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Today's Story by Guilie Castillo Oriard

“You believe it? That a woman — a, a ghost — actually appears in the back seat of your car?”

Mischievous Moonlight

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.

—–

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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The thing about the Porter murders, pharmacy for me, ailment wasn’t so much the brutality as the emotion. Tony Porter drove an ax head six inches into his father’s face from the right side of the bed. He got Mrs. Porter in the back of her head with the blunt side, advice and that sent her down the stairs. He buried the ax in her back once before going back upstairs for his dad. He took him apart piece by piece.

You understand this kind of thing, sort of, even if you don’t want to. Even if out loud you always say I can’t believe it, or It doesn’t make sense. You wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it. But part of that horror, that shock when you first hear – it’s just the opposite of disbelief. That’s your understanding, I think. That’s you getting it.

I mean the concept generally, I don’t mean there was anything about Tony that should’ve clued us in. He was never all that weird growing up. He never tortured squirrels or dogs, at least not that he showed me. If he wanted to impress me he talked about high school, when I was in middle school, or bragged about college, after I got to high school. I didn’t hang out with him much, so I can’t say for sure. All I mean is that he didn’t seem like it.

I do mean more the father when I say you sort of understand. I think that’s fair to say. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but, as I see it, there’s a way you can see that happening, psychologically. The mother I understand less, but then, Tony went after her less. I don’t even know if he meant to kill her. She never died.

When Mrs. Porter woke up in the hospital and the cops told her Tony put an ax in her back and chopped up Mr. Porter, she didn’t believe them. She didn’t believe that it was Tony. That’s the emotion that I was referring to, the fact that this whole crime drama was contained within one family. If you brought into court the murderer, the victim’s body, and the only witness – the only real witness, the only one who saw the actual killing – they’d all be part of the same family. The same nuclear family, even. And for all the peripheral damage, the cousins, grandparents, friends, bridge partners and book club members, at the end of the day it was just one family’s business. At the trial even even the judge will look out of place.

That’s the awful thing about everyone criticizing Mrs. Porter for her denial. Half are these bridge partners I was talking about. They keep saying she might have brain damage from the blunt-side blow to the back of the head. I say it’s her business. If her testimony is that it wasn’t Tony, then maybe it wasn’t. He may have killed her husband, but he is her son. It’s even possible her mind just can’t even handle it. I mean that less in the derogatory way that the book clubbers say it than I mean it in a more sincere way. You can understand that, even more than you can understand Tony. I can understand it.

I can understand it more than this obsession everyone else has. I think it’s the emotion, the drama, like I said. But all that emotion makes me want to leave the Porter family alone. For everyone else on the block it just makes them more involved. For instance, everyone wanted to know exactly what time at night it happened. And I really think they did it to tie it back to their own experience. 2:33 AM? I was asleep only two houses away. Or, I was awake and in the bathroom. At exactly the same time in exactly the same town as that. As Mr. Porter’s face disappearing under the ax and his wife waking up –

They don’t say that, I don’t mean that. I mean that they think it. I don’t understand it at all. Or maybe a little, but not much. It makes me kind of sick, really, physically sick, sometimes, when people get into it. And always with their guard up just a little, with disclaimers, horrified expressions. I can’t believe it, they say, It doesn’t make sense.

The other thing everyone wanted to know was when his truck was parked in front of the house, so they could close their eyes and say Yes, that yes they believed they remembered seeing it or No, visibly a bit disappointed, that they were asleep so they must not have seen it. The truck is famous all over the Capitol region now. An awful lime-green pickup. They found it on the highway shoulder need an Adirondack trailhead, a bit further upstate from here, with the ax in the bed and a bloody mark on the driver’s side from where he leaned against it, that night, panting and crying softly.

They headed up the trail with an army of cops but he was only a hundred yards up the trail, sitting Indian style. The first thing he said was I didn’t do it. Then he said I want my lawyer. When they handcuffed him he said I’m sick.

That’s another reason to give more slack to Mrs. Porter. There’s little or no chance that Tony won’t get convicted. They have him, his truck, the ax. They don’t need witnesses. And eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. I wouldn’t be surprised if one actually could hurt the case.

The whole trial is like the murder. As far as public interest, I mean. I expect the trial to be worse, actually. It’s more socially acceptable to rubberneck the justice system than to ogle crimes. The coverage has already started with the grand jury proceedings. They get footage of Tony walking in and out of courthouses, hiding his face as best he can, trying to bury it in his shoulder or chest with his hands still cuffed behind his back. Trying to hide from everyone who’s putting their nose into this. He’s still limping a little from where he fell on the pavement outside his house.

