In The Road
The car shook and vibrated, the locked up wheels cutting screaming furrows in the packed dirt of the road. My foot felt rubbery as I pressed with all my might against the brake pedal, trying to force the steel behemoth to stop before I ran into the child.
I looked over and Mary’s face was white, her lips pulled back in a grimace of expected horror and her hands on the dash board as if trying to hold back the front of the car.
As the car shivered to a stop, the dust rolled around from behind us, obscuring the road in front. I hadn’t heard--or felt--us hit anything. ‘Please God,’ I thought as I threw the car in PARK, ‘let her be okay.’
“Steven! Did you hit her? Where is she?”
“I don’t think so. I’m sure we stopped in time.” The truth was, between the adrenaline that was still coursing through me, and the clouds of earth in the air, I wasn’t sure of anything.
“Well, go look!”
“Right.” I opened my door and stepped out.
As the dust cleared, I could see her. The little girl, no more than five or six years old, was still standing in the road, inches in front of the car.
“Mary, she’s fine!” I heard my mousy wife get out of the car. We both came around to where the girl stood, and it wasn’t until I saw the ax in the child’s hands that I once again began to become concerned.
Mary stopped, and her stare grew wider as the girl raised the heavy tool. Before I could move, she swung it down and buried the sharpened head deep in my poor Mary’s head.
The girl-shaped creature then turned its face toward me, and I saw hideously long teeth as it opened its mouth much wider than should have been possible. It hissed and narrowed its eyes; with a wet ‘schlup’ sound, it pulled the ax free from Mary’s skull.
I fell to my knees. My horror had combined with my rapidly beating heart to shut down my motor skills; I was helpless to even raise my arms as I watched the now dripping ax head rise into the air above me.
(c) 2017 - dustygrein
The Voodoo Zombies
Hot air hung heavy in the furnace of the bayou
as the traveler wandered, feet sloshing in mud,
his mind focusing through the thick darkness
like a train headlight cutting through a tunnel.
The traveler wore a curse over his heart,
a broken black cross of ash,
that had been there since his life’s love
had been wafted away from her sickbed.
To calm the empty storm
that filled his life in place of purpose,
he wandered the bayou in a cocoon of numbness
in search of a voodoo cure.
The traveler found a wooden shack
in the sweat of the deep green bayou.
The wooden walls held a soft yellow glow
like a lecher embracing a New Orleans prostitute.
He entered the creaky shack with thin ice feet
and found Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen,
with her dolls, skulls, and alligator skins.
She smiled like a snake through the fragrant smoke.
She was a Creole woman with light tan skin,
her head wrapped in coils of yellow cloth,
her body draped in a light flowered dress,
and her neck hung with voodoo charms and lockets.
She already knew his past, present, and future,
and warned him of the dangers of waking the dead.
She tried to give him a crucifix for protection,
but the traveler cringed with black widow fear.
Queen Laveau gave him a bag of grey dust
to sprinkle on the tomb of his lost love
whose memory was dissipating from his mind
like mist evaporating into the tarry bayou air.
The traveler left the shack’s eerie comfort
and sauntered out into the sinking bayou night,
as alligators watched hungrily from the heavy shadows
and bullfrogs grumped their low songs into the darkness.
He made his way to an elevated graveyard,
beyond a high levee lined with lazy weeping willows,
where his wife was buried in a small stone tomb,
a dark grey structure dripping with warm, damp death.
The graveyard was a city of the dead
with ornate tombs lining narrow walkways
like eternal homes lining city streets,
patrolled by swarms of hungry mosquitoes.
He trudged to his wife’s stark tomb
and sprinkled the dust over it in a hopeful dream.
A breeze brushed by and blew the dust haphazardly
across the city-like expanse of the graveyard.
The heavy stone slab creaked open.
His wife stared blankly, her white dress hanging in tatters,
her pale skin blotched with blue decay,
but he looked past her ghastliness and held her in his arms.
The other tombs stirred with phantom movement
and their slabs moved aside quietly
as scores of zombies emerged from the darkness
and filled the cobblestone walkways.
The traveler kissed his wife
one last cold kiss, trying to dream himself into the past,
as the zombies closed in with outstretched hands,
moaning with years of simmering boredom.
They pummeled the traveler with bony fists,
hard with the chill of necrotic jealousy.
The zombies clamped him down to the damp ground,
and he gasped for breath beneath the frigid bodies.
His wife carried his battered body into her tomb
to lay beside her to await eternity.
The slab slid shut bringing a tactile darkness
as the zombies returned to their tombs like a receding tide.
“Maybe we need to knock harder.”
I shook my head.
“Come on,” Brayden said. She stood over me where I sat on the floor, slouched against the wall. “You’re the big tough boy, so knock, damnit.”
She was never going to listen. If I had learned anything in the six months my mom had been married to her father, it was that my being 11 while she was 10 and my extra weight only made me a bigger target for Brayden. But that didn’t mean I had to help her. “I won’t.”
I shook my head again, so she grabbed a couch pillow and hurled it at me. When I deflected it from my face, the pillow knocked our parents’ wedding photo from the small table onto the hardwood. I heard the small, sharp crack that meant broken glass.
Brayden laughed. “Asshole.”
“You did it.”
Brayden fixed her dirty blonde smirk on me. “That’s not how I see it. Only one of us is strong enough to have moved the couch.” She added in a childish, singsong voice. “When you shoved it, you weren’t very careful about the end table, Alex.”
“Do you really want to tell them we moved the couch?”
We both turned to what we had found. The iron ring of the trapdoor was rusted, heavy, and impossible to pull. After we’d discovered it instead of the missing remote control, we’d both tried lifting. The door was stuck. In between Brayden’s grunts from pulling, I had heard a low sound from below. The sound made my cry out and shrink down against the wall. It made Brayden try knocking.
“Our parents don’t know about it,” Brayden said.
“You’re messing with me. It’s your house. Your dad’s lived here for like 30 years, and you don’t think he knows?”
“If he knows, your mom knows.”
“She wouldn’t. You probably did.”
“What, you think this is some sort of family secret, Alex?”
“How could you not know? Brayden, you’ve lived here your whole life.”
“Yep,” she said. She stared down at me. She held her hips with her elbows sticking out, daring me to say something. I only wanted not to whimper. “You’re pathetic,” she said.
She stepped to the trap door in the hardwood. She stomped, and then she jumped on it: nothing. Angry, she gestured expectantly toward me. I shook my head. She snorted and unplugged the floor lamp next to her dad’s leather recliner, carried it to the trap door, and smashed the base against the iron ring. She struck again and again. She held the lamp aloft for another blow when we both heard the click.
The sound was brief but unmistakable. Processing it, my brain amplified the click so much it had an echo. Brayden still held the lamp.
“I think I knocked it loose,” she said.
“That click. I knocked the door loose.”
“That makes no sense.”
“Of course it makes sense! What the hell else could it be?”
“It clicked while you were holding the lamp in the air! It couldn’t loosen when you weren’t hitting it!”
She set down the lamp and looked at me. Her face seemed soft. For the first time in our months as siblings, Brayden seemed uncertain, and I had an opening to sway her. “Brayden,” I began, but I didn’t have the next words. The mantle clock began to chime for nine; we listened to each of the tones.
She still hadn’t moved. “Brayden,” I tried again, “whatever that click was, it’s not—”
Her scream followed the knock of metal and wood on wood so closely that they seemed to happen at once. The dark paw or hand that had flung the trap door open had sunk claws into her ankle and ripped. Brayden collapsed on her shredded ligaments and screamed until the other too-long arm buried more claws in her side. Brayden’s eyes bulged wide and her ruined lungs guttered and gasped while the matted fur dragged her below, and I leaped to the trap door and I closed it. I pushed the heavy couch back over the iron ring, which couldn’t hold the thing but could maybe slow it down, and then I ran through the front door, headlong into our parents.
They stared at me quizzically as I panted. My mom knelt to look me in my eyes. “What is it, bug?”
I couldn’t make sense but I tried. “Brayden,” I said, “there was an arm that took her, she knocked and it—”
A strong hand gripped my shoulder. “Come inside, son,” my stepdad said. I shook my head frantically, but he repeated, “come inside and tell us all about it.”
“No, I can’t.”
“Don’t be silly, Alex,” my mom said, and they brought me to the door. When mom put her hand on the knob I nearly ran, but the grip on my shoulder felt firm.
Everything inside was quiet. I was still shaking, but I could see no blood, no signs of anything wrong except the picture frame facedown and the lamp in the wrong place. I looked to my mom. “Brayden’s gone,” I said, but now both my shoulders had a firm grip on them, holding me in place from behind, and Mom began to pull the couch. She turned her face to me as she finished pulling and I saw the iron ring. “Everything’s fine, bug.” She smiled.
I drove to the Moonlight Motel and knocked on the door of room 106. The Moonlight was a sleaze joint on the outskirts of town with the cheapest rates around. It was the kind of place where you looked around like your head was on a swivel. Scanning the cars, looking at the windows of the conjoining rooms to see if eyes peeked through the venetian blinds. But then you had to laugh at yourself because even if there were someone up here to spot you, their sins would be the same as yours. This was the lowest point for lonely travelers who were all looking for the same thing.
