by Lou Antonelli
Time is like a rope. – Ray Bradbury
This is a story about how I traveled along a loop in the rope of time. It starts with what I was told by the little old lady in Pasadena.
Okay, I know you are hearing that Jan and Dean tune in your head. No, it wasn’t that little old lady. Yes, she was a little old lady, but she was English, and I met her in Pasadena, Texas. It’s a suburb of Houston, where I grew up. I was fresh out of the UT journalism school, on my first newspaper job. They didn’t trust me with any hard news stories back then.
The managing editor called me over to his desk. “We have a local hookup with the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic,” he said. “There’s a woman living here now who is a survivor of the sinking.”
“Wow, how old is she?”
“She’s 82. She was saved in a lifeboat with her English family. She later married a petroleum engineer and moved to Texas. She didn’t like to talk about her experience on the Titanic while her husband was alive—she said it bothered him to hear about it—but she’s widowed now and living alone in Pleasant Estates.“
“That’s a real link to history,” I said.
He handed me a slip of paper. “Here’s her address and phone number. Her name is Nancy Atkins.”
* * *
Her face was a tracery of wrinkles, but her eyes were bright and blue and seemed to glow from within. She came from a good English family—her father had been a member of the cabinet of Prime Minister Asquith during the First World War.
She explained that one reason she had been happy to live in America was that she had a younger brother who went to Cambridge, became a Communist professor, and was recruited as a spy during the Cold War. He was exposed in a scandal known for the most prominent member of the conspiracy, a man known as Kim Philby.
Her brother fled in the middle of the night to the Soviet Union in the 1950s and was never heard from again. She said living overseas with her Texas husband helped her avoid the recriminations at home.
She and her other siblings sailed on the Titanic with their mother. She explained her father—a conscientious man burdened with Liberal Party duties—had planned to sail with them but was held back by work and sent the rest of the family ahead on a holiday to Upstate New York with a promise to catch up with them later via another steamship.
It was a lucky accident—the family was saved, for he might have very well been left behind aboard the doomed ship. “My mother never castigated him again concerning his work habits,” she said.
She had a clear, sharp, very British way of speaking. At times, with my East Texas ears, I would have to ask her to repeat herself during the interview.
We spoke for 45 minutes and she gave me a wealth of personal details and observations. She was a bright, curious young girl at the time, and it was a fascinating first-person account of a historical tragedy.
When we finished, I apologized for the many times I asked her to repeat herself because of our different dialects. She smiled. “Do you recall what George Bernard Shaw said about American and British English?”
“That the United States and England are two nations separated by a common language?”
“You’re well-educated and intelligent, young Mister Patton,” she said. She paused. “I wonder whether I could ask you to help solve a puzzle for me.”
“Of course, if I can,” I said.
“Do you know when the song ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ was written?”
That took me aback. “No, I assume it was written recently, it was the number one pop song last year. Why do you ask?”
“I heard someone sing the song on the Titanic,“ she said. “When it was on the radio last year, I recognized it. I hadn’t heard it since 1912.”
“I suppose someone took an old tune and wrote new lyrics,” I said.
“That’s the odd part,” she said. “When I heard the song on the radio, I recognized the lyrics. They didn’t make any sense to me when I heard them on the ship, though.”
“That’s impossible, Bette Davis was in pigtails in 1912,” I said.
“Nevertheless, the Texan sang the song to me and my girl friend.”
“There was a Texan on the Titanic?” I asked, a bit surprised.
“Yes, apparently he was a stowaway,” she said. “We saw him when the First Officer took him on deck, but kept him in handcuffs.” She frowned. “He died with all the others.”
“Ma’am, how could a Texan have stowed away on a ship that sailed from Ireland?”
“I have no idea, I was a girl of twelve at the time, and I didn’t think about it,” she said. “I’ve never a told anyone about this encounter, because it never made a whit of sense to me. I hadn’t thought of it for years, until I heard the song on the radio last summer.”
I pulled my chair closer to the table and opened my note pad again. “You need to tell me this story.”
* * *
She sat back down after serving hot tea for both of us.
“As I said, my mother, my older brother, my younger brother and I were off on a holiday to New York,” she said. “We were going to Saratoga. Another family we knew, the Davies, were also on board, and they had a daughter, Elizabeth Anne, who was the same age as I was. We knew each other from school, and we were constant companions on the ship.
“We were on the First Class deck when saw the First Officer with a man in handcuffs,” she continued. “The stranger wore an ill-fitting jacket that was obviously borrowed and was shivering violently, which we both thought was unusual. We didn’t feel it was all that cold, it was only 45 degrees that afternoon.
“The way the First Officer minded him, it was obvious the stranger was a prisoner who was taken above deck for some air. We overheard some nearby adults say that he was a stowaway, and from his manner of speech, a Texan. Then another officer walked over to the First Officer, who spoke to him briefly, and then undid his own handcuff and hooked it onto the railing.
“The First Officer followed the other officer through a nearby door and began to talk into a speaking tube inside. It was obvious he had been called away on an errand. As he spoke he watched the prisoner through a window.
“My friend Betty was somewhat mischievous, and she said to me, ‘Now watch this.’
“She took a few steps backwards in the direction of the prisoner, still facing me, and then called out: ‘Are you a real outlaw?’
“The man didn’t turn his head—he knew he was being watched—and said, ‘Ahm a prisoner of war.’
“He was heavyset, with steel gray hair and a receding hairline that was obvious even in profile. His eyes were coal-black behind his spectacles.
“‘You’re a liar,’ Betty called out. ‘You are too young to be an American Confederate rebel.’
“I was the leader in the Second Texas War of Independence,’ he said firmly.
“‘My name is Betty Anne Davies,’ she said, winking back at me. ‘What’s yours?’
“The stranger reeled off a long name that I couldn’t repeat or remember. It sounded like an Italian soup. He then added, almost as if to himself, ‘They put me here to die. They have abolished the death penalty, but they want me dead. So they put me here.’
“That startled me, and Betty, who said, ‘What do you mean by that?’
“‘You’ll find out this morning,’ he said thinly.
“The man was clearly unhinged.
“‘So your name is Bette Davis, eh?’ He pronounced it back like the American pronunciation, Davis not Davies. I don’t think he could hear the difference.
“Then he began to chuckle, almost maniacally. He said to himself, ‘It seems so long ago’, then and he began to sing to himself, low but clear. The tune was unfamiliar, the words nonsense.
Herr Harris hollow cold,
Herr lipser Swede supplies,
Herr Hansa nevah coiled,
Sheesh gat Bette Davis Ice.
“Betty Anne drew back to me. ‘The man’s a raving lunatic,’ she hissed.
“The First Officer was coming back out on the deck. We could tell he knew something was up.
“‘Let’s go,’ Betty hissed.
“The First Officer looked at us, and then at the stranger, whom he grabbed, and—after retrieving his handcuff from the railing—hustled below desk.”
“That’s the last you saw of the man?” I asked.
“Not quite,” said Mrs. Atkins. “Yes, we learned early in the morning what he alluded to, when the ship struck the iceberg and were all on deck, waiting to board the lifeboats. His reference to ‘ice’ seemed foreboding. While I waited with my family to board the lifeboat, I saw the man again, on the listing deck. He was clinging with one hand onto a funnel, trying to stay on his feet. He was no longer in handcuffs; I assume he was abandoned to his fate.”
“Did he say anything else you?”
“No, he was on the far side of the ship. He looked very cold and very angry.”
“Did he go down with the ship?”
“As our lifeboat pulled away, I saw him, still clinging to a handhold on the tilting deck, shivering violently. His mouth was moving furiously. I couldn’t tell if he was praying, or cursing.”
“That’s amazing, certainly a strange encounter,” I said rather lamely after a pause.
“I hadn’t thought about it for years until I heard that song on the radio,” she said. “Like you, I assumed it was an old tune with new lyrics, but then I recognized the words that hadn’t made any sense to me so many years ago. The pop song now has only made the mystery, as Alice said, ‘Curiouser and curiouser’.”
She smiled like a grandmother. “You’re a clever young man, and as the saying goes, ‘journalists are generalists’. Perhaps you will find an explanation for this.”
“I appreciate your confidence, ma’am,” I said.
But I never did.
* * *
I did later learn that “Bette Davis Eyes” was an original song, and it wasn’t written in 1981, but 1974. Kim Carnes just lucked out with the best cover, helped with some of the cutting edge electronic music technology in the early 1980s.
The few times I saw Nancy Atkins afterward, we never spoke specifically about the stranger on the desk of the Titanic. I think she was uncomfortable with the strangeness of the story, and so was I. Fact was, I’m not sure I believed it—until now.
* * *
Nancy Atkins died in 1991. She had told me Betty Anne Davies died during the London Blitz, while serving as a nurse. So I suppose I’m the only person alive who knows about that doomed Texan on the Titanic.
You’ve probably read and heard how, after the most recent election, more Texans than ever support secession or autonomy. Texans don’t like being on the losing side of anything.
The supporters of secession, the Texas National Movement, has gained thousands of members since the last election. And its headquarters are in another Southeast Texas city, Nederland.
I’m the managing editor of the paper now. Our staff has been shrinking steadily in recent years now, thanks to the national Recession as well as turmoil and difficulties in the newspaper industry. So when I put a story on the Texas Nationalist Movement onto the news list I decided to do it myself.
I drove to Nederland and pulled up to the headquarters in a strip mall. The storefront office was a bustle of activity as volunteers assembled and mailed out membership packets. They all wore t-shirts with the TNM symbol that reminded me of the old Texaco gas station logo.
A young man walked out. He was heavyset with dark hair that was just beginning to gray. He had a burning gaze and coal black eyes. He held out his hand.
“Dan Millieriestri, pleased to meet you.”
Something went Ding! in my head.
“Did you say minestrone?” I quipped.
“I get that a lot in Texas,“ he said, “being an Italian-American. My parents immigrated to Texas after World War II.”
We walked into his office. “You can just call me Dan.”
He was intelligent, intense, forthright, and subversive—just the kind of guy to light the powder keg of a second Civil War. It was a long interview, and as we wound down, I had a thought.
“I want to add something by way of a humanizing touch,” I said. “All we have been talking is politics. Do you have any hobbies? What do you do for relaxation?”
“Of course I spend a lot of time working with the movement, but you know the saying, All work and no play…” He laughed. “Sometimes I strum an old guitar, when I am trying to think and relax.”
He pulled a battered case from behind his desk and pulled out an old acoustic guitar that looked like it cost all of fifteen bucks in a pawn shop.
“I’ll just plunk away and play acoustic versions of old pop tunes. I like the ‘80s stuff a lot, they still wrote lyrics then.”
I played my hunch. “Do you know ‘Bette Davis Eyes’?”
He smiled. “Sure do. That was the Number One song the week I was born in 1981.” He began to play. “I’ve memorized the lyrics.”
* * *
Back in the parking lot, I put my elbows on the roof of my car and my head in my hands.
Nancy Atkins and her friend thought the Texan was referring to “ice” with the song lyrics he sang on the deck of the Titanic—which was ironic in light of what happened to the ship.
They were not familiar with a Texas accent.
Our local pronunciation of “eyes” and “ice” sounds very similar—especially if you’re British, I suppose.
As Bradbury said, time is like a rope, and now I’ve travelled completely around this loop.
I remembered what the little British girl saw as the lifeboat pulled away from the sinking ship: “He was shivering violently, and cursing or praying.”
It was eighty degrees on that late November day as I stood in the parking lot outside the Texas Nationalist Movement headquarters. Unremarkable weather for a native Texan—who would freeze in a snap if thrown into the cold North Atlantic in April.
I know how this story ends.
Some day, Dan Millieriestri will reach the end of his rope.
◊ ◊ ◊
by Scott T. Barnes
Bugs Alford stood in Milkshake’s stirrups and squinted at a shadow in the tall grass of field four. From atop his mare Bugs could see the morning sun reflecting from the snow on Crater Lake volcano twenty miles to the north, but the web of dikes, waist-high grass, and cracks in the peat soil made spotting a missing animal in the flats of Oregon’s Fort Klamath valley nearly impossible.
He might have ridden by her any number of times already. She might have gotten caught in quicksand and all he’d find is a smelly bubble gurgling through the mud.
Not a shadow, a black angus cow.
“Ho! Found her!” Bugs called to the other searchers.
Lucky she had fallen close to Seven Mile Canal where the road ran. They could take her to help if there was still time. And she’d need it—her head lay against the ground like she hadn’t energy to hold it up. She wasn’t sick last time he’d checked, which meant that something had gotten to her recently. Something…
Flies. Hundreds of them. Not so unusual in this bog country, but these rode her flanks rather than the small of the back where the tail couldn’t swat them.
Dead? No. He could hear a raspy pant. And the only stench of rot came from the tule reeds across the canal at the wildfowl refuge. Bugs slowed up until the rotund veterinarian Doctor Stewart, owner Steve Tuttle and cowhand Louise Hanford caught up on horseback. Following behind on the pumice-covered road a Ford Explorer raised a storm of white dust. Little Mai, Steve’s Vietnamese fiancé, couldn’t ride a horse to save her life. She drove or she walked.
Bugs fist tightened on the reins. Lousy luck, Steve’s first day as patron since his old man died and they had to put everything on hold to search for a missing cow. Six cowboys and the vet twiddling their thumbs, and a dead cow cost upwards of $1,200. Hard money in tough times. Enough to make a new owner run back to the city to work for someone else.
Probably the taxpayers.
Bugs pulled his .22 Remington rifle from the saddle holster, feeling the smoothness of the stock, the rough patch where he’d carved his initials when he was sixteen. It took more than a coyote—even a pack of coyotes—to bring down a half-ton cow.
They dismounted. Mai pulled up and joined them, her wide eyes darting like a nervous animal’s. Her flat, elongated nose added to her exotic appearance. Bugs understood Steve’s attraction, though he never would partner with a gal whose heart beat on pavement.
The cow didn’t flinch as Bugs knelt and shooed the flies away. Five precise cuts lined her flank, foreleg to haunch, as if a claw had raked her. Throat tightening, Bugs spread one of the cuts, a watermelon gash with the white of ribs showing at the bottom.
It’s happening again.
Steve staggered away and vomited.
“What, what is it?” Mai asked, trying to see around the men.
The wood and steel of Bugs’ rifle felt alive. The trigger, he knew, would yield with a pressure just so. Six years ago cows had started to go missing. And on that day the air had felt crisp like this morning, filled with electricity like the world was about to explode.
After mutilating fourteen animals in so many days, the Modoc Beast had murdered his pa and disappeared. Until now.
The reeds in the Wildfowl Refuge twitched. A flock of geese rose into the air. He stood and brought the .22 to his shoulder, sighting along the bead to the base of the reeds. His vision focused to narrow points.
Nothing. Too easy to hide. It could be sitting there laughing and he wouldn’t see it. But he’d come back with his hound and flush the thing out.
You took Pa, but I’ll make sure you never kill again.
Doctor Stewart was speaking into a palm recorder. “Subcutaneous lacerations, just touching the muscle. Hardly nicked the bone. Not deep enough to kill, only deep enough to bleed. There is no blood in the grass except right beneath the animal; my guess is that she was wounded on the spot and didn’t wander. Whatever tool was used was sharp as a razor.”
Steve looked better than Bugs would have expected. Enough to break an old cowboy, seeing an animal torn up like this, let alone city folk. Mai clung to his hand, a vein in her wrist pulsing.
“When did it happen?” Steve’s voice cracked a little.
“Late last night. I’m not a forensics guy.” Doctor Stewart tugged on the cow’s ear and the tongue protruded. “But she’s not dead yet.”
Bugs stalked back to the animal. “I’m sorry, mama.” He lifted his Remington and killed her with a bullet to the temple.
The balding vet shook his head. “We’ve got to call the sheriff. An animal didn’t do this.”