He twisted his ankle badly when he did that, and got up and leaned against the driver’s side of his lime-green truck. He was panting hard and crying a bit. He was soaked in blood, which must have been propelled out of his father with every blow. He fumbled with the door handle with his left hand, never taking his eyes off me, before he got in and drove away. It seems strange now that I can’t remember if I said anything to him. I hope that I didn’t.

—–

Stephen Mannion lives and writes in Boise, Idaho. He grew up in Upstate New York and graduated from Boston College. His work has appeared in Quintessential ‘Zine, Rabble, and Stylus.

—–

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A watchful moon hung low over the steeple, pills bathing the Idaho Falls LDS temple in silver light and thin shadows. Keane checked the carabiner at his waist, cialis tightened the straps that circled his waist and thighs, treatment and made sure they were placed properly. Even if he plummeted to the roof of the first level beneath him, he probably wouldn’t break anything but his pride, but a slip of the strap and he might end up facing his future sex life at half-power.

“Where the hell are you?” Lupe stage-whispered from the front of the building. They were maybe thirty feet apart, but in eastern Idaho, messing with an LDS temple wasn’t recommended, even for harmless fun like getting your climbing gear and hoisting your way to the top. Neither one was positive they were breaking a law—it seemed unlikely the City Council had ever gotten together to discuss the legal consequences of free-climbing a building— but they had their suspicions. Even if it wasn’t necessarily forbidden, it surely wasn’t encouraged.

“I’m right below you, checking out your ass,” Keane whispered back, feeling around for a handhold. Sweat beaded in his climbing shoes, making the knobs of his toes slick. Why couldn’t this all be brick, he wondered as his fingers explored a sliver of a ledge. Chalk dust puffed around his grip.

“Good. You can break my fall when I slip and pitch off this mother,” she said, a little louder. Her voice seemed to be at the same level he was, about twenty-five feet up the central tower. “Got a route?”

“Sort of.” Keane looked around quickly and placed his right foot against a cornice for better traction. “Give me a minute.”

The temple was low-traffic this time of night, but not isolated by any means. Keane looked over his shoulder, out across the front grounds, and thought it was a good thing Idaho Falls didn’t feel the need to light up the night from all sides like Boise.

“Got one, too.” The only sign of her movement was the soft scrape of canvas and rubber against stone. Cool night air brushed against Keane, drying the sweat on his back. He braced his left foot against a barely visible seam and pushed, left hand scrabbling for the square edge he knew was just above him.

His fingers brushed against a flat surface, clamped down. Right hand, Keane thought, left foot, right. Dr. Seuss explains climbing. Lupe was sitting on the ledge, checking out the city from a couple of stories up, when he heaved his wiry body over the top, swinging his leg and pivoting almost before his chest touched the roof. A long black ponytail swung behind her.

“I gave up a movie date for this, Keane,” she said. “Could have had Friday night at the multiplex.”

“The date was with me anyway,” he said. The main spire rose above them, several stories of hewn rock and bird shit topped with a gold-colored statue of the angel Moroni, the most unfortunately named angel Keane could think of. There were four ledges to reach yet, but only two serious climbs; they could almost jump and pull themselves up the two after the next one.

“There is that,” Lupe agreed. Keane knew she was putting him on, trying to be coy about the whole deal. Climbing the temple had thrilled her the moment he suggested it; he would have just done it by himself if he wasn’t sure she’d go for it.

Stop for dinner afterward and it’s a real date, Keane thought.

“Mormons build these things tough,” Lupe said, running her hand along the building’s face. There weren’t many cracks or seams where a blade might fit, just enough to make going on possible. “Should have brought a hammer.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Keane said, pushing her shoulder a little. Her skin felt warm to the touch, not clammy like his. “Don’t you sweat?”

“Only when I exert myself.” Lupe placed her feet, leaned up against the stone looking for a fingerhold. She looked over her shoulder at him.

“I’m going.” He looked at her, lean muscle and curves stretched along the wall, and realized he was going to have difficulty staying flat against the wall for a minute or two.

“Enjoy the show.” Her fingers, chalked and scraped rough, wedged themselves into a purchase Keane couldn’t see from where he stood. She pulled herself up and began scaling the wall again.

As they got closer to the top, the stone became harder to climb. Less cracks, more uniform, even fewer places to grab hold. Keane wondered if he’d brought enough chalk. He had more experience as a climber than Lupe; he’d started scaling the rock walls in Ross Park in Pocatello when he was in grade school. Keane knew he was good, but Lupe was a natural. She had climber’s hands: small but strong, and able to cram her fist into a crevice and hang by it until she found a way to go on. Very cool.