Mona didn’t answer. I knocked rhythmically for a couple of minutes before losing my patience to the harsh western winds. My right hand turned the knob slowly. The door stopped about three or four inches in. A rusted gold chain at eye level answered why.
“It’s just me, Mona. It’s just me, Johnny.” I said.
My face was pressed against the splintered wood, and with my right eye I could see her sitting at the edge of the bed. “Mona, can you open up? I’m cold.” She got up slowly and emotionlessly, dragging her bare blistered feet across the shag carpet before flicking the chain off its hinge and dragging her body back to the bed.
“Sorry, John. I’m just tired, ya know?” she said.
“Yeah. Boy, do I ever.” I took my jacket off and threw it over a chair in the corner of the room. We sat silently for a couple minutes. Then she sighed, got on her knees and began bouncing slowly on the bed while waving me over with her index finger. “Come here, big boy. Come see, mama. Lay your head between mama’s breasts,” she said, switching gears to work Mona. Playing out the scenario I most often requested from her.
“We don’t have to rush into this, Mona. Could we take our time?” I sat down on the bed, and she came over to massage my neck before kissing it, and rubbing down my bare chest to the buttons of my work pants. “Mona, Christ. Could we take a second, please? My back is sore as hell from shoveling shit all day. Could we just talk for a minute? Please?”
She didn’t answer. I turned around to see her wearing a face of unbridled anger and annoyance. She was pissed. She hated when I did this. It wasn’t what the hour was for. We both knew it, but I still did the same thing every week, anyway.
“Can we just fuck? So you can give me my money and hit the road.”
“I thought you liked my company,” I answered.
“Why do you always do this, John? Why do you always come here like we’re a fucking couple or something? I. Get. Paid. To. Fuck.” She said, clapping her hands together after each word.
I looked her in the eyes and held my stare. It made her uncomfortable because no one ever looked in her eyes to see what was in them and what was behind them. Looking in those sky blue irises would mean acknowledging that she was a human being. And that wasn’t good for rooms at the Moonlight Motel. Wasn’t good for business.
“Why do you do that?” She asked.
“Look at me.”
“Because I like you.”
“Because I see you.”
“What in the hell does that mean, Johnny? Stop trying to make me feel stupid.”
“I’m not, Mona. That’s the last thing I want. I just meant I look at you. I look in your eyes and I can see someone worth seeing, that’s all.”
“You know you only have an hour, right?”
“Yes, I do. And didn’t you tell me you’d do anything? Anything at all.”
“Then talk to me. Sit and spend the hour talking to me.”
“You heard me, Mona. Sit next to me. Talk to me.”
I patted the edge of the bed to my right. Signalling her over with a quick brush of my head. She just looked at me for a minute like a scared old battered dog experiencing love for the first time in its life. Wanting to believe it. Wanting to run towards it, but being fooled too many times to ever trust it.
“It’s alright, Mona. It’s alright.”
She extended her legs and timidly slid her body next to mine, Mona’s eyes scanning for a devil’s trick, but soon realizing there was nothing there but me.
I wrapped my arm around her like it was our first date at a drive-in. All of a sudden, it was just the two of us. Two people. Not a customer and worker, but two people alone in a motel room, with nothing but the sound of the baseboard heater humming like a swarm of angry flies, and the sound of Mona’s heart beating with nervous excitement.
“What did you dream of as a kid?” I asked.
“As a kid. I mean, no offense. But this couldn’t have been your dream. When you were a girl looking at a clear sky filled with stars, you weren’t dreaming of the Moonlight Motel”
“No, of course not,” she said. “No. It was never this.” and then she looked like a
traveller heading back in time, to places, and thoughts that hadn’t been allowed at the forefront of her mind for a long time.
I put my hand on her knee and rubbed softly with my thumb in a counterclockwise motion.
“It’s alright. It’s just me. I just want to talk.”
Tears were filling her eyes, and I took my hand from her knee and raised it slowly to the dark circles underneath. I wiped them and smiled at her. She took my hand in hers and kissed my palm. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. It’s just been so long.”
“It’s okay. I know this is strange for you, hell it’s strange for me. I just realized I don’t talk anymore. I don’t know any folks anymore. And I wanted to know you. You’re the closest thing to a friend I have, Mona. And I ain’t just saying that.”
Mona was silent for a while. But I didn’t press the issue any further. I let her sit with it. Let her come to me on her own terms.
“An actress.” She eventually said in a decibel above a whisper. “Hollywood. A million miles from here.”
“Not quite that far,” I joked. “But yeah, it ain’t close. What brought you here? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“I don’t know. Money, I guess. It’s always fucking money. But I’ll admit when I was younger I actually enjoyed it, believe it or not. I liked sex. I liked it a lot, and I was young. When you’re young and beautiful, you get nice looking men. And if they’re not, they’re rich.” She laughed at this, but her eyes looked sad. Sad and ashamed. “But I guess like a lot of jobs. You get comfortable. People tell you you’re great at this and you’d be crazy to go off on your own. It’s a scary world out there. You’re safe here, and all the rest of the horseshit they peddle. Then you wake up one day, and you’re on the wrong end of 30, with a lifetime of sin and regret.”
“It’s never too late, Mona.”
“You’re still beautiful. You must have money stashed away somewhere,” I winked.
Mona shrugged her shoulders.
“A little, I guess.”
“Well, why don’t we take off? Let’s take off and go to Hollywood. I could be your agent. Set you up with the best gigs in town and make sure you’re compensated.” I flexed my biceps and added. “You don’t get what you’re worth. They’re going to have to go through me.”
This made her smile. For the first time since I began paying for Mona’s time, it looked real. It looked genuine.
It gave me a small insight into who she was before this life. The young girl who looked in the mirror and acted out the lines of her school plays. The one who screamed and jumped for joy when she received the lead in Romeo and Juliet. Mona Hatlee, the young girl from the broken home, would get to kiss Robby Reiger. And from there, the sky was the limit.
But inside those eyes was also the girl who went to Robby’s on the east side to go over their lines. Holding that smile until her face hurt. Laughing at everything he said, whether it was funny or not, because that’s just what you did. There was the kiss. The kiss that froze her in time. Then there was the walk home afterwards, along the railroad tracks, papers held tightly to her chest, dreaming of the wedding reception. That was all before Robby and his football buddies put her in the back of his Camry, raped her, and threw her back out onto the tracks, with her dreams scattered like the pages of the play.
“That would be nice.” Mona said.
“Yeah, but I’m pretty broke. Working as a farmhand in Lone Pine for twelve hours a day, and I’m still only getting pennies. We wouldn’t make it far on my salary.”
“Oh, we would do fine.” She added. “I have money.”
“Yeah.” Her eyes finally meeting mine. “I’ve been skimming some for years now. Still those little girl dreams of taking off. It’s all in a little black bag in my closet, piled under a whole stack of shit. It isn’t easy to get at. Money for a rainy day, I guess. If that day ever comes.”
I looked outside as soft rain splashed the motel window. “Well, maybe we should really do it then.”
“Maybe we should, Johnny. That would be something, wouldn’t it?”
I rubbed her right cheek with my callused hand and kissed her softly. She kissed me back, slowly sliding her tongue into my mouth. Something we rarely did in this room. Something she hated. But on that night, we made love. Slow, and without rush like we were the last two survivors of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
When we finished, I lit a cigarette, and we shared it. Mona was sprawled across my chest, looping her fingers around my curly chest hair, laughing as she straightened the hairs and watched them return to their natural position like a pig’s tail.
The clock said ten to 11. My time was nearly up. “Well, I should get going, girl.” I said, as I got up and walked over to my work jacket, hauling out the bills for the evening.
“No. No, Johnny. Please. It was wonderful. It really was.”
I insisted as she declined. We played a little back-and-forth game for a minute before I stuffed the bills back in the breast pocket of my work shirt and kissed her again. “I’ll pay ya double next time.” She laughed, then blushed.
“Well, I should get going, Mona.”
“We’ll get out of here soon, I promise, baby. Me and you, we won’t ever see this motel or this room again. I promise you.”
“Don’t hold your breath, but don’t lose faith soon.”
“I could love you, Johnny. I really could.”
“Way ahead of you, baby.” I put my jacket on, opened the door, and walked across the parking lot to my car.
Inside, I pounded on the steering wheel. “FUCK! FUCK! FUUUCK!” I cried, and then my phone buzzed. “No, please no! Please, God, no!”
I almost didn’t answer it, and ran back to room 108 to grab Mona and fly down Highway 29. But then headlights from the far end of the Moonlight Motel began to flicker. They were here. They were telling me to pick up the goddamn phone, or I was next.
I took a deep breath and answered it.
“Yeah.” I said. “ Yeah. Yeah, she has the money. It’s at her place. Yeah. Yeah. Under a bunch of shit she said. In a black bag. In her closet”
I hung up.
Then the red Toyota pulled up in front of Mona’s room. Two men got out and knocked on the door. This time, Mona opened it without the chain. And the men had the bag over her head before she had time to change the expression on her face.
They dragged her out to the car. Threw her in the backseat and drove towards me. I rolled down the window as the driver threw a thick brown envelope into the passenger side. It landed on the seat.
“I’m sorry, Mona. Christ. I’m sorry.”
