What are monsters made of?

“Sarah!”

The thing in front of him did not like Pete yelling. “Thing” was the only word he could use to describe the muscular human body wearing a tattered pair of jeans and topped with a wolf’s head. It lunged forward, reaching out like a man would to grab him while it’s muzzle split open in a snarl. The teeth this revealed would shred him in an instant if he didn’t do something.

He did something. It moved like a man, but it seemed to have the mind of a wolf. Pete was able to dodge it, and as it passed, he slammed the crowbar in his hand into the back of it’s head. The thing went down, and howled like a dog as Pete brought the crowbar down again and again until it fell silent.

It wasn’t the first horror Pete had seen. Another thing, much like this one but smaller, lay in the front room of his house. A woman’s body with a cat’s head and claws lay on the steps to his house. Pete had beaten them to death too.

Now that wolf-head was dead, there was nothing between him and his daughter’s room. He stepped over the still form and advanced on the familiar door. Blood had spattered everywhere in the hall, including a thin line of drops marred the childish sunflower that decorated Sarah’s door. Pete reached out to grab the door knob, and the house shook. It wasn’t hard to understand why it was shaking. Not a block away, a giant lizard was methodically reducing Plainview Grade School to a pile of rubble.

Fuck it, Pete, be honest, that’s fucking Godzilla stomping the school to pieces.

Pete remembered staring at the giant beast through his front windshield, wondering how many kids had escaped before the walking nightmare had begun its work. Even if the kids had all escaped, he had to do something, and quick. His fingers closed around the familiar doorknob, and it opened as it always had when he twisted his wrist.

“Sarah?”

The inside of his daughter’s room was all shadows and half-light. Like him, she had trouble sleeping if there was too much light in the room. So the room’s only illumination came from a tiny strip of sunlight that leaked around the edges of a set of heavy ‘black-out’ curtains. As it often was, there was a minefield of toys and discarded cloths between Pete and the bed where Sarah lay. She gave no hint she’d heard him.

“Sarah?”

He spoke louder, hoping she’d wake, but beyond a quick toss of her head, Sarah gave no sign of having heard. Again, like him, once his daughter was asleep, waking her could be near-impossible.

“Sarah!”

Louder still, but as he spoke, a thunderous roar tore the air outside. Sounding like a cross between tearing metal and low-flying jet, it shook not just the air, it rattled the room’s windows and throbbed through Pete’s body.

And still Sarah did nothing more than toss fitfully in her sleep.

Pete threaded his way through the object on the floor to reach his daughter’s bed. Bending down, he touched her shoulder. “Sarah, it’s Daddy. Wake up honey.”

His daughter rolled away from him with an inarticulate moan, and the temperature around him drop. His next breath came out as a cloud of fog, and across the bed from him, Pete saw a dark shape forming. If the thing with a wolf’s head had been a terror, to huge blob gathering before him would be a nightmare incarnate. It towered over him, topping out just beneath the eight foot ceiling, and half as wide as Sarah’s bed was long.

Pete had seen the darkness take shape before. His daughter had been a scared three year old, and he had gone to her bedroom to check on her. Like now, he’d found her asleep already. But as he stood beside her bed, he’d watched as the shadows coalesced into a teddy bear…a teddy bear in armor, carrying a sword and shield…a teddy bear that rose and moved between Pete and his daughter like a sentry.

“Sarah, you have to wake up now!”

The guardian teddy hadn’t done anything, but the way it positioned itself between them told Pete he would not be allowed to touch his daughter. It was gone the next morning, and Sarah had no memory of it.

But a few weeks later, another child had pushed Sarah down at the playground. The child and its parent had apologized, and Sarah had seemed to accept it with no hard feelings. But that night, Pete had witnessed a black outline of something that looked like himself stalk out of the house and vanish into the night. The next day, the town was abuzz with stories of a family murdered in their sleep, each member beaten to death in their beds. It wasn’t until the local paper printed their obituaries that Pete realized the family had been that of the child who’d pushed Sarah. And no one was ever brought to trial for the crime.

The dark shape became more defined. A rounded head, a long muzzle, broad shoulders…it began to look like one of the polar bears that had so fascinated Sarah at the zoo. Another screech, like the world itself were being ripped apart, tore the air outside.

People were dying outside, just as his wife had died after telling Sarah she shouldn’t be angry all the time. A black something had ripped her to shreds as she took a bag out to the garbage, leaving no trace the police could find. After that, things had gotten worse, and Sarah seemed angry all the time, just as she had been this afternoon when she’d come home from her first day at school. And now the school was being destroyed.

Pete had to act, now, before the monstrous shape across the bed could solidify and kill him. He had to act, or more people would die.

“Please, Sarah, wake up for Daddy. Please stop this.”

Sarah didn’t wake, but the giant shape became more defined. It’s thick arms made a few tentative swings, and from deep in its broad chest, he heard a rumbling growl like a dozen angry mastiffs.

Pete’s daughter was becoming a monster. He knew that. He’d hoped she’d grow out of it. But she ‘d just become angrier.

“I love you, Sarah. Daddy will protect you from the monsters.”

His arm rose, the crowbar came down, he swung it again and again, until the monster in his daughter’s bed was dead, and he wished himself dead beside her.

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The disappearance.

“Okay, remember, I’ll count to ten, then I’ll come find you! Ready….start! One….two…”

My eyes are closed, but I hear my children run off, laughing as they go. In a single-floored ranch like ours, it’s not hard to tell which way they’re going. I hear Kevin and Lisa’s footsteps echo as they dash down the hall.

“three….four….five…”

The muffle screech of a hinge in need of oiling tells me they’ve gone into the room they share. I hear murmured words, too indistinct to make out, and know they’re trying to figure out where they’ll hide.

“six….seven…..eight….”

The slight rasping noise of a sliding door opening and closing lets me know they’re hiding in their closet. Now, to make a show of finding them.

“nine….ten….ready or not, here I come!”

I make sure to be as loud as I can as I make my mock search of the house, opening doors and calling out as I wander around. “Where can they be? Those kids have gotten too good at hiding for me!” I hear them giggling as I fling their door open. “Could they be in here?” The closet take up most of one wall opposite their beds, and I hear Kevin hushing Lisa as I approach it. My fingers slip into the recesses on the opposing sliding doors and I slide them aside with a shout of “Found you!”