The last two ledges were so close to each other they could chin themselves up, and just after 11:00, they pulled themselves up over the last stone edge and stood atop the temple, the wind picking up a chill as the desert’s heat finally began to wane. Moroni’s gilded likeness was planted in a copper dome that topped the temple like a wart on the tower’s magnificence. The dome was surprisingly smooth where it wasn’t spattered with bird droppings, and a cramped walkway ran the length of the dome’s circumference, leaving plenty of ledge to sit on and enjoy the view.

“Looks like a real city up from up here,” Lupe said quietly. Around them, in a sodium-vapor grid of streetlights and neon, Idaho Falls stretched outward in all directions, blocks of patchy darkness blending into blazes of light. Keane thought of places he’d read about and dreamed about seeing, and how they might look like what he saw now. He never expected to see it here, in the city he’d grown up in, thinking of it only as a village with better roads.

Looking out over the blocks and trees of Idaho Falls, it didn’t seem so small anymore to Keane. For the first time he could recall, maybe the first in his life, it seemed like a place someone might not mind thinking of as home.

“Thanks for coming with me,” Keane said. Honesty surprised him; he’d intended something witty and charming to come tumbling out. “I’m glad I didn’t see this alone.”

“Me too,” Lupe said. She leaned over suddenly and kissed him, soft and sure, right on the lips. Keane thought it lasted for minutes, possibly days; maybe the moon rose and set, turned phase and came back, all in a kiss. It wasn’t their first kiss, but in a good way, it seemed like it.

After a short time, Keane realized he was staring out over the temple’s parking lot, and there was a car in it. Two, actually. Both were police cars, and as Keane and Lupe watched, doors opened, and uniformed people stepped out and began walking toward the temple. From what they could see, all eyes were on them.

“Somebody reported us,” Keane said, surprised he felt surprised.

“Slow Friday night, I guess,” Lupe said. She laughed. “We live in a sad city, Keane.”

Keane nodded. He shifted his weight and checked his harness, ready to begin his descent. “Shall we go meet the Man? We’re not going to get too far dressed like this, and if we don’t get going, they’ll start yelling and calling the fire department to get us, wake up everybody.”

Lupe nodded, her eyes flashing. “We’ve already missed the late show.”

Together, they slipped off the ledge and began lowering themselves down the side, Keane wishing he’d thought to place some ropes so they could rappelle down to their arrest in style. They came down slowly and carefully, but Keane knew they were flying, skipping across a floor perpendicular to gravity, dancing to a moonlight sonata the people below couldn’t hear.

—–

Brandon Nolta is a freelance writer and editor who has been published in New Myths, Strong Verse and a handful of other publications, including upcoming issues of Digital Science Fiction, The Edge of Propinquity and Every Day Fiction. Thanks for your time.

—–

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Meet Frank Bowen. He is in his mid 40s, thumb smells like cheap coffee, and comes in every Tuesday. For the next twenty minutes, he will scour the biography section for new books on Alexander Hamilton. If he finds any, he will take them out – all of them. None will ever return.

Frank is, you must understand, something of an ideologue – a genuine Aaron Burr fanatic. I know for a fact all of his lost books have become plant fertilizer. I would protest this, but Frank always pays his late fees. He could certainly do worse.

“I couldn’t find anything on that traitor.” It’s Frank. He’s at the circulation desk.

“Sorry Mr. Bowen, none this week.”

“Maybe the world has finally forgotten him…?”

I nod without agreeing. Frank waddles over to the new releases just in case.

All in all, I consider Frank’s obsession a healthy psychosis. It’s not much likely that Hamilton will disappear from history anytime soon, and it’s a nice, clean madness – nothing violent, nothing too expensive. Either way, Frank will be back next week. I intend to make sure he finds what he’s looking for.

Now, you might think that that I’m something of a therapist. Untrue. I am a businessman and Frank is, frankly, good business. You see, I buy up books on Alexander Hamilton – used titles, international versions, Spanish language editions. I get em on the shelf and at a discount. Sometime later, Frank inevitably swipes them. Six weeks later I charge him the full cost of a shiny new hardcover. Even better, I set this money aside in a special replacement treasury – a sort of joke – and use it to buy more popular titles. At the end of the day, Frank funds about 10% of my materials budget. Alexander Hamilton would be proud.

To the uninitiated, this might sound like a sophisticated con game, but consider for a moment the life of a modern librarian: slim budgets, endless meetings, revolving door staff. It is not my job to babysit lunatics with low morals.

If I’m going to have to face the Franks of the world then I’m going to do so on favorable terms. Otherwise I can’t justify the time. As a librarian, you might think I have plenty of that to spare. Highly untrue. Allow me to elaborate.

