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The Search

I told Art to scan the crime scene for evidence. He didn’t need me to tell him. The D&D Autoron was a pretty refined gizmo, website here the latest in cyborg technology. He didn’t need me for much.

The law says a human inspector must accompany every Autotron, information pills every cyborg inspector, approved like Art, on a case. Sometimes I wonder if it’s all a make-work program for human cops, but, then again, it’s humans who commit the crimes. So who best to understand the dark alleys of the human mind than another frail, hairy, water-bag like me. Art is an artificial intelligence police inspector model 407 made by D&D Industries and used widely throughout the country. I call him Art for short. He doesn’t seem to mind. He calls me Marc Thompson because that’s my name.

Art was circling the corpse probing for DNA and fibers, photographing everything and storing it in his oversized memory. At the same time he was comparing face and prints with the world’s vast biometric data base. A one man crime lab is old Art. He’s good too, very good. Me and Art have been working together for a couple of years now and I was still in awe of his efficiency. I don’t know how those old time cops ever solved a case. But this case looked like something Art was going to need old Marc Thompson’s help with.

The corpse was an obese male, naked and stabbed completely through with a 2×4. Not a sharpened spear but a blunt piece of lumber from off the work site. The victim looked like an insect pinned to a board in a collection or perhaps some twisted work of art in Hell’s Gallery. The amount of force it took to drive so dull an instrument completely through a body and into the block wall behind it was well beyond human capacity. No, this could have only been done by a borg. I said as much to Art.

“You know that is not possible, “ he said. “Our programming will not allow it.”

He was referring to the prime directive of robotic conditioning— That a robot can never harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm. That law was fundamental to allowing cyborgs to exist and operate as equals according to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision Bladen vs The D&D Corporation, the famous or infamous case that led directly to the Robot Equality Act of 2133. If a cyborg can go rogue and kill a human, then no human is safe, and robots will go back to being fancy vacuum cleaners and assembly line workers. A lot of humans would welcome that. Art and his kind instill a lot of fear and anxiety in people although things are slowly getting better.

“Cyborg soldiers kill humans all the time,” I said.

“War is a special case.” Art said, his analysis of the crime scene never stopping.

“I know,” I said, “it’s different, but it’s still borgs killing humans.”

Art gave the robot equivalent of a snort which I took to mean, “ignorant water bag”, maybe it’s just me but I often feel old Art has an attitude. That’s my human nature anthropomorphizing Art’s personality. The truth was that machines like Art don’t have attitudes or emotions which is precisely why they don’t commit crimes of passion or pre-meditation which is precisely why we can trust them. Without that trust we would be forced to shut them all down and I’m sure they wouldn’t take that lightly.

What Art was saying was that the borg soldiers the government use for combat are a special kind of dumb machine weapon and nowhere near as sophisticated as he. That led me to speculate about the Army having some secret weapon that could kill a man with a piece of lumber. I asked Art about it.

“It would be against the law. There are treaties against that kind of thing. So, no, I don’t think that’s a viable line of inquiry.”

“So what do we know about the victim?” I asked. Art was in constant communication with every data base and police agency on the planet.

“Aside from the obvious, not very much.”

“Tell me the obvious, then,” I asked.

Art began to rattle off the victim’s physical characteristics. “Male. 290 pounds. 5’ 10” tall. Blood alcohol level 1.8. Blood type O positive. Death caused by blunt force trauma. Do you want time of death and specifications on the murder weapon?” Art was always happiest when he was rattling off factoids.

“Geez, Art, I could have told you that much. Who the hell is he is what I want to know.”

“I’m afraid this individual has no record in any known data base.”

“You mean he’s a gridder?” A gridder is a member of a cult that does its best to remain invisible to the government by staying off any data base, off the grid, get it?

“I am assuming that is the case,” Art said.

The gridder cults cover a wide political spectrum from environmental lunatics to anti-abortion assassins to right wing luddites determined to gut the liberal robot equality laws. “Well that’s an interesting development,” I said. “It’s beginning to look more and more like your kind had a motive, assuming this guy was a member of an anti-robot cult. Were there any prints on the two by four?”

“Negative.”

I inspected the exposed part of the 2 by 4 myself. There were several scratch marks. “What do you make of these marks?” I asked knowing full well what they were.

“The marks are indicative of machine handling,” Art replied.

“By machine you mean cyborg I assume?” Art remained silent unwilling to be drawn into a discussion on the implications of those marks.

“This is a construction site after all,” Art said. “Cyborgs work here. The lumber could have been handled many times.”

I let it slide. I wasn’t going to argue with my partner. Instead, I changed the subject “Funny that he’s naked,” I observed. “What do you suppose happened to his clothes?”

“I don’t think his nakedness has much bearing on the matter,” Art said.

