit the window. It wasn’t hinged, just wedged into place.

“Got something,” McIntosh announced from the doorway.

Stefan peeked through the cracks in the shutter. A man with blood down his front and his turban partially unwound had just staggered around the front of the military jeep. His face looked pale, eyes clouded.

“Marshal.” Stefan stepped back as the cameraman moved up to the window to get the shot.

Stefan went over to the door with Anders. They all looked out. From the wider view at the door Stefan saw that the dead thing by the truck wasn’t alone. Others now moved out on the street. As he watched a section of the street moved. A hand came up out of the ground, sand pouring from grasping fingers.

“Shit,” Anders said. “They planted them like mines. The whole place was a trap. We’ve got to move. This location isn’t defensible. We get to the jeeps and get going?”

Stefan was looking out at the street. “Where’s Nabeh?”

Nabeh wasn’t in the jeep. It still sat behind the military jeep but was empty.

“He sold us out,” McIntosh growled. “He’s probably why these things are moving now!”

Anders looked at Stefan.

Stefan shrugged. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t have thought so, but we just hired him.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Anders said. “We’ve got to move. Kane, get the kid. We’re getting out of here. Everybody, on my signal move to the jeep. We take one vehicle. It’ll be cramped but we can fit.”

Without waiting for an answer Anders and McIntosh moved out of the building. The zombie by the front of the jeep groaned and moved toward them. Anders’ weapon snapped up. The crack of the shot rang out in the clear air as the top of the zombie’s head disintegrated into a bloody pulp, the body twisting around and flopping back into the dirt.

As the echoes of the shot died down Stefan heard a new sound. A loud moaning, groaning sound coming from many directions and many voices. A chorus of the dead raising their voices. He’d heard the sound before, in the Glenda Barker incident when he witnesses an entire graveyard of dead things rise, and again when Tomas Dias brought another flock of dead things through a suburban neighborhood to the local mall. Here it sounded worse as the cries echoed off the steep valley walls. More zombies were pulling themselves out of the sand between the buildings. So many that there was hardly any space remaining where there weren’t hands reaching out of the sand, dirt and rock crumbling from hungry mouths, and some already climbing up onto their feet.

“Here! Here!” Nabeh’s voice shouting but Stefan didn’t see him.

Bassett pointed. “There he is!”

At the far end of the street, a big house surrounded by a high wall. Nabeh stood on top of the wall waving his arms in the air. At the bottom of the wall two zombies already scrambled at the mud-covered bricks.

“We go for the jeep!” Anders said. “Come on!”

Anders slapped Bassett on the shoulder and the man moved. He started shooting at the closest zombies, head shots every time. Zombies pitched around and fell to the dirt. Bassett shot a man only sitting up in the dirt, dropping him back into his newly disturbed grave. Stefan spared a glance back to see that Marshal and Roan were following. Kane had the boy, his arm around the boy’s shoulders as he urged him to leave the building. McIntosh fell in beside them, joining Anders and Bassett in shooting the zombies.

A harsh cry split the air, even over the shots, and something dark swooped down at Stefan’s head. He felt wind, smelled a dry, rot smell, and ducked. A vulture flew past his head. It crashed right into Anders’ back. He yelled. The vulture hung onto his vest with its claws as it pecked and beat its wings at him. More dark shadows approached.

“Get down!” Stefan cried.

Anders’ threw the vulture off into the dirt and fired several shots into the bird. It flopped, bones broken but kept struggling to reach the soldier. Anders fired another shot and the vulture’s head disintegrated.

Not before several others fell on the team. Anders and Bassett started shooting into the air. One fell to the ground, a wing torn away but it screamed and flopped across the sand toward the soldier. More dead vultures fell on the team and were shot by the authors. Stefan ducked lower as more came. Marshal and Roan also crouched but both kept doing their jobs, filming and recording the scene. Black feathers drifted through the air around Stefan. All the gunfire had his ears ringing but he could still hear the sound of all of the zombies staggering across the sands, and pulling themselves from the dirt. The team was surrounded, pinned down by the dead vultures and the zombies themselves, and all Stefan could think was that he really, really hoped that Roan could capture that deafening racket. That sound, slowed down and played against a slow motion shot of the team’s dire circumstances — it’d sell the picture.

