I Dream of Dragons

The dreams I had when I was a child were true. Of course, when I grew up, I didn’t believe that. But maybe that means that I didn’t grow up, or I regressed, or I became a child again. A very frightened child, if that.

I’m babbling. I’m not making any sense.

Let’s start over.

When I was six years old I had a friend named Robbie. The kid was popular (among six year olds, so you can’t give him that much credit) and his hair was so white as to be translucent. I’ve no idea what made him popular, but hell, I was his friend and it benefited me and it really doesn’t matter. Okay?

Anyway. We just moved into a new house.

I woke up in our new home and there was Robby’s kid sister, Teresa. She was trapped in our ventilation duct, staring up at me through the grate with those big doe four-year-old eyes of hers, giggling.

Groggily, I looked over the side of the bed at her wondering what the heck she was doing in my heater. In fact, I asked her that question. She just giggled that four-year-old little girl giggle that nobody, not even six-year-old boys, can resist.

“Crap I gotta help her,” I remember thinking. “Robby won’t be happy if I let his kid sister get lost in our heating duct.”

Seemed logical at the time.

So I peeled back the grate, a heavy brick of hastily glued together sheet metal, and put it beside my little brother’s bed. The opening was too small for me, but I shimmied my way in there in pursuit much the way that hamsters squeeze behind furniture or Bruce Willis squeezes his way through the air ducts of an office building in his bare feet. I was in my Spider-man jammies. I was like four-year-old Bruce-freaking-Willis.

The duct was full of gravel. My fault. I had thrown it in there. I vowed never to throw pebbles into the heater ever again because the sharp little stones bit my hands and knees as I wormed my way after her. The sound they made against the sheet metal was like nails on chalkboard.

Eventually the dark maze came to an end and I saw the most frightening creature sleeping below me. The duct had ended, leaving me to stare down from the top of a stone arch at a massive slumbering red dragon. Its body was covered in thick red scales. Its long black talons clutched at the mountain of bone and treasure it lay upon. When it exhaled you could feel the power of the beast shaking your very bones.

Then I spied Teresa playing in the bones and treasure, thanks to the glistening white hair she shared with her brother. She found a green emerald the size of her tiny fist, and was prying it from below the beast’s massive paw.

How stupid could a little girl be?

Panicked, I crawled out of the ventilation system. I scurried down the great arch down to the bone and plunder. I grabbed her, chastising her for chancing waking the evil beast. It could eat the both of us, for crying out loud!

The odd little girl giggled at me. The dragon snorted and opened one large yellow reptilian eye. My grip tightened on her wrist as I ran to the arch.

The dragon was tired and slow, and missed clawing us as we ascended the stone wall back into the duct. Chunks of stone rained down from the gouging marks left behind. Teresa dropped her emerald as we squeezed our way back to safety. Our ears rang with the raging beast’s deafening roar.

An hour or so later we had managed to find the opening that led into my bedroom. I crawled out, and Teresa agreed that she would return home before her mother worried about her.

Two months later Robby moved away. I only saw his four-year-old sister one more time, and ever so briefly our eyes met and I knew that she knew. I knew that this wasn’t just a dream. And even today I am plagued by my own nightmares of this beast, and it trying to reclaim what was stolen. Maybe Teresa lost that emerald, but what else had she taken? And when will this dragon stop pursuing me in my slumber?

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Adrift

Life fits onto a twelve foot by twelve foot square. The square is made of the trunks of twenty-four trees latched together, one hundred feet of knotted rope created from palm fronds, and a paste I invented using animal feces and clay excavated with tools crafted from tree bark and coconut shells.

Water surrounded me, but it would kill me. Salt water is a killer when you’re adrift in the ocean. What little fresh water I caught and stored from the rainstorms was sloshing around the bottom of a green water cooler that had washed ashore from the wreckage of my plane.

Three months and now I was adrift. Tired of the tiny island, I thought I’d take my chances on the Pacific. A week of fish and sweat and more fish. A squall had ripped what little cover I had on my raft to protect me from the sun.

Three days of salt and sun exposure. That’s when I saw the clown.

He leaned over me and waved with a big white glove. The white paint on his face was unblemished, reds and yellows expressing how happy he was to be on my raft.

“Who are you?” I croaked.

He assaulted my ears with the sound of his horn. He squeezed it a few more times if only to annoy me. It sounded like the Canadian geese who flew over my house when I was a kid.

I’m hallucinating. I’ll close my eyes and be rid of him.

#

     The clown is still there when I wake up. Bozo is standing at attention on the front of my raft like a circus albatross. Who am I kidding? I don’t know which side is the front of my raft. I don’t even know if having an albatross is a good thing or a bad thing.

“Are you a good omen or a bad omen?” I shield my eyes from the heat of the sun, but my clown doesn’t move. Damn clowns. They always freak me out.

I caught a bass on one of the lines dangling from the raft. I sit cross-legged at the edge of the boat and pull up the fishing line.

“Ten inches?” I chuckle, and take out the pocket knife I found. “It ain’t pretty and it ain’t cooked, but I can promise you won’t starve.”

I tore the fish in half lengthwise and offered one to the clown. Still he didn’t move, leaving me to partake of my fish on my own.

“Bozo,” I began recalling every clown I could remember. “Clarabell… oh! Benny Hill and Red Skelton! You might not know those classics.”

I grimaced, taking another slimy bite of fish.

“Pennywise. Damn I hope you’re not a Pennywise.”

The sun was dipping below the waves when I gave up trying to get his attention. My imagination was fabricating all manner of sordid scenarios about who this silent clown could be. I fell asleep with my eyes open, staring at him staring at the fathomless void of black water.

#

     I couldn’t have been far from land. The Tahitian islands were under me when the plane’s left engine sputtered and spat. Flames bathed the wing and choking black smoke filled the cabin. No matter how hard I fought to land the plane the nose tipped forward catching water at such a speed that it was indistinguishable from concrete.

Tail over cockpit the plane tumbled, tearing the fuselage apart like splintering wood. The last thing I recalled was my face against the windshield, and waking up on the beach.

Was there a clown there? On the beach?

There was no telling how long I had been unconscious. But I knew there had been someone else. For the last three months I thought I was crazy, but I swear I saw a clown through my stupor. But there were no footprints to be found when I awoke.

#

     The squawking of the horn startled me awake. Bozo’s hands were clasping my face. He kissed me, and walked to the end of the boat. Tied to his ankle was a rope.

I scrambled across the raft to catch him, but I was too late. He jumped into the cool black water. Over the roar of the waves I could hear the rhythmic strokes of him swimming.

“Get back on the boat!” I screamed at him. He wasn’t good company but he was company nonetheless.

Frantic for his life I pulled on the rope. It was taut like it was caught on something. I pulled again, and felt the slack give. As I reeled in the rope, tying it about my arm I found the knot at the end of it, and lights of a ship a hundred yards away.