It took ten minutes for Sammy to scale five floors. He found himself giggling to random secretaries on the last dozen steps. His drunk slog and melted into a crawl. By the time he got to the hall door, an accountant wearing a drab suit took pity on him and opened it. Sammy half bear walked, half human walked into the hall. He almost hurled onto the orange carpet and flopped against the psychedelic wallpaper. All its loud colors swirled around him. They churned together in unappetizing patterns, but it wasn't enough to stop him on his journey.
His boss and label owner Gary Morris had his office a recliner sofa down. In order to stand up, he needed to get ahold of its smooth leather armrest. The poor guy failed to get a grip of the thing until wrapping his arm full around. He pulled himself to his feet. The entire bottom half of his body acted like dead weight.
Gary's door was open. Sammy leaned forward to see six other men gathered in the office. Gary stood at his desk. His son Oliver Morris stood behind him. He was a seventeen year old kid in disco clothes and a nervous grin. Rival label owner Todd Willard stood on the opposite end. Both parties were complimented with Bush Stevens, a band front man signed to Gary. He sat in a swirling chair between both groups. Gary had sent him in as mediator.
"Come on, why all of this standing and moping around. Let's smoke some pot. Pass it around. Take it easy," chided Bush.
The remaining party didn't move from their places. Gary and Todd stared at each other like brothers preparing for a fist fight.
"Tell me what happened," said Gary.
"I'll tell you what happened. Just a few guys who wanted to play with fireworks when it wasn't fourth of July," said Bush.
Everyone in the room turned to him in mild amusement, even Oliver. The poor guy was out of place in the situation. He had a lions mane of hair, a net tank top, and white spandex with blue and red stripes. No one knew why he choose to dress in his stage cloths, and no one cared.
"Two of our guys tried to torch a record store. The owner was selling cutouts that weren't our own. The slimy bastard knew we were coming, the place was crawling with cops..." said Todd.
He paused for a moment and glanced at Bush.
"Do you have a blunt, for real?"
"At your service my liege," said Bush.
He took a lighter and a smoke from his pocket and handed it to Todd, lighting it for him and returning to his seat.
"Is he always like this?" asked Todd to Gary.
"Only I can answer that, and I can confirm I'm monkey hour twenty four seven," said Bush.
He grinned like a used car salesman every time he talked. It followed with his usual strained laughter. This grated on everyone's ears, but they had more pressing matters at hand.
"I bet you are," mumbled Todd.
His gaze wandered to the son. The kid was playing with a large shark knife attached to his belt. Despite his awkward presence, his attention remained strapped to the conversation. Something about it made the old man uneasy.
"...When they got arrested there was at least a hundred boxes of our own product in their truck. I don't know how it happened, it was bad, it is bad. At least a hundred thousand down the drain for both of us," continued Todd.
"For as far as I'm concerned this is your problem. It doesn't matter if you can't get back your half. You still owe me mine," said Gary.
Todd took a long drag from his blunt. He stood there silent. Bush gazed up at the ceiling, his legs reclined against another chair. Todd pulled it out from under him and took a seat. The singers black napoleon boots clunked to the floor. He bolted upright, his eyes snapping back to Todd. He gave Bush a snide grin before lifting his feet onto the desk. Like Bush he sported gaudy footwear. They were cowboy boots with chains on the back that clinked against the wood.
"I can stay here all day if I want," he said.
"Now we're talkin! You see Gary, sometimes you've got to take a page from my book every once in a while. We can stand around and leer and give sour glances to each other and argue, but it's not gonna get us anywhere. We've got to be teenagers about this. Have a good school yard fight to let it go and put it behind us," said Bush.
"I wish it could be that way, but something tells me there's more than money to worry about in this thing," said Gary.
"My guys barely shot anything off before they got cuffed. They didn't spill the beans," said Todd.
"They have our cutouts. It's only a matter of time before they trace it back to the warehouse."
"We'll move it elsewhere."
"We don't have enough time for that, we're screwed."
"So this is how it ends. You two are in for a wild ride. What's it gonna be for each of you, sailing off to Venice, or living in that Cuban slum apartment you all love so much?" said Bush.
"I say we flip on it," said Todd.
"And you give me my fifty thousand before running off," said Gary.
"We'll see about that."
"Before we get all doom and gloom about the possibilities, I will say that Cuba is an overhated country. They've got really cool beaches and all these car people," said Bush.
Todd's gaze traveled back to the boy whose fidgeting hands had flickered at the corner of his eye. The strange blade in his hand continued to twist at his belt. Its siblings sat in an unlocked display case behind him. Above it were several mounted sword fish and a spear gun.
"You want to go fishin kid?"
Todd nodded towards the kid. Gary turned to see his son taking out another knife from the case to play with in his other hand. He held them at his waist like two handguns in a wild west shootout.
"Jezus boy, put those down, you're going to split your hand open again," scolded Gary.
"I haven't done that since I was five," argued Oliver.
Despite his retortful words, his voice was monotone and matter of fact. He made no attempt to contort his face into a sneer. Instead, he made a queer slow walk to the desk, placing both knives at opposing ends. With his gentle fingers, he positioned each blade toward each other.
"I didn't come here for a knife fight," said Todd.
"How does a game of darts sound?" said Gary.
"How about a game of cards?"
"How about a compromise?"
Their exchange was interrupted by a creak at the door. Sammy's tired face came bumbling into the room. He leaned hard on the knob in a near freefall into the office.
"Heeyyy guys! What's up?" he slurred.
Bush rushed out of his seat and grabbed Sammy by the shoulders. His once charismatic eyes flashed into that of panic.
"What are you doing here?" he hissed.
Sammy tried to stumble further into the room, but Bush kept him back. He looked towards Gary, flopping his loose frame to get their attention.
"I would totally go to Cuba with you guys, but I'm touring.... I need that tour money...you keep not giving me my paycheck...I need that A..S..A..P," mumbled Sammy.
"You need to leave," scolded Bush in a harsh whisper.
"I ain't going to Cuba without you brother!"
He proceeded to shove Sammy's body out the office. The drunkard ragdolled onto the outside carpet before Bush slammed the door in his face. Sammy rose to his hands as the click of a lock came from the other side. He looked like some black leather clad cavemen, his curly long hair cascading down his eyes as he crawled back to the door. By some miracle he returned to his feet.
"Hey, what gives?" he groaned.
He gave several loud knocks with his sweaty fist.
"How did he get up here? That's the better question," said Gary.
Todd put his head in his hands and sighed.
"This is crazy I can't do this. I can't!" he said.
"Don't be in the mindset that this is your first rodeo. It'll only make things worse. We'll probably make it back here fine once the dust settles. That's usually how it goes," said Gary.
"Your just saying that to make be go along with it. I know what shit we're in, don't bother."
"Let's get on with it then."
Gary pointed behind him to a bookshelf.
"I've got a fresh five million in the safe. We'll divvy it up once we get this sorted," he said.
"I think I might actually use this thing," joked Todd.
He grasped the shark knife handle. Gary laughed with him and turned to Bush.
"Don't worry you will," said Gary.
"We gotta play this same circus routine again? Why can't we go to the roof and tightrope like last time. Gary! Back me up on this one!" laughed Bush.
"I say you're dressed for the occasion regardless," said Gary.
Bush walked to the other end of the office. He took a cutout of himself and posed spread eagle with it in front of him. Despite his humorous disposition, he struggled to stop shaking. Gary and Todd joined each other at the front of the desk. They took their respective knives and stretched their arms.
"What do you say? Out of three?" asked Todd.
"I say one's enough," said Gary.
"And get rid of that stupid piece of cardboard."
Bush threw the cutout to the ground. He repositioned himself, closing his eyes. Gary threw a ruler from his desk to create a line. The duo stepped behind it. As they continued to scope out their aim, Oliver wandered to Gary's chair. He fumbled around with the dozen drawers without notice.
"You first," said Gary.
Todd made a sideways stance. The shark knife blade laid loose between his fingers. He stepped a pace back before making his follow thru. His arm made a full arc, the knife sailing smooth from his hand. It ended its journey in the dry wall with a dull thud. A few strands of Bush's hair floated to the ground. It stuck a pinheads length away from his cheek.
"You think you can best me? Well you're dead wrong," said Gary.
Like Todd he took a step back.
"Don't you dare squirm around. I want to win this fair and square," he said to Bush.
The singer remained immobile. His eyes clenched harder shut. In those last moments, he wondered if he was going to faint. The next thing he heard was a quiet swish followed by a breeze to his other cheek followed by a sharp pain at his ear. Bush's jerk reaction was to yelp and move away, but he was pinned to the wall. A warm thin stream flowed down his face.
"Gotcha!" cheered Gary.
"What do you mean gotcha? I'm the guy who won," said Todd.
"You didn't win I won."
"I got it closest, you got his ear."
"That's closer than you."
"You can't change the rules like that. The goal is to not slice them. That's how we did it last time."
"That's not how it is now."
"You slimeball! You cheat me out of everything."
"A deal is a deal. It's Cuba for you."
"I demand a rematch!"
Todd gave Gary a hard shove. Gary returned the favor.
"You ain't demanding anything in my house," he said.
Soon they were spitting in each others faces. Cycling though the same argument several times. Their voices raised each time around. It was enough to reverberate through the outside halls and nearby offices.
"All your doing is stepping on me. I'm not giving you you're money," said Todd.