Bugs mounted Milkshake. The mare twitched against his thighs.
“What do you mean?” Steve asked. “What killed her?”
“Not what,” said Doctor Stewart, “but who. Animals don’t cut so precisely not to kill. This is just like…just like someone wanted her to suffer.”
Just like six years ago.
Mai reached for her phone but Bugs waived her off. “Cell phones don’t work out here. I’ll call the sheriff from the corral on the land line. You can stay or go back to the corrals. It’ll take an hour before he gets here.”
Doc Stewart and Louise stared a hole in his back as he trotted along the dusty, pumice covered lane. There was a big ‘4’ painted on a sign on the canal side indicating the field number. The Klamath Oregon Wildfowl Refuge, a morass of tules and bog, bordered the canal along this entire side.
Bugs fretted about the sheriff. He’d ask awkward questions.
Your brother still in prison? He gets out tonight.
Tonight? Quite a coincidence. Yeah, but Spike didn’t do it the first time, and he couldn’t have this time. The Beast did it.
Where were you last night? Sleeping. Alone.
No witnesses? None.
Six years ago they had blamed his brother. But it’d be different with Spike in prison. They’d blame Bugs.
He kicked Milkshake into a trot and covered the three miles back to the ranch house before the sun cleared the evergreens of the valley rim. Pickups and horse trailers littered the parking lot, four wheelers jammed between them. A green canoe rested on the canal bank, probably Mai’s idea of a suitable mount.
He told the cowboys to run the corral sprinklers to keep the dust down. He tied Milkshake to a pole inside the barn and called the sheriff. Then he retrieved Wild Bill Hickok. The honey-and-white basset hound squirmed gleefully as Bugs set him on the back of the four-wheeler. Good old Hickok, always faithful. Always willing. He held his straw hat on with one hand and gunned it with the other, back to the crime scene.
“He looks so ancient!” Mai patted Hickok’s salt and pepper nose and got a licking.
“Hickok’s got the finest nose in the Klamath Valley.”
“Really, at his age?”
The old hound ran circles around the carcass, then took off across the road and plunged into the canal. Bugs and the others rushed to the edge. Hickok swam in a great circle, mouth open in glee. Then he dragged his sopping self back up the bank and shook dry, drenching Bugs. His white-tipped tail wagged.
“I think he’s gorgeous.” Mai laughed with the others.
Bugs wiped the slime from his face, trying not to get angry. Maybe Hickok was getting too old.
* * *
Old Dick leaned over the wooden rail of the chute and zapped the cow with his hotshot while Steve rattled a plastic bag tied on the end of a stick. They hollered and rattled, rattled and zapped until the Angus’ eyes got wild. The black cow bucked, sending manure flying like sticky bees. Another zap and she backed up into the head of the cow behind, panicked, and charged towards the only opening: the squeeze. When the head flashed past, Bugs slammed the metal jaws on her neck, squeezed the iron walls over her body and swung the back door shut so no other cow could charge forward and kill Doctor Stewart, who had already shoved his arm in the yearling’s anus to the shoulder in order to feel her fetus without contaminating the vagina.
Bugs kept his hands overhead on the hydraulic levers in case something needed moving now. Next to him fluttered the schedule of which fields to gather which day.
Three hundred animals to go and the noonday sun had come and gone. It’d be dark before he could set up for Beast watch. Bugs ground his teeth and resisted the urge to yell at the others to go faster. Fast meant mistakes, and mistakes took time to undo.
“Pink eye!” Dick shouted, hobbling along the catwalk.
Bugs cursed. He hadn’t even noticed.
The yearling had a wound across her left eye which grew in from the outside like the Devil’s anus. Blood pooled over the cornea and dribbled to the ground.
“Open!” Doc Steward painted a white O on her back. Not pregnant.
Louise pushed her gun between the squeeze’s bars to stick the cow with five ccs of Eight Way. She wore a tee-shirt, jeans and manure-encrusted tennis shoes, and her curves looked fine.
Mai worked the other side. She wore skinny jeans, cowboy boots and a white tee-shirt that said Hanky Panky in pink. Her griddle cake stomach showed when she stretched up her arms.
“So Bugs. Why did the sheriff want to talk with you?” Steve’s attempt to sound casual fell flat.
Bugs grabbed the shears, clipped off the fly tag and wrote down the yearling’s ID.
“Because Bugsy has a history,” Dick said.
“Dick, don’t let your whale mouth overpower your hummingbird ass.” Louise’s twenty-something voice made the ancient expression hilarious. Her auburn hair muffined from under a 49ers ball cap.
“Well, he has a right to know. Steve’s the owner here. Besides, I’ve known Bugsy since he was a gleam in his father’s eye. I can talk about him, right Bugsy?”
Bugs wrapped his meaty arm around the cow’s neck and twisted it to the side. “Sure thing, Dickie.”
“What do you mean a history?” Steve asked.
“A few years back in Chiloquin—that’s a town, not a chewing gum—a bunch of cows were butchered up the same way as that one last night. The Indians said it was the Modoc Beast, some Indian legend.” Dick chuckled. “Maybe the buffalo god taking revenge on whitey’s cows.”
“Dickie!” Louise said. “Bugs has shaman blood in him.”
Dick caught Bugs’ eyes and winked. Dick, too, was half Modoc.
Mai arched her eyebrows. “Shaman? Cow torture? This place is a riot.”
“It didn’t stop there. It killed Bugsy’s father. I knew him, one mean son-of-a-gun. Brought up two tough sons. Course the sheriff said Bugs’ brother Spike killed him. Put him away for years.”
Tonight. I’m picking him up tonight.
“Perfect.” Mai jerked the plunger on her vaccination gun, sucking in the white vaccine.
Louise held the yearling’s eyelid open and dumped sulfa powder in the wound. The cow bellowed. “The Beast protects the land from trespasses.”
How is killing my Pa protecting the land? My Pa loved his cows more than he loved…anyone.
“Some PETA freak could have killed that cow,” Doctor Stewart offered, glancing at Bugs. “They’re willing to do just about anything to give ranching a bad name.”
Steve pushed his hat over his forehead. “Bugs, I have to ask, these being my cows and all, and you foreman here… Why did they blame your brother?”
Louise sucked in her breath. The jawing stopped. Time stopped. The lows from the corral sounded distant as Bugs’ heartbeat thudded. The revelations from the trial flooded back: animal mutilation, murder.
He confessed. He confessed! But he didn’t do it; I saw the Beast do it.
Old Dick dropped from the catwalk, walked over and squeezed Bugs’ bicep with a hand hardened from ranching. Compassionate. Warning.
The cow jerked her head, throwing Bugs to his knees. He rose, lifted the hydraulic levers and released her. The cowboys took their places.
“The Modic Beast killed that cow,” Bugs muttered. “And I’m going to kill that son-of-a-bitch.”
* * *
Bugs and Spike climbed back into the cab of the F150 after stopping at the Fort Klamath cemetery. Spike didn’t put on his seatbelt, and Bugs fumed at himself for not saying anything.
No conflict. Keep it peaceful.
“You always put flowers on mama’s grave?” Spike asked.
“A rose from me, and one from you. I use snowshoes if I have to.”
Spike snorted. His raven-on-skull tattoo stretched wide on his deltoid, exposed in his yellow muscle shirt. He flung his arm across the F-150’s bench seat, forcing Bugs to scrunch over the steering wheel. His jaw was square, solid, and covered with gray stubble, his neck muscles looked like tree roots. “So, what’s new on the Flying J?”
Bugs couldn’t keep the pride from his voice. “Dickie works for me. And Louise Hanson.” And four other cowboys.
“So Bugsy got his dream job—thanks to Spike taking the fall.”
Bugs didn’t permit himself to grovel yet again. He’d done enough of that in letters and phone calls over the years and it never satisfied Spike. He let the wheels whine over the asphalt of route 97.
“You giving me a job?”
Bugs hesitated. “We got enough people…”
Spike glared. “You told the owner about me.”
“Shit, Spike, everyone in the valley knows you’re a felon. When winter comes around you can build fence.”
“After all, I protected your ass, and you can’t even give me a job. You know they would have convicted you, little brother. I bought you six years of freedom.”
Bugs pulled an envelope off the Ford’s seat, fat with twenty dollar bills. “Here’s my last paycheck. I put a room at the A-Frame Inn on my card for two weeks.” He’d planned to say, ‘After that you’re on your own,’ but the words caught in his throat. He’s a felon now. Who will hire him if not his brother?
Spike slammed his palm against the dash. In almost the same motion he snatched the envelope from Bugs’ hand.
“I’ll get more, Spike. I’m just a little tight right now.” Spike’s unpredictability scared him most. He could go from laughing to rage in moments, as if his skin veneered over a hurricane. A year younger, Bugs took Spike’s wrestling title in high school, but he doubted he could do it now.
Spike protected me. By confessing he did more than all my friends combined. “I’ll talk with Steve about the job,” he allowed.
Spike withdrew the bills and counted them one by one. “Forget it. With cows being butchered I don’t want to be anywhere near the Flying J.”
How did he hear about that? Bugs tried and failed to keep his eyes from widening. He loves those mind bends.
Spike grinned sideways. The lone traffic light in Chiloquin flashed by, illuminating his face in ghastly reds and greens. “I got my sources. In prison, everyone has sources. Stop here. I need to stretch my legs.”
“We’re three miles from the motel.” And then he saw the glow up ahead. “I’ll just drop you off at the casino. No need to walk.” No need to pretend.
They pulled up to the one-story building, its brightly-lit awning covering the driveway circle like at a fancy hotel. A group of forty-something women dressed like sorority girls staggered out of the automatic doors. Spike eyed them hungrily.
“Don’t spend it all. I don’t get paid again until next Friday.”
Spike grunted and slammed the door.
* * *
Arms crossed, Louise waited at the pumice road’s fork, where one branch led to the ranch house and the other to the aspen wood. Bugs stopped the backhoe and she climbed in, scooting him over with her hips and putting her feet on Hickok. Her hips were nice, firm and full, but whatever pleasure he felt from their contact disappeared from knowing she had come to lecture him. She had that look.
He put the backhoe in second high and rumbled ahead. The murdered cow the backhoe dragged by a chain spit up dust like a peat fire spit smoke.
“You think to lure the Beast to a blind?”
He tried his warmest smile. “Bout time for you to get home, Louise. It’ll be dark soon and we’re gathering field three early tomorrow.”
“We’ve got to talk.”
She frowned. “I’m not like your kid sister anymore. I’m twenty five, though you hardly seem to notice.”
He looked at her sideways. “Sure I noticed, but I don’t believe you came here to talk about your age.”
“That’s right. I came to offer you a job.”
“A job. You’re a fine welder and my dad’s welder just up and quit. You could make double what you’re making here. The winters would be easier. Besides, I’d like to see you. You could take an apartment in Klamath Falls…”
“Being a cattleman is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
“And how long do you think this will last? That’s three cows murdered in three days.” She pinched her thumb and index together. “Steve’s about this close from closing shop.”
Bugs shifted up and they rattled over the bumpy ground towards the woods. Occasionally the road noise would change as they ran over diversions criss-crossing the valley.
Louise tapped her lips. “I’ve been thinking about that third cow. Whoever killed her chose a place a long way from anywhere. Did you look for tire tracks on the road?”
“Well I did. There weren’t any. We drove the herd up the lane the night before, so if the killer had come in a pickup there should have been fresh tracks.”
“Um-huh.” The Beast doesn’t drive a truck.
“That means he either rode across the fields or through the Wildfowl Refuge. Across the fields is a twenty mile trip to Kildeer Road and you’ve got to cross the Wood River. Mighty risky for a man on a horse and too far to walk.”
“So the killer came across the Wildfowl Refuge,” Bugs said, interested in spite of himself.
“Either that or he passed directly in front of Steve’s house, and those gates are locked. Bugs, only you and Dick know that refuge well enough to ride a horse across it. Not many people could walk it, and no one would want to.”
Spike knows it too. But he was in prison until two days ago. “So you think a man on a horse risked his neck to cross the refuge just to kill our cow. Like that’s a lot more probable than the Modoc Beast.”
“Bugsy, either you take this seriously or…” She threw up her hands.
He couldn’t stand Louise staring at him from the sides of her eyes. “I know what I saw. My pa ripped to shreds, the Beast standing over him. I’ll never forget…it looked animal, bison-like, but partly human.”
“You were a boy; you saw what you wanted to see.”
“My brother never did kill him. He protected me.”
“My dad said your pa was mean as a whip—drove your mother to suicide and drove your brother crazy enough to torture cows—and murder his old man.”
Bugs banged his fist against the steering wheel. If she kept talking, if she said one more thing about his brother…
“You know what the sheriff’s gonna think?” He could feel the air from Louise’s words puffing against his ear. “He’s gonna think that you’re following in your brother’s footsteps. You better take stock of your situation and stop this Beast nonsense.”
He slammed on the brakes. The metal on the backhoe rattled and banged. Hickok barked in surprise. “Get out.”
“Think about what I said. Dad won’t hold that job open forever.”
“Out!” She had another mile to walk, but he didn’t care. She could walk barefoot on glass for all he cared.
She jumped off the tractor and he popped the clutch, leaving her chocking on a carcass-blown storm of pumice. He didn’t slow down until he bumped over the twisted ground between the aspens behind the ranch house. He left the carcass in the middle of a ring of trees as bait, parked the tractor back on the road, and then returned on foot with Hickok and his .22 to wait out the night. He regretted not being a hunter—he’d own something with bigger stopping power than his .22.
Too bad he’d fought with Louise. She meant well, he knew that, but the way she said things. He shouldn’t have made her walk, that’s wasn’t cowboy-like. He bundled the blanket around his legs, grateful that Hickok was there to keep him warm. He’d apologize next time he saw her.
The cold crept down from the mountains and chilled his hands until he wasn’t sure he could even pull the trigger. At least it killed the stench of dead cow. It recalled six years ago when he was out looking for a missing yearling with Milkshake while summer lightning flashed over America’s deepest lake, Crater Lake.
He’d heard a shout.
He shone his flashlight into the distance. All he could see was grass and the light’s reflection from the flooded fields. He spurred Milkshake but she reared. He yanked the bridle to the side and her front hooves came crashing down. “Move, come now.” He spurred again, she reared again, and he yanked to the side, forcing her to turn in a full circle. “Come on!” The third time he kicked with anger and Milkshake surged to a gallop. He leaned to the side and shone the light just beyond the horse’s hooves.
Then the horse stopped short and Bugs ate the horn and the light tumbled from his grasp. As the beam swung it illuminated the Beast: tall as the horse with a buffalo’s hindquarters and a bear’s head—but not claws. No, the Beast had human arms and white, white hands. And Pa lay at its feet, sliced to ribbons.
Then the flashlight flickered in the water and died. Bugs dismounted and ran forward, crying out, expecting any second to be stuck by the Beast. Pa was hurt. Pa was hurt. He felt with his hands until he found the body, tacky with blood. Lightning flashed and he saw his father’s eyes.
Bugs saw those lifeless eyes every night before sleeping. And they had blamed his brother. The cops interrogated Spike until he confessed.
They might have blamed me.
Hickok whined and stirred against his legs. Bugs blinked his eyes open. He hadn’t realized he had closed them.
“What is it?” The dog shimmied free and ran. Bugs felt on the ground for his gun, stood, and tripped on the blanket. He stumbled forward, losing sight of Hickok among the silver dollar, moonlit aspen leaves. Branches thwacked him, logs tripped him and a barbed wire fence ripped a hole through his shirt and into his side. In two hundred yards the trees began to thin, the land sloped towards the ranch house and the open parking lot.
Bugs kept moving. Lights blazed on the wrap-around porch. Then the Beast flashed into sight, two legged and bear-like. It crossed the lot in two strides.
Bugs dropped to one knee and squeezed. Crack!
