The woods

The woods are lovely, dark and deep…”

Paul leaned against the tree trunk, silently cursing both Robert Frost and the high school English teacher who’d made him read the poem. The woods around him were dark enough, and he’d run through them for so long he’d bet they qualified as ‘deep. But lovely? Only if tripping over unseen roots, or running into low-hanging branches was you idea of fun.

Paul had been on his way to a weekend get-away, a chance to spend a couple of days at his hunting cabin in the foothills outside of Challis. He wanted nothing more of life than to find out whether he could bag an elk. The clouds had threatened snow, not all that uncommon at the altitude he was at, and evening had quickly given way to that pitch-black you only saw in the middle of nowhere. A sharp bend in the road masked the tree across the road until the last second.

He remembered the violence of the impact, and seeing the front end of his SUV crumpling, then Paul had woken up, face down on the pavement with no idea how he’d gotten there. The SUV and the tree were both engulfed in flames, and the sound of 30.06 rounds cooking off kept Paul from trying to approach. His phone had been charging, so it was somewhere in the flames. Not that it wouldn’t have been of much use. Cell coverage in the foothills was spotty at best, and from past experience, he knew this area was 100% without a signal.

That was when it had hit him. Standing there, wondering whether he’d be better off hiking back down the road in search of someone who’d answer the door this late at night or going ahead to his cabin, he’d felt it. He was being watched. Watched not by some forest creature, or even a curious human. No, he was being watched by someone, or something, was hunting for him.

Paul had hunted grizzlies in Alaska, and black bears not far from here, and a hunter always knew when they were being watched by another hunter. The cold chill down the spine, the constant uneasiness, the desire to suddenly turn, knowing if you do it quickly enough, you’ll see who’s following you…he had all those premonitions and more. That was when he’d started running.

He’d climbed the embankment the tree had fallen from and dashed into the wood behind it at close to a sprint. Paul had lost track of how many times he’d fallen, or been knocked down, as obstructions appeared out of the inky darkness in front of him. When he’d almost run headlong into the massive trunk he now leaned against, he’d known he needed to rest no matter how much he wanted to run. His lungs burned from gasping for breath, and he became aware that his legs were shaking from sheer exhaustion.

But the presence was still there. He felt it as clearly as if whatever stalked him had been shouting. Paul couldn’t run anymore, no matter how much he wanted to. He patted himself down, feeling the folding knife he always carried when in the back country, and pulled it out. A quick flip of his wrist opened it, and he felt the blade lock into place. It might be only a little over four inches of steel, but Paul intended to use it on whatever came at him, to do what he could to pay the ferryman’s fee.

Back to the tree, he scanned the forest before him, but nothing moved. It felt as though the entire forest was standing stock-still, holding its breath as it waited for the confrontation to begin. Then he saw it. A white-clad shape, standing not five feet in front of him. It couldn’t be there. Nothing could have covered the ground between him and the nearest cover that fast. But it was there….no, she was there. His eyes focused now, taking in the details, Paul realized that a girl stood before him. She was slender and couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven. She was draped in an unadorned white one-piece dress the seemed to float around her in a wind Paul couldn’t feel. Her hair hung down past her shoulders, a cascade of black so dark it seemed to drink in the night itself. Her skin was pale, her face expressionless, the eyes that stared at him as lifeless as two stones. Paul knew what he beheld, but his mind refused to acknowledge what his heart told him.

“Why did you run, Paul? You know it will change nothing.”

He didn’t want to reply, but knew he couldn’t remain silent. “I ran because no one wants to face the end when it comes.”

“You, who have killed so much, fear me?”

“I do.”

Death smiled, and shook her head. “You have nothing to fear, Paul Sanchez. All that is mortal dies, something you should know. Come, it is time. Run no more, accept the end.”

Paul thought of rushing Death, of trying to strike down the apparition before him, and knew it would accomplish nothing. His fingers opened, the knife fell to the ground, and he took the two steps that separated him from Death. She took his hand, and Paul was surprised that the hand holding his was soft and warm. Was this how it had been for his mother, his father? Had they seen Death as kind when it had taken them? Perhaps Death knew all that he thought, for she spoke to him now for the last time.

“I am what will make the dying wish most to see. To you, I am the sister you lost long ago. To others, I am the loved one who has gone before them, the parent they have wished to see one more time. Come with me now, Paul. It is time for your journey to end.”

Then the forest faded, and nothing remained but the knife Paul had dropped. Weeks later, another hunter found it. He had heard of the terrible accident, but that was miles away. He wondered how the blade had come so far, but not in his wildest fancies did he imagine how it truly came to be there.

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A visit to the doctor

“Doctor Vaughan?”

Bill Thornton had been thinking how much he’d like to close up early and drop by his favorite watering hole. A scotch would be welcome, what with everything that he’d had to deal with so far. Now, someone was asking for him, or rather, for his made-up counterpart. He sat a little more upright, and looked at the customer standing in the doorway.

She was blond, and had probably been quite the beauty in her youth. Now, probably approaching 50, she was getting jowly and carrying more than a few extra pounds around her waist. But her clothing and accessories spoke of wealth, quite a lot of wealth if his guess about the maker of the handbag she carried was correct. Well, let’s see if she was sent by the right people or not he thought to himself as he addressed her.

