July 2019


“It’s a chassis of thoroughly disinfected carbon fibers over a partial cardiac implant scavenged from a dead man, and some arterial clamps as well,” said Tobe. “It will require the occasional charge, but you’ll live despite the harvester drone’s best efforts to plant you like a daisy seed.”

Caleb ran his hand over the stitchwork on his chest twinging at the pain even as he marveled at the steady, even hand that had wrought it. “Why would you do this for me?” he said. “I barely even know you.”

“You fix a man up, and the first thing he wants to know is why. Truly, no good deed goes unpunished.” Tobe laughed, which quickly turned into a racking cough; he pressed a dirty rag to his mouth and turned away until it subsided, and then threw the now-crimson cloth into a bin overflowing with them.

“Sorry,” Caleb muttered. “Not always the best with words, but…thank you. I just like to know where I stand with folks, that’s all.”

“Hm? Oh, you’re waiting for the bill, is that it?” Another wheezy cough-laugh from Tobe. “It’s all right,” he continued. “I’m sure your insurance is good. You can work out all the details with my nurse.” He gestured at the corner, where a blasted-out harvester drone was slumped, with a crude nurse’s wimple on its sensor dome and a red cross painted on its chassis.

Seeing Caleb’s strange look, Tobe snickered joyfully. “Please forgive an old man his amusements,” he said. “I want to cram in as much laughter as I can before the clock runs out. Let me be square and plain with you, Caleb: you owe me nothing but to hear me out.”

“I’m listening.”

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Syd kept on following the worker in their guise, trying to get a look at every facet of the man’s appearance. He was well-built, stout, going to seed a bit around the middle, but still clearly powerful, and his hair had grown out flared as if it was resigned to life spent under a hard hat on the Richemont Dairies production floor. The bristly mustache was a nice touch, but Syd simply could not get a good look at the man’s eyes.

Brown would do. Nine times out of ten, no one noticed.

The Richemont worker entered the dairy by swiping a keycard; Syd slipped in behind him in a brand new form and nodded a curt thanks. The guy didn’t seem aware that he’d just let his doppelganger into the plant, but Syd found this to be another curious fact of their existence. People were really bad at recognizing themselves, especially since they were used to looking in a mirror and had no reason to be on the lookout for imposters.

Cutting the opposite way, Syd began their search for ley lines to break. It wouldn’t be difficult to find them; Richemont was crisscrossed by dozens. The builders had unintentionally built it on a nexus, as people so often did, and its importance to Higbee meant that still more had migrated there over time. Syd would have to break as many as possible.

“Hey, Carl.” Another Richemont worker, Earl if his nametag was any indication, had come up behind Syd, absently stirring a styrofoam cup willed with coffee so strong and so wretched that Syd’s eyes watered a little just to be near it.

“Heya, Earl,” said Syd. “I see you went with the weak mud this morning.”

Earl laughed. “I know, I know, but they’re already down to the dregs in the break room and Sherry hasn’t made a new pot yet. You ready to go try and get #2 forklift working? If we can get the dock up and running today it’ll be less to move over the weekend.”

“Uh, I was going to try and scare up some spare parts first,” Syd said. “Sherry told me she remembered seeing some upstairs in a closet. You know how it goes–they go up there and then everyone forgets about them.”

“Sure thing, just meet me on #2 dock.” Earl paused. “Hey, Carl? Something wrong with your eyes?”

“Huh?” Syd said. “What do you mean?”

“Well, they’re…they’re not normally brown. We don’t call you ol’ blue eyes for nothing on karaoke night.”

“Oh,” said Syd. “Contacts. It’s contact lenses.”

Earl frowned. “Contacts?”

“Yeah, I thought I’d try some colored ones. Mix things up, you know? I have 30 days to get some clear ones if I get sick of it, but for now, I kind of like looking at life through a brown lens, you know?”

“No, I can’t say as I do.” Earl’s brow knitted, and then he shrugged. “Looks good though. Suits you. Maybe I’ll have to try that sometime. I always wanted blue eyes…”

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“I remember these halls. I mean, the lockers were painted a different color, and the trophies in the case were different, and that hallway definitely wasn’t there, but it’s close enough to fall right into that uncanny valley of memory,” Gnat said.

