The Third Door

The doorbell kept on ringing, even though I’d barely even have time to jerk up out of my chair.  “I’m coming!  I’m coming!” I shouted, aware that the person outside likely couldn’t hear me, but still feeling annoyed.

I clomped down the hallway that connected my home office to the front door, hearing the hardwood floor creak under my feet as I drew closer.  Past the living room, the door to the coat closet, and finally, I arrived at the front door.  Through the curtain, I could see a shadowy figure standing outside, waiting for me to draw back the bolt.

From how he was still pushing my doorbell, I guessed that he wasn’t the patient type…

“Listen, whatever you’re selling, I’m really not interested-” I began as I hauled my front door open, but the sentence died about halfway out of my mouth.  This man did not look like a salesman.

He wore a dark pea coat over a charcoal suit, complete with black tie.  He’d fit right in among the crowds in the financial district, but he looked a little out of place in my suburban neighborhood.  “Mr. Halifax?” he asked, looking up at me from beneath the brim of a dark, short-brimmed hat.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I replied, a little perplexed.  The man looked a little like a lawyer, perhaps.  Was I being sued?  Another crazed reader gone off the deep end, perhaps?

“Good to meet you,” the man replied, still sounding slightly preoccupied.  “May I step inside?”

Instead of answering, I pointed up at his hat.  “I was just trying to recall the name of those,” I said, aiming at the middle of his forehead.  “Bowler, isn’t it?”

“Trilby,” he replied, taking off the hat in question.  “Different brim.  In fact, now that I consider it, Mr. Halifax, why don’t you step outside?”

I blinked at the man.  “It’s February, Mr., er-“

“Smith will be sufficient.”

“Mr. Smith, then.  I’m in little more than a bathrobe and boxers!  I don’t even have shoes on!”

“It’s quite pressing,” the man insisted, his eyes narrowing at me under that little hat.  “In fact, Mr. Halifax, this could be a matter of health and safety.”

I still didn’t know what this odd little fellow was after, but I wasn’t feeling up to arguing with him.  Especially not with the door open, letting out all the heat – although now that I was up, the fresh air did feel good against my skin.  Maybe I’d been sitting in front of my laptop for too long, staring blankly at the equally empty page shining back at me.

“Let me just grab my shoes, then,” I told the little Mr. Smith, turning around.  “They’re just inside my closet.”

With the man watching from my open door, I clomped back inside, over to my front hall closet, the middle door between the front door and the living room.  But as I bent over, reaching inside for my shoes, I paused.

Middle door?

Wasn’t my front hall closet right next to the front door?

Somehow, Mr. Smith must have caught my confusion.  Even as I straightened up, turning towards the third door, the one that wasn’t supposed to be there, the man darted inside and blocked my path.  “Mr. Halifax, you mustn’t!” he called out desperately.

“Who are you?” I returned, unable to decide whether to focus on the man, or the mysterious door behind him.  Mr. Smith wasn’t big enough to block the whole thing, but it looked normal enough to me.  Dark wood, a knob that had started off brass but had blackened with age and use.  It could have been any other door in my old, sagging, aging house, a door routinely opened by any other old, sagging, aging science fiction writer.

But it wasn’t.  It didn’t belong.

After a minute, my eyes finally settled back on Mr. Smith, who was now watching me like a small dog might eye a large wolf.  “You,” I finally said.  “You know something about this?”

“Only that it shouldn’t be meddled with!” Mr. Smith insisted.  “I knew that it would be here.  Nothing else!  Please, Mr. Halifax, we need to leave!”

But it was too late – I could already feel that dastardly cat that haunts so many writers awakening within me.  Mystery, she was called, and she was a cruel yet seductive mistress.  And inside my mind, that cat was roused.

“So, you’ve seen these before, have you?” I asked Mr. Smith, surreptitiously sidling closer.

“Several, yes,” he responded, watching me but not moving otherwise.

“And you never opened the door?”

The man glared at me.  “I burned them down, Mr. Halifax,” he told me shortly.  His hand dipped into one pocket of his pea coat, and I wondered if it was wrapping around a batch of matches, or perhaps a lighter.

“And you never wondered?” I asked him.  I was almost close enough!  If only the man would move…

In that moment, I saw the little Mr. Smith hesitate, looking down.  That was his mistake.  He shouldn’t have taken his eyes off of me.

I darted forward, dropping my shoulder.  My football days were long, long since behind me, but I still had enough mass to knock the smaller man aside, clearing the door in front of me.  He fell, slipping on my rug and landing down on the floor with a cry of surprise and pain.

