Rebuilding, and an Exciting Announcement

Hey Folks,

I’m sending this to all subscribers to the Pro Writers blog and the Free Story of the Week posts.

The Pro Writers posts will resume on Tuesday, June 27. This is a special post to notify you of updates and some exciting news. The Free Story of the Week will be supplanted with the challenge I outline below.

Basically, I’m decluttering and revamping my websites, and I’m prepping to begin a new long-term writing challenge that many of you might find interesting.

First, re the websites….

StoneThread Publishing — I’m giving up on StoneThread Publishing as a separate entity.

StoneThread was designed to give discounts to booksellers and private readers. Thus far (after almost two years) not one bookseller and few, if any, readers have taken advantage of it.

I’ll retain the name as my publisher, of course, unless I get a really good offer.

HEStanbrough.com — This is the once and future home of The Daily Journal.

I’m sending the Journal back down to the minor leagues beginning today. (grin) Those who are subscribed shouldn’t notice a difference.

I moved the Journal to the main site almost exactly two years ago in hopes of garnering new subscribers. But that hasn’t happened, so away it goes. This move will help declutter the main website. From now on, only the Pro Writers blog posts will appear on the main site.

Also, as more Topics from The Daily Journal become Pro-Writers blog posts, there will be less overlap on the main site. So you folks who subscribe only to Pro Writers will get the best of the topics without having to subscribe to The Daily Journal.

If you’d like to subscribe to the Journal anyway, just click the link in the header on the main website.

HarveyStanbrough.com — This is my main website. First, I’m simplifying the menu (I started that yesterday). If you have a moment, take a look and let me know in the comments what you think.

I’m also transfering everything from StoneThread Publishing (individual book pages, etc.) over to this main site. Then I’ll link the StoneThread URL to the main site. I should be finished with this process in a few days.

Now to one more website and the challenge I mentioned above:

HStanbrough.com — This is the new Writing in Public site. This is my modern-day effort to recreate what Harlan Ellison did in a storefront display window several decades ago.

Harlan set up a table and a typewriter in that display area. Then he wrote short stories, one after another, as people watched from the sidewalk. As he finished each page, he taped it to the window so the gathered folks could read the story as it progressed.

I will do the same thing, except I’m posting them online one scene or chapter at a time. No rewriting, no editing, no sleight of hand. I’ll try to remember to spell check them, but that’s it.

Only those who subscribe to HStanbrough.com will witness my efforts to write short stories (and maybe novellas and novels) “in public,” posted one scene or one chapter at a time.

Whether you’re a writer or a reader, if you’ve ever wondered how a story grows from idea through the finished product — or, bless your heart, if you’ve ever wondered how I do that with my stories — this is an excellent opportunity to watch the process unfold.

Everybody who watches NASCAR or Indy car racing watch for one of two reasons: To see whether their favorite driver will prevail or to witness the wrecks first hand.

Wanna see me succeed and watch as I’m building stories? Subscribe. Wanna see me crash and burn? Subscribe. (grin)

Either way, I’ll be glad to have you along.

But don’t dawdle. The new Writing in Public challenge will begin on July 1 at the latest. But knowing me, there’s a good chance it will begin sooner than that.

Note: My efforts at writing in public will replace the Free Story of the Week. But I can’t transfer subscriptions.

If you want to watch me create new stories, you will have to visit Writing in Public at http://hstanbrough.com to subscribe. That subscription goes through a different service so subscribers will get an email update each time I post a new scene or chapter (instead of once per day via MailChimp).

I hope to see you there.

Thanks for your patience, and for being here in the first place. Now back to the work in progress on the websites.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

Suction Cups

Disraeli Jones was in a bad way. He sat on the white marble floor in the lobby in the Hampton Arms.

His right leg was splayed at an angle out from his body. His left leg was the same way to the knee, but there it bent back toward his right. The sole of his left shoe pressed against the inside of the right leg of his trousers just above the knee.

His back was against the wall, his shoulders round and sagging. His arms, along with the lapels of his jacket, framed his bulging yellow shirt. His hands lay palms-up on his lap. His hat lay on the floor at his side, and his head was slumped to his chest.

The light from the lone chandelier glistened on his slick bald head. Short, wavy red hair formed a horseshoe from above one ear and around his head to the other.

He appeared to be asleep.

At this time of night, there was no one around to make a judgement. Any guests were long since asleep. If the desk clerk was at his station, he was being very discreet about it.

Each time Jones inhaled, it seemed an effort. The air came as if it were a rope, being pulled, inch by inch, past his lips and into his lungs. His chin quavered slightly with every breath, and he made a sound like a cat scratching on a post.

Each time he exhaled it was a quiet moan wrapped in a sigh, and his thick chest and abdomen trembled slightly.

He slowly raised his head, winced with the pain, and looked across the lobby at the double entrance doors.

There was no doorman either. That was better.

The doorman’s station, a dark mahogany pedestal to the left of the door, began to waver. Time was short.

Jones allowed his head to drop again, but this time under his control.

A few inches below his face, on top of his abdomen, fabric strained away in both directions from a shirt button. The button was brown.

He frowned.

Shouldn’t the buttons be yellow, like the shirt?

To the left and closer, another, larger brown spot. Small, frothy bubbles around the edge.

Lung shot. Probably a lung shot.

If he still smoked, he could cover it with the cellophane from the pack. That’s what they taught him in the army.

It was nonsense, of course. How would you patch the hole in the back?

After that lecture, back in the barracks, he joked with his buddies, “It’s silly. It just gives you somethin’ to think about while you’re dyin’.”

They all laughed.

In the lobby, leaning against the wall, he shook his head slightly.

Come on back to now.

He raised his head again, opened one eye.

He could make it to the door.

He drew another breath, then another, filling himself with air.

He grunted slightly, hunched and all at once leaned his shoulders forward, with force. He did it again, then again.

Each time his shoulders bumped the wall, he hunched them again, propelled himself forward.

Each time he leaned over a little farther, gaining momentum.

Finally he rocked across the fulcrum of his knee. The palms of his hands, fingers splayed, splatted against the marble floor.

Behind him on the wall was a large, bright red splotch. Alongside it in three steps, three more bright red marks.

He swung his right leg around, brought his right knee up, began crawling toward the door.

A third of the way across the lobby, he thought of his gun.

His holster was there. But it felt light.

Naked.

Probably they took it.

Probably they tugged it from his holster when they sat him down.

The guy who tugged it out would glance at it, slip it into his jacket pocket to toss it into the river later on.

But they wouldn’t drop that one in the river. That one wasn’t a throw-away.

The guy who did the deed would catch a glimpse. He’d say quietly, “Hey, whaddya got there?”

Jones’ mind swayed for a moment. He reached for the wavering floor with his left hand, kept moving forward.

It was like the captain said the first time he brought the pistol to the range. “Hey, whaddya got there, Dee?”

And Jones grinned. He dropped the magazine into his left palm, racked the slide and locked it back, and passed it to the captain over a grin. “Kimber .45.” He laughed. “‘Cause you know, they don’t make a .46.”

The captain took it, held it reverently in his right palm. He rolled it over, let the slide go home. He turned, aimed it downrange, tested the heft, the balance.

Then he racked the slide, locked it back, and handed it back to Jones. “Hey, ain’t that something? I always heard these were the thing, eh?”

Today, another guy would say, “Whaddya got there?”

And the guy who took it from his holster would stop just short of his pocket

He’d stop and he’d roll the pistol over in his hand. He’d lean his ugly, pinched, pockmarked face close to read the stamp on the slide. Then he’d look up and frown. “Kimber?” he’d say. “Is that even a thing?”

Jones was almost halfway across the floor when his right elbow quavered.

He looked up.

The single column in the room. It rose from the floor to the ceiling of the lobby.

Two stories, right?  Yeah, two stories.

The column was to his right front. Only a few feet away.

So he was only a few feet short of halfway across.

He stopped for a moment, supporting himself on his left hand and his knees. He lifted his right arm, flexed his elbow once.

He thought again of the hood, rolling his Kimber in his hand. Thought of him saying, “Is that even a thing?”

Yeah, genius. It’s a thing.

His left wrist went weak and something slapped him on the left side of his face.

Wakin’ me up. My friend, wakin’ me up.

He drew a heavy breath, focused all his attention on his right arm.

The right arm’s gimpy. The right elbow.

With the slap still pressing against the left side of his face, he focused on that right arm. He dragged his right hand forward, the back of his fingers sweeping across the floor.

But at the end of the reach, they flipped up from beneath his hand.

Just like they’re supposed to.

His palm made contact.

He focused. Focused on everything. Focused on doing what he had to do.

He shook his head, but he wasn’t sure it actually moved side to side. The slap was still stuck to the left side.

Strange. Do slaps do that?

Who slapped me anyway?

But while his head was up, he glanced at the door.

Still a ways to go. Still a ways.

Back to business.

He focused. He focused on a knee, then the other hand. Then the other knee.

My right knee, right?

Then the other knee, and then his left.

He’d make it. He’d make it to the doors.

The car is there. Right there.

Parked outside. Along the curb.

The slap still stuck to his face, he glanced up to look at the door.

Didn’t I? Didn’t I look at the door?

Yeah I did.

He glanced at the door and it slid sideways.

Oops. That ain’t right.

It swung back into place.

He frowned.

Better focus.

He thought of his fingertips. He was pulling himself along on his fingertips, right?

Focus. Knee, fingertips. Other knee, fingertips.

Fingertips. Tips of the fingers.

Good design. The little mounds there. On the fingertips. They’re supposed to be for suction, right? Like holdovers from when we were amphibians? Somethin’ like that?

He’d heard that somewhere.

Then another thought hit him.

It felt like another slap. Almost. Only the first slap was still there. It was cool on his cheek.

Something about that was funny.

But it was a thought.

A thought slapped me. Where’s that thought? It was a thought, right? A thought.

He let his eyes close and looked at the door. He was over halfway. The column was behind him to his right, and he didn’t even remember moving past it. And he didn’t have to look to know it was there.

He’d make it to the doors. And his car was right outside. Right alongside the curb.

There’s the thought. It came again. The other thought like the one about the suction cups. The other thought. The one about cellophane.

He frowned.

They got somethin’ in common.

What is it? What they got in common?

What was the other thought?

There was the cellophane thought, whatever that was, and then—

Somethin’— somethin’ to do with suction cups, or somethin’.

Oh. Cellophane to stop a sucking chest wound.

He tried to grin, turned up the right corner of his mouth.

And then suction cups, so that’s like a suckin’ chest wound. Or somethin’. They both suck. That’s what they got in common. They both suck. One sucks air and one— One sucks stuff you’re grippin’.  That’s what— what they—

No. Nah, that ain’t it.

Just silly thoughts. They got nothin’ to do with anything.

“Just,” he said, barely above a whisper. “Just somethin’.”

The captain looked at his Kimber. “Whaddya got there, Dee? Well now ain’t that somethin’!”

“Just somethin’,” Jones said again.

Blood frothed on his lips.

The thought was slipping away. Both thoughts. Slipping away together.

Hold on.

Suction. Suction cups. Suckin’ chest wound. Suction cups.

“Ahh, that’s— that’s what they got— common.”

The corner of his mouth turned up again.

Suction cups an’ fingertips.

He looked up at the door again, his eyes still closed.

Hey, it didn’t waver this time.

And he was close. He was almost there.

Suction cups. Apply the suction cups on your fingertips. Get there, man!

His car was right there at the curb.

Sucked up against the curb.

He looked up at the door again. Almost there.

Suction cups on your fingers. Silly. Suckin’ chest wound. And cellophane. Somethin’ about—

Oh. Cellophane— to seal a suckin’ chest wound. Silly. How you gonna seal the back?

But that’s it. That’s what it is.

Suction cups on your fingertips. Cellophane on a suckin’ chest wound.

His army buddies faded in, grinning. They wavered.

“Yeah,” he said. He laughed, trying to get their attention. “See? Hey, see? Suction cups on your fingertips. Here. Right here.”

He stood and held up both hands, showing them the part he was talking about. “See? An’ then sealin’ a suckin’ chest wound with cellophane. See?”

He slapped his chest hard. “See? Right there. That’s where it’d go on me. Only it don’t work, see. That’s the joke. Just— just somethin’ to keep you entertained— while you’re dyin’.”

What a cool thought. And it slapped him on the left side of his face.

No, a cold thought. What a cold thought.

He wanted to look at the door again.

Open your eyes this time. Look with your eyes this time.

But his left eye didn’t want to open.

He opened his right eye.

It closed.

He opened it again. Opened it wide.

Frowned.

The column.

The column was just ahead of him a few feet.

Oh. Oh yeah.

Got it.

* * * * * * *

 

How Hard the Ground

“No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.” Dan Baldwin

Even at slightly after one in the morning, the air out here is neither hot nor cold. Tepid, maybe. I like that word. The air is tepid, and fueled with a particular kind of dread.

It’s the fear of the expected. The ripe anticipation of knowing what we’re about to see, and knowing we can’t look away. We can’t just gawk and go on about our business. This is our business.

Red, blue, red lights slash in rotation through the moonlit darkness. They chase each other across the ground and up over the scrub brush.

We’re in the desert on an anonymous tip that came in a little before 10 p.m. There are still a few folks out there who support us. Not everyone’s afraid of us.

All around are scrub mesquite and creosote along with a few reddish prickly pear cactuses. Here and there, a dying yucca. Now and then, a withered fishhook barrel cactus. The kind of stuff that grows where there’s no gentle rain but maybe a deluge two or three times a year. Everything is harsh.

Nothing thrives out here. Old or new, ancient or modern. Growing or recently deceased and interred.

Small rocks glint everywhere in the moonlight.

The ground is mostly flat, mostly imbedded with rock of every bland color. Mostly a chalky off-white, but also tans, browns and every shade of black—all pitted like little moons with impact craters.

To my left front is a growing pile of dirt and rocks. To my right front is another. In front of me, side to side, stretches the hole that originally held all that.

The tip said she was at least three feet down. Said it would be easy digging. He forgot to mention the rock.

The sounds, human and otherwise, that fill the air are quiet. Respectful without meaning to be. Even the quiet rumbling of the river, some forty feet to the west and three hundred feet straight down.

If I killed somebody out here, that’s where they’d end up. Over the edge, a quick brush of the hands and no looking back. But somebody took the time to do all this.

Two vehicles are parked some twenty and thirty feet to the east of the grave.

The far one is a brownish-gold SUV, with Sheriff slashed diagonally across both doors. It brought me and the deputies to the scene.

This side of it is the white meat wagon. It’s the source of the red and blue lights. For some reason Mitch Billings left the emergency overheads on.

This side of the meat wagon are three men.

Mitch is next to the driver’s door, the driver’s side rear-view mirror to his back. The guy’s meaty and has a gut, but he’s not fat. Mid to late thirties and maybe 5’9”, close-cropped hair and a flat top. He’s the boss.

His arms are folded over his chest, and a camera dangles by a strap from his left hand. He doubles as the county crime photographer. As he talks quietly to the two other men, he alternately leans up on his toes, back on his heels.

The second guy is skinny as a rail and a head taller than Mitch. Mid to late twenties. Hair to his collar. His hands are shoved into his pockets, his butt leaning against the meat wagon. He’s bored, but he bobs his head now and then to prove he’s paying attention.

The third is the youngest by at least a few years. Probably in his early twenties. Close-cropped hair with just enough to comb on top. He’s a little shorter than Mitch but meatier than the other guy. He leans on the meat wagon with his right shoulder and his head bent slightly forward, like he’s paying attention. He probably is.

Or maybe he’s just avoiding looking at what’s going on to his left. His hands were in his pockets too. His fists are clenched.

Behind him, a nylon stretcher, poles together, is leaned against the wagon just ahead of the back bumper. Behind that, the white tailgate extends away from the back. It’s swung open sideways to the driver’s side.

The guys are all dressed in the black trousers and white shirts of the coroner’s office. They all have a little badge, and all they have to do is cart off the bodies.

2

Me, I’m Jack Tilden. I’m the director of this evening’s symphony.

I’m dressed like I’m always dressed. It’s always brown or grey trousers, a brown or grey jacket and tie, an off-white shirt, and a brown or grey fedora. Tonight everything is grey.

Down in the hole in front of me are the two deputies. Their current task is another reason I’m glad I’m a detective. My job is to watch and listen as the deputies work. I can do that.

The guy to the left is Pete Mason. He’s in jeans and a t-shirt and a brown and green Sheriff’s Department ball cap. On his feet are brown combat boots with thick hobnail soles.

A sweat stain stretches down the back of his t-shirt. It forms an elongated V from his neck to his belt.

The other one is Joe Mangum. He’s in jeans, a western straw hat and a long-sleeved khaki shirt. The sleeves are rolled midway up his forearms. Sweat and dirt glint in the hair on his forearms. His shirt’s soaked from beneath his left shoulder halfway down the side.

I can’t see Joe’s feet, but he’s probably wearing round-toed western boots. Probably with the dogger heels.

The guys are earning their sweat. They both have shovels. They’re bent to the task in a hole they’ve been working on for fifteen or twenty minutes.

The shovels clunk, scrape and chink on rocks. The shovel handles leap into the rotation of the lights. They sweep up, then over and down. Up, then over and down. A discordant kind of rhythm.

Moonlight and red and blue flashes glint off hands and knuckles over and over again.

Now and then, the deputies grunt softly. Now and then they curse.

An almost ethereal whump sounds as each shovel load of dirt lands on a pile, one to the left, one to the right. The piles peak a little taller each time. Each time a few rocks clatter quietly down the far side.

And the smell that hangs in that tepid air is as quiet and uncomplicated as everything else here. It’s simple, and it’s stark.

The strong, acid stench of rotted onions.

It evokes a childhood memory.

For a moment I’m standing in an old onion field. One that was picked over two weeks ago and everything healthy shipped to market. Only the dead and dying left behind.

Then picked over again ten days ago by the poor. Only the dead left to rot.

Then plowed under last week to make the ground ready for the next crop.

It’s a stench that lingers on your tongue.

And it isn’t onions at all. It’s beauty unearthed.

The deputies are getting close.

3

I wet my lips with my tongue, then reach inside the left lapel of my jacket. I fish a pack of Camels from my shirt pocket.

Even now I can’t look away. Even knowing what’s coming.

By rote memory I turn the pack up and tap out a cigarette. By feel I catch it between my thumb and forefinger, put it between my lips.

I return the pack to my shirt pocket and pull my lighter from my trouser pocket. I strike the lighter, another raspy, hushed sound.

My palm lights up as I focus beyond the flame and inhale some nerve.

It’s all right, I know. Just keep your distance. I’ve seen a lot of these and they’re all the same.

But no. Each one belongs to itself. Each one is different.

Just as I slip the lighter back into my trouser pocket, Joe says, “Oh.” It’s more a sigh than a word.

Pete stops. He looks over at Joe and nods. Quietly he says, “Yeah. I’ve got her too.”

There’s an inadvertent moment of silence.

Then a shovel scuffs on the other side of Joe as his shoulders hunch and twitch. The reds and blues flash off his khaki back.