“I’m sorry, you must have the wrong address. I’m Dr. William Thornton, and I’m afraid I don’t know any Dr. Vaughan.”

Watching her face fall so dramatically tempted Bill to laugh at her, but after the initial shock of rejection, the blond straightened and gave the proper reply. “I was told that this was Dr. Vaughan’s office by Mr. Craig. He referred me to this address. So, is the doctor around or not?”

Bill plastered his best smile on his face as he rose from his chair. “I’m sorry, please close the door and have a seat. I hope you understand I couldn’t respond without knowing you weren’t from the authorities Mrs….?”

Ms. Hopwell, sir, and I fully understand.” She took her seat, and tried to act polite, but her pinched face and snotty tone made it clear Bill had gotten off on the wrong foot with her. Time to lay on some charm, and put her in her place too, Bill ol’ boy.

“Again, I am sorry, Ms. Hopwell. I hope you’ll understand my caution. After all, if Mr. Craig sent you, we both know what you’re about to ask me to do could easily get both of us in trouble.”

The implied threat had the desired effect. Hopwell shifted in her seat like she’d found a nail sticking her in the butt, and she suddenly didn’t seem able to look him in the eye. “Ahhhh, yes, well, we both know that the law is wrong, don’t we? I mean the fact that you’re willing to help, even at the risk of your license….”

Bill held up a hand to forestall any further discussion of what he would and wouldn’t be doing. He paid good money to one of the police techs to make sure there was no monitoring equipment in his offices, and even more money to a certain dark hacker to keep his electronic communications secure. All he could hope was that they were ast infallible as their fees made them out to be. “Yes, I know. So, what did you want me to arrange for you?”

Hopwell began fidgeting even more, and she turned her face down like she was ashamed to ask for what she was about to ask for. “Well, ummm, I was wondering if you could arrange for my daughter to get to Mexico…or Canada, if that’s not too expensive.”

Bill fought to keep from smiling. Oh, this just gets better and better “Are you sure you just want to get your daughter out? I mean I don’t know what she may or may not have done, but when a family member suddenly disappears, the first people the authorities take in to question are the immediate family. Perhaps you should consider going with your daughter. I can arrange for both of you to get out of the country, though the Canadian border is watched much more closely these days than the Mexican…and that means getting across is much harder, and more costly.”

The mention of money brought Hopwell’s attention back to Bill. The embarrassment left her face, replaced by a hard, calculating aspect that left no doubt she thought she could bargain with Bill for what she wanted. He was going to enjoy teaching her that this was not the case. Before she could make what was no doubt going to be an extremely cheap offer for his services, he cut her off. “I don’t set the price for getting people across the border, those prices are set by the people who will actually take you and your daughter across the border. My fee is a tiny percentage of of what it will cost to get the two of you out of this country, and I do offer services you will need to stay in another country, even ones as friendly to taking in American refugees as Canada and Mexico are.”

Hopwell leaned forward with a sneer on her lips, clearly still thinking she had some sort of position to bargain from.. “So, what ‘services’ do you provide? And why can’t I just go to another doctor to get them?”

Bill didn’t answer immediately, letting her imagine she had power would make her fall just that much more enjoyable. The silence began to have the desired effect. Hopwell, slowly leaned back, and the fidgeting returned. Bill let her twitch a while longer before knocking her world to pieces. “Well, if you can find another doctor will give you the vaccinations you’ll need to stay in any nation outside of the United States, and not ask you why you need them, please feel free to do so. I’ll be watching the news, waiting for the announcement of your arrest.” Hopwell opened her mouth, and Bill knew the threat she’d hurl at him before she could form the words. “And if you think you can blackmail me by threatening to turn me in to the authorities, think again. These offices are rented under a fictitious name, and you’ll find that William Thornton appears in no database of medical professionals. And just so you know, if you’ve got a surveillance camera hidden on you, this room is fitted with state-of-the-art digital protection capable of rendering any such devices inoperable. So, can you describe me to the police in enough detail that they can come up with a composite sketch to search for me with? For that matter, would they be willing to cut you a deal to let you?” Hopwell’s face twisted in fear at that, and Bill drove the point home. “I’m betting that if you went to anyone with a story about a smuggling ring to get people out of America, but no proof that it existed, they’d throw you in prison and forget what cell you were in. So, want to share space in a federal lock-up with your daughter for the rest of eternity?” Hopwell shook her head, a motion so rapid and violent that Bill was amazed she didn’t become disoriented. He let her stew in silence for a moment, waiting for her to admit defeat. She did.

“Fine, I’ll pay your fee, and the cost of getting us both out of the country too. How much?”

Now they were at the stage Bill really enjoyed, sticking it to the rich fools who needed to run away from their problems. He made no effort to hide his pleasure as he spoke.

“To get out of America: forty thousand dollars to get into Mexico, seventy thousand to get into Canada, for each of you. For my ‘services’, another ten thousand each.”

Hopwell’s eyes widened as he told her how much it would cost to leave, then they narrowed. “Fine. What method of payment do you prefer?”
“I don’t ‘prefer’ anything, madam, I and my associates demand payment in advance. Payment is to be in cash, bearer bonds, gold or any other untraceable form. Items like diamonds or artwork will, of course, have to be independently valued before we accept them as payment.” Bill let that sink in before adding the kicker. “I would also advice you to convert any wealth you have into an equally untraceable form if you want to have it available once you’re outside the US. As you know, our government thinks America is the greatest nation there is, and does not like its citizens fleeing, especially when they take large amounts of wealth with them.”

