Short Stories

This blog is the home of some old short stories I'd written five or six years ago for "challenges" (contests) at the Writers BBS. In such challenges, someone else sets the topic, genre, word length limit, and time in which to complete the story.

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Location: California, United States

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Death's Dominion

This story was written for a Fantasy Challenge on the subject of love

As Sam pulled open the morgue's heavy door, the familiar odors of formaldehyde and death swirled out to greet him. He stepped in and scanned the room - it seemed empty, at least of the living, containing only a desk, a few gurneys and walls lined with stainless steel refrigerated drawers.

The morgue attendant must be on a break, Sam guessed. He'd have to wrestle the corpse onto a gurney and wheel it up to the autopsy suite himself. As he picked up a clipboard from the desk and ran his finger down a listing of the dead inhabiting the drawers, the door behind him swung open and Dr. Anna Weston, the medical examiner and his boss, breezed in, a thick book under one arm.

Sam's gaze was drawn to her wan face, the dark smudges under her eyes. Devastated after her husband's death, she'd thrown herself into her work and this last week she'd been especially driven for some reason. He suppressed a sigh, wishing there was something he could do to help, but Anna had always kept him at an emotional arms length. "What are you doing down here? I was just checking the list for our next customer."

Dropping her book on the morgue attendant's desk, Anna began to search through a stack of files. "Forget the list, Sam. They sent a DB over from the city jail - hanged himself in his cell. That's who we're opening up next."

Sam shook his head, puzzled. "They can't add him to the top of the list, unless ..."

Anna snatched the clipboard from his hand to punctuate her terse reply. "We're doing who I say we're doing - okay?"

Sam raised his hands in surrender and sat on the edge of the desk, watching as Anna opened and closed refrigerated drawers, looking for the correctly toe tagged corpse. As he waited, he glanced down at the book she'd left on the desk, expecting to see a tome on forensic pathology. His eyes widened as he read the title - The Shadow Grimoire. Grimoire ... ritual magic? What in the name of Pete was Anna doing with a book on magic?

Sam's attention was drawn away from the book by the sound of muted cursing. Anna was having difficulty transferring the stiff body she'd chosen from its drawer to one of the gurneys.

"Need some help?" he ventured.

She leveled a look at him that needed no translation and Sam rose from the desk with a smile. As he gazed at her across the corpse that lay between them, his smile faded. At this distance, Anna's features bore clear evidence of fatigue, melancholy and something new - a kind of grim resolution. But Sam saw through this sad patina to a deeper loveliness that caught at his heart. Maybe he should try again with her.

Anna tugged at the heavy body to no avail. "Come on - help me with this."

Not moving, Sam took a deep breath. "I was wondering ..." His voice trailed off under her questioning stare. He cleared his throat and began again. "Dr. Weston - Anna ... if you're not busy later tonight, I thought we might go and get something to eat."

Heart thudding, Sam waited, watching that sad/lovely face go through a series of expressions as she grasped his intent. He'd surprised her - probably not a good sign. He noticed her distractedly twisting the wedding ring she still wore as she formulated her answer and guessed he wouldn't like what he was about to hear.

"I'm flattered, really, but I think it's a mistake for people who work together to ... well, to form romantic attachments . You understand ... it's nothing personal."

Nothing personal? Sam felt his face grow warm but he nodded, forced a smile, began to shift the refrigerated corpse. "Sure, I understand."

As Sam pushed the laden gurney towards the door that Anna held open, he glanced again at the Shadow Grimoire she clasped so tightly in one hand. He wondered if there was a spell in that book powerful enough to make Anna fall in love with him. Then he shook his head - given the way she still felt about her husband, it would more likely take an act of God.

* * * * *

Anna entered the autopsy suite, her assistant Sam holding the door for her. She sighed as she glanced at her watch - 9:45 pm. It had been an incredibly busy day and, with the bodies stacked like cordwood in the morgue, she and Sam had been forced to work a double shift. The autopsy room through which she walked was large, with a tiled floor and cabinets, stainless steel sinks, a refrigerator and an empty gurney but Anna had eyes only for the case file Sam handed her. She opened it and as she read the details once again, her breath caught.

Pushing stray locks of hair under her surgical hat with a hand that trembled slightly, Anna walked to the metal autopsy table in the middle of the room. Sam had already deposited her carefully chosen corpse and bright overhead lights illuminated the pale nude body. Sam joined her, checking a camera and then opening a sterile pack of surgical instruments for the coming procedure. Watching him, Anna was relieved - he seemed to have forgotten that awkward moment in the morgue. He couldn't have known, of course, but this night was the worst possible moment for him to have voiced his feelings for her.

Pulling up her mask, Anna snapped on two pairs of latex gloves and nodded to Sam. She pulled the overhead microphone/recorder a little lower and then began to speak into it as Sam started shooting documentation photos of the body. First, she checked the corpse for surface wounds and abnormalities, all the while describing and recording her findings. The cause of death seemed as obvious as the ligature marks on the corpse's neck ... the man had been caught by police while committing a murder and was said to have hung himself later in his jail cell. But in San Francisco, all suspicious deaths required autopsies and in this case, Anna was glad to oblige.

Taking up a scalpel, she began the large Y shaped incision on the torso of the body that would open it up for investigation. Anna saw Sam wince as the scalpel cut deeply from the point of the right shoulder and down to end at the sternum. She smiled fondly behind her mask, wondering for the umpteenth time why someone as sensitive as Sam had chosen such a career. She made a another incision in the corpse from the left shoulder to meet the first cut and then continued down the middle of the body, skirting the belly button, to end at the pubic bone.

As Anna and her assistant began to peel the soft tissue back from the Y incision, a faint butcher-shop stench rose from the exposed interior of the corpse. There was little blood, however. What there was dripped down into the side gutters of the slanted table, ending up in a bucket out of sight below. As Anna took up a a small electric saw and began to cut the ribcage away from the sternum, her eyes strayed momentarily to a plaque in Latin hanging on one of the walls - Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae - This is the place where death rejoices to teach the living. Anna prayed that this corpse would teach her what she needed to know ... how to bring her husband back to life.

* * * * *

Sam walked through the medical examiner's annex toward Anna's office, worried. She'd dismissed him from the autopsy early, saying that she wanted to finish it up by herself. When he'd protested, she'd pulled rank on him. Sam shook his head - his boss was spending far too much time alone, he thought, alone with the memories of her husband, Jeremy. It had been almost a year since Jeremy's death but instead of moving on, Anna seemed to only grow more morose with the passage of time. Sam had been envious of Jeremy while he lived but it was only after his death that he'd grasped how close the two had been, how futile his feelings for Anna were. It was anything but easy to compete with a ghost.

When his knocking went unanswered, Sam let himself into Anna's empty office. He'd hoped to catch her before she left for home, hoped she'd changed her mind about going out, but it appeared he was too late. Sam was about to leave, disappointed, when a book that lay open on her desk caught his attention - the Grimoire. Curious and a little disturbed, Sam took a seat in Anna's chair and began to read the contents of the pages to himself ...

"The Hand of Glory Spell - a spell of necromancy used to raise the dead. Said to have originated with Albertus Magnus in the Middle Ages, the Hand of Glory Spell is traditionally used to paralyze and control evil, usually of a lesser sort. Occasionally, if the need is great, it can be used to confound great evil as well, and what greater evil is there than death? First one must procure the hand of a criminal who has died of hanging. The severed hand should be dipped into hot wax, and hairs from the dead man's head affixed to the tips of the fingers, thus turning the hand into a kind of candle. Lighting the fingers at midnight, one begins then to speak the words of power, and ..."

The phone on Anna's desk rang, and Sam flinched, his concentration broken. He picked up the receiver, shaken, but before he could speak, the caller spat out, "What the hell's going on over there?"

"I'm sorry, what ..."

"This is the morgue. That stiff you just sent us arrived minus one of his hands. You know you have to account for all the missing parts and I don't see any paperwork here that ... "

Sam slammed down the receiver and bolted for the door, horror lending him speed. He knew where Jeremy's body lay - if Anna was doing as he suspected, she was in a terrible way and needed his help.

* * * * *

Anna knelt on the damp grass of Holy Cross Cemetery, the moon her only illumination. Before her stood Jeremy's marble tombstone, the etching of his name barely discernible in the uncertain light. This was the first time she'd come here since the funeral. For a moment, despair threatened to overtake her but then, chest aching, she brushed away tears and renewed her resolve - she wasn't here to mourn but to retrieve what had been taken from her. I will leave this place with Jeremy, she vowed.

