March 2012


People had been talking lately, saying that junkies on the Sol had been flooding doctor’s offices and hospitals. Why depended on who was talking–Trick had heard everything from seeing things to bleeding from the eyes to thinking they were stuck on Jupiter. That last one especially gave him an easy laugh as he downed two tablets of Soliaq with a swig of bottled water.

He needed the Sol to take the edge off, to give him the cool calm to pull off deals. If that meant a few side effects, who cared? He wouldn’t go screaming to some doctor on account of a few little blips and bloops.

Jayden was waiting at the appointed spot, in the alley behind the hardware store, usual steel briefcase in hand. “You’re late.”

“No I’m not,” Trick snapped. “Stop trying to act like some kind of rinky dink movie gangsta and show me the goods.”

The steel briefcase snapped open, revealing a pharmacological cornucopia–legal but stolen, prescription only, and the hard stuff. “Two-fifty for the lot.”

Trick felt the gentle, soothing hand of the Sol on him and shook his head. “You kidding? The street value of this stuff’s fallen by half since the Sol hit. You get seventy-five, and only because I’m feeling generous.”

“C’mon, what am I supposed to do with seventy-five?” Jayden whined. “I risked my life for this stuff.”

“Tell it to someone who cares,” Trick shot back. “It’s a buyer’s market, and…and…”

He trailed off, staring into the distance well beyond his contact.

“And what?” Jayden said. “Hey, you all right?”

“D-s’you see that?” Trick said, pointing over his contact’s shoulder.

“See what?”

Trick’s eyes widened. He’d thought it was distant thunder, or maybe a dust devil, but now it was clear that the tickle at the edge of his vision was actually a roiling wall of clouds. It reached from the pavement to the sky, alternating bands of vivid orange, red, and white punctuated by spots of deepest crimson. It was like the bright and poisonous atmosphere of Jupiter was closing in on Trick like a Sahara sandstorm.

“What…what’s happening?” he shrieked. “Stop it! Oh God, I’m gonna be carried away…” The full force of the clouds hit him a moment later, agonizingly stripping the flesh from his bones as he writhed and screamed.

Jayden looked down for a minute, shocked, as Trick yelled and squirmed on the ground. Nothing was wrong with him, as far as he could tell, other than flushed shin and dilated pupils. But the noise was so awful that a moment later he snapped his case shut and fled, leaving Trick to the mercy of the Sol in his bloodstream and the Jupiter clouds it had summoned.

The Morrows had thought the property was a steal–18 rooms across two floors and just about everything about the house was high-quality pre-1900 joinery from when people knew what they were doing when they were woodworking. Its previous owner, one Mr. Daugherty, had kept it up well. A retired, divorced construction worker, he had installed a rather high security fence and zealously chased people away from his property. His death plus his heirs’ stated intention to have nothing to do with him meant fire-sale values.

Sam and Jenna Morrow found the place suited their needs, and the twins’, perfectly. If they had any complaint, it was that the heating and electricity bills tended to be rather high–a circumstance Sam blamed on old wiring and Jenna blamed on drafty windows and doors that had shrunk away from their frames.

Once old Mr. Daugherty’s privacy fence had been cut down to a reasonable size, the Morrows attempted to build a garage–the only architectural feature that the property lacked. Excavations for a concrete slab began, but were unceremoniously halted after a backhoe brought up reinforced concrete fragments and four live hand grenades.

After bomb squads from three counties responded and the Morrows spent a month in a hotel, the truth emerged: Daugherty had spent his twilight years constructing a reinforced concrete fallout bunker beneath his yard in anticipation of what, to him, was imminent nuclear war. Water leakage had damaged the corner that held the bunker’s armory–hand grenades and other small arms–allowing the backhoe to burst through. But everything else was as Daugherty had left it at his death: canned food, a ventilation system that piggybacked off the chimney, full electrical power that leeched from the main house, and a basement entrance so well-hidden that neither the realtor nor the Morrows had noticed.

