Grading

I groaned, turning the mug over in my hands. Despite its cheery mass-printed slogan – “Number 1 Teacher!” – it felt cheap. Hell, it was. If I closed my eyes and focused, I could trace back its component elements, back through the Asian factory where these cups were churned out by the tens of thousands, back to the mud pit in backwoods China where the clay had been scraped from the ground.

I didn’t bother summoning the focus. Even an insignificant little charm like that taxed my strength almost to its breaking point. I hated knowing that I’d fallen so far, feeling my limits hit me so quickly.

The mug might be cheap, unremarkable, but it still held coffee. I got up, crossed the teachers’ lounge over to the ancient Mr. Coffee that sat on the counter, its flameless heat spells showing the strain of countless years of constant operation. I poured a cupful of hot, steaming coffee into my mug, replaced the pot back on the etheric coil that served as its heating focus. Continue reading

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“Don’t dig here.”

“No, sah. Not here.”

Frowning, I glanced over at Attenib. I’d heard a wobble in the man’s voice that I didn’t recognize. He didn’t sound quite like himself.

“Atten, everything okay?” I asked in a lowered tone, taking a step closer to him. Damnable insects swooped down at my face, biting and stinging. I managed to smack one, and watched with vicious satisfaction as it slammed into a nearby tree trunk and then dropped, stunned, to the forest floor.

I returned my attention back to my guide. After years alongside Attenib, I knew his moods well, recognized the minor twitches of the muscles beneath his nut-brown skin. I’d worked with him long enough to trust in his uncanny ability to know just where to dig.

But now, today, he looked nervous, pale despite his leathery, tanned hide. And when he looked back at me, I saw a glint of unexpected emotion in his eyes.

Fear. Continue reading

Let me sell you this pen…

Sir, sir, don’t go walking by! Oh boy, it’s your lucky day – I’ve got a hell of an opportunity for you!

Yes, I knew that you’d stop. I see it in your eyes – you have that drive, that desire to be the best. You, sir, are a man of great taste, of conscious fashion, of wanting to have all the best things in life – but not be over the top about it, no sir. Am I right in my assessment of you? Do I have the right man?

Yes, I see that glint in your eye. You are a man who will succeed! And that’s why you need this. Continue reading

The Tribal Protector

The village chief stood at the entrance to the hut, fighting to keep his composure. He gazed into the darkness of the hut’s interior, fighting against his own reluctance to step past the threshold.

His hair was turning gray, and his back now bowed forward slightly, but the chief still trusted his ears. From behind him, he heard the sounds of the nightly fire, in the middle of his small village. His friends, family, laughing and chattering about their day, passing around the coconut filled with ayahuasca, taking small sips of the potent brew. He yearned desperately to return to them, to leave this solitary, small hut on the edge of his village alone.

Instead, he forced one last, deep breath into his lungs. He felt the little pull, the stitch in his side where, many years ago, a boar caught him with its tusks as it charged from the undergrowth.

The chief took a step forward, past the threshold of the hut and inside. Continue reading

Meeting Myself.

I groaned as I accepted the tall pint glass from the bartender. Man, after today, dealing with Janet’s countless stupid email requests, I really needed this drink. I might even refill the glass a few times, just to make sure that I scrubbed the memory of dealing with that awful woman out of my head.

Taking a sip of the brimming glass, I turned and glanced around Third Street Bar, looking for an open table. Given as it was right at quitting time on a Friday, however, the place was packed. I finally spotted an open seat in a booth near the back.

I carefully wove my way over to the booth, noting that the other side was occupied by a gentleman with a baseball cap pulled low over his face. “Mind if I sit here?” I asked him politely. Continue reading

Oh Gosh.

I balanced up on my tiptoes, stretching to grab the plastic bin off of the top shelf of the storage closet. “Come here, you bugger,” I growled up at it, my fingers brushing against the handle but not quite able to wrap around it.