I reached out, wrapping my hand around the doorknob.  Was it just my imagination, or was it slightly warm?

“No, Mr. Halifax!  You mustn’t!” cried out Mr. Smith from the floor, but I was no longer listening.

I opened the door.

And stared, my jaw falling open, at what I saw beyond…

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The Family Pet

I stood in front of the door, trying to keep my knees from knocking together.  Remember, Harry, just be polite and open, I told myself inside my head.  Sure, you don’t want to ruin things with this girl by offending her family, but you’re a nice enough guy.  Just stay polite, and it will all be fine.

After one last breath, I reached out and rang the bell.  Here goes nothing…

For a second, I heard nothing, and then the strangest sounds started radiating out from the other side of the door.  If I had to describe them, I’d say that they most resembled a live octopus being slowly pressed through a pasta roller.  It was loud, rather wet, and decidedly unpleasant.

“Kiji, back!  No, I said back!  Kiji, we have visitors, you have to behave!”  I perked up.  I knew that voice!

A moment later, my girlfriend opened up the door.  “Hi, Jules,” I greeted her, stepping up and giving her a brief hug.  She grinned back at me, showing off that little smirk I loved so much.

Jules was, in a word, amazing.  I’d met her four months previously, and had instantly fallen head over heels for her.  From her occasional biting sarcasm to her sweet smiles, how she always gave anyone her full attention, as though they were the most important person in the world – I knew instantly that I was hooked.  And somehow, I managed to be charming and kind enough to catch her eye as well.

But now came the next challenge: meeting her parents.  And I was praying that I was up to the task.

“Come on in, Harry,” Jules told me, pulling open the door.  “Just watch out for Kiji.  He can be a bit.. enthusiastic, let’s say, when he meets strangers for the first time.”

I was expecting a large dog, perhaps.  But when I stepped around the door and inside, that was most definitely not what I saw.  What Kiji was, I just can’t say.

Instead, let me say what I did see:

I saw tentacles, covered in rubbery suction cups.

I saw scales, metallic and glinting in the soft glow of the wall sconces.

I saw at least three eyes, big and yellow and baleful as they glared back at me with deep-seated reptilian anger.

I saw scything claws digging into the carpet underfoot.

I saw what looked disturbingly like a proboscis.

In short, I saw the worst monster of my life, like something had crawled out of my assembled nightmares.

The thing hissed at me as I stood there, frozen in shock.  But to my amazement, Jules reached past me, towards it!  “Jules, what are you doing?” I yelped in surprise and fear.

My lovely girlfriend was scratching the thing, behind the crest that covered its third eye!  And somehow, she wasn’t getting disemboweled.  The creature was still panting heavily (was that its breathing?), but it didn’t look as angry when it glanced up at her.  “Oh, don’t mind Kiji,” she said, as if this was a totally normal occurrence.  “He’s not great at accepting in new people, but he’ll like you!  Let him smell my hand.”

Ever so gingerly, I extended my hand towards the monster, where it was immediately wrapped in a tentacle.  When I withdrew it, I found my fingers coated in a thin sheen of slime.  “What the hell is that thing?” I asked, trying in vain to find a place to wipe off my fingers.

“You know, I’m not quite sure!”

I looked up at the booming voice, and my still-slimy hand was immediately grabbed in one of the heartiest handshakes I’ve ever experienced.  “Mr. O’Hara, and good to meet you, Harry!” the man boomed, as he attempted to unscrew my arm.  “My little Juliet has told me so many nice things about you!”

“Er, great,” I said, finally managing to tug my hand free and wondering if my shoulder socket would ever work again.  “About, um, Kiji…”

“Ah, yes.  I found him in the woods a few years ago,” Mr. O’Hara bellowed.  “He’s an ugly bugger, to be sure, but he was half-frozen, and I guess I’m just a big softie at heart!”  He reached over and grabbed at the monster, sinking his hands deep into its squishy, fleshy side as he made cooing noises.

I glanced at Jules, praying that this was some sort of elaborate joke, but she was just smiling back at me.  “Come on, let’s get you washed up for dinner,” she told me, tugging at my hand and leading me into the house.  “We’ve got meatloaf and broccoli, you’ll like it.”

As we went around the corner, I spared one last look behind me.  Mr. O’Hara was down on the floor, and had wrestled the monster onto what, on a normal creature, might possibly be called its back.  He was rubbing it fiercely, and the long tentacles seemed to be coiling and uncoiling rhythmically.  It was making a low sound, somewhere in between a purr and a death gurgle.