Jubilant, I jumped and I screamed over the sound of the engines. The ship was passing me in the night. All of my struggles to survive would be for naught. I didn’t know how much longer I could live on the ocean.

My eyes burned when the spotlight turned on me. I have no idea how the spotlight found me, but when it did the horn blast was loud enough to shake my innards. I fell to my knees and cried. Thank God they found me! Thank you God!

#

     The world was numb. I fought as hard to lay awake as I did to sleep. The ship’s doctor had bags of fluid emptying themselves, rehydrating my dry veins. It was two days before I was lucid enough to taste the blood on my split lips.

“Open your mouth,” the doctor’s accent was French, possibly. I obeyed. “You’re lucky we found you. Another day and we would never had met.”

“How,” I struggled to speak. My throat still felt like a dusty pipe. “How did you see me?”

He looked over his black-rimmed spectacles, “Equipment malfunction.” When he saw I wasn’t satisfied he added, “One of our spotlights turned on and fell to the side. Our navigator saw you, thinking you were debris.”

“There was a clown. Did you see him?”

The doctor smirked, running his thumb down the sides of his mouth. Then he chuckled.

“That must be who they talk about. His name’s Sylvester.”

“Can I meet him? I think he saved my life.”

The doctor stood, and patted me on the shoulder sympathetically.

“Sylvester’s been dead since his USO troop sank to the bottom of this ocean in 1942. I’m afraid he’s like an impish mermaid now, saving sailors and pilots like yourself who are on the brink of death. If you’re going to thank him, speak to the water.”

Yellow Jacket: Cheaters Never Win

When they call your name, the silence that follows is deadly.

It was a Saturday night and I was looking for a brawling good time. The first thing on my to-do list was to get ripped, plastered, tanked, and piss-faced. The second thing I was going to do was get some gorilla to break me into pieces. Maybe I’d take a piece of him with me like an eye or an ear or a nostril or something. Lastly, after walking out of the hospital for a concussion or broken bones or whatever else I suffered I was going to buy a gun at the closest pawn shop and blow my fucking brains out.

“She’s not worth it,” the bartender at McGinty’s was pretending to be my friend. If he knew how much I was going to tip him, no matter how bad his service was, then he’d have left me alone.

I was piss-faced after my first fifteen minutes, thanks to my own personal formula for instant intoxication: black and tan, Magnar’s cider, and a shot of Jameson’s.

I shouted at him above the clamor of the bar and blaring television set, “I caught Marcy sleeping with my pal! You know who I am? Chester P. Felderman!”

The grizzled, glassy-eyed old man next to me asked, “Who?”

The bartender shrugged, saying it’s the same name on the tab, and I said, “Me!”

It was the best I could come up with in my stupor. An unseen hand guided me back onto my barstool before I fell over.

My head sloshed around. I focused on the blue and red credit card tucked in a glass before me. It was my card, and I eyed the bartender suspiciously.

“I ain’t closing no tab. What’s this?”

He smiled at me sympathetically.

“I’m closing it for you. Pay up before you hurt yourself.”

The familiar late night jingle of the lottery played above us. The chatter in the bar died down like we were at a funeral. Silly description, I know, especially because nobody died while the lottery was on. The yellow jackets were going to be announced. Starting tomorrow morning men and women would die because of the Golden Rule being taken to the extreme.

Whoever’s name was called tonight would have a week where the rule of law didn’t apply to them. It was a week where they would wear a yellow jacket, and carry a gun, and rid the world of anybody they felt wasn’t worthy. Fucking stupid law.

“And our fifth Yellow Jacket this quarter is… Chester Felderman!”

A hush came over the bar. Their voices had been lowered for the lottery, but now they were nonexistent. You could have heard a church mouse dropping a needle.

Everyone was staring at me like a deer stares at headlights. The old man beside me was trying to hide his shaking.

His voice wavered as he spoke, “Yes, I remember a Chester B. Felderman. Good man, he was.”

The barkeep took the glass away from me, and handed me back my credit card.

“Tab’s on the house friend. Sorry about your girl.”

I fumbled tucking it into my back pocket, and it hit the floor. The old man had jumped out of his seat with a start. Before I could lean down, he grabbed the card off the floor and handed it back to me.

I studied it for a moment, and pointed out my middle initial on it, making it clear to him.

“P,” I said. “Not B. P as in Paul, or ‘Probably wouldn’t hurt a fly.'”

And stumbled out of the bar unmolested. Even the city government was against me getting into a fight tonight. Anybody who threw a punch at me over the next week would be sentenced to death for assaulting a Yellow Jacket. What a wasted night.

By the time I had stumbled back to my apartment I had vomited in the bushes three times. I had fallen up the stairs, something I never thought was possible, and discovered the brown parcel left outside my door. A yellow jacket, the insect, was stamped on the outside with my name in place of an address. I opened it right there in the hall and held the yellow trench coat in one hand, and the pistol in the other.

Merely four hours earlier I had walked into my apartment to find my girlfriend, Marcy, practicing naked yoga with my best pal, Damian, in our bed. I stumbled into the living room not quite knowing what my state of mind was. The place was empty.

The bedroom was a mess. The drawers of Marcy’s dresser had been ransacked and a pile of clothes had avalanched out of the closet when she had pulled her luggage from the top shelf.

Can’t blame her for leaving so quickly. It’s only logical, I guess.

The drink was slowly wearing off. With comprehension came realization and with realization came depression. We’d been together for five years. I could never dig up the courage to marry her no matter how much I loved her. Hell, last week I was drinking at McGinty’s with Damian and he helped me to pick out the right ring on my cellphone. That bastard. That rotten two-faced bastard.

Sitting back in my recliner, I realized I had the gun to my temple. Like a morbid drama, I watched my reflection in the television set wondering if I was going to do it. The lottery had saved me the trouble of buying a gun. I could end my pain right here, once and for all.

And that was when it dawned on me. In my own television show about my life I was about to die alone. Never in my wildest dreams had I ever dreamt of my life ending like this.

I imagined the long life that I wanted. The life where Marcy and I were married for sixty years with five children, and fifteen grandchildren. We’d traveled the world with all of them, and we’d raised them with the right values. Laying in my death bed it was not lonely, but full of the warmth and the love of my family and friends. A life fulfilled.

Shooting a hole in my head was not the answer.

It rang three times on the first call, five times on the second call, and once on the third call. Damian was ignoring my calls.

Wearing my new jacket I caught a cab across town. The cabby waived my fare, saying that at 3 a.m. all cab fares were free. I tipped him a twenty, and kicked in the front door of the brownstone. I didn’t want to wake anybody by ringing doorbells.

I knocked on Damian’s door for several minutes but there was no answer. When I knocked on his neighbor’s door his neighbor swallowed hard upon seeing the new jacket.

“Excuse me,” my parents taught me to be polite. “Sorry to wake you, but have you seen Damian Woods?”