“Oh no? Look around.” We were standing in a remote corner of a construction site. The site was surrounded by a chain link fence 8 feet high. The body was pinned to a cinder block retaining wall by the lumber. Art swiveled his sensors around for my benefit.

“So?” he asked.

“So, unlike you guys, humans seldom, if ever go anywhere naked. That means he was probably stripped of his clothing before he was killed. I was just wondering why the killer or killers would do that.”

“You think they were trying to make a statement?”

“Yes. I think they were trying to say, ‘look at how ugly and feeble you hairy water bags are compared to us’.”

“I wish you’d stop trying to steer this investigation to the clearly impossible,” Art said huffily.

“I’m just stating the obvious, Art, my good man or should I rephrase that?”

“I take your meaning. What is obvious?”

“What’s obvious to me is the pains that were taken to make this appear to be a robot murder.”

“I’m relieved to hear that you don’t believe that is the case.”

“Oh I don’t believe that it can’t or won’t happen or even that it hasn’t happened, I just don’t believe that this is the case. I think that is what the killer wants us to think. I’m going to speak with the human workmen on this site. Why don’t you do the same with the cyborg employees?”

I interviewed the foreman, one Vincent Bowman, and his four human subordinates including a young bricklayer named Jason Long. “So you’re the one who found the body? Is the right Mr. Long?”

“That’s right, I came here to pick up some tools we left here yesterday and there he was.”

“Had you ever seen the victim before?”

“No, never.”

“You said you had to pick up some tools. Were you working here yesterday?”

“Yes. We finished laying those blocks yesterday. Looks like we’ll have to take it down and do it again.”

“What are you building here anyway?”

“Believe it or not, this is going to be some rich guy’s house.”

I checked with Vince Bowman, the foreman on who the client was.

“Ever hear of Darren Delacroix? That’s who is going to live here.”

Everyone over the age of ten knew the name Delacroix, the famous philanthropist and head of D&D industries, the world’s largest maker of cyborgs and the country’s leading liberal voice. If any one family was responsible for the rise of cyborg equality, it was the Delacroix. This murder was looking more political by the minute.

I met up with Art and we exchanged notes. “Delacroix must have a long list of enemies including every anti robot cult in the country. You come up with anything?”

“I interviewed all 42 cyborg employees,” Art said. Imagine doing 42 interviews in the time it took me to do two partials. “One of the workers had inadvertently recorded the victim talking with Mr. Serrano two weeks ago.

“Serrano?” I queried.

“Adrain Serrano is the architect on this site.” Art already knew more than me.

“You reviewed all their recordings from two weeks back?” I asked incredulous at Art’s thoroughness.

“Actually I went back as far as their recordings would allow which is sixty days according to convention. The important thing is that the victim was seen speaking with Adrain Serrano, the architect on this project.”

“I guess we should pay Mr. Serrano a visit, how about you?” For a second I thought I saw Art roll his eyes but I knew he wasn’t programmed to do that.

Serrano had his office in a luxury building in the best part of town. The receptionist showed us in after we flashed our badges and told her it was “official police business.” Actually that was me. I get a kick out of acting official and besides, she was a very attractive woman. Art, I thought, acted annoyed. Serrano sat behind an enormous desk surrounded by models of his designs—futuristic dwellings for the rich and famous—all angles and twisted shapes.

“Yes, gentlemen, what can I do for you?”

“We’re investigating a murder on one of your job sites Mr. Serrano.”

“You’re talking about the Delacroix job. Yes I heard there was some trouble there, Terrible thing. How can I help?”

“Show ‘em the picture Art,” I said in my best cop voice. Art projected a ten second video of the worker’s recording on Serrano’s giant flat screen TV. It showed Serrano stopping to speak with a fat man in a plaid shirt.

“I don’t understand,” Serrano said.

“We want to know who the fat man is and what you were talking about. Play it again, Art,” I said in my best Bogart impersonation. This time i was sure i saw art’s eyes roll.

Serrano watched the video a second time and then a third time finally saying, “If I recall, the guy just stopped me to ask me about a job. I never saw him before or since.”

“And you have no idea who he is?” Art asked.

“No, none. I don’t know him.”

“Do you remember what he asked about?” I wanted to know.

“I think he asked me whose house it was,” Serrano answered.

“And you told him…?”

“I probably answered it was Delacoix’s new mansion. I’m pretty proud of the design. Want to see the model?”

“That’s all right. Would you mind if we look around and speak with some of your employees?”

“No not at all. Feel free.”

It was a big office. There must have been 25 or 30 employees most of them cyborg. I went over to one of the few humans while Art took on the robots. I got to flirt with the cute receptionist a little more but learned nothing from the human contingent. “How about you?” I asked Art.