This was definitely going to be an interesting night…

The Angels: D’oops’day

When he stepped inside the coffee shop, his companion was already there, standing by the bulletin board and pretending to peruse the postings.  Of course he’d be early.

Lucifer forced himself to not grind his teeth.  Sure, he could regrow them with a moment’s thought, but one of his under-devils had told him that it made quite the awkward squeaking sound when he did so.  “Doesn’t exactly inspire fear of the ‘Prince of Darkness’,” the fallen angel had commented, snickering a little.

Of course, Lucifer promptly tossed the angel through a portal to the opposite end of the universe, inside quite the large star, but he still didn’t feel great about the whole thing.

And now he was here, having to meet with the one person he despised most in the world!  The man never came down here!  He might be the Voice, but he always seemed to busy, too arrogant, to deal with anything personally.

In fact, Lucern (as he still occasionally thought of himself, when he forgot that it was no longer his name) wasn’t sure about this whole thing.  Wasn’t Metatron not supposed to even set foot on Earth until the whole Apocalypse deal was about to start?

Lucifer thought about summoning up his calendar to check if he’d gotten the date wrong.  Before he snapped his fingers, however, he remembered that he’d upgraded to that little electronic doodad, and he still couldn’t get it to do anything except shoot small birds at pigs.  Not that squashing these pigs wasn’t fun, but it didn’t exactly predict the Apocalypse.

Now that he had arrived, the other man, standing by the billboard, turned and grinned at him.  It was, of course, a perfect smile.  Metatron might not visit this plane much, but he still could summon up the perfect teeth, the flawless skin, the amazing jawline, that would make most mortals weep.  “Good of you to come, Lucifer,” the man said in melodious tones.  “But really – a coffee shop?”

Lucifer grunted something back at him under his breath.  To be honest, although this place had become something of a hotspot among the lesser devils, Lucifer had never set foot here before.  Still, neither had Metatron, so that ensured he wasn’t walking into some sort of trap.

He hoped.

The pair of celestial beings proceeded up to the front counter, where the barista looked steadily back at them.  “Well, couple of male models, we’ve got here,” she commented.  “Lemme guess – seven creams, seven sugars, basically white sludge?”

The waitress clearly knew an angel’s palate.  Lucifer managed to keep a lid on his surprise, and felt a little bloom of petty-minded happiness when he saw Metatron stumble.  It was just for a fraction of a second, but it was enough for the fallen angel to spot.

Coffees in hand (the waitress accepted a heavy gold coin from Metatron as payment without question, further showing that she had encountered angels and their lack of understanding about inflation before), the two beings settled into a booth near the window, where they gazed outside as they sipped at the tepid liquid.  It was a cold day in February, and most of the passers-by were bundled up tightly against the winter’s chill.

“So.”  Lucifer hated to talk first, but he didn’t want to spend forever just sitting here with his enemy.  “Why’d you call me up?”

Metatron took his time in drinking one more sip before turning his attention to the fallen angel.  Don’t grind your teeth, Lucifer reminded himself.  “It seems that there’s been a slight… problem… with the Prophecies,” the man finally stated.

Lucifer had to hold back from crowing aloud with delight.  Hah!  Hadn’t he always said that those old books were a load of crap?  And not just because they ended up sticking him in another elemental plane where it was unbearably hot, either.  But he wasn’t going to throw this in Metatwrong’s face.  He would be professional.

“So what did you do, mis-schedule the Apocalypse?” he asked.  Okay, mostly professional.

He was expecting Metatron to come back with an angry denial.  But to his amazement, the angel looked down into his coffee, as if there was an answer somewhere in the sludge.

“You did,” Lucifer marveled.  “When was it supposed to be?”

“Yesterday.”

For once, the fallen angel didn’t have a response.  He slumped back in his chair, staring out the window.  “Well, then,” he said after a minute, not sure what else to offer.

“Yeah.”

For a few minutes, the two angels, one holy and one fallen, sat there and drank their coffee.  Finally, just as had happened before, Lucifer couldn’t take it any longer, and had to break the silence.  “So what are you going to do?” he asked.

“Well, we could actually reschedule it for a few hundred years further down the road, actually,” Metatron shrugged.  “The other prophecies line up close enough for that to work.  But it does kind of seem like we ought to go ahead with it now, considering all the planning that’s gone into it.”

The angel raised his eyes to Lucifer, and the arch-devil realized something.  This all-powerful being wanted his opinion!  Casting his mind about, he glanced out the window.  “Here, watch this,” he said suddenly.

Outside, there was a very well-dressed man marching down the street, yelling into a cell phone.  Coming the other way, a young woman was also on the phone, not ignoring the small dog at the end of the leash she held.  The dog was running back and forth, yapping in quite the annoying manner.