Charlie, beside him, glanced up and down the deserted hallway of Higbee Middle and High school. “Bad memories,” she said. “Kids are jerks, especially here.”

“I’ve told you about where I spent most of my time, right?” Gnat gestured to the computer lab. “In there! Mecca for milquetoasts, nirvana for nerds. Don’t you think?”

“If you were a dinosaur, you’d be a thesaurus,” said Charlie. “I just always used my phone.”

“W-well, yeah, but you’ve got to have a phone to use it,” Gnat said. “Poor geeks like me always got the rough end of it there. No phone, no internet at home, so it was always the computer lab at school or the library for me.” He paused. “Of course, that meant the assholes knew exactly where to find you.”

“They find you no matter where you go,” Charlie said. “When I was down in the weight room trying to pack it on, they still found me. Maybe different assholes, but probably pretty similar.”

“I KNOW RIGHT?” Gnat cried. “How do they do it?”

“They can smell blood in the water. Like the shark-sensei in Great White Densetsu Oh No!.”

“Oh yeah, a classic,” Gnat said. “I don’t think they have it in this universe. Their loss.”

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The Margrave stalked the empty, sunlit corridor like a shadow. “The Royal Tecumseh Hotel. The very name says so much, doesn’t it? She wondered, perhaps idly, what that name told Lewy.”

Lewy, walking beside her, tapped his forehead in a mocking parody of Winnie-the-Pooh. “Think-think-think-think. Hmm. It’s a parody of a hotel, where nobody who can help it has stayed since the 50s. It’s a bar with a vestigial hotel attached for easier liquor license renewal.”

Smiling, the Margrave went on: “It is all of these things, she admitted, but it does go deeper than that.”

Reaching out, Lewy tore a long, thin strip of badly pasted 1970s wallpaper from the baseboard in a shower of dessicated glue. “I have trouble believing that there’s anything deeper in this wreck.”

“She saw where Lewy’s perspective came from,” the Margrave responded, “but she nevertheless cajoled him to look deeper. To look at the very name itself.”

“Royal. There hasn’t been a king that had anything to do with this place since 1783,” Lewy said. “I can’t believe anyone more royal than a Burger King ever spent a night here.”

“A name chosen for its connotations, its connection to golden external appearance with no thought given to those who suffer and toil. She agreed with Lewy, but pressed him to dig deeper.”

“Tecumseh,” Lewy said. “He tried to unite the Indian tribes together to resist the settlers, and he died for it. And as soon as they were done killing him, they started naming things after him.”

“She agreed. Tecumseh was never here, never traveled here, but his name has a pungent whiff of the exotic to townsfolk’s ears. He is a romantic hero, but only when he is dead and no longer a threat. Were he ever to return, he would be met with the same lack of mercy.”

The Margrave made another nod, another ghostly smile. “This is the essence of Higbee, Lewy. We see it everywhere. It puffs itself up even as it destroys others and itself.”

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Sheriff Decker’s hand was on his pistol. It was one of his favorite tactics, to lightly rest his palm on the handle as if to coyly say “Maybe I’ll draw steel on you, maybe I won’t. We’ll see. But either way, it’ll be because I want to.”

The Margrave stood stock-still in the face of that implied challenge. The few Richemont Dairy night-shift workers that hadn’t run away stuck to the periphery, flattening them behind idled machinery.

“You deaf?” Decker snapped. “Get out here with your hands where I can see them.”

“Or else?” The words had a playful, mocking tone. “Mayhap the lady likes her hands where they are.”

Decker lingered there a moment, hand still on the oiled leather of his gun belt, now stinging a bit from sweat. He could feel the workers’ eyes boring into him, their quiet laughter–it was always quiet but always there–about the soft boy born with a silver stick up his ass. He didn’t know how to use the gun, other than what he’d seen in the movies, but that didn’t matter now. He had to show them, those snickering sons-of-bitches, that Theodore Decker Jr. wasn’t soft.