“One of the cyborgs caught a glimpse of our victim in the lobby on its way to work a few weeks ago. He was talking to a security guard. The guard was a borg so we’ll at least get a good look at our boy when he was alive.”

The guard played back the encounter. The fat man asked the guard what floor Serrano & Associates were on and the guard responded, “The 16th floor, sir.” and that was it. The man looked calm and relaxed. He wore a different shirt but there was no doubt it was our man.

“You notice anything unusual about that?” I asked Art.

“No. Seems like a routine encounter.”

“Exactly,” I said, “but I’m wondering why he would ask a borg something he could easily learn for himself by looking on the directory in the lobby. I thought he hated borgs. Did you notice his arm was in a sling? And did you catch the accent? Russian or Slavic I thought.” If Art was embarrassed for missing that stuff, he didn’t show it. Maybe he did notice the sling and the accent and didn’t think they were relevant.

“Maybe he can’t read,” Art theorized.

“Or maybe he wanted us to find this clip.”

“Why would he want that?” Art was confused. The depths of human deviousness was a hard thing for a machine to fathom.

“So that we can trace him to some virulent anti-robot cult and conclude that the murderer was committed by a killer borg.”

“I thought you gave up on that theory,” Art said.

“I did.” I said. “It wasn’t a borg, someone is trying to make it look like it was.”

“But…,” I left Art to try and puzzle it out. “This is one of your “hunches” right?,” Art asked making air quotes with his fingers.

I’d tried to explain hunches to Art once or twice before. He understands the concept but he’s never had one himself. Hunches are what makes human cops a valuable part of the team except for the embarrassing fact that most of them are wrong.

“Why don’t you run the victim’s photo against a list of recent Russian or Eastern European arrivals and see what comes up. And see if he got that arm treated at a hospital in the city.” Art’s eyes glazed over for a second as he accessed the internet part of himself. After maybe 30 seconds he snapped back to our shared reality and said,

“Nothing in immigration but I found something in the medical data base— A public hospital admittance form. Our victim was admitted to a city hospital for a broken arm six months ago using an ID card in the name of Philip Prokov. Here’s his hospital admittance form. Art found a fax machine and printed everything out for me. It’s so cool the way he can commandeer any piece of electronic equipment he wants. Mr. Prokov’s identification card gave his address as 158 Rinko Street in our fair city. Rinko Street was in a declining part of town where immigrants can find cheap housing. It listed his occupation as cabdriver.

“Doesn’t look like him,” I noticed. “Must be a stolen card.”

Art ran the name and photo through the various data bases but came up dry. No match on the face but the name scared up a few hits. there were four Philip Prokovs in the city. One of them even had a Rinko Street address.

We got lucky and hit pay dirt on the first try. Philip Popov was a wasted, foul smelling junkie who’d have sold his left nut for a few dollars. He said he recognized the photograph of our fat man and for fifty bucks he gave us the name— Demitri “Tubby” Alescu. Demitri purchased Popov’s ID for $150 and used it to get medical treatment. Being a gridder, he had no ID of his own.

Once we had his name, the rest was easy. Mr. Alescu was a Romanian immigrant and, as expected, virulently anti-cyborg. He was a member of the radical HFH (Humans For Humanity), a nasty gridder cult implicated in violent acts against robots. Identifying the victim was a victory of sorts but it didn’t get us any closer to finding out who killed him or why.

“I have an idea,” said Art in a rare show of creativity. Art’s idea was to go back to Serrano’s office building and scan through the security camera tapes for the last three months. I didn’t see how this could hurt so I agreed. I didn’t have any better ideas.

There were 9 cameras in the lobby recording 24 hours a day so there was a considerable amount of data to scan. It would have taken me and a team of humans a week to sift through it all, but Art got a hit after a few minutes. The image was grainy and at the limit of the camera’s resolution. Art enhanced it and we watched as our overweight victim accepted an envelope from some male figure whose head was out of the frame. The encounter only lasted a few seconds. It was a marvel of processing power and an example of good police work on Art’s part. I was impressed.

“I’d like to know who that guy was,” I said stating the obvious. “Is there any way we could get a better angle on who’s handing that envelope to Tubby?”

“I processed it to the limit of my ability,” Art replied. “But knowing the exact location and time of the handoff, maybe there is another camera recording the scene.” One good feature of modern life, at least from a policeman’s perspective, is the near ubiquity of security cameras. Every public space is watched by a camera and recorded. It hasn’t made the privacy advocates happy but it has made my job a lot easier.

We circled the building and found an old traffic surveillance camera on a pole across the street from the lobby. It had a good view of the street and, with any luck might have caught the hand off through the window across the street. We repaired to a coffee shop in the neighborhood while Art went into deep retrieval mode, no doubt accessing the traffic department archives and querying that particular camera’s log. The process was maddeningly slow thanks to the city’s ancient equipment but by the time I finished my sandwich, Art had a grainy photograph for me to examine.

