Stitched Saturday

Unedited, Uncensored, Unsettling…

Oh, you lucky, lucky blighters.

Welcome to a very special Stitched Saturday – This week we have an absolutely bumper crop of home-grown terror from some incredible horror talent to add a well-needed chill to your balmy Summer evenings.  We open the festivities with a dark tale from M.F. Wahl entitled The Depths of Love, followed by the twisted Double Digits by Aiden Leingod.  From then on in, we’re into the twisted realms of Sinner’s Hands by yours truly and the macabre To The Waters Edge by Mike L Lane.

To finish this banquet neatly, we then have the fifth part (of ten) of Nick Paschall’s Child of the Apocalypse: The Harvest. I think you’ll admit that that’s quite the sumptuous repast.  We’re seriously spoiling you.

Join us again tomorrow where we’ve invited author M.F. Wahl to provide inspiration for the stories for next week. Until then, Stay Stitched!

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The Depths of Love – M.F. Wahl

The night had been surprisingly pleasant, reminding Edmund of the ecstasy fueled fuck-fests they used to have. He had found a passion that hadn’t been there in the months since they started this journey, a passion fed by a simmering rage that he had kept well contained until then.

Before moment, he hadn’t touched Mark in weeks and was beginning to suspect he never wanted to again. It wasn’t long after the plane touched down that things had begun to sour, and instead of being a hiccup they got over easily, the relationship began to disintegrate. The little things, all those little quirks Edmund had thought were so cute when they first met three years ago, had begun to churn his stomach with disgust. Like the way Mark crinkled his nose like a pig when his glasses slipped down the bridge. Why couldn’t he push them up with his finger like anyone else? For that matter, why didn’t he just get Lasik? It’s not like he couldn’t afford it. Then, of course, he’d have no reason to wear the heavy black frames that had become so trendy.

Last night though, as Mark’s glasses lay in the corner of their tent and Edmund fucked him as hard as he could, those little aggravations didn’t matter. All that mattered was what felt good, and what felt good was to dig his fingers into Mark’s shoulder hard enough to leave bruises, and to release his rage with every angry thrust.

He had wanted to wrap his hands around Mark’s throat, had wanted to press his fingers against the soft hollow below Mark’s Adam’s apple and squeeze as hard as he could. Just the thought of Mark struggling to breathe beneath him, the thought of him desperately clawing at their tent floor to escape, had made Edmund’s cock harder than he thought possible; but he knew he had to wait. Despite greedily accepting Edmund’s punishment, Mark was not one to be trifled with—he was a second-degree black belt, and overall, he was stronger than Edmund. To attempt to overpower him then, even in the throes of passion, would have been foolhardy at best.

Now, as Mark lead them up the hillside for the fourth time this week, Edmund felt that tightly controlled rage boil again. Mark shifted his rucksack uncomfortably on his shoulders and looked back at Edmund.

“Last night was nice,” he said, then wrinkled his nose under his thick black glasses as they slid down his nose. The lenses were dotted with condensation from the jungle. “I was beginning to worry about us.”

Edmund grunted and looked down at his feet as he picked his was across an outcropping of mossy rocks. Everything from here on in was just rocks and jungle, and although they had taken this path many times over the week, the trek up the mountain face hadn’t gotten easier. If they could have, they would have set up camp closer to the site, but because of how treacherous the terrain was, they were forced to set up camp a three-hour hike away. Like with everything on this trip, Edmund almost felt the universe was conspiring against him—with the exception of the discovery.

He heard a muffled clang as Mark adjusted the rucksack on his shoulder once again, shifting the research equipment inside. His crank powered lantern, tied to the outside, swung precariously, nearly knocking into a tree.

“Be a little more careful with that will you?” Edmund asked, barely concealing the contempt in his voice.

“Be a little gentler next time, will you?” asked Mark, and Edmund caught a slight barb of annoyance in his partner’s voice. It was as if the last remnants of goodwill they had toward each other evaporated with the passion at the end of last night. He grunted another response and expected Mark would leave it alone, but the slightly taller man stopped and turned to face him.

Edmund sighed, thinking he should have known better if he didn’t want to start a fight. Mark was like a friggin’ purse Chihuahua, so easily stressed it was impossible to conceive of why he even wanted to go on this sabbatical in the first place. Edmund had made no bones about how difficult the journey would be, and how he was unlikely to even find what he was looking for. And then there was the tricky navigation of the locals. They had to keep their relationship under wraps because the locals didn’t espouse to the same open views as those back home. Of course, that hadn’t been much of a problem until last night, when their moans and groans echoed through the millennia-old trees.

When they woke in the morning, their procession was gone. Every last man—all their tents and supplies, all gone. They’d even doused the fire. It was no matter though, Edmund and Mark had their own supplies and equipment, and really, they had only needed guides to locate the area they were studying. In addition, Edmund was quite the survivalist, and had discreetly marked his way in as they traveled, in case of emergency. As he had stood, overlooking their barren campsite, congratulating himself for being ahead of the game, Mark began his inevitable meltdown. Edmund wasted the better part of an hour convincing Mark they could continue on like normal before he finally got his shit together. The site had served as carrot enough to help him forget their situation and move on with things, but now, like always, he was looking for any reason to fall apart.

“I’m sorry,” Edmund choked out, all the while fantasizing about scooping up a moss-covered rock from the forest floor and pelting his lover in the face with it. Perhaps Mark would fall, breaking a wrist, or twisting a knee, and Edmund would bring the largest rock he could hold down on his boyfriend’s head.

Mark crossed his arms, and Edmund could see him struggling between wanting to throw a fit, and knowing that they needed to get to the site quickly. The hike was laborious, and they had only a small window of sunlight to operate in.

“I mean it,” Edmund said, trying to sound sincere, and managed to dredge a half smile up from the pit of his stomach and wear it on his face for brief moment. He was sure it looked as fake as it felt.

Mark stared at him a moment, unblinking, his steel colored eyes penetrating and cold. Edmund readied himself for a tongue lashing, but the other man relaxed. “Okay,” Mark said, and turned around.

The rest of the hike was quiet. Hours stretched silently before them, penetrated only by thin grunts as they navigated the steep, rocky terrain upward. Finally they slowed as the thick jungle canopy behind them fell away at a steep angle, like a lush and impenetrable green armor brushed with mist, to reveal a gorgeous wall of sandstone. Edmund could have spent days just following it with his eyes. The rocks jutted out from the forest floor, shunning the vegetation that tried to contain it and reaching toward the heavens in a series of small cliffs. Thick dark ribbons of red rock danced with lighter colors to form frozen swells of beauty that nearly took his breath away. Vegetation gave way to short cliffs beautifully sculpted by eons of wind and rain that were just small enough to create easily climbed ledges. Further still, the jungle overtook the terrain once again, and the mountain continued skyward, but that was no matter, because they had reached their destination.

Once standing on the topmost ledge of sandstone, the opening to a vast sinkhole spread before them. It was hundreds of feet wide, two hundred thirty-five feet and seven inches, to be exact. And up until one week ago, nobody thought this place existed. Edmund had been searching for it for years, long before he had ever met Mark, and although their relationship had spoiled by then, the moment of discovery remained untouched by their troubles. Years of research, of hard work, of interviews, of failed explorations, of bribes, of embitterment, self-doubt, and a dissolving relationship, all seemed a petty price to pay for finally discovering the sinkhole.

The locals had their mythos around it, and although they swung a challis of putrid smelling incense around wherever they went—even going so far as to sew the same herbs into their clothing, Edmund got the distinct feeling no one actually believed this place existed. That was until they saw it with their own eyes. He was even more surprised they didn’t abandon the mission that very night, as uselessly superstitious as they were, but money, as it so often did, spoke louder than fear. Apparently though, their entourage felt the risk of facing an invisible boogieman wasn’t nearly as bad as facing two men who had slept together the night before.

Edmund balled his fist in frustration. He’d dealt with a great deal of discrimination in his youth, before his own country became relatively more accepting, but the pain of rejection still stung, regardless of his age or comfort with himself these days. Not only that, but they had traveled with a small crew for a reason. It was much easier to get in a full day’s worth of research when someone else cared for the cooking and basic camp necessities, such as fires and water. He also felt more comfortable descending into the sinkhole with a team of people in case of emergency, but the time for worrying about that was long since passed. They would make do.

He watched as Mark placed his bulging rucksack on the ground and began inspecting the ropes of their spelunking gear. Within the hour, they were ready to descend, but not without a modicum of disappointment on Edmund’s side that an opportunity to shove his lover over the side hadn’t presented itself.

When they reached the bottom of the sinkhole, some four hundred feet below the surface, the sun was past its prime position. Because of all the delays, they wouldn’t have long before the few hours of light they got so far below came to an end. Research would be rushed, and on any other day this would have agitated Edmund, but research however, was not at the forefront of his mind, and he picked up where he had left off the day before with a clouded mind.

Nearly dead center of the sinkhole, nestled comfortably in an about an inch of white silt-like dirt, grew a small colony of giant Venus flytraps. To call them giant was an understatement, Edmund thought, and to call them Venus flytraps was an overstatement, it was just the best he could do. There were five plants all together, each with a varying number of traps, but it was the size of the traps that was astounding. The smallest they had measured so far was nine inches from side-to-side, and that was five or six times the size of the average trap. The largest was nearly an astounding five-and-a-half-feet across. Five-and-a-half-feet! Being an amateur biologist, Edmund was confident they had stumbled upon something miraculous, something never before seen; and watching as Mark took picture after picture of it made his blood boil.

