The stroll

I walk, step by step.

My path, rule straight.

North to South

A mile each way.

 

The Sun already beats down

Warming the humid air

Filling every breath, every step.

With the promise of discomfort to come.

 

But still I walk,

My reward?

 

To know I can walk.

To know my body can do this.

(And a DVD I wish to watch)

(And a bottle of Gatorade, of course)

 

So I walk out.

Up the left, the West, side.

The sunny side.

Taking the warmth in.

 

And I walk back.

Again on the left, now East, side.

Finding the shade.

And thankful for the cool darkness.

 

Tomorrow, I will walk this path again.

(For the DVD has to go back)

But the path will not be the same.

The Sun will stand at a different spot.

 

The street will be the same.

The sidewalks too.

But the shade will have moved.

Carrying on its never-ending dance.

 

A kaleidoscope of change.

Play out on a constant background.

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Echoes of the past

“…and so, honored mother, I hope you will know that I keep you always in my thoughts and prayers. I hope I remain always in your heart and prayers as well. Your son, Julius Maximius Gabinius”

Claudia Upton looked up from reading the translation to scrutinize the man who had picking it from the mud-soaked, decaying original text. Paul Sanchez had a face that could have been lifted from a Roman mosaic. Dark hair over an unlined, olive-colored face with none of the Mesoamerican features that so often marked those of Hispanic background. Well, the Romans were in Spain and the Iberian for centuries. Perhaps he’s a genetic fluke, a reversion to an ancestral appearance. Those dark, almost black eyes watched her, and she sensed he was waiting for her comments on his translation.

“It’s an excellent translation, Mr. Sanchez. You clearly have a good grasp of Latin. Could I ask you where you studied?”

A smile began to appear on the otherwise impassive face before her. Then it vanished, replaced by the same mask-like appearance that Sanchez always wore when he was around her. “Oh, I studied at home. My father and mother both knew Latin, and they insisted I should be at least slightly fluent in it.”

Claudia knew a snow job when she was being subjected to one, but this wasn’t the time to confront Sanchez about his surprising fluency in a dead language. She was just glad to have someone who could make sense of the badly-decomposed messages Claudia had recovered from a German bog over a decade ago. “Well, you definitely surpassed their expectations. I can read Latin without translating in my head, and even I couldn’t make anything of my find.”

Paullus Lucius Decimus looked across the desk at the young scholar. Needing some extra cash, he’d seen the online ad looking for someone to translate Latin text and been glad for the chance to make money reading his native language. What had caught him off-guard was what he was translating: messages he had written himself over two thousand years ago. As one of the more literate members of his cohort, Paullus had often been asked to write letters home for others. He even remembered the messenger who had been charged with taking the letters home to Rome…and wasn’t surprised to find that they’d been thrown in a bog. Atticus Erucius had been a slippery little shit, more inclined to informing on his fellows than fighting in the ranks. Paullus had never figured out who’s ass he’d kissed to be assignment to carry mail to Rome, but if not for that bit of foresighted butt worship, he’d have been slaughtered like the rest of Legio XIX by the Germans.

Paullus still had nightmares of that time, and they’d gotten worse since he’d taken the translation job. Just the night before, he’d bolted awake from a dream of those dark, stinking bogs so vivid he could have sworn he smelled them in his small apartment. Just reflecting on that moment brought other memories forward, things that made remembering a bog filled with screaming, dying legionnaires seem pleasant.

Are you all right, Mr. Sanchez?”

She was watching him, staring as if she could see the images of death and suffering that hung in front of him. His father had been of the Stoic school, and had enforced his ideas of a proper, impassive visage on his son with a well-wielded switch. To know that he had let himself slip more than embarrassed Paullus, it angered him deeply.

Claudia, watching the man sitting across from her, saw the mask drop away. Sanchez’s face went from its natural darkness to a gray pallor like someone an inch from death. Lines that hadn’t been apparent before became pronounced, giving him the appearance of an ancient. Then, his color returned, but not with a healthy evenness. No, this was the blotchy flush of someone deeply embarrassed…or very angry. Oh, very angry indeed, but why? The eyes that had given away nothing of the inner man were now narrow, hard openings into another person, one that frightened Claudia. Then, like a man forcing a door to another side of his soul closed, Sanchez’s face resumed its calm appearance. Claudia wasn’t fooled by the change, she knew that Paul Sanchez was not someone she would want angry at her.

“I’m fine, Ms. Upton. If I might ask, where did you find the text I translated?”

“I pulled them out of a former bog in Germany. A hiker saw some corroded metal beside a trail and thought it might be part of a bomb intended for Hannover. The German Army EOD team that came to investigate recognized it was too old to be from WWII and contacted the local university. I was studying there at the time and ended up being part of the team that went out to study the find. Turned out to be part of a Roman helmet, and my clump of peat-soaked messages was found nearby.”

Maybe Sanchez sensed her unease, because his body relaxed visibly as he spoke. “So you found a helmet with your mail. Kind of odd to find a single piece of armor, isn’t it?”

“Oh no, we found the remnants of an entire suit of Roman armor…and the person who’d been wearing it too. My German colleagues thought he might have lost his way trying to find his way through the bog. However he came to be there, these messages give us an insight into what life was like for soldiers serving on Rome’s farthest frontier.”

