February 2018


In that kitchen, every meal that had fed my family for a generation had been cooked. It was humbling to think that the raw materials that had gone into the making of my father and his four brothers, then our little family of three, and finally just me as the house sat old and empty…the raw bits that had been made into the family I had loved, and hated, and lost. They’d all simmered on that stove. Uncle Jason had been cooked in that oven, spooned up into Grandma by her own cooking hand. I’d been fried on the cast-iron skillets hanging on their old greasy hooks, served as strips of bacon and hash browns to Mom while she juggled legal briefs and a kicking zygote.

In that kitchen, we’d also had all the great blowups that my family had experienced. The dining room as for company, you see, and the family only saw its inside on Christmas and Easter. So that kitchen had seen Grandpa complain about his reflux until it had turned into a heart attack. It ad seen Grandma accuse us of conspiring to steal the house out from under her still-warm corpse (her words, not mine). Mom and Dad had gradually escalated their arguments to an apocalyptic level as I got older, the grumbles of my youth graduating to the shouting matches of my adolescence and the broken glasses of my high school years. They’d promised to sue for divorce there, divided up the goods there.

In that kitchen, Dad had slumped, listless, when I’d told him that boys weren’t for me and that my girlfriend was coming over. He’d passed away there, over a half-finished plate of eggs and hash, while I was in the big city trying to make a go of being a bohemian writer. And it was in that kitchen that Grace finally told me that she wouldn’t, and couldn’t, live the provincial life and on the provincial salary of a high school English teacher.

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Cake used to be the province of the super-rich, with the rank-and-file perhaps able to sample a fruit-flavored or honey-sweetened scone once in a great while. Marie Antoinette was famously excoriated for being so out of touch that she assumed starving peasants could afford cake, even though she never said such a thing.

Now, a custom-decorated sheet cake is available to all for just a few dollars, and a trifle that would have dazzled a medieval court is a common presence at birthday parties. And yet these new-cakes are, if anything, less healthy than the aristocrat-pleasing desserts of yore. A French aristocrat may have put on rolls of guillotine-delaying flab with honeyed cakes, but they would not have been so sweet or so efficiently sugary.

If the sweetness of the cake corresponds to the harshness of the fall…we might be in for trouble.

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“If only I’d known,” I sighed. “I’d have done things differently.”

“I hear that so often,” said Death. “Let me ask you something: would you care to live that last day again?”

“You mean, I could warn May that-”

“No,” Death said flatly. “She is mine now. But I can grant your request to live that day again, your last day, and allow you to fill it with what you will. I ask only one thing in return.”

“That…that I not warn her, or tell her what’s coming?” I said, hesitantly.

“Yes,” Death said. “Be true to your word, and give her the best day that you could have, knowing what is to come. But if you communicate her fate to her, your own life is forfeit. Do we have an agreement?”

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Captain Strong as wearing his dress blues with white gloves and his customary sunglasses–indoors and at night, of course.

“Ah, welcome, Captain Strong,” Greg said, grasping and pumping one of the officer’s hands before the latter could pull away. “What a lovely…Captain Strong cosplay you’ve got there.”

“I’m here for Virginia,” Strong said. “You know how much she loves things like…this.”

“Of course, how could I forget your wife taking first place at the Nerdicon ’13 cosplay contest!” said Greg. “Best Tardis costume I’ve ever seen, I truly believed it was bigger on the inside. What is she this year?”

Strong delicately cleared his throat. “Wonder Woman,” he said.

“Oh!” Terra said, swinging her head around and pulling her jangling hood around to match. “Golden Age Wonder Woman, Silver Age Wonder Woman, Digital Age Wonder Woman, TV Show Wonder Woman, or DCEU Wonder Woman?”

“TV Show. She…loved it in high school.”

“How revealing,” Sherwood Greg said. “I would have thought Ginny a Golden Age purist, for sure. Still, my compliments on your costume, Captain. Very authentic.”

“This is the closest thing to a costume I have in the house,” said Strong. “I wear it once a year, it’s expensive to clean, and if I actually had to fight in it, I’d be dead.”

“I hope you’re not here on duty, though,” said Terra.

“Come now, Terra,” said Greg. “As a great man once said, e’s always on duty.”

“I have the night off, actually,” said Strong. “Lucky to get it, too. Since St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday this year, we’re stretched pretty thin on drunk patrol for the whole dang weekend.”