“Sure,” Gary said. “Give me a call sometime. Here’s my number: 555-6745.”

555-6745 wasn’t Gary’s number

It had never been Gary’s number

He considered himself far too busy to deal with 90% of the people he met. That, plus his general disregard for others’ feelings coupled with his need to appear friendly and charming, was where 555-6745 came in.

90% of the people who asked for Gary’s number got 6745 instead. The woman typed the digits into her cell and walked away.

Ten minutes later and 200 miles away, Harold Baker picked up his cell phone. “Another wrong number? Who’s this Gary and why do I keep getting his calls?”

The forest was ever tinder-twig dry and the dead brown of fall leaves. A dull, listless life kept the trees from rotting and their leaves from dropping, but each spring would find none of the green shoots and renewal visited on other woodlands.

Most who passed by preferred to avoid that wood, for legend had it that the elders of a nearby town had tied its fate with their own through a long-forgotten ceremony. As the town’s sins multiplied and grew, as weeds choked the farmers’ fields, so too did the forest darken and cease to bloom. Those who cared to comment said that the evils of the town were tied up in the trees, forever poisoning the land, and attracting all manner of darknesses to swallow up the unwary.

But those who braved the interior of the dead wood found, at its heart, a green and living tree. In spring, it alone among the boughs would be crowned with young shoots and flowers the color of driven snow. None could say why it alone was spared the fate of the others, but all agreed that its light shining in the darkness was an inspiration to lost and lonely travelers in their peril.

Much as the evils of the town were tied up in the other trees, so too was its hope made manifest in that last unspoilt bough.

Gambling was, at least in theory, illegal in Hopewell. But that had never stopped anyone, and the HPD as well as the SMU DPS had looked the other way for years, especially when the Fighting Grizzlies were on a hot streak. That hadn’t happened since the team had been the Potawatomi; some said the teams had been cursed when they gave Chief Kawgushkanic his walking papers and replaced him with Smitty the Grizzly.

But there was plenty of betting to be had regardless. Anna “Dayton” Gillespie saw to that.

Ostensibly a junior instructor at Southern Michigan University, Dayton taught a single one-credit remedial computer science course every other semester. But her true and abiding passion was social engineering expressed through the medium of gambling.

One of her cousins ran The Wigwam Bar & Grill downtown, and Dayton ran a betting parlor and a few slot machines in a back room. The slot machines only took and accepted bar tokens to skirt local ordinances, but the real attraction was the odds board where Dayton offered all sorts of esoteric bets. On a typical day, for example, there might be 1:300 odds that the SMU provost would get a parking ticket, or 1:20 odds that a key defensive player in the Fighting Grizzlies line would be caught in a tryst with a female escort. Bets were cheap, and many of the events so outlandish that many took the opportunity to bet against them.

That’s when Dayton went to work, using her extensive local connections and programming skills to try and bring those devastatingly unlikely events about. For the a football player to be caught in a compromising position, it was usually enough to alert a SMU Times reporter when the team went out for “hot wings” at Madame Bovary’s “restaurant.”

For more difficult tasks like the provost’s parking ticket, Dayton would spread rumors and lean on carefully selected individuals. Perhaps a major donor’s favored program was rumored to be facing cancellation, prompting an emergency visit that would require double parking. Perhaps there was a rumor that the provost’s daughter, a junior in Phi Qoppa Mu, was in the drunk tank and facing a 30-day sentence (everybody knew that the parking in front of the Hopewell jail was police-only). Or it might be as simple as altering the programming in the DPS’s absurdly unprotected computer system.

In any event, Dayton won most of her bets. And the thrill of the social engineering behind each victory vastly outweighed the small monetary gain.

While she was out of work and in between applications, Emmalee found herself with a lot of time to kill. She gradually became obsessed with the pumpkin pie contest held at the Tri-County Fair every fall and the ticket to recipe publication (and residuals) with Bibliophile Digest it represented.