“Is that who I think it is?” The resolution was poor but it was clear to us both that the man handing the envelope to our victim was our friend the architect, Adrain Serrano.

Confronted with yet more evidence that he’d been lying to us combined with a few threats of prosecution, Mr. Serrano told us his story. He was acting on behalf of his client, Darren Delacroix. Mr Delacroix was being extorted by HFH. He was paying money to the organization to avoid terrorist-like attacks on his factories and his people.

“How much was he paying?” Art asked.

“A half a million dollars every month. I know that sounds like a lot of money to you but to a billionaire like Mr. Delacroix, it’s small potatoes.”

Small potatoes indeed. One or two potatoes like that and I could retire to a condo in Florida and kiss this stupid job goodbye.

“You think Darren Delacroix killed Mr. Alescu?” I asked the architect.

“I don’t think so…I don’t know.”

“Alescu had a broken arm. You know anything about that?”

“I asked him about that last payoff. He said a borg did it.”

Now that was interesting. A borg couldn’t have done it intentionally. It must have been an accident. The result of saving Alescu’s life. “Did he tell you how it happened?”

“He said he was about to walk in front of a truck and a borg grabbed him and pulled him back with such force it broke his arm. He said it was making him second think his political views.”

Now that was interesting. Suddenly my hunch meter was blinking on and off like a Vegas slot machine.

“I suppose we should speak with Mr. Delacroix,” Art said when we were alone again.

“Waste of time,” I said. “He’s not our man. Sure he had motive, but why would he kill someone on his own property and then try and make it look like a borg did it? When you’re as rich as he is you just hire a professional. It doesn’t make sense. There’s something else going on here.”

“I see your point,” Art said. “We should ask ourselves who benefits by trying to ruin Delacroix and cast suspicion on cyborgs?”

“Exactly,” I said, “and there’s only one party that fills the bill.”

“The HFH,” we both said simultaneously.

Police don’t have much of a handle on these fringe gridder cults. Snitches are few and far between and they don’t last very long in that paranoid world, but as fate would have it, Art remembered a guy we busted a couple of years back for felony assault on a cyborg. He was connected with HFH and agreed to turn state’s evidence for a lighter sentence. His name was Eldon Mooks, and, if he was still alive, he might be able to give us some insight into our murder investigation.

Mooks was not only still alive, but was recently arrested in Savannah, Georgia, for drunk driving. He had struck and severely injured a pedestrian and was facing a ten year mandatory sentence. When we caught up with him, he was actually happy to see us.

“Hey, I remember you guys. You helped me out once. Maybe we can make another deal.”

“Maybe,” I said. “It just so happens you’re in a position to help us with a case we’re working on.”

“Oh that’s great. Thank you Jesus. What do you guys need to know?”

Art took out the photographs of Dimitri Alescu, Adrian Serrano and Darren Delacroix and laid them out before him. “You recognize any of these faces?”

Mooks pointed to the photo of Alescu. “I know plenty about Tubby,” he said. After that tantalizing statement, Mooks clammed up until he extracted a pledge of immunity from us and a reduction of his sentence on the DUI charge. Mooks knew how to play the game. When everything was agreed to and put in writing, only then did Mooks begin to talk. And what a story he told.

“Tubby was a bag man for the HFH. He’d pick up and deliver things, money mostly. The higher ups trusted him completely. A lot of people in the cyborg industry paid us protection money to keep us away from their facilities. Anyways, one day Tubby is crossing the street and a borg pulls his ass out of the way of truck or a bus or something. The upshot of it is that Tubby has a religious conversion. He says he saw God and understood the error of his ways. He no longer wanted anything to do with harming borgs, in short he wanted out of the organization. All of a sudden, he was considered a risk. He knew too much. So the word came down to get rid of him and as long as they were paying to take him out, they thought they would score some political points by making it look like a borg did it. It was my idea to do it on the Delacroix property. A nice touch, don’t you think?”

The story was pretty much what I expected but one question still remained, “How did you do it? I mean kill him like that?”

“Ah now that was a stroke of genius. We wanted it to look like a borg did it. So a couple of guys held him against the wall while one of us drove that big stake through his heart with a fork lift. We felt pretty sure it would fool anyone. How did you guys figure it out?”

“Simple,” I said, “borgs don’t kill people.”

Art gave me one of his looks and I could swear his eyes rolled.