Hopwell, rubbed her ample chin, then nodded. “Very well. It will take me a few days to arrange everything, but it can be done. Would this coming Friday be soon enough?”

Bill did his best to hide the surprise the request engendered. Five days? She must be truly desperate! Maybe I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry to close the deal. Oh well. He raised his hand. “How about Monday of next week instead? I need to arrange get hold of the vaccines, and my contact will need time to get the proper papers forged. I would point out that you still haven’t told me where you want to go, and I’ll need to know that so we can obtain the proper forms.”

“Yes, of course. I want to get us both into Mexico. Canada is a fine country, but the weather is far too cold there.”

“Very well. I’ll set things in motion as soon as you leave. Oh, and my contacts will need images of both you and your daughter for the forged citizenship documents. If you have them, I can forward them with the notification that we’ll be getting the two of you out. If not, well, it might take a bit longer to get everything arranged.”

Hopwell actually smiled, a smug little quirk of her lips, and handed Bill a nondescript thumb drive. She must have thought herself very smart for having thought to bring images of herself and her daughter with her. He tucked the device into his shirt pocket and rose to extend his hand. Hopwell, caught off guard by the sudden movement, scrambled to her feet and took the offered hand in hers. Her palm was sweaty, the flesh soft, and the grip of her fingers weak. Bill shook her hand, wishing he had worn rubber gloves so he didn’t have to make contact with the woman’s repulsive skin. But he smiled in spite of his revulsion. “I look forward to seeing you and your daughter next Monday. Be here just before closing at five, and I’ll give both of you your vaccinations before introducing you to the people who will help you get across the border. Until then, Ms. Hopwell.”

#

They showed up at ten minutes before five. Hopwell was dressed well and carrying a larger version of the handbag she’d had on their first meeting. Her daughter was a younger and much more attractive version of her, a willowy blond girl of fifteen or so, dressed in the latest ‘radical’ style and carrying a backpack that must have been very heavy based on the way the straps dug into her clothing. Bill rose to greet them.

“Ms Hopwell, so glad to see you. Everything is ready, but I must apologize. My associates are running a little late, so we can make sure you and your daughter are properly inoculated and ready to go once they arrive. You have the sum agreed to, I take it?”

Hopwell, opened her handbag pulled out five thick bundles of hundred dollar bills, and set them on the desk between her and Bill. “Each of those bundles holds twenty thousand dollars, one’s for you and the rest for your associates, as agreed.”

Bill pulled open the top drawer in his desk and deposited each of the bundles in it. As he closed it, the girl spoke for the first time. “Aren’t you going to count it? Do you trust her enough to believe she won’t try to screw you over?”

Hopwell did not react well to her daughter’s question. “Brenda! How could you even think something about me? With everything I’m doing for you?”

“Oh, please! You’re the one worried that her daughter’s ‘unfortunate’ friends and ‘unpopular’ politics might ruin her business prospects. The chances that they’ll even come to talk to me are small, and arrest me…really?”

“Brenda, where do you think that ‘friend’ of yours is now, the one you were chatting with online so much? Weren’t you the one who said they’d been arrested? Well, didn’t you?”

Like her mother, Brenda had a tendency to start fidgeting when faced with something uncomfortable. Now, she she started twitching and turned her face away from both of them. Bill took the opportunity to get things moving. “It’s fine, Ms. Hopwell. I can understand why she might not trust me completely. I need to get you two ready to leave, so could both sit down and roll up your sleeves so I can immunize you both?”

While they did, Bill turned to the tray holding the syringes he’d prepared earlier. He tore open the packet holding the alcohol swab and used it to clean a spot on Hopwell’s upper arm. “Sorry, just a pinch, and this will be done.” The needle went in cleanly, and Bill made sure to get every drop into Hopwell’s arm. He laid the empty aside, then picked up his cell to dial his friends. Hopwell sat watching him, aware for a moment, then slumped forward. Brenda grabbed her mother and eased her to the floor.

“Mom! What’s wrong? Hey, you, something’s wrong with my Mom, help her!”

Bill had had enough of them. A single step brought him to Hopwell’s side, where he back-handed Brenda. “Shut the hell up! Speak, even move again without my permission, and you’ll get a lot worse than that.” He heard the voice of Pedro answer the phone. “Yeah, get Joe and the rest over here, we got ourselves a bonus. The stupid bitch came through, and her daughter’s a prime piece of ass too. Think your friends down in Tijuana could use a new girl to work in their whore houses?” Pedro’s chuckle was all the answer he needed.

Bill looked down at the girl and her mother. They weren’t the first he’d pulled this scam on. Hopwell had enough ketamine in her put a steer to sleep, which is how he liked them. She’d provide organs for a dozen transplant patients after he finished harvesting. She was worth an easy hundred grand properly parted out. Her money, and everything she had in the way of wealth, would be enough to keep his gang happy for months to come. The girl wouldn’t be the first underage body that had made it out of the country, even if they didn’t get out to do anything more than serve as sex toys for rich gringos looking for some illicit fun in a Mexican whore house. The money they’d make off selling her to the highest bidder would almost match what they made off her mother. She looked up at him now, tears welling up in her eyes.