Through it all he looked for Nabeh but their driver was no longer on the wall above the big house. The vultures circling above probably had something to do with that. The zombies dragged themselves closer, forcing the soldiers to alternate between picking off the attacking birds and shooting the zombies.

“We’ve got to move!” Anders shouted. “Everyone to the jeep! Bassett! Take point!”

Bassett moved forward in even, methodical steps. He’d step, shoot a zombie in the head, and take another step. It happened faster than Stefan would have thought possible and Bassett mowed a path to the jeep. He’d nearly reached it when a blazing streak came out of a building on Stefan’s left, behind the jeeps. It barely registered in his mind before there was an enormous noise and the jeep exploded.

Stefan saw miraculous and horrible things. Vultures burning in the air, still flying. Zombies flying through the air on fire. One of the dead things was Bassett. Unrecognizable, except for his boots as his charred remains hit the ground near dead things knocked over by the blast. Sand stung Stefan’s eyes. He felt deaf. The noise had been so loud that for a few seconds it seemed like the entire world had been silence. Roan was down, on the ground holding her head. Marshal crouched over her, the camera on his shoulder but who knew what it was pointing at. He was looking at Roan.

Stefan picked himself up. He didn’t remember falling, and scrambled over to Marshal and Roan. He slid in the sand beside them like a baseball player sliding into home.

“What happened?” he shouted.

Marshal shook his head. “I don’t know!”

It sounded like the volume on his voice had been turned down and muffled. Stefan looked at Roan, searching for an injury and saw blood on the sand in front of her. He put a hand behind her head and eased her over. Her eyes fluttered. Her face looked pale. A big black piece of smoking metal stuck out of her left shoulder.

Marshal reached for the shrapnel.

“No!” Stefan tried to stop him but Marshal grabbed the metal.

He yelled and jerked his hand back without pulling out the shrapnel. He shook his hand in the air.

“It’s hot!”

“We need to leave it in any way!”

Anders and McIntosh were already back on their feet. Anders came over, his face dark. He looked down at Roan. “She alive?”

“Yes,” Stefan said. “But hurt.”

Stefan saw Kane at the door to the building he pointed inside. “The boy won’t come!”

“Leave him,” Anders snapped. “This whole town is a trap. We need to get under cover.”

Anders brought his gun up to his shoulder and fired three times, taking down three more zombies that had gotten to their feet. The shots drew Stefan’s attention out and he looked down the street. It was clogged with dead things. An army of the dead had been lying here in the blistering hot sand. Waiting for them, the Soviets or the rebels, he had no way to know which. Anders pointed at Roan.

“We can’t shoot and carry her. Either you bring her or leave her but we’re leaving!”

“We’ll get her, man,” Marshal said.

Stefan shook his head. “You take the gear. I’ll get her.”

Marshal looked like he was about to protest, but Stefan didn’t give him a chance. He lifted the shoulder strap for the recording gear over Roan’s head. Then he slid his arm beneath her neck, feeling the hot wet slick of her blood, and his other arm beneath her legs. He stood, grunting with the effort. She was heavier than he had expected. He got to his feet and readjusted Roan, hoping he wasn’t hurting her by picking her up.

While he was getting her Marshal had the gear and was still shooting film. Anders and McIntosh had drawn in closer. Kane had left the building to join them.

Stefan heard a whistling noise and Anders shouted, “Get down!”

They all crouched. The dead things didn’t. More and more were getting closer, working their way around the burning wreck of the military jeep. Stefan didn’t see it this time but his jeep exploded with another deafening roar. Burning zombies flew through the air or were knocked off their feet.

“Where did it come from?” McIntosh screamed.

“Who the fuck cares?” Kane asked. “Let’s get out of here.”