The Beast stumbled and Hickok scampered into the parking lot behind. The stupid dog would try to take it down by himself. Bugs worked the bolt and fired off another shot.
“Steven!” Mai glared at Bugs from the porch.
Steve burst from the house in an open jacket and boxers. “What the—” he spotted Bugs “—hell are you doing shooting in my yard?”
Bugs tried to make the .22 look unthreatening. He gestured with his chin beyond the house, where Hickock’s yaps sounded fainter. “The Beast…”
Mai wore a white terry robe with one shoulder bare. Her hand sliced the air as if it could cut Bugs down from 30 feet away. “I told you we needed to get off this ranch and back to the city. Look at this. Look at this!”
“Go inside Mai.” Steve’s temples pinched with tension. “We’ll talk later.”
“The Beast… I seen him.” Bugs pointed stupidly beyond the house. Words jumbled in his head.
“You shoot a gun in my yard in the middle of the night? Don’t bother coming to work tomorrow.”
The world shrank to a pinpoint. Bugs felt his legs wobble. “But I seen him…”
Hickok scrambled around the corner of the house, sopping wet. He must have jumped into the canal.
Steve held out his hand. “Give me your keys, Bugs. You can pick up your paycheck after we’re through working cattle. You’re done here.”
* * *
The sheriff had wedged a card on the frame of Bugs’ single-wide trailer door and left two phone messages. Telling himself it was too late to call, Bugs drove five miles south of Fort Klamath to Mel’s, a bar-diner with dim lighting, country-western music and waitresses with tanning-booth grins and three ex’s each. Dick would be there, eating the chicken fried steak before heading home to his six PM bedtime. Like clockwork.
He patted Hickock on the seat next to him. “Good boy. You stay in the truck, keep an eye on things.” The evening mist created a miasma around the red neon Mel’s sign. He rolled his tongue around his teeth, hesitating. He hadn’t set foot here in years. It was fine, mostly. But Mel’s was a drinking establishment, and in cowboy country that meant fights. And Bugs being large attracted fights. The last time, the wiry bartender had hustled him and the other man outside in the middle of a left jab Bugs knew was about to connect… He didn’t remember much about the rest except being surprised to find himself in the snow. And losing.
Dick knows something he’s not telling. And with Dick, that was surprising as hell. Bugs grinned, thinking how easy it’d be to get the old codger to blab.
Inside, the neon beer adverts gave the mostly empty tables a red hue. Two TV screens showed the Steelers versus the 49ers, third and goal. Dick sat in the corner alone in his cowboy uniform: buttoned shirt, jeans, a belt with an oversized buckle. Dick’s Big-R cap sat on the table next to him.
Bugs nodded at the bartender on his way over.
Dick scooted the empty chair out with his boot. “Bugsy. Tough luck with the job. You should have told Steve you were going night hunting…in his parking lot. What were you looking to get, Bugsy? Snipes are all holed up for the winter.”
Bugs turned the chair around and straddled it, leaning on the back. “I already got a job offer in Klamath Falls. I might take it.”
“I might too, if I weren’t so old. Louise’d make a nice catch.”
Bugs puffed air out his mouth. The old man knew more about Fort Klamath’s goings on than anyone.
Dick cut into his chicken fried steak, white gravy drowning the chicken and fries alike. The smell made Bugs’ mouth water.
The waitress twisted off a Budweiser cap and set it down without asking Bugs’ preference. Its smooth biters relaxed his throat and quelled his stomach growl. He normally skipped dinner to keep his weight down to an even 220. He gave her four dollars. “Dickie, I need help in corralling the Beast. I seen it last night in Steve’s yard.”
Dick sliced off another triangle of meat. “Lost another mama today from field six, cut up the same way. Steve’s letting us keep her for the barbecue.”
The Beast killed the animal in the field they were scheduled to work. I’m missing something and I don’t know what. “If we get a bunch of hunters out there we’ll get it. We can clear my brother’s name…
“Dickie, I’m desperate here. I’ve been thinking and thinking, and I can’t see the sheriff blaming anyone for these mutilations but me. At best, I am…was, the foreman there, and I let it happen. At worst, well, he thinks I’m crazy already.”
Dick leaned back and scratched his bald head. “You’ve been through a lot, Bugsie. Why don’t you take that job offer, get out of Fort Klamath for a while? Steve won’t stick around. He’ll sell the Flying J and I’ll put in a word with the new owners.”
Bugs stood slowly, feeling a hundred pounds heavier. “Dickie, not you, too. You of all people. You’ve always believed me.”
Dick took a second to answer—an eternity for the old man. “Well, Bugsy, I know you didn’t kill your pa. The Beast did it, sure as the hair growing out my nose.”
Bugs knew a conversation split, a place he could lose or gain some valuable insight. He chose his words carefully. “How are you so sure?”
In answer, Dick asked Bugs to bring Hickock inside. No worries, the bartender was a friend. Feeling anxious but curious, Bugs returned with the 30-pound hound squirming under one arm. He set him on his chair and stood behind, knuckles white on the chair-back.
Dick gave the dog a quick pat on the rump. “Good boy, Hickock. Now don’t take this personal.” Then he gargled something from the back of his throat, bobbing his Adam’s Apple, producing a throaty, inhuman noise.
Hickock’s tail stopped mid-wag. He sat still…too still, a rigor mortis-like stillness. Bugs touched him, and jerked his hand away in fear. The flesh felt stiff. The hound didn’t react.
Dick recovered his knife and fork. “When this started six years ago, they never found tranquilizing agents in the mamas. Now, how do you get a 1,000 pound animal to sit still while you carve her hide?”
Bugs blew on Hickock’s eyes. They watered, but the dog didn’t blink.
“You see, your pa neglected your history. The shaman magic started simple, freezing deer and rabbits, making it easy to hunt. The Modocs aren’t like the coastal Indians that could reach into the rivers and scoop out salmon. We had to survive in the evergreen desert of Eastern Oregon. But we ain’t only hunters, we’re warriors. Always fighting.”
Bugs felt panic begin to grow. Dick was killing his hound…
“And one of the shamans learned how to freeze people. Easy to shoot arrows into statues. Soon all the shamans learned. Modocs dropped like flies on poisoned shit. The tribe would have disappeared—”
“Dickie!” Bugs growled.
“Eh? Oh. Now don’t you do anything foolish, Bugsy. He’ll be fine.” With another inhuman noise, Hickock stumbled, falling face-first off the chair onto the stained, blue carpet.
“Anything the matter?” The bartender called from behind the counter.
Bugs knelt down and stroked the dog’s fur. Hickock, whining, tried to bury himself in his arms. Bugs wanted to tear Dick’s head off…but he knew, beneath his anger, the old man was trying to tell him something important. And he had already missed a sentence or two. The old man was still talking.
“…he gave up everything to save the tribe.”
“You said the shaman became the Beast?” Bugs asked.
“He used up all the magic he had, and all that of like-minded shamens, and turned himself into a spirit. Louise had part of it: the shaman hates trespasses on the land, cow killings and such, but that isn’t his purpose. He exists to kill anyone using the magic against another human.”
Bugs stood, hefting Hickock in both arms. The dog trembled. “I don’t know this magic. Pa never taught me.”
“Your pa was a shaman, and he got himself killed. Maybe he got in a fight with Spike and froze him. Maybe he caught Spike butchering cows. He used the magic and the Beast heard.” Dick drew his steak knife across his throat.
It made sense, the first time this whole craziness had made sense. “And the cows? Who is killing the cows?”
Dick leaned back. “You get yourself to the city, Bugs. Leave this mess behind. It’s haunted you enough.”
Bugs frowned at the old man. He thinks I’m doing this.
* * *
Bugs used his cell phone to call the A-Frame Inn. “Spike?”
“What does little brother want?”
“I need your trigger finger. Spike, I saw the Beast last night at the Flying-J. It was fast. But you can hit it. You can shoot a mosquito at 50 yards.”
He could hear Spike grinning. “I could shoot the mosquito’s prick off.”
“Yeah. It’d be like bagging Sasquatch. It’d clear your name.”
“Sure thing, little brother. Pick me up.”
No hesitation. No price. This is way too easy. Bugs returned to his single-wide and loaded his .22 and ammo, cammie jacket, flashlight, and Cheetos into the Ford. He slipped a Bowie knife and case onto his belt and checked that he carried the spare ranch keys, keys he’d return after this ended.
He owned one bolt-action 22, which meant only Spike would carry a gun. No stores were open at this hour, and none would sell him a gun if they were.
Whatever Spike’s price, I’ll know by the end of the evening.
* * *
They parked under the evergreens bordering the Wildlife Refuge. Spike insisted Hickock remain in the truck, saying that the hound would make noise. Bugs didn’t like it, but Hickock was mighty shook up. He relented.
They spread the barbed wire fence, climbed between the wires and went trespassing. Bugs leapt across the first watercourse and headed straight into the five-foot tall tule reeds. Spike called him back.
“The Flying J’s that way.” Bugs pointed west, his arm a ghost in the moonlight.
“We’ll follow the ditch so we don’t get lost.”
“I won’t get lost.” Within thirty feet Bugs fell twice into bogs up to his hips. He hauled himself out by the tules and returned to where Spike waited.
They turned to follow the ditch, Bugs trailing, red-faced and shivering. His cammie pants clung to his legs, chaffing them, adding drag. The shiny ribbon skirted the edge of the refuge. Then it intersected other watercourses and Spike began picking ones to follow. The banks were built up, more or less solid, and the moon-lit water made a trail of sorts. Crater Lake’s distant cone, shiny with snow, gave them due north.
Each mile took a good hour, a miserable cold, wet hour. Bugs’ face itched from the mosquito bites he got before the temperature dropped below 40 and the insects holed up. Spike became a shimmer of fabric. Bugs fancied now and then that he and Spike had gotten separated and the Beast tromped beside him. The thought would send a chill along his neck. He’d turn his head real quick and squint until Spike came into focus.
All their sloshing and grunting frightened the water critters into bolting, and occasionally a goose honked, disturbed from slumber.
Finally they crossed a bridge where the diversion poured into Seven Mile Canal. Bug’s key opened the lock to the Flying J. The manure smell here differed from the slime of the refuge. Drier. More civilized.
“Where’s the body?” Spike asked.
“I don’t know, exactly.”
“Then we’ll kill another.”
“No! We’re not killing any more cows. The Beast will find us. I have a feeling.”
They spotted a good blind, a stand of willows growing on the field side of the canal, and they flattened a hollow inside it.
Spike pulled on tight leather gloves. Expensive, but they wouldn’t hurt his aim much. “You going to give me the rifle? Seems I can’t buy a firearm, being a felon and all.”
As Bugs passed the rifle across his lap, hand on the forestock, a chill ran down his arm, the sort of alarm he got when leaving home without his wallet, only a hundred times stronger.
Spike checked the chamber, sliding the bolt with a well-oiled click. Bugs settled back onto his elbows. He’d made up his mind to trust Spike, right or wrong. The Beast’s fate now rode on his brother’s marksmanship. Still, Bugs’ right hand fiddled with his knife holster, snapping and unsnapping the guard, unwilling to be defenseless.
They didn’t talk much. A few words. The night sounds resumed, rustles, splashes, gasses long trapped beneath water and peat gurgling to the surface. “I put a bullet into him last night,” Bugs whispered. “Barely slowed him down. The Beast, just like I remembered. The human arms, the bear-like head.”
“Like a werewolf?” He heard Spike grinning behind the words.
Bugs kicked out his boot. “Did you come out here to laugh at me?”
“No Bugsy, not to laugh.” And then he did laugh.
Bugs began to make out cows outlined against the distant hills. Most slept standing in knots to fight the cold. Others browsed. Something crawled spider-like atop the canal bank, its profile barely visible. “There.” Bugs sat straight.
Its arms gleamed. The beast paused and peered at their hiding place. Spike eyed it along the sight, two hunters facing off. Then the beast scampered down and disappeared among the foliage.
“Why didn’t you shoot?”
“I’ll only get one chance, and that wasn’t it.” Spike brought up his knee to rest the stock on. “It knows we’re here.”
Sweat chilled on Bugs’ fingertips. “It’s patient. It has waited six years for this.” A tiny breeze ruffled the grass. A satellite scooted across the sky. “The mutilations have drawn it out.” No, that wasn’t it. He tried to steady his breathing, to focus on the present. The Beast mutilated the cows. So why hasn’t it been doing this for the past six years, taking cows year after year?
Because the mutilations had drawn it out.
The Beast hates cow killings, Dick had said.
“What did you say earlier, about getting lost? ‘Follow the ditch.’ We’ve found all the animals close to waterways. Hickok jumped into the canal when he smelled the first cow. The killer follows the water. Holy Jesus, I know who it is.”
“Calm down, little brother.”
Something rasped through the grass. Bubbles from the sodden peat burst with audible pops, forced to the surface by a large mass, a mass that was getting closer.
“The animals by the canals, the canoe…it’s Mai. She wants Steve to sell out!”
“Bugs, snap out of this. That thing is out there and it’s coming for us.”
A sharp smell like pear blossoms wafted from the impenetrable grass, sweet and bitter. “Mai set me up. She’s been paddling her canoe through the canals. She can see the field numbers from the water to know which fields we’ll be working in. I got to stop her. I got to protect my cows.”
“Don’t talk crazy, Bugsy,” Spike warned. “This is our chance.”
The grass parted and the Modoc Beast emerged. Its bear head was massive, like some giant, New World Minotaur. Its eyes were larger than he remembered.
Spike squeezed off a shot. The Beast dropped away. It didn’t holler, didn’t make any noise at all. Bugs couldn’t tell if it had been hit or not. Suddenly he wasn’t sure he wanted to kill it. But he knew one thing. “They are working field nine tomorrow. We’ve got to go there.”
“This thing’s wounded and dangerous,” Spike said. “Let’s not go tromping off where we can’t see.”
Bugs stood. “Come on, we’ve got a cow murderer to catch.”
* * *
The landscape passed in a blur. Not because they ran hard—too easy to twist an ankle—but because the night turned everything gray. The Beast was a distant worry. Maybe Spike killed it, maybe not. If Dick was right it wouldn’t be after them.
But Mai would be dangerous.
Bugs opened the final gate. “The Wood River is the most direct line by water to field nine. With luck, she hasn’t even left the ranch house and we can set up an ambush.”
Spike carried the rifle over one shoulder. “Whatever, little brother.”
They strode to the river side by side. Bugs was keenly aware his breath labored while Spike’s had leveled off. There was no trek, only mud and deeper mud and tough slogging. They slipped and skidded until finally Spike walked on the dry side of the bank while Bugs kept close to the water, laboring through the mud.
He stumbled across Mai’s canoe pulled up on the bank before he saw her. Her tan clothes blended with the grass. Her black hair was a patch of night. She had a blowgun in her hands.
He took a step and stumbled. She wheeled towards the sound, raising the blowgun.
“Mai, it’s me, Bugs.” He spoke as calmly as he could. His damn boot was stuck. He couldn’t pull it free without a struggle.
Mai slowly squared her body towards him, assessing the situation with quick eye movements.
Then he noticed a black-baldie flopped on its side between him and Mai, its eyes rolled back. Not frozen by magic, but crumpled by a tranquilizer. To tackle Mai he’d have to go around it. He began rocking his foot back and forth, slipping it inch by inch from the boot, trying not to pull so hard the mud would make a sucking sound. “I’m not a talker, Mai. I can’t talk you out of this. You got to do it yourself.”
At the same time, he reached his left hand into his cargo pocket for the flashlight.
He heard a whispered I’m sorry. Mai raised the blowgun.
“You hit me with that thing, my heart will stop beating. It’s designed to drop a thousand-pound cow.”
Her chest expanded.
Bugs dove left. His foot wrenched free of the boot and he crashed to his elbows.