The underside of his shovel scrapes lightly on a rock. It screams in the night before he tips the handle lower. Then he twists around, looks over his left shoulder.

I don’t see his face, but I catch the motion as he turns. I’m still looking past him.

“Here she is,” he says quietly. “We’ve got her.”

He says it like an official announcement. Like I didn’t know. Or maybe like it was a rescue mission.

In a way I guess it was.

I have to look at my feet for a moment, and I nod and take a drag. Then I look over at Mitch and gesture with the cigarette.

He says something to the guys, then starts toward us. He stops at my side, looks down and to the left, then moves around the hole. Now it’s a grave. He starts taking pictures.

The flash alternately enhances the moonlight and scares off the reds and blues.

When he’s through, he glances at me and nods.

I look at the deputies, then gesture again with the cigarette.

Both their faces are aimed up at me now. Is this what it’s like to be God? Am I waiting for a prayer?

As if they need to hear me say it, I say it. “Okay. Bring her up.” I pause, then, “Just go careful.”

That’s someone’s little girl. It’s someone’s wife, daughter, sister, mother.

I don’t have to say that part.

Joe knows. He nods and sighs as he turns his head back to the front. He lowers himself to one knee.

I can’t tell you whether he’s near her right shoulder or her left. The slope of the side of the hole lets me see a shadowy orb just past his side. But I can’t tell whether it’s her face or the side or back of her head.

At the other end, Pete knows too.

He half-stands and tosses his shovel up on the far side of the hole. A little harder than he meant to.

It screeches a little on rocks when it lands. It slides.

Then he crouches again, heels together in the small space, and bends forward with both hands extended. He has to grasp the ankles.

He lifts them a little, gently. Shakes them a little. Only a little.

Dirt rolls off bare calves, bare thighs.

In my periphery, a shooting star, falling. A grain of something, plunging to the earth. A flash, extinguished.

Mitch crouches to my left, raises his camera. It flashes a couple of times, blinds the night.

Pete lifts again, shakes again.

Some cloth shifts and more dirt falls away.

The way the body refuses to bend—so she’s buried face down. Still in her clothes. A skirt or a dress. Blue, maybe.

Mitch takes another picture. Another. Says, “Okay.”

Pete lowers her ankles, lets the toes of her white canvas boat shoes rest.

The dirt has turned them tan.

He leans back out of the way.

Mitch shoots a few more pictures, then stands and moves behind me to my right.

I take another drag on the cigarette, then expel a stream of smoke. Inside it, I say to Pete, “Easy, now. Easy.”

The back of Pete’s head nods as he shifts, twisting his body to the right. He adjusts his position with a step, too, moves his left foot across her feet to the other sloping side of the hole.

It was a silly thing to say. None of this is easy. None of it can be. But she’ll still come out of the ground more gently than she went in.

4

A friend of mine wrote one time, “No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.”

The line accompanied a picture he’d taken of a pretty little wild flower. A pretty little weed.

Guy’s weird for taking pictures of nice things, pretty things. Things that persevere against all odds.

Like little flowers pushing their way up, striving through rocky, hard soil to reach the air.

Life wants to live. Beauty strives to be restored to the light.

He didn’t know how right he was.

To the right, Joe’s still down on his right knee. His left is bent up almost under his chin. He arches his back, swings his shovel up and to the right.

It lands in a creosote bush on the other side of his pile of dirt and rocks. A few dry twigs snap, return to the earth.

He turns back and his shoulders twitch in little repeated movements as he dislodges her right shoulder.

Then he twitches again and tosses something underhand, behind him.

It turns out to be a fist-sized chunk of rock. It flies up out of the hole.

Something about the chunk of rock catches my attention as it flows through a low arc.

I track its progress, and for an instant in the moonlight there’s a bright yellow face. It’s a few inches above the ground. Petals surround a mottled center. A thin stem extrudes up from black olive drab leaves. Those spread in a flat circle on dirt and small rocks on the ground.

And the face, stem and leaves disappear as the rock hits with a satisfying thump.

No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.

But there’s no guarantee the ground won’t come back to spoil it.

5

A few minutes pass, and Joe has the shoulders and torso free of the rocks. Free of the soil.

Did you catch that? The shoulders and torso. That’s distance.

Did I say I’ve seen a lot of these? Did I say they’re all the same?

Distance does that.

But each one also belongs to itself. Each one also is different.

Every shooting star is a different grain of dust.

A few minutes pass, and Joe has her shoulders and torso free of the rocks. Her shoulders and torso are finally free of the soil.

He and Pete begin to shift someone’s little girl into the right position so they can bring her up.

They lift someone’s daughter gingerly.

They turn someone’s sister gently on her side.

They lift someone’s wife carefully, at the same time.

They ease someone’s mother down to rest on her back.

Mitch moves about in a different dimension, takes a series of pictures.

When he’s through, to nobody at all he breathes, “Okay.” Then he looks at the meat wagon, shatters the night with a few rapid fire snaps of his fingers.

The two men there straighten and look at him.

He points toward the stretcher and wags his hand at them.

The young one picks up the stretcher and the two start toward us.

The taller guy looks at the other one and utters a short laugh at something.

I jerk my head around and frown. Quietly, I said, “Hey.”

The taller guy looks at me and his smile evaporates. He averts his gaze.

Silence pervades the night again.

Rocks crunch beneath the men’s feet as they approach.

I step back and gesture toward the ground at my feet. It’s level there, and not so rocky. The ground on the other side of the grave is occupied. A mesquite and a creosote bush. Both scraggly, in need of rain.

The younger guy steps past me, offers one end of the stretcher to the other one.

Together they pop it open and kneel alongside the grave to receive the body.

Joe and Pete lift the body clear of the ground and the other two take over. Pre-chastised, they move her gently into position above the stretcher.

They lower her onto it just as gently.

It’s my turn to crouch. There’s no distance now.

A blue skirt and a white blouse. No belt. The white canvas boat shoes I thought I saw earlier.

A necklace of some kind just above her collar bone. The pendant, if there was one, is behind her neck. Dirt and rough pebbles mar her dark brunette hair.

She’s probably around twenty-five.

There’s a large, horizontal dent in the flesh of her forehead above her left eye. There’s another, diagonal dent in the flesh from her left cheekbone to her jaw. Other, smaller indentations dot her forehead and the other soft tissue on her face. No bruising though. Not there.

So at least she was dead before the killer put her in the ground. At least that was something.

Once we figure out her name, I’ll be sure to tell the family.

The only bruising is around the ligature marks. The thumb prints. The crushed larynx.

I straighten and gesture.

As the men lift the stretcher and move away, I glance around behind me. I need to find that rock.

There it is. I lift it gingerly, lay it to the side.

The yellow flower is crushed, bruised. Maybe it’s dead. Maybe it’ll be back.

Behind me, I hear Joe and Pete gathering their shovels. I turn around, say, “You guys ready to head back?”

They both nod and start for the SUV.

I glance one more time at the grave, then back at the flower, and send a thought its way.

No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.

* * * * * * *

 

Beats All You Ever Saw

A little after 11 p.m. the dingy brown steel door of The Rainbow Room exploded outward. It slapped the yellow concrete block wall behind it as Jesse Rickman came through head first and air borne.

He landed on his face just short of where that little tar strip was oozed up. You know, between that big square concrete slab in front of the door and the asphalt of the parking lot. Then he bounced a little, like on wrestling on TV. Only in wrestling they ain’t landing on concrete, though they do wince like they are.

Well, the light above the door stopped about halfway out that concrete square. Jesse finally came to rest in the dark just past that. And his head was just shy of where the red light from the neon Rainbow Room sign lit the asphalt.

Anyway, an instant after Jesse hit the pavement, Ray Dickie came stomping through the door on his own two feet. He looked pretty imposing with his Bull Durham ball cap, his brown hair stringing down over his shoulders and his full, bushy beard.

His shoulders and chest bulged under the regular white t-shirt that was tucked into his greasy jeans. His cheeks were rounded and red up under his eyes like he’d seen a little exertion. His hands were balled into fists at his sides, and he was cussing a blue streak a mile wide and thicker than Texas.

Only he stopped for a second with the light of the door behind him, and he about blocked it. I mean, Ray ain’t no little guy. Rumor had it, back in the day he tried out to play defensive tackle for the Rams, only he was too big.

‘Course Jesse ain’t no little guy either at around 6’2” and north of 200 pounds, but he ain’t measuring up to Ray Dickie. Not in any good kind of way.

Well, with Jesse kind’a hidden in the dark down there on the asphalt, when Ray stopped he jerked his head right, then left. Like maybe he thought Jesse found his feet and run off.

But no such luck. You know, on Jesse’s part.

Still, all Ray could catch a glimpse of at first was me and Jackson. And then there were several others to the left and right of Ray himself. They came out when he followed Jesse’s hurled body through the door. Now they were bunched up on either side of it, six in one group and five in the other.

Me and Jackson were out front of Jesse. That’s on account of we’d just got out of Jackson’s ’48 F150 pickup and were heading in for a drink when that door blew open.

I figure Ray prob’ly saw us first, though prob’ly through an alcohol haze. But first or last, I was glad he saw us at all and counted us as no threat, ‘cause we weren’t.

Anyway, after he looked right and left, Ray finally looked down and caught sight of Jesse.

Jesse was just pushing himself up from the asphalt and shaking his head, hard, like he was clearing cobwebs. Now they got time for stuff like that on wrestling, on account of it’s all put on and the cobwebs are all fake anyway. But even with real cobwebs, Jesse should’a been in a bigger hurry than that. I know I would’a been. He could clear out the cobwebs some other day.

Anyway, as he pushed himself up I got a good look at his face, only I had to stoop over a little.

The right side of his face was scratched and raked, and his whole forehead was one big cherry from sliding along the concrete before he got to the asphalt. There was some blood mixed into the front of his pretty long blond hair too, like he’d been scalped. There were a few black tarry pebbles stuck in his right cheek, and two above his right eyebrow.

Anyway, he got his elbows under him, with his forearms still on the ground from there up to his wrists. So he was leaning kind’a up from the waist with his shoulders and head in the air and pointed in a particular direction. So kind’a like one’a them lizards doing pushups on a rock out in the desert, if you’ve ever seen that.

Now right there, see, if I was Jesse, that’s when I’d’a been digging the toes of my work boots into that concrete, getting me some leverage to sprint myself outta there. I’d’a made good time, too. Bet on it.

But not Jesse. Right there he paused again to shake his head. That was like on wrestling too, come to think of it, only on wrestling it’s all fake like I said.

Anyway that was probably his second mistake. You know, the first being whatever he’d done or said that caused Ray to use him as a battering ram.

Anyway, when he caught sight of Jesse, Ray stretched his lips wide open side to side in the evilest grin I ever saw. “Heh,” he said, and then he lumbered forward, only like he was in a hurry. He went back to cussing, too, only there were a lot of “c’meres” and “I’m’a gonna kill yews” mixed in.

Well, when he drew up along Jesse’s left side, he crooked his right elbow up like those wrestlers do on TV. Then he did a little leap, turned his butt toward Jesse and crashed down on him.

Jesse had just enough air to grunt, and that’s about all the noise we heard on the other side of Ray’s cussing. That and a few “oohs” from the crowd on either side of the door.

About the time Ray’s butt hit Jesse’s back, his elbow took Jesse in the back of the head and reacquainted his face with the asphalt. Only on the left side of his face this time. At least the two side’s’d match, if you could call that a good thing.

Well, about the time that grunt squished out of Jesse, Ray got off him and crabbed around in front. He grabbed Jesse’s hair on both sides and reared up on his knees.

That pulled Jesse’s head up about where it was before Ray landed on him, only now Jesse’s arms were just kind’a hanging there.

I believe Jesse was out cold.

That’s about the time through the top of my eyes I saw a little short shadow slip out through the door with an attachment sticking up and to the right.

2

For a second, I guess the shadow and its attachment was more interesting than what was about to happen to Jesse, so I looked up.

The shadow was Miguel “Mickey” Muñoz, the guy who runs the place. The attachment was his sawed-off Remington 870 shotgun.

Which he wasted no time in cocking.

Now racking a shell into a magazine-fed Remington shotgun makes a particular sound that’s hard to ignore. And plus, just as Muñoz pumped a shell into the chamber, he yelled, “Ray!”

Ray stopped, only Jesse’s hair was still twisted up in his fists just above Jesse’s ears on both sides. But Ray looked up at Muñoz and said, “Huh?”

Now I couldn’t see his face, but I’m betting Aunt Hattie’s gold teeth he was frowning.

So then Muñoz said, “Whatchu doing, Ray?” He dipped the barrel of that shotgun toward the ground a couple’a times. “Put that guy’s head down and come over here.”

Ray looked down at Jesse’s head like he’d just noticed it was there. Then he looked up at Muñoz again. Then he shrugged, straightened up on his knees and kind’a shoved Jesse’s head away from him.

It hit the asphalt with a dulled thwack, then rolled onto its left cheek.

Ray looked at Muñoz again and his ears raised a little, like maybe he was grinning. “Like that?”

Muñoz nodded. “That’ll do. Now come on over here.”

Ray looked down at Jesse again, then pursed his lips and squeezed out some spit. Prob’ly he was trying to get it to land in Jesse’s right ear. I couldn’t quite see if he hit the mark, but I did see that a lot of it was still stringing across Ray’s beard.

Anyway, Ray pulled his right foot up under him, then grabbed his right knee with both hands and pushed himself up. He overbalanced and teetered a little, and me and Jackson took a couple steps backward. Trust me, you don’t want Ray Dickie landing on you.

Then Ray kind’a leaned to the front and off he went to see what Muñoz wanted. Six shuffling steps into it, he stopped and said, “Whut?”

Muñoz pointed toward Jesse with the shotgun. “Wha’d he do? Run off on a tab?”

Ray looked back toward Jesse, then shook his head. “Nuh uh.”

Muñoz frowned. “Did he ask your girl to dance? Rosemary ain’t here tonight, is she?”

“Nuh uh.”

“So what then?”

Behind Ray, Jesse had his head up again, though only half as far as the first time. He shook it again.

Ray frowned at Muñoz. “You said.”

Even in the dim red light reflecting from a distance off the asphalt on Muñoz’ face, I saw his forehead wrinkle. “What? Whaddya mean, I said? I said what?”

Meanwhile, Jesse slowly pulled himself up to his knees. The top of his khaki button-down shirt was hanging open down to his belly and the top four buttons were gone. He only had one shirt pocket, on the left breast, and it was hanging by half of itself. Only the back of the tail was still tucked into his jeans. His black belt and the silver pass-through buckle were both scarred by the concrete.

He shook his head again. Then, before I got a chance to look him over good, he sucked in some breath and jerked his head around to look over his shoulder right quick. Like he’d stuck a fork in an outlet, or maybe like he could feel Ray’s breath or something.

Only Ray was still back there with Muñoz.

Jesse turned to us again and raised one hand to wipe something off his head. I guess Ray got him after all. He looked at his palm, wiped whatever was there on the back pocket of his jeans, then looked up at me and Jackson.

The left side of his face was covered in generally the same manner as the right, plus there were a few pebbles stuck to the side of his neck. That must’a happened when Ray landed on his back. Otherwise he wouldn’a been that flat.

Still looking at Jesse, both me and Jackson, like we were synchronized or something, jerked our heads to the left a little bit. You know, telling Jesse to git while the gitting was good. I mean, we didn’t say anything out loud—not with Ray standing right over there—but Jesse got it.

Moving real easy, he put his fingertips on the ground and pushed himself up to his feet. Then he looked back at Ray again and started tiptoeing off to his right.

Meanwhile, Ray focused his full attention on Muñoz and that Remington. He slipped his thumbs into the front pockets of his jeans, then shifted his weight from his right foot to his left. I swear I thought he was gonna say, “Aw shucks” or something like that.

But real quiet, and kind’a whining—me and Jackson could still hear him, but just barely—he said, “You know, Mickey. What you said.”

And just then me and Jackson heard cars pulling into the parking lot behind us. At first we twisted our necks around to look, but then we turned on around.

Not that we’d lost interest in Ray and Muñoz, but there are things you don’t turn your back on.

It was those two homicide dicks, Valentino and Galecki. Cops.

Only they came in different cars. That was different.

Valentino swung his car into a spot first, and then Galecki pulled his in on the passenger side of Valentino’s.

For a second I thought it was just really good timing, what with Jesse and Ray and then Muñoz with that shotgun.

Except Valentino and Galecki work homicide and there wasn’t anybody dead here. Or any dead body here. You know.

Then I remembered on the other side of The Rainbow Room was Mickey’s Place, the cops’ hangout. So they were probably off duty. Probably they were glad there weren’t any bodies anywhere.

3

When he first got out of his car, Valentino put his left hand on the roof and glanced over at Jesse, who was halfway across the parking lot by then and still limping away.

The left side of Valentino’s grey, off-the-rack suit hung open. His heater dangled upside down in its holster at his left side. He watched Jesse for a minute, then closed his door and turned toward us.

Galecki did the same thing, complete with watching for a moment as Jesse limped along, only at his car.

His suit was a copy of Valentino’s. Only the fedoras were different. Galecki’s was dark brown and Valentino’s was grey. Trust an Italian to match his hat to his clothes. Still, they were both fedoras.

The cars were the same too.

Both Ford Crown Vics, both in a plain white wrapper.

Both unmarked, like that made a difference. Hey, if it’s a Crown Vic, chances are the filling is a cop.

As they walked toward me and Jackson, I nodded amicably. “Detectives.”

Bigs Valentino glanced past me for a second, checking out Muñoz and Ray, then directly at me. The guy’s got the most intense eyes I’ve ever seen. There’s never any doubt who he’s talking to. The only mystery is how deep he’s going into your brain. “Pilfer,” he said. “What’s going on?”

He calls me Pilfer on account of I could generally lay hands on whatever you might need whenever you might need it. Even information. You know, back in the day. In exchange for monetary consideration.

Me and Bigs kind’a used to be partners that way, him needing and me providing. I don’t know Galecki, though I’ve seen him around. I heard he’s a good guy though. And he’s hanging with Bigs, so he can’t be all bad. Maybe.

I shrugged. “Oh, nothing, Bigs. Nothing. Me and Jackson, we were just taking some night air before we go inside.”

Galecki said, “So you haven’t been inside yet?”

While I was busy with Galecki, Bigs glanced past me again. He seemed to be sizing things up.

Jackson said, “Wull, yeah, but—”

I looked at Galecki. “No, not here.” I looked at Jackson. “He means here, man.” Then I looked at Galecki again. “We just got here a few minutes ahead of you guys. You gotta forgive Jackson. He gets nervous.”

Galecki looked at Jackson, then at me. Prob’ly trying to decide what to believe. Then, like he really didn’t want to be involved, he shrugged and looked around, kind’a stretching his neck. Only he avoided looking straight at Muñoz and Ray. Finally he said, “Yeah, well, you know—nice night for it.”

Bigs apparently decided Muñoz was in control of whatever was happening behind us. He grinned that direction once and tipped his head just the slightest bit. Then he glanced at me. “Hey, you boys have a good night.”