Zombies were rising from the sands. Stefan stood, readjusted Roan and discovered her looking up at him.

“Roan, don’t move, you’ve got shrapnel in your shoulder. I’ve got you.”

“Gee, thanks boss.” Her eyes flicked to the shrapnel and back to his face. “What’s the plan?”

Stefan moved up next to Anders. The zombies were closing in again. A couple staggering toward them were burning, sizzling and sending up thick clouds of black smoke. His nose and eyes burned from the fumes.

“The big house! Come on!” He hurried forward and trusted the others to come, to follow him.

Anders did follow, both he and McIntosh fell in beside him. Kane and Marshal brought up the rear. Their guns fired and fired into any of the zombies that came close. It was loud enough for him to hear despite his ringing ears. The smell of smoke was making him cough which also made it hard to hold onto Roan, but he did. She stayed away, watching as he walked as fast as he could toward the house. Still no sign of Nabeh, but the man must be inside waiting for them. With each step Stefan expected a bullet to come out of nowhere and hit him. His shoulder-blades itched with the anticipation. Someone shot the jeeps with some sort of bazooka or something, which meant someone was watching them to make sure they couldn’t escape this trap. Obviously playing with them. Or testing the trap to see how it worked.

The soldiers were mowing down the dead things. Already they’d cut down the number of zombies considerably. Anders and McIntosh kept shooting methodically. They didn’t waste shots. One or two per zombie to take out the head and then they moved on to the next. Bodies littered the street by the time they reached the other side and, for the moment, it seemed safe. Anders lowered his gun as they stopped at the door in the thick wall around the house. He hit the door with the gun’s stock. Once, twice, three times without an answer.

“Nabeh!” Stefan shouted. “Open the door!”

It didn’t open. Stefan looked back. Marshal had the camera on them, balanced on one shoulder. He held the microphone in his other hand, somehow trying to do both jobs. Two zombies staggered around the corner of the building. One had the side of his face ripped open, showing a ghastly one-sided smile. Both had been shot in the chest recently. Their faces looked pale as they moaned and staggered towards the cameraman. Kane turned, gun to his shoulder. Two quick retorts and the zombies flipped back into the sand with holes in their head.

“Open it,” Anders commanded.

Stefan turned back. McIntosh went up to the door, pulling a long knife from his belt. He inserted it into the crack between the doors and forced it down. Something gave and the door popped open.

“Inside!” Anders shouted. “Now, move it!”

Stefan didn’t hesitate to follow McIntosh inside. Like the place they had stopped earlier, there was a courtyard inside the doors. Blood was splashed across the bricks that lined the courtyard. This place lacked the fountain and plants of the other house, much more utilitarian. A covered porch ran around the courtyard. Steep, shallow stairs climbed up the wall on either side of the door to the top of the wall. There wasn’t any sign of Nabeh, not unless the blood splashed liberally across the bricks was his.

Across the courtyard, on the right, was a bench beneath the overhang that stuck out from the wall. Stefan carried Roan over to the bench. Stepping from the sunlight to the shade he was amazed how much cooler it felt. He shivered when he put her down on the bench. Roan gritted her teeth but stayed away.

“Thanks,” she said, her voice strained. “Thanks for not leaving me back there.”

“Of course not,” Stefan said.

Marshal brought over the recording gear into the shelter beneath the porch and sat it down. He took a moment to unsnap and extend the legs of the tripod for the microphone and set it up facing the courtyard.

“There,” Marshal announced when he finished. “Now we can catch whatever happens.”

“Lower,” Roan said. “Tip it lower, you’ve got it angled too high.”

“No problem.” Marshal did what she asked. “How about that?”

Roan gave him a thumbs up.

Anders and his surviving men were talking in lowered voices at the center of the courtyard. The door was shut and, Stefan hoped, locked. He wanted to know what Anders was saying but he also didn’t want to leave Roan alone. Marshal had the camera and was filming the soldiers and the scene. Stefan looked down at Roan’s pale, vulnerable face. He hadn’t ever seen her look vulnerable before. She gave him a weak smile.