The dart passed harmlessly by, and Mai fumbled around trying to reload. Bugs pulled out his flashlight and held it at arm’s length, shining it in Mai’s eyes. She’d be blinded, and if she shot, she would shoot at the light…or so he hoped.
He climbed to his feet and charged.
Maybe she shot, maybe not, Bugs couldn’t be sure. He slammed her to the ground and heard humph as her breath was knocked out. He knew the sound from wrestling—the sound of victory. He straddled her with a knee on her right arm and shone the light in her face. She covered her eyes with her free hand.
Crack! His flashlight exploded. The shock reverberated up Bugs’ elbow to his shoulder. He gripped his wrist in his other hand, waves of pain flowing up radius and ulna.
“That was nice, little brother. You ought to apply to the po-lice.” Spike used a fake ghetto accent for ‘po-lice.’
“Let me up, you oaf!” Mai snarled. “Get off.”
“Do what the lady says.” Spike gestured with the rifle. “Mai and I go way back.”
Spike? Mai? Numbly Bugs shifted his weight. Mai stood and spit in his eye.
“See,” Spike said, “I had lots of time there to figure out what happened the night the Beast killed Pa. The Beast tolerates a few cow murders, but eventually it takes action. I figured it’d tear up Mai and you’d get blamed. This is even better. Now little brother killed Mai with his own rifle.”
“Spike?” Mai asked. “What are you talking about?”
Bugs figured it out faster. “Run, Mai. Run!”
Spike shot. Mai wore a confused look as she dropped, a bullet hole in her forehead. Spike reloaded before her body hit the grass. “It is cleaner this way. Cleaner.”
Bugs tried to keep his brain from shutting down, from being overwhelmed. He unsnapped the knife holster’s safety, hoping Spike wouldn’t notice. He’d not go down without a fight. “Why did you kill Pa?”
Spike’s eye movement said he did see. “All Pa loved were his precious cows. He drove Ma to hang herself. So I hurt them.”
“This is about Ma, about her suicide? My God! She was ill. Depressed.” But Bugs was developing a plan. He prayed Dick was right about the Beast. Bugs could beat Mai with a blowgun, but Spike with a rifle? No chance. Better to use his ego.
Bugs pitched the knife to the side. “You are such a coward, Spike. Using Mai to do your dirty work. You never could stand against me. You’ve been afraid of me ever since I took your wrestling title. Put down that rifle and see I can’t do it again.”
Spike laughed. “We don’t do John Wayne in prison.”
“Come on,” Bugs said, dropping into a Greco stance. “Put down the toy and wrestle.”
Spike laughed again, with less certainty. He tipped the barrel downward, and then he spoke the spell, a throaty gargle rippling through Bugs’ flesh, separating meat from nerve. Bugs observed his body from a distance, unmoving, helpless. Numb as a mouthful of Novocain.
Just as he hoped. The coward used a spell.
Spike lay the rifle on top of Mai’s body. “I don’t want the Sheriff to miss it. He’s kind of stupid.” With his gloved hands he stroked the hair off her pretty face, bent and kissed her cheek.
Come now, Beast. Let Dickie be right. Let Dickie…
“Now you pay for all six years of prison.” Spike advanced, fingers twitching with anticipation.
A bear-headed beast tore from the night, knocking Spike into the Wood River. The white arms gripped Spike’s struggling body. The bison-like back bunched up, and the back legs pinwheeled, hooves sharp as knives. The Beast roared…
Purple dots swam in front of Bugs’ eyes. He couldn’t breathe; he couldn’t expand his lungs. His heart labored, ka-thump, ka-thump.
Pa, if I survive I’ll lay a wreath on your grave.
* * *
Bugs saw Louise’s red Ram pickup parked in front of the Fort Klamath post office and whipped in alongside. The sign on the door read ‘Counter open Wednesdays, 10-4.’
Louise leaned her breasts against the counter, talking to the woman behind it. She straightened when she saw Bugs and the woman wandered to the back. “Bugs, it’s been a long time.”
He hesitated just a second, then strode forward and crushed her against his sheepskin jacket. “I, uh, don’t get to Klamath Falls too often. A lot on my mind.”
He hadn’t meant to say that. She might think he was looking for pity.
“I’m sorry about your brother.”
“It…brought some clarity. Spike was guilty, after all. Mostly.” Someday he’d tell her the whole story: Pa caught Spike mutilating cows and used a spell, forgetting the Beast in his fury. Pa and Spike paid the price, Spike going to jail and Pa dying.
Louise brushed snow off his collar and he realized his hands had strayed to her hips. “Sounds like you have a lot to talk about.”
“Yeah. Yeah, maybe I do. Did you ever fill that welder position?”
“You’re looking at him, best stick welder in town. Dad thought with the economy and all, best to keep the business in the family. How about you?”
“Dick’s in charge of the Flying-J until Steve finds a buyer. He hires me to fix fence now and again. Mostly me and Hickok stay home.” Bugs leaned in and kissed her on the cheek.
Louise frowned, but her eyes were smiling. “That’s awfully bold.”
“Sorry. You know, out here in the sticks we forget our manners.”
She turned the other cheek and pointed towards it. “Well, you’d better start learning. This one’s jealous.”
Scott T. Barnes
by Judith Field
Dad always insisted that there was something priceless in the house. Towards the end, words that might have told me what and where, abandoned him. I couldn’t see anything worth more than a few bob, and neither could the house clearance dealer.
I stood by the kitchen window looking at the back wall separating the garden from the churchyard where he was buried. The sky was solid grey and a gust of wind bent the branches of the trees into arcs. Bloody English summer, I bet the sun was baking the pavement in Barcelona. I’d be looking at orchids, thyme and hibiscus, if I could buy a place there. But not on a medical physicist’s salary. Dad left his entire estate to the University. Congratulations, folks, don’t spend the whole fifty quid at once.
Archie, gardener and churchwarden, was in the final stages of wrenching a rose bush out of Dad’s flower bed. I banged on the window. “Come in and have a drink when you’ve finished.”
He wrapped the rose’s root ball in an old sack and stomped into the kitchen. I found a bottle of lemonade, not quite empty, inside the fridge. I poured him a glass, put the empty bottle on the table, turned off the fridge and pulled out the plug, ready for the new tenants.
Archie downed the lot and leaned back. “You sure you’ll be able to plant these roses properly at your place? Get someone to help you.”
“How hard can it be? I’ll do it on my own, I’m a big girl now.” Once both your parents are dead, you finally feel like you’ve grown up. Even when you’re in your fifties.
“I’ll go and dig that dwarf apple tree out for you next,” Archie said, “but then I’ll have to get off, I’ve got more gardens to do. Get another apple if you want fruit. I told your Dad to buy more than one.”
“He wanted to plant a mini-orchard. That tree was going to be the first of many. I’ve got to take it with me. The next tenant might want to chop it down, I couldn’t stand the thought of that. Dad loved his garden.”
“Oh, aye. Good at digging, your Dad was. I suppose he had to be, in his line of work. Bit different from Egypt here, though. I remember him planting this tree, just before he went mad…er, was taken ill. You know, there’s a lot of it about, in this little street. All started around about the same time as your Dad.” Archie pursed his lips and looked upwards. “There’s four others, no…five. Going downhill, really fast.”
“I suppose that’s what happens when folk retire to a place like this. All the same age, all getting senile.”
Archie shrugged. “Dunno about that. Kevin two doors down, he’s got the dee-mentia. He’s only forty-five. I’m going to do his garden next, sweep up the leaves.”
“That’s kind of you.”
He smiled. “Now your Dad, he never let the leaves lie, I’ll give him that. Always had a bonfire going.” He got up and headed for the garden. “See you, Kathleen. I’ll be back in a bit, help you get those books into the car.”
Dad used to call me Kat, but that stopped when people only he could see began coming through the bedroom wall when he lay awake. Then, he called me Kathleen, the Thief, who stole from him. He would get up in the night to hide money around the house–half a £50 note among the pages of a book and the other half inside the toaster. I told him he didn’t have money to burn. “Burn, yes,” he said. I wrinkled my nose as I remembered the time he set the kitchen alight. Saved by the smoke alarm.
Towards the end, he forgot my name completely, and the places where he had hidden things. One day he pulled every book off the shelves that lined the walls and I found him throwing them across the room. “It’s all true,” he muttered, “priceless.” That again. But nothing had turned up and now the house was nearly empty.
Every happy memory I had about the place seemed to have been blotted out by Dad’s becoming what I came to think of as ‘the Father-thing’, some alien creature who had assumed his appearance. Whenever I thought of the house I felt a cold hand clutching my insides.
One more room to empty and I’d never have to come back to the house again. I picked up the charity shop box and headed for the living room. A mouldy smell hung in the air and stains edged their way up the walls where the furniture had been. The front door, opening directly from the room onto the street, shuddered in the wind. The sky outside darkened and rain blobbed against the window. There was still work to do, on a shelf-full of books that the dealer had refused to take. A woman from the charity shop was coming to collect them. I looked at my watch–she was due in an hour. Better get a move on.
I saw a blue book on the shelf. The label on the front read “The Quantum Multiverse–could it resolve the Grandfather Paradox?” The Paradox was a time travel thing–if you went back and killed your own grandfather before you were born, how could you have been born to go back and murder him? It was my final dissertation for my degree, and I’d been much taken with the idea of an infinite number of possible universes, like bubbles, all coexisting but never interacting. Dad took one look at the dissertation, said “too many hard sums for me”, gave me a kiss and put the book on the shelf. It had probably been there ever since.
I pulled out a Bible bound in black leather, gold leaf letters on the spine. Inside, the inscription “Maurice Farthing, November, 1933”. He’d have been thirteen, I remember him telling me that was the age he was when he first became interested in Egyptology. I took it into the kitchen and put it on the table, on top of the pile of books to take home.
Back in the living room, in the gap behind where the book had been, stood another one, a battered hard-back with a dull red cover. The British Way and Purpose, consolidated edition, prepared by the Directorate of Army Education. The book fell open between chapters called ‘Working for a Living’ and ‘What we Produce’, held slightly apart by an envelope containing three dried leaves, burnt at the edges. Another toaster job.
A few pages further on, after ‘What We Do with the Products’, I found two letters. One was from the Royal Botanic Garden, at Kew.
We have been unable to identify the leaf you submitted as there is nothing comparable among our herbarium specimens. However, we believe it to originate from a species of thorn bush.
The letter was dated October 2013, a month before the dementia caught hold of Dad. It must have been the last thing he worked on.
The second letter, sent a week later, was from the radiocarbon dating laboratory at the University.
The papyrus, the ink used in the writing on it and the plant sample you submitted are between 3500 and 4000 years old.
I picked up a pristine copy of A Brief History of Time, flicked through it. Some of the pages hadn’t been cut ad anyone actually read the book? Behind it was another copy of The British Way and Purpose. Between ‘Better than the Rules’ and ‘Does It Matter What We Believe?’ was a letter from the Department of Semitic Studies at the University, dated November 2013:
“we concur with you that the text on the “papyrus” allegedly from Mount Horeb, of which you sent us a photocopy, is Hebrew, written in a form of early Semitic script. You say that you found it in 1942 but the fact that you have not consulted us until now leads us to assume this is some kind of hoax.
In the margin, in Dad’s writing Yes – I took a break after El Alamein. And No carbon dating till now, you buffoon! I read on.
However, here is the translation of what we could read: “My brother Aaron, these leaves are from the bush I told you about…on fire and yet not consumed… I will be who I will be…my name forever, the name you shall call me… I am not a man of words—not yesterday, not the day before…speak to the people for me, speak to Pharaoh Thutmose…meet me in the desert.” We cannot discern a signature on the document but would be happy to examine the original.
I felt as though all the air had been sucked out of the room and the floor seemed to rush towards me, then vanish into the distance. Where was the original papyrus? I struggled to catch my breath. I clawed at the books still on the shelf, dragged them onto the floor, but there were no more copies of The British Way and Purpose. Pages clattered as I hurled the remaining books across the room, but nothing fell out as they hit the wall.
I ran to the kitchen, grabbed the toaster, turned it upside down and shook it till the works rattled. Nothing. Had there been a dull red book among the ones the dealer took? Why hadn’t I made a note of his phone number? Where had I found it—Google? I wrenched my phone out of my pocket. No signal. I flung the window open. “Archie! Quick! Have you got a local paper?”
Out in the garden, he didn’t seem to have heard me. He knelt on the lawn pulling something red out of the ground where the apple tree had been. His stood up. “Your Dad. Daft old bugger.” He held out a clear plastic bag. Inside was a book with a dark red cover.
“Give that to me!” I ran towards him, my feet slipping and sliding on the wet grass. I snatched the bag and ran back into the house. Archie followed me.
My heartbeat pounded in my ears. The bag slipped out of my shaking hands onto the table. I panted as I tried to tear it open.
“Here, let me do it.” Archie took a lock-knife out of his pocket and pulled out the blade. I gasped. “Don’t look so worried,” he said. “I’ll be careful.” He slit the bag, took the book out and put it on the table next to the empty lemonade bottle. I grabbed the book and it fell open. The pages had been cut away, leaving a space containing a cylindrical grey pottery jar about three inches high. The lid of the jar was shaped like the head of a pointy-eared jackal, with long striped hair. I pulled the jar out of the book.
Archie peered over my shoulder. “Looks old. Valuable, is it?”
I took the jackal head lid off and upended the jar over the table. A roll of paper dropped out. It was brown with tattered edges. Through the surface I saw the outline of unfamiliar texts. Not paper. Papyrus.
My mouth dried. “More than you know.” I touched the papyrus with the tip of my index finger. The air glowed blue above it I felt a buzzing inside my head and an image of sand, and the occasional scrubby bush, flashed across my mind.
Archie leaned in front of me. “It’s clever, lighting up like that. Let me look at it properly.”
“No!” I reached out to grab the papyrus, knocking the pile of books to the floor. I looked out of the window. “I think it’s stopped raining. I don’t want to keep you. Kevin’ll be waiting. Time to go!” A phoney laugh stuck in my throat.
“OK, calm down. I’ll say goodbye.” He reached out to shake my hand. I felt bad. Archie had helped me find something wonderful, even if he didn’t know it. I’d send him some money, anonymously. Once I’d sold the scroll.
I put my arms round Archie and hugged him. He reddened. “Give over. I’m only going to rake up Kev’s leaves. Not create the hanging gardens of Babylon.”
I released him. “That was for me. For all your help. You must let me give you something,” I said. “Take anything you like the look of. Before you go.”
Archie tugged at one ear. “Sure?”
I nodded. He looked round, frowning. Archie picked up the Bible and leafed through it. “I wouldn’t mind taking this notebook, for my little grandson. Loves to draw, he does.”
“That belonged to Dad. I don’t think anyone should be scribbling on it.”
“Make your mind up. But I’m sure your Dad wouldn’t have minded a little lad having a bit of a draw. It’s not like it’s got writing or anything. Well, just a bit at the beginning and I’ll make sure he leaves that.” He shoved the bible towards me, flicking through blank page after blank page.
I took it. “Where’s the New Testament?”
Archie shrugged. “Where’s what?”
Genesis was there. Exodus stopped in the middle of a sentence about Moses tending sheep. After that, blank pages.
“But it was there. I saw it.” My throat tightened and I heard my voice rise in pitch. “Where’s the rest of the Bible gone?
Archie raised his eyebrows. “Bible?”
“This.” I jabbed a fingertip at the cover. “Look. Read.” I turned the book so that the spine was uppermost. No gold text. Had I imagined it? Dementia wasn’t contagious – was it?
The chair squeaked as I flopped into it. I pushed my fingers through my hair.
Archie put his hands up. “OK, OK, keep your Dad’s book. Didn’t mean to upset you.” He looked away from me. “I’ll leave you to it.”