But there’s nobody in the closet, there’s nothing in the closet.

All of Lisa’s dresses, her tops, Kevin’s jeans and the pile of dirty clothing he insists on leaving in the closet….all of it is gone. The entire space is empty, not even an errant sock lies on the floor. But as I stand there, stunned by the sudden change, I hear them. They’re still giggling like they’ve put one over on Mommy for once and managed to hide from her.

I slap the back wall, push against it at different spots hoping that somewhere there’s a hidden door, some trick that’s allowing my children to hide not just themselves but all the clothing I know they have from me. But the wall is solid, as is the floor when I stomp on it in the vain hope of finding a trap door.

“Kevin! Lisa! Do you hear me! Come out this instant!”

There is no answer beyond more giggles, and I begin to panic. Could I have been mistaken and they hid in the master bedroom? I go out the door, thrust open the door to the room my husband and I sleep in, and begin searching.

Nothing. They’re not in our closet, nor in the bathroom adjoining our room. Could they be under our bed? On hands and knees, I peer into the dim space under our king-sized bed, and see nothing but a few dust bunnies in need of cleaning up.

Could they be under their beds?

I hadn’t thought of such a possibility, sure as I was that they’d hidden in their closet, but now I rush back to look. I find nothing, not even the favorite well-worn teddy bear Lisa keeps hidden under her bed so it is close at hand on stormy nights. But even as I look, I can hear my children laughing quietly, and quite close at hand.

“Kevin! Lisa! This is not funny! Come out at once!” Nothing, just the same occasional murmur of gleeful giggles. “Do you hear me? I said come out!”

But they don’t come out, they don’t suddenly pop up to bask in their joy at having frightened their mother. I cross the hall, intent on going through the small bathroom the children use. It has the same fixtures, right down to the slight crack in the glazing on the sink, but it is empty of anything personal. The children’s toothbrushes, the battered stainless steel comb Kevin inherited from his grandfather, even Lisa’s collection of hair clips, all of it is gone.

I search the rest of the house, panic tightening my chest as every attempt to find Kevin and Lisa proves fruitless. There is no place for them to hide in our back yard, but I look anyway. Again, nothing.

Now, the panic is all-consuming, a thing that has swallowed me, an ocean that threatens to drown me. I call 911.

“Carswell’s Corner 911, please state the nature of the emergency.”

“It’s my children! They’ve gone missing, disappeared!”

“Where did you last see your children, miss?”

“In my kitchen. I was playing hide and seek with them, and they’re not here. I’ve been through the whole house, I’ve searched every room, and I can’t find them anywhere!”

A moment of silence, then the disembodied voice comes back. “Miss, I’m showing you’re location as 127 Wolff Road, is that correct?”

“Yes, yes, that’s where I live! Please, can you get someone here to help me find my children?”

“Yes, miss, I’ve dispatched a car, they should be there shortly. Please stay on the line until they arrive miss.”

“Yes, of course, anything, just get them here to help me search!”

Another, longer moment of silence, then I hear a car, driving fast, coming up the road. The engine noise drops, the screech of tires stopping fast, and I see flashing lights out the front window. “Miss, officers should be in front of your house now. Can you open the door for them?”

I rush to the front door, yank it open, and a pair of men in uniform are waiting. One is older, tall and slender, his hair going gray. The other is short and heavy set, his dark hair buzz-cut short. Neither of them look happy. I don’t care if they’re happy or not.

“Officers, I’m glad you got here so quickly. I need your help. My children have managed to find a hiding place in the house that I can’t find. I need you to help me get them out.”

The younger man looks disgusted, like he’d just heard someone tell the biggest lie of all time. The older man just looks sad as he speaks to me.

“Mrs. Sanchez, how many more times are we going to have to come here? We’ve searched your house more times than I can remember, with you right behind us. Every time, we’ve never found any kids, and that’s because you’ve never had any kids!” He scrubs a hand over his face and shakes his head. “I’ve told you before, if you keep calling us, we’re going to arrest you for filing a false police report. I’m not going to do that this time….but this is your last warning. If I, or any other officer, have to come here again, you’re going to go to jail. Now, have I made myself clear?”

Is he insane? I remember my children. The hours I spent in labor before Kevin came out. How Lisa had always been sick as a baby, but had grown to be a force of nature. I remember every time they fell. Every scrape on their knees. Every day home from school for a fever. Everything. ”But officer….”

He didn’t give me the chance to finish. “I don’t want to hear it again. I mean it. We’re going now. Your husband should be home soon, so you can tell that poor sorry bastard all about it. God knows how he puts up with someone as crazy as you.”

And that was it. He turned and walked away, his young partner giving me a final, sickened stare before following him. They weren’t going to help. They didn’t care. They thought I was insane, people who believed something as crazy as me never having any children. I close the door knowing I’ll have no help.

I have to find them. I have to. I can hear their giggles, but where are they?

Wait…what?

I open the door again. My door is stained wood, but not this door. It’s red, and not some calm brick red either. No, it’s a bright, almost garish red, the sort most people would call ‘fire-engine red’ I hate red, especially bright reds. Did some vandal paint it this hideous color?

Then I look closer, and see the wear around the door knob. The scratched paint near the lock. There are scuff marks at the bottom, some of them old enough to have started fading.

What is happening here?

 

The strange case of Lindsey O’Hara

[This is the beginning of an idea for a crime novel I’m thinking of writing. Any feedback is welcomed.]

She had come in yesterday, just as Mike Shannon had been getting ready to leave for the day. A short, slender woman, her back as straight as a reed. She had the coal black hair of someone with am Armada survivor in her ancestry, but skin so pale it might have been paper. Her request was simple: she wanted to hire Mike to investigate the murder of Lindsey O’Hara, late of Tuam. She was willing to pay his rates, plus any extra expenses he might incur. Given the lack of cases Mike had had of recent, he’d ready to be dickered down, but if the customer wanted to pay him full rates, he’d not object.

So Mike climbed the stairs to his office over Flynn’s Pub intent on researching the crime, But his search soon made one stunning fact clear: Lindsey O’Hara was his most recent client. The face that stared out of the photo with her obituary was the same face he’d seen the night before. Further digging brought up more stories about the crime. Lindsey had been the only surviving child of Rory O’Hara, and the last living member of his family.