Who had decided to put the popsicle sticks all the way up on the top shelf, anyway? It must have been one of the clueless parents, I decided. They came in on Fridays to help out in the kindergarten class, doing their best to foster the growth of their precious little angels, but not considering more obvious issues.

Issues like the fact that the teacher of their little terrors was barely five feet tall – on a good day. Continue reading

After the supervillains have won…

The heels of my shoes clicked smartly against the floor as I approached the double doors of the Oval Office.  I paused for a moment outside the doors, checking my hair and running my eyes one last time over the contents of the leather file in my hands, and then stepped through.

“Sir?  I have the latest reports,” I called out to the high-backed leather chair behind the President’s desk.

The chair slowly rotated around.  I carefully avoided rolling my eyes.  The last intern to roll his eyes at the theatrics of our leader had ended up “volunteering” as a test subject for an Explosive Growth Ray, intended to boost meat production by super-sizing cows and pigs.

As it turned out, the “Explosive” part worked a lot better than the “Growth” part.  I heard that the janitors had to scrub the ceiling down for days before they got it all cleaned up.

“Ah, the latest reports, yes,” the man sitting in the chair repeated, the words sounding slightly metallic coming from behind his mask.  Through the two eye slits, dark pupils watched closely as I approached, offering the leather folder out to him.  A hand, covered by a blackened metal gauntlet, accepted the folder from me and flipped it open.

Our leader set the folder down on the desk in front of him, but those dark eyes remained locked on me.  “So, what’s the news?” he asked.

“Sir?”

He made a short, impatient gesture, uncomfortably similar to gestures I’d seen him use to order minions to execute hostages in the old archival footage tapes.  “You’ve read the whole thing, I know.  So give me a status update.”

“Well, we’re making great strides in many areas,” I began, electing to start with the good news.  “Thanks to Magneto’s work with recycling and augmenting metal, our construction boom is still providing job growth.  Analysis of Ra’s al Ghul’s Lazarus Pits is still ongoing, but scientists are fairly confident that we’ll have synthetic substitutes ready for phase II of FDA trials by the end of this year.  And a new joint venture between Loki and Kingpin is claiming that they’ll have portals open between all major cities by next quarter, although we know that Loki’s never been good with deadlines.”

The robed and masked man waved his gloved hand again.  “Yes, yes, I’m aware of that,” he grunted.  “What about the heroes?”

Despite my attempt to keep my face calm and blank, a brief grimace flashed across it.  “Yes.  Well.”

Those dark eyes watched me for another second, and then the man behind the desk rose up to his feet.  Instinctively, I took a step back, and I heard him snort.  “What are you worried about, girl?”

“Er.  I heard about the last intern,” I said, keeping a close eye on his gauntlets.  I knew he had a laser mounted in one of them, but I couldn’t remember which one.

“Oh, him?  Trust me, he had it coming,” the man insisted.  “I’m not planning on hurting you.  Go on, take a seat.”

Still feeling a little on edge, I let myself sink into one of the chairs in front of the desk, crossing my legs and smoothing down my skirt self-consciously.

Behind the desk, the man turned to stare out the tall windows behind him, clasping his gauntleted hands behind his back.  “They fought us,” he said, his words a little grander, a little softer, than when he’d been speaking to me.  “They insisted that our new ideas would destroy their old world, destroy everything they fought to preserve.”

“And indeed, they were right.”

The man – the king, I amended my thought, remembering his official title – shook his head slightly.  “We destroyed the trappings of their old world – the disease, the hunger, the sickness,” he said, staring out at the sunny day beyond the window.  “We used our powers for the greater good, fixing what we found broken – even when that meant remaking society itself.”

“You’ve done a lot of good for the world,” I spoke up, wanting to contribute.  “Poverty, hunger, communicable disease – we’re already seeing so much benefit all across the world-“

“Yes,” he nodded.  Behind his back, I saw one gauntlet tighten into a fist.  “And yet, they still fight back.”