“N-no,” the little old lady answered. Her face was knit with fear. Her silver hair had a blueish quality in the dimly lit hallway.

“I’m a friend, and I’m looking for him.” Wanting to be more humorous than hung over I added, “It’s a matter of life and death.”

She swallowed again, “He came by a couple hours ago. Had a girl with him. But they left around one o’clock.”

I kicked in his door. The old woman was right. Damian and Marcy left his place in a hurry. The drawers of his dresser were pulled out and dumped on the bed. He was in such a hurry that he forgot his laptop. It was glowing at me from his small brown desk.

“Damian, Damian,” I tutted, and logged into his computer. He never password protected his laptop because login screens annoyed the living hell out of him.

Marcy’s phone had an app, PhoneBug, which allowed us to track it. Years ago she had purchased the phone and PhoneBug along with it because she was so prone to losing the device. It still makes me cringe to think of how much money I lost to helping her replace lost cell phones.

A map was embedded into PhoneBug’s website. It showed me where her phone was currently located. There was a Jim & Johns Motel on the edge of town and that’s where they were hiding. I bet they’re going to be so surprised when I knock on their door.

#

What a dump. The motel was for truckers and trailer park whores. The proprietor, a sleazy man with the half grown mustache and missing teeth and a severe case of body odor, was kind enough to offer me a good rate by the hour as I walked in the door. When he saw my gun and my jacket he was willing to let me stay for free, and even settled for letting me see the guest registry.

At gunpoint I escorted him to their door, Room 368. It was a long way down to the parking lot with only broken concrete to cushion a fall. He knocked twice.

“Who is it?”

“Ralph from the front desk,” he said, and glanced at me. I motioned him to get them to open the door. I was careful to be out of range of the peephole. “I have a credit card. I think you left it at the desk.”

I heard them throw the chain latch. When the door cracked I kicked it in. Damian screamed out in pain as the door caught his toes. Marcy was hysterical.

“You!” I said to Ralph. “Whatever you hear, you ignore it. Understand?”

He nodded, saying, “Police won’t do anything anyway. Can you at least… please keep the carpets clean?”

I slammed the door shut, and locked it by both deadbolt and chain. As Damian pulled his naked body across the floor, his broken toes leaving a bloody smear across the houndstooth carpet, I pulled a chair in front of the door. My ex-girlfriend and my ex-best friend were naked on the bed in front of me.

“I’d be lying if I said breaking your little piggies didn’t make me smile on the inside.”

Tears were streaming down Marcy’s rosey cheeks, “Chester, please don’t kill us. Please, I’m asking… I’m begging you—”

There was a bottle of wine on the nightstand. It had been opened, but not finished. I couldn’t see what kind it was through the green glass.

“Red or white?” I asked.

She looked over at it while Damian nursed his toes.

“Red.”

“Blecht,” I hated red wine. “It’ll have to do. Bring me the bottle.”

Marcy reached for it, and I stopped her.

“I was talking to Damian. Stand up and bring it to me.”

The look in his eyes was either fear or anger or an acidic mix of both. The lottery had put them in a hard place. Whatever their affair was, it had transformed into a whole other beast tonight.

Damian grabbed the bottle, and scuttled to me as best he could. I kept the gun pointed at his chest.

“Seriously, Damian, can’t you hold the bottle by the base? You’re holding it by the neck like you want to club me.” The intent was in his eyes, but he knew what would happen. “You’re well aware I won the lottery tonight, and if not I suppose this jacket gives it away. You even pinch me and the police will execute you.”

The wine wasn’t half bad. I drank it straight from the bottle as he collapsed back onto the bed. Then it occurred to me.

“How long have you two been fucking behind my back?”

“Chester, please,” Marcy was cut off by Damian.

“Does it matter? You’ll shoot us no matter what the answer is.”

I shook the gun at him. “Not true! Well, maybe true. I’ve had a lot to drink tonight.”

That’s what I didn’t like about red wine. It coated your mouth like a bitter cotton. There was table, and I failed to throw the bottle so it landed safely on it. Instead, the bottle bounced and rolled off the edge. The red wine began pooling on the carpet.

“Were you two going to tell me that you’re doing it? Or were you going to kill me and hook up after?”

“You’re drunk,” Damian said again. I bet if he still had unbroken toes he’d have chanced leaping at me. “She never really loved you, Chester.”

Marcy was pleading still, “That’s not true! He lies.”

“I was picking out a ring. Did you tell her that?”

“What?”

I let it sink in for a moment as I explained. Damian was shaking his head slightly, telling me not to go into it. What honesty.

“Tell her Damian. Tell your whore about the ring I was getting her.”

She was trying to look in his eyes, “You knew this? And you didn’t tell me?”

“And let him take you away from me?” he snapped, eyes still boring holes in me. “If you’re going to kill us, get it over with. You’ll still be alone, Chester. Marcy and I are meant to be whether it’s here on Earth, or if it’s in heaven.”

“No, no, no,” I said, emphasizing it by tapping the gun on my head. “You don’t get it. I’m only going to shoot one of you. Shooting both of you teaches us nothing.”

The color drained out of each of them. Marcy mouthed an airy, “Who?”

He said, “Shoot me then. Spare her.”

“No, not like that. Can’t have you choose,” I looked up at the ceiling. “Okay. Each of you choose a number between one and ten.”

She screamed as I pointed the gun at them with authority.

“That’s stupid,” he spat at me, and I really wanted to shoot him. But that wasn’t how I wanted this to go down. “How do we know you won’t change the number?”

“Because I don’t cheat on friends? Fine. You’re right. I could shoot both of you and we don’t have to do this. Okay, new idea.”

I rooted through my pockets, but found nothing. His pants were on the floor, so I rooted through them. A bright shiny quarter.

“Heads,” I pointed at Marcy. She flinched, hiding behind him. “Tails,” I pointed at Damian.

The look in their eyes was priceless when I flipped the coin in the air. All color had left their skin, leaving them cold and clamy, sweating in fright. A croak left Damian’s throat as he watched the silver coin flip over and over through the air.

I slapped it on my knee. Both were shaking as lifted my hand. I smiled. “Heads it is.”

I put the gun to my temple and pulled the trigger.

I bet they never saw that coming.

Shadows on the Moon, Part 1

Note: This story is done as Part 1 to a 4 part arc, where the three other parts will be written by other authors or if needed it will be finished by me. At the end of the story I’ll place links to parts 2-4. This is done for the Flash Fiction Challenge by Chuck Wendig.

The sight never bothered him. The smell on the other hand? Now that bothered him.

Darrin held a yellow handkerchief to his nose and mouth, kneeling over the body. The community was small, a mere two hundred or so folks, and he didn’t recognize this man. What was normal back home was so uncommon out here.

“Do you recognize him?” Liberty asked, looming above him with her glasses high on the bridge of her nose, and her hair pulled back all businesslike. She was the boss on the job, but not the boss of him, and he liked reminding her of it.