Next week is the first of the month. That means I’ll be meeting with my board of trustees – a cadre of twelve geriatrics with a keen interest in middle-management. To my great surprise, they all know how to run a library perfectly. Their only difficulty is in adequately imparting their collective nine centuries of knowledge to me in such a way that I can paint the children’s room, fix the boiler, and pay our electrical bill on a two figure budget.

Assuming I survive that, I’ve got a friends group run by the local Martha Stewart. Apparently she has ideas for fun pumpkin decorations that I might put up throughout the library. The cost is trivial, but this year’s bake sale only managed to bring in $200 rather eclipsing the cost of exotic fresh coriander and rustic truffle oil. As you can expect, my expectations are low.

Later, I will meet with the finance committee – four board members, three centuries collective knowledge – and the board policy committee – three members, four centuries collective knowledge. In the following days and weeks I will meet or visit the Wabash County Library Collective, the Wabash Regional Resource Council, the Wabash Valley Library System, the Wabash Library System Resource Sharing Committee, the Stokesville Village Council, the Stokesville Historical Society Digitalization Initiative, the Wabash Valley Literacy Club, the Elks Book Club, the Teen-Terror Book Club, the Stokesville Spanish Language Liaison and finally the ever-irate knitting club president. This precludes the non-official meetings: two appointments with my eternally off-kilter tech support consultant (2 centuries collective knowledge), a daylong engagement with the loopy brain-dead plumber (5 days of collective knowledge), and finally my mandatory meeting with the accountant (20 years professional experience). Sometime later, I might get a chance to update the website, buy new books, or assist my patrons with their assorted electronic gewgaws. Unfortunately, I won’t have much time for anything else.

In my absence, the Franks of the world will cause new and elaborate problems. That, of course, is all anyone really wants to hear about. These are the stories of a local library.

“How much of my taxes go to paying for those kiddie cartoon books?” When not rummaging through history in search of federalist traitors, Frank Bowen spends his time counting pennies.

“They’re called Manga. The teenagers find them quite popular.”

Frank grunts. “What’s the cost?”

“A few dollars a book. We get most of them used.”

“And a few thousand books. That’s quite a bit of money, Teach.” Frank insists on using a title I’ve never earned.

“Only thirty. The cost per checkout is something around two cents at this point. Non-fiction is really where the money gets eaten…”

“Those kiddie books really gotta go. We need more proper books.”

“To be frank, Frank (I do this frequently), the Manga have been quite successful. The next most viewed section is actually romance. If I was going to drop something, it’d probably have to be the biographies. They’re $30 a book and almost no one reads them.” These are targeted words. Frank knows what he steals.

“That’s absurd. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Frank is a defensive man.

“Always a good question, friend, but I’ve got a guy who looks in from time to time. He’s been pleased so far.” Appeal to omniscient male supervision – always a great success.

After a few more minutes of banter, Frank backs off. He eventually backs right out of the library presumably to burn Alexander Hamilton in effigy. Either way, I’ve successfully survived another encounter with the Piggy Frank of Stokesville. Today is practically a holiday.

Enter Jonathan Pryce Boijaeed: Executive Director of the Wabash Valley Library System. I see him once a month at the Director’s Association where all the local librarians get together to politely discuss their futile job prospects, substandard pay, and absurd reliance on outdated technology. First among equals at this meeting is Mr. Boijaeed, a ridiculous Canadian maniac, the sort of imbecile who says things like social networking, consensus building activity, and wires and tires without flinching. He’s a man who believes in the first amendment well beyond fire in a crowded theatre, has supported every social movement since Hoover, and thoroughly agrees that a one room library open three hours a week should have an actively maintained Flickr account. Worse of all – we’re almost friends.

We aren’t really friends, of course, but the library world is a demographic nightmare. Half of us are ancient and the other half are senile by choice. The few of us that cling to youth are driven equally by our love of public service as by our inability find work elsewhere. We are the discarded remnants of an expensive liberal arts education merged with impoverished rural tradition. Johnny Boijaeed is our messiah. I am his appointed disciple.

As a leader, Johnny walks, talks, and emails our state senators. The man was once on a podium with the director of the largest library in north-central Saskatchewan. If he wasn’t so intent on upgrading our ‘social quotient’ and ‘value-added metric analysis’, I’d almost call him a good man. Instead, he’s here at my library trying to convince me to support a new initiative he calls ‘libraries at home’. Turns out he’s found some sort of free service that will allow people to text me research questions from anywhere in the world. When I insist that 90% of these text messages will technically constitute phone sex, he assures me that the service was rolled out to great fanfare by no less than three top library marketing consultants in rural North American test regions.

“I’d like you to be the first in our system.”

“Why me?”

“You’re young, technically savvy, good with staffing and budgets.” John smiles with his white wicker teeth. “You’re a good librarian, a good manager, and a system leader.” Such a flirt, our System Director.