I sensed the man’s mood darkening, but like a true storm, I couldn’t see a way to divert the gathering energy.  “They insist that what we are doing is bad, that it doesn’t match their ‘traditional values’!” he growled.  “They now lead campaigns of fear, of ignorance and bigotry, of destruction and racism against us!”

Turning back abruptly to face me, he slammed a gauntlet down on the desk, making the entire sturdy wood piece of furniture shake.  “Heroes!” he spat, his eyes blazing behind the steel mask.  “They call themselves heroes!  They have no right to the name!”

I stared, transfixed, into the merciless eyes behind that mask.  I’d always been drawn to power and influence, and I knew that the man before me possessed both in absolutes.  I’d watched his ascension, cheered for him at the polls, listened to his old speeches.

He had brought the very opposite of his name to our country, and then to the entire world.

After a minute, the burning rage in his eyes dimmed, and he sank back down into his chair.  “The news, Sue,” he stated, folding his gauntleted fingers together beneath his chin.

I nodded, snapped out of the trance of his words.  “Yes.  We froze Wayne Enterprise’s accounts, but we’re still receiving reports of the vigilante, mainly conducting industrial sabotage.  Most of the supers have moved south, setting up strongholds in more rural areas where our military forces cannot reach them.  They’ve launched several more attacks; the full list is in the binder.”  I recalled the long list of industrial targets, fusion energy factories, synthetic medicine centers, and other areas that had suffered attacks.

The most powerful man in the free world nodded, and I heard a sigh escape his lips behind the mask.  “Heavy is the head,” I heard him mutter to himself under his breath.

When he raised his eyes to look at me again, however, any trace of weakness was once again scoured away.  “Talk with the Joint Chiefs about troop movements – we’ve got them hemmed, but now we need to close the trap,” he declared.  “Use the robotic droid systems for reconnaissance – we can’t risk more human lives.”

“The Doombots, sir?” I clarified.

He nodded.  “We thought that we’d won,” he said reflectively, leaning back in his chair.  “But we didn’t know how much higher we’d still have to climb.”

I waited a beat longer, but no other comments were forthcoming.  He didn’t dismiss me, but I knew that our conversation was at an end.

Rising up from the chair, I turned and headed out of the office, leaving President Von Doom alone once again.

Eat You Alive

The two men headed straight for my table, tucked back into a corner at the back of the bar.

I felt my unease growing as I sized the pair up.  I’d assumed that my watchdogs would be normal men.  Mercenaries, maybe, or ex-military.  A couple muscle-bound toughs, easy to dispose of when I no longer wanted them watching me.

But when these two men entered, their eyes immediately found mine, not even bothering with the rest of the bar’s patrons.  The bigger of the pair showed no change of expression, but the little one flashed a brief, smirking little grin at me.

I’d picked the table at the back so that I wouldn’t be interrupted.  Now, I found myself casting longing glances towards the bar’s rear exit.  Maybe I should have sat closer to the door.
“Well, well, Mr. Check,” the short little man greeted me, his toothy smile appearing once again on his face.  It seemed to come and go with little warning; one moment it would be absent, and the next second it would appear in full bloom.  But even as his mouth twitched into a little grin, his eyes remained constant, glazed over with treacherous ice.  “Is good to meet, you might say.”

I nodded to the little man, although my eyes darted to the larger of the pair.  He’d sat down at the table as well, although he barely fit in the space between the booth and the table’s edge.  Huge and corpulent, his expression remained utterly blank.

“Oh, don’t mind Mr. Rook,” the little man said to me, flapping one hand at his acquaintance.  “He doesn’t speak  much.  All the better for you, too, if he doesn’t open his mouth.”  The little man chuckled heartily to himself, as if he’d just made some sort of joke.