“’And we will know them by the things they leave behind.’ Is that what you’re saying?”

Claudia didn’t recognize the quote, but it was quite apt. “Precisely. After all, until some mad physicist invents a time machine, that’s all we have. I mean it’s not like I can sit a legionnaire down and interview them, can I?” She started searching her desk, digging through the piles of papers and folder before finding what she was searching for. She pulled the battered folder out and extended it to Sanchez. “Now that you’ve shown you can make sense of one of my messages, I want you to tackle this. It’s the prize of my messages, the one I really want translated.”

Paullus took the thin folder of reproductions and flipped it open. He understood her not trusting a stranger with the originals, and he wasn’t sure how he’d react if he had the original documents in front of him. Would they carry the same stink of cold rot he remember so vividly from the bogs? So you weren’t the coward I imagined you were, Atticus? I’ll remember you in my prayers to Mars tonight, and hope the War God grants your spirit rest.

Aloud, he spoke in a different voice, in a language far removed from the plebeian Latin that was his mother tongue. “No, you can’t talk to a legionnaire, can you?” Then his voice caught in his throat. He recognized the scrawled Latin script before him, even if he’d only read it once before. It was the handwriting of Publius Quinctilius Varus, the political hack who’d sent so many of Paullus’ fellow legionnaires to their deaths. Willing his voice to be as calm as his as his face, Paullus continued. “It might take me a little longer than the first letter. I don’t know who wrote this, but their penmanship is terrible.”

“I know! But look at the next page…this is a letter home from Varus, the man who commanded the legions the Germans beat at Teutoburg. I was able to pick that much of it out, but with these eyes,” she gestures at the thick glasses that magnified to huge proportions, “that’s all I can make of it.” She smiled. “I’m willing to pay extra…call it ‘hazard pay’ for dealing with his terrible handwriting.”

Did Paullus want to read the inner thoughts of the man who’s incompetence led to the death of three whole legions, over 16,000 men? Paullus flipped to folder shut. He’d spent over two thousand years wishing Varus resided in the hottest fires in the Christian Hell, but he still needed money. “Well, as a poor, itinerant Latin scholar, I feel I should take you up on your offer of extra pay. Now, how much

extra are we talking about?”

Paullus enjoyed the dickering that followed. In a way, it was comforting that no matter the age, humans always sought the best deal. Now, alone in his rooms, he found himself hesitating. Almost every legionnaire had known Arminius was not to be trusted. The German auxiliaries that had stayed loyal tried to warn Varus of treachery, but neither he, nor any of the other commanders, had listened. What would Varus have to say? Had he been as clueless as Paullus always thought? There was no way to know but to begin reading. The desk he sat at, like every other item in his apartment, as someone else’s cast off. Some bored child had crudely carved “Billie, age 12, 1949” in the upper left corner, but it did the job. He toggled the switch on the magnifier, and its circular florescence bulb flickered to life, bringing the text beneath it into sharp relief. Paullus leaned over it, focusing on the first line and began to read.

“My Dear Wife…”

#

Paullus leaned back, stretched, and scrubbed his eyes. Immortality had saved him from death more times than he could remember, but it didn’t stop his body from aching after spending hours hunched over a piece of paper. Now, after twenty days struggling to understand what was written on those pages, he knew what Varus had meant to communicate. And what he had learned opened his eyes in ways nothing had before. He picked up his notes, the Latin script as neat now as it had been all those centuries before, and ran through Varus’ final message.

“My Dear Wife,

I write you because I know that if we ever see each other again, it will be in Elysium. I wish I could see you again, to hold you and our children one final time, but that is not to be. In my folly, I trusted Arminius, and he has betrayed that trust. I have learned that he intends to attack my legions, hoping he can rally enough warriors to his cause to overwhelm us. He has the advantage of knowing the land, and its people, while all I have is my confidence in the courage and training of my legionnaires. I know that I have no chance to prevailing, but if I were to run, what would become of me, of our family? So I will stay, and fight, to give what honor I can to you and our children.

Know that while I will die looking forward to our reunion, I hope that happy event is many years away. So live, my beloved wife, and keep my memory alive in our children’s hearts. I will not ask you to keep it alive in your heart, because I know it will never die there. Until we meet again, may Jupiter, Minerva and all the gods keep you always in their care.

Your husband,

Publius Quinctilius Varus”

It all made sense now. By dying rather than running, Varus saved his family from the humiliation of cowardice in the face of the enemy. But even knowing why he had done it did nothing to quell Paullus’ anger. No, it made that anger worse. No man’s honor was worth so many lives. But he had the letter copied, and once he’d translated it, he’d be paid…and getting paid was what it was all about. He glanced at the clock, and to his surprised, found it was 3AM.

“Sleep, I think, before translation. Tomorrow will be soon enough to finish. Now, to bed.”

#

Claudia ran her hand across her eyes, wiping tears she hadn’t expected away. Sanchez’s notes, his detailed interpretation of what different words might be, were as good as anything she had seen . What those guesses and interpretations put together was heartbreaking, and the implications of Varus’ letter rewrote one of the most shocking defeats in history. She looked across her desk and found Sanchez watching her. The bland mask was in full force today, not even his eyes revealed what passed through his mind.