“Why? Why are you doing this? What did we do to deserve this?”

Bill smiled at Brenda, letting her see the real him, the man who enjoyed inflicting pain on others. “Because I can, and because people like your bitch of a mother looked down on me all my life. If you’d been a good girl, your mother wouldn’t have tried to get out of the country. And if the government hadn’t decided that America was so great a nation nobody needed to leave it, I couldn’t have even begun to make money off desperate fools like your mother. That’s why I do it, so I can profit off your misery and your mothers stupidity.”

(This story was inspired by the exploits of Marcel Petiot, a serial killer in France before and during the German occupation in World War 2. He is suspected of killing as many as 60 people, most of them during the war years. More about him here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcel_Petiot)

Visits with ourselves

Paul wasn’t aware of anyone as he walked down the sidewalk under an inky night sky until the hand grabbed his arm. The fingers dug into his flesh with enough force to make him wince, and there was enough strength in the arm connected to it to spin him around fast enough to leave him dizzy. He found himself facing a shadowy figure outlined by the streetlight behind it. Then the other hand, balled into a fist, slammed into his mid-section. The air whooshed out of his lungs, and Paul folded before sinking to his knees. Then something that felt like a sledge hammer hit the side of his head, and the night seemed to light up like lightening had struck nearby.

His head rang, but through it, Paul heard a voice yelling at him. “You stupid bastard! How the hell could you be that fuckin’ stupid?” He forced his head up, and found he found himself able to resolve details of the face in front of him. The features, the overly-sharp nose, the scar on the chin…it was his face, older and more wrinkled, but it was him.

“Yeah, I’m you, and I’m here to tell you how much you’re about to fuck your life up. You just tried to talk to Nancy Corbett, didn’t you? And you didn’t have the guts to tell her how you feel, did you?” Older him gave a disgusted head shake, then grabbed Paul by the collar. “You have to go back and talk to her, now. If you don’t, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.”

None of it made sense. How could an older version of him be here, now, telling him all this? Paul opened his mouth, found his jaw hurt, and realized he could taste blood. Did I bite my tongue, or did that last hit knock a tooth loose? He spit, trying to clear his mouth, then focused on the man in front if him. Older Paul had none of the flab he’d feared he would develop. If anything, the version of himself looked like he was in better shape than the current him. But the older him had no more patience than he did. He shook Paul until his vision blurred, then leaned forward to yell in his face.

“Hey, did you hear me, or did I hit you hard enough to knock what little sense I had loose?”

Paul spit again, shook his own head, the focused on the man in front of him. “I heard you the first time, damn it! I’m just having a hard time figuring out how an older version of me could be smacking me around.”

Older Paul let go of his collar and stepped back. “Well, your brain might almost be working if you’re wondering about that. Remembering all those science fiction stories about time travel are you? Wondering how this can happen, a clear temporal paradox? Well, it’s not hard.” He held out his left arm and pulled back the sleeve of a rather ordinary looking jacket to reveal what looked like a large wrist digital watch on an extremely ugly band. “This got me here, and as far as the paradox part…well, let me worry about what happens after we finish talking.”

“You got here because you’re willing to wear the biggest, ugliest digital watch ever made? Seriously?”

That drew a sharp, disgusted look from older Paul. “No, you fucking idiot. I got here because this thing is the controller for a time machine built by the lab I work at.”

That perked current Paul’s interest up. “So I manage to get a job in a big-time research lab, do I? Nice to know all my interest in science fiction and stuff was worth something.”

Older Paul snorted. “Yeah, right. You got a job at a big-time physics lab all right, but you’re not a scientist, you’re a janitor, moron! You never did have the willpower to concentrate on the real science enough to keep your grades up. So you took a bunch of different odd jobs until you managed to land a job vacuuming offices and swabbing toilets in Teller National Physics Lab. The real scientists treat us like a tame monkey, but I was smart enough to understand what they were working on. So I stole the controller and used their machine to come back in time.”

“Wait, you got a job in a research facility, and you find out they’re building a time machine…and all you can think to do use it to come back in time to tell me to confess my feelings to a girl? And you call me as moron.”

Older Paul drew back his hand and took a swing at younger Paul, who got his own hand up to block the blow. The two men glared at each other, dark brown eyes staring into dark brown eyes until the older one blinked. “All right, fine. It wasn’t just for that I came back. You have to understand how not telling her how you feel will effect you…and more important, you have to understand not speaking will effect Nancy.” Older Paul shook his head, clearly disgusted with his own failure. “What happens to you is simple: When you don’t tell Nancy you love her, you convince yourself that there’s some other woman out there, waiting for you. The next woman you’re interested is happy to use to to make her real boyfriend jealous, but she doesn’t give a shit about you. After her, you manage to fall for one women who either doesn’t like you ‘that way’, or or who just plain aren’t interested in you at all. You end up alone, wishing you had someone in your life.” The face of the older version of him twisted like he’d bitten into some bitter fruit, and his eyes fixed on him again. “But Nancy, what happens to her is far worse. She ends up marrying Jim Unger. You remember him, don’t you? The rumor was that Nancy’s father forced Jim to marry her, that he’d gotten her pregnant or something. Whatever happened, they had a couple of kids while Jim moved from being a drop-dead drunk to a violent drunk.” The older man closed his eyes, shook his head, and Paul could see tears streaming down his cheeks. “I was getting off work when our sister Lena called me. She lived next door to them, and saw the cops come after someone had tried to contact Nancy. They found the whole family dead. Jim had evidently beaten Nancy to death, then killed their kids before hanging himself.” The other Paul drew a shaky breath before continuing. “I guess I should be glad he had the decency to kill himself, because when I heard, all I wanted to do was kill him. But you’ve got the chance to stop all that. Tell her how you feel, tell her you love her. Keep her away from Jim, no matter what.”