The Rusty Tap didn’t have waitresses.  The bar only had a single, grizzled barkeep standing behind the shelter of his counter, bottles at the ready.  I liked it that way.  But now, the little man raised his fingers up and snapped, and the old man tottered out from behind his shelter, bringing several dirty glasses over to us.

“Now, Mr. Check, my name is Bishop, and this master of poetry beside me is Mr. Rook,” the little man went on, his eyes remaining focused on me as the barkeep set drinks in front of us.  “We, for our sins, are to be your guardians.”

I nodded again.  I’d expected this.  When I took the job, there had been a comment about “monitors.”  This pair, however, wasn’t what I’d anticipated.

Bishop lifted up his glass, examining the strangely reddish liquid inside.  He took a sip, and closed his eyes in appreciation.  “Ah, that’s the stuff.”

My eyes, moving almost of their own volition, tracked over to Rook.  The barkeep hadn’t poured him a drink, but had simply deposited an entire bottle of some dark alcohol on the table in front of the big man.

As I watched, Rook picked up the bottle by its base and, without any change in expression, bit off the cap and neck.  I could hear the glass crunching into shards as he chewed.

Beside him, Bishop shook his head with a little smile.  “Oh, Mr. Rook, where are your table manners?” he asked, clucking his tongue like a mother at a child.

“Ate ’em,” Mr. Rook replied, spitting flecks of cork and glass.

Bishop returned his focus back to me.  “Now, Mr. Check, you understand your role in this little plan, yes?” he asked.  “It has already been explained?”

I had to lick my lips before I found my voice.  “Yes,” I said.  “You’re going to remove the guards, and I swipe the case while everyone’s distracted.”

The little man nodded, smiling once again.  I could see extra redness on his lips from his drink.  “And then, you will bring it to us, and you’ll receive your payment,” he finished.

“Hold on.  I thought I was bringing the case to whoever hired me?  The brains behind this heist?”

Bishop tutted, shaking his head.  “Ah, Mr. Check.  When an ant finds that a boot blocks his path, he does not speak to the boot’s owner.  No, he shakes his little ant head, adjusts to his new course, and thanks his lucky little stars that the boot didn’t crush him.”

For a moment, the little man’s smile vanished, and he looked as wooden and emotionless as his partner.  “Do you understand my little metaphor, Mr. Check?”

I understood him.  Still, I had to know how much of a leash I’d been given.  “And what happens if I disagree with it?” I asked.  Surely, they wouldn’t try anything here, in public, before I’d even pulled off the snatch for them.  They still needed me, needed my talents.

“If you disagree?”  Bishop looked as though the idea had never occurred to him.  “Why, Mr. Rook, perhaps you can suggest what we might do in that situation?”

The big man’s eyes tracked over to me.  “Eat ‘im?” he asked hopefully.

Bishop reached over and patted the arm of his partner.  He might have wanted to pat the man’s cheek, but he couldn’t reach that high.  “Only if he disagrees, Mr. Rook,” he corrected gently.

Mr. Rook’s eyes remained fixed on me.  “Looks tasty,” he said, taking another glass-shattering bite out of the bottle.  “Crunchy.”

“I think we make our point, Mr. Rook,” Bishop took over, smiling at me once again.  “And I’m sure that Mr. Check agrees with me when I say that this will be a routine and civil affair.  We will provide a distraction, he will snatch the case that our employer desires, and he will then pass it over to us in exchange for payment.  There will be no issues.”

I nodded, but Bishop kept his eyes locked on me, his smile looking more and more out of place on his face by the second.  “And if he fails, or takes a single step out of line,” Bishop continued, his voice dropping into a whisper, “we will chase him.  He may run, he may flee halfway across the cosmos, but we will always follow, will always find him.

“And then, Mr. Rook will eat you alive.”

For a moment, Bishop’s face was twisted and filled with snarling, endless fury as he glared at me.  A second later, however, he blinked, and was as smiling and genteel as ever.