“Go. Find out what the plan is, or call for help, but do something. I need a doctor. We can’t stay here.”

She was so matter-of-fact, so practical that it brought tears to his eyes. He squeezed her hand. “I won’t be long. Hang in there. We’ll get you home.”

Stefan stood up feeling like he had lied. He thought his face must be burning but Roan didn’t see it. She had closed her eyes. Only the steady rise and fall of her chest convinced him that she was still breathing. The only thing he could do was hope that she hadn’t lost too much blood. The piece of shrapnel was in her shoulder. Maybe it hadn’t hit anything vital.

He crossed out from under the porch, checking skyward for any signs of more dead vultures, and went over to Anders and the other soldiers. Marshals trailed after him with the camera. Anders pushed in front of the other two men. His bushy eyebrows drew together as he scowled at Stefan.

“What did you know about this?” He pointed at the door. “Did you know that there was a whole fucking town of dead things here?”

Stefan shook his head. “I came over here looking for them, but I didn’t have details.”

“If you withheld information — I lost a man out there!”

“I know that. I’m sorry. And my sound tech is unconscious over there with a six inch piece of your jeep sticking out of her shoulder. She might not live either. What are we going to do to get out of here?”

“I guess that depends on who gets to us first.” Anders rubbed his jaw. “Someone out there has the firepower necessary to blow that wall to smithereens, so we can’t count on it. I wouldn’t stand too close. We’re low on ammunition. Enough of those dead things come in we’ll have trouble holding them off. Same problem if the Soviets show up. Our best hope is the mujahidin, they owe us. If they get in here we might have a chance.”

“What about the Inquisition?”

Anders shrugged. “Beats me. They always have their own agenda. I doubt they’d be all that interested in us unless they thought we had information that they needed.”

Stefan gestured to the camera. “We have the footage we’ve shot. There might be something there that the Inquisition wants.”

Kane chuckled. “What’s to stop them from taking it and leaving us behind?”

“I’ve worked around them before without that happening. My films have helped their image.”

“Doesn’t matter,” McIntosh said. “We don’t have any way of contacting them.”

Marshal pointed up at the big house. “Yes we do?”

They all looked where the camera man pointed. A thin radio tower extended out of the top of the house, behind the roofline.

“Fantastic,” Anders said. “McIntosh, you stay here with the civilians. Kane and I will go see about the radio. Back in fifteen if we don’t have any luck.”

“We’re going with you,” Stefan said.

“No.” Anders shook his head. “Not this time.”

“That’s not the deal,” Stefan said. “We can’t do anything for Roan, sitting here isn’t going to help anyone. We’ll come along.”

For several seconds they stared at one another. Stefan felt the sweat dripping down his forehead. He wished he didn’t look like crap, but it’d probably come out good in the film. There might not be anything in the house, but he wanted to check it out and he wanted to find out what had happened to Nabeh.

“Plus I want to find my driver,” Stefan said. “He was in here. Where did he go?”

McIntosh and Anders both looked at the blood spilled across the bricks.

“We don’t know that’s his,” Stefan said.

“Maybe not,” Anders agreed. “But it’s reasonable to assume that there’s some of those dead things around here. Stay behind us. Move when we say and don’t get in the way.”

“Right.”

Anders motioned to Kane. “Come on. Let’s do a sweep. We’re looking for a radio room. We might find noncoms inside, let’s watch our targets.”

Stefan crossed back over to the balcony where Marshal had set up the audio equipment. He picked it up himself, collapsing the tripod and returning it to the bag. It wouldn’t look as good with him carrying it, but that’s the case. He took one last look at Roan’s pale face and turned to McIntosh who had followed them over.

“I’ll watch out for her,” McIntosh said.

“Good enough.”

“Come on, director!” Anders shouted.

Stefan took a breath and walked back out into the courtyard. Marshal followed him at two strides back.

