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s e r u t n e v d A g Astonishin Magazine

http://astonishingadventuresmagazine.ning.com/

Issue Seven


Contents Contributors. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 Speak No Evil

Mike Hughes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6

Le Chat Noir

Cormac Brown. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11

Moving Day Art

Christine Pope. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16 Joanne Renaud

I Want to Sleep With Jack Palance Katherine Tomlinson. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21 My Best Friend’s a Shoelace Art

Sidney Harrison. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25 Sarah Vaughn

The Gentleman Thief

Roger Alford. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30

The Empire Crown Art

Brian Trent . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39 Larry Nadolsky

Phoenix Ash Art

Sarah Vaughn. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50 Sarah Vaughn

The Butcher’s Hook

Michael Patrick Sullivan. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55

The Variant Effect Art

G. Wells Taylor. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 59 G. Wells Taylor

Trifecta Photographs

Kat Parrish . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 76 Susan Schader

Cover Art

John Donald Carlucci

Issue #7 Publisher/Editor-in-Chief John Donald Carlucci PublisherJDC@gmail.com Editor Katherine Tomlinson AAMDragonLady@gmail.com Art Director Joy Sillesen jsillesen@gmail.com

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to: Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California 94105 USA. All rights belong to the original artists, photographers and writers for their contributed works. August 28, 2009


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Contributors Roger Alford is a writer and filmmaker. His produced plays include two staged “radio dramas,” The City Burns at Night and The Sheik of Hollywood. He created the popular Internet mash-up videos, Twilight Zone: Planet of the Apes, which Marc Scott Zicree (The Twilight Zone Companion) said was “great fun” and Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Serial. His screenplay Storm Tide is recommended by Script PIMP and was named a second-round finalist in a Script Magazine “Open Door” Contest. And he’s hoping for great things with his latest “opus,” Gangland Hollywood (shameless plug). His work has been discussed in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, US News & World Report, The Dennis Miller Show (radio), and Inside Edition. Website: www.theblackspectre.com. “Cormac Brown” is the pen name of an upand-slumming writer in the city of Saint Francis, who is following in the footsteps of Hammett… minus the TB and working for the Pinkerton Agency. You can find his fiction at http:// cormacwrites.blogspot.com/. John Donald Carlucci: Editor-in-Chief and former boy-in-a-bubble, JDC continues to search the world for evil-doers and the perfect cup of hot chocolate. He thinks the evil-doers are hiding it from him. Not that everyone is out to get him. No, that would be paranoid. Contact JDC: PublisherJDC@gmail.com.

Sidney Harrison is a spunky teenage girl, born and raised in California. She’s always been interested in writing, partially because her father is a writer, and partially because she needs a way to express her insane ideas about life. One day, Sidney hopes to create a device that will enable her to rule the entire universe and make fictional characters, such as the Joker and Spock, reality. If that doesn’t happen, however, she’ll settle for being a celebrated writer and photographer. Mike Hughes is a horror and adventure writer whose short fiction has been published in Astonishing Adventures Magazine (AAM) and Yellow Mama. He is also a journalist for Examiner.com, covering local, national and geopolitical news, and has been published in The Huffington Post and Ruse magazine. Mike is a former political consultant and executive speechwriter, and was an analyst at The Strategy Group, a political consulting firm that advised the Obama campaign. Hughes is also the chief editor of www.CrossPolemics.com. Mike graduated from the University of Notre Dame and Jerry Cleaver’s Writer’s Loft in Chicago. Larry Nadolsky calls his art “neopulp,” and he would know. He gained notoriety as the artist on Hey Boss!, an unauthorized comic about Bruce Springsteen. He is currently doing pinups for Stickerchick’s mypsptubes,working on T-shirt designs for Redbubble, and developing a graphic novel involving babes, dinosaurs, and aliens (all the things dear to his heart). A rocker since the age of 16, he is currently lead singer of the band Los Grande Ninos. View his art on his site at: http://pinuppulp.com/ Kat Parrish is a grant writer from Washington, D.C. She reviews paranormal romance for bittenbybooks.com and movies for a variety of print and online media.


Contributors Christine Pope is a native of Southern California. In her professional life she’s a graphic designer and PR writer. In her spare time she enjoys historical costuming, throwing crazy themed parties, and spending way too many hours on the internet. Joanne Renaud is an illustrator who graduated in illustration from Art Center in Pasadena, California. Before moving to Southern California, she studied graphic design at Central Washington University and art at the University of Ulster in Belfast, Ireland. Recent clients include Simon & Schuster, Random House, Harcourt Inc, McGraw Hill, William H. Sadlier, Trillium Publishing, Zaner Bloser, and Astonishing Adventures Magazine. Joanne is a member of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. See her art at: http:// www.joannerenaud.com/ and http://suburbanbeatnik.deviantart.com/. Susan Schader is a Los Angeles born and bred photographer/writer who spent her creatively formative years in New York. What drives her photographic work is capturing the “decisive moment,” best described by its master, Henri Cartier Bresson, “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.” Michael Patrick Sullivan is a hack. Nonetheless, his work was recently recognized by the Rod Serling Conference at Ithaca College and by the Screenwriting Expo of Los Angeles. He also writes for comicbookresources.com. He currently lives in self-imposed exile in Southern California and can be contacted though red righthand.net. This marks the Auslander’s seventh appearance in Astonishing Adventures.

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G. Wells Taylor divides his time between preparing his horror novel Bent Steeple for a Halloween 2009 release, finishing The Variant Effect book, writing the final installment of The Apocalypse Trilogy: The Fifth Horseman, and promoting his various published works. His books are available for download or order at www. gwellstaylor.com and Amazon.com. Taylor lives in Canada and has worked as a writer, journalist, and graphic artist. Katherine Tomlinson is the editor of Astonishing Adventures Magazine. A former magazine editor and writer, she is the author of a study guide to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and a contributor to several anthologies, including What Was I Thinking?, published by St. Martin’s Press in February 2009. Brian Trent is an award-winning novelist, journalist, poet, and screenwriter. He is the author of Never Grow Old: The Novel of Gilgamesh. His work has appeared in more than 100 publications including The Humanist, Boston Literary Magazine, Illumen, The Copperfield Review, The Eclectic Muse, Strange Horizons, Blazing! Adventure Magazine, Bewildering Tales, and many others. Trent was last year’s Honorable Mention finalist in the L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest. His website is www.bri antrent.com. Sarah Vaughn is a writer, illustrator, and graphic designer. She likes her tragedy with happy endings. This is her second appearance in Astonishing Adventures Magazine. You can see much of Sarah’s art at savivi.deviantart. com.

Please only contact the above contributors concerning serious business or polite conversation. No solicitation allowed.


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Speak No Evil By Mike Hughes “Well, ahem, excuse me, Sheriff?” Lanny Watts asked, politely interrupting Sheriff Dale Cummins as Dale finished speaking to a representative from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Looks like that thar blood all over the walls, that ain’t no human blood, sir. According to our man from the county lab,” Lanny said. “Huh?” Dale’s verbal grunt in the form of a question was all he could muster. “It’s goat’s blood, sir,” Lanny said. Dale squinted at the walls and took this in. The fact that it was not human blood did not diminish the reality that two cold corpses occupied the bed in the middle of the room. One of the dead was his best friend; the other was his best friend’s girlfriend. Folks had been vanishing in Hope, Texas. Without a trace. Six people had disappeared over the past two months on Sheriff Dale Cummins’s watch, and thus far, Dale barely had a single lead, clue, pattern or motive to work with—until now. The only thing close to a suspect Dale had at any point, ironically, was his partner and best friend, Rick Withers, along with his girlfriend Sara. They had become suspects after the third person disappeared. Well, that theory began to evaporate when Rick and Sara became the fifth and sixth persons to disappear. Now it would be especially difficult to build a case against them, because it was tricky business prosecuting

dead folks. The possibility existed that Rick had directed the entire play and all of its scenes, and this was the macabre end to an ongoing ploy. Half of Dale hoped that were not true; the other half guiltily wished it was all now over. Dale knew Deputy Rick Withers was chasing some major-league trouble soon as he told Dale about the black magic. Truth be told, Dale knew everything before Rick even told him. There wasn’t really a whole bunch of secrets in a town the size of Hope. “What else, son?” Dale asked robotically. “Not sure if it was murder or suicide, Sheriff. No external wounds or marks. We’ll have to wait for an autopsy to have a clue,” Lanny said. It looked like someone took a bucket of the goat’s blood and just tossed it on the walls haphazardly, as the smearing had no logical design apparent. Nevertheless, written in large letters across the far wall were the words: “Ego Sum Filius.” “What the hell does that mean? Some black magic mumbo jumbo?” Dale asked, looking up at the ominous message. “Don’t know. Not sure what language that is, sir,” Lanny said. “Any witnesses?” Dale asked. “One.” “Who?” “Caleb. He’s in the squad car,” Lanny said with sad eyes. “Well, damn,” Dale whispered.


Speak No Evil Dale shook his head, thinking about that poor kid, Rick’s son, ten-year-old Caleb, born deaf and mute. Dale had worried about that boy since Rick got mixed up with that cult, along with that crazy Gothic bitch, Sara. Dale always suspected she drug him into the stuff in the first place. They would go to these secret meetings every week in some shack on the mountain they called a chapel. They called their group “The Way.” The way to hell, Dale had opined. He thought he was about to have another Waco on his hands with that crew. Dale tried to shadow the group for the past year, yet was unable to ascertain any of the group’s sordid activities and practices. He only had rumors to work with and inferences from Rick that it amounted to some unholy forms of worship. Other than Rick and Sara, the only person he ever met from the cabal was their esteemed leader, Preacher Parsons. Dale swung by Rick’s one night when the Preacher was over, in the midst of a seemingly innocent visit, sitting at the kitchen table sharing a pot of coffee. The only information Dale ever had on file for the man had been the fact that Rick called the man a “genius.” The Preacher was always decked out in a black suit. He had white hair that enwrapped a bald dome. Dale remembered the tall lanky form of the Preacher rising from his seat and grasping his hand with a vice-like grip. “It is good to meet you, Sheriff. I give praise to you for protecting our flock,” the Preacher said with an unsettling grin. Dale would never forget the man’s cold grey eyes, like those of a wolf. As far as he knew, the other missing persons were not associated with the black magic or the cult. At least there was not a connection—yet. “Any word on Renee?” Dale asked. Dale was referring to Rick’s ex-wife, who now lived in Austin, two hours south of Hope. “We had Rex drive out to tell her.” Dale’s heart ached. Dale and his wife Molly knew Rick and Renee since high school, over

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thirty years now. Rick filing for divorce had blindsided Renee. She became a raging alcoholic, and a shrink had diagnosed her with bipolar disorder after she attempted to slit her own wrists. Dale was the one who found her passed out in a bathtub full of bloody water. Renee had panicked after looking at the incisions she had delved into her own flesh, and she grabbed the portable phone that she, luckily, had brought into the bathroom with her, in case she had second thoughts. The Sheriff found Caleb in the kitchen, and Dale always wondered if Caleb ever understood what Mommy had tried to do to herself. Months later, Renee had lost her job at an accounting firm, and the courts deemed her unfit to raise the boy. Instead, the boy was presented with a fabulous opportunity to be raised by what Dale suspected were two devil-worshippers. Dale remembered sitting across from Rick in his office, when Rick told him how the black magic had opened up some new doors in his heart and soul. Rick had patted his chest a couple of times softly—to emphasize where his goddamn heart was located, Dale reckoned. Nevertheless, he also reckoned Rick was trying to make a bigger point, and only the good Lord knows what the hell that point was. Well, whatever doors the abominable black magic opened, Dale prayed those doors had now been shut. He wanted to shake Rick at the time. Dale remembered telling Rick in a dead serious tone: “You mess with that boy in any way…and I will kill ya myself.” Dale meant it. He had been worried sick that the boy was going to get hurt, or grow up to be sick and twisted in that environment. Dale’s boots crushed gravel as he sauntered out of the house and into the driveway. He tipped his hat and spat a trail of tobacco juice that he then wiped from his chin. He walked out to Lanny’s squad car and opened the door. Caleb sat hugging himself in a catatonic state, shaking


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violently, eyes seared into the seat in front of him. “Caleb,” Dale said. The boy paid no attention, as if he were in another dimension. His pale white skin stuck full of goose bumps, his lips purple. The office phone rang. Dale grabbed it and leaned back in his chair. “Sheriff Cummins.” “Hey, there, Sheriff, this is Special Agent Septer. Got some information for you,” the voice on the other line said. Tom Septer had been covering the case after disappearance number three. “Shoot,” Dale said. “Ego Sum Filius is a Latin expression, and it means ‘I am the son,’” Septer explained. The FBI had very little information on the Way, but they speculated that the archaic message, coupled with a ritualistic element such as goat’s blood, might signify potential ties to Satanism. They speculated the omen on the wall might refer to the Son of Satan, perhaps, but they were still conducting research. “Thanks, Detective. I have Lanny getting a search warrant to look up there into the cult’s shack. I will keep you posted.” He hung up with Detective Septer and within minutes, the phone blared again. “Hello, Sheriff?” “Yup.” “It’s Doctor Ramos. Y-you have to see this,” Ramos stammered. That’s all Dale needed to hear. He knew Ramos, the county coroner, must have just finished cutting up Rick and had some results. Doctor Ramos tried to articulate what he had discovered but could not; thus, he relied on visuals. Dale and Lanny stood next to the doctor as he removed the sheet that covered Rick’s corpse. The doctor used a tool to open Rick’s right eye slowly. Rick’s entire eyeball was as pitch

black as an eight ball. Dale could actually see his own reflection in the glassy blackness. “There were no signs of strangulation, no traces of chemicals in his blood,” the doctor said as his voice cracked. “I cannot explain this… either.” The doctor used his silver utensil to point out Rick’s heart. “H-his heart…it’s shriveled up like…like a raisin,” he said. The coroner gulped with a look that Dale could only describe as pure unadulterated terror. As Dale looked at the shell of a human heart, he understood. The sight of the grotesquely distorted organ would make any of God’s creatures shiver. One day after the funeral, Caleb knocked on Dale’s office door. The very last of the setting sun’s rays shot through Dale’s office window, outlining the mute boy’s head, forming a halo around the pure blond bowl-shaped dome. Caleb had intelligent, mature eyes but seemed to tremble slightly with fear. The child wrote something frantically on a yellow notepad, and slowly slid the piece of paper across the desk. Dale picked up the page and read the large letters printed in black ink that seeped through the yellow parchment. The note said: “I know where the killer is.” Sheriff Dale Cummins’s heart froze when he read the note. The early Sunday evening went dead quiet. Dale reached over, put his hands on top of the boy’s, and patted them gently. “Caleb, settle down now. I need to ask you a few questions. This is mighty alarming, what you are suggesting here. This ain’t a game. You understand that, don’t you?” Dale asked in as calming a tone as possible. The boy nodded with wide eyes. “How do you know this, Caleb? Who is the killer?” Dale asked, motioning his head towards the note.


Speak No Evil The boy grabbed the small spiral notepad and began scribbling like a reporter covering a hot lead. He ripped off a sheet and frantically shoved it at the Sheriff, this time, with tears in his eyes. Dale sighed deeply as he read the boy’s second note: “You must follow me. The people in the mountain. The Way.” A hot anger coursed through Dale’s veins. “I’ll tear right into their hides,” Dale said, grabbing a gun. “Call the state troopers, Lanny. Let’s roll.” As the squad car containing Dale, Lanny, and Caleb raced uphill towards the chapel on the mountain, Dale’s head swirled. The anger within him burned, and logic seemed to escape his grasp. They pulled up to the edge of some trees near the mountaintop. “Should we wait up for the troopers, Dale?” Lanny asked. Dale barely heard him, overcome with emotion. “Don’t worry, Lanny. You watch Caleb. They’ll be here soon enough.” “But wait!” Lanny screeched. There was no waiting for Dale. A snapshot of the Preacher’s face flashed in Dale’s mind. Those dark, cold grey eyes. That strong, firm handshake. That condescending smile. Mocking tone. How dare he play God? How dare he take away life? This Preacher had shaken loose a demon within the soul of Dale Cummins. Dale raced into the woods with his gun drawn. Caleb wrote in a note that he knew beyond a reasonable doubt that the Preacher would be praying in the chapel alone as he did on Sundays at this hour. The chapel then came into Dale’s line of sight in the middle of a clearing. He jogged slowly then crawled to a stop. Dale started up again, crouching. The sun had fully set, and

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darkness descended like evening drapes around the surrounding. The chapel was made of ashen black oak. His heart beat rapidly, but there was no fear. He was still pushed by an indescribable fury. He would kill this man without blinking. The Preacher stole his friend’s mind. His life. And his soul. Dale was no dedicated churchgoer; however, he believed in the Almighty, and this Preacher had perverted the Natural Order of things. Dale felt he was the Lord’s vessel delivering justice to this unnatural beast. As he slunk forward, the black door drew closer and closer. A short rickety stairway led to the door’s entrance. As Dale lifted his foot up to place it on the front step, the earth below him disappeared. His heart jumped into his mouth as he fell, and then he felt his collarbone snap as he crashed into the dirt floor. He winced in pain, grabbed his shoulder, and felt a bone sticking out, and then looked up in horror, realizing he had just dropped into a twentyfoot hole. It was completely dark. He was afraid to yell and crawled around the floor looking for his gun. Fear overcame his pain as he realized the gun might still be on the surface. Dale looked up and saw a dark figure standing on the rim of the hole above. It was Lanny. Dale breathed a sigh of relief. Lanny wisely followed his boss, who was out of his mind. Embarrassment swam over him for his reckless stupidity. How long had he been in law enforcement? Dale had charged ahead brainlessly breaking every commonsense law of good police work in the book. “Well, thank God,” Dale called up, trying to keep his voice to a low murmur. “Be careful, and throw me a—” Dale’s voice was cut off as Lanny began falling forward. He could see the whites of Lanny’s eyes as they widened. Lanny dropped into the hole, nearly landing on Dale. “No!” Dale could not help but yell.


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He crawled over to Lanny, who was lying face down on the dirt floor. He rolled him over. Lanny’s body seemed lifeless; his eyes were pasted open and his skin looked grey. Dale felt for a pulse and found none. He tried mouth-tomouth, to no avail. Panting deeply, he cursed himself when he realized that not only the gun, but also his walkie-talkie did not make the trip down. Then Caleb’s head appeared above, and Dale sighed again with momentary relief. Caleb stood precariously close to the edge of the hole as he peered down with a puzzled look on his face. Dale, consumed with fear for himself as well as the boy, tried to communicate to Caleb. “No, Caleb. Go get help, get out of here!” Dale yelled uncontrollably and motioned with his good arm to get away. Caleb disappeared. He prayed that Caleb would run and that the state troopers would arrive any second now. Dale’s eyes adjusted to the blackness and hope flickered when he spotted the walkie-talkie. He crawled over and snatched it up. His hands shook violently and his heart burst with joy as he realized it was working. “Rex! Pick up! Rex!” he screamed into the receiver. “Dale—” Rex’s voice rose from the transmitter but Dale barely heard it. His heart turned to stone as he looked up at the top of the hole. Caleb had returned. Yet Dale watched in horror as the boy’s eyes transformed into ink black pools, a devious grin amplified Dale’s terror. “C-Caleb,” Dale stuttered. Caleb let out an eerie, grown-up laugh and looked down upon Dale with a mocking sympathy. “Dale… are you all right?” Rex’s voice floated from the transmitter. “We just pulled up to the forest…” Dale’s eyes locked on Caleb’s. Caleb’s cold stare penetrated him, as if the boy were looking

clear through his soul. He could see his reflection in the boy’s glassy eyes. Then the impossible happened. The boy spoke. “I am the son,” Caleb hissed. Dale heard a crinkling sound, like someone balling up tinfoil. He grabbed his chest when he realized the sound was coming from within. A severe pain in his chest rose sharply in tandem with the crackling noise, which sounded like someone crushing a dry crispy leaf. Coming in

Astonishing Adventures Magazine Issue #8 Brian Trent returns with “Rylan Mathis and the Eater of Souls” The Auslander will be back with more Auslander action! New fiction from: Roger Alford • Cormac Brown Bill Cunningham • Chris Dabnor Blue Jackson • Berkeley Hunt Christine Pope and artwork from: Larry Nadolsky • Joanne Renaud Sarah Vaughn Plus: “I Want to Sleep with…Yul Brynner” and much, much more. AAM Issue #8 Coming Winter 2009


Le Chat Noir

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Le Chat Noir By Cormac Brown “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” —Proverbs 16:18 “Can I drive it?” Benny asks Marco. Marco inhales and lets out a long breath. “Can you drive it? Possibly,” Marco mumbles as he puts the brand-new white 1928 Cadillac Town Sedan with black trim in gear. Benny brightens, and Marco glares at him out of the corner of his sad, hound dog-like eyes. “May you drive it? The answer is no and never.” In the backseat, Harry lets out a snicker that Benny kills with a look. The car goes from the pier to the road and picks up speed. As they make a left, their passenger slumps and falls towards Harry. Harry pushes him back, and the man stirs. “Hey, Marco, it looks like the smoke is waking up,” snaps Benny. “Benny, name-calling at this point won’t be necessary; you’ve done plenty already.” Marco is referring to the left side of Samson Grey’s face. A little over an hour ago in Harlem, Benny hit Samson with a sap and knocked him out cold. As Harry threw him into Marco’s pristine car, Benny hit Samson again, leaving a cut on his forehead and more than just a few drops of blood all over the car’s interior. “The mo-lee looked at me the wrong way.” Marco pulls the Cadillac over, and even though Benny is a whole head taller and considerably bigger, he flattens against the passenger door like a kicked dog. The car comes to a stop, and Marco takes off one driving glove, then the other. Marco drags his right hand across his pencil moustache, and Benny flinches.

“Benny, you goddamn donkey, how could he have looked at you the wrong way when he was unconscious?” “I believe actually that he is referring to yesterday, Mr. Manfredi.” All three of the men almost imperceptibly stiffen and turn to their bloodied passenger. Samson is considerably smaller in stature than Benny and Harry, though he is slightly larger than Marco. Samson is also lighter than Benny in both skin tone and hair color. While the other three have brown eyes, Samson’s are dark green. “You know when you three came into my speakeasy yesterday? Your friend here was looking daggers at me, so I returned the favor in kind.” “Well, I’m sorry about that, Mr. Grey.” Marco Manfredi holds his hands open in a shrug and smiles like a tiger at the zoo just before feeding time. “We are all men trying to make our way in the world, and my friend, Benedetto, forgets that ultimately everything comes down to business. I am also sorry about the extra English that Benedetto gave you. The point of this was to get you to come quietly and not for him to take extra batting practice.” Samson purses his lips and touches his forehead. He looks at the blood on his fingers, and he grimaces. “I would accept your apology, Mr. Manfredi, except you weren’t the one who hit me…repeatedly.”


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Marco nods and says calmly. “Benedetto, apologize to Mr. Grey.” “Are you kidding me? I’m not going to apologize to that ni—” “Benedetto, we are trying to complete a transaction here. Everything has a time and place, but right now we have to business to conduct, do you understand? Now apologize to Mr. Grey.” Benny is in shock and he looks to Harry for sympathy. Harry looks out the window as if there was something more interesting than just the grey bucolic New Jersey shore out there. Benny looks as if Marco’s words were a full forehand slap to his face. “I’m sorry.” “What?” snaps Marco. “That was so quiet that your teeth couldn’t have heard that. Now apologize to him properly.” “I’m…sorry.” “There, you see that, Mr. Grey? We are all men of business and we will conduct ourselves as such.” Benny and Harry make faces at Marco’s choice of language. They get only the general gist of what he’s saying. “No offense, Mr. Manfredi, but if you wanted to simply talk about business, we would be back at my club or at a lawyer’s office.” Marco smirks, nods and shrugs. He points to Harry. “Do you see that? We are all on the same page here. That’s good.” Marco holds his hands open, and then he brings them together and tents his fingers. “You see, Mr. Grey, the other families in the Syndicate have business concerns all over Uptown and Harlem, and they have effectively shut us out. For my Cousin Roberto’s family to survive, we need a successful business as both a source of revenue and to establish ourselves there.” Samson sits up and leans forward. Harry leans forward, too, and reaches into his overcoat, ready to pull out his gun. Samson makes

a calming gesture with his hands and says, “Le Chat Noir is not for sale.” “Some things have changed, Mr. Grey, since we have last talked. Roberto is no longer interested in letting you stay on with the speakeasy, and I’m going to have to ask you to sign it over to me…tonight.” In the time it takes for Samson to lean forward two inches and point at Marco, Benny and Harry have their guns out and trained on him. Samson slowly leans back and tries to compose himself. “Mr. Manfredi…I fought in The Great War. When I got back, I couldn’t get a job for almost two years. My mother wouldn’t let me come back home because I was a constant reminder of my father…a disappointment. I finally got a job washing dishes in a restaurant, and I got another dishwashing job to make sure that I wouldn’t have to ask anyone for a handout again. I’ve done every kind of a job that they will let a black man do in the five boroughs, just to make that extra scratch. “I parlayed that extra scratch into a small restaurant that would eventually become ‘Le Chat Noir.’ I was working seventeen hours, almost every day of the year, for four years. All that and I fixed the place up myself. I found the musical acts…the comedy acts. I’m the one who had to keep finding new sources of liquor when the police shut down the others. I haven’t been able to go back home for some time, and now that club is my home. Now you just want me to sign away my life’s work for some trifling amount?” “I am allowed to go as high as $900. Now, that is enough money for you to start over again in a city of your choice, and I’ll bet you’ll make as much as that in less than a couple of weeks.” “Mr. Manfredi, I don’t know how I could be any clearer on this. Le Chat Noir is not for sale at any price, not to anyone. I’d rather see it burned to the ground than sell it.”