“I don’t know, John. Our library already offers reference assistance and almost no one uses it. Our patrons want free books, a place to meet, and occasional classes. I’ve yet to find a strong research vibe from this community.”

“That’s because it’s too hard to use. Libraries at Home will push the library paradigm beyond the town and into the living room. It’s social logistics, tradition-free-marketing, viral servicing…”

I smile politely. John has got so many buzzwords he’s started making up his own – and they almost sound good. Still, this project sucks – that’s my buzzword.

“I’m potentially enthusiastic. Problem is, my board is a stickler for policy. They’ll want to review it before I can agree to anything.”

John nods. He understands that a good manager follows procedure. He assures me that he’ll make himself available to answer any questions the board might have. I thank him for all his assistance and we part ways full of goodwill and professional respect. Neither of us realize just how far I’m willing to go to get this batty Canuck shipped out of state. I wave as he leaves the library hopefully to never return. That ends my weekly interaction with Mr. Boijaeed.

Whack! The desk cracks under the weight of a steel-lined cane. Mildred Kay has now arrived.

Sadly, the Executive Director has just left. Had he been here he probably would have challenged her to a youtube inspired dance off or some sort of Reddit article condemnation. Instead, I’m left alone with the Mildy-Witch.

I should be more complimentary but the simple reality is that Ms. Kay wants me fired and has for some time. She first wanted me fired when the board foisted retirement on my 97-year-old predecessor. Then she wanted me fired after I replaced the community spice-rack with a shelf of Blue-Ray DVDs. She especially wanted me fired after I discontinued our third knitting club in favor of a teen study program. I’ve done nothing to repair my reputation since.

“Where are my books?” Ms. Kay demands in a shrill, toothless cackle.

“Let me pull up your record. Do you have your library card?”

Ms. Kay glowers. The previous librarian never requested her card. I don’t need it myself – I could grab her record by name, which I know, or by her patron number, which I’ve memorized. Even though I could, I don’t. It might make Ms. Kay go about her life a little bit faster, but I take petty joy in forcing this half-rabid crone to follow the rules.

Reluctantly, perhaps angrily, Ms. Kay offers me her library card. I swipe it across the barcode scanner. This piece of technology is new. Ms. Kay regards it distrustfully. She has mentioned before that it likely causes cancer. Almost definitely not, but Ms. Kay already had cancer and beat it thrice. I told her she didn’t have much to worry about. The thought that I might get cancer was never her concern.

Ms. Kay’s record comes up. Two overdue books. No requests on file.

“There don’t appear to be any holds under your name. Have you requested any titles recently?”

Ms. Kay smiles with glee. “I called your desk last week and you apparently did nothing. I intend to inform the board.”

I shrug. “Which books did you request?”

Ms. Kay glares stiffly. “I want Don Quixote and The Great Gatsby.”

I think for a moment. “There aren’t any holds because there’s no reason to request those books from other libraries. We have plenty of copies right here.”

“How should I have known that? Maybe you should…”

I might have said that she has taken these same two books out four times a year for the last thirty years. Instead I point to the nearest display. There stand two pristine titles: Don Quixote and The Great Gatsby. It was something of a guess, but I rather figured Ms. Kay might come in this week. I took the time, more than I should have, to make sure that these titles were available.

Instead of thanking me, Ms. Kay snarls. For a time we are locked in the barest pleasantries of spiteful interaction. Finally she grabs the books – or attempts to. I’ve placed them just a little bit out of her reach. With a gentle smile, I grab the books, scan them through my cancer scanner, and hand them to her. “There you go, Ms…”

“Ms. Kay.”

“Right. Due in six weeks. Have a good day.” That ends my interaction. I turn away and bustle about with something technical looking. Ms. Kay glowers in her witchy, stupid way. Finally, she hobbles out – not to be seen for another month. Relief, at last.

Or maybe not? Here comes a young woman pulling her baby in a half-opened suitcase. I’ve never seen her before.

I’m always somewhat startled when I meet a new patron. I’ve been here long enough to have memorized most of the regulars, the eccentric ones anyways. With my luck, Johnny Boijaeed sent her to me personally, or Frank hired a plant to request books for him, or she’s Mildred’s caretaker here for advice. More than likely, she’s just a reasonable, courteous, and pleasant local, albeit strange. I’ll know soon enough, and when I do I’ll help her as best as I can…though I might snicker a bit as she leaves.

—–

Robert Drake Robert Drake lives in New Paltz, New York and spends as much time hiking as possible.

—–

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“And people really believe it?”

He grinned at the unmistakable derision in my voice. “It’s a true story, discount Ellie.”