Lifting the waxy severed hand from her purse, Anna situated it, fingers reaching toward the stars, on the bottom lip of the tombstone. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and imagined a circle forming in the grass around the area of the grave. Then striking a match, she carefully lit the hairy wick of each dead finger and began the incantation she'd memorized from the book. "Mists from north, south, east and west ... hide this place at my request." Anna bit her lip, eyes wide. She hadn't really expected this to work, but as she stared, tendrils of fog began to coalesce around Jeremy's grave site. Swallowing dryly, she continued. "Hand of glory, hand of power ... blazing at the witching hour ..."

As she spoke the final words that she hoped would bring her husband back to her, Anna saw the area over his grave begin to tremble. Before her astonished eyes, slender fingers rose up from between the blades of grass, fingers so different from those burning nearby. She held her breath, beginning to hope. Then gracefully, as if rising from a pool of water, Jeremy ascended from the shivering grass. He stood before her, beautiful and new as if reborn. She lost herself in his gaze until he reached out a hand, softly spoke her name. Anna brushed past his hand and embraced him instead, needing to feel the beat of his heart next to hers.

* * * * *

Running under the dripping trees of the cemetery, slipping on the wet grass in his haste, Sam cursed himself. He should have seen this coming - if something happened to Anna ... As he approached Jeremy's grave site through the mist, he glimpsed bits and pieces of the dead man's strange resurrection. What he saw was enough to make him doubt his own sanity. The hair rising on his neck, Sam shouted at Anna as he ran. Startled, she stumbled away from Jeremy and, falling against the tombstone, knocked over the burning Hand of Glory. There was an audible pop and the mist surrounding the grave site instantly disappeared.

With a look of sadness, Jeremy sighed, turned away from his wife, and began to walk slowly back toward his final resting place. Realizing that the spell must have been broken, Anna flung herself at her husband and tried to hold him back, but his progress, while slow, seemed inexorable. Then he paused a moment to gently push her away. "Try to understand - I have to go back, Anna. With the spell undone, that grave requires a body."

Hearing this, Anna started for the grave herself. Sam reached her side before she could sacrifice herself and held her back. "Stop it, Anna. Let him go. What you're doing here is wrong, unnatural."

She fought Sam with the strength of desperation until he realized she was beyond reason and snapped her head back with a punch. Catching her, he laid her gently on the grass and then turned to stare wonderingly at the thing that had once been Jeremy. To his surprise, the other stopped again and returned his gaze.

"You love her, don't you ... have for a long time," said Jeremy - a statement rather than a question.

Speechless, Sam nodded woodenly.

"Then, take care of her for me."

Jeremy resumed his advance to his empty grave but not before Sam had the chance to plumb the depths of the other's eyes. He wasn't sure what he'd expected to see there ... dread, anger, a ravening hunger for continued life. But instead all he'd seen was a calm acceptance. And love. A love for Anna so intense that Sam feared he'd fail to match it even if given a lifetime in which to try. Sam sighed and closed his eyes for a moment, opened them and took a last look at Anna. Then, sprinting past Jeremy, Sam dove into the waiting grave.


This story was written for a Mystery Challenge on the subject of politics

Two weeks ago ...

Mark ran stumbling through the forested darkness, blood roaring in his ears, chest heaving with the effort to drag in each ragged breath of night air. As he clutched a heavy backpack in a death grip, he repeated over and over the litany that kept him going ... he had to get away, had to survive, so that others would know.

Tripping over an unseen obstruction, Mark fell heavily to the pine-needle strewn ground, the backpack flying from his grasp. For a moment he lay dazed and bleeding from numerous scrapes, but soon he pushed himself to trembling knees. Then, with the feeble benefit of starlight, he saw what had caused him to fall ... it was his female contact. She stared up from a bed of blood with a glassy unfocused gaze, her throat torn open by a large caliber round.

Mark managed to crawl a few feet from the corpse before the retching took him. As he wiped his mouth against the back of his shaking hand, he noticed red beams slice through the dimness of the forest ... laser sightings .... soldiers of the Special Ops Division of Fort Marshall were almost upon him. With a last glance at what was left of the nameless woman who'd helped him break into the secret medical research facility, Mark forced himself to his feet, retrieved the backpack and began to run.

* * * * *

One week ago ...

"This had better be good, Mr. Archer. Do you have any idea what it takes to give the Secret Service the slip?"

Mark Archer, rookie congressman from Oregon, looked around nervously as he pulled his coat closer with his left hand. In his right hand he held the handle of a metallic briefcase. "Thanks for coming, Mr. President."

"I still don't understand why we couldn't have met in my office tomorrow morning. Don't you think you're being a little paranoid, dragging me out to East Potomac Park at 3:00am?"

"You know what they say Sir, the real question isn't 'are you paranoid?', but 'are you paranoid enough?'," Mark smiled.

Michael Ryan's face hardened and he wondered if he'd made a mistake in taking this odd request seriously. "Look, I'm only here because of the respect I had for your father. You said this had to do with his death ..."

His expression now grave, Mark hastened to explain. "Do you remember when Senator Rockefeller issued a report in 1994 revealing that for at least fifty years, the Department of Defense had conducted secret experiments on unknowing civilians ... exposed them to mustard gas, LSD, plutonium and more?"

The President sighed and wearily flopped down on a nearby stone bench. "How could I forget?"

The young congressman paced back and forth before Ryan, too disturbed, it seemed, to take a seat. "You also know that my father was one of the doctors who testified before the senate sub-committee ..."

Impatient, the president interrupted, "Yes, of course, but what does this all have to do with his death?"

Mark stopped in front of the older man and their eyes locked. "Those reprehensible human experiments ... those skeletons from our political past ... they've never ended. In fact, they've reached a level unbelievable in both their depravity and their threat to every person in this country. My father was silenced when he found this out, when he tried to make it known."

Ryan shook his head in disappointed dismissal. "You've been watching too many episodes of the X-Files, Archer. Don't you think if something like that was going on that the president of the United States would know about it?"

"With all due respect, Sir, I think you're overestimating your position on the political food chain."

"Okay, I've heard enough," growled Ryan, getting to his feet. His anger faded as he stared into the younger man's eyes. "I'm sincerely sorry about your father ... he was a good man. But this isn't the way to ..."

"Mr. President, I didn't really expect you to take my word for all this," Archer broke in with a bitter smile. He opened his briefcase. "I've brought proof. I have copied files, photographs, but I think you'll find this the most persuasive."

The older man caught a faint stench of corruption as the congressman slowly lifted the lid of a metallic container. As the president gazed down into the receptacle at a horror impossible to have imagined, he felt himself break out in a cold sweat.

"What would you be willing to do, Mr. President, to defeat the experiments responsible for this?" the younger man asked grimly.


* * * * *

Three days ago ...

Dr. Karl Farber caught a glimpse of his reflection in the spherical glass of one of the large tanks that lined the walls of his lab. He straightened his slightly bent spine and smiled at himself ... not bad, he thought, for a man of eighty-six. Blue eyes still bright, hair still extant ... a fair example of the master race. His personal reverie was interrupted by a movement from within the tank. Peering through the viscous green fluid, he tapped lightly on the glass and observed his experiment's reaction with relish.

Brought to the United States by the CIA in 1945 as part of Operation Paperclip, the Nazi scientist had been offered immunity and a new identity in exchange for the contribution of his expertise to secret government projects. In Germany, he'd been one of the scientists doing live vivisections and pharmacological experiments for drug companies on concentration camp victims . Now he used the knowledge he'd gained sixty years ago to aid the unspeakable aims of a shadow government within the US government.

"How's our latest test subject responding?"

Farber turned to see a middle-aged man in an impeccable dark suit entering the lab. The scientist grimaced ... he hated the idea of his work being constantly surveiled by this hatchet man ... for the umpteenth time he wondered who the nameless suit worked for - CIA, NSA? Best not to be too curious. "I'd be farther along without these constant interruptions," he answered coldly. "Speaking of which ... have you yet found the man who broke into my lab?"

The other man smiled, ignoring Farber's rudeness. "Not yet, but it's just a matter of time, a few days at the most ... the fool left some of his DNA behind."

The old scientist snorted in disgusted contempt as the other man lit a cigarette and moved closer to the tank to observe the object of their common interest.

* * * * *

Last night ...

Mark Archer was scared. Perspiration soaked his expensive suit and made it difficult to retain his grip on the deadman's switch in his left hand. Once more, he raked his gaze over the fully occupied US House of Representatives. Where were the secret service agents, the state police? Would they believe in his threat to blow up the entire building with everyone in it? He heard his name whispered and his eyes snapped back to the president.

"Maybe we'd better get on with the show," Ryan muttered to him in a low voice. The older man glanced at the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House as he continued. "I think the natives are getting restless."