“Now, you will be at this address in two days’ time,” he said, passing a small, grubby slip of paper over to me.  “You’ll see the distraction, and you can make the snatch.  Once you have the case, we will contact you for the exchange.”

Bishop stood up, straightening the lapels of his black jacket.  “And now, we have other errands to run, Mr. Check,” he said, giving me a slight little mocking bow.  “Come, Mr. Rook.  Let us be off.”

As they stood, the barkeep perked up, light coming into his sunken eyes.  “Hey, youse two haven’t paid,” he called out, once again daring to emerge from behind the safety of his bar.

This was a mistake.  As he stepped over towards Bishop, Mr. Rook’s hand shot out, closing on the bearded man’s throat.  I saw the barkeep’s eyes go wide as the big, black-clad man dragged his head down and in.

With a crunch, Mr. Rook bit a chunk out of the man’s head, swallowing as blood ran down his chin.  “Mmm,” he grunted, before diving back in for another bite.

As his partner chewed with gusto on the barkeep’s exposed skull and brain, Bishop reached out with a long, skinny finger, dipping it into the dripping stream of blood.  “A bit too aged and bitter,” he observed, licking his finger clean.  “Not entirely unpalatable, however.”

From the sound of Mr. Rook’s crunching, he would happily devour the rest of the barkeep’s twitching body, but Bishop snapped his fingers.  “Come, Mr. Rook,” he called out as he turned towards the door.  “We have no time for dalliances.”

With a grunt, Mr. Rook dropped the now mostly headless corpse down to the floor.  Wiping his mouth with one sleeve, he followed after his smaller partner.

For a minute, I just stared down at the corpse lying nearly at my feet.  Some of the bar’s other patrons were finally recovering enough to scream, but I kept my mouth tightly shut.

No, these definitely weren’t the normal guards I’d been expecting.  Whoever wanted this case was willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure they received it.

I could feel foreboding bubbling up inside of me, but I knew that I couldn’t escape.

REWRITE: Possession Talk Around the Neighborhood Grill

Author’s note: I like this story!  But I feel that it could actually use a rewrite, to give these characters some description.  I normally hate editing, but… why not give it a shot?

The sun shone brightly down from above the trees, as a thin wisp of smoke rose up from below.  Given the scent of charcoal, mingled with that of charring meat, any observer wouldn’t be amiss in guessing that they were catching a sniff of neighborhood barbecue.

The street was a cul-de-sac, a little half-circle of houses wrapping around the widened end of the street.  Today, the men had dragged their grills out to the middle of the street, plopping a couple of orange traffic cones further up the street to dissuade any lost drivers from plowing into the little gathering.  The grills were a motley assortment, from Jerry’s traditional round charcoal grill to Bill’s monstrosity of a modern grill, covered in knobs and adjustable flaps, its aluminum shining in the sun.

Gathered around the grills, the men chatted back and forth, occasionally opening up the grills to poke at the meat and produce sharp hisses of grease and juices flashing into steam.  Meanwhile, the women gossiped in little circles as they sipped at freshly made margaritas, and the children ran around the groups, chasing each other and occasionally letting out high-pitched screams.

It was a great day for a barbecue, overall.  The sun hadn’t yet reached its apex in the sky, but the day was already pleasantly warm, with just the slightest of breezes rustling the leaves on the trees.

The women gossiped, but the women always gossiped.  Most of them stayed home during the week instead of heading out to offices, and they’d raised gossip to a high art form as they ducked in and out of each other’s houses.

For the men, on the other hand, ‘gossip’ had become a taboo term.  If asked, each man would insist that he never gossiped – he merely updated the other men of the neighborhood on current events within his sphere of influence, his household, his kingdom.  They considered the exchange of information now occurring as vital to defending their homes as the motley assortment of baseball bats and golf clubs that they guiltily kept hidden in the back of their closets.

As he lowered the cover of his round charcoal grill back over the hissing meat, Jerry shook his head back and forth in disbelief.  “Man, you cannot be serious.  On either count.”