—–

Harris Tobias lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of The Greer Agency, A Felony of Birds and dozens of short stories. His fiction has appeared in Ray Gun Revival, Dunesteef Audio Magazine, Literal Translations, FriedFiction, Down In The Dirt, Eclectic Flash, E Fiction and several other obscure publications. His poetry has appeared in Vox Poetica, The poem Factory and The Poetry Super Highway. You can find links to his novels at: http://harristobias-fiction.blogspot.com/

Read more stories by Harris Tobias

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I won’t have another coffee. The clock in the corner has already stalled. People have come and gone, pills queued, buy bought coffee and left, ordered lunch, chatted, eaten and paid. Another coffee means leaving my seat twice — once to acquire, once to relieve.

The rounded sweetness of iced buns, the savoury edge of ginger cake, the melted crunch of panini. Temptations for filling time. Something to occupy my hands and mouth in lieu of greeting and conversation. But I won’t. I want to kill time not my appetite.

We arranged to meet at lunchtime, but nothing definite was said about having lunch. The café is similarly open and uncommitted. It caters as readily for the twenty-minute casual rendezvous as it does for the two-hour lunch of lost time and deeper companionship.

When I met her last week it was for coffee, here as before. Mid-morning, half an hour, one cappuccino large, one latte skinny, no lateness, no ambiguity. Today perhaps something different, something more.

When we first met two weeks ago it was pondering coffee in Sainsbury’s. Overwhelming options… moral minefield… social status… the dilemma of modern coffee choice was all over her face.

“Not easy, is it?” I said. “Knowing what to choose, what not to choose.”

“And how much, at what cost and whether or not I should be giving it up,” she continued.

Her shopping basket spoke of conflict. Low-calorie soup versus choc chip cookies. Diet coke versus full-fat butter. Nicotine patches versus Rioja. Sweetener versus sugar. And now the peppermint tea was to be pitted against coffee. Either side could have won the five items or less category on its own but, as is so often the case in deep conflict, there were no real victors.

“It’s not a habit I’ve ever wanted to kick,” I said. “That first cup of coffee is the starting whistle of the day. A real upper.” I pulled a packet of Fairtrade Macchu Pichu Organic down from the shelf.

“I know what you mean. I just feel I ought to. All the health and fitness columns have a real downer on coffee. Maybe it’s just guilt on my part!” As she reached for a packet of Fairtrade Macchu Pichu Organic she gave a laugh of relief and cigarettes, of red wine and coffee.

“Guilt’s overrated,” I said. “I was overdosed on a steady supply from school and family before I acquired an immunity.”

“Sounds very Catholic.”

“Guilty. Once upon a time, at least.”

“Ditto. Has a long aftertaste, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, all the way to adulthood.”

“And beyond.” We laughed. “So they say.”

From there it was the checkout, the coffee shop and then our separate ways, with the hope of reuniting through swapped numbers and a coffee. But perhaps not a lunch, which now appears lost.

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Kevlin Henney drinks coffee and, despite living in the UK, is not particularly fond of tea. He writes words and code and words about code. His short and flash fiction has been published online and on tree, appearing at New Scientist, FlashStories.net, Litro and Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure.

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Point your toes when you hit the water or your feet will split open, treatment peeling the flesh up around your ankles. If you don’t bend at the waist once you go under you will sink to your knees in the mud on the bottom and drown before you can free yourself. The distance from the apex of the bridge to the water’s surface is 66.6 feet. All sorts of rumors and horror stories surrounded the San Bernard river bridge. Some were loosely based on fact. Tommy suspected that most of them were old wives’ tales, the nightmare spawned fodder that made jumping from the high concrete bridge a death defying act of bravado for teenage boys. Supposedly, a boy from Sweeney had jumped from the bridge a few years ago and hit a submerged log, splitting his body in two. Preston Clinton was the only boy who had dived head first from the bridge and lived to tell about it. His dad was the preacher at the Church of Christ. He believed in predestination. He would neither confirm nor deny the act. When asked, he simply said, “I know the river I was baptized in would not take my life.” Supposedly, Ronnie Goolsby had counted out loud to 14 from the time he jumped until he hit the water. Tommy doubted Ronnie could count to 14 under stress. He was as dumb as a mud fence. What he lacked in brains he made up for in size and meanness. Tommy hated him, and maybe feared him a little too.

Highway 288 crossed the San Bernard river bridge on the way to Four Forks. Four Forks was a four way stop with three churches and two liquor stores. Tommy crossed the bridge with his dad on a regular basis, not for church. The little stop was just across the county line. Tommy’s family lived in Brazoria county. Like many counties in Texas, Brazoria county was dry. You could buy beer in the county but if you wanted wine or liquor you had to go elsewhere.

The area under the San Bernard river bridge was beautiful, a lush flat grassland with abundant wildflowers. Wild onions grew in thick patches. The space was several acres and well maintained by the county. When they mowed  the aroma of the onions filled the air with a promise of summer. It was only a few miles from home and Tommy frequently rode there on horseback with his family. They would pack a picnic lunch and swim in the river while the horses grazed on the lush vegetation. They never jumped off the bridge. Once, before Tommy was a teenager, some boys he didn’t know were jumping from the bridge. Tommy’s mom was horrified.