Le Chat Noir “Well, Mr. Grey, we could do that, but we’d rather you take the money instead and everybody wins.” Marco puts his driving gloves back on and starts the car. He checks for traffic over his shoulder and pulls back onto the road. “I’m sorry you feel this way, Samson, I truly am. Do you read the Bible? Proverbs 16:18?” “I don’t remember it exactly, but I believe you mean ‘pride before the fall,’ right?” “That’s the gist of it. My cousin Roberto chose me for this job for two reasons: the first being that I am very persuasive man, and the second being I put myself through college by working with concrete. I’ve been instructed that if you don’t agree to sell, I am to give you a tour of a building that we are pouring the foundation for, in Linden.” Everyone in the car turns somber, except for Benny, who is doing everything but rubbing his hands and moustache like a movie villain. The only sounds heard are those coming from the engine and balloon white-wall tires going over the coarse pavement. Without looking at Marco, Samson asks calmly, “Mr. Manfredi, would you grant me one last request?” “I’m sorry, Samson; I can’t just simply let you go. Roberto made it clear that either you accept the last offer, or you have to disappear. This is to send a message to the other families in the Syndicate and everyone in Harlem.” “No…nothing like that…I meant my last meal. As long as…well, I’d like to have one dish in particular, and the diner is not too far from here, just south of Elizabeth. They make short ribs that are really to die for.” Samson laughs uncomfortably at his unintentional pun and mumbles, “As long as we are in the neighborhood.” Benny has a good laugh at this. Benny and Harry watch Marco with interest, yet his face remains impassive. Marco nudges his chin against his shoulder and lets out a sigh. “How far is it from here?”

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Samson allows himself a small smile. “It’s about four miles down; I’ll show you where… thanks, Mr. Manfredi.” The sun sets just as the Cadillac crunches across the gravel in the parking lot and comes to a stop. There are no other vehicles, and there are no other customers as the four of them walk in. Benny and Harry look wary; they have their hands on their guns in their overcoats. The wonderful smells coming from the kitchen make the place seem warmer than the sparse décor suggests. The booths are all wood, and so are the stools at the counter. An older redheaded waitress comes out from the kitchen, and she sneers at the sight of them in such a way that suggests none of them are welcome. She makes it a point to glare at Samson in particular. Marco looks at the name embroidered on her uniform as he politely and pointedly takes his hat off. He puts on his tiger smile and says, “Where would you like us to sit, Jolie?” “You three can take the booth in the corner,” the waitress says, and then she points to Samson. “The nigger has to eat in the kitchen.” Benny stifles a laugh, and Marco is mildly shocked. “There’s nobody else here to take offense. Surely you can make an exception this one time,” Marco pleads. “You see the sign?” Jolie points to a sign that says, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” Marco sniffs, purses his lips, and takes out a wad of cash. “This is going to be a special meal for my friend, so I could make this worth your while.” “Look, I don’t make the rules, because if I did, I wouldn’t serve you wops, either. The spook eats in the kitchen or he doesn’t eat here at all.” To punctuate her point, she puts her hands on her hips. Marco sniffs again and nods. “Fine, if he eats in the kitchen, we all eat in the kitchen.”


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Jolie looks at all of them with contempt and she clears her throat as if she’s going to spit, then she swallows her bile. She steps to the side and the four of them make their way to the kitchen, until Marco stops Benny. “Benny, you watch the door.” Benny wants to object, but a look from Marco quashes that like the Great Mississippi Flood of last year. In the kitchen is the cook, who is almost as dark as Samson is light-skinned. Samson nods at the man, and the cook shakes his head. He scoffs and glares at Samson as if he got everyone into trouble. There’s a small dirty, table near the back door, and they sit down there. Marco looks at the table with disdain, and he takes off his hat again. He sees that Harry still has his hat on, and he angrily motions for Harry to doff it. Samson chortles, “Look at this… I fight the Kaiser, I nearly get killed fighting for my country, and this is the thanks I get? I should’ve stayed in France; they treated me like a king over there.” “Samson, are you sure that you’ve been here before?” Marco whispers. “She definitely wasn’t here the few times that I’ve been here. Never mind her; we’re here for the short ribs, and I guarantee that you’ll love them.” “How do they serve them?” Harry eagerly asks. “They serve them three ways. With sauerkraut, with tomato sauce and that would be Italian-style, and there’s the gravy, which I think is the best.” “Yeah, well what you call ‘Italian-style’ and what is actually Italian are totally two different things,” Marco kids. He nods to the cook, “Four orders of short ribs with gravy.” “But I want mine with sauerkraut,” whines Harry. “Out of the question. The rest of us have to ride in the same car with you. Now, Harry, keep an eye on things; I’m going to wash up,” Marco says, and he shoots the giant a somber look.

Marco leaves the kitchen and Harry pouts, until the cook puts four plates on the table. The short ribs, the mashed potatoes, and the carrots are covered with gravy. “Thanks, my brother,” Samson says to the cook. “I’m sorry to have caused you all of this trouble.” “You’re not half as sorry as I am gonna be,” the cook says ominously. “I’m a little extra hungry today. Do you think you could fry me up a basket full of fries, please?” Samson says with a nod. The cook’s eyes shift left and right, and he sucks his teeth. Samson and Harry take in the sight and aroma of the food with smiles. Benny tries to peek into the kitchen from near the door, but he can’t see anything from that vantage point. Jolie comes in and grabs a container of ketchup; she glares at Samson as she leaves the kitchen. Harry digs in with a knife and fork, and then he puts the knife down because he doesn’t need it. “You see?” Samson says with a smile. “The meat just falls off the bone, doesn’t it? Fork tender!” Samson takes a bite, savors it, chews, and swallows. He dabs the corners of his mouth with a paper napkin. “It’s so tender that you don’t need a knife,” Samson says with a hint of malice, and he sticks a steak knife into Harry’s throat. The blade goes deep into Harry’s neck; he gags and falls to the floor. Benny comes running into the kitchen, and Samson takes the fry basket and flings it in Benny’s face. The fries and hot oil fly everywhere, singeing Benny’s face and giving Samson spatter burns on his hands and arms. Benny writhes and howls on the floor. Samson grabs one of the cook’s longer knives and slits Benny’s throat. Marco comes in with his gun drawn. He cocks the hammer, aims squarely at Samson and says, “I’m disappointed with you, Samson.” “Not as disappointed as I am with all of you,” says Jolie, as she jabs a double-barrel shotgun at


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Le Chat Noir Marco’s back. Marco’s hound dog eyes narrow and his tiger smile is at its widest. “It’s one thing to try and take my son’s business. It’s a whole different thing to kidnap him and to try and kill him in my restaurant.” Marco’s smile vanishes, though his eyes narrow even more. He wheels around with his gun and Jolie gives him both barrels, sending Marco flying across the kitchen. Marco convulses and then expires. Jolie looks around at her ruined kitchen and takes in the carnage…she stifles the urge to vomit. Samson gets up slowly…warily. He walks toward Jolie and she recoils. He stops in his tracks and holds his arms open. “I was scared, Momma; I didn’t know where else to go, and I thought nobody knew what happened to me.” “How could they not know? How could I not know? That’s why they took you in the middle of the afternoon, so that everybody in Harlem would see it, and wouldn’t you know it? A quarter of them called me up! I had to take the phone off the cradle!” Jolie takes a step and slips in Marco’s blood. Samson catches her before she falls, and she stands up and pushes him away. “Samson Andrew Grey, I cannot help you this time…all of this can’t be fixed. This time, you are on your own. Claudius!” Jolie shouts at the cook, who is sitting on the corner with a blank look on his face. “Claudius, I’m talking to you!” Claudius snaps to and he reluctantly rises. Jolie points at Samson. “Bring their car around the back and help your nephew get rid of their bodies.” “Thank you, Momma.” “You can thank me by being like your father and never coming back here.” “Momma…Momma, please, why are you treating me…” “You have too much of your father in you, Samson. You have to live the sporting life and

then you can’t understand why it leads to the trouble that it does. I love you, I gave birth to you, but you are not welcome here anymore.” Jolie picks up her shotgun, loads both barrels, and she scowls at her son as she snaps the gun shut. She leaves the kitchen, and she leaves Samson to deal with the consequences.

A stunning reimagining of a classic tale…a mustread for all Phantom of the Opera fans…

Reviewers say: —“No Return really sets the bar for Phantom of the Opera retellings” —“Excellent writing elevates this particular story above many other ‘Phantom’ retellings, and probably most romances on the market today.” Available through amazon.com and other online retailers ISBN: 978-1430304395 • List: $19.95


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ASTONISHING ADVENTURES MAGAZINE

Moving Day By Christine Pope Illustrations by Joanne Renaud “Mom, I’m bored.” At Joshua’s words, Ellen felt her back go rigid. She didn’t look up from the dishes she was washing. “What happened to the games I just bought you?” “I’ve already played them at least a hundred times.” She somehow doubted that, since they’d just come home with a bag full of new discs for his Xbox two days earlier. Trying to ignore the chill that traced its way down her spine, she said, “The TV? I know there have to be lots of channels you haven’t watched yet.” Joshua circled around so that he stood next to her. Big brown eyes stared imploringly up into hers. “They’re boring.” How she’d come to hate that word. It always signaled the beginning of the end. “If you give me five minutes, I’ll be finished with these dishes. Then I can come into the living room and play a game with you.” His nose wrinkled. “Don’t want to.” His gaze drifted past her to the window over the sink. Through it the white clapboard side of their neighbor’s house was visible. An acid burn of nausea fought its way up her throat. Don’t, she thought. Don’t say it. “I want to play with Bobby.” Voice calm, she replied, “Honey, he’s not home from school yet.” “But when he gets home.” It wasn’t a question.

It always came to this. Ellen tried to choose places without other children nearby, but sometimes her careful planning just wasn’t enough. In Bobby’s case, he’d been off for his court-mandated two weeks with his father when she and Joshua had moved in next door. She found out too late that a boy her son’s age—eight—lived in the little white house which bordered hers. No one asked why Joshua didn’t go to school. Parents homeschooled their kids all the time these days, a fact for which she was grateful. She’d already spent too much of her life running away from questions. Although this dialogue had played itself out too many times before, she roused herself to make another protest. It wasn’t enough to keep the guilt at bay, but at least she could try to tell herself she’d done everything she could. “Even when he gets home, I’m sure he’ll have homework to do.” Joshua shook his head. Straight dark hair flopped across his brow, obscuring his eyes. “Huh-uh. I’ve seen him. He rides his bike down the path next to the stream.” She wondered then how long Joshua had been watching, how long he’d been planning. Impossible to say. Her son never confided in her. Most of the time she thanked God for that small blessing. “I’m going to take my bike down by the stream. That way I can meet him when he goes to ride his bike.”


Moving Day

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Any delaying tactics were useless. She’d fed Joshua his lunch an hour ago. His lessons—such as they were—had been finished before noon. The only things she could say were the ones she knew she never would. “All right,” she said, after a horrible pause. Her lunch felt as if it wanted to make a repeat appearance, but she swallowed it back down. She didn’t bother to add, Be careful. Really, he’d be doing the world a huge favor if he fell and broke his neck on the narrow path that bordered the stream behind their property. But he had the devil’s own luck. Nothing so mundane would ever happen to him. He smiled at her, and she smiled in return, even with the bile at the back of her throat, the twisting nausea that told her they weren’t long for this place. She had to smile. As long as she seemed happy and did everything to meet his needs, he left her alone. Why she cared any more about prolonging her existence, she wasn’t quite sure. She just knew she didn’t want to die quite yet. Then he went out. The slam of the back door sounded like a gunshot. Joshua kept his bike in the little gardening shed out in the backyard, the one that should have held potting soil and yard implements. Ellen had no interest in such things, although she thought she remembered liking flowers, once upon a time, before her son had been born. Now the gardening shed held nothing but a lone shovel and Joshua’s bike. The nausea subsided a bit, replaced by a nervous fluttering of her heart beneath her ribcage. On an impulse, she went to the back door and opened it. There went Joshua, hair flying in the wind, legs pumping at the bike’s pedals. A stray shaft of sunlight through the trees brought a spark of red to his dark hair. Ellen closed her eyes. How long did she have? A few hours at most. It was almost two now, and she didn’t think

school got out until around three. But you could never trust a school not to have a minimum day for one reason or another. As usual, she would have to work fast. She left the kitchen and crossed through the combination living room/dining room. The design there was Japanese and spare—a table with two chairs, a futon facing a low coffee table. A TV on an equally low cabinet that held Joshua’s games and DVDs. The aesthetic wasn’t one she particularly cared for. If she’d been able to indulge her own tastes, her home would have been decorated with overstuffed furniture and well-worn antiques with a collection of bric-a-brac to reflect her interests and her travels. But she hadn’t traveled anywhere since her son was born. The furniture she had now was cheap, easily left behind, something that could be replaced almost anywhere. Everything she cared to take with her would fit into the RV parked in the driveway. She owned no books; they were too heavy and difficult to move. Her own bedroom was equally sparse: another futon, a bedside table. No dresser. Her clothing only took up a quarter of the closet space. She moved with the ease of long practice. Toiletries into the small train case her mother had given her years ago. Clothing in the trunk that sat at the foot of her bed. Joshua’s room took more time, since he had toys and books and DVDs and all the other flotsam and jetsam an eight-year-old boy tended to generate. More, probably, since she spent a small fortune on anything she could think of to keep him occupied. But she had a series of clear plastic storage containers kept aside for just this purpose, and everything went into those. Their next destination had been chosen almost as soon as they’d moved into this house. She didn’t have a new home picked out, but that was partly why she had bought the RV. They could stay in it for a few days while she found


Moving Day their next place to live. Luckily, Joshua had always found the stays in the RV to be something of an adventure. It was a challenge to find an RV park that didn’t have a lot of children in it, but so far she’d been lucky. Of course, it helped that many of their moves took place during the school year, when the sort of vacation parks she chose tended to be populated by retirees. She glanced at her watch. Three-thirty. Was it soon enough? Or should she wait another half hour, just to be sure? By now it had happened enough times that she had a fairly good idea of how much time would elapse before…well, before she needed to check on things. Still, she didn’t know exactly what time Bobby had taken his bike and headed down to the stream.

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If she’d had anything left of herself, she would have gone next door. She would have waited and told Bobby he shouldn’t go riding today, that he needed to stay home and make sure he was never, ever alone with Joshua. She didn’t, though. Once, long ago, he’d given her a taste of what he gave them. Just a taste. It was enough to haunt her nightmares for years afterward. Enough to make her vow that she would do anything to never repeat that experience. Three forty-five. She couldn’t wait any longer. The air outside felt cool and mild against her face, the scent of grass and drifting leaves heavy as memory. Beams of sunlight picked their way through the trees. Once she’d played in a wood like this, built castles of air and dreams of dust motes. Even then she’d known they couldn’t last.


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Joshua met her on the narrow path. His cheeks were flushed, and his eyes caught golden sparkles in the late afternoon sun. Her heart constricted. I could reach out, she thought. If I caught him off-guard, I could push him over the side of the path. It’s steep and rocky. He could bash his head against that outcropping I see there, or break his neck in the fall. But she didn’t. She couldn’t be sure that such a desperate attempt would even work, and then he would know she didn’t love him. At least he couldn’t read minds. Thank God for that, or she would have been dead a hundred times by now. “Did you see Bobby?” she asked, even as she hoped that maybe today the neighbor boy hadn’t ridden down to the stream. Maybe he’d had a dentist appointment, or a soccer game. “Yeah,” said Joshua, and grinned. “We rode bikes and threw rocks in the stream. I tried to hit a frog, but I missed.” His gaze moved to the shovel she held, but the grin never faded. “Moving day?” “That’s right,” she replied, and forced a smile. “I was thinking we could go to Oregon next. You want to see redwoods?” “Redwoods?” “Huge trees, so tall it looks like their tops touch the clouds. And we’d be by the ocean.” Joshua looked almost wistful. “I want to see the ocean.” “You will.” The grin returned. “Awesome!” “Just give me a few minutes, OK? Can you watch TV for a little bit until I get home?” Now that he’d had his way, Joshua was far more tractable. “Sure. Can I have some cookies, too?” “Absolutely.” Her son’s metabolism had always been freakishly fast; a few cookies weren’t going to make a bit of difference. He sprinted past her up the path back toward the house. Ellen grasped the shovel more tightly and headed down to the stream bed.

It didn’t take her long to find Bobby’s body. The red shirt he wore was a bright splotch against the gray pebbles that lined the stream on either side. Overhead a crow cawed, and she flinched. The carrion-eaters were already circling. She wished she didn’t have to turn over the boy’s limp form, but she knew she couldn’t leave him where he was. If the stream were faster and deeper, maybe she could have just thrown the body in and hoped for the best, but it was shallow enough she could have forded it without getting her knees wet. As with all the others, Bobby’s face had sunken in on itself, looking like a waxwork that had begun to melt. The skin was a livid grayyellow. His eyes bulged, staring up at the hard blue sky. There were no marks. No blood. Just something that used to be a boy. Ellen bit her lip, bit it until the blood came. Then, tasting metal, she began to dig.

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I Want to Sleep With Jack Palance

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I Want to Sleep With Jack Palance by Katherine Tomlinson

H

ow tall is the man you sleep with? How many one-armed push-ups can he do? How many languages does he speak? Where did he go to college? Does have an Oscar on the mantle? Not to make your sweetie feel inadequate, but how does he compare to Jack Palance? Who by the way, stood 6’ 4” in his prime. Go ahead and tell him that size doesn’t matter. Assure him that all men start to lose a step or two once they’re out of their twenties. Maybe they put on a few pounds, lose some hair. It’s only natural. It’s probably better not to mention that Jack Palance was 73 years old when he dropped to the stage at the Academy Awards, quipped, “Twoarm push-ups, I can do those all night whether she’s there or not,” and pumped out a series of one-armed push-ups that didn’t even leave him breathing hard. (If you missed it, check out the clip on YouTube: http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=AGxL5AFzzMY ). And maybe you shouldn’t tell him that Jack Palance spoke five languages; that he graduated

from Stanford and worked as a sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle; that he was a painter and published a book of poetry called Forest of Love. When was the last time your man wrote you poetry? And no, anything beginning with “Roses are red/violets are blue” doesn’t count. Violets aren’t blue anyway. Did I mention Jack Palance was a war hero too? As a bomber pilot in WWII, he survived a plane crash that left him scarred for life. Oh, and he was an athlete as well—a football scholarship was his ticket out of the coal-mining town where he was born and where he might have died of the black lung like his father did. He was a working actor and he worked. He made commercials (most of them spoofing his tough guy image). He did print ad campaigns. He recorded voice-overs. He appeared on stage. He understudied Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and eventually took over the role of Stanley Kowalski, one of the most memorable sexy beasts ever brought to the stage. He rarely got to show his softer side, but when he did, he was mesmerizing. In Percy Adlon’s sweet Baghdad Café his pursuit of the zaftig


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German tourist played by Marianne Sagebrecht is sly and sexy and hilarious. It wasn’t a cuddly performance—real men don’t do cuddly—but it was something a lot harder, it was quirky and honest and altogether endearing.

If only casting directors had had more imagination. He famously remarked that “Most of the stuff I do is garbage,” and he was not kidding. He played a lot of villains in movies like Hawk the Slayer (a pre-Conan sword and sorcery epic), Outlaw of Gor (based on the notorious sex and sci fi series); and Welcome to Blood City (a ’70s sci fi western with a cast that included Keir Dullea (of 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Samantha Eggar. The same year he essayed his Oscar-winning role in City Slickers, Palance provided narration for a film called Horror of the Humongous Hungry Hungan. Two years after creating Curly Washburn, City Slickers’ cranky cowboy, Palance was back in forgettable dreck like Cyborg 2. (One of Palance’s co-stars in the 1993 movie was Angelina Jolie, which just goes to show you how hard it is for anyone to find good parts in Hollywood.)

Of Ukrainian heritage (the name on his birth certificate was Volodymyr Palanyuk), he played characters all over the ethnic map— Fidel Castro in Che (Spanish was one of his languages), Frenchman Yves Perret in Tango and Cash, aliens from every corner of the galaxy in shows like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. (The episode he starred in was called “Planet of the Slave Girls.”)

Palance played pirates (Long John Silver in a 1999 version of Treasure Island) and he played gangsters (Mr. Scarface) and he played crime bosses (Carl Grissom in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman). He fought WWII in dozens of films. He made costume epics like Douglas Sirk’s Sign of the Pagan (he was Attila the Hun). He made forgettable thrillers like Flight to Tangier. He even appeared opposite


I Want to Sleep With Jack Palance Brigitte Bardot in the Jean-Luc Godard movie Contempt. He appeared in a slew of westerns, including 1988’s Young Guns in which his son Cody had a small part. Cody died at 43 of cancer and his father outlived him by almost a decade. A lot of the westerns were forgettable, but George Stevens’ 1953 film Shane was a true classic. Watch the climactic saloon gun battle here: http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=AFquzxwYoeE. Note how carefully the scene was staged to disguise the nearly 12-inch height differential between Palance and star Alan Ladd.

Billed as “Walter Jack Palance,” the actor created one of the most indelible villains in cinema history. It was the 1950s equivalent of Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in Dark Knight, but instead of catapulting Palance to stardom, it led instead to a series of parts in predictably pulpy pictures and a lot of roles on episodic television. Throughout his career, television gave Palance a lot more opportunities to flex his acting muscles than movies did. He played the Jabberwock in a 1968 production of Alice Through the Looking Glass, costarring with the Smothers Brothers (Tweedledum and Tweedledee), Jimmy Durante (Humpty Dumpty), Agnes Morehead (the Red Queen) and Ricardo Montalban ( the White King). That

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same year he played the title character(s) in an Emmy-nominated production of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde produced by horror-meister Dan (Dark Shadows) Curtis. He hosted Ripley’s Believe it or Not, which introduced him to a whole new generation of fans. In 1973, Palance starred in a production of Dracula written by Richard Matheson (author of the seminal sci fi novel I Am Legend). In 1995, he played the title role in Ebenezer, a Western version of A Christmas Carol that portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge as a gun-fighting, card-cheating, land-swiping robber baron. Palance worked up until two years before his death but the role of his career came in 1956 when he starred in a live episode of Playhouse 90 called “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” The story about a punch-drunk fighter facing the end of his career won a Peabody Award and catapulted writer Rod Serling onto the A-list. Palance, who had fought professionally as a heavyweight under the name “Jack Brazzo” practically disappeared into the part of Harlan “Mountain” McClintock in a performance that won him raves and an Emmy. But when the story was filmed a few years later, the part was rewritten for Anthony Quinn. Shame. Shame on the producers!


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Need more

Astonishing Adventures?

Go to astonishingadventures magazine.ning.com for the latest updates on the web’s best pulp fiction!

If you’re ever in Hollywood, California, you can see his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (6608 Hollywood Boulevard). And next time you’re in your local video store, check out his best movies—Shane, The Professionals, Ten Seconds to Hell, Bagdad Café and City Slickers. It’s also worth tracking down the 1952 film noir Sudden Fear in which an Oscar-nominated Palance starred with Joan Crawford.

Jack Palance died at age 87, survived by his wife Elaine and daughters Brooke and Holly. He would have been 90 this year, and he could still have kicked your boyfriend’s ass and asked you to dance. And you would have said “yes.”