Giving the president a brief nod, Mark handed him a couple of lengths of rope and then loudly demanded that Ryan bind up the two other men on the speaking platform. After the president had finished, Mark instructed him, in a voice easily heard by all thanks to the microphone at the podium, to attach himself to the lie-detector. As he watched Ryan begin to remove his suit jacket, his mind flitted over the details of their desperate plan ... the plan that would probably get them both killed.

After numerous brainstorming sessions and a few discrete inquiries by the president, the young congressman and Michael Ryan had come to the harrowing conclusion that there was no safe way to stop the despicable experiments and no safe way to tell the public they were taking place ... every alternative and scenario ended with them both "plausibly" dying while the secret government within the government continued its work with no one being the wiser.

Only the memory of his father's murder kept Mark from giving up. He had no idea what sustained the president in the effort . Mark had not even voted for Ryan ... he knew the president had won the election by only a few votes and had spent his tenure at loggerheads with a congress made up of a majority of the other party ... even his own cabinet was mostly against him ... obviously there was more character to Michael Ryan than Mark or anyone else had suspected.

On the night before the State of the Union Address was to be given, Mark had come up with a radical idea. The president's first reaction had been incredulous disbelief, but Mark had eventually convinced him it was their only chance.

The plan was for the president, after his speech, to invite the rookie congressman up to his side on the speaking platform. Once there, Mark would take possession of the deadman's switch, which the president had managed to have hidden under the podium along with a lie detector and some rope. Mark would then explain to the watching world that he was taking those on the speaking platform hostage, that the deadman's switch was connected electronically to bombs planted throughout the chamber.

The point of this action, he'd say, was to question the president using the lie-detector ... if the president lied, everyone would die in a massive explosion. It was the greatest of bluffs, for there were actually no bombs and there would be no explosions if Mark's thumb were to leave the button on the deadman's switch in his hand. But both he and the president were betting their lives that the Secret Service wouldn't want to take that chance.

He and Ryan would thus have an opportunity to reveal the truth about the monstrous experiments taking place at Fort Matshall. The entire world would hear the compelling evidence thanks to the presence of the press and both Ryan and Mark would be safe, set free by the truth.

As Mark reviewed his plan, Secret Service agent Alvin Howe, near the back of the huge room, felt the sudden vibration of his cellular phone. Taking it out of his jacket pocket, he looked around to make sure he was within hearing distance of no one. "Yes?"

"It's me."

The agent stiffened, all attention. "Yes, Sir?"

"We have the results of the DNA scan ... it was Archer who broke into the lab. Our guess is that he's going to ask the president about the experiments. Ryan's clueless, of course, but we can't take any chances."

The agent asked, "What do you want me to do, Sir?"

"You have to find a way to terminate both Archer and Ryan without setting off the bombs ... we have too much of an investment in various members of congress to lose them and their votes needlessly."

"I understand, Sir."

The agent slipped his phone back into his jacket pocket and moved unobtrusively towards the speaking platform. Somehow he would have to both get the deadman's switch away from Archer without triggering the explosions and also find a way to blame Ryan's death on Archer before he killed the congressman.

Mark's musings on his plan were disturbed when he noticed the agent's movements and he rightly intuited that there wasn't much time left. He was about to turn back to the president and begin the questioning when he was blindsided by Ryan. Almost dropping the deadman's switch in surprise, Mark was hurled back against the waist-high edge of the speaking platform by a left hook from the president.

As everyone in US House of Representatives held their collective breath and as people watching on television throughout the world sat on the edge of their seats, the president grappled with the young congressman for possession of the deadman's switch. Unnerved by disbelief, Mark watched as Ryan slowly pried the switch away from him. For the fraction of a second, the president had the switch in his possession and then he seemed to just drop it over the edge of the speaking platform to land on the carpeted floor of the chamber.

For a moment, no one moved and then, as Mark opened his mouth to ask the president what the hell he was doing, a multitude of bullets tore through the congressman's chest. Mark fell, death already overshadowing him. It's doubtful he felt the crump and shudder as the explosions began.

* * * * *

The present ...

"So Archer never actually planted any bombs in the House of Representatives?" The middle-aged man in the impeccable suit swore under his breath, amazed at the late congressman's nerve.

"No. It was I who put them there," answered the president.

"Had that been your plan all along?"

"Not at all." Ryan sighed and sat down on the same stone bench he had shared with Mark Archer just one week ago. "When the congressman told me about those experiments of yours, when he showed me that ... that sample ..." The president shook his head. "I was 100% behind him in wanting to expose you."

"But you had a change of heart," prompted the nameless man as he took out a pack of cigarettes.

The president shifted on the hard bench as if uncomfortable. "Yes. Archer told me about his plan the night before the State of the Union Address. It seemed dangerous, a long shot, but I eventually agreed. I sat up for hours after he left, thinking."

"About ...?" asked the other, blowing a ring of smoke into the night air.

"About what it means to be a politician. About how life is nothing but a series of compromises. I still believe with every fiber of my being that what you're doing is wrong but if we'd exposed your secret government experiments, what would have been the outcome?"

The smoking man supplied the answer he knew the president wanted, needed. "A few lackeys would have been sacrificed to feed the public's conscience and we'd have been back in business with hardly a break in stride ... a mere inconvenience." He watched with secret amusement as Ryan nodded. "And of course," the nameless man added maliciously, "You weren't influenced at all by the opportunity to destroy your political enemies in congress and the cabinet ... to come off looking like a hero."

A number of emotions played over the president's face but he finally chose not to answer.

The other man dropped his cigarette and ground it out under his heel. "I'll be leaving now, Mr. President ... but just to clarify, we have a truce?"

Ryan nodded.

"Oh, and by the way, an interesting place for a meeting," observed the suit as he glanced around the dark emptiness of East Potomac park.

"Thanks," answered the president with a bitter smile. "A friend turned me on to it."


This story was a very short one written for a Mystery/Science Fiction Challenge on the subject of the future

Frank lay prone on the peaked roof of the teahouse in San Francisco's Chinatown, impatiently awaiting the first client he'd had in years. At 3:00 am, the narrow, fog-shrouded alleys below him were deserted. He hadn't wanted to meet in Chinatown, knowing his sense of smell would be dulled by pervasive, exotic aromas, his sight defeated by the deceptive curtain of mist. But, desperate for money, he'd had no true choice.

Frank's enhanced hearing, a gift of dolphin DNA, alerted him to approaching footsteps. Quickly, he slid to the edge of the roof and descended the two-story wall of the teahouse head first. The same chameleon genetic material which now caused his skin cells to rapidly change color as he moved in and out of the shadows, allowed him to defy gravity and cling to the damp bricks of the wall.

A man broke through the moist tendrils of fog and gasped in amazement. "It's true ... you really are a GMO!"

Frank dropped to the pavement and approached him. "Yes, Mr. Ford. I'm also the best detective your money can buy." Frank took in the other's appearance which spoke of wealth and power and he was relieved - this man would be more than able to meet his price. "Tell me about the case."

As Ford began to describe his daughter's kidnapping, Frank relaxed and let part of his mind drift. A GMO - a genetically modified organism. He hadn't heard that expression in years. On the streets, he and those like him were called FrankenDicks. They'd been disavowed in 2060 and hunted almost to extinction but before that they'd been a slave race, created to serve a specific purpose. They began life as undifferentiated human clones and were then "gifted" with the traits of certain animal species, using viruses as vectors.

The genes chosen for GMOs created the perfect PI - one with superior visual acuity, hearing, sense of smell and camouflage ability. The result was mediated transformation for a fraction of the cost of manufacturing an android. But the heyday of GMOs had ended when America became a theocracy in 2060 and all clones ordered put down.

"Are you listening?" barked Ford.

Frank blinked his too-large avian eyes. "Yes, sir. Did you bring an article of your daughter's clothing?"

As the man held out a blood-flecked scarf, Frank whirled, his specialized hearing detecting the advance of a number of individuals - a clone termination squad!

About to flee, he was stopped by Ford's hand on his arm. "Please take it," the man begged, pushing the scarf into Frank's hand. "You're her best chance."

Frank hesitated a moment as the sounds of pursuit grew closer. He stared into Ford's all too human eyes and what he saw there made him close his fingers over the scarf, nod to the other man. Then he turned and ran.

In the Space Needle, No One Can Hear You Scream

This story was written for a Mystery Challenge on the subject of well known sites

As the elevator flew upward to the Seattle Space Needle's SkyCity restaurant, 500 ft above, I shook raindrops from my umbrella and repositioned the heavy Sig Sauer holstered under my evening gown's jacket. The elevator doors opened on the large revolving chamber where my partner, Special Agent Sam Reynolds, and his fiance, Nina, were celebrating their engagement. My heart sank as I spotted the two of them surrounded by well-wishers. Once again, I cursed my shyness - I'd never had the courage to tell Sam I loved him and now it was too late. Pasting a rictus-like grin on my face, I walked up and congratulated them.