Bush groaned and pulled the second knife from the wall. It had punctured the bottom lobe of his ear. He stared at the bloodied tip in his shaking palm for a few seconds, just in time to look up and see the kid holding an automatic in his hands.
"What's going on in there?" moaned Sammy.
He grinned and gave the door a few more hard knocks.
"Knock knock!" he said.
"Who's there?" he answered to himself.
"I am Cornholio!"
He pulled his shirt collar over his head and made disjointed circles around the couch.
"I need TP for my bunghole!"
Sammy returned giggling to the door. He pounded his fist on it again.
Bush came bursting out, crashing hard into Sammy. In pure panic he shoved the drunkard to the ground and slammed the door behind him. Several gunshots rang out in the room. Several more came ripping through the door. Weak splinters of pine came raining down on their backs. Bush got up and went into a full sprint down the hall.
"Run fool run!" he yelled.
Sammy pushed himself up and went into a panicked flounder at Bush's heels. He made it as far as the end of the couch before falling over. Another volley of gunfire came though the walls. Bullets grazed the tight sofa leather and ripped through the powdery drywall. Sammy got up again, but stumbled back to his stomach after a few steps. Bush looped around to drag him away, but his body was loose weight.
"Come on! I'm not dying for you bastard," he groaned.
Bush dropped Sammy's arm and let him flop to the ground. He remained there face down and motionless. He hadn't been shot, but he was blackout drunk. Bush left him in his place. He snapped around and burst through the stairway door. More shots whizzed above Sammy's head, out of range from his dead posture.
Within the office, Todd lay punctured like swiss cheese on the floor. Gary had been hit twice in his leg and once in his shoulder. He'd escaped behind a foldout table and taken out his pistol. Shots came firing in the kids direction. He ducked behind the desk as lead pierced through its thick mahogany. Despite the sudden onslaught, Gary's last stand was short lived. After six shots his gun was emptied. Oliver loaded his last clip and rolled out from his spot. He fired rounds into the plastic table top from behind which his father lay. It all ended in a frustrated cry, then silence.
The kid lowered the automatic to his waist and crept over to the table. Gary was lying sideways behind it, shot to hell and dead. He prodded him a few times to be sure of it before meandering back to the bookshelf. Oliver grabbed several encyclopedias and threw them to the floor. The safe was fastened to the wall between a world atlas and a coin collectors weekly. He dialed the combination with quick fingers and opened it.
To his disappointment, the only bag in the room was the gun case. It lay in the opened secret hatch at the foot of the desk. The kid took it and started stuffing it full with money. He paused for a moment while doing this, looking at the gun, which was empty of rounds. He listened for approaching footsteps or police sirens and heard none. Despite this, a desire to move fast settled within him. His eyes traveled to the spear gun, then to Todd's body.
Sammy still lay half asleep in the hallway. The click of the doorknob behind him brought him to his hands. He turned around. Old hinges opened in a dull creak. From the door came a spear tip, then the gun, then the kid coming out in slow walk. He looked like a young disc jockey that had walked out of a zombie massacre. His shirt and long pants were sprayed with a fine dark blood, as was his newly donned footwear. Todd's boots and their metal chains clinked as he approached Sammy.
He raised the spear gun and pointed it downward. Sammy pushed himself into a panicked crawl. The ammo shot out in a clean hiss. It dug itself deep into a couch cushion. Soft upholstery snowed out from the puncture. The downed man continued his vain crawl. The fluff came down and stuck to his sweating neck. Oliver took another two steps, the gun reloaded. Another spear sailed through the hall. It whizzed past Sammy's head and stuck a record display case on the wall. A small breeze parted his hair before glass rained down on him.
Sammy continued to crawl. His heart pounded hard. At any moment he thought he might faint, but his unreliable limps kept floundering across the floor. He got himself to his feet and attempted a run. The kid advanced again. He aimed the spear gun to the back of Sammy's head. After a few quick steps, Sammy fell again on his face. He lay there, dazed and motionless. The clicking boot chains came closer.
Oliver stopped over him. He pressed the spearhead against the we back of Sammy's neck. A light grin spread across his face. He freed his hand from the trigger and made a shooting gesture to his head.
"Poof," he said.
The kid relaxed the point against Sammy's neck, hugged the gun against his arm and walked off. The last thing the to be victim saw was a bloodied frame disappearing into the stairs.
The Darkest Night
It’s been nearly thirty years, but I remember that night as though it were yesterday. The town was decimated. I remember the screams. The air so thick with terror that each breath was a struggle. The utter hopelessness weighing down. I remember. We tried to warn them, but they wouldn’t listen to us.
It was a moonless night, that Halloween so many years ago. Cloud cover blocked the pale starlight. We were the first to notice them, my gang of three. Of course, we were out where we shouldn’t be, doing things we shouldn’t do. We saw them moving through the shadows before they took the first victim. James was on the edge of the party just outside the firelight. Suddenly he was just gone. We heard strange sounds, like animals feeding, and then his strangled cry. My friends and I tried to get the other partyers to leave with us, but they wouldn’t. We moved as a pack, my friends and I, and somehow made it to the car.
But we saw. Shadows converged on the party. One moment the darkness boiled and then fell on our friends. Joy cranked the car, and a second too late I screamed for her to not turn on the lights, to just drive. In the harsh headlights, we saw the nightmares. Eyes glowing red, leathery skin, and fangs. Joy slammed the transmission in reverse and backed all the way down the narrow gravel road. We sped into town to tell what we had seen.
No one believed us. Not the police, who threatened to arrest us for wasting police resources on a Halloween prank. They said we were high and could get into serious trouble. Not the people in the church praying for the souls of the damned who celebrated this wicked holiday. Evil spirits were real, but not these creatures. The people on the streets laughed even as we saw the shadows come alive again. And then all the lights in town went out.
Joseph’s house was closest, so we went there. Some of the vampires were vicious in their kills, others almost tender. One tore into Mr. Roberts’s neck with a savage rip of its fangs. Another held Mrs. Markus’s thighs open and sensually drank from the vein in her leg. There was so much carnage and death.
Then came the terrible moment after we reached Joseph’s house. We all froze when we realized there were ten yards between the car and the safety of the house. Joseph’s hands shook as he clasped the keys tightly. The mad dash to the door. The terror when Joseph dropped the keys. The screams from all over town. Fear that the shadows would come to life any second and devour us.
Once inside, we barricaded the doors and prayed that the legends were true – that the vampires couldn’t come in unless invited. I don’t know how many cigarettes we smoked that night, listening to the town die. We huddled on the living room floor, shrinking down behind the couch, and wondered if we would see the dawn.
When the sun lit the room fully, we walked outside. The brightness of the day revealed the horror of the night - the night the vampires moved through town killing and feeding. The National Guard rolled through later that day and rounded up all the survivors. Of 20,000 souls, only 100 survived the night.
A wasteland is all that remains of my little hometown. They torched it. They burned every standing structure and the bodies wherever they lay, dedication to duty keeping them going into the night. After, the government redrew the maps, marking the spot with radiation contamination symbols.
By some miracle, Joy, Joseph, and I got relocated together. We've shared a house since. Ours is not a typical Halloween celebration, though every year we mark the night. With a circle drawn around our home and candles burning to all the saints, Christian and not. We salt all the windowsills and thresholds. Silver drapes windows and doors, and sharpened kindling stays close to hand. We remember and toast our lost friends and our lost home. We stand watch throughout the night, praying that the shadows won’t boil and birth nightmares again.
don’t leave us alone.
The porch floor creaks and moans. Old, damp wood, rotting from the inside out.
My mouth is dry, but I know this is it. This is the house.
I force saliva to coat my cracked lips.
The door budges without any effort behind it. One small nudge with both hands.
I step in, leaving the door precariously open.
A barely visible hallway spreads in front of me through the darkness.
My eyes adjust to the complete lack of light as I step deeper into the house, the wooden floorboards suddenly silent in comparison to the porch. The safe porch.
The air is thick. My body starts shaking, and once again I know.
This is it. This is the house.
The shaking gets worse as I go up the stairs. A long staircase, the wallpaper on the surrounding walls yellowing and peeling. The front door slams suddenly. There is no wind. I'm not welcome, and they know it. I know it.
My whole body becomes heavy the further up the stairs I go. Another hallway stands before me at the top. Several rooms with completely closed doors. One of them is open--
That is the trap. Do not step into the open door. Go for the sturdiest one, the one that is completely shut. But it's so tough, because that one completely open door shows me a room full of light. Of warmth. I can see a bonfire crackling away, the scent of melting chocolate, marshmallows, cold pines. Christmas. Warmth. Caramel.
Why can't I just forget all this silliness and go through that door?
Wouldn't it be easier? It's a nice place to rest. To finally let go--
a screaming voice breathes into my ear. I jump, a yelp held back.
The rest can't know I am there.
The shock from the voice is enough to make me realize I was one step away from going into the room. On second glance, the room is not warm. It is not bright. It is darker than the rest of the house. Stains around its walls, its floors. I do not need a light to know their color, their origin story. A rank, putrid scent.
Stop it. Goddamn it. Stop it.
Forcefully, I walk away from the room. Towards the one door that is completely closed off to the rest of the world.
My hands are burning cold. This is it. This is the door. I take a deep breath. I knock.
No one answers.
But the door opens, a draft of wind hitting my face.
