Tom Scratch

As a human Tom lived a carefree life working the professional gambling circuit until he played against a witch who cursed him. Turned him into a cat.

Julia attracted the wrong sort of men in the small coastal town of South Bend. Men like Eric-the-cheater or Paul-the-weasel. She should get out but that was easier said than done.

Tom’s and Julia’s paths cross in this fantasy romance from the author of Watching You Sleep.

1

Back when he was human, Tom Scratch would never have stooped to digging through a garbage dumpster for a meal. He didn’t much like doing it as a cat either, but the salty richness of salmon was irresistible.

He landed on the lip of dumpster, nailing the landing like a gymnast. The tail did all the work. He didn’t even extend his claws so he didn’t make any noise scratching the metal.

In the street at the end of the alley a logging truck snorted, coughed and rolled on past the puddles dotting highway 101, before continuing southward through South Bend. On the other side of the highway a hill rose up, dark against the lightening sky. It’d be another clear hot day on highway 101.

The highway was Tom’s corridor. An endless banquet of seafood spread up and down the coast. He sat, licked a paw and ran it across his face. Then he froze, staring at the offending orange-furred limb.

He wasn’t a cat.

Not really.

But he often caught himself drifting, and doing things automatically like cleaning himself. It was embarrassing and frightening. As if his mind was being nibbled apart by mice.

Tom shuddered from his whiskered nose to the tip of his tail. Neither the cat or the man liked that image.

The rich salty smell of dilled salmon caught his attention. His mouth parted and he inhaled deeply. Saliva pooled in his mouth. He swallowed. Dumpster diving might not be the most dignified way of eating, but right now he didn’t care. He hadn’t eaten anything since Astoria.

A lot of houses, they’d give him a plate of scraps if he scratched at the door. Not most restaurants. Last thing they wanted was a stray cat coming in.

Tom eyed the dark plastic lid propped up against the salt-stained brick. It didn’t look like it was going anywhere. In and out quick. That was the key. Go for the main target and get out.

It was dark in the dumpster but he could clearly see the shine from the black plastic garbage bags, each one knotted. Tom stretched out his paw and flexed, extending pale curved claws, each one sharp.

Like Wolverine, in a way. Tom sneezed. As if he had ever been a superhero to anyone. Even before that witch turned him into a cat.

Enough delay. His stomach rumbled. Time to eat.

He dropped lightly down on the top bag and crouched. He sniffed the bag. Through the plasticy smell of the bag he caught the richness of basil and oregano. Tomatoes and mushrooms. That wasn’t the dill salmon, and he couldn’t spend too much time in the dumpster. It wasn’t safe.

The bags crinkled underneath his feet like body bags, as if he walked on a dumpster full of corpses. His guilty conscience, that was all. Nothing but trash bags filled with paper napkins, packaging and left over food. Maybe the odd broken dish.

He sniffed along the next. Salty raw oysters, turning bad. No thank you. He moved on to the third bag. A purr rumbled through his throat. This one. Right. Here.

Tom made a quiet noise deep in his throat. He extended his claws again and slashed across the plastic. It tore, caught on his claws. He yanked his paw free.

A river of rich dill and salmon odors poured from the rent. Tom stuck his head down at the tear and inhaled deeply. His tongue vibrated, making a clucking sound.

As soon as that started he stopped it. Someone might hear, and besides, he wasn’t going to lose control like that.

Tom shoved his head into the tear, twisting back and forth until the plastic stretched and gave him access. He pulled at it with his claws, trying to widen his access. With his head in the hole he couldn’t see, but he didn’t need to see. His whiskers gave him a sense of the space, and the salmon smell was right there!

His tongue touched the fillet, cold but still good, covered in a creamy dill béchamel and cheese sauce. He lapped the sauce off the fish and then took small bites, savoring each.

Three bites and he could tell there was much more. Someone had thrown out at least half a large fillet! And it tasted wonderful. Amazing what people threw out.

The plastic around his head muffled sounds from outside, and amplified the noises he made eating. A satisfied rumbling echoed unbidden through his chest. Tom ignored it and kept eating.

Tiny flakes of fish stuck to his fur along with the dill and cheese sauce, but he could clean that off at his leisure after he finished. He shoved deeper into the bag to reach the last morsels.

A feast. That’s why he loved these coastal towns. If he had to be a cat, this was the place to do it.

Something landed on him, shoving him down into the bags. He yowled with surprise, and twisted around, lashing out. His claws found only black plastic. He hissed and struck. Slashed at the material.

His head was stuck. Static electricity snapped and crawled along his fur.

Tom spat, clawed and finally wrenched his head from the hole he had made in the bag, but another bag was pressing down on him. It wasn’t actually all that heavy but it pressed him down like a half-deflated water balloon. Where he’d struck at the bag vinegar squirted out as if he’d hit a vein.

He heard a loud bang above. A deep human voice chuckled, then said, “Fucking cats.”

Tom froze. His ears were back but he raised them against the plastic, listening carefully. He could make out the sound of footsteps moving away.

Good enough. He crawled across the garbage until he could squirm his way out from under the bag the man had thrown on him. It was much darker in the dumpster, but he could see a thin line of daylight around the lid.

The asshole had closed it!

Tom jumped at the side of the dumpster, stretching up his front paws. By standing on the garbage bags he could reach that small gap. He forced one paw through the gap but there was nothing his claws could get purchase on. They scratched uselessly along the plastic top.

He missed thumbs.

The lid wasn’t even that heavy, not for a person, but he didn’t have any leverage. The dumpster wasn’t full. If it was he might have a chance squeezing out between the garbage and the lid, but as it was he could barely reach the top.

Meanwhile his fur was tacky with dill and cheese sauce and flakes of salmon. Tom sat down and licked the fur on his right forepaw. When he’d first been changed that had grossed him out, but he was over that now. He just didn’t like it when his body did those things without him thinking about it.

He couldn’t slip away, forget that he’d once been a man. A professional gambler, right up until he’d crossed the wrong player. It wasn’t like he had even cheated, he was just good.

It hadn’t mattered to the witch.

Tom dragged his paw across his face, then licked it clean. The ritual calmed him. He continued to groom his fur. Sooner or later someone would come and open the lid. When they did he would jump out.

Easy.

Easy, so long as the garbage truck didn’t come first.

Tom crouched, sniffing the bag. His stomach was comfortably full from the salmon, but if he’d learned anything as a cat it was to eat when he had the chance.

One advantage as a cat, things didn’t stink. Most of the time, at least. As a human, if he’d been trapped in a dumpster like this, he would probably have found it pretty rank. Instead it was a delicious smorgasbord of culinary odors. Garlic, lemon and tartar sauce blending with pasta and marinara.

Tom’s tongue came out, flicking dryly across his nose. He sneezed.

How long before someone came? What if it was the same man that had thrown the bag at him?

Sitting still didn’t work for him. He needed to get out. Now. He hated feeling trapped.

Tom rose up onto his hind legs, bracing his front legs against the rusty metal walls that imprisoned him. His claws peeled off flakes as he dragged them down the rough surface.

“Rowwl! Rrrowwl! RRRoowwl!”

His cries echoed against the dumpster. He flattened his ears and breathed deep, for more volume.

“RRROOWWLL!”

From outside came a loud snorting, coughing sound, like that of a gigantic beast. It raised the fur along Tom’s back and tail. He settled back on the trash bag, muscles tense and ready to strike if the lid opened.

Another loud cough and then an unmistakable squeal of brakes. There was some large truck or something right outside. The garbage truck!

Tom threw himself at the side of the dumpster. He raked his claws down the side to produce a shrill fingernails-on-chalkboard sound.

“RROOOWWLL! RROOOOOWWL!”

Electric motor noises sounded outside and grew louder. Something hit the dumpster hard, with a loud metallic banging noise, and he fell back from the side. It was the garbage truck! That noise was undoubtedly the mechanical arm about to lift the dumpster up and empty it into the back of the truck!

2

Julia stiff-armed the back door of Hal’s Crab Shack, swiping her thumb across the face of her ringing phone as she did. “Hello?”

Outside got her away from the clanging of dishes and the talk radio station that Hal insisted on playing in the kitchen, but the garbage truck was right outside. Diesel fumes combined with the stomach-turning smell of fish gone bad. The mechanical arm made howling noises and clanged against the dumpster not more than three feet from where she stood.

“Hello?” Julia shouted. She looked at the phone. Unknown number. “Just a sec! There’s a garbage truck!”

Rrroowwl! RROOOWWLL!

Julia lowered the phone. That howling wasn’t coming from the mechanical arm, it was coming from the dumpster. “Hey!”

She ran out in the alley waving her arms at the guy in the cab. “Hey!”

Motors whined and the arm clamped shut on the dumpster. It jerked, and rose a couple inches up.

RRROOOWWWLL!

“Hey! You! Stop!” Julia ran all the way to the door of the truck and pounded on it with her free hand. “Stop! You’ve got to stop!”

The window came down and a guy looked down at her, runner-gaunt, with a dark stubble shadow on his jaw. A dirty tan cap covered his head, but she didn’t see much hair under it, shaved or bald. He squinted at her.

“Why are you banging on my truck?”

Julia pointed back at the dumpster. “I think there’s an animal in the dumpster. A cat. I heard it howling.”

He leaned out the window and looked back along the truck as if he could see through the battered green dumpster. “A cat? Could be. They get in there, you leave the lid up. Always having animals get caught in dumpsters. Cats, raccoons, possums, even some dogs, sometimes. I’ve never dumped a load in back with a person, but mostly I think that’s been luck.”

Okay. Gross. “Let me get it out, okay?”

He waved a stained leather work-glove. “Go head, but don’t let it scratch you. Lord knows what sort of germs a stray cat’ll carry.”

“I’ll be quick,” Julia promised.

She ran back along the garbage truck, watching her step because the little black sandals she wore for waitressing weren’t high enough to protect her feet from the puddles in the alley.

RROOWWL!

“I’m coming,” she said.

She reached the dumpster and went to lift the lid and only then remembering that she was still holding the phone with a caller hanging on.

“I’ll have to call you back,” she told whoever it was, hung up, and dropped the phone back into her apron pocket.

Then she grabbed the lid and heaved it up. The dumpster shook and an orange-stripped cat sprang up onto the lip of the dumpster. Darker orange eyes, a sun-dried almost rusty color, looked at her.

He was beautiful. A big tom cat, you could tell just looking at him that he had to be male. Like a miniature tiger with all of his stripes. And he gazed steadily at her, as if suddenly content now that the lid was open.

The garbage truck driver shouted back. “Step back! I’m going to move the arm, it’ll jump off.”

“Wait! No!” Julia stepped up to the dumpster and just reached out for the cat.

If she’d been thinking about it, she wouldn’t have done it, but she just scooped him up. He was heavy and warm in her arms. He didn’t try hissing or scratching her, in fact he went as limp as a bag of potatoes, the kind that Hal used in the clam chowder.

It was nice, even if he did smell like the dumpster. Julia stepped back out of the way. The driver grunted and withdrew to his truck. The motors on the mechanical arm kicked in and the dumpster went up, up, and over. Bags of garbage tumbled into the back of the truck and then it put the dumpster down with a loud bang.

The whole time the cat lay snug against her chest. In fact, he had started purring, a deep vibration running through her arms. She stroked his side where she held him.

“You’re not so wild, are you? I’ll bet someone loves you. They’re probably wondering where you are.”

Could be anywhere really. He was heavy but beneath the soft fur he felt hard and strong beneath her hands. Not a fat housecat by any means, but he didn’t look like he’d been starving either. He smelled like rotten garbage, but he was just in the dumpster. A quick bath would clean that up.

Julia scratched his side. Would it be wrong to take him home? She lived alone now, since she’d kicked out Eric-the-cheater. She wouldn’t have ever considered getting a cat with Eric-the-cheater still around even though she didn’t think he was allergic like Paul-the-weasel.

The cat kept purring.

The garbage truck coughed, blowing out a cloud of black smoke and then lurched into motion down the alley with its lights flashing. Julia moved back toward the kitchen door and stopped.

Hal hated cats. She couldn’t take the cat into the crab shack. It dawned on her that Hal had gone out with the garbage, wanting it out before the truck came, only moments ago. Had he closed the lid of the dumpster knowing that the cat was inside? She wouldn’t put it past him.

And his big pumpkin head had been split in a wide grin when he came back in. People always seemed to like Hal, but she always thought that he looked like an extra from a Tim Burton movie.

Hal had done it, shut the cat in the dumpster. She held the cat tighter for  second and then relaxed her arms. She couldn’t take the cat home, not in the middle of her shift, and she had to get back inside. Hal’d already be wondering what was taking so long to answer a phone call.

She’d just have to let the cat go. If he was still around after work, well then it’d be fate, wouldn’t it?

Julia crouched down and set the cat down. She half-expected him to bolt as soon as his feet touched the asphalt but he didn’t make any move to run. Instead he leaned against her legs, rubbing his face along her shins.

She ran her hand down his back over that so-soft fur. She noticed a small notch in his fur behind his right ear. It looked like he’d gotten scratched at some point. Must have been pretty bad to heal without the fur coming back.  She moved her hand under his chin, fingers scratching gently.

The cat arched his back and purred loudly. His eyes closed in a delightfully blissful expression.

“Oh, I wish I could take you home,” she said. “But I’ve got to get back to work. If you’re here when I get off later, though, I’ll take you home and give you something to eat. Is it a date?”

The cat bumped his head against her hand. “Meow.”

Julia laughed and stood up. Her heart actually beat a little faster turning away from the cat. She laughed at herself, imagine getting so worked up over a stray cat? It was just the break-up and everything.

As she went inside she glanced back, sure that he would have trotted off already, but he was sitting up, very straight, with his stripped tail wrapped around his feet.

“Meow,” he said.

Julia smiled, and ducked inside.

3

After she was gone Tom was torn. Stay or leave? The smart thing would be to leave. He had a very good reason for not finding a home before now. Life as a stray might be hard, but life as a house cat?

Worse.

Controlled all the time? Forced to eat canned cat food? Deal with other pets, or even children? All a nightmare, but one thing topped all of those sorts of concerns.

Getting ‘fixed!’

He started licking his paw just to steady his nerves. Maybe it was ridiculous to be afraid of it, but seriously? Any responsible pet owner would take him to a vet and snip, snip that was it. He didn’t know if it was ever going to be possible to get rid of this curse, but if he did he wanted everything intact.

So no homes. No trips to the vet. Even though it meant a rougher life outside.

But this woman, she made him hesitate. His plan, when that lid had opened, was to jump up and take off before anything else could happen. Instead he’d seen her and it was like getting hit between the eyes with a sledgehammer.

She was petite, but as he’d had the pleasure of feeling when she held him, rather busty for her size. Fair almost milky skin just lightly sprinkled with freckles across her nose and cheeks. Very light, but completely adorable. And no surprise, given her complexion, she had bright red hair that hung right down past her shoulders.

The cute green waitress outfit and apron really brought out her most striking feature, her green eyes. Arresting eyes. Eyes like emeralds. Stunning.

It was her eyes that he saw first, then the rest, and they’d stopped him right there on the edge of the dumpster. He had even considered moving before she had scooped him up.

Tom kept cleaning his fur. He’d picked up all sorts of smells in that dumpster.

Would it really be too much of a risk to wait for her to get off work? If she took him home that didn’t mean that he couldn’t leave if he wanted. For one thing, she might think he was just a cat but he was more than that. If it looked too risky he could probably find a way out.

And cat or not, he wanted to see her again.

Like the town, she had also seemed a little sad. Maybe he could cheer her up before moving on.

Tom finished licking the end of his tail and stood up. He couldn’t just sit here. A cool drizzle was starting to fall and he wanted to get out of the rain before he got soaked.

4

Julia’s feet felt heavy as she clomped out of Hal’s onto the sagging, weathered gray porch. Hal really needed to get it fixed, she’d told him that it was driving away customers. It made the place look like one of the many empty buildings dotting the highway instead of an open business.

Not that Hal ever listened.

Other than the incident with the cat back in the alley, it’d been a long slog of a day. She’d gotten off work with a whole ten bucks and change in tips. If things didn’t pick up she was going to have to dip into her savings just to make rent.

Rain pounded on the rusted metal roofing and fell in thin streams off the edge. No gutter. That’d come off in one of the storms last winter and Hal still hadn’t gotten around to putting up a new one.

She had her little black umbrella and she took a second to get it opened up, and readjusted her purse strap, before stepping through the waterfall over the steps. Another reason customers didn’t come in, who wanted to walk through that? And the puddle at the bottom of the steps.

“Meoow?”

Julia had just reached the unpaved parking lot when she heard the meow and looked back. The big orange tom cat from the alley was sitting on the uneven porch railing, watching her.

“You’re still here!”

He stood up and his tail rose straight up as he walked along the railing toward the steps.

Julia bounced up the steps, the heaviness she’d felt getting off work evaporating. The cat stopped.

She stopped and raised her free hand. “Don’t be scared. I wouldn’t hurt you.”

The cat watched her with big unblinking green eyes. Kinda like her eyes, but his were a much prettier green. Still, it was funny that they matched.

She extended her fingers. “Come on then. I’ll take you home with me, if you want. I might even let you sleep with me, if you let me give you a bath first!”

The cat tilted his head as if considering the trade-offs.

“Jules!” A voice called. “Why didn’t you answer my call?”

Julia recognized that voice. Not a voice that she wanted to hear from again. It was male, and hard, and angry.

She turned, not surprised that Eric-the-cheater was standing in the rain looking up at her.

“Jules, you gotta forgive me,” Eric said.

Eric was handsome enough. A lot taller than her, and dark, scruffy. An artist that did a lot of work with metal sculpture. Everything about him was always hard. Sometimes it was good, but always a bit scary. She had handled all of that up to the point she learned that he was cheating on her.

“No I don’t,” she said. “You’re a liar and a cheat. We’re done.”

He didn’t have an umbrella. He shoved wet hair back out of his face. With his black coat and clothes he could have been made from shadows. Except for his pale face like the moon surrounded in darkness.

He came at the porch, boots splashing in the puddles. His face was as hard and angular as one of his sculptures. At the moment there wasn’t anything handsome about his face. It was ugly and frightening.

Julia took a step back before she realized she was doing it. Eric hadn’t ever hurt her, but the way he was acting, there could be a first time.

Then a loud hissing cry ripped from the tom cat crouched on the railing. A loud rumbling cry followed.

Eric stopped, one boot on the bottom step. He laughed, a nasty sound. “That your guard cat?”

Julia moved closer to the cat. She could see the cat’s whole body vibrating with barely contained fury. The cat didn’t like Eric at all, but wasn’t running away either.

“Hal’s inside,” Julia said. “Why don’t you get out of here before we call the police?”

Eric came up another step. “For what? Talking to you? Besides, you don’t want to see me angry, Jules.”

This wasn’t angry?

The cat hissed and spat again. A loud howling noise came from his throat, rising in volume like a warbling alarm. It was impressively loud over the rain on the metal roof.

“You should get that cat away from me,” Eric said. “Damn thing probably has rabies or something.”

“He just doesn’t like you. I don’t either. So leave!”

“No, Jules. Fuck that! You don’t just get to walk away from what we have together!”

“Walk away? You cheated on me!”

“So I screwed around a couple times. Big deal, it was just sex. It doesn’t have anything to do with how I feel about you.”

Julia’s breath was catching in her throat but she wasn’t about to let him see that he was scaring her more. She pointed the umbrella at him. “Get out of here!”

Eric moved so fast she hardly saw it, but the umbrella was torn out of her hand. He brought it down across his knee, snapping the thin metal handle in half. He threw the top part of the umbrella out into the rain, leaving him holding the handle with a sharp twisted point where it had broken.

He shook the handle at her. “We’re not done until I say we’re done!”

Now she was really scared. All of her attention was focused down on that twisted metal point. Was he going to hurt her with that? He wouldn’t, not Eric, she couldn’t believe that.

But she’d never seen him like this.

Eric took the last step up onto the porch.

Right then, before she could do anything else, the tom cat leapt at Eric. The cat was a streak of orange before he hit Eric’s chest.

Eric shouted and stumbled back.

It almost looked like slow motion, Julia could see it happening, as Eric lost his footing and fell back off the porch. It was only three steps but he went down flat on his back into the puddle at the bottom of the steps.

The cat rode him down the whole way.

Water erupted around them when Eric hit the puddle. She could hear the cat’s howling and spitting noises.

Beside her the door of the crab shack burst open and Hal trundled out onto the porch. “What in the hell?”

Eric was rolling over and she saw his arm raise, still holding onto the handle of her broken umbrella.

“No!”

He thrust the handle down. She heard the cat scream in pain.

Then Eric was up, staggering back. He still held the handle, looked at it and threw it away. Not before she saw red on the end, melting away in the rain.

She started forward but Hal went down the steps first. Hal waved a cell phone at Eric. “I’ve called the police! You get out of here!”

Without a word Eric turned and ran off through the rain. Julia didn’t care. She ran down the steps to the orange shape lying in the mud and rain.

The cat was still alive, wide, wide eyes looked up at her. There was fear, but also recognition in that look.

It was hard to see in the rain with all the mud on his orange fur, but there was blood on his side.

“I’m going to help you,” she said. “You’ll be okay.”

She scooped him up, trying to be careful, hoping that he wouldn’t claw or bite her. She’d understand if he did, but he didn’t. He lay limp in her arms.

“What’s going on?” Hal demanded.

“Eric stabbed him. I’ve got to get him to the vet.” She headed for her car across the parking lot, not even caring that she was getting soaked.

“What do I tell the police?”

Julia ignored him. She got to the car and had to hold the cat with one arm while she got her keys out of her purse. The Jetta beeped when she hit the button and then she pulled the door open.

Inside the windows were completely fogged up. She leaned over and as gently as she could laid the cat in the passenger seat.

“Just rest there,” she said. “I’ll take you to the vet and get you all patched up.”

The cat looked at her. A tiny pink tongue came out, licking his nose, and it left behind red smears.

“Oh no,” Julia said.

She got the car started and turned on the air to clear the windows. The cat’s eyes closed but she could see his chest still rising and falling.

She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and as soon as the windows cleared enough to see she put it in drive and took off. As she turned out of the lot she saw Hal standing on the porch, watching her leave.

Heading north up the highway toward the vet’s, she kept looking over at the cat. He’d defended her from Eric. He couldn’t die.

Before she’d gone a mile down the road she looked over and realized that his chest wasn’t moving.

Julia slowed, alternating looks between the cat and the road. Had he really stopped breathing?

Yes.

The thought sat in her throat like a lump of ice. She eased off the gas, realizing that she was speeding through town.

At Hawthorne she turned and headed home. The vet couldn’t do anything for him now. It only took a few minutes to get home. She parked in her carport and went around the passenger side to get the cat.

He was clearly dead. Tears ran freely down her face. It was horrible. Such a brave, beautiful animal, and she’d only just met him! She thought of Eric and if he’d been there right then and she had the means she didn’t know what she would have done.

She hated him.

Julia took a deep breath. She’d give the cat a decent burial at least. Maybe plant a rose bush on his grave. But not in the rain. She’d take him inside, clean him up and bury him when it cleared up.

She picked up the cat, holding him close. Her tears fell on his already wet fur.

Inside she took him to her small kitchen and laid him on a clean towel on the kitchen table. Then she went to the hall closet get some more towels so she could get him properly cleaned up.

While she had her head buried in the hall closet she heard a noise, like wind blowing inside the house. She stepped out and bright sunlight was streaming out of the kitchen, even though she could still hear the rain on the windows and roof.

Julia clutched the towels to her chest and went to the kitchen door.

It looked like the sun had come down to rest in her kitchen, above the kitchen table. She raised a hand, shielding her eyes.

A dark shape in the center looked like the cat, suspended above the table. As she watched he stretched and moved. The tail shrank, limbs and body grew larger.

The room smelled of the sea and spring flowers and a wind tugged at her wet hair. A summer warmth evaporated the water on her clothes. Napkins flew around the room. Her pots above the stove clanked together.

Her eyes watered trying to see in the light.

And then it faded. The wind stopped.

A naked man sat on her table and he was beautiful. Lean, and muscled, with long, almost at his shoulders, dark red hair. More rusty stubble covered his chin. He twisted around, hands poking at a knot of pink scar tissue on his side.

Julia couldn’t speak. The sight of him tore away any words.

Then he looked up at her and he had eyes the color of dark pines. It was the same look that the tom cat had given her when it landed on the edge of the dumpster.

“I’m Tom,” he said. “I don’t mean to scare you.”

She shook her head. “I’m not scared.”

She wasn’t. It was a miracle. He was Tom, the tom, how? She didn’t have a clue. Such things shouldn’t be possible.

“Are those for me?” He was looking at the towels she held.

Julia flushed. “Yes, I mean, I was going to —”

She stopped talking and held one out. He took it and for an instant their fingers touched. His fingers were warm, holding onto that summer heat from the light. He smiled and took the towel.

Held it up. A dish towel. He glanced down. “I don’t think this is going to cover much.”

Julia blushed deeper. “No. Umm, I’ve got some sweats upstairs that might fit?”

Tom slid off the table. He was magnificent, he moved like a cat or a dancer. He came to her and took the towels away. He set those aside. Then his hands slid up the sides of her face.

He bent down.

His lips touched hers, as light as a cat’s paw at first, than harder. She found herself kissing him back. One hand pressing against his hard, bare chest.

When they broke apart he smiled, green eyes sparkling. “You saved me. You broke the curse.”

“What?”

Tom shrugged and she felt his muscles move beneath her hand. “I was cursed, turned into a cat. But you broke it, how?”

She shook her head. “I didn’t do anything. You saved me, from Eric. But he stabbed you. You died. I mean, you the cat died. I saw it. I was just going to clean you, I mean the cat, up before I buried it.”

She couldn’t organize her thoughts. Especially not with his lips right in front of her, begging her for another taste.

Tom moved. At first she thought he was moving away but he bent down and then she found herself scooped up, cradled the way she had cradled the cat earlier.

He laughed and it was a rich, warm sound. She buried her face against his chest and laughed too. Then she found his nipple and flicked her tongue across it, bringing it to a hard point.

Tom stopped laughing. “Let’s take this to the other room?”

Julia wrapped her arms around his neck. “Yes. Let’s do that.”

He carried her easily through the house, down the hall to her bedroom. Julia shivered with each touch, eager to learn everything she could about this remarkable man.

 

5,693 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 39th weekly short story release, written in May 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. Next up is my fantasy story Death in Hathaway Tower.

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.

The Witch on Floor Six

All Gran Maggie wanted was a good book, a cup of tea and a quiet retirement.

But between a headache, the screaming baby upstairs, and the young paras that come to her apartment with a demon-tainted boy it doesn’t look like she’s going to get what she wants.

Paranormal powers don’t protect anyone from getting older.

If you enjoy urban fantasy, paranormal stories, check out “The Witch on Floor Six.”

1

The baby in the apartment upstairs was crying again and the sound of it put me in mind of dentist drills, flashes of things that I don’t like to think about anymore, things that made my vision swim until I shoved the heels of my hands against my eyeballs. My nails scratched against my scalp as I bent over on my worn leather couch, trying as hard as I can to swallow the red rage boiling up inside. I daren’t let it out, knowing what sort of forces might notice. I’ve retired.

I don’t hunt monsters anymore, by daylight or moonlight.

Regardless of all that, the baby on the seventh floor isn’t a monster, although there are times when I’m sure the neighbors on either side of the apartment would disagree. At least I’m beneath the apartment, which muffled the sound most of the time. Given the lack of insulation in the walls of this old tenement I’m sure that the neighbors heard the baby’s cries with the same clarity that I’m privileged to get from the neighbor’s wife’s passionate and enthusiastic cries whenever she has over a visitor. If the sound had me bent over clutching my head, I can’t imagine how the neighbors upstairs suffered.

Usually the baby stops crying quickly, but this time there was a knock on my door before he stopped. I didn’t hesitate. I shoved the pain of the headache and the noise of the baby aside, and rose on my bare feet. Two strides across the room, silent on the hardwood floor, to pick up my Glock loaded with blessed silver safety rounds. I popped the magazine, checked the load and slapped it back into place. I kept the gun pointed at floor. The safety rounds should deform and stop in a wall or floor but in this place I didn’t count on it.

More knocks on the door, fast and sharp, but light too, like someone panicked but not wanting to draw attention to themselves. I didn’t trust it. I don’t trust anyone. In my business — even retired — that meant the difference between living longer, dying or worse.

I padded silently across the room to stand beside the door. “Who is it?”

“Gran Maggie, it’s us! Please, let us in!” A girl’s voice, sweet and high. Starling, and us must mean her friends. It didn’t sound like they’d come for stories this time.

Why can’t they just damn well leave me alone! I gritted my teeth and forced myself to take a breath. It isn’t their fault, and not even surprising given who their parents are, but I’m retired. I should be able to sit on a sunny beach reading instead of sitting here turning into a cobweb.

I flipped the little knob switch, turned the knob for the deadbolt, and pulled the chain back out of the way, but I left my wards in place. The door could open without removing the wards. It didn’t make any sense to blindly trust the voice.

“Go ahead and open the door, I’m not stopping you.”

That was true. I didn’t lie. They wouldn’t have any problem opening the door, but coming inside could be something else.

The door knob turned and the door swung open. I turned sideways, bringing up the gun to point at whoever was outside.

Starling stood in the hallway with fear on her pale face. She looked down the hallway and back, her dozens of beaded braids swung around her head. She still wore the charm I’d carved for her around her neck on the leather string. Starling wore a thin black dress that left her bare arms free and a long rainbow-colored silk scarf looped twice around her neck. She was wearing bright red sneakers on her feet. A pretty girl, she took after her mother, the most powerful necromancer in the city.

With Starling were two other kids. Ricky, with the broad shoulders of a linebacker and the height of a basketball player, and the attitude that so many kids of privilege held, as if the world was created solely for his use. Or he had that attitude but lately I think he had started to figure out that nothing in the world was so simple. The second boy I didn’t recognize and that worried me.

What was Starling playing at, bringing another kid here with her? He was about the same age and height as Starling, thin sinewy muscles and short blond hair. No shirt on that one and angry red welts were raised across his shoulders and what I could see of his chest. He clutched his arms around himself tightly and looked withdrawn into himself. Through it all I got a sense of him. It felt like a power line humming in my head beneath the baby’s cries. In fact, seeing him, it made it sound like the baby was crying in response to him. He breathed in time with the baby’s screams.

I took it all in within a second. The fear in Starling’s eyes didn’t come from my gun. She walked through the wards without a problem, rushing past me in a swirl of black cloth and Kiwi scent. The muscles in my trigger finger fought to fire but I held them in check. She never even realized that her action could have precipitated her own death.

Not Gran Maggie. Starling never imagined that I’d shoot her.

And she was right. She was past me, safe inside my wards, and my attention was still mostly on the stranger boy that she had brought to my door. Ricky eased himself toward the door, palms facing me at his side, showing a lot more sense and respect than I’d expected. I didn’t look away from the other boy and that was enough for Ricky to slip through the wards too.

That just left the other one. He didn’t show any inclination to approach the doorway. It wasn’t good sense. He’d withdrawn somewhere else.

“Gran Maggie,” Starling said urgently, from behind me. “You have to invite him in.”

Invite him? My breathing slowed. The gun held steady right at his heart. I’d take it with the first two shots and then the next two would go for his head. Assuming that I had a chance to get off that many, probably a big assumption.

Then Starling was right there beside my arms. She didn’t touch me, smart enough for that at least.

“Gran Maggie, Justin isn’t any danger to you but we need to get him inside your wards. Please, trust me.”

Trust me. Trust a girl her age? If I hadn’t had my gun trained on Justin I might have laughed.

“What is he?”

“My friend,” she said softly. “Please.”

If I had to invite him that suggested something demonic. Possibly a vampire but it was daytime. No matter what he was tainted, and something had caused those welts. You don’t invite the demonic into your lives. I’ve been down that road before when I was younger and imagined that I was somehow in control.

Starling didn’t understand what it took. I knew that if I lowered the gun and invited her friend in that we might all die. And for that risk I was supposed to trust this girl?

Fuck it all. I lowered the gun. Screw me if I made the wrong decision, I didn’t get this old making wrong decisions or without taking risks.

“Come in, Justin.”

He still didn’t look at me. His closed in posture didn’t change. He came in through the doors and the wards flared as he entered like a line of fire through my chest that stole my breath away. I snapped the gun up, knowing I was too slow. He’d be on me before I could get the gun up in position and there wasn’t time to do any spooky stuff either.

Then I had the gun up and pointed at the back of his head. He kept walking, past me, past Ricky and I rotated to keep the gun pointed at his head. He went to the couch, turned and sat down. He bent forward holding himself in an echo of my posture when they knocked. Starling went behind me to the door, closed it and I heard the snick of the locks sliding into place. Ricky stood off to my right, hands still visible, but looking more relaxed. Starling showed up on my left and I took a step back. Justin still hadn’t moved.

Ah Hells, he was already inside and he hadn’t killed anyone yet. Maybe I’d have to listen to what they wanted.

I took two more steps back and lowered the gun. In the small apartment the distance probably didn’t give me enough room to get off a shot, but it was the best I could do at the moment.

“Someone better start talking.”

“My mother’s after him,” Starling said.

“Ah Hells, girl!”

Claire Byrd, called a zombie queen by those reckless enough to use the term, was the most powerful necromancer in the city right now. She started out like so many paras did, with the best of intentions, but over time I think she had spent so much time with monsters that she was in danger of becoming one. It wasn’t like when I was young and paras remained secretive about their abilities and the Fog kept people from noticing. The last thing I needed was someone like Byrd coming after me. I looked at Justin.

“Someone had better tell me what he is and why I’ve got someone demon tainted in my apartment.”

Starling pressed her hands together. “You created the Council —”

“Don’t remind me.”

“You ended the Fog —”

“Something else that probably wasn’t a good idea.”

“Not a good idea!” Ricky blurted.

I raised an eyebrow and he blushed. Then he shrugged. “I mean, paras lived in secret and people didn’t know about the dangers out there. Isn’t it better now that people know?”

“Better? Better now that everyone is trying to find their own paranormal abilities? People who can’t be trusted to drive without drinking are out there right now trying to unlock their hidden potential for causing all sorts of crap! Hells! Haven’t you kids learned anything coming here, bothering me? Asking to hear stories? You think I did that to entertain you? Shit! Fuck! This is the crap that you’re picking up, I’ve been trying to teach you about my mistakes and you think those were good times I was telling you about?”

“Sorry,” Ricky muttered.

Justin hadn’t so much as twitched during my rant. Starling took a deep breath.

“Gran Maggie, I’m sorry. That’s not what we meant. It’s just that we didn’t think anyone would look for Justin here. He didn’t do anything. The taint that you’re sensing, that’s just because of his grandmother.”

I knew the name on her lips. I heard the name in my nightmares.

“Renate Colburn.”

Demonologist. Not a story I wanted to relive right now. I looked at Justin and my stomach hurt all the more. Upstairs that baby kept crying and my head hurt. I wanted nothing more than quiet, a glass of hot chocolate and a soft pillow. Instead I had a gun in my hand and Renate Colburn’s grandson sitting on my couch.

“What is it that you think I can do here?”

“Help him. Mom’s sent a wraith after to find him, I need you to protect him until I can talk to her. He hasn’t done anything wrong. It isn’t his fault that the demon came.”

It just got better and better. “So there’s a demon out there?”

Starling shook her head. “No. Justin banished it, but not before the Council detected its presence. They think he’s a new demonologist experimenting in the demonic arts.”

I lifted the gun and pointed it right at Justin. My wards had flared when he came in, he was tainted. “Are they right, Justin?”

“Gran —”

“No. You want to help, Starling girl? Go get your mother. Tell them that Justin is here.”

“But they’ll kill him! It isn’t his fault that he’s tainted. You know what Renate did! The taint was passed on down to his mother and she killed herself!”