* * * * *

The dinner party had been a success, despite the storm raging outside, but wallowing in regrets, I'd hardly noticed the weather or my crab cakes. I sighed as Sam rose, lifting a flute of champagne in a toast to Nina. As she also stood, raising her glass, a bolt of lightning so intense as to be visible in the brightly lit room, struck the Needle and the lights flickered and died.

The dark room was then re-illuminated by one lightning bolt after another. In strobe-like flashes that turned each moment into eerie still photos, I saw Nina's brother, Ernest, thrust his steak knife into her heart. Shocked into immobility, I watched disjointed clips of him running for the door of the restaurant's kitchen, saw Sam lower Nina to the floor with a look of disbelief.

Guests, as they realized what had happened, ran through the dim room for elevators as dead as the lights and others tried unsuccessfully to open windows 500 feet above the ground to cry for help. I ignored them and bent over Sam as he tried to bring Nina back with CPR.

"She's gone, Sam, there's nothing we can do for her," I said softly, touching his arm.

Devastated, Sam didn't look up, didn't speak, just shook off my hand and continued his futile efforts. He was beyond my reach, so I pulled out my weapon and ran after Nina's brother as quickly as my heels and the room's dimness allowed. Ernest was waiting for me just inside the door to the huge darkened kitchen. As I slowed to a stalk, my pistol held out in front of me, he surprised me, hitting me in the face with a pan. I went down, tasting blood.

* * * * *

"Diane, are you all right?" Sam helped me up. I'd only been stunned and was soon able to join him in searching the cavernous kitchen with his flashlight. I wanted to say something about Nina but the expression on his face said no. Instead I asked about Ernest.

"Do you have any idea why Nina's brother would want to kill her?"

He answered grimly, "Let's catch the son of a bitch first and profile him later, OK?"

After fifteen minutes, all we'd found was an open air-return vent in the ceiling, the cover hanging down, a chair standing underneath. As Sam took off his jacket and checked the clip in his Sig, I tried to reason with him. "This is a little too convenient."

"We can't afford to pass it up. He's not in the kitchen and as far as I know, there's no other exit from the restaurant save the elevators." Standing on the chair, Sam pulled himself up into the vent's opening. His voice reverberated hollowly as he called back to me, "The shaft seems level for about 20 feet, then it goes vertically down ... way down. There's a metal access ladder attached to one side, probably for maintenance."

"See any sign of Ernest?"

"No, but this flashlight only reaches so far and ..."

Worried, I interrupted. "One of the guests must have a cell phone ... we can call the field office, have men waiting for him at the bottom of the shaft." I heard Sam crawling back towards me.

"The cell phone's a good idea ... make that call. And try to calm the guests."

"And you?"

Even in the dimness, I could see Sam's eyes darken. "I want to ... have to ... be the one to find Ernest, Diane."

I finally agreed and he disappeared again into the dark void of the air vent. Holstering my weapon, I walked towards the kitchen's door and then stopped, hearing a strange sound. It was coming from above, ... not from the direction in which Sam had gone but from outside.

Following the sound, I located a door, hidden by a sharp turn in the back of the darkened kitchen ... it led to an outside staircase. I pushed the door open and was hit by cold wind-driven rain. The stairway apparently existed for emergencies and was surrounded by a wire cage for safety. I heard the noise again and looked up. Someone was pushing open a door from the staircase into the observation deck twenty feet above the restaurant ... Ernest.

* * * * *

Ernest had locked that door behind him and I'd had to destroy the lock with my pistol. The element of surprise gone, I circled the observation deck, 520 feet above ground, buffeted by wind and rain. As I searched, I wondered how he planned to escape and then, moments later, I found both him and the answer to my question. Ernest was perched precariously on the railing, a parachute strapped to his back. I advanced slowly, my weapon raised. "Why did you kill Nina?" I demanded.

He looked at me thoughtfully as he tightened his harness. "Maybe you, of all people, will understand. Nina and I were lovers. Then Sam came along and ruined everything. To have your love go unreturned is very painful, isn't it, Diane? How grateful you must be that I got rid Nina. Do you think Sam will turn to you now?"

He took the opportunity of my shocked reaction to jump unhindered over the edge. I ran to the railing and, staring down through the rain, saw him swaying just below, his harness caught on some protuberance. Holstering my gun, I reached down, tried to drag him back, all the while telling myself that he was wrong about me.

Ernest suddenly reached up and grabbed my wrist as he began to free the harness. "Come with me, Diane. This shute's only big enough for one person, but maybe I deserve to die now that I've killed Nina. And as for you, Sam will never love you, no matter how long you wait ... you should join me."

As I watched, transfixed, the parachute began to slide off the obstruction. I tried to reach my weapon with my free hand, tried to wriggle out of his grip, but it was hopeless. As the harness came free and I felt myself being pulled over the railing, a gunshot roared and a strong hand dragged me back ... Sam.

* * * * *

As we rode down from the observation deck in a now working elevator, Sam explained. "I was just starting down the vertical ventilation shaft when I heard your weapon's discharge, thought you might need help."

I gazed at him doubtfully. "When you reached the observation deck ... did you hear what ... what Ernest said about ..." My voice failed.

Eyes haunted, Sam looked away for a moment. Then he gently pulled me close. "No, I didn't hear a thing."

Lorcan's Second Chance

This story was written for a Fantasy Challenge on the subject of a magical object

Long ago in Ireland

The air of the battlefield, heavy with the sharp tang of spilled blood, was rent with the cries of the wounded and dying. Sparks flew and metal shrieked as my friend Cormac and I circled each other like stiff-legged dogs, each testing with our weapons for the other's weakness. Although true vassals to our king, Matholwch of Ireland, we ignored our rightful enemy, the Welsh, and sought to slay each other instead ... I had slept with Cormac's wife, Chevonne, and now death alone could lie between he and I.

By evening and battle's end, our desires had been met and we lay on the bloody field in a grotesque embrace, our weapons sheathed in each other, our souls tethered to life by the merest thread. It seemed I floated above my body, dispassionate, as the day's wealth of corpses was gathered by King Matholwch's men ... I thought, for burial ... I was wrong.

My almost-corpse was dragged along with Cormac's and others to a clearing behind our lines. There, under burgeoning stars, stood a huge black cauldron, bubbling. A pinprick of unease penetrated my serenity as I watched one dead warrior after another dismembered with an ax, the resulting body parts tossed into the cauldron to be sucked below its roiling surface. Within moments, I lost my final remnants of apathy as I watched something unnatural rise slowly up out of that cauldron.

* * * * *

Present Day Wales

I sat on the stone bench in one of Cardiff University's gardens and closed my eyes. The warmth of the sun on my face, the caress of a gentle breeze ... it didn't matter how many lives I'd lived, the solace to be found in nature's beauty never seemed to pall.


I opened my eyes to gaze into others bluer than my own. Professor Ravenwood's graduate student, Judith. She bore a countenance as open and lovely as a flower, so sadly reminiscent of Chevonne. I suppressed a sigh, reminding myself of a lesson not easily learned ... the body, even one as compelling as Judith's, was naught but a temporary shell. Then I smiled ruefully ... I could not deny that despite my misgivings, Judith was indeed becoming the star by which my heart sailed.

These thoughts were banished by the arrival of Ravenwood, the archaeology professor with whom I'd been in contact these last few months. It was with his help that I planned to redeem the lives I'd wasted since that first mistake with Chevonne. I rose to shake his hand and soon we sat at the desk in his office, staring down at photographs of an archeological dig.

"So, it's true. Welsh mythology's cauldron of rebirth has been found." I stretched out a trembling hand to tentatively touch the images.

"So we think. A recent seismic event in the mountain range north of us opened up a large fissure in a defunct copper mine ... some cavers were the first to discover the artifact. But keep in mind, Lorcan, the excavation is in the preliminary stages. Nothing's yet been authenticated," the professor temporized.

"You have doubts?"

"I'll know more when we visit the dig site next week. You're accompanying Judith and myself? After all, your financial support made much of this possible."

"I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Dr. Ravenwood was late for a lecture, so Judith walked me out. As we passed the stone bench, she grasped my sleeve, pulling me down to sit beside her. I raised an interrogative brow.

"I just wanted to thank you," she said. "The professor's research was going nowhere until your money and suggestions gave it new life."

"No thanks are necessary. My motivations were purely selfish."

It was her turn to give an inquiring look and as I let my eyes roam her face, I felt drawn to confide all. She seemed so receptive ... a blank slate on which to record my strange history.