Mark, the traitor. He’d so desperately wanted to come, and Edmund had agreed, but that was before he understood Mark to be the opportunistic parasite he was. The day after they had descended into the sinkhole for the first time, when snooping through the daily journal Mark kept, Edmund discovered his boyfriend had been in contact with their employer, the university they both taught at, via their emergency satellite phone. Although the entry was scratchy and hard to read, the message was loud and clear; Mark was taking full credit for this first-of-its-kind discovery.

Mark leaned over the largest trap taking detailed photographs of the trigger hairs inside, his rucksack rising from his back like a deformed camel hump. Edmund knew how vicious the hairs on the plant were. Unlike the flytraps he knew were native to non-tropical regions, these ones had barbed hooks at the end Edmund thought might help secure prey. Another difference he’d noticed between these and the ones he was familiar with outside of the sinkhole was a spiral-like stem at the base of the trap that seemed to be hollow and to house some sort of liquid. The men had surmised that it was an evolutionary adaptation, perhaps to help with digestion. The entire plant itself was wicked looking. Aside from its eye-popping size, almost every area of the trap surface seemed to be home to nasty hooks and barbs. Even the stems and flower stalks had thorns.

Edmund’s heart beat furiously as he quietly stepped up behind Mark. The fine white sediment beneath his shoes felt spongy and muffled the crunch of his footsteps on the gravely floor of the sinkhole. The only sound was the click-click-click of the camera shutter and the drum of his heartbeat in his ears. He could feel his arteries pushing out a beat against his throat and a throbbing in his groin that gave way to a half-rise of his cock as he positioned himself directly behind his boyfriend.

Mark bent in a touch more, engrossed in documenting every detail of the plant, and with a sharp thrust of his hands, Edmund pushed his partner into the giant trap. Mark flailed, one arm shot out, desperately grasping for a stabilizer that wasn’t there. The heavy DSLR camera that hung around his neck slipped from his grip, clocking him in the face, and he hit the inside of the plant face first.

The trap didn’t close as quickly as Edmund had expected it to, and he watched, his hands still up in shoving position, as Mark tried to scramble out, his heavy rucksack and his lantern, still swinging, slowing him down. The five-and-a-half-foot broad lobes of the plant folded almost gently around the grey-eyed man, as he pulled back, screaming, trying to wrench himself away. He managed to prevent his head and shoulders from being closed in the trap, but did not escape the barbed outside hairs of the leaves. One of his arms was fully engulfed up to his shoulder, held tightly by the hooks on the trigger hairs inside, and the rest of him from the waist down was swaddled in the long, barbed hairs that made up the outside of the leaves.

Edmund stared, dumbfounded. When he fell asleep imagining this perfectly ironic moment of death, he hadn’t thought Mark would be so close to escaping. He’d visualized his partner’s head and upper torso enveloped in the dark green flesh of the plant, unable to move, let alone look at Edmund. Instead, Mark turned his bloodied face slightly toward his attacker, grimacing as the barbs from the plant dug deeper, and locked Edmund with accusing eyes.

“Why?” he growled, shaking with rage. “Why!” The massive plant tightened its grip and he cringed with pain.

Edmund took a step back, shock overtaking anger momentarily. Would Mark be able to escape? The outside hairs of the plant, resembling long slender teeth, seemed to stick to every part of its prey’s face and upper body, its barbs digging right through his light clothing. Further still, Mark was unable to remove his arm from the trap, and with every movement, the plant closed more tightly. It wouldn’t be long before it hermetically sealed and its corrosive digestive juices began to flow. Even with just his arm trapped, Edmund felt sure the shock alone would kill Mark.

Mark, panicky as usual, tried to stand, but instead lodged himself further into the plants grip. He looked at Edmund, his eyes wide beneath his glasses, the only parts of his face not touched by plant’s hellish barbs, and the reality of the situation seemed to dawn on him.

“Please,” he begged. “Don’t do this to me.”

Edmund’s stomach vibrated. He had no idea how hard this was going to be.

“Eddie, c’mon,” came a panicked whine from Mark.

Edmund cringed. He hated being called “Eddie,” he’d only tolerated it from Mark when things were good; now it grated on every nerve he had left.

“Traitor,” he spat, shaking.

“W-w-what?” Mark whimpered, and tried again to wrench himself free of the trap. He screamed and blood coursed down his face as his skin tore. The barbs dug deep and Edmund thought they must be scraping bone by now.

“You used the satellite phone, you spoke with the university.”

“Yes.”

“You back stabbing ingrate.”

“I was planning your congratulatory party!”

Edmund’s breath hitched in his chest momentarily as he squinted in the fading light. For one moment—one split second—he considered that his Mark might be telling the truth, then he pushed the thought so deep inside it was lost in an abyss of hate.

“Liar!” he hissed, and turned his back. Mark screamed behind him, a mixture of what sounded like pain and terror, as Edmund picked his way over the floor of the sinkhole back to their gear by the wall. The ground was rocky, like the land above, and a few stunted trees had even managed to grow, but mostly it was moss, pools of stagnant water, some fungus, and of course, the flytraps. If it weren’t for the plants, the sinkhole, so far, would ultimately have proved to be an unremarkable find. As the sun quickly faded a delicate mist had begun to accumulate in the air, making the cavern feel somewhat softer, and almost mysterious. Up top, they still had another few hours of sunlight, but down here it would be night very soon.

Edmund ignored the plaintive cries from behind him. He knew Mark would fight, but he also knew he’d be lucky to escape alive. Even if he did, though, Edmund would make sure he had no way of climbing back out of the sinkhole.

By the time he reached the wall they had come down it was dark, and Edmund flipped on his head lantern shining it towards their gear. Quickly, trying to block out the moans he heard drifting toward him, he packed everything he could find. It was scattered on the ground and he grumbled to himself about what a slob Mark was. No matter anymore, he thought, and searched the wall for the ropes he knew should be dangling there, but instead found nothing.

Edmund’s chest tightened. How could the ropes possibly be gone? The perimeter of his vision darkened as panic threatened to snuff out all rational thought in his mind. He frantically searched the ground before him, his headlamp strobing across rocks and the sparse plant life that managed to survive at the bottom, until it came to rest on a coiled pile of black rope.

“Shit!” Edmund yelled, and his light vibrated across the rock face of the sinkhole. His mind spun for a moment, wondering how the ropes fell, panic building once again, and then he breathed deep, pushing the turmoil down. Now was not the time to fall apart, he had to focus if he was going to figure out how to get out of this place.

Edmund shone his light up; just within reach of his beam he could see ragged ends of rope dangling far above. The light reflected dully off the rock surface, except where there was a mouth of a cave. The ropes terminated directly in front of it. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to think. They hadn’t done more than a cursory peek inside the cave—they had planned on exploring it after the base of the sinkhole.

The locals had waved their horrid incense in front of it every time they descended, and made a show of their mish-mash of traditional and Christian prayers. The same ritual was used for what seemed to be everything; climbing the side of the mountain each time, before entering the sinkhole, before bedding down at night, or eating breakfast in the morning, probably before taking a shit in the woods. Along with the usual equipment, they each shouldered a pack of the putrid herb at the center of their superstition. It slowed them down, but Edmund had been forced to endure it if he wanted a crew of extra hands and the guidance to reach this place to begin with. Now, briefly, he wondered if they knew something he didn’t. He never fully understood why they did what they did, he hadn’t cared to learn, but he remembered they were afraid of a man, or a sleeping god or something. The incense, he thought at least, was meant to keep the god slumbering as they passed though its territory.

Prior to their expedition, the sinkhole was just a myth. It was vaguely mentioned in traditional tales, passed down from mother to daughter, told and retold, first over cooking fires, and eventually over rusting and outdated electric ranges that only worked when the village had power a few hours a day. These days it was little more than legend, yet it still evoked fear and required ritual. Of course, no one had been afraid enough to actually turn down the money Edmund came rolling in with. This part of the world was desperately poor, and apparently risking life and limb angering a sleeping god was worth a few bucks a day…as long as he wasn’t gay.

But the incense, God that incense. It took the excursion nearly a week to hike in and, over that time, Edmund never got used to it. A good whiff of it would make him gag and Mark, of course, being the type of person he was, wanted to take samples of it, to study it. Edmund had just wished they’d throw the damn stuff out.

Perhaps, he thought to himself, the god they were trying to sedate wasn’t a god at all, but a hidden tribe, untouched by civilization, perhaps living in the cave above. That would explain the ropes, and furthermore, the prospect excited him, if only for an instant. Deep down he knew it a ridiculous concept, but it was just the pick me up he needed to get his motor in gear. The tale of survival he would have to tell after this ordeal, after his great discovery, his boyfriend’s accidental death, and now this, he’d be catapulted from little known botany journals to tabloid super stardom in an instant. Book deal, movie deal…

Edmund smiled, despite the circumstances, despite the edges of panic still threatening to close in, he remembered one thing that meant survival—Mark had a satellite phone in his rucksack, and he’d brought it down with him. The problem would be removing the bag, but that was a bridge to cross when he got to it.

With an almost gleeful skip to his step, Edmund started back toward the center of the sinkhole. The mist was thick now, making it hard to see more than ten or so feet ahead, but he could have found where he was going in the blackest night. Mark’s low moans of agony and terror, although attenuated by the fog, were like a homing beacon and he zeroed in, picking his way carefully between rocks, stopping every now and then to listen for Mark. The other man’s cries seemed to be getting weaker, and Edmund hoped that meant he was losing his fight against the plant. He hoped removing the sat-phone from the rucksack wouldn’t be difficult, and that Mark wouldn’t cry, beg, and bemoan betrayal. My betrayal was the first, Edmund reassured himself. Besides, it was a moot point now.