My Best Friend’s a Shoelace

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My Best Friend’s a Shoelace By Sidney Harrison Illustrations by Sarah Vaughn

M

y mother never looked at me after my brother died. That was fine with me. I never liked it when she looked at me anyway. She had horrible schoolteacher eyes that just seemed to shout, “You’re an idiot.” So in a way, I guess I was glad to be rid of their constant disapproval. She never spoke to me after he died either, no matter how hard my father tried to get us to talk. That was also fine by me. Her voice, like her eyes, was intense in the way that it made me feel like a lesser being. It was like a cold knife running slowly down my spine. As you’ve probably noticed, I didn’t really like my mother all that much, but she loved me…well at least she did before my brother died. Man, did she love me. I found it almost impossible that anyone could love me as much as my mother did. She was constantly trying to kiss or hug me. Sometimes I’d let her, but other times my patience was so thin that I just shook her off or told her to stop. Quite frankly, I had a low tolerance for people touching me. If there was anyone my mother loved more than me, it was my brother. Everyone loved my brother. And what wasn’t to love? He was tall, dark, and handsome. He was every girl’s fantasy. He had darker skin than I did, and even darker eyes. His hair, too, was very dark. His voice was deep and gentle and sort of flowed through your ears like satin coated in olive oil. My mother loved my brother, just like everyone else did. He, like me, had a low tolerance for her,

but definitely loved her more than I did. The major difference between my brother and me was that my brother loved my mother willingly. I, on the other hand, loved her out of obligation because, of course, she was my mother, and you are expected to love your family. So when my brother died, my mom went into a state of emotional collapse. Like everyone else, she blamed me for my brother’s death. No one really knew what had happened, though. Blaming me, I guess, was a way for people to cope with the loss of this seemingly perfect guy. I think I was the only one who really knew him. My brother was unstable. He had often suffered from delusions and outbursts of the manic category. He died on a Friday night. He came running into my room and slammed the door. I had been taking a nap, partially because I was tired after a week of tests, partially because I didn’t want to be awake. It had been one of those days when the entire weight of the world seemed to be placed on my shoulders. It was one of those days when the little things became huge and the huge things became enormous. So my brother came gallivanting into my room, and I shot up out of bed just in time to see him pull our father’s gun out of his pants and shoot himself in the head. The gore was magnificent. Chunks of brain and skull exploded out of the left side of his head. He fell down, hitting his head on my desk and lying still on the floor. A


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pool of blood began to collect around his face, but he was still breathing, making slight ripples in the puddle of red. My brother was annoyingly strong, and I knew that even a bullet to the brain wouldn’t kill him immediately. He started to make these tortured, choking sounds. At one point, his eyes started to roll around in their sockets, and his right hand, the one that had held the gun, began to twitch uncontrollably. It was almost comical. I slid off my bed and silently tip-toed towards him. I stood beside him, careful not to touch the gun at all. I knew that if I put one hand on that gun, my DNA would be etched on its metal, and I would spend the rest of my life in jail. My cell phone had 911 on speed dial; actually, it was on speed dial number one. Since

my brother freaked out a lot, I needed the emergency hotline at the ready. The operator-lady who answered had a nasally voice, and I was almost tempted to hang up on her. However, I relayed the events of the night, leaving out particular gory details, and told them to send someone over as soon as they could. My brother moaned for a bit, and I told him that shooting himself was probably the stupidest thing he had ever done. If he wanted to die, I told him, he should have taken pills. That was the last thing I ever said to my brother. He died two days later after vegetating in a coma. I told my father and mother the story a million times, lying slightly about my reaction. Of course they were both distraught, so it would


My Best Friend’s a Shoelace have been inappropriate if I had told them the truth. My mother surely would have thought I was insane as my suicidal brother if I had told her what I’d said to him while he was leaking blood on my bedroom floor. For some reason, my mother was convinced that I killed my brother. I’m not exactly sure why she was so convinced. The police, of course, had sent the gun to forensics and all that, but it came back clean of my DNA. She was adamant, however. Nothing could shake her from her certainty. Once again, that was quite all right with me, because I couldn’t care less about what she thought. My father didn’t think I killed my brother but was upset that I hadn’t tried to stop him. Hell, my brother was an attention whore and drama queen. Quite frankly, I was glad to be rid of him. He had never done anything for me In fact, he had frequently tried to injure or degrade me. One time, when I was in the third grade and he was in the sixth, he stuck my head in the fireplace during one of his outbursts. My hair was burned off and half of my face suffered third-degree burns. The burn marks left over from that incident are quite terrifying. I think I looked like a comic book character. Later on, when I was in tenth grade and he had just dropped out of college; my brother put a rake to my back and nearly tore off all of the skin. I had five large scars down my back from that. Besides those two major incidents concerning me, he also attacked a few of his therapists, but they weren’t as badly scarred as I was. Don’t get me wrong though, my brother was a good person at heart. If he hadn’t been so screwed up in the head, he would have been my hero. Unfortunate, isn’t it, that the people who seem to deserve the best in life often get the worst? Besides my mother not looking at me after my brother’s suicide, I found it hard to look at myself. In fact, after my brother’s funeral, I smashed all the mirrors in the house. I reckon

27

that that’s about five hundred years of bad luck for me. I didn’t really care, though. I had nothing to lose. My father didn’t bother putting the mirrors back up. I don’t think I was remorseful, but I certainly had a strange feeling in my stomach from that point on. Stomachs are funny things, come to think of it. They give you butterflies when you’re nervous, and they clench up when you’re angry. The feeling in my stomach was sort of a wishywashy, strangled feeling that wouldn’t settle no matter what I ate or drank or did. People at school started to avoid me, even more so than when they had just avoided me because of my scars. I knew that they all thought I killed my brother, and some of them thought I was crazy like him, too. Really, I didn’t mind. Being invisible worked for me, and being avoided worked even better. It showed that people knew me, and they talked about me. Whether it was good or bad, they were still talking about me. I was infamous, and I started to play the part. I wore all black, shaved my head, and walked hunched over with my hands dug deep in my pockets. I don’t know why being crazy was so appealing to me. I guess it was just because it ran in my family. Maybe I was crazy. Crazy thoughts started to enter my mind, that’s for sure. Whenever my dad would touch me…well, let’s just say I didn’t like it. It actually made me want to bash his face in, and my father never did anything to me. In fact, after my brother died, he was the best to me. He didn’t get angry when I destroyed all the mirrors in the house. He didn’t even blame me for my brother’s death. I think he was the only one. So I’m not exactly sure why his touching me made me so angry, but it really did. Also, on top of the homicidal impulses, I had dreams about my brother. Most of the time it would just be him in the rocking chair out in our living room. He’d rock back and forth with his brains and blood dripping out of his shattered cranium. His arms


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would be clutched so tight to his chest, and his eyes would flicker as if he wasn’t asleep, but he wasn’t really awake, either. Humming, he’d rock back and forth, and I’d watch. I’d watch for hours, until his eyes snapped open and then I’d wake up. Someone once told me that dreams only last for three seconds at a time. Those dreams felt like they lasted forever. I’m writing from an insane asylum, just so you know. It’s actually a funny story about how I got landed in here. Well, you probably won’t think it’s that funny, but to me it’s downright hilarious. I actually went crazy. Imagine that. Me, the brother of an actual insane person and who was pretending to be insane, actually went insane. Don’t you see the humorous irony in that? Doesn’t that make you just howl with laughter? It did for me, but hey, I’m insane. And you know what’s great about all this? I can now say, “I’m insane,” and have it be a clinical fact. I take medicine and get therapy and everything. It’s marvelous. My best friend in here is a shoestring named Edwin. But I digress to the story of my being institutionalized. That’s a funny word, isn’t it? It was about a year after my brother killed himself. My nightmares, if you could call them that, were consistent and woke me up in the middle of the night most times. It was always the same dream. My brother rocking back and forth and back and forth, eyes fluttering and arms clenched against his chest. I found the dreams calming in a strange sort of way. One night I had drifted off to sleep, like I usually did, and I had a dream, like I usually had. It was the same, really. My brother was rocking, I was watching; nothing extremely special. This time, however, when my brother’s eyes snapped open, I did not snap awake. There was something different about his eyes. They seemed almost sane. I looked at him, and he

looked at me, and we looked at each other. He was still rocking and I was still watching. We didn’t speak for a long time. I barely moved a muscle. He finally took a deep breath, which I thought was comical since dead people didn’t breathe, and asked me how I was doing. I said I was doing fine. Strangely enough, I wasn’t disturbed that my dead brother, who had brains and blood spewing from his head, was talking to me. I actually kind of enjoyed it. We talked about little things: the weather and such. Then he asked me if I was happy. I said I was, to a certain extent. I could tell he didn’t believe me, though. Then again, dead people aren’t supposed to believe anything; they are supposed to be dead. He asked me the same question again, and I answered with the same answer. Once more he asked me this question. Again I said the same thing. This seemed to anger him. The insanity rushed back into his eyes, and with a speed I didn’t know a dead person was capable of, he shot out of the rocking chair and grabbed the arms of the chair I was sitting in. The rocking chair behind him shattered into a million pieces. He was breathing hot air on my face, but I wasn’t scared. He accused me of lying to him. He laid his hands on my face. They were red hot, but I didn’t flinch. My skin bubbled with the heat. He accused me of killing him. I laughed and said he sounded like Mom. He stepped back. The blood, which was once trickling, was now gushing out of his brain. My face seemed to be melting away, but I didn’t care. He walked towards the front door. I said he was crazy, and that all the neighbors were going to stare at him. I said he looked ferocious and like a lunatic. My brother didn’t turn around, but he stopped and barely whispered to me. He said something like, “You’re the lunatic.” For some reason, that caused me a lot of pain. I started to scream, and very loudly at that. I screamed and screamed, and my face melted as my brother walked outside.


My Best Friend’s a Shoelace

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my hair, which had grown out by then, were lying on the floor beside me. My hand was bleeding, apparently from me breaking the chair and punching the floor. My mother insisted that I be taken to the same mental institution that my brother was put into. He agreed that it was time for me to seek help. I love that term, “seeking help.” It gives the impression that this was all my idea. That it was my plan to go insane, and I needed help getting there, so I sought help. And where better to seek that help than an insane asylum? It’s absolutely wonderful here. Edwin treats me so well and we have such great talks. The people are so nice, except for when their evil split personalities emerge. I’m pretty sure that’s why my brother never wanted to leave. He liked it here too much, just like I like it here too much. I think I’ll stay for a while. After all, if I’m out there, in the real world, I might just shoot my head off like my brother did. He said it was fun, and he said that he had more fun in hell than he ever did on earth. At least that’s what he said the last time I spoke to him. That was about three weeks ago. Funny thing about death is that it doesn’t actually kill anyone; it just forces them to communicate with you in different ways. My brother chose dreams and nightmares to get his message across. I wonder how I’d do it? Come to think of it, this pencil that I’m writing with would look real beautiful in my neck. It would look like the keys that I put into the guard’s neck when I tried to get the pencil. They don’t let us have pencils, you see, and he did put up an awful struggle. I’m not so sure I want to be around when they find his body in the kitchen pantry. I definitely don’t want to be here when they come searching for me. Edwin definitely According to my father, he found me on the wouldn’t be able to protect me from them. Just living room floor. My face was covered in hot between you and me, he’s kind of a weakling. candle wax and the rocking chair was destroyed. Pencils are so much more useful than shoelaces, I was screaming and rolling around. Chunks of don’t you think?


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The Black Spectre In

The Gentleman Thief By Roger Alford

Born into a wealthy family, young Brent Gregor’s life was shattered one fateful Halloween night when an intruder’s bullets killed his father, put his mother in an asylum, and left him in a wheelchair. Young Brent became a brooding recluse locked away, forever alone, in his family mansion. When he reached adulthood, Gregor spent much of his vast fortune searching the world in vain for a cure. His far-reaching efforts led him to an old gypsy woman who offered a fantastical proposition: by joining with a mysterious entity known as the Spirit Force, which Gregor could summon when needed, he could not only walk again, but harness phantom-like abilities: superhuman strength and agility, the power to hide unseen in the shadows, move objects with his mind, and easily pass through locked doors. In return, he vowed to stand for the righteous, to fight evil, and bring justice to those who have none. Now, like a ghost, he moves through the shadows of the night, bringing evil-doers to justice! When criminals and lawbreakers are marked with his trademark “X,” they know there is no escape from...the Black Spectre!

J

ulia Davenport walked quietly through the large, Greco-Roman-styled Lakeview Heights mansion she shared with her husband, the baby, and their small cadre of servants. She never liked being alone, and even though the servants were there, she certainly felt alone when her husband wasn’t. They had planned to go out together that night. It was a business function and, as one of the most prominent attorneys in all of Terminal City, her husband, Cecil Davenport IV (heir to the Davenport fortune) always made an excellent impression with his young, beautiful wife dutifully at his side. As such, their social calendar was always full—either going out on the town or hosting grand, lavish parties at home. But she had come down with a headache just before they were to leave and had “with deep regrets” opted to stay home and retire early. It had simply been an exhausting day. Julia went into the sitting room with hopes of finishing the current novel that simply everyone was reading. She would love to brag to her friends at lunch the next day that she had already completed it. She curled up in her large Queen Anne chair and opened the tome to her bookmark. There was more left than she remembered. She had been reading for some time when a man walked into the room and began to peruse the shelves. She thought it was Johnson, their manservant, and looked up with surprise to


The Gentleman Thief see that it wasn’t. Nor was he a servant at all. Julia dropped her book with a start and let out a small gasp. He, in turn, wheeled around with a start himself. Julia saw that he carried a large leather bag with handles that seemed rather full with several of their belongings. He was a thief. She stared straight at him with fear-filled eyes. A million thoughts raced through her head. She glanced quickly towards the door and wondered if she could escape. She wanted to call for her husband, but he wasn’t there. She wanted to call for the servants. She worried mostly for the baby. He stopped her with a smile and an apology. “Please, Mrs. Davenport, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I didn’t realize that you would be home. My apologies.” It was at that moment that she realized he had moved between her and the door. “You have such a lovely home,” he continued. “I just can’t help but admire it. Please, don’t mind me. I won’t be much longer.” He went over to the other Queen Anne chair and sat down across from her. She remained still in her chair, her eyes still locked on his. He was very friendly, but she was too afraid to return his kindness. “May I ask what you’re reading?” he inquired, then reached down to pick her book up off the floor. “Ah,” he reacted with a smile as he glanced at the spine, “Farewell, Lolly Shaffer. Of course, everyone is reading it these days. It’s quite the page-turner.” He cheerily handed the book back to her, careful to keep it open to where it had fallen. “Hope you didn’t lose your place,” he said apologetically. “Again, my deepest regrets for startling you.” She stared back at him with fear and confusion, then cautiously took the book back.

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“Well,” he said courteously as he stood up and retrieved his bag. “Don’t mean to take up any more of your time. Do have a good evening and enjoy your book. Without me rattling on and in your way, you just may finish it tonight.” True to her usual form, beautiful, auburnhaired reporter Vicky Rose was on reclusive millionaire Brent Gregor’s doorstep early the next morning. She was hot on the story, as was every other reporter in the city worth his salt. But Vicky had an inside source that the other’s didn’t, a strong bond with someone who actually resided in Lakeview Heights, and she was determined to use it to her best advantage. Bernard Worthington, Brent Gregor’s faithful manservant, led her into the warm, bright sunroom where his employer was enjoying breakfast and reading the mail. The room’s large windows and its position on the back side of the house always allowed for copious amounts of morning sunlight. Vicky had only been in this room a few times before, and quickly let her eyes dart about to take in the details once again. She could easily imagine herself having breakfast here every morning. Brent sat in his wheelchair and pondered an invitation to a party from Julius Kennelly II. The only thing that puzzled him more than why Julius would ever invite him was for what reason he would ever want to go. But this was Lakeview Heights, after all, and appearances were far more important than childhood grudges. “So, what can you tell me about the Davenport burglary last night? What’s the scoop up here on Nob Hill?” Vicky asked before even sitting down across from him. Brent’s attention was lost in her eyes. It didn’t matter. She didn’t wait for him to answer. “This is the ninth house now. I mean, Lakeview Heights, of all places! Who would have


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thought this neighborhood wasn’t safe? Nothing like this has happened since…” Vicky stopped short on the thought. She was letting her excitement get the best of her. Brent’s grim expression was just the brick wall she needed. She certainly didn’t want to remind him of the attack on his family fifteen years earlier. “Well, in a long time,” she concluded quietly before changing gears. “And for Mrs. Davenport to meet him like that. Well, the story just couldn’t get any better. Any chance you could get me in for an interview?” Vicky gave him a sweet, coy smile. It had the desired effect. “I wish I could,” Brent offered, “but Cecil is rather protective. He’s barely let the police talk to Julia. She and the baby are already on a train to Florida.” Vicky crossed her arms in frustration. “You’re supposed to be my inside man here. My connection,” she begged. “Really, Vicky,” he explained, “if there was something I could do, I would. But I promise, if anything else comes up, you’ll be the first to know.” “Well, now that he’s shown his face, I suppose it’s only a matter of time before the Black Spectre gets him,” Vicky sighed. “I just hope I’m there when it happens.” “The Black Spectre?” Brent asked, puzzled. “Doesn’t he only help the poor?” “Usually,” Vicky replied, “but whoever the Spectre is, I know he’s a man of means. So surely he won’t tolerate a thief in his own back yard.” After Vicky had left, Worthington wheeled Brent into the study where the young heir spread a map of Lakeview Heights across his father’s old mahogany desk. He added a new “X” for the Davenport house and dated the entry. The marked homes were scattered about in random fashion—some close together, others far apart. There was just nothing that came to his mind,

or Worthington’s, that could lead them to an answer. “Look at this, Bernard,” said Brent, pointing to one cluster of three estates. The outer two were crossed and dated, but not the center one. “The Smiths and the Norsworthys have both been hit, but not the Goulds, who do so much dealing offthe-books that they’re bound to have a bundle of cash lying around, and they’re right between the two. Instead, he moved on to the Davenports. I just can’t figure it.” “Certainly odd, that,” Worthington agreed. “There must be some pattern here, Bernard, but I’m afraid I just don’t see it. What do they all have in common?” Brent pondered. “Perhaps, sir, you need some more information,” Worthington offered. Spider Markowicz was awakened sharply by the unearthly rumbling of his tattered and stained bed. He grabbed the mattress with his small, bony fingers, thinking that the entire building was shaking. He looked up with groggy eyes. A dark figure loomed over him, silhouetted by the scant rays of the afternoon sun that crept through his window. Spider let out a shriek. “What are you doing here?” he asked, rubbing his head from the pains of a still-lingering hangover. “I thought you didn’t come out in the daytime.” “Same as always,” the Black Spectre replied. “I need answers.” Spider stared up at the black mask adorned with the gleaming white skull shadowed by the wide-brimmed black hat and framed by the long, blood-red scarf that hung to one side. The sight of it still unnerved him. “I want to know who’s behind the breakins at Lakeview Heights,” the Spectre grumbled emphatically. “Who paid you off?” Spider asked with a nervous chuckle. “You don’t usually work that end of town.”


The Gentleman Thief Spider’s bed shook with a furious rumble that threatened to empty his stomach in every direction. “Just tell me!” the Spectre demanded. “Okay, okay,” the small man pleaded, holding his weakened stomach. “Please, just don’t do that again.” Spider took a deep breath and waited a moment to make sure that everything stayed down for the moment. “I don’t know who it is, I swear. But word on the street is it’s someone from out of town. Spats and Whitey sure want to know, too, so they can get a piece of the action. They don’t like nobody muscling in, you know?” “Good job, Spider. I knew I could count on you,” the Spectre replied, then vanished in an instant. And with that, Spider raced to the hallway bathroom and surrendered to the inevitable. Worthington checked in on Brent to find him once again poring over the map in his study. “I take it we’re not going out this evening, sir?” Worthington asked. Brent’s lack of response confirmed his suspicion. “Would certainly make things easier if the thief struck my house,” Brent mused. “Yes,” Worthington agreed, “though I suppose the iron fences and armed guards make it a far less attractive prospect.” Brent sat straight up in his wheelchair as a sudden thought struck him. “That’s it,” he stated emphatically. “You just found the answer, Bernard.” “The answer, sir?” Worthington asked. “Yes, instead of looking at the houses that have been hit, I should have been looking at the ones that haven’t. What do we all have in common?” Worthington pondered the question. Certainly theirs was the only house that was

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guarded like a fortress. Then the answer hit him just as clearly as it had Brent. “Of course, sir. We don’t have parties.” Vicky pushed Brent’s wheelchair through the foyer and into the living room of the sprawling Kennelly mansion. She tried her best to look comfortable, but she couldn’t help but stare at the Victorian opulence that surrounded her. As despicable as she knew Julius Kennelly II to be, she thought she could learn to tolerate him in order to live in such a house. “I’m not sure I belong here,” she whispered to Brent. Even in her best dress, it was clear that her appearance didn’t measure up against the women around her. “Don’t worry,” he reassured her. “You’re the most beautiful woman in the room. None of these men will care what you’re wearing.” Vicky’s eyes lit up with surprise. That was the first time Mr. Gregor had offered her such a compliment. She was glad that her boyfriend, Denny, hadn’t been there to hear it. Of course, Denny hadn’t been too keen on her evening out with Brent Gregor in the first place, working or not. Brent, too, was surprised by his own forwardness. He quickly changed the subject. “Besides,” he continued, “You’re here for a story, aren’t you? Just do what you do best.” Vicky straightened up and scanned the room again, this time looking at the faces of her fellow guests. There were many she recognized, and just as many she didn’t. If the thief was there, she would have a hard time picking him out. “Do you think he’ll even show his face again, now that he’s been seen?” she asked. “I certainly hope so,” Brent answered. “Since the Davenports won’t be here, I suspect he might.” “Oh, my God!” A booming, alcohol-slurred voice echoed across the room. “Brent Gregor!” Julius Kennelly II stumbled, laughing with every step, towards Brent’s wheelchair.


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“How in the hell did you get in here? Someone carry you up the steps?” The room was mostly quiet save for Julius’ laughter. He was always the funniest man in the room. To himself, anyway. Brent did his best to smile and offered a handshake. “Hello, Julius.” “I wouldn’t have invited you if I thought you’d actually come!” Julius chuckled in response. He looked up until his drunken gaze locked on Vicky. “Who’s the dish, Brent? How’d you ever get a date with her, huh? She like sitting down?” Julius smirked at his own wit, then twisted his expression in thought. “You look familiar, Doll.” Vicky smiled at him graciously. “Victoria Rose,” she introduced herself. “Daily Crusader. Nice to see you again, Mr. Kennelly.” “Right, right…” Julius smiled with suspicion as his foggy memory suddenly achieved a degree of clarity. Particularly about the circumstances under which he’d met her before. “What are you up to, Brent?” “Not a thing,” Brent smiled back. “Just being neighborly, that’s all.” “Well,” Julius slurred, “you two have a good time. And if you want to have a better time,” he said to Vicky, “you come find me, okay?” Julius gave her a quick wink, then stumbled off towards his disapproving wife. Just then, Vicky felt a familiar chill. There was another “intruder” at the party as well; she was sure of it. She quickly glanced around, though she would have been more surprised had she actually seen him. But he was there, no doubt. The Black Spectre was definitely there. “Everything all right?” Brent asked. “Just fine,” Vicky reassured him. “Just thought I recognized someone.”

Occasionally they split up then met back together to compare notes. Brent worried about the length of time they remained at the party. For someone who was well known for rarely attending social gatherings, he didn’t want to arouse suspicion by staying longer than he would have otherwise. But one of the guests had caught his attention. After they rejoined in Julius’ sprawling library filled with a vast array of clearly unread leather-bound volumes (and with only a handful of other guests), Brent offered up his suspicions as he directed her attention to his quarry. “You see that tall fellow over there?” he asked. “The tall blond man with the friendly expression?” “Yes,” she answered, “he’s been here most of the night. Seems a bit of a wallflower. He’s probably the only man here who hasn’t whistled at me.” “Exactly,” Brent told her. “Watch his hands.” Vicky watched the blond man peruse the many shelves, though he seemed far more interested in the various artifacts on display rather than the books themselves. Then she noticed him casually raise a cupped hand and appear to quickly jot something down. “He’s making notes!” she whispered quietly. “I’m willing to bet my family fortune that this house is where our neighborhood burglar strikes next. If you want to catch him, I suggest camping out here the next time the Kennellys are out for the evening.” The return of a familiar chill told her that she would not be alone.

Vicky had never broken into a mansion before, but there was always a first time for everything. She was just glad that the Kennelly estate wasn’t nearly as protected as the Gregor manBrent and Vicky spent the next several sion. She was certain she’d never steal her way hours moving from room to room, mingling, into a place so thoroughly protected as that. Not making small talk, yet all the while observing. without using her feminine wiles, of course.


The Gentleman Thief Finding the service road that led to the back of the estate, she drove around to the service gate. No doubt where liquor deliveries were a regular occurrence. After parking quietly behind the servant’s garage, she took a quick look around and made for the rear gate. It was high and made of black-painted wrought iron. Certainly scalable, but none too easy. Particularly for her. She was certain that the Black Spectre would be there, too, and was ready for him to show at any moment. Preferably, before she attempted to climb the fence. After taking another look at the bars, she wondered if perhaps she could just squeeze through. They were widely spaced, and she was thin. If she could get her head through, she thought she might be able to squeeze all the way. It was worth a try. Or so she thought. She put her head up against the bars to test her theory. It was close, but the last thing she wanted to do was get stuck. She pressed a little closer. A rather tight fit. Tough decision. But nothing was going to get in her way of getting this story. She pressed her head more firmly between the bars. It was much tighter than she thought. If she pushed a little harder, she might make it through or be stuck there for days on end. Not an attractive prospect. “Mind if I help?” asked the Black Spectre. She jerked her head free with a start and scraped the side of her face. “Oh! You startled me!” she gasped, feeling rather embarrassed. Now she really wished he’d arrived sooner. “Here,” he said, and offered a red kerchief to wipe away the trickle of blood that ran down her delicate face. “Thank you,” she smiled and held the kerchief to the side of her face. It was silk, just as she suspected. More proof that he was a man of means. “I could really use some assistance. If you don’t mind.”

her.