Anders led, Stefan behind him, then Marshal and Kane brought up the rear. Stefan followed Anders across the courtyard beneath the balcony at the far end. Double doors led into the house. Anders tried the handles, which opened turned easily. He shoved them open and walked in on a tiled floor. His boots sounded loud. Otherwise the place was as quiet as a tomb and only lit by light streaming through the high, small windows. They were in a big foyer with several different exits around the space. A large grand staircase went up to the second floor on each side of the room in enormous sweeping arcs. The place was elegant but Spartan at the same time. A few expensive hangings on the walls in vibrant color, but little else.

No one said anything. Anders pointed at the hallway that went straight ahead beneath the stairs, then moved in that direction. They all followed him into the dark opening. Marshal turned on his camera light and it lit the hall, casting Anders’ and Stefan’s shadows out ahead of them. Stefan stayed close to Anders, but listened carefully with the headphones for any sounds. So far he only heard their own breath, footsteps and the sounds of their clothes. Nothing else. The air tasted flat and stale, but cooler than outside. He smelled decay and rot but couldn’t decide if it came from the house or from bits of exploded zombies embedded in their clothing.

They reached the first set of doors leading off the hallway, one on either side. Stefan waited while Anders quickly opened the first. Nothing but a closet, neatly arranged with shelves and supplies. The door across from the closet opened into a bright tiled bathroom with gleaming fixtures.

“At least we know where to go when the shit hits the fan,” Kane said.

Stefan saw irritation flash across Anders’ face but the colonel kept moving down the hall. They didn’t have to go far before reaching the next set of doors. Stefan licked his lips, feeling the dry, chapped skin. Why did they have to close all the doors? It didn’t make much sense.

Anders opened the door. “Well, hell.”

“What is it?” Stefan moved over so that he could see into the room and still give Marshal the shot.

The room must have been used for security at one time. Stefan saw shattered computer monitors and other equipment scattered on the floor of the room. Not only that but it looked like someone had splashed blood everywhere and walked in it. Piled in the center of the room was a stack of corpses. Nabeh lay sprawled across the top of the stack with his chest ripped open. His head and fallen back and blank eyes looked upside down at them crowding the doorway.

“That’s sick,” Kane said. “Sir, I suggest we fall the hell back.”

“Radio equipment is smashed.” Anders shook his head. “And we don’t know who left this for us. I don’t like this one little bit. Let’s head out.”

Nabeh coughed.

Everyone jumped. Stefan bumped into Marshal. Anders brought up his weapon. More noises came from the pile. Hands clenched open and closed. Someone groaned. Nabeh’s eyes moved and fixed on Stefan. He moaned and his arms flailed about as if he was trying to grab onto something, anything. One of the bodies beneath him grabbed his bicep and pulled. Nabeh rolled, tumbling down the pile to land face down on the floor with a loud thud. Stefan moved back beside Marshal. Somehow the cameraman kept filming, how Marshal remained so focused all the time he’d never understood but he appreciated it. Nabeh clawed at the floor, groaning as he dragged himself forward. Shots like this would make the film, as horrible as it was to witness. Stefan’s gut clenched as Nabeh lifted his head up and looked right at Stefan. Almost as if he knew what Stefan had been thinking. Ridiculous, but that’s how it felt even though there wasn’t anyone behind those eyes. At least no one still living.

“En shaalaa, my friend,” Stefan said quietly.

Anders fired the first shot. It took off the top of Nabeh’s head, but an instant later Kane’s hit from the right side and Nabeh’s head disappeared into a shower of gore. Stefan looked away and saw that Marshal had the camera on him.

“Did you film that?” he asked.

“Of course, man. I film everything.”

The other bodies on the pile were untangling themselves. A broad-chested man in a turban pushed himself up out of the pile. He would have been handsome once, with a strong jaw and a close-trimmed beard. Except for the fact that his throat had been slit he looked almost normal. Stefan didn’t know which bullet hit between his eyes, staggered him back until he hit one of the chairs sitting in front of the ruined computer stations. The man fell and didn’t move again.