He shuffled out of the back door. I locked the door behind him. I took a deep breath and told myself to think rationally, to remember I was a scientist. The Bible must have been printed in some kind of disappearing ink. And as for Archie, he must be losing his memory. Poor man.
I went back into the front room. A beam like a full-on car headlight shone through the window. The charity shop woman must have come early. I looked out of the window into the empty street. The hair on the back of my neck prickled, as though someone was watching me. I locked the door.
I put the Bible back on the table. I had proof that what it said was true. Dad was right, it was priceless. “It’s not too late,” I said to an empty room. “I’m going to make you a household name, Dad.” I decided to be patriotic and offer it all to the British Museum first. The jar alone must be worth something. I picked it up and reached out towards the papyrus again.
Pins and needles shot through my palm. My hand opened and I dropped the jar onto the table. After a second pause it rolled, apparently under its own power, onto the floor where it smashed on the stone tiles. The air seemed thick and I felt like I was moving under water. I heard a sound as though the air was tearing like cloth.
The shadow of a man appeared, black but edged with tiny sparks, but not on the wall. It stood in the middle of the room, on the air itself. A bright spot appeared in the middle of the shadow. It expanded till it filled the darkness and changed into the figure of a dark-skinned man. He stepped out of the space and into the room, flecks of light crackling around his shaven head.
He wore a white tunic, with fringes hanging down by his legs. He had bright green shadow on his eyelids, and a black line circled each eye. He held out his hand.
“Give me the scroll of the slave Moshe.”
He clapped his hands and I felt as though weights had fallen away from me. “You took the scroll from the jar. Give it to me.”
“Who the hell are you? Get out of my house.” He stood motionless. To get to the landline phone in the hall, I would have to get past him. He reached for the papyrus.
My breath rasped as I grabbed the empty lemonade bottle. I smashed it against the stone tiles of the floor. “You heard me. Get out.” I grasped the neck of the bottle and held the broken end outwards.
The man held his palm up and took a pace back. “I am Khusebek, magician of Pharaoh Thutmose. I serve Sekhmet, goddess of plague. You cannot harm me.”
“Don’t be too sure.” My mouth dried and I felt sick.
“The scroll is mine.”
“I’m not going to give it to you. It belongs to me. Me and my Dad.” I took a step towards him, jerking the broken end of the bottle forwards.
The man said a word I did not understand, which would probably take pictograms of reeds and eyes to write down. An invisible force grasped my hand, twisting it round. The bottle smashed on the floor, with a crash that seemed to go on and on. I rubbed my wrist.
His eyes narrowed. “You will not stop me. My magic is the breaker of bones. The tearer of flesh. Next time I will rip your arms from your body. The scroll is cursed. If you do not give it to me, the curse will fall on you.”
I backed away, my fists clenched, until I was pressed against the wall. “Go on, take it.”
He reached out. With a crack that made my ears ring, a flash of light burst out of the scroll. He jerked his hand back.
“The power is too great. I may hold it but I may not pick it up. You must give it to me.”
I dropped the scroll onto the table. “Then, you’ve got a problem, because I’m not going to. I don’t believe all that nonsense about curses. So just sod off.”
“I have waited many lifetimes. Dead. Asleep. Waiting for the scroll to be released from its captivity. The scroll is the destroyer of brains. It is a tool of great energy, it makes two times touch. Things are shaken loose in their time. You released the power when you took the scroll from its jar. It called to me through time, dragging me through an opened door between my world and yours.”
His gaze followed mine, to the shattered remains of the jar on the floor. “Why do you think your father, the tomb robber, kept it in the jar? Now the scroll cannot be put back, its power cannot be contained.”
“What are you on about, power?” I remembered my day job again. Caesium could give off blue light like the scroll had, if it got damp. “You mean radioactivity? Calm down. If that jar kept it in check I’m sure it’s nothing a few inches of lead can’t block.” The museum would be able to shield it. Wouldn’t they?
He moved towards me. I dashed to the other side of the kitchen, my feet crunching on the broken glass and pottery. The table stood between us. He leaned towards me.
“My master Pharaoh Thutmose found the scroll abandoned in the wilderness, after the slaves escaped. He kept it, hoping to use it to get them back. He never did. When he died, he took the scroll into his tomb. It watched over him for thousands of years. And your father crept through the doorway stole it.”
“Liar. Dad was no grave robber. He must have dug it out of the ground.”
He raised a palm. “It was in the tomb. And it was never in the tomb. The doorway opened and let your father steal the scroll before we could put it in. I have followed your father through the doorway.”
“So Dad got hold of the scroll before you had the chance to stash it. Although it was already stashed. And then, it appears here? I don’t think so.” My head ached, and I remembered the idea of the bubble universes. Perhaps, in one bubble, Pharaoh kept the scroll. In another, Dad got it. Somehow, the power of the scroll had made my bubble collide with the other two. “I don’t care how you got here, or why,” I said. “Just trot off back through that doorway. I’ve got to get home. I’ve got a press release to write.”
“You do not understand. The curse has already come on you and your people.”
“I don’t believe you. Stay here if you want, but I’m off.” I slipped the scroll into my pocket and turned away.
“Then fear—” he cleared his throat “the power of Sekhmet. You will lose your mind. Your fellow-men have already done so. Your father looked upon the scroll too many times and was no longer your father.”
I had looked at it. The image was in my head, when I shut my eyes.
“Hear me,” he said. “The scroll released is more powerful than the gods. Your father’s wits were smashed. The spreading destruction that cannot be undone, the eater of minds, a swarm of locusts devouring all in its path. It attacks even the minds of those who have not seen the scroll. There is no healing. No escape, now. Without the jar.”
I looked at the shards on the floor. “I’ll burn it. And that’ll stop up your precious doorway as well.”
“Your father tried fire. And failed. As you will.”
I remembered the burning kitchen, the garden bonfires. Dad, Kevin, others…brains turned to mush. Archie, forgetting the Bible. Next me. Dementia, spreading.
“The eater of minds has taken root in me,” he said. “Only if I return to my own time, with or without the scroll, will it be checked. But I cannot travel without the scroll.”
I pulled it from my pocket. “OK, you have the vile thing. Then just get lost.” He put out his hand, palm upwards. I reached out.
The air shimmered silver. I caught movement in the corner of my eye and flicked my head towards it. I heard a noise inside my head, whining at a higher and higher pitch until I could only feel it. Then nothing. Another shadow appeared. A man stepped out, dressed in what looked like a woollen coat, over a knee length shirt. He had a close-clipped beard and on his head he wore a piece of cloth that draped round his shoulders, held in place with a cord round the forehead.
He thrust his out his hand and snatched my wrist. With his other hand, he grabbed my free arm and pushed it round my back. I let the scroll fall and kicked it across the floor.
He spoke from behind me. “I—I am Moshe. Do not give the scroll to Khusebek. If you do, we will b-be as nothing and s-s-so will you. Pick it up. Give it to me.”
Moshe. Moses, who stammered. His brother as spokesperson.
“Do not listen to this slave,” Khusebek hissed.
I turned my wrist, kicking out at Moshe.
“Listen, or I b-break your bones,” he said. “I beg of y-you. I am slow of tongue, b-but I have had to come alone, this time. This doorway is, is unsafe. It destroys. When two have entered it, in all but a single time, only one has come out.”
I bent forward as pain shot up to my shoulder. My eyes watered. “I’m giving it to Khusebek. For all our sakes.”
Moshe leaned forward, let go of my wrist and snatched the Bible from the table. “In his world, Pharaoh found the scroll before my brother could read it. And now his world, mine and yours are bound up with each other. If you give it to him it will be as though we Israelites had never lived. We, and our children, and our children’s children.”
Holding the front cover of the Bible, he shook it in front of me. The empty pages clattered in my face. Moshe dropped my arm.
“Now, will you listen?”
“Our worlds are woven because your father took the scroll from Pharaoh’s and from mine and brought it to yours. We never left Egypt. We withered and died out. God has forsaken your world. That is why the pages are blank.”
“Give the scroll to me,” Khusebek snarled.
Moshe reached out a hand to mine again, but I dodged and ran to where the scroll lay.
“Now listen,” I said. “I’m sorry for your loss, but I have to stop the dementia.”
“You would help a few people, and condemn your whole world to eternal misery?”
I heard a voice outside in the street, crackling as though coming in on a badly tuned radio. “What could be worse than your brain turning to mush?” I said. I turned to Khusebek. “Just take this and get lost.” My hands shook.
The light shone through the window again. I ran to shut the curtains. A spotlight beam swept along the front of the house, coming from a streetlamp right outside the front door. Mounted on the lamp post was some sort of camera, swivelling to follow the path of the beam. I heard another crackle, from a loudspeaker mounted at the top of the post.
The voice spoke again. “Worship the one true goddess, people of the faith!”
I shut the curtains.
“Woman of dwelling 38! We know you are there. You were warned before.”
There had never been a streetlamp outside the front door, there can’t have been. How would we have got the car off the drive? Dementia must have caught hold, in me. I felt my heart race.
“This is your final warning. Attend worship or pay the ultimate penalty.”
Something drew me, staggering, to the window. Outside, the colour faded from the world, draining away to a view like a sepia photograph. A van drew up outside the house. On its side, letters read “Honouring the One True Goddess is our Way and Purpose”.
Without sound this time, another shadow appeared, glowing blue round the edges. I smelled something aromatic and smoky, like tobacco. Moses and Khusebek froze. From the shadow a man stepped, aged in his twenties. He wore an open-necked khaki battledress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, baggy shorts, knee-length khaki socks and scuffed black boots. On his head was a black beret. Below that, a face I had seen in seventy year old photographs. Dad. With his whole life ahead of him.
“Hello, Kat,” he said. “I thought I’d better join the party, now that lot are at the door.”
I reached out and touched his face. The skin was warm and rough. “Dad? What’s going on?
He stepped towards me, leaving sandy footprints on the floor. “Is that it? No hug, for your Dad?”
I squeezed him tightly. He kissed the top of my head and unwrapped my arms.
“Let a chap breathe. Curious, I’d have expected to see myself here.”
“You won’t. It’s 2015 and you’re…you live somewhere else, now.”
“You mean I’m dead. Well, I had a good run for my money. I must have been…ninety three?”
I felt a lump rise in my throat. “I’ve missed you. Every day. But look, this scroll you found. I’m giving it back to the Egyptians. Sorry.”
“No. Give it to the Israelites, before it’s too late.”
“But, the dementia—”
Dad put his palm up, his mouth set in a line. “Shut up. The scroll, created on holy ground, became charged with great power. It can make a stammering man speak clearly. It can warp the fabric of existence so that space-time bends back on itself. But there’s just about enough time to undo it all. If you give it to Moshe.”
I folded my arms. “No, Dad. I’ve made my mind up. You haven’t seen dementia take away someone you loved. You haven’t mourned someone who was still alive.”
Dad reached out and squeezed my hand. “A cure might be found. But there’s no cure for world-wide tyranny. You have to do what I say.”
I shrugged. “Why? Things seem OK to me.”
“Listen. You’ve felt as though you’re being watched, haven’t you?”
I nodded. “Ever since I opened the Bible .”
“That’s because you are under surveillance. Every one of us is, now. Because Aaron never saw the scroll, there’s no Judaism. So there was never a Jesus. And there was no Islam. The other religions of the world never flourished—”
“—I don’t care. Religion is behind all the problems of this life. We’re better off as atheists—”
He grabbed both my hands. “Atheism? Forbidden. Because there was nothing to believe in, something cold and harsh arose to fill gaps. An evil that murders non-worshippers.”
I heard the letterbox rattle.
“They’re coming,” Dad said. “Give the scroll to Moshe.”
“But Khusebek will be left behind. And his presence is giving everyone dementia. It killed you. It’s taking everyone in the street, in the town, in the country. It will take the world. One by one.”
I heard footsteps outside the front door. The letterbox rattled. The loudspeaker bellowed. “You have twenty seconds to pray in repentance before we enact the ultimate penalty. May the one true goddess have mercy upon your soul.”
Dad bent down and grabbed the scroll. “I started this mess. I have to undo it. The line of time has been spliced and recombined. All realities are superimposed. You could call it The Father Paradox. The only way to sort it out is to cut it off and start again, to overwrite what might happen. I have to take it back myself, so that I never found it. This is the only chance we have.”
“Take me with you.”
Moses opened his mouth. “Fool! Did you not hear me? This doorway is unsafe. Two in, one out.”
“You said that once it worked for two people. I’ll take that chance.”
Dad’s hand trembled as he took mine. “If you come with me, who knows which of us will survive? And whether the scroll will come through intact?”
Tears ran down my cheeks. “Do you think I care what happens to the bloody scroll? I can’t let you go again. I won’t.”
Dad dropped my hand, and wagged a finger at me. “Language. I might be much younger than you are, but I’m still your father. Sorry, I’ve got to do it on my own.”
“Then come back again afterwards. Come back to me.”
He shook his head. “I can’t. I have to leave it there. And time travel’s not possible without it. Goodbye, Kat. Chin up. Who knows what life will be when the scroll was never in it? We’ll probably still be together, and you won’t be older than me like now.”
“Or you might have gone under a bus. Or broken your neck falling off some ancient temple.” And I might still be alone. “Take me.”
Dad shook his head. He put the scroll into his pocket. All motion stopped and he looked like a photograph. He dimmed to black and white. I saw the room behind him.
“No!” I grabbed his arm as he faded.
* * *
Archie unlocked the front door and stepped into the living room. A boy aged about ten looked up from the book open in front of him on a table, and smiled.
“Hiya, Joe. Is your dad in? I want to chat to him about the New Year holiday.”
Joe shook his head. “He went to see the Rabbi.”
“OK. Getting on with your homework? Good lad.”
“Yeah. Nearly done. I had lots.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “maths—those flippin’ decimal sums—”
“—give you a hand, if you like.”
“No, you don’t do it the same way as Miss Bradshaw and I’ve got to show my working out. Anyway, I’ve finished it. Now I’m on history. I’m doing a project about the Egyptians.”
“You know they took your guts out when you died?”
Joe mimed putting his finger down his throat. “Yeah. They used to stick them in jars.” He picked up a postcard. “I got this from the museum. I copied the picture into my book.”
“Give us a look.” Archie took the card. It showed a stone relief of a man and a woman facing each other, smiling and holding hands. Each had placed their free hand on the top of a jar with the head of a jackal for a lid, standing on a table in front of them. Hieroglyphics ran across the bottom of the carving. “Perhaps that’s one of them gut jars, with the dog’s head on.” He turned the card over. “Yes, I was right. It says “From the New Kingdom (18th-20th Dynasties, 1550-1069 BC). Shows Canopic jar for preservation of body parts, with head of Duamutef. Inscription (possibly referring to the goddess Bast) reads Dad and Cat were here.” His eyes narrowed. “If you’ve finished with this, can I have it?”
“If you want.”
Archie slipped the card into his pocket. “OK, I’ll be off now. Tell your dad I’ll pop in later.” He walked to the front door and reached out to the handle. He stopped. “Hang on.” His hand dropped and he walked back across the room.
“Why are you putting the card in there?” Joe said.
Archie put the book with the dull red cover back on the shelf. “Dunno, lad.” He frowned, and stroked his chin. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
◊ ◊ ◊
by Joshua Storrs
Margo’s cigarette swelled orange and a mist floated from her mouth, the smoke mixing with her breath in the cold night air. She leaned back on the railing of my balcony. Her elbow brushed my arm. The city lights shone through her hair, adding a glow to the red and purple dye I helped apply the night before.
“I can’t really say where it is,” said Margo. “I think it’s in a different spot for everyone.”
“And the double, it’ll be in there? Guaranteed?” I said.
“He’s not an ‘it’, Simon. He’s you. He’s got your experiences and your personality. He’s existed up until now and he’ll keep existing after you leave. Well, unless you, uh…”
“Nothing, don’t worry about it.”