Rory had expanded his Tuam-based contracting and real estate development business into the Dublin market just before the Irish economic bubble had popped. Mike remembered his end well, having been part of the team investigating it. Exhibiting singularly poor business judgment, Rory had decided it would be better to get in bed with the Kinahan crime family than to go bankrupt. When his company went under anyway, his underworld ‘friends’ had taken him to an isolated farm on the outskirts of Dublin and put a bullet in his skull. Linsey had followed her father in dying a violent death. She’d been shot three times in what was described as a failed robbery of her home. After their usual bluster, the local garda had failed to bring anyone to trial for the crime. Eventually, the story had faded from from the headlines.

How he’d forgotten the shooting, Mike couldn’t fathom. He leaned back, his old office chair protesting at the sudden motion. “Well fuck me, how about that? I’m working for a dead woman. But how am I to get paid by a dead lady?”

The screen on his mobile lite up, and a tinny instrumental version of “Happy Days Are Here Again” began blaring away. He only used that ring tone for one person: Liam Pleshen, an old acquaintance and current a senior manager at the AIB branch where Mike did what banking he had. Liam had gotten in trouble with a couple of bookies over a bet on the Grand National. He’d won on a long shot, and suspecting Liam of possessing inside information, they’d not only refused to pay up, they’d threatened to go to the garda. Mike had managed to mediate an agreement by drawing on his former colleagues in the Dublin branch to lean on the bookies. Since then, Liam had been a vital source of information where banking was concerned.

Mike tapped the phone. “Well, Liam, how are things for the idle wealthy?”

“Yeah, hello and fuck you too, Mike. I called because there’s been some odd activity in your bank account. To be precise, five thousand euros were deposited in it overnight. The only way I can see you getting that much money is either you finally solved a case, or you’ve quit pretending to be ethical and have started blackmailing your ex-clients.”

Five thousand euros? That would cover what Mike charged for a couple week’s worth of investigation, maybe more.”Can you find out where the money came from?”

“Half a sec…” Liam’s fingers clattered on a keyboard was the only sound, then a muted “Fuck me!” before he spoke to Mike again. “The money came out of an account registered to Galway United Development, but isn’t that….”

Mike drew in a sharp breath. Galway United Development had been the shell company Rory O’Hara ran his other companies through, and the only one that had escaped liquidation after his death. As his sole heir, Lindsey would have had control of it. “Yes, it’s the last business holding of the O’Hara family. Is there any record of who authorized the transfer?”

“Mike, I’m just your friend the neighborhood banker, not a forensic accountant with the grada. They’re the only ones who could find something like that out. You should call your old pals in Dublin, maybe they can find that out who’d be sending you money from a dead man’s accounts. Then again, maybe they’ll be asking you why you’re getting money from a source like that. Why are you getting money from them, Mike?”

No way Mike was telling someone he’d been hired by a dead woman to investigate her own murder. “I don’t know, Liam, but I’ll find out. Thanks for the call. Maybe you should stop by Flynn’s and I’ll stand you a couple of pints as thanks for letting me know I’m flush again.”

“What, and drink on a dead man’s tab? Thanks, no.” and broke the connection, leaving Mike to sort out what he knew so far. He’d grown up in America, so he wasn’t one to believe in banshees or spirits. That meant either someone posing as Lindsey O’Hara was orchestrating an outside investigation of her death, or someone with the funds to hire an impostor was pulling the strings. But why?

“Well, Liam, I might just have to follow your advice for once.” Mike opened a screen, then accessed his ‘Doomsday’ file. It had all the names and contact information for every member of the garda who might be willing to help him as a friend…or whom he had dirt on to use to extract a favor.

Olivier Dzba was one of the former. The two of them had been in the same class at the Garda Training College, and with them both being outsiders, they’d become friends. Olivier had been six when he’d come to Ireland with his parents to escape a nasty civil conflict in the Congo. So unlike Mike, he’d come up through the Irish school system, and spoke Irish like a native. Watching the reactions of some of his Irish classmates as a stream of Galway Irish poured from the huge black man had given Mike many a laugh their first year. Mike tapped in the phone number he had for his old friend, and smiled as he heard that deep baritone coming from his mobile.

Ceanncheathrú Bhaile Átha Cliath, Garda Siochana, Bleachtaire Dzba ag labhairt.

“Olivier, you know my Irish isn’t worth shite, so could you speak in a language I can understand?”

“Mike? Jaysus, lad, where’ve you been hiding? It’s been ages since I heard your voice.”

“Athlone. Not the Middle of Nowhere…but I can see it from here on a clear day.”

That got him a laugh. “Ah, you always were one to love Dublin, weren’t you? For myself, I can’t wait for the next bank holiday…I’ve a spot already reserved on the Corrib. Three days salmon fishing, and not a case to be solved.”

Strange cat tales

Something strange happened today, but to understand why it’s strange, you need to know a bit of history.

I’ve had several what I call ‘hang-around-the-fort’ cats. The name draws from the old days of American Indian culture when there were those who tried to follow the traditional ways of life, and those who who took to the white man’s ways. The former often called the latter ‘hang-around-the-fort’ Indians because they regarded those who took the white man’s path as too lazy to fend for themselves. When applied to cats, it means a stray that’s willing to show up and eat food provided for it, while occasionally allowing itself to be petted. Generally, they maintain a facade of independence, a sort of aloof attachment to those who feed them.

A few have moved beyond that to become near pets, venturing into the house for short periods before making their own way towards the door and the environment they’re familiar with. One of these earned the name “No Paws”. She was one of a surviving pair of female kittens born to a terrible mother cat who tended to lie atop her kittens and kill them. The two were identical dark tabbies except for the fact that one of them had four white paws, and the other didn’t. So when a family member picked the name “Snow Paws” for that one, and the other became “No Paws”. Snow Paws disappeared shortly after maturing (some ‘hang-around’ cats are only temporary visitors), but “No Paws” became something of a fixture, becoming as close to a real pet as possible for a feral cat. She would come in the house, wander around, even lie down and watch TV with everyone else. But eventually, she’d head for the door where she’d sit impatiently waiting for someone to let her out. She hung around for a couple of years, then one day, she just wasn’t around anymore. Where she went to, I don’t know. I never saw her wandering the neighborhood, nor did she delve into my or the neighbor’s garbage. She just left.