Then the two dicks stepped around us and started toward the front corner of the place over on the right. The front entrance for Mickey’s Place was around that corner, about twenty feet down.

I turned around to see what Muñoz and Ray were doing.

Only they weren’t there. They and their entourage had gone inside. The entourage itself prob’ly disappeared when me and Jackson first turned around to face the cops. I tugged on Jackson’s sleeve and started toward the door of The Rainbow Room. “C’mon,” I said. “I wanna see what Muñoz told Ray that caused him to beat the crap outta Jesse.”

Jackson wagged one hand. “As if. By now it’s all history, I’m sure.”

We got to the door about the time Bigs and Galecki reached the front corner of the building.

4

I reached down, worked the brass latch with my thumb and pulled on the big door handle, then swung it open.

Even before we went in, the pounding beat, beat, beat of some kind’a progressive rock stomped through the door at us. Some would-be singer was yelping at the top of his lungs over and between the beats. And that was on a sound system or a radio or something. Maybe we could get them to turn it down.

There’d be a live band on Friday and Saturday nights, maybe. If someone wanted to play, and if Muñoz wanted to hire them.

The sound was accompanied by a mixture of smells—mostly alcohol, vague body odor and smoke—maybe with a little hint of perfume swirled in.

Inside, the smells were stronger. The place was dimly lighted, too, and hazy with the grey stench of cigarette smoke. And maybe there was some other smoke too. Seemed to be a little eau de marijuana mixed into it here and there.

As for the lighting, other than the few lights above the bar, there were maybe ten lights in the ceiling, and they were recessed. Plus some were kind of an orange yellow and some were red.

There was a slightly raised bandstand in the far corner on the left. It was Tuesday, so there was a set of drums and a couple’a empty mike stands on it, but nothing else. And it was dark. It had its own lights, I guess, when there was a band.

There was a dance floor on the near side of the bandstand, then thirty or so cheap wooden tables with their chairs. Most of the tables had at least a couple’a people seated at them, all tainted by the orange-yellow and red lights. They were all talking among themselves, leaning toward each other to be heard underneath the music.

And then the bar stretched the length of the wall to the right. Like I say, it was the only part of the place that was pretty well lighted. And then there were a couple’a short fluorescents over the whiskey and wine bottles on the shelf under the mirror behind the bar. There were several people at the bar. Most were on barstools, most minding their own business, their elbows on the bar and their shoulders hunched around their own problems.

To the right of the door, a new bouncer had taken Ray’s place.

It was Blay Mercer—the Blay is short for Blaylock, I’m not jokin’—in all his camouflage glory. He was never in the military, but he wanted to be I guess. He was perched up on a barstool he’d dragged over from the end of the bar. The heels of his worn black combat boots were hooked over the chrome rail that ran around the base of it about a foot off the floor.

His blue eyes filled his coke-bottle glasses as he peered at us from beneath a camouflage boonie hat. His kinky dark brown hair supported it with tight curls. “Hey guys,” he said, his head bopping to the beats of the music.

“Hey,” Jackson said as we moved past. No live band, no cover, no need to stop.

We headed for a couple barstools at the near end of the bar, one on each side of the corner where it turned to run back to the wall.

Jackson took the barstool at the corner on the long side of the bar.

I moved past the corner and aimed my butt at the first barstool on that side. There were only two barstools behind me, and both were vacant. Beyond that was the door that connected The Rainbow Room to the more conservative Mickey’s Place.

I liked that barstool. I could see most of the room from there. I looked forward to maybe spotting Muñoz and asking him about what happened earlier.

As I sat down and swiveled the barstool to face the tables, I looked at Jackson. “So, you gonna get your usual?”

He nodded.

I thought Muñoz would be behind the bar, but he wasn’t.

The bartender on duty was Josh Dermin, an old guy who was basically a chunk of conservative flesh.

He wore a white t-shirt over khaki trousers and black oxfords. The guy was bald, save for a quarter-inch stubble of white hair in the center of the top of his head. The rest of his hair was also a quarter-inch long. It formed a white horseshoe from his left temple around the back of his head to his right temple. It also extended down the back of his neck.

He’s one of those guys who shaved down to the neckline of his t-shirt. When he bent and moved his shoulders just right over the rinsing sinks, the front or back of his t-shirt would bulge open a bit to expose some of the hair he didn’t bother shaving. That was on his chest and back. And probably his shoulders.

I rapped on the bar with my knuckles just as a man about halfway along the bar said, “See you next time, Josh.”

The man slipped off his barstool as Dermin raised his left hand toward me to let me know he’d heard me.

Dermin watched, wiping his hands on his bar towel from force of habit, as the man leaned down to look at the ticket containing his tab. Then he leaned forward and said something to the guy, but I couldn’t hear it.

The guy laughed and said, “Good one.” Then he straightened, fished several bills out of his pocket and laid them on top of the ticket. “Keep it.”

Dermin grinned and raised a hand as the man turned away. “Thanks, Bob.” Then he picked up the ticket and the bills, turned and opened the cash register.

My mouth watered. Soon after Dermin got the money put away and dropped his tip into his pocket, I’d get my first taste of the day of a Beam and Coke.

I always ordered Beam and Coke for the first one. After that I just took whatever was in the well with Coke. I’m a good friend to Jim Beam, but after the first one it all tastes about the same anyway.

And I might as well order for Jackson too. A salty dog in an old-fashioned glass.

Dermin straightened and shoved the register closed as he flopped his bar towel over his left shoulder. The ding of the register sounded just as Ray Dickie came around the far end of the bar.

Behind him was Mickey Muñoz.

5

 I focused on Josh Dermin.

As he turned away from the cash register, I raised my right hand and smiled. “Hey, Josh. Just bring me a—”

“Hey, you can’t bring that in here!” It was Blay Mercer.

“You can’t stop me! Where is he?”

Mercer again, yelling. “Hey! I said—”

Then noise of a struggle came from behind me. Somebody hitting the floor.

Me and Jackson both twisted around at the same time.

Blay Mercer was lying on top of someone on the floor, struggling, and four hands were extended toward me.

No, four fists. And something else. Like a small pipe.

Mercer shifted and there was a flash of blond hair.

With blood in it.

As he was getting up, Jackson pointed and yelled, “Jesse! That’s Jesse Rickman! And he’s got a—”

The explosion was tremendous in the enclosed space.

Behind me people were screaming, chairs were falling over, tables were scraping on the floor.

I seemed glued to the barstool. I swiveled back around to look at the tables.

The bartender had disappeared.

I felt myself frown. What’s all the screaming about?

As I was turning back to see where Jackson had gone—

How did he get off his barstool? Mine seemed stuck.

He had taken a step and stopped. He turned his head to look at me. “Jim?”

His face looked weird.

“What?” I said. Then I looked down.

Both hands were over his gut. Blood was pumping out through his fingers.

He frowned at me, then bent double and fell.

It took all my effort to turn my head back toward the bar.

Where’s Mickey and his shotgun?

Mickey was right behind Ray Dickie, being shoved along by Dickie’s backward progress.

Dickie was backing up, his hands up in front of his chest like a shield.

So he was okay. He was going the right way.

I twisted, agonizingly slowly, to look back at Mercer and Rickman, still tangled up on the floor. Just like wrestling on TV. Only that’s all fake.

Behind me, the door exploded open and slapped the wall.

A thunderous, “Where’s the gun?” came from a million miles away and right behind my left shoulder.

Bigs! That was Jimmy Bigs Valentino!

I started raising my right hand to point. “Over th—”

Another explosion, and I watched as a flame shot out directly toward me.

Why me?

But something zinged off something. The seat on Jackson’s barstool spun like it was gonna take off. Somewhere behind me somebody grunted hard. Somebody fell down.

Then another explosion right inside my left ear and a red spot formed on top of Rickman’s head. His back kind of bulged and the hole started pouring blood.

Mercer jerked his arms back and screamed, his arms still flailing as he seemed to levitate up off Jesse Rickman. He landed on his feet and backpedaled ‘til his butt hit his barstool. His glasses flew up and off as he and the barstool went down together. He was on his back on the other side of it, still screaming.

There was something long and dark next to my left eye.

I turned my eyes, then my head.

It was Valentino’s arm. His right arm. His left was on the other side of it, both extended, his pistol out front in his hand.

It must be his right hand. The holster was on the left earlier. He must be right handed.

He moved past me, swung around the corner of the bar.

A hand on my left shoulder, squeezing. “You okay?”

I looked up and to the left. “Huh?”

It was the other guy. Galecki.

“You hit or are you all right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay.”

He moved past me and past the corner of the bar.

Valentino yelled to somebody to call for an ambulance.

Galecki was saying nobody could leave until things were sorted out.

I finally managed to get turned around.

People were picking up chairs, straightening tables, sitting, talking.

I leaned forward, my elbows on the bar, my fingers gripping the inside edge of it.

Dermin was there, standing by the cash register, the phone in his hand.

Was he there all along? Maybe he blended into the cash register.

Valentino was on one knee, saying to Ray Dickie everything was going to be fine.

Galecki was talking quietly to the folks at the nearest table.

The music wasn’t playing. It had stopped sometime or other.

Where was Mickey? I really wanted to talk with Mickey Muñoz but he was gone.

Maybe back in his office. I’d really like to see him, talk to him. I’d like to ask him, you know.

Hey Mickey, what’d you say to set Ray Dickie off?

* * * * * * *

 

The Source

Jonathan Kirski worked hard all day in sub-zero weather to mine the bodies—the source of the calcium extract—from his claim in the Siberian burial field.

The reality of the claim was very different from what was depicted in the training films.

In the films, there were no mouths frozen open, no severely discolored and ice-burned skin. There were no extra body parts stuck to the outside of the wrong body when the one next to it had been torn away. In the films it was all very neat.

But here—here was a naked woman, lying face up. And two children—they looked to be a boy and a girl, around three to five years old—lying atop her. The boy’s head was nestled beneath her jaw in the curve of her throat. The girl’s head and shoulders lay to the near side of the boy’s right leg.

The boy’s left leg was missing, torn away from the hip socket.

Probably it had been transported to a cooler, still frozen to whatever “source” had lain this side of it.

The girl was intact, save the left side of her skirt. No doubt it had accompanied her brother’s left leg to the acid as part of the other body.

But apparently there had been an inadvertent trade.

Just as the body that had lain to the near side of the children took part of them, so the body that had lain to the near side of the woman left a part behind.

Someone’s blackened bottom jaw, complete with the lower lip, the shriveled chin and most of the teeth, was frozen to the naked left hip of the woman. The skin and the viscera behind it—from where the bottom lip had originally met the top lip all the way back to where the jaw had come unhinged beneath the ears—was no longer thick and pliable but thin and dried out. And the top edge was ragged.

Thank god he hadn’t seen it torn when this was still a human being.

His breath ever before him in puffs and clouds, and with a chisel, mallet and prybar in hand, he took the girl. When she was in the sled, he took the boy, then the woman. Almost three hours passed in that endeavor.

He would have to speed the process along.

He shifted his attention to a different column.

An older gentleman in a grey tweed suit, still clutching his cane in his left hand.

Another, younger man, dressed more casually in a white button-down shirt and slacks that appeared to have been yellow at one time. They were faded to an off-white, at least along the outside of the right leg. The shoes were wingtips. The right one had three small cleats toward the outer toe. Golf shoes, maybe?

Another man dressed in only the remnants of an undershirt and long undershorts. He looked to be in his mid-thirties. Beneath him were two smaller people, obviously very young children. Both boys.

And beneath them, his hands bent at the wrists over the shoulders of the boys, a man he presumed to be their father.

He took the older man, then the one beneath him, then the children, one boy then the next. Then their father.

He took them, deposited them in the sled, and transported them back to his cabin for processing. Nine was enough for the first day.

He unloaded the sled, standing the sources unceremoniously in the storage bin in the corner of the cooler, then looked at them for a moment. Here they were.

Here he was.

Jonathan suddenly felt his overclothes were too bulky.

He walked back into the main part of the cabin and slipped them off. In his bedroom, he pulled on a coat that fit more snugly and would protect him from the worst of the cold. He also pulled on a pair of glove liners, and then a thinner pair of gloves.

He walked back into the cooler and forced himself to approach the bin. That’s where he would have to begin the procedure anyway. And he would perform the procedure, no matter how long it took him to start.

He gripped the top edge of the bin and stared, without focusing, at the chest of the source in the tweed coat.

Should he process the children first? Should he work on them first to get them out of the way? They were smaller so they should go more quickly than the larger ones.

But he didn’t want to practice on the children. He wanted to practice on someone else. One of the other sources.

He wanted to be practiced enough, relatively speaking, to know what he was doing before he attempted the children. Maybe it was irrational, but he wanted to treat them as gently and respectfully as he could.

Then again, all of today would be a learning process. Even if he processed all five adults, he wouldn’t know much more after the fifth one than he knew as he started the first. All nine sources would be practice. If there was any way they could know him, they would know he meant no disrespect to any of them.

But they couldn’t know him or even anyone like him. They couldn’t even know there had been a second purge of their people. They couldn’t know he’d been saved by that purge when his parents had given him away. They couldn’t know he was here to do penance.

Judging from their clothing, they had lived probably in the mid-to late twentieth century. Maybe the early twenty-first century.

And the children— They were not children, not really. Even had they lived full lives, they would have been dead and gone for well over a hundred years.

His wish had been granted, his hopes realized. He had been assigned a claim that was rich in much older deposits. He should be grateful for that.

At least he wouldn’t stumble across his parents or his friends.

The children in the bin, they were only ore deposits. Smaller than most, but still only ore deposits.

It would take him less time to process each of them than it would take to process any of the adul— any of the larger sources.

And he would learn as much processing one of them as he would learn processing the others.

They were ore.

Processing them was a job, nothing more.

And it was his job.

He took a deep breath, let it out, then took a long moment to run the processing procedure through his mind.

Okay.

He moved over in front of the stainless steel sinks, then crouched slightly. He reached under the cabinet on the left. There he retrieved the sink stoppers and a box of the mild lye solution. He shook some of it into the bottom of the first sink, the larger one, then ran it full of hot water.

After he turned the water off, he stoppered the bottom of the small sink and ran it full of cold water.

Finally he opened the shallow drawer next to the smaller sink. He picked up a drying pad and a couple of small towels. He positioned the drying pad carefully, then lay the towels near the far end of it.

Then he went back to the storage bin.

He reached down into the bin and brought up one of the smaller sources. He turned it so it was facing away, then turned around and laid it on the initial slab.

It slid to the right and bumped its head— No. The top of the source bumped against the wall. It was only a source. No harm, no foul. Still, it annoyed him that he had allowed that to happen. Even if they were only the sources of the calcium extract, they should be treated with a modicum of dignity.

Again he thought about the procedure. First, if there were any garments and if they hadn’t become an integral part of the source, he was to remove them. If they had become part of the source, he could ignore them. The acid would do the rest.

Well, he could forget that. He was in Siberia. Any garments that were on the source had become an integral part of it. There was also no doubt in his mind that he wasn’t going to waste any further time checking.

He started to open the left drawer—the one that contained the knives and saws—then glanced at the source.

He closed the drawer. He wouldn’t have to cut this one up.

Instead he opened the bottom drawer and retrieved the larger set of tongs.

He would pick up the small source by one leg and dip it, top first, into the acid bath. Then he would grasp it with the tongs and lower it carefully so as not to splash the acid.

That should work fine.

He reached over gingerly with his left hand and picked up the small source. He moved it carefully to suspend it over the bath, then dipped it, top first.

Okay, so far, so—

And the stench hit him.

His instinctive reaction was to reel away backward, but he didn’t. If he dropped the source, the acid would claim the entire thing and the bones would be gone.

He fought through the revulsion and lifted the source from the acid, then laid what was left on the slab again. He quickly turned away, gagging, worked the latch on the door and ran outside.

The wind was howling and felt as if it were blowing through the center of a block of ice.

By the time he’d taken his second deep breath his lungs had begun to ache. Inside his gloves, his fingers felt stiff and fat almost immediately. Even through the jacket, his forearms and chest felt as if the skin was becoming brittle.

He turned around, opened the door again and all but fell back into the cooler.

He leaned back against the door to close it, then walked the length of the cooler and shoved the heavy plastic sheeting aside.

The main room of the cabin was almost hot in contrast.

He propped his right elbow on the mantel of the fireplace and shook his head. A long moment later, his breathing almost under control again, he muttered, “Damn, Jon. I think maybe you’d better not forget the mask again.”

He leaned down a bit to look into the fireplace and considered starting a fire. But no. He wanted to get through the first set of stiffs. Sources. Then he would reward himself with a night off. And food. He would find something to eat.

He moved the sheeting aside and strode into the cooler. At the far end, he opened the bottom drawer and took out a mask. He positioned it appropriately over his mouth and nose, then reached for the source again.

But it had moved.

Without thinking, he looked to his right.

The flash image was of a child, naked, lying face down.

There were two small legs, no larger than two inches in diameter. The right leg and hip were intact and perfect, albeit a ghostly, pallid white. The left leg was the same, but only halfway up the thigh.

The arms, torso, neck and head were skeletal, though small bits of viscera clung here and there.

He had seen photos in the Academy, but—

What he had seen in the photos were not his doing.

He stared, unable to turn away, certain he would hear an audible pop any second as his mind snapped. He strived to reason with himself. He had to set his mind right.

Is this how he was to spend the balance of his life? Was this his penance for not being good enough? Tom had spoken about the horror of the faces, but could that be any worse? If they were, he couldn’t allow himself to see them. He had reached his limit.

While trying to process the first source of his first dig on his first day, he had reached his limit. Had he reached his limit?

As part of his mind addressed the horror, another part registered that the bones were unscathed.

The acid had taken the flesh, but only the flesh. What in the few bits of flesh that remained kept them from being consumed by the acid?

Did they talk about this at the Academy? He couldn’t remember. And even if they had, did it matter?

Well, he had signed on.

He had taken the tests, applied and was accepted at the Academy. He had endured two long years there, and through it all he had sensed he would end up here. Not only in Siberia, but here at this counter in this cabin with a child—a small source—his first victim.

No, that wasn’t right. He wouldn’t accept responsibility for what had brought this child—this source—to be in his cabin at this moment. It was someone else’s victim. It was humanity’s victim. It was his livelihood until he said it wasn’t anymore.

So should it be his livelihood? Was he right for this job? Or for this place?

He was on probation. He could catch any drone anytime during the first six months and fly out. He could request any assignment in any field anywhere and never have to see a face. Or another frozen, pallid bit of flesh again.

As if in a daze, he continued to work through whether he could or even should continue. And if he chose to continue, where? And in what capacity?

But his left arm moved, seemingly of its own volition.

He didn’t even have to be a miner. With his class standing, probably he could wrangle something else.

Without conscious direction from his mind, his arm stretched in the direction of the tongs.

He could take off the rest of the week and catch the next drone. There was one every week. No questions asked.

The thumb and fingers on his left hand closed around the tongs, lifted them.

He could simply walk past Tom and Rolf and nod. He didn’t even have to speak to them. Just get on the drone and fly out. Just leave. There would be plenty of penance elsewhere.