“Don’t ever even think of doing something that stupid!” She scolded. She had no need to worry. Tommy was terrified of heights. It had taken him a full six hours to work up the courage to climb the 10 foot ladder into the tree house they discovered in the back of their pasture even after his little brother and sister had shimmied up the ladder and taunted him.

It was a steaming hot July day when Tommy was out riding bikes with Jack and Mack Henson. They were twins but they didn’t look anything alike. Mack was thin and pale with an abundance of freckles. Jack was muscular and bronze with a measured way of moving. Mack was loud and challengingly rowdy. Jack had a dark, disturbed quietness about him that would push him to take his own life several years later. Today they brought their little sister, Rochelle. She had stringy black hair and green eyes. Her puffy pale skin seemed to always be fighting a mild case of acne. At fourteen, she was couple of years younger than her brothers and a year behind Tommy. Normally she would have been hanging out with Tommy’s sister, Marcy but Marcy had gone to Houston with her Aunt Lois to shop for school clothes. Rochelle’s thick legs were having trouble keeping pace with the boys. She had started whining about it, threatening to tell her daddy that her brothers abandoned her. The boys were forced to wait so Mack and Jack could avoid a severe beating. Eventually the group found themselves at the San Bernard river about 4 miles from home. They were soaked in sweat. Since it was broad daylight skinny dipping was out of the question. The boys shucked t-shirts and jumped in with their shorts. Rochelle was wearing one of those frilly blouses that made her look even puffier than she was. She finally lost the blouse and jumped in with her shorts and bra. Tommy couldn’t help but notice that the bra was too small. Rochelle’s pale freckled skin was squeezing out in all directions from the dinghy white harness. He tried to look away when she caught him staring but all he could do was scrunch up his nose.

“That looks uncomfortable,” he said.

“It is. I bet you’d like me to take it off,” she replied.

“I really don’t care.” He thought of Rochelle mainly as an annoyance that he had to tolerate because she was friends with his sister. Still, his body was responding to the conversation in a way that made his shorts feel too small. He was glad to be shoulder deep in murky river water.

“Let’s jump off the bridge,” Jack said.

“Dad will kill us if he finds out,” Mack cautioned.

“Not if the bridge beats him to it.” Jack was out of the water, sprinting up the embankment.

“Okay, I’m in,” Mack said. “Tommy, you coming?”

“I don’t think so.”

“He’s a pussy,” Rochelle giggled and released her bra from underwater, tossing it into the grass.

“Are you chicken?” Mack asked. Jack was halfway up the bridge.

“I don’t know. A chicken is a bird, a pussy is a mammal,” Tommy said. He wasn’t exactly blinding them with science.

“You should try it,”  Mack hollered back. “It’s fun, better than a roller coaster.”

“You don’t even know what a pussy is,” Rochelle whispered from just behind Tommy’s ear. Two soft pencil erasers grazed his back. He stiffened, trying not to flinch and searched for words. No sound came out. Rochelle swam away.

Jack had reached the top of the bridge. Instead of climbing over the rail and standing on the concrete ledge, he was atop the metal rail. He wasn’t looking down at the water. He was peering straight ahead to the horizon, his future. Without warning he sprang high and away from the bridge. As he descended he stretched his arms wide and tilted his head back slightly, like a crucifix. Just before impact he brought his arms up and slipped into the water making barely a ripple.

“Show off!” Rochelle screamed. “I bet you can do better than that,” she told Tommy.  He felt the nipples again. This time a hand was on his waist then slipping down the front of his abdomen. She touched it.

“Whoa! I guess you’re not queer after all,” Rochelle whispered, “or maybe you just thought Jack’s jump was beautiful.”

Once again no words came to Tommy. Rochelle swam away. Jack surfaced.

“Oh my God!” Jack exclaimed. “Tommy, seriously, you have got to try that! It’s like flying, maybe better!”

Mack was at the top of the bridge. He stepped over the rail and stood on the ledge. He looked at the water and quickly sat down on the bridge rail. He looked at his brother who was observing him without expression. He stood, looked down again and jumped. Arms tight to his side, eyes closed, he looked like a stick falling through the air. He tilted slightly backward before hitting the water and shot back out of the water feet first a few yards away. Jack swam out to meet him.

Tommy felt the breasts pressed firmly against his back. This time her hand found it’s mark without delay. Her chubby little fingers gave a firm squeeze.

“Make the jump,” she said. “I’ll show you what I’ve got.”

Tommy was headed for the bridge. What exactly she meant by that he wasn’t sure but he wanted to know the answer. As he climbed up, the bridge kept getting higher. The water was so far away. At the peak he stepped over the rail and sat. He looked down. Dizziness and nausea overcame him. No way he could do this. He was about to turn back.