Before I know it, a small frozen hand slides into my own. The voice is back.
"Please. Don't leave us."
We Were Friends
In September 2022, I received a call from Craig, and he asked me to check on his son as he hadn't heard from him over the last several days. Craig's in the hospital at this point.
I go across the hall and knock on his door. It's after nine-thirty and know he's home but he doesn't answer the door. I knocked louder and called out his name. "Doug! Doug! It's Bill. "
This time I pound on his door and in doing so, the door actually opened. All the lights were on, the television on, and water was flowing over the bathtub. My first thought is he fell asleep and forgot he did that. I could see him half-curled in a fetal position, on his couch, and for a moment, I thought he was just passed out drunk. Beer and Vodka were his mainstays.
As I stepped closer, I noticed two things right away. His feet and hands. They were purple. It was a moot point, but I still went up to him and shook him but got no response. When I went to check his pulse, I let go quickly because with no doubt, by the feel and texture of his skin (cold and stiff), he was dead.
Thing was, Craig was still on the line. It was an awkward thing to have to tell him, over the phone, him in the hospital, that his son at the age of 53 was dead. But tell him I did.
Because we both have the same landlord, I called Myles to let him know, then I called 911. Within two hours (yes, two hours) after police did their initial investigation, they then called the county morgue to have Doug's body removed and that took a good hour after they arrived before they did so. And just like in the movies, they put him in a body bag and zipped it closed.
They said to make certain that this was a as they put it "simple suicide", an autopsy would be performed. All this time, Craig was still on the line and could hear everything going on.
I handed the phone to one of the "morgue guys" saying this was Doug's father, the man asked Craig for his permission, then handed me back the phone.
With them taking Doug's body downstairs, I said to Craig I was sorry this happened the way it did. He said, "Nothing that boy does, surprises me anymore." Then he said goodbye and hung up.
Three weeks later in that same hospital, Craig died in his sleep. He was 72.
(I want to clarify that there was a great deal of activity going on with police coming and going. Paramedics assessing the situation, then the people from the county morgue I didn't describe but this did happen.)
My wish then is as it is now, that they both found the peace that had eluded them in life.
Hogs Get Slaughtered potential chapter 2
The corner of my mouth curls up into a grin. Looks like they aren't going to make this easy for me.
I firm up my grip on the fireman's axe and checked my corners. Nobody - but there should be. In a better world, I should have at least two men here to help with my assignment. In a sane world, I'd have three. But enough bitching. I swung the heavy axe in a slow, deliberate arc, cracking it against the door. The thing was a cheap hollow-core - I only needed a few more swings to bust it down completely.
The scene beyond was a horror beyond comprehension - just another day at the office. Piles of laminated plastic tubing covered the floor, climbing the walls like vines, hanging from the ceiling in places. The stench was familiar, yet unmistakable: vomit mixed with feces mixed with bile. Death. A naked, bloated corpse hung in the middle of the room, suspended by an elaborate beaver dam of rubber bands, bungee cables, and miscellaneous elastic odds and ends. The plastic tubes attached to its mouth, stomach, and privates... A network of skinnier tubes fed fed into injection points in the subject's arms and legs. Adrenaline, Blood, Monster NRG, all readily available at a thought.
This entire room was just one big digestive system. Incoming delivery fast food would be placed on a tray, dropped into a concentrator, and fed to the subject as a nutritious paste. Waste products would be sent directly to the sewer line, without the subject having to de-harness.
As I crossed the room, I tripped over a tube, and the cheap thing just split open, spewing an acrid, dark brown sludge. Probably the "output" tubing, but the kind of food these things run on is so terrible that I couldn't be sure. The effluent fit right in with the thin pool of mucus that seemed to coat every surface in the apartment.
Technically, my job here was done. Whenever a user goes flat, a call gets automatically sent to the fire department to check on the individual. So I go. If there's a fire, I put it out. If there isn't... I call the undertakers. There is no protocol for what to do if the user is alive and well and just decided to stop playing video games for a day. Would that even be possible?
As if on cue, a searing bolt ripped through my skull, almost knocking me down. Withdrawl symptoms, unusually severe. I'd been offline for too long -
I had to get back home. Back to the warm embrace of my tender, loving headset.
But before I could go... I owed this former human being a final farewell. I walked up to the body, and gently pulled the visor from it's face. From the hard facial features and alopecia, I was 70 percent sure that it had been a man. What always struck me about these kinds of corpses was the eyes. The eyeballs had long since shriveled up into blood-red prunes, each tipped with a chocolate chip that used to be a pupil. I reached out with one hand and pushed the eyelids down. Unfortunately, they hadn't been used in so long that they sprang back open immediately. I tried a couple more times, but eventually gave up.
Based on the user activitiy logs, this individual had been deceased for about two hours.
The people who come up with time-of-death have never looked a dead man in the eyes. But I had. A terrible feeling crawled up my spine, like a foot-long spider on my back. It whispered to me. It told me that the corpse in front of me had died far earlier than any brain-scan, vital sign, or activity log would suggest.
The Purgatory 2.0 system had dropped three weeks ago, and it was already claiming its first victims.
The Bank Job
Idestam eyed the clock. The second hand impassively ticked across the clock’s face. He couldn’t hear it, but imagined a bass drum beating out a marching beat to it. Each swipe of the metal hand made another strike on the drum. The rhythm, though in Idestam’s head, accented the monotony. The chair he sat in creaked as Idestam leaned back to look through a door propped open on the other side of the bank lobby.
Christiansen chewed a new stick of gum as he watched the younger agent.
“Places to be, kid?”
Idestam looked back. “No, no. She just said the manager would be here in a minute. It’s been quite a few minutes.”
“Get some shut eye,” recommended the senior agent. “It’s nice to have nothing to do.”
“Well,” Idestam said slowly. “Yeah. But, then again, the lobby of a bank isn’t exactly a great place for a snooze.”
“It’s a bank. They’re white-collar. Any drama here is not going to be in our wheelhouse.”
“Not according to Dreamland,” countered Idestam in a hushed tone. He kept the monitor briefcase against his chest and continued watching the lobby. The interior decoration appeared historic. Gold facades traveled along the walls and ceiling. Oil paintings sat in wooden frames. Even the lighting inside was held in emerald glass sconces. The floor consisted of marble tiling.
A few patrons of the bank quietly conversed with tellers through brass bar windows. A lady in pumps and a pink dress pushed a baby carriage as the security guard held a door open for her. She thanked the man in a heavy, British accent. The security guard, potbellied and gray-haired, welcomed her inside while Idestam watched the two.
“It’ll turn out to be a big ol’ pot of nothing soup. Just like the last two times.” Christiansen shrugged. He settled his hands in his lap and rested his head on the wall behind him. The old man closed his eyes with a slight grin.
“What’s the ratio on… you know, negative to positive… soups,” asked Idestam. His eyes landed on a man hunched over the island in the middle of the lobby. The man wiped at an inflamed nose vigorously with a dirty napkin. Every few wipes, he stopped to pinch at his nostrils with it. Bloodshot, jaundiced eyes flitted around the room as he wiped. A forced, nasally breath into the saturated cloth echoed in the lobby’s raised ceiling.
“Things are going to get a lot less boring for you if you disturb my nap,” cautioned Christiansen with a murmur.
“Right. Right,” said Idestam. He continued his absent-minded surveillance of the bank’s interior. Over here, a young bank teller smiled and wished a businessman a good day as he left. Over there, a woman filled out paperwork at a desk under the eye of an accountant. At the counter, two teenage boys stood waiting on the teller. An older woman, the teller, counted out dollars while smiling at them over the top of her glasses. One boy fidgeted with a skateboard he held at his waist. The other one, taller and more bedraggled, looked from the money on the counter to the door and back again, repeatedly. He ran a hand through messy, brown hair as he watched the lady count and then watched the door. Idestam kept his gaze on the tall one.
“Excuse me, gentlemen?” The bank employee from earlier approached the two agents. “Mr. Mosby said if you’d like to wait in his office, I can take you there.” She offered with a polite smile.
Christiansen took to his feet and clapped his hands together. His southern charm persona resumed itself effortlessly as he spoke. “Excellent. I’m sure we could do with a change in scenery. Though my partner was just commenting on the old-timey decor. Very nice place.”
The woman kept her smile. “Yes, it’s one of the oldest in Northern California. Our history goes back to the Gold Rush. We like to preserve as much of the old architecture as we can.”
Idestam and Christiansen followed the employee back past the tellers desk and into a longer room full of cubicles. The gold trim and oak walls continued on in here, though with modern light in place of the old-fashioned lamps. A few office workers tapping away at computers ignored the agents as they were led through the room. Through the room, into another hallway, the men passed a staircase and were brought to a wooden door with frosted glass. The woman opened it and beckoned inside.
A broad, dark wood desk stood inside with a personal computer and several stacks of paper. A coat rack held a brown suit coat and hat. On shelves around the desk, someone had arranged leather bound books and small, statuesque bookends. A large, arching window let sunlight cascade into the room behind the desk. Just beneath the window, a small globe shared a bench with a leafy plant and a plaque commemorating thirty years of work.
“Please, have a seat,” The woman pointed to two, leathercraft chairs against the wall. Both agents nodded and sat. The bank employee left, closing the door behind her. Christiansen immediately stood up again and pointed to the monitor briefcase.