“Do you accept my translation, Ms. Upton? I’ll admit some of it’s guesswork, but put together, it all makes sense. Don’t you agree?”

I do. It’s also quite a story, which is why I wonder if anyone will take your translation seriously.” Claudia saw the eyes narrow and held up her hand. “Believe me when I tell you I don’t doubt you’ve done an excellent job translating the letter. I’m just saying that historians are not immune from fearing change, and this letter changes the whole narrative of Teutoburg.” She saw the man’s tension lessen, then with a smile, caught her by surprise.

“Fear of change has always been mankind’s greatest enemy. Perhaps if Rome hadn’t been so focused on victory, if they’d been willing to accept a fighting retreat, Varus might have found a way to bring his troops home instead of leading them to the slaughter.” Sanchez shook his head. “But all humans hate change, don’t they? Well, if you’re satisfied with my work, there is the vulgar matter of my fee…”

Claudia suppressed a chuckle at the old movie reference and opened the central drawer on her desk. She didn’t understand why Sanchez always demanded payment in cash, but she was happy to pay for this sort of quality. She pulled out the fat envelope holding his fee and passed it to him. “As agreed, sir. I’d like to offer you something more to express my thanks for your work. Would you mind if I listed you as a co-author when I submit the paper I intend to write based on this? I’m sure it would bring you more work, if you need more money.”

Sanchez was folding the envelope, and stuffed it into the front pocket of his khakis before responding. “Thank you for your kind offer, but no. I’ve been thinking of doing some traveling, and now I’ve enough money to actually do it. Perhaps after I return…”

“Oh, it’ll take me a couple months just to write the paper, then several more before any journal can do their peer-review before publishing. It might be as much as a year before it hits the in-boxes of anyone who would want to hire you.”

“In that case, I hope you’ll remember my services on the off chance that one of your peers asks for your translation recommendations.” Sanchez gave her a slight bow, not unlike some of her Japanese colleagues sometime would. Then, almost as if he were catching himself in something he shouldn’t do, he straightened and held out his hand. She took it, finding the hand that closed around hers hard, the grip strong. It had nothing of most men’s handshake, that attempted to convey strength without being obvious. No, the fingers that enclosed hers could just as easily close around her throat, or snap her neck, and Sanchez made no effort to hide the fact.

“I’d be happy to recommend you to anyone who needs your services, sir, and I hope you enjoy your vacation.”

Sanchez left, and Claudia began going over his notes, taking in the details of his deductive process. Yes, he’s got an exceptionally detail-oriented mind. Maybe a mild case of ADHD? She picked up another laser-printed block to text, and found something unexpected beneath it. It was a page covered in handwritten notes…notes not in English, but in the so-called rustic Latin. They had none of the hesitation of a person trying to copy a style, no, this was the flowing script of someone who wrote in the language. She saw a letter, then another one, and knew she’d seen them before. That same shape, the way the bar was formed on the “f”, but where? It couldn’t be…. Claudia dug into her notes, found the copies of the first text she’d had Sanchez translate. She rooted in her desk, found the magnifying glass she used these days, and examined the copy. The “f” was the same, right down to that odd little flick on the end of the bar. She examined the rest of the copy, going back and forth between it and Sanchez’s notes, finding more and more similarities with each examination.

Claudia leaned back, letting herself smile even as a chill of pure terror ran through her body. “I guess I could have interviewed a legionnaire…if he didn’t decide to kill me afterwards to keep his secret.” She stared at the door to her office, wondering if Sanchez might have seen the legions march away from Rome to their doom. Did the echoes of that long ago tragedy explain some of what she’d seen?

And what of Sanchez? Would Claudia find his already gone if she went to the address he’d given? No, Sanchez, or whatever his real name was, had lived a long life. She had no doubt that the vacation he’d spoken of was some way to disappear. “Good luck to you, whomever you are. The world must be becoming a much more hostile place for a man like you.”

Further adventures with an occasional okatu

(Well, that was embarrassing! I posted this the other day, and didn’t realize until just now that I’d grabbed the ‘Alpha’ version, the one without included links for more information on these anime. Here’s the version I meant to post, and sorry about the goof.)

A while back, I wrote about anime and how I thought it could serve as a source of ideas and inspirations for writers. Today, I’m going to visit the subject again to do something I don’t usually do: offer some suggestions for folks who might want to explore the subject matter more.

First off, I don’t like giving recommendations. Why? Because like a painting or any other piece of art, what you see, and how you react to it, is often governed just as much by what you’re seeing as it is by your past. Humans see the world through the lens that is their lives, and the things we like or hate (or find useful versus wasteful) are often shaped by our life experiences. So while I might find an anime inspiring, or insightful, or even just plain fun, you might find it anything but. So fair warning: what follows is a sampling of different types and genre of anime that I’ve found interesting enough to view many times. How you react to them may be very different. So, with that fair warning, I’d like to offer three anime I think are worth watching. If folks express an interest, I might write more on the subject and offer other examples.