Other cats followed her, including the current cat who bears the name “Silly” (the name has a long story attached to it, suffice it to say she earned the moniker). Like most of the earlier cats, “Silly” is a female (why I draw the interest of mostly female cats, I have no clue), and she’s been around for nearly three years now. Occasionally, other cats will show up to try to steal her food (she prefers to eat outside, I guess preferring ‘alfresco’ dining to being around us lowly humans), and a few will decide to stick around short-term in hopes of benefiting from the ‘free food’ us humans put out.

So it was no surprise when a dark tabby showed up a couple of weeks ago. It didn’t stick around long. “Silly” is fairly territorial, and I or someone else will usually hear the howling prequel to a full-on cat fight long before actual combat commences. I was the one who broke this fight up before it started, and outside of watching the cat until it had run away, I didn’t think anything of it.

Then I went out to prepare my own lunch today, and saw a dark cat on the back walk. It was facing away from the house, but in hopes of discouraging it from getting into a conflict with “Silly”, I opened the back door and called out to it. Usually, the response to this is the cat sprinting away as fast as it can go, but not this time. No, this cat raised its head, looked at me….then ran towards the back door. It came up, stopped at the bottom of the screen door, and stared up at me while letting out plaintive meows.

That’s when I noticed it’s markings. They were the same as “No Paws”, and the cat was rather large, just like her. And it sat there, staring up at me like it knew me and expected me to let it in.

“No Paws” was a full-grown adult cat when she disappeared nearly twenty years ago, so it’s impossible that this is her. So what’s going on? Is this someone’s pet turned out? Or is this some distant descendant of the cat that went MIA all those years ago?

For those who wander the deep

[An homage to one of my favorite authors, Patrick O’Brian.]

HMS Adder took a sudden, lurching roll that almost threw her commander across the low-ceilings space that was technically his great cabin. Lieutenant Howard Penvesal, Commander only because he commanded the tiny old sixteen gun brig, had been in the midst of fair copying his rough log into the official one when it happened, and even without being on deck, he knew the cause. Adder was beating her way through another in a string of late winter gales the inshore squadron blockading Lorient had endured, trying to find the rest of the Royal Navy. A vicious storm two nights before had blown in just at the end of the last dog watch, dropping visibility so much the bowsprit was invisible to those manning the wheel. When it had cleared, not a light from of the other ships, not even the massive stern lantern of HMS Ajax, command ship of the squadron, was visible. It had been over a week since the clouds had thinned enough for Penseval to attempt to make an observation of even the Sun, and between the cross-grained seas and in-shore currents, his best guess of his location was just that, a guess.

So Adder scudded along under a minimum of storm canvas, her tops filled with man who’s eyes watched for the first sign of rocks that might send her and them to the bottom. They were relieved at each bell, but how long could they, and the ship they manned, feel her way through this ugly weather before their luck ran out? Howard pushed such dark speculation aside as he moved the log back to the center of the shelf he used as a writing desk. “At least the bloody ink didn’t over set.” he muttered to himself as he took up his pen and looked at what he’d written so far.

3 March, 1810, strong gales ENE, seas heavy. Ship working heavy, speed five knots, course three points W of NW. People again employed mending storm damage.”

Should he write about the thing that had taken him on deck at first light? And if he did, what could he say that made any sense?

#

Dawn, if the gradual fading of a pitch-black night into something approaching a dim gray rain swept reality could be called that, came two hours after Howard had cast himself into his hammock. In a small ship like Adder, even the commanding officer stood watch, and with the dirty weather they’d been fighting, Howard had taken the graveyard watch. The night before, Masters Mate Lucas Simmons, his second in command, had taken the same watch, so named because it stretched from midnight to four in the morning. Howard’s exhaustion was so profound he had no memory of throwing off his tarpaulin jacket, nor of climbing into his hammock, but the shout of “Ship off the larbiard bow!” had awoken him as surely as a bucket of cold Atlantic water dumped over his face. He rolled out of his swinging bed, grabbed his telescope from the rack by the door, and charged onto deck.

What he found there was not the motion of a crew moving to either intercept a prize, nor to flee a superior French ship (and nearly every ship the French might send out was superior to the Adder), but a crew staring in dumb amazement to larboard. Simmons stood by the lee rail, eyes fixed ahead and mouth gaping, as if he’d been turned to stone. Howard rushed across the quarterdeck to get clear of foot of the mizzen sail that blocked his view…and found the source of his crews consternation.

It would not have been visible if not for the white bow wave its knife-like bow threw off. The gray shape, easily longer than Ajax, blended almost seamlessly with the sea and clouds. How it moved, Howard had no clue, for not one sail was visible, nor any masts. Yet move it did, with a terrible speed, far faster than even the smugglers Adder often intercepted. Staring at it, Howard realized it was not just moving with great speed, it was moving against the wind. But the thing that froze his heart was the ensign streaming from its stern: the French tricolor.

How could the French have built and launched such a ship with nary a hint of its existence? No gun ports broke its sides, but the fact that the French possessed a ship like this meant it was only a matter of time before they gave it cannons. But how did it move? It clearly was not a clanking steam-powered paddle-wheeler like the one Howard had heard now operated in the Clyde, so what drove it through the waters with such rapidity? The unknown ship and Adder were angling towards each other, and he currently possessed the weather gauge, so Howard decided to see if he could intercept the stranger and find out how it operated.

“Make sail, all hands make sail! Main and topsail! Course five points North of NW. Let’s see if we can take Admiral Cartwright a fine prize to make up for our absence.”

The bellowed command was followed by a moment of silence, as if the crew could not believe he proposed to set about the gigantic French ship, then Simmons took up the cry. “All hand make sail! Top men lay aloft!” The bosun’s brass voice took up the call, his whistle shrilling out its command, and the men sprang to action. The ratlines were soon dark with men, while others gathered to sheet home the lines as the sails came free. Adder was no crack ship, Howard never having seen the need to whip sails out in seconds, but the crew did her justice, casting gaskets off and bringing the lines home to set her sails taught and drawing to their peak.

The old ship responded to the sudden increase in thrust. She heeled slowly over and began to pick up speed, her rigging moaning as the extra strain came on it. But she breasted the waves and took to her task like the stolid old war horse she was. Howard turned his attention back to the Frenchman. He slid through the water, and from the lack of any crew moving about, he was seemingly oblivious to the existence of Adder. Were his lookouts blind, or did he just not regard the ancient brig as a threat? Time to show him the Adder had teeth. “Gun crews, larboard side!”