“No, I swear it’s true!”  Bill reached out and adjusted some knob on his huge, gleaming aluminum monstrosity of a grill.  Most of the other men would wager – accurately – that even Bill didn’t know what that knob did, but that didn’t mean that the others weren’t envious of the hulking machine.  Here in the suburbs, men gauged the measure of each other by the size of their grills.

Once the knob had been satisfactorily adjusted, Bill looked back up at the others.  “Summoning ritual gone wrong, the whole nine yards.  It’s really the only way for me to explain it.  She’s nothing like how she used to be.”

Jerry waved his tongs dismissively.  “No, man, demons don’t exist.  It’s all hogwash.”

On the other side of the circle, Keith nodded, crossing his arms over his large belly.  “Yeah, what Jerry said.  No such thing.”  He narrowed his eyes at Bill.  “Did you ever think that maybe she just conked her head or something?”

“Come on, guys!  You think I wouldn’t notice if she had a big bump on her head?”  Bill flapped his arms, perhaps trying to express exasperation, but instead only succeeding in making himself unfortunately resemble a large waterfowl of some sort.  “And no, it has to be possession.  I mean, it all started with the book, anyway.”

Keith just grunted, but Jerry leaned in.  “Yeah, what about that?  How did this happen in the first place?”

“Well, her Aunt Agatha died a couple weeks ago.”

“Oh.”

“Sorry to hear that, man.”

All three men paused, looking down at the ground as they each tried awkwardly to think of a way to comfort a casual acquaintance for the loss of a loved one.  Although, in this case, the loved one was only linked by marriage.  Were condolences necessary?  The etiquette was hazy and unclear, so they elected to just pause for silence for a few seconds.

Finally, Bill broke the momentary hush.  “Eh, no big loss,” he said, shrugging off the uncomfortable moment.  “We didn’t know her well, and the woman was crazy.  Always wore black, stayed locked away in her old Victorian house, one of those shut-ins.  But we went up to pack up her stuff, and we found the book.”

“The book that possessed her,” Keith interrupted, still looking unconvinced.

Bill started to answer, but then paused, shook his head, and rephrased.  “No, Keith, I don’t think the book possessed her.  I mean, not directly.”  He waved a hand, struggling for the right words.  “But the book had the spell that summoned the demon that possessed her.”

Jerry held up his hands, his eyebrows jumping.  “Wait, man.  So who said the spell?”

“Jerry, I was just getting to that!” Bill retorted, turning back and forth between the other two men as if unsure who to confront first.  “Let me get my story out!”

He sighed.  “Anyway, since you asked, I think my daughter did it.  Sarah gave the book to her, since she’s getting into that whole “goth” nonsense, and next thing we knew, there was a pentagram in blood on our kitchen floor.”

“Her blood?” Jerry burst out, his eyebrows climbing and knitting themselves together in alarm.

Bill quickly waved him back down.  “Nah, I think she grabbed one of the venison steaks from the freezer and dragged it around.”

“Oh.”  Jerry wanted his neighbor to continue telling his tale, but neighborhood formalities had to be upheld.  “Hey, those were delicious, by the way.  Thanks for sharing them.”

“My pleasure, we had more than we’d ever eat,” Bill replied, an accepted answer, before returning back to the story.  “But anyway, so Sarah’s the first one into the kitchen when we hear all the chanting, and she just freezes.  And I swear that I saw a cloud of smoke go shooting into her mouth.”

“Not a smoker, is she?” Keith asked.

“Nope.”

“Huh.  And you said it shot into her mouth?  Not out of it?”

Bill nodded, and Keith shrugged.  “Man, that’s crazy.”

For a moment, all of the men just stood around, flipping through their limited knowledge of demonic possession.  A couple of them had tried bringing horror movies home, hoping that their wives would feel the need for closeness after getting a few jump scares, but after Rich accidentally left the DVD in the player and his kid put the thing on, well, the wives quickly put an end to that trend.  The men vaguely remembered something about needing bells and candles and a Bible, but they couldn’t even claim any degree of expertise in the subject.