First up, in my original piece on anime, I mentioned the recent Netflix project “Violet Evergarden”, and it is still one I would whole-heartedly suggest you watch. It is a visually feast that tells a story worth thinking about: what happens to the child soldier when the war ends? There are a number of other anime that touch on this subject, but perhaps the one that does it best, and tells the darkest story, is “Gunslinger Girl”. ( more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunslinger_Girl) It was among the first Japanese animated series I ever watched, and it remains one I go back to from time to time. In it’s bleak future, the Italian government establishes the innocuously-named Social Welfare Agency as a means of caring for young girls who have suffered terrible injuries, or untreatable diseases. The truth is very different. Using cybernetic enhancements and brainwashing techniques, the girls are turned into assassins. Paired with an older male handler who everyone is told is their older brother, they are tasked with helping the government maintain order by any means necessary. The girls are conditioned to follow their handlers orders, to look on them as if they really were their older brother. But their conditioning doesn’t wipe out all the human emotions, or their response to the way they are treated. The handlers have different outlooks on their charges. Some regard them as partners, worthy of respect. Other see them as victims, innocents being sacrificed to keep the government in power. A few see them as nothing but tools, to be used as needed and given no more regard than any other piece of machinery. The story unfolds like a dark jewel, each episode showing a different facet of what is happening between the girls and their handlers.

My second offering deals with an even darker, grittier future, and it’s the one that turned me into an unofficial okatu, “Cowboy Bebop” (more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cowboy_Bebop). To call the future it portrays dystopian is an understatement. The Earth’s Moon has been shattered by an experiment in space travel gone wrong. But that disaster hasn’t kept the technology, the ‘hyper-gate’, from being used to move people about the solar system. Far from it. Humanity now lives on Mars and most of the other bodies where it can exist. But the future humanity lives in is one where government is little more than the tool of powerful corporations and criminal syndicates. Roaming between the different colonies are the crew of the spaceship “Bebop”. They are an odd collection: a retired cop, a former syndicate hit man, a woman with no past and a child genius hacker. They make a living by being bounty hunters, or “cowboys” in the current slang. If “Gunslinger Girl” asks what a government will do to stay in control, “Cowboy Bebop” asks what will happen if Libertarians get their way and government becomes effectively ineffective. Rest assured, the result is not pretty, even if there are occasional bursts of black humor to relieve the dark world.

My final offering is sort of a ‘guilty pleasure’ of mine. This one also deals with the idea that a corporation might become so powerful it can take over a government. It’s perhaps my favorite anime, “Sekirei” (again, more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sekirei). While there are dark moments, this anime tends more towards the comedy than deep thought. It’s an example of what’s known as “oppai” anime, “oppai” being Japanese slang for “boobs”. This anime revolves around a young man who,at that opening of the story, has just failed for the second time to get into college. As he’s going home from finding this out, a young woman literally falls out of the sky and lands on him. She has, as you can imagine, a well-developed chest, and she’s in trouble. Two women are chasing her, women who can manipulate electricity at will. The young man helps her escape and finds out that the women attacking her are, like her, beings known as sekirei. There are 108 such beings, he find out, and they were discovered by the man who’s corporation has recently bought the city. He found them in a space craft that man found on a small island. That same spacecraft contained technology he used as the basis for the massive corporation he heads, the one that bought the city. All sekirei have powers, basically super powers, but to achieve their greatest potential they must find an ordinary human and ‘contract’ with them. To seal this pact, they must ‘make contact via the mucous membranes….in other words, they must kiss. “Sekirei” plays to many tropes in anime. The young man eventually meets other sekirei, gathering six women who all vie for his attention (harems are a big thing in anime, for what reason I don’t know). Boobs are a major feature, either on display in skimpy costumes or out in the open. The young man is constantly in a position to take things beyond a kiss….and equally constantly frustrated by circumstances beyond his control. In short, lots of silliness…but at the same time, some profound ideas. The women around the male protagonist are rivals for his affection, yet become friends who will defend each other. Friends forced to fight each other find friendship is more powerful than anything else. Perhaps most important, that no matter how dire the odds, if people stand together, they can accomplish amazing things.

Well, these are my first three selections. Love’em or hate’em, they’re three anime I’m willing to recommend. All of them are available online, so I hope you’ll give them some thought, either for inspiration, or just for plain, simple escapism. If there’s further interest, next time, I’ll dig into the deep reservoir of ideas that anime has in the field of horror and the supernatural.

Amazing stories

Rain roared down on the roof of the police cruiser as Delgado ‘Del’ Salazar rolled to a stop outside Sweet Young Things. He’d driven past the ‘gentlemen’s club’ outside the tiny burg of Myers, Texas more times than he could remember, but this would be the first time he’d entered the place. The single squad car owned by the Myers PD sat in front of the entrance, flanked by the county EMT vehicle and the car driven by Paul Obert, the other county sheriff on duty tonight. The rest of the gravel parking lot was packed with the cars and trucks of the customers who were inside, leaving Del to no option but to park on the grass strip between the lot and Texas Route 23.

“Figures. It’s pouring rain, and the nearest parking spot is a good hundred feet away.”

The rain slicker kept him dry almost to his knees, the the ‘smokey bear’ hat he usually hated stopped the rain from spotting his glasses, but his feet were squelching in soaked shoes before he got to the front door. Inside, the rush of the rain was drown out by the thumping beat of music so loud it set Del’s teeth on edge before he’d even left the entrance hall.

The hall opened onto a dark room centered around a raised oval stage surrounded by a low rail. Flashing light illuminated a pair of polished brass poles that stood at either end of the stage, and a bar stretched along the entire length of the wall opposite of where Del stood. It was packed solid with men in work clothing whom were doing their best to pretend they didn’t exist. Mixed with them were a handful of women a mix of bikinis and an odd assortment of costumes.