As he neared the center of the sinkhole the fog thickened, so much so that Edmund began to feel as though he were walking blind. Every direction was generic, everywhere he looked it was the same, and he found it disorientating and somewhat unnerving. He felt as though he could clutch the clouds around him, their weight was so tangible, and they almost seemed to press in on him like a million gentle hands made of water vapor. He imagined they were pulling at him, dragging along him, trying to disassemble him. The panic he’d successfully captured in a small box in the back of his brain threatened to break free.

Edmund stopped, listening for the reassuring sound of Mark’s torment. He wiped his brow with the back of his sleeve and cocked his head, listening, afraid for a moment there would be only silence, but then he heard it. A small grunt to his side. He had almost passed the plant, Mark, and the satellite phone.

He stepped toward the noise and nearly choked in surprise as a shadow glided through the fog in front of him. Mark howled in the distance and Edmund froze. He squinted into the fog, spinning around, trying to catch sight of what had made the shadow, but his headlight just reflected back at him, making it hard to see.

Timidly, he took another step forward, this time toward where he was sure Mark was, and tossed a glance over his shoulder, just for good measure; but still there was nothing. Then, only a few dozen feet in front of him, a light flicked on. Its beam reached through the fog with ghostly fingers and Edmund’s heart quickened. Mark was still alive, and not only that, had managed to reach the lantern attached to his rucksack and crank it to life. If he had gotten to the satellite phone before Edmund, things could get very messy, but that was assuming a satellite was in position directly overhead.

Edmund kept a tight leash on his panic and picked up his pace, moving as quickly as he dared on the unsure footing beneath him. He flipped off his own headlight, and followed the shaky beams coming from the middle of the sinkhole. He only got a few steps before he caught sight of another shadow, this one directly ahead, and he skidded to a stop, almost wiping out on jagged rocks.

The shadow was about half Edmund’s height, and it wavered, as if moving closer toward him. Without hesitation, Edmund squatted and wrapped his hands around a large chunk of rock, his fingers digging through thick moss to find purchase. As the shadow approached, seeming to heave and drag, he stood and readied the weapon. Mark may have found a way to escape the plant, but there was no way he was going to survive this encounter.

Edmund lifted the rock slightly over his head and strode forward, hoping to take the other man by surprise. The shadow before him undulated in the light. There was a soft grunt, nearly non-existent, right next to his ear, and he paused in his step a moment, just long enough to realize, further back toward the light, there was another shadow. He slowed his pace and peered into the fog. Feeling as though he were trying to look into a “magic eye” stereogram poster, his eyes slowly adjusted, revealing many shadows in the fog, varying in size, and seeming to undulate with an unfelt breeze.

Not so far off, Mark swore in what Edmund knew to be frustration and pain; and at that moment it dawned on him that they were not alone. Fanciful thoughts of discovering an untouched tribe and telling his death-defying and heartrending story to studio audiences flew from his mind and his fight or flight instinct kicked in. He clutched his rock tightly in one hand and sprinted headlong for where he thought the satellite phone would be.

As he ran, the shadows around him seemed to gain an intensity to their undulating and the whispered grunts behind him quickly rose to a low, eerie rumble. When his step hit sponginess, he lost his footing and spilled forward, the rock flying from his hand, and his side grazing the barbed hairs of an open trap. The razor hooks tore at his clothing and skin and he yelped in surprised pain.

Directly in front of him, inches from his face, was another trap, this one closed and bulging in the middle. From between the cage-like front hairs, Edmund could see a strange, grayish-white, almost fabric-like rods flailing. But they weren’t really rods, they were almost like legs, or antennas, or tentacles of some kind, like nothing he had ever seen.

He stared at it, forgetting everything else for just a split second, and then scrambled to his feet—the odd, spongy, white dirt beneath him suddenly making sense.

A shadow to his side caught his eye, but before he could turn, something hit him hard in the face. Edmund heard his cheekbone and nose crunch as the blow sent him sprawling back into the plant. So much adrenaline pumped through his veins that he barely felt the pain as several smaller traps closed on him, gripping him with their barbs and preventing him from moving. He thrashed anyway, knowing they cut deep, knowing his face was broken, unable to see though one eye. But he saw enough, as Mark leaned over him, glaring through blood stained glasses, his face and upper body ravaged by the trap he had escaped. One arm hung limply to the side, bone and muscle showing through part of his wrist and fingers and over the other shoulder he had slung his rucksack. With his one good hand, he pulled a knife from his belt.

Edmund screamed incoherently as Mark stepped close, careful to avoid touching any part of the plant, and brought his knife down on his lover’s chest. Despite the adrenaline, Edmund felt the first agonizing time the knife pierced his body. The next twelve never registered.

Double Digits – Aiden Leingod

“Excuse me!” Richards shot his hand up in the air.

“Yes?” a soft-spoken voice politely replied.

“May I be excused?” Richards asked, mimicking the tone.

“For goodness’ sake…” the soft-spoken voice said, under exasperated breath. The spindly man it belonged to slowly turned around on the spot on which he stood bolt upright, the carpet’s faded diagonal pattern worn down to the nub.

He held a permanent marker in his left hand, gently rolled between forefinger and thumb. Both digits and the edge stained with a multitude of indiscernible shades like an overzealous swatch conspicuously scheming against the drab interior. The stylised, notched cap, resting on the end of the barrel, did not match the marker’s colour.

“You’re not back at school. You can come and go as you please,” the man’s soft-spoken voice reassured. He turned around once more to continue listing bullet points and drawing overlapping Venn diagrams on a smudged whiteboard.

“Oh. Right then. Sorry,” Richards smarmily mumbled, uncrossing his legs. He stopped trembling and awkwardly arose from his battered, leather-cracked chair. The clattering of other chairs, muted apologies and diligent students struggling to see at the back rumbled throughout the cramped conference room as he tentatively made his way to the opposite corner.

Carefully pushing against a heavy door with both hands, it swung open on rusty hinges, giving an excruciating creak. Sheepishly bowing his head, Richards caught a glimpse of his own visage in the window pane, its frosted glass obscuring further reflections. In the empty corridor beyond, he scanned left, then right. The heavy door quietly shut behind with another prolonged creak. An icy draft crawled all over his jittering body from head to toe. Pale, thin hairs stood dramatically on end. To no avail, he tenderly pressed his left hand to the back of his neck and subtly rubbed it.

Richards huffed and swiftly turned left down the corridor. To the right, an elongated rectangular window in which one could see the cluttered innards of the conference room. His hurried footsteps hurled menacing echoes. Glimmers of sunlight illuminating dust dissipated amidst more frosted windows. Scattered, dim shadows darkened the sallow, peeling walls and countless decaying red doors, the latter’s untarnished bulky steel padlocks glinted in winding ricochets.

“Games Room.”

Richards took a few steps back from the succeeding door to the preceding one. Taking a long sigh, he stared at the grubby floor and stood still for a moment, his electrified hairs equally with pointed flair once more. As before, he placed both hands and pushed, but with intent force. The padlock jingled in a leaden manner. He shortly sighed and put his right hand to his perspired forehead.

Then, he descended and bent down on his right knee. With the sharp, deft twist of a slightly bent hair pin pulled from his trouser pocket, the jingle became a clunk, and the padlock accompanied the returned hair pin. The heavy door swung open, not a creak.

Inside the dull room, rows upon rows of rotten pea green cubicles. Richards approached each one in a clockwise movement. Breathing within. More and more agitated in time to the flat echo of his close, calculated footsteps. Peering over the walls, Richards saw each cubicle contained a single person, bound, gagged and blindfolded, wearing coloured, fluorescent tabards over pitch-black hoods and ragged clothing. He stood in the centre of the room, chewing his nails before sitting cross-legged and doing the same on the crimson-stained floor.

Richards had never been picked first, nor last. Somewhere in-between. A frustratingly boring term that defined his middling life up until now.

“Pick me.”

Sinners Hands – David Court

There’s always one last job…

There was a pregnant pause in the air as Anton stared closely at the image on the laptop screen. Finally, after what had been an uncomfortably long silence, he spoke.

“I’ve never claimed to be an expert in modern art, but I know what I like. And frankly, that looks like an epileptic blind one-armed five-year-old drew it.”

If anything, Anton would have to admit that he was being flippant for humorous effect. The picture – a morass of greyscale handprints, ranging from white to a grey so dark as to almost be black – demonstrated a modicum of talent on the part of the artist, but left Anton cold.

“Whilst on his skateboard. During an earthquake.”

The speaker-phone remained silent. For the briefest of moments Anton was convinced that he’d offended his new employer but then he spoke again, the electronically-disguised voice loud and clear.

“I’m not hiring you for your skills in critique. I’m hiring you because I’m assured that you’re one of the greatest cat burglars in Nouvelle-Aquitaine. Are you up for the job or not?”

“I am. You are happy with my fee?”

“Indeed. Half a million euros up front, the remaining one-and-a-half upon completion. The initial funds should be in your account within the next hour.”

“Then the job is as good as done. I will be contacting your agent when I have the painting.”

“Good, good. Then we will speak again once it has been safely delivered to me. And on that note, I bid you -”

“One moment, monsieur.”

“Yes?”

“You were informed that I was one of the greatest cat burglars in Nouvelle-Aquitaine. May I ask who informed you of this?”

A few moments of silence, followed by an incredulous laugh.

“Ha! You know very well I can’t tell you that.”

Unsurprising, really. There was, after all, a modicum of honour amongst thieves.

Pas de problème, monsieur. All I ask of you is that you correct them – I am the greatest cat burglar in Nouvelle-Aquitaine.”