His left arm guided the end of the tongs to the bare left hip of the source.

Did he even really have to do penance? If he did, maybe he’d done enough.

The tongs closed.

A lot of people had done a lot less penance for a lot worse crimes than simply not being good enough.

The arm raised and Jonathan felt the weight.

He looked around just as the source, caught in the grip of the tongs and not resisting at all, lifted off the slab.

He frowned. What was he doing? And why?

He watched as the source passively allowed itself to be moved, positioned over the acid.

Why didn’t it resist? Why would it allow me to—

The arm lowered. And the source slipped effortlessly into the acid.

Jonathan looked.

He watched as the arm raised, brought the tongs out of the acid.

The source was bare. Nothing but bones.

Nothing but the source of the calcium extract.

His mind back on the task at hand, he took over again. As he stepped to the left, he manipulated the tongs, twisting them so the source curled almost into a ball. Then he dipped it into the larger of the two stainless steel sinks.

He moved it back and forth gently and watched as most of the bits of flesh separated from the skeleton. Amazing. The stuff really worked.

Still, could he do this? And hidden or not, he was a Jew. So should he do it? Before he came here, he was so certain. He was still a young man. Would he be throwing away that much if he negated the last two years and went in another direction?

After all, it would be no trouble at all to just pack it in. He could catch the next drone out.

He lifted the source from the lye water, dipped it in the clear rinse water, and laid it on the drying pad. It covered less than half of it.

He reached for a towel and started to lay the tongs down.

But while this source was drying, he could run the next one. That would give him plenty of time to decide what he wanted to do next.

He turned and walked back to the end of the counter.

* * *

The second small source went more easily.

He lowered it whole into the acid, then opened the tongs. A long moment later, he found purchase on what was left—he came to think of what he withdrew from the acid as “pure source”—and pulled it out.

After he deposited the second small source into the lye bath, he left the tongs and used the towels to pat dry the first source.

Then he got a second pad from the drawer and laid it next to the first.

He moved the first source to the second pad to await polishing while he went back to retrieve and rinse the second. He laid that one on the first drying pad.

While it was drying, he decided to work on the first again.

The bones had to be separated. It was the most arduous part of the process after the initial shock of the stench from the acid tank almost an hour earlier.

After he had separated the bones of the first source and grouped them roughly according to size, he had an idea. He wrapped them in two of the clean hand towels and set them in the corner at the back of the cabinet.

He could polish them later. Even in the cabin, perhaps, while he was doing other things. After all, polishing wouldn’t require all his attention.

He draped another hand towel—the same one he had used to pat down the first source—over the second, then turned to go back to the storage bin.

On his way by, he stopped at the acid bath.

It was still all right. Probably fine to process one large source. He would have to change the acid with every second or third large source, but he knew what to watch for. It was like watching the weather.

Clear was good. Partly cloudy was all right. But when it was cloudy to the point that he couldn’t see through it hardly at all, it had to be drained and changed.

He turned to the bin. He would take the man in the underwear next. Just in case he had been the father of these chil— these sources.

 

29

 

He lifted his first large source from the storage bin and laid it face down on the preparation slab, with the top toward the back door. The first order of business would be to separate the small appendage from his lower back. From the lower back of the source.

The official reason, if anyone had asked, was so he wouldn’t inadvertently lose the bones in that hand, wrist and partial forearm in the bottom of the acid bath.

He did that with the fine-toothed bone saw.

Then he used the tongs to lower the little appendage to the bottom of the acid tank.

He released the tongs for a moment, waited, then retrieved the appendage and looked it over. It would require another moment. He lay in on the slab, re-gripped it with the tongs around the bit of protruding ulna, and dipped it again.

He left it submerged for only a few seconds before withdrawing it and carrying it to the lye bath. Then he rinsed it and reunited it with its original owner on the drying mat.

He looked at the small, curled phalanges for a moment—almost too long—then turned back to attend to the larger source.

When he got back to the far end of the counter, he laid the tongs on the slab. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his time piece. He noted the time, then slipped it back into his pocket. He opened the drawer on the left and picked up the bone saw with the coarser blade. He also took out a long, slender knife. He laid it to one side.

Jonathan glanced at the  acid bath again.

The tank was four-feet wide. This particular source was perhaps five and a half feet long. Like probably ninety-plus percent of the sources, this one was thin too, even on the verge of emaciation. It would fit easily into the acid bath in only two pieces.

However, the lye tank was only three feet by three feet.

This one would have to go legs together, arms together, torso and head. So four pieces.

Jonathan picked up his saw and bent to the task, cutting at an angle from above the left hip to the center of the pelvis.

With the right side, he knew more about what he was doing, what to watch and feel for through the saw blade, and in about fifteen minutes the source was in two pieces.

He couldn’t use the tongs. The lower section of the source was too heavy.

So he took that section by its lower extremities with his gloved hands and carefully lowered it into the acid bath, large end first. When most of it was beneath the surface, he let go. Of course, it had gone into the tank in one piece, but it might come out in two. That was all right. It was only something of which he needed to be mindful.

There was a quiet clunk as it hit the bottom of the tank.

Jonathan turned back to take the upper extremities.

Those came off much more easily and quickly, and again he used his gloved hands to lower each into the acid. He positioned them so they would lean against the back corners of the vat.

He turned back to the source for a moment. It was still lying face down. A quick approximation of the remaining length told him he had misjudged this one. The head and torso could go in as one piece.

He would prefer to send the top in first, but he decided the bottom should go first as it was the wider, more stable part. He would be very careful not to allow himself to see the face.

For the time being, though, the final bit would have to wait. He picked up the tongs and moved to the acid vat. There he reached into the back corner, made contact, and withdrew one extremity. It was clean.

He manipulated the tongs so the thing folded at the elbow, and carried it to the lye bath. After he deposited it there, he returned to the acid bath and retrieved the second piece. He placed it in the lye bath and removed the first one, then remembered he hadn’t laid out a new drying mat. He put the first arm in the rinse water, then put down the tongs.

He pushed the other drying mat to the left, and laid a new one in its place. Then he withdrew the rinsed source and laid in on the mat. He moved the second one from the lye bath to the rinse and then to the mat.

Then he went back to the acid bath.

Removing the legs from the vat was almost routine. He handled both of them the same way he had handled the arms. He carefully lifted one, then very carefully manipulated the tongs so the leg would fold at the knee without splashing him with acid.

He carried the first to the lye bath and immersed it. Then he moved the drying mat with the arm bones on it to the left and laid out a clean drying mat. He moved the folded leg to the rinse tank, then went back for the other leg and repeated the process.

When both legs were on the drying mat, he went back to the preparation slab.

He reached for the shoulders of the source and started to lift it.

But his left hand slipped.

The source rolled over.

It looked at him.

Jonathan caught his breath. He jerked his right hand away and stepped back, expecting the man to scream. A chill shuddered up along his spine and he shoved both hands into his coat pockets. He squeezed them into tight fists and looked at the floor for a moment, unsure what to do.

“I’m sorry,” he yelled. “God, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

But it did no good to apologize to the floor. He hadn’t treated the floor with disrespect. He wasn’t disturbing the final resting place—inadequate and inappropriate as it was—of the floor. His father had taught him always to look the other person in the eyes. Enemy or friend. One who insulted him or one whom he insulted.

Even ore.

He raised his head, looked at the left eye. It was open wide. It would give the man away if—

If he started to move? But he couldn’t move.

The man couldn’t move, but Jonathan continued to watch. “I’m sorry,” he said again, more calmly. I’m so very sorry.”

Suddenly the cooler was very large and very dark, and vengeful spirits were waiting in every corner.

He glanced quickly over his right shoulder at the bin.

All of them—all of the sources—were where he left them.

A sound.

He jerked his head around.

But the man still lay there.

No. The source. The source still lay there.

Right where he dropped it.

And of course. Where else would it be?

It just slipped, that’s all.

No, it didn’t do anything. He allowed it to slip.

He lost his grip and the thing slipped free for a moment.

Jonathan stepped closer, the fear past.

“All right,” he said. “All right.”

And for an instant, quietly as the echo of a thought, he could’ve sworn he heard, “All right.”

He looked at the man again. At the source. He looked at the source again.

He thought of escaping gasses, the sounds those could make. But all the gasses had escaped this man—this source—probably a hundred years ago.

He looked at the lips. They were stiff. They couldn’t move. And the tongue and the vocal cords. They were all stiff. None of them could move. None of them could create sound.

Curiosity took over. What was the big thing about the faces? As long as you remember it’s only a source, what resembled a human face wasn’t really a face, except in the broadest sense. It was one facet of the source, that’s all. The back of the top part also was a facet.

Which part was the face at the moment depended completely on your angle of view. Nothing more.

He leaned forward a bit, his hands still in his coat pockets.

The man’s left eye was open wide, though a bit sunken. The right upper eyelid was partially closed.

With accusation?

Jonathan shifted to one side.

The eyes didn’t follow him.

But he had known they wouldn’t. There was no life in them.

There was no accusation.

As it should be.

And this was only a source.

He looked more closely.

The nose was aquiline, the eyebrows full but light brown, despite the much darker full head of hair.

The ears were fine and lay close to the sides of the head. The chin and jawline might have been chiseled out of granite. There was a few days’ growth of whiskers. The lips were pressed tightly together, as if holding back something he really wanted to say.

It. Something it really wanted to say.

It hadn’t been a man for probably a hundred years. Maybe longer.

Suddenly feeling foolish, Jonathan reached for the shoulders again and picked up the source. He turned it so it was facing him, and he watched the eyes as he lowered it into the acid bath.

Nothing. As it should be.

He muttered, “Well, two birds with one stone, Jon.”

The source was only a source, nothing more.

And the faces would be no big deal.

He allowed the source to settle gently on the bottom of the vat. This one would take awhile.

He moved to the other end of the counter, patted dry the other bones there, and separated them. He sorted them according to size and wrapped them in towels.

Then he realized what the shelves were for. Or at least how he was going to use them.

It would be impractical to process one source completely from dismembering to dipping to cleaning, rinsing, drying, separating and polishing. Doing so would add a great deal of time to the overall process.

Yet the way he was doing it now, he was rapidly running out of counter space.

He carefully picked up each bundle of bones and placed it beneath the counter on the top shelf. That would work.

Then he went back to the acid bath to check on the latest source. There had been considerably more mass to that one than any he had done before. Considerably more viscera. It would make sense that the acid would take longer to dissolve it.

He picked up the tongs and soon found a grip on the upper part of the spine. He slowly lifted the source so as not to splash himself.

The eyes were gone.

The face. The face was gone. The skull was clean.

He lifted the source farther up. There was very little non-bone material left on it. Not enough to leave it longer in the acid.

He put both hands on the tongs and carried the source to the lye bath.

It fit almost perfectly for width.

But it was close.

He looked at the rinse sink.

It would fit, but only barely. Probably only because the ribs would squeeze in a bit. And he might have to turn the head sideways. If it rocked back or forward, it would catch.

Another lesson. From now on, for sources that were full sized, he would separate the top from the torso.

After he finished rinsing the source, he stayed to pat the bones dry, then separate them, gathered them and folded them in towels.

It was a way to rest without wasting the time completely.

But when he was through, again he went to the storage bin to begin processing the next source.

* * *

A little over four hours later, he patted the bones dry from the last bit of the last source for the day. He separated them, sorted them, wrapped each group in a towel, and stored them beneath the counter to await polishing.

Then he stepped back and took it all in.

And made another decision.

Initially, he had expected to clear six bits of source during a two-hour stint at the claim.

He had cleared seven—but two of those were small—in eight hours.

He thought transport to and from the claim would take one hour per day. That would encompass two round trips.

But the average trip took twenty minutes. So one trip per day would cost him two-thirds of an hour. Two would cost him an hour and a third.

He had expected processing each deposit would take about one hour. It had taken him seven hours to process seven deposits, albeit two of those were small ones.

Probably that time would hold true, at least until repeated practice enabled him to streamline his procedure. But even if not, one hour seemed about right. He just had to remember that didn’t include the final step of the process, polishing.

He realized too, that he would need more than three hours of sleep per night, at least until he worked into a routine. As it turned out, the overall experience was tiring, both physically and emotionally. And he would have to eat too. If nothing else, eating was necessary to keeping his energy up.

So he made a rational decision.

Until he got used to things, he would make only one trip per day to the claim.

Tom said he could work into a routine.

He would eat something first thing every morning.

Then he would go to the claim. He would clear six to eight sources from the ice, depending on how easily they came.

So six to eight hours at the claim.

Then he would transport them back to the cabin and store them in the bin.

Then he would take a break. Maybe eat something.

Then he would spend six to eight hours in the cooler, processing them.

So if he rounded his transport time up to one hour, that totaled thirteen to seventeen hours per day mining, transporting and processing. If he had time at the end of the day, he would polish some of the product. But he thought that probably wouldn’t happen.

And if it didn’t that was okay.

He had already decided to take one day off each week. During that day he would polish the product until he felt he had done enough. The rest of the day he would devote to learning about the camp, inventorying and ordering supplies and so on.

Satisfied, he turned, pushed the plastic sheeting aside, and walked into the main cabin.

He looked at the fireplace as he stripped off his coat and gloves.

He walked to the wood box and stood there for a moment, trying to remember what he had planned to do. Then he turned around, walked into his bedroom, stripped off his clothing and went to bed.

He was asleep almost immediately.

* * * * * * *

 

The Popper

Folks, this will be the last regular short story of the week. In the future, when I write one I’ll post it here, but those won’t be every week. You can always find the latest by clicking A Free Short Story in the menu. Thanks, Harvey

The first one popped the day before the Sturgis Metal Run. Me and Ronny and a few others were revvin’ the dream, hittin’ 90 in a 75. In the fast lane, of course, northbound.

It was a cool morning, with temps probably in the mid-fifties. Not cool enough for any fog, really, or wet enough. Though I did see a little dew sparkling now and then off the side of the road as we passed.

There were a few clouds around too, but up high, like a painting, and the sun was out

And poppo! There it was. The thing appeared right in front of Ronny, and what passed for its arm extended toward him just like it would do any good.

I’ve seen Ronny swerve to miss ants on the road, so it isn’t like he’d intentionally run down something. But this was too close, too immediate, and Ronny ran through it like nobody’s business. I did too, in his wake a split second later.

Jerry, Barlow and Rex missed the thing, but only because they were slightly left (Jerry) and right (Barlow and Rex) pushing the edges of the lane.

It was like running through a quick fog bank that popped up out of nowhere, an’ that’s what we thought it was at first.

Only it didn’t play like a fog bank.

I didn’t realize that until later. It first dawned on me maybe five or ten seconds later. But at 90 miles per hour, five or ten seconds is a long time.

I mean, in the instant when Ronny hit it, it didn’t swirl and follow along in the vacuum created by his passing.

“Wh—” started to cross my mind then, but by the time “—at?” got there I was through it. And I wasn’t thinking about whether it was swirling and following along and all that.

I was too busy wondering why Ronny dumped his bike.

And my eyes were glued to the road—well, as glued as they could be at 90 miles per hour—between the back of Ronny’s Softail Harley and my Indian Chief. You know how fast your brain works. As my law prof would’a said, “It would be immeasurably better for your health, young man, to avoid whatever bit of detritus side-bored your buddy.”

Okay, the “side-bored your buddy” was my substitution for what Ms. Gramley would’a said, but you get the drift.

Only there wasn’t nothin’. The road was clean. Maybe a pebble here and there, and that one little slip of a shredded tire. I flashed my front tire past it maybe a half-inch to the left. But it was a sliver anyway, maybe three or four inches long and a tread wide, so nothin’ that would’a flipped Ronny like that.

And I had time to look. I mean, I got off the throttle some when Ronny’s back end shivered hard left. I probably wasn’t doin’ 85 when Ronny swiveled the front end to the right and laid it down. And I got on my brakes as I passed.

But I looked back just in time to see that Softail starting to flip. I figure his right peg caught pavement.

Me and the others tried for two years to talk Ronny into trading out those steel pegs for aluminum, but he was sure the steel would skip along the top of the road and save his leg.

As if.

“Besides,” he said the last time we talked about it, “I ain’t gonna lay it down, man. It’s all a choice.”

Yeah. But not always.

Sometimes other stuff chooses for you. And sometimes, as it turns out, the other stuff is a Popper.

Now we didn’t know anything about Poppers before that. I guess maybe the one that popped in front of Ronny was the first one on the planet. At least it was the first one we’d ever seen, if “seen” is the right word. Like I said, we thought it was a fog bank. Only with an arm and a something like a hand. I saw that much.

Anyway, even with my fast brain showing me Ronny was flipping, I squeezed the brakes on my Vic and skidded to the far right shoulder. The plan, I guess, was to kickstand it and run back to help Ronny.

But as I twisted left in the saddle and started to get up, he passed me, about eight feet in the air, about twenty feet behind me. In one’a those snapshots your brain takes at such times, the lines that divide the lanes split his Softail in half.

Ronny and the bike were laying sideways and he was still on the seat. Only his head was pointing down the road and the bottom of his bike was pointing back the way we came. His arms were stretched to the handlebars, his fingers clenched and his mouth in a big O.

Then his face disappeared as he rolled on over.

His left shoulder probably hit first, then his head, then the bike.

That was the first time I really noticed a sound. I mean there was a general jumble of noises, but when his helmet hit the pavement it was a sharp crack. Either that or when his neck broke.

Then everything went back to regular speed. Ronny and the Softail smudged along the centerline, tires up and spinning. Jerry flashed by in a smeared shadow on the distant left of my vision as Barlow and Rex crashed through the scene right in front of me in two big roars just off the back of my bike.

I don’t remember getting off my Chief but I was running down the road, my heavy boots clomping in time to the squeal of brakes. I think that was Barlow.

And everybody was a hundred feet away.

Ronny and the Softail were in a pile in the middle of the road beyond a streak of something glistening. Nothing was moving from what I could tell, but I didn’t have the best look with my head bobbing as I ran. I just kept thinking of what might happen if a semi topped that low rise behind us.

Jerry was stopped in the dip of the soft median, his jeans making an inverted U as he got off his bike. A fourth of his front tire was sunk in mud. Not sure why he stopped there. Gravity maybe.

Barlow and Rex parked side by side. The noses of their bikes were at the edge of the rough asphalt shoulder, pointing toward a four-strand barbed wire fence on the other side of a grassy right of way. On the other side of the fence was grassland, a windmill and a caliche-rock stock tank.

They dismounted and turned at the same time like it was choreographed.

Jerry got to Ronny’s pileup just ahead of Barlow and Rex.

I was still around fifty feet away, huffing and wondering why I didn’t just start my bike, nose her back to the road and drive up.

Jerry crouched down on one knee on the other side of that Softail, then glanced at Barlow and Rex and extended his right hand. Like he was telling them to wait. He studied to be a doctor for a couple years and his brother’s a cop, so.

As Jerry leaned forward over Ronny and extended that same right hand, Barlow said something I couldn’t hear.

They were all in the middle of the road and not paying the slightest bit of attention.

I yelled, “Trucks!” and pointed past them. I wanted Barlow and Rex to go farther up the road and ward off any approaching trucks. But we were in the northbound lane, so any trucks would be coming from behind me.