So the hunt was on for the perfect pie recipe, and Emmalee’s kitchen became her laboratory. She had plenty of ingredients saved up in the pantry after the last big hurricane scare, and was soon making two or more pies a day. Though she didn’t like to flaunt the fact–conflicting with some peoples’ notion of the Modern Independent Woman as it did–Emmalee was an excellent cook and even he rejects were eagerly snapped up.

At first, anyway.

As the job hunt wound into the summer and Emmalee remained in the kitchen, her friends and relatives began to tire of her constant barrage of pumpkin pies. They weren’t doing any of her sewing circle friends any favors during swimsuit season, and at least one of her diabetic friends nearly landed himself in the hospital after a particularly delectable (and sugary) pie had found its way across his desk.

Committed as they were to sparing Emmalee’s feelings and supporting her in a time of need, her friends did the only thing they could: they broke into her house and hid the pumpkin pie ingredients, one at a time (inasmuch as using Uncle Harold’s key counted as breaking in, anyway). At first, Emmalee simply tried to make do without, leading to an unfortunate succession of pies with no sugar or crusts made from whole wheat bread crumbs. Eventually, though, even the basic ingredients vanished (along with the contents of her pumpkin patch).

It’s anyone’s guess whether what came next was revenge or simply resourcefulness on the part of someone who couldn’t afford to buy more raw pie fixings. But no one who tasted the spaghetti squash and bell pepper pie sweetened with cinnamon and carrot cake mix on a take n’ bake pizza crust that came next ever forgot it.

Emmalee found her missing ingredients on the porch one day later.

The idea came to Dan after seeing the same quarter with a scratch on Washington’s cheek three times in town. Every coin, he speculated, must be endlessly circulated and recirculated, especially since it was such a small community and all the cash went through a single farmer’s bank. But since most coins were mostly alike, there was no way to be sure.

Dan was going to see for himself.

His girlfriend, an artist, had access to a wide variety of indelible toxic paints and engraving tools. Dan used them to engrave his initials into the face of a quarter and paint them the most durable, indelible, poisonous-if-inhaled black he could find.

Daniel Arthur MacDonnagh. D-A-M.

His parents had kicked themselves for giving him those initials, but Grandpa Art wasn’t about to let them be changed (and neither, for that matter, was Grandpa Dan). They’d been, at various times, a point of pride and a badge of shame.

Now they were an indelible marker cast out into the wilds of a small-town economy.

When the blindfold came off, Gerald found himself in a run-down homesteader’s cabin, lit only by dusty shafts of light that peeked through the logs. He was bound hand and food to a rude wooden stool, and a big man in a duster and banana sat on a stool of his own nearby.

“Wh-who are you?” Gerald stammered. “What do you want?”

The man drew a piece of paper from his pocket and tossed it at Gerald. It wafted down onto his lap, and he could just make out in the dim light that it was one of the sketches he’d done for the Marshall’s office in Dunn’s Crossing. It was Bradley King Freeman’s face, wanted for rustling and robbery; carved into a printing block by the local engraver, it had furnished hundreds of copies dotted about the territories.

“You draw that?”

Gerald spat out his answer before he could think better of it. “Y-yeah,” he said.

The man pulled down his bandanna, and Gerald felt panic sweat prickle along his back. It was Bradley King Freeman, the spitting image of his composite sketch. “That was a mighty pretty picture you drew,” the bandit growled. “Mighty pretty.”

“I…I just did it for the money,” Gerald stammered, his voice rising to a squeak. “I listened to the witnesses and I drew it and they gave me ten dollars. I swear, I don’t have anything against you!”

“Just in it for the money, huh?” Freeman reached into his coat. “In that case I’ve got just the thing for you.”

Gerald winced. That was it–shot in the head while trussed up like a chicken. And all for ten dollars’ worth of art.