“Go,” I told her. I glanced at Ricky. “You go with her. Make sure she doesn’t do anything except go get her mother. Understand me?”

“Wait.” Justin’s voice came out soft but it rang as clear as a bell and sent shivers into my soul. He looked up at me then and on one level his eyes were nothing special, normal hazel eyes, but on another level I saw embers glowing dully in the dark inside. Justin straightened up on the couch. “There’s no need to send them anywhere. She’s already here.”

I knew this building. I mostly counted on my wards to shield me from the racket of the humanity around me as well as protect me from the things that go bump in the night. That didn’t mean I couldn’t reach out now, and I did. A deathly cold blew across my skin and my breath frosted for a second.

“He’s right, Starling girl. Your mother is already here.”

Starling’s eyes flared. “We have to get him out of here. Is there a way out?”

Of course there was, did she really think that I’d live some place without any escape routes. These young paras had a lot to learn if they were going to survive. As bad as things were in my days, in some ways it was worse today.

I didn’t tell them about any of the routes away. Justin stayed on the couch. Smart boy.

“Starling, you and Ricky still need to go. Your mother’s more likely to talk if she knows you aren’t in danger of becoming a hostage.”

Starling looked to Justin. I snapped my fingers and the candles in the room flared. She jumped a bit. I gave her a grin. “Do as I say.”

“She won’t listen to me.”

“Fine. Don’t worry about it. You brought him to me. If he’s worth saving I’ll talk to your mother.”

“Go,” Justin said in that soft, but commanding voice. It wasn’t magic, he had the gift that some leaders had, to command without shouting.

Starling bit her lip but she and Ricky went to the door without any more arguing. They opened the locks and passed through the wards into the hall. I didn’t reach out for Byrd. She’d get up to us sooner rather than later. I also didn’t bother locking the door again. The things around Byrd mostly didn’t care about locks and those that did could batter the door down. I dug a finger into a pouch hanging at my waist and took out a pinch of salt. Salt’s good for so many things. I cast it at the door with a word of undoing on my lips. The wards around the apartment melted away like a salted slug. I felt the energy of all of the humanity around us pound against my headache. From another pouch I took out an ibuprofen and dry swallowed it. Hey, willow bark has its uses but that doesn’t mean science is useless either.

Justin hadn’t moved but he was watching me. I looked straight back at him and raised the gun. I felt the inner stillness that came with shooting. One twitch of my finger and he’d die. This young man with welts across his bare chest and a demon taint on his soul.

“Okay, Justin. What makes a smart girl like Starling try to protect you from her own mother?”

“She’s a friend.” Justin’s gaze fell down to his hands. “I didn’t even know about my grandmother. Not until the demon showed up and explained it all to me. She offered to unlock my paranormal abilities.”

“And you agreed?” Sold his soul that easily? My finger tightened on the trigger.

“No.” Justin shook his head hard. “She decided to show me what I could do anyway. I guess she figured that I couldn’t resist her. “

Upstairs the baby’s cries cut off as if someone had turned it off. I heard whispering and caught glimpses of dark shapes moving in the corners of my eyes. My breath frosted again. Justin noticed our visitors too and kept looking quickly around.

“You won’t see them that way. Hold still and look without looking. Then you’ll see them.”

As I saw them now. I kept my eyes locked on Justin. I still had the gun ready, but at the edges of my vision I saw the dark forms of the ghosts like vaguely human-shaped patches of darkness. Goosebumps rose on my arms. I heard the door open behind me and I felt her presence.

“Hello, Byrd.” I didn’t look away from Justin.

“Gran Maggie, it looks like you’ve caught our young man for us.”

Byrd walked around me, giving me space and stopped when she stood equal distance between Justin and I, but not in my line of fire. The three of us formed a triangle and around the edges skittered Byrd’s ghosts. Since she had come into her power I’d never seen her without the ghosts.

“I wouldn’t say that,” I told her. “Starling brought him to me. Seems she thinks that he is innocent.”

“Yes,” Byrd said, her voice tightening. “I know. My daughter told me the same.”

I dared a glance at her. Still straight and tall, with long white hair falling neatly down her back over what had to be an expensive black coat. She looked very stylish, I don’t follow fashion, but even I could see that her outfit must have cost more than I pay in rent for the year. Her face looked like porcelain, too pale if anyone asked me. But then she rarely came out during the day like this anymore.

“What are you planning to do with the boy?” So far Justin just stood there hugging his bare chest.

“That’s a concern of the council.”

“Starling said that you sent a wraith after the boy. Sounds like you’ve already judged him and found him guilty.”

“We know he consorted with a demon. Are your senses failing you, that you don’t recognize the taint he bears? This is Renate Colburn’s grandson.”

“I know that. He claims a demon came and unlocked his abilities to tempt him. I’d like to hear the rest of the story.” I looked hard at Justin. “Well?”

Justin looked right back at me with eyes I recognized. I hadn’t noticed it before but he did have his grandmother’s eyes. Except there was something sad in his eyes, as if he was feeling guilty —

I fired first and then dove to the side. Too slow. I couldn’t possibly move fast enough. That first shot clipped his shoulder and spun him partway around but he wasn’t the real threat. I’d dropped my wards to make Byrd feel better. Stupid. Stupid.

So stupid!

The demon had materialized behind where I had been and only my sudden action had saved me from having my throat ripped out. I saw her going for Byrd as I fell. Byrd never moved but smoothly drew two pistols, hands inhumanly fast but not quick enough. The demon was on her before she got off a shot. They fell together, the demon held Byrd’s arms and tried to bite out her throat.

Justin recovered from the gunshot enough to come for me with a silver knife in his hands. I didn’t know where he had hidden that, I didn’t see him draw it. I hit the floor on my side.

I still had the gun pointed at him and as fast as he was I managed to pull the trigger. The shot took him in the throat, blew out his spine and stopped him in his tracks. He dropped heavily onto his knees. His head fell forward onto his chest. I brought up my arm and fired again into the top of his head. He toppled as my ears rang from the shot.

The demon exploded into a cloud of flies and then faded away like rain on sunny sidewalk.

Byrd picked herself up, one arm scored by the demon’s claws. The blood glistened against the dark fabric of her coat while scarlet drops dripped and ran slowly down her hand.

I got up too. All my bones ached. My head still hurt but at least the baby upstairs wasn’t crying.

Byrd looked at me with narrowed eyes as she put away her weapons. “How did you know?”

I still didn’t put away my gun. Supposedly we’re on the same side. I wasn’t sure of that. “That he was lying?”

She nodded.

“It was too convenient. Why would Starling bring him here? How could I protect him against the council? It had to be about something else.”

“Revenge.”

“Yes.” I shook my head. “Now, if you don’t mind? Take him and your ghosts and go. I’ve got to put my wards back up and I could use a nap. You’ll want to go easy on Starling.”

“Why?” Byrd cocked her head. “She needs to learn from her mistakes.”

“Do what you want.”

I felt Byrd’s power, that cold wind that filled the apartment. If I didn’t look too closely I could see the ghosts gathering around Justin’s body. Then he jerked, his feet kicked against the floor and he rose to his feet again. A low moan escaped from his bloodied lips. Byrd’s power swirled around him like a wind that didn’t disturb anything in the apartment except Justin’s blood rose up in a fine mist that swirled around him and then flowed back into his wounds. His flesh knitted itself back together and I heard the snapping sounds of his vertebrae moving into place again. Justin’s head came up but his eyes were empty. He wasn’t anything more than a quality zombie. Byrd couldn’t bring the dead back to life. At least not yet.

After she left, trailed by her new zombie and ghosts, I restored my wards and made some tea. I sank down into my favorite chair and pulled the afghan I had knitted last summer across my lap. Outside there are all kinds of paras struggling for positions and power. Not me.

I’m retired.

3,735 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 31st weekly short story release, finished in January 2011. I originally released this in May 2011 as an e-book under my “Tennessee Hicks” pen name. I loved this idea of exploring what happens to these paranormal folks as they age. I read a lot of urban fantasy with tough, young protagonists who often acquire more power as the series progresses. What happens when that power is lost? If they survive, what happens as they age. Yet another world I plan to return to one day.

Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book 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, Wednesday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is a science fiction story, Future Wasn’t.

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.

Astrasphere

A whole world existed outside the Towers of Stone and Metal. A world filled with salvagers, goblinmen, elves and ruins left by the Progenitors.

Clifton Walther loved his parents’ bookstore but wanted more than life as a bookseller in the safety behind the wall around the Towers. Apprenticing with his eccentric uncle gave him a chance at a different future.

Except his uncle had strange Andromen working for him — building something that rivaled the Towers themselves.

Readers who enjoy a blend of fantasy and science fiction will enjoy this new Towers story, set in the world introduced in “Death in Hathaway Tower.”

The cart driver reined in the huge, dirty oxen and pointed off into the distance. Farm buildings rose out of the grasslands. Their long shadows stretched out across the grass. Most striking was the odd spherical structure that rose up behind the house and barns. It was as tall as the Towers of Stone and Metal, which Clifton had left behind when his parents had banished him out here to live on the frontier with Uncle Floyd.

“There’s the place,” the driver said. He was an older man, stubble gone gray and what was left of his hair hidden under a floppy, sweat-stained hat.

“That’s the Walther ranch?”

One of the oxen out front farted and the hot grassy stink of it blew in Clifton’s face.

“Yep. That’s the place.”

Most of the buildings were what you’d expect, he’d seen plenty like them in the past three days on the train to get to Grassport. A house, visible off to the right, white, with columns marching along the front. Bright solar panels on the roof faced south. A small army of wind generators surrounded the ranch, more than he’d seen anywhere else. The blades spun lazily, flashing in the sun. Other than those structures, there were barns and silos, surrounded by fields of grain. The narrow dirt road intersecting the main road cut through the fields and ran out to the buildings.

But that other structure, it towered over everything else, even dwarfing the wind generators. It was a ball made up of dark triangles, or at least part of a ball, because the structure on one side was open and revealed the struts and frames within. It looked big enough that all the rest of the farm buildings could have been put inside. Three immense struts rose up around the structure, holding the ball in place. It was incredible, ridiculous, and what was the point?

“What is that?” Clifton pointed at the spherical structure.

The ox-cart driver shrugged. “Don’t know, old Walther doesn’t share. Started building it five years ago.”

“Wait. He’s building it? It wasn’t something left behind, like the Towers?”

“Nope. Took a bunch of land when he started working on it. Pete Welch farms all the land on the ranch, rents it out from your uncle for a split of the earnings, wasn’t too happy about that.”

The driver squinted at him. “You don’t know either? I thought being his nephew, you might.”

Clifton shook his head. “I haven’t seen him since I was little. We lived within the wall around the Towers of Stone and Metal.”

“Tower folk, huh?”

Again Clifton shook his head. “Not us, we didn’t live in the Towers. My family, we have a bookstore within the wall. We — that is my parents — live in the apartment above.”

It was the wealthy families in charge that lived in the Towers. The Hathaways and Watersmiths, all that lot with their servants and old tech squirreled away. Everyone else lived within the city contained by the wall.

The driver nodded at the ranch. “Well, maybe he’ll tell you what crazy thing he’s building. He won’t tell anyone else.”

“I can’t imagine what he’s doing,” Clifton said. Nothing in his uncle’s letters asking his parents to send him had mentioned this. Or clearly said what the reason was for sending Clifton out, except for an apprenticeship.

You don’t want to run the store, Dad had said. This gives you another option. Then you can decide.

It was better than being sent out to work with the salvagers, but a farm? He had imagined that he would end up mucking out stalls and dealing with pigs, that sort of thing. The gigantic sphere behind the farm, that changed things. What was Uncle Walther doing?

“This’ll be where you get down,” the driver said.

Clifton looked at the long dirt road cutting through the fields to the farm. It was at least a kilometer long. “Aren’t you going to take me up to the farm?”

“Naw. The oxen don’t like the metal men. Don’t want to spook ‘em. Leave your bags here, if you like. Your uncle can send someone down to get ‘em for you.”

Clifton had a heavy trunk, and a satchel in the back of the wagon. It wasn’t a lot, but it was all that he had brought with him. He wasn’t about to leave it out here by the side of the road where anyone coming along could take it. Including the driver, after Clifton had gone.

“I’ll take them with me.”

The driver shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

Clifton turned and climbed over the seat into the back of the wagon. He picked up the satchel, brushed off straw stuck to the fabric and put it on top of the trunk. He jumped off the back to the ground and grabbed the rope handles on the trunk and gave it a pull. It scraped and slid along the rough boards, heavier than he remembered. He got it off the back of the wagon and eased it to the ground.

The driver touched his hat and clucked to the oxen. The big beasts grunted and plodded forward. The wagon made a big circle around the intersection, tipping when it rolled partly into the ditch, and then came back around to face toward Grassport. Clifton picked up the satchel, the end of the trunk, and dragged it on up the dirt road leading to the farm.

 

2

 

When Clifton reached the shadow cast by the first wind generator he stopped and dropped the heavy trunk. The thin shadow provided only weak shade from the sun. The taste of the red dust clung to his tongue, mingling with the salty sweat that dripped from his face. He dragged a handkerchief from his vest pocket and mopped the sweat from his face. It left red streaks on the cloth, like blood. He grimaced, folded the handkerchief and returned it to his pocket.

Far above the blades of the wind generator turned in a slow circle. It was amazing that they moved at all. The breeze barely stirred the tall heads of the wheat in the fields on either side of the road. The ditches beside the road were dry. The sun wasn’t even yet overhead, and it was already hot.

This was where his parents had sent him? The middle of nowhere, with an uncle he didn’t know? Life as a bookseller might have seemed dull, but it wasn’t worse than this. Maybe that was the whole point in sending him out here? Maybe they thought that if he got a look at a different life, he’d recognize what he had at the store.

If that was the plan it wasn’t going to work.

It wasn’t that he hated the store, far from it. He loved the books. He enjoyed sitting in his comfortable chair reading. It was just that the thought of that being his whole entire life, it terrified him. Was that all there was to life? Spending most of his days in a small bookstore with his parents, taking over the business when they got older. Getting married himself, having children so that one of them could grow up and do the same thing?

Clifton shook his head and picked up the rope handle on the trunk. The rough rope had already given his hand blisters. Probably not the last blisters, if he was going to be expected to work on the farm. No matter what, this was temporary. He was out beyond the wall now. Eventually he would discover other opportunities and he would pursue them. His life would have more meaning than selling books or farming.

He stepped out of the weak shade and tugged the trunk along the road.

A short distance on a splash of green caught his eye, off in the fields. He stopped and shaded his eyes with his free hand. Waves of heat rose above the dry grass, but through them he saw a girl standing out in the field. She was looking up at the farm buildings ahead, or at the giant sphere behind them. It was hard to see her in the wavering light, but she was pale, with red hair. The green came from a long cape she wore. Then she turned away and was gone from sight.

Clifton searched the surrounding grass and didn’t see her. How could she have vanished like that? Had she fallen down? Maybe she was hurt?

Or an elf.

What were the chances of that? Why would an elf be here looking at Uncle Floyd’s farm?

A high whining noise, and thudding sounds, pulled his attention from the field.

Two man-like shapes were marching down the road. But both were impossibly thin and spindly. Men made of metal rods and cylinders, painted white. The sunlight flashed off them as they walked. Each walked with a tumbling, side-to-side wobble. Metal three-toed feet pounded the dusty road. The red dust coated their legs and feet like dusty socks. Both had arms that were bundles of rods which pistoned back and forth with each step. They didn’t have heads to speak of, nothing but a cluster of rods in different lengths that pointed straight up, except for two on the outside which bent ninety degrees, and swung back and forth like dowsing rods as they got closer.

Andromen. Actual working Andromen! They were supposed to be gone, nothing but stories told by salvagers about broken Andromen found in buried ruins. No one really believed the stories that the Andromen used to work for the Progenitors. They didn’t have any gears or cables when opened up. No circuits. Nothing but gray dust packed inside. The pieces didn’t even stay together. There wasn’t anything to connect them.

According to the salvagers there must be something else that held them together. Maybe magnetism or some other force. Up until now, though, he had always believed it was just stories. Or even that the salvagers manufactured the rods and the Andromen themselves, to pass them off as Progenitor-tech for the rich and deluded. There were probably Andromen wired together on display up in the Towers.

Whining and stomping through the dust, the two Andromen facing him were very real. Clifton dropped the trunk and stepped back, ready to run.

The two machine men came even closer. They were scratched, dented in places. Some sort of black material connected the rods together and capped their fingers. The ends of the two bent rods on top sparkled as they moved back and forth. Eyes? Could these things see him? Understand, even?

Clifton dropped his satchel and held up his hands. “I’m Clifton Walther! I’m here to see my uncle.”

If they understood him at all, they didn’t give any sign. They kept coming closer and he took another step back. It didn’t look like they could run very fast. He could probably get away if he had to.

The Andromen reached his abandoned trunk and each reached down to grab a rope handle. Lifting it between them, their eye-rods swung around to face the other way, their ‘knees’ and ‘elbows’ bent the other direction and just like that they were facing away.

Off they went, wobbling side-to-side, the trunk swaying between them up the road toward the house.

Clifton hesitated, then picked up his satchel and followed.

 

3

 

Up close the house was even weirder than he had imagined back at the road. It was big. Four stories tall, with large white columns along the front. A broad green lawn surrounded the house and there were trimmed hedges and bushes. The two Andromen carrying his trunk went right up around a fountain that was all metal cubes piled and stacked on top of one another, glittering with water in the sun. He saw another of the Andromen off trimming a bush alongside the house with a big pair of shears.

The columns along the front of the house were covered in fabric. There wasn’t much to them at all, not really. In a couple places the fabric had torn, revealing a metal framework beneath. It was nothing but canvas, but painted to look as if it was carved stone, that covered the framework.

Solar panels covered the roof, which wasn’t that odd, but many of the windows looked like they had been replaced with some sort of solar collectors. Beneath the framing there was a sort of black box covering every other window. Solar heaters? But why? A house like this had to have fireplaces.

It was an odd place, obviously, and not at all what he had expected. The Andromen, and he hadn’t gotten over the fact that there were working Andromen, carried the trunk right up to the door. Both of them raised their free hands and knocked.

Another Androman opened the door. For a moment none of them moved, then the two with the trunk proceeded to carry it on inside. Clifton hurried across the porch and followed them in.

Passing the Androman on the door was the closest he’d gotten to the metal men. It was a good half-meter taller than him. The top rods rotated and watched him as he walked inside.

He was in a large foyer. Red dust rained down from the Andromen and his trunk to the marble floor. Small piles of the dust lay drifted along the walls. Overhead, cobwebs hung from a chandelier. The only light came from the windows around the door which gave the whole place a dingy, unused look, as if he had walked into an abandoned house.

“Clifton!”

The cry came from an older man standing up on the balcony above. Obviously not abandoned then. The man was dressed in a faded and patched blue suit. He was skinny, with a messy head of brown hair sprinkled with white, and gaunt cheeks. Even so, Clifton recognized his uncle. He looked a lot like Clifton’s father, if he hadn’t eaten in a month.

Uncle Floyd pointed at the Andromen carrying the trunk. “Yes, yes! Bring that on up to his room, then get back to your other duties.”

With apparent obedience, the two Andromen went to the large staircase and started up with Clifton’s trunk. At the same time Uncle Floyd hurried down. He moved with a jerky sort of motion, almost as clumsily as the Andromen himself. He came down and grabbed Clifton’s shoulders with both hands.

“Boy! You are grown into a man already! The last time I saw you, you could barely catch a ball!”

“You brought me one,” Clifton said. “A baseball from the salvagers.”

“Yes!” Uncle Floyd grinned. “Too bad we couldn’t get some real mitts to go with it! But those winter gloves worked well enough.”

The Androman on the door closed it, and then went off down the corridor from the foyer. Clifton watched it go and then looked back at his uncle.

“You have Andromen! Real, working Andromen! How is that possible?”

Uncle Floyd grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t concern yourself with that right now, Nephew. You’ve had a long trip. Why don’t we get you settled in your rooms? You can rest and we’ll talk more at dinner, yes?”

It had been a very long day. Clifton was bursting with questions, but his uncle had a point.

“Okay. That does sound good.”

“Splendid!” Uncle Floyd sprang back to the staircase. “This way! Come along!”

Clifton hoisted his satchel and followed.

 

4

 

The sunset over the fields of grass was as red as the dust on the road. It stretched across the darkening sky outside his windows as if someone had kicked all the dust up into the air. Straight out this window, out in the fields, a wind generator turned in slow turns.

He had a whole suite of rooms. A sitting room, with a small library of books, bedroom and a private bath. The whole thing smelled musty. There had been sheets over the furniture but the Andromen that had delivered his trunk had pulled off the sheets and taken them away. All the dust disturbed hung in the air. He had thrown open the windows, those not covered with solar heaters, in the bedroom and sitting room in an attempt to air it out.

The views out the other side of the house had to be more interesting. The spherical building was on the other side of the house. Uncle Floyd had asked him to stay in his rooms, saying that most of the house was closed off and some of the rooms had weak floor boards. Maybe it was true, or maybe it was just an excuse to keep him in his room.

Clifton leaned on the window sill, leaning out the open window in hopes of cooler air, but if anything the air coming in from outside was hotter. Even though the blades of the wind generator were turning, it hardly felt as if any of the air was moving through the suite.

A dark shape moved on top of the wind generator. Clifton froze, his breath catching in his throat. The shape was a person! Small, moving carefully on top of the metal structure. He’d taken the dark shape to be part of the generator housing, but it was someone wearing a dark outfit and a cape of some sort that billowed around them.

The person turned, and the sun’s fading rays caught her pale skin and red hair. It was the girl! The one that he’d seen in the field earlier. But what was she doing up on top of the generator?

She crouched there at the top of the wind generator. It seemed she was staring straight at him. Clifton almost moved back from the window, but he was transfixed by the sight of the girl on top of the machine. She had to be an elf. No ordinary girl would have climbed up to the top of the structure. It had to be at least 40 meters tall. The top of the machine itself was small, barely bigger than the girl.

The blades spun past her in big lazy circles. Without warning she rose and leaped forward into the air! Clifton’s breath caught in his throat, expecting first that the blades would hit her, and second, that she would plummet to the ground.

Neither of those things happened. She had timed her leap perfectly and passed unscathed through the turning blades. As soon as she was through she spread her arms and legs. The green cape she wore was attached at multiple points to her arms and legs. It spread out between to create a wing shape. Instead of falling straight down she glided through the air, getting closer every second.

With a jolt Clifton realized that she was focused on him. Or at least on his window! He backed away, transfixed by the flying girl. The flight from the tower to his window took only seconds, but it seemed like each one was an eternity, stretching on as he watched her intent face.

Right before she reached the window her legs dropped. She slowed, but not enough to stop. She tucked her arms and came right through the open window! She rolled in a ball, and her bare feet landed hard on the wood.

She stopped. Then she straightened up, and was short, no taller than his shoulder. She dropped her arms down to her sides where her hands rested on the hilts of long knives that she wore.

She was an elf, no doubt about that!

Her green eyes were fixed steadily on his.

“You will take me to the sphere,” she said. “Raising no alarm.”

She wore a green outfit beneath the cape. It covered her from neck to ankles. The cape’s straps passed through loops on the fabric of her outfit. Her red hair was braided, including bits of bone and wood within the braid. Her skin was like milk. He’d never seen anyone so beautiful in his life.

“Just a second,” he said. He held up his hands. “I just got here. You saw me. I don’t know anything about that building! Who are you?”

“My name is Willowsong.” She stayed where she was by the window. “I’ve been watching the farm. Floyd Walther lives here. He came back with two of the Andromen, and now has more than a dozen. I need to know if what he is building violates the treaty.”

The treaty, that was the old agreement between the different people, humans, elves, and trolls. Only the goblinmen weren’t part of the convention and they didn’t have the technology to threaten it anyway. The treaty ensured that all the different people preserved the environment and didn’t repeat the mistakes of the Progenitors.

It was unthinkable that Uncle Floyd was doing anything to violate the treaty. Clifton shook his head. “I’m sure he’s not.”

Her head tilted and her eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”

“Clifton Walther, his nephew.”

“Nephew?”

“Yes. My parents sent me here, to apprentice.”

“Clifton Walther. Where did you come from?”

“Until recently I lived within the wall around the Towers of Stone and Metal. My parents own a bookshop there.”

“Why did they send you here?”

He dared a step closer to the impossible girl. He had never imagined that he would have a chance to meet an elf! They so seldom involved themselves in human affairs. It was said that a man or woman, seeing an elf, could become elf-struck and never be happy loving any normal human again.

Looking at her, he could believe it. Her eyebrows rose and her flushed, realizing that he was staring and hadn’t answered her question.

“They thought it would be a good experience for me, to see life outside the wall. I think they thought some time on a farm would teach me to appreciate what I had.”

A heavy clanking noise came from outside. Clifton turned to the door just as it burst open and two Andromen marched in, Uncle Floyd right behind them. His face was dark, furrowed and his dark eyes swept the room.

Clifton turned around but the room was empty. Willowsong was gone.

“Who were you talking to?” Uncle Floyd demanded.

Clifton looked at his uncle. The two Andromen stood over him on either side. “No one. Just myself, apologies Uncle, if I disturbed you.”

“Why is that window open?” Uncle Floyd thumped the arm of one of the Andromen. “Close it, immediately.”

The Androman crossed the room with its rolling gait and pulled the window closed, and fastened the latch.

“It was the dust,” Clifton said. “After they took away the drop-cloths, there was a lot of dust in the air. I wanted to air the rooms out.”

Uncle Floyd gestured back at the bedroom. “Go close the others.”

The Androman clanked off. Uncle Floyd looked back at Clifton. “You must keep the windows closed. Opening them up lets in the hot air from outside — and more dust than you’ll remove by having them open. We do our best to keep the heat and dust out by keeping the house closed.”

“Yes, Uncle. But wouldn’t it be helpful to open them up at night, to get the cooler night air?”

Uncle Floyd shook his head. “I have a geothermal cooling system that runs beneath the lawn outside, through the columns at the front of the house. It draws out the hot hair from the attic, pulls it down through coils in the cool earth, and returns the air to the basement. Air filters do what they can for the dust, but the house must remain closed for the system to work.”

Finally Uncle Floyd managed a small smile. “I must apologize for being so brusque. I’m not used to having anyone around to talk to.”

He nodded at the two Andromen who had returned from closing windows. “These aren’t much for conversation. What say you to dinner? I think it is about ready now.”

“Of course. Thank you. I’ll remember about the windows.”

“Good lad.” Uncle Floyd clapped his hands together and rubbed them vigorously. “I’m starved! Let’s go eat!”

Uncle headed out of the room and Clifton didn’t have any choice but follow. The two Andromen brought up the rear.

 

5

 

Dinner took place in a long, dark dining hall lit by glowing globes. The light came from fish contained in the globes, each fish tiny and giving off a greenish-yellow sort of glow that wasn’t quite candlelight. Each of the globes sat on thick iron bases above the table and contained at least a half-dozen of the fish. Uncle Floyd caught him looking at the fish.

“I found those on an expedition. A sort of cave fish. I wasn’t sure they would thrive in captivity, but they’re prolific little breeders as long as they have room. Once they’re about six to eight fish in a bowl, they just stop breeding. Each one seems to live a year or two at the most. They’re cannibals, but only after one has died naturally. Efficient little buggers.”

The table was already laid out with a meal and two place settings. A roasted chicken sat in a dish surrounded by potatoes and carrots. A basket held long garlic bread sticks and there was a bottle of white wine breathing on the side. Plus bowls of salad and tall, narrow glasses full of water.

Uncle Floyd sat down and picked up a serving spoon, scooping up potatoes and carrots. He used a knife to carve off a section of the chicken’s breast, then twisted off one of the drumsticks. He added a thick breadstick to his plate and settled back down. He stabbed a fork into the salad.

“Go on, Nephew. Dig in. We won’t waste time on formalities here, just the two of us.”

Clifton followed his lead and served himself. “Who makes all of this?”

“My boys.” Uncle Floyd gestured with the drumstick at one of the Andromen standing by the door. “Clever things. The only working Andromen, precisely what I needed. Like the fish, I found them on an expedition. Two of them, barely functional. Much longer and they’d have been nothing but a collection of metal rods and dust, like the salvagers have found.”

Uncle Floyd paused to fork food into his mouth, and take a sip of wine.

Clifton tried the chicken. The bird was delicious, hot and dripping with seasoned juice. He bit off a piece of the breadstick and found it crisp on the outside, rich with butter and garlic, and soft on the inside. Hard to believe that such things as the Andromen could make food that tasted so good.

“My table improved with them cooking!”

“You have more than two now, don’t you?”

Uncle Floyd nodded. “Clever things, as I said. I fixed up the two enough to get them working and then they made the others. I had to buy up what parts I could from the salvagers, and they made the rest. Twenty-one of them work for me now. I couldn’t do the work I’m doing without them.”

Clifton didn’t want to bring up Willowsong’s visit. He had a feeling that Uncle Floyd wouldn’t be happy to learn about the elf poking around the farm.

“What work is that? The driver said that a Mr. Welch farms the land? And, well, I couldn’t miss the structure out behind the barns.”

Uncle Floyd’s thin face split into a wide grin. He put down his fork and folded his hands together over his plate. He looked like Clifton’s father did when he found a particularly rare book.

“That will take some explaining. The Astrasphere is a special project of mine, a sort of observatory, one that I couldn’t do without the Andromen. It would have just remained ideas on paper, speculations, but they’ve given me the opportunity to find out if it is possible.”

“But what is it for?” Clifton said. “A building so large? The only thing I’ve seen that rivals it are the Towers, and they were built by the Progenitors.”

Uncle Floyd leaned back in his chair. “Yes. And they built the Andromen. How do you think they built things like the Towers or the wall? Or the Chasms? They had the Andromen and other tools to do the work for them, machines to lift and cut, to dig deep and travel at great speeds.”

“What about the treaty?”

Uncle Floyd leaned toward Clifton. “The treaty? Why do you ask about that?”

Clifton shrugged. “It’s just that the Progenitors did a lot of things they probably shouldn’t. If the Andromen were a part of that, I don’t know, wouldn’t that worry someone?”

“The treaty only matters when you’re talking about composting sewage for a town, or the tradeoff of manufacturing solar panels versus damming a river.” Uncle Floyd leaned back. “The treaty doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from the Progenitors’ mistakes. We can do things better.”

Uncle Floyd speared a piece of chicken. He lifted it up and paused before taking the bite. “Don’t worry about it, Clifton. I’ve got plenty for you to learn, but you can’t expect to pick it all up on your first night.”

Clifton took a long drink of water. Uncle Floyd was probably right, but he also hadn’t answered the question. Whatever the big spherical building was, it wasn’t something that he wanted to talk about right now.

 

6

 

After spending the rest of the evening filling Uncle Floyd in on life back in the bookshop, Clifton finally was able to return to his suite. Uncle Floyd seemed lonely. Hardly surprising, all alone out here with the weird Andromen for company. It’d take time before Uncle Floyd trusted him.

Clifton dropped into one of the high-backed chairs in the sitting room. Should he have told Uncle Floyd about Willowsong? He didn’t want to believe that his uncle was doing anything that would violate the treaty. Maybe Willowsong had it wrong? Just because his uncle had brought back the Andromen didn’t mean he was going to do anything to damage the environment. The building on its own, didn’t seem dangerous. And Uncle Floyd had let it slip that the building was a sort of observatory. That didn’t sound like something that would violate the treaty. It’d probably be better if he just told people what he was doing, but Clifton got the feeling that wasn’t his uncle’s strongest talent. Maybe it was better to wait, gain his trust, and then broach the subject.

And when should he tell Uncle Floyd about Willowsong? If he wanted to gain his uncle’s trust, he should have already told him, but he hadn’t. He didn’t believe that Uncle Floyd would take the news well that the elves were looking into what he was doing.

Something thumped against the wall. Clifton rose from the chair and turned to the dark window. He didn’t see anything at first except his own ghostly reflection, dimly lit by the light beside the chair.

Then a flash of white appeared in the window. It was Willowsong! She was right outside, looking in.

He crossed quickly to the window and unfastened the catches. She moved back, somehow clinging to the face of the building beside the window. He swung the windows open and leaned out.

Willowsong hung by one hand, her bare toes pressed against the siding, a knife stuck in the face of the building. “Please let me in.”

Clifton moved back without question. She reached over to the windowsill with one foot, toes gripping the wood and then she pulled herself completely inside, yanking the knife out of the wall. She stepped lightly down to the floor with her green cape billowing out around her. He took another step back but didn’t turn away from her. He never wanted to look away.

She slid the knife back into a sheath at her side. When she spoke her voice was a soft whisper. “I need to see what your Uncle is building. Will you help me?”

“Yes.” His answer was automatic. As much as he wanted Uncle Floyd’s trust, there wasn’t anything that he would deny Willowsong. The realization rocked him, but it was unshakable. He would do anything for her, he was elf-struck.

“He hasn’t told you anything of it?”

Clifton shook his head. “Not yet, except he said it was the Astrasphere and called it an observatory. I don’t think he would do anything to violate the treaty.”

“I’ve been tasked to assess that myself. We should go now.”

“Okay,” he said. He closed the window, just in case anyone looked in.

Then Clifton went to the door and opened it just a crack. The hallway outside was empty and dark. The house was quiet. He didn’t hear any sounds of the Andromen or his uncle moving around. He pushed the door open further and beckoned to Willowsong. Together they went out and down the stairs.

It didn’t take long for them to move through the quiet house, to the rear of the house and a back door off the kitchen downstairs. It was bolted on the inside, but Clifton turned the bolts and unfastened it so they could get out.

Stepping outside into the warm night with Willowsong, he felt a thrill. This was what he had wanted outside the safe, comfortable life in the bookstore. An adventure. He looked at Willowsong, her features strong and beautiful as her eyes drank in the view ahead.

“We have to get closer,” she whispered. “Stay close.”

She moved off, following the shadows of the large oak trees that grew between the house and the strange spherical building. He followed her. At the oak she bounded up into the branches.

“Wait there,” she said.

Clifton was content to keep his feet on the ground, as he peered around the tree at what his uncle was building. Or what the Andromen were building.

Bright spotlights illuminated the entire structure, making it glow in the night. Three curved struts or buttresses rose up and clutched the spherical building. Not simple structures, but massive, constructed of metal beams and plates, they resembled a giant three-fingered hand clutching the ball. Round plates suggested knuckles.

The building itself was made up of many triangles. Most of the surface was covered in dull matte black plates that had a dull sheen from the spotlights. One jagged section was incomplete, lit from the interior, it looked like a bright lightning bolt across the skin of the building. Through the glare the dark shapes of Andromen climbing over the building’s skeletal structure, using a crane to hoist another triangular section up while several Andromen worked together to position yet another into place. What little Clifton could see of the interior made it seem as if the structure was mostly empty space.

It was sufficiently far enough away that he couldn’t make out a lot of the details, except that there were brighter points where each of the triangles met the others.

A shadow passed over him and then Willowsong landed silently beside him.

Clifton turned to face her. She gazed up at him and he reached out instinctively, cupping the side of her face. His heart hammered in his chest. She placed her hand on his and held it for a moment, then stepped away.

He let his arm drop to his side. He tried to figure out what to say, but nothing came.

“I want to get closer,” she said. She pointed. “There.”

She was pointing at one of the barns. It was still some distance from the strange building, but it was much closer than the house. From the loft windows they would have a better view of the building.

“Okay,” he said.

The area between the trees and the barn was open. There was a chance that they’d be seen. It didn’t matter. He wanted to see for himself as much as Willowsong. But maybe there was a way for him to make it easier for her.

“I’ll distract them,” he said. He pointed at the open loft doors at this end of the barn. “Can you fly to there from the tree?”

“Yes. What will you do?”

“I’m his nephew,” Clifton said. “It won’t look suspicious unless they catch me sneaking around. I’ll be fine.”