Howard wasn’t rich enough to buy his own powder like some officers, so his crew had only fired the six-pounders they now swarmed about a handful of times. But he had conducted regular gun drills, running the unwieldy monsters in and out in to memorize the actions needed to service them. Now, though, they ran their pieces in with deadly intent, the gun captain drawing the tompons as others raised the gun port or took up their assigned place. The master gunner moved down the line, placing a lite tub of slow match beside each gun, ready for the moment when the order to fire came. He came to the last gun, then looked across the narrowing line of water.

“Sir, where should the guns be pointed? She ain’t got no riggin’ to shoot away, and if we hull’er, how’ll we prove to the Admiral we done sunk somethin’ like that?”

It was a question Howard hadn’t thought of, but as he glanced at the approaching French ship, he could only think of one place to aim the guns. “Whether we can prove we sank a French man-of-war or not isn’t important. Gun crews, aim for the waterline! A hole between wind and water’s a better argument to surrender than anything else I know of.” Down on the gun deck, men cheered and plied their crows, shifting their aim downward to hammer the French hull where it would do the most damage. Howard watched the last barrel shift and looked at his target. They were close now, well within the range of even the Adder’s meager guns. But they wouldn’t enjoy that position for long. The speed of their opponent was drawing it ahead. Already, its bow was beyond the forwardmost reach of his bow gun. Howard drew in a breath, ready to shout out his order to fire, but a voice like God speaking from the heavens themselves rang out from the French ship, interrupting him.

Navire inconnu, identifiez-vous. »

Howard knew no French, but the challenging tone of the voice made it clear this was no friendly greeting. Time to act. “From the bows, fire as you bear!” The bow gun roared out, and the mist hanging in the air hazing as the ball passed through it, leaving a trail a blind man could follow. He watched as the ball hit, but did not hear the sound of its impact as the the next gun in line fired. Each gun, down the line, discharged its deadly content, and all of them but the Number 9 gun stuck home at or slightly above the French waterline. Number 9 fired as Adder took a freak wave on her bow, pitching the ball high so it struck what looked like a boat stowed on the Frenchman’s deck. That was the only visible damage, the other balls bouncing off with no trace that they had struck beyond a slight depression in the French hull. Could this giant ship be made of metal? The thought flew through Howard’s mind, but he had no time to reflect upon it. They were approaching the stern of the French ship, and even if she were made of metal, a raking fire down the length of her hull would do just as much damage to her as to any other ship. The gun crews were working their pieces, swabbing, loading and ramming. Number One, the bow gun called Old Tom by its crew, was already run out for another shot, and Howard shouted for their attention. “Hold until she presents her stern to us, then kick her in the ass men!”

That drew another cheer from his crew, but their actions had also drawn the attention of the French ship. Men, dressed in strange, bright orange clothing ran exposed across the other ships deck, making Howard wish he could draw his guns and load with grape. No time for that now. The stern of the French ship approached, and the last of Adder’s guns were out and ready to fire. “Helmsman, lay us as close across her stern as you can.”

Again, the mighty, inhuman voice echoed from the French ship. “Cesser vos actes hostiles, ou vous serez tiré sur! »

Howard saw the Frenchman’s wake, a turbulent stream of white water far more churned up than any wake he had ever seen from a ship, then in dark letters, a name appeared as the stern came fully into view: “Prairial”. Adder began her turn, and as she did, Howard saw something move on the French ship. A single man moved it, a long, thin barrel like some immense swivel gun, and it tracked the Adder like a line connected the two ships. Howard was aware of his own forward gun crew, heaving on their piece to bring it to bear, and wondered how a single man could think his puny gun could match eight six pounders. Again, the disembodied voice rang across the water “Armes libres, feu à volonté!”. The gun Howard had been watching bloomed fire, and a steady “Boom! Boom! Boom!”, far faster than any fire he had ever heard, came to him as it did. And with each report, an explosion shook the Adder. He felt her timbers shudder and knew Adder could not take much more of this punishment. “Starboard your helm, hard over! House your guns, man your sheets!” Adder was no racing yacht, but under the urging of her commander and crew, she managed to spin nearly in her own wake. Whether because the sudden maneuver threw their aim off, or they simply didn’t care to press their advantage, the French stopped firing Howard had one final glimpse of the French colors, then a squall swept down, drawing a veil between the two ships.

That chance event saved the Adder. They had managed to plug the ugly holes blown in her side, and splice the shredded rigging. But how could he explain it all in the log? Perhaps the best explanation was the least. Inking his pen, Howard wrote “Encountered and exchanged fire with unidentified French vessel in heavy squall.” It wasn’t a lie, and none of his crew would contradict him, so Howard sanded the page before closing the log on his account of the strange event with a clear conscious.

#

As the frégate de surveillance Prairial sliced through another squall on her way to a major refit at Brest, Capitaine de frégate Pierre Fosse leaned back and contemplate his computer. He had been updating his ship’s log, and had reached the point where he and his ship had had their strange encounter. Their surface radar had been functioning properly, at least as far as any of his crew could tell, but it hadn’t picked up the strange vessel until it was nearly on top of them. And even when it had been reported, the lookout manning the camera had hesitated to report what he saw. Pierre understood his reluctance to speak as soon as he saw the image on the monitor. He remembered once seeing the ship used in filming “Master and Commander” and marveling at the detail that had gone into it. But that was nothing compared to what their surveillance camera had shown them. Filth drooled down what he could only guess were the heads. Men rushing about in rough tarpaulin jackets to haul on ropes. And the cannons, stubby little brutes that would have been comical if not for their jerking tracking motions. Pierre had warned them over the loud hailer, but could not believe the crew of the other ship would be insane enough to actually fire on him. Then, they did, and became a deadly earnest threat.