“So he’s like a doppelgänger?”
Margo made her cigarette glow again and shook her head. “No, because a doppelgänger is an evil twin, and he’s not evil. He’s just another you. Identical and separate.” Smoke puffed from her mouth with each word, like an engine fighting the cold.
I had always been too scared to try, but I didn’t mind Margo’s smoking. I enjoyed the way it looked. The smoke and the sparks and the glow. It was like she carried the last burning moments of sundown with her into the night.
I swallowed. “So this place…”
“Right, Borden’s. It’s the only place you’ll find him?”
“If he exists now, and he keeps existing after I leave, what stops me from just running into him on the street? Now or after?”
“I think it’s like, he just lives somewhere else.”
“If he lives somewhere else, then he can’t have my exact experiences.”
Margo shrugged and tried to hide her smile behind her cigarette.
I bent over the railing, intentionally leaning into her arm, but not too much. My apartment was on the second floor and I could see all the way down the street. I lived a few blocks south of main street, just past the border between downtown and the area with a lot less working street lights. Margo and I spent many nights walking up and down these streets, sharing stories. I knew this area like it was a part of me.
“What do people do there?”
“That’s up to you,” said Margo. “That’s kind of the point. Not a lot of people talk about it. I know of one person who didn’t say anything. He didn’t think his double would have anything to offer him. Like, no information or stories that he didn’t already have. So they just kind of looked at each other. He got a drink and he left. There’s someone else I know who—well…”
She paused, her cigarette staying at her side. “Okay, a friend of mine told me about when she found it. She went in there, saw her double, and killed her.”
“Why did she do that?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think she should have gone in there in the first place. She’s not exactly the most ‘together’ person. Lots of insecurity issues. She always puts a lot of effort into making herself unique, and I guess she really didn’t like the idea that she wasn’t.”
“So she responded violently, like to a threat.”
“Yeah, I guess. Maybe she didn’t know exactly what to expect, like it hadn’t been explained to her properly, so what she saw scared her. I’m not sure. She kinda started crying on me before she got to the motivation part of her story.”
“I know.” Margo stuffed her cigarette in my flowerbed, lighting another before the first finished smoldering. “It’s actually kind of scary to think about. I mean, what if you go in there and your double decides to kill you?”
I thought about that. “I think, if your double is one hundred percent you, then that’s something you’d know to be worried about before you walked in.”
“Hmm, that’s a great point, dude.”
“Still, I wonder.” I hesitated.
“Do you know if there have been any suicides related to this?”
“Not that I know of, why?”
“Well, it’s like the other side of the coin, isn’t it? If you’re someone who puts a lot of pride into being unique, finding out you aren’t is like a punch to the gut. It knocks the wind out of you. You might even get violent. But depending on your view of things, that violence might be directed towards yourself instead of your double.”
“Sure, I guess.”
“Think about it, you come out of Borden’s and a thought occurs. Maybe it’s immediate, maybe it comes to you slowly, like a sickness. But it’s the thought that, if you died, it would have no impact on the world. That after all is said and done, you are not important.”
Margo looked at me, maintaining eye contact—a rare thing for her. “Simon, you’re scaring me.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, touched by her concern. “This isn’t something I’d do. I’m just trying to empathize. This is interesting to me.”
“I can see what you’re saying. But the problem with that is that you shouldn’t value yourself based on how useful you are, like it shouldn’t be your reason for living. That’s how people get used.”
“Right. No, I completely agree. I’m just speculating.”
She held my gaze for a moment, then gave a tentative nod. “Okay.”
“Still, which is worse?” I said.
“Suicide or murder?”
“I think they’re the same in a lot of ways.”
“What, because it’s your double?”
“No, just in general.”
We took a deep breath of silence.
“What about the guy who didn’t say anything?” I tried to keep my words level, to match Margo’s, but I knew at this point something else was seeping into my voice. It was apprehension—fear, mixed with the excitement of exploring uncharted lands—a potion both hot and cold.
“What about him?”
I turned towards Margo and shrugged.
She met my gaze, then returned it to the street. “I think it’s kind of selfish to be honest.”
“He didn’t talk to him because he didn’t think his double could offer him anything. As if every conversation has to get him something.”
“Hmm, well okay, what did you do?”
“What makes you think I’ve found it?”
“Because when I asked you where it is, you said you couldn’t say, not that you didn’t know.”
She smiled and took a long, slow drag, thinking about her answer. “I guess I took it as an opportunity,” she said. “I don’t think anyone can truthfully say they know themselves, y’know? So for one night I was able to talk to myself as an outsider. I mean, I think of becoming my ideal self as my life’s goal, so it really helped me get perspective on stuff. When I was in there, it was like a time-out from everything, where I could take a good hard look at myself before moving on.”
“So you’re glad you did it?”
She nodded. “Absolutely, dude.”
Past Margo, the street below us faded into the night. I let my eyes relax. The thoughts drifted through my mind and settled like a snowfall—my double out there, somewhere, living my life, me in every way that mattered. I noticed a light flicker on in the distance and it brought my vision back into focus. It was a neon sign, half purple, half red. “Borden’s.”
Margo turned to face me, her back to the sign. “You see it, don’t you?” she said. Her voice grew excited, her eyes widened and she smiled with her teeth—something she never did.
“What are you gonna do, Simon?” she said, watching my face. I didn’t answer.
Leaving Margo on the balcony, I walked through my apartment and out into the hall. I half expected it to disappear, but when I emerged from my building and turned toward the darkness, there it shone. It did not surprise me, not really. When the sign flickered on, it was like it had always been there.
I did not turn around, but I could feel her on the balcony, probably on her next cigarette by now, watching me pull open the door, and walk inside.
◊ ◊ ◊
Joshua Storrs is a writer living in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He writes for The Communicator and conducts interviews for a podcast called Worlds Longest Voicemail. He has previously had poetry published in the fall 2015 issue of Confluence. Joshua enjoys live music, mac ‘n cheese, and sleeping in strange places.
by Elizabeth Hopkinson
A soldier returning from the wars was weary both in body and in mind. He limped along the highway, using his old musket as a crutch, until he came upon a roadside inn. The warm lights and sound of singing were a welcome distraction after so many miles on the road.
He went inside. Within an hour or two, the soldier’s belly was full and his head pleasantly fuzzy. The innkeeper gave him a seat by the fire, where he could warm his one good set of toes. But, once the other guests had gone to bed and the fire sunk to an orange glow, the room felt cold and empty.
Another beer would help me sleep. I shall fetch one from the cellar, he thought.
Taking a lantern from the bar, the soldier crept downstairs. He was just about to drain off some beer, when a scratchy voice spoke from somewhere near his knees.
“What are you doing here? Don’t you know that this is my beer cellar after dark?”
The soldier looked down. Standing beside him, no higher than a four-year-old child, was a little man, dressed in a musketeer’s jacket.
As a boy, the soldier had heard many tales from his grandmother about the kobolds, a motley race of little people who live all over Germany. They are full of magic, but hot-tempered and quick to take offence. The soldier decided that, if the little man was a kobold, it would be wise to treat him with respect.
“Forgive me, son of the rocks,” he said. “I am but a poor soldier, wounded in the wars and down on his luck. I mean you no harm.”
The little man cocked his head.
“You won’t find your luck at the bottom of a beer barrel. What you need is a job. And a wife to keep you warm.”
“Not much hope of either for a man with one foot and only one good eye. I heard news on the road that the King hires wounded soldiers as coffee sniffers. Ever since he closed down the coffee roasters, the only legal coffee in Berlin comes from the royal roastery. The king needs men to sniff out the contraband. I was headed for Berlin in the hope that he might take me on.” The soldier shrugged. “But so many have been wounded in this last war, I doubt there will be a job left for me.”
The little man’s eyes twinkled with a silvery light.
“I can give you such a gift that, when the king’s spymaster meets you, he would dismiss his own brothers to employ you. All I ask in return is that you take me with you to Berlin and allow me to share your home and a little of your food.”
“What gift?” the soldier said.
“The gift of smell. I can give you a sense of smell that would put a bloodhound to shame. You will be able to tell a Java from a Mocha at a distance of leagues. You will be able to stand in the Tiergarten and sniff out the apartment where the bishop’s servant is preparing his brew.”
“And all you ask in return is a little food?” His grandmother’s tales had led the soldier to believe that kobolds hunger for gifts as men hunger for food.
“There is one condition,” the little man said. “You must never watch me eat. If you do so, the consequences will be terrible.”
“I give you my word as a soldier that I will never intrude on your privacy.”
And, with that, the two shook hands on the bargain and agreed to set out for Berlin in the morning.
* * *
When he arrived in Berlin, the soldier found everything to be just as the little man had promised. The moment he crossed the city boundary, a world of scent burst forth upon his senses. He knew what the passerby at his shoulder had eaten for breakfast, whether he was happy, angry or afraid. He could sniff out the mice in their holes and the sparrows in their roosts.
He lost no time in seeking out the house of Count de Lannay, the king’s spymaster and chief revenue collector. As the little man had promised, the soldier was recruited immediately, and soon rose to become first among the coffee-sniffers of Berlin. There was no illegal roastery that his keen nose could not smell out. Soon the former soldier became a rich man. He left the poky garret he shared with the kobold, and took a fine set of rooms in the Stechbahn. With his fabulous nose, he was sought out as a coffee-taster for the royal roastery. No longer must he wear the worn boots and jacket of his soldier days. In their place came buckled shoes, embroidered waistcoats and a periwig for his head. And, in time, he wed Widow Doebbert, proprietor of the Stechbahn’s famous coffee house, and settled down to a comfortable life.
All this time, the soldier had not forgotten to set aside a portion of food for the kobold. He never saw the little man, but as the plate was always emptied, he assumed the kobold had eaten his fill.
But the more the soldier advanced in society, the harder it became to persuade his wife to lay out a plate of food on her clean parlour floor. Widow Doebbert was a city woman, brought up in the king’s new ways of reason and enlightenment. Kobolds, she said, were all very well for grandmothers in the country, but this was Berlin. A respectable Hausfrau could not have dirty plates on her floor; it encouraged vermin. How could they be sure that a rat wasn’t eating the food all along?
The words of his wife cast doubt in the soldier’s mind. He had been rather drunk that night at the inn, and his eyesight was not of the best. Yet he remembered his encounter with the little man so well. Could it have been in his imagination?
That night, when the rest of the household was in bed, the soldier kept watch behind a curtain. On the stroke of midnight, a stealthy padding of feet was heard across the floor, followed by the faintest of snuffles.
The soldier peeped out. Hunched in a corner with the plate on his knees was the little man, exactly as the soldier remembered him. But he did not pick up the food between his fingers. Instead, a long tongue, dark blue with two prongs on the end, shot out from the little man’s mouth. With it, the little man speared his food, which shot back into his mouth on the end of the prongs.
The soldier had seen many disgusting sights during the wars, but the sight of that tongue caused him to let out a sick groan.
In a heartbeat, the little man leapt to his feet. His eyes, white like lamps in the darkness, fixed on the soldier.
“You have betrayed me!” he cried. “All these years, I have given you the best and asked for nothing in return but my daily bread and the privacy in which to eat it. Well, you’ll be sorry now, soldier boy!”
As he spoke these words, the little man’s appearance began to change. His eyes grew bigger, his belly rounder. Hair sprouted from his ears and his lips grew hard. His boots and jacket melted away, leaving the kobold naked as a needle, with dark blue skin and a round light glowing in the centre of his belly.
“I shall take everything away!” he screeched.
A sound of shrieking rose from under the floorboards. The walls of the house trembled, then shook, and finally disappeared altogether so that the soldier was suspended in mid-air. A blue whirlwind seized hold of him and carried him away, until he found himself back outside the inn on the road to Berlin with no more sense of smell than he was born with.
* * *
Having nothing better to do, the soldier went into the inn. No one recognised him, as he was now dressed as a burgher and could afford a room upstairs with a feather bed. Here the soldier ate his miserable supper, and lay awake.
Could a man defeat a kobold? The soldier thought hard. In his grandmother’s tales, kobolds came from underground. They were born of the rocks, and whenever humans had dealings with them, it was in a cellar, a mine, a dungeon. He had first met the kobold in the beer cellar of this inn. Could this be a door to the realm of the kobolds?
The soldier got up and dressed. He left some silver for his host and crept into the cellar, just as he had done years ago. Holding up his lantern, he searched high and low for any unusual crack or handle. At last, he came upon a glowing circle at the height of his knee, exactly like the one he had seen on the kobold’s belly.
The soldier touched the flat of his palm to the circle, and a doorway appeared in the cellar wall. He clambered through and found himself in a narrow tunnel, whose damp walls glowed with phosphorescence. For a man with his injuries, the journey was not an easy one. The stump of his toe ached with the cold, and several times he grazed his hands on the wall.
Just as he felt he could go no further, the passage opened out into a cavern of pure cobalt, whose ceiling was festooned with stalactites. Arranged in uneven tiers, a hemisphere of stalagmites formed an underground arena. And on every stalagmite was a kobold, dark blue with a glowing belly.
On the centremost stalagmite was the kobold king. His hair and beard were silver, and he wore a crown of iron. When he saw the soldier, he narrowed his gleaming eyes and leaned forward on his throne.
“What do you here in my realm, son of men? This is the kingdom of the kobolds, and we do not welcome idle visitors.”
The soldier held up his head.
“One of your kindred has stolen away my wife and all that I own. I have come to bargain with you for their return.”
“A gambler, eh?” said the kobold king. “I enjoy a game of chance myself. Let me set you a little wager.”
He stood and made a noise like the sound of chisel on stone. A whole squadron of kobolds came scurrying from a hidden chamber, carrying between them three wooden chests.
“Tell me, soldier, which of these chests contains the prize of greatest worth? Answer me correctly and I will return your wife and goods to you. Fail and you will spend twenty years in my underground prison. What say you?”
“Very well,” said the soldier, and he scrutinised the chests. In his grandmother’s tales, two of the chests would have been inlaid with jewels and pearls, the third of plain wood. And the third would sure to contain the prize.
But these three chests were all of a likeness. Made of oak, with patterns marked out in brass studs, there was little to choose between them.
“May I touch them?” he said to the kobold king.
“Touch. Smell. Taste. Anything short of opening them.” The king’s belly light glowed more brightly.
The soldier knelt by the chests, ran his fingers along jointed corners. He put his ear to the lids, his nose to the keyholes. And from the centre chest, he caught the breath of a scent more familiar to him than his own. A scent he needed no special powers to detect.
“This one, “ he said, pointing. “This contains the treasure of great worth.”
The waiting kobolds threw back the lid. And, as the soldier had known it would, a rich aroma filled the cavern. There, piled high to the top of the chest were hundreds of oak-dark beans, each with a double crack running through the middle.
“Wrong!” The kobold king leapt from his throne in exultation. “You have failed, soldier. Look! Nothing but burned, blackened nuts. Useless for planting, useless for eating. Now, away to the dungeon with you!”
The soldier held up a finger.
“Not so fast, king of the rocks. I propose a second wager. If I can prove to you that this is the prize of greatest worth, you restore my wife, house and former life to me. If I fail, I spend a lifetime in your dungeon.”
“Done,” said the kobold king.
The soldier grinned.
“Then have your people bring the items I shall now list.”
And the soldier went on to list all items usual for the brewing of coffee. Kettles and coffee mills, coffee pots and silver spoons. The delectable smell in the cavern grew stronger; the kobolds on the stalagmites rumbled with excitement.
When the coffee was brewed to perfection, the soldier poured it into dainty Meissen cups. He handed the first one to the kobold king. The king lifted the coffee to his lips, inhaled the fragrance and took a sip.
The soldier waited.
The king took a second sip and bade all his kobolds do the same.
The soldier waited.