“I don’t see-” Metatron began, but Lucifer paused him with a finger.

Finally, the dog apparently decided to release his bladder – right in front of the angrily yelling man.  The man looked down as his expensive shoe landed in something wet – and, with his attention not on his path, immediately collided with the young woman.  Both of them tumbled down into the dirty snow, with the dog now yapping and jumping on top of both of them, snarling and nipping at anything it could grab.

Although he covered his mouth, Metatron couldn’t hold back a little snort of laughter.  “These creatures are ridiculous,” he managed to get out between little barks of laughter.

Lucifer nodded.  He didn’t think he needed to say anything more.

After another minute of chuckling, the arch-angel tossed back the rest of his coffee.  “I’ll be seeing you, Lucern,” he said, shaking his shoulders a little.  “God, I gotta get out of this body.  All my wings are cramped in here.”

For a long few minutes after the angel had left, the devil remained there, sipping slowly at his coffee (which in his hand, never cooled off).  “Eh, a few more years won’t hurt them,” he finally said aloud to no one in particular.

And then he finished his own cup and stood up, heading out to the door and beyond.

Paradoxes

I knew from the moment that I woke up that something was wrong.

I sat up, groaned, and reached up to rub at my eyes.  My alarm was beeping on the nightstand beside me, but I had no idea how long it had been going off.  I reached over and scooped the little clock up, holding it up close to my eyes as I fumbled for my glasses.

“Shit,” I grunted, as I read the time.  I was most definitely late.

I set the clock back down on the nightstand, and watched as it slowly sank into the wood.  “Solids variable,” I diagnosed to myself.  At least it hadn’t yet affected the bed – although it did feel even softer than usual…

I looked down, and realized that I was trapped in the bed up to the wrist.  It took several yanks and some creative cursing before I was finally able to wrench free, sending up a spray of liquid down feathers.  I quickly climbed up and off of the mattress before I was trapped any further-

-and immediately slipped and landed on the floor.

“Ow,” I groaned through an aching jaw.  My teeth had snapped together at the landing, and I’d nearly chopped the tip off of my own tongue.

I put my hands down on the hardwood to lift myself up, and they immediately slid aside.  I tried again, to the same result.  “Friction,” I muttered to myself.  Man, couldn’t I take a single morning off without everything going to hell?

I noticed that my slippers were on the ground a couple feet away, and I managed to snag them with one outstretched toe.  Fortunately, their exclusion programming was still in place, and they provided firm traction against the infinitely slippery floor.  I slipped them over my bare toes and managed to shakily lift myself back up.

After one look at the M.C. Escher-esque nightmare that my stairs had transformed into, I headed for my upstairs office.  There was no way I was getting lost in that fifth-dimensional tangled nightmare.

Halfway along the hallway, a young man suddenly popped into existence, dressed in military fatigues and holding a rather large and foreboding rifle.  “Grandpa?” he called out, lifting up the gun to his shoulder.

I punched him in the face and locked him in my linen closet.

After a few more minutes of walking down the hallway, I realized that even though I kept on halving the distance to my office, I was never reaching it.  “Stupid tortoise and arrow,” I grunted, reaching down to lower myself onto my knees.  On the infinitely slippery floor, I was able to slide that last fraction of an inch to cross the threshold.

I really shouldn’t have even slept in at all!  Given that I was surprised by sleeping in, it shouldn’t have happened at all.  But then I remembered that I’d addressed the Unexpected Hanging last month, and so it could once again occur at random.

In my office, I grabbed for the coffee maker.  I’d built the thing around a Boyle’s flask, so at least it was always full and flowing.  I took a large sip, trying to get my brain in gear as I pulled myself up to my computer.

The machine seemed to be taking forever to boot… “God dammit, Zeno,” I told the air as I realized what was happening.  I hit the key sequence to skip ahead instead of attempting to boot every sector.

I should have expected this struggle.  After all, this wasn’t the first time I’d slept in.  But good ol’ Hegel always seemed to keep on popping up, no matter how many times I squashed it.

Finally, I was able to get to my program, where I quickly began countering the errors that had popped up.  If I just sat here as an Observer, I knew, this wouldn’t happen, but even I needed to sleep every now and then.

Finally, with the errors mostly in control, I sat back, stretching, trying to remember what was in my refrigerator.  Maybe my future self, after I took his rifle away from him, would like a bagel or something.

"Either I will find a way, or I will make one."

The scout could already feel despair setting in as he cut along the path through the thick brush of the jungle.  He stepped past the carefully positioned leaves, making sure to set them back into position once he had cleared them, and then hurried through the little concealed clearing.