“Dunno. You recognize him?”

Her lips pursed tight. He loved riling her up almost as much as he loved hiding the fact that he loved it.

The back of the cadaver’s tailored suit was wet with blood. Darrin lifted the jacket revealing a large gaping hole underneath. Liberty exhaled in disgust.

“This,” he jabbed at the wound with a gloved finger, “is curious. Something made this much mess and didn’t rip through the back of his jacket?”

“Call the MSA and get them down here. We have a job to do.”

“Moon Station Authority?” he scoffed, still poking at the wound. “Maybe he got a worm. I heard those buggies get in your stomach and eat their way out. There was this guy I knew—”

Liberty was leaving him behind.

“Hey! I was telling you a story here!”

She pushed a panel in the wall and from behind the MBA’s emblem, the Earth with the moon eclipsing it, a computer console unfolded. There was a buzzing as the video panel attempted to contact the authorities.

“I’m tell you that we’re getting back to our jobs, or you’re fired. How long will the company keep you here without reassignment?”

The static on the screen flickered, and formed the green outline of an officer’s face.

“I’d like to report a murder,” Liberty spoke with an edge, like the MBA officer was below her. She continued to give details even before the officer could ask questions.

Still kneeling over the body, Darrin searched his memory trying to recall if he’d ever med the man before. He was middle-aged, meaning he was management if he were in the station. If the man was management everyone would know him.

“That guy I knew?” he spoke to the cadaver to finish his story, and fill the hole formed when obstinate women like Liberty never listened. “Worms laid eggs in him and a whole colony of them ate their way out. You’re different though, aren’t you pal? What the hell happened?”

Atmos Corporation. If you didn’t love them it didn’t matter. They were number one in space flight, and spearheading the formation of colonies off world. Every kid dreamed of the stars, being an astronaut, living off planet. Imagination was more convincing about getting off Earth than the overcrowded cities and pollution.

Men and women traded in successful careers to work for Atmos, and force the colonization efforts forward. This was as true for Darrin as it was for Liberty and every other overworked underpaid schmuck tunneling through the cold alumina and silica mantle. But after years of dreaming he was finally in space.

He stood in the community shower, ten tiny stalls supporting his entire floor, watching the black dirt swirl around the drain at his feet. All he could see in it was blood. Tendrils of John Doe’s blood, circling the drain.

“It’s the stress, Darrin,” he talked aloud, as he often did when he was alone in the shower. It was a rare occurrence.

Icy cold water shot out of the showerhead, burning him. With a shout, he twisted the knobs to turn off the water. This colony had a long way to go before it was to be considered viable.

“Darrin Hughes?”

Naked, he peeked out of the shabby plastic curtain to see an officer standing beyond. Behind him were two lackeys with shock clubs drawn.

He nodded, not wanting to be tazed soaking wet.

“You gentlemen going to let me get dressed at least?”

Getting dressed proved to be a useless gesture. When they arrived in the offices of the MBA he was undressed, and forced to wear a gray jumpsuit so loose he felt naked again. They sat him in a gray aluminum chair in the gray little room with gray hexagonal tiles on the walls. When he objected to being handcuffed to the gray table bolted to the floor they reminded him of his place with the buzz and zap of a shock club. The warning was all he needed after the last time, two months ago.

The man across the table in his gray little suit was obsessive about each hair on his head. His black hair was caked in gel, slicked back like a skull-fitting helmet. The man was silent for a time, only staring back at Darrin, studying him. He was careful to keep his hands off of the table.

Two months ago when they interrogated him over a mild incident he learned how things worked in the little gray interrogation room. All they had to do was touch the table with one of those non-lethal shock clubs and you were convinced forevermore that lying to the corporation was not in your best interest. Sure, it was horrible, but you had to make sacrifices to make history.

“Mister Hughes, do you know who I am?”

“You’re the boss, Mister Tynes.”

Tynes smiled, revealing immaculately white teeth. He removed a picture from his pocket, and slid it across the table. It was the body from earlier.

“Familiar?”

Darrin nodded, “Of course. My foreman and I found him and reported the incident to you guys.”

Tynes waved two fingers at the officer standing behind him. The officer walked over to a switch on the wall, flipped it, and the wall length mirror became transparent, revealing Liberty chained to the table in the adjacent interrogation room.

“What I don’t get, Mister Hughes, is why a successful movie producer such as yourself would trade it all in to labor on the moon?”

“I’m here to make history.”

Tynes scoffed, “To make history? Or to be history?”

La Lechuza

One’s eminent demise was the only thing that soured a bottle of black label whiskey. Sam was too much a gentleman to wrap his lips around the neck and toss it back, so instead he fumbled with the dusty glass he’d been making love to for the last hour.

A sweaty palm pinched at the nape of his neck. The bandito pulled his sombrero to his chest in a mock display of reverence for a fallen comrade. His breath stank of rotten meat and stale cerveza. The few teeth sticking out of his swollen gums stuck out at odd angles like fence posts in the mud.

“Amigo, I pray for you,” he said. “Make peace with your God, because Black Sebastian makes peace with no man. And please, don’t cry. Fight him like a man.”

Sam dragged his glass across the bar, but it shattered on the floor. These men had burst into his office three hours ago, and they laid down their terms.

The sweaty bandito reached into Sam’s jacket, and removed his tin star. He held it in his face mockingly.

“Black Sebastian don’t care about no sheriff nowhere,” his tequila breath burned Sam’s eyes.

Lightning quick, his hand was wrapped around the bandit’s, crushing his fingers around the badge’s sharp edges. The bandit cried out. Droplets of blood ran from his clenched fist.

“The Sheriff’s a wendigo!”

The bandit’s partner was pulling a gun on Sam, who stared back at him with furiously glowing red eyes. The sheriff had his Colt trained on him as his friend was reduced to his knees.

Mattie threw her rag on the bar in disgust, fed up with everyone gunning for her best customer. She was a handful of years past her prime, but as the proprietor of the Dusky Lady, the only place in Pecos where the drink was worth as much as the grub, she was respected well enough around town.

“Sheriff ain’t no wendigo and he don’t eat no people,” she said. “Sam, stop bleeding that dusty’s hand all over my floor and you over there? Put down that peashooter before I have to clean your brains off my walls.”

The drink never stayed with Sam. When it did it never did for long. The sting of it gave him the mettle to dish out what needed doing. The flames in his eyes died down, leaving them cold and determined.

“Do you want to keep your fingers, amigo, or do you want me to squeeze?”

The bandit was shaking his head, grasping his steely wrist, crying unable to open his iron grip. The tin star had cut halfway through his fingers. He was begging for mercy.

“Your friend wants his fingers,” he was speaking to the bandit across the room. “Do you want him to keep his fingers?”

The barrel of Sam’s gun followed the two of them to the door. He growled at them, “Black Sebastian has his deal. Tell him.”