She leaned close to him, and he smelled a clover smell. Her lips grazed his and she pulled back and smiled. Then she turned and bounded back up into the tree and was out of sight.

Clifton stuck his hands in his pockets and strolled out straight for the big structure. His heart pounded, more from the brief kiss than what was ahead, but the closer he got the more impressive it was. And confounding. What possible reason did his uncle have for creating such a structure? How was it an observatory?

As he passed the barn he called out. “Uncle Floyd? Are you out here? Uncle?”

Clanking and pounding noises from the work the Andromen were doing continued unabated. If any of the metal men were paying attention to his approach, he didn’t see it. He kept walking. Soon he stepped into the light that spilled from the building’s interior. It was an awesome sight. The massive building rose far above like one of the Towers, but it was so much bigger since it was a giant sphere. Through the jagged opening to the interior he could see cross struts stretching across the interior, and metal cabling, all of which surrounded yet another sphere at the heart of the structure. That one was much smaller, and had glass windows and lights inside.

Andromen climbed throughout the structure. Torches flared like bright stars where they welded components. Wires and hoses draped from sections. The bright points at the junctions of the triangles were clusters of nozzles five nozzles, one pointing straight out and the others at right angles to make a cross. There were dozens of these nozzle clusters at points evenly spaced across the sphere.

Clifton didn’t look back at the barn. Willowsong would keep herself hidden in any case. He cupped his hands to his mouth. “Uncle Floyd! Hello? Uncle?”

An Androman lurched out of the shadows beneath the spherical building and clanked toward him with its rolling gait. Clifton stopped, held his ground and waved at the metal man.

“I’m looking for my uncle! Is he out here?” He looked up at the sphere towering above. “That’s sure something!”

The Androman kept coming and two more emerged from beneath the building and started his way. None of them said anything. He didn’t even know if they could talk. Surely they communicated somehow, and had followed Uncle Floyd’s instructions, but that didn’t mean they knew speech.

He refused to move as they drew closer. They wouldn’t hurt him, at least. Surely. Uncle Floyd wouldn’t allow that.

The first one raised its arms as it got closer, reaching out for him.

Now he was scared. Its dowsing rod eyes swung back and forth. The metal fingers spread wide. He refused to give ground. “I’m looking for my uncle! Where is Floyd Walther? I’m his nephew, Clifton.”

“Wait!” Uncle Floyd’s voice called out.

The Andromen halted in their tracks. Clifton looked, but didn’t see his uncle. A moment later Uncle Floyd came out of the shadows beneath the building and hurried across the dusty yard with his own ungainly gait.

When he reached the waiting Andromen he pointed back at the building. “Back to work. I’ll take care of this.”

The Andromen obediently turned and headed back toward the building. Uncle Floyd came forward until he stood in front of Clifton. His frown cast deep shadows across his face.

“What brings you out here? I thought you went to bed?”

“All the excitement of the day,” Clifton said. “I couldn’t sleep and came downstairs. The house was empty, and then I saw the lights out here and thought I would find you. Can I take a look around? It’s sure something.”

Uncle Floyd shook his head. “Not yet. It isn’t safe, not while there’s work going on. But soon, Clifton, I’ll show you everything.”

Clifton thought of Willowsong. She would want something. “How is it an observatory? If you close up the rest of it, how will it observe anything? And what are those nozzles?”

Uncle Floyd stepped closer. He reached out and put a hand on Clifton’s shoulder. “If you’re going to be my apprentice, there’s a lot for you to learn. Let’s go back to the house. I’ll get you a book.”

“A book?” Clifton asked. He had grown up in a bookstore, he loved to read.

“Yes. It’s about the Progenitors who went into space. I think you will find it fascinating.”

Clifton looked up past the strange building. The stars were bright and thick in the sky. “Space? They went up there?”

Uncle Floyd nodded. “Yes, but there is much you must learn before you understand. Come on. If you’re going to work with me, there’s much study to do.”

Clifton couldn’t think of any other excuse to stay outside, so he followed Uncle Floyd back to the house.

 

7

 

A rustle like the wind and Willowsong landed lightly on the open window frame. Clifton looked up from the book that Uncle Floyd had loaned him and then quickly set it aside and hurried to the window.

Willowsong stepped down into the room.

He took her hands and gazed down into her eyes, all brown and golden and green in the light from the lamp.

“Did you see enough?”

She shook her head. “I saw, but I don’t understand what it is that he is building.”

There was only one answer. Clifton drew her closer to the lamp and picked up the book. “I think he means to fly into space.”

“Space above?” Willowsong looked at the book, and back at him.

“I don’t think it will violate the treaty,” Clifton said quickly. “Even with what I’ve read, I think he is planning something different.”

“It isn’t up to me,” she said softly. “I must go back and report what I’ve seen.”

“You’ll come back, won’t you?” Clifton said, hoping that it didn’t sound as desperate as he felt.

Willowsong was silent for a moment. “If I can.”

She rose up on her toes and kissed him again. A brief touch that set his nerves alight.

Then she pulled away, turned and jumped from the window. Clifton rushed to the open window but she was gone. He thought he caught a glimpse of her, just for a moment in the air, but then nothing.

He closed the window and went back to the chair. For a long moment he stood holding the book and then he sat down, turning to his page.

He had wanted to get out of the bookstore, to have adventures. It hadn’t seemed like coming to a farm would be the adventure he sought, but clearly he was wrong.

This was exactly where he belonged.

7,205 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 27th weekly short story release, written in February 2014, set in the same world as Death in Hathaway Tower.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is a science fiction story, Strange Babies.

The Forest Path

Don Hyland served his country and now he paints landscapes, imagining the wild places of the world untouched by human hands. Or saws. He studies a scene until he can picture what it might have looked like when the very first people set eyes on it — and that’s what he paints.

Only this time his painting leads him to a world he never imagined, a world that couldn’t possibly exist, one hidden behind the magically alleys that connect every city in the world — and an ancient connection believed lost to time!

 

Rolling back time, that’s how Don Hyland described his portfolio when he met people and they asked what he did. If only he really could roll back time!

Fat rain drops pounded the evergreen boughs far, far overhead as a wind blasted through the giant-sized trunks. Don easel rocked on the uneven split-log boardwalk. Don moved quickly, forty-one years of climbing and hiking the outdoors had kept him nimble, collapsing the easel’s legs.

He was thin and of average height. What hair he had was a mix of dark and silver buzzed close to his scalp. For this trip up to Mt. Rainier, to the Longmire visitor area, he had just worn cargo shorts and one of the t-shirts with his weary lumberjack painting on the front. Instead of hiking boots he had on his trail running shoes. This wasn’t meant to be an expedition into the back country, just a quick pop up the mountain to do some plein air studies.

Don finished folding the portable easel as fat rain drops pelted the board walk. Out in the Longmire meadow the tall grasses waved back and forth in the wind. The studies he’d already done that were drying on the half-log bench, flapped and threatened to fly off. Fortunately he’d had the sense to weigh them down with his painted rocks or they’d already be gone. That didn’t stop the rain drops from hitting the sheets.

As he gathered them up, stuffing the sheets into the easel case, he could see the damage already done. There were visible water drops on the paintings, running and blending colors. He got them all up and snapped the brass catches on the wood case. He slung the strap over his arm and scooped up the painted rocks, which disappeared into his pockets.

That was everything? Don looked around and spied a water brush that had rolled away into a crack between the logs of the board walk. He was bending down to pick it up when he heard a scream behind him.

Don’s fingers closed on the brush and he spun around. Another scream sounded on the mountain behind him. A woman? Someone might be hurt!

He ran down the board walk and hit the dirt trail. The easel case bounced under his arm and banged into his side. He clutched the water brush in his hand as he ran. The Trail of Shadows, this path was called, an easy loop near the visitor center. Nothing too hazardous or difficult.

No one was visible. Rain drops hit his arms as he ran. The wind howled through the trees.

“Hello?” Don called out as he ran. “Hello? Is someone there?”

He reached a small log bridge over one of the many little streams coming down the mountain and pounded across. Up ahead he saw a white-haired couple, a man and woman. The woman clutched at the man’s arm. Both were looking up the slope as Don ran up.

“Did you hear that scream?” Don asked.

The man nodded and pointed a liver-spotted arm at the slope above them. “It came from up there. I dunno what it was, a cat maybe? Do those big cats scream like that?”

“A cougar?”

The man nodded.

“I don’t know. I don’t think it was a cat,” Don said.

He studied the slope above them. It was wooded, of course, covered in big trees and fallen debris. He couldn’t see anyone.

Then there was another scream. Don slipped the easel down to the ground. “Watch that, for me, will you? I’ll be back.”

He bounded away across the path and scrambled up the slope. Only when he reached for a thick root did he realize that he still held the water brush. He shoved it in a pocket, knowing it might leak, and pulled himself up.

His legs felt the effort of the climb up the slope, but he was used to that feeling.

There was undergrowth and ferns, but not so much that it impeded his progress. Before long he had climbed up out of sight of the path below and he slowed his pace. He still hadn’t seen anyone and it was making him nervous.

What if the cries had been a cougar? It might be watching him right now.

Don braced himself against the papery trunk of a cedar tree at least six feet across. “Hello? Is someone out here?”

He saw something flash white between the trees. Not a cougar. A person with long white hair. That’s all that he saw before whoever it was disappeared behind a thick Douglas fir.

“Hey! Are you okay? Was that you screaming?”

He picked his way around a clump of thick ferns and climbed over a moss-covered log to get closer.

A woman looked out from behind the tree. She didn’t look like anyone he’d ever seen before. Fine porcelain features, narrow, with high cheekbones and large wide eyes. White eyes. No iris that he could see at all, just a wide dark pupil as she looked at him. Her eyebrows were up, mouth open. She looked terrified.

Don raised his hands. “Hey, I’m not going to hurt you. I heard screaming. I wanted to help.”

She said something fast and musical. It almost sounded like bird song, but he heard her voice tremble as if she was scared. From the looks that she gave him, and the sound of whatever it was that she had said, Don guessed that she wanted him to move away.

2

He took a step back and to the side, so that he could see her better and she could see him. “I’m not going to hurt you. I only want to help.”

The woman eased around the tree, still watching him with her oddly white eyes. They didn’t look cloudy, just white, and it was clear that she was watching him carefully. But that wasn’t the only odd thing about her. There was also what she was wearing, some sort of silvery tunic with black laces up the front. She carried a deep purple tube-like bag that wrapped around her back, the strap crossing from her left shoulder, down under her right. The tunic went down to her knees, but she wore nothing else below that. No shoes. Her feet were coated with dirt.

“It’s okay,” Don said softly. “Are you hurt?”

She eased out more from behind the tree and looked around. Her lower lip trembled. The sight of it was heart-breaking. He wanted to do whatever he could so that she wouldn’t look so sad. Was she part of some role-playing group? Maybe she got lost? Her eyes could be part of a costume.

“Are you lost? There’s a path right down there, it’ll take us back to Longmire.”

She still didn’t respond to what he was saying. Instead she went to a big tree that had fallen, roots made a wall at least ten feet high of gnarled twisting wood, like a nest of giant snakes frozen in place. She didn’t even come up to the mid-point, but she walked into the hollow where it dipped down into a small cut between the roots and the hillside like a natural alley.

It must drop off fast, because she was almost out of sight. It didn’t feel right. Don felt it in his gut, like something was pulling him after her. He gave into the sensation and ran after her.

She was gone before he reached the cut where the giant tree had fallen. He scrambled down, loose rocks sliding beneath his shoes, and nearly slipped. A root caught his sleeve for a second but he pulled free and hurried around the root mass.

His next step landed on a rock he hadn’t seen or expected. It was flat and anchored firmly. That wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t only one rock, but a whole semi-circle of stones like a small stone patio.

Don turned, surprised to find the small stone circle here. The fallen tree and its roots were gone. Not only that but the trees had changed. The trees growing from this slope were beyond massive. Each one thrust up to the skies above as if they were the very pillars upon which the sky rested. Where there had been roots and a cut through the hillside was now a path paved in cobblestones with two stone fences along each side. The path traced a line off down the slope to his left before disappearing from view.

Either he’d lost time and been taken someplace else with trees that dwarfed the redwoods in California, or he had moved from Mt. Rainier to somewhere else in the time it took to take a step. Both sounded equally impossible, but these trees were unmatched in his experience.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” he said aloud.

He laughed, but it wasn’t that funny. He’d read about such things. Oz, Narnia, and others, but it was one thing to read about it in a children’s story. For it to happen in real life?

“Hello,” said a soft voice behind him.

Don spun around. The woman he’d seen before, with the long white hair and the silvery tunic, stood just down the slope from the stone circle.

“Hi,” he said, and remembering that she had been screaming. “Are you okay?”

She bit her lip and nodded. “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have been able to follow me here.”

Don spread his hands. “Where are we? And why didn’t you say something before?”

She twisted her hands together. “I did say something, you just couldn’t understand me.”

“Then why can I understand you now?”

“Now, this place, it makes it so that we can understand each other.”

Don wasn’t sure what she meant but he pressed on. “What is this place?”

“An olden place.” She pointed to the path behind him. “This once led to a trow keep, a place of learning. I came here to study the path, to try and find a way to shut the connections between the goblin city and your cities.”

Don shook his head. “This is a lot to take in. Why were you screaming?”

She ducked her head and shrugged. “I was set upon by a woodwose and fled. I didn’t even realize I’d crossed over at first. It’s never worked before.”

“What’s a woodwose?”

She gestured at him. “A human, like yourself, but one one of the wild ones that lives in the wilderness. They can be dangerous.”

Don looked around at the surrounding forest. Wild men in the forest? “I’m Don, Don Hyland. You are?”

“Na’pi.” A smile touched her thin lips. “You aren’t what I would have expected from a man of your world.”

“You’re exactly as I imagined someone from your world,” Don said.

“You know of our world?” She stepped forward. “How? Do many?”

Don laughed. “I was joking. I had no idea that anything like this existed outside of children’s stories.” He looked again at the trees, ten feet across and more thrusting up to the sky. So high up that their tops looked fuzzy. “I wish I had my paints.”

“Paints?”

Don pulled out the water brush and noticed it had made a wet circle on that pocket. He held it up. “I’m an artist, watercolors, mostly. I left my kit back there when I ran up the hill. I only have this.”

Na’pi took a small step forward and held out her hand. “May I see it?”

Don closed the distance between them and handed her the brush. Her fingers grazed his as she took it. Even with the odd eyes, she was beautiful. It was all just so strange.

Na’pi turned the water brush in her hands, shook it and poked at the plastic. “What is this made of?”

“Plastic, I guess.”

She brushed it on the back of her hand, leaving a trail of wetness. She looked up at him, eyebrows raising.

“It’s only water. I use pencils, with pigment? Then the brush dissolves the pigments to spread them on the paper.”

Na’pi handed it back to him. “Remarkable.”

Don pocketed the brush. “This is all a bit much. I have to ask, how do I get home? You said something about a connection?”

Na’pi shook her head. “I don’t know. The stories suggest that this path was one of the first to connect to your world, but I haven’t learned much. I didn’t even know that the connection still existed at all.”

The path behind Don was quiet, peaceful even. The place had a feeling of age about it, like really old. It was the trees that did it. To be so big they had to be many centuries old. So old and big that they were like part of the mountain itself.

Don looked back at the path. “If I just walk down the path, will it take me home?”

“I don’t know,” Na’pi said. “I’ve walked the path many times without finding the connection.”

“But it was there this time, when you ran from the wild man?”

Na’pi walked up beside him. Don noticed a minty scent from her, over the dusty pine smell of the forest. She touched her shoulder. “We should go back to my camp. It might not be safe to stay here, in case the woodwose returns.”

“Let’s try the path first,” Don said. “If it works, I’ll be back home and you can go on with whatever you need to do.”

“If you must do this, be quick. I’ll wait.”

The stones that made up the path were worn, almost flat from the passing of many feet but the spaces between were filled with dried fir needles. Looking at it again, it looked old, with plants growing up alongside, and even on the path.

It wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine Na’pi out here clearing out the path, opening it up for study. It might have been better to leave it covered. But what had she said about a goblin city? Did he even want to know?

Don followed the path as it curved down the slope and vanished around the undergrowth. As he got closer there was more and more debris on the path until the stones were completely covered and the plants hung over the short walls.

He stopped, frustrated. It hadn’t taken him back. A chill curled up in his gut. What if he couldn’t get back?

Don turned back on the path. If there was a connection that would get him him home it wasn’t there now. His best home lay with Na’pi, maybe she could find some other way of getting him home. What had she said? She wanted to learn to close the connections. Maybe he couldn’t go home this way, but there might be other options.

Na’pi stood waiting for him at the end of the path and seeing her his shoulders relaxed from tensions that he hadn’t even been aware he was feeling. If she left him he might not have any other way home.

A man stepped out from behind a tree behind Na’pi. Then two more came around the other side. All of the men were lean, with clearly defined muscles. They didn’t wear much, only ratty skins tied around their waists. All had bushy beards and unkempt hair. Their attention was entirely on Na’pi.

Don opened his mouth to shout a warning when Na’pi turned toward the men as if she’d heard something, or sensed something.

The men responded instantly, howling and sprinting forward, grinning like mad men.

Na’pi screamed.

In his mind Don sprang forward to save the beautiful young woman, but his feet refused to move. Other than a few school-yard scuffles he hadn’t ever been in a fight, didn’t know the first thing really about fighting.

Na’pi bolted down the path in Don’s direction. That moved Don into action. He sprinted forward to meet her. As they came together he pushed her behind him and faced the three charging men.

“Stop! Stop right now!”

The men didn’t stop. They kept coming and the distance between him and the men shrank quickly. The one in the middle was closest. He had startling blue eyes, like deep pools but Don didn’t see anything in them. Like deep ice. Beneath the dirt and the beard and the hair, the man was probably half Don’s age, and didn’t have any fat on him. Nothing but corded muscle, arms as big around as Don’s legs.

Don spun around and grabbed Na’pi’s arm. “Run!”

Together they bolted down the path away from the men. Don had little hope of escaping their pursuers, but it was the only thing he had.

Na’pi stayed with him, clinging to his arm. Don’s stomach lurched and he felt dizzy. His next step came down hard on flat bricks as light blinded him. Don raised his arm against the light and saw a brick building towering four stories above him.

Twisting around he saw another building, this one six stories, of dark brick on the other side. Don looked back, expecting to see the men behind them, but instead there was a brick-paved alley between the two brick buildings. Lines criss-crossed the alley, hanging with laundry. A woman leaned out the window, fat, with lank blond hair. She tugged on the line and pulled off a wide shirt. As she did her head turned and Don saw that she had two yellowed tusks protruding between fat lips. Her skin was pink, not a normal pinkish color, but pink like a pink rose, darker near her cheeks. Her nose was up-turned slightly at the end and pointing. She saw him looking and her lips drew back revealing more fang.

Na’pi tugged on his arm. “We’ve gone through.”

He looked at her odd white eyes. “Okay, I see that. To where? Another world?”

Na’pi shook her head. “No, it brought us to Goblinus, to the goblin city.”

“I thought the path was supposed to take me home?”

“Ordinarily, it would. Usually the connection only flows from one world to the other. The alleys don’t connect to one another within the same world, but according to stories the path is where it all started. Now that it’s open, it may connect to anywhere.”

Don looked up and down the alley. At the far end was obviously a busy street, with people going past. Only they didn’t all look like people that he was used to. For one thing, they came in more colors. He saw a couple walking past that were dandelion yellow and short. A man passing the other way was tall, broad and granite gray.

“These people, they aren’t human?”

Na’pi shook her head. “Goblins, this is the goblin city. You’ll find mostly goblins, but also humans and others.”

“Not to be indelicate, but what are you? You don’t look entirely human, but not like them either.”

“I’m trow,” Na’pi answered. She tugged on his arm. “We should go. The Navigator’s guild watches the activity on the alleys. They will send the Royal Guard to investigate our use of the alley.”

Don followed her down the alley. The day was already so incredible, how stranger could it get? And besides, he’d be lost without her. She knew this world. He still needed her help to get home. That hadn’t changed.

Although Don tensed as they moved out into the bustling throng in the street, no one paid any attention. They fell into the crowd, turning right and headed down the brick road — an actual brick road! — which dropped away before them. All around the street buildings rose up, a massive city that stretched away as far as he could see. Buildings piling upon buildings, rising higher against the crystal clear sky.

Store fronts lined the street and spilled out their wares into the crowd. Signs and banners flapped in the cool, spicy breeze blowing between the buildings. The unfamiliar smells made Don’s mouth watered. Up ahead he could see a cafe, tables and chairs gathered around the front. Goblins sat and ate and drank, and a few humans too.

They’d gone nearly a block before he realized what was missing. Cars. He saw people on bicycles, and a few pedicabs pulled by shirtless, muscled goblins, but no cars. Just the crowd of people. The goblins looked a bit odd at first glance, like the time he had found himself in the midst of a costume parade, but otherwise nothing strange.

“Watch out.” Na’pi tugged on his arm.

Don looked where he was going and saw the curved green pole of a lamp post that he’d nearly walked into. He started to laugh but then he looked up and saw at least a dozen tiny faces looking down at him from the glass bulb on top of the post.

He stopped moving, resisting Na’pi’s pull. On top of the post was a big round glass ball. Within it were more than a dozen tiny, winged people. Naked, but each looked exquisite and perfect. Faeries. They couldn’t be anything else. There were faeries imprisoned in the lamp. For each that was looking sadly at him, another lay languishing against the bottom of the lamp.

“Don! We mustn’t draw attention to ourselves.”

Don glanced at Na’pi, and in the process noticed that he was attracting looks from those passing.

It felt terrible to simply walk away, but Don did, letting Na’pi lead him by hand away from the lamp post. But there was just another one coming up after the first and more down the street. Since the street dropped way down hill he could see the posts dotting the street on both sides on down the hill into the city.

And in each of the lamps were fairies slumped against the glass.

As they passed under the next lamp post a fairy beat on the glass with his tiny hands, his mouth opening soundlessly. It looked like he was screaming, but no sound escaped the glass.

“Don!”

Don looked at Na’pi. She took his hand and led him around a fruit stall into the opening of an alley.

“You’re attracting their attention, and that’s drawing attention to us. We can’t afford to be noticed.”

Don glanced at the crowd walking past and moved closer to Na’pi, lowering his voice. “Why? What happens if they notice us? Why are those fairies in the lamps? They are fairies, right?”

“Yes,” Na’pi said. “It’s all more complicated than you realize.”

“Faeries,” Don said. “I mean the rest of this is incredible, but —”

“They’re prisoners of the Goblin King. It isn’t safe to notice them.”

“But that’s wrong!” Na’pi winced at his shout. Don took a breath and spoke softer. “How complicated can it be? You don’t stick people in glass balls. That’s not complicated.”

“This situation is complicated, and you’re not making it easier. I feel obligated to help you get home, but I can’t do that if you don’t listen to me.”

“So you’re not part of this?” Don waved his hands in the air. “This city? You don’t live here?”

“No. I serve another, and I can’t talk about it right now. Let’s try and get you home. It’s my fault you’re here.”

3

They walked then for a time without saying anything. Don found himself itching for his sketchbook, so he could just sit and sketch this city.

It was unlike the car-filled cities back home. This was a place bustling with bodies rather than combustion engines. Rich scents floated in the air from cooking food. There was a new establishment every few store fronts. Farmers sold fresh produce and even slaughtered animals from carts. The street had the feel of a fair or farmers market.

Except that the goblins, in the whole range of colors, were the most common people on the street. Still, they acted like people anywhere. Talking, bartering, and walking in a hurry. They wore all sorts of clothing, much of it recognizable. Suits were popular for women and men and made the odd skin colors and tusks all the more unusual. T-shirts and jeans were equally common as well as wrap-around robes. He even saw a group of tough-looking lemon-skinned goblins wearing black leather. Their short-stature and color combination suggested biker bees and Don had to cover a laugh with his hand.

Despite the lack of cars, technology certainly wasn’t lacking. Don saw plenty of people, human and goblin both, checking cell phones or reading on iPads and similar devices. Plenty of customers at the outdoor tables had laptops. They even walked past a male trow in a dark suit working with several holographic screens at one table.

Not a technologically backwards world.

Na’pi never slowed her pace. If anything she walked faster, her eyes darting from side-to-side as she obviously searched for something.

Don touched her arm to get her attention. “What are you looking for?”

She didn’t stop. “We’re being followed. We need to get away from here. I’m trying to find a connection to get you home!”

“Followed?”

“Don’t look!”

Abruptly Na’pi turned down a side street, not quite as busy as the one they’d left, but still with plenty of people, just fewer store fronts. Her delicate forehead creased.

“Can you run?”

Don nodded.

“Then come on!”

Na’pi took off running, her lithe form slipping around a cyclist coming up the road.

Don chased after her. In a few seconds he caught up and matched her pace. For now. Despite all the hiking he did, he wasn’t sure how long he could keep it up. He wasn’t a runner.

They’d gone two blocks before Don caught his first glimpse of their pursuers. Three goblins dressed in black uniforms ran around the corner a block ahead, onto this street. The crowd parted before them like sheep before a wolf.

“This way!” Na’pi grabbed his arm and pulled dim around.

They plunged into a narrow alley between two low buildings. It was empty, marked only by a dry drainage channel down the middle of the passage. Litter and dirt clogged the spaces between the bricks and piled against the walls.

Don tensed, expecting every step to care him someplace else but that didn’t happen. They ran down the alley and came out the other side without going anywhere.

Even then Na’pi didn’t slow. She ran straight across and into the next alley, not so different than the last except the building on the left was four stories tall and concrete instead of brick.

As they ran down the alley a scarlet swirl of graffiti on the wall suddenly moved, taking on the form an an emaciated person clinging lizard-like to the wall. The creature snarled, showing teeth like broken shards of brown glass.

Na’pi grabbed his arm.

In the next step a cool rain-mist sprinkled Don’s face. The alley wasn’t brick anymore, but cracked asphalt, and a dented and rusted green dumpster appeared just ahead. Don stopped running, gasping for air.

Na’pi had also stopped and came back. She stood near him and crossed her arms.

“Where are we?” Don asked, when could manage it.

Na’pi shook her head. She spoke in that fluid, bird-like language that she had used when they first met.

The implication sank in. They weren’t in her world anymore, he couldn’t understand her. He smiled at her and held up his hand as he looked around. It was late evening by the look of the light. The alley could have been anywhere. Power lines ran along it above. And at the far end Don heard and saw cars driving past.

“Come on,” he said, beckoning. “Let’s find out.”

Na’pi hesitated, but she followed him. As they left the alley Don saw a Subway sandwich shop across the street, which was a wide four-lane road. Turning left the street dipped down a hill and he could see the spill of the city. One building in particular was very recognizable.

It rose up with slender, sweeping grace, topped with a fat saucer. The Space Needle. Don laughed. “We’re in Seattle!”

Na’pi said something else. Her voice and words were beautiful, but he didn’t understand any of it. Still, it seemed clear from the way she pulled back that she wanted to go.

He carefully took her hands and pressed them together in his. He smiled at her.

“You might not understand this, but thank you. I can get home from here. But what about you? Do you want to come with me?” Don pulled her hands closer to his chest. Then he pointed at the alley. “Or go back into the alley?”

Na’pi bent and her lips brushed his fingers where he held her hand. Then she stepped back, slipping from his grasp. She spoke again, musically, and gestured at the alley.

She was leaving.

Don touched his chest and gestured at the alley.

Na’pi shook her head and gave him a small smile. One step, two, and she raised her hand in parting.

It was hard not to follow, but he stayed standing in the alley mouth as she sprinted away. One second she was there, then she faded just for an instant, and was gone.

Don reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone to call a cab. He’d go home, but he needed to go back up to Mt. Rainier to get his plein air kit, assuming it was turned in to the rangers. Could he find that cut in the hillside again? Did he dare?

In his head he saw images of another world, one he hadn’t imagined. Na’pi had left a lot unsaid about what was going on between her people and the goblins. It might not be something that he wanted to get involved in, even if he decided he wanted to go back.

The phone was ringing in his ear. Don walked down to the awning above a nearby camera shop to take the call, leaving the empty alley behind. For now, at least.

5,024 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 24th weekly short story release. I wrote this almost exactly three years ago, in anticipation of writing Trow Forge, the third Goblin Alley novel. It was included, with a few changes, in that book. It introduced a new major character into the story.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is a science fiction story with a very special kid, Oswald Hamilton, Invader.

Alley Cat

Catherine ‘Cat’ Eagle, petite bike messenger with a pixie nose, red hair, freckles and a perpetual tan, loved nothing better than the freedom of riding. Just her, her bike, the city streets and her uncanny sense of direction.

That sense led her to discover the Goblin Alley, the magical connections that connected every city in the world to Goblinus — home of the goblins and other faerie creatures. That secret world called to Cat, and she had to follow, only this time she wasn’t alone.

Lounging on one of the threadbare, ass-eating chairs in the front lobby of Mercury Messengers, Catherine ‘Cat’ Eagle watched the rain run down the outside of the office’s single-pane windows and the condensation running down the inside. Two drops on opposite sides of the glass were in a neck-and-neck race. Who would win the Tour de France? Outside? Inside? Outside merged with a larger drop and surged into the lead. Cat let the weight of her bicycle helmet pull her head back on the chair, groaning.

“Come on Bert, what’s the point in keeping me on the clock this afternoon? It’s dead.”

Behind the orange counter Bert Downing, her boss, chuckled hard enough to make his thick jowls jiggle. Sometimes she thought that Bert was entirely made of Jell-O, given how much of it he ate. Even now he had a cup of strawberry banana and was spooning it into his mouth. “Someone might call for a pick-up. No one wants to go out in the weather like this.”

Cat closed her eyes. He actually could be right, except the phone hadn’t rung once. Not like last month before Valentine’s day. Something about the most nauseating holiday of the year compelled people to have their flowers and chocolates and stuffed bears and who knew what else delivered via bike messenger. At least she got out riding. But March? She ended up sitting around too much. Some of the other guys loved nothing better to loaf around but for her the best thing about the job was being out on her bike cruising the streets and, when she got the chance, ducking back into the goblin alleys. She could spend a lifetime exploring the goblin city of Goblinus, connected to – she was told – all of the cities of the world by the alleys. If Bert would only give her the afternoon off she could slip out and find an alley leading to the other world. Maybe there it wouldn’t be raining. Even if it was it’d still be more interesting than watching the Seventies era orange and brown stripped wallpaper peeling from the walls, or listening to Bert slurp down yet another cup of Jell-O.

The bell of the back door jangled. One of the other riders stuck with working today must have returned. Probably Erik Powell. Cat sat up, swinging her bare calves off the arm of the chair. Her cleats on the bike sandals clunked against the tile. “Bert, look, that’s probably Erik. Let him sit around here in case anyone wants a pickup.”

Bert put down his empty Jell-O cup. He pointed his plastic spoon, still decorated with gory bits of strawberry-banana Jell-O, at her. “You sound like you’re not too interested in a job, young lady. Don’t I pay you for this? What other job lets you sit around so much? You should consider yourself fortunate.”

“If I sit here any longer my ass is going to melt into that chair. You’ll have to hire professional cleaners just to scrape me out.”

 

Bert grinned. Right then Erik came through the swinging doors to the back room where the messengers had their locker rooms and Bert kept the packages waiting to go out. An empty room right now. Erik was alright, cocky, dark hair and five years younger than her. So far he hadn’t given up on asking her out, obviously deluding himself into thinking that he could wear her down. Erik looked between the two of them and opened his mouth. Cat held up a hand.

“Well, Bert?”

He chuckled, jiggling again on his chair like his favorite desert. He waved his spoon around in a circle. “Fine. Don’t want to get paid? Just saving me money.” He jabbed the spoon in Erik’s direction. “You sit down where I can see you. I’m not sending everyone home yet.”

Cat bounced up and out of the chair. “Thanks Bert.”

Erik took two stiff steps toward the chair. His tight blue jersey glistened with water, more drops ran off his helmet and down his legs, bare beneath his knee. “Don’t I get a say in this?”

“No.” Bert and Cat said together.

Cat touched Erik’s arm as she went past. “Tough luck.”

She grimaced before she even hit the door. Why did she do something like that? Touch his arm? It was only going to encourage him. Simple answer. Get the hell out of there before Erik found some excuse to follow her into the back. She hit the door moving fast and picked up speed as she shoved through. In the back she ran to her locker. Her fingers felt like lead as she spun the dial for the combination lock. For a second her mind went blank. She didn’t have any idea what the numbers were, but her fingers stopped it on the first number. 13. Lucky 13. All the rest came back. She got the locker open, snagged her bag, making sure that she had her u-lock inside because she had forgotten it before, and locked back up. In the lobby the phone rang and she faintly heard Bert answering. Slinging the bag strap over her head onto her shoulder she headed toward the rack to get her bike. The bells on her bag jingled with each step. She copied that from the pedicabs over in Goblinus. Those guys, mostly goblins, all had bells on their cabs to alert pedestrians to their presence. Now it sounded loud and annoying.

Cat pulled her bike out of the rack just as the lobby door swung open, with Erik hurrying into the back. His face lit up when he saw her.

“Great! You haven’t left yet. Hold up a sec, I’ve got a pickup run to make but I have loads of time, we can ride together for bit.”

Cat pushed her bike toward the exit. She never should have touched his arm. “Sorry, can’t wait. I’ll see you later.”

“Hey!”

She didn’t stop. Erik ran for the bike rack and she shoved her bike outside into the wet and rain. One, two steps and she swung her leg up over the seat and dropped onto the pedals. She pushed hard and shot down the back alleyway behind the building. Her attention turned inward, looking for that feeling in her chest that signaled the alignment of an alley with Goblinus. She felt it, but not here, not right now. The alleys shifted and moved over time. She had an unerring sense of direction and it was telling her that she needed to head North.

Cat rolled out to the street, turning smartly into the lane when she saw it was clear, and stood up to tackle the hill. As she rode she looked over the top of a battered Geo parked on the street and saw Erik come out of the alley behind her. She pushed harder. No way he’d be able to keep up and soon enough she’d ditch him when she found an open alley.

At the top of the hill her gut told her to head left and she did, climbing slightly again but heading towards a development along the ridge. Lots of office buildings with a view rising up above the trees, expensive places for people with expensive tastes. And wherever there were people with expensive tastes they’d have alleys to hide their dumpsters and let their menial workers come and go through back entrances. That had to be the place. Traffic increased on the road but she kept the lane, pushing to the pedals and easily cruising along at almost thirty. She didn’t see Erik anywhere when she checked her helmet mirror. He might have given up on the charge up the hill, but she doubted it. She started looking around, sure that he had to be somewhere, but she didn’t see him.

The feeling that she was on the right track grew stronger as she reached the conflict. She raced around a roundabout planted with young Douglas fir trees and on into the main drive for the first complex. Movement out the corner of her eye caught her attention and she saw Erik coming up the sidewalk! She shot past, cursing because he had to have seen her. Now she had to get to the alley before he caught up or he’d see her cross over.

Her bike carried her on past all of the V.I.P. parking, around the back of the nearest building. A metal bar gate crossed the road ahead, but there was space to the side. She curved smoothly around it and kept going, pedaling hard as the pull grew stronger. It was almost time for the alley to change. She had to hurry!

There. Just ahead a narrow alley opened onto the roadway. She knew that was the spot. She raced toward the opening and heard gears grinding and the growl of something large. Cat braked hard, her tires sliding on the road, and she stopped just before a large garbage truck squeezed out of the alley with the concrete buildings rising on either side. It barely fit at all, maybe a foot to spare on either side. Cat clenched her handlebar grips and waited for her chance.

As soon as the truck cleared the alley she shoved forward, pedaling hard into the narrow space. Her tires splashed through the thin ribbon of water running down the center of the concrete alley. Recessed yellow lights gleamed in reinforced pockets on the walls. As exultant as if she were crossing a finishing line Cat rode the change from this alley to another only to realize with shock that there was someone coming up hard on her left elbow. Too late to stop, too late to do anything except cross.