The Prairial still pumped, her outer hull cracked in several spots where cannon balls had struck, but by luck, none of his crew had been injured. He had viewed the video from the F.2’s gun camera, seen the holes blasted in the mysterious vessel’s side, men sent flying by the impact of large pieces of wood, and had wondered if she’d survived. But the same video also contained an image of the ship’s stern, where her name was clear to read: Adder. The Royal Navy was not as free with its current military information now as it had been before opting out of the EU, but their archives were just a satellite link away. Adder was there, listed as a ‘sloop of war’, but also listed as ‘Sold out of service, broken up.’ in 1815. So what he had seen could not have been a two hundred plus year old ship lovingly restored. Nor could it have been an illusion, a figment of his imagination. He looked in the corner, where a smooth iron ball rested in a cradle of sandbags. It had been recovered from the wreckage of the #1 launch, and that was why Pierre could not simply gloss over the incident.

He had not seen fit to contact headquarters and report the encounter, hoping perhaps to come up with some way to explain what had happened by the time they arrived in Brest. But what could he say that would not make him look insane? What entry could he make in the ship’s log that would not read like fiction? His crew still spoke of the strange event, and Pierre knew they would be calling their families to relay their own take on the bizarre fight as soon as they were in range of shore-based cell service. There was no other way than to report what had happened. Pierre leaned forward and began to type.

“0635, radar reports unidentified contact 900 meters bearing 095. Surveillance camera revealed contact to be unidentified sailing vessel, rigged as a brig and possessing 16 gun ports. Vessel warned to identify itself by loud hailer. Vessel deployed cannons and took frégate de surveillance Prairial under fire. Seven balls struck hull causing minor damage, one ball struck #1 launch, destroying it. Ordered crew to action stations surface and warned unidentified vessel to cease hostile actions. Vessel observed preparing to fire on Prairial again, permission was given to return fire with #2 F.2 cannon. Multiple hits observed, extent of damage unknown due to vessel breaking off attack and fleeing into storm where radar could not maintain accurate fix. Based on markings observed on hull, hostile vessel is believed to have been HMS Adder, a Royal Navy sloop of war reported broken up in 1815.”

Pierre read the entry, then saved it to the onboard server. His chronometer said it was nearly lunch time, so with a final click, he secured the computer, stood and stretched. With a final shake of his head, he left his cabin.

I have given them the facts. Now it is for those higher up the chain of command to figure out what happened.”

The face in the mirror

I don’t remember the first time I had the dream. That’s odd, because I have many memories of my early childhood. My first distinct memory is of chaotically tumbling while all around me, people scream. When I described it to my parents, they were shocked. They wondered how I could remember something that had happened to me when I was barely three years old. Father told me that a tire had blown on a slick road, and he had caused the car to roll over while trying to counter the effects.

But for all that, I have no clear memory of the first time I awoke from that same eerie dream. I am standing in front of a mirror, looking at my reflection. What I see is the me of that moment. As a young boy, I saw a young boy. Now, as an adult, I see my adult self in the mirror. But as I stare at the mirror, I see another face appear.

It is ghostly at first, like the beginnings of a sketch. But as the dream progresses, my face disappears, replaced by a face like mine, but different. It was a young girl when I was a young boy. Now, it is a grown woman. Her hair is midnight black like mine. Like me, her nose is long and thin. Her lips are fuller than mine, but it is her eyes that are the most striking. Like mine, they are brown, but they lack any warmth, which I find find disconcerting. And always, always, she looks out of the mirror, smiles…and I know. I know she knows I can see her.

Who she is, I don’t know. I asked my parents about her, even going so far as to accusing them of concealing a twin, for that is how she appears to me. They denied it, denied that I was ever anything but their only child. I could see the truth in their eyes, but my heart still wonders who that strange yet familiar face in my dream was.

The dreams began to come more frequently. From a once-a-month occurrence, they became weekly. Then they visited me every night. And for the first time, the dream changed. The image in the mirror still morphed from my face into that of a woman very much like me. But now, rather than smile knowingly at me, she spoke. And her words were chilling.

“I am here, and I will not be ignored any longer.”

Now, instead of awakening with a start, I bolted awake screaming, her ominous words still echoing in my mind. I began to dread the night, to fear sleep that offered not rest, but terror. I began staying awake, sometimes all night. My work began to suffer, my friends started noticing my listlessness. But I couldn’t tell them what kept me from the sleep I needed. Nor could I tell them that those times I did sleep offered no rest.

Then I got sick.

It started as stomach aches, annoying but something I could ignore. As time passed, my pain grew. From discomfort, it became more and more debilitating. My doctor was baffled, as where the specialists he sent me to. Tests found none of the tell-tale cells that would indicate I had cancer. Finally, an MRI finally found something, what the doctor less than helpfully described as an ‘undefined mass’ in my stomach. He wanted to do a finer scan, but the machine would not be free again for a week. They gave me ‘pain management’ medication, and told me to return.

The medicine, huge pills that looked like something for a horse, did what the doctors said they’d do. Within an hour of taking the first one, the pain was little more than a nagging twinge at the edge of perception. But the pills also brought something else, a very unwelcome guest. They brought sleep, sleep that would not be denied. No matter how I fought, my eyes kept sagging shut. My last memory was sitting in my favorite chair, struggling to stay awake; the next, I was in the dream.

This dream soon turns different. Instead of overlaying my face, the woman’s face slowly materialized next to mine, like she were standing behind me looking over my shoulder. I see a hand rise, descend, and felt a touch on my shoulder. My mind tells me it is impossible. I know nothing can touch me, can harm me, not in a dream.

But it is real. I can feel the pressure of each of those fingers on my shoulder. I feel warmth were they rest upon me. I scream, but I do not wake up. Behind me, the woman waits. She neither smiles nor frowns, her face a blank mask except for her eyes. In them, I see amusement, and the willingness to wait until I stop screaming, to wait as if she has all the time in the world. I master the fear that always strangles me when I saw that face and stop screaming. She nods, once, a motion much like my own. Then, she speaks.

“So, this time you can’t escape? Now, I can finally confront you, murderer.”

“Are you crazy? I’ve never hurt anyone, let alone murdered anyone.”

Her eyes harden. “Liar! You are a murderer, and I will exact revenge from you!”

I want to turn around, to face her instead of arguing with a reflection, but my feet, my whole body, are frozen in place. I can’t even turn my head. Only my eyes and lips are at my command. I feel panic rising and try to force it down. “Fine, if I’m a murderer, who did I kill? When am I supposed to have killed them?”