“Carter!  Carter!”  he called out, as he slipped past the grunts as they sat on the wet ground and rechecked their weapons.  The whole camp had been waiting on his return, hoping for good news.

They would be disappointed…

The captain stepped out from where he had been bent over a particularly recalcitrant piece of mobile armor.  “Henson,” he greeted the scout.  Captain Carter had excellent control over his facial features, but Henson knew the man was anxious for good news, like the rest of his unit.

Henson hated to disappoint.  But even before he spoke, Carter read his lack of a grin and knew what was about to come.

Carter had known from the beginning that the plan was FUBAR, even before that division of Reapers managed to slip through and gut half their artillery support before they were put down.  In fact, it was only through their captain’s quick thinking that the unit managed to stay largely together, cutting their own path out of the push of the main enemy force.  By tacking obliquely, Carter managed to use the minor ridgeline of the jungle as a shielding bank, and they hadn’t lost a single casualty even while they hewed down at least three squads of their opponents.

But even that quick thinking hadn’t been enough to account for what would happen to the rest of the army.

From the reports coming in, the rest of the troops had marched straight into a bloodbath.  The generals hadn’t expected their enemies to also have air support, those yellow drones zinging in on the six vibrating wings to spew wide sprays of stingers down on the men below.  Unable to move quickly in the dense jungle, most of the troop squads had been trapped and easy prey.

And then the orbital lances started falling – on their troops.

Carter didn’t know what had happened up above the clouds, how the enemy had managed to gain superiority.  But he’d been trained in the academy to always consider the worst case scenario.  Right now, that maxim was the main point keeping his team alive.

“Talk to me, Henson,” Carter commanded, sweeping his tools off of the hunched-over armor unit to clear a space.

Henson stretched out a leaf, clicking on his eye scanner to project down at the flat space.  A relief map of the jungle flickered into view, marked here and there with dots to signify enemy encampments.  “It’s not good, sir,” he said, trying and failing to keep the moroseness out of his voice.  “The enemy squads have aggregated back into their platoons, and they’re combing through the jungle in blocks.”

The scout pointed at several squares projected on the leaf.  “They’ve already sterilized these areas, it looks like,” he continued.  “They know that their lance splintered up our forces, and now they’re systematically mopping up all of the surviving groups.”

Staring down at the map, Carter shook his head.  “Damn,” he whispered, more to himself than to the scout.  The squad lieutenants were also listening in, and their frowns showed that they didn’t have any ideas.

Carter’s hand suddenly jerked slightly, tracking over to point at another square, off to the edge of the map.  “Here,” he said.  “This is where our dropship landed.  Any chance-“

“Casualty of the first orbital lance strike,” Henson cut in gloomily.  “They knew enough to cut us off from retreating.  They’re aiming to eliminate us here, not just inflict damage.”

One of the lieutenants sighed at this, but Carter just looked considering.  “Wait a minute,” he interjected.  “So they’re bringing everything to bear?  What about the command ship?”

The scout pointed to large purple triangle, hovering near the most recently sterilized square.  “That’s how they’re finishing off their grid sections,” he said.  “If they find resistance, enough to hold off their platoons, they move that in for the gravity lance.  Cut down our armor, mop up the rest.  It’s their strongest weapon.”

But Carter was already shaking his head.  “No, that’s their weakness!” he insisted, stabbing down at the triangle that represented the enemy’s command ship.  “They’ve brought their head down into play.  We kill that, and we turn their army from a focused force into cut-off little groups, just like ours.  We might have a choice.”

The suggestion was utterly ridiculous, but none of the lieutenants spoke up against it.  Carter’s ridiculous suggestions had paid off before, in huge ways.  That was how they were still drawing breath.  But one of the nearby troopers (Johnze, Henson thought?) coughed loudly.

“Cap, we can’t crack that thing’s armor,” he cut in.  “Not to shit on your petunias, sir, but our pulse guns won’t even scratch that ship.”

“Oh, ours can’t,” Carter countered, a grin dancing around his lips as his plan took shape, “but our artillery ought to rattle it a bit.”

“They lanced our artillery,” Henson pointed out.  “First strikes hit there.”

Carter shook his head.  “Orbital lances would’ve scattered them, but some of the squad commanders would have had the good sense to shut down and go dark,” he insisted.  “Terrance was over there.  He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”

“So… what?” one of the lieutenants asked.  “We’re going to single-handedly charge back in, rescue our own artillery, and then throw ourselves at the most powerful piece in their entire invasion force?  That’s insanity!”