“Jump! Jump! Jump!” Three voices in unison chanted loudly. He looked at Rochelle. She was standing waist deep, her chubby little hands supporting her breasts as if offering a prize.

Tommy sprang forward flailing in the air. Halfway down he remembered, toes pointed, legs together. That was all he had time for before the impact stung the underside of his arms nearly ripping them from his torso. He was a spinning mass of arms and legs. His right foot and elbow touched mud. He panicked, began swimming toward the light. Was it the surface or The Light he had read about? Just before his lungs burst he reached air. His ringing ears heard a distant cheer.

He swam frantically to shore and lay gasping. His arms and shoulders were on fire. A grin came across his face as the endorphins negated the discomfort.

“Ready to go again?” Jack asked.

“Maybe later,” Tommy replied.

By the time he regained his composure and got back in the water, Rochelle was securely harnessed in her bra. He spent the next half hour trying to decide how to approach her about claiming his prize.

Jack made three more identical jumps. No one else jumped again. Well before dusk they put their shirts back on and headed for home. They had not made it more than a mile when Rochelle started whining about being left behind. Tommy realized he didn’t even want the prize.

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Tony Burnett is a member of the Writer’s League of Texas and anaward winning songwriter. He writes a science and nature column for a regional Texas newspaper. His fiction has appeared in national literary magazines.

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Of the two, check Francesca was always the free spirit, salve
the risk taker.  They went skydiving in Vegas what seems like ages ago. High above the desert, he needed a shove to get out of the door while she laughed all the way down. When they settled onto the ground, breathless, and struggling with the harnesses, she said that she wished she could fly,
like the birds, unencumbered by gravity, if only for a few seconds.

He withdraws the decade old cell phone from the back of the dresser drawer, tucked in behind socks and underwear. It’s an old thing, not good for calls anymore, but he keeps it charged. He’s been good for a
full year, hasn’t needed it until now, for this day. He hasn’t, in fact, thought of Francesca for nearly a month, hasn’t seen her smile in the children’s faces, hasn’t seen a woman on the street that looked like her and resisted the urge to rush over, and with this fact comes the uneasy realization that he is relieved of this absence.

But he needs to hear her voice, the sounds it makes, on today of all days. If he doesn’t, he’s not sure he can face the morning. So, he sits on her side of the bed, and cradles the phone, navigates the
menus until he finds the stored voicemails.

There is only one. It is seven seconds long.

He braces himself, and presses play.

There’s a painful second of static, and then amid the ambient noise:

Caro mio. I love you so much—you and the children. I’m s-sorry.  Good—goodbye.

He plays it over and over, hears her struggle with the final farewell again and again. For a moment, he remembers the day ten years ago, when he stepped out of the meeting to check the missed call. He
remembers hearing the message, the crying and screaming in the background, and not knowing what it meant. He listened to it three times before he could hear what she said. And he remembers a co-worker bursting through the hallway and into the conference room to turn on the television. It didn’t matter what channel you were on;
they were all the same. He remembers watching the unfolding terror among the huddled group and he remembers that night, feeling small and pressing the phone to his ear to hear the message over and over again
until he couldn’t see the keys through the tears.

She jumped off the first tower before it fell. Not confirmed, but he knew. He saw her in one of the pictures, a lone woman free falling with the tower in the background. The photo was pixelated and blurred, but she was slender and tall like Francesca, she had long flowing black hair like her, she wore the same clothes she left with
that morning, and he just…knew.

It had tormented him to think of the fall, of the unequivocal conclusion that all falls must bear. Yet for the first few weeks, poring over the photos was all he could do. He thinks about her now, as he plays the voicemail once more, and he wonders what she felt as she sailed out of the darkness of devastation into the light of day,
and about the choice she made to fly instead of burn.

And maybe it’s true what they say, that the last few moments are an eternity compressed into seconds, inhabited by the people and the things that you love. Maybe somewhere, she’s still flying, free like a bird, unencumbered by gravity, and laughing. Maybe the fall never really ends, and maybe next year on the eleventh, he won’t need the
old phone anymore to make it outside the bedroom door.

—–

Matt Mok grew up in Queens, New York and now lives in New Hampshire. He started writing a few years ago after rekindling an interest in reading. To his surprise, his stories were accepted for publication.
In his spare time, he enjoys procrastination.