The bar was the only island of regular light in the room. Just short of it was a second pool of light. This one came from the Maglites of two police officers, and it revealed a disturbing scene. Two men in EMT uniforms knelt beside a dead body. Del didn’t have to be any closer to know the young man lying between the EMT’s was dead. Nobody alive could twist their head nearly 180 degrees from its normal orientation, nor would a living man’s eyes have that blank stare to them. It wasn’t the first dead body Del had seen, not after two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan.

As a deputy sheriff, Del had authority over the local police officer. As the senior officer on the scene, he also had authority over Paul. “Time to get this show on the road.” he muttered to himself as he approached the tableau.

Neither officer noticed his approach, and Del’s shout of “What’s going on?” caused both officers to jump. The Myers PD officer, a young woman with “A. Renald” on her name tag, tried to answer. Del only caught a few odd words of her reply. He turned towards the bar, took a deep breath, and in his best parade-ground voice, shouted. “Could you please turn the damned music off?” It has the effect Del hoped for. A young black man in a muscle tee and tattered jeans pushed away from the bar and almost ran to a small platform in the corner. He twisted knobs on a control panel and the music mercifully died. In the stunned silence that followed, the only noise was the relentless hiss of the rain on the buildings roof. Del aimed a “Thank you.” at the man, then turned his attention to the problem at hand.

“So, what happened here?”

Renald took up her earlier efforts to explain. “911 got a call of shots fired at this location. I was on the scene first, followed by your officer. I found the subject already dead, and a 9MM auto lying beside him.” She pointed towards the gun in question, Del suspected it was a Ruger from what he could make out of it, but kept his opinions to himself. “Witnesses say the deceased, Oberto Soto, entered the bar and got into a confrontation with one of the dancers. Club security approached Soto and requested he leave. He did, but re-entered the club a short time later brandishing his gun. Security here is only armed with hand tasers, so they backed off. Soto then pointed his gun at the dancer and threatened to kill her.” Renald had been turning her head and pointing out the different parties she had been speaking to , but now she stopped and focused her gaze on Del. “That’s when it gets, well, strange. Everyone I’ve spoken to says some kid was over in the corner at a table. They all agree he got up, walked over to Soto, and told him to leave. Soto turned his gun on the kid and threatened to shoot him…and the kid told him to go ahead.” Renald looked away, pointed towards the floor, and Del saw three spent shell casings. “Soto fired three rounds into the kid at almost point-blank range.” She pointed towards a section of wall that framed the entrance to the main room, and Del saw for the first time the three clean holes in it. “Everyone saw the shots fired, and they all agree there was no way Soto could have missed. But the kid just stood there like it was nothing. Then he grabbed Soto’s head, twisted it, and broke his neck. He must have killed him instantly, at least that would be my guess.”

Del looked at the EMT, who was looking up at him. “Yeah, she’s right, but the force it would take to do this….no way a kid could do it. I’m not sure I could do it.” He pointed towards a pair of red marks on the side of Soto’s face. “That’s a hand print. I once read about how they train Marines to silently kill someone by breaking their necks. They wrap their arm around the victim’s head and use leverage to give them the mechanical advantage to snap the spine. From what I can tell, this kid literally put his hands on either side of this guy’s head and twisted it like it was bottle cap.”

Renald took up her narration. “But that’s not the strange part. Look at the floor, at the wall…no blood! Not a drop, anywhere. How the hell does someone get shot three times, and not only manage to kill a man with their bare hands, but not bleed a drop?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll worry about that later. Right now, we’ve got a bunch of people here we need to take statements from. I need to contact the county medical examiner to come out to collect the body and collect any forensic evidence he can. You and my man Paul get started on that. Be sure to get as much of a description of this mysterious kid as you can. Do you know who’s in charge of this place?”

Renald pointed towards an older man standing at the gap in the bar which allowed access to the rear. “Okay, you two get started on the witnesses, and I’ll see if all these security cameras are real or just for show.”

Del approached the manager and waved at the three camera pods he could see. “Any of these working? And if they are, we’re going to need a copy of any video they captured tonight.”

The manager shook his head. “Sorry, but most of them are just there to keep the customers from getting too ‘friendly’ with the dancers. Only one that’s working is the one pointed at the cash register, but it’s got no sound pick-up, so I’m not sure how much good it’ll do you.”

“So, no images of this vigilant kid? By the way, how did a kid end up in this place? Doesn’t your license require you to card people and make sure they’re 21 before you let them in?”

“Hey, the kid walked in, soaked to the skin and looking like death warmed over. All he asked for was a place he could sit out the storm. I figured he was hitching and I didn’t want to just shove him back out in this downpour. Does that make me a bad guy?”

Del waved the excuse away. “We can talk about what a Good Samaritan you are some other time. Where you out here when all this happened?”

“No, I was in the back, in my office, doing the books. I heard the shots, but by the time I got out here, the kid was gone. My security guys said he walked out like nothing had happened. How the hell does someone do that?”

“Damned if I know. Why don’t you go where ever you have your security camera recorder and get me a copy of the footage for tonight while I go call the county forensics people.”