The time machine controller blinked a bright red, and the older version of Paul stepped back. “That’s the signal I was hoping for. It means I don’t have a time line to go back to, that I’ve changed the future enough to remove myself from existence. That’s how I planned this. It’s okay if this version of me doesn’t exist in the future, as long as Nancy lives. Now, go save her. It’s time for me to leave, forever.”

The other Paul seemed to glow, a light that spread from his center outward becoming so bright the younger Paul was forced to shut his eyes. Even then, he could see the light, shining through his eyelids, outlining the veins in them blue against a scarlet-pink background. Then the light was gone. Paul opened his eyes, blinking away tears from the final assault on his vision, to find himself temporarily night blind. As his vision returned to normal, he saw nothing remained of his other self. It would have been as if he had been visited by some strange dream if his jaw and midsection didn’t still hurt.

Paul stood, straightening slowly in deference to muscles that still complained, and brushed his knees off. “Well, I guess I have something I need to do.” he muttered to himself as he walked back to Nancy’s house. He was glad it wasn’t a long walk, but once he was again at her front door, Paul wondered if he could actually admit his feelings. Or even if her should. Then he thought of the girl he knew, a kind soul always willing to listen to him or anyone else, dead at the hands of an abusive husband, and his resolve hardened. He was raising his hand to press the doorbell when he heard the muffled scream on the other side of the door.

Paul threw himself at the massive door and was amazed when it burst open like the frame was made of cardboard. Another scream, louder, echoed through the house. “No! Get off me! Help, someone, help me!” The scream was followed by an audible crack, like someone was being back-handed, and Paul saw an arm rise above the sofa that sat with its back to him. “You want another one, bitch? Scream again, and you’ll get more than just a slap.” The voice was slurred, but he knew who’s voice it was, it was Jim Unger’s. Paul ran towards the sofa, but he wasn’t fast enough to stop the arm from sweeping down to deliver another blow. “Ow! What was that for, I didn’t do anything?” Then Paul was there to see the arm start to rise again and grab it.

Nancy was stretched out on the sofa, and Jim was straddling her waist. Nancy’s top was lying open, and her skirt was bunched up under Jim, who turned his head to stare at Paul. “Hey, Paul, whatca doing here? Me an Nancy here was just getting’ ready ta have a little fun.” Jim turned to glare down at Nancy. “I been goin’ out with this bitch for three months now, an she still ain’t willin’ ta put out. Can you believe that? I mean she invites me over, tells me her folks ain’t gonna be back for a couple hours. Then when I want to have some fun, she’s sayin’ no. What the fuck’s with that?”

Nancy reached up to touch Jim’s face, like she expected that to make him start thinking. “Jim, I just want to wait! I’m Catholic, so I can’t take birth control. I don’t want to get pregnant now, before we even graduate from high school. It’s only another month.”

Jim’s focus shifted back to the girl on the couch. “Yeah, that’s what ya been tellin’ me since we started goin’ out. Tellin’ me how much you love me an all…won’t even suck her man’s dick! Some real love there, leavin’ me wit blue balls ever time we go out! Tell ya what, you don’t want ta have sex, fine. Go find some other guy ta tease, bitch! I don’t need ta wait, plenty a girls willin’ ta fuck me!”

Jim stood on the sofa, an unsteady position when sober, but drunk as he was, he would have fallen over if Paul wasn’t holding his arm. His attention came back to Paul. He looked like he’d forgotten he was there. Then his eyes focused, and he gave his arm a shake. “So, Paulie ol’ friend, whatcha doing here? Still sniffin’ around after my girl are ya? Well, you can have her! I’m tired of waitin’ for Miss Proper here to figure out a man’s got needs. Gonna go fuck me someone like Lori Lewis…yeah, she’s a good slut, bet she won’t complain when I ask for some.”

He shook his arm again, and Paul let go, disgusted with his now former friend. The loss of support caused Jim to stumble off the sofa, and Paul was amazed he managed to stay upright. He did, and managed to come to something approaching an indignant stance with his fists balled on his hips as he looked first at Paul, then down at Nancy. “Yeah, you can have her, I’m done waitin’. Go on, date this guy. He’s too scared to yank his own plank, let alone ask a girl to do it for him. You two are a perfect match, both a ya so scared a sex you can’t even think about it, let alone do it.” He stopped, body swaying, then belched loudly before puking.

Stomach clenching, Paul turned away, wishing he were somewhere else, or that Jim were. He heard movement, then Nancy spoke. “Jim, sit down. I’ll go get the mop and clean up. Paul, why don’t you go home, things will be better if you’re not around making Jim angry.”

“You want me to go home? Hell, not five minutes ago, he was trying to rape you! Now you want me to go home because I’m making him angry?”

“It’s all right, we were just having a misunderstanding, weren’t we Jim?”