Her eyes narrow, and her grip on my shoulder tightens. “Don’t play the innocent! You know who you killed, and you know when you killed them too!” Her grip tightens until I feel her fingernails dig into my flesh. Her lips thin, exposing her teeth as they stretch into a fierce smile. “So, you can get away? Only for a while, murderer, only for a short while.” Her presence begins to fade, and in that final moment, I hear the thing I fear the most. “I’ll be waiting for you, and when you come back, I’ll make you pay!”

I wake up on the floor, arms wrapped around my legs, knees pulled as tight as I can pull them to my chest. My throat is raw like I have screamed all night, and my shirt clings to me, soaked in a stinking fear-sweat. I force myself upright and look at the clock. It’s 6:30 in the morning, and the patch of sky visible through the window is growing light. I wonder if this is how the rest of my nights will be? And if it is, will my sanity survive the week?

The pain in my midsection begins to reassert itself. But take another pain pill, and possibly face that angry presence? No. I pull out a favorite book to try to distract myself, but it is no use. Every minute, every second, the pain increases. It increases, becomes like a wild animal trying to claw its way out of my belly, and I give in. Time passes, the pain recedes, and I feel my eyes sagging again. They are starting to close for what I fear will be the last time before sleep claims me when my cell chirps at me. I know the voice on the other end of the call, my internal medicine specialist, but it seems to be coming from a million miles away.

“Mr. Sanchez, it’s Doctor Linden. We’ve had a patient cancel their MRI appointment. If you can get to the clinic in the next hour, we can get your scans done and, hopefully, get a handle on what’s going on.”

I mutter something that doesn’t make sense even to me, and the voice on the other end picks up on my state. “Sir, are you having a reaction to your pain medications? Sir?” I can’t even work up the energy to answer, my body wants to do is sleep. I hear a distant voice shouting. It wants my attention, but I can’t make myself bother to try. “Help is on the way, Mr. Sanchez. Just hang on, sir, help is on the way.” The voice sounds concerned, and I know I should stay awake, but my eyes shut. Sleep takes me.

There is no mirror in my dream this time. Now, I am in a vast space, a dark plain that extends beyond sight. And I am alone. She, who ever she is, is not here. In a way, this complete emptiness is more frightening than she ever was.

“Are you afraid, murderer?”

Her voice is soft, hardly a whisper, but the words are spoken so close to my ear I feel the warm breath that makes them. I jerk away from the unexpected closeness, and unlike every previous dream, I move. Free of my imprisonment, I turn to face her. She is shorter than me, but only slightly, and her rounded body reminds me of my mother. Her face, so like mine, is lined, her features drawn together in an angry scowl.

“Why do you keep calling me a murderer? I don’t remember ever seeing you, and I’ve never hurt anyone in my life. So how can I be a murderer?”

She steps close to me, close enough that I feel uncomfortable. Her voice, when she speaks, is filled with a cold, contained anger. “But you are a murderer. You killed me, in cold blood. You snuffed out my life without a thought.”

Her statement makes no sense. “But if I killed you, why can’t I remember killing you? Are you saying I’ve somehow repressed the memory of murdering you?”

“Oh, you remember killing me…if you didn’t, how could I be talking to you?”

“You could be…I don’t know, a figment of my imagination, or a manifestation of my wish that I hadn’t been an only child.”

“You wanted a sister?”

The anger drops from her face like a curtain falling, replaced by an intent gaze like she’s trying to catch me in a lie.

“It might sound selfish, but a sister, a brother, hell, even a dozen siblings. My parents heaped all their hopes and dreams on me. I hated the expectations, the pressure to succeed. If I’d had brothers and sisters, I’d have been happier, and maybe they’d have been happier too.”

Her face changes. The suspicion, the doubt, the anger, all of it drops away, leaving a stunned stare. Then I see something I had never thought to see on that cold, cynical, face. Tears well in her eyes, run down her face. When she speaks, her voice is a hollow echo of what it has been before. “You wanted me? You didn’t kill me because you hated me?”

I open my mouth to tell her that I didn’t know her, so I couldn’t have hated her, but her scream stops the words in my throat. A broad red slash appears on her left arm, and when her eyes fix on mine, I see the hate, the anger renewed a thousand times over. She charges me, and her hands go to my throat. Her fingers, surprisingly strong, sink into my flesh and I find myself gasping for breath. As she strangles me, she screams in my face.

“Liar! You kept me talking so you could kill me again! I won’t go, not without you!”

I try to free myself, but my body refuses to respond. The blood thunders in my temples, my vision darken, but even knowing death is close at hand, I can do nothing. My sight dims to nothingness, and the last thing I see is not my attacker, but my Mother. She smiles, and as she always did, she looks sad as she does it. I hear voice one final time.

“It’ll be all right, Paulie, it’ll be all right.”

It is my nose that tells me I am not dead. It brings me the smell of a hospital room, so familiar from my vigil over Father. I am surrounded by the harsh chemical scent filled with a background of human filth that I associate with a hospital room. My body comes back to me next. It tells me I am lying on my back with something stuck to both of my arms. There is a steadily beeping, the noise far too loud for my comfort, and my brain tells me it is a heart monitor. My eyes are reluctant to open, but I force them to obey, and I see off-white ceiling tiles set in a white metal framework. It’s a hospital ceiling, if ever I saw one.

Something is pressing against my left hand, and I shift my head to see what it is. A white cord, ending in an oblong box studded with buttons…the same sort of control and communications pendant my Father had at his bedside. I fumble with the box, stabbing the big button with the nurse’s head outlined on it until a young woman comes in.

“It’s good to see you awake, Mr. Sanchez, I hear you gave the doctors quite a scare. Do you need help, maybe something to drink?”

She says drink, and I realize my mouth is dry, so dry my tongue feels like sandpaper. I try to speak, manage a croak, and purse my lips like I’m sucking on a straw. She nods, grabs a foam cup, and places the straw sticking out of it in my mouth. I suck on it and cold water floods my mouth. I keep sucking on the straw until I’m sucking air, open my mouth, and let her put the cup down. I try to speak again, and I’m happy to hear even the rough echo of my voice that comes out.

“What happened? I remember being at home, and the doctor calling…then, I’m here.”

I notice her name tag. “Brandy” shrugs as she answers me. “I don’t know the details, but you’ve only been on the floor for a couple of hours. Before that, you were in ICU for three days. The doctors haven’t made their rounds yet this morning, so you should be able to find out what happens when they come around. Until then, would you like something to eat? Breakfast was served about the time you were being brought in, and lunch won’t be for another two hours, but I can get you something from the ready fridge. Maybe some ice cream?”