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“Of course,” he said, then moved closer to

She looked straight up into the dark caverns for eyes that adorned his mask. She reacted with another start, and her heart skipped a beat when he took her firmly by the small of her waist. Before she could even make a sound of protest, she felt the strange numbing sensation she’d felt when he’d lifted her before. She quickly grabbed his shoulders as she felt her feet slip from the ground. They rose gently into the air, and she felt the two of them glide like a feather on the wind as they drifted over the fence. They hovered in the air momentarily before descending softly down to the earth on the other side. Vicky caught her breath, then collected her thoughts before noticing the locked gate just a few feet from them. “You could have just unlocked the gate, you know?” she said smartly. “Yes,” he answered, “but this was more fun.” Her slight smile showed that she agreed. Vicky nestled quietly in one of the Kennellys’ large, comfortable den chairs and waited patiently. Even with the lights off and having spent a reasonable amount of time there during the party, the room didn’t fail to impress her. It was a high-ceilinged room well furnished with Victorian furniture, high windows adorned with heavy curtains, and small tables and shelves containing many artifacts from Julius’ frequent travels. There were plates, cups, bowls, and figurines from lands near and far, such as Mexico, Peru, Japan, India, and Egypt. On the mahogany lamp table next to her, there was a miniature globe with the continents stamped from gold leaf. On another shelf behind the Spectre, there was a collection of scrimshaw: images of ships carved into whale’s teeth and items carved from them, such as walking sticks and pie crimpers. If The Black Spectre hadn’t been there, she certainly would have explored most of the


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house and possibly even tried on some of Mrs. Kennelly’s fur coats. Spectre or no, that still wasn’t out of the question. The silent figure of the Black Spectre sat across from her and just stared straight back. Or, at least, that’s what she thought. With his mask on, it was impossible to tell just what had his attention. Curiosity and reporter’s instincts got the best of her. If she was going to spend all this time alone with him (and not explore the house), she’d better well make the most of it. “So, who are you really?” she asked playfully. “The Black Spectre,” he answered matter-offactly and offered nothing more. “Well, I know a few things about you,” she teased. “Oh?” he asked, curious. “Definitely,” she answered. “First of all, there’s the whole ‘X’ thing. I’ve thought about this one a lot. Could be that Three-Finger Ned Vogel killed someone close to you, so you took his mark to get back at him.” She was right on target with that one, but the Spectre stayed silent and stoic so as not to betray himself. Vicky watched carefully for a reaction, but there was none. “Or,” she continued, “you could just be a copycat.” Brent shifted ever so slightly to purposely display a sense of discomfort. Vicky displayed a sly smile. She was sure that she was getting somewhere. “I also know that you’re very well off. Your bulletproof car and the fact that you have a driver gave that away. Not to mention the silk handkerchief. You probably even live in this neighborhood.” “Oh?” he asked. “Well, I didn’t hear you drive over here, for one,” she offered. “Have you ever heard me walk?” he asked.

“No,” she answered reluctantly. “Then who’s to say I can’t do the same with a car?” he asked. “Okay,” she admitted with a furrowed brow. “You got me on that one. But since you are rich, it only makes sense that you live here.” “Okay, then,” he challenged as he sat forward, “who do you think I am?” Vicky sat up, enticed by the game. It was something to which she’d given a great deal of thought. She’d never had enough information to come to a firm conclusion, but by questioning the Spectre directly, she thought he might offer some clue that could reveal his true identity. “Well,” she reasoned, “clearly you’re a reasonable young man, so that narrows it down somewhat. So let’s see, you could be Julius Kennelly for starters. The drunken, womanizing, cheating, chauvinist, absolutely loathsome, criminal bore would be an excellent cover…” She threw out as many negative adjectives as she could and studied his reaction. There was none. “Okay,” she continued, “Who else have we got? There’s Cecil Davenport IV, Walter Reardon Smith, Johnson Norsworthy, William Wentworth…” The Spectre was glad that she couldn’t see him smile beneath his mask. He hadn’t seen Billy Wentworth in years, but thoughts of Billy always led to thoughts of Abbie. And that most definitely would have betrayed his identity. Vicky studied him again, waiting for something, anything to show that she was on the right track. But there was nothing. “Well,” she continued, an air of frustration coloring her voice, “the only person who even acts like he could be you is Brent Gregor, but that’s not even a possibility.” Once again, he was glad that she couldn’t see him smile beneath his mask.


The Gentleman Thief She was about to continue when the Spectre held up his hand and stopped to listen intently. That was when she heard the footsteps, too. Someone else was in the house. In one silent, graceful move, the Spectre floated quickly from his chair and, taking her into his cloak, pulled the two of them back into a dark corner. She felt the same numbness as when he had lifted her before, but much more so felt the warmth and security of being held in his arms. Not knowing what to expect next, it was exactly where she wanted to be. They waited and watched the doorway ahead of them. Soon they saw the dark silhouette of a tall man carrying a large, handled bag. As he stepped into the light from a window, his features became visible. It was the man from the party. In his other hand was a piece of paper. As he strolled into the room, he went directly to a set of shelves in the corner. He seemed to know exactly where he was going. He set his large bag down on a nearby chair and quickly plucked a neatly folded bundle of kerchiefs from it. He casually draped them across his arm as a waiter would a wine towel then, with careful precision, wrapped each dish and placed it in the bag. After he had removed all of the foreign dishware, he consulted the paper, retrieved a pencil from behind his ear, and checked them off his list. From there he went straight to the gold-leaf globe and carefully bagged it as well. As he was about to move to the scrimshaw, he was startled to see the frightening figure of the Black Spectre looming before him. “Oh, heavens!” he gasped, then touched his heart and leaped back. “You gave me such a start!” With a quick glance around, he assessed his situation. “Looks like I’ve been caught, haven’t I?” Vicky stepped out from behind the Spectre. If she didn’t get any closer to discerning his identity, this certainly made up for it. She would

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have quite a good story for City Editor Frank Matson in the morning. “Well, hello there!” the thief said with a smile when he saw her. “Now, this is a most welcome surprise. Quite pleased to make your acquaintance.” Mrs. Dennis McKay, a pretty young schoolteacher expecting her first child, was quite startled when she heard a loud knock on the door of the tiny, sparse Crawfordsville apartment that she shared with her husband. Particularly when a gruff voice on the other side shouted “Police!” and requested her to open it. She rushed to the door and did so, where she was equally startled to see the large, grizzled figure of Detective Shayne, accompanied by two of his uniformed officers, as well as Bill Hammond, the Crawfordsville sheriff. She worried immediately for her husband, from whom she hadn’t heard since he went out of town two days earlier. Detective Shayne removed his hat and offered a quick apology upon seeing her condition. “Pardon me, ma’am.” “Sorry to bother you, Evelyn,” Sheriff Hammond offered as he stepped forward, “but these officers came out here from Terminal City, and they need to ask you a few questions. It’s about Dennis, I’m afraid. But don’t worry, he’s just fine.” Mrs. McKay’s face went flushed anyway, and she motioned politely for them to come in. She was relieved to know that her husband was safe but knew that he must be in some terrible trouble for the Terminal City police to drive the nearly three hours to get there. Detective Shayne was polite but still straight to the point as he asked her a round of questions, mostly about her husband’s activities when he was out of town (which, of course, she knew nothing about) and whether or not he had a storage unit of any kind. She affirmed that he


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did and led them to a large closet in the spare bedroom that he kept secured with two padlocks. She’d always wondered what was in that closet that had to be locked so tightly, but her husband would never say. Now, she wondered if perhaps she didn’t want to know. Detective Shayne had one of his officers retrieve the fire axe from the outside hallway, then asked her to stand back and proceeded to chop his way into the cabinet. After breaking the locked handles off of the doors, they pulled them apart to reveal what was inside. There, stacked

quite neatly on the shelves was a small fortune in jewels and other very expensive treasures from her husband’s many forays into thievery. Mrs. McKay clutched her heart in shock. Sheriff Hammond caught her when her legs gave way and directed her to a chair. She’d had no idea. Detective Shayne stepped in for a closer look. That was all the evidence that they needed. But what grabbed his attention even more was the large “X” drawn on the inside of the left cabinet door.


The Empire Crown

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Rylan MaThis in…

The Empire Crown Written by Brian Trent Illustrations by Larry Nadolsky April, 1934

the catacomb entrance was lost. Rylan could no longer see the villain in this Stygian black, so he ylan Mathis could smell the man’s oily sweat concentrated on the erratic footsteps he could as he chased him into the Parisian catacombs. hear. Though running blind, he increased his It was the sweat of a coward’s desperation. What speed, navigating this underworld labyrinth by should have been a simple jewelry heist had been smell and sound. thwarted, and now the thief was fleeing like a rat Rylan was tall, handsome, and muscular, with into this moldy subterranean refuge. broad shoulders that filled his suit like the statue And to think the chase had started on roof- of a Greek Olympian. His face, too, resembled tops! Rylan grimaced, his strong-jawed face flushed from this labyrinthine pursuit. Ten minutes ago in the opulent main exhibition hall of the Paris Museum, four masked thieves had assailed a gathering of wealthy patrons. Three now were incapacitated, lying in a heap of broken glass and shattered tables. But this fourth one had eluded quick capture, scrambling out through the third-story window and dashing across roofs, with Rylan in hot pursuit. Rylan ducked the slimy overhang of dripping catacomb arches as he stayed on the heels of his quarry. Yellow bones stuck out from the walls in ghastly piles. Almost two thousand years of history slumbered in these old limestone mines, while the Paris above glittered in night-lights and traffic, well-dressed couples strolling past street-level cafés, and musicians entertaining the riverside pavilions of the Seine. The corridor banked sharply to the left, and suddenly the feeble light from

R


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the stone portraits of timeless heroes. The line of his mouth touched a fleck of scar. An ancient and trusted medallion hung from a cord around his neck, and it was a prize he never took off. Well-dressed as he was for a night of civilized recreation, his eyes were especially noteworthy. Feral, savagely alert, missing nothing, lit by the crackling fires of a survivalist spirit, as comfortable with the trappings of society as with the brutality of the wilderness, for he’d learned long ago that such things were not so divorced as most people wanted to believe. The night had, up ’til the heist, been going just swell. He had managed to pry his friend Simon de Camp away from the inventors’ pavilions by the Seine, and showed him the museum’s invitation. “Thrilling Artifacts from the Mysterious Past!” claimed the elegant scrawls. Rylan, Simon, and their raven-haired dates had attended, gathering with Paris’ finest patrons of culture. As a group, they browsed the glorious Greek, Roman, Frankish, and Napoleonic relics, while sampling the never-ending supply of French delicacies borne by the eager waitstaff. Then the quartet of thieves announced their presence with a volley of gunshots fired into the plaster ceiling. The patrons screamed and quaked, but Rylan merely nodded to his friend. Simon, as burly as a grizzly and with an appetite to match, nodded back. At the first opportunity, they launched a dizzying assault on the criminals. The fisticuff battle royal involved glass display cases, swords which came out of smashed glass display cases, and even one of Simon’s little surprises: an electric suit button which one of the thieves made the mistake of grabbing in the tussle. The blast of electricity knocked the assailant backwards through an exhibit of Parthian jewelry, where he hung, his hair standing straight out, like a peculiar mockery of the Statue of Liberty. Now it was down to this wild chase, from the gargoyle-studded museum rooftop to this descent into hellish underdark.

Still running, Rylan heard the collapse of a bone heap, and his quarry cursed in the blackness. Feeling the underworld draft sucked into a sudden new direction, Rylan hastily struck out his hands, located a secondary shaft, and plunged in after his prey. Suddenly, a match ignited. The thief was revealed in a splash of orange light, the match blazing in his left hand. He was a rodent-like man, nimble and whiskered. The shaft he had stumbled into was a dead-end. The rat-like face twisted in smug satisfaction. “You think you have me cornered, eh?” He held the burning match to his lips. “I’ve gotten a good look at you, and that’s all I needed! I’m an expert in blind-fighting.” He laughingly blew out the match. There was the sound of a brief scuffle, a wild punch failing to connect, an iron one-two succeeding. Another match ignited, this one in Rylan’s hand. The thief lay unconscious at his feet. “So am I,” Rylan grunted. “Why would he make off with a simple Roman brooch?” Back in the museum, Rylan couldn’t help but ask the question again as he paced the deserted chamber. The guests were gone, the thugs carried off by a gaggle of flatfoots, and all stolen items returned. In other words, one item. Despite the value of the new exhibit’s inventory, not to mention the thick wallets and fancy oyster-fruit of the attendees, it seemed that a single Roman brooch had been the heist’s objective. Simon shrugged and peeled off his tie. A half-dozen policemen, and the museum’s curator, Mr. Pinon, were the only people remaining now that high society had retired for the night, which was really a shame, because a kingly buffet table of delectable treats waited in the adjacent hall. Simon could see it from where he stood: plates of sliced turkey breast, crackers with the


The Empire Crown finest cheeses, escargot, pastries in raspberry glaze, scalloped potatoes, and champagne sparkling in slim-necked glasses. “Are the girls all right?” Rylan asked him. “I got them both a cab,” Simon said, and he inched over to the food. Rylan turned back to the curator. “A simple brooch, Monsieur Pinon? Doesn’t that raise your suspicions?” Curator Pinon looked like a bespectacled insect. He scowled at the mess, the wasted food, the bad publicity which had transpired on his watch, and Rylan’s comment. “Monsieur Mathis,” the curator started, “while your reputation has certainly been proved tonight, I must point out that the brooch is hardly ‘simple.’ Why, it dates back to Sulla’s era!” “But there are so many other brooches, also from Sulla’s era, in the museums of London, New York, and the Ottoman Empire,” Rylan maintained. “They wouldn’t fetch much at any black market in the world. The Paris Museum has plenty of priceless artifacts which a thief should have grabbed. The man I chased down had grabbed a mediocre brooch.” “You interrupted their plan. Given more time, they might have sacked the entire hall.” “No. Their leader made a point to grab that particular brooch. He strolled right past objects ten times its worth!” The curator sighed impatiently, clearly eager to call it a night. “Petty criminals, monsieur, only see the glitter of gold. Likely he knew nothing of its value.” Rylan shook his head. “I’ve dealt with thieves and vagabonds of all sorts, from the sampan villages of Hong Kong to the seedy streets of Istanbul to the thugs of Chicago’s underworld.” At this latter mention, he noticed Simon jerk a look at them. Any mention of Chicago and mobster Lucky Luciano was a sore spot with him. Rylan continued, “The men who attacked this museum were sophisticated. Or rather, they

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were following someone else’s sophisticated plan. If it was just gold they were after, why not snag the jewels in there!” He pointed to a display of an emperor’s cuirass. “Or the second-century Syrian merchant chest there!” He jabbed a finger accordingly. “And Nero’s crown is more expensive than both!” He pointed. The display case for Nero’s crown was empty. The consternation which followed was simply aggravating to Rylan. The policemen babbled, and the curator clucked back, and meanwhile the pristine display case remained empty of Nero’s crown. “The glass hasn’t been broken!” Pinon shrieked in a red-faced huff. “Was it locked, monsieur?” asked a flatfoot. “Of course it was locked! I take exception to your implication!” “We must examine every angle in order to—” Rylan broke off from the chaotic chorus and found Simon by the appetizer table. “The crown was sitting in that case just two minutes before the robbery! We’ve been had.” It was a magician’s classic sleight-of-hand. Once shots were fired no one was paying mind to that side of the hall. The lack of forced entry deepened the mystery, until Simon suggested any number of ways it could be done. “A modern skeleton key, adapting to the configuration of lock tumblers,” the big man said, his cheeks bulging with cheese and crackers. He brushed crumbs from his moustache. “I could have done it.” “But who would have access to a device like that?” “Not many people,” Simon conceded. “Gadgeteers, really. Spies. Government agents and other shadows of the espionage industry.” Rylan paced anew, running his hands through his hair. The missing crown would fetch


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a fine price, true, but the same problem existed as with the brooch. There were more expensive artifacts in easy reach. The two friends excused themselves from the rabble, and stepped outside into the warm night air. They walked a couple blocks in silence, while the sounds of Paris’ unsleeping night piped up from alleys and pavilions. “The crown was valuable,” Rylan said finally. “Sure,” Simon replied, fishing more crackers out of his pocket and stuffing them in his mouth. “But not so valuable as to justify this method of theft. There has to be more going on, I’m sure of it!” “We can hit the library in the morning, look up its history.” Rylan’s eyes flashed. “Actually, I think we need more thorough information. Details, Simon, that might not be found in a public library.” He let those words sink in. Simon’s chewing slowed. His mustachioed face twisted in an expression of disbelief. “You…no!” Annick’s chateau lay among the castle-studded landscape to the southeast, secluded from France’s metropolitan regions. It was a luxuriant mansion surrounded by a forest of tangled wood, flowers, and creeping ivy, reachable by an hour train ride. Simon slept the whole way, his moustache twitching with each snore. Rylan, in the seat across from him, remained fiercely alert and troubled, staring out the window at the shadowed countryside. When they disembarked a red dawn had broken, bleeding onto the horizon. The walk up the forested path to the chateau gate was scarlet and black. “It’s like visiting a witch in the woods,” Simon muttered. “Be nice now,” Rylan said, but he knew his friend was right. Annick was the mistress of crypts and vaults, a dabbler in dust, a

scholar of sweet-smelling papyrus scrolls and sandy sarcophagus, of mossy Gaelic ruins and Scythian burial mounds. She was wealthy, and strangely connected wherever she traveled. Rylan spoke eleven languages, but she outdid him on that score. Once, in her shadowy library among swinging candles, he had seen a cache of moldy books whose faded writing matched nothing he recognized. When he asked her about them she merely smiled and purred, “Mankind is young, Rylan, and the art of writing is old indeed.” The chateau’s front gate was locked, but there was an iron bell there. Rylan rang it in six deliberate gongs. From the front door of the house came a flicker of shadow. The door swung wide. A youthful woman strode forth, her chestnut curls draped across her shoulders to her wasp-like waist. Blue gossamer livery like something out of an Arthurian painting hugged her curvaceous body. Her sapphire eyes burned with pleasure. “Rylan! And Simon! I heard rumors you were back, yet I refused to believe it, for surely you would have dropped in on me sooner, no?” “What can you tell me about the Crown of Nero?’ Rylan asked through the gate’s latticework. Annick slipped her hands through the iron lattice, caressing his large, tanned arms. The contact was electrifying; Rylan couldn’t help but think of the electric stun device Simon had used on one of the museum thieves. But Annick’s touch was worse; icy and scalding like injecting two separate poisons into him through her fingertips. He felt his heartbeat gallop into an excited rhythm. Then her fingers began walking up towards his medallion. Rylan firmly pushed her hands away. “And here I thought you still held me a grudge,” Annick said, her pink tongue flicking across her ruby lips, “for cutting that rope when


The Empire Crown you were climbing out of the Hollow Earth. How long were you stranded down there? Must have taken years to tunnel out a new exit. You’re not still mad, are you?” Simon shoved his bulky arm through the bars so fast the limb nearly got stuck. Annick leapt back like a dancer and laughed, clapping her hands in delight. “You old witch!” “Old?” she pouted. “Yes, old! And we both know why…” Rylan stopped them both with a sharp clearing of his throat. “The Crown of Nero, Annick. Start talking, or I’ll let Simon here tear down this gate and then go to work on your house.” The sorceress’s smile slipped. “Nero’s crown? Who cares about that? It’s just a headpiece for that demented little Roman cretin.” “There must be something special about it.” “Just silly stories.” “Such as?” “Nero,” she said with a hostility that was surprising even for her, “was an insane tyrant with a big nose. He believed anything he was told. When his mother made him Caesar, he took the crown that his predecessors had worn. But one day, a mysterious traveler convinced him to buy a different crown…yes, it was sold to him… because he believed what the traveler said about it: it had come from the gods themselves.” Rylan frowned. “The gods?” “I told you it was just a story.” “Which gods?” “The Olympian gods. The stories differ on which divinity wore it. But the crown was supposedly flung from Mount Olympus, by accident or on purpose, after the Titan revolt was put down.” “It is magical then?” “I don’t know.” She withdrew from the gate, visibly disappointed that he wouldn’t be coming in. They returned to the hotel slowly, thoughts dominated by the peculiar events of the night.

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Rylan made a point to take a detour to the nearest telegraph office, where he sent a message to his crack aviatrix Helena and her sharp-shooting partner Maximilian. - Believe trouble is afoot. Simon and I are staying at the Paris Grand Hotel. Theft at Paris Museum. Stand by Outside again, he and Simon resumed their trek to the hotel. Rylan knew it was his enduring habit to think a conspiracy dwelt in everything. But that was only because there was a conspiracy in everything. It made him feel divided from the very people he had sworn to protect. They went about their lives in a delirious fog. There was almost something noble about their ignorance, like an Amazon tribe’s innocence of the world beyond their leafy universe. Something red fluttered by his face and touched the cobbled pavement. He halted, stooped to examine it. A rose petal. Rylan glanced up, expecting to see a high window with potted flowers being disturbed by a sudden gust. Instead, more petals spiraled towards him, collecting on his face. Thousands of petals! Millions! So thick he could barely perceive the source. The street was instantly carpeted in delicate red, which cars cut through like boats breaking through rosy waters. Drivers leaned from windows in bewilderment, craning their necks to see what the fuss was about. There was something moving across the sky. A flourish of silver trumpets sounded clear, high notes promising unstoppable victory. “I don’t believe it,” Simon whispered, sharing Rylan’s view of the midnight sky. Rylan gasped. His hard eyes tried desperately to process the sight. A marble pavilion was hovering over the city, floating down towards the Arc de Triomphe. Wide and flat it was, with naked statues ringing its perimeter, and toga-clad men were standing


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at its corners. They cradled huge clay amphoras and were grabbing handfuls of rose petals, tossing them gleefully down upon Paris in an unending vermillion stream. The pavilion glided in a slow, magical course. Rylan could see a dais and throne in its center. Amazingly, the pavilion was also flanked by floating chariots being drawn by mechanical horses who cantered upon the air. Soldiers dressed as ancient centurions straddled these nuts-and-bolts pegasi. Rylan’s feet moved. He found himself trailing the incredible airy procession, setting his sights on the grinning man who sat in the ornate throne. The man was wearing a crown. The heavenly parade was, unsurprisingly, capturing every Parisian’s attention. A crowd was already following it, whispering in an even mixture of fear, bemusement, and glee. When the pavilion neared the Arc de Triomphe, it suddenly ascended to a higher altitude, spun in a slow circle, and then came to rest upon the decorative masonry. “Citizens of Paris!” the crowned man boomed. His voice was incredibly powerful, far stronger than any megaphone could amplify. When he spoke, the words seemed to strike Rylan like invisible hammers. “I welcome you to a new era! The modern world has forsaken you! But the past is not forgotten!” The enrapt crowd stared, glittering eyes fixed on this magical visitor. A few people offered a playful cheer. “I am the New Caesar,” the man declared. “Join a reborn Empire, and welcome the dawning of a new age!” The metropolitan police were as stunned as the rest of the city, but slowly they began to close around the feet of the Arch. The crowd was now applauding at the freakish sight resting on the city’s famous monument and openly speculating

that this was some new technology to celebrate the City of Lights’ modern age. “Is it technology?” Rylan whispered to Simon. “Or a Power?” Simon scratched his head. “Not sure.” Their globe-trotting adventures had placed them into conflict with both technothreats and evil magic. They had encountered tribal shamans who could walk in the spirit world, cavedwelling cultists in the misty bogs of Ireland itching to awaken their frightful slumbering gods, and the moon-beasts of Peru. They were supernatural enemies, or, as Simon preferred to say, “masters of deeper levels of mechanistic reality than we currently understand.” Rylan didn’t care for such distinctions. Maybe Simon was right, and the horrors the group had encountered were little different from the nutsand-bolts robotic fiends they had thwarted in the Arctic five years ago. But it didn’t matter to Rylan. A threat was a threat, and needed heroes to fight it. Simon was craning his massive neck, trying to study the underside of the pavilion. “No machine parts. It’s just a concave slab of marble floating, somehow defying the air, or lighter than the air, or…Rylan! What are you doing?” Rylan had already started pushing his way through the crowd to get a closer look at their visitor when a police inspector intoned to the Caesar, “You there! You must remove yourself from the arch at once! Even if this some sort of joke—” “I offer you prosperity and love,” Caesar declared. “Though I require your obedience in the new world we shall be making! Send me your ambassadors to formally offer your surrender. I shall be at the base of the Eiffel Tower, and establish a new governor for this province.” “I say again, you must come down here!” The Caesar pointed to the man. A bolt of lightning leapt from his fingertips and struck the inspector. The man’s body rolled


The Empire Crown over and flopped around. Finally it was still, while tendrils of smoke wafted up from the corpse. The crowd let out a roar of terror, all heads turned towards the dead man. Rylan hesitated. He studied the New Caesar’s face. He didn’t recognize the villain, but the crown! Ah! In the museum, the crown had been without adornment. Now there was a strange jewel fitted into its unremarkable front. Purple and silver light moved like swarms of fishes in that mysterious gemstone. “The New Caesar promises you peace, or the horrors of my divine punishments! Any with the authority to entreat with me shall come to the Eiffel, for the sake of all of France!” The man smiled broadly. “Peace and prosperity in the New Empire!” The police opened fire. A barrage of bullets flew upon the pavilion as it ascended from the Arch. The crowd screamed and scattered in all directions like a disintegrating swarm. Rylan felt himself tugged at by Simon, but he could only stare as the bullets shattered against an invisible barrier protecting the pavilion. Yet this magical barrier seemed a one-way barrier, for the Caesar calmly pointed into the crowd and struck down several more officers as his pavilion moved off, heading towards the city’s famous tower. Simon pulled at him again. “We need to leave! Now!” “We will speak again!” promised the Caesar, and his vehicle floated away. The surviving police continued opening fire, until a thick haze of gunpowder drifted around them. Then they stopped. All faces turned up to the sky. The silver chariots which had flanked the Caesar’s pavilion were still hanging above them. As Rylan and Simon watched in horror, the chariots descended to street-level. Hastily, the police reloaded their weapons. From the chariots, gleaming centurions sprang

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out and fell upon them. And though these men didn’t seem protected with invisible shields like their master, the policemen’s bullets were proving just as ineffective; the warriors were clad in white-silver armor from plumed helmet to soldier boots, with only a narrow window for their mouths. Even their eyes were covered, yet somehow this didn’t hamper their fighting proficiency as they impaled, struck, and swatted at the defenders with jeweled spears. Rylan could stand it no longer. He plunged into the battle. One officer discharged a final shot at a nearby centurion, and seeing the slug glanced off the magical chest-plate with a spark of protest. The centurion ran at him with grim eagerness, spear poised for a lethal pierce. Rylan increased his speed. Bullets flew by him like hornets; the coppers were firing wildly now, and there was an increasing chance that they would hit an innocent. The centurion bore down, and Rylan pushed his muscular legs to greater speed to close to distance and reach the attacker first. The centurion let the spear fly. Rylan snatched the weapon out of the air, startled by its lightness. The centurion had time to show astonishment on his lips when Rylan brought the spear around, striking the man with a clang! on the helmet. The blow was so powerful that the man staggered back drunkenly, tripped over his own feet, and fell flat onto his back. “Mortal after all!” Rylan cried triumphantly. “And so are we,” Simon muttered beside him. There were no policemen left in the street; the centurions had killed or frightened off every last one. Remarkably, the fracas hadn’t caused them to break their efficient formation. Without breaking a sweat, they had maintained a nearperfect circle around the Arch’s base. In that instant, Rylan wondered if they were actually real Romans transported to Paris from antiquity, outfitted with superior technology, and truly ready to die in service of their new benefactor.