Bright sunshine hit her eyes as if the clouds had been ripped away. The smooth gliding ride across concrete gave way to a teeth-rattling cobblestone. Cat hit her brakes and came to a stop. She heard swearing and saw Erik lose control of his bike, as he wobbled and then toppled over on the uneven surface.

The buildings rising around them were made of light yellow bricks but the alleyway was paved with cobblestones. Balconies hung over the alley, overgrown with plants that dangled down the sides of the buildings. Clotheslines strung with colorful garments crisscrossed the alley above there heard. She heard voices, some raised in song and others laughing, and smelled something eye-watering-hot cooking. Even more striking was the absence of any traffic sounds. Further down the alley, at least a hundred yards past where Erik was slowing picking himself up, a couple people in bright tunics were walking this way. Only not human people, she could tell even from this distance. Both of them what she thought of as classic goblins, standing about shoulder-high with green skin, pointy ears and large yellowish eyes. The one on her left wore a blue tunic stretched tight by his bulk and had a shaven head. His companion wore a bright pink tunic and had long dark hair pulled back into a top-knot. Neither goblin looked alarmed to see two humans on bikes suddenly show up in the alley. The trick, Cat had learned, was to look like you belonged and had a purpose. Then most folks left you alone. In both worlds.

She rolled forward to join Erik as he picked up his bike, but his attention was on everything else. She leaned closer. “You look like a tourist. Close your trap and follow me.”

“But—”

“Do it!” She pedaled toward the approaching goblins, hoping that he’d be smart enough to follow. She checked her helmet mirror. He was on his bike, riding after her, his fingers holding tight to his handlebars as they bounced along the alley. It wasn’t that bad once you got used to it, but rougher than most city riding. Some sections of the city had better streets but vehicle traffic was limited to a few radial streets and designated roads around the center of the city. She didn’t recognize this section of the city but that was hardly surprising considering the vastness of Goblinus. She knew that the Goblin King’s city was a huge amorphous blight on the landscape and stretched miles out from the dark spires at the heart which housed the Goblin King himself. So far she’d stayed out of the inner districts, always coming into the city in places like this. And so far her luck had held for her to find her way back out again, thanks to her keen sense of direction.

It only took moments to reach the goblins. She didn’t say anything to them, just focused on steering around them, her bells jingling the whole time. Erik stayed right behind her as if he was trying to draft off her. As they passed the goblins she heard one of them sneer, “Othersiders.”

Cat didn’t respond. She kept riding, but slowed slightly now that the alley was clear. Erik rolled up alongside us. His face looked pale.

“What was that?”

Cat glanced back, but they were far enough away. “Goblins. This is their city. Not just goblins, of course, there are other types of people here including humans. Don’t act like a tourist and you won’t stand out.”

“This is impossible. You went into that alley between the offices –”

“And came out here. Tell me something I don’t know.” Cat softened slightly. “It surprised me too the first time.”

“You’ve done this before?”

“Yes.” Cat brought her bike to a stop. Erik stopped with her. “You shouldn’t have followed me. I didn’t think you could follow me, honestly.”

“You mean you brought me here?”

Cat shrugged. “It’s not like I meant to. I was trying to ditch you.”

Now Erik got some of his color back and grinned at her. “Not that easy to ditch me.”

“I guess not, but now we’ve got a bit of a problem.”

“What?”

“I’ve got to get you back safely but I don’t know if I can. Even if I find the route back what if you just stay stuck on this side?”

“That could happen?”

“I don’t know! Maybe? It isn’t like I’ve brought people over here before.”

“I followed you this way, why wouldn’t it work going back?”

“Maybe it will.” Cat pushed off on her bike. “I just wish I knew if it would or not.”

Erik caught up with her and they rode down the alley to a wider cross-street. There was a lot more pedestrian traffic on the street. Mostly goblins of the green variety but Cat saw some of the leather-clad yellow goblins that looked like some sort of police from a nightmare bondage fantasy, and even a couple of the bigger gray goblins stomping along with their over-sized feet and protruding lips. Here and there in the crowds she saw other types. A thin, fine-featured man with long white hair, no idea what he could be, as well as the occasional humans. No one looked like they were giving her any second looks as she wove among the crowd, trying to project the image of a bike messenger with a purpose. Erik wisely kept up and didn’t say anything. So long as they kept moving Cat felt better. She concentrated on her sense of direction. Which way home?

Her gut told her to keep going down this street so she kept pushing on the pedals. Now and then she checked on Erik with her helmet mirror but he doggedly stayed right behind her on her left. Everything considered he was handling himself well. Her gut feeling didn’t get stronger but she remained convinced that she was going the right way. As she rode she kept an eye and ear out for any trouble. Goblins mostly gave way at the sound of her bells. She caught a few scowls but also passed a pedicab being pedaled by a big gray goblin with his own bell jangling from the canopy over his empty passenger seat. She smelled fresh-baked bread riding past one building, and right at the next something with a strong garlic odor started her stomach growling. A short distance on she passed a cart with row after row of dried fish hanging on strings. Other merchants hawked their wares along the street from carts and tables, boxes and discreet samples in pockets. A constant babble of overlapping voices came at her from all sides. Riding past a group of yellow goblins they burst into raucous laughter, which she thought was directed at her and Erik at first, but then she saw one of the goblins flick a pebble at one of the light posts. The rock pinged off the glass globe at the top and inside one of the captive fairies kicked and hit at the glass, making rude gestures at the goblins. The others lay about in their day-time stupor, too tired or too apathetic to care. Another rock hit the glass and triggered another tantrum which set the goblins off laughing once more.

Cat looked away and kept peddling. She’d been shocked the first time she saw the fairies in the lamp posts, now she tried not to look at them. Erik rode up beside her.

“Did you see that?”

“Yes, but there’s nothing we can do about it. Get behind me.”

“Are those fairies?”

“Yes, Erik watch out!”

Her warning came too late. He didn’t see the big pink goblin in his path until he was just about to collide with the unfortunate pedestrian. Erik swerved wildly, somehow missing the goblin but his only option was to head into a narrow alley. The goblin shouted and took a swing at Erik, but missed. Cat braked and swung her bike around. The goblin turned his attention to her.

She smiled widely. “Sorry about that.”

In the alley Erik shouted in alarm. Cat stood up on the pedals and shot toward the alley, swerving around the goblin’s grasping hands. More shouts rose up behind her but she didn’t look back. She shot into the alley and saw Erik pedaling away from her, deeper into the alley. At first she didn’t see what he was fleeing from but then a section of the red brick wall moved. It bulged out and jumped down into an alley, landing on all fours. It wasn’t a section of the wall at all but a geist, a sort of chameleon-like goblin she had encountered before. Its skin matched the bricks as it loped after Erik. And it wasn’t alone. Several other geists chased after him, some leaping from balcony to balcony above, or racing along the roof top. Cat hesitated only a second before she raced after the geists and Erik, the whole while her gut telling her that she was going in the wrong direction. Erik was standing up, pedaling as fast as he could, but it looked like the geists were gaining on him.

They raced down the alley, the geists hot after Erik and Cat speeding along behind, but gaining. The rough cobblestone of the alley rattled her teeth and bike until her arms and wrists ached. As she closed the gap between her and the geists she caught a strong urine scent from them. Then she rode up alongside the trailing geist, a creature of knotted muscles beneath the lumpish cobblestone appearance of its skin. It snarled at her with teeth of splintered stone. Cat reached back with one hand, and pulled her u-lock from her messenger bag. The geist lunged at her calf and she swung the metal u-lock down at its head hard. The blow sent tremors up her arm and the geist crumpled to the ground. Just then her bike’s front tire hit a protruding rock and bounced. She almost lost control of the bike but managed to recover and pedaled harder to catch up with Erik.

Geists on each side came at her but she swung the lock and knocked them back. One leaped from a balcony, attempting to land on her but she ducked down and it missed. All around she heard the harsh panting of their breath and that urine scent stung her eyes. Then she passed the leading geist and pulled up alongside Erik. His face was pale and intent on navigating the alley. It was so narrow that there wasn’t much more room than the two of them side-by-side. Cat thought about home and felt the tug in her gut that indicated a crossing, but it wasn’t home. She didn’t know where it would go. She was still debating it in her mind when a large geist with skin colored like stone and nails like wrought iron dropped from the rooftops three floors above and landed directly in their path. It rose up baring teeth of broken glass and roared.

“Oh shit!” Erik cried.

Before he could brake Cat reached over and grabbed his arm. Inside she reached for that sense of the crossing and –

They rolled together into an equally narrow brick-lined alley that came to an end right before them. There wasn’t any time to stop before they rolled out, startling a woman, and into a street in front of a small blue car. The car braked and the bearded man inside swore at them. Erik lost control of his bike and toppled into the street. Cat swung off her bike and knelt beside him.

“Are you okay?”

The man in the car yelled at them again, in French. Cat recognized a word or two. She raised a hand. “Pardon!”

Erick picked himself up. “I’m okay.”

He grabbed his bike and she went to her bike. Together they pushed their bikes on across the street. Erik was looking at her but Cat’s eyes were drawn to the end of the road. There, rising above the trees, was the Eiffel tower. The man in the blue car drove on past.

“What is it?” Erik asked. “Not more monsters.”

“No.” Cat laughed. She pointed down the street. “Take a look.”

Erick looked. “No way! How?”

Cat tore her eyes from the tower and looked at Erik. He was sort of cute in a kind of goofy way with his curls poking out from beneath his bike helmet. “The goblin alleys connect Goblinus to cities everywhere. It looks like we ended up in Paris.”

“That’s crazy. How do we get home?”

Cat grinned again. “Well, since we don’t have passports I think our best bet is to go back through the goblin alley. I’ve got a great sense of direction.”

“You brought us here!”

“That was only to get away from the geists. We’ll be more careful the next time. Are you up for it?”

“On one condition.”

“What?”

“Okay, two conditions.”

Cat raised an eyebrow.

“Look,” Erik said quickly. “Just two things. When we get back you explain everything, and we go out to dinner together. Like a date.”

“If you do what I tell you too this time,” Cat said.

“Of course.”

Cat turned her bike away before he could see her smile and swung her leg up over the seat. First, find the way back to Goblinus and then home. After that, a date might be nice. And it’d be cool to have someone to share all this with. She pedaled slowly down the street, Erik falling in behind her, savoring the view of the tower. Her gut told her it might take a while to find another crossing. Or maybe she just wanted to check out the sights a bit before they left.

3,942 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 23rd weekly short story release. I originally put this story out under my pen name “Michael Burges.” I wrote this back in early 2011. It was a tie-in to the Goblin Alley series that, at the time, was only one novel. Cat would eventually show up again in a guest appearance in The Eleven Lords.

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 another Goblin Alley tie-in, The Forest Path.

Attack of the Sand Gnomes

Pete’s family came to reclaim the desert and their futures. Pete, Reny and Keri chased lizards and played in the desert. They dug cool forts in the ground and disguised the entrances with tumbleweeds. They climbed the spiny Joshua trees.

And they dreamed of rain.

And had nightmares about sand gnomes riding hot winds scented with blooming cactus.

Pete lay down on the hot sand between the thorny tumbleweeds and looked over the rise at the house. Not much to see at the moment, nothing moved except the shimmer of heat waves that made the house dance like a mirage. A spiny lizard crawled out from under a green tumbleweed and crouched when it saw Pete. He knew just how the lizard felt.

He slid backwards through the sand to the entrance of the fort and slid his hand beneath the tumbleweed to grab the stems where there weren’t so many thorns. He lifted it only enough to slide under into the cool dark earthen space beneath.

Pete slid the shield on the lantern open only a crack. Enough to see Keri’s dirt-stained face where she lay curled into a ball like a pill bug as far under the sloped roof as she could get, and Reny sitting up against the higher back wall.

“They still out there?” Reny asked.

“Don’t know. Didn’t see anyone but they could be anywhere.”

Keri whimpered which earned Pete a dark look from Reny. Reny leaned forward and patted Keri’s bare foot.

“Shhh, don’t worry. We’re safe here.”

Pete scooted across the rough dirt floor and put his back against the dirt wall. He lifted the lantern and hung it from the twisted nail hook on the ceiling.

“We can’t stay here forever,” he whispered. “We need water. Food.”

“Not yet,” Reny whispered back. “They could be out there waiting for us.”

“And if we wait too long?”

Reny’s dirty face looked like a mirror of his own. Pete reached up for the lamp. “We need to save the candle.”

Keri whimpered softly again. Pete closed the shutter anyway.

“I want to go home,” Keri said from the dark.

Pete heard Reny shift. Bits of dirt rattled in the dark. “We can’t, Keri. Try to take a nap, okay?”

That’d be best for all of them but Pete couldn’t shake the images that stuck in his mind.

It had all started with the wind. He and Reny and Keri had been out in the desert chasing lizards but the small stripped ones ran so fast and if you grabbed them by the tail it could come right off in your hand. They’d come back together at the fort when the wind blew up and sent dust and sand into their faces. And it smelled of blooming cactus, just like they had been warned. The wind that heralded the coming of the sand gnomes.

Reny had been the one that pulled the tumbleweed out of the entrance of the fort and saved them all. He had pricked his hand in several places doing it.

Reny yelled for them to get inside. They all knew the drill. Keri dropped and went in as quick as a jack rabbit. Pete had stood there like an idiot staring at the house as four enormous dust devils converged on the house from every direction. They were monstrous large dust devils filled with sand and dust and tumbleweeds all twirling around. Pete had seen his parents, and Reny’s parents, running for the shelter of the house, his mother yelling for him even though he couldn’t hear her words over the wind. Then Reny had grabbed and shoved him towards the fort, shouting to make himself heard.

 

They had gotten inside and Reny had pulled the tumbleweed into place in the entrance. Then they sat in the dark holding on to one another while they waited for the sickly sweet smelling wind to go away. The wind howled outside for a long time before it finally stopped and the smell faded. Reny had saved them and Pete felt sick inside when he thought about how he had frozen.

That’s why, after they waited a long time, he had insisted on being the one to go out and check on the house.

But now, what would they do now?

They didn’t have any weapons. What weapons their families owned were in the house with their parents, if their parents were even still there. Maybe they had driven the sand gnomes off. It could have happened. They had planned for it and drilled for it ever since they came down from the North to try and reclaim this spot of desert.

But if it hadn’t worked, if the sand gnomes had taken their parents, then it was just them and what hope did they have against something that could ride dust devils like the ones he had seen?

Reny and Pete agreed that going out after the sun set gave them the greatest chance of getting to the house. Reny thought they all should go but Pete thought Reny should stay behind with his sister.

“I want to go.” Keri was nothing more than a shadow in the dark fort.

“You’re too slow. If we have to run, you’d get caught.”

“I’m faster than you!”

“Are not!”

“I’ll go,” Reny said.

“No!” “No!” Pete and Keri said at the same time.

“You should stay with your sister,” Pete added quickly. “I’ll go check it out. I’m faster than you too. If they spot me, I’ll shout and run away from the house. That’ll be your chance to get out. Head up the wagon road towards Quartz Hill. Get help from the marshals.”

“We could all go for the marshals,” Reny said.

“I need to check the house. I’ll get water if I can.”

“I’m thirsty,” Keri said.

They were all thirsty. Pete’s mouth tasted of nothing but sand and grit. His lips felt as dry as a lizard’s back. And, even though none of them had said anything, he could already feel the chill in the air. When night came completely it would be very cold and they had nothing except shorts and thin shirts.

“I’ll be fast. If the sand gnomes took them then they’re probably gone and we’ll need the Marshal’s help to track them anyway.”

“Fine,” Reny said. “Be careful. Watch the sand.”

Pete shuddered at the thought of a dirty hand suddenly coming out of the sand and grabbing his ankles. He didn’t need to be warned.

He needed to move but suddenly he didn’t want to leave the comforting darkness of the fort. He felt safe with the close earth walls and Reny. Even Keri. He knew better. The only thing that had protected them this long was the fact that they had remained hidden. Going out again could expose them all, but what other choice did they have?

“I can go.” Reny’s voice sounded shaky.

“No.” Pete got onto his hands and knees and crawled to the faint opening shadowed by the big tumbleweed. “I’m going. Remember, listen in case I yell and then go yourselves.”

“We will,” Reny said.

Pete reached out for the tumbleweed and pinched a spot with a thorn. He jerked his hand back then reached out again and very lightly ran his fingers along the thicker stems at the base. He got a grip on the tumbleweed and pushed it out. He immediately pulled his hand back in and listened. If there were any sand gnomes about he wanted them to think that the wind had shifted the tumbleweed.

He couldn’t hear hardly anything except his own heart pounding and Keri’s sniffles. He inhaled deeply and only smelled the dirt in the fort and the sand. He reached forward and started to wiggle out the entrance. A sharp barking howl cut through the night like a warning. Pete dropped to the sand. The grains pressing into his cheek felt soft, except for one twig, and still had some warmth. The cry repeated itself and he relaxed his body against the sand. Nothing but a coyote. Another answered from farther away.

Pete wiggled the rest of the way out and picked up the tumbleweed. In the faint light he could see better and didn’t have to fumble around to avoid the thorns. He dropped it in place over the opening and then crawled up the small rise again just as he had done earlier. The desert looked blue now that the sun had gone down. Light still bled over the horizon behind him but the area around the house looked still and empty as if no one lived there.

He chewed a piece of loose skin free on his lip while he studied his options. Crawl along, trying to hide between tumbleweeds or just make a run for it? The sand gnomes could just be resting right under the sand. In that case it wouldn’t make any difference if he ran or crawled, if he got close enough they would hear him and reach out of the sand with their dirty claws to pull him down and juice him.

Anyway, that’s what the stories said. Sand gnomes squeezed and pressed their victims until every last drop had been squeezed out of them just like he’d seen his mother wring a rag.

Running it was. It felt riskier but he’d rather already be running if they tried to grab him. It gave him a better chance to get away and a shout warning for the others. Pete took a big breath. He got up on his hands and feet. The cold air made him shiver. No one yelled as he stood. Everything remained still.

Pete ran like the jack rabbits they chased through the tumbleweeds. Sand flew from beneath his feet. He twisted and dodged around the tumbleweeds that blocked his path. His breath scratched at his dry throat. He kept his eyes fixed on the weathered gray boards of the house porch. One hundred feet. Seventy. He passed the big water trough that Pappy kept for the horses. The big wood lid lay cast aside and split in two. There was only sand gathering in small dunes along the bottom of the trough.

Fifty feet. The Joshua tree beside the porch reached for the house with spiny limbs. Forty.

Sand erupted in front of Pete. It flew in his mouth. In his nose. He coughed and choked couldn’t see anything with all the sand in his stinging eyes.

A harsh voice came out of the sand. “Gotcha!”

Rough hands grabbed his arms and yanked him almost off his feet. Pete opened his mouth to yell but the hands threw him face-first to the ground. More sand went up his nose and mouth. Then something pressed down on the back of his head. It felt hot and dry, hard but it curled over the back of his head and something sharp pricked at his neck. A foot! It pressed his face harder into the sand. He couldn’t breathe!

Pete panicked. He kicked and reached up to grab the sand gnome’s ankle — it could only be a sand gnome — but his flailing arms were knocked away. Pete reached up and clawed at the sand around his face. If he could clear away enough —

The foot came off his head and shoved against his shoulder. Pete flopped over coughing out sand. It felt like his whole mouth was full of nothing but sand. He spit and spit and still his mouth felt gritty and dry. Through the sand in his eyes he could only make out a blurry shape standing over him.

“Quiet now!”

Pete coughed out more sand. A foot kicked him in the stomach. The pain was sharp and shocking. For several seconds Pete couldn’t breathe at all.

“I said quiet!”

Pete lay as still as possible. He didn’t move though the sand clung still to his tongue. He did the only thing he could do and blinked rapidly to clear sand from his eyes. Gradually he was able to see again.

A sort-of man stood above Pete, with the stars above his head as he looked at the desert with suspicious eyes. A sand gnome, just like the stories said, with a bald scaly head. Bony spikes started small above his little eyes and then curved around down either side of his head, getting bigger as they went. If he had ears Pete couldn’t see them but obviously the sand gnome could hear. Almost no nose at all, a bump with slits. He wore light sand colored robes that covered most of his body which looked much wider side to side than front to back. It was one of his clawed bare feet that had pressed Pete’s face into the sand. He snorted and looked down at Pete.

“Call your friends.”

“Who?” Pete croaked, and coughed out more sand.

The sand gnome pointed a short scaly finger at Pete. “Call them now.”

“I don’t have —”

The sand gnome kicked at him. Pete rolled away and the sand gnome snarled and came after him. Pete tried to get up but the sand gnome caught him before he could even get one leg under him. Clawed fingers grabbed the front of his shirt and lifted him up, tearing the cloth. The sand gnome shook Pete until he thought his teeth would turn to sand.

“Call them! Call them! Call them!”

Stay put, Pete thought desperately at Reny. If they tried to run now the sand gnome would see them.

“Alone! I’m alone!”

The sand gnome dropped him. It caught Pete by surprise and he didn’t catch himself. He sprawled backwards and fell onto a tumbleweed. Thorns dug into his back and arms. He yelped and jerked away.

The sand gnome laughed at him and grabbed an arm. “Come on!”

Pete tried to stand but the sand gnome didn’t give him a chance and dragged him across the yard to the house. Pete gave up struggling and let himself be dragged along. And he watched the desert for any sign of Reny or Keri. He didn’t see them and that made him feel a little better. At least they still had a chance to get away even if the plan had gone horribly wrong.

The sand gnome yanked him up against the weather boards of the porch steps and let him go. “Get inside!”

Pete felt a small bit of hope. If Reny saw them go inside then it’d be a chance for Reny and Keri to escape, get to Quartz Hill like they’d talked about and find the marshals to come and help. Pete held up a hand as he climbed to his feet.

Standing up he discovered that the sand gnome wasn’t really any taller than him, but so wide it made him seem bigger. The sand gnome shoved him towards the porch.

“Go!”

“I’m going.” Pete walked up the porch steps and pulled open the screen door. Inside he might be able to get his hands on a weapon.

The sand gnome followed him on up into the porch where Pete’s mother usually sat to shell peas. Just the other day she had put an apple pie out on that rickety one-legged table to cool in the night air. Now sand covered the boards that she had him sweep all the time and the screens were torn in several places. A couple smaller tumbleweeds sat against one side of the porch. The door to the house hung open with the top hinge torn clear of the splintered wood frame.

“Inside!” The sand gnome shoved Pete towards the broken door.

Pete did as he was ordered but it didn’t feel like his house when he got inside. The orderly refuge that protected two families against the heat of the desert was in shambles. The floor rugs scattered in heaps of sand. Chairs toppled, two splintered into kindling, and the wide mantle board that Pete’s dad had spent many nights polishing, torn free from the place above the fireplace. One of the pretty blue curtains that Reny’s mother patiently stitched hung in tatters as if shredded by claws. If Pete hadn’t known that only hours before the house had been full of life he would have assumed the place was long abandoned.

Tears, the first his eyes had managed, welled up in his eyes. He clenched his fists and —

The sand gnome grabbed him and shoved him roughly towards the wall. Pete came back at him, not thinking at all, raising his fists to try and fight. The sand gnome moved fast and shoved him hard again and didn’t let go. He drove Pete right back into the wall with enough force that Pete felt stunned. His tears flowed freely now and through them he saw the sand gnome’s face right in front of him. A clawed hand came up and grabbed his jaw. And squeezed. Pete hit at the gnome but his hand only bruised his hand on the bony spines beneath the sand gnome’s robes.

A long tongue flicked up the side of his face, retracing the tracks of his tears. Pete tried to squirm and push the sand gnome away but the sand gnome held him fast. The tongue flicked across his eye and sucked away his tears. Then his head was forced to the side. Again the tongue retraced his tears and flicked across his eyes. Pete tried to choke back his sobs but more tears came.

The sand gnome hummed under his breath and his tongue flicked out again. And again.

Then Pete heard a loud thud and the sand gnome fell. It happened so fast that his knees hardly held him. He pressed his hands against the wood wall to steady himself. Reny stood on the other side of the fallen sand gnome, with their hardwood bat in his hands. Keri hovered in the doorway, rising on tiptoes to see.

“You okay?” Reny asked.

Pete sniffled and pushed away from the wall. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“Is he dead?” Keri asked.

The sand gnome snorted, blowing sand across the boards. They all jumped and Keri let out a small shriek.

“No.” Pete pointed at the torn curtains. “Grab those. We’ll tie him up.”

Reny handed Pete the bat then Reny and Keri went to the windows and pulled down the shredded curtains. The sound of the fabric being torn into strips made Pete clench his teeth. These sand gnomes! Pete tightened his hands on the worn sweat-stained wood. He wanted to hit the sand gnome as hard as he could and his arms shook with the effort it took not to swing. He felt tears sting his eyes again and blinked them away.

Reny came back with the strips and hovered above the sand gnome, shifting from one foot to the other. Keri held more of the curtain remnants.

“Do it. Tie him tight.” Pete lifted the bat as if about to swing. “If he tries anything I’ll clobber him.”

Reny set the strips aside. He used both hands to shove the sand gnome over onto his back. The sand gnome snorted again but his head fell back exposing his wide flat white throat. Pete watched carefully for any sign that the sand gnome might wake.

“Hurry!”

“I am!” Reny grabbed a long strip and laid it across the sand gnome’s belly. He lifted one arm and set it across the ribbon and then the other. Then he grabbed both ends and quickly tied a knot which he pulled tight until the sand gnome’s wrists came together.

“More,” Pete said. “Wrap it around. And through the middle.”

“I know.” Reny wrapped the strip around and tied another knot. And again. Then around through the middle. He ran out of cloth and picked up another.

Keri danced from one foot to the next. “Hurry!”

The sand gnome snorted more loudly and started to lift his head. Pete raised the bat above his head. Reny froze with a strip of cloth in his hands. The sand gnome’s head dropped back and he started snoring again.

Reny wrapped and tied two more strips around the sand gnome’s wrists until they couldn’t hardly even see his hands anymore.

Pete pointed the bat at the sand gnome’s feet. “His feet too. Then his knees. We need to make sure he can’t get away.”

Around the time Reny was working on the sand gnome’s knees the sand gnome groaned and lifted his head. Pete lifted the bat.

“Keep going!”

Reny worked fast. He wrapped and tied. Keri handed him more strips when he needed them until they ran out of cloth. Just in time. The sand gnome’s eyes opened. He his lids snapped shut and back open again. He lifted his head and looked up at Pete standing over him with the bat.

“What?”

Pete lifted the bat. “You’re going to tell us what happened to our parents!”

The sand gnome snorted and shook his head. He tried to sit up and flopped back to the floor. “What?”

Reny scrambled back and stood. Keri went to him and pressed to the backs of his legs and peeked around at their captive.

Pete swung the bat down so that it pointed at the sand gnome’s head. “Our parents. They aren’t here. Where did the others take them?”

The sand gnome rolled onto his side. Keri shrieked and hid her face behind her brother’s legs. Pete took a step back and swung the bat up above his shoulder. The sand gnome put his tied hands on the floor and shoved himself up into a sitting position. He brought his hands up to his mouth and bit at the bindings.

“Stop it!’

The sand gnome kept worrying at the knot.

“Stop it!” Pete swung the bat and hit the sand gnome in the side of his head.

The sand gnome’s tongue stuck out and he toppled over to the floor again.

Keri peeked out. “Is he dead now?”

Pete edged an inch closer and held out a hand for the others to stay back. The sand gnome let out a rough sigh and Pete saw the sand gnome’s chest rise and fall, then rise again.

“No. Not yet, but he’s out again.”

“I messed up,” Reny said. “I should have tied his hands up behind his back.”

“We’re not redoing it,” Pete said. “You guys need to see if there’s any water in the house and food. Then get going to Quartz Hill to tell the marshals what’s happened.”

“You’re coming too,” Reny said.

Pete shook his head. “I’m going to try to find our parents.”

“Let the marshals do that!”

“Reny, you know what they do.” Pete glanced at Keri. “You’ve got to get your sister someplace safe. I’ll get him to tell me and I’ll go after our parents.”

“With a bat?”

Pete held out the bat to Reny. “No. Not with that. Watch him.”

Reny took the bat and came over to stand over the sand gnome. Pete crouched down close to the sand gnome and tried not to think about it licking his face. He searched through the sand gnome’s robes. A whiff of cactus bloom came up from the sand gnome as he worked. Just like on the wind. He found a leather belt around the sand gnome’s waist with several pouches. One contained thick pieces of cactus meat. Another some sort of dry plants. Pete left those alone. On the other side he found a sheath with a long curved dagger. It was thin and white, made of bone or something. Pete thought it looked like a snake’s fang except no snake ever grew that big. He hoped. One side was sharped and the point looked as sharp as a needle. He sat it aside on the wood.

Reny whistled. “Good thing he didn’t get that out.”

Lucky for them. Pete kept searching. He didn’t find anything else on the belt. But up around the sand gnome’s neck he noticed a gold chain. He pulled it out of the robes and found what looked like a golden whistle on one end but like no whistle he had ever seen. Two golden fangs curved upwards on the mouthpiece, making it impossible to blow the whistle without poking your lips. Pete grimaced but he twisted the whistle free from the thin wire holding it to the chain and put it aside too. More searching failed to turn up anything else.

Pete scooped up the knife and whistle. He slipped them into his pockets and held out his hand for the bat. “Go see if you can find some clothes and get dressed.” The air in the house was already getting cold without a fire. “I’ll watch him.”

“Holler if you need help.”

While the sand gnome snored Pete dragged over an unbroken chair and sat down with the bat balanced across his knees until the others came back downstairs. They had both gotten dressed in their long pants, coats and shoes. Keri had on the colorful hat her mother had knit.

Reny brushed at his arms. “They’re sandy but they left the clothes and stuff. It’s just all scattered around.”

Pete got up and passed the bat over to Reny. “I’ll be quick. Watch him close.”

Just as Reny said their bedrooms upstairs looked like the dust devils had come inside and thrown things around just for fun. His school books looked like bleached leaves scattered around the room. A lizard skittered out from under a tumbleweed in the middle of the floor and ran for the shelter of the toppled dresser. Pete pulled clothes off the floor, shook the sand out as best he could and dressed. He took the knife and whistle and put the whistle in his pants pocket. The knife he slipped through his belt.

Then he went out of his room and around the landing into his parents’ room. It felt weird to walk in there with them gone but the room itself didn’t look anything like it usually did. The bed leaned up against one wall with a sand dune against the bottom. Everything destroyed, just like the other rooms, but it smelled strongly of mother’s rose perfume that she brought down from the North. He saw the broken crystal bottle against the wall.

Pete blinked back tears and went down on his hands and knees. He brushed sand aside with his hands, looking for the notch.

There. A chip in the side of the board. He tried getting his fingernail under it. His finger slipped and the nail tore. The pain was sharp and immediate. He stuck the finger in his mouth and sucked on it, tasting blood and sand, then took his hand out and shook it. He needed something else.

Pete thought of the dagger. He pulled it out of his belt and tried the tip on the notch. Slowly, carefully he eased the board up. Sand made a faint hissing sound as it poured down into the space in the floor. Pete shoved the board aside.

Just enough moonlight came through the window that he could see a dark cloth shape in the space beneath. He reached in and took it out, surprised about the weight and feeling like he was going to get in a lot of trouble.

Except there was no one here to tell him otherwise.

He drew back the cloth and his breath caught when he saw the rainmaker. Only about the size of an apple, it was a ball of engraved metal strips wrapping around and around from different directions. He turned it and caught just a glimpse of some bright spark inside that caught the moonlight. Pop had believed that the rainmaker would help them tame the desert and drive back the sand gnomes if he could only figure out how to make it work.

Pete didn’t have any idea but if it could drive back sand gnomes then he would take it. Maybe he could figure out a way to use it.

Reny shouted downstairs and Keri screamed. He heard the sand gnome roaring.

Pete dropped the rainmaker into its bag and stuffed it in his shirt. He snatched up the dagger and ran out onto the landing. His feet slid on the sand and he very nearly fell the entire way down the stairs. He caught his balance on the railing and hurried downstairs.

Reny and the sand gnome wrestled over the bat. The sand gnome was sitting up and had a grip with his fingers on the fat end. He was trying to yank it from Reny’s grasp. Reny yelled as his feet slipped in the sand and he fell to his knees, but he hung on. The sand gnome shoved the bat at Reny’s face so that his own hands hit his nose. He still clung to the bat.

Pete ran up behind the sand gnome. He pressed the point of the dagger against the back of the sand gnome’s neck. “Let go. Now.”

The sand gnome held very still. Pete pressed a bit harder and drew a drop of blood. The sand gnome let go of the bat.

Reny got to his feet. He swung the bat back.

“No!”

Reny stopped his swing. “Why not?”

“I’ll take care of him. Just get going. You know what to do. Take care of your sister.”

Keri was sitting against the wall by the door with her hands around her knees. Reny looked over and when he saw her he lowered the bat. He looked back at Pete.

“We can’t leave you.”

“You have to.” Pete looked at the spot of blood trickling down the back of the sand gnome’s neck. It looked as red as anyone’s. “If we leave him he’ll just get loose. Instead he’s going to take me to our parents.”

The sand gnome laughed. “I’m not taking you anywhere!”

Pete twisted the dagger. The sand gnome hissed and tried to pull away. Pete pressed hard. “Don’t move! You do what I say!”

A louder hiss from the sand gnome but he stopped moving. Pete looked at Reny. “Go. Now.”

Reny put the bat to his shoulder and went over to Keri. He crouched down and whispered something in her ear. She turned and wrapped her arms around his neck. He stood up and she swung her legs around his waist.

“We’ll send help.”

“You won’t get far enough to find help,” the sand gnome taunted. “After I juice this one I’ll come for you and your little sister, too!”

“You’re not juicing anyone,” Pete said. He met Reny’s eyes. “Go.”

Reny carried Keri out of the room. Pete listened to him walk across the porch and down the steps. Then they were gone and it was just him and the sand gnome. He wanted to kill the sand gnome but that wouldn’t get their parents back. Pete took a step back away from the sand gnome but held the dagger ready. If the sand gnome made him, he would do it.

“What’s your name?” Pete asked.

The sand gnome twisted around and looked up. His broad tongue flicked out. “Cinctores.” He lifted his hands towards his mouth to bite at the knots again.

Pete swiped the dagger at Cinctores. The sand gnome jerked away and lowered his hands. Pete pointed the dagger at him. “Don’t try to escape. If you make me, I’ll kill you.”

Cinctores laughed. “You think a scrawny little human like you is going to kill me?”

“You’re the one tied up, aren’t you?” Pete pointed at the door. “And now you’re going to show me where my parents are.”

“Sure,” Cinctores said agreeably. He gestured with his bound hands at his legs. “Cut me free and we can go.”

Pete hesitated, sure it was a trap. “You’d better not try to escape.”

“Or what? Oh, right. You’ll kill me. But I can’t show you where your parents are just sitting here, now can I?” Cinctores shrugged. “You’re probably too late anyway. I’ll bet that right about now they’re being fed into the millstones. But if we hurry you can probably join them.”

Pete slid the dagger under the bindings on Cinctores knees while watching him warily. The sharp edge cut through the curtain cloth like it was tissue paper. He moved down and slit the bindings around Cinctores’ ankles and quickly moved back.

Almost as fast Cinctores got to his feet. He stopped against the wood floors. “That’s better. All right, boy. Come along then if you’re so eager to be juiced.”

Cinctores walked out of the room, his claws rapping hard against the wood. Pete hurried after him expecting some treachery from the sand gnome. But Cinctores just went out across the porch, down the steps and started walking off into the desert. Pete ran after him but trailed along several feet back. He held the dagger ready.

The desert looked different at night under the moon and stars like another world altogether. The sand gleamed like the snow they used to get up in the mountains. Each cactus, each tumbleweed looked like boulders. It was a world of blue light and shadows. In the distance Pete heard coyotes singing again and wondered what they sang about. A few minutes later he heard the mournful sound of an owl hooting.