Gun smoke filled the air. Stefan covered his mouth as Kane and Anders shot the remaining dead things in the room. Stefan only knew that they’d stopped shooting when they lowered their guns. His ears kept ringing as if they were still shooting.

“We’ve got to go,” Anders said. “I don’t think any place in this town is safe.”

“What is the plan?” Stefan asked.

Anders looked at the camera, and back to him. “We hike out. Get away from these things before we run out of ammunition. “

“Hike out where?”

“We’ll retrace our steps. Head back the way we came.”

“What about snipers?” Stefan asked. “I think shooting the jeeps showed that they weren’t letting us leave easily.”

“Yeah, I think he has a point, man,” Marshal said.

Anders started back down the hallway toward the front of the building. “I’d rather shoot things that can shoot back.

Stefan hesitated. Kane gestured with his gun. You’d better do what the colonel says if you want to get out of this alive.”

“We’re going,” Stefan said.

He fell in behind Anders with Marshal following him and Kane at the rear. When they came outside Stefan blinked in the bright light. He couldn’t see McIntosh anywhere but Anders called out. Then McIntosh appeared from behind a pillar on their left. He lowered the weapon.

“Didn’t know if it was you. I heard shots and —”

A red hole appeared in the middle of McIntosh’s chest. A loud crack of a rifle echoed through the air.

“Sniper!” Kane shouted.

Another shot rang out and hit the pillar near Anders’ head. Would have hit him but he was already moving, diving down behind the pillar. Stefan scrambled back to the wall beside the door and pressed his back against the cool stone. Marshal was next to him, Kane on the other side of the doorway. Anders was facing them, his back to the pillar at the edge of the covered porch. McIntosh’s body lay half in the shade and half in the sun.

Anders shook his hand, pointing to his left, clearly indicating they should go around that way. It made sense. McIntosh had come out on the other side of the courtyard. Unless whoever was shooting had snipers on both sides they should have cover going around the other way. The only problem? Roan was under the porch on the other side of the courtyard. Stefan took off the sound equipment and dropped it at his feet.

“Ditch the gear,” he told Marshal.

“No way, man!”

“Is it worth your life?”

Marshal’s face broke into a wide grin. “Hell man, this is it you know? What else is anybody gonna remember me for?”

“Roland!” Anders hissed.

Stefan nodded. “You’re right, but I can’t carry that and get Roan. If you can get out of here, take the chance. Show people the film. Hell, they might even remember me.”

He couldn’t wait any longer. He took off running along the wall, staying as far beneath the overhang as he could.

“Roland!” Anders bellowed after him.

Stefan ignored the colonel. It was crazy, reckless, but he had to take the chance. He couldn’t leave Roan here by herself.

He reached the corner where McIntosh had hidden and skidded around the corner. At the far end of the porch he could see Roan still lying on the bench. A shot pinged off the stone right in front of him. Would have hit him had he not hesitated. Stefan plunged ahead, running as hard as he could. Several more loud rifle cracks split the air. One shot grazed the back of his head. The pain was like a brand and he stumbled, his fingers touching the gritty stone. The third hit one of the support pillars. Stefan reached Roan.

She was breathing still, asleep. He scooped her up, feeling the heat of her body, as he turned and walked quickly along the porch. On the other side of the courtyard he saw the guys running around the courtyard beneath the overhang. Stefan reached the corner and headed toward the door leading out of the house. It was still closed. He carried Roan into the doorway and leaned against the stone wall. Anders, Marshal and Kane arrived a second later. Marshal actually had the recording equipment hanging off his other shoulder.

Anders grinned at him and shook his head. “You’re crazy man.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Stefan said.

Marshal laughed. “I got it all, man! Might be a bit unsteady, but it’s fantastic!”

“Let’s hope someone gets to see it,” Stefan said.

Kane opened the door, leaned out. “Clear. Come on.”

They moved out of the big house. The jeeps and blown apart zombies were still smoking at the center of town.

“Stay close to the wall,” Anders said. “And stay close.”