The manager disappeared through a doorway set in an alcove behind the bar, and Del moved to the exit. Outside, under the awning protecting the entrance, he stopped and drew a deep breath. What he’d told everyone wasn’t the truth. A few week ago, he’d seen a report out of Nevada of a group of people who’d been rescued from human traffickers. It had been passed onto Del by an old friend who worked in law enforcement out there who knew of Del’s fascination with strange, amazing stories of crime. The human traffickers weren’t all that amazing, nor was their forcing a group of people to work an illegal uranium mine. What was strange was how they’d escaped: all of them agreed that a young man, a teenager , had managed to overpower not one, but several of the guards. Even stranger, at least one of the people who’d been rescued reported that the teenager had been shot several times, by automatic weapons fire no less, and had kept on going.

A rumble of thunder rolled across Del, then another came, this one close enough to illuminate the parking lot and everything around it. In that moment of light, Del saw a slight young man, a teenager, standing across the highway from the club. Then the vision disappeared into the pouring rain. Another flash, further away, gave a dimmer light to the scene, but the young man was gone. Did he really want to go into the downpour, into the darkness, to find a out who he was? He shook his head. “No, I don’t need to go looking for an avenging angel.” He squeezed the mic of his handheld. “Dispatch, this is Deputy Sheriff Salazar. Wake Doc Hastert up and tell him we’ve got a crime scene for him to examine, a homicide. EMT’s are already here, so he doesn’t need to roll his meat wagon. Just tell him to get his tail down to Sweet Young Things. Knowing that old coot, he probably doesn’t need direction.”

“Rodger that, Del. I’ll pass the word. You want I should wake up the chief?”

Sheriff Don Alperts was a stickler for proper procedure. If anyone would demand Del mount a manhunt for this phantom protector, it was Alperts. “No, Hettie, let the boss get his beauty sleep. God knows he could use it.”

The snort of laughter that got through told Del his joke was appreciated. “10-4. I’ll get the Doc on the way to you as soon as I can, Del.”

“Thanks, Hettie. You stay dry there, hear?”

“You too, Del. Dispatch out.”

#

George watched the cop go back into the strip club. How could he have been so stupid? He was dead, so the rain was little more than an inconvenience. He could have sat down in this drainage ditch and let the thunderstorm hammer down on him without taking any harm. Hell, he could probably have taken a lightening strike without noticing it. But no, he’d begged shelter in the club, then he’d been cocky enough to confront that angry clown when he’d threatened the only woman who’d talked to George. His undead form took no damage from the gunshots, but then he’d been dumb enough to react and kill the man.

George gave a final look at the club before rising from behind the road and walking away. “I gotta be more careful, or somebody’s going to catch on to me.” he told himself as the night and rain swallowed him.

“The Saint of Liars”, a review

“The Saint of Liars”

Author: Megan Mackie

Genre: Urban fantasy

Page count: 459

Word count: 147,056

app. 813KB (ePub format)

Publisher: Independent

Release date: June 18, 2018

In her first book, “Finder of the Lucky Devil”, Megan Mackie introduced us to her alternate Chicago. It’s a place where technology and magic exist side-by-side, but the balance is shifting. With technology becoming more and more like magic, those who wield the older power face a bleak future. Corporations that virtually own their employees are consolidating their hold on the city, squeezing those they do not control out of power, or into their control.

“Saint of Liars” begins where the earlier work left off. Newly made the head of an ancient magical house, Rune Leveau is struggling to find her place in the world of magic. She must deal with the pressures of keeping the seat of that house, the Lucky Devil bar, from going broke while learning to use her emerging magical powers. If that wasn’t enough pressure, she finds herself enmeshed in the power struggles that are coming into the open.

Old disagreements amongst the magic users threaten to shatter their last bit of political power in the face of corporations learn to use technology to work magic. But the corporations are far from united. Factions in their ranks are engaged in a covert revolt, fearing that a final consolidation of power in the hands of a few is at hand.

Rune’s sometimes love interest St. Benedict is back, and the two of them are soon working together to find out who is trying to kill Rune. Their efforts to solve that mystery takes then deep into Chicago’s magical side, and uncovers a plot to develop a technology that would allow the non-magical to harness magic.

Mackie’s magic-noir Chicago may be populated by fantasy creatures, but the problems her protagonist faces, and the landscape she moves through, contain enough of modern reality to make the story believable. Her hero is not perfect, but her errors give her the feel of someone you might know in real life. Put all that into a story that draws you along with a relentless pace and you have a story that makes an ideal Summer read, or a good read any other time of the year. I am not sure if Ms. Mackie plans to write another book in her fantasy world, but I hope she does. I have enjoyed following her characters, and would not mind reading more of their story.

The Fair Tree

The red squirrel stopped, rose in its hind legs, and scanned its surroundings. Its ears pricked up, it took the scene around it. It saw no predators, nor did it see any of its own kind. Sure that it was safe, and that the acorn it carried would not be stolen, it scraped at the ground. When it deemed the hole deep enough, the squirrel dropped the acorn in, pulled the dirt it had dug out back in place, and took a final look around. Seeing nothing nearby, it bounded away, back to the small grove of oaks it had come from to gather more food it hoped would tide it through the coming winter.