Eventually, Jerry broke the silence.  “So what, do we need to exercise her or something?”

“Dude, I think you mean exorcise,” Keith corrected, making good use of his one piece of knowledge on the topic.

“Yeah, whatever,” Jerry waved him off.  The man kept his attention focused on Bill.  “But really.  How do we get the demon out?”

Bill held up his hands in a forestalling gesture.  “Well, wait a minute!  See, at first I was thinking the same thing.  But now, I’m actually kind of not minding Sarah being possessed.”

Bill smiled for a moment as the eyes of both of his conversational companions widened.  As usual, Jerry managed to get his mouth open before Keith.  “Wait, what?  But there’s a demon in her, you’re saying!”

“Yeah… but the demon is trying really hard to pass itself off as a human!” Bill answered, grinning.

The blank looks on his companions showed that they didn’t understand.  “What’s that mean?”

Before he answered, Bill did something else with his grill, opening a small window to peek at the chicken breasts inside, and then closing it with a nod.  “Well, she’s doing the dishes, cleaning the house, buying groceries, taking care of all the chores – and trust me, she’s like an animal in the bedroom now!” he explained, a wide grin on his face.

Both of the other men nodded in customary, ritual jealousy.  “Dude,” they both chorused, although a note of concern tinged their voices.  This was a devil, after all.  Maybe.

“Hey!  It had been a while for us!” Bill defended, before anyone could attack him for possibly sleeping with a member of Hell.  “Sometimes a guy is just happy to be getting some, even if the woman might have a tiny little demon in her!”

The other two reconsidered, weighing the two sides.  Sleeping with a beast from Hell was bad, they knew, but on the other hand, they both knew the feeling of a cold bedroom far too well.  “Well, maybe,” Keith eventually gave in.

Jerry was a bit more focused on the conversation.  “So Bill, what are you going to do?”

Bill opened his mouth to answer, but then paused and shrugged.  “Oh, I don’t know.  I’ll take her to church on Sunday, maybe.  If she doesn’t start smoking in the service, well, maybe it’s for the best, you know?”

“S’pose so,” Keith agreed.  His mind, however, clearly was still a couple sentences behind.  “Crazy in the bedroom, you said?”

“Oh yeah,” Bill grinned, happy to be back on a topic where he could brag.  “I’ve got scratches all up and down my back.  And I think she’s even more eager than I am!  Makes me feel like a teenager again!  I’m thinking she might be one of those ‘suck-bus’ demons, or whatever.”

“Well, damn,” Keith said, unable to keep a note of jealousy out of his voice.  He held his mouth shut for a second, but eventually the thought on his mind couldn’t be contained any longer.  “Think your daughter could bring that book over to my place?”

Bill smiled, but pretended that he hadn’t heard this last question.  Instead, he opened up his grill, picking up a pair of tongs and experimentally lifting the chicken.  “Looks like the meat’s about done!  Who wants to eat first?”

Talk in the middle of the cul-de-sac returned back to more normal topics, such as who had the worst lawn, what new rules the homeowner’s association might try and enforce next, and whether this would be a good year for the local high school football team.  But secretly, not sharing their thoughts with the others, each man pondered Bill’s confession – and whether they could manage to get their hands on that cursed, Hellish book of his.

Pickup for the Errand Boy

I pedaled my bike through the maze of narrow streets, my eyes running over the numbers printed on the sides and doorways of the buildings as I whizzed past.  Occasionally, my turning and meandering path would veer me out into traffic, but I ignored the honks and occasional shouts.

Where the hell was this place?

Still pedaling, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the little scrap of paper my boss had handed me.  No, I still had the address correct in my memory.