Jim’s had bent forward until his head was nearly between his knees, but on hearing Nancy speak, it came up. “No, we weren’t havin’ no misunderstandin’, I was fixin’ to walk out the door and leave you with this prim-an-proper asshole here.”

Nancy dropped to a knee in front of him, causing Jim’s eyes to focus on her. “It was a misunderstanding, Jim. I didn’t mean what I said…we can talk about this after Paul’s gone.” Her head swiveled around to fix on him. “I told you to leave, Paul, so go. My boyfriend and I need to talk about things that don’t concern you. Just get out and let us deal with this.”

Jim’s face tilted down for a moment to take in the scene before him, then rose again so he could leer at Paul. “You heard the lady, get lost. We’re gonna make up now, cause she’s gonna show me just how much she love me, ain’t ya babe?” His eyes and attention focused on Nancy as he unzipped his jeans. “Now, come on over here and show me you know how to do more wit that mouth a yours than talk. Time for you to show me some real love.”

Paul watched as the girl he’d been in love with forever literally crawled over to his former best friend and take hold of his dick. He couldn’t take his eyes off the scene, even as she opened her mouth and stuffed it into her mouth. Only when she began to bob her head back and forth did he turn away, sure now that there was no point in him being there. She would do whatever Jim told her to, no matter how degrading. He couldn’t save her from herself.

Jim had evidently beaten Nancy to death, then killed their kids before hanging himself.”

The words echoed in his head, the haunted words of a man who had given his live to change the past. There was small bronze statue standing on the table next to the sofa, some long-forgotten hero immortalized by a second-rate sculptor. Paul grabbed it by the shoulders and advanced on Jim. He was so fixed on his pleasure, and Nancy on satisfying him, that neither of them noticed Paul until he slammed it into the back of Jim’s head. He hadn’t been sure what would happen when it hit, but the spray of blood and brains as Jim’s skull shattered left little doubt he’d done what he intended to do.

His lifeless body pitched forward, knocking Nancy down. She pushed herself out from under him, and only then discovered why he’d fallen. “Jim! Wake up, wake up! You can’t be dead.” Then she stared at Paul, her eyes focusing in on the statue he still held in his hand. “Why? Were you so jealous of us you couldn’t let me be with the man I loved? Did you honestly think I could love you? Why?

Paul had no answers he could give her, at least none that would make sense. How could he tell her he was ready to spend the rest of his life in prison so she wouldn’t marry a drunken asshole who’d beat her and their kids to death some day? He couldn’t, but at least he’d spared her that fate. He dropped the statue, walked to the phone, and dialed the police. Nancy was sobbing over the dead body of the man she loved as he spoke to the dispatcher, telling how he’d just killed his best friend. He made no excuse when they arrested him, and offered no defense at his trial.

He had none,. He’d done what needed doing, it was as simple as that.

“The Finder of the Lucky Devil”, a review

The Finder of the Lucky Devil

by Megan Mackie

self-published

eBook versions: 138,820 words

Paper version: 427 page

Release date: June, 2017

Reviewed by Andrew Reynolds

Megan Mackie classifies her novel The Finder of the Lucky Devil as a work of urban fiction/fantasy. If you can imagine marrying a story of a dystopian future of corporate-run government with the noir feel a 50’s crime movie, and set it all in a world where magic is real, you would have an idea of what this story encompasses.

Her protagonist, Rune Leveau, is a woman who is both on the run and undercover. The story opens with her being ‘sprung’ from a corporate prison facility by her aunt, one of the most powerful magicians of her time. That corporation wants her back, and has no intentions of stopping their search for her. At the same time, she is a Talent, someone with magical powers of her own. Those with Talent are required to register their powers, but Rune is not registered, making her twice an outlaw.

Rune’s aunt gives her a new identity, along with making her heir to the far she runs, the Lucky Devil, a hang-out for magical and normal people alike. Rune’s magical power is finding. Be it lost keys of a missing person, she can find it. She worked with her aunt in order to hide her Talent, but her aunt has recently died. Now, Rune faces the task of keeping the bar out of the hands of corporate loan sharks while keeping both her real identity and power concealed.

Into this situation walks a well-dressed stranger who calls himself St. Benedict with a job offer. He needs someone found, and he’s willing to pay enough that Rune’s financial problems will be solved. But there’s a catch, and it’s a significant one: the person Benedict wants to find is the woman she used to be. Rune turns the offer down, but Benedict isn’t one to take no for an answer. He leaks the fact that Rune might know the location of her former self, and soon every corporate police force and petty thug in Chicago is after her.

Rune and Benedict team up in an uneasy partnership when the people who work with Benedict are taken. Together, they embark on a journey through a Chicago both familiar and strange, one featuring the gritty alleys and dead-end openings between building familiar to any city dweller, along with magically-created passages open only to those who know of them. As the pair work together, Rune discovers that she has far more power than she ever imagined, and that her role in Chicago’s magical world is far more important than just the possession of an unusual Talent.

I’ve never read any urban fantasy novels before, but if the genre has half the appeal of Megan Mackie’s book, I may have to delve into it more. The book takes a few pages to really get going, but once she gets into motion, the story of Rune and Benedict’s flight from one cliff-hanging adventure to the next keeps you reading. It also doesn’t give any hint of the ending until you get there, which is something I as a reader appreciated. Megan gives you characters that have depth and nuance, even the ‘supporting cast’ that only appear for a few pages have the feel of being real people. It’s a good story, and she gives herself the opening to write more about these characters, which I hope she does.