"You know the legend of Arawn's cauldron of rebirth?" I began.

"Of course. The Mabinogion, a text of Welsh mythology, states it was given to the Irish king by Bran, the Welsh leader, as a wedding gift. Later, they fought and the Irish used the cauldron against the Welsh in battle ... they put their warriors' dead bodies into it and over night they were reanimated. Some say the cauldron was destroyed in that battle, others hold it was returned to the underworld's lord, Arawn. "

Disturbed, I turned my gaze away, barely hearing Judith's last words. Reanimated ... what a pale description of the horror I'd witnessed, experienced that night so long ago. When my body had been dismembered, the last shred that bound me to its flesh was severed. Still, in the time it took my spirit to dissolve, I beheld my reconstituted corpse slither from the cauldron, soulless. Without my volition, I began my spiral of rebirth ... a soul in search of a new body ... and only the Gods knew what had transpired with the undead shell I left behind.

"So, we've found the cauldron, have we?"

My head snapped around, eyes locking with those of a stranger now sitting on the other side of Judith. Swallowing dryly, I recognized Cormac. A new body, yes, but the same old soul. A soul that had relentlessly hunted me as I hunted it, remorselessly murdered me unless I slew it first, lifetime after lifetime.

"What do you want?"

Cormac smiled pleasantly. "What I always want ... your death."

Disturbed, Judith stood. "Sorry, I've a class. I'll see you next week, Lorcan, at the excavation site?"

I nodded and she walked off, casting a last puzzled look my way. I turned back to Cormac and in his presence it seemed the sun dimmed, the breeze died ... that we were once more under the stars, the black cauldron's macabre stew bubbling to life. Since that night, we'd not only been aware of our successive rebirths, we'd been linked together by our antipathy. I sighed, daunted by the predictability of our situation. "So, you still want to kill me. Don't you tire of our endless death match ... I know I do."

"It was your betrayal that earned us this."

"Is there to be no forgiveness, then?"

Cormac's eyes widened in surprise for we'd never yet had this conversation in all our many lives. "Are you saying you regret what brought us here?"

In truth, I'd been wild and proud in that distant past, regrets the last thing on my mind. But after a millennia of lifetimes, I'd gained some perspective on both passion and friendship. "What I'm saying is that I'm weary of the waste I've made of my string of lives. With the discovery of the cauldron, I can use its powers to gift others ... grant to everyone an awareness of life's offer of unlimited second chances."

"Unlimited second chances?" Cormac's laugh was bitter. "People don't want knowledge of their serialized immortality ... such an awareness would only drive them mad. They want a beginning and an end, a heaven and a hell. And then there is what Iwant ... the sweet nothingness of oblivion. I must deny you possession of the cauldron, Lorcan, for the nothingness I seek will only be found once I've destroyed both the object and the two of us as well. Meet me this evening at the excavation site. If you need incentive to comply, know that your young woman will be joining us."

"No! I..."

My protest was cut short by a blow from Cormac's fist that brought with it unconsciousness.

I stood at dusk on the slopes of Yr Wyddfa ... Mount Snowdon as the English name it ... gazing into the deep blue waters of Lyn Glaslyn. I would have thought it beautiful had I not known it to be dead, its brilliant color a symptom of the copper salts leeching into the lake from the abandoned Britannia copper mine on its shore. It was off of one of these deep mine shafts that I knew I would find not only the excavated cauldron and Cormac but also Judith, for true to his word, he had taken her.

Casting a final glance at the surrounding peaks, I approached the roped off entrance to the mine, wondering where the security guard might be. My question was answered directly I entered the shaft ... he lay unconscious and bound just within ... Cormac's doing. I took a deep steadying breath and watched it form a visible vapor as I exhaled into the cold dimness. About to switch on the flashlight I'd brought, I felt the chill hardness of metal pressed against the back of my neck and heard the snick of a pistol's safety being snapped off.

"Lorcan, how good of you to come," said Cormac from behind me.

Light suddenly blossomed from his lantern as I turned to face him. "Where is Judith? Have you harmed her?" I asked.

"The woman is unhurt and awaits us at the excavation site. Shall we proceed?" He punctuated his suggestion with a wave of his pistol.

I made no initial resistance but instead turned my mind to forming a plan which would undo Cormac. However, as we traveled down through various tunnels into the very roots of the mountain, I found my thoughts overwhelmed by my new environment. A dank breeze ruffled my hair, carrying with it the scent of secret places and here and there, Cormac's lantern exposed the fantastic brilliance of crystallized ore, the deeper darkness of bottomless pits.

"A fitting home for a magical cauldron. Perhaps it truly does lie with Arawn, lord of the underworld."

Cormac snorted in disdain. "You've come to believe in Welsh gods?"

"You can't deny the cauldron's power ... we're living out the results of the transformation it accomplished. How can you possibly hope to destroy such an object?"

Cormac did not deign to answer but pushed me roughly forward and within a short time we approached what seemed to be a deep chasm in the floor of the shaft. Heat radiated from the fissure and as I looked down into that abyss, I felt the torrid kiss of sulfurized air upon my face. Far below, a thin line of molten gold wound its way through living rock ... magma!

Cormac saw my confusion and smiled grimly. "To answer your earlier question, it's my belief that if you and I re-enter the cauldron as the object is cast into that conflagration from the bowels of the earth, we shall finally rest in peace."

Horrified, I watched Cormac's face as he spoke and saw there exhaustion, despair, the beginnings of madness. I shouldn't have been surprised ... each lifetime we'd shared had ended this way, one of us losing control and taking the other along for the ride. I'd wished this lifetime to be different, though. For the first time since that initial life, I felt deeply for someone. By bringing the cauldron's power to all, I'd hoped to repay my debts and spend enumerable lives linked in affection to Judith.

"Come," said Cormac.

He turned away from the chasm, his vigilance momentarily relaxed, and I took my chance, tackling him from behind. We landed heavily, the lantern rolling away to lay on its side, the wick sputtering. Cormac tried to bring the pistol to bear and we frantically fought over its possession, heaving back and forth, mere inches from the chasm's edge. There was a sudden muffled retort and we froze ... the pistol had gone off. I watched Cormac expectantly and it was only when the cold hard floor rose up to slam into the side of my head that I realized I was the one who'd been shot.

In shock, I felt little pain and was able to calmly watch Cormac rise, retrieve the lantern and put the pistol in his waistband. I was faintly surprised to see an expression of concern on his face as he bent over me but then I remembered ... he needed me to be at his side in the cauldron when it met its end in that underground river of lava.

"A chest wound," Cormac commented. "With any luck, it should take a few hours for you to expire ... plenty of time to fulfill your part in the plan." With that dispassionate assessment of my condition, he hefted me up over his shoulder and headed for the excavation site.

After a quarter of an hour, we had reached the dig. Cormac put me down, propping me against the mine shaft's wall as he took out his pistol. A small chamber opened out before me from the shaft and a lantern had been left burning within it. Peering through the opening, I saw a grid of squares laid into the chamber's floor, marked off with wooden stakes and string. A topographic map of the area was tacked to one wall and spades and brushes lay in a pile near some unearthed artifacts. The air was thick with the smell of sulfur and heavy with mist ... a large volcanic steam vent clove the back of the chamber. Near the vent, the ancient black cauldron I so fearfully remembered protruded balefully from the earth.

I spared one disturbed glance at that magical object and then glared at Cormac. "Where is Judith?"

With an oath, he rushed into the chamber and had barely crossed the threshold when a shovel seemed to swing out of nowhere and connect with the back of his head. He dropped bonelessly to the floor, unconscious. Judith appeared from behind an outcropping of rock, shovel in hand. Seeing me leaning precariously at the opening of the chamber, she ran and embraced me, eliciting a gasp of pain. After a moment, I held her away from me, scanning her anxiously. Her hair was disheveled and damp, her eyes wild but, she appeared unhurt. It was then she noticed the blood that now covered us both.

"Lorcan, you're hurt!"

I ignored the comment. "Help me into the chamber, Judith ... I must see the cauldron."

She didn't move. "Forget the cauldron. You need to get to a doctor."

"Not yet," I answered. Pushing away from Judith, I used the walls as support and slowly approached the cauldron, my skin crawling in a kind of atavistic dread. It had been almost entirely freed from the earth and rested upright, fully chest high and quite wide. As I drew closer, an odd smell, reminiscent of cooked flesh, emanated forebodingly from the object. Then my eyes widened in momentary shock as it seemed a dark liquid frothed within the cauldron. With a shuddering breath, I relaxed ... it was naught but an optical illusion caused by the lantern's flickering light.