A loud click from the speaker-phone indicated they’d hung up. Anton smiled and sipped from his glass of Terre Del Barolo, savouring the imperious rich coffee and tobacco aromas.  Despite the fact that he’d made a lucrative career out of stealing pieces of expensive art for wealthy clients, he couldn’t quite bring himself to understand their mentality.  The unique nature of the stolen item meant that they could never publicly display it, never even admit to owning it.  A great many of his clients weren’t even fans of the stolen art they were buying, simply satisfied with owning something that nobody else did or could.  A macabre pleasure gained from depriving others of something.

Still, as long as they continued to pay exorbitant amounts for Anton’s particular skillset, he wasn’t complaining. As long as he had a cellar full of fine wines and a fridge of expensive cheeses and meats – and was kept in the means to continue to be able to afford as such – he was a happy man.

#

Regardless of the type of criminality involved, the key to a successful career in burglary was always the same – preparation and research.  A great many of his rivals had fallen foul to the law over the years because of a failure to appreciate the importance of that critical preliminary stage.  It was one thing to be able to gain access into a building unheard and unseen, yet quite another to carry out a quick and efficient burglary.

Many of his rivals resorted to the Dark Web for their research, but Anton found little need to skulk around in that shadowy underbelly of the internet, with its disgusting denizens – all of them mostly paedophiles and perverts.  It was constantly under surveillance from at least two dozen police forces and government agencies at any one time, many of which had skilled and dedicated cybercrimes operatives. That made it dangerous.

The standard internet was more than enough, having the advantage of greater anonymity. Everything was there already, if you knew where to look. The blueprints (and therefore weaknesses) of every electronic alarm that had ever been invented and detailed building layouts were but a few mouse-clicks away.

The painting in question appeared to be one of a series, with a number of variants showing up in an image search. The long-dead artist – Severo Albarossa – was dabbling with abstract works whilst the rest of his peers were all busy being self-indulgent in the more profitable realms of Art-Nouveau.

The series of pictures were part of the Manus Peccatorum series – translated as Sinners Hands.  Albarossa seemed to have dedicated the latter half of his art career into painting variations of the same picture – some pictures with just one, two or three hands, and others with dozens of them. All in the same dull shades of white and grey, all in the same size and scale.

At the end of a successful evening, Anton had compiled a detailed dossier on his target. The painting was currently in the possession of a Rémy Bernard, who appeared to have made his fortune from the computing industry, investing heavily into it the boom time of the early to mid-eighties.

A successful robbery involved studying the victim as much as their domicile – their personality would shape where and how they’d secure valuable items and what type of security they’d think they needed. Anton read up what he could on the man, topping it off with watching a few of the man’s TED talks he’d done over the years about the software industry. He was quiet-spoken, eloquent, confident and composed.  That told him all he needed to know.

A recent extension to Bernard’s Chateau had seen the building plans uploaded to an unsecured local regional council server, so Anton was now armed with a complete layout of every one of the Chateau’s three floors.  From his experience in such crimes and what he knew of Bernard, it was simplicity itself to work out where the picture would be stored. As a rule, he’d store the item as low as possible – a ground floor, or – better still – a basement. This was primarily because he would want to keep it away from both sunlight and unwelcome eyes.   Secondly, for obvious security reasons, it’d typically be kept in a room with only a single door.

Bernard’s Chateau had one such room in its basement, and Anton would confidently bet his prized bottle of vintage 1998 Château Margaux that the painting would be there.

Right, time to get into character.

#

Anton Loutré was a practical man of simple pleasures, firmly rooted in the real world.  His small apartment contained the essentials, and little more. Anton could never abide clutter. His small circle of friends seemed to pride themselves in the sheer amount of detritus they could ram into their cramped homes, but Anton had no such desires. Perhaps, Anton mused, this is why he so enjoyed taking things away from his victims.  His meagre collection of books consisted of textbooks, instruction manuals, cookbooks and autobiographies.  He hadn’t read – or felt the need to read – a work of fiction since his childhood, finding such frivolities unnecessary and a waste of time. They served no purpose other than to distract.  There was enough to learn about the real world without wasting one’s time on the unreal or the fantastic.

That said, however, Anton could never deny feeling a frisson of excitement as he changed into his burglary clothing – dressing for the occasion, as he called it. There was a routine to it, the first step of which was John Barry’s original theme from The Persuaders playing on a high volume, the haunting strings echoing around the bedroom.

The non-reflective plain black jumpsuit first, followed by comfortable black boots with the tread filed down. Thin black silk gloves sat on the dressing table next to him, ready to be put on last. He buckled up his faithful black leather tool-belt, noting that it was slightly tighter on him than he’d like – the next month would need to involve rather more cardio and rather less Camembert.

The tool-belt contained every trick of the trade he had, all neatly contained within small leather pouches. Skeleton keys, lock-picking equipment, two small aerosol cans and an assortment of other useful implements were packed compactly around its circumference.

Muscle memory from years of practice could locate and remove any of the tools within an instant, an important skill when even with the most stringent of planning, something could happen. An unpredicted element comes into play, the rules of engagement change – you have to be prepared for every eventuality.

Even the act of dressing up had been meticulously planned. The final drawn out harpsichord strings faded just as the second of the gloves was pulled on, leaving the room in silence save for dull traffic noises from the street below.

One final check.  The pouch that had, thus far on any of his felonious sojourns, been unused.  Anton carefully removed the weapon from within – an antique 2mm Kolibri pistol. Patented and constructed by an Austrian watchmaker at the turn of the last century, the weapon was the smallest commercially available single fire pistol in existence. Anton had never been forced into injuring or killing anybody before, and he’d hoped fate would ensure it would remain that way.

To have some insurance, however, never hurt.

#

The perimeter security for the Chateau was, at best, amateurish. Two thirds of the security cameras set up to catch anybody climbing over the walls were fakes – dummy models with battery-powered flashing green lights.  They were easily identifiable by the timing of the bulbs – too fast and regular to be from the same manufacturers actual working models. Added to that, the two security guards that Bernard had hired clearly weren’t being paid enough – every half an hour they did a half-hearted sweep of the outer grounds as a pair, paying more attention to their impending plans over the weekend than actively trying to spot any intruders.

Despite this, the worst thing Anton could do was be optimistic. The single worst thing a cat burglar can do – other than wear a high-visibility jacket – is to underestimate the difficulty of the job. It’s when that happens that you get complacent.

It’s that complacency that saw fit to his rivals. Leopold Kühn had been jailed for life and Raphael “Raffles” Bridgeman had vanished off the face of the earth, presumably captured and murdered by one of his aggrieved victims. Abrianna Briachi, the best of them all, had come too close to capture one too many times, and she’d gone straight.  Anton was one of the few of the old guard left – there was no honour amongst burglars these days. The new breed would rob the poor as soon as rob the rich, and they wouldn’t hesitate in using violence.

Not for Anton, those crude old ways. Cat burglary was a gentleman’s pursuit. Robbery, on the other hand, was not.

#

They’d always talked about the perfect job. That one where everything goes your way – that one job where things slot into place like jigsaw pieces. The one where the right doors are left open, short and easily guessable passwords are written on post-it notes and pinned to noticeboards, and labelled keys are left out on tables.

He’d been watching the house from the garden for the best part of an hour, and there was next to no activity. He’d spotted a housemaid carrying laundry between rooms on the top floor, but she seemed to be the only occupant still awake. He’d only made his move when the lights on that floor had been switched off and there had been no movement for the past quarter of an hour.

Anton was trying his hardest not to be optimistic, but his heart couldn’t resist the odd flutter with every new fortuitous thing that fell into his lap.  The single patrol dog was sprawling out in the garden, fast asleep in the cool night air. A cluster of dustbins – the plastic ones you could climb onto noiselessly, not the clanking metal ones – were left right beneath the window he needed to get into.  A window that was ajar just wide enough for him to gain ingress.

Moving as silently as he could with a well-practiced technique – low to the ground, his feet shifting from heel to toe – he made his way down to the corridor towards the stairs to the basement level. He hugged the walls, ready to throw himself flat against them at a moment’s notice should a light be switched on or an interloper appear.

The metal bannisters on both sides of the stairs were exploited for a hushed descent – by resting his weight on them he slid down noiselessly with a single leap, his flat cushioned feet landing silently at their base.

Anton stepped forward into the corridor that lead on, buoyed by his luck so far. It was only when his subconscious screamed aloud at him in panic that he stopped dead, mere inches shy of the telltale hum of an alarm beam. Fuckfuckfuckfuck. He stood there for a few moments, trying to regain his composure. Breathing deeply seemed to help, levelling his heartrate back from the staccato military two-step it had erupted into.

One of the two aerosol cans, cap effortlessly removed, was in his hands in a heartbeat, his supple wrist shaking the can just hard enough. In a zig-zag motion he sprayed the air in the corridor, a fine mist of water vapour revealing the array of bright red beams that stretched from wall to wall.  These – and the newly maintained alarm panel that sat at the first end of the corridor – were quite expensive and quite, quite genuine.

Was it the years of practice playing Twister with his younger siblings or the hours spent at the gym that gave him his flexibility? He crouched down and extended one of his legs, placing its weight down on the ground and pulling himself towards it – avoiding the beams that lay at ankle and at shoulder height.  He navigated the remainder of the corridor in much the same manner, pirouetting here, crouching and tip-toeing there. As the mist – and visibility of the beams – faded, a few sprays saw them appear again.

The door itself was locked with a Heinseher Smart Cryptolock, an electronic keypad with nearly eight thousand potential combinations. Unless you’re armed with a photograph memory and have read a black-market copy of the manufacturer’s instructions, in which case you already know the six-digit backdoor combination that works with every single Heinseher manufactured since ’09.