“Sam, why do you drink when you can’t get drunk?” Mattie asked as she swept up the broken glass. He was carrying the bottle like club.

He shrugged, wiping the edges of his mouth with his fingers. The taste never lingered for long.

“As long as I’m paying for bottles, why do you ask such stupid questions?”

“Goddam your cursed eyes,” she snapped. All heads turned to listen in, until Mattie scolded them to get back to drinking or pay double. “Seven damn years and you never did tell me where you got them eyes.”

He was leaning on the door of the saloon, studying the street. The sun was beating down on the dry dirt like Satan’s bloody whip. The streets were quiet, deserted. Many had left. Before the day was out Pecos was going to get a lot hotter.

“La Lechuza.”

Mattie’s eyes widened.

“The Owl Witch? What’d she do to you?”

He snorted, “She told me I was going to die today.”

The sheriff walked slowly down the boardwalk. The jingle of his spurs and clop of his boots was the only sound above the howl of the wind. Tumbleweeds were gathered outside of his office, barring him from getting through the door.

“That there’s a bad omen.”

He whipped around at the voice.

“Doc, you shouldn’t be here.”

Doc checked out his gold pocket watch, raised an eyebrow, and tucked it back in the small pocket in his gray and purple striped vest. His white shirt was blemished red from the dust in the streets.

“To some tribes the tumbleweeds symbolize a death where one isn’t allowed peace in the afterlife.”

Sam cursed as one stuck him. He flung the dead bush into the street. “You going to sermonize me or help?”

“Don’t return his man, Sam. It ain’t right what that fella did, and that girl needs justice.”

“And let the town burn?” he asked. “That’s justice?”

“You have three deputies who’d lay their lives down for you!”

Doc was chasing Sam into his office trying to talk sense into him when they looked at the three tiny deputy stars on his desk. Each one was an ally lost. No note, only cowardice.

Out of the cell rang maniacal laughter. A thin man in dirty black jeans and a dirty black shirt hung his arms through the iron bars like a psychopathic grinning rag doll. His hair was dirty, hanging from his scalp like oily brown tendrils. The All Seeing Eye was tattooed into his forehead, a common practice of the insane and dimwitted, believing it granted them omniscience.

“Sheriff! They pissed themselves like schoolgirls b’fore leavin’ me all alone.” He traced a false tear down his cheek.

A frown pulled on a corner of Sam’s mouth. He moved over to another cell where a man was passed out on the floor. The psychotic gnashed his teeth as he walked past.

“Whatcha hiring girls for to do a man’s job, Sheriff?”

Ignoring him still, Sam unlocked the adjacent cell. He kicked the young man’s feet.

“Up and at’em, Jake. Need coffee grinds and eggs?”

The kid pulled his hat from his face to his chest and looked up at Sam with bloodshot eyes. He rolled his head in the psychotic’s direction.

“Why’d you room me with this animal?”

Sam threw a star on Jake’s chest, congratulating him.

“You can’t do that!” Doc was growing more vehement. “Jake’s never sober, and when he is he’s hung over. No offense, Jake, but you’re going to get him killed.”

“None taken,” Jake was stretching. “What’s all this going on now?”

The psychotic was grinning back in the sheriff’s face. Neither changed expression in the masochistic contest. Neither man budged.

“Black Sebastian wants this bastard back,” Sam told him. “Isn’t that right Ike?”

“That’s right Sheriff,” Ike sing-songed back, clicking his tongue. “Us Blacks are like glue.”

“Wait, Ike Black?”

Doc was still trying to get their attention.

“Our esteemed Sheriff agreed to hand Black Ike over to his brother. Lord knows why he’d do such a fool thing.” He shook his crooked little finger at Jake. “Don’t you be helping him kill his self. Hear me?”

Cuffing Ike’s hands behind his back, Sam pulled him hard to slam the back of his head against the bars. Ike was held to the bars by a fistful of hair.

“Jake, this worm’s brother has an army that will burn this town to the ground if we don’t turn him over. Doc, another word against me and I’ll finish the life God started for you. You hear?”

The light in his eyes rose to full intensity again. Doc swallowed hard, and kept his mouth shut as they walked back outside. His throat was getting dry, and besides, somebody had to finish the bottle of whiskey Sam left on his desk.

“What a freak!” Ike cackled as he was pushed down the boardwalk. Sam had his pistol out, and Jake was toting an old rusty shotgun.

“That bruja did a sweet number on ya, didn’t she?”

Ike screamed. Sam’s boot had struck him behind the knee, knocking him to the ground.

“All this coming from a pissy little maggot with an eye tattooed in his forehead?”

Jake laid a hand on his shoulder, “Sheriff, maybe we oughtn’t…”

He sneered back, “They didn’t specify how many pieces they wanted him in! I’m tired of your tongue, Ike. Keep it shut or I’ll shut it for you.”

A flat boat was at the bank of the river. It was small, and attached to a rope that connected the east and west banks. It was used to help horses, cattle, and small wagons cross the deep muddy water.

Ike tripped over his own boots stepping into the boat, and fell again, flat on his face. Using his boot, Sam rolled him over on his back, clicking his tongue at the outlaw’s bloody swollen lips and busted nose.

“Looking good down there, Ike,” he said, then pressed him back down with his boot when he attempted to get up. “I like you crawling on the ground with the rest of the vermin. Jake, give me the shotgun.”

While Jake pulled the boat across the river foot by meager foot Sam sat on a sack of flour with the rusty shotgun across his knee. His eyes were smoldering as he imagined what awaited them on the opposite shore.

“Sebastian’s going to kill you,” Ike said, but got no response from the sheriff. Not even a twitch. “I said Sebastian’s going to kill you!” He rolled on his back, craning his neck to look past Jake and at the bonfires smoking on the western banks of the river. When he looked back Sam’s smoldering expression hadn’t changed. “I bet that shotgun don’t work neither.”

“That eye of yours tell you all this?” He pressed the gun to Ike’s groin. “Want to see if its right?”

Jake used his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

“Sheriff, there’s a lot a guys over there. Hundred at least.”

Ike was chattering, “That bruja gave you them eyes? She gave Sebastian something too.”

“Yea? What did the Owl Woman give him?”

A toothy grin spread across his face, but quickly ended when Sam smiled. It was more of a smirk and looked as unnatural as a third nostril. The sight disturbed Ike enough to shut him up for the rest of the trip across river.

Two bandits towed the boat onto the rocky bank, holding it close enough to let the passengers jump off. Ike did so with glee. Sam pressed a hand against Jake’s chest, holding him back.

“Sheriff, I’m with you. I’m a messed up drunk but I’m with you.”

“Go back home, Jake. Sober up. Be a good man to your wife.”

“Sam…”

He growled, “Go. Now.”