The king took a third sip. Meanwhile, the other kobolds were grunting with excitement. They were waggling their ears, swapping cups, digging their neighbours in the ribs.
The kobold king put down his cup. He fixed the soldier with his lantern eyes. Then he gave a great guffaw that resounded around the cave.
“This is heaven!” he exclaimed. “This is the best thing I ever tasted! Bless the day you came to us, soldier, to show us how to make this wondrous drink. We shall drink it every day, and you shall supply us with the burnt nuts.”
“As the king’s chief coffee taster? Not likely!” the soldier replied. “If you want coffee, you must rely on humans, as you have always done, and respect the laws of the land. Now you must keep your promise and restore me to my former life.”
The kobold king grunted, but he could not undo his bargain with the soldier. He began to hum, a low sound from the depths of the earth, and all the kobolds hummed with him. The circles of light on their bellies spun faster and faster until the soldier became too giddy to stand. He fell into a deep swoon and, when he awoke, he was back in his house in the Stechbahn with his wife beside him.
* * *
The former soldier lived a long and prosperous life in Berlin, eventually rising to become Burgomeister. He never saw or heard from the kobolds again. But every night, before he and his wife went to bed, they left a small pot of coffee and a cup on the corner of the parlour floor. Just in case.
◊ ◊ ◊
by Kate Runnels
Torque gazed down at the clouds scudding past below in a breeze she couldn’t feel, as she idly swung her feet. Sitting at the very edge of the rusting metal support beam she could imagine she was somewhere else. The beam was one of many that needed repair all over the city, but weren’t absolutely necessary. But it was one that helped hold up the roof of her father’s Mechanic shop.
The constant thrum of the engines that held the air city of New Perth in the sky droned on in the background as she fiddled with her mechanical right arm. The tiny gears and joints sometimes clogged with dust and she liked to keep it clean and running smoothly. The small screwdriver tightened one last screw and she slipped it into a side pocket as she flexed her right arm, watching the interplay of gears, pulleys and fluid.
Her chores finished and no airship in for repairs, she stayed out of sight of the bastard of a new man her mother called husband, Malvin. A drunk who relied on Torques skill so he could stay drunk, with the pretense of running the shop. Her father’s shop. Her shop.
The same accident that had taken her arm had taken her father. Everyone in New Perth had lost someone they cared about that day.
The steel vibrated under her and she turned to see Sark, Malvin’s oldest son. Two years older than she and already apprenticed to their neighbor, a smith who made most of the parts they used to keep the airships running. Except those tiny gears she made herself.
Sark didn’t need to flex to show his muscles. They were there from years of working in the smithy. He grinned at her. “Hey, if it isn’t Torque the dork. What are you doing out here? I’m sure father will love to know you’re shirking your work.”
“If Malvin’s not too sloshed he might remember, pea brain.”
“What was that?” he demanded, stepping one foot out onto the beam. He kept hold of the hull wall, as there wasn’t much below but other jutting beams, the starboard engine housing, and the clouds.
She had been sitting, but a change of pitch in the background rumble caused her to stand, easily balanced on the 10 inch wide beam.
She held up a hand and Sark fell silent. She cocked her head slightly to one side to bring one ear upward. He opened his mouth again and then stopped, he’d heard it too. Another airship! No! There was more than one.
Torque glanced up in time to see a sleek fast moving airship streak from above the bulk of the city and then it was past and diving down into the clouds not far below.
Seconds later, it was followed by a ship that made the first look like a rusted old tug boat. The sleekness and pristine condition hid its size, until it kept coming and coming on. Only then as it fully emerged did the colors and the sigil penetrate into her astonished mind.
“A Royalty Air Cruiser,” she breathed. She’d only seen one once before in that blue and red, and that was a medical boat after the Blast. It continued its flight, following the airship down into the clouds, but before it disappeared she saw the bow fire a barrage, the report cruising over her moments later.
Then it too vanished into the clouds. What was it doing here?
Lost in wonder, she’d forgotten about Sark. He’d gained his nerve at her inattention. The beam shook slightly and she glanced back to see him in time as he pulled back a meaty fist for a punch, and the wicked gleam in his eyes.
She stepped back off the end of the beam to avoid the strike, which would more than likely have sent her over anyway. Torque dropped, her right arm catching the lip of the beam and she smiled as Sark, off balance, windmilled to keep himself from falling. Torque only used the beam to slow herself and change trajectory. Swinging in toward the hull, she released her grip.
Torque landed lightly on another beam that was part of the floor below their own. She gripped a rusting hole in the hull, as the floor she stood on was barely wide enough for her feet. She didn’t stay there long though, but ran the length of it and when it abruptly ended, Torque trusted her knowledge and leaped off into the gaping hole that was a legacy of the Blast. She knew she disappeared from Sark’s astonished sight, as barely any light penetrated the shattered part of engineering. In another moment she landed, rolled to shed momentum and stopped with a bang as her right arm hit the inner wall. This was a section of engineering that remained after the Blast.
Hearing the noise, a door opened off to her left, spilling out warm welcoming light into the dark, and a grizzled head peaked out the door. Old Grif. He smiled when his eyes lit on her and she scrambled to her feet. It was a gap-toothed smile but genuine for all that, and not evil like Sark, or his dad, Malvin’s.
“Torque, you little rascal, are you running from Malvin again? Or is it your step-brother this time?”
She nodded indicating his guess was correct. “Yeah, It was Sark.” She waved that away, eyes alight from the memory. “More than that, Grif, did you see it? It flew by moments ago.”
“See what, young lady?” he motioned her into the Engineering Control Room and dogged the hatch shut behind her. “I’ve been working on the number two turbine again.”
“A pirate ship, with a Royalty Cruiser on its back end. They flew right over the top of the city, close too, and then they both dove into the cloud cover.”
“A pirate ship? There may be pirates, Torque, but far from here.”
“But, it was being chased by a Royalty Cruiser!” she insisted.
Grif scratched at his scraggly spiky grey hair. “Haven’t seen one of them since right after the accident.” He eyed her, asking, “Are you sure?”
“Of course I am, Grif. It was all fresh bright colors of blue and red, with the Royalty symbol painted on the hull. And the metal shone, so bright, so silver and new—not like this.” She knocked her right cybernetic hand against the inside wall, and got a dull thud in response. “God, I’d love to work on one of those.”
Sighing, she sat down in the chair across the table from Grif.
“Now, Torque, you know how difficult it is to get to the academy. No one from New Perth City has ever gone. It mainly goes to the Islanders, tramping about on dirt—”
“Buddists—” she almost cursed it.
“Now don’t, girl. They were there before, their ancestors travelled and eked out a living in the Himalayas, in the time before the great flood. It’s only happenstance, and I’d rather be living here, in this part of the world than in the Rocks.”
“I know all that, Grif.” She sighed again. “I just feel as if I’m going to be stuck here forever.”
“Stick it out. Your garage is needed for our mail carriers and the other airships in this area. And two more years, you can become my apprentice, move down here and away from some of your troubles.”
“If I do that Grif, what will then happen to my father’s garage? It’s all I have left of him. Mom’s not the same since his death. She only married Malvin out of convenience, not love. We needed the money to buy food and parts for the shop.”
Torque found herself pacing and made herself stop. Her right arm wasn’t the only thing that had been replaced. Everyone, and the city, owed so much debt to the Royalty. It would be at least five more years of work in the shop before her mom, Torque, and her hated step-father were out of debt. Five years. She’d be nineteen then and it seemed so far away, intangible as the clouds New Perth drifted through at times.
“I can’t leave mom in debt.”
“She’s not your responsibility, Torque.” His voice softened. “Think on it. You have two years to decide, my young lady. I’ll always be here for you, slaving away in the bowels of the ship.”
She punched him lightly on the arm. “I do half your work already, you old scoundrel. You’d sleep the days away if I came to work for you.”
He laughed with her. “Let’s head up to the Commons for a bite to eat,” and added when he saw her face close up, “my treat.”
“You’re on, Grif, but not the Commons, the open air market. They have better food.”
“And a view of the docks, if that Royalty Cruiser is indeed around. You can’t fool me,” he said, guiding her toward the lift. “You want to see that ship.”
They exited the lift to the open air market, with the docks to the right, a wall to the front and the city offices behind them. Located at the top of the city, it boasted some of the few trees, and they were used to screen the market from winds. The market was packed with stalls and shops, travelling merchants and local food vendors. The fishermen were in, having descended earlier in the day to haul in their nets. A crowd had gathered near their docks to gawk and stare at a giant fifteen foot shark which they’d hauled in. Shark meat was good, but expensive. Not as rare or precious as beef, but still good.
“The gypsy section has some goat meat I can smell. Maybe some chicken, but eggs are too precious to waste a chicken for a meal,” Torque said.
“Fish and chips?” Grif asked.
“Fish and chips, it is then.”
After getting their food, they wandered near the docks and found a spot near the edge to sit down. No Royalty Cruiser in sight. But there was a large merchant vessel preparing for departure. Torque never tired of the sight of the airships coming and going. Even the little dories the fishermen used to fish with. They had their own elegance in their simplicity.
The sun slowly sank, below the clouds, leaving them bathed in a brilliant red-gold, and the city darkened in the twilight. It took a long time for the sun to completely disappear with the city high up in the sky. It would lower come the morning allowing easier access to the sea for the fishermen in their little dories, but for now it soared high up with the clouds.
“All right, young lady, you should head home now. I’m up early to check the Port side engine coupling with a comptech and a Tesla man. It’s dropped efficiency and only they can go into places I can’t. Trade secrets and all.” Grif shrugged. “I just keep the old city running.”
Torque gave him a hug. “Thank you Grif.”
They parted and she threaded her way through the thinning crowd back to her father’s mechanic shop near the docks but below the open air market. Her home, the only home she’d ever known was behind the shop itself. It just didn’t feel like home anymore.
As the door closed behind her, she saw her step-father glaring at her. “Where have you been?” he demanded. “I hear from Sark you were off sightseeing instead of working.”
She glared right back at the burly drunk of her step-father. “All the work was done, Malvin. You would know that if you ever stepped one foot into the garage.”
“Now listen, girly,” he stepped forward. She clenched her teeth and readied herself.
“Stop Malvin.” Her mother clutched at his raised arm.
“No.” He spun on her. “Your girl needs to learn manners and show some respect.”
Torque raised her right arm, the metal shining in the lamp light. Malvin was one of the few who hadn’t needed any repairing or fixing. He’d come to the city after the accident. His black eyes narrowed at the sight of her right fist.
“Now how would Sark even know if I wasn’t working, Malvin, unless he was shirking his work at the smithy? And I know they had jobs ‘cause we still haven’t got those gears to fit into the number two tug boat for the city!”
He paused and his anger stilled; he wouldn’t attack now.
“Get to your room, girly. I expect to see you in the shop in the morning.”
Not pushing the issue, Torque hugged her mom goodnight and went to her room. She wouldn’t see Malvin in the morning, he would already have started on the alcohol. She closed her bedroom door and flopped onto her bed, but sleep was a long time coming for her that night. She kept thinking about pirate ships, far off lands and the bright shiny Royalty Air Cruiser.
* * *
Up early, Torque snuck out of the house listening to Malvin’s drunken snores. Quickly grabbing bread and goat cheese, she opened the door into the garage and breathed in the familiar comforting smells. This was her home, not where she’d just left.
Around midmorning a pounding sounded from the main shop hatch. She was under a partial support frame that needed rewiring, new gears and all. From the house Malvin yelled, “Curse you girly, get that!” as the pounding started anew.
Rolling out from under the frame, she got to the door as Malvin roared again, “Girly!”
Throwing the hatch lock, she pulled it open and her eyes widened in shock at the sight presented to her. A royalty officer in his uniform of bright blue greeted with red trim, flanked by two guards, one in black and the other wore a lighter blue of a different cut.
“Yes sir?” she asked.
“Is your master about?” the officer asked coolly but politely.
“I’m not an apprentice yet sir, but this was my father’s shop before his death. What can I help you with?”
The officer glanced behind him to the other in the lighter blue uniform. And he asked, “Do you know what a Maple leaf gear is?’
“Of course, but do you want a size 17 engine leaf gear or the 28 for small parts? There’s also the oak leaf off shoot style, that’s transferable but might not be compatible or as strong.” Torque shrugged, “It just depends on what you are using it for.”
The door from the house into the garage slammed behind her. She watched the officer converse quietly with the man who’d asked her the question.
“Well, girly, who was banging at the hatch?” he pulled the hatch from her and swung it all the way open so he could see. And stopped. “I–“ he stopped again.
The officer glanced at Malvin. “We require parts and labor to fix our cruiser as quickly as possible.”
Malvin finally shut his mouth and moved back, gesturing them in. “Of course, my lord. Whatever the Royalty needs.”
The officer stepped past looking away as if he’d caught a bad smell, but was too polite to comment. “As I said, we require parts and labor.”
“Do you have a list of what you need?” asked Torque. Malvin glared at her for speaking out of turn, and to the Royalty on top of it. The officer ignored Malvin and waved at the other in light blue who stepped forward. The black uniform stayed outside, and he was the only one armed, with sword and projectile guns, a pistol and a rifle. The light blue uniformed man produced a list. He had blue eyes and darker skin and a nice smile as he handed it over. He was not as scary as the guard in black. His eyebrows raised as she took the list with her cybernetic right arm. Torque noticed the officer noticed her arm too, by then though, she was engrossed in the list.
“We have a lot of this in the shop, but not the piston and cylinder 330 or the housing assembly for the gear thrusts, we’d have to order those made from the smithy.”
She glanced up. The officer thawed slightly then, “What is it?”
“Did you capture the other ship, sir, or sink it?”
“Torque!” her step-father spat her name thinking she had gone too far. The officer waved him off.
“How do you know there was another ship?”
“Both of you flew right over the top of the city, sir.”
He nodded. “We captured her. Why?”
“I only caught a glimpse as it passed, but hearing the engine go by it matched yours in pitch and tone. If it’s not too battle damaged, most of the parts you need can be transferred over. That would be quicker.”
“Good.” He nodded decisively again and turned to Malvin. “We will be hiring your apprentice away from you for the duration and we will buy any parts needed as can’t be found in the other ship.”
The blue eyed man motioned her over. “The XO, Major Ward, will settle on a price for your services. We need to get to work.”
“Engineer Second Class Kidd. Call me Kaz.” When she looked at him weird he elaborated. “It’s short for Kazuto. Kaz is easier.”
“Second Class? Did you lose your Chief?”
His lips pursed together into a thin line. “Never mind. I’m sorry. It must have been a fierce battle with all the parts you need. If you need more help, the City Engineer, Grif, is quite capable.”
Kaz nodded. “He’s the one who sent us here.”
Torque smiled. “I’ll just get what we’ll need ready here. If you have an airlift it will go a lot faster.”
Now it was Kaz who smiled.
Torque arrived at the docks with her parts and stopped to stare at the cruiser. “Torque, stop gawking and let’s get started!” yelled Grif. She ran over to where he stood next to the port side hatch and gangplank attached to the docks.
“All right.” She returned his smile. “This is going to be fun!”
“We need the coupler that attaches here!” she yelled up from below the decking in the motor that helped power the lighting systems.
Her head poked out of the hole and soon she snaked the rest of her body all the way out. “We can’t continue without it.” She shook her head at Kaz.
Grif nodded when the royalty engineering crew looked over at the older engineer, shrugged and said, “She’s right.”
“All right, I’ll send Won over to get it.”
“No, I’ll go.” Torque jumped to her feet. “I know exactly where it is and I have the tools to get it out. And there are some things I want to check out that could be converted over, like their boost systems. It ties in with the Tesla components, I’m sure of it. I want to see how it’s installed.”
She was off before they could say anything otherwise. Her laugh filled the stoic corridors of the cruiser and she ran with abandon down the docking ramp as crew members and officers dodged out of her way. Some shaking their heads, others smiling at her youth and enthusiasm.