They moved in a line along the wall, falling back into their usual order with Anders in the lead, then Stefan, Marshal and Kane bringing up the rear. A blackened zombie missing his bottom half dragged himself toward them across the sands. Kane spit at it and they kept moving, leaving the zombie behind clawing at the sand.

Any second Stefan expected to get shot but the sniper seemed to have given up. The entire area was littered with zombie remains, and craters in the road where the zombies had been buried until the trap was sprung. Stefan thought about the boy that they’d found. Could he have been the necromancer? It seemed unlikely, a survivor maybe. Someone set this up and watched what was happening. Whoever it was destroyed their jeeps, shot McIntosh and shot at him.

At an alley ahead Anders stopped, motioning them back against the wall. He held his fingers up to his lips.

Roan felt heavy and hot in Stefan’s arms. She mumbled something but he couldn’t understand a word of it. He didn’t know how long her could carry her. They needed a vehicle, or some place to hide out until help could come. If help ever came.

From around the corner he heard footsteps. Stefan braced his back to the wall and waited. Marshal had the camera pointed ahead. Kane had moved out from the wall and was on one knee, gun at his shoulder.

Three women came out of the alley, each covered in a blue chadri that completely covered them, even their faces were hidden behind a fine net. But these women walked unsteadily and there was blood on their chadri. They stopped and turned to face Anders.

“Kane,” Anders said quickly.

Kane spoke quickly in Pashto. Stefan didn’t understand what the soldier said, but he understood the tone. It was both a question and a command. For a second none of the women moved then their cried out and charged the group. Kane and Anders fired at the same time. Stefan flinched as two of the women flew back through the air and hit the sand. But the third was right there reaching for him. He turned Roan away to protect her from the bloody claws that emerged from the chadri. There wasn’t time to do anything else.

Roan shifted in his grip, slipping and he had an instant to see that she was awake before she reached up and ripped the six-inch piece of shrapnel from her shoulder. He lost his grip and she landed on her feet and as the dead thing grabbed at her Roan swung her fist around, slamming the pointed piece of metal shrapnel into the side of the dead thing’s head. With a moan the zombie slumped down at Roan’s feet, the shrapnel embedded deeply in her head.

“What’d I miss?” Roan asked.

Stefan reached for her but Roan waved him off with her good hand.

“Ugh, it feels good to get that thing out of my shoulder. Anyone got a Band-Aid I could use?”

Anders came over, already digging in his vest pocket. He pulled out some gauze pads and tape. Stefan staggered back and leaned against the wall. Now that he wasn’t holding her his arms ached. His head throbbed. He reached back, touched the spot where the bullet had grazed him. When he lowered his hand there was blood on his fingers.

Anders was checking Roan’s wound when she squinted at Stefan. “Boss, you don’t look too good.”

He managed a smile. “I’m fine. Your timing’s great. How’re you doing?”

“Bleeding has stopped,” Anders said. “I’ll tape it, I think she’ll be okay if we get her to a doctor.”

“I’ll be okay, boss.” Roan grinned. “Don’t worry.”

“We need to get moving,” Kane said. “It’s getting late. We need to find some place to hide out for tonight.”

Anders jerked his head at the alley. “Let’s check up here.”

After Anders finished with Roan’s shoulder Stefan took the recording equipment from Marshal and they set off again at a slower pace up the alley. After a couple hundred yards Anders led them through a door into one of the more solid-looking houses. There wasn’t much to it, a few rooms and the door. No hiding places, but it was comfortable enough. Roan agreed to lay down on the bed upstairs. Anders made sure the door was barred, it had a wood bar for that purpose, and they settled in at the table in the main room. Stefan was glad for the chance to sit down. Even Marshal took a break and changed the film on the camera, and the tapes in the recording gear.

Outside the sun was setting quickly and the house was getting dark. Anders refused any lights but Kane did find some cans in a cupboard. Cold beans, seasoned with something Stefan couldn’t identify, made up their dinner.

“Get some rest,” Anders said. “Tomorrow we’ll look for new transportation, find a way out of here.”

“Assuming we make it to tomorrow,” Kane said.