Click. Click. Click, Click. Click. Click.

Bleeeeeeeeeep.

A loud (too loud) pneumatic hiss filled the corridor and Anton could hear mechanisms grinding within the metal, tumblers spinning into place.  The door clicked and opened a fraction. Neon lights, visible through the gap, flickered and fluoresced into life.

To Bernard’s credit, this was a seriously expensive vault. The door itself was as wide as Anton and it took two hands and considerable effort to pull it fully open. Shame it had been let down by the easily crackable Heinseher lock, but Bernard wasn’t to have known that trick of the trade.

It wasn’t difficult to find the picture. Apart from a single table in the centre of the room upon which sat a metal bucket containing a bottle of wine, the picture was the only thing in here.  It had been mounted on the far wall in a cheap frame that belied the painting’s actual value.

The picture worked better in person than it did as an image on a laptop screen. It was larger than he’d expected, more imposing too. What had appeared at first glance to be a chaotic jumble of handprints of varying colours and thicknesses now had a very clear sense of order.  There was an unexpected texture to them too, some of the hand prints almost seeming to bulge from the canvas.  The light from the ceiling reflected from the contours producing an interesting effect whereby it seemed like the hands were moving, as though they were alive and reaching out from the frame itself.

Anton looked down at his feet.  He’d inadvertently already crossed half of the room, oblivious to the fact he’d even moved.

Interesting.  He glanced down to the bottle of wine, now at his side. It was a Sauvignon Blanc of a reasonable vintage, surrounded by fresh ice that sparkled like gemstones in the bright pallor of the artificial neon.

Before Anton realised what was happening, before he could will himself to stop, his eyes were drawn back to the painting.  He retracted his previous statement – the picture was nothing short of incredible.  For such a flat image, merely layers of varying thicknesses of expertly placed oil paints, it possessed an incredible depth.  From this angle, it somehow looked like he was staring down at a pit. Writhing hands clawed from the depths in desperation, as though trying to drag themselves out from the porous surface of the canvas.

He could make out the artists scrawled signature in the bottom right hand corner, the only fixed point on the undulating and thrashing canvas. A tiny signature, no bigger than a thumb.

Too late, Anton realised he was standing inches away from the painting.

Arms reached out for him, rough and jagged limbs that flaked specks of dried paint as they moved. Anton, still hypnotised by the sight unfolding in front of his very eyes, found himself incapable of movement. It was only as thick bulky fingers grasped tightly onto his shoulders and an arm encircled his waist that his body began to respond, albeit by then held so tightly that he could do little but try and fail to struggle free.

One of the arms yanked at him, turning him around to face the door. Before he could stagger away, he was in their grasp again and being pulled back towards the wall.  Arms wrapped around him now, preventing any movement on his part.

Rémy Bernard was standing in the doorway, a smug expression plastered on an already overly self-satisfied face. He was wearing an expensive looking scarlet dressing gown and holding two narrow stemmed glasses in one hand.

Anton did nothing but stare angrily as Bernard casually strode over to the table, pouring a generous measure of the wine into each.

“I’m not sure of the etiquette,” Bernard smiled. “I know it’s red wine for red meats and white wine for fish, but I’m not sure which colour that one should go for when trapping a notorious cat-burglar in a haunted painting.”

He stepped over to Anton, towering a good half a foot above him.

“I decided to go for a bottle of Sauvignon. It’s just a good all-rounder, isn’t it?”

He lowered the glass towards Anton’s face, tilting it towards his mouth. Anton took a reasonable gulp of the wine before spitting it back at Bernard.  What should have been a reasonable show of defiance ended up slightly lacklustre, missing the target of Bernard’s face and merely spraying his shirt with the sweet-smelling liquid.

“Anton Loutré. The Squirrel. You’ll be in good company, thief” he continued, unfazed. “Raphael Bridgeman is in there, somewhere. One of your colleagues I believe. If it means anything to you, he didn’t even get as far as the vault. My men had to virtually drag him in here.”

Bernard stepped back slightly and took a sip of the wine, never taking his unblinking glare away from Anton.

“There never were a series of paintings. Just the one, a new handprint added with each soul that gets dragged into it.”

Anton tried to ignore the mans self-satisfied prattling, trying his hardest to concentrate.

“It started with just the one. Nobody is quite sure how – perhaps some deal with demonic forces, some pact or other. Turned out that Albarossa quite literally lost himself in his work.”

Bernard watched as Loutré bowed his head in resignation, pleased with his successful subterfuge. The arms began to constrict, pulling the thief back against the wall.

Anton could feel his skin drying, a chill cold creeping over it’s surface. There was no pain, just an enveloping numbness. His mouth parted to speak, only a hoarse rasp issuing forth.

“Last words, Anton?” smirked Bernard, leaning in closer and placing his ear up to Anton’s mouth. The colour was already fading from the man’s skin which was greying and bleaching like the monochrome of the picture that would become his eternal prison.

“Just the one,” rasped Anton, now staring defiantly into Bernard’s eyes.

“R’tctthazhrl!”

Anton’s vocal chords twisted in a way that they were never designed to, the word violently erupting from him. Ear-drums that were never designed to process such sounds forgot them as soon as they were heard, but by then they’d achieved their intended purpose.

The red gown was, comically, way too large for Anton. It hung on him like a bloodied bedsheet, pooled about him on the floor in copious folds.  He tightened his grip just in time to grab both glasses before they smashed on the floor.

Bernard – half-suffocated within the tight confines of Anton’s inflexible black jump suit – looked about himself in a half panic. His ruddy red complexion faded to pink and then to white, the arms around him grabbing tighter with every passing moment.

“How?” he gasped, incredulously. “Our records said you were a realist, not one for superstition!”

Anton poured the contents of one of the glasses into the other, allowing the empty one to fall and smash on the floor. Keeping his distance, he leaned in towards Bernard.  The smug expression had now, like the men themselves, shifted.

“It’s not superstition if you know it’s real.  Do give my love to Raffles.”

Bernard opened his mouth to scream but nothing emerged, his face vanishing into the swirling oils of the painting.  His features melted away, the colours on the surface of the picture blending into them. The hands slowly returned to their original positions, slowing as they did so.  Within moments they were all still, the painting restored to normal.  There was a new hand there, ivory white with thick stubby fingers.

It’s a shame it had all taken place so quickly. Anton had wanted to point out to Bernard that if you’re going to try and disguise your voice electronically, you’re going to have to try and lose all the weird intonations from your voice. Otherwise, it’s obvious who it is.

Anton took a hefty gulp of the wine. The eldritch vowels of the transposition spell always hurt his throat, and he – even with his usual level of preparedness – had forgotten to pack any lozenges.

The smell of sulphur suddenly drowned out the pleasant fruit aroma from the wine.  He caught a brief glimpse of the edge of the thing that had suddenly appeared and it was all Anton could do not to throw up.  It lingered in the brain long after seeing it; a form that defied sanity, edges bleeding through dimensions. Violently retching, he spat out at the visitor.

“I’ve told you! Give me some warning before you come through.”

The walls shook and the lighting strobed through rainbow hues as the reply sounded. The voice scraped painfully across the inside of his fragile skull.

“You would do well to remember your position in this arrangement, Anton Loutré. Is it safe?”

“Yes,” he coughed through a throatful of bile. “It’s all done. And it was confirmed – Albarossa is in there, hiding from you.”

“Good. Until our next meeting” came the voice, more threatening than pleased.

Air rushed back to fill the empty space as it departed, a subtle whooshing noise as it did so. The picture had been claimed, vanished from the room. Anton lifted the wine to his lips but thought better of it.  He wasn’t in the mood for it anymore.  That encounter had soured the taste.

There’s always one last job…

 

Picturre3

To the Water’s Edge – Mike L Lane

Summer continued to steal my sleep, her soft face pressing against the window and begging me to come out and play. With full, pouty lips and heavy-lidded eyes that shimmered like Misenos Lake in the moonlight, she lightly tapped on the pane, her come-hither glow stirring the crushed glass of my heart. She playfully hummed the words to her favorite Adele song, a painful reminder that we could have had it all. I longed to chase her through the dandelion field, into the pine grove and down to the lake’s cool waters, but like most dreams, it wasn’t real. Her hot, suntanned body was little more than ash on the wind now, departed from this earth nearly six months ago. I suppose that’s why I was drinking in Scandals the day Ronnie Lee Dowling rushed in and announced to everyone he was cleansed.

In the great tackle box of wits, ‘ol Ronnie has always been three barbs shy of a treble hook. That’s saying a lot considering the trailer park I live in. Ronnie Lee is a known thief and shift-about, bouncing between highs like buoy lost at sea in a relentless pursuit to kill his last remaining brain cells. He’s good at it, too. If there is a drug, he’ll try it. If there is a high, he’ll chase it. As early as fifth grade, Ronnie and his brother, Joe Don, played a game called “Pass Out.” One brother bent over and inhaled rapidly, practically hyperventilating. On his mark, he stood up holding his breath while the other brother bear-hugged him from behind. The brother on the receiving end, usually Ronnie, would eventually black out and crappie flop on the ground in convulsions while the other laughed at him. Sounds like a hoot, right? Ronnie thought so.

Ronnie Lee grew to love hallucinogens more than anything, but he never passed up a good high and would take whatever he could get his hands on. LSD, shrooms, meth, coke, bath salts… if there were good times to be had Ronnie was down to roll, especially on someone else’s dime. When he wasn’t loaded, he scrounged change for his next fix. He scavenged, stole and pawned to pay for his next escape, but if he couldn’t afford a decent high, he fell on the poor man’s old standby- huffing gasoline.