The bandits escorted them up the bank after relieving the sheriff of his weapons. They walked past a hundred of the dirtiest vilest excuses for human beings there ever was. They walked past the bonfires, bright in the fading light of dusk. The growing flames were ready to reduce Pecos to a cinder.

In the shadows beyond, the whites of their eyes could be seen crowning the whites of their toothed maws. There was a hiss and a slither in the shadows of each boulder and bush.

Sitting around a small campfire was a strong man with a graying beard hanging down to his chest. His eyes were those of a man who had seen both wars, and careened through life full of wars he’d started on his own.

He was rolling a cigarette when he noticed their approach, and a third eye, an actual third eye, opened in his forehead. It blinked once, then the red tint was unmistakable.

“Brother!” Ike rushed to embrace him.

Sebastian lit his cigarette on a hot coal.

“What the fuck were you thinking?” He shook his head, the eye scrutinizing Ike. “You know the rules. And over a girl?”

Sam chuckled. Another unnatural smirk.

“Brother, this is the law man done abused me. Chained me. Beat me!”

“This true?” the eye was scrutinizing Sam now.

Sam smirked, “It all makes sense now, doesn’t it?”

“Sheriff,” he was standing now, waving his cigarette around in Sam’s eyes. “You hurt my brother. The law of the land dictates I must hurt you in return. Did you not think I would kill you anyway? That I wouldn’t burn Pecos anyway?”

The air around Black Sebastian smelled like ash and blood. Sam licked his lips, tasting it in the air. The bestial minions in the dark did likewise, their tongues like thirsty red whips.

“The Owl Woman, your bruja? She sent you my way, didn’t she?”

Black Sebastian scratched at an eyebrow. His eye was glowing, peering deeper into Sam’s soul.

“She gave you those eyes, law man. She gave me an army. And tonight you will suffer, and you will die.”

He pressed the burning butt of his cigarette against Sam’s nose. The smell of burning flesh filled the air, but the sheriff didn’t budge. Black Sebastian pressed the cigarette in harder, but still Sam didn’t budge. He only smiled that unnatural smile, and it grew with each passing second.

“Learn her story,” Sam growled. “It was uneducated pieces of shit like you that damned her to the witch she’s become. A crowd of men like yourselves sentenced her to die and burned her at the stake. Now she’s sent you to burn.”

Desperate from his growing fear, Sebastian shouted to his army, “Lights out amigos! No luces!” Hoping it would afford them the advantage.

“No amigo,” Sam leaned in, smoke rising from the hole in his nose. “Lights on.”

Flames rippled from his glowing red eyes. The demonic screams of the beast men filled the night as the white eyes and gnashing teeth retreated. They fled, but the flames encircled them, bursting out from below the sheriff’s skin, peeling the dry earth at their feet. Every creature was incinerated, sentenced to an eternity burning in hell.

La Lechuza, the Owl Woman, had exacted her vengeance as she had so many times before using the sheriff. In the morning he would rise from the ashes with a new skin, sentenced to exact her vengeance when the evils of the West could no longer outrun her hunger.

Victoria

Hugh Huffman was a round little man resembling a billiard ball with eyebrows. If you were affluent enough to be in his presence, an experience reserved exclusively for blockbuster churning actors, directors, and fellow producers, you would swear the same because of his single color suits. On Tuesdays, like today, he was the nine ball. A shiny orange suit jacket was wrapped around his rotund figure with an ivory dress shirt and ivory slacks.

This Tuesday was special. Mister Huffman was throwing a party for the cast and crew of “Apple Annie Goes to Paris”, the twenty-eighth movie in the most profitable children’s movie franchise in history.

The long hall leading from the ballroom to his private office was carpeted in red, the walls lined with framed movie posters for each of the Apple Annie movies.

Mister Huffman closed the door behind his guest, an attractive olive-skinned brunette dressed in a gray business suit. Her small oval-lensed glasses hung low on her nose making them more of a fashion statement than practical.

“Miss Parsons, please follow me,” he said cheerily, jaunting down the corridor. Two steps later he stopped midsentence, realizing that he had lost her attention. She stared over her glasses at the first poster.

“Apple Annie Goes to the Zoo,” she cast a glance at the chain of movie posters citing each of his accomplishments. She followed the carpet, taking care to study each poster individually. “Twenty-eight years of accomplishment. Mister Huffman, you amaze me.”

“Twenty-nine years of accomplishment, dear,” he corrected her like she had sullied his reputation. They came across a string of empty frames on the wall, waiting to be decorated as more movies were churned out of Apple Annie and her adventures. “One day these walls may be decorated with posters from a partnership with Fire & Light Studios.”

“Of course, but you know what amazes me the most about your twenty-nine years of movies?”

He held the door open for her, “And what is that?”

“Apple Annie hasn’t changed in the slightest since her first movie. Twenty-nine years and that little girl of yours looks the same as the day she first graced the silver screen.”

Huffman was at the standing bar across the office. The lights shone through the shelves of amber bottles. He lifted a crystal decanter in the air, filled with a reddish brandy. A tumbler was in his other hand containing a single ice cube.

“Drink?”

Miss Parsons politely declined, placing her red crocodile handbag beside her chair. He looked in the mirrored back of the bar and used his hand to comb over the few strands of hair he had. He swished the ice in his brandy around as he sauntered to his red leather chair.

“You aren’t the first to ask about Annie,” he sipped his glass, balancing it on his stomach with both hands as he leaned back. “The miracles we can achieve today with makeup and CG still surprise me. Twenty-nine years and the talent our special effects crew has makes me feel like I’m ten years old again.” He strummed his stomach, taking another sip. He cocked his balding head to the side. “Tell me. What is Fire & Light’s interest in the next Annie movie?”

She smiled sweetly, crossing her legs.

“We are not interested in the franchise, Mister Huffman. We’re interested in Annie.”

“Makeup and pixels. We stopped using a real actress years ago.”

“When I commented that Annie looked the same in all of the pictures I was giving you a chance to come clean,” she reached down into her handbag. Huffman sighed in relief when all she pulled out was a manila envelope. She began unwinding the red tie on the back. “Twenty-nine years and Annie is the exact same little girl in every movie. The same blemish behind her ear. The same lips. The same eyes. You can never fake the eyes. We are interested in Annie.”

She tossed the open envelope on his desk. Several pictures of the actress who played Annie slid out, along with other legal documentation.

Huffman dragged a picture across the desk with his finger.

“My niece played Annie, back when we made Apple Annie Goes to the Zoo. She continued playing the role for two sequels, then she was growing too fast to keep up the franchise. This girl,” he tapped the picture with a chubby index finger, “is my niece. She’s thirty-seven years old, and is overseas doing humanitarian work. We still talk. I have the letters she’s written me.”

Miss Parsons leaned over the desk, pushing the picture closer to him, brow furrowed in anger. “Victoria.”

“Excuse me?”

“Her name is Victoria, and she’s not your niece,” she bared her teeth. “These pictures were taken while filming in Paris. All of the cast and crew are denying all knowledge due to NDAs signed in triplicate.”