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Where is the car? Jude awoke with a dull headache, sildenafil a gluey sensation in the undersides of his lips, no rx and this question. It had snowed in the night. He got up, or halfway up, knelt on his bed, leaned forward, steadying himself with his elbows and forearms against the window pane in front of him. The cars, like indistinguishable lumpy cakes crudely assembled and iced by young children, sat in a line on the right side of his narrow street. If his car were one of the ones in that line, in this block, he would be all right. Parking was allowed on one side of the street each morning so that the snow ploughs could clear the other. The no parking thing alternated. But where was the car? Wait, what day was it? He had been to a party the night before, and he wasn’t sure he’d driven home. The party had been a few blocks away, though he wasn’t sure where. He shouldn’t have driven home, that much was clear. He must have driven to the party from the airport where he’d picked up his brother.

Speaking of whom: where was Jeremy? He frowned at the extra blanket and pillow, which lay untouched on the hide-a-bed.

“Jeremy?”

Silence. Then, the sound of Madame Rivard, who lived upstairs, calling her cat. “Pôpô!” Then silence again.

Jude rarely used his car, apart from special assignments like picking up his younger brother when he visited, or stocking up on toilet paper and canned tomatoes at Costco, or hauling his bass to his band’s infrequent but impressively remote gigs. Because of the latter, he could write off the car as an expense, even if it was hard to justify for any other reason: a 1989 Buick LeSabre, a big creaking hulk of rusting black metal, about as fuel efficient as a bus. He pulled a pair of blue jeans over his boxers, examined a brown cotton sweater for stains, sniffed its armpits and his own, pulled the sweater over his head, matched two of the socks under his bed, and wondered again vaguely where Jeremy was. He wished Jeremy were here, making coffee. Jeremy had better not be expecting him to make him coffee whenever he decided to come back.

He pulled on his khaki army surplus parka, put on his boots and started to go down to the street when he heard his mother’s voice telling him to put on a hat and a pair of gloves. Well, Mum had died when she was fifty-two, so so much for hats and gloves. He ran down the stairs.

Where’s your brother?

I don’t know, Mum.

Where is the car?

The car had belonged to his dad, an architect who drank at night, also dead.

That’s going to be even harder, Mum.

Outside, he gazed hopelessly at the line of cars. He heard a voice, a real one, call his name. Up a block and a half, across the street.

Jude followed the voice and finally spotted Jeremy, leaning out a window over the laundromat, unmistakable with his unfashionably long curly hair and his even more unfashionable cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. When they were younger, Jeremy had looked up to Jude, and Jude had been the ultimate protector.

“You spent the night there?”

“Yup,” Jeremy said, grinning.

“Not with a chick.”

“Yes, with a chick.”

“Come off it Jeremy. Whose apartment is that?”

“I think, I think…her name is Rita.”

“Yeah, right. Where is this chick?”

“At work. Not far from here. She’s a meter maid.”

“Whatever.”

“No really. This is like, her beat, I think they call it. Hey, I think your car got towed away, man.”

“Dude! What?”

“Yeah, yeah. She wrote a ticket, put it on your windshield. Hey did you know they tow cars here?” He tapped the ashes off his cigarette. Jude ducked as they fell and made a tiny, dark shallow hole in the snow below. His brother’s head retreated from the window and in a moment he was downstairs, in a parka like his, only blue. Jeremy’s eyes were like his, brown, but like their mother’s, flecked with green. Jeremy was exactly half his mother’s age when she died. We’d better hurry up; we don’t have much time to grow up.

“You slept with a meter maid?”

“Let’s go get a coffee.”

Jeremy was obviously enjoying himself, maybe more than he had enjoyed himself the night before. Jeremy never put much effort into anything; Jude couldn’t see how a guy like that could even enjoy being with a woman that much.

“Isn’t a meter maid a kind of cop? What would a cop be doing with a bad boy like you?” Jude glanced at his brother as they began to walk through the snowy streets. I haven’t shaven in a couple of days, but he’s going on day six, I bet.

They came to the corner diner.

“It’s kind of pretty, the snow,” Jeremy said. He paused at the door and turned and waved his hands around. “It’s so magical.”

Jude mumbled “whatever” again and left his brother to his gesticulations outside. He ordered coffee, sat at a table at the front and watched Jeremy through the window. He wondered how much the ticket and the towing would cost. He tried to remember a woman called Rita from the party, but could not remember anything at all. Then, in a flash, he remembered leaving, stumbling a bit as he came down a staircase, and being outside the laundromat.

His brother had never left the party.

“Abracadabra!” Jeremy was shouting, his voice only half-muffled by the thick paned window. With his cigarette still in his mouth, he began drawing letters in the snow piled on the side windows of a parked car.

“Fucker?” Jude read aloud, but then, just as he recognized the stylish curve of the window frames, made out, “sucker”. He laughed, and pounded on the window. He might leave his car there forever; it wasn’t worth the bother.

——-

Anita Anand lives in Montreal, Canada.  Her stories and essays have appeared in Frostwriting.com, the Louisiana Review and  the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Read more stories by Anita Anand

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