Cinctores set a hard pace but he didn’t seem to be trying to get away. He didn’t try for the bindings on his hands again. Pete kept up with him, just staying far enough back that Cinctores couldn’t surprise him and attack. Pete’s mouth still tasted like it was full of sand. His throat hurt. His lips cracked and he chewed on another piece of loose skin as he walked.

Pete watched Cinctores broad back carefully. The sand gnome could be leading him to their base or he could just be leading him off into the desert to die. While they kept walking Pete wasn’t going to freeze but what if they kept going until the sun came up? How long could he really keep this up? Cinctores was a sand gnome. He could probably go without water for weeks.

“How much further?”

Cinctores pointed with his bound hands. “See that rock formation? That’s the claw. Our nest is on the other side.”

Pete didn’t know if Cinctores was telling the truth or not. A rock tripped Pete and he almost fell. Pete felt the rainmaker shift in his shirt. He had almost forgotten about the device. He caught his balance and looked at the sand gnome but Cinctores didn’t show any sign of noticing.

Pete transferred the dagger to his other hand and reached into his shirt. He pushed the rainmaker out of the rough cloth bag. Pop had thought the rainmaker could help them reclaim the desert. That’s what brought them South in the first place. They’d been promised free land if they could reclaim it from the desert. Pop and Reny’s dad believed they could do it. Pete and Reny used to spend hours watching their fathers design irrigation systems and talk about the crops that would be planted.

The man that sold the rainmaker said it was an ancient device built by a powerful alchemist. Pop said he had papers that proved it, but the means to make the device work had been lost. Reny’s father and Pop had argued over the purchase but Pop had used his own share to buy it. Pete didn’t have any idea how the device worked. But if he could get it to Pop, maybe he would have an idea.

The rock formation drew closer but Cinctores kept the same tough pace. Pete surprised a snake which slithered off under a bunch of cactus. Had Reny and Keri made it out safe? There could have been other sand gnomes lying in wait to capture them. But if Reny did make it to Quartz Hill then the marshals could come and track down the sand gnomes. Pete and Cinctores had left enough of a trail that it shouldn’t be hard for the marshals to follow.

It worried Pete that Cinctores wasn’t trying to escape. The sand gnome had to have something planned, Pete just couldn’t figure out what it was yet. He slid his hand into his pocket and felt the sand gnome’s whistle. The sharp fangs almost pricked his fingers. He had that too. Cinctores might not realize yet that it was missing off the chain he still wore. It was gold. Maybe he could use it to bargain back his parents.

Pete clenched the dagger and wished he had a better plan.

At last they reached the rock formation and Pete saw a dim glow coming up from the other side. Cinctores walked up the sandstone rocks with Pete following behind. Cinctores stopped at the crest.

“See! There’s the nest! And look? Your parents haven’t been juiced yet!”

Pete rushed forward eagerly. On the other side of the sandstone a gully opened up and led into the ground. Clever dwellings had been built underneath the overhangs. A massive mill with big woven sails and huge grinding stones sat in the center of the gully but the air had gone still. The sails hung limp. Pete’s heart jumped to see his parents, and Reny’s parents, sitting with their backs to the base of the mill. Several feet away a large bonfire roared. Many sand gnomes laid flat on rocks around the fire while others busied themselves with tasks. A couple stood guarding the parents.

Pete was so caught up in seeing his parents that he didn’t hear Cinctores creep up stealthily behind him. He only realized when he heard a harsh chuckle right behind him. He spun around, slashing with the dagger, but too slowly. Cinctores hit him in the chest with his bound hands and sent Pete flying backwards over the edge of the gully.

The impact drove the breath from Pete’s lungs. He slid backwards down the gully wall in a shower of dirt and rocks. Sand gnomes hissed in surprise. Pete slid to a stop and looked up. Cinctores stood at the top of the galley and tore the bindings on his hands free with his teeth. He pointed a claw at Pete.

“I found this one sneaking around back at the farm!”

Pete looked up and all around him scaly, spiky sand gnomes gathered. Pete managed to draw a breath and scrambled up into a crouch. He held the knife out to ward off the sand gnomes.

“Stay back! I’m taking our parents and we’re going!”

“Pete!” his mother sobbed.

“Son! Watch out!”

Pete spun around at Pop’s shout and slashed at a sand gnome that drew too close. The sand gnome jumped back and chuckled. It was a female, Pete thought. Her head dodged back and forth.

Pete slashed again. “Back! Back!”

A loud snort made him turn around again. A mound of sand rose up in front of the fire. The sand gnomes moved aside. Another loud snort and twin geysers of dust blue out of the moving sand pile. The way to his parents had cleared. Pete hurried over, watching the sand. Their parents were tied up with leather cords. Pete cut Pop free first and handed him the dagger.

Bony spines erupted from the sand pile as it poured away like sand in an hourglass. The top of a scaly head emerged, but bigger than any of the sand gnomes he had seen so far. The eyes appeared and were fixed right on Pete beneath large spikes. With a loud groan the largest sand gnome Pete had seen pulled himself up out of the ground. He stood almost as tall as Pop and twice as wide with a hide lit orange by the dancing bonfire.

“What’s this?” A deep chuckle. “A boy. How sweet, Cinctores? You brought me a child.”

Cinctores had scrambled down the slope and joined the others. Now he stepped forward and bowed. “Should I juice him, for you, Lord?”

The massive sand gnome ran a thick tongue across his lips. “No. I want to suck the juice out of this one myself. I’ll squeeze his flesh dry!”

The crowd of sand gnomes laughed. Pop stepped forward, having cut the bindings on the others. He held out the dagger. “You’ll not touch him!”

With a roar the sand gnome Lord snatch a rock from the ground and hurled it at Pop. It hit him high on the head and he crumpled to the sand.

“No!” Pete reached into his shirt and yanked out the rainmaker. He didn’t think beyond that they’d been told it would drive back the sand gnomes. He threw it as hard as he could at the sand gnomes’ lord.

The massive sand gnome hardly blinked when the rainmaker flew past his broad head and vanished into the bonfire. He looked back at Pete. “You missed, boy. Now you’ll feed me!”

The sand gnome lord took two steps towards Pete when a loud crack split the sky. A lightning bolt hit the sand near the gathered sand gnomes and scattered them like sand in a wind.

Right above the fire the rainmaker reappeared. The long metal strips rotated and expanded outward. The symbols etched in the device glowed red hot while an inner core shown with a cold blue light like the moon.

On th ground Pop groaned.

Another lightning bolt hit the ground nearby. The sand gnome lord turned and looked at the rainmaker slowly floating higher above the bonfire.

“What is this?”

Pete hurried to his parents. Pop stirred and Reny’s father helped him to his feet, but he looked dazed. Above the fire the rainmaker’s metal strips started spinning faster. The symbols blurred and the glowing ball in the middle expanded.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Pete said.

Reny’s mother screamed and pointed at something behind Pete. He turned and saw Cinctores snarling at him.

Pete dove and grabbed up Cinctores fallen dagger. The sand gnome lunged at him and Pete thrust the dagger upwards.

It sank into Cinctores broad neck. Hot blood gushed over Pete’s hand. The sharp, sulfurous smell of it made him gag.

The sand gnome made a gurgling, coughing noise and staggered back.

The sky cracked again and a lightning bolt came down and hit Cinctores and from there jumped to the sand gnome lord. Reny’s dad helped Pete up.

“We really need to get out of here!” Reny’s dad pointed up the steep gully wall. “We need to climb!”

Pete reached into his pocket and pulled out the sand gnome’s whistle. “Wait!”

His parents and Reny’s parents gathered around him.

Cinctores and the sand gnome lord collapsed to the sand. Another bolt of lightning hit one of the buildings in the gully. In the sky above a dark cloud gathered over the sand gnome nest.

Pete looked at the whistle. The sand gnomes commanded dust devils, what if this was the way? He grimaced and put the whistle into his mouth. He pressed down and the fangs sank into his cracked lips.

He blew.

A wind smelling of cactus blooms swept around them. Sand and dust swirled up. The mill sails filled and started turning. The massive stones ground together and a voice that could have come from the stones themselves spoke.

“What is your wish?”

Pete pulled the whistle free and shouted into the wind. “Take me, my parents and Reny’s parents home!”

The dust devil swirled around them. The biggest dust devil he had ever seen. Sand flew in his face. He tried to grab his parents but he couldn’t see them. He felt his feet leave the ground and then he was spinning around faster than he had ever spun around on his own. He felt sick.

Time lost meaning. Pete knew sand and wind. The smell of cactus. Then it faded away. His feet touched ground. He was too dizzy to stand and fell onto the ground coughing out sand.

When he looked up he saw his parents, and Reny’s parents, also on the ground. Reny’s mother retched onto the sand. He heard a noise. It sounded like shouting. He looked the other way and there was the weathered farm house. The dust devil brought them home.

But the shouting came from dark shapes heading towards them across the sand. His head spun and he couldn’t quite see what it was. The sand gnomes come to drag them back?

Pete blinked. Not unless sand gnomes had taken to riding horses. The marshals! And that was Reny behind one of the marshals, waving!

Thunder rumbled through the sky. The marshals dismounted and one helped him to his feet. Pete saw Keri run to her mother. Thunder shook the sky again and one of the marshals shouted.

Pete turned to look. Lightning bolt after lightning bolt split the sky so bright that it hurt to look at. And with it came a different scent in the air that tickled his nose.

Something wet hit his face. Pete looked up. Another cold drop landed on his cheek.

Then they came faster. Pattering into the sand around them, soft at first and then harder.

The captain of the marshals went to Pop. “We should get everyone inside! There’s going to be flooding!”

Reny’s family went first, up the porch steps into the house. Pete’s parents came to him and put their hands on his shoulders and urged him inside.

“Not yet! Give me a minute!”

Pete walked away from them out into the falling rain. It came harder and harder. He laughed and threw back his head. He let the water wash over him, across his split and dry lips. He felt like the desert itself taking a long drink after far too long.

***

The next morning when the sun came back out Pete joined the others outside when the marshals returned from their mission to scout out the fate of the sand gnomes.

The marshals rode up in a group, mud splashed on their horses. The captain, a tall man with long blond hair dismounted and came to stand in front of Pop.

“No sign of the sand gnomes. The gully sits at the bottom of a lake. Any that lived must have fled. But we did find this on the shore.” The captain held out the rainmaker, tightly curled into a ball again. “A toy, perhaps?”

Pop took the rainmaker. He handed it to Pete. “My son’s. He must have dropped it before we escaped.”

The captain turned and looked at their fields. All of the irrigation ditches and the low fields gleamed with water. “You are lucky! It looks like you’ll have plenty of water for your crops!”

Pete tucked the rainmaker into his shirt. Pop hugged him to his chest. “Very fortunate indeed.”

7,792 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 22nd weekly short story release. I originally put this story out under my pen name “Michael Burges.” I wrote this at a workshop back in 2010, drawing on elements of my childhood. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which elements.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Alley Cat, a fantasy set in a my Goblin Alley series that introduces a character who makes a guest appearance in the series.

Farm of the Dead Things

1968.

In a world where witches raise the dead a filmmaker gets a chance to capture the Inquisition in action.

Stefan Roland’s team responds to reports of graves being disturbed. Their report takes on a terrifying new dimension when they come face to face with their worst nightmare and their one chance to become famous.

The Glenda Barker Story

The story must be told, that’s as true today as it was back on that Friday in 1968, when Stefan Roland, Craig Marshal and Noah Crane filmed dead things rising from their graves.

The air felt heavy, hot and still when Stefan popped open the van door and slid out onto the gravel beside the road. The on-screen personality of the group, Stefan possessed the casual handsomeness of an old western sheriff, crossed with a more modern relaxed professional style. From his mop top haircut and his neat, close-trimmed beard, to the long cut of his jacket, and dark sunglasses, he looked every inch the up and coming television news reporter. Out of the van he pulled off his sunglasses and surveyed the isolated road. Nothing in view except for the low stone fence along the edge of the graveyard with yellow and brown leaves piled up against the stone. The place looked worse for the wear with a couple sections crumbling down. Two deep puddles filled the ruts leading up to the modest wrought iron gates. And it was quiet. He didn’t even hear any birds or crickets. Not even frogs and this late in the day there should be frogs croaking in some nearby pond. Beside him the side door of the van slid open and Crane came on out.

Also young, Crane fit the hippy ideal from his sandals to his beads and tie-dyed shirt. His ginger hair spread out around his head in a mass of curls, the unfortunate result of his attempt at an afro. He whistled softly. “Wow, man. Look at this place.”

“Right.” Stefan turned back to the van. “Marshal —”

The dude in question slid on out of the van holding onto his camera. He wore thin jeans and a bright orange cardigan, and like Crane, sandals. He let the camera hang by the strap from his shoulder as he climbed down.

“Yeah, boss?” Marshal asked.

Stefan gestured at the empty road and the old cemetery. “Is this the right place? It doesn’t look like anyone gets out here. Man, this place is dead.”

Crane laughed. “Good one.”

Stefan shook his head. “Look, I wasn’t trying to crack a joke, but I think someone is trying to pull something over on us.”

“Dunno, man.” Marshal shrugged with one shoulder. “The man I talked to said that someone had been messing with graves here. Springwood Cemetery, just like the sign says.”

“And I thought you said that the Inquisition was investigating?” Stefan pointed his sunglasses at the closed gate. “I don’t see anything that looks like the Inquisition.”

“Dunno what to tell you. I only know what the man said.”

“Hey man,” Crane said. “We’re here. Let’s check it out. If we don’t shoot something the station is never gonna pay up for the trip out here. All we got to do is get in and get a shot of you in front of a disturbed grave, right? Grave robbing is news, right?”

 

“Yeah, right,” Stefan agreed. “Assuming we find anything disturbed.”

“Not a problem.” Crane laughed. “I’m sure we can scuff up some grave if we need to.”

“Nice idea,” Marshal said.

“Hey! It’s not my fault that we came all the way out here and there ain’t nothing going on, is it?” Crane turned to Stefan. “Is it, man? I didn’t even want to come on this joy ride.”

“No, man. It isn’t your fault. Fine. Let’s see what we can find. Maybe the man you talked to is around here some place. Either way, get your gear together. If we can find the guy I might be able to get something on film, but I’ll tell you man, this doesn’t look like my big break.”

Stefan left Crane and Marshal to gather the film and sound equipment while he checked out the driveway leading up to the cemetery. Gravel and dried leaves crunched beneath his black leather wingtips. The quiet started to bother him. He grew up in the city and out here away from the busyness and excitement of the city he felt cut off. Much like he felt cut off from the career he’d imagined he’d have. He detoured around the big puddles in the ruts leading to the gate, and the grass-covered ground along the sides of the drive squished beneath his shoes. He grimaced and went on around to the firm ground on the other side. Up close the gate wasn’t locked, only shut. He still didn’t think it was worth the risk of getting the van stuck to drive it up through the puddles. Stefan lifted up the heavy iron hook that held the gate shut and gave the gate a shove. The hinges squealed like an angry cat but the gate swung open a couple feet. Back at the van Crane and Marshal were untangling cords. Stefan left them to sort it out and stepped on through the gate.

More puddle-filled ruts dotted the dirt lane as it ran out into the cemetery. On either side marched ranks of headstones, statues and grave markers. Big old maple trees dotted the cemetery, the leaves on some starting to turn yellow while others looked untouched. The sun hung low in the sky behind one of the larger trees. Stefan slipped his sunglasses back on and walked on up the driveway on the lookout for the man Marshal had talked to about the disturbances. He didn’t see the man but something did catch his eye, the cemetery sloped up away from the road, and several rows up fresh dirt marred the green lawn. Stefan rubbed his beard and looked back down the drive. Crane and Marshal had gotten the gear sorted out and were starting toward him, skirting the puddles on the drive. Stefan raised a hand and waved.

Marshal waved back. Stefan pointed up the slope and got a nod back in return. Good enough. Let the guys catch up when they could, he wanted to see what was up there. He set off through the grass, which obviously hadn’t been mowed in a while. It rose up higher than his shoes and quickly wet his feet. He ignored it and walked around the nearest headstones.

The closer he got the clearer the dirt area became. A grave with a weathered headstone at the top, but the ground was all churned up like someone had dug it up and then put everything back. There were chunks of sod all uneven like a patch of broken ice on a pond. Something had obviously disturbed the grave, very recently too, because the piles of dirt didn’t show any sign of having been worn down by the recent rain showers that had made the puddles on the drive. Stefan looked back down the drive. Crane and Marshal had started up the slope toward him, he beckoned to them. “Up here!”

His encouragement didn’t speed up their pace at all. Stefan turned back to the grave at his feet. This grave did look like it had been disturbed, which fit what Marshal had been told. Small town grave robbing? Or a prank by the kids at the university? Hard to say. And without an interview with a caretaker or local sheriff it wasn’t going to be much of a story. Stefan looked at the headstone.

Albert Thompson. Loving Husband, Father and Grandfather. 1878 – 1959.

Family, that’d be another angle. If they could track down Albert’s family and interview them about the disturbed grave, that might add the human element he needed. Turn this into a real story. A glint in the dirt caught Stefan’s eye. He bent down and brushed away moist dirt clods. A worm wiggled beneath the dirt but that wasn’t what he had seen. A bit of gold metal caught the sunlight and glowed with bright reflections. Stefan brushed a bit more dirt away revealing what looked like part of a segmented gold watch band. He picked up a dirt clog and dropped it back over the part he had uncovered. It looked pretty much like how he’d first seen it and would make a good shot on camera when he uncovered it. They’d also need a shot with him in front of the cemetery gates to set it all up.

Crane and Marshal made it up to the grave.

“Whoa, man,” Crane said. “What happened here?”

Marshal hoisted his camera up to his shoulder. “This is what the man said, the caretaker guy. He’s keeps finding graves all messed up like this.”

“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” Stefan said. “I’ll do a piece here by the grave. There’s a watch there in the dirt —”

“Where?” Crane bent to look at the grave.

“Never mind it right now. Get the sound set up. We’ll do the piece and I want Marshal to film me finding the watch. We’ll take in the headstone and then we can take a look around and see if we can turn up this caretaker. When we go I want a piece in front of the gates. If we can’t find the caretaker we can try talking to the local sheriff or look up this guy’s family.”

“It’s already getting late,” Marshal said. “We’re going to lose the light soon.”

“Then let’s get this thing done.” Stefan positioned himself beside the grave. He buttoned his jacket. “How do I look?”

“Cool, boss.” Crane got his microphone up.  “Okay, I’ll record when you give the word.”

“Ready,” Marshal said.

“Okay. Three, two one.” Stefan put on his serious, concerned face. “I’m standing at the side of one of these disturbed graves, a plot belonging to the late Albert Thompson. As you can see, the grave has been dug up very recently.”

Stefan turned, keeping his profile in the shot and looked down at the grave. He brought his hand up and stroked his beard. “Well, look at this. I see something in the dirt there.”

He bent down and brushed away the clog of dirt that he had placed over the watch band. “It looks like a gold band, maybe a watch.” He dug a finger into the moist soil and dragged it out of the ground. A man’s watch, sure enough, caked in dirt. It dangled from his finger catching the evening light.

“A man’s watch, maybe belonging to the late Mr. Thompson. We’ll make every effort to return this to the man’s family.” Stefan pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and made a show of wrapping the watch before he slid it into his pocket. He waited for a count of two. “That’s a cut.”

“Are you really going to give that watch back?” Crane asked.

Stefan didn’t bother answering. “Let’s look around and see if we can find this caretaker. I’d really like to get him in on this since he called us. We could use some local color. There must be some sort of caretaker’s shack or something, right?”

“Dunno,” Crane said.

“Come on.” Stefan set off back down the hill toward the road, trusting the others to follow.

Marshal kept his camera up on his shoulder. “I’m going to get some background shots in case we need them.”

“Great,” Stefan said without slowing.

He walked down the rows of graves with Crane on his heels. Marshal lingered and wandered away from them as he got the background shots he wanted. Stefan had nearly reached the road when he noticed a man up ahead, off to the side of the road, walking toward Marshal. The man staggered and caught himself on one of the headstones. He was, oddly enough, wearing a tux, but it looked rumpled and dirty even at this distance. Stefan pointed out the man to Crane.

“Do you think that could be the caretaker?”

“In a tux?”

“I don’t know, he looks like he has been roughed up.” Stefan started toward the man. “We’d better see if he needs any help.”

“It’d make a better story if he got roughed up trying to stop the dudes that messed up the graves.”

Stefan didn’t bother answering. He hurried through the wet grass toward the man. He raised his hand when he got closer. “Hey there.”

Marshal was still closer to the man than Stefan and had his camera up, filming Stefan’s approach. The man looked at Stefan but then shambled on toward Marshal. Stefan heard him making a noise, like a growl deep in his throat.

“Excuse me, are you the caretaker?”

The man ignored him and kept heading toward Marshal. Marshal actually started walking backward to keep the shot. The man in the tux moaned. Stefan put on more speed. He jogged up behind the man. “Excuse me, we’re from channel five news. Can we have a word, please? About what has been going on here?”

Then the wind shifted and Stefan caught a whiff of something harsh and chemical, and the smell of rotten meat. The odor caused his throat to clench and his gorge to do somersaults. Slowly the man turned to face him with clouded gray eyes. He sniffed heavily at the area and then let out the most mournful moan as he stared toward Stefan. The man’s skin was sunken, dried out and looked too pale. Stefan twirled his hand in the air.

“Film this!”

“I’m filming,” Marshal answered.

Stefan watched the man warily, holding out his hands. “Now calm down. Can you tell us what has been going on here?”

All he got in response was a low groan and the man lunged at him with out-stretched hands. His fingernails were torn, the ends of his fingers in tatters and oozed a foul dark fluid through the caked dirt. Stefan’s stomach turned over and he took a couple steps back to keep the distance between them.

“No hold on there…” Stefan shook his head. He looked right at the camera. “He’s dead, man.”

Then dead thing came at him again, grabbing at Stefan’s jacket. Stefan’s jaw tightened and he grabbed the dead thing’s arms and shoved it away. Still groaning the dead thing came back at him. Stefan didn’t back away this time. He grabbed its arm and swung it around as if they were at a square dance, and then let go. The dead thing stumbled back, tripped and fell. The back of his head hit the sharp corner of a grave marker with a sound like a melon hit with a hammer. His feet kicked against the wet grass for a second and then he lay still.

For several seconds none of the men moved.

“Whoa,” Crane said, breaking the silence.

Stefan made a chopping motion with his hand. “Cut. Stop filming.”

Marshal shut off the camera and lowered it from his shoulder. “Is he dead?”

Stefan took a couple steps back toward the body. It hadn’t moved since it fell. The eyes stared vacantly at the sky. “Man, he was already dead, just a dead thing.”

“But he was walking and making noise,” Crane said.

“Yeah.” Stefan tasted bile in his mouth. “Yeah, but he was dead anyway. I mean look at the guy. All covered in dirt, his clothes and hands all messed up. Look at his fingers!”

They all gathered around the body.

“So what do we do, boss?” Crane asked. “I mean, are people going to believe us?”

Stefan shook his head. “We’ll cover our bases.” He brushed the dirt from his sleeves and looked at Marshal. “Let’s shoot again. Another segment. Start on me and pull back when I signal.”

“What?”

Stefan position himself beside the body. He made a rolling motion with his hand. “Come on, let’s get this. Then we’ll do the piece by the gate on our way out of this dump.”

Marshal lifted the camera into position. “Ready.”

“Three, two, one. We’ve made a grisly discovery.” Stefan paused for a breath and continued. “Grave robbers have desecrated this quiet Springwood cemetery. While searching for the caretaker we discovered that the robbers didn’t get far with their stolen body.”

Stefan signaled with a flick of his fingers. He gave Marshal a second to pull back and include the body in the shot. Stefan pressed his hands together into a prayer position. “Although we cannot confirm at this time that this body is the remains of Albert Thompson it seems likely to this reporter. Final confirmation will need to come from the county coroner.”

A two count and Stefan said, “Cut. How’d that look?”

“Great,” Marshal said. “But man, we’ve got film of this dude walking around.”

“And I’m telling you that the guy was already dead when he was walking around.” When Marshal shook his head Stefan stepped past the body and grabbed Marshal’s arm. “Don’t believe me? Then touch him. Go on! He’s cold. I felt it when I wrestled with him. And the way he felt — he’s just a dead thing.”

Marshal slung his camera and went to the body. Stefan crossed his arms and waited. Marshal looked back up at them both. Gingerly he reached out and touched the neck. He jerked his hand away as if shocked. He got back up in a hurry.

“That’s why the guy said the Inquisition was investigating,” Crane said, excitedly. “It wasn’t because of grave robbing, it was this weird shit.”

“Maybe,” Stefan said. “Come on. Let’s get the gate shot before it gets too late.”

“You’re going to leave him here?” Marshal indicated the body.

Crane laughed. “What’re you gonna do with him, man?”

“I don’t know, it seems weird.”

Stefan shook his head. “We leave it all for the sheriff or the Inquisition. Right now I want to get that gate shot and then see what else we can find out. For one, are there more of these dead things walking around?”

“Okay, man.” Marshal started backing away from the body. “Let’s go then.”

“Totally,” Crane said.

Together they left the body and headed back to the road. They hadn’t gone far when Stefan saw something crawling through the grass alongside the road ahead. He held up a hand. “Just a sec. I see something. Marshal?”

Marshal got the camera up on his shoulder. Crane turned on the sound gear. Stefan went on ahead. He looked back at the camera. “We see something up ahead, alongside the road. Not sure what it is, but we’re going to take a look.” He got closer and the dark shape let out an loud caterwaul that raised goose bumps on his arms and stopped him in his tracks. “It sounds like an animal in pain.”

Stefan took a couple more careful steps and the shape in the grass crawled up onto the road. It was a cat, but it also another dead thing. One back leg hung by nothing more than a strip of flesh. Half an ear was missing, and the eye and most of the skin on the left side. The cat’s once white fur was caked with mud and patches had fallen away. It tottered out onto the dirt driveway and yowled again.

“Holy crap,” Crane muttered.

Stefan kept his distance but beckoned to Marshal. “Get a shot of this. Folks at home, this is a terrible sight. This cat is in awful shape. It looks dead, but it’s on its feet and making that noise. I can’t even begin to describe the smell of it, but I’m sure you can imagine it isn’t nice.”

The cat lurched in Stefan’s direction. It hissed and growled deep in its chest. He took a step back. “It seems understandably agitated. I think we’ll keep our distance and let the proper authorities deal with the poor animal.”

Stefan backed away across the road to circle around the cat. Crane and Marshal followed him.

Then Marshal said, “Boss, look!”

Marshal had the camera pointed back up the slope of the graveyard. Stefan turned around and saw what Marshal had seen. Two more people in the graveyard, a woman and a man. The man was too far away to see clearly but the woman was wearing nothing but mud and dirt. She staggered through the graveyard toward them. The man also walked with an odd, unsteady gait. The cat yowled again.

“At this point I think it is best we leave and let the authorities and the Inquisition deal with this situation.” The cat crawled unsteadily in their direction, still growling. Stefan twirled his hand. “Keep filming, Marshal. We’re going to want all of the footage, but let’s get back to the van.”

Together they set off back down the road to the gate at a fast pace. Not running, the dead things were slow and aimless in their movements, but Stefan didn’t want to risk getting too close again.

“Do you think it’s a witch behind this?” Crane asked as the gate came into sight.

“I don’t know, man,” Stefan said. “But I’ll tell you this, there’s definitely a story here and we’re going to get it on film. All of it.”

“What about the Inquisition?”

“We haven’t even seen them. And if they do show it I think it’s about time we got them on film. Don’t you?”

“Sure, I guess so. But they might not like it.”

By that point the gate was just ahead but Stefan saw another dead thing shambling down the slope in their direction. He touched Marshal’s arm and pointed out the newcomer. “I don’t care, people have a right to know what’s going on.”

A fly buzzed around Stefan’s head. He swatted at it and kept going all the way to the gate. He slipped through and waited for the others to get through then he pulled it shut and dropped down the latched with a dull clang. He positioned himself in front of the gate.

“Okay, let’s get the setup shot now. Ready?”

A quick count, Crane nodded, and Marshal gave Stefan a thumbs up. “This is Stefan Roland, reporting at Springwood Cemetery where we’ve received news of disturbed graves and the possibility of an investigation by the Inquisition. It raises the question, is there witchcraft at work?”

Stefan paused and the said, “Cut. How was that?”

“Um, boss?” Crane nodded at the cemetery.

Stefan turned and looked. Two of the dead things had reached the dirt lane leading through the cemetery and were coming toward the gate. “Right. Let’s get in the van and go back down the road. Not too far. I want to stay on this and see what they do.”

They all got into the van, Stefan behind the wheel so that the other two could film and record what was happening outside. He put the van into reverse and backed out of the drive into the road and then down the road another hundred feet or so. Marshal leaned out the window with the camera.

“How’s that?”

“I’ve got a clear shot of the gate. Let’s wait here.”

Stefan put the van in neutral and let out the clutch. He leaned on the wheel, watching the graveyard. “Do you realize this might be the first time anyone has documented an event like this?”

“That’s assuming that the Inquisition doesn’t confiscate our gear, man,” Crane said.

“They don’t have the authority.”

Marshal didn’t look away from the camera, but he spoke up. “Are you kidding? They’re like the feds on steroids. They go wherever they want, any country they want. If they decide to take our gear I’m handing it over.”

Stefan shook his head. “If it comes to that you give me the camera. I’ll deal with them. Something like this could be good for them, build up their image.”

“And yours,” Crane said.

Stefan looked in the back where Crane lounged against the seat. “Look man, this could be big for all of us. You saw those dead things back there. There hasn’t been a modern event like this, and we’re right here in the heart of it. I just wish we could talk to that caretaker guy that called, find out some things.”

Marshal tapped his shoulder. “Hey look, guys. They’re at the gate.”

Stefan leaned forward to get a better look. Two of the dead things stood at the gate. The naked woman and some guy in a suit. They reached out and pushed at the gate. Even from here he heard the gate clanking and a low moaning noise. A third figure shuffled into view, it looked like a man in blue jeans and a flannel shirt, with the right side of his neck a bloody ruin.  The blood had gone all down his shirt and pants. He joined the others in grabbing the gate but he shuffled along the bars, shoving past the others to get at the center. He fumbled at the latch.

Stefan’s breath caught. He had to get in the shot on this, the moment when the dead things were getting out of the cemetery. He spun in his seat and opened the door.

“What’re you doing, man?” Crane called from the back.

Stefan ran around the front of the van, the hot air stale in his mouth. He skidded to a stop on the road in Marshal’s shot. He looked back and then took one step to the right. “Come on, let’s get this. Crane!”

Crane slid open the side door and stuck out his mic. “Fine. Ready.”

“What you see behind me should disturb everyone. Those aren’t people trying to get out of the cemetery, but zombies.” Stefan took a breath and looked back at the cemetery gate. The dead thing in the flannel shirt was pawing at the latch. He lifted it and it dropped back in place, but for how long? Stefan turned back to the camera. “That’s right, zombies. Dead things brought back to a semblance of life. There have been other cases in history, but none so recent as this, and none with a trained news crew on site. We are sticking to this story to see how it develops.

“Right now the cemetery gate holds the zombies back, but for how long?” Stefan took another look. Two more figures approached the gate and he heard the sound of the cat’s caterwaul on the wind. “We also don’t know what supernatural force animates these creatures, but traditionally they are associated with a single twisted personality, one equipped with the supernatural ability to raise the dead. If that’s the case here we haven’t seen any sign of the witch behind this.”

Stefan heard a loud clank and turned to see the dead things had managed to unlatch the gate. They kept pushing and the heavy gates swung open with metal squealing. Stefan pointed at the zombies.

“Here they come! It’s a terrifying sight, the dead literally risen from their graves and they’re coming out now into the street itself and there’s no sign of anyone here. No local law enforcement, no sign of the Inquisition, we’re alone out here on this street. There aren’t any houses close by…” The dead things finally noticed Stefan and the van down the street. Blank eyes turned to face them. Stefan held his ground a moment longer. “We are going to stay with this story, to bring you the truth behind what is happening here, but we can’t let them get too close. We’ll back off and see what they do.”

With that Stefan hurried back around the van to the driver’s side and got in. Marshal kept the camera on the zombies shuffling out onto the street. With Stefan out of sight now in the van the zombies lost their focus. They stopped where they stood, one man standing up to his ankles in one of the puddles in front of the gates.

“There are more of them now,” Marshal said softly.

Stefan saw that his cameraman was right. Past the gates more dead things shuffled toward the open gate. In the small slice he could see there had to be at least a half-dozen more moving.

“Crane —”

Crane waved his hand. “Quiet, man. I hear something.”

In the back seat Crane held his microphone pointed out the partially open side door. He adjusted the controls and touched his fingers to his headphones. “I can’t make out what that is.”

Stefan listened carefully. Distantly he heard the moans of the zombies. The dead cat yowled again. A couple flies flew in the open window and buzzed about battering themselves against the front windshield. Then he heard more buzzing and saw more flies outside.

“Close the window! Shut that door!”

Crane pulled back his microphone and shoved the door closed, but not before several more flies flew in through the gap. Marshal pulled the camera in and started rolling up the window. A few more flies slipped in before he finished. The cloud of them flew around the van buzzing. Stefan grabbed the morning paper that he had stashed between the seats and swatted at the flies. Outside a dark cloud of flies flew past and around the van. They landed all over the windows, obscuring the view.

“What the hell?” Crane asked.

Stefan shoved the paper back down beside the seat. “Hang on.”

He pushed in the clutch, shifted into reverse and slowly started to back up the van. At first the flies on the windows and mirrors didn’t do anything. He gave the van more gas, trying to see where he was going as best he could, but the flies made it difficult. He went a bit faster and then suddenly the flies all took off. He braked and shifted back to neutral. They’d gone another few hundred feet down the road. The flies outside flew in a dark cloud toward the cemetery which continued to spew out more zombies that shuffled aimlessly around the drive in front of the cemetery with a few wandering near the road. Without prompting Marshal had already rolled down the window and was filming the scene again.

“Look man,” Crane pointed at the dash.

Stefan saw that the flies which had flown into the van lay dead on the dash. A couple had fallen to the floor beneath the dash. Marshal turned the camera and took a shot of the dead flies scattered across the dash.

“What killed them, do you think, boss?” Crane asked.

Stefan looked at the flies, and back to Crane, knowing that Marshal was still filming. “Maybe they were already dead, and when we backed up we took them out of the range of the witch, or whatever is causing this? I don’t know but if that is true it suggests a limit to the affected area.”

“But why flies?” Crane asked. “That’s just gross.”

Stefan shook his head. “I don’t know, man. But flies must die all the time, right? Seems like it to me, anyway.”

Marshal turned the camera back to the view outside. Stefan saw dark shapes flying above the cemetery. Birds? More dead things? The haze in the air had to come from the flies and other dead insects. Whatever was happening, it clearly wasn’t limited to the people in the graves. Every dead thing was getting up and moving, and they were getting it all on film. This was going to be huge but he wanted to know the answer to the question the audience was asking. Why?

For the moment they all sat and watched the dead things gathering around the cemetery like watching storm clouds growing on the horizon. After a few minutes Stefan heard the sound of a car approaching and checked his mirrors. A dark sedan was coming down the road toward them at high speed.

“Come on guys, let’s get out and see who this is.” Stefan opened his door without waiting for an answer. Behind him he heard the sliding door open, and the passenger door. Stefan shut his door and walked around to the front of the van, just in case whoever it was didn’t stop. Crane and Marshal took up positions behind him, and it made him feel better that everything was being filmed. Even from this point he could hear the zombies groaning and other odd cries and noises from the graveyard. A shadow flitted across the road. Stefan looked up and saw a flock of crows or black birds flying toward the cemetery.