Why the squirrel never returned is unknown. Had the winter been mild enough that it had not needed the acorn? Had it forgotten where the nut lay hidden? Or had it fallen prey to a stray dog, perhaps even one of the new metal monsters the humans had taken to driving? Whatever had happened, the acorn remained, and as it should, it sprouted.

Humans moved around it that first year, but none disturbed it. In the second year of the small oak trees life, a human noted its presence. By then, the trees that had supplied the initial acorn were gone. Humans had felled them to build a fair ground, but this one, growing apart, stood near where a band stand was to be erected. Thinking it a good idea to have shade for the people who would be listening to the bands, the human left th oak stand unharmed.

Time passed. Humans came, listening to the local high school band as it worked its way, generation after generation, through “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The other music changed. Sousa gave way to swing, which gave way to jazz before bands stopped performing at the fair ground. Even after the band stand fell out of use, families picnicked on the grass where their grandparents had once listen to music. Children ran madly about the oak as their parents lounged in its shade. A man, thinking to make his life easier, brought a garbage can into the broad grassy space, hoping the picnickers would not leave trash behind. When they began moving it, he wrapped a chain around the oaks trunk, padlocking the looped ends together in the handle.

The oak, free of shade and competition, grew into a giant. Its massive limbs, thick as a man’s body, spread outward. Its trunk swelled outward to match, swallowing the chain over the years. Men who knew nothing of their predecessors reasoning continued to lock garbage cans to the ends that now dangled from the trunk. But inside, the tree began to feel the effects of that intrusion. Rot began, then spread. Even as the band stand was knocked down, replaced with playground equipment for the children who still loved to dash around the great tree, the defect grew.

Other squirrels, distant descendants of the one that had given the oak life, came and took away the acorns it dropped in the thousands every year. Humans, determined to keep the grass, then the playground clear, mowed and sprays, killing any offspring that might chance to rise. Winters snow weighed its branches down, and Summer storms shook it, but the oak remained. But with every season, unseen within the oak, the rot spread. Slowly, it worked its way downward. When it came to the base, it found a small opening and joined up with it. Together, they ate away the oaks connection to the soil. The roots still drew nutrients from the dark soil it stood in, but these now flowed up an increasingly narrow band of living wood to feed the leaves.

Finally, a storm came that shook the oak, bringing gusts of wind that twisted it so that a crack opened. Parents noted it as they tried to gather their rowdy children, snapping photos of it on their smart phones. It caused them some concern, but they had grown up with the tree, like their parents and grandparents before them. It had always been there, and like a mountain, it would always be there. But inside the oak, the final act had begun. The rot had so weakened the tree that little held it to the ground. Winter came, and with it ice from melt water. Ice that grew, spreading the crack like a wedge, further weakening the tree. Spring came, and as they always did, the children ran in circles about the oak. Its leaves sprouted, the ground beneath it knew the shade that had graced it many years before.

Then a storm came in the night. It wasn’t a truly violent storm. It had no mighty gusts of wind, no torrential downpours. But what it had was enough. The oak, now held in place by only a few narrow roots, toppled and fell upon the playground equipment. Children who came the next were shocked to find the giant tree fallen. Some of them were angry that their favorite swings, the slide they’d enjoyed just the day before, were now smashed wreckage. But others walked to the trees base, saw the rot now exposed, and touched the trunk with reverence. It had shaded them, entertained them, hidden them, and in the end, it had given up its existence when none of them were around. In the end, the Fair Tree, as everyone for ages beyond end had called it, had saved them.

Image may contain: tree, grass, outdoor and nature

Fans

Sam walked to his car, happy his trip was drawing to a close. He’d done the ‘struggling artist’ thing long enough and was glad his graphic novels were taking off. This road trip, from his home Iowa to Seattle, had been his publishers idea. He hadn’t been in favor of making the appearance, but on reflection, he was glad he’d gone. Even the ‘tractor ass’ he got after hours driving his Fit out to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention were little more than an inconvenience compared to the positive feedback he’d gotten from fans. And to think, his “Blood” series of post-apocalypse horror novels had been the least favorite of his concepts. “Guess I shouldn’t sell my bad ideas short.” he muttered as he unlocked the door.

“Hey, you, is that your fag car?”

The voice sounded like it was almost behind Sam, and he had to restrain his urge to flinch. Out here, in the parking lot of a truck stop near the Evanston, Wyoming, was not a place to get into an argument. Sam pulled the key out of the lock and grabbed the handle to open the door.

“Hey, I asked you a fuckin’ question! Is this faggot piece of shit car yours?”

It didn’t take an MFA to figure out what the angry voice was referring to. Sam had several bumper stickers on his car, and none of them expressed opinions that were flattering of the current president. No, you don’t need to answer, just ignore him. Sam pulled the handle, but the door opened only a fraction of an inch before a large, pale hand slammed into the rear top corner, forcing it shut.

“I asked you a question, goddamn it! Don’t think you can just fuckin’ ignore me. Is this your fuckin’ faggot car?”