“We’ll make it,” Anders said.

Stefan was so tired that he found he didn’t care. Maybe they’d make it, maybe not. At that moment all he wanted was to sleep.

Morning came too soon. Stefan woke up with everything hurting. Every muscle felt stiff. Anders looked down at him. “Time to get moving.”

“What time is it?”

“Sun’s up.” Anders moved off.

Stefan rubbed his eyes and rolled off the chairs he had used as a bed last night. Marshal and Kane were already up. Marshal was checking over his camera and the big surprise was Roan sitting at the table with a fresh bandage on her shoulder and a can of beans in front of her. She shoveled a big spoonful into her mouth and chewed with relish.

“Guess I’m the last up,” Stefan said.

“Don’t sweat it, boss,” Roan said. “After saving my life you can sleep in any time you want.”

“Thanks.”

It took them a little longer to get everything together. Anders reported that they were extremely low on ammunition. After it was gone they’d have to fight any dead things off with knives or sticks.

The air was chilled. The town was silent and the smoke was gone. Anders led them back down the alley to the main road. The burned remains of the jeeps cast long shadows across the lumps of blackened flesh dotting the road. Before they had left the house Anders explained that they were going back to the big house to look for vehicles. He figured there had to be trucks and jeeps in some adjoining building. If they found transportation then they could get out of here. Hopefully before those responsible came back.

Stefan felt better than he expected once they got moving. Seeing Roan back on her feet with her gear, she had insisted on carrying it, helped his spirits. Nothing moved on the streets while they made their way back. They’d gotten all the way up to the doors when something on the other side hit the wood.

Kane moved up beside Anders. The two soldiers exchanged a look. Anders nodded to Kane, who moved forward and unlatched the door. He gave it hard shove. It hit something, then gave way. Stefan saw McIntosh on the other side of the door, catching his balance. In one hand he held his weapon and it came up, shots firing at nothing but Stefan still flinched and ducked down.

Anders fired once. The shot took McIntosh in between his eyes and dropped him onto his back.

Kane straightened up. “Damn. That sucks.”

That it did. Anders and Kane went in first, dragging their fallen comrade to the side. Anders took his dog tags and stuffed them into a pocket on his vest. Kane took what little ammunition McIntosh still carried.

No one said anything.

Then a loud thump, thump sound filled the air and sand blew in through the door.

“Chopper!” Kane shouted.

“Get back, against the walls!” Anders motioned them all back. Stefan and his team ran to one side of the door. Anders and Kane took the other. The sound of the helicopter or helicopters was very loud. Stefan pressed his back to the stone and waited. If they had helicopters Kane and Anders were going to be out-gunned and out-manned. Good guys or bad guys? That was the question.

Stefan looked at Marshal and Roan. “Let’s get this shot!”

Marshal moved out from the wall enough to get a good angle. Stefan stood in front of him, facing the doors. The noise of the helicopter died down outside. Stefan heard shouts. People were coming.

Anders motioned to Stefan. “Get back!”

“No! I’m going to cover this. I’m a journalist, this is my job!”

The doors swung open. The men that come through had their guns pointed at him. Most wore black military garb but the two in front were in sharp red suits with thin black ties and polished black shoes. Both also wore black sunglasses. The Inquisition had arrived.

Stefan raised his hands. “Don’t shoot!”

Both inquisitors lowered their weapons. One waved to the other men, who also lowered their guns.

Stefan stayed where he was but he lowered his hands. “I’m Stefan Roland, filmmaker. I have a few questions for you.”

One of the inquisitors stepped forward, taking off his sunglasses, and Stefan knew it was going to turn out. All of it. They’d get home. He’d get his movie. They weren’t done yet, but for the first time since he had arrived in this blasted desert he believed he was doing the right thing.

 

13,167 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 20th weekly short story release and the third in the Filming Dead Things series. I’d originally published these as written by my pen name Tennessee Hicks along with the rest of the Dead Things series.

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 Trailer Park of the Dead Things, the final story in my Filming Dead Things collection.