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He swallowed, watching as four dozen helmeted heads turned to regard the only opponents who still dared to face them. “Any gadgets to get us out of this?” Rylan asked his friend. “Left them at the hotel.” “What about your shotgun?” “Oh, yeah. That’s at the hotel, too.” “Swell.” The centurions drew their circle tighter. Their jeweled spears formed a razor pinwheel, glinting as the gunpowder cleared and the low moonlight caught on the bladed tips. Rylan nodded to Simon. It was that same nod which had begun this adventure, back when four thieves had disturbed the Paris Museum. A single nod, launching a whirlwind resistance against villains. Rylan hopped forward and batted two spears out of his way, then jabbed the nearest centurion in the mouth. The man fell backwards like a target at a shooting range. In the same instant, two centurions from opposite directions struck for Rylan’s head. He barely pulled away in time, and watched as the spears formed a perfect “X” in front of his face. He tossed his weapon back to Simon while simultaneously grabbing the two spears in front of his face. With a fierce pull straight to the sky, he managed to wrest the weapons from their owners and also yank the men closer to him. Using the spear ends, he delivered a synchronized smash to their faces. The street was soon covered with splotches of blood and the rattle of smashed teeth. But he was hopelessly outnumbered. In the midst of a spinning attack, Rylan felt a huge weight crash into him. He stumbled to one knee, glanced over his shoulder to see Simon bleeding profusely from the chest. In desperation and disgust, Rylan threw one of his spears like a javelin at the nearest attacker and watched it lance him through the mouth. “Zol Sagul Eresh na!”

The sudden words were like a furious waterfall, filling the melee and spoken from a female throat. It had barely registered in Rylan’s ears when a fog rolled in. The Parisian newspapers would later describe it like that, how at the height of an ill-fated melee with the New Caesar’s footsoldiers, a sudden fog had descended. But to Rylan and the barely-conscious Simon, it was as if the air had sprouted mist like a seeded yard erupting a forest…all in seconds. For the second time in twenty-four hours, Rylan was blind. The grey mist pressed against his eyes. Simon’s hot blood kept running through his fingers; the frantic thought flashed through his mind that, after countless adventures across the world, he was about to lose his closest and most trusted friend. A patch of fog darkened into a slender silhouette. The miasma parted like phantom curtains around the serene face of Annick. “Let’s go,” she said quickly, and winced as the unseen centurions began hissing desperately in the fog. “Quietly.” “Not that way,” Rylan whispered, pulling away from her helping hands. “This way… towards the hotel…and towards the Eiffel.” Hearing this, Simon’s eyes bulged. “Are you insane?” he sputtered. “No. Just possessed by an idea.” They staunched Simon’s wounds in the hotel room. He had taken a spear high in the ribs. Another two inches and it would have lanced his heart; his shirt was soaked in blood. “He’ll live,” Annick said at last. Simon was sweaty and shaking as he lay on the bed, and his breathing was shallow. He nodded at her pronouncement. Rylan held his friend’s hand. “We need to get him to a hospital.” “No, you don’t. I treated his wounds. He’ll recover, faster than even I would like.”


The Empire Crown

“If you’re wrong—” Annick scowled. “Me?” From the hotel window, they watched as sunrise broke in the east. Rylan checked on his friend once more before heading out with Annick. They walked the eight blocks to the Eiffel. The green yard in the front of the Eiffel Tower had been entirely transformed in just a few hours. The floating pavilion was there as promised, but now it was apparent that it was only part of a larger set-piece. Rylan had spent much time in Italy, fighting off Mussolini’s Ceka thugs, and he had seen the ruin-studded Italian countryside in depth. Here was a re-creation of that nation’s colonnaded courtyards, with white stone and a domed ceiling, and the New Caesar’s pavilion sitting below. Bronze and silver statues

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to the full pantheon of Olympian deities ringed it; voluptuous Venus, scowling Mars, wing-footed Mercury, tridentwielding Neptune. And Caesar. He sat in the middle of their attention, looking wrathful, poring over documents held by his attendants. A massive crowd waited before him, kneeling, as he apparently was taking the time to see them one by one. “Guess the ambassadors didn’t please him,” Annick observed. Rylan nodded grimly, seeing fourteen men crucified off to the side. Other posts waited like fallen logs, centurions standing with hammers in hand, ready to add to the human forest at their master’s command. Rylan snorted in rage. “Whether guillotines or the Inquisition’s rack, the desire of men to oppress others continues. Past, present, or future. The tools and props change, not the heart of the species!” He spat. “Wait here.” Annick cringed. “You’re sure about this…” But he was already marching down to the pavilion, boldly striding past the kneeling crowd. “Mighty Caesar!” Rylan roared, and the cowering masses jumped at his voice. Caesar shot him a murderous glance. Rylan walked with such a brisk pace that the crowd separated in a wave before him. Centurions crossed swords to halt his further advance. Rylan stopped. And knelt. “Who dares approach without my permission?” the Caesar screamed, jumping to his feet. Rylan gritted his teeth, having sworn to never submit before tyranny. “Your humble servant and advocate!” This stopped the emperor. His scowl deepened. “Explain yourself.”


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Rylan held out his ancient medallion. A gift in his youth, it was this medallion which had inspired Rylan to take up adventuring in the first place. It was this medallion which he had long considered the manifestation of his luck. He never took it off. In a flash the scowl vanished from the Caesar’s face. Rylan doubted the man knew from what vanished culture the medallion had come…he himself didn’t know. Annick believed this New Caesar was simply a modern opportunist who had learned to mix and match ancient artifacts and set himself up as a god. “A gift for you,” Rylan said, “and to pledge my obedience in your New Empire.” At Caesar’s nod, a centurion snagged the medallion from Rylan’s hand and gave it to his master. Caesar stared in open fascination. Rylan could almost see the gears of the man’s mind working, trying to ascertain if this was another magical item. It wasn’t, as far as Rylan knew, and he had no wish to part with it long enough for a villain like this to prove him wrong. “Where did you come by this marvel?” “It was foretold to me, from childhood, to deliver this to the greatest man I ever saw. It possesses some secret which only the rightful king can uncover!” Caesar was now his captive audience. The man’s eyes twinkled, buying every honey-coated lie with foolish abandon. “My own Gordian Knot?” Caesar asked quietly, and instantly began running his chubby fingers over it, poking and prying, discovering the strange device which Rylan had clipped to its underside. Rylan kept his head bowed, seeing his own reflection on the mirrored blades of the centurions in front of him. “Ah-ha!” Caesar cried, and tried to dig out the device. Now.

As his fingers came in contact with Simon’s button, the electrical properties went to work. Caesar shrieked, convulsing in a violent electrocution, running like a bird all across the dais. The centurions gaped in dismay. In that moment of distraction, Rylan leapt to his feet and disarmed the nearest guard. In a blinding flash of movement, far quicker than any other man, he had lopped the next guard’s head clean off. The New Caesar continued screaming himself hoarse. Rylan leapt onto the dais and smashed his sword against the man’s crown. The ancient artifact tumbled off, rolled around in a neat circle, and stopped. With the hilt of the blade, Rylan knocked the petty despot out cold. “Citizens,” Rylan cried, turning to the crowd who were already rising to their feet. His words froze in his mouth as he saw Simon standing among them, the heavy bandage strapped across his chest and a shotgun in his hands. Simon merely nodded at him, pale and grim. “You overthrew tyranny once more than a hundred years ago!” Rylan continued. “Do so again!” The crowd flung itself upon the centurions like a dark wave. Rylan considered the crown at his feet during the battle. So easily could he set it on his head, and have its incredible powers at his disposal in his fight against tyranny! He, gadgeteer Simon, sharp-shooting Maximilian and the beautiful aviatrix Helena could face their enemies with ease, correct the wrongs of corrupt governments, and help the people of Earth. He pictured the four of them descending from the clouds on this magical marble pavilion, arriving in each nation where wickedness festered. In time he would have armies at his command, and they would be unstoppable…


The Empire Crown Rylan shook his head. He nodded to Simon, and tossed the crown high into the air. “No!” Annick screamed, clawing helplessly at the air. Simon wasn’t as fast or accurate as Maximilian. But with a single shotgun blast he blew the crown apart. The pieces danced

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musically upon the marble pavilion. Annick pawed helplessly at the fragments of the crown. Rylan and Simon left her there. “She was right,” Simon said as they departed the tower grounds. “I don’t need a hospital. I need breakfast! Come on, you’re buying.”


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Written & Illustrated By Sarah Vaughn

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he unicorn waited patiently as Newlyn climbed down the cliff to the phoenix nest. It was a beautifully built construction, twigs pasted to the rocks, built up and over to block the wind and weather, using materials to stoke the heat. The smoke still rose from the ash inside the nest. Pillowed by the remains of the last phoenix was a large red egg, safe and warm. Fenmora had been a powerful, quiet, and wise bird. Her long red and gold tail streaked across the sky when she took her morning flights. The bird had always loved the taste of butter. Every now and then the phoenix stopped by for breakfast, mischievously sneaking a piece of toasted bread. Now she was ash and egg. Newlyn knew it would not be long at all now before the new Fenmora hatched. With each moment the smoke was weakening. Looking at the nest saddened her. “Stay safe,” she said aloud to the egg, and carefully found her footing to climb back up. How could Newlyn know the little bird inside that egg would be the same? It disturbed her. What if she hated the taste of butter this time? What if she didn’t like Newlyn? Would she be experiencing everything for the first time all over again, or build on her past experiences? As deaths went, the parting of a beloved phoenix should have been the most gentle of circumstances. Fenmora would be back. But to watch the beautiful old bird burst into flames

right in front of her was an experience Newlyn never wanted to have again. Wizard Mylor had insisted she be there to understand, Fenmora had agreed, and Newlyn had grasped the importance, at least in theory. If she was to be a master caretaker in the forest, she would need to be experienced in all matters. Newlyn just hadn’t expected to be as affected as she was. It brought up questions that in all her years apprenticing under Wizard Mylor, she had never once considered. Rising from the ashes, living from the dead. But something had to die first. With a final grunt and burst of effort, Newlyn pushed herself over the lip of the cliff. The unicorn had been grazing at a dandelion patch, but he sensed her presence and trotted over to nuzzle her hands. “Hello, you beauty,” she murmured, and patted Adharc’s neck, giving him a few oats out of one of her pouches. Newlyn had to maneuver out of the way to avoid his horn. He nudged her hands and began to nibble the sleeves of her shirt to check for more treats, and when he didn’t find any, began to munch on her hair near her neck. Newlyn carefully pulled her hair out of his mouth, and touched his nose. It was as soft as raspberries. Adharc was a gentle soul for Innocents, as Wizard Mylor called them. For little girls who liked to pretend to be princesses and twirl about with giggles so sweet the fairies bottled them, it


Phoenix Ash was an apt title. But for 22-year-old women who had already seen much of this small world, there was only one term: virgin. Woe to the man who crossed a unicorn on a bad day. The horn was not mere decoration. The caretaker logs had a 300-year-old record of disemboweling by unicorn horn. The logs promptly had entries of female caretakers after that. A unicorn maiden’s life was a lonely one. The whistle of the lonely canyon was soon absorbed by the massive trees of the deep forest, and all she heard was the crunch of her feet on the trail and the clop of unicorn hooves beside her. Every now and then there would be a scurry under the brush, or a jostling of leaves and branches up above, a tree rearranging a cramping root, but for the most part it was an enclosing and dense quiet. It was in the silence and the beauty of the trees, that the dread began to churn in the pit of her stomach. A songbird dove for her head. Newlyn dropped to the ground, startled by the little yellow flash heading towards her. “Oh! Newlyn, Newlyn!” it cried, and then began to circle her. Adharc offered her his tail, and grateful, she used it as a rope as the unicorn moved forward and pulled her up. When

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she was safe and standing, the bird sat on the unicorn’s rump and flapped its wings. “I have something new to tell you!” “Oh, yes?” she said, brushing dust from her knees. “Yes, oh, yes! There’s a boy by the dragon caves!” This caught her attention. “Really?” Adharc looked at her quietly before disappearing into the woods. The songbird stayed put on the unicorn’s back, happy to have a free ride. The unicorn would not follow her that way. If the smell of man was not enough to repel him, the dragon’s territory was as clear to the unicorn as a wall of fire reaching the sky. An orb swooped down from the sky. Wizard Mylor’s face shone inside it, his white beard almost blinding. She could see the stone wall behind him, and the window that looked over the entire forest. “Still in the tower?” she asked. “I thought you were going to come outside more.” “Busy day today, my dear. Tanek had to herd some trees back home. Making a getaway towards the Red Beach.” Poor Tanek. When the trees ran away, it took ages for the woodsman to round them up. “My readings tell me the child is in front of the river entrance,” Mylor said. “I’ll tell the caravan to stay put. You know best how to deal with Hermit.” The orb flitted off to the east, and she continued north, following the barren hills to the dry river bed. The river bed fanned out to a rocky shore. She could see the back cave entrance up ahead. Everything looked quiet until she saw a black tail swishing behind a pile of boulders. Rounding the corner, she saw the dragon riveted on a


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crack between two rocks. Its head was on the ground, sniffing, haunches lifted into the air. “Hermit, whatcha doin’?” Newlyn cried. She exaggerated her voice, trying to sound as playful as she could. The dragon ignored her. “Get over here!” Hermit chuffed. Newlyn sighed and pulled a gold nugget out of one of her pouches. The dragon’s eyes rolled to the side to stare at it. “I know. Look at this! It is exactly what you think it is. So pretty, and big, and shiny.” It sniffed one more time, trembling, before wriggling back from the boulders. She threw the gold nugget as far as she could into the caves, chasing after the dragon as he snatched it up and ran into the darkness. At the side of the entrance was a lever. She used all her strength to push it down. A huge slab of rock slid into place, sealing the cave. The little boy was sobbing, cupping a skinned knee, huddled between the rocks where Hermit had been sniffing. His bright yellow wristband was still on, thank goodness. Most children tried to wriggle out of them as soon as they could. “Goodness,” Newlyn said. The boy jumped. “That’s quite a scrape you have. May I look at it?” “Are you a witch?” the boy asked as Newlyn knelt down to check the knee. She had to bite back a snort. So he was going to be one of those Travelers. Covertly, she looked at his wrist band. Banks, Ralphard. “Only on the weekends. The wizard told me you were lost. You’re a very important person right now, Ralphard. Your parents are worried sick.” His knee wasn’t that bad, but it wouldn’t hurt to clean it up a little. She opened her canteen, and poured water onto a handkerchief. The boy began to wail again when she pressed the cloth against the cut. “I don’t want to be eaten!” “I promise, he only eats the little boys. You’re too big for his taste.”

He started to scream. Snot ran down his nose. Oh, lord. The caravan was waiting on the trail for them, Travelers standing around the wagons. Some were worried. Most looked annoyed at the delay, even with the refunded tickets. Ralphard groaned when his mother continued to hug and kiss him, snotty face and all. Newlyn ignored the stares as the boy’s father ranted at her. At least Mylor’s orb was hovering next to her. Tanek was settling a tree across the track, keeping his eye on the situation. “Mr. Banks, I was not making any comment about his weight,” Newlyn said. “Children grow, I was just trying to make a little joke.” “You think it’s funny? You think terrorizing my little boy is funny? How could you people even let him through?” The father was so angry he was turning purple. Newlyn discreetly wiped a few flecks of spit from her face. “It looks like Ralphard got through the shield by way of one of the maintenance passages. They’re left open for smaller animals to cross the trails. No large creatures can get through,” the orb said to the father. “Again, I’m very sorry he was scared. But we had his location at every moment. The tracking device on his wristband was operating just fine. Children need to be supervised at all times…” Newlyn regretted saying it the moment the words left her mouth. Very bad move. The father opened his mouth to let out a new string of insults. “…And I regret there weren’t enough fairy godmothers around to keep an eye on him.” Even worse. Joanie, the caravan godmother who held onto three Invisa lines connected to sticky toddlers, looked about ready to throttle Newlyn. She’d make it up to Joanie. Maybe a free unicorn visit. Though Joanie would need an extra


Phoenix Ash spray of Innocence pheromones for Adharc to come near her. Sweet girl, but boy crazy. “He could have been killed!” “Your son was in no danger. The dragon’s very obedient, but curious, that’s all. He never gets a chance to see a child up close.” “It didn’t even breathe fire,” said the boy, as if it was the most disgusting thing in the world. “It just slobbered. Like a dog.” Because it has as much canine DNA as you do, she wanted to say, but bit her lip. Bad enough she was in a security and PR mess, but to bungle up the silence agreement in her contract would put her out of a job. Neglectful parents blaming everything on Newlyn miffed her. Insulting one of her creatures pushed the limits of her patience. “They’d burn the forest down if they were fire breathing,” she said instead. “You have to go to the mountains for fire dragons.” “No, thanks,” said the father. “We’re going home. It’s a wonder you people have been in business this long. A girl and a floating ball running the place. I’ll sue you for every Terra yen you’ve got. Do you even know who I am?” The orb glowed a little brighter, happy to oblige. “Rogerden Banks, of Twiling, Barnet, Benns, and Morro…. Aah, not a partner yet, but it’s only a matter of time, dear boy.” Was Mylor trying to give him a heart attack? “I want to speak to your manager.” “I am Head Wizard Mylor,” the orb said. “You are welcome to meet me at the tower for further discussion. Any higher up, you’ll have to visit His Majesty. Unless you have royal clearance, I doubt you’ll be able to.” “Royal clearance!” screamed Mr. Banks. “This is the twenty-sixth century!” “And this is Magical Times,” said the orb. “As stated in your travel contract, you agree to adhere to the hierarchy of our colony. As archaic as it is, you did happen to sign it. Please accept

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our free extra night in town, and a visit to the royal menagerie. We do apologize again for your inconvenience.” At this time, Tanek walked over the track to stand on the other side of Newlyn, smiling pleasantly. Newlyn hid a smirk as he puffed out his chest, and leaned forward, trying to add a little menace. Mr. Banks looked at Tanek’s crossed arms. Newlyn had to admit they looked very large. The Travelers, including the sulking Banks family, climbed into the wagons. The caravan leader started up the controls, and Newlyn heard the satisfying hiss of working hydrolics. The theme song started to play through the speakers, the familiar tune of lutes and pennywhistle bouncing off the trees, and finally the throaty voice she knew so well. “Magical Times, legends and lore. Mythical age, from forest to shore. Travel in time, by flying through space. Enchanting vacations on colony Trase.” The trees creaked in frustration. To hear that song every day for three hundred years must take its toll. Newlyn nearly collapsed in relief when the forest engulfed the caravan. Finally, some peace. “I’m just not cut out for working with humans,” she said. “Give me a gryphon. Give me mermaids any day over humans.” “You did just fine,” said Tanek. “I wasted my last gold nugget on that kid,” she said. “Easily rectified,” said Mylor. “Come to the tower. I have an extra bag in storage.” Ever since space miners came across the residue of a supernova and brought back a gold sphere the size of a small moon, the precious metal was not as precious as it used to be. Happy for Hermit that it was so devalued. His piles in the cave would be tiny indeed otherwise.


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“It was nice of you to be my backup,” Newlyn said to Tanek as they walked down the trail. Mylor’s orb was already on its way back to the wizard, having little time to spare for a leisurely stroll. “The trees must have been trying today.” “I finished early,” he said. He grinned, and shook his head. “They weren’t really running away, the sneaky devils. Just wanted to have some fun.” She looked at a few birches, leaning a little too far towards them. They snapped straight when they noticed her watching them. “Doesn’t it bother you?” she asked. “That the trees are just solar-powered robots?” He scratched his blonde beard and patted the heavy bark of one beside him. The tree shivered its branches, and the leaves fluttered in the breeze. Newlyn searched for the high-powered fans in the clouds, but they were too well masked. “The trees were programmed to be free moving. But they started hide and seek all on their own. That was enough for me.” He looked at her. “Mylor’s worried that you’re leaving.” “Really?” He swallowed. “We’re all worried.” “I—I’m not leaving,” she said. “But I’m wondering. I just don’t know if it’s real anymore. I’m not sure it’s fair for them to even exist just to entertain tourists.” “I suppose its not. But I’ve seen you with the animals. They adore you. And you treat them just the same as any natural dog or cat in town. You love them. I hate to think what they would feel like without someone letting them know they are worth more time than an hour forest safari.” She did enjoy the work. Yes, it wasn’t what Newlyn had expected as a little girl. Frolicking among the fairies, maybe even meet a prince disguised as a stag. Hah! Those lovely dreams had been crushed by the third day of her

apprenticeship. The fairies never appreciated sunset visitors. All the princes had been disenchanted or, more sorrowfully, disenchanting. She had felt very flattered by Prince Cyric’s attentions before she caught him with a wood nymph, flecks of the actress’s fresh coat of nano paint dotting his cheeks. But she liked it when the deer king introduced her to the new fawns, or the rabbits showed up for tea. When the lightning flies awoke in the evening to illuminate the hollow trees, and the wind picked up music from sprite festivals, the magical forest was exactly as its name said. Yet… “The magic’s gone,” she said. “We’ve replaced it with science.” “Could we have it otherwise?” The sky was beginning to dim, and the sun lowering. “See how the new Fenmora goes. I know it’s been hard on you without her.” “Is it even her now? You know what I mean? Or just a new clone?” A distant rumble disturbed them, and they looked up. A new fleet of space cruisers traveling from the home planet was passing between the twin moons. “I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. The fairy violins filtered past the meadows. “But you can take the time to find out.” Time was certainly one thing Newlyn had. On the rock cliffs, the phoenix ash cooled in the setting sun. The red egg cracked. A beak pierced through the shell, and little Fenmora breathed in her first breath of air, gathering the strength to shatter the rest of the egg. Once she nestled in the ash, exhausted and hungry, she became annoyed. The grubs and worms clinging to the frame of her nest were not appetizing in the least. Fenmora was craving toast. But it would be some time before she could fly to breakfast. Perhaps Newlyn would be kind enough to bring some on her next visit.