The revolver popped easily free of its holster, and Decker brought it to bear on the Margrave, supporting his shooting hand with the other in a weak cup-and-saucer grip. “Put young hands in the air, or these boys will see some fancy shooting,” said Decker.

“Show them, then,” the Margrave said. “It would be a shame for them to miss such fanciness.”

Decker pulled the trigger, the heavy double-action jerking his aim upwards. The shot, when it came, was so loud that the sheriffs eyes widened in surprise, and he nearly let the thing spin out of his hand. Everyone dropped like a stone, fearful of ricochets. Without a moment’s hesitation, the Margrave darted forward. By the time Decker had overcome his shock, she was chest-to-chest with him. The gun was easily batted aside.

“The sheriff has had his shot,” she said. “Now let’s see what he has for an encore.”

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“Hi there,” Ruby said with a dazzling smile. “Welcome to Stubb’s Coffee. What can I whip up for you today?”

“Hmph. Elizabeth Kilgore, is it?” McNabb said. “Didn’t I see you working at the QuickStop the other day?”

“Why yes.” Ruby’s smile lost a bit of its dazzle but none of its razzle. “I have several part-time jobs, Mr. McNabb, and thank you very much for asking. You’ll find that it takes all that–and more!–to support oneself, one’s family, and one’s student loans in Higbee. When one isn’t making vice-principal money, that is.”

“It’s Major McNabb; you ought to remember that from school if you remember anything at all.” McNabb slapped down five dollars. “Just a plain mud, and make it snappy.”

“Of course, sir, right away.” Ruby quickly made the change and called out the order–to no one, as it happened, since she was working the shift alone, but that was what the employee handbook demanded. “Though you’ll find that you’re not entitled to use that rank now that you’re just a civilian, I think. This isn’t a Regency romance, after all.”

“Hmph, that’s about what I’d expect from one of Kilgore’s bastards,” McNabb said. “No respect.”

The espresso machine whirred and complained as it was forced to spit out something so mundane as ‘plain mud.’ “It’s funny that someone complaining about a lack of respect would call someone ‘Kilgore’s bastard’ isn’t it?” she said.

“Match the enemy in their choice of weapons,” McNabb said. “You were disrespectful first.”

“Is that what you say to the teachers when you pressure them not to take their full leave?” Ruby said, sweetly. “Or when you make your pregnant teachers think they might be fired if they don’t come back when there’s still leave on the clock?”

McNabb stared daggers at her as the coffee apparatus continued to steam and moan.

“You see, Mr. McNabb, I make it my business to know what’s going on around town,” Ruby said. “If there’s information, it’s almost always interesting, hmm? And people gassing up or getting coffee do love to talk.”

“And what do they say about your wetback mother, huh?” McNabb said with a smirk. “About how close she’s come to getting hauled away by ICE all those times, for being a welfare queen and a stain on the good name of the Kilgores?”

The coffee finished, Ruby handed the steaming cup to McNabb with a sippy lid and a straw. “I wouldn’t know, Mr. McNabb,” she said, sweet and icy as a popsicle. “No one ever seems to bring it up. Except you, of course.”

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Simona Osborne answered the door herself. Though she hadn’t been seen outside her house in many years, she was impeccably dressed, with fashionable clothes that were only a decade or two out of date draped over her, as well as a boa made of something that looked both fancy and authentic. “Well, Sheriff Decker. Now, this is a surprise. Tell me, is it common for members of our local law enforcement to deliver baked goods to elderly women, or did you make a special exception for little old me?”

Decker roughly pushed the bag of breads and cookies into Simona’s hands. “A delivery was the only way your boy at the gate would let me through,” he groused. “Nobody respects this badge anymore.”

“Oh, they surely don’t, Sheriff, they surely don’t,” cooed Simona. She set the great bag o’crusty goodies on her floor. “After all, the badge is just metal on its own. It’s the person behind the badge that commands respect. Or not, as the case may be.”

“You’re such a nasty woman,” Decker spat. “Don’t think I haven’t heard about what goes on in this house.”