As I yelled, Barlow and Rex looked at me. Barlow put his hands on his hips. He yelled, “What?” and I just shook my head and kept running.

Barlow glanced at Jerry, then started jogging toward me. As we passed, he said quietly, “I’ll watch for trucks.” I guess he heard me after all.

But trucks were the least of our problems.

We’d forgotten all about the fog bank Ronny and I drove through.

* * *

I finally got there, stomping to a heavy stop just short of Ronny’s bike. I bent forward, my hands on my hips, breathing hard. That’s when I caught that glistening smeared stuff in my periphery and realized what it was. Then I glanced at Ronny’s muddled form, then looked at Jerry. “Oh Jesus! Is he okay?”

Well, I knew he wasn’t okay. I’d seen him in the air, and I’d seen and heard him hit. A miracle couldn’t make him okay.

Jerry didn’t even look up. He pulled his hand back from the side of what was left of Ronny’s throat, his index and middle finger still extended together, and shook his head. Quietly, he said, “Naw. He’s gone, man.”

Rex leaned forward over the twisted front wheel of the Softail. Softly, he said,  “Damn, man.”  Then he pointed. “What’s that?”

I looked where he was pointing. “What?”

He wagged his extended index finger. “That!”

I looked again just as Jerry sat back. He pointed too, “Oh man!” as he overbalanced and sat hard on both cheeks. “Damn!” He worked his heels, kicking against the asphalt to back himself away.

Something milky purplish, kind of a spot, lay on Ronny’s skin. Or maybe it was part of his skin. A misshapen, ragged oval from where his black t-shirt hit on his neck up to where it disappeared under the hair beneath the bottom of his helmet. Probably it ran up behind his left ear.

“A birthmark?” I said, but I knew better. I’d known Ronny since third grade. He didn’t have any birthmarks.

As we watched, the thing pulsed.

Jerry was finally on his feet near the shoulder next to the median and turning toward his bike.

“Hey,” I said. “Where you goin’?”

He shook his head as he sank sole-deep in the damp median. His voice trembled. He mumbled, “Gonna get help.” But it sounded like it was just something to say.

I frowned. “Jerry?”

He kept walking.

“Where?”

“Me too.”

That voice came from my right. I looked back.

Rex was halfway to his bike too.

I looked at Jerry’s back again. He was getting on his bike. I looked back toward Rex. He was almost to his bike. I held my arms out at my sides and yelled, “Hey, we gotta move him or something. Right?”

Jerry didn’t answer. He started his bike and gave it some gas, urging it up onto the south-bound lanes, but he turned north. Probably going to the next clear cross-over.

I dropped my arms and looked back at Rex. “Rex? Hey, c’mon, man. Help me move Ronny so—”

He shook his head. “Sorry, man.” He started his bike and leaned it over, spinning the back tire in the mud and soft gravel along the edge of the shoulder, and drove away north. Fast. Catching gears. Nothing left but that annoying Yamaha whine and that tire arc off the shoulder.

What the hell?

I looked up at Jerry, just crossing the median a couple hundred feet north. Barlow already was a receding spot far beyond him. What the hell?

I put my hands on my hips. How was I going to move Ronny off the damn road? I couldn’t leave him here to get run over like a dead bird. And his bike. I’d have to move his bike too.

Jerry said Ronny was dead. So why was he going for help? Help for who?

I looked down at Ronny again. How was I gonna move his bike without dragging him along with it? Underneath it all I wasn’t even sure where the bike left off and Ronny began.

I focused on his neck again. That and his helmet and his left shoulder and arm and side were intact.

The purplish spot was larger, but it was also less purple. Well, it was more milky than purple. As I watched, the purple pulsed and faded to milky white.

I could grab his left wrist and forearm maybe and pull what was left of him away from the bike. Pull him over to the soft median. Probably he was ground off beneath the bike.

But I didn’t want to do that. He was my friend, not just some road-killed coyote. He deserved better. I didn’t move, other than shifting my feet. I thought back about some of the stuff we’d done together over the past thirty years or so. Probably putting off the inevitable. I mean, gross as it was, I had to move him, right? Either that or stand there and wave traffic around him. If any traffic came.

The whole time I watched that splotch on his neck. It seemed to be growing, but maybe that was a trick of the light or something.

I shifted my feet again and put my hands on my hips. If the situation were reversed, what would Ronny do?

He’d move me, that’s what he’d do.

But what if it was catching, whatever that was on his neck? And where’d it come from? It wasn’t from the road. I mean, the skin was there, and all his stuff on the left side was there. Even his helmet wasn’t scratched on that side.

The splotch continued to pulse. I felt like I was watching something intimate that was none of my business. It pulsed and seemed to expand a little, then again, and again.

I shifted my feet again, looked away and shook my head. Maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me or something.

And when I looked back at him again, they did.

I swear, the guy started to evaporate.

Maybe. Whatever that splotch was on his neck, it’s like he was becoming it. Or it was becoming him. Or something.

It was like the splotch was external to him, but part of him too. A new part of him.

The fog thing? Is that what caused it?

But I’d run through it too, and I didn’t wreck. And I didn’t have any purple-milk splotches on me as far as I knew. I reached up and ran my palm over my neck.

Why’d Jerry and Rex have to split like that?

But they were both looking at Ronny when they decided to leave. They weren’t looking at me.

I watched the splotch more closely, but I backed up a step too. It was surreal. My friend was lying dead in the road beneath his bike. And the bike was pretty much flat on the road, so….

I glanced back along the road.

Ronny’s right leg and foot, still in the boot, lay back along the way. How had I missed seeing that before?

I shifted again, faced away from Ronny, back along the road. I looked past his leg too, and his boot. I think I knew I was delaying the inevitable. Delaying looking directly at him. And the splotch.

But I was trying to piece the wreck together in my mind. It was a horrific wreck. Had the fog thing caused it?

The fog thing. It was back there somewhere, right? I mean, that’s the way we came. About a hundred feet back. Maybe a hundred and fifty.

I decided maybe the fog thing did it. It made sense, sort of.

It almost looked like the thing held up a hand and arm, like it was warding him off just before he plowed through it. But not really, now that I had time to think about it.

It wasn’t like it was trying to defend itself so much as to touch him. It reached for him and touched him as he passed through it.

And it wasn’t really fog either, come to think of it. It was thicker, sort of. More substantive than microbial water droplets suspended in air. And it was—almost creamy. Milky.

Maybe that’s what the splotch was.

I focused, looked for the spot of fog.

And as I looked, I tried to think it through. We’d run through that little spot of fog, s0 probably it dissipated. That would make sense, right?

But it hadn’t folded in on itself, whipped through the vacuum created by his passing. That much I knew. And that’s when it finally came home to me.

I got to thinking, maybe it touched him. Maybe it wasn’t reaching to make him stop. Maybe it was reaching to touch him. Maybe it left part of itself on him. And maybe it didn’t have time to reload before I passed through it an instant later. Maybe I was just lucky.

While I was thinking about all that, it was almost like my vision was getting cloudy. Then I realized there was fog back there. There wasn’t before, except the bit Ronny and I drove through. But it was there now, and it was growing.

Only it still wasn’t a bank, like a cloud on the ground. It was more like a series of smaller bits of fog. Like several steam guysers all lined up across and deep, the ones in the back a little offset, peering past the others’ shoulders.

Maybe it—

“Hey.”

I almost came out of my skin.

The voice came out of the fog, but a lot closer. And separate.

It was Barlow. I mean, it was Barlow’s face. Barlow’s tall, lanky body, but as if he was draped in fog. He was moving smoothly toward me, not thirty feet away. But I hadn’t noticed him before. Maybe he was faded into all stuff behind him at first. Or probably I was focusing too hard on where I thought the earlier fog thing was, the one we drove through. Or maybe I was caught up in thinking about the wreck or—

I frowned. This wasn’t quite right. He was moving without that jerky, ditty-bopping gait he usually had when he walked. Like he was on wheels or something. “Barlow?”

He nodded, slowly, smoothly. “Okay,” he said.

Okay? What’s that mean? But I decided to cling to normalcy. “Traffic,” I said, and gestured past him. “You were gonna watch for traffic and—”

“Where did your people go?”

What? My people? I looked past him. The fog—or fogs—were getting closer. I said, “You mean Jerry and Rex?” Then I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. Weakly, I said, “They, uh—they went for help.” Bearing in mind where Ronny’s bike was, I took a step back and to the left.

Barlow stopped maybe five feet from me. “Help?” He nodded, slowly, smoothly. His right arm came up, slowly. “Help.”

I took another step back. “You, uh—” I pointed back down the road. Quietly, as if sharing a secret, I said, “Barlow, you one’a them poppers?”

His face rippled. “Pop-purse?”

“Doesn’t matter.” I took another step back, then gestured past him again toward my beautiful Victory Indian Chief. The front of it was visible beyond the left-most bit of fog stuff. Me and that bike had been through a lot together. “Hey, man,” I said. “Let’s get our bikes and go find Jerry and Rex. I’m sure we can find them.”

“Okay,” he said.

I pointed past him again at my Vic. “Your bike’s back there. Go get it. I’ll wait here with Ronny.”

He glanced back. “Okay.”

Then he reversed. Understand? He didn’t turn around. The guy reversed.

One second I was looking at his face and lowering my hand from pointing past him, and the next I was looking at the back of his head. It’s like he passed through himself. He reversed direction without turning around.

And he moved away. Slowly. Smoothly.

When he’d gone maybe ten feet and I was sure he wasn’t going to reverse again, I raced across the slow lane to his bike. He always left the key in the ignition, and today was no exception.

I braced it, then glanced back toward Barlow. Or whatever he is now. He was a little over halfway to the Vic.

I started the Goldwing, and I’ll bet I left a bigger tire arc than Rex did.

* * * * * * *

 

The Fading of Jill Montgomery

Soon Jill Montgomery fell into an easy rhythm on the trail through City Park. Her arms and legs pumped, her shoulders and hips rolled. It seemed easier than ever before. She felt light as a feather, could barely feel her footfalls on the gravel path crunching beneath her.

The furrows on her brow smoothed away, as if slipping from her forehead on beads of sweat. They trickled down her cheeks and off her jawline.

Running every morning was routine. The run, pushing herself, was always relaxing. It stretched her muscles. Hell, it stretched her soul, set her up for the rest of the day.

She listened to her faint footfalls on the path. The gravel, starkly white in the pre-dawn shadows, crunched, crunched, crunched beneath her Nikes. Her arms pumped, her hands clenched into loose fists. Her breath came easily, rhythmically, in through her nose and out through her slightly open mouth.

The cool, humid air, a ghostly mist, defined the pines. It draped across the thistle-laden brush, the muted red berries of the holly.

They were white pines, her father said. Yellow said the guy across the street.

Tufts of Johnson grass along the path bowed gracefully beneath the weight of dew.

The air collected scents—damp bark, fallen needles, old leaves—a thousand things gone back into the earth. The heady taste of it mixed well with the salt she licked from her lips.

After a good run and a hot shower, everything would be better. Easier.

Everything was easier after a run. Putting up with mid-town traffic, going to court, even smiling and nodding as clients endlessly lied was easier.

It was the run. The run made it all better.

The run drained the stress of the previous day and eased her into the present.

But today—she closed her eyes, tried to calm herself, opened them—today the run was necessary.

Today she was running with the past.

Bob’s past. Letting it peel away, layer by filthy layer.

Bob’s stupid, selfish admission of his guilt.

Bob’s audacity in making her the judge.

She shook her head slightly as she ran. Her pony tail passed her for a second. A flash of blond spritzed her own dark sweat across her light-grey shirt.

Just like that, in a single, greedy second, Bob lifted the load from his shoulders and slammed it firmly down on hers.

The decision was already made, he said. Oh, and he wished it could be some other way.

And then? Then he walked out. Right? He just walked out.

Fine specimen of a man.

There was no way. No way in hell she’d deal with this today.

She had the Barringer arraignment at 9 a.m. Then meetings from 10 ‘til 1, no lunch again. The old man was a stickler when it came to work. Didn’t he dock Barry Jackson’s check for that client lunch three weeks ago? No matter that Barry landed the account.

And when the day was over, there would be Bob. Stupid, stingy, selfish Bob.

She didn’t want to think about it.

But what the hell?

They’d only been married for three years. So it couldn’t be the seven year itch, whatever that was.

And he was only thirty-two. Not ready for a ‘Vette and gold chains. A rope, maybe, stretched up over a rafter.

Why did she hate him so? Men left their wives every day, didn’t they?

She clenched her fists, pumped her arms harder, watched her shoes crunching on the gravel. She dug in harder with her toes, raced hard toward the little stand of aspens that marked the final turn.

To hell with Bob. She’d shower at the gym.

She had a suit in her locker at the gym, didn’t she? Then she’d fight the boss, the court, the lying clients. Anything but Bob.

Stupid Bob.

She remembered to breathe.

Stupid Bob. That’s what the run was for. Drain the stress. Ease her into the day.

And thankfully, it was almost over. It was a great run. She’d drained a bit more of Bob, and now it was all new.

First there would be the gym, then the day.

The gym. The day. That’s all that mattered now.

She ran past the stand of quaking aspens—­she sensed them on her left more than saw them—and flashed through the turn, her fists still clenched, her arms pumping hard.

Her shoulder hurt, as if she hit it on an unseen object.

A tenth of a mile to go. It was almost over. She raised her head to spot the parking lot—

And stopped.

Still breathing hard, she frowned. She uncurled her hands and put them on her hips. She breathed deeply, frowned, breathed deeply.

What the hell?

She turned to look back along the trail.

There were the aspens. On the right as she started out each day, on the left as she raced for home.

She turned around again. So where was the parking lot? Where was her Mercedes?

She turned again, looked back.

The aspens. The trail. It was the same trail she ran every morning. The same one she’d run every morning for the past four years. The same one where she’d first met that idiot Bob.

She bent at the waist, put her hands on her knees, took a long breath.

She’d figure it out.

* * *

She was pumping her arms hard that day too, stretching her legs, reaching with her heels. Every fiber in every muscle stretched in rhythm as she climbed the long incline that passed for a hill not quite halfway through the run.

And she was focused. Tightly focused.

She probably wouldn’t have noticed a gunshot. Seriously. When she was focused on the run or free floating with the euphoria of it, even a gunshot would be a minor noise in her distant periphery.

So she was more than a little surprised when she realized there was a man beside her.

That he’d said just said “Hello” for the third time.

That he was looking at her and grinning even as he ran alongside her.

She started, and moved a half-step to the right. “Oh,” she said through her rhythmic breathing. “Hi.”

He kept looking at her. “How far?”

She didn’t look around, but frowned lightly as the self-generated breeze redistributed his words somewhere behind them. “Huh?”

“How far you going today?”

“Oh. Seven miles. Medium day.” She cast a quick glance at him. He seemed all right. Nice smile. Nothing bad in his eyes. “You?”

“I can try for seven.”

What? Why? Did he mean to run with her? Was he trying to pick her up?

He said, “You start at the parking lot?”

She nodded, trying to return her concentration to the rhythm in her shoulders, her arms, her legs.

Her legs. Is that what interested him? What was she wearing today?

But she didn’t want to look down. Men take that the wrong way.

Her breath formed before her in a series of puffs and she ran through them.

Sweats. It’s cold, so sweats on the bottom.

She visualized pulling on her sweatpants in the locker room. Red sweatpants. Then her sports bra. Then an old t-shirt. Then her shirt. Her jersey.

She was wearing red sweatpants with a mid-weight Guinness jersey her dad bought her for her last birthday.

She wanted to keep her legs warm, even if a little too warm. But she didn’t care for the weight of thick fabric up top. And being cooler reminded her to pump her arms, feel her shoulders.

She pumped her arms, monitored the muscle fibers in her shoulders and reached a little farther with her heels. Inadvertently she sped up.

He laughed lightly. “You trying to get away?”

She glanced at him, then back at the trail. “You someone I should get away from?”

He grinned broadly. “Nope. Not if I’m lucky.”

Goodfellas came to mind. The scene with Tommy DeVito and Henry Hill. Where Tommy was jerking Henry’s chain. Lucky? Lucky how? Ha-ha lucky? Serious lucky? How exactly are you hoping to get— But she said, “I’m an attorney.” That usually sent men packing.

Again he laughed. “Good match. I’m in pest control too. I’m a US Marshal.”

Really? She’d never met a US Marshal. But she said, “I’m a defense attorney.”

“Yep.”

Yep? What’s that supposed to mean? She stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Look, I’m really not out here looking for a date, so—”

“Oh. Good. I’ll make a note of it in case I decide to ask.” He grinned, then gestured toward the trail. “So you go out and back or do a circuit or what?””

She canted her head slightly, then turned half-right and started running again.

He fell in beside her, matching her stride for stride.

She said, “Out and back. With a circuit in the middle today. It’s right at seven miles.”

“That’s what you said. Mind if I tag along?”

She shrugged as she fell back into an easy rhythm. “Free country.”

“Bob Trask.”

“Huh?”

“My name. Bob Trask.”

“Ah.” She nodded.

And he stayed up with her through the course. He talked pretty much continually until they’d rounded the circuit and rejoined the main trail to head back toward the stand of aspens and the parking lot.

Before they got back, she knew all about where he was born and reared, which schools he had attended, and the horrifying event that had called him to work in law enforcement. The murder of his parents when he was 16.

Despite her curiosity about some of what he said, she limited her own responses to as few words as possible. He was easy on the eyes and seemed to have an even demeanor, but probably he was either just lonely and wanting to talk—he’d moved to Cremer a little less than a month earlier—or he was looking to “get lucky.” And in that regard, she wasn’t interested.

As they passed the aspens she slowed to a walk, then pointed to her black Mercedes, an AMG GT. “That’s my car. I guess this is where we part company.”

He grinned. “Really?” Then he pointed at the white Ford F-250 parked next to her car. The nearest other vehicles were several spaces away. “That’s my ride. I guess the universe isn’t finished with us yet.”

How did he know where she was parked? Was he stalking her?

But before she could comment, he said, “I always park as close to the trailhead as I can.” Then he grinned again. “Great minds, I guess.”

She only nodded.

“Do you stretch after you run?” He put his left foot up on the thick steel back bumper of his pickup, then walked the other foot back.

“Not always. I know I should but I’m usually in a hurry.”

He gestured toward the other end of the bumper. “Feel free. Nothing better than a good stretch after a run.”

But instead of putting her foot on the bumper, she reached high over her head and interlocked her thumbs, then bent at the waist to lay her palms on the ground. She glanced at him out of her periphery. He didn’t seem to be watching.

After he’d held the position for a long moment, he took his left foot down, put the right one up, then grinned. “Interesting run. But how do you remember where to turn?”

She continued to stretch, leaning back and then to either side, then forward to touch the ground again. “What do you mean?”

He straightened and gestured toward the trail. “There are at least what, five, six trails off to either side? And three or four off the one you turned on for the circuit. How do you keep them straight?”

“Oh. Just habit, I guess. I’ve been running out here close to a year.”