The Butcher’s Hook

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The Auslander in…

The Butcher's Hook By Michael Patrick Sullivan

T

he sound of the femur cracking under his boot made a satisfying sound to the man with the shockingly white hair. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with them before the white-haired man got their hands on them. They all seemed fit enough and in the right age range. They should have been fighting in the fields of France or island hopping through the Pacific. They weren’t, though. Instead, they were preying on the less fortunate. Rationing had been in effect for some time, and while most families were able to make due without some luxuries, organizations like the East Side Soup Kitchen were hit harder. Money and materials were diverted toward the war effort, and there was little left for the indigent and homeless in the streets of Milwaukee. And the group of unruly hoodlums who were currently being schooled in the fragility of the human skeleton sought to have that remaining little for themselves. Roast beef sandwiches and bottles of Glen Rock Root Beer were the bulk of the take, but it was all some people had. And on this night, it was all that a pale-haired man in a black coat had. And he was not about to let go of it without a fight. “Three men down, one to go,” thought the black clad stranger. “Three legs broken, one to go.” He offered the fourth man a choice. In most situations, he wouldn’t have done so, as the mere act of speaking would create certain problems for him. At the height of World War II, a Germansounding accent raised all the wrong questions.

“You will haul away your friends, or you will crawl away with them,” said the foreigner. His accent didn’t stand out here on the East Side of Milwaukee. There were many German and Polish immigrant families. He tried to obscure his accent slightly, so no one would be able to pin it down exactly to his Austrian homeland. At least, he was pretty sure it was Austria. As he watched the scum slither away down the gutters, he thought about the sound of his own voice. He hadn’t heard it much lately, not willing to speak to anyone. People might think he was some kind of Nazi agent. And he was reasonably sure they’d be right. It had been a few months since he woke up with no memories or name in a hotel room in another city. During those months, he’d been piecing fragments of his life together to form part of picture he was certain he’d prefer not to be completed. At night, he slept and dreamt of Nazi plots, of sabotage, of assassination. By day he traveled to the places he saw in his dreams and found those plots to be real. And he stopped them. He deduced that the reason he knew of all these plots, spread across the United States, was that before his awakening, he knew of them intimately. He probably planned them. Each time he set out to find and foil those plots, he feared that the memories would not stop returning to him, and he would become the evil mastermind he believed he had been.


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Now he was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His dreams led him there, but the reason was not yet clear. “Thank you.” A young woman interrupted the stranger’s recollection. Well, she appeared young, but the foreign fighter had seen her around the kitchen, and she was clearly much wiser than the appearance of her years. Her name was Edna, and she ran the soup kitchen. “Thank you so much, mister…uh…” She waited for the man in black and white to offer a name, but he was reluctant. “I’m sorry; I don’t know who you are.” He answered with the only thing he ever knew to say when asked. “Ich bin ein Auslander.” “That’s a strange way to introduce yourself, young man.” The Auslander smiled, not at the remark, but at the fact that she was calling him “young man.” He was certain he had at least a decade on her. “Very well,” she said as she guided him back inside. “Mister Auslander it is.” She took him though the main room where he himself had eaten once or twice since arriving here a week ago. He noticed an older man. He was grizzled and bore a scar on his face. He ate slowly and sat in a guarded position. He stared into the middle distance, never acknowledging anything or anyone. In his hand, he clutched something. The Auslander caught only a glimpse of a rainbow of color before the man’s fist retightened around it. As she rewarded his valiant actions in defense of the lost souls that populated the soup kitchen with a freshly made roast beef on rye, the Auslander questioned the targeting of the less fortunate. “Let’s just say that some people take the rationing harder than others. And some a bit more childishly.” As the Auslander was about to take a bite of his sandwich, he realized exactly why the soup

kitchen was a target for hoodlums. “How do you get the food for this place?” Edna was slightly flustered. “I’m not proud of it.” She couldn’t look at the stranger directly. “I’ve got no real benefactors. My sister in New York, Edith, she runs a flophouse, but she gets donations from local—not that that matters. I’m forced to take what money I can get and go to the black market. After rationing, there’s nothing available for us. I’ve got no choice. And I don’t know how much longer I can keep it up. The black marketers are the worst kind of opportunists. They charge double what you’d find at a butcher before the war and—is it wrong? These people have to eat.” The white-haired man didn’t answer. He simply nodded, and not so much to her, but in realization of his goal here in the Cream City. Late that evening, Edna drove her well-worn Stutz Package truck that still bore the name of the dairy that originally owned it. She was unaware that the Auslander was aboard as an uninvited guest. For twenty minutes she navigated the streets of Milwaukee, winding her way into an industrial district amidst breweries, meat packing plants, and textile mills until she arrived at a nondescript warehouse. She got out of the vehicle and knocked a peculiar pattern on a huge sliding door, which then opened, admitting her and her vehicle to the gigantic building. While Edna was out of the car, the Avenging Austrian bailed out the back door and followed her Stutz in on foot. Once he crossed the threshold, the change in temperature was significant. The warehouse was refrigerated. He didn’t linger on that fact and instead chose to find cover. Inside, Edna was met by several men wearing parkas, all of whom had a tough bearing that was slightly unnatural. They were modified, just as he had done to his accent. She was not alone with them. There were others with delivery trucks, some with family sedans. One fat man even had his wife and


The Butcher’s Hook children with him as they loaded a full side of beef into the trunk of their Studebaker. A sectioned-off area of the warehouse was clearly set up as a butcher’s freezer. Sides of beef hung from great steel hooks. This appeared to be the black marketers’ primary business, but he also noticed cases of the root beer Edna offered at the soup kitchen, as well as luxury items, like nylons and rare import items, like Swiss chocolate. The whole building had a bazaar atmosphere as customers haggled with the men in coats. The advantage belonged to the black marketers, and they knew it as negotiations faded in deference to the cold. One of the men loaded Edna’s vehicle with meat and root beer. He tried to sell her on something more luxe, but she remained focused only on the necessities of her charitable works. She departed as she arrived, plus the weight of black market foodstuffs and minus the weight of the Auslander. The cold did not affect the foreigner as he observed the goings-on from a place high in the warehouse rafters. As he waited for the night’s business to subside and eventually end, he studied the black marketers. He identified the bearing he noted in them earlier. It was certainly military. And it was familiar to them. These men were German. And this plot was insidious. They undermined stateside morale while at the same time draining cash from the local economy and certainly very likely using it to support the financial needs of the Third Reich, possibly even to make the sabotage plans that the Auslander had been pursuing self-sufficient. As midnight passed, the last customers left with a trunk full of goods, and the black market operators closed the large rolling door and locked it with many padlocks. The oldest of the men, likely their senior officer, set forth to count the cash on a large wooden table. The burliest man disappeared into the area the Auslander had heard called the “Shank Tank.” The Auslander

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called it “The Crucible,” because while it was freezing cold there, things were going to get hot. The burly man used his heft to lift and rehang the sides of beef, reorganizing the Shank Tank, filling empty hooks and consolidating space. He was scarcely expecting the heels of the Amnesiac Avenger’s size-twelve boots hitting the occipital bone of his skull. Outside the Shank Tank, the counting man spoke, confirming the Auslander’s suspicions. “Wo ist er,” he asked after the large man. “Zu lang gegangen.” Another of the men, not as large but certainly a force to be reckoned with, went to find the burly one. And he found him, hanging from a hook between two former cows. This one was dispatched as quickly as the first, though not


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entirely as planned. Without gravity to aid his impact, the Auslander used a hook to swing on, not unlike the Tarzan character popular in the movie serials. He had hoped for the element of complete surprise, but the man turned, drawing a gun just as the Auslander rapidly approached. This time, foot met nasal bone. Nasal bone met brain. Gun met floor…and discharged. The Auslander picked up the weapon, a fairly common Smith and Wesson acquired locally, and added it to the Luger he kept with him, a prize liberated from an earlier foe. This place that looked and smelled like a slaughterhouse was about to be flooded with blood. All the three remaining black marketers flooded into the Shank Tank to find all the sides of beef swinging in different directions, creating an obstacle to both movement and vision. They were impatient and began to fire randomly. After the first couple of bullets, a cry of pain was briefly heard. Then quiet. One of the men launched into the meat, expecting to find a dead enemy; instead, he’d found that he’d killed an ally, as the burly man hung, swinging on his hook, mouth open and drooling blood. His face was soon splattered as The Auslander put a gun directly to the back of the reckless shooter’s head and squeezed the trigger. Two men remained. The Auslander coughed loudly and intentionally, then called out in a raspy voice, “Alles est klar.” The men disregarded the grate of the voice, considering the cough, and saw no reason to suspect anything from an all-clear given in German. Their incaution cost them their lives. Lives that were given up so easily, that the Shock-haired Sentinel was scarcely aware of doing and barely remembered it a moment after it was over. They were simply no match for the Auslander. Afterward, the Auslander searched the premises for more conspirators or witnesses or perhaps clues to other parts of the Nazi saboteur

network and, coming up empty, he prepared to leave. He was fully ready to leave the mess to be sorted out by the authorities while he left town to await the revelation of the next Axis plot in his dreams, resting, if only briefly, with the fact that this adventure did not trigger the return of his memories and perhaps the resurrection of the monster of a man the Auslander believed he once was. Instead of leaving, though, he picked up a phone and called Edna. After some convincing, she came out with her Stutz at three in the morning, lured by the promise of a donation of goods to her cause. Upon her arrival, the Auslander revealed little to the seemingly saintly woman. He didn’t speak of the Germans’ cunning plot, or the fact that their blood was crystallizing on the floor of the Shank Tank nearby. He only told her how he brought the opportunists’ black market operation to a close. “No longer will these people undermine the war effort.” Her reaction was that of stunned silence. She wanted to be angry, but she knew full well that she really hadn’t the right. “When these supplies are gone, what am I to do then?” “You will find another way.” “That’s easy for you to say,” she clipped back. “What do I say to the men who turn up on my door looking for something hot to eat, perhaps the only thing they’ll eat that day? Or longer?” The Auslander considered, thinking back to the men he saw in the soup kitchen, of the one who stared into the middle distance. He remembered that one to Edna. “Tell him of what happened here. He’s seen war. It’s in his eyes. Ask him if the right thing was done here.” The Auslander stepped outside the huge door and into the darkness before the sunrise. “Who are you?” Edna called out after him. “I told you,” he responded. It sounded like a whisper, but she could still hear him clearly. “Ich bin ein Auslander.”


The Variant Effect

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The Variant Effect Written & Illustrated by G. Wells Taylor

I

t was an old building in a rundown part of town—the perfect place to find a body. And it was the perfect place for Joe Borland to come bitching and moaning out of retirement. He wasn’t complaining at the moment because he was half-cut, still drunk from the night before. The peppermints he chewed did nothing to hide the smell of cheap whiskey on his breath. He preferred a blended scotch but had learned to drink anything he could afford on his pension. There was a time that being drunk was part of the job, but that was then. Since he got the golden boot, being drunk was part of doing nothing at all. The patrol car pulled up to the building and Borland struggled out of it, adjusting his belt where it slung under his belly. His hernias were acting up again. He kept postponing the operation to get them fixed because his health insurance didn’t cover non-life-threatening injuries and illness, so he had to save for the surgery himself. When he weighed the issues of needing a drink and needing his hernias fixed, the drinks came out on top. The hernias only bothered him when he walked or rode in cars and he didn’t do much of that anymore, but needing a drink bothered him every damn day in paradise. Borland didn’t look retired at first glance. Sure, he had crow’s feet clustered at the corners of his pale eyes, his skin was an unhealthy yellow-gray, and his gut was bigger than you’d find on any two active-duty cops, but he had lots of dark brown hair in a tangled mass over a band

of white that ran around back from temple to temple. His shoulders and arms bunched powerfully with muscle under his wrinkled beige sports coat. His pants were light blue, and cranberry colored where something had spilled on the left thigh after traveling down the front of his cream-colored shirt. A wide polyester tie swung from his thick neck and did what it could to draw the eye away from the stains. So he looked more unkempt than retired, more homeless than homebody. That was because Borland didn’t care how old he was, and he was as dressed up as he would ever be. The booze made him immune to criticism. The cop who drove him down nodded at the building, and Borland winked his quiet thanks for the lift. Then he turned to give the gathered uniforms the once-over. He saw disdain or curiosity on the youngest faces, and grudging admiration in none but one older flatfoot; a black officer he vaguely remembered, likely named Jenkins, who had twenty-five years on the force or so. Jenkins would remember the day. Borland walked up to him and frowned. Jenkins grinned, hooking a thumb over his holster. He squared his shoulders. Borland looked around, ticking off the points of protocol for dealing with Variant: Ziploc, Gas, and Burn. The yellow tape was up and barricades rode the curb by the street. The public had been moved far back. The ground-floor windows were


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sealed with thick tarps. Sheets of plastic billowed over those. A fire truck sat well away from the structure. If the wind were right, Borland knew he’d smell accelerant. Uniformed officers stood on guard every twenty feet. They wore acrylic visors, bulletproof armor, and gloves. The whole outfit was then secured beneath a clear vinyl coverall and hood. The bagged-boys carried 12-gauge pump-action shotguns. Just past them, a big black van was parked behind a pair of cruisers. The side doors were open and the elevator was level with the sidewalk. “Where is the miserable son of a bitch?” Borland growled at Jenkins without turning. “Inside,” said the sergeant, before pointing to a dark triangular cleft in the plastic and tarps. Borland grumbled and walked toward the building. t He paused inside the elevator to wipe his lips, then slipped the pint flask into his jacket pocket as the door screeched and slid back on rusted rails. A young bagged-boy stood there. His visor was fogged. Water droplets followed the creases inside his plastic hood. “Where’s Hyde?” Borland rasped, stepping onto the sixth floor. He remembered how hot it was inside those bags, remembered a few rookies going over when something triggered the Variant Effect in them. You never knew what would do it, and you never knew how it would present. A claustrophobic would not survive the storm in a bag. “In there, sir,” said the bagged-boy, voice muffled by vinyl. He pointed across an open space to a door that might have been an office once. The building was a furrier’s back in the Fifties. Tufts of hair still blew around the dusty plank floor. Borland walked over to the door; saw Detective Reiner leaning just inside. She was a

nice enough looking broad, if a bit heavier than he liked. Of course, he only thought that way because he would never give her the chance to shoot him down. She watched him approach and held a finger up to her lips, then winked inside. Bright lights were burning down on the floor. Borland saw another bagged-boy shining the halogen spotlight. Its bright beam burned a circle on the floor in front of a man bent at the waist, wearing a long hooded coat with baggy sleeves. The dark material fell over his body and almost covered the archaic metal braces strapped to his legs and boots. He was leaning forward on rusted steel canes. The braces squeaked as he positioned himself, then, carefully balancing, shifting both canes to one hand, the man gingerly spun the wing nuts at his knees. The braces shrieked as the weight of his long body folded them, and he slowly lowered himself to the floor. A heavy and outdated wheelchair sat about six feet behind him. “This wasn’t Variant,” whispered the man in the hood. His pronunciation was flawless—only the hint of a lisp. His hooded face hung inches above the floor. “Don’t need me to tell you that.” Bent over his canes and braces, Borland thought he looked like a broken puppet—or a half-killed bug. The man crouched over a great red smear. It looked to Borland like someone had made a snow angel, only he’d used blood instead of snow. The arms and legs fanned out in a big arc. This wasn’t fun, though. The victim had struggled. A violent spatter defined the head— no halo. Borland sniffed the air and smelled his peppermints. The man on the floor studied the marks for several minutes until he said: “Borland, you useless drunk. Force me in here and you come late!” “Do your job, Hyde,” Borland snarled from the door. He kept one eye on the hall that ran in


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The Variant Effect front of the elevator. It passed other old office doors before lurching at right angles to follow the building’s contours. “Finish and go back to the home!” “Finished,” Hyde hissed from under his hood. He levered himself up with his canes to bend his legs into shape and then tightened the wing nuts again. “Not Biters. Shoes…” He rose, gesturing to two partial sets of prints that stepped in and out of the stain—running shoes and something with a heel. “You sure?” asked Borland. “Stalkers?” “A Stalker wouldn’t do it here. You should know that,” the hooded man whispered, before backing away from the bloodstained planks. The shape on the floor was unmistakable. “Too much evidence left behind,” he said gesturing with a cane, “here and there.” “A copycat?” Borland asked, deflated. “Ya think?” The hood turned up slightly; the tone was sarcastic. “It’s bloody enough for Biters…” Borland forged on. “Biters don’t wear shoes, and they’d leave the clothing!” Hyde snapped, backing toward his wheelchair. The action raised his sleeves a couple of inches. The bagged-boy caught the forearms and hands in the halogen beam. The flesh was raw, just muscle and tendon, veins traced over them gleaming like wax. “You’d remember how Biters work if you weren’t drunk all the time.” “Not Stalkers?” Borland repeated, frowning. “Think! Ritual. There’d be a setup, a stove. Dinner table, someplace like home. Maybe flowers and music.” Hyde paused to aim himself, and then fell into his wheelchair. The new angle allowed the light into his hood just enough to catch the scarlet jaw muscles and row of shiny yellow teeth. “The baggies have been over the building. It’s sealed. No body. Nothing here. The footprints trail out on the stairs!” He dropped his canes across his lap and punched the arms of

his chair. The bagged-boy with the light stepped away. “Why are you wasting my time?” “So it’s just…” Borland frowned at the stain. “Just…where’s the body?” “Some crazy Jack and Jill used a knife to kill a guy and carry him off. Maybe they just hurt him bad. There’s no indication of Variant Effect. Just signs of a bloody crime.” He gestured at the stain on the floor. “Clear your head, Borland. Look!” Hyde turned his wheelchair, his raw fingers manipulating the wheels like hooks. “Not Biters.” “That’s it?” Borland hissed, sticking a hand in his pants pocket to press against a hernia. Hyde pushed his wheelchair past Borland to the door, and out. “That’s it!” Borland shouted after him. The wheelchair stopped. Hyde mumbled something, and his head shook under the hood before he wheeled himself past the bagged-boy and onto the elevator. “Gotta earn your pension somehow!” Borland snarled. “You damn freak!” The elevator started down, Borland glared at Detective Reiner and the bagged-boys. “Protocol. Everybody out. Get the site ready for BZ-2!” he barked, leaving the room to look for the stairs. He fished around in his pocket for the flask. t “Hold him there!” Borland shouted, pushing past the bagged-boys in the main entrance and stumbling onto the sidewalk. Hyde was just wheeling himself onto the van’s lift. A uniform, his attendant, was holding the wireless controls. “You!” Borland squinted at the man’s uniform: two stripes, uh… “Corporal, hold him there!” Borland almost tripped, caught himself. He lunged toward the van and grabbed Hyde’s wheelchair by the arm. “Don’t wheel away from me!” he yelled, spinning the chair around. In the overcast day, he could see the glistening scar tissue on Hyde’s


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“The hell with you!” Borland balled up a fist but just hung it at his side. “You drank your share.” “Never on the job!” Hyde hissed, “Especially that job.” “Like you never did!” Borland insisted. “I never got cranked before!” he snarled. “After yeah…” “Come on! Everyone got cranked. Booze, amphetamines, PCP was part of the job! We wouldn’t go in if we weren’t cranked!” Borland pointed his fist at the gathered bagged-boys. “I’m still getting cranked over it.” “Fine, the boys needed to tighten their assholes, but not Captains.” Hyde leaned forward; his lipless lower jaw was clear for all to see as he barked: “Captains don’t get cranked, that’s the rule. Things happen too fast with Biters.” “The whole squad gets cranked and goes in.” Borland leaned forward, stabbing the air with a finger. “Unspoken rule!” Hyde’s doctors hadn’t expected him to live. He frequently “You and your squad got laughed to himself that they were about ninety percent right. cranked and that’s how you got them skinned.” jaw, neck, and upper chest. “I’m retired, too. I “Ah, here we go.” Borland punched the air. didn’t call you in!” “Get over it sometime.” “You did!” Rawhide’s voice grew harsh. “That’s how they got me,” Hyde hissed, “and “Reiner said as much upstairs.” my squad. You stagger into trouble with a head “No, no!” Borland bellowed. “Brass called full of PCP and a gut full of booze, and who has me in about a possible Biter. And he said he to pull you out, eh, Borland? Damn Biters ripped called you in to confirm it.” me and my squad rescuing your ass.” “You told him to call me in!” Hyde’s words “They got me too…getting you back out!” spattered out wet, sprinkled saliva over Borland’s Borland growled, feeling a real itch for a hands. “If you weren’t drunk you’d remember!”


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The Variant Effect drink—his crotch was heavy with hernias. He pulled his right sleeve up, wriggled his scarred fingers. “I see some marks on your arm, poor boy.” Hyde laughed, his hooded head searching the space between them. He leaned back in his wheelchair, and pulled the covering off his left arm. It was only muscle and bone beneath…veins twitched over the red surface like blue wires. It was all scar tissue. “Let someone eat the skin off your groin sometime. Then I’ll be able to sympathize.” “You say that like it’s a bad thing!” Borland slurred. “NEVER call me again! I’ve finished my service!” Hyde snarled. “I’m retired.” “You know the deal, Rawhide!” Borland shouted, using the epithet, “Nobody gets out alive!” He stuck his jaw out. “None of them boys got out alive.” “Thanks to you,” Hyde said laughing. His hood dipped, one scarred hand picked at the palm of the other. “You want revenge, you ugly chew toy?” Borland stepped up, flinging his jacket open. He ripped his .38 out of its holster and threw it on Hyde’s lap. “Go ahead; put me out of your misery.” He lifted his chin and opened his arms wide. Hyde’s raw hand closed around the pistol grips. He lifted the gun, pulled the hammer back, and centered it on Borland’s chest. All around them, the bagged-boys had raised and cocked their shotguns. They were glancing at each other, uncertain of their target. Hyde didn’t care. “You’d be surprised how many times I’ve had you in the crosshairs already!” “You what?” Borland leaned into the gun, felt the hard metal against his sternum. “I almost did it, too.” Hyde’s lidless eyes shone out of the shadow, white and wet. “You almost what?” Borland bellowed. “Put you down like the sick dog you are, Borland.” Hyde looked at the pistol, uncocked it,

and handed it back to him. “But you’re already worse than anything I could do!” Then he set his skinless hands on the wheels, turned the chair. “You’re worse than Variant.” “Go to Hell!” Borland shouted, jamming his gun away. He watched Hyde’s wheelchair slowly rise into the van. Borland took a step back and staggered, caught his balance, and then glared at the surrounding bagged-boys. He stalked down the street. There was a liquor store two blocks over. t Borland’s legs grew steadier with each pull he took from the mickey. The bottle felt slippery in his swollen grip. He had also stuffed a pint bottle of whiskey into his inside jacket pocket, tucked it behind his big blister of a belly. Hyde always pissed him off. Always got right on him about the past. Why couldn’t the twist of jerky put it behind him? He was still alive, wasn’t he? Didn’t that count for something? But who was Borland to say? How was he to know? He had lost a fair bit of skin off the one arm, and a good-sized strip off his chest after he found out Hyde’s squad was surrounded, and he charged back in with reinforcements to get him. It hurt like…even being cranked, the pain from that had been beyond description. Hell, he still chewed up painkillers for it on the hot days. So he couldn’t guess what Hyde was going through, getting skinned right down to his muscles and veins—ass over teakettle like that—stem to stern peeled. Probably drove the bastard crazy. It would drive anyone over the edge. Having a bunch of Biters holding you down while the Alphas locked their teeth and started skinning. Borland felt a twinge of guilt for going at him the way he did. But he knew the man from back in the day, back when he had a skin to bruise, and he knew that Hyde was living up to his name now, hiding from life by living in the past. What was the point of


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surviving? Otherwise Hyde was just a scar that everybody saw and everybody talked about. Borland drained the mickey before returning to the crime scene. That’s what it was now, nothing special about it. Just a place somebody got killed. He tossed the bottle into a trashcan, and then opened a fresh pack of peppermints. He paused for a minute, looking up at the big old building from the new angle, appreciating the bits of extra scrollwork around the windows, and the greenish copper roof eight floors above the street. They really made them to last. The bagged-boys hadn’t found a body, just a stain. But Variant protocols had to be followed now that the wheels had started turning. Of course, they were rusty old wheels, and Borland knew that the cops on the scene would be waiting to hear whether they should BZ-2 the building and torch it or just cut out and burn the areas that had stains and might hold Variant contaminants. It was a long time since the day, and property values in the city were always climbing. He made his way to the front of the building, and walked up to a group of five baggedboys gathered and gossiping. Borland wanted to give them lots of time to know he was coming, in case they were talking about him. He didn’t need any more enemies, and he didn’t have any friends. When the bagged-boys saw him they turned. Two fellows nudged and gestured to a third—an Asian face greeted him through layers of vinyl. “Me and the guys were wondering, sir,” the bagged-boy said. “Was that really Rawhide?” “Yep,” Borland grunted, and then burped nodding. “Captain Eric Hyde in the flesh.” “Old Jenkins said he was a hero back in the day,” a bagged-boy with red hair piped up. “Yeah.” Borland scratched at an armpit. “Lots of heroes back in the day.” “You fought with him,” the Asian face continued, “back in the day, against Variant.”