Ice cream, even three of the small tubs they serve out, does little more than take the edge off my hunger. Five minutes is all it takes for me to know there is nothing on the TV besides inane daytime programming, so I turn it off and wait.

Some time during that wait, I fall asleep. I know I was asleep because I have memories of the sunlight slanting low through the window, then the light is shining down from a much higher angle. An older woman with skin as dark as mine and a stethoscope is standing by my bed, her finger pressed against the inside of my wrist.

“Good, you’re awake, Mr. Sanchez. I’m Doctor Bajaj, your attending physician. How are you feeling?”

“Honestly, I feel confused. Do you know what happened to me?”

She picks up a tablet I hadn’t noticed on my bedside table and begins tapping the screen. A few swipes, and her eyes begin to scan the screen. “I wasn’t part of the team that operated on you, but according to the admission notes, you were brought in unconscious and rushed into the ER.” A pause as she reads, then her eyes widen, and she flicks the tablet’s surface again. Her hesitation is beginning to worry me. What could she be reading that would cause her to stop so suddenly? Her eyes meet mine, then shift away… and I know what she says isn’t entirely true. “All the details of what was done aren’t here, but it does say you underwent emergency surgery, and that you suffered a cardiac incident caused by acute blood loss. This lead to you being placed in our ICU until your surgical team was satisfied with you condition. Your surgical team should visit you sometime this afternoon, so you can get the details from them. Now, I’d like to listen to your heart and lungs….”

I’d seen what happened next done to my Father and Mother, but being on the receiving end of it helped me understood why they frowned through their examinations. Doctor Bajaj was perfectly civil to me, yet so detached that I felt more like an animated piece of meat than a human being. Finished, she tapped the tablet, I guess making notes, then addressed me.

“Your heart and lungs sound good, but your blood pressure is still low. I’m going to recommend that you remain in the hospital for at least another day, and I’ll be ordering another unit of saline to help build your blood volume. I’ll be back this afternoon…” and that was it. She walks out without giving me any information, leaving me feeling as if I’d ceased to exist the moment she made her decision on my treatment.

I was in a room by myself, and staring at the walls soon got boring. I was spared having to resort to watching TV doctors pretend to treat pretend patients by a cheerful young man who brought me a newspaper, then handed me the day’s menu.

“I’ll be back later to get your order, or you can call the kitchen and they’ll put your lunch order on the cart. The doctors don’t have you on a special diet, so you can order anything you want.”

I hadn’t noticed how close to noon it was. My stomach growled, letting me know it was looking forward to me eating something. “Thanks. If you’ll tell me how to call the kitchen, you won’t have to come back.”

He points to a number printed across the bottom of the page, “Just call that number, sir.” leaving me feeling like an idiot. I thank him and he goes about his business. Lunch, I soon find, is not going to be a five-star affair. I pick what’s described as an ‘open-faced sandwich’ and coffee, call it in, and open the paper to occupy my mind. Ten minutes later, I’ve read everything of interest.

Lunch, when it arrives, could generously be described as ‘inoffensive’. It has no real taste, not even a scent to match its description. The coffee is hot, bitter and completely lacking in stimulation. I eat and drink all of it knowing that ordering something else will not improve the situation. The server returns, clears the dishes away without comment, and I am left with my boredom.

Sleep come to me, but I don’t realize I’ve slept. What woke me up isn’t hard to figure out. The familiar Dr. Bajaj stands beside my bed with an older man and a woman who looks like she should still be in college. They are discussing me in the cold, abstract terms doctors use, but the medical jargon is thick enough that I can’t understand whether I am living or dying. I shift my position and they realize I am awake. The man approaches me, pitching his voice to give the impression he wishes to engage me and failing.

“”Mr Sanchez, I’m Doctor Werten, the doctor who operated on you. How are you feeling? How is the pain you were experiencing?”

Until he asked, I hadn’t noticed the absence of pain. How could I miss something that had so been the focus of my life? “It’s…gone, doctor. Do you know what was causing it?”

His eyes, which had been fixed on me, shift away. “Yes, I do. Your spine was under pressure from a foreign mass. That was triggering your pain episodes. The mass was also partially wrapped around your aorta, and putting pressure on it which lowered the blood flow to your lower body. That is why you became unconscious, the pain medication wasn’t being equally absorbed by your body.” He paused, his eyes fixing on mine for the first time. “I was unable to reawaken you and operated immediately. Unfortunately, the scans didn’t show was that there were several small blood vessels running through the mass that connected to your aorta. I’m sorry to admit it, but I severed one of those, and you nearly bled out before I could close it off. After that, I kept an eye out for more vessels and managed to seal the rest off without further incident. Once your blood volume has returned to normal, you’ll be free leave and go back to your normal routine.”

I heard the words ‘foreign mass’ and the rest of it became minor details. “What do you mean when you say you removed a ‘foreign mass’? Was it cancer?”

Dr. Werten’s eyes begin shifting around, like he’s looking for something, anything, to look at but me. “Mr. Sanchez, do you know what a vanishing twin is?” I shake my head, and he continues. “In about ten percent of pregnancies where more than one embryo is formed, one of the embryos will absorb the other one. It’s not something that causes problems…or I should say it’s not normally something that causes problems. Usually, if there’s anything left of the absorbed twin, it’s fragments. The most common form it exhibits in the surviving twin is stray teeth, hair and other fragments in a benign cyst. But in your case,” He pauses, and a chill sweep over me. What did he find inside me? I don’t have to wonder. “In your case, we found significant development. Teeth, hair, even a partial skeleton. We also found…well, we found what we think were undeveloped brain cells. But the important thing is that the growth has been removed, and you should be free of pain from this point forward.”

Now, the chill I feel is like I’ve been submerged in an ice-covered pond. I don’t want to know, but I ask. “Dr. Werten…could you tell if the twin was female?”

His eyes meet mine, and I see he is shocked by the question. “We’d have to do a DNA test to find out. If you don’t mind he asking, why do you ask?”

She’d said I had killed her. I even heard her screams as they’d removed her. Had she been alive inside me all this time? Was that why I’d always had the dream? How could I explain that to him? I can’t.

“Oh, no reason, no reason at all.”

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 him 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.”