“Ah. Well, maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Maybe,” she said, then slipped into her car and headed for the gym.

Not quite an hour later, she walked into her downtown office and closed the door. She went to her computer and typed US Marshals Service Ohio into the address bar. After accessing a government page and entering a special passcode, a regional list of Marshals appeared, each with an official photo alongside it.

And there he was. Robert Trask. He’d been with the US Marshals Service a little over three years. Apparently he was one of the good guys. At least so far.

Well, good for him.

She went about her day, which was relatively light. She had one interview with a new client and would spend the balance of the day researching his case unless something else came up.

She pulled his file to familiarize herself with it before the interview.

He was charged with grand-larceny auto, driving while under the influence of a controlled substance and manslaughter.

The guy had lost control of a stolen car and rammed it through the front of a convenience store.

She removed several photos from the file and looked at them.

The first few photos were outside of the convenience store. The only tire marks at the scene were where the tires hit the curb. Nothing on the street. Nothing on the sidewalk. He hadn’t been aware enough even to hit the brakes.

The next several photos were graphic. They showed the twenty-two year old cashier from six angles. She was obviously dead, smashed like a bug between the front of the car and the counter. According to the officer’s report, he shifted the car out of gear and turned off the engine after he arrived on the scene.

She returned to the report. Six other people—an assistant manager and five shoppers—were injured, two grievously. They had been removed from the scene before the photographer got there. But the two with life-threatening injuries were still in the hospital. And this happened—she flipped to back to the arresting officer’s report—one day short of two weeks ago.

She closed the folder. Probably a slam dunk. For the DA.

But the guy surprised her, at first, with a full confession.

When she walked into the interview room, he was already seated at the other end of the table. Before she even sat down, he raised his cuffed hands and said, “Okay, I just wanna say, you know, I done what they said I done. Okay?”

She could hardly believe her ears. “You know you’re charged with grand larceny, DUI and manslaughter, right?”

He nodded, and the beginning of a sneer curled one corner of his mouth. “Yeah, I was there.”

“And you admit to all counts?”

“Right. I admit to it.”

She smiled as she seated herself. “All right. Let me just get your file and we’ll go over some things.” She set her valise on the table and opened it, then pulled out a stack of papers roughly a quarter-inch thick.

For a moment she thought she might have a cause on her hands. If the guy was willing to make an appropriate show of remorse, maybe she could get the judge to hand down a combined sentence. Maybe a shorter prison term and some sort of drug rehabilitation program.

She ran through a battery of basic questions. Did he understand each of the charges against him?

He did.

Had he been appropriately advised of his Miranda rights by the arresting officer?

He had.

Had he been abused in any way since the arrest?

He hadn’t.

And what about his treatment in jail? Was he adequately comfortable, given his situation?

“Yeah, yeah. I wish they’d allow conjugal visits though,” he said, a broad grin on his face.

Heat rose in her cheeks. But probably he was just talking off some nerves.

“Could I bring you anything or maybe get a message to your family?”

The man actually smiled at her across the table. “Nah, nothin’ like that. But me sayin’ I done it, that’s between us, right? I mean, you’re my lawyer.”

She frowned. “Well, yes. Attorney-client conversations are privileged, but—”

“An’ me sayin’ I done it, that gets me somethin’, right? You can get me off?”

She was stunned. “Off? I don’t understand.” But she did understand. She understood all too well, although she wished she didn’t.

He nodded. “Off. You know, like with time served or whatever. I been in jail for almost two weeks now.” He shook his head as if with regret. “I tell you what, chica, that ain’t no kinda life.” He laughed, then slouched back in his chair and interlaced the fingers of his cuffed hands on the table.

A sigh escaped her. She felt it go, and it was almost audible. Her hand was trembling as she scooped the short stack of papers from the table. As she inserted the papers into her valise, she looked at her lap so he wouldn’t see the contempt in her eyes. “Mr. Ramirez, you should get used to the idea that you’re going to have to do some time.” She looked up at him. “Now maybe I can mitigate some of that for you if you show a proper amount of remorse, but—”

“Remorse? Like bein’ sorry an’ all that? That’s all I gotta do? Hey, I got remorse comin’ out my ass, homes.” He laughed. “Hey, mostly I’m sorry that cop was so quick to get there. He’d’a give me another few minutes, we wouldn’t be talkin’.”

“No. I mean real remorse. Remorse for the victims.”

He leaned forward. “I am the victim, chica.” Then he sat back again. “Hey, I’m a victim of society, man. I got a drug problem, right? So it ain’t like I can do without the stuff. I gotta have it. An’ I ain’t got no car to go get it. So that’s why I hadda take that other car.” He grinned. “But it was a nice one though, huh? Least ‘til the accident.”

She closed her eyes, opened them. “I mean the cashier, Mr. Ramirez. And the other people in the store. Were you aware— I mean, did you see the cashier?”

“Oh, I get you. Yeah, I seen her. Hey, she was smashed, man. Sucks to be her, am I right?”

She stood almost too quickly and turned away. “Well, I think I have all I need for now.”

“Hey. Hey, where you goin’?”

But she was already reaching for the door knob. “I’ll talk with you again before the arraignment.”

And the door closed behind her. She was able to breathe again.

Maybe she was on the wrong side of this thing. Everyone deserved representation during their day in court. But did she deserve to subject herself to these people?

Maybe she’d put out feelers about working for the district attorney. She could still serve those she believed to be innocent. If she ever encountered any. And she would actually be more in control of making the punishment fit the crime, taking into account things like mitigating circumstances and remorse. Authentic remorse.

In the meantime, she was still here. And she was Mr. Ramirez’ attorney of record. She had to at least try to come up with a viable defense.

Back at the office, she wrestled with that problem for most of the day. When she finally gave up a little after 4:30, she could hardly wait for her run tomorrow morning. Pounding the trail made everything better.

She locked her office, walked down the hallway, and was almost to the front door of the lobby when Marian, the front office secretary, called to her. “Jill, it seems you have a secret admirer.”

Jill stopped and turned around. She wasn’t in the mood. “I’m sorry, a what?”

Marian was smiling. She gestured toward a single daisy in a small bud vase toward the front edge of her desk. A narrow red ribbon was tied around the top of the vase, and there was a small card attached. “A secret admirer. This came addressed to you.” She reached to pick up the vase. “There’s a card.”

Jill approached the desk and took the proffered vase. She bent to set her valise on the floor, then flipped open the card.

Not a date. McClaren’s. Supper. 6 p.m. Hope you can make it.

Her gaze still on the note, she shook her head. “He must be out of his mind.”

Marian beamed. “Who is it?”

“Just some guy I met on the trail while I was running this morning.” She reached the vase back toward Marian with the note still attached. “Here, you keep it. It looks good on your desk.”

“Oh, but I can’t—”

“But for goodness’ sake, get rid of that stupid card.” Jill forced a smile, then picked up her valise and turned away. “See you in the morning.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday.”

“Oh. Well, see you on Monday then.”

As the door closed behind her, Marian said, “Have a nice evening.” Her voice carried the tone of a smile.

* * *

The faded red brick wall of the building passed by on her left as she made her way toward the parking garage.

Weird. What in the world was the guy thinking? Did he just assume he could ask her out when they’d only met this morning?

But he hadn’t really asked her out. In the note, he even said it wasn’t a date.

Still, it was pretty forward of him, sending her a flower.

Did he somehow know the daisy was her favorite flower? Or had he sent it because it was unassuming? After all, it wasn’t as if he’d sent a rose. Probably the unassuming thing. A nice gesture to get her attention without going overboard.

But McClaren’s was her favorite restaurant too. It wasn’t especially romantic, but it was slightly upscale and quiet.

Did he know that somehow? That it was her favorite restaurant?

But how could he? And really, other than the country club it was the only nice restaurant in town. So if a man was out to impress a woman, he would invite her to one or the other.

Still, she wasn’t available to be impressed. She’d told him as much this morning and—

She realized she had inadvertently walked a few steps past the entrance to the parking garage. She turned around, went back to the entrance, and handed her slip to the valet as she snapped her purse closed. “It’s a black Mercedes,” she said.

The young man grinned and nodded. “Yes, Miss Montgomery. I know.”

She looked up. It was the same young man who had been parking and retrieving her car for the past year. “Oh, sorry.”

“It’s all right. I know you have a lot on your mind.”

How in the world did he know? She frowned. “Excuse me?”

“Bein’ a lawyer an’ all.”

“Oh. Yes. I suppose.”

He tipped his cap, then turned and trotted away to get her car.

But supper. Should she go?

How couldn’t possibly know whether she had plans. And apparently he didn’t care. What she ought to do is go home and curl up with a good book. That would teach him to assume she didn’t have a life.

Then again, he hadn’t really assumed anything. Had he? The last part of the note read, “Hope you can make it,” not “Be there or else.”

As the young man—Roger, was it?—drove up with her car, she muttered, “Stop second guessing everything, Jill. Just do what you want to do.”

And actually, she didn’t have any plans.

And it had been a long time since she’d treated herself.

She would go to supper tonight at McClaren’s. If Mr. Trask happened to be there, fine. She would dine with him over some light conversation. And if he wasn’t—well, then she would still have a nice evening away from her apartment. And she could sleep-in tomorrow morning.

Besides, maybe a nice supper and a few glasses of wine would wipe Mr. Martinez and his self-righteous, entitled smirk from her mind.

That’s what she’d do. She’d go to supper at McClaren’s on her own terms, as she often did. Well, as she had done twice in the past year.

But she would be going more often from here on out. Once a month, maybe. At least once every other month. Or maybe once a quarter. A few times a year wouldn’t kill her.

So it was settled. She would go.

With any luck at all, he would show up late. Maybe even after she’d already started eating. That would show him she was neither intimidated by him nor dependent on him.

* * *

And she wasn’t.

She was neither intimidated by him nor dependent on him.

But she became infatuated with him through that first dinner.

She arrived right on time to find him waiting quietly. The maitre d’ was expecting her and showed her to the table. He also seated her, but Bob rose and waited until she was seated before he regained his chair. He did so in an unassuming manner, without flourish, as if it were simply a nice habit he’d developed.

It wasn’t what she expected. At all.

She expected him to be smug about her showing up.

But he apologized for asking her at the last moment and seemed genuinely glad she was able to make it.

She expected him to talk about himself through the evening too. After all, he was the main topic of conversation during their entire run earlier in the day.

But he asked questions about her. And when she tried to reciprocate, he turned the topic back to her.

At one point he even laughed. “After this morning, you know pretty much everything there is to know about me.”

And the rest of the evening went the same way. He was a gentleman in every respect, and an attentive listener.

When the evening was over, he accompanied her to her car, then grinned. “So, would it be all right now if I asked you for a date?”

She almost laughed. “I suppose so. Given my apparent inability to run you off.”

“Great. How about next Friday? Same place, same time?”

She agreed.

They dated almost constantly from then for the next several months.

Then they were married.

* * *

She stared again at where the her Mercedes should be.

Did Bob have a hand in this?

Well no. She wouldn’t put it past him to have her car towed, but the parking lot itself was gone. Just disappeared. That was beyond even Bob’s abilities.

Again she turned and looked back up the trail.

Definitely the same trail.

She looked at the stand of quaking aspens.

Same grove of trees she saw every morning as she started her run.

She turned around again.

Still no Mercedes. Still no parking lot. What the hell was going on?

This wasn’t right.

What the hell?

But there must be a logical explanation.

Her breathing started to calm, and she relaxed. Her focus on the run began to fade. The euphoria drifted up to meet it. Bob no longer mattered. The day no longer mattered. She had a new problem to play with.

She put her hands on her hips and shook her head.

It doesn’t make any sense. It just doesn’t make any sen—

Then she heard the gunshot. Plain as if it had just happened.

And Bob. It had something to do with Bob.

But a gunshot?

She frowned.

Okay, let’s go over it again.

He came in nonchalantly from the bedroom.

He was still tying his tie, still trying for the perfect Windsor knot, and he told her. Just like that.

Matter of factly, no big deal, he laid it all out.

There was another woman. He hadn’t meant for it to happen, but there was a timetable. Their timetable. Their flight to Barbados that afternoon.

The decision was already made, he said. Oh, and he wished it could be another way.

Okay, so? Then he just walked out. Didn’t he?

No.

No, he didn’t leave.

She paled with the memory.

He said the decision was already made.

He slipped his hand under the lapel of his jacket.

He said he wished there was another way.

He pulled his pistol.

And she turned away, her toes digging in, her eyes wide, and raced across the living room. The carpet was mottled, like white gravel. Past the painting, on her left, of a grove of aspens.

She turned down the hallway, glanced her right shoulder off the wall, raced headlong into the bedroom.

The gunshot.

The lamp on the dresser in front of her exploded.

Another gunshot.

She slammed forward, her life blood pumping, rhythmically, rhythmically into the mottled gravel. Into the mottled carpet. The carpet.

* * *

That’s what it was.

That’s all it was.

She looked again back along the trail. She would miss it.

And she faded into the mist defining the trees.

* * * * * * *

 

The Dawning of Dexter

This is for my granddaughter Amber, who has known Dexter for a very long time.

* * *

When Dexter Murfee Nettleson approached the cash register at the front of the Morning Store, he had everything he needed to create a wonderful day.

He’d found smiles on Aisles 5 and 7, giggles on 3 and 8, and belly laughs on 10. The ones with the hands attached to the sides of the belly were toward the far end of that aisle, but he didn’t mind walking the extra several steps.

A belly laugh wouldn’t carry the same weight if it wasn’t flanked by a pair of hands. And that the hands were in white gloves reminiscent of those worn by Mickey Mouse made them even better.

Perchance Golightly, the lovely young cashier, shared an extra wide smile of her own. “How are you today, Dexter?”

He was so pleased to receive it, he tossed her a giggle.

“Fine, fine,” he said, then flashed his teeth at her as befitting common courtesy.

She juggled the giggle for a moment, but she finally pulled it under control and set it on the front of the conveyor belt.

“No, no, that one is for you, Miss Golightly. A tip for the dealer, so to speak.”

She retrieved it at once and slipped it into the left pocket of her smock. The left pocket was special. She reserved it for candy kisses, Horatio Hornblower Bubblegum, and the occasional slice of slapstick.

She glanced up at him, the faded edges of her smile still in place. “Find everything all right today?”

“Oh yes, everything looked perfectly fine to me.”

Both leaned back, each pointed at the other, and together they yelled, “B’dumpbump, tsh!” Then they both giggled, each issuing one giggle out of their private stock.

“No, no,” he said. “I found everything I was looking for. A place for everything and everything in its place, as they say.

“But really, everything was fine too. And shouldn’t it be, on such a glorious morning as this? After all, in a few short hours we begin the Transition.” He flung his hands wide as if announcing a major new development in the processing of cheese and very nearly dropped a belly laugh and two giggles.

Perchance pretended not to notice, suddenly finding the fingernails of her left hand extremely interesting.

In the interim, Dexter managed to corral his purchases. He arranged them on the conveyor belt. “There,” he said. “All better.”

Perchance said, “As compared with what?” Then she reached for the first item he’d placed on the conveyor belt. “But you’re right. The Transition begins soon. And not a moment too soon, in my estimation.”

“I can’t say I disagree with that, but let’s remain positive, shall we? After all, the Transition is a joyous occasion.”

“As with all Transitions since the dawn of time, n’est-ce pas? But you’re as right as you always are, and who can argue with that?” A mischievous twinkle came to her eyes. “Positivity is the watch word of the day.”

“Of the week,” he said.

“Of the fortnight,” she said.

“Of the month,” he said.

“Of the millennium,” they both said together to stave off the march through years and decades and centuries, then bumped a pair of belly laughs between them.

His had hands on the sides of it, but hers was more demure. As a cashier, she had to maintain a certain decorum, after all.

Besides, her hands were busy raking in his good graces as she verbalized a running oral inventory. “One belly laugh with hands,” she said, “and another, and let’s see, one, two, three—a dozen more. You want these in bags? It’ll save time if you don’t want them in bags.”

“You know better, Perchance Golightly. No, I’ll ingest them here, as I always do.” He raised one finger in the air. “For ‘tis better in all things to be prepared than to wish for things unrealized.”

From long practice, Perchance ignored him. She turned back to the conveyor belt. “And how many giggles you got there? Two, four, six, seven. Ah, eight—that one was jiggling. Nine, so… twenty-three. That it?”

“And the smiles.” He put one finger in the air again. “Don’t forget the smiles. For ‘tis a lazy practice to—”

“I’ll get to them.” She frowned. “But no grins? Dexter, what if you someone is beyond the help a simple smile can give, but not quite ready for a giggle?”

“Oh dear. I knew I’d forgotten something. Getting old, you know.” He turned to glance back toward the aisles. “Where are the grins?”

“I asked you first.” She bared her teeth in a flash and pointed at him. “Gotcha! But seriously—well, not seriously, but you know what I mean—they’re on Aisles 2, 6 and 8, small, medium and fanatic.” She put the back of her hand alongside her mouth and faux-whispered, “The fanatics are on sale.”

He swept one hand along the conveyor belt. “Can you hold these items for me?”

She huffed. “I’ll count slowly. Go, man! Go!”

And Dexter turned as quickly as his massive shoes would allow and flapped back across the store to Aisle 2. There he stopped and turned around to cast a glance, askance, at Perchance. He put his hands out to his sides, raised his eyebrows several notches and shrugged.

Perchance gestured.

Without bothering to face the aisles again, he shuffled sideways to Aisle 3, then 4, then 5. His eyebrows remained ratcheted up.

Finally she huffed again, then gestured and yelled, “Aisle 8, my dear Mr. Nettleson, if you want the fanatics.”

He raced into Aisle 8 and came out a long moment later all but staggering under the weight of the grins he’d picked up.

Perchance never was one to wait for the conveyor belt to deliver affectations. There was too much chance one might ride over the edge and fall into oblivion somewhere beneath the belt. Nobody knew what was under there, and she certainly wasn’t going to be the first to find out.

As she waited for Dexter, she tapped the fingernails of her right hand on the chrome strip in front of the conveyor belt. A rhythm developed. A pleasing rhythm.

Her left hand grew envious. Soon it crept unnoticed from its position near her hip, joined the right on the wide chrome stage, and those fingernails began tapping too.

Within seconds the two sets of fingernails joined in a rapid-fire, staccato flurry of unchoreographed dance steps, the likes of which still never have been seen again.

But as Dexter exited Aisle 8 and moved toward the register again, she came to her senses. She quickly relegated her left hand to the left pocket of her smock. Unlike the candy kisses, bubblegum barrels, and slapsticks, it wasn’t there for storage. It was in time-out to think about what it had done. Oh, it would be remorseful. That much was certain.

In the meantime, in keeping with her promise to count slowly, she allowed her right hand to walk on two fingers toward the first giggle on the belt.

It looked odd, that hand, walking in that limp-step. But the second finger beyond her thumb was longer than the other by almost a half-inch, so the limp-step was necessary. Either that or she’d have to take one step with the shorter index finger, then drag the other along like a weak cousin.