The sedan pulled on past the van, turned across the road and stopped blocking both lanes. Front and rear doors opened and men got out. Sharp red suits with thin black ties and polished black shoes. All of them wore large dark sunglasses, all were white with their hair slicked back.

“It’s the inquisition, man,” Crane whispered.

Stefan beckoned to his crew and started walking toward the inquisitors. “I’m Stefan Roland, reporting on this developing situation. We’re happy you’re here.”

One of the inquisitors, tall with sandy blond hair, came forward, unbuttoning his jacket. Stefan caught a glimpse of a gun on the inquisitor’s hip.

“You’re reporters?” The inquisitor asked.

“That’s right. We were called about disturbances at the Springwood cemetery. Can you shed any light on what is happening here?”

“For your own safety we need you to leave,” the inquisitor said. “This is an inquisition matter now. Get back in your vehicle and go.”

Stefan shook his head. “People need to know about this. We have an obligation to stay.”

The inquisitor didn’t move. One of the others came close and whispered something. The inquisitor nodded. “If you don’t leave now we will arrest you for interfering in this operation and adding and abetting a witch.”

“So there is a witch involved here?” Stefan pressed.

“Get back in your vehicle now.”

Stefan held up his hands. “Okay, man. We’re going.” He headed back to the van. Marshal and Crane made it there first and climbed in.

Once inside Stefan put the van in gear and swung it in a wide turn across the road. He bumped down off the side of the road and then back up onto the asphalt and headed in the opposite direction. Marshal lowered his camera.

“Is that it? Are we done?”

Stefan laughed and shook his head. “Hardly. We’re going to check out the roads on the other side of the cemetery and see if they have it all blocked off.”

“Should we do that, boss? What if they do arrest us?”

Stefan shrugged. “They can arrest me if they want.” He glanced over at Marshal. “How’re we doing on film?”

“We’re good, man. No problem.”

“Great. Because is big, you know? We can do this like a whole feature, not just some segment. We get the station to back it and it could go nationwide. People need to see this.” Up ahead Stefan saw the dirt road that ran off east on his left. No sign of any other cars. He took the turn and increased his speed despite the rough conditions. Marshal got up and crawled between the front seats into the back of the van. He went to the window behind the driver’s seat and had the camera ready. A farmer’s field stretched away on their left toward the cemetery, which was a dark tree line in the distance. Glancing out his window Stefan thought he saw something like a haze hanging above the cemetery, a sort of swirling disturbance. Flies? Bugs? Birds? He needed to get around to the other side.

At last they came to another road running north and south, paved but cracked and obviously little used. Stefan turned back toward the cemetery and gunned it. His mouth felt dry as he sped down the road at nearly fifty miles per hour. Was the Inquisition ahead of them on this road, more zombies or both? It didn’t take long before he had his answer.

Dead things were massing outside the cemetery, but not the Inquisition. Those zombies that had come out the gate on the other side were the minority. Stefan licked his lips and brought the van to a crawl.

“Damn,” Crane said.

Marshal had the camera at the window. “Look at them all.”

A crowd of dead things spilled out of the cemetery onto the long hillside between the cemetery wall and the road, but they weren’t just standing there. Most lurched, shuffled, staggered and even crawled north, along the cemetery fence.

“Man, where are they going?”

“I don’t know,” Stefan said. “Let’s find out.”

“I’m not going to get as good of a picture through this window,” Marshal said.

“I can fix that.” Stefan swung the van across the road, shifted and then backed up into the road again to put the sliding door on the side facing the zombies. Marshal reacted immediately, climbing across Crane to open the sliding door. Crane shrank back from the opening. Several flies immediately flew into the van.

“You’re crazy!”

“Get the gear ready,” Stefan ordered. When Crane didn’t move Stefan gave the van more gas. They picked up speed backing down the road toward the zombies.

Crane swore and got the microphone ready and pointed the dish out the door.

Through the open door Stefan had a clear view of the dead things. Most of the human dead things looked long dead, like mummies in their best dress but here and there among them were fresher zombies. There was a young woman who even looked pretty at first glance with a long sleek black dress, blond hair tumbling in curls past her pale unmarred shoulder but when she turned her head the right side of her face was a dark ruin of torn and mangled flesh still weeping bright blood. She looked right at them with clear eyes and bared her bloodied teeth.

Stefan kept the van moving. Marshal and Crane kept recording. A few zombies had wandered down to the road but not many, he thought he could get around them. Just then the dead young woman growled and shoved aside a withered old granny zombie. The girl zombie started running at the van. Stefan noticed her feet were bare but bite marks and blood marked her left leg and foot beneath the dress. Had she been a mourner at the cemetery when these things clawed their way out of the graves?

“Boss?” Crane asked, his voice anxious.

She picked up speed. Sprinting down the grass at them. Not at all slow like the rest. Stefan gave the van more gas, accelerating in reverse down the road. The girl zombie altered her direction, still coming on fast. More dead things noticed and turned toward the van. A group ahead started coming toward the road. Dead voices groaned as they came at the van.

“Faster, boss,” Crane urged. “She’s coming fast!”

He gave the van more gas but the distance between the open side door and the dead girl had already halved. She was about twenty feet away, running fast down the slope. He heard her panting as she sprinted at the van. He was so busy watching her that he didn’t see the dead guy coming up the road at the van until the last second. He turned the wheel, trying to swerve around the guy, but the corner of the van clipped the zombie and knocked him aside. Crane yelled and caught the door to prevent himself from falling out. Only ten feet between the van and the running zombie, with at least a dozen more zombies coming behind her as fast as they could manage.

Stefan floored the pedal. The van picked up speed. Enough at the last second that she came up short, with her hands grasping at Marshal, her growling pants filling the van, but she didn’t quite reach the door. Her fingernails scratched alongside the passenger door and then he was past her. She staggered out into the road in front of the van. Then she recovered and her eyes locked on his. He didn’t see any intelligence there, only hunger. She ran after the van. Stefan smelled rot and decay on the wind coming in through the door.

He looked back, watching the road. More zombies stood closer to the road, turning as the van approached. He kept going in reverse as fast as he could to get past them and still give Marshal the chance to make the shot of the crowd of dead things moving away from the cemetery, human and otherwise. The air looked thick with insects and birds. He saw smaller shapes squirming through the grass. It looked like every corpse, no matter how small or large had risen up and all of it was on the move, heading north. The van cleared the zombies crowding the road. Stefan glanced back the way they’d come, but then girl zombie had slowed. She was still coming but not running. He let off the gas and brought the van to a stop, shifted back to first and pulled across the road to give Marshal another shot of the oncoming dead things.

More and more dead things turned their empty gaze toward the van. The dead girl led the pack, not yet running but walking quickly down the road in their direction. Marshal kept filming. The cries of the dead things grew louder and more flies flew into the van. Crane cried out and swatted at the flies. The distance between them and the gathering dead things shrank further. Stefan heard the sound of the dead girl panting. Her pace picked up to an unsteady jogging when she was maybe thirty feet away. Behind her came even more zombies and the general direction of the crowd started turning toward the road. Crane’s hand beat the back of Stefan’s seat like a wounded fluttering at a window. He had dumped the recording equipment on the seat, still running.

“Come on, man! Let’s go!”

Stefan ignored him. The gap between them and the girl shrank more. Twenty feet. Fifteen.

“Roland!” Crane yelled shrill, and panicked as he lunged for the sliding door handle.

The dead girl put on a burst of speed and in seconds was less than ten feet away. Crane shoved the door but Marshal put out a hand and stopped the door, holding it open with the camera in the gap. Crane shoved on the door handle.

“Come on, man! She’s right fucking there!”

And she was right fucking there, reaching out with scratched and bloodied nails to grab at Marshal but the camera man yanked the door closed in the last second. Her nails scrambled at the side of the van, trying to get at the handle. Marshal flipped the lock and raised the camera to the window. She attacked the window, her once pretty face bloodied and torn up. She bit and clawed at the glass. More zombies were coming behind her. Stefan put the van in gear and pulled away from the dead things.

“Bye baby,” he said.

Marshal cracked up. He fell back in the aisle in front of the back seat and laughed and laughed. Stefan laughed too, he couldn’t help it. He glanced back and saw Crane crouched up on the seat looking at them both with wide eyes. His face looked drained of blood. Stefan checked the mirrors. The girl zombie wasn’t running after them. The whole crowd of dead things continued to stagger along the road in this direction, the air thick with things that flew, and smaller shapes crawling and lurching through the grass. He didn’t see any sign of the inquisitors. He eased off the gas and kept the speed low enough to stay ahead of the dead things without leaving them behind.

Marshal finally stopped laughing and got up, climbing back into the front passenger seat. He dropped into the seat with a sigh and set the camera gear on the floor. “Man, that’s some fucked up shit back there. What do you think is going on? Where are they all going?”

“Beats me,” Stefan answered. “But we’re going to find out.”

“They would have torn us apart if they got in here,” Crane complained. “Why don’t we take what we have and get out of here?”

Marshal shook his head. “No way, man. And next time why don’t you try doing your job instead of panicking?”

“Screw you!”

“Hey, guys!” Stefan interrupted. “Let’s not, okay? Something caused all of this. We’ve got to get to the bottom of it, and then show everyone. That’s what we do. I said it before, but this is our big break. You dig? If we keep it together, stay cool, man, we’ll write our own ticket.”

“I just don’t need him telling me how to do my job.”

Stefan shot Marshal a look before the cameraman could say anything. “Fine. For now, let’s stay ahead of them and see if we can figure out where they are going.”

The van crawled down the road at no more than ten miles per hour to stay ahead of the dead things. Stefan kept an eye on them in the mirror. On either side of the road were brown fields bordered by trees. Up on the right stood a collection of buildings, white farm house, a long low barn with a rusted metal roof, a round silo, and a paddock dotted with black and white cows. The farm was a good distance from the road, unless the dead things changed their course they’d go right past the farm. Marshal took the camera and crawled into the back of the van to shoot out the rear hatch.

As he’d thought, the zombies didn’t turn away from the road to approach the farm house. If anything more of them drifted away from the road to the ditches and fields on the left side. When they came to a fence they walked into it, fell over it, or pushed through it but kept going. Some stuck to the road and just kept coming. They were about a mile past the cemetery now, all the dead things keeping more or less in a group, when Stefan saw headlights fast approaching. He hadn’t even realized how far the sun had sunk until that moment. He switched on his own headlights and honked his horn to get the driver’s attention.

Whoever was behind the wheel, they didn’t slow. The car shot past them, a dark Cadillac, headed straight toward the zombies and other dead things. Stefan hit the brakes and came to a fast stop. He twisted around.

“Are they stopping?”

“Not yet,” Marshal said.

Stefan shifted the van into reverse and headed back down the road after the car. A couple seconds later the car was close enough to the zombies in the street for the headlights to light them up. The brake lights came on. The zombies didn’t waste any time shambling to the car. The dead girl, still leading the pack on the road, ran right up to the caddy and grabbed at the door. This time she got lucky and managed to get a good grip on the door handle, popping the driver’s side door open.

Stefan’s stomach clenched and he gave the van more gas. He honked the horn as he reversed, trying to get the zombies’ attention. Nothing had any effect. Faster than he would have expected more than a dozen zombies had surrounded the car. It looked like they were trying to climb into the driver’s side. Stefan couldn’t make out exactly what was happening. Marshal had the camera up and was filming but Crane just sat on the back seat like a lump.

“Crane! We need to record this!”

Crane stirred, looked out the back with his face bleak. “You can’t be serious.”

“Do it,” Stefan said. “You said you didn’t need anyone to tell you how to do your job? Well, then get to it!”

The zombies had someone, the driver of the caddy, and pulled her out into the street. Her screams cut through the night.  She wore a pale pants suit, stained in splotches of red. Her blood. Stefan stopped the van. He couldn’t get any closer without risking the same thing happening to them. He grabbed the door handle and his hand shook. He shoved open the door and jumped down. There was a crowd of zombies in the field, more around the car with the woman, still screaming and fighting back against the zombies. She shoved the dead girl away into the others. For a second the space around her was clear.

Stefan ran past the rear of the van but more zombies came around the caddy and surrounded her again. He rubbed his jaw and backed away from the mob. He looked at Marshal and realized he was on camera.

“This is horrible,” he managed to say. “We tried to get the driver’s attention, but she didn’t stop and then the dead things closed around her so fast!”

The zombies weren’t alone in the attack. A cloud of flies flew around the zombies and several dark birds darted into the fray and away again. Crane threw up, leaning out the rear hatch but he kept the microphone pointed in more or less the right direction. Stefan’s own gut clenched when the woman’s screams stopped.

“We saw the inquisitors back on the other road past the cemetery, but none since. Maybe if they’d been here this terrible tragedy could have been prevented, if they had up road blocks or anything but we’re alone out here.”

Moans from the zombies carried on the wind. The activity near the car diminished. Several of the zombies turned their attention back down the road. Stefan saw more and more dead eyes turning in his direction. He took a step away. Just then the crowd parted. He saw the dead girl that had chased him, and beside her on the ground was the driver. Clearly dead. Her pants suit ripped open, along with her insides. Zombies shoved bits of gore into their bloodied mouths as they shambled in his direction. The dead girl gobbled down a chunk of unidentifiable flesh and then reached out a hand as if pointing at him. Marking him as next.

Stefan took another step back and looked at the camera. “Clearly they’ve noticed our presence. I wish we could have done more, but we’ve got to get moving to stay ahead of them.”

The driver’s foot twitched. Stefan didn’t move. The woman groaned loudly and rolled onto her side but the zombies didn’t pay any attention to her. He felt a chill settle over his limbs when he realized why. She’d become one of them. Dead birds clustered on the top of the car took off, screeching their disappointment. She pressed her bloody hands onto the road and slowly climbed to her feet. It looked like someone had taken a giant ice-cream scoop out of her stomach. Her once pale pants suit was mostly covered in red and darker stains. Her blond hair clung wet and red to her skull. One eye socket was empty, trailing gore down her cheek. With her remaining eye she looked straight at Stefan.

The weight of that gaze was like an accusation. It compelled him to move. He backed up almost to the van’s bumper, out of view of the camera. His mouth felt dry. He turned, staggered as if dead himself, and ran back for the driver’s side door. Loud groans rose up in the darkening twilight behind him. He reached the door and his heart lurched when a hefty figure stepped into the beam of the headlights wearing a decaying suit. Zombies from the main group had come over to the road. More stumbled down into the drainage ditch. Something flew past his head carrying with it the reek of rot and decay.

Stefan pulled open the door and looked back along the van. Crane started yelling. The dead girl and her recent victim both growled and ran at the van. Marshal wasn’t playing chicken this time. Stefan heard the rear hatch drop. He jumped in and slammed his own door closed. The zombie in the front of the van came around the bumper toward the driver’s side door. He shifted into gear and hit the gas. The van lurched and for a second he thought he had killed it by popping the clutch too fast but it caught and the engine revved as they shot ahead. The van bumped the zombie by the front of the van, knocking him away.

No other zombies in the road, but a bunch beside the road as he pulled away. Stefan accelerated quickly, shifting gears until he reached forty miles per hour. Only when the dead were nearly swallowed by the darkness did he finally ease off the gas.

“You guys okay back there?”

“I think I shit myself,” Crane said.

“I don’t know if we can show this footage,” Marshal said. “That woman’s family might object.”

Stefan’s heart still thudded in his chest but he shook his head. “People got to know about this, man. We can’t cover it up.”

“I hear you, but they might not let us.”

No need to mention who they were, the station executives or the Inquisition or federal agents. There were plenty of people that might squash this before it got out. But the idea made Stefan feel sick. A fly buzzed by his face. He swatted at it.

“No. We’ve got to find a way, but first we need to know why this is happening.”

“How are we going to find out?” Marshal asked.

Stefan looked in his mirrors. He couldn’t see anything behind them. He hit the brakes.

“What’re you doing?” Crane cried.

“Waiting. The only way we’re going to find out what is going on is if we see where these dead things are going.”

“We don’t know that they’re going anywhere,” Crane objected.

“They’re all going in the same direction. It isn’t like they’ve scattered in every direction. They’re going somewhere and I’ll bet it has something to do with what is going on.”

A short distance ahead on the left side of the road, Stefan saw lights just past some small Douglas fir trees. From what he could see it looked like a trailer. He tapped the window. “We need to warn those folks about what’s coming.”

It wasn’t far. Stefan pulled into the dirt driveway, lights flashing across a rusted swing set with blue and white spiral limbs, a bicycle discarded on a weedy lawn and two dented aluminum trash cans beside the wood porch. Marshal crawled up from the back.

“Think they’ll let us use their john?”

“You’d want to go in a dump like this?” Crane asked. “Who knows what you’d catch?”

Stefan ignored them and got out. He heard the sliding door open too, so evidently the guys were getting out as well. He headed straight for the front door, mostly straight except when he had to avoid stepping in piles of dog crap, and hurried up the wooden steps. He knocked hard on the metal frame of the screen door, rattling it. A dog started barking inside the trailer and first a woman’s voice, then a man’s hollered at it to shut the fuck up. A second later the main door was yanked open by a stringy woman wrapped in a blue terry cloth robe with pink curlers in her hair. A half-smoked cigarette dangled from her lips. The lines around her eyes deepened as she looked at him.

“Who the hell are you?” Her eyes shifted and she pointed a bony, liver-spotted hand. “And who the hell are they? What’re you doing with that camera?”

Stefan glanced back, not surprised to see Marshal filming the scene while Crane recorded. He looked back to the woman. “I’m Stefan Roland, ma’am. That’s my film crew. There’s something strange going on, and I need you to listen carefully.”

“This is some trick, isn’t it?

“No ma’am.” She scowled but Stefan hurried on. “I know how implausible —”

“What?”

“How unlikely this will sound, but we’ve just come from Springwood cemetery. The dead people there have risen from their graves, along with every other dead bug, bird and animal in the area and they’re coming this way.”

She didn’t move for a couple seconds as if his words had frozen in where she stood. Then she hollered so loud that Stefan nearly jumped back.

“Earl! You gotta hear this! This man here says that judgment day has come!”

From somewhere in the trailer the dog started barking again and the man shouted at it and her to be quiet.

“It isn’t judgment day, but the dead are coming. We saw them kill a woman only a little way up the road. You and your husband need to get in your car and get out of here.”

She shook her head. “Car’s all busted up. Don’t run worth shit.”

“We’ve got room in our van, but we have to go.”

She took a long drag on her cigarette and blew smoke at the screen door. Stefan coughed and she shut the trailer door in his face. He banged on the door frame again.

The woman hollered from inside. “I got my twelve gauge here!”

“I hear them,” Crane said.

Stefan turned around. Crane had his microphone pointed back the way they’d come. He turned back to the door and banged on it with his fist. The door flew open and he found himself looking at the black barrels of a shotgun through the screen.

“See?” The woman said around her cigarette, still dangling from her lips. Smoke curled out of her nose. “Now get the hell off my property.”

Stefan took a step back, holding up his hands. “We’re only trying to help. They are coming.”

“Anyone else shows up here I’ll show them the business end of this.” The shotgun twitched in her hands. “I don’t think you’re moving fast enough mister. Get!”

“We’re going.” Stefan made his way down the steps. He waved at the others and they retreated back to the van.

The woman stepped back and let the door swing shut. Stefan hurried back to the van. Once inside he started it up. So far he didn’t see any of the zombies. He backed out into the road. It was getting too dark to see far behind him.

“How far back do you think?”

“Not far enough,” Crane said.

Stefan let the van idle. They still had a half tank of gas. Enough for now. He rolled down his window. The wind whispered in the trees, chilly as it blew into the van. Even from this distance he heard the dog barking in the trailer and the wordless, futile shouts of the people. He gripped the wheel until his knuckles turned white. Why wouldn’t they listen? Sure, it sounded crazy, but still, sticking a gun in his face?

“Boss, what’re you doing?” Crane asked.

“Waiting.” Stefan leaned on the window. He closed his eyes and listened. Then, faintly, he heard them. Low groans and moans in the distance, the harsh cries of the birds in the dark sky and beneath it the persistent buzz of the dead flies. The sound floated on the wind and raised goose bumps on his arms. He twisted around.

“Get back to the hatch. I’m going to pull forward enough so you have a shot of the trailer. Tell me when to stop.”

Crane rubbed his face and his cheeks looked wet. Marshal just crawled into the back, dragging along the camera gear. He popped the rear hatch and pushed it up. The wind felt cold on Stefan’s neck. He put the van in gear and moved it slowly forward.

“That’s good,” Marshal called. “Crane, come on.”

“Damn you both,” Crane said. Still, he picked up his equipment and joined Marshal in the back.

Stefan left his window down and waited.

It didn’t seem that long before the first shadows appeared out of the night, flying around the brightly lit windows. Then a zombie walked out of the night into the yard. It was the unfortunate woman that hadn’t stopped her caddy. Right behind her came others and he saw hints of movement around the sides and back of the trailer. The dead things converged on the trailer and even the dog fell silent. Stefan watched carefully, but for the moment he didn’t see any dead things nearby except he heard flies buzzing about.

The caddy driver reached the porch steps first. She started up, tripped and crawled the rest of the way. Once on the porch she pulled herself up on the screen door. The trailer door flew open and the woman was there again, a dark shape against the light.

“Lord in heaven!” She cried.

The shotgun blast cut through the moans and cries of the zombies. The caddy driver’s body flipped away from the porch and fell into darkness, but more zombies came at the door. The woman backed up as they ripped apart the screen. Screams joined the moans of the dead. Stefan looked away.

He stared at the dash for several seconds. The dog started barking again and he looked back at the trailer. Zombies crowded all around it, hitting it with their hands. The whole thing rocked on its blocks. A line of them led to the open door. Then zombies fell away and the dog, a big black dog ran out of the trailer, knocking aside zombies in its way. Stefan leaned out the window and whistled sharply.

He couldn’t see the dog in the dark but he leaned across the front of the van and opened the passenger door. A zombie appeared in the doorway, a balding man with skin peeling away from his skull. Withered hands reached into the van.

Crane screamed in the back. Stefan swung around and kicked at the zombie, hitting it in the head. It stumbled back and a large dark shape jumped up into the van. It was the dog, a massive brute with hanging folds and big drooping eyes. Stefan leaned across the dog and pulled the door shut. The zombie he had kicked returned and beat at the window. Stefan hit the lock and moved back into his seat. The dog jumped up in the passenger seat and bared its teeth at the zombie.

He heard the rear hatch shut and looked back to find the camera aimed at him. Marshal gave him a thumbs up. Crane had his face in his hands, but he didn’t look hurt. Stefan turned forward and realized that there was a face right at his window.

The dead girl from the cemetery stood right outside his window looking at him. The dog barked, the sound deafening in the van. Stefan hit the gas and the van jumped forward. Dead fingers grabbed at his door and slipped away. A couple other zombies staggered around the road but Stefan swerved around them and kept going.

“Can we go home now?” Crane asked.

Stefan didn’t answer, but if he found a connection back to a highway or something he was tempted to take it. The dog sat placidly in the passenger seat, panting softly. With the road ahead clear Stefan rolled up the window with one hand while he held the wheel with the other. Up ahead a bright red reflector caught the headlights on the side of the road. He slowed but the reflector only marked what looked like a dirt road or driveway leading off into the darkness. He kept going.

A minute later the headlights caught something ahead. More zombies, out in the roadway, coming toward the van. Stefan slowed to a stop. Marshal came up between the seats with the camera.

“How’d they get in front of us?”

“I don’t know.” Stefan didn’t see that they had many options. The crowd ahead looked too thick. The dog growled deep in his chest like an engine at work. “This has to be a different group, no way they got ahead of us.”

Crane laughed in the back. “That’s just swell.”

“We’ll have to go back to that turn off we passed a minute ago. There’s nothing else unless we try to force our way through them.”

“There are more behind us,” Crane said.

“So we’d better get to the turn off first.” The zombies ahead were getting close. The dog barked once. Stefan shifted into reverse and backed up until he had enough room to turn around. Soon they were driving back down the road. Another reflector marked the turn off from this direction as well, Stefan turned and took it.

The road or drive had grass growing down the center and the tracks were like a washboard. The van rattled slowly along with the headlights lighting up the field ahead. A dark hill with a few trees and a small house at the top rose up ahead. As near as he could tell the road was taking them to that house. A dim light lit up one of the windows, so someone must be home.

The driveway turned a corner and headed more directly toward the hill.

“Wait,” Marshal said. “Back up.”

“Why?” Crane asked from the back.

Stefan didn’t question it. He stopped and put the van in reverse. As he backed up the lights shone out into the field. Then he saw it. Dark shapes moving through the field on two legs. More zombies, but headed toward the house on the hill.

“This is where they’re all going,” Marshal said.

Crane laughed. “Oh that’s fucking great. We’re right at the middle of all of this?”

“Hang on,” Stefan said.

He started driving on up the road, faster now. The van bounced over pot holes. It was risky, but he didn’t want to be cut off either. Even if the zombies and other dead things were coming to this house they might be able to hold them off. And if the dead things were coming here there might be a reason. Like the person responsible.

“Have the gear ready. When we get out I want you to be filming and recording everything.”

“Is that all?” Crane asked.

“Yes!” Stefan looked in the rearview mirror. “That’s all man! Hold the microphone. Record what happens so that people know what went on here tonight. Okay!”

“Why not?” Crane asked miserably.

The driveway curved around the hill and came up the backside. As they rounded the last curve the headlights caught more dead things down that side of the hill. This place was the bulls-eye and they’d been herded right to it by trying to stay ahead of the dead things from  the Springwood cemetery.

It wasn’t much of a house.  A small square house, white paint gone gray with age and weather, peeling off the siding in places. Moss covered much of the roof but through yellow curtains light glowed in one window. Back behind the house on one side was a sagging old barn and paddocks with broken fences. A rusty old pickup with side-boards sat alongside the house. Stefan parked the van behind the pickup and got out. The dog followed him, Marshal and Crane got out the sliding door with their equipment. Marshal had the camera’s spotlight on now. Stefan faced them, the house behind him.

“Ready? Three, two, one.” Stefan took a deep breath. The light from the camera was blinding but he looked to the side at the dark night. Overhead he heard the birds cry out. “The dead things we’ve followed tonight are coming here, to this isolated farm house. We’ve encountered groups of them coming from all directions. They’re here now, and we’re going into this house to see if there are any answers or refuge from the dead.”

Stefan walked up the cracked and weedy concrete walkway to the front door. He knocked on the dark blue-painted wood. Like the rest of the house it had seen better days and the paint was a web of cracks now. Marshal’s light lit up the whole doorway. Stefan raised his hand and knocked again. He heard boards creaking inside.

A woman in a gigantic pink spotted dress opened the door. Stringy hair hung down in her face, she was tall, an inch or two taller than Stefan and large. Her frame filled the doorway. She looked at Stefan, her face expressionless.

“I expect you’re here about them dead things?”

“Yes, ma’am, you know that they are coming here?”

She heaved a big sigh. “You’d best come in before they do get here.” The corners of her mouth twitched as if she might smile. “Unless you want to stay out there.”

“Thank you, we’ll come in.”

She moved on into the house. Stefan followed with the dog at his heels, and then the guys with the gear. Crane closed the door after they were in and turned the dead bolt. She led them into a small living room. Two other doorways in one corner. A couch slowly decayed on one side of the room while a dusty television sat on the opposite side, on with the evening news playing. A smell of fried chicken and sour milk hung in the air. In front of the couch was a small glass-topped coffee table with three KFC buckets on the top.  A few flies buzzed around the buckets. The woman moved past the coffee table and dropped onto the couch, which sagged so much that it looked like it might fold up around her. She reached into the middle bucket and took out a drumstick. The dog sat down at one end of the coffee table and watched her intently.

There wasn’t any place other than the couch to sit. Stefan went around the other side of the coffee table and perched on the padded arm of the couch. “My name is Stefan Roland, I’m a reporter. These other men are my crew and the dog, well, he joined us when the dead things attacked his owners.”

She bit into the drumstick and didn’t say anything. She tore loose a long strip of greasy meat with her teeth and then tossed it to the dog. It landed limply on the floor. The dog looked at it, then back to her and didn’t touch the scrap. She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

“Could you tell me your name?”

She still didn’t look at him, just stared at the television. “Might as well, I suppose. I’d have thought folks like you would turn up sooner than this. I’ve been waiting.” She gestured at the television. “So far there’s been nothing.”

“We’ve been filming,” Stefan said. “When we get back we’ll be able to report.”

She nodded. “That makes sense. I’m Glenda Barker. It was me that woke those dead things. I’ve got the gift.”

“Why?”

She chewed on the drumstick, slurping the meat off the bone. As she chewed, she answered. “When it started I didn’t mean to, it just happened. Little things at first. A mouse caught in a trap, or a spider I’d squashed. Kinda fun once I got the hang of it.”

“You said you woke them, how could you do that? Are you a witch?”

Glenda chewed at the scraps on the bone. When she finished she tossed it into the right hand bucket. “I don’t know about that, it’s a gift, that’s all. A sign from the Lord that I’m blessed. I can raise the dead just as surely as Jesus raised Lazarus! It’s time people knew that, paid me a little respect.”

Something hit a window at the back of the house. The dog growled.

“If you woke them, can you make them go back? Can you stop them?”

Glenda reached into the center bucket and pulled out a wing. “Why? With them to do what I want?”

Another thud against the house. Stefan heard moans from outside. If she couldn’t stop them it sounded like they would break in soon.

“Why are they coming here?”

“Because I woke them. They know who I am, and when you all show your film so will everyone else. I’ll be rich! Can’t you see it? Everyone will want their dead back, and I can give them that.”

“These dead things have attacked and killed people.”

Glenda bit into the wing and chewed off the meat. She sucked the last slivers free and tossed the wing into the right hand bucket again. She closed her eyes and for a second Stefan thought that she was falling asleep but then the bucket on the right shook. He heard snapping noises from inside. Several more blows hit the windows, all around the house. The moans grew louder. The bucket tipped over and an assembly of bones flopped out onto the table. It fell apart, then the bones rolled and snapped and reconnected again into the shape of a bird without feet or a head. It flopped off the table and fell apart again.

The dog whined. Glenda opened her eyes and chuckled.

Something pounded on the door.

“Glenda, you need to stop them, before they break in here,” Stefan said.

“Don’t you tell me what to do! No one tells me what to do!”

Stefan rose up off the couch. “I’m not telling you, I just wonder if you can do it.”

Glenda’s head fell forward, her hair hiding her face. She reached into the bucket for another piece of chicken. Stefan beckoned to the guys and they followed him over to the other doorways. One led to the kitchen, and at the back, another door. Stefan leaned into the other. It smelled like dirty gym socks but he could make out a bed, and a door at the end. A bathroom?

“Come on.” They all, including the dog, followed him into Glenda Barker’s bedroom. As he walked past a dresser he noticed something. “Marshal, bring your light over here.”

The light pointed at the dresser. It was a scrapbook on one side of the dresser. Stefan picked it up and went on around the bed, past a closet to the other doorway. Sure enough it led into a bathroom.

“Okay. We’ll hole up in here. We can push the dresser over in front of the doorway, pull it into place from the inside and close the door. There’s only that one small window above the tub. I don’t think the dead things will get in.”

Something hit the window above the bed and elsewhere in the house Stefan heard glass break. “Come on!”

Stefan snapped his fingers at the dog and pointed at the bathroom. It obediently ran inside. “Crane, help me with the dresser.”

Marshal went on into the bathroom. Together Crane and Stefan shoved the dresser over in front of the doorway, leaving only a gap to squeeze through. Then from the inside they pulled it over completely in front of the door. Stefan shoved the door closed. The space was pretty small and it smelled of piss and mold. Dark stains crawled along the ceiling and walls. A stand-alone sink with a cabinet beneath it, a toilet across from that and the tub along the wall. The dog jumped into the tub. Marshal sat down on the toilet, after putting down the seat, the camera still running. Crane perched on the edge of the sink and Stefan leaned back against the door.

The house echoed with the bangs and thumps from the dead things. The moaning cries carried through the walls.

“How long do we wait in here?” Crane asked.

Stefan shook his head. “As long as we have to, until those things go away or the Inquisition shows up and gets rid of them.”

“You think that’ll happen?”

“They know about it, but I’ll bet it was a bigger problem than four inquisitors could handle. They probably needed to get help.”

The dog whined and lay down in the tub. Stefan looked at him and shook his head. “He has the right idea.”

Marshal shut off the camera and the light, but Crane found a night light in one of the outlets and switched it on. That gave them something to see by. Crane kept recording the sounds of what was going on.

Windows broke. The cries of the dead things grew louder. Glenda started shouting in the other room but soon her shouts turned into screams. Crane took off his headphones and put his hands over his ears but as loud as she screamed Stefan doubted that Crane could block them out. He felt sick and felt bad when he was relieved that the screams stopped.

“Do you think they’ll stop now?” Marshal whispered.

Evidently not. They could still hear the zombies shuffling around the house. Something that sounded like dishes breaking. A cat yowled and it sounded like it came from the bedroom. Wings beat on the bathroom window several times before going away. The dog whined softly in the tub.

Once something hit the dresser, shaking the door, but otherwise nothing tried to get in. Eventually Stefan sat down on the floor with his back against the door. He leaned forward and rested his head on his knees.

Three hours they sat in the bathroom before they heard the first gunshot. Then more, shot after shot firing. Crane and Marshal joined Stefan on the floor, worried that shots might come through the walls. Several minutes later they heard voices. Stefan gestured at the equipment. He took the scrapbook and shoved it into Marshal’s bag. Marshal picked up the camera and started filming.

Stefan heard footsteps in the house. Several more shots, followed by the sound of bodies hitting the floor. Then footsteps in the bedroom and a voice, loudly, “Clear!”

“Help us!” Stefan called out.

That brought shouts and more footsteps. “Hello?”

“We’re in here,” Stefan said. “Three of us and our dog.”

There was a great deal of scraping as the dresser was moved away from the door. Stefan cautiously opened up the door. Flashlights shone in their faces. Stefan blinked and saw the inquisitor that had spoken to them on the road. He smiled slightly.

“I thought I recognized that van outside. You just couldn’t stay away?”

Stefan shook his head. “We had to get the story.” Two men in hazard gear carried a body out of the bedroom. It was the dead girl that had chased them from the cemetery. She had a fresh hole in her head, right between the eyes. Stefan looked back at the inquisitor. “I’d like an interview, when you have a moment?”

“I’ll have to talk to my superiors about that. Right now we need to get you out of here so that the cleanup teams can do their work. If you’ll follow me?”

Stefan nodded and led the way out. He whistled and the dog came with him, sticking to his side. The inquisitor followed them on out of the house and over to their van. A large bonfire burned in the front yard, the smell of singed flesh filling the air. In addition to the inquisitors’ car were three big green national guard trucks and a jeep. Soldiers were active around the house. Two soldiers in hazard gear staggered out of the house with Glenda Barker’s ravaged body between them. Like the others she had a bullet hole in her head. Stefan didn’t say anything to the inquisitor. The soldiers tossed her body onto the bonfire. She landed on her back, her empty eyes looking out of the flames. Smoke billowed up and obscured her face. Stefan looked over at Marshal and saw that the cameraman had caught the shot.

Gunfire rang out in the night. A soldier with a flamethrower sent fire into the sky, roasting the flies and the birds.

Stefan reached down at patted the dog’s head, then crouched. The dog’s big tongue licked at his hands. “We’ll have to get you a name. How about Buddy?”

The dog leaned against him, his weight almost enough to knock Stefan over. He patted Buddy’s back and watched the bonfire burn. He still needed to shoot the wrap-ups, interview anyone he could, find other witnesses and interview them. Then editing and everything else, but he didn’t doubt one thing. This film, when they released it, would be big. The career-changing film he’d been looking for.

So why didn’t he feel better about it? He’d gotten the story of a lifetime but he felt sick and empty inside. All he really wanted to do right at that moment was knock back a beer or six and sleep for a week.