Judith was at my side again, urging me to leave. I gazed into her blue eyes, smelled her hair, kissed her, held her close ... and sighed, heartsick, because it wasn't enough. Not even the heady power of passion could stand against the profound wrongness that radiated in tangible waves from that black ageless object. Cormac was right ... it needed to be done away with.

Unable to force me into leaving, Judith ran from the excavation site, determined to bring help. I let her go. Then I set myself to pushing the cauldron towards the gaping steam vent which appeared to connect at its depths to that molten sea of magma moving through the mountain's core. After fifteen minutes of agonized and largely futile efforts, I slumped, weakened by despair and a loss of blood. Then I felt the cauldron move under my hands and looked up through tears to see Cormac at my side, pushing. Together, we accomplished the task.

As the cauldron teetered precariously on the edge of the vent, nearly obscured by sulfurous steam, Cormac carefully climbed inside it. I reached out a hand to stay him but he shook it off. Then he just sat there, a smear of dried blood giving his face a vulnerability I'd never before noticed, and stared at me beseechingly. He didn't need to ask ... I knew his wish ... that I give the cauldron the final necessary push and then join him within the object, embracing what he believed would be a death to outlast all previous deaths. I did so.

* * * * *

Long ago in Ireland

The air of the battlefield, heavy with the sharp tang of spilled blood, was rent with the cries of the wounded and dying. Sparks flew and metal shrieked as my friend Cormac and I circled each other like stiff-legged dogs, each testing with our weapons for the other's weakness. Although true vassals to our king, Matholwch of Ireland, we ignored our rightful enemy, the Welsh, and sought to slay each other instead ... I had slept with Cormac's wife and now death alone could lie between he and I ... or so it seemed.

Yet as I fought, the fragrance of Chevonne's perfume still on me, I began to lose my conviction. And where before I'd seen only rage in Cormac's face, I now found confusion and hurt. As my opponent reeled back under my weapon's latest thrust, I hesitated in making the killing blow. Instead, surprising even myself, I drove my sword into the ground before me and fell to my knees beside it. As Cormac raised his blade to dispatch me, a few words spilled from my lips, drawn it seemed from the very depths of my soul.

"What I did was wrong."

A gentle breeze blew back my long dark hair, baring my throat to the one I'd harmed. A strange serenity washed over me and turning my face up to the sun, I closed my eyes and waited calmly for the blow that would serve me what I had earned. It never came. When I finally chose to look, there was no sign of Cormac on the crowded field. I left the battleground then and the village as well, never to return. News of the conflict I'd deserted reached me on the road ... weird stories of magic cauldrons and necromancy. I paid them no mind, my own story of betrayal and forgiveness fantastic enough for me.


This story was written for a Horror Challenge on the subject of a little girl

Crestview Shopping Mall, 9:15 pm

David Fletcher crouched behind some crates in the dim cluttered storeroom/office at the back of the toy store, his stomach doing flip-flops. Glancing at his watch, he saw that it was just after closing time. David knew, from prior observation, that in moments the owner of the store, Mr. Sims, would come to this room to put the day's receipts in the small safe near the desk. That would be David's opportunity.

Seeking the courage necessary to his task, David turned his gaze to his ten year old daughter Emily. Lovely in her pink cotton dress, she leaned in silence against a crate further back in the shadows, staring at him. In that stare, he found the resolve he needed.

A sudden noise snapped his attention back to the door and he saw the owner walk through it, the cash-register tray in his hands. David pulled his pistol from his pants pocket and crept up behind the man as he bent to open the safe. Taking a deep breath, David swallowed down his trepidation and struck the other in the head with the pistol, felling him.

He dragged Sims' heavy inert body back to Emily, studying the man as he did so. In his fifties and overweight, the man looked little different than he had at the trial all those months ago. Unconscious, he seemed almost harmless, pathetic, and David cast a questioning glance at Emily as he reached her side with his burden. Her expression didn't change and he suppressed a sigh ... there was no mistake ... Mr. Sims was the one.

David opened a duffel bag that lay on the floor at Emily's feet, pulling out a roll of duct tape and a long bladed knife. Tearing pieces off the roll, he bound the store owner's wrists together and then his ankles. Last he placed tape over the man's mouth. The he sat on the floor, his back against one of the crates, to await Sims' return to consciousness. David could not perform the final ritual without asking one essential question of Sims. Once that question had been asked and answered, David could finally cut out the other's still beating heart.

* * * * *

Surrounded by his friends, Tom Fletcher walked through the parking lot of Crestview Shopping Mall, planning to spend a few hours in the mall's video gaming center. Those plans changed for Tom when he caught sight of his father entering the back exit of the toy store, carrying a large bundle. Tom knew who owned that store and his stomach did a queasy roll as he contemplated his father's possible intentions. Leaving his friends, he slowly walked to the toy sore's exit door, taking out his cell phone.

One year ago today, something terrible had happened to his family. His dad had been devastated and Tom had despaired of things ever getting back to some semblance of normality. Then a few months ago, his dad had suddenly improved in spirits. Things weren't the way they had been before, of course, but his dad seemed content, at peace. He'd begun working on some project out in his tool shed and Tom hadn't cared to inquire into the details. But now he had to ask himself ... what could his dad be thinking?

Tom reached the exit door and saw that the lock had been jimmied. Worried, he entered the toy store and walked down a dim hallway that led to the back room. He strode into a chamber filled with crates and with a desk at the far end. Turning down an aisle, he was startled to find his father standing there, a pistol pointed in his direction.

"Tom! God, I could have shot you! Why are you here?" David shoved the pistol back in his pocket and hugged his son.

As his father released him and stepped back, Tom saw Sims' body on the floor. "Dad, what's going on?"

"I know how it looks, son ... just give me a chance to explain." David led Tom over to Sims, who was now awake. "This is the man who hurt your sister last year. He has to be punished."

Tom looked down at Sims then back at his father, frightened. "Dad, there was a trial, remember? He was found innocent, he had an alibi."

"I remember, son. And I accepted the verdict. Until a few months ago. That's when your sister told me ..."

"My sister?" Tom interrupted. "Emily is dead ... she can't tell you anything anymore. Dad, tell me you know that Emily's dead." Tom searched his father's face anxiously, fearing the worst.

David gave his son's shoulder a reassuring clasp. "It's okay, son, I'm not losing my mind. I know Emily died last year ... her body, at least."

Tom's burgeoning smile of relief faded as his father continued.

David sighed. "Her spirit is still here, though ... bound to her body by the injustice of her death. She came to me in a dream, saying that Mr. Sims had indeed killed her, after ... " David's voice faltered. "After abusing her. The woman who falsely provided his alibi was his accomplice. Emily said that the only way her soul could be released was if the guilty were executed."

Tom began stumbling backwards, shaking his head in denial, until he bumped into something. Turning, he saw Emily. Eyes bulging, he gasped. Was he seeing a ghost? Then he took in the seams in her grayish skin, held together with tiny regular stitches ... recognized the too bright sheen of polished glass eyes ... caught the stench of decay. Tearing his gaze away, he retched.

David held his son, then helped him to a seat on one of the crates. "That's the project I've been working on lately ... Emily asked me to exhume her, fix her up as best I could. Then she asked me to bring her here. She wanted to see Mr. Sims with her own eyes, so to speak, before I ... before he was punished. Speaking of which ... "

Tom watched in horror as his father picked up the knife and bent towards Sims. "Dad, no! This is crazy!"

Ignoring him, David pulled the tape from Sims' mouth. "Do you repent of your crimes?"

The older man began to weep, turning his eyes to Tom. "Please, you have to help me! I'm innocent, I swear ... oh God, please help me!"

David, visibly upset by the man's pleading, replaced the tape and began to unbutton Sims' shirt.

Trembling, Tom appealed to David. "Dad, don't do this. You're not behaving rationally." His father didn't respond. Tom tried again. "Just before entering the store, I called the police ... they'll be here any minute. Leave him and get out of here while you can."

Disappointment in his voice, David repeated Tom's words. "You called the police." He placed the point of the knife against Sims' now bare chest and looked up at Tom. "Then I guess I'd better hurry."

* * * * *

Nine months later

Tom lay in his cousin's darkened bedroom, listening to the other's even breathing as he slept. Once Tom's dad had been arrested for Sims' murder, he'd come here to live with his dad's brother. After all this time, the horror of seeing his sister's taxadermied corpse, of watching a man's living heart cut from his chest, was starting to fade a bit. But he knew that the horror of his dad's descent into madness would never go away. Tom closed his eyes and sought the sleep of forgetfulness. He'd barely drifted off before a familiar voice called his name.