She’d remedied that last year in preparation for the solstice by growing the fingernail on her index finger especially long and cutting the one on the next finger over almost to the quick. But she was repaid for her efforts to eliminate the limp with one fingernail broken—or maybe severely sprained—and the other painfully in-grown. That, she was certain, was a direct result of embarrassment at the jagged edge she’d left on the nail.

And that’s when she realized surgery, or practicing medicine in any form, wasn’t for her. She was a cashier, plain and simple.

Ever since then, when she had reason to tarry while awaiting the return of a forgetful shopper, she had employed either the limp-step or the step-drag-step technique. The latter looked sillier than the former, but it did enjoy the singular benefit of keeping the fingernail polished as it dragged along the conveyor belt.

On the other hand—well, on either hand—she couldn’t wear colors because they, too, would wear off that one nail on the conveyor belt, and that would just look silly. And she liked wearing colors on her nails, so most often she used the limp-step.

An Nee Way, the way Dexter spaced out the items on the belt, she didn’t have to worry about going too fast. Everything had to be spaced just so, according to Dexter. Six inches from one item to the next and so on. It was practically a forced march for her poor right hand from one giggle to the next.

And never mind the extra time it took get from here to there. Dexter was a doll, but he was never mindful of customers waiting in line behind him.

Of which currently there were none, but there might easily have been if there were any other customers around like Dexter. But the only other customer that came in with any regularity didn’t hit the store until the late afternoon. So overcrowding was never really an issue.

Still, Perchance often dreamed of seeing the aisles were as packed with shoppers as with affectations, greetings and the occasional fine comestible. Like shrooms. Shrooms were a delectable comestible, and they often contributed smiles all their own. Or grins and even giggles, sometimes, if a customer selected shrooms from the wrong bin. So why offer the magical shrooms at all? Well, customers do have a right to choose, now don’t they?

Her right hand had walked almost all the way to the last giggle by the time Dexter came huffing up to the register again.

“There!” he said, and lowered his arms into a kind of chute, spilling grins all over the belt. Then he set about spacing them.

Perchance slapped at his hand, lightly so he would know she was joking. “No time for all that, now. Leave ‘em be. I’ll take ‘em where they are. We have to get you out on the street.” And she abandoned the limp-step finger-walk and began raking the grins toward her an armload at a time. “Let’s see four, eight, sixteen, and eight more make twenty-four. So fifty-three all told.” She reached beneath the counter and slapped another grin on the belt. “There. We’ll round it out at fifty-four for you.”

“But I only—”

“Don’t have a hissy, Dex. You’re only paying for twelve. They’re on sale, remember? And this one’s a freebie from me to you. But don’t hang onto it on my account. Use it as you see fit.”

“Thanks, Perchance.”

“Now then, it looks like your total comes to three guffaws, two slapsticks and a hug.”

“Three guffaws? Are you sure? Maybe I ought to put back—”

Perchance rocked back away from the belt, put her hands on her hips and laughed loudly. “There’s one guffaw. I’ll carry the rest. You know your credit’s good with me.”

Dexter flashed his teeth at her again. “Thanks, Perchance.” For a third time, he raised one finger into the air. “The Transition awaits!”

“So it does. Go on, y’old piker. Hit the sidewalk. See you tomorrow.”

And hit the sidewalk he did.

He exited the Morning Store with only a long moment to spare, but fortunately it was the very last building on the very east end of the very first town, locationally speaking, on Earth.

It would be a glorious Transition, a glorious Transition indeed. He looked to the east for a moment and stretched his arms wide to loosen himself up for the day ahead.

He turned around, prepared to dispense smiles, grins and giggles. Among those he would scatter a few chortles left over from the day before, and the ever-popular but less-often induced belly laughs.

Then with the prep work completed for another Transition, he put on the largest, broadest, happiest smile he had, and beamed over the face of the earth.

* * * * * * *

 

Ice Scream

Warning: This is a psychological-suspense horror story. It contains strong mental images.

Susan Jice-scream-180ordan jerked awake, naked and frantic and chilled. Her eyes were wide, her breath caught in her throat. But she was dizzy. Groggy. Like dreaming of being in a dream.

She found her breath, and in it, relief. A nightmare. It was a nightmare. Only a nightmare.

And it was vibrant. As she left the IGA, she looked over her shoulder. She smiled and said “I will” to Mrs. Johnson on Register 3.

There were only the two registers out front, but Mr. Minister, the new manager, called the paper-fed calculator in his office Register 1. An odd man, Mr. Minister, at least according to whispered gossip from Mrs. Johnson on Register 3.

“Transferred in three weeks ago,” she said, “from somewhere down south. Omaha maybe, or Oskalusa—something like that. I seem to be here all the time,” she said, and laughed. Then she said, “But I’ve seen him only once myself.” She shook her head. “Very odd.”

Mrs. Johnson was sweet, everybody’s mother. With her husband “lifted up by God” a year ago and her own kids grown and gone long before—a daughter to New York and a son to LA—she adopted everyone in town who was younger than she.

At the register, she scooped up the box of ice cream the way she scooped up everything and peered at it over her reading glasses. Then she looked at Susan. “Y’know, they say this stuff is bad for you, but I just don’t believe it. Anything this good for your soul has to be good for your body.” She laughed, rang it up and bagged it, then spun the carousel of plastic bags so Susan’s was right up front.

Susan smiled and nodded. To make conversation, she said, “That’s how I figure it.”

But it wasn’t how she figured it. Not really.

She was tired after a full day of work, and she was just a bit on the grouchy side. She only wanted to get home and put her feet up for awhile.

She’d been home once already. She put together a quick supper, then served Stanley in his usual position on the couch. But afterward, as she reached to mute one of the seemingly endless streams of “side effects” that contraindicated whatever drug they were selling on TV at the time, Stanley went into the kitchen.

A moment later the freezer door slammed. “Well damn,” he said and stomped back into the living room. “We don’t have any ice cream? Are we out?”

Susan didn’t bother saying yes. He had eaten the last of it two days earlier. He even put the container in the trash afterward instead of leaving it on the counter as usual.

She also didn’t bother asking why he hadn’t stopped at the IGA on his way home from work. He would mutter something about that being her responsibility. Only one thing mattered. He wanted ice cream, and they were out.

So Susan glanced at him as he slumped back into his place on the couch. She patted his thigh and said, “I’ll go.”

Then she got up, donned her warm slippers and her heavy coat and drove to the IGA. It was better than listening to his snide comments or putting up with his pouting and icy silences the rest of the evening.

But Mrs. Johnson liked to gossip, especially in the evening when few people came into the store. So after the ice cream passed Mrs. Johnson’s inspection and she bagged it, Susan turned away before she could get started.

Still, Mrs. Johnson always had a kind word for everyone, even if they didn’t hang around to chat. She watched silently as Susan quickly gathered her bag. But as she approached the door, Mrs. Johnson raised one hand. “Now you say hello to Stanley for me,” she said.

And Susan looked back, smiled and said, “I will,” then pushed the door open.

It was dark outside already, and mid-November chilly. The smell of ice was on the air and the wind was just that cold. But no matter. She’d be home in fifteen minutes. Ten or twelve if she hit all the lights. And tomorrow was Saturday. Stanley would be up and off to the golf course early, and she could sleep in. Still, she relished the thought of sitting on the couch for a couple of hours, letting brain-dead sitcoms and forced laugh tracks wash away the day.

As she crossed the parking lot, she wasn’t paying attention.

She opened her car door and leaned in to set the bag in the passenger seat.

And something hit her from behind.

How she got home, through an evening of TV and into bed, she had no idea.

But here she was. Her mind was cloudy but otherwise she was fine. Too much ice cream, maybe. Sometimes it had that effect if she overdid it. Had she eaten ice cream?

She closed her eyes, opened them, tried to see. But everything was black.

She was still locked in the nightmare outside the store. It was dark in the parking lot. Something hit her from behind.

She closed her eyes, drew a long breath through her nose, tried to scream herself awake.

But only a muffled sound came out. Her lips were thick. Or something.

She instantly regretted making the noise. It might wake up Stanley.

She lay very still, waiting. But he didn’t wake up. The bed didn’t move.

Well, that proved it. It was only a nightmare. It had to be a nightmare.

Maybe she was dreaming of dreaming of waking up from a nightmare.

She rocked her head side to side, tried to wake herself up.

It didn’t work. Maybe she should wake up Stanley. Then he would wake her up. In her dream she grinned.

She tried to fling her mouth open, draw a breath, scream louder.

But something stretchy-sticky sealed her lips, muffled the sound again. She frowned. Something warm—snot? blood?—leaked from her nose and down across her lip.

As her nostrils flared, she found her nose was sore. When had that happened? And there was something crusty on her upper right cheek. Dried blood?

Was she in the hospital? Had she been in an accident or something? Maybe she was in the hospital and they’d put something in her mouth to help her breathe.

And both her hands were numb too. Somewhere. Like they were disconnected.

She tugged to find them and fire raced through her shoulders.

What was that?

Panic began to well up inside her.

But it’s a nightmare. It’s only a nightmare. Isn’t it? Or I’m in a hospital. Yes. A nightmare. It has to be a nightmare, and I’ll wake up any second. The clouds will clear and I’ll wake up. Probably it’s time to get up anyway.

She smirked. This is ridiculous.

She tried to sit up, reach for the edge of the bed. She would sit up and reach for the chest of drawers. That would steady her even if she was dizzy. She’d grab the chest of drawers and—

But where were her hands?

She was dizzier than she thought.

Her shoulders burned. But why?

She nudged hard right, tried to nudge Stanley. If she could touch him, wake him up—

But he wouldn’t be in her nightmare. Would he?

Okay. I have to find my hands. She followed her chest to her shoulders. They were aching. Check. Good. So she was waking up. Aches don’t happen in nightmares, do they?

She followed her arms down along her sides to where her elbows were bent. They were aching a bit too. Well good. Serves them right. Then along her forearms, wedged behind her back and—

Behind her back? Her hands were behind her back?

She checked. They were tingling. Her hands? Something was tingling. They were there, maybe, lumped behind her back. That would explain them being asleep.

But how are they behind my back? How in the world did I manage that?

She tried to move them, but something tugged, pulled at the fine hair above her wrists.

Taped. They were taped. Are they taped? That doesn’t make sense.

And my eyes. She shook her head. I thought my eyes were open but they must still be closed. Probably. Everything is black. There would be some light, at least, if I wasn’t still in the nightmare. But why are my wrists taped in the nightmare? Unless I’m in the hospital. Maybe they’re actually beside me. Maybe they had to restrain me.

Either way, it’s a nightmare.

Breathe. I have to breathe. Wherever I am, I have to wake up.

She closed her eyes, calmed herself with thoughts of waking up, and opened them.

Still nothing but black.

She wanted to reach up with her fingers, make sure her eyelids were open. But she couldn’t find them.

Okay. Okay. There has to be light here somewhere.

She took another breath, then another. Turned her head left. Still black.

Turned her head right. Still black. But closer? Stanley?

No. It didn’t feel like Stanley in her mind.

Maybe he already got up. A wall?

But the wall wasn’t that close in the bedroom. There was Stanley, then the wall. Not close enough to sense it in the dark. Wow. A really bizarre dream.

I need something real. She looked back to the left. The chest of drawers. Right over there. The light—moonlight, starlight—would show her the edges of the chest of drawers. She polished it only a few days ago.

But there was nothing.

Only black.

Her perfume. The bottle leaked a little around the spritzer. She hadn’t mentioned it to Stanley. He’d want to fix it or throw it out. She liked the smell of it when she first woke up. It set on the chest of drawers next to the eyeglass cleaner and the microfiber cloths.

She took another breath. The scent of the perfume would direct her. It would bring her out.

She breathed deeply.

Onions. Old onions.

What?

She took another breath, deep, searching for the perfume. It had to be there.

No perfume. Old onions. And damp-earth. Muggy.

She frowned. Where am I?

The basement? With onions? Why are there onions in my nightmare? What am I doing in a basement with onions?

Okay. Okay. Breathe.

She could turn. Roll onto her left side and turn. Put her feet on the cold tile floor. The cold tile would wake her up.

She twisted, tried to reach for the edge of the bed with her left ankle, but the right one came with it.

Her ankles were bound.

Panic rose again. No! That can’t be!

She calmed herself.

No. No, it’s only in the nightmare. I’ll wake up.

She reached again, this time with both feet together.

The sharp grating of the links of a chain fired fear up along her spine and cleared away some of the confusion in her mind.

She was awake. She was awake the whole time.

But she couldn’t be awake. What happened at the store. What happened in the parking lot. It’s a nightmare! It has to be a nightmare! I’m home in bed! Or I’m in the hospital. I have to be!

But grating? Chains wouldn’t grate against the soft edge of the mattress, would they? Her mind was making up the chains, that’s all. After all, chains wouldn’t grate against the covers and—

Only she was bare. There were no covers.

And there was no mattress beneath her.

No! She rolled her head hard left, pushed down, and her cheek contacted cold steel.

Hospital steel. A gurney? A gurney. I’m in a hospital. But with onions?

I must be in a hospital. That’s it. The icy roads. Black ice. I was in an accident and I’m on a gurney in a hospital. And they taped something to my mouth. Something to help me breathe or something. The onions are my mind playing tricks with scents.

But they put a mattress on a gurney, don’t they? Or some sort of a pad? Or a sheet? Or something.

She pushed her cheek against the surface again. Still cold. Still steel. But maybe a gurney.

She listened. The wheels would turn against the floor. They’d clack. And the nurses would talk, but quietly.

Listen. Listen closely.

But there was only the sound of empty black.

She closed her eyes again, hard, then opened them wide. Wake up!

Still black. Still black.

A sharp click, and light flooded over her.

She slapped her eyes closed against the light. Stanley playing a trick. She should have known. Her eyes still closed, she tried to sit up.

The chains grated.

A man’s voice, husky, jovial. “Ah, I see you’re awake. Welcome back.”

Not Stanley! She tensed, naked, no covers. She opened her eyes, tried to lean up to cover herself.

“No. Lie back.”

She lay back, closed her eyes, opened them. The light illuminated a dirt and timber ceiling.

In a hospital?

A face came into view above her face, but upside down. Probably the gas passer. She was in the OR. Had to be.

The face was round, almost a unibrow. Close-cropped hair. No white paper hat? Jowls, pink, smooth round cheeks.

She frowned. He shaved too close. But who is he?

Small black, close-set eyes, a pug nose, hair in his nostrils. A slight smile.

“I’m Jonah. It’s good to meet you. And you are—” He held her clutch purse up where she could see it. He took out a card. Her driver’s license. He looked at it, flipped it away and it slapped lightly to the floor. “Ah, Susan.” He drew out the first syllable as if it had three U’s in it. “Yes, Susan.” He clapped his hands lightly beneath his double chin and turned away. “Just relax, Susan, all right? And probably I’ll let you go.” He turned away, moved off toward the other side of the room.

She wanted to ask who he was, why she was there, but the thing was still on her mouth.

The nightmare continues. She frowned, rolled her head left, followed his progress.

A table. A bench. A stool. In front of a dirt wall. That can’t be right.

She strained her neck, pressed her cheek against the cold steel to bring her back to the hospital.

Up close, inches away, the raised rounded edge of a steel table. Farther, the dull silver of a concrete floor. A red onion net bag on the floor near the table. Onions!

She remembered what he said, frowned at his back. Let me go? Home? Is he a doctor? Maybe she’d already been through the surgery. Maybe he was talking about discharging her and—

Finally her mind released the nightmare defense.

Her eyes grew wide and she stared at him. Oh god. Oh god! It’s not a nightmare! I’m awake! And I’m naked! But it made no sense. Am I in hell? But what did I do? What did I do?

He turned around and smiled, a small half-moon blade in one hand at the end of a short silver handle. Calmly, he said, “You aren’t trained in medicine, are you?”

She frowned, trembled, and shook her head. Why would he ask me that?

He held the tool up near his smile. “This, my dear, is a scalpel. It’s good to learn new things, isn’t it? Of course it is.”

He started toward her, still smiling, his elbow bent, the scalpel raised to shoulder height. “For instance, I feel a particular bent to learn human anatomy.”

Again she frowned. Why is he telling me?

He gestured toward her with the scalpel. “Your anatomy, specifically. So I’m going to have to cut you a bit, you see.”

Her eyes wide, she rocked her head hard, side to side, tried to say No. But only the same muffled sound came out.

He stopped next to her. “I wish I had some sort of anesthesia. I used to be quite fond of whiskey, but the doctors finally convinced me it was bad for my health.” He laughed and shrugged. “And it’s difficult to get the real stuff without a license. The anesthesia, I mean. If I were you, I would prefer ropivacaine. But you know how the government is with their regulations.”

He leaned forward, looked at her closely. “But we’ll get along without it. We’re going to have a good time, you and I.”

Outside the IGA, she’d opened her car door and leaned in to put the bag with the ice cream in the passenger seat. And something hit her from behind.

He did it. He hit her from behind. He shoved her hard across the car. She hit her nose on the inside of the passenger door just below the window. Her eyes watered and she was dizzy.

He lifted her legs and dropped them in the passenger side floorboard. There were a few goat heads in the floorboard. Stanley never scraped his shoes on the driveway before he got into her car. And a few of them stuck in her left knee.

Then someone—this man—grabbed the back of her hair, tugged hard on her head and slammed her face against the door again. And everything went dark.

That’s what was wrong with her nose. That’s what was wrong.

It wasn’t a nightmare. It happened.

He studied her eyes, watched as the fear crept into them, and smiled. “Ah, you remember something. Was it good for you? I do hope it was good for you, Susan.”

She forgot about the tape on her mouth, tried to ask, “Where am I?” but again only the muffled sound came out.

He held up one hand, his index finger to his mouth. “Shh. Shh. I thought you might be a talker, you see.” He gestured toward her mouth with the scalpel. “Hence the tape.” His voice quieted to a sinister whisper. “Now then, let’s get down to business, shall we? The sooner we begin, and all that.”

He leaned forward and reached with the fingers of his left hand, smoothed some hair from her forehead and wrapped it behind her left ear, then looked at her eyes. “I only want to make one incision, Susan. Just one.” He held up his left index finger. Then he touched the base of the scalpel to the front of her left underarm. “I’ll start here, you see.” He traced the path as he said, “And I’ll draw a little red line back up over your shoulder.” He smiled again. “Okay?”

She shook her head vehemently.

“Tut tut, none of that. As we’ve already established, it’s important to learn new things. Now, if you don’t move during the procedure, we’ll call it done and I’ll let you go.  All right?”

She stared at him.

He frowned. “You aren’t being very polite, Susan. I said all right?”

A hesitation, then she nodded quickly.

“That’s better. There’s a good girl. It’s like a little game. You don’t move, you don’t attempt to say anything, and I’ll let you go. And you’ll have a nice scar from the bad man to show your grandchildren someday.”

Grandchildren? She didn’t even have children yet. Stanley hadn’t decided they were ready. And at 24, she still had plenty of time. At 24 she was still a young—

He pressed the tip of the scalpel into the soft flesh of her underarm.

“Mmmfff!”

He jerked the scalpel back. Straightened. Looked at her. His lips were pressed together in a tight, thin line.