She jabbed the picture in emphasis. “This little girl is your prisoner, Mister Huffman. You use her to make you money, and you keep her locked here in your estate. I’m ordering you to release the girl.”

Huffman produced a small caliber pistol.

“I don’t believe you work for Fire & Light, Miss Parsons. Who do you work for?”

Before he could react, she was twisting the gun out of his hand. It went off, ricocheting and shattering the crystal decanter in his private bar. Brandy ran down the mirror and onto the carpet. Huffman screamed, nursing his bruised fingers.

He now was staring down the barrel of his own gun.

“Bring me to Victoria you disgusting prick.”

She ushered him back down the hall of Apple Annie posters to the large mahogany doors to the ballroom. The thump and thud of the music could be heard above the din of the guests. She jabbed him in the ribs.

“Try escaping. Try calling for help. I dare you.”

They entered the ballroom arm in arm, gun tucked below her left elbow, jabbing him in the ribs as they descended the stairs into the writhing crowd below.

When he tried pulling away amidst the tightly packed tables and chairs she pulled him closer, forcing him to lead her into the main hall. Before they could reach the door he was spun around by a drunken actor, Evan Penworth, who played the snooty humorless street artist little Apple Annie taught to love in the recent movie. Altogether he wasn’t a bad person, but tonight he had definitely proven the tabloids right about his excessive abuse of alcohol.

“Huffman!” the actor shouted in his face, assaulting them with a cloud of booze and spit. Three young women were hanging off of him. “What a pah-tay!”

“Evan,” he was quick to grab the drunk actor’s hand to shake it. “I’m glad you like it.”

“Come! You must dance with us,” he was swaying so comically it was obvious the girls were the ones keeping him on his feet. He blew a kiss up in the blonde’s face, giggling. “This one here is named Minx… like the rodent. She wants to dance with you.

He jabbed a finger in Huffman’s chest. On a typical night he’d order a cab and lock the man out of his estate, but he was thankful the actor was pulling him away.

“Evan I would love to—”

Miss Parsons yanked Huffman back toward her, pressing her body against his and her finger across the drunk’s lips. She drew hers close to his.

“I’m afraid Mister Huffman and I have a date,” she cooed, finishing with, “It’s a matter of life and death.”

Evan looked hypnotized. His lips spread into a toothy grin against her slender finger. As she removed it he giggled like a schoolboy.

“Huff you dog!”

They left him behind with his floozies and found silence in the hall. She threw him forward, tumbling, rolling to his knees. The little girl’s life was at stake and this squirrely director was trying his best to hold onto his prize.

“What did I say?” she scowled, kicking him in his buttocks. “Get your ass up and bring me to Victoria.”

He led her to a triple-locked door. Sweat beaded and ran down his bald head, soaking his shirt, as he fumbled with his keys. She pushed him into the door impatiently.

Finally a key fit.

He opened the door revealing a long staircase leading deeper into the basement. Miss Parsons took a couple steps closer, looking down the weathered wooden stairs. They were crooked, and the green paint had begun wearing off.

“You keep her chained up down there?”

Huffman pushed her forward, and she grabbed the railing. The long wooden bar tore out of the wall as she tumbled head over heels twenty-one stairs to the dusty cement foundation below. The door locked behind her.

The white linen handkerchief was sopping with sweat after one pass across his face. Breathing loudly, he snorted and pulled out his phone.

“This is Huffman… yes and yes… I need you to clean something up for me. She’s armed.”

#

     “Are you okay?”

Her ribs felt bruised, if not cracked. Her lips and eye were swollen. The sharp pains in her nose made her cross-eyed. Weak, she felt her face which was tenderer than it was numb. Cupping her stomach, she got to her knees, breathing past the aggravated injuries.

Apple Annie was staring back at her, dressed in a frilly pink dress. Her hair was tied in little brown braids with pick bows.

“Victoria?” she wheezed, only to have a cup of tea shoved in her hand.

“Please, drink. That tumble looked simply awful.” But Miss Parsons didn’t respond immediately. She forced the tea closer to her lips. “It’ll take the edge off. It did for the last person who tried to save me.”

The basement was a fair size, and done up to look like a little girl’s paradise. Murals of cartoon horses were painted across the walls. There was a round table small enough for the little girl to sit at with her stuffed animals: a dragon, a beagle, and a tiger all sitting down for tea. A small door led to her bedroom, where a frilly princess sheets and comforter showed an even greater love for horses.

“How do you know I’ve come to save you?”

“Because every time someone comes to save me they end up down here,” she said grimly. “And they’re killed in front of me to remind me of what will happen if I try to escape.”

Victoria skipped back to the table, and pulled out a chair for her guest.

“Come. Sit down and enjoy your tea like we’re ladies,” she patted the green dragon stuffed animal on the head. “Don’t worry about Bosworth. He doesn’t bite.”

She was to her feet, climbing over the broken railing on the stairs. The lock was solid. The doorknob wouldn’t budge. Victoria shouted from below.

“Please come have tea with me, Miss. It usually doesn’t take Gunther more than an hour to get here. Much to your benefit he makes it quick.”

“Nobody is killing me, or you. I’ve come here to save you and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Back at the bottom of the stairs, little Victoria was sipping her tea. The dire situation had played itself through so many times in the movie producer’s favor that she saw no use in resisting the inevitable demise of her guest.

The gun was at Miss Parsons’ feet. She cried out. Her wrist had twisted on her tumble down the stairs, and now she couldn’t hold the gun. Her left hand was almost as useless.

“Tell me, Victoria. How old are you?” she asked, taking a seat in the tiny plastic chair.

She lowered her cup of tea carefully, and swallowed hard. Her eyes looked suddenly out of place. Full of too many years of wisdom and too many years of experience.

“I’ve been eight years old for twenty-nine and a half years.”

“I’ve been twenty-seven for two-hundred-seventeen years,” Miss Parsons told her. “You and me? We’re the same. Gunther? Huffman? I won’t let either of them kill us. People like us have to look out for one another.”

#

     The latch withdrew, and the door creaked open. The menacing shadow of Gunther cast itself against the stairwell, gun drawn. Gun leading the way, his gaunt figure entered through the doorway.

He wore a black suit with a black shirt and black tie. The only thing shinier than his carefully polished boots was his pale bald head, a ghostly visage with thin red lips and reptilian eyes.

At the bottom of the stairs he looked around, expecting to be shot at. Instead, there was Victoria having tea with her stupid stuffed animals.

“Where is she, little girl?”

“She left,” Victoria explained, holding up her teapot. “Care to join me?”

His cold sunken eyes scanned the basement room for signs of the intruder. Huffman was very specific, stating that she had a gun. A low guttural sound emanated from his throat as he produced a pair of handcuffs.

“You know the drill,” he approached the small table. Victoria already bared her wrists. He always bound her as he searched for his target.