“1408 Shining Ave,” I read off aloud.  No other directions…

I was on Shining Avenue right now, so finding this place ought to be easy.  But I hadn’t figured on Shining running right into Chinatown – and promptly beginning to weave back and forth, worse than a drunken sailor with a full stomach of whiskey.

Hell, half of the little shops along both sides of this street didn’t even have numbers up on their doorways!  And although I spoke a few pidgin words of Mandarin and Cantonese, they were mainly choice terms for insulting someone’s mother – not so good for navigating.

What sort of shop did a cake decoration place have, anyway?  My boss had sent me out here to get some sort of “specialty wedding topper” for one of our orders.  And like an idiot, I’d gone ahead to grab it, hopping on my bike without asking for any further information.

A few houses down, I spotted an ancient little Asian woman, sitting on the steps to one of these shops and smoking a long-stemmed pipe.  Figuring that I was down to my last option, I hit the brakes and coasted to a stop.

“Excuse me,” I called out, and her hooded eyes rolled over to me.  “Do you know where 1408 Shining-“

Before I’d finished talking, the woman rose up laboriously to her feet.  Without even speaking a word, she reached behind her and opened up the door.

“Oh.  It’s here?” I asked, surprised and a little suspicious of this sudden reversal of my bad luck.

Still, the old woman didn’t speak – she just nodded towards the open door, as if urging me to just get it over with already.

Pausing only to lock my bike to a nearby sapling, I stepped into the doorway.  The shop inside was pitch black, and I couldn’t see my nose in front of my own face.  “Hello?  Is anyone there?”

There was no answer – except for the door behind me swinging shut with a click.

For just an instant, I was lost in blackness.  And then, seconds later, a bright light clicked on, shining into my face and making me lift up my hands to try and shield my eyes.

“Do you have it?”  The voice was strong, deep, authoritative, and rolling out of the darkness beyond the spotlight shining into my face.

“Do I have it – what?” I echoed back, confused.  “Do you have it?”  Had I been supposed to bring something to exchange for this pickup?

The voice didn’t speak – but a rattle sounded, and a battered metal suitcase slid across the floor to land at my feet.

I reached down and picked up the case, not pausing to even glance at the contents.  “Uh, thanks?” I called out into the darkness as I reached behind me for the doorknob out of this place.  I was definitely not going to go on my boss’s next pickup mission!

“Wait!” the voice called out of the darkness.  “And what about what we require?”

Maybe they needed the receipt?  I pulled it out of my pocket and tossed it out beyond the circle of light.  The voice said something else, but I had already opened the door and stepped back outside.

Out on the street, the elderly little Asian woman was gone, but at least my bike was still there.  I tossed the metal briefcase (who delivered cake toppers in a briefcase?) into the basket on the back of my bike, unlocked it, and pedaled off.

From behind me, I suddenly heard the door burst open, and shouting in some language I didn’t understand.  I glanced back over my shoulder as I started to pedal away – and saw several shadowy men wearing what looked like top hats and long yellow trench coats running out, pointing after me and yelling something guttural.

“Dammit,” I cursed, pedaling harder.  Maybe I had been supposed to bring payment after all – but my boss could figure that out.

A couple of the men went running after me, but I veered down Semetary, made an illegal left turn onto Pennywise Boulevard, and cut through a yellow light to merge over to Gilead Street.  I doubted the men would be able to follow that.

But even as I pedaled, I felt doubt and suspicion start to creep up into my mind.  Veering over to a parking lot, I glanced back at the metal case behind me as I slowed to a stop.

I had wondered who would hand over a cake topper in a metal briefcase.  Now, as I set my bike down and lifted the case out of the basket, I could feel my doubt growing.  The case felt wrong, different.

I set the case down on the ground and popped the latches.  Hesitantly, I lifted the lid.

“Dammit,” I muttered again as I stared at the contents.

From inside the case, carefully set into a leather interior, two long, heavy, blued steel revolvers glinted up at me…