There wasn’t much of a crowd in Scandal’s for mid-afternoon, but even when the dim lit bar was packed to the gills, I still felt like a stranded man on a deserted island. Smoke lay heavy in the yellow lights, drifting above the surface like early morning steam on the lake. The few patrons socialized while the man in black confessed to killing a man in Reno just to watch him die on the jukebox. Hunched over the bar top, my reflection peeked back at me between the forest of bottles lining the wall. I nursed my Lone Star and tried to wash Summer’s bittersweet memory from my mind.

The thing about Summer… the thing that warmed my blood and quickened my pulse whenever she was near, was her free spirit. Summer entered a room like a cat 5 hurricane leaving a path of destruction in her wake and planning her next landfall before anyone knew what hit. Hell, this town wasn’t big enough for a woman like her and hurricanes can’t be harnessed. I had no delusions about our relationship. I’m not ashamed to admit I had fallen for her, but I was painfully aware of her nature and she had no qualms letting me know where I stood. I was a temporary fling that filled her spare time like a passing hobby and I made do with that, content to have her when I could.

When they found her body floating on the lakeshore, violated and cut to ribbons, I was the first suspect on the list. My name was cleared eventually, as I knew it would be, but small town folks are quick to judge on a hunch, even if the truth slaps them in the face. I went from being a good old local boy, born and raised, to the scourge of the county damn near overnight. The lively bunch in Scandals avoided me like a rabid dog. I’m pretty sure some of them would be willing to put me down, too, given the chance. Only Butch Bierce ever talked to me, but his comments were always cut and dry. What was my poison? Put it on the tab? That sort of thing. There was a time when Butch and I were running buddies, but that run ended with Summer’s life I suppose. When the town passes judgement on you, friends are always the first in line to tie the hangman’s knot.

I was on my third beer when some jackass used the jukebox to take a jab at me. Scandal’s played a lot of country music, generally ‘90’s or older reflecting Butch’s age for anyone who didn’t know any better. That was bad enough, but I could usually tune those sad, sorrowful songs of love and loss out of my head and wait it out. This tune was different, added to the playlist special like, just for me. The haunting intro to Richard Marx’s Hazard filled the bar, telling a tale this town was all too familiar with. Butch glared at me and shook his head in disgust as he poured me another beer and walked away.

Mary Joe Chambers snickered in the back booth, her features damn near ghoulish beneath the jaundiced overhead light. Mary Joe lost her kids to Child Protective Services a few months back, setting her free to look for a new man. Today she had been fortunate enough to find two. Tom Walker and Paul Irving, tag team cousins looking for an easy lay, sneered over sneered over their shoulders at me as she cackled across the table. On the opposite end of the room, the crash of pool balls came to a halt as two older men stopped mid-game to give me the evil eye. Hell, I didn’t even know them.

“No one cared until the night she went out walking all alone… and never came home…” Marx sang from the overhead speakers and he was right on the money. No one gave two shits until then. Most of these people hadn’t cared for Summer when she was alive, talking behind her back and judging her lifestyle, but now that she was dead, she might as well have been a martyr. Suddenly, Summer wasn’t a hell bound slut anymore. She was a young blossom plucked from the vine far too soon, God rest her soul. She was no longer considered roadhouse crazy, just as soon to pick a fight or enjoy a quickie in the back stall than sing in the church choir. Instead, she had been full of life and love, one of God’s children snuffed out by a demented pervert with hate in his heart and murder on his mind. Being her last known lover, that changed the minds of the townsfolk about me, too. Pleased to meet you. Hope you guessed my name.

I lit up a smoke to keep my rage in check. Heat radiated from the back of my neck with all those eyes boring holes through me. With a loose grip, my thumb and forefinger spun the Bic round and round and my eyes focused on my nicotine stained fingers. I had been a social smoker since sixteen, but had adopted chain-smoking since Summer’s death, more often than not allowing the cherry to burn down to the butt more than anything. If I focused on the heat between my fingers, I could usually blot out the burning accusations within the room, but Marx’s words were hitting too close to home and I could hear Tom Walker boasting about what he wanted to do to me. If they wanted to see a murderer, they were about to get their wish. I took a deep breath and made up my mind to close out the tab, grab a twelve pack from the One-Stop and drown my sorrows from the comforts of home when Ronnie Lee burst in like a man on fire.

“I been cleansed!” he exclaimed, his arms lifted in victory and spittle flying from his cracked lips. Sticky, humid air followed him through the door like a tidal wave. The overpowering stench of unleaded permeated the room and for the moment, all those hateful eyes shifted away from me to witness the spectacle of Ronnie Lee.

“Shut the hell up, Ronnie Lee and get out of my bar,” Butch barked from behind the cash register.

“You don’t understand, Butch,” Ronnie Lee protested, crossing the room in a shambling rush. His wet clothes clung to his body like Saran wrap and water puddles trailed behind him. “I’m cleansed, I tell ya’. Cleansed through and through!”

“Dousing yourself in gasoline ain’t the same as bathing,” Butch remarked, rolling his eyes and folding his arms. “I’m not serving your high ass, neither, so go on and get.”

Everyone went back to what they were doing with a mocking chorus of laughter. It wasn’t the first time Ronnie Lee had acted a damn fool in Scandals. A month before he had busted through the door with his pants around his ankles with his junk cupped in his hands, swearing to anyone who would listen that he was pissing holy water anointed by the angels and he would be more than happy to bless anyone who would drink from the spigot. He wasn’t trying to be funny, either. He solemnly meant every word of it, but spent that night in county for indecent exposure among other things. Gasoline fumes can do strange things to the mind, I suppose.

“Look, now Butch, I’ve come to share the good news with ya’!” Ronnie Lee exclaimed. He leapt up on a barstool and held his arms out to everyone in the room. “All of ya’!”

“If you don’t get off that damn barstool before you break your fool neck, I’ll remove you myself,” Butch said, coming around the end of the bar like a charging bull. Ronnie threw his hands up in submission and eased down off of the stool just as Butch reached him.

“You’re gonna’ wanna’ hear this, Butch,” he pleaded like a death row inmate. No tears fell from his eyes, but the shimmer was there all the same. His face was riddled with sores and two rotten teeth jutted from his trembling bottom lip. “I promise I ain’t high, word of honor, cross my heart and all that shit. Look at my eyes.”

He shoved his face at Butch, his eyes wide for inspection. Butch pushed him away and covered his nose. Ronnie Lee stumbled backwards and nearly busted his ass, but in all fairness, I noticed that his pupils weren’t dilated. Nine times out of ten, the man’s eyes were black holes smothering the grey flecks beneath. Today his eyes were cement.

“God almighty, Ronnie Lee! You smell like a mechanic’s snot-rag,” Butch said, stepping further away, a hairy forearm shielding his nose. The pungent aroma crept into my space.

“That’s more than gas, Butch,” I said. He shot me a fiery glance, preferring the undesirable not address him, but I ignored it. “It’s more of a rotten fish-like smell.”

“See!” Ronnie Lee exclaimed as if I, of all people, had proven he wasn’t blitzed out of his mind. “That must be the fish oils on me. I told ya’ I ain’t high!”

“Fish oils?” I asked.

“Jesus, what will they think of next,” Paul Irving said as he walked up to the bar, Mary Joe and Tom by his side. “Ronnie Lee, you’d smoke a dog turd straight out of a rabid Doberman’s ass to get a buzz, I swear.”

“It ain’t like that,” Ronnie Lee protested, struggling to be heard over the uproar of laughter. Irritated, he vigorously scratched at his balding scalp. His brow furrowed and his eyes scrunched tight, searching for the right words as if they were tattooed behind his eyelids. He took a deep breath and uttered the one thing capable of grabbed everyone’s full attention. “I seen Joe Don down by the lake. He’s the one who took me for a cleansin’.”

Ronnie Lee’s brother had been missing for nearly fifteen years. He wasn’t as messed up as Ronnie Lee, but Joe Don had been known to party with the best of them from time to time. He was generally liked by all and most people only tolerated Ronnie Lee because they liked his brother. When he disappeared, townsfolk just assumed he moved on to greener pastures like most of the people that left this God forsaken town. Unlike his brother, Joe had a lot more of his wits about him and he could have made it just about anywhere. I had always thought it was strange, abandoning his dumb brother to fend for himself, but the way I figured it, he had probably gotten fed up with Ronnie Lee’s antics. A sane man can only take so much.

The small group gathered around the poor fool, interested to hear about Joe Don. As Ronnie Lee told his story the scene unfolded before me in dripping splashes; a painted picture brushed by the hands of a fractured mind.

Ronnie Lee had ventured down to old man Granger’s abandoned lake house. Granger died several years back and the property was never claimed. Over the years it had been plundered of everything valuable, a lot of it at the hands of Ronnie, and it lay in a state of disrepair, a ramshackle eyesore down by the silver-lined shore of Misenos Lake. In his search for cash, Ronnie Lee had come up with the idea to strip the house of any copper wire. The going rate for insulated wire was around $1.10 per pound, but straight copper wire went for nearly $3.30. His plan was to strip it all and burn it in a 55 gallon barrel, the proven tweaker way of removing insulation in a hurry and tripling the pay. Ronnie Lee’s ecological morals were lacking, but he was a mathematical wizard in his own mind when it came to the score. To speed up the fire, he brought along his trusty gas can.

After an hour of sweating it out in the shut off house, Ronnie found a place to roost beneath the lean-to boat dock for a hard earned reality break. There was nothing quite like watching the lake fade into oblivion. He hovered over his gas can and inhaled until the magic hit him, dreams of copper and cash swimming in his fumigated mind.