“Crack ’er open, kid. Let’s get started.”
“What if the manager comes back while we’re scanning?” Idestam asked as he undid the clasps on the briefcase.
“That’s why we’re doing it quickly. Besides, they think we’re Secret Service. C’mon. Give me the EMF reader.”
Idestam pulled the thin remote out and handed it to Christiansen. As the senior agent began sweeping it around the room, Idestam pulled the Geiger counter out of the briefcase. He checked its battery before turning it on and pointing it towards the desk.
Christiansen finished his sweep and shook his head. “Not much. You get anything, kid?”
Idestam turned the Geiger counter off. “No. A little elevation, but nothing to write home about.” Idestam slid the device back into its holster inside the monitor. He took the EMF reader when Christiansen handed it back. Into the monitor it went, and Idestam clicked the briefcase closed.
“All right. We tried scanning the parking garage behind the bank. This office is on the back end of things. The Office said they detected a Signal burst somewhere back here. What do you think?”
“I think you’ll be having frozen yogurt very soon,” Idestam said. He looked around the office. “This place feels like a… discount Bond villain’s office. Before he reveals the evil lair?”
“James Bond?” Christiansen asked after a moment’s thought. “Like, GoldenEye and stuff?”
“Yeah, you know it. This is like the front for the evil guy.”
“Well, it is a bank,” said Christiansen as he thought further.
The door flung open. A large man with red cheeks and sweat stains under the arms stood in the doorway. Christiansen and Idestam exchanged a look. Christiansen slowly stood up and offered a hand.
“Hi, I’m Age--”
“--yes, you men are from the Secret Service, correct? Yes?” The man asked breathlessly.
Both agents nodded. Idestam gripped the briefcase against him. He looked the newcomer up and down. The dress pants matched the jacket on the coat hook. A striped dress shirt struggled to remain tucked in around the man’s expansive waist. The man dabbed a cloth across his forehead with deep breaths.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but, erm, could you come with me please?” The man flung both arms in a motion towards the hall as he stepped back out of the office. Christiansen nodded and followed him out. Idestam rose out of his chair and hurried after the men.
“I’m Mr… Mr. Mosby,” the large man huffed as he led them back through the hallway and down the staircase they’d seen earlier. “Apologize for my… present state. We’ve never had this happen before.”
Christiansen looked back at Idestam with a large grin and gave a thumbs up as they descended the stairs. Idestam set his jaw. The concrete stairs echoed their footsteps around them.
“Had what happen, sir?” Idestam asked the bank manager.
The bank manager paused on a break in the staircase. He put both hands on his knees and struggled to draw in a deep breath. The man shook his head as he tried to respond. “The vault timer. Only opens at certain times. We opened it today and…” he righted himself and waved the men on.
They descended the stairs into a bleak, concrete hallway. Rounding the corner, Idestam came to face several security guards from both the bank and an armored car company standing outside a large steel door. The circular door could have been a movie set. It hung open on massive, metal hinges and blocked his view into the vault. The bank guards held pistols. The armored car employee stood off to one side, hand on his holstered weapon. Everyone wore confused, worried looks.
“Excuse me, folks,” Christiansen said. He waved the men back. He and Idestam received perplexed glances, but the security guards obeyed when Mr. Mosby motioned them to. Christiansen walked around the vault door and stopped. He shot Idestam an interested look, put both hands on his hips, and looked back into the vault. “Huh.”
Idestam passed the gathered men and walked to Christiansen’s side. Along the walls of the vault’s interior, steel lockboxes stood in columns on all three sides. A small steel table in the center sat barren. And, in front of the table, a man stood bearing the demeanor of someone both puzzled and inconvenienced.
“Good morning,” the man said hesitantly. His voice sounded like something out of a Hollywood western. His thick mustache and thin spectacles matched his voice. The man’s hands gripped the edges of a frock coat, holding it over his shoulders. The coat flared out at the man’s waist. Straight cut trousers rose up to meet the silk vest and button-up shirt he wore under the jacket. The strangest appearance of the man came in the form of a dusty top hat on his head.
Christiansen stared at the man. Looking him up and down, Christiansen turned to Mr. Mosby.
“So… I take it he wasn’t here when you last closed the vault?”
Mr. Mosby sputtered. “No! Not at all. We had… we had an alarm sensor trip this morning. It detected movement. But I checked the door and it hadn’t been opened since. I figured a passing truck or something set it off.”
“Happen often, rush hour traffic triggering your state-of-the-art security system?” Christiansen asked with a sly smile.
“Play nice,” murmured Idestam.
“We had no reason to suspect this… man to be here!” protested Mr. Mosby. “In all my years here, we’ve never had a problem.”
“And, you didn’t want to cause a fuss or draw attention to your bank,” concluded Christiansen with a nod. He turned back to the man. “Good morning. How are you feeling?”
“I must say--” The man started, but Mr. Mosby interrupted.
“I-I want this man arrested. Arrested! You’re Secret Service. He’s breaking into a bank. This is clearly a failed attempt to breach one of California’s most historic financial institutions and humiliate us.” Mr. Mosby wagged a finger at the man as he panted. “In all my time here. All my time. We’ve never had such a thing happen.”
“Right,” Christiansen said. He examined the vault with a squint. “This daring cat burglar just broke in here without disturbing anything or raiding any of the safety deposit boxes. He merely waited around to be caught. Right after… seemingly appearing out of thin air.” Christiansen gave a sideways glance to Idestam, who set his jaw and nodded.
“Cat burglar?” The strange man asked. “You must be mistaken. I was with your associate, Mister Spencer, to make a deposit when everything… changed.” He gestured around the vault.
“There is no Spencer here,” countered Mr. Mosby. The bank manager’s breathing steadied, but sweat continued to streak over his balding head. “I would know. I know every employee here.”
Idestam kept the briefcase in one hand as he stepped into the vault. Christiansen followed him in. The stranger took a step back with a glare towards Mr. Mosby.
“I dare say he’s more than an employee. He and Mister Brockheim founded this institution, of which’s services I have exercised for safe storage. Go and fetch him. He’ll recognize me. We’ve never had any problems with this arrangement.”
“Well, this is one, big problem for you, now,” muttered Idestam.
“What did you say?” The man asked.
Idestam didn’t answer. Christiansen turned to face the others behind them. He smiled and opened his arms in a welcoming posture.
“This, in fact, happens to be the man we’ve been looking for,” Christiansen announced to the bystanders.
“I am?” Asked the man.
“He-- Yes, he is,” Idestam caught himself with a nod. “You are.”
“You’re under arrest,” Christiansen told the man.
“You don’t even know who I am,” scoffed the man with a hand on his chest.
“Of course, we do. You’ve been robbing banks all along the West Coast these past few years and now, thanks to the security in this fine institution,” Christiansen tipped his head towards Mr. Mosby and the security guards. The senior agent began to pace in the small space between the vault entrance and the strange. He clicked his teeth. “...we have finally caught you.”
Mr. Mosby tried, poorly, to hide his surprise, but nodded along as Christiansen spoke.
“Bank robber? Bank robber? I am no ba--”
“Mister Mosby!” Christiansen loudly proclaimed, opening his arms wide. “Of course. That was the point of this whole operation. And now we have him. Hook, line, and sinker. All thanks to you red-blooded Americans doing your part,” he motioned to all of the bank employees watching. “And, as promised, there is a reward for his capture. A little something from Uncle Sam to thank you for being such diligent stewards of our economic safety.”
Some of the security guards began to exchange small smiles. A few men nodded to each other. Mr. Mosby cleared his throat.
“A r-reward?” He asked politely.
“Of course! You remember the dispatch the Secret Service sent to you all. I’m sure you can be trusted to dispense it amongst your staff,” Christiansen said with a playful smile. Idestam suppressed a grin of his own as he watched the older agent work.
“After all, this expertly-planned sting operation went without a hit--”
A loud, metallic clang sound barked from upstairs. The harsh noise reverberated throughout the hall. Its staccato report bounced off of the walls and ceiling in the vault. Everyone’s attention snapped towards the stairwell.
“What the hell was--”
“That was a gunshot.”
“Yeah, that’s a weapon!” The guards all exclaimed to each other. Fresh worry deepened their already anxious expressions. The men shifted in place. People looked past Mr. Mosby to Christiansen.
An additional gunshot and several screams came from upstairs. An alarm began to bleat throughout the building. A revolving light in the ceiling of the vault flashed red hues across the walls as it spun into action. The bank’s security froze. Mr. Mosby’s face drained of all color. The massive vault door groaned as it automatically started closing. Christiansen and Idestam exchanged a glance before Christiansen clapped his hands.
“And those would be his partners-in-crime! Gentlemen, hop to!” He rallied the security and walked out of the vault. Christiansen waved them on. The men hesitantly nodded and left. The armored car employee stayed behind. Christiansen gestured for the man to follow. “You too, hero. You got that fancy vest on. We’ve got this man secure. Go on.”
“I’m just paid to get from point A to point B,” the man stammered in a weak protest.
“All right. Congratulations. I’m deputizing you into federal service. First order of business is to go make sure all those civilians are safe with that shiny side iron of yours.” Christiansen pointed in the direction of the stairs. Idestam took the strange man by the arm and pulled him along as they left the vault. The door slammed shut as both men cleared its threshold.