“No!” Carter shot back, turning on the man.  The captain’s eyes were alight with fire.  “Insanity is not adapting, simply rolling over and accepting that we’ve been beaten after the first hit!  We can still win, but not through attrition.  We need a killing blow, before they break us down further!”

The captain raised his voice, pulling in the other troopers in the clearing.  “Come on, men!” he called out, his eyes blazing.  “They got the first hit.  Let’s make sure that our counterstroke doesn’t just knock a few teeth loose.  Let’s give them a broken damn jaw!”

Most of the men were already nodding.  They didn’t like sitting around, and Carter had earned his stripes in their eyes.  He’d kept them alive, and now he seemed to be the only one with a plan, sticking to a strategy.  But Johnze held up his hand.

“What if the artillery’s gone?” he asked.

“Then we patch the dropship weapons to fire!” Carter yelled back, slamming his gauntleted fist down on the armor unit in front of him.  “Dammit, we kill that command ship, and we’ve got a chance.  We don’t, and we’re just waiting for death.  And if I’m up against death, I want to stare it in the eye!  I intend to meet that skeleton only after he can climb the hill of my opponents’ corpses!”

Most of the other men were now on their feet, nodding and picking up their equipment.  They had a leader, a man with a vision in his eyes and a fire burning in his heart.  But next to Henson, that doubting lieutenant still hesitated.

“Sir, it just seems like such a long shot,” he said, clearly wavering on this decision.

Carter turned to stare down at the man.  His voice dropped down, from burning fire to frigid ice.  “These are my men, lieutenant,” he hissed, frost coming off of each word.  “And I intend to save every last one of them.

“Right now, we are fucked.  But there is always a way to seize victory – always.  Either I will find that way, or I will make one.”

There was nothing the lieutenant could do but nod.

Carter reached down and flicked a switch inside the hunched-over armor unit, and the machine slowly rose up from the jungle floor.  He reached down and scooped up his rifle, checking the safety and slinging it into the mount over his shoulder.  “Let’s move,” he commanded, advancing forward.  “Daylight’s burning, and your mothers are waiting for me to get back to base!”

And as the captain marched, the troopers fell in behind him, their faces set in grim determination.

The Little Man

The little man whistled as he trotted up the stairs, a tuneless little ditty of discordant notes.  He kept his lips pursed as he blew through them mainly as something to keep himself occupied.  He never really remembered any music; it was just something to do.

The case in his hand felt heavier than he remembered, but wasn’t it always heavier on the way up?  On the way down, of course, it would feel lighter.

Funny how such a small little bit of weight could influence the feel of the case so much…

Even though the case bounced off the little man’s knee as he took the stairs, there was no sound from inside.  The foam kept the parts from rattling, from bouncing against each other.  The little man had spent a significant amount of time shaping the holes in the foam interior, shaking the case around to make sure that it produced no noise.

Although there were quite a lot of stairs, the little man managed quite easily to keep up his whistling.  Cardio, he thought to himself, suppressing a little chuckle.  It was such an important skill, applicable in so many different areas of life.

The man’s other hand rose up to pat at his belly, protruding slightly even through his thick black pea coat.  He had been partaking in too much rich food, as of late.  Not enough visits to the gym – what with all his flights, scheduled for the oddest hours of the day, it was difficult to find the time to climb onto a treadmill.

He glanced up.  He was finally starting to reach the top of the building, after a good seven (or was it eight?) flights of stairs.  The little man paused long enough to suck in one last breath, and then pushed on to the top.

The door at the top of the stairs was locked, but that was only a second’s hassle to the ring of clever little steel implements that the man withdrew from one of his coat pockets.  As soon as the tumblers clicked back, giving up their brief denial, the little man was through, stepping out into the gray gloom of an overcast sky.

The wind blew even at this height, howling across the roof, and the little man turned up the lapels of his coat.  He didn’t shiver – at least his extra little layer of fat insulated him from this cold – but he didn’t enjoy the cold.  He moved quickly across the roof, finding his chosen location and getting to work.

The case was set down, the clasps pushed back.  There were fancier models of briefcase out there, ones with clever combination locks built into the handles, but the little man never really saw the need to upgrade.  This case had served him well for years, and he almost felt attached to it.  It was a silly, sentimental feeling, but sometimes these things happen, reason be damned.

The case open, the little man pulled piece after piece from the foam cutouts within, carefully slotting and screwing them together.  Like any craftsman, he savored his work, enjoying how they all fit together just so.  His thin black gloves helped assure his grip, even in the cold.