The trip always went one of two ways. Most of the time his vision blurred into a chain link fence, crisscrossing and coiling tight around his body thousands upon thousands of times and protecting him from the outside universe. In fact, thoughts of any outside world faded and deep within his hallucination, Ronnie Lee was the universe. Nothing existed but him and the steady hum of harmony buzzing through his ears and down his spine.

But the fence trip wasn’t on the schedule for this flight. On this particular high, the world opened up before him like a great chasm as far as his eyes could see, splitting the lake wide open in roaring waterfalls and sucking him right in with it. He tumbled into the great divide of nothingness, over and over again to the same humming harmony; a thrill ride set on infinite repeat.

“Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na…. na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na… na-na-na,” Ronnie said describing the noise like a music aficionado explaining the brilliance of Chopin.

“It sounds like the opening to that old Adam West Batman show,” Paul laughed. “Na na na na Na na na na BATMAN!”

“No,” Ronnie Lee frowned. “It ain’t like that at all. It’s not a sound made by tapping your tongue to the roof of your mouth repeatedly, that’s just the only way I can describe it. It’s deeper than that. More cosmic than anything human.”

“We don’t care about your high, Ronnie Lee,” Mary Joe complained, twirling a lock of bleached hair and smacking her gum like cattle chewing cud. How she drank beer around her Juicy Fruit was beyond me, but I’m sure she had put worse things in her mouth. She disgusted me and I’m not ashamed to admit, I often wished it had been her body found in the lake instead of Summer. “Tell us about Joe Don, numb nuts.”

“I was gettin’ there. The hum of harmony is important,” he said, turning up his nose like she had ordered a Big Mac from a five star restaurant. “It ain’t just racket clatterin’ around in my head, okay. It’s the symphony of the universe and it vibrates through ya’ like a tunin’ fork, holdin’ us and everything in this world together. That vibe lets me know when I’m peakin’ and when I’m comin’ down.”

“I don’t think you ever come down,” Tom grumbled. The disgust on his face matched the way he looked at me most of the time. “Just finish your story. You stink.”

The pitch black chasm filled in with Misenos Lake one droplet at a time. The hum of harmony slowly faded within his ears, replaced by the subtle splashes of lapping water. Ronnie Lee’s eyes burned and he wiped at them with his shirttail, careful not to rub gasoline in and escalate the problem. The can lay by his side, tipped over and trickling down the wooden planks of the dock. The strong metallic aftertaste lay thick on his tongue. He knelt down at the lake’s edge and cupped handfuls of water into his mouth, swishing and gargling to remove the taste. He dumped water over his head and face to cool off, shaking the cobwebs from his brain. When he opened his eyes, legs stood knee deep in the water before him. Squinting, he looked up at the figure’s black silhouette blotted out by the glaring sun and shielded his eyes for a better look. The man held a hand out to help him up.

“Look, mister. I ain’t stole nothin’. I just stopped to get a drank, that’s all,” he said, avoiding the stranger’s hand and rising on his own.

“Long time, no see, lil’ brother,” the voice said. At eye level the man’s face came into view and Ronnie Lee took a step back. His brother hadn’t aged a day in fifteen years.

“Joe Don?” he asked, but he already knew the answer. There was no mistaking the similarities between the two men, minus the sores on Ronnie Lee’s face and his two rotten teeth. His brother was paler than he remembered, but it was rumored once that Joe Don had moved to Alaska. He had always been a hell of a fisherman and the fishing industry was booming there. As the shock of seeing his long lost brother wore off, he immediately embraced him. “Where the hell have ya’ been, shitheel?!”

“Away,” he answered. “I’ve come home for you, brother.”

“Ain’t much of a home to come to, Joe,” Ronnie Lee laughed. “Same ‘ol shit. Different day is all.”

“I want you to come with me,” Joe Don said. He waved his arm out towards the lake in a sweeping gesture. Ronnie Lee took another step back, horrified.

Something stirred within the water setting Ronnie Lee’s nerves on edge and causing his sack to shrivel. Misenos Lake was completely still, except for the heads slowly emerging on the lake’s surface. Even the water lapping against the shoreline ceased to move, respecting these figures with awestruck reverence. Heads gradually emerged, followed by shoulders. The multitude formed a snake-like pattern across the lake, stretching back as far as Ronnie Lee could see. Their numbers were infinite. Each person donned a hooded cloak, shadows concealing the faces within. Their hands folded in the center of their chests, recalling to Ronnie Lee an old kindergarten rhyme they used to sing on the playground. Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the door and see all the people. He shuddered.

“Don’t be afraid,” Joe Don said with a soft smile. “We want you to join us.”

Ronnie Lee couldn’t believe his eyes. The water’s reflection made the crowd look much taller than they were, like elongated silhouettes standing on the water, instead of in it. If he hadn’t witnessed them rising from the depths, he would have thought they were a church congregation gathered for a baptism. His instincts told him they weren’t people at all.

“I ain’t so sure about this, Joe Don,” he said and noticed for the first time that he was trembling. “This is a bad trip or somethin’. I dunno.”

“What were you doing here, Ronnie Lee?” his brother asked, acknowledging his terror and placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“I thought I’d stretch my legs, is all. Thought I’d see what Mother Nature was wearin’, ya’ know,” Ronnie Lee lied. Joe Don looked like a new man who had cleaned up and abandoned the party life. He was embarrassed to admit his real reasons for being at Granger’s and tried to make light of it. He shook his head. “Looks like she’s sure showin’ her tits today!”

“You were getting high,” Joe Don said solemnly. “Aren’t you tired of that life, brother? Tired of scraping for change? Tired of wondering where you’ll wake up next? Tired of feeling like shit all the time?”

“I dunno,” Ronnie Lee said scratching at his scalp. He trusted Joe Don, but the people in the lake creeped him out and for a guy who had hallucinated man-eating AC units and confused a pineapple for a prostitute, that was saying something.

“Tell you what,” Joe Don said, wrapping an arm around his brother’s shoulder and leading him into the water. “You need to be cleansed, Ronnie Lee. Purified from all the impurities corrupting your body. The Hali will cleanse you throughout, so that your mind will be clear and you can come back to join us. To live with us in the lost city.”

Ronnie Lee was tempted to make a break for it, fearful of what the cloaked creatures of Misenos Lake had in mind, but his brother’s grip was strong and his smile demanding. He waded hesitantly into the lake, the weaving structure of the multitude’s line shifting around him. He caught glimpses of their faces as he walked, noting that the water never rose any higher than his waist. Many of the faces were vaguely familiar while others he recognized right away. The further out his brother led him, the more frightened he became. Some of the faces he recognized shouldn’t have been there. Couldn’t have been there. The individuals engulfed him, their snake-like line curving around him in an endless swirl pattern that covered the entire body of the lake. High on the far bank standing on top of the hill that overlooked Misenos, one figure looked on. His arms were held open in a welcoming embrace, his tattered, yellow cloak flapping in the breeze and his face covered with a grinning, pallid mask.

The crowd chanted, their chorus of nonsense bouncing off of the still waters and echoing in the surrounding pines. This startled Ronnie Lee at first, but as the voices became one he was reminded of the hum of harmony and his nerves settled, resigned to whatever ritual these beings had in store for him.

“Are you ready?” his brother asked. Ronnie Lee nodded and Joe Don plunged his face beneath the surface. Taken off guard, he sucked in lake water before quickly holding his breath. The water stung at his open eyes with pins and needles. The waving cloaks surrounded him like a child hiding in the center of a clothes rack at Walmart, revealing misshapen greyish-green legs bent at the knees and treading water like bullfrogs. Their webbed feet clawed at the water, paddling dangerously close to his face. He panicked, but Joe Don’s hand pushed his face further to the lake floor.

Sand and silt clouded the water as he thrashed about and fought in vain for freedom. Bubbles streamed from his mouth and nose as the last of his air escaped. His bare gums hummed with thousands of electric shocks deep within their empty sockets. His skin fizzed and foamed as toxins escaped from his pores. The panic slowly subsided into euphoria as the sand drifted down to settle. The lake bottom wasn’t the soggy earth he had expected. It was a glass floor. He quickly brushed away the remaining sand, spotting something on the other side. The view disoriented him as he looked down (up, his mind suggested) at the world on the opposite side. One lake bottom bled into another, separated by the clear pane between them. From the depths of this mirrored lake, a magnificent city shimmered in the distance. The buildings were like nothing he had ever seen before and their odd shaped shadows drew long over the lake, cast down by the twin suns rising into the sky high above them. He beat his fists against the glass, desperate to shatter through and swim to the alternate shore, but Joe Don snatched him up and away from the strange city, its splendor just within reach.

“Did you see?!” he asked as soon as he caught his breath. He spun around in a wild panic to tell Joe Don about the other side. The cloaked beings had vanished. “Where did they go?”

“They have returned to their home, but they will be back to retrieve the others,” Joe Don reassured him. “How do you feel?”

Ronnie Lee felt energy surging through him as if years had been washed from his age. His skin felt tight and his muscles hard. His vision was sharper than it had ever been and the spare tire around his midsection felt as if it were shrinking in on itself. A deafening noise went off like a shotgun blast from the tree line and he noted with astonishment a squirrel cracking open an acorn, nearly fifty yards away from the bank. He felt renewed. He felt like a new man. He felt cleansed.

“It’s like my first high!” he exclaimed, surprising himself with the outburst. “But we have to go down there, Joe Don! We have to get to that other world!”

“We will, but you need time for the rest of the toxins to purge from your body. Come back tonight and the others will show you the way in,” Joe Don said.

“The fish gods?” Ronnie Lee asked. “They done this to me, didn’t they?”

“The Hali,” Joe Don corrected. “And yes. They did this to prepare you. You were too polluted, lil’ brother. But by tonight…”

“By tonight I’ll be completely cleansed!”