“You believe it? That a woman — a, no rx a ghost — actually appears in the back seat of your car?” I tilted my head towards the back of the Explorer.

Randolph couldn’t be serious.

“It’s true.”

“Has it happened to you?”

He kept his eyes on the road. “It’s happened to people I know.”

“But it’s never happened to you.”

“Doesn’t happen always.” His hand flitted behind the steering wheel, find and I heard the rhythmic tap-tap of the turn signal. “Only sometimes. People think they’re chosen. A test of sorts.”

He took the turn faster than I would have, but he was a good driver and I trusted him with my car. Randolph was a good guy, somewhat on the surly side, but I thought I felt the beating of a sincere heart when my head rested on his chest. He was educated and emotionally mature. If he believed in ghosts, though, maybe I’d have to reassess my opinion.

“Seriously, Randolph. I’ve heard something similar everywhere I’ve lived. In Mexico City, on the highway between the City and Cuernavaca, there’s a stretch where everyone drives past while murmuring a rosary, because it’s said if you don’t, a beautiful woman will appear on the next turn and, if you don’t stop for her, she’ll make you crash. In Cancun there’s the aluxes, a kind of… what are the Irish dwarves called?”

“Leprechauns.”

“Those. People actually build little houses for them so that they have a home and stay out of mischief. And in Europe there’s —“

“I’ve heard.”

“They’re just legends. Myths.”

“Which is it, legend or myth? They’re not the same.”

“I know,” I said impatiently. Sometimes Randolph knew exactly how to get under my skin.

“Legends have some truth to them, but myths are based on pure fantasy.”

“I know.”

I stared out at the dark landscape outside the reach of the Explorer’s headlights. Curaçao’s landscape hadn’t ceased to surprise me in the few months I’d been here. In daylight barren fields of cacti and craggy cliffs of eroded rock were unexpectedly interrupted by mirage-like expanses of ocean of impossible blue. It wasn’t what I’d had in mind when I accepted six months on an island that no one knows or can spell. “Curaçao”… I thought it was Brazil, but it’s on the coast of Venezuela, in between Bonaire (which even less people know) and Aruba.

When Management requested volunteers to train employees at the latest addition in the Royal Paradise resort chain, I didn’t hesitate. Visions of tropical Hawaii-esque lush landscapes filled my mind, the sound of pristine waterfalls rushing into quiet ponds rocking me to sleep in the two weeks I had to prepare for the trip. I left my roommate in charge of the cats and the little stray dog I’d been feeding for the past month, told her to rent my room if she could find someone who needed a place, but only till January when I’d be back. My friends threw me an enthusiastic farewell party that seemed rather pointless; I’d be gone only for six months. There were no tears and every goodbye felt like a ‘see you later’.

“You won’t be back.” Keelan, my closest friend, sat moping in a corner of the bar as the bulk of the crowd left that night. Her eyes had faint purple shadows under them that got worse when asthma struck.

I put an arm around her, my elbow knocking her almost empty glass. “Of course I’ll be back. Just six months. It’s not permanent.”

“Don’t go, Ellie. Everything will change.”

“Nothing’s gonna change, silly.”

“We’re here,” Randolph’s voice broke the silence, and I felt the car’s suspension rock softly as he slowed down over the gullies the recent rains had carved into the dirt.

There was a moon, but the landscape was only dark and menacing silhouettes until we came to a full stop and Randolph turned the engine off. His door clicked and thumped, and I was alone in the car. Without the headlights, the mondi of spiny bushes and saguaro came into focus in the silvery light, the red earth glazed where puddles lingered. The air smelled thick and green from the recent rain, and it vibrated with millions of the tiny tree frogs that somehow managed to survive in this parched land.

The flute-like cadence of the frogs was the only sound, and the moon was the only light, for miles around. This side of the island, the northwestern-most point that everyone calls Westpunt, is practically uninhabited. I walked away from the car, lighting a cigarette with a practiced hand protecting the flame; these islands were not called ‘windward’ without good reason. I inhaled, smoke welding with the textured scent of moist vegetation into my lungs. I felt alone in the world, like there had never been another human being on the planet and there never would be, and that was the way it should be.

“Too bad there’s a moon.” Randolph spoke from close by. I turned to the sound, but found only empty moonlit air.

“Where are you?”

“Here.” His voice was low, only just above a whisper. I turned in a circle, looking for him in the empty landscape.

“I… can’t see you.” I half laughed. The moon must be playing tricks.

“Here,” he repeated, and I saw his silver silhouette about ten meters away, sauntering towards me.

“You sounded much closer.”

“I was always here.”