“Everybody fought,” he grunted, stuffing a fist into a pocket. Damn hernia! “Rawhide saved a whole squad, didn’t he, when a big pack of skin eaters caught them in the sewers?” This came from red hair. “In tunnels under a university,” Borland corrected, wishing he could just pull the other bottle out and have a go. “We call them Biters.” “You were there, too?” asked another baggedboy, this one a pretty blonde woman. “Yeah…I figured out that’s where we’d find the hunting pack.” Borland rubbed a hairy hand under his nose. “Didn’t you hear our little soap opera earlier?” “If the skin eaters—er, Biters got him,” the Asian fellow said. “Why didn’t the Variant get into his blood when they ate his skin?” “It doesn’t pass on in every case.” Borland shrugged, adjusting his hernia on the other side. “Besides we all have it in us. You do, too, from the water, and your mom’s milk.” “Really?” the fifth bagged-boy asked. “Yeah.” Borland shrugged. “And back then when everyone was taking it for depression and anxiety too, it just built up in the system until…” He clapped his hands, and two of the baggedboys jumped back. “Look I forgot my camera up there,” Borland lied. “Protocols say…” the blonde bagged-girl started. “I’m Captain Joe Borland. I fought Variant back in the day,” he declared, nodding at her, a little ashamed of his gut in front of all that smart and beautiful. “Rawhide gave the building an all clear. I think I can handle resealing it.” He reached out and patted her shoulder thinking: After I have a drink or two. “You keep protocols in place on the street.” He smiled, brought her close and whispered: “Tell the Chinese kid he’s got his hood on backwards. You don’t want him to smother.” He sauntered toward the building. His hernias nagged at him terribly, but he didn’t care.


The Variant Effect Borland couldn’t shake a depression that came from seeing Hyde again. A drink would help. t VARION—Stop the Fear. Start Living. Be the Real You! Borland remembered the slogan on his way up in the elevator. He burped whiskey and slipped the bottle back into his pocket. It was one ironic slogan. He remembered laughing about it back in the day—really gag-reflex belly laughs with his bagged-boys, all cranked down at the stationhouse. He barely felt a pang thinking that a lot of those boys were boxed now, either killed by Biters or otherwise Variant Effected, or they’d gone off themselves with something triggering the chemicals inside their own skins. You’d never know once it started if a guy was just going to start washing his hands until all the soap was gone, or if you’d have to put a bullet in his eye when he tried to set you on fire. Varion looked simple enough, just like drugs always looked simple enough. It was marketed as a new generation of psychoactive chemicals that could be used to control a range of mental disorders. It was advertised as a convenient, once-daily pill for major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorders. Varion also worked to chemically modify areas of the brain responsible for fears, phobias, and where obsessive-compulsive disorders were triggered. It was a cure-all that pacified areas of the brain key to personality and behavioral problems. Borland could never remember all the fine print names— amygdala or something and some frontal cortex doohickey. Varion was supposed to put the psychiatrists out of work. VARION: For a world that needs you 24-7. Borland remembered reading the sales job on the side of the pack when he was taking the damned stuff. Everyone was on something by the time Varion came along, so it was easy for

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people to switch. Why not? It was a new generation of antidepressant that didn’t just lift your spirits: it cured you. And there were no side effects—at first. The elevator shuddered at the sixth floor, and he walked off. After a couple steps Borland’s right heel started sticking, making a squishing noise like he’d stepped in gum. He dug into his pocket for the whiskey, wondering why he put it away in the first place. The building was sealed. There was no one to impress. He walked across to the room with the blood angel and leaned on the doorframe, staring down. The stain had a waxy gleam now where the light from the window caught the thick layer of accelerant. Borland shrugged. Varion had lived up to the hype. Mental wards emptied after the first two years it was being prescribed—even before the FDA approved it for over-the-counter distribution in year four— roughly day 1,463. The time around what happened was counted in days. It was never a very accurate way of doing things. Borland could never figure it out, but people used numbers to emphasize how bad things were getting. It wasn’t until years later that they broke it down to something that made more sense. The day before meant the time leading up to what happened, the day after covered what followed, and everything in between was referred to as the day. Back in the day, things went to hell. Borland was talking about it that way when people were still taking potshots at: “first case was seen day 1,684 in China, but they hushed it up and we kept taking Varion for years.” He hated that kind of thing. Competing pharmaceutical companies and unlicensed overseas manufacturers dropped their traditional lines of you-altering substances and started making cheaper generic Varion knockoffs: Veritru, Varax, Vanac, you name it. Companies unable to make the cut went bankrupt despite government bailouts. Then, the nail in the coffin for traditional psychiatric medicine: the vice-


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president of the United States announced that Varion had completely cured him of the anxiety issues that drove him to have sex with an underage male prostitute. People ran to their doctors. The market was already primed for a change. They found out too late that the human body couldn’t filter the stuff like normal chemicals. Some was peed out, but the majority of it was absorbed into tissues, where it built up over time. Nor did they understand its resistance to traditional water treatment methods after it went into the sewer, or that it showed an amazing ability to bond with other psychoactive chemicals and chemicals generally that had entered the environment in similar fashion. It even formed complex molecules by bonding to naturally occurring elements. Later, they discovered that when the altered or hybrid Varion molecules returned through the tap or food or environment and were ingested, they started to interact with Varion and other chemicals that had built up in the tissues. But all that was really understood too late, the day after. There was a wide range of effects that were impossible to predict—some outright fatal and others that radically altered psychology and behavior. Following the first couple hundred tragic cases, when scientists figured out they didn’t fit the traditional human horror show, the UN banned the sale of Varion after it had been on the market internationally for eight years, or on about day 2,931. Scientists later blamed that action for what happened next. Going cold turkey or replacing Varion with older psychoactive chemicals during withdrawal caused a pharmaceutical backlash as the body extracted Varion stored in body tissues. These interacted with the hybrid Varion to produce the limbic storm. Everything went out of balance. Borland understood that to be an amplification of the disorders that Varion was designed to cure or the activation of new or latent problems

that did not exist prior to the consumption of the drug. All kinds of things started happening. Fingernail biters suddenly chewed down past the first knuckle and on from there until they bled out. The same was true for any neurosis, anxiety disorder, or compulsive thought or action, regardless of magnitude or pathology. Governed by an uncontrollable limbic storm, these minor to major disorders presented in suicidal, benign, or malignant psychopathic behaviors. VARION: Don’t sweat the small stuff. As Borland often said, “The world went ape back in the day.” Thanks to sensationalist media, the public called it the Variant Effect. t Hyde willed the van to go faster from where his wheelchair was locked in place behind the driver. But the traffic had frozen around them, was barely moving. He could see that through the many tinted windows. They’d barely made two blocks before the gridlock. As they stopped and started, edged forward and stopped again, exhaust fumes crept in and mixed with the strong vapor from the disinfectant he used on his hands. The smell reminded him of BZ-2 gas. It was making him nauseous. He just wanted to get back to the nursing home, shut the curtains, latch the door—they wouldn’t let him lock it—and plug into War Eagle. He was at Level 42 in the online combat simulator that passed for a life in Hyde’s—life. He was not a happy man. Hyde spent most of the year in isolation. His condition left him prone to infection and alienation. He was on permanent suicide watch. Twenty years had passed since the day after, and while it crossed his mind, he couldn’t quit now. He swore an oath with other survivors back in rehab and even when most of them ate their guns, he wouldn’t. His word was all the Biters left. There were times he wanted to write that word on a bullet and…. But War Eagle took him


The Variant Effect somewhere he could use his skills despite his handicaps. People spoke to him blindly over the headset and called him captain without clenching their teeth on a mouthful of puke. He knew he was nothing to look at. Hyde’s doctors hadn’t expected him to live. He frequently laughed to himself that they were about ninety percent right. He considered the term Skin Eaters to be misleading. While it described the end result, “Biting” was the most memorable part of his experience with them. The actual “eating” was done somewhere calm and shadowy after the skin was carried far from the victim’s screams. While the pack held you, Alpha Biters broke the surface of the skin with incisors and canines, ripping up an edge they could set their molars in before using all their strength to tear it off in strips. There was evidence that some used tools—broken glass, jagged metal—but that was rare. Biters bit and started ripping. It was Borland’s fault. He was a hard drinker back on the regular force. Hyde was too in the days before, but never on the job. They joined the Variant Squads at the start of the day, and when the pressures built up and sent people scrambling for crutches, Borland was already there. Hyde understood the bagged-boys needing to crank up to fight people who wanted to eat their skins—but they needed captains for leadership. Someone had to stay sharp taking twenty cranked men and women into danger. Amyl nitrates, PCP, crack, and alcohol were the crutches of preference back in the day. Cranking stoked bravado and numbed the conscience. Bagged-boys had to gun down grandpas and little girls tricked out on Variant— presenting any number of violent or homicidal compulsions and phobias. Cranking was also rumored to guard against the Variant Effect, so it was tolerated.

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Varion accumulations had risen to toxic levels in everyone the day before. If you hadn’t taken the drug to cure your social ill, you were getting it in the food and water. Biters were just one form of Variant Effect. Others acted on impulses that ramped up paranoia to murderous extremes or threw people into repetitive frenzies of behavior that ended in heart attack or stroke. It was anxiety personified. Hyde rinsed glasses back in the days before. He enjoyed the soothing repetitive ritual. To him the water was life and trouble. The cup was his mind. Fill it up. Dump it out. Feel better. He almost wished the Variant Effect had presented in him that way. After the Biters skinned him the rinsing compulsion was gone. He was lucky and didn’t catch the dermatophagia as Biter victims often did. Instead he had anxiety attacks set off by damaged nerves registering phantom pains and sensations. At such times his throat closed, his heart hammered, and he was crippled by an overwhelming urge to seek cover—to hide. The attacks were a manifestation of his damaged condition and awareness that he was a skinless freak that should be dead. It wasn’t the Variant Effect; it was perfectly natural terror. His career ended. The scarring left his legs atrophied—forced him into a wheelchair and allowed only brief forays upright with canes and braces. Hyde didn’t debate early retirement. His peers suspected that the Biters had poisoned him, thought their Variant was lurking and would someday turn him. When Biter victims turned it happened quickly, often during skinning—his coworkers knew that. And it didn’t matter that two decades had passed since the attack. They feared him because he was ugly. Probably drew straws to drive him where he needed to go. The Biters had taken most of Hyde’s skin, and the removal was anything but surgical and neat. The ripping action took connective tissue


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and muscle, too. Hyde’s lips, eyelids, and scrotum had gone in the bargain. In many places they had stripped him to the hypodermis. He should have died. The doctors cultured grafts from underlying layers of dermis. They were afraid that disturbing any remaining skin would send Hyde into shock. That left him with skin in the crack of his ass and between his toes. The cultured sheets of dermis did well enough for patching things in broad sections, but it hardened and cracked at the joints. That left him prone to infection. The first days after, he almost died so many times that he lost count. In the end, those areas they’d worked on around his back, buttocks, thighs, and torso were a Frankenstein’s patchwork of partially failed skin grafts. Eventually he took himself off the waiting list for a face transplant. One doctor said they were growing him a set of ears, and he just laughed and said unless the ears were Often the squad got there when the Variant had just taken hold. six feet tall and had sleeves he When they still looked like people in the neighborhood. didn’t want them. A fresh rage ran through him, curled Nobody had a choice back in the day. He had his skinless hands in knotted scars. This was to do his job. People got wild with the Variant Borland’s fault. The drunk got him skinned, and Effect. Once it presented, there was no turning back. And skin eaters were the worst. the bastard kept him alive after it. I shot an old woman in the face. He took a drink. I popped a kid’s head with a crowbar. He t staggered. I set a man on fire. He took another Borland tore his eyes away from the blood drink. angel—freed; he took two staggering steps into Skin eaters had to work fast to reach alpha the hall, then opened himself to his spooks. status before their injuries killed them. That


The Variant Effect competition ripped scarlet slashes across their faces; skinned their naked chests and bodies. It was awful what they did to each other. But often the squad got there when the Variant had just taken hold. When they still looked like people in the neighborhood. That’s why the squad got cranked. And getting caught was bad, of course. Losing was not an option you could contemplate without a head full of something. But winning was impossible to face clean and sober. The skin eaters still looked like people at first, and without the Variant Effect, you knew they would still be people: sitting down to dinner, going out for a drink, reading a newspaper, or singing at a third grade Christmas concert. Borland sipped the whiskey, walked along the hall away from the elevator. You had to kill everything that came your way. Out of bullets, use a hammer. No hammers? Knock them down and use your heels. Just kill them. Kill them. Even that, he could take. He could justify. Bunch of damn strangers with bad luck. Better them than me. Put them out of their misery. It was for the best. But all of that was just empty talk when your own squad got skinned. When bagged-boys you cranked with got turned and you had to put them down. Borland first signed up for the special Variant Squads because he was up to his ass in debt and they offered hazard bonuses. The squads were formed from metro police and emergency service first-responders who were dealing with anything from obsessive-compulsive hand washers at the bottom of swimming pools to trichotillomaniacs in full limbic storm knocking down unsuspecting pedestrians and yanking the hair out of their scalps and groins. The anorexics died off early, and a shoot-on-site rule was adopted for pyromaniacs. Drug and gambling addicts took care of themselves. In time the spe-

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cial squads rated the Variant Effect based on a scale of destruction. Variant intensified neuroses, every anxiety or primitive compulsion with unpredictable results. None of it was good, but some was hell on earth. The worst had been around for quite a while before it showed its skinless face. Nobody knew it was happening. Like so many obsessions, their ritual was done in secret. Borland took two good pulls on the bottle, slipped it into his jacket. He staggered over to the wall and braced himself against the memories. Dermatophagia was a compulsion to eat hangnails, scabs, and dead skin to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. The Variant Effect turned it into a whole new subclass of humans. Skin eaters fell into three categories: Kamikaze self-ritualized, gnawing and picking their own extremities to the bone, or at least until blood loss killed them. They were only dangerous if you tried to stop them. The treatment was induced coma or sympathetic bullet. Biters were every which way ugly and were shot on site. They were semiconscious, with ape intelligence. The limbic storm increased the dermatophagic response to stress while turbocharging the survival instinct. That left a large terrified primate that could only relieve its anxiety by eating other people’s skin. They traveled in hunting packs, working together, seeking out relief for their discomfort as a group. They communicated with gesture and body language, and by the varied vocal expression of their single obsession: “Skin.” They used the word: hissed it, barked it, and howled it for everything. “Skin” kept the pack together on the hunt. “Skin” focused them on their prey. Close proximity to other Biters led to violent interaction. Skin fights. They settled scores and worked out the pack hierarchy by getting into each other’s faces. There was an Alpha male or female leader, sometimes more than one. Since


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skin eating caused and cured their problems, such competitive skin fights left them ragged and raw from the bellybutton up. Some were so degraded by competition and interaction that they were stripped to the muscle. No lips, ears, or eyelids. Monsters. They didn’t live long; but they lived long enough. The treatment: shoot on sight. The third kind, Stalker, was possibly the most dangerous of dermatophage. They looked and behaved like anyone. The Variant Effect on them was more subtle and extreme. They retained their characters and humanity and rationalized their obsession. Awareness demanded survival, so the relief of their stress, their ritual was performed

on victims in secret always, in hidden places— sometimes in the privacy of their own homes. The treatment: Kill them if you could find them. Biters were most destructive, and so the harsh protocol: Ziploc, Gas, and Burn. Secure the building. BZ-2 the victims. Contain the Variant Effect in fire. “That was the day and this is the day after! You can’t change it!” Borland’s voice was a broken wheeze as he thumped a fist into the old lath and plaster. He killed friends! Nothing else registered on him. Not the torn skin on his knuckles. Not the nearby rustle of vinyl pushed aside by a breeze or movement. “They knew the risks!” Tears jammed around his red eyes, pushed the fleshy lids into puffy mounds, finally crowding his voice like suffocation. “They could have quit!” He ground his teeth like they were steel, running point to point with an audible grating sound. “I’d do it again!” he snarled like a trapped animal. The muscles in his throat stood out like high-pressure hoses. Borland dug his nails into his heavy cheeks. “Stop it!” Heart throbbing like a dying thing, he lurched into motion, stumbled down the hall past abandoned offices and boarded windows. Moaning he fell, knees cracking against the floor. It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t registering. Before he could weep or roar a sound drew his head up. There, right in front of him. Its body shape told him it was female, but that’s where the familiarity stopped. Hyde was wrong. There was a Biter in the building.

Skineaters communicated with gesture and body language, and by the varied vocal expression of their single obsession: “Skin.”

t The van had moved another half block, and Hyde’s stomach continued


The Variant Effect to churn. Confronting Borland and the past was useless, and he paid for such futile introspection with anxiety. To escape his discomfort he willed his thoughts back to the game. Sometimes in the game, playing War Eagle online with people all over the world, he imagined himself back in the tunnels killing murderous black shapes. And in the game there was no Borland. And in the game he won. But not back in the day. Borland’s squad had contacted Hyde when they were already on the move. A concentration of Biter attacks left twenty dead and dozens missing in buildings and areas adjacent to an old section of the university slated for demolition. BZ-2 trucks were being loaded, and the fire department was in transit. BZ-2 gas was based on the Russian incapacitant but modified to produce paralysis and death every time. The Variant Effect was permanent. Its worst victims needed cages; but cages were reserved for the rich and famous. Less intense effects: Tourette-like symptoms, self-mutilation, and mild social-phobias were controllable with counseling and behavioral therapy. With everyone somehow affected, there was room for sympathy but no room at the asylum. Homicidal and destructive cases like Biters were put down. Since they were a class of affected that could spread their Variant form, nobody complained. You only had to see a Biter in full Ritual to know it had to die—if you survived the meeting. Borland had his epiphany while smoking crack on the way back to the stationhouse after a call about a pyromaniac turned out to be a false alarm. One of the bagged-boys was bragging about getting laid in old tunnels under the university when he was a student in the days before. The university used the maze of tunnels and rooms for storage and maintenance access—nothing more. Borland decided Alpha Biters could hide their packs down there. That location would give them access to the whole

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city through underground ventilation shafts, sewers, and maintenance ways. Hyde told Borland to wait for him. He was doing the math, and if you didn’t have a body, you probably had a Biter. The tunnels could hide a big hunting pack. But Borland and the squad were huffing amyls and cranked up on PCP and whiskey. They locked and loaded and went in while Hyde and his squad were still two miles out. Hyde’s transport came to a halt just as the screaming started. Radio communications were garbled, but Borland’s squad had been scattered. They were being massacred. Hyde left half of his crew at the transport, ordered them to wait for backup and Variant Squad ambulances. They were to take reinforcements, hunt down all access points, and close off the tunnels; kill anything coming out that couldn’t identify itself. Hyde and ten bagged-boys went in, scanning the darkness with their hood-lamps. They got turned around quickly in the tunnels, following echoes of Borland’s dying squad. They made a charge finally, guns blazing when they came upon a group of Biters skinning half of Borland’s men and women. The Biters soaked up a lot of bullets, always did. They were all tuned up on Variant-enhanced adrenaline and hormones, unable to fear or feel anything past the howl of their need for skin. But the roar of gunfire also deafened Hyde’s squad to a pack of Biters coming in through connecting tunnels. Over forty came screaming at them with teeth snapping. All of them hissing the object of their desire: “Skin!” The word echoed all around, sprayed from lipless mouths. “SKIN!” He was soon blind to the gunfire that flashed around him. Two Alphas, six males and three females performed the Ritual on him. Calling it Ritual came from the days before when obsessive-compulsive


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disorder did not involve as much pain and death. Ritual relieved the Biters’ anxiety. Horrific screams exploded from Hyde’s chest. Blinded by pain—tearing noises heaved at him— his body flailed as fluids sprayed. Bare muscle and finger bones gripped his arms and legs, held him as the Alphas worked the edges free. One tore the groin; another seized the skin by his left nipple before ripping sounds echoed. Pain dazzled Hyde as long strips of skin were pulled from his abdomen, chest and legs. Blood soon covered his eyes in place of lids. Huddled glistening shapes darted out of Hyde’s dying vision. Bundles of his skin were carried into darkness running. A squabble broke out, as he lost consciousness. A pair of big males had his scalp and face stretched between them like a rubber mask. He was unconscious when Borland arrived with a rescue mission. He was stroking out as Biters were gunned down or gassed with BZ-2. He was flat-lining as the university tunnels were filled with accelerant and burned. He was listed as critical but stable the first time he wished Borland dead. A chirp from the radio drew Hyde back into the present. Unwilling to engage, he eavesdropped from beneath his hood. The driver, a corporal, didn’t keep his voice down—had no idea if Hyde was asleep or not. People rarely treated him like he was alive. He was easy to ignore: without features, only form. “Roger—we’ll BZ-2 the bitch when it’s sealed up.” Hyde realized he’d missed most of the conversation. “Not sealed yet, over?” asked the corporal. “Borland forgot his camera—went back in.” Static. “He’s going to seal it after.” “Roger that, over!” The corporal toggled twice and hooked the microphone on the dash beside the steering wheel. “Driver,” Hyde said, his mind finally gripping the here and now. “What did he just say?”

“Sir?” The corporal’s voice registered surprise. “On the radio, he said something about BZ-2.” “They’re going to gas the building when Borland comes back out.” The corporal was matter-of-fact. “But it was sealed!” Hyde hissed. “Not yet.” The corporal spoke to his partial reflection in the rearview. “Borland went back in?” Hyde’s skinned fingers gripped the arms of his wheelchair, his jaws moved silently, calculating. “Yeah.” His driver laughed at some hidden joke. “Said he’d reseal it.” “But protocol?” Hyde shook his head. “You can’t break a Variant seal!” “He forgot his camera,” the corporal reassured. “But that’s not protocol!” he shouted, clenching his skeletal fists. “Old protocol,” the corporal chuckled. “And Variant’s been gone…” “Take me back there!” Hyde cut him off, glaring at the traffic. It was starting to move. “Use lights and siren!” “But Captain,” the corporal started— “Now!” Hyde pounded the arms of his chair. “TAKE ME NOW!” t Borland crawled toward the wall. This was registering. This was getting through his booze and spooks. The Biter’s eyes had locked on him, almost crossed over its dark wet sinus cavity. Borland wheezed and bent a knee under him; his brain rushed to take it in. “Hyde…” he whispered, heaving himself up. His hernias pulled at him like fishhooks. “Ssskin…” hissed the Biter. It took a step forward, holding its arms bent at the elbows, skinned hands outward, fingers snapping on air. “Ssskin?”


The Variant Effect Her defining sex characteristics had been removed with her skin, but one foot was wearing a white leather pump with a gold buckle. The other, even bloodstained had soft contours and purple polish on the nails. Skin was peeled off her body down to her left knee and right ankle. Clots of yellow adipose tissue dangled from her chest. Borland had always been amazed at how similar Biters could look. A human body stripped of skin could pass for either sex when down to the essentials. Even a pretty pair of eyes was just a rolling white terror without any lids. Pockets of infection had formed in the cleft of her arm and torso, leg, and groin. Most Biters died before they had a chance to really heal or scar up. Few lived long enough to try for alpha status. Borland realized his hissy fit had taken him down the hall to the end. There was a big dirty window behind him and corners. To reach one of the offices he’d have to move past the thing. It wouldn’t be safe in there, but the narrow doorway would be easier to defend. He inched forward. It was fifteen feet to the closest office on the right. “Ssskin…” the skin eater breathed a warning. It had a wild intelligence in its glistening eyes. Her exposed teeth drooled saliva and blood as she stepped toward him. Her pulse coursed through an exposed web of veins. There was a thump and clatter to Borland’s right, and a male skin eater dropped into view. A quick glance and he saw overhead panels hanging, bits of fiberglass falling like snow. The maze of rafters over the drop ceiling was a good place to build a pack, and bagged-boys years after the day wouldn’t think to look. The male had skin on him from the waist down exposed through holes in his tattered trousers. He had a running shoe on one foot and a frazzled sock on the other. One arm hung at an awkward angle. The fingers were torn; sharp yellow bone showed at the tips. The other hand clawed the air. Exposed muscle on his face

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twisted into a snarl and he howled. “SKIN!” Pink mist blew out of his lungs. Yellow ribs heaved under membrane and infection. The skin eater was wired on Variant. Adrenaline squeezed its windpipe, made it shriek. The dark eyes were locked on Borland’s face. It hissed sharply as its juiced cortex targeted the focus of release. Ritual: Remove the skin. Eat the skin. Reduce the stress. “Skin!” it barked, charging at the same time as the female. Borland raised his gun and shot her twice, filmy ribs cracking wetly as the impact threw her back. He swung the pistol toward the male, but it came in fast, and the barrel glanced off its teeth before he could shoot. Its exposed fingertips hooked in Borland’s coat. He went with it, threw all his weight into the thing’s chest, shoved it against the wall, where it slapped around and stamped before losing its balance. The female struggled, pouring blood as she got her feet under her. But Borland charged toward the closest office. If he could set his back against a wall, he’d put his remaining bullets to use. Heart shuddering with booze and exertion, his mass hurtled toward the doorway some ten feet away. But a third Biter leapt out of it, screaming: “SSSKIN!” The thing had one eye, and the muscles on the left side of its head and neck had been torn away with the skin, leaving the skull at a grotesque angle. The same injuries distorted its torso and chest, but it still moved well, cranked up on human adrenals and limbic system gone mad. “SKIN!” it roared and ran at him. Borland didn’t hesitate. He spun out of its path and struck the wall. Then he rolled and turned back toward the end where the dirty window waited. The skin eaters’ hissing calls followed close on his heels. The female was almost on him. He slammed into the wall, the window cracked behind him.