“Oh, is that why you’re here? To investigate the salacious rumors? Well, then, let me put your mind at ease, Sheriff. They’re all true. This house is in fact owned by a woman of advanced years and independent means, who enjoys both her privacy and the freedom it allows.” She flashed a smile of lightly tobacco-browned teeth, before taking a quick drag on her cigarette holder. “And I’m sure there’s pirate gold clutched in the arms of a dead husband in the witch’s coven I keep downstairs too, though I must admit that I prefer the Xbox and Netflix to murder and spellcasting these days.”

Decker made an exasperated noise. “See? That’s just the kind of thing I’m talking about. People agree with me, lots of people, when I look at this place and wonder where the money’s coming from. How many drugs are you selling, Osborne? How many humans are you trafficking?”

“Sounds like a question for my accountant,” said Simona coolly. “Why don’t you send him a nice lawful subpoena and find out?”

“Mr. Osborne was always talking like that too,” Decker said. “I remember my father, great man that he was, always saying that Osborne was acting like he had something to hide.”

“Funny that, a doctor not wanting to spill secrets to a lawyer, hmm?” Simona smiled. “Now, was there something I can do for you, Sheriff? If you have business with Dr. Osborne, you know where to find him in the graveyard.”

“You’re hiding folks in this house,” Decker said, red in the face. “Folks that ought to be rounded up. Criminals and rapists, most likely. Vandals and the like, responsible for desecrating our statue, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn. I need to take them in, ask some questions about what’s been going on in town.”

“Oh, of course, Sheriff,” Simona said with a warm smile. “I’d be happy to show you all of the fugitives I’m allegedly harboring. All I ask in return is a small gift.”

“Hmph. A bribe, you mean?” Decker said.

“A warrant. Though your first thought going to ‘bribe’ does explain an awful lot about the state of law enforcement in this city.”

“If you don’t obey, when I come back with a warrant, you’ll wind up in the county slammer along with every last wetback you’ve got in your basement,” Decker sneered. “Every last peso they’ve given you won’t do you much good when you’re behind bars, you stupid old half-blooded bitch. You’ll wind up where you should’ve been when your father was whoring around with your mother.”

“Oh dear, such a predicament. If only I had known, I would’ve arranged to be born to parents that met the approval of Teddy Decker,” Simona said. “Remind me to say the same to all of your half-brother and half-sisters running around Higbee when Teddy Sr. used to make legal…housecalls.”

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“You there!” ‘Major’ McNabb cried. “What are you doing over there?”

Gnat looked up. “O-oh! Hello there. I’m just in the process of, ah…cataloguing the various architectural anomalies of the school, here. Ah, for comparison.” Sweat prickled up and down Gnat’s brow.

“Boy, are you trying to bluff your way out of answering a simple question with a bunch of ten-dollar words?” snapped McNabb. “If this were the army, son, I’d have you drop and give me push-ups until the only things you could gasp out were ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘sir.’ You catch my meaning?”

Gnat, looking miserable, wilted under McNab’s steely gaze. “No…sir?”

The vice-principal sighed, irritated by the response even if it had obeyed his request to the letter. “In the army, you serve up a sir sandwich when you’re in this kind of hot water,” he said. “Tell me again, real slow now, and using real small words, why you are slinking around my school, and see to it that the first and last words out of your mouth are ‘sir.’ Got it?”

“B-…uhm…Sir, but this isn’t the Army,” Gnat said. Then, hastily, again: “Sir.”

“That’s what people keep telling me when I give them orders,” McNab grunted. He held up his phone. “I’ve got the number to the HPD called up. Can you give me one good reason why I shouldn’t hit call? Like a polite explanation?”

“Ah…well…sir…you see, I…”

“Out with it!” McNabb snapped.

“I was looking to see how the school had changed,” Gnat blurted. “From before.”

The vice-principal looked at him, suspicious. “From before? Boy, you look like you’re not old enough to have graduated from here even on the five-year plan. Your parents students?”

“Yes! Ah…uh, sir, yes sir!” Gnat chirped. “That they were, sir, yes. Indeedy.”