I made out his eyes in the darkness, fixed on me. He wasn’t very tall, but he was taller than me, and here in the mischievous moonlight, he seemed taller. I felt a momentary and unreasonable pang of fear, then his arms found me and pulled me to him.

He kissed me hungrily, like he always did, stealing every breath before it was inhaled, and I thought of Keelan. Was this what it felt like, asthma? When I was getting faint, when the fire of his lips scorched even the desperate lack of oxygen away, he let me go with the abruptness I couldn’t get used to. I filled my lungs thirstily, not knowing if it was with relief or with something else.

“Too bad there’s a moon,” he repeated. His voice was steady, low and clipped like it always was. No trace of the passion of his lips.

“Why?”

“No stars.”

I gazed up at the sky.

“There’s a circle around the moon!” I pointed. A halo of iridescent blue surrounded the oblique disk of snow suspended in the night.

“It’s the humidity.”

I was disappointed with this venal explanation. The halo was a magnifying glass in the sky, through which the moon seemed brighter, closer, and in this setting of almost unnatural stillness, it seemed magical, somewhat unholy and, perhaps because of that, compelling.

“That’s when she comes,” he said.

“Who? God, that again? It’s a legend. Or a myth. It’s not real.” But he ignored me.

“Normally,” Randolph headed towards the car, “on a dark night the sky is swollen with stars here. Every few minutes there’s a falling star.”

“We’ll come back in a few weeks, when there’s no moon.”

He glanced sharply back at me. Speaking of the future, even just a few weeks, was taboo. I’d been firm from the start: I was leaving in January, last thing I needed was another emotional tie complicating things here. His eyes flitted over my face for a moment, but he wasn’t one to claim victories of pyrrhic value.

He retrieved the small cooler of beer from the Explorer, and we lay on the hood, our backs propped up against the windshield, drinking and not talking much. I liked Randolph for this, his quietness. When he was in the mood he took what he wanted with an ardor that was beyond me to satisfy, but at times like now, alone and in the middle of nowhere, I’d learned to expect nothing more than an intense kiss or two. That was just fine with me.

The moon was halfway to the end of its nightly journey when we drove back to the highway. Randolph was quiet; usually it was me that kept the conversation running, but tonight I was content to watch the night racing by in fragments as the Explorer gained speed. The roads weren’t smooth, but the heavy-duty suspension made the potholes insignificant, and my lids relaxed at half-mast, barely registering the dark shapes beyond the wind blasting through the open window.

“Stop. Did you see that?” I was suddenly wide awake.

“What?” Randolph’s foot eased off the accelerator.

“There was someone back there. Stop!”

“Where?” He poked at the dashboard and the hazard lights clicked softly in the silence. Gravel crunched as he pulled to a stop on a wide swath of off-road land.

“Back there. It was — it looked like — a girl.” Randolph whipped his head around to the back of the car. “You won’t see her, we were going too fast. Maybe she needs help, Randolph. Let’s drive back.”

His eyes met mine and there was something liquid, something that pulsed, there. “It was her.”

“Who?”

He didn’t reply, but he shifted back into Drive and the car moved forward.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. You think it was the—the ghost? Randolph, it was a girl. A real one. She wouldn’t be out here in the middle of nowhere, not at this hour, if everything was all right. We need to drive back and see if she needs help.”

“No.”

“You’re being irrational.” I twisted in my seat, straining the seat belt, to face his profile. He guided the car back to the road and allowed it to pick up speed in the opposite direction from where I’d seen — I was sure I’d seen — the girl in the white… What had it been? A dress?

“We’re going home.”

“Randolph! She could be hurt. Maybe someone brought her out here and raped her, or tried to. We have to go back.” I put a hand on his arm, a part of my brain marveling again at how smooth his black skin was, how my lighter shade glowed against it. Something thick and heavy stirred in me; how do our naked bodies look together? “Please. Go back for her.”

He took his eyes off the road and looked at me for a long time.

“Fine,” he said, barely a grunt, and the car swerved into a totally illegal U-turn in the middle of the highway. I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Thank you,” I squeezed his shoulder and leaned over the front seat’s armrest to kiss his cheek.

“Turn on the high beams.” I was scanning the left side of the road trying to identify where I’d seen the girl, but everything looked the same in the darkness.

After maybe ten minutes, Randolph made another, slower, U-turn and we headed back. He kept the high beams on; we hadn’t seen a single car for hours. I kept my eyes on the side of the road.

“There! There, I saw something.”

He stepped on the brakes so hard my seatbelt cut into the skin of my neck. I snapped the clasp and swung open the door.

“No, Ellie.” Randolph held me back, and there was real fear in the dark pool of his eyes. But I shook his hand off and jumped out. I walked back, the Explorer’s brake lights shining on the concrete pavement with a hellish, but helpful, glow.