“I really don’t--”
“--either you go help the other guards, or I’ll see to it you do as much time in lockup as the bank robbers for accessory to the crime,” snapped Christiansen. The man meekly nodded and ran after the bank’s security.
Christiansen turned to the panting, pale Mr. Mosby. The bank manager mopped at his head with a handkerchief and stared vacantly down the hallway. His mouth hung open in silence.
“Mister Mosby. Mister Mosby,” tried Christiansen. He snapped his fingers in front of Mr. Mosby and whistled. “Mis-ter Mosby. Come back to us.”
Mr. Mosby’s eyes slide over towards the senior agent. The pupils dilated into dark ovals. He said nothing but continued to leave his mouth hanging. His lower lip quivered.
“Mister Mosby,” Christiansen spoke with a soft tone. “I would recommend you hurry on to your office. It would be safest there.”
“You r-really think so?”
“Yes, of course,” reassured Christiansen. “Someone rushes into a bank free-firing a weapon like that? They’re just after petty cash. No one needs the manager during times like these. Go on and collect yourself. Say, is there an exit on this level?”
“The… the cash car parks in an underground lot down… that way,” Mr. Mosby lifted a shaking finger up the hallway from the vault.
“Very good. No other ways out?” Christiansen asked. His calm demeanor seemed to steady Mr. Mosby who shook his head and coughed.
“We’re still remodeling. Everything down here is going to be storage and offices, but the garage is the only way out down here.”
“Very good, very good. You may go now, Mr. Mosby.”
The bank manager left in a rushed waddle without another word. More gunshots came from upstairs. Christiansen drew his service weapon with a look to Idestam.
“Research and Development are going to have a field day with this. A Class Four burst with him popping out of it? We’re having a great bowl of soup right now,” he remarked.
The man coughed. “I’m sorry, did you say research and dev-”
Christiansen interrupted the man as he took him by the shoulder. “Hey, check it out, you’re about to stay in a fancy hotel. Real swell place. Right this way. Kid, you got the monitor?”
“Right here,” said Idestam. He lifted the briefcase up and shook it slightly.
“Unhand me!” The stranger protested. “Arrested? I have never been treated so undignified! I demand to see Mister Spencer. Go fetch him. This instance.”
Christiansen stopped and leaned closer to the man. “Did you not hear the gunshots?” He asked evenly. “Are you absolutely certain this is a good time to be making demands?”
The man’s face screwed into an expression of anger and frustration. “I have been kept in the dark for God knows how long and now you treat me as a common miscreant. No, sir. No, you shall not.”
“I can leave you here to be shot. A bullet is a gamble. You’ll either die quickly like a farm animal or bleed on the floor as the robbers go through your pockets,” warned Christiansen. “Or, you could come with us. We’ll settle all of this for you. Questions answered and everything. But first, we have to leave.”
The man harrumphed and straightened the ends of his frock coat. “You will expect a harsh word from me to your superiors once outside. Arresting me. What a grave mistake you have made, I assure you.” Despite his protests, the man motioned forward. “Lead the way.”
The three of them traveled down the hallway at a quick pace. Christiansen checked over their shoulders every few steps. The gunfire subsided, though indecipherable shouts still came from upstairs. The security system’s shrill alarm continued its pestering.
“I’m sorry, what ‘service’ did you say you represent?” The man asked as Christiansen forced him to follow with a tight grip on his arm. “I haven’t caught either of your names. What a ferocious sound…” He added with a bewildered glare towards the ceiling.
“Secret Service,” lied Christiansen. “I’m Jupiter. This is Whiskers.”
“I say. A secret service? Is this an arm of the Federals?”
Christiansen gave him a quizzical glance, but he continued down the hallway. “Yeah. Yeah, we’re federal agents.”
“I don’t think I like your tone,” the man said.
“That’ll keep me up at night, I assure you,” said Christiansen.
“You speak with them like a genuine Virginian gentleman, but to me you take on the character of an uneducated factory boy,” the man spat. “I’ll have you know I am one of the top minds at the forefront of scientific discovery in this century.”
“Decade, maybe. We’ll figure out which one later,” said Christiansen as he hurried the man along.
“Decade?” The man asked in an incredulous tone. “Decade?”
“Later,” Christiansen said.
The men passed multiple dark hallways as they approached the garage. Leftover construction equipment sat scattered on the floors. Tarps hung from frames in the walls. A mobile light stand cast a long beam across an incomplete section of drywall.
“Good heavens,” exclaimed the man as he examined his surroundings. What happened to the clerks’ counter? And Mister Spencer’s office? The stagecoach’s relay desk?”
“It is imperative that you shut the hell up, right now,” warned Christiansen with a finger on his own lips.
Christiansen stopped at the door to the garage and motioned for the other two to stand on the other side. He waited for them before slowly opening the door. More crimson red light glimmered through the doorway as he swung it open.
Idestam glanced in. The armored car stood in the garage. Beyond it, a short ramp climbed up to street level. A barrier of metal sheeting stood in the way. The alarm’s red light reflected off the metal security grate. The klaxon’s harsh tones magnified inside the garage.
“Of course. It probably locked down the second someone pulled the alarm,” said Christiansen with an exasperated tone. He checked the hallway behind them.
“We could hide in the construction area and wait for the all-clear,” suggested Idestam.
“No. The Office’s Secret Service aliases are notoriously weak. Any form of law enforcement that sweeps through this building is going to double-check our IDs. Plus, there’s no explaining this guy. We’d get too much heat and probably lose him to the system. Give me the monitor. I’ll take it and him. You take point. We’re going to go up and out one of the fire exits.” Christiansen holstered his weapon and stuck a hand out. Idestam gave the briefcase to Christiansen before producing his own service weapon from out of his suit jacket. Christiansen took the monitor briefcase and then grabbed the man by the arm. “Stay very quiet. We’ll have to go back up the stairs.”
“Upstairs?” The man asked. “There’s no--”
“--there is no time for any of this,” Christiansen stopped him. “We’ll explain everything afterwards. Once we’re outside.”
“I daresay I’d rather an explanation now. This is an entirely inappropriate way to treat me after everything I have done for your bank.”
“Come on now,” Christiansen ordered with gritted teeth and moved to walk back up the hallway. The man wrested his arm out of Christian’s grasp and stepped back. He sneered and tilted his head back, glaring at Christiansen.
“While I admit this turn of events as of recent are unprecedented, I must protest your complete lack of decorum. I have patronized this fine establishment--”
“--Okay, listen close, cowboy.” Christiansen checked up the hallway. “I’ve promised my partner here to cut back on how often I, eh, harm folks in our line of work. But you, sir, are testing my integrity right now. The situation is a mite stressful and your cooperation would go a long ways in easing that.”
“Harm?” The man exclaimed in loud shock. “You insolent--”
Christiansen dropped the briefcase and seized the man in one fluid motion, pushing him against the wall and clamping a hand over his mouth. The man protested in muffled tones. Christiansen checked both ways and then glanced at Idestam. “I might shoot him.”
Idestam, already watching the stairwell, returned his glance. “Could prove quieter.”
“Hey, good news, you managed to get the kid and I to agree on something,” Christiansen hissed at their captive. The man’s eyes widened. “Play nice and we can get out of here safely. Home free, frozen yogurt. Can you stay quiet?”
The man gave a frantic nod and murmured something.
Christiansen broke his focus and smiled. He let go of the man and fixed his jacket for him, tugging at the ends of it. He dusted off one shoulder of the coat and then gave a big smile to Idestam. “See, kid? Character growth.”
“We have to move,” Idestaim said. “They may be coming down for the vault.”
“Right. You, behind us. Quiet. Nice. Home free, got it?” Christiansen asked. He picked up the briefcase.
“Y-yes.” The man agreed.
“Lead the way, kid,” ordered Christiansen.
The men advanced their way back to the stairwell. Idestam motioned with one hand for the others to stay back. Christiansen and their guest halted in the shadow of the stairs. Idestam crept up the barren, concrete steps and peered around the curve of the railing as the stairwell doubled back. He couldn’t see over the top of the stairs. Treading up them with careful quietness, Idestam held his service weapon ready as he reached the end of the stairwell.
A security guard laid against the wall beside a doorway leading to the front of the bank. Dark scarlet stains seeped through the man’s white uniform top. Slow, heavy breathing lifted one side of the man’s chest, with the other failing to rise and fall in unison. The man’s eyes lazily wandered towards Idestam. A pistol sat in his lap. Bloody smearing on the floor indicated how far the guard had crawled. The messy trail led back through the doorway.
Idestam’s head swiveled as he checked both ways before entering the hallway. He noted a fire exit down one end before returning to look at the guard. Idestam crouched and scrambled over to the guard’s side. The wounded man watched Idestam’s movements with sluggish eyes. His lips moved just as slowly with cyanotic blue tones overtaking his skin color.
“How many?” Asked Idestam in a low voice. He looked over the man through the doorway. It opened up into the cubicle space they’d been guided through before. He could see some officer workers on the ground, hands on their heads. Someone, it sounded from outside in the lobby, shouted orders at everyone. Idestam refocused on the wounded guard. “How many are out there?”
The man’s gaze appeared to pass through Idestam. He didn’t answer the question. Instead, he groaned and coughed blood across the tile floor.