Paul Sanchez’s vision of a dark America

It all ended with a quarter.

I’d been alive forty years, and every one of them years a slightly different flavor of hell. Like most kids with workin’ parents, I’d gotten a few years of schoolin’, but that had ended when Dad had been fired for being five minutes late for work. After that, I swept floors, stocked shelves and did whatever work I could find. I was glad get paid a few cents for a day’s work because work was hard to come by. Hell, between kids like me, and all the old folks needin’ money to stay alive, anyone hiring had plenty of folk willing to cut each other’s throats to land a day’s worth a work.

My Dad told me about when he was young. How some crazy politician had tried to set it up so old folks didn’t have to work ’til they dropped. He’d been shouted down and nothing had been done. Dad said it was cause the bosses knew lots of poor people fighting for jobs kept wages down. Dad told me about his dad, and how he’d talked about how working people should ‘get together’ and try to improve their lot’. Then his father had gone off to something called a ‘strike’, and never come home. The cops had come around at sunset and hauled his Mom off, leavin’ him and three younger kids to fend for themselves. They’d been lucky, his Mom had come home but she had been scared half to death. The cops had grilled her for hours about her husband’s ‘radical’ ideas. They’d wanted to know if he’d talked about’em to her and her kids. She’d managed to convince them her husband hadn’t told her anything, then they’d taken her to the morgue to identify her husband. His Mom had told him that Grandad had been beaten pretty bad before someone had shot him in the head. They’d buried him in a plain pine box, and Grandma had followed him inside of a year, dead because a drunk john had felt like beating the crap out of the new prostitute at the local whore house.

For me, all that talk about the ‘old days’ was so much hot air. I was glad to land a job feedin’ parts fresh outta the molds into the polishin’ machine. I didn’t complain if the boss shorted my pay every once in a while. I knew if I groused, I’d be out the door. Too many other guys had complained, and were gone, for me to be tempted to say anything, no matter how bad things got.

I was lucky. Other guys at the foundry lost fingers, hell, lost hands, feet and even arms and legs. Nobody cared, why should they? Plenty a folks would be happy to take the job and the risks. Me, the worst I had to worry about was the occasional burn from a part that hadn’t cooled.

Then I went to work and found the gate chained shut. None of the bosses had said anythin’, but one of the guys who maintained the machines told me what’d happened. They’d closed the plant cause they could get people in China to do work even cheaper. So after fifteen years of hard work, I was back to scroungin’ for somethin’, anythin’, to make a buck.

Now I was one of the ‘old folks’ tryin’ to make ends meet. I got kicked out of the little apartment I’d been livin’ in, and felt lucky to share a room at the Hotel St. Louis. Once upon a time, it had been a stop for passenger trains when they’d come through town. When they quit runnin’, the hotel had fallen on hard times. Now, it was a flop house, and people joked that it was the Hotel St. DeLouse, thinkin’ everyone who lived there was a bum with lice. They weren’t exaggeratin’ much.

The coughin’ started a year after I lost my job, and I didn’t need a doctor to know what it was. Other men who’d done my job came down with the same thing. One said it was cause of the dust in the air. It probably was, what with the dust was always so thick you couldn’t hardly see your hand in front of your face. Whatever caused it, I knew it would keep gettin’ worse. Soon I’d be coughing up blood with the wads of black crap that felt like sandpaper inside my throat.

Dead or dyin’, I needed to eat, and that meant workin’ at whatever job I could find. But nobody wanted to hire a guy who spent half his time coughin’. I ended up sweeping floors in bars for a few pennies a day and whatever spare change I found lyin’ on the floor. The bartender would turn a blind eye to me cadgin’ peanuts and the other snack crap left out for paying customers, but only if the owner weren’t around.

My habit a pickin’ up pocket change that got me. I was walkin’ to the bar for another day of sweeping when I saw it: a quarter, lyin’ in the middle of the road. Hell, that was more than I’d be paid for the week! I walked out into the street without looking, knowin’ I’d have a fortune when I picked it up. I didn’t know the car was comin’ until I heard the screech of the tires. Then there was an incredible pain all along my left side, and the world tumbled ass over teakettles. I ended up lyin’ in the road, but I didn’t feel any more pain. Hell, I didn’t feel anything, not even the rough pavement my face was on. My head was pointed so I could still see that shiny quarter. Now, it was lyin’ almost dead-center under the grill of a big car with a three-pointed star set in the center.

I heard someone yellin’, cussin’ like crazy. “Goddamn fuckin’ bum! What the hell was he doin’, walking out in the of the road? Look at the mess he made! My damned brand-new car gonna have to go to the shop to fix these dents. And all because of that damn bum!” A pair of finely-polished shoes came into view, running towards where I lay. They stopped, the leg in the expensive pair of pants drew back, and my head jerked, the only indication I had that he’d kicked me. Another kick, them more screaming. “Say something, you goddamn bum! What the fuck reason did you have for getting’ in my way?”

The world was going dark, and I realized that not only couldn’t I feel the pavement, I couldn’t feel myself breathing.

I was dyin’. I knew it, but there wasn’t anythin’ I could do but marvel over the fact that I’d died for a quarter.

