March 2021


The concertmaster fell back, gurgling from the wound, while the conductor nonchalantly cleaned the sold titanium baton that he used for conducting…and murder.

“This is why you always hit your notes in the Orchestra of Evil,” the conductor added. “When the pay is this good, the reward for any mistake must be death.”

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Took and Cheer had their first brood early that year. Three eggs, laid just as the spring rains were dying down.

The eggs hatched, and the chicks emerged. As was tradition, the chicks were not to be named until they were able to fledge and leave the nest. Cheer was in charge of names, though Took would veto any he did not like. The first chick stopped moving after three days, and Cheer sorrowfully dropped it to the ground below, chirping out the name she had hoped to give it.

A day later, a squirrel found and raided the nest, making off with another nestling. Took had not been fond of Cheer’s proposed name for the child, but her sadness led him to grudgingly agree to consider it for one of the others. Then came the massive thunderstorm that washed out the treetops with high winds and torrents. The two remaining chicks perished, drowned along with their names.

Cheer dutifully began building another nest, but with no successful broods the year before, their first, she told Took that he was free to seek a more successful nestbuilder and mate. He refused, saying that he would stay true to Cheer even if she were sitting on rocks.

Took and Cheer’s second nest was four eggs that year, and a greedy raccoon took all four in one night, while Cheer and Took were out hunting for food. Devastated, Cheer promised that the next nest would be the last of the season. Took agreed, but repeated his early statement of fidelity.

As it was now mid-spring and food was plentiful, Cheer had no trouble laying, and soon two fresh eggs glinted in her new nest. One day, though, Cheer returned to the nest to find an egg she did not remember laying. It was slightly smaller, with subtle variations in color and pattern compared to her others. Her first thought was to eject it, but a warning pip from Took stayed her. He would explain why later, he said. For now, best to brood it.

For her part, Cheer whispered the names of her children–forbidden names not yet fit to be given–through the shells. Purty, you will be called, she said to the first. Sweet will be your name, she said to the second. And to the third, the odd egg she did not recall laying, she pipped the name Tsee.

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The next morning, Shiraki Teruo led Takenaka Chihiro to the home of Nishikawa Akira. They gently dismissed the servants tending to him, revealing a man that was blind and slowly dying.

Takenaka knelt down and unpacked the food he had brought. He gently fed the dying man, speaking to him for some hours as Shiraki waited outside. When the cook emerged, he had a sober expression on his normally jovial face.

“Is it your brother?” Shiraki said.

“No,” Takenaka replied. “Nevertheless, I spoke to him, cared for him a time. He mistook me for someone else, I think–a family member. I did not correct him. I think you will agree, Shiraki-san, with Rule 67: a lie can sometimes be a great kindness.”

Shiraki had a brief, unpleasant thought of Masako, dying in his arms as he assured her that their stillborn son was alive and healthy. “Yes,” he said softly.

“But he did admit that, during his years as a blacksmith, he once ran into another smith with the same name, another Nishikawa Akira, in a place far from here. It is not much, but I will follow where it leads.”

Shiraki nodded. “If your travels ever bring you back here, Takenaka-san, you will find yourself among friends.”

“I never hesitate to make them, if I can,” the wandering chef said. “It is my rule number one.”

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“No, no, no,” the first human said. “The CSI doesn’t work out at all.”

“What do you mean?” said the second human.

“Poor little Goldie is laid out cold on the windowsill,” said the first human.

“Yeah. He flew into the window and broke his little neck.”

“If he hit the window at breakneck speed he should have bounced into the garden bed,” replied human number one. “Not been laid on the windowsill. It’s almost like someone, or something, wanted us to think he hit the window.”

“Damn!” the cowbird, watching from the fence, said. “I knew Garfield couldn’t handle a simple hit!”

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The cowbird sidled up to the fence. “So here’s the deal, Garfield.”

“That’s not my name,” the cat said. “It’s–”

“No names,” the cowbird said. “It’s better that way when you’re planning a hit you know?”

“All right then,” said the cat. “Go on.”

“I want to you take out Goldie Finch,” the cowbird said.

“Why?”

“Do I need to give the assassin a reason for a hit, Garfield?” the cowbird snapped. “Let’s just say he’s a seedy character, he’s got a lot of enemies, and everybody would be better off if he stopped coming to the feeders. Permanently.”

“Easy enough,” the cat said, delicately licking his paw.