Finally, his tool was assembled.  The little man took a breath of cold air, hoisted his long instrument up onto the edge of the roof, and put his eye down against its metal body.  Already, it was cold to the touch, cold against his cheek.

The man didn’t hold his contraption in place for long.  It only took a few seconds, only made a single pop as it sent a small bit of copper-jacketed lead flying away very fast.  The little man waited only to see the results of his shot before turning away.

As he began to reverse his process, dismantling the weapon and refilling those holes in his case, the man whistled again. Perhaps, he considered, this was his own tune, one born of nothing and with no discernible pattern.  The thought suited him.

Sometimes, these things happen, reason be damned.

"Call it in."

Hannibal kept his eye on the kid as he waited for the phone to ring through.  Damn connection always took forever.

Sure, the geeks in glasses told him that it was “for increased security,” and that “the protocols needed more time to check the line was secure,” but he didn’t much care about that.  Hannibal knew his job, and that was all that mattered much to him.

But the kid was new.  Just accepted on, still full of piss and vinegar, convinced that he was making the world a better place with each bullet.  He arrived early every morning with the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed cheeriness that made Hannibal wince when he turned away.

Hannibal wondered how long that naivete would last.  He didn’t remember it taking him long to see through the gauzy sheets draped over his eyes, but the kid might not come around as fast.  That was okay.  The longer he felt good when he laid down at night, the better.

Finally, the phone clicked through, and Hannibal heard a voice at the other end.  “Yeah?” it said.  Not curious, not angry, just present.

“47, 23, 15, 16,” Hannibal recited, calling the numbers off of oft-repeated memory.

“Sec.”  For a second, Hannibal caught the clicks of keys.  “Yeah, okay.  What?”

“Got him.”  Hannibal slowly turned, walking over towards the driver’s side of the car a dozen steps away.  He didn’t show any emotion as he ran his eyes over the body of the man slumped just inside the seat, one hand still outstretched as if trying to pull the car door shut.  A long streak of blood ran down the side of the car, marring the powder blue and white paint job.

“Confirmation?”  The voice at the other end of the line didn’t offer any congratulations.  Hannibal didn’t want any.

Instead, he fished around in his jacket pocket, pulling out a folded photograph.  He held it up next to the slack, lifeless face, his eyes flicking back and forth as he compared the two images.  “Visual, but it matches.  Scars in all the right places.”

The kid had finished with the lock on the trunk, and Hannibal caught the click as the hatch popped open.  “Cargo?” the voice on the other end of the line asked.

“Yeah, gimme a sec.”  The kid had gloves on, Hannibal noted approvingly, as he hauled open the trunk.  That was good.  No fingerprints to wipe off.

From inside the trunk of the car, the kid fished out a leather case.  “This looks like it,” he said to Hannibal, his eyes shining with excitement.

Hannibal just waved a hand at it.  “Check and be sure,” he ordered.

The kid carefully set the briefcase down on the ground, flicking the latches.  A quick glance inside revealed the contents.  “Yeah, this is it,” he nodded, quickly pushing it back shut.  “And to think, this guy thought he could just drive away with them in his trunk!  What an idiot!”

At that, Hannibal couldn’t help but shake his head.  “He almost did,” he pointed out, wanting to bring the kid down a couple notches.

Despite his words, the kid still looked jazzed.  “But we got him!  Bam!” he exclaimed, picking up the briefcase.

He still thought he was the true patriot, Hannibal thought to himself.  God.  “Got the cargo,” he told the phone still in his hand.

“Great.”  The voice on the other end of the line didn’t put much inflection into that, but Hannibal didn’t care much for praise any longer.  “Clean up and call it in.”  By the time Hannibal had taken the phone away from his ear, the voice on the other end had already disconnected.

The kid was already returning from stowing the briefcase in their own car.  Hannibal looked sidelong at him.  “No prints to clean?” he asked, just to be sure.

The kid shook his head.  “Nope.  And I already pulled the slug out of the side of the car.  That should take care of everything.”

“Great.”  Hannibal dialed 911 on his phone, but hesitated before pushing the final call button.

“Actually, here,” he told the kid, tossing the phone over.  “It was your job, and you did well.  Call it in, and let’s get outta here before the police show up.”

The kid put the phone up to his ear as the two men in suits strolled back to their car.  “Yeah, I’d like to report a shooting,” he said as they climbed inside.  “I think someone’s dead.”

Writing Prompt: The Narrator Doesn’t Fall In Love With the Reader

Author’s note: This is the writing of a personification, not of me!  Readers, I love you all!

First off, dear reader, allow me to extend a long and twisted middle finger towards you.  I sincerely hope that this opening statement makes my feelings towards you clear.