“Get back in the car,” he was beside me in no time with his long strides.

“Wait. Look, there.” I pointed to the ground about fifteen meters behind the car. There, in the brush, something that looked like cloth was crumpled on the ground. “What is it?”

Randolph held me back with a fierce look, and moved forward without me. He crouched in front of whatever lay there, blocking my view.

“What is it?” I repeated. “Randolph?”

“Jesus,” he muttered.

“What? Show me.”

He got up, and I could see he held something in his hands. Even before he turned around, I knew what it was.

I’d seen it many times; it was one of his favorites, a brown T-shirt with the playful logo of a monkey that he wore at least three times a week, even though a careless launderer had ironed over the plastic ink and smudged a corner of the monkey’s mouth. I saw that smudge now, as he shook the rumpled T-shirt out at the side of a road at least fifteen kilometers away from the wardrobe where it belonged.

“You hear that?” He turned in the direction of the brush, of the darkness, but I heard nothing above the swishing wind.

“Randolph, I —“

“Sshh,” he held up a hand. “There! There it is again!” He bounded back to the Explorer and returned with a flashlight. Before I had a chance to speak, he disappeared into the mondi, and within seconds, even the flashlight’s glow was gone.

“Randolph?”

My voice sounded small in the darkness.

“Randolph, where are you?”

Silence.

“Shine the flashlight this way so I can see where you are.”

Nothing.

“Randolph!” But the budding hysteria in my voice was the only sound echoing in the sky.

And then I heard it. A soft sob, like an abandoned child whimpering.

“Hello? Randolph?” I moved towards the sound, but every time I thought I was getting close the wind shifted it away.

“Hello? Hello out there! Please help me find you!”

Randolph had taken the only flashlight, and, with the moon almost gone, the darkness was thick outside the beams of the car.

The beams of the car. I could drive into the mondi and search for him, for her, with that light. I ran to the driver’s door, hoping Randolph hadn’t taken the keys with him, and felt relief surge as my hands closed around the familiar furry teddy-bear key ring still in the ignition. I backed up until the headlights pointed at the place where Randolph had found his T-shirt — impossible it was his, but the smudged mouth of the monkey leered at me in a frozen frame I couldn’t forget — and drove the Explorer into the brush.

There was a trail of sorts there, where Randolph had been swallowed by the mondi, but it was overgrown, and the headlights picked out nothing but the vegetation in front of me. I retraced the path again and again, trying to find a better way in, but branches clung to the car and mud to the tires, and there was no way forward.

I was about to step out, see if on foot I could get farther, when I saw her. There, in the rearview mirror, brown eyes locked on mine, an edge of a white neckline visible in the corner. Before I could whip my head around to the backseat, before I could will my heart to beat again, she lifted a brown finger to her lips, a quiet admonition.

Turned to stone, my hands gripping the steering wheel as if without it I’d sink into the depths of insanity, I watched her lean closer to the back of my head. Her features were African; huge dark eyes that slanted upwards in the outer corners, high cheekbones and a wide nose, brilliant teeth the exact shade of the vanished moon, the lips around them full and swollen.

“E homber ta di mi awor,” she whispered, and the breath of her words caressed my skin like the gentlest breeze. The man is mine now. I closed my eyes in a shudder, whether at her words or at her very presence, I don’t know. “Laga e keda ku mi, dushi.”

~~~~~~~

The search for Randolph took days, then weeks. Three months after that night, when nothing had been found (except his brown T-shirt, tangled on a saguaro two miles from the spot where he’d left me behind), and when my short-lived and unwanted celebrity had faded in the light of more immediate news, the authorities gave up. No press announcements communicated this, but I heard from his family that no more searches were scheduled. We weren’t surprised; we’d given up a long time ago. The muhe, the woman, had claimed him; she’d said, ‘he’s mine now’. She wouldn’t let him go.

Randolph’s grandmother said he’d been lucky, we both had.

“He was choose, Ellie,” she’d say in her fractured English. “The muhe, she don’t normal ask nice. She take, just take. She ask you to leave him with her, she ask nice. Is good, that. No violent. Can be violent, the muhe.” She repeated this again and again as she sat rocking on the porch and fanned herself in the heat, until I half believed it.

January rolled around and I found excuses to stay. Another January, then another, and I found myself still here, still on the island, driving the Explorer at night through the mondi whenever I can find a path, keeping my eyes open for hares, or for a face in the rearview mirror.

—–

Guilie Castillo-Oriard is a thirty-eight-year-old Mexican writer currently exiled in Curacao. The events described here were inspired by reality. Cross-cultural encounters are a favorite subject of Guilie’s, and they inevitably find their way into her writing.

 

—–

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