"Tom ... Tom ... one more person still must die before I'm avenged ... you must cleave the beating heart from Sims' accomplice to set me free." Emily's whisper was not quite drowned out by Tom's screams.

X-File Homage

This story was written for a Science Fiction Challenge on the subject of fan fiction

Special Agent Fox Mulder leaned against the wall of the autopsy suite, eating sunflower seeds and watching Agent Dana Scully as she pulled the sheet from a dead body. The corpse lay at an awkward angle on its side due to the computer keyboard that protruded from it's nether regions.

"Ouch," muttered Mulder. "That's got to hurt."

Scully gave her partner a baleful glance and began to speak into a voice activated recorder that hung from the ceiling between the bright surgical lights. "The victim, Fred Wiggins, appears to have died from blunt force trauma to the head ..."

"You can say that again," Mulder added, interrupting her. He gazed at Wiggins' head, or what was left of it ... a computer terminal had all but obliterated it and seemed now to be fused to the remnant of skull and brain tissue.

Picking up a scalpel in a gloved hand, Scully began to carve a Y incision into the stiff body that lay before her. "I don't understand why we've been assigned this case, Mulder. I'm as happy to snap on the latex as the next person, but this seems to be an albeit grotesque but normal murder, not an X-File."

Mulder crunched a sunflower seed hull between his teeth and suppressed a sigh. "Scully, Scully, Scully ... after all we've seen, how can you still be so naive?''

His partner arched an interrogative brow as she began to remove the corpse's rib cage with a handsaw. Mulder elaborated, pointing to the strategically placed computer keyboard. "Remember that case we had in which ritual magic was used to materialize surgical instruments inside a person's intestinal tract?"

"Yes, but this isn't exactly ..."

Mulder held up a restraining hand as he continued. "Then there was that X-File in which a man exposed to toxic chemicals was slowly turned into a machine."

"Surely you don't think that's the case here, Mulder. This man has obviously ..."

Before Scully could finish her sentence, the door to the autopsy suite swung open and FBI Assistant Director Skinner, the agents' boss, walked in. "You two are off the case."

"On whose say-so?" Mulder asked.

"The Justice Department has deemed this to be not a wrongful death after all but justifiable homicide. And they want the details kept quiet," Skinner said, as he cast a disturbed glance at the mutilated corpse.

"Just as I thought ... a far reaching global conspiracy concocted by the secret powers within our government and their alien masters." In emphasis, Mulder thumped his fist against the computer terminal that the deceased Mr. Wiggins now used as a head.

"Oh, come on Mulder ..." Scully began, but Skinner cut her off.

"He's right, Scully."

"I am?" Mulder looked more surprised than his partner.

His expression grim, Skinner looked around the room, as if to be sure they were alone. "Yes ... Mr. Wiggins was involved in something more diabolical, more truly evil, than anything you've yet encountered in the X-Files. I think it's possible that someone in the government had him silenced before he could reveal anything. Wiggins was a computer programmer. In collusion with unnamed forces so powerful and dangerous as to be beyond accountability, for dark purposes I can't even begin to imagine, he created the prototype of ... the pop-up ad."

"My God!" Scully gasped.

Mulder was, for once, speechless. Then, taking a deep steadying breath, he put the unsolvable case behind him. "So, you guys hungry?'

Skinner shrugged, "I could eat."

Scully snapped off the latex and, discussing restaurants, the three left the room.


This story was written for a Science Fiction Challenge on the subject of inner conflict

Alex DeLindt stalked the narrow alleyways of New Tokyo, his soft-soled shoes soundless as they struck the wet cobblestones. The evening drizzle awoke every arthritic ache in his six-foot frame and he paused in the shadow of a cherry tree to light a narc-cig. Taking a deep drag of the medicinal weed, his pale eyes roamed the street ahead. He'd been recalled from retirement by the Company for one last sanction ... the Monarch of Earth had been murdered and Alex was the only living operative who'd recognize the assassin.

The narc-cig's analgesic wafted away those bodily ills that came with age and Alex's concentration sharpened. As he exhaled blue smoke with a sigh, he took in the oddity of his surroundings. The colony-planet's city of New Japan had taken a leaf from the book of historical recreation and was an unholy wedding of theme park and medieval Nippon ... perhaps a reaction to the destruction of Japan on Earth.

His sources put Takahashi in one of the establishments on the street ahead and Alex perused the buildings lining the short avenue ... a sashimi bar, a pagoda of prostitution, a martial arts dojo and, at the end of the cul-de-sac, a zendo. A wistful smile softened his angular features as memories surfaced of his years in Japan before the nuclear power-plant meltdown. The smile faded, for that had been 50 years ago and now the islands existed as a radioactive wasteland.

Alex dropped his cig and let it smolder at his feet as he checked the sheathed katana concealed within his long coat. Plasma-energy weapons were illegal in New Japan so he'd brought along an old comrade ... ironic that this sword had been a gift to him from the one he now hunted. With a reluctance that disturbed him, he readied himself, tying back his long grey hair. He had a job to do - it shouldn't matter that his target had once been his wife.

He crossed the street, blending in with the tourists ... just another clueless gaijin in pursuit of oriental pleasures. Halting at the sashimi bar, he saw it specialized in the preparation of the poisonous blowfish and he smiled wryly ... perhaps a meal laced with tetrodotoxin would dispatch Takahashi for him. He gazed hopefully through the large windows but his quarry wasn't within.

Unsure if he was disappointed or relieved, he moved on to The Floating World, New Japan's house of sexual satisfaction, and was startled as a hologram materialized before the establishment's door ... a faux geisha wriggled sensuously, untying the obi of her kimono. Bemused, it was a moment before Alex realized the apparition was of Takahashi. Had she thus earning her keep while lying low? He ruthlessly banished his feeling of distress.

He should be searching the building, capturing her before she escaped, but he couldn't tear his eyes from her stripping holographic doppleganger. If the image was accurate, Takahashi hadn't aged a day since they'd last been together, 50 years ago. She must be using black-market rejuvenators.

Finally, he forced himself to walk through the hologram into the pagoda. As he stepped over the threshold, loosening his sword in its scabbard, he glimpsed her fleeing through a back window. Cursing, he gave chase but once outside, he realized he'd lost her. Then he saw the back door of the nearby dojo swing shut.

He kicked open the dojo's door, his naked sword held before him, sending aikido students scattering. After one look at Alex's katana, the sensei retreated to his office, doubtless to alert authorities. Alone on the totem mats, Takahashi stood in a defensive posture, a bokkenin her hands. They circled each other warily, Alex respectful of Takahashi's weapon, though just a wooden sword, for she was now some 50 years younger than he and lithe with it.

"Why are you here?" she asked.

"You killed our King," Alex answered.

"I had good reason."

"Reasons don't matter. I serve at the pleasure of the Company." He took a step forward, raising his sword.

Takahashi retreated. "But I'm your wife."

"Ex-wife. You left." He thrust with his blade but she managed to deflect the blow.

"I'd just lost my family, my country, to a nuclear holocaust. I needed time alone."

Alex's face twisted bitterly. "To find yourself?"

"To find who set that reactor to melt-down ... it was no accident. And after 50 years of digging, I finally did. King George and his regime were culpable. It began with a conflict over whaling and ... " Her voice died away as she observed Alex's expression. "You knew!"

He used her momentary shock to his advantage, launching a furious attack that disarmed her. As she cowered under his blade, Alex answered her accusation. "Indeed I knew. It was I who set the explosives at the power-plant. As I said, I serve."

Alex gazed not in triumph but despair at the wife he was ashamed to have loved less well than his Liege. With a blow, he rendered her unconscious and lifting her into his arms for the last time, carried her to the zendo next door. The sacred place was deserted and, as police sirens wailed in the distance, Alex lay Takahashi at the feet of a bronze Buddha, drove his blade through her heart, and then fell upon his sword, his final task for the Company completed.

Clotted Cream

This story was written for a Horror Challenge on the subject of food

6:00pm - Sunday

Jane sat in Faber Pharmaceuticals testing room, luxuriating in the exotic taste and texture of English clotted cream. She'd responded to an add asking for research volunteers weeks ago and now participated in a study run by Faber. Each day she'd drop by the testing room and eat one of the provided foods containing an artificial fat. The volunteers were asked to report any physical ailments and though Jane had noticed some dizziness and headaches, she hadn't reported them for fear of being bumped from the study ... this was the easiest money she'd ever made.

Within minutes of leaving Faber Pharmaceuticals for the bus stop a few blocks away, Jane realized she was being followed. She tried to elude her pursuer, call for help, but this warehouse area in the SOMA District was deserted and her muscle twitches and impaired balance slowed her down. Finally she collapsed on the cold asphalt of a back alley, trembling. Squinting up through a throbbing headache, she watched the early moon's light trace the sheer edge of the long-bladed knife her pursuer held.