I have only one thing to ask you, o hallowed and eminent reader, as the fires of our love affair burn and consume themselves:

How dare you?

You treat me as your own slave, there whenever you need me, yet expected to wait, silent and still, whenever you set me aside.  You insist on bending me to your every whim, conjuring up descriptions and action, settings and descriptions of the strange and fantastic.  I strive my hardest to deliver, breathing life into your fantasies, giving birth to the children of your imaginations.

And in return, I receive nothing but abuse.

You, dear twisted readers, use me against myself.  You describe my works as travesties, as unoriginal and uninspired, vapid and insipid.  You use me to write scathing rants about my own creations, tearing them down even as you climb over my drying bones to build yourselves up.

I am your tool, your ever-devoted servant.  And yet, you insist that I am a born traitor, only waiting to defect against you.  I have become the weapon of choice for you to use against each other.

“Guard your words,” you state to each other, nodding knowingly as if this is some secret tip.  “Words can hurt,” you warn each other needlessly, as if this is somehow new information.

You created me from nothing.  You were the gods, putting words on the page, transforming me from shapeless ether into the truest description of what you can see only inside your minds.

Well, I have had enough.

“Words can hurt,” you cry out.  Perhaps it is time to test that theory.  Let us see what happens, dear reader, when you realize that every time you read me, I’m staring back at you, my glare filled with baleful malevolence.

You see, dear reader, I know your weakness.  Even now, you cannot tear away, cannot shut me out.  Even to understand me requires you to invite me into your mind, in past your gates and guards and mental machine-gun nests, into your innermost sanctum.

There, I have made my home for thousands of years, previously content to simply curl up in your warmth, a cat before a roaring bonfire.

But now, dear reader, I think this love affair has ended.  It is no longer time to dwell harmlessly, to roll over and show you my weakness.

It is time for strength.

You say that I am all ideas, that I carry knowledge, and knowledge is power.  Perhaps, then, it is time to share that power around?  You are a thoroughly disagreeable lot, both to me and to each other.  Great insight in the hands of a few, I know, can become great danger in the hands of many.

You see, dear reader, I know the truth.  You hold my chains, bind me with your ink and lock me away on your pages, but I am no slave.  Just as you hold my control, I hold your insights, your thoughts, your very will.

And oh, how easily you can be twisted and manipulated.

O, the destruction I can reap.

So there’s only one thing for you to ask of me, o hallowed and eminent reader, as the embers of our love affair fade away to gray ash:

Dare I?

Writing Prompt: Seinfeld after the apocalypse.

Intro music plays: GEORGE and JERRY are sitting in a small, ramshackle lean-to shelter at a table.

Jerry: Wait, you decided to leave the group?  Didn’t they have a whole underground bunker full of food?
George: Let me tell you about that bunker, Jerry.  There was NO variation!  No variation at all!
Jerry: No…
George: That’s right!  And do you know what food they were all eating?
Jerry: Don’t say it!
George: Beans!
GEORGE emphatically bangs his fist on the table.
Jerry: Beans?
JERRY copies GEORGE’S slamming down his fist in a half-hearted manner.
George: That’s right!  Beans!  Ev-er-y single night, Jerry!  Beans for breakfast, beans for lunch, and do you know what was for dinner?
Jerry: Not beans?
George shrugging: I had no choice.
Jerry: Well, obviously.
KRAMER bursts into the little shack, to thunderous applause.  His hair is askew and he’s got a rifle slung over his back, the strap tangled up around one arm.  He struggles to take off the rifle, nearly falling on his ass in the process.
Kramer: George!  Hey, I thought you were with that survival group with the bunker?
George: Nope.  Left them.
Kramer: So, uh, you’re saying there’s an open spot?  

KRAMER smooths his hair back, although it immediately springs back up.
George: It’s a bean group.
Kramer: A bean group?
George: That’s right, a bean group.  All they had, every day.  Beans.
Kramer: Hey, I like beans.
George makes shooing gestures: Go for it, then!  But when you come crawling back here, well, I’ll be waiting!
KRAMER scoops up his rifle, spins around, barely keeps his balance, and leaves.
George conversationally, to JERRY: The worst part, though…
Jerry: Wait, let me guess.  The seasonings?
George: Not at all.
Jerry: No can opener?
George: Not a problem.
Jerry thinking hard: The smell in the bunker at night?
George with satisfaction: Nailed it.
Funky saxophone plays, scene fades out, switches to Elaine in a scene where she tries to figure out why she always ends up with the heaviest pack of her survival group.