13,465 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 18th weekly short story release and the first 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 e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Mall of the Dead Things, the second of four stories that make up my Filming Dead Things collection.

Magic is Life

Cameron hates the intrusive little gods that did nothing to save the lives of his wife and son. He distrusts their motives and insistence on worship.

That doesn’t mean that he can ignore an official summons to investigate a crime scene, one that will lead him to questions he’d rather not ask, and a new partner he doesn’t want.

1

The headache was a sign from the little gods, those shriveled pricks, those intrusive, callous weasely bastards —

Careful, Cameron. Wendy’s voice, sweet and high, like the perfect note of a harp. As if she was still there. Careful, Cameron. What if they heard?

What if, indeed?

Cameron shoved the heels of his hands against his gritty eyes until he saw spots of blue. He scraped the slime of the night from his tongue with his teeth and grimaced. Why had he woken up anyway?

The bell had sounded. The tiny brass bell that sat above the hearth on the mantel. Mrs. Book’s bell.

Cameron sat up, the mattress squeaking beneath him as he moved. The tiny flat, nothing more than a single room that smelled of the Chinese restaurant downstairs, was apparently empty. Even in the dim dawn light from the open curtains (he had closed them last night), he could see that. Outside, Three Rivers, called the new heart of the Northwest, was waking up to honks and clatter, the sharp snap of a casting chased by a smattering of applause. Some street magic, entertainment for the busy workers on their way to the office, the store or the train.

Past dawn, what time was it anyway? Cameron groped for his watch on the nightstand. The heavy gold band slipping comfortably around his wrist. His Father’s Day gift from Wendy and Peter, one of the few things he had kept. The display was dim, faded. He blinked. Damn, hadn’t charged it last night.

A deep breath. Ignoring the headache that pounded on the inside of his skull like miners hard at work, Cameron extended his index finger to the watch face and concentrated. A dog barked outside. A child wailed. He ignored all of that. Drew in breath and focused.

He panted between clenched teeth. A deep blue glow filled the veins on the back of his hand, the light turning the surrounding tissues a deep reddish purple. Breathing faster now, he pushed and the blue glow swam down his hand, tracing his veins around his finger. It burst out, that flash of pain like popping a pimple, the tiny splash of relief, and dripped down into the watch.

In the watch the blue glow lit up the face. Dark numbers swam into focus. Seven thirty-eight already, too early to get up. Wendy was the one who got up early. The seconds counted away.

The bell sounded again, sharp and insistent.

 

“I heard,” Cameron grunted, turning to the hearth. Was that a bit of burgundy disappearing behind the Urn? He caught glimpses, best not mentioned.

The mantel was a massive dark beam, stained by soot and age. The Urn was tall and dark, lovingly polished to a shine. Nearby, the brass bell gleamed. And this morning, behind the bell, propped between it and the wall, a folded piece of paper, sealed in a dab of cherry red wax.

Shit on toast! A summons. An official, report your ass to work summons. Praise the fucking little gods.

Cameron stood up, running his hands down his rumbled black suit coat. He pulled the tie free on his way to the hearth, tossing it in the wicker basket next to the cold stones, and pulled a clean one from the brass hooks driven into the front of the mantel. The paper of the summons was crisp and somehow cold to the touch, but there was a cinnamon toothpick tucked in the top. That was from Mrs. Book.

He took that, put it between his lips, shoved the summons into his pocket, and grabbed the badge and gun from where they lay on the mantel. Shoes were by the door. Coffee on the way, wherever it was the summons was sending him.

A glimpse of broken glass and an open place between buildings. A flash of green trees blowing even without wind, leaves ripped free and spinning, edges charred.

His headache stabbed at his temples again, driving the vision away in a wash of red. The room spun around him. He braced himself on the door frame.

Not good then. Uptown, that open space with the tall gleaming spires rising around. Something bad had happened.

2

Bad was an understatement. That much was obvious when Cameron arrived on the scene, pushing his way through the crowd gathered around the scene. That was the first sign it was bad. Crowds didn’t stick around unless there were gory bits to look at, and this was big crowd. Mostly business types in expensive suits worth more than he made in a month. Men and women who took their success as proof that they were favored by the little gods.

Maybe they were, he sure the hell wasn’t. Cameron held up his badge. “Excuse me! Make room! Make room!”

The crowd was reluctant, but he was determined. Funny, since he didn’t really want to get to other side of this mass of humanity. When he finally broke through the very first thing he saw were the white backs of the Priesthood.

That was the second thing that told him this was bad. The Priesthood shouldn’t be here. Not on scene like this. A half dozen of them knelt at points around the perimeter, hands clasped in front of their bowed heads. It was more than praying to the little gods. The waves of compulsion coming off them kept the crowd back more effectively than any crime scene tape ever did.

Each wave was like whispers in his ears, telling him to move back. Look away. Forget what you saw.

Cameron sucked on the chewed cinnamon toothpick, rolled it around with his tongue and sucked on the other end. That last bit of the compulsion pissed him off. Did the damn arrogant priests ever consider that there might be witnesses in the crowd? People that they needed to talk to? If the compulsion drove them off, made them forget what they saw, how effective was this investigation going to be?

He ignored the compulsion. His peculiar talents helped. He shoved through it, and stepped out away from the crowd.

The third bad thing was the scene itself. Shoving the compulsion aside made his head ache more, like an ice pick behind his eyes, but it gave him clarity.

The place was a fucking mess. Rubble and blown glass. Tattered cloth. Bodies covered in dark cloths, he skipped over those right now. The Lunar Cafe was, had been, one of those upscale coffee places, the sort that served really good coffee, not the burnt brew he’d gotten from the cart at the train station. This place catered to the Three Rivers elite, business types that worked in the surrounding spires.

Something had blown it up. Few people channeled that sort of destructive magic. Flashes of pain hit his nerves. Screams assaulted his ears. Cameron grimaced. A glimpse, that was all. No detail.

Inside the priests’ line, the place crawled with first responders. Constables, healers, and fire charmers moved around the scene. And more members of the Priesthood, standing straight and gleaming white vestments. They were calling out all of the stops on this one, why? An itch like a sneeze building warned him from going closer. What hadn’t he seen yet?

Cameron rolled the toothpick in his mouth, barely a hint of the cinnamon flavor remained. Only one way to find out. He’d have to go closer to the scene.

He’d barely taken a step, when a group of the constables moved, and a lean tall man stepped away, pale eyes fixed on Cameron. His suit was expensive and perfectly tailored. The little gods had to be fucking with him now. The man was chief constable Noah Redfield, and at his side was one of the Priesthood, a woman, one of the maters, with long straight red hair. Young, her face pale and flawless, but dusted with freckles like fairy dust. She was so bright in the sunlight. And she was also looking at him. Too late to turn back now.

“Chief,” Cameron said, as he reached them. This far into the scene the smoke and stink of burnt flesh stabbed at his senses, making his head pound more.

“Cameron,” Redfield said. “I see you got the summons.”

“Praise them,” the mater at his side murmured.

The chief glanced at the mater and continued. “We need you on this one.”

“I barely got any sleep last night,” Cameron said. “It looks like you’ve got all the help you need here.”

“I asked for you,” the mater said. Her voice was deep, throaty. “The Chief says that you see things, surely a gift from the divinity.”

More like a curse. Cameron, Wendy’s reproachful tone was faint in his thoughts.

“Of course,” Cameron said. “Anything I can do to serve.”

“This is mater Elizabeth,” the chief said. “She’s been appointed liaison in this matter.”

She took a step forward, her intense green eyes searching his face. Looking for what? Awe? Worship of her precious little gods?

“This investigation must go without flaws,” she said. “If people were to learn of the victim, it would cause great distress.”

Victim? Four bodies lay beneath sheets outside the destroyed cafe, and there were more dark sheets inside.

“You need to show him,” Redfield said.

Cameron held up his hand. “Wait a second.” He pointed at the kneeling priests. “They need to stop what they’re doing first. How are we going to canvas witness statements, if they’re driving off our witnesses and making them forget?”

Mater Elizabeth shook her head. “There’s no need of any canvasing. Better for all that this incident go unremarked. You’ll understand when you see.”

He held his ground. “If we can’t investigate properly, how do we build a case? I am assuming you want the person responsible caught?”

“We know who is responsible,” she said. “The investigation will be brief. The witness statements are not needed.”

“Work with the mater,” Redfield said. “You’ll understand.”

Understand that the Priesthood was screwing with the investigation. And who got the blame when it went bad? Not those chosen by the little gods, that was for sure.

“Please,” she said.

It was the please that got him moving. In his experience the Priesthood didn’t ask nicely. The fact of the please told him two things. One, that he already knew, was that the case was serious. But she could have taken it different, commanded him, rather than asking. That told him something about her, something he hadn’t known.

A red-haired child ran through a field, sunlight setting her hair ablaze. Her laughter was deep and full, she looked over her shoulder

“Constable?”

Cameron stirred. “Yes, okay. Show me.”

She moved with steady grace into the crime scene, as if somehow apart from it, while he crunched along like a clumsy ape. The debris field fanned out from the cafe. The blast had turned glass to tiny bits. Splintered and charred wood littered the ground among the bodies.

That glimpse, of the child, that had been her, mater Elizabeth. A happier time in her childhood. Before being adopted into the Priesthood?

The mater stepped out of the sunlight into the smoky shadows inside the cafe. Cameron followed.

Right there, near the right side of the room, that’s where the blast came from. A glimpse of heat, shearing his skin. Cameron jerked and his breath hissed between his teeth. Elizabeth turned, her pale freckled brow wrinkling.

“Are you well, Constable? Do you need me to pray to the gods for you?”

“I’m fine.” Cameron moved past her, pointing unnecessarily at the blackened scorch marks. “That’s where the blast originated.”

There were bodies nearby, dark mounded shapes on the floor surrounded by debris. A large one, and a much smaller one next to it. Cameron bit down on the toothpick, breaking it in half. He took it out of his mouth and shoved it in his pocket. His eyes skipped across that smaller shape and away.

“Is the one responsible one of these?” He gestured at the other bodies in the cafe. A blast like that, enough magic to cause all of this, was probably equally fatal to the one responsible. Even if he hadn’t died, it would have taken years off his life.

“No,” she said.

“No? You know that how? Did they tell you?” His words came out harsher than he meant.

No need to define who they were. They might not show themselves often, but they were always around. Watching. Intrusive little bastards when you didn’t want them, and useless when you did. Like this.

Elizabeth’s eyes watered, just a bit. Shit on toast! This had to be upsetting for her too. Cameron shook his head.

“I didn’t mean —”

“It’s not that,” she said. She took a deep breath, composing herself. “This wasn’t a magical attack. The ones responsible weren’t here at all.”

She moved before he could frame the questions that piled on his lips. She walked to the bodies nearby, crouching beside the smaller one even though her vestments dragged on the sooty floor. Cameron wanted to look away, and couldn’t. Elizabeth pulled the dark cloth back.

Peter. Not a glimpse, a memory. Peter’s face ashen, except the flecks of blood on his plump cheek. It’d been dark that night, not sunny like now.

Cameron stabbed his eyes with his finger and thumb, squeezing on the bridge of his nose. He looked again.

This wasn’t Peter. The features were fine and sharp, masculine despite the beautiful fair skin. Not a child’s face at all. One side torn and bloody, ragged with bright bits of metal. Shrapnel from the explosion. Adult proportions, in a height no more than thirty inches tall. A tiny, delicate man wearing a earth-brown tunic. The upper tips of his ears bent slightly outward and down, just a bit. Long fair hair spilled out around him, turned reddish-brown with blood.

One of the little gods, dead. A brownie, probably one that lived here in the cafe, looking over the place and its patrons. Dead. As dead as any of the other victims.

Cameron did get a glimpse then. A brown satchel, something inside irresistibly flashing inside, with tiny green glints escaping like sparks from the satchel. A tiny fair hand undoing the clasp and then a green flash too bright to look at. He squinted his eyes closed and turned away.

“You saw it, just then, didn’t you?” Mater Elizabeth asked.

When he looked she was standing again, the body at her feet covered once more.

His head pounded like the little gods themselves were knocking on his skull. His tongue tasted of ashes and soot. The light from outside was bright, blinding, hiding everyone else even though he could hear them out there.

“Yes,” he croaked. He coughed, and tried again. “Yes. A glimpse, that’s all. I don’t see much.”

“Enough, to confirm what we think?”

“Which is?”

“An explosive device was planted, set to go off the minute that it was opened by, by the victim. Loaded with salt and silver.”

“I don’t know. It was only a glimpse, but I saw his hand,” a nod at the body, “opening the clasp. At least I think it was his hand, it’s hard to say. That’s all I got.”

“Can you try again?”

“Maybe.” Cameron rubbed his lips. He went to the body beside the little god. “Who’s this?”

“A member of the Priesthood, Pater Samuels.”

Cameron crouched, and flipped back the corner of the blanket. Charred and blackened skin, red beneath, was all that was left of the pater’s face. Lips burned away, teeth exposed in an endless scream. The same sort of shrapnel embedded in the charred skin. He was burned much worse than the little god. Cameron pulled the cloth back over the pater’s face.

“How was he identified?”

“His signet ring,” Elizabeth said. “Merely unfortunate that he was caught in the blast.”

Cameron rotated without rising and with a flat hand, gestured out from that spot to the others. “The explosion went that way. Presumably unfortunate for all of them too. Any other members of the Priesthood? Any gods?”

“No. All of the others were customers or staff or those passing. None of that is relevant. Someone set a device to kill the god of this establishment.”

The blast had radiated outward, blowing apart the tables and chairs as if insubstantial, burning —

heat and flames brighter than the sun. Deafening. Glass fragments everywhere

Cameron shook off the glimpse. “You said you knew who was behind this?”

“Unbelievers. We thought they were harmless nonconformists, obviously that’s not the case!”

“Unbelievers?” He rubbed his head, thinking about the possibility. “What would this gain them?”

“Nothing,” Elizabeth said. “It will, however, cost them a great deal!”

“It’s a place to start,” Cameron said. “I know a guy we can talk to, but you follow my lead on this.”

“As you wish. Shall I drive?”

“After you,” Cameron said. Last thing he needed to do was pour more magic into a car.

3

As it turned out, Elizabeth wasn’t offering to drive the car herself, and what more should he have expected from someone serving the little gods? That she should pour her own life’s magic into the machine? Of course not, there was a man to do that, hawk-faced Kevan that took the wheel while they rode in the back.

Wesley Sheldon lived in a shabby loft in a converted warehouse down on East River Bank. Two years ago Cameron had helped Sheldon get over a counterfeiting operation turning out fake IDs. Sheldon was an open unbeliever, which basically made him ape-shit crazy. Cameron got being pissed at the little gods, but in a pissing contest a human was always going to lose. Besides, it wasn’t like the little gods were fucking made up or something. Maybe they usually went without being seen, but the small body on the floor made it clear that they were real flesh and blood. The dying, that was new.

Inside the building’s lobby was cracked tile, stained by the passage of feet over the years, and a whole wall taken up with brass-fronted mailboxes. Cameron didn’t bother with the lift, running that sort of thing was a waste of magic. He headed for the stairs instead. Elizabeth followed him up without comment. It was only to the third floor. There, a long hallway stretched out in front of them, apartments on either side. Stained concrete floors, dirty and scuffed with age, smelling faintly of old piss. Light came from weakly illuminated bulbs hanging naked down the middle of the hallway. Whoever did their lighting wasn’t expending much energy for it. Who could blame them?

“This man will help us?”

“If he knows what’s good for him. He may have some names, people we can talk to, to get the person responsible.”

Wesley lived all the way at the far end of the hall. He opened the door at Cameron’s second knock. Wesley looked like he had goblin blood in his family line somewhere, he was short, warty and covered in wiry brown hair that stuck out from everywhere, his nose and ears included, as if it couldn’t get far enough away from his head.

“Constable!” Wesley licked his lips, wringing his hands. His eyes went to Elizabeth and he gulped. He bowed deep. “Honored mater, please, please come in.”

Cameron went in, forcing Wesley to scurry back. The place was a labyrinth of boxes and papers, stacked on every available surface. Elizabeth lingered in the doorway, her hands pressed together, as she took in the view.

“What is all of this?”

“Historical research!” The sweep of Wesley’s arm nearly upset a pile on an overloaded table.

The cat piss smell was stronger here and Cameron saw other eyes watching them. Cats. Many cats, tucked in between or on the stacks. Slitted eyes watched them both.

The bridge of Elizabeth’s nose wrinkled slightly. Cameron caught a glimpse of her dismay, carefully contained, and took the lead.

“Wesley, there was an explosion up town. Non-magical, what can you tell me about that?” He didn’t say anything about the victim. That wasn’t knowledge that the Priesthood, or the constables, would want spread.

“Explosion!” Wesley turned and scurried around a pile. He picked up a small fluffy black cat and scratched behind its ears. The cat sat contentedly in the crook of Sheldon’s arm, purring. “Nothing. Nothing. What would I know about explosions? I’m a researcher!”

Elizabeth looked down her nose at the papers on the nearest stack. “Researching what, exactly?”

“Um, our history, that’s all. Not enough people are interested in our history.”

“Our gods tell us all we need to know of history,” Elizabeth said. “What else is there to research?”

Cameron reached out and placed his fingers on top of a teetering stack. “Who would know, Wesley? You talk to other unbelievers, you must have heard something?”

“I’ve heard nothing!”

Cameron gave the stack the gentlest nudge. It tipped, tipped and spilled, papers flying up in a brief flurry before they settled down. Wesley let out a yelp, then bit his bottom lip.

“How can you disbelieve, when the evidence is right before your eyes?” Elizabeth asked. “The gods actions are visible all around us, and they show themselves to the faithful. What is there to disbelieve?”

Wesley’s face screwed up and turned red but he was still biting his bottom lip and wasn’t saying anything. It wasn’t going to take long before his lip turned purple.

Cameron put his fingertips on the next stack of papers. It wobbled and Wesley’s eyes bulged. The place might look chaotic, but Cameron knew that the man had a system, and could lay his hands on any piece of paper in moments, if he wanted.

“We’re asking for a name. Someone we can talk to, and we’ll go, and you can go on with whatever you want to do. Give me something, Wesley. You don’t want to be the center of attention on this.”

With a sickly wet splat, Wesley spit out his bottom lip. He cuddled the cat close to his chest. “Eugene Hodgson, talk to him. Leave me alone. He might give you something.”

Where the windows were, in the reflections, Cameron caught a glimpse of an older man, at least in his mid-forties, elegant, surrounded by books.

Cameron lifted his fingers from the pages, leaving them intact. “Thank you.” He gestured at the piles. “You might want to do something about this, Wesley. It doesn’t look healthy.”

Turning to Elizabeth, he said, “Come on. The name is good. This Hodgson, can you get his info? We need to move quickly.”

“I’ll pray to the gods for you,” Elizabeth said to Wesley.

The short man’s face went pale beneath all the bristly hair. He swallowed and looked ready to faint. Elizabeth was already moving to the door. Cameron managed not to laugh and winked at Wesley as he left.

As the door closed behind Cameron, he heard Wesley wailing to his cats.

“That was wicked,” he said to Elizabeth. “You terrified him good. Put the fear of the little gods to him.”

Her lips tightened. “You should not refer to them as such, and I meant only well-wishes for that sad little man.”

It was okay to call the man little, but not her oh-so-precious gods. Cameron sighed. “How about a prayer for that information we need?”

“Oh, I’ve already done that,” Elizabeth said. “I’m sure the information will be forthcoming soon.”

4

Forthcoming, in fact the moment they stepped foot outside the warehouse. A flock of pigeons came over the edge of the roof and descended on them in a flapping storm of blue-gray feathers. Cameron raised his hands to ward off the flying rats, but the pigeons circled them and landed in front of mater Elizabeth. It was only when she crouched that he saw the pale tiny naked people clinging to their backs.

Nasty, sharp tooth little fucking gods, pixies!

Cameron! Wendy’s voice scolded in his thoughts. More distantly, Peter’s high giggles.

Not even glimpses. His imagination playing tricks on him. He rubbed his temples, waiting while Elizabeth knelt down in front of the pixie flock. One of the pigeons took off in a flutter, landing on her shoulder. She kept her head bowed as the pixies leaned close, whispering in her ear.

Elizabeth nodded.

The pixie’s head snapped over, snake-fast, nipping at her ear. Then it was sitting back on its bird, the nasty thing with red, red lips. Beady dark eyes narrowed, looking back at him.

Shit on toast. Cameron looked down. He didn’t need to piss off the fucking little gods. Not any more than he had obviously already done.

A loud flurry of flapping and the whole flock took off, swirled around them in a dusty rush and were gone. Something hit Cameron’s shoulder, and when he looked there was white pigeon shit running down his suit coat. He groaned.

“I have the information,” Elizabeth said.

She was standing. Her eyes flicked to the mess on his coat, but she didn’t say anything. Her red hair fell down around her face. He couldn’t see her ear.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” She smiled. “Shall we go?”

5

While Kevan drove the sleek white car, Elizabeth filled Cameron in on what the nipping pixie had shared. He listened, and tried using a tissue to clean the mess off his suit coat. A hopeless attempt, it was going have to go to the cleaners. Just another shitty sign from the little gods.

Eugene Hodgson, a professor of economics at the Three Rivers University, up in the university district along Crescent Lake. Tenured. Confirmed unbeliever.

“Confirmed how, exactly?” Cameron asked.

Elizabeth’s brow wrinkled. “The gods told me.”

Ah, right. The nippy, pigeon-riding shitty god, that one.

Cameron, Wendy would say, in her soft, disapproving, exasperated tone. Ice-picks stabbed the backs of his eyes. He rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes, then dragged his hands down his face, yawning. His stomach rumbled.

“Are you unwell?”

He shook his head. “Fine. Let’s get this done.”

As the car pulled into the University parking, they found it blocked off, barricaded by constables and Priesthood vehicles. Their car was waved on through. Cameron twisted around, watching as the barricades were replaced. He turned to Elizabeth.

“What’s going on? What’s all of this? I thought we were just going to talk to this guy?”

“The unbelievers are behind this attack,” she said. “The Priesthood feels that our tolerance to heresy has gone on too long.”

“But you don’t know that Hodgson had anything to do with this!’

“Perhaps not, but we are taking no chances. We will listen to what he says.”

“And justice? Don’t the gods care about that?”

“Justice for whom? For the god brutally murdered? Or the other innocent bystanders, one of them a member of the Priesthood? Oh, I assure you, constable, they care.” Her voice deepened. “But they are vengeful gods. It isn’t wise to incur their wrath!”

For a while he had forgotten that she was a mater. Her harsh tone made it abundantly clear. Cameron rubbed his hands on his pants.

“And if Hodgson had nothing to do with this crime?”

The car stopped. “Then he will be set free, on notice that heresy does not go unnoticed, or unanswered.”

Right. Cameron followed her out of the car.

Hodgson’s office was elegant, book-lined and formal, much like the man that stood stiff-backed in front of them. His hair, oddly, was white, immaculately coiffed, as was his beard. Clear blue eyes looked at them.

“What is the meaning of all of this? I have classes to teach!”

Elizabeth looked at Cameron. Ah, the appearance of impartial investigation. Cameron pulled out a notebook and a small pencil. He flipped it open.

“Dr. Hodgson, there was an explosion this morning just after seven at the Lunar Cafe, uptown on 7th. People were killed.”

“I was nowhere near there!”

“And where were you?”

“At home, in bed. Alone.”

tangled white sheets, a slim, perfect leg sticking out, dark brown skin contrasting with the sheets. The curve of a bottom swelled the sheets. The woman turned, sheets spilling away from her smooth young skin like milk. A cascade of curly dark hair spilled across the pillows around her smiling face

“Alone? There wasn’t a woman with you? Young, a student? Beautiful dark brown skin, bright smile, curly hair?”

The muscles in Dr. Hodgson’s jaw clenched. “Yes, well, obviously you know that, or you wouldn’t ask.” He smiled. “Which also means you know I had nothing to do with the attack.”

“You’re an unbeliever!” Elizabeth said.

Dr. Hodgson nodded. “Yes, I suppose you could say that, which is also reason that I would never do what you suggest.”

“Meaning?” Cameron asked.

“Unbelievers, skeptics, whatever you want to call us, we believe in a reasoned life. How old do you take me for, constable?”

The white hair was striking, suggesting advanced age. “Forty-five?”

Dr. Hodgson shook his head slowly. “No. In point of fact, I am fifty-four years old, as of last March. As the years have passed I have used less and less magic in my daily life, and this is the result, a longer life. It is because of this, and other details, that I don’t accept everything that I’m told.”

Fifty-four! It was staggering to hear him say it. Cameron wrote the number down in his notebook, and that still didn’t make it real. But why lie? They could verify his age.

“Magic is life,” Dr. Hodgson said, looking at Elizabeth. “That what the gods say, correct?”

Dumbly, Elizabeth nodded.

“And yet I get by just fine without it. How many more years have I got? Ten? Twenty? Even more?” Dr. Hodgson shrugged. A small smile touched his lips for a moment. “The gods only know. I have no interest in shortening anyone’s life. I recommend you look at the evidence again, constable. Look to the cause, who the victims were, who might have wanted to harm them? It is only reasonable that the answers are there.”

The man made sense. Cameron touched Elizabeth’s arm. “Let’s go.”

She stepped aside with him. “Where?”

“Like he says. Back to the crime scene. Maybe the answer is there.”

6

The bodies were gone, taken away, but Cameron did have the reports as he moved through the scene. The other evidence remained, organized and sorted. A puzzle with a solution. Elizabeth stood near the boarded up front with her arms crossed. She’d been silent since they left the university. Fuming over what Dr. Hodgson had said?

Cameron was good at compartmentalization. It was one of the things that allowed him to function as a constable. And to function at all after the accident that cost him his family.

I’m worried about you. Wendy whispered, her breath touching his ear.

Except that was only his imagination. He wasn’t haunted. Certainly not by the ghosts of his wife and son. Memories, yes. Not ghosts.

Right now, he would focus on the case. That’s what mattered. The evidence was organized into a grid, taped out sections collecting related evidence together. Redfield had told them all to leave it, clear out until Cameron did his thing.

One square held all of the pieces of the device that had been recovered so far. Cameron crouched beside it, not touching anything yet, looking. A leather case, mostly gone to ash. Bits of twisted metal, some simple, others complex. Parts of a timer?

He tasted copper in his mouth, clinging to his throat. Glimpses came and went, but touching things made it worse. He rubbed his fingers together and picked up a melted lump with wires.

A watch face, green tendrils of magic reaching up from the palm of a hand, drilling deep into the device… The watch glowing in the darkness of the case as the clasp snapped shut.

“The timing device was a normal watch, magical, not mechanical,” he said.

Elizabeth stirred. “What does that mean?”

Cameron shook his head. “If other unbelievers are like Hodgson, they wouldn’t have used magic.”

He put it down and reached for the charred handle of the case. The sour taste was stronger. The pain in his head was blinding, and grew worse as his fingers touched the leather.

A hand reached for the case, white gloves, with a bright white sleeve, the edge embroidered in gold stitches.

Cameron jerked away, gasping.

Elizabeth crossed the room quickly, reaching for him. He scooted backwards on his hands and feet, his eyes on the sleeve of her vestment as it fell around her hand. Her hand was delicate, bird-like bones. Not the hand in the glove. That was a man’s hand.

“What did you see?”

He realized she had already asked, and was repeating her question.

“A hand,” he swallowed, squeezed his eyes shut against the pain. “White gloves, he was wearing vestments. Like yours.”

She stood up straight. Her voice shook. “You’re saying a member of the Priesthood did this? Why?”

“I don’t know. We’ll have to ask them.” He opened his eyes. The pain ebbed some. “We have to look at everything.”

“No.” Her head shook once, decisively. “They killed a god!”

Killed a god. If word got out people would panic. If the little gods could be killed, what else could happen?

The same little gods that had allowed his family to die.

You never liked them, Wendy’s voice admonished. Even before.

True. They were manipulative, sometimes cruel, and intrusive little bastards, controlling everything from behind the scenes. But he hadn’t felt such a cold hatred before the accident. The one time when they could have used their powers to do something good where were they?

“Constable? Are you okay?”

Boxes. Compartments. Maybe he wasn’t doing as good of a job as he thought. He pulled out his pencil and flicked through the debris in the square.

“Fine,” he grunted. “This was the watch.”

A lump of metal, shattered and melted. If you squinted, you could make out a bit of the band.

He poked through the rest. Other metal bits, shrapnel apparently put into the bomb. Discs, it looked like, small. Coins. Silver coins? He picked through the coins and found one less melted, bent in half, blackened on one side.

He picked it up. There was a woman, seated, a shield on the floor in front of her and worn letters up the side. United was the only word legible. At the bottom of the coin were two numbers ’18’.

It was a dime. An old one. He held it up to Elizabeth. She took it, turning it in her fingers.

“A dime?”

Cameron stood up, knees aching. “Yes. A silver dime. Dimes aren’t made with silver today.”

“Of course not!” She thrust the coin at him. “Why would we make coins out of a metal toxic to the little gods? It’s an offensive thought!”

He took it, and pulled an evidence bag from his pocket. He slipped the coin inside. “Does it remind you of what Sheldon told us? And Hodgson?”

“What do you mean?”

He held up the bag, shaking the coin inside. “Clearly dimes were made with silver content in the past. Why would they do that?”

“They wouldn’t! It must be a fake!”

His gut told him otherwise. He hadn’t gotten any glimpse from the coin, it didn’t always happen when he wanted, or it was convenient. And with his head hurting, he didn’t care. He slipped the bag into his pocket.

“Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, though, it takes us closer to our bomber. How did he come by the dimes? He had to get them from somewhere. We knock on a few coin dealers, we might get some answers. There can’t be too many places that deal in silver coins.”

7

Elizabeth had refused to pray to her gods for guidance. “They aren’t a business directory!”

Kevan pulled the car over at the third coin shop they’d visited. At the first two, the dealers had recoiled from the coin as if it was toxic for humans to touch.

Camera got out of the car. The sign across the face of the shop was Edgehill Coins. Gold bought and sold. Now gold, that was something the little gods fucking loved. Greedy bastards.

The other car door opened and Elizabeth got out. He turned. “You could wait, if you want.”

“No,” she said. “My presence might encourage truthfulness.”

It might at that. Cameron went to the door, and waited for her to catch up. He opened the door automatically, stepping aside to let her enter first.

“Welcome! Many blessings of the day…”

The voice trailed off as Cameron stepped inside the dimly lit store. As his eyes adjusted he saw the man behind the counter. A man, soft and baby-faced, still. Bright red pimples scattered like constellations across his forehead.

The man smiled at Elizabeth, looked nervously at Cameron, and back to her again, as if his dark eyes couldn’t decide which of them to address first. He focused on Elizabeth.

Probably smart.

“Ah, are you together? May I help you?”

“We are,” Cameron grunted. He went to the counter, and pulled out his notebook, letting his badge flash the guy. “Are you the owner?”

The young man nodded quickly. “That’s right. Rod Edgehill, it’s been in our family for generations. I’ve taken it over now that my father can’t run it.”

“Aren’t you young for such responsibility?” Elizabeth asked. “You must be blessed by the gods.”

A nod, jerking his head. “Yes, mater. We are blessed. The gods see that we receive the rarest, most precious coins and gems, and we pay appropriate tribute in return!”

“How long have you been running the store?” Cameron asked.

“A year now. I grew up here in the store, though, apprenticed to my father.”

Good enough. Cameron hauled out the evidence back and held it up in front of Rod. “You ever see dimes like this before?”

“No. It doesn’t ring any bells.”

The answer was too quick. The kid hardly even looked at it. He pushed it closer to Rod’s face. “Maybe you better take a closer look, son.”

Rod recoiled. Drops of sweat beaded on his pimply face. “I haven’t seen it before!”

Elizabeth, turned away from the counter, placing her hand on Cameron’s arm. “Another dead end?”

It wasn’t. Cameron shook her off, turning back to the kid, which was right when he bolted. He sprinted along the aisle behind the counter.

“Hell.” Cameron shoved the dime in his pocket and took off after the kid. “Hold it!”

The kid ignored him, disappearing through a beaded curtain that whipped around him.

At the end of the counter Cameron banged through the swinging gate marked No Admittance. He drew his gun and peeked around the corner through the swinging beads.

A back room, narrow, and empty. Cameron looked at Elizabeth, still standing where he’d left her. “Go out front! Keep an eye for him.”

He didn’t wait for an answer. He went through the curtain.

The work area was cluttered with tools and books. Ahead it turned, a set of stairs leading up, and the hallway continuing to the left. Cameron moved forward quickly, cautiously. Anyone willing to blow up a cafe probably wouldn’t worry about shooting a constable.

He hugged the wall where the hallway turned, then looked around, a quick look.

Empty. A long corridor, waste bins and an outer door swinging shut.

He ran to the door at a full sprint, and caught it with his foot. Peeked, out, weapon ready.

Rod, already a good distance down the alley running behind the store.

Cameron burst through the door and gave chase. “Stop! By order of the law!”

Edgehill wasn’t stopping. Damn him! He was younger and faster. Cameron sucked air and ran full out, his legs already burning. He shoved the gun back into the holster. It wasn’t like he was going to shoot the kid. He really needed to spend more time exercising.

Where were the little gods now? He was trying to solve the murder of one of their own, the least they could do was help out!

A delivery truck pulled into the alley in front of Rod. The boy tried to swerve and wasn’t fast enough. He ran smack into the front of the truck as the tires squealed on the asphalt.

No! Cameron didn’t have the breath to shout.

Rod flew back from the truck as batted into the outfield. He tumbled and rolled, landing hard in the alley. Foul ball!

If the fucking little gods caused this, killed this boy—

He couldn’t even finish the thought. He reached Rod moments later. The kid was lying sprawled on the asphalt, clothes scraped, blood on his face. He groaned and blinked up at Cameron, trying to shield his eyes.

Sucking air, Cameron put his hands on his hips. It looked like the kid would live. The delivery drive climbed down out of the truck, pulling off his baseball cap and wringing in his hands.

“Oh, gods! Is he going to be okay?”

Cameron flashed his badge. “Why don’t you do that? Pray to the gods to send us some help. Or better yet, run and get help.”

The driver pressed his hands together. “Of course! Constable. Of course!”

He dropped to his knees in the alley and bowed his head. “Please the gods, send us help for this injured boy.”

Cameron, shook his head, tuned out the litany and knelt beside Rod, who looked like he was trying to get up. Cameron put a hand on Rod’s shoulder.. “Don’t try to move. Wait for help to come.”

Rod groaned and lay back, sobs wracking his body. “I’ve ruined us!”

“How?”

Cameron heard sirens and an ambulance turned into the alley at the other end. Now the gods act.

“Merciful gods be praised!” The driver called out.

“How?” Cameron pressed.

“I bought the coins,” Rod said. He groaned. “Can’t be real, thought they’d have novelty value.”

“Who’d you sell them too?”

Rod coughed. “Didn’t. He came, the pater. Confiscated them.”

“How’d he know you had them? Did he give you a name?”

“No.” Rod coughed more, a ragged sound.

The medics ran up from the ambulance. Both were women, young and fair, but light and dark.

The one with the dark hair, and deep brown skin touched Cameron’s shoulder. “Constable, do you know his name?”

“Rod Edgehill,” Cameron said. He stood up.

Elizabeth was coming down the alley, walking quickly past the ambulance.

“Is he going to be okay?”

The blond woman was holding her hand above Rod’s head. A faint red glow surrounded her hand, and extended down to Rod. “Yes. We can heal his wounds.”

“Thank you,” Cameron said.

“Thank the gods, not us.”

Yeah, right. Cameron bit back the comment as if he was under Wendy’s both amused and disapproving gaze. He walked away, meeting Elizabeth before she reached the scene.

Her eyebrows drew in. “Why did he run?”

“He was afraid. He did say that he bought the coins for their novelty value, but a pater came to the store and confiscated them.”