"Why are you doing this?" she asked, through her terror.

The other hesitated and the knife wavered. "Your sacrifice is regrettable but necessary." Then the knife steadied and was again raised.

Petrified, Jane watched as the weapon swung toward her in a deadly arc. Done, it didn't hurt as much as she'd expected ... just a cold stinging throughout her neck. Then the asphalt seemed to rise up and slam against her head. Stunned, vision greying out, Jane watched her headless corpse, a few feet away, as it crumpled, pumping blood.

* * * * *

Noon - Monday

Homicide Inspector Luke Andrews leaned in the open doorway of one of Faber Pharmaceuticals labs, reading a book as he waited for Beth. Absorbed in a conversation with her boss, Dr. James Lennox, she hadn't even noticed his presence. Lennox, a research neurologist, was showing Beth what looked like a human brain, sliced into wafer-thin sections. Swallowing down faint nausea, Luke glanced at his watch and sighed. He wouldn't have much time for lunch today ... there'd been another murder last night and he and his partner were assigned the case. Or cases ... this latest murder, in which a woman had been found headless, was the third in as many weeks. He was no closer to solving the case today than when the murders had begun.

"Luke, sorry I made you wait."

All thoughts of murder forgotten, he smiled down at Beth. "No problem. We'll have to hurry, though ... I've only got half an hour."

She nodded and as they walked to his car, she pointed to the book Luke carried. "What's that?"

"Research. I stopped by the library on the way over here - thought I'd glance through this while I waited for you."

Beth read the title aloud. "Head Hunters of Borneo ... ?"

"it's for the murder case I'm working - my partner thinks some kind of primitive cult is behind the decapitations. I don't agree but from what I've read so far, it is a fascinating subject ... did you know that it's fairly simple to make a shrunken head? First, you remove the flesh from the skull by boiling, and then ..."

Beth held up a hand. "Please, we're on our way to lunch, remember?"

"Sorry. So, tell me about what you and the professor are working on."

Beth brightened. "James is experimenting with the prions that cause transmissible spongiform encephalopathies such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease."

"Mad Cow disease?"

"Yes, the human form of it. The research was going slowly at first from a lack of adequate infected specimens, but now things are moving along. What James is doing is so important ... many of the other scientists here are only interested in money, searching for cures for toenail fungus and erectile disfunction, but James wants to save lives ..."

"Speaking of saving lives," Luke broke in, "I'm worried about you working in this area of town. All of the decapitation victims have been killed near here."

"No problem. James has been walking me to my car after work. Did you know that he ..."

Suppressing a sigh, Luke allowed Beth's voice to fade into his perceptual background as he watched her face, vivid with her admiration of Lennox. If only I could have that effect on her, he thought sadly.

* * * * *

11:00pm - Tuesday

Luke quietly finessed the lock on the door of the laboratory where Beth and Dr. Lennox worked, letting himself inside. He snapped on a flashlight and swept it around the darkened room ... although he'd been here many times to see Beth, he'd never paid much attention to the lab itself. It seemed to possess all the typical accouterments ... tables, sinks, a refrigerator, an autoclave and lots of technical equipment. What caught Luke's eye, however, were the glass jars that lined one wall. Within them, floating serenely in formaldehyde, were human brains.

Luke began to search the room, not really sure what he was looking for. With his partner off to Sausalito, following up a lead on a transplanted head hunting cult, Luke had been the one to catch the call from the medical examiner that afternoon ... the call that provided the first relevant clue in this series of brutal murders. The lab analysis of the stomach contents of the first victim, killed three weeks ago, had finally come back ... she'd recently eaten a clotted cream dessert made with prion infested human brain tissue. The ME had then rushed the lab analysis of the other victims and found the same thing.

A little further investigating had found another commonality between the victims - all had been volunteers in a study at Faber. What he'd learned hadn't been conclusive enough to merit a search warrant for the pharmaceutical company but Luke hadn't been able to stop himself from breaking in to search for something more. Almost done with his search, Luke came to Lennox's desk. All of the drawers but the bottom one were unlocked and held nothing of interest beyond the information that Lennox was from Britain ... mad cow country. Jimmying the last drawer's lock, Luke opened it to find a medical bag and within the bag, a long blood-encrusted knife. He swore softly ... Lennox was involved in the murders and Beth was in terrible danger.

Luke pulled out his cell phone to call Beth, to warn her, but before he could dial, the phone trilled softly.


"Luke, it's me."

Recognizing Beth's voice, Luke began to speak but she interrupted him.

"Don't talk, just listen ... I'm at James' house. He's the one whose been killing those women. It has something to do with his research. He says he needs to talk to you about it, explain things. If you promise to come alone and listen to what he has to say, he'll let me go and give himself up."

Heart thumping, Luke forced himself to remain calm. "Put him on the line, Beth." The only reply he received was a dial tone.

* * * * *

11:30 pm

Luke gazed up at Lennox's two-story Victorian home in the Richmond District. The house was dark and the front door stood open. He pulled out his firearm, checking the clip, and snicked off the safety. Entering cautiously, he let his eyes adjust to the darkness and then reached for a light switch ... it didn't work. An eerie silence reigned. There was no sign of Lennox or Beth in the living room, but it was evident that some kind of a struggle had occurred there. Deciding that the element of surprise would give Beth the better chance of survival, Luke began a furtive sweep of the house.

All of the rooms on the ground floor proved to be empty and Luke was about to climb the stairs when he heard a sound from below ... a basement? Within minutes, he found the door to the basement, reached for the doorknob and felt something warm and sticky. Blood. It took all of his training to keep Luke from crashing down the basement stairs but he knew that would likely bring about the very thing he wanted to avoid - harm to Beth. So, pistol held before him, he eased the door open and slowly stepped down the stairs into an even deeper darkness.

It was the smell that reached him first ... a charnel house odor. He forced down the need to switch on his flashlight - it would too easily reveal his position - and instead followed his nose. His hip knocked against a table and he leaned close, trying to see in the basement's dimness. When Luke realized what lay before him, he jerked back, choking. Resting on that table were Lennox's trophies ... the severed heads of the four women he'd slain. In the semi-darkness, Luke could barely make out the fact that the bloody heads were empty, so to speak. Huge holes had been sawed into each cranium in order, he guessed, to remove the brains ... prion infected brains for the mad scientist's research.

A sudden noise drew his attention to another part of the basement and he saw a muzzle flash, then heard the roar of gunfire. A figure loomed in the darkness but Luke didn't shoot, afraid of hurting Beth. Abruptly he was thrown backwards against the wall by the impact of something striking his chest. Falling, he lay gasping on the basement's cold floor, disoriented, watching a pool of his own blood begin to form. He heard footsteps approach. Someone bent low over him and he saw, to his surprise, that it was Beth. Confused, Luke tried to rise. Beth reached out to him, he thought to help him up, but then he saw the pistol in her hand. He watched uncomprehendingly, as she smiled and pulled the trigger.

* * * * *

10:00 am - Friday

Luke woke up to a kind of panic. It took the nurse a full ten minutes to calm him down, to reassure him that despite his inability to move or speak, he would, in a few months, recover. Leaving, She said she'd page his doctor and that in the meantime, he had a visitor.

"Hi, Luke."

Beth sat down in the chair next to his bed. Luke felt his heart skip a beat, then bang against his ribs. It took an enormous effort not to let reconstruct what had happened that night, not to see Lennox bending over him with the pistol instead of his Beth.

"I see you remember," she said, seeming to read his mind. "I'd hoped this wouldn't be necessary ... who knew you'd be so hard to kill ... but I came prepared, just in case." Beth opened a Tupperware container and drew a plastic spoon from her purse.

Luke's eyes widened and he tried to move, to call the nurse ... all he could do was tremble with the crazed thumping of his heart.

"If you're curious as to why I did it all, killed those women and framed Lennox, well ... it was for job security. With Lennox out of the picture, his position at Faber will be mine. I certainly deserve it more than he did - he plodded along for years, trying to find a cure for CJD while I was able, in just a few months, to find a way to speed up the incubation period of CJD from years to a few weeks ... those women I killed were in end-stage brain disease after just a few feedings!"

Beth stirred the clotted cream, smiling. "And having a friendship with you, the homicide inspector on the case, made the whole thing that much easier to accomplish. I planted evidence where you'd be sure to find it and, of course, everyone thinks you shot Lennox in self defense while you were saving me."

Luke closed his eyes for a moment, unwilling to believe he could have so wrongly judged her character, her feelings for him. He opened them to see her coming at him with a heaping spoonful of brain-tainted clotted cream.

"Now open wide."