Joe Don eased down in the water, nodding in agreement. Just before his head submerged, he smiled up at his brother and Ronnie Lee noted the slits on both sides of his neck, just below the jawline. They fluttered in and out, sucking in water as he spoke.

“Tonight we will dine beneath the black stars of the lost city,” he said, slipping below the water.

The crowd gathered around Ronnie Lee stood in silence, the only sounds coming from the old jukebox as Bocephus boasted about skinning bucks and running trotlines.

“Ronnie Lee,” Butch said with a pause, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder, “I’m afraid you cracked your shell and left yolk on the counter, son.”

The others burst out in laughter and even though I knew they all hated me, I couldn’t help but grin. The story did sound ridiculous.

“I’m telling the truth!” he exclaimed. “You should all come with me. There’s people that want to see you.”

“Sure thing, Ronnie,” Paul said, wrapping an arm around Mary Joe and turning back towards their booth. “Tell Flipper and Charlie Tuna I said hi.”

“Yeah, Ronnie,” Mary Joe chimed in. “No one’s got time for finding Nemo.”

“Your daddy was there,” Ronnie Lee said and Mary Joe stopped dead in her tracks.

“That’s not funny,” Tom snapped. “You know damn well her daddy died when she was little.”

The death of Mary Joe’s dad had been big news all over town back then. He had just made a haul to Amarillo and back when he fell asleep behind the wheel and plowed through Corasac Pawn. The accident had killed three other people to boot, one of which just happened to be Tom and Paul’s grandfather, Billy Irving. In a small community like ours, funerals draw crowds like the county fair, depending on the person. The quadruple funeral had been a mega event the likes of which this town had never seen. Nothing had compared to the attendance of that solemn affair since, except maybe for the spreading of Summer’s ashes.

“Your Papaw Billy was there, too,” Ronnie Lee said, pointing at Tom and Paul. Tom reached for a pool cue, but Butch stepped between them and took it away before he could swing. Ronnie Lee never flinched. The conviction in his eyes was unmistakable.

“Cool your jets,” Butch warned Tom. Mary Joe clutched at his arm and pulled him back. Butch turned to Ronnie Lee, his face all business. “And you need to go on and get the hell on. I’m not playing, Ronnie. If you say one more word, I’ll crack you over the head myself.”

“Hold up, Ronnie,” I said, grabbing him by the arm as he turned towards the door. I’m not sure why I said anything at all. I suppose we shared a common bond as fellow outcasts and Ronnie Lee’s tale had birthed a ball of ice in my gut I hadn’t felt since the interrogation. “Maybe you shouldn’t go back down to the lake.”

“Somebody should have told Summer that,” Tom popped off behind my back. Butch wouldn’t let him pummel Ronnie Lee, but he certainly wouldn’t stop him from taking his anger out on me. I grit my teeth and bit my tongue. Tom Walker had been a pompous ass since the day he was born and there was nothing more I wanted right then than to break his jaw, but Ronnie whispered something that stopped me cold.

“Summer’s there, too,” he said in a voice so low I could barely make out the words. I looked at him hard, trying to figure out what kind of game he was playing at, but he only smiled. Something about the way he grinned felt wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it and it perplexed me so much, I was at a loss for words. In a rush, I slapped a twenty on the bar, gave a slight nod to Butch he didn’t bother to reciprocate and ushered Ronnie Lee towards the door.

“That’s what I thought, you pervert,” Tom called over my shoulder. The record changed on the jukebox and thunder rolled as the door shut behind me.

“They’ll all go down to the lake,” Ronnie Lee said. He was already pointed in that general direction and I had to pick up the pace to keep up. I darted out in front of him and grabbed him by the shoulders.

“Why are you seeing dead folks at the lake, Ronnie Lee?” I asked, looking him in the eye.

“There are all different types of death,” he said in a monotone voice. His eyes had grown distant and his face was damn near expressionless. It was as if someone else was speaking through him. “Sometimes the body rots while the spirit ascends, but sometimes the body moves on without the spirit. The Halis have shown me the way to the lost city where we all can be reunited with our loved ones, dead or living.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked, shaking him by the shoulders. He snapped out of his daze for a moment and looked me head on in such away, I retracted.

The sores on his face had vanished, his skin smooth as a newborn babe. His lips were no longer dried and cracked and his hair had filled in. I was staring at a younger man. One I had known years ago, before bad habits and life had worn him down. He smiled at me, his mouth open wide and I stared horrified into a full set of pearly white teeth. Teeth Ronnie Lee hadn’t possessed in over a decade.

“Summer’s waiting for you down there,” he said again. “She’s not angry with you no more, neither. She knows you couldn’t help it.”

His words stung like a horsefly bite on a bare neck. He walked off into the pine grove without a care in the world, leaving me with my guilt.

It’s been four days and I haven’t seen Ronnie Lee since. Mary Joe was the next to go and Tom and Paul disappeared soon after. Just the other night I watched Butch walk through the trailer park towards the dandelion field. He was hand in hand with a woman who looked just like his mother, dead for nearly five years now. I imagine most of the town has headed down to Misenos Lake one way or another. I’m not entirely alone, though. Summer sings Rolling in the Deep at my window every night, begging to go for a swim. I watch her and smoke one cigarette after another, wondering how long I can hold out before taking her hand and following her down to the water’s edge.

apoclypse_34

Child of the Apocalypse: The Harvest Part 5 – Nick Paschall

The quarantine was uneventful enough seeing as Jaime slept through half of it, her aching bones weary from traveling for so long. The pot she’d smoked had been enough to keep her calm after her exposure to the strange undead of the town, allowing her to relax into the uncomfortable cot until she heard the chains on the other side of the door rattle. When they opened to reveal the same man from yesterday, Derek, she gave him a soft smile.

“So, am I safe?” She asked, standing up to stretch.

“Hardly, but you’re not bitten,” Derek joked, “just try not to rouse any of the dead any more than they’ve been shaken up and we should be fine.”

“If you just let me leave town, then they’ll settle down on their own,” Jaime pointed out.

“If you could get past them all, sure,” Derek agreed, “but the roads are clogged with them right now. They may be slow, but they’re strong.”

“Nothing I haven’t encountered before…” Jaime said with a smile. She walked out of the room and into the dismal hall of the school. “So where does everyone hole up in this dump?”

“The second floor. We turned the elevator shaft into a ladder and pulley system after blocking off the stairs,” Derek said.

“Sounds dangerous… how do you escape if the first floor gets overrun?”

“We don’t,” an older voice rang out from the darkness, revealing a lean, balding man on a cane. “We stay strong and hole up good. We have enough able bodies to take out the dead should they come at us down the narrow hallways.”

“You’ve planned,” Jaime said, impressed.

“Something you get good at when you get old,” the man said, extending a hand out to her, “Pete Haring, pleased to meet you.”

“Jaime, pleased to meet you myself,” Jaime said, taking the hand and shaking it firmly. The man had softer hands that held a former strength to them that was fading due to atrophy.

“As you requested, we got your personal effects last night, at great personal risk to our survival teams,” Pete said, “we hope you appreciate that.”

“I would’ve been out of your hair if you’d just let me go,” Jaime pointed out.

Pete shook his head. “Had to find out if you were with a group. We scouted out the area and camped out in the trees for a few hours, just watching. A few of the moss-eaters shambled by it, but the beasts stayed clear of it. We found that you have some lighters and a spare tank of gasoline, as well as a good several days’ worth of survival team scrounging in terms of medicine. Even had some marijuana and opium from our old fields.”

“Sorry, didn’t know you had claim to them,” Jaime said.

Pete shook his head as he turned to walk. “No apologies necessary. Ever since we’ve had to go into hiding we haven’t been able to manage the fields properly.”

“And why’ve you gone into hiding?” Jaime asked.

Derek, who was walking lock step with her, piped up. “A rival group moved into town about a year ago. Survivalist types, former military, real hard asses. They originally tried to join us saying we could help each other, but when they showed that they were going to use us as a labor force, we fled and set up shop here in the school.”

“The school has been abandoned for years, due to structural damage from torrential rains that blow in from the ocean and lack of repair,” Pete said, “so we figured the few that remained behind with them would tell them that we would have just fled to another section of town. We know they search for us everywhere else, as we’re in the middle of one of the most infected zones in our small burg.”

“We grow most of our own food and cultivate certain herbs for medicine, but what we really need is kept at our old base of operations,” Derek said.

“Which is?” Jaime asked.

“The old public library,” Pete responded, “they have the whole reservoir of knowledge that we so desperately need. What we need is a few certain texts to keep our community thriving.”

“And how do you plan on getting them, as if I have to ask?” Jaime sighed.

“We’d like you to go there and keep them distracted so that you can sneak in and find books on the subjects,” Derek said, “if you can do that, we’ll release your motorcycle and everything that was on it to you.”

“And if I don’t? You’ll just keep me hostage?” Jaime asked.

“Hostage is such a strong word,” Pete smiled, “we like to think of it as you’d be joining our community, albeit unwillingly. We can always use a new infusion of blood into our group, and workers would love another back to help in our roof gardens.”

“Ah, lovely way of saying I’d be a workhorse,” Jaime said.

“Your words,” Pete smirked, “not mine. Just agree to try and get our books, and we’ll let you go with your supplies.”

“Not that I have much of a choice,” Jaime said, “so I guess the question is what do you need?”

Derek slapped her on the back, laughing. “That’s the spirit!”

“Yeah,” she said, rolling her shoulder to slide his hand off her, “I’m totally sold on this. Let’s go team, let’s go!”

To be continued…

 

 

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