“A pater? Who?”

“He didn’t know.” Both medics had their hands over the kid, magic spreading out in a fine mist of blues and greens. The blond closed her hands, rocked back on her heels and stood.

She came over to them. There was a red rash now on the side of her face. Stigmata from the healing.

“He’s going to need surgery. There are internal injuries.” She looked to Elizabeth. “With your permission, mater, we’ll take him to the Grove Hospital.”

Elizabeth nodded.

“He’ll live though, right?” Cameron asked. If the kid died, so did one of their clues.

“I believe so, gods willing. We’ve stabilized him, but it will take many sessions, with his body helping, to heal.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said.

The medic went back to help her partner load Edgehill into the ambulance.

Cameron shoved his hands into his pockets and started walking. His fingers found the chewed and broken toothpick. He ran the tip along the splintered wood, wishing he had a fresh one. Elizabeth kept pace at his side as they left the alley and started around the building back to the front.

“What now, constable? Didn’t you get any insights?”

“Glimpses.” When she looked at him, he explained. “I call them glimpses. They’re flashes of sensory details. The fire burning me, the hand reaching for the case, the glow of the watch. I don’t control it.”

“Of course not, the gods do.”

He snorted. “Then they’re capricious li—. Why do this? If they know who’s responsible, why not tell me? Or you at least?”

Elizabeth stopped catching his arm. “They don’t answer to us. It isn’t our place to judge them.”

The familiar old anger rose up, the smoke before the flame. He tried to push it back. “They’re vengeful gods, right?”

“They can be.”

“Then why not go get vengeance?” Cameron thrust his hands out to his sides and turned in a circle, looking up at the buildings. “Why don’t you go get vengeance?”

Again, Elizabeth touched his arm. Her lips pressed together as she looked at him. “What made you hate them so much? How have you gone so far from them?”

He started to deny it. But why? Here he had one of their maters, and she was listening. Why not lay it all out?

Careful. Wendy’s voice said, faint in the back of his mind. He pushed that away. No. I won’t be.

He shook his head. “Where do I start? I could say it was because my wife and son died. Would that make sense? That I blame the gods for their death? They could have done something to save them, and nothing.”

Her eyes closed for a moment and then opened, moist. “I’m sorry.”

Cameron shook his head harder. “Don’t. Don’t be sorry. Why should you? Yeah, the fucking little gods could have done something if they bothered. Had the car break down. Or something else, so at least when Wendy died, she wasn’t behind the wheel!”

Bleeding magic into the car, giving it life, until her own ended. Young, at twenty-five to go. Not unheard of. Hodgson’s words, his age, more than twice Wendy’s drifted in Cameron’s mind. He didn’t know what to do with that. He pushed it all away.

Because it wasn’t true. Their deaths cemented his hate, it didn’t create it.

Cameron stepped closer. “Think about it. They lie. We know they do.”

Elizabeth’s mouth opened, as if to protest. Cameron barreled on.

“They manipulative, greedy little fuckers! They demand tithes of food and blood and gold. They interfere in everything. We can’t do anything without them being in the part of it. If I’m out on a case and I need help, I have to pray that the gods will send it. And if they’re pissed at me? Then I’m screwed. So be it!”

He stopped, breathing hard.

“Everything you see,” Elizabeth said softly. “And yet you fail to see so much of the good they do. What about the simple tasks that they provide? Is there not a brownie or house elf that has done you a kindness?”

Mrs. Book. Cameron fingered the broken toothpick. Peter gave her that name, no idea where he got it from, but they’d all used it.

Elizabeth touched his arm. “Even if we don’t understand it, they have a bigger plan for us. You can’t turn to unbelief, constable. Without them, we’re forsaken.”

Her words, her face was sincere. He believed she meant well. Today, he wasn’t particularly swayed. “What about Hodgson? About his age, that rather than magic being essential to life, it is actually draining life?”

“He lied.” Elizabeth folded her hands together. “I’m sure any documentation he provides would prove fabricated. You know, as well as I do, what happens when people stop using magic.”

Headaches. Like the one that still pounded on his temples. Most people didn’t resist using magic, there was no reason to. It ran everything. It’d be difficult to function, without using it.

In his other pocket, he touched the plastic bag holding the dime. He pulled it out. “What about this?”

“A fabrication. Nothing more.”

Maybe, maybe not. “We know that they were used in the bomb. Edgehill said a pater confiscated them. How would the pater have known about the dimes? Why take them? And how did they end up in the bomb?”

“Without his help identifying the man claiming to be a pater, we may not find out the answers.”

Cameron shook his head. “There’s a pater we haven’t investigated yet. Pater Samuels. He was at the site of the blast. Maybe he was a random victim, or he may have been the target. Or the one responsible.”

“I don’t like where this is going.” She crossed her arms. “What did you have in mind?”

Cameron started walking again. “Let’s find out.”

8

Despite Elizabeth’s considerable reluctance to look into Pater Samuels, she agreed to let Cameron see his quarters and his office.

The Priesthood headquarters flagrantly declared the wealth bled off the people of the city. It was a massive, twisted cluster of reflective spires rising up out of the dense dark woods of Priest Park, at the heart of Three Rivers. The massive park stretched along a half-dozen city blocks, and another three blocks wide. The ground rose, a hill rising toward the heart, where the headquarters glimmered like something from another realm.

Cameron’s throat was dry as Kevan threaded the car into streets around the park, clogged with a mass of humanity. Merchants of all stripes sold from booths that spilled out into the streets. Pedestrians and cyclists moved through the crowds. Pilgrims lined the rugged stone fence surrounding the park, poor souls who came here to pray to the fucking little gods. Elizabeth seemed unaffected by the crowd, no doubt used to having them fawning over her.

Watching the crowds, Cameron’s disgust grew. Why should people do this? Why scrape and bow, leaving their offerings at the fence? Anything of value was more likely to get picked up by those that worked the crowd, than by any little god.

“Does this ever bother you?” He asked, looking at the young mater.

Her shapely eyebrows drew together in apparent confusion. “Why would it bother me? Don’t pilgrims have a right to petition the gods, and the Priesthood?”

“What good does it do?” Cameron waved to the tinted window, the people outside peering at the car, fruitlessly eager for a look at the priests inside. They’d sure be disappointed if they could see him.

“They’re the ones to judge if it does them good or not. We don’t ask them to come. It isn’t something we demand. They choose this. I’ve heard testimony from many of the faithful that the visit has help them, even that the gods have granted special favors.”

“To some, not all,” Cameron said.

“Yes. The gods select those worthy of their favor, just as they’ve chosen you.”

“Me? They’ve cursed me.”

“If you’ve been punished, then you haven’t learned the lesson the gods meant to teach. They granted you the gift of insight, constable. How well have you used it?”

He clenched his teeth. His headache was back in force, pounding at his temples. Hadn’t learned the lesson? Who gave them the fucking right? His temples pounded and he rubbed them, and his eyes. His tongue clung to his mouth. His gut churned. He hadn’t had anything since the coffee from the cart this morning.

“Are you okay?”

He blinked and looked at Elizabeth. The car stopped. Ahead of them the gate was opening. Priesthood guards kept the people back from the gate.

“Sure, it’s nothing,” he lied.

“You’re tired. We haven’t taken a break since this morning. When we reach the Spires, I’ll send for refreshments.”

Why’d she have to be so damn nice? “That’s not necessary.”

“It is. I need to you well to solve this case.”

“Why not ask the gods who set the bomb? Don’t they know?”

Elizabeth’s eyes were sad as she gave a little shake of her head. “They’re not omnipotent, omnipresent beings. They have great power, yes. And they could be anywhere at any time. That doesn’t mean they are everywhere, all the time. As you saw, one was present at the explosion.”

The car pulled through the open gate, leaving the gathered pilgrims behind.

Elizabeth leaned closer. “Don’t forget, constable, who the victims were in this crime. Maybe you feel wronged somehow by the gods, yet they lost one of their own, as well as the others that died.”

She leaned back, turning away. The rebuke tasted sour. Was she right? Was he letting his feelings about the gods interfere? So much for compartmentalization. He looked out as the car drove slowly into Priest Park.

He’d never been, and only had a vague idea of what lay beyond the tall stone walls. A forest at the heart of the city, with thick, twisted trees that rose higher than the walls.

It was all of that, and more. The dense forest cut off all sounds from the city surrounding the park. They might has well have been plunged into a massive wilderness, were it not for the road which snaked and twisted through the woods, with barely enough room to pass on either side. The trees above leaned together over them, like weary giants leaning on each other’s shoulders. The thick canopy shut out much of the light except a dim greenish yellow that filtered down through the leaves.

Yet, looking forward through the front, the road was bare cobblestones, free of any leaves or plants growing up between the stones. It was smooth, as if each stone was at the perfect height. The road rose and fell, turning and twisting through the woods as if laid only with the goal to avoid any trees at all. Likely true, living trees were originally homes for many of the gods.

Then the car went up over a small hill and down and the road was gone. Not covered. Not blocked or gated, simply gone. Kevan stopped the car. Just ahead the road formed a small circle of stones, hardly enough room to turn around, should they try.

A massive black oak squatted straight ahead, two dark trunks rising together into a twisted mass.

Cameron coughed, his throat dry. His head ached as if the fucking little gods were trying to claw their way out of his skull through the back of his eyes.

“Honored mater?” Kevan asked, turning in the driver’s seat to look back.

Faint blue wisps floated out of the woods. No more substantial than patches of fog caught in the light, but they swam through the air like fish, twisting and turning, circling the car.

“What’s going on?” Cameron asked.

Elizabeth reached for her car door handle. Cameron grabbed her other arm.

“You can’t go out there!”

She smiled, and opened the door. “I’m one of the Priesthood, who else should commune with the gods?”

Her arm, warm and smooth slipped free from his grasp as she pushed the door open and stood.

The wisps spun around, sweeping down at her in a swarm.

“Elizabeth!” Cameron yelled, lunging across the car seat.

She cried out and fell back, into the car. Cameron grabbed her under the arms as the swarm circle and came back. They weren’t aiming for her, they were aiming for the door!

Cameron grunted and heaved her across the back seat, across his legs into his lap. The wisps hit the car door en mass, and it slammed shut!

Outside the swarm circled around the car, slowing.

“Mater?” Kevan asked.

Her red hair was in Cameron’s face. She moved against him, extricating herself from the tangle. She blew hair out of her mouth and brushed it away. Her eyebrows drew together as she glared at Cameron.

“How, how dare you!”

Oh, frickin’ gods! “I was trying to get you back inside before they hurt you!”

Kevan was watching, his face dark.

Elizabeth’s mouth tightened, then she said, “It wasn’t up to you to protect me from the gods, constable!”

“Next time I won’t bother!”

Outside the wisps hand stopped circling the car. Instead they floated in place, right outside Cameron’s door. “What are they doing?”

He looked to Elizabeth.

Her glare faded. She took a deep breath. “Perhaps I misunderstood. It looks like they don’t want to speak with me.”

“If not you —”

Kevan gave a little shake of his head.

They meant him. Cameron groaned. “You can’t be serious! What would they want with me?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Elizabeth said. “They didn’t make the road disappear for no reason, constable.”

Both of them, Elizabeth and Kevan, were watching him. Expecting him to get out there? With the little gods in the middle of their fucking magic forest?

He’d have to be crazy.

Of course, gods being what they were, they could probably get him out of the car if they wanted.

“Fine!” Cameron grabbed the door handle. “I hope they have a good reason for interfering with the case.”

He opened the door, slowly. The wisps floated and moved, like nothing more than a patch of ground fog, except illuminated from within by an icy blue light.

Cool air bathed his face. A drop of water hit his cheek. Cameron brushed it with the back of his hand and looked up.

A little god crouched on a twisted tree branch above his head. She was tiny, no more than a couple feet high, with mossy green hair pulled into two fluffy pony tails on each side of her head. Her skin was darker green. She wore a filmy light green tunic, belted at the waist, but falling open. Tears hung in her large yellow eyes, the whole things yellow with a tiny black pupil. A tear rolled down her cheek, across her button nose and hung there shining for a moment.

It fell. A tiny twisting drop. Blue wisps like fog swirled around him.

The tear drop splashed into his eye.

Cameron fell back.

9

It was October 4th, three years ago, almost eight o’clock and already dark on the road out of the city. The smell of burnt rubber hung in the air like overdone coffee.

Lights flashed nearby.

A glimpse of the past. No! Cameron tried turning away. He couldn’t move, bound by the sprite’s tear to see.

The car, broken, windows shattered, sparkling like icy on the cold pavement. It wasn’t ice that caused the accident. Wendy, her head down, dark hair covering her face, a mercy.

Until she lifted her head.

No, Cameron moaned silently.

Her face was pale and eyes dark, drooping, sad eyes, and yet a touch of a smile on her lips?

Cameron. It was her voice, though her lips didn’t move. We’re moving on, Peter and I. It isn’t time for you.

Why? Why now? Why couldn’t he come?

Her head moved, almost imperceptibly. It’s our time. Don’t blame the gods, we’re with them now.

It wasn’t fair! How could they go, and leave him alone?

You’ll join us, one day. Almost she smiled. In time.

I can’t. I can’t keep doing this. Not without you, what’s the point?

You’ll know that one day, too, Cameron. Believe.

This is a trick. The fucking little manipulative —

Cameron! It isn’t a trick. We’re with them now.

If that was true, why? Why her? Why take Peter, when he was so young?

This isn’t the time to explain. Look after Elizabeth. Look to the ring, Cameron.

Blue mists swept across his vision, blocking out Wendy, sweeping it away.

No!

10

Dark green leaves covered the sky above in a blanket of foliage. The green sprite still crouched on the branch, tilting her head to watch Cameron. He rubbed his eyes. The headache was gone. He was lying on his back, on the soft ground.

The sprite looked up sharply, looking at something else, beyond him.

Cameron rolled over, fingers digging into moss and leaves. The dark trunks of the Priest Park forest covered the mossy slope in front of him. At the top fingers of granite thrust out of the small hill, like the nose of a sleeping giant. He had the sense of something moving, dropping out of sight on the other side of the rocks, but his eyes may have just caught the dance of shadow and light from the canopy overhead.

There was a sound like laughter, familiar boyish laughter that sent a shock through his heart. He scrambled to his feet, moss and leaves falling from him.

His heart was beating so loud how could he hear anything! He listened, and only heard the thick canopy rustling above.

“Cameron?”

The voice startled him. He turned.

There was the car, sleek and black, out of place in the forest. The road continued on ahead as if never blocked. The massive black oak that had squatted in front of the car was somehow off to the side now, crouching, stooped, as if watching them from the craggy bark folds.

Elizabeth, gleaming white in her vestments, her red hair like an aura of flames around her pale face, stood beside the car. Her hands were pressed together in front of her chest.

“Are you okay, Cameron?”

He didn’t answer. Words spun in his head. What had that sprite done to him? He looked up at the branch above, but the green sprite was gone.

His dry throat cracked. He coughed. “I’m fine.”

The glimpse, the vision of Wendy, it couldn’t have been real, could it? A trick of the little gods? It didn’t feel like that. Her voice, it sounded like her. It was fading already. The details slipping away like a glimpse of the sun through the clouds.

He stomped down to the car.

“Pranks and games,” he said. “That’s all. Let’s go.”

Elizabeth didn’t protest. She got into the car, sliding across the seat. Cameron climbed in and slammed the door.

11

Whatever else anyone might say about the Priesthood, they served good coffee. Cameron sipped the piping hot brew, perfectly roasted, a hint of sugar, no cream. It slid smoothly down his throat as he looked around pater Samuels’ chambers.

Elizabeth was with him, and pater Bracken, a tall stooped fellow with a flat boxer’s nose.

“We’re happy to assist the investigation,” Bracken said. “Although I confess only the gods know what you hope to find here.”

Cameron didn’t comment. The pater’s chambers were earthy, natural, with wood paneling and shelves along one wall were filled with bound volumes. Mrs. Book would no doubt love this room.

There was a big desk, the back facing the windows that wrapped around that wall. The view out the windows looked down on the park below.

He moved around the desk. The chair looked expensive, big and imposing, leather-backed. No wheels. It sat firmly in front of the desk on four clawed feet.

Cameron sat. The desk itself looked old, but gleamed with polish. “This desk has been cleaned?”

“The gods grant us such favors,” Bracken said. “Many take great joy in such simple tasks.”

Mrs. Book came to mind. How many of the little gods were watching right now? Lurking behind books or curtains, observing everything they did. Thinking about it was like having fingers crawling up his spine. He pushed it aside and focused on the desk.

It was clean, spotless. A blotter, ink well and pen occupied the desk. Nothing else. Cameron grabbed the side door to pull it open —

The same room, at dusk. His hand extended out a signet ring, handing it to someone.

“Cameron?”

Elizabeth had moved. She was standing in front of the desk, her fingertips resting lightly on the surface. “Did the gods grant you a vision?”

Wendy. She’d said something about the ring. And Elizabeth. Whatever that had meant. He left the desk. “I was thinking we should pay our respects to the man himself.”

She grimaced. “Why?”

“Yes, indeed,” Bracken said. “What do you hope to gain by that constable?”

“I’ll see when I see him. He’s still at the morgue?”

“Yes,” Bracken said. “Arrangements have to be made.”

Cameron looked up at the pater. “And the god, the one that died, what happened to him?”

Bracken stood a little straighter. “The gods took him.”

Of course. Cameron headed out of the chambers. Elizabeth caught up with him and followed.

12

On the drive over to the morgue, Cameron stared out the window without paying too much attention to the buildings and people they passed.

His headache was gone, apparently cured by the sprite’s tear. Bottle that, and it could make a million.

The vision of Wendy, that was different than the usual glimpses he got of other places, other times. It felt like he’d talked to her and the thought twisted in his heart. Could it have been? Was what she said true, that she and Peter were with the gods, whatever that meant?

The laugh. That fair laugh in the woods. Real or imagined?

With the little gods, who knew? He didn’t, and he wasn’t about to ask Elizabeth about it. He could feel her fuming on the other side of the car, angry that he hadn’t explained his purpose.

He wasn’t sure of it himself.

Except he didn’t believe that the glimpses came directly from the gods. Maybe they gave him the ability, maybe they didn’t. Curse or gift, he got glimpses of things that maybe even the gods didn’t know. Elizabeth said as much.

13

The morgue was cold and sterile with a harsh chemical scent that did little to mask the scent of death. Beneath it all, was the odor of a butcher shop. The lights glowed bright, recently infused by somebody.

What if that was his job? Nothing but day in and day out, climbing ladders and pouring magic into the lights to make them work.

Dr. Hillman, the coroner, was stout and round, with a ruddy complexion and thin, oily black hair combed over his egg-shaped head. He moved with small prancing steps and spoke in a voice hardly more than a whisper.

He received them both in the main operating theater surrounded by slabs with covered bodies. His beady eyes glittered like wet raisins in soft dough as he held up a folded piece of parchment.

“An official notice!” His voice showed his delight. “From the gods themselves! I’ve prepared the body for your inspection, mater, constable, right this way.”

Someone had prayed to the little gods to let the coroner know they were coming. Apparently they were in a cooperative mood.

The body lay naked on the slab, charred and torn by the blast, stained by blood. Face a red ruin. Cracked red skin showed through the blackened areas. The shrapnel was gone, picked clean of the flesh.

Elizabeth pressed a finger to her nose and moved to stand near the head. Cameron walked around the coroner to get a clear view of the body.

Adult, white male. Approximately 130 pounds, slender. No real muscle definition. What was left of his hair was brown, darkened and charred, lighter on the back side.

“What are we doing here?” Elizabeth asked.

“Looking for clues, a glimpse of what happened?” Cameron walked around the body, then looked up at Dr. Hillman. “His personal belongings, do you still have them?”

“Yes, certainly,” Dr. Hillman said.

“Bring them, please.”

Cameron resumed studying the body. Something about it felt wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Finger. The ring. Wendy had mentioned the ring, and the glimpse he’d had, of giving the ring to someone.

The pater’s hands weren’t badly burned. They must have been above the table when the bomb went off, and it would have shielded them from the blast that caught him from below, at his side.

Where the bomb had sat.

Which suggested that the pater had placed the case beside his chair.

Why? Why would a pater blow up a cafe? And himself in the process?

Suicide bomber, but why? There wasn’t a reason, unless it wasn’t him.

“What are you thinking?” Elizabeth asked.

Cameron ignored her, bending to look at the man’s hands. The fingers were long, and slender. The nails were chipped and marked. Not from the explosion, there was dirt beneath the nails.

The tap, tap of footsteps on the stone floors announced Dr. Hillman’s return. He carried a card board box. “Here it is! All of his personal effects, I made the inventory myself!”

“Put it down here,” Cameron pointed to the counter at the side of the room.

Elizabeth came around the slab, her lips pressed together in a tight line of annoyance.

Dr. Hillman stepped back and Cameron poked through the box. The signet ring lay on top, in a small plastic bag along with some cash and a packet of cigarettes. Cameron grinned. That was it!

He picked it up —

A slice of fresh apple pie and a steaming cup of coffee sat on the table, the cinnamon-sugar smell of the pie vying for attention with the coffee. His stomach growled. He dug his fork into the pie and reached for the coffee with his other hand. A bright green glimmer caught his attention beneath the table. He turned, looking down

That glimpse, those hands were the hands of the man on the slab. It was more than a bit of dirt and worn nails. The man’s hunger gnawing at his gut had been familiar, a constant thing, never satisfied. Sitting in the cafe, eating and drinking with the rest of the people, that had been a treat. When people had looked at him, at the victim, it was with respect and quiet words to the gods.

Cameron licked his lips, almost tasting the coffee. The man was enjoying an opportunity to be someone else, for a time, the knowledge was in the back of his head that it was all temporary.

He hadn’t been thinking about being blown up. The look into the bag, that’d been surprise.

“Constable,” Elizabeth said. “Please tell me what you’re thinking!”

Cameron turned and pointed to the body. “That’s not pater Samuels.”

“His ring was positively identified. Are you saying that this man stole it?”

Cameron shook his head. Dr. Hillman leaned in close. Cameron picked up the box with the personal effects found on the body.

“Thank you, Doctor. We’ll need to take these.”

“Oh yes, of course.”

Cameron tucked the box beneath his arm, and with the other, pulled Elizabeth along. She made a noise of protest and pulled away, but continued to follow him.

14

Back in the car outside, they sat with the box between them. Elizabeth’s face was pinched with annoyance.

“Now will you tell me what’s going on?”

“Yes.” Cameron picked up the bag with the ring. “This is pater Samuels’ signet ring, you’ve identified it and are convinced it is genuine?”

“Yes, the gods identified it themselves.”

Okay, if the little gods said it, that must make it true. “My glimpses never give the full picture, but I saw this ring handed over to our victim in there. And I saw him eating and drinking in the cafe right before the explosion. It’s more than seeing, it’s like I am that person, experiencing things as they did. He wasn’t the pater, and he was surprised as anyone about to die.”

Few people going about their normal routines expected to die. It happened without warning. According to the little gods, people died when the magic ran out. But sometimes someone else helped that happen.

“I don’t understand. You’re saying that he gave the ring to this man? But that man in there was wearing vestments. He’s the right size. And on the basis of your glimpse, you don’t believe he is the pater?”

“That’s right.” Cameron tapped the bag, or more specifically, the cigarettes inside. “He must have had these in his pocket, on the side away from the blast. Do you know if the pater smoked?”

“I don’t know.”

“We should find out. It might be important. This is what I think. I’m guessing there’s no one that would report our victim missing. Your pater sent him into the cafe, dressed as a pater, in his vestments, with the ring, and with the bomb. If anyone talked to witnesses, they’d describe someone matching the pater’s description. That didn’t even happen, because your priests sent everyone away and made them forgetful.”

Elizabeth’s mouth tightened but she stayed silent.

“With the bomb set off, everyone assumed that he was dead.” Cameron fished in his pocket and came up with the bag holding the dime. “I’ll bet if we show a portrait of the pater to Edgehill that he’ll recognize the pater that confiscated the dimes. He wanted everyone to think he was dead, but not without sending a message.”

“But why?” Elizabeth’s voice was soft. “Why would he do all of this?”

“If I’m right, we’ll get a chance to ask him.”

“How will you find him?”

“I’ve got a hunch. He’d need a place to hide. Someplace to stay. What place is better than wherever our victim lived? He knows that it’s empty. If anyone sees him, he matches the general description of the man. He hides out until things quiet down and then he moves.”

“We don’t even know who he is,” Elizabeth said. “How will you find out?”

Cameron shrugged. “Can’t you ask the gods for help?”

She shook her head. “Not without a name.”

“We don’t need a name,” Cameron said. He waved the dime bag. “What about these? He might not have used them all. If they can pick up on the silver, it might lead us to him.”

Elizabeth’s lips parted in a slow smile. “That might prove possible. There are gods with an affinity for metals. One of them may be able to track the scent.”

“Good.” Cameron settled back against the car seat. He laced his fingers behind his head and closed his eyes. “Let me know when we’re ready to go.”

15

“Ugly. Rude,” said a strange voice, one rough and deep.

Cameron stirred, opening his eyes. He was still in the car, but one of the little gods was standing on the seat beside the evidence box, his head even with Cameron’s own.

The god was dark of skin, like lava rock, rough and covered in sharp burrs, so much so that he almost looked like rocks himself. His build was extremely muscular, every muscle showing in definition. The only thing he wore was a furry-skin wrap around his waist and crotch. Shriveled mole heads and hands hung from the bottom of the wrap like a decorative fringe.

It was his eyes, that were most telling. They glittered with an inner orange light, sparkling facets fixed on Cameron.

A dwarf. A genuine fucking dwarf.

Cameron slowly lowered his arms, careful not to move unexpectedly. “I’m Cameron —”

“I know,” the god said. “Call me Mal. Show me this coin!”

Elizabeth was still in her seat on the other side of the car. She nodded quickly.

Cameron held out the plastic bag with the burned dimes.

“Bah! Plastic! How can I do anything with plastic!”

“I thought —”

“I didn’t ask what you thought! Give it to me!”

Cameron fished the coin from the bag. It was light and cool to the touch. He held it out. Mal extended his hand, palm up. Cameron placed the coin gently in Mal’s hand, not surprised to feel warmth radiating up from the dwarf.

Mal peered at the coin. “Silver, mostly.”

Dexterous fingers spun the coin over as the god examined the sides. “Trace other metals.”

Mal flicked the coin at Cameron, who caught it. He slipped it back into the evidence bag. “Well?”

“Well, I can find its mates. Isn’t that what ya asked for?”

Elizabeth bowed her head, pressing her hands together. “Gratitude, wise one.”

Mal coughed and thrust the dime back at Cameron. The coin was warm to the touch. He dropped it back in the bag.

When he looked up, Mal was now in the front seat, standing with his legs spread wide and hands on the dash. He pointed. “That way!”

16

Following Mal’s turn-by-turn directions, even though sometimes they seemed to be going in a circle, eventually brought them to an older undistinguished apartment complex on the east side of the city. This was one of those places on the outskirts of a neighborhood. Cameron knew as you moved deeper there’d be duplexes, and then single-family homes of more middle-class families.

There were five buildings in the complex, each with a half-dozen apartments, none of the buildings over two stories tall. The city’s population had been decreasing for years, and a complex like this would have plenty of vacant units. The populations tended to come and go quickly.

It was the perfect place for pater Samuels to hide out. No one paid any attention to anyone else in places like this.

Mal tapped the side of his nose, the sound of it like a rock hammer tapping on rocks. He pointed at the building coming up on the left. “That one, second floor. The silver’s up there. The nearest apartment on the left.”

“Yes, Holy One,” Kevan said.

Cameron leaned forward. “Pull in here, behind this garage.”

Kevan did as asked without question, swinging the car around beneath the car port between garages. The structure would prevent anyone in the building Mal had identified from seeing the car. A Priesthood vehicle would likely send the pater fleeing.

“I’ll go in, identify him, and take him into custody,” Cameron said. “The rest of you stay here.”

“I don’t take orders from you,” Mal said.

Cameron refused to let the little god’s presence scare him off. “It’ll be better if I go alone.”

“Don’t ya worry about me,” Mal said. His chuckle sounded like a small avalanche. “Consider me backup. He won’t even know I’m around, not unless I want him to.”

Great. Another intrusive little god shoving his, no. Cameron stopped himself. He didn’t even need to imagine hearing Wendy’s voice. The god had a point.

He looked at Elizabeth. “Stay here, in the car.”

Cameron slid out of the car and walked around the garage. He adopted a slouch and shoved his hands deep into his pockets. No looking around, just a guy tired after a long day of work.

That much was true, at least.

The complex might be one of the most gods forsaken places he’d been lately. Usually there were signs that the gods were present, well-tended plants, or other small signs of favors from the gods. None of that was present here. The lawn was dying, the shrubs twiggy and weak-looking. The building itself looked old and tired, slumping in on itself, paint peeling and cracking. There were concrete steps leading up to the second floor, but the first was broken in two pieces and propped up with a piece of firewood shoved underneath.

As Cameron climbed the steps, he realized that he was alone. If Mal was around, the god wasn’t showing himself.

Dust and cobwebs gathered in the corners of the stairwell. The whole place felt abandoned, but Cameron believed the god that the dimes were inside.

He stepped to the side of the door and drew his gun. Then he knocked, hard, with his knuckles.

He waited. If he didn’t have to announce who he was, he didn’t want to until that door opened. The apartment was quiet. Then he heard a dull snick as a deadbolt was unlocked.

The door opened an inch.

Cameron pointed the gun. “Constable. Open the door all the way.”

A chain rattled. A man spoke. “Constable? What’s this about?”

The door opened wider.

The man was unarmed. Cameron moved into view, keeping the gun on the suspect. He pulled his coat back, to show his badge.

For someone at gun point, the man was calm, give him that much. His general build and height more or less matched the man in the morgue, minus the hunger and the chipped fingernails. He had the posture and the poise of a priest, even wearing a plain black t-shirt and blue jeans. His feet were bare, so he probably wasn’t planning on going anywhere.

Cameron moved into the apartment, and kicked the door closed behind himself, without letting the gun waver. He gave a little nod of his head.

“Move on, keep your hands visible. Are you alone here?”

The man sighed and did as he was told, backing up slowly, hands out at his sides. “You know I am.”

There wasn’t much to the apartment. A living room, with a ratty old red couch, slumping into the carpet. Black plastic trash bags, stuffed full, stood against the sliding glass door leading out onto a definitely unsafe balcony. Someone had been cleaning up.

Off the living room, a kitchen, with a bar between it and the living room and a small dining room. Straight ahead, past the kitchen, a short hallway which lead to three doors. Bedrooms, bathroom, and the according door along the hall on the right must be a closet.

“This is a gods forsaken place, isn’t it?” Cameron asked. “What’s driving them all away? Is it the company, pater Samuels?”

Samuels opened his mouth and closed it. He shook his head. “How’d you find me?”

“I can’t give away all my tricks,” Cameron said. “What would the other constables say? Why’d you do it? Why blow up a cafe?”

Samuels shook his head. “You don’t want to know, constable. No one does.”

“Know what?”

“Let’s say, I lost my faith.” Samuels pointed his finger at the gun. “Why don’t you shoot me now, constable? The gods you worship won’t let this go to a trial.”

Cameron held the weapon steady, and didn’t pull the trigger. “Why? What’s this all about?”

He pulled the evidence bag with the dime out of his pocket. “These dimes? They’re real?”

“Would you believe me if I said they were?”

Samuels moved, slowly, carefully toward the kitchen counter. He pointed at the piles of papers on the counter. “If you really want to know, constable, the answers are there. Documents preserved and copied over the years. The gods are deceitful. They lie. I couldn’t turn away from it anymore.”

“And for that, you kill innocent people?” Cameron shook his head. “That’s —”

“Innocent?” Samuels laughed. “The gods feed on people like that, draining them, making them worship, and —”

A loud crack sounded from the kitchen. Mal was on the counter, his rocky face twisted into a cracked grimace. He slammed his hand down on a stack of papers.

“That’ll be enough!” His voice was the roar of an avalanche.

The papers beneath the god’s hands burst into flames.

Cameron jumped forward and grabbed Samuels’ arm. He propelled him at the door. “Go! Come on!”

“Blasphemy!” Mal’s fist hit another stack and the papers combusted, rising up in a whirlwind of flame.

They reached the door. Cameron yanked it open and shoved the man through. Together, Samuels going first, they headed down the stairs. Cameron kept a tight grip on him, and the gun pointed at his back.

By the time they got down the stairs glass shattered in the building and flames leaped out to the roof. Elizabeth and Kevan were by the garage where they’d parked the car, looking up at the building going up in flames.

“Put your hands behind your back!” Cameron said.

Samuels complied. Cameron pulled the cuffs off his belt, slapping one, then the other on Samuels’ wrists. “I’m arresting in on the charge of murder.”

He read Samuels his rights, then shoved him further from the burning building. Maybe people were praying to the gods to send help, fire charmers or someone, but if so, no one was responding. When they reached Elizabeth and Kevan, Cameron looked back at the burning building. It was engulfed in flames, along with all of the evidence. If any dimes remained, they’d be melted bits by the time the fire finished.

“Pater Samuels,” Elizabeth said. “The Priesthood will demand an inquisition into your actions.”

“Of course they will.” Samuels turned deep, sad, brown eyes to Cameron. “Constable, my actions may have been unconscionable, but I was trying to send a message. To wake people up to the truth —”

A loud snap and a smell like sulfur hit Cameron’s nose. Mal stood in front of Samuels. The black asphalt at his feet bubbled and steamed. He pointed a stony finger at the pater.

“You’ll shut your gob, if you know what is good for you!”

Samuels glared down at the god. “Do what you will, since you do anyway!”

Mal glared and turned his gaze to Cameron. “Ya have done us a service, Constable. We won’t forget.”

The little god turned, around, molten tar sticking to his feet. “Bah!”

He stomped over to the ground and dove forward, vanishing into the earth without a ripple. The ground looked undisturbed. Across the lot, the building continued to burn.

17

By the time Cameron got home, banging through the door, he was bone-tired. He put his badge and gun on the mantel, along with a fortune cookie for Mrs. Book.

The intrusive little gods had made a mess of the case, no doubts there. The Chief didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, the guilty party was in custody, being turned over to the Priesthood as soon as they convened their inquisition. Cameron didn’t want any part of that, although he might be called upon to testify.

As far as the evidence went, that was thin. When he got back to the constabulary, the dime from evidence was missing. He must have dropped it trying to get Samuels out of the apartment building before it burned to the ground. None of that mattered with the former pater’s confession.

Still. Cameron dropped into his chair at the small table. He pulled containers of Chinese out of the bag, popping open the spicy fried rice, and unwrapping the chop sticks. His stomach growled eagerly as he dug in, eating from the box. Why dirty up dishes?

What had Samuels meant? Deceitful, yes, anyone would say that the gods spoke the truth to suit themselves. The dimes, if those were real, it suggested a time when silver was used in coins. Except every coin dealer he’d spoken to insisted that such a thing had never happened.

It sounded like more of Wesley Sheldon’s paranoid ramblings. It didn’t excuse what Samuels had done, but maybe the unbelievers were on to something.

Whatever it was, it had big caution signs all over it. The gods were also vengeful.

And yet, thinking back to his vision in Priest Park, was it possible that Wendy and Peter were with the gods? What if that was true? As disturbing as it’d been, it had sounded like her. And that laugh, hadn’t it sounded like Peter?

Maybe the gods lied. Maybe they also held the key to his reunion with his family. If so, what would he do to see that happen?

He could probably start by watching his language towards them. It’d make Wendy happy, anyway. That was a place to start.

14,656 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 17th weekly short story release. This story introduces characters and a world that I’d like to return to in the future. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Cameron or the little gods.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Farm of the Dead Things, the first of four stories that make up my Filming Dead Things collection. I’d originally published these as written by my pen name Tennessee Hicks along with the rest of the Dead Things series.