Shall we go gentle into that good night?

I’m sorry, Vesta Explorer, but the numbers don’t lie. There’s no way to get you home.”

Paul stared at the speaker, wondering how Mike Cho could so calmly tell him and the other four surviving members of the crew of the first mission to a major asteroid that they were dead. The unreasoning part of him wanted to shout, to scream his defiance of that cold pronouncement. But Mike had said those words nearly a hour ago, and Paul knew his protests would take an equally long time to reach Mission Control. Those protests would also change nothing.

The reaction mass tanks should have had more than enough protection. Paul was an engineer, and he knew the specifications those tanks had been built to. Yet for all the layers of Kevlar, aluminum and plastic that had encased them, a single undetected rock fragment had slammed into one, and when it ruptured, the force of that explosion was enough to blow the tanks on either side of it. The other three tanks had been spared by their separation, but it made no difference. It was simple bad luck that the three unused tanks were destroyed. The undamaged tanks had provided the fuel to get them on their way, and now held less than a third of what the mission would need to finish with them still alive.

“So I guess we’re fecked.”

Fionola Lynch’s Donegal-accented English was the antitheses of Cho’s MIT-educated precision, an earthy counterpoint to the cold, clinical pronouncement of their death sentence. Her partner, Vadik Sokolov, had been working outside with Zhao Shen when the tanks went. Shen had been lucky, his vital signs had flat-lined instantaneously. Vadik’s tether was cut by a piece of debris, and he’d spent the next four hours pleading for help they couldn’t provide. Fionola had stayed on the radio with him until he lost consciousness, trying to cheer him up in the face of certain death. After he’d gone silent, she’d stared at the speaker for hours as if wishing the man she loved would speak again would cause it to happen.

It hadn’t, any more than all their projections and planning had caused their fate to change.

Paul cleared his throat, trying to get his crew to pay attention to something besides their impending doom. Their eyes on him, he said the only thing he could. “We’re dead yet, people. We still have the food for the mission we were sent on, and our environmental systems are still functioning. We only die when we give up, remember that. So keep doing your jobs, keep doing the science. We don’t know what might come up. They might decide to redirect the Mars cycler on a fast burn and reach us before we run out of food. Even if they can’t…well, we can either spend the time we have left doing something useful, or we can sit around doing nothing and waiting for the end. I don’t intend to ‘go gentle into that good night’, and I hope you aren’t either.”

Maria found Fionola the next morning. She’d managed to bypass the security interlocks on the medicine storage locker and stolen four of the syringes of morphine they’d been stocked with in case of serious injuries. She’d left a note behind, hoping God would forgive her and let her be with Vadik again. None of us knew the ritual words, so Paul decided to put her out the airlock as the rest of the crew stood as close to at attention as the low-G of the rotating crew cabin allowed.

A week later, Maria was gone. She went out the same airlock Fionola had, but she’d gone of her own volition, locking herself in and depressurizing before anyone could override her commands. Franco, who had been in love with her for months, managed to slit his own throat the same day. Paul had tried to stop the bleeding, but Franco had clawed at him and Jurgen, the remaining member of the crew, had refused to help.

Paul couldn’t forgive Jurgen for his willingness to do nothing to save a fellow crew member. Over the next three months, they had stayed out of each other’s way, working 12 hour shifts and only speaking at hand-over. Then Paul had gotten up and found himself alone. There was nothing to tell him when Jurgen had gone out the airlock, for the open outer door made it clear that was what had happened. There was no note, nothing to give him a hint what event had finally broken the other man’s resolve. He was simply gone.

Paul kept up his daily routine, downloading science data to mission control and updating his status. The months passed, time stretched out before him without end. In his mind, he began handing off night duties to Jurgen again. Then he began to see the phantom crewman as he left duty, grim and resolute as he had always been, as he went to bed and came back on duty the next morning. Franco started to join him in his daily rounds of the crew compartment, offering his sharp-tongued comments on the daily mission updates from Earth. Maria was there too, her shy but competent presence always welcomed.

But Jurgen never came back. Neither did Fionola. They, and the men who’d died in the accident remained stubbornly absent from Paul’s imaginary crew. That absence began to gnaw at Paul’s conscious mind. The missing crew members were a reminder that he was in fact all alone, millions of from any other humans. Nearly a year after he’d announced there was nothing that could be done for the crew of the Vesta Explorer, Mike Cho’s voice shattered Paul’s make-believe world.

Vesta Explorer, Vesta Explorer, this is mission control, and I’ve got some good news for you. The initial tests of the Far Voyager have been completed, and the engine has performed far better than we’d hoped. We project that it can make the burn to get out to you before you run out of food. You can come home, Paul.”

Paul stared at the speaker. It was impossible. How could he abandon his ship, his crew? No, they couldn’t ask him to do that. He was the mission commander, and he had to stay with his crew. He wouldn’t leave them. It took him a week to reprogram the main computer to automatically poll all the science systems and download them to mission control. Then he powered the reactor back to the bare minimum needed to keep those instruments running and settled into his small cabin. The syringes slid into his arm one after another, and the ragged cabin began to fade. His crew gathered around him again, even those who had stubbornly refused to join him in his lonely vigil. Their smiles told him all he needed to know. They were together again, and nothing would separate the crew of the Vesta Explorer.