Sam turned, his eyes following the arm attached to that hand, up the shoulder and them to the head atop those shoulders. It was a shaved head, sporting a face that looked like it had come out on the losing end of several fights. Angry brown eyes, a nose that bent slightly sideways, lips scowling, jaw muscles clenched like he had just bitten into something far tougher than he could get his teeth through. A red ‘wife beater’ shirt with “MAGA” emblazoned across the chest. He was slightly taller than Sam, and at least a decade younger. Sam saw two shaved-headed men of about the same age standing close behind his questioner. Both of them were smiling, enjoying the show. Probably hoping they’ll get a chance to help beat the shit out of somebody today. The thought flickered through Sam’s mind and not for the first time, he wished the little man in his head would shut the hell up. With no way to walk away, and no way to get into his car, Sam decided to see if he could talk his way out of the confrontation.

“Yes, this is my car, and I was just leaving. Now, if you don’t mind…” he tugged at the handle, but the other man kept pressure on the door, keeping it shut.

“Yeah, I do mind. Who the fuck do you think you are? You think you can come out here, disrespect our President, and nobody’s gonna say anything about it? Well, now you’re gonna find out how wrong you are.”

Aww, fuck, I do not need this shit….. Even as he thought it, Sam saw the eyes of one of the men behind the loud mouth narrow, then the face relaxed as he stepped forward to tap Loud Mouth on the shoulder.

“Hey, Jim, don’t you recognize this guy? He’s Steve Landers! You know, the guy who wrote that “Fountains of Blood” novel.”

Loud-mouthed Jim’s head turned enough for him to address the other man. “Bullshit! There’s no way Steve Landers would be some faggot commie liberal. I mean look at his hero, John Johnson. He’s one of us, killin’ niggers, an’ liberals an’ fags too. There’s no way some liberal’d make us look like the saviors of humanity.”

“But I saw his photo on the web site for that fan convention, the one I told you about out in Fagville. It’s him!”

Jim’s eyes focused on Sam’s face, looking him over like he wasn’t sure what to believe. “Okay, then if he’s Steve Landers, he’ll know what John Johnson says every time he kills. So, Mister Faggot, do you know what John Johnson say every time he kills one of the enemies of the white race?”

Sam couldn’t believe it. These neo-Nazi assholes were fan boys? And they were fans of his unheroic villain, the unrepentant white supremacists John Johnson? “My name isn’t Steve Landers, that’s my pen name. But yeah, I write the ‘Blood’ series of graphic novels. And to answer your question, he always says ‘That’s one less enemy to kill.’”

That confused Loud-Mouth Jim. He didn’t step back, but his face lost some of its angry set. “Bullshit! You can’t be Steve Landers! You just learned that at one of them…whadaya call it….a trainin’ camp for liberal commies. One of those places they brain wash you into fightin’ other white folks.”

The statement was so stupid Sam nearly laughed. He managed to keep from smiling as he pointed towards the rear of his car. “I’ve got a couple boxes of ‘Fountains of Blood’ and ‘Blood Flows like a River’ in the back of my car if you don’t believe me.”

The third man, who’d been silent, stepped over and looked in the rear window of Sam’s Fit. “Hey, he ain’t bullshittin’! There’s a whole bunch a them books in here.”

Jim stepped back, then walked over to look for himself. He gave his head a shake and looked at Sam. So you’re Steve Landers? The guy all us folks fightin’ for white freedom look up to….is a fuckin’ liberal? What is it, do you just write the stories like you do to make sales? So you can grub a few bucks outta folks like us?”

Sam spread his hands. “I’m a writer, so I write what sells. They say Ayn Rand didn’t believe any of the stuff she wrote about, she was just writing the books people were wanted to buy.”

“Who the fuck’s Ann Rand?”

Maybe ignorance is a saving grace after all Sam thought. “Would you guys like an autographed copy of either of my novels? No charge, it’s always good to meet fans.”

Jim didn’t seem interested in the offer, but both of his compatriots shouted out “Yeah!” at the same instant, and that took the fight out of him. The sharpie Sam had used in Seattle was in the box with “Blood Flows”, so he gave both men signed copies of that novel. The first fan boy, the one that had recognized Sam from his photo, asked that his novel be signed ‘To Harry, a real Wyoming ass-kicker.’ The less talkative member of the group asked Sam to just sign his ‘To my favorite fan, Bill.’ That done, Sam turned to the group’s leader.

“So, Jim, you want a signed copy too?”

“Don’t want nothin’ from some fag liberal! I’d tell you shove that thing up your ass, but I bet you’d like that.”

Angry, but not enough courage to start a fight by himself. There was nothing to be gained by saying that, or in arguing the point, so Sam tossed the novel he’s planned to autograph back in the box and shrugged. “Fair enough.” He closed the hatchback. “Well, nice to meet some fans. Now, if you guys will take a step back, I’ll back out and get on my way.” Harry and Bill smiled and backed out of the way. Jim got a final glare off, then joined his friends, leaving Sam free to get in his car without worry.

As he backed out, he saw the fan boys waving their copies “Blood Flows” and smiling. He wondered how they’d feel next month, when the final novel in the trilogy came out. Sam smiled as he drove off, imagining the skinheads reaction when John Johnson, their violent hero, ended up dying in a futile attempt to blow up the federal building in downtown Chicago. Or that the person who would thwart him was the real hero of the story, FBI Special Agent Shanta U’quin, a black Muslim woman. “Maybe it is a good thing I didn’t give in to the temptation to leak the end at SFFC.” he said to himself as he drove down the ramp and joined the traffic on I-80 headed East towards home.