“Also, it has to look like an accident,” the cowbird added.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me, Garfield! The humans, the ones that fill the feeders, they love Goldie Finch. They don’t know him like I know him, but they know we don’t see eye to eye. They can’t know I had him rubbed out, or they’ll stop feeding me.”

The cat considered. “And in exchange?”

“In exchange, you can eat my cousin Cowbie,” the cowbird said. “Nobody likes him.”

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“They called themselves the Puddy Muddles,” Burrowes said. “Just a neighborhood-league amateur cricket thing.”

Edwards was tapping out his report as he talked. “Any good?” he said.

“Not really, no. Middle of the league, not great, not terrible, but even the top team–Fidgets Shrewesbury–is mostly old-age pensioners and kids. There isn’t even a cash prize or trophy for winning the league. Very low stakes.”

“And forensics is sure about all this?” said Edwards.

“Very sure. Just forwarded you the report, again,” Burrowes said, a hint of annoyance peeking through. “The coach had been tampered with. Brakes. The technical details are in the report.”

“That’s all right, I trust mechanics to handle the greasemonkery. What else?”

“There were traces of accelerant in the wreck as well. Bobby with forensics has given me a peek at the report they’re working on. They think a piece of luggage was smuggled in with the team’s bags with accelerant and a mercury tip switch.”

“So the question is,” Edwards said, “who wanted an entire cricket team of pensioners and teens dead.”

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They said it was a hundred-year storm
Ten years later, it was back
Then only two weeks before another
People sorting grimly through debris
As the insurance agent denies them
Based on flood maps from 1950

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Flag of Enotria

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, its heartlands in Enotria passed into foreign rule for centuries. By the time of the Great Valois Wars, the area was made up of nearly 20 squabbling petty principalities, duchies, kingdoms, and of course the States of the Church where the Pope reigned.

No one had been able to establish effective centralized control over the area for long, but it seemed that Valois might be in a position to succeed. In a string of lightning victories, the future Emperor overthrew each of the states in turn and seized their territory and assets, eventually bringing them together as the Republic of Enotria. Really more of a confederation, with each statelet theoretically entitled to a single vote, with a preeminent position for the States of the Church as the First Among Equals in that arrangement. However, while at times the Pope was in good standing with the Emperor, and troops from the States of the Church served at the forefront of the Republic’s army, eventually the Emperor annexed the area outright and imprisoned the Pope.

At that time, the area was converted into the Kingdom of Enotria, ruled by the Emperor’s brother. This represented little change, as the previous Republic had been essentially a puppet state. The Kingdom proved no more durable, and lasted for only three years before the defeat of Valois. In the aftermath of the war’s end, the various petty states, as well as the States of the Church, were restored. Unification of Enotria into a single polity would take nearly 100 years more to reach completion.

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“Now,” Fairburn said. “I understand that none of you are here by choice, but all of you have the exact set of skills that is needed for this job. In addition to allowing you to live, I will reward you each for the successful completion of this task.”

“Reward?” Sexton said, his ears perking up. “This is the first I’ve heard of a reward.”

“That is because your psychological profile indicated that it would not be useful information up to this point,” Fairburn said. The phone, featureless, nevertheless seemed to glower. “Your reward will be monetary, of course. Capt. Kunstler will be allowed to walk free with his record expunged. Mx. Appleby will be inked to a dual recording/film contract with a monopolistic player in the entertainment industry.”

Fox’s hologram shimmered. “What could you possibly reward me with?” she said.

“The data has already been transmitted,” said Fairburn, airily. “Review it yourself.

A pause. “I’m in,” Fox replied.

“Good. As to the substance of your assignment: there is a sealed laboratory deep beneath the Mojave Desert Proving Grounds, a top-secret base nominally controlled by the government but in reality controlled only by itself. A nest of secrets, black ops, wetwork, and plausible deniability. You will access it for me.”

“Are you…are you asking us to break into Area 51?” Sexton said.

“Of course not. Area 51 is an urban myth that has nothing to do with reality or its supposed location. The place I want you to break into is real.”

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One year indoors, in isolation, in quarantine.
38 years old today, pushing forty.
The first shot of a two-stage vaccine in me.
And yet, a mighty shudder goes through me.
I think of going back to “normal.”
Out of the house.
Behind a desk.
And I wonder.
I really do.
Was it a blessing in disguise?
Or am I just rationalizing.

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