Freeman produced a stack of silver certificates tied up with twine and dumped it on Gerald’s lap. “How about you take ten times as much to do a nice portrait with color and a frame,” he said. “Get my good side and send it back upriver to my folks so they’ll have something to remember me by when I’m dangling from a noose.”

Even though crime was way down in the inner city and muggings rare even in the twistiest of subway tunnels, Weirdo Watching still had its dangers. The weirdos in question could be armed, or mentally ill, or both; they could be pedophiles or convicted rapists or former city politicians. That element of danger, however remote, was behind Weirdo Watching’s recent popularity as an extreme sport amongst the spoiled and indolent, the bored and the teenaged.

“Where’s he headed?” Shaney asked, observing the transient that had drawn his attention by waving what appeared to be a stick of ladies’ roll-on deodorant like a symphony baton. He and Ash had followed their quarry down into the subway, surreptitiously snapping the most outrageous shots they could get on their phones for uploading to weirdowatching.ny.com.

“The dead end, he’s headed for the dead end,” Ash said. It wasn’t so much a dead end as a three-way junction where one of the branches had been closed off by a steel gate as long as Ash and Shaney had been alive.

“Keep your distance, then. We don’t want to back him into a place where he could get scared and stabby.”

Following at a car’s length, cell phones still merrily snapping, they saw the weirdo stop at a smooth tile wall just before the dead end. He paused a moment then rapidly smeared the deodorant baton over the wall in a frenzy. It rolled on clear, leaving no residue. Shaney could have sworn the man was casting a glance every so often at his pursuers, but before the idea could fully form the weirdo dashed off at high speed, vaulting over a turnstile before his pursuers could even snap another shot.

“Well, we’ve lost him. But I think we have enough shots of him deodorizing a random subway wall to make a good post. You want to go back up and try again?”

No reply. “Ash?”

Shaney returned to the dead end wall; Ash stood there, staring at the blank surface, agape. “Hey, you all right?”

To Shaney’s eyes it was a blank wall, but to Ash’s there was a message scrawled there, in bright neon green.

ONLY .00001 PERCENT OF PEOPLE CAN READ THIS MESSAGE IT IS THE FIRST SIGN OF MANY

The Vicomte de Foix was enraged by the articles, which painted him as a callous, murderous aristocrat in the worst caricature of the tottering ancien rĂ©gime. While the “Lyon Theses” were written under a pseudonym, it was an open secret that the liberal Vicomte de Lara was the author. The Vicomte de Lara had all but abandoned his noble titles to live a life of anti-government agitation (and libertine personal habits) in Paris. But in the absence of an official abdication, he remained a member of the Second Estate.

Thus, the Vicomte de Foix challenged the Vicomte de Lara to a duel which the latter rashly accepted despite the fact that he had no combat experience and would be facing down an experienced soldier and veteran of the American Revolution. In recognition of that fact, the Vicomte de Lara found it impossible to secure a second, as none of his friends wished to chance an encounter with the Vicomte de Foix’s pistol (or to watch his opponent die). When the duel took place, on a sandbar in the icy Seine in December 1788, the Vicomte de Lara arrived alone.

Before the duel could begin, though, a figure approached and took its place as the Vicomte de Lara’s second. The challenger was cold and anxious to be done with the duel, and did not challenge the newcomer. Upon seeing the matched and embossed set of dueling pistols and trying, unsuccessfully, to load one, the Vicomte de Lara broke down in hysterics and refused to participate further, instead lying prostrate on the ground.

His opponent, disgusted, declared his intention to gun down the Vicomte de Lara where he lay and began loading his pistol. He was stopped by the late-arriving second, who finished the Vicomte de Lara’s clumsy loading of his pistol and opened fire as permitted by the dueling rules of the time which allowed seconds to take the place of either duelist.

Their aim was true; the Vicomte de Foix never lived to see the second cast off their cloak to reveal his opponent’s young mistress.

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