Idestam’s training from the Army, from before the clandestine Post Office had recruited him, kicked in. He began to undo the man’s uniform shirt and ripped through the last few buttons on it. Underneath, a cheap vest of body armor bore a gaping hole in its fabric. Idestam grunted in frustration as he tore open the vest’s velcro closures. He passed his hand along the chest until his fingers slipped into the bullet hole. Idestam grabbed the man’s hand and placed it over the hole.
“Here. Hold this here. Stem the bleeding a little bit,” Idestam urged him. “How many gunmen are there?”
“Whiskers,” Christiansen’s harsh whisper came from the stairwell. “Whiskers, what the hell? There’s no time for this.”
Idestam looked back to see the senior agent leaning out of the stairwell. The old man glared and gestured around them. Idestam pointed at the guard and mouthed “He’s wounded.”
“C’mon, kiddo!” Christiansen seethed quietly. “I’m not looking to stick around and end up like him.”
Idestam muttered a curse and turned back to the guard. “Keep that hand there. We’ll send help.” He rose and glanced down the hallway before pointing to the fire exit and waving Christiansen forward. “This way.”
Christiansen left the stairwell with the strange man in tow. The man paused as he took in the wounded man, and he let out a loud “Oh, dear heavens…”
Christiansen wheeled back around and grabbed the man’s arm. “Shut the hell up. Are you crazy?”
“Who’s out there?” An angry voice called from inside the office space.
Christiansen wrenched on the man’s arm and dragged him down the hall. Christiansen's use of force caused the man to stumble and trip over his own feet. Christiansen sped towards the fire exit with the stranger in tow, ignoring his protests.
“Go, go,” said Idestam in a whisper as the senior agent passed him. “I’ve got this.”
Idestam began walking backwards as soon as the other two men left his sight. He heard angry shouting from up the hall, and focused his pistol’s sights towards the office doorway. His heartbeat thumped in his ears. Idestam forced himself to breathe slower and ignore the surge of adrenaline in him. He felt his chest loosening as he took deliberate, long draws of air through his nose.
And then, over the top of his pistol sights, he saw a figure step into the hallway. A red sports jacket. Jeans. A bandana tied over his nose and mouth. The man held a long-barreled shotgun with both hands gripping its wooden stock. He glanced at the wounded security guard in the hallway and then up at Idestam. Idestam fired one bullet.
The man recoiled back without a sound. A puff of red mist flew up out of the man’s chest. The force of the round twisted him backwards in an awkward spin. His body gave a large, dull thud as it hit the floor beside the guard. The noise’s echo became lost in the din of the security alarm.
“James!” Someone shouted elsewhere.
Idestam stopped walking. Kneeling down, he kept his eyes on the doorway. His hand searched the floor until it found his bullet’s shell. He pinched the spent shell casing up off the floor. It burned his fingers as he shoved it into a suit pocket.
Idestam stood back up just as someone else leaned out of the doorway. They pointed a long barrel at him and fired. The weapon belched a quick report. Idestam heard the sound of wasps zipping past him. Something stung the side of his neck. An icy coldness bit into Idestam.
“Goddamnit!” Christiansen shouted behind him.
Idestam fired two more rounds down the hall. He stopped to grab the shell casings again, but Christiansen shouted.
“Kid, help me here!”
Idestam looked back to see Christiansen at the fire exit, supporting the strange man’s collapsed form. He’d dropped the briefcase to catch him. The man braced himself on Christiansen and the wall with both arms. He struggled to stand and instead doubled over on himself.
Idestam snatched up the two brass shells on the ground. Turning, he ran to Christiansen.
The senior agent grunted as Idestam approached. “What, you're policing brass right now?”
“Leave no trace,” Idestam explained breathlessly. He helped hoist the man upright between the two agents.
Christiansen threw himself against the push bar of the fire exit, and the three of them stumbled out into an alleyway beside the bank. The man whimpered gibberish as they carried down the alleyway a few steps
“Hold him up,” Christiansen ordered Idestam as the senior agent let go of the man. He doubled back to the door. Leaning in, he grabbed the briefcase and the stranger’s discarded top hat. Christiansen then pulled the fire exit shut. As the door slammed close, the security alarm’s whining immediately muted. The klaxon’s screeching could be heard through the walls, but now it came out muddled and softened through the stone walls.
“I’ve been mortally wounded,” bemoaned the stranger. Idestam propped him up against the wall. The man rested his head back and furrowed his brow. The stark transition from the building to sunlight forced him to squint. “I never imagined my life ending in such a way. Snuffed out in my intellectual prime. I was going to change everything.”
“Where were you hit?” Asked Idestam. He began forcing the frock coat off over the stranger’s shoulders. “Work with me here. Where were you hit?”
“My legs,” the man feebly answered. “I cannot feel my legs. I’ll never again know what it is like to walk in the fresh meadows.”
Christiansen came up next to Idestam. “Is it bad?”
“I can’t tell. Help me with the coat.”
As both agents wrestled the frock coat off and began stripping the man, he slumped down and sat against the wall. Distant police sirens made themselves known from elsewhere in the city. Christiansen looked up and cursed.
“Have to hurry, kiddo,” he chided Idestam.
“I am, I am.” Idestam leaned the man forward and began checking his back. Only a few spots of frayed fabric presented themselves on his dress-up vest. Idestam ran his hand over it, but found nothing else. The drying blood from the security guard left smears over the stranger’s clothing as Idestam searched. He looked up at Christiansen and motioned for the discarded frock coat. Examining the thick fabric, Idestam rubbed it between both hands. He stopped and chuckled.
“It must have been birdshot. All his layers stopped the pellets at that distance,” explained Idestam. He leaned over the stranger. “You're fine. No blood. You’re fine.”
“Must have been. Looks like you got nicked, too,” Christiansen pointed out.
As the adrenaline slowly wore off, Christiansen’s words brought Idestam’s attention back. The stinging in his neck made itself known again. He lifted a hand to it and checked the wound. “Just a graze. I’m fine. They were firing blindly. Easy miss.”
The man weakly raised his hand towards the afternoon sun. “I am only blessed to spend my final moments in the warmth of God’s own sky.” His voice trailed off.
“No,” Idestam said with some annoyance. “You’re fine. Get up.” Both he and Christiansen grabbed the stranger by the arms and lifted him to his feet. The man wavered on his feet, but slowly regained balance. Christiansen forced the top hat back down on the man's head. The stranger pulled it back up over his eyes and blinked rapidly. The senior agent tossed the frock coat over the stranger’s shoulder.
“Oh gentlemen,” he moaned to the agents. “You’ve saved my life. I fear I must ask of you one more favor, however.”
“What? No.” Christiansen shook his head. Placing his hand on the man’s back, he began to propel the man forwards as both agents walked. “We’re getting you to a nice, safe place.”
“But, my deposit. We cannot allow those ruffians to steal it. I store all of my inventions in the vault before presenting them to investors.”
“Inventions?” Asked Christiansen wearily as they continued on.
“Ah, this one is a most marvelous creation. Gentlemen, what would you say if I told you that instead of telegram, you could talk to someone on the East Coast. Right. As if in the very same room. However, here you’d be in Sacramento. And there your compatriot would be in, say, Boston or Richmond.”
Idestam and Christiansen exchanged a glance.
“What year is it? To you?” Asked Idestam after a moment.
“Why it’s Eighteen Fifty Two. And mark the date, gentlemen, for this is the year we change everything.”
“Right. Change everything,” said Christiansen.
“I shall call it the ‘Dislocuter’, from Latin. Say, which street are we on?” The man looked around them. “I don’t recall such tall, decadent buildings.”
“Right, that will catch on. I think you’re tired. Let’s get you to a warm bed, huh?” Christiansen coaxed the man.
They rounded the back of the building and approached the bank’s parking garage. A blue and white police helicopter rushed overhead, causing the men to hasten their steps. The stranger marveled at the ‘peculiar machine’ and the appearance of the parking garage as a ‘bizarre stable’. Christiansen guided the man to their car.
“Are you sure I’m not wounded? Everything is so alien all of a sudden. Are these carriages? Where are the horses kept?”
Christiansen opened the back door and forced the man into the car. “Okay, I’m getting tired of your schtick. Get in.” He tossed the briefcase onto the seat next to the stranger and closed the door behind him. The senior agent sighed in the new silence.
Turning to Idestam, Christiansen asked. “You all right, kid?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. What’s next?”
“We’ll take him to a safe house. I’ll call it up. This idiot will get a real kick out of that,” said Christiansen with a thumb towards their passenger. “You drive.”
“Of course,” said Idestam. Both men walked to their sides of the care.
“Think that bank manager will make it out alright?” Idestam asked, looking over the top of the car to Christiansen.
Christiansen shrugged. “He’ll be fine. Cops are here. An ambulance won’t be too far behind.”
“Didn’t seem to do too well under pressure,” remarked Idestam as he opened the driver's side door. He ignored the bloody handprint he left on the handle.
“He shouldn’t work at a bank, then. It’s more dangerous than working for the Office.”
Hello! This short story is from my fictional work "A Familiar Darkness" and is a standalone story. Think of this as like The X-Files' monster-of-the-week episode, with the main storyline being available on my profile. I also publish on Reddit and Royal Road if those platforms are easier for you to access!