“Uh huh. Sounds like two generations on the five year plan to me,” McNabb said. “Well, let me tell you, son: ain’t nothing changed about this building since ’94, when they added the new football field and the new band room. Your parents remember it just fine.”

“Any chance I could…see inside? Sir?”

“Boy, school is out for the summer and we do not do tours. Come back when school is in session.”

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Ms. Inez, the only full-time librarian at Higbee Public Library, was easy enough to mimic. Syd was able to do it without a second thought, squashing themselves down a few inches, expanding a few inches more, and swapping out the dull patterns of an insecure teenager with the bold patterns of someone trying to liven up a job they used to love. There was the briefest flash of what passed for Syd’s true self as the process completed, but they shrugged it off with a shudder. Being whoever they wanted to be, whenever they wanted to be…that embarrassment was a small price to pay.

The voice was a little tougher, but Syd had a great talent for mimicry there, too. Even before they’d fallen in with the Margrave, Syd had been able to do a passable imitation of most people they knew. Now, of course, it was everybody.

“Hello!” Syd said, going up an octave throughout the word. “I’m Ms. Inez, the librarian. My voice is my passport.” They giggled at the in-joke, then nodded, satisfied.

The library seemed deserted, with only the thrum of the AC and buzzing of fluorescent lights. “Some things never change, Higbee to Higbee,” Syd muttered. “This place never has any budget.”

They clasped their hands. “Oh, won’t some brave man, woman, or none-of-the-above come and deliver me from this place?” Syd cried, in Inez’s voice. “Or fund the library to a level adequate to provide the necessary services, whichever comes first?”

There was no answer. Just like at the city council meetings when they asked for more funding, Syd wagered. Before trying to figure out the ley lines to put the library out of its misery, Syd looked around the YA section for some quick getaway disguises in case their cover was blown. Everything either had an abstract cover on it or was a photo from the 80s or earlier–another snort of budgetary disgust from Syd. They eventually settled on filching an 80s book featuring a young man in a white tee and jeans–a standard enough look–and a lady from a rather sexist etiquette book from the 70s. The bellbottoms were out of fashion but people might not notice, or think it simply retro.

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“So the sign says going out of business, everything must go. Does that include the rack of video games?”

“Dunno.” The cashier, Shelly, was even more disaffected than usual. A member of the working dead, she was desperately trying to get a job elsewhere in town— which meant that, as far as Dex’s Grocery was concerned, she had completely checked out. Maybe the library would appreciate that attitude, if they were hiring. “If you wanna know, go buy one, you’ll find out when it rings up.”

“Good point,” Heath said. “What about the cash register? It’s everything. Can I buy it?” He paused a moment. “How would I even buy it? Would you have to write a receipt, or could you check me out on that other register? And then how do you sell the last register?”

Shelly sighed. “The fixtures aren’t gonna be sold ‘til the last day of business.” Then, giving Heath a sideways glare: “What would a kid like you need a cash register for, anyway?”

“Probably lots of fun stuff in there.” Heath shrugged. “And I think a POS system could really help grow my small business.”

Shelly snorted, thinking of how every other opening of the cash drawer needed to be coaxed along with a little percussive maintenance. “It’s a POS all right,” she said. “Look, kid, go bug one of the stockers, will you? Come back if you’re gonna buy something.”

At the back of the store, near the rack of Nintendo Wii shovelware, Heath found a familiar veiled shadow.

“Here too?” he said, shocked.

“Here too. The Margrave was surprised at the boy’s question. What had he thought would happen, next?”

Heath bit his lip. “This store is closing in a week,” he said. “There’s no reason to destroy it when it’s destroying itself just fine, right?”

The woman seemed to glower darkly from her shadows. “The Margrave reminded the boy that there is no justice in an act of self-destruction. This mildewy mart cannot expect to use its own bedsheet noose to cheat the hangman.”

“Look, I was fine with the statue,” said Heath. “That other stuff. It needed to go, it was bad. But not everything needs justice, right? Justice for what? There’s some stuff that isn’t so bad.”

“The Margrave spoke slowly, and with a tone of ice so that the boy might know her intentions. There is nothing worth saving in this wretched town, in this or any world.

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