After a moment, during which he took three long breaths and seemed to be trying to decide something, he said, “All right. Well, that was probably the first time you’ve been touched with a scalpel, eh Susan? So we’ll let that one go, all right? We won’t count that one.”

He wagged his left forefinger at her and canted his head. “But any more like that, young lady, and— Well, I might not be able to let you go.” He laughed lightly, then leaned over her again. “Now, are you ready?”

She nodded frantically and pressed her teeth and her eyelids tight together.

He inserted the tip of the scalpel again.

She remained rigid against the searing pain as it sliced upward through the muscle of her left shoulder.

But when he’d moved it a little less than an inch, she had a mental image of herself walking into a hospital with her left arm in her right hand. The image caused her to shudder.

Again he straightened, but quickly, angrily. His voice was controlled, but only barely. “You just don’t listen, do you, Susan? Like all the rest, you never—you never listen!”

“Mmmfff!” she said, her eyes pleading. In that sound she tried to transmit that she would be good. She wouldn’t move. She wouldn’t make a sound. She wouldn’t do anything. She swore she wouldn’t. Just please let her go. Please.

But he was beyond listening for intent. “Oh, I see. Talking is what’s important to you. More important than anything, eh Susan? You want to talk?” He quickly raised the scalpel as he yelled, “Here! Let me remove the tape!”

He slashed down with the scalpel from near her nose to her jawline on the left side, slicing cleanly through her cheek and the tape.

She jerked her head to one side, and as he slashed again the scalpel hit just below her right nostril and sliced cleanly through the tape and both lips on right side.

She screamed, and this time the sound came out through her left cheek and through her gashed lips. Blood flowed in two streams down past her ear on the left and her jawline on the right and onto the table.

“And now you want to scream? Susan, you are untenable! But if you don’t want to play fair, here! Scream!”

He raised the scalpel, brought it down, slashed her left breast from the top to the areola. “Scream, Susan!”

She screamed and arched her back against the agonizing pain. More blood spattered out from her cheek and lips. Blood from her left breast ran down over her abdomen and side.

He held the scalpel aloft. “Be still!”

But she screamed again, then twisted hard to the left.

He slashed her right breast. “I said be still!”

She screamed and struggled hard to the right.

He slashed at her chest below her breasts repeatedly, but missed as she moved, laying bare her rib cage with three or four gashes on either side. The flesh hung in quivering red strips. “Be still, Susan! You’re spoiling it! You’re spoiling it!”

He stopped for a moment, and she looked at him, her eyes wide, pleading. She shook her head hard side to side, then nodded. She tried her best to lie still beneath the fire running all over her body.

He sighed and leaned over her. He gazed closely into her eyes, then smiled. Without warning he brought the scalpel forward and plunged it hard into her abdomen, then twisted it and held it tightly as she squirmed. “Do you understand, Susan? I wanted you to lie still!”

Still looking at him, she tried to draw her legs up, but the chains tugged at her ankles. Blood gushed from the rips in her cheeks and lips and torso.

Could she still escape? Maybe she could still escape. Slowly, she released the muscles in her thighs, allowed her legs to settle gently to the table again.

He raised the scalpel and glared at her.

She lay still, staring at him. At his eyes. Hatred. Such hatred. What did I do?

Again without warning, the scalpel descended and he slashed wildly at her hips and her thighs.

But she didn’t move other than with the force of the blade.

She kept her eyes trained on him.

It was too late. It wasn’t a nightmare. It had never been a nightmare.

I’m going to die. I’m going to die. But what did I do? What did I do?

Something about the fetal position. Shouldn’t she be in the fetal position?

He stopped for a moment, the scalpel hanging at his side as if he was tired.

The fetal position. She tried to tense her muscles and they all screamed. She tried to roll onto her left side quietly, without upsetting him further.

But the chains tugged at her again.

Oh. Oh yes. The chains. He put the chains on me. They must be necessary. But what did I do?

She relaxed in her original position, stared up at him, her eyes glassed over with acceptance.

Quietly, he said, “I only wanted you to lie still, Susan. That’s all I wanted, you see.” He took a heavy breath, hesitated, then said, “So shall I end it?”

Her cheeks, her face, her breasts were on fire. Her hips, her thighs, her abdomen. I’m going to die. Please, no more. No more. Yes. Yes sir, you should end it. Please. Please end it.

But if she told him, if she even nodded, he would torture her further.

He raised his voice slightly. “I said should I end it, Susan? I think you have learned your lesson, so you may answer.”

She stared at him.

I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything.

Gently, she shook her head side to side. For added defiance, she risked a sound, tried to say No.

His face wrinkled into a rage. “Well it isn’t up to you, is it, Susan? It isn’t up to you! Understand?”

Behind the tape, she managed a slight smile.

In a single motion he stepped forward and plunged the scalpel between her ribs just to the left of her sternum.

Her body lurched. “Unh!”

He glared at the wound, the blood pumping out in a pulsing stream, then stabbed her again. Then again. Then again.

When he finally looked up, Susan Jordan’s eyes were vacant.

A broad grin burst across his lips and he began swinging the scalpel side to side, in rhythm, as if conducting an unseen choir. Quietly, as if taking care not to wake his victim, he sang, “And on into the ground we go, as into the town we go.”

He dropped the scalpel on the table next to her left calf, turned and walked toward the exit.

* * * * * * *

Note: This story is also the first chapter of my new psychological suspense crime thriller novel, Jonah.

The Spring

the-spring-180In jeans and an olive-drab t-shirt, Mark Smith sat on his front porch in the late evening hours of November first.

His M-14 rifle—well, the civilian version, a reasonable facsimile still in 7.62 millimeter—lay across his lap. Over the past half-hour, he’d disassembled, cleaned and reassembled the rifle. It was a weekly chore, and it kept him connected.

The sounds of some inane sitcom filtered out through the door, complete with the laugh track.

He shook his head. Half the time the laugh track didn’t even make sense. Or at least where they inserted it didn’t make sense. Overall the stupid show was about as funny as a turd in a punch bowl of frothy lemonade. He grinned. Mmm. Enticing.

He took off his cap—an olive-drab with the Marine Corps emblem embroidered on the front—and ran the palm of his hand over his head. The cool night air felt good on his scalp. His hair hadn’t been cut that short for years. He’d done it himself, mostly to see whether he still could.

He put his cap back on and tilted it back slightly on his head. The poor cap was about as faded as he felt, but unlike him, at least it still fit.

He reached toward the small table next to his chair and took his corojo wrapped toro cigar from a makeshift ashtray he’d cut into an old soda can. He looked at it. Almost half was still left. He took a long, satisfying pull on the cigar, then leaned over and carefully positioned it back on the ashtray as he released the smoke and watched it waft away. On the other side of the ashtray lay his cleaning kit—already closed—and a rag.

He didn’t fit anywhere. Hadn’t for years. It was as if the whole world had turned upside down.

He picked up the rifle. The grip felt good in his right hand as his fingers flexed around it. The weight of it felt good as it caused the muscles in his right forearm to tense.

He set the butt plate it in his shoulder and lay his cheek along the stock. Then he sighted along the barrel at the street lamp on the corner. The sights looked good. He curled his right index finger into the trigger well and squeezed lightly as he concentrated on the front sight blade. His breathing automatically smoothed out.

He grinned. Quietly, he said, “Y’still got it, Smitty. Some things y’never lose.”

The spring on the screen door complained with a long squeal behind him to the right. Marcy must be coming out.

Beneath the sound of the spring were the strains of a commercial. Some actor pretending to be an old guy repeating all the things he “accepts” because some moron told him to. All to sell some drug or other.

Whoever wrote that ad was an idiot. Just the sound of it made him want to growl. When the rule of three worked well, the listener wouldn’t even notice it. But an old guy who had done significant things in his life repeating three times he “accepts” that he can’t do them anymore was just annoying.

He made a mental note to never buy that particular product. And under no circumstances would he take the actor’s advice to “consult with your doctor” about whatever the drug was. He’d rather “accept” the risk of dying from whatever the medicine proposed to cure. Probably the same drug company had dreamed up the problem their medicine supposedly alleviated.

Ah good. Here comes the list of “possible side effects” the medicine might cause on its way to depleting your bank account.

Marcy said, “You coming in soon, Mark? It’s late. Put away your things and let’s get some sleep.” She hesitated. “I wish you wouldn’t do this. You always overreact. It’s just politics after all.”

He took the rifle from his shoulder and put his rifle on his lap. “What are you talking about?”

“You, sitting out here dreaming of shooting someone with that thing.”

“I ain’t dreamin’ of shootin’ anybody, Marcy. If I wanted somebody shot, he’d be layin’ out there bleedin’ somewhere right now. Two to five hundred yards out, dependin’ on the field of fire.”

“Whatever,” she said derisively. Then the sing-song started. “This happens every time you hear a politician. Every single time, you overreact. You pull out that stupid gun and….”

She droned on as he took another puff on his cigar, then held it a few inches from his face and looked at it as he released the smoke.

Could the enemy see the glow off the tip of a cigar from seven miles away? That’s what they always said about cigarettes. When he went on patrol back in the day, he left his cigarettes back in the hooch and carried a couple bags of Redman. Never did care for the plugs.

And if he’d bothered carrying the cigarettes, chances were they’d be smashed or broken anyway. Besides, if things were calm and he wanted a smoke, he could always get one out of his C-rats.

Probably not, though, on the cigar thing. Cigarettes glowed more brightly. No ash hanging in front. Wouldn’t matter anyway. He wouldn’t have risked carrying a two- or three- or five dollar cigar on a hump either. They broke easier than cigarettes did.

He was vaguely aware Marcy had stopped talking.

She punctuated the fact with, “Well?”

He carefully positioned the cigar back on the ashtray and shook his head. “No. See, that’s what you don’t understand, Marcy. You’ve never understood.”

She crossed her arms. “What? What have I never understood?”

“It’s never been about politics, Marcy. At least not the kind of politics you’re talking about.”

He looked away for a moment and shook his head. There was no way to make her understand. Still, for some stupid reason he felt compelled to try.

He looked at her again. “What I mean, it isn’t about what people like you call ‘politics as usual.’”

She frowned and crossed her arms, a smirk suddenly on her face. “But it is politics as usual. And people like me? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You wanna pull up a chair? This might take awhile. Besides, I’m not through with my cigar yet.”

“I’ll stand, thanks. And I wish you’d get rid of those filthy things. It’s a nasty habit.”

“Oh? How many have you smoked?”

“I wouldn’t touch those filthy things!”

“My point exactly. Hard to criticize something you know nothin’ about.” He grinned. “Besides, I’m gettin’ rid of ‘em quick as I can. About time to order more.”

“That isn’t funny, Mark.”

He shrugged, then picked up the cigar and took another puff, though he didn’t really want one at the moment. But a blatant exhibition of a man exercising personal choice wasn’t entirely uncalled for either.

He released the smoke in a bilious cloud. As it wafted away, he put the cigar back in the ashtray. “See, this isn’t some cutesy giggly thing where it’s all my guys against your guys and everybody gets a participation trophy and then we all go get pizza. That’s what you don’t understand.

“It isn’t even that either my guys win and the constitution is upheld or your guys win and you get four more years to push the country down the toilet.” He paused, then picked up the rag. More quietly, he said, “All the while safe in knowing someone like me will pull you back from the edge just in time.”

He’d already wiped the stock down with linseed oil, but another swipe or two wouldn’t hurt it.

“Oh Mark, that’s complete and utter bullshi—”

He raised the hand with the rag in it and pointed at her. “No! No, it isn’t bullshit. It’s always been this way. I’m just sorry our generation was the first to push it this close. I’m ashamed of us for that. You people don’t seem to realize, there comes a point of no return. You get past a certain point on the slope and nobody can pull you back. You get beyond a certain critical mass and—”

“What? What ‘critical mass’?”

He sighed. “The critical mass. That point where the timid little people who vote for whoever says what they want to hear those of us who have to do the dirty work of pulling them back.”

Marcy’s hand went to her mouth and she gasped. Under arched eyebrows, she said, “Timid little people?”

He stifled a grin and nodded. “They come in two varieties. In the first group are those who can’t say what they mean because they’re scared to death of ‘offending’ someone. The second are those who vote on soundbites because it’s the fashionable thing to do. They know who they are.”

“Is that right? And who exactly does the ‘dirty work’?”

“Ah.” He nodded again. “Now that’s easy enough to explain, as if you didn’t know. Guys like me. The ones who make it possible for everyone else to spout off and contribute nothing but their uninformed, soundbite-in-an-onion-skin-wrapper opinions. Everybody enjoys the milk and honey, but guys like me queue up and carry the buckets.” He laughed.

“We’re the ones who understand there are certain things out there that are bigger and more important than they are. Like the freedom to make the most out of your own life or the freedom to say what’s on your mind or the freedom to defend your own life by whatever means necessary.

“We’re the ones who understand that what matters is what somebody says, not what somebody else turns it into. We understand that living on handouts is just another form of slavery. We understand that one guy’s rights stop where the next guy’s rights begin.”

“You preach a good game, given that you’re sitting there getting a weapon ready to use on ‘people like me.’”

He scowled and color rose in his cheeks. “You’re damn right I do. And yes, I have a rifle and I know how to use it. But the difference between me and people like you is that I’ll use it to defend what’s mine, not to force someone else to believe the way I want them to.”

Marcy stared at him, wide eyed.

He paused and took a calming breath.

“Look, Marcy, I’m just saying, when people think that way, one day they’re gonna look up and wonder what happened.”

“When they think what way?”

“Like I said, when they’re afraid to speak their mind for fear of offending someone. Or when they vote for a particular person just to be fashionable.”

“People don’t do that.”

“Really? Are you gonna stand there and tell me people didn’t vote for the last guy just because of the color of his skin? How is that not racist? And are you gonna tell me people didn’t vote for that woman just because she’s allegedly a female? How is that not sexist?”

“Well of course I can’t say that nobody—”

“You sure as hell can’t. Tell me this. Faced with what this nation’s become over the past eight years—we’re more racially divided, more people are unemployed, and we’ve lost our status all over the world, even to the point that our enemies are flaunting their power and our allies no longer trust us—how can anyone say the guy did a good job? Of course, he did fix it so men could go into women’s bathrooms as long as they say they ‘self-identify’ as women. Now seriously, how does any of that make sense?

“Look for once, Marcy. Just look. In this country today, if one biological male decides he wants to ‘self-identify’ as a woman, suddenly everyone else in the country—every business, every public venue, and every individual—is required to allow him to use the women’s bathroom. How do you not see how crazy and backward that is?”

“How is it ‘crazy and backward’ to allow a transgender person to assert her right to privacy?”

He laughed. “Okay, first, how can you call that person a ‘her’ when it has a penis? You’re a woman, aren’t you? Do you have a penis?”

“Oh, you’re just confusing the issue.”

“Okay, drop that part. Just tell me this. Why is it all right to stop all the other actual females in the country from asserting their right to privacy just so that one guy can assert his? You seriously wouldn’t have a problem with a man following you into the women’s restroom in a bar or a restaurant or a ball park?”

“Like I said, for you it’s all just politics as usual.”

“Right. Got it. So answer the question, Marcy. You really wouldn’t have a problem with a man following you into the ladies’ room? Or what about in a department store where they have a section of changing rooms for women and a separate section of changing rooms for men? You wouldn’t mind if a man who ‘identifies as a woman’ follows you into the women’s section?”

“I don’t have to answer your stupid question. It isn’t about me. It’s about the transgender person.”

“I guess that answers it then. See? That one man’s right to privacy is more important to you than everyone else’s.”

“That isn’t what I said!”

“Fine. Then put it in your own words. Go ahead. I’ll wait.”

“I’m just saying the transgender person has as much right to privacy as the non-transgender person does.”

Mark nodded. “Oh. Well good. Then we agree. The transgender person has as much right to privacy as the non-transgender person—not more. So it follows that the non-transgender person has as much right to privacy as the transgender person does too, right? And each person’s rights stop where the next person’s rights begin.”

“You’re impossible! You’re twisting everything around. A person has the right to do anything he or she wants.”

“Again, I agree. As long as one person’s rights stop where the next person’s rights begin. Nobody has the right to force anything on anyone else. Anything. Himself, his ideas, his philosophy.”

“Okay. So? What’s that have to do with a transgender person wanting to use the appropriate bathroom for the gender he or she identifies with?”

“The transgender person has the right to pee wherever it wants to pee. But it doesn’t have the right to force others to put up with it. It doesn’t have the right to make others uncomfortable.” He hefted his rifle. “For example, I have the right to own this, and to fire it. But that doesn’t trump someone else’s right to continue breathing, right?”

“But the president must have done some good. After all, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for—”

Mark wagged one hand. “So now we’re back to participation trophies, right? What did he actually do to get that award handed to him? Nothing. All he did was show up.

“And that woman, if she actually is a woman. What did she do that qualifies her to be the president of the United States? Let’s see.” He held up his left hand, the fingers extended. “She used an unsecured server to send and receive classified state secrets, she and her worthless husband gutted the American military when he was in office, and she took millions of dollars from regimes around the world whose motto is Death to America and who call us The Great Satan. But worst of all, she abandoned men in the field.

“Hell, Marcy, she even watched on TV as the administration’s own ambassador was raped and  tortured to death in the streets with cattle prods. And all of that after those men begged for months for an increase in security! Now how in the hell can anyone vote for that woman? And then she turned around and blamed the whole thing on a ‘spontaneous’ uprising over some film somebody made. The woman is despicable. And you want her as the commander in chief?”

“Mark, watch your blood pressure.”

“Know what? Screw my blood pressure. That’s my whole point, don’t you see? I don’t matter. You don’t matter. And those men who call themselves women to gain access to women’s bathrooms and those snowflakes in colleges who are always being ‘offended’ and crying for a ‘safe space’ and those spoiled millionaires who play games for a living and refuse to stand for the National Anthem definitely don’t matter. What matters is the Constitution and this once-great nation. Damn it, that’s what matters!”

“Well, I’m going in to bed. I hope you’ll come along soon.”

“Really? Why?”

“Because I love you, Mark.”

He looked at the street lamp again. Finally he shrugged. “Yeah. Well, I love you too. You go ahead if you want to. I’m gonna sit out here for awhile. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky and some of those ICE police will come up in their black uniforms to confiscate my rifle. ‘Course they generally only travel in pairs. That wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

“Hey, I know! Maybe they’ll bring a passel of those UN guys with them. A squad, maybe. If they even know what a squad is. Or maybe they’ll bring a whole damn platoon. At least that way it’d be a fair fight. I’ll bet I could take half of ‘em with me.”

He laughed. “I can just see the headlines the mainstream media would slap on it tomorrow: Crazed Man With Rifle Murders Innocent UN Troops In His Front Yard.” He laughed again and gripped his rifle in his lap. “Hey Marcy, did’ja hear that? Whaddya think? That’d be the headline, wouldn’t it?”

He turned to look up at Marcy. “Marcy?”

But she had already gone inside.

He frowned. “Now how in the world did she do that without that spring makin’ a racket?”

Maybe it was stretched too far.

* * * * * * *