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All three skin eaters stood there. Eyes frenzied with anxiety and madness, they paused, their fingers snapping, pinching the air the way they’d pinch his skin. Their tongues licked at their exposed teeth, anticipating the ritual of release. “Skin,” they hissed. “Ssskin… Skin. Skin.” Blood gushed from holes in the female’s chest, sprayed out of her mouth with each breath. The others froze, heads flicking around birdlike, orienting for attack. They stepped lightly closer, answering some ancient program and fanning out, making it impossible to pick more than one target at a time. Borland raised his .38 and weighed its impotent mass. Skin eaters could take several .38 bullets and keep coming. He had four left. His hernias pulled at him—the torn muscles strapped him into place against the wall. His breath was still coming in ragged gasps. Choices. He glanced out the window behind him: six stories and dead. He looked at the Biters—too many. “Choke on it!” Borland snarled, pressing the gun against his own temple. The skin eaters bellowed and charged. A gun roared.

“Fool!” Hyde shouted. He had wedged himself against a doorframe down the hall, his steel canes propping him upright. A smoking .44 magnum lingered on Borland’s face and then dropped out of sight beneath his coat. The bright eyes flashed under the hood, then Hyde shifted his weight off the canes and shuffled back to his wheelchair where he’d left it in shadow. Borland pointed his gun at the dying skin eaters as he limped past. Their bodies twitched and quivered on overloaded synaptic pulses. Blood poured out of their shattered heads, soaked into the floorboards. One of these creatures had bled the angel and must have presented the long dormant Variant Effect while the others attacked. All Borland could think of was the old rules: Ziploc, Gas, and Burn. He followed Hyde toward the wheelchair. “They didn’t touch you?” Hyde asked, adjusting himself in his seat, his face hidden by the hood. Borland shook his head, remembered shoving one out of the way. He turned his arm, saw the scarlet and red stains, then tore his jacket off, pulled the bottle out of his pocket and tossed the garment on the floor. “No.” He kicked the coat away. “I just pushed the one.” “Protocol.” Hyde’s voice was flat. t “It’s the days after,” Borland said, looking at the The first male’s head exploded in a red spray. bottle in his hand before turning to the corpses. Its eyes distended and flew in a shower of gob- They were still twitching. “I was thirsty.” bets. The body dropped on the floor. The female “Protocol is worthless if it isn’t followed,” turned toward it, and her face was sheared off by Hyde snarled, jamming his canes into the seat a large-caliber round. She collapsed in a heap. beside him The male with the canted head screamed and Borland shrugged. ran at Borland; but three bullets took it down, “Ziploc, Gas, and Burn!” Hyde punched the the first ripping its throat to pieces and the last arms of his wheelchair. “What don’t you underlifting the top of its head. stand about that?” It fell at Borland’s feet. “Stop bitching at me…wait…” Borland In all the excitement he had pointed his .38 looked up. “What are you doing here?” at a skinless face that stared with lidless eyes out “You’re just lucky,” Hyde hissed, running his of a heavy hood. wheelchair past Borland.


The Variant Effect “You gave the place the all clear.” He grabbed the chair, leaned into Hyde’s face. This close he could smell antiseptic. “But it wasn’t clear.” “I was mistaken.” Borland shook his head and snarled. “Just rusty,” Hyde said, turning his face away. “Rusty…” Borland echoed. “Where were the victim’s clothes?” “If you read the history you would know that new packs early in the day had undeveloped Ritual. It requires time and successions of Alphas to refine it. This was a new pack. They stripped everything off the body—valued clothing the same as skin. If you look in their lair, you’ll find their victim’s clothes. Partially consumed, perhaps. With more experience, the Alphas teach the others and Ritual evolves.” “And the shoes?” Borland asked absently. Something was nagging at him. “Again, neglected history. Partly due to the lack of Alphas, but also timing. Biters lose their shoes in competition with other Biters…it is a loose piece of covering to sacrifice in a skin fight and they have no interest in them. Their vigorous lifestyles wear shoes out or knock them off,” Hyde growled. “That also points to a new pack.” He gestured at the bodies. “None of these has been a Biter long.” “So it’s just started,” Borland grumbled. “For other men to deal with.” Hyde wouldn’t look up. “We’ll see.” Borland turned away. Hyde started to push his wheelchair forward and stopped. “We’ll see?” Borland pointed at the skin eaters. “That’s Variant Effect!” He swung back to Hyde. “It’s been cooking out there.” He slapped his chest. “And in here. It’s coming back.” “We did our part before.” Hyde’s tone was raw.

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“That’s why they’ll bring us out of retirement.” He chuckled. “We’re the poor bastards with experience.” “I’m finished!” Hyde half-turned in his chair. “Like you almost finished me?” Borland’s eyes burned. “I was mistaken, and if you’d followed protocol instead of coming in here to drink...” Hyde made a motion to move his chair but froze. “Ziploc, Gas, and Burn.” “So when or if we found the gassed bodies we’d figure you lost your touch,” Borland snarled. “And never call you back.” “I was mistaken.” Hyde’s head hung. “But here you are!” The elevator door shrieked down the hall, followed by muffled shouts as the bagged-boys came running. “Proving you knew there were Biters and gave the all clear anyway.” He stared at Hyde’s lowered hood. “You could lose your pension for this.” “You wouldn’t.” Hyde’s head turned up; showed a raw jawbone and teeth. “Watch me,” Borlan growled, sickened by his own threat. “I’m finished with this!” Hyde hissed. “You’ll say that every time they call me up.” Borland considered hiding his bottle as the bagged-boys approached, but shrugged, uncapped it and drank. “What does that mean?” Hyde’s shoulders sagged. “It means you’re coming out of retirement every time I do.” Borland looked away, desolate. Hyde was silent for a second, defeated, before saying, “You were going to shoot yourself.” Borland nodded, before whispering, “You say that like it’s a bad thing,” “You damn drunk!” Hyde started for the elevator. Borland grunted and tipped his bottle back.


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Trifecta By Kat Parrish Photographs by Susan Schader

I

knew a lot of guys like Denny McBride back in high school. Big white boys who were good at sports and didn’t have to be much good at anything else. Back home, he was the kind of guy who could always find a girl willing to do his homework or let him cheat off her test paper. To his teammates, Denny would have been the “Most Valuable Player,” and admiring sports reporters would have called him “Golden Boy.” He would have been voted prom king and “Most Likely to Succeed” by the kids who lined up to sign his yearbook—as if he would remember their names five minutes after graduation. Denny was not the nostalgic type.

Guys like me, we weren’t golden boys. People called us other names—names like “dago” and “wop” and “guinea.” Guys like me didn’t play sports, didn’t go to the prom. We didn’t buy the yearbook. Most guys like Denny never leave the little towns where they’re born, but Denny? He knew he was meant for something bigger, so he stole $30 of his mother’s butter and egg money from the kitchen cookie jar and an hour later he was gone, baby, gone. Denny didn’t bother to say goodbye to the girl he left behind, a girl who was—as they said back then—in “the family way.” Her name was


Trifecta Helen and she was a sweet little thing, a frecklefaced girl who worked after school at the local five and dime. Denny had given Helen his class ring and she’d mistaken it for a commitment and given him something a lot more valuable. Three months after Denny left, when she realized that he wasn’t coming back, not ever, Helen threw herself off a bridge that spanned the pretty little river that meandered through their picturesque home town. She’d been wearing loose-fitting blouses and roomy skirts but people were starting to talk. You know how small towns are. Her parents buried their daughter and unborn grandson in the same casket. And if Denny had still been around, her dad would have put him in the ground too. Helen had left a note, you see, naming the father of her child. Denny had rolled into the L.A. bus station at four in the a.m. on a summer morning that was already beginning to heat up. By seven he’d found a flop and by nine he’d found a bottle and by ten o’clock that night, he’d talked a good-time girl into coming back to the flop to share the bottle. Denny was generous like that. L.A. was Denny’s kind of town. He was a nice-looking kid with an athlete’s body and young guys like him could always pick up work

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as a movie extra or make a few bucks posing for photographers who sold the pictures to muscle magazines and well-heeled Hollywood fairies who kept private collections. He was popular with well-dressed women of a certain age too. They bought him presents and liked to pretend he was their own personal Marlon Brando. They liked it when he put on the leather jacket and curled his lip in a sneer. It made them feel reckless and sexy taking a bad boy to bed. Sometimes their husbands joined them there. Denny got paid extra for that. Denny took up with an artist named Vivian who didn’t think much of herself and let him treat her even worse. She was a divorcee who made her living painting portraits of nouveau riche matrons who acted like the Depression had never happened. She was good, real good, at the painting part but she had a hard time dealing with the women who posed for her. When one old bat complained that Vivian had made her look a little plump, Vivian had called her a “fat cow” and splashed the whole damn canvas with turpentine before storming out. Vivian had gone to the Rhode Island School of Design. She didn’t need that kind of aggravation. But word got around. Commissions dried up. Within a month, Vivian was doing tourist caricatures at the beach to support herself and Denny, who always seemed to have money to buy cigarettes and booze but never quite enough to buy a bag of groceries. Denny and Vivian had been living together for six months when December rolled around and he started thinking he’d better move on before Vivian drove him crazy talking about getting married. And Christmas was coming. She’d expect him to buy her a present, maybe that pair of pearl earrings she’d seen in a jeweler’s window


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in Beverly Hills. She’d been talking about how elegant they were ever since he’d forgotten her birthday in August. Yeah. It was definitely time for him to beat feet. He was sleeping off a hangover on a lazy Sunday afternoon when news came over the radio that the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor. Denny wasn’t real sure where Hawaii was— somewhere west of Catalina Island was his best guess—but he knew that the war was his big “get out of jail free” card. Denny enlisted on December 8 and told Vivian he’d marry her as soon as he got back from whipping Adolf ’s ass. He didn’t buy her a ring. Denny never expected to see her again. He figured long before the war was over she’d get married to some four-eyed, four-F schmo and start squeezing out ankle-biters. He encouraged her to move on by not replying to any of the letters she sent him. She sent him a lot of letters. Sometimes he would get dozens of the blue V-mail envelopes in a single day and instead of reading them himself, he’d hand them out to his lonely buddies. One guy from Pittsburgh, a big Polack named Wisnicki, asked Denny if it was okay if he wrote Vivian back. Denny told him to go ahead, so he did. Vivian replied to Wisnicki’s letters because she felt sorry for him and when she heard he’d been killed in action, she cried. When a package containing three medals arrived some months later, she’d cried again. Wisnicki had listed her as his “next of kin.” The letter that came with the medals was from Wisnicki’s C.O., who expressed his condolences and told her that “her sweetheart” had died a hero. The C.O. told Vivian she should be proud. And he meant it, but Vivian was sad because she knew that all Wisnicki had wanted out of life was more of it. In addition to the medals, Wisnicki had left Vivian a little bit of money—enough to move

out of the rathole she’d shared with Denny and buy a little bungalow in Laurel Canyon. She began to face the possibility that even if Denny came home, he was never coming back to her. She stopped sending him letters and pretended that he’d been killed in action too. That helped. One of her new neighbors knew a guy who knew a guy and Vivian was hired to paint a tasteful nude in the style of Rubens that was destined to hang in the gents’ toilet at a nightclub owned by a genial mobster named Dominic Petrillo. The model was a blowsy brunette who’d been a show-girl in Vegas when she met Dom. They’d had a pretty good run and Dom had been very generous. Dom liked brunettes, she told Vivian. I bet he’d like you, she added. She was right. Dominic liked Vivian and he paid her a fortune to paint more portraits, including one of his mother. He’d had her work from a photograph because he didn’t want his mother to put the mal occhio on Vivian. Vivian had been horrified when she delivered the painting and Dom had taken it into his backyard and gleefully set it on fire. He told her he hated his mother but couldn’t face the thought of having her whacked. What Dom didn’t realize is that any of the men who worked for him— including me—would have done the job for free. We were all scared of the old strega. Vivian was good for Dom. She was a classy broad with curves and big brown eyes. He liked having her on his arm at the Stardust, liked knowing other men found her attractive. One


Trifecta night Fred Astaire had come into the joint to celebrate the premiere of his latest movie and he’d twirled Vivian around the dance floor. She’d gotten a kick out of that. Everybody had. Fred was a gent. And a good tipper. The trouble was, Vivian didn’t love Dom and he knew it. He also knew all about Denny McBride, and he knew Denny was back in town and that he hadn’t come back alone Unbeknownst to Vivian, Denny had made it through the war without a scratch. The endless marching hadn’t bothered him. The bad food hadn’t bothered him. The killing hadn’t even bothered him, or so he liked to boast. He’d never been worried about dying in some nameless ville like the other fellas because he was Denny McBride and the Denny McBrides of the world never really think that anything bad is going to happen to them. Everywhere he went, the women were glad to see him, or at least happy to pretend to be glad to see him in return for gifts of chocolate and silk stockings. Denny learned to say, “I love you,” in half a dozen languages. But when he got to Paris and met Elodie, when he said “Je t’aime” he actually meant it. Elodie thought Denny was amusing company and he knew what he was doing in bed, so she traded a wedding ring for her American citizenship. As much as she loved Paris, too many people knew she’d collaborated with a Nazi and were only too willing to punish her for it now that the Germans were gone. She had no wish to be marched through the streets with her head shorn to advertise her shame.

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In truth all she’d done was sleep with a handsome boy who hadn’t even been a member of the party but explain that to the jealous old crones who’d watched enviously as he’d brought her eggs and real butter and authentic coffee. Elodie spoke good English and better German and it was not hard for her to wangle a proposal from a dazzled Denny. She never even noticed that Denny’s comrade, a bookish soldier from Terre Haute, was also in love with her but too shy to make a move. He went home and wrote a novel about the war that won a Pulitzer, then followed it up with a string of best-sellers. He moved back to Paris to live the expat life and bedded many beautiful women in hopes of forgetting Elodie. He never did. Meanwhile Denny took Elodie to California and they found a little apartment in Hollywood and set about playing house. There was a manager who lived on the premises, a kid named Jimmy Fratello who was some kind of kin to the building’s owner. He looked like an out-ofwork actor so Denny didn’t pay much attention to him. But Jimmy watched Denny like a hawk. And he watched Elodie too. When Denny left town in 1941, he’d still been the golden boy of his high school days. Now that he was back, he was just another guy without a job. People have names for guys like him, names like “bum,” and “mooch” and “loser.” Denny always had a plan, though, and kept telling Elodie that things were bound to turn around. Any minute. After five years, Elodie had long-since stopped listening. She was working at the perfume counter at the big May Company store on Wilshire. She sold a lot of Chanel No. 5 to women wearing fur coats in 80-degree weather. When the husbands came back on their own and asked Elodie to recommend a fragrance for a younger woman, something she herself might like, she always suggested the jasmine-infused Joy. They would usually buy two bottles, even


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though it was the most expensive scent in the world. Elodie worked on commission. She was saving her money to buy passage back to France. She hated L.A. where you couldn’t find a decent baguette and no one knew who Jean-Paul Sartre was. Then one day, feeling particularly homesick, she’d gone to see La Belle et la Bête at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood and found herself sitting next to Jimmy Fratello, the kid who managed her apartment building. She noticed he didn’t have to read the subtitles and he confessed to having spent a year at the Sorbonne. Jimmy had heard of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir too, and even claimed to have read The Second Sex. They discussed existentialism in bed that afternoon and many afternoons thereafter. Denny had no idea Elodie and Jimmy were making ooh la la, even when Elodie started talking about how “cultured” the young apartment manager was. In Denny’s world, “culture” meant you knew how to order beer in Mexican. What Elodie didn’t know was that Jimmy was also making whoopee with a redheaded gal named Reba who sang in his Uncle Dom’s nightclub. She slept with Jimmy because she knew he had connections and if she had her choice, she’d rather sleep with someone who looked like him than with most of the gangsters who showed up with flowers at the stage door. You just knew Reba’d been the prettiest girl back home in Wichita or Omaha or whatever little doodyville burg she was from. She’d come

to Hollywood hoping for a movie contract and there was some talk of Paramount signing her, but they already had Rosie Clooney and after White Christmas, Rosie was hot even if Jose Ferrer had knocked her up. So Reba got a job singing in Dom Petrillo’s nightclub and let it be known she was available for private concerts if the price was right. A girl’s got to make a living, after all. Now, in those days, if you were in the know, you knew about the card games that went on in the back of the Stardust. And if you weren’t in the know, there were people who would clue you in. Elodie heard about the nightclub from Jimmy and made Denny take her there for their anniversary. Humphrey Bogart and Betty Bacall were there that night, both of them drunk as skunks but still glowing with that movie star luster. Dom dropped by the table to congratulate “the happy couple” and sent over a bottle of bubbly on the house to toast the occasion. Denny thought that was a swell move and swigged the wine like water. Elodie found it undrinkable swill. She’d been born in the champagne region of France and knew what the good stuff tasted like. As Denny and Elodie were leaving, Dom casually mentioned the card games and invited Denny back to play any time. Denny didn’t have to be asked twice. Denny was good at a lot of things. He could play football and he could kill Nazis and he sure as hell knew his way around a mattress. but he knew spit about poker. And


Trifecta before he knew what hit him, he was into Big Dom for five large. By then, Denny knew Dom wasn’t just a well-connected club owner and for the first time in his life, he began to worry that something bad might actually happen to him. Which for a guy like Denny McBride was a revelation on a par with Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. But Dom didn’t send the legbreakers. He just put Denny to work as a carhiker at the club to work his debt off alongside the hopheads and the beaners who couldn’t get other jobs. Denny used to take his break out back of the club, sharing a joint with the Negro piano player who backed Reba up. Sometimes she would come out back too. Reba liked a taste of weed now and again. She liked Denny just fine too. But she never took him seriously. She could tell a loser just by looking at him. If Reba had wanted to waste her time on losers she wouldn’t have left Wichita or Omaha or wherever it was she was from. Denny wasn’t used to women saying “no” to him so he kept pitching woo at her, which eventually came to the attention of Dom. He told Denny to cut it out or go looking for another job. And by the way, he added, with the vig added in, Denny now owed him ten grand. Denny went home and got drunk and took it out on Elodie. When Jimmy saw Elodie leaving the apartment all bundled up and wearing dark glasses to cover her black eyes, it made his blood boil. But he wasn’t near as angry as Elodie, who asked him if he knew where she could get a gun. He told

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her he knew people who knew people and that it would be no problem. So Elodie gave Jimmy some of her hard-earned cash. Now it’s hard to say what Jimmy had in mind, showing off for Elodie like that because

the truth is, he might have been Dom Petrillo’s nephew, but he was not cut out for the family business. And even though Dom had given him the job at the apartment house, he’d decided to ship the boy back to his sister with instructions that he enroll in college and this time get a degree in “Jew engineering,” which is what he called accounting. Dom’s own accountant was of the Hebrew persuasion and he had nothing but admiration for the man’s sharp mind and sharper business practices. Denny has no idea any of this is going on because it’s his world and the rest of us just live in it. As far as Denny’s concerned, his marriage is great. And besides, what’s Elodie going to do? Go back to France? He is, however, beginning to realize that he isn’t in a job with management potential and that he could very well spend the rest of his life hustling customers for tips. So it seems like the answer to his prayers when one night Vivian pulls up to the Stardust in a big old Cadillac and hands him her keys. He tells her she looks good. And he means it. But before she


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can say something to him, Dom comes strolling over, puffing on one of those big Cohibas his friend Ernesto sends him from the casino in Havana. Dom makes a big deal out of finding out that his lady-friend knows his car-hiker and says, this calls for a celebration. He tells Denny to get on the blower to his wife and tell Elodie to come over to the club for dinner. And Dom knows damn well Denny and Elodie aren’t on the telephone and enjoys watching Denny squirm. Finally Denny says he’ll go home to change clothes. And Dom, who is really enjoying himself by now, tells Denny to knock on his nephew Jimmy’s door and ask him to come too. So Denny leaves and Dom makes a quick phone call to Jimmy, who does have a telephone and maybe 45 minutes later, Jimmy and Elodie and Denny all arrive together. Denny’s seated between Vivian and Elodie and even though he’s cracking jokes, he’s sweating bullets. Because as it turns out, Vivian buys her perfume at the May Company on Wilshire. She recognizes the frog princess the moment she lays eyes on her. It’s a 90-degree night outside the

club but inside? Who needs the air conditioning Dom paid a king’s ransom to install. Dom’s bartenders pour generous drinks and as the evening wears on, Denny gets snockered. Dom encourages him to tell war stories as he breaks out the brandy and cigars. Jimmy, who’s had a few too many martinis himself, takes exception when Denny calls Elodie a “Naziloving whore.” Maybe he was trying to play the tough guy in front of Dom, who knows, but Jimmy takes one look at Elodie’s pale face, with the little beauty mark above her lip and hauls off


Trifecta and punches Denny. Dom’s guys move in and hustle them outside where they stand back to watch as the two guys go at it. Dom stays inside to order dessert for himself and the two women. The chef at the Stardust does an excellent Baked Alaska. Dom knows that Vivian is very fond of Baked Alaska. Elodie doesn’t see the point of wrapping ice cream in cake and then baking it but she tastes it anyway and is pleasantly surprised. Outside in the parking lot, it’s not going so well for Jimmy. Dom has told his boys not to interfere because he’s angry with his nephew for sleeping with Reba. Dom knows better than to mess with redheads and he’s repeatedly warned the boy that no good can come of it. But the kid just wouldn’t listen.

By the time Jimmy starts puking blood, Reba’s out in the parking lot trying to stop the fight, yelling blue murder at the men standing around. George Raft and some bent-nose who’ve been waiting for their cars decide it’s time to get involved. The kid ends up at County General with a bunch of tubes sticking out of his arms and no memory at all of the fight. Dom? He’s got a really good memory. He tells Denny not to worry about it and Denny, because he’s Denny, figures that’s the last of it. Denny is wrong. It’s one of the neighbors who calls the cops. She was taking out her garbage and found Denny

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dead on the lawn, a gun in his hand and a surprised look on his face. I’m no sawbones, but from what I could see, Denny had been shot, stabbed and clubbed and any one of the wounds could have done him in. While my partner waited for the meat wagon, I went upstairs and searched the apartment. I found a bloody hammer, a bloody knife and a pair of scissors still dripping blood from the blades, all laid out like truffles in a chocolate box. Elodie’s prints were on the knife; Reba’s prints were on the hammer; and Vivian’s were on the scissors. We didn’t find a gun. But then, I knew we wouldn’t. I arrested Elodie, who thought it was a big joke, right up until I put her into the squad car. We picked up the dollface and Vivian too. Reba played the angel. Vivian fell apart. Despite

everything, she still loved the louse. Or maybe she was the one who should’ve been angling for a movie contract. The case never made it to trial. The coroner ruled that despite the stab wounds and claw hammer marks, Denny had died of gunshot wounds. And they’d never found the gun.


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The gun Denny had in his hand hadn’t been fired. It was Elodie’s, the one Jimmy had bought for her. Denny had found it in the drawer of her bedside table and confiscated it for his own protection. The three women never said what they were doing in the apartment the night Denny died but nobody really wanted to know either. I’d seen them go up the stairs together like sorority sisters and leave a few minutes later looking shaken. They’d driven off in Vivian’s big Cadillac. I had waited until they were gone before I went into the apartment to finish the job. Denny had stones, I’ll give him that. He made it all the way outside before he collapsed. Too bad he never got a shot off. It was like putting down a rabid dog. And I wouldn’t even take Dom’s money for doing it. See, I knew Denny McBride back in high school. And I knew Helen too. I would have married her and brought up her son as my own if she would

have had me. But it was Denny she wanted. Denny or nobody. When she killed herself, I went a little crazy. I had to throw a scare into Denny’s mother before she’d tell me where he’d gone. I’m not proud of that, but I’d do it again. I followed Denny out to L.A. where my father’s cousin Dom had a nightclub. He got me a job on the force. Told me he could always use a cop on his side. Told me that good things come to all who wait. I sat out the war stateside on account of being flat-footed, and became a genuine crimebuster. I put away a lot of bad guys. I learned patience. Guys like Denny McBride? Sooner or later, they go cruisin’ for a bruisin’ one too many times. Sooner or later, their luck runs out. And then they have to deal with people like me. As they say back in the old country, La vendetta è un piatto un migliore freddo servitor. Revenge is a dish best served cold.


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Trifecta

TRIFECTA Cast in order of appearance: Elodie Severine Trannoy Reba Lorena Stackpole Vivian Joanne Renaud Denny Chadwick Palmatier Jimmy Edward Mattiuzi Dominic Vincent Dinelli The Detective Nicolas Martin

Makeup and Hair Design: Christina Ramirez http://www.modelmayhem.com/1024147 (949) 633-7207 Props: Frog Island Comedy www.frogislandcomedy.com Catering: Word of Mouth Catering word_of_mouth_catering@yahoo.com (818) 679-5155

Astonishing Adventures Magazine #7  

ePulp at its best.

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