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“You called, master?”

The university president received his guests silently, pools of light illuminating his grave features from behind his desk but leaving the others in shadow.

“The time has come,” the president said after a moment. “The accreditation board has called for us to assess. You know what this means.”

“We will need names,” said the tallest and broadest shape among the shadows.

The president gestured to a handwritten list on the desk. “They are already there. Marked for assessination.”

One of the shadowy university assessins stepped forward, hand on the great pencil at their side. “We will assessinate these figures for us, as per the old agreements. But you must do something for us, as well. So it is written.”

“Yes, I know.” A pause. “Two tenured positions and a cushy six-figure administrative job to the Department of Assessination.” The president unsheathed his own pencil and drove its point into his palm, drawing blood. The assessins did the same, and they shook on their commingled fluids.

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“Precisely, said Greg. “So he can’t have been the author. But we know he wanted to write for science fiction TV again. He mentioned a ‘big project’ in the works. So there is only one reasonable conclusion: Shreve found a copy of the original shooting script, credited to its original writer, and he was blackmailing that person into a staffwriting position.”

“So whoever killed him didn’t want their secret getting out,” said Terra. “Or they didn’t want him to kill another show the way he killed Galaxian.

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“Of course!” Terra said. “The episode was credited to Alan Smithee, but Shreve must have written it! He was killed trying to take it from a blackmailer.”

“I thought so too, at first, but there are two problems with that theory,” said Greg. “First, as you can see by these red carpet snaps on my iPad, Shreve had the script with him when he arrived. He made a poor attempt to disguise it as Tom Riddle’s diary, but the size is all wrong–too thin and too big. Shreve brought the script with him.”

“Why would anyone kill him for such a terrible script if he wrote it?” said Chief Strong.

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Sherwood Greg scootered his bulk around to face Terra. “Of course,” he said. “What motive could there have been? Shreve as living off his remainders, the damage he did to Galaxian as a staff writer far in the past! It didn’t make sense, until I found this.”

Greg swiped again, and pictures of a teleplay dated 1995 began appearing. “The script for The Malevolent Monkey, reviled by fans of Star Force Five as the worst episode ever, and the only one that series creator Rod Cherrywood declared apochrypal!”

Several Star Force Five fans groaned at the mention, and even the one poor soul dressed as the monkey from The Malevolent Monkey hung is head in shame.

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“So what happened, then?” Chief Strong said. “Whose prints are those?”

“They are the prints of the murderer, of course, the same person who dumped Shreve in the fountain. Don’t you recall, Chief, that one of the cosplayers mentioned seeing someone walking a little oddly around the time of the murder? We assumed it was Shreve and his affected limpy walk…but it was actually our murderer, walking backwards in their own footprints to make it seem like Shreve had come through, and conveniently dumping him in a place which was likely to was away much physical evidence. The bloody handprint was Shreve’s, but not the footprints.”

Terra shook her head stubbornly. “No, it still doesn’t add up. Why kill him? There’s no motive. If everyone who acts like a dick at a cosplay event were murdered, there’d be no one left!”

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“But we found Shreve’s footprint by the fountain, and his handprint in blood on the marble!”

“Yes, it would seem that way, wouldn’t it?” Sherwood Greg said driving his scooter in a slow circle. “But do you know what we didn’t see? The mark of his cane!”

“We might not have seen it,” said Terra. “The driveway is loose gravel.”

Greg produced the artifact in question, its serpent head gleaming malevolently, from his bag.

“You can tell a lot about a man by the cane he uses, especially if he doesn’t have the mobility issues some of us do,” he said. “I think we can all come to the same conclusions about a man who uses a replica Lucius Malfoy walking stick.”

Then he jabbed it lightly into the gravel, where it left a series of sharp impressions; on the last jab it sunk in so deeply that he simply let it rest there. Sherwood Greg then held aloft his iPad, with snaps of the footprints as they had been discovered.

“You can check these photos for timestamps and edits,” he said, “but I think you’ll find that they were not present. And yet, when we compare this shot from earlier in the night, we see that he had the cane when he left.” Greg swiped to a photo of Shreveport looking sour as he retreated through the door. “This came off of Instagram, where the posting time confirms it was less than five minutes before the body was found.”

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