Torque crossed the docks and waved at several people who she knew, but hustled on. She paused briefly to look back at the Royalty Cruiser Osprey before she entered the pirate ship. They were so different once she entered the hatch. The cruiser was spick and span and bright and fresh steel and new parts, where the pirate ship was rusting in places and grimy with age. For all that, it had the same ordered quality, tools put away, everything in the correct place, and the engine room–it matched the larger cruiser in power and had the boost converter, weapons implements and was not lacking where power and force were concerned. The engine was almost as new as the cruisers and nearly as bright and clean with new steel. It was amazing.
Then she noticed the dories heading out in the morning light to do the fishing for the city for that day. The city had lowered during the night to make it easier for the fishers, and around midday when they came back, the city would rise again to stay out of the storms and the winds lower down.
Torque hadn’t realized the night had passed, so deep into her work she and Grif had been. Watching the last of the skiff’s gently float down to the ocean, she then turned into the pirate ship’s hatch to search for the parts she needed.
Her right arm, deep into the bowels of the engine, gripped what she needed; a small pipe with the correct valve fitting, size and angle. She just couldn’t get it free and out. Torque’s nose was pressed up against a gear and all she smelled was oil, metal as she breathed, and struggled to get the part out.
Then everything shifted.
The part came loose, but so did the one above and it clanked down on her arm. “Uh oh.” Carefully twisting first one way, she kept hold of her pipe, and then twisted the other as she struggled to free herself now. Forehead now pressed to the gear, she tried not to panic, the upper part shifted and then she was free and she flopped onto her back.
Torque lay on the deck a minute, staring up at the ceiling, at the different kind of lights the pirates had adapted onto their ship and the loose wiring connecting them. Most people didn’t look up, so it made sense not to have those covered, she thought, and probably made for easier access to certain parts of the ship. It was easier to think about that than how close to a huge mistake she’d almost made, and the small one that had occurred. After the minute to calm herself, she finally sat up and glanced along her right arm, with the needed pipe still clutched in her arm.
“Oh, crap.” Opening her hand carefully, slowly, the fingers released their hold of the pipe. She let it fall to the deck not caring if it rolled out of sight. She quickly grabbed with her left hand for her ever present tool. One of the tiny gears, about the size of her pinky nail, that helped work the intricate movements of her fingers, was cracked.
Unscrewing, and then lifting off the outer layer of metal, she could now see the entire gear, and how the teeth no longer lined up with the next and the crack ran down two thirds of it. It wouldn’t stood up to heavy or prolonged use. It might not even continue to work for the next several minutes.
Torque stood and glanced around the engine room. “Where am I going to find a gear piece that tiny and delicate here?”
There were the huge gears and hammers, wrenches and pipes. The one she scooped up now, was among the smallest aboard an airship. The pistons blocked her view forward, and the exhaust toward the aft. Then it came to her.
She left the engine room looking for the crew quarters.
Torque only glanced into some. They were not where she’d expect to find an extra piece to go to a cybernetic arm. And some reminded her too much of her step father. Drunk, with pictures of naked women about; other rooms were clean, but didn’t hold much of value.
Then she stepped into the Captain’s cabin. Larger than all the others and just off the bridge. She’d try the bridge next. The walked up to the desk, her eyes scanning for even something the right size. Pulling out drawers, she almost missed it, as it was lodged up against the side wall of one.
It was the correct size, but there were small holes throughout the gear even onto some of the teeth. Staring at it, she wondered if it would hold up, but she didn’t see any rust or corrosion. Deftly, she worked the broken piece out and the new one in place. Picking up the pipe that had caused all this trouble, Torque headed out of the pirate ship and back to the shiny Royalty Cruiser. The battle had caused a lot of damage, and even if Grif and the others worked around the clock, it would still take another two days.
She smiled. This had been the most fun for her, plus it kept her away from Sark and Malvin, her step father. She’d be sad when she finally fixed the ship up and it left.
“There you are Torque,” said Grif as she walked back into the engine room. “What took you so long?”
“Had a problem with my arm that I had to fix. But I got the coupler and the small pipe for the–“
“Right.” He nodded, and back to work they went.
A day later saw her heading from the secondary power room toward the mess. She was in unfamiliar areas. She’d already worked through the midday meal and Torque needed something before heading back to the engine room.
A door opened, she guessed, hearing her approach. “Here now, what are you doing here?”
Torque paused. “Heading to the mess.” The man wasn’t in uniform, in fact he had a slash in his pants leg near the knee, and his hair was longer, not the neatly trimmed look that she seen on all the others. He looked…rugged, she thought.
“But what brings you here?” he asked looking around the ship.
“My friend and I are affecting repairs caused by the battle with the pirate ship.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You?”
She didn’t like his questioning tone, nor how he slouched against the hatchway frame, arms crossed over his chest. “Yes.”
He smiled, amused it seemed by her curt answer and his next words lost some of their arrogance. “What’s your name?”
“What kind of name is Torque?” asked another, younger man she could barely glimpse inside the room. The man in the hatchway ignored him.
“I’m Makoto, Torque, it’s nice to meet you.” He was about to continue when a voice down the corridor interrupted.
“You there! Back inside!”
Makoto held up his hands in surrender, then backed slowly inside, all the while grinning as the hatch shut, giving her a wink before it closed completely. Kaz came quickly up to her. “What are you doing here Torque? You shouldn’t be here, and you shouldn’t be talking to them.”
“I got lost heading to the mess from the secondary power room. Who was that?” she asked.
“No one. I’ll guide you, but hold on one sec,” he went up to the ship’s intercom system. “Bridge, engineer Second Class Kidd. I’m in Corridor Bravo 8. There is no sign of Apprentice Trooper Xiu. Can you send security down? I”ll stay until they arrive.”
“Security Chief Masterson will be there shortly with a squad, Bridge out.”
He turned and faced Torque. “Go to the first intersection, turn right, go up the stairs, past two intersections and it’s the door on the left. I have to stay here, but I’ll see you back in engineering shortly.”
Torque nodded and left without asking any of the questions she wanted. There was something going on. Something about those people in the room and the missing Apprentice that had Second Engineer Kidd worried.
Grif was still in the mess finishing up his own midday meal. When she finished telling him what happened he glared at her and then leaned over the table to give her a gentle whack upside the head. “You dolt!”
“Those were the prisoners from the private ship. I doubt they have a brig large enough to hold them all, so they converted quarters or storage rooms.”
“You can be daft sometimes.” He grinned at her to take the sting out of his words. He really did care for her. “Well, eat up, Torque. Then we are back to work.” He ran a hand through his salt and pepper spiky hair.
Not long after, with grease up to their elbows, and fixing up one of the last steam pipes before reconnecting the valves to the power core, Sark came into engineering carrying a load of new gears and bolts from the smithy.
He dropped them on the deck at her feet. The clang reverberated down the corridors and along the connecting decking. “Nice, Klutz,” Torque said. “If anything has broken, any teeth on the gears, the Royalty Fleet won’t pay for a new one, you will. What were you thinking?”
“I’m thinking, that I’m working double duty at the smithy and for father, while you’re living it up on a Royalty Cruiser.”
She was shocked for only a moment and then thrust her hands in front of his face. “You think this is living it up? I’m doing my job, Sark, I haven’t slept but six hours in three days. So sorry, you and Malvin actually have to work for once. It’s not like I’m eating steak and sleeping on goose down bedding.” She bent over to pick up the bag with her right hand, lifting it as easily as he had. “Anyway, we’re almost done. Just need to install what you’ve brought, unless you broke them.”
She set the bag on the counter and looked at what Sark had brought. “You forgot the connecting pin.”
“I’m not going to get it.”
“Whatever Sark. You can’t stay aboard in any event.”
She walked out with him and passed empty corridors and then a bunch of sailors running inboard. Sark and Torque flattened themselves against the bulkhead as they passed. “What was that about?” Her step-brother asked.
Torque shook her head, wondering also.
She continued a little behind Sark at a slower pace. She saw the sailors grab him a second before they grabbed her, hands over her mouth and one of her arms twisted behind her back, just enough to hurt. Eyes wide, she watched at Sark struggled and they knocked him over the head, knocking him out. One of the sailors threw him over his shoulder and they were then hurried along the corridor.
Torque didn’t resist, but the pace was frantic and hurried. Then she caught sight of a face she’d seen earlier. The one she had spoken to in the corridor. These weren’t royalty sailors or soldiers, but the pirates. He’d said his name was Makoto.
The voices were hushed, but huddled in amongst them, she heard them clearly.
“There has to be a way off this ship.”
“The main hatch.”
“Too many witnesses and soldiers to go through,” said the one she’d spoken to. “We want minimal casualties.”
The other men grunted and then he turned to her. “Do you know a way off the ship that won’t be seen?”
Where was Grif? Where was anyone she knew? Her eyes slid around to the others. There was no blood on the cloths, but they all looked like hard men and women. Her eyes came back to the first man.
“Do you or don’t you know, Torque?”
He’d remembered her name. Torque nodded slowly.
“Then you and I will lead.” He showed her the knife in his hand before the hand released her mouth. She stayed quiet. “Good.” He took hold of her arm as the other released her. She took them through the first hatch, back toward engineering. They continued down, below the main engineering past the pistons and connectors, past the pipes and coolant valves, to where they had to duck and twist to get through. To a final hatch which she opened. It was the outside propulsion engines. The wind whipped her hair around as she stepped onto the gantry. She could see the lower levels of New Perth City past the back part of the ship. And connecting the two were the giant tethers holding the Royalty ship to the city.
The giant rope didn’t sway or swing in the wind, but they dipped low enough to be near the wrecked open part of the city where Torque knew. And knew no one else dared go.
“There!” She had to yell as the wind gathered her voice and tried to take it from listening ears.
“No way!” Yelled one of the pirates just inside the hatchway.
“We can’t lug this one over there!” Yelled another.
She faced the first man, who seemed to be their leader. “So leave him,” she said with a shrug. “Or drop him, maybe?”
He smiled, flashing white perfect teeth. “There’s plenty of rope. Tie him off, and yourselves as well. Don’t want a gust taking you to the great blue hundreds of feet below.”
Torque started to walk forward, but his iron grasp held her back. “You got guts, girl. But I don’t want to lose you.”
“Like you really care?”
He laughed and engaging laugh and she couldn’t help but smile.
She started forward again. “Wait for the rope!”
“I don’t need it!”
His grip loosened on her arm and she ran onto the five foot thick tether, easily adjusting to the constant wind. She raced along and as she neared the city the rope surged upward, but she knew parts of the broken city were near. She showed them where to go as she leaped off.
She didn’t have far to fall. Landing with a clang barely six feet down and four feet out, the decking was solid. The clang beside her startled her. She whirled and saw the pirate captain beside her.
“Damn, you got guts!”
She smiled. The rest of the crew, she noticed it wasn’t the entire crew, only about ten of them followed on the rope. “What about the rest of your crew?”
Makoto shrugged. “They are better off with the Royalty, even as prisoners.” One by one he helped them make it down off the tether and into the area where Torque had led them, until they faced the two of them.
“We need someplace to wait for awhile while they search the city.” He glanced around and the jagged holes, the broken deck, the empty levels. “This should do nicely. I doubt anyone comes down here.”
He grabbed her by the arm again. Not roughly and not showing the knife this time. “Lead on.”
There were cracked bulkheads, broken decking, but the hall she led them in was fairly solid. She took them lower, farther toward the blast sight, when he stopped them in a large open area, with light filtering down through cracks. Torque knew this place; the old community theater.
She sat in an old seat as they crew wandered around, some gathering items, some picking through junk, and one dropping the unconscious body of Sark at her feet. She didn’t care. She was warm, fairly safe. She doubted they were going to hurt her, and it had been a long time since she had slept. She closed her eyes.
She woke to crackling flames of a fire up on the old stage. Sark had awoke at some point as he was no longer near her feet, but bound and gagged near the fire as the pirates toyed with him. Pushing him down until he struggled back to his knees or feet as they laughed throughout.
Makoto, several inches taller than her with a slim but muscular build—she remembered his iron grip—sat down next to her. He nodded to Sark. “Will he continue to do that?”
“He’s stubborn. Won’t back down.”
“How do you know him?”
He mouth twisted. “He’s my step-brother.”
“Who you don’t like.”
She shrugged, wondering why she talked to him. “No. I don’t like him, or his dad.”
“He can never replace your dad. I know. When did you lose him?”
“When this occurred?” He asked, pointing around the area.
“Yes.” Maybe she talked to him because it had been so long since she had talked to anyone but Grif. “You can’t stay here long, you know?”
“What do you plan to do?”
“Get my ship back.”
His voice went cold, hard as the steel in her arm.
The firelight glinted off his eyes as he looked at her. “What is it?”
“We had to take some of the parts from your ship to fix the cruiser.” The bluntness surprised her. Why had she told him? But he hadn’t harmed anyone, besides Sark, and knocking him on the head hadn’t hurt him.
“Will you help us, then?”
“Why should I help pirates?”
“Is that what they told you?”
Laughter from the circle around the fire drew his eyes away from hers. She looked then as Sark lay on his back. “No,” he continued softly, “we are not pirates. We are trouble makers though. And we are fighters. Consider us more like privateers, or mercenaries.”
“Then who hired you?”
“That, Torque, you don’t need to know. Only that we represent those fighting the Royalty.”
He stood then and left her to her own thoughts. Who was fighting the Royalty?
* * *
She did help them. And snuck back into the ship the way they had escaped. She knew the parts they needed, but it took two days. And always glares from Sark toward his captors, but none at her. Maybe he thought she helped them because they threatened to hurt him. She let him continue to believe that. Bringing food and water for them as well.
But two days was a long time, and they had to move to stay ahead of the search parties.
“We have everything we need,” said one of the female pirates. “I know it’s late, but let’s get going?”
“I’m with Mel, the sooner we are out of here the better.”
Makoto stood with the others, while Torque stayed on the outside, but within hearing distance.
“It’s not like getting to the ship that’s the problem. We tether in like we did getting out,”
He glanced around the assembled group. “If everyone is agreed?” They all nodded. “Then we’ll leave tonight.”
“What about her?” Mel asked.
“I’ll handle that.”
Within moments the group dispersed. They picked up Sark and slung him over the big ones shoulders again. They put out the fire, gathered what gear they had and followed Torque and Makoto.
They were near the anchor point to their ship when they heard it; sounds of encroaching boots, lots of boots. They had stumbled into an oncoming patrol. Torque hurried them on. And they could feel the night wind and hear the creaking of the tether to the city.
The big guy set Sark down, and in the second as everyone glanced away and looked toward the tether, he was up and running with Torque and several others chasing after him. He was yelling, as were the others.
“Help me. Help. They are over here. Hey!” Sark yelling from ahead with a good head start and opening up his lead.
“Get on the ship, now!” Makoto bellowed to his crew.
“Stop right there!” Mel shouted at Sark as she lost distance on him.
Torque stopped then, seeing the approaching lights and Sark continued to yell. “No more hiding now,” she murmured.
“Mel, get on the ship!” Makoto yelled.
The pirate spun and raced back to the others and the tether and the safety of her ship. Torque watched her go. The voice of Sark yelling had faded some, but the lights grew brighter. They would be here soon.
She glanced back at Makoto. He stared at her as Mel reached the tether and started her way across. He was the last, still looking at her.
She glanced the other way to the oncoming soldiers of the royalty and the lights brightening the way. Then back at Makoto standing the darkness, a figure silhouetted by the coming dawn light.
“Your choice. Come with us or stay with them?”
Torque took off running.
◊ ◊ ◊
Kate lives in a small town in southern Oregon. She loves competing and coaching in hardball roller hockey and roller derby. While her derby name is unimaginative, Runnels, her number is original and unique in the derby world at -1.