“Please, Gunther. I won’t try to escape. Please don’t make me watch like with the others.”

A moment’s hesitation, then heard the quickening of footsteps. Turning, he took a shoulder in his stomach. Gunther slapped Miss Parsons across the face with his pistol, but was toppled over crushing the table surrounded by stuffed animals. Victoria shattered her ceramic teapot across his face.

Screaming, he writhed on the floor. The tea scalded his face and eyes as he clawed at his face. Miss Parsons kicked him in the head, knocking him unconscious.

Before exiting the basement they left him handcuffed to the radiator. The gun was unwieldy in her left hand, but it was the only hand she could hold it in. Miss Parsons kept Victoria close behind her as they stepped over the splintered railing, and ascended the stairs to freedom.

She wiped a tear seeping out of her swollen eye. She peered around the corner toward the party, then heard the click of a hammer being drawn back.

“Nobody ever gets the drop on Gunther,” Huffman was holding his weapon on her. “Victoria, go back downstairs.”

“No!” Parsons shouted, grabbing Victoria’s hand. “She’s going with me. You’re freeing this little girl.”

Huffman clicked his tongue, “I’ll make fifty Apple Annie movies by the time I’m through with her.” His finger tightened on the trigger.

“Huff!”

He spun his head around only to be clocked in the jaw by Evan Penworth. One of his escorts kicked the gun out of his hand as he slid to the floor.

Evan shook his hand, sore from the impact despite the overabundance of alcohol running through his veins. He grinned sheepishly like he had done something completely ridiculous, and looked back at one of the girls.

“Minx dear? Can you show ol’ Huff how much you despise men?” When her wry smile took over he added, “Other than me, of course.”

He leaned down toward Victoria, taking her dainty little hand in his, and kissing it, “Victoria! You be sure and testify against this prick bastard. I’ll second that I never liked the nature of your relationship in the least.”

Evan led them away as his escort proceeded to beat Huff into unconsciousness. Minx was obviously well versed in the arts of physical abuse.

“Miss Parsons, you get yourself looked at. You were much more delectable in the party.”

“I really don’t know whether to be thankful or disgusted by you,” she said, but Victoria was pulling on her arm.

“He always talks like that,” she said, thanking Evan. She gave him a hug, and turned and hugged Miss Parsons. “Thank you for saving me, but that was Evan’s job.”

He smiled that embarrassed toothy schoolboy smile again.

“I’m afraid you beat me to it,” he told her, as he took out his phone to call the police. “Heck of a party wasn’t it?”

The Other Side of the Coin

Watching Henson was like watching Jesus Christ, but only I knew the truth. I’d be lying if I told you this was the first car accident I’d seen with this much twisted metal, and this much blood.

Henson and I lowered the broken, twisted body of a teenage victim from an SUV that had been peeled apart like a tin can with tin snips. The kid was gasping for air like a fish out of water. I applied pressure to his abdomen to hold in what was left of his internal organs.

Five other cars were involved in the pileup. Burnt metal and rubber was palpable on the tongue. And right next to the wheel of our gurney was the cause of the accident. No, it wasn’t a cell phone or a blown out tire. It was a common tree squirrel.

And lift.

I close the back of the ambulance and let Henson work his magic while I speed along, sirens blaring, the seven miles to Saint Elizabeth’s. A pale blue light fills the cab behind me.

By the time we’re at the hospital, and I open the back, the patient is stabilized. There’s blood, and lots of it, but I don’t see any visible wounds. Henson smiles a little while the medics pull the kid away from us.

He actually thinks he did a good thing.

#

“What’s that you’re reading?” Henson asks, lifting the back cover of my book. We’re spending our hour in the break room. “American Myths, huh? Anything good?”

I glare at him, “That kid shouldn’t have made it.”

Henson shrugged, and grabbed a small milk carton from the fridge.

“You should be happy that we saved a life. If not for me and you that kid would be dead.”

“Six months with you, and I’m amazed at how you stabilize even the worse cases. They never spend more than twenty-four hours in the ER after you’re done with them. Henson, what’s your secret?”

He choked on a gulp of milk. White liquid ran down his cheeks. He smiled, wiping it off. A pebble hung from his neck by a strand of rope, a necklace he supposedly bought during his vacation.

“Maybe they should award me sainthood?”

“Saint Henson? I doubt it,” I said, full knowing what he was about. “What happened in the Yukon? I mean, on your vacation.”

The blank stare told me I was on the right track. He broke into another grin, gripping the pebble around his neck like a precious stone.

“That was eight months ago. Why would you even care?”

“I care,” I wrapped my hands around my knee as I balanced my leg. “What you do in the back of the van is a sin. You do not realize the damage you have done.”

“I help people,” he barked. “I’ll see you back in the van. Maybe you’ll come to your senses by then.”

He opened the door.

“Anaaya.”

The name stopped him in his tracks. His hand balled into a fist at his side as he closed the door. A shadow fell over his face as he peered over his shoulder.

“You know the woman I met in the wilderness?”

I nodded.

“It was just sex. Did she tell you to track me down? I have that effect on them.”

“She called you a thief,” I said. He locked the door, but didn’t realize the syringe I uncapped in my pocket. “Return what is hers, Henson. Each time you use it you’re saving a life, but taking another.”

Only meaning to be on my feet, I pushed up from the table. He threw his weight into me, toppling me over backwards. The syringe broke in my pocket.

“Christ! You were going to drug me you sonofabitch?”

The sedative was running over my cut fingers. He yanked me back across the table by my collar. I thrashed around, and caught his necklace. Using it, I slammed his face into the refrigerator, snapping the cord.

He cupped his face, blood oozing from a split nose and brow.

“We protect the old gods,” I told him, shaking the pebble in his face. “He is not your slave and never will be.”

Henson took a wild swing at me that I deftly slapped away. I grabbed his hair, pinning him to the floor.

“Abuse a defenseless god again and we will kill you.” I cupped the pebble in my hand. “Eeyeekalduk!”

A small door opened in the pebble, and out hobbled an old Inuit man no larger than the last nub of my pinky finger. The old man’s eyes met Henson’s and the room turned a pale red, the same pale red emanating from the little old man’s eyes. Henson thrashed around like his guts were on fire. The red emanated from his eyes as well.

“You have angered Eeyeekalduk. I don’t know what sickness he has given you but if he is feeling kindness he may take it back.”

Henson screamed, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Bloody tears were running down his face. His gums bled. Black varicose veins were creeping up his neck. Pus ran from opening sores. “Eeyeekalduk I… I’m sorry!”

The little old man’s eyes turned a pale blue, as did the room and Henson’s eyes. The sickness inflicted returned from him into the old man, and with a nod he hobbled back across my hand and into the pebble. The little door sealed shut, barely noticeable on the stone.

Mortals expect that the gods should protect them. I exist to protect the gods from you decrepit creatures.